That was Theodora Yates for you: always jumping to conclusions, bless her heart, and that conclusion most often of all. But there was no talking her out of it once she’d made up her mind, so I said, without bothering to ask any questions, “Then we must go to the Seer at once!”
My granddaughter, Katie, she didn’t think much of us going to the Seer. She grew up in this new world: it was no more magical or difficult for her than breathing air. Once, she asked me, “Granny, how much did you just pay that woman for something they’d give you for free at the library? Or you could do it yourself. I’ll teach you how to Google if you want.” She waved a tiny glowing screen in front of my face.
“You can’t Boolean with Google,” I said, deeply offended.
“Granny!” She stretched out the word so that I would understand her exasperation. “You don’t even know what that means!”
“No, I don’t. But it’s what the Seer says, and I trust her.”
Katie wasn’t exactly wrong about the library. Theodora and I used to go round there every time she got it in her head that someone had been murdered, but there were a great many things that the librarians believed were none of our business. And what about the police, you might wonder? Well, they were worse than the librarians. They always just called Katie to come get us and take us home. We never had problems like that with the Seer.
It was a hike to get there. The Seer worked out of a strip mall just off the highway on the edge of town, and I didn’t drive anymore because of my cataracts. We looked into getting one of those new-fangled automated cars, but it turned out you still needed a license to operate one of them, though I couldn’t guess why. The doctor took my license away years ago. Theodora’s doctor told her she shouldn’t drive; the exact reason escaped her. She still had her license though. Her doctor was nicer than mine and took pity when she said she needed it for emergencies, since she didn’t have any family.
Going to the Seer about a murder never qualified as an emergency, so we took the bus halfway and then we walked, even though there was no sidewalk. A couple of cars honked at us, but I shook my cane at them and they kept on going.
Theodora told me about the murder on the way. It seemed a car had been left parked in her driveway overnight.
“The same one as last week?” I interrupted. Theodora lived near campus. Students were always leaving their cars anywhere they could fit them and you know the sort of hours students keep. About noon or one o’clock, they would stagger back and drive off, unless the car had been towed. You wouldn’t believe how persecuted they proclaimed themselves to be if the owner of the driveway had the effrontery to tow their car!
But Theodora never called the tow truck. She always assumed that the owner of the car had been murdered.
“Last week? Was there one last week? No, I don’t think it’s the same.”
“Don’t you think it’s just another student?”
“No, I do not,” said Theodora with a particularly forceful thrust of her cane. I had offended her and she wouldn’t say another word to me till we got to the Seer’s.
Strip malls are always dreary, but Sunset Hills Shopping Plaza took the cake. The empty husk of a now defunct supermarket dominated the row. “Closed for Renovation,” the sign said. I knew that’s what it said because I read it back when it was new. All you could tell now is that one of the letters printed on it might have been an ‘R’.
Next to it was Video World; vacant, of course. Then a vending machine selling camera film. We’d seen the truck come by to restock it. Sunset Hills was the kind of place that drew lost things like that. Lost people too. There was always a huddle of them in the mornings and the evenings near the old supermarket, waiting eagerly to press around the occasional pickup truck that stopped there to take aboard a lucky few. Migrants, I assumed. People who’d left their homes behind but never quite found one here.
At the end of the row there was a Chinese restaurant that was still in business, although I’d never seen anyone go in it. And across from that was the Seer.
We didn’t know her name. She said she didn’t tell anybody. Knowing a person’s true name gave you power over that person. No one had power over the Seer.
She had a wooden sign that swung back and forth eerily and creaked a bit — when the wind was right. It was purple with a moon and some stars rising above a crystal ball with an open palm beneath it. And, decorated with gold-trimmed purple cloth: a computer monitor. She had all that in neon on her window too, and the words: Psychic, Palm Reading, Digital Second Sight, Computer Repair. The Seer did a bit of everything.
We went in the plate glass door and through a beaded curtain into a room where the air was thick with incense and the walls were all lined with dark curtains. Mystical symbols were painted on the ceiling and there was a black-light to make them glow. We headed for the back room, which was an ordinary office with a desk and a computer, an antique flat-screen with an ancient keyboard dating back from the time when people thought all computer equipment had to be grey. There was a couch for clients and a straight-backed chair that the Seer put in just for Theodora because she couldn’t sit on a couch with her back the way it was. The Seer knew we didn’t need any of that nonsense in the front room. When we came, it was for real magic.
