“Prove that I’m a fake,” said the man sitting across from me.
We were in a booth at the diner where I frequently had casual meetings like this one.
“I don’t need to, I know you’re a fake,” I told him.
He dropped his chin in frustration, perhaps even despair. The expression was difficult to read through the layers of fatigue that were present on his face. He also looked as if he hadn’t showered for days which made me glad I was on the other side of the booth.
“I know you know I’m a fake, but I need you to prove it. I need you to demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am a charlatan, a phony, a fraud,” he begged with pleading eyes shaded under heavy lids.
“What is this all about, Alex?” I asked.
Alex Black was a magician I knew who specialized in mentalism—convincing people he could read their minds. He had started out as a street hustler, doing Three Card Monty and various variations on the Shell Game for tourists on the boardwalk, but eventually he worked his way into a tiny theater where he did his show every night with matinees on the weekend. I’d been to the show many times, it was a fun night for out of town guests, and Alex was better than most of the performers of his ilk.
He took an envelope out of his jacket pocket. My name was written on it.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a check for five hundred dollars,” he answered. “I want to pay you to prove that I’m a fake. You know, like how you do on those internet videos you’re always making. I want to pay you because I want you to take this seriously. I need you to really do whatever you can to prove I’m just another magician.”
“I don’t want your money, Alex,” I protested.
Alex cut me off. “I know,” he said with a smile, “it doesn’t take a mind reader to know that you’re a good friend, but I need you to pretend that I’m someone trying to pull something over on you, and you need to figure out how I did it.”
This was something I was actually pretty good at. When I was a boy, I had been a fan of the Amazing Randi, a magician and skeptic who was famous for offering a ridiculously large reward for any psychic who could prove they were real. He had never had to pay out the bounty.
I had taught myself magic from a young age, and learned all the tricks of the trade that I could, especially mentalism, which I found particularly intriguing.
Performers like Alex really made it seem like they had a window into your mind. But in the end—as Penn and Teller so eloquently put it—it was all bullshit. Tricks that used psychology, confederates and slight of hand to convince the audience, be it a theater full of partially inebriated couples out for a good time, or an audience of one, desperate to believe that the person cold reading them really had a pipeline to the afterlife.
When television ghost hunter shows became popular, the internet was flooded with videos and photos of apparitions in various forms. I had a friend who was a rather good professional photographer who initially helped be debunk a lot of them on my own YouTube channel. I soon expanded to videos of psychics, demonstrating how I could reproduce everything they did with my own ordinary mind. I had accrued a decent following, and had even been a guest on a few other channels as well as legitimate TV shows. I had even been involved in a few famous feuds that had had gone viral.
Alex was one of my many resources on the rare occasion when I was stumped. He and I could usually brainstorm the trick the psychic was using in short order, and he even helped me stage some of my debunking videos.
Why he was sitting across this formica covered table imploring—and employing me, it seemed—to somehow prove that he was just another magician was, to say the least, mind-boggling.
“Are you trying out a new bit for your act?” I asked.
Alex slumped back into the vinyl covered bench on his side of the booth and sighed. “No, that’s not it at all.” He looked away in thought for a moment, scratching the side of his head with dirty finger nails, then returned his gaze to me. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to give you all the details, but perhaps I should start at the beginning.”
“Always a good place to start,” I said.
“As long as at the end you don’t think I’m crazy,” he replied.
Now I was curious. I picked up the envelope between us. It was sealed, and by the feel of it I could tell there was a check-sized piece of paper enclosed inside. I folded it up and stuffed it into my pocket. “Okay, for whatever good it does, you have engaged me as a professional skeptic and I will attempt to prove that you are the total fake I’ve always known you to be.”
Alex seemed satisfied.
The waitress arrived, filling our coffee cups and asking if we wanted anything to eat.
Alex waved off her question, satisfied taking a long sip of his black coffee.
I asked for a slice of pumpkin pie.
Once she departed, Alex began his story. “It started a couple weeks ago. I was doing my act as usual, setting up the crowd for my first ‘read,’ the one where I push them into thinking of specific shapes. Most of the audience followed me to thinking of a triangle in a circle—you know the bit—but I could tell from her face that one woman in the crowd had something else in mind.
“I told her she was thinking of a pentagram inside of a rectangle, and although she refused to confirm it, I could tell from her reaction that I was right.
“There’s always someone in the crowd who tries to spoil the trick, but usually they’re just background noise. I passed it off as blind luck that I guessed what she had been thinking of.
“The next night, I was doing another gag where I do a one-ahead prediction trick. Only I found myself writing down the predictions before I got them from the volunteer. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I did my force prediction, and then when I went to write down the first one-ahead, it was already there.”
“What are you trying to tell me?” I asked, suspecting I already knew the answer.
“I think,” he began, suddenly fearful, “I’ve actually become psychic.”
Alex remained stone-faced.
“Is this your shtick, now?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I can’t turn it off. I’m hearing people’s thoughts, seeing glimpses into the future, I’m just waiting for the bending spoons with my mind to kick in,” he said, picking up the spoon next to his coffee cup and staring at it.
“Alex, you’re a professional mentalist. Cold reading people, playing the odds, creating forcing conditions, it’s all second nature to you. You’re just in the zone.”
He shook his head forcefully, turned his body so he was facing the window we were sitting next to and gazed out into the street. After a moment he said, simply, “That woman in the yellow dress is going to bump into a lamppost.”
I turned my head to follow his gaze and spotted the woman he was talking about strolling on the other side of the street. After a few steps, she paused and fished her phone out of her purse. She continued walking while she had a brief conversation, then she took the phone away from her ear and started tapping away with her thumbs, her eyes focused on the screen while she continued walking.
