Lily would like nothing better than to relax, enjoy her friends, and take care of business at her store, which is booming thanks to San Francisco's upcoming Summer of Love Festival. But as the unofficial witchy consultant to the SFPD, she is pulled into yet another case.
A woman has jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, and her apparent suicide may be connected to a suspicious botanica in the Mission District. When the police investigate the shop, they ask Lily to look into its mysterious owner, whose granddaughter also appears to be missing. As Lily searches for the truth, she finds herself confronted with a confounding mystery and some very powerful magic…
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PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR JULIET BLACKWELL
Also by Juliet Blackwell
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 into 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 Twenty-second.” 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 festivalgoers 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.
A tall, dark, and brooding man strode into Aunt Cora’s Closet just as Carlos and I emerged from the back room. He wore a scowl, boots, and a black leather jacket, and had a shiny motorcycle helmet tucked under one arm.
My heart beat faster, I smelled roses, and the cacophony of the shop slipped away.
“There she is,” he said in a quiet, husky voice. There was something about the way he said it . . . as though he had been looking for me all his life. His dark gaze held mine with an intensity that made me blush.
Sailor’s eyes shifted and his expression hardened.
“Inspector,” he said with a nod.
Carlos returned the nod, but did not speak. For a long moment the two men stared each other down, neither giving an inch, until the inspector turned to me. “Meet me in an hour?”
“I’ll be there.”
He glanced at Sailor. “Alone.”
“Sure thing. See you there.”
He gave Sailor another hard look, then left.
“What’s up? Another . . . situation?” Sailor asked as the door shut behind the inspector.
“It seems so.”
“And you’re involved how, exactly?”
“Not involved at all, I am happy—and relieved—to report. Carlos needs some help with an out-of-control store—a curandera shop—in the Mission.”
Sailor raised one eyebrow. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“I’m just going to give him my take on the situation, no big deal.”
“Because that always works out so well. Do you think Rhodes is involved?”
“No, not at all.”
He searched my face. “You’re sure? I don’t want you crossing paths with him until we come up with a plan.”
Not so long ago I had gone up against Aidan Rhodes, self-proclaimed “godfather” to the Bay Area’s witchy contingent. He was a powerful sorcerer, and not one to be crossed without consequence. Sooner or later I was going to have to face him . . . but I was hoping for later. Much later.
“Carlos will meet me at the store. I’ll be fine. So,” I said to change the subject, “how are you doing?”
“Great, actually. The mentor my aunt suggested is working out well. It seems to be a good fit. I’m already making progress.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Who’s the mentor?”
“A cousin, named Patience Blix.”
“Well, that seems appropriate.” I smiled. “She’ll need plenty of patience if she’s going to work with the likes of you.”
Sailor set his helmet down on the counter, cupped my head in his hands, and brought his lips down on mine.
The world that had dimmed when our eyes met now disappeared entirely. When Sailor held me in his arms all reason fled and I seemed to escape myself, floating on a rose-scented cloud of sensation and desire, love and hope.
“Lily? Oops, pardon me!” said Bronwyn, fluttering behind us. “Oh, by all means, carry on, you two lovebirds!”
“Bronwyn, wait,” I said, blushing as I pulled away from Sailor. “Sorry. Did you need something?”
“There’s a question for you.” Bronwyn gestured with her head to a young woman on the other side of the store.
The customer held up a pale peach, embroidered organza dress with a square pleated neckline and a silver rhinestone brooch accent. The layered frock was considered semiformal in its day—circa 1950—but was a sight more formal than any of the items people were choosing for the Summer of Love Festival.
“Is this silk washable?” asked the young woman.
“No, sorry. It’s not.” Not at all. Maybe I’ve been in the vintage clothes business too long, but I couldn’t imagine thinking a silk antique would be washable. “You can safely assume anything tie-dyed can be tossed in a washer, but almost nothing made before 1960.”
“Darn. I don’t like to buy anything I have to dry-clean, on account of the environment.”
“Lily knows a wonderful green dry cleaner,” said Bronwyn. “They’re a little pricey, but worth it.”
“I still prefer not to buy anything that’ll cost me money to clean.”
“There are a few washable items on the rack by the dressing rooms. . . .” I suggested, and started over to help her.
“I have to get going, anyway,” said Sailor. “Just stopped by for a quick kiss, and to ask what time I should arrive for dinner.”
