The Oracle

      SAM WASN'T UNHAPPY to be called back to work so soon after little Gracie’s funeral.  For the past two weeks since he’d challenged the psychic that Maura brought into their house she hardly answered him when he spoke to her, hardly looked at him.  His home was a lonely place and despite himself he was working through the liquor cabinet in search of a stupor that dulled his grief.  
      Gracie’s cancer hadn’t responded to chemo or to the marrow transplant.  Nothing they could do.  Sorry, so sorry.  Even the nurses entering and exiting her room were sad-faced, eyes wet, hands touching them in sympathy, heads down as if ashamed their science and their care had failed her.  But there was no fault unless it was God’s and Father Manuel wouldn’t hear of that.
      It was ten in the morning when the Captain called.  “I feel real bad asking you, but I got nobody else can investigate this murder.”
      “Chief, you got Wilson and Nightingale.”
      “Wilson’s up Cheyenne way chasing a kid who took a shot at his ex.  Nightingale’s at a week-long class in the Springs.  Believe me.  I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need you.  Sergeant, two uniforms and the forensics truck are already on site.”
      Wilson couldn’t find his ass with a mirror and Nightingale was sleeping through whatever class he was in and the Chief could damn well drag one or both back to work a murder.  Still, the mescal in the bottom of the bottle took up barely an inch and the place stank like roadkill skunk from the herbs the women were burning upstairs: Sister Minerva and his wife attempting to communicate with Gracie’s spirit.  
      It would be good to get out of the house.  
      “Text me the file,” he said.  “I’ll get there soon as I can.”  He needed black coffee before he got behind the wheel.
      “Good.  Thanks, son.  I won’t forget this.”  
      As it turned out, that didn’t count for a thing.  
      Exactly at eleven Sam parked next to the sergeant’s Explorer in the alley behind a brick three-story apartment building on Capitol Hill.  The officer at the back door straightened as he approached and directed him upstairs to the crime scene.  
      The familiarity of the work comforted him.  It was a relief to confront obvious death, one that didn’t require a doctor’s explanation given in low tones outside a hospital room.  Sam shook off the moment.
      The sergeant was waiting for him, offering muttered condolences and a handshake.  Sam  accepted them with the shoe coverings and latex gloves and snapped them on as he followed the sergeant into the apartment.  The place smelled of boiled cabbage, caraway seeds and blood.  The forensics technicians were working their way through it leaving little numbered yellow markers here and there.    
      The apartment had the sparse look of a monk’s cell: worn linoleum floor, small kitchen table with two rickety chairs, third-hand student desk, twin bed and dresser.  And the body, in a cracked vinyl executive swivel chair that probably came from a thrift shop.  No computer, no cell phone, no paper, no pencils, no books.  
      What had been Ozman Gulenkov was in the swivel chair, a melting ice cream sundae of a man with a huge bald head for a cherry.  The back of that head was crushed, half gone, bone and brain and blood splattered on the walls and ceiling and floor.  His face was untouched.  Relieved of the weight of its back half, the remaining half fell forward to contemplate the mound of its belly with one uncurious eye and one empty socket.  A black leather eyepatch lay on the floor near the body’s feet.  
      Sam greeted the ME who was examining the body and asked, “How long ago?”
      “Only a couple of hours.”
      “What did it?”
      “Something big and heavy and smooth, I think.  Multiple times.”
      “Did some damage.”
      “Didn’t it, though.”
      Sam saw no signs of break-in or struggle so it was likely the victim knew his killer because he’d turned his back on him—or her.  Already the direction of the investigation was firming up: not a random killing because the door hadn’t been forced and the neighbors hadn’t reported noise in the hallways or other break-in attempts in the building.  Also, it was a violent, personal crime and that suggested rage, not premeditation.  And definitely not professional.  
      Pathology, forensics and uniforms’ interviews would fill in the details, but experience told him to look for someone who was close to the victim and that information wasn’t to be had there.  It was information somebody knew.  Turning to the sergeant he said, “Who found the body?”
      “His social worker.  Said she needed permission to share information about the victim.  I parked her in the back seat of my cruiser downstairs so she could call her office.  Like it would matter to him.”  
      “Rules are rules, I guess.”  Social worker.  That went with the apparent poverty of the victim.  “Anyone hear anything?  See anything?”
      “The woman next door says she heard raised voices in here this morning.  As far as the other residents, we’re taking statements.”
      Pulling off the latex gloves and shoe coverings he left the apartment building and went down to the sergeant’s SUV.  He climbed into the back seat next to the social worker and was surrounded by the smell of oiled leather and spilled coffee.  They shook hands.  
      He liked her at first sight, a no-nonsense Black woman in her late fifties or early sixties, a professional working a hard job that steeled her to the worst in people, something they shared.
      Privacy rules waived in the interest of either justice or retribution, she said, and she was ready to talk so he activated the recording app on his phone.  “Ozman Gulenkov.  A Ukrainian politician given asylum here when the Russian-backed militias overran their eastern border.”
      “Same militias that shot down that airliner, murdered all those women and children.”
      “Yes.  Them.”  
      “And that’s when he arrived in the States?” he said.    
      “The Lord only knows how he washed up here.”
      “Can you think of anyone who would want to harm him?”
      “They called him The Oracle because he knew everything.  I saw it myself many times.  He knew all the facts you could look up, like when the moon would rise and set, the names and statistics of baseball players from teams that I never heard of.”
      An idiot savant, then.
      “But he also knew things he shouldn’t know because he never left his apartment.  Never.  Here’s one example: he knew who robbed the launderette on the corner of 11th and Pearl before Easter.  Called the tip into your people.”
      He wasn’t convinced Ozman was an oracle, but he made a note to look up the record.
      “He knew which horse would win the next day’s third race at Arapahoe Park, and he was always right.”
      He shook his head.  “So, not just someone who memorized World Almanacs,” none of which he’d seen around the apartment, “he also had mystical knowledge of the future.  Or at least the future of horse races.”  The sarcasm in his voice accompanied a gurgle of acid in his gut.  The last thing he needed in a murder investigation was the reek of the spirit world.  He had enough of that at home.
      “Don’t shake your head, Lieutenant,” she said.  “Truthfully?  He scared me.  It was my job to look after him and help him and I did.  But he scared me.”
      Her voice told him she was telling the truth.  “Is there anyone we should contact about—this?”  he said.
