Nobody in town knew exactly where old Missus Montgomery’s fortune came from. Some people claimed she had made a fortuitous investment in a certain software company in its fledging days; others said that her husband, dead these 26 years now, had won a lawsuit against the mining company that had given him a gimp leg and a set of worthless lungs, and that she had simply bidden her time until he coughed himself to death, she waiting two hours to call an ambulance to be sure he was cold. Still others held that she must have made a deal with the devil himself to have fallen into that kind of money — if so, then at least it wasn’t true what some of the old timers said, that the Madame had never set foot in the mine and therefore had no right to the lawsuit money. Indeed, she had gone even further underground. She might have had a direct line to Satan himself.
So it was that Madame Montgomery sat, at 88 years old, behind her curtained windows every day, looking out scornfully at the world. It could be a sunny day or a roaring blizzard: Montgomery would be scornful. There could be salesmen, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or simply kids running down the street to a baseball game on the old diamond: Montgomery would still be scornful. Hell, if it was Jesus Himself, coming back to collect the worthy, she likely would have locked her doors double tight and cackled out, scornfully, “I don’t want none. Now go away!” And, one imagines, Jesus would have been of a mind to oblige her.
There are two principal characters to our tale: Madame Montgomery, of course, and a slick, swindling snake oil salesman by the name of Corey P. Wales, unless you count the two other main characters, those being Greed and Gullibility — but we’ll assume they don’t count, and neither do their bedfellows, Evil, Foolishness, Humiliation … well, you get the idea.
Of Corey P., not much is known. He went to school at some fancy northern university but couldn’t make the grade. Fair enough. People, around here anyway, are more likely to trust a fellow lacking a college degree than a fellow who is in ownership of one. After college, he rattled around for a little while, looking for work. He sold Bibles in the Midwest and apparently did a good enough trade that he could afford food and a place to lay his head at night. But, he decided at some point, it wasn’t much of an existence, being chased by dogs and shotgun-wielding old men crying after him, “We already got us plenty of Bibles!”
He tried his hand at writing books, but apparently no one was interested in publishing his work; that was when he discovered that one had to be more than just a good liar to be a good writer.
And so it went for Corey P. But at some point, he must have heard of Madame Montgomery, because, by the time he sauntered into town, he was already well prepared for her. He drove in with some old pickup truck, the kind you don’t like to follow on the highway for fear of something sharp flying off and giving you a puncture, and parked it at the only little motel in town, and the next day he was already well on his way to swindling old Missus Montgomery.
Two other important things to note about the Madame, and really they should have been mentioned earlier. The first is that she never trusted banks. She might have maintained a bank account, somewhere, but whatever sorry bank it was had only a small fraction of her total holdings. Word was, she had lived through the Great Depression, and when she came out of it, just a young, spitting little hellfire of a girl, she swore she would never put her faith in one of those godforsaken institutions in her life. No one could blame her. It was a minor concession when she got a checking account, but that was for purely technical, financial reasons, we are told. She still loathed writing checks.
The second point, perhaps even more important than the first, is that as she grew in age, her superstitions also grew. When she was young, and called simply “Miss Montgomery,” she employed all the usual elements of superstition in her life: she never walked under ladders, for instance, although that might have been attributed simply to an overabundance of caution. She detested black cats, and even in later years, when her house began to fill up with the wretched animals, not a one of them was black. She threw salt over her shoulder in restaurants. She was extra-careful during full moons.
But time has a way of changing people, and in most cases, rather than changing you, it simply embeds those traits you already have even deeper within yourself. Drunks drink more, smokers smoke more. Madame Montgomery started to dabble in the Black Arts, as they are sometimes known, consulting such trinkets as Ouija boards and tarot cards to divine her future. She became, as a euphemism, more spiritual. Euphemisms aside, she started to go batshit crazy.
But such is the fate of many a wealthy person, and especially so for a single lady getting on in years. She hired and fired helpers and cleaners at an extraordinary rate. A few poor girls, whose command of English was tenuous at best, found themselves in her employ for only two days. They were supposedly Russian immigrants, and in darker circles around town, it was said that they had stumbled upon some strange ritual that old Madame Montgomery was performing in her basement. Probably not, though — probably old Missus Montgomery just didn’t like the looks of them and sent them on their way.
Anyway, as previously stated, Corey P. came into town in his pickup truck, and within a day he had made an agreement with the local library, a small outfit carrying mostly dusty reference books and dime-store paperbacks, to hold a free talk about his own little book. It was titled The Spirit Staircase, and of course the library agreed. Mr. Corey P. Wales was going to be the first bonafide author the library had ever hosted. He would, of course, be available to answer questions and sign books after his talk.
Corey P. was a short, unimposing man, and even if he didn’t finish his schooling, he spoke well and quietly, the kind of talk you get from a man who is used to being listened to, in the end. He showed up to the library carrying a briefcase and dressed in a fancy suit and tie, although it looked like his clothes had seen better days, and a whole bunch of them at that. They were loose-fitting and a bit frayed at the edges, like a kid’s drawing that’s had a few lines erased and cleaned up. His talk was right in the middle room of the library, and he set up a stack of his books right there. They were self-published, pitiful things. His audience consisted of about a dozen people, mostly women and a few outliers, a couple kids who were interested in ghost hunting, and old men who had been dragged along by their wives to submit themselves to a bit of culture. And, of course, in the front row sat Madame Montgomery, dressed fairly to the nines herself, in a rare public appearance.
“I’m here,” began Corey P., “to tell you that there is a lot more to this life than what you see around you.”
