In MAMA SAUVETERRE'S CURIOSITY SHOPPE, we meet a woman named Tassina D'Emerald. For more years than she would care to admit, she's held a secret grudge with the elderly owner of a unique curio shop in Peoria, Illinois. She's come to finally make everything right again. All she needs is a little black magic, and the help of an unsuspecting teen-ager named Patty.
In the opening chapter of CURIOSITY SHOPPE, we are introduced to our main characters. Tassina needs something from Mama Sauveterre, something that she has no right to ask. She's come to find a way to turn fortune in her favor, no matter what the cost.
In which a woman with a grudge darkens
the doorway of the Curiosity Shoppe.
Thursday, 10 December 2015
When Tassina D’Emerald woke up, she had momentarily forgotten where she was. She had been dreaming about an unidentified handsome man sweeping her up in his big strong arms, gently kissing her neck and cooing admirations for her flawless body. Not a scar, or even so much as a blemish, her dream lover was telling her. She was a beautiful creature, meticulously sculpted by God.
But when she opened her eyes, she was disappointed to find herself not in bed, but in the back of a black limousine. She rolled her eyes in depression, suddenly remembering why she was on this trip. She tugged at the glove on her hand, carefully hiding the skin underneath. The very thought of what lie beneath the fabric made her feel ugly, unloved, and miserable. If she ever wanted to feel the touch of a beautiful man again, she was going to have to make this journey.
“Are we almost there, Drew?”
“You’ve been asleep since we passed through Missouri, Naomi,” the old driver informed her as he continued to drive. He glanced in the rear-view mirror, an obvious expression of disapproval wrinkling his worn features. “We’re just crossing the Illinois River now.”
“I don’t suppose it would matter if I ask you for the fiftieth time to stop calling me Naomi?” Dreamily, she gazed at the shimmering motion of the river as they glided over the bridge into the city. “I never thought I’d find myself in Peoria,” she commented. “This town looks like it’s absolutely going to shit.”
“This may be a wasted trip,” Drew warned her, watching for the merging traffic as he left the interstate. “I hope you’re prepared for that.”
Tassina never cared for the way Drew spoke down to her. It was one of his many annoying character traits that she had to endure from him. After today, however, everything would likely change.
“One way or another, I need to put this nasty business to an end.”
“You could have just called her, you know,” he suggested. “I hear phones are quite popular these days.”
“Some tasks are best done in person, and not with the impersonal hands of modern technology,” she replied. “Thank you for coming with me.”
“We had spent a long time together before your foolish actions, I owed you that. But just because you’re doing this, it doesn’t mean the higher ups are going to forgive you,” he lectured. “But I promise I will try to put in a good word for you.”
She slumped back into the limo’s plushy seat, focusing on the landscape of Peoria. They were in the south side of the city, where the old woman was currently making her home.
While there were some beautiful, if not provincial, sections of the town that Tassina actually admired, this particular area in the southern region of the city was not one of them. It was an absolute contrast to her home back in New Orleans. Just west of the business districts were blocks and blocks of ugly landscape with a dirty and rusty feel to it. Wide tracts of land were wasted with massive steel yards, railroad tracks and abandoned construction projects. She felt unclean just looking at it. It was only absolute desperation that brought her to this neighborhood.
The limousine drove past a series of run-down apartment buildings, shuttered businesses and cheap local eateries. As they glided over the cracked and pot-hole damaged roads, past the abandoned warehouses, the adult bookstores and the crumbling buildings plastered with yellowing FOR SALE signs, Tassina’s purse toppled over onto the floor, spilling its contents.
“Can’t these people take care of their streets?” Tassina growled impatiently, picking up her fallen bag.
“This state gets a touch more snow than you’re used to in Louisiana,” Drew reminded her. “The plows will be wreaking havoc until the spring comes.”
The thought of being stuck here in Peoria during these chilly months made her ill. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take that long.
What Drew didn’t know was that Tassina had no intention of apologizing to the old woman. Even after forty years, she hadn’t quite reached that point of desperation. Not yet.
There was still one more card to play, and she was about to go all in. She just prayed that her old rival wouldn’t recognize her after all these years. If the woman even suspected that Tassina was in her presence, the whole game would be over.
