Bareknuckles Pulp No. 13: Liars and Magicians

Jason Ridler's back, kicking around crystal balls.

Liars and Magicians by Jason Ridler

Mother was applying dull red, non-threatening lipstick as Emily walked into the hallway. “Good morning,” Mother said, puckering before the mirror. “Though it’s almost noon.”

“Morning.” Emily stirred her coffee and sized up Mom’s outfit. The tired cardigan sweater and semi-short-skirt combo. Sweater makes the client feel superior, skirt distracts the husband with her best feature. Though Mother just said it was being professional. Emily yawned against her hangover, and tossed a cheap shot. “How many rubes am I working today?”

Mother fired a severe look into the mirror. “Clients. We have clients. Please do not call them that.” Mother was a true believer in her own bull. Not Emily. Not since she was ten had she ever bought Mother’s line about their family “gift.” Cold reading, body language, and the gullibility of human sheep explained everything better than New Age super powers.

Mother’s well crafted eyes had not blinked.

“Sorry,” Emily said, blowing steam from her cup. “How many clients?”

“Just one,” Mother said. “I have a special case today, so I’ll be gone awhile. I’m facilitating again with Evans family.” Mother waited. Emily said nothing. “I could cancel the parlour appointment. You could come with me. I could use your help. You were so gifted at it.“

Emily wiped the pasty spit from the corner of her mouth. “No. We could use the cash from both jobs.” She couldn’t handle the looks from those autistic kids. Not anymore. “I’ll stick here.”

Mother nodded, did a once over in the mirror, and kissed Emily, leaving a lipstick stamp. “Do try and clean yourself up? You still smell like that pool hall.”


“And don’t let your smart mouth ruin what little we’re earning today.”

“I’ll be good, Mother Dear.”

She gave Emily’s shoulders a squeeze. “You’ll be great. You have a much more powerful gift than I do. Always have. Remember, Em. We have an obligation to help them.”

And the coffee spilt before she could stop laughing, and Mother let go. But the snickers she enjoyed with her pool sharks buds vanished against the sadness in Mother’s smile. Well-crafted makeup was starting to run and despite the cold, hard truth that Mother was a pawn in her own stupid game, Emily nodded. “Right, right. I’m sorry.”

Mother took her cigarettes from her purse and left them on the mantle, another vain attempt to quit. “The client’s name is Jamie something. It’s in the-

“Book. I know. Go. I got this.”

Mother left and wind chimes sounded. Emily tapped a dream catcher, ran her hand through the beads leading to the parlour, and wondered how much longer she could play dutiful daughter to a nuthouse.

* * *

After a shower, makeup, and another coffee, Emily’s smile was warm, friendly and sincere. But her mind kept saying what a strange fuck. “Please, sit, Mr. Harper. Can I get you a cup of coffee?” Men were rare and tended to drink coffee.

Mr. Jamie Harper sat still, very old bags under his eyes. Mid forties, but something had clawed him to look much older. The bad, blond toupee and sport coat combo didn’t help. He blinked a lot and had a viciously clean shave that smelled like he’d dunked his head in Aqua Velva before arriving. Big, like a former football player who gave up running for a heavy bag. Whatever. Money to be made. “We also have tea.”

“No, thanks.” He looked around. “Nice place. Never know what to expect from a . . . what do you call yourself?”

Emily poured herself a glass of chai from the alabaster tea pot (a nice change from coffee and it smelled more “psychic”). “My tax return says entertainer, but I prefer medium.”

A smile cracked through his thick face. “Entertainer?”

Emily pulled the long, thick sleeves of her black sweater from thin wrists and sat at the table, teeth holding back smart ass comments like a dam. “Oh, I can’t promise that your reading will be entertaining. And I apologize that my mother could not be here in person, but she’s trained me very well.” Emily preferred working alone, without Mother’s pleading eyes goading her to say something, anything, to prove she was “gifted” . . .

He blinked, guarded face softening so gentle she barely noticed. “Really? This is a . . . family business?” Uncertainty trickled across his eyes. “I don’t know-“

“Please,” she said, raising her hands in surrender, holding his attention, letting him know he was in control. Last thing she wanted was Mother moaning about lost clients. “I understand if you want to reschedule, but I also know you came here for a reason. One that’s been keeping you up. One that needs an answer.” It was written on his face. Tired, desperate. Guys were always at wits’ end if they ended up here. Jamie Harper was no different. Emotionally constipated, but itching to speak, to be heard, and let the dollars roll. Too easy. “So, how can I help you?”

He bit down, jaw locked, then nodded. He reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a thick envelope, placing it beside her steaming white mug. It was heavy. Full of hundreds. Thousands of dollars. She put it down. God, I could strike out on my own with this seed cash, hustle the fuck out of everyone in the city, get the hell away from here. But her face was pure humility and shock. She handed it back. “I can’t accept all of this.“ Take the bait-

“No,” he said. “Hold on to it. It’s all yours. If you can just tell me one thing.”

