Spellcasting in Silk
My mother rarely spoke to me. But as I looked out over Aunt Cora's Closet, I could hear her voice in my head, clear as day.
"You're cookin' with fat."
The vintage clothes business was booming. Half a dozen customers were trying on peasant blouses and bell-bottom jeans embroidered with daisies and peace signs. A fortysomething woman rooted through a pile of vintage army jackets, hoping to find one that would accommodate her boyfriend's broad shoulders while he, on the other side of the store, examined frilly, lace-covered negligees for her. A pair of teenagers with Indian-print dresses draped over their arms paused on the way to the dressing room to flick through a rack of pastel 1950s cocktail dresses. Two young men tried on fedoras, checking themselves out in the three-way mirror, calling each other "Frankie baby" and casting surreptitious glances at the young women.
My good friends were staffing the herb stand and the front register; Bronwyn's hearty laugh and Maya's steady smile contributed to Aunt Cora's Closet's atmosphere of warmth and welcome. My unorthodox witch's familiar, Oscar, a miniature Vietnamese potbellied pig, snored softly on his purple silk pillow, tuckered out from the fussing and adoration he received from my customers—and from trying to sneak a peek while they were in the fitting room.
And this evening, a handsome, frustrating, wildly fascinating man named Sailor would be coming for dinner. The ingredients for tonight's feast awaited me upstairs in my apartment's sunny kitchen; the menu featured jambalaya with all the fixings, just like Mama used to make on the all-too-rare occasions when she was pleased with me.
And while there might be a few lingering supernatural issues hanging over my head, at least I wasn't embroiled in a murder investigation.
I smiled to myself and let out a sigh of satisfaction. Yup. Cookin' with fat.
The back of my neck tingled in premonition. A moment later the bell over the front door rang out, its familiar tinkling sounding sharper, more demanding than usual.
I looked up from the tangle of belts I was sorting to see Inspector Carlos Romero, of the San Francisco Police Department's Homicide Division, stride into Aunt Cora's Closet. He wore his customary black thigh-length leather jacket, white oxford shirt, khakis, and black running shoes. And although he was only about my height, Carlos projected such an air of authority that he gave the impression of being a much larger man. Working the homicide beat in a major city wasn't a job for sissies.
My hand slipped down to stroke the medicine bag on the braided silk rope around my waist. The moment my fingers felt the familiar butter-soft leather studded with the beads I had sewn on as a child, I felt calmer, more grounded.
Maybe he's not here on business, I thought. After all, Carlos and I were sort of friends, and every once in a while he dropped by the shop just to say hello. Or . . . perhaps he was in search of a costume for the upcoming Summer of Love Festival.
But his grim expression and the tingle at the back of my neck suggested this was not one of those times.
"Lily," Carlos said with a nod. "A moment in private?" His tone was curt, businesslike.
I gestured to Bronwyn and Maya that I was taking a break and led Carlos through the deep red brocade curtain that separated Aunt Cora's Closet's display floor from the work area that doubled as a break room. A jumbo washer and dryer for laundering washable inventory sat to one side, while a galley kitchen with a dorm-sized fridge, a microwave, and an electric teakettle lined the opposite wall. A pile of black Hefty bags and a couple of blue plastic storage boxes held clothing to be sorted, repaired, and washed. In the center of the room was a sixties dinette set, the table topped with jade green Formica. The set was a replica of the one in my childhood home, in the little town of Jarod, West Texas.
Carlos took his usual seat.
"May I get you anything?" I asked, mostly out of habit because Carlos never accepted my offers of refreshments. "How about a cup of tea? Bronwyn has a new blend of carob, orange peel, and rose hips which, I guarantee you, tastes a darn sight better than it sounds. It's all the rage."
"No, thanks," he said with a quick shake of his head.
I sat in the chair opposite him and waited. He said nothing.
"One day," I said.
"I would like one day. Just one. When I wasn't thinking about suspicious death."
Carlos gazed at me for another long moment. He wasn't much of a talker under the best of circumstances, and in his line of work the long pauses surely served a purpose. More than a few cagey suspects and reluctant witnesses no doubt had blurted out something incriminating simply to break the oppressive silence. But this time was different; Carlos appeared to be choosing his words with care. And that probably meant he was here because he had come across something he couldn't explain, something that fell far outside the purview of a routine police investigation.
That was where I came in—Lily Ivory, unofficial witchy consultant to the SFPD.
"Today's not that day," he finally replied.
"Yeah, that was sort of my point. I was feeling so happy right before you came in."
One corner of his mouth kicked up in a reluctant smile. "That's me, all right. The bringer of bad tidings. So I ruined your day, huh?"
"Not yet you haven't. But something tells me you're about to—"
"I need to talk to you about a curandera shop gone haywire, a suspicious suicide, and a missing kid."
"Aaaand there it is."
"I'll start at the beginning, shall I?"
I sat back in my chair. "Sure."
"Last week a thirty-seven-year-old woman named Nicky Utley jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge."
