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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Face Value: An excerpt from a work in progress

In my current work in progress, we once again revisit the intrepid psychic detectives of Snowe Agency as they are launched on a third mysterious murder case, this one involving a well-liked elementary school teacher who was knifed to death while out jogging.  Unfortunately, the only witness is unable to identify the killer -- but there's no guarantee that this fact will keep him safe, once Seth, Bethany, Callista, and the other detectives start to uncover the clues and find out that this was more than just a random robbery/homicide.

Here's the first chapter of Face Value, the sequel to Poison the Well and The Dead Letter Office.

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            Callista Lee looked up from an open folder of papers on her desk, and said, “Come in,” at exactly the same time as a knock sounded on her office door.
            The doorknob turned, the door opened about a foot, and a head, adorned with a lavender and pine green striped silk scarf, poked in.  “Callista, dear, Mr. Snowe would like to see you for a moment.  Although I expect you already knew that, didn’t you?  Only if you’re not in the middle of something, he said to mention.”  Arabella Leidenfrost, the agency secretary, gave her a cheerful smile.  Arabella was one of the only people Callista knew that was entirely unfluttered in her presence.
            It was refreshing.
            “It’s no problem,” Callista said.  “I was just finishing up the documentation on the Perry case, and it can wait.”  She stood up, and shut the folder.  “That’s a lovely scarf,” she commented, as she followed Arabella out of her office and down the hall.  Bethany would think I was being sarcastic, Callista thought.  I always seem to come across that way, somehow.  And actually, that scarf does suit Arabella, although I can’t see myself wearing it.
            Callista’s own clothing ran more to colors with names like “taupe” and “fawn.”  She’d once heard someone call one of her dresses “a burlap sack with a belt,” which wasn’t very kind, although to be fair the individual hadn’t said it out loud.
            But Arabella, of course, didn’t take it that way.  She never did.  “Oh, thank you,” she said, tugging at the end of it.  “I do love this one.  My niece got it for me in Sri Lanka, in an outdoor market.  She apparently haggled for a half-hour to get it down to a price she was willing to pay.  When she finally settled on a price, the merchant shook her hand and said he’d never known an American who was that good at playing the game.”
            They reached the end of the hall, and Arabella knocked on Mr. Snowe’s door.  A cultured voice said, “Come.”  She opened the door for Callista, and said, “There you are, then, dear.”
            “Thanks,” Callista said, and went in.
            Mr. Parsifal Snowe was seated at his antique mahogany desk, and looked up at her with a paternal smile.  “Miss Lee, excellent, thank you for coming.  I trust we have not interrupted you in anything too pressing?”
            “Not at all,” Callista said, and looked over at the other person in the room with some curiosity.
            The other occupant was a man of about thirty years, slim and rather fragile-looking, with a narrow face and large, luminous pale blue-gray eyes.  He had a tousled mop of sandy blond hair, and was dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans that were rather too large for him.
            But the oddest thing was the thoughts that Callista picked up from him.  Her telepathic sense was normally powerful and accurate; she could hear sentences of internal dialogue, a continuous stream of words that faded with distance but which was still clearly audible from ten feet away, or sometimes even twenty or more with particularly readable individuals.  This man, although his thoughts were detectable, was somehow different.  His mental monologue lacked the booming, amplified resonance that almost everyone else’s had.  His thinking was soft, rounded, full of images with blurred edges; like watching a television through frosted glass.  She could hear him thinking, It’s a girl, I’d better be cautious, as he looked at her, but the words had no volume, no impact.  And the image of her in his mind faded as soon as he turned back toward Mr. Snowe, who spoke again.
            “Miss Lee, this is Mr. Quentin Joyner.  He came here today because of a rather disturbing situation, and has requested our assistance.  I thought that you in particular should be here, so I have asked Mr. Joyner if he would be willing to have you present.  He has agreed.  I will now allow Mr. Joyner to explain what brings him here, circumstances that are most upsetting to him.”
