Madame Helena Petrovsky opened her good eye to the thickness of a dime. It was a practiced art, one she’d cultivated over many performances. On a small table, beneath the dormant lamps of an incandescent chandelier, a single candle illuminated four ladies of New York society
Petrovsky smiled to herself. This was the part of the séance she loved the best, the part she liked to savor. The moment just before the curtain rose, when all joined hands and a hush spread across the audience. When her spiritual players readied themselves in her mind. When they shuffled impatiently on her mental backstage, straightened their worn costumes and practiced their lines.
She closed her eye and rolled her head producing a long low moan. She opened her eye again and peeked.
On her right, candlelight flicked on Mrs. Windermere's meaty cheeks, across her flattened nose and owlish eyes. Mrs. Nagle sat to the left, wrinkled chin to chest, her withered mouth agape. My God, was the woman snoring?
Across from Petrovsky sat Katherine Johnson, with eyes as wide as eggs. Silently, the medium thanked God for Katherine, and for her husband, Robert, owner of Century magazine. Without them, there would never have been a séance--and she'd never have met Anne Morgan.
Anne sat pertly next to Katherine. Petrovsky watched the tiny candle flames reflected in her blue unblinking eyes. Shadows danced across her dimpled cheeks, her delicate nose and rounded chin. Brown hair framed her oval face, and the chin high collar of her lavender blouse held a sparkling amethyst broach.
How beautiful the girl looked, how poised, and yet, how serious, especially to be no more than twenty or twenty-two. And how remarkably unspoiled she seemed, to be the youngest daughter of J.P. Morgan, the richest man in New York City and possibly even the world.
Petrovsky closed her eye and eased a long wail from her throat, a cry that echoed around the darkened room.
Could anyone have dreamt that on this winter morning, after arriving in America only a month before, she’d be sitting across from Anne Morgan under the stained glass windows and walnut paneling of the cavernous Morgan parlor? That she'd be holding a séance beneath the priceless gaze of Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Botticellis? That she'd be summoning spirits right here on Madison Avenue amid an incalculable wealth of Chinese vases, Egyptian statues, and Etruscan bronze?
Only providence, or possibly luck, could be responsible. Either way, she could scarcely believe her good fortune. And with the twentieth century almost at hand, an opportunity like this wouldn't return for a hundred years. She’d not let it slip away.
An unearthly groan slipped from her mouth, and she stole another glimpse of Anne.
Before the séance began she'd wondered aloud why the girl hadn’t married or wasn’t at least engaged. “Lord knows,” Katherine told her quietly, “it isn’t the girl's looks.” She blamed instead, Anne’s too high standards. But whatever her reasons, Petrovsky knew that because of her wealth and station, Anne must be the center of her attentions.
Oh, she knew the girl’s type well: intelligent, restless, searching for something--something not found in the droning voice of a Protestant preacher or the creased pages of the family Bible.
Poor Anne was trying to contact her recently deceased sister. It was almost touching. Almost! But this was business, and she must strike hard, before the girl lost interest or found a husband and settled down to the dreary servitude of marriage.
Petrovsky broke the silence and called out in a loud high voice. “Swami Mahoomi, spiritual master of the Great Brotherhood. Are you there?”
She rolled her head again, this time including her shoulders. The movement created a sharp piercing pain just above her last vertebrae. Damn this New York winter. The pain, however, produced an inspiration.
Maybe she should introduce a new actor before contacting the girl's sister, a new character to warm up her little presentation. The drama she always started with was getting a bit tired, at least to her. She’d performed it countless times. Oh, it played well, and as a one-woman show, certainly pleased a crowd, but what of her? Didn’t she deserve something new, something more challenging?
Petrovsky made her decision. “Swami Mahoomi, we wish to speak to Roxalana Druse. Is she there?”
A murmur circled among the women, and Petrovsky felt a smug glow. What other medium would dare conjure up the spirit of a convicted murderess? Especially one who’d shot her husband four times and burned his dismembered body in the kitchen stove. This was going to be amusing. Murder always made a good story, and if nothing else, Petrovsky loved a good story.
To her, Druse represented a tragic heroine. Petrovsky recalled the sadness she’d felt when she read of the woman’s twenty-minute dance at the end of her rope. Well, a botched execution made a good story too.
