Friday, March 31, 2017

The Scam is Dead - Short Fiction Friday



Three more spirits before ten am. They had no qualms about waking a person, or keeping them up at night either. Two of the new ones didn't even speak English. What did they think she could do for them? When she made it clear she didn't understand them, they just got louder and more insistent. Couldn't even shut a door in their face since they can move right through walls. At least she could take out her hearing aid and that helped her ignore them when she wanted to sleep.

Rose had made a decent living out of pretending to speak to the departed. Now that they were showing up for real, she was strongly considering a new line of work. Actually talking to the dead was nowhere near as fun as pretending. It wasn't as profitable either. 

Yesterday a ghost had strolled into a séance, with a paying client, and demanded to speak with someone named Deborah. Rose doesn't know a Deborah, and the client didn't know a Deborah, so Rose sent the spirit on its way. After that though, the client would not be satisfied with moving candles, or Rose's best ethereal voice. No, she wanted to see her dead mother the way she had seen the ghost looking for Deborah. The ghost who wandered back in again just as Rose had almost persuaded the client to be reasonable and settle back down. That client would never return now. 

Then the ghost, a young man, tall with a friendly face, insisted that Rose help him find Deborah anyway. "Your sign says you are a bridge for the living to speak with the dead. Well I need to speak to Debbie." Rose explaining that usually it was the living who hired her services, and she helped them contact the dead, not the other way around. He was unimpressed. Oh, and no, he couldn't pay. Ghosts don't have money, but Deborah would probably pay her something once they found her.

Probably. That's what the little punk said. Probably pay Rose something. How reassuring. To get him to go away though, she let him give her this Deborah's information. Last address, phone number, that sort of thing. Then Rose had told him she needed quiet and peace in which to do her work. He should go away until tomorrow. That part at least had worked as well on him as it did on the living. He'd gone.

But he was back promptly this morning. He was the third. The one who spoke English. Rose, naturally, had done nothing to search for Deborah. She wasn't a detective. She had no idea how to go about searching for someone. She almost never left her house for that matter. No, she was just in no fit state to tromp around searching for a strange woman, and she told the ghost so when he reappeared to her.

"But she doesn't live at her old house anymore, and when I tried to talk to the people who live there now, they just screamed and ran away, or prayed frantically at me." The ghost said. 

"Other people can see you?" Rose asked. This had not occurred to her. Perhaps pretending to be special for so many years had made her believe she actually was.

"Yes," the ghost said. "It doesn't do me any good though. No one will talk to me, but this is what you do, right?"

Theoretically it was. It was certainly what she advertised she did. What she charged people for doing. Rose ignored the question. "My time is valuable, and I have trouble getting around at my age. I need a significant payment ahead of time to take something like this on."

"Did you call the number I gave you?" The ghost asked. "I can go anywhere to look, but I can't pick up and dial a phone. She might still use that number. You don't have to go anywhere."

"I don't mean to be callous, but there is still the matter of payment. Some vague hope that this Deborah will offer to settle your account won't do."

"What can I do for you then? Obviously I don't have credit cards," the ghost stuck his hands into this transparent pockets and pulled them out, showing they were empty, as though that display were necessary. "Maybe I could help drum up business, tell other ghosts I see to come talk to you."

He didn't listen well, did he. "They will just have the same problems you are having. My clients are the living."
"Well, I could help you there then. I'll come around when you want me to, to show folks you can really talk to the dead. That you aren't the usual fraud."

He might be onto something there. Rose thought. What if the paper came. She could summon a real ghost to show them. That would bring her more customers than any amount of advertising she had to pay for would. But would they expect her to produce their personal ghosts for them? Her thoughts swirled. If they did, she could handle that. She could call this guy her connection to the spirit world, and through him she could contact any departed soul. That would work; people would eat it up. 

"Would you come for a reporter, were I to invite one?" She tried to sound unconcerned, as if she were doing a favor to him, but the idea held her, and she found herself holding her breath waiting for his reply.
"If that will get you to find Deborah, then yes, yes I will do whatever you need me to."

"Wait here," the old woman said, and picking up her cane, she shuffled off into a back room. When she returned she was wearing a huge grin. "The reporter will be here tomorrow at 2:00. You should come a little before that to get into a hiding spot - behind this divider, I think - until I summon you for the interview."

"And Deborah?"

"Payment first," Rose said, in a 'be reasonable' voice. "After the interview, I make your calls for you."
The ghost frowned, but nodded, and then faded out of sight. 

Rose went to the séance chamber to wait for the ghost around 1:30 the next day, but he was not there yet. She kicked herself for not giving him a more specific arrival time. Overnight she had thought of more ways to increase the drama of the interview, and include some of her good old standby tricks that clients liked. She wanted to go over the plan with the ghost so he responded correctly.

1:45, still no ghost. 1:55, and she began to be worried as well as annoyed. What would she do if he didn't come? What could she possible say to the reporter? The chime on the door tinkled at 2:07, but it wasn't the ghost, obviously. He didn't use the door. It was the reporter. Well, she would stall. Rose knew she could do that well. What else was there to do?

She put on her wise old seer smile and welcomed the reporter, a woman with long dark hair in a braid, a satchel over one shoulder who introduced herself as Maggie Denton. Once inside, Rose offered Maggie a tour of her studio. She didn't take her upstairs, where her apartment was, she only gestured to the staircase off the lobby with its velvet rope barrier and explained that she lived upstairs. 

Maggie already had out her cell with a recorder ap running, as well as a notepad. She looked around the lobby at the waiting area chairs. "Do you have a receptionist?" She asked.

"No, I work alone. There really wouldn't be anything for them to do." Rose smiled what she thought of as her humble smile. 

"So how does your client know what to do when they come in?" Maggie asked. "Walk me through an appointment."

