Short Story: The Clairtangentist

This story was published back in 2018 on At the time it was just a one-off but as time went by I kept thinking about the character of Lemuel . When I sent Johnny Lupul off to Vegas in book 2 of the Werewolf PI series, Johnny Lycan & the Vegas Berserker, I had to resurrect him.

Enjoy the story, and if you haven’t read The Vegas Berserker, please see what the old guy’s up to now.

The Clairtangentist (2018)

Lemuel ran his thumb over the etching on the back of the Rolex. Even before the

images came into focus in his mind, he knew this guy would pay the asshole tax. After all, the reason the nervous white man needed cash—the abortion would cost two thousand dollars—had nothing to do with the loving wife who’d given him the watch as a birthday gift.  Nice guys caught a break. This guy would pay for his sins.

“Nineteen hundred.” Lem kept a straight face. 

“It’s worth sixty-five hundred on eBay.”

“You’re welcome to go on eBay if you have the time. Here it’s worth nineteen.” In truth, it was a Rolex Submariner, blue dial with gold and steel, and worth every penny of the sixty-five. Any other pawnshop in Las Vegas would give it to him.  The timepiece told him that paying the money back on time wouldn’t be an issue. This guy was just freaking out about paying two grand without his wife getting wise. The watch knew he could scrape up the loan plus interest in a month—barely—and have the watch back on his arm before she knew it was missing, but Lem liked to make guys like him sweat. Lem called it the asshole tax.

“I need twenty-five hundred,” the customer said in the eternal way of businessmen BS-ing their way through negotiations. Craig, his name was, ran a chain of low-end shoe stores that did solid business, but Lemuel already knew that.

Smiling like a sphinx, he turned it over so the perspiring man could read the engraving on the stainless-steel back. “It’s personalized—see where it says, ‘to my loving Craig?’ Where am I going to find another buyer named Craig?” Craig winced and bit his bottom lip. Few other people would have noticed it but Lem felt a warm glow of satisfaction. “Two thousand is the best I can do for you.”

                The customer maintained his wise-guy demeanor. “You don’t gotta worry. I’ll have the money to you in four weeks. “

“Very well, sir. Two thousand at thirteen percent is twenty-two sixty, payable on June thirteenth or the property becomes ours for resale. Is that acceptable?” Some customers paid as low as ten percent. Thirteen was all the law in Nevada would let him charge, so there were legal limits on how much justice he could mete out. Craig bit his lip, stared out the window as if East Fremont street was interesting, and nodded. Lemuel made a show of slipping the watch under the counter and pulling the keyboard closer.

It took a moment to banish the watch’s vibrations from his mind so he could take care of the paperwork. He had what he needed for this transaction, and this particular piece had a lot to say for itself.  There was no sense in getting distracted.  “Very good, sir. I need your ID and we’ll have you on your way.”

Craig shoulder-bumped a mousy light-skinned woman in his haste to flee the shop. He neglected to hold the door or apologize. Lem figured that was a metaphor for a lot of Craig’s interactions with the fairer sex.

The woman, not as young as she first appeared and looked maybe half-white, said nothing as she pretended to examine the items on display. She was a newbie. Many people got skittish around pawn shops and those who ran them. By the time their lives reached the point of having to hock their belongings, trust was a rarer commodity than gold. She needn’t have worried, Lemuel had been doing this a long time. His mama told him, “never troubled Trouble unless Trouble troubles you first.” He lived by that motto his whole life, given a youthful indiscretion or two.

Lem was a professional. He’d owned this pawn shop for twenty years, long enough to have made his money, but not so long he was ready to hang it up. Yet. It was a good store, far enough off the Strip and away from Downtown that it wasn’t the desperate gambler’s first stop, and in a nice enough neighborhood, it discouraged sticky-fingered junkies from bringing in items too hot tohandle. He seldom dropped a dime on anyone–no broker would last long if their clientele was always locked up–but Lem always knew when something was stolen because he listened to what the goods had to say.

The face of the matter is he was a clairtangent. At least that’s what his grandmama called it, a clear-toucher. His Daddy had the gift, too, God rest his soul. Near as the pawnbroker could figure, people put a little of themselves into everything they touch. Those items couldn’t wait to tell people like Lemuel their stories, and he mostly enjoyed listening.  That guitar in the window belonged to a talented young kid who pissed it away on codeine, of all things. The instrument missed its owner, but not the fumbling and weak-ass chords that marked the end of the relationship.  It beckoned through the window, pining for the touch of the next young Springsteen.

