Read an Excerpt
Dead Man Talking
'Tis now the very witching time of night, When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world.
Dora smiled out the window at the fading twilight and watched the world surrender itself to the night.
Pouring boiling water over the loose tea with great care, she breathed in the warm, pungent scent, feeling her head clear and her senses sharpen. The teapot lid dropped into place with a musical clink.
Dora stole another glance out the window, then settled onto the couch to wait. In the distance a whistle moaned as a freight train passed unseen through the outskirts of town. Nearly seven. When the starless sky turned black as ink, the doorbell would ring and business would commence. Her supper dishes were already stacked in the cupboard, her apron folded neatly across the drainer, her kitchen table bare except for a cluster of scented candles and the steaming pot of Ceylon tea.
Dora was ready.
No need to post a sign in her window or run a boldface line in the yellow pages. Certainly not. Her customers always found her, however illegal her work might be.
Bending down to stroke the ginger-and-white cat that rubbed along her legs, Dora laughed softly. "Thank the stars we've never been found out, eh, Chelsea?" Purring along with her feline friend, she added in a stage whisper, "Someone rather powerful must be watching out for us."
Years earlier the good citizens of Peoria had voted to abolish all "irregular" businesses like hers. The pastors of the town were behind the ban one hundred percent, Reverend Samuel Clay especially. He kept confusing the hidden arts, calling palm readers "psychics" and astrologers "spiritualists" and the whole lot of them "witches."
Witches! The man was pitifully uninformed.
Since that fateful day, Dora was pleased to point out, not one police car had pulled up to the curb outside her tidy clapboard cottage. Nor had an unwelcome summons appeared in her mailbox. The neighborhood didn't seem to notice the middle-age matrons stumbling through her door after sunset or the curious college students who gathered around the sturdy oak table in her blue-and-white kitchen.
So much the better. Dora didn't need an audience. Those who knocked on her front door were lost souls. Nothing more than friends not met yet, stopping by for tea. If they accidentally left a twenty-dollar bill under their saucer, well, they knew she was a widow who could use the small blessing.
In Peoria, heart of the heartland, mediums were few and far between. No wonder business was brisk. She was needed. A helper, that's what she was. A servant to the forgotten. Hadn't she buried a husband? And a sister? And a child? Dora knew all there was to know about missing loved ones, about longing to hear their voices once more.
She heard something now. The sound of a car drawing near, then the engine abruptly shutting off. Ah. Dora's smile broadened. Her first customer of the evening.
It was George Nicholson standing on her dimly lit porch, his soiled herringbone hat crushed between arthritic fingers, his eyes downcast.
She opened the door with a generous sweep. "Welcome, George."
He could barely meet her gaze. "H-hello, Dora."
George usually came on Thursdayspayday. His late wife, Nancy, had been gone for two years, most of which he'd spent trying to contact her, hoping to bring their last conversation to a better conclusion.
That's what most of Dora's work entailed: unfinished business with the dead.
The hour with George went well. He was quite convinced the spirit of Nancy had joined them. Not every word was clear, not every phrase made sensethat was part of what made it appear so authenticyet George seemed more than satisfied. The additional dollars he slipped into Dora's palm confirmed it. George backed down her porch steps, eyes brimming with grateful tears, and disappeared into the night.
Dora closed the door behind her, exhaled with a deliberate, cleansing breath, then eyed the enormous cat that filled the slipcovered chair like pudding in a cup. "An honest hour's work for us, wouldn't you say, Chelsea girl?"
The cat answered with a slow, silent blink that Dora understood completely, blinking back at her. Chelsea was the only one she could talk to, the only one truly familiar with her work. How could she risk explaining her nocturnal activities to friends and neighbors? The aromatic candles, the soft, tuneless music, the careful, circular arrangement of objects belonging to the dead, the smoky fire on the grate, the groans and murmurs and tortured sighs from here and there, from then and now.
It was exhausting, really. Three visitors a night was her limit. The mental preparationthat was the most demanding part. Total concentration, absolute focus. Then, if all was properly aligned, she would sense words flowing through her and would relax, feeling her customer's clenched hands loosen their grip on hers.
