Turn of an Unfriendly Card
by Susan M. Garrett
(previously published in Shadow Chasers Express #2)
The shop was like a hundred others in that section of Greenwich Village; the windows dark with years of grime, the bricks crumbling with age and abuse, deserted...as far as anyone could tell.
But this particular shop was on Christy Street. On the pebbled glass door two words were clearly printed: ENTER FREELY.
Edgar Benedek smiled at the invitation, but still paused before putting his hand on the door knob. Would it be open or locked? If it were locked, even his dubious history of breaking and entering wouldn't help them gain entrance.
"This is the place you wanted?" asked Jonathan. Standing beside him, MacKensie wiped at the dirty glass with his sleeve, then attempted to peer into the darkness behind it. "What is it, an opium den?"
"Read it and weep." Benny pointed to the letters on the large window. "Madame Xanadu, Advisor."
Jonathan gave a long-suffering sigh. "You've dragged me through the streets of New York on a Sunday morning to visit some fortune teller? Really, Benedek, I have better things..."
"Be a good boy and I'll buy you a bagel, 'kay?" Momentarily distracted, Benny turned back to the door. He hesitated yet again, his hand hovering over the knob.
"Here, let me." Reaching past him, Jonathan moved to turn the knob, but Benny got there first.
"No!" The knob turned easily in his hand and the door was ajar. Damn, it was open. Already there was a scent of mint jasmine wafting through the opening. He put on a broad smile to answer Jonathan's bewilderment. "Humor me, Jack. there are some places where even I watch my step."
Jonathan studied him briefly. "This is serious then? Not one of your fantastic little escapades. Or is it?"
The suspicious note in MacKensie's voice helped. Benny adopted a wounded facade. "Me? Straight as an arrow and twice as long?" But there was still that gaping opening before him.
"Tell you what," he continued. "This is probably gonna be a real bore. There's a deli around the corner. Pick me up a rye with lox and I'll be there before the coffee's cold."
Stonefaced, Jonathan shook his head. "If you think I flew in from Georgetown on a Saturday evening to pick up your Sunday breakfast—"
"Check." Benny knew he was caught between a rock and a hard place. For once valor might be a better shot than discretion. Giving the door a light push, he stepped into the shadowy darkness.
It was another world inside the shop. he'd been there once before, but memory played him false. The Persian carpet was probably older than most of the city, the walls were covered by shelves that held innumerable crystal spheres and countless opalescent jars, and a small circular table sat to one side of the doorway. Three chairs were grouped around it.
The front window should have let in more light. As it was, he nearly jumped when Jonathan closed the door behind them and set the shop bell tinkling.
"What is that scent? I can't place it." Jonathan moved immediately to the shelves, his glasses already in his hand so he could more easily examine the labels on the jars.
Benedek heard the clicking of the bead curtain and turned at the sound of a feminine voice. "Mint jasmine, Dr. MacKensie, a particular favorite of mine."
Five years—she hadn't aged a second of the time. In fact, her clothing was the same; two large circular earrings and a matching choker medallion, a floor length violet skirt with slits that revealed slender legs, the blouse was what was now called a 'halter', but the puffed sleeve design was older than the concept of fashion. And her ageless face—two almond-shaped green eyes, jet black hair that fell back over her bared shoulders, and full, crimson lips that held a half-smile of welcome.
"Madame Xanadu," breathed Benny. Hearing Jonathan behind him, he forced himself to recover his wits. "Long time no see."
"To our mutual benefit, Benedek." She glided past him, extending a hand to Jonathan. "Dr. MacKensie, I have looked forward to our meeting. I have heard...much about you."
"All good, I hope." He cast a doubtful eye at Benny.
Shrugging, Benny replied, "Not me, Jack. I ain't been telling tales out of school. The thing is, Madame X, I need some info."
Her knowing gaze made him wince. "You have a dangerous tendency to alienate the wrong people."
"Just lucky, I guess. Can you do me a quick read? We'll be out of here faster than—"
"No. Not for you." Her answer was soft, but firm, then she gestured toward Jonathan. "For him."
Jonathan held up his palm, already shaking his head. "Thank you very much, Madame...Xanadu?" He smiled, his native charm on full blast. "I don't believe in fortune telling. There's really no need..."
Benny caught the look in the woman's eyes and grabbed Jonathan's arm, leading him to a seat at the table. "Come on, Jack. It'll be fun. Let Madame X lay some pasteboard on you."
"This is all very silly," protested Jonathan, reluctantly taking a seat.
Madame Xanadu also sat, motioning Benny to the third chair with a pack of cards she'd taken from a box on the shelf. She handed them to Jonathan, saying, "Take the cards and ask a question—silently."
Benedek watched the cards pass under his nose, saw Madame's eyes go wide, her smile broadening slightly as she accepted them back. "I'm sorry, Dr. MacKensie, although it is a flattering question. We are trying to delve into serious matters."
Jonathan blushed furiously as he took the cards again, and only a reproving look from the stern-faced Madame Xanadu kept Benny from commenting further. The cards were passed back once more, but this time the woman held them aloft. Then she placed the first card on the table.
"The King of Cups," she announced. "The card is your significator. You are a man of science, of order, of this world. Yet, you are a very old soul, Dr. MacKensie."
"Perhaps I was Napoleon," suggested Jonathan glibly. "Or Wellington, more likely."
"Don't mess with the act," warned Benny, sotto voice. "Go ahead, Madame X."
"The second card is your immediate environment." She dropped the card crosswiseways atop the first. "You are crossed with the fool."
"I don't need a card to tell me that."
Benny smiled. "So we get the joke already. Let's get to the punch line."
The next card pictured a heart, punctured by three swords. "Your life will be in jeopardy three times this day, Jonathan MacKensie." A fourth card followed, a Knight of Wands.
Caught by the green almond eyes, Benny stirred guiltily when she continued. "But, it will be through no fault of your own. There is a man of power who uses the occurrences of time, uses you to reach another. Benedek, you have very powerful enemies."
"Are you saying that someone will try to kill me because of something Benedek did?" asked Jonathan incredulously. "That's absurd."
"Tell him, Benedek."
It was a command, no choice given. "You see, Jack, there's this guy called Magus. Only arms dealer I know who's into black masses. Real hell-bent kind of guy, y'know? I did a story that sort of ruffled his feathers." Benny licked his lips nervously, pinned between Jonathan's scrutiny and Madame Xanadu's amused smile. "He said he'd get back at me."
"You told me to take the first flight to New York, that there was an emergency, all because you think some mercenary cursed you?"
Jonathan's anger was almost tangible, but Madame Xanadu reached around the table to touch his hand. "There is more to it than what he admits. Benedek, you must tell him why you called."
The glare wouldn't phase her, but he gave her an angry 'mind your own business' look anyway. Jonathan was waiting, his fingers tapping the table. "I-uh-had a feeling that the curse involved you."
"He had a premonition," corrected Madame Xanadu, her smile gone. She tapped the three of swords, the polish on her violet nails glittering. "Three times your life will be in danger. Twice, Benedek will be able to save you—if he acts."
"Which means you've got a bodyguard from here on in," Benny promised, half-expecting a withering look in response.
But Jonathan seemed distracted, puzzling over the cards. "Twice. But you said there would be three times?"
Madame Xanadu placed the last card on the table, her fingertips resting on the surface as though she were loathe to release it. The picture was inverted, not in itself a bad sign, but from what Benny knew...bad enough.
"What is it?" asked Jonathan curiously. "What does it mean?"
