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Johnny at the Bar

by Tamara Sheehan

Clive tips the contents of a little paper package into his mate’s drink while dark haired Johnny stands at the bar. The coke effervesces and settles quick. Brenda pushes the glass back into place in front of Johnny’s empty chair. Brenda is sweating. So is Clive. He wicks the moisture from his upper lip and rubs it on his face.

Neither of them wanted to use the truth serum on Johnny, but if he is what they figure he is, they could have put poison in the rum and coke and it wouldn’t matter. The co-conspirators share a nervous glance.

Johnny at the bar, he stiffens a little. One shoe bobs up and down on the dirty brass foot rail as if he just got nervous. Clive sees him signal the barman back and slide a few more quid in his direction. He shares a frowning look, an I-told-you-so look, with Brenda and now Brenda’s really starting to sweat. Johnny knows that Clive doesn’t trust him, just like he knows Brenda’s been lying awake thinking about him. Seems to Clive that John-boy knows everything.

Clive used to figure anyone who believed in magic was a fool and never felt sorry about taking their money. Brenda always thought it might be possible to know the future, but she didn’t have the gift. She uses cards a lot, does Brenda. She doesn’t say it, but Johnny knows that Brenda thinks of herself as a traditionalist, even in these techno-heady days. Not like Paris and his lot, the flash fakers with psychic phone lines, with TV shows and websites, with probability features implanted and subcutaneous sensors in their fingers.

They work in educated guesses, Paris’s crew. Ask a question and they are silent for a moment not because they’re thinking, but because it takes time to use the probability implants. The probability chips, LMRs, work with the finger implants. They cost a small fortune, read stressors and run a complex algorithm for logic and likelihood, projecting that information directly before the eyes.

It’s the technology that makes Paris’s crew good at what they do. Since the implants, they’ve become barons of a legal type of fraud and Paris, well, he has the smallest LMRs under his fingertips and the new generation probability features in the whites of his eyes. Paris is king of them all.

He runs the local Psychic Association and sets the trends. He’s clever. He’s kept all the old things: the talismans, the neon lights, the shimmery scarves and wax snakes; all of it’s for show.

Everyone in the business knows it’s all done by math now and there’s not enough magic in the lot of them to fill a shot glass. Unless Johnny’s around.

Clive looks at Johnny again, as if there’s a big magnet in Johnny and Clive’s got the opposite pole in his eyes.

Johnny’s a mystery man. He’s quiet and he keeps to himself and he’s got a small and fiercely loyal clientele. He’s always on the verge of bankruptcy and never going broke. Always squeaking by. There’s no way he could afford the expensive implants or upgrades that Paris and his lot love so much. Still, he always seems to know what’s up and what’s coming. That’s what tipped Clive off at first.

Clive thinks Johnny’s too good to be true. The real thing, he says, here in backwater B.C. Clive doesn’t trust him. Brenda doesn’t care either way because Brenda is in love.

Neither Clive nor Brenda are surprised when Johnny comes back to the table with three glasses instead of two. He slides into his chair and it groans as he deals out the drinks. He’s about to speak when Paris staggers over to them.

“Ah lads,” Paris groans and giggles, “I see you’ve bought a drink for me.”

“We were having a private conversation Paris, so kindly go.” Johnny speaks over the rim of his glass and drinks from it, quick. His saliva marks his territory.

Paris is used to getting his own way, or at least, loaded to the eyeballs with all that technology, he’s accustomed to knowing what’s going to happen. He looks at Johnny like he can’t quite make him out. Johnny looks back, frank and unabashed. He knows that when Paris looks at him, all that technology crashes.

Johnny doesn’t ask permission or fawn or suck up, not ever. He likes the way that Paris has never been quite sure how to deal with him. He likes that Clive and Brenda don’t know either.

Paris stares at the half-empty tumbler of rum n coke that sits abandoned on the table. He’s not noticing the way Clive and Brenda do, the delicate coagulation taking place on the surface of the stagnant drink.

Johnny knows that both Clive and Brenda are squirming without moving. The scrutiny of the drink is too much for them and both of them want to knock the tumbler flying. It’s too far away for such an act to look like an accident, so neither of them dares to move.

Brenda clenches her hands around her beer like she’s making a fist. Clive sips again and again like a bird at a dog bowl while Paris is talking.

“Is it true you’re moving into the mall, Clive?” Paris asks.

