Sometimes, I feel like this body I carry isn’t my own, like it was given to me some time ago and I have no choice but to feel this detachment from it, as if I were a seed inside an apple looking out through a tiny hole, into this very real world, but not feeling real myself. Now I felt like I was watching everything in slow motion, everything was heavy and out of synch with time.
Alice was trying to calm Francesca, who was on her knees, her hands covering her face.
Everything was silent or at least muffled by the rushing of the events, what I would imagine standing behind the current of a waterfall feels like. We had gotten there late and his body was hanging from the ceiling by a twisted telephone cord. But his face… His face was twisted in agony, palms open and legs limp. His eyes had been gauged from their sockets, two gaping holes above a gaping mouth.
Not knowing what to do, I held Francesca and pulled her face to my chest, away from the body. I turned to Alice, who was searching the room now, scanning everything with her ghost powers.
I wanted to call Phil, but I knew to leave the guy alone for a few days. If he wanted to be here he would be here.
Someone had heard the screams—maybe Miss Deland from across the street—and soon my driveway looked like an episode of “CSI”. I had told Francesca it was safer to go home, and though she didn’t know how to feel about that at first, she went ahead and left just before the police arrived. It was bad to think about what would have happened if Francesca Dillard’s name got tangled in a mess like this. It would mean putting her reputation in jeopardy and I wasn’t willing to let her take any fault in this. We lived different lives now, and besides, my rep was already marred by false accusations and some “unexplained” disappearances—nothing too serious.
Whoever had done it had been swift about it. Nothing natural did this, that was for sure. I promised Francesca we would get to the bottom of it andtold her to call me as soon as she heard anything. I told the police exactly what could have been true: I told them that he was a friend and he had been sick and wanted to meet up with me and then he stayed a night because he wasn’t feeling too well and I had found him that way.
I know, it wasn’t exactly the truth, but it was the most I could do. I couldn’t say it had been a supernatural thing (like oh, by the way we got attacked by demonic chefs in a tiny bistro downtown), then they would have suspected something else was happening—like me being nuts. Humans weren’t able to grasp the supernatural, it was in their nature to question all things and doubt everything. That is, until a giant, man-eating harpy got a hold of their throats—then anyone would believe.
The cop in charge of the scene was a burly woman of olive skin and massive features. She was almost as tall as I was and wore heavy lipstick and thick amounts of eye shadow. Her name was Officer Linda Harold. I had never seen her before, and I knew most of my friends in blue.
She was scanning me and asking questions, keeping her pen constantly scribbling on a small leather pad that she kept flipping.
“Are you new here…Linda, is it?”
“I’m asking all the questions here, Mr. Berkley.”
“Sure,” I said and smiled.
“And you say you met up when?”
“Yesterday,” I said.
I could see Alice from my peripheral vision standing in the corner of the room. I always had this feeling when Alice was nearby. It was like she could almost fool some kind of subconscious part of my brain into believing she was just another human being standing around, but if my conscious hadn’t known better, I would have been fooled. Alice was still keeping her brunette, as still as—well as a ghost. It was amazing how still they could be and for how long they could go this way. Alice had said she knew of a ghost that stood in the same spot for a half a century, and when they had asked him why, he simply said, “I was just thinking and got lost, I guess.”
But Alice was different, she wasn’t the type to get lost too many times and she was being extra quiet these days. No, I wasn’t too worried, but still.
“What time?” pressed Linda.
“One in the afternoon, maybe…”
“And you said he just killed himself?”
“Yes. I was in the living room doing some spring cleaning—“
“It’s the middle of September.”
“Not in the Berkley home it isn’t,” I kidded, but she shot me a glance and I continued. I was supposed to look sad and bothered, but something inside me always flared at the sight of these blue suited monkeys.
“When I finished sweeping I heard some screaming and then I ran up the steps and found him there…hanging,” I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand, my eyes burning from some forced tears, which helped because the woman’s face softened and she ordered one of the policemen to pass me a tissue (and the award for best actor goes to…) and said. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Berkley.”
Linda flipped her pad close and glanced around the house. She shot a thumb toward the business room and curiously said, “Is any of this real?”
I pretended I didn’t know where she was coming from and she continued, “I’ve always been curious about the afterlife.”
Curiosity kills the cat.
“Yes. I have this,” I waved my hand around the top of my head. “Power, or something.”
“You know,” she said and inched closer to whisper, “I have a great aunt that worked with the dead. The rest of the family called her crazy, but she was legit.”
