Authors: sharon joss
I skipped up the stairs of the FBI district office feeling pretty chipper, and gave my name to the receptionist. Forty-five minutes later, I sat in the soundproofed test room staring open-mouthed at Agent Porter. He wasn’t smiling.
“What do you mean I don’t have any psychic abilities? Of course I do.” I hung onto my chair for dear life, every muscle tensed in rigid denial of Agent Porter and his stupid test results.
“That is not what your test results indicate, Ms. Blackman. Your scores fall clearly outside the parameters of what the United States government defines as psychic ability. In fact, you registered significantly less intuitive ability than average. I cannot recall any other applicants who scored this low on the evaluations.”
“This is a mistake,” I said. “I told you, I’ve got five spirit messengers following me.”
The agent shook his head. “The tests don’t lie.” He began to put his equipment away, dismissing me.
“Give me another chance. I was probably just nervous.”
“I think we’re done here.”
I felt like a dying goldfish circling the bowl for the last time, as the vortex of flush sucked me down into nothingness and sewage. At this point, I had nothing left to lose.
“Wait. You said you had to investigate all reports of demons. Well I have demons. They’re sitting right here in this room with us. They smell so bad, I can hardly stand it. How can you just let this go?”
He froze, and for a second at least, I had his attention again.
“Are you now telling me you are in communication with evil spirits? Think very carefully before you answer, Ms. Blackman. Demons are more dangerous than loaded weapons. They are unsafe in anyone’s hands, and cannot ever be made safe. The temptation to use a summoned demon is irresistible. I am required by law to enforce a standing order of execution against anyone who is identified as a demon master. Are saying you summoned five demons, and they are awaiting your command?” His blue eyes drilled into me.
The blood drained from my face and I choked on my protest. I bit my lips shut.
“I thought not.” His jaw relaxed. He finished packing away the laptop and slipped my paperwork into his briefcase. The interview was over. I had been tested and found unworthy.
Hot tears stung my cheeks. “What am I supposed to do? How do I get rid of them? I could lose my job.”
Porter sighed and took a clean white handkerchief out of his jacket pocket and handed it to me. I buried my face into the soft cotton and sobbed. Porter didn’t say a word. After a few moments, I got a grip again, and blew my nose. I stared at the handkerchief in my hand and wished I’d thought to bring a dryer sheet.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mattie,” he said. He was being gentle with me, I could tell. “Most people aren’t so disappointed. Perhaps you should talk to someone.”
“I’m not crazy.” The forms I’d filled out before he administered the tests had asked all kinds of questions about my family history of mental illness. I could just imagine what he was thinking. “Can I ask you a question?”
“What would you do if you were someone without any psychic ability, like me? I mean, if you were experiencing olfactory and visual hallucinations?”
“I’d consult with a psychiatric professional.”
I closed my eyes and shrank against the thought. I wondered how long the hospital stay would be, and how I would ever be able to face anyone I knew again. I remembered my mother’s drug-ravaged face and dismissed it. No. Not me, not now, not ever.
I squared my shoulders and lifted my chin. “You’re wrong about me,” my lips trembled.
His face softened. “Hey, for what it’s worth, the tests we use focus on a narrow aspect of paranormal sensitivities. The government is looking for people that fit a unique profile. Not everyone with extra-sensory abilities is identified by these evaluations.”
A spark of hope flared within me. I bit my lips.
“Let me tell you something, Mattie,” he sat on the edge of the desk. “We’re more alike you than you imagine. I haven’t got a shred of intuition, either. My test scores were almost as low as yours.”
“So how did you end up here?”
“It’s a long story. This is a temporary special assignment.” He couldn’t keep the chagrin out of his voice, and I wondered what he’d done to earn this duty. After six years working for the City, there was nothing worse than ‘special assignment’.
“This is a new program, and the bureau doesn’t employ many agents with psychic abilities. I contract with a local guy to help me identify and register true paranormals. He’s not always right, but he’s got some kind of inner radar that can spot them. And he’s not an intuitive either.”
“Maybe I’m like that too.” I handed Porter back his crumpled, wet handkerchief. “Who is he?”
Rhys Warrick, Rhys Warrick, Rhys Warrick. The name echoed through my mind like a mantra. The Thruway wind blasted through the open windows, and battered against my numb face as I drove back to Shore Haven to pick up Mina. Until yesterday, I’d been certain Merle Shine held the solution to my problems. Today, I’d been absolutely confident the FBI would register me as a psychic. For Pete’s sake, if the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t help me, what’s left? Everywhere I turned, doors slammed in my face. I didn’t know what to think anymore. All I ever wanted was a normal, respectable, predictable life, and now I found myself pinning my hopes on a certain prehistoric professor of ancient mysteries.
I arrived at Mina’s school a few minutes early, and checked out my puffy reflection in the mirror. Like a wall of ratty stuffed animals, my mute escort of yellow-eyed demons gaped at me from the backseat.
“Oh shut up,” I said. “I have had more than enough of all of you. You are totally pissing me off. This is all your fault.”
