Happy Canada Day For those of you in Canada like myself I offer you a very fun Canada Day surprise! For those of you not enjoying Canada Day today may I offer you a fun Friday opportunity...I am so very excited and pleased to have been selected to share with you the first Chapter of A Toxic Trousseau, which is out July 5th!
Small business owners have their morning routines. Some people switch on the lights, brew a cup of coffee, and read the paper before engaging with the day. Some count out the money in the register and tidy up the merchandise. Some sweep and hose down the front walk.
Each morning before opening my vintage clothing store, Aunt Cora’s Closet, I sprinkle salt water widdershins, smudge sage deosil, and light a white candle while chanting a spell of protection.
Such spells can be powerful, and for a small business owner like me they serve an important purpose: to help customers maintain their composure in the face of fashion frustrations, keep evil intentions at bay, and discourage those with sticky fingers from rummaging through the feather boas, chiffon prom dresses, and silk evening gowns and then trying to shove said items into pockets or backpacks or under shirts.
But protection spells aren’t much good against litigation.
“Lily Ivory?” asked the petite, somber young woman who entered Aunt Cora’s Closet, a neon yellow motorcycle helmet under one arm. She had dark hair and eyes, and I imagined she would have been pretty had she smiled. But her expression was dour.
“Yes?” I asked, looking up from a list of receipts.
She held out a manila envelope. “You have been served.”
“You are hereby notified of a lawsuit against you, Aunt Cora’s Closet, and one errant pig, name unknown. By the by, not that it’s any of my business, but is it even legal to own livestock in the city?”
I cast a glare in the direction of said pig, my witch’s familiar, Oscar. At least, I tried to, but he’d disappeared. Only moments earlier Oscar had been snoozing on his hand-embroidered purple silk pillow, resting up for a busy day of trying to poke his snout under the dressing room curtains while customers tried on vintage cocktail dresses, fringed leather jackets, and Jackie O pillbox hats. Now only the slight rustling of a rack of 1980s spangled prom dresses revealed his location.
“My pig’s being served with legal papers?”
“Not so much your pig, as you. Your property, your worry. At least, that’s how it works with dogs, so I assume . . .” The woman trailed off with an officious shrug as she headed for the front door with long strides, already pulling on her helmet. “But that isn’t any of my business; I just deliver the bad news. Have a nice day.”
She didn’t pause. I followed her outside, where someone was revving the engine of a large black motorcycle. The woman jumped on the back and they zoomed off.
“Duuude,” said Conrad, the homeless young man who slept in nearby Golden Gate Park and spent the better part of his days “guarding” the curb outside of my store. In San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, many young homeless people lived this way, panhandling and scrounging and generally referring to themselves as “gutter punks.” Over the past year, Conrad—or as he liked to call himself, “The Con”—had become a friend and the unofficial guardian of Aunt Cora’s Closet. “You get served?”
“Apparently so,” I said, opening the envelope to find some scary-looking legal-sized documents filled with legalese, such as “party of the first part.”
My heart sank as I put two and two together. My friend Bronwyn, who rents space in my store for her herbal stand, had filled me in on an incident that took place a couple of weeks ago while I was out scouting garage sales for resaleable treasure. It seems a woman came into the shop and started flicking through the merchandise, pronouncing it “unsuitable—too much of that dreadful ready-to-wear.” Bronwyn had explained to her that Aunt Cora’s Closet doesn’t deal in high-end vintage; our merchandise consists mostly of wearable clothes, with the occasional designer collectibles. The woman then turned to my employee Maya and started grilling her about the ins and outs of the store, making none-too-subtle inquiries about where we obtained our specialty stock.
Oscar started getting in the customer’s way, making a pest of himself and keeping her away from the clothes. Bronwyn tried to call him off, but he kept at it, almost as though he was trying to herd her toward the exit. Finally the woman picked a parasol off a nearby shelf and started whacking Oscar, and there was a scuffle.
The woman had screamed and flailed, lost her balance, and fell back into a rack of colorful swing dresses. Maya and Bronwyn hastily extricated her, made sure she was all right, and offered profuse apologies. The woman had seemed fine at the time, they both said, and she stomped out of the store in high dudgeon.
