Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Grave Information" by Ellen Lynn

Grave Information
Ellen Lynn

Sandlow was a thriving little town. It boasted a movie house, the Grenada, owned by Dick Raymond who took an almost paternal pride in watching the townsfolk crowd into the theater. He enjoyed standing at the entrance greeting his patrons by name—"Hello, John. Pretty good movie today!" or asking about the members of his family, all of whom he knew in a neighborly way; "How's Aunt Millie? Glad she's better, Tom."

Besides, Dick had a nice income from his movie theater. It paid him well... except for one week a year—a week in November. For three years in succession, Dick had watched that week's crowds make their way to the Town Hall in the village square, leaving The Grenada almost empty. It wasn't politics, a concert, or important local affairs that drew the business away from him this particular week each year. That he could have accepted. The thing that rankled was that the Great Barrie, magician and mental telepathist, would come to town annually and draw all his patrons from the theater to watch, admire, gasp while Barrie performed his feats of magic—but, most impressive, his mind-reading acts.

It was after the matinee showing, and Dick stood beside the cashier's cage watching the kids flowing out of the doors of the theater. Marie stood silently at his side. He wondered if she was thinking the same thing that he was—that the evening performances would go on to a practically empty house. The Great Barrie was in town and the townspeople were all agog, talking nothing but his mind-reading skill and how they wouldn't miss it for anything. Which meant that his excellent double feature bill would be sacrificed to that "phony," that "charlatan..."

"Goodbye, Mr. Raymond. You'll have to take over the box tonight. I won't be back," Marie Denny informed him.

His face flushed as Dick turned to look at Marie. As usual his heart skipped a beat when she turned her large, blue eyes with their heavy lashes, on him. She was just a kid, nineteen, but smart; and a good cashier. He was thirty-two and a "confirmed" bachelor, but the longer he saw Marie, the more his thoughts turned to marriage. A pang shot through him suddenly. Where was she going tonight? Why wouldn't she be back? She had never missed a performance before.

"Why aren't you coming back, Marie?" he asked, his voice husky. He half feared her answer.

"Sorry, Dick, but I want to see the mind-reader, Barrie. The theater'll be empty anyway, so you won't need me," she replied matter-of-factly.

He let her go. Young as she was, she knew her own mind; he felt there'd be no use arguing. What was there about this Barrie? Was it because he was young and handsome that Marie left her post to go see him? What kind of a stunt was his mind-reading act?

Dick returned to the cashier's cage for the six o'clock show. A few stragglers sauntered in. It was hardly worth keeping the house open. His mind seethed with thoughts of The Great Barrie and of Marie sitting in the audience lost in admiration for what he called "this fake." Suddenly he decided he would sell no more tickets. When the scattered few left the house, he would lock up and call it a day.

The night was dark, with a clouded moon and no stars. A strong pull drew him in the direction of the Town Hall, but he forced himself to continue walking past. A resolution to ask Marie to marry him was strengthening inside him. She was young, pretty, she might be susceptible to a young good-looking man. He imagined her in the hall with the rest of the audience, thrilling to the skill of the attractive performer.

A hoot owl broke the silence with his shrill cry. Dick came back to reality and saw that he was walking past the town cemetery. He hadn't realized he had gone so far out. The gate was slightly ajar and on an impulse he opened it and walked through. In his disturbed emotional state this morbid atmosphere had a peculiar comfort for him. He strolled on the silent paths, occasionally glancing at the head stones whenever the moon suddenly appeared from behind the clouds and briefly lighted up the gloomy darkness. He shivered and a chill passed over him. A slow drizzle began to fall. It was midnight. Dick started back for home. He tried to shake off the gloomy spell that had assailed him. Might as well face it, he was in love and he had better marry Marie. Tomorrow, he'd speak with her.

When Marie showed up for the matinee the next day, Dick noticed that she was humming and apparently in a gay mood. He invited her to have dinner with him before the evening show. "Oh, but I can't Dick. Haven't you heard?" she asked in surprise, "Barrie announced he'd give an extra performance this evening. Everybody went wild about him—the Mayor himself was there and got upon the platform and invited Barrie to stay over another day."

