“The Gaslight Consultant” by Thomas A. Mays

Gaslight

It’s difficult to gauge a man’s soul when he hasn’t got one.  Fortunately for me, the piles of cash Mr. Henry Farnham was offering us went a long way toward making up for his lack of compassion and common human decency.  I smiled at Henry.  “It sounds like a fairly standard job, sir.  My partner and I should be able to pull it off without too much difficulty.”

My prospective client leaned forward in his antique leather wingchair.  “Really?  I’ve heard about the tricks you’ve pulled in the past, but I figured trying to make my late father’s brother look crazy would be quite the challenge.  We may not get along, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect Uncle Cyrus’s intellect.  He’s a sharp old bird, Mr. Smythe.  You would do well not to underestimate him.”

I shook my head.  “And I’m not, but there’s a big difference between being an intelligent, pragmatic person, and not losing your marbles when confronted by the impossible.  Believe me, Mr. Farnham, Ms. Shade and I have a lot of practice taking down towering intellects.  We have years of experience in planning psychological operations for the military, we’ve consulted on hauntings for Hollywood and several bestselling authors . . . and we’ve done these sort of black-hat gaslight jobs more than a few times.  When we’re done with your uncle, there’s not a court in the country that’ll find him of sound mind to retain your late father’s estate.”

Henry grinned and I could see a little gleam of avarice in his eye.  It was undoubtedly matched by a gleam in my own.  After all, it’s not every day you bag a job worth 5% of a 100 million dollar estate.  It was almost enough to make it worth enduring the lecture on morality Emily was certain to give me later.

Henry clapped his hands together.  “Okay!  Consider yourself hired.  I’d like you to start immediately.  The probate court will be making its decision before the month’s end.  That’s hardly enough time to make someone like my Uncle Cyrus doubt his own sanity.”

“Of course.  We’ll get started right away.”

“Excellent,” Henry replied.  “When will your partner arrive?”

I smiled and looked behind me to the lovely form of Ms. Emily Shade standing close by.  She squeezed my shoulder affectionately and I patted her hand in return.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to confuse you.  There’s no other partner.  It’s just the two of us:  Smythe and Shade.”

A question rose on Henry’s lips and he glanced over my shoulder at Emily, but he opted to say nothing.  Instead, the poor man just appeared perplexed.

 

—–

 

Emily always made me drive, but I didn’t mind.  She had a habit of taking off her shoes and putting her feet up on the dashboard.  The 60 mile-per-hour breeze from the passenger window blew her skirt around, revealing tantalizing glimpses of her long, slender legs.  Sometimes, I thought I might wreck out from the pleasant distraction, but I didn’t mind.

She gazed out the window as we drove the panel van to Cyrus Farnham’s mansion, lost in thought.  Soon enough, though, she looked over to me, smiled demurely, and sought out my hand with her own.  “John,” she said, “are you sure you want to do another one of these?”

I pulled her fingers to my lips and kissed the back of her hand.  “I’ve got no worries.  So what, one asshole rich guy gets the estate over some other asshole rich guy?  It’s not like losing out on the contested estate is going to leave either of them in the poor house.  You and I make a profit, and we get closer to that permanent vacation we’ve always talked about.”

“Yes, but at what cost?  Judgment comes for all men some day.  How do you think this is going to balance on your ledger, convincing some old fool that he’s gone nuts?”

I grinned and let her hand go.  “Have you looked at the research we did on Uncle Cyrus?  He makes Bernie Madoff look like Mother Theresa!  I hesitate to even call this a black-hat con.  We’re doing universal karma a great service!”

She grinned back at me.  “Yeah, you’re a regular saint, all right.  Or you would be if good ol’ Henry wasn’t just as dirty as his uncle.  The only good guy in that family was the dead father.  What color is your hat if you’re gaslighting a bad guy for another bad guy?”

“Gray?”

Emily chuckled.  “Gray is definitely your color.”  She sought out my hand again and held it tight.  “Wouldn’t you rather talk to some more Hollywood types, spin some ghost stories for a screenplay?  That’s nice money and no bad karma.”