“Oh yes. Or, at least that’s what she led off right away. She would know about everything,” she looked up to the ceiling and smiled as if remembering something fondly.“But then she turned out to just be a damn good liar,” her face switched back to ice. “You listen to me,” she said softly. My shoulders and hands went numb as the woman got too close to my personal area. She’d clearly had some bad coffee that morning. Yuck.
“Something doesn’t smell right here. And Mister Berkley,” she let the words slip softly from her lips. “I will find what happened here. I will do everything in my power to understand you and your movements and your life—you won’t be able to go to the crapper without me knowing it! Your business is my business from now on,” she said finally and stood upright, waving goodbye and smiling as if we had just had the friendliest conversation.
Too bad she didn’t see Alice when she shot a foot forward, then she would have kept from tripping and falling down on her face. All the other officers came rushing to help her and a brute-looking one with dark shades who smelled like he had drowned himself in aftershave began to grill me.
I shrugged and Alice smiled malevolently from the corner of my eye. Linda got up with the help of Aftershave Brute and wiped herself down, her eyes on me, and I smiled back and waved.
The body was taken down that same hour and after they inspected the scene with their dusters and sterilized gloves. They had moved everything around and left behind a mess. Sirens blared as the ambulances tore out of the neighborhood as if they couldn’t leave fast enough. The neighbors spied curiously from their windows, some of the less tactful even opened their doors to watch as the police left.
I watched some television and had decided to clean the room up early the next day when my phone rang. Business called, and a woman named Molly Enderson said she was in need of my services the very next day. I guess having a crime scene in your house the night before didn’t stop people from coming over for a read. I had also forgotten all about another two appointments I had to carry out the next day. It wasn’t like I wanted to, but there was bread to put on the table—and Alice had been eating a lot lately. Alice scanned the place with me for any clues left behind by whatever had done this, but we both found nothing.
With the appointments tomorrow, I reluctantly decided to clean the room tonight. I wiped the floors clean with a sponge and a bucket. The red stains and telephone cord were left behind, but other than that, there wasn’t much that said this had been the scene of a crime. I burned my bed sheets and went down to Pillow Mart for a new set of sheets with Alice. The night went by quickly and the next morning I got ready for work as usual.
The first woman was round around the shoulders, though she had a smaller waist, which made her look like a half deflated balloon. She had wild, tangled hair that was kept boy short, and a massive Yankees shirt. Mrs. Delaware looked as scared as a Chihuahua in a dog pound, but I assured her she was in the right hands.
The conversation went as such:
“My business here is with the supernatural, Mrs. Delaware. Do you need to contact him, or do you have a question I can pass on to him?” My voice was very soft and patient (unlike what I felt like doing sometimes during these sessions: screaming while running around naked like a crazy baboon).
“That’s what I was hoping. Oh sir, my husband just died,” her voice was smaller than I had expected, almost like a whisper.
“How, if I may ask?” I was using my soft, I-know-the-mysteries-of-the-universe voice, something women like Mrs. Delaware here felt comfortable around.
“He was shot in the line of duty.”
“A police officer?”
“Shopping mall security.”
I almost burst out laughing, but firmly held my resolve and let her continue, my hands hovering lightly over the crystal ball.
All day long, all appointments were the same:
I want to see my husband one last time.
Can you contact him and ask where the keys to the safe were?
Can you tell him that I love him?
Trust me, if you had to tell a ghost something, you could just say it. There was more than a chance that he would follow you the rest of your life anyhow. Ghosts weren’t prone to just leave this world behind—though there were many exceptions who moved, so to say, “into the light”
I never gave these women false hope, and if there came a point where my services were not of help, I was always willing to reimburse them. But since they always came in with the same questions, I had made up a routine:
First they would say, “I wanna contact my dead husband,” who was most likely in the room already, wafting about and looking as morose and gray as any other.
Second, I would close my eyes and do the whole dramatic thing, where I would shake my body wildly while holding tight to the edge of the table and scream at the top of my lungs that he was here. Alice would help with the effects, the moving chandelier and the turning crystal ball, the trembling table. This was my favorite part.
Third, I would invite them to ask the question of their choice and Alice would ask the ghost, who would communicate it to Alice, who then would pass on the information. Thankfully, ghosts could communicate well with one another and I had help in the matter. It all depended on how big their trauma had been, but always possible with Alice.
