"Night Hunting" by Georgi Ostashov


Houdini's Locksmith
by Edward C. Lynskey


Today I turned 93. Choice adjectives I've overheard describing me in flippant remarks made by my grandnieces include "spry," "nimble," and my least favorite, "alert". All told, I don't have much to grouse about -- the usual aches and maladies. Lately, any opportunity to visit my contemporaries has disappeared. They're all dead and buried.

It's okay. Most weren't worth the trouble. The men were scoundrels; the ladies were their wives. My grandnieces scold me for taking a negative view of my history, but Lord knows I can't sugarcoat a turd. To be fair, I've run these old memories through my rickety brain again and what I view still rankles me. The movie showing on my eyelids melts into light when I'm awakened.

"Uncle Esdras, that insistent young journalist waits in the foyer," says Mildred. She touches my forearm. "Did you hear me?"

Mildred is 16 months from an early retirement as she reminds me weekly. Should I survive that long, Mildred has promised to move in and look after my needs. Oh boy, I can't wait. After my vision clears, I nod at her.

"Thank you, Mildred. I'll be in directly. Please escort the punk into the den."

Mildred rolls her flat, gray eyes. "He's not a punk. Promise you'll be civil. Otherwise, I'll send him along. No. No, I won't do that either. You just trot right in and talk to him. After all, more social interaction is what Dr. Hermes ordered."

"I'd like to take a stethoscope and wring Dr. Hermes' neck," I say.

Unfolding myself to arise from the Barcalounger and grumbling through groans, I wave off Mildred's rapt gaze. She's such a pill. "Yeah, yeah. So, just park the punk in the den."

"His name is Ronald Stires." Mildred enjoys correcting me. "He's from the local newspaper. You treat him nice, hear?"

"I know who he is. I know why he's here. I know I don't like it."

Smiling, Mildred tweaks my sunken cheek in mock annoyance. "Mr. Stires is your houseguest. Your obligation as a gracious host is to make him feel welcome. That way, he'll drop by again."

Pausing after swaying upright and gaining my balance, I bark over a shoulder. "Mildred, fetch me two icy club beers. The cheap crap in the green bottles, too."

Ronald Stires stands in the den studying the almost life-sized portrait of my most infamous client, Houdini wrapped in golden chains, locks, and not much else. Stires' has his nose almost plastered to the glass. Low in the right-hand corner, scrawled in a spidery script, he could if he cared make out the faded dedication:

To my dear chap, Esdras Clementine --
My best compatriot in crime!

Harry Houdini
October 31, 1924

Stires charms me with a smarmy grin as I enter toting two beers and shove one at him. He sips after toasting Houdini's inspiring image. I subside into an overstuffed orange chair, tap my hawthorn cane urging Stires to crash in the horsehair divan beneath Houdini. He does so.

"Hallo Stires," I sing out before a swig. "You're not back to harangue me about the thirty-first, right?"

"Please. Hear me out," Stires says. "I've gone to a lot of trouble to arrange things."

His uncharacteristic polite plea strikes a chord. Surprised, I find myself nodding encouragement for him to continue speaking.

"Every October 31st since 1927, on the anniversary of Harry Houdini's death, an official séance has been conducted. His widow, Bess, participated in all of them until 1938. Nonetheless the tradition has been carried on."

I wave my hand to speed him along. "Yes, I'm aware of Harry's Halloween séances. They're just the sort of a dog-and-pony show you cub reporters lap up."

Stires wipes his face with a free palm, chugs down a gulp of beer. "Yes, perhaps. Except Mr. Clementine this year's is vastly different." He leans forward to check the doorway as if to ensure we're alone. He lowers his voice to a harsh whisper. "We tracked down a medium from Sri Lanka named Pinkie. She's the real deal. She can contact the other side."

Snorting in ticklish disbelief, I almost spray beer from my nostrils. Swallowing and coughing, I hold up a shaky hand until I'm composed enough to respond. "Pinkie? A spiritualist named Pinkie? Land of Goshen, Stires. You've been snookered. Again."

"Good ahead, laugh at my expense. Except two nights ago in my office, Pinkie reached out beyond the veil to your deceased wife. Patricia is it?" Stires drains his beer dregs, with a prolonged belch gloats at me.

I shrug and laugh uneasily. "Talked to Trish? Did she have good words for me?"

"She said to tell you how scandalous you look clad in women's lingerie."

This time beer does spray from my nose, dribbles down my slack jaws. "All right. Never mind about that," I manage to interject. After plucking several Kleenexes from a box, I wipe off beer.

Stires places the bottle on a coaster. "There's more."

"All right," I say. "That's quite enough out of you. You're ready make a deal. I can smell that. What is it you require of me?"

Stires half-lidded eyes abuzz with cruel mirth focus on me. "Pinkie needs a living mortal who personally knew Harry Houdini in attendance this year. You're the only gent who can fill that order."

"Okay, okay. If I grant this for you, there is to be no further communications with my late spouse, Trish. Agreed?" I extended my right hand that he seizes to shake.

"Agreed. You're still green about the gills, so I'll leave details about the séance with Mildred." Stires, the plucky little punk he is, shows himself out to the kitchen. In a short while, I overhear Mildred and him laughing before he slams out the front door. My jaws tense and nearly lock up from anger.

* * *

Mildred has always made a big production out of dispensing treats to miniscule hobgoblins ringing our doorbell on Halloween night. I get a kick of it, too. This year is different, however. Our porch lamp will remain dark. Mildred and I have an invitation to participate in a séance held at the Mount Holly Cemetery. Mildred is excited. She has driven over to Rose's Department Store in Raleigh and purchased a new black crepe dress to match her sturdy black pumps and felt hat.

"You should go attired in a tuxedo," she instructs me.

