Like Miles to Go, this is sort of the beginning of a larger story. The true secret of this is that I read the origin of Frank and Sadie Doyle in the Thrilling Adventure Hour, mainly that Sadie was intended to be dead at the beginning of the story, with Frank being a bitter and drunk widower. It was the acting of Paget Brewster that kept Sadie alive and made Beyond Belief one of the best segments on the Thrilling Adventure Hour. I liked the idea of an old jaded man dealing with a lot of emotional issues with a lot of younger people running around annoying him. I’ve been looking for many excuses to write something set in the 1920s, so here we are.
It was by chance and happenstance that Quentin DeLacey was here this night. His chaperone, who’d invited him to the party at Blackgate Manor, had disappeared entirely. He’d been some friend of a cousin of a distant relative, the sort of connections a DeLacey would’ve had before the turn of the century, now dried up with his family’s money. He was the only person Quentin knew in Newgate, and that was an exaggeration. The only reason he’d stopped at Newgate and not gone all the way north to New York was the simple fact that he didn’t know a soul. Quentin had escaped his home quietly in the middle of the night with a quick lettered excuse, hoping his parents didn’t notice the shaking handwriting or money missing.
Despite the prohibition, there was champagne being served. He’d been to gin joints and speakeasies back home, but half the ladies were in the Temperance Society, and it would’ve been scandal to have it in one’s home. He stood in circles of conversation. People talked, but barely listened. More than once a question had been asked of him to gather an opinion, or more correctly, allow the question asker to express theirs. More than politics, or what the radio was saying these days, or exactly what was going on in Tennessee, people discussed their host.
Quentin had seen Simon Blackgate standing at the bar, and from a distance he seemed the usual gentleman. Not exceptionally tall and a bit rotund, his stark black hair was streaked with white on the sides, his dark suit making him a dour standout among the colorful crowd. He poured himself out a martini while talking animatedly to another person. Nine times out of the year he was a recluse, according to those that chatted not ten feet from him, yet his parties were all the rage because he was the only one who could successfully invite a ghost. He was obsessed with the spiritualism movement, Quentin was told, after the death of his wife five years past, and had remained liquored up for the most of that as well. The spiritualism part at least seemed true. All over the house were paintings of skyclad witches dancing around devilish fires, or goats twisted with their horns reaching up to the moon. In one room he found a bookcase full of occult texts with titles like The Sorcerer’s Bible and Practical Applications of Voodoo. Another was wallpapered with tiny gold runes that were almost impossible to see until the light hit them.
Quentin had grown tired of the party and gone about exploring the expansive mansion. From the outside it belonged in a storybook, black wood with red accents, and dark green shutters. The Victorian style felt a bit outdated these days, but every door creaked, and the vines growing up the side gave it a sinister look. He doubted five years ago Simon had suddenly painted everything in such an occult way. He half expected to find some altar with a virgin girl strapped to it, but instead found a sort of study. Above the fireplace was a portrait of a man and woman, the man clearly Simon Blackgate, which no doubt made the woman his wife. ‘Pretty’ wasn’t quite the right word for her, rather ‘vivacious’ or ‘stunning’ might hit the mark. Like her husband, she had dark hair, though she allowed it to roll over her shoulders, and her red lips quirked as though she were enjoying a joke she wouldn’t share. Quentin was certain if he lost a woman that beautiful, he would also devote his life to finding her again.
He jumped a little as the door creeped open, but it was only another ghost. The gentleman wore a fine jacket a size too big, and a shirt crumpled and hurried smoothed. He was young-faced, though there was a sharpness to his eyes that belied experience.
“Not enjoying the party, I see,” the man said. He glanced up at the painting as well.
“Oh, no, it’s not that.” The last thing Quentin wanted was to seem rude. “I just haven’t been to a party like this before.”
“Simon would rather let the party run itself, it’s why he sticks to being his own bartender.” He stuck out a hand. “Max Rigby, friend of the host. I’m usually the one helping him put all this together.”
“It’s Quentin DeLacey. The way people talk, I didn’t think Simon Blackgate had friends.”
“That’s what he’d say too. Luckily I know him better than that.” Max waved a hand around the room. “You into this spiritualism business?”
Quentin sucked in a breath. A stone gargoyle crouched over one of the bookcases, and in a glass case on the wall was a tome warped into a human face.
