Primarily I’m a writer. I’ve written five full-length books of Science Fiction short stories, and more are on the way.
Story # 1:
“And finally,” Mary said. She flipped over the last card, and put it down. “The Fool,” she said.
“Is that bad?” as the rube couple sitting at the table, holding hands.
“No, not at all,” she lied. The fool was pretty much always bad, based on everything she knew about the subject. “I mean, it can be bad in certain circumstances, but it’s not bad here. It simply means you were being foolish to worry about your loved ones. They’ve found peace in the afterlife.” The rubes visibly relaxed.
“So our mother found peace?”
“Oh, absolutely,” she said. The man was looking a bit pensive, like he wanted to say something.
“The spirits tell me that you are not entirely satisfied by this answer?” she fished.
“I…wow…you’re good. I wanted to know what the afterlife is like,” he said, “I mean is…” She waved her hand the same way Alec Guiness had done it in Star Wars. It silenced him.
“The spirits have not seen fit to disclose the details of the afterlife,” she said, and then toed one of several buttons beneath the table. It caused a kitchen timer to go of in the other room. It wasn’t the one she’d set, but it was only five minutes off, and no one would ever notice that. Besides she wanted to get rid of these dolts. They’d paid, she’d done her bit, time for them to hit the bricks. “I’m afraid your time is up,” she said. The reading has concluded. If you’d like to know anything more, I’ll have to charge you for another session.”
The brother and sister looked at each other questioningly. “Is it still a hundred dollars if we do another session, or is there, like kind of a discount or something because we just paid full price for this one?”
“One hundred dollars,” Mary said. They left.
* * *
It was a nice sunshiny spring day in Florida as Mary sat on her screened in porch, reading her paper. The lead story was a woman who’d been murdered, embalmed, and found laying in her bathtub. She didn’t like creepy news, so she watched the tourists and idiots amble by. Cassadaga was known as the world’s only “All Psychic” town, where every inhabitant – or at least every one who put up a sign – had some kind of otherworldly gift. It was an open secret that most didn’t. It was all just smoke and mirrors, slight of hand, and quite literally parlor tricks, as most of the readings and seances and what have you took place in the parlors of the psychic’s homes. Were there real psychics in town? Who knew? It was rumored that there were. She 0knew damn well that she wasn’t one, though.
The houses were old, mostly from the late Victorian period up through the nineteen thirties. They were all in good repair, but it was discovered in the 1980s that the whole ‘Spiritualist Medium’ thing didn’t go down so well in a split-level ranch home with white walls, central A/C and shag carpeting. It was important to have the correct ambiance to pull this particular kind of con off. Older houses were better.
They were prettier, besides. Her neighborhood had widely-spaced old wooden homes on open foundations that put them a couple feet above the ground. The lawns were not-quite-mannicured, but not-quite-wild either, and there were sprawling, gnarled live oaks all over the place. There were also a lot of pines, scrub palms and other plants, but the live oaks made it scenic. This was a high-end mumbo-jumbo buisness, there was none of that tacky jigaboo voodoo shit, like you’d find in Miami or New Orleans. Mary was in her late sixties, and was born and raised in the deep South. It’s not surprising that she was a bit of a racist. She denied this of course. “As long as their money is green, I don’t care what color they are,” she told they gay telekinetic across the street. She didn’t much like gay people either, but she was better at hiding that.
Some local kids started climbing on enormous low, asymmetrical branches of the tree to her right. She wasn’t entirely sure where the property line was. Was the tree hers, or the MacGreevy’s next door? Well, she wasn’t about to chance it.
“Hey, you damn kids, get out of my damn tree!” she yelled.
“We’re not hurtin’ anythin’!” one of them said.
“The hell you’re not,” she hollered, “You know how off-ballance those things are! It could uproot and kill you!” This had happened a year ago, killing a mother and her baby in a stroller as they walked by the lake. Or was that in Zephyr Hills? She couldn’t remember, but those trees were known for flopping over at the wrong moment.
“You’re a psychic, you tell us if it’s safe or not,” one of the kids yelled. Another one started going “Nyah-nyah.” She moved to get up, as though she were going to go over there and do something, but really she had no intention of doing it. She was just hoping the kids would get frightened and run off, which they did. Local kids were the worst, she ruminated. Since they all knew it was a con, it was hard to keep them in line. Sometimes – around sixteen or seventeen – they’d turn malicious and try to expose frauds just out of meanness. Little bastards.
