Voice From The Void
As the speaker stood on the tiger-skin hearth-rug droning on about hypnotism and reincarnation, Claude D'Arnot contemplated the gaslight's gleam on the man's bald head and gold-rimmed spectacles. "Recently I recovered the buried memories of a gifted subject who had served as a priestess in the temple of Dagon on the island-continent of Mu before its cataclysmic destruction..."
Claude, bored with the speech, let his eyes wander to the fur rug, complete with tail, paws, and head. His sympathies lay with the tiger, a solitary predator vastly outnumbered by both its natural prey and the human interlopers.
He shifted his attention to his own quarry, the medium, Violet, beside him on the divan. Flushing beneath his scrutiny, the young woman met his eyes for a second, then looked back at the speaker. Claude sensed Violet's skepticism--no wonder, considering her own role in the group--as well as her lack of interest in the lecture. She's disturbed about something. She radiated unease, reinforcing the message Claude read in her depressed skin temperature, erratic pulse, and shadowed aura.
Could this be the opening I've waited for? He'd watched her for weeks, his desire mounting, but he'd held back. He wanted more from her than a casual supper engagement. Why? What makes this one different from any other human female?
The medium's friend Harriet Harmon, seated on Claude's left, showed greater enthusiasm for the saga of ancient Mu, as did the other dozen or so people grouped around the drawing room. Miss Harmon leaned over to whisper in Claude's ear, "Isn't this fascinating?"
"Indeed," he murmured, waving away a maid who hovered nearby, offering a refill of his sherry.
Fascinating drivel. Among the countless people he'd mesmerized during his lifetime, not one had dropped a hint of a previous existence. But he had joined the Esoteric Order of Leviathan for entertainment, not its intellectual resources. More importantly, these occult societies made excellent hunting grounds. Women enthralled with the supernatural could easily be seduced into "ritual blood-sharing", so long as he clouded their minds to obscure the one-sided nature of the "sharing".
Claude had dabbled in several such cults, including that unsavory young fellow Crowley's circle, and the Leviathan devotees peddled the most imaginative brand of drivel he'd encountered. As far as he could untangle the threads of their doctrine, they taught that when the Elder Gods broke through from the void beyond the stars to lay waste the Earth, their faithful servants, as sole survivors, would be transformed into powerful inhuman creatures and rule the world. Those who had died before the glorious conquest would enjoy reincarnation in similarly monstrous guise. Why not? Sounds more exciting than a cloud-paved heaven with perpetual harp music. All the religions practiced by ephemerals struck Claude, who wavered between deism and frank agnosticism, as equally silly anyway.
A patter of applause interrupted his thoughts. The High Archon of the Order took the speaker's place in front of the hearth. "Thank you, Professor Rinaldo, for that most enlightening presentation. That concludes the public portion of this week's convocation." He chanted a benediction in what he claimed to be ancient Sumerian. For all Claude knew, it might be; it resembled no language he'd ever heard.
The Archon, a bony middle-aged man, clean-shaven except for a bushy mustache that matched his tufted eyebrows, wore an aquamarine robe and a bronze pectoral set with semiprecious stones. A bronze circlet of similar design adorned his high forehead and abundant iron-gray hair. Though he made cryptic claims to an aristocratic bloodline, the Archon was actually a former stage magician named Matthew McFadden. Claude had satisfied his curiosity on this and other points--for instance, the medium's identity as McFadden's orphaned niece, Violet Cade--the first night they'd met, afterwards making the cult leader forget the conversation. Not that Claude disapproved of the spiritualist; as a former actor and something of a trickster himself, he could appreciate a clever charlatan.
While the maid cleared away the sherry decanters and trays of sweet biscuits, the butler ushered the guests to the front hall. Claude, along with Professor Rinaldo and Miss Harmon, had the privilege of staying for the medium's private performance, the weekly seance. During that first interview with McFadden, he'd implanted an impression of himself as a scholar of the occult who deserved a place in the Order's inner circle.
Standing, Violet said to Claude, "Will you be joining us as usual, Mr. D'Arnot?"
He heard an atypical strain in her voice. Yes, something's bothering her tonight. Clad in a loose, white robe, with her chestnut hair unbound, showing golden highlights in the lamp's glow, she looked ethereally delicate. Claude knew the appearance belied the facts; she managed McFadden's correspondence and financial affairs as well as any hired secretary could have. Despite her cheerful cooperation in her uncle's spiritualist schemes, in other matters she retained her innocence. Claude suspected she had no idea of the erotic symbolism of the bronze ankh pendant she wore.
Her fleeting blush, evoked by his intent gaze, stirred his appetite. He had to restrain himself from touching her by a stern reminder that he had no socially acceptable excuse for doing so.
"You know I wouldn't miss it." He said more quietly, "Miss Cade, you seem troubled. Can I help?"
Violet's aura darkened, her smile fading. "There's no need." She cast a nervous glance toward her uncle, making his farewells to the uninitiated. "There's nothing wrong."
Without directly challenging the lie, Claude whispered, "Please keep in mind, if I can offer you any assistance, simply ask."
