The hushed, baritone timbre of Gamboni’s voice soothed and reassured the widow Winslow as her eyes focused on the spinning orb. Its shimmering, multicolored light beckoned her to a deep hypnotic state. Her body slouched and yielded to the plush chair’s embrace.

“Your eyelids are growing heavy, but you can’t take your eyes off the crystal. See how it glimmers?

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Clear your mind and think only of the flickering lights. See how they sparkle?”

The widow’s hand went limp in his.

“You can close your eyes now and sleep, but you will still hear and respond to my voice. Do you understood?”

“Yes, Mr. Gamboni.”

Under his influence, Gamboni went to work extracting intimate details regarding the late Harold Winslow that only she would know. After collecting several choice facts, he awakened her and, using ventriloquism, said, “Martha? Is that you, Martha?”

“Who are you?”

“Why, don’t you know your own husband?”


“Yes, my beloved. It is I. I’ve missed you so.”

“Harold. Harold. My dear Harold. Is it really you?”

“I miss gazing into your deep blue eyes and kissing your cherry-red lips. Remember how I likened your breasts to the twin peaks of Mount Elbrus, firm, proud? I fantasized about scaling Elbrus and lying with you in a loving embrace after reaching each peak. We did enjoy our times together, didn’t we? Do you remember?”

“It is you! Harold, how could I ever forget?”

Gamboni, acting as the medium, continued the most private conversation between Martha and Harold. After some twenty minutes, Gamboni slumped against the chair’s cushions, faking exhaustion, and said, “Dear, I have to depart, now.”

“Oh, Harold! I can almost feel your presence. Don’t leave me again.”

“I must go. Farewell, my darling.”

Following Gamboni’s performance, news of the séance and Harold’s “appearance” spread. As a result, widows besieged the Great Gamboni desiring him to contact their loved ones as well.

He was not a believer in spirits or the afterlife, but the old darlings were, and Gamboni pandered to their beliefs. Blessed with good looks, charm, and a flare for the dramatic, he capitalized on his skills--hypnotism and ventriloquism in particular--to deceive them. Once persuaded he had contacted the dearly departed, their generosity made it possible for him to live an opulent lifestyle.

Never wanting to be late for a session, Gamboni arrived early if possible. This allowed him to survey the extent of the client’s wealth, and if her resources were substantial, he embellished his performance, which often resulted in a sizeable bonus.

Gamboni’s agent had scheduled his next appointment for this afternoon with Mrs. Winnaford. With several minutes to spare, the taxi brought him to her front door as dark clouds gathered. He knocked, and the maid greeted him.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Gamboni. My mistress is expecting you.” After taking his hat and topcoat, she led him to the library.

Disoriented in the abrupt change from the lighted hallway to the cherry-paneled reading room, Gamboni bumped against a table, jostling a vase of fresh-cut lilacs. Their heady-sweet fragrance filled the air but could not mask the telltale odor of musty, old books. He suppressed an urge to cough.

The sound of rain pounding on the roof reverberated through the ceiling. Blinded by the lightning for a moment, Gamboni hesitated lest he collides with another piece of furniture. Window panes rattled, and crystals in the central chandelier clinked with each peal of thunder as the storm erupted.


“Yes, sir?”

“Could we pause a minute or two for the worst to pass?”

“As you wish, sir.”

While they waited, Gamboni could not refrain from smiling, for today’s weather would be his ally in reinforcing the illusion of a frightful, enigmatic spirit world. Holding back a chuckle, he felt a twinge of embarrassment how easy it would be to pull off a convincing séance in this setting. For sure, it would be his finest performance.

When they continued toward the fire in the hearth, Gamboni noticed several designer furniture pieces--the curving style of Art Nouveau, all top quality and expensive--were arranged throughout the spacious room. While somewhat passé for the 1920s, they revealed the refined taste of the Winnafords. Soft spotlights bathed original oils in illumination around the imposing fireplace.

