The purple awning and gold balustrades of the Raven’s Plume stood out on the staid Main Street like an Amethyst ring set in concrete. Pepper Johnson, one of the owners of the avant-garde boutique swept the sidewalk and polished the brass ‘till it gleamed. When she finished, she walked to the edge of the street and inspected her work.
Dressed in a flowing red patterned skirt, green print blouse and red scarf trimmed with dime sized metal discs, she elicited as many stares as the purple and polished brass of the shop. That didn’t bother her. She just smiled and waved as gawkers stared from car windows and said good morning to the conventionally dressed as they walked hurriedly past.
It’s beautiful, but it’s kind of scary, too. I hope we get some customers.
Nathaniel Irving, Pepper’s partner, pushed the front door open with his hip and brought out two chipped porcelain mugs. He stood out as much as she in his yellow and black striped pants, ruffled red shirt and yellow and black striped vest.
“Morning Pep.” He kissed her on the lips and handed her a mug. “Beautiful isn’t it?” He put his arm around her waist and pulled her close. “You feel good. Soft in all the right places.”
“You like it?”
He patted her butt. “I love it.”
“Oh Nate.” She pushed his hand off her bottom and smiled. “The shop, what do you think of the Raven’s Plume?”
“You know it’s always been a dream of mine to have my own business. Like the emporium Grandpa Irving used to have out at Four Corners. You did a nice job on the balustrades.”
“Thanks. I still can’t believe it’s ours.” She took a sip and rolled her eyes. “Wow, this is good coffee. Where’d you get it?”
“At a coffeeshop down the street called Kávé Luna. It’s kind of a cool place, but it’s only open at night. I met one of the sisters who owns it. Her name’s Claudia. I think her last name’s Moroaicâ. When she heard we’d moved in up the street she gave me a pound of their house blend as a welcome gift. She said she and her sisters would stop by today before they opened to check us out.”
Pepper raised an eyebrow. “Moroaicâ. That’s the Romanian word for a female vampire.”
“I thought that was Strigoi?”
“That’s a general term…Moroaicâ is specifically female. This is really good.” She stepped over to the shop’s front window and wiped a smudge with her rag. A black crepe cape with dark red trim hung on a headless mannequin. Behind it, a dead tree decorated with hammered brass and stained glass jewelry sparkled in the sun.
“It needs something. What do you think?”
“I’m working on an ebony skull and horns with a triple moon outlined in gold on its forehead. What about that?”
Pepper cocked her head and squinted. “I don’t know. Maybe. I’d have to see it.”
“I better get busy then.” He raised his cup and took a sip. “Are you happy, Pep?”
“Yeah.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I just hope we get some customers.”
“We haven’t had our Grand Opening yet. I’m sure we’ll do great. Besides, Mrs. Marzanna said she’d be flexible with the rent.”
Pepper bit her lip. “I know. That’s another thing. Marzanna, Moroaicâ. They’re both from Slavic folklore.” Her eyes flicked to his. “The Goddess Marzanna is the goddess of death.”
Nate gave her a squeeze. “You’re eating’ this up aren’t you, Pep? You’re digging this. I can tell.”
Pepper put the mug to her lips. Her eyes were smiling. “This is pretty cool. All we need now is a Vârcolac, that’s like a zombie werewolf, or a Pricolici, that’s a kind of a werewolf and vampire combo.”
“Who knows, maybe a couple will come riding by on a bicycle.”
Pepper gave him a hip bump. “Come on, I’ve got more of those Gypsy blouses to sew, and you have that Satyr’s skull to finish.
He laughed. “Oh, you are so digging this.” He grabbed her by the arm and led her inside.
Leonard pulled the rusty metal and glass door open with a loud screech and tried to slip in unnoticed. A tall woman with pale skin, high cheekbones, neatly styled raven hair in a tailored black suit with a white rose bud on her lapel stood behind a podium in front of a huge room. She stopped speaking and glared at him. Everybody in the audience with a head still attached swiveled and stared. He turned invisible.
Uhh oh, she’s not gonna be happy about this.
The woman pounded on the podium and the heads swiveled back. “As I was saying. Regardless of what you just saw, you cannot exit through the side doors. Once you’re here, you can’t leave until you’re called, or someone has come to fetch you.”
“Those of you destined for Heaven, or Paradise, or whatever you choose to call it are all going to the same place. If that’s your final destination your name will be called, and you’ll be transported directly from your seat.”
