Something didn’t feel right.
It wasn’t the setting. Milly Adams’s luxurious apartment in the Dakota on New York’s fashionable Upper West Side looked as magnificent as ever. Laid out like a photo spread in a glossy home furnishings magazine, each piece of antique furniture was in its proper place, as were the exquisite wall decorations and fresh-cut flowers.
Nor was it the other guests sitting at the table with Peter Warlock. In fact, the group of psychics gathered in Milly’s apartment on this particular Friday evening were the young magician’s most trusted friends. It consisted of Max Romeo, a retired magician who’d trained Peter in the art of legerdemain; Lester Rowe, a puckish Scotsman who gave psychic readings out of his Lower East Side apartment, and ventured north of 14th Street only to attend Milly’s weekly séances; Milly’s beautiful if somewhat spoiled niece Holly, a sophomore at Columbia and an aspiring witch; and the group’s newest member, a blind African-American psychic named Homer, who made his living telling fortunes beneath the arch in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Everything looked the same, yet something wasn’t right. Peter could feel it in his bones. He’d been leading the Friday night séances since his teens, his ability to channel the dead far greater than that of the other psychics in the room.
The clock on the mantel struck midnight. Striking a single wooden match, the young magician lit the three white candles sitting on the dining room table. “Ready for takeoff?”
“Ready,” the others replied.
They clasped hands and formed a circle. Staring into the flames, Peter began to recite the mystic words that would grant him entry to the world where the spirits resided.
In darkness, I see light: in daylight, I see night.
Shadows as bright as sunshine, the blind able to see.
This is the world we wish to enter.
A movement caught his eyes, and he stopped. On the far wall, a quivering black mass danced beside the portrait of Mary Glover, an infamous Salem witch from whom Milly was directly descended. Peter had never seen anything quite like it. Without warning, the mass slipped into a crack in the wall, and vanished without a trace.
“I just saw something really strange,” Peter announced.
“Was it a ghost?” Holly asked, sitting to his right.
“Not like any I’ve ever seen.”
“What was different about it?”
“It didn’t have a face.”
“Come on. All ghosts have faces.”
“I know they do. But this one didn’t.”
As everyone at the table knew, every ghost had a face, as well as a voice, and sometimes a warped personality as well. “You must be imagining things,” Holly teased him.
“You’re right. After all, there are no such things as ghosts, are there?”
They all laughed. Ghosts and spirits were everywhere, yet people refused to acknowledge them. Instead, they convinced themselves they were imagining things, or that their eyes were playing tricks on them.
“Whatever it was, it’s gone now,” Peter said. “Let’s resume. Is everyone ready?”
His friends nodded in unison.
“Good. Here we go.”
A séance was a ritual with a strict set of rules. Peter snuffed the three candles on the table with his fingertips, then relit them using another wooden match. They again joined hands, and he repeated the mystic words that allowed him entry to the spirit world.
A jolt of electricity went straight up his spine. His world turned dark as his spirit left his physical body and transported itself to the parallel world where the spirits dwelled. He likened the experience to falling down a mine shaft, his arms and legs flailing helplessly in the air.
Finally his fall ended, and he found himself inside a basement with a low, claustrophobic ceiling with exposed beams, a rattling furnace, and a naked bulb hanging by a cord that swung eerily back and forth. It felt like the set of a teenage slasher movie, and he took a deep breath, wondering where in God’s name he was.
Every Friday night, the spirits took him on a dark journey. Sometimes, they sent him into the past, while other times, he was plunged headlong into the future. No two journeys were ever the same. Tonight’s had started badly, and he hoped things would improve.
The sound of a voice caught him by surprise, and he spun around. On the other side of the basement, an overweight man wearing corduroy pants and a blazer with sandy patches on the elbows stood by a worktable. He had a neatly trimmed beard and glasses, and looked like a college professor. He was also talking to himself, and had no idea that Peter was there.
Peter found the man’s appearance odd. Normally, the people he encountered on the other side were downright evil and engaged in unspeakable acts. This fellow wasn’t even mildly scary, and Peter wondered if the spirits had dropped him in the wrong house.
Only the spirits didn’t make mistakes. He edged up next to the man, and noted the items lying on the worktable. There was a handgun, a hunting knife, a ball of twine, nickel-plated handcuffs, a black hood, and a bottle of clear liquid. Definitely not the type of stuff most college professors carried around. He picked up the bottle of clear liquid and read the label.
Looks could be deceiving. The man was either a kidnapper or a killer.
Or he was both.
That must have been why the spirits had brought him here. To stop a madman.
But who was he? Where did he live? And what did he do for a living? Peter needed that one clue that would help him tip off the police. It didn’t have to be much. Once he had it, the spirits would whisk him back to Milly’s place, the séance would end, and the Friday night psychics would go about the task of figuring out their killer’s identity. Once they did, an anonymous call would be made to Special Agent Garrison, his friend with the FBI, and the wheels would be set in motion for the killer to be brought to justice.
He looked around the basement for a meaningful clue, but came up empty. Then he had an idea. He’d memorize their killer’s features, and pass them on to Garrison, who would find the man in one of the FBI’s endless databases.
Peter studied the killer from head to toe. He needed to give him a name; it would make him easier to remember. Dr. Death seemed appropriate. Dr. Death it was.
Dr. Death consulted his watch and made a face. “Look at the time,” he muttered, and began to place the items on the table into the various pockets of his blazer. Before putting the gun away, he checked the chamber. All six bullets were there. Dr. Death slipped the weapon into his jacket with a little smile. “Uh-oh,” he said aloud. “What’s this?” He pulled a pearl necklace from the same pocket, and shook his head in displeasure.
