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The Charlatan

The Charlatan

By: James G. Boswell

Natasha groaned as she awoke to the sound of her phone buzzing against her headboard. Her forehead throbbed with pain while nausea engulfed her stomach. She smacked her dry lips and felt overpowered by thirst.

With her eyes shut, she fumbled her hand around until she found her phone and grabbed it. She tapped the spot where she thought the “answer” button might be on the touch screen. Then, with a hacking cough, she held the receiver up to her mouth and said, “Hello?”

A woman’s voice said, “Hello, I’m calling for the owner of Natasha’s Crossing Over Encounters.”

“Whaddya want?”

“Uh… I understand you’re a psychic who can communicate with people who’ve passed on, is that correct?”

Natasha opened her bloodshot eyes and sat up.

“Ahem, yes that’s right. Sorry, I thought you were a salesperson. How can I help you?”

“My name is Serena Henderson. My husband passed away not long ago, but I still feel his presence in our condo. I’d like you to come see if you can communicate with him.”

“Absolutely, Mrs. Henderson.”

“Please, call me Serena.”

“Alright, Serena. Can you give me your address?”

“It’s 1011 Paulson Street, suite 1007.”

Natasha got out of bed and walked over to her flimsy desk in her small, ramshackle bedroom. The beer cans that covered the floor clanked against each other as she shuffled through them. A few pieces of acid blotter paper sat on the desk next to her old, outdated laptop. She considered taking one, but decided it would be best to not show up at the client’s home tripping.

She opened the laptop’s lid and typed Serena’s name and address into a search engine. The first search result was a directory page for “Serena and Michael Henderson.” Beneath it was a link to a week-old article on the city newspaper’s website. The headline said, “Banker’s Suicide Stuns Community.”


Natasha knocked on the woodgrain-patterned door inside the condo complex. It was so solid and heavy that it hurt her knuckles.

The door opened a few moments later to reveal a petite woman with auburn hair standing in the doorway. She wore grey suit pants, a white short-sleeved button up shirt, and black pumps. Natasha felt underdressed in her plain black t-shirt, jeans, and tennis shoes.

The woman looked her up and down with an expression of mild surprise. “You’re the psychic?” she said.

Natasha smiled as she stuck her hand out and said, “Yes, I’m Natasha. Good to meet you.”

After a slight hesitation, the woman shook her hand and said, “Nice to meet you as well. I’m Serena. Please come in.”

Natasha noticed several finger-shaped bruises on the underside of Serena’s right arm. She glanced at her other arm as she walked past her into the condo’s living room and saw similar bruises there as well.

The condo had posh hardwood floors, chrome-plated fixtures and luxurious art deco furniture. Framed artwork of various sizes and styles covered the white-painted walls. There was a large portrait of Serena in a wedding dress embracing a man in a tuxedo as a centerpiece. The far wall consisted of plate glass windows revealing a panoramic view of the city’s skyline.

As Natasha looked around, she noticed a stack of papers including what appeared to be several bills on an end table. Each one had phrases such as “PAST DUE” and “FINAL NOTICE” stamped upon them in big red block letters.

“That’s not a good sign,” she thought. “How can people afford a place like this and not be able to pay their bills? That means she probably won’t be able to pay me anytime soon, either. Oh well, I’m already here. I guess I’ll see this through.”

“You have a beautiful home,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“Please accept my condolences for Michael’s passing.”

Serena’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, “How did you know my husband’s name?”

Natasha shrugged and said, “I’m a psychic. I also understand that his death was a suicide, is this correct?”

Serena looked at Natasha with her mouth agape, then her face fell, and she nodded. With sadness in her voice, she said, “Yes, that’s true.”

“Yet, you still feel his presence you say?”

“Yes, even though Michael died more than a week ago, I still feel as if he’s here. Every morning when I wake up, I see an indent on his pillow and his covers tossed aside as if he’d slept there the night before. I even found his cufflinks and one of his ties set out on top of his dresser as if he was getting ready for work. And a couple days ago, I was making dinner in the kitchen and went into the bedroom for a moment. When I returned, I found a bowl of his cereal sitting on the countertop.” She let out a stilted laugh and said, “He never did like my cooking.”

Tears began to stream down Serena’s face.

Natasha said, “May I ask how he died?”

Serena sniffled, then gave her a puzzled look and said, “I thought you were psychic.”

Natasha cringed and said, “Well… I… you see… it’s not always clear what–”

“He electrocuted himself. While I was out having dinner with some clients, he drew a bath in our bathroom, sat in the water, and dropped a radio into it. The shock blew out the circuit breaker, and the condo was pitch black when I got home. I searched the entire place with a flashlight before I found him in there. The sight was horrific.”

Serena started to cry, then she turned around and buried her face into her hands. Natasha shuffled her feet and swung her arms in awkward discomfort.

