Fine Spirits [Spirits 02]

 
 
 

FINE SPIRITS

By Alice Duncan

Book #2 in the “Spirits” series.
 
 

Chapter One
 

      
First off, it must be clearly understood by one and all that I'm not a priest. I think you need to be a Catholic or an Episcopalian, not to mention a member of male gender, in order to become a priest, and I'm none of those things. I'm female, and my family has always attended the First Methodist Episcopal Church, North, on the corner of Marengo Avenue and Colorado Street, in the fair city of Pasadena, California.

      
Therefore, when Mrs. Griselda Bissel (relict of the late Mr. Francis Bissel, and as rich as Croesus but nowhere near as regal) called me on the telephone at my own modest family home on South Marengo Avenue in Pasadena from her mansion on Foothill Boulevard in Altadena and asked me a rather startling question, I hesitated. The reason I did so is that, as stated above, I am not a priest. In point of fact, I'm a spiritualist medium; but more about that later.

      
My name is Daisy Gumm Majesty. Most people who know me think Daisy is short for Desdemona, but it's not. When I was ten years old and first started playing around with various forms of spiritualism (to wit, at the time, an old Ouija board), I decided Daisy was too pedestrian a name for a spiritualist. I opted to become Desdemona. It stuck, although no one calls me anything but Daisy unless they don't know me.

      
As mentioned, I am a spiritualist by trade, and it's a darned good one. Mind you, I wouldn't object to being supported by my husband Billy. However, since the Great War Billy's been confined to a wheelchair. His war experience, which occurred shortly after we were wed, has affected our lives and our marriage tremendously. Not to mention catastrophically.

      
I'm not complaining. Many lives were altered far more tragically than ours. My own aunt Viola lost her only son, which left a gaping hole in her life that will never be filled. Losing a child has got to be worse than having a crippled husband.

      
Still, I sometimes got the feeling that Billy believed he'd have been better off if the Huns had killed him outright instead of leaving him in the pitiful condition that passed, after the war, for his life. Truth to tell, sometimes I thought so, too.

      
No matter how much I loved him, and I did, life was hard for both of us because of his terrible injuries and the pain and depression they engendered, also in both of us. They call it “shell-shock” in soldiers. I don't know if there's a name for what the shell-shocked soldiers' wives suffered from, but I had a bad case of it, whatever it was.

      
Billy hated how I earned our living, even though I hauled in more money than if I were to work as, say, a clerk at Nash's Department Store or as a housemaid in a rich person's home. There were lots of rich people in Pasadena back then. The only reason my family lived there was because the rich folks needed people to work for them, and we were they. The workers, that is to say.

      
We (Billy and I) lived in a bungalow on South Marengo Avenue which we'd bought primarily by using the proceeds from my spiritualist business, so you'd think he'd have been more appreciative of my efforts. He wasn't. He hated it that I earned the money in our marriage, even though his inability to do so wasn't his fault or mine.

      
The fault lay with the be-damned Kaiser and his miserable soldiers who gassed Billy out of his foxhole in France, then shot him when he tried to crawl to safety. When Billy finally came home to me, he was more dead than alive and crippled for life. Which just goes to prove (if anyone doesn't know it already) how fair life is, which is not at all.

      
My parents, Joe and Peggy Gumm, lived with us, as did my aunt Viola Gumm, the one who lost the son and who was widely acknowledged to be the best cook in Pasadena, if not the entire United States. Aunt Vi worked as a cook for Mrs. Madeline Kincaid, who owned a gigantic mansion on Orange Grove Boulevard, but we got to eat her cooking, too, which meant that my entire life at the time wasn't a total wreck; just the marriage part.

      
Anyhow, when the telephone in the kitchen jangled on that dreary late-November day in 1920, Billy and I were alone in the house. Ma had gone to her job at the Hotel Marengo, where she was head bookkeeper. Aunt Vi had gone to work at Mrs. Kincaid's place. I had no idea where Pa was. He had been a chauffeur for rich Hollywood actors, directors, and producers and the like, but heart problems had kept him idle for a couple of years. Still, he was a sociable man, and he enjoyed visiting friends. Pa had never met a stranger, so his sources for fraternizing were plentiful.

