Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Temporary Lodgings

            How could it all have gone so wrong? Lenny finally hit the big score he dreamed about all his life, and before he spends a penny he lands in a hospital bed on life support and about to check out permanently. If Lenny could have moved the muscles in his face he would have smiled sourly at the injustice. The doctors, either unaware or unconcerned that he was conscious, talked openly in front of him about his negligible chances. Lenny couldn’t object. He couldn’t even twitch his nose much less speak. He tried. But he could see and hear everything.
            Lenny had been betrayed, and betrayed by an idiot. The jerk hadn’t even gotten the loot.
The whole thing happened only because he had sneaked a peek at the will of his great aunt, Hildegard Brenthausen. She was rolling in money. She had married into it decades earlier. She was still cheap, though. Aunt Hildy used a cut-rate lawyer who underpaid his secretary, so in return for a modest tip, the secretary had let Lenny look at the will. There was no good news in it. Lenny was her soul surviving blood relative, but apparently he just couldn’t compete with her pet poodle. After all his years of cozying up to her and of doing odd jobs for free around her house in Beverly Hills and her weekend home in the mountains that she never used, she planned to leave everything to her poodle and the ASPCA.
In a total funk after reading the will, he had gone to a once trendy but now seedy bar called Sawdust Memories to knock back a few. He spotted Wayne, one of the regulars, and sat down next to him. They weren’t exactly friends, but they got along and sometimes sprang for each other’s drinks. Wayne was small and not very bright, but he had none of the little man bravado that can be so annoying. Wayne was three or four drinks ahead of Lenny, so he immediately started complaining about his job, as he always did after a few. Lenny had paid little attention to his rants in the past, but, due to his funk, this time he did.
Wayne worked at a gold exchange – one that Wayne said did a lot of business with drug dealers and other shady characters. The amount of gold traded in the modest family-owned shop was impossible to explain any other way. The shop wasn’t even open to the general public. There was no sign. There was just a steel front door with an electronic lock.
“Why do they need you? What’s your job exactly?” Lenny asked.
“Just to be there in the morning. Answer the phone. If an important customer comes, I let him in, call the boss, and wait for him to show up. I don’t do any trades myself. The boss, Tony, and Jake – those are his sons – they come in usually in the afternoon. I guess they keep late nights. I don’t ask doing what.”
“Let me get this straight. They leave you alone with gold every morning?”
“Yeah. Millions are in the vault sometimes – and I barely can afford my drinks,” Wayne said.
“Millions?” Lenny asked.
“I know what you’re thinking, Lenny. Forget it. Not a single gram is out where I can touch it. Fort Knox has nothing on that vault, and alarms go off if you so much as sneeze its way. I set it off by accident once. The boss was pissed. He doesn’t like attention. Whenever there is a delivery or a pickup, he and his sons are always there. Armed. The gold goes directly into or out of the vault under their supervision. No exceptions.”
“How do they know when a delivery is coming in?” Lenny asked.
“Someone calls in advance, naturally. If it’s in the morning I take the call. They never give me any details of course. They just tell me a time and I let the boss know. Someone called just before I left today. All he said was ‘First thing Monday morning.’ An answering machine could do my job, but the boss doesn’t want one.”
“Is it a delivery or a pickup Monday?” Lenny asked.
“I don’t know. Delivery probably. Those are usually in the morning.”
“What usually gets delivered?”
“Sometimes bars and sometimes coins. Usually a few hundred when it’s coins.”
“A few hundred one-ounce gold coins?” Lenny asked.
“Yes,” Wayne answered.
Lenny whistled. “At today’s prices that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
“I suppose. Doesn’t do us any good.” Wayne asked.
“Maybe it does us a lot of good. Did you tell your boss about the delivery on Monday?”
“Not yet. I will tomorrow. He doesn’t like getting up that early so he’ll be grumpy, but, like I said, he’s always there when anything goes in or out.”
“Suppose he isn’t?”
“Excuse me?”
“Suppose you don’t mention it to him,” Lenny suggested. “Will whoever delivers the gold leave it with you if you are there alone?”
“I don’t know. I guess.  No one ever says a word when bags go in or out. But Lenny, I’d never get away with it. You don’t know these people. They’re very scary and they’re in with the cops. A couple hours are not enough time to get away and that’s all I’d have. Mobsters and cops all would be after me. I’d never live to spend it.”
