I should have never complained to my friend Barbara Chu about stumbling over dead bodies.
It was Saturday, and we were in my living room sitting across from each other in the canvas chairs that hung from the rafters, eating a brunch that would have been a lot better if my sweetie, Wayne, hadn't had pneumonia. I pushed off with my feet and set my chair to swinging, splashing through the April sunlight that streamed in the windows, scattering it over the jungle of bookshelves and houseplants that surrounded us. Then I took a bite of dry, takeout, teriyaki tofu burrito and sighed. First from discontent. I really wished Wayne was well enough to cook me one of his gourmet meals. The ghosts of meals past, Thai salads, fresh ratatouille, and home-baked bread, tickled my taste buds. And then I sighed again, this time from guilt. Wayne was sick and sweating out pneumonia in the bedroom, his fever barely dropping despite the antibiotics the doctor had given him, and already my taste buds were roaming.
"Not to worry, kiddo," Barbara mumbled through a bite of her own sausage-and-chicken burrito, a burrito that my cat, C. C., was eyeing very closely. Barbara might have heard my thoughts about Wayne. In fact, she probably had. Food never interfered with her sporadic psychic abilities. Only a real need to know seemed to short-circuit them. Maybe it was something about her being an electrician. "He'll be better in a week and a day," she promised in a near whisper, so as not to disturb my sick sweetie only yards away in the bedroom. "I guarantee it."
I stared across at Barbara, studying her elegant Asian features, serene and symmetrical under her asymmetrical black wings of hair. She looked like an art-deco poster, staring back at me. And somehow, I believed her promise. Maybe I just wanted to. C. C. leapt into her lap, but missed the burrito as Barbara shoved the last of it into her mouth, demonstrating real psychic acuity.
"And he'll write in his own time," she added, once she'd swallowed, anticipating my next thought as easily as she'd evaded C.C., anticipating it before it was even in the first trimester.
C. C. jumped off her lap and skulked past us and out the cat door. I could hear the door's indignant little flap, and then the yip of some poor dog unlucky enough to be in C. C.'s way.
"But Wayne doesn't have to work," I argued, happy to have Barbara as a new nagging surrogate. I couldn't argue with Wayne when he was sick. Well, not much, anyway. "I mean, he just keeps on running the restaurant--"
"And art gallery," Barbara interrupted.
"And art gallery," I continued, undeterred, "just because he feels he owes it to his old boss--"
"Well, when someone whose body you're guarding is offed, you're bound to feel a wee bit guilty," Barbara put in gently.
"But enough's enough!" I yelped, jumping up from my still swinging chair and spilling dry tofu as I did. I took a deep breath and softened my voice ... and my heart.
"Barbara, you should see him when he's writing. He's in bliss, he's connected, he's--"
"He's where you are when you're designing gag gifts," she finished off for me.
"Yeah," I agreed eagerly. "That's where he needs to be, not at a restaurant that he's tired of running--"
"He'll get there when he needs to," she assured me.
I glared back at her.
"In a week and a day, O All-Knowing-One?" I asked, raising the remains of my burrito in mock wonder.
"Maybe a little longer," she answered, the corners of her smile putting mischief in place of serenity on her lovely face.
"Jeez-Louise, kiddo," she persisted, leaning toward me. "It's hard enough to find the right path for yourself much less for other people. And everyone and her dog always wants to mess with the other guy's path. And his dog's path. You want Wayne to write. Wayne wants you to marry him. Felix wants me to move in with him. And Craig wants you to fall in love with him again--"
I stuck my finger down my throat and made gagging sounds. I was doing that a lot lately when anyone mentioned my ex-husband, Craig, who had broken up with his girlfriend, Bonnie, and was mooning over me again, much to Wayne's glaring and teeth-gnashing distress.
"So tell me about the weird dream you had," Barbara ordered.
My head popped up, snapping my neck and bringing heat to my face. I wasn't making gagging sounds anymore. Because I could swear I'd never mentioned the dream that woke me, sweating next to Wayne the night before, and now Barbara was asking about it.
"All right," I began tentatively, getting up and setting what was left of my teriyaki tofu burrito down on its plate next to the swinging chair. "See, I'm at this gag-gift convention for Jest Gifts, selling my globe mugs for the travel agents and speculum earrings for the gynecologists and all that stuff, and checking out what's new in whoopee cushions, and suddenly I'm really, really tired, so I sit on the top of this big slide. And I begin to slip down. And then I'm sliding and sliding, too fast. Way too fast. And then there's this woman I've never seen before at the bottom of the slide laughing, and--
I stopped. My heart was pounding now, and I was beginning to sweat again. What was it about the dream?
"And?" Barbara prompted.
"And then I got to the bottom, but instead of crashing, I flew right over her," I finished. "Barbara, what do you think it means?"
"How the hell should I know?" Barbara asked in turn. Then she laughed. "Whaddaya think, I'm psychic or something?"
