For a while after meeting the High Priestess, life went on as usual. I discovered more refined ways of altering the probable future. In truth, I worked on being less intrusive. I started to worry that my methods had further-ranging effects than I’d previously believed. I think it was the High Priestess calling me a “meddler” that got my attention. I became suspicious that the reason only my personal intervention ever drew satisfactory results was because the High Priestess was the source of my abilities.
So I took to studying my clients’ circumstances more closely. If necessary, I’d call on my sadistic hacker genius, Fitch. She could go where no hacker had ever gone before. She could uncover unsavory secrets (porn addiction, mistresses, embezzlement) about someone who was tormenting a client and pass the information on to me without questioning why I wanted it. Instead of issuing threats that smelled of extortion, I’d send an anonymous note hinting that a slight change in behavior toward my client could possibly result in said secret not being revealed. Repeat if necessary. Not as swift in results, sometimes, or as thrilling, but more mature. My fees stayed the same, however.
Months after that excursion to the High Priestess’s little room, I was reading cards for Hollywood’s current tabloid starlet. We were focused on a secret child she had at age fifteen. The child was currently being cared for by an aunt who had designs on breaking the starlet’s confidentiality unless a large financial compensation was supplied. A typical sort of hot seat my clients tended to occupy.
We were meeting in a luxury suite at a hotel in downtown Seattle. Outside, over the balcony, the Bainbridge ferry lumbered across the Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains scribbled in the far horizon. One of those glorious days that belies Seattle’s reputation as a rain capital.
The opulence of the suite where we sat had become mundane to me. My clients always wanted to meet in some lavish, yet private venue. I would have preferred a leaky tent in the wilderness for a change of pace, as long as I didn’t have to spend the night. In this case, I was experiencing some empathy for my client and anger at the blackmailing aunt. I simmered at the inhumanity of holding an innocent child hostage.
Another Celtic Cross spread in front of me and, once again, I turned over the High Priestess. Just as I realized I hadn’t seen the card in several readings, the meat grinder pressure wrapped my head and I was thrown into the black pillar that stood behind the High Priestess. Sprawled on my back, arms outstretched, I glared at the back of her throne.
“Could this be a more gentle process?” I was suffering from that particular hammer of anger I felt whenever I bashed my head into a rock-solid object.
“Soldiers don’t whine. They rise and advance.” The derisive sandpaper voice came from the front of the chair.
“Soldier? Advance? You sound like I’m marching into battle.”
“Yes, that could suffice as a training ground, but it wouldn’t elicit the special conceptual skills needed for your mission.”
“Look, I’m not cut out for ‘missions.’ I’m just a card reader with a specialty.” I walked around the throne to look at the High Priestess for the second time. This time her eyes followed me, and her severe mouth twitched into a condescending sneer that she might have thought was a smile. I studied her for a long moment. A chill rocked me when I realized she didn’t breathe.
“And I have no heartbeat. Organics are necessary in your realm, but they’re decoration here. Little niceties strung here and there to make the occasional human visitor more…functional.”
“So are you always reading my mind? Or do you have some privacy ethics?”
A scratching chuckle erupted from her. “Read your mind? Why indulge in such a dreary pastime? Your thoughts blare out of that humanly appealing visage of yours.” She considered me for long moments until I felt like a specimen. My feelings were corroborated when she said, “Yes, you’ll do, but just barely.” She lifted her left arm and beckoned me closer.
“Come closer, Devorah Rosten. We have run out of time.” She kept my eyes captive, and I found myself kneeling on the dais in front of her. “Your mission starts now.”
Her icy finger tapped the place between my eyebrows, and I closed my eyes in spontaneous protection.
When I opened them again, I wasn’t sitting in front of my client. I wasn’t looking at the unnerving High Priestess. I was somewhere altogether different.
I scrambled to my feet, alarmed. My Tony Lama boots were sinking into soft dirt, so it took a moment to right myself. The sky was pallid turquoise and held no clouds. The sun was hot but queerly disc-like, as if an overheated dinner plate had been hung for warmth. It was doing a great job because sweat was tickling my back and forehead.
