by Barry H. Wiley
The Cry of Sister Angel was first published in 1994. Note our Tarot card photos don’t exactly match the special made cards in the story, but that wasn’t doable. Enjoy!
Like every professional mind reader, I strive for projecting belief, legitimacy, into my audiences. So I polish my ‘powers’ in several ways to keep the juices flowing. There has been an average of 3.64 elevators in the hotels and inns in which I have stayed over the last twelve months. Each time I use an elevator I exercise my offbeat talents by putting them to a test that can be immediately verified and recorded. It also ensures that my own belief mechanism is kept on a constant low simmer.
When any mentalist steps in front of an audience, like any actor, he must himself believe that he is the real thing, or the audience will not be convinced, which will then lessen his dramatic impact. The soul of his entertainment will be lost. It is very difficult for me to ‘turn on’ from a state of disbelief standing in the wings, so I use the elevator exercise to help keep my vibrations vibrating.
Most people feel that if you can hit better than a simple average in a test, then you are displaying some kind of extrasensory perception – ESP. That suggests that if, for example, there are four elevators, if I can guess or anticipate which elevator of the four will stop at my floor at an average slightly greater than one out of four, and then I must have something working. Perhaps it’s precognition, foretelling which elevator or psycho kinesis–forcing the elevator to stop with the only the power of my mind, blind luck or yet something else. Actually, allowing for sensory feedback, the average must be a little over 1.2 out of four to demonstrate something extra is working, as was pointed out back around 1978 by Persi Diaconis . My average, coming into Yorksburg, Pennsylvania, has risen over the past six months to 1.45. Just shows how deceptive statistics can be, even when you are on a roll.
“John Randall Brown!”
I looked over at the door. My makeshift dressing room next to the small stage of the Holiday Inn was just clearing of inquisitive spectators from my afternoon Yorksburg Supporters Club audience of a number of local businessmen, bureaucrats and their friends. I had finished answering their familiar questions regarding the wonders of the paranormal, particularly talking with the dead, occasionally on vampires and werewolves, conversations which always consume about 20-30 minutes after one of my performances, or Encounters, as I call them.
I am a mentalist. I use five senses to create the compelling illusion of a sixth, of clairvoyance, telepathy or precognition as the situation may require hopefully entertaining illusions, naturally, since I am paid primarily to entertain. Some people will always believe, will always want to believe regardless of disclaimers, illusion or not. In the midst of the after-show questions, I had also made a couple of promising contacts for future engagements as well, which is the basic business reason for spending the extra time after the show, but now it was time to start back to Pittsburgh to connect with the plane for my show tonight in Chicago, then on to Detroit for tomorrow night. A messy set of travel connections, but…
“Brown,” Deputy Mayor Franklin Austin declared with a wave of his small hand, crossing the room toward me. “I want you to meet Detective Sergeant Michael Blankenship.”
Blankenship’s huge dark frame filled the doorway, overshadowing the excited politician. The detective’s large head was shaved bald except for a monastic patch of short hair on top. Like the mayor, he was dressed in a pin-striped double-breasted suit, but navy-blue instead of the mayor’s brown. I’m a little over six feet, but I had to look up at Blankenship as we shook hands. He was at least six-seven with a hand that completely engulfed mine. I didn’t need to be a mentalist to sense he wanted nothing to do with me. He had definitely not been in the audience.
Austin was looking up at us as we were shaking hands over his shoulder. “I thought you two should get together, Mike,” he said to the policeman who was not smiling. “Brown can probably give you some new angles on your Tarot Murder Case.”
I could see the capital letters as he spoke– a media event for Yorksburg, a dying old steel town. I had included an effect using Tarot cards in the show because of the local interest in the murder. Including some personal data and local color always makes a performance more stunning, lifting it from a set piece to something more compelling, more disturbing, and apparently, from the enthusiastic applause, more entertaining to the Yorksburg City Supporters Club. It had been a good gig. Even while digesting an overcooked lunch, they had been a responsive and upbeat audience. But that plane to Pittsburgh…
“I got the idea when I saw you do those amazing things with the Tarot cards. Those things are spooky, but you really know your stuff, Brown,” he said, his politician’s hand lingering on my shoulder. “Mike agreed right away.” When Austin didn’t look, Blankenship didn’t smile.
“My plane schedule is very tight, Mayor,” I began, but Austin flopped his hand dismissively.
“The sergeant will give you a police escort to our airport, but given your powers, Brown, I know you can help, if even for only a few minutes.”
