Read an Excerpt
Out of the Night
If you think it's an easy life being a mystic, you ought to try telling fifteen fortunes a day, at $25 a time, and then see whether you're quite so keen on it.
At the same moment that Karen Tandy was consulting Dr. Hughes and Dr. McEvoy at the Sisters of Jerusalem Hospital, I was giving old Mrs. Winconis a quick tour of her immediate prospects with the help of the Tarot cards.
We were sitting around the green baize table in my Tenth Avenue flat, with the drapes drawn tight and the incense smoldering suggestively in the corner, and my genuine simulated antique oil lamp casting pretty mysterious shadows. Mrs. Winconis was wrinkled and old and smelled of musty perfume and fox-fur coats, and she came around every Friday evening for a detailed rundown of the seven days ahead.
As I laid out the cards in the Celtic cross, she fidgeted and sniffed and peered across at me like a moth-eaten ermine scenting its prey. I knew she was dying to ask me what I saw, but I never gave any hints until the whole thing was set out on the table. The more suspense, the better. I had to go through the whole performance of frowning and sighing, and biting my lips, and making out that I was in communication with the powers from beyond. After all, that's what she paid her $25 for.
But she couldn't resist the temptation. As the last card went down, she leaned forward and asked: "What is it, Mr. Erskine? What do you see? Is there anything about Daddy?"
"Daddy" was her name for Mr. Winconis, a fat and dour old supermarket manager who chain-smoked cigars and didn't believe in anything more mystical than the first three runners atAqueduct. Mrs. Winconis never suggested as much, but it was plain from the way she talked that her greatest hope in life was for Daddy's heart to give out, and the Winconis fortune to come her way.
I looked at the cards with my usual elaborate concentration. I knew as much about the Tarot as anybody did who had taken the trouble to read Tarot Made Easy, but it was the style that carried it off. If you want to be a mystic, which is actually easier than being an advertising copywriter, or a summer camp warden, or a coach-tour guide, then you have to look like a mystic.
Since I am a rather mousy thirty-two-year-old from Cleveland, Ohio, with the beginnings of a bald patch underneath my scrubby brown hair, and a fine but overlarge nose in my fine but pallid face, I took the trouble to paint my eyebrows into satanic arches, and wear an emerald satin cloak with moons and stars sewn on it, and perch a triangular green hat on my head. The hat used to have a badge on it that said Green Bay Packers, but I took it off, for obvious reasons.
I invested in incense, and a few leather-bound copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and a beaten-up old skull from a secondhand store in the Village, and then I placed an advertisement in the newspapers which read: "The Incredible Erskine -- Fortunes Read, Future Foretold, Your Fate Revealed."
Within a couple of months, I was handling more business than I knew what to do with, and for the first time in my life I was able to afford a new Mercury Cougar and a quad stereo with earphones to match. But, as I say, it wasn't easy. The constant tide of middle-aged ladies who came simpering into my apartment, dying to hear what was going to happen in their tedious middle-aged lives, was almost enough to drown me forever in the well of human despair.
"Well?" said Mrs. Winconis, clutching her alligator pocketbook in her wrinkled old fingers. "What can you see, Mr. Erskine?"
I shook my head slowly and magnificently. "The cards are solemn today, Mrs. Winconis. They carry many warnings. They tell you that you are pressing too hard toward a future that, when it comes to pass, you may not enjoy as much as you thought. I see a portly gentleman with a cigar -- it must be Daddy. He is saying something in great sorrow. He is saying something about money."
"What is he saying? Do the cards tell you what he is saying?" whispered Mrs. Winconis. Whenever I mentioned 'money,' she started to twitch and jump like spit on a red-hot stove. I've seen some pretty ugly lusts in my time, but the lust for money in middle-aged woman is enough to make you lose your lunch.
"He is saying that something is too expensive," I went on, in my special hollow voice. "Something is definitely too expensive. I know what it is. I can see what it is. He is saying that canned salmon is too expensive. He doesn't think that people will want to buy it at that price."
