The interior of Madame Ariadne's tent was not what Fran expected-- no crystal ball or beaded curtains, no candles or spicy incense or stuffed ram's head or shelves overflowing with philters and potions; if anything, the interior more resembled the sterilized room where a veterinarian would examine a family pet: white rolled-tile floor, white partition walls, chairs, and a table upon which sat--most surprising of all--a computer. Next to the computer was something Fran assumed was a flatbed scanner.
"This is Weird City, kiddo."
"Like on 'X-Files'!"
"That doesn't make me feel any better."
Eric laughed, then a door opened in one of the back partitions and Madame Ariadne entered. If things didn't feel off-kilter enough, Madame Ariadne, instead of being a weathered, sinister Maria Ouspenskaya clone, looked to be no older than thirty-three, her cheeks flushed as if she'd just finished a good aerobic workout; judging from the light grey cotton warmup suit she wore, that was probably the case.
"Well, hi," she said, brushing a thick strand of strawberry-blonde hair from her eyes and kneeling down to face Eric. "My name's Ariadne. What's yours?"
"Ah, that's a good name."
She offered her hand. "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Eric."
Eric looked at Fran, who gestured Go on.
He shook it. "Hi."
It happened so quickly that Fran almost missed it; as soon as Eric's hand was enfolded in her grip, Madame Ariadne visibly flinched--not in such a way as to cause Eric any alarm, but to the eyes of an adult it was clear that she'd felt something that startled--maybe even frightened--her.
Fran cautioned herself to be careful, that this could be part of an act--scare the parent with some crap about "bad vibrations," then con them into a more complicated and expensive reading.
"We have a pass for two free readings," Fran said.
"I know," replied Ariadne, smiling at Eric and releasing his hand. "This isn't a scam operation, Fran. The pass says free and free it shall be."
"How did you know--?"
"So, Eric," said the fortune-teller, "you wanna go first?"
She led him over to the table, then took her place behind the computer and entered a few commands, activating the scanner. "Eric, I want you to take your--are you left-handed?"
"I thought so. Take your left hand and press it down on the glass right there."
"On the box?"
"Mmm-hmm. Don't worry, it won't hurt. It's just going to take a picture of your hand."
Ariadne's smile was spring itself. "Promise."
Eric pressed his palm onto the scanner. Ariadne placed a plastic cover on top of Eric's hand, hiding it completely from sight.
"Arm's in a box," he said to Fran, grinning.
There was a slight hum, a slow roll of blue light from under the cover, and it was over.
By now Fran was standing behind Ariadne, staring at the computer screen as a holographic copy of Eric's hand--composed mostly of grid lines--appeared on the monitor.
Ariadne playfully poked Eric with her elbow. "Now watch this--it's just too cool!" She hit a key and a dark blue line rolled down from the top of the screen, passing over the grid-hand and changing it to a three-dimensional, flesh-colored hand that looked so real Fran almost expected it to reach out and tweak her nose (which she unconsciously rubbed once again, finding it still a tad sore).
Eric squealed with delight. "Izzat mine? Izzat my hand?"
"It sure is," said Ariadne. "And it's a good, strong hand, with strong lines. See that line right there? That means you're a good boy, and this line means you've got lots of imagination--I'll bet you like to make things, don't you? Like models, and draw, and build things with clay."
"I knew it! The lines never lie. This line right here--ah, this one's very special, because it means that you're going to grow up"--she gave Fran a quick, secretive look--"to be someone really special--even more special than you are right now. Oh, you've got a good life ahead of you, Eric. You should be so happy!"
This went on for a few more moments, until the little girl from the merry-go-round came out of the same door from which Ariadne had entered and said to Eric, "You want to come and watch a video with me? I got 'The Great Mouse Detective'."
"'Mouse Detective'!" shouted Eric. He turned to Fran. "Can I, Mommy? Can I go watch 'Mouse Detective'?"
"I don't know, hon--"
"That's Sarah," said Ariadne. "One of my daughters. I've got a little play room set up for her right back there. Toys, books, a TV/VCR unit, and--God!--tons of Disney videos--I swear she'll bankrupt me with those things. I'll have them leave the door open so you can keep an eye on them.
"He'll not be out of your sight for one second, Fran. I swear it."
Fran looked down at Eric. "You really want to watch the movie?"
"Okay, then. But be polite."
The only things faster than light is the speed at which some children rush to watch a Disney video--a principle that Eric and Sarah proved a second later: Whoosh-Bang! Disney rules!
Fran stood in silence for a moment, watching the two children through the door as they took their seats in front of the television.
"That's quite a collection of bruises on his face, Fran" said the fortune-teller. "Ted must've really clobbered him."
A breath in, a breath out; one, two, three; then Fran whirled toward Ariadne and said: "How the hell did you know my name?"
"The same way I know that you've been at the Cedar Hill Women's Shelter for the last fifteen days. The same way I know that both you and Eric were in Licking Memorial's ER sixteen days ago because the two of you 'fell while taking in the groceries.'
"The same way I know that Ted spotted you at the free clinic five days ago and followed you back to the shelter."
"You heard me. Don't get panicky, he didn't follow the group here today. He's on swing until the first of next week. But you have to believe me when I tell you that he is going to be waiting for you outside the shelter sometime in the next eight days, resplendent in his remorse."
"You can't possibly know that."
"Do you think I'm trying to scare you? You're damned right I am."
