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It would be a push-over ... everybody has something to hide.

Cordona's Skull

By Mary Elizabeth Counselman

JOE "FRESNO" TALLEY dropped his cigarette butt on the sidewalk and ground it out with his foot, careful not to step on it where the hole had worn through his shoesole. Absently he felt in the pocket of his shabby trousers, before remembering. No more cigarettes; that last one had been picked up out of the gutter, in front of a theatre whose twinkling marquee had once spelled out his name in lights a foot high....

Fresno snarled deep in his throat. So what if he had taken a couple too many that night in Pittsburgh, when he was playing at the Roxy? So he had muffed a card sleight, dropping the whole pack all over the stage, then fallen flat on his face trying to pick them up. Was that a crime? Was that any reason for his booking agent to be dodging him now, after telling him that seven cancellations in a row meant a magician was washed up? He'd show that crumb!

Digging a half-empty flask of cheap whiskey from his hip pocket, Fresno finished it at a gulp and shied the empty bottle at a scrawny gray cat, hunting for scraps in a nearby trashcan. The cat yowled and scampered out of range, limping. Fresno laughed nasally. Nothing wrong with him; his hands didn't shake too much, or he couldn't have hit that mangey old....

Shivering suddenly as the chill night wind cut through his loud striped shirt, he paused before a rickety old tenement where is aimlessly wandering feet had taken him. A sign beside the door read:

PROF. CORDONA
SPIRITUALIST
FREE SEANCE NIGHTLY
PRIVATE CONSULTATION,
$2.00 (plus tax)

Fresno grinned at that last. Gripes! Were they even taxing the ghosts these days? His close-set hard little eyes, like two chips of onyx, slid over the sign thoughtfully, in a face that might have belonged to a race track tout or a smalltime racketeer. But he was no vag! Fresno drew himself up angrily, cursing under his breath as a passerby shoved a dime into his hand—but keeping the money. Crumbs, all of 'em! He'd show 'em! In the meantime, though, he was "at liberty", it was getting on toward three years since he had done a show and cashed a fat check, and a guy had to eat, didn't he? He couldn't sleep on a park bench, not in this weather.

Looking narrowly at the spiritualist's sign, he had an idea all at once how he could maybe latch onto a few bucks. These fake mediums were always on the dodge, even if they were operating with a fortuneteller's license. This "Prof. Cordona," whoever he was—it might be easy to shake him down for a little cash by threatening to explain his gimmicks to some of his best customers. The usual tricks, of course. No spook show operated without them, and any professional magician knew how they worked; floating hands, spirit-voices speaking through a trumpet also floating in the air, ghostly raps and knocks all over the seance room, and now and then a misty face appearing in a smoky whirl of "ectoplasm." Anybody with a strong flashlight could banish the semi-darkness of such a seance and reveal the black threads tying these "materializations" to a moving boom that, with the lights on, became part of the picture molding. They always held hands at these little get-togethers, with the medium in the ring along with the "seekers"—so they thought.

Oh, yes... Fresno mounted the stone steps quickly. This was going to be a pushover!

The Professor's tiny flat turned out to be on the fifth floor. Panting from his climb up the spiraling staircase, Fresno paused for a moment before the door designated by another sign: PROF. CORDONA, SPIRITUALIST. Then he turned the knob and entered quietly, first through the doorway, then through a heavy worn-velvet drape that shut out the light from the hall.

Groping his way, Fresno waited to let his eyes become accustomed to the half-darkness, like that in a second-rate movie theatre, then slid into the nearest chair of three rows lined up facing a small dais.

The seance was in full swing. Spirits were knocking obligingly on walls and floors. In a small curtained cabinet on the platform, they were also ringing bells and twirling a penny noise-maker such as revelers use at a New Year's celebration. A luminous hand drifted overhead, swooping abruptly to touch a squealing woman in the audience with icy-cold fingers chilled from Outer Space—or from the freezer compartment of the Professor's refrigerator, Fresno reminded himself. They'd keep these stuffed gloves there when not in use. He leaned back, smiling contemptuously at the small audience of perhaps eighteen people, who had come up here and would later make a "small donation" for the privilege of being rooked.

The medium, Fresno saw, was seated on the dais in a comfortable armchair, his head thrown back in the customary trance. Professor Cordona was an old man, he perceived, with the flowing white hair of an ex-thespian, probably an old Shakespearean actor who had, long since, fallen upon evil days. He was a good imitator, Fresno admitted grudgingly; good enough for bit-parts in radio, if he had sense enough to push it. The spirit-voices that issued from his throat were now those of a lisping child, now the heavily accented voice of an Italian emigrant, now the mellow throaty tones of a S...

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