      
Our telephone number was Colorado 13, and the ring was ours, as defined by the length and number of rings. In 1920, even in so sophisticated a place as Pasadena, most of us shared the telephone wire with several other families. These “party” lines were good for the telephone company, I guess, but they could be hard on those of us who shared the wire.

      
One woman in particular on our party line was a dedicated pain in the neck, a snoop, and a gossip. She always tried to remain on the wire during my own personal telephone calls. In a way I couldn't blame her, since my calls were unquestionably more interesting than hers, if only because my calls usually featured people wanting me to summon up their dead relatives for a chat and things like that.

      
I recognized her voice as soon as I picked up the receiver. “Mrs. Barrow?” I always tried to be polite, even when I wanted to shout at her. “This call is for me, I believe. That was our ring.”

      
“Daisy? Daisy Majesty? Is that you?” It was Mrs. Bissel. I could tell it was she because I heard her pack of dachshunds baying in the background. Any time anyone talked to Mrs. Bissel over the telephone, the hounds barked a backup accompaniment to the conversation. Mrs. Bissel claimed her dogs were like children in that regard: as soon as your attention swerved away from them, they started acting up.

      
“Yes. How do you do, Mrs. Bissel. One moment please.” I sucked in air and told myself to be calm. “Mrs. Barrow, hang up your telephone now. I won't be long.”

      
Mrs. Barrow said, “Humph,” in an indignant voice and slammed her receiver in the cradle. You'd have thought I'd recommended she go outdoors and shoot herself-a suggestion that had occurred to me more than once, but which I'd not offered the unmitigated magpie thus far. I believe this consideration shows a good deal of restraint on my part.

      
After trying and failing to repress a sigh, I spoke to Mrs. Bissel again. “How do you do, Mrs. Bissel?”

      
“What? Oh, I'm well, thank you. Or . . . No, I'm not well.”

      
“I'm sorry to hear it.”

      
All right, I'm going to say something now that may be perceived as mean-spirited by some. But the fact is that every now and then, when I was dealing with rich matrons who'd never been forced to do a day's work in their lives, who had all the time in the world not to do it in, and who forgot that the rest of us weren't so lucky, I became a trifle irritable. In fact, I occasionally became downright short-tempered, although I exercised extreme self-control and never let it show.

      
Those of us who have had to work for a living most of our lives don't have time to dither. Darned near every single one of the wealthy women who availed themselves of my spiritualistic services in those days were ditherers. Usually this didn't bother me. That day it did, mainly because Billy and I had been quarreling. Again.

      
“Actually, it's not that
I'm
ill,” Mrs. Bissel went on. “It's something else.” Her voice dropped to a sepulchral whisper on the
something else
part of this speech.

      
This time I was successful in suppressing my sigh. In the time it would take her to tell me her problem, I'd probably have been able to sweep the kitchen and vacuum-clean the living room rug--or resume bickering with Billy. But instead of doing something useful, I had to stand in the kitchen with the telephone's ear piece jammed against my head, the black mouthpiece sticking out of the wall, and listen to a woman who wasn't accustomed to thinking think. Can you tell I was in a really bad mood?

      
“I'm glad you're not ill,” I said pleasantly. I was always pleasant to the clients, even those whom I'd rather strangle. To be fair, Mrs. Bissel wasn't one of my imaginary stranglees. She, although daffy, silly, and a general waster of my time, was a very nice lady.

      
Besides, I had designs on one of her dogs. Her female dachshund, Lucille, had, with the help of her male companion Lancelot, just given birth to four of the most adorable puppies I'd ever seen in my life. They were black with little tan spots over their eyes, tan feet and muzzles, and were as shiny as the seals I'd seen in the Griffith Park Zoo in Los Angeles. I wanted one. What's more, I suspected that Mrs. Bissel would be willing to trade one of the pups for a séance if I worked on her just right.

