You've passed the window signs a hundred times: "Reader-Advisor" with a hand outlined in bold neon. The effect is seductive. Beyond each storefront lies the eerie world of the occult -- the business of the Great Beyond.

But how many enter? One in ten? Maybe only one in a hundred is brave enough to explore the unseen, unspoken, uncertain realm of gypsy romance. I confess: I've been there and back. I have seen the future, and it's still open to question.

Mine holds many promises: three children, money, marriage, two children, a new job, the same job, bad luck unless I make quick changes, good luck if I'll pay for personalized novenas and meditation; older men, younger men, light-compexioned, dark-skinned, a dark-haired female I can trust, friends who aren't really friends; a troubled mind and a happy-go-lucky spirit.

It took an expensive mix of palm readers, card readers, a crystal ball gazer and Tarot specialists to arrive at this hodgepodge of fate and fortune. But when you're dealing with the commercial prophets in the area, it takes a little cash.

Let me say at the outset, my survey was less than scientific. I selected the seers at random: from the Yellow Pages, street sightings and one referral. Of course I never told the seers I was researching a story and they cautioned me against jotting notes or sharing my fortune with anyone.Frankly, my friends and family hope there's no more palmistry in my future.

Fortunetelling is nothing new. It has roots in ancient practices of divination, a part of all primitive religions.

The Greeks had their Oracle at Delphi; the Romans appointed official state fortunetellers. Back then, soothsayers' in search of the future poured over the entrails of sacrificial animals. Tarot card markings have Hebrew and Egyptian origins, while palm readers look to the Bible for authority: "Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand, riches and honour." (Proverbs iii: 16).

In any case, public interest in fortunetelling doesn't seem to have slackened one bit in 1978.

And as in the past, the customer wants desperately to be a believer. That's one thing I learned on my spiritual journey. The weird setting, the outrageous price, the readers' knowing manner all encourage trust in such wizardry. You find yourself trying to match the events and characters of your life to the generalities devised by each fortuneteller. By stretching here and there, you can always find some notion that fits, no matter how one reading contradicts the next. (Just between us, the insights gleaned from my palm and cards probably fit 80 percent of the under-30 single women in Washington.)

Across the city, the choices for a 15-minute inner vision are enticing. The Yellow Pages provide 1 1/2 pages of listings under "Palmists" and the come-ons are imaginative. Some local spiritualists offer a free answer to one question over the phone; others offer free parking.

Many operate in a twilight zone inhabited by prophetic contacts and bill collectors. Mrs. White on M Street is advertised as a "God-gifted woman healer," though her phone number was temporarily disconnected. It's $5 a shot at Madame Starr's in Falls Church, but for couples, I was told, a cut-rate palm reading is "negotiable." Nearly all the palmists are women who have been in the business for years -- like Lee Bane whose ad boasts (proudly or for lack of better credentials) "28 years, her greatest reference."

A tour of the local occult landmarks reveals a surprising blend of earthly and other-worldy delights. My first stop was Madame Jacy of Arlington, who left the color TV on during my reading. The framed picture of John Travolta on top of the set was another minor distraction, but I settled in as comfortably as possible on the plasticcovered sofa (all the furniture in the house was covered with plastic), and extended my right palm.

Long life, success, one marriage, three children, a heartbreak in the past... two current lovers and a future with a husband who is "not the man of my dreams." I was urged to tell my friends to come and make an appointment for a card reading and I nodded my head while grabbing for my wallet. A quick five dollars.

At 19th and K, there was a 15-minute wait for Mrs. Linda. I had time to survey the scene. She does a heavy lunch-hour business. The downtown secretary set is forever interested in clairvoyance -- especially concerning romance -- and Mrs. Linda, lucky for them, "sees all -- tells all" in her upstairs pad.

Linda, a small young woman wearing a bandana, tends to a baby and a ringing pay telephone during readings. Although a $2 special is advertised on the sidewalk for quickie palm readings, I splurged on the two-palms-and-a-face reading ( $5). I sat in a dark corner, beneath a picture of Christ, and held out both palms.

Mrs. Linda punctuated her spiel with "Am I right?" It was hit or miss.

Long life, happy-go-lucky... fall in love three times, marry once, two kids, big changes coming up next month. I am the target of much jealously.Lots of travel and more money in the future. '79 will be a big year for changes. Another fivespot.

She predicted that I would marry someone "in law or related to law" -- a safe guess in D.C. where one out of every five men on the street is an attorney. Would I like her to light a candle for me, asked Mrs. Linda, as she foretold of good luck within the next two months. Novenas cost $20, she said, or $10 if I felt that way about it. It was hard to hold back, but I said perhaps another time.)

Mrs. Williams gives group and party meetings, but I ventured alone to her den on I Street and asked for my first card reading. Tarot interpretations, $25. I settled on the $15 tab for playing cards and began shuffling and cutting the deck, as rock music drifted from the back room.

She dealt and read the cards three times: bad vibes from a man in my life, the cause being two other women between us; dark times for an older man; prosperity through contact with a younger man. The three hands held lots of black cards and bad news men. Overall, a bleak forecast.

My mind was preoccupied with tangled loves. I would keep slogging through sadness unless I changed things -- now.

