The Hiding Place
Michael R. Gist
The leaves in the bottom of Mother Mavis' cup looked like elephant phlegm.
She swirled the nasty green mess several times, tipping it right and left, splashing a little residual tea on the worn vinyl tablecloth.
Try as she might, the clot refused to change its ominous appearance. She spoon-fished the jumble out, tossed it into the nearby sink, and added fresh leaves to her cup.
To her dismay the new cuttings, absorbing a remnant of fluid, took up the same design as their discarded brothers.
I'm getting superstitious.
Mother Mavis was amused and frightened. She closed her eyes for a second as her heart fluttered threateningly. Her wizened fingers gripped the cup as she staved off a barrage of unwanted images.
In her readings for her clients, she rattled off the usual claptrap about Bermuda vacations, dark handsome strangers and renewed sexual vigor, paying little attention to their reactions unless they had a certain telltale look in their eye or verbalized a sincerity of purpose. For the rest, as long as she kept them forking over twenty dollar bills she didn't care what they were feeling.
She had learned early on that people didn't really want to know about the cancer eating at their assholes, or that their business partner or wife -- in which they had invested their lives and happiness -- was less than the devoted comrade they had envisioned. The truth was a pill few willingly swallowed and she couldn't be picky. The earning of her livelihood was in direct competition with the saturation of television by blatant frauds. She didn't have much going for her, except her physical accessibility and the fact that she put on a good show.
The future is not set in stone, she reminded herself, regaining her courage and successfully fighting off a conscience-pang that dictated an obligation to practice her craft for the benefit of mankind.
With one hand, she rummaged through several take-out bags and came up with a stale doughnut. With the other, she poured more hot water in her cup, dipped the doughnut until it softened, and gnashed the pastry with her well-worn teeth. Guilt welled up in her gut. Sometimes, in her readings, she was intuitively dry, angrily cynical, or just plain lazy when she did a consultation, but her own reading was supposed to be another matter.
Objects of divination should not be profaned.
But why should I care? Nobody is listening. Not even me.
Her intuitions were like Earth's satellite dishes pinging into the vast empty void of space. Going out but never coming back. She hadn't met up with or discovered the slightest real witchery in her fellow humans in many years, centuries, yet she was reticent to abandon the ancient ways completely.
Finally, in respect for a past she could hardly remember, she threw the doughnut down, intoned a half forgotten spell, and cleansed the whole affair with sugar.
As her dusty cuckoo clock chirped three A.M., she banished the teacup far back on the shelf among its twins. Several rats, disturbed by her, scurried out of sight. Her old tomcat, Yang, aroused, skulked in her shadow.
Something had awakened her. But she had forgotten what it was. And now it came back to her.
A strange scratching sound.
Coming from the front of her shop.
With heavily ringed fingers, she pulled her colorful silk shawl around her knobby shoulders and tucked at her white hair fastened in a large bun at her neck. The bangles she wore at her ears, neck and wrists made a tinkling sound as she wended her way through giant stacks of moldering books that led from her tiny apartment to the storefront facing Hewlett Ave and the red light district of Westphalia.
Midway to the front door, she opened a drawer and fondled the cool steel of her nine millimeter automatic. Several times, there had been attempted break-ins. She tapped the metal with her fingernail until her decision was made. She wasn't ready to play the game of Karma. Instead, she pulled a long string that released her secret weapon, then flicked on a light switch. A fluttering neon sign came to life spelling out "Mother Mavis" above and "Psychic, Tarot," below with an ace of spades that changed to an ace of hearts in the center.
"Cumulus clouds on the western front! Igneous rocks on the central plain!" shouted her scarlet macaw, Winchell. He let out a perfect mimic of squeaky hinges and a volley of gunfire, spread his garish red wings and took up his place on an upper shelf near the ceiling. He would attack anyone uninvited coming through the door. "Nights of terror! Days of death! Blood on the middle moon! No good will come of it!"
"Shush! I'm not stupid. I know trouble when it knocks on the door." She loved the bird like a child, but his spontaneous antics annoyed her. She had raised him by hand and used him to convince her more lucrative clients of bizarre psychic phenomena that was pure bunk. He was also her watchdog.
Taking his roles quite seriously, Winchell made sounds of doors opening and closing.
"Quiet now!" she said, holding a gnarled finger to her lips.
As she shuffled through the cluttered areas where she did her readings, her old knees trembled. A large crystal ball covered in black velvet, a silver samovar and her carved boxes of cards crowded her polished burl table to her right. Candle wax, sandalwood and years of accumulated dust scented the air around her.