I was standing in the middle of a vast plowed field. The brown furrows stretched so far to my right and left they appeared endless. In front of me was a large, leafy tree overhanging an old-fashioned well, the kind with a bucket and rope. It was the same kind of well found in tarot cards. It usually meant delving into the deep unconscious to find hidden truths. “Let’s hope there are some truths around here because I could use some answers,” I said.
The heat from the weird sun was burning through the shirt on my back. To gain shade, I trundled toward the tree, struggling with the unstable dirt underneath my feet. “Plowed fields,” I said to myself, “symbolizing the laying of groundwork for an arduous project. Oy.”
Before I could reach the tree, I heard rhythmic clumping growing louder as it neared. Swirling and stumbling around, I gasped as a large white horse closed the distance between us. Sitting atop the charger was an honest-to-goodness knight in glinting medieval armor. He was bearing down on me, viciously swinging the largest sword imaginable. When it was clear he wasn’t going to stop, I tried to run, but the soft dirt gave way beneath my feet.
The hooves drummed danger. In what seemed like hours, I made it to the well. I glanced up to find the knight upon me, then grabbed the bucket rope and slid over the edge. A layer of skin scraped onto the rope when it jerked and stopped unspooling from above. My screams echoed off the rock sides of the shaft. I thrust my feet out and pushed my back into the rock wall, struggling for stability.
“That was unwise, pretty damsel.” In the circle of light above, I could see the now helmetless head of the large man. His burnished hair draped the sides of his boxy chin. “All I need to do is sever the rope, and you will spend the rest of your days at the bottom.”
“Who are you?” My voice was squeaking and would have been comical were I not in terrible pain and mortal fear.
“Ah, now that is a tale not for your ears at this time.” He was almost barking his laugh. “You are a pretty raven-haired damsel. And I like the greenish color of your eyes. I will let you live today.” He emitted an odd practiced giggle. “Hold tight. I will pull you out. Just keep in mind I am not always a rescuer of damsels.”
“I’m definitely not a damsel.” I grunted when he dragged me over the jagged edge of the well and dropped me on the ground.
“So you say. It will take some time for you to prove that if your plunge into the well is any indication.” He spoke in such formal English that it sounded like he was reading his lines from a script.
“Please tell me who you are,” I said as I stared at my bloody, stinging palms.
“For now, I am your…let us say, builder or trainer.”
“I already have a personal trainer at my gym. She’s better looking than you. And I’m not learning to ride a horse or swing a giant sword. Do you have something to wrap around my hands? They could get infected, you know.”
He pulled out a long white kerchief, tossed it to me, and said, “No swords. No horses. But this realm”—he looked around the vast fields—“is your learning ground. You need to know its rules, its limitations, and its meaning. It is admirable work, is it not? I call it ‘the Theater.’” He studied me for several moments, paying closest attention to my hair. “That is fascinating hair, damsel. All those stretched curls will be interesting to reproduce sometime. I venture to guess that humans find you attractive, like I do.”
“Why me? Why am I here?” I wrapped the kerchief around my left hand since it appeared to have received the worst punishment.
“Because you can get here. And because you are of the meddler line, chosen by the Lady. We members of the House of Coyne are her allies and, when it suits us, her servants.”
“Line?” I looked up from blowing on my right palm. That’s when I spied the circle on the front of his tunic. Within the embroidered circle was a pentacle, a five-point star. I was looking at tarot’s Knight of Pentacles.
“Your education will begin now. Prepare yourself, damsel, and look there.” He pointed toward the field. Kneeling near us was a woman, blond, her head bent over her chest as if she were grieving. Nine swords riddled the ground around her, a reminder of the card that symbolized grief.
“Who is she?” I asked. At the sound of my voice, she lifted her head and looked at me. I was shackled and conscripted by those brown eyes exuding compassion, forgiving me all my foibles and sins. This was a woman who knew how to love. It was Laura Bishop. I tried to step toward her but couldn’t move.
“Why you?” I said. She couldn’t hear me. It was like she was a kind of projection, not a real person. The image of her faded.
“Damsel, from now on, nothing is coincidence,” the knight said. “Indeed, it never was.”
The Knight of Pentacles’s finger touched my forehead, and I was looking at my distraught client in the sumptuous Seattle hotel room. I assured her that the situation would resolve itself soon. She went away satisfied. I believed the High Priestess would fix things for her. I just didn’t know how and knew it didn’t matter.
