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Showtime on the Winter Solstice


Does everything just happen, or does it all happen for a reason? I wonder that sometimes. Not at this moment, you understand. Those were questions for the dead of night — for those sleepless hours when shadows climb the bedroom walls and the roof cries out in creaks and moans — not stormy winter afternoons drawing too rapidly to a close.

Not long ago such thoughts would never have occurred to me. I'm a good-time girl and proud of it. I always thought supernatural concerns were strictly the province of the terminally trusting, and karma, just a nightclub in West Hollywood. Not such a startling admission, perhaps, except hen you take into account that I make the lion's share of my totally inadequate income by working as a Spiritual Advisor to the most gullible among those who swallow all that woo-woo shit. What can I say? Consistency is overrated in my opinion. I was saving it for my next life, now that I'd heard I'd be having one.
But as you probably notice, I digress.

Anyway, like I said, I never thought about those things until the goddess entered my life. Though strictly speaking, it wasn't accurate to say she entered my life — more like I crashed into hers.

The goddess, herself, paced anxiously before me now, until I feared she'd wear a path in the new carpet I put down on the hardwood living room floor of the guesthouse I rent in Santa Monica, California. Awfully earth-bound of her, I know, but Annabelle Haggerty is as much flesh-and-blood as you and me. And she isn't anything like either of us. She's a direct descendant of the ancient Celtic goddess, Findabar. When Haggerty kicks it, she won't die like we will, she'll be “called home,” as she puts it, to Tir na n'Og, the “land of the young,” in the Celtic language, where she'll live forever.

The wind rattled the living room window; the mere sound caused Haggerty to shiver within her navy wool suit. That's how she dresses, in boxy suits and sensible heels. Not like me, that's for sure. In the light reflected on the window, I caught a glimpse of myself. Man, what a sight I was! Long blonde hair curling wildly in every direction, crowned with a wreath of battered silk flowers held together with glittery garland. Makeup by Crayola. And that dress I wore — half Renaissance ball gown in bright blue satin and lace, half soothsayer garb with its filmy organdy layers, half jester suit. Too many halves, I know, but it was quite a dress. To say my taste and Haggerty's differed was the understatement of the last five millenniums. Of course, stodgy taste was expected in her job. That's because, while she truly was a Celtic goddess, Annabelle Haggerty was also a Special Agent of the Los Angeles Field Office of the FBI.

Haggerty stopped and pushed up the sleeve of her suit jacket to view her watch. “Where is he?” she asked in her ever-controlled voice.

She sent a scowl my way. Despite the severity of her style and expression, she was really quite attractive. Her jaw was a little too firm, but she had great cheekbones and beautifully translucent skin. Her auburn hair was pulled back severely into the knot at the nape of her neck, the way she always wore it while working. But it waved beautifully to her shoulders when she set it free.

“Are you sure you got the time right, Samantha?” She rolled her big blue eyes. “How do you ever know — when you refuse to wear a watch?”

If I wore a watch and dressed like other people, I was convinced, no one would take me seriously. I mean who would trust a spiritual advisor who looked as ordinary as they do?

I assured her the appointment time was correct; the mark was just late, that was all. She directed a see-all, know-all look my way. She wasn't superficially assessing whether I was being honest — although that was always a good move with me — like anyone else would, she was peering into me somehow, to test the validity of my statement. I didn't know how to explain it, but ever since I showed up at Haggerty's office some months ago, to scam myself into one of the Bureau's operations to generate a little publicity, some kind of metaphysical connection had formed between us. Don't ask me how. Despite my chosen work as a fake psychic, I'd never believed in anything the least bit supernatural. Now I didn't know what I believed. I just knew that somehow Haggerty and I were fated to watch each other's back. Even if that was not a pairing either of us would have chosen.

Oops! Digressing again, huh?

Though I had thrust myself on the FBI the first time Haggerty's path and mine had crossed, this time they came to me. They'd asked me to lure in a man they were watching, and get him to come to me for psychic readings, so I could pump him for the information the FBI wanted.

The mark was Omar Yassin, a Middle Eastern Studies professor at a local university. Apparently, the FBI, CIA and Homeland Securities people had heard a rumor that linked Omar to terrorists. I was sure they were wrong. I mean the guy was not just witty and urbane, he wore Arm
ani suits and drove an aging Porsche. Gimme a break. Why weren't they out trapping real threats?
Of course, I agreed to the setup because it meant Omar would pay me for his readings. Unlike the Bureau. The last time they promised to put me on the payroll as a consultant, their coin proved to be “the appreciation of a grateful nation.” Uh-huh. Try spending that at the supermarket or the vintage store where I buy my clothes.


