Mystery Meat - The Dead Man's Hand 'I should warn you,' she said, shuffling the deck between two savagely manicured hands. 'These cards are capricious and should not be trusted.' I nodded impatiently, rubbing my hands together over the frayed tablecloth. The drive from Richmond was difficult in a car with no heating and poor suspension. My back hurt, I was exhausted beyond measure and, though the fair would continue for the rest of this long weekend, I could not have waited another day to find a hotel and rest. Her name tag read 'Tabitha' on cracked plastic, the logo of a large supermarket chain scratched out with a knife or pin. It was likely scavenged from a dumpster somewhere on the long road to this place. Her name might be Tabitha today, but two months ago it was 'Gwen' and before that, 'Patricia'. I had dogged her trail across the country for nearly two years. Sometimes she stayed in the same town or city for a month or two, reading fortunes on the street or from a shabby booth at a market. Sometimes she spent a night at a bar, reading fortunes for free. I did not track her by name, mind you, but by clues and innuendo. The fortunes she told were believable, attainable, and I tracked her through them. A posting on a dating site, a man asking after his soul-mate. "It is fate," he ended and my finger hovered over the button marked 'Reply', wondering whether I should ask how he knew. A personal advertisement in a Southern newspaper, a mother seeking news of her son, an old plea backed now with some crucial question. I did not interfere with that grief, just recognised the empty desperation, the impotent questing for a child long ago grown and likely dead. Slowly, using the newspapers which she read sporadically, the internet that she hardly knew existed and a tuned intuition, I sought her trail. I cut my hair in a room I rented by the hour, shaved in a men's room at a gas station. Her trail would grow cold every few months but never froze completely. 'Have you been read before?' she asked with a flicker of a smile. She was not young but kept a quality of innocence about her. An aging hippy, unable to rely on the easy sensuality of youth, turning to spirituality and gypsy wildness to bring in the customers. 'Does it matter?' I sounded petulant, a rube expecting the Carnie is about to cheat him somehow. Her smile was deeper this time, revealing bright teeth. 'If you haven't been read before then the cards will tell us about your past. If you have been read before then...' She waved one hand languidly as if to say that she had little say in the matter, that the cards themselves would know, would see through any lie I might tell. That was my fear. 'The future?' Laughter. 'Yes,' she said. 'Each time you are read takes us further into the future. The cards will reveal a new aspect each time, they will not dwell on the same fate. It just won't work that way.' The past, then. This was what fuelled my search for her, but I was keen not to revisit it. My gaze stayed low, watched my hands. I had burnt them long ago, two years to be precise. A lifetime. The night my brother died. 'How much?' 'If we read the past, twenty dollars. If you want a reading for the future as well... Let's make it thirty-five all up.' I was silent for a moment. 'And for a third reading?' Her smile faded slightly, confusion tickling her features. 'It is not advised to have more than one future reading at a time,' she said slowly. 'You need time to consider, to give you the wisdom to understand the answers the cards give you.' Her smiled returned. 'How much?' I asked again, my impatience beginning to show. She sighed, tossed her long hair in a gesture of an anger that she allowed to pass through her, from her. 'Make it fifty,' she said with the same gesture. 'Happy?' 'Yes.' She had read for my brother three times though it had cost him much more than fifty dollars. 'Ready?' 'Yes.' 'Then let's go.' Tabitha began to flick the cards down, four to a row, then three, then two. A final slap and the last card was placed face-up, the only such of those dealt. It's face showed a crescent moon, a face in peaceful repose. From the water beneath the moon crept three dark beasts, each with it's face upturned to the moon's. 'The moon. You deceive. It is your defining characteristic.' For a moment I did not breathe. The cards were screaming a warning if only she would hear. To her the warning must sound shrill and panicked, a threat to her life and theirs. Or perhaps the warning was also for me, that the lies that I have told every day, the lies that have led me to her, have become an obsession, a mask I wear as easily as my face. If I ever doubted that the cards were alive, that doubt was gone. The cards could not help what they were, after all. She did not hear, however, and her hand moved quickly to the next row. Her eyes closed and she shivered delicately, tugging the garish shawl about her shoulders with her free hand. She turned the next card. 'The Pope. You have an education and you have studied life itself. You hold others up to the same scrutiny that you would hold a book.' Another. 'The Fool. Your life has been thrown to the winds of fate. The absurd has become reality.' The first rows revealed she stopped, sniffed delicately. 'You are a learned man,' Tabitha said, more to the cards than to me. I imagined I detect the faintest traces of her original accent, sibilant and primitive. 'Do you know much about the art of Tarot?' I knew better than to lie. 'Some, my brother was far more interested in such things. I found them too... imprecise.' Something, perhaps the fate that the cards themselves sensed, urged me to add, 'My father also enjoyed fortune telling. He collected many books on the subject.' 'But he never read the Tarot for you? As I said before this would mean that we talk of your future now, and not the past. I would misread the meanings which lead to danger.' She glanced up at me sharply. 'No, he never read for me. I had no time for it then.' 'How things change...' She turned the next card without speaking, and the next. Over the third she hesitated, pressed one long nail down upon it before flicking it over with a smooth twist of her wrist. I recognised them all. The Magician, inverted. The Hanged Man. The Tower. 'Loss,' she said to herself. 'A letting go of wisdom? Hard times?' She studied the cards for a heartbeat before staring directly into my face. 'You have experienced loss, loss that has led you into folly.' I closed my eyes and calmed my breathing. I had known that I must undergo a reading to get close enough to her and risk lay in this approach. But, even though her steps were tentative, she had already begun to walk the path to the heart of the matter. 'I hope that it is not folly that has led you to me,' she said. 