Her misgivings grew great. The prostitutes that made up the bulk of her evening trade were busy at this hour, looking for their last trick of the night. The businessmen, housewives, schoolgirls and general public wouldn't arrive until daylight. Yet there was a persistent sound at her door that would not be denied.
As her hand reached up for the curtain, to pull it back, she kissed her large pale pink amethyst and made a half-forgotten petition for protection.
"Do not open until Christmas!" Winchell cried
Mother Mavis peered into the darkness beyond the foggy glass. The street was fairly empty. Most of the dilapidated shops were closed with pull-down steel mesh covering their fronts. A few pieces of paper blew into an already filled gutter. The moon, if there had been one, was gone. Only the yellowish glow of streetlights gave light.
Three prostitutes talked at the corner. A few homeless lay against buildings covered with cardboard or plastic. A police cruiser disappeared around the corner of Pope Street.
Maybe she'd made a mistake.
A dark shadow was hunched down against her door. Two eyes gazed up at her from the darkness. Naked fear radiated from the pupils.
Mother Mavis hurried back to her drawer, snapped off her neon sign and tucked her gun into the waist of her skirt. Back at the entrance, she silenced the bell over the doorway, unlocked the deadbolt and turned the knob.
The smell of blood came through the crack in the door. The odor was fresh and clean like air on a spring morning. Invigorating, with no taint of the obscene. The person was injured but not dying. And scared. Perhaps one of the prostitutes pimps had attacked a john. It happened now and then. It was a police matter.
"What do you want?" she asked, preparing to slam the portal shut again. "Are you hurt? Do you want me to call 911?"
"NO! Help me! Please! Let me in. Someone is after me." The voice was young, almost boyish and somehow familiar.
"Why should I. Do I know you?"
"Please, lady. I'm begging you. I have money. I'll give you anything you ask."
Mother Mavis bristled at that. She wasn't a greedy soul. If she was, she wouldn't be grubbing in the slums for a living. She could live the high life, if she didn't adhere to a code a thousand years old that nobody but she would remember.
She let the young man crawl in. "Did I ask you for money?" She poked him with the tip of her slipper to show her contempt. "Get up off the floor and quit crawling around like a dog. Come into the back and let me see who you are."
"Waste of time, waste of wages!" Winchell shouted. He flapped his powerful wings as he made a loud whirring sound like a mixmaster. "Take Tylenol for a headache."
"Thanks," the stranger said.
Mother Mavis let the door swing closed. "There. Nobody can see us from the street."
The stranger heaved himself into a chair. He looked out-of-place prosperous for this neighborhood. He was extraordinarily handsome by anyone's standards, with a sculpted bone structure, sensual lips and a strong chin. But his face was marred with tear stains.
Mother Mavis became convinced that she should know who he was. His identity teetered on the edge of her memory.
"You can close your mouth," he said, smiling with teeth so even that they looked unreal. 'You're not crazy. I am Terry Ralston from, Days to Remember."
"Terry Ralston --" Mother Mavis echoed. The name meant nothing to her, but his face was quite familiar as Andre Forsight, M.D. the matinee idol on the incredibly popular soap opera. She couldn't imagine how he'd come to her doorstep. Her confusion held her captive.
Ralston used a bloody hand to run his fingers through expensively coifed hair that sprung back into shape like it was being controlled by an unseen force. He stood up, posing in front of a mirror. A large diamond on his finger flashed in the light. A Rolex watch gleamed at his wrist. He hadn't been robbed. "We'll just see who's the sucker," he said to his reflection.
"What happened to you?"
Ralston didn't answer. He scanned the room until he spotted her twenty-three inch Sony covered with a green and gold gypsy shawl. He pointed at it with a shaky finger. "You do watch, don't you?" And then -- "Where the hell am I?"
"You're in my house," Mother Mavis said, remembering her elephant phlegm tea leaves. Flash pictures flitted through her mind of ancient times and a ne'er-do-well princeling she had once served. "They call me Mother Mavis. I read cards, tell fortunes, what have you. And yes, I watch Days to Remember every day at two thirty just like the rest of the country. You're the young doctor. You're supposed to be lost on a desert island somewhere in the South Pacific, since Annebelle didn't believe you loved her." She lifted an eyebrow. "Isn't that when the new contracts are being written up?"
