By TC Phillips
The spring of 1930 had been late in coming; for weeks bleak skies and cold winds had stubbornly refused to let winter’s chill pass. Though as May drew to a close, and the promise of summer edged ever closer, the sun eventually returned and began reinvigorating southern England with its gentle warmth.
Yet as pleasant as the weather outside seemed late one morning, the warmth hardly seemed to penetrate into the darkened gloom of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s heavily draped room. A choking mixture of wood and tobacco smoke filled the air and the room’s sole occupant sat ruminating in silence beside a fireplace recently grown cold. Setting a match to contents of his clay pipe, the first breath of smoke caused a harsh racking cough. Pain twinged briefly through the author’s chest, and he waited for it to pass before drawing deeply on the pipe again.
A gentle knock at the door brought him back from his own thoughts, which had grown dark these past few weeks. Death was near, he needed neither spirit nor prophecy to tell him that—rather both his doctor and wife had told him often enough.
Another knock came—this time louder, more insistent.
“Leave me be,” he said, loud enough to be heard through the door. “I still draw breath yet.”
Yet another knock came, this time followed by the rattling of the door’s knob.
“The door is locked, my dear. And I require neither drink nor tonic,” he said with growing impatience. Jean had done her utmost to dote upon his every need these past few weeks, but with each passing day he increasingly yearned only for solitude and the company of his own thoughts.
A scratching sound, like an ill-fitting key being forced into the lock, came from the door. Reaching into his coat pocket, his fingers lightly traced the shape of the door’s only key. Jean was obviously growing tired of his self imposed seclusion and was resorting to desperate measures.
He chuckled softly under his breath; the woman really could be the very personification of stubbornness when she had the mind to be. Just as well really, she would have needed to be to remain married to him throughout all these long years.
The scratching continued for a few brief moments before it ceased altogether. Exhaling a victorious cloud of pipe smoke, the author had a half a mind to say something witty when the door announced the telltale click of the lock mechanism springing open.
As the door opened, the visitor standing in the opening was certainly not whom he was expecting.
Though he should have realised he was coming.
“Hello, Sir Arthur,” the visitor said, filled with the brash confidence of his American tones. “You don’t look so well, old man.”
Sir Arthur barked a short laugh, and as he did so the crushing pains in his chest and mind began to subside. “Always the master of understatement. You, on the other hand, look exceedingly well for one in your current position.”
The visitor gave a nonchalant shrug and a knowing grin, causing the author to return his own smile in kind. Indicating the chair situated directly opposite his own, the visitor responded to Sir Arthur’s wordless invitation by quietly easing himself into the leather seat.
Clean-shaven, well-groomed and immaculately dressed, the visitor was a stark contrast to the dishevelled author whose recent spate of illness had struck hard. “So tell me,” he said between clouds of pipe smoke. “What is it you’ve come for?”
“I’ve come, my old friend, for a tale,” the visitor answered.
“Indeed? I’m afraid my story telling days have come to a close. I don’t have any tales left in me anymore. Besides I am sick to death of that detective fellow people keep pestering me about.”
“I’ve not come for the sleuth, dear boy. I’ve come to hear about the great Houdini. I’ve come to hear about his death.”
Sir Arthur regarded his visitor silently, placing the stem of his pipe between his teeth and inhaling deeply. The pains in his chest had now all but vanished, and he luxuriated for a moment in the brief sensation of relief. “Very well,” he finally acceded behind another cloud of pipe smoke. “Though I am sure you will have much in my own telling to dispute.”
“When haven’t we both?” the visitor chuckled. “Besides, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Very well, then. Let me begin by suggesting Houdini’s death was no accident. No random act of happenstance.”
“You believe he was murdered?” the visitor asked incredulously.
“Not by the hand of any living man at least. As great and keen-minded a man as Houdini was, and as you know all too well I had known him for a good many years, he failed to see the truth of the world beyond this one. He had been warned, and he had been threatened, many a time by the self same spirits he sought so hard to disprove. ”
“You suggest his death was the work of spirits?”
“I suggest his death was the result of a proud man too stubborn to take heed of warnings coming from sources he didn’t accept. The man was the master of escaping death, it was more than his trade—it was his gift. Time and again, I had seen him work the impossible, but he refused to pay heed to what had been foretold.
“He had even predicted it himself. Repeatedly and fervently, he had denounced the world’s mediums as nothing more than a rag-tag rabble consisting solely of fraudsters and charlatans. Yet I swear he was among the most powerfully gifted mediums I had ever encountered.”
The visitor snorted in disbelief. “The Great Houdini was psychic?”
“I find that difficult to accept,” the visitor said, slowly shaking his head.
Sir Arthur merely smiled, “You always did.” It had been years since he had last laid eyes on his visitor, a longer time still since the two had last sparred off against one another. It amused him that he had managed to ruffle his feathers so early on in the piece.
Normally it would have taken him far longer.
“Very well then,” the visitor recovered himself. “Let us assume you are correct in your wild accusations. If Houdini really were psychic, how come he did not see his own end?”
“But he did,” Sir Arthur countered. “A mere handful of weeks before his passing, he proclaimed to world the coffin he had specially made for one of his feats would be the self-same he would be buried in.”
“Bah,” the visitor spat. “A case of showmanship coinciding with random chance. Nothing more.”
“Really? Was it chance at play that Houdini had brought the coffin with him to all the way to his last show even though it was not being used? Was it merely chance that it would be conveniently close by, when by all accounts it should have been hundreds of miles away back in New York? No, I think not. Houdini knew his end was coming, and he wasn’t the only one.”
“Alright, let us suppose you are correct and Houdini had foreseen his own demise. Why then did he not prevent its happening?”
