Yeah, I knew her. I knew her from the moment she pushed aside my cashmere curtains and stepped into my studio. Didn’t know her personally, mind. Just knew her type. You know? It’s simple: when life throws a lemon party, only a few types come to me for their lemonade.
So there she is, all distracted by my walls of kabbalah posters, tulle drapes, and a painting of a cat with a top hat. She squints, because there’s just the glow of my crystal ball and some black lights. But I’ve been sitting in the dark like a creep, so I see her clear as day. Buys me time for a full rundown.
Black woman, early thirties. Standing all poised, like she’s knotted herself together. So: stressed out, but afraid to show it. Rugged clothes, cheap earrings. So: hungry for money. Gloves. So: neat freak!
I totally have her pegged, right? She’s the “dreamer.” Life’s not how she wants, but she’s too much of a stiff to change it. She needs pats on the head. Stories about the bright future. Candyland rainbows melting in the sunset. For a dollar a minute, I’m happy to provide.
I start my little song-and-dance. Snap my fingers once. Send off cheesy little bursts of flame from my sleeves. We lock eyes, and I go: “Welcome to Ruby’s Readings. I’m Ruby.” With a quick sleight of hand, I slip a tarot deck from my purple cloak. Rider-Waite, latest edition. A fortune girl’s best friend. I flare the cards, which glow in the black light. She rests a gloved hand on the back of the oak guest chair.
“You have questions,” I say, my voice dusky. “And the tarot has all the answers.” I center the deck on my velvet-covered table. Wave my hands above it. “Please, cut the deck. Imbue the cards with your spirit.” I motion to the chair. “Have a seat.”
She does not have a seat. It gets awkward real quick, so I say, “Do not be afraid, I—”
“We’ve met before,” she goes.
And I think, great, honey, then let’s get down to business.
And I say, “Then your energies are prepared.” I’m racking my brain. When did she come by? What lines did I feed her last time? I got nothing. So I try to bait: “Let us continue that conversation.”
She leans on the chair’s back. “Last time, your voodoo cards…” she says, waving at my deck, “They told me I’d come into money. Said that, through family, I’d get what I needed to follow my dreams.”
Okay, so that sounds like me. But her eyes are wide, with this weird edge. I bet she’s pissed my prophecies haven’t come through yet. I’m prepping my next ready-made lines: Don’t worry, dear, all good things come in time.
“And then,” she says. “And then Uncle Henry died. Left me with enough cash to get my feet under me. Start my next big job.”
I blink. Hot damn. I’m chuffed, but I flash her a cool smile.
“The cards never lie, my dear,” I lie.
She stares at me for an uncomfortable second. “Good,” she says. “I’m gonna need ’em.”
I clear my throat. “Well, if you’ll have a seat—”
“Uncle Henry also left me his prized possession,” she says, flipping the chair round and taking a seat. A flash of silver in the crystal-ball light, and there, in her hand, is a gun.
I lock up. She rests her cheek against the gun barrel, pointed up, but her eyes aim for me.
“It’s time for that next big job. And you’re coming with,” she says, all business.
I mutter vague excuses but can’t bring myself to detail them; her hot, gunpowder death-maker is an awful deterrent. So, she nods at me.
“Let’s go, Truth-teller,” she says. “Bring those cards. My guy is waiting for us in the van.”
We have a short debate about this, where I wring my hands and she gestures with her gun.
With the debate concluded, I end up in the empty back of her van. We’re rolling down back avenues and I’m rocking about, stomach aching from nerves and bad suspension, looking like a circus freak in the sunlight with my cheap purple cloak.
This lady—I’ll call her Gunner—she’s squatting in front of me, and she’s got one hand wrapped around her gun’s neck, as if ready to bludgeon. The other hand points at tattered blueprints.
“It’s a small-time bank,” she says. “Some tellers up front, handful of customers, maybe a part-time guard with peach fuzz. Security is way outdated.” She looks at me hard. “Anything we don’t know about?”
I cock my head. “Well, uh…” I say. “I don’t know how to break this to you, but I don’t work at the bank.”
“Of course not,” she says. “Ask the cards.”
I squint at her. Slowly, it all sinks in. “You… you want me to use my tarot cards…”
“To get you through your bank heist?”