A man in an unseasonably long coat, fedora and gloves came by. He looked at a scrap of paper, looked at her street address, and then looked at her.
“Mary Strasse?” he asked.
“My name is Roundtree. Jim Roundtree. I’ve heard you’re very good at what you do, and I was wondering if I could hire you for a séance? May I please come in?” She said yes, of course. Screw tarot or palmistry, seances were big money.
* * *
He’d asked if he could use her restroom, then vanished into it for an uncomfortably long time. There was no sound of flushing, though she could hear the sink, and she could hear him singing.
“From my heart and from my hands
Why don’t people understand…”
When he came out, the outerwear was all folded over his left arm, and he was absently spinning his hat in the other hand. The sunglasses had transformed to regular old eyeglasses.
“Sorry that took so long,” he said. “Is there somewhere I can put these?” She motioned to a fainting couch. He nodded and meticulously set them down.
“You have a lovely singing voice,” she said.
“Thank you. That’s a little embarasing. I didn’t realize I was being so loud.”
“No, no,” she said. “I couldn’t place the song, though. It felt familiar, though, like I should know it. What was it?”
“It’s a song by Oingo Boingo,” he said.
“Well now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. My daughter loved them, what, thirty or forty years ago. You were doing kind of a crooning bluesy version of it, though, that’s never how they sounded.”
“I tend to vamp it up a bit,” he said. He seemed chagrined.
“You seem a little young to like that kind of thing.”
He shrugged. “Who doesn’t like Oingo Boingo?”
Reading awkwardness in his voice, she changed the subject. “That’s a lot of clothes for such a nice day,” she observed. She didn’t really care, she was just fishing. People often let details about themselves slip in casual conversation, and she could use these against them later on.
“Ridiculous, isn’t it?” He said. “It was pretty breezy this morning, so I wore the coat – it’s not as hot as it looks. The weather service said rain…”
Had it, she wondered? That didn’t sound right.
“…so I wore the hat. I’m always losing umbrellas, and I hate getting rain on my glases, you know?” He tapped one of the earpieces. “Can’t see a thing when that happens. And once you’ve got a hat, there’s really no convenient way to carry it apart from wearing it…”
He’s not nervous, but he’s pretending to be for some reason, Mary thought. “And the gloves?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m just a little bit OCD,” he said. “Only outdoors, though. Nature freaks me out,” he half-laughed.
“Yeah, nature sucks,” she said. “Amen to that, sister,” he said, sounding like something from an old movie. She offered him a lemonade, and he gladly accepted. He carried it around without ever actually taking a sip of it. No matter. She didn’t care if he drank it or not, she just needed an excuse to get close to him. When he’d first come in and shook her hand the only exposed skin on his body was his neck and head. Both had looked waxy and unreal, like heavy makeup or a mannequin or maybe a burn victim who’d had a lot of plastic surgery, but now he looked perfectly normal. Odd, she thought.
“Seances cost a thousand dollars, and they can last for a few hours. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Not at all,” he said. “I have all the time and money in the world.” He pulled out a drug lord-sized roll of bills and peeled off ten hundreds, and plopped them on her kitchen table. “Actually,” he said, and his voice trailed off. He peeled off another thousand and dropped that atop the first pile of bills. It was a theatrical gesture, she noticed, like he’d done it a bunch of times before. “Two grand,” he said, “Let’s just assume I’ll need you for the rest of the day.” He had a very slight accent, but one she couldn’t place. New York? German? Italian?
“I can’t guarantee success,” she said, “It’s all up to the spirits.”
“That’s not a problem,” he said, “If I’m not satisfied, I’ll just pay for the one session and take back the rest. Is that ok?”
“Oh, yes!” she said more enthusiastically than she’d intended. She had a mortgage payment coming up. She hung her “Closed for the day” sign on the outside of her front door.
* * *
“Shall we begin?” He asked.
“Certainly. Who would you like contact?” She turned out the lights in the room, and lit some candles. There were no windows, so it was very dark, even in the middle of the day like now.
“I’d like to know who the Cassadaga Killer is,” he said.
Somewhat shocked, she replied, “He’s not dead yet. I can’t contact anyone who isn’t dead.”
“I know that,” he said, “I was hoping that perhaps you could contact one of his victims. They could probably identify him.”
“Why are you asking this?”
“I’m a detective with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement,” he said, pulling out his wallet. He proffered a badge, and ID.
Ah, crap, she thought, I’m blown.
Forcing authority into her voice, she said, “Why do you ask this?”
