Viki Dobos, known to her clients as Madam Valarka, sighed. Her clients left happy, having talked with their dead son, and she was exhausted. It took a lot to draw the dead.
She said a brief prayer of thanks that began the ritual that marked the close of her long work day. She felt grateful to have served and grateful that nothing untoward had happened.
The forces she dealt with were powerful, and things could go wrong… things had gone wrong.
After the prayer, she cleaned up. One step at a time, in the proper order, just as her grandmother had taught her.
First, she swept up all the stray pastel crumbs and put them into a jar. These she would dispose of in the desert in the way she had been taught.
Second, she folded up the colorful silk scarfs that covered the table, and packed them and the rest of her gear into her case, making sure each pastel, each piece of equipment was in place. She put the jar with the pastel crumbs in last, shut the case, fastened the hasps, and locked it. The tiny key she put in the heart-shaped locket around her neck.
She paused, a small smile on her lips, as her hand rubbed the old, stained leather of the antique, hard-sided cosmetic case. It had two brass hasps, a small lock, and a handle on the top.
The case, which she had inherited from her grandmother, had been customized to hold her gear. Something newer, something with wheels, might serve her better, but it connected her to her grandmother and rooted her in their tradition; connected her to her past.
Third, she cleaned the area, wiping down the table, and vacuuming the carpet and the chairs.
Fourth, she walked around the room clockwise four times, singing the Romani song her grandmother had taught her.
Lastly, she went into the little bathroom and attended to herself. She removed the silk from her head, the large hoop earrings, and slowly removed the heavy makeup—too heavy for her taste—from her face. She went in Madam Valarka and came out Viki.
Without her makeup, Viki no longer looked like a gypsy, but like a normal woman in her late thirties. She had a slim body, brown hair pulled into a ponytail, and hazel eyes. Her clients would not recognize her.
Case in hand, she was ready to go home for the night. She longed to draw a bath, light a candle, and immerse her body. She was about to leave when she saw the note slipped under the door.
“V, I know you are at your limit for the day, but please talk to the waiting gentleman. He doesn’t want you to draw, he has an offer for you and has paid full price for the privilege of asking.”
It was signed in a looping scrawl, “Reg.”
Viki sighed, what now?
She opened the door and found what she could only describe as a “gentleman” waiting. He was tall and thin with long fingers, short grey hair, and brown eyes. He was impeccably dressed in an expensive suit.
“Ms. Dobos,” he said in a genteel British accent as he rose and offered his hand. “My name is Alexander Wells. I am so grateful you have agreed to see me.”
She hadn’t agreed, but she couldn’t refuse him. She felt fate nudging her along. She nodded and said, “Please come in, Mr. Wells.”
She signaled for him to sit down as she unlocked and opened her case, ee out a vibrant blue silk, and spread it on the table. She then retrieved a deck of cards from her case and sat across from him.
“I thought Mr. Anderson had explained,” he said. “I don’t require a reading, just a few minutes of your time.”
“Yes, Reg did explain. But I need to find out who you are first.”
“I am sorry, but there is some urgency to the situation.”
She held up her hand. “Please, Mr. Wells. This won’t take long. You have paid to see me—we will do at least this.”
Viki had finished with her day, finished with clients, she needed something to bring her back to center so she could be present for his request.
She deftly shuffled the oversized cards and handed them over. “Pick one card.” Alexander looked puzzled, his hands at his side. “They don’t bite, I assure you, Mr. Wells. Just pick a card and we can get to what you came for.”
He snatched the card on the top of the deck and handed it to her. Viki nodded and smiled, and turned the card over. It was a simply, but elegantly, hand-drawn card with the word “Mercury” at the top. The card depicted a round orb with a figure of a man in front of it with winged shoes.
“Ahh…” Viki said. “Mercury, messenger of the gods. See, I do need to listen to you, Mr. Wells. Do you bring me a message from the gods?”
Alexander laughed briefly. “Well, sometimes he thinks…” He trailed off, cleared his throat, and continued. “Excuse me, Ms. Dobos. I didn’t say that.”
“I’m sorry? I missed that last part,” Viki said with a grin. Alexander smiled. “Please, Mr. Wells, what is it you came here to talk to me about?”
“My employer would like to hire you for the next two weeks—”
“Ohh, I’m sorry, I have a lot of appointments, I can’t just leave them.”
“—for $2,000 per day.”
Viki felt a cold sweat spring to her forehead as she put her hand over her mouth. This no longer seemed like a gentle nudge fate was giving her, but a giant push.