Drawn in particular to the larger-than-life-size painting above the mantle, Gamboni said, “Miss?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The woman in the portrait, is she Mrs. Winnaford’s sister?”

“Yes, ‘tis Emma, sir. Passed while sleeping four years ago this very afternoon in her bedroom. Emma was only forty-eight, ah, so young, too young. ‘Twas after a long illness she had, and heartbroken she was.”


“Mrs. Winnaford. She was by her side ‘til the end. ‘Tisn’t a day goes by she don’t come and stare at the portrait. Sometimes, she talks to it. Had it painted soon after... well... you know. Kinda big, though. Can’t miss it when you come to the library.”

To Gamboni, the artist’s skill was evident in capturing such a realistic likeness of a woman’s face. The choice of colors so enhanced the image would not have surprised him if she stepped down from the mantle. Her eyes were alive with sparkle, ready for a conversation, and followed when he moved. While he gazed upon the portrait, it was having a profound effect upon him, arousing feelings he had in the presence of women: heightened pulse, moistened palms, and butterfly stomach. Yes, Emma was most ravishing, but he looked away before becoming too evident in his infatuation.

The room’s luxurious furnishings told Gamboni he was about to strike gold. All he needed to do was convince Mrs. Winnaford he had contacted her dear sister’s spirit from beyond, and his performance would guarantee a reward and bonus. He could not have planned a more perfect time or venue for his act.

The maid showed Gamboni to an armchair angled toward the fireplace. Out of character with the other delicate furniture pieces, the chair was deep-cushioned and plush, and he found it to be very comfortable

“My mistress will be with you soon, Mr. Gamboni. Refreshments will be served shortly.”

Gamboni reviewed what he discovered about Mrs. Johnathan Winnaford III. Some seventy years ago, born Abigail Smythe, she developed a keen interest in the occult during her sister’s illness this past December. She and Emma devised a code word to expose mediums claiming to have contacted her in the hereafter. Not knowing the code word would be problematic, but with his skill as a hypnotist, the old lady would reveal it to him.

Forewarned about Mrs. Winnaford, he intended to tread with caution since several tried to contact Emma and failed. In the process, the widow exposed them as fakes. Well, she never met him, The Great Gamboni.

They were all fakes, but Gamboni was the best, the greatest, the master of their craft. Using ventriloquism, he would convince Mrs. Winnaford Emma spoke to her from the grave. He was ready for the challenge. Now, where was she?

The door behind Gamboni opened with a crash, and the maid almost stumbled on the threshold. Trying to keep one step ahead, she ushered in Mrs. Winnaford.

“Step lively, Anna. Must you always be underfoot? I haven’t all day.”

“Sorry, Ma’am.”

Although an older woman by eighteen years and graying, Gamboni noticed several similarities between Mrs. Winnaford’s facial structure and Emma’s portrait. He had heard rumors Emma was Abigail’s daughter, born out of wedlock before marrying Johnathan Winnaford, and after seeing her and Emma’s portrait together, he could not discount them. However, they could just as well be sisters as she claimed. The family intrigue aside, his goal was the same: earn as large a reward as possible.

By this time, the chair was so conformed to his physique Gamboni could not, without considerable strain, rise and greet Mrs. Winnaford, but he managed to extend his hand.

“Mrs. Winnaford, I presume? Mr. Gamboni at your serv... ”

Interrupting him without apology, she said, “Don’t bother to stand, Mr. Gamboni. Though your reputation precedes you as one of the better channelers, I must confess I’ve become entirely skeptical. I’ve experienced my share claiming to have made contact with my sister, but, I hasten to add, they were all frauds. What about you, Mr. Gamboni? Are you a fraud, too?”

In a tone as humble as he was able, Gamboni offered his usual introduction.

“If I may be of some small service, Mrs. Winnaford, I would consider it an honor.”