“You got it, Truth-teller.”
And of course, that’s the last thing I want to do. I want to vault right out the back, road rash be damned. But the back door looks locked, and she’s got that handgun. And there’s this big, big white dude driving the van. I’m gonna call him Meatstick. His beefy hands throttle the steering wheel like he’d be good at doing the same to me.
I lean forward, trying not to sweat on my cards too much.
“Look…” I say. I clear my throat as I shuffle the cards. “The tarot doesn’t work right if it’s not all laid out. It’s just as much about—”
Idly, she tugs on her gun’s slide, checking that there’s a bullet in the chamber.
“Right,” I say. So, I cut the deck and I set down the cards, and I wave my hand over the deck. Habit tells me to close my eyes and say some emphatic oohs, but I’m afraid of getting gun-butt to face if I ham it up too much. So, I take a deep breath, pray to my late aunt Edna, and flip over the first card.
On the card is a sad, Jesus-y old man with a stick and lantern.
“The Hermit,” I tell Gunner. I think: What I wouldn’t give to be that guy. Just me and that lantern. We’d be pals.
“And?” Gunner says. Up front, the steering wheel’s leather squeaks under Meatstick’s grip.
“This guy’s all about planning,” I sputter. “Which… you guys got covered, I see.” My mind spins. “Uh, and since he’s upside down, it’s all about loneliness and suspicion. About expecting the worst.” My heart whirls as I catch an opportunity. I look at her, wide-eyed. “Yeah. It means all is not what it seems here. Maybe they hired more guards. Or maybe they upgraded the security. Can’t know for sure.” For good measure, I add, sagely, “You know, might just be best to call it all off.”
Gunner and I have a good ol’ awkward stare-off. Then she says, “Then we’ll have to secure everyone right away.”
“Er, wait,” I say, “That’s not what I—”
She leans for Meatstick. “Get your shotgun ready. We’re doing this loud.”
We have three more debates in my head, but they all end with Meatstick doing a jig on my face. So I just keep quiet and twirl the Hermit around my fingers.
We arrive at the bank, and sure enough, it’s tiny. We park along the side, leave the van doors open and the keys in the ignition. They drag me along, and off we go waltzing straight through the front door. Gunner and her handgun, then me and my doofy attire, then Meatstick and a shotgun that looks like a baton against his frame.
The lobby is quaint, just two tellers up front, and a handful of people in line. Rustic wood-carved decorations, faux-marble floors. A single, open door to the right leads to back offices. No peach-fuzz guard in sight.
The couple of people that notice us are so distracted by my fugly cloak, they don’t see Gunner reach into her satchel and pull out a second handgun—a revolver. She aims high, fires three times into the ceiling, and damn do my ears ring. I think I’ve gotten tinnitus until I realize that, no, part of it is all the screaming. Everyone’s dropping to the ground, and the two tellers back for the wall with their hands up. And there’s Gunner’s yelling: “Get on the ground! Don’t move! Don’t touch a thing!”
Meatstick rushes forward with his shotgun, keeping the tellers in line. And Gunner, she spins around, shoves the revolver into my hands. The thing is still smoking, and heavier than I expected. Somehow, it’s only now that my fool self asks: What have I gotten myself into? Also: They trust me with one of these? I don’t trust me with these. I look for a safety switch, but the revolver doesn’t seem to have one.
Gunner moves quickly to the front counter, waving her gun at the crowd, while Meatstick secures the tellers with zip ties. Gunner gestures for me.
“Alright, Truth-teller,” she says. “Let’s do this. C’mere.”
So I come up to the counter, waving my gun around for show as I do. Gunner and I lean in together over the counter.
“Everyone’s down,” she says, her voice low. With the tellers tied, Meatstick rounds the desk and starts walking from person to person, zip-tying their hands behind their backs. “What do we need to know next?”
I let out a long breath against a torrent of nerves. Look across the terrified crowd, then lean back in. “Look, we’re gonna get ourselves arrested or killed here,” I whisper. “Can I just say… this is absolutely—”
“No,” she says, expressionless. “No, you can’t just say.”
I blink. “Cool. Glad we’re on the same page.” I slip out my tarot deck. Can’t help but give it just the slightest flair. A bit of shuffle therapy for me, even if Gunner seems less than impressed. I flip a card down one-handed.