“So, give yourself more time. Look, when the gold arrives, you accept the delivery. Then I’ll pull around front. We put it in my car. You finish the day like nothing unusual happened. We’ll have all night to get far enough away. I’ve even got a place to hole up. We’ll meet at some motel up by Lake Isabella. Except for you being a lousy employee without the courtesy to give notice, your boss may not know something is wrong for days. If the gold is really from organized crime, he may not even report it stolen. Not to the legit police anyway.”
“Why should I trust you not to run off with all of it as soon as I pack it in your car?” Wayne asked.
“Because you’ll tip them off about me if I do. Right now they have no reason to know who I am. I don’t want anyone gunning for me. Better to share with you,” Lenny said.
“But they’ll be gunning for me.”
“I can’t deny that. You have to decide for yourself if it’s worth it for that much dough.”
“Why Lake Isabella of all places?” Wayne asked suspiciously. “Why can’t we meet here in town right after work?”
“It would be better to get the gold out of LA as quickly as possible.”
“Better for me or better for you?”
“Just better.”
Wayne was silent for several moments, but then said, “OK, let’s do it.”
The plan went off easy as pie. It wasn’t just a few hundred coins either. It was five bags of them. Lenny guessed they were 50 pounds each. Lenny left town at once. He drove first to his aunt’s vacation home in the mountains. He figured he and Wayne could hole up there for a while until the heat died down. Then Lenny drove to a Best Western motel outside Lake Isabella to meet Wayne. Wayne was waiting in the parking lot when he got there.
“Where the hell were you?” Wayne asked.
“I told you I’d meet you. Come on. Time to split the loot.”
Lenny started to walk back to his car. That was when the bullet entered his brain.
“Idiot,” Lenny thought to himself as he dropped to the asphalt, “the bags aren’t in my car.”
Lenny woke up in the hospital on life support.

Lenny needed to let someone know he was conscious. In his peripheral vision he saw a nurse with her back to him. He never believed in anything paranormal – certainly not in ESP – but at this point he had nothing to lose by trying. He willed her to turn. To his surprise she did. He wondered if the bullet, besides paralyzing him, had unleashed some latent power. If so, the trade wasn’t worth it. The nurse walked over to him and looked into his eyes. She looked puzzled. He focused on her eyes in a desperate attempt to get into her head somehow. He felt dizzy. Then he saw something that made no sense: he saw himself. He was staring at himself out of the nurse’s eyes. The beeping machines by his bed started to blare. He watched himself die.
Lenny was flabbergasted. He was dead, yet somehow here he was alive inside the nurse. He didn’t pretend to understand how it happened and at this point he didn’t care. It beat the alternative. He tried to hear the nurse’s thoughts. He couldn’t, but he could see and hear everything she did. He tried to move one of her fingers. Nothing happened. He tried to speak, again without avail. It looked as though he was along just for the ride. Somehow he had impressed his personality into her brain circuits, but he remained distinct and he wasn’t in control.
Nurse Rachel Blair rubbed her face as other members of the staff rushed to the bedside and made perfunctory efforts to revive Lenny’s body before quickly giving up. She felt as though someone had slapped her.
            After a long day, Nurse Rachel walked out a rear exit of the hospital. She was eager to get home. She hadn’t felt right ever since that spell in IC. Her car was in a parking lot across from an access road. The parking spaces close to the hospital were prioritized for visitors – and of course for doctors. As she reached the road, she again felt strangely dizzy.
Lenny made a mighty effort to seize control of Nurse Rachel’s body. He felt elation as he succeeded in moving one foot, but Rachel was fighting back.
Rachel panicked at her sudden and inexplicable loss of control. She struggled to command her own limbs. As she did, she staggered into the road in front of an oncoming car driven by a nervous young man named Wilbur Agar.
Wilbur slammed on the brakes as the woman lurched in front of him. She appeared drunk. The woman disappeared from sight. Wilbur’s stomach tightened. He hadn’t felt a bump, but it looked as though he had plowed her down, Wilbur shifted the Honda into Park and jumped out. His heart racing, he ran around to the front of the car. The woman lay on the pavement a few feet in front of his bumper. Her eyes fluttered.
“Are you all right? Were you hit?” he asked.
“No, you missed me,” she said. “I think I just fainted.”
She looked directly into Wilbur’s eyes. Wilbur felt a jolt followed by numbness. It reminded him of being smacked in the face with a soccer ball.
