RobThurman.net | ALL SEEING EYE Excerpt: Chapter 4
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ALL SEEING EYE Excerpt: Chapter 4

 

Paint it Red!

Thirteen Years Later

 

There’s a sucker born every minute.

Someone really on top of their shit had said that once. Some said it was the great con artist of his or any time, P. T. Barnum. Others said it was one of his competitors who coined the phrase. Not that it mattered. What mattered was the message, the inner truth of the words. There’s a sucker born every minute. It was staggering in its simplicity, heart-stopping in its beauty. It was also a personal mantra, my nightly prayer. Picture it, if you will. Me, on my knees beside my bed, hands clasped earnestly as I asked for nothing more than people as dumb as a box of hair to chase me down the street and throw money at me. More angelic a picture you couldn’t find.

Of course, it was a nice image but not strictly true. I didn’t have to beg. Sliding green out of sweaty palms came naturally to me, an instinct so strong I probably popped out of the womb with it. Lifted the doctor’s wallet before he had the chance to slap my ass. Outright stealing and unabashed conning were long behind me, though. The tricks I’d picked up in a state-sponsored home for the tragically unadoptable and the permanently screwed had gotten me through some hard times, but I’d moved on to other things. That long-gone carnival had taught me a better way, a safer way.

I was the real deal now. I genuinely earned the money I made. If people chose to pay me more money than they had, hey, whose fault was that? If they used what I gave them as an uncertain prop to a shaky life, that wasn’t my lookout. My product was solid for what it was—I never lied to a client. If they took it to be something else, took me to be something more than I was, all I could do was lean back and rake it in. I never claimed to be a saint. What you did with what I gave you wasn’t my concern.

What was my concern was an absent secretary. Abigail, who had never given up on me and had written enough letters to fill a steamer trunk, was off visiting her family. It was a different carnival but in the end just the same. It had come to roost for a while in a podunk town about an hour south of Atlanta, and she’d jumped at the chance to see her parents. Sticky cotton-candy fun for her, but for me it was a different story. No secretary meant calls would be missed and walk-ins turned away. That, in turn, meant a steady stream of twenties and fifties flapping their wings elsewhere. It wasn’t a mental image to put me in a good mood as I opened the office. Neither were the horns, curling mustache, and pitchfork some Bible-thumping delinquent had drawn in marker on the glass over my poster. Displayed prominently in the picture window, my face stared back at me with uncannily penetrating eyes. A brown so dark they appeared black, they delivered a gaze both brooding and knowing. Impressive, and it should be. It took me a good hour in the mirror to get that look down pat.

The rest had been easier. Dark red hair was pulled back tightly into a two-inch ponytail, and my work wardrobe was exclusively black. I’d decided a goatee might be pushing the envelope and went clean-shaven, but I still looked like every Hollywood image of what I was. On that note, I tilted my head and reconsidered as my hand hovered to rub the marker lines away. Who was I to say that the devil wasn’t a good look for me?

It is all in the advertising.

Snorting at a conceit that was pretty big even for me, I went ahead and wiped the glass clean with my glove . . . including the “Repent” sign above my head. I had some older clients. It wouldn’t do to scare them into heart palpitations on the sidewalk. Unlocking the front door to the office, I walked in with a shadow following at my knee and dumped the mail on Abigail’s desk. Small and dainty, it was all whites, golds, and ornate curlicues . . . much like Abby herself. Twelve years, and she hadn’t changed all that much, the same Amazing Unicorn Girl. The rubes hadn’t minded her glaringly fake special effects then, and their equivalent still doted on her today. There hadn’t been many kids cuter than Abby had been, and there weren’t any women more incandescent.

As for my truth, a runaway from the state who could see what lurked behind the mundane, I’d been different from Abby. Not as cute, for one. As for the seeing, it’s sad but true that most people have done things they regret. Add to that people who have done things, hideous things, that they don’t regret, and it was a lot for a homeless kid to know, to see. That’s why I’d gotten the gloves, wore long sleeves. It was why I’d only conned them at the carnival, but I’d known that if I wanted to move up one day, that would have to change.

