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Puppet Masters

by Mary-Jean Harris

Part 1 appears
in this issue.


It appeared that whatever strange phenomena had afflicted the lady who had attacked Sir John had also seized hold of me. According to Louis, I had stopped abruptly, just as the lady had, and had then set off rapidly to Wincheap Street, entirely disregarding any entreaties from Louis.

I had then gone up to the porch of 40 Wincheap Street and asked for Mrs. Moreland. Louis had been prepared to knock me out with his sword should I take on any murderous tendencies, but he had no need, for the only thing I did was fall to my knee and tell Mrs. Moreland how her husband, Liam, loved her very much.

Yet it appeared, as Louis had determined, that Liam was dead. I recovered after that, finding myself in the strange position just described.

We were now returning to Watling Street, and I was determined to discover what was happening once and for all. I was still shaken by what had happened to me, and I no longer doubted I had been possessed.

The moment I had awoken, I’d had the strange feeling that I had just been born into a foreign world that I no longer had mastery over. Who was I, if my body could for significant periods of time go along without my knowing it, led by some ethereal puppet master I had sensed as no more than a whisper in an illusory wind?

It was fortunate that my determination had overcome my fears, for, if it had been up to Louis, we wouldn’t have set foot on Watling Street again. I was resolved to go to the manor where the lady had obtained a dagger from the bush in the hopes of discovering who had put it there.

Yet when I knocked on the door of the manor, there was no answer. The manor was old, and I only now realized that it was in a considerable state of decrepitude. The ivy about the house, though quaint and delicate at a distance, crept over many of the walls and windows, a loom of the earth woven by Nature herself. The grass was long and drooping, and grew in patches along the dirt walkway. I knocked again, quite loudly this time.

“No one’s going to come,” Louis said, already starting down the stairs.

“Hold, Louis,” I said. “Do you expect a spirit-possessing fiend to greet us at the door?”

“Well... no.”


“Then why did you knock?”

“Because,” I began, removing a set of small brass keys from my waistcoat pocket, “If I’m wrong, then we’ll be able to tell the truth: we knocked to no avail before needing to break in.” I started with the first key and worked it into the lock.

“But then we’ll have to tell them why we were breaking and entering.”

“We are inspectors, are we not? Official inspectors, I should say.” I looked back to Louis and waited until he agreed before continuing to work at the lock.

With Louis on the lookout, I was able to get the door open in no more than a quarter of an hour, and we proceeded inside. With the ivy obscuring the light through the windows, the house was cast in an eerie, dark green hue, a swamp of light.

My heels sounded sharp on the floorboards and stirred up eddies of dust about my feet that remained hovering in the air like ill-formed ghosts. The house was poorly furnished: a sitting room had but one dust-ridden armchair, not to mention a treasure map of mouse droppings.

“Edwin,” Louis whispered upon entering the third room, still with no sign of human habitation, “did you hear a voice?”

“No.” I stopped and listened though, and sure enough, there was whispering similar to what I’d heard in that illusory wind. I couldn’t identify an origin of the voices, for they seemed to arise from the air itself, creeping into our world through little tears in space.

Louis flung his arms about him, batting the air and darting from the room. I followed suit — without the flailing arms, mind you — yet the whispers remained. Though as there was no sensation of a great wind, I had some confidence that I wouldn’t be possessed outright.

But still, as we searched the rest of the ground floor amid the unintelligible murmurings in the air, both Louis and I became quite out of breath, darting about, anxiously checking our pocket watches, and starting at the least hint of a breeze, which, in truth, was only ever caused by one of us whipping out his pocket watch.

So it was perhaps inevitable that, when we entered a chamber on the second floor, Louis gave a yelp in terror, and Alexander’s sword flew out of its scabbard. For sitting on a lone chair before us was an old lady, so still that she might have been no more than a statue in this graveyard of furniture.