When the spirits were uncooperative or surly, as if she'd rudely disturbed their sound sleep, Dora included a few words of counsel of her ownwords of comfort and assurance, to give the living one closure, to give the person hope. Most of the time it felt utterly natural, this talking in a voice that was not wholly hers. Other times it was unnerving, a bit out-of-body, as if perhaps someone else's voice altogether were speaking, though she knew very well how the whole process worked.
Those who might accuse her of "trafficking with the devil"honestly, the very idea!didn't have the faintest notion of the good she accomplished. She was dealing with departed spirits, not demons. Hers was a sort of white magic, harmless yet powerful.
The response of her customerstheir tears of joy and relief were what kept her going. It was a sacred calling, of that Dora was convinced.
Two more needy souls tapped on her front door that evening. A woman in her twenties wanted nothing more than to hear her mother's voice. Dora squeezed the girl's unlined hands with affection, thinking of her own daughter on the Other Side. Her last customer was an older woman, heartbroken at the loss of her husband two months earlier and desperate for companionship. Weeping throughout their session, the stranger left drained but happy.
Dora felt much the same: emptied yet filled with contentment.
The hour grew late. Nearly midnight, she guessed, stretching her bone-weary limbs, then snapping off the front porch light. The fire had died to scant more than embers, which she poked with listless stabs, yawning all the while. "To bed with us, Chelsea."
The knock on the back door was sharp and sudden.
Dora dropped the iron poker, hearing it clatter on the tile hearth as if it were miles away, her every sense directed toward the kitchen door.
No one ever used that entrance.
It was locked tight. Always.
Bending down to scoop up Chelseafor support, for protection from who knew whatDora swallowed an uncomfortable lump in her throat and made her way toward the shadow-bathed kitchen. The candles had been snuffed out some time ago; the cold teapot sat empty in the sink.
Again the curtained door rattled under a series of firm knocks. Voices were raised. Men's voices. Strangersthere was no doubt of it. Her heart was hammering so loud she couldn't discern their ages nor their intent. Only the desperation in their muffled words was certain.
Mustering every ounce of courage in her tired body, Dora called out, projecting her voice across the room. "Who are you? What is it you want?" Her surprisingly firm, authoritative tone reminded her of Carolyn Hutter's dead husband, for whom she'd interceded last Tuesday.
She flicked on the overhead light, and the kitchen instantly looked like home again, the countertops scrubbed clean, all four corners warm and inviting. Until, with a pop the light bulb went out, plunging the room into a shroud of darkness once more.
She blinked, willing her eyes to adjust. Her hands, usually warm, felt like ice against the cat's back. Chelsea's furry head was up, eyes and ears pointed toward the door, a low sort of growl stirring in her throat.
Steady, Dora. She clutched the animal tighter to her chest and eased her way across the room, steeling herself. Perhaps it was the police at last, come to put her out of business after all these years.
The men on the porch knocked again, louder and more insistently.
"Coming!" She nearly shouted it, for her own sake more than theirs. Stretching out a trembling hand, Dora pulled aside the gingham curtains that covered the back-door window and assessed the party on the other side of the glass.
Three men formed a broad, human knot on her porch. Two younger ones, their eyes wide with apprehension, and a larger man between them, his face lined with grief, although his direct gaze pierced hers with an uncanny measure of intelligence.
"We've need of your services, ma'am." His rough voice easily cut through the small panes between them. "Don't be afraid. We mean no harm."
Something told her he spoke the truth. Though wise, his eyes also had a haunted look. If anyone was fearful that night, it was this man.
Feeling in control again, her hands no longer shaking, Dora unlocked the door and pulled it open, its seldom-used hinges creaking in protest. "What can I do for you, gentlemen? Made a wrong turn, have you?"
The younger men both offered tentative smiles. "Not at all, ma'am," the taller one on the right said, sounding relieved. "Our boss here wants a ... well, he'd like to ..."
The older man leaned forward. "I need to speak to my dead father."
