(This is an installment in a serial story. To read “Magic” from the beginning, click here.)
Inside the shop it was dim, and it took a moment for Sarah’s eyes to adjust.
The space was long and narrow, and after blinking a few times, she realized the walls were hung with crimson velvet and light came from a series of mismatched crystal chandeliers scattered across the ceiling. Big and small, hung high and low, they glowed softly. The breeze from the open door caused them to sway slightly.
“Wow,” she thought. “It would be a pain in the ass to have to dust those.”
The walls were filled with shelves, glass cases, and a few racks of clothing. Thick patterned carpets covered the floors. At the far end of the room there was a stage. In the middle of the floor there were overstuffed chairs with footstools, and a big couch and coffee table. Several small tables with chairs dotted the room also. She became aware of a scent in the air that was rich and heady. It was the scent of books and spices, but also of smoke and vanilla.
“Welcome. Would you like some tea?” asked a voice behind her.
Sarah turned to face the woman behind her. It was the same woman she had seen from her window earlier, with the glossy black hair and the slash of red lipstick.
“Oh, it’s you,” the woman said, smiling. “I knew you would come here eventually.”
Sarah felt the cat winding around her ankles and looked down.
“This is Owl,” the woman said. “He always wants the people he can’t have.” She held out her hand, “And, I’m Lupa.”
Sarah took her hand. “Sarah.”
“I know,” Lupa said. “Owl said you’d moved into the place across the street. He’s friends with your cat.”
“I don’t have a cat,” Sarah said.
“But you do,” Lupa said. “I see her all the time. Come look.”
Together they walked to the doorway and stood in the sunlight, peering across the street. Lupa pointed. “There.”
On the second floor of the Victorian, sitting in the bay window where Sarah had just had her lunch, was a fluffy cat, every bit as white as Owl was black.
“That’s your place, right?”
“It is,” Sarah said. “But I just moved in and I didn’t bring a cat.”
“But she’s still yours,” Lupa said. It wasn’t a question. “I don’t know what you call her, but I think of her as Alba. Come on, let me get you some tea.”
The tea that Lupa handed her was in a ceramic cup without a handle. It looked like it was handmade, with a dark blue glaze, and the irregular curves of the surface nestled into her hand. The steam coming off the tea was perfumed with the smell of fruit and flowers and spices, but there was also the hint of smoke she had picked up in the room.
“It’s my own blend,” said Lupa. “It has a base of lapsang su chong, a smoked tea, but there are herbs and berries in it too.
“It smells so good,” Sarah said, breathing in deeply.
“It’s supposed to be mildly euphoric,” Lupa said.
Sarah’s eyes widened.
“Only mildly,” Lupa said, chuckling. “Don’t worry.”
Sarah studied the other woman for a moment and then took a sip. “Oh, it’s wonderful.”
Lupa’s dark eyes crinkled in pleasure. “I knew you would like it,” she said. “And it will help with your allergies, too.”
Sarah wasn’t certain she’d heard her right. “Excuse me?”
“You’ve been having allergies, yes?” Lupa asked.
“I have. But how could you know? We haven’t met before, have we?”
The question hung in the air. Even as she said it, Sarah realized there was something about the woman that felt familiar.
“Not exactly,” Lupa said.
At the back of the store, a couple of young women were moving things around on the raised stage, setting up microphone stands and chairs.
The two women watched them for a minute.
“The stage is always available,” Lupa said, “whenever I’m open. Sometimes artists perform here during the day when it’s quiet, just for practice. If I have a moment, I’ll cast a spell to make them think the room is full. That way they learn to get over their jitters.”
Just as she spoke this, Sarah felt the room grower warmer and heard the murmur of an audience. She briefly glimpsed the rows of wooden folding chairs, the backs of bodies facing the stage, and then the room returned to empty. She blinked and shook her head a little, unsure of what she had just seen.
“It will be a good show today. Martha has a lovely voice and plays the guitar. The other woman, Eve, plays the cello and the violin. They’re working on new material. Normally Martha fronts a rock band called The Golden Ratio. They’re sort of legendary around here. Curl up on the couch and take a break. Moving can be very disorienting and it can take a while for your soul to catch up.” As she said this, Lupa took Sarah by the elbow and steered her to the couch. Gratefully, Sarah sunk into the velvet cushions, suddenly feeling a little lightheaded.
On the stage, the musicians began to play. The tune was mournful, in a minor key, and Martha’s voice was rich and warm. Immediately, Sarah thought of amber, and firelight, and the color of Owl’s eyes. The words to the song were in Spanish, and Martha’s tan arms, inked with tattoos, wrapped around her guitar as she plucked the strings. Eve’s violin joined in a counter melody, winding around Martha’s voice, sometimes joining it, and then drifting away to rise higher, hanging in the air before plummeting lower and fading into silence.
Sarah set her teacup on the table in front of her and rubbed her eyes. “I feel like Alice in Wonderland,” she thought. “There is an invisible cat and a woman I’ve never met who seems to know me, a spectral audience, and this beautiful music.” She yawned and snuggled deeper into the couch. “What does the story say?” she thought. “Down, down, down… I’m falling down the rabbit hole.”
And with that, Sarah dozed off.
(To be continued…)