"Let's put it this way, Jack—don't expect a phone call from Ed McMahon telling you you've won a million bucks." After receiving a glance from Madame Xanadu, Benny amended, "Dick Clark, maybe..."
"The Knight of Clubs?" asked Jonathan.
"Wands." Her correction was soft. "If Benedek attempts to save you the third time...he will lose his own life. That is the curse."
Covering his chagrin, Benny gave an admiring whistle. "Slick, real slick. don't suppose you've got another card there with 'happily ever after' painted on it?"
From the way her fingers rested on the untouched cards, Benny knew it would take something stronger than his will to get her to show another. "I can only instruct," Madame Xanadu insisted. "Just as I cannot tell you any more."
"Can't?" pressed Benny. "Or won't?"
She met his gaze. "Do you remember the last time you asked me that question, Benedek?"
That was the problem, he didn't remember the last time. She'd been straight with him, told him exactly what not to do. And still his eagerness had nearly gotten him killed.
Realizing that Jonathan was watching him intently, Benny rose. "We'll talk about old times later," he promised. "Maybe do lunch."
"Not for some time," replied the woman. "Which is why you will speak with me. Now. But Dr. MacKensie...Jonathan...we shall see each other again. Quite soon."
Her words were a dismissal obvious enough even for Jonathan. "It was a pleasure to have met you, Madame. Benedek, I'll wait for you outside."
"Sure," murmured Benny, biting his lip. He wanted to tell Jonathan to stop, not to leave him alone with...her. But, after a curious backward glance, his friend left, and he was alone with the mysterious woman.
Sighing, Benedek sat opposite her. "So—how's Tartarus this time of year?"
He didn't feel any better when she smiled.
"We'll meet again," she had promised. "Quite soon."
Jonathan stepped out of the dark shop into the bright light of day, immediately reaching for his sunglasses. Only now was the area beginning to show signs of life; elderly men with thick Sunday newspapers under their arms as they strolled by, or women who dressed as they had twenty years before. A time for reflection, a time for peace, rest, contentment...a sunny Sunday morning.
Definitely not the time to be faced with a half-baked threat to one's life. Inside the darkened room, the message of the cards had seemed real, almost potent. But outside, in the sunshine...he'd never believed in the power to read the future from a crystal sphere or crease on a palm, let alone from a deck of cards, no matter how pretty the pictures.
He had half a mind to go back inside and tell Madame Xanadu thanks, but no thanks. After all, wasn't she simply another of Benedek's odd acquaintances? One of the man's seemingly endless collection of crackpots? But something about Benedek's manner had changed when he spoke of her. His comments were less sharp, his asides never really directed at her. And his voice had held a note of respect...
Benedek emerged from the shop, a solemn expression on his face which changed to one of his patented grins when he realized he was being observed. "What say we go chow down? I'm starved. Nothing like a little pre-breakfast hoo-doo to get the old juices flowing, huh?"
The words were right, all too flippantly normal, but Jonathan caught the pallor lurking beneath the grin. "Benedek, if you don't mind my asking...what did she say to you?"
"Oh, that." He waved his hand while strolling down the sidewalk at an easy pace. "Madame X just gave me a metaphysical slap on the wrist, that's all. Seems like I've been messing with some heavy-duty talent. She warned me to lay off."
There was more to it than that—Jonathan was certain. But there was also something in Benedek's manner that warned him away from the subject. "Sound advice," he commented. "I believe you said something about breakfast?"
"Right this way," instructed Benny as they turned the corner. "If you want pastrami, Ernie's deli is the best—"
Without warning Jonathan found himself falling forward, pushed from behind by his friend. He caught himself, scraping his hands along the concrete, sprawling just short of the curb. "For pity's sake, Benedek!"
Leaning back on his elbows, Benedek was also on the concrete. He pointed upward at the cornice of a five story building, from which speckles of concrete still fell. "The sky is falling and chicken little I ain't."
Jonathan got to his feet and pulled a handkerchief from his jacket to deal with his stinging scrapes. He offered a hand to Benedek, then winced at the pressure on the cuts. "Careful," he warned, adding, "You make this sound like a common occurrence."
"Too common. Last year some co-ed got her skull crushed on forty-second by a brick." Benny wiped his hands on his trousers. "Whole damned city is falling apart." He sucked in his breath at the sight of Jonathan's bloody handkerchief. "Ouch. Bet that smarts."
"On a weekday this sidewalk would have been crowded," noted Jonathan, reaching down to heft a large chunk of the shattered cornice. "Someone could have been killed."
He glanced up to see Benedek's eyes widen, following the man's gaze to the street sign that read 'Christy Street'. Instantly he released the stone as if it had burned him. "No, I don't believe in fortune telling. It's only coincidence."
A small crowd had gathered, mostly old men and women who had stopped to see if anyone or anything had been damaged. To drive his point home, Benedek took the spot he had been only a moment before. The space where Jonathan had been standing was now covered with debris.
"Coincidence, huh? Looks to me like we're on the first down, Jack."
"But you pushed me out of the way. It was an accident," protested Jonathan. "Nothing more."
"Right. And, in all the years I've lived in this city, I've had...oh...fifteen, maybe twenty buildings fall on me." His smile was grim as he fended off the attention of an elderly woman. "No, he's fine. The sooner we get you back to your hotel, the better, pal. I'll even spring for the cab."
"That, in itself, is a minor miracle," declared Jonathan. As Benedek stepped into the street to hail whatever transport could be found on a Sunday morning in Greenwich Village, Jonathan found himself at the fringes of the crowd, all of whom were staring at the decorative cement edges at the top of the building. He didn't believe in fortune tellers, but if Benedek were distressed enough to pay for a cab...
Actually, he found Benedek's entire attitude disturbing, the way he seemed convinced of Madame Xanadu's veracity. Surely this...accident was nothing more than coincidence. He hadn't seen the falling block of cement, and Benedek's well-timed glance had saved him a nasty headache at the very least, and averted a tragedy at the worst.
Again he felt the chill that had run through him at the sight of that card—the heart pierced by three swords. He did not believe. He could not believe. And yet...
Jonathan couldn't shake the scent of mint jasmine from his nostrils, or the tinkle of a glass bead curtain from his memory.
Benny paced before the hotel room door. "You'll be fine after lunch shows up. Don't sweat it, Jack."
Sitting on a chair, his feet propped on the bed, Jonathan dropped his hands from his face. "Sweat it? Benedek, I did not come to New York to be a prisoner in my hotel room. If you won't let me take in the sights, fine. At least have the decency to allow me to make a reservation to go home. I have classes tomorrow, and if I don't show up..."
"Aw, come on. Don't try to kid a kidder. You bat those lashes at Dr. M for a few minutes and she'd even forgive you for mass murder." Benny checked his watch again. "Next time try the Hyatt. They deliver room service before Christmas."
They'd had the same argument repeatedly during the last three hours, starting on the cab ride back from the Village, continuing on the elevator and on into Jonathan's room. Benny hoped that food would prove a diversion, but the hotel wasn't cooperating. And, if he ran out for munchies, he'd bet the farm that Jonathan would be out the door and into the first cab to Kennedy.
"No. No planes," said Benny softly. "Not again." He brightened. "Turn on the tube. It's almost one—the preachers should be off by now."
"I refuse to watch another 'Yogi Bear' cartoon," declared Jonathan while complying with the other man's request. He turned on the television, flipping the switches and knobs. "Fantastic! The picture's gone, but the sound's back." Jonathan threw his hands up in the air. "Benedek...!"