And then just like that, BINGO! I would have my $9.95 per hour and they would go home with or without their answer. Maybe you would consider me a con artist, but there is no swindling here. I am these women’s only passage to the other side and if I could make a penny off of that, then so be it. Most of the people these women wanted to contact died naturally (or as naturally as humans could die). If my powers sensed for one second that a death had something supernatural behind it, we would go and take care of the supernatural thing that caused this here person to die. It was as simple as that—and trust me, the less we had of the latter the less of a chance I had of getting myself killed, which was a-ok with me. I was almost hoping one of the women had something important to ask or something different to share, but they were all the same.
I made a good 60 bucks and had a chance to run down to the supermarket and snatch a few things before I started to clean up the rest of the aftermath of last night. I also had a chance to think about what exactly had happened.
We all knew Felipe hadn’t killed himself. He had screamed at the top of his lungs before we found him hanging. Alice had to smash through to get to him, but it had been too late.
I would think a person who wanted to kill himself would do it silently, unbeknownst to the people in the house. Something was seriously wrong here. I bought bags of salt in the Home Shack and lined all the windows and doors. Salt was a powerful agent against the supernatural; they say it is because it was the first thing created by God. I usually wiped the salt from one or two of the doors when I had an appointment, but since I was clear from any kind of welcome unnatural visitation, then salting every nook and cranny was ok for now.
“How the hell am I supposed to get out?” Alice said from behind me while I poured the salt.
“Just tell me and I’ll open a passage for you. I can’t cut corners, Alice. I’m just making sure we’re safe.”
There was silence.
“I think he was killed,” she said and it caught me off guard. Alice wasn’t the type to talk about something unless it concerned her.
“Me too. Something’s wrong here, I just can’t seem to figure out what.”
“Francesca said she was going to call,” said Alice.
I stood and placed the bag in the corner of the room.
“She will. Until then we have to consider her a suspect.”
“You think she would do such a thing—to one of her leaders?”
I thought on that.
“Felipe wanted me to give the folder to her. He said that we were all in danger—that I was in danger.”
“But you are always in danger.”
“I know. He also said something else. That I had to get Francesca on my side.”
Alice’s perfectly shaped eyebrows furrowed, making her look almost childish as she spoke. “What do you think he meant by that?”
I sighed, “I wish I knew. I did make a copy or two of the papers inside the folder.”
“I thought you said you respected Francesca’s privacy?”
“If it was just about her privacy, then that would be accurate. But this is turning out to be something completely different.”
“Some heavy shit involved here,” she said.
“You mean deep shit.”
I was on the couch, trying to figure out how all the names were connected. They were all written in red ink. I could tell it was in Felipe’s handwriting—that neat cursive and tailed L’s.
There must have been about fifteen different names. I scrolled down the paper, finding Francesca’s name on the list and making a mental note of it. Then I found another name that had caught my eye: Tomas Santo. An affiliate of Francesca’s whom I had met a while ago, when Francesca was just a beginner in the things of magic. He had thick brown hair and a thicker accent. He was one of the founders of very powerful magic back when America was first discovered, or so he says.
“I was almost out of hope,” he said sadly. “But I single handedly discovered a few disciples and then taught them everything I know—which is plenty, by the way.”
All the women would drool over him and it made me wonder how shallow women really were.
So what if he had a permanent tan, a butt chin, and chiseled arms? The man was emptier than a beer can after three seconds in Phil’s hand. Tomas was so full of himself.
If I had learned anything during these years, it was that magic existed solely by its own will. It couldn’t be controlled—not completely—and though it could be that witches had discovered its many secrets, magic would always keep secrets that not even witches could find out. Tomas was all self-worth and arm-flexing—it was more than I could take.
Can you sense my bitterness?
Fran called and I confessed to peeking at the list (no, it wasn’t the entire truth) and she advised to stay away. Even though I assured her that I would be fine, I headed downtown for a little visit to my friend Tomas.
I needed Alice there with me.
Tomas was the owner of three coffee shops called Lotus Café in the downtown area of Cathedral (by now you would imagine this side of town is where all the witches make their business) and his office rested near the Creston Villa Hotel, a common place to stay for those out-of-towners who had vast amounts of money to spend. The area was as upper class as it could get.
“Calm yourself,” said Alice and I realized I was holding the steering wheel a little too tight.
“I can sense your discomfort—but you have to keep your feelings together,” she assured me.
I flexed my fingers and breathed in evenly.