She stood up as we came in. “I foresaw your coming and made tea,” she said solemnly and went to pour it for us. She had a security camera set up in the parking lot, so she did a lot of very localized foreseeing. I think she knew Theodora and I knew, but we never said anything about it. We didn’t want to take away her fun. And we liked having the tea ready. “I take it there has been another murder?”
“Yes,” I said. “Terrible affair. Theodora, tell her about it.”
“Well,” said Theodora, with a bit of a quaver in her voice. “I don’t know that there’s so much to tell. There was a car left in my driveway last night. It’s still there.”
“She says it isn’t the same one as last week,” I added.
Theodora gave me a glare. “Don’t be spiteful, Nancy. It’s different this time. When I found it, the door was open. And someone had knocked out the window. It’s a stolen car, I’m sure of it. And someone just left it in my driveway.”
“It just sounds to me like someone broke in while it was in your driveway,” I said. “Nothing you’ve said makes it sound stolen.”
Theodora crossed her arms and said nothing, turning a long-suffering gaze in appeal to our host.
The Seer ran a hand over the small crystal ball she kept on her desk. “If someone had broken the window in the driveway, there would have been glass all over the seat. And there was no glass, was there?” Theodora smirked. “Do you have the license plate for me?”
“And the VIN. I know you like to have the true names of things.” She passed a slip of paper to the Seer.
“Very good.” The Seer laid her hands down reverently upon the keyboard, whereupon it began to glow softly, while at the same time the lights in the room dimmed and just a touch of fog began to drift across the desk.
“Nice,” I commented. The Seer just smiled and started typing.
“It is a stolen car,” she said after a moment. “Belongs to a Mr. James P. Garst. Not from around here. He reported it missing yesterday.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Theodora muttered.
The Seer held out her hand and looked at Theodora. Theodora gave her the driver’s license she had found on the front seat. “It’s what made me think there must be something really wrong. You wouldn’t just leave your license like that unless there were something wrong.”
“‘Hailey Grace Garst,’” the Seer read off the card. “Well, let’s see what we can find out about Hailey Grace.” Again she stretched out her hands and the keyboard lit. A few keystrokes later, she frowned. “She’s been cursed.”
“Cursed?” Theodora and I chorused. We’d heard of curses—who hadn’t?—but usually they fell upon especially sanctimonious politicians or corporations that had angered the more anarchist factions of the web. This was the first we’d seen one used against an ordinary private citizen.
“Yes,” said the Seer, turning the screen so that we could see. “You’re looking at the Shallows right now. What anybody would see if they ran a search on Hailey Grace Garst. The first result:” she clicked and we saw it. Medical records. “If this is to be believed, Hailey Grace was committed to Spring Creek Psychiatric Hospital when she was fifteen for severe depression and suicidal ideation.” She scrolled. “Released when she was sixteen. The doctors gave her a good report. Prescribed antidepressants. Pronounced her cured.”
The Seer hit the back button. “And this is the second result.” She clicked.
“Dearie me,” said Theodora.
The photographs had been labeled helpfully in big, bold, red print with an arrow and the caption: “NOT HER HUSBAND!!!”
“That could explain the curse,” I said.
The Seer clicked back again and showed us the rest of the results. Page after page of forum posts titled things like: “DO NOT HIRE THIS WOMAN!!!” and “DO NOT TRUST MENTAL PATIENT WITH UR KIDS”.
“Well, maybe they shouldn’t,” I said. Theodora gave me a look.
“That is what a reasonable person might conclude if her access were limited to the Shallows,” said the Seer. I believe it was meant as a gentle reproof to the both of us, but Theodora puffed up with vindication.
“But we’re not confined to the Shallows!” added the Seer with enthusiasm. She waved her hands a bit theatrically and the air seemed almost to shimmer for a moment, as though the universe had just blinked. I’m not sure how she did it. “Behold!”
On the screen in the corner, there was a clock, and as she spoke, it began to tick backwards. “If we had looked yesterday, this is what we would have seen.” The page was the same. The clock spun faster. “A week ago. A month ago. Six.” And then, in a stage whisper, “Before the curse.”
The clock stopped. The Seer clicked. We watched a video of a bride and groom waltzing under a banner that read, “Welcome to the wedding scrapbook of Hailey Grace Lowell Garst and James Prichard Garst. Congratulations Hailey and Jim!” The video was dated five years ago.
“She stole the car from her husband, then?” I asked.
Theodora was shaking her head. “She was carjacked in her husband’s car and then murdered!”
The Seer smiled her patient smile and said nothing.
The next result was the divorce case. It had been ugly. But there was no mention of infidelity. The Seer checked the dates on the incriminating photographs. “Taken after the divorce,” she said. “The man in the pictures may not have been her husband, but at the time, no man was.”
