San Francisco attorney Sarah Woolson attends a séance, and after a dramatic display, the clairvoyant and her guests discover that one of the attendees has been brutally strangled. Soon Sarah is pressed into defending the accused murderer
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Shirley Tallman was born in Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco at an early age. She and her husband, Bob, live in Eugene, Oregon, where she continues to work as a novelist and screenwriter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter One I can't believe I let you talk me into this!" Robert Campbell grumbled. As if to punctuate this complaint, jagged bolts of lightning flashed across the night sky, followed by a resounding clap of thunder. That brief burst of light revealed my companion's tense face as the cabbie's frightened horse nearly ran our brougham off the road. Eddie Cooper--the young lad I'd met several months ago during the Russian Hill murders--quickly brought the dappled gray under control. Unfortunately, he seemed disinclined to lessen his horse's pace as the first heavy drops of rain splashed onto the roof of the carriage. My tall, brusque colleague--until recently one of my coworkers at the prestigious San Francisco law firm of Shepard, Shepard, McNaughton and Hall--pressed his face against the window to glare outside at what was rapidly turning into a downpour. "I told you we were in for a storm. But no, nothing would do but that you drag me out to Land's End in the middle of a hurricane. And for a sťance, of all the bizarre--" "Oh, for the love of heaven!" I sighed, fighting to retain my patience. Robert Campbell, who had proved to be a loyal ally in several past adventures, nonetheless could exhaust the fortitude of a saint. "Hurricanes occur in the tropics. This is nothing more than a rainstorm. Do stop being so melodramatic." Naturally, he ignored me. "If your brother Samuel is so het up to write an article about ghosts and goblins, why didn't he make this ridiculous trip himself?" "For the dozenth time, Samuel had to leave for Sacramento this morning. And as he has not as yet acquired the ability to be in two places at once, he asked me to go in his stead." I was forced to grip the seat, as our carriage wheels bounced over a deep pothole, resulting in a fresh mumble of curses from my disgruntled companion. "Robert, be honest. Aren't you the least bit curious about Madame Karpova? The city has talked of little else for weeks. From what I've heard, her European tour earlier this year was a huge success." He gave a low grunt. "I don't have any patience for gullible people who believe that this--this charlatan can actually communicate with the dead." He jerked as another flash of lightning threw the bleak countryside into stark illumination. "And why in God's name does she have to perform her parlor tricks all the way out at the Cliff House, instead of some decently dry room in the city?" He ran his fingers through his unruly mop of red hair, causing it to stick up in small irregular patches. I also noted that his Scottish r's were rolling along nicely, becoming ever more pronounced as the storm intensified. Not wishing to encourage Robert's bad temper with a response, I silently busied myself straightening the folds of my dark lavender skirt, particularly the horizontal pleating, which had become tangled with my boots during the uneven ride. My unhappy colleague did not take the hint. "It's a mystery to me why Junius Foster agreed to this crazy idea in the first place. Lieutenant Foster has been managing the Cliff House for fifteen years, and damn profitably, too. What do you suppose possessed him to turn the place over to a Russian tea-leaf reader, of all people?" "Apparently, Madame Karpova has some very influential admirers in San Francisco society," I replied, determined not to be pulled into another one of Robert's pointless arguments. "I've never been to the Cliff House myself, but Madame Karpova evidently claims the place possesses a unique atmosphere conducive to ethereal vibrations." "Good lord, Sarah! Do you hear yourself?" "Oh, do calm down, Robert. I'm merely repeating what Madame Karpova is reported to have said. I suggest you put away your preconceptions for the evening and approach the experience with an open mind." He muttered something largely unintelligible by way of a reply, then once again came an inch out of his seat when another flash of lightning lit the carriage. It was quickly followed by a clash of thunder. "Try to relax," I said, steadfastly ignoring the frayed state of my own nerves. "I'm sure this bit of weather will soon play itself out." Half an hour later, I was forced to eat these words. Not only had the "bit of weather" not dissipated by the time we reached our destination; it had developed into a full-fledged deluge, made worse by erratically gusting winds. Successfully negotiating the last rugged stretch of muddy road leading up the cliff, Eddie