“How are the readings?” Jo asked. The Wimshurst machine whirred merrily as she cranked it, arcs of electricity cracking and snapping along its metal brushes. “Are we getting close? Because my arm is going to drop off if this takes much longer.”
Henry Strauss pushed his spectacles higher on his nose and checked the galvanometer. “Don’t stop yet. We must make certain the air is sufficiently charged for a spirit to manifest.” Exactly what voltage might achieve such a result, he wasn’t entirely certain, not having a spirit to actually test the device on. But he wasn’t about to admit it to Jo. Ever since she’d found the error in his calculations last month, she’d been even more insufferable than usual—and, given her age of sixteen, she was quite insufferable enough already.
The scent of ozone competed with the workshop’s reek of grease and machine oil. Henry let the needle creep up the dial just a bit more. “There—keep cranking! If there were a spirit about, it would have enough energy to manifest, even without the presence of a medium.”
“Then why can’t I stop?”
Did she have to question everything? If he’d known what he was getting into when she showed up on his doorstep...
Well, he still would have taken her in. But he might have stocked up on scotch ahead of time.
“Because if the Electro-Séance is to work properly, we must be able to dismiss any troublesome spirits as necessary. Altering the conductivity of the air to prevent them from gathering the energy to manifest is one means of doing so. Without a ghost, the charge from the Wimshurst machine will have to substitute.”
“I’ll have to get a job with a sideshow,” Jo complained. “See the woman whose cousin made her work until her arm fell off.”
“You’re not a woman, you’re a girl,” Henry corrected absently. “And it would have to be the no-armed woman, because I’ll just have you crank with the other one.”
“Such familial love.”
Henry checked the misting machine a final time. Everything was in place: the Leyden jar battery, the piezoelectric crystal, the bowl of water. Holding his breath, he attached the battery to the wire running to the crystal. Within moments, a fine mist began to rise from the dispeller as the vibrations from the crystal vaporized the water.
“Look at the fog—the dispeller is working!” The note of excitement in Jo’s voice made Henry grin. Despite her complaints, she had all the makings of a first-rate scientist or inventor. Assuming the twin barriers of her gender and race would allow such a thing.
Henry put aside the familiar twinge of worry for Jo’s future. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he cautioned. “It’s operational, but not ‘working’ unless it removes the electrical charge from the air.”
His eyes remained fixed on the galvanometer as the atmosphere grew increasingly humid. The dial twitched, dipped—and began to fall steadily. “Yes! Stop cranking!”
Henry ignored her. The galvanometer continued to show a decrease, soon reaching normal readings. Everything had worked just as he predicted. “It’s done, Jo. With these devices, we’ll be able to summon and dismiss a spirit through science alone. The Electro-Séance is complete!”
“Wonderful!” Jo clapped her hands in delight. Her tightly curled hair—inherited from her mother, who had also gifted her with caramel skin and dark brown eyes—had come half out of its bun. Sweat dampened her blouse despite the winter chill of the workshop. “And just in time. Will you present your findings to the Psychical Society tonight?”
“Yes.” He scooped up his notes and diagrams from the table, sorting them into some semblance of order. “They may have scoffed at my proposals during previous meetings, but they can’t ignore today’s success. And once I have their backing, I can attract investors.” Perhaps even buy a shop in a better part of Baltimore, one with a sound roof and walls that didn’t let in the winter wind. Or even a small house, so they no longer had to live out of the rooms in the back.
Buoyed up by his dreams of the future, he turned to her with a grin. “Mark my words, my girl, soon you and I will be sipping champagne with the best minds on the East Coast!”
~ * ~
“Sorry, old chum,” Arthur Burwell said a few hours later. He downed his whiskey in one swallow and signaled the bartender for more. “The society is nothing but a bunch of dunderheads.”
Henry sighed and stared at his own glass of whiskey. They sat in a small saloon, not far from the house where the Psychical Society held its monthly meetings. At least the whiskey served here wouldn’t eat a hole in his stomach, as opposed to the cheap rotgut that was all he could normally afford. “I know. But it’s hard not to be discouraged. I was certain they couldn’t ignore me this time.”
Arthur clapped him on the shoulder. “I know you, Henry. Nothing keeps you down for long.”
Henry didn’t speak to the obvious lie in the statement. Down was the direction Henry had been going for a long time. He and Arthur had been boyhood friends, raised in neighboring houses, their parents fast friends.
Arthur’s world had remained intact. His suit was of good quality, tailored nicely to his figure. The pocket watch he checked every few minutes was new, not purchased from a secondhand shop. He’d recently married a woman of slightly higher social standing, though not so much as to make the match scandalous, and they expected their first child before winter’s end.
When everyone else had abandoned Henry, Arthur had remained his friend. He’d even paid for Henry’s membership to the Psychical Society, a fee out of Henry’s reach even before Jo appeared on his doorstep.
