IS THERE ANYBODY THERE?
Kim Newman is an English novelist, critic, and broadcaster. His fiction includes The Night Mayor, Bad Dreams, Jago, the Anno Dracula novels and stories, The Quorum, The Original Dr. Shade and Other Stories, Life’s Lottery, Back in the USSA (with Eugene Byrne) and The Man From the Diogenes Club under his own name, and The Vampire Genevieve and Orgy of the Blood Parasites as Jack Yeovil. Johnny Alucard, the fourth Anno Dracula novel, appeared in 2012; his upcoming novel will be An English Ghost Story. This story was originally published in The New English Library Book of Internet Stories (edited by Maxim Jakubowski) in 2000.
“Is there a presence?” asked Irene.
The parlour was darker and chillier than it had been moments ago. At the bottoms of the heavy curtains, tassels stirred like the fronds of a deep-sea plant. Irene Dobson – Madame Irena, to her sitters – was alert to tiny changes in a room that might preface the arrival of a visitor from beyond the veil. The fizzing and dimming of still-untrusted electric lamps, so much less impressive than the shrinking and bluing of gaslight flames she remembered from her earliest seances. A clamminess in the draught, as foglike cold rose from the carpeted floor. The minute crackle of static electricity, making hair lift and pores prickle. The tart taste of pennies in her mouth.
“Is there a traveller from afar?” she asked, opening her inner eye.
The planchette twitched. Miss Walter-David’s fingers withdrew in a flinch; she had felt the definite movement. Irene glanced at the no-longer-young woman in the chair beside hers, shrinking away for the moment. The fear-light in the sitter’s eyes was the beginning of true belief. To Irene, it was like a tug on a fishing line, the satisfying twinge of the hook going in. This was a familiar stage on the typical sitter’s journey from scepticism to fanaticism. This woman was wealthy; soon, Irene would taste not copper but silver, eventually gold.
Wordlessly, she encouraged Miss Walter-David to place her fingertips on the planchette again, to restore balance. Open on the round table before them was a thin sheet of wood, hinged like an oversized chessboard. Upon the board’s smoothly papered and polished surface was a circle, the letters of the alphabet picked out in curlicue. Corners were marked for YES – “oui”, “ja” – and NO. The planchette, a pointer on marble castors, was a triangular arrowhead-shape. Irene and Miss Walter-David lightly touched fingers to the lower points of the planchette, and the tip quivered.
“Is there anybody there?” Miss Walter-David asked.
This sitter was bereft of a fiancé, an officer who had come through the trenches but succumbed to influenza upon return to civilian life. Miss Walter-David was searching for balm to soothe her sense of hideous unfairness, and had come at last to Madame Irena’s parlour.
The planchette moved, sharply. Miss Walter-David hissed in surprise. Irene felt the presence, stronger than usual, and knew it could be tamed. She was no fraud, relying on conjuring tricks, but her understanding of the world beyond the veil was very different than that which she wished her sitters to have. All spirits could be made to do what she wished them to do. If they thought themselves grown beyond hurt, they were sorely in error. The planchette, genuinely independent of the light touches of medium and sitter, stabbed towards a corner of the board, but stopped surprisingly short.
Not YES, but the Y of the circular alphabet. The spirits often used initials to express themselves, but Madame had never encountered one who neglected the convenience of the YES and NO corners. She did not let Miss Walter-David see her surprise.
“Have you a name?”
Y again. Not YES. Was Y the beginning of a name: Youngman, Yokohama, Ysrael?
“What is it?” she was almost impatient.
The planchette began a circular movement, darting at letters, using the lower tips of the planchette as well as the pointer. That also was unusual, and took an instant or two to digest.
M S T R M N D
“Msstrrmnnd,” said Miss Walter-David.
Irene understood. “Have you a message for anyone here, Master Mind?”
“For Ursula?” Miss Walter-David’s christian name was Ursula.
“You,” said Miss Walter-David. “You.”
This was not a development Irene liked a bit.
* * *
There were two prospects in his Chat Room. Women, or at least they said they were. Boyd didn’t necessarily believe them. Some users thought they were clever.
