At ten on a Saturday morning all the free parking spaces downtown were gone, so I was doubly glad that Dottie let me park at her house. It meant a bit of a walk, but the weather turned unseasonably cool for late May—in the low nineties—and it wasn’t like Susie’s thighs couldn’t use a little more exercise.
Gentle Strength Magical Emporium stood just where Gentle Strength Co-op used to be in my world. Instead of bins of buckwheat and organic gluten-free flour, they sold dried beetles and mandrake root. Instead of goatmilk soap and a selection of magazines extolling the virtues of vegan living, they sold small vials of ‘mercifully harvested!’ animal blood and magazines for improving your spellcrafting techniques. Inexplicably, Gentle Strength Magical Emporium also sold organic produce. Either it was one of those weird synchronicity things, or their marketing gal figured mages weren’t into pesticides.
I bought some powdered indigo, some powdered henna (in case I decided to make myself a redhead), and a chocolate bar whose wrapper implied that by buying it I’d help save endangered gorillas. They wrapped the herbs and chocolate up in black tissue paper, and gave me a little paper bag with raffia handles. Already my mood was looking up. Retail therapy works better when you shop at places that make a big deal about your purchases.
The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and already it was warm enough that the patio bars and restaurants had started using their misters. A series of moist fogs kept me cool as I wandered down Mill on my way back to my car. I passed by my favorite furniture store on the way back, and decided to go in. Retail therapy also involves looking at things you can’t afford. If I hadn’t been supporting Jess and Christopher for so long, I might be in the market for a hacienda-style sideboard, or a patched silk duvet cover from India. If I hadn’t bought Maggie’s stupid Daewoo, with all the rolled over debt, I might even have a house to put it in. Not that I was resentful or anything.
Then again, Susie had a healthier bank account than I did. Maybe she could even afford something foolish and frivolous, like, say, a bouquet of silk tulips and a waist-high glass jar with polished river rocks? Gee, that’d be fun to dust. Or a poison green velvet table runner, complete with matching martini glasses? Perfect for all those cocktail parties I never had. Or a seven foot by five foot mirror in a huge black wooden frame? It was so heavy, I’d need to hire movers just to hang it on the wall. I’d have to hire shippers to get it to my house. I certainly didn’t have anywhere to hang it, unless I rearranged my bedroom and got rid of the sewing table. No, if I were going to get a mirror for my scrying, I’d get something from Ikea, assuming they had Ikea here. I’d get something just large enough to work, but not that large, no matter how cool it looked.
Ah, screw it. I whipped out my credit card and bought it. It wouldn’t fit in my car, even if I’d been strong enough to carry it, but for a steep and unreasonable fee, they agreed to deliver it. It was worth it. Really. It was a nice mirror. I pushed away my guilt at buying something frivolous and expensive and stepped from the cool “Sea Breeze” and “Simmering Pear” candle-scented store to the golden heat of the afternoon.
I’d parked in the gravel ruts behind Dottie’s powder blue Lincoln town car, and for a moment I feared my Daewoo had blocked her in, but the tires on the car were so flat they weren’t going anywhere. Dottie was in her back yard when I arrived. She was scraping honey and lumps of something red into a birdbath on a stand.
“Shoo! Shoo!” She scolded something, and waved at it with her wooden spoon. Dottie was wearing powder blue polyester pants with the waistband pulled high up her waist. She had rhinestone glasses, and a blouse with roses on it.
I concentrated on bringing up my second sight, so I could see what she was feeding. A dozen bramblemaes dipped their beaks into the honey, clutching the edge of the birdfeeder with their little mouse paws. Two thornwights, ugly little gnome-men with pointed noses, climbed the base of the feeder and scrambled over the edge. Dottie was scolding a third creature, which looked like a six-legged dog with a head like a cross between a bulldog and a lion.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, I’ve been feeding my fey, but that dahn graebnor keeps chasing them off. He’s mean, that one, and I haven’t tamed him yet, or I’d make him play nice.”
“How do you tame them?”
“You just feed them, deah. Feed them and they staht to bond with you,” Dottie explained, in her east coast accent.
“Are you giving them honey?”
