by Barry H. Wiley
Thought Wings Onward was first published in Red Herring Mystery Magazine in 1996.
I suppose that anyone who calls himself a mentalist invites participation in strange affairs.
The Amazing Kreskin
“You’re John Randall Brown, the mentalist, aren’t you?”
Surprised, I looked up from being lost in a Jorge Luis Borges short story. My career has not yet included much television or cable work–not from any lack of effort however–so that recognition by a stranger was still a novel experience. I nodded. It had been about an hour of relaxing quiet since take-off from Seattle.
The large man strapped in next to me smiled, squinting, bringing out the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. “It surely must be providence that placed me beside you on this flight, or vice versa.” He chuckled, swallowing at the same time.
I smiled politely. “My name is Elmer Opal. I saw you do your mindreading and memory stunts several weeks ago in Yorksburg, Pennsylvania. Own a piece of a company there. You’re good. You sure had me going; everybody else, too.” He smiled again, then sipped the last of his beer, wedging the empty plastic cup into the seat pocket behind several magazines.
I removed my glasses to rub my eyes–an almost unconscious maneuver to gain time to appraise the man a few inches from me–well-dressed, dark hair recently styled and well-filled. Cultured voice, some faint cologne, smooth hands, but badly scuffed shoes with a Masonic emblem in his lapel. I replaced my glasses and waited.
“I’ve lost something that might be very valuable,” said Opal, “and I need someone special to help me find it. And you, Mr. Randall Brown, are surely the one to do it.”
“What have you lost, Mr. Opal?” I continued my gypsy inventory of Elmer Opal. A large diamond pinkie ring was now visible. As Opal shifted his position–broken sleeve buttons on an expensive suit– his jacket bellowed open slightly to reveal some papers in the inside breast pocket. Flimsies, carbons…in a world of e-mails.
“A memory, Mr. Brown. I need you to find a memory that’s slipped somewhere back here.” He tapped the back of his head. “I can feel it there, but every time I think I’ve got it, it slips away. You know, like a tip-of-the-tongue thing? It’s been nagging at me since early this morning, but it’s becoming hell now–don’t know what it is. I’ve got a tough deal to face when we get to San Jose today. It might be something I should remember for the negotiations.” He grimaced, frowning deeply. “Ton of money involved…”
I nodded. “A common enough experience. You only need to recall as much as you can about the incident and make a circle of information around the thought you want to recall. Your memory will deliver up the missing element in a few minutes.” I leaned back.
Opal pressed his thick lips tightly together like he was facing a dentist and squinted again. “I can’t do that. I can’t tie the memory to anything. I just know it’s there, somewhere. What I was hoping, when I was sure I recognized you, was that you could read my mind, and just pull-l that memory right out.” He reached out, pulling an invisible book from an invisible shelf.
Getting on television could only increase crazy situations like this. “You’re a mindreader, so read my mind,” they would insist. I flexed my hands, stretching the fingers to their limits, an exercise left over from a much earlier time when I thought I could make money from a jazz piano. “I claim only to be an entertainer, Mr. Opal. I leave the reality of what I do to the judgment of my audiences.” A standard canned response, which was true, but still a cop-out. The flight with an earlier connection from Vancouver was already long and I was too tired to dance the paranormal with anyone.
“I know that.” Opal’s frown deepened. “Are you saying you won’t help? You must understand. There’s something running around in my head that I can’t catch. It’s like a form behind a translucent screen. You know something’s there, but you can’t really see it. It’s important, I know it, but I don’t know what it is. I know what you claim. But I know what I saw in Yorksburg. You’re the real thing! I know you could help!”
Opal’s voice, no longer smoothly controlled, was turning desperate and louder. He obviously thought I could satisfy his needs, that I couldn’t refuse and had some strange duty toward a former audience member. A stewardess stopped momentarily, her head cocked slightly in concern with the growing disturbance. Other passengers also began looking at us over their plastic cups and paperbacks. Elmer Opal’s calm cultured control was visibly disintegrating. His eyes were bright, frightened, in a growing strange panic.
I gave the questioning look of the stewardess a quick smile. Had to do something. “I’ll be glad to try a simple mind probe, Mr. Opal. But you will have to help, and promise, promise me you won’t reveal this experience to anyone.” A shared confidence, the necessary beginning. “Probes are not always successful, particularly if the subject is under serious stress.”