But if I was reading the legal papers correctly, the woman—named Autumn Jennings—was now claiming she had been “head-butted” by an “unrestrained pig,” had been injured in the “attack,” and was demanding compensation.
It was a mystery. Oscar had never herded—much less head-butted—anyone in Aunt Cora’s Closet before. He wasn’t the violent type. In fact, apart from a few occasions when he intervened to save my life, Oscar was more the “let’s eat grilled cheese and take a nap” type.
He was also my witch’s familiar, albeit an unusual one. Oscar was a shape-shifter who assumed the form of a miniature Vietnamese potbellied pig when around cowans—regular, nonmagical humans. Around me, his natural form was sort of a cross between a goblin and a gargoyle. A gobgoyle, for lack of a better word. His was a lineage about which I didn’t want to think too hard.
“Bad vibes, Dude,” Conrad said with a sage nod. “Been there. Dude, I hate being served.”
“You’ve been served?” I asked. Conrad was in his early twenties and lived such a vagabond existence it was hard to imagine why anyone would bother to sue him. I could easily imagine his being picked up by police in a sweep of the local homeless population, but how would a process server even know where to find Conrad to serve him papers?
He nodded. “Couple times. But at least yours arrived on a Ducati. That’s a nice bike.”
“What did you—” My question was cut off by the approach of none other than Aidan Rhodes, witchy godfather to San Francisco’s magical community. His golden hair gleamed in the sun, a beautifully tailored sports jacket hugged his tall frame, and a leather satchel was tucked under one strong arm. As he strolled down Haight Street with his signature graceful glide, strangers stopped to stare. Aidan’s aura glittered so brilliantly that even nonsensitive people noticed, though they didn’t realize what they were reacting to.
This is all I need.
I girded my witchy loins.
Things between Aidan and me were . . . complicated. Not long ago I’d stolen something from Aidan, and I still owed him. And when it comes to debts, we witches are a little like elephants, bookies, and the Internet: We never forget. Even worse, Aidan feared San Francisco was shaping up to be ground zero in some sort of big magical showdown, and he wanted me to stand with him for the forces of good. Or, at the very least, for the good of Aidan Rhodes. It was hard to say exactly what was going on—and exactly what role I was willing to play in it—since the threat was frustratingly nonspecific, and Aidan played his cards infuriatingly close to his chest.
“Good morning,” Aidan said as he joined us. “Conrad, it’s been too long. How have you been?”
Despite their vastly different circumstances and lifestyles, Aidan treated Conrad with the respect due a peer. His decency sort of ticked me off. My life would be simpler if I could dismiss Aidan as an arrogant, power-hungry witch beyond redemption. His kindness toward my friend was difficult to reconcile with that image.
The two men exchanged pleasantries, chatting about the beauty of Golden Gate Park when bathed in morning dew and sunshine, and whether the Giants had a shot at the pennant this year. And then Aidan turned his astonishing, periwinkle blue gaze on me, sweeping me from head to foot.
Suddenly self-conscious, I smoothed the full skirt of my sundress.
“And Lily . . . Stunning as always. I do like that color on you. It’s as joyful as the first rays of dawn.”
“Thank you,” I said, blushing and avoiding his eyes. The dress was an orangey gold cotton with a pink embroidered neckline and hem, circa 1962, and I had chosen it this morning precisely because it reminded me of a sunrise. “Aren’t you just the sweet talker.”
“You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” my mama used to tell me. Did this mean I was the fly and Aidan the fly catcher?
“Is everything all right?” Aidan asked. “Am I sensing trouble? Beyond the norm, I mean.”
“Dude, Lily just got served,” Conrad said.
“Served? I fear we aren’t speaking of breakfast.”
“A lawsuit,” I clarified.
“Ah. What a shame. Whatever happened?”
“Oscar head-butted a customer.”
“That’s . . . unusual.” Aidan had given me Oscar and knew him well. “Was this person badly injured?”
“I wasn’t there when it happened, but according to Bronwyn and Maya the customer seemed fine. But now she’s claiming she sustained ‘serious and debilitating neck and back injuries that hinder her in the completion of her work and significantly reduce her quality of life,’” I said, quoting from the document I still clutched tightly in my hand.
“That sounds most distressing. Might I offer my services in finding a resolution?”
