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Their Future Is Cloudy

Mary MacLean is trying to explain what she does for a living and how she does it, but her friend Debi Lind keeps finishing her sentences.

"When you learn a discipline, the discipline takes over the conscious mind," Mary says. "Which leaves the unconscious mind free. And then it just..."

"Comes."
"Yeah," Mary continues. "To me, it feels like a tunnel opening up for thoughts to come through. Then it's like..."

"You get a hit."
"Right. Sometimes it's concrete and sometimes it's not."
"Sometimes it's a strong feeling."
"Yeah. Sometimes you never know."

Mary is an astrologer with psychic leanings, and Debi is a straight-up psychic. They've been friends for eight years and colleagues for almost as long. When they get together, which is often, they have a way of sharing each other's words, if not thoughts.

"It amazes me," Mary says. "We seem to be the other person's conscious. She's like the other half of me, and I'm the other half of her, and together we make a whole person. We've always been like that. We're opposites in so many things, but we're able to understand the other person's feelings. I feel like she is, and she is like I feel. What I'm trying to say is that we connect. Do you know what I mean?"

Not exactly--and that's the problem. It's almost impossible for Mary and Debi to explain what they do and how they do it. And lately, that explanation has become critical. Because how they define their work could mean the difference between a day of consultation and a night in jail.

For decades, fortune-telling has been illegal in Denver. Anyone doing it, and doing it for money, can be fined, imprisoned or both. The law was passed when the city was still young, when gypsies camped along Cherry Creek--but it was kept on the books long after the snake-oil wagons rolled away. Although it's been updated from time to time, city leaders have seen no reason to abolish it.

Until now.
John Poley, assistant city attorney, recently flipped through the pages of a municipal digest and found that fortune-telling bans in Omaha, Milwaukee and other cities have been challenged in federal court and overturned. Not only did the laws violate freedom of speech and religion, the courts decided, but they also gave city governments too much power in deciding which methods of predicting the future were more valid than others.

For example: Weather forecasters predict the future. So do stockbrokers, pundits and pollsters. All of these professions base information on specific data, and all speculate on possible outcomes. Fortune-tellers do, too. And while the courts stopped short of endorsing fortune-telling, they determined that, in itself, predicting the future is not a fraudulent act. In a free society, people have the right to choose who will advise them, regardless of how speculative that advice might be.

Foreseeing a possible lawsuit in Denver, Poley asked the city's safety and personnel committee to consider scrapping the ban. Current laws on fraud should protect people just fine, he said--police can still arrest fortune-tellers for guaranteeing such things as recovering from disease, winning the lottery or marrying movie stars. Besides, enforcing the law is not exactly a priority, and nothing prevents fortune-tellers from practicing in the suburbs.

That might be true, responds Detective Mike Pettinger of the Denver Police Department's fraud unit, but the fortune-telling ban should remain, anyway. It gives police one more weapon against crooks. And in Pettinger's experience, con artists often pose as mystics to work larger scams, particularly on elderly people.

Not long ago, he says, a client approached a Denver psychic with a problem. After consultation, the psychic determined that the problem lay in the client's $5,000 worth of jewels. If the client brought in the jewels, the psychic would exorcise the evil spirits, and all would be fine. So the client handed over the goods, and the psychic not only exorcised the evil spirits, but took $5,000 worth of jewels as well.

"That goes on all the time," Pettinger says. "Fortune-telling is where it all gets started. If we keep it out of Denver, we've done the citizens a favor."

So far, the city hasn't decided what to do.
That leaves the future uncertain for Mary and Debi, which is ironic considering what they do for a living. On this gray and drippy afternoon, they are sitting at Mary's table sipping mugs of Folger's instant coffee. They wear no scarves, no turbans, no hoop earrings. They're just a couple of friends taking a break from a script-writing project. And despite potential repercussions, neither woman is shy about discussing her work. Mary even advertises in the Yellow Pages under the "entertainer" category.

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Harrison Fletcher

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