The Diva’s Fool
“The Diva’s Fool” is the launch of a mystery series based on the Major Arcana of the Tarot cards, a popular deck used for divination. The first card is the Zero Card, known as The Fool, and it represents the Uninitiated Person beginning a journey that takes twenty-two phases, each coinciding with the archetypical characters and themes of the Major Arcana, otherwise known as the Greater Secrets.
The story begins with Alex interviewing Carmen Dellamorte, an opera diva playing Lady Macbeth at the Chicago Lyric Opera House who has an interest in Tarot cards, a few hours before her final performance. The opera diva turns the tables on Alex, however, and commissions her as a ghost writer to organize all the material the diva has collected on her father, a wealthy man who collects guns. After the interview, Alex settles into watching the performance and is shocked, as is the rest of the audience, to see the diva die onstage. Her boss-editor urges Alex to get involved, and from there Alex begins to investigate the diva’s murder.
She interviews a colorful cast of suspects, including the diva’s publicist, an animal psychic; the diva’s roommate, Castrato, also known as The Fool; the deputy conductor, who delivers a poisonous plant; the diva’s understudy, who launched the curse of the famous Scottish play by uttering its name three times before the diva’s last performance; and the diva’s manager, a married man with four children who mercilessly flirts with Alex.
Along the way, Alex has her cat kidnapped; is knocked unconscious in the diva’s tomb; and is almost killed while receiving a massage from the diva’s former masseur. The Wizard counsels her, gives her a Tarot reading, which portends her troubling future, and steadies her for the demanding tasks ahead during a guided meditation. Alex clashes with Joe Burke, a down-to-earth Chicago police detective who sneers at Alex’s techniques and her bent for the supernatural. Eventually, begrudgingly, Joe learns to respect her. The story ends with Alex solving the case, and her boss is now busy looking for a murder related to the supernatural and the next card in the Tarot deck, The Magician.
The doorbell tinkled as I entered, but The Wizard acted as if he hadn’t heard it. I wasn’t offended, or surprised I’d gotten used to his moments of focused concentration. He lifted the woodsy perfumed broom, its knobbed handle gleaming, and swept about three to six inches above the floor, leaving crumbs and dust behind. He was intent on finishing his task, whistling a gleeful melody as he brushed the air with a whoosh to right and left. After observing him for several moments, I still could not figure out why he swept in such an odd fashion.
The studio’s shelves were crammed with gemstones, herbs, incense, and Tarot cards, and cinnamon spice laced the air from a fat, red candle flickering in the corner next to the blazing fireplace. The place held an aura of high-mindedness mixed with whimsy, and I loved the incorruptible way it made me feel.
Slowly, methodically, The Wizard swiped the space above the well-worn wooden floor. Absorbed in his work, over and over he sang in a deep tone, “Be gone... away... fly... leave.” When he had swept the last corner with a curlicue swirl, he approached the center of the room, lifted the broom waist-high parallel to the floor and rotated his body, eyes closed and muttering a prayer.
Suddenly, his eyes popped open. “Alexandria Vilkas,” he cried. His joy charged me like a mug of steaming tea. “Come in, come in.”
“Hello, Master.” I stepped forward and quizzically looked at him.
With indigo eyes and a snowy beard trailing to his heart he wore jeans and a thick ivory wool sweater. Dots of perspiration rimmed his brow, and when he wiped his clammy forehead, he mussed his stiff, white hair. He upended the broom, holding it like a pitchfork. “It’s the New Moon, time to clear away the detritus from the last cycle and usher in our new desires. Your timing is impeccable I’ve just cleared away the negativity.”
I smelled dust bunnies. “Cleared away the negativity?”
“From clients, mostly. Dump every problem! By the end of the moon cycle, it’s an astral mess.” Breathing deeply, he spread his arms and looked around. “Much better, isn’t it?”
“If you say so.”
Looking me over from head to toe, he lamented, “You are a wet undine, aren’t you?”
My hands flew to my hair, drenched all the way down to my waist from the heavy snow outside. I could imagine how terrible I looked, but I shoved those thoughts aside to talk about this momentous occasion.
“It’s March 4th,” I said. “The big day.”
“Please, you’re not going to put it off any longer, are you?”
He motioned toward the leaping flames in the brick fireplace that engulfed two crackling logs in an orange blaze. “Very well. Take off your coat and dry it by the fire.”
