Chapter 2: The difficulties of running an honest scam
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
If you’re going to tell fortunes for a living, you have to understand the marks, or, should I say, clientele. Most people who go to see fortune tellers are not really interested in finding out about their future. What they want are reassurances about themselves. Am I still pretty? Can I still land a guy? Will I ever have enough money? Can I be happy? Those are questions about events stretching out for years. And you’re not going to be around when your predictions come true or not. What your client wants is some assurance that she does have a brighter future ahead of her, and maybe some pleasing advice about how to get there. And I say “she” because most of my customers are women.
Then there are the short-term questions, which tend to come from younger women and girls. Will so-and-so fall in love with me? Will so-and-so come back to me? Is so-and-so faithful to me? For those, being a bartender in Farnham is a great advantage. I’m hooked into every grapevine in our hole of a town, and know most of the people, at least by sight, so I can be fairly accurate about predictions.
Knowing all this, I still wouldn’t be the modestly successful fortune teller I am if it weren’t for a few of my special abilities. I can “read” people’s emotions fairly well, in a way normal people can’t. I can throw my clients into a trance state where they’ll talk about themselves and accept what I tell them. How far I can push that, I don’t know, and I don’t care to find out. The whole job is a bit of a scam, but I play it as an honest scam. You come to me for your fortune, and I will do my best to figure out what’s eating at you and give you the answers you need. True, they aren’t always the gospel truth, but there you are. I’ll make you feel good that you’ve come to me. But whether you come back to me or not, that’s your choice.
The whole idea came up when I’d been in Farnham a few months and realized I was never going to make ends meet and come out ahead just working at McNaughten’s, even when I got promoted to being a bartender. I got myself a black robe, a crystal ball, a deck of tarot cards, and outfitted one of the front rooms as my fortune telling parlor. Most of my clients know less about spiritualism and the occult than I do, so I didn’t go to any great expense fitting out the parlor with convincing props. A few evil-sounding books, a skull (real), and some graphics lifted off the Internet did the trick.
This afternoon, according to the sign I’d put out front, I’d be available from 2 to 5. So I got dressed up just after 1:30 and moved out to the card table on the enclosed porch. I pulled out my Tarot deck, Rider-Waite, don’t you know. Though I call it the Waite-Smith; Patricia Coleman Smith drew the deck, and deserves at least half the credit. And I arranged it in a fortune telling pattern. At least that’s what it looked like. It was really a pattern for a bizarre form of solitaire I had developed to while away the hours waiting for clients.
I didn’t have to play for long this time. My first client drove up, parked, and came down the walk almost precisely at two. Mrs. Hood, fifty-ish wife of one of the plant superintendents, was one of my regulars. Financially, she’s better off than at least 95% of the town. But her husband’s eyes had been wandering, and I knew by now it wasn’t just his eyes. He’d become infatuated by Lucy Love, one of our newer working girls, and looked like he might even try to make it exclusive. Or so Lucy told me when we had her jailed last week. She wasn’t lying.
Mrs. Gina Hood was dressed to kill. She had style and looks, no matter what Henry Hood thought. Brown hair with a strong hint of red, big brown eyes, plump lips graced by lipstick that perfectly matched her complexion, tight white-and-black dress that showed off her figure tastefully, she could hold her own against women years younger. Problem was that she knew it, relied on it, and had become a profoundly uninteresting and shallow person. Apart from the accomplishments of her children and her husband, she had literally nothing to say. The kids had left home, and Henry was “busy,” so she wasted time. That included coming to see me. Me, I liked her. She wasn’t a bad person. She’d just grown to rely on her looks without thinking about it. Otherwise, she was a nice and cheerful person. I could imagine myself working through a bottle of wine with her, laughing all the time.
She came up the steps to my porch, came through the screen door, we exchanged pleasantries, and went into my parlor. Since I’ve first set it up, I’ve dolled it up a bit more. The curtains have astrological motifs, the table cloth an arcane circle from one of the Keys of Solomon, I think. (I don’t read the stuff, I just borrow from it.)
I sat her down in front of my crystal ball. Its main useful property was that it refracted light in a complicated fashion, and so served as a good focus for my clients as I threw them into a trance. Gina had been here before, so it took me only seconds.
It took only asking a few questions to realize that Gina knew her husband was cheating on her, but she didn’t know with whom. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to know.
Not what I wanted to hear. I was about to lose a regular. I told her where to look, brought her out of the trance, and then talked about the need to be strong to weather life’s misfortunes. I was tempted to add that weathering life’s misfortunes was a lot easier for someone with all the good fortune Gina had enjoyed, but chopped myself off before I said so. It’s one thing to lose a client, it’s another to piss her off.
Gina paid me, thanked me, didn’t mention coming back, unlike every previous time, and walked out my door and out of my life. She wouldn’t remember that I had given her the clue, but she would know she had one, and her life was about to be full of dealing with an unfaithful husband. She wouldn’t need me, and probably would find it too embarrassing to come see me again. Maybe after she’d finished either divorcing her husband or reconciling with him, she’d want to consult me again, not before.
My next client was another regular, then I got a tourist who’d happened to stop in our rowdy little truck stop for the night and was killing a few hours exploring everything Farnham had to offer, which isn’t much. And then no one. Eh, that was OK. Sunday was never a busy day.
I was getting ready to retreat from the porch back into the house and shuck the black robes, when two kids came up my sidewalk. They looked to be about ten and eight, girl and boy, probably same family. They hesitated at the foot of the steps.
I’m not really a fan of kids, but I’m not a kid-hater, either. I gave them a minute or two of uncertain looks and whispered conversation and then called out, “Is there something I can do for you two? Or are you just thirsty and need a soda?” Farnham is dry and hot much of the year. If you’re a kid and out and abouts, you’ll be thirsty soon.
The two kids whispered to each other, then came up the stairs and through the door. The girl, who was older and taller, spoke up. “Are you a real fortune teller, Madame Fortuna?”
I nodded as gravely as I could without smiling to spoil the effect. “Madame Fortuna sees all, knows all. I can see into the distant past, and foretell the workings of the future. I can see for miles and miles.” Thank you, The Who.
“Well . . . uh . . . could we ask your help? Your sign says $25, but all we have is $11.” And she pulled ten crumpled one-dollar bills and a handful of change out of her pocket and held it out to me.
I took it from her. No, don’t look at me that way. I took it from her hoping I could just give it back to her once I answered whatever their question was. I did not want this. These two kids didn’t look like they were in Gina Hood’s class. They looked more like trailer trash. It’s the clothes, the shabby clothes and that painfully despairing look they had. These were two kids who probably got free lunches at the elementary school. I had to wonder just how they’d got their hands on $11. Their savings? Swiped from their mother’s pocket book?
So I took it from her and said, “That will be fine. What kind of help do you need?”
She looked at her brother for confirmation, then turned back to me. “Our cat Blackie is missing, and we want you to tell us where he is.”