"How did you--?"
Ariadne hit a key, and Eric's hand disappeared, replaced by scrolling records: Fran's birth certificate; the date of her high school graduation; a copy of her marriage license; Eric's birth certificate (complete with foot- and hand-prints made at the hospital); her student loan application for college tuition (check returned, full amount, student withdrew from school before deadline, no monies owed); copies of police reports (three domestic calls, no charges filed); and several hospital records detailing treatments given to one Francine Alicia McLachlan and Eric Carl McLachlan, some together, most separate--including at least two doctors' handwritten notations, nearly indecipherable except for "abuse?" and "possible mistreatment."
"So?" Fran snapped, trying to keep the anxiety from her voice. "You or someone who works with you is a hacker, so what? Anyone with a computer could get this information these days."
"True enough. But would they also know that you once came very close to killing Ted while he was asleep?"
Fran blanched, shocked into silence.
"December 22, two years ago," Ariadne continued. "He'd been drinking and lost his temper and started pounding on you and Eric came running downstairs and put himself between you and Ted--something he does quite a bit, doesn't he?-- and Ted pushed him down. Eric fell against a coffee table and the corner missed his left eye by less than half-an-inch. Five stitches in the ER took care of the gash, and in the cab on the way home Eric said he wanted to go away because Daddy scared him. Ted was passed out when you got home, so you put Eric to bed and waited until he was asleep. Then you went to the downstairs hall closet and took out Ted's .357 Magnum, put in one bullet, then wrapped the muzzle in an old towel to muffle the sound of the shot."
"You never told anyone about that, did you, Fran?"
"No! I mean, I don't think I--"
"So I couldn't have hacked that information from any computer, could I?"
Ariadne placed a warm, tender hand against Fran's cheek. "Listen to me very carefully. I don't want to frighten you, but I have to. Eric's in danger."
Fran's legs suddenly felt like rubber, and she just barely made it into the chair facing the computer. "Someone," she whispered. "I must have told someone about wanting to kill Ted, and you--"
Ariadne placed a finger against Fran's lips, silencing her, and in a soft voice, the whisper of leaves caught in the wind brushing across an autumn sidewalk, spoke of other things that only Fran knew, intimate details of solitary experiences, hopes, desires, petty jealousies and silly girlhood fantasies extending back through nearly three decades, and when Ariadne finished by describing in detail Fran's first childhood memory of getting her arm caught in the toilet when she was ten months old because she wanted to see where the water went after you flushed, Fran--confused, frightened, and feeling so godawful helpless--was certain of one thing: Madame Ariadne had powers of some kind, incomprehensible, unknowable, incredible powers.
"What are you?"
Ariadne leaned over Fran's shoulder and typed a command. "First you need to see something."
The screen blinked, display Eric's hand once again.
"Both you and Eric have Conic hands. See the shape of his fingers? Just like yours--they're very smooth and taper from the base, gradually lessening toward the rounded tip. The Conic Hand is the Hand of Imagination. Just from the shape of Eric's hand any fortune-teller would know that he's very sensitive, often highly emotional--but not emotionally unstable. He's like you in that way, isn't he?"
Fran nodded. "He's pretty anxious a lot of the time but he tries to hide it because he doesn't want to upset me."
"Not surprising." The image of Eric's hand turned slightly to the left, displaying the height of the mounts on the surface of the palm. "See this rise here at the base of the middle finger? This is called the 'Mount of Saturn'--also known as 'The Mount Which Brings Sadness.' If you've got a Conic hand with a pronounced Mount of Saturn, you constantly worry about the safety of the ones you love, even above your own well-being--which would explain why Eric always tries to get between you and Ted when--"
"--he wants to protect me," whispered Fran.
"Of course he does; he loves you very, very much."
Eric's hand turned toward them, palm facing outward.
"Why do you use a computer and scanner?" asked Fran. "I mean, most fortune-tellers--"
"--would whip out the candles and crystal balls and hold your hand in theirs as they made the reading, yeah, yeah, yeah--believe me, I know this is a bit weird. I use this because the naked eye--even mine--cannot clearly see the lines within the lines, the--"
"--hidden hand within the hand?"
"Yes. This equipment was designed specifically to reveal those hidden lines, the secret hand."
Fran looked at the image on the screen. "And?"
"Can you recognize any of the lines?"
Fran leaned in, squinting. "I can see that his life line is really long." Her mood brightened. "He'll have a long life."
Ariadne shook her head. "A long life line doesn't necessarily mean a person will live to be very old. Sure, in places where it weakens or breaks you can expect some health problems, but a lot of people have life lines that are incredibly short--some fade entirely--and they still live to piss on their enemies' graves. No, we're interested in one of the Fate Lines, Saturn--right here, staring at the base of the wrist and going straight up to intersect with its sister mount." She altered the image so that it now displayed only a flat red outline of Eric's hand, with the Fate Line of Saturn enhanced in bright blue and the Mount of Saturn in bright green; at the point where the two intersected was a cluster of small markings in jaundiced yellow.
"What are those?" asked Fran.
Ariadne magnified the cluster.
Fran puzzled at the sight. "They look almost like stars."
"They are. On the Mount of Jupiter or Apollo, they mean great success and wealth. On Mercury they mean a glorious, happy marriage."
Fran faced Ariadne. "Why do I get the feeling there's something you're not telling me?"