            Quentin Joyner looked over at Callista, and again, she had the fleeting image of herself as a wavering image through fog.  But he spoke, in a slow, patient voice, and she turned her mind away from what he was thinking to what he was saying.
            “I witnessed a murder last week,” he said, so matter-of-factly that it took Callista a moment to be certain she’d heard him correctly.
            “Of whom?”
            “You probably heard about it.  Her name was Tess Ethridge.  She was killed while jogging, out near Carlisle Lake.  I was out walking my dog, and I saw it happen.”
            “I read about it in the newspaper,” Callista said.  “The police called it a robbery.”
            Quentin nodded.  “The killer took her wallet.  The credit cards were used later that evening at a convenience store, and the person who used them was identified from the security camera and arrested for the killing.  But he swears that he didn’t kill her, that he found the wallet by the side of the road in Colville and just decided to use the cards.  He said he didn’t realize that the owner of the cards had been murdered.”
            “Were you able to identify the killer?”
            Quentin gave a little smile, but she could hear a flutter, like a mental sigh, pass through his mind, and she caught the words, Here we go again.  “Well,” he said, “I can’t.”
            “Why not?”
            “I have a perceptual problem.  It’s called prosopagnosia.
            Callista looked at him, raised her eyebrows, and shook her head.
            “I’m face blind.”
            “Oh,” she said.  “Then, you can’t…”  She hesitated, stopped.
            “It’s okay,” he said.  “I’ve been this way all my life.  You don’t have to act awkward.  But yes, it’s what it sounds like.  I can’t recognize anyone.  If you walked out, and then walked back in, I might not know who you were, although I have become pretty good at memorizing specific things and remembering them – like what a person is wearing.  But if you changed your clothes, or put your hair up – I wouldn’t have any idea it was you.”  He looked down.  “I wouldn’t recognize a photograph of my own mother.”
            “How do you do with voices?”
            He looked up and smiled, and the smile gave his face an almost ethereal beauty.  He looks like something from one of those paintings from mythology.  Like a woodland sprite or an elf.  But the smile was gone as quickly as it came.
            “I recognize voices very well,” he said.  “But the murderer didn’t speak.  Just stabbed that poor woman, grabbed her wallet, and ran.”
            “Do you know if the killer was a man or a woman?”
            Quentin shook his head.  “I’m not sure.  The murderer was wearing a cap and a heavy sweatshirt.  That was the first thing I noticed; it was a hot day.  I was in a t-shirt and shorts, and Tess Ethridge – the woman who was killed – she was running in shorts and a sports bra.”  He blushed a little.  “Like I said, I notice clothes.  It gives me an anchor if I need to remember someone later.  But the killer – he, or she, was wearing jeans and this bulky sweatshirt, and a cap pulled low.  And she – the victim – just came around a bend, near Willow Point, and I saw a figure jump out from behind some bushes.  I was about a hundred feet away or so.  My dog jerked to the end of his leash, and started barking.  By that time, she was already on the ground – it happened so fast.  I don’t think the killer knew I was there until then.  So the killer looked up, looked right at me, and then sprang up and ran, holding the knife in one hand and something he’d taken from her in his other hand.  I later found out that her wallet was stolen, so I guess that was what it was.”  He swallowed.  “It was horrible.  I shouted, and ran to see if I could help her, but she was unconscious.  I had my cellphone, and called 911, but she was dead by the time the paramedics arrived.  She never regained consciousness.”
            “The knife was later found, discarded, in the bushes further along the trail,” Mr. Snowe said.  “The killer was evidently either wearing gloves, or wiped it clean before it was tossed aside.”
            “I see,” Callista said.
            “The police questioned me,” Quentin said.  “I don’t think they believed me, that I had no way to identify even if the killer was male or female.  I tried to explain, but… you know, one thing I have found from having this disorder for 28 years is, it’s really easy to just think I’m making it up for attention, that I really do know who people are and that I just don’t want to admit it.  That’s what the police thought.  But then they caught the guy using her credit cards, and figured they had the murderer.  So case closed, right?”
