Chump Change

by Pete Butler

It's going to be the Three of Clubs.

I know this, as certainly as I know my own name. I'm less sure about some things than my fans would think. But sometimes, the swirling laws governing what may happen coalesce into what will happen with astonishing clarity. The sun will rise tomorrow, the Pirates will beat the Mets tonight, and as soon as I announce my "guess," the Three of Clubs will appear on the monitor in front of me.

"Jack of Spades," I proclaim, full of conviction.

The monitor flickers, and is suddenly filled by a pixilated version of the Three of Clubs.

I feign a look of annoyance and frustration, and fidget in a very comfortable padded chair. I might not be able to see the studio audience, but they can damn well see me.

My room still smells like ammonia and other cleaning supplies; appropriate, since it's a janitor's closet and all. It was emptied this morning, to accommodate me, my chair, and a TV set. Not to mention two cameras and a microphone, included to record my reactions; and, as Dante no doubt hopes, catch me cheating. Outside the door are two of his confederates, both being kept very purposefully in the dark about what's going on. All they know is that I'm to be denied any form of contact with the outside world.

The screen goes dark. Dante has drawn another card. It's time for me to "guess" what it is.

Just on principle, I take a few moments to let the image of the impending reality take shape in my mind's eye.

I miss this guess, too.

It goes this way through the entire deck. I call five of the cards correctly; it's a touch better than average if I'm keeping track of what's already been drawn, but really just a statistical blip. It'll give me something to crow about.

The producers are going to be pissed. A guy "guessing" fifty-four cards with perfect accuracy is kinda cool. A guy muffing all but five is boring. Guess which one I promised them.

In fact, they probably cut me off for a commercial somewhere around the 0-for-25 mark.

The screen goes dark for the last time. The door opens, and a pimply stagehand leads me back into the studio. I make sure to put my best "That was so unfair!" face on.

I'm met with scattered applause. The host, a pleasant-looking WASP with good hair and a hollow smile, strides over to give me a firm yet clammy handshake. I can't for the life of me remember his name.

"So, having an off day, Mr. James?" he asks through his perfect plastic grin.

"It's the spirits," I grumble, nice and surly. "There's a lot of negative energy here!"

"If you prefer," Charlie Dante says, "I can remove myself from the premises entirely." He's pushing sixty, starting to turn slightly pudgy, with a full white beard and no hair to be seen on his head. I was expecting him to look smug, but the truth is he looks strangely sympathetic. It's a bit disconcerting; I'm only starting to appreciate how good he is at what he does.

"Yes!" I announce. "I would be glad to demonstrate the depth of my power if that man--"

"Oh, that's all right," Captain Hairdo cuts in smoothly. "Perhaps another time, all right, Mr. James?" It doesn't take a psychic to know there was no way in hell he was going to risk another five minutes of dead air.

I grudgingly let him lead me to my seat.

"Looks like your million dollars has survived yet another challenge, eh, Mr. Dante?"

"In a manner of speaking," Dante agrees. "This was just a 'preliminary round.' If Mr. James had performed as he said he would, we would have moved the experiment into a more controlled environment. But it appears that won't be necessary."

Dante has another surprise in store for me. I can feel it, like the rumbling of a semi barreling down the highway. I move into the middle of the road to greet it properly.

"Hah!" I scoff. "That million is mine for the taking, whenever I want!"

"Oh, I'm not so sure about that!" the Blowdrier King announces cheerfully. "Acting on Mr. Dante's advice, we shot some hidden-camera footage while preparing this 'experiment,' and . . . well, let's just look at the tape, shall we?"

I bury a smile beneath a look of indignant fury. Ah, Dante. You're everything they said you were.

The tape turns out to be a highlight reel of Sylvia, my favorite assistant. She's a college student with very flexible ethics. There she is, leaving a radio receiver the size of a hearing aid in the closet where I'll find it. There she is again, trying to put a tiny camera where it might see the cards after Dante's drawn them. And so on.

Wow. She has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. How has she not been caught before now?

I get a nice frothing outrage going, denying that I have ever seen this woman before. Charlie Dante looks almost apologetic as he reveals that Sylvia's employer from her most recent W-2 is a very poorly veiled front for myself.

Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. Why so magnanimous in victory? This is your shining moment! Another fraud debunked! Gloat! Revel! It's not as if they're ever going to like you anyway. You've devoted your life to telling them there's no Santa Claus.

Or was some small, buried part of you secretly hoping you'd see the fat man sliding down that chimney?

The audience is hooting and hollering at me, even the ones I've seen at tapings of my own show. I shout insults back at them. I send a few Dante's way, but he's sitting placidly, watching as Mr. News-Anchor Wannabe tries to calm the situation.

Actually, he's only pausing it for another lull in the storm. I know what's going to happen a few moments before it does, so I have to fight down a hearty laugh. Sylvia trots out, having "seen the light" and ready to dish the "real dirt" on her boss.

Sylvia, you treacherous wench. Bless you.

The ensuing screaming match isn't exactly dignified, but I'm sure it makes for some great television.

As I tromp off the stage, I think I see them, the men who drove me to this act of self-immolation. They're two large-ish white guys, both of whom look very quietly menacing, neither of whom looks comfortable being in the middle of such an animated crowd.

FBI? Secret Service? Other? I have no way of knowing. But as the palpable sense of dread that's been slowly suffocating me for the past six months slinks away, I'm confident I'll never need to find out.

I was too sloppy, too egotistical. Somebody important, somebody powerful, noticed me. And they were going to put me on a leash.

Of course, the two agents he/she/them sent to check me out first-hand will return with tales of a very humiliating public meltdown.

As I storm out of the studio I take a second glace at one of them, the younger one, through my petulant scowl. He's going to be dead, within the month. Shot, I think.

Oh, well.

I've dealt my "career" a mortal blow. Just for appearances, I'll help it twitch pathetically for a while before letting it expire completely. My own show will be off the air in a matter of weeks.

What the hell. This whole "TV Psychic" gig was getting stale, anyhow. I'm sure I'd miss it, if I didn't have about $65 million or so squirreled away in Switzerland behind various identities. Gosh, it sure is lucky that I sold my high tech stocks before the market crashed.

I check my watch. Something has changed--I have no way of knowing precisely what--that has all but guaranteed the Dodgers a win over the Giants tonight. I need to get my bet in before the game starts.

From the Author:

8/13/05

They say that you shouldn't post stories on your own website if you actually want to sell them. Well, this sumbitch has already been published on Peridot Books and in the 2003 edition of Triangulation, so I don't think it's going to get any less sellable than it already is. (And the only reason I'm putting it on-line is that Peridot doesn't do archives, and Triangulation is a print-only affair.)

Fans of James Randi will see him as the inspiration of this piece right away. I actually have a lot of respect for The Amazing Randi; he can come across as dismissing all spirituality as the tool of the unscrupulous to bilk the gullible, but for situations where that's absolutely true, he rawks the motherfuckin' house. This story is not meant to be a slight against him in any way, but rather an exploration of the limits of his million-dollar challenge. It sounds like a good idea, but really, it's only going to catch the self-deluded and the obscenely arrogant. Successful "mystics" have nothing to gain and plenty to lose by locking horns with Randi on his terms, and if the Real Thing ever were to come along ... well, you've read the story.

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