She stared out over the audience. “If you didn’t realize that all good people go to the same place regardless of their religious beliefs you’re more than likely not going there yourself.” Sobs and sorrowful wails echoed through the crowd. “The criteria for admission were very straightforward. All you needed to do was love thy neighbor as thyself. That meant everybody. Not just those you agreed with, or who had the same religion. I’m sorry.”
She turned a page. “Now, for those of you going to Hell you don’t have to do anything. The Devil will come in his own good time. You’ll find a selection of Better Health and Fitness magazines on the table in the corner if you’d care to look at something while you wait.”
“I guess that’s it. Oh, just one more thing. If you have any bloody wounds or organs hanging out, please keep them as contained as possible. The custodial staff would greatly appreciate it. Good luck. I hope your afterlife is everything you expected it to be.”
The stately woman left the stage and brushed off questions as some of those waiting approached her. She made her way across the room that was lit by bare overhead fluorescent tubes. It looked more like an inner city bus station with its utilitarian plastic chairs and faded linoleum tiles than the waiting room for the recently deceased. She opened a door marked “Private,” and stepped inside.
Leonard swallowed hard and walked invisibly through the crowd. He knocked on the door.
“Come in Leonard.”
He entered a tastefully decorated office that looked out onto New Edgarton’s Main Street and became visible. “Uhh, sorry for coming in when I did Mrs. Marzanna. I ahh, didn’t check the time. I won’t do it again.”
She looked up from her desk. “You know I give the orientations at the top of the hour.” She lit a cigarette in a long black holder. “Now, what do you want?”
“You ahh, haven’t heard anything yet, have you?”
“No. I’m just as frustrated as you are. I’m not used to having a soul be unassigned. I’m not even sure how you got through the waiting room the first time. There’s more going on with you than they’re telling me. As soon as I hear something, I’ll let you know. Until then you’re stuck here.” She pulled a paper from the basket on her desk and scanned it. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Yeah. You know where Mila is?”
She shrugged. “That’s one thing even the goddess of death has no control over. I can’t even get her to call me. Have you tried Redemption Park Cemetery, or her apartment?”
“Yeah, she wasn’t there.”
“Well, she’s probably walking around the city then. She’s taken up charcoal drawing.” Mrs. Marzanna held up her hands and made quotes in the air. “She says she’s trying to find herself. Look for something artsy, or a bowl of fruit.”
“A bowl of fruit?”
She raised an eyebrow. “It’s a joke, Leonard. Still life. Get it?”
“Oh yeah, now I get it. That’s a funny one.”
The phone rang and she answered it. “Yes? The mayor? Sure give me twenty seconds and send him in.” She put the handset back on its cradle and stubbed out her cigarette.
“Leonard, do me a favor. Turn yourself invisible and go stand in the corner. I need to talk to the mayor.”
“Ok.” He took a few steps and vanished.
Mrs. Marzanna got up from her desk and moved across to the office’s main door. She put a smile on her face and opened it. “Mayor Browne, what a pleasure. Please come in. Coffee?”
“No, I’m fine.”
She indicated a chair and sat back at her desk. “Now, what can I help you with?”
The mayor rubbed his gray mustache. “The city council appreciates what you’re doing, Mrs. Marzanna. We like our city the way it is, and you seem to like it too.”
“I do. I think New Edgarton’s quite charming. I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible.” She tapped the paper on her desk with a white fingernail. “I’m thinking of purchasing the parcel Mr. Diamond was interested in.”
The mayor moved forward in his seat. “Was? You mean he’s not interested anymore?”
She made an I-don’t-know-gesture with her hands and shoulders. “I thought since I hadn’t heard anything the deal must have fallen through.”
The mayor puckered his lips. “You haven’t heard anything from Mr. Diamond?”
“No, not a word. Why?”
“Well, nobody knows where he is. Not even his wife.” He frowned. “She doesn’t seem very bothered by it. Anyway, I’m expecting three of his, uhh, business associates later today. They don’t know where he is either.” He pulled a note from his jacket pocket. “I have their names here, Mr. Salvador Barr, Mr. Izzy Pence and Mr. Valentine Giuliani. Apparently, Mr. Diamond’s desk calendar had the words New Edgarton and Kávé Luna circled on it in red the day he disappeared.”
Mrs. Marzanna looked to the ceiling before focusing back on the mayor. “Why don’t you direct the gentlemen to me? After all, I own the building where Kávé Luna’s located, and the Moroaicâ sisters are my tenants.”
“That’s very accommodating, Mrs. Marzanna. Thank you.”
She waved her hand as if it were nothing. “Please, call me Stephaná. It’s no trouble at all. I’m glad to do it.”