Other people started to gather. Two helped Rachel to her feet.
“I don’t know what came over me,” she said. Leaning on one of the men who had helped her up, she walked back toward the hospital.
Once it was clear that Wilbur hadn’t struck the nurse, the bystanders lost interest in him. He got back in his car and rubbed his face.
Wilbur marveled that a day could be as lousy as this one. He had been sent all the way here to Bakersfield to check on a malfunctioning and very expensive piece of computerized medical equipment manufactured by his employer. Strictly speaking, field work wasn’t his job, but his job often became whatever his supervisor said it was. The actual technician for the area was busy for the next two days, so Wilbur had been sent to see what he could do. As he had feared, he couldn’t do much. He didn’t have the parts or the technical expertise to fix whatever was wrong, so, after demonstrating his lack of competence, he wrote a full description of the problem and scheduled the real field tech for later in the week. Awful as his job was, though, he feared losing it. There were rumors going around the office that in his section most of the white collar jobs, including his own, would be outsourced.
Back in LA, his supervisor Ms. Milescu called him into her office. This surprised Wilbur. She usually liked to berate employees in front of one another. She believed it helped motivate them to do better. She was one of those women who somehow failed to be attractive even though there was no specific flaw at which you could point. He wondered if her severe personality was either a cause or a consequence of this. He understood why she had favored him with an office visit as soon as she started to speak. She was loud enough for everyone to hear anyway. She yelled at him for being late and for failing. A hospital administrator had called, she told him.
“Ms. Milescu, I never claimed to have any training at hands-on repair work.”
“The point is that you were given a job and you failed at it!”
Ms. Milescu for several more minutes listed the ways in which Wilbur was unsatisfactory as an employee. Finally, she said, “Get back to work, and don’t leave tonight until I tell you. While you were wasting the company’s time, a lot of paperwork backlogged.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
Ms. Milescu looked startled. She rubbed her face.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Stress from dealing with hopeless subordinates like you, no doubt,” she said. “Remember, don’t leave until I tell you can. I have to work late, too. Someone has to be on the ball.”
Wilbur went back to his desk and activated his computer. It was past sundown before Ms. Milescu approached his desk. Wilbur looked up. He again felt something like a soccer ball hit him in the face.
“Go home,” she said. “And be on time tomorrow.”
            Wilbur was not normally a drinker, but when he got home, he opened a bottle of Seagram’s 7 that had been in the cabinet for months. It was a present from someone, but he had forgotten whom. He poured himself a shot. He poured a second. He watched TV until the alcohol made him feel sleepy. He went to bed.
            “Wilbur,” a voice sounded.”
            “Wha… Who’s there?”
            He sat up. The room was brightly lit even though no lamps were turned on. On the edge of his bed sat a naked man.
            “Hey! Get out of here!”
            “That would be a little difficult just at the moment.”
            “Who are you? What do you want?”
            “Do I remind you of anyone?”
            Wilbur paused and looked at the man carefully.
“You look a little like me, but uglier and fatter. And naked.”
            “I look exactly like you. I tried recreating my own old image for you but that took too much effort. I find it easier to project your own features back to you. Clothes take too much effort, too.”
            “Some things are worth the effort. Am I dreaming?”
“Yes. Your conscious mind blocks me out, but I see I can talk to you when you are asleep.”
“I’m hallucinating. I must have caught a bug.”
            “I’m not a bug,” the man said. “And you’re not hallucinating. Hallucinations are false images you see when you’re awake.”
            “So now I’m arguing with myself. What do you want?” Wilbur asked.
            “I want you to have a better life, because if you have a better life, so do I. You are my host, after all.”
            “Yes. You’re young and healthy, so you’ll do, but I’d rather you had more money.”
            “You and me both.”
Wilbur really wanted to wake up.
            “Well, I can help. Let’s start with Gertrude.”
            “Who is Gertrude?” Wilbur asked.
            “Your supervisor. Ms. Milescu.”
            “Her first name is Gertrude?”
            “Yes. She is going to announce in a couple days that your section will be outsourced. I saw the memo.”
“On her desk. I was curious, so I hitched a ride in her brain for a while.”
            “You did, huh? Know what I think?” asked Wilbur.
“No, actually I don’t unless you formulate it verbally. And then only when you’re unconscious like this. We seem to occupy different circuits.”