On the card is a dude with a fez, who holds way too many swords by the blades. He looks like he’s enjoying himself, even as he’s about to drop the swords with infomercial-style blunder.
“Seven of Swords,” I say, trying to keep my voice from cracking. I clench my eyes shut, waggle my non-gun hand over the card. “Ooh, yes, it’s a card of great foreboding.” My voice quavers like I’m an ancient lady, or a spooky ghost. “Great foreboding indeed.” Uh huh. And all the while, I think: What the hell does it mean? And how’d I manage to forget? I strain, try to ignore Meatstick’s bellowing. I mean, I can’t just make something up, can I? Girl’s got standards.
Suddenly, I remember. “Ooh, it means… betrayal.” Yeah, it’s coming back to me now. Caught up with the relief, I keep on, eyes still closed: “If you’re not careful, you will be deceived by someone very sneaky. So sneaky! Someone near you will try to pull a fast one. You’ll be—”
I open my eyes, and Gunner’s sticking her uncle’s prized possession at my nose.
“That so?” she says. She looks to Meatstick. It’s funny; his shotgun doesn’t seem quite so little when it’s aimed at me.
“I’ve known this guy since we were kids,” Gunner says. “He and I, we’ve been through a lot.” Her finger edges for the trigger. “So who here is left to be sneaky?”
And that’s when there’s a clatter behind me. We look back just in time to see a guy skitter up, pull the alarm, and bust out the door.
We all yell, but the sirens yell louder—and then Meatstick is blasting his shotgun into the air and Gunner’s dragging me past the tellers.
The back room is all plush carpet, with office doors along either side, and at the end, the bank vault door protected by a gate of metal bars. Gunner and I wave our guns around. The few workers who had been rubbernecking from their office doors duck back inside, leaving the room to us.
“We gotta act fast,” says Gunner, heading straight for the vault. She tosses down her satchel and starts pulling out cables. “Another card, Truth-teller!” So I stuff the gun in my cloak pocket, crouch next to her, and draw.
It’s a posh man with his pet sword. He sits on a massive throne inexplicably placed in a tiny woodland diorama. It’s the King of Swords, which I always thought was a mighty bold title since he only has the one.
I flash her the card, and she flashes me back a look showing she doesn’t keep up on her royalty. “King of Swords,” I explain, “is all about mastery. Strength. Authority.” I glance to the front of the bank; sirens wail in the far distance. “Or in this case, I guess… Authorities?”
“And how’s that getting us through this gate and into the vault?” Gunner says.
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah.” I look around. “Authority. Hey. Maybe there’s a bank manager?”
Gunner stands up sharply. “Of course,” she says. She gives a little chuckle. “Those cards are smart.” She looks across the doors in the room, before landing on one just behind me. She points. “There.” She grabs me by the arm and pulls me to it. “Get the key for the vault gate. And the code to the vault too, or this is gonna get even louder.”
“Wait, what—” I try, but I’m drowned out by the blast of her gun, which blows open the door by the handle. Before I know it, she’s pushed me through the splinters and dust into the office, where a small, graying man is dropping his telephone and scrambling up. There’s some unintelligible yelling, I’m sure from me as much as him, and he dives for something on his desk. A flash of silver, a blade! says my brain, and on instinct I draw my gun on him.
Only once the dust settles do I see: he’s wielding a letter opener. Still, he points it at me with such a volatile blend of desperation and fear I don’t dare lower my gun.
“Er, uh…” I start. I clear my throat. “Let’s make this easy for everyone. Give me the keys to the vault.”
The man doesn’t speak; he just keeps backing up. His free hand scrambles blindly against the back wall. And here I’m left baffled. I already have the gun trained on him; isn’t that incentive enough?
So, I lean out the door, catch Gunner’s attention—she’s made quite a mess by now with the odds and bobs from her satchel—and I mouth, What do I do?
She shrugs. “Isn’t that what your cards are for?” she says.
I frown, lean back in. With no better options, I sigh, re-draw my deck, and while I keep the gun trained on him, I one-hand shuffle the cards.