“Roxalana? Are you there? We wish to speak to you.”
The time had come for athletics. Petrovsky slipped her right foot from its high lace shoe. The special shoe, made with tiny springs, opened quickly and silently. A hole in her stocking exposed her naked toes to the sting of the floor's cold air, and she wiggled them like a runner warming his legs before a race.
“Roxalana? Can you give us a sign?”
Petrovsky slid her foot up her slender leg, feeling along the cotton stocking until her toes touched the tiny bell, the one remaining possession from her troubled youth, the one she'd stolen in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“Roxalana? Speak with us. Have you found peace on the other side? Can you give us a sign?”
Petrovsky readied herself. She began rocking forward and back. A frightening extenuated groan swirled around her throat, and she imagined she really was being possessed, that another entity was worming its way into her soul. An actress she'd known briefly in Berlin had taught her the technique.
To the rocking, she added rolling. No need to peek now. She knew everyone’s eyes were open. The groans and moans she produced grew louder, slowly forming themselves into a low steady R sound which became long and drawn out.
Petrovsky stopped rocking and bolted upright, rigid in her seat. She cracked open the good eye. Sure enough, the women were staring at her, rapt, hanging on every motion, every utterance. She held the pose exactly thirty seconds. Just long enough to keep their interest, before a cough or a fidget could ruin the suspense. Holding... Holding... The bell gripped tightly between her toes.
She shook the bell hard and quick. The women jerked back in their seats. Katherine’s eyes grew to goose eggs. Anne’s mouth dropped open. Mrs. Windermere gasped. Mrs. Nagle awoke and squeezed Petrovsky’s hand so hard that Petrovsky winced to keep from crying out. Their reaction satisfied her immensely.
The ringing stopped, and she waited another thirty seconds.
“We have made contact,” she said, opening her eyes fully. Glances shot around the table. The women now had another chance to examine the eye.
Petrovsky loved the eye, as she called it, as though it existed separately from her. She loved the silent attention it attracted. She loved the embarrassment and uneasiness it produced in people, the way they struggled not to look or pretended to be unconcerned and nonchalant. But of course, the eye could not be denied.
The eye embodied the single visible sign of her mystery, her power. When asked, she explained that it had clouded over as a child the moment she first made contact with the other side, when she first saw Swami Mahoomi floating several feet above the foot of her bed. It was a good story. Stories came naturally to her.
In reality, her mother had said it was an accident on the farm that damaged the eye. Petrovsky didn’t remember, but seeing with only one eye had never been a bother. She’d done it so long that her limited vision seemed perfectly normal.
“Are there any questions for Mrs. Druse?” Petrovsky asked. Again, glances raced across the table until they settled on Anne. The hostess usually asked the first question.
Anne blinked several times. She swallowed. “Roxalana, why did you kill your husband?” Mouths fell open in anxious shock.
“Really, Anne,” Mrs. Windermere said with an excess of breath, “you can’t ask that.” Petrovsky sensed Mrs. Windermere’s legs moving about under the table.
Anne’s head darted from side to side, conferring silently with the others. “Well, why not? I’d like to know.”
Petrovsky interrupted. “The question must be answered with a yes or no.”
“Oh.” Anne dropped her gaze then quickly looked up again. “Did you kill him over another lover?”
Mrs. Windermere turned to Katherine and gasped. Katherine clearly blushed. Mrs. Nagle giggled.
Petrovsky soothed the group with a gentle shushing. She repeated the question in a loud high voice. After an appropriate delay, a single tinny ring came from somewhere.
“Yes,” Petrovsky said, translating the sound. Anne cocked her head smugly.
“Was he older than you?” Katherine blurted out. Mrs. Windermere tightened her lips, and her legs shifted position.
Petrovsky rang the bell faintly. “Yes,” she said, running her eye over Mrs. Windermere. The woman’s fidgeting was starting to annoy her.
Mrs. Nagle’s scratchy voice called out next. “Was he handsome?” The bell rang once, but loudly. “I knew it,” the old woman said, “no one gets killed over an ugly man.” Anne suppressed a chuckle. Petrovsky felt Mrs. Windermere’s fleshy hand begin to move.
Petrovsky tightened her grip, and turned her head abruptly, catching the woman in the withering gaze of the eye. “Never break the circle until the séance has ended,” she said coldly.
