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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Friday, April 13, 2012

Visions

By William E. Wallace
( Excerpt of a Work in Progress)

          With her hands spread flat on the table about a foot apart, exactly as she had been instructed, the woman in the Gucci suit sat silently, watching her host, a woman in flats, dark trousers and a sweater, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail that was carelessly secured with a rubber band. The blonde’s slow breathing had a deep, ragged edge; with her slumped shoulders, her head tilting a bit toward her left side and her eyelids quivering slightly, it was almost as if she were in the lightest stage of dream sleep.
          The quiet rasp of her breath was just about the only sound in the meeting room and the space’s hush was almost as oppressive as its gloom. Alicia Cremmins, the woman in the Gucci, resisted an almost overwhelming urge to look at her watch. That would not only be a distraction but an obvious sign of disrespect. The blonde, whose name Alicia had been told was Mrs. Hathaway, was highly recommended and if anything could possibly come from this session with her, Alicia didn’t want her ill-concealed skepticism to interfere.
          Cremmins suppressed a sudden desire to clear her throat, just to remind the blonde there was still someone in the room with her. Almost as if in reaction, the blonde’s cornflower blue eyes opened and she looked directly across the table at Alicia.

          “Did you come here about your late husband’s estate, or the daughter you haven’t had any contact with for seventeen years?” Mrs. Hathaway asked casually, as though inquiring whether Alicia needed more sugar for the cup of tea sitting next to her right hand.

          Alicia’s mouth opened slowly in astonishment and hung that way.

          “If it’s the estate, you should hear from Gladstone, Walker and Harms in a few weeks. Certainly no later than the second week of July,” she continued without waiting for Alicia to answer.  “As for your daughter, Cynthia, she’s living in Ogden, Utah. She shares an apartment there with a man, but I can’t tell whether they are lovers or simply roommates. What I can tell you is that she is not married to the man she is living with. She was married to another man, eight years ago but she got an annulment after only six days.”
          Mrs. Hathaway gestured toward Cremmin’s teacup as she stood up.  “Your drink is cooling,” she said. “You’re a smoker, aren’t you? If you want to light up, go ahead. I’ll get you an ashtray.”

          Cremmins’ hands were trembling as she fumbled the hard box of Benson and Hedges menthols out of her purse, put one in her mouth and lit it with the silver lighter that Francis had given her last year, about four months before his BMW stalled out on a blind curve along the Coast Highway and was hit from behind by an eighteen-wheel auto transport. She had been wondering when her husband’s lawyers would finish analyzing his will, but she hadn’t even realized it was at the back of her mind until Hathaway had mentioned it. 
          Her primary reason for visiting the blonde had been to see whether she might be able to tell her anything about Cynthia, who had walked out of her life in 1994 after a quarrel over being placed on academic probation at Claremont. When it became obvious that Cynthia was serious about breaking off all ties, Alicia, ruing some of the things she had said during the argument, had asked her lawyer Ben Gladstone to try and find her.

          Gladstone, the head of the law firm her husband kept on retainer to handle his business affairs, had made a stab at it, even hiring a detective to try to track the young woman down.  After six months, however, he told Alicia they hadn’t turned up a clue and further searching would probably be a waste of time, effort and money.

          “Sorry, Al,” he’d apologized at the time. “If you’d asked me to review a contract or break one, I would probably have had no trouble at all. But missing persons is a little out of my line. I’m sure Cynthia will get in touch with you eventually. After all, you are her mother.”
          Gladstone had died in 2002 and Walker, his partner, took over the practice. But in the years that had passed since Cynthia walked out, Alicia hadn’t had so much as a Christmas card from her – not even after her stepfather, Francis, died last year.

          She blew out a ragged stream of smoke. She had no idea how Hathaway could have known about Cynthia. She was even more mystified by the fact the blonde knew she was worrying about her husband’s will. Alicia had said nothing about either when she called to set up the appointment only a few hours earlier.  In fact, Hathaway hadn’t even asked her last name; she had booked the appointment simply for “Alicia C.”
          She was considering tapping the ash from her cigarette into the saucer under her teacup when Hathaway entered the meeting room through the arched passage across the room and placed a wide ceramic ashtray before her.