      She shook her head.  “According to him, his family were all killed before he could get them out.”  
      So much for his psychic powers.
      “Anyone else besides you a regular visitor?”  He didn’t see her for the killer—her clothes weren’t covered in the victim’s blood for one thing—but if she’d been the only person who’d been a regular visitor in his apartment then he’d have to rethink his assumptions.
      “The Oracle was well-known in the community. Half the city’s psychics, fortunetellers and such, were in and out all the time.”
      He’d need a list.  And Sister Minerva was bound to be on it.  “Any one special, though?”
      “He did have a friend.”
      She laughed, then put a hand to her mouth.  
      “I’m sorry.  Madame Zura.  The neighborhood fortuneteller.  She lives next door.  The Gypsy look.  Voluminous skirts, earrings and bracelets and necklaces, hair caught up in a kerchief.  She gives readings from a crystal ball.  They were thick as thieves.”
      How many crackpot psychics would he have to tolerate?   “Just how thick were they?”
      “You’ve seen him.  Anything is possible, even for them.”
      “Yes, I expect you’re right.”  He took her contact information and told her she could leave.
      Tracking down all the psychics in the metro area was one step too far.  The Captain could damn well assign this case to someone else.  But before he walked away Madame Zura lived right there.  He’d talk to her.  
      Sam shifted over to his car to check her out on the terminal linked to the Department’s database.  Born Betty Ann Kopp in Arvada sixty-two years ago.  Twice divorced.  Reports said she probably survived on irregular dribbles of alimony and early Social Security, so her fortunetelling must be a cash-only business likely not reported to the IRS.  The database listed a couple of cautions for public nuisance but nothing to indicate a violent nature.
      Her Facebook page showed a picture of a younger Betty Ann in Gypsy attire receiving a crystal ball from an old man dressed like an extra from a Lon Chaney movie.  The caption read, “Madame Zura receives The Seer’s Eye from Roma Prince Radu Gathu.”  They were posed in front of a rustic cabin somewhere that was, presumably, the Prince’s lair in the Transylvanian Alps, though it could have been taken anywhere in the mountains west of town.  There was a long list of recommendations from satisfied customers.
      The house next door where she lived was a three story faux stucco affair, once a private home that had been broken up into apartments.  Ugly iron fire escapes were bolted to the front.   
      “Come in,” Madame Zura said, “I’ve been expecting you.” 
      Of course she had.  He showed her his ID.  Inside, she motioned him to a door on the right and followed him into her rooms.
      A broad woman with a sharp face gone fat, she wore a multicolored print skirt that swirled around her ankles, a white long-sleeved shirt with lace at wrists and neck and a crimson and gold silk head scarf wrapped around her thick silver hair.  Bracelets of brass and colored glass jangled at her wrists with every movement of her hands.  She wore five necklaces that hung over her ample chest, from each of which dangled a religious symbol of similar size: a gold-tone crucifix, a silvery six-pointed star, a bronze crescent moon and star, a steel voodoo doll and an enameled yin/yang circle.  They clinked and slid over one another as she moved as though competing to be on top.
      Her sitting room’s windows were covered by thick drapes like stage curtains.  A cloud of sandalwood incense hung in the air absorbing what light oozed past the drapes.  Wax candles flickered from tables and shelves.  She settled herself on an armless chintz chair behind a draped table and offered him a matching chair across from her.  A deck of Tarot cards lay face up in the middle of the table.
      “Ms. Kopp—”   
      “Madame Zura.  Please.  You been talking to the social worker.  Poor dear.”
      Her eyes didn’t quite focus on him.  She was looking at something in the air between them.  Her appearance, her behavior, the surroundings, all so predictable.  “I’m investigating the murder of Ozman Gulenkov.”
      She nodded knowingly.  “Your aura is very dark.  You are surrounded by death.”
      “Of course I am.  Your friend is next door with the back of his head splashed all over his living room.”
      “Yes.” She said and began shuffling the deck carefully, as though afraid of hurting any of the cards.
      He thought her reaction odd.  “Where’s The Seer’s Eye?” 
      She hesitated an instant, perhaps surprised he knew the name.  Then, deck in one hand, card in the other, she said, “The cards speak to me today” and began to lay out a row face up.
      He noted that and continued.  “I understand you and the victim were close.”
      Concentrating on the cards, she nodded.  “Yes.”
      “How close?”
      She looked up.  “Very close.  A man of great gifts.  A man of great sorrow.  A touchstone for all of us here who share psychic gifts.  Though mine are small.  We found ourselves living near each other and became close.  Were we lovers?  No.  That part of my life—and his—is long past.”
      The fog of sandalwood incense was making his eyes burn.  “And yet you don’t seem all that distressed by his murder.”  
      She smiled at the word.  “Because we’re still in touch.  I was with him at the moment of his passing into the next world.”
      He leaned forward.  “Are you telling me you were there when he was killed?  Did you kill him?” 
      Her focus snapped to his eyes.  “I meant spiritually present.”
      Just as his wife believed Gracie’s spirit would talk to her through Sister Minerva’s amulets and prayers and burning weeds and rocking back and forth with her eyes closed and flecks of foam collecting at the corners of her mouth, this woman believed the spirit of Ozman Gulenkov continued to talk to her like two truckers on CB radios.  When he’d asked Maura how she could possibly believe that the woman could communicate with Gracie she accused him of not caring that his daughter was dead.  
      “In that case, you must know who killed him.  His body.  On this plane of existence.”
      “All I sensed was a dark spirit.  One even darker than yours.  That’s all I could see.”
      It was possible that she killed Ozman not believing she was committing murder but merely passing his spirit along to another world.  Or something.  Her reactions, her body language: it was all wrong.  “Are you sure you weren’t there?  Physically?  Did something happen between you two?”  
      She fussed with the cards.  “Kill the Oracle?  Why would I do that?  He knew my clients, knew what they needed to know, helped me help them.”
      “If you’re still in touch with him, couldn’t he continue to provide you with information about your clients?  Or even tell you who murdered him so you could tell me?”
      “The Oracle is no longer interested in the affairs of the living.”
      He wouldn’t be, would he?  Leading her, he said, “We have a witness who heard you and Ozman arguing this morning.”
      Her eyes wandered back to the space between them.  “Yes, I was there.  I brought him coffee and pastries as usual, then we talked.”
