by Herschel Cozine
Enjoy this mystery short story by Herschel Cozine, previously published in Orchard Press. You can find more of his stories, and others in out Terrific Tales section.
Maude Barker loved fortunetellers. She was intrigued by the aura of mystery that surrounded them; the mystical and enchanting rituals that these prophets employed in their trade. Tea leaves, tarot cards, palms and signs of the zodiac all had their charm and enchantment. But she preferred the crystal ball to all of the rest. The exotic beauty of it, as it rested like a sparkling gem on its black velvet pedestal, thrilled her as nothing else could do. And she believed in it wholeheartedly.
It was late summer in 1979. Maude, as she had done religiously in the past, journeyed into town in her old but reliable Plymouth coupe to visit Madame Iselda, the queen of the gypsies who would divulge your future for five dollars. She sat across the table from the old lady, enraptured as the fortune teller waved her bony hands over the glistening ball and mumbled incoherently. The gypsy gazed trance-like into the sphere, as if trying to physically extract the deep secrets that lay hidden inside. Suddenly she uttered an exclamation; Maude could contain herself no longer. “What do you see?” she asked eagerly.
The fortune teller looked up in annoyance, a dark frown clouding her wizened face. “Madam, I must insist on silence. Visions require complete and undisturbed concentration.”
Maude sat back in her chair, her frail body trembling excitedly. The old lady made a few more passes over the ball. “I am beginning to get a message,” she whispered hoarsely. Her eyes glowed with an eerie light, giving her face a supernatural countenance.
“I see a brown house, with white shutters…hidden by lilacs and honeysuckle…”
“That’s my house,” Maude chirped. She was silenced by the old lady’s black scowl.
“A man…a young man…is approaching the house. He appears to be lost…he seems to be looking for something or someone…”
Maude sighed and edged forward, trying to catch a glimpse of the image in the crystal ball. The old lady, intent on her work, continued her monologue. “The man goes up to the door…knocks. The door opens…he bows and smiles…he goes inside.” The old lady fell silent, looking fiercely into the crystal ball. Then she slowly raised her eyes to meet Maude’s eager face.
“The picture is beginning to fade.”
Maude was lost in her own thoughts. “A man! How nice. Felicia will be so happy. He’s not for me, mind you, and it’s been such a long time. We live so far from town that one seldom sees a body to talk to. Yes, Felicia will be pleased.”
Maude pulled a bill from her purse and pressed it into the old lady’s outstretched hand. “That will be all for this time, thank you,” she said.
Maude piloted her ancient car through the traffic in a happy daze, narrowly missing a pedestrian and running three stop signs along the way. She bounced up the dusty road and came to a halt in front of her small cottage. “Such wonderful news, dear,” she called as she let herself in. “we’re going to have a visitor.”
The week was unusually long. Each day Maude grew more anxious, tending to her duties with an air of impatience, eager to be through with them. She kept her eye expectantly on the winding road that approached her house, as if by the force of her will she could make the awaited visitor appear.
Sunday morning was cold and rainy. Maude’s disposition that day was as foul as the weather. Her patience had been tried to the limit and she got busy with mundane chores to help calm her. She fretted over lunch and burned her tongue on the soup. Felicia was nervous as well. Maude watched with a trace of anxiety as she paced the floor.
“Don’t worry, dear,” Maude said, almost to herself, “I’m certain he’ll be here today.” And she was right.
Towards dusk the figure of a man appeared on the horizon. He was young, dressed in hunting clothes, with his rifle slung carelessly over his shoulder. Maude watched from the living room window as the man hesitantly headed for the house, picking his way through the underbrush. Her heart skipped a beat as she heard his heavy step on the porch. A moment later his knock shattered the stillness. Maude waited a full minute before answering the knock. She opened the door to encounter the young man’s apologetic smile.
“Good evening, Ma’am,” he said softly. “I seem to have lost my way. Could you direct me to the main road?”
Maude returned his smile. “You poor soul,” she clucked. “You must be frozen half to death. Do come in and warm yourself a bit.”
The man accepted her invitation gratefully. He removed his jacket and boots and moved toward the crackling fire. “This is the warmest I’ve been since I left home,” he laughed. “I’m really quite embarrassed by all this.”
“No need to be, young man. These hills are quite impossible unless you’re thoroughly familiar with them. I fancy you’re not the first to lose your way.” Maude looked him over carefully. Quite tall and broad shouldered, with close-cropped blonde hair. Young…not over twenty-five, she guessed. Yes, Felicia would be very pleased.
“Let me get you some nice hot tea,” Maude said.
“Please don’t trouble yourself,” the man said quickly. “I’ll only stay a minute, and be out of your way.”
“But I insist,” Maude said lighting the fire under the teapot. “A body seldom sees a living soul out here in these parts. You wouldn’t deny a little old lady a few minutes of conversation, now, would you?”
“Thank you, Ma’am. You’re very kind.” The young man bowed slightly and smiled.
“Such a nice young man,” Maude thought to herself as she poured the tea. “Now sir,” she said, “you drink this while I fetch some cookies.”
The man took the steaming cup. As he drank, Maude tiptoed from the room. She made her way quickly to the pantry. Moving past the preserves and the canned goods, she lifted a box from the shelf in the far corner. She opened it and lifted out a small pearl handled revolver. She hummed softly to herself as she started back to the living room.
Sheriff Bridges was very courteous as he addressed Maude. “Sorry to bother you, Miss Barker,” he said. “But we are looking for a lost hunter. He left home early Sunday morning and hasn’t returned, a young man, blonde, crew cut. Have you seen anyone answerin’ that description around these parts?”
Maude poured a cup of tea and gave it to the sheriff, who nodded his thanks.
“Oh, my, no,” she said. “I haven’t seen a living soul since my last trip to town over a week ago. I do hope he’s all right.”
The sheriff puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “These fool hunters drive me crazy. They come traipsin’ up here in these hills thinkin’ they know their way around. Always getting’ themselves lost or stranded or in one kind of trouble or another. The worst of it is their kinfolk come to me expectin’ miracles.” He paused and put another match to his pipe.
“This is the third one to disappear this year.”
Maude nodded sympathetically. “Such a pity! Why a body would risk his life for a little sport, I’ll never know.”
“No figurin’ them, I guess,” said Sheriff Bridges, as he rose to leave. “Well, Miss Barker, I won’t take any more of your time.” He pulled on his hat and opened the door. “Thanks for the tea, Ma’am,” he said. “By the way, how’s your little mountain lion cub?”
Maude smiled. “Oh, Felicia’s full grown now, Sheriff. She’s over a year old, you know.”
“Is that a fact?” Sheriff Bridges grinned. “Yessir, that’s a mighty strange pet for someone like you, Ma’am. I’d be scared half to death of her myself.”
“No need to be,” Maude replied. “Felicia is as gentle as a kitten. And she loves people.”
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