Séance in Sepia
©2011 Michelle Black
“Another person’s marriage is a foreign country to which visas are never granted. Don’t ask me how I know, I just know.”—Flynn Keirnan, 2006.
“You live long enough and you know what you get?” Mrs. Belton said. “You end up dyin’ alone.” A cigarette dangled from her brightly painted lips as she oversaw the estate liquidation of her deceased tenant, Mrs. Pilcher.
Flynn Keirnan glanced up from the floor of the tiny apartment, amazed that the ash on Mrs. Belton’s cigarette did not fall despite the bouncing ride it took through the old woman’s monologue. She sat there sorting through the deceased Mrs. Pilcher’s dusty collection of books and tried not to feel like a carrion crow picking the remaining flesh off a festering corpse, yet what was she but a scavenger, searching for pearls among the detritus of the recently departed?
“I guess there’s no real victory in being the last man standing, after all,” Flynn offered in an attempt to be polite. She was not anxious to make conversation.
“What? Yeah, well, whatever,” said Mrs. Belton.
The morning sun filtered through the old chintz curtains to illuminate a hazy flotilla of irritating particles in the air. The dust, combined with the cigarette smoke, was starting to give Flynn the fine edge of a headache.
I’m doing this for Dad, was her silent mantra on these occasions. Performing a disagreeable task for the benefit of someone else ennobled it somehow. At least, that’s what she tried to convince herself.
“The poor old dear must have been ninety-five if she was a day. Outlived two husbands, all her friends, even her two kids. Nobody came to her funeral ‘cept me and my pastor.”
Mrs. Belton paused and removed the cigarette long enough to blow her nose on a tissue that she kept rolled into the sleeve of her pink cotton robe. Or was it called a house dress? Ladies of that vintage wore house dresses.
Flynn wondered how old Mrs. Belton was, given her disparaging remarks on the late Mrs. Pilcher. She didn’t look that much younger herself.
“The sheriff gave me the right to sell her stuff to cover the back rent she owed me. I got the paperwork from the probate court.”
“Any kind of a receipt would be fine. I just need it for the taxman.”
“You’re buying then?”
“Maybe. Probably.” Flynn tried to keep her voice as neutral as possible. She didn’t want the old woman thinking she was too excited. She might jack up the price. Flynn wasn’t a pro at this by any means, but in the last four months, she’d picked up a few tricks.
“You sure you don’t want to see the rest of the place? She had some real nice bedroom furniture.”
“No, just the books. My dad owns a used bookstore up in Weston.” She had learned early on not to call her father’s shop an “antiquarian” bookstore. Otherwise Mrs. Belton might think she was interested in antiques generally and would have tried to convince her that everything in the house was a priceless rarity. Better she assumed Flynn was looking for junk.
Every Thursday was estate sale day, so she went shopping armed with a cardboard box and a checkbook, plus a healthy amount of cash in case the sellers didn’t take checks.
Brody, her fourteen-year-old son, derisively called these expeditions “dumpster diving” and some days he was not far off. The phrase “estate sale” was broad in its interpretation and they ran the gamut from elegant to ghastly. She had learned to wear her oldest jeans and least-loved tee-shirts on such forays.
This present opportunity—to put a fine spin on it—fell somewhere in between. The little ground floor apartment sat in an early twentieth century house, a good old American Foursquare that towered over its Craftsmen bungalow neighbors. The home had been converted into four apartments sometime before Nixon resigned and the whole place smelled a little moldy. That wasn’t so bad. The smells Flynn couldn’t identify bothered her the most.
“Weston’s a cute little town,” said Mrs. Belton in a disinterested, conversational tone. She began to wander around the room, now accepting the fact that she was not going to sell anything other than books.
Flynn pulled one volume after another off the rickety wooden bookshelf built into a fireplace mantle. It was just a wooden mantel, no fireplace anywhere to be seen. Sadly, most of the books were worthless. The majority were Reader’s Digest condensations from the 1960s that her dad would scorn. A couple of cookbooks from the Forties or Fifties caught her eye, but they were so soiled and dilapidated at the hinges that they could not be opened without falling into several pieces.