Mrs. Windermere froze. “But I must... relieve myself,” she whispered.
Petrovsky ignored her and faced forward. She let out a breath. The nerve of the woman, interrupting her performance. She’d probably leave for the lavatory during Hamlet’s soliloquy, probably have an attack of the vapors right after the words, “...that is the question.” Anne and Katherine were staring at the candle, smiling.
Petrovsky closed her eyes. She’d sober this group up. Séances were serious business. You let humor creep in and profit went down, way down. “Roxalana,” Petrovsky called out louder, sterner. “Speak with us, Roxalana.”
Petrovsky rocked her head back and forth, and Roxalana began to take over. The murderer’s persona was pushing hers aside.
Petrovsky had read that the woman was an ignorant hop-picker; a drunken slut who invited men to the house after her husband went to sleep. The story seemed a bit too crude for this genteel crowd. No, her Roxie would be more refined, more innocent--a victim. Yes, that was it, a victim--of husbandly abuse. A selfless lady who toiled daily in her husband’s hop field, only to endure his ceaseless sexual advances at night, until finally, driven to the last straw, she fell from the precipice of sanity and shot him dead. Petrovsky inhaled deeply. Roxalana’s personality was now complete.
“Why have you summoned me?” Petrovsky wailed in her best ectoplasmic voice. Her upper body swayed as she spoke, rotating around her hands pressed against the tablecloth. She wailed again, louder this time. “Why have you summoned the dead?” A bell rang in the distance.
Petrovsky secretly scrutinized the group. She had their attention now, by God. The excitement made her dizzy. The room seemed to get lighter, then darker.
“Why have you awakened the dead?” she cried out. Petrovsky opened the eye, unleashing its blind gaze on each woman in turn. That usually scared the wits out of most ladies.
Holding Mrs. Nagle's fingers in hers, she pushed down firmly with her palm. The table began to tip. She pushed again, then again. The rhythm made the table gee and haw. Mrs. Windermere’s leg agitated violently.
The woman’s going to wet her bloomers, thought Petrovsky. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that happened.
Petrovsky let go a great moan. The light was definitely pulsating, and it wasn’t coming from the candle. It came from above. She stole a glance upwards. The chandelier’s six electric bulbs were dimly waxing and waning. Her forehead felt suddenly cold.
Was someone trying to steal her show? She distinctly recalled the Morgan's maid turning off the lights. Petrovsky wasn’t that familiar with electricity and incandescent lamps, but she was sure they must be switched on to work.
The candle blew out.
Everyone except Katherine became aware of the lights. Her eyes were clamped shut while her mouth moved in silent words. Prayers? Maybe this was the time for it.
Anne and Mrs. Nagle looked frantically about the room as the table rocked violently beneath their hands. The paneling flashed light and dark. Mrs. Windermere’s leg stopped fidgeting, but her jaw now quivered. The panic on her face flashed deeper with each pulsation of the chandelier.
Panic rose in Petrovsky too. She felt a tightness growing inside her chest, growing with each wave of light, like something pushing her out of her own body. She was losing control of the performance and herself.
The room became unbearably bright--blinding. The table knocked and chattered on its legs. The women looked to her, looked for her to save them.
She fought to think as her stomach cramped. Is this real? Have I really summoned the dead? Mrs. Windermere was struggling to her feet.
Petrovsky opened her mouth. She tried to speak. Her voice was low and queer. “Don’t... ” The word was a struggle. “Break... ” Tightness was taking control. “The... ” Every nerve tingled. “Circle... ”
A loud bang echoed through the room. A light bulb exploded. Smoking glass streamed down from above. Petrovsky felt hot shards burn her arms. Katherine screamed. Another bang--more glass. Anne stood now, half dragging Mrs. Nagle to her feet. Bang. Bang. More bulbs blew apart. Glass fell again. A smoky haze filled the room.
Petrovsky saw the women through waves of nausea. They were standing, searching about, shrieking. She tried to stand too. Her legs were dead. She felt like vomiting. Her body stiffened. Spasms rippled up her neck. Her throat knotted. Words tried to form. She was helpless. A bystander. Something was taking control. Someone! Suddenly, she heard herself scream the words:
“Tinglitter! You bastard! You’ve killed me!”
G. S. Singer