An excerpt from a Jack Fleming adventure by P.N. Elrod
When the girl draped in black stepped in to ask if I could help her with a séance, Hal Kemp’s version of Gloomy Sunday began to murmur sadly from the office radio.
Coincidences annoy me. A mournful song for a dead sweetheart put together with a ceremony that’s supposed to help the dead speak with the living made me uneasy—and I was annoyed it made me uneasy.
I should know better, being dead myself.
“You sure you’re in the right place?” I asked, taking in her outfit. Black overcoat, pocketbook, gloves, heels, and stockings—she was a walking funeral. Along with the mourning weeds she wore a brimmed hat with a chin-brushing veil even I couldn’t see past.
“The Escott Agency—that’s what’s on the door,” she said, sitting on the client chair in front of the desk without an invitation. “You’re Mr. Escott?”
“I’m Mr. Fleming. I fill in for Mr. Escott when he’s elsewhere.” He was visiting his girlfriend tonight. I’d come over to his office to work on his books since I was better at accounting.
“It was Mr. Escott who was recommended to me.”
I waited, but she left it at that. Much of Escott’s business as a private agent came by word of mouth. Call him a private-eye and you’d get a pained look and perhaps an acerbic declaration that he did not undertake divorce cases. His specialty as an agent was carrying out unpleasant errands for the unable or unwilling, not peeking through keyholes, but did a séance qualify? He was interested in that kind of thing, but mostly from a skeptic’s point of view. I had to say mostly since he couldn’t be a complete skeptic what with his partner—me—being a vampire.
And nice to meet you, too.
Hal Kemp played on in the little office until the girl stood, went to the radio, and shut it off.
“I hate that song,” she stated, turning around, the veil swirling lightly. Faceless women annoy me as well, but she had good legs.
“Me, too. You got any particular reason?”
“My sister plays it all the time. It gets on my nerves.”
“Does it have to do with this séance?”
“Can’t you call Mr. Escott?”
“I could, but you didn’t make an appointment for this late or he’d be here.”
“My appointment is for tomorrow, but something’s happened since I made it, and I need to speak with him tonight. I came by just in case he worked late. The light was on and a car was out front…”
I checked his appointment book. In his precise hand he’d written 10am, Abigail Saeger. “Spell that name again?”
She did so, correct for both.
“What’s the big emergency?” I asked. “If this is something I can’t handle I’ll let him know, but otherwise you’ll find I’m ready, able, and willing.”
“I don’t mean to offend, but you look rather young for such work. Over the phone I thought Mr. Escott to be…more mature.”
Escott and I were the same age but I did look younger by over a decade. On the other hand if she thought a man in his mid-thirties was old, then she’d be something of a kid herself. Her light voice told me as much, though you couldn’t tell by her mannerisms and speech, which bore a finishing school’s not so subtle polish.
“Miss Saeger, would you mind raising your blinds? I like to see who’s hiring before I take a job.”
She went still a moment, then lifted her veil. As I thought, a fresh-faced kid who should be home studying, but her eyes were red-rimmed, her expression serious.
“That’s better. What can I do for you?”
“My older sister, Flora, is holding a séance tonight. She’s crazy to talk with her dead husband, and there’s a medium taking advantage of her. He wants her money, and more.”
“A fake medium?”
“Is there any other kind?”
I smiled, liking her. “Give me the whole story, same as you’d have told to Mr. Escott.”
“You’ll help me?”
“I need to know more first.” I said it in a tone to indicate I was interested.
She plunged in, talking fast, but I had good shorthand and scribbled notes.
Miss Saeger and her older sister Flora were alone, their parents long dead. But Flora had money in trust and married into more money after getting hitched to James Weisinger Jr., who inherited a tidy fortune some years ago. The Depression had little effect on them. Flora became a widow last August when her still-young husband died in a sailing accident on Lake Michigan.
I’d been killed on that lake. “Sure it was an accident?”
“A wind shift caused the boom to swing around. It caught him on the side of the head and over he went. I still have nightmares about the awful thud when it hit him and the splash, but it’s worse for Flora—she was at the wheel at the time. She blames herself. No one else does. There were half a dozen people aboard who knew sailing. That kind of thing can happen out of the blue.”
