The Museum Mystery: Twentythree
Detective Woman Constable Sally Anwar pays a visit to Madame Marie, a medium who tells fortunes and holds seances.
John Waddington-Feather continues his engrossing murder mystery story.
Detective Woman Constable Sally Anwar was new to the division. Her parents were Asian, second generation, and like Ibrahim Khan her roots were West Riding. Bradford boasted the most and best Asian restaurants in Britain and her parents ran one of them. She’d done well at school. Even better at the Police College and was destined to go far. In addition, she was a real head-turner, petite and beautiful.
It was she who paid that first visit to Bessie Lanshaw, alias Madame Marie, who lived at the bottom of Garlic Lane. She held her seances and fortune-telling sessons in the front room. Its heavy curtains were always drawn - just to give it atmosphere outside as well as in. Subdued lighting and incense gave an added aura. Sally entered alone, but Sgt Khan hovered just across the road in case he was needed.
The house was next but one from the end of a long terrace and it once had class. That is, it boasted bay windows and a scrap of garden outside and was called Grange View. That set the row apart from the dingier houses across the street and further up the lane. In its palmy days when newly built, before the First World War, schoolteachers, bank clerks and the like had lived there. Then, it overlooked fields which stretched right down the valley to an old grange. Farmland lay beyond leading down to the river but that had long gone.
First a woollen mill, then a garage, then an enamelling plant and finally a scrap-iron yard swamped the fields and blocked the view. The farmland disappeared under rugby and cricket fields, then beneath full-scale industrial development.
Yet something of its former gentility remained at Madame Marie’s. For starters, the house was well maintained. Its wrought-iron railings had survived the war and were always brightly painted. It had a brass-plate nailed next the door with: “Madame Marie, B.A. M.S.A. Medium, Astrologer and Palm Reader. By appointment only.” She’d left school at fourteen. There were many in Keighworth could vouch for that, so they were puzzled about the “B.A.” Some said it stood for Black Arts, and they may well have been right. But she maintained it stood for Bachelor of Astrology awarded by the Spititualist Association of which she was a member.
She’d left Keighworth in her late teens, to go to Blackpool where she’d learned to read palms and tea-cups and rich self-made men. She’d bewitched an elderly widower and gone to live with him, reading his palm and satisfying his wants. She satisfied him so much he left her everying when he died. When he died, she returned to home pastures and continued her fortune-telling in Keighworth. The local vicar called once. Never again after she told him she’d seen his dead wife looking over his shoulder.
When Sally rang the bell nothing happened for some moments. She stood back to see if there was any sign of life upstairs, but the curtains were drawn as tightly as those below. Nevertheless, she felt she was being watched till shortly after the door opened slowly.
A young woman dressed bizarrely in black confronted her. It was Rosie Adams, the friend of the missing girl. Sally recognised her at once from the photos Khan had shown her.
Her face was powdered white and her lips painted a savage scarlet. She wore a long black shawl. Her hair was scraped back and fastened with a black bow. Her eyes were glazed and she looked permanently zonked out. She wore heavy brass ear-rings but it was her necklace which caught the detective’s eye. Its pendant was a solitary raised cobra, like the one on the mummy’s head-dress. “What yer want?” she asked, giving Sally an up-and-downer.
“You made an appointment?” she asked nodding at the brass plate.
“I phoned her. She told me come at two. I’m Sasha Wasim.”
“Wait ‘ere, miss,” was all she said. Then shut the door. A moment later she reappeared and asked her in.
There was a tiny vestibule just inside the door which led into a short hallway. All over the ceiling and along the walls were arcane signs. They looked Egyptian. Sally had seen signs like these on photographs of Egyptian temples. A pervading smell of incense greeted her as she went in. That and the claustrophobic atmosphere made her head ache.
