THE HANGED MAN

This novel, book one in the Mira Morales series, was published by Kensington Books in 1998. Kindle,  $3.99

Chapter 1

The immediacy of the noise enveloped her, surrounded her, a whispery sound, the voice of wind through leaves. But outside, absolute stillness gripped the darkness, a waiting stillness, as if nature held her breath.

Mira pushed up on her elbows, blinked hard to dispel the darkness, but it remained, as black as India ink. She strained to hear the noise again. There. It seemed distant at first, faint, then grew louder, urgent murmurs punctuated by angry stacca­tos. Somewhere in the house, two men argued.

In her house.

Her thoughts flew to Annie, asleep across the hall. Blood pounded in her ears as she slipped out of bed. Where had she put Tom’s gun? The bureau? The nightstand? No, no, the closet, on a high shelf in the back where her daughter couldn’t reach it.

The voices grew uglier and louder as she groped her way through the dark. She stumbled over one of the cats, curled up on the rug, undisturbed by the intruders. Only then did she realize the voices originated in her head, stronger than echoes, brighter than memories.

—Take it easy. Careful with that thing.

—Shut up. Move back nice and slow.

—Look here

—Move!

She wrenched back, patting the nightstand for a pad of paper, a pen. She dropped to the edge of the mattress and listened hard, eyes shut.

External sounds: frogs, crickets, an isolated splash in the lake behind the house. More distant still, traffic hummed. She focused on a dot of light inside her head and willed it to expand, to open. The light brightened and melted like butter across her inner vision.

She saw them now—not their faces, just their legs, two pairs of legs in a dimly lit room. Two men. One of them wore running shoes with lime green laces, the other was barefoot, his muscular legs covered in very dark hair.

Mira could no longer hear them, but somehow knew they continued to argue. Without opening her eyes, she scribbled down what she saw. It wasn’t enough, she needed more details.

A child appeared in the left-hand corner of her vision, a young boy of three or four. Sleepy eyes, black hair. He clutched a teddy in the curve of his arm and peeked out from behind a door. Mira was sure the men didn’t see him. Sound suddenly clicked back in, the hiss of air-conditioning. She couldn’t tell if it came from her room or belonged to the awful scene that unrolled across her inner vision.

A sharp, abrupt pain pierced her chest and she gasped and doubled over, the pad and pen slipping to the floor. One of the men had been shot. She was locked into him, zipped up inside of him. Blood rushed out of him, out of her. He slammed into the wall and air blasted from her lungs.

He wheezed and so did Mira. She saw through his eyes, saw blood pouring out of him and across the floor. She heard what he heard, soft, low laughter and a voice: “Tough luck, Sherlock.”

The connection ruptured.

Mira slid to the floor, her body collapsing like a beach chair. The hot, bright pain in her chest began to subside. She sucked at the air and rubbed at her chest, just below the sternum where the first bullet had entered. She didn’t feel any blood, any hole.

She lurched for the lamp, hit the switch, and rocked back on her heels, rubbing frantically at the front of her T-shirt. No blood. She jerked the shirt down, certain she would see blood, exposed muscle and tissue, a gaping hole just below her breasts.

Her skin bore no marks. She felt only a phantom sensation now, a terrible numbness that spread across her chest, as though she had been injected with Novocain. The man, she thought, had known his killer and had died with that low laughter rumbling in his ears.

Qué haces en el piso, Mami?”

Mira opened her eyes and peered at Annie, kneeling in front of her, staring at her.

“I slipped off the bed.”

“That’s a dumb thing to do.”

Mira laughed. “For sure.” She pushed to her feet, sat down on the edge of the mattress. Better, she thought. Much better.

“You sure you’re okay, Mommy?” Annie asked. She frowned slightly, hands on her narrow hips, a forty-year-old woman trapped in an eight-year-old’s body. “You look sort of funny.