"I see." Dora studied the men for a moment. They seemed sincere enough, but she couldn't take any chancesnot with strangers, not at this hour. "And what makes you think I could honor such an outrageous request?"
The one on the left piped up. "Everybody knows you're a medium." He pulled out a wallet, thick with bills. "Trust me, we'll pay you well for your services."
She frowned and shook her head. "What you're asking me to do is illegal"her standard line when an unknown prospect knocked. "If I recall the news story correctly, that kind of business is against the city ordinances"
"So it is, Dora," their boss barked. "Illegal as sin." The older man stepped across her threshold, towering over her. "Which is why we won't breathe a word of what happens this night, not to a living soul."
"Nor to a dead one?" She swallowed the last of her concerns as a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
His laugh was gruff. "Talking to the dead is your department. So, will you help me? I swear on my father's grave, my intentions are honorable."
We'll see about that. With a slight nod, she stepped back and ushered them into her gloomy kitchen. "Kindly give me a moment to get everything ready, will you?"
Lighting the candles with a steady hand, she directed the younger men into chairs well away from the table, lest they interfere with her centering efforts. Years of practice showed in her efficient preparation of the proper setting for a séance. Within minutes, the fire on the grate had sprung back to life. A heady scent of anise pervaded the room, and deep notes from a lone cello poured from the hidden stereo speakers, infusing the silence with a low, hypnotic thrum.
She reached across the table and took the older man's large hands in hers, not surprised to find his grasp clammy but firm. "Are you ready to tell me your name?"
"Seth." He lifted his chin, meeting her gaze. "Seth Clay."
"Clay?" Stunned, she drew back, releasing his hands as if she'd been stung. Why hadn't she seen the resemblance sooner? "The same family as Samuel Clay, the minister?"
He nodded, his expression grim. "I'm his oldest son. My father died a few weeks ago. Or didn't you know?"
Of course she knew. Everybody knew. Half the town had attended his funeral. Dora had not been among them though. She'd celebrated Reverend Clay's passing by buttering an extra scone at breakfast that happy morning.
Now the wretched man's son was seated at her table, expecting her to conjure up the spirit of Samuel Clay, a narrow-minded tyrant who'd labeled her and her friends in the community "wicked witches" and "evil sorcerers."
Evil? Why, she was nothing of the sort! She helped people, made their lives better, their futures more certain.
She glared across the table at the reverend's fifty-something son, the lines in his face etched deeper by the flickering candlelight. In his eyes she saw neither judgment nor reproach. Only sorrow and a great emptiness.
It tore her mediums heart in two. The man desperately needed her assistance. Samuel Clay was dead and gone, wasn't he? True, with her particular skills, he could still speak from the grave, but he could no longer hurt her. The curtain between their two worlds was thin but impenetrable.
Let him speak then.
"What is it you want from your father, Seth?"
He gnawed on his lower lip, choosing his words with care. "I'm an attorney, you see."
She merely nodded, remembering some mention of his profession in the obituary. "Go on."
"Tomorrow I face an opponent in the courtroom who knows my every strategy. Without more information, I'm certain to lose the case, if not my entire career." He edged closer. "It's that important."
"I understand." Which she certainly did. "But what of your father?"
"He always counseled me before my trials. He ... prayed with me. Helped me see the big picture, how God's hand moved in such situations."
Dora's lips pressed into a thin, hard line. God deciding court cases? Samuel Clay had a lot of nerve calling mediums dangerous and fanatical! She'd almost relish conjuring up the loathsome man's ghost, if only to taunt him with his permanently spectral state.
Grasping Seth's hands in hers, more resolutely this time, she closed her eyes and brought to mind an image of Samuel Clay. It was easy enough to picture him, rising to his feet at a city council meeting, his gnarled hand wrapped around a Bible held aloft as if it contained some great truth instead of mere ancient superstitions.
For several moments she did nothing but breathe. The room grew still as death itself.
When she spoke at last, her voice was calm. "I see you, Reverend Clay."
Seth's hands began quivering. His voice was a hoarse whisper. "What do you see?"