“It’s just...I know I have something to offer the world,” Henry said. He picked up his whiskey and swirled it around the glass. “Something to make people’s lives better. But the world doesn’t seem to care.”
“They just don’t see the advantage,” Arthur said. “Why worry about wires and batteries when any decent medium can do the same with half the fuss?”
Henry glared at his drink. “Don’t speak to me of mediums. Ninety-nine out of a hundred are frauds, bilking the desperate. Society looks the other way at their licentious behavior, which only gives them further power to take advantage—” He caught himself before his voice rose too sharply. “Machines are dependable. Consistent. Just as the imperfect weaver has been replaced by the textile mill, the Electro-Séance will replace mediums.”
“I’m sure it will,” Arthur said. Always the friend. “Perhaps you should look elsewhere. Wasn’t some preacher denouncing spiritualism in the papers again last week, accusing mediums of promoting fornication and sodomy? Surely his sort would prefer to see them replaced by wires and batteries.”
“His sort would prefer to see them replaced by nothing at all,” Henry said gloomily. “They deny ghosts exist and claim any spirit visitation is a trick of the mind or Satan. But that isn’t true. The dead do return. I know what I saw.”
“Of course,” Arthur said soothingly. “I never doubted it, you know that. Is there anything more I can do?”
“No.” Henry stared at the shelves behind the bar, lined with bottles, the liquids inside glowing a soft gold or brown in the gaslight. “All I need is a genuine haunting to test the apparatus. It would not only prove my theories, but the measurements on the spirit would give me an idea of what needs to be done to conduct an ordinary séance.”
“I’m afraid the only spirits I have for you are at the bottom of this glass,” Arthur said with a grin. He clinked his glass against Henry’s. “Don’t give up. The society will come around eventually.”
Henry tossed back his whiskey. It burned going down, like golden fire. “The Psychical Society can go to the devil, if he’ll have them. I don’t need their support. I’ll manage on my own if I must.”
“Of course you will,” Arthur said, but the look on his face was one of pity. “Good night, Henry. I’ll call on you soon.”
The cold had deepened in the brief time they’d spent inside the saloon. Henry hunched his shoulders and huddled into his overcoat, wishing his gloves were a bit thicker and better insulated. Still, he was far better off than some of the wretches he’d seen near the waterfront. He had his repair shop, and clothes and food for himself and Jo.
Maybe he should leave off his researches into the spirit world. Concern himself with other avenues of invention less likely to be met with such a wall of skepticism and disdain. But how could he, when he was so close?
He needed something to settle his mind tonight. There were men with whom he might find...well, not companionship, but release. A few quick moments in an alley with another man’s hand on his prick would clear away the disappointment of the evening.
Or result in a different sort of disappointment. His last few such encounters had left him feeling more depressed than relaxed.
Perhaps it came from seeing Arthur married and happy. What would it be like to have such companionship? Someone who cared about him, who wanted more than an anonymous hand or mouth in an alley?
Henry tipped his head back as he walked. The stars shone in all their glory, cold and sharp as they always seemed in winter. Sunday would mark the beginning of a new year.
A new year. A new start. Surely something would happen, something would change, and he could finally reclaim his place in the world. Be the man he would have become if things had happened differently.
Something would change. It had to.
~ * ~
Vincent squinted in the early light reflecting from the waters of the East River. The amulet he’d worn every instant for the last six months trembled against his chest, like a medal for failure rather than bravery. He wasn’t due in the shop yet. He could put this off, come back in a few hours. Delay the inevitable.
“Morning, Sitting Bull!” the grocer called from across the street.
Vincent ground his teeth together but pasted on a smile before turning to the grocer. The “joke” hadn’t been funny the first time, but it was better than the old routine of asking him if he’d scalped anyone yet today.
“Good morning, sir,” he said as pleasantly as possible before unlocking the shop. The sign, still bearing the legend Dunne & Apprentices, Occult Emporium, creaked in the morning wind as if laughing at him.
He slipped inside, leaving the placard turned to “closed.” He peered through the dark storefront, the windows shrouded in velvet draperies. “Lizzie?” he called, feeling his way across the room. Despite having worked at the shop for years, in the dimness he managed to bark his shin against the table where Lizzie wrote the messages she received from spirits.
He bit back a curse—Lizzie disapproved of swearing—and groped his way to the book displays. “Lizzie?” he shouted again. “Are you awake?”
The steps leading up to the apartment above creaked. “If I hadn’t been, I certainly would be now, Mr. Night.”
They’d known one another since they were fifteen. Lizzie addressing him as “Mr. Night” was the precise opposite of a good sign. He waited until she came into view, just a shadow on the steps, dressed in flowing draperies.
“Happy New Year?” he tried.
The gas lamp at the foot of the stairs flared to life, leaving him squinting yet again. “It’s January second,” she said icily.
“Oh, is it?”
He tried to avoid the glare of her green eyes, a task made more difficult since they were on a level with his own. “Yes. It is. We had an appointment on the first. Last night.”