“Yes, deah. And pomograhnate seeds. They like figs too. You have to find foods that ah in both worlds at the same time.” Dottie looked like any other kindly old lady feeding the animals in her back yard, if you could pretend they were squirrels and pigeons rather than the fey.
“Did you summon these?”
“No, deah. These ah local spirits.”
There was so much I didn’t understand. I had to find Susie’s spell book. And Maggie. And my keys too. They’d fallen to the bottom of my purse and I couldn’t get them out. Come to think of it, where was my watch?
“Do you know what time it is?” I asked. My fingers found the car keys, and a small alarm clock at the bottom of my purse. Why was there an alarm clock in my purse? It said I was late. “Oh, nevermind. Gotta go. Thanks for the use of the parking space.”
“Any time, deah.”
I raced home. I put the delivery receipt for the mirror on the fridge, grabbed a Diet Coke for sustenance, and tossed the henna and indigo on the counter. Zoë got pissed off when I just left stuff lying around, but she could deal. By the time I had booted up my computer to resume the search for Susie’s spellbook, Miles had come out from wherever he’d been hiding and joined me in my room.
“It takes at least an hour to cast a good disguise spell, Miss Susan, and Jason will be here at one.” Miles ran back and forth across the top of my monitor.
If there was a more annoying way to distract someone while she was searching for a file on the computer, I wasn’t aware of it. I’d spent two hours the night before searching for Susie’s spellbook, and finally come to the conclusion that she must not have put it anyplace rational, like on a bookshelf, for example. I found cool stuff while looking for it. I found tins of strange herbs and boxes of the weirdest odds and ends. I found a whole other shelf of books on magic, from Wicca to Satanism to Numerology, and even an old photo album that Zoë was at that moment nostalgically thumbing through. That left her computer. Either that, or it was buried in a trunk in the back yard. No, that was ridiculous. Maybe it was on Maggie’s computer? I hoped not. Maggie’s computer didn’t do anything more than give a few whirs and clunks before dying. Not even a C: prompt.
Miles had suggested “Think like Susie. Where would she put it?” which was about as obvious and useless as “buy low, sell high” when you got right down to it. I had managed to guess Susie’s password (she used her birthday, which was the same as mine) and I’d combed her C drive by hand when the worthless search engine turned up blanks for all my guesses.
“Susan, if you aren’t disguised when you go to Celestine’s compound, she’ll know something’s up and she won’t tell you anything.”
“I know.” Actually, what bothered me more was not the thought of going to Celestine’s compound un-disguised, but giving Jason any reason for smugness if I weren’t able to do what should have been a simple spell. I held my head in my hands, scrunching my bangs in frustration, then got to work with the mouse again.
“She’d hide it,” Zoë said, holding up a photo to the light. “Think of the least logical place to put a file that size. That’s where it will be.”
Five minutes later, I found the file, labeled SES, our initials.
“Bingo!” I cheered, doing a hands-only victory dance at the computer. “Four gig file hidden in Accessories. Now all I have to do is find a disguise spe—oh, it’s indexed.”
And there was the spell, as clear and concise as pasta directions. I felt strangely disappointed. And nervous. Searching for the spell book was one thing, actually using it was another. “Are you sure I can’t just wear a brunette wig?”
“Miss Susan, you’re not afraid, are you?”
“Is that the spell?” Zoë asked, peering over my shoulder.
I nodded. It was a beautiful diagram of a woman’s back with ornate scrolls and symbols painted on it. Someone must have sketched it by hand and then scanned it in, which was a pity, because it looked as though the original was good enough to put on a wall.
“I’ll do it,” Zoë said.
“You know how?”
“Who do you think sketched that?” she asked. “You use indigo for this, right?”
“You’re not afraid?” I asked her. Me, I was terrified. Dealing with magic might have been what killed Jess and Christopher. Magic was the reason Maggie wasn’t here. If what I suspected was true, being a mage was the reason some bible thumper took a flail to me the night before. I was only doing this because getting Maggie back was the first step in getting home again.
“I’m more afraid of you going up there without protection than I am of a little witchcraft,” she said. “You’re not going to summon any demons, are you?”
“No,” I said, just as Miles said “Yes, she will have to invoke her goddess.”
Zoë didn’t hear him, and I didn’t bother to translate. Miles was still on my shit list, and when you’re only six inches long, it’s hard to bully people.
