This transcript includes the text of our play session, but not the illustrations. It omits the hypertext links which we selected in the course of play, and also does not attempt to render the mutating text which is used in some scenes.
In your reading room
“Do you seek the wisdom of the ancients? Come forth!”
After a brief hesitation, the beaded curtain parts and your next customer steps through. A few stray beads fall off and scatter to the corners.
You should really get a new curtain, but the room’s dim and your clients don’t seem to notice. They’re expecting to see the usual trappings of a boardwalk fortune-teller: tarot decks, zodiac paintings, an absurdly large crystal ball. This customer seems satisfied on that front, and he sits across from you at the cramped circular table. Your knees are almost touching; this room wasn’t built for two full-size men.
“Are you here for a reading?” you ask solemnly. The customer nods.
“Then let us begin. Some reach the spirits via palms or cards. I require a personal object, one infused with the spirits themselves.”
You look over the customer, who is wearing an impatient stare.
“There’s a powerful psychic force emanating from your jacket,” you say. “May I hold it?” The customer is wide-eyed as he hands it to you. You close your eyes and rotate the jacket slowly in your hands. “Your vacation hasn’t turned out the way you hoped. I’m sensing disappointment, maybe even despair.” You frown. “The spirits want to help, but their signals seem faint—” When he doesn’t respond, you open one eye and clear your throat. He hastily produces another twenty bucks.
“I see a name,” you continue. “It begins with an S—” He stares at you blankly. “Or an N?” He perks up. You frown as if in deep concentration. “ Nicky?”
“—Nicholas?” he supplies excitedly. “Is it my father?”
“Perhaps,” you hedge. “How would he feel about you traveling so far to see me?”
“He didn’t approve of frivolity and vacations. Never wanted me to have any fun,” he says bitterly.
“Yes, and he’s sorry he behaved that way.”
“He is?“ The customer frowns. “That doesn’t sound like him at all.”
“The world of the afterlife changes a person,” you say, gliding over his objection. You study the customer’s physical appearance and pick up some cues.
“He’s proud that his son works with his hands,” you improvise.
“That’s true, I have been—”
Your triumph is short-lived when the curtain rustles again unexpectedly. A woman pushes through: mid-forties, no-nonsense, a bit frumpy for your taste. Her sour expression tells you she’s not a potential client. You’re unsurprised when she flashes a badge at the customer, saying, “Get out.”
He nearly leaps out of his seat and hastily packs up, embarrassed. “You don’t have to leave,” you tell him, but it’s useless, he’s burnt anyway. He squeezes past the woman—the police officer—who watches him with a mix of pity and contempt. He’s in such a hurry he doesn’t think to pick up his extra money on the table, and in the distraction of the moment you quietly slide it into your pocket. His jacket also lies forgotten.
And now you’re alone with that cop. She’s probably here to harass you about somebody’s second thoughts: a claim that they were defrauded, that you didn’t disclaim it was for “entertainment purposes only” enough, that their spouse found out, the usual. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens. Best to make the interview go smoothly: start polite, keep it businesslike.
“May I help you, officer?” you ask. And then she says something that not even you could’ve predicted.
“It’s Detective. And I need a psychic,” she says, handing you her card, which you flip over and read: Tamisha Whitby, Criminal Investigations, Cape May County, NJ.
You expect her to undercut the moment with a joke, but she doesn’t, just stands there studying you. You might be a fraud, but you’re not rude. “Frank Petrio,” you say, extending your meaty hand.
She shakes it and produces one of your business cards. “Not The Great Francisco?”
You shrug, point to the sign over the door: “FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY.” You both sit.
She says, “I don’t believe in fortune-telling or psychics or any of that. I’m here as a favor for someone.” She’s staring at you, hard, and you can’t help but squirm a little. This is probably how your clients feel. “There was a death last month, in Stone Harbor, an elderly man named Alan Healey. You may have read about it; it was in the papers.”
“It’s August at the boardwalk,” you reply. “I’ve been pretty busy with work.”
She looks pointedly around the reading room and you don’t need to be psychic to know what she thinks of your career choice. She produces a file folder and begins to read from it. “Healey was found dead in his home after taking an overdose of his blood pressure medication. The Healeys are an old and wealthy family in town so the story got quite a bit of news coverage.”
Stone Harbor is a beautiful, wealthy, planned village about fifteen minutes and a million miles away from the working-class carnival town where you live. “Sorry. What does this have to do with me?”
“Healey has a young niece who was staying with him at the time. She’s my god-daughter. Her mother’s not in the picture anymore but I know she’d—I feel—” The detective looks uncomfortable, like a lot of your customers do at first. “She a very… spiritual person. She believes easily.” Whitby pauses again.
“You mean she’s gullible,” you say.
The detective scowls. ”I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here. He was an old man with poor vision who misread his dosage. I’m fulfilling a favor to an old friend and—” She reaches into her pocket, searching for something. “Allison, my friend, told me if anything violent happened in the family, if there was ever a reason to think her daughter was in danger, I should come see the psychic here. That she’d listened to her, and would be able to help—”
“Right, she,” you snap. “My mother was ’The Great Francesca.’ This was her business, and then she died.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
You’re angry too, though you’re not sure why. “And now I operate it. For tourists and suckers. For entertainment purposes only.”
“I knew this was a waste of time,” Whitby says. She tosses a tense and furious glove on the desk. ”There, I did what I came to do.”
Something is very strange about that—
You pick up the glove, and everything changes.
A small, cluttered study, with pictures and a wicker chair before a desk, in sepia tones.
In the study
You look down and see nothing, as if you aren’t there. The color has been washed out of the room. Objects are blurry and indistinct, like an old photograph. There’s a bookcase, a cluttered desk containing personal effects, a small lamp, family photographs on the wall. There’s a doorway leading into a brightly lit bedroom, but it’s even fuzzier, less real, than this room.
You look down at the unfinished note. It reads:
My dearest, I hope you understand that I’m doing this based on need, not out of any lack of love for
You don’t understand why, but you recognize the handwriting as Alan Healey’s.
A shadowed figure appears in the doorway, blotting out the light. You hear a labored sound from the bedroom, someone choking and spluttering.
The figure listens to the distress impassively. Panic is rising in you, but absurdly, you have no feet to run into the room, no voice to call for help. An achingly long time later, the choking subsides. All is silence. The figure closes the bedroom door, and the room is now lit by the single weak lamp on the desk. It illuminates the gloved hand on the doorknob, and you’re transfixed by that simple object. The figure tests the door, and satisfied that the bedroom is locked, releases the knob, the violently angry glove seeming to boil under the light—
In your reading room
And just like that you’re back, and the feeling of being weighed down by your own body is almost grotesque. You look at the glove, and while it feels dense and heavy in your hands, the sense of deep wrongness about it is gone. It’s just a glove.
This was the first actual psychic experience of your life.
You can’t imagine how you’re going to explain all this to a practical and rational police officer, but when you look up into her eyes you can see plainly enough that something happened. She looks more than a little bit afraid of you.
You push the glove back at her. “Healey was murdered.”
At the diner
You agreed to continue this elsewhere, so here you are: big booths, bad coffee. It’s the middle of a work week so there’s nobody here but truck drivers and retirees. Detective Whitby’s coffee is black; yours is choked with an unmanly amount of cream and sugar. You’ve left it untouched.
“Tell me again about the note. What exactly did you see?”
You just stick to the facts. You recite what the note said, word-for-word. You describe the lettering, the handwriting like “someone formally taught but with a slight tremor.”
The detective makes no immediate response, just notes down what you wrote. “And describe the room again.”
“I already told you—”
“Again.” She’s not meeting your gaze, and if you were trying to read her you’d get no cues. She’s good. Funny thing is, though, you’re telling the truth.
“It was a study or personal library with an adjacent bedroom. Two single beds in the room, bookshelves, a desk with a few things, but I only looked closely at the note.”
“And describe the person you saw.”
Now she looks up. “You saw the note clearly, but you don’t remember anything about the person you’re telling me is a killer?”
How to explain? It was like staring down the wrong end of a telescope. The desk, that glove, those were in sharp focus, but everything else was dark and foggy. An obscure memory arises: you were about ten, playing in the corner while your mom read for two teenage girls. It was so crowded, overheated, and their giggling and the humid summer air swirled all around until you couldn’t breathe. You nearly fainted that time, and this experience was like that—staring down a darkening tunnel and all the world falling away from you. But you only say, lamely, “It was hard to see.”
She’s writing again, for a long time. You try sipping your coffee, but it’s gone cold and all that cream is nauseating.
“What do you sense from this?” she says without looking up. She lays an ordinary gold watch on the table.
You palm it briefly, and then set it back down. “It’s a watch. Did you want to know if it’s a fake? I have no idea.”
No reply, just more scratching in that damn notepad. “And this?” She produces a handkerchief, covered in dark red stains, which you recoil from when you turn it over.
“Jesus Christ is that blood?” Instinctively you’re trying to push back from table but you’re in a booth, there’s nowhere to go.
“Do you sense anything from it?” she asks blandly, like surprising people with bloody evidence is the most ordinary thing in the world. Maybe this is what cops do for fun.
“No! What the hell is wrong with you?”
“The watch was my ex’s. The handkerchief I bought on the way here and soaked it in ketchup when you were in the bathroom.” She’s looking directly at you now.
Your stomach is still churning. “Because you think I’m a fraud.”
“Of course you’re a fraud.”
She’s not wrong, but that stings and you wince. She sighs and says, “Everything you described about that room was accurate. Maybe you knew it because you’re a murderer. Maybe you’re… something else. But you weren’t lying, and I get the impression you’re as surprised by that as anybody.”
Before you can react to that extraordinary statement, she says, “Let’s try this now,” and tosses you a metal cutting tool that’s emanating frustration, and the moment you catch it you’re—
The large, empty courtyard of an immense house, in washed out sepia tones
In the courtyard
It’s dawn and you can smell salt in the air. A metal device nearby is frustrated.
