Chapter 1: Manic Monday
Two things interrupted our argument. First, the tinkle of the cat bells I had strung up on the shop’s door. Then the slamming of the door itself, which made both of us jump.
“Customer now, salmon later, Sedona.” I moved toward the front of the store. Sedona flicked her tail, arched her back, and hissed. “And hey, spare me the attitude, please.” I watched as she took a graceful leap out the open window and disappeared around the ledge. I turned my attention to the front of the shop.
My landlady, Ms. Esther Sena, was weaving her way down the center aisle, whacking things with her beat-up cane. She wore her frayed scarf around her head like an old-world babushka that always made me smile, but today she was obviously in a foul mood. My smile melted and I steeled myself.
“Good morning to you, Ms. Esther!” I said, trying to sound upbeat and sunny even as I cringed when her cane clacked against the pot of my favorite hibiscus. “Is anything wrong? Anything I can get for you?”
Ms. Esther lived just upstairs, on the second floor of our building. She would probably tell you that she and I were friends. Even though I have a very real (and embarrassing) fear of elderly people, Ms. Esther was one of the most colorful I’d met. So, if friendship means lots of time spent together, then yes, yes. We were friends.
She was in the habit of visiting me here at The Garden Witch almost every day, usually having made up something that she “needed”, but I knew she just came for the company. I had been in her apartment before, and believe me, she was not a plant lover, had no need for extra potting soil, or any of the pretty garden accessories I sell.
Ms. Esther loved my tea, though. In the front of the store the walls were lined with jars filled with dozens of types of tea leaves. I blended them with love and just a bit of magic, depending on how my customers’ auras were doing on any given day. After shopping for plants and gardening things, lots of my customers loved sitting down for tea with me and getting a quick leaf reading. Even in the heart of New York City, people love the Village touch.
Greenwich Village, that is. Not the little cozy New England village your imagination might place a witch like me. Not the type of village that might still be all wrapped up in clean white snow this time of year. Hedges and fireplaces and woodsy silence.
No, my Village is snuggled up on the west coast of my favorite island, Manhattan, wrapped in the cacophony of city, with the noise, the dust, and the confusion. All things I happen to love.
Meeting her in the middle of the shop, I reached my hand out to steady Ms. Esther by the elbow.
“Ms. Esther,” I said, lowering my face so that she could see me through her glasses. I noticed those gruesome black and gray wiry hairs springing out of her nose again. I smiled. We could take care of them.
“Honey, let me tell you,” she started, but I motioned for her to turn around and take her favorite seat at my tea table. “It’s like the New York I knew as a kid all over again, Madeline. Next thing you know, people will be dying in the streets again, everybody lookin’ outta their windows just watchin’ bad things happenin’ to good people, not callin’ the cops or nothin’.” She shooed a tiny fruit fly away with her already waving hand.
I sat down opposite her and rested my chin in my hands.
“What happened? Can I get you a cup? Sounds like you could use a little magic,” I said slyly. I stood again and reached for the appropriate tea, a nice chamomile for the nerves. I spooned it into the tea ball and pulled the kettle off of my stove. Ms. Esther doesn’t believe in witches, but she believes in my tea, all right.
She nodded yes, then went on. “Somebody broke into my apartment while I was at bingo! This morning, mind you! Broad daylight, mind!” She widened her eyes and I opened my mouth in shock.
“Today? Like just now?” I said.
“Not like just now, little girl. Just now. My drawers were opened, Madeline! Somebody picked through my unmentionables! You heard me. I’ve been tossed! Like in one of them mafia movies! I can’t. I just can’t. I stuck my things from the market into the fridge, then scrammed. I just can’t go back up there. I called the cops. They sounded like I was just another ditzy old lady who got bored and decided to stir up some trouble down at the station. I don’t even know if they’re comin’! You know, to the scene of the crime.”
I bounced the tea ball in the cup while I watched her. Poor little old thing. She had lived here in Greenwich Village all her life, and while the city was most certainly safer than it ever had been, she was still suspicious of some imminent crime around every corner. I had listened to countless tales from these puckered lips for years now.
For once, though, this wasn’t just another of her diatribes. Somebody had actually walked by my window, snuck into the building and broken into Ms. Esther’s apartment, while I was busy singing to my plants and arguing with my cat about her lunch.
“What’s missing, Ms. Esther?”
“Well, it’s a…well, it’s personal.” Her eyes darted to the right, then back at me. “I’m thinkin’ I should probably keep my trap shut, you know how they tell all the victims on the crime shows.”
“Oh, Ms. Esther,” I said, reaching over to touch her hand. “You know you can always trust me.”
