The Psychic In the WalMart Parking Lot, by Walter Giersbach
Ollie spotted his target as the sun was going down behind the Chiricahua Mountains. She looked domestic, bustling around her Dodge Caravan three spaces away from his camper. He’d seen her in Phoenix when he caught up by doing 80 on the Interstate. Never thought he’d lose her, not with the bug leading him on like a drone rocket. They’d asked for visual surveillance. Visual, when the whole country was on camera or being tracked every hour of the day anyway.
He guessed she’d stay near the Interstates, at the WalMarts near the off-ramps into the cities and towns. Even if you’re doing 500 miles a day, you need food, gas, clothing. Usually a liquor store. Stands to reason you’ll again run into someone on the road, he thought.
“Saw you a while back,” he shouted over. “Up north.”
“Might’ve been me.” She stood and arched backwards like she had a crick in her backbone. Behind her, a little girl, maybe six or seven came around the vehicle. Damn, he thought, no one mentioned a kid.
“Yours?” He nodded at the kid. “Didn’t see her before.”
The decorous lady with the long brunette hair nodded without breaking a smile. Her nose was slim, like the prow of a ship meant for speed; her cheekbones were high and sharp. Classy. He assumed she’d be wary of strangers when parking overnight in a strange town. “My name’s Ollie Wright.”
“Ol right?” she giggled. “I guess you’re alright. So far.”
There, the ice was broken and he was home free. “Like to share my dinner? I made shrimp etoufée with red beans and rice, beignets, stir-fried kale with chorizos….”
She lifted her head the way a dog does when he hears a cookie snap. “See,” he continued, “I was a chef in New Orleans before I was sent on the road. A French restaurant.” He knew her mouth was watering the way his golden retriever used to. “Pecan pie for dessert.”
* * *
Over dinner and two glasses of wine at the Formica table in his camper, she opened up. Her name was Charlotte Molloy and her daughter Antoinette was seven — “Small for her age,” Charlotte said with notes of sympathy. Then, “Etoufée. I haven’t heard a French word in the longest time. And a Bordeaux wine.”
“Pas de problem, Charlotte. Est-ce que vous parlez…?”
“Seulement une peu. Antoinette’s father was from Quebec, but he left us when I was sentenced.” The table started jiggling, making tiny waves in the wine glasses.
He and Charlotte looked at each other, thinking earth tremor, never noticing Antoinette’s eyes had rolled back in her head. He unlocked the silence by saying, “Sometimes alone’s better than having company that gets too close to your inner spirit. But sometimes the other way around is better. Like now, I kind of enjoy talking with you.” Slow and easy, he said, warning himself. Besides, they said this one was a psychic.
“We come from up near Chicago. It’s been 18 months. We’ve crossed the country twice, never once going back to Illinois.”
There was only one more question to ask, but he’d let her volunteer that info.
“Being a chef must’ve been nice,” she said. “Making people happy eating your food.”
“Not everybody. A customer got ptomaine poison from eating my shellfish. The Gulf had gone bad around Shreveport. Fellow unloaded some bad crayfish on me. The diner was a lawyer for the parish.” Ollie shrugged. “Stuff happens. I got three years on the road.” He waited. It was her turn now.
“I tell fortunes,” Charlotte said. “Cure lovers’ dilemmas, find lost items, eliminate curses, you know.”
“Really? Honestly and truly?” His eyebrows went up.
Charlotte frowned. “A judge in DuPage County didn’t think so. One of his relatives claimed I stole 10 thousand dollars and he never got the job or good fortune he said I promised.”
“Well,” Ollie said, “doesn’t getting that thing — a fortune, a job — take time?”
She snorted. “Sure, two years on the road. Judge said it’s cheaper to hand a low-risk convict a gas card and food stamps and order her to hit the road. Sleep in WalMart parking lots. Costs the state less than putting me in jail.”