I thrust my face into the box of dryer sheets and in haled deeply. Nothing. I rubbed my temples and considered my alternatives. Okay, so I’m not psychic, and I’m not schizophrenic. The only remaining answer seemed to be supernatural. If Rhys Warrick could spot people with paranormal abilities, that would have to be good enough for me. The old guy had been around; Karen said he was a Rhodes scholar, professor, archeologist, and theologian. A regular wise man. A helpful one, I hoped.
On a silent signal, kids started pouring out of school, and I honked and waved at nine-year-old Mina when she emerged. My mood lifted as she ran over to the car, her coppery-brown hair flying out behind her, grinning like an imp.
“Hey Mina, how’s my favorite niece?”
“You always say that,” she said, and gave me a big smoochie kiss on the cheek.
I’m always delighted by the sight of Lance’s freckles and blue eyes shining out at me from her mother’s heart-shaped face. Once she grew into her teeth, my niece Mina had all the makings of a real beauty.
“You up for a little adventure?”
She offered me a serious look. “Dad says homework first.” In his wilder days, Lance had gotten into trouble when he owed money to the wrong people and couldn’t pay. He had even been arrested once. But those days were behind him now, and every time I saw Mina, I understood why.
“Oh, it’s too hot to study. What you need is a visit to Abbot’s.”
I was putty in her hands. “Double sprinkles,” I promised. “I need to make one quick stop first.”
We cruised past Mystic Properties, but the place was still closed, so we picked up our frozen custard drove home.
After dinner, we set up the board to play Scrabble at the kitchen table. The doorbell rang, and I opened the door to find a hulk of a man standing on the front porch. His fellow goon waited behind him on the sidewalk, leaning up against a light blue Seville. They weren’t Boy Scouts, and they weren’t salesmen. They looked like trouble.
“Is Lance around?”
Alarm bells clanged in my head. I motioned Mina back into the kitchen.
“Go on, I’ll be there in a minute,” I whispered.
I memorized the guy on Lance’s front porch for future reference. He stood about six-foot-two, dark-haired, tanned, and beefy; he wore a sweaty blue polo shirt and wrinkled chinos. Way too much khaki to be one of Lance’s friends, and the boxer nose didn’t go well with the leather tassels on his shoes. His compadre at the street sported mirror shares, dreadlocks, and a baggy Hawaiian shirt.
My heart pounded. “Lance who?”
“McNair. We know he lives here.” Chino guy leered at me from behind a mouthful of gold teeth.
Where’s a cop when you need one, I wondered. I reminded myself that serial killers don’t ring the doorbell. I kept my face and voice neutral.
“He isn’t here.”
“When do you expect him back?”
Be cool, Mattie.
“I’m not sure.” If he wanted to, this guy could get by me in about half a second, and we both knew it.
The guy smirked and offered me his business card. An image of the queen of spades was printed on one side, Hector Perrone’s name and number on the reverse. I didn’t care what his card said, Hector was a thug, plain and simple.
“Cute.” I waved the card. “What’s this all about?”
“Tell him to get in touch with us. Sooner will be better for him than later.” Hector gave me the onceover from tits to toes and back again, before meeting my eyes; his threat clear.
I fought to keep my expression bland. “Okay, I’ll give him the message.”
“See you around, girlfriend.” He tipped an invisible hat to me, then sauntered down the walk toward his buddy.
I slammed the door and turned the deadbolt. Stupid, but it made me feel better. I snuck a peek from behind the curtains in the front window, as they got into the Seville. They sat for a few minutes, chilling in the conditioned air, I supposed, before they drove off.
Hector’s business card listed the address for the House of Cards, a gambling establishment on the greasy side of Picston. I sighed and shut my eyes against the implication. There was only one reason why someone from the House of Cards would be looking for Lance. If my brother was gambling again, he was in big trouble, in more ways than one. If he lost custody of Mina, I doubted I’d ever see her again.
Violet had no use for me; she thought I enabled Lance. When she’d set up an intervention the last time, I hadn’t been willing to cut him out of my life if he continued gambling. Violet had a big family to support her, but Lance was the only family I had left. There had been a nasty scene between us, and neither of us backed down.
Mina peered up at me expectantly, the Scrabble game and dictionary all ready to go.
“Who was that man?” Little wrinkles furrowed her brow.
I smiled reassuringly. “Nobody,” I said. “Just someone looking for your dad.”
“Come on, let’s play,” she said.
I gazed into Mina’s earnest face.
I can’t lose you
, sweetie. I sat down at the table, but my mind wasn’t on the game. As soon as Mina went to bed, I’d call him. I wanted some answers.
While Mina brushed her teeth and got ready for bed, I turned down the sheets on her bed and started to close the curtains. I noticed a car idling at the curb across the street. The menacing blue Seville was back. I immediately turned off the light and peeked out, but couldn’t discern the faces of the two figures in the front seat. No matter; I had no doubt the thugsy twins were watching the place, waiting for Lance to show. I debated going out there and confronting them, but nixed the idea. I had a responsibility to keep Mina safe. But knowing they were out there gave me the creeps.