When I left the carnival, I sucked it up. I used my ability; I didn’t fake it. I started when the people at Social Services weren’t as cooperative as they could’ve been when I was searching for Glory. I learned to handle the uncomfortable nature of it. I broke out the goods and went to work. It hadn’t helped me find Glory, but it had helped me start the business. It wasn’t wine and roses, but it was beer and barbecue. That had been a start. It had only snowballed from there.

After opening one of the envelopes from the mail, I fanned out fifteen twenties and grinned darkly at a whole new classification of lunch money. I stuffed the money back in and dropped the envelope into Abby’s in-box to be sorted later for a reading. I might charge an arm and a leg, but I did deliver. Moving back to my separate office, I propped open the door with a plaster cast of a head and got ready to greet the day. I had several appointments before noon, although I’d kept the next few days light until Abby was due back. I could’ve taken a short vacation, too, but a raging Atlanta summer left little to do but sizzle on the asphalt. Even sitting on my dock at home would be like enduring a sweat lodge. The breeze off the river was nonexistent, and the mosquitoes were carrying off water-skiers. The Ninth Circle of Hell had nothing on Atlanta in August.

Even with the air conditioner going full blast, it was still overly warm in the office. I pulled at my black fake-silk long-sleeved pullover shirt. No billowing sleeves—that much into the look I was not, and real silk showed Atlanta sweat stains if you merely looked out the window. It was my costume of choice—it shouted psychic or movie-style spy/assassin, but lightweight as it was, I didn’t think it was going to survive, air conditioner or no. My palms should’ve sweated under gloves of real silk, better fit, but they were long used to being covered. They stayed cool. Protected. I’d settled in behind my desk, a much more massive affair than Abby’s. A deep, dark cherrywood, it came direct from the factory. That’s the way I liked my things, new. Untainted. It kept my life simpler. Slipping off my shoes, I propped feet up next to a crystal ball on a brass stand and reached for the nudie mag I’d bought at the corner store. A man had his needs. Being in touch with the pulse of the Universal friggin’ Soul wasn’t going to change that.

The jingle of bells and a strong hello had me shoving the magazine into a drawer and swinging my feet down. Placing my hands flat on the desk, I cleared my throat and said, “Mrs. Eckhardt, prompt as always.” I didn’t bother to deepen my voice, but I did flash her an appreciative eye. It was faked, but Ginger was an established client. She might already be hooked, but it paid to invest in her continued satisfaction. “And looking gorgeous to boot. Blond is a good color on you.”

A wrinkled hand automatically fluffed the buttercup-yellow bouffant hair as Ginger came into my office and sat in the plush crimson chair opposite my desk. “You heartless flirt. Always the same with you.” Pink lips peeled back to reveal the bright and shining smile you didn’t need to be psychic to know rested in a cup in her bathroom overnight.

It was hard to say whether Ginger kept coming back for the information from beyond or for the flattery. I didn’t care which it was. It was her dime, and either one paid the bills. “How could I not flirt with a woman so stunning?” I said with a sly wink. “It would be a crime against God and nature.” She threw back her head and gave a bawdy laugh that revealed that in her day, Mrs. Eckhardt had been something, indeed. Of course, I didn’t have to guess that by her laugh—I knew her original hair color. A rich chestnut brown, it came through clear as day. I had seen her stuff her first bra, kiss her first boy, and skinny-dip her way into a reputation she didn’t once regret. When she married the love of her life, I was there. She gave him three healthy children that I watched grow up. I also saw her husband die—a stroke while playing golf. I stood at her side at the funeral as they lowered the coffin to disappear into the ground, never to be seen again. That part I could’ve done without. I’d seen enough of that magic trick in my own past.

Now you see them. Abracadabra. Now you don’t.