Boyd was primarily MstrMnd, but had other log-in names, some male, some female, some neutral. For each ISDN line, he had a different code name and e-address, none traceable to his physical address. He lived OnLine, really; this flat in Highgate was just a place to store the meat. There was nothing he couldn’t get by playing the web, which responded to his touch like a harpsichord to a master’s fingers. There were always backdoors.
His major female ident was Caress, aggressively sexual; he imagined her as a porn site Cleopatra Jones, a black model with dom tendencies. He kept a more puritanical, shockable ident – SchlGrl – as back-up, to cut in when Caress became too outrageous.
These two users weren’t tricky, though. They were clear. Virgins, just the way he liked them. He guessed they were showing themselves nakedly to the Room, with no deception.
Their messages typed out laboriously, appearing on his master monitor a word at a time. He initiated searches, to cough up more on their handles. His system was smart enough to come up with a birth-name, a physical address, financial details and, more often than not, a .jpg image from even the most casually-assumed one-use log-on name. Virgins never realised that their presences always left ripples. Boyd knew how to piggyback any one of a dozen official and unofficial trackers, and routinely pulled up information on anyone with whom he had even the most casual, wary dealings.
IRENE D: Have you a message for anyone here, Master Mind?
Boyd stabbed a key.
IRENE D: For whom?
IRENE D: For Ursula?
IRENE D: U?
URSULA W-D: You.
At least one of them got it. IRENE D – why didn’t she tag herself ID or I-D? – was just slow. That didn’t matter. She was the one Boyd had spotted as a natural. Something about her blank words gave her away. She had confidence and ignorance, while her friend – they were in contact, maybe even in the same physical room – at least understood she knew nothing, that she had stepped into deep space and all the rules were changed. IRENE D – her log-on was probably a variant on the poor girl’s real name – thought she was in control. She would unravel very easily, almost no challenge at all.
A MESSAGE FOR U I-D, he typed.
He sat on a reinforced swivel chair with optimum back support and buttock-spread, surveying a semi-circle of keyboards and monitors all hooked up to separate lines and accounts, all feeding into the master-monitor. When using two or more idents, he could swivel or roll from board to board, taking seconds to chameleon-shift. He could be five or six people in any given minute, dazzle a solo into thinking she – and it almost always was a she – was in a buzzing Chat Room with a lively crowd when she was actually alone with him, growing more vulnerable with each stroke and line, more open to his hooks and grapples, her backdoors flapping in the wind.
I KNOW WHO U ARE
Always a classic. Always went to the heart.
He glanced at the leftmost screen. Still searching. No details yet. His system was usually much faster than this. Nothing on either of them, on IRENE or URSULA. They couldn’t be smart enough to cover their traces in the web, not if they were really as newbie as they seemed. Even a netshark ace would have been caught by now. And these girls were fighting nowhere near his weight. Must be a glitch. It didn’t matter.
I KNOW WHAT U DO
Not DID, but DO. DID is good for specifics, but DO suggests something ongoing, some hidden current in an ordinary life, perhaps unknown even to the user.
U R NOT WHAT U CLAIM 2 B
That was for sure.
* * *
U R NOT WHAT U CLAIM 2 B
“You are not what you claim to be?” interpreted Miss Walter-David. She had become quickly skilled at picking out the spirit’s peculiar, abbreviated language. It was rather irritating, thought Irene. She was in danger of losing this sitter, of becoming the one in need of guidance.
There was something odd about Master Mind. He – it was surely a he – was unlike other spirits, who were mostly vague children. Everything they spelled out was simplistic, yet ambiguous. She had to help them along, to tease out from the morass of waffle whatever it was they wanted to communicate with those left behind, or more often to intuit what it was her sitters wanted or needed most to hear and to shape her reading of the messages to fit. Her fortune was built not on reaching the other world, but in manipulating it so that the right communications came across. No sitter really wanted to hear a loved one had died a meaningless death and drifted in limbo, gradually losing personality like a cloud breaking up. Though, occasionally, she had sitters who wanted to know that those they had hated in life were suffering properly in the beyond and that their miserable post-mortem apologies were not accepted. Such transactions disturbed even her, though they often proved among the most rewarding financially.
Now, Irene sensed a concrete personality. Even through almost-coded, curt phrases, Master Mind was a someone, not a something. For the first time, she was close to being afraid of what she had touched.