The publicity potential might be worth the risk…perhaps a letter from Austin extolling my psychic help. My career wasn’t that far along yet that…
“I’ll be with you in a few minutes, Sergeant,” I said.
Blankenship bent his head to political necessity. “Car’s outside the fire exit,” he rumbled.
His Honor was delighted.
“I don’t want no publicity-hungry Carney mind-reader screwing around in my work! I would take you straight to the airport now, but if Austin found out, he’d have my ass.” The policeman shook his head violently. “I’m closing in on lieutenant…just can’t risk it.” He pulled the unmarked cruiser into the rain-slowed traffic, accelerating steadily, pushing, and probing for openings to move ahead. Blankenship laughed when I flinched at a truck suddenly sliding in front of us. “What’s the matter, mind-reader? You were workin’ miracles only a minute ago!”
I just gritted my teeth. Mentalism can be an amazing way to make a living.
“Here if you’re going, you might as well take a look.” His voice flooded the car, overpowering the traffic noise.
“Only a back page ghetto killing, but those news-buzzards needed something for their headlines…latched onto those fool Tarot cards. Just with my promotion coming up. I’ve kept a lid on any funny crap in that neighborhood for years. Now this thing!” Blankenship pulled a file from a holder on the dash. While cutting off a car to push ahead into another lane, he jabbed a heavy finger at the file. “That’s everything we’ve got, photos and all. Turn your holy powers on that!”
I was getting fed up with his loud frustration and manic self-pity. Thumbing through the file forms showed a simple situation. A so-called psychic reader, Sister Angel, real name presently unknown, was found dead by an early morning client. She had apparently been killed– beaten to death–in an attempted robbery by a late night customer for whom Sister Angel had been giving a Tarot reading. Substantial head injuries, but no murder weapon had been found. The reports described the lack of interest in the incident by the victim’s neighbors. Sister Angel had no close friends and there were no arrests or any suspects. All current and previous clients detailed in the victim’s records were being questioned. No fingerprints found in the murder room except for Sister Angel, and the early morning client who had reported the killing.
But the photos! Utterly stunned, my stomach surged, knotting at the glossy detailed portrayals of the destruction of Sister Angel. My God! Fortunately I can never eat before a show, so I had nothing to keep down and didn’t give Blankenship any of the cheap satisfaction he was looking for. But it wasn’t easy; utter raw brutality.
An enlarged photo of the murder scene showed the Tarot cards still laid out on the reader’s desk, with Sister Angel’s body lying partially hidden behind it. I frowned. The layout was an odd mixture of the Major and Minor Arcana cards in a rough half-circle, some were face-up, some face down like a hand of 78 card stud poker.
“She probably wasn’t killed by one of her clients anyway,” I said, replacing the file in its holder. I was thrown hard against the door as the car swerved sharply.
“Godawful potholes! Yeah? What makes you think so?” demanded Blankenship.
“The layout of the Tarot cards is meaningless. She wasn’t doing a reading. The cards were probably laid out by the murderer to fake a reading.” Probably so, but not absolutely certain since Tarot dealing is a very subjective art. Wouldn’t hurt to suggest it, true or not.
Blankenship’s frowning silence filled the rain-curtained car. After a few seconds he spoke slowly: “Looks like maybe I’ve got complications then?”
“It would seem so.”
The big policeman shook his head savagely, heaving his whole massive upper body in the effort. “Every time. Every miserable time!” He swore more to himself than to me. “I was born in that piss-poor neighborhood, hate every brick in it. Never had a family, never had anyone who gave a crap about me. Used a football to get me an education to escape, to learn to think, to learn what was out there! Made the pros, the Bengals, sixth round draft choice, but I wanted it more than the bodies ahead of me, and started makin’ fine, real fine, money.”
He slapped both his hands heavily against the steering wheel, making the whole instrument panel shudder. “Then I ripped up my knees and ended up back here. Get on the police, the man said. Seemed to make sense until they put me back in that damn stinking ghetto! Inspiration for the youth, know the people, know every brick. All that miserable shit!” Blankenship spat out the last word. “I put the solid word out. No screwing with me! I kept things real quiet. Then the promotion comes up with my first real chance to make it without a football, to get away from that gutter, those bricks! Now this!” His voice whipped across the car.
Wide commercial streets had given way to broken, trash cluttered pavement. Dull rain-smeared cement buildings, patches of brick showing through slumped barren walls, seemed to hold the heavy black clouds on their squat shoulders. Passing traffic had faded to only an occasional blur as the windshield wipers labored in vain against a new burst of violent rain. It was a place of exhausted structures, human and brick.