After packing up the photos, Zoë got out a small saucepan, a mesh tea strainer, and a plastic pastry bag with a narrow tip. “Drawing the symbols is the easy part.”
“What’s the hard part?” I asked, though I was afraid I already knew the answer.
“You won’t be able to do this without your goddess’ help, Miss Susan. This is a difficult spell.”
“Yes, I will. I’ll call Amber. She can tell me.”
“And how are you going to explain to her why you can’t do a spell that Susie knows?” Miles asked.
“So Susie knows it, does she?” I gloated. “Got you there, lizard. If Susie can do it, I can do it.” Why was Miles so insistent that I practice thaumaturgy? Why did he insist on me summoning my goddess? I didn’t need anyone’s help; Susie’s spellbook told me everything. Every release word, every variation, how to visualize the energy. It didn’t tell me the name by which she summoned her goddess, but I was beginning to think I knew it already.
“Did Miles say something?”
“Nothing important.” I printed out the spell. “Let me read this over a few times, and then we can start.”
Half an hour later, I lay face down on the picnic table in the back yard, naked, as Zoë dripped hot indigo paste onto my back with the pastry bag. The indigo, which the co-op clerk said was for dying gray hair black, kept clogging the tip. Every time it clogged, Zoë opened the hole with a toothpick and kept going. The clerk also said that it might cause allergies in some people, and I was apparently one of them, because my skin burned from where she laid the paste. I didn’t complain because I was too busy casting the rest of the spell. My arms dangled off the edge of the table, brushing the grass. It was dry enough that my sweat evaporated immediately instead of pooling, even in the shade.
As for my hands, they were ice cold.
Drawing energy from the earth is like the opposite of grounding your house against electrical storms. The earth is a sump for magical power, like the sea is for water. Susie’s spell involved a small invocation of her goddess (I skipped that part) then the visualization of arms as roots of a tree. I drew the power up through my arms, across my spine, and into the whorls and daggers of indigo that Zoë was sketching onto my back. The diagram was a collection of protection symbols, designed and redesigned by Susie until it had special meaning just for her. She’d had a quote written in calligraphy on her computer’s wallpaper. “Spells are like custom shoes: they gotta be made for you.” It sounded like something Maggie would say.
Susie’s spell worked as though it were made from me. I understood it. I felt it was right. And the implication was that Susie and I really were the same person; identical twins separated by a thin veil of reality.
So why was I so angry at her?
At the sound of the jacquard bottle being set on the table, I let the energy backwash through my hands and into the ground again. My shoulders tingled and ached from lying there so long, but my aura felt green, powerful, in touch with the earth. It was like no feeling I’d had before, but it was as familiar as a shower in the morning. Mysterious, otherworldly, natural. It felt like my pet unicorn (back when I was young enough for imaginary friends) had come alive and was now living with me, in me, in the skin of my back.
“I can see why people like to practice magic.” I arched my back, pulling my shoulders under me, then straightened with my arms crossed in front of my breasts. We had high walls in the back yard, but I was still too modest to like being naked outside. “Thanks for your help, Zoë.”
Zoë looked me up and down, eyebrows raised. “Let me know if you want to make it permanent. I’ll give you a discount on the tattooing.”
“What do I look like?”
“Pudgy, short, bleached hair, acne scars.”
“What?! I have a date with Jason! I used an underwear model as a visual reference! That can’t be right!”
“You’re not short. You appear the same height, Miss Susan.” Miles said.
Zoë laughed. “Just kidding. Go look in the mirror. You look just like her.” She handed me the printouts from the computer, and gathered up the pins and q-tips she’d used cleaning up her indigo application.
I had to go braless, and the only thing that wouldn’t chafe against the flaking indigo was an ugly tee shirt that made me look like a fat cow. It wasn’t until I’d put my clothes on that I realized the printouts contained a second diagram, and directions for a second spell.
“Zoë?” I read the spell as I walked into her room. “Is this your printout?”
“No,” she took the picture from my hands. “What is it?”
Miles climbed up my leg and onto my shoulder without even asking, pushing his little scaly nose out from between my curls. He explained, “It’s a protection spell, meant to be applied in henna. Susie used it on occasion.”
“I didn’t print this out.” I handed the sheet to Zoë.