Master Mind was ambiguous, but through intent rather than fumble-thinking. She had a powerful impression of him, from his self-chosen title: a man on a throne, head swollen and limbs atrophied, belly bloated like a balloon, framing vast schemes, manipulating lesser beings like chess-pieces. She was warier of him than even of the rare angry spirit she had called into her circle. There were defences against him, though. She had been careful to make sure of that.
“Ugly hell gapes”, she remembered from Dr Faustus. Well, not for her.
She thought Master Mind was not a spirit at all.
U R ALLONE
“You are all one,” interpreted Miss Walter-David. “Whatever can that mean?”
U R ALONE
That was not a cryptic statement from the beyond. Before discovering her “gift”, Irene Dobson had toiled in an insurance office. She knew a type-writing mistake when she saw one.
U R AFRAID
“You are af—”
“Yes, Miss Walter-David, I understand.”
“And are you?”
“Not any more. Master Mind, you are a most interesting fellow, yet I cannot but feel you conceal more than you reveal. We are all, at our worst, alone and afraid. That is scarcely a great insight.”
It was the secret of her profession, after all.
“Are you not also alone and afraid?”
“Let me put it another way.”
She pressed down on the planchette, and manipulated it, spelling out in his own language.
R U NOT ALSO ALONE AND AFRAID
She would have added a question mark, but the ouija board had none. Spirits never asked questions, just supplied answers.
* * *
IRENE D was sharper than he had first guessed. And he still knew no more about her. No matter.
Boyd rolled over to the next keyboard.
U TELL HIM GRRL BCK OFF CREEP
IRENE D: Another presence? How refreshing. And you might be?
IRENE D: Another spirit?
Presence? Spirit? Was she taking the piss?
UH HUH SPIRT THAT’S THE STUFF SHOW THAT PIG U CAN STAND UP 4 YRSELF
IRENE D: Another presence, but the same mode of address. I think your name might be Legion.
Boyd knew of another netshark who used Legion as a log-on. IRENE D must have come across him too. Not the virgin she seemed, then. Damn.
His search still couldn’t penetrate further than her simple log-on. By now, he should have her mother’s maiden name, her menstrual calendar, the full name of the first boy she snogged at school and a list of all the porn sites she had accessed in the last week.
He should close down the Room, seal it up forever and scuttle away. But he was being challenged, which didn’t happen often. Usually, he was content to play a while with those he snared, scrambling their heads with what he had found out about them as his net-noose drew tauter around them. Part of the game was to siphon a little from their bank accounts: someone had to pay his phone and access bills, and he was damned if he should cough up by direct debit like some silly little newbie. But mostly it was for the sport.
In the early days, he had been fond of co-opting idents and flooding his playmates’ systems with extreme porn or placing orders in their names for expensive but embarrassing goods and services. That now seemed crude. His current craze was doctoring and posting images. If IRENE D was married, it would be interesting to direct her husband to, say, a goat sex site where her face was convincingly overlaid upon an enthusiastic animal-lover’s body. And it was so easy to mock up mug shots, complete with guilty looks and serial numbers, to reveal an ineptly-suppressed criminal past (complete with court records and other supporting documentation) that would make an employer think twice about keeping someone on the books. No one ever bothered to double-check by going back to the paper archives before they downsized a job.
Always, he would leave memories to cherish; months later, he would check up on his net-pals – his score so far was five institutionalisations and two suicides – just to see that the experience was still vivid. He was determined to crawl into IRENE D’s skull and stay there, replicating like a virus, wiping her hard drive.
URSULA W-D: Do you know Frank? Frank Conynghame-Mars.
Where did that come from? Still, there couldn’t be many people floating around with a name like that. Boyd shut off the fruitless backdoor search, and copied the double-barrel into an engine. It came up instantly with a handful of matches. The first was an obituary from 1919, scanned into a newspaper database. A foolish virgin had purchased unlimited access to a great many similar archives, which was now open to Boyd. A local newspaper, the Ham&High. He was surprised. It was the World Wide Web after all. This hit was close to home – maybe only streets away – if eighty years back. He looked over the obit, and took a flyer.
