Chapter 12: The ends justify the means
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
This is unbelievable. “Cindy? A magician? Have you seen her medicine cabinet?”
Miranda shakes her head as if she doesn’t believe what she’s hearing. “Doesn’t matter. I need someone, and she’s the only possible candidate in this town. And that she’s your friend should make it easy to persuade her.”
“Right. Only two problems with that, Miranda. Cindy’s grounded and her mother’s taken away her phone. And her mother thinks I’m a bad influence on her, so she’s forbidden to see me outside of school hours.” More bitter information Donna got out of Maureen Van Schacht.
Miranda leans back in her chair, in no way discommoded, smiling, in fact. “What did you do, pepper spray someone again?”
“No, I said something to Cindy about carrying a knife, so Cindy decided to carry one, and she pulled it on a guy at school.”
“And this is your responsibility how?”
“It isn’t.” I’m so frustrated that I bang on the table, which actually startles Miranda. “But that doesn’t matter. Her mom holds me responsible.”
Miranda considers that a bit and smiles at me. “So are you carrying a knife? Know how to use it?”
I vigorously shake my head. “No and no.”
“Pity. It would come in handy.” Miranda drops her head to look down in her lap, thinking.
“Are you crazy? Do you think I’m going to kill someone with a knife?”
Miranda abruptly looks up at me, then immediately stands up and starts walking around the table toward me. She’s clenching and unclenching her fists, and her face is turning red from anger. I try to get out of the chair and move away, but my butt is firmly fixed in the seat. Miranda stops about a foot away and the chair spins so I’m facing her. In a harsh voice, she says, “Listen, Jane: I think someone is trying to kill you. They’ve already made two attempts, and the only thing that’s saved you both times is me. I am not your goddam maid service, to come running after you every time you’re about to be killed.” Suddenly there’s a flash, and Miranda is holding a knife pointed directly at my throat. Her voice drops lower as she says to me, “You want to die now, and save me a lot of trouble? You’re two inches from death.”
Instead of looking at the knife, I’m looking at Miranda. And I remember how I wondered if the dark sunglasses she wears means she’s blind. I know she isn’t, but it strikes me as absurd that a blind woman is holding a knife to my throat. And the next thing I know I’m trying to stifle a laugh. And I can’t. Or the next one. Or the next one. And I’m just laughing uncontrollably.
Miranda gets a perplexed look on her face. She stands there, unmoving, for I don’t know how long. And then the knife disappears, she shrugs her shoulders, and walks back to her chair. Once she’s settled in, she shakes her head and in a resigned voice says, “And she thinks the Van Schacht girl is the mental case.”
I speak before I think. “Or you, maybe.”
“Or me.” Miranda throws up her hands and starts chuckling herself. “Or me.” Her laughter gets harder, which gets me laughing even more, and so we both laugh ourselves out.
When we’ve both stopped laughing, I say to Miranda, “Okay, someone’s trying to kill me, and I need to defend myself. Got it. I’ll look over the stuff I used to carry and see what can stop a killer, as opposed to a bully trying to beat me up.” And then I remembered something Miranda just said. “You said there had been two attempts? When was the other one?”
Miranda waves her hand as if to dismiss it. “The time on the beach with Genevieve.” She sees I don’t know what she’s talking about and continues, “You were at the Van Schachts, and went down to the beach because Genevieve lured you there. You probably saw her as this really attractive woman.”
I interrupt. “No, a really handsome guy.”
One of Miranda’s eyebrows surfaces over her glasses. “Really? Damn, I didn’t think her glamour was versatile enough for a gender switch.”
“Who is she?”
“Our mermaid. You read my book, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, but really? A mermaid?”
“Well, not really, but she might as well be. Or a siren. She was human originally, but she’s gradually turning into a fish. She lures her prey by appearing to be a willing and attractive sexual partner. It works. Most men think with their dicks, and even when they don’t, her breath contains a poison that confuses her victim’s mind.”
Great. First I go through imaginary sex with Nature, then I’m aroused by a mermaid. “Well, she certainly confused mine.”
Miranda laughs. “You two did make an unlikely looking pair when I found you. Fortunately Genevieve is getting stupider, so it wasn’t too hard to persuade her to let you go.” She pauses, and then adds, “I wish I knew how she was persuaded to go after you. Her usual prey is a drunk male tourist in town.”
