A Medium For Murder

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 12, 2019

Reads: 80

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Submitted: June 12, 2019

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A Medium For Murder

 

 

Epigraph

“I do not feel the smallest doubt that we survive death, and I am pretty confident that the whole scientific world will have accepted this before A.D. 2000.”

Frederic Myers to John Addington Symonds, 20 June, 1890

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

London, August 2, 1892

 

 A hooded figure loomed outside the leaded-glass window frame. The silhouette could just be distinguished by flickering gaslight filtering up through the fog from the street below. Two gloved hands emerged from the cloak and lifted the window that was already ajar. When the window rumbled, the figure froze and waited.

Inside the room, a lump on the four-poster bed rolled over. A clock’s ticking could be heard.

The intruder tried the window again, this time more slowly. While working it, his outline wavered in the dull glow, as though projected by magic lantern.

When he raised the window to a sufficient height, he grasped his cloak and smoothly descended into the room. His right hand disappeared into the folds of the cloak and withdrew a vial. His other hand emerged holding a sponge. He removed the cork from the vial, and a sharp odour dispersed. Onto the sponge he carefully poured the contents of the vial, and then stowed it away. Slowly, inexorably, the intruder advanced towards the head of the bed, to the upturned face of the sleeper, who was breathing peacefully. Palming the sponge in his left hand, the intruder hovered above the large-featured face.

Suddenly, he clamped the sponge and smashed it down over the nose. The clock ticked louder and faster. Blue eyes flashed open with terror, hands flailed and wrenched at the assailant’s hand, and the supine body writhed. The attacker struggled to hold the body down. His gloved hand slipped from the contorted face.

The sleeper sputtered “Why,” before the hand clawed back over the face and pressed harder. The jerks and spasms decreased in intensity. The ticking slowed and then stopped. 

Straightening up, the attacker reached into his cloak again and brought forth a pocket watch on a chain. He traced a figure eight with it over the body before turning and gliding around the room, as though searching for something. At the escritoire against the far wall, he paused, stooped down, and grasped the handle of a black bag. Without checking the contents, he took the bag back to the window, placing it on the outside sill. The intruder took one more long look at the body on the bed, scrutinizing the face for signs of life. The victim’s tongue, protruding slightly from the mouth, was still. At the window the shape flickered once again in the muted gaslight and was gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

London, one day earlier

 

John Tassitt bounded up the steps, wrenched open the lodging house door, and scanned the hall table for the first post. Hands shaking, he grasped the pile of letters and rifled through them – nothing for him. A telegram lay next to a vase and he reached for it, hope lighting his ascetic face for a moment, until he realized it was not for him. “Christabelle, where are you? What has happened to you, dear?” He covered his face with his hands. A wave of nausea overcame him. He leaned over, placing both hands on the table to steady himself.

He had waited for her at Euston for three hours after the night train from Edinburgh had arrived without her, hoping that she would emerge from one of the other trains. Why hadn’t she contacted him? She had said she was coming. Had she taken ill? Had her father found out?  Royce Argyll, with a temperament as black as his beard. If he had so much as touched her ….  Tassitt’s throat closed and he fought the panic down, calming himself by focusing on his breathing. A darker thought occurred to him. What if she had changed her mind? His left hand reached for his watch. It was the one Christabelle had given him on their parting, engraved with the words “To everything there is a season….” A time to tear asunder and a time to sew. A bittersweet memory. His mind’s eye shifted to the Dean Village in Edinburgh, and to Christabelle. That spray of auburn hair caught by the wind as she walked along the river, her skirt gently swaying. She would glance back, chiding him with her banter, while expressing her living thoughts in those dancing, searching eyes. She was always ahead of him on the path, eluding him…. Since he had been gone these two months he had gathered so much to tell her, so much that could not be expressed in a letter, and possibly not even in the fragments of sound that we call words.  Would he have the opportunity?

He straightened, stepped to the door, and was out on Windmill Street, walking rapidly. He brought himself up short and slapped his thighs. But no, he couldn’t telegraph her. It was too risky, since her father would be certain to intercept the telegram. Should he leave for Edinburgh straight away, yet what if she had merely been delayed?