This was a mad plan, she’d be the first to admit it. She had exhausted every possible option to avoid confronting her. But this was what it had come down to, hadn’t it? It could all be a foolish errand, one that may yield nothing except more disappointment, but she was feeling lucky.
They were cruising down Adams Street now, where businesses had started to drift away in favor of more affluent neighborhoods. It was suicidal for any business to try to carve out a living here, but according to Drew, this was exactly where the old woman’s curio store was located.
They found it quickly, although they nearly missed it altogether. They came to a stop in front of a nondescript three-story brownstone building. It had a faded wooden sign swinging in front of a tattered green and blue awning, creaking on rusty hinges that had seen better days. Decades ago, the building had been a prominent theater. Most people would never have guessed by looking at the building now.
Tassina reclined back into her seat and swallowed hard. A lump was forming in the pit of her stomach that could only mean nervousness. Was this place even inhabited? All of the other buildings in the surrounding blocks were abandoned. This entire area could be demolished and it probably wouldn’t change anyone’s life. For a moment, she began to fear that her source had been mistaken, and the old woman had moved somewhere else. It was possible, for moving and wandering around was in her nature. If she weren’t living here anymore, it would have wasted weeks of meticulous planning, difficult research and costly sacrifices.
But Tassina was relieved to find her fears unfounded. The building was exactly where she was told it would be. She examined the massive store window, and could see a few figures moving inside. A rusty orange “open” sign could be seen blinking, and warm lights were illuminating the interior. She was here.
“The Curiosity Shoppe,” muttered Drew, reading the sign. “You’ll find her in there, Tassina.”
“What name is she using these days again?”
“Simone Sauveterre. She’s called herself that ever since you betrayed her.”
“Sauveterre,” she repeated, ignoring his admonishment. It was a beautiful French name, but there was nothing remotely European about her. “She must be joking. If she’s French, than I’m Lady Gaga.”
“It’s only a name,” Drew reminded her. “You’ve collected quite a few aliases over the years yourself, you know.”
“Sauveterre. Doesn’t that mean safe haven?”
“I’ve heard that said,” Drew nodded. “Would you feel more comfortable if I were to go with you? It might help to calm emotions.”
“No,” she replied firmly. “I’d like to do this alone. This is going to be a delicate situation.”
“If you’re sure then.”
“Relax, Drew. It’s not your job to protect me anymore.”
Drew had stated his objections to this journey on several occasions, but Tassina had already made up her mind. She was coming here to make amends for the past, which was the only reason that Drew had agreed to accompany her on this journey. He wasn’t sure how Tassina even found out where Sauveterre was living, as the woman’s location was a highly classified secret with the order. But if Tassina was determined to confront the old woman one final time, he was going to be there to see that no harm came to anyone. He might have looked like a frail old man, but Drew had the power to make sure this reunion didn’t turn violent.
She stepped out of the vehicle, adjusted her coat and re-adjusted her gloves. Thankfully, it was a cold day so the long coat didn’t look out of place.
“I’m ready. How do I look?”
“Acceptable,” he assured her.
“Certain? Nothing is showing?” She turned in a circle, allowing the old man to examine her.
“You’re fine, Tassina,” he repeated. Apart from her face, as well as a glimpse of cleavage that the old man felt showed a certain lack of dignity, all of her skin was concealed. It would have been alarming for anyone to see what lay beneath the fabric.
She turned around and faced the storefront of the Curiosity Shoppe, taking a deep breath before she entered. She slid her fingertips across the back of her head, where her hair was the shortest. Then she brushed her long bangs so that it dangled over her amber eyes in an attractive sweep.
“There’s no reason for me to be scared of her,” Tassina told herself silently. “She’ll never know it’s me. Not in a thousand years.”
She gathered her thoughts, adjusted her clothes for a third time, and bravely marched into the Curiosity Shoppe.
* * * * *
Simone Sauveterre, the owner of the Curiosity Shoppe, had been sitting in her cozy chair since morning. She was submerged in a book that Richard had bought for her, and wouldn’t have been bothered if no customers walked in today.
The Curiosity Shoppe was more her home than a business, and selling trinkets and exotic baubles was more of a hobby than anything else. It gave the old woman the opportunity to meet people. Surrounding yourself with friends was the secret to a long and happy life, she had always said.
