In a Witch's Wardrobe
Lily Ivory is at the Art Deco ball when she comes across an unfortunate guest...
Miriam lay upon the chaise, her eyes closed, the silk dress splayed out around her. She had the odd stillness of one who wasn't merely sleeping.
"Wake up, sweetheart," an elderly woman gently shook Miriam's shoulder. "Are you all right? Would you like us to find your escort?"
The women stood back when I approached, as though I were a physician who would know what to do.
I knelt beside her. "Miriam?"
My heart caught in my throat at the sight of her. Bright red flags of color on her cheeks stood out against an unnatural, ashen pallor. I placed a hand on her brow, and felt her neck for a pulse. It was weak, thready. But it was there.
"Call 911," I said over my shoulder.
As one of the women pulled a small cell phone from her beaded purse, Susan appeared.
"Lily? What can I do?"
"See if they have anyone on duty, a first aid person maybe? Oh! And tell Aidan I need him."
"Aidan has medical training?"
"In a manner of speaking."
As I brushed Miriam's hair away from her face, the orchid corsage pinned to her collar caught my eye. Lovely pale pink flowers tinged in violet formed a perfect contrast to the sea green of her dress. A few trumpet-shaped flowers formed a pale background. But as I looked closer, I spied beneath the foliage a bit of black ribbon, the glint of needles, and an ugly tangle of black thread. And I smelled...cigarettes?
This was no normal corsage. I concentrated on editing out the perfumes of the women in the lounge, and detected the slightest hint of something putrid. Masked by the fragrant orchids, it was a subtle aroma no normal person would notice.
I was reaching to unpin the corsage when a commotion at the door announced Aidan's arrival.
"Lily, come away from there," he commanded.
"She needs help," I said.
"The EMTs are on their way," he said. "Come. It's none of our affair."
"Miriam!" The woman's grey-haired escort appeared in the doorway before running in to kneel beside her. "What's wrong with her? Miriam? Talk to me, sweetheart."
Just then a plump, middle-aged woman carrying a first aid bag joined the fray. She checked Miriam's pupils before applying a blood pressure cuff to her arm.
Miriam's escort passed large, calloused hands through his hair. "Is she all right?"
"We don't know anything yet, sir," said the woman, who seemed overwhelmed. I had the sense she was more prepared to provide band-aids for blistered heels than cope with actual medical emergencies. "Her blood pressure is low...The paramedics are on their way."
Gripping my arm, Aidan pulled me out of the lounge and urged me down the corridor. He guided me behind a red-and-gold velvet curtain marked "personnel only."
"What is wrong with you?" I demanded, yanking my arm out of his grasp. "I might have been able to help her."
"What is wrong with you? You saw that cursed corsage, I know you did," he said. "This sort of thing can cast serious suspicion on a witch, Lily. What do you think the Oakland PD is going to make of something like this? This isn't San Francisco, where you can call on your buddy Carlos to protect you."
"Oh, please—you really think the Oakland cops are going to accuse me of witchcraft? In this day and age?"
"I doubt they have the imagination. But they might suspect you of poisoning her, Ms. Botanical Specialist."
"That's absurd. I've never met her before in my life."
"Never underestimate the folly of the average cowan," said Aidan, using the derogatory word for non-magical humans.
I shrugged. "Besides, I have you to protect me."
He gave me an enigmatic smile.
"Hey, you're supposed to be the Grand Poobah of Bay Area witches. Do you recognize Miriam, or the hex? What do you think is going on?"
"I'd say she got on somebody's bad side, or ran afoul of a witch."
"I have to help—"
"You 'have' to do nothing of the sort."
He held up one hand. "Tell you what: I'll look into it if you'll agree to let the authorities handle things. You don't need to involve yourself. The hex isn't strong enough to kill her. At least not right away."
"Did you even get close enough to make that sort of assessment?"
"Trust me. I'll look into it. Scout's honor."
