Didi can find anything she wants…except friendship.  Wherever she goes, strangers tell her how to locate anything, from the perfect pair of jeans to carrying out the perfect crime.  But love?  Friendship?  Her power can’t seem to handle things that most people find easy.

When her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend figures out Didi’s power, Didi gets ready to get used, because that’s what people do.  But it turns out there might be more to Jo than meets the eye…

“Oracle of Strangers” will be free here for one week only, but you can also buy a copy at B&NAmazonSmashwords, Apple, Kobo, Powell’s and more.

The Oracle of Strangers

 

Jo brought the letter, holding it at arm’s length and tilting it from side to side, letting the gold leaf catch the fluorescent lights in the hallway. “Take a look at this, Didi.”

I jerked it out of her hand, hoping that she hadn’t held it for too long. I didn’t want her wrapped up in this. “Jo. I told you not to touch my mail.” I tried to shut my bedroom door, but she pushed her way in. She had no way of knowing I had fifty thousand dollars’ worth of signed first editions on my small pressboard bookshelf, or that I found all the wall art at thrift stores for a buck-fifty a pop. But it still creeped me out having her in here.

She snorted. “Didi, you’re crazy, you know that.”

I nodded and stared at the letter. It was addressed to me, all right. Heavy linen envelope. Bright gold on the address. The return address was on the back: Mail Recovery Center, 443 Fillmore Ave E, St Paul MN 55107-9607.

“I ain’t doing it,” I said, and stomped over to the trash can. My foot stomped the foot pedal, the lid popped up, and the letter dropped in. The lid closed with a clomp.

“What did you do that for?” Jo asked. She reached down for the lid, but I stepped in front of her. “Either get out of the way or tell me.”

“Job offer. In Minnesota. I ain’t going to take them up on it, that’s all.”

I didn’t see that it was any of her business, but that was Jo for you. Nosy, like she owned the place or was the master to my servant. She’d only been dating Marcus for a month. What she’d be like after a year I didn’t know. Ordering me to polish the damn silverware, probably.

“Why didn’t you just say so?” she asked.

“I did.”

She bent down again to get at the trash, and I said, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave that letter alone.”

“Good grief, Didi. I just want the stamp.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Despite my words, which sounded like I’d resigned to the inevitable, I turned around, pulled the plastic bag liner out of the trash, and tied up the top. The corners of the letter tried to poke through. I slipped on a pair of Marcus’s loafers and went out the door, down the stairs, and dumped it in the trash, shoving it under a bag that oozed. She didn’t follow me. Maybe it would keep her out of trouble, the thought of getting her hands dirty.

I grimaced. If there was one good thing you could say about Jo, it was that she didn’t mind getting her hands dirty.

She didn’t say anything about the letter, and neither did I. But I knew she was thinking about it. Couldn’t help it: The old incarnation of the Goddess is dead, and we want you to take her place.

She wouldn’t believe it. But she would want to know more. Wouldn’t be able to help it.

So, next day when she invited me to go downtown with her, I knew she wasn’t just shopping for shoes.

I went with her. Things were still tense with Marcus, six months after we broke up, and I knew that I was going to have to get along with his new girlfriend if I didn’t want to lose my place in the apartment. And although Jo was bossy, loud, and too curious for her own damn good, at least she wasn’t a grunt and a shrug in the hallway. She wasn’t jealous. We were never going to be friends, but maybe we could find peace.

Michigan Avenue ran with people. I watched my feet, keeping from running into people by instinct more than anything else. Jo had a bag from Nordstrom’s containing a pair of shoes that were going to hurt her feet and a bra that was too small and a top that would make her look fat and washed out.

But she also had a pair of jeans that fit perfectly. I’d picked them out for her, damn it.

“Help me pick something out,” she’d said.

I’d sighed but there was no help for it. Once somebody asked me to find something, I had to do it. It was like an itch in the back of my head. I didn’t go looking, I’d end up with migraines that put me down for days.

I wandered through the store. Jo trailed me with an armful of bad clothes. I let my eyes unfocus.

A pair of clerks slouched elegantly next to a manikin, trying to copy her arrogant plastic ways. “He left you?” one of them asked.