“Wait ’ere, miss,” the girl said again. She gave her the benefit of a sniff, then left her just inside some curtains which sealed off the vestibule. Soft oriental music seeped along the hallway from a hidden speaker. The lighting became more subdued. But the spell was broken by a tea-kettle whistling from the kitchen in the back.
It went off suddenly when Rosie Adams went out and she could hear someone telling her to take the bloody kettle off the stove. The girl replied in an audible whisper that there was someone outside. Some Paki girl who’d rang. She was waiting in the corridor. Then a broad Yorkshire voice said, “Why din’t yer tell me before. I’m dyin’ for a cuppatea. Mash some, will, yer, an’ bring it in as soon as it’s ready.”
Then Bessie Lanshaw appeared.
She was all bangles and ear-rings and smiled darkly. A raw-boned woman in her early fifties. Tall, dark with dark piercing eyes. She was a throw-back to someone who’d come wandering through Keighworth half a century before. Probably a French onion-seller. They didn’t come to any more, but they’d left their Maker’s image spread around plenty. Keighworth had been a mongrel town for years.
Like Rosie she was dressed in black. Round her head she had a tight turban hiding drip-white hair. Her hard face changed when she entered and she gave a ingratiating smile, inclining her head slightly. Her common-as-muck voice had gone and she spoke like the gown shop assistants up town.
“If modom would step this way,” she began, and stepped aside to let D.W.C. Sally Anwar go through the curtains into the front room.
The lighting there was even more subdued and the air thick with joss-stick smoke. The music faded as they went in. The room was even more macabre than the corridor outside. Round the walls were identical figures to those in the altar room at Pithon Hall. In the centre stood a large table covered with a damask tablecloth embroidered with the signs decorating the walls in the vestibule.
“Well, now,” said Madame Marie softly when they were seated on opposite sides of the table. “Let me see.” She opened a notebook to check out what Sally had told her over the phone. Then she looked up and gave that ingratiating smile again but her eyes never left Sally. She read her face as closely as she’d read her notebook.
“Before we start, modom, I shall require payment. Registration and consultation fees. £10 in all.”
Sally handed her a note, which she slipped under her shawl into her bra which doubled as her money bank. “And you saw my advertisement in the ‘Keighworth News’, modom?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Sally. “But I’d been told about you already from me pals. You’ve helped some of them after their relatives had died. I want to know if my Gary’s all right.” Sally pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed her eyes. “We was going to get married at Easter but he was killed in that smash near Bradford last week.”
“Of course, of course,” said the other gently. “That’s what I’m here for. To keep dear-ones in touch. The dead are only a step away.” And she rolled her eyes soulfully all round the room as if she was communicating with all manner of departed dear ones just a step away from her.
Then she brought her gaze back suddenly to Sally, catching her unawares. “You really do believe I can speak to him?” she said.
Sally nodded and applied the hankie to her nose.
“I work through the Father of Spirits, great Ra,” said Madame Marie.
“Through an ancient religion of the dead. You must believe I can raise him, modom. Do you?”
Sally nodded again. This time more vigorously. She believed the woman before her could have raised the devil himself!
Then the medium closed her eyes and spread her hands on the table. She began invoking Ra and other gods, and while Madame Marie had her eyes closed, Sally looked around her.
It was very dark so she couldn’t see much. There seemed to be a mirror set in the wall opposite. It looked odd. Not quite right. It was opaque and didn’t reflect properly. Then she realised it was a reversible mirror. She was being surveilled so Sally switched her gaze back to the woman before her and acted dumb.
By this time, Madame Marie had psyched herself into a trance. She startled Sally when she began to speak in a strange strangulated voice. It gave Sally the creeps. She half-wished she’d never come.
“I’m making contact,” said the other. “Someone is trying to reach us. I can see him. A young man. In leathers and a helmet…”
“It’s him!” exclaimed Sally. “It’s Pete! What’s he sayin’?”
Madame Marie began to sway from side to side and moan softly. Sally leaned forward.
