Dee S. Knight and Francis Drake
The whir of a sewing machine traveled across the ether. As intended, the sound blended with those of a lawn mower in Cleveland, a blender in Dallas, an electric razor in Seattle. Some people, those specially attuned to properties outside the normal realm of humans, heard buzzing that could have been a sewing machine, but it was faint and truly indistinguishable for what it was. More like a mosquito at the ear. They heard it but couldn’t decipher exactly where to swat, so they did their best ignore it.
Of course, the sound was not supposed to be heard, and therefore not investigated. The very few who did hear it clearly, who also heard Nigel and his granddaughter clearly, well, they generally resided in a hospital setting where three squares a day were provided and tranquility came in the form of little green pills. At the least, they saw a shrink three times a week. Their knowledge wasn’t taken seriously.
This worried Nigel, but what could he do? It wasn’t his fault humans had devolved to the point where they no longer believed in enchantment. He shook his head and tsked as he sewed. When he was a boy, learning the business from his grandfather as his granddaughter now learned from him, no one would have believed the universe could get to this point, where people believed in the “magic” of technology but not the magic that could be found in their own hearts.
Of course, challenges were exciting, and skeptical humans certainly kept him on his toes.
Absently, he hummed as he completed the final seam on the full, purple satin skirt. He pulled it from the machine, snipped the threads and shook the material out before pinning it on the dress form.
“Edwina! I have the skirt finished. Come here, my dear.” Standing back to cast a critical eye over how the skirt hung, he held up an artist’s rendition of what the final product should be. He looked from drawing to garment, made a few small adjustments to the pleating around the waist and nodded in satisfaction.
“Hey, Gramps,” his granddaughter said, bounding into the room.
For the millionth time, he mentally cringed at the lack of style his granddaughter showed. After all, their kind had the ability to appear any way they wished. Glancing in the mirror, he saw a debonair David Niven reflected back. The sleeves of his snowy white shirt were rolled to his elbows, but the Windsor knot in his tie was perfect, as was the knife-sharp crease in his trousers and the shine on his shoes. When he rolled down his sleeves and put on his jacket, he looked every inch the gentleman. Quirking his brows in approval at his image, he unconsciously ran a fingertip lightly over his moustache. Instead of selecting what he would consider an appropriate shell, Edwina—a name which screamed propriety—chose to look like a bag lady gone wild.
Like today, for instance. Long blond hair, streaked with pink and purple, pulled up into a ponytail to hang down the side of her head. Black lipstick and eye shadow. Two earrings in one ear and four in the other. A bright orange tank top and faded jeans—separated scandalously by a good three inches of bare stomach—looked as though they’d been worn (and torn) for centuries. And her feet—her lovely, dainty feet!—were shod in horrid, ugly brown things that not even the most desperate soldier in Caesar’s army would have donned.
When he questioned her once about her appearance, she’d said with delight that she was starting her own trend. A Lauper-Madonna-Pink look. It was not something he’d understood. Today, after a quick perusal, he leaned closer.
“What is that?” He swiped his thumb across her cheek, and then examined what was on the pad.
“Body glitter. Isn’t it cool?” She grinned at him.
Her enthusiasm, as well as her utter lack of self-consciousness, brought the slightest of smiles to his eyes, even as his mouth formed a moue of reproach.
“Yes, well.” He wiped his thumb on a handkerchief pulled from the pocket of his jacket, hanging on the wall behind Edwina. “‘Cool’ is what ice cubes provide. I don’t know what body glitter is good for.”
Giggles flowed from her, reminding him of when she was a small girl instead of the young adult she was now. Where had the centuries gone? Despite the shudders her wardrobe caused, he loved Edwina enormously and strove to give her the very best education in what they did, which was make dreams come true.
To his amazement, she stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. “I love you, Gramps!”
Blushing with pleasure, he patted her shoulder. “As I do you, my dear. Now, however—” briskly he turned back to the skirt falling in soft folds to brush the floor “—we must perform our first infusion of magic.” He glanced to see if Edwina was listening with the proper attention and she rewarded him with a serious expression. “The first layer of magic is performed now, as the garment is being made. The next layer is cast…”
“When the pieces are put together,” she finished.
He beamed. “Very good. The final layer is added with adornments, like the lace, pearls and beads you’ll sew on the bodice of this dress. Do you know the chant?”
“Excellent. Remember, the chant must be said for each bauble sewn, so that the spell isn’t lessened if a bead is lost.”
