Oliver tries to ignore the slight trembling of his hands as he shuffles the tarot deck, willing himself to remain professional in front of the latest customer who has come to him for a reading.
When he’d first decided to go along with Gerry’s idea to offer both their services and Sight to the shop as tarot card readers, he had thought he could handle any death that might walk into the store. He’d seen the careful grace that Gerry handled customers with – the way he subtly pursed his lips when he detected a fear mark and proceeded to impart advice through the guise of a reading – and thought that he might be able to do the same.
He’d hoped to be able to warn people before it was too late to stop their deaths.
His hope has waned significantly since then. Everyone who has come to him covered in branching black veins has died in spite of his efforts. Every time he’s looked up the name of a customer he told of impending demise, he’s found an obituary.
In the present, Oliver tries to focus on his breathing. When that fails, he centers himself around the feel of the deck of cards in his hands as he shuffles them. His vision lands appreciatively on the way their dark surfaces give off flashes of silver, the eye design on the back of each card rendered in meticulous detail work. He’s never been more grateful that Anahita bought Gerry’s first painted tarot deck herself to use at the shop – it gives assuagement in moments like this.
Still, he finds himself aimless in his shuffling, almost dropping cards onto the ground.
It’s hard to concentrate when the person he’s doing a reading for has a bloodblack tendril curled around her neck, he muses, especially given she’s completely unaware of it. Especially given the hopeless history of his prior predictions in this place.
She’s smiling at him, eyes alight with life. There is a determined edge to her face that speaks to difficult past experience, a slightly haunted watchfulness to her gaze that lets him know she’s seen something.
She’d introduced herself as Marianne with a West-Coast American accent, stiffening a bit when she mentioned visiting the UK “on business” only to relax back into what she’s decided to portray as her default demeanor.
Oliver doesn’t usually study people – well, customers , anyway – this closely, but paying attention to Marianne’s physical mannerisms has kept his mind from fixing itself on the End she will soon be facing. He doesn’t know how to effectively warn her, doesn’t know if he should even bother.
His concentration grows almost impossible to hold onto once he hands off the deck to Marianne to shuffle. She tells him she wants to know what to expect for the rest of her business trip here, and that she’ll value any advice he gives her.
Even without reading the cards she will eventually pull, Oliver has one solid prediction about the trip – namely, how it will conclude.
She wants a three-card spread for decision-making: concise, insightful, meaningful.
Card 1 – strengths – the Moon, upright.
Inbreath. Exhale. Make eye contact. “You have a strong intuition, a connection to the unconscious.”
Something in Marianne’s eyes shifts into deep focus, as if the card’s meaning has solidified the truth of Oliver’s predictions for her. It’s interesting and disconcerting in equal measures, relief that she will likely take his advice combined with dread that it may not matter. He continues to outline the meanings of the card, watching her nod along in slight awe. She looks at him like he’s reading her soul. Perhaps he is reading her soul. At this point, he has no idea of the extent of his abilities.
He hasn’t particularly felt like trying to test the limits of what he can do, given how much of his power seems to be connected to other people’s deaths.
Card 2 – weaknesses – the Eight of Cups, upright.
Inbreath. Exhale. Make eye contact, trying not to betray the growing dread in his heart. “You have a sense of being trapped, unable to escape the situation in which you have found yourself. You feel like you have no other option than the choice you’re currently making.”
Marianne swallows hard, giving another nod of her head – a more solemn one this time.
Card 3 – advice – the Wheel of Fortune, reversed.
An inevitable turn of the wheel, as he had feared. An end – the end of the woman sitting in front of him.
Inbreath. Exhale. Brace to make a dire prediction.
“Something will happen soon, and it will be beyond your prediction or prevention.”
Marianne’s face blanches, and she looks closer to the dead now.
Fitting, perhaps. Every moment does bring her closer to the dead.
Oliver sits silent for a moment, trying to ease into his grim advice – the only counsel he can offer, given the circumstances.