He already had her in the palm of his hand. But he wasn’t the type to just make a fist and squash her; his was a more seductive, subtle style. He went on, “I’ve seen ghosts, although my purpose here today isn’t to talk to you about ghosts. I’ve spoken with spirits, although I’m not here to tell you about that, either. I’ve seen a lot of strange things, actually. I’ve seen spoons bent by the power of a masterful mind. I’ve seen a man levitate — this was in India, mind you — about this far off the ground.” Here, Corey P. held his hand about a foot off the library’s carpeted floor, and he held it there for a few seconds, to the rapture of the crowd. “Yes, indeed, I’ve seen those things. But I don’t want to tell stories. When I get to telling stories, people start to look at me funny.” Cue the audience laughter. Even the Madame laughed, her eyes glinting a little. “I’m here today to tell you that all those things are possible because of the spiritual connection we are meant to have with our spiritual selves. And I’m here to tell you how you, too,” and now he picked up one of his books, “can achieve the same thing.”
Corey P. went on to discuss such matters as prayer and meditation, speaking with lost relatives, and feng shui. Madame hung on his every word; most of the people present there did, in fact, because the fella had such an intriguing set of mannerisms about him. Come time for the end of his talk, he fielded a few questions. There were the usual types: a lady wanted to know if he could contact her dead father, for example, and Corey P. responded by closing his eyes real tight, like he was concentrating, and feeling out in the air with his empty hands, and then saying, like he was very disappointed, “I’m sorry ma’am. There are some hucksters out there who will try to fool you. But I’m not one of them. I’m not getting anything.”
Another guy, Gene Robinson from down the mechanic’s, wanted to know who was going to win the next presidential election, still two years away. Corey P. just smiled and gave Gene a little wink. “Well, sir, I don’t know his name, but I can tell you he’s a crook,” he answered, to much audience approval.
And so it went, and then he sold a handful of his books. In the following years, the book would circulate through town, and people would stare down at it like they were looking through old high school yearbooks; Gene bought a copy, as did Ulysses Pearson, a retired schoolteacher, and a few other adventurous souls, including the library, although that copy would mysteriously disappear after Madame Montgomery disappeared.
Of course, Madame Montgomery got a copy, and the author signed it: “For the most beautiful lady in the room.”
The table of contents was nothing special, but chapter eight was the whole focus of Corey P.’s mission. It was titled “Where to Hide Loot, Booty, and Treasure.”
One can just picture, on the one hand, Corey P. Wales as he studied pictures of the old woman’s house and property, as he toiled away writing page upon page of that absolute garbage he would later claim was spiritual truth, smoking away in whatever cell or dungeon he found to work in during those bleak times. Did he struggle over which words to use, like a drunken poet, or did he simply vomit out the majority of the information, taking special care only when he described how close a buried treasure should be located in relation to an old oak tree, how deeply it should be placed beneath the earth, how many paces from the back door it should be so that it could grow while it hibernated in the ground? He drew basic diagrams, one of them so closely approximating the old woman’s property that it boggles the mind how she never realized she was being played.
And, on the other hand, poor old Missus Montgomery, reading through the book and happening upon that fateful chapter, reading it with great interest, mumbling to herself how it seemed like it was written especially for her. Taking her personal treasure — all cash and jewelry, we have been told — and, trusting no one, waiting until the cover of night so that she could drag it into her backyard and start digging, panting with the effort, wiping the sweat from her brow. How accomplished she must have felt, having completed the task laid out for her.
Corey P., waiting in his motel room impatiently for old lady Montgomery to finish. It is impossible to tell how long he gave the process. Perhaps he left town, went to Atlantic City for a while, took a road trip, laid low until his swindler’s sense started tingling. At which point he would have driven directly back to Madame Montgomery’s house, sneaked into her backyard, and started digging.
The rest is mostly speculation. Missus Montgomery drank her coffee one morning and peered out that sooty kitchen window of hers into the yard. She saw the oak tree, casting a long sunrise shadow, and her eye fell upon something amiss: a big heap of dirt where no heap of dirt should have been. She ran into the yard in her stocking feet and peered down into the hole, empty except for a copy of Corey P.’s book. She screamed. Or she simply turned around, went back inside, and got herself dressed. She was not a woman to take such matters lightly. She would have known immediately what had happened; yes, indeed, she was a woman who had seen more than her fair share of scams and swindles throughout her life, and she had never let one of them get away with it. Two and two equaled four, in her world, and she did the math instantly.
She would have packed that old .357 Magnum revolver, fully loaded, into her purse and she would have patted it twice to be sure it was safe. After a moment’s rumination, she would have opened the kitchen window just high enough so that her cats, too numerous to count, could escape to their own separate freedoms in their own good time. She would have grabbed the keys to her old Buick and she would have locked the front door tightly behind her as she left the house.
She would have driven to the library first, and indeed we heard tell of a strangely calm Lady Montgomery who happened through, one chilly morning, enquiring if that fine young man was ever going to come back for a repeat talk. The librarian, a mousy young woman, replied that they had no plans, but that she did have a phone number at which the industrious author could possibly be reached. This she scrawled on a scrap of paper. Missus Montgomery tucked it into her purse, probably right up against the hammer of that impressive revolver she had hidden there.
“Thank you kindly,” she was reported to have said, patting her purse again.
“Think nothing of it,” the librarian responded, and then, as Missus Montgomery was on her way out the front door, she called after her. “Say, did you find that book of his helpful?”
Madame Montgomery paused, hand already resting on the door. “You know,” she said, “I did. It’s already given me new direction in life.”
“That’s good,” the librarian answered, but the old lady was already gone.