          “If you don’t mind, I’ll join you,” the blonde said, sitting back down and using a match to light a Marlboro she drew from a box in one of her trouser pockets.  “Pardon me if I seem somewhat hard-hearted, but it’s ironic, isn’t it?” she said with a slight smile as she exhaled a lungful of smoke.
          “What?” Cremmins asked, still bewildered by the blonde’s prescience and caught utterly off-guard by her question.

          “That your husband was driving a BMW when he was killed by a truck carrying a load of cheap Korean cars,” Hathaway said matter-of-factly, letting smoke slide out her nostrils lazily. “I suppose a semanticist might quibble with my use of the term ‘ironic,’ though. I guess it could be simply a coincidence.  Still, it seems ironic to me.”

          Cremmins found her mouth hanging open again. She was too startled by Hathaway’s command of the details of her private life to take offense at the woman’s rather callous attitude about Francis’s death only a few short months earlier. How could she possibly know these things, Alicia thought. It’s bloody uncanny.

          “Dawn Cannon sent you to me, didn’t she?” Hathaway said, taking another drag on her cigarette and hanging her arm over the back of her chair casually.
          Score another completely unexpected insight for the blonde, plucked, like the others, out of thin air, Alicia thought. Cannon was Alicia’s closest friend.  They had known each other since High School and Dawn had been her dorm-mate at Claremont until Alicia moved into an off-campus apartment with Francis during their junior year.

          “Yes,” Alicia replied, nodding. “We had lunch yesterday. She said you were amazing and that I should give you a try. I thought she was probably exaggerating but she wasn’t. How do you do it?”

          Hathaway shrugged and gave her the slightest of smiles.  “I haven’t the slightest idea,” she said. “If I sit in a quiet room with somebody and close my eyes, visions come into my head.  Sometimes they’re very clear, sometimes not.  When they’re clear, I can not only ‘read’ the person’s past and present, but I can actually see what lies ahead for them. At least, a few months ahead; sometimes more.”
          Cremmins shook her head in amazement.  “It’s incredible,” she said. “If I have a detective look for Cynthia in Utah, will he find her?”

          Hathaway nodded, still smiling. “Almost certainly,” she said. “She is living under her own name, so she should be easy to locate.  I would be willing to bet her telephone number is even in the directory. If it is, you could call her yourself.”
          Cremmins finished her cigarette and crushed it out in the ashtray. “You know, I didn’t believe what Dawn told me about you,” she said, blushing. “She’s always been so gullible about fortunetellers and mind-readers. I supposed that you were just another charlatan, working some sort of confidence game. But you knew exactly what was on my mind. And you told me what I wanted to know without even asking about money or setting any sort of a fee. I couldn’t have been more wrong about you. You really do have second sight.”

          Hathaway stood up and circled the table.  She put her hand on Alicia’s. It was warm and soft, and Alicia felt a mild, almost sexual thrill from the contact.  “Contact your daughter and come see me again, Alicia,” she said. “Wait until the estate is settled; that way you will be satisfied that my ability is legitimate and not some parlor trick. As for money, I wasn’t given this gift so that I could get rich. I received it to help people, to make their lives easier and better.”
          “I can tell there are other things that trouble you,” she added as she escorted Cremmins to the door. “When you are ready, come to me. That will be the time to discuss how you can help me to help you. If it’s with your money, so be it. We’ll come to some sort of an arrangement.”

          At the door, she gave Alicia a tender kiss on the forehead. “Come and see me again when you are ready, dear,” she said.
          Alicia, tears welling in her eyes, threw her arms around her and gave her a lingering hug. “I will,” she said. “Believe me, I will.”

 §

            “Mrs. Hathaway” returned to the meeting room and stacked the teacups and saucers so she could carry them in one hand with the ashtray in the other.  Randy caught up to her in the kitchen.
          “Brilliant, Ceci,” he said. “You played her like a hungry trout, kiddo. The hook is in so deep it’ll never come out.”

          The blonde smiled and lit another cigarette. She leaned against the drain-board and blew a thin stream of smoke into the air. Her real name was Cecilia Anne Crowder, but those who knew her best, like Randy Christianson, her current partner, called her Ceci.
          “You get it all?” she asked.