“No. No, thank you.” The only thing worse than being slapped with a slip-and-fall lawsuit—the boogeyman of every small business owner—was being even more beholden to Aidan Rhodes than I already was. Besides . . . I wasn’t sure what he meant by “finding a resolution.” Aidan was one powerful witch. If he got involved, Autumn Jennings might very well wind up walking around looking like a frog.
“You’re sure?” Aidan asked. “These personal injury lawsuits can get nasty—and expensive, even if you win. As much as I hate to say it, you may have some liability here. Is it even legal to have a pig in the city limits?”
“Don’t worry about it; I’ve got it handled,” I said, not wishing to discuss the matter any further with him. “Was there some reason in particular you stopped by?”
Aidan grinned, sending sparkling rays of light dancing in the morning breeze. He really was the most astounding man.
“I was hoping we might have a moment to talk,” he said. “About business.”
My stomach clenched. Time to face the music. I did owe him, after all. “Of course, come on in.”
The door to Aunt Cora’s Closet tinkled as we went inside, and Bronwyn fluttered out from the back room, cradling Oscar to her ample chest. She was dressed in billows of purple gauze, and a garland of wildflowers crowned her frizzy brown hair. Bronwyn was a fifty-something Wiccan, and one of the first—and very best—friends I had made upon my arrival in the City by the Bay not so very long ago.
“Hello, Aidan! So wonderful to see you again!” she gushed.
“Bronwyn, you light up this shop like fireworks on the Fourth of July.”
“Oh, you do go on.” She waved her hand but gave him a flirtatious smile. “But, Lily! Our little Oscaroo is very upset, poor thing! Maybe it has something to do with the woman with the motorcycle helmet who was just here—what was that about?”
“She was serving Lily with legal papers,” said Aidan.
“Legal papers?” Bronwyn asked as Oscar hid his snout under her arm. “For what?”
“Remember when Oscar”—I cast about for the right word—“harassed a woman a couple of weeks ago?”
“Of course, naughty little tiny piggy pig pig,” Bronwyn said in a crooning baby voice. “But I have to say, she really was bothering all of us. But . . . she’s suing you? Seriously?”
I nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“Well, now, that’s just bad karma,” Bronwyn said with a frown.
“You said she wasn’t hurt, though, right?”
“She was fine!” Bronwyn insisted. “She fell into the rack of swing dresses. You know how poofy those dresses are—there’s enough crinolines in the skirts to cushion an NFL linebacker, and she’s, what, a hundred pounds soaking wet? I saw her just the other day, when I brought her some of my special caramel-cherry-spice maté tea and homemade corn-cherry scones, and she seemed fine. As a matter of fact, when I arrived she was up on a ladder, and she certainly didn’t seem to have any back or neck injuries. She was a little under the weather, but it was a cold or the flu.”
“When was this?”
“Day before yesterday, I think . . . I thought I should make the effort, since you weren’t even here when it happened. I just wanted to tell her I was sorry.”
“How did you know where to find her?”
“She left her business card. . . .” Bronwyn trailed off as she peeked behind her herbal counter. “I have it around here somewhere. Turns out, she’s a rival vintage clothing store owner, which explains why she was so interested. Her place is called Vintage Visions Glad Rags, over off Buchanan.”
“Really. That is interesting. What’s it like?”
“Very nice inventory, but if you ask me not nearly as warm and inviting as Aunt Cora’s Closet. She had some ball gowns that I’m sure were from the nineteenth century. But those are more museum pieces than anything someone would actually wear. The whole place was too snooty for my taste, by half. And expensive! Too rich for my blood.”
“Did anything happen while you were there? Did she say anything in particular?”
Bronwyn frowned in thought, then shook her head. “Nothing at all. She didn’t seem particularly bowled over by my gift basket, but she accepted it. But like I say, she told me she was a little under the weather, so maybe that accounts for her mood. She did have a very sweet dog, and I always say a pet lover is never irredeemable.”
“Okay, thanks,” I said, blowing out a breath. “If you think of anything else, please let me know. Aidan and I are going to talk in the back for a moment.”
“I’ll keep an eye on things,” Bronwyn said, lugging Oscar over to her herbal stand for a treat. Oscar was a miniature pig, but he was still a porker.
