The dark-haired, dark-eyed woman, known simply as Esmerelda, walked from her trailer to the brightly colored tent that served as her place of business. Like her mother, her grandmother and countless other women in her family tree, she was a fortuneteller. Although her Romanian blood had been diluted through the years by Italian, Spanish and French ancestors, Esmerelda still lived the life of a gypsy. Born into the strange, nomadic world of carnival folk, she had spent her childhood on the road, traveling from one small town to another. She had never gone to school and never lived in a house. Her world consisted of tents, trailers and concession stands, and her friends were acrobats, jugglers, barkers, animal trainers, pitchmen and sideshow "freaks."
Esmerelda entered her tent and made ready for the customers that would soon be arriving. She opened the old chest in the corner of the tent, took out the crystal ball and placed it in the middle of the velvet-covered table. Next she removed a gaudy, multicolored peasant skirt and slipped it on over her jeans. Then she donned the knitted shawl, kerchief and bangle jewelry that completed her costume. On the bottom of the chest were several packs of tarot cards. She took one out and put it in the pocket of her voluminous skirt. Once she was properly attired, Esmerelda set the stage by lighting candles and burning incense, thus achieving a mysterious occult atmosphere that made her psychic readings more believable to her superstitious patrons.
Esmerelda's mother and grandmother had taught her at an early age to chart a horoscope, to read tealeaves, palms and tarot cards and even to communicate with those on the other side. But these skills proved useless to someone who had not been given the gift of second sight. Although once in a great while Esmerelda was able to get a brief glimpse into the future, the predictions she made in her carnival tent were not a product of clairvoyance. Despite the sign above her tent, Esmerelda was no psychic. In fact, she thought of herself as a kind of actress, reciting lines she had rehearsed over the years.
"Hey, beautiful, are you decent?" a thickly accented male voice called affectionately.
"That's a matter of opinion," she laughed.
Lorenzo pulled back the canvas flap and entered the dimly lit tent.
"Anyone out there yet?" Esmerelda asked.
"No. It's still too early. The concession stands are just setting up. If I were you, I wouldn't expect to see any business for another hour or so."
"Where have you been all day?"
"It was my turn to hand out flyers in town."
"Sounds like fun," she said sarcastically. "Glad I missed it."
"It's not too bad. At least I wasn't sitting around the camp drinking beer and playing poker."
"True, but after a while all these towns seem the same, nothing but a collection of McDonalds, Walmarts and strip malls."
Lorenzo chuckled. "Just think how bored you'd be if you actually had to live in one of these places."
"I might surprise you. Perhaps I'll get married some day, buy a house in the suburbs, have a couple of kids and drive a minivan. Instead of pitching my tent and telling lies to starry-eyed virgins, I could stay home and make cupcakes for the PTA bake sale."
Lorenzo put his arms around the fortuneteller and nuzzled her neck. "What?" he whispered in her ear. "No more dancing in front of the campfire? No skinny-dipping in the moonlight? You're a gypsy, and you've got fire in your veins. You could no more be a suburbanite than a panther could be a house cat."
Esmerelda sensed Lorenzo's passion mounting and gently but firmly pushed him away. "Not now, my darling. I have work to do. Later, after the carnival has shut down, come to my trailer. I'll open a bottle of wine and put on some music."
Lorenzo kissed her one last time and opened the flap to the tent.
"I guess I'll go over to the maintenance truck in case someone needs me, but I'll be back later."
* * *
Esmerelda's first customer of the evening was a nervous, middle-aged businessman who seemed anxious for reassurance from the cards. As she sat opposite him, the beautiful gypsy concentrated on reading his eyes and his body language as she deftly dealt the cards with efficiency that would make even the most experienced croupier seethe with envy. Using her specially marked deck, she could select what cards would appear and in what order they would come up.
"This is the ace of wands. It means opportunity has knocked at your door," she said, following her keen instincts.
"Yes," he said eagerly.
"This is the Wheel of Fortune, which indicates risk. You have apparently taken a big chance."
"Yes, I have."
That was why he was so nervous, Esmerelda realized. This deal, whatever it was, would apparently make or break him.
"What else do the cards say?" he pressed.
Esmerelda turned over the next card. "The seven of pentacles means a return on your investment. The last card is the ace of cups. It tells me money will begin to pour in."
The man let out a sigh of relief, took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. "I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that. I'm afraid I 'borrowed' my investment money from a number of accounts at the bank where I work. If I don't put that money back, I'll be charged with embezzlement."