There was a nice looking old dictionary though, a Webster’s dating from before the First World War. Her dad might make something of that.
As she thumbed through it, trying not to breathe and thus sneeze, she caught on a hard page inserted in the middle. An old photograph. Really old. Pre-1900, certainly.
It seemed to be a portrait of some sort, but not the typical stiff Victorian pose usually found in studio shots from that era.
In the fading sepia tones a young woman sat before the lens with an unsmiling gaze. She had dark hair that cascaded down her shoulders. That alone drew Flynn’s attention. A woman sitting for a portrait in those days would never have worn her hair down. The unorthodox coif gave her a bohemian air. Maybe the sitter was an artist or an actress, someone not afraid to look unconventional.
Her dark eyes were large and heavy lidded, but they squinted slightly, hinting at defiance. Or maybe she was just annoyed at the photographer for making her sit still so long.
The young woman was not alone in the picture. At least, not exactly. The semi-transparent faces of two men floated above her on either side. Only their disembodied heads were visible. Their images must have been added in by a double exposure or perhaps the printing of more than one negative at the same time. Each of their faces was surrounded by a wreath-like circle of clouds that seemed painted-in somehow.
The men appeared to be about the same age as the woman, mid-to-late twenties, perhaps. One had thick, dark hair and a full beard. The other was a curly blond with a pale mustache. Both were attractive though in different ways. The dark-haired man’s expression bore an intensity the fair-haired gentleman lacked. She wondered if the young woman and the bearded man might be brother and sister, they seemed so alike.
“I found a photograph, Mrs. Belton. Do you think it could be of Mrs. Pilcher?”
The landlady politely blew her smoke away from Flynn, out of the corner of her prune-like mouth as she sidled in close for a look.
“Naw. She was old, but she wasn’t that old.”
Of course she was right. A silly question. Even if the dead woman were a hundred, she couldn’t have been born when this photo was taken.
“Must be another one of her ‘treasures,’” Mrs. Belton chuckled, somewhat unkindly.
“The poor thing had Alzheimer’s. Started hiding things. They do that, you know. She was forever hiding her checkbook—afraid someone would steal it. Then she’d forget where she hid it, of course. She and I would have to tear this place apart looking for it about every month, so she could pay her rent.”
Flynn noticed an empty picture frame on the faux mantel. It looked to be the right size to fit the photograph. It would have been much better protected in that frame than shoved into a book.
“I’d like to buy this dictionary and the photo, too.”
The old woman scowled at such a small sale. “All the books, plus the photo, for twenty bucks.”
“But I don’t want them all. Just the dictionary and the picture.”
“All or nothin.’ That’s the deal.”
She just wants me to eliminate the mess she has on her hands, Flynn inwardly griped. “Okay.”
She handed Mrs. Belton twenty dollars in cash and got a scribbled receipt of sorts. She piled the old books in her cardboard box, placing the dictionary on top since it held the photo, and she was on her way to the next sale.
* * * * *
“A fair day,” said Daniel Keirnan to his daughter, as he checked out Flynn’s inventory purchases. He sat each book on his counter to examine it. Occasionally, he turned to his computer, which served triple duty as a cash register, inventory keeper, and—thanks to its Internet connection—price checker.
Flynn was impressed with her dad’s computer skills. He had embraced the digital future before she was even born. Back then, computers filled whole rooms. He had been the first in his law firm to use them in his practice and he was still as up to date as his teenaged grandson.
Dan was particularly delighted by the search engines. He had long ago taken to calling the Internet, in mock reverential tones, his “Oracle.” Whenever he needed to look up some fact or bit of knowledge, he would announce that he was “consulting the Oracle.”
“I’m turning into a pretty decent book scout, you’ve got to admit,” she said.
“Yes, I’m so glad I spent all those thousands sending you to graduate school.”
“You should talk.”
“Hey, I get a pass. I’m officially retired. Remember?” He winked at her over his little half-frame reading specs.
His name was still at the top of his law firm’s stationery, but he had not actively practiced since the death of Flynn’s mother the year before.