McFadden walked over to her. "Come along, Violet. It's past time to begin the sitting."
Violet flinched, though her uncle spoke softly. "Yes, I suppose so."
I've never seen her reluctant to participate before, Claude thought. And what has the man done to her? His own indignation at the idea of her being hurt surprised him. Feeling possessive about the girl already? Not a good sign.
McFadden headed for his study, where the "sittings" took place. Rinaldo, the hypnotist, followed, with Miss Harmon close behind. She said over her shoulder to Violet, "I can't wait--this is going to be so exciting."
The medium still hung back, gazing unhappily at her friend. So that's part of it. It's Miss Harmon's first time, and Violet has scruples about tricking her. Claude wondered why he didn't find Harriet Harmon irresistible; traits such as her intelligence and eccentricity usually appealed to him. She made a living as a journalist, scandalous enough in itself. She wore her own version of the Bloomer costume, a long tunic over billowy trousers, which most other suffragettes had abandoned. She openly advocated free love and quoted from the poetry of Baudelaire and Swinburne. Having attended one meeting of the Esoteric Order of Leviathan to write them up for the Society for Psychical Research, she'd lingered as, if not a convert, at least a sympathizer.
Yet Claude found himself fantasizing, instead, about Violet. He'd even begun dreaming about her. Since his kind seldom dreamed, certainly not with the sensuous clarity of the visions that had recently haunted his days, he couldn't deny how strongly the girl obsessed him. I have to get her out of my system. Or would this obsession yield to a night or two of dalliance? What is it about her? Maybe his fascination grew from the preoccupied frown with which she often stared at him, as if she saw something hidden from others. Dangerous, if so. I ought to run the other way.
When the group entered McFadden's study, a plump, white Persian cat with mismatched eyes, one golden and one blue, leaped down from the desk and twined around Claude's ankles. Once he had overcome her instinctive animal aversion to him, the cat, Ishtar, had become his devoted friend. He bent to stroke her while McFadden directed the others to the circular table in the center of the room. The only illumination came from a pair of tapers on the desk; according to the Archon, too much light disrupted the "astral vibrations". With an obvious ploy like that, how does he manage to gull so many victims? And people think of our kind as rapacious!
Besides the candles, the desk held a mummified cat, still in its tea-brown wrappings, and a green statuette about a foot high. The sculpture represented a crouching, taloned, bat-winged, tentacled figure with a vaguely humanoid visage. The table reserved for the "sitting" bore a silver chalice, with a silver-bladed dagger lying diagonally beside it, representing the feminine and masculine polarities, though of course McFadden would not be so indelicate as to make the symbolism explicit.
The occultist nodded impatiently to Claude. "Mr. D'Arnot, perhaps you'll join us so we may begin."
"Certainly, I beg your pardon." Ishtar jumped up to her usual vantage point, the top of a bookcase. Claude took his seat between Violet and Miss Harmon.
"Please join hands," McFadden commanded in his sonorous stage voice, "and remember, whatever you see or hear, do not break the circle. Discarnate entities are both sensitive and capricious. Now, we require silence for the medium's concentration. You can aid Violet's entry into trance by breathing deeply and projecting tranquility to her."
When Claude's fingers closed around Violet's slender wrist, his fingertips on the pulse point, he gave little thought to discarnate entities. The thoroughly incarnate woman at his right side held his attention, even to the exclusion of the equally healthy female on his left. The tiny hairs in his palm bristled at Violet's touch. Again he noticed that her skin was cooler than normal, and she stiffened as the others obediently relaxed into the deep-breathing exercises the leader modeled in gusty sighs. Why this apprehension? Just because of her friend's presence? She usually treats the whole process as an entertaining charade.
After a couple of minutes of silence, aside from the sitters' breathing, like the rush of surf on sand to Claude's sensitive ears, McFadden judged the moment ripe for a message from the "other side". Three sharp raps crackled through the air. Claude saw Rinaldo start and almost snatch his hand from McFadden's. "Good God, what was--"
"Silence!" the leader hissed. A louder rap punctuated the command.
Claude knew the origin of the noises; after the first seance he'd attended, he'd hypnotically induced McFadden to explain the tricks. The Archon wore no implements under his clothes and therefore had nothing to fear from a skeptic's search. Instead, McFadden produced the sounds by cracking his toe joints, a skill, Claude understood, possessed by many spiritualists.
"Is anyone present?" McFadden intoned.
Another minute or two of silence ensued. Claude sensed McFadden's annoyance. Violet wasn't following the script. Her fingers convulsively tightened on his. He gave her a reassuring squeeze in return.
"Is anyone here? Please reveal yourself to us. We are all sympathetic and open to your presence." A longer succession of taps.
At last Violet emitted a low moan. Her blue eyes widened in an entranced gaze that made her look almost childlike. McFadden chose well; how could anyone suspect such an innocent maiden of fraud? Her head rolled languidly from side to side, with parted lips and a feverish blush. Claude didn't know whether the pink tint arose naturally from her exertions or whether she was one of those rare ephemerals with some control over involuntary body functions. Either way, he enjoyed the effect.
