September 24, 1913 Chicago
The table rocked slightly in the darkness. Each of those sitting around it held the hands of those next to them.
“Do not break the circle,” intoned the medium. “Do not let go of the hand you hold.”
They were all dependent upon each other to ensure not only their safety but to create the necessary link to the other world. They were all at the mercy of the medium, who alone had some experience in such matters. He alone had power to communicate with the spirit world. He spoke as one who was already halfway between this world and the next.
“If you notice movement above you, if you feel anything touch your cheek, say nothing, do nothing. Do not call attention to yourself and they will not pay undue attention to you.”
“A moment please,” spoke another member of the gathering, timidly. “I wish to remove my spectacles. I won’t be needing them in the dark and I fear they may be broken.”
“Do it if you must,” came the voice of the medium, obviously perturbed, “but do not delay or disturb the forces around us again.”
There was a fumbling in the dark for a moment as the man could be heard removing his glasses and then hands reached out again to re-form the circle.
The medium intoned the spirits to make themselves known. Over and over he chanted, until his utterances were nothing more than low moans. Soon, even the low moans drifted away into a silence. And then the table began to move, slowly at first, and then more violently, lifting and dropping to the floor. Each of them could feel it through their elbows and hands that rested on the table. A slight audible bump as it fell back to the floor sent shivers up spines.
Before long there seemed to be motion above the heads of those who sat at the table, the stagnant air of the attic being stirred by unknown forces.
“I feel contact,” the medium shouted suddenly, almost as though he had been stabbed.
The table dropped and the medium could be heard gasping unevenly as though he was breathing for two.
When the medium spoke again, it was no longer with the same voice.
“Greetings from the world beyond the world,” the voice uttered in a sarcastic tone. “To those of you who are open to the truth, I wish you well,” the voice came a step towards pleasantness, for a moment, then changed to a hiss, “but you are unwise to allow those who dare disbelief to be among you. The circle is your one protection from forces even I cannot control. Do not allow that circle to be compromised by doubters.”
There was silence. Then the table began to rock violently. In the darkness, it sounded as if the medium was convulsing. The madness grew. Soon a bell was ringing, a horn blew frantically.
Without sight, neither imagination nor the senses could make sense of what was going on around and above and below them. It was an invitation to panic, to abandon any attempt to impose reason on the situation. Just when hearing began to place the source of the disturbance somewhere above their heads, there came again the rocking of the table that was felt beneath their clasped hands.
As the rocking of the table reached new heights of intensity and the ringing of the bell became more frantic, a beam of light flickered on. For a moment, it only served to increase the chaos. But soon reason began to reclaim a foothold among the people gathered around the table. It was a flashlight held by a member of the circle and it was pointed directly at where the medium sat. Or, rather, it was pointed at where the medium should have been. In the circle of light that bathed his high-backed chair, no sign could be seen of the man responsible for all the noises in the dark.
“You can come out, now,” came the voice of the man holding the flashlight. The head of the medium slowly rose above the table. On his chest an amulet with a large green stone reflected dimly the beam of light from the flashlight.
“Using your head to move the table. I’ve seen such methods used many times before. And undoubtedly using a false-back shoe so that you could use your foot to ring a bell. Aided by a compatriot or two, no doubt.”
The voice that came from behind the light was commanding, the face that stared into the light now timid in its unexpected exposure.
“You expect these parlor games to fool me, Slatterini The Astounding? A magician trained in the art of deception?”
Behind the beam of the flashlight, the figure holding it could be observed ripping off a false beard and glasses. The old gray-haired man who had slowly made his way up the stairs earlier that evening now revealed himself to be a clean-shaven man in his early twenties. The frailty had vanished and was replaced with a glare of certainty and vitality. He was young and of no more than average height, but had attitude and confidence enough to assert his authority.
“By sleight of hand you fool people into believing the preposterous. You play upon people’s fears and longings, conning wealthy widows into giving you not only their wealth but their very ability to reason. You separate your followers from family and society by filling their heads with such nonsense they can no longer maintain normal relationships.”
The people seated around the table were too surprised for the most part to say a word. The medium, a middle aged man with hair and mustache precisely oiled and styled, stared as much as possible his hatred past the glare of the flashlight. The woman seated next to him, obviously an accomplice, rose in her anger.
