Ira Milligan knew she was old. One of her customers would joke she was a millennia if she was a day. Not missing a beat, she would say Methuselah was quite heartbroken when she turned him down for a date to a dance back when they were both teenagers. No matter how many times she repeated the joke, no matter how familiar the audience, she got a round of hearty guffaws.
Her long, wavy hair was the color of the first snow of the season and her eyes the deepest green of High Summer in the tundra meadows. Her skin was as smooth as silk, and strangely devoid of wrinkles, making her the envy of women half her age. Though she dressed in the manner of a bygone age, told in whiskey-soaked stories by some of the old-timers, she carried herself with a sense of elegance that had many convinced she was descended from royalty. There were those who called her the Queen of Marrakech with nothing but reverence.
She was humming an ancient tune to herself as she finished the lunchtime dishes. Hummingbirds trilling around the feeders kept time with her own music-making. It was a lovely High Summer day, though a little too hot for her liking. The building clouds to the west promised to change that. It was the way of things this time of year; beautiful clear and cool mornings, a warm early afternoon, and then the rain. Almost like clockwork. She would tell tourists who happened upon her café that the storms started promptly at two and it was up to the whims of the weather as to whether or not they ended at four or stayed on for the six o’clock encore.
The sound of a coffee cup being set upon a saucer reminded her she was not alone. He was small and pale with ash-blond hair, though he attempted to look tougher in his all black clothes and fledgling goatee. Although he wasn’t old enough to legally buy beer, he somehow landed a job down at the Gas n’ Grub. Probably because Orin really had no sense of ethics. Especially when it came to money.
“You seem a little jumpy today, Jimmy,” Ira said softly, grandmotherly. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
He winced at the use of his childhood name. That wasn’t him. His name was Tarot, and had been since he was sixteen. Well, at least with strangers and his peers. The older people still called him by his given name. Although, he took a little less offense to James than Jimmy.
“Not really, Miss Milligan,” he replied in a small voice. “Thank you.”
“Someone told me you asked Mari to marry you,” Ira remarked.
Again, Tarot gritted his teeth over the use of incorrect names. It was Whisper, and they were going to get hand-fasted, which, depending on who you asked, was not exactly liked being married. Well, not unless they chose that.
“So?” He tried to temper the youthful defiance in his voice with respect for whom he was talking to. “She’s twenty and I’ll be nineteen next month. We’ve got jobs and I’m moving out of my dad’s.”
“You’re still awfully young, Jimmy.”
“I thought you had your first kid right after you turned eighteen.”
“That was a very long time ago,” Ira said. “Lazarus Lankin would say at least a thousand years back.”
“Lankin says a lot of things,” Tarot muttered, maintaining the defiant, yet respectful tone.
“And a great many of those things are true, Jimmy,” Ira added.
He said nothing, but sipped his coffee. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the building clouds outside. It would rain soon. In some ways, he found comfort in that, the rhythm of the season.
“What has your dad said about you wanting to get married?” Ira asked.
“I don’t want to talk about my dad,” Tarot said, the tone in his voice sounded almost defeated. He then looked up at his host. “Is he back?”
“Is who back?”
Ira smiled softly. Finding out about Lankin was the whole reason for Tarot’s visit. In some ways, this saddened her, remembering when he would come and spend hours keeping her company. That was before he stopped calling himself Jimmy and started wearing black and reading books about the occult.
“He was in earlier for breakfast,” she replied. “After that rescue on the Death’s Head, he decided to spend some time up high.”
Tarot sipped his coffee and shook his head. The Death’s Head and Hell’s Watchtower were up high in the tundra. He wondered if the cartographers that named those pieces of geography were issuing a challenge to hikers and climbers the world over to test their mettle. There had not been a season without at least one rescue, and, most often, one of the party was brought out with a blanket over their lifeless face. This did nothing to deter another season’s batch of foolhardy from making the ascent.
“Just curious,” Tarot said, finishing his coffee and fishing his pockets for money.
“He asked about you,” Ira said. “Probably knows you’re looking for him.”
“Lankin knows a lot of things.”
“And he’d tell you doesn’t know anything.”
Tarot put his meager coins down on the counter. He felt bad that he didn’t have any more than for his coffee. Ira smiled kindly at him, her unspoken way of letting him know a tip couldn’t be less important. She always enjoyed his company. He still looked forward to hanging around her, even if he didn’t show it.
“I guess I’ll get going. Got to walk, you know,” Tarot said. As if on cue, the first peel of thunder for the day sounded off in the distance.
“Better get to walking then, Jimmy,” Ira said. “There’s a storm coming.”