She appeared to be in her late seventies, although she had an animated quality that revealed the soul of a young woman forever trapped behind her grey eyes. When she spoke, her voice generated warmth and love. If it weren’t for the fact that she was blind, you could easily imagine her bounding around with the energy of a teen-ager. She moved a bit slower these days, leaning on her ornately carved walking stick when she moved, but she wasn’t about to let a petty annoyance such as age and blindness prevent her from enjoying her life.
The building where Sauveterre made her home was old, but still in fine shape. During the forties and fifties, the building had gone through several changes. It started as an elementary school, then the office for a magazine publisher, and a few ill-fated years as a bordello.
In 1968, the building came into the hands of a college professor named Thomas Chlebowski. He originally meant to open a library, but his wife Gemma had a passion for the theater. Thomas loved his wife dearly, and at her request he converted the former house of ill repute into a home for lavish stage productions. At the turn of the decade, the Upper Tipton Theater was established.
Despite the couple’s best intentions, the theater only survived through the end of the seventies. Competition from established production houses like the Peoria Players Theater and the Corn Stock Theater would eventually cause his stage to permanently go dark.
If it hadn’t been for the timely assistance of one of Gemma’s friends, they would have lost the building to the crushing weight of debts. Her name was Abigail Trinidad, who had recently lost her own home through a series of suspicious incidents. She travelled with a young woman named Rowan, who was years younger than she. Thomas was never quite sure if Rowan was her friend, discrete lover or servant, but they were clearly inseparable companions.
Whatever the case, he and Gemma welcomed Abigail and Rowan with open arms, and the failed theater was soon converted into the curio store it currently existed as. The top floor was turned into a row of comfortable bedrooms, and they all lived together under the same roof until Thomas and Gemma passed away.
Gemma passed away first, and Thomas himself passed away two years ago at the fine old age of seventy-nine. By this time, for reasons known only to a few people, Abigail Trinidad changed her name to Simone Sauveterre.
After Thomas’s death, the building was left to Sauveterre. She continued to maintain the Curisoity Shoppe from that day on with the help of the several people that had drifted in and out of her small circle of friends and family.
Since Thomas Chlebowski’s passing, the Curiosity Shoppe continued to thrive and flourish. The woman calling herself Mama Sauveterre (she permitted few people the familiarity to refer to her as Simone) had evolved the antique store into a fanciful combination of pawn shop, museum and boarding house. People had come and gone over the years, living under her roof, and repaying her by working for the store. She remained secretive and somewhat emotionally distant, yet she preferred the company of others. She enjoyed moments of solitude, but never for too long.
When Tassina entered the front door, a little bell attached above the entrance jangled merrily, announcing her arrival. The old woman’s attention shifted from her book, and she turned her head toward the visitor.
“Richard? Is that you, son?”
Tassina didn’t want to speak, but she knew that she would have to sooner or later. If the woman recognized her voice, she would simply leave and get as far from Peoria as she could.
“Good afternoon,” Tassina said in a practiced deep tone, carefully purged of any accents.
“Oh,” said the old woman, surprise lacing her voice. With fumbling fingers, she placed her book down on a nearby table and rose to her feet, leaning on her thick wooden cane. “Hullo! I thought you were one of the children. Please come in, and have a look around.”
The old woman stepped into the light, and Tassina inhaled sharply upon seeing her. She hadn’t looked on that face in many years. She wasn’t prepared for the rush of raw emotion that suddenly stabbed at her. Mama Sauveterre had a kind face, framed by flowing fine white hair and dark, opaque glasses. She wore a blue gown with golden trim, with a white shawl draped around her shoulders. She had put on a few pounds since they had last crossed paths, yet she looked spry and strong for a woman of her age.
Mama tapped the ground with her cane, effortlessly navigating the terrain of the Curiosity Shoppe as she carefully made her way towards Tassina. There were carvings set into the wood, and Tassina recognized them as obscure angelic symbols.
“Oh please, you don’t have to get up, I’m just going to look around for now,” Tassina explained. Tassina happened to know of several ways to restore damaged eyesight, and under different circumstances she might have been willing to perform such kind magic for her. Perhaps when this was all over, she would still do just that. If anything, to partially amend all the wrongs that she had done…and for what she was still planning to do.
Mama didn’t seem to recognize her voice, so Tassina forged ahead. “You weren’t about to close up shop, were you?”
