Fortune teller, Luanne LaRue, is trying to build a new life in the haunted town of Banshee Creek and the last thing she wants is a conflict with super-sexy Sheriff Sean Stickley. But when a mysterious fraud spreads through town she has no choice. She has to clear her name fast before her new life (and new love) is destroyed.
“So, do I cross your palm with silver?” the older woman with elegant gray hair asked mildly. “I mean, how does that work?”
Luanne LaRue, aka Madame Esmeralda, smiled. “That’s a very old phrase. It means that you have to pay me a coin.” She pointed to the smartphone on the embroidered tablecloth. “Nowadays, we take Paypal.”
Her client, Mrs. Fluke, glanced at the high tech contraption suspiciously. “That can’t possibly work as well.”
Luanne bit her lip. Mrs. Fluke would be surprised. Technology and magic were actually very compatible. Banshee Creek, however, preferred the old methods. The residents of The Most Haunted Town in the USA valued tradition. That’s why her fortune teller’s corner at the Banshee Creek Botánica featured antique armchairs, a stained glass lamp, and a rickety wooden table with a tilting top that frequently sent her Tarot cards flying to the ground.
A good computer program with a decent algorithm would work as well, if not better, but the marks wanted a show. So she gave them a little theatre. Cartomancy wasn’t that hard.
She shuffled the deck, making sure that the intricate drawings on top of the cards were clearly visible. The designs were hand-painted in several shades of gold and, if you looked closely, you could see celtic symbols and runes delicately etched into the paint. The Tarot pictures were equally enchanting with haughty empresses and handsomely-carved swords and goblets rendered in bright colors.
It was a work of art, and it was very effective. Mrs. Fluke’s gaze was riveted to the cards as Luanne shuffled. Luanne focused on the movement, letting her mind wander. What was she dealing with here. Mrs. Fluke was retired and looked stern and bookish. Teacher? No, librarian. She had adult children. A boy? No, two girls, both married. No grandchildren.
Facts poured into her mind, like a tide. She didn’t know where they came from, but it had always been like this. She didn’t even need the cards, although they helped organize the flood of disparate images. She just concentrated and facts popped into her head.
She’d consulted a hypnotist once who put her under a trance and had her describe the process. The hypnotist explained that Luanne noticed little things about things and her subconscious put things together, giving her the ability to predict what would happen to stocks and bonds and make dead-on judgements about where people came from.
And, more importantly, where they were going.
But what some people called accurate observations and perceptive guessing, others called magic.
Come to think of it, the stream of images was stronger now that she lived in Banshee Creek. Maybe the famous geomagnetic fault that lay under the town enhanced psychic powers as well as paranormal phenomena. She should ask Caine, the leader of PRoVE, the local paranormal research group, about that.
Luanne put the stack of cards on the table. “Cut the cards, please. Anywhere you want.”
The old lady grabbed the cards and cut the deck in half, her motion quick and decisive.
Luanne noted the way her client handled the cards and let her mind wander. Mrs. Fluke wasn’t the usual true believer Banshee Creek visitor. She volunteered at her local Historical Society in…Minnesota? Wisconsin? Someplace in the Midwest. She was here to see if a paranormal twist would make her town more attractive to tourists. She was skeptical, but she desperately wanted to increase the visitor count in her organization’s Visitor Center. If she didn’t, the state—Iowa, she was from Iowa—would stop funding their operation.
Luanne dug a little more, trying to figure out Mrs. Fluke’s motivation. The next town over had a stone commemorating James T. Kirk’s future birthplace. They got thousands of tourists every year and their pictures were all over the internet.
Why couldn’t her town do the same?
“Take three cards, turn them right side up, and place them in a row.”
Mrs. Fluke complied, her hand deftly handling the cards. She probably played bridge in her spare time, or maybe canasta.
This was the cheapo, introductory Tarot spread. Luanne’s monthly clients got a full Celtic Cross with detailed analysis and a daily breakdown, but the tourists always chose the cheapie. Truth to tell, Luanne liked the short spread. Reading a stranger in a couple of minutes was hard. It kept her gift in shape.
Mrs. Fluke finished laying down the cards and Luanne glanced at them, unsurprised by the outcome. The prince of swords, the five of cups, and the seven of cups.
