It was almost midday as Hal hurried along the seafront, clutching her jacket against the biting wind. It cut like a knife, chapping at her face and fingers and nipping at the skin of her knees, where her jeans had ripped through.
As she pressed the button for the pedestrian crossing she felt that flutter again, in the pit of her stomach. Excitement. Trepidation. Hope. . . .
No. Not hope. There was no point in hoping. The papers in her mother’s box had put an end to that. There was no way this could possibly be true. For her to claim that money would be . . . well, there was no point in trying to evade the reality of what she was considering. It would be fraud. Plain and simple. A criminal offense.
If anyone can pull this off, it’s you.
The thought flitted treacherously through the back of her mind as she crossed to the opposite pavement, and she shook her head, trying to ignore it. But it was hard. Because if anyone had the skills to turn up at a strange house and claim a woman she’d never met as her grandmother, it was Hal.
Hal was a cold reader, one of the best. From her little booth on Brighton’s West Pier, she told fortunes, read tarot cards, and made psychic predictions. It was the tarot she was best at, though, and people came from as far away as Hastings and London to get her readings, many of them coming back again and again—returning home to tell their friends about the secrets Hal had divined, the unknowable facts she had produced, the predictions she had made.
She tried not to think of them as fools—but they were. Not the tourists so much, the hen parties who came in for a giggle and just wanted to ask questions about the size of the groom’s dick, and the prospects of him coming up to scratch for the wedding night. They shrieked and oohed when Hal trotted out her well-worn phrases—the Fool for a new beginning, the Empress for femininity and fertility, the Devil for sexuality, the Lovers for passion and commitment. Occasionally she palmed the cards she needed for a satisfying message, pushing them forwards to the querent to avoid an off-putting spread, full of minor cards, or trumps like Death or the Hierophant. But at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter what they turned up—Hal made the images fit with what the women wanted to hear, with just enough of a frown and a shake of her head to make them gasp impressively, and a reassuring pat to the hen’s hand when she reached her final conclusion (always that there would be love and happiness, though tough times might come—even with the most unpromising match).
Those, Hal didn’t mind fooling. It was the others. The regulars. The ones who believed, who scratched together fifteen, twenty pounds, and came again and again, wanting answers that Hal could not give, not because she could not see what they wanted—but because she couldn’t find it in herself to lie to them.
They were the easiest of all. The ones who made appointments—giving a real name and phone number, so that she could google and Facebook them. Even the customers who walked in off the street gave so much away—Hal could guess their age, their status; she noticed the smart but worn shoes that showed a downward change in fortune, or the recently bought designer handbag that indicated the reverse. In the dim light of her booth, she could still see the white line of a recently removed wedding ring, or the shaky hands of someone missing their morning drink.
Sometimes Hal didn’t even know how she knew until after—and then it was almost as if the cards really were speaking to her.
“I see you’ve had a disappointment,” she would say. “Was there . . . a child involved?” and the woman’s eyes would well, and she would nod, and before she could stop herself a story would spill out, of miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility. And only afterwards Hal would think, How did I know that? And then she would remember the way the woman had looked out of the window of the waiting room as Hal came to find her, at the woman walking with a baby in a sling and a toddler with candy floss stains around her mouth, and the stricken look on her client’s face, and Hal would realize.
Then she felt bad, and sometimes she would even give back the money, telling the customer that the cards had told her it would be unlucky to take payment, even though that only seemed to increase their fervor and make them more certain to return, banknotes in hand.
Mostly, though, Hal liked her job. She liked the raucous, drunken hen parties. She even liked the stags who came in bellowing and skeptical and full of suggestive cracks about feeling their crystal balls. And she felt that in some small way she helped some of her more vulnerable clients—she wasn’t base enough to tell them only what they wanted to hear, she told them what they needed to know as well. That truth wasn’t found at the bottom of a bottle. That drugs weren’t the answer. That it was okay to leave the man who was responsible for the bruises that peeped from behind the neckline of that blouse.
She was cheaper than a therapist, and more ethical than many of the psychics who posted cards through people’s doors, claiming to heal incurable disease with crystals, or offering contact with dead lovers and children—for a price, of course. . . .
Hal never made those promises. She shook her head when the clients asked her if she could contact David or Fabien or baby Cora. She was not in the business of séances, profiting off grief that was all too nakedly visible.
“The cards don’t predict the future,” she said again and again, insuring herself against the inevitability of things turning out differently, but also telling them what they needed to know that there were no firm answers. “All they show is how things could come out, based on the energies you brought with you to the reading today. They’re a guide for you to shape your actions, not a prison cell.”People liked tarot because it gave them an illusion of control, of forces guiding their lives, a buffer against the senseless randomness of fate.
The truth was, however much she tried to tell them otherwise, people liked tarot because it gave them an illusion of control, of forces guiding their lives, a buffer against the senseless randomness of fate. But they liked Hal because she was good at what she did. She was good at weaving a story out of the images the clients turned up in front of her, good at listening to their pain and their questions and their hopes; and, most of all, she was good at reading others.
She had always been shy, tongue-tied in front of strangers, a fish out of water at her raucous secondary school; but what she hadn’t realized was that during all those years spent coolly standing back and watching others, she had been honing her detachment and learning the skills that would someday become her trade. She had been watching the versions people gave of themselves, the tells that showed when they were nervous or hopeful or trying to evade the truth. She had discovered that the most important truths often lay in what people didn’t say, and learned to read the secrets that they hid in plain sight, in their faces, and in their clothes, and in the expressions that flitted across their faces when they thought no one was watching.
Unlike most of her clients, Hal did not believe the cards in her pocket held any mystical power, beyond her own ability to reveal what people had not admitted even to themselves.
But now, as she hurried past the Palace Pier, the smell of fish and chips carried on the sea wind making her empty stomach rumble, Hal found herself wondering. If she believed . . . if she believed . . . what would the cards say about Trepassen House . . . about the woman who was not her grandmother . . . about the choice that lay ahead of her? She had no idea.
From The Death of Mrs. Westaway. Used with the permission of the publisher, Scout Books. Copyright © 2018 by Ruth Ware.