"Yes, speak to us," McFadden said. "Do not be afraid. Span the gulf between this world and the next, and appear before us."
More raps. Another moan from the medium. A glowing vapor began to coalesce above the center of the table. Both Rinaldo and Miss Harmon gasped. Claude had to admit he'd been impressed, too, when he'd first seen the phosphorescent cloud. McFadden produced it by stepping on a trigger underneath the Oriental carpet, activating a device inside the table. For the "ectoplasm" he had to rely on mechanical aids, risking discovery, but so far no observer had insisted on peeling up the carpet or dismantling the furniture. McFadden did have in his favor the conspicuous absence of the cabinet most physical mediums used; his seance room looked like a respectable gentleman's study.
"Who is there? Do you have a message for one of our number?"
Violet gave a hollow groan. Why isn't she delivering the message, whatever that may be?
"Speak, we await you," said McFadden. Even the other ephemerals, Claude reflected, should sense his impatience.
"Rinaldo," Violet sighed. The hypnotist jerked up his head. "Your work--" She exhaled a long breath, as if drawing the words from a deep well. "Sophia is here. She is watching over your work."
"Sophia! Oh, my God!"
"Who is she?" said McFadden in a soft, solicitous voice.
"My daughter--died twelve years ago--fifteen years old."
McFadden had known that, of course. Like any confidence man, the occultist had his sources. He passed on the relevant information to Violet and coached her in its use.
The Archon said, "Please be quiet, Professor, lest you disrupt the ether."
"Sophia is well--happy--" Violet murmured.
That's what paying customers want to hear, Claude thought. Not that the Archon would be so crass to ask for money, but grateful mourners never failed to make donations to the Order. If they didn't do so spontaneously, the "spirits" dropped hints. Claude couldn't fathom this fad for believing that, while waiting to reincarnate, the dead hovered at the beck and call of "sensitives" like astral parlormaids. Well, maybe they do; what do I know about the post-mortem destiny of ephemerals?
Violet continued, "Your work brings great comfort to many. But take care with your gifts, lest you unleash powers beyond your ken."
Good advice for anyone dabbling in mesmerism, but judging from McFadden's frown, not what he'd instructed her to say.
She finished with, "Sophia watches over you and waits to rejoin you in the next incarnation. Be of good cheer." She slumped in her chair, miming exhaustion from the strain of the otherworldly powers surging through her.
The phosphorescent mist thickened, coalescing over the table like steam from a teakettle until each face was shrouded in an eerie, bluish-green veil. More cracklings and poppings sounded.
"Someone else is here," said McFadden. "Speak, we are listening!"
Violet gave a loud groan. Claude felt her hand quivering with tension.
"Yes, Violet, open yourself to the higher plane. Let the spirits emerge from the void beyond this world and deliver their message through you."
"Harriet Harmon," she breathed.
"Yes? You have a communication for Miss Harmon?"
That lady leaned forward, trying to peer around Claude at Violet without breaking their handclasp.
Claude felt Miss Harmon go rigid. Her father, he knew, had died four years previously. "Is he there?" she whispered.
Instead of answering, Violet threw back her head and writhed in her chair, as if fighting an invasion from beyond. The undulations of her slender body in the soft robe impressed Claude as blatantly erotic. Does she know that? Probably not; she's too upset about her friend.
"Do not resist the power," said McFadden. "Let the departed one speak through your mouth."
The medium let out a wail and collapsed, face down. Claude knew she wasn't unconscious, but Rinaldo and Miss Harmon accepted the "faint" as real.
Scowling in unconcealed disgust, McFadden stood. "Some hostile elemental is doubtless blocking the vibrations." He turned up the gaslight. "I apologize, Miss Harmon, for leaving you in suspense, but the spirits cannot be coerced."
"Never mind. It's Violet I'm concerned about." She propped up the medium, patting her face. "Someone ring for smelling salts."
Violet's eyes fluttered open. "No, that's all right. I'm fine now. I only need to rest." Between them, Claude and Miss Harmon helped her to her feet.
Effective performance, Claude thought, and if I were being threatened with a whiff of ammonia, I'd have a miraculous recovery, too.
"Violet should be fully recuperated by tomorrow night," said McFadden with a pointed stare at his niece. "Miss Harmon, if you'll return then, we can hold a private sitting for you. Perhaps the spirits will become more amenable." The anger simmering behind his solemn facade made Claude's nerves itch.
"I'd be very grateful." She patted her friend's shoulder. "Are you quite certain--?"
"I'm perfectly well. You go home now." Violet cast a look of silent appeal at Claude. He responded with a minute nod, wishing he could answer more openly.
McFadden rang for the butler to show out the guests.
Claude, bringing up the rear, cornered the butler in the foyer and said, "I left at the same time as the others. You may as well lock up for the night."
With an unwary subject, imprinting a false memory took no more effort than that. As soon as the servant's back was turned, Claude's presence forgotten, Claude invoked a psychic shield that shrouded him from human sight. Although a mirror or a kodak print would show his image, and animals could sense his presence, to human eyes he was virtually invisible.
