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|During a New
Orleans Mardi Gras Ball, psychic entertainer Diana Racine touches the
hand of a masked Cyrano de Bergerac and is instantly transported into
the icy-cold body of a dead woman submerged in water. As Diana crumples to
the floor, water filling her lungs, she hears Cyrano whisper that the
game has begun.
Diana has been called every epithet in the book: charlatan, cheat, publicity hound...and genius--all at least partially true. But convincing New Orleans police lieutenant Ernie Lucier that her vision of the dead woman is the real thing may be her hardest act yet. He becomes a believer when Diana leads him to the alligator-infested bayou and the woman's remains. When another vision leads to another body, it's clear that the two dead women are a prelude to the killer's ultimate victim--Diana.
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Diana Racine, Fraud of the Century. That was the headline in the morning's Times-Picayune. She'd heard the accusation as far back as she could remember. Charlatan in Miami, carny huckster in Detroit, and a dangerous witch in Boston. Others had called her a hustler, schemer, faker, pretender, gypsy, quack, phony, and scamster. That last was from Vegas. Totally biased reporting there.
They were all right. She was a fraud. And a damn good one, too. A thirty-three-year old, five-foot-two bundle of fraud.
To a point.
Well, here I am, people of New Orleans. Judge for yourselves.
She peeked around the curtain at the filled-to-capacity crowd, blew a curl off her forehead, and smoothed her skirt. After massaging her neck to loosen the tight muscles, she drew a deep breath, let it out slowly. They're just people, Diana. You've done this a thousand times before. She stepped onto the stage to the welcome sound of applause.
After a few minutes of waves, smiles, and some audience banter that passed for warm-up, she picked out a cute guy in the first row. "What about you, handsome? Are you ready to be spooked?" She bent down closer to him and dropped her voice into her sexiest register. "Care to have your innermost secrets exposed to this raucous crowd?"
"I'm ready for anything with you, Diana," he quipped. "In fact, you can take me home and find out everything about me."
The audience burst into laughter and applause. Diana threw back her head, tossing her mane of shiny black curls, and laughed along with the others. Waggling her finger at him as she strutted backward on high heels, she said, "Uh-oh, I better stay away from you. You could put an end to my act."
She teased a few others before scanning the crowd and randomly choosing a chunky, red-faced woman from the third row, coaxing her to come onstage. Random to everyone but Diana.
"You don't have to if you'd rather not," she said to the woman. "And you can stop the reading at any time. No problem."
The woman hemmed and hawed, went into a huddle with her husband for a minute.
The crowd spurred her on.
"Oh, go ahead," one man shouted.
Another voice rang out, "Scaredy cat."
The woman chewed her lip. "Oh, why the hell not?" She rose from her seat. "I have no secrets."
The sparse stage displayed two wooden chairs and a café table containing a pitcher of water, tissues, and a stack of plastic cups. As the woman approached, Diana detected the stale smell of cigarettes.
"Please, have a seat and relax."
"Yeah, right," the woman said sarcastically. She eyed the water.
"You're thirsty," Diana said and added promptly, "Nothing telepathic. Just an observation." The woman's lips twitched into a tight smile. Diana poured a cup of water and handed it to her. "All set?"
"Yes, I'm fine. A little nervous, that's all."
"No need to be." She took the other chair. "If you wish, you can tell me your name."
"Oh, I thought you'd tell me." The woman chuckled, and scattered sounds of amusement rose from the dimmed theater. Diana joined in with a smile. She searched the faceless crowd and shrugged as if she'd never before heard the comment. "Well, that's a new one--a subject turning the tables. I have to admit, you have me stumped." Elsie Cavanaugh, her inner voice said.
"Elsie. Elsie Cavanaugh," the woman responded.
"Okay, Elsie. You managed the first surprise of the evening. Now let me hold your hands and see whether I can surprise you, okay?"
Elsie sucked in a deep breath, let it out in a huff, and reached her hand across the table. "Okay, I'm ready."
The audience went dead silent. Diana felt their expectation. She took Elsie's hands in hers, closed her eyes, and spoke in a voice everyone could hear. "You have a child who's away and you're worried. A young man, right? Answer yes or no. Nothing more."
"He's in his early twenties." Not too hard to figure for a woman her age. The young man part would have been a fifty-fifty chance...if she were guessing.
"Yes, that's right. He's--"
Diana's eyes flared open. "Don't say anything before I finish." Elsie nodded and Diana closed her eyes again. "I see a uniform. He's in the military--"
"How did you know that?"
"And stationed overseas. The Middle East, I think. Yes, I'm sure." Thank you, phone records.
Elsie's bottom lip quivered. "Oh, dear God. Is he all right? I haven't heard from him in weeks."
"He's fine, fine. Missing you. I think you'll hear from him soon." General information. Law of averages.
Tears filled Elsie's eyes. "Oh, thank you. I've been so worried." Sporadic applause drifted throughout the theater, along with the obvious intakes of breath, signifying either belief or skepticism.
"Are you all right, Elsie?" Diana asked. "Would you like a moment to gather yourself?" She poured more water into Elsie's glass and her own. The stage lights seemed especially brilliant tonight. Sweat dripped down her back. Both sipped their water.
"That's better," Elsie said, plucking a tissue from the box and wiping her cheeks. "Go on."