“He says…he says he’s all right. You’re not to worry, Sasha. He’s waiting for you. He sends you his love. He wants you to listen to me, but he has to go now. He says you’re to come again. He’s speaks only through me.”
Then Madame Marie stopped speaking and opened her eyes dramatically, staring hard at Sally. “He’s gone,” she said. “Great Ra has summoned him back.”
Sally sobbed. She didn’t need to try hard.
“There, there,” clucked the medium sympathetically. “Your loved one is all right. You mustn’t grieve. He’s safe on the other side. Not like others.”
“Others?” echoed Sally, blowing her nose.
“Yes. The unbelievers. Those who in this life have disobeyed the Father of the Spirits, High Amon. They are doomed to eternal darkness. But your Pete is with the Children of Light. Safe in the Kingdom of Ra.”
The lights went up suddenly and Madame Marie asked if Sally would like a drink when Rosie Adams appeared with tea and biscuits, then Rosie left.
As she poured the tea, Madame Marie gushed sympathy.
“Modom doesn’t mind if I call her Sasha, does she?” she said. “That’s the name Peter used all the time he spoke. He’s very happy where he is, but he misses you. He’s waiting for you.”
“What did he look like? He wasn’t…he wasn’t like I saw him in the mortuary. That was awful! I had to identify him,” Said Sally and started sobbing afresh. Madame Marie smiled reassuringly, reaching across to pat her hand.
“No, Sasha, no. Nothing like that. Our loved ones assume their new bodies in the next life where they’re eternally young. Sickness, injury, death, all the things which attack this mortal frame are left behind once we enter the Kingdom of Ra.”
Madame Marie waxed so lyrical, Sally was impressed. If she’d written romantic novels she’d have made a bomb.
“Who’s Ra?” asked Sally.
“The father of the gods. The father of all life. He others call God. The Unseen One. But we his followers are privileged to see him. To be servants in his palaces once we leave this life. There we live lives of eternal bliss.”
Madame Marie had got so carried away by now she was in another world. Halfway to Ra already. When she returned, she began quizzing Sally. She asked where she lived, who were her family, her friends and so on. Sally said she had no family. She’d left home years ago when her mother died and her dad re-married. She didn’t get on with her step-mother. She’d come to Keighworth from Bradford where she’d lived with Pete.
“Then you’re by yourself?”
“Yes,” said Sally. “I’ve never really made friends here. Not real friends.” Then she began weeping again.
Madame Marie took out the tenner Sally had given her. “Here. Take this back, Sasha. I can’t charge you. I believe you’re one of us.”
Sally looked up perplexed.
“Come when you like,” said Madame Marie, putting her arms around her. “You’ll always have a friend here. Come again and I’ll get in contact with Peter. He himself will tell you about the Kingdom of Light and the god Amon who protects him.” She paused then lowered her voice. “One day I’ll teach you how to speak to him direct, when you’ve learned the mysteries of our religion. There’s no barrier between us and those who’ve passed over. We’re all capable of speaking with the dead, but unbelievers have lost the way. They’re doomed to eternal darkness here.”
Sally thanked her and said it was time to go. Rosie appeared to show her out. Before Sally left Madame Marie introduced Rosie. “Any time you want to contact Peter, any time you’re feeling down, just give me a ring.”
Madame Marie left them at the door of the seance room as Rosie led her down the corridor to show her out. Sally heard men’s voices. They were speaking in Arabic and, thinking Sally had gone, were in the corridor. Madame Marie pushed them back quickly, but not before Sally had a glimpse. They were dark-skinned like herself. Rosie heard them, too, and turned. When she realised Sally could see them she hurried her through the front door.
The air outside felt fresh after the claustrophobic atmosphere in the seance room. Sally felt she was being watched still. This time from an upstairs window so she ignored Khan and walked slowly up the lane. Once she was out of sight, Khan broke cover and joined her.
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