When was he going to get here? For what seemed like the hundredth time, she looked down the path. Empty.
God, she hated this weather! Her head was covered in sweat under her wig. The hot wind tossed dust into her colored contact lenses and dried out her skin. She was going to look like a mummy before this was over.
It was a good thing this guy lived on routine, because only a complete idiot would be out here hiking in 98 degrees. But, rain or shine, Richard Steed could be counted on to drag the sorry ass of his aging Labrador retriever over the Marin hills. She'd watched him for a week. Same path, same time, like clockwork.
She heard the bark of his dog before she saw them round the bend below. He was decked out in his L.L. Bean khaki hiking shorts, matching shirt with mesh venting on the sides, and Adidas cross-trainers. He had the Flexi-lead in one hand and a mahogany walking stick in the other.
She was already sitting on the ground in the middle of the path, tying a bandana around her ankle. Soft sobs escaped from her huddled figure.
"Are you OK?" He had reined in his dog and was standing over her.
She glanced up and then turned her attention back to tightening her bandage. Pitching her voice a little more shrill than normal she said, "No, I think I might have a really bad sprained ankle. I don't think it's broken, though."
"Do you need any help?"
"If you could just help me get up, I think I'll be OK."
He told his dog, "Stay, Stella." He reached down to grip her arm. He was positioned perfectly: facing her, back to the edge of the sheer drop behind him. She let him pull her up and waited until he let go of her arm. She watched him tilt his head, furrow his brows and begin to speak. Centering her energy she pushed out hard on his chest with both arms. He went over cleanly and only just began a scream before she heard a deep crunching thump. Then all she could hear was the incessant barking of the dog as she ran up and down the path, looking for a route to her master.
She untied the bandana from her ankle and began jogging down to the parking lot at the trail head. Next time would be even easier.
Do you believe in evil?
The man sitting across the card table from me looked like a clean-shaven Santa Claus: corpulent, with rosy cheeks, sparkling blue eyes, and a wide friendly smile.
Yes; the wicked, corrupt, perverted intention to harm another person. He still wore his merry smile.
Well, I've run into people who delight in creating suffering for others, so I guess, by that definition, I do.
And what about evil that transcends the individual personality, Evil with a capital ‘E'? The evil that is the universal adversary to good. Do you believe that there is an inherent malicious force that is part of creation?
Look Mr. Hightower, I'm just a Tarot card reader, not a theologian. I don't have any idea. . .
He interrupted me. You may call me Edward. And if I wanted to pose these questions to a religious scholar, Berkeley is awash in divinity students and professors. I know who you are, Mr. Ritter. It matters to me what you believe.
You can call me Warren. Well, Edward, I don't know what I actually believe about universal evil. Give me a sec.
Edward nodded. By all means, take as long as you need.
I leaned back in my folding chair. My office was a portable wooden table located on the sidewalk at the corner of Telegraph and Haste in the middle of downtown Berkeley, California.
There is a legendary village in Scotland that was blessed two hundred years ago. This blessing took the form of a spell that made Brigadoon exist only one day every century. If we were to wander into it we would be back in eighteenth century Scotland.
Berkeley too, was blessed, but it often feels more like a curse. In the sixties it was home to The Free Speech Movement, The People's Park Riots, and the heart of the youth revolution. Sometimes it looks like nothing has changed. You can still wander into head shops along Telegraph Avenue. Long-haired street vendors outside are pushing stained glass ornaments, silver earrings, and tie- dyed tee shirts all decorated in peace symbols. Protestors still troop down the street singing songs and carrying signs.
But the sixties are ancient history. Today the earrings are made in sweatshops in China. The head shops are run by Arabs. Most shoppers are headed for The Gap and The Shoe Factory. The University has rolled back admission practices to those of the fifties, and the student body gets whiter and richer every year.
My client was immobile, eyes locked on me, waiting for me to speak. I looked away.
I became aware of the cacophony of sounds around me: The grind of an under-shifted U Haul truck, two drifters yelling greetings at each other across the traffic, the excited chatter of a flock of freshman girls in the crosswalk. I love chaos. The uproar was music to me and the stench of exhaust, perfume.
It was the first weekend of the fall semester. Hotter than hell. Just then the coyote wind tried to blow all my cards off the table. Damn this nasty, incessant wind. It had been roasting the Bay Area for weeks. In Italy they call it Scirocco, in Germany, the Foehn; in Australia, Brickfielder. In Southern California it's known as the Santa Ana. Up here around San Francisco we say "It's firestorm weather." Then we look nervously to the hills, hills that were scorched in '91, in a fire so hot that it melted automobile engines, bent steel I-beams, killed twenty five people and left another five thousand homeless. Some people call it the Diablo, blowing in from the direction of our local extinct volcano. The Native Americans had it about right. They called it 'The Bitter Wind.'