The sweet perfection of her daughter’s features struck her just then, the even blend of genes. Annie had her Cuban father’s dark, fathomless eyes, the high sweep of his forehead, the shameless sensuality of his mouth. The rest of her mirrored Mira: the rounded chin, the aquiline nose, high cheekbones, curly dark hair.

“I had a bad dream.” Mira picked up the pad and pen from the floor and quickly jotted down the rest of her impressions.

“You write down your bad dreams, too?” Annie asked.

“If they seem important.” She included the date—Thursday, October 23—glanced at the digital clock, and added the time as well. 5:32 A.M. She put the paper and pen into a drawer, stood. “What’re you doing up so early?”

“Seuss woke me up.”

The black and white Tom that Mira nearly had stumbled over had been born here in the neighborhood six months ago, the runt in a litter of wild strays. She and Annie had rescued them from the atrium of a home whose owners hated cats. Whose owners probably would have drowned the kittens. Annie and her friends had tamed the kittens within thirty minutes and Annie had chosen Seuss for herself. He slid between Annie’s legs now, begging for attention, for food, for whatever she might give him, thank you very much.

“Mommy, you don’t look okay.”

“I’m fine. Really. C’mon, let’s brush our teeth and get some breakfast.” But her racing heart told her she wasn’t fine.

Annie clasped Mira’s hand, her way of making sure that her mother had returned from wherever she’d gone. Her daughter understood that Mira sometimes saw pictures and heard voices in her head. But she didn’t know for sure what any of it meant.

Some years ago, Annie had mentioned her concerns to a preschool teacher, who had related the conversation to Mira. Fortunately, the teacher didn’t equate psychics with devil wor­shippers; she had made an appointment for a reading and subsequently had become a friend.

But Annie, older and more curious now, had begun to ques­tion the entire process. What kind of pictures do you see, Mommy? What kinds of sounds do you hear? Is it like a day­dream? I think I like it better when you just do the cards.

Mira actually preferred the tarot cards, too. She controlled them, not the other way around. She could read them or not read them. They didn’t shoot into her awareness the way her psychic impressions did.

The nagging, gnawing question, though, centered around timing. Had the events occurred at the moment she perceived them? Or last year? Or would they happen next week? What was the time frame? And hell, what did it have to do with her?

****

The drone of morning cartoons drifted through the house, a comforting noise, utterly familiar. Mira rubbed the steam from the bathroom mirror and stared at her blurred image. She hadn’t put her contacts in yet, but she didn’t need the contacts to peer upward and to the right of her reflection. Here, she could sometimes see replays of whatever she had tuned into.

She knew some detail of the experience had escaped her. It happened sometimes, a psychic blindspot, a tiny black hole in her mind’s eye. She sensed the detail’s shape, its reality, but she couldn’t seize it. She kept seeing only herself, her black hair still wet from her shower, her dark eyes pinched with worry.

Look harder, her grandmother always told her. If you don’t see it right away, keep looking until you do. That’s what your name means. To look.

She leaned closer to the mirror, but nothing changed. Screw it, she thought, and picked up a jar of face cream that her grandmother had given her last Christmas. The stuff supposedly removed dead cells from the skin and thus make wrinkles less pronounced. A youth cream, Nadine had said. She herself used it all the time and did she look eighty?

Nadine had never looked her age. A runner long before it was fashionable, she’d been practicing yoga and meditation since her twenties and meat hadn’t passed her lips since she hit eighteen. She had outlived two husbands and two of her five children. A broken hip last year had slowed her down, though, and her bad fall had frightened her enough to sell her home and move into the apartment above Mira’ s bookstore.

Mira dabbed the cream on her face and rubbed it in. She wondered what she would look like if Nadine had not been her grandmother. After all, Nadine had encouraged her to become a vegetarian twenty years ago, when she was just seventeen, had taught her yoga, had guided her into herself and out again after Tom’s death.

Nadine had liked Tom on sight. But even without her grand­mother’s tacit approval, Mira had loved him from the beginning. Only later had she realized he came from a family that repre­sented everything she wasn’t. They ate meat, his mother was a rigid Catholic, and his father was a practicing santero who sacrificed animals. Tom had been none of those things, but a product of all of them.