“I would suspect that would be a question which could only be answered by Houdini himself,” Sir Arthur admitted with a shrug. “Perhaps he found that he could not avoid his fate, no matter how hard he tried or wished to. Or perhaps, his refusal to accept the truth of the paranormal even extended to his own visions and insights.
“As you know the man could be extraordinarily stubborn. Who else would perform to a full house with a raging fever? Who else, for that matter, would hold on for six days with an ailment which would see most men dead in two?”
The visitor sat in silence, clearly judging the weight of Sir Arthur’s argument. Sensing a potential victory, the author exhaled a triumphant cloud of smoke in the visitor’s direction. It was a low tactic, Sir Arthur knew only too well his visitor abhorred both drink and smoke, but if it bothered him he did well in not letting it show.
“No, my friend,” Sir Arthur continued. “There was far more at play in Houdini’s demise than mere random chance. How many years did Houdini set about performing some of the most daring feats imaginable without incurring a single scratch? Not one single accident or misstep in a long career of exploits the likes of which have seen scores of lesser skilled men seriously injured, or worse. Not one, that is, until his final weeks saw him travel from one misfortune to the next. It is not hard to imagine that there very well may have been some untold force behind the extraordinary sequence of events leading to his untimely death.
“Years earlier, during his so called ‘exposure’ of Mrs Crandon, he had raised the ire of at least one potent spirit. Where he had sought denounce Mrs Crandon’s abilities, the presiding spirit of her departed brother had much to say regarding Houdini’s efforts. Far beyond harsh words, Walter, the spirit of Mina’s brother had issued a blatant threat. With his indiscriminate campaign against spiritualism, I imagine that Mrs Crandon’s brother was far from the only spirit he had angered in his time.”
Sir Arthur drew from his pipe once more, gauging the effect his words had on his unexpected visitor. It was certainly had to determine, the well-dressed man continued sitting in silence, his chain resting squarely against his chest. So quiet and still he had become, Sir Arthur couldn’t even detect the gentle rise and fall of living breath.
“Suppose,” the visitor said, finally breaking his silence. “Just suppose there was another explanation.”
“Such as?” Sir Arthur asked.
“The Great Houdini is not dead,” he replied matter-of-factly.
This time it was Sir Arthur’s turn to splutter incredulously, which in-turn led to the eruption of another uncontrolled fit of coughing. The visitor’s sideways grin returned as Sir Arthur struggled to recompose himself. Wiping tears from his eyes, the author said, “And you accuse me of wild suppositions?”
“It seems to make perfect sense to me. Who better to stage such a grandiose illusion? It would have been a mystification to rival any previously performed throughout his illustrious career.”
“You are suggesting his whole death was staged?”
“You, yourself, claimed that far too much happened in the lead up to his demise to be taken seriously as sequence of random probabilities. But what if, much like you suggest, it was not random? What if everything that transpired happened exactly according to Houdini’s design?
“You ask why Houdini would travel with a specially designed coffin, one which he never used in his show but the one in which he would eventually be buried. The answer is that it was specially designed according to his needs, it was one which he knew he could escape from when the time came.”
“And what then,” Sir Arthur asked, “of the injuries? What of his ruptured appendix? It would strike me as a hard malady to stage, even for one in possession of such talents as Houdini.”
“Who actually had direct, first-hand knowledge of the incident touted as the original cause of his passing? Apart from Houdini himself, there were only the McGill students who witnessed the supposed blows which are said to have caused his appendix to burst. It would not take much at all to persuade three young university students to play their part.”
“And the fevers? The doctors who treated him?”
The visitor waved a dismissive hand, “All one needs to reproduce the symptoms of fever is the prior application of a hot towel to the skin. As for the doctors, you should probably know better than others that possession of a medical qualification does not preclude one from participation in an act of duplicity. Though it probably meant their complicity came at a much higher price than that of the students.
“The doctors in attendance even claim to have issued an ‘experimental’ treatment in a desperate bid aimed at abating his decline, yet no word or detail of that treatment has ever seen the light of day. Successful or not, one would think the particulars of this treatment would be well published given the level of attention Houdini’s death attracted.
“But what if, rather than an intended cure, this supposed treatment was actually an anaesthetic of sorts? One carefully administered by medical professionals to help Houdini mimic the signs of death and complete his intricate scheme.”
Sir Arthur laughed, “You should have tried your own hand at fiction, friend. You certainly weave a fine tale.”
“Perhaps,” the visitor conceded. “However I can confirm one thing, my dear Sir Arthur. One of us is right.”
“Indeed. And for these last moments you have either been conversing with a departed spirit or a man of living flesh and blood. Do you care to wager exactly which?”
“If I did, how, precisely, would you intend on settling that question my dear Houdini?”
The visitor held out his hand, “Simple. Grasp my hand, tell me if you feel the warmth of living flesh.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave his contrary friend, the Great Harry Houdini, an appraising eye. Shifting in his chair, he knocked the ash from his pipe into a nearby ashtray. Refilling the bowl with fresh short-cut shag, he struck another match bringing its glow back to life. “I think not, my friend,” Sir Arthur said with a smile. “A magician’s secrets are often best left untold.”
TC Phillips considers himself to be a novice wordsmith with big aspirations. Hailing from tropical Central Queensland Australia, when he’s not too busy sweating profusely he is usually running around after three beautiful young children or completing post-graduate studies in Writing via Swinburne University. Somewhere in-between all that he also manages to squeeze in working as a workplace trainer.
Primarily preoccupied with speculative fiction in all its forms and manifestations, he loves writing horror, historical fiction, sci-fi and fantasy. You can track his everyday encounters with the wonderful world of the written word on his website www.cobblestonescribe.com .