This is the rear courtyard of the Healey property. There’s no reason for you to know this; you’ve never been there, but you know where you are as sure as you know your own home. The neo-classical house is brightly lit by the rising sun, but as before, your vision blurs and darkens around the periphery. You can make out a decorative stone fence enclosing the courtyard, accessed by a set of stairs flanked by urns. The stairs lead to a sandy path through the dunes and the path presumably leads to their private beach.
It seems perfectly normal that the mismatched urns alongside the back stairs are radiating frustration.
The newer urn contains the metal tool that Whitby tossed to you. It’s a curved blade set in a round slot about the size of a quarter, with a safety cover—ah, it’s a cigar cutter. You can read the emotion radiating from it as clearly as you could read a person’s face.
Where the glove felt angry—murderous even—the cigar cutter is frustrated. It had a single task and that job went unfinished when Healey, interrupted in his room, was killed. It’s a simple device but a very personal one, and you can sense another emotion welling up from within it: a profound sense of loss.
Its sadness is blossoming, somehow, leaking out of the cutter and seeping into the urn, into the fissures of the stone fence and spilling onto the ground in a torrent. You watch as the entire courtyard seems to blaze up in an paroxysm of grief. The house is mourning its owner.
But there’s a discordant note, a conflicting spasm of hatred. Down by the path, near the base of the stairs, is the familiar anger of that glove, but subtly different. It must be the glove’s pair.
You hear muffled shouts, and several police officers appear from around the sides of the house. They’re first responders to a crime you already witnessed, though they don’t know it yet. They approach the house carefully, wading through the grief but completely unaware of it, and of you. You can feel the vast separation between the animate and inanimate world.
One of the cops must’ve gotten a signal—someone located the body—and they all run into the house. The grief begins to collapse, draining like a film run backwards until it pools back into Healey’s cigar cutter.
At the diner
Everyone is staring at you.
“He’s all right,” Whitby says to the room. She’s pulling the cigar cutter from your clenched fist. Her hand feels fiery hot against your skin, but it’s you that’s cold.
“What did I do?” you whisper, and try to sit up straight.
“You went pale. Then you slumped over.” You see that your coffee is overturned and there’s a pile of sopping wet napkins bundled up by the salt shaker.
“Sorry,” you mutter. Patrons in the diner have resumed pretending not to notice you. You fix the detective with your best fortune teller’s stare. “You found Healey’s cigar cutter, in an urn, dropped by the killer behind the house,” you insist. Her face is a swirl of conflicting emotions.
“Yes,” she says, finally.
“He was using it right before he died.”
“We think so. He smoked outside but kept his cigars in that study. We found one unwrapped, but uncut.” She pauses and lowers her voice. “Where were you? Just now?”
“Behind his house. I saw the police arrive, the morning of Healey’s death.”
“And the urn?” she prompts.
In for a penny, in for a pound. “I could sense it. The cigar cutter… it misses him.”
Your palms are sweaty but all the napkins were used to mop up your coffee. You wipe them on your pants instead. “I don’t think it’s just any object that I’ll … connect with. It has to be invested in what happened.”
“Invested,” she repeats.
“Let me see that glove again.” She produces it reluctantly. As you expected, it’s no longer suffused with rage or vengeance or any emotion at all. “When I first held this,” you explain, “it was like being in the room with the angriest person you’ve ever met. Someone so blinded by fury that they wanted no other outcome but violence.”
Her eyebrow is spectacularly arched. “The glove. Was angry.”
“And this cigar knife,” you press on, “wanted nothing more than to cut one more cigar. It had a purpose in existing and that purpose was thwarted.”
“And right now? This cigar cutter misseshim?”
“Not anymore. I think once they—show me what they’re feeling, they’re satisfied.”
She sits back and folds her arms. “Mr. Pietro, I can’t tell, do you think I’m an idiot or a sucker?”
“That glove,” you point. “You only found one, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” she says, suspicious.
“Take me to the Healeys’. I know where the other one is.”
At the mansion
You barely talk on the ride over. You stopped by your storefront on the way to formally close up for the afternoon. It’s Saturday and there are huge crowds at the beach, so you flipped the sign to CLOSEDwith more than a little regret. On the other hand, you realize this was probably a day off for Whitby. You wonder what it’s like to have friends who’d do this kind of a favor for you.
The house is just as you remember from the vision: sprawling, white, faux classical, typical for the fancy neighborhood and so different from the sun-washed gray wood of most shore houses. But the property isn’t new money, either. It’s worn but well cared for. Living at the shore it’s easy to find rich people to resent, but the Healeys’ place feels like a home.
“The wife is staying with her sister so nobody’s here,” Whitby says, getting out of the car. ”But I couldn’t let you in even I wanted to.” It’s quite clear she doesn’t want to.
“I don’t need to go inside, it’s around back,” you reply. You know the way and don’t wait for her.
It’s late afternoon so the courtyard is in shade, but it’s a hot, hot day and you’re sweating your balls off in shorts. Of course the detective seems to be cool as ice in her polyester police suit. “Stop right there,” she barks. “Just tell me where it is.”
“Don’t want me planting any evidence?”
“It would hurt my feelings less if you lied to me.” She says nothing, so you just point. “It’s in a bush by the base of the stairs. Probably.”
She pauses. “Probably?”
“It wasthere, but Healey died weeks ago. How the hell should I know what happened between now and then?” You hear her mutter something about being a lousy psychic.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
You turn with a start. It’s an older woman, alarmed at your presence. Her clothes are but also a bit haphazardly put together; not everything matches. She’s carrying a duffel bag, which from the way she carries it suggests it’s both full and heavy. Her eyes are sharp, but rheumy, like she’s been crying.
Ah, she must be the widow. She frowns at both of you. “Are you with the police?”
“Yes,” Whitby says, truthfully. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Mrs. Healey.”
She’s relieved that you aren’t thieves but not exactly pleased to see you. “I thought you people were finished here.”
“Just following up on some loose ends. My apologies for disturbing you, I thought you’d left already.” Whitby replies. She gives you a look that in no uncertain terms means ‘keep your mouth shut.’
“I know you,” Mrs. Healey says. “You’re Sarah’s godmother.”
Whitby nods. “I went to high school with Allison.”
The woman putters a little around the area, deadheading a few parched flowers. “I haven’t seen Sarah since—that night—but she left something at the house. Let me give it to you.” She reaches into the duffel bag and moves to offer you something—you, because you’re standing right by her—and you’re struck by a wave of fear that physically knocks you back. She looks puzzled at your reaction, but steps forward, holding the object out for you. Your vision is so distorted that can’t make it out even though it’s in front of your face.
Whitby sees your distress and starts running up the steps across the patio. “Thank you, Mrs. Healey, I’ll take it—”
You can feel the blood draining from your limbs and your vision narrowing to a pinprick. Whitby’s reaching out to intercept, but it’s too late, the woman has eagerly shoved a frightened doll with a crushed head into your paralyzed hands—
An old-fashioned parlor, with overstuffed chairs and a vase of wilted flowers, in black and white
In the family room
You’ve never felt so small in your life—physically small. Even as a boy you were big for your age, often crashing into your mom’s cheap but delicate new age baubles. But now you are hemmed in on all sides by gargantuan walls of solid furniture and you feel downright tiny.
A young girl, carrying the happy doll, runs into the room and settles comfortably into a high-backed chair. She’s followed by an older man who you know to be Alan Healeyand a woman you now recognize as Healey’s wife.
In the arms of its owner, the doll is radiating contentment rather than fear. Maybe that’s because it still has a head.
Healey’s wife still has streaks of brown in her curly gray hair. She’s dressed formally, as her generation tends to, even though you’re sure the room is summer-hot. She asks the girl, “Honey, do you want anything?” Her voice is firm, but kind, like you’d imagine an aunt could be.
“No thank you, Aunt Maggie,” the girl says. She hugs the doll in a grip which would probably kill a small animal, but the doll loves it.
Her aunt nods and says to her husband, “I’ll get you your iced tea, dear.”
Healey wears huge thick glasses and is bald but for a few wisps that could use trimming. Probably his wife cuts his hair after a lot of fussing and protesting. With an ache, you realize she’ll never get another chance; some stranger will clean it up for the funeral and she’ll think it’s all wrong.
Healey says nothing, just forces a smile which doesn’t reach his eyes.
You could give the guy a tip on how to better lie with your expression. He’s keeping something from her. He’s waiting for her to leave. She hesitates for just a second; she’s on to him. You want to call out and tell her to just stand there forever—don’t let him out of your sight. But you aren’t really there, and this already happened. She chooses to believe the fake smile and exits the room.
The second she’s out of sight, Healey picks up a heavy black telephone from a side table and settles it on his lap. ”You play with Vicky now, Sarah. Uncle Alan just needs to make a quick phone call.” The little girls nods and hums to the doll tunelessly.
Healey dials the rotary phone slowly; it’s obviously painful for his hands to operate. It’s a short number, local. His conversation is muffled and unintelligible because he doesn’t want the girl to overhear. You catch words here and there—“never”, “that money”, and then he says angrily, “How could you?” and the girl, Sarah, looks up in alarm, letting go of the doll which tumbles to the floor.
“I won’t have her suffer for your mistakes. By morning it’ll be done.” Healey says and slams the receiver down just as his wife enters carrying a couple of sweating glasses on a tray. “Wrong number,” he says, preempting any discussion. His wife says nothing, just puts the serving items down.
“Sorry,” he says roughly, taking off his glasses to wipe his face, and then gets up. He doesn’t see the doll and steps on it, crushing its head. Little Sarah was already starting to cry but this sends her into hysterics. Maggie Healey bundles her up, says, “I’ll read to you in bed, honey, let’s go.”
The room is empty now but for the doll, which lies forgotten under an ornate cupboard. Time passes, maybe hours. The lights in the house go out as everyone goes to bed, the grandfather clock on the wall spins and spins. Strangely it’s not boring, being alone among the household objects. It’s peaceful and uncomplicated.
You hear the sound of a window opening, and in the gloom of a moonless night you see very little, just the shadow of a person dropping into the room. Nowthe doll is afraid, not because it was damaged and discarded, you realize, but because this still and orderly world has been invaded. The terrified doll is crying out a warning now, it wants to wake the house, but it can only wake you—
At the mansion (in Whitby’s car)
You bolt straight up. “How did I get here?”