“He'll be here,” I insisted. “You know his faculty meeting often runs late.”
The wind howled through the unlit fireplace and sent a spray of ash into the room. It never gets really cold in Southern California. I mean, not like the Yukon or anything. But it's all relative. With the dark clouds oppressing us from above, and waves topping six feet when they crashed loudly along the shore just blocks away, and the damp wind kicking up this December afternoon, it was plenty cold for me.
“Anyway, what do you care, Haggerty? Got a hot date or something?” That was a joke. When it came to men, the goddess was way pickier than me.

With a sigh she looked at her watch again. “It's the Winter Solstice, Samantha.” She frowned. “Shouldn't you know that?”

She was right about that. When I first met her, I wasn't just calling myself a psychic, I also claimed to be precisely what Haggerty was, a Celtic goddess. While cynicism wafts off people in this city like that wavy gas that rises from asphalt in the summer, there were no shortage of Spiritual Advisors. If you want to set yourself apart, you gotta be different. Despite my professed goddess-ship, however, I could never keep that spiritual stuff straight.

“The Winter Solstice, huh?” I asked. “Besides being the shortest day of the year, is it important?”
“It's the shortest day because the sun symbolically dies today. It's one of our holiest days of the year. I can't miss the celebration.” She sighed again. “But I can't miss your reading, either.”

I knew she celebrated her holy days with a local witches' coven that met on the top of a mountain on the Universal Studios lot. Very Hollywood-sounding but far more pedestrian in actuality. One of the witches worked in the accounting department there, and she secured permission for her group to gather at the highest, most barren point on the property, where no one could see them. But the studio was far enough away from here that, given traffic, if Haggerty was forced to wait too long, she wouldn't make it there before today's early sundown.

Ironically, Omar was always going to Universal, too. He told me that, as grim as modern life often was, he needed that injection of fantasy in his life. I guess Disneyland was too far a drive. Apparently, he had purchased a year-round pass to the studio tour; he was there so often, the employees usually let him conduct his own tour. Wouldn't it be funny if he and Haggerty actually came face-to-face there? Of course, if I said that to her, she would just lecture me on the force of synchronicity in the universe, and there's only so much of that paranormal crap I can take.

“Why don't you just hook up the electronic gear today?” I suggested. “Then you take off.”
Each week before Omar's reading, Haggerty carried in my guesthouse a listening device, which her boss probably figured she used to stay in touch with what was said in this room, while she hid in my bedroom. But every week, the electronic gear went unused. Haggerty and I had that connection, remember? She might not know all the words that passed between Omar and me until I related them to her later, but she tapped in to what I felt during the reading, so she could follow how it was going.

“No, I have to be here, Samantha. I have to know the instant something vital to national security comes up.”

But it wasn't going to. Even if the Bureau didn't recognize that, I did. The only politics Omar ever mentioned concerned the maneuvering he performed within his university department, where he was trying to make tenure before the year was out. I know I said I wasn't really psychic. I mean, I truly wouldn't know the difference between a supernatural vision and an enema. But even I could see Omar didn't have a chance. Rightly or wrongly, the Arab bias was strong these days.

Haggerty's cell phone rang. She yanked the tiny thing from her suit jacket pocket and flipped it open. “Are you sure, sir?” she said, after listening. “Very well, I'll tell Samantha... Good night to you, too.”

Once she ended the call, Haggerty rushed to my bedroom where she swiftly gathered the coat she had dropped on my bed earlier and the electronic gear she'd brought with her.

“What happened? Isn't Omar coming?” I asked. I needed the money for his reading — I'd already spent it on a orange organdy shawl, and those things don't come cheap despite the limited demand.

“The chatter has cleared Omar,” she said as she slipped the long black coat over her suit.
“Ooh — chatter. The only thing I like better than your woo-woo terms, is when you throw around spy words.” I snickered.
Her no-nonsense eyes narrowed on me. “A mole buried deep in Al Qaeda surfaced today, if you must know, Samantha. Despite the rumors, he insists Omar Yassin has never been connected.” She glanced at the kitschy cuckoo clock on my bedroom wall, which said five after three. “If I leave now, I should make it to the ceremony with time to change and commune with my ancestors.”

Commune with her ancestors — that's the kind of stuff she says. “Give my best to the Mother Goddess and the sun,” I shouted flippantly, as the door closed behind her.

Winter Solstice, my ass, I thought, as thunder broke overhead. It was just a cold, dark day.