DEAD OF FLU
URSULA W-D: Yes. She knows Frank, Madame Irena. A miracle. Have you a message from Frank? For Ursula?
Boyd speed-read the obit. Frank Conynghame-Mars, “decorated in the late conflict’, etc. etc. Dead at thirty-eight. Engaged to a Miss Ursula Walter-David, of this parish. Could the woman be still alive? She would have to be well over a hundred.
He launched another search. Ursula Walter-David
Three matches. One the Conynghame-Mars obit he already had up. Second, an article from something called The Temple, from 1924 – a publication of the Spiritualist Church. Third, also from the Ham&High archive, her own obit, from 1952.
Zoiks, Scooby – a ghost!
This was an elaborate sting. Had to be.
He would string it along, to give him time to think.
U WIL BE 2GETHER AGAIN 1952
The article from The Temple was too long and close-printed to read in full while his formidable attention was divided into three or four windows. It had been scanned in badly, and not all of it was legible. The gist was a testimonial for a spiritualist medium called Madame Irena (no last-name given). Among her “sitters”, satisfied customers evidently, was Ursula Walter-David.
Weird. Boyd suspected he was being set up. He didn’t trust the matches. They must be plants. Though he couldn’t see the joins, he knew that with enough work he could run something like this – had indeed done so, feeding prospects their own mocked-up obits with full gruesome details – to get to someone. Was this a vengeance crusade? If so, he couldn’t see where it was going.
He tried a search on “Madame Irena” and came up with hundreds of matches, mostly French and porn sites. A BD/SM video titled The Lash of Madame Irena accounted for most of the matches. He tried pairing “+Madame Irena” with “+spiritualist” and had a more manageable fifteen matches, including several more articles from The Temple.
URSULA W-D: Is Frank at peace?
He had to sub-divide his concentration, again. He wasn’t quite ambidextrous, but could pump a keyboard with either hand, working shift keys with his thumbs, and split his mind into segments, eyes rolling independently like a lizard’s, to follow several lines.
FRANK IS OVER HIS SNIFFLES
Among the “Madame Irena”/“medium” matches was a Journal of the Society of Psychical Research piece from 1926, shout-lined “Fraudulence Alleged”. He opened it up, and found from a news-in-brief snippet that a court case was being prepared against one “Irene Dobson”, known professionally as “Madame Irena”, for various malpractices in connection with her work as a spirit medium. One Catriona Kaye, a “serious researcher”, was quoted as being “in no doubt of the woman’s genuine psychical abilities but also sure she had employed them in an unethical, indeed dangerous, manner”.
Another match was a court record. He opened it: a declaration of the suit against Irene Dobson. Scrolling down, he found it frustratingly incomplete. The document set out what was being tried, but didn’t say how the case came out. A lot of old records were like that, incompletely scanned. Usually, he only had current files to open and process. He looked again at the legal rigmarole, and his eye was caught by Irene Dobson’s address.
The Laburnums, Feldspar Road, Highgate.
This was 26, Feldspar Road. There were big bushes outside. If he ran a search for laburnum.jpg, he was sure he’d get a visual match.
Irene Dobson lived in this house.
No, she had lived in this house. In the 1920s, before it was converted into flats. When it had a name, not a number.
Now she was dead.
Whoever was running this on Boyd knew where he lived. He was not going to take that.
* * *
“This new presence,” said Miss Walter-David. “It’s quite remarkable.”
There was no new presence, no “Caress”. Irene would have felt a change, and hadn’t. This was one presence with several voices. She had heard of such. Invariably malign. She should call an end to the seance, plead fatigue. But Ursula Walter-David would never come back, and the husbandless woman had a private income and nothing to spend it on but the beyond. At the moment, she was satisfied enough to pay heavily for Irene’s service. She decided to stay with it, despite the dangers. Rewards were within reach. She was determined, however, to treat this cunning spirit with extreme caution. He was a tiger, posing as a pussycat. She focused on the centre of the board, and was careful with the planchette, never letting its points stray beyond the ring of letters.
“Caress,” said Miss Walter-David, a-tremble, “may I speak with Frank?”
“Caress” was supposed to be a woman, but Irene thought the first voice – “Master Mind” – closer to the true personality.