"Well, now you can sleep at night. The cards promise success."
What the cards promised didn't matter to Esmerelda. In a few days, the carnival would be long gone. She would set up tent in another town, a carbon copy of this one, only with a different name and a different cast of characters. Yet her customers all seemed to have the same concerns, the same human frailties. They didn't want to really know what the future held. What they wanted was reassurance. A young woman with stars in her eyes didn't want to know that the man she loved was a faithless scoundrel, just as the man now sitting at her table certainly didn't want to hear that his business venture would fail and that he would face public scandal and a prison term.
"Thank you so much," the banker said gratefully. Then he reached into his pocket and took out Esmerelda's fee, adding a handsome tip.
After the banker left, a woman entered. She looked somewhere in the vicinity of thirty-five. She wore no wedding or engagement ring, and her pinched face and sour expression spoke volumes to Esmerelda. Here was a woman scorned, one who would not believe the flowery prediction of a tall, dark stranger in her future. This woman wanted retribution, not promises of romance.
Esmerelda shuffled the cards again. "This is the three of swords," she said confidently. "It tells me you have been wounded, that you suffer from a broken heart. Someone you deeply loved walked out on you. And this card, the five of wands, signifies another woman, a rival."
As her customer's eyes burned with jealousy and hatred, Esmerelda placed another card on the table: the Hermit. The woman let out a groan.
"I've got a lonely life ahead of me, don't I?" she asked pitifully.
Esmerelda reached out and patted the back of the woman's hands that were nervously clenching and unclenching her small purse. "The Hermit indicates that the long road leads back to the place where it all began. In your case, it means the man you love will return."
Hope sprang to the woman's eyes.
"Your last card is the Empress. It symbolizes a woman waiting to harvest what she has reaped in a prior season. It signifies a serious relationship that involves marriage."
"What about her?" she asked, loathe to utter her rival's name.
"Now she will taste the heartbreak you have known. She will know rejection, humiliation and loneliness. And in her case," Esmerelda smiled at her customer, "she will have the added weight of guilt on her shoulders."
"So the cards say he'll come back to me?" the woman asked with tears of joy in her eyes.
The fool! Esmerelda thought. This woman's lover would return to her, and she would take him back, but her happiness would be short-lived, for her lover would yield to the temptation of a pretty face time and time again.
* * *
Four teenagers, the progeny of four of the most prominent families in the surrounding community, had decided to spend Saturday night at the carnival rather than at the movies or the roller rink. By ten o'clock they were already bored with the scant selection of rides, the games of skill and the wheels of chance.
"I've got a few six packs in the trunk of the Mustang," said Kirk Gainsford, the star quarterback and main heartthrob at Puritan Falls High School. "Let's drive up to Gallows Lake and have ourselves a party."
Gallows Lake, a popular spot with young people who wanted to escape the watchful eyes of the adult world, was just off of Naumkeag Road, a dark, winding street with steep inclines and sharp, hairpin turns.
"Maybe later," replied his girlfriend, Mitzi Slater, the head cheerleader and only child of the current mayor. "It's still early yet."
"But it's getting boring around here. If I ride the Octopus one more time, I think I'll hurl."
"What about the freak show?" Kirk's friend Mickey asked. "That ought to be worth a few laughs."
"Yeah?" Kirk inquired moodily. "What's so fascinating about a two-headed calf or a bearded woman?"
"Maybe they have a woman with three boobs like in that movie Total Recall." Mickey's date jabbed him in the ribs. "Ow, that hurt!"
"Don't you have any class?" Mitzi asked.
"Yeah. Biology class, English class, history class...," Kirk laughed.
"Knock it off," Mitzi ordered with annoyance, "or you'll have to go up to Gallows Lake alone!"
That prospect didn't appeal to Kirk Gainsford. It was a warm, clear summer night with a full moon, and his older brother had generously given him a supply of Budweiser, but the evening would all come to naught if Mitzi decided to be difficult.
"Look, they have a fortuneteller," Mitzi announced, pulling Kirk's arm. "Let's go get our fortunes told."
"Ah, that's stupid," he started to say, but then he thought about being at Gallows Lake with no girl to make out with. "Okay, let's go get our palms read."
"We'll catch up with you guys later," Mickey said, taking his girlfriend by the arm and heading toward the nearest refreshment stand.
"Welcome," Esmerelda said when Mitzi and Kirk entered her tent. "Won't you sit down?"
"We'd like to have our fortunes told," Mitzi announced unnecessarily. "Me first."