I shrugged.  “Only one of our script consults has made it to film, and that movie sucked.  This job may be karmic-ly gray, but at least we aren’t stealing ticket money from innocent theater-goers.  That’s just evil.  Have you seen what they charge for 3D showings?”

She laughed and that was enough.

We pulled in to Cyrus Farnham’s palatial grounds and parked the van around the back of the mansion at the servant’s entrance.  I climbed out and slammed my door, then straightened the magnetic sign announcing us as EDDIE’S EXTERMINATORS.  At the van’s rear, Emily was already waiting for me, swathed fetchingly in flowing black silk.  I wore gray coveralls with “Eddie” stitched upon the breast pocket, but I did not worry about us not matching.  Emily had an uncanny talent for blending in.

I geared up and walked into the mansion’s kitchen like I belonged there.  Confidence is key when you’re setting up a gaslight op.  “Gaslight” refers to the old play and movie, about a cad who wanted to get his wife out of the way so he could find some jewels bequeathed to her.  He begins isolating her from her support network and screwing with her environment, hiding things, moving things, causing the gaslights to dim and flare — all while insisting it’s only in her imagination.  He basically tries to drive her nuts with all the classic elements of a haunting.

It doesn’t end well for him, because movies have happy endings and he wasn’t a professional like me.  If I’d have been the one gaslighting the wife, that chick would have been in the looney tunes ward and the jewels would have been hocked within a week.  Or not.  I doubt Emily would have let me take a job as black-hat as all that.  She keeps me honest.

Under the guise of spraying for bugs, or rats, or what-not, we moved through the house.  I planted the necessary devices while Emily kept a sharp watch for curious eyes.  Cabinets and drawers were given little hinge actuators that could allow them to be opened and closed by remote, but which were small enough to remain hidden against all but the most intensive of searches.  The TVs received new hidden remotes that could flip them on and off, change the volume or channels, or display the images of my choice.  We installed remote controls for each room’s thermostat, allowing us to call up cold spots at will.  Fans, lights, doors, etc. throughout the mansion all got the Smythe and Shade treatment.

Remote speakers capable of producing thumps, creaks, whines, voices, and laughter, as well as both infra-sonic and ultra-sonic tones were liberally dropped about the place.  Setting up the fog machines and hidden holographic projectors took a little more effort and several trips back to the van.  I was almost caught more than once, but Emily was always able to warn me in sufficient time to make it look like I was setting up sprayers and traps.

By the end of the day, I was down to setting up motion actuators beneath the dining room candlesticks so they would move of their own accord.  Emily hissed, “He’s coming!” in that fake stage-whisper she always insists on using.  I was able to set the candlestick down and pick up my sprayer’s wand before the dining room doors opened and Cyrus Farnham himself entered.

He glared at me, as if trying to place my face and spoke slowly, “Are you . . . almost done?  My wife and I intended to eat in here tonight.”

I nodded and tipped my cap.  “Oh, yessir, ab-sue-lo-tively.  I venture you won’ find no more scurryin’ varmints in here no more.  Clean as your whistle, to be sure, sir!”  My voice was as high-pitched and lisping as I could make it.  Emily glared at me.

Cyrus looked at me with an expression of  disdain.  “Well, thank you.  If you’ll just see Mrs. Brooks on the way out, she’ll handle any bill or fees you still need to settle.”

“Yessir, Missus Brooks it is, sir.  And you and your missus, you all have a good evenin’ and a good dinner yourselves too!”  I limped out, giving Cyrus one more false impression to obscure his memory of me.  By tomorrow, he would not be able to remember my face at all, but my fake voice and manner would stick with him forever.

Back in the van and driving away, Emily reached over and punched me in the arm.  “You’re an ass — you know that, John?”

I smiled.  “I know.”