Once we settled on his zebra-patterned couch, he showed me his new ten-inch crystal ball set atop a pewter stand that an artisan had sculpted into a trio of jesters.
“Oh, how beautiful!”
“Ordered it by catalogue.”
From my past year of studying with my master, I knew the crystal ball did not contain any magical properties. All the hocus-pocus, if you want to call it that, came from The Wizard’s mind, trained with rigorous study and capable of sustained concentration.
I nodded, regarding the folds of a black velvet, hooded cape hanging next to a wall-mounted sconce of a dragon. The Wizard had added those to the decor since my last visit seven days ago. He always added something new... last week he hung ornamental flower fairies in front of the window. The week before, he rearranged his essential oils into a pyramid.
“It’s March 4th,” I said again, as if that would make The Wizard hurry.
“You must be patient. Tell me all you have learned this year.”
I could tell he was fishing for a certain answer by the way his forehead creased like an accordion; but I had no idea what he wanted to hear. “We’ve been working with Tarot cards, their aspects of astrology, elementals, symbolism, numerology, colors, reversals, dignities, and correspondences what they mean individually, and how they interact with each other in a spread.”
“And what else?”
“We’ve covered ritual work and meditation, fortune-telling versus divination, and path-working. You also had me shooting guns and picking locks.”
The Wizard folded his hands together and looked me over. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know that you’re ready.”
What did I say wrong? “But you promised!”
“Initiation is not an exact science. It’s true that we’ve been studying together for 365 days, but you are not ready. Not yet.”
I felt like he’d pricked my hope with a needle and deflated it until it crumpled into a rubbery puddle. “What else do I need to do?”
The Wizard massaged his chin. “You must pass a test.”
The acids in my stomach whipped my breakfast of Baltic rye bread and farmer’s cheese into an acrid soup, but I swallowed hard because I trusted my master. He would give me a test I had a chance of passing. “What sort of test?”
“Tell me about the story you are working on.”
He often assigned me spiritual exercises that applied to my occupation as a journalist. As a reporter for Gypsy Magazine, a bimonthly in Chicago, I covered paranormal happenings such as haunted houses and ghost sightings. I’d had this job for three years, and I was ready for a challenge. “‘Tarot Cards and the Celebrities Who Use Them.’ Is this story going to be part of my test?”
“If you are ready to live a life of service.”
Our lessons always came back to the topic of service and helping others. I knew this. Why did he repeat himself?
“The story is always more than just about your byline, Alexandria Vilkas. It is about how readers will benefit from the information. By the same token, entering the Order of the Tarot will not make your life easier. Your own needs and wants must be subjugated for the betterment of someone else.”
I heard only “The Order of the Tarot.” “The Order of the Tarot? That’s the first time you uttered the name of the secret society.”
The Wizard nodded. “It goes by many names, but that is the one you will know it by.”
“What does it do? How many members does it have? Are you going to let me join today?”
The Wizard held up his right hand. “All in good time. First, you must pass the test. Oh, and there’s one more thing.”
“Since the Order of the Tarot is a secret society, you are not to discuss it with anyone, not your mother, not your friends, not your boss, not your boyfriend. No one. Do you understand?”
I nodded, wondering if he weren’t being a bit overdramatic, but I swore to keep my promise. “I don’t have a boyfriend.”
“Never mind that.”
The Wizard glanced at his crystal ball, polished it with his sleeve, and picked off an imaginary piece of lint, perhaps one that contained my negativity. Then he leaned in, as if pulled by an invisible force. “Oh, my,” he gasped and he looked at me in awe.
I focused on the three jesters holding the crystal ball as they stood frozen in their dancing positions.
“Your test is two-pronged. Do you want a reading on what you can expect?”
The Wizard smiled. “Very well.”
He reached into a nearby wooden cabinet and pulled out a deck of Arthurian Tarot cards wrapped in a black silk scarf. He made a big show of unveiling the cards... shuffling, whispering a petition, and asking me to cut them into three piles using only my left hand. With a flourish, he flipped over the top cards from each of the three piles onto the black silky folds.
The Page of Swords (The Adder) appeared first, followed by the Ten of Spears (The Green Knight), and the Three of Cups (The Dressing of the Sacred Spring). From my previous year of studying the Tarot, I knew the meanings of these cards, but I was curious to hear my master’s interpretation.
