Mornings are not my slice of pizza and are to be avoided whenever necessary. When I have a job assignment or something else that makes it worthy to kick off the blanket, I'm used to falling out of bed, washing up, and doing the make up and clothing routines. And usually I do it standing, at my own speed.
Jane Ipcress, the landlady's demon daughter, had a hold on my ankle. Demons are real, occasionally stealing into our world, and I had no doubt Jane was from some distant bowels in Hell. I lay sprawled on the floor of my apartment, reaching over my head to hold onto something, anything anchored to the floor. "What the hell?" I said.
Jane's beady blue eyes were bright, which contrasted nicely with her red face and burnt-orange hair. "Shut up, Tessa," she said. "You know why." As if that explained everything. "The rent ring a bell?"
I blinked a few times, trying to get the blue-gray veil of sleep out of my face, my eyes. Recognition or a reasonable facsimile reared its head. March thirty-first. Damn. "I told you. I haven't been able to find anything."
With a toss of her head, the strands of Jane's orange hair revealed her scowling face. She tightened her grip on my ankle, even as I grabbed one metal leg of my cot. The wheels of all four legs were locked, but that didn't keep the bed from straining toward Jane. "Plenty of jobs out there." She leaned forward, her grip loosening enough to allow some circulation in my calf. "Just find one."
I heaved away from Jane, my ankle coming free. I scrambled to my feet in record time. "Like it's that easy? Let me ask you something." I glared at her, knowing what answer was coming, but I asked anyway. "Why do you hate me?"
"I don't hate you," she said, panting, struggling to stand.
Yeah, sure. I'd heard that one a lot. A phrase heaved at me ever since I found out I was an aura cleanser.
"I just hate that you're stringing Mom along." She crossed her considerable arms in front of her equally ample chest. "Pay up for back rent, and I'm outta here."
I answered in my best "Joisey" accent. "So all I gotta do is pay youse, and youse gone?"
Scowling, she gave a quick nod.
I settled myself on the cot, which squeaked at the sudden weight. "Seriously," I said, offering my palm to her, "it's not that easy. I had a long-term temp position, but I, um--"
"Pissed off people?" She said it with such certainty. Of course, she was right.
Because of my magical ability, I could sense people's feelings. Not strictly an empath, as my teacher explained. But the cleansing of dark, or bad, auras went hand-in-hand with people's emotions. My eyes sought the floor instead of Jane's ugly puss. "Yeah."
"Thought so." She came and sat next to me, the cot groaning. "If it were up to me, I'd have thrown you out after the first missed month." She stood again. "But the state doesn't allow that. It's only after three--or is it four?--months that we can evict you."
"Mom knows I'm doing this, and she's fine with it."
"I thought I'd, ah, move the process along by getting you out of bed, by getting you out the door before she's up."
"But, but--" I held up my hand, wanting to contribute something more intellectual. "I know you're lying." Although to see an aura I needed to go into a trance, I drew on my emotional sensing to stop her in her tracks.
Jane's face resumed its normal pasty look, but the red seeped back in. "This is why you have no friends, this is why you can't hold on to a job, you damned freak!" She turned, stalked to my apartment door, and slammed it behind her.
The hostility was a typical reaction here in Zauber, New Jersey, a small town by New Jersey standards. I hadn't made many friends here. Just three, to be exact, and two of those people were gone, one permanently.
I sat there, staring at the door. Jane was a rotund, lying sack of shit, but she was right. This was my life ever since I'd learned of my ability. Literally bumping into Maureen, my teacher (which seemed like a coincidence), she let me know I wasn't going crazy. She let me know I was the youngest aura cleanser she'd ever met. And she let me know she could teach me how to use my ability to see auras to help people, while she could teach me to keep my sensing in check.
She was only half right.
I put my head in my hands. I thought Maureen could teach me to be normal. The stereotype of the nice home with a white picket fence surrounding it. I equated that with normality, as corny and stupid as that sounds. All I wanted was to be normal, and that hadn't been my life since forever.
Ruminating like this wasn't getting me any closer to finding a job, so I took the three steps to my laptop, which sat on the chrome stand that also held my cell, a small printer, and a faux leather laptop case. I plopped into the secondhand chrome chair and turned on the computer, tapping my foot as it went through its slow opening routine.
Do I love chrome? If I could make everything but food and domesticated animals into chrome, I'd be in bliss.