“We dragged you.” Whitby’s smoking—you didn’t think she was the type. The ash is long.
“Me and Mrs. Healey,” she says, with infinite patience. “She’s stronger than she looks. I told her your blood sugar crashed. So much for keeping a low profile.”
It’s surely hot as hell outside, but you’re chilled to the bone and unable to stop shivering. You laugh a little and it sounds weird to your own ears. “Some cop I turned out to be.”
“I never said you were a police officer,” she replies dourly.
“You certainly didn’t correct her misapprehension.”
She notices her forgotten cigarette and flicks it out the window. “What other choice did I have? Hi I’m Detective Whitby and this is my pet psychic?”
“That’s sweet of you, but we’ve just met.”
She sees that you’re shivering and rolls up her car window even though it must be sweltering in the car. You’re grateful. “What happened this time?” she asks, gently.
You tell her, in a simple recitation of facts, even the bit about the doll. “But I get it,” you say, when she doesn’t respond. “It’s in my head, or I’m a fraud. Just drop me back off at the boardwalk. I won’t bother you again.”
She nods and starts the car. “I’ll drop you off,” she says. “What time can you be ready tomorrow?”
“Ready for what?”
She points. Sitting on the back seat is the killer’s glove—no, a matched pair of gloves.
“The other one was right where you said it would be, under a bush by the base of the stairs. I picked it up before you did your fainting flower bit. When I get in to work on Monday I need to have some words with CSI about their thoroughness.”
You don’t say anything, just stare at her, so she adds, “Look, just relax, Pietro. I believe you.”
In Whitby’s office
You were certain you’d never get to sleep but last night you felt a whole-body weariness unlike anything since you were a kid. You remember summer days when it was too hot to be in the reading room— Mom didn’t get air conditioning until ’75, long after you’d moved out—and you would just spend the whole day in the ocean. You weren’t much of a swimmer, but just fighting the current is tiring, and you’d come home, tracking sand into the foyer and up the stairs to the apartment over the storefront, and crash straight onto the bed. Mom’s work day didn’t really even start until the evening, and so you’d tend to sleep through most of it until she’d wake you, often well after midnight, and make a simple dinner. As a result you tended to miss whatever was on TV, which made you even more popular with the kids at school.
“Cream?” Whitby asks, interrupting your thoughts.
You shake your head. “Trying to quit. I’ll take a dumptruck of sugar, though.”
She hands you a mug and a fistful of sugar packets. Her office is shared, but it’s the weekend and just the on-duty cops are around, grimly filling out paperwork in the bullpen.
She closes the venetian blind that looks out into the common area, though it has so many creases and kinks that it barely affords any privacy. It feels like you’re about to be interrogated, which you are.
“Why did you move back to Jersey?” When you look confused, she says, “After your mom died. She owned that property so it’s probably worth plenty, being right there on the boardwalk.” She sits across from you and folds her hands primly.
“You ran a background check on me?” She shrugs: That’s what I do. “I moved back in when she was in the hospital, thought I’d just run things for awhile until she got back on her feet.” You pause, sip the coffee, add more sugar. “She never did. Haven’t gotten around to selling it.”
“That was four years ago.” Logically, you know this, but it’s different when someone else says it out loud. Before you can answer, she says, “Sorry, none of my business why.”
You hesitate and then say, “There isn’t even always a why. Sometimes people just get—stuck.”
She nods and picks up a small stack of photographs and begins laying them out, snapping them crisply and placing them face down. She’d make a great dealer.
“Another test?” you sigh.
“No, dummy. It’s time you met the family.” She turns over the first photo, of Healey and a younger man who resembles him.
“That’s Alan on the left and his younger brother, Jared, on the right. I went to school with Jared’s wife Allison—we were next door neighbors for a few years—and we stayed in touch while she went off to college. I didn’t know Jared until they got married. His family and mine didn’t exactly go to the same garden parties.” She’s thoughtful for a moment. “I never knew why she made me Sarah’s godmother. I’m not Catholic and by then we weren’t close. She just said she wanted to make sure her girl was ‘protected,’ though from what I don’t know. I just figured I was the only cop she’d ever known.
“About nine years ago she took off. Just a note saying she’d decided to start a new life. I tried tracking her down; she left a message for me at the office saying she’d met someone new and not to go find her. I didn’t approve, but who am I to judge?”
“How did her husband take it?”
“As you might imagine. So he’s been raising his daughter on his own. He’s a good single dad, but the kind who thinks he deserves a medal for doing what a million women do every year.” She turns over another photo of Sarah, the girl with the doll.
“This picture’s a few years old, she’s eleven now.” Whitby considers her for a moment. “Everyone loves that little girl. Not just because her mom skipped out on her; she’s just a sweet kid.” She flips a picture of two adult twinsover.
“Michael and Michelle Herschel,” she says, and you can’t help but snort. “Yeah, no points for originality. These two are Alan’s niece and nephew—their mom was Christina, Alan and Jared’s older sister, but she passed away some years back. The twins still live in her house over in Sea Isle. Don’t know them personally.”
“Last one,” she says, and hands you a photo of Maggie Healey.
“Margaret, or Maggie. Lovely woman, but tough as nails too, as you saw. From what I hear she’d be the first one to bail you out of trouble and also the first to toss you on the street if you screwed up again. If more people were like her I’d be out of a job.”
“She didn’t kill him,” you say, surprising even yourself. “I saw the way she looked at him, the night that he died. She was worried about him. She loved him.”
“I think so too, but you never know,” she says, a little sadly. “Everyone I’ve shown you here was at or near the Healey estate the weekend that he died. If we were pursuing this as an active murder investigation they’d all be under close watch, but—a locked door, a common medication, an elderly victim? It just added up to an unfortunate but ordinary death.”
“Do you still think that?” you ask.
Her phone rings before she can answer. Whitby listens and nods a few times, then covers the receiver. “I need to take this. Can you wait outside?”
Banished, you slink out through the bullpen to a nearby waiting area. Six plastic chairs, a few other guys. This isn’t general intake—that would be swarming with impatient people who were drunk, angry, or, most likely, both. This is where they park visitors who are here voluntarily, those coming to speak with the detectives.
Nobody looks thrilled to be here, and frankly you doubt you‘d want to have a beer with any of them, but at least these people aren’t puking. You pretend they don’t exist and sift through a pile of stale magazines on a makeshift coffee table.
You’re flipping through a 1982 issue of Reader’s Digest (worse, you think you read this one already) when a woman begins arguing with an impassive young officer: “But Detective Whitby specifically told me to come in now!” You look up and with surprise recognize Healey’s older niece Michelle from her photo.
She’s told to cool her heels and she sits down across from you in one of the few empty chairs.
Absolutely, positively, you should not engage with this woman. This is police business and she’s here, right now, waiting to talk to the police. You should go home. There are only ten weeks in the tourist season and that’s 80% of your income for the entire year. This is not your problem.
But then you think of that doll gazing back at you.
Michelle Herschel, like her twin, is blonde, hair parted flat down the middle with long bangs pulled back behind her ears. She’s wearing no jewelry, not even a watch, but probably just forgot it—she’s fidgeting in her seat and twice looked at her wrist only to find it empty. She’s not nervous or guilty, just irritated. She has places to be. And now she’s noticed that you’re staring at her. Her shoes are clunky, unfashionable. Probably orthotics.
“Could be worse,” you say, with a rueful smile. “Did you see the other waiting room?”
She doesn’t respond. Who can blame her—you’re a creepy stranger chatting her up in a police station. You make a show of trying to get comfortable in your seat. “Man, all day on shift and now these chairs? I’m ready to confess to anything.”
“Yeah, me too,” she says slowly. She clutches a brown purse closer to her body and tucks her shoes further under the seat.You sense something shifty, paranoid, cowering in the purse, like a nervous mouse.
Herschel looks around, probably hoping for another woman to save her, but nobody else is in the waiting room besides a bunch of guys, but you take particular note of a biker type sitting next to her.
If you keep talking to her you’ll probably scare her off, so you need to get her to come to you if you’re going to get into that purse.
He’s a garden-variety Hell’s Angels dude. Rides up and down the Expressway in the summer with a pack of his buddies. He’s snarling a little now that he notices you’re looking. Instead of breaking contact, you raise your eyebrows a little at Michelle Herschel in the universal language of sleazy guys.
Biker guy looks confused, so you nod directly at her, and he finally takes the hint. He slides over one seat next to Ms. Herschel, not bothering to keep his leg from pressing into her personal space.
Herschel clearly wants no part of him and decides you’re the best of bad options. She moves over to the remaining empty seat next to you. Her purse is between you, and you can sense it fearfully pulling away. There’s something inside that doesn’t want to be found. The biker mutters something at the woman. “Back off, buddy,” you warn, and he looks aggrieved—weren’t you just on the same side?
“Sorry,” Ms. Herschel says, unexpectedly. “I was rude to you.”
“No need to apologize.” Also I’m trying to steal your purse.
“Frank,” you reply. “Frank Desiderio.” That was your father’s name. It’s never been yours.
“And what do you do, Frank?” She’s not really interested, just being polite, and it shows when she grabs the purse and starts shuffling items around, stashing the frightened object further inside. Maybe it’s even pushing her to do it, a little compulsion she can’t place. You lean over trying to see what it is but you don’t want to spook her.
“Limo driver,” you answer. That’s true too. You own a couple cars, sublease them to a buddy now. You keep thinking you’ll sell Mom’s property, pick your own business back up again, but it’s never the right time. “It’s good money. There are always rich suckers to shuttle down to the casinos from Philly or New York.”
Too late, you remember that she’srich. Or at least her family is. Funny how that‘s not always the same thing. “And you?” you ask, hoping to change the subject.
“I work with my brother,” she says, and you can tell that the conversation is over. She closes the purse, and, agonizingly, sets it on the other side from you. You sense relief from whatever has been trying to evade your grasp.