“I’ll remember.” She reached to touch the dress. “You don’t usually work from a picture. Why this time?”
Nigel laid the drawing on the cutting table. “Because our Ms. Meadows will need to see it in order to be convinced.”
“It’s beautiful, and when we’re finished it will be a gorgeous gown. The woman who buys this one will be very lucky.”
“Oh, this dress isn’t for sale. This is for the mannequin in the window.”
“We’re going to all this work for a dress that won’t even be worn?” She turned a wide-eyed gaze on him.
“I didn’t say it won’t be worn.” He dusted non-existent lint from his hands, rolled his sleeves down and slid his arms into his jacket. “Now. We don’t have much more time before we arrive in San Francisco, so take my hand and let’s say our incantation.”
With one hand each on the material and the others joined, they recited the words used to fuse magic into the seams of the skirt. For a brief moment the space of air around the skirt glowed blue. Then it looked as though nothing had happened. They dropped hands and stepped back.
“Very nice, Edwina. You’ve learned the spells well. I’m quite proud of you.”
She smiled, pleasure obvious in the sparkle of her eyes.
Giving her shoulder a squeeze he added, “As I said, there’s much left to do before we appear on Post Street. We’d better get to work.”
Picking up a packet of pins, she followed him to the cutting table and they started.
Derica Meadows strolled down Post Street on her way back from lunch. It was Friday afternoon, and with all of her work caught up, she was seriously considering taking off early. Her firm’s annual bash, presented for their clients, was being held the next night, and since she had to put in extra hours to schmooze then, there was no reason to feel guilty about taking a few hours for herself now. But it still took some convincing.
Derica’s employer, MiBar Medical, produced and sold medical devices, which ensured the guest list would be jammed with doctors and other representatives from the medical field, as well as the full complement of MiBar’s managerial staff. The party was a formal affair with dinner and dancing. She mused lazily that she could claim the time to prepare. After all, she hadn’t decided which of her several dress pantsuits to wear. Picking a color wasn’t difficult—they were all black. But she hadn’t yet decided whether to go with lace-trimmed or plain, tailored or relaxed, or how she might add the trademark splash of bright color she used for accent. A new scarf might be nice.
Looking for something bright to catch her eye, she glanced in the shops that lined the street. Unlike some women who didn’t like wearing the same outfit twice, Derica didn’t let the thought bother her. After all, men wore the same tuxedo year after year. That is, if they didn’t gain too much weight, and then they rented one just like the old one. Why should she spend a lot of money on something new when the style and accent piece changed the look quite enough?
Food would be plentiful and liquor would flow, and by ten o’clock some of the men would be drunk enough to hit on anything in a skirt. Since she didn’t appreciate the “honor,” wearing pants sometimes helped alleviate any problems before she had to finesse her way out of an unpleasant situation. Derica didn’t try for sexy, she just tried to make it through the evening. A slip of etiquette—or decorum—on an evening like this, and a woman’s whole career could be shot all to hell. That wouldn’t happen to her. She kept herself squarely within the guidelines of corporate expectations at all times. It was best.
She dreaded the corporate gatherings, but for someone in her position, management and moving up, they were required. Five years ago, when she’d started at MiBar, parties had been something fun, something to look forward to. But for the past couple of years, time spent socializing for the job had become a chore.
First, she had to find a man to accompany her. This was difficult only because she was so determined to get ahead that she was very fussy about the type of man she dated. If she’d simply wanted to go out, finding a date wouldn’t be hard—she was honest enough to admit she was no slouch in the looks department—but ambition forced her to pay strict attention to her escort. She took care to make sure he was sophisticated and looked professional. Someone who could converse with the men and charm the wives, but in a non-threatening way. It wasn’t always an easy slot to fill. For this party, she was in a spot. Her usual companion, her friend Randy, was out of town. She’d tried, and failed, to talk her brother into escorting her. It looked to be a repeat performance of what had happened one other year when being unescorted brought on not-so-veiled passes and innuendo, both from clients and some of her colleagues.
Next, she had to battle the self-appointed fashion squad, composed of The Wives of the most senior management. Frankly, I’d rather fend off the groping hands of their husbands on the dance floor than face the women who dictate proper length, style and color of my dress. She’d solved that problem with her classy black suits, designed to look good and fit comfortably. They weren’t particularly feminine. Certainly they weren’t revealing or seductive in any way. And that seemed to satisfy The Wives.