She didn’t stir at Louis’s outcry, which only made her impression more eerie. She wore a white, shroud-like gown that might have been fashionable half a century ago, her grey hair was tied in a bun on top of her narrow head, and her neck, the sagging skin of which recalled to mind the gills of a fish, was long as if it were being stretched out by a string tied to the top of her head.

The whispering in the air had intensified when we entered, but I forced myself to remain still, though my heart was beating rapidly. I needed answers. “Madam,” I began, stepping closer to her, “we rang the bell, but it appears you have no servants to answer the door.”

A thin smile crept onto the lady’s pale lips, giving a little light to reflect in her glassy, grey eyes. “I have servants.”

“Oh, we didn’t see them.” I looked to Louis, and he nodded in confirmation. Reluctantly, he sheathed his sword. “Would you tell us your name? I am Edwin Galbraith, and this is Louis Earnshaw.”

The lady was silent. The voices seemed to escalate before she at last spoke. “Harriett. Harriett Wilkins.”

“Let me be frank, Mrs. Wilkins. At least three people, myself included, have been possessed by what I can only reasonably call spirits, one of whom turned to violence while possessed. I know she came to this house, and moreover, I could hear the same voices in your house as those I heard just before losing consciousness. And—”

“We want you to tell us what’s going on,” Louis spoke up.

I was getting there, I thought. But nevertheless, Harriett did respond to Louis.

“They are not spirits,” she said. “They are ethereal thoughts. Unfulfilled promises, regrets, intentions, wavering in the spirit world before completing themselves or fading.”

“Completing themselves?” I asked.

“When people die, their souls venture to a higher world. But lower principles of their soul — desires for worldly things, those parts that are ill-suited for where the soul is headed — remain behind. They will not die until they can be completed. A hatred must be dispersed, a love revealed. They need only human flesh to act out their purpose.”

“Yet as they are not souls, how can they direct a body?”

“A shadow of a soul remains, just enough so that they can enact their one purpose. Just enough, no more. And when the purpose is complete, they are dispersed, vanishing from even the spirit world.”

“So the voices: they are these soulless intentions?”

Harriett nodded. She reached within the folds of her dress on her lap and produced a hand mirror. She held it out to me, and I took it with feigned confidence. Although its surface was tarnished and my reflection was splotched, as was the anxious face of Louis behind me, I could see swishes of light within it, darting about the room as if in the wind. They were a greyish white and moved like transparent silk scarves. As I moved the mirror about, I could see them all over the room, and when I heard the whispering, it was always at the same time that one of the swishes darted next to my head.

I handed the mirror back to Harriett. “Why do they choose to take over certain humans?” I asked.

“I choose whoever is most convenient.”

“You do it? How on earth do you manage that?”

Harriett did not respond.

“Well, I must demand that this come to an end. We cannot have British citizens periodically losing their minds, doing peculiar deeds, and getting arrested for sake of ‘stray’ intentions.”

“If they are not fulfilled, they will remain for long years.”

“Is that a problem?”

Harriett frowned. “You may not feel the currents of the spirit world, but should too many regrets and lingering plans be left uncompleted, believe me, you will notice.”

“Yet this has never happened before.”

“You did something,” Louis said, less nervous now. “You made it so they came to this world. They were far away once, and wouldn’t have bothered us.”

“Once,” Harriett said softly, and in a guttural whisper, added, “But no more.”

I could hardly imagine that this was a good idea. Although some of these intentions did indeed seem to be fulfilling themselves, and thus, departing from the world, there must be countless more leaking into our world even as we spoke. For who could count the billions upon billions of unattained goals, bitter regrets, and unfulfilled desires cast into the ether upon the deaths of all the people that have ever lived since the dawn of humanity? The sheer scale was dizzying, and to think that this peculiar lady had the ability to let such spirits into our world...

“Who are you really, Harriett Wilkins?” I asked.

She didn’t respond. I knew she was some sort of mystic, but I hoped she would clarify a little. For she had no qualms telling me about these spiritual entities, whether it was true or only her interpretation.