"Oh," said Mrs. Winconis, vexed. But I knew what I was doing. I had checked the price-rise column in the Supermarket Report that morning, and I knew that canned salmon was due for an increase. Next week, when Daddy started complaining about it, Mrs. Winconis would remember my words, and be mightily impressed with my incredible clairvoyant talents.
"What about me? asked Mrs. Winconis. "What is going to happen to me?"
I stared gloomily at the cards.
"Not a good week, I'm afraid. Not a good week at all. On Monday you will have an accident. Not a serious one. Nothing worse than dropping a heavy weight on your foot, but it will be painful. It will keep you awake Monday night. On Tuesday, you will play bridge with your friends as usual. Someone will cheat you, but you will not discover who it is. So keep your stakes small, and don't take any risks. Wednesday you will have an unpleasant telephone call, possibly obscene. Thursday you will eat a meal that does not agree with you, and you will wish that you never ate it."
Mrs. Winconis fixed me with her dull gray eyes. "Is it really that bad?" she asked.
"It doesn't have to be. Remember that the cards can warn as well as foretell. If you take steps to avoid these pitfalls, you will not necessarily have such a bad week."
"Well, thank God for that," she said. "It's worth the money just to know what to look out for."
"The spirits think well of you, Mrs. Winconis," I said, in my special voice. "They care for you, and would not like to see you discomfited or harmed. If you treat the spirits right, they will treat you right."
She stood up. "Mr. Erskine, I don't know how to thank you. I'd best be getting along now, but I'll see you next week, won't I?"
I smiled my secret smile. "Of course, Mrs. Winconis. And don't forget your mystic motto for the week."
"Oh, no, of course not. What is it this week, Mr. Erskine?"
I opened a tattered old book that I kept on the table next to me. "Your mystic motto for this week is: 'Guard well the pips, and the fruit shall grow without let.' "
She stood there for a moment with a faraway smile on her withered old face. "That's beautiful, Mr. Erskine. I shall repeat it every morning when I wake up. Thank you for a wonderful, wonderful session."
"The pleasure," I said, "is all mine."
I showed her to the elevator, taking care that none of my neighbors saw me in my ridiculous green cloak and hat, and waved her a fond farewell. As soon as she had sunk out of sight, I went back into my flat, switched on the light, blew out the incense, and turned on the television. With any luck, I wouldn't have missed too much of Kojak.
I was just going to the icebox to fetch myself a can of beer when the telephone rang. I tucked the receiver under my chin, and opened up the beer as I talked. The voice on the other end was female (of course) and nervous (of course). Only nervous females sought the services of a man like The Incredible Erskine.
"Erskine's the name, fortune-telling's the game."
"Mr. Erskine, I wonder if I could come round and see you."
"Of course, of course. The fee is twenty-five dollars for your ordinary glimpse into the immediate future, thirty dollars for a year's forecast, fifty dollars for a lifetime review."
"I just want to know what's going to happen tomorrow." The voice sounded young, and very worried. I took a quick mental guess at a pregnant and abandoned secretary.
"Well, madam, that's my line. What time do you want to come?"
"Around nine? Is that too late?"
"Nine is fine, and the pleasure's mine. Can I have your name please?"
"Tandy. Karen Tandy. Thank you, Mr. Erskine. I'll see you at nine."
It might seem strange to you that an intelligent girl like Karen Tandy should seek help from a terrible quack like me, but until you've been dabbling in clairvoyance for quite a while, you don't realize how vulnerable people feel when they're threatened by things they don't understand. This is particularly true of illness and death, and most of my clients have some kind of question about their own mortality to ask. No matter how reassuring and competent a surgeon may be, he can't give people any answers when it comes to what is going to happen if their lives are suddenly snuffed out.
It's no good a doctor saying, "Well, see here, madam, if your brain ceases to give out any more electronic impulses, we'll have to consider that you are lost and gone forever."
Death is too frightening, too total, too mystical, for people to want to believe it has anything to do with the facts of medicine and surgery. They want to believe in a life after death, or at the very least in a spirit world, where the mournful ghosts of their long-dead ancestors roam about in the celestial equivalent of silk pajamas.