Gamboni handed her his card, hoping to deflect and gain the upper ground or even an even footing. Sitting opposite him, she turned his card over and over in her fingers with a skill any card-shark would envy.

“The Great Gamboni. That’s all that’s printed on your card, Mr. Gamboni,” she said, holding his card erect with the tips of her fingers.

Her tone made him feel inferior in a duel with a chess master. She pressed the attack.

“The... Great... Gamboni. Nothing more to say, Mr. Gamboni, but these three words? They’re rather pretentious, don’t you think?” She clucked, bringing the card up and touching its edge to her cheek.

Gamboni shrank from her indictment. Or were the chair’s cushions just giving under his weight? Either way, Mrs. Winnaford’s direct assault caused his left brow to twitch. Staring at him with her steel-gray eyes, she pierced him through. After what felt like an eternity, she asked, “Great at what, Mr. Gamboni?”

With the words sticking in his throat, he said, “We... shall... see.” Gamboni could not think of anything clever to say, but he would have been better off saying nothing.

“Yes, we shall, Mr. Gamboni. We shall, indeed.” Appearing not to give his card any additional thought, she let it slip through her fingers, and it tumbled to the table between them. She turned to the maid and said, “Anna, we’ll have tea and sandwiches, now.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Feeling relieved Mrs. Winnaford diverted her attention, Gamboni relaxed. Fearing the idle conversation in which he often engaged his more gullible subjects would exacerbate an already tense atmosphere, he inquired about her philanthropic foundation while they waited.

The maid returned with a tray of crust-trimmed cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey tea in a few minutes.

Cucumber and Earl Grey!

Holding back an urge to retch, Gamboni nibbled the corner of a disgusting sandwich and sipped the dreadful tea. When he brought the cup to his lips for a second taste, he noted it was the most delicate, most expensive bone china, as were the serving pieces. The spoon, fork, and knife were solid silver. He began imagining exorbitant rewards for his success, but he curbed his momentary impulse of abject greed and returned his attention to Mrs. Winnaford and the impending séance.

Raising her cup, Mrs. Winnaford said, “Before you begin, Mr. Gamboni, I would like to ask you a few personal questions if you don’t mind.”

Thankful she spared him another taste of the Earl Grey, he held the cup and saucer in his lap. “Why, of course, Mrs. Winnaford. I don’t mind. What would you like to know?”

Over the top of her teacup, her penetrating eyes made contact with his. “Are you about forty-eight years of age?” she asked and sipped her tea.

“Your skill is most remarkable, Madam. I’ll be forty-nine on my birthday next month.” Gamboni broke eye contact and returned his cup and saucer to the serving tray.

“I’ll venture another guess. About six feet tall, Mr. Gamboni?” she asked, putting her cup and saucer next to his.

“Almost. Five-ten-and-a-half.”

He focused on her eyes and tried gauging the intent behind Mrs. Winnaford’s interrogations, but they were fixed on him and impassive. Her face did not reveal her purpose, either: eyebrows balanced, forehead flat, and jaw and lips relaxed. She masked the unconscious tells most people to find it difficult to hide.

“And about hundred and eighty pounds?”

“Exactly one-eighty-three. But why all these questions about me, Mrs. Winnaford?” He tried shifting his posture in the chair, but it constrained his efforts.

“In good health, too, Mr. Gamboni?”

He again attempted to change his position since the line of questioning was making him flush with perspiration. “Well... Yes, I am in excellent health. But must you... ”

“Good. Good. Are you virile?”

With this latest inquiry, her face was more expressive: eyebrows arched, lips turned up in a smile, and eyes glistened. On the other hand, a blush rushed from his collar, up to his neck, to his cheeks and forehead. Gamboni hesitated in answering, for his speech struggled to keep pace with his thoughts.

“Virile? I say, Mrs. Winnaford... Really, need you inquire about my... You are delving too deeply.”