Who could help him? Who would understand? The only person he could think of was his mentor, Macalister.

“Oh my God. Macalister.” He rifled his pockets that bulged with sea-polished stones, gnarled bits of wood, feathers and other odds and sods. Unfolding a crumpled sheet of paper, he read,

“INTERNATIONAL CONGRESS OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY

1-4 August, 1892.

Prospectus

August 1st. 9:30-10:00 AM. Introduction and President’s Address.”

Just then he heard a church clock strike the quarter-hour.  He was supposed to have arrived fifteen minutes ago. Blast. What about Christabelle? He needed to hear from her, but resigned himself to the wait. In the meantime he would consult Macalister. He stroked his brown beard with a rapid horizontal motion. Macalister would be tremendously disappointed if John didn’t appear, since he wanted to introduce him to the great philosophers, psychologists, and psychical researchers who would be gather there. John had devoured their books on hypnosis, telepathy and survival of personality beyond death while he was supposed to be studying for his medical degree at Edinburgh. He desperately wanted to understand his visions, or rather affliction.

* * * * *

Ten minutes later, John Tassitt skittered through the Gower Street gates of the University College, his brown hair tufting and his brows thatched like a bird’s nest. The sun reflecting off the College’s Grecian facade blinded him temporarily. Once inside he blinked and shivered with the coolness before a porter directed him towards the reception Hall.  As he approached, the din of voices increased. At the doorway he peered around the oak-paneled room at the crowd. It seemed disembodied in the smoky haze. His stomach knotted and he wanted to flee. Was this really what he was seeking? A man said hello as he passed, and it was all John could do to reply. Just as he felt himself drowning in the sea of words, a familiar craggy face emerged from the swell.

“Mr. Tassitt, how very good to see you. I trust that your voyage refreshed you after the trials of your studies?”

John’s shoulders relaxed when he heard Professor Macalister’s brogue and his hand was gripped by the man’s massive paw. Of all of John’s professors at Edinburgh, Macalister was the most sensible and yet the most open-minded, a rare combination. Never let your education get in the way of your learning, he would say, eyes twinkling. Macalister’s wayward lectures had been John’s favorites, and he had become quite close to the garrulous Scotsman, John’s own father being of a remote disposition.

“Professor Macalister, I’m so glad to see you, too. Yes, my journey was inspiring, until I got back to London. I find this heat oppressive, and, and Christabelle was not on the train she was meant to be on.”

Macalister tilted his head and his eyes questioned.

“Christabelle, your, er, lady friend? A charming woman, as I recall. Perhaps she has been delayed, or missed her train?”

“She’s usually ahead of herself, not behind.”

“Ach, but the trains these days. Who can rely on them?”

John pulled at his hair. “I have a sickening feeling about her absence. Her father … I should leave for Edinburgh immediately.” John abruptly turned to go.

“Whoa, lad.” Macalister grasped John’s arm. “There’s no need to fly to her just yet. I am sure she will be in touch presently. When does the next train from Edinburgh arrive?”

John pulled out his watch. “Not for another three hours and twenty-three minutes.” John stepped a pace to each side. “It’s just that I had the same feeling when my sister Anne drowned. And I wasn’t there for her either.”

Macalister withdrew his hand from John’s arm, pushed aside the edges of his hound’s-tooth jacket and placed his hands on his hips. “Hmm, I wonder if your worry hasn’t been precipitated by a wee bit of guilt about being parted from Christabelle for such a spell? Nevertheless, with your sensitivities we should take heed.”

John flinched. If only Macalister knew the terms under which he and Christabelle had parted. “Yes, to be sure.”

“Now, you can’t do anything about Christabelle for the present, so allow me to take your mind off her and introduce you to, let’s see. Ah, there’s Myers. Alexander, so good to see you again. It’s been an eternity since Paris in ‘89.”

A spry, middle-aged man walked towards them holding out his hand. His broad smile evoked a sunny afternoon at the seashore.

“Robert Macalister, what a pleasure. I wasn’t sure you would make the trek from Edinburgh.” His voice was gentle and yet resonant.