There was a knock at the door. Benny released a relieved breath and cried, "Saved by the knish!" He flung open the door and stood back as the bellhop rolled a cart into the room. "What happened? You hit traffic over the bridge?"
"Shriner's convention," replied the bellhop miserably. "I've spent most of the morning trying to get the right bodies into the right rooms."
"None of them female?" asked Jonathan with a hopeful air.
"Can you beat that? The great MacKensie willing to settle for leftovers!" Taking heart from the fact that Jonathan had started to check out the food, and had momentarily forgotten that he was about to make a final bid for freedom, Benny tipped the bellhop generously. "There's an extra five up here if you can get me some No-Doz," he whispered.
The man nodded, obviously without any sense of understanding, and closed the door behind him.
Benny closed his eyes and sniffed gratefully. Coffee. Strong, if they'd been using it to sober up the Shriners. He'd already been up for thirty hours when he called Jonathan, and had managed to grab a mere twenty-minute nap at the airport while waiting for his friend to arrive. So naturally he was stuck with heavy-duty babysitting when all his aching body wanted was a two week trip to sandmanland.
Had to do it though. The minute he dozed off, Jonathan would be out the door like a shot—although he might pay the tab before he split. The man was like that. But...if he didn't get some sleep soon, a safe could fall on MacKensie, and the most he'd be able to do would be yawn.
Better Jack not learn how close his keeper was to lights out. "How's the chow look, sport?" he asked, trying to pretend interest in the generous spread.
"Everything looks delicious," decided Jonathan, uncovering the hot metal tops with his bandaged fingers. He paused to favor Benedek with a suspicious glance. "You are paying for this?"
"G. Gordon Liddy never had it so good," promised Benny. He cleared his throat when Jonathan gave him another look. The food was meant as a distraction, not a reminder that the man was under his personal protective custody. "You aren't allergic to any of this stuff, are you? I asked for the standard list of stuff, but knowing your list of no-nos is longer than the Dead Sea Scrolls..."
Jonathan snapped his fingers. "That's right. It's Sunday, isn't it?" He dashed past Benedek, grabbing his shaving kit as he headed for the bathroom.
"What? You got a big date or something?" Curious, Benny followed, leaning against the sill of the open bathroom door. His eyes widened as Jonathan fished out bottle after bottle of medication. "You got through Kennedy with that?"
Jonathan began sorting out the bottles. "It's some herbal experiment from the med school. They think there may be a way to control allergies with vitamins instead of synthetics. They asked if I'd help." He patted his pockets. "I'm supposed to start today, if I can find the instructions."
"Right there, Columbus." Benny pointed toward a paper lying beneath several overturned bottles. "So you're playing guinea pig, huh? How much?"
"As if you could put a price on scientific research," scoffed Jonathan, setting the pills along the counter, bottle by bottle.
Benny nodded wisely. "Yeah. What color are her eyes?"
"Blue. Well, blue-green." Jonathan shrugged. "They might be contacts though."
"Figures. The romance of modern technology." The lines of pills had reached formidable proportions. Benny watched Jonathan fill a glass of water, evidently undaunted by the prospect. "We must be talking major leagues here. I've been thinking about this rash I get from prune danish..."
Idly he selected the bottles one at a time, reading the labels. Rose hips. Alphabets A through F. Plant pieces. Seaweed extracts. The standard flower child fare, gone yuppie in the eighties. He chose one more bottle and turned it over.
A skull and crossbones stared up at him.
Popping the top, Benedek looked at the pills, identified the right one by color and size, then gave up and dashed the rest of the line from the counter with a sweep of his hand.
Jonathan glared at him. "What was that for? Didn't you approve of the arrangement?"
"Not when it's a first class ticket to Forest Lawn." Benny held up the bottle close enough for Jonathan to read the label without his glasses. "Where'd Miss Health give you this stuff?"
"We were both between classes—in the lab, I suppose." Jonathan squinted, trying to read the print, then gave up and left the bathroom in search of his jacket.
"Let me guess," began Benny, looking up at the ceiling. "She happened to snag you outside the Chem or Bio lab, right? So you go into the storeroom for a little snuggle and she lays all this stuff on you. But fumble-fingers MacKensie drops the bottles."
Eyeglasses in place, Jonathan reached for the bottle. "I did drop...let me see that."
"Should have counted them," warned Benny. "You picked up one too many, chum. And one is all it takes."
"Cyanide?" Jonathan read the label. Stunned, he reached behind himself to make sure the bed was there before allowing himself to collapse. "I don't know how I could have...all those bottles look alike. And I almost—"
"Turned a permanent shade of blue." Benny jerked his head toward the bathroom. "Want me to check the others?"
"No need. I'll flush the lot." Jonathan continued to stare at the bottle he held. "Cyanide. Standard equipment in the biology lab. Benedek, if you hadn't—"
Holding up two fingers, Benny leaned back against the door. "Three strikes and we're out."
Jonathan shook his head. "That happened on Friday. There was no way anyone could have predicted that I would be here, today, with that...mess." Catching sight of the telephone, Benny froze. Slowly he walked toward it, touching Jonathan's shoulder briefly as he passed. "Game, set and match."
He picked up the receiver and began to dial, only to be interrupted by Jonathan who had followed him. "Who are you calling?"
"Magus." Benny winced. "Uh, mind waiting in the lavatory? I hate to grovel in public."
"What are you going to tell him?"
"That he's won. He's got me." Benny kept his eyes on the phone. "I promise to show up on his doorstep if he'll pull the curse."
Jonathan cut the connection with his hand. "You said he was a mercenary. An arms dealer."
"Yeah." Benny smiled wanly. "Don't suppose he'll just let me off with a warning, do ya?"
"No," said Jonathan seriously. "And you're not going to call him. I refuse to believe in any of this nonsense. It's all coincidence, which he's using to make a fool of you, Benedek."
Benny moved back to the bed. "You heard Madame X. She said you were crossed by one. Called that spot on, I'd say."
"Benedek..." Seating himself on the other bed, Jonathan sighed. "For an intelligent man..."
"Whoa! Mind if I quote you on that?" Benny's eyes widened mischievously. Then, clasping his hands together, he grew serious under Jonathan's stare. "Okay, Jack, it's like this. We've had two brushed with the grim reaper, and come up aces both times, right? But, next time..."
"According to Madame Xanadu," Jonathan interrupted. "There will be a third attempt and you'll be killed instead."
"You don't listen, do you?" moaned Benny. "How'd they get all those facts into your head? Crammed them there, I bet. She said I get offed if I try to save you—but that doesn't mean you won't catch it too. There's no guarantee here, Jack. We're talking your classic 'and/or' statement. The only way to make certain you don't take a quick trip in the black station wagon is to call Magus and get the curse pulled."
His head feeling like an equestrian act was going round and round at full gallop, Benny put his hand to his temple. Wish that bell hop would get back here with the No-Doz...or a shotgun.
"You're not making that call."
"You're exhausted, aren't you?"
Blinking owlishly, Benny gave Jonathan an incredulous look. "Who, me? I'm wide awake and ready for morning. Jack, there's no way around this."
"There is, if only for your piece of mind." Jonathan settled himself on the bed. "We make a trade. I promise to stay here, under lock and key, if you promise not to call Magus."
Benny blinked again, trying to keep his eyes open. "It won't work, Jack. I mean, there could be a fire, or...or..."
"An earthquake? Torrential rains? A mudslide? A tsunami?" Jonathan made himself comfortable, propping the pillows behind his back. "Perhaps a volcano, Benedek? Or, maybe the Shriners will overthrow the city of New York and we'll find ourselves in the middle of a revolution."