She put the envelope down, closer to his side of the table. The word fell out like a spent breath. “What?”

“Tell me my son’s middle name.”

Silence held them like strings of barbed wire tied around their necks.

“I mean, you are a medium, right? Not just an entertainer.”

She looked at her mug, avoiding the envelope. “You don’t believe. Do you?” Here it comes, the righteous anger of a skeptic. She swallowed a chuckle without a trace.

Mr. Harper smirked. “I’m keeping an open mind. Tell me my son’s middle name, and ten thousand is yours. Go on, get your cards or crystals or ju-ju bag or whatever you need for your Jedi mind tricks.”

She stood, hands in pockets, mace bottle around her fingers. “I wish it was that easy. It would make my life simpler. But what I do is less concrete, more interpretive. And, to be honest, I don’t need to be tested for your entertainment. So, you can take your money and go. You’re not the only client I have today.” But he was. And damn if that envelope wasn’t filled with a few thousand reasons to play along. His hard face, betraying nothing but the intent to hide emotion, was starting to look . . . there was an ire there she hadn’t noticed. Stupid hangover. Better to ditch him and earn some easy scratch at The Shot hustling teens who think she can’t shoot. “Sorry I couldn’t help.”

Mr. Harper placed the money in his jacket pocket and his hand emerged with a gun. “Did the spirits of the afterlife warn you about this? Keep those hands in your pockets. And sit down.”

She did, mind rushing and wishing Mother’s voodoo shit was true and she’d inherited some kind of clairvoyance to save her ass from this nutjob. “I only have a hundred dollars.” But what if he wanted more than cash? Fuck. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

He swallowed dryly. “All I want,” he said, clear and sharp, “is for you to tell me my son’s middle name.”

“I can’t do that.”

“But do you know why?” She held her tongue, and waited for the polemic. “Because you people are fucking parasites.”

Her terror chilled. Mother would have freaked, blood pressure screaming until she fainted and lord knows what would happen then? Stay frosty. What do we know? Fixated on his son. Doesn’t have a wedding ring, but there’s a light tan line around his ring-finger. Dresses like a bum but has hard cash. He’s angry. He wants to talk. All of them want to talk. That’s why they come, even if they don’t know it. Keep him talking and you can stay alive. Ex-wife? “Parasites? Who, women?”

His eyes widened. “I’m no misogynist.”

Damn. Shoot the other pocket and play it up, maybe he’ll buy it if you’re at your best. “I have a gift. It’s only right I share it.“

“Bull.” He leaned forward. “Is it greed or humanity that drives you? And where was your spidey sense when I walked in the door.”

Comic book reference. Likely matched to his son. Pieces, get the rube’s pieces. “What’s wrong with your son?”

Mr. Harper fought for control of his shaking hand. “Don’t. Don’t con me.”

Her voice became a whisper. “I’m not. How can I? I just, well, never mind.”

“Say it.”

She cleared her mouth. “It’s nothing.”

“Say it. Say you felt some disturbance in the Force or a tremor in the space time continuum. I mentioned my son, so you’re focusing on it. Like I’m a chump that didn’t know cold reading.”

Damn it. He’s been burned. Shift gears. Play to that. Emily stared at her lap. “Charlatans hurt you.”

“Oh god, you’re pathetic-”

“They hurt your son.” Bingo: his face hardened so fast it hurt to watch and she actually gasped. Exhilaration and fear twined in her temple as the gun shook. He was tired. Angry, but tired. Adrenaline can’t last. And that made him more dangerous. Stay calm. Keep talking. Living things talk. “You want to hurt me, for what they did.”

Mother’s parlour chair snapped back as he stood, eyes so tight they were slits. “Shut up.”

“You won’t do it.” She swallowed her own surprise at the words. A wish or a prayer, she didn’t know.

He extended his gun.

Emily took a few deep breaths. “I’m not the one who hurt him. Who hurt you.” She looked up from her hands. “Why me?”

The shaking stopped. He’d wanted this question. Run it the words through his head so they were practiced and sharp. “To spare others from the grief you cause. Filling their heads with comforting lies so they open their wallets.” He snarled. ‘Liars are also great magicians.’ Know who said that? Guess.”

She tapped her mace. “Houdini?”

“Adolf Hitler. ‘The greater the lie the greater the chance it will be believed.’ Another nugget from Mein Kampf. Whether you like it our not, that’s the company you keep.” His vehemence scared her as much as the gun. “If I kill you, even one of you, I spare a whole line up of people from keeping that company, of the illusions you spread for cash, for the bullshit you sell to feed dead hope.” A single bead of sweat ran down his red nose. “Unless, of course, I’m wrong. Maybe you’re for real.” He laughed, and sweat dripped. “So, no more stalling. Tell me my son’s middle name.”