“Yes, well, I’ve heard rumors of an outsource. So I think I’m here expressing my own worries to myself.”
            “Did you suspect a small public company called Intraxform is getting the contract? Insiders have been buying stock for a month, but not enough to push the price up. Buy as much as you can. When the contract is announced it will jump 40%. Gertrude knows. She discussed it with Eugene Marx, the CFO. She bought more Intraxform stock online just today.”
            “I can’t buy anything. Do you know what is in my checking account?”
            “No, but I can guess. Wilbur, it doesn’t matter. You are about to come into a fortune.”
            “Yeah right. Why did she talk to Eugene Marx?”
            “They have a thing. I’d have figured the CFO could do better, but there’s no accounting for taste. That’s why Gertrude stayed late and that’s why she sent you home when she did. They were meeting up. Eugene’s wife Emma is at some charity banquet tonight.”
            “Is she?”
            “So quit your job tomorrow, Wilbur. I have other plans for you.
            “I don’t think so. Not that this hasn’t been fun, but I don’t believe any of it. I need the job.”
            “No you don’t,” said Lenny, “but maybe I should let you discover for yourself that I’m telling the truth. We’ll talk later.”
            The man vanished.
            Wilbur sat up in bed. The room was dark. There was no one else on the bed. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.
            “No more booze before sleep,” he said to himself. He doubted he could get back to sleep, but no sooner had his head hit the pillow than he dozed off.
            The next morning at work Ms. Milescu again ordered him to her office.
            She stormed at him, calling into question everything from his intelligence to his manhood. Wilbur realized she was trying to goad him into quitting without severance, just so the company could save a few dollars. Wilbur decided he had nothing to lose by listening to the man in his dream.
            “Did I ever tell you, Gertrude, that I’m acquainted with Emma Marx? I was thinking of meeting her for tea this evening. We have so much to discuss,” he said.
            Ms. Milescu blanched. With unmitigated hate in her eyes, she offered Wilbur severance to quit. Wilbur agreed.
            Wilbur whistled as he packed up his desk.
            “Were you fired?” asked Laurie, a co-worker.
            “You seem pretty happy about it,” she said.
            “Ecstatic. Laurie, I’d like to ask you out to dinner.”
            “I don’t usually date unemployed men. I end up paying the check.”
            “I promise that won’t happen,” he said.
            “Well, not tonight, but here’s my cell.” She jotted a number on a post-it. “Call me after work hours sometime.”
            “Will do.”
            Before he left, Wilbur checked the stock market on his computer. Intraxform was up 20% since opening.
            On the drive home, Wilbur considered what must have happened. Subliminally, he must have picked up clues about the outsource, about Intraxform, and even about Ms. Milescu and Eugene Marx. His subconscious had put it all together for him and revealed it in a dream. Despite the accuracy of his dreamtime analysis, he thought it best to stay away from Seagram’s 7 in the future.
That night, he left the Seagram’s in the cabinet.
“I told you so.”
Wilbur once again saw the unpleasant replica of himself again on the edge of the bed.
“I’m talking to myself again.”
“Not quite. Call me Lenny.”
“Great, now I’m Lenny.”
“No, I am. Listen, tomorrow we’re going to the mountains. There is a house up there owned by a Hildegard Brenthausen. We’re going get something from it.”
“No. Hildy’s my aunt, and what’s in there belongs to me. Believe me, I paid for it. Did I steer you wrong last night?”
“No,” Wilbur admitted.
“I’m not steering you wrong tonight either. Listen carefully. This is what you are going to do.”
If only to prove to himself that his nightly visits were no more than dreams, Wilbur drove out 178 as he had been instructed. He turned onto unfamiliar back roads.
Ahead was a white rock next to a dirt road, just as Lenny had described it. Wilbur drove onto the dirt road which grew narrower with each mile. It wound around steep hillsides. The lack of guard rails in places made the road treacherous. Wilbur turned onto a driveway that barely deserved the name. The Honda’s wheels spun as much as they gripped on the steep grade. The driveway leveled off at a ledge where a small vacation house perched. Just as Lenny had told him, it was in the ersatz Frank Lloyd Wright style popular in the 1950s and early 60s. The grounds and house looked poorly maintained. If anyone named Hildegard owned this place, Wilbur guessed she didn’t come here often.