I tossed a few more compliments her way, which she caught like a pro, before I peeled off my right glove and held out my hand. “What is it today, gorgeous?”

This time, it was a lost necklace. It wasn’t the first. Ginger lost things on a near-weekly basis. If it wasn’t my charm drawing her in, then it was a bad case of Alzheimer’s. I cradled her keys in my hand for a second, and the image bloomed clearly. Tucked away in a lovingly polished cedar chest and very purposely put there when Ginger was craving company and a big dose of flattery from her favorite psychic. With a twitch of my lips, I delivered the news, and soon Ginger was on her way after promising to call back and make another appointment with Abby.

The next client didn’t show up. A first-timer, no big deal. It happened. It did make me appreciate the fact that Abby wasn’t there to say I should’ve known that was going to happen. She never tired of that joke. Twelve years, and it still tripped from her lips as if it were the first time. Now that I thought about it, a few days’ vacation might not be enough for my devoted secretary. A little alone time wasn’t always a bad thing, even when it came to someone I’d come to think of, no matter how reluctantly, as a sister.

Abby’s sense of humor might leave something to be desired, but she was all softness, bright eyes, good heart, and bubbling laughs. Not much like my real sister. Glory was every bit the greedy soul I was, but she went about her larceny in a more proactive fashion. Not averse to danger, she balanced on a knife edge of amorality and violence.

Cute little girls with strawberry-blond hair go to foster homes, while gangly teenage boys who knew how to use a shotgun are swallowed by state institutions. At the time, I’d thought Glory had the better deal. It wasn’t the first time I’d been wrong. Probably wouldn’t be the last. In the end, I wasn’t sure which of us could lay claim to being more fucked up—by societal standards, anyway. Those standards had always seemed excessively lofty to my way of thinking, but when it came to Glory, maybe society was on to something. The little girl I’d once sworn to save was gone. And what was left in her place was someone who, if you crossed, it was safe to say you’d regret it.

Too late to change now. Wasn’t that the story of my life?

I was just thinking about what to do with my free hour thanks to my no-show, but someone tried to rob me instead. This was also not the first time this had happened to me. He was about seventeen, skinny, twitching for a fix, with a shaved head and a black tribal tattoo on the dark skin of the back of his hand. It was the same hand he used to hold the knife, no doubt thinking it was concealed by laying it flat against his leg.

Kids.

By the time with darting eyes he checked out the place for other people, he was way too late in the game. He turned toward me and lifted the switchblade, opening his mouth to say something he saw in a movie or a TV show—something that was damn sure going to scare the living shit out of me. The entitled, lazy youth of today. They couldn’t even come up with their own piss-your-pants threats. It was a shame. But as his mouth opened to deliver whatever plagiarized obscenity filled demand, he noticed the gun I was pointing at him.

I kept the porn drawer closed so as not to offend the ladies, but I had a holster for one big-ass Glock studded in place to the underside of my desk so as not to offend my undertaker with a difficult-to-conceal slit throat. It was easy to pull, easier to point. I aimed at his scrawny chest. I didn’t think because he was skinny and underfed that he wasn’t dangerous. In some situations, back-to-the-wall ones, it made people like him—a kid like I’d been—more dangerous, if anything.

His eyes widened, the whites of them tinged more toward yellow. Hepatitis. Not long for this vale of tears. I didn’t wait to see if the gun made him back off. I went directly to defense line two and used my left hand to activate the alarm system. It was a simple, small red button on the closest corner of the desk—the results weren’t. The wail threatened to puncture ear drums and bring the police in minutes. It was so loud that, forget Georgia, it might bring every cop in the tristate area to arrest me for disturbing the peace.

I had a third option, but that one I hadn’t had to use once. The first two always did the trick. The guy was gone so fast, flinging the front door open with such force, that he shattered the glass encasing the chicken wire. When I’d seen my defaced poster, I should’ve known it was going to be a bad day.