“Why 1952? It seems a terribly long way off.”
WHEN U DIE
That did it. Miss Walter-David pulled away as if bitten. Irene considered: it seemed only too likely that the sitter had been given the real year of her death. That was a cruel stroke, typical of the malign spirit.
The presence was a prophet. Irene had heard of a few such spirits – one of the historical reasons for consulting mediums was to discern the future – but never come across one. Could it be that the spirits had true foreknowledge of what was to come? Or did they inhabit a realm outside time and could look in at any point in human history, future as well as past, and pass on what they saw?
Miss Walter-David was still impressed. But less pleased.
The planchette circled, almost entirely of its own accord. Irene could have withdrawn her fingers, but the spirit was probably strong enough to move the pointer without her. It certainly raced ahead of her push. She had to keep the planchette in the circle.
Now she was frightened, but also annoyed. A private part of her person had been exposed. This was an insult and an attack.
“Who’s Dobson?” asked Miss Walter-David.
“It is my name,” Irene admitted. “That’s no secret.”
“Where are you?” she asked.
HERE THERE EVERYWHERE
“No, here and there perhaps. But not everywhere.”
This was a strange spirit. He had aspirations to omnipotence, but something about him was overreaching. He called himself “Master Mind”, which suggested a streak of self-deluding vanity. Knowledge wasn’t wisdom. She had a notion that if she asked him to name this year’s Derby winner, he would be able to furnish the correct answer
(an idea with possibilities)
but that he could reveal precious little of what came after death. An insight struck her: this was not a departed spirit, this was a living man.
Living. But where?
“What date is it?” she asked.
* * *
Since this must be a sting, there was no harm in the truth.
JAN 20 01
IRENE D: 1901?
URSULA W-D: I thought time had no meaning in the world beyond.
IRENE D: That depends which world beyond our guest might inhabit.
Boyd had run searches on “Irene Dobson” and his own address, independent and cross-matching. Too many matches were coming up. He wished more people had names like “Frank Conynghame-Mars” and fewer like “Irene Dobson”. “Boyd Waylo”, his birth-name, was a deep secret; his accounts were all in names like “John Barrett” and “Andrew Lee”.
Beyond the ring of monitors, his den was dark. This was the largest room in what had once been a Victorian town-house, and was now divided into three flats. Was this where “Madame Irena” had held her seances? His raised ground-floor flat might encompass the old parlour.
He was supposed to believe he was in touch with the past.
One of the “Irene Dobson” matches was a .jpg. He opened the picture file, and looked into a small, determined face. Not his type, but surprising and striking. Her hair was covered by a turban and she wore a Chinese-style jacket, buttoned up to the throat. She looked rather prosperous, and was smoking a black cigarette in a long white holder. The image was from 1927. Was that when she was supposed to be talking to him from?
WHAT DATE 4 U
IRENE D: January 13, 1923. Of course.
Maybe he was supposed to bombard her with questions about the period, to try and catch her out in an anachronism. But he had only general knowledge: Prohibition in America, a General Strike in Britain, talking pictures in 1927, the Lindbergh flight somewhere earlier, the stock market crash a year or two later, Thoroughly Modern Millie and P.G. Wodehouse. Not a lot of use. He couldn’t even remember who was Prime Minister in January, 1923. He could get answers from the net in moments, though; knowing things was pointless compared with knowing how to find things out. At the moment, that didn’t help him.
Whoever these women were – or rather, whoever this IRENE D was, for URSULA W-D plainly didn’t count – he was sure that they’d have the answers for any questions he came up with.
What was the point of this?
He could get to IRENE D. Despite everything, he had her. She was in his Room; she was his prey and meat and he would not let her challenge him.
I C U
* * *
I C U
I see you.
Irene thought that was a lie, but Master Mind could almost certainly hear her. Though, as with real spirits, she wondered if the words came to him as human sounds or in some other manner.
The parlour was almost completely dark, save for a cone of light about the table.
Miss Walter-David was terrified, on the point of fleeing. That was for the best, but there was a service Irene needed of her.
She did not say it out loud, for “Master Mind” would hear.
He said he could see, but she thought she could conceal her hand from him.