 

—–

 

Over at the guest house Henry Farnham had lent to us, we set up the control board for the op.  Emily was little help here.  She did not have a head for cables or electronics, so I ended up doing most of the work myself.  But she kept me entertained, dancing about the room and bringing me components in a suggestive manner when I needed them.

She handed me a bundle of cables while batting her eyes and grinning, and I heard a startled gasp behind me.  I turned and saw Henry staring at us.  “Hi, Henry.  We’ll be finished setting up soon and I can go over the plan with you.”

He stepped forward and looked over the jumbled mess of the controls.  Favoring me with a nervous half-smile he gestured to the cables Emily had given me.  “Is that one of the illusions you’re going to use?  Because if it is, it’s definitely effective.”

I tossed the bundle from one hand to the other.  “Nope, it’s just your standard Radio Shack coax.  All the good effects are over at your Uncle’s place.”

Henry appeared perturbed.  “Not the cables!  The movement.  The levitation.  How do you do that?  Is it mirrors?”

I tried not to laugh, but I failed for the most part.  “You know, mirrors are always everybody’s first guess, but I almost never use them to simulate levitation.  You can only disappear things or float them with stage-magic from far away.  Mirrors don’t hold up against close inspection.  And Ms. Shade is so vain, you can’t get her to stop checking herself out in them.”

Emily swatted the back of my head and I grinned at her.

Henry’s perturbation grew to anger as his face reddened.  “Mr. Smythe, this eccentric . . . routine you’re doing with your ‘partner’ may be cute when you’re playing to the rubes, but I’m investing serious money in you.  If you want to be paid, you’ll stop this charade at once.  Am I clear?”

I saluted him with the cable bundle.  “Crystal, Mr. Farnham.”

Henry shook his head and stalked out.  Emily draped her arms over my shoulders and nuzzled my neck.  She kissed my jawline and murmured, “I sure hope he’s not going to be a problem.”

“Me too, Babe.  Me too.”

 

—–

 

The secret to a good gaslight op is restraint.  If you throw a bunch of “BOO”s and haunted house rejects at someone, they’ll be startled for certain, but their mind will also reject the scenario you’re trying to reinforce within their psyches.  No, you have to start out slowly, ambiguously, to make them doubt what they are seeing and struggle to come up with a rational explanation — with the goal being that their eventual “rational” explanation will be irrational to everyone else.

It’s similar to the old saw about boiling a frog.  If you try to throw a frog right into a boiling pot of water, it will jump out.  However, if you put the frog in cold water and turn up the heat over time, the frog will stew in utter contentment.

Emily always thought that was a needlessly cruel analogy, but it was apt.

First, Cyrus got a dose of infra-sonics every time he was alone.  The low-frequency sound waves, well below the range of human hearing, had been known to cause feelings of unease and queasiness in test subjects, and they served to unsettle Cyrus quite well.  After that, we started setting off lights, triggering sounds, and moving things in rooms just outside wherever Cyrus sat alone.  His subconscious would pick up on the changes, and they served to further unnerve him.

Emily was my guide in all this, even if she was a reluctant one.  I was adept at all the nuts and bolts, but when it came to convincing someone that something was haunting them or they were going batty, that girl was an artist.  She knew right when to escalate, when to hold back, and when to change the routine on a spooky, instinctual level.  Even if she would rather we spend our talents on other endeavors, we still made a great gaslight team.  We had been that way from our very first con together, even if that one had ended up going south in a catastrophic manner.

Cyrus, towering intellect or not, began to lose it quite quickly.  He would leave a room, we would change it, he would re-enter and see it altered, then freak out and leave to show it to someone else, whereupon we would change it right back.  Drawers and doors opened and closed.  Candlesticks moved.  Lights flickered and flashed.  Images appeared and disappeared in his peripheral vision.  Voices whispered his name — always when he was alone and never with any evidence that it was anything beyond his own imagination.

