Mark Mellon

Fortune Teller

Denton snorted cocaine off Annie’s compact mirror. Techno music blared. He drank Cristal and puffed a pre-Revolution Cuban Partagás cigar, one of four hundred left. At a roped-off table at an exclusive after-hours club, next to a beautiful young woman, he reflected on his persistent melancholy. Rio Pinto resonated in his mind.

Annie darted her tongue into his ear. Denton wriggled away. A puzzled look became dark eyed exasperation.

“Andy. Don’t you want to be with me?”

“Yes. It’s just work.”

“But you’re with me now. We’re drunk and high. In a little while, we go to bed. That doesn’t take your mind off work?”

Denton poured more Cristal.

“If I knew whether Rio Pinto goes bankrupt, I’d know what to do. It could mean my job.”

“Hey, I know. Let’s see Madame Tisiphone. You can ask her. At least she might distract you.”

“Madame who?”

“Tisiphone the seer. An old lady in the East Village who’s been around since the ’50’s, a real relic in this basement apartment.”

“How do you know her? You never struck me as the crystal ball type.”

“My last name is Terakis. From Crete, Andy. Greeks know other Greeks, even in big cities. Do you want me to call? She’s not cheap. Set you back a grand.”

“Call her. Might be fun like you say.”

Annie pulled her phone out. After an unintelligible conversation in Greek, Annie smiled and said “Efharisto.”

“She’ll see us in half-an-hour. That leaves enough time for the pet store.”

“What for?”

“You have to bring her a gift. A pretty bird, something like that.”

“Let me kill the bottle and we’ll go.”

Feet uncoordinated, steadied by Annie, Denton left the club. Manhattan summer’s hot, stinking funk hit him full. Denton wilted. Annie grabbed him by the armpits. He somehow managed to lock his legs beneath him. It was easy to flag a cab outside; every hack in town knew high rollers partied there.

“24/7 Pets at 12th and Broadway, please,” Annie said.

The store was brilliantly lit, crammed with cages. Customers were few that late. A corridor flanked by stacked cages held birds of multiple species and resplendent hues, a wild display of crimson, yellow, purple, and gold accompanied by squawks, skreeks and guano’s raw stench. Annie pointed to a brilliantly green parakeet.

“How much?”

“A very reasonable price, considering he’s rare. Three hundred fifty,” the salesman replied.

“Do we get the cage too?”

“That’s another hundred, but we provide two free bags of feed.”

Denton departed with the awkwardly held bird cage shrouded under a cover. They took another cab, cage between them. Denton flinched whenever the bird jumped. He drank Courvoisier from a silver flask to steady his nerves. The cab left them in Tribeca. Burr Street’s brownstones were restored and immaculate, any Bohemian element largely driven out long ago by gentrification.

“Here.”

Denton negotiated the stairs while holding the cage with fair grace for someone so drunk and high. Annie knocked, a buzzer sounded, and they entered. There was a sharp, not unpleasant smell, burning myrrh. The parlor was dimly lit, the furniture old and broken down. Gold and silver icons gleamed in a corner by a dozen red candles’ flickering light. A bronze statue dominated the room, a grim, bearded man in a long robe with a three-headed dog at his feet, fangs bared in savage grimaces.

An old woman studied the Daily Racing Form at a table. She looked up from under gray-white, curly hair. Bright black eyes like obsidian chips gleamed in her wrinkled, shrunken face.

“Ah, the Terakis girl. Geia sas, hello to you and your friend.”

She stood up. Her back was bent, but her tread still firm, the claw like hand strong.

“This is Andy Denton. Andy, Madame Tisiphone.”

“So, boss, you got a question for the Rich One?”

“Who?”

She pointed to the floor.

Plouton, boss. The one with diamonds and gold.”

“Satan?”

She waved a hand in scorn.

Plouton, he’s a lot older. More important too. Let me see the bird you got.”

Annie set the cage on the table and removed the cover. Tisiphone cooed at the bird.

Po po po, such a pretty birdie.”

She opened the cage door and put her hand inside. The bird hopped onto her extended index finger. She brought him out, stroking his wings with her free hand.

“Is a big shame, to make such a nice bird meet Plouton. Sure you want to do this, boss?”

“Why do you think we came here?”

“OK, boss. A thousand bucks.”

Denton set hundreds on the table. Tisiphone tucked the money away in her black widow’s weeds.