      He thought so.  She was in his apartment and arguing with him loud enough for the neighbor to hear.  “Just talked?  About what time?”
      “Between seven and eight, perhaps.”
      “Witnesses say they heard a loud argument.”
      She dropped her hands to her lap and lowered her head.  He half-expected she was going to confess.  Instead, she returned to laying down cards.   “Perhaps loud.  No argument.”
      He was reaching the limit of his patience with Madame Zura, her dim room, her stinking incense, her flickering candles and her Tarot cards.  He was confident she was the murderer.  Now it was just a matter of collecting evidence.  “Dark spirit.  Okay.”  He turned off the phone’s recorder and slipped it into a pocket.
      “Come back for a reading,” she said. “On the house.”
      He said nothing as he left, eager to breathe fresh air.  Fucking psychics.  At first, going back to work seemed like an escape.  This case was pushing his face into the same stink he left at home.   He’d update the sergeant on his interviews, find out if the uniforms had anything new, then head over to Division to file for a warrant to search Madame Zura’s apartment, car, storage units.  
      He recognized a reporter for the News talking to neighbors.  Back in Ozman’s apartment the forensics team was still bagging and tagging.  The ME was on the phone to the coroner’s office.  Sam  filled in the sergeant on what he’d heard and asked if there were other reports from neighbors.
      “Nope.  Nobody else heard anything, just the woman next door like I told you.  The manager said strange people were constantly in and out of the victim’s apartment, but the Gypsy lady next door was always there.”
      Sam  said, “I want her watched.  I want to know where she goes; when she goes; I want to know who she calls; I want to know who comes to see her.  If she makes a run for it, stop her.”  
      “So you think she did it?”
      “Even Wilson could solve this one.”  The sergeant laughed.
      Sam intended to stop off at Division to get the paperwork going for a search warrant, but as he pulled out of the alley, his stomach reminded him he hadn’t put anything solid in it for too long and his dry mouth seconded the message.  A tavern was a block away.  
      Depression and disgust ambushed him before his food came, and he started his meal on two double tequilas.  He had at least four beers with the green chile stew and tortillas, with another tequila after he’d finished a flan.  
      In the back of his mind he was aware he’d had a lot to drink, but it wasn’t until he tried to get up and walk to his car that he realized the food hadn’t offset the alcohol.  Struggling to stay upright, he made his way to his car and decided he was too far gone to drive.  So he climbed into the back seat and slept, head thrown back, mouth open, for almost three hours.  By the time he woke, mostly sober and with a roaring thirst, it was too late to file for the warrant.  He drove home instead.
      When he got there the townhouse was dark and silent.  Maura wasn’t there.  The smell of herbs was still faint in the air.  Drinking glass after glass of tap water he saw a note on the kitchen table.  He picked it up and read, Sister Minerva says your dark spirit keeps Graciela from me.  She sends me back to my mother.  May God look after you. 
      So she’d returned South.  Sam knew the break was coming, but still it was a shock to find himself abandoned.  He stood with the note in a shaking hand and fought the urge to hunt down Sister Minerva and beat her with his fists until her face was a shattered mess.  The image of Ozman’s corpse flared in his mind for an instant.  Instead, surrendering to the abuse it had taken, his stomach heaved, then heaved again.  He rushed to the toilet and vomited the day’s evil into the white porcelain bowl.  
      When the spasms finally stopped he rolled over onto the tiled floor and stared up at the blank ceiling.  Part of him was gone forever, memories of his wife and daughter transformed into faded photographs stuffed into a shoebox in the back of a storage bin.  
      What was left of him felt brittle.  He thought nothing, felt nothing, had nothing.  Daylight faded to dark.  The floor tiles cooled beneath him and still he lay limp, empty, the pain softening until at the bottom of his despair he found peace of a sort.
      An hour after midnight his cell phone rang, a sound on a far planet, nothing to do with him as he lay on the floor protecting himself from thinking or feeling.  But it kept on ringing for the part of him that remained, the police detective.  Sitting up, he answered.
      Somehow, Madame Zura had slipped out of her apartment unnoticed and her car was missing.  The regional forces were all looking for her.  Cursing the uniform who’d let her slip away, Sam struggled to his feet, washed his face and hands, brushed his teeth and gargled, then went to the kitchen and stood in front of the open refrigerator door and drank ice water straight from the jug.  Nobody there to scold him.
      His phone rang again.  A DPD helo had her traveling west on I-70.  Once onto the highway himself he slid into the fast lane and pushed the car hard, blue light flashing on the dashboard.  Traffic was light, he was doing 90 and his hands shook on the steering wheel.
      When Sam heard she’d turned off at exit 266 he knew she was headed for the cemetery where Gracie was buried and something happened inside his head, a feeling like he’d been hit with a baseball bat, and he had to fight back another round of nausea.  The nightmare that was his life kept getting darker.
      He pulled up to the closed cemetery gate behind two parked police cruisers.  A tan Versa was smashed into the steel gate, its engine still clattering, the driver’s door open.  Sam could see light and motion ahead.  He squeezed between the gate posts and raced ahead.  The soft psss-chuck-chuck of automatic sprinklers filled his ears.  All around the dead lay buried in darkness.
      An illuminated statue of Saint Anthony holding the Christ child was the site of an armed standoff.  On one side of the statue Madame Zura had dug a hole through the ornamental gravel.  A bowling bag was at her feet.  She pointed a gun at the two uniforms who were on the other side of the statue, their weapons trained on her.  
      As he ran up she shifted her position slightly to cover him.  He stopped and put his hands up where she could see them.  The officers watched warily.
      He knew what was in the bag.  The Seer’s Eye.  The murder weapon.
      Her hair was wild and her face was puffy from crying.  She wore jeans and a denim jacket over a plaid blouse.
      “It’s no good, Betty Ann,” Sam said,  “Put down the gun and talk to me.”  With open palms he stepped to the edge of the gravel circle.  
      She stopped him with a twitch of her gun.  “You don’t understand!”  
      “I’m listening.”
      “He has to be buried in consecrated ground or he will escape.”
      He?  “You killed him with the ball.  It’s evidence.”
      “No!  It must be buried or he will escape.”
      “Who will escape?”
      “The Oracle.  He mustn’t escape!”
      “Ozman is dead, Betty.”
      “You don’t understand!”
      He took a step towards her.  “Explain it to me.”