"I personally speak with all clients on the phone to set up their appointments," Rose said. "New clients at least. I have many regulars who have standing appointment times once, or several times a week. If they happen to arrive before I've finished a previous appointment, we have this area here for them to relax in." She gestured to a dim corner of the lobby with a puffy couch and armchair. A small table held occult magazines and an incense burner that was empty at the moment. "Some of my clients like to come in early just to spend a few moments here, clearing their mind before our session."

"I see." Maggie said.

"Then when we are ready to begin, we move into the inner sanctuary." Rose opened a door to the left of the staircase that led into an even dimmer room. A chandelier hung over a round table. It held multi colored light bulbs, but none of them produced much actual illumination.

Rose had walked around to her usual place at the table, but before she could sit or begin her spiel a man burst into the lobby, banging to door into the wall. He looked around frantically, and then raced in with Rose and the reporter.

"I'm so sorry Ms. Rose, my car died. I tried to catch a bus, but I don't know the schedule." 

As he continued to rant at her, something about a lyft and road construction, he bent over and tried to catch his breath at the same time. Rose had stopped listening. She just looked at him, her hands up covering her gaping mouth. It was the ghost. Except he wasn't a ghost. He was just a normal living man standing in her sanctuary babbling much too loud about his transportation difficulties. 

The reporter had a strange smile on her face and was taking his picture, then turned to take Rose's picture as well, and then began scribbling in her notebook. Rose realized how she must look and tried to compose her face into her dignified and mysterious façade. "Young man," she snapped. "Please settle down."

He stopped talking and stood more upright, although it was clear he was still trying to catch his breath. 

"Now, as you can see, I am with someone at the moment, but if you would like to take a seat in the lobby, I can be with you shortly." Rose gave a gracious smile, satisfied at her handling of the potential disaster. 

"But Ms. Rose, I know I'm late, but I have the sheet, I'm ready, I can still - "Rose had not noticed he was holding anything until he began to unfurl a sheet with two holes cut into it. He moved as if to drape the thing over himself while also moving to get behind the screen in the corner of the room. The very screen she where had planned to hide the ghost. 

It was the reporter that stopped him. "Excuse me," she placed a hand on his arm as he moved past her, struggling with the sheet as he went. "Are you here to stand in as a ghost for this woman?"

The man froze. He looked genuinely stricken. "Oh no," he said. He clutched the sheet to his stomach, as if to now hide it. Looking at Rose he said, "I'm so sorry Ms Rose, I'm so stupid. I've ruined it."

Rose had had to sit down after all by this point; her mind was frantically spinning trying to look for a way to turn this around. The reporter was going to out her as a fraud, that was bad enough, but for doing something she wasn't actually doing. How was this happening? She could pretend not to know who he was, but he was very convincingly acting as if they did know one another. The reporter wouldn't buy it. She could think of nothing to do. Nothing. She just looked at the man heedless of the anger that must show on her face. 

"Oh no," he said again, then with a wild look at the reporter, then Rose, he gathered up the trailing end of his sheet and fled. The reporter was actually laughing as she scribbled her notes, and snapped another photo of Rose sitting at the table, her hands grasping the edges to steady herself. 

"Well," Maggie said, "any response?"

With a deep breath Rose said, "I am as shocked as you. I have no idea who that man is."

Maggie giggled again. "All righty." She made another note, then tucked the pad into her pocket and clicked her pen closed. "Thanks for your time. This will be more fun to write than I thought it would be." 

Rose didn't see her leave. She let her head fall forward and rest on her folded arms. What had just happened? How had she handled it so poorly? Yet, what else could she possible have done? Who was that man? Every question triggered three others, and she had no answers.

She couldn't have been sitting there more than a few minutes when she heard the front door open again. She was in no mood. She had best go send them away and lock up for the day. She couldn't handle working now. Before she was able to push herself up to standing the man sauntered in. She realized she didn't even know his name. He didn't have his sheet anymore. 

"Who the hell are you?" she demanded.

He smiled. "Delores' son," he said. "Ya know, in the beginning, I almost felt a little bad about this trick I was pulling on you, but then every time I mentioned her name and saw that you had no idea who she was - that after everything you don't even remember her at all - well, I didn't feel bad anymore." He turned back to the door and Rose thought he was going to shut it, but he only partially closed it to get at the shelf unit that stood in the corner behind it. Spooky knick knacks and ephemera were there. Probably needed dusting. He stood on tiptoe to reach a grayish box that she hadn't noticed there. He pulled it down, turned it over and Rose saw a little light on it. He flipped a switch and the light went out. 

"My projector," he said holding the box up. He couldn't resist rubbing her nose in what he'd done, she realized. 

"What about the others, the foreigners?" She was feeding his ego she knew, but she also needed to know how he'd done it.

"Friends," he said. "Those of us who don't spend their life taking advantage and bilking other people have what are called friends." 

"Dolores," Rose said. It was familiar. She did know a Delores, didn't she? That's right, she had been a regular, but Rose hadn't seen her in many months. She was supposed to keep track of every old client now? "I haven't seen Delores in awhile."

"Do you remember her then? Or is this more of your scam. You worthless, lying -" he stopped and took a long shaky breath. "Delores was my mother." He stood a little straighter. "She wasted too much of her retirement on you, but it was hers to waste, and you made her happy, so I didn't argue with her about it. But then she complained to you about pains a few times. You told her everything was great. Health and fortune were just around the corner. That's what you like to tell people, right?"

"That's what they like to hear," Rose said before thinking.

"Well thanks to your advice she didn't go to the doctor. Not until it had already spread to her kidneys and lungs. Until there wasn't much they could do for her anymore. Because of what you told her. I hope you enjoy having your life ruined by a scam as much as my family has." He turned and walked out.


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