He gave me another long look, smiled slowly, and whispered, “Wild horses, and all that.”
He picked up his helmet, gave me another quick kiss, and left.
My gaze lingered on his broad back. I turned to see Bronwyn watching me, a fond, knowing smile on her face. A blush stained my cheeks.
“What? I happen to like the sight of the man in jeans, is all.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, still smiling. She started to ring up a customer’s items, and, in a soft, singsong voice, chanted: “First comes love. Then comes—”
“Do not sing that next line, Bronwyn Theadora Peters. I’m still dealing with the very idea of having a boyfriend, much less anything beyond that. We’re . . . taking it slowly.”
“But of course!” she said with a warm, oh so innocent smile. Today Bronwyn had crowned her frizzy brown hair with a garland of wildflowers and wore a gauzy purple tunic decorated with runes over black leggings. She was a chubby, fiftysomething Wiccan who personified the amiable creed of that belief system: “An’ it harm none, do what ye will.”
I smiled and went to help the customer find a washable dress.
“Oh, by the way—would you mind watching the shop for a while?” I asked Bronwyn twenty minutes later, after ringing up the customer’s purchases—she had bought the peach organza after all, a vintage impulse I knew she wouldn’t regret. The dress had bright, fun vibrations that would be perfect for her personality. “I have to check out a store called El Pajarito.”
“The botanica in the Mission?” asked Bronwyn. “It’s about time!”
“You know it?”
“Of course I know it. Señora Moreno is my main supplier for epazote and juniper berries. I’ve told you about the place—you refused to go with me, remember? Let’s see if Maya can stay late and we’ll go together!”
“Maybe another time. Unfortunately, this isn’t a shopping trip. Carlos asked me to meet him there, alone.”
“Is something wrong?”
“I really don’t know. What can you tell me about the owner, Ursula Moreno?”
“Not much. I only know her from our interactions at her shop, and we have a few clients in common—I send people to her if they need something I don’t have in stock, and she sends customers to me if they need specialty tea blends.”
“What about her granddaughter?”
“Selena? I see her in the shop occasionally.”
“What is she like?”
“She’s a little. . . .” Bronwyn trailed off with a shrug.
“A little different.”
“Just . . . different. Even, well, odd.”
Bronwyn was about the most nonjudgmental person I’d ever met, and she adored children. For Bronwyn to describe anyone, but especially a child, as “odd” was saying a lot.
“Nothing comes to mind.”
“Okay, thanks. I’m sure none of this has anything to do with us. Carlos asked me to check it out, so I’ll go do that, and then Maya and I are supposed to go look through some clothes at an estate sale. You can watch over the store?”
“No problem. Don’t forget to take a jacket!” Bronwyn said over her shoulder as she returned to her herb stand, where a customer was browsing.
I was again reminded how fortunate I was to have two such energetic and responsible women working with me. Beyond the thrill and comfort of what was for me a new experience—friendship—their regular presence in the store allowed me to run around town chasing down supernatural mysteries. I hadn’t lived in San Francisco very long, but already I had come to realize that it played host to more paranormal mayhem than seemed normal.
It sometimes made me wonder whether my arrival in the City by the Bay was entirely coincidental . . . or whether other forces had helped to guide me to the Haight.
The day was sunny and warm, but I took Bronwyn’s advice and snagged my cocoa-brown vintage car coat before heading out. The weather in my adopted town was famously unpredictable. When the marine layer—a bank of fog that hovered off the coast—moved in, it cloaked the city in chill and damp. The temperature could plummet fifteen degrees in as many minutes.
I also made sure I was wearing a carved talisman around my neck, carried small jars of salts and brew in my satchel, and my medicine bag was securely fastened to the multicolored belt at my waist. Boy Scout–like, I was ever-prepared. The charms had helped me to face some truly horrifying scenes of demonic mayhem and all-too-human murder.
Not that I was expecting any such thing at El Pajarito. I was simply checking out an out-of-control store with my good buddy Carlos Romero. No big deal.
What could possibly go wrong?
The Mission District smelled of beans and tortillas and sounded like a disco. But the area known as the Mission was rapidly changing as wealthy entrepreneurs and well-paid, high-tech professionals moved in, remodeling rundown Victorians and outfitting old art lofts with gourmet kitchens and the latest sound systems. Meanwhile, the artists and immigrants who had made this neighborhood so vibrant and distinctive were now finding it too expensive, and many had fled to the East Bay or out of the area altogether.