Vegas was the right city for Lemuel. People always needed fast cash, and the tales he gleaned were more interesting than most. That’s why he stayed at it—the stories. The money was good, and he had more than enough for his needs. He was a cautious man, maybe to a fault, but it served him well. Never make a move too soon, never reveal why his “luck” ran hot. Hogs get fat and pigs get slaughtered. He didn’t abuse his gift anymore. Lemuel wasn’t rich, although he had a nest egg stored away in the Caymans, where he spent two weeks twice a year allowing himself the vices he avoided here at home. It helped that he was no longer a young man. He could pace himself now, picking up enough to make a buck: a stock tip, or someone wanted by the FBI with a cash reward big enough to claim, or a doped horse that would pay 60-1 at some out-of-the-way track like Parx, where nobody paid attention. Try that stuff at Santa Anita and see how fast the Feds came down on you. Staying under the radar suited his style.

When he came to town 30 years ago the plan was to make the casinos bleed, but he got over that quick enough. First, cards were notoriously unreliable. He could only read what he could touch, which meant he had to rely on the cards in his hands, instead of knowing what remained in the deck. Playing cards never seemed satisfied, they always wanted to be more important than they were, like they longed for the respectability of the bridge table or the baccarat shoe. That was especially true of the threes and fours that could make or break you in blackjack, always promising you couldn’t live without them and exaggerating their own worth.

Dice were better, as long as you were the shooter. You could tell what they’d been up to, and what the next few rolls held. The challenge was knowing when to walk away. Daddy never learned that lesson and a hot pair of dice got him killed. Marcus Collins should have stopped after the sixth seven in a row, but he couldn’t help himself.  Three and a half inches of steel to the liver ended a legendary hot streak, and Lemuel never forgot the lesson: quit before someone makes you. Keep drama to a minimum.

The easiest thing would be to resort to blackmail, but he was a Christian man. Every item in the shop had a dozen disgraceful secrets associated with it, and he could have taken more advantage than he did. Instead, he offered generous terms to those who needed them, which made him feel good, and he made life a little less comfortable for those, like Craig, who paid the asshole tax.

It was a delicate balance. Go too easy a mark and your clientele would become people with nothing to hock and no hope if they did. Be too obvious that you wanted to punish the wicked and you’d have no business at all. Lem long ago struck a deal with his conscience that left him well-off and sleeping at night. Who could ask for more?

Well, he was alone. There was that. Lettie passed almost ten years ago and he’d had precious little female companionship since. There was no way to meet women here in the shop that didn’t seem predatory. So many of his customers were victims—abused wives trying to scrounge enough cash to make a run for it, or junkies, or plain old whores pawning jewelry now that their bodies had lost significant value to anyone—taking advantage of them just felt sad and wrong.

On occasion, he’d meet someone with a nice smile and a healthy appetite who wasn’t looking for anything beyond some laughs and a bed for the weekend. That mostly staved off his darker moods, at least temporarily. Their stories were sad too, but most people’s were, and as long as he wasn’t manipulating them it was all in good fun. Not enough, but fun.

He studied the woman as she wandered the store in her Target sandals and happy flowered sundress. She gently stroked the back of the bright red Fender Stratocaster as if she wanted to pick it up and play (please God not Stairway to Heaven, although she didn’t look the type). Then she looked with longing at the rings in the display case, her cinnamon-colored fingers leaving prints on the display case.

When he figured she’d had enough time to summon her courage, he spoke. “May I help you, young lady?”

She offered him a shy grin that said it had been a while since anyone called her young lady. Lem guessed at a well-preserved forty. He’d know for certain in a moment. She pursed her lips and looked over her CVS, fake tortoise-shell, plastic sunglasses and studied him while rummaging in the wicker beach bag that served as her purse. It took a little digging, but she pulled out an envelope and dumped something into her palm. A lovely pair of earrings; gold chandeliers with what looked like emeralds. Old and, if they were legit, expensive.

He played the game with himself, the one he allowed himself when he bored or intrigued by someone’s appearance. How much could he suss out before touching the items and getting the real story? His instincts were good—after this long in the business they ought to be.

He started with the obvious. She wasn’t the owner of those baubles—none of her clothes were expensive enough for her to own anything that fine. But her eyes were clear and her skin healthy, so she wasn’t an addict and probably hadn’t stolen them, either. That meant estate jewelry. Maybe a grandmother’s one nice piece left to a favorite granddaughter? But then she’d want to hang onto them as long as she could. Why sell?

“Those are lovely. I’m sorry for your loss.” Her eyes widened and she emitted a little gasp, fingers flying to her chest. Lem chuckled. “They look like they belonged to someone else, someone older, and unless you’re a cat burglar and I’m out of practice, that means you came by them another way.”

She relaxed a bit and nodded. In a lilting accented voice–Africa? Jamaican?–she said, “Mrs. Larson. I’ve been taking care of her. She just passed and left these to me. I wondered if you could tell me…”

“Like I said, I’m sorry. It’s hard, I know. May I?” Lemuel held out his dark hand, palm up and steeled himself. Heirloom jewelry was tough. You not only had the memories of the original person, which usually meant a lingering, painful death to work through but those of the new owner, freshly coated in grief, loss and guilt. It took an effort to smile through all that, but he’d been at this long enough to appear dispassionate.