Sister Angel’s little house stood out with its freshly painted sign, Gifted Psychic, standing on a small carefully edged patch of grass, which wouldn’t be green again for several months. She must have been doing well, but apparently too well in some way. A black and white patrol car was at the curb.
Blankenship quickly introduced me to Detective David MacCauley and two uniformed officers in yellow slickers standing at the back of the porch, away from the rain splatter. Blankenship shrugged when MacCauley raised his eyebrows at Mayor Austin’s confidence in my “powers”.
“A quick look around, then one of you guys run our mind-reader to the airport. He has to perform more miracles in Chicago tonight.” Blankenship’s one-note sarcasm was wiping out whatever sympathy I had begun to feel.
I glanced at the carpeted waiting room as MacCauley led me to Sister Angel’s office. A small sofa and several dark varnished straight-backed chairs. She was doing all right. MacCauley explained the layout of the house as we walked. It was similar to others I have visited. Backdoor and all windows barred and bolted shut. Entry to Sister Angel’s sanctum was only through an electrically locked door operated by a button on her desk. No evidence of breaking in. MacCauley and his men had just returned from questioning the neighbors again.
“Nothing. They just stare at you.” MacCauley shook his head. “My God, all we want to do is keep this kind of thing from happening to them. They won’t open up, even to Mike. This psychic stuff is pure trouble anyway. I’ll tell you,” he lowered his voice. “I don’t like this place.”
I caught the quick scowl that twisted Blankenship’s face for a flickering moment. “Try livin’ here, Mac,” he snapped.
Sister Angel’s office was unchanged from the photos. Her Tarot cards were stacked on one corner of the desk. Faint tangled odors of blood and a battered body still clung to the walls like observing spirits. The wallpaper was small silver fer-de-lis on soft moss green; even the color added its own presence to the damp smell.
When I hesitated to walk over the chalk outline of Sister Angel’s body, Blankenship laughed. “Go ahead, Brown, she won’t mind.” He blocked the doorway completely, shrinking the small room, now filled with MacCauley and one of the uniformed officers as well.
“All right if I touch anything?” I quickly asked, jerking my fingers back from touching the button for the electric door lock.
MacCauley nodded. “We’ve got all the prints this room holds. Mike suggested that dusting the waiting room wouldn’t be worth the expense since everyone in the neighborhood would have prints there. I think he’s right.”
I pushed the reader’s swivel chair back behind the desk and slumped down in it, removed my glasses, rubbed my eyes and then after looking around the room for a moment, replaced them. Quiet colors, polished woods, all the stage presence of a doctor’s office. That’s what the effect was supposed to be, nothing over the top exotic, secure, confidential. Except doctor’s offices don’t have cleverly concealed peek holes in the wall to see and over-hear waiting clients. I found Sister Angel’s eye-and-ear hole behind a photograph of a brilliant Hawaiian beach at sunset, the frame swinging silently away from the wall on oiled hinges.
MacCauley whistled. “We missed that. What is it?”
I explained. Blankenship moved further into the room to listen. “Sister Angel knew who she was letting in. It was no surprise thief in the night,” I said, and continued to walk around the small room, leaving the police to peek through the hole for themselves as I tried to visualize the reader’s last moments. I stopped at the desk to pick up the ornately carved mahogany card box. Instead of the usual Egyptian ankh motif, Sister Angel’s was a deeply cut African mask design like the ones that had inspired Picasso. Its lid flopped back helplessly, its small catch badly bent.
“Killer must have thought there was money and busted it open,” Blankenship offered.
I shook my head, recalling that explanation from the police reports. “Good psychic readers, and Sister Angel looks like she was good, aren’t usually well educated but they know human nature cold. No way would she keep or show any money in this room, just too tempting and distracting to her clients. The box was used to hold the Tarot cards. It’s wood only or perhaps a silk handkerchief, but never metal for the Tarot. Metal, if you are a believer, distorts the vibrations, ensuring false, even misleading readings.” I closed the box and replaced it. “The killer must have ripped it open to lay out the cards to fake a reading. The killer’s fingers were too big to reach the recessed catch.” My own fingers were too big to wedge into the recess. I glanced at my watch.
“Ready to go?” Blankenship asked, also looking at his watch.
I nodded, but paused a moment to pick up the loose mound of Tarot cards. Pittsburgh, it was time…but the cards were handmade, thick, unevenly cut. A large heavy handful, probably took both of the woman’s hands to hold them for dealing. The 22 designs of the Major Arcana were utterly unique: primitive, challenging, hand drawn and painted, the crude figures were all black, their settings were harsh, stark statements of the desperate streets around Sister Angel, not the traditional detached mystical portrayals of Rider-Waite or Crowley’s Golden Dawn.