            “And you don’t believe it.”
            “No.  For one thing, the guy who was caught with the credit cards was really heavy-set.  They showed me a photograph, still trying to get me to say that I recognized him.  I said that it couldn’t be him – that the person I saw ran really lightly, you know, with a spring in the step, a bouncy stride, someone who wasn’t overweight.  But then they said, ‘Do you recognize his face?’ and I said I didn’t, that I couldn’t say one way or the other for sure if that was the person I saw.  They didn’t get it, kept hounding me, harassing me.  Finally I had my doctor talk to them, and explain why I couldn’t say if I recognized the guy’s face, neither to rule it out or to support it – he said that if necessary, he’d come down to explain why my condition would prevent my either being a witness for the prosecution or for the defense.  So at that point they decided that I was useless and sort of left me alone.  But still – I kept thinking about that man in jail, and the more I thought about it, the more I was sure it couldn’t be him.  The way people move is something else I’ve trained myself to notice.”
            Callista nodded.
            “So that means that the actual killer is still out there,” Quentin said.
            “How did you find out about us?” Callista asked.
            Quentin gave a quick look at Mr. Snowe, who responded with an almost imperceptible nod.  “My sister is a friend of Marie Mackenzie’s,” Quentin said.  “I think you were on a case for Marie’s family last year.  Well, Marie apparently thinks you are the most amazing detectives in the world, and when my sister mentioned to her that I’d been a witness to Tess Ethridge’s murder, Marie told her that I should come to you.”
            A corner of Callista’s mouth twitched.  “Really?” she said.  “I was under the impression that Marie Mackenzie thought we were a bunch of bumbling incompetents.”
            “No,” Quentin said.  “The way she talked, she made you sound like magicians – like you could wave a wand and pull the guilty party out of a hat.”
            “Hardly that,” Callista said.  “I guess it’s good to know that she changed her opinion of us.  But in any case, I’m not sure we have a lot to go on, here.  Other than your feeling that the man the police arrested isn’t the actual killer, what more can you tell us?”
            Quentin Joyner blushed again, and shrugged.  “Nothing.  I know, it sounds ridiculous.  But it’s been bothering me.  I can’t sleep at night.”
            “So, you didn’t know the victim?”
            He shook his head.
            “Allow me to remind you, Miss Lee,” Mr. Snowe said, “that we have taken on cases far more hopeless-sounding than this.  If you’ll recall, in the Petrillo-Scanlon murder case, we didn’t even know the victim’s name for quite some time.  I have told Mr. Joyner that we are able to take this case on a provisional basis, and if we find other information that supports his conjecture that the murderer was not the man currently cooling his heels in the Colville Correctional Institute, we can pursue a full investigation at that time.”
            Callista shrugged.  “Okay, I’m game,” she said.
            “I suspected you would be,” Mr. Snowe said.  “And therefore, Mr. Joyner, I think at this point you may leave it in our hands.  You took the right course of action, coming to us, given your lack of success with the more conventional authorities.  If nothing else, for your own peace of mind.”
            Quentin nodded.  “Thank you.”  He looked at Mr. Snowe, his odd, pale eyes open wide.  “I can pay you for your work.”
            “I have no doubt that that is the case,” Mr. Snowe said.  “But let us discuss remuneration at another time, when I and my associates have confirmed that this case merits further inquiry.”  He gave Quentin Joyner a gentle smile.  “I will be in touch, Mr. Joyner.”
            It was clearly a dismissal, and Quentin stood up, fidgeting nervously and fishing in his pocket for his car keys.  “Thanks,” he said, and gave a quick, shy glance at Callista before leaving.  He shut the door quietly behind him.