"A clean Arrow button-down shirt and pressed chinos will be more than adequate," I say. "Well, at least wear a necktie. Where is that dark navy blue one Pamela gave you last Christmas?" Mildred rummages through my closet clutter. "I'll shine your black Florsheims, too."

"Is all this fuss necessary? I believe it'll be dark as inside a cow's belly."

"Perhaps to you and I." Turning a bit, Mildred begins to snicker into her hand. "But Auntie Trish will notice everything you're wearing," she adds.

That shuts me up. At last dressed to the nines, we are ready to venture out to my antiquated Comet. Humming, Mildred guides me leaning on her elbow for support and eases me into the passenger side. She slips under the steering wheel, cranks the ignition key. We pull away, backfiring and sputtering past my neighbors' yards dotted with menacing jack-o-lanterns and luminous broomsticks. Kids in scare rags are circulating, their parents hovering ever near.

"You did realize this counts as the official Harry Houdini séance?" Mildred's hand travels up to readjust her felt hat. "Imagine, right here in Mount Holly Cemetery, too."

I stare at lines of cars parked along the street now sweeping into our headlamp's beam. "Christ, what did Stires invite the whole population?" I wonder.

A determined Mildred gooses the gas and mastering our sudden spurt, she leaps a ditch and glides between headstones before braking to a halt. As my white knuckles detach from the seat cover, I gaze over in wild-eye wonder.

"Sorry Uncle Esdras," Mildred mutters, shoving her door wide. "But we needed a closeby parking slot. After all, we are the guests of honor."

This is the craziest idea, I think before my high-pitched voice implores. "Never mind. Can you pry open my door? It seems to be stuck."

As soon as I am standing erect aided by hawthorn cane and Mildred, Stires holding a flashlight arrives to usher us through throngs of folks to the round table. We're shuffling toward the cemetery's center.

"The harvest moon is not too orange according to Pinkie," he gushes.

"Oh this is a riot!" says Mildred.

"Bushwah," I say.

Stires and Mildred seat me at the round wooden table. About me are others, older men and women formally dressed. I shiver, tug my sports jacket snug. Overhead the moon burps; gimlet stars are embers from a giant's discarded cigarette. "Psst," I summon Mildred. "Pass me my flask of brandy."

"Just you shush," says Mildred. She pats my shoulder.

A silver bell rings. Someone dims the Coleman lanterns dangling from bamboo poles. Sniffing, I smell burnt incense and sneeze.

"We are ready to begin," a lady on my immediate left announces. She's in charge and I assume she is Pinkie. "Please link hands with your neighbors."

A harridan grips my right hand like squeezing a hardball. When I go to retract it, Pinkie drones on. "Tonight Mr. Esdras Clementine has kindly consented to assist us in our attempt to communicate with Mister Harry Houdini in the far beyond. Funnel your positive energies through him, please."

"Oooooo, yesss," Mildred says from somewhere behind me.

The lady moans, utters some gibberish. A bell rings. Feeling silly, I shut my eyes as commanded. More gibberish ensues. The crowd noise dies, expectations mount. The dog-and-pony show is now in full gear. Now in the center ring underneath the spotlight, I serve as the MC. Hurray. Please, please no applause.

Then something stirs Houdini's locks and chains picking them up to rattle and shake. The harridan inhales, catches her breath.

Of course, I haven't heard Harry's earthly voice since 1926 when he passed away with his brother and I clustered at his deathbed. Still at this initial articulation, I instantly know it is Harry, my memory fresh and sharp on that score. I espy a mauve mist swirled before me assuming a vague man-shape.

"Esdras!" Harry booms. "Esdras, can you hear me?"

I lick dry lips; my eyes remain closed. "Sure I do. Right here, Harry. I hear your voice. Loud and clear."

"Esdras! . . . see that this tomfoolery ceases . . . no more these yearly summons!"

I nearly swallow my dentures jarred loose from slippery gums. "Whatever you say," I reply. "Sure, Harry."

"Silence! . . . I command never reveal our secrets to escape the locks and chains and shackles . . . the fabulous Houdini mystique must never diminish . . . never!"

"Right. Never. Count on it," I say. "Can I now request one favor of you?"

"If you really must," Harry half-growls. "Be quick! I must depart."

"Tell my late wife Trish to keep her pie-hole shut." My cheeks burn. "Being a mortal and 93 years old ain't a cakewalk. Just tell her I need my fun, damn it."

"Trish will hear of this today!" Harry shouts. "Soon I will return for you, loyal friend, for our final act."

I sputter: "Hopefully not too damn soon."

"Soon! . . . soon!" Harry vanishes -- swoosh! -- and darkness swallows my inner vision. All is quiet again.

When the silver bell rings, I fall out of the trance slumped in the chair. From above, Mildred is fanning my face with a folded up newspaper.

"He's regaining consciousness. Here have a sip." Mildred touches a glass rim to my lips. The gin is refreshing.

"Mister Clementine, did you communicate with Harry Houdini?" Pinkie asks me.

An angular old man lunges across the table, his withered claw clutching for my sleeve. "Did Harry divulge how he pulled off that submerged coffin stunt? For decades it's bugged me to know."

Mildred nudges my shoulder. "Go on. Don't act bashful. We're waiting. Tell us."

I shake my head. "Nope, folks. Sorry. I didn't make any contact. I guess I just fainted for a few minutes there."

A chorus of disappointed sighs escapes the crowd. However, I smile on the inside. Things about Harry like the submerged coffin trick bug me. But life will be grand for me as long as Trish shuts her damn mouth.

Story © 2002 by Edward C. Lynskey e_lynskey@yahoo.com

Illustration © 2002 by Georgi Ostashov georgi@home13.net

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