Undaunted, she pressed her insistence. “Come, now, Mr. Gamboni. These are the Roaring Twenties, and such a question shouldn’t startle you.”

He tried to think of a witty response but could not. Stammering, he said, “Well... Well, if you... ” He cleared his throat and blurted. “Well, if you must know, Madam, I am most virile.”

This track of the conversation had caught Gamboni off his guard, and perspiration trickled down his temples. Trying to divert the subject, he said, “Don’t you think we should start the séance?”

Sitting stiff-backed in her chair, Mrs. Winnaford said, “No, Mr. Gamboni, I do not. I am well aware of you and your theatrics, like throwing your voice and claiming it’s your spirit-world contact. From what I’ve been told, you’re an accomplished ventriloquist. And then there’s your skill as a hypnotist. I suppose you were going to get me to tell you my code word. Well, it won’t work, Mr. Gamboni. You’re a fraud like all the rest.”

Stunned by her accusations, there was nothing more for him to do or say other than, “Thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. Winnaford, but I think it best I take my leave.”

He struggled to extricate himself from the chair.

“No, please don’t go, Mr. Gamboni. I receive so few visitors,” she said with a wave of her hand.

“You said he was a fraud like... ”

“We can still enjoy a dessert coffee before you depart, don’t you think, Mr. Gamboni?” She turned her attention to the maid. “Anna, bring two coffees.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

In a few minutes, the maid returned and served two coffees on a silver tray. Gamboni picked up a cup and brought it to his lips when Mrs. Winnaford said, “Em, what do you think?”

Her question surprised and confounded him. He did not hear anyone enter the room other than Mrs. Winnaford and the maid. Looking around the room, Gamboni saw no one else. Who and where was Em?

She raised her voice. “Em? Emma dear, are you here?”

A voice from the direction of the portrait above the mantle said, “Yes, Abigail, I am here.”

Mrs. Winnaford stood, facing the portrait. “What do you think of Mr. Gamboni, Emma? Is he a suitable companion?”

The portrait’s eyes looked toward him, and Gamboni heard the voice say, “Yes, Abigail, he is quite suitable. I have been dreadfully alone all these years.”

“Yes, Em, I know, and I’ve wept for you often.”

Mrs. Winnaford turned to him. “What’s the matter, Mr. Gamboni? Has the sudden storm startled you? You look pale.”

A cold shiver raced from his head to his toes as rain, lightning, and thunder converged at that moment. Gamboni always considered spirits a myth. But what else could this be? Was Emma’s spirit speaking through the portrait? His mouth was so dry he could not swallow.

“Why Mr. Gamboni, you haven’t touched your coffee.”

His eyes were wide open, and his mouth was agape. Yes, it must be true. Mrs. Winnaford was communicating with her dead sister, and she was here, in this room, in the portrait, looking at him. Contacting the afterlife was his act--a sham, a way of bilking gullible old ladies--but this was real.

Gamboni needed something more substantial than coffee, but having nothing, he gulped the coffee in one swallow. The bittersweet liquid burned when it traversed his tongue and flowed down his throat, the worst coffee he ever tasted. Hoping saliva would neutralize the tang of the foul drink, he swallowed again and again without success.

“How did you like the coffee, Mr. Gamboni?”

Clearing his throat the best he could, he said, “Unusual. Very odd flavor.” What else was he to say? It tasted like a brew of copper pennies and burnt coffee. With the metallic after-flavor still lingering, his mouth and throat were set aflame.

Wanting to leave, Gamboni struggled to gain his freedom from the chair’s embrace. Liberating himself, he stood to say his goodbyes, but his knees buckled, unable to sustain his weight.

The room, the maid, and Mrs. Winnaford were spinning. While he tried in vain to focus, two of everything swirled and exchanged positions. Reaching for something to hold on to, he propelled the serving tray and cups aside with a resounding crash and side-rolled to the floor.