"I wouldn't think an old dame like you would be so up on things like that," he said, slumping back into his chair. "You're right, of course. I'm hiding out. That's exactly what I'm doing. The big boys in their fancy offices have been working my ass off night and day. Twelve hours, fifteen hours nonstop, day after day. They want the high ratings but they don't want to pay for them. It's become an in house behind the scenes war." He spun the large diamond around on his finger nervously. "I know everyone thinks my life is perfect, that I have everything a person could ever want, but getting fame and fortune isn't the magical wonderland some would think. In fact, it's not worth living. When I have free time, all I do is screw up." A pained look clouded his face. "I've made a lot of stupid mistakes -- really stupid -- drugs, gambling, women, you name it, I've done it."
"So you've had so much fun you've had to run away," she said skeptically.
"Why don't you believe me?"
Mother Mavis put her hands on her hips. "I'll let you out the back door. You can find your way from there. Or I can call you a cab."
"Okay, Okay. Here's the real story," he said with a bravado she could tell was all bluff, but much closer to the truth. "I had a run-in with an old friend. No one would ever dream of looking for me here. It's the perfect place. Let me stay and I'll make it worth your while. How does a thousand dollars sound? For say, three days. Just until I can figure out what to do." He grabbed her hands swallowing them in his own. "Heart to heart."
An electricity arced between them, striking her like a lightning bolt. She felt his youth and strength momentarily invigorate her. Their eyes met and locked. It was as though he called upon ancient codes buried deep within, tapped memories long forgotten.
It was magic.
The real thing.
Remnants of a true spell clung to Ralston like an exotic perfume. Her senses drank in the elixir. Her mind spun with a headiness she had all but forgotten. Emboldened with something akin to erotic excitement, she kissed his cheek, thirsting for more even as he released her. She let her eyes fall, blushing like a girl. He would stay.
"You can sleep in my room," she said, eager to touch him, helping him remove his expensive Armani jacket. "There's a bathroom in back, and a shower. Lots of hot water, but this isn't the Astoria."
"No matter," he said. He gently stroked her wrinkled cheek. "God bless you!"
She led him to her bed. He stumbled twice as exhaustion overtook him. As she helped him undress, and tended his wounds, she found his shirtsleeves in shreds. Scratches on his forearms and wrists marked where someone had been holding of him when he'd fought free.
"I'll have to get food in the morning," she said. She set him safely into her goose down mattress, covering him with a soft velvet quilt. She dared to stroke the smooth forehead. "I don't eat much on my own."
"You're saving my life," he said, his voice tremoring with fear. He took her hand, looking in her eyes. "I beg you -- If a man comes around -- don't tell him I'm here."
"Is he the one --"
"Yes. Okay. I give you my word."
He let go, closing his eyes. His face relaxed, erasing his suffering. He almost looked like a boy.
She pulled up her rocking chair, sat down in it and stared at him while he slept. Her mind kept going back to her teacup.
Gray dawn crept in through the tiny window facing the alley. Rousing herself, Mother Mavis looked down at her amethyst ring. The stone had turned as red as blood.
She should have known.
Mother Mavis went into the tiny kitchen and dozed off. She awakened from a true dream slick with sweat, her heart vibrating in her chest. She had never been sick or visited a doctor in her life but she was well aware her symptoms belied her ancient age.
She hurried back to her sleeping guest. Without hesitation, she opened his wallet and removed several hundred dollar bills. Ten minutes later, she was whispering her order in the back room of Mister Chung's Chinese Herbal shop. On the way home, she picked up fresh orange juice, sausage, bacon, eggs and bread, optimistically, hoping she'd get to make breakfast.
After she unpacked her purchases and started to brew a special tea, she went into the storefront prepared to open for the day.
"Mama! Mama!" Winchell whined from his cage in perfect imitation of a child. "It's your sweet little girl. Fill in the blank. Your baby girl. Let me out, Mama."
"No. You're too noisy. You have to stay out here."
"I'm afraid," Winchell said. He made sounds of running water as he tipped his head and pecked at his door.
His plaintive cries wrung her heart. She had taught him to do it and now he was using his training against her. "You're a good bird."
Winchell continued to cry as Mother Mavis covered the pot with a woolen tea cozy to keep it warm. She placed it and her own cup next to her sleeping guest, where he was sure to see it upon awakening. It was most important that Ralston have a drink.
Back in her shop, she snapped on a tiny television mounted on the wall where she and Winchell could see it. She filled his food cup, gave him a toy and turned to a kiddie show. Then she opened her front door.