"Stop!" cried Benny, trying not to laugh. "I get the point. Not much can happen here, right?"
"Certainly nothing fatal."
"Right." Benny sank back onto his bed, grabbing a pillow to tuck under his head. "Boy Scout's honor you won't skip out on me?"
"S'okay, then." Benny closed his eyes and yawned. "Uh, Jack? One more thing?"
"Don't touch the trolley. Food poisoning." He drifted off into a deep slumber.
Three o'clock. Benedek had been asleep for two hours and showed no signs of waking in either the near or distant future.
The television was on, but low. At first Jonathan simply switched from station to station, finding nothing to hold his interest, but having nothing better to do either. When he'd gotten Benedek's emergency call, he'd taken the man at his word. Anything remotely clean had been tossed into his suitcase, with the shaving kit a last second impulse. Thoughts of salvaging his interest in Sharon by carrying through the vitamin experiment had flashed through his mind as he closed the door. I'm not even certain I locked the door. Once at the airport, he'd boarded so quickly there hadn't even been time to buy a magazine.
And why? Because Benedek had some sort of dream or vision and wanted company while he consulted a fortune teller. This was insane. There was no logic at work here, no evidence.
Certainly the fact that he'd had two close calls could be misconstrued. Accidents...coincidence. He'd picked up a wrong bottle, and been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accidents happen every day, especially to me.
The person who'd started all this nonsense was that self-same fortune teller, advisor to the credulous...Madame Xanadu. He glanced at Benedek, then rose to pad across to the television and turned off the set, all the while remembering Benedek's reaction to the woman. He'd been willing to believe anything she said. Perhaps if the situation were explained to her, she'd talk to Benedek, tell him she made a mistake, of that her cards were wrong...or something.
He draped his jacket over his shoulder and caught his shoes on the way to the door. Slipping into them, he looked back at his sleeping friend. "I'm sorry, Benedek," he murmured. "But I never joined the Boy Scouts. My father never approved of them."
Jonathan carefully opened the door and stepped out into the hall, then quietly pulled it closed behind him. Trying to remember the route he and Benedek had taken that morning, he made his way to the elevator.
The stucco whiteness of the ceiling confused him. Benny stared up at the crisscross patter, then realized where he was. In Jonathan's hotel room. Waiting for the third accident to happen.
That was it, wasn't it? Just waiting. No action until that decision had to be made. Just like Madame Xanadu had said.
Thinking of the woman made him shiver. The first time he'd gone to see her, he hadn't known any better. This time he'd gone knowing what she could do. It felt like trusting your life to a surgeon with a shaky rep. The man might be a genius, but you couldn't be sure whether he got his payoffs from the recovery staff or the morgue. Madame Xanadu practiced an art—the mystic arts. And there were rumors galore about her history; talk of dark deals and shadowy places, about heaven and hell, as well as everything that came between. He'd been a fool to go to her, but he'd also known she'd give him a straight deal, right off the top of the deck. What he hadn't expected was the heart-to-heart chat they'd had.
She'd been very sincere and cautious after Jonathan left, not as aloof as she'd been in the presence of the other man. "Benedek, be careful with him."
"Jonny?" he'd scoffed. "Hey, he's harmless enough—"
Madame Xanadu cut off his patter with a sharp hiss. "He has friends in high places, unknown to him. You are dealing with a man of great promise."
"High?" asked Benny. "How high? Are we talking general big guns or major deities?"
"High enough." Placing her hand on his, she gazed into his eyes. "Don't put Jonathan MacKensie in too much danger, don't force their hand—make them save him time and again."
Benny swallowed, thinking back on his own adventures. "Or?"
"They're very protective, the ones who watch over him." She withdrew her hand, pulling back into the shadows so he couldn't see her face clearly. "They'll remove the source of the danger."
"Wowzers." Her words were food for thought if nothing else. "That's one hell of a warning. Mind if I put it on a plaque sometime?"
"Damn you, Benedek!" She shocked him by raising her voice, something she'd only done to be heard over the winds of...where?
"Why must you be so flippant?" she continued. "This is serious. Your life is in danger, as well as that of your friend."
"That's why," he'd answered quietly. "Hey, you've been at this game a long time. You've been around. Me, I'm still the new kid on the block. This is all too big and powerful for me to get a handle on. If I can't laugh at it, I'll end up cutting out paper dolls at the funhouse." He smiled. "Look at it this way, you don't have to put up with me twenty-four hours a day, eight days a week."
"Only when you've gone beyond your depth," she answered, not unkindly. "I don't envy Jonathan your company."
"Especially since I'm gonna get him offed." He paused, chin in hand. "The third time—could Jack save himself?"
Madame Xanadu touched one of her earrings, a far away look in her eyes. "It's possible, but not certain."
"And if I do try, I get scotched and he walks away."
"Possibly." Her mind was back, her green eyes deep and knowledgeable. "Or he may also die."
"So I'm damned if I do and double-damned if I don't?"
"Very apt phrasing." The mystic leaned forward, tapping his hand with her fingernail. "There is a third alternative."
"What?" he asked hopefully.
"Negotiate with Magus."
"There are worse things than dying. That's one of them." Benny slunk back against the chair miserably. "Don't suppose you could pull my fat out of the fire again?"
"I cannot interfere, I can only—"
"Advise, yeah, I know the spiel. So, I keep him locked up for how long? An hour, a day, a week, a month?"
"As long as you wish." Her fingers tightened around his hand. "You cannot avoid this, Benedek. One way or another, a choice will be forced. A decision will be made."
The words had haunted him, serving as he farewell. She'd said they wouldn't meet again, which meant that this time there wouldn't be a slim hand there to reach down and haul him bodily from the lip of the grave. But that didn't mean she wouldn't help Jonathan, did it?
Benny rolled over on his side, fully expecting to find his friend either sacked out on the other bed, or bravely enduring the pro-golf circuit. Jonathan wasn't there.
His heart in his throat, Benedek shot up to a seated position, then relaxed. The man had given his promise. Scout's honor. Probably was cleaning up the rest of the pills from the bathroom floor.
Rising, he gave a reluctant glance at the food trolley. What a waste! Still, no sense tempting fate. Who knew how this thing worked? By tasting food that might be poisoned, he would theoretically be saving Jonathan's life, as well as punching his own ticket.
His stomach growling, Benny decided the sooner this problem was wrapped up, the better. The sight of the open bathroom door was a shot of cold water to his system. Jonathan wasn't there. He'd left. He'd broken his promise and he'd left!
The thought was almost enough to make him physically ill. Coupled with a lack of food in his grumbling stomach, Benny grew certain that the moral fabric of the universe had begun to unravel before his eyes. If you couldn't trust the word of a man like Jonathan MacKensie, who could you trust?
Where had the man gone? To get a paper? To the airport—best not to dwell on that thought. Maybe he was checking out the luscious leftovers from the Shriners' convention.
Then he knew. In a flash of inspiration, Benedek knew that Jonathan had gone to Madame Xanadu's shop. She'd all but invited him there. But why? She'd warned him that Jack was connected to some heavy-duty karma. Why would she take a chance at getting her lily-white hands sawed off at the wrist?
Unless—was she the third danger? Was what he had heard about her true, that she played both sides of the metaphysical street? Was she going to use Jonathan as a pawn to get herself in good with one side? And if so, which one?