Diana slipped back into meditation mode, waiting long enough to pique interest before speaking. After all, she was an actress, and the believability of her performance was as much a part of her act as the revelations she imparted.
"I have a strong sensation you want to quit something, maybe your job. No, no," she said, shaking her head. "That's not it. Ah, you want to quit smoking, but you're afraid you'll gain weight like before."
"How did you...I can't believe you know that." Elsie turned to the audience. "How did she know that?"
Because I've been there. Every smoker has. The struggle with the pounds was worth it, because quitting restored her sense of smell, a vital tool of the trade. "You can do it. Just takes a little willpower...and a patch or two." Murmured agreement skittered through the audience. Acutely aware of her timing, she held off another moment to let her success resonate. "By the way, Elsie, I'm sorry."
"Sorry? About what?"
"I sense you recently lost a pet, a traumatic experience you haven't quite gotten over."
"Yes, our dog, Beamer. He was a member of the family." She dabbed the damp tissue to her eyes. "Did my husband tell you this?"
"No," Diana said. "You told me." Now a buzz rose from the theater. Diana waited, milking the theatrical moment for all it was worth. She didn't enjoy resurrecting the woman's loss, but the emotional response of touching a raw nerve never failed to pull the audience into her mystical world.
"But I see you have a new puppy in your life. A border collie you'll grow to love as much as Beamer."
A smile lit Elsie's face. "Yes, he's a love."
After a few more on-target disclosures, Diana ended the reading. Elsie hugged her and left the stage to a thunderous ovation.
Diana acknowledged her fans with an appreciative smile, careful not to bask too long in their adulation. The smile faded when a knifelike pain stabbed the back of her neck. Her hand shot to the base of her skull, and she massaged the tendons until the discomfort eased.
What the hell was that?
Composing herself, she bowed and left the stage. The persistent applause almost drowned out the announcement that the show would resume after a ten-minute break to give Ms. Racine a chance to rest.
"How'd you know about the dog?" Diana's father, hot on her heels, almost tripped her.
"Lucky guess." Diana hurried toward her dressing room, still rubbing the ache in her neck. She attributed the unsettling twinge to exhaustion, or maybe she jerked her head and pulled something. What else could it be? She snatched a cold bottle of water from the mini fridge, rolled it across her cheek and around her neck, then reclined on the chaise. After twisting off the cap, she gulped half the bottle.
"Did Jason get that information for you?" Galen paced the floor, hands stuffed in his pockets, a strand of thinning gray hair flopped onto his forehead. He looked at Diana curiously. "I don't remember nothin' 'bout no animal."
"Galen, I'm tired. No inquisition, please. the woman lives on a farm. It's only natural she'd become attached to an animal. Deductions. Sometimes they're better than facts. Besides, I mentioned an animal; she brought up the dog. Might have been a lamb for all I knew."
"Yeah, but she didn't mention a new puppy. You did. And she sure as hell didn't mention no border collie."
"What's the first thing someone does when their dog dies? They get another one. So, like I said, lucky guess. Border collies are farm dogs. Hell, I bet old Beamer was the same breed."
"They herd sheep, not cows."
Unwilling to rise to the discussion, Diana put her head back and closed her eyes. "Do we have to go to that Mardi Gras party tonight? I'll be drained after this."
"You sound like you're actually readin' 'em. How could you be drained? All you gotta do is memorize a few things. What's so hard about that?"
"I guess I'm tired from the schedule. This is the sixth performance in seven days, with only one day off between cities, and that was a travel day."
"Two more nights and you'll have a few days to rest. And yes, we have to attend the party. Won't look good if you don't show up. Besides, lots of important people'll be there. You get a few new clients from this shindig every year. Good publicity, too."
"Just what I need, more publicity."
"Ain't done you no harm up to now, that's for sure. You've packed every house, not to mention the fees your private clients cough up."
"That's because I'm good at what I do." She rolled the water bottle across her forehead. "God, it's hot out there."
"You got 'em eating right outta your hand, little girl. They're believing every word you say. Hell, even I believed you."
Diana scowled at her father. "Thanks for reminding me what a fake I am."
"Get over it. I don't have to remind you 'bout the nice livin' you're making. Come on, up. Time to get on out there. Remember, third row from the back on the end. Young man, twenty-two, just graduated college."
"I remember. Lots of school loans, cheerleader girlfriend, Mustang. I remember." She dragged herself off the chaise. "Where's Blanche?"
"Your mother'll be here in time to go to the party. Now go on, scoot."
Diana took another sip of water, freshened her lipstick, and hustled back toward the stage. She hated when she was tired, cranky, and acting like a prima donna. She hoped it didn't come across in her performance or else she'd read about it in the morning papers. Besides, her neck still tingled, and she didn't understand why. A quick, chiropractic jerk of her head produced a satisfying crack, and she massaged the area. As she was about to pull pack the curtain , Jason, her computer researcher, caught her arm.
"How'd you know about the dog?"
"Lucky guess. You know, farm, animals. Women get attached."
"This was a little closer than that. Border collie? No information I gave you."
"I'm a psychic, remember?" She winked and pointed to her head, as if that explained everything.
"Yeah, well, when you veer from the script like that, the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Spooks me, Diana.
"Gotta go, Jase. That's my cue." She smiled, blew an air kiss, and sashayed onstage to the waiting crowd.