I think about that night. “Cindy and I had been drinking a lot of rum, so I guess I was drunk.”
That gets a chuckle from Miranda. “Nah, it probably helped once Genevieve went looking for you, but I never heard of her hunting at that end of the lake before. Though all the houses out there are pretty recent.
“Anyhow, you figure out some way to defend yourself. I’ll have to figure out how you’re going to get Cindy Van Schacht out of the house. Because you’re the one who will have to bring her here. She’s afraid of me.”
“You zap her with your eyes?””
Miranda shakes her head. “She can sense that I have magical powers, but she doesn’t know that’s what she’s feeling. It makes her uneasy around me.”
And what’s my excuse? Oh, maybe that Miranda seems to be a walking case of permanent PMS. At this time of my life, I’d actually like to have PMS; it would mean my periods have started. Anyhow, there’s nothing for me to do here, so I stand up and say, “I should go home.”
Miranda demurs. “Not yet. I may need to bounce an idea or two off of you.”
Great. My time obviously isn’t valuable. So I get up and wander around the room, looking at the stuff Miranda has mounted on the walls. The skulls look real. Some of the symbols on the pentagrams look familiar, like astrological symbols. The goat’s head I touch. Yep, it’s real.
I point to another object and ask Miranda, “Is this the real one?”
Miranda takes a second or two to look at where I’m pointing. She shakes her head. “Of course not.”
“The dragon head looks just like the one on the inn’s sign.”
My comment annoys Miranda. “The image on the inn’s sign was designed in 1906. No one around here had seen the walking stick for twenty years. And just look at it. Could you actually use that as a walking stick?”
She had a point. The dragon head on the stick would have been hard to grasp, let alone use.
I turn to look at some of the other objects on display. Miranda lets out a cackle, which brings my attention back to her. She’s smiling at me as she says, “Genevieve and the walking stick. Things are out of time. Things are not what they seem. That’s what we need. Tomorrow you’ll go to the Van Schachts. They’ll let you see Cindy, and you can bring her here.”
“Um, Miranda, I said . . .”
“Doesn’t matter. You’ll see.” And Miranda’s grin grows wider.
Maureen answers when I ring the Van Schachts’ doorbell. She gives me a smirk. “Cindy’s not allowed to see you, you know.”
“I know,” I replied. “I want to talk to your mother.”
“Okay, your funeral,” Maureen helpfully replies, and allows me to come in and stand in the hall while she gets her mother. After a few minutes the two of them come down the hall. Maureen’s smirk is even wider, probably to make up for Mrs. Van Schacht, who’s playing the Great Stone Face. In a voice rolling with ice cubes, she addresses me, “Your presence is not welcome here, Jane Harris. I understand you have something to say to me. Be quick about it.”
I do my best to plead. “I was hoping to speak to you privately, ma’am.”
“Allowing you in the door is contamination enough.” But she turns to Maureen. “Leave us.”
Maureen’s smirk shrivels into a silent snarl and she turns and walks away. Mrs. Van Schacht waits until she’s out of sight before turning back to me. “You have my attention. Do not waste it.”
It isn’t the best environment, Miranda had recommended I try to get into a room alone with Mrs. Van Schacht, but it will have to do. I quickly reach out with my hand and touch Mrs. Van Schacht’s hand with the ring on mine. “Fear me,” I whisper.
It feels as if a current is running between us. And then, right before my eyes, Mrs. Van Schacht changes. Somehow she becomes . . . diminished, as if all her authority has drained out of her. And yet she’s holding herself even more rigid than before. Words well up in me, and I let them out. “Letitia!”
Mrs. Van Schacht is looking as if she’s talking to someone just a little bit shorter than her. Her eyes are wide, and I realize she’s terrified of whomever she thinks I am now. “Yes, Mama,” she replies in a shaky, little girl voice.
“What is this I hear, Letitia, about you preventing my granddaughter Cynthia from seeing her friends?” I can hear myself say these words, but it’s as if they’re in stereo, with the stern voice of an older woman overlaid on mine. It must be the voice of Mrs. Van Schacht’s mother.
“Mama, she’s been associating with girls that are an improper influence on her . . .”