In the back room Aidan and I sat down at my old jade green Formica-topped table. I bided my time and waited for Aidan to speak first. In witch circles, simply asking “What may I help you with?” can open up a dangerous can of worms.
“I have to leave town for a little while,” he said.
“Really?” Even though I knew perfectly well that he had lived elsewhere in the past, including when he’d worked with the father who had abandoned me, in my mind Aidan was so associated with San Francisco that it was hard to imagine him in any other locale. “How long do you think you’ll be gone?”
“And here I was rather hoping you would beg me to stay,” he said in a quiet voice, his gaze holding mine.
“Far be it from me to dictate to the likes of Aidan Rhodes.”
He smiled. “In any case, I need a favor.”
“First,” he said, “I’ll need you to keep tabs on Selena.”
Selena was a talented but troubled teenage witch who had come into my life recently. She reminded me of myself at her age: socially awkward and dangerously magical.
I clenched my teeth. It wasn’t Aidan’s place to tell me to watch over Selena; she needed all of us with whom she had grown close. But it was true that Aidan and I had both been helping her to train her powers. In her case, as in mine, the biggest challenge was learning to keep control over her emotions and her magic in general. But even as he was asking me to partner with him, Aidan still fancied himself the head of the local magical community—me included. It was very annoying.
“Of course,” I said. “I have been.”
“Of course,” Aidan repeated. “And Oscar can come in handy with that as well.”
I concentrated on reining in my irritation. It wouldn’t do to send something flying, which sometimes happened when I lost my temper. Proving that Selena and I weren’t that far apart in some areas of our development.
“You’re not Oscar’s master anymore,” I pointed out.
He nodded slowly. “So true. Alas, I will leave that in your more than capable hands, then. Also while I’m gone I need you to fill in for me and adjudicate a few issues. Nothing too strenuous.”
He handed me a heavy, well-worn leather satchel tied with a black ribbon. “You’re always so curious about what I do for the local witchcraft community. Now’s your chance to find out.”
“I never said I wanted to find out. I’m really perfectly happy being in the dark.”
Aidan smiled. “Why do I find that hard to believe? In any event, find out you shall.”
I sighed. As curious as I was about Aidan’s world, I hesitated to be drawn into it. However, I was in his debt and the bill had come due. “Fine. I’m going to need more information, though. What all is involved in ‘adjudicating issues’?”
He shrugged. “Little of this, little of that. Mostly it means keeping an eye on things, making sure nothing gets out of hand. Handling disputes, assisting with certifications . . . Valuable job skills that really beef up the résumé, you’ll see.”
“Uh-huh,” I said, skeptical. At the moment I didn’t need a more impressive résumé. I needed a lawyer. “What kind of certifications?”
“Fortune-tellers and necromancers must be licensed in the city and county of San Francisco. Surely your good friend Inspector Romero has mentioned this at some point.”
“He has, but since I’m neither a fortune-teller nor a necromancer I didn’t pay much attention. So that’s what you do? Help people fill out forms down at City Hall? Surely—”
“It’s all terribly glamorous, isn’t it? Resolving petty squabbles, unraveling paperwork snafus . . . The excitement never ends,” he said with another smile. “But it’s necessary work, and you’re more than qualified to handle it while I’m gone. You’ll find everything you need in there.”
I opened the satchel and took a peek. Inside were what appeared to be hundreds of signed notes written on ancient parchment, a business card with the mayor’s cell phone number written on the back in pencil, and a jangly key ring. I pulled out the keys: One was an old-fashioned skeleton key, but the others were modern and, I assumed, unlocked his office at the recently rebuilt wax museum. “Aidan, what are . . . ?”
I looked up, but Aidan was gone, his departure marked by a slight sway of the curtains. Letting out a loud sigh of exasperation, I grumbled, “I swear, that man moves like a vampire.”
“Vampire?” Bronwyn poked her head through the curtains, Oscar still in her arms. “Are we worried about vampires now?”
“No, no, of course not,” I assured her as I closed the satchel and stashed it under the workroom table. “Sorry—just talking to myself.”
“Oh, thank the goddess!” said Bronwyn, and set Oscar down. Whenever Aidan was around, Oscar became excited to the point of agitation, and his little hooves clicked on the wooden planks of the floor as he hopped around. “Never a dull moment at Aunt Cora’s Closet.”
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