I turned left, listening.

“On the third,” the other one said.

I counted three racks, reached in, and pulled the first thing I touched off the rack. A pair of Paige boyfriend jeans, stretchy enough to be forgiving in the ass, that would get her laid Saturday night. I could feel the sex on them, heavy and squealing. Ugh. I shuddered and tossed them on top of the pile in her arms.

She looked at the tag. Of course they were on sale, forty-five bucks, and in her size.

After she tried them on, she said the words I dreaded the most: “I have to take you shopping with me more often.” And words I hadn’t heard before but dreaded as soon as they came out of her mouth: “What do you think about going to Vegas?” She was smarter than I’d thought. Nobody else had picked up on it that fast. Marcus hadn’t figured it out until I’d told him.

On the way back we stopped at NoMI for coffee and financiers, and she said, dabbing at her lips in a put-on kind of way that screamed dessert is all I can afford, “How did you do that?”

“What?” I said.

“I’m blonde and I’m dating your ex-boyfriend while you’re still living with him,” she said, “But don’t make the mistake of thinking that I’m stupid. I’m cheap and I’m spoiled, but I can smell something on you. I read that letter.”

We had a table looking out onto the street with Chihuly glass overhead and the ooze of people below. If I went down there and focused on how to get rid of her, I’d hear the perfect crime detailed among overheard words. I’d never be caught.

“They’re crazy,” I said. “I used to work there as their database admin.”

“Who was that chick who died?”

“Look, they’re crazy,” I said. “They get half the lost mail in the United States. Be around that much lost stuff for that long, people get crazy. Extra crazy with crazy sauce. You ever hear of people going postal? Crazy.”

She poked her finger at her crumbs, crushing them onto her finger, then scraping them off with her teeth. “But who was the chick? That they called the goddess?”

I gritted my teeth. “Just some chick.”

But she knew I was lying. We paid up and left without her making a big deal about it, though. She wasn’t stupid, and she was patient, too. Shit.

We missed our station on the Blue as a mass of people got on the train, hustling us toward the back and “accidentally” keeping us there until the doors had closed. The people who were doing it, they didn’t know they were doing it. They didn’t know they were acting as the hands of fate.

“Hey!” Jo yelled. “Get the fuck out of the way!” She slung her Nordstrom’s bag onto her shoulder with her purse and started shoving.

People moved out of her way…as other people moved into her way. Strange how a reasonable number of people—no more than twenty—could act like a crowd of thousands, when need be.

Jo shoved and pushed as I huddled against the wall with my purse in front of me like a bludgeon. I knew where we were going. O’Hare. And from there, St. Paul.

I met the old goddess after a month on the job at the dead letter office, or the Mail Recovery Center, as the post office likes to call it. I was rebuilding their database and using a bag of lost mail to test it with, and my boss, Dick, came to me and said that she wanted one of the letters back.

“Didi, do you have the letter to May Smits in Topeka?”

I looked at him like he was nuts. “What?”

He repeated himself, louder and slower and with a filter of disgust. I asked too many questions, and he’d taken the attitude that either I was a troublemaker or a plain idiot. He couldn’t answer the simplest question without shaking his head sadly at my incompetence.

“I’m using it,” I said.

She wants it,” he said, like that was supposed to answer everything.

“Who’s she?” I said.

He held out his hand. Stuck it right in my face. “Just hand it over, Kincaid.”

I supposed at the time that whoever she was had found out where it was supposed to go. I pulled open my drawer and flicked through my carefully-organized folders until I’d found it.

“You’re not supposed to keep mail in your desk.” He reached for the letter.

I pulled it out of his reach. “I want to see her,” I said. Really, I just wanted to get away from the code for a while, and I was curious. I still had the ability to be curious. Still do, more’s the pity.

“Fine. She’s been asking about you, anyway.”

He backed out of my cube, I logged out of my computer and closed the drawer, locking it so he couldn’t double back and take the mail. I followed him down the rows of cubes until we reached the mail room.

