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Authors: Mark Frost

The List Of Seven

BOOK: The List Of Seven
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Mark Frost

Chapter one AN ENVELOPE


no watermarks. Expensive. Scuffed at the corners, it had attracted grime as it was slid under the door, silently. The Doctor did not hear it, and his ears were keen, sharp as a crone's knees, like all his senses.

He was in the front room, had been throughout the evening, feeding the fire, absorbed in an obscure text. Forty-five minutes earlier, he had glanced up as the Petrovitch woman ascended the stairs, the scrabbly scuttle of her dachshund's claws dragging her back to an evening of heart-heavy sighs amid the torpid musk of stewed red cabbage. The Doctor watched their spidery shadows flit by, dancing off the glazed floorboards under the door. There had been no envelope.

He vaguely remembered wishing there were an easier way to examine his timepiece than extracting it from his waistcoat and cracking it open. That was why, when he spent an evening in, he set it open, on his reading table. Time, or rather the elimination of its senseless squandering, obsessed him. And he had looked at his watch when the rat dog and its scrawny, melancholic Russian mistress shuffled by: quarter past nine.

The text drew him back. Isis Unveiled. Surely this Blavatsky woman was mad: another Russian, like poor Petrovitch with her plum wine. When you uprooted these Czarists and tried to replant them in English soil, was lunacy some inevitable consequence? Coincidence, he reasoned; one heartsick spinster and a megalomaniacal, cigar-chomping Transcendentalist did not constitute a trend.

He turned to study the photograph of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the frontispiece: the preternatural stillness, that

clear, penetrating gaze. Most faces instinctively shrank from the insectoid jumble of the camera. She reached out and swallowed it whole. What was he to make of this curious tome? his Unveiled. Eight volumes to date, more threatened, all in excess of five hundred pages—and this only one-quarter of the woman's oeuvre—a work purporting to assimilate and eclipse, with a ringing absence of irony, every known spiritual, philosophic, and scientific system of thought: in other words, a revisionist theory of all creation.

Although, according to the biographical passage under her picture, HPB had spent the better part of her fifty-odd years trotting the globe communing with ;this or that occultist ashram, she coyly attributed the book's genesis to divine inspiration, courtesy of a steady roster of Ascended Masters materializing before her like Hamlet's Ghost, claiming that occasionally one of these Holy of Holies stepped inside her head and assumed the reins: automatic writing, she called it. True, the book possessed two distinctly different styles—he hesitated to term them "voices"—but as to content, the thing was a flea market of mumbo jumbo: lost continents, cosmic rays, root races, evil cabals of black magicians. To be fair, he had in fact employed similar notions in his own writing, but that was fiction, for God's sake, and she was offering this as


With that debate agitating his mind, he looked up and spied the envelope. Had it just been set there? Had some faint beneath-conscious perception registered as it slipped over the jamb and pulled his eyes to it? He remembered hearing nothing—no approach, no crack of bended knee, no glove on wood or paper, no one receding—and those timeworn stairs announced a visitor as reliably as a brass fanfare. Had immersion in Blavatsky so narrowed his senses? Not likely. Even in the surgeon's theater, with the dying, strapped down, spurting fluids, shrieking in his face, he picked up sounds around him like a restive cat.

Nevertheless, the envelope was there. Could have been there for ... ten o'clock now ... a good forty-five minutes. Or perhaps its courier had only just arrived and remained still standing just outside his door.

The Doctor listened for signs of life, aware of his heart accelerating and the acrid, irrational taste of fear. He was no

stranger to it. He silently drew from the umbrella stand his stoutest walking stick, flipped it deftly in his hand, and with its gnarled, blackened knob poised, opened the door.

What he saw, or didn't see, in the corridor's flickering gaslight would be a subject of internal contention for some time to come: Accompanied by a sharp suck of air as the door swung inward, an enveloping shadow fell away from that hall with the speed of a magician's black silk handkerchief snatched off an ivory tablecloth. Or so in that moment it seemed.

The corridor was empty. He registered no sensory impression of any person having just been present. Nearby he heard the whine of an ill-tuned violin; more distantly, an infant's colicky howl, hooves on cobblestone.

Blavatsky must be having her way with me, he thought; that's what one gets for reading her after dark. "I am suggestible," he muttered, as he withdrew to his rooms, locked the door, replaced the shillelagh, and turned his attention to the matter in hand.

The envelope was square. No writing on it. He held it to the light; the bond was thick, unyielding any silhouette. It looked perfectly ordinary.

Reaching into his Gladstone, he retrieved a sharp lancet and, with the surgical exactness that was his custom in all routine procedures, pierced and slit the crown. A single sheet of vellum, thinner stock than the envelope but matched, slipped smoothly into his hand. No mark or monogram adorned it, but this was clearly a gentleman's—or gentlewoman's—correspondence. Folded once, a clean crease, he opened it and read:


Your presence is required in a matter of utmost urgency pertaining to the fraudulent public practice of the spiritualist arts. I am told of your sympathy to the victims of just such adventurers as these. Your aid is indispensable to one who may not be named here. As a man of God and science, I beseech your timely response. An innocent's life hangs in the balance. Tomorrow night. 8:00. 13 Cheshire Street.


First of all, the writing: block-printed, clean, and precise, an educated hand. Words embossed deeply in the hearty parchment, the pen gripped tightly, the hand pressed firmly; although not scripted in haste, the urgency was genuine. Written within the hour.