            “Fascinating,” Callista said.  “I’ve never met anyone like him.  That’s a thinking pattern I’ve never run into before.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “Prosopagnosia is, I believe, quite rare.  While some individuals have a lower than average ability at facial recognition, complete prosopagnosia is usually only found in the victims of strokes, where the damage has affected the fusiform gyrus and left the rest of the brain relatively intact.  It is extremely uncommon as a perceptual disorder suffered from since birth, as Mr. Joyner’s apparently is.”
            “I didn’t think you’d studied neurology, Mr. Snowe,” Callista said, smiling slightly.
            He turned his hands palm upwards.  “Call it a hobby,” he said.
            “One of many,” she responded.
            “It is essential to keep one’s brain occupied,” he said.  “But as far as Mr. Joyner, I feel certain that he is telling the truth.  I desired your presence because I thought that as a telepath, you would be in the best position to confirm that supposition.”
            Callista nodded thoughtfully.  “All I can say,” she responded, after thinking for a moment, “is that his thoughts aren’t like anything I’ve experienced before.  You remember the Garrick case, six years ago?  I was reminded immediately of Jason Garrick, not because Garrick and Joyner were similar, but because they were equally outside the norm.”
            Mr. Snowe nodded.  “Jason Garrick was an unfortunate young man.  Such a brilliant mind.”
            “He and Joyner are both difficult to read, but for differing reasons.  Garrick’s thoughts were disjointed, like turning a radio dial rapidly and catching bits of music and bits of talking, interspersed by bursts of static.”
            “Mr. Garrick was schizophrenic,” Mr. Snowe said.
            “Yes.  A vastly different illness.  And like I said, I didn’t get the same sense from Joyner – I only brought up Garrick because I was reminded of him by how unusual they both are.  Joyner’s thoughts were like… I don’t know.  As if they were wrapped in gauze.  Filmy.  You couldn’t hear or see them clearly.  Usually, it’s not hard to hear thoughts; in fact, I have more of a problem keeping them out when I don’t want them.”
            “The inevitable downside of being as sensitive a telepath as you are,” Mr. Snowe observed.
            “Yes.  But here… I kept losing him.  It was like, I don’t know – like his voice was so unobtrusive that I had to keep focusing on it, or I’d forget I was listening to him.  And the images – he really does see people as vague, faceless colored shapes.  They don’t stick at all in his mind.  I really do think that if he saw either of us on the street, he wouldn’t have any idea he’d ever seen us before.”
            “I’m quite sure that is the case.”
            “When he was describing the murder, primarily what I got was feelings – the breeze on his skin, the light of the setting sun on his back.  I could even feel what he’d experienced when his dog yanked on the leash.  He lives in a very tactile world – perhaps to make up for his lack of visual ability.  Feeling is everything to him.”
            “Witnessing a murder,” Mr. Snowe said, “was undoubtedly a dreadful experience for someone of Mr. Joyner’s temperament.”
            “Yes.  I picked up strong memories of his desperation to save the victim’s life.  It was weird – I could feel her blood on his hands.  The warmth, you know, the wetness – it was so real.  But then, I tried to fish around, get an image – and all I got were faint traces of bloody hands.  No emotion attached to the visual part of it.  It was like… I don’t know.  Like looking at a faded watercolor image, where you can barely even tell what you’re looking at.”
            “Do you think,” Mr. Snowe asked, “that Mr. Joyner was telling the truth about not knowing the victim?  I realize that he may seem an unlikely suspect, but it is worth considering.  After all, he was the only other person who has unequivocally been shown to be at the murder scene.”
            “No,” Callista said.  “No possibility that he was the murderer.  Like I said, I know that what he was telling us reflected true memories, because I could feel what he had experienced.  His dog pulling on the leash, barking.  Then the feeling of running, of feet striking the path.  Then lifting up the victim, the blood flowing, her weight in his arms.  The panic, the accelerating heartbeat.  There was nothing in any of that to indicate that he was lying.  I’d be willing to bet my next month’s salary on it.”
            “And no sense that he knew the victim?”
            “None.  Did you suspect he was lying about that?”
            “No.  I have just found that in practice it is always best to make as few ad hoc assumptions as possible.”