It was an awkward move. She put the fingers of her left hand on the shivering planchette, which was racing inside the circle, darting at the letters, trying to break free.
I C U ID
I C U R FRIT
She slipped a pocket-book out of her cardigan, opened it one-handed and pressed it to her thigh with the heel of her hand while extracting the pencil from the spine with her fingernails. It was not an easy thing to manage.
U R FRIT AND FRAUD
This was just raving. She wrote a note, blind. She was trusting Miss Walter-David to read her scrawl. It was strange what mattered.
“This is no longer Caress,” she said, trying to keep her voice steady. “Have we another visitor?”
2TRU IM SNAKE
“Im? Ah-ha, “I’m”. Snake? Yet another speaker of this peculiar dialect, with unconventional ideas about spelling.”
Miss Walter-David was backing away. She was out of her seat, retreating into darkness. Irene offered her the pocket-book, opened to the message. The sitter didn’t want to take it. She opened her mouth. Irene shook her head, shushing her. Miss Walter-David took the book, and peered in the dark. Irene was afraid the silly goose would read out loud, but she at least half-understood.
On a dresser nearby was a tea-tray, with four glasses of distilled water and four curls of chain. Bicycle chain, as it happened. Irene had asked Miss Walter-David to bring the tray to the ouija table.
“Snake, do you know things? Things yet to happen?”
“A useful accomplishment.”
There was a clatter. Miss Walter-David had withdrawn. Irene wondered if she would pay for the seance. She might. After all, there had been results. She had learned something, though nothing to make her happy.
“Miss Walter-David will die in 1952?”
Back to Y. She preferred that to 2TRU and 2RIT.
“Pneumonia, thank you.”
Her arm was getting worn out, dragged around the circle. Her shoulder ached. Doing this one-handed was not easy. She had already set out the glasses at the four points of the compass, and was working on the chains. It was important that the ends be dipped in the glasses to make the connections, but that the two ends in each glass not touch. This was more like physics than spiritualism, but she understood it made sense.
“What else do you know?”
U R FRAUD
“I don’t think so. Tell me about the future. Not 2001. The useful future, within the next five or ten years.”
STOK MRKT CRSH 29
“That’s worth knowing. You can tell me about stocks and shares?”
It was a subject of which she knew nothing, but she could learn. She had an idea that there were easier and less obtrusive fortunes to be made there than in Derby winners. But she would get the names out of him, too.
The presence was less frisky, sliding easily about the circle, not trying to break free.
“This year’s Derby?”
* * *
A simple search (+Epsom +Derby +winner +1923 -Kentucky) had no matches; he took out -Kentucky, and had a few hits, and an explanation. Papyrus, the 1923 winner, was the first horse to run in both the Epsom and Kentucky Derby races, though the nag lost in the States, scuppering a possible chance for a nice long-shot accumulator bet if he really was giving a woman from the past a hot tip on the future. Boyd fed that all to IRENE D, still playing along, still not seeing the point. She received slowly, as if her system were taking one letter at a time.
Click. It wasn’t a monitor. It was a ouija board.
That was what he was supposed to think.
IRENE D: I’m going to give you another name. I should like you to tell me what you know of this man.
IRENE D: Anthony Tallgarth. Also, Basil and Florence Tallgarth.
He ran multiple searches and got a cluster of matches, mostly from the 20s – though there were birth and death announcements from the 1860s through to 1968 – and, again, mostly from the Ham&High. He picked one dated February 2, 1923, and opened the article.
TYCOON FINDS LOST SON.
IRENE D: Where is Anthony? Now.
According to the article, Anthony was enlisted in the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman, under the name of T.A. Meredith, stationed at Portsmouth and due to ship out aboard the HMS Duckett. He had parted from his wealthy parents after a scandal and a quarrel – since the brat had gone into the Navy, Boyd bet he was gay – but been discovered through the efforts of a “noted local spiritualist and seeress”. A reconciliation was effected.
He’d had enough of this game. He wasn’t going to play any more.
He rolled back in his chair, and hit an invisible wall.
IRENE D: I should tell you, Master Mind, that you are bound. With iron and holy water. I shall extend your circle, if you co-operate.
He tried reaching out, through the wall, and his hand was bathed with pain.