“Sister Angel’s own designs. They would speak more clearly to her…and maybe for her,” I murmured, dealing the cards down in the Ancient Celtic Method.
“You believe that stuff, Brown?” MacCauley asked. “They’re just odd cards for her hokum. Aren’t they?”
I looked up, time suspended, then back at the pleading cards. “No one has proven they don’t speak, at least to someone willing to listen.” I sat down in the straight client’s chair to finish dealing, putting the special Daath pile to the lower left as required. There was in those terrifying figures a chill I’ll never forget.
“Gejuz!” thundered Blankenship over my shoulder, snorting loudly with contempt. “You going to Pittsburgh or you want to tell fortunes like her?”
Even slumped down I could easily see the full expanse of the desktop and beyond. “Where’s the sitter’s chair, the chair that should be here?” I asked, feeling a creeping uneasiness.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said MacCauley, as he trailed me out into the waiting room.
I walked around the waiting room slowly, finally stopping before one of the many dark-varnished straight backed chairs. “This one,” I said, feeling, more than hearing, the roar of frustrated anger and the rush of a huge body hurtling at me.
I moved, but too slowly.
Blankenship’s great bulk slammed me hard up against the wall, the momentum caroming me across the other chairs, my head snapping back. As I fell dazed to the floor, I glimpsed MacCauley and the other two officers still immobilized by Blankenship’s sudden bellowed rage.
“Grab him!” finally shouted MacCauley, but the roar of mountainous fury drowned him out. The two officers, I think, had already reacted with each man grappling with one of Blankenship’s great arms. One of the officers twisted free of the struggle to kick the back of one of Blankenship’s knees, which brought the maddened policeman down, screaming in agony. With more wrestling, two sets of cuffs were ratcheted in place. MacCauley added a third set.
Blankenship’s eyes bulged with anguished hatred as I stood only to fall back onto one of the chairs, still dizzy, my head ringing. Spitting foam from his mouth Blankenship struggled to rise, then fell back heavily with tears beginning to mix with sweat on his twisted dark face.
“Good God! What was that?” MacCauley, breathing hard, was at my shoulder, helping me to stand again. I retrieved my glasses, which remarkably weren’t shattered, pushed hair back from my eyes, took a breath, then, feeling my sense of balance restored, I pointed to the chair I had been next to when Blankenship attacked.
“That’s the sitter’s chair. It’s sawed off a couple of inches so that the client will sit too low to see across the desk to observe what the reader is doing behind the desk– usually checking her private notes or secretly opening sealed questions brought by the client, or something like that. Placing the reader above the inquirer also strengthens her psychological setting. The chair belongs only in the office. When I sat down to finish dealing her Tarot cards, I found the chair in the office was too high. So I came out here to look for a sitter’s chair. When I found it, I knew only the killer would know it was there since only he could have put it there. It probably is the murder weapon as well, since that would be the only reason the killer would try to hide it alongside the other chairs.”
“MacCauley, what next?” one of the officers shouted. Blankenship had stopped cursing me and was now cursing himself even more viciously.
“Book him for assault.” MacCauley was on his knees examining the broken wood splinters from the mashed back legs of the chair. They had reddish-brown flecks on them. “And get this chair dusted for prints,” he ordered. “And call the lab people to check these marks for blood.”
Flight attendants were just closing the plane’s door on my Pittsburgh connection as I ran down the jet way–the Chicago show that night was a very tough experience. My thoughts were on other things, a critical blunder for any mind reader.
After the show, I got MacCauley on my cell phone. He answered on the first ring.
“Just wrapping the final report,” he responded, then hesitated. “Sad beyond belief. We found Mike’s thumbprint on the chair next to the sitter’s chair. He had wiped the sitter’s chair clean, but forgot he had handled the adjacent chairs when he made the switch. He confessed then. He had been running a protection racket and some drugs in his old haunts to keep his income somewhere near where it had been in pro ball. Sister Angel learned about it, but she waited until word got out that Mike was up for lieutenant. You were right, Brown, about her knowing human nature. When Sister Angel put in the screws, they went in deep. Mike was paying her half of what he was pulling down in the racket to try to save that promotion, to get finally clear of the ghetto with some–some legitimacy. One night, for some reason, she squeezed too much and Mike destroyed her.” MacCauley hesitated. “Brown, did you really see something in her crazy cards? That psychic stuff–is it real?”
I never know myself how to answer that question–I only make a living doing it.
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