The woman closed her fists over them, not willing to relinquish them quite yet. “She told me this was all she had to give me after a lifetime.” Lem let her tell her story, although he already guessed most of it. The woman wiped her eyes with a crumpled Kleenex. “I’m sorry.” He feared she’d burst into tears, but she held herself together. If the woman was faking, she was awfully good. Scammers went too far one way or the other. This was the honest look of grief, more numbness than drama. A strong woman. A good woman.

Lem calmed his mind in preparation, then held out his hand. “May I?” After hesitating only a moment, she took a ragged breath and placed them into his palm. Lem closed his eyes and felt…cold metal. That was all. Nothing. He bounced them up and down, but the only sensation was gold and stone against calluses.

“Is everything alright?”

“Yes, yes. Fine. Right as rain, Miss.” Lem picked them up and inspected them. Old gold and those emeralds looked real enough. A fine old piece, the kind of thing an old lady would hold on to until the last minute, then bequeath to her favorite granddaughter or the near-stranger who cared for her at the end when her family wouldn’t.

But it was just a guess. The earrings refused to surrender their secrets. Nothing. “A lovely piece. Was this your patient’s favorite?”  He stalled for time and hoped his panic didn’t show on his face.

“Yes, she got them when she was young—from a gentleman admirer, she called him.” The woman couldn’t suppress a giggle. “I’m guessing there was a lot to that old girl no one never knew about. Those were some still waters.”

Lem allowed himself to laugh along and mortified himself by giving her a wink. “We all have our secrets. These are really lovely. Did she ever have them appraised?”

“Darned if I know. I never even knew she had them until she slipped them to me a couple of weeks ago and told me not to tell her son. Maybe some bootlegger gave them to her back in the day. Makes a romantic story doesn’t it? Kind of a mystery.”

It was a mystery. It shouldn’t be, but it was, and one Lem felt obliged to crack. There was another way to find out what was going on, but it always made him uncomfortable and was often unreliable. Inanimate objects held their stories much better than people, but there wasn’t another way. He held out his hand. “Lemuel. Collins. And you are?”

She placed her soft hand in his and shook it firmly. “Marsha. White. A pleasure.”

“The pleasure is all mine, Miz Marsha.” He was surprised to find no rush of images battering his senses. No deathbed scenes or bitter regrets pounded against the backs of his eyeballs. The only sensation was the smoothness of a  well-manicured working woman’s hand in his. He received no flashes of past loves or horrible betrayals. It was just a woman’s hand, a little clammy despite the air conditioning.

Too soon, she withdrew her hand. “So, are they real? What are they worth?”

It had been a long time since he gave a fully honest answer. He weighed the monetary against whether this person deserved a break or should be penalized. This, however, was a straight business transaction based on the value of a lifeless hunk of metal and some stones. He fumbled for his loupe—normally it was just a prop, so it took a moment to fit it into his eye. After about a minute he came up with an answer.

Marsha fidgeted. “It’s not stolen, if that’s…”

“No, not at all Miz White. I’m just trying to correctly evaluate its value. I presume you’re looking to sell, not secure a loan?” She affirmed his suspicion then he said, “I think I can offer you eight thousand dollars for it.” That felt right in his gut.

Marsha’s mouth fell open. “That much? Lord have mercy, I never would have guessed.” What was that look on her face? Relief? Guilt? Surprise certainly. They were honest emotions, exactly what one would expect under the circumstances. At least they seemed to be. The uncertainty gave him goosebumps. When was the last time he’d done business on a completely level playing field?

He wrote up the transaction and, after nearly cleaning out his safe, paid her in cash. She thanked him over and over, fanning herself with the eighty, rubber bound, hundred-dollar bills. “I’ve never held this much money in my hand before.” She fanned through it with her thumb like a cartoon millionaire and sniffed it. Given what he knew about currency, that wasn’t at all hygienic but looked like fun. She seemed, what, joyful? Yes, real joy. Something in short supply in a place, or a town, like this.

If it was real. He didn’t know for sure. He watched her as an unfamiliar grin stretched his face, drinking in the emotion, sharing it with her. She laughed a full-on, open-mouthed honk when she caught him watching. Blushing at her own silliness, she tucked the cash deep into her purse. “Is there anything else I need to do, Mr. Collins?”

“Yes, there is. I know this is unprofessional of me, and I have never done this, but please have dinner with me. My treat, of course,” he added lest she think he was after her money.

“Well, I don’t know. Where did you have in mind?”

Lemuel Collins looked into her brown eyes, smiled, and shook his head. “I have no God-damned idea. None whatsoever.”

Enjoy short stories? You can find the whole collection on the Short Stories and Other Pieces page.