Whitby walks into the waiting area, brushing past you so rudely you know it’s a deliberate signal. “Ms. Herschel,” she says, squatting in front of the woman and leaning over like a confidante. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting.”
“It’s fine, I’m just in a bit of a hurry—”
You interrupt, loudly. “Hey, lady cop, I was here first and I’ve been waiting for over an hour.”
Whitby’s face shows no sign of recognition of you. “Sir, if you’ll just let me know what you need I can try to find someone—”
“What I needis to get some help around here even though I don’t have a pretty face and a purse.”
“Sir, I have to ask you to calm down.” Whitby puts a protective arm around Michelle Herschel and pulls her to her feet. In doing so she knocks the purse over, and—thank God—the contents spill everywhere. The hysterical receipt is blessedly muffled when you stomp on it with your foot, hiding it from view.
“I’m so sorry,” Whitby says to Herschel, bending over to help clean up. She’s re-packing the purse.
Making a show of your own clumsiness, you retrieve a spilled tissue off the floor and offer it to Herschel, but she pulls away from you. “I knew you were a creep,” she says, and hurries out of the room towards the detective’s office. Whitby glances back sympathetically, and you give her a little nod: I got what I wanted.
When no one’s looking, you pick up the receipt with the tissue and carefully stash it in a pocket.
And probably what I deserve.
You hear a tentative knock on the apartment door. “It’s open!”
Whitby slides open the screen door and joins you on your tiny patio. “How’d you know it was me?”
“I’m psychic. How’d you know where I lived?”
“I’m a cop.” She sets down a paper bag and lights a cigarette without asking. “I brought beer.”
“My favorite kind of houseguest,” you reply, though you don’t move to open one. Instead you hand her a clam shell to ash in. The two of you sit in amiable silence, looking out over your railing towards the ocean.
“You get many guests?” she asks. It’s rhetorical—your apartment is a dump and you know it. You got as far as tossing out most of Mom’s old furniture but didn’t bother to replace much. Whitby puts her feet up on the railing and looks out over the boardwalk at the water. “I’ll give you this, it’s a million dollar view.”
She’s right. It’s dusk now, high tide, and the waves are starkly visible, almost fluorescent. You can hear the distant sound of the crowd on the boardwalk but the surf is closer and louder. Off to the north are the carousels and flume rides of the main strip; down at this end it’s still lively, but pleasant. “I love it here,” you admit.
“Who wouldn’t?” Whitby notices that the receipt is next to you on a milk crate, weighed down with—“Is that a crystal ball?”
“It’s my spare.” You know well enough what what brought her to your apartment at 9pm on a Sunday night, so you answer her unasked question. “I haven’t touched it yet.” You omit mentioning the strange agony of sharing a confined space with an object that is desperate to hide from you. How can a piece of paper have secrets?
You watch the waves for a few cycles before answering. “Each time it’s more difficult.”
“To get into the… vision?”
“To get out of it. What did Michelle Herschel say when you interviewed her?”
“Oh, nothing we hadn’t already heard. She was pretty thoroughly debriefed on the scene since she and her brother were staying here in town for the weekend. They rented a couple rooms at the Caribbean motel in Wildwood. She’s probably annoyed that I wasted her time repeating a bunch of questions she’d already been asked.”
“Then why’d you bring her in?” When she doesn’t reply it hits you suddenly and you laugh. “Was that a setup, sending me out of your office?” You replay the events in your head. “That phone call you got, that was just the front desk telling you she’d arrived. And then you just watched us the whole time through your blinds.”
“See? Psychic. I just wanted to see what you could do when you put your mind to it, and you didn’t disappoint.” She stubs out her cigarette and picks up the receipt like it was just an ordinary piece of paper (which, to her, it is). “It’s a bar bill from that motel.” She flips it over. “A jumble of numbers handwritten on the back. What are they?”
“I don’t know.”
She holds the receipt out to you. “It’s time, Pietro. I promise to keep you safe.”
She’s right. “Thanks,” you say, and mean it. You reach for the sneaky little receipt, and crumple it into your hand.
A sunny motel patio, in bright, over-saturated yellows, against a clear blue sky
At the motel
Your first instinct is to reach up and cover your eyes with your hands, but of course you have neither. Nevertheless, it’s blindingly, painfully bright out. The Caribbean is on the bay side of the inlet—you’ve driven past it a thousand times—but now it appears to be almost hyperreal, day-glo.
Across the street, an electronic bank sign tells you it’s just past dawn, explaining why the motel is deserted. There’s a temperature reading too and it’s surprisingly cool; trapped in this vision it feels like the most unforgiving midday, under a boiling solar spotlight with no place to hide. It all adds up to an overwhelming sense that you’re being watched.
Even though you can’t truly feel anything, you’ve got to get out of this sun, so you move (drift? float?) up the stairs to the deck and under the grand burning awning.
There’s no relief up here. Being under this canopy is stifling, as if you’re trapped in a hot closed room. This is what it must feel like to be an ant under a magnifying glass.
Michael Herschel emerges from inside the motel; you recognize him from the photo but you’d know he’s his sister’s twin—pale and fair-haired. He’s already sweating, and since it’s not hot out, it must be nerves. He can’t decide whether to sit or pace, alternately straightening cabana chairs and then circling the patio.
He’s joined by his uncle, Jared. No family resemblance here; Jared is mostly bald but what hair he has is dark. His eyebrows are bushy and he’s got an uneven beard. Compared to his niece and nephew, he looks haunted and unkempt. He’s about 15 years the junior of his brother, maybe only 5 years older than the Herschels, almost their peer.
“You’re late,” Herschel complains.
“Yeah well, traffic,” Jared Healey says.
Herschel finally decides to sit. “Give me a break, it’s 5:30 in the morning. So is it resolved or not?”
“Not yet,” Healey admits. Before Herschel can protest he says, “I need more time.”
“We’re out of time, Jared.”
“What do you want me to do?” Healey says. His voice reaches a high pitch; he’s genuinely afraid and trying to hide it.
Herschel was edgy when he first emerged, but everything about his body language is projecting confidence now. “I gave you plenty of time to make this right. We agreed on a deadline, and you blew it. It’s my turn now.” He wantedthis outcome, you realize. He was hoping his uncle would bring bad news so he could take control of the situation.
Healey gets up, kneels before his nephew. For an absurd moment you think he’s going to propose. “Michael, please. This isn’t how I want to run my business.”
“You’re not running it, you’re ruining it.” He leans back, spreads his legs. He’s taking his time now. “I’m being generous here. I don’t want the whole bottom sheet. Keep your buddies at the marina, or whatever townie dive bar you wake up in these days. I just want the top five.”
Healey looks defeated. “You got any paper?” He pats himself down, sighs again. “A pen?”
Herschel’s not even fazed. He calmly takes out a pen and fishes out a piece of paper from his pocket—the receipt. He watches in triumph as his uncle, prostrate before him, scribbles a series of letters and numbers. As soon as he finishes the fifth row, Herschel swipes the paper away from Healey and stands.
“Don’t call me,” he says. “I’ll let you know when it’s done. Or just check the account.” Healey tries to interrupt but Herschel makes a scolding sound like he’s talking to a dog. “You’re sure hehasn’t found out?”
“Positive, you gotta trust me.”
“No I don’t. Now, can you keep your mouth shut, or do I have two problems?”
“I’ll keep quiet,” Healey says, miserably. He slinks down the outside stairs, a broken man. With each step he takes, the vision fades to that blinding white a little more.
Herschel watches his uncle leave, and says aloud, “He’s gone. Are you happy now?” You knew someone else was watching. The sense of being under the microscope intensifies, and the scene goes completely white, as white as the paper on that paranoid receipt.
Your living room
You open your eyes just a little, but it’s agony. “God, turn that light off, what are you, the Gestapo?” You hear Whitby’s footsteps, and then a click, and it’s still painful but you manage to look around.
“Hey, it’s your lamp,” she says mildly. “How do you feel?”
“Like I have the world’s worst hangover after the world’s shortest bender. How long was I out?”
“You were never ‘out’. Mostly you were just moaning about the light and the heat even though it’s after midnight and I have your AC on full blast. Last time you were too cold. You really should make up your mind.”
You force yourself to sit up and drink the water she kindly left here for you. “That was brutal.”
Her usually impassive face softens a little. “I’m sorry if I pressured you into it.” It’s awkward for her to apologize and it’s weird for you too, so you wave it off.
“What does Jared Healey do for a living?”
“Manages a third-rate marina on the bay. Really more of a slip for locals to go fishing and crabbing on the off season. It’s really owned by his brother.”
“He’s a bookie,” you say, and describe the vision. Whitby takes notes in her little cop notebook, same place she puts the real evidence, which makes you obscurely proud.
When you’ve finished, she says, “A lousy bookie, from the sound of it. Probably small time, somebody else’s sub.” When you ask, she adds, “Sub-bookie. A lot of guys get started by pooling bets on behalf of friends, co-workers, take a small percentage of the profits.”
The receipt is still crumpled in your hand. You smooth it out on the coffee table and study it together. Of the five rows of numbers, four are now crossed out. Whitby says, “The first number in each row is probably the bettor’s identifier— it’s not a business where you want to use proper names—and the second’s their outstanding balance. Their clients all know their ID and give that when they call in their bets. All these IDs are single digit, so I think we’re looking at a small number of clients, but some are in pretty deep. This sheet alone is worth about a hundred grand.”
“Impressive. I thought you were a homicide detective.”
“This may surprise you, but illegal sports betting plays a part in a lot of serious criminal activity.” She studies the receipt. ”I’m guessing Michael Herschel already collected on everyone who’s been crossed off. I’ll take this to Vice tomorrow, see if this rings any bells. But it’s a long shot without names. Whoever is number eight is in for a bad week, I bet.”
Your headache is subsiding, a little. “It was his sister who was carrying it around. Do you think she’s in on it?”
“Seems likely.” She doesn’t seem that interested.
“I guess. She didn’t look the type. Aren’t they wealthy enough already?”