I wondered if she was psychic enough to know I was ready to throttle her.
"I'm not laughing at you, Kate," Barbara assured me. "I'm laughing at myself, because I don't have a clue what your dream means." She frowned suddenly. "And I really should."
I relaxed my throttling muscles and sat back down in my swinging chair, pushing off again. After a few minutes of listening to the neighborhood buzz of hammers and shouting and lawn mowers and barking, I hazarded a guess. With Barbara, it would always be a hazard.
"I think it's something about this whole Typhoid Mary of Murder thing," I told her. "Every time I walk into a room filled with people, someone drops dead. It just isn't cool, Barbara. It isn't cool at all."
"That's why you didn't go to Beth's wedding shower, right?" Barbara guessed. Or maybe she already knew.
"Yeah, but I went to the wedding because I figured with over a hundred people, it was probably safe. I mean, it's just these small groups, but--"
"But you want to know why it's happening to you," Barbara finished for me. At least psychic friends finish your sentences correctly, even if they do finish your sentences.
"Am I karmically impaired?" I asked Barbara seriously.
"You really want to know?" Barbara challenged.
"Of course I really want to know," I told her. "I'm cursed. I'm surprised any one will even have lunch with me. I'm--"
"Then come with me to Justine's," Barbara offered.
"Huh?" I said, stopped mid-rant.
"Justine is an incredible psychic, a medical intuitive," Barbara informed me. "She's the real thing. If anyone can figure it out, she can. Let's go."
Barbara rose from her swinging chair, brushed off her fuchsia jumpsuit, and held out her hand.
"Now?" I peeped, suddenly wishing I'd kept my mouth shut. Not that Barbara would have left my thoughts alone anyway.
"Now," Barbara ordered.
So, I went to the bedroom and listened to Wayne's breath rock, rattle, and wheeze painfully in his chest as he slept, then laid my hand on that chest, willing him to get better, for what it was worth. I put a fresh bottle of water on the nightstand, and a bottle of apple juice, and finally, a note telling him I was going out with Barbara ... and that I loved him. I kissed his forehead and felt the heat of his fever. But the doctor had assured me that my sweetie would be fine, that I didn't have to sit with him, so I hurried out, keeping the tears from flooding my eyes, leaving before all my intuition told me to stay. Because Wayne was not a man who should be sick. He was too big, too strong. Too Wayne. But too stressed, the doctor said.
Stress was mine too, as Barbara drove her VW bug to Justine's, switching lanes into oncoming traffic without so much as a look in her rearview mirrors. (Actually her rearview mirrors had disappeared years ago.) She was greeted by a chorus of angry honks, and I remembered once again why I didn't usually do this. Not that anyone ever hit Barbara, that was the weird thing. A thousand near misses, but all misses.
I put my hands over my eyes to enjoy the ride.
"Justine is one very cool woman," Barbara told me. I peeked through my fingers. A Mercedes screamed past us, its occupant shaking his fist. "She's an African-American lesbian, and ultrasensitive. She took one look at a friend of mine who was bleeding internally for years and told her it was parasites. Handed her a bottle of wormwood, and the woman hasn't had any bleeding since."
Fine, I thought, but did being the Typhoid Mary of Murder count as a medical problem?
Barbara turned her head my way, veering into the next lane. I stuck my fingers in my ears, not wanting to hear the horns ... or the crash. I could still hear Barbara, though. I was probably channeling her.
"It isn't just medical," she told me. I took my fingers out of my ears. "There's this woman, Isabelle Viseu, who came to Justine to contact her hubby's spirit, hubby Viseu having just passed away, and anyway, Isabelle found out she could see auras."
"Did she ever contact her husband?" I asked hopefully.
"No, but Isabelle has a visionary gift, Kate. It's wonderful." Barbara frowned for a moment. Was she worried about Isabelle's husband? But then she went on. "And Justine's sweetie, Linda Underwood, is a veterinarian and an animal psychic, way out there. And Justine's nephew, Zarathustra--"
"Wait a minute, isn't that from Nietzsche?" I asked.
"Yeah, this kid's way cool. Over six feet tall at seventeen, gorgeous and into this weird gestalt about the streets and blackness and Nietzsche and the apocalypse. He's a trip."
"Bad girl," I told her in mock seriousness. "Seventeen is way too young for you." Felix didn't have to worry. For all of his obnoxiousness, Barbara really seemed to love Felix, her pit bull reporter of a boyfriend.
Still, Barbara giggled and veered into the other lane again. I decided to keep my mouth shut for the duration.
"And Justine's friend Silk, she's even more of a trip. You know, Silk Sokoloff, "Erotica, Et Cetera."
My mind processed the information. "The column for Bay Vision?" I guessed.
"Bingo! That woman is a kick to watch. She will do anything to get attention. Wicca, bisexuality, psychic trances, Santeria, nudity brigades. The only thing she could really do to top it all off would be to marry an insurance salesman or something."
