The door hits the hanging bell, warning of her entry with a chime she’d have preferred muffled. She shuts the door, careful to hold the bell out of its way. Glancing through the window, she notices a few heads turned, some fingers pointing. I’ll pay for that later, she thinks, her back to the doorframe. If word gets out, those leeches will be here before I can bug out.
She shrugs the thought away, drawn by the plethora of colors around her. Candles lit in every corner, flickering still from the breeze let it, cushions laying haphazard across the floor, a mismatch of frames hanging crooked, floor to ceiling, all autographed headshots of celebrities. A single empty space on the wall throws off its symmetry, the nail left unhitched.
The air thick with incense. Nauseating.
“Did you leave the door open, dear?” the voice coming from farther in.
Mary’s lips open, but no words come out, her hands fidgeting with the ring on her finger. She quickly turns it inward, stone to palm, before someone sees, changes her mind, removes it, and tucks it in her coat pocket.
A burly woman barges in from behind the bookshelf, curly fire hair, green eyes, her complexion buried under layers of make-up. She, on the other hand, parades her abundant jewelry. “I could swear I only heard…” the woman stops, gaping at Mary.
“I don’t have an appointment,” Mary says, a hand to her collar, an arm to her waist. She avoids the woman’s eyes.
The woman walks toward her with a wide embrace. “Miss Praslov,” she says, settling her hands on Mary’s shoulders, “appointments are for small futures. I would not dream of refusing yours over a lack of appointment.”
Mary scoffs. “I’m not here for that either,” a sudden harshness in her voice. Before the woman can argue, Mary passes her and leads the way to the office beyond the main hall. The woman follows.
She sits opposite her at the reading table, Mary’s attention on the decor. An array of mirrors with misfit shapes surround the room, hung on walls plastered with withered paper. The salient motifs reminiscent of old times, of a younger Montmartre, free-spirited, romantic. Naïve.
This whole joint has the same stench.
The woman sitting across takes the card deck in her hands out of habit, begins to shuffle. Her fingers dancing a perfect waltz, making the cards flutter and glide between them. She draws a first card face down.
Mary protests, laying a hand on top of hers. “Please, none of that.”
Reluctant, the woman draws back, leaves the cards to the side. “I’m afraid to ask of what we shall discuss,” her fingers interlaced, hands resting against her belly.
For two decades, Madam Madelaine Moreau has been the owner of the parlor, a well-known establishment to all who seak such unconventional services. Its reputation strongest among the higher class. Mary herself has never stepped foot inside before, she’d always despised the thought. But both their fate were intertwined along the written lines of the Daily Sun.
Grabbing her purse hung at her side, Mary pulls out a cigarette tin, her eyes avoiding the woman still. “Madam Moreau, spare me the pleasantries.” She lights, sucks in through puckered lips, lets the smoke out through her nostrils. “I’m sure the rags made their way here before I did.” She nods towards a stack of what must be months of daily papers. “What have you heard?”
“Odds and ends, really. Nothing of substantial relevance.” Madam Moreau dismisses the subject with a hand gesture. Then her tone turns grave. “Though I must say how very, very distraught I was to read such a thing had happened,” a dramatic hand to her chest, “and to such fine people as your husband and yourself.”
Mary’s face winces at the horrid display. She takes another drag. “What about his encounter with you?”
Madam Moreau gawks, dread flooding her face, pearls of sweat breaching the layers of powder. She draws her handkerchief from the depth of her ample cleavage, dabs her forehead lightly with its corner. “My dear, these matters remain strictly confidential. I cannot break such an oath, even if he is your husband.”
“Oh, please! What oath is worth anything to a hornswoggler like yourself?” Venom in her eyes, Mary continues to avoid looking at Madelaine, the deliberate restraint unsettling. “I don’t need you to break your oath. He told me every bit himself. You swindled him out of his money and fed him lies upon lies.” Mary quivers in place, shaken from the rush of blood and anger. Tears begin to swell up, as her body throbs with sobs.
“Hornswoggler? With all due respect, I did not lie to your husband.” Madam Moreau twists and turns restlessly on her seat, her arms crossed close to her chest.