“What about the medical records?” I asked. “Were they real?”
The Seer nodded. She was still looking at the court page. “It seems that after the divorce, Hailey Grace sued James Garst for defamation and for publishing private health records. But they couldn’t prove anything because whoever laid the curse did it from a public computer. And it turns out that Spring Creek Psychiatric Hospital accidentally published all of its patients’ records online three years ago. They’ve since apologized and taken them down, but who knows who could have copied them while they were up.”
“Did she sue the hospital too?”
“There’s a class-action going on. I would guess that in ten years or so she might get ten bucks off that. In the meantime…”
She showed us a page from the Springfield Herald Tribune. The headline read, ‘Parents Raise Outcry Over Kindergarten Teacher’s Mental Health’.
“She resigned a week later.”
“Because of the curse,” I said.
“Because of the curse.”
“What about the baby?” Theodora asked, out of the blue, like she always did.
The Seer and I demanded together, “What baby?”
Theodora apologetically drew a few photographs out of her purse. Polaroids as usual. She had a huge stockpile of film cartridges in her basement and I suppose if she ever ran out, there was that vending machine. She gave each one a good shake before laying it down on the desk for us to see, though the image was already as clear as it would ever be.
First: the car in the driveway, the rear passenger-side door hanging open and the driver’s window empty of glass.
Next: the license lying abandoned on the seat. The keys were still in the ignition.
And last, Theodora held it back a moment and when she finally laid it on the desk, her hand hesitated before pulling back to let us see: a baby seat strapped in the back on the passenger’s side, next to the open door.
The Seer and I stared at it a moment and then she turned back to the screen. The keys clattered, the mouse wheel clicked. “She lost custody,” the Seer said in a flat voice. “She’d lost her job and was struggling to pay rent on her apartment. Every new job she applied to, they ran a search on her and the curse took them in its thrall. She never even got an interview. And she couldn’t move to a cheaper apartment because landlords wouldn’t rent to her unless she had a job. She presented all this in court and the judge was sympathetic, but she said it wasn’t a healthy environment for a child.”
She turned the screen towards us again. On it was a picture of Hailey Grace holding her infant son. She wore a long green dress, cut a bit like a robe. Long dark hair in braids fell down her back. She was gaunt and beautiful in a Pre-Raphaelite way; it made her seem frail. But the way she looked at her son, the joy and the pride, the possessive way she held him, it devoted me to her cause that instant.
“So it was a kidnapping,” Theodora said slowly, “not a murder at all. What are we going to do?”
“Notify the police,” said the Seer, at exactly the same time that I said, “We can’t tell the police.” We frowned at each other. Usually if anyone wanted to go to the police, it was me. Usually Theodora’s murders turned out to be nothing and no one said anything at all about going to the police.
“What do you think?” I asked Theodora. She’d be on my side, of course. Nobody on earth had a softer heart than Theodora.
But I was wrong. “I suppose it is a crime,” she said slowly.
“You would take a child away from his own mother?” I demanded. “I know you never had any children yourself, but I thought you’d at least understand —”
“I understand being alone,” she said. And she did. She’d never married. She used to teach English at the university and she’d told me then that she didn’t need children; she had students. But students weren’t the same. She realized that after she retired. “I don’t want to take a child away from his mother. Nor do I want to take him away from his father, his grandparents, his aunts and uncles, his whole life. That’s what we’re really talking about here, Nancy.”
I said nothing. There was nothing to argue with in what she’d said.
“We don’t know that James Garst isn’t a wonderful father,” she continued.
“But he cursed her!” I said.
“We don’t know that. If we did — Can you find out?” she asked the Seer. “Was James Garst really the one who laid the curse?”
“Maybe.” The Seer pursed her lips and turned back to the computer. There were no special effects this time. She typed and scrolled and glowered at the monitor and typed some more, the rhythm of tapped keys as steady and soothing as rain. Theodora and I waited and sipped our tea. Then she let out a quiet “a-ha.”
“It was him,” she said. “He signed on to his email while he was doing it. One of the forums he posted on followed his cookie crumbs back to his email and sold the information to advertisers. And to me.”
“Then we can’t go to the police,” said Theodora. “It’s black magic, cursing people. James Garst took that woman’s whole future from her. He poisoned her very identity. You wouldn’t give a child back to someone like that.”
“No,” said the Seer, “I wouldn’t. But I am not a judge and don’t want to be one.”
“You are though,” I said. “There’s no middle ground in this. Can’t cut the baby in half. Call the police, Hailey Grace goes to jail, and you’ve chosen the father’s side. Don’t call, and you’ve chosen the mother’s.”