He made it out the door before he realized he'd locked his key in the room. Momentarily disoriented, he smacked his hand to his forehead. Reality had nothing to do with this. This was supernatural. This was paranormal.
And he could always pick the lock later, if it made any difference.
Rain had fallen during the few hours they'd been inside the hotel room. Few—hah! He felt as though he'd been cooped up for days. He'd opted to walk the streets rather than flag a cab or take the subway. Although he tended to walk toward the curb, rather than along the buildings. No sense in tempting fate.
Instinct, rather than any real sense of navigation, pulled him to Christy Street. At no time was Jonathan certain that he was heading down the right lane, crossing at the correct light...until he reached a roped-off corner where a construction barricade had already been set up to cordon off the cement that had fallen from the building's cornice.
The sight of the cement made him pause. Every step after that, each one taking him closer to the shop, was an effort in itself. He felt the battle between the logician and the scientist within himself—one part telling him he was a fool in no uncertain terms, while another part of him wanted to know, to be certain, wanted, at the least, to have the comfort of hearing Madame Xanadu tell Benedek that the cage door could be opened, that the danger had passed.
His hand already on the door to the shop, Jonathan recalled Benny's earlier trepidation. How intrigued he'd been to learn that his friend had reservations, might even be afraid, of the contents of a curio shop. Now he'd give a great deal to turn back to that moment, to accept Benedek's gracious offer to let him wait at the deli while he faced his fears alone. But, even knowing what he did now, Jonathan knew he wouldn't have left.
"You are a good friend, Jonathan," said Madame Xanadu from her place at the table.
He blinked, having no memory of entering the shop. "I came because—Benedek thinks..." Taking a deep breath, Jonathan sat down opposite the woman. "There have been two...accidents. Benedek thinks there may be a third, as you said this morning. I'd like you to talk to him, tell him you were wrong."
She gazed down at the cards that she shuffled in her hands. "He made an attempt to contact Magus." Nodding, she dropped a card on the table, face down. "But you stopped him. Edgar Benedek does not appreciate the type of friend he possesses."
"He doesn't mean any harm," said Jonathan, suddenly defensive.
"No, he doesn't. Neither does the man who lights a candle in the darkness to see his surroundings and finds himself holding a stick of dynamite."
Jonathan stared at her. "Please, tell him you were wrong? Or that the situation has changed?"
"That would not be true. And I will not steer him down a wrong path. Benedek has a brave soul and a wide heart, but sometimes, sometimes..." She shook her head and smiled to herself. "He will try the patience of an angel."
"Surely you can do something?" asked Jonathan desperately. A vision of Benedek dogging his heels for the rest of his life made him wince. "He believes in your prophecy."
"And you don't?" She regarded him with an upraised eyebrow and a bemused expression.
Jonathan spread his hands on the table. "I'm a scientist. I know better."
"Do you?" The almond-shaped eyes blinked guilelessly. "Then why do you fear what I have said?"
"Because he believes." Jonathan sighed. "Look, I do know some psychology. The reason prophecies work is that people believe in them. They unconsciously try to fulfill them."
"And you believe that Benedek will come to harm because he believes his life will be forfeit in an attempt to save yours?"
"Exactly," agreed Jonathan, relieved.
"Then you are predicting his death?"
"Yes—no—" He leaned his elbow on the table and dropped his forehead into his hand. "You've confused me."
"That was wrong of me," apologized Madame Xanadu, a hint of amusement in her voice. She caught his free hand and held it. "There are two ways for you to save your friend, if you believe he needs saving."
"What are they?" asked Jonathan, searching her eyes.
"If what you say is true, and he does believe that he is in danger because of your friendship...the answer should be obvious." She released his hand.
"You mean—walk away?"
"Tell him good-bye—and intend it to be permanent. The curse would no longer work, Magus will lose his hostage."
Jonathan straightened in his chair. It would work. Psychologically speaking, the curse would be non-functional. There would be no reason for it to work, if he simply broke their friendship and walked away.
Simply. That was the key. He didn't want to lose Benedek entirely...well, certainly not forever. No matter how much he complained, he genuinely liked something about the man. But, to walk away and then come back—that would set the stage for the curse once more. And Benedek would be caught in the self-fulfilling prophecy.
Which was more important; their friendship, or Benedek's life?
"Of course," whispered madame Xanadu softly, "Magus will have won."
"Benny would be alive...."
She touched her earring, setting the silver strands shaking. "But he would have lost his friend. Without any explanation. Do you not think death would be kinder?"
"But Benedek...." Benny was made of stone, wasn't he? He'd survive, as he'd survive the dubious history that he ladled out for view with careful and well-portioned dribbles. On the other hand, if Benedek had walked away from him; refused to answer his calls, to talk to him, to acknowledge his existence....
"No," he decided, meeting her eyes. "I can't do that to him. I have a feeling that...too many other people have done that in the past."
Madame Xanadu smiled. "Much promise," she said, her fingers running gently along the backs of the cards she'd placed face down on the table. "There is another alternative. If, as you say, he believes that he must decide whether or not to come to your aid, knowing that his help may cost his life—you know what he will choose to do."
"I think so," said Jonathan, smiling grimly. "Then, I won't accept. Or better yet, I can't let him go so far as making the decision. If there is another accident..." He shook his head. "How will I know? What Benedek might think is important...I might not see it until it's too late."
"You will know. Trust me. And trust yourself." Without turning any of the cards over, she scooped them all back into the deck. "You say that you are a man of science. Then trust to that, Jonathan MacKensie. Trust to your calm logic and your knowledge. Not every candle lit in the dark need be a stick of dynamite."
"Unless Benedek's at the other end of it," amended Jonathan. He rose, offering the woman his hand. "Thank you, I think."
"You are most welcome. At any time." She took his hand, squeezing it gently as she walked with him to the door.
Still, there was something else. Jonathan paused in the doorway. "Madame Xanadu? Benedek is...afraid of you, I think. And I can't see why."
She smiled. "That is because he asked me to take him to a place from which few return."
"And that's why he's afraid of you? Because you took him there?"
Her smile disappeared and she sighed. "No, because I made him return. And he fears me because he doesn't remember. Ask him some day, ask him about Orpheus."
With that the shop door closed behind him, the little bell tinkling softly. Jonathan stepped back onto the sidewalk, the scent of mint jasmine still surrounding him. Madame Xanadu was an interesting woman. Perhaps one day he could convince Dr. Moorhouse that this 'advisor' might bear closer inspection. It would mean a familiar trip at least.
As for the moment—showers seemed imminent from the grey sky. He started back toward the hotel, hoping that he could beat the downpour.
Benny didn't take a cab for a good reason—he didn't know the wording of the curse. If he used the same reasoning that had prevented his touching the food on the cart in the hotel room, his headlong dash through the city might be construed as an attempt to save Jonathan's life. Ergo, one solid crash and he'd be history, Magus would be pleased as punch, and Jonathan would be...who knew where? The cat-nap had helped restore his batteries somewhat, but fresh air would most definitely keep him awake. Speed had to be sacrificed for safety and lucidity.
Even on a rainy Sunday afternoon there were people on the sidewalks; mothers with toddlers, elderly men playing checkers on benches, young people hand in hand as they took in the sights. A perfectly ordinary Sunday in NYC.
The very normalcy of the day almost made him question his career choice. Maybe he should quit and write about sports. A nice safe sport. Like bowling. Nothing spaced out about knocking down some pins with a ball. No flaming spears, flying furniture and such. Worst that could happen would be that a 250 pound bozo with a beer belly might try some creative dentistry with a fifty pound world class ball. No curses. Then again, he'd heard words fly after a missed spare that would send some witch doctors flying for the nearest bomb shelter.