Oh Lord, the mailroom. Carts stacked twelve high with swaying white UNITED STATES POST OFFICE bins stuffed with white envelopes, manila envelopes, cardboard, priority mail letters with blue stripes, red stripes. Cheap gray bookshelves with rows and rows of envelopes and red tabs labeled with the alphabet. Stacks of mail bound together with blue plastic, rubber bands, binder clips. Everywhere red stamp marks, black stamp marks, postage due, dirt, wrinkles, stains. Unsorted mail. Sorted mail. And all the processes in between.

This was just the place where lost mail all got sorted. Never mind where it got stored.

Dick led me straight through the middle, into the thick of it, without mercy. Somehow I didn’t get crushed, and we slipped between a couple of bookcases full of hanging folders, into a dark corner I hadn’t noticed before. I rubbed my fingers on the envelope in my hand, for some reason suddenly glad that I had something to bring with me. An offering.

A hallway, more bookcases. The further we went, the more they were filled with books rather than envelopes or packages. Phone directories, Who’s Whos, even what looked like high school yearbooks. Cinderblock walls painted off-white. Fluorescent lights that made my head hurt and my eyes lose the sharpness of their focus. I felt a little sick to my stomach. A stained red clothbound copy of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit appeared on the top shelves of bookcases far too often.

Finally, we reached the end of the hall. Seemed like it’d taken us hours to get there. A small office held a desk surrounded by crates and crates of mail and an old woman with shaggy gray hair, thick glasses on a gold chain, and a red, torn-up zit just under her chin. She just couldn’t leave it alone. She was squinting at a computer and sneaking sips out of an empty coffee mug. Dick took the mug. He turned around and refilled it from a pot on a hot plate behind her, replaced it in her hand.

She hadn’t seemed to notice either of us, but she said, “May Smits?” and held out her hand without looking up.

I handed her the letter.

She looked at the front, the back, the front again, and held it to her forehead. Smelled it. “She’s better off not knowing,” she said. She held it away from her body by the tips of her thumb and forefinger, and the letter burst into flame. Not just regular flame, but like it was flash paper. It was gone in a second, the last bit under her fingertips sparking on the way to the floor as she dropped it.

She wiped her hands on her dingy skirt, took a drink of the coffee, and kept typing.

Dick waited, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back against a bookshelf.

After five minutes or so, I cleared my throat, and she looked up at me, then back to her computer. Her fingers had been flying the entire time. My head was killing me, and I knew it was either find a place to sit or throw up on the books and cartons of mail.

I swallowed back vomit, hiked up my skirt, and sat on the floor with my legs curled up under me.

Suddenly the woman leaned back, stretched out her back against the back of her office chair—I must have heard a dozen cracks come out of her back—and said, “I found him.”

Dick sucked down breath. “Where is he?”

“You won’t like it,” she warned.

“Tell me.”

“He’s dead. Buried under the name of Theodore Dempsey in the Big Hollow Cemetery near Spring Green, Wisconsin. I could give you directions to the exact gravesite, but it’ll probably be easier to ask the groundskeepers.”

Dick let the breath out, falling a little forward over himself. His eyes drooped. “How did he get there?”

“I don’t know, Dick. I’m sorry. I don’t know the how, just there where.”

More breath hissed out of Dick, and I started to worry he was going to forget to breathe.

The woman turned in her chair toward me, extended a hand. “You’re Didi? Mary Cass, no relation to the Mama. Call me Mary.”

I stood up about as gracefully as a giraffe and took her hand. It was dry, soft, and bit up around the nails.

“What…?” I didn’t even know enough to ask her what I wanted to know.

“I find things,” she said. “I call it the oracle of strangers. Someone asks me a question, I get the answer out of random information. The harder the question, though, the more destructive getting the information is. And the more it costs.”

I stared at her, slack-jawed. She smiled at me and said, “It’s probably best if you leave.” She glanced at Dick, still huddled over on himself, then wrote something on the sticky side of a sticky note, folded it over, and handed it to me. My fingers touched hers for a second, and I dropped to my knees.

“Goddess,” I gasped. I had no idea why.

“Sorry,” she said. “I hate it when that happens.” She went back to typing.