Wilbur killed the motor and walked to the front door. A bulky older-style burglar alarm box above the doorbell blinked red. He punched in Lenny’s 5-digit code. The odds of this being correct were 1 in 100,000. Yet, the box stopped blinking red. It blinked green. Wilbur lifted a slate from the walkway, and found the key. He entered the house.
He walked through the combination living room and dining room, admiring the view out the large fixed-glass windows in front as he did so. There were only two bedrooms and a single basic bathroom. In the master bedroom, Wilbur slid open the closet door. Wilbur saw five heavy-duty cotton bags on the floor. Wilbur lifted a bag. It was 50 pounds or more. He put it down and untied the top. He reached inside and pulled out a handful of 1-ounce krugerrands.  He didn’t know what gold was selling for these days, but he was sure it was over $1000 per ounce.
Wilbur hurriedly packed the bags into his car. He reset the alarm by the front door and left.
Back in his own small rented home, Wilbur pondered what to do with the bags. In the end, he stuffed them in the laundry hamper under dirty underwear. In a cheerful mood, he dialed up Laurie.
“How are things. Laurie?”
“Oh, hi Wilbur. Not good. You didn’t beat us out the door by much. They’ve outsourced our section.”
“Sorry. I wondered if you’d like to have dinner tomorrow.”
“Wilbur, you’ve been out of work 24 hours and you’ve already forgotten what day of the week it is.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Today is Thursday. Tomorrow is Friday! You can’t call last minute.”
“Next week then?”
“Yeah, sure. Call me. I’ve got to go.”
Wilbur’s mood wasn’t spoiled by the phone call. He wondered if he should talk to Lenny, just to thank him. Lenny didn’t show up that night. He showed up the next day.
“OK, I’m losing control and you’re about to wake up. Don’t flip out,” Lenny said.
“Flip out?” Wilbur asked.
“Yes. Everything is alright, so whatever you see, just be calm. You’re in no danger.”
“Why should I flip out? What am I going to see?”
“You’re going to see that I’ve learned to control your body when you are unconscious – and I can keep you unconscious for quite a while. But don’t worry. I can’t take over completely. I get tired and need sleep too, and then you are back in the saddle. Hey, it’s only fair. You’re not using your body when you are asleep and I deserve some fun, too. When Laurie blew you off, that got me thinking.”
“Thinking about what? And Laurie didn’t blow me off. She put me off. It’s not the same thing,” Wilbur said.
“Right. She’ll be coming out of the bathroom in a moment, so be nice.”
“She? She who?”
Wilbur sat up and blinked his eyes. He looked around. He wasn’t in his own bed. This looked like a hotel room. A cheap and dirty hotel room. He realized he wasn’t wearing clothes. They were in a heap next to the bed.
“Did you fall asleep honey?” asked the skinny young woman in Daisy Dukes who exited a tiny bathroom. Her hair was shocking pink.
“Uh, yeah. I guess so,” Wilbur said.
“Just like a man. They have their way and then just turn over and snore. No one wants to cuddle anymore.”
“You want to cuddle?”
“Certainly not! I’m going to the coin shop. This had better be real,” she said while flashing a krugerrand between her fingers.
Wilber was astonished. He not only had picked up a prostitute but given her an ounce of solid gold? He didn’t even remember any of it!
“If it’s real, look me up,” she continued. “If it’s not, you’d be wise not to.”
“It’s real.”
“Good. Then we don’t have a problem. Ciao.”
The pink-haired woman left the room, slamming the door behind her.
Wilbur hurried dressed. He rushed down the single flight of stairs and past the scowling man at the desk who didn’t ask for a key back.
Out on the street, he looked around. He was in Hollywood – and not in a particularly upscale quarter. With relief, he spotted his car parked on the street. Had he driven in his sleep? And successfully parallel parked?
Wilbur removed his cell phone from his pocket and checked the internet for psychologists. He found a listing in the neighborhood. It was within walking distance.
Wilbur burst into the waiting room of Dr. Francine Zoller.
“I need to see the doctor right now!” he said loudly to the receptionist.
“Not possible,” she answered with a little alarm.
“It’s an emergency!”
“You need to make an appointment.”
“I don’t have time! Who knows where he’ll take me next!”
“It’s alright,” said Dr Zoller. Having heard the commotion, Zoller had peeked out of her office. I have 15 minutes before the next patient. I’ll at least discuss with the gentleman what the problem is. If I think I can help we’ll set up an appointment. Come on in.”