No, bowling wasn't the sport for him. Maybe something safer...like cliff diving.
Leaning against a streetlight, Benny idly scanned the crowd on the opposite corner. Sure, there were your tourists, who hugged the curb, but never let an inch of their shoe tips hang over into the street, and your street punks, and your shoppers, and your completely out of place and totally bewildered anthropology professors...
He put two fingers in his mouth and sent out a shrill whistle. "Yo, MacKensie!"
To his credit, Jonathan looked up, as did everyone else on the street corner. Then he started to cross against the light.
Heart in his throat, Benny waved him back, daring a deadly bit of jaywalking himself. Was this it? Was this the way it would end, with a car neither of them saw, a car with a drunk at the wheel, or brakes that suddenly failed for no explicable reason?
But there was no car. Or bus. Or even a tenspeed bike. Giddy with relief, Benny reached the other corner and clapped Jonathan savagely on the shoulder. "Some Boy Scout you are."
And Jonathan smiled guiltily. "I never said—"
"I know, I know. But if we're gonna play by definitions, I can beat you every time," warned Benny. Shoving his hands into his pockets, he rocked back on his heels. "Uh, doesn't look like you headed for Kennedy."
"No. I paid another visit to your friend, Madame Xanadu. She's a very interesting woman, Benedek."
Benny stared at the laces of his sneakers. "Jack, about Madame X—" But he couldn't finish the warning. What could he say that would make any sense That he didn't remember most of the last time he'd asked for her help and the parts he did remember were best left at the bottom of a locked closet? "You hungry?"
"I didn't touch a bite of room service," swore Jonathan. "Scout's honor." He cleared his throat. "I did speak with Madame Xanadu about you. But there is one question I didn't ask."
Sudden panic gripped his heart in a vise. Benny looked up at Jonathan and tried to keep his expression blank. Don't ask me about it. I don't remember. I don't want to remember.
"About Magus—what exactly did you do that makes you think he'd curse you?"
Benny tied to choke off the relieved laugh, but it came out as a spluttering cough.
"That bad?" asked Jonathan sympathetically.
"No, not...geez, give me a minute, will ya?" He waved toward the sidewalk ahead of them. "Walk, okay? Let's get somewhere. Magus. Well, I had word that the man was pulling black masses, all-nighters, in these shanty towns down Costa Rica way. Got some snaps and a good five page story, but the Feds pulled the stuff right out from under me. Took the whole lot."
"But I never heard anything about—"
"And you never will," said Benny flatly, enjoying his moment of righteous indignation. "Truth to tell, though, they put that stuff to better use than I ever could. That's what got Magus ticked off—the Feds are using it to blackmail him. Me, I'm just happy enough that he's stopped sacrificing kids as a party stunt." Jonathan was staring at him. "What? I suddenly grow a third eye or something?"
"You've got scruples!" declared Jonathan.
"Scruples? Hell, yeah. Keep 'em in the bottom drawer of my desk." Benny smiled. Madame X was definitely wrong. His problem wasn't being too free and easy about the Other side, but that he was starting to take it too seriously. So Jonathan had had two close calls. Didn't mean the third one would be any less obvious. And if it wasn't something paranormal, well, he could probably handle it, right?
Jonathan had stopped to admire an artist's conception of a new highrise. "That's rather nice. It should fit in well with the flow. There and there." He pointed out two buildings to either side of the hole that was fenced in by braces and scaffolding. "How long do you think it will take to finish?"
"In New York? Let's see; labor unions, strikes, work orders...might have it done by the next century." Benny studied the other man curiously. "Don't tell me you've been editing House Beautiful on the side?"
"You don't understand. Some day all of this," Jonathan waved toward the construction site, as well as the surrounding street, "will be of scientific value. Who knows, someday someone may unearth your apartment in an attempt to learn what life was like in 1986." Jonathan frowned. "Forget I said that."
"You're just sore because my crockpot'll end up in the Museum of Natural History."
"More likely Ripley's Museum," muttered Jonathan, before looking around with a curious expression on his face. "What's that sound?"
Benny heard it too; a creaking noise, like the chain links of a child's swingset in motion. A quick search of the area revealed the arm of a crane shifting in the wind, but it seemed secure.
"Nothing to—Woah!" The sidewalk tilted beneath their feet as the crane on the other side of the fence slipped sideways. Benny grabbed the iron bar of the fence as the boards they had been standing on vanished into the hole, relieved to see Jonathan also maintained a surprised grip on the links.
The rain that had fallen earlier in the day had loosened the braces which Benny could see sticking out of the mud like the remains of some long-dead animal. The crane tottered on the brink of another wooden platform, its supports edging steadily down the muddy slope. Beneath it sat pipes and foundation materials, piled atop one another and looking more like bowling pins than he wanted to think about.
Screams brought Benny to the realization that not everyone had been as lucky as he and Jonathan had. Pedestrians caught closer to the street were being extricated from the muddy slopes as quickly as possible. "Hang on!" called a man, who was trying to set up a plank walk to reach them.
"We're okay," called Benny, pointing to the people in the street. "Get them out first. This thing's not going anywhere."
Only when he turned his head, did Benny realize that Jonathan was using the link fence as a ladder, moving in the direction of the steadily slipping piece of machinery. "Hang on there, Tarzan! What the hell are you doing?"
"Down there!" Jonathan paused only long enough to point toward the base of the crane platform, then continued to sidle along the fence that hung open to the edge of the pit.
A woman and a little girl hung onto the bottom strut of the platform. The piece of wood was all that kept them from falling down the twenty foot drop into the mud and debris. The woman tried for the fence, but it remained beyond her reach.
"Nothing's ever easy," moaned Benny, trying to keep pace with his friend. The wire was rusty, wet and slippery. Not the best time or place for a short climb. Jonathan's bandages seemed to give him a better purchase on the crossed wires, allowing him to make swift, if awkward, progress.
When Jonathan began to lower himself toward the woman, Benny was still too far away to do anything more than watch. His heart skipped a few beats after Jonathan made the drop to the top of the platform, squatting atop the wood. He started to move once more only after Jonathan gave him a quick wave urging him to hurry.
And Benny did. Ignoring the calls of people from the street some eight feet behind him, he soon reached the spot Jonathan had dropped from. But Jonathan was gone, no longer perched on the platform below.
Then he spotted a hand grasping the edge of the wood, followed by another. The woman was half-climbing, half-pushed upward from below. In a moment she sat on the platform, too dazed to move on her own.
"Grab my hand!" called Benny, reaching down. He tightened his grip on the fence with his other hand, swearing to never play lacrosse again if only his muscles held. "Come on, lady!"
For one crazy moment he considered dropping down to the platform, but realized he didn't have the reach. He'd never be able to get back to the fence. "Lady!"
Shaking her head, she stared at him, then grabbed his hand. Muscles in both arms screaming protest, Benny pulled her upward until she could grasp the chain links with one hand, then released her to catch the back of her coat, settling her into a double-handed hold on the fence. Only when her feet seemed secure did he relax.
And the little girl was sitting on the platform, crying. Jonathan hauled himself up beside her, pausing to catch his breath before looking up to see the woman on the fence. He nodded, smiling grimly.
Again. They'd have to do it again. And the little girl couldn't be counted on to help as the woman had. "Hang on," Benny said to the terrified woman. "I'm going to climb over you, so don't move, okay? Just stay put. What's the kid's name?"