Directly into a lamppost.
Alex looked to me as if for an explanation.
“Friend of yours?” I asked.
“No,” he answered.
“Easy guess, most people with a phone are going to be distracted.”
“The phone was in her purse when I made my prediction,” he countered.
“So… you’re telling me you saw it happen before it actually happened.”
“That was hardly laboratory conditions,” I said, starting to think that maybe this was some kind of con Alex was pulling on me.
“True,” he agreed. He closed his eyes for a moment, then said, “enjoy your lemon cream pie.”
“I ordered pumpkin,” I said.
The waitress returned from behind Alex, carrying a slice of lemon cream pie. “We’re out of pumpkin, honey,” she said, “lemon cream work for you?”
I nodded and she placed the pie in front of me and walked off to another table.
“You saw that they were out of pumpkin in the pie case when you walked in, maybe that they had a couple lemon cream pies they would probably try to get rid of instead,” I speculated.
Alex shrugged. “That’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but you watched me come in. I saw you right when I entered and came straight to the booth. I never passed the pie case.”
“You could have stopped by earlier.”
Alex sighed, frustrated. “Okay, give me a test. What would you do to verify that someone was psychic. That I can actually read your mind.”
I thought for a second. Ideally, if I was trying to test someone who was willing to be tested, I would have a controlled environment with cameras, sound-proofing, a room-size Faraday cage to eliminate any chance of receiving information from the outside. I didn’t know how sophisticated Alex was in terms of technologies he might use to augment his act, but I should be able to come up with something off the cuff.
I remembered the deck of cards I always carried with me. As an amateur magician I always had them at the ready to practice or entertain any kids I met. I took out the deck and gave it a shuffle.
“How do I know you’re actually reading my mind?” I asked. “You could just be predicting the future of which card I’ll show next.”
He laughed. “Yeah, I guess. Let’s see what happens and sort it out later.”
I picked up a card and looked at it.
“Five of spades,” he said.
I placed the five of spaces on the table between us.
I drew another card.
“Eight of hearts.”
I dropped the red eight on the table and drew three more in quick succession.
“King of spades, two of clubs, seven of diamonds.”
He was right on each one.
I stared at him. He was looking straight into my eyes. I smiled and took off my glasses. Obviously he was seeing the card in the reflection of the lenses. I drew three more cards.
“Queen of diamonds, ten of diamonds, ten of clubs.”
I laid each card down as he correctly named them.
Could he see the reflection in my eyeballs? Was anyone’s eyesight that good? I turned around. There was no one behind us, no glass panes or mirrors he could be using. I pulled the deck into my lap, keeping it out of his sight and out of view of anyone else. I peeked at the corner of the card on the top of the desk like a blackjack dealer.
“Four of clubs,” Alex said.
I dropped the four of clubs on top of the other cards.
“You’ve gotten better at card tricks, haven’t you.”
“It’s not a trick,” he insisted.
“You understand that that’s exactly what someone who was faking it would say,” I replied.
“Is that your proof that I’m a fraud? That I claim I can really read your mind?”
“Normally, that would be the first indication,” I admitted.
“Picture something,” he challenged. “Bring up an image in your mind, something I couldn’t possibly guess.”
I kept my mind as blank as I could.
He stared at me, silent. Waiting.
I closed my eyes, squeezed them shut and let myself just drift in the darkness, picturing nothing.
Alex remained silent, saying nothing as I continued to keep my mind blank.
The sounds and smells of the diner filtered into my senses. It was more difficult that I expected to keep my mind perfectly blank, thinking of nothing was technically something, but it was like trying to keep from blinking while holding your gaze on a bright—
“Light bulb,” Alex said, just as the picture popped into my mind.
I opened my eyes.
“Was I right?” he asked.
“Is that a new force you came up with?” I asked. I tried to think back in our conversation where Alex would have subliminally implanted the suggestion of a light bulb at one or more points so that the concept would be at the forefront of my mind. It was a common technique.
Alex took a deep breath and sighed again. “This is the problem,” he said. “You see me as a magician and mentalist and you think there has to be an angle, a trick.”
“Look,” I said, “I have to go back to my original thesis. You are very good at what you do. I know you still fend off people who track you after the show to ask you to do personal readings. You’re very convincing. After doing it for all these years, it must be second nature.”
“So, I am a fraud,” he said. “You just can’t prove it.”
“Well, not sitting at a booth in a diner. If you’re really serious, I guess we could set something more formal up, but if you’re looking for publicity, trying to take your act to the next level or something, get on TV, I’d prefer you don’t use me.”
Alex nodded. “I wouldn’t abuse our friendship like that,” he assured me. “And I do value your opinion.”
His words still held a tinge of despair. I took the envelope he had given me earlier out of my pocket.
“No, please, you keep that. I asked you to prove that I’m a fake, and that is what you believe I am, so you earned it.” He slid himself out of the booth and got to his feet.
“You’re phonier than a three dollar bill from China,” I assured him.
He looked at me, dropped his head with a sigh and shuffled out of the diner.
I took a bite of the lemon cream pie, then used a knife as a letter opener to slice through the top of the envelope. I pulled the check out and looked at it.
Five hundred dollars was written in the box for the amount, and his signature was scribbled in the bottom right corner.
And in the spot in the bottom left corner reserved for a memo where the words, “Phonier than a three dollar bill from China.”
I ripped up the check then finished my pie.
Damn he’s good, I thought to myself. He really should be on TV.