So impatient! She saw only what Seth had to be seeing in his own mind's eye: a vivid memory of his father. "I see your father in a gray suit ... white shirt ... red striped tie with a gold tiepin."
Seth gasped. "Th-that's wh-what he w-was w-wearing when w-we ... we buried him!"
Dora smiled. The spirits were generous this night. The reverend's limited wardrobe and her lucid memory of the photo in the newspaper helped too. As the vision of Samuel Clay grew in size and clarity, she marveled at how real the image seemed. Why, she would have vowed he was in that very room!
As if lifted by an unseen hand, her eyelids slowly fluttered open, then widened in utter shock.
A bloodcurdling scream filled the air. Her scream.
He was there. In her kitchen.
Samuel Clay hovered larger than life behind his son, one ghostly hand still holding a Bible, the other resting on Seth's shoulder.
"Seth!" She swallowed, struggling to speak. "Your ... father. He's ... here. With us. Now."
Eyes wide with fear, Seth swung around in his chair. "Where? Where is he?" He swiveled back, distraught. "I don't ... I don't see a thing, woman! Tell me what you see!"
What Dora saw left her speechless.
She, who many times had mentally reached across the chasm that separates life and death, had never approached such a level of success. It was thrilling. And terrifying.
This much was clear: It wasn't she bringing this ghost to life. It wasn't Seth's doing either. No. It must be
Dora suddenly felt her mouth being forced open against her will, her lungs expanding with air, her lips preparing to move.
Reverend Samuel Clay, it seemed, wanted to speak ...
* * *
Kings That Go Bump in the Night:
The Medium of En Dor
Somebody please turn the lights on.
Ever since our Girl Scout days, when we circled around a crackling campfire on a black-as-pitch summer night, trembling on our waterproof sit-upons, we've heard and read dozens of ghost stories. Tales of the supernatural are part and parcel of our culturefrom Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol to Stephen King's Bag of Bones.
Why the appeal? Because such otherworldly journeys are forbidden. Our naturally rebellious selves are drawn to things that say "Don't touch!" and "Warning!" Scary stories let us take a (short) walk on the wild side, then run home to a well-lit kitchen.
What's so bad about dabbling on the dark side?
Ask the Lord. You'll find his decree is crystal-ball clear:
Let no one be found among you who ... practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Deuteronomy 18:10-11
What a list! Who would ever think of doing all that? The Canaanites did. Those nefarious neighbors of Israel filled their religious rites with the entire collection of no-nos listed above.
Three thousand years later such practices are still around flourishing, in factthough some go by different names. Divination is another word for fortunetelling. Call the Psychic Hotline for details. A sorcerer tries to control people or situations with potions and herbs. Think aromatherapy with a seriously bad attitude. Interpreting omens includes analyzing flight patterns of birds, leaves in the bottom of a teacup, or whatever's handy. Witchcraftmodern practitioners prefer "wicca"bewitches us everywhere we turn these days, from movie screens to bookstore shelves.
"Boo" is right.
Which brings us to this chapter's nameless Bad Girl, a medium or spiritist who contacted the dead. Label her what you will"wizard" (KJV), "psychic" (NLT), "necromancer" (RSV) or one who "traffics with ghosts and spirits" (NEB)the girl was a rock's throw from disaster.
A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; ...
Ouch. A zero-tolerance situation, this medium business.
... their blood will be on their own heads. Leviticus 20:27
In other words, by breaking God's laws, they "brought it on themselves" (ICB).
You could say the same thing of King Saul, a man who made himself miserable by eventually turning his back on God. In the early years of his reign, though, he sent those necromancer types packing.
Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land. 1 Samuel 28:3
Don't be impressed. We'll see in a minute how Saul managed to "drive the devil out of his kingdom, and yet harbour him in his heart." Like so many of us, he got his outward act together, but inside the dark recesses of his soul, a rebellious spark still burned.
Lord Byron's take on this biblical story of King Saul and the shady lady from En Dor catches the spirit of the tale: "It beats all the ghost scenes I ever read." After all, this one was the real thing.
Our ghost story opensappropriatelyat night, on the eve of a battle with those nasty Philistines.