“I can’t say I’ve ever considered it,” he said.
“It’s a real hoot,” Max said. “I also know the lucky lady who’s leading the seance tonight. You ever get your fortune told?”
He shook his head.
Max grinned as he hooked his arm in his. “It’s twice as fun as talking to any of the fuddy-duddies out there.”
They walked down a long hallway, the color burgundy with more paintings hung, each with a black velvet cloth over them. The lanterns were dimmed low, and the hallways felt like a maze, intersecting and stopping suddenly. Quentin couldn’t imagine the kind of man who happily lived here, or even unhappily. He felt mad just thinking about it. Max knew where he was going though and eventually pushed open a wide double door, and they were in a large room whose walls had been painted black. A circular table wide enough for twenty people was in the center, a dark green tablecloth placed over it. Black candles had been lit in its center, the light they cast absorbed by the dark room. There was a woman standing by the table, her dark hair pinned back and covered by a black cap with a slight veil, her long black dress still a fashionable shimmy at the ankles. Beside her was another woman who was almost garish in the somber room. Her pink dress was sequined, her blond hair tied perfectly with a feather. She glanced up as the two entered, and a grin stretched across her face.
“Why, Max!” she called, causing the other woman to turn. “What have you found?”
The woman in black gave Quentin a glance over and glared at Max. “I didn’t hear a clock chime.”
“Alright, Ginny.” Max held up a hand. “Quentin DeLacey, may I introduce Miss Virginia Grace, princess of the paranormal, and her gal Lulu Louise, who I’m told is dancing now.”
“I made the chorus line,” Lulu said. “You’ve got your hands full, Gin. You’ll come see me when you’re done.”
Ginny looked downcast at the suggestion. “Lu, you could stay.”
“This ain’t my bag, babe, but thanks.” She kissed her on the cheek and waved to Max. “Try not to get into too much trouble tonight.”
“I’ve still got fifteen minutes,” Ginny said as soon as Lulu was out of the room. “I told Simon I’d be ready.”
“You’re ready.” Max waved a hand around. “Some candles, a table, you said it’d be a breeze. Quentin here wants a fortune told.”
Her glared rested on Quentin, who started to squirm. “Is that what you want?”
“I can go without,” he said. “Max was being friendly.”
“I’m sure he was.” She sighed and at on the edge of the table. “What do you want me to say, Max? He’ll meet someone tall dark and handsome? He’ll come into oodles of money? Or I could go for the dreary stuff.”
“You can go for the truth,” Max said.
“Dreary it is.” She held out a hand to Quenin. “Would you like to know your future?”
Max pushed Quentin forward, who placed his hands in hers. Ginny’s eyes narrowed on him, and then she turned his palm upward. She traced the lines with her fingernails.
“You’ve led a rather boring life, Mister DeLacey,” she said. “And it looks as though you’d love to leave every bit of it behind. You’ve just arrived in Newgate?”
“How did you–”
“It could be that I don’t recognize the name,” she said, letting his hand drop. “It could be the lack of callouses on the fingers and smooth skin. It could be how nervous you are around new people, especially those that deal in the occult. Or it could be that every young man around here as the same story. If you’d like to know your future, Mister DeLacey, I’d suggest sticking around.”
A clock chimed somewhere in the distance, a loud ringing gong, that sounded out midnight. Ginny stood up, smoothed out her dress, and offered Quentin a wink.
“It’s about to get very interesting,” she said.
Simon Blackgate pushed open the doors, now holding a whiskey on the rocks that clinked as he led the guests into the room. Max pushed Quentin down into a chair and sat beside him, Ginny moving to the head of the table. People shuffled about and looked nervously , some laughing to each other, some daring the others to take a seat. Eventually the table was filled, with Simon taking a place at Ginny’s side.
“As always, it’s a pleasure having you in my home,” he said in a tone that suggested the exact opposite. “For those who are joining us for the first time, my name is Simon Blackgate, and for each of these bacchanals I like to engage in a little mysticism. Miss Virginia Grace has been assisting us for the past year. She is a highly regarded medium. Miss Grace, if you please.”
She nodded graciously to her host and held out her arms. “I welcome all who witness here. Tonight I will lead you beyond the veil, where we will gaze into the other side. Spirits can be welcoming, but they can bring dark things into this realm as well. We must tread carefully, and, no matter what, those at the table must remain circled. If we could each take the others’ hands.”