He had no trouble finding McFadden and Violet. The man's angry shouts echoed through the house. With the cat, Ishtar, padding at his heels, Claude followed the noise to a closed door. When he eased it open, Ishtar slipped in ahead of him.
Violet, sitting on a divan in a stuffy parlor redolent of stale cigars, blinked at the sight of the door moving "by itself". Apparently deciding, though, that the cat had caused the phenomenon, she returned her gaze to her uncle.
McFadden loomed over her, his back to the entrance. "What's got into you, ye gormless chit?" A Scottish burr, usually disguised by his stage mannerisms, roughened his voice. "Why did ye not say the lines I gave you?"
"I won't do that to Harriet." Though her voice shook, she folded her arms and glared at him.
"I'm the master of this house! It's not your place to say what ye will and will not do!" He made an effort to rein his anger, though his aura still smoldered a dull red. "Come, lass, ye had no such quibbles all the other times."
"Harriet is my friend. I won't trick her out of money she can't spare or wring her heart with 'messages' from her dead father."
"Don't tell me what ye won't do! I've fed, clothed, and sheltered you these fifteen years. I have a right to some gratitude."
Violet sprang to her feet. "Gratitude doesn't go that far! I think I've repaid you more than--"
McFadden grabbed her shoulders and shook her. "Hold your peace while I'm speaking to you!"
She gave a choked gasp. On a table behind her, a tall vase vibrated momentarily, then toppled to the floor.
What was that? Claude wondered. The cat? I don't see--
He was distracted by a surge of fear from McFadden, accompanied by a hoarse shout. "Damn you, ye'll do as ye're told!" McFadden slapped Violet across the mouth.
Enough! Claude seized him and spun him around. Violet emitted a soft cry as Claude's psychic veil dissolved, rendering him visible. Only the fear in her eyes stopped him from hitting McFadden. And a good thing, too; I would probably break his neck.
"Listen to me, you worthless--" He couldn't think of an epithet that wouldn't shock Violet even worse. His eyes impaled McFadden's. "You will not strike your niece again. You will treat her with courtesy at all times. Now go to bed, and forget you saw me."
He shoved the occultist toward the door. McFadden hustled into the corridor.
When the sound of the man's footsteps faded up the stairs, Claude turned toward Violet, perched on the edge of the divan. She trembled, and the normal rosy glow of her aura was dimmed.
He sat beside her and took her hand before she could shrink from him. "Please don't be afraid, ma petite." He succumbed to the temptation to kiss her fingertips. "Everything is perfectly all right."
She stared at him intently. "I'm not afraid now. But I never saw you come in." That puzzled frown reappeared.
What does she see when she looks at me that way? "Don't worry about that." He stood up, still holding her hand. "Walk with me in the garden. I want to talk to you."
When she hesitated, he encouraged her with a gentle psychic caress, light as the brush of a feather. She nodded.
They met no servants on their way, emerging into the garden through the French doors of a back sitting room. The house, a Queen Anne style mansion bookended by red brick chimneys and liberally studded with gables, lay on the outskirts of London. It enjoyed the convenience of closeness to the city while avoiding the noise, the stink of garbage and horse droppings, and the sooty reek of the ubiquitous yellow fog. Instead, white roses festooning a nearby trellis perfumed the summer night air.
On the graveled path, Claude offered Violet his arm. Her body heat warmed him like a roaring fire in midwinter. He longed to draw her into an embrace, but in her agitated condition, he would have to override her will, an act he wanted to avoid. I don't want her as prey; I want her for a pet.
The thought stunned him. So that is what's the matter with me! He was bored with entranced victims; he craved a donor who could accept him with a clear mind, fully aware of his nature and his needs--as much as he chose to reveal. With unwitting prey, he didn't dare resort to a given donor more than once or twice. He obtained most of his modest but necessary doses of human blood (a supplement to the staple diet drained from horses, rats, and stray dogs) from music hall dancers and ladies of the evening. With Violet, it could be different. And in her case, he wanted to offer something in return for the vital fluid and psychic energy he feasted upon.
Something besides pleasure. That aspect went without saying. He sensed desire in the rise of her skin temperature, heard it in the quickening of her breath and heartbeat, even if propriety wouldn't allow her to recognize her own passion. The previous century, the time of Claude's youth, had taken a more sensible attitude toward the mating dance; a human male of that era would have guffawed at the notion that women felt no sexual impulses.
Well, before he could consider seducing Violet, he had to settle this problem with her uncle. "Miss Cade--may I call you Violet? After tonight, we needn't stand on formality, need we?"
"I suppose not--Claude." She swayed closer to him, her fingers tightening on his sleeve. For a second, he felt lightheaded.
Not now, he chastised himself. "Tell me about that argument with your uncle."
"Harriet has a small annual income, inherited from her father, enough to live on. That's why she can afford to write for the few newspapers that'll use her work--she doesn't earn enough to support herself. Not yet, anyway."
