Many Bloody Returns Part 21

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keeping control of a truckload of high emotion. I heard her heart pound fast, then gradually slow. "Even the servants are under his spell. I have friends, but I can't talk to them about this. It's just too embarra.s.sing."

"You've been by yourself on this since August?"

She nodded. "Except for our pastor, but he can't be there every day. He tells me to keep praying for Flora, and I do, and still this goes on and just gets worse. I miss James, too. He was a nice man. He deserves better than this-this-"

"What broke the camel's back to bring you here?"

"Before Alistair Bradford came, all they did was play with that stupid Ouija board. I'd burn it but they'd just buy another from the five and dime. After he was introduced, they began holding real seances. I don't like any of that stuff and don't believe in it, but he



made it scary. It's as though he gets taller and broader and his voice changes. With the room almost totally dark it's easy to believe him."

"They let you sit in?"

"Just the once-on sufferance so long as I kept quiet. When I turned the lights on in the middle of things, Flora banished me. She

said my negative thoughts were preventing the spirits from coming through and that I was endangering Bradford's life. You're not supposed to startle a medium out of a trance or it could kill him. I wouldn't mind seeing that, but he was faking. While they were all yelling I had my eye on him, and the look he gave me was pure hate...and he was smiling. He wanted to scare me and it worked. I've kept my door locked and haven't slept much."

"I don't blame you. No one believes you?"

"Of course not. I'm not in their little club and to them I'm just a kid. What do I know?"

"Kids have instinct, a good thing to follow. Is he living in the house?"

"He mentioned it, but Flora-for once-didn't think that was proper."

"Is he romancing her?"

Miss Saeger's eyes went hard. "Slowly. He's too smart to rush things, but I see the way he struts around, looking at everything. If

he lays a finger on Flora I'll-"

I raised one hand. "I get it. You want Flora protected and him discredited."

"Or his legs broken and his big smirking face smashed in."

That was something I could have arranged. I know those kind of people. "It's better if Flora gets rid of him by her own choice, though."

"I don't see how; I may have left it too late. I called here on Sat.u.r.day to make the appointment, but-" She went red in the face. "I could just kill him."

"What'd he do?"

"The last seance-they have one every Sunday and that's just wrong having it on a Sunday-something horrible happened. They all gathered in the larger parlor at the table as usual, lighted candles, and put out the lights. Soon as it went dark, I slipped in while they were getting settled. There's an old Chinese screen in one corner, and I hide behind it during their seances. Negative feelings, my foot; no one's noticed me yet, not even Bradford, so I saw the whole thing."

"Which was?"

"He put himself in a trance right on time. It usually takes five minutes, and by then everyone's expecting something to happen; you can feel it. He starts out with a low groan and breathing loudly, and in the dark it's spooky, and that's when his spirit guide takes over. His voice gets deeper and he puts on a French accent. Calls himself Frere Leon. He's supposed to have been a monk who traveled with Joan of Arc."

"Who speaks perfect English?"

"Of course. No one's ever thought of talking to him in French. I doubt Bradford knows much more than mon Dieu and sang sacre."

She'd attended a good finis.h.i.+ng school, speaking with the right kind of p.r.o.nunciation. I'd heard it when I'd been a doughboy in France during the last year of the war, and had picked up enough to get by. Much of that was too rough for Miss Saeger's tender ears, though.

"And the horrible thing that happened?"

"It was at the end. He pretends to have Frere Leon pa.s.s on messages from James. He can't have James talk directly to Flora or he'd trip himself up. He doesn't pa.s.s too many messages, either, just general stuff about how beautiful it is on the other side. She tries to talk to him and ask him things and she's so desperate and afterwards she always cries and then she goes back for more. It's cruel. But this time he said he was giving her a sign of what she should do."

"Do?"

"I didn't know what that meant, until...well, Bradford finished just then and pretended to be waking from his trance. That's when they found what he'd snuck on the table. It was James's wedding ring, the one he was buried with."

I gave that the pause it deserved. "Not a duplicate?"

She shook her head, a fast, jerky movement. Her voice was thick. "Inside it's engraved with To J. from F.-Forever Love. He never took it off and it had some hard wear: two distinct parallel scratches, and it wasn't a perfect circle. Flora showed it to me as proof that Alistair Bradford was genuine. She didn't want to hear my idea that...that he'd dug up and robbed James's grave. I thought she'd slap me. She's gone crazy, Mr.-"

"Fleming. Call me Jack."