"I hear a lot of people jump off the bridge."
"So, where does a witch come in?"
"Utley was into a bunch of strange stuff—talismans and pentacles, books on everything from Catholic saints to candle magic, medicinal herbs and such. Things more . . . overtly religious than your stuff."
"But how is any of that related to her death?"
"That's what I'm trying to figure out. According to her husband, the woman had been consulting with a woman named Ursula Moreno, who owns a shop called El Pajarito on Mission. What can you tell me about her?"
"Nothing. I've never heard of her."
"I assumed all of your ilk knew each other."
"You know what I mean."
"I do. But I'm still fairly new in town, remember?"
And though I wasn't going to volunteer this to a member of the SFPD, friend or no, I kept my distance from curanderas, a Spanish term for "healers". They were about as mixed a bag as the one I wore at my waist. Many were talented botanical specialists; others wise elders; a rare few were natural-born witches like me. Still others—the vast majority—dabbled in herbs and prayers and rituals, and enjoyed importing and creating talismans and amulets and good luck charms.
But a few were out-and-out charlatans.
In the course of my life I have learned many things, not the least of which is that—witchy intuition aside—I am a wretched judge of character. So I tried to steer clear of such shops and their proprietors. Besides, it was cheaper by far to purchase my supplies at small apothecaries in Chinatown, local farmers markets, or even the ethnic food aisle of a large grocery store. For the more esoteric witchy items, Maya had introduced me to the wonders of the Internet. A few clicks of the mouse, and a package of freeze-dried bats would appear on my doorstep in just a few days. As if by magic.
"Anyway," Carlos continued. "It looks like the herbs and instructions and whatnot the victim got from the curandera may have aggravated an underlying condition that led to her suicide."
"I'm sorry to hear that. As I'm sure you know, curandera means 'curer' or 'healer.' The herbs and 'whatnot,' as you call them, are meant to help. But you have to know what you're doing." One of my biggest fears was that those who neither understood magical systems, nor gave them the proper respect, would end up hurting themselves or others. Amateurs experimenting with magic were like toddlers playing with matches—sooner or later someone was bound to get hurt.
"So what happened?" I asked.
"That's what I'm trying to find out. We have a couple of witnesses to the jump, but. . . ."
"But you think there's more to it."
He shrugged. "Possibly. And the mayor's been on a tear lately, going after folks bilking the public with phony love spells, palm readings, fraudulent psychics, that sort of thing. This fits right in with his cleanup campaign."
"I thought fortune-telling was covered by free speech. After all, who's to say they aren't seeing the future, or working magic?"
Carlos's lips pressed together. "There's a fine line between spewing predictions and conning people. Most of the time we're looking at charges of grand larceny and fraud, but in the case of Nicky Utley . . . well, her husband's pushing hard to make something stick. The DA is considering filing charges of gross negligence and practicing medicine without a license, in addition to fraud."
"What was the curandera's name, again?"
"Ursula Moreno. Her shop's called El Pajarito. You sure you don't know it?"
I shook my head again. From the other side of the brocade curtain sounds drifted in: the cheerful buzz of customers trying out different personas as they tried on a new style of dress or hat; the chiming of my old-fashioned brass cash register; a young woman cooing over Oscar, who was probably preening, batting his sleepy eyes at her as he stretched lazily on his bed; the bell on the front door tinkling as another shopper arrived; and someone laughing in high, melodic tones.
The sounds were comforting, and I felt a fierce desire to tune out what Carlos was telling me. But I did not have that luxury. There aren't a lot of folks who know enough, or have the requisite skills, to assist the police with supernatural crimes. Carlos was here because he needed my special brand of help. Such, it seemed, was my fate.
"There's more," said Carlos.
"Something's happened, something odd." His finger traced an invisible pattern on the green Formica table top.
"Odder than occult-inspired suicide?"
"Moreno's store. It's . . . acting up."
"After Moreno was arrested yesterday, the forensics team went to her shop to gather evidence."
I waited, but he said nothing.
"And?" I prompted.
"The place went haywire. According to the chief forensics tech, stuff was flying off the shelves, the lights kept flickering on and off, a statue flicked a lit cigarette at one of the guys, and a bird skeleton seemed to come alive and appeared to start flying."
"That's unusual behavior for a skeleton. Are you sure someone's not pulling your leg?"
"I know these guys well, Lily. They're pros who deal with serious crime scenes every day. Chief forensic tech's been on the job for years—it takes a lot to throw him off his game. But this time, he and his crew beat it out of the shop in a hurry, and they're refusing to go back. This is . . . unusual."
Indeed. "And you'd like me to take a look."
Carlos nodded. "Shouldn't take too long. See what you see, feel what you feel. Try to figure out what's going on there, and if it's connected in any way to what happened to Nicky Utley."
Carlos gave me a suspicious look and cocked his head in question.
"That's it? You're not going to try to get out of it?"
I shrugged. "You've worn me down, Inspector. Guess I'm the SFPD's go-to witch, right?"