I could see the fear of death on Karen Tandy's face when she knocked at my door. In fact, it was so strongly marked that I felt less than comfortable in my green cloak and my funny little green hat. She was delicately boned and pointy-faced, the sort of girl who always won races in high school athletics, and she spoke with a grave politeness that made me feel more fraudulent than ever.
"Are you Mr. Erskine?" she asked.
"That's me. Fortunes read, futures foretold. You know the rest."
She walked quietly into my room and looked around at the incense burner and the yellowed skull and the close-drawn drapes. I suddenly felt that the whole set-up was incredibly phony and false, but she didn't seem to notice. I drew out a chair for her to sit on, and offered her a cigarette. When I lit it, I could see that her hands were trembling.
"All right, Miss Tandy," I asked her. "What's the problem?"
"I don't know how to explain it, really. I've been to the hospital already, and they're going to give me an operation tomorrow morning. But there are all kinds of things I couldn't tell them about."
I sat back and smiled encouragingly. "Why don't you try telling me?"
"It's very difficult," she said, in her soft, light voice. "I get the feeling that it's something much more than it seems."
"Well," I said, crossing my legs under my green silk robe. "Would you like to tell me what it is?"
She raised her hand shyly to the back of her neck. "About three days ago -- Tuesday morning I think it was -- I began to feel a kind of irritation there, at the back of my neck. It swelled up, and I was worried in case it was something serious, and I went to the hospital to have it looked at."
"I see," I said sympathetically. Sympathy, as you can probably guess, accounts for ninety-eight percent of anyone's success as a clairvoyant. "And what did the doctors tell you?"
"They said it was nothing to worry about, but at the same time they seemed pretty anxious to take it off."
I smiled. "So where do I come in?"
"Well, my aunt's been to see you once or twice. Mrs. Karmann, I live with her. She doesn't know I'm here, but she's always said how good you are, and so I thought I could try you myself." Well, it was nice to know that my occult services were being praised abroad. Mrs. Karmann was a lovely old lady who believed that her dead husband was always trying to get in touch with her from the spirit world. She came to see me two or three times a month, whenever the dear departed Mr. Karmann sent her a message from beyond. It happened in her dreams, she always told me. She heard him whispering in a strange language in the middle of the night, and that was the signal for her to trot over to Tenth Avenue and spend a few dollars with me. Very good business, Mrs. Karmann.
"You want me to read your cards?" I asked, raising one of my devilishly arched eyebrows.
Karen Tandy shook her head. She looked more serious and worried then almost any client I could remember. I hoped she wasn't going to ask me to do something that required real occult talent.
"It's the dreams, Mr. Erskine. Ever since this bump has started growing, I've had terrible dreams. The first night, I thought it was just an ordinary nightmare, but I've had the same dream every night, and each night it's been clearer. I don't even know if I want to go to bed tonight, because I just know I'm going to have the same dream, and it's going to be even more vivid, and very much worse."
I pulled thoughtfully at the end of my nose. It was a habit of mine whenever I was pondering something over, and probably accounted for the size of my schonk. Some people scratch their heads when they think, and get dandruff. I just tug at my hooter.
"Miss Tandy, a lot of people have recurring dreams. It usually means that they're worrying about the same thing over and over. I don't think it's anything to get het up about."
She stared at me with these big deep, chocolate-brown eyes. "It's not that kind of dream, Mr. Erskine, I'm sure. It's too real. With the ordinary sort of dream, you feel it's all happening inside your head. But with this one, it seems to happen all around me, outside me, as well as inside my brain."
"Well," I said, "supposing you tell me what it is."
"It always starts the same way. I dream I'm standing on a strange island. It's winter, and there's a very cold wind blowing. I can feel that wind, even though the windows are always closed in my bedroom. It's night time, and the moon is up there behind the clouds. In the distance, beyond the woods, I can see a river, or perhaps it's the sea. It's shining in the moonlight. I look around me, and there seem to be rows of dark huts. It looks like a kind of village, a sort of primitive village. In fact, I know it's a village. But there doesn't seem to be anyone around.
