Where the Fake Spiritualist
Meets the Real Spiritualist
"Excuse me, ma'am," he murmured. "We're here to see Mr. Franz Kieler?"
"He's in a reading," the lady whispered back, not looking at him. Trace edged into the doorway to see for himself.
The back room was more what he had expected of a charlatan's parlor: dark and womblike, with candles placed to create shadows rather than illuminate. Heavy drapes softened the walls and large gilt mirrors nestled among them, to fool the eye with illusions of movement. A thick, cloying scent caught at the throat and made the eyes feel heavy.
In the center of the room was a table, covered in velvet. The two ladies seated at it were middle-aged and respectable, judging by their stout figures and fine hats. Their faces were obscured in the shadows of the wing chairs.
The little man opposite them, however, was starkly and dramatically illuminated. He wore all black, so his pale face and hands appeared to float in the gloom. The lamp on the table threw his fine-boned face into sharp relief, making black pools of his eye sockets, except for a glitter of flame reflected from deep within.
He held a pair of ladies' gloves close to his chest, stroking them as if they were a small live creature. His gaze was blank and haunted, his jaw drawn long with concentration, an expression of tragic solemnity on his face.
"A Presence has come to me," he said in a sonorous tone. "My spirit guide brings one of the recently departed to this plane . . . Agatha, is that you?"
"Of course it is I," said the young woman beside Trace, at the same time as a sharp rap sounded in the room. The two matronly women jumped and clutched at each other's hands.
The girl beside Trace made a disgusted noise and folded her arms across her breast.
"That ain't you, makin that knockin sound?" Trace whispered.
She turned her head toward him and Trace flinched. Her eyes were shadowed as darkly as Kieler's but without the spark inside. When she turned them on Trace, he felt as if a shadow had moved between him and the sun.
"No, and I couldn't if I wished," she said. "I've tried."
"She is with us," Kieler said, and the elder of the two women gasped and pressed a handkerchief over her mouth. "She is trying to communicate . . . Agatha, your mother and your Aunt Sarah are here . . . Is there some message you wish us to hear?"
Rap! said the table.
"I keep telling you," the dead girl said peevishly. "Can you hear me or can't you?"
"Oh, Agatha!" the older woman wailed through her lace hanky. "Are you all right, darling?"
"Agatha," said Kieler in languid tones, "are you safe and happy, child?"
Rap! said the table.
"No thanks to you, Mother," Agatha said. "I told you that Walter Fitzsimmons had a cold look about him." She looked at Trace as if expecting him to sympathize. "He smothered me, you know. He made it look like a fit, and the examiner said I'd swallowed my tongue, but he put the pillow over my face." She sighed. "I never should have agreed to marry him."
"I reckon not," Trace said.
"Don't one rap mean yes?" Boz whispered.
"Yes, but --- " Trace began, and decided Boz didn't really want to know he was standing six inches from a dead girl. "Never mind."
Kieler glanced their way, then extended his hands toward the two women. "We will join hands," he said, "and focus our thoughts on Agatha. If our concentration is strong, a doorway may be opened, and she will speak to us directly."
"I wouldn't count on it," Agatha said darkly. "This is the fourth time I've been here, and he hasn't managed it yet."
"Why do you keep comin, then?" Trace asked, ignoring Boz's questioning look.
"My aunt came first. She didn't like Walter, either, and she thought there was something suspicious about my death. She keeps trying to talk to me, but all this fool can do is knock on the table and speak in theatrical voices. The first time I came, I thought he heard me --- really heard me. My aunt thought so, too, that's why she keeps coming back."
"Agatha Fitzsimmmons," Kieler crooned. "Come through the veil, child. See this light through my eyes, and speak with my tongue. Use this vessel to commune with your loved ones."
"Oh for pity's sake," Agatha said. "Open your eyes, old man!"
"Is there really a spirit here?" Boz whispered. "Or is he just talkin out his ass?"
"Little of both," Trace said.
"Is there someone with you?" Agatha said to Trace. "You were talking to someone, but I can't see . . ."
"It's my partner," Trace said. "He can't see you, either. So you, ah, you know you're . . . ?"
"Dead? I didn't, at first," Agatha admitted. "I thought I was dreaming. But then my aunt started visiting Spiritualists and calling to me --- "
"What was it . . . what was the dreamin like?" Trace felt a weird quiver in his guts, a combination of thrill and dread. He'd never spoken to one of the spirits like this, never asked these sorts of questions. Wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answers.Agatha shrugged. "Drifting. Pleasant. Warm, comfortable. Until I heard them calling me. Now I'm tired all the time, and they won't let me rest."
"And you can't see my partner standin here?" Trace gestured with his thumb toward Boz, standing wide-eyed and nervous behind him.
Agatha looked, but shook her head. "I see you. You're very clear. I see the room through there, but it shifts, grows lighter or darker depending upon Herr Kieler. He's bright and dim by turns, like a candle in a draft. But you're like a chimney lamp. You don't flicker. Since you've been standing here I can see the entire room." She looked him over, carefully. "You're not dead, are you?"