      “My beautiful crystal ball.  It focused my gift.  It’s how I saw things.  He laughed at me.  Called me an old fraud.  Then he poisoned it.  Evil, evil, evil.  What am I without it?  Just an old lady dressed in Gypsy clothes.”
      She really was crazy.  The thought slid through his mind when he’d interviewed her earlier.  He should have paid more attention to it, but he’d been too wrapped up in his own grief.  “Poisoned it?  How?”  
      She shook her head.  “Don’t you understand?  He’s poured himself into it.  All I could see in it was his leering face.  I have to bury the ball in consecrated ground or he’ll be freed.”
      By this time he was almost within touching distance of her.  “He’s not in the ball, Betty.  He’s in the morgue on Quivas Street.  He’s not going anywhere.”
      “You think not?”  She pushed the bag towards him with her foot.  “Look!  But don’t touch it!”
      He knelt by the bag like he’d knelt beside Gracie’s open grave.  As his knee touched gravel the full weight of his daughter’s death and his wife’s abandonment fell onto his shoulders and whatever strength had been holding him together failed.  He peered into the bowling bag.  Instead of seeing a crystal ball he saw Gracie’s emaciated body slipping down the smooth sides of a deep well and he knew that if he could pull her out he could save her.  He reached in to grab her.
      “NO!” Betty Ann screamed.  She raised her gun. 
      The officers fired.  The explosions deafened him.  Betty Ann grunted and crumpled to the ground and as she did her gun fired.  The bullet hit the glass ball inside the bowling bag.  It exploded, ripping open the bag and blowing dagger-sharp shards into the night.  One smashed into his left eye.  He saw a flash brighter than a lightning bolt and then nothing.  Pain greater than anything he’d ever felt before blasted his skull, slammed it backwards on his neck, took root and pulsed like a lighthouse beacon.  
      Gracie was receding beyond his grasping hands into a black well of emptiness, lost to him forever.  Then he was being dragged across gravel.  Voices called his name, said things.  An ambulance’s siren cried somewhere nearby.  
      “Bury it!” Sam  screamed.  “Bury it!  Bury it!”   
      He didn’t know if he meant the pieces of the crystal ball or his career or his marriage or his daughter.  It was all the same.  They were all dead now.  He continued screaming into the pain that drove thought away.  Then the EMTs arrived with morphine and for a long time he thought nothing.


      In the weeks during and after his recovery Sam drifted, neither wholly present nor wholly absent, always aware of the pain looming just outside the haze of first the opiates and then, after release from hospital, the mescal.  During this time he let everything that had belonged to his former life slip away.  Though divorce wasn’t in the cards, the break with Maura was unrepairable—she’d never come to the hospital to see him—so he sold the townhouse and sent her half the money.  The Department retired him on disability and he signed over half the pension to her.  He sent her half of the few thousand in their joint savings account.  After a while his old colleagues stopped calling because he was always drunk when they did.  He was without hope.
      Eventually, an ironic ebb tide of fate, of lost income and self-loathing left Sam beached in the attic apartment of the house where Madame Zura had lived, next door to where she’d killed the Oracle, in a three-room shotgun apartment, living-dining room in front overlooking South Logan, a kitchenette + ¾ bath and a bedroom with a view of the alley out back.  The walls slanted in and the ceiling was high, the feeling both airy and claustrophobic.
      It seemed to him an apt place to wind up since every crackpot psychic in the Metro area believed the essence of the Oracle had entered and overtaken him when the crystal shard took his eye.  Madame Zura had left a message on the psychics’ local website for her colleagues telling them the Oracle had poisoned her crystal ball with his evil essence.  When the news of her death and his wounding came out the psychic community knew, knew that the Oracle had injected itself into Sam.  
      The News picked it up and ran a disparaging sidebar about the belief that only served to further spread the word that the Oracle was alive within him.  What was left of his life was notoriety.


      Eighteen months after losing his eye Sam raised the last remaining plastic jug of store-brand mescal to the bedroom window to catch a ray of pale winter light.  No, nothing left.
      He pushed himself away from his desk and got to his feet.  Stumbling a little over a chair leg, he made his way to the door, shrugging into a parka as he went.  The stairs were steep and with only one eye he was careful to hang onto the railing, put down one foot after another safely until he reached the ground floor hallway.  
      He shuffled out the back door into the alley and turned left onto 11th Street, towards his liquor store.  It was typical January weather, 26 degrees with 10% humidity and pale, sharp sunlight that threw no warmth.  Frozen slush from an early snowstorm lay gray and black along the gutters.  Unshoveled snow on the sidewalk taunted his slow passage.  Sam ignored it all, focusing on his goal three blocks away.  Then, burdened with a paper sack containing three liter-jugs of store-brand mescal, he slogged his way back to his apartment.
      He’d just sat down at the table and pulled a bottle out of the sack when the buzzer went off.  It felt like bees inside Sam’s ears.  He rubbed them.  The buzzer went off again.  He ignored it and cracked open the screw top of the bottle.  Whoever was downstairs really wanted to see him because whoever it was down there began pulsing the buzzer insistently.             One of his housemates yelled up the stairway at him to answer the fucking door already.
      Sam went over to the intercom and pressed the talk button.  “Who are you? What do you want?”
      A man’s voice answered.  “Please.  Captain Martinez sent us.  We need help.”
      Sam looked at the full bottle of mescal and the empty glass waiting on the table for him.  He was confused.  “Captain Martinez sent you?”
      “Yes, please.  Let us in.  It’s freezing out here.”
      Locals wouldn’t think the weather was worth remarking on.  He began to say, “leave me alone,” but stopped.  The itch of curiosity that once fueled his work got the better of him.  He pressed the button that unlocked the front door.  Ashamed, he put the bottles away in the cabinet under the kitchen sink.  Then he opened his apartment door and called down for them to come up.  Already he regretted his decision.  He was thirsty.
      Sam watched them climb the stairs, a young couple bundled up in woolen coats and woolen caps, gloves and heavy hiking boots.  He ushered them in, shaking hands with each and exchanging introductions.   Brian and Briana Allred.  Bri and Ana. Bri-Ana they said laughing nervously.  Twins from Texas.  Both pale, both freckled redheads with blue-gray eyes.  In their mid-twenties, Sam guessed.  