“All our leads are dead ends. They called him ‘The Cassadaga killer’ when he went on a spree here fifty years ago. From there, he apparently went to London, where he was known as ‘The Spiritualist Killer.’ When his spree finished there, he went to various countries where he was known by various names, but always the same Modus Operandi.”
“I read about that,” she said. “He always leaves a written list of the names of the people he’s killed, including the latest one, so there’ll be no confusion as to who did it.”
“Or she,” he said.
“It could just as easily be a ‘she’ for all we know.”
“But, wait, if these killings have gone on for half a century…”
“More than,” he said. “We suspect it might be a cult of some sort that has it in for people with your gift. Or a master/apprentice situation, where one killer continues the work of another.”
“So you came to a psychic to find a serial killer?”
“Well, allegedly the Santa Barbara police department has had a lot of success with that kind of thing. It seemed worth a try.”
This felt like a sting operation to her, and she wanted to shut this down quickly. “I’m sorry, my history has taught me I’m not able to do such things. Would you like your money back?”
He sighed. “That’s disappointing.” After a pause, however, he said, “Well, let’s try and just contact one of my friends. Can we do that?”
* * *
She relaxed now that she knew he was both a cop and a sucker. She’d done cops before. “Who would you like to contact?” she asked again.
“Oh, I have a long list of departed friends and family,” he said. “I’ve lost so many.” By this point she’d realized that his slight accent was actually the complete, conscious lack of an accent. That, in and of itself was unusual, but she’d seen it once or twice before in people who’d had speech therapy to cover over impediments, or foreigners who overzealously learned the language.
She guessed the former, and started trying to figure out how she could use that to her advantage as she sat down at a round Victorian table with a floor-length velvet table cloth. “I can’t really do multiple spirits. Perhaps we can try one, and later try another if that doesn’t work out?”
“Certainly. In that case, I’d like to start out with Reginald Smyth. He was my first boss.”
“Do you have a personal artifact from him?”
“Yes, of course.” He reached into his pocket a short, brass cylinder. “Here you go,” he said as he handed it over. She glanced at it. It was a small antique telescope, obviously very valuable. She opened it to its full length and placed it in the middle of the table, where most mediums kept a crystal ball. She didn’t go in for that, though. People may have fallen for it a century ago, but nowadays people immediately recognized it for what it was when you shined a colored light through it.
“We’ll need to hold hands,” she said, and he obligingly did. They were cold. Or were they? She was just getting over the flu.
“Concentrate on your friend, concentrate on Reginald. Close your eyes, and think on him with all your might.” She opened an eye to check him out, and his eyes were definitely closed tight. He did appear to be concentrating. “Feel my energy flowing through you, flowing from me, in to your right arm, along your chi points, up your spine and into your head, then flowing out again through your left arm, flowing into me, flowing into me.” She went through this litany several times in a deliberately calming, hypnotic voice. It didn’t actually hypnotize anyone, but it did tend to lull them into a more receptive state. Meanwhile she slipped off her shoes, and with her right foot she triggered a muffled air conditioner that rapidly lowered the temperature in the room.
“The spirits are here,” she said. Can you sense them?”
“No,” he said honestly.
Well that’s disconcerting, she thought. Normally the rubes were on board by this time. “The presence of the spirits always brings the cold of the tomb-world,” she said.
“Ok,” he said.
“Do not let go of my hands,” she said, “But you may open your eyes.” He did so. “Spirits, if you are here, please give us a sign.” The pushed another floor button, and suddenly all the candles went out. The room was pitch black. Not that she could see him, but the man looked surprised, and glanced around.
“So the spirts are here?” He asked.
“Shhhh! Spirits, we thank you for your presence. Please allow us to see you.” She toed another button, and all the candles re-lit. “Spirits, show yourself, please,” she asked. She toed another button, and dry ice fog started pouring out of little pipes in the armrests of her chair. As long as she kept her toe on the button, it would look like it was pouring out of her body in the dim light. “Do not be frightened,” she said, “This is ectoplasm coming from my body. The spirits have deigned to honor us with a materialization. Be patient, and concentrate on the sound of my voice.” She droned on a while, prattling nonsense in the same hypnotic voice she’d used before, but now in a sing-song.
The floor was quickly covered by the fog, and she towed another button. This started more of the stuff falling from the ceiling, where it was illuminated by a small, hidden projector that was cleverly hidden out of their line of site from the table. It cascade now showed a somewhat amorphous humanoid shape that could be either male or female.