Sobbing, Serena said, “I thought we were happy together. I thought he was happy. Please, help me understand why he killed himself, and why’s he still here.”

A buzzing sound came from Serena’s pocket. She reached into it and took out her phone, then typed in her code to unlock it. Natasha saw the code over her shoulder and memorized it. Serena wiped the tears from her eyes as she looked at the screen.

“Excuse me, Natasha. I just got an urgent email from one of my clients. I need to send them a file from my computer in my home office. I’ll be back in a moment.”

“You haven’t taken time off from work to grieve?”

“I can’t. I’m a corporate finance lawyer and I’m in the middle of a major acquisition for one of my firm’s largest clients. Most of my colleagues don’t even know about Michael’s death yet. I’ll tell them when the time is right.”

Natasha looked shocked for a moment and then said, “Do you mind if I look around a bit?”

“Not at all. Please feel free to go anywhere in the condo.”

Serena plugged her phone into its charger and set it down on a nearby table. Then she walked down the hallway adjoining the living room and into her office.

The sound of typing came down the hallway, and Natasha scurried over to the phone and used the code to unlock it. She scrolled through Serena’s emails and saw they were all work-related. She kept scrolling until she found one with a subject line that said, “RE: I think I have a problem.” The email was a month old and came from a person named Miranda Johnson. She opened it.

“Hey Sis,

I understand your concern, but I think you’re overreacting. Just because Michael has been working late a lot these days doesn’t mean he’s seeing other women. You work late all the time too, don’t you? I’ll call you tonight and we can talk about it some more, ok?

Love you,

Miranda”

The sound of typing stopped. Natasha closed the email app and turned off the screen, then put the phone back down on the table. She hurried over to the other side of the condo and found the door to the bedroom. Inside was a king-sized bed with white pillows and a fluffy white duvet. Another door to a darkened room stood open next to it.

She walked into the bedroom and through the doorway. Feeling around on the wall, she found a light switch and flipped it on. The light revealed that she was in the bathroom. White tiles covered the floor, and the smell of bleach stung her nostrils. An oversized, pearl-white bathtub sat in the corner. She went over to it and looked inside.

When she did, the lights turned off and the door slammed shut.

“Hey!” Natasha said.

She ran over to the door and tried to open it, but couldn’t. She pounded on it and said, “Serena? Is that you? Let me out of here!”

A strange blue light filled the room. Natasha looked behind her and saw that it came from the bathroom mirror. In the glass, she saw a man and a woman standing next to each other. She realized that the woman was Serena and the man was the one she’d seen in the portrait in the living room.

Serena looked at her and said, “That thing out there isn’t me.”

The man said, “I didn’t kill myself. That thing killed us both. It will kill you too if you don’t leave right now. Go!”

There was a knock at the door and the lights turned back on. Natasha looked at the door, then back at the mirror. When she did, she saw nothing but her own reflection staring back at her.

“Is everything alright in there?” said Serena’s voice through the door. “I thought I heard shouting.”

Natasha thought, “I must still be hallucinating from all that acid I took last night.” Then she said, “Everything’s fine! I just had a… psychic vision.”

“You did? Come out here and tell me what you saw.”

Natasha opened the door and found Serena standing there with a concerned look on her face.

“What happened? What did you see?”

“I communed with Michael’s spirit. He told me you don’t need to worry about the money and that you’ll be able to pay your bills again soon.”

Serena’s nodded with a grave expression and said, “Go on.”

“He also said he’s sorry for his infidelities, and that he never meant to hurt you, emotionally or physically.”

Serena frowned. Tears pooled in her eyes as she hugged herself, running her hands over the bruises on her arms. “So, it’s true. He was cheating on me,” she said.

“Yes,” Natasha said in a hoarse whisper.

“Why did he kill himself?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Would it help if you saw the radio he dropped into the tub?

“You still have it?”

“Yes, it’s right there behind you.”

Serena pointed at a clock radio sitting on top of a dresser next to the bed. Its digital display showed the correct time.

Natasha thought, “It’s weird that she’d keep the radio her husband used to electrocute himself. It’s even weirder that it still works.”

She walked over to the dresser and picked up the radio to examine it. When she turned it over, she saw that it didn’t have a power cord. It ran on batteries.

“Serena, there must be a mistake. There’s no way that anyone could electrocute themselves with a battery-powered radio.”

Natasha turned around and saw that Serena was gone. In her place stood a bizarre, humanoid creature with long, greasy black hair. Yellow-brown, finger-shaped splotches like bruises covered its skin. Its misshapen limbs ended in sharp talons, and its eyes were white without pupils or irises. It opened its mouth to reveal rows of sharp, needle-like teeth. Natasha gasped and dropped the radio.

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