“Put your hands on the table,” she ordered. “Palms up.”
His bushy eyebrows went up.
“So I can read them.”
The man narrowed his eyes and, slowly, the smile returned. He flopped his giant hands on the table, turning them over like they were a winning spread of cards in a deadly game of poker. She wasn’t a palm reader by trade, but she saw a lot in those hands.
His thick fingers had seen a ton of hard work and trouble over the course of many years. He had deep grooves in his palms, and thick, yellow callouses. Elena had watched palm readers work their art. They held the hand in a specific way so they could feel the involuntary responses to their questions. She had no intention of touching this man’s hands. The hands in front of her were built for destroying things, and she didn’t want to come in contact with them.
“The spirits suggest that an old lady has sent you to me,” Elena said. She looked at his throat, waiting for any twitch in those muscles that would betray his truth.
“No,” he he whispered.
She believed him.
“Sometimes the voices play tricks,” Elena said.
If Madame Vadoma hadn’t sent him, then who had? His eyes were still looking down, at his own hands. Elena studied the rest of him. Bishop would have been able to give her a decent estimate of the man’s weight. He was big—that’s all Elena could tell. His thick shirt covered a multitude of bulging muscles.
A dark thought crossed her mind. Maybe there was a reason that Bishop was missing.
“Why don’t you tell me why you’ve come?” Elena asked.
“I came for you, Ileana,” he said.
Elena kept her expression steady. Would he have noticed a twitch in the muscles of her neck? Would he have seen a tiny flare of her nostrils? She decided that he wouldn’t—his eyes were still looking down, as far as she could tell.
The man had used her old name. He wasn’t some thug, sent by Vadoma to frighten her in revenge. This man was connected to Bishop’s trouble. Despite their efforts to hide with a traveling carnival, they had been tracked down. Elena’s foot inched to the right until her toe found the button. Elena had never tested it. Bishop was supposed to be right here in the wagon when she was with a patron. Why would she need to call for help? Keeping her eyes fixed on the man, she pressed the button and hoped that it would call a dozen burly workers to her rescue.
The job now was to keep this man on the other side of the table until help arrived.
“You came for me?”
“Did it occur to you that whatever they’re paying you, I can pay more?”
He withdrew his hands from the center of the table and rubbed them together. The hands made a raspy, sandpaper sound as skin met skin. He could probably choke her to death with one hand while she flailed and struggled.
“Nobody paid me. That’s the issue,” he said.
Elena understood. They must have passed Bishop’s debt to this collector. Whatever he could extract would be his bounty. That was good news. If he was collecting his fee from her and Bishop, he wouldn’t want to hurt them too badly. They had to be able to make money to pay the debt.
“Good. I assume that you have a price in mind.”
She felt his eyes on her, but they were lost in the shadow of his brow again. He put one of his giant hands up to his chin and rubbed it while he looked at her.
“You come from a lineage of psychics,” he said.
That was a true. Elena had learned the trade from her aunt and then taken over her practice when her aunt ended up paralyzed by a stroke. From Aunt Florence, Elena had learned how to leverage a person’s unspoken clues. She had also learned to not smoke. It was certainly the cigarettes that had done Aunt Florence in.
As if he read her mind, the man said, “The smoker taught you to study a person’s eyes.”
Elena did her best to keep the shock off of her face. This man was more than a simple thug. He had studied Elena’s life for some reason. The question was why.
“Amongst other things,” Elena said. “I still don’t have your name.”
“Don’t use your aunt’s tricks. Use your mother’s gift.”
Elena shook her head before she could get control of her reaction. Her mother would never admit it, but Aunt Florence always claimed that Mama had the gift for real. There were no tricks that could match Mama’s ability to know when bad news was coming in the mail or when the phone was about to ring. Mama would close her eyes slowly. When they opened, they held knowledge that had not been there before.
Elena, reflexively, imitated her mother. She closed her eyes on the man. When they popped back open, a name was on her lips.
“Nesanse,” she said. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Her pulse pounded in her ears. She took a breath to try to quiet it.
”What does it mean?”
“Not every name has a meaning. Most folk call me the Deuce,” the man said with a smile. His rough hand stroked the stubble on his chin again. Elena hadn’t noticed the man’s five-o-clock shadow before. She wondered it he had grown it while her eyes had been closed.
Her foot mashed the button on the floor. Where was her help? Carnival folks were supposed to be incredibly protective of their own. Fear wanted to paralyze her, but she realized that she was going to have to take care of him on her own.
“Tell me, Nesanse, how much money do we owe you?”
With a price, freedom and safety could be bought.
“Four cents,” he said.
The figure threw heavy straps around her heart. He had named a demand that couldn’t be satisfied. The chance to make good on the debt had expired at last night’s fire.
Elena whispered, “I didn’t know. There must be something I can do to make up for my mistake.”
“The price last night was four cents. Today, the price is everything.”
Elena’s hand darted under the table. She wrapped her hand around the biggest crystal. It was glass and the end was somewhat sharp. The man, Nesanse, was rising to his feet as Elena sprang forward, stabbing the crystal towards his eye.