      He sat them on the broken-down sofa in the front room.  He’d never noticed before how sad it looked.  The sprung cushions had to be uncomfortable.  Why did he live like this?  Half the disability pension was adequate and he had money from the sale of the townhouse.  
Briana looked everywhere except his face.  Oh, his empty eye socket.  The still-raw scar.  Where was the eye patch they fitted for him before he left the hospital?    
      Brian was speaking. Damn; he hadn’t heard a word the kid said.
      He held up a hand.  “One moment.  Please.  I’ll be right back.”  He went to the bedroom and rummaged around in the bedside table until he found the eyepatch.  He put it on and adjusted it, then returned.
      “Sorry,” he said to Ana.  “Living alone I forget.”  Her face was red, perhaps from the cold, perhaps from embarrassment.  She mumbled something and ducked her head.  Turning to Brian he said, “Please.  Tell me again why Captain Martinez sent you to me.”
      He said, “Our Gran lived in Aurora, has forever—“
      “—we stayed with her every summer when we were growing up,” Ana said.
      “—Our parents died when we were little—”
      “—but now she’s in assisted living and you know how expensive that can be.  But between Social Security and the money she got for selling her place there’s enough.”
      “But two months ago she called us—“
      “—and she said she couldn’t make the payment to the facility and could we help her out.  Well, of course we did.  Then the same thing happened again last month.”
      “Only this time we got a call from Gran’s bank.  She’s been emptying her account the same day the money arrives.  She has someone take it out in cash.” 
      The ping-pong narration of the twins was getting to Sam and he was about to call a halt to the meeting when Brian said, “The woman who runs the assisted living facility says Gran is giving it all to a so-called psychic—”
      “—so we got in touch with the police and that’s how we met your captain.  Who said the police couldn’t do anything because Gran wasn’t doing anything illegal.  But he suggested we talk to you.”
      “He told you I’m retired,” Sam said.
      Briana’s head bobbed up and down.  “Yes, yes.  He said you retired after an injury.  That you had experience investigating psychics and might be able to help us.”
      Captain or not, Sam didn’t see any reason to get involved in their problem.  He said, “Your grandmother is entitled to do whatever she wants with her money.  Even if it gets her thrown out of the home.”
      “We’ve already taken care of that,” Brian said.  “My sister and I control all her accounts now.”
      “Not that there’s much left,” Briana said.
      “Then what do you want me to do, shoot the psychic?”
      Briana said, “Of course not!”
      Brian said, “Get Sister Minerva out of Gran’s head.”
      Sam sat up.  No wonder the Captain sent them.
      Poor Maura.  He hadn’t heard or seen from her in how long was it?  A year?  More?  He hardly thought about her.  But Gracie?  Every day.  And when he did, the mescal was there. Sam remembered the unopened jugs in the kitchen.
      The twins watched him, waiting.  “Please,” Briana whined.
      “Just talk to Gran,” Brian said.
      “That wouldn’t do any good at all,” Sam said.  “If what you say is true, she won’t believe a word against the woman.”  How well he knew.
      “Then what would?” Briana said.
      “Good question.”  What could he do, assuming he could do anything?  It depended on how deep the psychic’s claws were dug into the old lady.   “I’ll look into it.  Does your grandmother have a Facebook page?”
      They bobbed their heads in unison.  Brian pulled a crumpled sheet of paper from his coat pocket and handed it to Sam.  Along with their contact information they’d written down their grandmother’s information, name, current address, email, phone number, Facebook and Instagram accounts, passwords.  “We thought you might need this,” he said.
Sam slipped the sheet of paper in a pocket.
      “I’ll call you in a day or so,” Sam said.
      “Do you want a retainer?”
      He hadn’t even thought about that but maybe so.  A new career?  “Only if I decide I can help,” he said, getting up.  They followed him to the door and shook his hand one after another as they left.  
      Sam closed the door behind them, left alone with Maura and Gracie again.  The mescal was waiting.  Instead, for the first time since the shooting, he felt the need to light a candle for Gracie.  When they were a family they’d attended Holy Spirit out east near I-225.  
He put on his coat and went down to his car, hoping it would start.  He mostly avoided driving since losing the eye because he’d had to learn to slew his head from side to side constantly while driving to compensate for the loss of binocular vision and that made him a little dizzy, especially after he’d been drinking, and he was always drinking.  
      As often happens in winter at the edge of the Rockies the afternoon sky clouded over to dull gray, turning everything to shades of concrete.  Even the colors of the traffic lights were dulled.  While he drove to Aurora he thought about how to discredit Sister Minerva, something he’d failed to do before.  Then he was pulling into an empty parking space behind the church.  Thank God they’d plowed and salted the lot.  
      Everything changed as he walked through the Church’s aluminum and glass doors.  Instead of grays and blacks the inside burst everywhere with color.  Cinder block walls in the hall leading to the chapel were painted bright corals and yellows and blues.  In a mural that looked like the work of six year olds a chocolate-skinned Virgin of Guadeloupe wore a white blouse and a wide ankle-length skirt bursting with turquoise, deep purples and gold that swirled over black boots.  Behind her, green and brown mountains were painted bumps below an azure sky dotted with cotton-white clouds.  A gold cross glowed inside a huge yellow ball of sun.  
      By contrast, the wood-paneled sanctuary was dim.  The altar was illuminated by a single spotlight in the ceiling.  A large crucifix loomed in the shadows behind it.  
      To the left inside the doors stood an iron votive stand with a few candles lit, memorials to the dead.  Sam slipped a five into the offering box and lit a candle.  Looking into its tiny flame he remembered Gracie’s face, a speck of white icing stuck to the corner of her mouth, happy at her fifth birthday party in the green velvet dress Maura had sewn for her.  He bowed his head and let grief and love wash through him.  The moment passed and he put the candle into its holder.
      “Candles serve as remembrances of the dead in so many religions,” Father Manuel said.
      Sam spun around, startled.  Father Manuel looked like a recently-retired athlete in priest’s slacks and shirt, white collar at his neck emphasizing his coffee-colored skin and ginger hair.  The priest walked towards him from the back of the sanctuary.  
      “I’m sorry.  I guess you didn’t see me,” he said, “I forgot about the eye.”
      “I don’t see as much as I used to,” Sam said.
      They shook hands.  ”Only in a narrow and purely physical sense, I’m sure,” the priest said.  “How are you?  It’s been a long time.”