"And McFadden wants to get his hooks into that money, of course." They reached a stream rippling at the bottom of the garden. Claude guided Violet to a marble bench under a willow tree. "Forgive me for sounding like him, but why were you willing to play similar tricks on his other guests?"
"True, it wasn't honest," she said, "but it always seemed like a game to me. They're all rich people, or at least prosperous. I tell them what they want to hear, and Uncle Matthew never takes more than they can afford to lose--just a drop in the bucket, in most cases. He really isn't greedy."
Claude couldn't repress a derisive laugh.
"Really," she said. "He could have robbed them blind--some fake spiritualists do. I keep his books, so I know he isn't taking half the advantage he could."
"But it's different with Miss Harmon."
"I'm having second thoughts about the others, too. Poor Professor Rinaldo--" Violet shook her head. "But especially Harriet. I quarreled with Uncle Matthew about that earlier. Harriet's my friend. I can't lie to her, not when she joined the Order in good faith, out of scientific curiosity. And she can't afford to throw away money on Uncle Matthew's cult. She needs it to live on. What little she can spare, she donates to suffragist societies."
Claude cupped her right hand in both of his. "Why don't you simply leave your uncle? Is it money?"
She sighed. "You must think me awfully mercenary."
"Not at all. Please continue."
"That's exactly what Harriet thinks I should do, and she doesn't even know that, as a medium, I'm a fraud. She's invited me to move into her flat, but I can't live off her. I have no money of my own, not yet, anyway. Uncle Matthew has control of my inheritance until I turn thirty, and I'm only twenty-six." When Claude made no comment, she said, "Oh, it's easy enough to say I should earn my own living, but what skills do I have?"
"Granted," he said, "respectable employment agencies probably have few positions open for mediums."
She laughed at that, and her aura brightened. "I suppose I could become a governess or factory girl. Both of those choices sound awfully grim. Harriet suggested I write a book about my experiences with spiritualism. She doesn't know it would have to be an exposure of fraud, and I don't want to do that to Uncle Matthew, whatever his flaws."
Claude swallowed the impatient retort that sprang to mind. "Surely you don't agree with his self-serving argument that you 'owe' him."
"He did take me in when my parents died of scarlet fever," she said. "It couldn't have been easy for him, dealing with a girl of eleven. He has fed, sheltered, and clothed me all these years."
"Yes, compensated by free access to your trust fund!"
"Remember, I keep his accounts. I'm not completely naive. I would have noticed if he'd skimmed off an excessive amount. And even though he's harsh sometimes, he's never really hurt me."
"Oh, barring the occasional slap?" At her blank look, Claude decided not to pursue the issue. Ephemerals routinely "disciplined" their young in ways "lower" animals wouldn't dream of. "Forgive me for asking, but has he ever--" What's the currently acceptable euphemism? "Does he--interfere with you?"
"Oh, no!" Her astonished tone and hot blush convinced Claude of her sincerity. "Uncle Matthew was very patient with me when I first came to live with him. He didn't have this house then. He bought it a few years ago, when he started to make money. He lived in a small cottage, so it must have been even harder on him."
"Why? I can't imagine you as a difficult child." Sensing her reluctance to answer, he gave her another mental nudge.
She drew a deep breath. "Things--objects--flew through the air. It only started after I moved in with him." She gave Claude an appealing glance. "I hope you don't think I'm lying or mad."
So that explains the falling vase. "Certainly not. I've heard of such phenomena."
"At that time, I hadn't. I was frightened out of my wits. I thought the cottage was haunted. So did the housekeeper--she gave notice after the first week." Violet giggled. "It wasn't funny then. Next, I thought I was haunted. Uncle Matthew helped me get over my fears. Until he coaxed me out of it, I was sure I was possessed by a devil. Sometimes I still wonder." A shiver coursed through her. "That was what gave him the idea of training me as a medium. He was terribly disappointed that I couldn't make it happen on command. Then, after a couple of years, the whole thing stopped."
"Fascinating," said Claude. She doesn't realize the power still lies locked inside her mind. When he paused to reflect on the details, he had to choke down a snarl. "That bloody--pardon me, your uncle--used you in his confidence games when you were a mere child?"
Violet shrugged. "I was twelve when we started. It was better than slaving away like Jane Eyre. And as I said, I've always thought of it as a game. I was good at it. It helps that I can see--something--a halo of colored light around living things. Uncle Matthew calls it the etheric body."
Claude nodded. She can actually see the aura?
"I can use that to pick up people's feelings and adjust my spirit messages to fit."
"Indeed?" Excitement tingled up Claude's spine, along with a whisper of danger that he ignored. "I've never met anyone who can perceive--etheric bodies." No one human, that is.
She gazed intently at him, though she couldn't have discerned details in the moonlight. "You do believe me, don't you?"
"I'm so glad. I don't dare talk about it, not to ordinary people outside spiritualist circles. They'd think I was out of my mind."
"I know you aren't." He put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him instead of drawing away. The flutter of her pulse made his throat go dry.
"I shouldn't be surprised that you'd understand. The first time we met, I noticed how different your--halo--is."
