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EMPEROR NORTON'S GHOST

Fremont Jones Book 04

Dianne Day

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
seance to begin. Her eyes glinted, picking up light from the
candles that burned in sconces on the wall; her lips were parted
andher 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 seance and its
oppressive atmosphere must be poisoning my mind-ordinarily I'd have
no truck with anything such as emanations, not even inmy
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
seance. 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 seances 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 seance. 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 seances 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!"

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