We go way back, Ms. Esther and me. Well, a few years, at least, which is a long time in New York City. That’s when I moved to the Village and opened The Garden Witch. We’re on the first floor of this big old brick building that sits very proudly at the corner of Perry and Hudson Streets. My apartment is on the sixth floor, and after a few free cups of tea and a complimentary house plant, Ms. Esther gave me the go-ahead to take over the rooftop, just above my apartment.
Now, the roof is crowded with trees and potted plants, both magical and regular old house species. Just out from the shop this week, they were all spreading their leaves, enjoying the first wave of spring.
“I didn’t know you had bingo in the mornings, Ms. Esther.” I sprinkled just a pinch of lavender into her tea and offered it to her. Lavender helps to soothe anxiety. She accepted it with shaky hands and more lip pursing.
“I go to bingo at all hours. You know that,” she said, after pulling her lips away from the tea. “Gaa, that’s hot! Why ya gotta make it so hot, Maddie?! Anyways, I go down to the St. Joe’s 6:00 games. Just after my dinner those nights. Wednesdays, Saturdays. You know that.”
I closed my eyes so they wouldn’t give me away.
“Then there’s the St. Mary’s game, Mondays and Thursdays, with the before-lunch crowd, where I was just this morning,” she continued. “Really? I play as often as I can. Don’t spread it around, but once in a while I even go to the bingo bars. You never know, I keep tellin’ em. You never know when you’ll hit it big!” She tested the tea again and slurped some into her mouth.
I tried to keep my lip from curling up. I hate mouth noises. “Well,” I said, “I’m awfully sorry you’re going through all this, Ms. Esther. Do you need me to go down to the station and talk to the boys?” I smiled down at her with mischief in my voice, trying to cheer her up, but she was on a roll now, and while she went off on a new angry tangent, I let my thoughts wander a bit.
I wasn’t exactly a regular at the 10th Street Station, but most of the cops could pick me out of a lineup. I might have caused a bit of a stir down there one too many times, trying to help them out, especially when a friend or neighborhood merchant had some sort of trouble. And maybe they tend to be a little taken off guard when I use my magic, although really, my magic is very subtle, very classy.
I just think it’s a good idea to keep your finger on the pulse of your community, that’s all. I make it a habit to know the local merchants, the mail carriers, the cops, and my neighbors.
And many of them, in turn, know me.
My name, believe it or not, is Madeline Brooklyn Bridges. Crazy, I know, but Mother explained that when she married a man with the last name Bridges, she just had to play with it a little. Had it not been for my father’s resistance, she would have strung Tappan Zee and Queensboro into the middle name’s mix, and people would think I was even crazier than they do now.
I stirred my tea, wondering if I should stick my nose into the business of those boys in blue one more time. While I always felt the thrill of a new mystery, I had gotten an earful of anger last time. I shuddered, remembering that sergeant’s threats about staying out of police business. At least he was gone now. Retired, was what I’d heard.
Just then, I heard Sedona land on the window sill. She swished into the front room, and I felt the impulse to grab her and put her out on the street, but she was too quick for me. Before I could stand up to get her, it was too late.
“So,” said Sedona, flicking her tail, “I hear there’s a thief on Purry Street? Oh, sorry,” she hissed as I scooped her up and out the door, making the little bells ring. “I meant Perry! Thief on Perry!”
Trying to cover up Sedona’s little outburst, I coughed loud and long, but it wasn’t necessary; Ms. Esther’s hearing was pretty well shot, and she was busy slurping her tea, so no harm done.
Go figure, but most humans have a problem grasping the concept of a conversational cat.
Chapter 2: Tea and Sympathy
“So you reported it, then? Is there paperwork to fill out with the police?” I reached out and ran my fingers over her hand. Ms. Esther’s fingers were twisted and gnarled, and blue veins pulsed beneath the surface of the translucent skin.
“Well, of course. I scooted on down there right away. Didn’t even touch the scene, well, except for the fridge, like I said,” she said. “They made me feel like I was an ant at a picnic over the phone. So I knew I needed some face time with them. But honestly, Maddie. Those people.” She stirred her tea and took another tentative sip. I watched as she visibly seemed to relax under my tea’s soothing spell.
“What did they say?”
“Yada Yada Yada. They’re gonna stop by. At some point. They want me to write down everything that’s missing in the meantime, then ‘keep my eyes open’ for suspicious people in the building. But really, Maddie? They treated me like a damn ghost. Like I was a ghost, I tell you!” Her bushy eyebrows shot up and anger flared in her rheumy eyes.