“We’ll stay open as long as you want, honey. Have you ever been here before?”
“No…this is my first time to Peoria.”
“Ah,” the old woman smiled. “Business or pleasure?”
“I’m visiting an old friend,” Tassina replied with words that were technically true. Once upon a time, they had indeed been friends. But that was years ago, more years than Tassina would care to admit. “I just had some time to kill, and I love visiting antique stores.”
“Well, thank you for stopping in,” she said with a genial nod. “Let me know if you see anything you like.”
Tassina thanked her, and began absently looking around the store. There was a lot to take in, and she quietly paced around the room, keeping an eye out for others that might be in the store. As she found herself more and more enthralled with the building, she momentarily forgot about her quest.
There were several tables scattered around the room, most with piles of books stacked on them. The dim light, the dust in the air, the soft music in the background, the lingering whispers of unfamiliar spirits in the vicinity, and the presence of her old rival in the room….all these elements forged a tangible feeling of discomfort in Tassina. She was frightened, and it wasn’t a sensation she was accustomed to. She tried to block the fear, and continued to browse through the various books. Most of them were quite old, dating back at least a century. The largest portion of the library was made up of beautiful leather bound tomes, mostly dealing in occult subjects. Many had English script, but some were in French, Arabic and a scattering of Latin and Greek selections.
After tiring of the books (some of which she already owned) she stood in the center of the room and examined the shelves. The sheer range of items proved both eccentric and eclectic. From her vantage point, she saw bizarre ritual masks, scrolls written in dead languages, candles of all types and molds, demonic symbols and religious artifacts, various bottles of unidentifiable liquids, musical instruments, sports equipment, expensive dinnerware, weapons and models, costume jewelry. There seemed to be more objects in the room than the space should allow.
On the rear wall of the store, Mama Sauveterre had returned to her comfortable chair behind the sales counter. An early twentieth century cash register sat on the edge of the counter, which was covered with cheap souvenir magnets from New Mexico.
Tassina recognized two of the magnets as ones she had given Sauveterre a lifetime ago. She was honestly surprised to see that she’d held on to them after all they’d been through, and she silently reminded herself not to give herself away. She was using a different name back when she and Sauveterre were acquainted, and exposing herself would ruin everything she had planned over the last few months.
Next to Mama was an open door decorated with a multi-colored bead curtain. A few feet away from that was a single stairway leading to the second floor, closed off to the public by a velvet rope. Her eyes travelled up the stairs, resting at last on a number of doors on the second floor. Here, she saw a small child of seven years old quietly playing.
“What a sweet little girl,” Tassina mentioned. “So well mannered.”
“That’s Cameron,” Mama replied warmly. “She’s my little angel.”
Tassina gave the little girl a polite wave. She had a strong suspicion who and what Cameron really was, and she took great care not to alarm her. Disregarding the child, her attention became focused on a module hanging from the ceiling. It was a complicated apparatus, with several intricate objects orbiting around the centerpiece of a silver disk with a smiling face.
“That’s an interesting display hanging up there,” Tassina said, hoping her compliment sounded sincere. “Is that supposed to be the solar system?”
“Oh no, nothing like that,” Mama explained. “I acquired that in Ireland. The tales say that it represents a puzzle going back 1500 years, and the solution reveals the exact date of the second coming of Christ.”
“So the story goes. No one’s been able to decipher it, though.”
“I like this, too,” Tassina remarked, picking up an object roughly the size and shape of a soda can. It was a wooden cylinder with three wicked ghoulish faces carved into it, and it felt heavy in her hands. “What is this?”
The old woman’s eyes crinkled in confusion, as she faced Tassina’s direction. “Describe it for me, dear?”
“It looks like a totem pole. Feels heavy, too.”
“I can’t recall. There’s so many tchotchkes under this roof, I frankly lose track,” Mama admitted with an embarrassed shrug.
Tassina turned the item over and over in her hands, and began to dwell on the task at hand. She was starting to think that this trip had been a mistake. If she couldn’t find someone that she could negotiate with, she would have to go home empty handed. Coming here was an errand of utter desperation.
“You sound like a beautiful young woman. Perhaps you might be interested in some of the jewelry boxes in our inventory?”