            “Understood.”
            “We therefore are left with something of a mystery.”
            “That’s putting it mildly.  A murder victim where the only witness can’t tell us anything about the murderer.”
            “You have more than once, Miss Lee, mentioned that you enjoy puzzles.” 
            What would have been sarcasm in anyone else came across merely as gentle encouragement.  He really has the demeanor of an eighteenth century gentleman-scholar, Callista thought, and then stopped herself; she had never been certain how much of her own mental voice her boss picked up.  Mr. Snowe’s paranormal skills, whatever they might be, were not something he shared with his employees.  The whole thing gave him an aura of omniscience.
            She regarded Mr. Snowe with a raised eyebrow.  “Well, it’s helpful to have at least a little information,” she said, watching his face carefully to see if it betrayed anything of what he was thinking.
            All he gave her was a beatific smile.  “Oh, there is always information, Miss Lee,” he said.  “It only remains to determine its location.  That, I believe, is the key.  The pieces are there.  What separates us from detectives who lack, shall we say, the rather unusual skill set that you and your associates have, is a unique ability to determine how to fit the available pieces together to make picture – a picture, in this case, of a person who knifed to death an innocent jogger.”

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Guest post: Mocha, Moonlight, and Murder...

Hi all... Today, I've got a guest post from my friend and fellow writer, the amazing MaryAnn Kempher, who has just recently released her mystery/romance Mocha, Moonlight, and Murder.  Here's a little about her novel -- which sounds like brilliant fun.

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Mocha, Moonlight, and Murder is romantic suspense. It will appeal to romance lovers, because Scott and Katherine (eventually) have such a fantastic friendship, that blossoms into something more. They really like each other and the reader will really like them. It will also appeal to readers who love a good mystery; a woman is brutally murdered three blocks from Katherine’s. She sees the killer as he’s preparing to dispose of the women’s body, but manages to out run him. He finds out who she is and starts stalking her. 

Instead of feeding her late-night appetite, a midnight food run nearly gets 28-year-old Katherine O’Brian killed. She’s the only person to see the man who brutally murdered a local woman, and the killer is hell-bent on making sure she doesn’t talk.
Scott Mitchell left a broken engagement behind when he moved to Reno, and the last thing he needs is more melodrama. But when he and Katherine are paired for a college project, that’s exactly what he gets. It can be very distracting when someone is out to kill your lab partner. Together, they try to figure out what the police haven’t been able to—the identity of the murderer. Passion flares, but with Katherine’s life in danger, romance seems like more than a bad idea.
           
Scott and Katherine will face jealousy, misunderstandings, lust, and rivals, not to mention attempted murder—and all before their first real date.

Author MaryAnn Kempher:
My family moved to Reno NV, where Mocha, Moonlight, and Murder is set, when I was 15. I currently live in Florida with my husband, two children, two dogs and one cat. My favorite author is Jane Austen, but my writing is also influenced by Agatha Christie. I love her Hercule Poirot mysteries.
My Twitter handle is https://twitter.com/maryannkempher. You can find me on Facebook: Author Maryann Kempher, or at my website: http://mkempher.com
Here's my Amazon author's page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00CDNQ37Q
Mocha, Moonlight, and Murder is available in ebook format for only $2.99 at:

Monday, April 8, 2013

Beneficiaries

Good luck sometimes isn't all it's cracked up to be.

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Beneficiaries


            “Scotch.  Double.  Neat.”
            Jim Quick, for twenty years the bartender at O’Donnell’s Irish Pub, wiped his hands on a towel, tossed it on the counter behind the bar, and turned to his newest patron with a smile.  “Do you have a favorite, then?  Single malt?  Blend?”
            “It doesn’t matter,” the man said, slumping a little on the barstool, and running his hand through hair still damp from the rain.  “Whatever’s handy.”
            Jim selected a bottle, and filled a glass with amber liquid.  “Here’s a Glenfiddich,” he said.  “Always a favorite.  Cheers, mate.”