We choose what challenges us. Nadine’s slogan. Mira supposed it might be significant that she thought of this now, as she tried to recall some slippery detail of a vision. She felt sure she didn’t know anyone in the scene she’d glimpsed. It had nothing to do with her and Annie. And yet, its power had to indicate a connection to her. But how? In what way?

By the time Mira and Annie finished breakfast, the sun had come up and the neighborhood ducks had congregated in the backyard, fussing for food. The ducks numbered about fifty now and they made their home on this small, placid lake in the Fort Lauderdale suburbs. Everyone fed them, but she and Annie made a ritual of it.

They walked down to the lake with a jar filled with birdseed and poured it into the feeder under the banana tree. The ducks descended in a feeding frenzy. Annie moved among them on her hands and knees, stroking this one, talking to that one, feeding a white duck out of her hand. Her dark hair shone in the sunlight, the cool October breeze ruffling the ends. She had turned eight on September 15, the five-year anniversary of her father’s death.

Annie came running across the grass, shouting that she didn’t want to be late for school. And suddenly the trees and the lake and the ducks dissolved. Mira stared out of someone else’s eyes at blurred greens, high grasses, a patch of blue sky, all of it seen as though the person—a woman?—lay flat on her back.

Mira shut her eyes quickly, opening herself to it. She didn’t see anything, but she heard an odd scraping sound, like a broom brushing against metal, and she smelled water. Canoe. Tall grass. Then it dissolved. She couldn’t tell if it had a connection to the other vision or not. It felt eerie, scary.

“We going or what?” Annie asked, tugging impatiently on her hand.

She opened her eyes, relieved that the world had solidified again. “We’re gone,” she said with a smile, and they ran up to the porch.

****

Mira sat in the office of her bookstore, one hand on the phone. She knew she would regret it if she didn’t make the call to the police. The vision would haunt her. She would wonder what might have happened if she had called.

Her limited experience with cops had been, for the most part, unpleasant. The three cops she’d worked with on half a dozen cases or so over the years lived forty years in the past. They automatically dumped psychics in the weirdo category, along with witches, vampires, and things that went bump in the night.

None of the cops had ever informed her whether the informa­tion she had given them was accurate, had never offered any feedback at all. They could have been reincarnated priests from the Dark Ages who had made the reading of the cards punishable by burning at the stake.

So forget it, she thought. She had a business to run, she didn’t have time for this shit. Why get involved? Why invite complications? Right now, she needed to focus her energy on the psychic fair for Halloween weekend, about nine days from now. She still had a million loose ends to tie up.

The city of Fort Lauderdale, in conjunction with local businesses, put on the street fair every year. Bands, art booths, food concessions, clowns and jugglers, a costume contest. This year’s fair would include one block of exhibits devoted to “alternatives” —alternative lifestyles, alternative futures, alter­native anything. Her job was to sign up psychics, card readers, health food and vitamin advocates, everything allied with alter­native living.

It would be held on Las Olas Boulevard, Lauderdale’s less pretentious equivalent of Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue. City officials expected two hundred thousand people to attend over the course of three days. The exposure would expand her store’s visibility, bring in new customers and, she hoped, would boost the profits, which this year had been only marginal.

She pushed the phone out of reach, swiveled her chair around, and felt dismayed by the stacks of papers on her desk. Book orders, special orders, a dozen yellow notes about the fair stuck to files, envelopes, her wall. Call so and so. Confirm with so and so. Get money from so and so.

Through the rear window, she could see the yoga class in session in the garden, in the grassy shade of a pair of banyan trees. Nadine taught most of the yoga classes, her body as supple as a child’s despite her eighty years and a broken hip twelve months ago.

One World Books & Things had never been just a New Age bookstore. From its inception, she’d envisioned it as a place where people could find alternative answers to their spiritual, emotional, and physical needs. As a result, the shop now offered services that ranged from yoga to channeling, the prosaic to the esoteric.