“If you don’t watch out, Dad, I’ll demand a raise.”
“Sweetie, you know I wish I could pay you—”
“Dad, I’m kidding. You know that.”
The last thing she expected was a paycheck. Her dad had insisted on giving both her and her son room and board since she had offered to take a leave of absence from her college teaching career to move to Weston and help him set up his shop.
Dan had opened Weston Books in February and his receipts had yet to even make the modest rent on his space. Still, Weston was a summer town. June was only a couple of weeks away. Soon they would have the bookshelves fully stocked with a wide variety of out-of-print, rare, or otherwise collectible books that would presumably enchant the hordes of summer vacationers who would wander the quaint, antebellum streets of Weston, Missouri.
She pulled out the old dictionary from the Pilcher estate and drew from it her oddball treasure of the day.
“Look at this photograph, Dad. It must be really old. Do you think it might be worth anything?”
He examined the picture, tilting it to catch more light. The vintage overhead lights that resembled old gaslight fixtures had looked so stunning in the antique reproduction hardware catalog when Flynn had ordered them. Unfortunately, they gave off a disappointing amount of illumination, especially bad for a bookstore. Fashion had trumped function, as usual.
“I don’t really know. Go ask that guy at the antique store on the corner. He might know something.”
She left the shop and headed over to Heilbocker’s Antiques, the largest of the town’s four antique stores. She unconsciously smiled as she walked. The late May afternoon swelled ripe and lovely. A fresh, flower-scented breeze wafted over from the yard of the large, yellow Victorian-era Bed and Breakfast called the Sunshine House. Flynn thought the house’s Queen Anne detailing looked out of place in Weston since the little city had reached its peak as a Missouri river boat town before the Civil War.
Most of the Main Street architecture dated from the 1830s and 40s. A simpler, Colonial revival style was in vogue then. The surviving houses from that period tended to be more Carpenter Gothic than Victorian. Some even had slave quarters in their backyards, a chilling reminder of Missouri’s Border State past.
When the railroad came West in the 1860s and chose Kansas City—forty miles to the south—as its locus, the river traffic dried up and Weston slowly died. It didn’t help that a devastating flood hit the town in the 1890s. When the waters receded the Missouri River had changed its course, ending up four miles from the city docks.
* * * * *
“It’s an albumen print,” said Mr. Heilbocker. He squinted through his bifocals at the picture, curling his upper lip in the effort. This displayed some unsightly brownish dentures, so Flynn glanced away. His shop was a mess. How did he ever find anything? Her dad’s store was practically antiseptic compared to this place.
“You mean like egg whites?”
“Yes, they used it as a base to coat the glass negatives as well as the paper prints. It held the silver nitrate, you see.”
“You seem to know a lot about old photographs, Mr. Heibocker.”
“Call me Don, young lady.”
“I’m Flynn Keirnan.” She smiled at being called “young lady.” At thirty-six, she didn’t hear that much anymore. But she was young enough to be his daughter, maybe even granddaughter, so she supposed that justified his use of the term.
“My dad just opened Weston—”
“—Weston Books.” He grinned. “This is a small town, Missy. Not much escapes our notice.”
He flipped the photograph over and looked at the markings on the back. No date, sadly, but a name in scratchy, faded ink: “Medora Lamb.”
“The photographer?” she ventured.
“Or the subject.”
“I wonder which?” Certainly the subject, given the era. Male photographers had to outnumber females by a thousand-to-one back then, she assumed.
“This size was called a ‘cabinet card.’ Definitely pre-1880.” He studied the photograph further and scratched his chin.
“I think this might be one of those—oh, what were they called?—ghost pictures, spirit pictures?”
“These two guys are supposed to be ghosts?” She grinned as she looked at the two floating young men once again. They seemed like such opposites. Did they represent an angel and a devil sitting on the girl’s shoulders?
He shrugged. “Who knows? I just seem to remember a special on the History Channel about Victorian séances and the like. Spiritualism was very big back then. There were photographers who claimed they could take pictures of the departed.”
“What a scam.”