      Sam hadn’t been to church since Maura left him.  Religion was her thing, not his.  Sam shrugged.  “I’m getting by.”  So long as there was mescal in the cupboard.
      The priest gestured at the lit candle.  “Such a lovely name you picked for her.  Graciela.  She was full of grace.”  He invited Sam to sit beside him in a pew.  They watched candles flicker and glow.
      “And how is Maura?”
      Sam shrugged.  “As far as I know she’s still down South with her mother.”
      “So you haven’t seen her—“
      “—since she left me.  No.”	
      “I’m sorry for that.  If only she’d come to me, perhaps—“
      “No.  She only listened to that woman. It was impossible to pull her away.  And what she called the spirit world of her ancestors.”
      “Many of the old beliefs are part of the Church there.”
      “Her father was from Illinois,” Sam said.
      “The Church has some strange practices up there, too.”  Father Manuel smiled.  “It’s all about faith, isn’t it?”
      Faith was the key.  Faith and belief.  Sam felt tumblers clicking in his head.  “In your case, faith in Jesus rising from the grave to ransom humanity.  But Maura, she had faith Sister Minerva could communicate with Gracie on her behalf.  She believed.  So what’s the difference between your faith and hers?”
      Father Manuel ignored the anger in Sam’s voice.  “There are answers for Catholics and answers for others.  I’m a Jesuit so I know, well, most of them.  But I doubt you’d find any of them satisfactory.  Let’s just say that there is a difference, that it lies in the gift of benevolence.  
      “You aren’t an unbiased party,” Sam said.  “No offense meant, but is there someone on the other side of the question who I could talk to?”
      “Why do you ask?”
      Sam waved a hand.  “Not for me.  Something else entirely.  A job I’m doing.” 
      “Well, I’m glad to hear you’re working again.  I think I know someone you could talk to about this from a more agnostic perspective.  A professor of psychology at Regis.  She teaches a semester on faith and belief systems.  I do a class on Catholic Doctrine for her from time to time.”  He pulled a business card out of his pants pocket and scribbled on the back.  “This is her cell.  Tell her Manny says hi.”
      Sam took the card and looked at the name: Alice Barzan, Ph.D., S.A.M.  On the other side it read Fr. Manuel Gomez, S.J.  Two sides of faith.  Of which he had none.  Others, though, had more than enough to go around.  Enough to believe he was the latest incarnation of the Oracle.
      “What’s the ‘SAM’ stand for?  Not me, I presume.”  Though he recognized a twitch of the superstitious, gone almost as soon as sensed.
      Father Manuel laughed.  “No, no.  Society of American Magicians.  She’s a pretty good magician, too.”
      That was interesting.  “Thanks Father.”  
      “You’re always welcome here.”  They shook hands.  “Go with God, my son.”
      Go with God indeed.  
      Since he was out that way, he might as well visit the old woman.  In his car Sam called the twins and asked them to tell the assisted living facility he was coming.  And yes, a retainer of $300 would do nicely.
      Granny Allred was warehoused in Olive Branch Village, part of a nationwide chain of assisted living communities.  Outside it looked like a pleasant facility, a sprawling single story building in tan vinyl siding, wide windows and a broad, shallow roof of complementary brick-colored asphalt shingles.  By contrast, the narrow strips of lawn that surrounded it were nothing but dingy mud and straw with straggly shrubs.  A carelessly-plowed parking lot more than half full circled the property.
      Inside, residents lived in apartments that were little more than handicapped-accessible motel rooms.
      The director was a late-thirtyish brunette expertly made up to emphasize her hazel eyes and smooth skin but she wore older woman’s clothes, a long-sleeved black blouse with a Peter Pan collar at least one size too large and a shapeless ankle-length gray skirt.  
      “The grandchildren said you’d be coming by to speak with Mrs. Allred,” she said.  It was clear from her voice that she was unhappy with grandma and the psychic and now a private investigator.
      Sam crossed his legs and smiled.  “I understand the money issue has been resolved.”
      She returned his smile.  “Of course.  ”
      There was a discreet knock on the office door and a middle-aged Latina stuck her head in.  “Mrs. Allred is in the lounge,” she said.
      “Thank you, Mrs. Castro.”  To Sam she said, “Mrs. Castro will take you to Mrs. Allred.”
He couldn’t help noticing the flurry of formal titles that flew around the room, underscoring that Olive Branch Village was women’s territory.  Men were gardeners or handymen or briefly tolerated guests and Sam was neither.  He thanked the director and followed Mrs. Castro out.
      The guest lounge had all the warmth of a Days Inn lobby.  Grandma Allred was waiting for him in an upholstered loveseat beside which stood her walker.  A white stoneware mug of pale tea stood on a squarish coffee table in front of her.  Mrs. Castro made introductions and then walked away.  Grandma’s clothing hung on her wasted body, coral polyester pants and a beige sweater over a yellow blouse.  Sunken cheeks under deep-set eyes.  Pink plastic glasses.  
      Sam leaned over and shook her hand gently, feeling knobby joints and a tremor.  He sat beside her on the loveseat.  
      She smiled at him.  “You’re the man my grandchildren hired.  Sister Minerva said you would be coming to see me.”  The tremor he’d felt in her hand was also in her voice but she wasn’t in the least nervous.  She was completely at ease.
      “They’re very concerned about you,” Sam said.
      She said, “They’re being silly.  I’m perfectly fine as you can see.”
      She looked anything but perfectly fine.  She looked as if her clothes were the only substantial part of her but Sam didn’t say that.  “Your finances aren’t though, are they?  You missed three months’ payments to the Village.”
      She waved a hand as insubstantial as a flag.  “A mistake, that’s all.  I must have gotten dates wrong.”
      “They checked, though.  Your accounts were almost empty.”
      She laughed.  “No, no.  Payments all caught up.  The money is there, growing faster than ever.  Bill told me to trust Sister Minerva with our money—”
      Sam knew her husband was long dead.
      “—and she moved the money over to better investments to earn more.  Look,” she placed a handful of receipts in Sam’s hand.  “She says in less than a year I’ll have enough to buy back my old home.”
      He looked at them: printed receipts for an investment fund he was sure was phony.  “May I keep them to show your grandchildren?”
      “Of course.  And look: the treatments she gives me make me feel so much better,” she said, showing Sam her hands, “My arthritis is so much better now.”  Her face practically glowed with delight.  She patted his hand.  “So you just go back and tell those kids to stop worrying about me.”