"Huh?" I said.
"Joke, Kate," Barbara informed me. "What Silk really likes to do is stir the pot--you know, ruffle people's feathers. She always steals the show. It's like she's got annoying people down to an art form. But Justine likes her." Barbara tilted her head thoughtfully. "I'm not sure if I do, though. It's all funny, but she can be cruel."
I was still watching Barbara when she seemed to shiver. A look of fierce concentration tightened her features. I was pretty sure she wasn't concentrating on her driving. She was still taking up two lanes. But something was wrong.
"Are you okay?" I asked her.
"I guess so," she said slowly, her voice too deep. Too weird. "Something feels wrong, though."
"What?" I demanded, panicking. A shiver whispered up my spine. It's not good when psychics feel something wrong.
"Is it Felix?" I asked. Something wrong with Felix, just a little something. All right, that wouldn't be so bad.
"No, not Felix," Barbara murmured, revving the VW across three lanes of traffic toward the Paloma exit ramp to a symphony of blaring horns, screeches, and shouts muted by windshields. "Oh, I don't know." Then she grinned as she raced down the exit ramp. "It'll pass, whatever it is. And I haven't told you about Tory--she channels angels. And Artemisia of the bad spirits. And Elsa, who's got a young, hot hunk of sixty years. And anyway, we're almost there."
Barbara sped around a few more corners and then pulled her VW bug up onto the sidewalk and parked. If having half of the wheels of your car on the sidewalk can be counted as parking.
When Barbara jumped out of the car, I followed her thankfully, all the way up a stone path to a redwood-shingled cottage. Barbara didn't even have to knock on the door. Probably some sort of psychic thing. Because the door opened and, in seconds, a large African-American woman stood facing us. The woman had to be Justine. She was a tall, broad woman, wearing leggings, a long sweater, and dangly earrings. Her skin was the color of cherry bark, silken cherry bark. And her smile stretched the skin over her broad nose and cheekbones, wrinkling the corners of her large dark eyes. I wanted to give myself into this woman's care immediately.
"You must be Barbara's friend Kate," she greeted me, her voice resonant and soothing enough to sink into. She nodded her head, wiggling the curls that sprang out where her braided hair was tied back. "Barbara has spoken of you. Come in and meet the others."
The others? My mind repeated those words as I said polite things. The others.
"This is my partner, Linda," Justine went on before I could process the implication of those words. Justine tugged gently on the hand of a woman whose skin was as ruddy as Justine's was dark. But Linda's face was broad and weathered under her shaggy hair and just as full of humor as Justine's. And filled with something else. Whimsy? Or maybe just otherworldliness?
"Oooh, hi, Kate," she said, then eyed me for a minute. "A cat person," she concluded and enveloped me in a hug. It felt good, if inappropriate.
"And my nephew, Zarathustra," Justine continued. I stepped away from Linda and turned to face a long, lean young man with skin the color of carob and broad features much like his aunt's, but marred by that sullen look common to teenagers everywhere. He was dressed entirely in black leather. And chains. And piercings, from his ear to a few in his cheek for fun. Ow.
"Meetcha, man," he mumbled. Or at least that's what it sounded like. For all I knew he might have said, "Nietzsche." Then he turned to stare at the wall.
I didn't blame him. It was a nice wall, covered in knotty-wood paneling up to waist level and grass cloth above, with big open windows and fluffy white curtains that looked out onto a wisteria-covered bower. And the pictures. Of various spiritual beings, alive and dead, Indians in buckskin from one continent, and Indians in yoga positions from another--
An authoritative, rasping voice broke into my wall contemplation.
"Zarathustra, my love, hiding behind my back again?" the voice said, lilting at the end of the sentence.
I turned and saw indeed only the back of what looked like an impressive woman, tall and shapely under neon-pink harem pants, halter top, and feather boa. If Zarathustra was trying to hide behind her back, he was in the right place.
The shapely back turned twenty degrees, and the woman was facing a slender man with the face of an educated weasel. "And you are a narc," her voice boomed again.
The man stepped back as if punched, his mustachioed mouth hanging open.
The woman's back shifted again, like a gun turret. This time the target was an all-American-looking guy with longish hair and linen pants.
"Bugger off with your Lotto-number fetish, freak," she ordered.
Only this guy didn't react. He just blinked and opened his mouth again.
"But--" he began.
The woman in neon-pink ignored him and turned again, this time toward the conservatively dressed woman standing near her. She put her arm around the other woman's shoulders and cooed, "My old, old friend Denise. How shall we begin again, honey?"
The conservatively dressed woman shrugged off the arm and stepped away.
Was the woman in pink Silk Sokoloff? Before I could verbalize my question, she turned all the way around, toward me, and asked, "And just who do we have here, hmmm?"
But I didn't even look into her face. Because as she'd been turning, I'd begun counting. Frantically. There were twelve people in the room.
I had once again walked into a room filled with people.