The laptop connected to the nearest unsecured Wi-Fi hub, and I dove in, typing the url for my wonderful site, Palmisano's Paranormal Investigations. Lame. The colors were lame, the words on it were lame--therefore, I am lame trying to market myself online. I didn't want to do it, but my landlady, Mrs. Ipcress, mother of that demon, insisted I do something, especially since she was going to be paying.
Her insistence won out, even though my creation looked like crap.
A scritch came at the door, Mrs. Ipcress' telltale knock. Maybe she'd been a gerbil in a former life. I chuckled at my comedic genius before I got up and opened the door. "Yeah?" I yawned, despite being fully awake from the floor dragging at heaven-knows-what-hour of the morning.
Mrs. Ipcress stood in her green-and-red-flowered shift, her bright-orange hair adrift as if a hurricane ravaged it. She smelled of cigarettes and rancid rainwater and sweet perfume, an olfactory overload that always made me gag.
"Tessa Palmisano," she said, and I knew I was in for something long winded; she never said my full name unless she had a lot to say. Oy vey.
"Can you make this fast, Mrs. Ipcress?" I jabbed a thumb behind me, hoping it was pointing at the laptop. "I need to think up some promo stuff, since I can't find a regular job." Or keep one. I groaned.
"Oh, Tessa." Mrs. Ipcress shimmied past me, the shift hanging like a limp rag on her needle thin body. "I'm not going to take that long."
She looked as if she'd thrown up everything she'd ever eaten and fed it to Jane. I cringed. My best friend Allison was as big as Jane but she had style. Weird, Goth style, but she looked like a dark, bohemian piece of art. As opposed to me; I blended into walls very nicely.
What Allison ever saw in me, I haven't a clue.
I came back to Mrs. Ipcress a moment later. She stood before me, thankfully a few inches off. "I've been talking to Lorraine, and we decided it was best to contact you."
"This early?" The light outside suggested somewhere between seven and ten in the morning. "What have you two been talking about?" Mrs. Ipcress gossiped with Lorraine Davenport daily for hours on end. How they managed to find enough things to talk about was a mystery for the ages.
"The nice young man in the house on the corner? The one who's renting an apartment on the first floor?"
What was this, ten thousand questions? She'd already pushed her way into my apartment, not that I minded all that much; that was how she found out about my ability, and she hadn't thrown me out. Yet. "Guy in the corner house, uh huh." I shivered, wrapping my arms around me. The winter from hell was supposed to be over; that's what the groundhog had said back in February.
"Yes, he's so nice." Mrs. Ipcress eased herself into the rocking chair, setting it in motion. "He was in one of the Gulf Wars, or was it Afghanistan? Heavens, I can't remember which, that's what happens when you get old, my dear."
I rolled my eyes, teeth chattering, and made my way to the rocking chair, which stood to the left of the bed. I groped for the thin robe draped over the back, Mrs. Ipcress obliging me by leaning forward. After I shrugged into it, I sat again, motioning for her to get on with it.
"Well, he's noticed a lot of men entering but never coming out."
I shrugged. "He's gay. So?"
"No, no, you don't understand," Mrs. Ipcress said. "You're not even awake yet, dear. How about I make you some tea?" She pushed to her feet.
I winced as I caught another sickening whiff. I held up a hand, waving off my landlady, cursing my bad luck when the old woman didn't go back to the rocking chair. I breathed through my mouth for a minute before speaking again. "I heard what you said. A guy notices men going into the house, but not leaving. So someone's having a sleepover. Big whoop. Did that when I was a little girl." An image of my smiling mother popped into my mind. I gasped, a tear slipping down my face. Not because my mother was dead, although she might as well be.
In this image, she still had her mind.
"Are you all right, dear?" Mrs. Ipcress asked, standing to my right.
I couldn't speak right away, as my throat was as parched as a desert. Tears dribbled from my eyes, as wave upon wave of those strange odors wafted up my nose. Was it the stench that had me in that state or the memory of my mother? I wasn't sure. Maybe it was both.
"Are you sure you don't want some tea? Won't take more than a couple of minutes."
Like any slob, I used the sleeve of my robe to wipe my face. "No, thanks, Mrs. Ipcress." I smiled. "Just remembering Mom."
"Oh yes, your poor mother." She put an arm around my shoulders. "The poor dear. Does she recognize your father yet?"
"No, she doesn't." I'd gotten to know Mrs. Ipcress pretty well in two years' time, and what she hadn't asked was more pointed. Why hadn't I gone to see my mother? It wasn't worth anyone's prodding to go see Mom, because she'd stare at me with unseeing eyes. Stuck in a nursing home at fifty-four with early onset Alzheimer's, I dreaded those visits. Just talking about it increased my heartbeat and made me squirm. Discussing current events and people with Mom produced nothing but stares and unnerving silence.
