"Wait until the third date to fool around? Is that another one of your superstitions? What if there is no third date?" I turned my car north off Ventura Boulevard toward Robin's house.
"You have to make a man desire you, Liz. The longer you make him wait, the more he wants you." Robin folded her arms. Point made.
"That's just a game. If a man didn't want me, why would he be dating me?" I said.
"Your stellar personality? Wait a minute." Robin leaned forward from the passenger seat, eyebrows up with anticipation. "Is there a guy? Did someone ask you out?"
"Hell no. Purely hypothetical. Where would I meet him? I spend my social time with you. Although I love you dearly and your homemade brownies are orgasmic, I wouldn't mind a little first-date fun with a real live man again."
"Let me know how that works out for you, Liz. Josh and I waited, and we . . ."
I looked over at her. A tear tumbled down her cheek. My heart sank. The first-date discussion was my attempt to lighten the emotional heaviness on our trip back from Forest Lawn Cemetery. Despite my psychological training, I had struggled for words to console Robin as we mourned the two-year anniversary of her husband Josh's death. Easy to remain detached when counseling a client—complicated when comforting my best friend in crisis.
I parked the car in front of her Sherman Oaks bungalow and handed her a clean tissue. A soft October breeze swept leaves across her front yard. We locked arms and strolled in silence up the path to her house.
Robin Bloom and I met in front of the sign-up sheet for fifth-grade pep squad at Encino Elementary. She was the perky blonde who couldn't do a cartwheel. I was the plain brunette with athletic skills. We teamed up to make the team. I taught Robin the art of sideways handsprings. She taught me how to dance, put on makeup, and use hot rollers. Twenty-seven years later, we remained best friends, a bond built on loyalty, shopping, trust, tears, brownies, and being there for each other despite the distance. Between us we'd survived two marriages—hers destroyed by tragedy, mine by my husband's infidelity. Robin raised a gorgeous daughter; I earned a PhD. No matter what, we wouldn't lie to each other and didn't judge—especially if the shoes didn't match the outfit.
We stopped short under her porch light, staring. A tarot card was tacked to her front door. On the card's black background, a beige skeletal rib cage encased a bloody heart pierced with three daggers. "AACEEHHRT" was stenciled beneath. I pulled the card down. Please let it be some stupid advertisement. No one could be that cruel.
"The Three of Swords," Robin said. "It's an omen, Liz."
I knew what the card meant before I deciphered the anagram—heartache. The Three of Swords was part of the tarot reading my mother did for Josh the night before he died.
"It's a prank." I flipped it over, hoping to read "You're invited to a Halloween party." The back was blank. I tore the card in half and shoved it into my coat pocket. "Let's go inside."
I followed Robin through the house to the kitchen and tossed the halves into the trash. Robin set a plate of brownies on the table. I poured two glasses of milk and sat down, my mind on the night Josh sat at the head of this table and laughed at my mother's predictions.
Mom had offered to read the cards for Josh's fortieth birthday. When the layout forecast anguish and loss, Josh was certain it meant the water shortage in Los Angeles would ruin his landscaping business. He even joked about the crow—the forewarning of death—that lingered on their front lawn when we left. The next day, Josh died in a head-on collision.
Robin fell into a deep depression, obsessed with omens and the occult. Soon after, my mother stopped carrying her tarot deck around for entertainment. My distrust of the occult, ripened by a lifetime of Mom's ridiculous predictions, turned into disgust.
I took a brownie from the plate Robin slid in front of me and broke off a piece. Baked goods were less fattening when divided into small portions. "When did you make these?"
"Last night. I couldn't sleep." Robin's eyes drifted to Josh's chair.
"We need to talk about the tarot card on the door. I'm not leaving you tonight until we do. What are you feeling?"
Robin usually teased me when I slipped into psychologist mode. But, occasionally, my emotional digging helped, and she knew it. She folded her arms and rocked. "So alone. Unprotected. Since Orchid left for college, I come home every night to this empty house and wonder if it will always be this way. That tarot card is a warning about the future, Liz. I feel something coming, and I'm scared."
"What if you decide that the message reflects what already happened? Today, at the cemetery, we mourned the heartache of Josh's death." I took her hand. "You're not alone. You have friends who love you and care about you. A random tarot card left by some clueless twit as a joke can't control your future."
"But why tonight? And, even if it was a prank, why that card on my door? I don't believe in coincidence. I know it's a sign." Robin looked to the clock above the stove. "Damn. I forgot to call Sam. Will you excuse me for a sec?"