“Do not let go of my hands, but Reginald is here,” she said. “Look behind you.” He strained to see, twisting his neck and upper torso as far as they’d go. She’d set this thing up so that he couldn’t see it in more than his peripheral vision. This made the deliberate lack of detail more plausible. “Do you see it?”
“Yes,” he said.
“You may ask it whatever you will.”
“Reggie,” he asked, “What is it like? Why did you go? Please tell me what I should do? Should I stay here, or should I kill myself and join you?”
“Oh boy, this guy’s in a bad way,” Mary thought. She toed another switch, and this one started a recording of distorted, incomprehensible human sounds.
“The spirit is prevented from telling you details about the afterlife,” she said.
“I don’t know. It’s just the rules of the other world. The spirits have not seen fit to explain to mere mortals.” His face fell, and he put his head down on the table and let out a tremulous sigh. He sniffled a little bit. Was he crying? Indeed he was: his shoulders began to wrack, and then came the loud sobs, but he never let go of her hands. Not even when she tried to pull away. His grasp wasn’t tight, but it was tennacious.
Presently he lifted his head.
“Ok, let’s try an easy one,” he said. “Can you get a message for me from my mother?”
“I can try.”
There was no need to do the full song and dance for this. She just pretended to put herself into a trance and then a little atomatic writing. While letting her eyes go out of focus, she picked up a pencil and scribbled out a generic fake message from beyond the grave. ‘James, Son, I am very proud of you, Love, Mom.’ That kind of thing. Of course it wasn’t automatic at all, it was just sloppy. She made a point of always writing it with her left hand.
She blinked twice, made a show of coming to her senses, acted shocked to see the paper on the table and the pencil in her hand, and then pushed the sheet towards her mark. He picked it up and read. His cheeks were still tearstained, but he burst out into a huge belly-laugh.
“My name isn’t James, or Jim, or anything like that. It’s Jakob. I changed it when I came to this country. My mother never called me that a day in her life. Also, she never spoke, read, or wrote English, so I’d imagine if this note were authentic it would have been written in her own language.”
Panicked, Mary tried to cover. “It must have been a malevolent spirit. Sometimes this happens. A malevolent spirit pretending to be your mother.”
Faster than she could react, he stood and knocked the table over, exposing all her controls on the floor.
“Oh, I totally agree,” he said.
* * *
She came to in her shower. He’d knocked a little hole in the ceiling, hung a rope over one of the beams, and had her tied up and hanging by her wrists. It was the pain that woke her up. She was confused as to how she got here, but she was pretty sure he’d hit her with a chair, or maybe it was a candlestick holder, or maybe he’d just punched her. The memories were all a jumble. They wouldn’t sit right in her head. She was confused, and then she noticed her feet hurt. Blinking her eyes into focus, she looked around, and saw Jim or Jakob or whatever his name was, sitting on the toilet, reading a Kindle, and sipping something out of a squeeze bottle that she was pretty sure was her blood.
She tried to scream, but her voice was too hoarse and weak.
“Oh, you’re awake,” he said. “I’d really hoped I’d knocked you out for the duration. I’d give you a sedative or something, but I’m afraid that would taint the blood so that it would be useless for me. I’m sorry about the pain, Mary, but there’s nothing I can do for you. Well, I suppose I could clonk you on the head again, knock you out. You want that?”
She shook her head, no. “Suit yourself,” he said, “This is gonna’ suck for you, though. No pun intended.” She stared at the bottle, then looked down at the tubes and clamps attached to her feet. They apprently led to some kind of pump.
“In Russia in olden days they used to call us ‘Ubir,’ which means ‘Witch.’ They didn’t really distinguish between us and other kinds of dangerous supernatural things. The word and the legend traveled west as we did. In German lands we were called ‘Wampir.’ That obviously became ‘Vampire’ in English.”
“Fangs” she whispered.
“Never use ’em. Too obvious. What I’m doing here is pretty clever, though: firstly I drain your body through the holes on your feet, and then I flip you over and fill you up with embalming fluid using the same holes. Very efficient and no one suspects. I had all this equipment in my trunk.”
“But you’re a cop?” Not only was she whispering, her words were slured. She wondered if it was blood loss, or if she’d taken some brain damage when he hit her.
“This?” He pulled out his wallet and looked at the badge. “This is just a prop I stole from ‘The Glades’ when they got canceled. Awful show. Well, the first season was good, but after that – ugh. I had an engraver cut a fake name into it. As for the ID photo, since I can’t be photographed, I just found someone who looked like me and paid him twenty bucks to let me take some pictures. Easy.”