***

Omar arrived only minutes after Haggerty left. The heck with Universal, they almost came face-to-face here! He was an attractive man with wavy black hair just beginning to gray, who always wore a look of perpetual amusement, as if he found the spectacle of life touchingly funny. I could never make that outlook jibe with his desperate need for fantasy. But what the hell, it's not like I knew anything about him. Not psychic, remember?

Today Omar sagged against my doorway, wearing a khaki Burberry raincoat slipping off the shoulders of his silk Italian suit. What was wrong with those bozos in the FBI? Nobody in a Burberry raincoat could possibly be a threat.

He held out a single ruby red rose. “For you, Madame Samantha. In the hopes that you'll forgive Omar for being late.”

“The faculty meeting, huh?” I asked as I showed him in.

“No, Omar skipped the meeting and went to Universal Studios this afternoon. Time just slipped away.”
While juggling the thorny rose stem in one hand, I took the raincoat from him with the other. The belt slipped to the floor. I tossed his coat on the sofa and just left the belt where it lay. I didn't feel like bending. Maybe he wouldn't notice.

“A good day for fantasy, Omar?” Well, he had come to see me, right?

“Never a greater need, Madame Samantha. The tenure list was announced today, and alas, Omar's name was not on it. As you predicted.”

I couldn't lie to him. Hey, I might be a total fraud, but at least I'm honest. I like to think my job is just telling people what they want to hear. But Omar was going to know the truth soon enough anyway. Since I felt so guilty about helping Haggerty spy on him, I had to try to soften the blow.

We took our seats at a small table I'd set up before the fireplace. Omar liked when I read crystal balls, so I found my big round rose quartz and placed it over a light box. Rose quartz is supposed to treat the heart, I reminded him. Hah! Do you believe there are really idiots out there who think rocks can heal and communicate? I'd do whatever my clients liked. Some wanted me to read their tea leaves, some to conduct a séance with a loved one who went on to the Great Beyond — they all expected me to use those woo-woo terms with initial caps.

Hey, it's show biz. I tell Haggerty that every time she insists I might have some psychic ability of my own. Me, I don't ever want to be the real thing; I like believing it's all random. What I do is just razzle-dazzle. Smoke and mirrors for the hopelessly credulous.

But I'm not heartless. Usually it's just a quickie little tap dance that I do at the start, but I thought Omar needed the full show today, so I went into a really good trace before staring into that pink ball.
As raw and chilly as it was outside today, I'd really jacked the heat up in my little cottage, and it was starting to make me sleepy. As I stared into the rose quartz ball, with the flickering light displaying all its veins and fissures, the sight began to mesmerize me.

“We should look into your future, Omar.” Even to my own ears, my voice had taken on a dreamy quality. “I mean, whether you should get a job elsewhere, where you'll have a better shot at making tenure.”

“For Omar, there is no future, there is only the now.”

Though I could never abide people who refer to themselves in the third person, I said kindly, “Omar, you don't mean you're going to… That is, you're not thinking of doing anything to yourself?”

He chuckled. “How melodramatic you are, Madame Samantha. It's just that with the anti-Arab bias of your fellow citizens, Omar's effectiveness has been diminished here. It's time for him to move on to where he can be of greater use to the cause.”

You know, I like a respectful client as well as anyone. But all his “Madame's” distracted me. I was starting to wonder whether he was pulling my leg.

Omar leaned forward and said with passionate intent, “That's why Omar has come to you today. He must know if his final act will be all that he hopes it will be, Madame Samantha.”

It finally sunk in. What I was hearing, that is. “Omar, are you saying...?”

“Why tiptoe around it? You of all people know what's truly in Omar's heart,” he said. “Since you've never said anything, he knew he had your sympathy.”

How the hell could I know what was in his heart? Did they all expect me to read their minds or something?
A powerful gust of wind blew just then, rattling the little house. With that movement, which shook the light box, it almost looked as if there were something alive and mobile within the crystal. Circling. The fragmentary image within the shaken crystal became a clearer one in my mind's eye. It looked like a shark, of all things.

A shark? An inexplicable feeling of panic flickered through me, followed by a sensation of dread. What was that all about? Since I wasn't about to dip my toes in the icy Pacific on a cold December afternoon, sharks were no threat to me.

“Omar will be gone from here. But the message will live on.”

I started to look at him. But a huge clap of thunder caused me to jerk. I found myself staring again at the crystal. The thing that looked like a shark no longer circled. Now it appeared to be a shark rising up from the water, its powerful jaws spread wide and menacing.