Mrs. Van Schacht’s mother must be quite the battle-ax, because I find myself cutting her off. “You mean like those boys you ‘associated with,’ Letitia?”
Mrs. Van Schacht lowers her head. “No, Mama.”
“I’ll not have my granddaughter take after her mother, Letitia. If she’s barred from seeing her friends, she’s just as likely to start running around with boys. And we don’t want that, Letitia, do we?”
Mrs. Van Schacht can barely get the words out. “No, Mama.”
I can’t believe what happens next. I’d expected the spell to make Mrs. Van Schacht see me and hear me as if I were the person she feared the most. But Miranda never mentioned the spell could get physical. Without any thought on my part, my hand swings up and slaps Mrs. Van Schacht hard across the face. “What was that, Letitia? Look at me when you speak to me.”
Mrs. Van Schacht looks up again. I can see her fighting back tears, not altogether successfully. “No, Mama,” she says with a sob. “We don’t want her hanging around with boys.”
“Like her mother did, and make a mess of her life.” I’m horrified at saying this. Is this really how Mrs. Van Schacht’s mother treated her?
Mrs. Van Schacht dutifully repeats what she’s been told. “We don’t want her hanging around with boys like her mother did, and make a mess of her life.”
I can feel my hand swinging up, and try to stop it, but I slap Mrs. Van Schacht even harder this time. This is too much for Mrs. Van Schacht, who drops her head and just starts crying. I feel so sorry for her. But the spell has me say, “Foolish girl, you’d not be crying now if you had listened to your mother before. Now go wipe those tears off your face before you make me ashamed of you. And tell your granddaughter that she’s free to go see her friends.”
“Yes, Mama.” Mrs. Van Schacht gets the words out between sobs, and walks away.
I can feel the spell drop from me once she leaves. I want to throw up. Miranda made this sound like fun, like a game. “Oh, you’ll just become the one person she can’t argue with and you’ll be able to order her around.” It sounded so innocent. And now I’ve just humiliated Cindy’s mother. It’s Miranda’s spell, but I agreed to it, and I did it.
I haven’t liked Cindy’s mom. Cindy doesn’t even like her mom. She always seems so formal, so privileged, so proper. I never really thought about why she’s that way, or whether she even enjoys being that way. Now I wonder.
Cindy is overjoyed to be able to go out with me. She is walking along with me to town, practically bubbling, wondering why her mother reversed herself. I keep my mouth shut. I’m happy to be with Cindy, but I’m really regretting how I did it. And then there’s the small problem of what’s about to happen.
I have us swing down the south side of the common, where there’s a parking lot. And just as we come abreast of it, Miranda steps out of her car. “Good, you’ve got her,” she says.
Cindy stops dead, and turns to me with a questioning look. I try to put a brave face on it, but fail. “Ah, Cindy, Miranda’s trying to help me out of a problem and we need your help …”
Cindy starts backing away, shaking her head. “No, no, no. I am not going anywhere . . .”
Miranda interjects, “Even if I told you something that would change your life permanently for the better?”
What? Cindy has the same reaction. She stops and stares at Miranda as if she doesn’t believe Miranda means her any good. “Yeah, like what?”
“The voices you hear,” Miranda says, “they are real, Cynthia Van Schacht.”
Cynthia looks at me as if I betrayed her. “You told . . .” She abruptly breaks off and turns toward Miranda. Miranda is holding up two fingers, and over the next half minute switches from two to four to one to seven. Cynthia stares at her as if she can’t believe it. “How . . .”
Miranda cuts her off. “Questions later. We need to get moving if we’re going to help Jane. Get in.” And she jumps back into her car.
Cindy looks at me, worried, but shrugs her shoulders, and we both get in back. We buckle up, and then Cindy asks, “Where are we going?”
Miranda starts up the car before answering. “To the Mall of Lost Souls.”
End of chapter twelve
(Oh, I bet Miranda knows all about the Mall of Lost Souls. Wouldn’t surprise me if she’s the metaphysical equivalent of a slave trader. Jane and Cindy better watch out, or they may find their souls planted in flower pots at the center of the food court. Well, since writers, it is said, have sold their souls to the devil, maybe I can warn them in the next chapter.)