The bloody scrapes on my hands had disappeared, but the pain still burned. I pressed my palms onto my thighs. There was a small wet bar in the room, and I decided some seltzer water would help my clawing stomach.
I stood at the window, gazed down to the glistening wet Seattle street, and remembered watching Laura Bishop walk away from the same building so many years ago. My reverie was interrupted by a caravan of cars pulling up in front of the hotel. One of the cars was a large limousine. Before the doors of the limo were opened, the other cars in the caravan spilled out a muscle brigade of bodyguards. They appeared to be directed by one particular brute with a bald head. He seemed familiar, but it was difficult to recognize distinguishing features from so far above.
Then the limousines opened, and I forgot Mr. Gym Rat. It wasn’t a challenge to recognize who emerged. I could see his distinctive pompadour, the silver sideburns accentuated his blacktop hair. I didn’t need to be down there to know he sported a smug half grin. I resisted pulling the window open to toss my pitiful few drops of seltzer water on his head.
“Jerry Greenfield. Oy, what a trombenik.” A blowhard phony is what he was. A so-called religious man who had designs on transforming the country into a theocracy. He wanted the Constitution amended to make his religion the mandate of the state. His flagrant demonization of gay people, unmarried mothers, socialists, and immigrants won him many followers from the frightened masses. They needed scapegoats for their woes, and Jerry Greenfield was supplying them. He claimed he supported Jews, but I knew Jews would be next on his list if his current list of “evil souls bred of Satan” lost their scare punch. As a gay person, I was already his followers’ nightmare. It was only a matter of time before they fell upon the Jews. They always had before in history; no reason things should change.
“What’s he doing in Seattle?” I wondered aloud. Then I remembered his wife was in town campaigning. Elizabeth Stratton, U.S. senator, was Jerry Greenfield’s wife and colleague in creating mayhem. Formerly a Seattle attorney, Washington state’s Senator Stratton was now running a campaign to gain the nomination for president of the United States, an odious outcome if there ever was one.
No sooner had I thought of Elizabeth Stratton than she emerged from the limo surrounded by more enormous, buzz-cut bodyguards. Her long salt-and-pepper hair was perfectly tended into a chignon, and I could make out her aristocratic profile. Her charisma enveloped her like a cloud of strong perfume. Charisma and righteous certitude was what she used to spread misinformation and lies to her adoring fans. She wasn’t a politician anymore. She was a personality who controlled the thinking of millions of deluded people who were hungry for a leader, a leader who gave voice to their deepest hate and dread.
I was sickened when I turned away from the window. Even being in the same building with those two parasites disrupted my sensibilities. Something jangled my memory, but it was beyond my grasp. What was I missing about Stratton? There was a connection, a feeling, but I couldn’t grasp it. I repeated what the Knight of Pentacles had said to me: “Damsel, from now on, nothing is coincidence. Indeed, nothing ever was.”
After spotting Jerry Greenfield and Elizabeth Stratton, I returned to my condo a few blocks north of the hotel. I needed to contemplate the encounter with the Knight of Pentacles, whom I cheekily renamed Pento. I resolved to avoid doing readings for a few weeks. This required rescheduling some important and pissed-off clients. But I was afraid of another surprise toss into the Theater. I wanted to see if there was a way, on my side of reality, to control my access to the High Priestess and Pento.
I also needed time to reflect on what I’d learned about the dimension, for lack of a better noun, I’d visited. The High Priestess and Pento had a disturbing way of reminding me of a little book I once read about a girl who enters a land where all the inhabitants have buttons sewn on their faces to replace their eyes. Shocking. Unnatural.
The two human-like characters and the horse I’d met in that other world didn’t breathe, and I knew they didn’t sport beating hearts or, probably, growing hair. And the High Priestess’s lack of fingernails roiled my always-sensitive stomach. The Priestess, Pento, the horse, and the landscape were manufactured somehow. Did that make them my hallucination?
And what about the woman, Laura Bishop, the one whose eyes reached to me and cradled something inside me that was deeply sad? Except online and in newspapers, I hadn’t seen her in years, since the reading when I warned her she was in danger.
What was happening? It appeared I was psychically batted between demeaning interviews with the High Priestess, encounters with Pento, plus Laura Bishop and her heartrending eyes.