      Her skeletal hands shook like aspen leaves in a breeze but she couldn’t see it.  She didn’t know her grandchildren covered her debts or that they now controlled what income she had.  Her money was gone and she was in Olive Branch Village as long as her money held out and her arthritis wouldn’t get any better.  
      But she believed.  She had faith in Sister Minerva.  Sam saw it.  He understood.  Faith made it all work.  He knew how to free the old woman in front of him. 
      What Sister Minerva had done to this poor woman angered him almost as much as what she’d done to him and Maura.  It was past time to settle that score.  He thanked her for seeing him and promised to talk with the twins.  In his car he rifled through the receipts and smiled.  These were the proof he needed.  He had her.
      Back in his apartment Sam pulled a bottle out of the kitchen cabinet and stood it on the counter, trying to decide whether to pour mescal into a glass or drink from the bottle.  After all, who would care?  But now it didn’t seem right.  He put Father Manuel’s card on the counter next to the bottle and turned on his cell phone.
      There were twenty-six missed calls and eight voicemails waiting.  He deleted them all.  Why hadn’t it occurred to him to cancel his contract and get a new phone number, one that was unlisted?  Because he was too busy drinking.  He shook his head and tapped out the professor’s number.
      She answered on the second ring.  After he’d introduced himself she said, “Manny said you might call.”
      “Did he tell you what I was asking him about?”
      “He told me you were the detective who solved the Oracle murder and of course I read all about it at the time.  What can I help you with?”
      Sam found himself telling her the whole story: Gracie, Maura, Sister Minerva, the Oracle, Madame Zura, details of the shooting, the eye, the hospital.  Except for the drinking.  He didn’t tell her about that.  It was the first time he’d said the story aloud.  Then he told her about the twins and their grandmother, that he felt responsible for them.  
      “Jesus, Sam.  What a weight to carry.  So sorry about what happened to your family.  I give you credit for wanting to help,” she said.  “It’s about time someone did something about that woman.  She’s preyed on the weak for years.  So what’s your plan?”
      “I can get the police working on the fraud side of things if I can deprogram the grandmother and I think I know what to do.  I just don’t know how.  I want Sister Minerva to believe, truly believe, that the Oracle sees imminent disaster in her future.  Enough to abandon Grandma Allred.  Enough to run her out of town or into prison.” 
      She said, “You’re not planning to start a career as the new Oracle are you?”
      He laughed.  The idea never occurred to him.  “Hell no.  That’s not who I am.  Was.”  Her question made his plan even more repugnant.  “Not ‘was,’ he said.  “Am.”  
      “Okay then,” she said.  “In that case I think I can help.  Let me gather up some things, make a few calls.  I’ll swing by your place later tomorrow.  Where do you live?”  
      He told her.  
      “That’s where the Oracle’s killer lived, isn’t it?”  
      He admitted that it was.  
      “See you tomorrow,” she said and broke the connection.
      What just happened?  How did he come to have an accomplice?  He felt almost his old self, the sooty weight of Gracie’s death and Maura’s abandonment and his lost eye not exactly lifted, but easier to bear.  He looked around his shabby apartment and wondered again how he’d let himself go.
      Sam grabbed a bag of chips from a cabinet and sat down at his laptop.  There was work to do on the criminal angle now that the twins were in charge of granny’s accounts and they were willing to file a complaint with the police.  Along with the phony investment fund receipts, the bank was sure to have CCTV logs of Sister Minerva taking out the grandmother’s money.     
      He’d talk with the twins in the morning, guide them through the process of filing a criminal complaint against Sister Minerva, then have an unofficial word with the Captain.  It surprised him how quickly it came back to him, the satisfaction of being on top of a case.  
      The professor arrived at his doorstep shortly after sunset.  He’d just finished talking with the twins when she called from the street.  “I’m parked out front,” she said, “Come down and give me a hand.”
      It took them two trips to unload everything from her Mini.  By the time they hauled the boxes up the two flights of steep stairs to Sam’s attic apartment they were both out of breath.  The boxes took up most of the floor space in his front room.  They stood in his tiny kitchen to talk. 
      “What’s in those?” he said, nodding at the boxes.
      Ignoring his question she said, “Last night I went back and looked up Gulenkov’s murder and the shooting at the cemetery.  There was nothing in any of the media reports about losing your daughter.  My God, Sam, what a horror show.  I’m so sorry.  I can’t imagine how you made it through all that.”  There was real sympathy in her voice.
      What could he say?  The mescal?  No.  “Alice, what’s in those boxes?”
      “If you’re going to transform yourself into the next avatar of the Oracle you need an origin story.”
      “Origin story?  What?  Like superhero movies?”
      “Pretty much all religions have origin stories.  The New Testament contains Jesus origin stories.  You know: Bethlehem, manger, star, three wise men.  The Old Testament gives us Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  Origin stories.”
      “And I need an origin story?”
      “Not you.  The Oracle.  It’s all theater, Sam.  Magic, psychic readings, communicating with the dead, all theater.  And we already have the makings of your origin story from the media coverage of the shootings at the cemetery.”  She reached out and took his hand.  “If it’s not too difficult for you.”
      It was, but he went through with it anyway.  
      The next morning while he was drinking his first cup of coffee Alice called.  “Get on your computer and log on to the local psychics’ website.  I’ve just texted you the link.  You were amazing, Sam.”
      “What?  You put it all together so soon?  Overnight?”
      “Well, not me alone.  A couple of my students helped.  It wasn’t all that hard.  We just spliced archival video from the shooting along with the bits we recorded last night at your place.”
      The video opened with a Channel Nine tape of the shooting.  The reporter was illuminated by the lights on her crew’s camera.  Behind her, flashing blue and red and yellow emergency lights flickered like a lightning storm.  The video focused in past her on Sam being wheeled on a gurney to an ambulance off camera.  A bloody towel covered his face.  An EMT walked beside him holding up a bag of plasma.
      The report faded into a color shot of Sam’s face on a hospital pillow from page three of the Post the following morning, bloody bandages covering his left eye.  
      Sam stopped the feed, nauseous.  He had no recollection of being photographed in the hospital.  Seeing himself wounded in the face for the first time unnerved him.  He got up and fished a bottle of mescal from the kitchen and poured himself two fingers worth, which he threw back.  He looked at the bottle, reached out for it.  Stopped.  Returned to his laptop.  Restarted the feed.