IRENE D: I do not know how you feel, if you can feel, but I will wager that you do not care for that.
It was as if she was watching him. Him!
IRENE D: Now, be a good little ghostie and tell me what I wish to know.
With his right hand lodged in his left armpit as the pain went away, he made keystrokes with his left hand, transferring the information she needed. It took a long time, a letter at a time.
IRENE D: There must be a way of replacing this board with a type-writer. That would be more comfortable for you, would it not?
FO, he typed.
A lash at his back, as the wall constricted. She had understood that. Was that a very 1923 womanly quality?
IRENE D: Manners, manners. If you are good to me, I shall let you have the freedom of this room, maybe this floor. I can procure longer chains.
He was a shark in a play-pool, furious and humiliated and in pain. And he knew it would last.
* * *
Mr and Mrs Tallgarth had been most generous. She could afford to give Master Mind the run of the parlour, and took care to refresh his water-bindings each day. This was not a task she would ever entrust to the new maid. The key to the parlour was about Irene’s person at all times.
People would pay to be in contact with the dead, but they would pay more for other services, information of more use in the here and now. And she had a good line on all manner of things. She had been testing Master Mind, and found him a useful source about a wide variety of subjects, from the minutiae of any common person’s life to the great matters which were to come in the rest of the century.
Actually, knowing which horse would win any year’s Derby was a comparatively minor advantage. Papyrus was bound to be the favourite, and the race too famous for any fortune to be made. She had her genie working on long-shot winners of lesser races, and was sparing in her use of the trick. Bookmakers were the sort of sharp people she understood only too well, and would soon tumble to any streak of unnatural luck. From now on, for a great many reasons, she intended to be as unobtrusive as possible.
This morning, she had been making a will. She had no interest in the disposal of her assets after death, when she herself ventured beyond the veil, for she intended to make the most of them while alive. The entirety of her estate was left to her firm of solicitors on the unusual condition that, when she passed, no record or announcement of her death be made, even on her gravestone. It was not beyond possibility that she mightn’t make it to 2001, though she knew she would be gone from this house by then. From now on, she would be careful about official mentions of her name; to be nameless, she understood, was to be invisible to Master Mind, and she needed her life to be shielded from him as his was from her.
The man had intended her harm, but he was her genie now, in her bottle.
She sat at the table, and put her hands on the planchette, feeling the familiar press of resistance against her.
“Is there anybody there?”
“Temper temper, Master Mind. Today, I should like to know more about stocks and shares…”
* * *
Food was brought to him from the on-line grocery, handed over at the front door. He was a shut-in forever now. He couldn’t remember the last time he had stepped outside his flat; it had been days before IRENE D, maybe weeks. It wasn’t like he had ever needed to post a letter or go to a bank.
Boyd had found the chains. They were still here, fixed into the skirting boards, running under the doorway, rusted at the ends, where the water traps had been. It didn’t matter that the water had run out years ago. He was still bound.
Searches told him little more of Irene Dobson. At least he knew someone would have her in court in four years time – a surprise he would let her have – but he had no hopes that she would be impeded. He had found traces of her well into the 1960s, lastly a piece from 1968 that didn’t use her name but did mention her guiding spirit, “Master Mind”, to whom she owed so much over the course of her long and successful career as a medium, seeress and psychic sleuth.
From 1923 to 1968. Forty-five years. Realtime. Their link was constant, and he moved forward as she did, a day for a day.
Irene Dobson’s spirit guide had stayed with her at least that long.
Not forever. Forty-five years.
He had tried false information, hoping to ruin her – if she was cast out of her house (though she was still in it in 1927, he remembered) he would be free – but she always saw through it and could punish him.
He had tried going silent, shutting everything down. But he always had to boot up again, to be OnLine. It was more than a compulsion. It was a need. In theory, he could stop paying electricity and phone bills – rather, stop other people paying his – and be cut off eventually, but in theory he could stop himself breathing and suffocate. It just wasn’t in him. His meat had rarely left the house anyway, and as a reward for telling her about the extra-marital private habits of a husband whose avaricious wife was one of her sitters, she had extended his bindings to the hallway and – thank heavens – the toilet.
She had his full attention.
IRENE D: Is there anybody there?
Y DAMNIT Y