Electrical Device of Great Power
Warnings to the Curious V
Sheriff Bern asked to see you, Doctor,” whispered the nurse. The crisis had passed for the most part, and many of the volunteers had gone home. But the whispering nurse remained. Dr. Norwood studied her face, the thin but youthful lips, the high cheekbones, the rosy complexion. Beneath her cap, the hair smoothed back was thick and chocolate brown. She could not have been more than one-and-twenty.
Marie’s age when we met. The Christmas Eve dance. She was drinking mulled wine. She too had a rosy glow in her cheeks.
“Yes,” he cleared his throat and stood up from behind his desk. The chair legs squealed over the wood plank floor. “Sheriff Bern. Yes, of course. Show him in.”
A barrel of a man appeared in the doorway. He was over six feet tall, all mustache and uniform, his hat in his hand. “My apologies, Doctor,” he said, turning the hat in his large hands. “I know you’re busy.”
“Come in, come in, please.”
Sheriff Bern entered, nodded at the nurse as she left them. Norwood sat behind his desk and motioned for Bern to take the chair on the other side. The doctor had cooperated with the law officers since his first day in Fort Charles, the morning after the tragedy, when Michael Faraday was brought to the hospital and placed under his care. He knew from the moment he saw Faraday deceased, that the sheriff would come to him yet again. All he need do was wait, and now here he was.
“What can I do for you, Sheriff?”
“Faraday,” said Bern. He exhaled at length as if he’d been holding his breath for several minutes. His mustache fluttered. He sat in the offered chair. “You can bring him back from the dead.”
Dr. Norwood coughed. “Pardon?”
Bern stroked a forefinger and thumb down the ends of his mustached several times. He chuckled drily. “The man never recovered enough to give us a chance to question him properly, and now he’s gone and died on us. Problem, that is...real problem.”
“You believe, then, that he was responsible for the event?”
“No doubt about it. We went through the building he purchased, the old mortuary. Got men from the university to come in, identify all the equipment he had in there. Generators, conductors, all types of wire and such, all of it capable of conducting huge amounts of electricity.” Bern looked past Norwood to the window framing the overcast summer day. He stroked his mustache again. “The mortuary was right on the river. Looks like he was using the river...the entire river...as a conductor of electricity.”
Norwood swallowed. He knows you have knowledge of electrical power. If you pretend to have no knowledge of such matters, he will suspect you of keeping secrets.
“An enormous amount of electrical power,” said Norwood. “For what purpose?”
Bern seemed to lock eyes with Norwood a moment past the point of comfort, but then broke it off abruptly. He shifted in his chair and sniffed. “Well, that’s why I’m here. See, old Faraday also had other equipment in the place. Medical equipment.”
He suspects, but he has no solid evidence. And he never will. No one would ever read Faraday’s words, his confessions. Norwood made sure of that. They would suspect. They could speculate, of course, on Faraday’s intentions, but no one must ever break through the veil of suspicion. Not yet, anyway.
Not until I’ve had my chance.
Dr. Norwood forced himself to place his hands upon the desk where sheriff Bern could see they were still and steady. “Equipment left by the mortician?”
“Some of it, yes. Some of it...no.”
“And you would like me to identify this equipment? Give you some idea as to its purpose?”
“That would be a great help, Doctor, if you would oblige. Doctor…” Bern broke off, worked the hat round and round in his hands again.
“Yes?” Norwood prompted him.
“Faraday was brought here unconscious that night. You alone were assigned to his care. Did he ever wake? Did he say anything? Communicate anything at all about what happened that night?” Bern looked up. “Did he speak of a woman?”
Norwood sat back. “A woman?”
“A young woman of slight build with long, pale hair. So pale as to look white.”
“No, I am sorry. Faraday regained consciousness, yes, but only in passing moments. He did not speak at all in my presence.”
“What of the nurses? The guards? Did anyone speak with him?”
“I am aware of no such conversation. The nurses would have alerted me to his condition if Faraday had spoken. And the guards were not permitted in the room.”
Bern nodded. “Has anyone at this hospital heard mention of a woman who...seemed to glow with light?”
Dr. Norwood watched the sheriff turn his hat. “No. I have not heard such talk.”
“Good…” Bern inhaled, looked up and nodded. “That is good.”