      The scene opened with a close shot of the prop crystal ball they’d constructed sitting on his coffee table in his darkened front room.  They’d shattered the ball into six or seven pieces and glued it back together and the glued cracks pulsed blood red, an effect Alice engineered with dye mixed into super glue and a UV lamp off camera.  Though he knew what was coming, remembered acting out the script they’d written, the effect was chilling.
      Sam watched himself enter the room and sit on the sofa in front of the ball.  He hardly recognized himself through the lighting and the shadows.  He reached out to the ball as though it was controlling his arm, then pulled his hand back, fighting the force of the ball, failing, picking it up.  
      He stopped the video.  He’d done a good job on that because he really was hesitant to pick up the ball, even knowing it wasn’t the one that exploded in his face, Madame Zura’s Seer’s Eye.  And the acting came easy; he imagined the ball was a bottle of mescal.
      He started the video.  Sam held the ball in one hand and removed his eyepatch with his other hand.  The ball’s pulsing light went out.  A heartbeat.  Another.  He laughed the harsh laugh they’d rehearsed as he put the ball back down.  It began pulsing.
      Alice’s voice, electronically altered, whispered, “I’m incredibly lucky the Oracle agreed to see me.”
      Sam/Oracle turned to the camera, his face angry.  His empty eye socket, dramatically enhanced with a paste of the same red dye mixed into the crystal ball’s glue seams, pulsed.  Light from a street lamp faintly illuminated his forehead.  “Ask your question,” he said.
      They’d discussed this at length.  The most common concerns asked of psychics were romance, medical and money.  Medical was where life and death played out so that’s what they chose.
      In her altered voice Alice said, “Will my husband come through surgery safely?”
      “Yes.  But with complications.”
      Alice assured him that major surgery in adult males was so common that there would have to be a believer whose father or husband or brother had just survived some complication.  The odds were reliably high.  Other believers seeing the videos would make sure they tracked down a patient who fit the Oracle’s prediction and that would cement the news that the Oracle was once more active.
      Oracle said, “But that wasn’t what you were expecting, was it.”
      Faintly: “Uh, no.”
      “Of course not.  Because you believed what a false psychic told you, that you would become rich.”  Sam’s digitally distorted face filled the screen.  “How much money have you given her?”
      Whispered: “Half.”
      “Half of what!” the Oracle shouted.
      “Half of what his life insurance will pay out.  To invest for me.  He’s been in a coma for a week, in the place between the living and the dead.  She spoke to him there and it’s what she said he wants me to do.”  
      Alice had gotten carried away with the story line, but Sam followed her lead.  “Ha!” he said.  “She said she knows what stocks and bonds will do a day ahead, make you rich.  She told that lie to other women, frightened women, like you.  She is a thief and a liar.”  
      He poured his anger and his pain into his performance.  “The police are coming for her.  Lawyers will destroy her family.  She can save herself by returning the old woman’s money.  Leave here and go back where she came from.  But she won’t.” He laughed the Oracle’s harsh laugh.  
      The video ended.  He closed the laptop and stood, walked around the apartment, agitated.  The video was better than he’d imagined it would be and he didn’t know how he felt about that.  Pleased.  Satisfied.  Dirtied.  But what was done was done.  
      They’d discussed outcomes.  Sister Minerva would either return the money and walk away or she wouldn’t.  In any event his former colleagues in the DPD would be knocking on her door tomorrow.  
      Alice said she thought Sister Minerva would give the money back just to prove the Oracle wrong.  Sam was sure she’d skip town with the money.  In either case the old woman would be free of her.  
      All he had to do was wait.  Sam shut the cover of his laptop and called Alice.
      “What did you think?” she said.
      “You were right.  I felt stupid doing it but you made it look and sound frighteningly real.”
      “You were convincing.  That was important.”
      Sam’s phone chirped as a local number interrupted.  He frowned.  
      She said, “You’d better shut off your phone and get a new number with a private listing.  If you think you were getting deluged with calls before—”
      Sam grumbled.  “Yeah.  I hate this.  Hate it.”
      “Got to fight fire with fire.  Once she makes her move, one way or the other, we need to make one more video.”
      “No more videos,” he said.  “No more Oracle.”  
      “We’ll see,” Alice said and hung up.
      Sam stared at the boxes of props cluttering his front room.  He’d see her again.  That was something to look forward to.
      If she was right, by now Sister Minerva was well aware of the videos.  She might even take to social media to challenge the Oracle.  But she had been warned.  Cops and lawyers were coming for her.  That wasn’t made-up.  He’d seen to that.  So what would she do?  
      Time to drive over to her house, watch and wait.
      Sister Minerva lived in a tidy brick bungalow east of City Park.  A Mercedes sedan was pulled up in its short driveway behind a new F-150.  Sam wondered which one of them Maura’s money paid for.  He parked on the street one house down and settled in to watch and wait.        The sky was lead.  The air smelled like snow.  
      Despite the gray day he wore sunglasses to hide his empty eye socket.  Sam felt good.  It was like old times, waiting for his suspect to make a false move.  
      It was midmorning.  Nothing much happening.  Workers had gone off to their jobs, children were in school.  Cold began to seep into the car, chilling his ankles and toes.  He cursed himself for forgetting to bring a blanket and a thermos of hot coffee, like he’d done a hundred times before.  You’d think I’d learn, he told himself.
      There was frantic activity in the driveway.  Sister Minerva, tall, square, bundled in fur from head to toe, hurried from around back pulling a rollaway too large to fit in an airliner’s overhead bin.  She opened the trunk of the sedan and humped the rollaway in, slammed it closed and hurried around to the driver’s door.
      As she slid behind the wheel two DPD cruisers, blue light bars flashing, slewed into the street from either side and stopped in front of her driveway, blocking it.  Uniforms jumped out and ran to the sedan.  One of them reached in and yanked her out before she had the chance to start the car.
      Sam took off the sunglasses so she could see his empty eye socket and climbed out of his car.  He stood in the street where she could see him and watched her being led to a cruiser, handcuffed.  She saw him and yelled a curse at him.  
      He laughed the Oracle’s laugh.


Peter Alterman retired from a career as an international cybersecurity policy expert in 2018. He has published literary fiction, mainstream fiction, science fiction and literary criticism. He’s married with one adult daughter and lives near Washington, DC.