"What stupidity!" Dick burst out. "How can they all be taken in by a trickster!"

"But it was amazing, Dick," Marie retorted. "Barrie was able to give names and incidents in the families of almost everyone in the audience. And, you know, he told us whom he was going to telepathize tonight—and I am going to be one of them. Isn't that exciting?"

A hot flame shot through Dick. "Oh, so that's it! A romantic girl falls for the trickery of a magician—just because he's young and handsome. Don't you know he's a fake!"

This time it was Marie who flushed. "Why, you haven't even seen his work, yet you criticize him and accuse him of trickery. If you think you know so much, Dick, why don't you go tonight; I'll even stay here at the theater so you can see for yourself what amazing things he does."

"Very well, we'll do that. I'll go—and you take care of things here tonight," Dick retorted grimly. "I'll be back in an hour, Marie, I must attend to something now."

Dick walked away. Somehow he must show up that fake telepathist. Perhaps when he went tonight he'd find a way. As he walked moodily, he noticed that the village streets were deserted, as usual on Sunday. Everyone was eating dinner or napping, or reading the papers. Dick thought with a sneer... a special Sunday performance of the Great Barrie! The little town could talk of nothing else...

Who was that? A tall, slender man was hurrying up the steps of the library. He was looking around, over his shoulder, just as he darted through the entrance. Apparently, he didn't see Dick who had stopped and leaned against a tree trunk to light up a cigarette. Why, it was Barrie? Whatever was he doing at the library on Sunday—when it was closed? Dick stamped out his cigarette, waiting breathlessly. Look, Barrie was putting a key in the lock. The door was opening. He disappeared inside. Well, that was it! The great mind-reader was looking up the archives of the families in town and getting information on relatives and events. He probably had a remarkable memory—some people have photographic memories—and he thus startled all the people in town with his mysterious mind-reading, giving them dates, names and events that a stranger couldn't possibly know! Dick laughed softly to himself, suddenly light-hearted. Unless they have an excellent source of information, he thought in triumph. Then he saw Barrie go to the little cemetery.

That evening he gave Marie a tight hug as he said goodbye. "Well, I'm going to see your amazing mind-reader. Take care of the theater, dear," he said cheerfully, knowing he was going to come back with a story of how he showed up her hero.

The performance had already started when Dick entered. Barrie was giving some amazing details to Jenny Haverford and she and the others were gasping in astonishment. Dick listened a moment. "My God," he thought, "that charlatan is using information from the gravestones, too! He really makes a science of this thing!"

"Does anyone want to ask me any questions about a departed one?" Barrie was now asking of the audience.

"I do," Dick called out. "Tell me, if you can, the inscription on the gravestone of Marie Denny." There was a snicker throughout the audience. They caught on—Dick was trying to trick Barrie.

Barrie paused and then spoke solemnly. "That is a sad case. Marie was so young and beautiful—only nineteen. Her inscription reads: 'A beautiful flower, cut down too soon.'"

A roar of laughter filled the room. Dick got up and addressed the audience, "Now you see what a fake the Great Barrie is—I've just left Marie Denny at her usual place in the cashier's box at the theater."

Barrie tried to quiet the crowd but they hooted and jeered and he finally walked off the stage. Dick almost ran back to the theater in his haste to report to Marie his clever ruse to catch the fraud. An ambulance was in front of the theater—they were carrying out a stretcher. Who—who?—It—was—Marie! A dire foreboding coursed through him. He spoke to the doctor—she had dropped dead—of a heart attack.

The next week most of the villagers drove with him to Marie's hometown, a hundred miles away. In a dismal rain they all trudged to the open grave waiting to receive the coffin of the dead Marie. A gasp as though from one throat trembled through the air. There stood a headstone at the open pit; it read: A beautiful flower, cut down too soon!

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