Face, gun, threats. All dire. And now, his red face wasn’t looking at her, but at who had burned him. The face of his enemy painted on her like a mask, one he was willing to shoot, the worst of the worst . . .

The barricade of her teeth was gone. “Facilitators?”

He clocked the hammer.

Static filled the moment. He was past tricks, misdirection. What was left? “I’m not a facilitator.”

He snorted, spit at the edge of his mouth, voice low, cold, and mean. “But your mother is.”

“But I’m not.”

He tossed the table aside, the shattering of the teapot making her shiver, and drilled the barrel into her forehead. “What’s the fucking difference in a family business?” he snarled.

Blood thrummed through her so loud she could barely hear the speedbag of her heart, until something inside burned cold. “I know . . . I’m a con artist.” His face twitched as much as the gun, but he didn’t fire. “That’s the difference.” She took another breath, the ice kiss of the barrel giving her focus amid the shivering dread. “I sell bullshit. Bull. Shit. Everyone that walks in the door wants the same thing. The same lie. To be told everything will be ok. We dress it up because magic or mystery is easier to swallow than the truth. Isn’t it?” She raised her head to meet his eyes, the barrel moving with it. “Wasn’t it easier for your wife to believe that they were talking to your son? That’s what they do, target the mother, because they’re softer on this shit than men. They do half our job for us. They want to believe.” She exhaled coolly. “And all you have to do is feed them just enough so they call you back whenever there’s a problem.” Rolling eyes, twitching limbs, and drool burst from memory, kids that had been just a few years younger, Mother pushing her closer, to hear the music of their minds, and the only thing in the air was the sobs of parents. She swallowed hard, and her whole face soured. “The kids never get better, so it’s a plum gig.”

He backed away. The barrel’s absence from her head swarmed with heat, but the gun was still aimed at her face. He was listening, but not convinced. Keep going. “But most facilitators . . . they believe their own lies. They believe they hear the kid’s tortured brain.” She gripped her mace hard enough to crack. “They believe they’re helping and its bullshit and they can’t see because nothing will convince them they’re wrong.”

She was shaking, but not cold.

He picked up the seat and sat, gun still on her. “Why?”

She pulled down the sleeve with her left hand. “Why can’t alcoholics see they’re a booze hound? You’d need to have your whole world crash down on you. Start from zero and build up. Who wants that?”

Stray strands of brown stuck out from beneath the blond toupee. “Why do you do it?”

Her nose twitched. “I don’t. I only screw with adults. If they’re dumb enough to fall for it. But not a kid.” A dribble of spit at the side of her mouth. A memory of pretending. Lying. Yes, Mother. I can hear Michael. He loves his parents. He’s ok. He’s still there . . . they ate it. Ate all of it until the day he died. All but her. She wiped away the spit, hand shaking, eyes refusing the tears that had begun to swell. She wiped the spit with the back of her hand. “Kids . . . they don’t know any better.” For a moment, she saw death in his eyes. Resignation filled her like morning sunlight.

He lifted his arm, gun pointing toward heaven. “Well. A con with ethics. How goddamn droll.” His shoulders hung low as if the weight he’d dragged in here had finally broke. He passed through the door beads and her right hand relaxed its claw-hold on her mace before she heard her voice crackle out, “Wait.” He flinched. “What . . . what happened to your son?”

The beads rocked back and forth, creaking like teeth tapping each other. “They killed him. When I was working night shifts. Convinced Nancy he was suffering, life was torture, had to stop it.” He wiped his clean face hard. “She killed herself in prison this week. Never said where they were. She believed, too.” Slowly, he left.

* * *

Mother found her holding a cracked mug, parlour back in shape, minus the teapot’s broken scraps in the trash. “I made a great connection, Em. I really wish you could have been there to hear it. He was singing. It was beautiful.” Mother lit a cigarette and stood by the window, one hand on her elbow, the other holding the cigarette like a smoking gun. “Well, fine, I’ll bite. How was our client?”

“Stiffed us,” Emily said, smiling briefly.

“That’s terrible! God, if I had known I would have just taken you with me so you could hear the music in Josh Evans.”

I think I hear it, Emily thought. Mother stubbed out her half-done smoke, promised to give her a full report, and headed for the shower. When the cadence of hissing water filled the house, she dialled the non-emergency number for the police. The chaotic sound of the precinct was punctuated by the rapid-fire drone of the officer’s speech. “Can I help you?”

“Yes. Who do I talk to about con jobs?”

“What kind?

She bit her lip. “The psychic kind.”

The hissing stopped and Emily stayed on the line.

Jason S. Ridler is the author of the Spar Battersea Thrillers (Death Match, Con Job, and Dice Roll), the short story collection Knockouts, and has published over fifty stories. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, he’s also a military historian, with a Ph.D. in War Studies. He lives in the East Bay of San Francisco.