I vaguely remembered reading about it in the paper. Nothing like some rich guy getting killed while doing rich-guy stuff to generate copy.
“Poor James never knew what hit him, it was just that fast. Flora was in hysterics and had to be drugged for a week. Then she kept to her bed nearly a month, then she read some stupid article in a magazine about using Ouija boards to talk to spirits and got it into her head that she had to contact James, to apologize to him.”
“That opened the door?”
“James is dead, and if he did things right he’s in heaven and should stay there—in peace.” Miss Saeger growled in disgust. “I’ve gotten Flora’s pastor to talk to her, but she won’t listen to him. I’ve talked to her until we both end up screaming and crying, and she won’t see sense. I’m just her little sister and don’t know anything, you see.”
“What’s so objectionable?”
“Her obsession. It’s not healthy. I thought after all this time she’d lose interest, but she’s gotten worse. Every week she has a gaggle of those creeps from the Society over, they set up the board, light candles, and ask questions while looking at James’ picture. It’s pointless and sad and unnatural and—and…just plain disrespectful.”
I was really liking her now. “Society?”
“The Psychical Society of Chicago.”
Though briefly tempted to ask her to say it three times fast, I kept my yap shut. The group investigated haunted houses and held sittings—their word for séances—writing their experiences up for their archives. Escott was a member. For a buck a year to cover mailing costs he’d get a pamphlet every month and read the more oddball pieces out to me.
“The odious thing is,” said Miss Saeger, “they’re absolutely sincere. When one has that kind of belief going, then of course it’s going to produce results.”
“What kind of results?”
“They’ve spelled out the names of all the people who ever died in the house, which is stupid because the house isn’t that old. The man who supervises these sittings says that’s because the house was built over the site of another, so the dead people are connected to it, you see. There’s no way to prove or disprove any of it. He’s got an answer for everything and always sounds perfectly reasonable.”
“Is he the medium?”
“No, but he brought him in. Alistair Bradford.” She put plenty of venom in that name. “He looks like something out of a movie.”
“What? Wears a turban like Chandu the Magician?”
Her big dark eyes flashed, then she choked, stifling a sudden laugh. She got things under control after a moment. “Thank you. It’s so good to talk with someone who sees things the way I do.”
“Tell me about him.”
“No turban, but he has piercing eyes, and when he walks into a room everyone turns around. He’s handsome…for an old guy.”
“At least forty.”
“Please don’t make fun of me. I get that all the time from him, from all of them.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Saeger. Are you the only one left in the house with any common sense?”
“Yes.” She breathed that out, and it almost turned into a sob, but she headed it off. The poor kid looked to be only barely keeping control of a truckload of high emotion. I heard her heart pound fast, then gradually slow. “Even the servants are under his spell. I have friends, but I can’t talk to them about this. It’s just too embarrassing.”
“You’ve been by yourself on this since August?”
She nodded. “Except for our pastor, but he can’t be there every day. He tells me to keep praying for Flora, and I do, and still this goes on and just gets worse. I miss James, too. He was a nice man. He deserves better than this—this—”
“What broke the camel’s back to bring you here?”
“Before Alistair Bradford came all they did was play with that stupid Ouija board. I’d burn it but they’d just buy another from the five and dime. After he was introduced they began holding real séances. I don’t like any of that stuff and don’t believe in it, but he made it scary. It’s as though he gets taller and broader and his voice changes. With the room almost totally dark it’s easy to believe him.”
“They let you sit in?”
“Just the once—on sufferance so long as I kept quiet. When I turned the lights on in the middle of things Flora banished me. She said my negative thoughts were preventing the spirits from coming through, and that I was endangering Bradford’s life. You’re not supposed to startle a medium out of a trance or it could kill him. I wouldn’t mind seeing that, but he was faking. While they were all yelling I had my eye on him, and the look he gave me was pure hate…and he was smiling. He wanted to scare me and it worked. I’ve kept my door locked and haven’t slept much.”
“I don’t blame you. No one believes you?”