He smiled, and I couldn't help but smile in return. The thing about Carlos was that every smile felt hard-won, and therefore more worth the earning.
"Besides," I continued. "This sounds like a job for an expert. If something untoward really is happening at the shop, somebody's bound to get hurt."
Carlos nodded and started to rise.
"One question, though," I said, and Carlos sat back down. "You're one of homicide's star investigators, aren't you?"
"So why is the department asking its big gun to work on a case of possible fortune-teller fraud?"
"I requested it."
"May I ask why?"
"First, because of the strange behavior at the store. I believe I've told you I've become the station's woo-woo guy. But, in the interest of full disclosure, it's also true that I knew the deceased, Nicky Utley, and her husband, Gary, though not well."
"Friends of yours?"
"Acquaintances more than friends. They went to my church, St. Olaf's."
"This would be a . . . Catholic church?" I had met many Catholics in my life—including Carlos— and knew they were good people who lived according to a creed of kindness and respect. Still, organized religions made me nervous, what with the witch hunts and the pogroms and the Inquisition and all.
"If Nicky Utley was a practicing Catholic," I said, "why would she turn to a curandera for help?"
"You tell me."
"Well, of course the two don't preclude each other," I said, thinking aloud. "Where I'm from, it isn't unusual for churchgoers to turn to my grandmother for herbs and charms. But I haven't run in to this sort of overlap here in San Francisco."
Carlos stood. "People are people, Lily. They're not all that different no matter where they live. Listen, I have a quick errand to run. Why don't I pick you up in, say, half an hour?"
"I could meet you at the shop if that's easier."
"That would be better, thanks. El Pajarito, on Mission near 22nd." He checked his wristwatch, a sporty model with lots of knobs. "Let's make it an hour, to be on the safe side. And Lily: if you get there first, don't go in without me."
"I can tell. I won't go in without you."
He gave me another suspicious look.
"What?" I asked.
"All this easy cooperation is making me nervous. Tell me you're not blowin' smoke up my caboose."
"I'm not even sure how to do such a thing," I laughed. "I told you: I'm resigned to my fate. But I do have one last question."
"Since I'm the SFPD's official paranormal consultant, do I get dental with that?"
Carlos flashed me a bright white smile. "You're official only in my book. If the department knew I was bringing in a witch to consult on this case . . . Well, let's just say I put up with enough ribbing from my colleagues as it is."
Carlos drew aside the curtain. Folks were milling about, crowding the aisles, inspecting long peasant skirts, faded jeans, and fringed leather vests.
"Quite the hippie convention out here."
"We've been as busy as Grandpa's Sunday tie, as they say."
Carlos looked amused. "Who says that?"
I laughed. "I guess we say that back in Texas. Anyway, the Haight Street Summer of Love Festival is this weekend."
The Summer of Love Festival was held annually to commemorate one of the neighborhood's most famous eras. It had been nearly fifty years since hippies sent out the call for "gentle people" to put some flowers in their hair and meet in the Haight-Ashbury to build a new world order of peace, music, and harmony. They hadn't quite achieved their lofty goals, but the neighborhood had retained its willingness to accept iconoclasts and freethinkers of all stripes.
Ambitious festival-goers had been flocking to Aunt Cora's Closet in search of "authentic" hippie clothes for weeks now. Vintage tie-dye and flouncy peasant dresses were flying off the racks; love beads and headbands were in short supply. Bell-bottom jeans, pants in wild colors and embroidered Mexican blouses, most of which I had picked up for a song at flea markets and yard sales, were in great demand.
"Sure, the Summer of Love Festival," he nodded. "I know it well."
"It's my first time; I'm pretty excited. So, do you have a costume?"
"I'm wearing it." Carlos passed a hand over his khaki chinos and black leather jacket.
"Think you look like a hippie, do you?"
"Even better. I'm a narc."
I smiled. "You should at least wear a few love beads around your neck."
"Maybe I'll dig through your treasure chest before I leave."
Recently I had started tossing cheap costume jewelry and plastic items—except for the valuable Bakelite, of course—in an old wooden chest that supposedly came to San Francisco with the pioneers. Now cleansed of cobwebs and its sordid past, it had become my "treasure chest." Everything in it went for under five dollars, and many items were just a quarter. Customers spent a lot of time digging through it with childlike abandon.
Which reminded me . . .
"Carlos, hold on. Didn't you say something about a missing child?"
"Selena Moreno, age fourteen. And we're not positive she's missing. Weird thing is, we can't get a word out of Ursula. But according to the neighbors, Selena used to live with her grandmother. Hasn't shown up to school, but it looks like her attendance has always been spotty, so it's hard to say what's going on there. Most likely she's staying with relatives, but I'd feel better knowing for sure."
"Do you think something in the shop might point me in her direction?"
"You know me, Lily. I don't think anything in particular."
"But you're suspicious of everything."
He gave me a wink and a smile.
© Juliet Blackwell
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