“Ah well, Alexander, the rail voyage shrinks the distances, no doubt about that. I wouldn’t miss this gathering of the psychic clans,” and he guffawed, “for all the haunted castles in Scotland. Speaking of travel, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. John Tassitt, who has just returned from a continental journey. He’s a post-graduate student of mine, but more importantly he possesses singular sensitivities.”

“You don’t say, I am pleased....” said Myers, who turned and faced John directly.

Myers’s open expression invited confidence, and his large features provided an ample setting for the most brilliant blue eyes John had ever seen. He glimpsed an ocean through them and felt a shock of recognition as he grasped Myers’ hand, a connection to a vast other world. Nevertheless, Myers’ palm was sweaty, and John reverberated with the man’s nervous tension, or had it come from within John? He couldn’t quite tell.

Macalister rumbled, “John’s telepathic and clairvoyant powers have helped me solve one or two psychic puzzles in Edinburgh.”

John protested, “Robert, I’d really rather you....”

“He’s also very cautious, and modest about his talent. You needn’t worry, John, since Alexander, here, will be quite sympathetic to your aims. He is one of the key figures in the Society For Psychical Research, along with his brother Frederic.”

“Yes, yes,” said Alexander, clasping his hands. “I sympathize with your hesitation. Many would scorn, and even destroy, those whose powers threaten them.”

“Ach, Alexander, you would know, to be sure. Alexander is on the brink of developing a theory of human psychology that will take account of the extraordinary powers. It’s based on his studies with children at the Belgrave Hospital, where he is senior physician. Has your research progressed as you had hoped, Alexander?”

“You flatter me, Robert. I’m merely casting about in the darkness for a chance ray of illumination. You see, I’m trying to probe the roots of people’s bonds to one another. They’ve proved to be more tangled and much deeper than I had thought. The results can be disturbing, as I’m sure will be evident this afternoon when I present them. I fear intense opposition from those who don’t think psychical investigation is valid. Enough of me, though. How did you discover your powers, Dr. Tassitt?”

“It actually goes back to the worst day of my life, some sixteen years ago. I was just eleven. I don’t know whether I can....it was the death of my sister, Anne... she drowned… on Loch Leven.”

“How terrible. You needn’t tell us if it’s too painful.” Myers raised his hands and held them before him, palms upward, as he spoke.

“No, no, I find it helpful to talk about, especially to those who... understand. You see, a group of family friends had decided to row across the lake and have a picnic.  I’ve never been fond of the water, and, well, I may have had a premonition not to go that I didn’t acknowledge at the time. I decided instead to go riding near Drumraine House, my family’s country estate. While I was out, the wind whipped up, and the sky glowered, darkening by the minute.  My mount got the jitters and I turned to head back .... Then, oh, then ahead of me on the path appeared my sister, flailing her arms and calling my name. She was drenched, her black hair matted to her head. I dismounted and ran to greet her. When I placed my arms around her she dissolved into... nothing. I stumbled forward, grasping at thin air.

That was the last I saw of her until I peered into her coffin, hoping to see some last sign of her vitality. She looked so cold, so removed. But my insides burned. The day she died – she was only nine! – I knew I had experienced something quite out of the ordinary, but felt it was not something I could express to my family.”

“I completely understand,” said Myers, now gripping the lapels of his suit.

John looked down at the grey and sable marbled floor. It seemed to eddy about him. “That moment of perception lay buried until I was well into my medical studies. Then, when under pressure studying for my exams, visions crowded on me with nerve-wracking force.”

Alexander Myers put a hand on Tassitt’s shoulder and gazed at him for a moment. “I’m sorry, John, that you had to discover your talents under such painful circumstances, but, alas, it often happens that way. Your sensitivity to spirit is a privilege. It is also easily crushed, as I’ve seen time and again in my studies of children.

Well, I will be most honored to hear more about your experiences. If you attend my presentation, you will see that my findings bear directly on your situation. Now, you must excuse me, since my brother awaits. We shall speak later, Robert.” With this, Myers left them and made his way through the crowd.

“His enthusiasm is certainly infectious,” said John.

“Aye, that it is. If everyone were as compassionate as he is, we’d be much better off altogether,” mused Macalister.