“Ahh, thank you, Stephaná. And please feel free to call me James…, Jim.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “James-Jim?”
“No, just Jim.”
“I’d be happy to, Jim. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have some other things to do.” She rose from the desk and guided him to the door. “Let me know when I should expect Mr. Diamond’s associates.”
“I’ll give you a call.”
Leonard waited until the goddess closed the door before becoming visible. “Didn’t the Moroaicâ sisters have their way with Donny Diamond?”
“Yes, and two of his thugs. I believe Marie described them as, a Mr. Bushy Brows, and a Mr. Pimples.” She blinked. “They’re still waiting for Satan to take them to Hell. They’ve probably read the Better Health and Fitness magazines hundreds of times by now.” She shook her head. “Better Health and Fitness magazines in a waiting room for the dead. Satan certainly has a wicked sense of humor. Well, as long as he pays for the subscription.” She sat back at her desk.
“If you run into Radmila, tell her it wouldn’t hurt her to call or stop by every once in a while. But then again, I’m only her mother.”
Leonard nodded. “I’ll tell her if I find her. May I use the front door?”
“Just don’t let anyone see you.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem.”
Sal steered the Cadillac Escalade onto the New Edgarton exit and looked through the windshield as the old city wrapped around them. “We should probably call the mayor and tell him we’re here.”
“Not yet,” Izzy Pence called from the back seat. “We’ll ahh, look around for ourselves a little first. We still wanna get our hands on that property. It’s gonna be worth a fortune when they build that high speed rail line between New York and Boston. This may take a little longer than I thought.” He glanced over at Donny’s wife, Melena. “You ok with that, honey? We might haft ‘a stay overnight. You got a nightgown?”
“You know I don’t wear a nightgown, baby.”
“Shut up honey, you’re a married woman. How am I supposed to know you don’t wear a nightgown?”
She looked confused. “But Izzy? Oh yeah, right. I wasn’t supposed to say anything about us.”
“Yeah honey, I’m not sure Donny’s dead…, yet.” He patted her thigh. “Ok boys, let’s go look for that Kávé Luna joint.”
Mila hung the black shoulder bag containing her sketch pad and charcoal on the end of the park bench and plopped down. An old man on the next bench tossed a few crumbs to the pigeons clustered in front of him and smiled.
She bent her lips at him and took a nearly empty bread sack from her bag. She tore it into crumbs and tossed it out in front of her. Crows, ravens and blackbirds flew down from the treetops and began pecking them up. The old man stared at her with an open mouth. She shrugged her shoulders and sighed.
I can’t even feed the birds without standing out. She looked at her thin wrists and small almost skeletal hands. I had to take after Dad, at least Mom has boobs. It’s hard meeting guys when you look like a cadaver. It’s hard to make friends too. When they hear your Mom’s the Goddess of death people tend to shy away. The old man picked up his cane and looped out into the grass giving her a wide berth as he walked away. Like that.
This new guy I’m seeing is pretty cool. He’s nice too. Maybe I’ll tell Mom about him. She shook her head. Nah, she’d just make a big deal about it. Mila dumped the last crumbs from the sack and put it back in her bag. The glint of gold reflected in sunlight caught her eye. I wonder what that place is?
“Sorry birds, it’s all gone.” She put her bag over her shoulder and walked toward the reflection. This must be new. The Raven’s Plume? Ooh! I like the purple awning and brass balustrades. The front windows cool, too. I think I’ll sketch it. Hmm, I wonder what other stuff they have inside? She hung her bag on the balustrades and opened the door.
Alice, Peppers orange tabby meowed. She looked up from her sewing machine.
“What is it Alice?”
A tall thin young woman with pale skin, long black hair wearing a short black skirt and tee top, matching torn nylons with a safety pin through one nostril stood in the entry way.
Pepper got up. “Hi, can I help you with something? “
Mila let her eyes wander. “You got some pretty cool stuff here.” She felt the fabric on a black skirt trimmed in gold similar to the one Pepper was wearing. “Cotton?”
“No, it’s a blend you don’t need to iron. You can tumble it in the dryer, or it can be line dried.”
Mila looked at Pepper with almost black eyes. “No wrinkles?”
“No, look.” Pepper grabbed the skirt and wadded it up in her hand. When she let go the material went smooth.
“Cool. That is so neat!” Mila exhaled. “I don’t suppose you have it in my size? I’m pretty thin.”
“I’d call you waif like.” Pepper replied. “Your features are very delicate.”
Mila looked down at herself. “I kinda wish I was a little more, you know, developed.”