“You must have clicked it accidentally.” Zoë handed the sheet back.
“No, I didn’t. I’m sure of it.” 12:45. There was still time, if Jason was late. He’d be late. “Zoë, I need to do another spell.”
“We’re out of indigo.”
“No, in henna. This spell.”
“A wise choice, Miss Susan, but she won’t be able to do that design on you, not without disturbing the indigo.”
“Not on me.” I looked at Zoë. “Please? I won’t take long.”
Zoë shrugged, nodded.
“Well, I’m not going to complain,” Miles said. “Not if it means seeing another lovely nude young lady.”
I ignored him, and made a pot of strong tea to mix with the henna while Zoë got undressed. Some people said you had to brew the tea the night before, but that was for those with patience. I barely had enough time to prepare the lemon juice and oil before the henna began staining the newspaper through the plastic of the bag. Henna worked fast when it was hot out. Zoë took her shirt off without demur, and was about to strip off her leather skirt when I told her it was low cut enough that she didn’t need it. I was probably more embarrassed than she was. Zoë was around naked people often at her tattoo parlour, and from some of the stories she’d told me about her past, she had no shame left.
Even though we were close friends, I’d rarely had cause to touch her. She had small bones beneath her pale skin, and felt as fragile as a bird. You couldn’t tell where the rings had been embedded on either side of her spine, they had left no marks at all.
The spell called for me to apply the paste with a stripped twig of rosemary, which wasn’t as unwieldy as I had feared. Susie’s hands knew what to do. The circles were even, the lines straight, every dot of henna lined up with the others. It wasn’t a beautiful design, but it was powerful. So much energy coursed up through my bare feet that my vision took on a blueish-purple tinge. Ants bit my bare skin and then exploded, leaving small corpses in a line along my toes. Must have died because they intended me harm.
“Too much, Miss Susan. Tone it down or you’ll hurt her.”
Zoë hadn’t said anything. She lay absolutely still on the picnic table. Her skin began to pinken from the sun, but I wasn’t done yet, and didn’t dare hurry. That printout had been there for a reason. The last time I’d had a hunch like this was the night before Jess had died.
I shook my head and concentrated on drawing. I wasn’t Susie. She was someone else.
I had finished the design, and was daubing lemon juice and sugar on it when a man walked through the back door into the yard. He looked like a young Don Johnson, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and white slacks. When he pulled out a pair of retro eighties sunglasses, he was grinning ear to ear. “All those fantasies about what you two did when you were alone, and I find out they’re true.”
“Who the hell are you?” Zoë asked, without moving.
“He’s Jason.” I smiled. I used to have a crush on Brad Pitt when I was a girl. “Nice look. Indigo?”
Jason unbuttoned his shirt and lifted it out of his slacks, displaying an ornate mandala sketched in flaking blue herbal paste. “It doesn’t last very long. I think we have until sunset at the latest.”
I finished applying the last of the lemon juice, and let the rest of the power I’d borrowed seep back into the earth. “Let me wash my hands, and then we’ll go.”
My first clue should have been when Jason didn’t consult directions to arrive at Celestine’s compound. Maybe it was having my girlhood-crush Brad Pitt’s lookalike (and the memory of how turned on I was on our last date) that made me not think anything of it when he punched in a code at the gate instead of asking someone to let him in.
Jason kept calling this place a compound, so I had expected a few acres out in the desert, chain link fence, a dozen feral dogs and children, maybe some cheap pre-fab houses or trailers. Celestine’s compound, La Turquesa, as the sign labeled it, was anything but. It had been artfully landscaped to look like natural desert, that is, if natural desert had twice the plant density and a full-time staff of ten gardeners per acre removing anything unsightly. Jason’s Lexus looked almost low-class amid the BMW Z-4s and restored classic Jaguars pulling into the valet parking. I wished I had worn something nicer. At least I looked drop-dead gorgeous with this disguise on, and fashion magazines had taught me gorgeous girls with ugly clothing were a natural pairing.
He took my hand as we walked into the foyer of La Turquesa, and placed it on his forearm. As soon as we walked in, I noticed a difference. What it was, I couldn’t say. A subtle smell? Mugwort and seaweed extract, perhaps? Or was it lack of smell? Something was missing, maybe.