Whitby’s packing up her stuff, her mind obviously on her day ahead. “Look, you’re good at reading people. I don’t deny that. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in this job, it’s that everybody is the type.” She tilts her head at you. “You gonna be okay by yourself?”
“Yeah. Thanks though.” You fiddle with the crystal ball that somehow made its way inside from the porch.
“You did good work today, Pietro. You gave me real police things to run down. Take a day off, go visit a friend, rest up. Try to get back your normal life.” You nod, and she leaves, and you’re alone with your pounding head and your crystal ball and not much else.
In your reading room
“Do you seek the wisdom of the ancients? Come forth!”
You didn’t visit a friend (they’ve given up on hearing from you) and you didn’t take a day off (can’t afford to), but you did get back to your normal life. Normal for you, which still involves working until midnight and sleeping through successive summer beach days. It’s been beautiful, you hear: sea breeze, no mosquitoes or biting flies, great for business.
This customer is a preteen girl. Usually you send them away unless they come with a parent, but you’re in a foul mood and happy to take her money. Teen girls only care about boys so you cut to the chase. “I see a name,” you say. “It begins with an S—” Her eyes widen immediately. “Sam?”
“Sam!” she whispers.
“There’s a strong connection here, I can feel it. You and Sam are—close, yet, not as close as you’d like.” From the other side of the beaded curtain you hear giggling. Not surprising: these girls rarely come in to see you alone.
The customer glances back towards the curtain. “I told them to wait outside. They can’t know about us,” she says, urgently. Her hands fidget, alternately grasping dozens of colorful plastic bracelets and a simple necklace made of string and a pierced shell.
“I sense a strong emotional connection from your bracelets.” She looks down at them in surprise, like she’d forgotten they were there. “Yeah, we bought them at the mall together.”
“Your necklace is calling to me.” You notice her eyelids flutter. “It’s a far more powerful connection than the bracelets.” She grasps the shell around her neck, and smiles secretively. “Sam made it.”
“He cares for you very deeply,” you say, and you’re just registering her sudden and profound disappointment when a commotion starts outside. An adult woman enters, furious. Somebody’s mother. This is why you don’t normally deal with kids.
“Jennifer, get outside right this minute,” the woman says. Behind her, the two girls who must be your customer’s friends push in. One girl wears a shell necklace, andlooks especially pale.
“Jennifer, Amy, Samantha, meet me in the car.” The girls scuttle out, Jennifer throwing you a look like she just learned that Santa Claus isn’t real. You know what’s coming next.
“Give me whatever she paid you,” the mother says, holding out a hand.
“I don’t want any trouble,” you say. You doubt your cop friend would help you out of this one. Automatically, you hand over five bucks, half of what you charged the girl.
The woman rips the money out of your hand and turns to leave. You roll your eyes to yourself and say, “Hey.” She turns back, suspicious. You give her the rest of the money, which she looks at in puzzlement. “Give the kid a break, okay?” She huffs and leaves.
You put your face into your hands and rub your eyes until you see stars. The door bell jingles, and you skip the usual preamble: “Come in!” It’s not like this day can get worse.
And that’s when Jared Healey, looking even more haggard than you feel, walks into your room.
He’s seemed to age years since the events of the vision, surely no more than a month ago. He hasn’t bothered to shave, and at some recent point his glasses were broken and repaired with duct tape. “How does this work?” he asks.
You struggle to speak for a moment, and he interrupts. “You read my palms or something, what?”
“I… no. I require a personal object,” you say, by rote, but you’re choked with fear. What if he hands you something and you fall into another trance? What if you blurt something incriminating out? What if you’re powerless in front of a murderer?
“What, like a watch or something? I sold ’em. Well, I have this—” He slides something off his hand (a ring?) and places it on the table, but covers it with his palms. You immediately sense waves of guilt pooling on the table, rippling towards you.
You can’t do this right now, not in front of him. ”Tarot cards,” you blurt out. “I sense you will benefit from their wisdom.” You retrieve a pack of your mom’s cards. You keep them around because some customers know what they want, but you’ve always found it easier to read people through their possessions. In this case, too easy.
While you shuffle you recite some woo about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Egyptian book of the Dead. Your mom’s deck is overstuffed with the fancy cards; people get bored with readings that consist entirely of the Two of Cups or the Seven of Wands. Hey, it’s for entertainment purposes only, right?
The ritual soothes you. “Tarot is not fortune-telling,” you conclude. “The cards are a reflection of present energy in a given area or circumstance.” You feel in control again and fix Healey with a stern expression. “You direct that energy through the choices that you make in life. If you don’t like what the cards tell you today, you can always change your behavior for a better outcome. Are you ready?”
You lay out a spread of two cards:
“The Traitor”. You fix him with an even stare. “Do you know someone who has betrayed a loved one?” When he only stammers, you say, “The cards know what you may be afraid to admit.”
“Justice will eventually come for us all. Some sooner than later.” When he says nothing, you continue. “Do you fear your own call to justice? The spirits believe you should be. You should be very afraid.” Now you’ve got his attention. “The Traitor will be punished for his disloyalty.”
“The Fool. The spirits are unclear. Is the fool someone you know? Or you?”
You fold up the deck and put it aside, and regard the man before you. He’s a coward and he’s dangerous, but he’s not, you know now, a murderer. He’s too weak.
“If you have any hope of changing your fate, you have to appease the spirit of the dead,” you threaten. Usually you tone down your naturally booming voice, but now you unleash the full force of it. In this small space it swallows him up, squeezes what passes for his conscience.
“What must I do?” he cries.
“You must purge yourself of your deceit.”
“I don’t know what you mean!”
You have one shot here to get the information you and Whitby need. “Put out your hand and the spirits will reveal to me what you must do,” you say.
If he finds the request odd he gives no sign, just plants his hands firmly on the table. He’s so eager for your approval he’d probably stand on his head if you’d absolve him of his guilt.
You flinch a little when grabbing hold of his palms—what if that triggers a vision?—but there’s just the revulsion of another human’s clammy, sweaty body. “I see numbers, rows and rows of numbers. A lot of pain and heartbreak in those numbers.” He tries to pull back, but you tighten your grip and talk over his objection. “Who is number eight?”
He finally pulls free, and now he’s full-body shaking. “My wife, she told me you were—but I didn’t believe—What are you?”
“Who is number eight?”
“Troiano,” he whispers. You could barely make out the name. Healey gets up, knocking over the chair in the process, and flees through the curtain.
He left his guilt-ridden gold wedding bandon your table.
On the boardwalk
You should’ve gone straight to Whitby. You will. But first you need to see someone from your past.
You know the Troianos. They own a chain of forgettable pizza joints up and down Cape May County. You went to school with one of the daughters, Nicki. She has an older brother who was always getting into trouble: one of those guys who figured he could scheme his way to success instead of working hard.
Nicki was a friend, insofar as girls and boys could be friends then. She grew up with an aunt in South Philly—you never quite knew why—and transferred in as a freshman. She didn’t have many friends and neither did you, and while you never had much in common it was nice to know someone had your back. And let’s be honest: you had a bit of a crush.
There’s a list as long as your arm of old acquaintances you haven’t bothered to get in touch with since you moved back, but Nicki’s the only one you’ve really avoided. Growing up, she heard you complain about your mom for years: about her job, her flaky behavior, her mortifying clothes, and the fact that you lived in a cheap apartment over a tourist trap. Now you have that job, that behavior, and twenty years later you live in the same shithole.
So you’re loitering outside Nicki’s Famous Pizzeria (not actually famous, and her father named her after the pizza place rather than the other way around). When your disgust at your own cowardice finally gets the better of you, you go in.
Nothing’s changed much in twenty years. One of the reasons Nicki had a tough time making other friends was her schedule: she was working almost all the time. Said she’d rather sling pizza when she was young than when she was old. You’re not the only one who’s ended up standing still.
She doesn’t see you right away, and rings up a family’s hoagies and soda total in her head. She was always good at math. You’re not sure what kind of reaction to expect, but when you get to the head of the line she’s genuinely happy to see you. “Frankie! I heard you were in town again.” She never lost her Philly accent.
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to—” She waves off your excuse. “Gimme a minute, I’ll get somebody to sub in. Didj’eat?” She comps you two slices and a coke and disappears in the back. You dutifully take your food to a booth.
She’s slurping from a giant lemonade when she slides in next to you—not across from you. “How you been?” she says.
This sudden influx of kindness is almost unbearable. “Good, Nicki, I’m good.” You savor the moment before you ruin it. “And I want to catch up sometime, I promise. I’ve been a real asshole, not coming to see you.”
“What else is new?” she says, smiling. “I heard about your mom, I’m sorry. I would’ve come to the funeral but I never saw a notice in the papers.”
“There was nothing public,” you say.
There’s no censure in her expression, only concern. “A lot of people loved her, you know. She did good for folks around here who had nobody else who’d listen to them. You were always a good listener too.” When you say nothing, she changes tack. “I can tell from the look on your face this isn’t a social call. What can I do you for?”
“Listen, Nicki, I gotta ask you about something but I need you to just trust me and not ask me why.” She shrugs and nods. “Is Jimmy mixed up in any kind of trouble?”
It’s obvious her first instinct is in fact to ask you why. “He’s supposed to work shifts here but it’s been months since I’ve seen him around the restaurant. I’d fire him but Dad would have a fit.
“He’s got a fancy new car—a Porsche, can you believe it?—and went in with some buddies on a sailboat when he wouldn’t know his aft from his ass. I saw him at Easter, asked him what he was into, but he just said he had a good run at the Sands.” You both know how implausible that is: you can win big in Atlantic City, but you need to start big. Nobody working a pizza joint wins car money.
“You know where I could find him?”
For the first time, she looks at you a little suspiciously. “Don’t come back into my life just to dump a new pile of shit on me, Frankie. I got enough agita as it is.”
“I’m just trying to make something right.”
“Since he’s gotten the boat he spends a lot of time down at his ‘marina’. But I think that’s just a fancy way of saying a bar with a bunch of deadbeats.”
“Jared Healey’s marina?” you ask.
“I dunno. Was that the guy who just died?”