“Come to the kitchen.”

A narrow hall led to a kitchen with a bathtub, perhaps the last in Greenwich Village with this antique arrangement. A wall held shelves lined with metal cans marked INDUSTRIAL FORMALDEHYDE. Tisiphone went to a table, took a length of cord, and expertly pinioned the bird’s wings. She set the immobilized bird on the table, opened the windows, went to the shelves, and took down a can.

“Is a small bird, boss, so we don’t need much. Better stand in the hall. You can watch there. What’s your question?”

“Rio Pinto. Will-“

“All I need, boss.”

Annie and Denton went to the hall. Tisiphone put on a black rubber gas mask that gave her a strange, sacerdotal air, like the priestess of some arcane, Gothic cult. She emptied the can into the tub. A pungent odor tore into Denton’s respiratory system like airborne daggers. Chanting in Greek, Tisiphone took the madly chirping bird and dropped him in.

The bird’s cries grew shrill, frantic as he begged for release from torturing fumes and liquid. Hand to one ear, Madame Tisiphone crouched and closely listened. When the bird died, she pulled on a rubber glove, opened the drain, and turned on the spigot.

“Boss, the bird say a ship loaded with gold and silver gonna crash on the rocks with all hands lost.”

“What’s that mean? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Prophecies don’t address things directly,” Annie said.

“Well, we did do this just to pass time.”

Denton smiled at Madame Tisiphone, a brief baring of teeth used with people he’d dismissed.

“Thanks for the show. We’ll be going now. Keep the bird cage. Plus the dead bird.”

Annie spoke to Tisiphone in Greek. Denton tugged Annie’s elbow. She snatched it away, but nonetheless left.

“You could have been more polite, you know. In Greece, you’re supposed to be respectful to older folks.”

“Yeah, well, we’re not in Greece.”

She was distant the rest of night, even during sex. Denton was past caring though. He simply wanted to get his nut off and collapse into oblivion, there to sleep before the ordeal of another long day slaving for money at Centurian.

***

Centurian had nothing so crude as a boiler room, an unpartitioned whole floor crammed with desks where men and women vied to unload as many bad investments as possible, to harpoon a “whale” with a phone call. Instead, associates grubbed for money respectably, behind closed doors in private offices. The atmosphere was more like an old white shoe, Wall Street law firm, with oak paneled walls, hushed corridors, and gilt framed fox hunt scenes.

What associates did during scant free time was their business. They were expected to come in early and stay late. Denton exited the express elevator at the 113th floor at seven, hungover, already exhausted due to insufficient rest. Secretaries smirked as he traipsed zombie like to his office. He popped a canister into his Keurig coffee maker. Coffee hot and steaming, Denton added two headache powders, stirred the cup, and poured the bitter potion down. Caffeine and aspirin had their palliative effect. His mind began to function somewhat. He remembered last night and Wikied “Plouton” on his laptop. A picture appeared of a bleak, bearded figure, a caption beneath.

Plouton – euphemism for Hades, Greek god of the dead. Due to fear, little official worship was paid to him. At the Ploutonion in Hierapolis, now Pamukkale in Turkey, pilgrims sought prophecies by tossing live, pinioned birds into mephitic waters from a cave’s mouth. Priests interpreted the birds’ death cries as cryptic, Delphic responses to the pilgrims’ queries. His opinion was particularly sought with respect to business, as he was regarded as wealthy beyond compare since he owned the world’s earthly riches.”

Tisiphone said a ship loaded with gold and silver would founder. Rio Pinto was the biggest miner of valuable minerals on the planet. He took out a vial and took his first hit of the day. Coke further stimulated him, made Denton decisive. He hit the intercom.

“Yes, Andy?”

“Unload Rio Pinto. Now. All of it. Tell everybody else to dump it too.”

“But they just got a capital infusion two days ago. Are you sure we should-“

“Yes, I’m sure. Unload, Jake. How hard is that to understand?”

“Sure, Andy. Absolutely no problem.”

Denton tried to keep racing nerves in check as the day progressed. His efforts weren’t helped by a visit around eleven from Wes Hardin, a partner and his direct boss.

“Howdy, Andy.”

The suit was Brioni, the tie Ralph Lauren, but the smile and accent were pure East Texas peckerwood. He took a seat and looked Denton in the eye, any trace of levity or friendliness gone.

“What’s this about Rio Pinto? You gone loco, son?”