The Seer looked unhappy.
“Lift the curse,” said Theodora. “You can, can’t you? No, better than that, can you make her invisible? Maybe post an obituary?”
“I’m not sure that’s not black magic.” The Seer looked again at the screen. It was back to the picture of mother and child. “I could make it as though she never existed. Delete every reference to her everywhere; all the court documents, credit reports, student loans, everything. Every record of that car ever existing too.”
“A fresh start,” I said.
“No start at all. Maybe when you were both young, it was possible to move to a new place with a new name and reinvent yourself, no documentation required. Not anymore. She couldn’t get by just being no one. She’d need to find a person like me to make her into someone, and people like me charge a lot of money for a thing as precious as a new name and new life to go with it. We don’t do it for charity and we don’t always have a person’s best interest at heart.”
“You would do it for charity,” I persisted.
The Seer laughed. “I would do it for my usual fee. But the thing is, I can’t. Erasing her is powerful magic. Dangerous. Criminal, of course, though that’s no concern of mine. Still, it’s simple and I could do it in a day. But building her back up is something else: alchemy. It takes time and affinity. I cannot do it from a distance. I cannot do it without her consent and cooperation.”
Theodora and I didn’t see the problem. “So we find her and bring her to you,” I said. “It shouldn’t be hard. This isn’t a big place and she doesn’t have a car. She must be nearby.” We dismissed the objection that she could have gotten on a bus. They checked IDs on buses nowadays. The Seer was right. Having no identity was worse than having a cursed one.
She rested her chin upon her fist and sat for a while in thought. “You really think you can find her?”
“Yes,” I said, and then, sensing that she was wavering and pressing my advantage, I went too far. “You said it yourself. We pay your fee, and this is what we’re asking you to do.”
There was a long silence. I held my breath. Finally she said, “The customer is always right, or so I’ve been told. I’ll do it. It’ll take me all night. In the meantime, you’d better get rid of that car.”
We drove it into the lake. Well, Theodora drove it, since she had her license. I told her that it was silly to care about licenses when you were driving a stolen car into the lake, but she held firm. And the next day we went back to the Seer’s and she showed us: Hailey Grace Lowell Garst had been erased. Searching for her in the Shallows brought up nothing at all. The divorce case was gone. When we put in the case number, an entirely different case came up.
“Won’t they have backups?” I asked.
“I have my ways of getting to them as well,” said the Seer.
“And when James Garst goes to the police station to report his son missing?”
She smiled. “They won’t be able to help him. They’ll find no record in any database that he ever had a son. When he gives them social security numbers for the boy and Hailey Grace, they’ll come up invalid. The only records are on paper, and no one cares about paper anymore. It isn’t real if it isn’t digital.”
All the next week I kept expecting the police to show up on our doorsteps looking for Hailey Grace. Nothing happened. Nor, for all that we turned over every stone and branch, did we find any sign of our missing mother and child. Whenever I thought of them, I worried that we had not done them a kindness in the end.
We didn’t go back to the Seer’s for some time after that. We were embarrassed that we hadn’t lived up to our end of the bargain and for me, it was more than that. I was worried we’d make it to Sunset Hills and find the Seer’s shop just as empty as Video World. That was the way of places like hers, appearing suddenly out of nothing and gone again without warning or trace. I’d crossed a line with her by insisting, and I wasn’t sure she’d forgive it.
But days went by, then a month, and inevitably Theodora had new mysteries to investigate. I could only put her off for so long. So we made the long trek back to the strip mall and I’d never been so glad in my life to see purple velvet and lit neon.
As we were crossing the parking lot, I saw a waitress taking her break outside the Chinese restaurant. She was thin and had long dark hair. She looked familiar. I only caught a glimpse of her before she went back inside, but the Seer looked awfully jolly about something she’d seen on her security camera when we came in.
“How’d you find her?” I asked, expecting some grand feat of magic, something far beyond my abilities. But the answer was simpler than that.
“I looked out my window,” said the Seer, “and there she was, standing in the parking lot with all the others looking for work. I waited till she was one of the only ones left; she doesn’t have the right build for hard labor. Then I went out and asked if she’d ever done any waitressing. Xiaomi is a friend of mine and I knew she had an opening.”
She hesitated a moment, looking a little unsure of her ground. Up until that point, our relationship had always been strictly business. “Either of you care to get lunch after we’re done here? The Chinese place is actually pretty good and I’d like to introduce you to Hailey. It’s traditional for fairy godmothers to come in threes.”