“His brother.” Your mind is already spinning, formulating a plan.
Nicki puts her hand on yours, which is more physical contact than you were ever able to initiate in high school. “You be careful. I don’t want to lose my friend a second time.”
The lump in your throat is physically painful. “Can I borrow your phone?”
Pier 73 Marina
Nicki didn’t know where the marina was, but you called Information and got the address. You also called Whitby, who didn’t like your plan but reluctantly agreed to go along with it. “Hey,” you said, while you had her on the line, “Did you find Michael Herschel?”
She was at home when you called; her office transferred you there. You felt weirdly guilty when a man answered. She doesn’t wear a ring, maybe a boyfriend? In the background you heard him making dinner: sounds of a normal life. “No,” she said, “Not at his house. His sister says she hasn’t seen him for weeks.”
“You believe her?”
“Probably not.” You heard clanging pots in the background. “Listen, I gotta go. You do your part, but be careful. I’ll make sure a patrol car picks him up.”
Two people in one day expressing interest in your welfare was some kind of record. “Sorry I interrupted dinner.”
“I can’t cook to save my life. My job is to stay out of the kitchen. You were doing Hank a favor.” Hank. “Be careful,” she added.
“You said that already.”
“And I’ll keep saying it until you thank me.” She hung up on that, but wasn’t actually mad.
It didn’t take long to drive to the marina, and you knew you’ve found the right one because it’s a total dive. You wouldn’t park a rusted-out Pinto here, much less a six-figure sailboat, but there one is, prominently docked next to the tavern. You don’t know boats, but you do recognize craftsmanship, and this one is a thing of beauty: white and chrome and gleaming. The name stenciled along the bow: Hot Sea Men.
“Classy guys,” you mutter. You’re crouched behind one of many equally showy cars in the parking lot: a couple new BMWs, a bright red Corvette, and Jimmy Troiano’s gold Porsche. You bend over and dart behind Jimmy’s car, keeping an eye on the tavern. If someone comes out, they’ll spot you in a minute.
Jimmy hasn’t had his car long but he’s not much for maintenance. There’s sand caked along the undercarriage (did this idiot drive it on the beach?) and its metallic finish is marred by lots of small dings. Good. You don’t want him looking at the car’s rear end too closely.
It’s a ridiculously huge tail pipe, almost phallic. You reach behind it, to the muffler, and pull hard. With a couple quick tugs it’s now hanging low; after a few loosened screws, it’s guaranteed to start dragging on the ground.
Just as you finish, the tavern door opens. It’s Michael Herschel in the flesh and his Nordic white features are marred by red anger. He’s shouting into the bar; in the open air the sound carries. “I know you bums are hiding him from me. When I come back I won’t be so friendly.” You sigh. Everybody wants to play the wise guy.
One of the BMWs belongs to him. The car pulls out fast, fishtailing on the gravel, and the resulting cloud of dust is sufficient cover for you to scamper back to the road with a quick look back.
Incredibly, Jimmy was hiding outside too: lying down in a derelict rowboat. He waves off the guys who spill out of the tavern to gawk—you imagine they deserve some gratitude for not ratting him out—but he’s still the arrogant prick you remember and he gets into his Porsche instead. He doesn’t seem to have noticed you or the sabotage to his vehicle.
You pull a fishing hat down low as he drives past but there’s no chance of detection, and you’re immensely satisfied to see the tail pipe come loose and start dragging along the road, clattering and sparking. A cop car is parked in a speed trap down the road, waiting for this Porsche and some probable cause to pull him over. Whitby agreed that some light entrapment was more in Mr. Troiano’s interest than getting further in debt with some wannabe bookie. With any luck, Jimmy will sing, then Jared Healey will crack, and you’ll put this murder behind you.
You’d nearly collapsed into your apartment only to find the answering machine blinking. It’s Whitby. “Come by the house,” she said, “and bring some booze,” followed by an address just across the bridge, and then a dial tone.
From what you can see at night it’s a simple, immaculate house. There’s nothing on the porch, just a plain welcome mat and a doorbell, which you ring.
A man answers. He’s built like a brick wall. He doesn’t look surprised, but you are. “Yeah, I’m white,” he says.
Before you can say words stupider than what you’re already saying with your face, Hank lets you in. “Tamisha, your psychic’s here,” he hollers. He takes the bottle of cheap wine you picked up on your way over. “We’re more of a beer couple, but thanks.”
You weren‘t just surprised that he’s a white guy, though it’s true that you were. Hank is also an exceptionally attractive white guy. He looks like he should be in a calendar carrying a firehose.
“Hank’s in the Coast Guard,” Whitby says, entering. It’s beyond weird to see her dressed casually, in an oversized Eagles sweatshirt and black stretch pants. She beckons you to follow her, and you do, through the tidy living room and into an eat-in kitchen. There’s a plate of spaghetti on the table.
“Eat,” she says.
“How you do know I didn’t already?”
She opens your wine and pours some for you into a jelly jar. “I’ve seen your fridge.” You start to argue but Hank the Tank is watching, so you grab a fork instead. When they’re satisfied that you’re obediently consuming food, Hank excuses himself and Whitby joins you at the table, drinking beer out of a can.
“Thanks,” you say, finally. It wasn’t complicated food, but you don’t have complicated tastes. She nods towards the living room with her “you’re an idiot” expression so you raise your voice. “Thank you, Hank.”
“Welcome!” he calls back from who-knows-where. You can hear the game on.
“Patrol car picked up Troiano just where you said he’d be. Nice work on the pipe. Turns out he had an outstanding warrant for unpaid speeding tickets so we’re able to hold him for a little while. He hasn’t said much yet, but I think he’ll talk.”
“I saw Michael Herschel there too. He left right before Troiano.”
“Dammit, wish we could’ve known. I’ve got somebody watching his place but neither he nor his sister have been by for days now.”
Between mouthfuls of spaghetti you fill in the complete story about Jared. “That’s weird, isn’t it?” she says. “Why’d he come to you?”
You’ve become so used to the idea that you’re wrapped up in the center of this drama that you forgot that, to the Healey family, you’re a complete stranger. “He said something about his wife mentioning me. I guess she meant my mom.”
“Ally was into all that crap when she was a kid—’scuse my characterization.” You gesture magnanimously for her to continue. “Maybe some of it rubbed off on her husband?”
You get up, clean off your plate, and rejoin her at the table. You pull out the ring from a pocket and unfold the paper towel around it. “He gave me this, when I asked for something personal.”
“What’s this one… feeling?” She says this hesitatingly, but not skeptically.
“Guilt. Not about the murder though. I’m sure now Jared didn’t murder his brother, even if he’s partially to blame.”
She’s worried about you and wants you to see it. “I called you over because it sounded from like you could use some company. Plus Hank made too much spaghetti again.” She touches your arm. “We’re here for you. And I’m no psychic, but we’re almost to the bottom of this thing. I know it.”
“I hope you’re right,” you say. “Because this is killing me.” Before she can reply you grab the anxious and remorseful ring.
Ocean waves, the color of old blue jeans
On the beach
This is Alan Healey’s private beach. The peaks of his roof are visible above the dunes, rising up behind dense, scrubby trees. It’s early morning.
This close you can see the resemblance between the brothers. Jared, younger, and Alan, older, but cut from the same model, in body if not in spirit. Alan is more spry than you’d thought— the man walked down that steep path to get here. He also seems fueled by rage.
“Haven’t I given you enough?” he says. He’s leaning on a Private Property sign, while his brother is plowing circles in the sand with his pacing. “I’ve made up my mind.”
“If you take the properties away we’ll be—”
“You’ll be, Jared,” Alan says. “If I take the businesses back—when I take them back—all of this stops being my problem. I was willing to look the other way to let you make your own mistakes—”
“You were happy to take the money while it was easy.”
“I never kept a dime of it. It’s in a trust, for Sarah.”
Jared didn’t know this. “She’s not your daughter! How dare you?”
“The way you’re going, Jared, there will be nothingleft for her. She’ll be lucky not to be an orphan by the time these schemes of yours run their course.” His voice softens a little. “These people are dangerous. They’re killers.”
“They’re my friends. They wouldn’t—”
“They will. And I can’t stop you from ruining your own life. But I can stop you from ruining your daughter’s.” He stares off towards the sea, not able to look his brother in the eye. “I’ve decided to sell the entire business, liquidate all the real estate holdings. It’s all going to trusts for Sarah and Maggie.”
From Jared’s expression of horror you know this isn’t good for him. “We’ll never be able to pay back what we’ve been floating. Michael will kill me.”
Alan shakes his head sadly. “Michael needs to find his own way back. I don’t know where this family went wrong, but it stops with Sarah. I made a promise.”
“You sanctimonious prick,” Jared says, then pauses. “A promise to who?”
Now Alan is definitely not looking at his brother. “Allison.”
“You talked to my wife? When?”
“Before she left. She told me she was leaving, that she had to leave because it wasn’t safe for her. But she wouldn’t explain why.” He holds out his hand; in his palm is a gold ring that matches the one Jared still wears. The ring is achingly, regretfully lonely. “I’m sorry, brother. I should’ve told you.”
Jared lets out an anguished cry and reaches for his ex-wife’s ring, but Alan throws it—right through you— and it lands in the surf. Jared howls and pushes his elderly brother into the sand.
“You’ve killed me,” he says, sobbing.
“You did it to yourself,” Alan replies, more sad than angry. Jared leaves him there, struggling in the sand to get up. You can’t help, of course, only watch.
You feel the pull of the ring.
But I haven’t woken up, you think, as you move towards the surf. I’m still in this vision, still in the past.
If you were just searching with your eyes, the ring would be long gone, lost amid the seaweed and froth, but in the flat, washed out, emotionless plane of the vision, its desperate ache is like a beacon. You reach down into the water ( since when do I have arms?) and put your hand around Allison Healey’s haunted ring.
The front entrance to a fortune-teller’s parlor, with signs advertising palm reading, in black and white
In her reading room
Have you woken up? If so, how did you get here? Aren’t you at Whitby’s?