reined up in front of what had become popularly known as the "Second Cliff House." It had acquired this name some ten years earlier when Lt. Junius Foster added two large wings to the original structure, which, heretofore, had primarily consisted of a saloon and dining establishment. This ambitious remodeling provided hotel accommodations for moneyed guests who, after an overpriced dinner, chose to postpone their long trek back to the city until the following morning. From rumors I'd heard, these rooms were just as frequently occupied by politicians and gamblers, or by gentlemen seeking a convenient trysting place to bring their paramours. I looked out the carriage window at the single-storied edifice perched high above the northwest tip of San Francisco. One of the reasons for the Cliff House's burgeoning popularity was the spectacular view it afforded of the entrance to the Golden Gate--at least on a clear day. Tonight, the churning black sea crashed against Seal Rocks, as if determined to crush them into sand. And for once, there was no sign of the sea lions, otters, and seals responsible for naming the famous rocks, even though they commonly cavorted upon the sandstone cliffs at night. Perhaps Robert is right, I thought, looking out at driving sheets of rain; most sensible mammals would not venture out on a night like this. Descending from his perch at the front of the brougham, Eddie Cooper opened the carriage door and handed me an umbrella. I nodded gratefully, although I feared it would do little to protect us from the torrent, which, at the moment, was pouring almost horizontally down upon us from the west. "Take the brougham around to the carriage sheds, Eddie," I shouted, attempting to be heard above the howling wind. "After you've wiped the horse down, go to the kitchen. I've made arrangements for you to be given food and something hot to drink." "Righto, miss," Eddie replied, his youthful enthusiasm not in the least diminished by the storm. He looked furtively around, then pulled a heavy brown stocking from his coat pocket. By the way it jangled as he whacked the sock into his palm, I guessed he'd filled the toe with a goodly number of coins, making it into an effective, if somewhat primitive, cosh. "If you or Mr. Campbell need me, miss, just call out." I wasn't sure whether to smile or frown at this improvised, if serious-looking, weapon. "I'm sure that won't prove necessary, Eddie. But it's good to know you've come prepared." With a conspiratorial wink, Eddie helped me out of the carriage and I opened the umbrella. As Robert and I danced about trying to avoid the larger mud puddles, the boy leapt back onto his seat at the front of the brougham and clicked the horse off in the direction of the carriage sheds. True to my fears, the umbrella was next to useless as Robert and I hurried up the wooden stairs to the Cliff House entrance. Before we reached the front door, it was flung open by a tall, rangy-looking man with a riotous black beard set off by vivid streaks of white, shaggy black eyebrows, and equally forbidding black eyes. The stranger's appearance was startling enough to take anyone by surprise, but the way his towering frame filled the doorway certainly created a chilling enough atmosphere for the upcoming sťance. I must say he was well suited for the role. The deep lines on his craggy face had been uniquely chiseled, having the curious effect of making him appear menacing one moment and devoid of emotion the next, depending upon the angle in which he was viewed. He was dressed entirely in black from head to foot, which produced the brief but startling illusion that his head floated through the air independent of a physical body. I guessed him to be in his fifties, but his deeply lined skin made age difficult to judge. After several moments of awkward silence, the man stood back from the door, allowing us to enter. Although he uttered not one word of introduction--or, indeed, of welcome--I knew from Samuel's description that this must be Dmitry Serkov, Madame Karpova's brother. Stone-faced and mute, the gloomy Russian reached out his hand and inclined his head at our wet coats. Just as silently, we handed them over, then followed him as he led us to what I assumed must be the Cliff House dining room. When we reached the door, I stopped so abruptly that Robert collided with me, bumping into my back. Even then, I made no move to go any farther. Call it my imagination, but the atmosphere in that room was so palpable, I felt goose bumps rise on my arms. For a dazed moment, I thought I had somehow stumbled upon Aladdin's cave! All around us, dozens of candles sparkled like glittering jewels, darting about this way and that as they were caught in a confluence of small drafts caused by the storm outside. While my eyes adjusted to this optical extravaganza, I spied a large, beautifully rendered Japanese screen standing against the wall to my right. I...
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