“I suppose. Folks believed in those séances, though. And photography was just in its infancy, remember. People weren’t too sophisticated about it. I suppose a grieving relative was even more gullible than most.”
“Easy marks.” She smiled sadly and he nodded in agreement.
“I’m willing to offer you a hundred dollars—just on spec—that this might be one of those spirit photos.”
She practically had to pick her jaw up off the worn wooden floor of his shop. So much for her poker face. She had hoped he might give her twenty bucks, maybe twenty-five, tops.
“Of course, I would offer more,” he continued, “if you had a provenance on the thing.”
“Excuse me, a providence?”
“Pro-ve-NANCE.” The old man squelched a sigh, but it exited his hairy nostrils so she heard it anyway.
“The history of its ownership, dear. Where did it come from? Who are these individuals? Were they or the photographer someone famous?”
Flynn thanked him for his time. She told him she would consider his offer, but her plans were already speeding in a different direction. If this old guy was prepared to pay her a hundred bucks for the thing, she might make some real money auctioning it on the Internet.
She left the shop tingling with the sense that carrion might be a taste she could acquire after all.
The People of the State of Illinois
Testimony before the Criminal Court of Cook County, in said County and State, held at the Criminal Court House, in the City of Chicago on Monday, being the 12th day of April in the Year of Our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seventy-five and of the Independence of the United States, the ninety-ninth.
Joseph Simon, a witness called and sworn on behalf of the People, was examined in chief by State’s Attorney Mr. Lynch.
Mr. Lynch: Please state your name, age, and occupation.
Simon: My name is Joe—I mean Joseph—Simon. I’m twenty-three years old and I work for the Post Office. I deliver the mail.
Lynch: Tell us what brought you to the home of Alec Ingersoll on the afternoon of Tuesday, March the second.
Simon: Delivering the mail, of course.
[laughter in courtroom. Judge calls for order.]
Lynch: Did you know Mr. Ingersoll by sight?
Simon: Oh, yeah. I knew ‘em all. He and his wife and the other man living there, Mr. Langley. They all received lots of mail from back east.
Lynch: What time did you arrive at the house?
Simon: One or so. The usual for the p.m. delivery on that route.
Lynch: What caused you to enter the home?
Simon: I had a C.O.D. Three dollars due. So I rang the bell. Rang it a lot. Nobody answered so I was about to leave a note when Gracie—that’s a girl who works for the Ingersolls part-time—she saw me at the door and called hello. See, she also works for the folks across the street, housecleaning and odd jobs and such. She was on the neighbor’s porch beating rugs when she saw me.
I said, “Hey, Gracie, where is everybody?”
She said the servants got every Tuesday off, but that she was sure Mr. Ingersoll was home. She saw him go in the house not half an hour before and she didn’t think he’d come back out yet.
Lynch: Then what happened?
Simon: She came over and opened the door—it wasn’t locked—and she stuck her head in and called for the Missus.
Lynch: Mrs. Ingersoll?
Simon: Yeah, though she don’t go by Ingersoll, you know. She calls herself, I mean, called herself Miss Lamb. That was her maiden name. Gracie said she didn’t use her husband’s name because she was a famous painter, but I never heard of her. I guess she was famous back in New York.
Lynch: Did anyone answer when the girl called for her mistress?
Simon: No, not a sound. We thought the place had to be empty, so Gracie asked me if I wanted to come into the front parlor to see the bloody lions.
The Court: Young man, I do not allow profanity in my courtroom.
Simon: Oh, no, Your Honor, sir. I didn’t mean any profanity. These lions on each side of the fireplace, they were carved out of some kind of rock that looked like bloody ice so Gracie called ‘em the “bloody lions” as kind of a joke.
[The defendant is heard to say the words, “Rose quartz.”]
The Court: Mr. Oberholtzer, instruct your client not to speak until he is placed on the witness stand.
Mr. Oberholtzer, on behalf of the defendant: Yes, your honor. He merely wished to clarify that the lions were carved from rose quartz, to clear up the confusion.
The Court: Proceed, Mr. Lynch.
Lynch: Why were you so interested in seeing these things?
Simon: Gracie talked a lot about ‘em. Sounded curious, that’s all. I didn’t mean any harm by it.