My wonderful teacher was dead. My mother might as well be that too. I sighed, tears pricking at the corners of my eyes.
I stirred and sucked it up, deciding the best thing was to steer the conversation away from Mom. "What were we talking about?"
Mrs. Ipcress patted my shoulder, withdrawing her arm.
"About those men entering and not coming out," I said, "you ever think maybe they left at night, when the Nice Young Man was asleep?"
"Huh? Oh, he thought of that."
I raised an eyebrow.
"He has cameras set up outside his apartment, those itty-bitty ones? Security cameras, I guess. He said there's only two ways to exit, through the front door and through the side door. The ones he's seen have come through the front door, naturally."
"Naturally." The case sounded as dull as my love life. "No back door?"
"No. The only other door is the side one, on River Road."
I yawned again, turning to my computer, holding my breath every thirty seconds or so. I tried to picture the apartment house she meant, but although there were only five apartment houses in town, I still wasn't sure.
"The one right down Bristol," she said. She mercifully glided to the window seat, which fronted three windows. The seat was nothing more than a dull chunk of wood, but it was great for storing electronics and other crap. Not a bad deal for an apartment the size of a paperback book.
Mrs. Ipcress faced me, leaning forward, pointing to her left. "You know, Tessa. It's the one that backs up to that bright pink one." She shuddered. "Who paints a house that color?"
I nodded, ignoring Mrs. Ipcress' last remark. "That's right. There's a breezeway between that house and the pink one on Bristol." I felt a grin spread across my face. I couldn't help it. The pink house was something only a little girl with a fantastic imagination would love. "The house on the corner, that originally was a hotel." Why would I blurt that out? Because I have diarrhea of the mouth; it's one of my better traits. "Why come to me?"
"Bertrand Gaston--he's the soldier--says he gets strange vibes from the landlord and from the house. Yes, that's how he put it."
"Strange vibes." I shrugged. "It doesn't necessarily mean anything."
"I know that." Mrs. Ipcress wrung her hands, then bit her top lip. "It was the way he said it. He said the vibes came at him like waves, like waves down the Shore. You've been to the Jersey--"
"Of course." A veritable rite of passage in New Jersey. Duh. Zauber stood close to the Pennsylvania border; people in town had more in common with the Keystone State than the Garden State. "Waves? How did it make him feel?"
"He didn't go into details." She stood and came to me, staking a claim to one of the few empty spots in the apartment. "Couldn't you just take the case?"
"What case? This is a case? Why did you tell him it was a case? Did he tell you he wanted this looked into?" Whoa. I really needed to chill.
Mrs. Ipcress's cheeks flushed. "Not in so many words. But you do this stuff--" She flailed her arms. "And he needs your help. And he's single."
I blew out my cheeks, then sputtered. Since I'd moved in, Mrs. Ipcress and the other biddies in town pushed me into dates. Or at least tried to. What was wrong with a woman being single? Besides, I hadn't hit thirty yet. Plenty of time to find someone.
Not according to them, though.
I collected myself before I said anything further, my voice sounding firm to my ears. "If I do this, if I go and talk to this Mr. Gaston--"
"Whatever. What do I get out of it?" I suppose it sounds tacky to expect payment from a veteran, a veteran I sensed didn't have a lot of dough handy. But since I didn't have a lot of dough handy, I wanted to hear what Mrs. Ipcress came up with. Or what Jane and she came up with last night, after they serenaded me with crashes, booms, and shrill voices.
"I've come up with a compromise, something that even my yammering daughter can't disagree with."
I doubted that.
I raised an eyebrow, tilted my head.
"Two weeks for you to solve this, or you're out on your keister. I wanted to give you another month, but Jane wouldn't hear of it."
"She'll give you some bullshit story about her decision being final, but I was the one who put up most of the money for this place." She held up a hand before I could ask another question. "If you solve it to my and Jane's satisfaction--"
I snorted. Zero chance of that happening with Jane.
"--your past due rent disappears." It looked as if Mrs. Ipcress was about to say something else, but she clamped her mouth shut.
Maybe she was waiting for me to do cartwheels, maybe she was waiting for a question. Instead, I stuck out my right hand, which she grabbed with both of hers, both cold to the touch; shivers went up and down my spine. "I accept," was all I said as I pumped her skinny little hand. I broke it off when she winced.