“Inside info, Wes. They’re going belly up. You could say Rio Pinto’s a ship about to founder.”

“That’s right poetic, son, but poetry don’t cut it around here. A lot of clients are in bed with Rio Pinto, side contracts and counter derivatives. They’ll take some losses today and want an explanation.”

“Relax, Wes. Events will bear me out.”

“Sure hope so for your sake.”

Hardin left. Denton took more hits to restore flagging confidence. Sick with worry, he constantly monitored the Internet for news. At six p.m., Jake burst into his office.

“Andy. Rio Pinto’s bankrupt. The filings were just made public in Sydney. You saved us billions. How did you know?”

Adrenaline shot through Denton, a high greater than any achieved before. The buzz only grew as people streamed into the room to praise him to the skies. The acclamation reached its peak when Hardin entered, shook Denton’s hand and said, “Damn spam, Denton. Got yourself a crystal ball?”

Denton gave a Cheshire Cat smile.

“Close enough, Wes.”

***

“But we saw her a few days ago, Andy. And you didn’t seem to like it.”

“No, I did, so much I want to do it again. Let’s ask another question.”

Annie dragged off the joint, exhaled smoke, coughed, and passed it.

“That poor bird got killed, Andy. It was horrible. We had no right to do that.”

“Oh, please. It’s just a bird. And it’s not like I want to, that’s how she works.”

Annie’s cold look told Denton this tack wasn’t working, so he changed course.

“Look. I was rude. Fluke or not, her advice was right. I want to thank her. Let me do her right and you too. I know how sensitive you Greeks are.”

Annie kissed Denton.

“If you put it that way, it’s not so bad. I’ll call her after we finish this joint.”

The same salesman waited upon them at 24/7 Pets.

“Got any big birds?” Denton asked. “A hawk or an eagle?”

“We happen to have an English hunting falcon. Over here. We have to keep her apart from other birds.”

The falcon sat in a corner in isolated splendor. Dappled brown and white, with huge wings and a snow white throat, the eyes were covered by a leather hood.

“Have you had any experience with falcons?”

“Plenty. I plan to hunt at our place in Long Island.”

“But we-“

Denton silenced Annie with an angry, sideways glance.

“This bird is expensive. Two thousand.”

“I’ll take it.”

Denton paid for the falcon, a cover was put over the cage, and they left with another sacrificial victim. A cab took them downtown.

“Andy, we can’t hurt this bird.”

“We can’t keep it either. Did you see those claws? Anyway, she’s expecting us.”

Tisiphone opened the door.

“So, boss, you come back. Maybe old Madame Tisiphone can see the future, eh?”

“You’re the best goddam prophet ever. Sorry I doubted you. To prove it, I got a present. Look.”

Denton removed the cover. Startled, the bird flapped great wings.

Aman, what have you brought? A most splendiferous bird, boss. But a big bird means a big question too. It’ll cost plenty this time, boss, five grand.”

“Here.”

Denton put his Rolex Oyster Supreme on the table.

“That watch is ten grand.”

Tisiphone whistled. “Tha to pahro, I’ll take it. Say the question.”

“Lohrman Freres? Will the French gover-“

“Enough.”

She bent down, opened the cage, and stuck an arm inside. The hooded bird jumped onto her outstretched wrist. Madame Tisiphone took the falcon out and breathed in the bird’s ears. She slipped the hood off. The bird regarded Denton with savage, predatory black eyes, but stayed on her arm.

“Sure you want to kill such a splendiferous, beautiful bird, boss? And for money, always money too, never love or your future? Po po po.”

“Why do you keep asking that?”

Tisiphone stroked the bird.

“Maybe I wanna test you, boss. Come on.”

In the kitchen, the bird let herself be bound as before, despite her size and ferocity. Tisiphone opened the windows, turned on a fan, and went to the shelves.

“Two cans for so big a bird.”

She donned her mask and poured formaldehyde into the tub. The smell was worse, stronger, more astringent. Madame Tisiphone put in the falcon.

Amazingly loud and varied calls poured from the tub as the falcon floundered to death. Tisiphone listened intently to every squawk. She pulled the plug, turned on the spigot, and shepherded Denton and Annie back to the living room where she removed her mask.

“What did the bird say?”

“Mostly cuss you a lot, boss, call you goddam sonofbitch, other stuff. Plenty spirit in that bird.”