She dialed the phone on the kitchen wall. "Sam? Me. I'm sorry I'm late. Is she still there?" Pause. "The swallows are coming back from Capistrano."
I stopped chewing and listened while Robin talked to her boss, Sam Collins. "What was that about?" I said when she hung up.
"The swallows?" Robin chuckled. "Nonsense I recite when Sam needs an excuse to get someone out of his house. He translates the call into whatever story suits him at the time. He just told me to meet him at the office tomorrow to work on the merger contract with him, alone. I hate keeping this secret from the staff."
"Who else knows he's selling half of the agency?"
"Just the owners of Artists Incorporated, Sam, you and me."
We talked into the night until yawns punctuated our sentences.
Robin called early the next morning. "The phone rang at midnight. When I answered, no one was there. Another warning from the beyond."
"The beyond doesn't telephone," I said. "Did you piss off someone?"
Finally, a laugh. "I'm the pillar of diplomacy," she said. "No one."
"Okay, then you're dating someone else's man?"
"Really? When would that happen? As you know, you're my only date lately," she said. "The widow and the divorcée, doing the town one dinner or bad movie at a time."
When she got home Saturday from the office, Robin found another tarot card tacked on her door. "The Five of Cups." Her voice trembled over the phone. "Who's doing this to me?"
The Five of Cups was the second card in my mother's reading for Josh.
"Call the police," I said. "The hang-up and those cards are harassment."
Robin phoned back later to tell me the Van Nuys desk officer agreed to put in an extra-patrol request. She spent the evening at home, decorating cupcakes. Sunday afternoon, she baked a five-cheese macaroni casserole and invited my mother and me to dinner.
Sunday at seven, with my mother, Vivian, chattering at my side, I turned onto Robin's block. The quiet Sherman Oaks neighborhood was settled in for the evening.
"Since your father retired, he spends more time on the golf course with his old LAPD buddies than he did when they were working homicide together," she said.
"I'm glad for him, Mom. He looked so rested and happy tonight."
"Well, he always brightens up when he sees you, dear. He favors you. I don't think I'd ever see any of you if you would have, God forbid, joined the force like your brother, Dave, did." She pointed a finger at me. "Which reminds me. You know, your brother, Dave, arrested a gang of cultists last year. Maybe the tarot cards on Robin's door are part of another cult-initiation rite, training runaways to harass without getting caught. Or worse. Liz, there are spookeries and secret cults all over the Valley," my mother said.
I took a deep breath and gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles went white. I rolled my eyes at the initiation-rite theory. And Mom always said your brother, Dave, like I didn't remember I had a brother or his name was Dave.
"I know about the cult arrest, Mom. I was here. Remember?"
"Of course I remember," she said, checking her soft-pink lipstick in the visor mirror and brushing back a strand of white hair. "But you were so upset by the divorce—you were distracted."
"I wasn't distracted and I wasn't upset. I was clear-headed for the first time in fifteen years. You were the one who was upset."
"You broke Jarret's heart. I wish you two would talk."
"I broke his heart? As if he had a heart to break."
My cheating, drinking ex-husband knew every button to push in my mother's celebrity-loving psyche. He still worked her like he worked rookie batters who faced him on the mound at Dodger Stadium.
"Forget about Jarret," I said. "I'm concerned about Robin. Please don't get her all stirred up about the meaning of those cards tonight. She's vulnerable and scared."
"Dear, please don't make dinner a therapy session. I want to see the cards. Robin told me it's an unusual deck. Maybe I'll recognize it."
I slowed near Robin's house, vowing we'd find the identity of the card-tacking delinquent before I ate my way up a size.
"Park there." My mother pointed at the only space on the block.
When we got out of the car, I saw another tarot card on Robin's door. My fists clenched with anger. We walked toward the two-bedroom bungalow, stopping under the porch light to stare at the picture of a skeleton, hands cupped over empty eye sockets, howling off the black background, with blood spurting through the finger bones. Five sword blades pointed up from beneath.
Mom threw her hand to her chest. "Oh dear Lord. The Five of Swords."
Robin opened the door, but her smile dropped as she followed our gaze to the card. She darted inside and returned with a baseball bat in her hand. I pulled the tarot card off the door.
"I'M WATCHING YOU" was scrawled across the back.
Robin elbowed past us toward the sidewalk. She looked up and down the street, then turned to me, her voice harsh. "Did you see anyone when you pulled up?"
"Not a soul." Crap—bad choice of words.
The three of us searched behind the bushes landscaping the front of the house. A crow cawed from the corner of the yard.
Robin swung the bat at the bird. "Get. The. Hell. Out of here."