But several holdouts remained: my friend Hervé Le Mansec’s voodoo supply shop on nearby Valencia was one. And El Pajarito, a few blocks away on Mission, was another.
I took a moment to survey the colorful storefront from across the broad boulevard. The windows were decorated with tropical birds and fanciful flowers, the paint flaking off as if created long ago. The store’s sign was simple and hand-lettered, black letters on a white background, painted not by a professional but by someone unconcerned with formality.
“I wouldn’t get involved with Ursula if I were you,” said a pretty woman in her early twenties.
The woman wore a simple white tank top and jeans. Her long, glossy hair had been dyed an unnatural shade of burgundy, and a colorful tattoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe adorned her bare shoulder.
“Do you know her?” I asked.
“I don’t trust her. And that shop . . .” She shook her head. “Something bad about that shop. Mal ojo. Ojo del diablo.”
Evil eye. Eye of the devil.
“If you need some help,” she continued, “why you don’t come inside, let my aunt pray for you?” She gestured toward the shop behind us. Much like El Pajarito, this shop’s window displayed a jumble of items: small jars of herbs, Catholic saints in various guises, a variety of small animal bones. “My aunt does cleansing, readings, tea leaves, same as Ursula but better. You can trust her.”
“Thank you, but I’m not a customer. Actually, the police asked me to stop by.”
“Seriously?” She fixed me with a suspicious look. “Why?”
“Apparently something strange is going on in the shop. Have you heard anything? Do you know Selena, the girl who used to be there with Ursula?”
She crossed herself and went into her aunt’s shop, slamming the door.
No love lost there, I thought as I crossed the wide avenue.
Carlos was waiting for me outside, speaking on his cell phone. As I approached he paused to tell a passerby, “The shop’s closed, indefinitely,” before resuming his conversation.
I studied our surroundings while I waited for him to get off the phone. A bright blue bench sat in front of the store; it looked freshly painted and wasn’t even chained, which surprised me. In this neighborhood I would think anything not nailed down would disappear, and quickly.
The windows held a wide array of candles, each with a label: WEALTH, HOMEWORK, PASSION, MARRIED LOVE, STRENGTH. There were bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling, and a huge glass container was filled with thousands of tiny metal charms in the shape of arms, legs, heads . . . whatever part of the body ails you. Laid out in wide arcs were dozens of ceramic and stone figures of pre–Columbian Aztec deities and Navajo fetishes.
And overlooking it all was Santa Muerte, or Saint Death: a skeleton cloaked in a blue hooded robe, a scythe clutched in one bony hand, a cigarette poised between her grinning teeth. At Santa Muerte’s feet was a bottle of rum, a sacrifice to keep her happy.
Because the store was not a crime scene there was no yellow tape across the door, and it occurred to me to wonder what the forensics team had hoped to find. Short of a deliberate poisoning, how could a curandera be held responsible for a client’s death? I could not begin to imagine how the DA would prove such a thing in a court of law; but then, I was no legal scholar. Apart from a few short stints in jail—all charges were dropped—I remained blessedly ignorant of the workings of the legal system.
I started to turn away from the display window when I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Looking back, I saw Santa Muerte tilt her head at me and raise her scythe.
A stone mosaic frog suddenly leapt up, striking the glass with such force that it created a starburst crack.
“This is what I’m talking about,” said Carlos from behind me.
I looked over my shoulder. “You saw that?”
“I didn’t see anything, but I heard it. Like I said, there’s a lot of strange stuff going down at this shop.”
He used a key to open the metal security grate, pushed it to one side, then unlocked the front door.
“After you,” he said with a gentlemanly sweep of his hand.
“Gee, thanks,” I said, stroking the medicine bag at my waist. I entered cautiously, hands turned palm-side out, trying to open myself up to vibrations.
Messy shelves were crammed with aerosol cans promising to cleanse homes of bad feelings, or to bestow financial luck. There were dozens of candles and tiny shrines made out of Altoids boxes. A large selection of talismans and amulets featured Catholic and pseudo-Catholic saints; a folksy, brightly painted Mano Poderoso was a splayed hand made of tin, meant to ward off evil and fill one’s home with peace, happiness, and family bonding. Multiaction protection crosses, lucky fixed horseshoes wrapped in red string, and gold bags adorned with the image of Saint Cajeton promised to help with employment problems.