Last was the sheer boredom of the party itself. There were no surprises anymore, no sparks. She kept her wits about her by hardly drinking, but for the last few parties she’d wished she could let loose. She never would, of course. Sadly, she wasn’t a “let loose” sort of woman and her position was too important to her.
Derica snapped out of her daze when she found herself staring at a satin gown in a shop window. The glass must have been old and wavy because everything in the display looked distorted. With her head in one position, the dress appeared to be deep purple and the trumpet beads adorning the laced bodice looked huge. Leaning a few inches in the opposite direction, the folds of satin took on the palest shade of lavender, diffused to the point where she had to stare to ensure it was lavender instead of being washed of color. Then the trumpet beads were barely noticeable. Instead she was struck with the intricate pattern of seed pearls gracing the top and capped sleeves.
With a huff of frustration at not being able to get a sharp view, she was compelled to go inside so she could inspect the garment without the filter of glass.
Your Desire. The name was painted on the door in simple block print. She pulled the handle and stepped into the cramped store, where she came face to face with an older, prim man in a well-worn suit. Gray touched his temples but not his thin moustache. His dark brown eyes warmed her to her core and she felt immediate trust in him.
The shop didn’t inspire such trust, however. It was on the shabby side of shabby-chic, and like the man’s suit, had seen better days. That explained why she hadn’t noticed the place before—it wasn’t the sort of establishment in which she usually shopped.
“May I help you?” the man asked.
She turned toward the window display. What the hell! The effect remained the same. The satin seemed to change shades of purple depending on her position. One way she noticed the beads, another she saw the pearls. Now she saw barely visible lines of sequins between folds of the skirt. Although there was no draft, the skirt seemed to shift, and tiny shards of light shot from the sequins otherwise hidden in the yards of material.
“Yes, that dress in the window, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It is unique, part of our special collection.” He sounded proud. “May we make one like it for you?”
“Make one?” She stepped forward and reached out. The touch of her fingers caused swirls of violet to run through the fabric from waist to hem. She gasped as she jerked her hand away. “No, I need the dress for tomorrow night.” Curious, she faced the man. “I can’t believe you made this. It’s wonderful!”
He closed his eyes and graciously nodded his acknowledgement.
The mannequin in the window drew her attention again. She’d never owned anything so soft and feminine. Suddenly her black pantsuits seemed totally unsuitable for the office party, dull and lifeless, even when she imagined them paired with a bright scarf or lacy camisole.
“How much for this dress?” Damn! She’d failed to keep intense interest from her voice. If she were the salesperson, she’d immediately jack up the price.
“Oh, you don’t want that. It’s only for display and very old. I can’t guarantee your satisfaction.”
Slowly Derica turned to the man, her mind turning over possibilities of why he wouldn’t want to take advantage of a sale. Did he think to haggle and increase the price, now that she’d shown her excitement? Well, if that was his game, she could play, too.
“Perhaps you’re right. I have a formal affair tomorrow night. Do you have anything else?” Casting a glance at the drab interior, she carefully kept her expression neutral. “I’m a size eight,” she offered, seeing him give her an appraising look.
He nodded. “That’s exactly what I would have said. If you’ll follow me I think we have just what you’re looking for.”
They walked to the back of the store and through a curtained doorway. There she found a softly lighted alcove with two stuffed chairs on either side of a dark-stained piecrust table. A cup of steaming tea and a plate of shortbread were on a tray. She examined the room in amazement, not having expected a showroom. In fact, she’d barely expected curtains on the dressing rooms, based on the appearance of the shop.
“Just make yourself comfortable, and we’ll see what we have, shall we?” He waved her into one of the chairs then turned toward another, smaller doorway to her side. “Edwina, we’re ready.”
A young woman dramatically swept aside the material covering the entryway and emerged wearing a pink chiffon formal with a fitted bodice and long sleeves. What caught Derica’s attention however, was the woman’s shape. She could have been Derica’s body double with her long legs, narrow, rounded hips, and tiny waist. The woman’s breasts would have nicely filled out Derica’s own B-cup bra. The difference came in her beautiful violet eyes and heart shaped, Kewpie doll lips, painted bright red. And also in her short spiked hair that was a most interesting shade of yellow. Derica was so taken with their similarities in shape, it didn’t occur to her to wonder why the woman was poised and ready to model formal gowns.
“This is my granddaughter, Edwina.” The man beamed at Edwina then turned his warm smile on Derica. “And I’m Nigel Brown.”
“I’m Derica Meadows. That’s a lovely gown, Mr. Brown,” she said as the woman twirled to show off the flow of the skirt. “But it looks like something for a prom.”