Yes, Esmerelda surmised. That was probably the way it had been all her young life. The gypsy's assumption was correct. As Daddy's little girl, Mitzi had always come first.
"Aren't you going to read my palm?" Mitzi asked when Esmerelda took out her cards.
"The lines of a palm only tell me certain things, whereas with the Tarot, I can see your future laid out before me like a road map." She dealt the first card. "This is the Star. It applies to people who live up to their highest potential. This is the seven of wands. It means that suitors will line up at your door, competing for your attention."
A smug, self-satisfied smile made Mitzi look far older than her sixteen years.
"The two of cups tells me that vows will be exchanged, and the ten of cups indicates a happy ending, a storybook romance."
Mitzi squealed with delight, casting adoring glances at Kirk Gainsford.
"I guess I'm next," Kirk said, squeezing Mitzi's hand, looking forward to the trip to Gallows Lake.
Esmerelda shuffled the cards and dealt the first one on the table. It was not the card she had intended. "This is the Sun; it signifies one who has been given free reign, one who is used to running wild," Esmerelda said, looking directly at Kirk.
What she saw in his eyes stunned her. A shock ran through her nervous system, and her heart began to race.
"Well? Are you going to read his fortune or not?" Mitzi asked, a bit peeved at the fortuneteller's staring into the eyes of her boyfriend.
"Yes. Forgive me. I just had a psychic revelation. When that happens, I am unaware of the world around me," she lied.
"Wow! Was this revelation about me?" Mitzi asked excitedly.
"Perhaps," Esmerelda replied.
What the gypsy had seen in Kirk's eyes had nothing to do with the pampered cheerleader. What she had seen terrified her. With a shaking hand, she dealt the next card. Again, it was one she hadn't selected. She prayed she was not losing her touch.
"The queen of cups signifies a wise woman who reads the future. And this is the king of swords. It represents a warrior who sits on his steed ready to attack."
Kirk and Mitzi looked perplexed. What did these unrelated images have to do with Kirk's future? Esmerelda turned over the fourth card. It was Death. Esmerelda heard the quick intake of Mitzi's breath.
"Am I going to die soon?" Kirk asked nervously.
"No. The Death card is symbolic only. It refers to a great change."
Contrary to her usual routine, Esmerelda turned over a fifth card. "The nine of swords indicates mental anguish, great sorrow and a guilty memory."
"I don't get all this occult crap. What does it mean?" Kirk asked.
"I don't know," Esmerelda replied candidly, putting her hand to her forehead.
The array of cards on the table made her ill at ease. A feeling of foreboding weighed heavily on her mind. She couldn't wait to be rid of these two young people. Frankly, she didn't even care whether they paid her or not, just as long as they left her alone. But Kirk, whose father gave him a very generous allowance, reached into his wallet and handed Esmerelda a twenty-dollar bill.
"Keep the change," he said, and then he and Mitzi quickly left the small tent.
Although the action of the carnival wouldn't wind down for at least another two hours, Esmerelda unplugged her sign and interior lights, took off her gaudy costume and returned to her trailer.
* * *
"Why did you close up so early?" Lorenzo asked, worried about Esmerelda's health.
"I had a customer, a young man, who upset me."
"Why didn't you call me? I'd have taken care of him."
"No, Lorenzo. It wasn't like that. He was just a boy, and he was there with his girlfriend. When I looked into his eyes...." She shuddered and shook her head, unable to continue.
"What is? We have no secrets between us."
"In his eyes I saw grave danger. I think he might be evil, that he might harm someone."
"It's possible, but you mustn't concern yourself with that. We carnies live in our own world, by our own rules. Whatever this man may become will not affect you."
"I know. I keep telling myself in a few days we'll leave this place, but I can't shake the feeling of impending doom."
"I'm here with you now. I'll protect you."
* * *
"No!" Mitzi said as she firmly pushed Kirk away.
The popular quarterback had succeeded in getting the equally popular cheerleader up Naumkeag Road to Gallows Lake. Now that they were there, however, Mitzi was not responding as he'd hoped she would.
"Come on, Mitzi, we've been going out for three months. What are you waiting for?" he asked as he grabbed for her again.
"I said no!" Mitzi cried even more emphatically.
Frustrated, Kirk reached in the back seat of the Mustang and got himself another Budweiser.
"Haven't you had enough to drink already?"
"Shit, Mitzi. Some sideshow fortuneteller says you're going to get married someday, and already you're nagging me like you were my wife."