Simon took hers, and a woman to the left of her as well. Quentin looked around. A few had eagerly clasped hands together, and a few look as hesitant as he did. Max elbowed him gently and held out his hand, still grinning. Quentin suspected everything wasn’t quite what it seemed, but he couldn’t imagine what kind of games they’d be playing. Like Catholics and jazz, his parents had disparaged spiritualism. The people in his neighborhood were more likely to burn Bibles than play on a talking board.
Hands held, lights dimmed, Virginia Grace sat back. Her eyes were closed, and she took a breath that sucked the air right out of the room. Everyone leaned forward as her shoulders twitched, just slightly, and she took another shuddering gasp.
“Mister Blackgate has many ghosts haunting his hallways,” she said, and then in a deeper voice, intoning, “I sense a presence in this room.”
Chills went through Quentin, and he squeezed Max’s hand a little tighter. Any chatter had quieted entirely. There was only the sound of Miss Grace as her body limply raised up, and her eyes looked to the heavens.
“Spirit,” she said, “make yourself known.”
Quentin felt something brush against his shoulders, but he resisted the urge to turn around. There were thirty other people pressed up in the room. He gave a glance at Max beside him, who was still smiling. A woman to their left shrieked, whirling around to see behind her.
“Something touched me!” she said.
“Keep your hands held,” Simon said. “Breaking the circle has dangerous consequences. Miss Grace?”
“I hear her calling,” she said in a wavering voice. “She’s very young, only a child. She wants to say hello.”
There was a clatter on the other side of the room, and several people jumped. Ginny wavered back and forth, and out of her mouth came a small, small voice that said, “My name is Mary.”
The room fell quiet. They were all waiting.
“Mary,” Simon said. “How old are you?”
“I’m ten years old,” Ginny responded in a child’s voice. “It’s almost my birthday.”
“How did you come to be here?”
“This is my home,” she said. “Mama and Papa came from England. I was born here.”
“Do you know how you died, Mary?”
Ginny’s head dropped down, and her voice became quieter. “I was very sick. We were all sick. Mama got it first, and then my brothers, and them my father, and then me. My chest hurts. I have been coughing for days. We are all so tired, and I cannot breathe.”
She choked off, as though suddenly overcome. Everyone was leaning closer, Quentin included. A cough racked her body, and her forehead touched the table as she tried to hold it in.
“Wait,” she said, her voice shaking between each cough. “There’s something else here.”
She continued to hack and cough as she brought herself up, and with horror Quentin saw her eyes had gone completely black. She coughed again and again, and something was coming out of her mouth, a black sticky substance, web-like and moving. It stretched, twisting in the air, expanding and contracting. Chairs clattered as people jumped away, but hands remained locked in the circle. Someone shouted, a woman fainted, and finally Ginny spat the thing onto the table. It stretched and formed limbs, a long snout appearing, baring teeth and fangs, its body twisting as it continued to form.
“My name is Arkane the devourer!” Ginny shouted in a deep, rasping voice. “These are my prey you speak to and my souls to eat! Begone! Begone or I’ll find you in your beds and devour you as well!”
The audience was streaming out, screaming and shouting. The circle was no longer. Quentin stood, but Max grabbed his arm and pulled him back into his seat. Arkane the Devourer let out a roar, streaking forward, and in no short order the room was clear except for Simon, Ginny, Max, and Quentin.
Max was practically doubled over laughing. Ginny’s eyes rolled back, and she collapsed into the chair. Simon put a hand on her shoulder, and she gave a lazy wave.
“That was disgusting,” she said as she came to her feet.
“That was amazing!” Max was crying with laughter. “Their faces!”
“A little overdramatic,” Simon said.
“You’re the one who said you hate it when people hang around.”
“Please tell me you have some mouthwash,” Ginny groaned. “You are a terrible person, Max Rigby.”
Simon handed her the whiskey glass, which she downed in one gulp. She turned her head to one side and spat black goo onto the floor.
“Another one of your friends?” Simon asked.
Max shrugged. “Morzo owed me a favor.”
“You’re the only person I know who has demons owing him favors.” Ginny grappled for another bottle of booze. “You could’ve told me. Simon, did you know about this?”
