Most so-called psychics disgust Myra Savage. She has no patience for their chintz and cheap tricks, for her power is real. Myra can see into other people’s minds, can even sometimes sense the future, but she has never yet communicated with the other side. For that she needs the cooperation of great psychics, but she lacks the stature to attract their attention. To satisfy this burning need for fame, she and her husband concoct The Plan. Bill snatches a six-year-old girl from her schoolyard and pastes together a letter demanding ransom. After a few days of citywide panic, Myra will lead the police to the girl and the money, and all of London will know her name. When a criminal can see the future, what could possibly go wrong?
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About the Author
Mark McShane (b. 1930) was an Australian author of satire, suspense novels, and crime fiction. Born in Sydney to a family with Gypsy roots, he traveled the world for the first three decades of his life. In 1960, he settled on the island of Mallorca, in the Mediterranean, and decided to write fiction. His first novel, The Straight and the Crooked, appeared that year, but it was his third effort, Séance on a Wet Afternoon, for which he is best known. The story of a strange pair of kidnappers, it was made into a well regarded film in 1964, and has also been adapted as an opera. His most well known characters are the eccentric Detective Sergeant Norman Pink, and Appleton Porter, an unlikely spy whose often comic adventures McShane chronicled under the pseudonym Marc Lovell.
Read an Excerpt
Séance on a Wet Afternoon
By Mark McShane
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1961 Mark McShane
All rights reserved.
Myra stood and watched her husband's motor-cycle and side-car bounce and sway up the unmade, mud-and-rock road and disappear around the corner of the street, then she went back into the house, shivering her shoulders at the March wind. She felt excited and a little bit frightened.
After straightening with her toe the square of unbordered carpet set in front of the door, she went down past the stairs and entered the long narrow kitchen. Working quickly and deftly she began to wash the dishes from lunch.
She was small and thin, narrow across the shoulders and hips, but with surprisingly heavy legs. Her face was plain, cosmetically innocent, and looked a little more than her forty-four years; it had a pointed chin and a sharp-pointed nose, pronounced cheekbones and a high smooth forehead; at the top of the forehead, in the centre, was a tiny star-shaped scar. Between the thick masculine eyebrows and the thick elongated bags of flesh, her eyes shone darkly from their deep setting; shone with a searching intensity that wasn't quite normal. Her mouth was small, and expressed nothing, and above it several deeply cut shadow-holding lines went up half-way to her nostrils and looked almost like a sparse but heavy-bristled moustache. Speckled grey, white and black hair was drawn back not too tightly, or tidily, into a bun that sat close to the crown of her head, but a bit off-centre. She was wearing a grey woollen dress that hung loosely, and sagged on her chest where there was little to fill it out.
As she stood at the sink she glanced up occasionally to look through the window, seeing the long garden, and the unattractive wasteland beyond the broken, unpainted fence, the backs of the semi-detached houses—identical with her own—on the right and the distant brickworks on the left. But she was only vaguely aware of what she saw. Every time she looked up she thought of Bill, her husband, and just where he'd be now, on his journey from the northeast of London to the north-west. As she dried the last cup she thought, Enfield, and shuddered at the tingle that ran up her spine.
She left the kitchen by a different door from the one by which she'd entered, and came into the lounge, the only other downstairs room. It was fairly large and almost square, and its walls were the same distempered green that covered every wall in the house. At one side was a fireplace of mottled fawn tile, and at the other a cream door leading to the hall. The furniture was shabby. In the centre of the hardcord carpet was a dining-table and four chairs; in the centre of the table was a wooden fruit bowl which held one shrivelled apple. Two big blue armchairs were huddled on to the balding black hearth-rug, and their larger counterpart was set beneath the window.
Myra stood in front of the couch, her arms folded, each hand gently kneading a bicep, and looked through the net curtains. There was no opposing row of houses, though it was possible to discern traces of long-deserted foundations, and the view was almost identical with that from the back window: five or six square miles of low, rather swampy ground, broken here and there by a heap of rubble, with distant buildings on one side and the back of the housing estate on the other. She thought, Cockfosters, and got the tingle again.
She lifted her eyes to the ceiling. Her husband had checked all round after lunch, and just before he'd left they had checked together. But she thought it wouldn't hurt to check again; everything had to be perfect.
She went out into the hall and up the stairs. On the landing she hesitated, then went into the room above the lounge, thinking that a few minutes of quiet meditation would settle her nervousness and ease the uncomfortable flutters of her heart.
The room had no curtains, carpets or linoleum, and the bulb in the ceiling fixture was unshaded. There was a plain deal table, six feet by three, in the middle of the unstained floor, and standing against the back wall were twelve straight chairs. Above the window was a roller blind. This was the seance room.
She carried a chair to the head of the table and sat down, clasping her hands in her lap and closing her eyes. She began to relax, starting from her toes and working slowly up. When her head sagged to one side on the loosened neck she turned her mind to the picture that she always found equally good at inducing sleep or quietude: a tree; a luscious green, sweeping, falling, grass-tickling willow tree of which only the lazy leaves and slumber-heavy boughs were visible, curving up from the centre parting, then over and down to the ground. The picture came quickly, and she sighed, and began to feel calmer at once.
Myra was a sensitive, a medium, a para-normal. And a genuine one; she believed in what she did. She was a rarity among those of her profession, in that she didn't have the usual curtained cabinet, or use trumpets, tambourines, guitars or any of the trappings synonymous with spiritualism; at her séances there were no table-movings or raps or materializations; she didn't even have a spirit control. But she understood why many sensitives, even highly gifted ones, employed all the fancywork; the public wanted a show, and even a medium has to live. But Myra wouldn't, couldn't stoop to it, though she was sure that these manifestations sometimes had supranormal causation. She wanted no hint of charlatanism connected with her work. It was sacred to her.
She was genuine, too, in so far as she never claimed communication with the dead. Not that she actively disclaimed it; she merely replied, when asked whence came her messages, that she didn't know. She did know, but felt it would be being pointlessly honest to tell. She knew that when she sat in trance in physical contact with a client who had the metagnomy to be an agent—and she could sense this in a person, even at a distance—the messages she received, translated into words from the symbols that oozed up from her subliminal, came not from the deceased relative of the client, but from the client's own mind. It was telepathy. But since she was able to mention things known only to the client and the deceased, it was assumed to be communication with the dead. And she didn't discourage the assumption.
But she believed in discarnate agency. She believed fervently, with her heart and soul and intellect. It was her only faith. Her one single ambition and main goal in life was, and had been for twenty years, to justify this belief with fact, with fact produced by herself, for that was the only kind she could accept as absolute. Ever since the realization at thirteen that she possessed extrasensory-perception she had been irresistibly drawn in this one direction. She was consumed by it, always.
And it was to aid her ambition that the Plan had been formed, the one her husband had gone to set in motion.
If successful, the Plan would bring two things: money and notoriety. Myra was not particularly interested in the former; she was satisfied with the bare living her thrice-weekly séances brought in; she was even satisfied with the house—though she realized its lack of 'atmosphere'—and its situation suited her perfectly, being isolated as it was at the very end of a long row. Fame didn't interest her either; in fact, she viewed it with distaste, and connected it with the more drum-beating variety of medium. But it was fame she hoped for, for from it would come reputation. Her fame might last only a week in the mind of the public, but in the minds of those interested in and active in psychic research it would last for ever. She would be established as a sensitive of the first order. The fact that her reputation would rest on a fraud didn't disturb her. It was cheating for an honourable end.
Once established she would come into contact with mediums whose gifts equalled or surpassed her own, and she would be on the road to success. It was, she felt, a case of many minds being better than one. An organized series of séances, each one held with different sensitives, would be sure to take her close to, and perhaps across, the bourne of nature. Too, she wanted to make a solidly weldedrapport with an older para-normal, one almost ready for the journey beyond the veil, who would, having taken the journey, be an entity to reach for on the other side.
The results of the Plan would enable her to do these things without first having to prove herself. On trial, she always failed. In tests with Zener cards, conducted by various organizations for psychical research, she had never scored above the chance average—though she scored well above in private tests. She found it next to impossible to work with anything but complete acceptance;any scepticism, no matter how mild or sympathetic, froze her. No true artist can accept or understand anything other than an admiring attitude to his work. And Myra was a true artist.
She had not been the seventh child of a seventh child, but she had come into the world with her face covered with a thin veil of skin, which rare occurrence is said by old wives to be a sure sign that the infant is endowed with the gift of second-sight. Her mother scoffed publicly at old wives' tales, and privately believed them, and had waited impatiently for the supernatural phenomena to begin. But it was many years before they did. It wasn't until Myra was entering puberty that she was petrified, then puzzled, then exhilarated by the discovery that she was 'different'. One day she saw her father coming down the street, and went to meet him and held his hand all the way to their house, where she ran in ahead to tell her mother that her father was home for dinner. Only when she was standing in the kitchen doorway did she remember that her father had been dead for six months. It was the first and last time she experienced a materialization, but through the years she produced phenomena of many kinds. After one of the last exams she sat for at the grammar school she had the strange conviction that she would be placed third; strange because she was normally at the bottom of the class. She was placed third. She dreamt of being in a car, surrounded by brightly burning people, and the next day walked to her secretarial job instead of going by bus as she usually did; the bus she should have taken had an accident and burst into flame, and every passenger was severely burned. She dreamt of chasing a white rabbit around a circus ring, and several days later an old friend of the family, a professional conjurer who was playing the local music hall, called at the house and mentioned during the conversation that he was looking for a second assistant. Myra asked for the job, and got it. She was on-stage at Glasgow, now first assistant, when she saw beyond the footlights a vivid picture of her mother sliding head first down a ladder; the picture was as clear and unmysterious as though it were being shown on a cinema screen. She ran to the wings and phoned a neighbour at home, and learned that her mother had been found five minutes before, dying; she had slipped on the ice-covered doorstep and fractured her skull. The phenomena continued.