His smile fell ever so slightly. “Oh, dear. Well, Edwina…” He shooed her behind the curtain.
After what felt like only seconds, Edwina came out again, wearing a lime green skirt and white ruffled blouse.
“No, that’s not right at all. I need something for a company dinner, and I want a gown that will knock everyone back on their heels.”
She’d barely taken a sip of tea before Edwina left and came back, this time in a sleek black sheath that displayed too much leg on one end and far too much cleavage on the other. Derica cringed then smiled, thinking of the reactions of The Wives if she wore this dress to the party. But a sexy little number wasn’t what she wanted. She wanted mystery underlying a thoroughly feminine sophistication.
She wanted the dress in the window.
Nigel looked at Edwina and opened his mouth to say something—probably to tell her to try something else—but Derica stopped him. “Mr. Brown, let me speak frankly. You’ve shown me lovely gowns but the only thing I’ve seen that interests me is the dress in the window. If you’re not prepared to let me buy it—” she shrugged her shoulders “—then I’m afraid I have no business here. So, will you entertain a purchase, or not?”
Pursing his lips and tapping his mouth with his forefinger, Nigel stood silent. Edwina disappeared behind the curtain then moments later passed through the showroom and into the shop, dressed in heeled, dark-brown leather boots, a brown suede skirt that fell to mid-calf and high-necked white blouse. How does she do that? But Derica didn’t have time to ponder the question further.
“Would you be willing to pay two hundred dollars as a deposit? As I mentioned, it is one of a kind and I’d hate to lose the only pattern I have.” Nigel spoke without a trace of indecisiveness. Derica admired a person who took the bull by the horns once they’d made a decision.
“Two hundred dollars as a deposit? That amount won’t give me ownership?” Two hundred was a steal to buy the thing, but to rent it? He was a canny businessman after all.
“Let’s call it a lease. If you return it undamaged by the end of the month, and you’ve been satisfied with the results, your money will be refunded.”
She narrowed her eyes. “I’ve never heard of any store doing this kind of thing.”
He waved his hand. “We’re not like any other store you’ve frequented, Ms. Meadows. Can’t you tell that?”
In fact, he was right. There was something different about this shop. Shabby but sophisticated. Quick change artists and enchanting dresses. There was a sense of something unworldly.
“Suppose something happens to the dress. What would I owe then?”
He looked at her, his eyes twinkling. “The gown itself is priceless, as I believe you’ve already proven. When someone wants an item as much as you want that dress, well, is there a price too high? However, I think this arrangement will work out fine.”
His eyes captured her total attention. They blazed with power and knowledge. Deep, ancient knowledge. She couldn’t turn away.
Then they softened. “If that dress is what you want, you should accept my offer. I assure you, there is no other like it in all the world.”
“Will it fit, do you think?” Her voice was barely above a whisper.
“You’re a perfect size eight. It’s a perfect size eight. For you, the gown will be … perfect.” He ended with a smile as warm as a summer day, and she smiled back.
“Will you accept a check?”
He nodded. “Of course.”
Shaking her head slightly at the strangeness of the deal and the suddenness with which they’d completed it, Derica preceded Nigel from the room. He then took the lead, taking her to a small counter where Edwina stood, securing a handle onto a large box. She looked at her grandfather.
“Ms. Meadows has agreed to pay two hundred dollars, Edwina, and will return the gown to us by the end of the month.”
Without a scintilla of surprise Edwina turned her gaze from her grandfather to Derica. “I’m afraid we don’t accept credit cards.”
She indicated the cash register, the oldest Derica had ever seen. In fact, she didn’t know if she had ever seen a manual machine such as this one.
“We haven’t exactly embraced the twenty-first century,” Edwina continued.
“I see that,” murmured Derica.
In moments it seemed, Derica found herself on the sidewalk outside the shop, holding a large dress box. The mannequin in the front window now sported a heavy wool coat with fur-trimmed collar. She snorted. That was an odd thing to advertise in San Francisco, and wondered again at the man’s sense of business. She’d never hire him, that was for sure. Imagine leasing a dress! The gown was worth hundreds of dollars, and she’d given him a measly two hundred. And in cash, too. She was honest, of course, and would bring the dress back, but a good many people wouldn’t.
Turning away, Derica barely noticed the old woman staring with longing at the coat in the window. Nor did the tinkle of the bell on the door make an impression as the woman entered the store.
To continue reading, close this window, click the ADD TO CART button, and checkout.