"In what way?" So that's why she keeps staring at me.
"It's unique. I've never seen another one like it--streaked with velvet black and a sort of iridescent blue-violet."
"Interesting observation." Is it safe to have her noticing that? Confound it, I don't care! Now he knew why she enticed him. She sensed his difference, as few human females could. "And poetically phrased. Perhaps you should write a book."
"I already told you--"
"That you don't want to expose your uncle--though your reasoning still eludes me. But you don't have to. Join the Society for Psychical Research and use your background to expose other charlatans. Write novels based on your outre experiences. Live with your friend Miss Harmon and become a celebrated author."
She laughed at that but quickly sobered. "It sounds wonderful--once I get past the ordeal of explaining to Harriet that I'm a fake--but Uncle Matthew wouldn't let me go without a fight. It's not only the money--I know his secrets. And you've distracted me from the main problem. What about that seance he's planning for tomorrow night?"
"Leave that to me. I've acted onstage, and I have some skill in mesmerism." Both claims were true, though far from the whole truth. "You just make up with your uncle and convince him you've had a change of heart about tomorrow's performance. Then go into your trance act, put on a dramatic display of writhing and chanting--rather like the Delphic Oracle--and trust me for the rest. No matter how strange it may appear."
"What are you going to do?"
"It would be complicated to explain, and I prefer your reaction to be spontaneous." In fact, he wanted to leave matters vague in case she reacted so negatively that he had to erase her memory. "McFadden will know the--phenomena--I'll create aren't part of his own bag of tricks, and he won't realize I'm there. After the peculiar things that happened in your girlhood, he shouldn't be hard to convince that you have unplumbed occult depths. I plan to frighten him so thoroughly he'll give you whatever you demand and leave you alone afterward."
She shook her head. "It sounds quite incredible to me. But I do trust you--Claude."
Stroking her hair, he tilted her face toward him and lightly kissed her parted lips. She drew in a startled breath that, along with the fragrance of her skin, almost wrecked his fragile self-restraint.
Tomorrow night, damn it! This time I'll earn my reward before I take it. If he planned to treat her as a pet rather than a victim, he ought to practice adhering to human ethical standards. How else can I be honest with her? Or as honest as the situation permits, anyway.
* * * *
The next evening, Claude rode a hansom cab to McFadden's and ordered the driver to wait at a bend in the road just out of sight of the house. As soon as Claude was sure the cabby could no longer see him, he shrouded himself. Invisible to human eyes, he lurked near the front door until Harriet Harmon arrived, then glided inside with her.
Moments later, he was ensconced in the study, leaning against the bookcase, the psychic veil still intact. Ishtar, of course, knew of his presence. She rubbed against his trousers and meowed up at him with an insistence that would convince any susceptible observer of a ghostly presence. Petting her, he hushed her with a silent command. With an insulted flick of her plumed tail, she jumped onto her customary shelf.
McFadden escorted Violet and Harriet to their places at the circular table. "The astral energies are perfectly balanced tonight," he said. "I feel it. Don't you agree, Violet?"
Noting the occultist's imperious glower at Violet, Claude had to remind himself that ripping off the man's head would spoil the plan.
"Yes, I'm certain of it." Violet surveyed the study, obviously wondering how Claude could appear out of the woodwork in a room ostentatiously devoid of hiding places. He wished he could somehow reassure her.
"Then let us begin." The three of them joined hands and commenced the breathing exercises that supposedly cleared the channels for energies from the void beyond the earthly plane.
Claude waited for the spirit rappings with which McFadden always began the performance. They duly occurred within three or four minutes. Isn't he getting a trifle too predictable? Without Violet's talent, he'll wear out his repertoire in short order. He knows how much he needs her; that must be why he's controlling her so harshly.
"Is someone attempting to break through from the other side?" McFadden intoned. "Come forward and speak through the vessel prepared for you."
Violet emitted a keening cry. On cue, McFadden's foot pressed the button concealed under the carpet. Claude noticed the minute tension in the man's body and watched for his next reaction. When the phosphorescent cloud didn't appear, McFadden scowled at Violet, who lolled in her chair with eyes half closed, moaning. In the moment or two before the others had entered, Claude had gouged a tiny hole in the rug and disconnected the device.
McFadden, of course, likely thought Violet had sabotaged him, but he couldn't give away his own trick by accusing her in front of Harriet. Smoothing over his expression, he continued, "Emerge from the void and speak to us! What message do you bear this night?"
Shrieking as if in agony, Violet went rigid, then shook all over like a woman in a grand mal seizure. McFadden fixed her with a dubious stare, obviously not quite sure her paroxysm wasn't genuine.
Well done, thought Claude. Better not drag this out any further.
He projected a silent signal to the cat. Ishtar executed a flying leap from the bookshelf to the center of the table, knocking over the empty chalice. Face to face with McFadden, she screamed as if plunged into boiling water.
