The adventurous but skeptical Fremont, lured by Frances to a séance, sees her companion fall into a disturbing trance. Despite the opposition of her powerful, controlling husband, Frances is determined to develop her budding psychic ability. Soon she confides to Fremont that a restless spirit from San Francisco's legendary past has entrusted her with a mission.
But when one of the city's female mediums is murdered, and then another, Fremont's reservations turn to dread. Who has killed these women who wield their own power in the metaphysical world, and why? As Fremont's investigation takes her into the murky depths of spiritualism, she places not only herself, but also her dearest friends in mortal danger.
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As recently as a week ago I would not have thought that I, Fremont Jones, should ever find myself in a place such as this. I peered surreptitiously through the dim light in an effort to see if the others present were handling the eerie atmosphere with more equanimity than I. I was, in point of fact, decidedly uncomfortable. Even apprehensive. Only loyalty to my new friend--whose risk was, after all, far greater than mine--kept me in my seat; otherwise I should have bolted. Facing resolutely forward, I sneaked a look at her from the corner of my eye.
My friend, Frances McFadden, waited alertly, eagerly, for the séance to begin. Her eyes glinted, picking up light from the candles that burned in sconces on the wall; her lips were parted and her breath came light and fast. In truth I could not comprehend her attraction to Spiritualism--so great an attraction that she would deceive her husband and come on the sly. I was helping her, of course, out of my own curiosity, as well as a profound belief that one owes it to one's gender to thwart the sort of husband who is forever telling his wife where she may go and what she may do.
We were eight around the table; when the medium entered, she would make nine. Whether there was significance to that number or not, I did not know. The medium's empty chair was to the right of Frances, and Frances at my own right. On my left sat a man who smelled unpleasantly of cheap cigars, a bulky fellow whose scratchy tweed sleeve kept rudely impinging upon my more lightly clad arm. The woman beside him I could not readily see, though with the curve of the round table one would have thought she should fall in my line of vision. I mentally pictured a wife shrinking in her husband's shadow--though I knew neither of them from Adam or Eve.
Continuing clockwise around the table, in the place of honor as it were, directly across from the medium's thronelike chair, sat a handsome man with a hawkish profile. He was clean-shaven but had a good deal of dark, wavy hair on his head--in color either black or brown or dark red; it was impossible to tell without staring rudely in the dim light. Diagonally across from me, next to Mr. Hawk, sat a blob of a pasty-faced woman, whose several chins spilled over the high neck of her fancy black dress and thus obscured most of a very large cameo. She breathed with a wheeze. Two more women made up the balance of the table, both middle-aged and unremarkable in bearing and dress, but I thought a great deal of sadness seemed to emanate from them.
Emanate, indeed! I gave an inward snort. This séance and its oppressive atmosphere must be poisoning my mind--ordinarily I'd have no truck with anything such as emanations, not even in my vocabulary! I should have to watch myself, or I'd become as enamored of the spirit world as Frances.
The room was stifling, all the windows closed and hung with heavy velvet drapes. I squinted and judged the drapes to be dark green, matching the embossed, brocaded wallpaper whose color was just discernible in the candleglow. The silence was thick, disturbed only by the wheezing of Madame Blob. I heard Frances catch a breath in her throat, a little gasp, and at the same moment the candles began to waver and cast weird shadows as if in a draft, although I had neither seen nor heard a door open. From my friend's palpable sense of anticipation, as well as by these slight signs of movement, I guessed the marvelous medium's advent was at hand.
The hawkish man stood up suddenly, raising his eyebrows in an expectant manner. When I moved as if to stand up too, Frances tugged on my skirt and I subsided. The others sat riveted in place. I thought: It is embarrassingly obvious who is the neophyte here. And I concluded that Mr. Hawk, the only man of passable good looks in the room, must be the medium's confederate--which showed she had some taste in men at least, though one had to wonder at her choice of vocation.