She smiled, appreciating the compliment—and savoring the quiet irony of the kind words coming from Sauveterre. If she had told anyone her true age, she would have been accused of her lying. She politely declined, and focused on her mission. She was here to get something from the old woman—either by pleading or bribing or threatening.
Pleading would never work. Tassina had betrayed Sauveterre in an unforgivable manner, and there would be no appealing to her good nature. The only reason she hadn’t been tossed out on her ear was that the old woman hadn’t recognized her.
Bribing would not work either. Tassina D’Emerald had a small fortune at her disposal, but no amount of money would make Sauveterre forget the past. Some crimes were beyond a monetary apology.
Threatening the old woman had the smallest chance of success. You could hide behind fortified bunkers, protected by a highly trained private militia, sheltered under the type of force field you’d see in a science-fiction movie. It still paled next to the protection Mama Sauveterre enjoyed, and Tassina didn’t dare lift a finger against her.
But she had one weakness, and that was her heart. There was many things that she might be willing to sacrifice to protect the people she loved, but who could she trick into trapping themselves?
“That’s the Aemif Totem,” said a new, younger voice. Tassina looked towards the bead curtain at the source of the voice, and found a young girl of fourteen entering the room.
“Ah, thank you, Patty,” said Mama. “This is Patricia Sorgen, my daughter.”
An honorary title, Tassina assumed, as she happened to know that her true legal guardian was her uncle Richard. In the end, it didn’t matter. If she thought of the girl as her daughter, then she would do anything to protect her. This was the one she was looking for. She approached the girl and warmly shook her hand.
“Hello there,” she nodded. “I’m Tassina D’Emerald.”
She quickly sized the girl up, examining Patty from head to toe. She had probably already reached her adult height of five foot three, but still hadn’t learned the basics of hair care and make-up. Her hair was a mousy tangle of sloppy brunette bangs, and her posture was hampered by a shy slouch. Unlike most teen-age girls her age, she wasn’t using any make-up beyond a strawberry lip gloss. And though her eyes could have done with some color, it wouldn’t have helped due to her thick glasses. Had she not opened her mouth to speak, Tassina never would have noticed her presence.
“So, what exactly is an Aemif Totem?”
Patty wasn’t a natural storyteller, but she did enjoy prattling about the oddities under their roof. But before she could dive in, she was cut off by the sound of the front door opening. Tassina didn’t know who the balding man with the expensive suit was, but Patty’s revolted expression told her it wasn’t a welcome presence.
“It’s a busy night indeed,” Mama laughed, calling out to the new visitor. “Hullo there, how are you tonight?”
“I have some good news for you, Simone,” the visitor said cheerfully.
Mama’s cheerful demeanor melted significantly when she heard the voice.
“It’s Nelson,” Patty whispered to Mama, although the explanation hadn’t been necessary.
“Stay here and talk to our guest,” Mama requested curtly. “Mr. Whitfield is obviously not getting the message.”
The old woman met the visitor by the front door, and a restrained but tense conversation began. Tassina couldn’t make out all of the details, but she could hear the old woman using the phrase “not for sale” twice.
“So, it’s supposed to be a training tool for young sorcerers,” Patty continued, not noticing that Tassina was trying to eavesdrop on the conversation.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“The Aemif Totem,” Patty continued. “It’s supposed to focus and amplify the mystical energies of novice occultists. Tolliver told me the one you’re holding is drained of power, though. That’s why it’s only fifty dollars.”
Tolliver. She was very familiar with that name, although no one in the shop would have guessed that. The subtle flash of despair on the girl’s face when she mentioned his name didn’t go unnoticed. This might be the opportunity she was looking for, so she carefully explored the moment.
“An interesting fairy tale,” Tassina sniffed, placing the wooden carving back on the table. “I really can’t say I believe in that sort of thing. Where did it come from, some street vendor in Mexico?”
“He found that in Italy,” Patty replied with a bittersweet smile.
To the average person, the subtle shift in her voice wouldn’t have been caught. But Tassina was a practiced expert in spotting the little things like nearly imperceptible catches in a voice, the involuntary dilation of the pupils, or the sharp inhalation of breath upon the mention of a name. There could be no doubt now, there was something here. There was pain in that youthful voice. Pain could lead to opportunity. Patty was the weak link she was looking for.