He grips the back of Clive’s chair as he talks, but sways anyway because he’s thoroughly drunk, come all the way over just to take the piss out of the losers in the corner, have a bit of fun away from his own table. The table where everyone who’s anyone in the Psychic’s Association is sitting. The table that’s the loudest in the bar.

“I heard you were using the Zoroastrian deck as I Ching. That’s ripping off Gramman something awful. Shouldn’t be surprised if his lawyers come knocking.” He burps once for emphasis.

“And you Brenda...” Paris turns and the motion makes him sway like a tree in an onrushing storm. He leers, “Word’s out you been cooking up street drugs to make ends meet.”

“God, Paris, I made one batch of truth serum. One batch.” Brenda’s voice verges on a shout and Johnny knows she’s angry and drunk and stressed out about the rum n coke. He touches Brenda’s arm and in an instant Brenda subsides. There is a frisson between them, too brief and powerful for Paris’s circuits to compute. Paris laughs because he’s not sure what else to do.

“No one comes to get their cards read any more, do they Brenda?" He shakes his head like a dog. "The mall! Honestly. Tarot is dead. Guessing at the future is old fashioned. You’re supposed to be a fortune-teller, aren’t you? Shouldn’t you’ve foreseen that?” He laughs explosively and everyone at the table is showered with spit.

No one else laughs and soon Paris is looking around for something else to make fun of.

“So how come you lads have a spare then?” Paris gestures to the untouched rum n coke. Brenda freezes. Clive looks sharply, guiltily, at Johnny.

“Coke’s flat.” Johnny says but Paris has started in on him and doesn’t listen.

“Oh! And you, John, I heard something about you. I heard you had to advertise ‘magic for hire’ on QTR soft rock. Almost as bad as Brenda.” His legs can’t support the hilarity of this statement. Paris slumps onto the table, between Clive and Brenda, weeping and convulsing and sobbing as he laughs.

Johnny knows Brenda wants to pummel Paris right now. The quiet tarot reader is working out how to break Paris’s perfect nose and make it look like an accident. There’s always a punch-up at these parties, but never this early in the evening. Johnny knows that Brenda despairs of getting another chance to splatter some part of Paris’s handsome face if she doesn’t do it now. She won’t do it, though, because Johnny is holding her arm and shaking his head very gently side to side.

Brenda and Clive look at John. He’s wearing that smile, the smile that made them wonder in the first place, the smile that says, ‘I know’ and they’re pretty sure he does. Suddenly, Brenda wants to say something to explain the drugged drink. She’s sure that Johnny knows what they’ve done, pretty sure he doesn’t care. Still, she wants to try to explain. But she can’t, not with Paris there to overhear it all.

While Brenda is thinking, Johnny is nudging his un-drunk slightly slimy drugged filled rum and coke toward Paris with the tip of his finger. It moves across the table inch by inch until it’s beside Paris’s right hand.

“Things were bad last year.” Johnny speaks loudly and Paris obligingly looks up, bleary-eyed and nods. “Next year, right Paris? Next year things are going to be better. To next year.” He raises his glass and Paris grips the rum n coke. Clive opens his mouth but Brenda shushes him. They all four knock glasses and take a long drink.

“That’s gone flat.” Paris says when most of the drink is gone.

“Told you.” Johnny speaks with a smile on his lips that grows wider as he adds, “Hey Paris, I heard you might be in trouble with the tax man.”

“Been dodging my taxes for ten years. I might go to jail if I can’t get a good lawyer.” Paris says blissfully. “Have to be getting back. Wouldn’t want them to think I like to hang around with you three. And Adele from the telepsychic line is good and drunk. I want to get her out of her top before midnight.”

He lurches up, reels toward his own table.

Brenda, Clive and Johnny share a smile and a quiet toast to their ringleader while Paris stumbles away. Johnny doesn’t ask about the drink and the others don’t tell. There’s no need to discuss it. They sit in companionable silence and listen a while as Paris runs his mouth, unaware yet that he’ll be unable to stop.

John-boy looks askance at Brenda. The young woman is laughing at Paris who is babbling now, his eyes growing wide, his features more alarmed while his tongue betrays all his little secrets.

Johnny smiles. He’s liked the tarot reader a while now, ever since he knew that Brenda would take a shine to him. Johnny knows tonight’s the night they leave the annual party in high spirits. Tonight’s the night he takes Brenda home. He knows that Brenda knows it too. He doesn’t have to be psychic to tell.

Copyright © 2007 by Tamara Sheehan

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