"Mrs. Locke!" Mr. Hawk announced, in a voice like a gong. He might as well have prefaced his announcement with "Behold!" for such was clearly his intent.
I made a swift survey of the table to determine which way I should direct my gaze in order to behold, because for the life of me I had seen no door other than the one by which we'd all entered. She would not come in that way, surely? For that door led only to a large, bare entrance hall, which offered no possibility for concealment of the various engines necessary to work the medium's chicanery and deception. Everyone knows that these people are fakes; though I must admit that Frances was convinced quite otherwise.
Suddenly I realized the others were all looking at me! In that same instant I felt a frisson, a sort of premonitory rush, and then--but curiously not before--directly behind me I heard that door, the only door, open. They had been looking not at but rather beyond me, and I turned around slowly and did the same.
Mrs. Locke, the marvelous medium, was a tiny woman dressed all in lace that may have been white but looked ivory in the candlelight. She moved with dainty steps, and absolutely no facial expression whatsoever, to her chair at the head of the table. She did not acknowledge our presence. Her age was impossible to determine; she was neither pretty nor plain, nor had she any character in her face. She was as near to a mask, or a cipher, as a human being may become. Her male confederate first closed the door and then came with long, efficient strides to assist her into the huge chair, pulling it out, tucking it in, then placing beneath the table a stool for her feet. Despite the fact that her feet could not possibly reach the floor, and that she did need the height of the chair to make her our equal at the table, I nevertheless immediately thought: Aha! The means by which she does her tricks are somehow hidden in the overlarge chair and in that footstool.
I, of course, do not believe in spirits. I believe that when we are dead we go to make dirt, and there's the end to it; but Frances had declared that one session with Mrs. Locke would persuade me otherwise. That was not very likely--yet I had to allow that I could neither deny nor ignore the eerie feeling that pervaded this room. What, I wondered, was its source?
I had previously asked Frances what we might expect at this séance. She had replied: "It is always the same yet different, depending on which spirits come through. They come through her, Mrs. Locke. She doesn't do manifestations--you know, ectoplasmic extrusions and ringing bells and blowing trumpets and all that--she just talks. But not in her own voice; in the voice of the spirits. Oh, and she has a control." Of course she does, I'd thought, and her control will be a Red Indian or an Arab or some two-thousand-year-old man. But Frances had said, "He's a little boy named Toby."
Now Frances seized my right hand and squeezed the life out of it. She shot me a quick, bright-eyed glance, as if to say, Isn't this the most exciting thing! And because I myself was so pleased to have a woman friend of about my own age and background, I squeezed her hand back and smiled, although that room was hardly conducive to smiling. A little riffle of nervous anticipation passed through our circle around the table. Mr. Hawk placed a green pillar candle in front of Mrs. Locke and lit it; as he did so, Frances leaned to me and whispered, "Green is Toby's favorite color."
Mrs. Locke said, in a voice like a clear bell, "Thank you, Patrick." So that was Hawk's name; it was the only one I was likely to learn here tonight. Part of the appeal of séances must be, I suppose, the anonymity in which one participates. It makes for more of a thrill. Patrick did not acknowledge her thanks, but went about extinguishing the candles in the wall sconces, then took his seat opposite the medium at the table. The room smelled of burnt candles and something else, something sweetish that I did not like, perhaps incense from the pillar candle into which Mrs. Locke now gazed.
For a moment I studied the medium's perfectly blank face. Her eyes, I noted, were wide and staring.
And after what seemed an unbearable length of time she said, "Let us join hands. By the joining of our hands we declare that we are all pure, honest, and determined in our intent to contact the World of the Spirits." Her voice was high, virginal, of the most convincing sincerity.
I closed my eyes because the others did; I was unconvinced but wavering. I thought: What harm can it do? Why should I not, for Frances's sake, let go my disbelief for the next hour or so, and participate with an open mind? I decided that I would.