Ask someone if they believed in ghosts or haunting, and 95% of the time they’ll scoff and disregard any real potential for it.  An evidence-based, I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it sort of guy like Cyrus Farnham would have thought he was immune to those beliefs, but in reality he was more set up to take a fall than anyone else.  You could not show him anything overt.  Cyrus would have known he was being conned if we ever floated a ghostly image right across his path.  But make him doubt his own senses and memory?  Do that and his whole world will fall apart.

As Cyrus went off the deep end, Emily became more and more cross with me.  I knew she hated this stuff.  Even though it was the thing we were best at, she had never had a taste for it, not since that first op.  But she loved me and we had the same goal:  make enough cash so we could get away together alone, away from anyone else’s prying eyes or confused looks forever.

 

—–

 

“Non compos mentis!” Henry announced when he came into the guest house, smiling.  Emily sat on a table and scowled while I nodded and continued packing up.  Cyrus Farnham had been reduced to gibbering mess that jumped and cried out every time a door opened or someone approached him from behind.  The probate case regarding Henry’s late father had concluded that Cyrus was not mentally competent enough to administer the disputed estate, so Henry now controlled the whole $ 100,000,000 in contention.  His uncle would receive the best care money could buy and might eventually make a full recovery.  The job was done and we had “won.”

Yeah?

Flashing his brilliant white teeth in a feral grin that lacked any hint of humor, Henry patted me on the back and sat on the table right next to Emily.  “You and ‘Ms. Shade,’” he said, making air quotes, “did an excellent job, Mr. Smythe.  I can’t thank you enough!”

I gave him a half smile and closed up the last cardboard box with our gear in it.  “We aim to please, Henry.”

He gestured around the room.  “Are you all finished up?  Is all the evidence removed from Cyrus’s place too?”

Emily nodded and I said, “Yep.  Eddie the Exterminator made a follow-up inspection and cleared out all his stuff.  There’s nothing tying us or yourself to the con.  You’re in the clear.”

“Good.  And of our deal and our discussions, there are no records?  You’re not going to be blackmailing me in six months?”

I smiled.  “Well, I could say no, and then blackmail you anyway . . . but no, there are no records.  We’re professionals, Henry.  We don’t try to screw over our clients, or else word-of-mouth gets around and we have no more clients.”

He stood, a confident and triumphant expression plastered across his face.  “In that case, I think a certain re-negotiation is in order.  Instead of five percent, how about you just get the hell out?  I’ve endured you and your delusions for far too long and I don’t believe the services you allegedly performed are worth nearly what you’re asking.”

Emily laughed and shook her head.  “I knew it!”

I waved my hand for her to keep quiet.  “I know, I know, you’re always right.”  I looked at Henry.  “What’s to stop me from spilling the beans anyway, letting the press and the courts know exactly what you had done to your uncle?”

He stalked up and leaned in close to me.  “Besides the fact that you’ll be admitting to a crime, and even if you manage to avoid jail-time, you’ll never work again?  How about the fact that you’re an obvious nut who talks to thin air?  Who works with an imaginary partner with the unlikely name of Ms. Shade?”  He jabbed a stiff finger onto my chest.  “No one will believe you over me.  You’d best chalk this one up to a learning experience and move on.  Next time, get paid first.”  Henry turned and headed for the door.

I called out to his retreating back.  “You know, you’d think I’d have learned by now that when you deal with unsavory characters, they tend to do unsavory and unscrupulous things.  I should tell you about our first op.”

He stopped and turned back to me.  Henry wore a bemused expression.  “Oh?  What happened to you then?”

“The job went off without a hitch, but when it came time to get paid, the client wasn’t just content with stiffing us.  No, he wanted to ensure that we never talked.  The guy actually pulled a gun on us!”

Henry smiled.  “Well, at least I’m not doing that.”

“Yeah, the bastard shot at me, missed, then shot again.  And Emily, poor sweet, stupid, loving Emily . . . she jumped in front of me and took the bullet right in the heart.  It killed her instantly.”

Henry frowned.  “That explains a lot.  I’m sorry for your loss, but my sympathy doesn’t extend to the tune of five million dollars.  Goodbye, John.”