'My brother,' I whispered, eyes twisted shut. 'He died.' 'Aah. The fallen brother, the sacrifice of your life on the alter of grief.' In my mind I saw my scorched hands, the burning hands of my brother. He was reaching out to me from the fire. The coroner said that he would not have felt the fire, the nerves would be burnt before they could respond to the pain. But his eyes were full of pain and he screamed in ragged bursts. My eyes flew open so that I could not see. 'My, my,' she said, her voice deepening over the next card. 'Temperance. Grief did not hold you for long.' She was bent over the cards down, her hands claw-like as they crept from one to the next in anticipation. 'You bent yourself to action, but also to restraint.' 'The Emperor. You became the action that you sought to undertake. Disciplined. Inflexible. Unstoppable. Judgment.' The sounds of the fair outside had grown dim and it seemed that the world contained only us three; myself, the reader and the tarot. Tabitha frowned at the last row, drawing her hands back as if reluctant to continue. 'But why are you here?' she asked. 'Let us see.' She lifted the second last card with a swipe of a claw. 'Death. Something ends here,' Tabitha said. 'A new beginning. It is an odd card to come second-to-last. We rarely need guidance once we have accepted change.' The frown returned and she reached towards the final card. I reached out and gently grasped her wrist, guiding it away from the card. 'Leave it,' I said. 'Just leave it. I have my money here. Fifty dollars, as you asked.' I dropped a folded note on the table and reached back into my pocket. 'More if you want.' 'But the reading isn't complete,' she said. 'The last card would reveal much about the choice you have made. Is it moral? Is it right? It would not tell the future but it would give you the insight to know...' She stopped, eyes widening in alarm. I still held her wrist with my left hand, my right held the tape-wrapped grip of my brother's pistol. She pulled at my grip but I held it tightly. 'You read for my brother,' I said. 'Did I?' she asked, glancing over my shoulder as if trying to see through the tent flaps. 'I have read for so many -' 'You read for him, told him that his hard work was wasted, that he should throw his life to chance.' I bought the pistol forward so that the barrel would be before her, dark and clean. 'He left his studies, packed his inheritance and ran.' 'Stephen. Your brother was Stephen.' She blinked rapidly and began to moan in lowing fear. 'God help me.' 'You foresaw how he would end. He ran to the nearest casino. He bet his money. He went to the track, placed everything on chance.' I shook her wrist, as if to shake the truth into her. 'Everything!' I screamed. Tabitha was sobbing now; wrenching, silent sobs. Her head was shaking back and forth in mute terror. 'Do you know how long it took me to get it all back? All the things that my father had collected throughout his life. He gave away his inheritance to bums at bus stops, to hookers and drunks! Priceless things, sacred things. Power that your small Cartomancy could never conceive.' 'He had to turn his back,' she cried. 'Turn his back on you, on his inheritance. The cards -' 'The cards what?' I screamed. 'What did the cards say? You could not imagine what he was, what we all were. But the cards knew!' 'He had to save himself.' She shivered and dropped her head to the table. 'Save himself from you. All of you.' 'There is only me left. My father paled and died after his life's work was stolen from him,' I said, lowering my voice. 'So why did Stephen have to save himself from us? What did the cards tell you?' I glanced at the pyramid laid out before us. 'What do they say now?' I let go of her wrist, turned over the last card and covered it with my palm. 'It could be the Star - a sign of universal love,' I said in my most reasonable voice. 'It could be the Priestess, a hint that your feminine power might still win the day. It could be the Chariot, the card of pride, arrogance and power.' Tabitha did not answer. I removed my hand. 'Oh, look,' I said in a bright tone, 'the Chariot. Well that explains it then.' 'You killed your brother,' she said, quietly. 'You burnt him alive.' 'Because he gave away was should have been mine. He did not want it, it should have stayed with us. He needed to burn.' 'But why come for me?' 'Because he spoke to me before he left, told me that a wonderful gypsy woman had explained to him his fortune. Told him that I would use him, devour him eventually. He said that her cards told her, accused me of all sorts of evil plans.' I laughed. 'Can you imagine it? A stranger who told him things about himself that Stephen could never have known. But the cards knew, and this is what matters.' I gathered up the cards with my free hand, tapped them against the table and replaced them on the pack. 'In warning him they revealed themselves. Do you think that I would not recognise his description of them, the secrets they revealed to him of past and future? Do you think that I would not recognise Baptiste's Arcana? There is no deck like it in the world.' I picked up the pack and placed them in my breast pocket, the pistol steady. 'The last living tarot still free in the world.' 'Oh,' I added, 'just so you know. The Death card doesn't always mean change. For some reason every tarot reader seems to think this, it's the most predictable thing in the world. You should remember though, sometimes the Death card just means death.' I pulled the trigger. The revolver fired with a bark. Tabitha jumped, head thumping against the frayed cloth. Outside of the tent I could hear the patrons stop, conversations, laughter, everything. For a moment everything went still as a hundred minds told themselves that it was a car backfiring because surely someone would be screaming if it was really a gun. I brushed the cards with my hand through my shirt, feeling their fear. I hummed soothingly, trying to tell them that they were free of the hands of this pagan, that they no longer must be content with hinting at the paths of the future. In my hands they would write it in fire and ice. From the table Tabitha keened softly, as if unsure of whether she was alive or dead. It was the last I saw of her as I tucked the pistol back in my belt, pulled aside the tent flap, and stepped out into the sparse crowd. I told my brother that I would kill her when I found her. I told him that his silence would not save her and he died cursing my name. I told him that I would hunt her down and carve my revenge for every minute I wasted in this hunt. It was only the cards that gave her that glimmer of greatness, after all, she was nothing without them. So I let her live without her cards. For I am capricious and cannot be trusted.