“Who is this woman, sheriff Bern?”
“We have witnesses who saw her with Faraday that night. Three of my own deputies assigned to patrol by the river that night, saw a woman walk out of that mortuary. Saw her standing over Faraday. And saw...other, strange things. The glowing and such.”
Bern grunted. “A merchant on Black Street also claims she entered his store. Attacked him, he said. Threatened his family.”
“Attacked? This woman is...dangerous?”
“Could be. Truth is…” he exhaled again at great length. “...we’ve got two victims. I know I’m asking a lot of you, but I’d be obliged if you’d take a look at them.”
“I have seen countless victims come through this hospital, sheriff. What am I looking for in these two?”
“Detectives suspect these were victims of murders, not directly a result of the Tragedy.”
“I have heard of violent crimes committed in the chaos that night.”
“Yes, but these were...under strange circumstances. The victims succumbed to electrical injuries, and yet they were not on the river. And the female victim had been stripped of her clothes.”
“They were within two streets of where the deputies first encountered the woman exiting the mortuary. The woman in Faraday’s company.” Bern leaned forward until his barrel chest touched the desk. “Doctor, we need to find this woman. Will you help us?”
“Of course. I will do what I can.”
“Will you examine the victims first? They were brought here from the police station morgue not more than an hour ago.”
“Pardon the presumption, but I do depend on your willingness to examine them. We have no better avenue of investigation.”
Dr. Norwood stood. “Then let us waste no more time.”
The two men made their way downstairs in silence. In the basement morgue of the east wing, far from the heat of the crematory, the hallways were empty now, the seemingly endless quantity of bodies that had come through in the past week were now gone, examined, identified, and sent away to their families or to the crematory. Only one lamp had been lit over two tables on which lay the shrouded and still figures of the victims. The acrid, rotting smell so familiar to Norwood reached out the moment they entered. Sheriff Bern stiffened. His arm went to cover his mouth, but he stopped himself and let it fall.
“Here,” said Bern. He led Norwood to the tables. Two deputies stood nearby, trying their best not to lay eyes on the tables and failing. Their eyes shifted up to the ceiling, around the walls, to each other, then back to the up again. They both wore their neck kerchiefs up over their noses, like bank robbers.
How we struggle to avoid any sense of death. We forget our own destiny. We close our eyes to the very proof of it before us. Not even I, a medical doctor, would see your eyes sinking into dark pits, Marie, your rosy glow draining from your cheeks.
Norwood took the edge of the sheet in his hands, then paused and turned to Bern. “You may dismiss your guards, if you wish. We have no need of them here.”
Bern nodded to the deputies. “Wait outside the door,” he told them. They rushed from the mortuary.
When the door slammed closed, Norwood folded the sheet back to reveal the male victim. Not much remained to be examined. A charred black husk in the shape of a human lay upon the table. Norwood had seen electrocution before, unfortunately, and what he saw here was the same. A gray flaky layer was the man’s clothes fused to his body as he burnt from the inside out. Norwood folded the sheet back to the victim’s waist. He retrieved a scalpel from the nearby cabinet of instruments and cut away a sample of the burnt skin from the cheek. He held it up to the lamp.
Bern cleared his throat. When Norwood glanced over, he saw the sheriff had relented to pull his kerchief up over his nose. “That don’t bother you?” he asked when he caught Norwood’s eye. “The smell?”
“I am accustomed to examining corpses, unfortunately. I saw many during the war.” Norwood placed the skin sample between two glass slides and slipped it into the pocket of his lab coat. He lifted the lamp from its hook and brought it closer to the victim’s face to examine the eye sockets.
“At the University Hospital in St. Louis.”
Norwood stopped. He straightened and turned to the sheriff. “Yes, that is correct.”
“You have seen much death in your time, Dr. Norwood.”
Norwood was struck silent. All he could see of the sheriff between the rim of his hat and the top of his kerchief was the man’s eyes gazing at him with intent. Then the lamp weakened. Norwood raised the wick, and again the light burned brightly.
“Forgive me, Doctor,” said Bern. “I was told you were a widower.”
You were also told I was at the University Hospital during the war. What else were you told? And by whom?