“Of course not. I’m not in their little club and to them I’m just a kid. What do I know?”
“Kids have instinct, a good thing to follow. Is he living in the house?”
“He mentioned it, but Flora—for once—didn’t think that was proper.”
“Is he romancing her?”
Miss Saeger’s eyes went hard. “Slowly. He’s too smart to rush things, but I see the way he struts around, looking at everything. If he lays a finger on Flora I’ll—”
I raised one hand. “I get it. You want Flora protected and him discredited.”
“Or his legs broken and his big smirking face smashed in.”
That was something I could have arranged. I know those kind of people. “It’s better if Flora gets rid of him by her own choice, though.”
“I don’t see how, I may have left it too late. I called here on Saturday to make the appointment, but—” She went red in the face. “I could just kill him.”
“What’d he do?”
“The last séance—they have one every Sunday and that’s just wrong having it on a Sunday—something horrible happened. They all gathered in the larger parlor at the table as usual, lighted candles, and put out the lights. Soon as it went dark I slipped in while they were getting settled. There’s an old Chinese screen in one corner, and I hide behind it during their séances. Negative feelings, my foot, no one’s noticed me yet, not even Bradford, so I saw the whole thing.”
“He put himself in a trance right on time. It usually takes five minutes, and by then everyone’s expecting something to happen, you can feel it. He starts out with a low groan and breathing loudly, and in the dark it’s spooky, and that’s when his spirit guide takes over. His voice gets deeper and he puts on a French accent. Calls himself Frère Lèon. He’s supposed to have been a monk who traveled with Joan of Arc.”
“Who speaks perfect English?”
“Of course. No one’s ever thought of talking to him in French. I doubt Bradford knows much more than mon Dieu and sang sacré.”
She’d attended a good finishing school, speaking with the right kind of pronunciation. I’d heard it when I’d been a doughboy in France during the last year of the war, and had picked up enough to get by. Much of that was too rough for Miss Saeger’s tender ears, though.
“And the horrible thing that happened?”
“It was at the end. He pretends to have Frère Lèon pass on messages from James. He can’t have James talk directly to Flora or he’d trip himself up. He doesn’t pass too many messages, either, just general stuff about how beautiful it is on the other side. She tries to talk to him and ask him things and she’s so desperate and afterwards she always cries and then she goes back for more. It’s cruel. But this time he said he was giving her a sign of what she should do.”
“I didn’t know what that meant, until…well, Bradford finished just then and pretended to be waking from his trance. That’s when they found what he’d snuck on the table. It was James’ wedding ring, the one he was buried with.”
I gave that the pause it deserved. “Not a duplicate?”
She shook her head, a fast, jerky movement. Her voice was thick. “Inside it’s engraved with To J. from F. - Forever Love. He never took it off and it had some hard wear: two distinct parallel scratches, and it wasn’t a perfect circle. Flora showed it to me as proof that Alistair Bradford was genuine. She didn’t want to hear my idea that…that he’d dug up and robbed James’ grave. I thought she’d slap me. She’s gone crazy, Mr.—”
“Fleming. Call me Jack.”
“Jack. Flora’s never raised a hand to me, even when we were kids and I was being bratty, but this has her all turned around. I thought Mr. Escott could find something out about Bradford that would prove him a fake or come to a séance and do something to break it up, but I don’t think she’d listen now. The last thing Bradford said before his trance ended was ‘you have his blessing.’ Put that with the ring and I know it means if he asks Flora to marry him she’ll say yes because she’ll think that’s what James would want.”
“Come on, she can’t be that—”
“Stupid? Foolish? Under a spell? She is! That’s what’s driving me crazy. She should be smarter than this.”
“Grief can make you go right over the edge. Guilt can make it worse, and I bet she’s lonely, too. She should have gone to a head-doctor, but picked up a Ouija board instead. Does this Bradford ask for money?”
“He calls it a donation. She’s given him fifty dollars every time. He gets that much for all his sittings—and he does thirty to forty a month. My sister’s not the only dope in town.”
My mouth went dry. Fifty a week was a princely income, but that much times forty? I was in the wrong business. I’d gotten twenty-five a week back in New York as a reporter and counted myself lucky. “Well. It beats robbing banks. Your sister can give him more by marriage?”
“Yes, her trust money and the estate from James. Bradford would have it, the house, never have to work again. Please, can you help me stop him?”
I thought of the people I knew who broke bones for a sawbuck and could make a man totally disappear for twice that. “I need to check this, you know. I only have your side of things.”
“And I’m just a kid.”
“Miss Saeger, I’d say the same thing to Eleanor Roosevelt if she was in that chair. Lemme make a phone call. Anyone going to be worried you’re gone?”
“I snuck out and got a taxi. Flora and I had a fight tonight and she thinks I’m sulking in my room. She’s busy, anyway—the new séance.”
“Uh-huh.” I dialed Gordy at the Nightcrawler Club and asked if he had any dirt on an Alistair Bradford, professional medium.
“Medium what?” asked Gordy in his sleepy-sounding voice.
“A swami, you know, séances, fortune-telling. It’s for a case. I’m filling in for Charles.”
He grunted, and he sounded amused. “You at his office? Ten minutes.” He hung up. As the Nightcrawler was a longer than ten-minute drive away I took him to mean he’d phone back, not drop by.
“Ten minutes,” I repeated to Miss Saeger. “What’s with the black get-up?” You still in mourning for your brother-in-law?”
“It was the only way I could think of to cover my face. I’m full grown, but soon as anyone looks at me they think I’m fifteen or something.”
“And you’re really…?”
“Miss Saeger, you are one brave and brainy sixteen-year-old, so I’m sure you’re aware that this is a school night.”
“My sister is more important than that, but thank you for the reminder.” There was a dryness in her tone that would have done credit to Escott. A couple years from now and she’d be one formidable young woman.
“What time is this séance?”
“Nine o’clock. Always.”
“Not at midnight?”
“Some of the older Society members get too sleepy if things go much past ten.”
“Why tonight instead of next Sunday?”
“James’ birthday. Bradford said that holding a sitting on the loved one’s birthday always means something special.”
“He won’t say, he just smiles. It makes my skin crawl. I swear, if he’s not stopped I’ll get one of James’ golf clubs and—” She went red in the face again, stood up, and paced. I did that when the pent up energy got to be too much.
I tried to get more from her on tonight’s event, but she didn’t have anything else to add, though she had plenty of comment about Bradford’s antics. Guys like him I’d met before, they’re always the first to look you square in the eye and assure you they’re honest long before you begin to wonder.
The phone rang in seven minutes. Abigail Saeger halted in mid-word and stride and sat, leaning forward as I put the receiver to my ear. Gordy was like a library for all that was crooked in the great city of Chicago, with good reason: if he wasn’t behind it himself, he knew who was and where to find them. He gave me slim pickings about Bradford, but it was enough to confirm that the guy was trouble. He’d done some stage work as a magician, Alistair the Great, until discovering there was more cash to be had conjuring dead relatives from thin air instead of rabbits. He preferred to collect as much money in the shortest time, then make an exit. The wealthy widow Weisinger was too good a temptation to a man looking for an easy way to retire.
“You need help with this bo’?” Gordy asked.
“I’ll let you know. Thanks.”
“Well?” asked Miss Saeger.
I hung up. “Count me in, ma’am.”
“That sounds so old. My name’s Abby.”
“Fine, you can sign it here.” I pulled out one of Escott’s standard contracts. It was short and vague, mostly a statement that the Escott Agency was retained for services by, with a blank after that and room for the date.
“How much will this be?”
“Five bucks should do it.”
“It has to be more than that. I read detective stories.”
“Special sale, tonight only. Anyone walking in here named Abby pays five bucks, no more, no less.”
For a second I thought she’d kiss me, and I was prepared to duck out of range. If my girlfriend found out I’d canoodled, however innocently or briefly, with a mere pippin of sixteen I would find myself dead for real and for ever after.
© Copyright 2010 P.N. Elrod No fake mediums were harmed during the writing of this excerpt. Well, not so far, anyway...
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