Pepper furrowed her brow. “If you wore kind of a loose blousy top over a flouncy skirt you might look a little…, fuller.”
Their eyes met. “Fuller?”
“Yeah. Fuller. You like black, right?”
Pepper picked a size small skirt and a petite black blouse with gold embroidery. “Try these. You can adjust the skirt’s waist if you need to.”
Mila took them in her arms.
“Wait a minute.” Pepper handed her a black tooled leather belt with a gold skull buckle. “Are your ears pierced? I have matching earrings.”
Mila nodded and her eyes opened wide. “Yeah, they’re pierced.”
“Cool, try these too. The dressing room is over there.”
“Wow, like thanks!”
“Let me know what you think?”
Pepper watched her open the dressing room door and go inside. I hope she likes the way she looks, that’d be a nice sale. She went back to the sewing machine and pressed the pedal. She’d just gotten started when the door opened and three young women wearing large dark sunglasses, wide brimmed straw hats, long sleeved shirts and yoga pants walked in. They looked like sisters.
Pepper let up on the pedal and called out. “I bet you’re the Moroaicâ’s.”
The tallest sister had skin the color of coffee, short black hair and wore bright red lipstick. “How’d you know?
My partner Nathaniel said you might stop by on the way to work.” She got up from the sewing machine and walked over. “I’m Pepper Johnson, Claudia gave him some of your coffee. It’s like the best! Can we buy more?”
The sister took off her sunglasses and smiled. “Sure, or maybe we can swap for some of your merchandise. I’m Ariel, that’s Claudia and Marie.”
“Yeah, we could probably do that. It’s nice to meet you. Thanks again for the coffee.”
Claudia was shorter than Ariel and had a slightly lighter complexion. “No problem. It’s an old family blend. It used to be Saladin’s favorite.”
Pepper wrinkled her forehead. “Saladin, the Arab leader who died in the tenth century?”
Marie joined her sisters. She was the shortest and had Ariel’s same coloring. “Yeah, the blend has been passed down for centuries. It’s our favorite.”
“That’s fascinating. Why don’t you ladies look around the shop and I’ll go get Nathaniel. I’m sure he’d like to meet you.” She left the front of the shop and followed the sound of a Dremel tool to the basement. She covered her nose and tapped him on the shoulder.
He turned the tool off and removed his dust mask. “Hey Pep. What’s going on?”
“The Moroaicâ sisters are upstairs. You ahh, didn’t bother to mention they all could have been fashion models. They’re gorgeous.”
He grinned. “Only if you’re into the beautiful, dark, sultry, well-endowed type. I prefer the more wholesome looking auburn haired girls with freckles myself.”
“I don’t have freckles.”
“Yeah ya do, Pep.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Give me a minute.” He took off his gloves, brushed himself off and combed his hair. “Ok, I’m ready.”
“Why’d you comb your hair?”
“It was full of dust. I didn’t want to make a mess.”
She gave him one of her looks. “Uhh huh.”
He grinned. “They really show up when you’re jealous.” He hurried out of the room.
Pepper followed right behind. “What do?”
Nate ran into the back of the shop while trying to keep Pepper from tickling him. They screeched to a halt and pretended like nothing happened.
The Moroaicâ sisters were holding articles of clothing up against themselves. Mila was dressed in the clothes Pepper had suggested and was looking at necklaces.
“Here he is. He was working in the basement.”
“Hey everyone, thanks for stopping by.”
Claudia hung up a spangled belt. “Hi Nate, Pepper said you liked the coffee.”
“It was great, thanks! Amazing really. “
“You’ll have to stop by the shop. There’s nothing better than our fresh baked pastries and a cup of our house blend espresso.”
“That sounds delicious.”
“Marie, Ariel come over here and I’ll introduce you to Nate.” Claudia glanced at Mila. “I’d introduce you, but I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
“Cool. Ok, so these are my sisters Marie and Ariel. She pointed at Mila. “And this is Mila. May I?” She adjusted Mila’s belt, so it hung at an angle. “You look pretty hot.”
Mila smiled. “Do I?”
Claudia nodded. “You do.”
“It’s nice to meet you girls,” smiled Nathaniel. “You too Mila.”
“Yeah, nice to meet you.” Mila’s eyes lit up. “Wait a minute. You’re the girls who own the coffeehouse, right? Kávé Luna.”
“Yeah, that’s us.”
“Would you mind if I sketched your sidewalk seating and torches some night?”
They glanced at each other. “No go ahead. Have a cup of coffee while you’re there.”
“What if I came over tonight?”