"Then I'm walking across the grass toward the river. I know my way, because I feel I've been living on this strange island all my life. I feel that I am frightened, but at the same time I feel I have some hidden powers of my own, and that I am probably capable of overcoming my fear. I am frightened of the unknown -- things that I don't understand.
"I reach the river and I stand on the beach. It is still very cold. I look across the water and I can see a dark sailing ship anchored offshore. There is nothing in my dream which suggests that it's anything else but an ordinary sailing ship, but at the same time I am very frightened by it. It seems strange and unfamiliar, almost as though it's a flying saucer from another world.
"I stand on the beach for a long time, and then I see a small boat leave the sailing ship and start rowing toward the shore. I cannot see who is in the boat. I start running across the grass, back to the village, and then I go into one of the huts. The hut seems familiar. I know I have been there before. In fact, I can almost believe that it's my hut. There is an odd smell in it, like herbs or incense or something.
"I have a desperately urgent feeling that there is something I must do. I don't quite know what it is. But I must do it, whatever it is. It is something to do with the frightening people in the boat, something to do with this dark sailing ship. The fear seems to grow and grow inside me until I can hardly think. Something is going to come out of the ship which will have a terrible effect. There is something in that ship that is alien, something powerful and magical, and I am desperate about it. Then I wake up."
Miss Tandy was screwing a handkerchief around and around in her fingers. Her voice was soft and light, but it carried a prickly kind of conviction that made me distinctly uneasy. I watched her as she spoke, and she seemed to believe that whatever she had dreamed about was something that had actually happened to her.
I took off my Green Bay Packers hat. It was a little incongruous, under the circumstances.
"Miss Tandy, that's a very odd dream. It is always the same -- in every detail?"
"Exactly. It's always the same. There is always this fear of what is coming out of the ship."
"Hmm. And you say it's a sailing ship? Like a yacht, something like that?"
She shook her head. "It's not a yacht. It's more like a galleon -- one of those old-time galleons. You know, three masts and lots of rigging."
I pulled my nose some more and thought hard. "Is there anything about this ship which gives you a clue to what it is? Is there a name on it?"
"It's too far away. It's too dark."
"Does it fly any flags?"
"There is a flag, but I couldn't describe it."
I stood up and went over to my bookcase of occult paperbacks. I pulled out Ten Thousand Dreams Interpreted and a couple of others. I laid them out on the green baize table and looked up one or two references about islands and ships. They weren't helpful. Occult textbooks are almost invariably unhelpful, and often they're downright confusing. But that doesn't stop me from drawing a few dark and mysterious conclusions about my clients' nocturnal flights of fancy.
"Ships are usually connected with some kind of travel, or the arrival of news. In your case, the ship is dark, and frightening, which suggests to me that the news may not be good news. The island represents your feelings of isolation and fear, in fact the island represents yourself. Whatever this news may be, it is a direct threat to you, as a person."
Karen Tandy nodded. I don't know why, but I felt really guilty handing her out all this bullshit. There was something genuinely defenseless and tense about her, and there she was with her dark brown bobbed hair and her pale impish face, so serious and lost, and I began to wonder if her dreams were really real.
"Miss Tandy," I said, "May I call you Karen?"
"I'm Harry. My grandmother calls me Henry, but no one else does."
"It's a nice name."
"Thank you. Look, listen, Karen, I'm going to be frank with you. I don't know why, but there's something about your case that doesn't strike the same kind of bells as the usual stuff I get. You know, old ladies trying to get in touch with their Pekinese dogs in the happy kennels in the sky, that kind of garbage. There's something about your dream that's -- I don't know, authentic."
This didn't reassure her at all. The last thing that people want to be told is that their fears are actually well founded. Even intelligent, educated people like to be comforted with the thought that their night-time visitations are all a cozy kind of bunkum. I mean, Jesus, if half the nightmares that people had were actually real, they'd go straight off their heads. Part of my job was soothing over my clients' terror, and telling them that the things they dream about were never going to happen.
