Finn Kelley was mesmerizing on stage, Samuel had to admit that. He was tall and slender in that graceful way that people called willowy, with dark hair and oddly pale eyes. Finn’s eyes were actually gray, Samuel knew. He’d seen them on the poster pasted outside the theater, which offered a glamorous headshot of the stage-show psychic.
Samuel had not wanted to come to this ridiculous show, but his friend Kaitlin had invited him. Well, dragged him along was more like it. But Samuel had to admit that he was finding the show entertaining, though perhaps not for the same reasons as the rest of the crowd.
Finn had a wireless microphone, and he held it casually as he watched the crowd with a keen gaze. “I have a message,” he said, “for a woman whose name starts with J— Jennifer, Janine, Judith—” There was some murmuring from the crowd in response and Finn looked pleased. “Yes, I’m receiving a message from an older male relative who passed recently from— from something with his heart, I’m getting a heart problem of some kind.” While he spoke, Finn pressed a hand over his own heart, as if in sympathy. “And I’ve got an image of jewelry, a ring or an earring maybe. Something he gave you—”
At this point a woman in the crowd was waving her hand around. Finn acknowledged her, coming to the front of the stage and crouching down, smiling, friendly. “He wants you to know that he’s all right,” Finn said gently. “And he knows you’ve had doubts about what you said to him, and what you left out. He wants you to know that he knew what you wanted to say, better than you think.”
“My dad,” the woman said, wiping tears from her eyes.
“Your dad,” Finn repeated into the microphone, so that the audience could hear the response. “A stroke, yes. A heart-related ailment. And he gave you that ring. Was it your birthday? I’m getting some holiday. Birthday, yes,” he said with a smile, as the woman confirmed it. “Well, he’s doing quite well now, and—” Finn laughed. “And I’m getting something about a trip— long car ride— some funny story—” The woman eagerly filled in the details, and Finn repeated them.
The man was a masterful cold reader, Samuel realized. Finn’s invitations were vague half-questions, and he left it to the audience— his marks— to fit the open-ended prompts into their lives. When the show was over, they’d remember Finn being accurate in every detail, when in fact he’d known nothing and simply played the odds.
A woman whose name started with J— in a theater audience of a hundred people there had to be at least one or two, especially with Jenny being such a common name, and even more so if you were going to count nicknames and names that sounded like they started with J, such as Georgia. Almost everyone had an older male relative who’d passed on, and a heart ailment could theoretically describe any kind of death, since everyone did technically die because their heart stopped beating. Male relatives often gave women jewelry, and everybody had a funny story about a long car ride.
But the woman was entranced. She believed that Finn was speaking with her father, that Finn knew things that otherwise he could never have known. She sat down looking flushed and happy, while applause sounded in the theater.
When it got quiet again, Finn started pacing on the stage, his face twisting slightly as if he was listening to something he couldn’t quite hear. He laughed a bit, and the amusement shone on his face. “Sorry, folks,” he said. “There are a lot of spirits here, and I’m afraid they don’t like standing in line in the afterlife any more than they do down here.” There was laughter from the audience at that.
“All right,” Finn said. “I’m getting a feeling of a man— whose name starts with S. Whose grandmother—”
Samuel could not resist the opportunity. Beside him, Kaitlin’s expression was dismayed and disapproving, but Samuel was determined. He had paid for a ticket to this show, and he wanted to get his money’s worth.
Finn looked a little wary when Samuel stood up immediately. Samuel could see it in the narrowing of Finn’s pale eyes. But Finn went along with it. “You’re so sure it’s you?” he asked, smiling. “If that’s the case, I think perhaps you’ve already gotten hints that your grandmother wants to speak with you.”
“Oh, yes,” Samuel said. He had a good stage voice himself, and projected out over the audience without the help of Finn’s microphone. That earned him the second brief suspicious glance from Finn.
“Some sort of breathing trouble, your grandmother,” said Finn, watching him carefully.
“Lung cancer!” Samuel announced.
“Ah. Yes. Well, she wants you to know that she loved you—” It was here that Finn stopped. He’d not been smiling before, but he began to now. “Oh, I see, I see.” He looked out over the audience. “My friends, I believe we have a skeptic on our hands!”
Samuel had expected to get a little farther than this. Finn Kelley was definitely one of the best cold readers Samuel had ever seen. But it was still a trick. The man was no more psychic than Samuel was.
“So you don’t believe in all of this nonsense,” Finn said, emphasizing the word with an almost flirtatious expression. There were boos from the audience, but Finn held up his hand. “Now, now. Let’s hear him out. In fact, why don’t you come up here on stage?”
Samuel ignored Kaitlin shaking her head and climbed the steps onto the stage amid applause from the audience. Once there, Samuel could see that he and Finn were about the same height, though Samuel had about thirty pounds on the man. Up close, Finn looked as relaxed as he’d seemed. He wasn't even sweating.
For some reason, Samuel felt a bit nervous himself, not so much because of the stage but in the way people felt when in close proximity to a handsome, charming man. Samuel reminded himself that Finn’s charm was nothing but a stage persona, and if he was attractive, so what? He was still a fraud.
“Will you tell us your name, please?” Finn asked.
Samuel wanted to challenge him on that— Don’t you know already? But it was a cheap shot, and Finn would have an answer for it. “Samuel Allsbury.”
“Samuel Allsbury,” Finn repeated. “Lovely to meet you. My name is Finn Kelley.”