I turned off the alarm. It wasn’t connected to a service. Wasted money. The noise alone was enough to send the thieves running. I replaced the Glock in its holster, but not before noticing the concealing black paint was chipping off the orange tip that was a dead giveaway that it was a fake gun and less lethal than a BB gun. But it was the only gun I would have. I didn’t like guns, and I didn’t like knives, which made it more awkward when I noticed the thief had dropped his in the middle of the floor as he ran for it.

Because, unlike my gun, it was real.

The body holds eight to ten pints of blood. I saw that on some stupid crime-scene investigation show where everyone is attractive and everyone wears sunglasses at night. I’d been channel surfing one night and wasn’t fast enough to keep surfing before I heard that unnecessary fact. I didn’t know pints or liters or anything like that, but I knew how much blood poured out of your mother when a knife was jammed into one side of her throat and out the other. In three minutes, give or take, it was a lake of blood. A lake you never forgot; a liter was just a word. I’d lay a thousand bucks not one of those actors had seen anything close to what they were blathering about. They were only reading their lines, and not once did it go through their empty heads that what they were saying and pretending was reality to some people.

A head popped in through the doorway as I dug out the Yellow Pages to call the glass guy to come fix the door. It was Luther, fifty and graying, from Pie and Puds three shops down. The pie was the best in Georgia, and Pud was for when you ordered Luther’s special brew of coffee with a slice. Thick as mud with enough caffeine to guarantee you didn’t sleep for a week. Pie and mud. Pud. I didn’t get it, either, but each to his own. Luther had a faithful elderly clientele that came every day. “Damn, boy, you get robbed again? And can’t you get an alarm that plays Barry White? I got old people in the place. You done made them soak their Depends diapers and scared ’em so bad the false teeth were flying around the room like some cheesy damn horror movie.”

“Sorry, Luther, but Barry wasn’t in the selection.” I eyed with grim unease the knife on the floor. “The kid dropped it. Would you mind tossing it into the dumpster on your way out? I’ve got a customer coming and they’re already five minutes late. I have to get my mojo in gear.” I passed a hand in front of my face and reappeared with smooth features, mysterious fathomless gaze, and one raised eyebrow. “Huh? You think?”

He shook his head, grabbed the switchblade, and headed back out the door. “You are one strange white boy. That’s all I’m saying.”

Once he was gone, I finished calling the glass place. They were used to calls in this area. The office was in a well-traveled, artsy-funky part of town. It was up and coming, not as well known or expensive to rent as Little Five Points, which meant it was still rough around the edges, which had just been proven. That didn’t stop people from coming, and walk-ins were common. That didn’t mean the man who opened the door while I was sweeping up small pieces of glass wasn’t what I considered a member of my usual clientele. Not that I didn’t get men in, I did. But they were usually an older crowd or dreadlocked twenty-somethings who smelled of incense and goat cheese. The man at my door didn’t fit. He looked to be in his early thirties and wasn’t being dragged along by a giggling girlfriend or sporting flip-flops and a tie-dyed shirt. On the contrary, he was wearing a suit. In this weather, the man was wearing a goddamn suit. Unbelievable.

Okay, there was no tie, and the shirt was open at the collar one whole button, but it was still a suit. I felt the sweat prickle the nape of my neck at the very sight of it. The guy was tall and solid, with short blue-black hair and almond-shaped pale blue eyes. I’d only seen that combination once before. A couple of months of my long-gone past, and here it stood before me. But this wasn’t the real deal. Years had passed, and except for the unusual coloring, I probably couldn’t have picked out my old acquaintance on the street. But I did remember that he’d had a helluva nose and was short. This guy had a nose of less than anteater proportions and was tall, taller than me. He wasn’t a good-looking guy, with a face of harsh angles and planes, but he had a quiet power about him. An air of competence. I wouldn’t have wanted to run into him in a dark alley.

Abby, on the other hand, would’ve finagled his phone number in a heartbeat.