“How?” Elmer Opal’s suddenly lowered voice was trusting, but urgent, ready to break. “What must I do?”
“First: relax. Just relax. You’ve raised too many barriers by being tense and uptight.” Opal leaned back in his seat, breathed deeply. And again. “Good. Now we must begin to construct a mapping of your mind. To probe at random would take too much time.” Opal nodded helpfully at that odd logic, and breathed deeply again. I only wanted to keep him calm until we landed in San Jose. “Let’s set up a signpost.”
Sliding a worn black leather notebook from my inside jacket pocket, I tore out a piece of paper and gave the paper with a small pencil to Opal. I then handed him the notebook to support his writing. “Now, I want you to focus your mind on the general time frame surrounding the memory. You know when you didn’t have the memory, and you know now that you do. As best you can, to tighten our focus, write two or three words which stand out in your mind in that time frame. Don’t dwell on the words, don’t analyze them. Just put down the words that first appear in your mind. I’ll look away to ensure I cannot see what you write” – I turned to the window – “or possible interfere with your freedom of recall. Write in complete privacy.”
“Do I start now?”
“Yes.” I heard Opal murmuring and then grunt softly. Next engage his deepest belief, then build on it, the ancient gypsy technique. When someone needs to believe, a retired British mentalist had once told me, give her belief. You give her nothing if you tell her you’re only a trickster. If you destroy their belief, you have the moral responsibility to give them something of equal value to replace it. If they’re just heckling you, then don’t back down. Pale clouds rubbing against my window were shapeless blobs, devoid of inspiration. “When you are finished,” I said, still looking away, “Fold up the paper and put it into your shoe.” An action out of the ordinary to further ensnare his intellect, a unique untouchable place.
“Shoe.” I took the notebook and pencil back. Naturally, squeezing the notebook, I immediately knew the words Opal had written. That was the easy part. How to make sense from budget, belt and bump was the problem. Opal had partially scratched out ‘bump’ and then printed in the letters. I removed my glasses, holding one of the gold-rimmed lenses with my right thumb and middle finger. Rocking the polished lens slightly back and forth caught and splintered the lights in the 737 cabin. My face felt in a vice, as I frowned deeply, making an apparently intense effort obvious, to help further engage Opal’s imagination, to let him see…experience the process of searching his mind.
“Can’t you see…anything…?” Opal began. His voice was earnest, stretched thin with anxiety.
I waved him impatiently to silence. “You fell earlier today as you rushed [scuffed shoes and broken sleeve buttons]. Were you late, Mr. Opal?”
Opal’s eyes went wide momentarily. “My God, yes,” he said in awe. “Something held me up. Nearly missed the plane.”
“Were you late because of money…no, not just money.” I seemed to grope for the right word. “Some planned expenditures were not right [the word ‘budget’ and Opal’s obvious affluence]. An argument perhaps delayed you [a reasonable guess]?”
Opal sank down into the seat, his jaw slack. “Holy Christ, you can see inside.” Fear flickered across his eyes. I was very uneasy. Playing around in a stranger’s mind–what an amazing business! The Amazing Kreskin once told me there’d be times I could doubt even my own sanity.
“Yes-s…yes,” Opal stammered, shifting, pressing against the seatback.
“Your wife’s name…Nancy…no, that’s not it…Norma [woman’s name clearly visible on the onionskins in his jacket pocket].” Again a stated question.
“Oh, God.” The large man moaned. “It’s coming closer. I can almost feel it moving.” He shuddered, rubbing the back of his head. Good God, what was shaking loose?
“Your argument with Norma about money delayed you this morning.” I was going to have to fish a bit to find where ‘belt’ and ‘bump’ would fit. I doubted now that I really wanted to know. Quit now? Tell him the vibrations have gone dead, or some standard psycho-babble?
“Christ, she wouldn’t let go. She didn’t care if I was screwed up. She knew this trip was important. I had to make three tight plane connections. If I missed the first plane, I’d blow the whole trip, jeopardize the San Jose negotiations…but she wouldn’t back down.” He looked over at me, pleading in his eyes.