After what could have been moments or could have been hours, I stuck the note in my pocket and shook Dick by the shoulder. “Time to go, boss.”

He looked at me with hell in his eyes, and I felt sorry for him.

“My son,” he said.

I nodded. We went back up the hallway and through the mailroom. This time it felt like the carts swerved around me on purpose. I walked a little easier, breathed a little freer. When I got back to my cube I read the note.

Go have a life, baby goddess. So it won’t be so bad when you’re stuck here like me.

My throat tightened so bad I couldn’t breathe.

Jo couldn’t get her phone to work until we were taxiing into the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. She called Marcus. She was pissed. I had tried to lose her a couple of times at O’Hare before the plane trip, but they wouldn’t let her go, and they weren’t as gentle with her as they were with me. She was getting quite the shiner.

“I’ve been kidnapped,” she told Marcus. After a pause, she added, “So has Didi. Minneapolis. I don’t know, we were just pushed onto the plane. No! They didn’t even check for tickets. Just pushed us onto the plane. I did. I tried to leave her there at O’Hare and they wouldn’t let me go. A woman punched me. Yes, I tried to contact security.” A longer pause. “I was going shopping with her when all hell broke loose. No, I didn’t tell her she had to move out. Good grief, don’t be so suspicious.”

She handed me the phone. People around us were starting to stare.

“Marcus?” I said.

“Hey, babe. What’s going on?”

“You know that thing with the—” I didn’t want to say anything over the phone, but I’d talked to him about it before, after we broke up, to let him know he didn’t have to let me stay in the apartment, that it was just my power finding me a place to stay. He said he’d understood but I still felt bad about it.

“Yeah?” he said.

“I’m sorry. She got caught in it, too. She was too close when the call came. The old one is dead and now they’re calling me back.”

I was trying to keep my voice down, but it wasn’t really helping. People’s ears were stretching out a mile to pick up what I was saying. Jo glared at me, well honestly she wasn’t glaring at me, she was glaring because she was pissed off was all.

“Will Jo be safe?”

“I’ll tell them I won’t do it unless they let her go. I promise.”

“You don’t have to do it.”

That stopped me. It almost sounded like he believed what I was saying, rather than just tolerating the talk of his crazy ex-girlfriend who was too fragile to be dumped, friendless and homeless, out onto the streets.

“Call work for me,” I said. “Tell them that there’s a family emergency, and I’ll explain it when I get back in a few days. Jennie knows what needs to be done on the database. Just tell her to keep it maintained for now, not to worry about the deadlines.”

“All right.”

I handed the phone back to Jo. “You believe her?” Then, “Yeah. Yeah. She just walked into a rack of clothes at Nordstrom’s and picked out an unbelievable pair of jeans, first try. On sale for…well, yeah. It’s just too fucking weird is all. Yeah. Love you. Bye.”

She looked at me. The plane was coming to a stop, the Southern flight attendant with straightened, dyed-red hair was saying something, and I was checking that I had my purse strapped across my body and that nothing had spilled out.

“You’re really something,” Jo said.

I tried to smile at her. “I’ll get you out of this.”

We stood up. For once, the people getting off the plane flowed out of the door smoothly, nobody holding things up by jerking an overfull carryon out of the overhead bins. No crying children.

Murmurs around me:

I need mother to try to understand…

Why would I go to the titty bar without you?…

Jo squeezed me around my shoulders. “We’ll both get out of this. Why would I want to give up my favorite shopping buddy?”

I sighed and wondered if all goddesses felt so used.

When the taxi pulled up in front of the Mail Recovery Center building, I could feel it. The place had been chaotic before, but this? The parking lot was a moonscape of craters; the signs for handicapped parking were shot up so bad you couldn’t recognize them as such except by specks of blue and white. The walls had got spray painted, and not with the kind of graffiti that has its own beauty to it. The paint even covered up the windows. The place was broken. A wasteland.

“Jesus,” Jo said.

“Wrong god,” I muttered under my breath.

She must have heard me, or else she just looked at my funny out of habit. She hefted her Nordstrom’s bag on her shoulder, like she was reminding herself why she was here. Those jeans. Those magical, sale-rack jeans. She had to defend me, or lose her shopping buddy.