His heart beat harder. “It must have slipped my mind.”
Her glare deepened, and for a moment he almost thought she might strike him. He even half hoped she would, because he’d damned well known exactly where he was supposed to be last night.
And he’d tried. God, he’d tried. He’d walked halfway to the house. “An easy job,” Lizzie had said. A simple séance, meant to contact the spirit of a small girl who had drowned on the same day last year.
It was always easier for spirits to return on the anniversary of their death—something about it strengthened their connection to this side of the veil. Meaning less energy needed to be drawn from the medium. It wasn’t a hard job at all, the sort of thing he’d been able to do within six months of becoming Dunne’s apprentice.
A gentle young spirit, innocent, who’d doubtless want to give comfort to her family. Surely he could manage that much at least.
But it still meant allowing the spirit to use him as a channel between worlds. To let it control him, however briefly. And he’d found himself standing on the street, shaking too hard to take another step. The memory of Dunne’s unmoving body, of the taste of rot and slime, flooded his mind and blotted out everything else.
He’d run all the way back to his little apartment, salted the door and windows, and spent the rest of the night clutching the thin protection of the amulet meant to keep any spirit from possessing him.
Now Lizzie took another step toward him. “I don’t think you understand what you’ve done.” She bit out each word as if chewing them in her rage.
He stared at the occult journals for sale in the corner. Half of them were rubbish, but clients loved them. “I’m sorry I forgot. Did you do a bit of spirit writing for them?”
“Yes, but it wasn’t what they wanted.” Lizzie stepped closer yet again, the hem of her skirt brushing against his boots. “It wasn’t what they paid for. They won’t be coming back, and they’ll tell their friends to avoid us as well. Do you want to end up on the streets again?”
“Don’t you ‘Lizzie’ me!” She jabbed a finger into his chest hard enough to make him wince. “I’ve tried to be patient. I have. But this business can’t survive if I’m the only one doing any work.”
“I work,” he objected.
“Sweeping the floors? Straightening the displays? Posting flyers around town?” She turned from him in disgust. “I can hire any urchin off the street to do the same thing at a fraction of the price.”
He took a deep breath, but couldn’t argue with her. “Maybe you should.”
“We might have made something of this store. Made Dunne proud.” Lizzie sank into the chair at her reading table, staring into the crystal ball perched on its brass stand. “Instead, we’ve let everything he built fall apart.”
Vincent wanted to close his eyes, but if he did, he’d only see Dunne’s lifeless face. Instead he sat across from Lizzie, in the client’s chair. “Not we. Me. I’m the one to blame.”
“We’re going to lose the shop—his shop—if something doesn’t change.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to be sorry—I want you to be the way you were! Vincent Night, medium extraordinaire. Able to sense a spirit even when it didn’t want to communicate. The best conduit we’d ever seen.” She sighed and gave him a sad look. “I know this is hard, Vincent. But you can’t just pretend you’re not a medium any more.”
He resisted the urge to touch his amulet through his shirt, if only to reassure himself it was still there. “I’m not.”
She rose to her feet. He started to stand as well, but she signaled for him to stay put. Going to the counter, she shuffled some papers, then returned and laid a single sheet of paper on the table. “This came on Saturday. Read it.”
Now deeply confused, he picked up the letter. The paper was of good quality, heavy and thick, and bore a crest at the top.
Dear Miss Devereaux,
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dominic Gladfield, of Syracuse, New York. My niece, Miss Wilma Prandle, recently visited your shop concerning the matter of a missing will.
Vincent vaguely recalled Miss Prandle. “She had part of the will, yes? But a page had been lost?”
Lizzie nodded. “Correct.” In addition to automatic writing, Lizzie had a talent for psychometry. Objects spoke to her of those who had once used them, allowing her to find the page easily enough.
I’m sure it will come as no surprise for you to learn that the missing page was in the precise location you named. Wilma is very impressed by your work and has championed you to me for a small experiment I wish to conduct.
“Experiment?” Vincent asked.
I find myself in possession of an older house in upstate New York. While uninhabited for some time, the building is sound and could profitably be converted into a luxury resort to rival those in Newport. There is, however, one small problem. The house is haunted.
I recently encountered a gentlemen who proposed the novel idea that science, specifically the branch concerned with electromagnetism, can replace the medium in the matter of spirit communication and the laying of troublesome ghosts. He assures me his Electro-Séance will transform your industry, if I may term it so.
Naturally such a challenge can only be met on the field. To that end, I have a proposal. If you are agreeable, you and any assistants will join me at the haunted property on January 9th. I will send train tickets and arrange for all transportation. The scientific gentleman and his assistants will do the same, and my niece, my valet, and I will join you. There we will pit machine against medium, science against spiritualism. Whichever of you is able to successfully exorcise the house will receive a reward of $500.00 and my continued patronage.
If this is agreeable to you, please wire as soon as you receive this letter, and I will set things in motion.