See, the thing that bothered me mostly about this guy wasn’t his blatant adoration of everything Tomas. It was his bold-faced attempt to stick his nose into and Francesca’s and my relationship every single time. He wanted her.
I knew it was stupid to linger on things that happened such a long time ago, but when you’re about to face the guy your ex had sex with just a few days after your very hurtful breakup, it’s bound to bring up some resentfulness. But I knew Alice was right; even if Tomas was an ass, he was still a witch and he could kill me with a thought.
Alice had convinced me that with her there I wouldn’t need my Delilah, so I left it inside the glove compartment.
I was surprised at the lack of security when we arrived. The valet was courteous and we were greeted promptly at the front desk by a young woman in a red skirt and white blouse, who I sensed to be surprisingly normal. Her hair was a bright blonde and her eyes were the fierce color of fresh grass.
“Hello,” she said. “Welcome to Mr. Tomas’ office. Do you have an appointment?”
“Actually, I’m a relative,” I said and Alice elbowed me.
“Really?” I could tell by her tone that she wasn’t convinced.
“Long lost cousin,” I said with a hint of an accent I had learned from listening to Tomas.
“Alright.” She spoke into the phone and then, after she described me to a person in the other end of the line, she clicked a button.
“He will be right with you.”
“And you,” I said and smiled, “what’s your name?”
The girl bowed her head and I could see her cheeks flush under her modest amount of makeup. Her eyes came up and she smiled.
“Simon!” Alice hissed and I ignored her.
“Hanna,” said the girl. She stretched her hand out to meet mine and I could feel she liked what she saw—just another advantage of my freaky powers (score one for Simon!).
“Maybe we can get together later,” I said.
“I have a boyfriend.”
“Lose him, who cares,” I said and she arched her eyebrows, a smile playing on her red lips.
“Here’s my card. If you ever need a reading, just let me know. I work on other things, too, and I am great company.”
“Jerk,” Alice elbowed harder and I swallowed the pain. We sat down in the waiting room while Tomas got ready to see us.
“He’s in a very important meeting,” said Hanna. “But it will end shortly.”
“Thank you very much,” I said and grabbed a USA Now magazine, one with Lady Gaga showing off her latest dress—this one was made up of steak. My stomach growled.
I pointed at the page and Alice groaned.
“Have you thought on what you’re going to say to Tomas?” asked Alice.
“No. Frankly, I barely know what to do next,” I said calmly.
“So much for a sleuth…”
“I just don’t know how you act so cool about everything.”
“Like this,” I said and flipped a page and stretched my legs.
“You’re gonna get yourself get killed one day.”
“We all die, Alice. You should know that.”
“Not really,” she said and sighed. “You just move on. And it’s cold here, Simon. So cold,” Alice lifted her arms up and waved them, using her ghost voice, a cold breeze through splintered wood.
“You’re being dramatic,” I said and flipped a page.
Hanna smiled at me from the counter, her discomfort level rising just a bit as she typed.
“Stop talking to me,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’m thinking.”
The worst part of this all was that Alice was right. I didn’t know what to do and maybe asking him why his name was on a list wasn’t enough.
Soon the door opened, letting out a few old geezers with fine suits and boisterous laughter wearing expensive, if cheap-looking, toupees. The first guy was easy to read, a tall and fat one with a grey suit: He was having an affair with his secretary. It was amazing how easy the information came and soon I was feeling the queasiness my gift sometimes left with me.
“Simon, you look sick,” said Alice.
“Just a moment,” I smiled when another passed by, one that was stealing from the bank he owned—he was afraid of the next few months because the government was investigating certain accounts they shouldn’t. But as surprising as it was, he was very optimistic. Maybe due to the fact that he knew people like Tomas—maybe they could get him out of all his trouble. That’s partly what Tomas did, helping delinquents get a second chance—he was a mobile half-way house and he would reap the benefits by charging them vast amounts of money in turn for getting them out of debt and ruin.
I felt a little bit of the bile rise in my mouth—a bad mix of coffee and Pop-Tart chunks—and I swallowed it.
“Simon,” said Alice, but I just waved a hand over my head, which was now in my hands and on my lap. As the men passed, I pressed my fingers to my temples and tried to block out the mental images that made my mouth taste like it was filled with a bunch of old pennies. I almost wished I could read witches this easily.
“Simon,” said another voice, a man and I would know by his thick accent alone. I was in the presence of chisel-faced Tomas. I stood and stretched out my hand. Tomas was in a white suit jacket, black skinny tie, and fitted black slacks. He’d let his hair grow down to his shoulders in ruffled waves.