“What about Lohrman Freres?”

“She say ‘The Roman galley throw a spar to the drowning twins.'”

“Why can’t I just get a straight answer? OK, Madame, thanks as usual.”

Pleased Annie kept her farewell relatively short, Denton sat near her in the cab only to have her draw away.

“What do you think the prophecy means?”

“Andy, for a smart man, you’re so stupid. A spar saves the twins. Twin brothers. Freres means brothers in French.”

“OK. I’m not deaf.”

At his place, primed on coke and certain of victory with Tisiphone’s prophecy, he grabbed Annie and pulled at her dress, only to have her push him away, an angry, troubled light in her eyes.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Andy, before we even start thinking about that, you have to promise me something.”

“OK.”

She looked him straight in the eye, but he was distracted by her perfect breasts.

“Andy, pay attention. I don’t want to see any more birds killed. It’s making me sick. The first time I didn’t know any better, but the second time I did and I feel terrible. You’ve had your way twice now. I won’t be part of this again. If you ever mention taking another bird to Madame Tisiphone again, we’re through. Do we understand each other, Andy?”

This wasn’t the first time a girlfriend had put Denton on notice, so he knew how to respond. He pulled her close, stroked her hair, and spoke gently.

“Don’t worry, honey. That’s the last time. Promise.”

Reassured, Annie sighed, curled up against him, and slept. Still flying on coke and adrenaline, Denton lay awake and dreamt of the wealth and power the new tip would bring.

***

On a rare, clear day, Denton enjoyed the panoramic view of Manhattan from his corner suite. His teak, sedan size desk was crammed with bric-a-brac and adult toys. Fine abstract art hung from the walls, nothing to him, but impressive to visitors. He padded in sock feet over a thick Persian rug to the black Aeron chair, sat, and spun around with a broad grin, hands twined behind his head. A knock on the door brought Denton bolt upright. He slipped on tasseled loafers and straightened his tie.

“Come in.”

Hardin entered, a big smile on his broad red face. Denton knew this meant trouble, being also a consummate phony.

“Look at Centurian’s newest partner, not even near thirty, sitting in his own suite. Tell you what, I’m damn proud, Andy.”

“Thanks, Wes. You embarrass me, talking me up so much.”

Hardin sat down.

“Andy, once you make partner here, it ain’t like some law firm where you sit on your laurels and let associates make hay. No sirree, bob, you got to hustle even more. You catch my drift, son?”

“No worries, Wes.”

“Glad to hear it. You did good with Rio Pinto, even better with Lohrmann. You ain’t just saved money, but made some. But it’s a topsy-turvy, dog eat dog world and we need new results now. Know anything about Gilded Sacs?”

The biggest investment firm on Wall Street, a titan that made Centurian look like a puny wimp. Gilded Sacs should be on top, but who knew with economic chaos worldwide? Denton played cagy.

“Just mixed signals. Have you heard anything?”

“There’s rumors they’ll go tits up any day. Nothing sourced or attributed, but some folks smell a big, dead rat, if you get my meaning. Get that crystal ball working, hear now? Pull a rabbit from the hat another time for the team, Andy. Can’t put it any more sincere than that.”

“You’ll have the answer tomorrow, Wes.”

Hardin rose.

“Keep taking care of business, hear?”

Good mood ruined, Denton ignored work and instead snorted coke while he brooded over his latest dilemma. He needed another prophecy, but if he even mentioned taking a bird to Tisiphone, Annie would dump him and she was his only connection. By six, purple, red, and orange streaks tinted the western horizon, the vial was empty, and Denton had hit his nail biting, floor pacing, wits’ end. His phone buzzed.

“So we having dinner, Andy? How about Pylos on 7th? They do good meze.”

“I’ll come get you.”

Hot, humid air stifled him outside, as yet uncooled by twilight. Cabs were few and he walked uptown to find one, a single thought in mind. There had to be a way out.

Startled, a large street rat scuttled before him. In a state of extraordinary concentration due to massive coke consumption, Denton grabbed an asphalt chunk and slung it with speed and reflexes no straight person could match. The missile caught the fleeing rat on the head and knocked him cold. Denton hurried to the sprawled animal. With the same celerity and presence of mind, he slipped the laces from his shoes and hogtied him, neat as any domestic beast bound for slaughter.

Denton slipped the rat into a coat pocket and hailed a cab. He called Annie from the cab.