“You promised him riches, told him he would profit from the market if he invested, at a time when all others fled, convinced him it was in the cards.” Streams of tears rushing down her face, she gasps for air between each sentence. “Because of you, our entire family inheritance has been plundering down the gutter, like a hangman at the gallows…” Mary’s voice turns to fury as if she were to soon spit fire through a waterfall of tears. She stops herself, catching her breath.
Madelaine holds her anger behind her teeth, feigning sympathy for the broken woman in front of her. “Now, there’s no need to be fatalist. If I saw it in the cards, I did not lie. Your husband trusted it, I think you should too. I saw great wealth. For both of you.”
Mary calms herself, slows her breathing almost to a stop. Her chest is still, opening with each intake, she breathes as if the world could fit inside her. Through tight lips, she lets the air out, closing her eyes, forgetting the room around her for an instant. Then scoffs.
Madam Moreau hides that she took offense. She offers her handkerchief. Mary shakes her head.
“There’s one thing you couldn’t have read in the rags. One important new piece of information no one yet knows. After the market closed last night, everyone wrote about how the Praslov would be broke in the morning. How my husband made a fool of his name by running towards a burning house. How no one would recover from such a loss. All at the advice of the town's favorite, beloved Madam Moreau. But they weren’t there, last night, when he came home. He was shattered. He stayed up all night weeping away, a broken shell of a man.
“I was livid, infuriated. But still, I held back my rage, comforted him, until he finally slept. And so did I, exhausted by the strain of public scrutiny and shame, humiliation.” Mary, staring into nothing, remembers her cigarette, its stem almost fully turned to ash. The start of her hand moving to her lips lets the dead end fall on her knee. She ignores it, takes a long drag, tears now covering her eyes blind. As she exhales, she shuts her eyes tight, evacuating the overflow. She smiles, an eerie smile. “I love my husband, even though his actions ruined our lives, I still love him.”
Madam Moreau is caught aback, she gapes at Mary as she did when she saw her walk in.
Mary then, for the first time, lifts her eyes to meet Madeleine's. She stares unblinkingly, straight inside, as if she could see the whole of her thoughts. “I wish I could believe you, like my husband did, that our fortunes will turn, that you really did see it in the cards, but when I awoke this morning, my sweet Lou, the love of my life, was hung by his neck in our bathroom.”
The room falls silent, but for the pitter-patter of rain against the front shopwindow, and the ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece.
Mary stands up from her chair, still quivering. She turns to leave, her purse in hand, each gesture lagging, calculated, as if she forgot how to make them. The gravity of her own words still weighing on her shoulders. She then stops in her tracks. Without looking back at Madelaine, she mutters with what strength is left in her, “I guess you were right to remove his picture from your wall.” Then takes her leave.
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Heart-wrenching and a realistic portrayal of a fraud. Perhaps applicable to other get-rich-quick schemes as well. The description of Mary hiding her ring was truly masterful showing-not-telling. The ending was lovely. Great work!
Thank you so much for the heartwarming comment! It truly makes my day a lot brighter. You're right, all schemers share the same lack of empathy for their prey, which drives - at the benefit of such a story - moral outrage. Thanks for taking the time to read and to write!!
An enjoyable read! And a liar caught in the act. I like the descriptions of both women's actions and reactions in this, and Mary comes across as harboring this barely controlled righteous fury. And Madelaine, even though she's mad, continues playing the part -- there's a greasy kind of admirable in her dedication to the grift. I'm left wondering if the death might lead to some kind of insurance payout, ultimately resulting in a twisted fortune after all. Unlikely for a hanging, perhaps.
What an amazing story! I love how you enter the teller's parlor through Mary's eyes. The descriptions are immersive and both characters felt real. I was wondering where the story was headed and I was not disappointed. Great writing! :)
Thank you so much Manon, I'm glad your expectations were met. :D Thank you for taking the time to read and write!
Great story, Justin. You used the "Suspense" tag quite well. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time trying to guess where the story was going, and when you revealed what happened with the husband, it knocked the wind out of me. What a gut punch of a narrative. Really enjoyed your dialogue and your imagery throughout, and the attention to detail was great. Your prose reads smoothly and effortlessly. I enjoyed my time with this story. Thanks for sharing it, and I'm looking forward to reading more from you in the future. P.S. My favorite ...