Inside the office, Wilbur paced as he tried to frame what he had to say.
“Is it alcohol?” Zoller asked.
“No. Why do you say that?”
“You’ve been drinking.”
“Have I?” Now that she mentioned it, he did smell a little whisky on his own breath. Lenny had been busy during Wilbur’s extended nap.
“I have multiple personality disorder,” Wilbur said at last.
“Really? MPD is not as fashionable a diagnosis as it once was.”
“So I’m not fashionable then! Or maybe I’m schizophrenic.”
“Do you hear voices?”
“Yes, when I’m dreaming.”
“We all dream.”
“Not like this.”
 Wilbur gave a highly edited recap of the events. He left out the part about the gold. He mentioned the prostitute, but not her tip.
“I can see why you’re upset, but maybe things are not as bleak as you think. Your memory lapse is troubling, of course, but you aren’t the first to have one of those. We sometimes deal with unpleasant facts that way. We need to rule out a medical issue first. I don’t have time to pursue this further today. A patient is due any minute. I urge to get a full medical exam. Make an appointment with my secretary on your way out to see me next week.”
Wilbur strode to his car. He felt for his keys. They were there in his pocket. As he slid behind the wheel he saw a bag under the dash in front of the passenger seat. His alter ego had brought a 50 pound bag of gold and left it in the car! How could his life go so right and wrong at the same time?
Traffic was backing up at an intersection straight ahead, so Wilbur turned onto a side street to avoid it. He noticed a sign:

Lady Sharona

He shrugged. What did he have to lose?
The sign was in front of one of the old small ranch houses still found on some side streets. He pulled to the curb. He debated what to do about the bag. There was no safe option, but ultimately he decided it was safer to carry it with him than leave it in the car.
With the bag cradled in an arm, he walked to the door. After some hesitation, he raised his hand to knock. The door opened before his knuckles struck.
“Come in,” said the blonde woman in a black sweater and jeans.
He noted that her attire wasn’t very witchy. She carried a broom, but it was a push broom.
Sharona hadn’t needed any psychic powers to see Wilbur’s arrival. There was a hidden security camera. It was a small trick that usually helped set the mood for customers. This wasn’t the only mechanical aid on the premises. Electromagnets were fitted into the table legs and in the floor beneath the legs. By depressing a button on the floor beneath a carpet by her chair she could make the table hop. She couldn’t resist using the toy sometimes even though she felt guilty about it. It was not that she didn’t take her craft seriously, but some people liked the tricks, so why disappoint them?
“What can I do for you?”
“I’m possessed,” Wilbur told her.
“Uh-huh. I’m Wiccan. We don’t really do exorcism.”
“It’s not a demon. I don’t think.”
“A ghost?”
“Maybe. I see him only when I’m asleep, and then only when he wants. If I fell asleep right now you probably could meet him.”
“I see. Well, if you’re being haunted by a ghost I might be able to help. Sit down and let’s discuss it.”
They both sat at the rigged table. Wilbur plunked his bag down on the floor. Sharon heard the clink of coins.
“Do you own vending machines?”
“You are carrying a lot of coins.” She almost had said quarters, but stopped herself. It would hurt his confidence in her if she got the denomination wrong.
“Yeah. It’s hard to explain.”
“You don’t have to. You see the ghost only when you’re asleep, did you say?”
“Yeah. Sometimes not asleep exactly. I apparently sleepwalk. He takes me places and does things.”
Sharona was having trouble following this, but she decided to follow the clue about sleep. Perhaps hypnosis was close enough.
“Can I get you some tea?” she asked “I could use some.”
“Sure. OK.”
 Sharona went to the kitchen. She prepared Earl Grey for herself and a special blend of valerian, kava, hops, passion flower, chamomile, and other natural sedatives for her very peculiar customer.
“We should discuss my fee,” she said as she returned to the table. It was best to get business out of the way.
“Oh. I didn’t bring any money.”
“You have a bag of it. Suppose you leave the bag with me if I can contact your ghost.”
“The whole bag?” Wilbur thought about the four others at home. “Well, if you can get rid of the ghost maybe it would be worth it. For contacting the ghost I’ll give you $1000. I think that’s more than generous.” Wilbur sipped his tea.
“A thousand?” This was an unexpected offer. How many dollars would be in a bag of quarters? “Very well,” she said.