            The man held up the glass to Jim, and took a sip.
            It was a quiet night – the only ones in O’Donnell’s were the regulars.  And this guy, who Jim had never seen before.  Despite having the downcast look of a dog that had been left alone in the back yard during a thunderstorm, and being just about as wet, there was something curiously compelling about him.  Jim leaned on the polished mahogany bar and said, “You look like you need some cheering up.”
            One corner of the man’s mouth twitched a little.  “I suppose,” he said.
            “Let me guess.  Problem with the ladies?”
            “Oh, no,” the man said.  “They beat down the door to my bedroom, honestly.”
            Jim looked at him, smiling and frowning at the same time.  The man in front of him was completely ordinary-looking, and in fact, the most striking thing about him was how nondescript he was.  If he’d had to describe this fellow to the police, Jim would have been hard-pressed to name one feature about him that didn’t begin with the word “average.”  But even so, there was no doubt in Jim’s mind that the man was speaking the truth.
            “Lucky you,” Jim said.
            “I suppose,” the man said again.
            “Hey, if you’ve got more than you want,” Jim said, grinning, “you could send one or two over to my place.  It’s been too long since I had a nice tumble.”
            The man shrugged.  “Okay.”
            “Come on, then,” Jim said, layering on all of the kindly reassurance that he’d learned from twenty years of dealing with despondent drinkers.  “Out with it.  What’s eating at you?”
            The man raised an eyebrow.  “Did I tell you that my name is Rush Limbaugh?”
            Jim’s eyes opened wide.  “Seriously?  As in the talk radio fellow?”  He shook his head.  “That must be a bit of a burden, having a famous name like that.”
            The guy slumped down even further.  “No, it’s not really,” he said, staring into the depths of his scotch.  “I lied.  My real name is Britney Spears.”
            Jim stared at him, and then burst into guffaws.  “Oh, mate, I’m sorry to have a laugh at your expense, but… oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, whatever can your parents have been thinking?”  Then he dissolved into helpless laughter again.
            The man put both hands over his face, and leaned into them, sitting motionless for nearly a minute.
            Jim finally got a hold of himself, and wiped his streaming eyes with the back of his hand, then reached out and thwacked the man on his shoulder.  “I’m sorry for laughing, mate,” he said.  “That was unkind of me.  Next round is on the house, to make up for my bad manners.”
            The man didn’t move.
            “Ah…” Jim said, frowning, and tapped the man’s shoulder.  “Are you all right?”  There was no response.  “I’m heartily sorry for laughing at you, um… Britney.”
            The man dropped one hand, and glared at Jim with the one exposed eye.  “My name is not Britney Spears,” he said.  “I was lying again.”
            Jim shook his head, and said, “You were just having me on?”
            “Yes,” the man said, one hand still covering half of his face.
            “Well, you’re the best liar I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a few,” Jim said.
            Finally the other hand moved.  “No, I’m not,” the man said.  “I’m a terrible liar.  I just make stupid shit up.  It’s not even halfway to believable.”
            Jim shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”
            The man gave a harsh sigh.  “Look,” he said.  “I’m going to tell you something, and see if you believe that.  Tell you a story.  Okay?”
            Jim looked down the bar.  The other patrons seemed to be in no imminent need of refills, and no one new had come in since the conversation had begun, so he leaned on the bar, and said, “Sounds worth hearing.”
            “My uncle Harry died three months ago,” the man began.
            “A pity,” Jim said.  “My condolences.”
            “Thanks,” the man said.  “Uncle Harry was a bit of an oddball.  He was my mother’s brother, and was filthy rich.  He never married, and so when he died we inherited a good bit of his money, his house, and his stuff.”
            “Lucky,” Jim said.