Power and competence. It made me think of Cane Lake and cops. I’d had my fill of cops when I was fourteen, including the sympathetic ones. None of it made for good memories.

“Are you the . . .” He closed the door behind him and waited for the tinkling bells to quiet before he finished the question. “Are you the resident psychic?”

I’d long slipped my glove back on. Resting the broom against Abby’s desk, I folded my arms to regard him suspiciously. The disquiet I kept to myself. He wasn’t the past, but this guy was someone, all right. Someone who wanted something from me, and it was more than where Auntie Liz had hidden the family silver before she died. He wasn’t a cop. He didn’t quite have the tinfoil bite to him, but he was something. And whatever that might be was pinging hard on my radar.

“That depends on your definition of psychic,” I drawled. It was my show, but there were times the trappings of it grated. “Walk-ins are twenty-five bucks extra. Rates are posted in plain sight per Chamber of Commerce rules.” I jerked my chin in the direction of the black and gilt cursive, Abby’s doing, on the wall.

He wasn’t put out by my rudeness. “I’m not here for a reading,” he said politely with a vaguely Northern flavor to his voice. “Not yet, at any rate. I would just like to talk.”

“I charge by thirty-minute increments,” I droned on as if he hadn’t spoken. If he wasn’t here for the talent, I wasn’t going to waste the usual routine on him. “I have an hour window in my schedule. You want the whole thing or not?” I didn’t care either way. On one hand, I wasn’t one to turn away money. On the other, well, I wasn’t one to turn away money. I suppose that meant there was only one hand, a money-grubbing paw blithely unaware of my caution. Or simply resistant to it.

“You’d charge to talk?” He blinked, torn between a tightly drawn amusement and mildly righteous outrage. “I’m not sure my expense account will cover that.”

“I’d charge to flip you off in traffic if I could work out the logistics.” I straightened. “My time is valuable. You can pay or you can walk. It’s your choice.”

He reached for his wallet without further argument, only saying, “There goes my dinner money.”

Yeah, cry me a river. I accepted the hundred dollars he forked over and repeated, “Twenty-five extra for walk-ins.”

He raised an eyebrow but passed more bills over. “Could we sit down?”

“Sure,” I said as I counted the money in a fast riffle. “Knock yourself out. You’ve got thirty minutes on the meter.”

Making his way past me into my office, he sat in the client chair and looked around. The doorstop immediately caught his eye. “Do you have an interest in phrenology, then?”

Wasn’t he up on the whole ball of wax? “Nope.” I sat back in my chair, slouching a bit and linking fingers across my stomach. “Bought it at a yard sale. A buck fifty. Good for propping the door open.” And it made me laugh at people’s gullibility.

“You don’t put stock in reading a person’s character by the bumps on their head, I’m guessing.” He was serious, even with the faintly dry flavor to the question. It only made him seem more out of place. In this business, you usually have two categories: slobbering believers or foaming-at-the-mouth skeptics. This guy didn’t come across like either one. He didn’t have the fire of a zealot or the cynicism of the Doubting Thomas. In another lifetime, I might have been curious. In this one, I only wanted to see the door hitting his ass. Curiosity killed more than cats, I’d learned that the hard way. And if that made me the only closed-minded psychic in the Western Hemisphere, I’d learn to live with the title.

“Only if I put them there.” I opened the top drawer, pulled out a deck of cards, and started to deal them out. “So talk, already. I’m on a schedule, pal, even if you’re not.”

His eyes followed the cards as he said firmly, “I did say no reading.”

“It’s solitaire.” I lifted eyebrows at his insistence. “The only thing I’ll pick up from this is paper cuts.” If I weren’t wearing my gloves. The deck was clean and new. I was the only one who’d touched it, but I wasn’t taking a chance around this one.

He gave a rueful smile and apologized smoothly. “Sorry. I’m a little sensitive to maintaining the integrity of the experiment.”

Great. He was one of those.