When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. 1 Samuel 28:5
Saul, a scaredy-cat? Saul, the slayer of thousands, terrified?
Saul realized he would fight the Philistines alone the next day, without God's mighty right arm to guarantee the victory. Tough to lift your standard high with certain death staring you in the face. As a last-ditch effort, Saul knocked on heaven's door.
He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him ...
I know what you're thinking: What's the deal, Lord? He needs your help! True. But Saul had severed his relationship with God by intentionally disobeying the Lord's commands. The prophet Samuel had delivered the bad news years earlier: "Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king."
Now we find him groping in the dark for answers.
... by dreams or Urim or prophets. 1 Samuel 28:6
His dreams were nightmares. His trusty Urim and Thummimtwo stones used to determine the will of God by asking yes and no questionswere dark. Even the prophet Samuel wasn't around anymore, since at age ninety-eight "the venerable Samuel crossed the boundary line into the other world."
A desperate Saul decided to bring him back from that "other world" where only the dead reside.
Crank up the fog machine and cue the eerie music.
Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a
medium, so I may go and inquire of her." 1 Samuel 28:7
Find him a what? You mean one of those people he expelled?
At his order, those Bad Girls (and Boys) of the black arts were run out of town on a rail (okay, a camel), and now he wants one to act as his "medium [between the living and the dead]"? (AMP)
Desperate wasn't the half of it.
Such women weren't a dime a dozenhoney, you know they charged more than thatbut being a medium was a "common occupation among ancient Near Eastern women."
With little trouble, Saul's men found such a gal.
"There is one in Endor," they said. 1 Samuel 28:7
Although it's also spelled "En-dor" (NEB), I decided to stick with the old-fashioned "En Dor" (NKJV) since in the original Hebrew it's two separate words: En (well or spring) and Dor (the nearest town).
Just four miles from Mount Tabor, this Canaanite stronghold was located in the same general area where we'll discover another Bad GirlJaelwho nailed that Bad Boy Sisera, "who perished at En Dor, who became as refuse on the earth."
For Saul to get to En Dor, he not only had to cross into enemy territory, he had to sneak past the Philistine army. The trip itself was dangerous, never mind what waited for him at the end. In Kipling's words, "And nothing has changed of the sorrow in store for such as go down the road to Endor." Preach it, brother.
So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes ...
He skipped the royal robes. Ditto the good jewelry. Saul not only had to keep his identity under wraps for that stealthy stroll past the Philistines, but he couldn't have his own people see him tiptoeing into a medium's abode. The woman herself had to be kept in the dark, lest she panic and refuse to serve the very king who'd put her out of business.
... and at night he and two men went to the woman. 1 Samuel 28:8
In my teenage years, my mother always cautioned me to be home before the stroke of twelve. "Nothing good happens after midnight," she insisted. Mom was right, of course. Did I listen? I did not. Many were the midnight hours of my rebellious youth spent in the backseat of a Camaro or the front row of an R-rated movie or in the middle of a circle of friends passing around some (un)controlled substance.
Hiding from the light.
Hiding from the Lord.
Darkness and disobedience go together. Almost all the scenes of Shakespeare's witchy Macbeth take place "either at night or in some dark spot." The apostle John wrote, "Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." That night in En Dor even the starless sky couldn't match the darkness of Saul's soul, that night when "death was in the air."
We know not the hour of the night, but we know it was dark indeed. We know nothing of the age or appearance of this unnamed medium, though she was certainly "hedged around with a circle of evil rumors."
Two things we do know: This surely wasn't her first late-night visitor. And the man on the other side of the door wasted no time in stating his intentions.
"Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name." 1 Samuel 28:8
In ten versions of the Old Testament, this verse is never translated the same way twice. Check out these various phrasings:
"conduct a séance for me" (NKJV)
"perceive for me by the familiar spirit" (AMP)
"tell me my fortunes by consulting the dead" (NEB)
"bring up the ghost of someone" (CEV)
"I have to talk to a man who has died" (NLT)
That last one cuts to the chase, doesn't it?