I took her arm. "Take it easy. Let's go back inside."
"I'm getting your brother, Dave, over here." My mother took out her phone.
"Call the Van Nuys police. They're closer," I said.
Robin looked toward the street. "They're not going to help. They said they'd send a patrol. Do you see a patrol? No. Me either. Nothing. I'm going to find this jerk and whack some sense into him."
The Sunday Los Angeles Times sat on the lawn, untouched.
"Did you go out at all today?" I said to Robin.
"The card could have been on the door overnight?"
"Maybe." She dropped the bat to her side.
"Any hang-ups today?"
"Come on. We've looked enough." I slipped the bat from Robin's fist and led her inside.
The living room fireplace blazed. The scent of vanilla drifted from the candles burning on side tables. I hung my navy pea coat and my mother's cashmere wrap on the rack near the door and plopped down on one of the chairs in front of the fire. I kicked off my shoes and tucked my legs beneath me as I studied the tarot card.
The card was the same construction as the others—a laminated three-by-five. I glanced at the anagram on the front of the card: "AEGIINTTVY." Negativity. Then I read the back again. "I'M WATCHING YOU." The handwritten message worried me. Whoever was leaving the cards was getting bolder, more personal. The next incident could be face-to-face.
"Do you recognize this deck?" I looked up at my mother, standing over me.
She nodded. "It's the Five of Swords. Nobody wins."
"The deck, Mother. Do you recognize it?"
"No, dear. I don't." She looked over to Robin. "Where's your computer? I'll check my sites."
"Over here." Robin flipped open the laptop on the dining room table. Mom put on her reading glasses and started typing.
I showed Robin the back of the card. "Do you recognize the handwriting?"
A tiny trademark and a name—S. Johnson—were printed in the margin. "Mom, Google 'tarot cards' and 'tarot S. Johnson.' "
She scanned sites with hundreds of variations of tarot decks, but nothing she found resembled the cards on the table or linked to an S. Johnson.
Thirty minutes later, my mother shrugged and followed us into the kitchen to eat. "I think it's a specialized deck made by a death cult," she said. "Do you have any new neighbors? Anyone missing pets? Those cults do animal sacrifices, you know."
I slid into the chair next to her and jammed my elbow into her ribs.
"Ouch," she said. "I was just—"
"Robin," I said. "Think hard. Someone knew the first two cards were meaningful to you. Only the four of us were there that night. Who else did you tell about the predictions before Josh died?"
"Everyone." Robin set the hot casserole on the table and sat down. "Our friends, everyone at my office."
"Could there be someone at work who carries a resentment toward you?" I ignored the salad and scooped a heap of mac and cheese onto my plate.
"Why would anyone resent me for doing my job? They all know how impossible Sam can be."
"Someone could be jealous of the power you have as his assistant," I said.
"That's what I was getting to. A grudge. That's what the Manson murders were about." Mom covered her plate with salad, then dropped a spoonful of mac and cheese on the side.
Robin's eyes widened. "You really think it's a cult, Vivian? Have you heard of this before?"
"Yes, I have. Just last year, when Liz's brother, Dave, broke up a cult that was sacrificing—"
"Slow down, Mom. You're forgetting about the hang-up. This is probably someone who knows Robin." I looked across the table. "Did you talk to the neighbors?"
The food on Robin's plate sat untouched. "I asked around yesterday afternoon after I called the police. The next-door neighbors didn't see anyone unusual come near my house. Neither did Leonard, the man across the street. According to him, the only people coming and going are John, the mailman; FedEx drivers; and people delivering packages from my office."
"Leonard has to sleep sometime," I said. "I assume the last card was left late last night."
"Exactly." My mother pointed a carrot stick at me. "Cults do their rituals after midnight."
I stacked my fork with macaroni and ignored her. "Robin, what else did the police say?"
"They told me to keep the doors locked. There's nothing they can do until someone commits a crime."
"So, I guess 'I'm watching you' wouldn't be enough for them. I hate that," I said. "It's obvious harassment. Can you get your alarm company to install a camera on the front porch?"
"Spirits don't appear on camera," my mother said.
The phone rang.
"Oh, that must be Orchid." Robin picked up the wall phone with a cheery "Hello," then slammed it into the cradle. "Another hang-up."
We cleared the table in silence. Robin brought out dessert.
When I finished the last sip of coffee and the last bite of my buttercream-frosted cupcake, my jeans were one breath away from uncomfortable. We listed the names and ad- dresses of everyone Robin knew in the neighborhood, followed by the names of her coworkers at Collins Talent. We ended with Sam Collins.