"Jack. Flora's never raised a hand to me, even when we were kids and I was being bratty, but this has her all turned around. I thought Mr. Escott could find something out about Bradford that would prove him a fake or come to a seance and do something to break it up, but I don't think she'd listen now. The last thing Bradford said before his trance ended was 'You have his blessing.' Put that with the ring and I know it means if he asks Flora to marry him, she'll say yes because she'll think that's what James would want."

"Come on, she can't be that-"

"Stupid? Foolish? Under a spell? She is! That's what's driving me crazy. She should be smarter than this."

"Grief can make you go right over the edge. Guilt can make it worse, and I bet she's lonely, too. She should have gone to a head

doctor but picked up a Ouija board instead. Does this Bradford ask for money?"

"He calls it a donation. She's given him fifty dollars every time. He gets that much for all his sittings-and he does thirty to forty a month. My sister's not the only dope in town."

My mouth went dry. Fifty a week was a princely income, but that much times forty? I was in the wrong business. I'd gotten

twenty-five a week back in New York as a reporter and counted myself lucky. "Well. It's safer than robbing banks. Your sister

can give him more by marriage?"

"Yes, her trust money and the estate from James. Bradford would have it, the house, never have to work again. Please, can you help me stop him?"

I thought of the people I knew who broke bones for a sawbuck and could make a man disappear for twice that. "I need to check this, you know. I only have your side of things."

"And I'm just a kid."

"Miss Saeger, I'd say the same thing to Eleanor Roosevelt if she was in that chair. Lemme make a phone call. Anyone going to be worried you're gone?"

"I snuck out and got a taxi. Flora and I had a fight tonight and she thinks I'm sulking in my room. She's busy, anyway-the new seance."

"Uh-huh." I dialed Gordy at the Nightcrawler Club and asked if he had any dirt on an Alistair Bradford, professional medium.

"Medium what?" asked Gordy in his sleepy-sounding voice.

"A swami; you know, seances, fortune-telling. It's for a case. I'm filling in for Charles."

He grunted, and he sounded amused. "You at his office? Ten minutes." He hung up. As the Nightcrawler was a longer than ten- minute drive away I took him to mean he'd phone back, not drop by.

"Ten minutes," I repeated to Miss Saeger. "What's with the black getup? You still in mourning for your brother-in-law?"

"It was the only way I could think of to cover my face. I'm full grown, but soon as anyone looks at me, they think I'm fifteen or something."

"And you're really...?"

"Sixteen."

"Miss Saeger, you are one brave and brainy sixteen-year-old, so I'm sure you're aware that this is a school night."

"My sister is more important than that, but thank you for the reminder." There was a dryness in her tone that would have done

credit to Escott. A couple years from now and she'd be one formidable young woman.

"What time is this seance?"

"Nine o'clock. Always."

"Not at midnight?"

"Some of the older Society members get too sleepy if things go much past ten."

"Why tonight instead of next Sunday?"

"James's birthday. Bradford said that holding a sitting on the loved one's birthday always means something special."

"Like what?"

"He won't say; he just smiles. It makes my skin crawl. I swear, if he's not stopped, I'll get one of James's golf clubs and-" She

went red in the face again, stood up, and paced. I did that when the pent-up energy got to be too much.

I tried to get more from her on tonight's event, but she didn't have anything else to add, though she had plenty of comments about

Bradford's antics. Guys like him I'd met before: they're always the first to look you square in the eye and a.s.sure you they're honest long before you begin to wonder. The phone rang in seven minutes. Abigail Saeger halted midword and midstride and sat, leaning forward as I put the receiver to my ear. Gordy was like a library for all that was crooked in the great city of Chicago, with good reason: if he wasn't behind it himself, he knew who was and where to find them. He gave me slim pickings about Bradford, but it was enough to confirm that the guy was trouble. He'd done some stage work as a magician, Alistair the Great, until discovering there was more cash to be had conjuring dead relatives from thin air instead of live rabbits. He preferred to collect as much money as possible in the shortest time, then make an exit. The wealthy widow Weisinger was too good a temptation to a man looking for an easy way to retire.

"You need help with this bo'?" Gordy asked.

"I'll let you know. Thanks."

"No problem."

"Well?" asked Miss Saeger.

I hung up. "Count me in, ma'am."

"That sounds so old. My name's Abby."

"Fine, you can sign it here." I pulled out one of Escott's standard contracts. It was short and vague, mostly a statement that the

Escott Agency was retained for services by, with a blank after that and room for the date.

"How much will this be?"

"Five bucks should do it."

Many Bloody Returns Part 21

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Many Bloody Returns Part 21 summary

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