Copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby.
Chapter 9: Defender of the Nation
“I am a practicing magician in the United States Secret Service, Office of Occult Affairs.” How Abigail Lane took pride in saying those words! How disappointing it was to her when they were greeted by a look of complete bafflement, as they invariably were. The confused look on the face of Mrs. Maxwell was all too typical.
It was all Andrew’s fault, Abigail thought bitterly to herself. No, that wasn’t fair. It was Andrew’s fault and Chief Brooks’s fault and Treasury Secretary Manning’s fault and no doubt the fault of the President and Congress as well. But it was Andrew Wallace who served as head of the Office, and he who had agreed to keep it small and weak. Asa had been different. He had had dreams of what the Office could become. Look where it had got him. He had been forced out as head of the Office. And now that he was dead, Abigail felt herself to be the guardian of what remained of his dream.
Abigail Lane was not a woman to accept defeat. She had been born into poverty, and had grown up mostly in the households of relatives who did not want her. At the age of sixteen, she found she had two choices: live on as an unwanted poorer relation with her cousins, or take a poorly paid job that relied on her manual skills, not her mind. She did both, at times. She liked neither. So she sought a way out. She took jobs near colleges and libraries, read, acquired office skills, and finally found employment as a clerk or assistant to professors. These jobs did not pay much, either, but they gave her access to people with ideas. They fed her mind and soul. In truth, by her mid-twenties, she often knew more than the people who employed her. But without a degree, or even a high school diploma, she had no chance of getting a better job, not that there were many for women.
Toward the end of 1881, when she was thirty years old, her life was changed by chance, if by chance we recognize a combination of opportunity and preparation. A friendly librarian knew a gentleman who was hiring a clerk to go with him to Washington, D.C., and suggested Abigail apply to him for the job. Abigail wanted a change, and sent the gentleman a letter, laying out her qualifications in detail. The gentleman’s name was Mr. Asa Porter Heard.
Asa had no interest in hiring a woman; indeed, he had already decided on the man he was going to hire. But Miss Lane’s application intrigued him. Asa was a scholar, and enjoyed scholars, and he saw in Miss Lane’s application a woman who ought to be a scholar. That to him was curious enough to warrant some investigation. He decided to meet with her and advise her to pursue a formal education.
The meeting did not go well. Abigail was crestfallen to find out she was not even being considered for the job, and barely concealed her irritation at Asa’s well-meaning but hardly novel advice. Asa, who found himself warming to Abigail on account of her obvious intelligence, was aghast to realize his benevolent intention had done Abigail no favor. He racked his brains to think of something, anything he could say or do, that would redeem the situation.
Finally, he thought of something. He was going to Washington to start work in the new year as the sole magician in the United States Secret Service, to replace Campbell Fitzhugh (or whatever the man’s real name was). Asa had been searching for a clerk. What would be wonderful would be if his clerk were also a magician, even a beginning one. In fact, a beginning one would be ideal, someone who would keep his books, serve as his assistant, and train under him. It was unlikely this Miss Lane had any magical abilities. Fewer than one in a hundred, nay, even one in a thousand, had even the slightest trace of such abilities. But Asa felt he had to try every possibility, to make up for disappointing Miss Lane.
Of course, he could not explain what he was about to do as magic. People didn’t believe in it. Instead, he said, “Miss Lane, are you familiar with the subject of mesmerism?”
To Abigail, this was an unexpected turn in their conversation. She did not know what Mr. Heard was up to. Yet she recognized the man’s good intentions, despite her disappointment, and chose to answer at length. “I have never been mesmerized, but I have read on the subject. My understanding is that Mesmer’s theory of a magnetic fluid has been superseded by Dr. Braid’s theory of suggestion. He called it hypnotism.”
Asa smiled and nodded. “Very good, Miss Lane. I happen to have considerable powers of suggestion myself. It so happens that besides looking for a clerk, I am looking for a subject who can resist my powers of suggestion. Would you be willing to be tested for such a position? I promise I will make no improper suggestion to you.”
Abigail had no doubt she could resist anyone’s suggestions, but she was a bit confused by Asa’s phrasing and intentions. “You will be attempting to hypnotize me, Mr. Heard?”
He shook his head. “No, merely make a suggestion. All you will have to do is not comply with the suggestion.”
Abigail knew quite a bit about hypnosis. She could not even imagine how Mr. Heard could ever expect to make her do something without preparation. For that matter, she was fairly certain she could withstand his suggestions even if he did try to hypnotize her. So she felt safe in saying, “Go ahead, Mr. Heard.”
