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Other Worlds

Other Worlds by Barbara Michaels
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One foggy evening, the most famous crime specialists in the world meet in an exclusive club, their minds on murder. On the agenda: two tantalizing, unsolved cases of ghostly terror. New York Times bestselling author and unsurpassed master of suspense Barbara Michaels delivers a fireside story in the grand tradition with her latest work, Other Worlds. The smoky room glows with a mix of cigars, brandy, and genius. Those present include Harry Houdini, king of illusion; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, father of the modern detective novel; Dr. Nandor Fodor, a psychoanalyst of international acclaim; and an elegant writer who can rival them all with her sleuthing talent. These masters of mystery put their minds to a pair of gripping stories of families beset by poltergeistly pranks and bewitched by inexplicable horrors. Gripping puzzles, yes, but the terror is all too vicious and all too real. In the hollows of Tennessee, a family is threatened by a dire spirit whose predictions of despair and death come frighteningly true. In a small Connecticut town, a newly married widow and her children move into her second husband's home to find their lives possessed by an unimaginable demon.For the gathering at the club, a brilliant battle of wits is at hand. Were these villains phantoms from beyond or evildoers of flesh and blood? Each expert has a theory. Which of them is correct? Whether writing as Barbara Michaels or Elizabeth Peters, this author is a master chef crafting richly atmospheric, suspense-filled delights. Other Worlds is an up-all-nighter guaranteed to still haunt in the morning, a tale as chilling by daylight as it is by darkness.
HarperCollins; May 2009
304 pages; ISBN 9780061945410
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Title: Other Worlds
Author: Barbara Michaels

Chapter One

The Scene is the smoking room of an exclusive men's club, familiar through film and fiction even to those who have been denied admittance to such precincts because of deficiencies of sex or social status. The lamplight glows on the rich rubbed leather of deep, high-backed chairs. Grave, deferential servants glide to and fro, their footsteps muffled by the thick carpet. The tall windows are draped in plum-red plush, shutting out the night air and the sounds of traffic on the street without the traffic, perhaps, of hansom cabs and horsedrawn carriages. For this is no real establishment; it exists outside time and space, in the realm of the imagination -- one of the worlds that might have been.

A small group of men enters the room. They have the sleek, satisfied look of gentlemen who have dined well, and who are looking forward to brandy and a fine Havana and another pleasure equally as great -- conversation with their peers on a subject deeply engrossing to all of them.

One man leads the way, striding impatiently. His high forehead is wrinkled, his eyes narrowed. Mr. Frank Podmore calls himself "skeptic-in-chief" of the Society for Psychical Research. The spiritualist tricksters he has exposed, and many of his own colleagues in the SPR, consider him unreasonable and unfair. Those colleagues would recognize the expression on his face this evening. Podmore is on the trail again, ready to pour the ice-water of his doubt on another questionable case.

Behind him comes a man whose voice still retains the accents of his native Vienna -- Nandor Fodor, formerly director of the International Institute for Psychical Research, who resigned in disgust when his colleagues objected to his "filthy-minded" explanations of certain cases. A practicing psychiatrist for many years, he has investigated almost as many purported "ghosts" as has Podmore.

The third member of the group is stocky and cleanshaven, with keen blue-gray eyes. Born Erik Weisz, son-of a Hungarian rabbi, he is better known as Harry Houdini. Many of the spiritualists he ridiculed claimed that he himself must have had psychic powers in order to accomplish his amazing feats.

One of his old antagonists, a burly bristling mustache and soft blue eyes, walks with him. Conan Doyle and Houdini broke off their friendship when Houdini attacked Doyle's faith in the survival of the dead. It would be pleasant to believe that in some other time and place these two good men have at last made up their quarrel.

A fifth person follows modestly behind the others. From his hesitant manner and the formal way in which the others address him, one might deduce that he is a guest, rather than a regular member of the group. He is taller and heavier than the others; his evening suit is a trifle old-fashioned and more than a trifle too small. He has very large feet.

They settle into their chairs. Topaz liquid swirls in the bell-shaped glasses and a fragrant fog of smoke surrounds them.

"Well, gentlemen," says Podmore, "are we ready to begin?" Typically, he does not wait for a reply, but continues, "Tonight's case -- "

Doyle raises a big hand. "Always impatient, Podmore. Don't you think we owe our guest a word of explanation first? He knows our purpose, but cannot be familiar with our methods."

"Oh -- certainly" Podmore turns to the stranger. "I beg your pardon, sir. All of us have investigated many cases of presumed supernatural activity, some as agents of the SPR and some, like Houdini, in a private capacity. During our evenings together we enjoy a busman's holiday, applying our combined expertise to the investigation of famous cases that have never been satisfactorily explained. Sometimes we agree on a solution; more often we agree to disagree."

"More often?" Fodor repeats, smiling. "I cannot remember an occasion when the verdict was unanimous, and I know none of you are going to agree with my solution to this case. The Bell Witch, is it not?"

"Correct," says Podmore. "And, as is fitting, we have selected our American member to describe this American ghost. No more interruptions, gentlemen, if you please; pray, silence for Mr. Harry Houdini."

Houdini has his notes ready. He gives the others a rueful smile. "This is worse than escaping from a sealed coffin, gentlemen. Book research isn't my style, and this is the first case I've investigated where all the suspects have been dead for over a century. But as Podmore would say, that just makes it more challenging. And what a tale it is! Dr. Fodor here has called it the greatest American ghost story I would go further; I would call it the greatest of all ghost stories. There is nothing to equal it on either side of the Atlantic.

"Over the years the true facts have become so encrusted with layers of exaggeration, misinterpretation, false memories and plain out-and-out lies that the result sounds like one of Sir Arthur's wilder fictions. Our greatest difficulty will be to figure out what really happened. I won't presume to do that; I will just give you the story as I have worked it out and let you decide what is important and what isn't. Ready? Then here we go."

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