Suicides were up, divorces were up, and homicide seemed a damn fine idea. I have about twenty crystals and geodes around the edge of my table. They are not for show. In this weather I set them over every card I lay on the table, hoping to anchor my cards against the merciless gusts.
Business had been brisk. Students facing life's imponderable problems looked to me for a transpersonal perspective: "Does he love me?" "Should I major in Psychology?" "Do sororities suck, or are they a good idea?"
This was a hundred-and-fifty-dollar day, for sure. I wanted to short circuit the philosophy discussion and finish this reading with Santa before the wind just lifted up my whole table and made off with it. He looked familiar, in a way that made me a little uneasy. I never realized how much I disliked St. Nick before.
Edward, I don't know much about the universal nature of reality. I've never met God or Satan and I doubt the existence of anything more powerful than chance and chaos. But I'm pretty ignorant. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. So I try to keep an open mind. Now getting back to your cards, what I see . . .
Again he interrupted me. That was a humble answer, Warren. And I liked the Hamlet reference. That is appropriate to my proposition. You see I'm not really here to get a reading. I want to hire you for another matter entirely. And it has to do with ‘Murder most foul.'
This was very annoying. Wait right there, Ed. You must be under some misunderstanding about me. I read Tarot cards on weekends. That's it. If you need help with some criminal matter you need to take it up with the police or with a private eye or with anyone else besides me. And if you don't want a reading please feel free to move along, and let someone else take your seat.
He took an envelope out of his pocket and put it on the table. This will more than make up for your loss of revenue while you hear me out, Warren.
It was time to get shitty. Call me Mr. Ritter. Your money is of no interest to me, Mr. Hightower. I do not involve myself with police business. Now, please get up and leave.
He put a smoky quartz crystal on top of the envelope to weigh it down. He made no move to leave. His eyes never left mine. This spring you were very involved with police business: kidnapping, auto theft, murder. I understand that you want to put all that behind you. You'd like to return to a life of quiet anonymity. But I am in acute need of your many non-mystical talents. All I ask is that you hear me out. At the end of my presentation you may say ‘No' and I will get up, leave quietly, and you may pocket the $500 in that envelope.
This guy was trouble, and I wanted no part of it. I didn't need his blood money. Back in the seventies I had parlayed my thirty pieces of silver into a comfortable Microsoft nest egg. I worked more for my own enjoyment that out of desperation.
Hightower was right; a few months ago I'd been embroiled in a messy police investigation. I wanted no repeat performances. I didn't need that kind of grief. No. I'm not interested. Take your money and move on.
He looked directly at me. I ask you to reconsider, Mr. Green.
Oh shit! He knew who I was.
My birth name is Richard Green. In my youth, I'd been a leader of a very left-wing street guerrilla group. Thirty years ago I buried the name Green, along with all my connections to my past. Or so I thought.
I stared at him for a minute.
OK, Eddie, you win. But no blackmail. I don't know how you got that name, but I never want to hear you use it again. I'll listen to you and that's it. If I'm not interested in your proposition you agree to walk off, right?
And you already know I probably won't help you, right?
Correct again. He folded his hands together on the table in a prayer-like gesture.
Ok, thanks for the donation. Now make it quick. Shoot.
But before anybody could shoot anything, a high pitched voice yelled out, You murderer! Rot in hell, you son of a bitch!
Nothing unusual in this outburst. Back in 1967, then-Governor Reagan had the brilliant idea to shut down the state mental hospitals and save the state a ton of money. He told everyone not to worry, the local community mental health centers could handle the flood of crazy folks. Then, as President, he cut funding for community mental health centers. More than any other human being, Ronnie was responsible for creating the mentally ill homeless problem in the United States.
Many of these people made their own way to Berkeley. Many more were sent here with one-way bus tickets from Ohio or Arkansas, paid for by out-of-state social workers. Berkeley is one of the only communities in the United States that spends a significant chunk of its ever-shrinking public monies on medical care, therapy, and job services for the homeless.
Telegraph Avenue is known as the open ward. We witness psychotic outbursts every few hours. I casually glanced over at the screaming nut case, and saw how wrong I was this time.
An attractive Asian woman in her twenties, with short dark hair and long red fingernails, was leaning out of the cockpit of her BMW Z-3 and directing her attack at my client. Homeless people don't usually drive Z-3's.
I looked back at Edward. He studied her and then folded his hands and looked down at the table. She was just warming up, continuing to scream at him: "You'll burn for eternity if I have anything to say about it!"