Asa hadn’t actually thought that far ahead, and took a moment before coming up with a test. “Remember, Miss Lane, try not to do what I am going to suggest.” And then he infused his voice with magic, “Recite the alphabet backwards, Miss Lane.”
Abigail didn’t even think about it. “Z, Y, X, W, V, U.” She realized in astonishment that she was doing what Mr. Heard had suggested without a second thought. “T, S, R, Q.” He could not do this to her. Could not. “P . . . O . . . N.” Could not. Would not. “O . . . N . . . O . . . N.” She felt as if her head would explode. Would not! “O . . . N . . . N . . . O . . . N . . . NO . . . NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!” She practically screamed at the end, absolutely refusing to be ordered as if she was someone’s slave. Sharp pains shot through her head, causing her to double over in her chair.
The next thing she knew, Mr. Heard was dabbing at the tears in her eyes with a handkerchief, and saying over and over again, “I am ever so sorry, Miss Lane. I am ever so sorry.” Abigail pushed him off. He thought she was angry at him. Instead, she was ashamed of herself and her weakness. Asa returned to his seat, while Abigail got out her own handkerchief and tried to recapture what little dignity she felt she had left.
Once she looked up with something resembling composure, Asa took the initiative. “Again, I am so sorry, Miss Lane. But I must congratulate you. Not one person in a thousand could have resisted my command.”
Abigail’s shame was temporarily overcome by her curiosity. “I do not understand why I obeyed you, Mr. Heard, for even as long as I did.”
Asa smiled. “Nevertheless, you should be proud, Miss Lane. Tell me, do you ever have visions of things, or know things without knowing how you know them? Have you ever felt you could read someone’s thoughts?” He did not even have to read her mind. She had started at his words. “You have, haven’t you, Miss Lane?”
Abigail had had far too many such experiences to dismiss, but she had never been willing to admit their reality, either. Certainly she was not going to admit them to this stranger with his weird ability to compel and humiliate her. She stood up. “Thank you, Mr. Heard, for taking so much time with me, but since the position is filled, I really should be going.” She turned around and started walking rapidly to the door.
And then she heard a voice in her head. The position as my clerk is yours, Miss Lane, if you want it.
Surprised, she turned around and stared at him. She could see his mouth was closed, but the voice picked up again in her head. You are a remarkable woman, Miss Lane, with abilities you do not even know you have. It would be a shame to lose the chance to develop them. And I could not ask for a better clerk. This time she knew the voice was Asa Porter Heard’s.
Asa thought his demonstration of magical telepathy would be enough to convince anyone. He had underestimated Abigail for the third time. She stared at him, thinking, for almost a minute before saying, “I just thought I heard your voice in my head. Did you manage to hypnotize me without my knowing it?”
Asa was startled by the question, and then pleased. This Miss Lane, he thought to himself, has real intellect. To her he said, “No, Miss Lane. I used magic to project my thoughts into your mind, just like I used it to make you recite the alphabet. You can do magic, too. You have the ability, else you could not have resisted my command. And to do so without any training or understanding of your ability! It is extraordinary. You are extraordinary. All you need is the knowledge and training and you will be a first-rate magician. Come, be my clerk, Miss Lane, and I will give you the training you need.”
Of course, it was not as simple as that. Abigail was still torn between skepticism and the evidence of her senses, to say nothing of her own past experiences which she had tried to ignore. Asa found convincing Abigail to be just as hard as trying to use magic on her. But to him she was worth the effort, and he was finally successful in recruiting her as his clerk and apprentice magician.
Once they arrived in Washington, Asa subjected Abigail to a double workload of doing his clerical work and being tutored in the elements of magic. He was continually delighted with his pupil. She was a quick learner, and one of the most talented magicians he had ever trained.
He was so delighted that he went to his boss, Secret Service Chief James Brooks, and demanded Abigail Lane be hired as a magician by the Service. Brooks scoffed at the notion. There were no women agents in the Secret Service, and he was not going to hire one as a magician, either. Besides, the Service had got by with only one magician in the past, and not even one at times, so Brooks saw no reason to hire a second. Asa would not be dissuaded. Brooks, who had quickly sized up Heard as an ineffectual dreamer, was dismayed by how uncharacteristically determined he was to turn his female clerk into an operative. Finally, Brooks agreed to a compromise. He would let Heard set up an organization of magicians, which would be funded by the Secret Service and report to its Chief, yet not be a part of it. Then Heard could hire whomever he wanted, within the constraints of his budget.