“Let me guess, if anyone asks, we’re checking in to use their spa treatments?”
Jason gave me a weak smile, and didn’t say anything except to ask at the desk for Celestine. The receptionist’s desk had a single orchid in a flat dish of black stones, and a phone that looked like it was a gecko trying to blend into the black granite. Look how classy we are, it said, even our receptionist epitomizes simplicity and beauty.
“Nice place,” I murmured.
Except for the wall of glass through which we’d entered, the building appeared to be made of stone. The floor was of polished travertine, the ceiling and back wall were basalt, and the hallways leading deeper into the hill had shiny marble, inlaid in varying shades of ochre and terracotta. Earthy, it said, natural, and costing only slightly less than gold plate.
“There’s still time to go,” Jason said, patting my arm. “I don’t want to do this. We’ll go if you can honestly answer me one question.”
“What’s your name? Who are you really?”
“I’m Susan Stillwater, Jason, what are you going on about?”
“Darius knows too. You weren’t very subtle, asking him all those questions. I mean, come on, memory problem? Like who’s going to fall for that? As if Susie could forget how to undo a minor vit! Are you some kind of… no, you don’t have to tell me who you are. It doesn’t matter. For what it’s worth, I like you more than I ever liked Susie, but you’re not Susie, and the Stillwaters are my friends. I hope you realize that.” He held on to my arm tightly now. “I’m sorry. This was the only deal Celestine would make.”
“Hello, Mr. Adler.” Celestine had a voice like ice, and a dress as pale as glacial water. Her hair was silver, cut short enough to show her turquoise earrings. She had a matching turquoise necklace, rough primitive chunks of stone in a random pattern. It looked so poorly done that I was sure she’d spent a fortune on it in a gallery. “I see you’ve brought your price. Do I have the honor of meeting Maggie’s heir?”
Jason nodded. “May I present Susan Stillwater?”
Susie would have said, “Please call me Susie.” It was on the tip of my tongue. “I want to see my mother.”
“Of course, Miss Stillwater.” Celestine looked up at the ceiling, and her eyes unfocused.
A moment later, three figures appeared. One was a young woman, not much older than twenty, wearing a simple white robe that left the arms bare. One of the other figures, also wearing a simple white robe, was a tall gaunt man. He had a ‘don’t fuck with me’ look on his face, like you see on cons, cops, and scarred veterans. His arms were roped with sinewy muscle, and showed a pale stripe where he must have once worn a watch. They flanked my mother.
“Maggie?” Jason said it before I did.
Maggie turned. She too wore a white robe. Her hair had two thin braids on either side of her face, which she’d adorned with feathers and small turquoise beads. The rest of her hair was in its usual unruly mop. She smiled at us, but said nothing.
“What have you done with her?” Jason asked.
“Nothing. Ms. Stillwater has undertaken a vow of silence. It’s the first step in mastering the art of telepathy.”
I wished I had the power of telepathy. More than anything else, I wanted to know what the hell was going on. I wavered between shaking my mom to get some sense out of her, and running for the door. While I hesitated, the sinewy gaunt guy slunk forward and grabbed my arms.
“Get your hands off of me!” I jerked, but couldn’t get free.
Celestine confiscated my purse, and rummaged around in it until she found my cell phone. She took the battery out and slipped it in her pocket. Then she dropped the phone back into my purse. After more rummaging around, she stole my Zippo, the bitch.
“Jason? What’s going on?”
Jason also hesitated, eyes flickering between Maggie and Celestine. “You said she’d be free to go.”
“And she is.” Celestine turned towards my mom. “Maggie? You’re free to go if you’d like.”
Maggie shook her head.
“You lied to me,” Jason said.
“I’ve met our agreement.” She shrugged, and turned away from Jason to meet my eyes. “And now for you, my dear. I’m sure you’ll want to take the same vow that your mother has taken.”
Celestine touched my arm. I jerked away, only to be pushed closer by the sinewy white-robed guy. He gripped the back of my head and held it still while Celestine placed her palm over my face. I licked her hand (it had worked against Jess when we were kids) but Celestine just slapped me and did it again. Jason backed away, and I wanted to scream obscenities at him, but when Celestine pulled her hand away, I found I couldn’t say anything at all.
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