"Rita!" gasped the woman, her fingers bone white over the wire.
"Rita. Right." Climbing carefully over the woman, he dared a backwards glance. The police had arrived, but they hadn't found anything to span the gap to the fence other than a rope. Aware of the attempted rescue he and Jonathan were staging, they were powerless to help.
The metal of the crane gave off a shrill creaking groan. Damn. There was no time to ask for the rope, not even time to attempt to be heard above the noise of the crowd, the protesting metal and the wailing child. This time silently abdicating racquetball forever, Benny tightened his grip on the fence with one hand, and reached down with the other.
Jonathan held the screaming youngster bodily over his head, the strain obviously telling on his own muscles. The little girl was screaming and kicking wildly, one shoe gone, her hands all over the place.
Benny grabbed for the next best thing, her jacket. Taking a deep breath he managed to snag the cloth firmly, then hauled her upward with such force that she almost passed him. There was a critical moment when he released her, the caught her close under his arm. Her screams rang in his ears as she struggled with him, but he held onto her desperately, tightening his grip on the fence beyond what he considered his own endurance.
The screaming grew louder, but this time the sound didn't come from the child. The crane tilted crazily, sending the platform to a ninety degree angle. A glance showed him Jonathan grasping the spaces between the planks, holding his position, but unable to reach any higher.
Hearing a call from behind him, Benny turned. The fire department had arrived, extending a cherry picker toward him. It seemed to move at a snail's pace, covering the distance.
"Speed it up!" he cried, sparing a moment to make certain that Jonathan was still there. "Hang on, buds! Company's coming!"
The machine was above him, the bottom resting on the upper edge of the fence. Even though the fireman reached down, Benny still had to push the little girl up into the man's hands.
Once the child was safe, he scrambled to the bottom of the fence, ignoring the jagged edges meant to hold the thing in the dirt. He arranged himself sideways, perpendicular to Jonathan's precarious position. Tucking his sneakers into the wider links along the edge, Benny curled his hand along one of the metal braces on the bottom and reached down.
Perhaps five inches separated Jonathan's fingertips from his own. Staring at the distance, Benny realized it might as well have been a mile. There was no way he could support this friend's weight with one hand.
Not with his hand. But if he used his body as a ladder. "Wait!" he called.
The machine screeched again, the crane ending swinging about wildly, jarring the fence. Benny grabbed the links with both hands and held on, eyes closed until the vibrations ceased. When he managed to open his eyes, Jonathan had managed to climb higher, but the platform had slipped further. Still, they had to take a shot. "Encore!" called Benny, releasing one hand from the fence and reaching in his friend's direction.
Jonathan's gauze-covered fingers strained upward, barely touching his before withdrawing.
At first astonished, then horror-stricken, Benny stared at his friend. "Oh no you don't! Jack, you can't do this to me!"
"I'll pull us both down," said Jonathan grimly. "It's my decision."
Ignoring him, Benny made a grab for his friend's shirtsleeve, missing badly. He loosened his grip to give him more reach, but the crane struck the fence again, causing it to shudder. Instinctively he grabbed for the metal links again, riding out the vibrations, closing his eyes against the dizzy sight of the sky swinging back and forth above him.
He didn't need to see the crane topple. He didn't need to see the platform give way. The final roar and buckle of the machine as it fell, the slopping of the earth and mud torn from the street-side of the pit—it was enough. Enough to haunt him the rest of his days.
When he finally managed to open his eyes, when the fireman in the cherrypicker finally got him to climb upward, only then did Benny look down. Only then did he see.
The earth had reclaimed the hole. The crane was still settling, creaking its annoyance. The pipes and building materials had been knocked down and were covered in dirt, swimming in mud in the lower portions of the hole. The wooden sidewalk and platform lay splintered, half-buried.
There was no sign of Jonathan MacKensie.
It was dark and dim and very close—like a room that hadn't been aired for years, an enclosed terrarium. Jonathan sat up and immediately smacked his head on the ceiling, setting off a ringing in the darkness.
There was a definite absence of light, of shape, of sound. The darkness was absolute, almost awe-inspiring. Where the hell was he?
Sitting up again, carefully this time, he felt the roof with his bandaged hands. There was a groove, a series of grooves that ran around it. He was in a tube; a circular, grooved tube. He was inside some sort of pipe.
After crawling as far as he could, Jonathan encountered a wall of dirt, the slope falling in through the opening. Moving in the opposite direction he found it to be the same. Falling from the platform, he'd thought only to escape the massive bulk of the crane. That he'd found the tube before the rest of the pit had collapsed was an absolute miracle.
Returning to the center of the tube, Jonathan considered his predicament. Literally, he'd been buried alive. Not a common occurrence for an anthropologist, this seemed more likely to happen to an archeologist. Certainly, if one had to be buried alive, there was some glamour to being done in by the mysteries of the ages. Instead, he found himself trapped in an urban renewal site in the middle of New York City.
Air. There was little enough of it. And that little would soon be gone. He wanted to scream in panic, to let the world know that he was still alive.
They couldn't hear him. And panic would only use up his air that much faster. Like lighting a stick of dynamite, panic would offer only a temporary release.
Trust to your calm logic and your knowledge—Madame Xanadu had said. Calm, stay calm and use up less air. But how much air do I have?
He started the calculations for the volume of a tube, then gave it up. There was no way to know how much time had passed. His watch wasn't digital. He had no way to know how much time would pass. There was only one thing he could logically do—sleep.
No...two. He could think. And wonder. Had Benedek managed to keep his grip on the fence? The crane had nearly sundered the fence when it slipped that last time. The cherrypicker had rescued the woman and the little girl, but had the firemen reached Benedek as well?
They had—he was certain of it. The curse was broken; without walking away, without Benedek losing his life as well. There was nothing more to think about, not really. He simply had to sleep. And to wait.
Jonathan removed his jacket, shaking the dirt out of it, then wadded it up under his head. Stretched out along the length of the pipe, he stared into the darkness until he could no longer tell whether or not he had closed his eyes.
Seated on the hood of a parked car, a blanket having been exchanged for his torn jacket, Edgar Benedek stared at the lights bobbing around the darkened construction site. They'd tried to coax him into an ambulance, but he'd fought them tooth and nail. Only after a paramedic had pronounced him reasonably fit and extracted a promise to stop by the hospital later did the police actually leave him alone. Already someone had asked him for an autograph, then asked him again when the hero turned out to have a recognizable name. He'd signed and signed again, his hand moving of its own volition.
Madame Xanadu was trouble. Always had been. Always would be. The woman was paranormal poison ivy. She had a reputation!
And a big mouth. She'd told Jonathan the options, spelled them out in no uncertain terms. And the big dope had believed her. And what was there not to believe? She'd called it—three out of three. Catching Jonathan's hand that last time would surely have gotten one of them killed. Maybe it would have been the right one.
But who was he kidding? The advisor had played straight with him. This was his own fault, no one else's. He had to mess with the big guys, like Magus. He had to go sticking his nose for news into other people's business. If he hadn't gone to Costa Rica to check out the rumors of the black masses and human sacrifice, Jonathan wouldn't be starring in the off-off-Broadway production of The Premature Burial.
And more kids would have died. And kept on dying until somebody had called the madman on the carpet or fate intervened and put a bullet through him.
There were no easy answers. Madame X had said that Magus was using a circumstance already set to occur. Jack's biorhythm had simply chalked up a triple whammy. It was Magus who upped the ante.