“You don’t understand,” she screamed. “Of course a medium cannot be expected to achieve success with such skeptics to siphon off the proper psychic energy. It is your doubt that has caused the failure here tonight.”
“And it is my doubt that caused Professor Munchin to make such a show of things, too, I suppose?”
The accomplice would admit to nothing. With the hair piled atop her head, she seemed a good deal taller than she was. “Faith is of the utmost importance. Sometimes the faith must be encouraged. When there is doubt present, the spirits will not make the connection. Sometimes those in attendance must be given something to stir their faith before the spirits deem the circle worthy of an appearance. Sometimes—“
“Bosh!” exclaimed the man with the flashlight. “Utter and complete claptrap, coming from the crudest of cons. Not only shall I write an explanation of all that I have witnessed here tonight and send it to the newspaper, I shall incorporate your practices into my stage act along with an explanation of how your tricks are done. The practices of those in your profession blacken the reputation of those in mine.”
“Here is my card, sir,” he said to Munchin, producing it seemingly from mid-air. He walked towards the medium and placed it boldly into the other’s breast pocket. “You are formally invited to see my performance at the Aragon Ball Room, this weekend. It promises to prove quite instructive.”
No longer walking like an old man in mourning, he walked towards the stairs that led from the attic with the practiced movements of an experienced showman. With no further words, he strode out of the house and into the gloom of twilight. As he walked, he whistled to himself as he twirled a chain that had on it a rather curious pendant with a green stone in its center.
Back in the attic of the brownstone house, a lamp was lit. What had appeared a moment earlier to be a group of strangers now talked quite familiarly with one another.
“He’s gone,” said a voice coming from the stairs.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. He hopped a street car headed north.”
“Damn magicians,” said the one who was called Professor Munchin, “they should stick to amusing children with card tricks.”
“It’s Houdini who got them started,” said a heavyset man who was dressed in a suit of such finery that it left little doubt as to his wealth and position in society.
“Houdini’s going to get his before long,” said Munchin. “But this Slatterini fellow has proven to be a rather useful idiot. Whatever publicity he provides should keep our real work from being discovered. No better cover than to have the world believe we’re scam artists, eh?” Munchin chuckled, as did the heavyset man, pleased with themselves.
“Well, now that that’s taken care of, suppose we proceed with the real order of business for the evening,” said the woman who moments earlier was feigning outrage.
“Are you sure you’re still up for it?”
“The longer we delay, the more I fear to do it. Let us put it off no more.”
“Very well, then. Let us gather around the table.”
Removing one chair from the gathering, the six individuals resumed their seats at the table. Hands were once again clasped, heads bowed in the dim light of the gas lamp. Led by Munchin, the group began a low humming while swaying slightly to an unheard rhythm.
Where the presence came from they did not know. Whether it made its appearance in the center through an opening they had created, or whether it wormed its way through their individual life forces to become a single entity in their midst was impossible to say. They only knew they felt a seventh spirit among them, separate from the group and yet oddly connected.
It was hard to know where one of them stopped and the other started. Clenched hands reached deeper than the surface, seemed to merge into the other until it almost felt as if each was clutching the beating hearts of those next to him. And in the middle of all was this strange new entity, as though it were the solution that enabled them to dissolve one into the other. And as their hands seemed to reach deeper than the surface, so now this apparition seemed to reach into the hearts of each of them, like spokes in a wheel.
“What’s happening?” said the woman to the left of Munchin, a concerned quiver in her voice.
“Stay calm,” Munchin said, exhibiting none of what he preached.
The members who sat about the table no longer swayed but began to shake as if in convulsions.
“There’s something wrong!” screamed a member of the circle. “We can’t control it.”
“Don’t worry,” said Munchin, “I have the amulet. Whatever I summon must respect it.”
“Where is it?” screamed the woman.
Munchin looked down, panic welling up on his features. But panic soon changed to pain as something seemed to grab a hold of him, as if a hand reached up inside his chest and around his heart. Soon, all of those around the table shared the same look of agony on their faces. A vague shape above the table was noticeable, its features indistinct except for a malevolent grin. It was only a few seconds before they all slumped forward dead onto the table.
Seated on a wooden seat aboard a streetcar, a young man snuck a glimpse of a pendant that he half-pulled from his pocket. His expression was one of intense curiousity.
“I hope they don’t notice this missing.”
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