"What do you mean, authentic?"
I handed her another cigarette. This time, when she lit it, her hands weren't quite so trembly.
"It's like this, Karen. Some people even though they're not aware of it, have the potential power to be mediums. In other words, they're very receptive to all the occult buzzfuzz that's flying about in the atmosphere. A medium is like a radio, or a television set. Because of the way he or she is made, she's capable of picking up signals that other people can't, and she can interpret them into sound or pictures."
"What signals?" she frowned. "I don't understand."
"There are all kinds of signals," I said. "You can't see a television signal, can you? Yet it's around you, all the time. This whole room is crowded with images and ghosts, pictures of David Brinkley and advertisements for Kellogg's Cornflakes. All you have to do to pick them up is have the right kind of receiver."
Karen Tandy puffed smoke. "You mean that my dream is a signal? But what kind of a signal? And where could it come from? And why does it pick on me?"
I shook my head. "I don't know why it's picked on you, and I don't know where it's from. It could have come from anywhere. There are authenticated reports of people in America having dreams that have given them detailed information about people in other countries far away. There was a farmer in Iowa who dreamed that he was drowning in a flood in Pakistan, and the same night there was a monsoon rain in Pakistan that killed four hundred people. The only way you can account for stuff like this is by thinking of thought waves as signals. The farmer picked up the signal, through his subconscious mind, from a Pakistani guy who was drowning. It's weird, I know, but it has happened."
Karen Tandy looked at me appealingly. "So how can I ever find out what my dream is really all about? Supposing it's a signal from someone, somewhere in the world, who needs help, and I can't find out who it is?"
"Well, if you're really interested in finding out, there's one way to do it," I told her.
"Please -- just tell me what to do. I really do want to know. I mean, I'm sure it's something to do with this -- tumor thing, and I want to know what it is."
I nodded. "Okay, Karen, then this is what you do. Tonight, I want you to go to sleep as usual, and if you have the same dream over again, I want you to try and remember as many details -- factual details -- as you can. Look around the island and see if you can spot any landmarks. When you go down to the river, try and map out as much of the coastline as you can. If there's a bay or something, try and remember the shape of it. If there's anything across the river, any mountain or harbor or anything like that, fix it in your mind. Now there's one other thing that's very important; try and get a look at the flag on the sailing ship. Memorize it. Then, the moment you wake up, note everything down in as much detail as you can, and make as many pictorial sketches as you can of everything you've seen. Then bring it to me."
She stubbed out her cigarette. "I have to be at the hospital by eight tomorrow morning."
"Sisters of Jerusalem."
"Well, look, because it's obviously important, I'll drop by the hospital and you can leave the notes for me in an envelope. How's that?"
"Mr. Erskine -- Harry, that's terrific. At last I really feel I'm getting down to something."
I came over and took her hand in mine. She was cute, in her pixie kind of way, and if I hadn't been utterly professional and detached from my clients, and if she hadn't been going into hospital the next day, I think I would definitely have taken her for dinner, a friendly ride in my Cougar, and back to Erskine's occult emporium for a night of earthy activity.
"How much do I owe you?" she said, breaking the spell.
"Pay me next week," I replied. It's always boosted the morale of people who were going into hospital if you asked them to pay you after their operation. It suddenly made them think that perhaps they were going to live, after all.
"Okay, Harry, thank you," she said softly, and stood up to leave.
"You don't mind finding your own way out, do you?" I asked. I flapped my green gown around by way of explanation. "The neighbors, you know. They think I'm a transvestite or something."
Karen Tandy smiled, and said goodnight. I wondered how good it was really going to be. After she'd left, I sat down in my armchair and had a long think. There was something wrong with all this. Usually, when my clients came fluttering in to tell me their dreams, they were standard technicolor epics of frustrated sex and erotic embarrassment, like going to a cocktail party with the Vanderbilts and finding your shorts around your ankles. There were dreams of flying and dreams of eating, and dreams of accidents and nameless fears but none of the dreams had ever had the uncanny photographic clarity, and the same totally logical sequence, as the dream of Karen Tandy.