From what I could fathom, I was having three separate paranormal or, worse, psychotic experiences. I was catching glimpses of my clients’ futures, getting humiliated in the High Priestess’s barren throne room, and diving down wells in some fabricated world. Were these really separate experiences? Did they have some cosmic relationship? Was I losing my mind? It was time to retreat.
Northwest of Seattle’s cityscape floats a paradise called the San Juan Islands. Several years ago, I bought twelve acres of pristine waterfront land on Lopez Island, the southernmost island in the archipelago. On that wooded property, overlooking Hunter Bay, I built the home of my acquisitive dreams. A client who was a well-known architect bartered his original design for ten readings. It was worth every minute of discussing his annoying fetish for wearing diapers and how to keep his church brethren from finding out.
The house took two years to build, due to the special shipments and imports involved when creating a magnificent structure on an island. I was mistress of a sumptuous 4,500 square foot lookout over the bay. The house was equipped with a high-tech air purification system and state-of-the-art security system. The library contained the most extensive collection of tarot print material anywhere in the world. My bedroom jutted over the cliff and supplied a 180 degree view of the water while I lay in bed and read.
The house was my sanctuary. I named it Tranquility. Tranquility was the emotion I always felt when I pondered the Star, the number seventeen of the major arcana of the tarot. The card depicted a serene woman, often naked, taking water from a lake and pouring it both onto the land and back into the lake. She surrounded herself in beauty and the stars she gazed at. She symbolized, to me, the boundless beauty in the universe, ever renewing. And the card’s number seventeen, a prime number, undisturbed by numerous factors. I even had an artist create a large porcelain floor tile that depicted the woman from the Star card and had the tile set in the cement on my front porch at Tranquility. It served as a reminder for why I had built the house.
I always went to Tranquility to escape the disturbing elements of my oddball existence.
So the Theater experience prompted me to temporarily close my more modest condo in downtown Seattle and sequester myself at Tranquility. My goal was to develop some control over the dismaying teleportation I was experiencing. Shifting into other worlds with clients watching was not a sound business plan.
I made my library at Tranquility the center of operations. It was the most tarot-centered room probably in the world. It contained thousands of volumes, pamphlets, and folios about tarot and related topics. I also had collected antique arcane objects from the systems of Wicca and Kabbalah. These were stored in temperature-controlled glass cases. Knives, chalices, crystals, and other items were displayed in the cases. My collection also consisted of hundreds of different tarot decks, many were centuries old and hand painted. I was a compulsive collector of items from the mystery traditions. The collective energy of the items in my library infused me with a sense of wonder and power.
After I settled into Tranquility, unpacking and stocking groceries, I went to my library to begin the research. I spread my cards on the big oak worktable located in the center of the room. I readied myself to meet my buddies—the High Priestess, Pento, and, my real hope, Laura Bishop.
The first angle of attack was to isolate the trigger that pulled me into the Theater. I assumed it had to rest somewhere in the cards, probably with the High Priestess card or the Knight of Pentacles. Focusing, I stared into both cards, first individually, then as a pair. Nothing. I turned them at odd angles, looked at them reversed, made faces at them. I even tried intoning Hebrew prayers over them. Still nothing.
For days, I gazed at cards, in hundreds of configurations, in futile attempts to shoot myself into Pento’s Theater. At one point, I resorted to dancing around the table singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I had the uneasy feeling the High Priestess was laughing at my lamentable efforts. I spent hours scrutinizing arcane tarot books, yellowed monographs, and musty folios, praying for a clue. I studied the symbols, hoping exposure to one of them would spark something. But I had to give up that particular avenue since the tarot is an extensive, seemingly bottomless stew of symbols. It would take years to isolate the particular trigger symbol if there were one. And I wasn’t sure there was a trigger located in the cards.
As a reader, I had one odd disability. I couldn’t remember the exact card spread for any particular client. The spread dissolved from my gray matter the minute the client left my presence. My memory glitch made it impossible for me to recreate the spreads that sent me into the Theater.
I could remember the gist of the reading, the clients’ stories, but the specific cards? Never.
After a week of hair-pulling frustration, I gave up. I was sick of looking at the damn things anyway. I was grateful I hadn’t scheduled another reading for a few more weeks. The cards were smirking at me.