Marlon Perkins, from the Wild Kingdom television show, was her first client of the morning.
Or rather, he was the very image of Marlon Perkins.
It didn't escape Mother Mavis that he was an unknown to the neighborhood -- and undoubtedly the man after Ralston.
The client wore short pants and a safari shirt which made him look like a Scout Master. His somewhat noble clean cut appearance stood out among the street people walking by. They openly turned to stare. Seemingly indifferent to the attention, he strode toward her front door. As he grew near, he bowed chivalrously to a passing woman. A few steps past her he reached into his pocket and seemed to drop money to a street beggar.
Nothing landed in the beggar's bowl.
A dark silhouette shaded the lintel as he stepped through her door. A sucking sound followed, as though a vacuum had opened and shut.
"Danger Will Robinson! Danger!" Winchell screeched.
"Good afternoon, Mavis," the client said, drawing his finger across his white moustache. "Or should I say, Mother Mavis."
Smiling, he took the seat opposite Mother Mavis, crossed his knobby knees and placed his elbows on the wide burl table that separated them. When he looked across at her, his eyes had lost their benign good nature, becoming dark angry coals.
"I don't believe we've met. Should I know you? Would you like tea?"
He pulled himself up stiffening his back. "The name is Stix. Mister Stix."
"No first name?"
He remained silent.
"I suppose you saw my sign. Do you want a reading?"
"Yes." He said simply, holding out his hand.
His touch was painful. Her legs became leaden. She felt her incredible age and eventual infirmity. "I see a stinking fungus in the forest. Haunting tombstones. Fuel for a thousand fires over the centuries . . ."
"You were always better than most." He pulled his hand away.
She was relieved to let it go. She sat back, feigning confidence as a drop of cold sweat funneled down her back, along her spine. "So the introductions are over. Well, mister Stix, what brings you to my door? What can I do for you?"
He gave a tight smile as he reached out with a lone index finger and touched the center of her forehead before she could pull away. "I've lost something. Tell me, can you see it?"
Suddenly, every joint in her body ached as though stricken with advanced rheumatism. She de-focused her eyes. "I see sickness and death. Anger, greed, envy, selfishness, cruelty, war."
"You name my virtues," Stix said. His face shed its Marlon Perkins mask. A cadaverous face leered, pulling back thin grey lips over teeth that were now more grimace than grin. "More. Give me more."
"And a broken bargain." The words were out before she could stop them.
"I knew I came to the right place!" He jumped up, sniffing the air like a hunting dog, heading for the back of the building.
"Jumping Jehosephat! Leaping lizards, Batman!" Winchell shrieked, battering his wings against his bars as Stix moved past his cage. "Abandon ship! Abandon ship!" He imitated a fire siren and a clanging bell.
Mumbling archaic words, Mother Mavis chased after Stix. She stumbled, and almost fell, as he barged through the door that should have led to Ralston.
The room was barren.
Stix charged forward again. Three more doors faced him.
He took one. Then another.
And came out in the storefront where he had begun.
Still behind him, Mother Mavis stopped, panting with exertion. He turned toward her.
Just then the tiny bell over the front entrance tinkled.
Three women walked into the shop.
"Order them to go," Stix said, stepping into the shadow of a very tall stack of dusty books, becoming part of that darkness. "We have business."
"Welcome," Mother Mavis said, spreading her arms and moving forward.
She needed the respite and she was going to take it.
Her visitors were obviously prostitutes with fishnet stockings, ultra high heels and form fitting playtex skirts, though she didn't recognize them as girls she knew. The boldest, a tall redhead with purple eye shadow, seated herself at the burl table and the other two, a bosomy blonde and a petite black girl with cornrows, huddled close on either side.
"We been talkin' to the other gals and they told us how good you are, Muthah Mavis," the black girl said. "Our friends, Leeza and Holly, say you're positively magick! So we've come for a readin'. Jenny won the toss. She gets to go first."
Mother Mavis slid into her chair, shocked that the women seemed unaware of Stix standing only a few feet from them.
Three twenty dollar bills were pushed toward her. "My crystal ball is in the back. How about Tarot?" She reached for a box of cards. She needed time to regroup.
"Palm, baby. Read my palm," the redhead said, anchoring her elbow on the table and unrolling long painted fingers. She reeked of cheap perfume used to hide the musky smell of sweat and poor personal hygiene. She snapped gum between large teeth as she gave Mother Mavis a hard challenging look. "Tell me the truth now."