This was not the first such entreaty he had received. The Doctor's campaign to expose fraudulent mediums and their loathsome ilk was well known to certain grateful members of London society. He was not a public man and sought no public recognition, taking measures to avoid such exposure entirely, but word of his work occasionally found its way to those in need. Not the first such appeal, no, but certainly the most dire.

The paper carried no scent or perfume. No identifiable flourishes. The hand was as studiously sexless as the stationery. Anonymity this complete was practiced.

A woman, he concluded: monied, learned, vulnerable to scandal. Married or related to someone of note or station. A dabbler in the shallows of the "spiritual arts." That often described those who have recently suffered, or fear they are on the verge of suffering, a profound loss.

An innocent. A spouse or child. Hers.

The address given was in the East End, near Bethnal Green. A mean spot: no place for a highborn woman to venture alone. For a man largely unfettered by doubt amid even the worst uncertainty, there would be none regarding his response.

Before delving back into Blavatsky, Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle made a mental note to clean and load his revolver.

It was Christmas Day, 1884.

The flat where Doyle lived and worked occupied the second floor of an aging building in a working-class neighborhood of London. These were humble quarters, a sitting room and a cramped sleeping chamber, inhabited by a modest man of limited means and a steady, confident manner. By nature, and now in practice, a healer, Master of Surgery these three years, a young man approaching his twenty-sixth year and the cusp of entry into that unspoken fraternity whose members quietly carry on despite conscious awareness of their own mortality.

His physician's faith in the infallibility of science was ingrained but brittle and laced with a spiderwork of faults. Although he had fallen from the Catholic Church a decade before, there persisted in Doyle a hunger for belief; as he saw it, it now remained the exclusive province of science to empirically establish the existence of the human soul. He fully expected science would eventually lead him to the higher reaches of spiritual discovery, and yet coexisting with this rock-ribbed certainty was a wild, weightless yearning for abandon, a ripping away of reality's masking complaisance to incite a merging with the mystic, a death in life leading to greater life. This longing prowled his mind like a wraith. He had never spoken of it, not once, to anyone.

To appease that desire for surrender, he read Blavatsky and Emanuel Swedenborg and a host of other long-winded mystics, scouring obscure bookshops in search of rational proof he could quantify, confirmation he could hold in his hands. He attended meetings of the London Spiritualist Alliance. He sought out mediums and seers and psychics, conducted his own parlor seances, visited houses where the dead reportedly did not rest. In every instance, Doyle brought to bear his three cardinal principles—observation, precision, and deduction; these were the cornerstones upon which he had constructed his sense of self—and he recorded his findings clinically, privately, without conclusions, preamble to some larger work whose shape would reveal itself to him only in time.

As his studies deepened, the wrestling within him between science and spirit, these two irreconcilable polarities, grew increasingly clangorous and divisive. He pressed on nonetheless. He knew too well what could happen to men who surrendered that fight: To one side stood the self-appointed pillars of morality, manning the ramparts of Church and State, sworn enemies of change, dead inside but lacking the good sense to lie down; at the other extreme lay a host of wretches chained to asylum walls, wearing their own filth, eyes bum-ing with ecstasy as they communed with an illusory perfection. He drew no judgmental distinction between these extremes: He knew that the path of human perfectibility—the path he aspired to walk—lay exactly on the midpoint between them. It remained his hope that if science was unable to lead

him down that middle path, perhaps he could help science find its footing there.

This determination generated two unexpected results: First, when in this spirit of investigation he chanced upon some fraud or advantage taken of the weak of mind or heart by scoundrels for deceitful gain, he would without hesitation unmask the perpetrators. Low and foul characters, these swindlers generally sprang from the criminal class and understood only the idiom of violence: hard words, tables overturned, physical threats promised and delivered. At the urging of a Scotland Yard confidant, Doyle had recently begun to carry the revolver after the exposure of a counterfeit Gypsy provoked a dagger attack that nearly provided him with firsthand experience of the Great Beyond.

The second: Living with these contradictory impulses—the desire for faith; the need to prove faith genuine before embracing it—left Doyle with the simple human need to compose his unresolved reactions. He found the ideal forum in writing works of fiction, reducing his shapeless experience of this murky netherworld into straightforward narrative lines: stories of mythic planes, dread and eldritch deeds committed by plotters of evil intent, contested by men from the world of light and knowledge—not unlike himself—who ventured knowingly and for the most part recklessly into the darkness.

In service to that vision, during the previous years Doyle produced four manuscripts. His first three efforts had been dutifully submitted to a succession of publishers, where they were uniformly rejected and returned, then consigned to the depths of a wicker footlocker he'd brought back from the South Seas. He was still awaiting responses to his most recent composition—a rousing adventure story entitled "The Dark Brotherhood"—which he considered his most accomplished work for a number of reasons, not the least of which being his fervent desire to lift himself out of shabby-genteel poverty.

As to his physical appearance, suffice it to say that Doyle was man enough for the tasks he set himself, sturdy, athletic, without vanity but not above a conditioned twinge of shame if he encountered social betters while wearing cuff or collar frayed by his financial limits.

He had seen enough of vice to be sympathetic to the cap-

tives of its hooks and snares without ever having been entangled there himself. He was not boastful and by inclination held greater stock in listening than speaking. Of human nature, he hoped for basic decencies, and met its inevitable disappointments without rancor or surprise.

The fairer sex aroused in him a natural and healthy interest but also on occasion tapped a vein of vulnerability, a pocket of frailty and indecision in an otherwise solid granite facing. This tendency had never offered more of a predicament than the standard vexations and anxieties posed to any younger man in the pursuit of love. As he was about to discover, it would soon present far graver consequences.

BOOK: The List Of Seven
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