“Ah, Ms. Esther, another sip of tea and a deep breath. Come on, now.” I used my soft lullaby voice and the eyebrows went back down. “I’ll help you go through your apartment. You shouldn’t have to go through this alone. I’ll close up the shop for the day. It’s okay.” I gave her my best benevolent smile.
“Nah. I can handle it.”
“I know you don’t want to come right out and tell me what’s been stolen, but can you tell me if it’s valuable? Like, would it be insured?”
She looked at me for a couple of seconds, then scrunched her eyes closed. “Actually, the piece I’m quite sure is missin’ might have some monetary value. But it’s the thought of it that matters. It’s sentimental.”
She scratched her nose. “I’m thinkin’ I owe it to Harry to tell him about what’s missin’ before I blab it to everyone else. So maybe I’ll finally give in to you and your friend, Whatshername, and do a crazy séance like you’ve been talkin’ about.”
Harry was Esther’s dead husband. Every once in a while, my best friend, Hannah, stages a séance and invites friends and customers for an evening with the dead. Hannah has a psychic shop, Seeing is Believing, right around the corner. She’s half witch, half Romani, and the combination works for her.
“Sounds like a plan, Ms. Esther,” I said, patting her little bird-like arm. “I’ll give Hannah a call and we’ll set something up ASAP. You know you’re welcome to stay here today if you’d rather not go up there, right?”
“Well, thanks, but I’m up for the challenge now.” She wobbled to a stand and caned her way slow but steady down the two steps to my front door. “Thanks as always, Maddie. Your tea does wonders.” She gave me a feeble wave, and she was gone. The bells on the door gave a sad little tinkle as it closed behind her.
I busied myself then, but my mind was definitely on Ms. Esther and this awful break-and-enter that had happened right under my nose. I was confused. When I first signed my leases, one for my apartment and one for The Garden Witch, I had been careful to put a magical protective ward over the whole building. I love the city, and the city loves me, but hey, it is still a city, and I am still a witch, after all. Use your tools, that’s what I always say. Protect what you love.
So, with my ward up and around this building, who could have gotten past it to steal something from Ms. Esther?
I went to work in the back corner of the shop where I do all the planting and re-potting, and as usual, my inventory soothed my mind.
“I know, I know,” I told my green leafy friends, “I should stay out of it. None of my business. Never trouble trouble ‘til trouble troubles you. Blah, blah, blah.” I gave a firm tamp down on the soil around my new Gerbera daisy seeds. I always, always, plant seeds in a comfy circle, then place more of them inside that circle in the design of a sigil, sort of my own magical wish.
I closed my eyes and saw Ms. Esther’s face. But then her crinkled old features turned into the strong, proud features of my mother, her intense black eyes boring into mine. I felt a hot rush of anger, and I bit my lip. For different reasons, both women’s auras in my vision led me to plant my sigil with the word “loyal” in mind. I knew exactly what that word had to do with my mother, but I toyed with reasons that could apply to Ms. Esther.
When I plant a sigil out of seeds, I always try to incorporate a word’s individual letters to make the internal design. I figured the circle of seeds could act as the ‘O’ in ‘LOYAL’, so I planted the next seeds in the shape of a capital L, then planted three seeds that jutted up and out from the left of the L’s trunk to make a capital Y, finally connecting the right slash of a capital A. (I dropped the final L, because you should never use letters that are duplicated within your word. Or so they say.)
I peeked at the pot, wondering at the different meanings the word “loyal” could take on. I don’t know why, but sometimes the subconscious leads us where logic would never go. Heavens know that Ms. Esther and my mother had nothing in common. Except that they were both problems for me.
I stared at the pot for an intense minute until finally two tears fell from my eyes and landed right smack in the middle of the sigil. Perfect placement. Without this light touch of sigil magic, this business of my visions and the tears on the sigil, I would just be another Master Gardener. And Master Gardeners, let me tell you, are a dime a dozen.
“The answer is up to the universe, I know,” I continued in my monologue with my seeds, “but the universe or its goddesses gave me the word. Loyal. So that must mean I need to be a loyal friend. A loyal tenant. I have to work on this case, my lovelies. Even if I don’t really want to get involved with our friends at the station. Even if they don’t want me butting in again.”
These beauties would sprout and fill some lucky person’s rooftop or balcony pots. Their blooms would bring happiness, and that’s what I consider my purpose in life. I whispered to them all the while I covered them with good soil and gave them a drink of regular old water.
“How beautiful you will be someday soon!” I crooned. “Tall and waving in the breeze off the river, like ballerinas you’ll be! Just you wait and see.”
And then I sang the Magic Lullaby: