Chapter 3: In which Sanderson multiplies her regrets
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
“Our cat Blackie is missing, and we want you to tell us where he is.”
I had to leave myself open. I had no idea how to do this. I couldn’t do this. And around here, a missing cat usually means a dead cat. There are enough predators around, definitely foxes and wolves, possibly including cougars. I was going to have to disappoint two kids, because they’re bound to be disappointed anyhow.
“Well, children, to find a cat, you need something that belongs to the cat. Do you have anything?” Now where did I get that?
The boy piped up. “We don’t have anything with us, but . . . but you could come to our house. We’ve got pictures and everything.”
Imagine me in my smart fortune teller’s robe, looking stupid and indecisive. That was me. And then some brain cells woke up. Psychometry. That’s it, psychometry. Could I do psychometry? Or was that psychometrics? Damned if I knew, but maybe it was time to find out. I already did similar stuff, so maybe . . .
I told the kids, “Wait here a minute.” I dashed back into the house, to my bedroom, took off my robe, tossed on a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt with the legend “Assertive Woman” on the front, and headed back out to the porch. The kids were still there, waiting. If only my adult customers were so patient! One demonstrated why you should never leave a klepto alone in your own house, back a month ago.
We walked to their place, while I pumped the kids for information. Their names were Sally and Tim Smith, and their cat was named Blackie because he was black, except for the white right forepaw. Oh, and he had thumbs. And he was only a year old. And they lived at 164 Pine Street.
I did not expect much of 164 Pine Street. It’s right in the middle of Trailer Park Central, and their place didn’t look like one of the newer ones. One does not want a “lived-in” look when that looks more like an “old and falling apart” look. Fortunately, no adults were home. The kids showed me pictures of Blackie, e-mailed me two, and gave me a catnip toy Blackie was fond of. They were sounding as cheery as can be, knowing that Madame Fortuna was going to help them. Madame Fortuna, meanwhile, was wondering just what she had got herself into, and hoping she could do whatever the poorly thought-out plan of hers required.
And then Madame Fortuna’s luck took a dive. Mrs. Smith walked in. Mrs. Smith turned out to be Mrs. Charlotte Smith, as in the Charlotte who works at the “The Pit Stop,” the main gas station, in its convenience store. As in the Charlotte who called the cops on me when I screamed at the top of my lungs at my suddenly ex-boyfriend who had just abandoned me in this dismal little burg. Charlotte was not, is not, and never will be my friend.
Charlotte took one look at me and said, “What are you doing here? Trying to steal something?”
Tim tried to offer an explanation. “Madame Fortuna says she’ll help us find Blackie.”
Charlotte would have none of it. “Madame Fortuna is a big fraud, and Blackie is probably dead.” She turned to me, “Get the hell out of my house. I don’t need trash like you here” Meanwhile, Tim started crying.
Me, trash? Pot to kettle, if you ask me. Although I’ve never understood that expression. Doesn’t that mean one is saying one is just as bad? Well, maybe. Anyhow, I turned to Tim and said, “I’ll find your cat.”
That enraged Charlotte. “You’ll find nothing, and you’re not going to lead these kids on with your lies. Go on, get out, GET OUT!”
I left. There was no point in looking back at the two kids, both of whom were crying now. Nor at Charlotte, whose fat face was red with anger. I walked back home, got in, and set myself to making dinner for the Doc and me. It was my turn. But Doc was already in the kitchen ahead of me, and told me to go lie down and take some weight off my back. It was good advice, so I took it.
For about three minutes. Then my cell phone went off. It was Mac. I picked up and complained to him, “Hello, tell me you haven’t arrested one of our professional women of joy and I have to come over.”
Mac paused for a bit at that. Maybe he could hear how tired I was, all of a sudden. And my back did hurt, still. But he finally said, “Sanderson, I just got a complaint from Charlotte Smith that you bilked her two kids of $25.”
Now in all my talking with the Smith kids, and my hurried exit from their trailer, I had completely forgotten about their money. So I sighed and said to Mac, “It was $11, Mac, and if you want to pick it up and take it back to Mrs. Smith, come right ahead.”
Mac grunted and hung up. He was at my door in five minutes. I handed him the $11.
He gave me a look that said he expected something more, so I told him, “Her two kids, Sally and Tim, came to me to help me find their missing cat Blackie. They even sent me photos by e-mail and gave me one of his toys. I was going to give them back their money, but I forgot, and then Charlotte showed up and demonstrated the depth of her Christian love for me. You want to see the toy or the pictures, Mac?”
I like Mac. He’s a big guy, light brown hair, green eyes, stocky build. He keeps order in Farnham, with my occasional help, and he does it well. And he rescued me from a truly miserable jam I’d got myself into when my boyfriend decided to become an ex-. You know, the same jam that got me on the wrong side of Charlotte Smith. So he knows me pretty well. And I know him, and would prefer to keep him on my side, among other things because I work for him. (Third job, I’ll explain later.) Mac wasn’t too pleased when I took up fortune telling, and I had to swear to conduct my business in such a way that he didn’t get many complaints about me. So far, I’d held up my side of the bargain. Hence the detailed explanation to him. I had to show him that the complaint wasn’t really about anything I’d done wrong.
Mac took it all in, pondered it a bit with a frown on his face. Mac is probably the happiest sheriff in the United States, so when he isn’t smiling, you had better be worried. But this time he finally regained a ghost of a smile. Instead of replying to my explanation directly, he asked, “Still hurting from getting clobbered with a chair last night?”
Then he got back to business. “You taking up finding lost pets, Sanderson? ’Cause if you are, I have to tell you it’s a losing business.”
I nodded again, like some sort of pupil answering a demanding teacher. “I know, Mac. The kids looked so pathetic.” And then I had to laugh. I was thinking they must take after Charlotte. But they didn’t. Maybe they looked like their father, who left Charlotte a long time ago, long before I set foot in this place.
Mac gave me a questioning look. “Can you actually find their cat?”
I shrugged. It didn’t hurt as much as this morning. Still hurt, though. “I don’t know, Mac. Reason tells me it’s dead. And I’ve never tried what I think might do the trick. But I’ll try.”
Mac considered, long and hard. He’d seen me raise ghosts from corpses, all in the line of my work for him, so he was willing to cut me some slack. Finally, he said, “How’s this? I’ll give the money to Charlotte’s kids, but tell them they still owe you if you do find their cat. OK?”
“That’s a better deal than I give most of my customers, Mac.” My voice was a combination of sour and amused. “But OK.”
Mac smiled, his usual expression, and a weight dropped off my shoulders. He said to me, “These aren’t your usual customers, and this isn’t your usual business. If you become a success in the lost pets business, I’ll back you up. You know that.”
I nodded to that. “OK, Mac. Just a word of warning: I may have to call you to bail me out of whatever trouble I get into.”
He laughed. “What’s new? Ciao.” And he left, humming some tune. You couldn’t have told which tune, between the uneven quality of Mac’s humming and my belief that he’s really tone deaf.
I laid down again, but Doc had me up for dinner in another ten minutes. Normally she dumps her troubles on me while we eat, but tonight I dumped mine on her. Naturally, at the end, she asked me if I could do what I promised.
“I don’t know,” was my definite response. “You know what psychometry is?”
Doc Helen regarded me with a cool glance. Imagine a woman in her early thirties, who’d only been in practice for a few years. She wears the nerd glasses, has her red hair cut short but it still curls, and has gray eyes that look more or less bloodshot depending on how much she’s had to drink. Doc is an alcoholic, and when pressed will tell you that it’s better than being a morphine addict. Why she would be either, she won’t say. But that’s why we have her in Farnham: she almost lost her license wherever she was before. At least lately she’s been laying off the sauce a bit compared to when I first came here. I’d like to think it’s my influence, but I doubt it.
After a bit of contemplation, she replied, “The ability to deduce facts about the history of an object, including information about its present and past owners, simply by touching it. Term coined by an American doctor named Joseph Rodes Buchanan sometime in the nineteenth century, which is the only reason I know this. You have something of the cat’s, I take it?”
Ah, Doc, always on top of things, drunk or sober. I replied, “Catnip toy. Can’t think of anything better than an object drenched in the cat’s saliva, unless I rummaged through the litter box.” I gave a snort to the last.
Doc Helen didn’t join in. She gave me a look similar to Mac’s a bit earlier, as if she were judging me. “Becoming a humanitarian, now?”
It was the way she said it that got to me, the implication that I’d never do anything just to be nice. Coming from her! I retorted, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She narrowed her eyes, looking at me. “Answered your mother’s letter yet?”
My mail comes to Doc’s door, because the post office thinks this building isn’t divided in two. I’d never regretted that, until now. I pushed back my chair, stomped into my bedroom, grabbed my mother’s letter, came back, threw it on the table. “There it is,” I said, my voice a bit louder than before. “You want to watch me read it in front of you? Am I required to answer them all, now?”
Doc didn’t answer at first. She just got up, went over to the counter, poured herself some more bourbon, and then turned to face me. In her coldest voice, she said to me, “I’m not the person you should angry with, Sanderson. Think about that.” And she turned and left without another word.
I was steamed . . . for a while. My deal with Mac and Doc was that I’d answer my mother’s letters at least once a year. I’d answered one over the holidays. It was unfair of Doc to pull this on me. After I stewed a bit, I regretted blowing up at her, though. She had some point she was trying to make, and I was going to have to apologize, or something, before I found out. Realizing that didn’t make me feel any better. But at least it meant I could let the matter go, instead of chewing on it. I cleaned up the dishes and leftovers, and went back to my side of the house.
Seeing as I had ticked off Doc Helen, and had to prove I was being legit to Mac, I figured I had best get to seeing if I could do psychometry. So I got the catnip toy, brought it to my fortune telling parlor, moved the crystal ball out of the way, and placed the toy in the middle of the table. And then I stripped off the fingerless gloves on my hands and stuffed the gloves in my pockets. My right hand itched a bit, and the feathers on the back of it were still trembling from my anger.