          Randy nodded. “Every word. I’ll run the Voice Stress Analyzer on the digital recording tonight and do comparatives with the call she made setting up the appointment. Sammy will follow her with the parabolic mike over the next week and get additional samples. We’ll have an entire library of her voice clips by next weekend.”
          “How did you figure out the stuff with the lawyers?” Ceci asked.

          Randy spread his hands. “Standard time extrapolation,” he said. “Once we knew who she was by backtracking the number from her initial appointment call, I ran the files we had put together on her.  That turned up both the breach with the daughter and the husband’s death last year. The standard period for vetting a testamentary document came out of a legal database. There’s a fudge factor in there for state and local peculiarities in probate law, but Francis Cremmins’ will should clear by the middle of next month at the latest unless there is something really strange in it. Somehow, I doubt that.  The background check on Cremmins was pretty vanilla.”
          “Well, nice work on that and the daughter,” Ceci said, taking another drag from her Marlboro.

          “When her daughter ran off, there was a gossip column clip in a local paper,” Randy said with a shrug. “It was only a paragraph long so Alicia probably forgot all about it.  From that I got the daughter's date of birth, and from that, her social. With her full name, DOB and SSN, it was easy to track her to Utah and get her current street address, phone number and the personal info on her roommate.”
          Ceci smiled. “Yes, I know about all the skip-trace stuff, and you must have found the marriage info and the annulment the same way,” she said. “That sealed the deal. When she gets in touch with the daughter, she’ll be totally sold. We’ll be able to get her to put together a trust fund for us with some of that money her old man left her.”

          Randy laughed. “That’s why it’s worth setting up these ‘transactions’ with no money up front,” he said. “You put your hand out during the first meeting, the marks get hinky and start to wonder if it’s just a scam. Give them some of what they are looking for gratis and it builds up their trust.”
          Crowder nodded. “Like giving away the first hit of heroin,” she said. “I get the principle.”

          “Exactly,” Randy said. “They eventually trust you so completely that they will give you just about anything you ask within reason.  If you put a price tag on the first piece of information they get, it makes them think you are only looking for a way to extract their cash.”

          Ceci stubbed out her cigarette and exhaled smoke. “There’ll be plenty of time to get the cash later,” she said. “I like doing it the slow way. Like with her friend Dawn: Because we spent lots of time with her in the first place, we had the heads up on Alicia and her daughter and we knew she was a recent widow. I will sweet-talk Alicia for a couple of weeks and she’ll lead us to other suckers. I love the daisy chain effect.  It’s the slickest con I’ve ever seen, Randy; congratulations on coming up with it.”
          He inclined his head respectfully and blew her a kiss. “I can get you in, honey, but once you are inside the circle, it’s all about you and your ability to suck information out of people like a vacuum cleaner,” he said. “I have never seen anyone get so many people to talk so much, so easily. Particularly hard cases like this Cremmins woman.”

          Ceci grinned. “The people who think they have seen it all, the skeptics? They’re always the easiest,” she said. “Hit them with a couple of things in a row that they think you couldn’t possibly have known and you have them by the short hairs.”

          “Well, you played her beautifully,” Randy said shaking his head in wonderment. His brow furrowed momentarily. “How did you know she would want a cigarette, though?  I didn’t know anything about it.”
          It was Ceci’s turn to laugh. “I hugged her when she first came in. She was wearing an old fashioned perfume called ‘Wind Song.’ I know because my Aunt Jenny used to wear it and I recognized it when I got close. But I could also smell menthol cigarette smoke, probably trapped in the wool of her expensive suit. Just like my aunt! Cremmins has been alone since her husband died, so I knew right away she had to be the smoker. And if somebody had just read my mind and told me things they couldn’t possibly have known, I can tell you  that I would be wanting a cigarette, myself.”

           Randy grinned.  “So – old fashioned deductive reasoning?” he asked.

          “Elementary my dear Watson,” Ceci replied. She stretched and yawned. “She’ll definitely be back. I could feel it when I touched her hand.”
          Randy laughed.  “You see, Ceci – you really do have second sight.”

(This novelette is still in the works. Additional excerpts will appear in the future.)


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