I picked up a white silk conjure bag, probably stuffed with herbs, seeds, roots, nuts, oils, and bits of bone. Weighing it in my hand, I felt its vibrations: calm, confident, capable. Whoever put these together had a touch.
By the register was a display of matchboxes containing tiny skulls for hexing. A sign offered to cleanse homes for a modest fee. This was no ordinary housekeeping service, but a limpia, or a cleansing of evil spirits, lingering sensations, and pestering ghosts. Also for sale were love spells and fertility charms.
Also on the counter was a stack of receipts and several colorful children’s drawings of lilies. An open bag of roasted pumpkin seeds and a half-filled coffee cup remained near the register, as though the proprietor had been dragged off in the middle of a snack. On the wall was a framed newspaper article with a photo of two women and a girl posed stiffly behind the register.
“Is this the shop staff?” I asked Carlos.
He nodded and pointed to the older woman. “That’s Ursula Moreno, and the girl is Selena. Not sure about the other woman.”
The caption read: “Ursula, Lupita, and Selena, of El Pajarito.”
A sweater was draped over the back of the chair, a lemon yellow knit with a white rose embroidered on one breast. I picked it up and hugged it to myself. It had a homey aroma: beans and rice, roasting chilies. The vibrations were peaceful, confident, powerful—perhaps overly so. But I didn’t feel the frenetic thoughts of someone intent on wickedness: no guilt or wavering resolve. If this was Ursula’s sweater, could she possibly be guilty of what the SFPD suspected?
On the other hand, I had been misled before. I cringed to think of how often.
“Can you tell anything from all this”—Carlos gestured at the overstocked shelves—“mess?”
“How about that sweater you’re holding?”
I shook my head.
“Take your time.”
Carlos was silent for all of sixty seconds. “How about now?”
“Could you give me a few minutes, please? Alone?”
“I’m harshing your buzz, huh?”
“It would make it easier for me to concentrate,” I said diplomatically.
“Forensics has already been here, right?” I continued. “And you know I don’t have any fingerprints to screw things up. What could it hurt?”
“Sure you’ll be okay by yourself?”
“I’ll be fine. Don’t take this the wrong way, but if there’s something magical happening here, you’re not likely to be of much help anyway.”
He squinted at me, then nodded and stepped out of the shop.
Getting the sense of retail establishments is challenging because of the residual sensations from the people who have passed through. Add to that the fact that this store’s owner had been arrested, and it was practically impossible to ferret out the strange vibrations, to parse them from the normal spectrum of human energy.
I closed my eyes and concentrated, gradually picking up a twinge of something . . . off.
When I opened my eyes an aerosol can of Bad Luck fell onto its side and started spinning, spraying its contents everywhere. I wasn’t alarmed; most of these sprays were nothing more than cheap air freshener in a clever package. Judging by the sickly-sweet floral scent that enveloped me, that was the case here. Besides, as a witch, I had some protection. The medicine bag at my waist included protective dust, stones, and seeds. I might have been a terrible judge of character, but I was very good at sensing danger.
And I was not one to be intimidated by an aerosol can. Land sakes.
The cash register began ringing, the cash drawer opening and slamming shut. A massive reference book on herbal medicine flung itself off a shelf and landed on the floor with a thud, its pages fanning the air. Brightly colored beads jumped out of the woven basket on the front counter and skittered along the floor. From the corner of my eye I spied a lit candle flying toward my head, and ducked in the nick of time.
“Now that’s just rude!” I called out, though I’m not sure who or what I thought would be listening. “Behave yourself.”
I hurried to extinguish the candle’s flame under the sole of my Keds, and concentrated again. I sensed something building, a mounting tension as intangible yet as real as the change in atmospheric pressure ahead of an approaching storm.
Carlos wasn’t kidding. This merchandise was seriously deranged.
Could there be a spirit at work? What if—
The merchandise suddenly fell quiet, and I heard raised voices. Carlos was restraining a man at the front door. He was average looking, a little overweight, a bit jowly. Ordinary, with a countenance that would have been pleasant had it not been distorted in pain and anger, his eyes red-rimmed as though from lack of sleep.