Dread and fear mushroomed in me. I gasped aloud. Not fully understanding anything yet — but already fearing I understood too well. I realized the image of the shark that had appeared to me looked like the fake shark that lurches at tourists on the Universal Studio tour. Universal Studios — where Omar had just come from. Where Haggerty was now!

“Omar,” I said, my voice shocked and low. “What did you do?”

“Madame Samantha, surely you see — ”

“Oh, madame-my-ass,” I shouted.

I had to stop it — whatever it was. Without thinking, I grabbed the crystal ball and hurled it straight at Omar's head. It bounced off and hit the brick hearth, where it cracked into two pieces. An eighty-dollar crystal!

Omar's mouth gaped in shock. He rubbed the goose egg that was already ballooning on his forehead. Damn, I thought for sure that would knock him out.

“What do you think — ” he began.

I didn't let him finish that thought. Once the crystal was gone, I didn't need the light box. Grasping it in two hands, I yanked the cord from the wall and swung it at Omar's head. This time I succeeded in knocking him unconscious.

Frantically, I looked around for something I could use to tie him up. His raincoat belt, lying at my feet, seemed to be a gift from the gods; don't tell Haggerty I said that. Once I bound his hands, I grabbed his arms and started dragging him toward the door. Heavy as the dead, lemme tell you. But I had to get to Haggerty. And I had to get Omar there as well.

I tried not to look at it, but the two halves of the crystal lying on the hearth drew my eyes. Without the light beneath it, the fissures should not have been as apparent to me. But they were. No sharks there now. Now those little lines in the crystal just looked like body after body, lying dead.
Without a thought to how cold it was out there, nor Omar's weight, I gathered all my strength and dragged him to my car.

***

The crystal might not have done the job with knocking Omar out, but the light box had worked almost too well. At four-thirty he was still under, though his eyelids had finally begun to flutter.

I had successfully dragged him to my car, which fortunately, was a 1966 Mustang convertible. After putting the top down, I just pitched him over the side. Then I maneuvered my way across town in the early rush-hour traffic in record time. But even then, the challenges weren't over. I had to do a mighty tap dance at the Universal guard shack before I was permitted to drive to that unused part of the lot with an unconscious man in the backseat. But it's not for nothing I'm a con artist.

***

Now Omar finally came awake. His dark eyes looked glazed at first, but they sharpened fast when he focused on his surroundings. How confusing it must have been to him, to find himself bound up on a barren hilltop in relentlessly driven winds, surrounded by a cluster of strangers wearing loose-fitting woolen gowns in a variety of bright hues.

But his eyes really popped when he saw what those strangers had placed right before him. Just inches away from his bound feet, unceremoniously resting on the ground — was the bomb he had hidden in the mouth of the fake shark on the studio tour. And apparently, its timer was ticking the seconds off, really fast.
Omar shrieked when he saw it, and he tried to scurry away. But one of the male witches had pounded a tree limb into the dirt, and they'd staked him to it.

To be honest, being that close to a bomb made me feel kinda antsy, too. I couldn't see the timer from where I stood, but Omar's reaction told me enough. But Haggerty knew what she was doing, right?

When I had first arrived there, I was more concerned with how wrong she'd been about Omar. Or how right, depending on which time we were talking about.

“But the chatter,” I'd protested. “You said the chatter cleared him.”

Within her white challis gown, with her red hair tumbling to her shoulders, Haggerty shrugged. “Either our man in Al Qaeda isn't as well-connected as we thought, or he's not our man. Espionage is not foolproof, Samantha.”

When there were lives at stake — mine anyway — it ought to be.

I knew Haggerty wanted to question Omar, to learn his contacts. For all we knew, his wasn't the only operation being carried out today. But why did it have to be there? All around me anxious witches fretted more about the official moment of sundown, which was now just minutes away, than the seconds being whisked away by that timer. Couldn't they forget about their ceremony for once? Was it that important?
It was so cold there, too. Despite the reduced visibility the clouds created, from that high up, I could see for miles in every direction. Off in the distance I spotted one of those neon signs that banks sometimes have, that display the time, alternating with the temperature. The clock flashed 4:42. Exactly six minutes from sundown, not that you could tell that from the thunderous clouds. The temperature showed at thirty-eight degrees. Thirty-eight degrees? In my lightweight gown, goose bumps the size of Cocker Spaniels rose on my arms.

A clap of thunder rumbled ominously. Light flickered within the clouds. Why didn't Haggerty do something to speed this up? She did have powers, pretty impressive ones, actually. Which she was mostly too stingy to use. I can't tell you how many times I'd begged her to give me the Lotto numbers.