Small details begin to jump out at you: objects in the wrong place; broken items mysteriously restored; the beaded curtain looking brand-new. A blurred figure in the corner resolves. Your mother.
This isn’t one of your memories. You never saw her like this: older, close to the age at which she died but still healthy. Her black hair is throttled with gray; her skin, always olive and leathery from the sun and the wind, is now fully wrinkled. There’s no one in the room with her.
She’s alone because of you,you think, and you fully feel that truth for the first time. It must’ve been impossibly hard for her, a single parent, but as a selfish child you thought only of what she couldn’t give you: a house, a dog, siblings, a normal life. The minute you turned 18 you thanked her by moving out, sending the occasional check and making the rare desultory holiday visit, but mostly, you just left her—vengeance for the crime of simply doing her best to raise her son. By the time you were there for her, she was dying.
The curtain rattles, and a woman steps through: mid-thirties, faux-blonde, the spitting image of her daughter. This is Jared’s wife Allison.
Your mother’s face animates as she slides into character. “Do you seek the wisdom of the ancients?” (You couldn’t even come up with your own routine.)
Allison Healey is cheerful, bubbly, her 1970s hair sun-bleached and luxuriously curled. She exudes the air of a woman with her whole future ahead of her. An easy read, she’ll want to hear about eternal love, tow-haired children, and a two-car garage. Your mom starts up her patter, and you’re struck by how good she was at this. There’s no guile in her narrative at all. Her eyes fill with unconditional love for this stranger. Her words are pretty lies, but her desire to bring happiness to this person is utterly genuine.
“I require a personal object, one infused with the spirits themselves,” she says, and you realize you’re mouthing along with her, like a silent prayer.
Without hesitating, Allison Healey removes the gold wedding ring from her finger.
Your mother takes it and her reaction is immediate and violent. She rocks backwards in her chair, her head snapping around in spasms. Her eyes are pinned open but unseeing, and she’s started a keening moan unlike anything you’ve ever heard.
No wonder Whitby was terrified that first day.
Healey leans away but your mother reaches forward, eyes still staring in horror at nothing, and grabs the woman by the wrists. “You must listen to me, Allison.”
“I don’t—get off of me—”
“Jared will betray you. If you stay with him, you and your daughter will die.” Healey is rapt, motionless. “He hasn’t told you, but he’s in debt. Nothing serious, betting on Sunday games with some friends. He knows his brother will pick up the tab if he gets into trouble.”
The words come in a rush: “But it’s not going to stop. It’s going to poison him. To cover his own losses he’s going to enlist those friends, skim off their winnings. He’ll think it’s going great for awhile and it will be, as long as he pulls in more people. When he runs out of friends, he’ll turn to his family. His brother, his nephew, they’ll get drawn into his orbit. He’ll use his brothers’ properties as collateral on some dangerous loans to keep covering the losses. But he’ll be addicted to the winnings, and so will Michael. By the time Jared realizes he’s in too deep, Michael will be there to push him even deeper. He’ll have no choice. Michael is dangerous and he’ll have made some dangerous friends who don’t like to be cheated out of their money.”
“That’s crazy, Jared would never—” She doesn’t believe, and yet she does. How could she not, with that level of detail?
“I can see, it so clearly. They’re coming into your house while you sleep. Two bad men are creeping into your daughter’s bedroom and they’ll make it look like a burglary. Atlantic City is so violent, they’ll say. ‘Nobody should raise a family there; they should’ve stayed in Stone Harbor.’”
“What can I do? Should we leave? I can’t let them hurt her.” She’s holding your mom’s hands now too, their palms entwined over the table. Your mom is still looking away from her, at a vision neither of you can see.
“That’s no good. Jared loves Sarah, he’s always bragging about his beautiful daughter. She’s their collateral. That’s how they keep him in line. If you take her, they’ll think he’s sending her away for safety, and they’ll come for you both. I see that too, they find you, in a motel, at a stoplight, no matter what you do they find her.”
Allison is sobbing now, almost as if she can see this future herself. Your mother is nodding. “There’s a way. There’s one way. If you go, they’ll think you just left him. You were disgusted with his ways. You can’t take Sarah. But she’ll be safe.”
“How? I can’t leave my own daughter.”
“Of all the possible futures I can see, this is the only one where she survives. I see that she’ll have many protectors. Some of them are strangers to you now. You must find her a guardian, someone you trust, someone strong. That person will in turn enlist others, and they’ll keep her safe.
“And her uncle—” Your mom’s face clouds. You know what she’s seeing, what scene she’s witnessing. “He’ll sacrifice everything to protect her,” she says.
“This seems so unfair. None of this has even happened yet–”
“It is unfair. You have to sacrifice your own happiness and leave her, to set these events in motion.”
And then your mom turns her head and looks directly at you.
She smiles, the way she always did when you made her proud. “You’ll see your child again someday. And when you do, she’ll forgive you for leaving.”
Your mother drops the ring, heavy with its owner’s guilt.
On the beach
You’re standing in the surf and Healey is walking slowly, so slowly, back up the path to his house. You look down at your palm, and you feel yourself winking out of this vision too. The ring falls through your disappearing hand.
Whitby’s living room
“Where is Sarah?” you say, even before you’ve fully come back to the present. “It’s always been about Sarah. She’s in danger.”
Whitby, to her credit, doesn’t waste time asking questions. “I’ve been assuming she’s with her father.” She gets up to make a call, leaving you with Hank. You should be embarrassed but you’re exhausted and just grateful for the companionship.
“Tamisha says you’re the real deal,” he says in his impossible baritone.
“It’s a recent development,” you say weakly. “Why, you want to know your future?”
He looks back towards the kitchen. “Already do.”
Whitby thunders into the living room, holstering a gun that appeared from nowhere and bodily lifts you up by the elbow. “Nobody’s seen the girl for days. Goddammit.”
You’re staring at the gun. “Where the hell am I going?”
“I have a hunch, but I need you to fill me in on the way. Don’t worry, Uri Geller, I’m leaving you in the car.”
As you stumble out into the darkness you hear Hank: “I’ll clean up, honey.”
In the car
You omit the part about your mom seeing you. That feels private. The rest you tell on the way. Whitby’s reaction to her friend is stony. “I don’t know what to think about a mother who abandons her child.”
“I think if you’d seen it…” you start. “It was much worse than what happens to me. And she knew so many details.”
“Yeah, I just…” Whitby steers the car onto a dark residential street. “She was always a real party girl. I dunno if she was ready to have a child.”
You’re not sure why it’s important to you that she understand, but it is. “She wasn’t running away from responsibility. She was being brave. She was sacrificing herself for her kid.”
“Maybe,” Whitby says. “Let’s hope it’s not too late.” She pulls up through a winding private drive. You’re at the Healey estate in Stone Harbor.
“Troiano broke, as we thought he would. He confessed he started with small time stuff, just betting on Sunday’s game, everybody does it, but that things have escalated. There’s the marina, plus parking lots, storage facilities: the Healey empire is really perfect for money-laundering, smuggling, you name it. As far as I can tell it’s always been clean; Alan was just good at managing properties and making smart investments. But since he retired and let Jared run the show, it’s all been hollowed out and mobbed up.”
You say, “Alan knew for a long time, but either didn’t want to believe it or hoped it would resolve on its own. Once it was clear to him that his brother was unrecoverable, he took steps to protect himself and his wife, but also his niece. She’s the daughter they never had. I think Michael found out about his plans, and knew that if the business disappeared out from under them they’d make some people very, very angry.”
“I don’t know if it would’ve mattered, in the end,” Whitby says. “If half of what Troiano says checks out, the feds will have a field day. This family’s going to lose everything.” She cuts the lights and coasts into the driveway.
The house is dark, but Michael Herschel’s car is here, pushed into the knotty trees and hastily covered up with brush. It’s radiating a fear of capture.
Every object around you is calling to you.
“Think they’ll lose this house too?” She nods. “That’s a shame.” Every stone, every column is telling you it’s been a happy home.
You point out the vehicle to the detective. “Stay here and don’t move,” she says. She takes out her uneasy gunand checks it over expertly, with steady hands. The gun tells you it‘s never been fired on duty. It’s afraid of hurting the wrong person. It hopes to never be used.
She disappears around the back of the house. Stupidly, you realize you have no idea if she called for backup, or what you should do if something goes wrong. The grand old house is in trouble and the front door is calling for you.
The moon is almost full and the white gravel driveway glows. You can hear the lap of the ocean, and the cicadas and crickets fill the air. But those are almost drowned out by the cacophony of inanimate voices in the house. You drift across to the concrete front stairs, where the footprints of frightened men have left behind black psychic stains you know only you can see. Through a small window in the dooryou can make out the contours of the entryway, and the hum of more hungry objects. The welcoming doorknob beckons you.
You turn it, and you’re faintly aware that this is stupid, you should run back to safety. You’re inside, though, and the carpet is blackened with the same footprints,stains made not with mud but with fear and anger. You don’t see child-sized prints, but the stair rail is reaching out to you, like a hand across a dance floor, enticing you to follow.
Jared Healey lies in a heap at the base of the stairs, his neck bent backward. You don’t know if it was the fall that killed him, but a mournful iron poker is next to him, clotted with blood. You whisper your forgiveness to it.
You’re at the top of the stairs now, and a hallway runs to the right and left. There are paintings along the wall, portraits of family members, their eyes comically gesturing to the right, to the right.
A firm handon your shoulder stops you cold.
“What the hell do you think you‘re doing?’” Whitby hisses. Some peripheral movement distracts you, and you look down at the oriental carpet beneath your feet. The rug runs down the hallway and as you watch the abstract patterns clump and reform into a series of undulating arrows, like a neon sign over a casino.
“You have to go that way,” you tell her, pointing to the left. “Stop Michael.”
“How do you know he’s there?” she whispers.
“The carpet told me.”
For some reason this answer satisfies her. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to get Sarah.”
“You should wait for—”
“No. That’s I’m here to do.” You open the door to Healey’s room.
In the study
The room is almost as dim in real life. The inner door to the Healeys’ bedroom is closed. The door tells you it’s locked but it wants to be open because there’s a scared little girl inside.