            “Funny you should put it that way,” the man said.  “I’d always been jealous of Uncle Harry, because he had everything.  My mom and dad always just barely scraped by, but Uncle Harry made money without even trying.  My dad used to say that he could mint gold coins with his fingertips.  He always seemed to succeed at whatever he tried, and had a new girlfriend every week – and each one was always prettier than the last.  But even so, he never gave us anything while he was alive.  Not one cent.  I remember at one Christmas dinner, he came over, ate our food and drank our wine, and didn’t give a damn thing to anyone – not a single present to any of us.  He even told us that he had no reason to give away what was his, why should anyone expect a handout?  And the funny thing is – at the time, we all just sort of swallowed it.  ‘Harry’s a rogue,’ my mom said, in this kind of indulgent way.  And my dad said, ‘He’s a charmer, that’s for sure.’”
            “Bit of an asshole, sounds like,” Jim said.
            “Well, maybe it seems that way now,” the man said.  “But no one was saying it then.  He nodded toward Jim, as if to point out how significant that was.  “He almost seemed to make a point of saying outrageous shit, just to see if anyone would challenge him.  Nobody ever did.”
            “And you inherited his money when he died,” Jim said.  “So you got the best of him, in the end.”
            “Yes and no,” the man said.  “Just from his bank balance, my parents will never want for anything again, and that’s a blessing.  But the kids… he specifically willed each of us something.  He gave my sister a silver ring, and my brother a suave-looking felt hat with a leather hatband.  Me… he gave me a necklace.”
            “A necklace?” Jim said.  He peered at the man’s neck, which was bare.  “Not your style, then?”
            The man gave a mirthless laugh.  “Actually, it was beautiful.  A gold Celtic cross on a thin gold chain.  When my mom gave it to me, said that Uncle Harry had wanted me in particular to have it, I though it was pretty cool.  But I don’t wear necklaces much, so I just put the box in my pocket and forgot about it.”
            Jim smiled.  “A nice keepsake of your uncle, still,” he said.
            “I got woken up by the telephone the morning after we got the gifts from Uncle Harry’s estate – it was a Saturday, I remember.  Seven o’clock.  It was my brother, calling me up to tell me he’d won the lottery.”
            “Your brother won the lottery?” Jim said, in awe.  “That’s stupendous!”
            “Yeah,” the man said, without much enthusiasm.  “But what I didn’t tell you is that he was on the verge of bankruptcy.  He’d gone out the night before with some friends, sort of as a last fling.  He was so embarrassed by his financial problems that he hadn’t wanted to ask any of us for help.  But he said that evening, he’d put Uncle Harry’s hat on, and suddenly had this feeling like… he couldn’t lose.  He bought one lottery ticket – just one – with the last dollar in his wallet.  And now he’s a millionaire.”
            “That’s quite a story.”
            Again there was that momentary twitch in the corner of the man’s mouth.  “Yeah,” he said.   “And my sister…  I didn’t tell you that my sister recently was diagnosed with ALS.  You know, Lou Gehrig’s.  She had the tremors, weakness, and all… she was pretty despondent about it.”
            “Isn’t that…” Jim stopped, bit his lip, and said, “Terminal?”
            The man nodded.  “Yeah.  Two years, they said.  Five, tops.  Most of it you’re bedridden.  One of the most horrible diseases around.”  He paused, took another sip of his scotch.  “Only, thing is – she went to the doctor two weeks ago, and he said that she’s cured.  No sign of illness.  In fact, they’re looking into whether she was misdiagnosed in the first place, because no one, he said, ever is cured of ALS.  If you get it, you die.”  The man looked up at Jim, his eyes intense.  “She was wearing Uncle Harry’s ring when she went in for the checkup – the one where they told her the disease was gone.”
            Jim stared at the man in astonishment.  “That’s… that’s fantastic.”
            “We were all thrilled about it.  First my brother strikes it rich while wearing Uncle Harry’s hat, and then my sister is cured of a fatal disease while wearing his ring.”  He looked at Jim, his eyebrows raised.
            “So… the necklace?” Jim prompted.
            “It went missing.”
            “No!” Jim said, aghast.
