Ninth Key (The Mediator #2) by Meg Cabot

Chapter One

Nobody told me about the poison oak.

Oh, they told me about the palm trees. Yeah, they told me plenty about the palm trees, all right. But nobody ever said a word about this poison oak business.

“The thing is, Susannah—”

Father Dominic was talking to me. I was trying to pay attention, but let me tell you something: poison oak itches.

“As mediators—which is what we are, you and I, Susannah—we have a responsibility. We have a responsibility to give aid and solace to those unfortunate souls who are suffering in the void between the living and the dead.”

I mean, yeah, the palm trees are nice and everything. It had been cool to step off the plane and see those palm trees everywhere, especially since I’d heard how cold it can get at night in northern California.

But what is the deal with this poison oak? How come nobody ever warned me about that?

“You see, as mediators, Susannah, it is our duty to help lost souls get to where they are supposed to be going. We are their guides, as it were. Their spiritual liaisons between this world and the next.” Father Dominic fingered an unopened pack of cigarettes that was sitting on his desk, and regarded me with those big old baby blues of his. “But when one’s spiritual liaison takes one’s head and slams it into a locker door…well, you can see how that kind of behavior might not build the sort of trust we’d like to establish with our troubled brothers and sisters.”

I looked up from the rash on my hands. Rash. That wasn’t even the word for it. It was like a fungus. Worse than a fungus, even. It was a growth. An insidious growth that, given time, would consume every inch of my once smooth, unblemished skin, covering it with red, scaly bumps. That oozed, by the way.

“Yeah,” I said, “but if our troubled brothers and sisters are giving us a hard time, I don’t see why it’s such a crime if I just haul off and slug them in the—”

“But don’t you see, Susannah?” Father Dominic clenched the pack of cigarettes. I’d only known him a couple of weeks, but whenever he started fondling his cigarettes—which he never, by the way, actually smoked—it meant he was upset about something.

That something, at this particular moment, appeared to be me.

“That is why,” he explained, “you’re called a mediator. You are supposed to be helping to bring these troubled souls to spiritual fulfillment—”

“Look, Father Dom,” I said. I tucked my oozing hands out of sight. “I don’t know what kind of ghosts you’ve been dealing with lately, but the ones I’ve been running into are about as likely to find spiritual fulfillment as I’m going to find a decent New York City–style slice of pizza in this town. It ain’t gonna happen. These folks are going to hell or they’re going to heaven or they’re going on to their next life as a caterpillar in Kathmandu, but any way you slice it, sometimes they’re gonna need a little kick in the butt to get them there….”

“No, no, no.” Father Dominic leaned forward. He couldn’t lean forward too much because a week or so before, one of those troubled souls of his had decided to forgo spiritual enlightenment and tried to snap his leg off instead. She also broke a couple of his ribs, gave him a pretty nifty concussion, tore up the school real good, and, let’s see, what else?

Oh, yeah. She tried to kill me.

Father Dominic was back at school, but he was wearing a cast that went all the way down to his toes, and disappeared up his long black robe, who knew how far? Personally, I didn’t like to think about it.

He was getting pretty handy with those crutches, though. He could chase the late kids up and down the halls if he had to. But since he was the principal, and it was up to the novices to hand out late slips, he didn’t have to. Besides, Father Dom was pretty cool, and wouldn’t do something like that even if he could.

Though he takes the whole ghost thing a little too seriously, if you ask me.

“Susannah,” he said, tiredly. “You and I, for better or for worse, were born with an incredible gift—an ability to see and speak to the dead.”

“There you go again,” I said, rolling my eyes, “with that gift stuff. Frankly, Father, I don’t see it that way.”

How could I? Since the age of two—two years old—I’ve been pestered with, pounded on, plagued by restless spirits. For fourteen years, I’ve put up with their abuse, helping them when I could, punching them when I could not, always fearful of somebody finding out my secret and revealing me to be the biological freak I’ve always known I am, but have tried so desperately to hide from my sweet, long-suffering mother.

And then Mom remarried and moved me out to California—in the middle of my sophomore year, thanks very much—where, wonder of wonders, I’d actually met someone cursed with the same horrible affliction: Father Dominic.

Only Father Dominic refuses to view our “gift” in the same light as me. To him, it’s a marvelous opportunity to help others in need.

Yeah, okay. That’s fine for him. He’s a priest. He’s not a sixteen-year-old girl who, hello, would like to have a social life.

If you ask me, a “gift” would have some plus side to it. Like superhuman strength or the ability to read minds, or something. But I don’t have any of that cool stuff. I’m just an ordinary sixteen-year-old girl—well, okay, with above ordinary looks, if I do say so myself—who happens to be able to converse with the dead.

Big deal.

“Susannah,” he said now, very seriously. “We are mediators. We aren’t…well, terminators. Our duty is to intervene on the spirits’ behalf, and lead them to their ultimate destination. We do that by gentle guidance and counseling, not by punching them in the face or by performing Brazilian voodoo exorcisms.”

He raised his voice on the word exorcisms, even though he knew perfectly well I’d only done the exorcism as a last resort. It’s not my fault half the school fell down during it. I mean, technically, that was the ghost’s fault, not mine.

“Okay, okay, already,” I said, holding up both hands in an I-surrender sort of gesture. “I’ll try it your way from now on. I’ll do the touchy-feely stuff. Jeez. You West Coasters. It’s all backrubs and avocado sandwiches with you guys, isn’t it?”

Father Dominic shook his head. “And what would you call your mediation technique, Susannah? Headbutts and chokeholds?”

“That’s very funny, Father Dom,” I said. “Can I go back to class now?”

“Not yet.” He puttered around with the cigarettes, tapping the pack like he was actually going to open it. That’ll be the day. “How was your weekend?”

“Swell,” I said. I held up my hands, knuckles turned toward him. “See?”

He squinted. “Good heavens, Susannah,” he said. “What is that?”

“Poison oak. Good thing nobody told me it grows all over the place around here.”

“It doesn’t grow all over the place,” Father Dominic said. “Only in wooded areas. Were you in a wooded area this weekend?” Then his eyes widened behind the lenses of his glasses. “Susannah! You didn’t go to the cemetery, did you? Not alone. I know you believe yourself to be indomitable, but it isn’t at all safe for a young girl like yourself to go sneaking around cemeteries even if you are a mediator.”

I put down my hands and said, disgustedly, “I didn’t catch this in any cemetery. I wasn’t working. I got it at Kelly Prescott’s pool party Saturday night.”

“Kelly Prescott’s pool party?” Father Dominic looked confused. “How would you have encountered poison oak there?”

Too late, I realized I probably should have kept my mouth shut. Now I was going to have to explain—to the principal of my school, who also happened to be a priest, no less—about how a rumor had gone around midway through the party that my stepbrother Dopey and this girl named Debbie Mancuso were going at it in the pool house.

I had of course denied the possibility since I knew Dopey was grounded. Dopey’s dad—my new stepfather, who, for a mostly laid-back, California kind of guy, had turned out to be a pretty stern disciplinarian—had grounded Dopey for calling a friend of mine a fag.

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