You reach for it, but the books on the shelves all arch their spines towards the corner. The shadowed figure you remember from the vision sits there. Now it’s no longer blurry. It’s Michelle Herschel.
“Joey?” she says, puzzled. Her fearful expression isbarely visible in the gloom.
Her eyes are scanning you up and down, trying to assess you. She’s trying to work out how the random stranger from the police station could be the person she’s clearly been expecting.
It was never her brother.
“Yeah I’m Joey,” you say. The clock is ticking (literally, it’s like a pounding in your head) but you take a moment to breathe before slipping into your performance. “I’m here for the girl,” you say, truthfully.
She’s studying you from an arm chair that is crawling with revulsion. The desk lamp is on, but its light is loathe to illuminate her and instead is bathing you in its glow. This isn’t helping: whoever you’re pretending to be probably doesn’t look much like you.
“What’re you lookin’ at?” you say, and try to look bored. “Where is she?”
“You’re Joey from AC? What were you doing at the police station?” She’s not buying it.
What would a gangster be doing in a room full of cops? You rub your fingers together in the universal money gesture. “Protecting my assets.” Experience tells you the best way to sustain a lie is to change the topic, so you add, “What happened to Jared?”
Her eyes glitter; she wants to brag. “Now he’s out of the picture, you don’t need the girl. Michael and me are on board, we’re ready to take this thing to the next level. I’ll make sure we have control of the properties—” There’s a ruckus outside—a thud. The furniture whispers to you, a message relayed object by object down the hall: Michael Herschel is subdued, Whitby is coming.
Michelle’s too quick though; she sees the strange interplay across your face, the way you tilt your head towards the door. “Like hell you’re him.” She gets out of the chair and she’s holding a humming switchblade in front of her, backing towards the bedroom door with one hand flailing out for the doorknob.
“Open the door,” Michelle Herschel says. She’s still holding out that knife, blade extended, tightly gripped in those malevolent gloves. Alan Healey has his hands up, backing away towards the exit, but she shakes her head and waves the knife. “The other one.” He steps around her, still in a defensive position, and complies. Light spills out of the bedroom.
“Maggie will be here any minute,” Healey says.
“She’s asleep in Sarah’s room. For your sake I hope they don’t wake up. Now, where is the deed?”
“I don’t know what you—”
“Uncle Healey, I don’t want to hurt you,” she says. But she does.
“It’s too late. I already signed it. It’s done, you can’t touch the money.”
“I know you’re lying,” she says, and you know he is too. She backs him further into the bedroom, and you follow, helpless to stop this murder for the second time.
There are two small beds, but the beds assure you that it’s because Maggie tosses and turns and they decided years ago it was for the best. They still love each other, says the room.
Healey backs into his own bed, which wants to hug him and protect him from this woman. “No,” she says, waving the knife again towards his dresser. He gets up again, and his eyes briefly flick towards his firm and protective nightstand.
He takes a step towards the dresser but stumbles, grabbing on to the nightstand for balance. Only you—not Michelle—see his quick gesture: he pushes a piece of paper off the surface and it slides into the gap between the furniture and the wall. The nightstand is resolute in its desire to hide that paper at all costs.
His cigar cutter was lying on the table too, and he grabs it, throws it overhand at his niece, but she bats it away easily. It skitters into the study where she’ll pick it up later and toss it into the urn when she flees the estate.
“Take your meds, Uncle,” Michelle says, nodding towards the bottle. “And don’t stop taking them until they’re gone.”
“Michelle, don’t do this—”
“You’ve given us no choice,” she says, and her voice does choke a little. “It’s you or us. You’ve had a good run. Michael gave you a chance to do the right thing.” You can see in her face that she believes these things.
Healey is quietly sobbing now, shaking pills into his hand, and you can’t bear to watch, but thankfully you don’t have to— the psychological pain of the vision transforming into the pain of grabbing on to a knife blade—
You’ve pinned Michelle Herschel to the closed bedroom door: one hand gripped around the knife (blood is streaming out of your hand), the other locked around her wrist, stopping her from turning the doorknob. You’ve been shouting at her, telling her minute by minute what you saw, and finally, for once, the horror of her actions sinks in. Maybe she can feel the contempt of this whole house, every stitch and every nail welling over once last time in grief.
She drops the knife, releases the doorknob, and slides down to the floor, her hair hanging slack around her face. You stumble back yourself just as Whitby into the room, gun extended. You feel it sigh in relief; it hasn’t needed to be fired.
“It’s okay,” you say. “Sarah’s safe.” Whitby deals with Herschel and you gently open the bedroom door, meeting the little girl at the center of all this for the first time. She’s wedged herself between the beds, holding the headless doll in a death grip.
You kneel before her, whispering nonsense, and gently touch Vicky, the battered but happy doll.
“Vicky wants you to know that everything’s going to be all right now,” you say, truthfully. “She says she’s always going to watch out for you.”
Sarah screws her face up at you. “Dolls can’t talk.”
“That’s a good rule of thumb, but sometimes they make exceptions.”
The girl looks past you and sees Whitby in the doorway. “Aunt Tamisha!” she yells, and runs to her, the doll briefly forgotten. It doesn’t mind: it’s happy when she’s happy.
Whitby is fussing over the girl, distracting her while other officers fill the house, removing the body and the silent, defiant Herschels. You walk around the bed to the nightstand, pull it away from the wall, and retrieve the paper that Alan Healey had used his last minutes on Earth to hide.
It’s a master deed, to this land and this house, made out to Sarah Healey’s trust. It’s dated the day of his death and it’s unsigned.
Like the cigar cutter, it feels incomplete and unfinished. It’s asking for your help. You carry it over to the dresser—all the medications and personal items have been removed—but there’s a simple cheap pen bursting with ink in the top drawer.
Healey‘s writing was naturally fluid—unlike that hasty note you read in your first vision—and just a touch arrogant. The pen guides you effortlessly, and with each stroke you feel the deed sigh in contentment. “This needs to go to his lawyer,” you say to Whitby, who surely watched you forge Alan’s signature, but takes the deed in one hand while holding the hand of the girl in the other.
When you release it, your connection to the house winks out, like a light switch flipped off. It’s over.
You feel immense relief, but also loneliness.
In your reading room
“Do you seek the wisdom of the ancients? Come forth!”
A.J., one of your favorite students, pokes his head through the doorway. “I told you I’m too old for that shit, Mr. Pietro.”
“Too old for that crap,” you correct. “You gonna deprive an old man of his fun?”
The kid rolls his eyes. “Yeah. Anyways, you coming to the game?”
“Don’t think I have a choice,” you say cheerfully. It’s the last school day before Thanksgiving, which means Homecoming game, which means all school employees, from teachers to janitors to lowly resource room aides—that’s you—are on deck for crowd control, snack bar duty, and supplementary cheering.
“That’s cool,” he says, obviously not listening. He’s picking up his bookbag, which he’s forgotten for the fiftieth time. You wonder if it feels sad when he does that.
He almost knocks over Nicki Troiano as she tries to enter as he’s leaving. “Sorry!” he calls from the down the hall.
Nicki has a kid just starting freshman year, which is fine; the father is out of the picture, which is fantastic. You keep saying you’re sorry you weren’t around in those early years and she keeps telling you to shut up, Frankie, but it makes you feel better to keep saying it and you know it makes her feel better too.
She looks around the room in surprise. “I like the new decor.” The “reading room” (your name) is where kids with learning disabilities come to get independent tutoring or extra practice work. You’re not much more than a glorified babysitter—there’s a trained special ed teacher in charge of running this circus—but she lets you play the clown and distract the kids from their problems when their issues aren’t really schoolwork. Last week you brought in some of your mom’s tchotchkes; when nobody’s looking you teach the kids how to cold read. Hey, it’ll be more useful than geometry.
”You got plans after the game?” she says. You’re charmed by the shy note in her voice.
You dust off a crystal ball to burn off some nervous energy. “I dunno, I should study…” You’re about 1/100th of the way through a BA in Social Work (Whitby’s idea) though at this point you’re just taking inexpensive community college credits (your idea). The material isn’t hard, but it’s been a long time since you’ve been in a classroom. Whenever you complain about the workload, Whitby feels guilty and Hank the Tank feeds you spaghetti. You complain a lot.
“It’s Thanksgiving, Frankie.”
You shrug. You just like to tease her. Technically you’re still just friends, but you think you’re making progress. Maybe 1/100th of the way there.
“Well, if you aren’t too busy, Paul would love to see you.” Paul‘s her son. He’s quiet, like you were.
Under no circumstance would you be too busy. “Yeah, I’ll find you after the game,” you say. She waves.
You finish cleaning up for the day: straighten the chairs, throw out the kids’ trash, run the ridiculous little carpet sweeper under the desks. You make a final pass over your table, running your hands gently over your possessions, a habit you’ve picked up lately. There’s a half-dealt tarot deck; a jar of I Ching coins; a blurry photo of you, taken by your mom, on the beach in the 60s; an even blurrier photo you took of her, covering her face with a book on that same beach.
Satisfied, you grab your bag and shut the light, leaving the objects to their secrets.
Thank you to testers Dan Schmidt and Deborah Kaplan.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
1 Study: View of Bedroom from Study: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1918).
2 Family room: Library, 640 Lexington Ave, 1916.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1916)
3 Healey estate: Murray Guggenheim House, Cedar & Norwood Avenues, Long Branch, Monmouth County, NJ via the Library of Congress
4 Caribbean motel: WWHD Caribbean sign
5 Waves: Ocean Breakers, Cape Island, NJ: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1865).
6 Tarot cards: Jeu de tarot divinatoire dit “Grand Etteilla” ou “tarot égyptien” via the National Library of France
7 Reading room: Psychic Readings – $10
8 Dunes photo: Dune Fence (taken in Stone Harbor, NJ)
Some images enhanced via Let there be Color!: Joint End-to-end Learning of Global and Local Image Priors for Automatic Image Colorization with Simultaneous Classificationby Satoshi Iizuka, Edgar Simo-Serra, and Hiroshi Ishikawa