The phone rang, and I answered it.
I know — pigeon move, right?
You look at the caller I.D. and it says something like “VALUTECH LLC” or “LUXURY LIVING” or (in this case) “WHEELER AND ASSOC” and you know what that means. Or I do, anyway. Because usually I’m the one on the other end of the line and I only need a few minutes of your time to discuss an exciting opportunity that could radically alter your financial outlook but it’s a limited-time offer and you’ll have to act now.
Maybe it was curiosity. Maybe it was professional courtesy, one call center phone monkey to another. Maybe I was just in a “What the hell?” mood. That wasn’t uncommon.
Anyway, I picked up.
“Alanis McLachlan?” a man said.
I pulled a Coke from the fridge and briefly considered leaving the phone in its place. Let the guy try to his sell time shares or hot-hot stocks to my leftover pizza and moldy tofu dogs.
I popped open the can and took a drink.
“Also known as Sophie Harper?”
I managed not to spit-take cola all over the kitchen.
I hadn’t heard that name in a long, long time.
“Yes,” I said. “That’s me, too.”
“I’m calling about Athena Passalis, also known as Barbra Harper.”
The first name was new to me. The second made me grit my teeth.
“Does she want money,” I asked, “or is she dead?”
I knew it had to be one or the other. Either she needed something from me or she’d never need anything again.
“Oh, um, actually,” the man stammered.
And that answered my question.
Athena Passalis, a.k.a. Barbra Harper, a.k.a Mom had finally done the one and only thing she ever could or would to make the world a better place. She’d left it.
Or “passed on,” as the man put it.
I let that sink in a moment. Then I asked the first question that came to mind.
“Who killed her?”
What else were you going to say when you found out someone like my mother was dead? “Was it the hepatitis she picked up in the Peace Corps”? No. “I told her donating a kidney to a stranger was crazy”? No. “I can’t believe she went back into that burning building for a cat”? No.
The man on the phone gave me another “Oh. Um. Actually.” Then:
“The police don’t know.”
“Of course they don’t,” I could have said. “Whoever finally got Mom was going to be smart.”
“What happened?” I said instead.
So the guy told me the details. There weren’t many to tell, apparently. A simple case of burglarus interruptus. You know the old story: innocent citizen finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just a tragic stroke of bad luck.
“I’m very sorry,” the man said. “I’m sure all this comes as a great shock.”
“Eh,” I said.
The guy’s name was Eugene Wheeler and he was an attorney and he did manage to give me a great shock eventually. He told me Barbra had a will, and I was in it.
When we were done talking, I hung up and walked to the kitchen table and took a seat.
My mother was dead.
My mother was dead.
My mother was dead.
I even said it out loud.
“My mother is dead.”
I waited for the tears to come. All I could manage was a sigh.
I didn’t owe the woman more tears anyway. She’d had plenty from me already.
There was a debt, though. One I hadn’t been sure I’d ever repay. But now perhaps I could.
I owed my mother justice.
My mother was a con artist. When Eugene Wheeler told me what was in her will, he also told me — without knowing it — what her last scam has been.
In Arizona, just up the road from Phoenix in a little town called Berdache, was an occult novelty shop and tarot parlor called the White Magic Five & Dime.
It had belonged to my mother. She’d died inside.
Now it belonged to me.
I knew nothing about the occult. I knew nothing about tarot cards. But I did know my mother. Which meant I also knew this: She’d been killed by one of her customers. One of her marks. And if I really wanted to know which one, I’d have to go to Berdache and go back into the family business.
That was today.
My flight to Phoenix leaves tomorrow morning.
You can find out what Alanis learns in Berdache — about her mother, about herself and about tarot — in The White Magic Five & Dime, the first book in the “Tarot Mysteries” series published by Midnight Ink.
Meet the authors
Steve Hockensmith is the author of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novels Dawn of the Dreadfuls and Dreadfully Ever After. His book Holmes on the Range was a finalist for the Edgar, Shamus and Anthony Awards for Best First Novel. He also writes a series of middle-grade mysteries with “Science Bob” Pflugfelder. Lisa Falco received her first tarot deck at the age of 8 years old. She holds degrees from both Northwestern University and Cal State University Northridge and is the author of the book A Mother’s Promise.