No blame, no pain, right? Then why was there a numb ache in the center of his chest? And why wasn't he over there with his brethren, nosing around the lights and cameras for some free publicity or a quick sidebar?
His hand went to the back of his neck...the tingle was a sure sign that someone was watching him. He jumped from his perch and whirled, but saw no one special. Just the crowd of onlookers, the press, the police. Maybe, for a second, there was a glimpse of violet and silver...
A cheer rose from the site—a chorus of whoops and yells. Benny took a step toward the pit, then stopped, clenching his dirty fingernails tightly against his palm. He'd been furious when they'd escorted him out of the pit. Now he was just as glad. For a few minutes longer he could hope that Jonathan was alive. For a few minutes longer he could keep the empty ache from becoming an all-consuming numbness.
Until they called him over to identify the body.
The crowd and television people had surged through the barriers, the information vultures all ready to pick at the carrion. Normally he'd be in their midst, more often at the forefront. This time though, he was a participant, not an observer; a friend, not a journalist.
Then he saw Jonathan. Sleepy-eyed and pale under the flashbulbs and television lights, he retained enough presence of mind to smile politely, enough pride to shake off the helping hands. His eyes were darting, looking this way and that, until he finally grabbed an officer's arm and asked a question.
Benny pushed forward then, ram-rodding into the crowd with his usual aplomb. "Sorry, folks—I've got an exclusive on this one. Tell your bosses to call my agent. We'll do brunch."
"Benedek!" Jonathan grabbed his hand, pulling him through the last ranks of the press. "You're all right?" he asked. "You're all right? And the woman and the little girl?"
"Fine, couldn't be better." Benny stepped back to study Jonathan's disarray. "You need a bath and a dry cleaner."
"And a meal," prompted Jonathan. "Benedek, I'm starving!"
"Looks like you're going to have to settle for vending machine coffee and twinkies." Benny pointed toward the paramedics who were having a bit more trouble getting through the press than he had. "Looks like they're gonna cart you away. I'd claim whiplash and sue."
"You would." The paramedics broke through and Jonathan backed away. "No, really—I'm fine. I fell asleep."
"His name's Jonathan MacKensie," said Benny helpfully. "He's a doctor, but not an M.D., so you can use all that medico jargon."
"Benedek?" Jonathan gave him beseeching look." "I don't want—"
"It's okay," promised Benny, eyeing the cameras hungrily. "I'll catch you up later. Got some details to clear up."
The mass of vultures hung around him once Jonathan had been led away, eager for a word, a quote, a two minute bit for the eleven o'clock news. Benny smiled. Exclusive—oh, what the hell!
He waved his arms to quiet them down. "Listen up, folks! The hero's name is Jonathan MacKensie, Dr. Jon MacKensie, of the Georgetown Institute of Science and Technology. He's a Pisces, single and has this St. Bernard complex. Any questions...?"
They'd walked up and down the street a dozen times. At least he had. Benedek had found a convenient lamppost and leaned against it, arms crossed, with an 'I told you so' grin plastered across his face.
"But a shop doesn't simply disappear," protested Jonathan. "We're on Christy St. That's the corner where the cornice fell...the shop should be here."
"Are we about finished?" asked Benny. "That shuttle to D.C. will leave with or without you. You miss it and I'll catch hell from Dr. M for keeping you out past your bedtime."
The shop wasn't there. He had no memory of the bakery, or the dry cleaners for that matter, but both stores looked battered enough to have been firmly entrenched in the neighborhood for years.
"I forgot to ask." Benny buffed his nails against his lapel. "You want the fan mail forwarded or what?"
"Fan mail?" Jonathan blinked. "What fan mail?"
"Okay, so maybe you were in Emergency when the late news hit. Looks like you're going to be a New York City hero for the next couple of days. Page three spread most likely."
Jonathan froze, trying to visualize Dr. Moorhouse's reaction. "You didn't talk to the papers...?"
"Me?" He flashed an innocent grin. "I just talked to the cameras. But that lady caught the press. Flashbulbs were popping like firecrackers around her and little Rita, and yours truly, of course."
"And where was I during all this?"
"Getting your hands rewrapped by the blonde nurse with the cute pout." Benedek shook his head. "Dunno about you checking out right away. I wouldn't mind being observed by that angel of mercy for twenty-four hours."
"You have no sense of responsibility," said Jonathan, not about to admit he had considered that particular option. "And you don't have classes to teach tomorrow."
Benedek tapped his watch. "Which you're gonna miss if you have to take the red-eye out of Kennedy in the morning. Does Dr. M give brownie points for being a hero?"
"Only after the inquest." Jonathan sighed. "Let's go. I haven't the time—but I did want to talk with your 'Madame Xanadu again. I wanted to find out what she thought about your so-called curse not working."
"Not working?" Benny whistled. "What kind of pain killers they give you for your hands, huh? Not working? Three for three, I'd say."
Three accidents, just as she'd predicted with her cards. Perhaps that was why he wanted to speak with her. "None of them fatal, though."
"You hear me complaining?" Benedek clapped his shoulder, pushing him into movement. "Come on, buds. We broke the curse. Magus can't tough me now. If I know him, it'll be a hot time in Costa Rica tonight."
"Then I shouldn't expect any more emergency phone calls on Saturday nights?" prompted Jonathan. "Just in case I'm planning something..."
"You can book solid through the week for all I care. You have my word on this one, Jack. No more curses."
Relieved, Jonathan realized that had been the answer he'd been seeking. He didn't believe in curses, but so long as Benedek did—"Scout's honor?"
"No way, Jose That one doesn't work. But I'll make you an even trade."
Gazing skyward, Jonathan tried to make out the space from which the cornice was missing, but it blended into the darkness. "What?"
Benedek gave him a light push, guiding him around a lamp post. "Next time you check into a hotel, any hotel...make sure the Shriners didn't beat you to it."
"Agreed." Remembering the well-spread room service cart, Jonathan sighed. "You do realize that I haven't had a thing to eat all day. And a certain person did promise me a meal."
"Wonder who that could be?" Benny said, back-pedaling ahead of him. "Okay, okay—you'll get fed. But that means getting to the airport in time. And that means cab fare..."
Jonathan dug into his wallet, wincing at the lack of green. "All right. I'll pay for the cab. If you can find one at this hour on a Sunday night."
"It's a gift." Dashing midway into the street, Benedek put his fingers into his mouth and whistled shrilly. "Yo! Taxi!"
The streets were empty in all directions. Jonathan smiled. "A gift?"
"So it takes a minute, okay?" Benny whistled again.
Turning, Jonathan looked back along Christy Street. Why couldn't he find the shop? Why wasn't it...there...
There was a light, a candle lit in a dirty window. A man in a trenchcoat entered a shop, the tinkle of a bell drifting down the street in the evening breeze. On the door were written words, words he could not read from this distance, but knew to be there—'Enter Freely'.
"Yo, Jack!" Benny was half inside a medallion cab. "Have I got it or what?"
Jonathan glanced back along Christy Street, the light still visible, the scent of mint jasmine rising with the wind.
"You still hungry?" called Benedek.
"Yes." Jonathan moved toward the cab, his head twisted to see the light in the window. Another time, perhaps. "Yes," he decided aloud. But as he closed the door, he could swear he'd caught a rustling sound, like the whisper of a woman's long skirt.
Or the shuffling of a pasteboard deck, a shuffle that could only end with the final turn of a friendly card.
© Susan M. Garrett. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
Return to Fiction top page
Return to Shadow Chasers Home Page
Return to MaryB's Home Page
Send comment on this story to the author.