"No," Trace said. "You don't see other dead people, then?"
Agatha shook her head. "Do you?"
"Can you see my mother and aunt?"
Trace nodded, once.
"Would you speak to them for me?"
She made it sound so simple and sensible --- the only polite thing to do, really. Trace felt within himself, cautiously --- there was no fear, just a nervous sense of being in unfamiliar territory. "I reckon I could."
"Reckon you could what?" Boz interrupted.
"She wants me to talk to her mother," Trace said, and grimaced at his own stupidity when Boz looked alarmed. "She's just a girl, Boz. Just a poor dead girl, got a message to deliver."
"That's what you said about the last one." Boz's nostrils flared as he drew a short breath. "Well. That's what you came here for, ain't it?"
Trace wasn't so sure of that, but it was a sure-fire way of getting Kieler's attention. "Wait here a minute," he said, and glanced at Agatha. "What's your mother's name?"
"Ruth. Mrs. Ruth Walden."
He ventured into the room, measuring his pace like a pallbearer. Kieler was saying something about a place of rest and music in the clouds, but his voice trailed off as he and the two women became aware of a new presence in their midst.
Trace felt like a fool. "Pardon me, Mrs. Walden?" The elder of the ladies opened her mouth, glanced sideways at her sister, but did not answer. "Ma'am, you don't know me, but I, uh, I have a message from your daughter Agatha. She wanted me to tell you somethin."
Mrs. Walden's mouth was still open. Agatha's aunt looked confused and wary --- this wasn't part of the show she had come to see.
"My son." Kieler's voice was tender, but it had been so long since Trace had been called that, he didn't realize he was being spoken to. Kieler stood up, all five feet of him, and gestured to his own chair. "Dear boy. The first visit from one of the departed can be strange and frightening."
Trace cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Providence has led you to us," Kieler said, signaling with his eyes. "Please, sit. Tell us how you were contacted by Agatha. Was it a dream?"
Trace blinked. "Yes, sir, a dream I had last night."
"And Agatha appeared to you in it?"
"She did." Trace took the seat that was offered to him, glancing at the women, the sudden hunger in their eyes. "She was . . . wearin a white dress . . . with a" --- his mind raced futilely over all the things women wore --- "um, cape . . . and she had flowers in her hair. She was sort of glowin, you know."
"The Celestial Aura," Kieler murmured, "that the residents of Heaven bring with them."
"The very same." Trace glanced toward the doorway. Agatha and Boz stood side by side, both with hands on hips. Neither of them was glowing.
"And how did Agatha appear to you?" Kieler asked.
Trace looked at him. "I just told you that part."
"But can you describe her?" Kieler suggested, inclining his eyes and head ever so slightly toward the women.
"Oh, right. Um . . . she was young and --- not pretty, exactly." Had a face like a horse, now that he thought about it. And the mother looked just like her, but stouter and more horselike.
"Yeah --- that's as good a word as any. Had a healthy look about her. Long and lean. Dark hair. Curly, I think." The two women frowned at him, not hearing what they wanted to hear. Trace drew a deep breath and dredged up phrases from the mollycoddling Spiritualist newspapers. "I remember the hair because it floated around her, like there was a spring breeze surroundin her. There was the smell of flowers in the air, and when I looked around I saw we were in a green field, standin in the sun, with bees and birds singin all around."
The mother was interested --- more than that: hopeful. Her handkerchief was wrapped around white knuckles and she leaned forward slightly, eyes soaking him up like cornbread in bean soup. The aunt was more reserved; her gaze kept darting back and forth between Trace and Kieler.
"And when you awoke, you felt compelled to seek me out," Kieler said, his voice dreamy and soothing. "Forces you cannot explain led you to my door, though we have never before met."
"Somethin very like that," Trace said, lowering his own tone to a rumble. That was one thing common to preachers and confidence men --- you had to know how to use your voice. "I walked around all day feelin like there was somethin I was supposed to do. I walked the streets like Saint Peter, wrestlin with my own unworthiness, and Agatha herself must've been leadin me, because next thing I knew, I was standin in front of Mr. Kieler's shop. And the moment I set eyes on you, ma'am," he let his eyes rest on Mrs. Walden's, "I recognized your daughter's features. And I knew I was sent here by a power greater than this poor soul."
"The Lord works in mysterious ways," Kieler said.
"Amen," Trace said, thinking he was surely going to hell.
Mrs. Walden's hand reached swiftly across the table and closed over Trace's. "Bless you," she said tearfully. "Bless you, sir."
"Tell us," Agatha's aunt urged. "Tell us what she said. It was Walter Fitzsimmons, wasn't it?"
"Sarah, don't." Mrs. Walden patted her sister's arm. "lt's enough that she's safe and at peace."
"That man needs to be held accountable," Aunt Sarah protested. "Why else would she have appeared to this man?"
"She wanted me to tell you, she's happy where she is," Trace said. "And not to worry yourself about her. She said to remind you, the Lord takes care of his own, and judgment will come to us all, in good time."