The man on my left gripped my hand in a tentative fashion, as if he were afraid of contagion; or perhaps he wanted to bolt and run, as I had earlier. His palm was hard as horn. A laborer, I guessed, perhaps one who works the docks. I wondered what had brought him here. On my other side, Frances's hand felt hot--my own were cold by comparison. Yet, having given up my disbelief, I was now eager to get on with the séance. Burning with curiosity, I opened my eyes.
The flame on the pillar candle seemed hypnotic. For a single light it gave a good deal of illumination. Faces were easily read. The two unremarkable middle-aged women now seemed starkly terrified, with almost identical facial expressions; Madame Blob looked pettish, with her eyes closed; Patrick stared abstractly ahead, nobly serene. Frances, her eyes shut tight, was frowning; she began to rock slightly back and forth. And the medium appeared all of a sudden to be in pain.
"A-a-agh!" she gasped. She twisted about while clinging with great force to the hands of the people on either side of her, one of them being Frances. I fancied--or maybe it really did happen--that a current like electricity shot through all our linked hands. Mrs. Locke slumped forward, then threw her head back. Her neck popped, I heard it, and my own shoulders hiked up to my ears in sympathy.
"Who is here?" That was Patrick's orotund tone, with an edge of urgency added.
Not Toby, I thought, that's no little kid--though precisely why I had that thought, I did not know. A moment later I was proved right.
Mrs. Locke groaned. A sheen of perspiration covered her face, now wreathed about with pain. Frances rocked harder; her hand trembled in mine and I gripped it more tightly.
"Speak to us!" Patrick commanded, "Tell us your name."
The medium started to laugh, but this laughter had no merriment in it. Her clear, high voice had gone all low and harsh. And over to my left a small, hesitant female voice said, "Why, he laughs just like my papa!"
I would not have liked to have someone who sounded like that for my father!
The hesitant voice acquired more vigor. "Papa," she said, "we didn't come to talk to you, we came to talk to Mother. To make sure she's all right, and to see if she had something to say to us, since she died all sudden-like."
Somehow I got the feeling this was not how séances were supposed to go. Patrick apparently agreed with me, for he said, "Leave us, Laughing Spirit! You are not wanted here. Mrs. Locke wishes to speak to her control, the boy named Toby." In an aside to the woman I still could not see beyond the man next to me, Patrick added, "Don't worry. Toby will come through and take control. He died when he was just a boy, you see, but he's a good, strong soul and he's devoted to our Mrs. Locke."
I did not find Patrick's words particularly reassuring. The older I grow, the more experience has caused me to question the commonly held belief that good in the end triumphs over bad, or evil. I watched the medium--she was having a time of it, as if to prove my point. No more of that harsh laughter came from her throat, but she had begun to growl. Yes, growl, and snarl, like a dog. Her mouth simply hung open and the sounds poured out of it. The extreme oddity of this gave me the shivers. Her eyes were open too, fixed on nothing. Her head slumped in an unnatural posture against one shoulder, as if her neck had been broken, and a shudder passed through me as I remembered that awful pop.
I closed my eyes, concentrating, willing the boy ghost Toby to come through. But it was no use; Frances distracted me with her rocking and, besides, the medium began to bark! A fierce, raucous barking that might have been funny but wasn't. My eyes flew open. The barks apparently had jerked Mrs. Locke out of her slump; at least her neck wasn't broken. But now she was being tossed about like a rag doll, held in her place at the table only by her hands still linked to Frances and one of the terrified middle-aged women. This was most bizarre!
Madame Blob wheezed uncontrollably--I was becoming alarmed for her. The middle-aged sisters gawked at the medium's antics less with terror now than consternation, and Patrick called out: "Break the circle! Drop hands immediately! Our dear Mrs. Locke is in trouble!"
There was a good deal of gasping, plus a terminal-sounding wheeze from Madame Blob, while hands were dropped all around the table like hot potatoes. The medium continued to bark, sporadically now, and with less ferocity. But Frances would not let go my hand, nor Mrs. Locke's. Frances still was rocking, and I whipped my head around to regard her in alarm.