“This is a simple spread,” she said. “The left card is the past, the middle card is the present or the immediate future, and the card on the right is the future yet to come.”
“The prince is on a quest, a mission,” she said. “It is not his own quest. It is one that he has taken on behalf of someone else. He is, so to speak, a knight acting on behalf of his lady.”
Mrs Fluke sat back on her chair, her mouth tight.
“The five of cups means partial fulfillment.” She pointed to the card. “Notice that some of the cups are only partially filled with liquid.”
Mrs. Fluke raised a brow. “Partial?”
“For now.” Luanne pointed to the middle card. “See that cup that fell down? That is the result of a struggle. That’s what the five represents. The Prince will meet with obstacles. People will fight him.”
“Really?” Mrs. Fluke’s eyes gleamed with pleasurable anticipation.
Luanne hid a smile. This was not a person who backed from a fight. Orneville, Iowa would get it’s paranormal…festival. She was going to end up doing a festival.
Watch out, Banshee Creek. You have some stiff competition coming your way.
“But he wins, right?” Mrs. Fluke said, glancing at the last card.
“Yes.” Luanne smiled. “The seven of cups is a card of fulfillment. Notice that the cups are overflowing. That means abundance —”
“And money?” Mrs. Fluke interrupted.
Luanne chuckled. “Sometimes.”
In this instance, certainly, but she’d learned a long time ago not to be too specific in her predictions. It was better to disguise the truth in the flowery language of Tarot or astrology, or even financial jargon.
The truth made people nervous.
Mrs. Fluke, however, displayed no sign of nerves. She was pleased with her reading, and seemed to relish the prospect of an energizing conflict with her hometown’s Historical Society. She took out her pocketbook.
“This was lovely, dear,” she said. “But I must go. Let me pay you. Could give me one of your business cards? I’d like to stay in touch.”
Luanne nodded and took out a bright green card with mystical sigils traced in gold. “The website is on the back.”
She didn’t bother using her powers to see if she would end up doing guest readings at the Orneville Historical Society’s Visitor’s Center. She could read tea leaves. She could cast horoscopes. She could even beat the stock market. Her own future, however, was a closed book.
It was highly inconvenient.
Mrs. Fluke paid and left with a spring in her step. Luanne put her credit card reader and Tarot cards back in her bag. It was almost four. Fortune-telling hour at the Banshee Creek Botánica was over.
“That was the last one,” she called out. “I’m done for the day. Do you need any help?”
She already knew that the answer was no, but she still asked. Her fortune-telling business was growing, but she still relied on odd jobs to supplement her income. Adding personalized recommendations to the Bótanica’s astrology section had paid her electricity bill last month, and writing fortune cookies for the local Chinese restaurant had covered her Internet expenses. Thanks to Banshee Creek’s bustling tourist trade she was on her way to solvency. Still, a nest egg wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“Nope,” Kat Ramos, the owner of the Bótanica stepped through the beaded curtain that led to the back room. She had black hair with bright red highlights that made her curls looks resemble a halo around her head and she was wearing a stylish tiger’s-eye necklace. Kat was a jewelry designer as well as a store owner, and her accessories were always impressive.
“The inventory is done, but thanks for offering,” Kat said. “Are you going to the pizzeria tonight? I just catalogued fifty gazillion pentagram rings and I feel like celebrating.”
Luanne’s stomach growled. Her budget, however, wouldn’t stretch that far. “I don’t think so. I plan to have dinner at home.”
Dinner would be a cup of ramen noodles with frozen peas. Nowhere near as good as the Poltergeist Pizza special, but way cheaper.
“Are you sure?” Kat asked. “Zach is doing a taste testing. The food will be free.”
“Really?” Luanne leveled a suspicious glance at her friend. Since her arrival Luann had noticed that the Banshee Creek businesses had a surprising number of sales. There were free tastings at the pizzeria, half-price buffets at the Chinese restaurant, and reduced price baked goods at the bakery.
And they all seemed to apply only to her.