A gavel rapped at the front of the Hall, and gradually the noise in the room decreased. John and Robert moved forward and took chairs which afforded them a good view of the speakers now assembled on the dais.

A tall, finely featured, willowy man in his fifties approached the podium.

Macalister whispered, “Henry Sidgwick, the philosopher. He’s the President of the Society For Psychical Research.”

John nodded, and with a start noted that Sidgwick was a study in shades of grey, like one of Whistler’s nocturnes. His face seemed drawn because of a long fleecy grey beard that reached down to his second jacket button. Even the energy emanating from him seemed almost visible as a wavering light grey. Sidgwick’s tone was humble, even apologetic, and he spent most of his time defending the inclusion of papers on clairvoyance and hypnosis in a conference on experimental psychology. Apparently some of the German scientists had baulked, though John for the life of him couldn’t understand what the problem was. How would investigators ever discover whether these phenomena were valid if they didn’t explore them? Sidgwick also alluded to a controversy that was apparently raging between two schools of hypnosis, one in Paris under Charcot and another in Nancy, founded by Liebeault. Academic life seemed more rife with conflict than John had realized.

When Sidgwick had finished, John heard above the clapping two voices chattering in French.  Glancing over his left shoulder, he saw two men on their feet. When he mentally translated what they were saying, his intuitions were confirmed.

“It's outrageous that this Englishman would favor the school of Nancy, when he knows so little of the matter.  All who have seen the Great Charcot with his patients know the truth of the Grand Hysteria and Grand Hypnosis. To think that all kinds of people can be hypnotized - it’s absurd!”

“Ah, Georges, but we will show these Englishman just who knows best when they try to hypnotize someone at random.”

John raised his eyebrow, and Macalister said in a low voice, “A bitter rivalry exists partly because the Nancy school has provided evidence that ordinary people can be hypnotized, not just hysterics as Jean-Martin Charcot believes. There could be trouble with those chaps, since both of them are disciples of Charcot at the Saltpetriere in Paris. I’m not sure of the goateed fellow’s name, but the other taller, cadaverous one is Georges Gilles de la Tourette. He has just published his Treatise on Hysteria defending Charcot’s views against the onslaught of the Nancy school. Personally, I believe that Charcot’s view of hysterics is complete rot, but he certainly woke up the world to their unfortunate condition, and he’s most definitely made hypnosis the centre of debate. I wonder....”

Macalister was interrupted by Henry Sidgwick’s announcement that there would be a brief break for coffee and tea while an Englishman named Dr. Milne Bramwell prepared a demonstration of hypnosis.

“I wonder whether Dr. Liebeault will put the final nail in Charcot’s coffin when he gives his paper tomorrow? It’s a case of suicidal mania cured by suggestion.”

“I don’t know,” replied John, “but I’m very much looking forward to hearing it. Did I hear correctly that he’s the founder of the Nancy School?”

“Right you are, and a true pioneer as well as a thoroughly humane man. It’s a rare combination. Do you know, he provides hypnosis for the poor free of charge, and has barely scratched out a living. He was considered crack-brained for years, and his first book, in the 1860's, sold only a single copy. Ah, we have come a long way since those barbaric times.”

Just then a woman’s scream pierced the discussion in the Hall. Heads turned to the entranceway, where the source of the commotion had just emerged. A woman with untressed coal-black hair was flailing wildly as two brawny young men attempted to drag her to the dais. She seemed to be exhibiting superhuman strength. The youths, cursing roundly, were having difficulty keeping her next to them because of her hooped, claret-colored dress, which spread in a large arc from her slender wasp waist. Suddenly she broke free, dashed towards the conference participants, and screamed, “You are the ruination of me. Damn you, damn you, damn you.”

She lunged at one of them, and toppled him. He cried out, whalebone cracked, and a tornado of petticoat swirled on the floor. As soon as the attendants caught up to her, they wrenched the woman’s arms backwards and dragged her, screaming, away from her victim. Most extraordinarily, the man remained on the floor, writhing and jerking and emitting high sounds like a wounded animal. Could it be? Yes. John recoiled with shock.

It was Dr. Alexander Myers.

 


© Copyright 2019 George M. Johnson. All rights reserved.

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