“Let me in—I won’t hurt anything!”
“Gary, you shouldn’t be here,” Carlos said, his voice firm but gentle. “Go on home and rest.”
“I just . . . I want to see . . . I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
The man grew pale and swayed on his feet, and Carlos grabbed him by the upper arms, urging him toward the blue wooden bench on the sidewalk.
“Easy, now,” Carlos said. “Here, have a seat for a moment. Catch your breath.”
“Why did this happen, Carlos? How? How could she do this to me? And to Emma?”
I went to see if I could help. Carlos crouched in front of the man, speaking to him face-to-face.
“Why don’t I call someone to come pick you up?” Carlos asked.
“My brother-in-law is . . . Wait. Is he still my brother-in-law?” He fixed an anguished look upon Carlos. “Now that Nicky is gone?”
“Of course he is,” Carlos said. “You want me to call him?”
“No, no, he’s right down the street, parking. He brought the kids over for a visit; they’re home watching a movie. We’re supposed to be picking up tacos for lunch. I . . . I just—” Gary noticed me. “Who’s this?”
“Gary Utley, this is Lily Ivory. Lily is a civilian consultant to the department.”
“What kind of consultant?”
“She’s . . . it’s a little hard to explain, but she helps me to interpret unusual developments.”
Gary’s eyes narrowed. “What are you saying—she’s a witch?” He spat out the word as if it were an epithet. “Another one? Do you have any idea what that witch did to me, to my family, to my wife? First she bilks us out of thousands of dollars, and then—”
“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, Gary,” I said. “Please know that not all witchcraft is—”
“I don’t want to hear it!” he said, surging off the bench. He shoved his way into the store, seized a jar of spiritual bath salts, and flung it across the room, where it crashed into a shelf of medicinal oils. “Not from the mouth of a damned witch!”
“Hey!” Carlos and Gary grappled for a moment, until Carlos pulled some sort of fancy martial arts move and wound up holding Gary from the back, arms looped around his shoulders so he couldn’t move. “Simmer down. I know you’ve suffered a great shock but you have to control yourself. Gary, Lily is here to help; she’s not your enemy.”
Gary seemed to deflate.
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “I’m really . . . I’m so sorry.”
Carlos restrained him for another moment.
I wanted to say something further, but hung back. I couldn’t imagine the pain Gary must be feeling right now. What would it be like to have a spouse commit suicide? To wonder if you should have been there, should have seen the signs, responded earlier, more forcefully?
My friend Max Carmichael had gone through something similar with his wife . . . who was also Carlos’s cousin. Why hadn’t I put that together? That must be another reason why Carlos was drawn to this case.
As we stood there—an awkward trio, Carlos holding Gary, and me not knowing what to do or say—another man appeared in the store’s open door. He wore wire-frame glasses, plaid Bermuda shorts, topsiders, and a pale yellow monogrammed polo shirt. Looking around cautiously, seeming to take in the state of the store and the way Carlos was restraining Gary, he said, “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”
“Knox, we were just talking about you,” said Gary. His voice was subdued, and Carlos released him.
“Good to see you again, Knox,” said Carlos.
“Hello, Inspector. What’s going on? Did . . . did Gary do all this damage? I’ve only been gone a few minutes.”
“No, it was like this before. Mostly. Everything’s fine,” said Carlos. “Emotions are running high, that’s all. Knox, this is Lily Ivory, a special consultant to the department in this case.”
Gary muttered something under his breath. Carlos quelled him with a warning look and placed himself between Gary and me.
“Pleased to meet you. Your name’s . . . Knocks?” I asked.
“K-n-o-x.” The man spelled it out with a smile. He pulled a card out of his pocket and handed it to me. “As in the fort, where they keep the gold.”
I looked down at what looked like an old-fashioned calling card:
Father and Househusband.
“I’m Gary’s brother-in-law,” he continued.
“Nicky Utley’s brother,” Carlos said quietly.
“Oh, I see. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” Knox turned toward Gary. “Come on, Gary, you shouldn’t be here. Let’s go pick up the food. I’m sure the passel is starving. And we don’t want to leave Emma in charge of those hooligans for long.”
Gary hesitated. “I’m . . . I just . . . I don’t know. I just wanted to see the shop again. I guess I’m trying to put it all together. There are . . . so many questions.” He turned to me. “I’m . . . sorry. I haven’t been myself lately.”