“And you’re cold reading,” Samuel said. The accusation didn’t throw Finn in the slightest. In fact, Finn just brought the microphone closer to Samuel’s mouth, forcing him to repeat the charge so everyone could hear. It went out over a hushed crowd.
“Is that what I’m doing?” Finn asked.
“Yeah. There are lots of men whose names start with S, and by our age, of course our grandmothers have passed. And breathing trouble could mean any kind of death.”
“All very true,” Finn said. But he still wore an easy smile.
Samuel could feel himself getting frustrated. “So you give up on reading me?” he asked.
“Well, I might be tempted to give up,” Finn said, “if your grandmother weren’t speaking to me at the moment.”
There was a gasp from the crowd. “Then prove it!” Samuel exclaimed. “Tell me something only she would know.”
Finn took a few steps away now, rolling his shoulders, looking quite comfortable. “You weren’t close. You didn’t see much of her.”
“What, you get that because I’m not all broken up talking about her?”
“She was religious, you aren’t.”
“That’s a common thing today.”
Finn narrowed his eyes at Samuel, as if studying him. “But now that she’s gone, you wish you knew more about her.”
Samuel crossed his arms, then self-consciously dropped the defensive gesture. “So tell me about her. What was her name?”
“Oh, they don’t have much use for names on the other side,” Finn said. “Names don’t always come through for me.”
Samuel gave a little laugh. “That’s convenient.”
Finn maintained his smile. “She lived by the water.”
“That’s so vague! Almost everybody lives near some sort of water—”
“She used to read to you when you visited.”
“No.” It was the first outright denial, and it brought a gasp from the crowd.
Finn stopped his pacing and looked at Samuel for a second with a piercing gaze. “Yes, she did,” he said.
Samuel felt himself flush. “That just proves you can tell when I’m lying.”
“Mmm,” Finn said, smiling again. “What’s the book about the tree and all the dogs? Do you like my hat? Oh, Go, Dog, Go! She read you that.”
Samuel’s mouth dropped open. “You’re hot reading!”
“Hot reading,” Finn repeated, looking delighted. “Do you know what that is, my friends? Samuel here thinks I did research on him before the show. But, Samuel, how am I going to find out what book she read you? You’re hardly on social media, are you? And besides, you weren’t even planning to be here. Your friend dragged you along.”
Samuel clenched his hands together. “You’ve proved nothing.”
“Well, we’ve entertained the audience, at least!” Finn said, with a dramatic gesture and the crowd erupted in cheers. “And,” Finn said, leaning closer, as if he were speaking just to Samuel, but of course, with the microphone in front of his lips— “her name was Grace.”
“Proves nothing,” Samuel retorted, feeling his face blaze.
“We’ll agree to disagree, then,” Finn said, smiling like he’d won. Which he clearly had. “Now I’ve got a line of impatient spirits here. Someone is telling a story about a pair of shoes—”
Samuel waited outside the theater after the show, and Kaitlin insisted on waiting too, although she stayed in her car. Samuel stood across the street, leaving Finn access to the parking lot if he wanted, or he could cross the street to talk to Samuel. Finn crossed the street.
“You’re a fraud and a thief,” Samuel said. “You’re really fucking good at it, but it’s still a con.”
Finn was buttoning his coat, a gray, puffy jacket that looked quite warm. The wind had pinked up his cheeks, and here, off the stage, on the ground, Finn looked less imposing and instead almost delicate, beautiful with his pale eyes and fine features. He did not smile, but neither did he look particularly upset. And there was no bullshit now. “It’s entertainment,” Finn said.
“You’re taking their money.”
“To help them feel better.” Finn pulled a pair of gloves out of his pocket. “My spirit guide only lets through the loving, happy spirits—”
“You don’t have a spirit guide!”
Finn sighed. “It’s like therapy. Gives them closure after a loss.”
“How noble. Look, you want to do that, fine, but don’t take money for it—”
Finn looked at him sharply, the master cold reader returning at once. Samuel felt incredibly vulnerable in front of that gaze. “Oh, I see,” Finn said. “That’s what you do. You never take money for it.” He began to smile. “You’re in the same profession as me. So where do you—”
“What does your spirit guide tell you?” Samuel snapped.
Finn looked amused as he accepted the challenge, giving Samuel a full once-over that Samuel could almost feel. “Dark jeans and a black t-shirt. Navy blue coat, good condition. Five o’clock shadow, carefully tended. Muddy shoes. Contact lenses, no redness to the eyes even at this hour.” He gave an amused snort. “You’re a ghost hunter. You think that’s not unethical? Giving people reasons to be afraid?”
“We cleanse houses and provide resolution—”
“Oh, of course. But that doesn’t stop your marks from seeing ghosts everywhere they go after that. You terrify them—”
“It’s not like that!”
“Oh, really? Your con is so much nobler than mine?” In his irritation, Finn’s cheeks had grown even more flushed and the mark of passion on his face was far too alluring.
“Fine!” Samuel growled. “You want to see it? Come with me—”
At that moment, the streetlight above them began to flicker, and the odd random interludes of darkness and light seemed to take the wind out of their sails.
Finn said calmly, “Name the time and place, and I will.”
When Samuel finally got back to Kaitlin, he climbed into the car with an apology. “Sorry. I know you didn’t bring me here to make a fuss—”
Kaitlin shrugged. “I don’t know what I expected, honestly. Can’t take you anywhere.”
“He’s a fraud, Kaitlin. Not that we have the moral high ground on that, I guess. Anyway, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to get so loud.”
Kaitlin looked at him curiously. “Oh, were you shouting? I didn’t hear anything.”