“Given my past experiences with spreads of this sort, I suggest you get your affairs in order. Write a will, call any family you have. You are at the bottom of the wheel of fortune right now, and it is doubtful you will ever climb back up.”
Marianne gasps a little. Then, without another word to Oliver, eyes unfocusing as the vein pulsing into her forehead grows larger, she rushes out of the Keystone without paying for her reading.
Still sitting at the table, he hears the careful rustling of Gerry setting down his painting supplies in the main room of the shop. A moment later, clear grey eyes peek around the corner with curious concern.
Oliver gets to his feet steadily, filled with new energy – emotionally drained, yet physically sustained. It never makes sense, the way his body and emotions war after people flee frightened from the shop. Gerry seems to see the turmoil behind the regained strength, crossing the room in seconds to throw his arms around Oliver’s waist in a comforting gesture.
Oliver curls his arms around Gerry’s shoulders in response, letting the lightness of the feelings that envelop him cut through the heavy weight of guilt settled in his stomach.
Twenty minutes before closing time, a young woman walks into the Keystone and asks Oliver if he can do a quick reading for her. She’s free of branching veins, surrounded by a charmingly theatrical air.
She asks for a three-card spread, like Marianne did, but it’s of a different sort – it’s a reading of the past. With a teasing little smile that flashes between lips painted dark plum, one eyebrow arched in playful challenge, she wonders aloud how much about her past the cards can get right.
Card 1 – what worked – the Hierophant, reversed.
Ah. A rebellious soul. He could have guessed that from the way she carries herself – shoulders thrown back proudly, walking in spiky heeled boots as if she was born with them.
“You’ve been successful in subverting tradition, in breaking cycles and rebelling.”
The woman lets out a burst of resonant laughter. “Surely you didn’t need the cards to tell you that.”
“Fair enough, though I can’t quite choose what they decide to reveal to me.” In spite of himself, in spite of the day he’s had, Oliver finds himself letting out an amused chuckle as some of the tension seeps out of his body.
Card 2 – what didn’t work – Four of Wands, reversed.
Oh. A lack of support in her choices, then. Oliver can only hope his interpretation of this card won’t drudge up bitter memories – won’t ruin the casual banter he’s been enjoying with this new customer.
“You found yourself without support in the wake of your decisions. There was conflict at home, and then you left, drifting transient for awhile.”
The woman simply laughs again, though this time the sound rings a little more bitter. “Of course, my dear family. They simply couldn’t fathom me deciding to be anything but their perfect little daughter.” A flash of hurt briefly crosses her face, but it is soon swept away to make room for her dominant expression – heavy-lidded eyes half-closed but alert, lips turned up in a half-smile, forehead smooth.
Relief wells up in Oliver’s throat, and he gives a smile that he hopes comes across as reassuring and grateful.
It is a rare person who can hear of the hurtful past and react so mildly.
Card 3 – key learnings – Death, upright.
“Through rebellion, and through breaking traditions, you have learned metamorphosis. You have learned to transform, to start over again and again. You have learned not to fear the change you know is constant.”
“Exactly . Why fear what you know is inevitable?”
The words are said lightly, but the sentiment carries weight. Oliver finds himself nodding in agreement.
After the woman pays for the reading, Oliver walks her out to the main room of the shop. He’s just about to offer to call her a cab, aware of the darkness that has fallen outside, when the toe of one of her shoes catches on the edge of a rug and she pitches headfirst into the corner of the front counter. There is a sickening crack as her skull makes impact, a collapse, and then she’s laying glassy-eyed on the floor, blood pooling behind her head.
Oliver’s own breath hitches in his throat as he feels his heart speed up, shocked and confused and absolutely horrified by the sight before him. He sees death everywhere – sees it even when he doesn’t want to.
And now…now this.
Now he’s standing in front of a corpse who gave no sign she was about to die.