“Did Norma fasten the belt [a wild, but plausible guess]?”
Opal stiffened, speared by the question. “I…I almost saw it…the memory.” His breathing was picking up, in short hard bursts. He wiped his hand across his mouth. His face was growing moist.
“The belt,” I continued cautiously, “was it you or Norma who had trouble with it?”
“It was me. I couldn’t get the damned seatbelt in the car unfastened. It was jammed.”
Opal was pale, edging toward some kind of a breakdown. The stewardess passed again, her eyes questioning. I smiled quickly and shook my head once. She turned to another passenger.
“Brown…can you really see the memory? Can you really reach around anywhere in my mind?” His voice had become raspy, his belief transmuting to fear. He rolled his eyes over at me without moving his head.
“I’m simply making some observations,” I said truthfully. “Are you sure you want to continue?” It was time to stop. Ardent believers can sometimes seduce a mentalist into going too far, but Opal appeared ready to panic either way. Stretch it out, San Jose. Couldn’t be much longer. That was the play.
Elmer Opal swallowed. He took a deep breath. “Got to. Got to get this thing out of my head. It’s like something out of George Orwell, a filthy rat eating away at my brain, crawling around in my head. I glimpsed something a second ago!”
“What did you see?”
“My car, a red Lincoln, some papers on the ground.”
I nodded. “The papers in your pocket now [a safe assumption]?”
“Yeah, yes.” He patted his breast pocket. “Needed them for the trip.”
“Norma took the papers [logical].”
Opal’s sudden recognition shook his frame. “She grabbed them out of my pocket. Just… just reached right through the car window and grabbed them. She knew what they were. Letters, forms from my lawyer, about our divorce and the revised property settlement. She was making me late. She knew it. Treated it like one of her crass mindless jokes. I couldn’t get the miserable seatbelt unfastened to get out, to get her. She started to run away, down the driveway with the papers, so I floored it. Had to catch her quick. Had to!”
I knew then what ‘bump’ meant. “The form behind the translucent screen is your wife’s body. You ran her down. You felt the wheels go over her.” My voice was as firm and controlled as I could make it in spite of my nerves becoming like the strings of an over-tuned guitar.
Opal’s flaccid face went taut. His eyes flared wide. Not even the wrinkles at the edges of the eyes were visible. Then his jaw dropped as he voiced a loud silent scream. With both arms he pushed himself up against the restraint of his seatbelt. The stewardess froze, her training vanishing in the silent horror of the disintegration of Elmer Opal. His straining arms began to shake violently. Only as he fainted back into the seat did his face sag into helplessness.
“Easy, Miss,” I said. The stewardess wasn’t functioning either. “He’s suffered a momentary psychological shock. He’ll come out of it in a few minutes. Have the captain radio ahead to have the police and an ambulance meet the plane.” She didn’t respond. “When do we land?” I asked sharply, to slap against her mind. “When do we land?” The closest passengers were looking away to avoid embarrassment and feeling involved.
She stepped back, regaining control. “About…fifteen or twenty minutes, I think.”
“Yes. It’s urgent.”
She nodded, moving quickly away. “I’ll bring the First Officer, sir.”
‘Fasten Seat Belt’ signs lighted around the cabin. Lowering wing flaps groaned against the wind. “We will be touching down in seven minutes,” announced the captain cheerfully. “Weather in San Jose is 64 Fahrenheit, cloudy with light showers. Some hot sun on the way, though.”
I glanced out my window at the shapeless translucent haze, like the inside of Elmer Opal’s tortured mind. I knew San Jose was going to be different. There were no Louis L’Amour novels at the newsstands. Police at the airport had initially reacted like it was all an ugly publicity stunt when Elmer Opal started to come out of shock, denying everything, threatening very loudly to sue me for abuse and assault, calling me any number of graphic names as other passengers edged around him. But Lt. Arthur Shiota at San Jose police headquarters was calmer and called Chicago.
Chicago homicide immediately confirmed Norma Opal’s death in an apparent hit-and-run. About two hours later, they confirmed finding Opal’s red Lincoln parked at one of the outlying O’Hare parking lots with blood on the bumper and one of the tires–hers.
“Actually in a lost memory, Lieutenant–but only under protest.”
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