She had a sneaky suspicion that the town residents had quickly figured out her financial situation, and were, in their own way, trying to help her out. Elizabeth Hunt, the real estate agent she’d used, had probably spread the word. After all, Luanne had rented the cheapest, and most haunted, house in Banshee Creek. The place had sat empty for months as no one in town was desperate enough to move in.
That had probably set tongues wagging.
Still, the ramen dinner, she had to admit, was rather unappetizing. And if her new neighbors wanted to help her out, who was she to stop them?
“I might be able to make it,” she said. “What’s on the menu?”
Kat grimaced. “Alien Abduction Alfredo.”
That did not sound good.
“But Zach’ll make us mini calzones too,” Kat added. “And throw in free tiramisú”
“Free dessert? Wow, that must be some recipe he’s testing. What’s wrong with it?”
Kat nodded, an apologetic expression crossing her face. “I hear scallops are involved.”
Luanne tried not to think about which part of the alien abduction the scallops were supposed to represent. That particular dish did not sound like a winner for Zach. But, hey, she wouldn’t say no to mini calzones and dessert.
The door chime rang.
Kat raised a brow. “That’s odd. I thought I put up the ‘Closed’ sign. This must be a real emergency.”
She left to attend to the client, and Luanne finished cleaning up. She didn’t have much. Tarot readings, thankfully, didn’t require a big investment. In a few minutes, she’d put her cards and sign inside her tote bag. The bag was her one splurge. It was a striking gold color with the words “Madame Esmeralda - Your Future is My Business” printed in bright green.
Time to tackle the Alien Abduction Alfredo.
She grabbed her bag and headed for the store entrance.
The Botánica was small and cramped, and she had to maneuver around bookshelves full of spellbooks — Vegan Wicca for the Ethical Witch had sold out, she noted. She had to tell Kat to reorder —and metal racks displaying herbs and resins. Kat’s store was one of the town’s most popular businesses. Luanne was lucky to be reading cards here.
It could be worse.
Kat was at the counter with her customer, a muscular man in exercise clothes. He was handing her a piece of paper.
Luanna approached them quietly. He was good-looking, in a rugged way, but he wasn’t their usual client—The store didn’t attract many jocks—and something about him made her uneasy. Maybe it was the Yankees sweatshirt? Yankees fans, as everyone with a brain knew, could not be trusted.
“It’s not dangerous,” the man told Kat in a firm but friendly tone. “But it could affect the reputation of the town.”
Kat nodded, frowing at the paper. “I understand, Sean. But what does it have to do with us?”
The man pointed to the bulletin board next to the door. “Just put it up next to the Fire & Rescue warnings. We want people to be aware that the town has nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do with what?” Luanne asked, concerned. Her Madame Esmeralda persona was the official Banshee Creek fortune teller. Anything that affected the town’s reputation could mess up her new business.
Kat handed her the flyer, and Luanne read it quickly “Banshee Creek Fortunes?” she exclaimed. “Lucky Ghost will lead you to riches?”
She turned to their visitor. “What is this?”
“It’s a scam,” he replied, regarding her with cool interest. “A pyramid scheme. You send in a hundred dollars and find five friends to do the same. In return, you’ll get a thousand dollars every month.”
Luanne felt her heart sink. “It’s a Ponzi scheme.”
“Yes.” His gaze focused on her bag. “It’s all over the Internet, and we want to make sure our visitors know about it. That way they’ll know no one in town is involved.”
Luanne tensed. Was it her imagination or was that comment aimed at her? He’d been perfectly polite, but, still, her spider sense was absolutely screaming.
Kat smiled, clearly not sharing Luanne’s unease. “We’ll make sure everyone sees it, Sean.”
Sean nodded. “Thanks. And keep your ears open. One of your clients may have participated. If so, I’d like to talk to them. You know where to reach me.”
He turned to leave, and Luanne watched him go, practically sighing with relief. She mentally scolded herself for the dramatic reaction. He was just a handsome man in sweats. Why was she acting as if she’d just narrowly avoided disaster?
“We sure do,” Kat replied. “Thanks for the heads up, Sheriff Stickley.”
Luanne froze. Her gaze dropped to the large blue seal on the bottom of the flyer.
Banshee Creek Police Department.
A cop. Deadly handsome Sean Stickley was a cop.