“There is nothing to forgive.” Norwood grinned to put the sheriff at ease and resumed his examination. He folded the sheet back on the female victim and stifled the gasp that choked him. She was not burned as badly, and yet her body was in worse shape than the man’s. The scalp was blackened, but not the face. The eyes, blank and cloudy. The lips parted, dried and cracked. The tongue a shriveled gray worm. Her unclothed body a uniform gray, like ash. She had not been burnt, except for the scalp. He covered her and smoothed the sheet over her gently.
“My Marie has been gone almost seventeen years now,” he said. “It does not hurt me to speak of her. Indeed, I must speak of her. Our son Henry was but four years old when she died. I must speak of her, for he knows her only through my memories.”
“Still, you would give anything, I am sure, to see her again in this world. To see her and your son reunited.”
Careful. He is expecting protest.
“That I would. I would anything to see her alive again.”
“And do you believe such a thing possible? What of this woman I described? Do you think Faraday could have returned her from death?”
“I would not know of such things.”
“Doctor, please. I have no other avenue of investigation. Any theory, even conjecture, might be of help.”
Norwood cleared his throat. Give him just enough. No more. “In theory, such a thing might be possible. I confess I have considered it myself. Many scientists nurture some strange or morally ambiguous theories. To resurrect a recently deceased body, the nervous system could have been manipulated by electrical means in order to achieve reanimation of the neurons.”
“A type of cell in the physical body that communicates by electrical impulse. But the same constant, unfailing source of electrical power could also have awakened in a reanimated form the intensified needs of a primitive living creature: hunger, thirst, fatigue.”
“Intensified. Could it make such a creature violent?” asked Bern.
“Neurons are the cells of the brain. Perhaps such an electrical manipulation caused stimulus in the cerebral areas of menace, anger, or violence. Such emotions would of course be exacerbated by hunger and confusion. But…” Norwood placed the sample in a metal tray and covered the bodies. “I am more apt to believe that these two were electrocuted by natural means.”
“How? They were far from the river. Farther than any other victims.”
“True. And yet it was an unprecedented electrical event. How can we know for sure the boundaries? Did either of them carry a conductor? An umbrella? A bit of pipe? How far did the charge carry in the rain?”
“What of the woman stripped of her dress?”
What to tell him? Hide behind vagueness.
“Looters ran unchecked for hours after the event, sheriff.”
“Stores and houses robbed , yes. No corpses were stripped of clothing.”
Norwood shrugged. “Perhaps it was a valuable dress. Perhaps the looter had a certain grudge against the deceased. All I can say is that I see no evidence to suggest murder by electrical means. Or any other means for that matter. The more logical explanation is that these two were victims of the catastrophic electrical event caused by Faraday’s experiment on the river.”
“Faraday’s laboratory. Do you still offer to examine his equipment?”
“Yes, of course. I will do what I can.”
At the door, Bern sent the deputies back inside. One of them cross himself in silent prayer before they entered. Norwood sent a nurse to retrieve his coat and hat from his office, then followed Bern into a carriage waiting at the front of the hospital.
The streets were almost empty at the supper hour. The people had gradually resumed their business along the river, but it was drastically thinned. No more market stands, no electrical demonstrations, no more children running along the shore poking sticks in the mud, only a few hardened men and women walked the riverfront, survivors of the war no doubt, those who had best learned how to persevere after tragedy.
The two men stopped in front of the mortuary, and Bern unlocked the front door. Shadows filled the foyer, the front hall, the main staircase. Beneath his boots, Norwood saw a trail of dried mud that led away from the door.
“The laboratory is at the back of the house, Doctor.”
They followed the trail of mud and entered a sunroom where the gray afternoon light fell on the tables crowded with glass beakers and metal instruments. Norwood approached the first table and examined the equipment. The first device he saw was the one described in Faraday’s confession. The front glass was broken, the body burnt, but he recognized the device used to locate a person’s consciousness from the vast aether and by electromagnetism attract it back to the physical form. The “buzzy,” he had called it. He picked it up from the table.
“Do you know its purpose?” the sheriff asked.
Norwood shook his head. “I have no idea. It looks to be no longer operational.”
“We found it near the river by the dock behind the house. We believe it had a primary purpose in the event.”