Mother Mavis tried not to gasp when she looked into the girl's hand. The floodgate of true divination was upon her and she had to struggle not to speak it aloud. She bit her tongue and rolled her eyes.
"I see a passing -- much change. I see -- a very long journey --" she finally stuttered. "And a boy named Jimmy."
Get them out. It was Stix's voice in her mind.
"Oh, wow!" the redhead said. "My man, Obie, promised to take me to Florida next month. I got a kid down there. Jimmy boy. He'll be six years old. Look at that! Do you see Obie and me gettin' married? Huh?"
"Geez, you're good, Mother Mavis," the bosomy blonde said. She put her hand on top of her friend's and the two of them started giggling and pretending to wrestle over the redhead's position at the table.
I will not wait.
"Tell my future," the black girl said, sticking her hand out. Mother Mavis took it in her own. "Christ! Your hand is cold lady --"
They will die most --
"I can tell all your futures at once," Mother Mavis blurted, unable to control herself. "You're in great danger . . .death . . . leave here quickly!"
"She said you're going to die," the redhead said as the black girl tried to pull her hand back.
"Let go, you old bitch!"
"They are mine to do with as I will," boomed Stix's voice.
"No!" Mother Mavis cried out, trying to push the black girl toward the door.
A circular space about each woman burst into flames encapsulating each one in a jacket of fire. They spun about screaming as the columns of heat licked at their flamboyant hair-dos, igniting them like torches. They howled in pain as they claw at their faces which began to melt like candle wax. They tried to run but it was much too late. As they lurched around in their cones of conflagration, huge blisters rose and burst. Their limbs became charred blackened sticks that could no longer support them. The stench of burning flesh filled the air.
Within seconds, the three prostitutes flamed up and burned down to a puddle.
Mother Mavis ran forward. She dipped her finger in the ooze and incanted over the muck until three small mice appeared and ran toward a stack of books to hide.
Winchell was screaming hysterically in his cage. Mother Mavis opened his door, allowing him to fly freely about the room.
"Escape from Alcatraz," he shrieked flying in circles until he landed on a stack of books. "Taxi! "Give the devil his due."
Stix sat down in the chair opposite her. His Perkins face was leprous and his breath was like an open grave pit. "You have what I want. Give it to me."
"No more tricks!" He slapped her hard across the face. He looked at Winchell.
The bird's body twisted, becoming tumorous. His beak wrinkled and his eyes became fiery. Letting out a horrendous cry, he flew at Mother Mavis with the ferocity of a dive bombing plane. Powerful talons drove into her arms as he slammed her out of her chair, pinning her to the floor.
Stix got up and sauntered toward the back room.
Mother Mavis closed her eyes and concentrated. She could clearly see the bed where Ralston had slept. The velvet quilt was thrown back exposing the white sheets and the indentation of his body. The empty pot and teacup sat on the nightstand. The woolen tea cozy lay crumpled on the floor. Ralston was gone. Safe.
Mother Mavis smiled.
Stix soon returned. Silently, he reached over and stroked Winchell's head until the bird released her. He planted his feet firmly as the bird rose off of her and flew toward him landing on his forearm. They headed out the door.
"Death to all!" Winchell cried.
Mother Mavis sat near the window of her new shop, basking in the warm morning sun. It was closer to the modest homes of the middle classes, but near enough for the poor to find her easily. Her books were all cleaned and sat on well-built shelves near a grouping of tables and chairs where she gave lessons in Chaldean Astrology and watched for the rare student that showed signs of making a good witch.
She picked up her teacup sipping at the concoction until only a smidge of liquid and leaves were left in the bottom. She swirled the brew around wincing at the memory of elephant phlegm. The patterns the leaves fell in promised joy and fruition. "Are you there?' She asked softly.
"Yes, and it's wonderful." The voice was Ralston's only she couldn't see him and his voice was Lilliputian. "Quit worrying about me, Mavis. We'll have a great life together, you and I. Really helping people. It's fabulous here. I wish I could show you."
"I can bring you back," she said.
"Not a chance. I love it here. Besides, I can work off my bad karma. Now, open the door and let the people and the sunlight in."
"I already have," she said, looking up and smiling at her first customer of the day.
Michael Gist is a member of HWA. He has been a panel chair at WHC. Michael's short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Black Gate, Blood Rose, Dark Matter, Futures, The Palace of Reason and Horrorfind.
Published by permission of the author.