"No way," Robin said. "Sam doesn't know anything about the occult. The only deck he handles is a poker deck."
We went over every step of Robin's week. Name by name, no one stood out to her. Everyone in Robin's world couldn't be above suspicion. Could they?
"Maybe you should stay with Liz until they give up and move on to another victim," said my helpful mother, starting to clear the dishes. "Whoever is trying to frighten you would have to give up if you're not here."
"I am not going to be run out of my home." Robin marched to the sink, bumping a glass from the counter, which shattered into pieces on the floor. She crumpled into tears. "This house is part of my family. Orchid grew up here. Josh planted every tree in the yard. I'm not leaving. And I know I can't hide from an omen—it'll follow me."
"Robin." I moved her away from the broken glass and sat her down at the table. "I'll move in here with you for a while."
"You don't have to," she said. "Orchid's driving down from school tonight and staying through Tuesday."
My mother swept the pieces of glass onto a dustpan. "I don't know if that's a good idea after this last message. The three of you alone?"
"There's an alarm system in place, and we'll get them to come in the morning and install a camera," I said.
"The message the Five of Swords carries is nothing to play around with. It means loss."
I glared at my mother. "Stop. We'll be fine."
"Don't worry, Vivian," Robin said. "This time I won't ignore the signs. I learned my lesson about omens with Josh."
Mom held up a finger. "I have an idea. Nick Garfield will know where this tarot deck came from."
"Who's Nick Garfield?" Robin said.
"My son Dave's friend since college. Liz knows him. He helped Dave solve a cult case for the LAPD last year. Nick will know if these cards are tied to a sect."
I closed my eyes and shook my head. "Nick Garfield would burst into laughter if I called him out of the blue to find a tarot deck. Really, Mom, what are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking that someone who studies the occult for a living would be an ideal person to help you now. We need to talk to him."
Robin started stacking plates in the dishwasher. "Tell me more about this Nick person, Vivian."
"He's a religious philosophy professor at NoHo Community College in North Hollywood. He teaches and writes about alternative beliefs. Every summer he travels around the world, studying exotic religions. He's written four books on the occult."
"How do you know so much about him?" I said.
"If you came to my barbeques more often, you would, too." Her smile dared me to argue.
"Do you really think Nick could help me somehow?" Robin dried her hands on a dishrag and switched off the light above the table.
"Of course he can, dear. Liz—call your brother and get Nick's number. You live near NoHo. Take the cards over there to show him."
"Nick will think I'm out of my mind," I said, following them into the living room. "I'd rather get the camera set up on the porch as soon as possible. That way we can catch whoever's leaving the cards."
An engine started outside. Robin raced to the front door, reaching for the bat. I opened the door. A sedan backed out of the neighbor's drive, and the couple inside waved as the car pulled onto the street. No tarot card on the door, nothing on the landing.
Robin trembled as I led her back to the sofa.
"When Orchid gets here, I'll drop off my mother and come back. I'm staying over," I said. "I'll sleep on the couch. If someone shows up again tonight, one of us will hear it."
"And you'll call Nick." My mother smiled.
"I really don't think he can do much," I said. "Nick's just a professor. The cards might interest him, but then what?"
"But Liz, he might recognize something that could help me figure out who's leaving the cards." Robin peered through the shutters. "I'll go with you."
"Good." Mom stood over us, arms crossed, feet set. "Do it all—stay with Robin, set up the camera in the morning, but for heaven's sake—call your brother and find Nick now."
I knew she wouldn't budge until I agreed with her. And I wasn't about to spend the night with my mother camped out in a sleeping bag on the floor next to me. Calling Nick wasn't a horrible idea. He might add a grain of sanity to this puzzle.
I got my cell phone and auto-dialed Dave. I told him about the harassment, gave him hell about the Van Nuys patrol, and then made him promise to call his friend at the Van Nuys precinct to up their awareness of Robin's house. Once I had Dave on the defensive, I told him Mom's idea and asked for Nick's number.
"Come over tomorrow night and bring the cards. Nick will be here watching the Rams game with me," Dave said. "Make sure you double-lock Robin's doors and windows tonight. And Liz? When you and Robin are over here, don't talk during the game. Commercial breaks only."
"I know the rules. I'll tell her. Don't worry." I hung up. At least Dave would be there to assure Nick that this was Mom's idea, not mine. Nonetheless, we had the start of a plan.
"When the camera is installed, it'll capture the jerk on film," I said to Robin. "And if the police won't do anything about it, we'll post it on YouTube."