Norwood ran his thumb across the blackened metal, tapped the broken glass of its face. “My guess is that it is for electrical measurement primarily. Look at these dials and gauges.”
“What about this set up?” The sheriff pointed to a tall stack of copper discs. Upon the table it stood taller than the two men. Wires ran from several points to smaller machines on the table and along the back wall.
Norwood replaced the buzzy and studied the arrangement. “A basic generator. Salt water, copper wire...I see nothing here unusual.”
Bern cleared his throat. “Could this equipment be used to perform experiments on a human?”
Norwood turned to face the sheriff. “You say you have witnesses who saw this resurrected woman. Why do you need my input?”
“I have men who saw a woman leave this house, yes. I have a man to say she threatened him and his family. I have two corpses that look to be victims of electrocution. Now whether that all adds up to the dead coming to life, I’m not ready to say yet, Doctor. But this woman was likely in the house with Faraday. She may even have been in his confidence. She may know something of his intentions. She almost certainly can shed light on what happened here, and I want to hear what she has to say.”
“Or she may be yet another victim.”
“Then she may be out there, suffering. We must find her, help her. These stories grow stranger every time they are told. Fear is spreading. And I suspect that fear may cause men to act, to kill this woman, based on these stories.”
Norwood almost told him everything then. Faraday’s confession, the letter, how he burned it in the crematory. But one confession would have led down the road to so many others. The woman, how he had supplied her lifeless body to Faraday. How he sent Allen to meet with the scientist having some suspicion of how the man meant to use her. How the young lady had come to him, barely alive, brought to him in the middle of the night, carried by a man claiming to be her uncle. How the uncle wept over her limp, pale body, saying she had poisoned herself. How she had awoken for only moments, her eyes imploring him to help her. How Norwood had simply done nothing and let her die, how he had convinced himself that the girl was better off, that this was her only escape from an obsessive uncle. Those confessions would have led back all the way to the war, when under the name of Dr. Allen and in the mild insanity of war time, he may have followed the obsession with experiment too far, on too many, but there were so many of the dead passing before his eyes. So much waste...he could not help but put some of them to use for his benefit.
No. He could not reveal such secrets, not when there was still a chance of success.
Marie, my love. if there is any chance, I must find it. I may be the only one who can.
Bern continued. “Doctor, the last death count I heard was three hundred twelve souls. As far north as Greene County and south as far as Cairo. Now, I’ve got to tell the people something...I’ve got to give some reason to counter this rising fear. And if this woman is the reason, I need to know. If she is some kind of threat, I need to have her in my custody. And if she’s in trouble, I need to help her. Either way, I’ve got to find this woman.”
“I see no evidence of a wrongdoing here, Sheriff. As for the woman...more than likely, it was a hoax gone terribly wrong. You have seen such electrical demonstrations on the riverfront. One of the showmen may have a part in this.”
Bern nodded. The sheriff was silent for so long, Norwood felt need to prompt him.
“How may I be of further service?” he asked.
“That is all, Dr. Norwood. Again, I thank you. I will have the carriage take you home.”
“The two men walked out together and said their farewells.
“Again, I do thank you for your time, Doctor,” said Bern. “I know you must want to return to the city, now that the crisis has passed.”
Norwood shrugged. “My practice can wait a bit longer. I mostly tend to hysterical women and bored upper class.”
“I welcomed the call to Fort Charles. I felt my services were greatly of use.”
“That they were. Still, I expect you would like to return home.”
You would like me to return home, you mean.
“My wife is gone, my only son grown and away at college. My home is quiet and a bit lonely. I would rather be of service here as long as I am needed.”
Bern stepped up front to speak to the driver, and that is when Norwood saw it: behind the carriage, in the middle of the road, covered in dried mud as to be camouflaged in the dirt and rocks, a man’s pocket watch. As Bern’s back was turned and the driver’s head bowed to listen to his instruction, Norwood lowered himself and quickly slid the watch into the inner pocket of his overcoat. When Bern turned back, Norwood had already stepped into the carriage.
Bern offered a hand and Norwood shook it. Then he was off, on his way back to the hospital. Evening had set in, and the lamps were lit. He reached into the inner pocket and grasped the watch. The dried mud crumbled away and beneath he found the smooth gold with his thumb. As he stroked the metal, he felt it grow warm against his skin.