Nine years ago, Nadine and Tom had financed the property, two lots on Fort Lauderdale’s New River. Even then, waterfront property had been enormously expensive, but they’d gotten the land in a foreclosure sale for a fraction of its worth. The price had included a two-story house of crumbling coquina rock, limestone embedded with fossils, the peninsula’s DNA.

Built in 1942 by a wealthy citrus baron for his partially paralyzed mother, the place had numerous amenities for the handicapped. She and Tom had retained some of them: the rickety elevator that connected the two floors, the dumbwaiter in the kitchen, the single closet shared by two rooms, the wheelchair ramps. But the house had needed so many repairs, Tom had taken the summer off from the firm where he practiced law and they had gone to work rebuilding the place.

Mira had been pregnant at the time, an easy pregnancy for a twenty-seven-year-old woman, easy except for the wild mood swings and the vivid, horrifying dreams.

No, that wasn’t accurate. There had only been one dream, a soap opera of the unconscious that had expanded in detail every time she had it: Tom pulling out of the driveway one evening at dusk, Tom walking into a store where he was gunned down. She had never told Tom about the dream.

In real life, it had happened three years later and Mira and Annie had driven to the convenience store with him. Annie, exhausted from her birthday party, had fallen asleep in the backseat, so Mira stayed in the car while Tom went inside. The details of the actual incident had differed sufficiently so that initially she didn’t recognize them as what she had dreamed.

By the time the man charged out of the store and she realized what was happening, the damage was done. Tom already lay in a pool of blood inside, one of two victims shot by a masked assailant during a robbery. The bastard had gotten away with maybe two hundred bucks and had never been found.

That had been her first experience with a cop, an aging cynic who believed only in what his five senses told him. She hadn’t succeeded in convincing him otherwise. Despite countless attempts, she never had been able to pick up anything on the killer and had begun to doubt her ability. Now she realized she’d been too close to it to separate her grief from her impressions.

But this situation differed, she needed to remember that. She wasn’t too close to it, she didn’t know either of the men she’d seen, she wasn’t involved. What could it possibly cost her simply to give the cops the information? Then that would be it.

Mira reached for the receiver before she could change her mind. She called information for the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, then punched out the number. She nervously tapped a pencil.

“Broward County Sheriff’s Department. How may I direct your call?”

“Homicide.”

“Just a minute and I’ll connect you.”

Click, buzz, nothing but a void. Hang up now. This is going to mean trouble for you. Images of what she’d seen welled up inside of her—the two men, the running shoes with the green shoelaces, the shot, the child. She suddenly had trouble breath­ing, a wall of perspiration swept across her back, her stomach knotted.

I can’t do this, she thought, and started to hang up when a gruff male voice said,

“Homicide, Detective Ames.”

She tried to even out her breathing, to speak normally. “My name’s Mira Morales. I, uh, have some information about a murder.”

“What sort of information, Mrs. Morales?”

Another thing about cops that she didn’t like was that they called all women missus.

“Psychic information.”

Silence. She could almost see his derisive smile, the roll of his eyes. Then he said: “What’s the information?”

“White male. Shot in the chest below the sternum by another male. There was one witness, a boy of maybe four. Later on, I saw a boat, maybe a canoe, gliding through tall grass. I saw it early this morning, but I’m not sure of the real time.”

Spoken aloud, it sounded foolish, demented. The cop didn’t laugh, but he didn’t sound too impressed, either. He actually sounded somewhat bored. “Was there anything else, ma’am?”

“No, that was it.”

“We appreciate the call, Mrs. Morales. If we need to speak to you again, where can we get in touch with you?”

She knew he’d dismissed her as a flake. Just the same, she gave him her phone number and address.

“One World Books is where you work, ma’am?”

“I own the store.” I’m not a complete flake, turkey.

“Very good, ma’am. Thanks for calling.”

The line went dead.

Kindle, Nook, other formats. $3.99

 

One Response to THE HANGED MAN

  1. Meg says:

    I miss Mira and Shep!

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