“Of course,” I said.
“C’mon, Gary,” said Knox, slipping an arm over the man’s shoulder. “Good-bye, Inspector, ma’am.”
Silence reigned for a long moment as we watched the men walk down the street. Knox kept his arm around Gary’s shoulders, and appeared to be speaking soothingly to him.
“Poor man . . . and poor Knox, too,” I said, shaking my head. “I can’t imagine losing a sister to suicide. Or a spouse, of course.”
“I’m just sorry he took it out on you. He’s been through a lot.”
“Yes, indeed. Still, you were pretty impressive there, Bruce Lee. What was that move you pulled? Jiujitsu or something?”
“You didn’t think I could handle myself?”
“I assumed you could, but I’ve never actually seen you in action. Besides, you have a gun, so I figured maybe you’d just brandish your weapon.”
He gave me the ghost of a smile. “Brandishing one’s weapon is frowned upon, especially when it comes to grieving families. Departmental policy.”
We stepped back into the disheveled store.
“So,” Carlos continued. “Run through this for me. What are the possibilities, as you see them?”
“If Ursula Moreno put these bags together,” I said as I weighed one of the embroidered bundles in my hand, “then she definitely has some power, some abilities. I suppose it’s possible she charged these items with so much energy, maybe more than even she knew she had, that they’re still vibrating. Now that she’s not here to control them, they’ve gotten a little out of hand.”
Carlos frowned. “So if the victim bought something from Moreno, it could have harmed her with its . . . what, vibrations? Some kind of occult power?”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing, but . . .” I trailed off with a shrug. “Have you tracked down any of Moreno’s other clients? Has anything happened to them?”
He fixed me with his grim-cop look. “Sorry to say, it has. Nothing very serious, but enough to make me wonder, at least. Like I said, the mayor’s on a bit of a rampage against fortune-tellers of all stripes, especially the unlicensed ones. I’m still checking it out.”
A can of All-Purpose Incense Powder sailed toward us, and I batted it away. Carlos looked impressed.
“Unlicensed ones?” I asked.
“According to Article 17.1 of the Municipal Code, fortune-tellers and witch doctors must be licensed in San Francisco.”
“I don’t much care for the term ‘witch doctor.’ ”
“I don’t much care for witch doctors, period. But you ought to find this interesting: The city statute covers necromancers as well.”
“Necromancers have to be licensed?”
“Indeed. As well as psychics and spellcasters, if they act for gain, benefit, or advantage.”
“What about vintage clothes dealers with ‘special’ talents?”
“I don’t even want to think about that.”
“So, about this place. Here’s what’s really odd,” I said, looking around at the mess. “Most practitioners I know keep a tight rein on where they expend their power—they don’t want to disperse it, send it out into the world willy-nilly.”
“I imagine that could cause a lot of damage.”
“Yes, but that’s not the only reason. Magical strength is hard-won. You have to give up something to get it, and it’s always in short supply. You don’t just let it fly around on its own; that’s the mark of an amateur. But for a professional like Moreno?” I shook my head. “It makes no sense. She wouldn’t have a practice for long.”
“Maybe she doesn’t intend to.”
“How do you mean?”
He shrugged. “She’s not very popular with her neighbors. I can tell you that much. So maybe she’s feeling like taking herself out. Who knows?”
I hadn’t thought of that. Could this situation be the result of a spiteful woman trying to take others down with her? Or could she be a powerful practitioner who was herself suicidal?
“Okay,” Carlos said with a sigh. “Thanks for trying. It was a long shot, anyway. If you think of anything else, call me.”
“What’s your next step?”
“We’re still tracking down Moreno’s other clients—and other potential victims.”
“And what about the missing girl, Selena?”
“We’re on the lookout.”
“So . . . as far as I’m concerned, that’s about it, then? Or did you want me to try to exorcise the place, get rid of whatever’s causing all this in here?”
“Don’t bother. The store is already trashed. I’m only concerned if you thought it was escalating. Let’s leave it for now. You should get back to your shop, and I’ll follow up on leads. I’ll let you know if we figure it out, but this really isn’t your problem.”
I nodded, still curious but relieved.
Excerpted from "Spellcasting in Silk"
Copyright © 2015 Juliet Blackwell.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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