McFadden sprang to his feet, overturning his chair. Ishtar stopped yowling and vented a drawn-out hiss. Claude charged toward the occultist, simultaneously replacing his psychic shield with a new illusion, based on the green statuette on the desk, that he'd spent the last few minutes visualizing. At the instant he materialized from nowhere, he cloaked himself in an image of vast, dark wings, hawklike talons, blazing eyes, fangs, and a shadowy suggestion of tentacles. At least, that was what he aimed for, and McFadden's terror confirmed the success of the ploy.
McFadden raised his hands before his face and gibbered.
Claude dug his nails into the man's shoulders and roared, "Puny mortal, do not meddle in affairs beyond your ken! Forbear to call up what you cannot put down!" The words reverberated around the small room like echoes in a cavern.
McFadden replied with a wordless cry of panic. Claude heard screams from the two women but couldn't break his illusion to console them.
"Cease this blasphemy, lest worse befall you!"
He decided he'd better vanish before McFadden, with his own experience in similar deception, recovered enough to think rationally.
To Claude's surprise, though, the occultist lunged for the table and snatched up the dagger. "Fiend! Begone to Hell! Retro me, Sathanas!" He stabbed wildly into the spectral, flame-eyed, bat-winged monster he saw before him.
Dark Powers, he believes that nonsense about silver! Silver or not, it didn't matter; with all his energy focused on the illusion, his external form in flux, Claude was almost as vulnerable to the weapon as an ordinary man. When the blade drove into his shoulder, pain slammed through him. As the attacker pulled it free, Claude felt as if a shaft of ice pierced him to the heart.
Behind him, Violet cried, "No!"
On the desk, the green carving of the winged, tentacled idol rose into the air. It sailed across the room, gaining speed with every inch, and collided with McFadden's skull. He collapsed face down across the table.
Claude, his vision clearing as he dropped the illusion and struggled to bring the pain under control, slumped into the nearest vacant chair. The sound of hurrying footsteps penetrated his awareness.
He gestured weakly to Violet. "Servants--don't let them in."
To her credit, Violet collected herself enough to open the door a crack at the butler's knock. His worried voice mumbled an inquiry. "There's nothing wrong," she told him in a surprisingly steady tone. "I'm sorry for the disturbance. It's only one of Uncle Matthew's experiments. You may retire."
Harriet, standing beside the table, cast frantic glances at McFadden and Claude. Can't let her start asking questions. Bloody hell, I'm too tired for this. And in a few minutes, when the shock wore off, thirst would ravage him. Well, he could use that; the need enhanced his mesmeric power. "Harriet," he whispered.
She looked straight at him. He captured her gaze and spoke more firmly, "Violet is right. This was only an experiment, a trick. No harm has been done. Go home at once, and forget the details of what just happened. It's nothing to be concerned about. Nothing but stage magic. You understand?"
Harriet nodded. "I'll go home now." She turned to Violet with a bewildered frown. "Violet?"
"I'm perfectly well. I'll call on you as soon as I can."
With another hesitant nod, Harriet groped for the door like a sleepwalker and disappeared down the hall. Fortunately she drove her own pony chaise, even at night (another unladylike habit), so she would have no difficulty getting home.
Violet shut the door and turned on Claude. "I didn't ask you to kill him!"
"He isn't dead, only stunned. And I did not do that."
"We'd better discuss it elsewhere." He'd managed to suppress most of the pain but couldn't concentrate well enough to eliminate all of it. As for self-healing, he could do no more than stop the bleeding. He needed a quiet, safe refuge--and nourishment. "I strongly suggest we get out before he wakes up."
"I have a cab waiting. Come home with me. Yes, unchaperoned--at this point, does that really worry you? As soon as I'm sure you'll be all right, I'll send you to Miss Harmon's."
"Very well." After lighting the gas, she bent over her uncle and felt for the pulse at his wrist. "You're right, he's alive. Are you certain it's safe to leave him like this?"
"He'll recover." Although McFadden's scalp oozed blood--the scent made Claude's jaws ache--his aura showed that he'd suffered no permanent damage.
When Claude stood up and reached for Violet's hand, she focused on him for the first time. "You're wounded, too! He stabbed you!"
"It's nothing. It's already stopped bleeding." Violet had no way of knowing how serious the wound would have been for an ordinary man. He forestalled further conversation by grasping her arm and guiding her out of the study, closing the door behind them.
The night air energized him enough to make the walk to the waiting hansom less of an ordeal than he'd feared. After giving directions to the driver, Claude settled into the seat with an audible sigh. He didn't mind displaying his exhaustion to Violet now.
"You are hurt. We'll have to get a doctor."
"Absolutely not." He gazed at her, knowing she would see a glint of crimson in his eyes. After what he'd already shown her, that would scarcely drive her into hysterics. "It was worth it, ma petite. Your uncle will be well and truly convinced that you can 'call spirits from the vasty deep'. After that message from the void, he wouldn't dare deny you anything you ask."
Violet gathered her wits and managed a smile. "What shall I ask?"
"Strike while the iron is hot, before he has time to rationalize the experience. Tomorrow morning, send for your personal effects, and order him to contact his solicitor about transferring your funds into your control."
"You think he'll listen?"