“I’m here. Come outside.”

Annie emerged, stunning in a low-cut black top, skin tight jeans, and Louboutins. She got in the cab and they kissed.

“I want to see Tisiphone first.”

“I thought we were done with that, that we had an understanding.”

“I just want to thank her, that’s all. You know, let her know how grateful I am. Look at me. Have I got a bird?”

He held up his arms to demonstrate his birdless state.

“All right. Maybe you’re getting more considerate. Let me find out if she can see us.”

An intolerably long call in Greek followed.

“She’s just finished with a client. It’s OK.”

“Excellent.”

Denton felt like his old, self-confident self. A plan had formed, albeit haphazardly. Once more, he’d bend the world to his will.

Then the rat came to. Despite being bound, he vigorously squirmed around in Denton’s pocket. He clamped a hand over the pocket to hold the rat still.

“What are you doing?”

“Ah, I just got an itch.”

“How high are you? Did you do all the coke without me? And where are your shoelaces? You’re being really weird, even for you.”

“So I forgot to put them on. I’m a little buzzed.”

His shoes kept slipping off as he walked down the stairs. He kept a hand on the rat. Tisiphone opened the door. A distinct chemical odor wafted from the hall.

“You pardon the stink, huh? I just got done with a client. So, boss, you got a pistol in that pocket?”

Denton giggled.

“No, Madame. I want to tell you how grateful I am and- And I need to know what’s up with Gilded Sacs.”

Annie gasped. “You lying jerk. I warned you-“

“So you got another question, boss? How’m I supposed to answer with no bird?”

“Look.”

He held out the rat. To his surprise, both women recoiled.

Vlaca. You bring a filthy rat before my icons. Malaka.”

She snatched the rat away, tossed it outside, and slammed the door.

“Only high animals are fit to talk to Plouton, a fine bird or magnificent bull.”

Terminally stressed, Denton sweated as his hare-brained scheme fell apart before him. Powered solely by coke, panic, and greed at this point, he snatched Annie by the wrist.

“What are you doing, Andy?”

“I haven’t got a bull. So take her. She’s fine, isn’t she? I have to know what’s going to happen to Gilded Sacs. I’ll pay ten thousand, twenty.”

Annie snatched her hand away and ran behind Tisiphone. The seer’s face grew evil. Rather than a wizened, old, East Village weirdo, she resembled Medusa, a hideous female demon, baleful face contorted with rage.

Poutsokefalo. You want to ask a question so bad, maybe you do it yourself, eh?”

She seized Denton’s arm and twisted it behind his back. Apparently frail, the old woman was powerful as any club bouncer. Denton tried to break free, but she hustled him down the hall and into the kitchen. She slammed him into the table, bent him over, knocked the wind from him.

Tisiphone remorselessly and masterfully bound his hands.

“Pay for your hubris.”

No longer human in her black rubber mask, she dragged him, grabbed him by his hair and the small of the back and held him over the tub, more than half full with a white swan’s carcass in it. The smell made him gag and cry hot tears.

“No. Please. Don’t.”

She shoved him down head first. The agony was instant. Denton thrashed about, tried to bodily heave himself out, but Tisiphone firmly held him in place with a foot rammed into his back. He attempted to hold his breath, but involuntarily gasped from the pain. Formaldehyde flooded down his throat, a toxic stream that made him choke and spasm, which only forced more fluid into his lungs.

He screamed for mercy once again, only to have his burning eyes dissolve into a vision of a shadowy, horizonless plain where dead souls flitted about like tiny, pathetic gray bats. A heavyset man sat before him on a platinum throne. Black haired and bearded, his eyes were gleaming gold coins, each tooth a precious gem. His suit’s pinstripes were formed of tiny flaming letters that repeatedly spelt Hades. The grim visage puffed a cigar rolled from thousand dollar bills, knocked off silver flakes of ash, and smiled.

Mporo na se voithiso? Can I help you?”

***

Annie sat weeping on the couch when Tisiphone returned. She lit a cigarette and made notes with a pen on the Daily Racing Form.

“He isn’t-“

Tisiphone shrugged.

“Don’t worry, Annie. I fix it.”

“But this is terrible. Andy’s- I mean, you just-“

Agapi. Don’t worry about that kariolis.”

She returned to the racing sheet.

“He didn’t say nothing about no Gilded Sacs, but I gotta few good tips for Belmont.”

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