We got out and Jo slammed the door. The driver drove off without asking for fare. I followed Jo’s stubborn march across the parking lot and up the three steps to the front door. The cement was crumbling away. The handle of the door was sticky, and I pulled my hand back, wiped it on my pants. Jo grabbed the handle, whipped the right-hand door open like she wanted to hurt it, and waited for me to go inside.

I hesitated.

“You want to try running?” she asked.

I shook my head. Now that I was here I didn’t know if I could leave.

The whole place was a question, the answer an itch in my skull.

I could feel it in me. I could put this all right. It’d take me the rest of my life, but I could. I went inside.

The speckled cream linoleum was dirty, covered with trash. Missing the industrial rugs to stamp your feet on when it snowed. Wanted posters hung cattycorner on the walls. The paneling on the front of the receptionist’s desk was cracked in places, streaked black from shoes kicking at it in frustration. Nobody was there, and wires lay on the top of the desk. No computer. No phone. No answers.

Jo shoved the door shut so hard it bounced twice. She stayed outside, her shape a dark shadow through the spraypaint. I felt abandoned.

When I was a little kid, I’d dreamed of being a detective. Ended up in computers instead. But—the craving to know had never left me. I’d been relieved to know my parents were getting a divorce and not yelling at each other to no purpose. I’d been relieved to hear Marcus say it was over, gently holding me by his hands. He’d felt like he couldn’t touch me and was sleeping with someone else, with Jo. I’d even been secretly relieved to hear the old goddess of finding lost shit was dead.

I could give that relief of just knowing to—everyone. Without me, people would never know what had happened to their damn mail. It seems so small, until you feel the weight come off you, when you finally know.

The old goddess had said, She’s better off not knowing. Bullshit. I’d never do that to somebody.

But the thought of being in that basement, with the flickering lights, dizzy all the time. So dedicated that I had to have people refill my coffee cup.

The lost letters called to me. My head hurt, and the graffiti shifted to say, save me.

Between having a purpose in life and hating getting railroaded into shit, I took one shaking step backward. Two. And backed into the door. Another step, and the door opened behind me, stiffly, as though I were trying to a handicapped-accessible door without pushing the button first. Resistant.

It didn’t want to let me go.

A woman in a blue postal uniform stepped out from the back hallway. I didn’t recognize her. She ran forward to me and grabbed my arm, trying to pull me further inside, I guess, but as soon as she touched me, she dropped to her knees.

Her eyes sparkled, and I saw a tear run down the groove between her cheek and nose. “Goddess.”

The door jerked open behind me. Jo was holding the door. She looked so pissed that she practically had fire shooting out of her eye sockets. “Leave her the fuck alone!” she shouted. “Get your hands off her!”

And then she grabbed my arm and tried to pull me out.

“Hang on,” I said. I glared at the clerk. “You have lost shit you want me to find? Don’t kidnap me, send me a fucking email. You want me? You want me?”

The woman in blue groveled, putting her face on the filthy floor. “Yes, Goddess.”

“Then let me telecommute. What do you think this is, the eighties?” I couldn’t believe what I was saying. My lips felt numb.

“You gotta think of the benefits, too,” Jo croaked. “Send her your salary offer. She ain’t doing this for free.” She looked at me. Her eyes were wild, they were white all the way around the edges. She was fighting the crazy, and goddamn if she wasn’t winning. Hadn’t called me a goddess once.

“That’s right,” I said. “Come on, Jo, let’s get out of here.”

I took another step back, Jo let go of the door, and we walked back down the stairs. A taxi was waiting for us, not the same one.

I got in, shaking.

“Where you headed?” the driver asked. Like they were actually letting me go.

“Airport,” Jo said. “Shit. No. Take us to the Mall of America first.”

“You got it,” he said.

I looked at her.

“I will try to respect you,” Jo said, patting my hand. She didn’t look awed or worshipful or shit like that. She hugged her Nordstrom’s bag to her chest. “But I’m getting some fucking Blahniks out of it first.”

I couldn’t stop smiling.