“Let’s find out your fate,” I say. He just blubbers, and I can only think to myself, Don’t draw the Death card, don’t draw the Death card…
I pull one and show it to him first, repressing the urge from my carnival days to ask whether it’s indeed his card. He frowns at it. Seems scared at first, but then he just cocks his head. I flip the card around and I see why: It’s the weird scene that is the Ten of Pentacles. A couple and their child are chilling with the doppelganger of Moses. Though they’re probably only there to pet his two adorable dogs.
“The Ten of Pentacles,” I announce. I squint at the card. “Hey. The old man here looks kinda like you. Anyway, this card’s all about family and wealth and security. Or, flipped upside down, the loss thereof.” I fold the card back in. Decide to run with it. “This isn’t worth your family losing you, is it?”
He deflates, puts his hands up. “Alright, alright,” he says. He reaches into his pockets and tosses a ring of keys to my feet. “You’re insane. A madwoman. Just let me be.”
I pick up the keys. “And the code to the vault?”
The man swallows hard. “It doesn’t matter now. That alarm, you’re only getting through if you’ve got explosives.”
I frown. Glance at Gunner. And only now do I realize that everything she’s pulling out of her satchel make up a bomb. What’d I think she was gonna do to the vault, jump-start it?
I toss the keys to her. She nods, unlocks the gate, and as she swings it open, she points at my door.
“Good work. He’ll be secure in there?”
I look back, just in time to see the manager tumbling out the window. I finally stop aiming the gun forward. Carefully, I pull the door closed. “Sure,” I say. “He’s not going anywhere.”
I get back to Gunner, who is setting up an explosive charge against the vault’s exposed lock. I swallow the acrid taste of anxiety. All at once, it feels like too much. Sirens scream closer; people cry in the lobby. Meatstick details all the fine ways he’ll rearrange someone’s face if they try anything.
A terrible thought hits me as Gunner places the last bits against the vault. After all, I do have a gun. I could end Gunner right now. If I’m fast enough, I can jump Meatstick before he knows what’s happened. I can stop all of this. I have the power. If I can only bring myself to use it—
“Alright, Truth-teller,” Gunner says, turning back to me. I wag the gun away. She stares hard at me for just a second. Then says: “Time to do your thing.”
I nod and draw another card, all business now. “Okay, this time we got—”
“No, no,” she says. She holds out a thin rope from her project. The rope wedges into bricks that look like—but probably aren’t—just gray putty. “Your other thing,” she says. “That little…” She gestures with her wrist.
I piece it all together. She’s holding the fuse. “Oh of course,” I say, stepping up. I grab it. “So I should just…”
“The sooner the better,” she says. Meatstick makes an angry grunt from the other room, and she moves to help him out. “Just get out of the way when you do!”
So there I’m holding the fuse in one hand, feeling like a dolt while I aim my other wrist at it. Nervously, I send out a little tuft of fire that seems so much less impressive in the light. The fuse doesn’t take. I frown, try again. No luck.
“Now!” Gunner yells, punctuated by a shotgun peal. I try a third time with no luck, this time barely making a flame at all. Running out of juice. So I dig in my pocket and pull out the lighter I keep for cigarettes that I could use so badly right now. One flick, and the fuse is crackling its way puttyward. I shuffle up, tripping on my robe, and as I round the corner, I yell, “Fire in the hole!”
The concussion rocks the bank, at once deeper and sharper than I expected. It sounds like someone Meatstick-sized slammed the vault with a mallet. But moments later, it’s clear this was more effective; I hear metal clattering to the floor.
Gunner rushes back in with a whoop, pulls the hefty door open from its steaming, blasted-out hole, and moves inside with her satchel. Moments later I hear her grinding away with a power drill.
I come round to the open vault door. There before me are two walls of lockboxes, and beyond them, a metal table layered deliciously with stacks of cash. I stand coughing from the pungent aftermath until Gunner throws the empty satchel at me.
“Fill ’er up, Truth-teller,” she says, and she doesn’t have to tell me twice. Next I know, I’m scooping armful after armful of bills into the satchel, only pausing to shuck out the contents of each lockbox as Gunner busts it open. Jewels. Fine watches. Bonds. Some poor sap’s living will—never mind, that one ends up on the floor.