Ollie nodded. “I’m in the same boat. Trouble is, you’re not allowed to leave your car more’n a few hours. I got until next month when I can go home and park the camper. Go back to cooking.”
* * *
He knew Charlotte was smooth. She’d taken over a hundred thousand by defrauding three plaintiffs, promising to get them out of their pickle, how to find lost love, or recover some keepsake. “Tie two knots in this red string exactly at the liminal hour between darkness and dawn,” she told one dummy. “At sunrise, pull the ends of the string. If your heart is pure, the knots will disappear.”
Charlotte said, “The judge and jury laughed. They said I used trick knots. But my client believed. He voluntarily came up with earnest money for my help finding the Chevy Corvette belonging to his dead wife.”
“A sentimental search,” Ollie offered.
“Yes. My lawyer insisted I was the real McCoy. See, my extrasensory ability involves second sight. I proved it by telling the judge how much currency he had in his pocket. Also, that he’d better keep an eye on his wife when she goes to see her handsome dentist. That really irked the judge.”
Ollie thought parlor magic, slippery nightclub tricks, out-and-out fraud. Charlotte could be forgiven any of that, but not the thing she was telling him now. The reason why he was on her tail.
She rattled on, “I informed another client that his employer was manufacturing anthrax for the U.S. Government. Can you believe that? Poison gas. At the same time, the company was smuggling it to the Middle East.” She shuddered.
Ollie had heard about the whistle-blower when he was given this job. “The government’s highly pissed, Ollie,” Roznofsky, his Agent in Charge said. “If she can do that woo-woo shit and spill secrets, then she’s a terrorist and a traitor.” Ollie remembered Rozzy from a CIA assignment after fighting died down in Ramallah. He’d lined up a family of Iraqis in their house and killed them all with his M-16. On another assignment, he’d heard Rozzy had pushed a suspect out the helicopter door at 500 feet. Rozzy was a case study of emotional problems, and now here he was handling Ollie’s case of trailing the target lady.
Rozzy thrived at the Agency. Ollie had finally left because of creeps like Rozzy. It was easier being a private investigator, licensed in the state of Louisiana. He knew Rozzy had chosen him to distance the Agency from the situation. Ollie was their human drone to get close to Charlotte.
He and Charlotte got very close after dinner when they all left the WalMart lot for the library. Antoinette became enthralled with a storyteller who was entertaining a group of children and moms, so Ollie guided Charlotte back to the camper. She’d been the one to instigate the situation, grabbing him in a bear hug and planting a kiss on his lips. Rather than deny his urges, he let her lay him down and give him the quickest short time in his life. “Forgive me, Ollie,” she said afterwards. “I’m just so alone. In fact, I’d want to be with you even if there was no sex.”
In 15 minutes, they were back in the children’s room of the library listening to Harry Potter.
* * *
Rozzy called him at 6:00 a.m. from a number he didn’t recognize. Probably a throw-away phone, he thought. “What!” It wasn’t a question.
“Get the target down to Tucson. Tell her you’re going sightseeing on Mt. Lemmon. Little healthy hike.”
“Jesus, Rozzy, what the hell…?”
“No names, dammit! Get her up to the Wilderness of Rocks, just below the summit. Take the Meadow Trail. Very scenic. Almost no people.”
He laughed. “You come back, get in your camper and go home.”
“I’m not whacking the woman,” Ollie said with finality.
“Of course not. Do what I say, come back, drive home, collect your paycheck.” The phone went dead.
Ollie nursed a cup of French Market coffee with chicory. Call it a sixth sense, but something was going down. He almost laughed at that. Sixth sense dealing with a psychic, and then he thought of what Charlotte told him about the anthrax manufacturer. Client blows the whistle and — what? Client probably ends up dead. Who else knew? Charlotte the witch.
Half an hour later, he roused her and the kid. Antoinette was excited. “Are there lemon trees? Or Indians?”