“After this story, your life will never be the same,” he announced. “You will become a servant to those in jeopardy of malevolence... supernatural and mundane. Shall I continue?”
Gulping, I nodded.
The Wizard drew his eyebrows together and proceeded in a clinical monotone. “You are the Page of Swords, an inconspicuous witness to important events, a clever spy to make sense of unexpected plot twists, an active person with a sharp mind and a gift for learning secrets. You endure a ten-day struggle, an awesome task of life over death that demands courage and diplomacy. During that time, a handsome married man seduces you, presenting you an item as a gift. If you suppress personal desires, you will be positioned to help victims of cruelty, immorality, and ruin. When your mission is complete, pay homage to the spirit of the spring.”
Despite the warning I sat back and grinned, like I’d just discovered a special present on my lap left by one of the flower fairies hanging near his window. The Wizard had been grooming me for this moment all year long, and now I was on the threshold of enlisting into the elite, secret society that fought supernatural evil forces. I’d heard rumors about it shortly after I started working for Gypsy Magazine and made it my mission to find out more so I could do a story on it. I remembered how surprised I was to hear The Wizard admit he was in a position to help me gain entry into the clandestine organization, but that I could never write about it.
“Wow! Sounds like the story is everything I’ve asked for. And for ten days!”
The Wizard studied the spread, gazed into his crystal ball, and shook his head with a “tsk, tsk.”
“Do not underestimate your attraction to the married man. You have known him in a previous life; that is why his pull is so strong.”
I inhaled sharply, now beginning to appreciate the test that lay ahead. I knew exactly which married man he was foretelling that’s what filled me with dread. Bruno Scavoro, a trustee of Gypsy Magazine, had enough magnetism to flip-flop the earth’s poles. I just hoped he didn’t have the capacity to derail me from what I wanted most membership in the Order of the Tarot.
“You said this test was two-pronged. What did you mean by that?”
“Earning the degree of the Fool involves two challenges. The one with the married man is the easier of the two. The other you will recognize when you see it. See me after it manifests itself.”
Day One: Sunday, March 23
Carmen Dellamorte lay on her stomach, her nude body covered only by a large pink towel. She gripped the end of the table with such intensity that her knuckles turned bone white.
“Miss Diva, por favor,” Jorge, her masseur, purred. He warmed peppermint oil between his hands and rubbed her shoulders. “You must try to relax.”
“Relax?” murmured Carmen into the donut face pillow, her olive skin glistening. “This opera is bad luck, I tell you.”
I sat at her side taking notes on this Sunday afternoon, doing writer’s research on her passion for Tarot cards. In two hours, the diva would give her final performance at the Chicago Lyric Opera House as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth. Her nerves were as frazzled as the fringe on her opera costume hanging nearby. In the center of the dressing room stood a three-foot tall cardboard box, taped along its seams with wide packaging tape.
I fidgeted in the plush burgundy armchair and looked around Carmen’s dressing room wigs resting on foam skulls, and several dozen long-stemmed red roses in glass vases wrapped in wide crimson ribbons. Fruity perfume and peppermint oil laced the air. I lifted the foam skull lying next to me, and placed it on Carmen’s vanity table.
“Miss Dellamorte,” I began. “About your interest in the Tarot cards.”
“Not now, cara mia,” she said. “I am ordered to relax by this madman.”
I had no other choice but to watch the massage with the hope that she’d allow me to begin the interview soon. I spotted the diva’s Tarot deck on the ledge of the upright piano... she had flipped over two cards, the Fool and the Hanged Man, and I wanted to ask her about that. How strange that she displayed these two particular cards.
She looked at me sideways and said, “You know about that ancient curse on this play, don’t you? The one that forbids you from saying the name of the production?”
I nodded. It was one of the reasons my editor Alyce sent me here. She hoped I’d witness something supernaturally ill-fated during this cursed opera. “It’s not just an article about the Tarot cards,” Alyce told me three weeks ago when she first gave me the assignment. “It’s about the Macbeth opera, the curses that surround any production of The Scottish Play. See if you can interview cast members on their feelings about performing in a show with a 400-year-old curse.”
To help Carmen relax, I spoke slowly and calmly. “During its first production as a play in 1606, a castrato playing Lady Macbeth because women weren’t allowed on stage was stricken with fever and died. Since then a curse forbids anyone to pronounce the performance’s title while in production.”