And so the Office of Occult Affairs had been born on May 15, 1882, with Asa Porter Heard as its first head, and Abigail Lane as its first practicing magician. It was a bastard birth, and like many bastards, the organization received scant love from its parents. Asa envisioned the Office of Occult Affairs as the nation’s magical police, serving to prevent the misuse of magic at home, and to defend the nation from magical attacks from abroad. His repeated requests for resources so strained the patience and budget of Chief Brooks that he demanded Heard’s resignation the very next year. In his place, Brooks put Andrew Jackson Wallace, a magician Heard had hired, who was willing to accept a lesser role for the Office. Abigail was not considered as a possible head of the Office. After all, she was a woman.
Abigail had been dismayed by Asa’s resignation, for he had become her one real friend. Nor did she have much use for Wallace, whom she regarded as a man of mediocre ability and limited vision. Asa’s death in 1885, when he was only forty, had been a further blow, softened only by being bequeathed his library of books on magic. Among those books was what had once been Rebecca Farnsworth’s copy of The Mysteries and Wisdom of Enoch.
Abigail stood facing Mrs. Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell, sizing her up. In the eyes of the world, Rebecca had almost all of the advantages. She was a wealthy married woman with children, dressed in fine clothes, four years younger than Abigail, and still alluring. Abigail was dressed in plain clothes that asked for respectability but could not demand it. She was sturdy rather than elegant, and no man had ever asked for her hand.
Abigail was not impressed. It was clear to her that Mrs. Maxwell was an amateur magician, without the sort of discipline and training required by the Office. Her spell protecting the house had been a trivial annoyance. Abigail could tell that Mrs. Maxwell was not a particularly powerful magician in her own right.
It was that walking stick that gave Mrs. Maxwell power, more power than Abigail had. Abigail shuddered to look at the thing. She would not have touched it for the world. Magicians who call on powers greater than themselves eventually are dominated by those powers until they are but hollow shells, the playthings of the powers they had summoned. How Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell could have carried that walking stick for more than a decade without being consumed by it was more than Abigail could understand.
Rebecca was sizing up Miss Abigail Lane at the same time. She was certain she could defeat this woman. But she was perplexed by Miss Lane’s announcement. She was some sort of official from the government in Washington? Rebecca dimly recalled a memoir she had read years ago about what might have been called the Secret Service, but it was just an organization that tracked down counterfeiters. That couldn’t be what this woman referred to. And who was Hiram Shepley? The name was familiar, but elusive. Finally, Rebecca remembered. Her brother Jeremiah had recently mentioned in a letter that the postmaster of her home town, Hiram Shepley, had died under mysterious circumstances.
This tête-à-tête was abruptly interrupted by Patty Leigh. She had been taken by surprise when Rebecca leapt from the carriage. Seeing her then run into the house, Patty figured that something involving magic must be afoot, and had run after her. As she came into the library, she saw Rebecca exchanging quizzical looks with a stranger, a lady or woman. Dismissing the stranger as of no importance, Patty cried out, “Becca, are you all right?”
Rebecca turned to warn Patty to get out of the room. She did not succeed. Fueled by adrenaline, she had strained her right leg beyond its limits in leaping and running, and it failed her now. She lost her balance and slammed into the edge of a table before falling on the floor. The book and walking stick went flying.
Patty knew Rebecca hated to be helped. Abigail did not, and immediately came to Rebecca’s assistance. For once it was definitely needed. Rebecca could barely stand and could not walk at all, even with the walking stick, as she demonstrated two or three times before admitting it. Abigail and Patty helped her over to a couch. Rebecca dismissed the need for any further measures, saying that time and a massage would restore the leg.
Once she was settled, Rebecca considered Miss Abigail Lane again. Obviously, she was not Rebecca’s enemy, else she would have taken advantage of Rebecca’s lameness. Henry had told her to seek allies. Perhaps this woman could be one. And that reminded her of another matter. She looked over to Miss Lane, who had taken a chair facing her, held up the magic book, and asked, “Now that we have established who you are, Miss Lane, would you tell me how you happened to acquire this book?”
Abigail looked over at Patty, who was sitting beside Mrs. Maxwell. “I think that is a discussion that I would like to have privately with you, Mrs. Maxwell.”
Henry told me to seek allies, thought Rebecca. This Miss Lane is a magician, that I can tell. But can I count on the loyalty of a stranger? To Miss Lane, she said, “Miss Leigh is my kinsman and trusted associate. She stays.”
Abigail mentally shrugged her shoulders. Amateurs. To Mrs. Maxwell, she replied, “Do you remember a man named Asa Heard?”