“Afraid not, little darlin’. Just some of the prettiest sightseeing in Arizona.” Charlotte gave him a funny look. Ollie couldn’t tell if it was skepticism or a desire to jump back into the camper bed.
In fact, much as Ollie would rather have been anywhere else, the walk was invigorating, Antoinette was a good hiker and Charlotte was amiable company.
“Tell me about this guy — you called him a client — and the company making anthrax,” he said as Antoinette trotted ahead. They had left the meadow and were walking through a stand of fir trees. Ollie’s eyes swiveled right and left, expecting something, anything out of the ordinary.
To the right of the trail was a fenced-in military facility. A rusty sign warned, “The Use of Deadly Force Is Authorized to Prevent Trespassing.” The gate looked unused, an omen making Ollie wonder why he’d been ordered up this particular trail.
“I don’t usually call them clients,” she said. Ollie could hear Charlotte huffing and taking deep breaths. “This fellow was different. He was a first-time visitor who said he was an employee. He was worried about something. I asked him to open his mind, then breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth till he was utterly calm.”
“He wanted to know if this — he called it a vague suspicion — was justified. In a minute, the word ‘anthrax’ popped into my mind, and then the whole thing unrolled like a carpet. His company was a defense contractor making poison germs. I think that stuff is against the law, isn’t it? And they were selling some of it on the side, to the Iranians.”
“It’s a violation of international law.”
“Anyway, that’s the last I saw of him. But, you know, I never saw anything in the papers. He said he was going to call a reporter or tell his Congressman.”
“You learn his name?”
“Names aren’t important to me.”
Antoinette turned around and looked down the trail at them. “His name sounded like blowing your nose. Snoffsky.”
Charlotte stopped. “How do you know that, honey?”
The girl cocked her head. “Maybe I heard him. Or something.”
“Charlotte,” Ollie said, putting his hand on her arm, “we have a problem. Listen closely, your client may be a guy who….”
He stopped, seeing Roznofsky step out from behind a fir twenty yards away. The big man began lumbering forward. “Get out of the way, brother. Start walking.” His voice was a low growl.
Ollie thought fast. Charlotte had been set up. She passed the test, psyching out the defense contractor’s real work. That told him she was the real thing, which meant she was dangerously close to blurting out national secrets.
“No, Rozzy. It’s over.”
“We may be brothers, Wright, but I can make it two KIAs or three. Your call.”
“No one,” Ollie said, pulling a Glock semi-automatic from his waistband. The Gen 4 pistol was slim and unnoticed under his sweat shirt. “This is the end of the killing, Rozzy.”
“You know this man?” Charlotte gasped. Antoinette stood frozen in place.
Things happened with lightning speed as Roznofsky spun a few degrees away from Charlotte and pulled the trigger. The shot hit Ollie in the muscle between his neck and shoulder. He knew the next one would be to the heart. Charlotte screamed. At that instant, Roznofsky’s arm was hoisted straight up in the air as though he’d been snared by an angel. A second later, the assassin’s head snapped back at a ninety-degree angle and he dropped to the ground.
“What the hell just happened?” Ollie muttered.
“Oh, my God, he shot you! Ollie, where’re you hit?” She was on him immediately, arms cradling his head. “Antoinette, get the towel in my knapsack!”
Her arms were soft and comforting. In spite of the pain, Ollie felt good just lying in the trail.
“He tried to hurt us, Mama. He’s that guy with the funny name.”
“Antoinette,” Ollie said, trying to turn and look at the girl. “Did you do that to the bad man? Raise his arm with the gun and break his neck?”
“Uh-huh. I’m sorry.”
“You did well, little darlin’. You did very, very good. Charlotte, I think, somebody else in your family has a special talent. When I catch my breath, I’m going to ask for your help standing up. Then I’m going to ask you to tell my fortune. About how our future looks together.”
Walt bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, spec fic to romance. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, from homes in eight states and a couple of Asian countries. He now lives in New Jersey, a nice place to visit, but he doesn’t want to die there.
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