Eventually Myra left the conjurer, and, because of her stage experience with him, got employment as a clairvoyant's aid. She soon discovered that her employer was a complete fraud, and not the least bit psychic. This, her first taste of professional mediumship, was a bitter disillusionment; but, because she wanted to learn method and procedure, having decided that therein lay her calling, she stayed on, and even helped in the object-moving and cheese-cloth-waving. However, she soon sickened of it, and left to start up for herself. She rented a small flat, and became a medium. She failed; youngish unmarried spiritualists who didn't use any of the expected trimmings were not popular. She carried on for several years, holding weekly, poorly attended séances, and working in a factory to support herself. Then she got back into show business, of a sort. She answered the advertisement of a mind reader who wanted an assistant with theatrical experience. The mind reader turned out to be an old woman who travelled the southern fairground circuit and whose telepathy consisted of naming and describing objects given to the assistant by members of the tent audience; this was done by means of a simple code. Myra took the job anyway, and learned the code in two days. For five years she spent her summers on the road and her winters in London, sharing a bed-sitter. Half-way through the sixth summer the old mind reader died, and Myra was surprised to find herself the sole heir. The inheritance consisted mainly of a fairly good tent and a decrepit caravan-bus. Soon thereafter she met Bill, and, mainly because he was the first to have asked her, married him. At the end of the season she cashed her assets and took a mortgage on the house. She became a medium again; and was failing again.
It was the temperature of the séance room that woke her from her soothing reverie. Her feet became cold, the picture disintegrated, and she snapped up with a little straightening jerk of her head.
As she put the chair back in its place she glanced up at the wall, at a picture. It was a foot-square thinly framed composition of bits of plain and coloured glass, mirror and tinfoil. She smiled fondly at it, and thought of her husband, then thought of his journey to Barnet, but now without the tingle of excitement and fear.
She went out on to the landing, then into the back bedroom. The only light came from behind her, from the high, cobwebby window that faced the landing, but it was enough to suit her purpose. She looked first to the far side of the room, where there was a double bed, a small cupboard and a chair, all painted white; the bed was turned down, and lying on it was a small pink nightdress. The window was completely covered by a large sheet of clean new plywood, no daylight showing around its edges. The carpet, almost wall-to-wall, was laid facedown and its pattern and basic colour were impossible to discern. On the wall opposite the window was a picture identical with that in the séance room.
She nodded at everything, checked the key to see that the lock worked smoothly and quietly, then backed out. She pushed open the bathroom door to look briefly at the plywood over the window, and nodded again and went downstairs. Back in the lounge she crossed to the front of the couch and stood looking out at the grey afternoon.
Everything, she thought, was ready. Both back windows were correctly boarded, with the boards undetectable from outside, behind the net curtains in one and the frosted glass in the other; the bedroom looked sufficiently bare and antiseptic; the peep-hole for looking through into the séance room was fixed to be used the other way, too, for observation. And the circumstances were favourable; the lonely situation of the house, and the fact that the house next door was empty, up for sale. Number sixty Josephine Avenue was ready for its guest.
She went and sat in one of the blue armchairs, pulling back the hem of her dress, baring her knees to the fire, and waited; she waited for her husband to come back with the little girl he had gone to kidnap.
Bill didn't use his old motor-bike very often, but whenever he did he drove it as he drove now, at a circumspect thirty, with one hand steering and the other resting on the waterproof that was snapped down tightly across the top of the side-car, as though the two parts of the machine had to be held together. It was the attitude of a man too old and nervous for driving. But Bill wasn't old. He was thirty-nine, five years younger than his wife. He was also a stone lighter than his wife, and only a couple of inches taller—a little below average. He had round shoulders and lumpy-knuckled hands, thin arms and legs and a sunken chest. His face, which had the faintly sad, rather apologetic expression of the valetudinarian, was dominated by the nose: long and flat and smooth, its tip considerably lower than the nostrils, the type of nose often paired with a hare lip, it seemed to be poised in perpetual crouch, tensely waiting to leap away from the small pale eyes and puffy mouth; it was red and shiny from September to April, and was very red now, being the only part of the face showing between the scarf above the trench coat collar and the fur-edged goggles beneath the white crash helmet.
Excerpted from Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Mark McShane. Copyright © 1961 Mark McShane. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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