"You don't strike me as a Boy Scout, in any sense of the word."
"I'll have you know I'm always prepared," he said. His gaze drifted down my body and back up to my face. He shook his head. "It is astonishing, you know. You truly appear as though a spirit from another time and place."
I wasn't sure how to take that. "I'm not. I'm me."
His gaze softened. "Do you ever think about... Do you believe in past lives?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Some people think that we travel through each life seeking the companions of our past lives, and that they continue to play important roles, no matter how much time may pass."
"I..." Suddenly the idea of knowing someone from one life to the next made all kinds of sense. It that would explain the sense of familiarity I had with Aidan, the inexplicable pull I felt despite my reservations about him. But I wasn't sure I truly believed such things. The only thing I really knew, at the moment, was I had to be cautious of thinking along those lines. Aidan and I had once shared a kiss...and the combined heat we threw off had quite literally melted metal.
He caressed the line of my jaw with his thumb. "And here we are, just the two of us, in a secluded corner of a fancy dress ball, as though in a different time and place..."
"Bad things happen when we kiss, remember?"
"I wouldn't say 'bad' as much as...powerful. Anyway, I've been working on my control."
Speaking of control, it took all my willpower to place my hand on his chest and push him away. "Maybe another time. Right now, I want to see what's happening with Miriam and make sure she's okay."
"This wasn't exactly how I saw the evening going."
"Apparently seeing the future isn't one of your gifts."
"Why are you so interested in this stranger? Because you bumped into her on the front steps? That's not a significant social bond." Aidan clenched his jaw, clearly irked. "Stay out of it, Lily. I haven't been around as long as I have, and been as successful as I have, by interfering in witches' squabbles."
"Are you saying Miriam's a witch?"
"I have no idea yet what she is. But please, leave this alone. I told you I'd look into it."
After a moment, I nodded. "All right. Thank you."
We emerged from our private corner just as the EMTs wheeled the gurney carrying Miriam down the corridor. Her tuxedoed escort jogged alongside, distraught—he may be too old for her, I thought, but it was clear he loved her. I caught whiffs of dread and fear as he hurried past, and watched until the gurney rolled around the corner, and out of sight.
After a few moments of subdued hubbub, the orchestra started back up and the crowd returned to the festivities. I could almost feel the communal sigh of relief. Aidan was right—whatever had happened to Miriam was none of my affair. I didn't know her, and as much as I might want to, I simply can't help everyone. Sometimes I have to protect myself.
Still, I felt at a loss. The thought of dancing away the evening now seemed impossible. Carved, gold gilt faces seemed to watch me from the walls, waiting to see what I'd do. The Paramount Theater was stunning, but at the moment it felt chock-full of ghosts.
"Oh wait, I left my bag in the lounge," I said.
"Want me to get it?" offered Aidan.
"It's a women's room, remember? I'll be right back."
The crowd suddenly swelled as a song came to an end and people rushed for the lounges and bars. I squeezed into the ladies' room, and with a sense of relief spied my beaded bag sitting on a glass ledge.
And behind it, something in the mirror.
An odd flicker. I looked more closely.
Her face appeared before me, her big hazel eyes, clear as day, reflected in the shiny glass.
I glanced over my shoulder to see if by any chance she or someone else—her doppelganger, perhaps?— was behind me. I'm a witch, yes, but I'm also human, and as prone to an over-active imagination as anyone else.
But there was no Miriam and no Miriam-look-alike standing there. Just a small crowd of women milling about, heading to and fro.
When I turned back to the mirrored walls, the image was gone.
I was about to give up, to blame the vision on nerves, when I glanced up at the mirrored glass chandelier—and saw Miriam's flickering image.
This time there was no mistake about it. Although her body was strapped to a gurney, en route to the hospital, Miriam's spirit was trapped in the reflective surfaces of the Paramount Theater.
She was here. Displaced. Distraught.
Dang it all.
© Juliet Blackwell