The Last Days Of Madame Rey
Raja examined the cards again. It was past midnight and she was spent. The images were beginning to blur. If her hunch was correct and the Hebrew letters spelled out a tarot spread, then the pictures ought to tell a story. It was one she couldn’t yet read. A sharp pain traveled across the back of her skull like a crack in aging plaster, and she closed her eyes while it ran its course. Five seconds passed, and her eyelids popped open. “Of course,” she said aloud. She knew what was missing. The querent. The querent had to be present at the table for the stream of divination to flow. Raja sighed, sat back and ran her finger around the familiar chipped rim of the china cup she’d taken her tea from for nearly forty years. Then the lights went out.
In the blackness came the clarity of fear. There had been a sudden metallic click, the tripping of a circuit breaker. She knew the wiring in her shop was old, but she couldn’t have taxed it with a single lamp. She’d hung the CLOSED sign and curtained off the front reception area, so could not see the street to know if there’d been a power outage. The breaker box was in the rear of the building, easy enough to get to, if the blood had not drained from her limbs. Snap. The deadbolt turned on the back alley door.
“Blessed Sainte Sara,” she whispered. “Make my peace with all those I have wronged. Remove all curses I have uttered. Grant my spirit speedy release from raiyo. I accept—”
There were heavy footsteps in the narrow hallway that led from the alley into her parlor, and an odor. Sour sweat and leather, and worse. Something feral. It was then that Raja realized that her grip had broken the china cup, and that her hand was bleeding.
A voice issued from behind the beam of a high-powered flashlight, military grade. “Don’t move a muscle, Gypsy. Just tell me where it is.” The voice had corrosion on it, like a machine gun left in some jungle theater of tribal war. The instruction was un-necessary, because Raja was paralyzed with dread. “I will kill you sure as your old man was a chicken thief,” the man said. “I want that fucking piece of paper.”
“Kill me, then,” said Raja softly. “I don’t have it.”
“The fuck you say.”
“I burned it. It had bad luck written all over it. Check the ashtray over there.” Her fatalism bolstered her nerve, but it was disconcerting not to be able to see her killer’s face, despite her certainty of his identity. The hot spot came a step closer to her eyes, shutting down her pupils. She could see nothing outside its beam.
“You’re lying, you mutant bitch. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. You’ve seen it. You die. That oughta cover it.”
Raja’s options were limited. She had no gun; she had no pepper spray. What she did suddenly have was blood in her extremities, and without forethought, she over- turned the card table into his path and made a run for the door to the front room, the street, and salvation. But he was easily twice her weight and half the distance to the door. He stopped her cold and put the gun with its oversized silencer to her temple.
“Why do they run?” the killer purred, his mouth to her ear. “Don’t they know that’s what makes the juices flow?” His steroid-pumped forearm was around her neck, and Raja sensed he could just as easily snap it as shoot her. “Haven’t you had this nightmare, lady? Don’t you remember me? You don’t get away. You can’t even scream.” Raja closed her eyes and felt herself slip out of her body. It was the oddest feeling, like a snake shedding its skin.
“You can kill me now,” she said calmly, and it must have spooked him a little to hear her voice coming from the other side of the room. He shifted his hold on the gun grip, and for an instant, she felt the pressure of the muzzle ease.
“No, you can’t,” said a new voice.
The headlock tightened and Raja felt her windpipe constrict as her feet left the floor. “Point the gun away from her head, asshole,” said Stephan Raszer, only inches removed, “or I’ll slit your throat.” Undeterred, the assassin jammed the barrel to her temple once again. “You didn’t hear me,” Raszer said, low and fervent, and Raja felt the killer’s grip weaken as a phlegmy, gagging sound issued from his esophagus. “One more chance,” said Raszer. Drop your arm to your side. And let the gun fall to the floor. Got that?”
“Fuck you…whoever you are.”
“I’m you’re nightmare, bitch,” said Raszer, and put his weight into it.
“Jesus!” the skinhead gurgled. “You’re cutting my—”
“You bet I am. Let her go, and drop the gun. Now.”
The weapon hit the carpet with a dull thud. Raja remained against the wall, hollowed out, her feet on the floor but her body temporarily missing its soul. “Raja,” she heard Raszer say with uncanny calmness. “I want you to reach down, and pick up the gun.” She did so. “Good,” he said, “Now go into to your parlor and close the door behind you. Dial 911. Ask the operator to connect you to the Wilcox Station, and tell them to get our friend Lieutenant Borges over here right away. Tell them I’ve got his man. When that’s done, come back in here, if you’d be kind enough, and hold the gun on this creep so I can smoke a cigarette.”
After the door had shut behind her, Raszer took a few measured breaths, said a short prayer, and began to drag his oversized captive back toward the center of the room. A rivulet of blood from the man’s throat ran down the mirror-polished blade of Raszer’s knife and past the hilt to his thumb. But for the faint light leaking in from the alley, the room was dark and Raszer wanted it that way until he’d had time to fix a blindfold. He kicked the chair away from the table and forced his captive down, remaining behind him all the while. Beginning at the nape of the neck and tracing down the spine, he cut the killer’s black tank top with his blade, slipped it from his torso, and tied it snugly around his head. Only them did he step back.
“What’s my name?” he asked.
“What’s my name, soldier?”
“Close, but no cigar. You need a shave.” With a quick upward stroke, Raszer sliced another millimeter of flesh from the man’s stubbled neck.
“Rumple-fucking-stiltskin!” the killer yelped. “Fuck! I don’t know your name!”
“That’s good,” said Raszer. “Let’s keep it like that.”
Outside, the howl of a siren cut through the intersection of Franklin and Vine, and Raszer silently rehearsed his presentation to Lt. Borges. A few seconds later, Madame Rey returned with the killer’s gun, and Raszer smoked a cigarette.