“We’re getting sloppy,” he scolded himself.
A dresser stood beside the worktable. Dr. Death pulled open the top drawer. It contained a woman’s skirt, neatly folded, and matching blouse. Lying on the blouse was a pair of gold hoop earrings, a gold necklace, and a gold lamé purse.
“Not Mary,” he said.
Dr. Death shut the drawer, and pulled open the one beneath it. Another wardrobe consisting of a pair of faded blue jeans, neatly folded, a navy sweater, gold stud earrings, a diamond necklace, and a pocketbook.
The third drawer contained another set of women’s clothes, meticulously kept, along with jewelry and a small handbag.
The fourth drawer contained similar items as the first three.
And so did the fifth.
Opening the bottom drawer, he said, “Ah, yes, these were Edie’s. Such a charming girl,” and laid the strand of pearls atop a pink blouse before shutting the drawer.
Peter had watched enough TV cop shows to know what he was seeing. He’d been brought to the lair of a serial killer, and the dresser was his trophy collection of his victims’ personal belongings. But who were the victims? And who was Dr. Death? The spirits were mean that way; they told him next to nothing, and forced him to figure out the rest.
Dr. Death went up a creaky flight of stairs like he had bad knees. Peter followed him to the first floor, and entered a kitchen with a yellow linoleum floor and ancient appliances. The light was better here. He was as plain as a loaf of white bread. His only distinguishing feature were his eyes. They were black and utterly soulless. Dr. Death again consulted his watch. “Look at the time. I’d better hurry, or Rachael will think I’ve stood her up.”
Was Rachael his next victim? If the items on the worktable were any indication, she was. Peter looked around the kitchen for a piece of mail, or something that might have Dr. Death’s name, or his address. Lying on the counter was an upside-down copy of the New York Times. A label on the cover said it was the Westchester County edition, an affluent suburb north of the city. Dr. Death went out the front door, whistling under his breath.
Peter was right on his heels. A black four-door Volvo sedan sat in the drive. A full moon cast an eerie patina off the car’s windshield. Volvos were practical cars, and it only confirmed Peter’s suspicion that Dr. Death was indeed a doctor. Dr. Death got behind the wheel, and fired up the engine. It took several starts before coming to life.
Peter moved to the back of the vehicle, hoping to catch the license plate. To his surprise, the Volvo took off in reverse, nearly hitting him as it raced past. The vehicle braked a few yards behind him with a rubbery squeal, the headlights catching him within their twin beams. The driver’s window lowered, and Dr. Death stuck his head out.
“Thought I didn’t know you were there, didn’t you?” he shouted.
Peter froze. Normally when he journeyed to the other side, he was invisible to everyone he came in contact with. For Dr. Death to have seen him meant only one thing—he was in league with the Devil.
“Say something, before I run you down!” Dr. Death shouted.
“Nice to meet you,” Peter said lamely.
“Very funny. Who sent you?”
“The spirits. Who do you think?”
“You’re not the first one they’ve sent. They’ve been after me for some time. I suppose they’d like me to stop killing their little darlings.”
“What happened to the others?”
“I got rid of them, just as I’m going to get rid of you.”
“What about the women?”
“Mary, Joan, Kelly, Diane, Christine, and Edie.”
“How clever. You memorized their names.”
“Will you tell me why you killed them?”
“Let’s just say I enjoy spreading misery, one bad deed at a time.”
“The spirits will stop you eventually. You must know that.”
“They haven’t so far. Do you communicate with the spirits?”
Peter said that he did.
“Tell them I said hello. You’re going to be joining them very soon.”
The Volvo lurched forward. Peter could just as easily perish here as in the real world, and he feinted to his left, before bolting to his right. The Volvo passed with inches to spare.
“Asshole,” he yelled.
A thick hedge ran parallel to the drive. Peter leapt through it, the branches tearing at his face and hands. A steep hill awaited him on the other side. His momentum carried him forward, and he went helter-skelter down the side.
“Get me out of here,” he begged the spirits.
Nothing happened. Normally, the spirits responded quickly when he needed help. He came to a hard stop at the bottom. The Volvo was racing down the hill with Dr. Death leaning out the window, aiming his pistol. He squeezed off a round, and the bullet kicked up dust at Peter’s feet.
He ran for his life. Other houses lined the hill, their light casting a muted glow into the night. He’d been having a pretty decent day until now. It wasn’t the first time the spirits had pulled the rug out from under him. They were rotten that way, and he sometimes wondered if they were truly his friends.
Another shot rang out. This time, he was not so lucky, and he grabbed his wounded thigh and hobbled over to the side of the road.
There was nowhere to hide. Was this the end? He’d always imagined himself old and gray when the time came. Never had he thought he’d be twenty-five and in the prime of his life.
The Volvo braked, and Dr. Death climbed out. A warped smile distorted his face.
“Get on your knees.”
Peter fell to his knees. He needed to buy some time. Perhaps Dr. Death would give him a final cigarette, or let him have a last meal.
“Want to say something before I shoot you?” Dr. Death asked.
“Tell me why you killed those women,” Peter said.
“Why do you care?”
“I just do. Think of it as a dying request.”
“How touching. Very well, I’ll tell you why. I kill those who push back at the darkness. As a psychic, I’m sure you understand what that means.”
Peter certainly did. The war of good versus evil was fought on many levels. Dr. Death wasn’t just killing innocent women. His victims were involved in good deeds, which made them the enemies of Satan. That was what he meant by pushing back at the darkness.
The gun’s warm barrel pressed against the side of his head. A jolt of electricity ran up his spine as he was pulled back to the other side.
Hurry, he thought.
Then the shot rang out.
Copyright © 2013 by James Swain