But her powers were not as great as those of the Danaans, the original Celtic gods. Too many generations of intermarrying with mortals had reduced them. And when she used them, the effort made her weak. She always felt she had to be her sharpest when dealing with suspects.

I moved around the hill until I could read the timer, something I hadn't done before. Three minutes and fifty seconds appeared on the timer. Moments later, off in the distance, that clock flashed 4:45. How funny. Omar had set the bomb to go off at the exact moment their ceremony was set to begin. Pretty crappy synchronicity, huh? Was I the only one there getting a teensy bit worried? I mean, three minutes and fifty seconds was scarcely enough time to blow your nose. Forget about saving the world.

Haggerty stood about fifteen feet away from Omar and the bomb. “You will tell me what I want to know, Mr. Yassin,” she said. “Or you'll be the first victim.”

“You forget about the seventy-odd virgins awaiting Omar on the other side,” he said with a self-depreciating grin.

Why was it always virgins with these guys? What about those of us who are, shall we say, more seasoned? But Omar was laughing at the idea of it, I realized. He wasn't quite the whacko the newspapers would have you think all these guys are. At least, not in the same way. I wondered now what was making him tick. Was I the only one out there who was actually as superficial as I appeared?

4:46. And the temperature had dropped two degrees. With the wind chill, it had to be below freezing up there now. The Cocker Spaniels on my arms grew to the size of Doberman Pinschers.

“Omar won't go alone,” he warned. “Are you willing to die with him?”

“We're all fanatics here,” Haggerty said.

No, we weren't!

“Give me some names. Who built the bomb?” Haggerty asked, her voice sterner now.

Omar remained silent. In the silence, thunder clapped.

4:47

“Tell me!” Haggerty roared.

Nothing.

Haggerty threw her arm forward and pointed at Omar. From the end of her finger, a blinding bolt of lightening shot forward. I swear! I saw it — we all saw it. Even if we doubted our eyes, we also saw the outcome. That bolt of fire hit Omar in the arm, where it burned through his suit jacket before fizzling out. The smell of cauterized flesh and singed hair returned to me on the wind.

I shrieked. Some of the witches fell to their knees before Haggerty. The most dramatic result were the tears that began to stream down Omar's face, when he told her everything she wanted to know. While Omar talked, or maybe I should say babbled, because he couldn't get the words out fast enough — one of the witches came forward and tinkered with the bomb's timer. I later learned it had always been disarmed. That witch worked for the LAPD Bomb Squad. She'd disconnected the bomb, but kept the timer counting down. Now, with lightening rod-Haggerty on the scene, no such threat was needed.

Once Omar's talk wound down, Haggerty loaned me her Bureau-issued 9mm to keep a watch on him, while she and the Bomb Squad witch went to change into their street clothes. But he was so docile, a finger gun would have worked as well. The lightening bolt Haggerty had hurled at him had changed Omar. He was no threat now to me or anyone else.

The other witches dispersed, without their ceremony, I guess. Or maybe they just moved the venue. One of them left me a coat, though. A big black high school letter jacket, such as a teacher might wear to support a team. Lemme tell you — those witches were everywhere. The jacket looked stupid over my gown, but since it was as warm as a horse blanket, I didn't care. By the time Haggerty had changed, the area was swarming with feds and cops.

It wasn't until an hour later that I managed to get Haggerty alone. “That lightening flash — did you really produce it?” If she had power like that, which hadn't sapped her one iota, she'd been holding out on me.

She held my gaze steadily for a moment, before breaking into a grin. “Don't be silly. It took all my powers to track the electrical charge building up in the clouds. I just timed it really well.”
“It came out of your finger. How do you time that?” I shouted.

Haggerty shushed me and threw an anxious glance over her shoulder. I sounded desperate, I knew. But I really, really didn't want to believe what I knew I saw. Was it possible? Was it totally outside the realm of believability that the Mother Goddess of the Universe, as she anxiously awaited the death of the sun, channeled one great burst of the sun's power through her devoted daughter, to set right what would have been a terrible wrong? Was it just a coincidence that Omar had placed his bomb precisely where Haggerty happened to be? Or that the bomb squad witch was also there, able to disarm it? I later learned that, while small in size, the bomb was powerful enough to have leveled a good part of the city. I think I might have babbled all those questions aloud to her.

With her Mona Lisa smile, Haggerty said, “It's all show biz, Samantha. You told me that.” She gestured to the sound stages down the hill below us. “How can you doubt that here?”

Oh, I didn't doubt it at all. It was just that, as the waning sound of thunder murmured in the distance, I couldn't help but wonder, who was putting on the show?

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