            “When I found out my sister had been cured while wearing his ring, I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s something about Uncle Harry’s stuff that’s making all this happen?’  So, I took the necklace out of the box, and put it on.  I slipped it inside my shirt, and wore it all day.  I didn’t notice anything different.  Then, that evening… I suddenly realized that it was gone.  I turned my apartment upside down – I looked inside the sofa, under chairs, everywhere I could think of.  It was gone.”
            “Well, that’s devastating,” Jim said with feeling.
            “Mmm-hmm,” the man said, not seeming particularly devastated.  “So, anyway, that night, I was in the bathroom, and getting ready for bed, and I took my shirt off.  And I saw this.”
            The man stood up, and lifted his shirt.  In the center of his upper chest was a small mark, shaped like a Celtic cross – a circle with a cross through it.
            “Tattoo?” Jim said.
            “Not one I asked for,” Jim said.  “But it’s the same shape as the design on the necklace pendant.  So I called my brother and sister, and we got together the next day for lunch.  And guess what I found out?”
            “I wouldn’t try,” Jim said.
            “Both the hat and the ring had had a Celtic cross design – it was on the hatband, and engraved into the band of the ring.  Both the hat and the ring had gone missing, too – the hat the day after my brother won the lottery, and the ring the day after my sister was given a clean bill of health. And then they told me the best part – my brother now has a tiny Celtic cross mark on his temple, right at his hairline – you have to look close to even see it – and my sister has one on her right ring finger.”
            “Sweet mother of God,” Jim said, under his breath.  “Wealth, health, and…?”  He looked at the man, a question in his eyes.
            An attractive young woman, a cosmopolitan in one slender hand, came up to the man, and said, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t help but notice…”  She laughed nervously, reddened, and set her drink down on the bar.  “This is… this really isn’t like me.”  She stopped, and looked at him, smiling.
            “It’s okay,” he said, as if he already had the script memorized, and was just waiting for her to recite her lines.
            “It’s just that… when you had your shirt pulled up, I thought, Wow, he is so hot!  It just… it just came over me so suddenly, and I thought, hey, you only live once, right?  So I thought…”  She looked down, coyly, and said, “Are you doing anything this evening?  I thought maybe we could go to my apartment, and you know… get to know each other a little.”  She looked up, smiled.
            The man looked at Jim, and said, “Wealth, health, and I sure as hell would just like to be believed because I’m actually telling the truth.”  He sighed, and looked at the woman, who was hanging on his every word, even though there was no way she could possibly have had any idea what he was talking about.  “Not to mention women finding me attractive because I actually am.  The brother who was poor gets money; the sister who was sick gets well; and you know what that implies about me?”  He shook his head.  “Oh, well, I guess there’s nothing to be done about it.  Uncle Harry did the best he could, all things considered.”  He looked up at the woman, managed a smile, and said, “I’m really good in bed.”
            She wiggled an eyebrow.  “I’m sure you are.”
            “My name is Margaret Thatcher.”
            She gave a coquettish little laugh.  “That’s fine with me,” she said.  “Mine’s Terry.”
            The man slid a ten dollar bill across the bar, told Jim to keep the change, and Jim watched as the two of them exited into the rainy night.  Leo Corcoran, one of the bar’s regulars, came up, pint of Guinness in hand, and said, “It’s a right quiet night, Jimmy boy.  Who was that nice-looking young man you were talking to?  Dashing sort of fellow, I thought.  I’ve not seen him in here before.”
            “Interesting gentleman,” Jim said, picking up a towel and polishing a glass with it.  “Quite a lady’s man, I fancy.  I think he’ll be scoring a nice little home run this evening, with that sweet blonde who left on his arm.  But odd thing, you know?  Fellow’s name is ‘Margaret Thatcher.’”
            “Is that a fact?”
            “It is,” Jim said.
            “Never know what you’ll hear next, some days.”
            “That’s God’s honest truth, lad,” Jim said.  “God’s honest truth.”