The cars behind her began hitting their horns, and a black guy in a delivery truck began yelling at her. She hit the gas and sped down the street.
Friend of yours? I asked.
It's a long story. She is one of the people I want you to investigate. Her name is Miko Tashima and she was the girlfriend of the late Roger Black. But let me start at the beginning. I am the leader of a group of spiritual aspirants. We are an esoteric cult and are held with disdain, or worse, by more traditional religious denominations.
Three months ago, Roger Black, Miko's boyfriend, was killed in a hit and run accident. The car and the driver were never found. At first we rejoiced. He had left our congregation in a fury, threatening to report our church to the Internal Revenue Service for irregularities. But our joy was short lived.
Less than a month ago one of our most faithful and most beneficent members, Richard Steed, was found crushed at the base of a cliff. He'd been walking his dog and had fallen to his death. The police decided it was accidental.
"We started getting death threats. Some of them seemed like they might be coming from Miko. But other notes suggested that the two murders were only the beginning of a wave of killings, a wave that would end with the death of my sister and myself.
The police are singularly uninterested in pursuing the cause of this chain of coincidences. I imagine they would be quite relieved to let the bodies continue to accumulate.
I interrupted him. I'm no fan of the police, but this portrayal seemed overly callous, even for me. Oh, come on, Edward. Aren't you being the teensiest bit paranoid?
He sighed. I haven't told you the name of our religion. That may help explain my deductions about law enforcement's bias against us. Back in 1975 two sects broke away from our founding church. The two dissenting sects were the Temple of Set, and The Fellowship of the Arising Night, of which I am the founding priest. Our mother church was, if you hadn't figured out by now, the Church of Satan.
I started collecting up the cards in front of me. That's it. I'm done. Bye, bye Mr. Lucifer. The last thing I need right now is a satanic priest pushing me to go up against the police to catch a serial killer. Not my cup of tea. I pushed the envelope towards him. Here's your money back. Thanks but no thanks.
Again no movement on his part. He ignored my rejection, and just looked at me with eyes that were the color of the Caribbean. An uncomfortably long silence was broken by the shrill song of a police siren in the distance. He asked, Do I look familiar? Take off about a hundred pounds.
So it wasn't just his resemblance to Santa. I mentally liposuctioned his face. There was something there, something that made my stomach twist even before I figured out who he really was. I had just jumped out of the frying pan and into the sixth Circle of Hell.
Edward, my ass. What the fuck are you doing here, Strephon?
Strephon Ventnor was the twin brother of a woman who had loved me and destroyed my life. I'd met him twice in the late ‘60's. Today, I'd never recognize him. But I saw Veronique in the set of his chin, and the ridge of his cheekbone, and most of all in the azure of his eyes.
He smiled. I shivered. I want to --or more precisely my sister and I want to --engage your services to help us bring an end to these killings.
Shit. She was still alive. My throat went dry and tight. My stomach wanted to toss the bean burrito inside it. I was afraid to speak. So I just looked at him, trying to keep my face impassive.
Veronique had been like a Fury from Greek mythology. She had swept into my life, bringing ecstasy, tragedy and despair. Thirty years later I still dreamed of her: sometimes in lust, sometimes in grief, sometimes in terror.
He paused and sighed. Then he went on, A month ago I brought Veronique to California from Europe. She is assisting me in the administration of the church. We've received repeated warnings that we will be the next two victims. I have nowhere else to turn. Please help us.
Goddamn him. Goddamn him, and her. Goddamn him and her and the whole fucking mess. All I wanted was a simple life. A simple life, a few good friends, and a clean break from my past. And all I kept getting was this kind of shit.
Last year, I would have walked off, got on my motorcycle, and driven into the sunset. I'd have tossed my ID cards for Warren Ritter into the bay as I drove over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.
But last year I hadn't fallen in love. Last year I hadn't become a surrogate father to a teenager. And last year I damn well hadn't become so fucking dependent on my therapist that I couldn't just split and start again. I missed last year big time!
Could I live with the knowledge that I had stood by while someone killed Mr. Ventnor/Hightower? Sure, no problem. Could I read about the murder of Veronique and just shrug it off? Shit. There's the rub. Probably not. No, definitely not. I was trapped. I never wanted to see her again, but I didn't want her death on my conscience. I already had enough deaths on my plate because of her.
OK, I'll be honest. My life had settled down. And I was getting a little bored with it. I relished my new love relationship and had a great time with my teenage "daughter." But it was a very safe life I was leading these days. I missed the kind of danger that leaves your throat dry and makes you afraid that you're going to piss in your pants.
My voice came out raspy. What do you want?
He took a second, thicker envelope out of his pocket.
© David Skibbins