"If he doesn't," said Claude with a feral grin, "I'll have a talk with him. But he will. You saw him go after me with that knife, silver for demons. He believed."
She stared hard at him. In the dim interior of the cab, she could only be examining his aura. "That statuette--if you didn't make it fly at him, then who--"
"That's obvious. You did. Just as you made that vase break earlier."
"No! I told you, I've never been able to--"
"Do it voluntarily? Perhaps not, but you did it under the stress of strong emotion. And now that you know you haven't lost the power, you may be able to train yourself to duplicate the feat." No wonder she attracts me. Ephemerals with psychic talents of their own make the best donors.
"For what?" she said. "I'm retiring as a medium, remember?"
"Research for those novels you plan to write."
She lightly touched his hand. The motion of the carriage made her sway against him. His head reeled at the tantalizing sensation of her warm skin, the blood throbbing in her fingertips.
"Should I research you for my novels, too, Claude?"
"What do you mean?" How much can she infer on her own? And how much do I dare let her comprehend?
"Don't insult my intelligence! I've known all along that you were--different--because of those odd colors in your etheric body. I just never suspected how different! What I saw in there wasn't simple hypnotism, and it certainly wasn't stage magic. What kind of man are you?" She gulped. "Are you even human?"
His need made him reckless. Oh, the Devil take it, if this turns out badly, I can revise her memory later. "Let me show you."
Putting an arm around her shoulders, he lifted her hand to his lips. He flicked his tongue in butterfly caresses over the palm down to the wrist. Violet's quiver of response had nothing to do with fear. Tilting his head, he used the razor-edge of his incisors to open a tiny incision--he had no fangs like the monsters in those absurd penny-dreadfuls. While he lapped the trickle of blood, she leaned into his embrace, her breath rapid and shallow.
Claude forced himself to stop long before he'd had enough. He allowed her to see him slowly lick the droplets from his lips.
Applying pressure to the cut, he said, "I'll take no more without your free consent."
She gaped at him for a minute before collecting her wits to speak. "Are you a--one of those--creatures--in Mr. Stoker's latest novel?"
Good Lord, how long is that tripe going to haunt us? With any luck, that idiotic book will fade into the oblivion it deserves before the year's out. Well, at least she isn't screaming in terror.
"Mr. Stoker's novel is a pack of bloody half-truths and damned lies!" He winced at the pain his incautious outburst reawakened. "Forgive my language. We feel very strongly about the way we've been libeled."
"Then it isn't true about--I won't become like you?"
"Ma petite, I am neither a walking corpse nor contagious. I'm as much a part of the natural world as you are." He decided to withhold further specifics until they'd become intimate.
She held up her hand near the window, trying to examine the minute wound in the moonlight. "This certainly isn't much like the book. Don't you need--have you had enough?" She blushed, obviously recalling her own arousal.
"I've expended energy, not lost a large amount of blood, so what I need is quality, not fluid volume. However, your intuition is correct--that wasn't enough."
He gently brushed his fingers over the bodice of her ceremonial robe, feeling her nipples tighten under the thin fabric. Her breath caught, but she didn't object. Virginal as she was, she would need little more than that caress and his mouth at her throat to bring her to fulfillment.
She offered her right wrist again. "Go ahead, then. I'm not afraid."
"Yes, you are, a bit. Anyone would be. But you needn't. It gets much better." He kissed her hand without grazing the cut.
"I'm not sure how I feel about serving as--well--food."
"Oh, no, my dear, if it were only that, I wouldn't even let you be aware of what I'm doing. You would enjoy it in a trance and forget immediately. You aren't a victim--you are my natural complement."
Her brow creased in puzzlement.
"That psychic talent of yours," he reminded her.
"I still doubt I could levitate objects on purpose."
"Why don't you try?"
"Certainly. I want to settle all your doubts before we--share--again." He removed his signet ring and laid it on her lap. "Go ahead."
She stared at the ring for more than a minute. "It's no use. I haven't the slightest idea how to begin."
"Let me help." He cupped her chin, turned her head toward him, and gazed into her eyes. "Relax, let your inner strength flow freely. All the power you need lies within you."
When he released her, she shifted her eyes to the ring, and it floated two feet into the air as smoothly as if raised by an invisible wire.
She gasped in delighted astonishment, and the object fell to the floor of the carriage. Picking it up, she said, "Are you sure you didn't do that yourself?"
"I'm not capable of it. You have my word."
She gave him a vigorous hug. "And all these years I was afraid--thinking I'd been possessed by some evil force, that might attack me again--and it was under my control all the time!"
Her vital heat made his teeth tingle in anticipation. Not in a cab, damn it! "Ease off--my self-control isn't what it should be at the moment." He untwined her arms from his neck and moved a few inches away from her. "We'll arrive at my townhouse in a minute or two." And not a moment too soon! "Then, if you're willing--"
Her aura scintillated in harmony with her smile. "To 'share'? That sounds like a most intriguing way to start my new life."
(Story originally published in The Time Of The Vampires, ed. P. N. Elrod and Martin Greenberg, DAW, 1996)