“Why?” she said. It was an effort to speak.
“Ever hear of Harry Houdini?” She nodded. “Personal hero of mine. Saw him perform once. Amazing talent. What’s not commonly remembered about him anymore is that he spent half of his life going to mediums, trying to contact his dead mother. Being a magician, he easily spotted trickery. In twenty-six years and hundreds of seances, he never found one that was on the level. He kept going out of hope that it was real, but he was always disappointed. He even wrote a book about it, ‘A Magician Among the Spirits.’ Maybe I should write a book? ‘A Vampire Among the Spirits?’ That would be a good title. Or does it give the game away too easily?”
She looked confused. “Still with me?” She nodded. “You want to know why I’m only killing psychics? Why I’m killing you?” She nodded, she was too weak to talk. “Ok,” he said.
It took him a long time before he spoke, and his eyes were glassy, like he was going to cry again. “I’m the last. The last vampire. The last of my kind. The others have all died in one way or another. Angry mobs, daylight without the precautions I use, vampire-on-vampire violence, infected blood, suicide. A hell of a lot of suicide. Contrary to popular belief it takes more than one vampire to turn someone in to one of us. It’s a group effort, so as I’m the last one, there’ll never be another. I’m the end of us.
I need to know why. We’re supernatural. You’d think we’d have all the answers about life and death and the afterlife and stuff like that, but we don’t.” He paused for a moment, then said almost angrily, “We don’t.” He gathered his composure, and continued. “We don’t know any more than you do. We don’t know why we exist, how we came into being, and we don’t – well, I don’t – know why we’re going extinct.
I could go on forever, probably, but I’m tired, and I’m sad, and I’m so goddamned lonely. I need to – there’s got to be an afterlife, right? There’s just got to!” He pleaded, not really noticing how vacant her eyes were. “A God, or gods, or even a devil. I’d settle for that. Someone who could explain all this. There’s just got to be, right? I mean, I’m supernatural. My mere existence proves all those things exist, right? Right?”
She didn’t answer.
“So I did what Harry did: I went from psychic to psychic, one a week more or less, trying to get in touch with anyone I knew from the beyond. Just someone I knew, someone who could tell me what to do, or why this was happening, or just to let me know that my existence had some purpose, some meaning to life. Just Reg, or Susan, or Farouk, or someone, someone, someone, someone, someone, someone, someone…” he got more and more manic as he repeated the word. It became a chant, rising in fury and volume, until he punched a wall so hard it broke the tile. He snapped back to his senses. “Someone just to tell me it will all be alright. I am so goddamned lonely.” He grabbed a tissue and dabbed at his eyes.
“But which of us is the greater predator, my dear? You prey on the simple-minded and gullible, taking their cash and leading them on an addictive chase for more and more lies, ruining lives and bankrupting people. I’ve seen it. Me? All I do is prey on predators like you. So which one of us….ah, damn, you’re already dead, aren’t you?”
He took a sip from the squeeze bottle, and looked at the others he’d filled, and the one still in the machine. “I am so goddamned lonely,” he said.
* * *
After he was done it was three in the morning. He put on his protective gear – including the latex skin he wore over his face – and loaded all of the machines into the car. The blood he put in a powered cooler in the back seat. He’d been depressed, but a half pint went a long way towards cheering him up, the book he was reading was pretty good, and if he had to keep looking – which he did – well, at least he’d managed to reduce the number of charlatans by one. That improved his odds of finding a real clairvoyant, even if infinitesimally. I had to, right?
He figured he had a month or two here before the hayseed cops started to close in on him, then he’d move on, perhaps to New Orleans, perhaps L.A. Japan was nice. And then? He wouldn’t let him think about ‘and then.’ That was too depressing. He’d learned to keep his plans short term, lying to himself, promising that this time, definitely, he’d find a real one.
He went back in the kitchen carrying an inch thick stack of paper. It was a handwritten list of all the psychics he’d killed since he’d realized that he, alone, was left. Each name had a line drawn through it. Why did he do it? He wasn’t sure. Partly so there’d be no confusion between him and any copycats that might pop up. Partly as a warning to others of this ilk, warning them to change their ways, but of course no one ever did. He wrote Mary’s name down, and then drew a line through it. He picked up his two thousand dollars and locked up the house, and drove.
He had to keep looking.
Presently he noticed he’d been singing without realizing it.
“From my heart and from my hands
Wh don’t people understand
Because, really, who didn’t like Oingo Boingo?
Copyright 2015, Kevin Long.