Lynch: You didn’t think of yourself as a trespasser?
The Court: Answer the question, son.
Simon: I always wanted to see inside that house. Curiosity, plain and simple. I admit it. Suppose it was wrong, but I was curious because of all the scandalous stuff that Gracie said went on in there.
Lynch: What did she tell you about the Ingersoll house?
Oberholtzer: Objection, Your Honor. Hearsay.
Lynch: I’m not offering it for the truth of the matter, your Honor, but just for what the witness had been told. To establish his motive for entering the house.
The Court: I’ll allow it for that narrow purpose. Continue.
Simon: Gracie said that Mrs. Ingersoll took naked photographs of Mr. Langley. She walked into the studio one day and saw ‘em. He was posing for a picture and wasn’t wearing nothing but a smile. [laughs]
[laughter in the courtroom. Judge calls for order.]
Lynch: So you went in there hoping to see Mr. Langley naked?
[more laughter in the courtroom]
Simon: No, sir! I just thought, you know, there might be some pictures lying around. Of people, maybe even women. And anyway, Mr. Ingersoll was supposed to be home and I needed him to pay for the parcel. Well, we went in. Before we even got to the parlor, though, we both heard a sound from upstairs.
Lynch: What sort of sound?
Simon: Strange. Like a sob. Only it wasn’t a woman’s voice. Gracie thought we should go see what it was, but she was scared to go upstairs because the house had got broken into just the week before.
Lynch: So you took it upon yourself to investigate?
Simon: Guess so. I mean, if someone was home, they could pay the cash due on the parcel and I wouldn’t have to haul it back again. It was kind of heavy—a box full of photographic chemicals that Miss Lamb ordered from a firm in Boston. I recognized the return address.
She got a package like that every couple of months. She told me what was in it. She wanted me to be careful with the packages as some of the chemicals were dangerous.
Lynch: Dangerous in what way?
Simon: I don’t know. She didn’t say. Anyway, Gracie and me went upstairs and we didn’t see nobody in any of the rooms, but there had to be somebody home so we thought they must be up in the tower room where Mrs. Ingersoll had her studio. I told Gracie to stay put and I went up by myself.
Lynch: Describe what you saw when you entered the tower room.
Simon: Well, first I saw Mr. Ingersoll. He was sitting on a bench or something.
Lynch: What was he doing?
Simon: Nothing. Just sitting. He was kinda slumped forward with his elbows resting on his knees. He looked up at me, but he didn’t say anything just then. He seemed strange, like he didn’t even know me though he used to see me on my Saturday deliveries and called me by name sometimes.
I started to explain why I was looking for him—you know, the C.O.D—but then I saw the others.
Lynch: What others?
Simon: Well, Miss Lamb—Mrs. Ingersoll—was sitting at a table or desk of some kind and she had her head down on the table like she was sleeping. I assumed she was sleeping until I saw Mr. Langley. He was sitting in a chaise lounge and staring out of the windows like he might be enjoying the view, but where his head rested back on the upholstery there was this big, dark stain, like spilled wine.
Then it hit me—he was dead. I turned to Mr. Ingersoll and I said something like, “What in hell is going on here?”—pardon my language, Your Honor, but that’s what I said.
He opened his mouth like he wanted to say something but no words came out. He had such an empty look in his eyes that he made me think of those stories you read in the penny press about hoodoo zombies. And then I saw it.
Lynch: Saw what?
Simon: The gun. Mr. Ingersoll had a pistol in his hand.
Lynch: Did he point it at you?
Simon: No. He seemed to be just holding it. It was pointing at the floor, I guess. He said, “Something terrible has happened here.” He said it in such a strange way, it chilled my blood. Like a little child might say it. And his voice had a catch in it like somebody does when they’ve been crying. And then I saw that his face was wet, with tears, I guess.
Lynch: Then what?
Simon: I took off running. I didn’t care to talk to anybody holding a gun. I dashed down the stairs, grabbed Gracie’s arm, and dragged her out with me. We didn’t stop running ‘til we found a policeman two blocks over.