I picked up the telephone and dialed. It rang for a couple of minutes before it was answered.
"Hello?" said an elderly voice. "Who is this?"
"Mrs. Karmann, this is Harry Erskine. I'm sorry to trouble you so late."
"Why, Mr. Erskine. How nice to hear your voice. I was in the tub, you know, but I'm all snuggled up in my bath towel now."
"Oh, I'm sorry. Mrs. Karmann, do you mind if I ask you a question?"
The old dear giggled. "As long as it's not too personal, Mr. Erskine."
"I'm afraid not, Mrs. Karmann. Listen, Mrs. Karmann, do you recall a dream you told me about, two or three months ago?"
"Which one was it, Mr. Erskine? The one about my husband?"
"That's right. The one about your husband asking you for help."
"Well, now, let me see," said Mrs. Karmann. "If I remember it rightly, I was standing by the seaside, and it was the middle of the night, and it was awfully cold. I remember thinking I ought to have put my wrap on before I'd come out. Then I heard my husband whispering to me. He always whispers, you know. He never comes out loud and shouts in my ear. He was whispering something I didn't understand at all, but I was sure he was asking for help."
I felt distinctly strange and worried. I don't mind messing around with the occult when it behaves itself, but when it starts acting up, then I start getting a little bit of the creeps.
"Mrs. Karmann," I said. "Do you recall seeing anything else in your dream, apart from a seashore? Was there a ship or a boat out there? Did you see any huts, or a village?"
"I can't recall there was anything else," replied Mrs. Karmann. "Is there any particular reason you want to know?"
"It's just some article I'm writing on dreams for a magazine, Mrs. Karmann. Nothing important. I just thought I'd like to include one or two of your dreams, since they've always been very interesting."
I could almost see the old lady fluttering her eyelashes. "Why, Mr. Erskine, that's awfully nice of you to say so."
"Oh, one thing more, Mrs. Karmann. And this is important"
"Yes, Mr. Erskine?"
"Don't tell anyone else about this conversation. Nobody else at all. Do you understand me?"
She let out breath, as though the last thing in the whole world that would ever occur to her would be to gossip.
"Not a whisper, Mr. Erskine, I swear."
"Thank you, Mrs. Karmann. You've been a terrific help," I said, and I laid down the phone more slowly and carefully than I've ever done in my life. Was it possible for two people to have identical dreams? If it was, then maybe all this bunk about signals from beyond could be real. Maybe both Karen Tandy and her aunt Mrs. Karmann were capable of picking up a message from out there -- from out of the night, and playing it through in their minds.
I didn't take any notice of the fact that Mrs. Karmann claimed it was her husband trying to get in touch with her. All elderly widows thought their husbands were floating around in the ether, anxiously trying to tell them something of vital importance, whereas what their phantom partners were probably doing out there in spiritland was playing golf, squeezing the ghostly tits of nubile young girls, and enjoying a few years of peace and quiet before their erstwhile wives came up to join them.
What I thought was that the same person was trying to get in touch with both of them, trying to communicate some nameless fear that had gripped her. I guessed it was probably a woman, but you couldn't really tell with spirits. They were supposed to be more or less sexless, and I guess it must be hard trying to make love to a luscious spirit lady with nothing more substantial than an ectoplasmic penis.
I was sitting in my flat thinking all these irreverent thoughts when I had the oddest sensation that someone was standing behind me, just out of my line of vision. I didn't want to turn around, because that would have been an admission of ridiculous fear, but all the same there was an itching feeling in the middle of my back, and I couldn't help casting my eyes sideways to see if there were any unaccustomed shadows on the wall.
Eventually, I stood up, and threw a rapid glance backwards. Of course, there was nothing there. But I couldn't help thinking that something or somebody had been -- somebody dark and monkish and silent. I whistled rather loudly and went to pour myself three or four fingers of Scotch. If there was one kind of spirit of which I thoroughly approved, it was this. The sharp bite of malt and barley brought me down to earth in very rapid order.
Copyright © 1975 by Graham Masterton