Alyce would love that Carmen was worried about this curse before her last performance, and I poised my pen, ready to take down her every word.
“Don’t you see?” Carmen said to Jorge, as she skooched herself up. “If someone says the name of this opera in the next few hours, somebody from the cast could die.”
Jorge glared at me and I felt myself stiffen. He seemed to want to protect Carmen from any thoughts that would disturb her, and he treated me as if I were her enemy. He moved over to the other side of the table, so that his back faced me, and helped Carmen to lie back down.
For my part, I wanted to pursue the conversation in the same direction because Carmen might offer something colorful about the curse that would be perfect for the story, a quote that would grab my readers. At the same time, I wanted her to start talking about her use of the Tarot cards.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Jorge said to Carmen. He moved back to the other side of the table and faced me again. “Don’t let it rattle you. Why don’t you let me finish your massage?”
“I suppose you’re right,” she said, but her tone of voice suggested doubt. She pursed her lips and closed her eyes, although she did not look relaxed. Jorge rubbed her slowly and sensuously. A silver and black pendant bearing an image of a cat hung from his neck.
“Does she have to be here now?” Jorge asked Carmen. “This massage is not going to work in front of her.”
I hoped Carmen would come to my defense, but she just lay silent on the table, allowing him to rub her. I realized I wouldn’t get very far with Jorge in the room. He wanted her lying down and quiet; I wanted her up and talking.
Jorge chop-chopped on her thighs. He took a bottle of warmed rubbing alcohol and freely poured the clear liquid on her back.
“Mmm,” said Carmen. “So what are your questions, Alexandria?”
I avoided making eye contact with Jorge. I rearranged my notebook and pen, cleared my throat, and asked, “How long’ve you been working with the Tarot cards?”
“It’s been at least ten years,” she said, stretching her arms forward. “I have a collection of Tarot cards, at least seventy different packs.”
“So that’s not just a rumor.”
“Oh, no, it’s true. Every morning I meditate on a card.”
“What card did you pick today?”
She closed her eyes, as if to focus on the card she’d drawn for that day.
“The Fool, one of my favorites. I love it when I draw this card. The Fool is a trickster, the one no one takes seriously, yet the Fool always says wise things.” She opened her eyes and sent a coy look. “Some people are really scared of the cards. Have you noticed that?”
I nodded, eager to capture more quotes.
“When I say I like playing with the Tarot cards, I rather like the reaction I cause, shock and outrage sometimes. It’s all rather fun.”
She looked sideways at me as Jorge continued to wear his set-jawed expression.
“The Tarot is misunderstood by many people. It can take a long time to get over one’s natural fears of its power,” I said.
Jorge glanced uneasily at me.
The Diva rolled to her side, careless of her nudity. “Would you mind finishing up, dear Jorge? It’s time for me to get ready for my final performance.”
“Are you sure? You’re still full of knots. And this interview right before your last performance... you have enough to worry about, if you ask me.” As he scrutinized me, he looked like he wanted to kill me, and I felt the hairs prickle on my neck. I sat quietly, waiting him out. As I held his gaze, I wondered if he was going to lift me by the scruff of my neck and toss me out. After what seemed like a long moment, he lifted his hands off Carmen’s body and wiped them on a towel.
“It was silly of me to think I could relax before a performance,” Carmen said as she stood up and stepped to her vanity mirror. In the meantime, Jorge gathered his supplies.
The mirrored closet door squeaked as Carmen opened it to remove her first costume. “You’re a writer, aren’t you?”
“Yes, reporters are usually writers.”
She either missed or ignored my sarcasm.
“Why, just three weeks ago, you called me for this interview, and I thought you’d be perfect. I confirmed it with my Tarot cards.” She dressed in front of me and Jorge with no shame. I felt uncomfortable, but couldn’t help myself from evaluating her body. She had an ample figure, well-proportioned, but with three rolls of olive-toned flab on her waist. Her long brown hair was tied in a knot at her nape, and her dark chocolate eyes set off her dramatic high cheekbones. The press called her La Tempestua, and I assumed it was because of her temperament on stage.
“Why do you need a writer?”
“I need help with a special project I’ve been working on.”