“How are you, Simon?” he asked pleasantly.
I almost cringed. “Very well, thank you,” I said.
He asked Hanna to bring him some papers and his coffee.
Hanna smiled, but I could see an undertone of something in her smile and if Tomas noticed it, he didn’t give any sign. I liked this girl—I hoped she’d given him decaf.
Before I stepped through the glass doors that read “Lotus Café” in smooth gilded letters, I waved at Hanna, who returned the gesture, a hint of flush still on her cheeks.
When we were by ourselves, the witch offered me some scotch. I noticed that Alice had changed outfits on the way in. Instead of her usual long skirt and knitted sweater that made her look like a poster child from the 60’s, she had changed into a tight halter top and even tighter jeans with pearl earrings and a necklace.
“What?” she said when I gave her a shameful look. “He’s hot.”
“You’re not so bad yourself. You’re a vision today, my dear Alice,” Tomas said as he turned and bent to kiss Alice’s hand. I don’t think I have ever seen that hue of red over Alice.
She might as well have giggled like a Japanese schoolgirl, but instead she looked down and said, “This old outfit? Oh Tomas, you are such a dog.”
“Be careful, Tomas,” I said as I sat. “She bites.”
“Maybe I like that in women,” Tomas retorted and I was left with nothing else to say.
We followed him into an office with pictures of (guess who) Tomas hanging on walls; He was smiling, shaking hands with some famous people and some others that I bet were witches. There was a bigger picture hanging from the wall: There stood Tomas, smiling, winking, and sipping on a mug with“Lotus Café” written across its white surface above the motto that graced each of his cafés in the same gold gilded letters: “Because you want it”. I almost gagged again.
We sat in front of a small desk while Hanna came in and served us some coffee. She was unaware of Alice’s stare, of course, but I could sense she felt something. I waved again and gave her my thanks for the cup. She winked back. Tomas gave Hanna some papers and, after I was sure she had left the room, I reached into my vest pocket and slid the list across the desk to him.
His eyes scanned the list.
“What is this?”
“I was hoping you would tell us,” I said.
“You’re the psychic,” he shrugged and my face burned. “You know I kid,” he assured me and had a good laugh. “You know how much I love watching your face turn red.”
Alice joined in the fun with a giggle, but seeing the seriousness in my face she turned and faced the wall.
“This,” he picked up the paper with two fingers, “is just a list…”
“Of what?” I had a feeling he wasn’t telling me something.
“Of names—names of some important witches and some not so much.”
“Clarify the ‘’not so much’ part,” I said.
I wasn’t sure if I had any right to demand, but I was feeling frisky.
Tomas took in a deep breath and said, “There are more like you.” He placed his elbows down on the desk and tapped his fingers on its surface.
Tomas was nervous. I could almost see the streak of emotion bolting from his head—first in a grayish color, then blue, then red. Fact was, I couldn’t read freaks. Not all the time, at least. It infuriated me. I could sense them, like a warmth wafting through a room. At times I could sense what they felt, which wasn’t fun because sometimes I didn’t know if I was feeling my own feelings or someone else’s. Humans were easier to block out than freaks, I tell you that much—but humans in groups would send me unwanted information by the dozens, making me hurl with the flashes of random images and emotions.
“You’re not the only freak ‘freak’ that exists. There are more like you. People stuck in between the ‘here and there,’” he stabbed a finger on the desk. “Unexplained people. Not psychics, not really. Not witches, not shifters, not monsters—but something else completely.” He pronounced something like“somesing”.
I had never met anyone else that was stuck in between, no one who knew what it felt to feel like a blue dot, when everyone else was pink or orange, so to say.
I looked at Alice who seemed fascinated by this brand new piece of information—or by Tomas, I couldn’t tell.
“Why do you think your name is on this list?”
“Beats me,” he said and looked at the list again. “Maybe because I am affluent—I have money and power. I believe this is where you start,” he said, pointing to the name Marcus Lee. “He is freak, like you are freak.”
I bit the side of my thumbnail and smiled, grabbed the paper.
“How are you sure?”
“He stunk. Mildly—unlike yourself—but the stink is almost the same,” he said.
I got up, the list in my hand and walked toward the door.
“Before you go,” said Tomas, just when I opened the door. “It is wise to stay away from things we don’t understand, Simon. Be very careful out there.”
I nodded and Alice twinkled her fingers at Tomas, swinging her hips as she went.