And I’ll admit, in the excitement, all my apprehension boils away, reducing into this heady glee. I dare let myself think the unthinkable: If we make it out of this, I could choose to never work again. I wouldn’t have to put on the old song-and-dance, wear this cheap, stupid robe I found at a party store. I wouldn’t have to keep up the very act that got me into this mess.
“We’re not out of this yet,” Gunner says, which doesn’t sober me in the slightest. She sees that the satchel is full to bursting, so she offers up another satchel. We swap, and she points at me, eyes wide. “Now, ask the cards how we’re getting out of here.”
The sirens are close now; no doubt it’s only a matter of minutes before this place is swarmed. I throw the new satchel on the metal table, start shoveling cash in with one hand and shuffling the deck with the other. “Alright, another card coming up,” I say. With a flair, I toss a card onto the table. I finally give up on the lockboxes and sweep a huge chunk of cash into the satchel. It spills across the floor, which only makes me laugh. There’s more here than we’d ever need. Hands shaking, I zip up the satchel, throw it over my shoulder, and pick up the card.
Before I can read it, I hear a metallic slam behind me. I turn to find the gate closed, Gunner standing on the other side. I drop the card to my feet. She stares at me as she re-locks the gate.
“Thanks, Truth-teller,” she says. She gives me a salute, hefts the loaded bag over her shoulder, and jogs for the front. I stare, dumbfounded, as I hear them exit. Then, tires peel out and veer away, only moments later followed by police cars careening to a stop out front. Flashes of blue and red through the windows, and then men with guns yelling at me to get on the ground.
Seconds later, belly to the floor, handcuffs locking round my wrists, I see the card: I drew a young dandy, one step away from a steep cliff, and neither the white rose nor the white dog can stop him from that fall.
I drew the Fool.
* * *
So yes, Officer. I know what it looks like.
Of course, all the witnesses remember me the best. I look like a vagrant wizard.
Naturally, my fingerprints are all over the revolver. I told you: she had gloves.
I get why the bank manager thinks I gambled with his life using cards.
And I know you caught me—and only me—in the vault. With, again, only my fingerprints over everything.
What can I tell you, except everything I just did?
I assume you never caught the other two. Too busy booking prime suspect number one, huh? Of course I don’t know where they are. But with how well they planned? Probably halfway to Memphis by now.
Alright, but just ask yourself: Do I look like the type that could pull this off? What’s more likely: I’m some big shot heister, master of lies and deceit? Or everything I just told you?
On second thought, don’t answer that.
Tarver Nova is a spec-fic writer and professional night owl in New York. His stories are found in Kaleidotrope and elsewhere. Visit him at tarvernova.com, or show him your cats on Twitter @tarvernova.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Oracle and the Heist”:
Such unexpected fun. In the first few sentences of his opening, author Tarver Nova sets up the scene, introduces an interesting character with an interesting voice, and tosses in a bit of foreshadowing. And the reader is hooked. In short order we know what the antagonist wants, so, the story sucks us in even more is off and running. What makes this piece work so well is that we have no idea where this is going, beyond a semi-planned (ill-planned?) bank robbery.
The ending delivers a double punch. The first happens when the main character draws the Fool, and we chuckle—of course it had to be that card. Nothing else would make sense, but we still didn’t expect it. The story could have ended there, but the author adds one more little surprise by revealing that the entire story was one big flashback being told by the main character to the police. Fiction is typically narrated in past tense, and because of that, we sort of know it already happened. But this one is told in present tense, so the second ending catches us by surprise
Note that the author never tells us any of the characters’ real names, not even the main character. We’ve all read stories where some of the minor characters are identified by their appearance or profession, but it’s rare for the protagonist to be done that way. Here, however, the technique works perfectly and adds to the humor.
We chose this story because it’s precisely what we look for in the pieces we publish: something different, something unexpected. By that we don’t necessarily mean a surprise ending. Rather, we want a story that is out of the ordinary. Had this story been only about a clever bank robbery, we might not have given it a second look. What sets this story apart is that the main character isn’t a bank robber and doesn’t turn out to be a hero. The robbers get away with it, and Truth-teller get the blame—a bit of a downer. Could the main character have done something different to avoid getting sucked in? Probably not, because she didn’t believe she had any real fortune-telling abilities. However, the reader is left with a slight hope that the police will straighten everything out eventually.