I looked at my watch. In less than an hour, Carmen would be on stage, and then off to Florence. If I didn’t do this interview now, I’d never meet my deadline. Alyce had been complaining about the magazine’s dip in subscriptions, and any misstep on the part of a writer caused her to fly into a rage. About six months ago she’d already fired one person for missing a deadline, shocking the rest of us into punctual compliance. On the other hand, I was torn with curiosity over what this world-famous diva wanted from me.
“What sort of project?”
The expression on her face hardened. “For years, I’ve been collecting material on my father, and now I want to write a book about him. It’s all there.” She pointed to the box. “Every time I start it, I’m interrupted, and I just haven’t been able to... ”
“Ah, the box.” I approached the box and touched it, attempting to gauge its weight, guessing it was quite heavy.
“To begin. I need someone to put it into some sort of order.”
“You want me to write a book on your relationship with your father?”
“Of course I’d pay you handsomely. Name your price.”
Jorge and I exchanged glances as he folded up the massage table. I sat back down and crossed my legs. This morning, I’d slipped on black sheer pantyhose with shiny black patent leather pumps, and now I studied a scuff mark in the area of my left big toe as I contemplated my dilemma. Alyce didn’t like her writers freelancing on the side. She said it caused them to lose focus on her magazine. The only problem with that line of thinking was that I was always short of paying my bills, and here was the diva asking me to name my price.
Carmen sensed my hesitation. “What is it they call it? Ah, for... ghost writing. I’m prepared to deposit $20,000 into your bank account, and give you this material on the spot.”
Never in my life had anyone offered me that kind of money for anything I could do. Something about Carmen made me think she was desperate, and I couldn’t believe she was ready to give me so much money without knowing me better. Fear mixed with excitement surged through me. I tried to move the box it was so heavy I could barely slide it two inches.
“It’s such an unusual request. Can’t you tell me anything else? Why me?”
“Of course you couldn’t possibly carry this box alone. We’ll get a messenger to do it, how’s that?”
She didn’t answer my question, and that bothered me.
“Why me?” I asked again.
“Because of your timing. I’m ready to write a book about my father, and you’re the writer who is in front of me. Call it an accident or fate.”
I sat back down on my chair and arranged my notebook and pen, both of which promptly dropped from my lap onto the floor. As I bent over to retrieve them, I felt lightheaded. Logic and desire battled within me I wanted the money, yet my boss didn’t want me to take on any side jobs. Carmen offered me more money than I’d make in the next five months at Gypsy Magazine. I thought about paying off credit cards and having enough for a down payment on a condo on the North Side. It would be hard to refuse all that money, but could I do it? On the other hand, no story worth that kind of money could be easy.
“Who is your father?”
“I can’t talk about it right now. There’s not enough time. I need you to accept this material. Please. You’ve got to do it.”
“I just... I don’t know anything about him.”
“It’s all in the box.” With shaking hands, Carmen pulled an appointment book out of her purse. In that moment, she seemed a frightened schoolgirl. “What’s your address?”
Jorge moved into the restroom with a garment bag, apparently to change his clothes.
I didn’t know what to make of her plea. Why did she want to give me so much money for a book about her father? Why didn’t she just write it herself? Yet the figure of $20,000 danced before my eyes, jiggling and wiggling, until I could barely resist. I knew this story would bring me trouble. I had to say no.
“No, really, I couldn’t.”
“Can’t we talk about this after your performance?”
“You need to accept this now. There’s no one else. Please.”
A feeling of fireworks mixed with foreboding hit the pit of my stomach when I knew I couldn’t say no. All my life I wanted a story that would pay me bundles, and that could take me straight into the mainstream. Maybe this was my break, the one that would get me away from Gypsy, away from Alyce’s tirades, and onto something bigger.
“All right, I’ll do it,” I said, surprised at the elation washing over me.
“Oh, that’s wonderful! I’ll have it sent to your home tomorrow morning. I’m off to Florence for a couple of weeks, so let’s talk about this when I return.”
As she took my address and called a messenger to pick up the box, I thought about what I’d tell Alyce. Maybe I wouldn’t tell her anything, I’d just work on this project on the side. That extra $20,000 would eliminate several of my troubles, give me a cushion to think about my future, and be enough for a down payment on the condo. Then I wondered what The Wizard would think about my taking this job. I had a feeling it was part of my test, and that he would approve.