"You need help," she said slowly. Luckily, it was a situation she could remedy in six weeks for $100. If I agreed to meditate with her once a week, she would light candles and pray to God in my name. I had a hard time saying no and promised to call the next day. Much easier to refuse by telephone.

Across town, Mrs. Theresa held forth from a studio apartment above the Brass Rail saloon on 13th Street. Somehow, she pegged me as a high roller. Rather than the advertised $5 or $10 tarot readings or $15 crystal ball session, she roped me into a three-in-one special. Palm, tarot and crystal, twenty bucks.

She turned down the soap opera and sat facing me. Gorgeous stereo and color TV nothwithstanding, Mrs. Theresa could be typecast as a gypsy in an old Fellini film. I tried to block out a man's coughing from behind a partition and firmly clasped a chipped crystal ball.

Woe was me: jealousy from my supposed friends; a loved one whom I could trust, with reservations; my mind was not clear... I wasn't achieving my goals in my work or studies (she hedged).

"You need some candle work," she told me sternly.

For $150, Mrs. T. promised to work with "special image candles" and meditations to clear up the mess I was in. I suggested that perhaps I could meditate alone and do the trick. She responded with a rule of the trade: "If you believe in God, you have to believe in me because I work through Him. I have powers. Anyone can meditate, but you don't just chant. You have to know what you are doing. Do you hear me, dear?"

She gave me her business card -- "satisfaction guaranteed" -- and urged me to send friends and relatives. Oh yes, I was not to leak the substance of my reading to anybody. I handed over 20 big ones.

I saved Pearman (pronounced peer-man) for last. He came highly recommended from a couple of friends, so you won't find him in the Yellow Pages. He shares a stark office at 13th and G with his wife-colleague. I waited my turn with a stylish woman who said she was initially skeptical, but amazed at the accuracy of his wife's readings. Other clients favor Mr. P.; both appeared to be booked solid. The phone never stopped ringing for appointments.

For a surprisingly reasonable $10, Pearman examined my playing cards, tarot and palm at length. He was an older gentleman with thick glasses and a kindly manner who said he'd been telling fortunes all his life. His focus: romance, with occasional reference to job changes and health. He relies on the cards and ESP, advised a sign on the wall, which also proclaimed his fallibility. It was the only caveat I saw in my phophecy-seeking. Unlike my other readers, he avoided all reference to religion.

I will meet dark-haired married men; they will not be serious. I will meet a light-complexioned man and marry him next year. Two children, boy and girl. Bad health for an older male relative next year. I'll move, have some good news by the end of '78 and keep my present job for some time.

I can count on a brunette female friend; I'll meet new people -- exciting times ahead. Much prosperity. The Hierophant card appeared, the best tarot in the deck, signaling the opening of new doors. After-wards, Pearman encouraged me to come back for a free answer to any question. "Like any good doctor would do," he said. I didn't feel the letdown of his vagueness until I got home. I'll have to wait at least two months to find out if he's as prophetic as people say.

Who's jiving whom? Those who take their fortune-telling seriously believe the hand is the outer reflection of the inner spirit. And card readers normally consider not only the symbolic meaning of each card, but the various combinations and juxtapositions as keys to a person's life. Art or science?

A friend of mine, let's call her Debbie, has been to three palmists and 10 card readers in the last five years. The palm readers hit the bull's-eye on temperament and personality traits, she says, while the card readers were able to pinpoint names and dates in the future, often with uncanny accuracy.

One card reader predicted she would have a new job in two weeks, with much travel and a future surrounded by water and men. Two weeks later, Debbie accepted a job on the Princess Line and began sailing around the world.

Debbie's sister was told she'd meet the proverbial tall, dark and handsome stranger around Thanksgiving, that she would break off a relationship of four years and change cities to move in with him. It happened on schedule.

Of course, cynics can poke holes in any occult success story. But how do you explain Debbie's experience?

Devotees will tell you that the trick to getting come-true readings is to find somebody who's reputable. Naturally, even those in the field disagree on the meanings of cards or lines on the palm. And reputations -- like everything else about the trade -- are subjective. But, explained one fortuneteller, "we're not here to swindle people... we're here to help those who can't help themselves."

Just the same, local governments are on guard against swindlers. In D.C., "mediums," as they're known, must submit to fingerprinting, a police security check and pay a license fee of $5.50 per year. In Virginia, the laws aren't strict, but the $500 state license fee acts as a deterrent, and, as in Maryland, county zoning rules and fees add to local fortunetellers' misfortunes.

Still, even in our super-serious town, there's plenty of business to go around. A surprising number of otherwise circumspect people swear by palm or card tipsters.

"People are gullible," said Dr. Mohan Advani, a Washington psyhchiatrist. For most, he said, the pastime reflects a healthy intellectual curiosity, "but for some who are very suggestible and anxious about the future, and who have no sense of control over their destiny, it takes the sense of responsibility away. They prefer to surrender to a higher power and to them this is very reassuring."

Most fortunetellers are intuitive about saying what you want to hear, and some people just want to feel they can outwit fate once they know what's in store.

Do I personally buy the whole fortune telling intrigue? I'm not saying. However, at this very moment, I've got six good luck candles dripping on the typewriter. Just in case.