The Psychic


John William Fincher stepped back from the slate board, tossed the piece of chalk onto a nearby tray, and checked his pocket watch.

“Damn it.”


The 11:45 train from Boston arrived at Tollhurst Station three minutes late.  John William Fincher futilely waved the engine’s residual steam aside and stepped to the edge of the platform.  He saw the man, wiry thin, hair oiled beneath a black Homburg, frockcoat brushed, silk tie loosened, step off the train and open an umbrella.  The air was brisk and moist, but there had been no forecast of rain.

The umbrella, in fact, was a sign.  Fincher stepped over to the man, offered his gloved hand, and smiled.

“We haven’t much time,” the man said after introductions were made.  His name was Harold Ellis and, though young, his bearing was terse and rigid—almost comically so.  Ellis stepped past Fincher with only a slight nod.  “I assume you have a hack?”

Fincher had and he led Ellis to it.


“Like I said,” Ellis said once they were seated in the hackney cab and the driver was whipping the horses back along the road to Cussler Hall, “we don’t have much time.  Not if everything you mentioned in your telegram is true.”

“It is, and I agree,” Fincher said.  “I’ve brought along some of the judge’s papers and some of his effects.  I thought that you’d like—“

“Hand them over.”

Fincher did so, drawing the sheaf of papers and a felt, draw-string bag from a satchel that he had tucked under the cab’s seat.  The felt bag held a Masonic ring, a pair of pince-nez, and two silver cufflinks.

The young, nervous man sat with the objects in his lap, the ring, pince-nez and cufflinks having been carefully poured out over the papers.  He removed his dark, leather gloves, closed his eyes, and began running his long fingers lightly over the collection.

Just as the hack passed over a deep rut in the road, Harold Ellis’s eyes snapped open.  His breathing was suddenly ragged.

“I’m afraid we’re too late,” he muttered.  His blue eyes then rolled up, revealing their whites.  In the same instant, drops of blood began to leak from his hawk-like nose.

Aghast, Fincher cursed, leapt forward and caught the young man before he toppled over.  The papers and effects in Ellis’s lap spilled to the floor of the cab.  Ellis’s head lolled, his eyes closed again.  Fincher pulled a white handkerchief from his breast pocket and pressed it to Ellis’s nose.  He tossed the young man’s black Homburg to his recently vacated seat, then tilted Ellis’s head back, cradling it to keep it from bouncing wildly as the cab jostled to and fro.

“Driver!”  Fincher shouted.  He punched the roof of the cab to get the coachman’s attention.  “Driver!  Forget Cussler Hall!  Take us to Doctor Renaud’s!”

“The East Side costs more, sir!”  The driver shouted back, his voice muffled by the rattling of the cab, the drumming of the horses’ hooves.

“I know!  Just do it!”


Doctor Francois Guy Renaud’s office and home were located in a dreary brownstone whose cracked front steps were commonly inhabited by dirty children and dirtier, mange-covered dogs.  The homes and business around Renaud’s housed many of the city’s colored population, most of whom found little work in the factories and mines that lined the country side.

As far as John William Fincher knew, Francois Guy Renaud was the only colored doctor in the entire county.  This afforded Renaud a certain level of celebrity as many white doctors simply refused to see colored patients—forcing those patients to either suffer or seek out alternative medicine.  Technically, as a former resident of the Republic of Haiti, Francois Guy Renaud offered a little of both worlds.  He had studied actual medicine, first at Université d’Etat d’Haiti in Port-au-Prince then later at Université Montpellier in the south of France.  On the other hand, his childhood had been one surrounded by the dark, superstitious beliefs of his native island.  Although Renaud himself was a lapsed Catholic, his knowledge of folk mores, remedies and customs seemed to draw many a patient.

Francois Guy Renaud was also one of John William Fincher’s closest friends.  As such, it was not uncommon for Fincher to pull up to Renaud’s brownstone in a hackney cab, mongrel dogs chasing the wheels, children crowding around to receive the pieces of candy that Fincher was known for handing out as he crossed from the sidewalk to the doctor’s front door.  Today, however, the excited crowd of children who watched the cab approach were disappointed as Fincher burst from the cab, wrestling a limp, bleeding white man to the front door with the help of the cab driver, a man with a decided knack for cursing.  The children grew less upset at the obvious lack of candy and more curious at the arrival of the sick young man.  This was followed by a growing excitement driven by the stream of vitriolic profanities that seemed to flow like spittle from the cab driver’s mustachioed mouth as he huffed and puffed his way along, grabbing the young man’s spat-covered shoes while Fincher carried the young man’s shoulders.

The children crowded around, then dispersed from the front door, only to crowd again around the cursing driver as he made his way back out alone.  He waved the children and, now, excited, barking mongrel dogs away, fighting past them to climb into his cab.  He reappeared, this time clutching a hastily-stuffed satchel to his chest.  He cursed his way to the front door once again, deposited the satchel inside, then cursed his way back to the cab.  He climbed aboard his seat, and the children squealed as he snapped the reins and the two horses shot off, dogs once again chasing behind.

Renaud left Harold Ellis resting in a side room of his combination home and office.  It had taken some time to finish with the three patients who had been waiting when Fincher and the driver had carried Ellis into the building, but the good doctor was nothing if not patient, stalwart and skilled, so he had Ellis in the examination room in what seemed like no time.