      
Mainly I wanted the dog for Billy. He often got lonely and angry when I left home to work as a spiritualist. Since he claimed it was
what
I did, rather than the fact that I had to work at all, that bothered him, I was supposed to understand that he wouldn't have cared if I'd left him every day to work at Nash's or as a typist for an attorney or done something else “normal.”

      
I didn't buy it. I think he'd have hated my having to earn our living no matter how I did it. In a way I could understand his attitude. Until the war, Billy had never been one to sit idle and let others do for him. He'd done all sorts of things to earn money before he became a soldier, he was a whiz at automobile mechanics, and he'd had a job waiting for him at Hull Motor Company after the war . . . if he'd still been healthy and whole.

      
It was hard on his masculine pride to be unable to work. Heck, it was hard on me, too, although in my case pride had nothing to do with it. I hoped that a dog, especially one as sweet and funny-looking as one of those dachshund pups, would keep him company. At that point I was willing to try anything to make Billy happy. Well, except give up my work, because I couldn't afford to do that.

      
“It's something else,” said Mrs. Bissel, still sounding as if she were buried in a tomb and attempting to communicate with a living entity, or
vice versa
.

      
“Ah,” I said mysteriously. Sounding mysterious had become second nature to me years earlier.

      
“It's because my house is
haunted
.”

      
That took me aback, which was unusual, given my line of work. “Um, I beg your pardon?”

      
“Oh, Daisy!” Mrs. Bissel wailed. Being fair again, I must confess that Mrs. Bissel didn't wail at me very often. Mrs. Kincaid, my aunt Vi's employer and one of my very best customers, was a first-class wailer, but Mrs. Bissel generally remained calm when speaking to me. “My house is being haunted! By a spirit. Or a ghost. I don't know what it is, but it's belowstairs, and the servants are all terrified, and so am I, and I don't know what to do about it, so I called you. I need you to get rid of the spirit--or maybe it's a ghost--that's haunting my house!”

      
Ah-ha. Very interesting. As I mentioned earlier, however, I'm not a priest. The fact of the matter is that I'm no sort of ministerially sanctioned exorcist. To tell the absolute, unvarnished truth, I don't even believe in spirits, or hants, or ghosts of any variety. I use them for my work, which is mainly conducting séances and pretending to chat with folks raised from the Great Beyond with the help of my spiritual control, a Scottish fellow named Rolly, but I don't believe in them.

      
I told Mrs. Bissel the part about my not being an exorcist. “Um, as much as I'd love to be of service to you, Mrs. Bissel, I don't think I'm the one to help you. Don't you need a priest to conduct an exorcism of your house? I'm not a priest.”

      
“Of course you're not! But I trust you, Daisy. You're the
only
one I trust to do the job properly.”

      
This flattering declaration sailed through the telephone wire and landed in my ear even though I'd just told her I was not equipped to do the job at all, much less properly. Rich people have always confounded me. “Er, I'm not sure, Mrs. Bissel. I've never done anything like ridding a house of a spirit--”

      
“Or a ghost,” she supplied.

      
Right. “--before.”

      
“Nonsense. You speak to the spirits all the time. You understand how to communicate with them. You can persuade them to do what you want them to do. I'm sure you can do something to rid my home of this one tiny little demon. You have the gift, Daisy. Everyone knows it. This thing ghost hasn't been there long, and it's just the one little spirit. Unless it's a ghost. Well, you know, it probably doesn't matter.”

      
Not to me, it didn't. It could have been a wart hog, and it wouldn't have mattered to me, although a wart hog would probably be easier to get rid of than a spirit. Or ghost.

      
I continued to waver, mainly because I knew that whatever had taken up residence in Mrs. Bissel's basement, it wasn't anything I could tackle with a clear conscience, with or without help from the fictitious Rolly, and might even be dangerous. I supposed a lunatic or an escaped criminal could have decided to hide out there, although that seemed almost as far-fetched as a haunting.

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