Night Shift Page 20

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“Yeah, I’m fine. If I get through with my business ahead of time, the pie at Mary Lee’s Café—over there, see the red awning?—is really, really good. Don’t tell my wife I said so.”

Manfred said, “I won’t. Have good time with your tool guy.”

Teacher nodded. “Okay, man, see you later.” And he was out of the car and opening the door of the hardware store.

He walks like a different person, Manfred thought, watching Teacher go inside. Teacher looked freer, somehow; happier. Either his friend in Killeen was someone really special or Teacher found Midnight oppressive. Manfred navigated his way to Agnes Orta’s house, thinking only a little about Teacher as he drove. Mostly, Manfred felt pleased to be alone.

Magdalena Orta Powell’s mother lived in a neat white house built in the fifties, with a small and well-kept front yard. There was a whimsical statue of a squirrel in one flower bed (the squirrel was smiling), and in another flower bed there stood a painted wooden cutout of a woman with a big butt, bending over. In case Mrs. Orta was looking out the window, Manfred did not make a face. Instead, he knocked on the door, which had recently been repainted dark green. It opened immediately.

“Mrs. Orta?” he said, and she nodded vehemently.

“Well, if this isn’t wonderful!” Agnes Orta said. “I’m so excited. I feel like I’m meeting a movie star. Call me Agnes, I’m not so old!”

Agnes Orta really wasn’t old, even to Manfred’s eyes. She must have been very young when she’d had Magdalena. Agnes was short, and if she had bent over she would have looked very much like the wooden cutout in the yard. He appreciated her sense of humor a bit more when he realized that.

Agnes’s hair was still thick and glossy, though there were a few threads of gray running through it. A beautiful silver comb held it away from her face, and the comb contrasted sharply with the orangepatterned top and brown pants that hugged Agnes’s generous curves.

“Come in, come in!” she said, and he moved past her into the sunny house. “Can I get you some tea? Some coffee?”

“Thanks,” he said. “Some tea would be great.”

“And if you need the bathroom, it’s right there,” his hostess told him, pointing at a door to the right of the little living room.

“Thanks,” Manfred said, relieved, and availed himself of the offer. When he emerged, she called him to the kitchen, which (though small) was bright and clean and full of plants. Mrs. Orta saw him looking around. “I brought in my rosemary and my basil,” she said. “The nights are getting too cold for them, even on the patio.”

“They make the kitchen look so nice,” he said, wishing his vocabulary had a better word for what he meant.

“My Magdalena bought this house for me,” she said proudly.

“What a great thing to do.” He meant it.

“She said she had met you in her professional capacity,” Mrs. Orta said. “I know Magdalena can be a forceful woman, so I hope she didn’t bulldoze you into coming to see me. I know it was a birthday present from her, but I also know that was quite a drive.”

Now that Manfred had met Agnes, he felt much happier about repaying his debt to Magdalena this way. “I’m glad to be here,” he said. “Magdalena told me you’re a fan of mine. I’m so flattered to hear it.”

“Oh, she don’t believe, but I do,” Agnes said. She put a mug of tea in front of him, along with a spoon and a tiny jug of milk and one of sugar. “And my priest understands.”

Manfred was surprised. He put a spoonful of sugar and a dash of milk in his tea in silence. In his experience, priests and ministers had strong feelings about psychics and fortunetellers, and he’d been on the receiving end of plenty of lectures. He didn’t want to hear another.

“But he won’t be showing up here today to watch, I take it,” Manfred said gently.

“Oh!” Agnes laughed, a big infectious huff of merriment. “Not Father Antonio. He just said, ‘I’ll see you on Sunday, and you better be there!’ ”

Manfred tried a sip of his tea and told her how good it was, trying to hide his relief that a Catholic priest would not be part of the morning’s program. He unpacked his valise, bringing out the tarot cards, the crystal ball (which he used as a focusing object), and the Ouija board, which he simply despised but lugged along, anyway.

Agnes looked at his tools with excitement and anticipation. “Can my friend Linda come over?” she asked. “I didn’t know if you would charge Magdalena more if I invited someone or not? Linda’s just as big a follower of yours as I am, and she lives right next door. It would be such a treat for her, she don’t get out much. She’s been poorly.”

“It would be fine if Linda was here,” Manfred said. He did not tell Agnes that he was doing this for free; that was between him and Magdalena. After all, I might as well add another old lady to the reading, Manfred thought. He would definitely have gone above and beyond what was required to discharge his debt.

Agnes was on the phone with Linda in a New York minute. While they were waiting for the neighbor to arrive Manfred looked around, trying to pick up more clues about Agnes and her world. He asked a few gentle questions. Knowledge was always handy when it came to the psychic business. He was beginning to build up a picture of Agnes and her world when there came a gentle knock at the kitchen door.

Linda Ortega was definitely not what Manfred had expected. She was at least twenty years younger than Agnes, and she was in the process of dying. The certainty hit Manfred like a hammer.

Does she know? Manfred asked himself, because everything depended on the answer. When he shook Linda’s hand, he had his answer. She did know, but Agnes did not.

Linda’s eyes were huge and dark and melancholy, but not tragic. She’d accepted her death sentence. She didn’t want to talk about it. Manfred nodded, having gotten his cue. He sat at the kitchen table with the two women.

“Let’s talk about how we’re going to do this,” he said cheerfully, and fell into his professional patter. “There are different ways to lay out the cards, if you want to go with the tarot. What information are you seeking?”

“Can you explain?” Agnes asked.

“If you want to know if there are spirits in your house, we can try the planchette, though they may not cooperate,” he said. “If you want a reading on your future, we can lay out the tarot cards. If you want to find out what’s looming over you personally, we can use the ball to focus the spirits to give you an answer. If you want to see what spirit has a message for you specifically, I can link with you and we can explore that.” He had to go over all the options again before Agnes could make up her mind, but that gave him time to figure out how to handle the Linda-dying situation.

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