“Tolliver sounds like a nice gentleman. Is he your brother?”
“No way,” she said, a little too quickly. Tassina catalogued the range of emotions on her face, and interpreted that Patty wouldn’t have wanted this Tolliver thinking of her as a sister. “He used to live here, but…” She trailed off, as if unsure what to say next.
“Is something wrong?”
Patty forced a strained smile, but it was clearly evident that a raw nerve had just been exposed. The girl withdrew into herself, reaching for a tan object dangling on her necklace. She wrapped her fingers around it tightly, almost to the point where the jewelry was in danger of snapping apart, and exhaled deeply. If it was a panic attack, she had stopped herself just short of having one. She released the necklace at last, and offered an apologetic smile to Tassina.
“I’m sorry, would you excuse me please?” She was polite, although the words were nearly inaudible.
Tassina watched the girl ascend the staircase and vanish around the corner, and she began to contemplate the best way to use this girl’s suffering to her advantage.
Mama was now slowly making her way back towards the main counter in the center of the room, obviously agitated following her conversation with the man who had just left. Tassina quickly replayed the conversations she had heard, scouring her eidetic memory for the man’s name. Nelson Whitfield, she recalled after a moment of thought. She tucked the name into a mental folder and filed it in the back of her memory’s vault of knowledge. He didn’t seem to be a friend to Mama Sauveterre. Perhaps he could be a friend to Tassina.
“Did I say something wrong?” she asked sweetly, gesturing towards the curtain where Patty had dashed through.
“It’s not your fault, dear,” assured Mama. “Tolliver used to live here. He gathered many of the more exotic objects you see here. He was a very good man.”
“He moved out?”
“He was killed, I’m afraid,” Mama said after a pause. “Two months ago. It was a car accident, and we’re honestly not quite over his passing. Little Patty had quite a crush on Tolliver, I’m afraid.”
“I’m so sorry,” Tassina said, forcing sympathy from her voice, hoping that her mounting excitement remained hidden. She had found the person to exploit, and it was time to get to work. “Well, it’s getting late, you’re probably close to closing for the night. It was very nice visiting your store, thank you.”
“Thank you for visiting. Are you staying locally, Tassina?”
“I have a room at the Pere Marquette.”
“Oh, I’ve heard that’s a lovely place.”
“The accommodations are more than adequate,” Tassina replied. “So, it would be rude to visit your fine establishment without acquiring a souvenir. I’ll purchase that totem thing, if you please.”
“Ah. I didn’t think you were interested in that old knick-knack.”
“Well, it would make a nice conversation piece for the lobby of my studio. How much would you like for it?”
“Yours for forty dollars, my dear.”
Tassina felt it was a bit overpriced, especially for an artifact that had been drained of its power. But this wasn’t the time to argue. She needed an excuse to speak to the young girl privately, and she would have paid a hundred times that much to achieve her goals. She offered a few crisp bills to pay for the small wooden trinket.
“I can have it wrapped for you if you’d like,” offered Mama.
“That would be remarkably kind of you,” Tassina replied. “I’ll be waiting in my car. But may I ask a favor, please?”
“Could you have the young lady bring it out to me? I ought to apologize to her for bringing up bad memories. I know how she feels, I’ve lost loved ones in my life as well.”
“That’s most kind of you,” nodded the old blind woman.
Tassina returned to the car, resisting the urge to break into a skip as she departed. She suppressed her excitement until she was sitting in the back seat of the limousine, at which point she released a girlish squeal. From behind the driver’s seat, Drew regarded her with a raised eyebrow.
“It went well, Tassina?”
“Oh, I do believe it did, Drew.”
She watched the front door of the shop, waiting for the girl to emerge with her purchase. As Drew silently sat behind the wheel, Tassina focused on the back of his head and gently bit her lip. As she reached into her pocket, checking once again to see that the knife and the gun was there. Feeling them underneath her fingertips, she felt a mixture of guilt and dread. What was about to be done could never be undone, and a small tear rolled away from her amber eyes as she dwelt on the implications of what she had done, and what she planned to do.
“It must have been an emotional reunion,” Drew concluded. “In seven hundred years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you apologize to anyone for anything.”
“Drew, I will not stand for such gross exaggerations,” she hissed, kicking the back of his seat. “You know damned well I’m only six hundred and ten.”