Mrs. Winnaford knelt beside him and swept aside strands of hair that had fallen on his face. Speaking softly in his ear, she said, “It won’t be long, Mr. Gamboni, not long at all. The poison is most effective, and you should know, Mr. Gamboni, you were the greatest of the charlatans. None of the other mediums was a suitable companion for Emma. The two of you should make the perfect couple.”

While he listened, her voice drifted farther away as the paralyzing concoction circulated in his veins and accomplished its worst. His heart skipped a beat and then more beats.

“In just a few moments, Mr. Gamboni, you’ll pass over.” Standing and facing the portrait, she said, “Em? Emma, have you been watching Mr. Gamboni’s passing?”

“Yes, Abigail, I have been watching, and I will be waiting for him.”

Everything went black.

At the end of a long dark passage, a light shone with a singular brilliance, and Gamboni raised his hand to shield its intensity. Fear struck at the depths of his heart.

What is this place?

As he moved toward the brightness, he grew accustomed to it, and standing in view was a woman in a gossamer gown, silhouetted against the illumination. Gamboni could not quell his apprehension; nevertheless, he approached her.

She extended her hand and said, “Mr. Gamboni, I presume?”

“Yes, I am. Actually, my name is Samuel Albertson.”

“Emma is my name. Emma Smythe, Abigail’s daughter.”

“Her daughter?”

“Yes, her daughter. Surely, you’ve heard the rumors. They are true.”

“Well, the resemblance was unmistakable.”

“Come with me, Mr. Albertson. You see, there is nothing to fear in this place.”

“Where are we?”

“It’s our new home, accommodations more expansive than you could imagine. We have all we’ll ever need, and we have each other.”

He took her hand. “Emma, you’re more beautiful than your portrait. The most stunning woman I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Please call me Sam.”

“Thank you, Sam. You’re most kind.”

She led him through a lilac garden to her cottage. When they entered the front door, Emma tugged at his hand.

“Where are you taking me?”

“To my boudoir, of course. First some refreshments then... you know, don’t you, Sam.”

“I say, Emma... Why yes, I certainly do. It would be delightful, actually. Heavenly.”

“Oh no, Sam. You don’t understand. This isn’t Heaven. We attain no pleasure here yet are compelled to seek it throughout eternity.”

“But why me?”

“You were destined for this place, and I needed someone with vitality and virility to satisfy my cravings. We only hastened your day by a few years.”

“What? How could you and your mother have done this to me? I’ll have no part of it. Both of you, be damned. Go to Hell!”

“We’re already here, Sam. You and I are already here.”


Sam’s smile faded eons ago. Sipping Earl Grey tea and nibbling cucumber sandwiches became tedious centuries past. The most delicate bone china and solid silver flatware held no value to him and reappear whenever he broke them.

Longing for a soft, deep-cushioned armchair, Sam sought the comfort their Art Nouveau furniture’s curving lines could not provide. Lilacs were in perpetual bloom, yet their fragrance failed to mask the odor of death and decay carried on the occasional south wind. He grew to hate their smell. When the heady-sweet aroma was at its peak, he could not control his coughing

Larger-than-life-size oils of Emma hung throughout their chambers, many with sensual poses. Meant to arouse him, Sam guessed, for Emma’s cravings were insatiable, and she beckoned him to her bed hour after hour, wanting “The Great Gamboni’s finest performance.” He grew weary of that cliché, and her, soon after arriving here. Removing the most explicit portraits was a wasted effort since each day, they reappeared anew and more erotic than before. Soon, he refused to take notice of them. Now, anesthetized to any feelings of lusty desire, duty alone stimulated him.

“I need you, Sam. Please come to bed.”

“Wait, damn it!”

Pouring more tea from the bottomless kettle and taking another sandwich from the endless pile, he... yawn... hoped something, anything would change the monotony of his existence. Then Sam remembered his despair extinguished hope’s last glimmer more years ago than he could count.