Rebecca did. Mr. Heard had been one of her Uncle Israel’s intimate friends, and the only one Rebecca ever met who was a magician. Rebecca nodded and smiled. She had liked Mr. Heard.
Abigail continued. “Asa Heard was the founder of the Office of Occult Affairs. I was the first magician he hired.”
Rebecca chimed in, “And how is Mr. Heard?”
Abigail answered, “He is dead. He died last year.” And what I would give to have him back! “He left me his books in his will.”
And that, Rebecca realized, explained it all. When she had given up magic, she had given her books back to Israel. When Israel had died, he had bequeathed his collection of magic books to Mr. Heard. And now they were in the hands of this Miss Lane. Henry, she thought to herself, I do not believe in your god, but you had the gift of prophesy on you today. For here is an ally who can restore my books to me, and help me smite my enemy.
Rebecca and Abigail spent the afternoon exchanging stories and explanations. Not that either totally trusted the other. Rebecca had liked Mr. Heard, and he had trusted Miss Lane, but it did not follow that Rebecca should trust Miss Lane. Who knew what her real agenda was? And Abigail’s opinion of Mrs. Maxwell did not change. She was an amateur. But she had power and knowledge Abigail needed. Rebecca came to much the same conclusion about Miss Lane.
Rebecca’s story we already know. Abigail’s is quickly told. Hiram Shepley was the postmaster in Rebecca’s home town, and had died under mysterious circumstances. As a Federal employee, his death had been brought to the attention of Postmaster General William Vilas. Vilas had dealt with the Office of Occult Affairs and Abigail once before, in 1884, during the infamous “Sybrianus magic murders” at the University of Wisconsin, where he had been a regent at the time. He asked for her services again. The Secret Service did not turn down requests from Cabinet members, particularly when their own boss, Treasury Secretary Manning, approved them. And so Abigail was sent to Massachusetts.
Abigail had spent a week investigating Shepley’s death. The authorities were uncooperative. She could pick up no useful rumors. Even the chance to examine the body had been lost, for Shepley had been cremated before Abigail arrived. That in itself was suspicious, as few people chose cremation in those days. Finally, rather than admit defeat, she had decided to recruit the one magician she knew of who would know the town better than she did. All this she confessed to Rebecca.
Rebecca smiled at Abigail’s remark that there were no rumors about Shepley’s death. She knew better, thanks to one of Jeremiah’s letters. “Tell me, Miss Lane,” she asked, “which hotel did you stay in?”
Abigail did not see the relevancy of the question, but answered it anyhow. “Why, Brown’s of course. It is a respectable establishment.”
Rebecca laughed. “Yes, Miss Lane, it is a respectable establishment, a very respectable establishment. You did right in staying there. But you branded yourself as a respectable outsider, and no one in town would ever confide in you. Now, had you stayed at the Burning Dog Lodging House, you would have had all the gossip of the mill hands and the ne’er-do-wells of the town at your fingertips. And had you stayed at the new Double Eagle Hotel, you would have been considered a privileged member of society, and the town’s leaders would have fallen over themselves to confide in you.”
Abigail took this in with mixed feelings. It was just this sort of help she knew she needed from Mrs. Maxwell. Yet it grated on her sensibilities to have her error in judgment so clearly exposed, particularly since her expense allowance would not allow her to stay at the Double Eagle. She dismissed staying at the Burning Dog out of hand. It simply was not respectable.
Patty had been following the conversation with fascination. She was in the middle of a conference between two real magicians! It irritated her that she had so little to contribute to the conversation. And she was a Leigh, and the way these two addressed each other as “Mrs. Maxwell” and “Miss Lane” struck her as silly. They were in a fight together, and in Patty’s view the sooner they started speaking to each other as friends and allies, the better. So when she saw an opportunity to contribute to the conversation, she was deliberately informal. “Abigail, if people wouldn’t talk to you, why didn’t you put a spell on them to make them talk to you? Becca’s done that.”
Rebecca frowned. Patty had reminded her that Miss Lane must have put a spell on Dora to let her in. That she would not allow to be repeated, and she would have to find opportunity to tell Miss Lane so.
Abigail also frowned, not because she resented Patty’s attempt at familiarity, but because Patty had uncovered the heart of her worries. She replied, “Of course I did that. They still could tell me nothing. Whatever they knew had been removed by magic.
“There is a magician at loose in that town. He is involved in a suspicious death. He has been obliterating any evidence of what happened. And he had found a way to hide from me. This is why I have come to you, Rebecca Farnsworth Maxwell. Help me find him and punish him as he deserves, if not out of respect for the law, then to avenge the death of one of your own people.”
End of chapter 9