“Are you going to try now?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“In that case, could you tie me to the chair?” Wilbur requested.
“Tie you? Once again I’m thinking that maybe you came to the wrong door.”
“No, no. I don’t mean anything weird.”
“You don’t?”
“No. It’s just that if you contact the ghost he might walk off with me. He’s done it before.”
“I see.” She didn’t, but she figured tying him up certainly made collecting her fee easier. “OK, we’ll tie you. Finish your tea.”
Sharona went to the kitchen and retrieved a clothes line she never had got around to hanging. She tied him to the chair, returned to her seat, and tapped gently on the tabletop.
A calico cat jumped up on the table.
“This is Dropcloth,” she said.
The cat liked to stare into the eyes of customers in the unblinking way cats do. Along with her blend of tea, the effect was hypnotic. Sharona hadn’t taught her that. It was just something the animal did.
“Your cat is staring at me,” Wilbur said.
“Yes, she does that. Stare back. Seriously.”
Wilbur stared. His eyes seemed to glaze. Then his demeanor suddenly changed.
“Thank you. I’ll be going now. Please untie me.”
“Not just yet,” Sharona said.
“Suppose I start screaming and bring the police?”
“Suppose you do? What are you going to tell them? That I overpowered you and tied you to a chair? Are you Wilbur’s ghost by any chance?”
“I’m not a ghost.”
“What are you then?”
“I’m not a ‘what’ either. I’m Lenny. I died a couple days ago, so I hitched a ride on Wilbur.
“You died? So how are you not a ghost?”
“OK, I see your point, but I don’t float around by myself or rattle chains in attics. I hitchhike in people.”
Sharona wasn’t sure how seriously to take all of this, but she decided to play along as if it were real.
“Can Wilbur hear us?” she asked.
“No. He is unconscious. I see, feel, and hear everything he does when he is awake though.”
“Sounds a little one-sided.”
“Those are the rules as I found them. Untie me.”
“No. Not until I talk to Wilbur.”
“He offered you $1000. I’ll give you $2000.”
“The problem with that, you see, is that I trust him but somehow I don’t trust you.”
“I can leave on my own.”
He stared into Sharona’s eyes. Sharona felt as though she were smacked in the face by a soccer ball. She shook her head. Her neck burned where the steel pentagram pendant touched her skin.
“Ow! Don’t do that!” she ordered.
She saw a look of consternation in his eyes.
“Why couldn’t I get in?”
“You tried to jump into me? And then what?  You would have waited for me to untie Wilbur?”
“Yes. How did you stop it?”
“I have my ways.”
Sharona didn’t know how she had stopped it. She wondered if it had something to do with the electromagnets in the table. Perhaps those and whatever Lenny projected had energized her pendant – painfully – and the field kept him out.
“Let me out of here.”
Lenny wondered if Sharona would kill him for the loot. It had happened to him once already.  Lenny looked desperately about the room. He stared at the calico cat which now was on the floor. The cat stared back. Dropcloth shrieked and fell over. It sat up with a dazed expression.
Wilbur slumped forward. Sharona reached across the table and patted his cheek. His eyes fluttered open.
“I got rid of your ghost,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive. Hey, if I didn’t, you know where to find me.”
Wilbur’s attention strayed to the cat, which was walking in circles. Dropcloth sat and looked at him.
“No, no. I wouldn’t look at kitty if I were you. Did you know your ghost was named Lenny?”
“He transferred into Dropcloth.”
“Then he can jump out again!”
“Maybe,” Sharona said, “but I think maybe not. He wasn’t thinking what he was doing. He jumped into the cat in order to escape, but that meant jumping into a cat-size brain. Probably he can’t think about anything more complex than chasing mice.
“Could you untie me now?”
As she untied him, Wilbur looked at the bag on the floor.
“Well, I guess a deal’s a deal.”
“Come back anytime for a tarot reading.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to keep some distance between me and your cat. But I’ll recommend your services to anyone who asks.”
“I understand. Good luck, Wilbur.”
Wilbur shakily got to his feet. He glanced quickly one more time at Dropcloth. The cat was licking its paw.
“Goodbye then,” said Wilbur as he let himself out.
Sharona picked up the bag and placed it on the table. She untied the top so she could spill the bag and count the coins. She really needed the money. Lenny seemed to think there was $2000 in there. She hoped he was right.