“That’d be cool,” Ariel replied. She looked at Nathaniel and Pepper. “Why don’t you guys come down, too? It’d be fun.”
“What do you think, Pep? You wanna go? Might be good for business.”
Pepper’s eyes sparkled. “Are you asking me out on a date, Mr. Irving? You know that means flowers.”
“Sure Pep. I’ll get you some flowers.”
“Can I bring someone?” Mila asked.
“Sure,” Marie replied. “Why don’t you all come by at about eight o’clock. I’ll set a table up for us on the sidewalk.”
The door opened and a pudgy man with plastic rimmed glasses and a dopey expression walked in. “Hey. Do any of ya know where Kávé Luna is?”
“It’s just down the street a couple blocks, but we’re not open yet,” Ariel answered.
Pudgy’s eyes looked the sisters up and down. “You work there?”
“My sisters and I own it. Why?”
“You girls stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Pudgy came back about a minute later with two other men and a woman in a calf length coat.
“Which one was she, Sal?”
Pudgy pointed at Marie. “That’s her.”
He snapped his finger for her to come.
“Are you dense? I want you to come here.”
“I’m not going anywhere if you ask me like that.”
Izzy turned to the other man. “Valentine, bring that bit of arm candy over here.”
The three sisters crowded together and glared at him.
“Sal, help Valentine.”
Melena tapped him on the shoulder. Her narrow eyes were even narrower than usual. “I think you should leave them be.”
“What? Are you scared of some girls?”
“You’re not from the old country, like I am. You leave them alone.”
“Shut up, honey. We’ll take care of ‘em.” He pulled a pistol from under his coat. “Now, you broads aren’t gonna make any trouble, are you?”
The sisters eyes grew fierce. “We’re not scared of you.”
Mila stepped between the sisters and the men. She plugged the barrel of the pistol with her finger and looked Izzy in the eye. “Hi, I’m Mila. Do you, or any of these other gentlemen have a subscription to Better Health and Fitness magazine?”
Izzy pushed her aside. “Move it beanpole or you’re gonna get hurt.”
Mila’s black eyes flashed. “I’ll just have to assume then that you don’t.” She snapped her fingers and they crumpled to the floor. “I sure hope I was right; they’ll have a very long wait.” She walked over to the woman. “You should go home and forget this.”
The woman looked into her black eyes and nodded. “I go. I forget everything. I never come back.” She ran out the door. Mila bent down and took the keys from Sal’s pocket. When the woman stuck her head back in she tossed them to her.
“Now get out of here.”
Pepper went to her side. “Your last name’s Marzanna isn’t it?”
Mila nodded. “Yeah.”
She turned to the sisters. “You’re vampires, right?”
“How’d you guess?” asked Marie.
“Your last name for one thing. You also didn’t use the mirrors to see how the clothes looked.”
“Oh yeah,” Claudia replied. “I didn’t think about that.”
Mila looked down at the three dead men. “Now we just have to get rid of the bodies.”
Pepper pursed her lips and looked at the calendar. “You know, it’s a full moon tonight. I don’t suppose there are any werewolves running around?”
Mila smiled. “Oh, there are a couple. I think they’d really like these guys.”
“Great, then all we need to do is get ‘em into the back alley. Give me a hand Nate. You girls grab the other two.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Mila. “I’ll have Leonard do it.”
Leonard materialized beside her. He was a huge hulking man almost seven feet tall. He stuck his hand out. “Hi, I’m Leonard.”
“It’s nice to meet you.” Pepper shook it. “When did you get here?”
“I saw Mila’s shoulder bag hanging outside and followed those guys in.”
He turned to the sisters. “Hi, I’m Leonard.”
They answered in unison “Hi Leonard.”
Nathaniel walked over and shook his hand. “I’m Nathaniel, you can call me Nate if you like.
“Leonard, if you don’t mind my asking what are you? Are you a ghost or something?”
“I’m something? I’m mostly just stuck here, for now.”
Mila looked up at him and rubbed his arm. “But he’s a real nice guy. Hey Leonard, ya wanna go out with us for coffee tonight?”
His face broke into a huge grin. “Sure Mila. Gosh, you look pretty.”
“Thanks Len.” She looked at Pepper. “I’ll take these things and maybe a few more. Mom got me a credit card.”
“Wow,” Pepper exclaimed. “Thanks a lot.”
Nate put his arm over her shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Are you going to tell ‘em you’re a witch?
She made a face and whispered back. “Are you going to tell ‘em you’re a warlock?”
He kissed her cheek. “I don’t know why not. I think we’d fit right in. Welcome to New Edgarton.”