I laughed, and he paused a bit longer.  “I guess I did go a little nuts then.  I started seeing things,” I said.  “I started imagining things, like Emily being with me still and helping me out on jobs.  Crazy, right?”

He nodded.  “That is indeed crazy.”

“Yeah, crazy.  Crazy up until she did something like this.”  I nodded and Emily stepped into Henry Farnham.

Our client jerked like he had just latched onto a live wire.  Henry convulsed and frothed at the mouth for a few moments, and then settled down.  He stood at an odd angle, as if he had passed out and something unseen was holding him up.  Henry’s head lolled, and then cranked around to look at me.  He spoke, but Emily’s voice came out.  “He keeps his checkbook in his study.  The signature won’t be a problem.”

I considered it.  “Five mil is a bit hefty for a check.  We’d best do a wire transfer.”

When they found Henry Farnham later, he was a gibbering mess even worse off than his uncle.  Unlike his uncle, he would never make a recovery.  Of the mysterious man he had hosted alone in his guest house for the month, nothing was ever known or found.

But that was because they were looking in the wrong place.  Surrounded by sun, surf, sand, and palm trees on a private beach, I sat on a lounge chair next to a pale young woman in a black bikini and a floppy straw hat, armed with a pair of fruity rum drinks.  A pair of gas-lit torches blazed beside us.  I gestured to Emily with a piece of toothpick-pierced pineapple.  “Do you want me to rub you down with sunscreen, Ms. Shade?”

She gave me a droll look.  “You know I don’t burn, Mr. Smythe.”

I smiled.  “You want me to rub you down anyways?”

If anyone noticed or cared about me talking to an empty lounge chair, they kept it to themselves.

 

 

 

 


 

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During the day, Thomas A. Mays is a career US Navy officer and all-around Serious Person. At night, when the moon is full, he taps out science fiction with a feverish madness that would likely get him cashiered if his Uncle Sam knew about it. He is the author of numerous short stories in online magazines, and he has published a well-received collection of his military sci-fi shorts, REMO. His debut military SF novel / space opera A Sword Into Darkness, is available on Amazon or your favorite online book retailer. Helpful links can be found on Tom’s blog, The Improbable Author, at: http://improbableauthor.com/. You can reach him on Twitter @improbablauthor.

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2 Comments

  1. I think anyone who has seen the play or any of the film adaptations of “Gaslight” would immediately think of almost immediately with the idea of reality being something other than what it appears, or of being unable to trust your own senses. The idea of a team who performs gaslighting ops professionally seems like the next logical step.

    I was rather surprised that the focus of the story was actually not the op itself. Which, in the long run, wasn’t a bad thing. While I was intrigued by the tricks of the trade that we see on display in the second act, I find it hard to believe that it would be sufficient to drive someone insane in just a matter of weeks.

    But again, the focus of the story wasn’t on the op that they were actually hired for, and the story is much better for it. Granted, it was predictable from the first scene when Henry Farnham was unable to see Ms. Shade, but that didn’t make it any less enjoyable. All of the character interactions seem very natural to me, and I love the palpable chemistry between John and Emily. And, as has been oft repeated here in the arena, characters are story.

    This is a marvelous piece of storytelling, and a brilliant take on the prompt.

  2. I am pleasantly reminded of a song by Robyn Hitchcock called “My Wife and My Dead Wife”, which isn’t as grim as it sounds (except that it kinda is) in which the narrator comments that he’s being haunted in an entirely pleasant way by his original wife, who drowned some time in the 1970s. His current wife can’t see her, no one else can either. He comments “I got you baby and I’ll never be lonely”.

    In the song it’s never clear whether the poor man is mad or whether his first wife’s spectre really is there.

    In the story, it’s clearer. It’s an honest ghost, as Hamlet might say. It might have been more gaslighty had we cause to doubt the ghost, but the strength of the tale, the characters and the author’s voice combine to make this a completely enjoyable tale. It’s also a really good intro to Thomas Mays and for the second week in a row I’m adding an author to my “must read” list.

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