* * *
After Lorenzo had fallen asleep, Esmerelda lay awake, looking at the summer sky through the window in her trailer, but it was not the moon and the stars she saw. With her mind's eye she recalled the pale blue eyes of young Kirk Gainsford. They haunted her, and she was unable to sleep. She quietly got out of bed, careful not to wake Lorenzo. She put on a pair of jeans and a loose-fitting sweatshirt.
Hoping a long walk might relax her, Esmerelda tiptoed out of the trailer and closed the door gently. She looked to the right, at the streetlights along the Old Salem Turnpike, which led into town. To the left was a road that ended in darkness. Like Robert Frost, Esmerelda chose to take the path less traveled. Ahead of her there were no sidewalks and no streetlights. The beautiful gypsy hummed an old Romanian love song as she started ascending Naumkeag Road.
* * *
"Stop it, Kirk," Mitzi urged once again.
By now Kirk had so many cans of Bud that he wasn't putting up much of a fight. Disgusted and frustrated, he pulled away from Mitzi and reached toward the ignition of the Mustang. He turned the key, and the engine rumbled to life.
"What are you doing?" Mitzi asked with disbelief.
"I'm going to drop you off at your house, and then I'm going home to bed."
"But it's early yet."
"It's almost 1:00 a.m."
"Yeah, and my parents are at a party in Boston and won't be home for at least another two hours."
"Frankly, Mitzi, I don't give a damn. I'm too tired to try another attack on your virtue."
He shifted the car, put his foot on the gas and released the clutch. Gravel shot up from the spinning tires.
"I don't think you should drive, Kirk," Mitzi said in an unprecedented display of common sense.
"Are you gonna drive?"
"You know I don't know how to a drive a stick."
"My point, exactly," he said as he gunned the Mustang's engine.
With a squeal of tires and a shower of gravel, Kirk took off speeding down Naumkeag Road.
* * *
Esmerelda continued her slow ascent up the dark, winding road. The steep incline left her winded, yet the physical exertion was not calming her nerves. On the contrary, she was becoming more agitated with each step. Maybe she shouldn't be out here alone on this dark, deserted road. Maybe she should have stayed in her trailer, curled up next to Lorenzo.
She stopped briefly to catch her breath and then turned around, heading back down the hill toward her the tents of the carnival, toward Lorenzo, toward safety.
* * *
"Slow down," Mitzi cautioned as Kirk slid around first one sharp turn and then another.
"Don't worry; I know how to drive this car."
"But you've had about two dozen beers. You shouldn't be driving at all."
"Nag. Nag. NAG! Just shut up, will you?" he punctuated his request by flooring the Mustang's gas pedal.
"Slow down, Kirk. I'm not kidding. I'm afraid."
The Mustang approached yet another sharp bend. Kirk took the curve on two wheels.
Mitzi saw the gypsy first. "Kirk, look out!"
Before Kirk's Nike-clad foot could travel the short distance from the accelerator to the brake, the Mustang had closed the distance between itself and the unfortunate pedestrian. In the glow of the headlights, Kirk and Mitzi saw the surprise and terror on Esmerelda's attractive face. The impact sent her slender body up over the hood and the roof of the car. She landed with a bone-breaking thud on the road behind them. The Mustang skidded several yards but eventually came to a stop on the side of the road. Kirk ran out to check on Esmerelda, while Mitzi stayed in the car, screaming hysterically.
Kirk looked at the blood-covered face of his victim and began to cry. He gingerly picked up her wrist and checked for a pulse. He found one, but it was it weak and erratic.
"Oh God," he cried again and again. "What have I done?"
At this point, he was still thinking only of the young woman, worrying if she would live or die. He was still too much in shock to consider the trouble he would be in when the police arrived. He was, after all, only sixteen years old, and he'd hit a pedestrian while driving under the influence. He'd be lucky if he ever saw his license again.
Esmerelda stirred, briefly regaining consciousness. Every inch of her body screamed in pain. "Lorenzo," she moaned softly.
Her eyes fluttered open. The man in front of her, who looked so frightened and worried, was not her Lorenzo. It was the young man with the spoiled girlfriend, the boy with danger in his eyes.
With sudden, painful clarity, Esmerelda realized the Death card had not been meant for him. Rather, it had been a harbinger of her own end. With a final shudder, the young fortuneteller took her last breath, and her eyes closed forever. For Esmerelda, the future held no more promise.
Salem, who told you there was an ace of cats in a deck of Tarot cards?