Reminds me of the advertisement typo I saw for a Christian event where "interpretation for the dead will be provided." Oops. In Saul's day, however, provisions like that were more than a proofreading problem. They were against the law.
But the woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land." 1 Samuel 28:9
Never mind the fact that talking to dead people broke God's Law. Madam Medium only cared that it broke Saul's law. It was clear that her heart did not belong to the Lord God.
Notice she didn't deny being a mediumwhat, and scare away a potential cash-paying customer? But she, who was "an outlaw, judged worthy of death," did want to find out how this stranger felt about bending the rules.
"Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?" 1 Samuel 28:9
Was she truly worried ... or hoping to raise her fee by pointing out the big risk she was taking?
Saul swore to her by the LORD, "As surely as the LORD lives, you will not be punished for this." 1 Samuel 28:10
Girls, this is what I call taking the Lord's name in vain. Using his name inappropriately. Blasphemously. Calling on the One whom Saul no longer knew, nor had a right to call his ally.
Sadly, it was also the last time Saul uttered the name of the Lord.
Then the woman asked, "Whom shall I bring up for you?" 1 Samuel 28:11
At this point I want film footage, not a script. Why did she suddenly agree to take the gig? Did he silently press money into her hand when he made that oath? Did the two men with him brandish highly motivating weapons? Or did the obvious desperation on Saul's face prompt her to help this stranger?
She didn't realize he was King Saulnot yetbut she did recognize a beaten man when she saw one. Mediums of her day were older, wiser women, "deeply versed in human nature; acquainted with all the weaknesses, hopes and fears of the human heart."
People came to her as a last resort. Each knock at her door was no doubt followed by the same needy entreaty: "Help me!"
The witches I've metincluding the one I almost chose as a roommate when I was nineteenall had a desire to help people. Misdirected, to be sure, but genuine. They saw their craft as a way of assisting folks who were confused, lost, or discouraged.
Consider this, dear sisters: If you and I don't stand in the gap as holy "mediums"serving as godly intercessors by sharing the truth of Christ with those who don't know himour pagan counterparts on the dark side will.
Our Girl in En Dor stood ready to serve.
"Bring up Samuel," he said. 1 Samuel 28:11
Wait. Samuel? As prophets go, he was "one of the purest, noblest on any record." You'd think Samuel would be the last person Saul would wanna talk to. While Samuel lived, he seldom had good news for Saul. Death would hardly improve matters, would it?
And what of the medium? Wouldn't she have been nervous about calling forth a prophet of the Lord?
Aha! Our first clue. She didn't expect Samuelor anyone elseto make an appearance! No wonder she went about her necromancy without hesitation. She wasn't truly calling forth dead spirits. It was nothing but smoke and mirrors and giving people what they wanted.
The next verse, as you'll see, describes the outcome of her efforts ... but not how she did it. Very wise, Lord. You know us well. If we had a recipe for such conjuring, we'd be tempted to try it.
Records of typical séances in the past reveal a use of something the ancients called "Engstrymysme ... or ventriloquism," which often sounded like "chirping and muttering" to the customers. Probably sounded like gold coins to the medium.
But the woman of En Dor, no doubt gearing up to create this spirit by her own subterfuge, was in for a shock.
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice ...
Um ... didn't her customers usually do the screaming?
What caught her off guard? The importance of the one who appeared? As in, "Wow, it's Samuel! Didn't know my own strength!" Or was she shocked that it occurred at all? Was this in fact the first time her mumbo jumbo seemed to work?
That's my vote.
... and said to Saul, "Why have you deceived me?" 1 Samuel 28:12
Deceived her? My, isn't that the cauldron calling the kettle black!
"You are Saul!" 1 Samuel 28:12
She saw the ghost of Samuel, screamed, and then identified ... Saul? That's odd. How did seeing Sam add up to Saul, I wonder. Did Samuel speak Saul's name as he rose? Did the medium reason that Samuel wouldn't have showed up for anyone less than the king himself? In any case, the woman put two and two together and came up with one scary scenario.
Talk about being between a rock and a hard place! A dead prophet on one side, a deranged king on the other. Eeek.