The doctor later entered his book-lined study to find John William Fincher sitting beside the hearth, reading an anatomical theory book, a snifter of brandy in his hand.  Fincher closed the book, set it aside, and rose as the doctor entered.

Renaud waved Fincher back into his seat, then stepped to the sideboard to pour himself a drink.

“An interesting young man you’ve brought me, mon ami,” Renaud said.  He was a giant of a man, and when he sat in one of the ornate chairs across from Fincher, the chair made an inordinate creak.

“Possibly,” Fincher replied.  “Assuming you can judge a person within the space of a handful of minutes.  A handful of minutes, mind you, wherein said person was impetuous, bossy and unusually abrupt.”

“Harold Ellis does not seem like the type to mince words, I will give you that.  He came to in the examination room, wondered who I was and, after I told him and showed him my degrees, he just tried to tell me how to doctor him.  I gave him a sedative and that seemed to settle it.”

Renaud chuckled at his own joke but Fincher frowned.  “A sedative?  Damn.”

Renaud cocked his head.  “Yes, a sedative.  The young man had quite a spell, if what you told me happened to him in the coach was even part of the story.  Why are you opposed to sedatives?”

“Well, he may have been abrupt and, well, authoritative, but time is actually of the essence.  I had hoped he would be able to help us find Judge Farland.”

“The judge?  How?”

“Howard Ellis is a psychic,” Fincher said.

Renaud sighed.  “You mean a Spiritualist?”

“No, I actually mean a psychic,” Fincher replied.  His face screwed up in thought after moment, however.  “Well, at least I think he’s just a psychic.  He didn’t seem like he was channeling or talking to any sort of spirit guide, so I guess I can’t truly attest to him not being a Spiritualist, but—“

Renaud set his brandy snifter down, removed his wire-rim spectacles, and rubbed his temples.  After several moments, he looked up and glared at his companion.  “Seriously, Fincher!  You’re a mathematician!  You know better than to deal with these pseudo-science frauds!”

“The same pseudo-science frauds that many of your patients come to you for?”

“Damn it, Fincher, that’s different!  They come to me because none of your white doctors will see them.  They come to me with ignorance and superstition and if I have to play on that to get them to listen to reason—if I have to couch my medicine in the terms of…of witch-doctoring, then so be it.  But you!  You’re an educated man, mon ami!  The smoke and mirrors are not for you!”

“Really?  So what happened to us both that night down in Cap-Haïtien was just smoke and mirrors?”

Renaud rose stiffly, his eyes locked on those of Fincher.  “We agreed to never speak of that, mon ami.”

“And we aren’t,” Fincher replied, rising from his own chair.  He took one last sip of brandy, before gesturing at his friend.  “But don’t play me for a fool, Renaud.  I won’t have it.  What happened, happened.  We let it lie, but we can’t make it simply go away.”

“Then maybe we aren’t trying hard enough.”


“Two days later, they found the judge’s body wrapped in burlap and buried in a shallow grave a mile into the Hallowell property,” Fincher said, sitting back, a glass of whiskey in his hand.  He was sitting in an over-stuffed chair in the smoking room of the Dunstable Club.  A smoldering cigar rested in an ornate ash-tray on the mahogany table before him, and the overweight, well-dressed Arthur Clarence Hubbert sat across from him, puffing his own cigar.

Hubbert, his cheeks red with whiskey, looked up as Fincher finished speaking.  “How did they find it?”  He leaned forward, ever the fan of a good story, specifically one that was not something that should be repeated in mixed company.

“He was found at the exact spot that Harold Ellis indicated on a map of the area, about a day after we left Renaud’s. “

“You lie.”

“No, sir.  The poor man had a headache from the time he left that examining room until he climbed aboard the train back to Boston about a week later.  Would’ve been sooner, no doubt, put pin-pointing the exact location of a buried corpse tends to play hell with the suspicions of the local police inspectors.”

“I would imagine!”

“But the body was right where Ellis said it would be.  It took a little work to get Ellis himself cleared of any wrong-doing, but apparently that’s something he has experience with down in Boston.  The coroner set the time of death about a week before Ellis arrived in town and the poor boy was able to drum up a very plausible alibi.  Seems he was on stage performing an illusion act for two shows a night around the time of the judge’s murder.  Probably half of the upper class in Boston could attest to it.”

“I’ll bet.  And you believe this psychic business?”

Fincher puffed his cigar back to life.  “Well, to be honest, if we look at a couple of old equations worked out by Bernoulli and a couple of others worked very recently by Ramanujan, I think I could show that, probabilistically speaking, Ellis ‘psychic detective’ work is merely  the simple instrument of obnoxious chance.”


“However, and I have to be honest here, Arthur, even with all the math I could come up with, it’s still a big county.”

Hubbert nodded sagely, his round, pink head wreathed in cigar smoke.  “That it is.  So what do you what from us, Bill?”

“Well, the word is that the Society is interested in this type of phenomena.  With Spiritualism on the rise, and occult societies forming all across Europe, I figure you ladies and gentlemen would like to get your hands on some actual research on the matter.”

“We’ve got quite a bit of research going on all over India and the East.  What more do we need?”

Fincher took a sip of whiskey and smiled.  “I don’t know, Arthur.  You tell me.”

~ by liberdementia on July 20, 2009.

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