Her eyes were screwed shut, and the strain I felt in her iron grip was written on her features. Above the lace of her collar, the cords of her neck stood out. Her lips were drawn back from her teeth in a grimace, and her chin thrust forward. Suddenly, on the forward apex of her rock, she went rigid.
I thought: She is in trance!
The candle flame trembled and came dangerously close to extinguishing itself--although there was not a breath, not a whisper of moving air in the room.
The medium let loose another flurry of barks.
Patrick came hurrying around the table to plant himself between the medium and Frances, urging sotto voce, "Let go! Something has gone terribly wrong, you must let go!" He attempted to pry my friend's fingers from Mrs. Locke's hand, and I did not know what to do. I worried that somehow his interference might injure them in some way, as they now seemed both to be in the same unnatural state, but what did I know of these things? The very air was charged, and my skin all over little prickles. I hadn't the slightest idea what was going on.
As I fretted over what to do, Frances opened both her eyes and her mouth, and a deep, rough voice, not at all like her own, came from her throat: "Lazarus, come away from there!"
This caused more gasping all around. The medium whined once and fell back in her chair, Frances fell forward onto the table, all of a sudden limp as a wet noodle, and I had my hand back. So, one assumed, must Mrs. Locke.
Sounding the paragon of reason, at least to my own ears, I remarked, "We need more light to help us ascertain what has happened here."
"A moment, a moment." Patrick hovered over Mrs. Locke, but I could not see what he was doing because his back was to me. As no one else volunteered to light the wall sconces, we still had no illumination but the one candle. I did not want to leave my friend's side. With Patrick so solicitous of his own friend, employer, mistress--perhaps she was to him all three--I turned my attention to Frances as best I could in the near dark.
I placed my hand on the center of her back below the shoulder blades and found that she was breathing slowly and regularly. Somebody said, "Oh dear," and someone else said, "Well I never!" and the man next to me rumbled, "We oughter get our money back if that's all there's gonna be to it." I put my head near hers and called softly, "Frances, can you hear me?" I repeated this several times, with no result whatever.
Mrs. Locke, however, had recovered and was holding a whispered conference with her solicitous confederate. He straightened up and said, "Mrs. Locke requests that you all keep your seats." Then he went about relighting the candles in the wall sconces. I reflected, as I rubbed Frances's back, how much simpler it would be if they had electric lighting in this place. Or even gas, though now that I have been away from it for a while, I daresay gaslight smells rather unpleasant.
The sense of disturbance around the table subsided somewhat, and I became gradually uncomfortable from everyone's staring at me and Frances. Everyone except Mrs. Locke, who had her hand to her head, obscuring her eyes, in a pose I thought overdramatic. My skepticism had returned; I wondered if some piece of elaborate chicanery had gone wrong, injuring an innocent in the process--for Frances was still out cold. My suspicions made me bold, and I addressed the medium directly, for surely if anyone were in charge it was she!
"Mrs. Locke," I said, then waited until her hand descended from its pose. Except for the fact that some of her hair had escaped its pins, she seemed none the worse for her recent experience. The blank expression had reclaimed her face; she looked like a life-sized doll. She did not look at me or in any way acknowledge my address, but I went on nevertheless: "Perhaps you can tell me what to do for my friend? She seemed to go into trance along with you. Surely we must bring her around!"
Slowly, and a little jerkily, like one of the automatons in Mr. Sutro's Palace, the medium turned her head upon her neck--just her head, the rest of her body did not move a jot--until her face met mine. I watched anger build up in her dark eyes, which she then proceeded to unleash on me and poor unconscious Frances.
"Get out!" Mrs. Locke shrilled. "Get out of here, both of you! How dare you come to one of my séances under false pretenses! You have created a disruption on the etheric plane, disturbed the vibrations, and caused a breach with my contact in the spirit world. You must go. Now!"