“What’s the point of having all these people drinking my booze if I don’t get to give them a scare,” he said.
“You had that whole thing lined up.” Max leaned back, adopting a high pitched squeak. “‘My name is Mary and I came over on the Mayflower.’ What’s the punchline?”
“You’re the one who said no real ghosts.” Ginny glared at Simon. “I can’t believe that happened. Ectoplasm is disgusting.”
Max slapped Quentin on the back, and he teetered in his shock. Simon proffered an extra glass.
“How was your first seance?” Max asked.
His hands shook as he brought the drink to his lips. “Is that what normally happens?”
“No,” Simon said. “Normally it’s a bunch of spooky voices and rapping wood against the table. Was it last time your lady friend banged the walls and wailed on the other side?”
“She wants to get into acting.” Ginny removed her cap. “Honestly, Simon, if you want a proper con, why do you even invite me?”
Quentin finished his drink and put it down. “Is this what you do for a living?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I bartend most nights.”
“It can’t be all that different,” Simon said. “Listening to people whine about their problems, giving them what they ask for and not what they need.”
“Yes but I have less of a chance to throw up a demon. Can I be done, Simon? Lulu’s waiting on me.”
“Don’t want her to get distracted,” Max said.
She marched up to him. “If you ever pull that again, Max Rigby, I’ll curse you, and there’ll be no more free drinks at the Bubbling Cauldron.”
“What’ve you got against fun!” Max shouted at her retreating back.
“Come along, gentlemen,” Simon said. “The rest of the liquor is downstairs, and it hates to see me gone too long.”
Quentin was still shaking as he followed Simon downstairs. The guests were gone entirely, and Simon went straight to the bar, where he started mixing a martini.
“How much of that was real, exactly?” Quentin asked as he watched Simon pour a drink into the first glass he found.
“I like to leave that to the imagination,” Simon said. “Seance’s at every party on the block, thanks to me.”
Max flopped down on the couch, kicking aside party favors. “Simon only socializes ‘cause the missus made him promise.”
Quentin glanced nervously at their host. “Your wife?”
“The only thing Sybil liked more than traversing ancient ruins and drinking vodka an American tongue can’t pronounce is a party,” he said. “Now these fools have a talking board at every party, and I like to remind folks what waits for them beyond the veil.”
“You and your wife did this together?”
“The obsessed widower is far better story than the truth.” He looked down at the drink. Quentin could see his eyes were red, his shoulders slumped. “In truth, I wouldn’t bother trying to find her here on the mortal plane. She expressly forbid me, anyway. That’s the sort of task that drives men mad.”
“You’re killing the mood,” Max said. “Need any help cleaning up before we skedaddle?”
He waved a hand. “It’ll get done.”
“Enjoy your night, Simon.”
Simon didn’t say anything in response as Max dragged Quentin up and out of the house. In front of the manor was a wide driveway, dark gargoyles resting on pillars surrounding the curved road. They walked to the front gate. Off in the distance were the tall buildings of Newgate, bright lights twinkling like stars.
“How’s your night going?” Max asked as he pulled out a cigarette. He offered one to Quentin, who shook his head.
“It’s not what I expected,” he admitted.
“If you hang around,” he said, bringing the cigarette to his lips and lighting it, “I can promise it’ll be this exciting all the time.”
Quentin stared at him. “You’re telling me there’s something more exciting than a demon crawling out of your friend’s mouth.”
“Well, there’s this party I know happening downtown.” He shrugged. “If you’re still up for some fun.”
Quentin realized for the first time he had an option. His father wouldn’t be waiting with an expression of disappointment and disapproval, no appointments in the morning his family had set out to make him, and no expectations for when or if he would return. He looked at Max, who let out a breath of smoke and grinned.
“What kind of party?” he asked.
Max wrapped an arm around him. “We’re going to have so much fun.”
Newgate glimmered in the midnight. beneath the shining surface, in the darkened streets, a city moved. Souls carried with them the hardships of the day and brought them into speakeasies and opium dens. Beneath that, in the rich soil, under the foundation of stone, twisted things lurked. Another party was happening, frenzied and swinging with jazz and liquor. It was hard to say the moment the night turned to terror, but the blood started spilling, and the whole city slept on, without knowing the darkness that stirred beneath their feet.