“I wonder what the souls of the deceased would think,” I mused, “if they knew their earthly thoughts continued on like this. And I wonder what the metaphysical status of such a realm is. How does it connect to ours?”

“It is always here, though you cannot sense it. The spiritual intentions are but a hair’s width away, yet you could not have known until we came through.”

There was a silence broken only by the constant whisper of those intentions. Louis stepped forward, clutching his pocket watch. He scrutinized the lady, which she didn’t seem to think was at all unusual, and said, “What is your purpose to fulfill?”

“To speak the truth,” she whispered, her thin lips jagging to the side as if it were painful to say it.

“Yet you would not tell us about yourself,” I added, beginning to feel more leery.

“You did not ask. You only asked about Harriett Wilkins, and I know nothing about her but what I can glean from this corpse.”

“You mean...” Louis began.

“She was close to death. It was in that precarious moment, at the threshold of other realms of being, that I, after hovering for centuries, executed the plan that might fulfill me. Most intentions fade over the decades, but I was too strong. The mind from which I arose was a great one.”

“And whose, might I ask, was it?” I asked.

“I do not know. I am he no longer. I am a hair from his head, cut off, no longer a part of him. I came here to fulfill myself, to destroy myself.”

“And the other intentions?”

“I believe they might do the same.”

“You seem capable of thought.”

“I have grown a shadow of it over many years. Enough to see my purpose fulfilled.”

“But it is now,” Louis said. “You wished to speak the truth. And you have, to us.”

“Yet will you speak it to the world?”


I turned to Louis sharply, but he didn’t meet my gaze.

“You will tell the living to die fulfilled, to live their lives to the brim, and leave nothing undesired?” Harriett asked.


“Though it is a difficult task,” I added. “I cannot imagine many people would succeed.” At the same time, however, I wondered if I could do it. Could anyone really die completely satisfied? To have no more wanting?

I thought of a Buddhist monk living his last moments with a smile. Perhaps it was possible, even if few achieved it. But I would achieve it. Indeed, I felt possessed with a new sort of purpose to do so. To die with only otherworldly aspirations, nothing to tie me here.

“They need not succeed, but they must know,” Harriett said.

I nodded, but before I could say anything, she closed her eyes and her head started to drop forward.

“Wait,” I cried. I hastened to her side. She brought her head back up, but didn’t open her eyes. “We haven’t dealt with the other intentions that have yet to fulfill themselves. Not to mention others that could come through.”

“The portal will close when I cease.”

“Yet those that remain?”

“Will be fulfilled.”

“I’m afraid we can’t allow that.”

Harriett gave a shrug before continuing to drift away.

“You know,” I said quickly, “I don’t believe we will communicate this with other people after all. Not unless such intentions return.”

“Are you blackmailing me?” Harriett demanded, her eyes snapping open.

“No, not... Well, yes, I am. But I believe it’s reasonable given the circumstances.”

Harriett scowled. “They must be fulfilled, now that they have come to this world.”

I bit my lip. Was this the truth? Or had her ‘truth-telling’ ceased when Louis had agreed to help her?

“What if,” Louis began tentatively, “they are fulfilled in us?”

“What?” Harriett and I exclaimed at once.

“If they only came to Edwin and me in turn, so we could watch over each other, to prevent anything bad from happening.”

“Agreed,” Harriett said, and then started to drift again.

“Wait,” I said. “How many are there left?”

She smiled slightly. “Fifty-seven.”

Before I could express my horror, she slipped from the chair, tumbling to the floor in a heap. She was dead, at least, more dead than she had been a moment ago. I took a step back. Somehow, she would communicate with these stray intentions, telling them to inhabit Louis and me rather than others.

I turned to Louis. “You offered us up, to be puppets under the strings of another’s intentions.”

“Sorry, Edwin.”

“Sorry? That’s it?”

We started from the room, and I was surprised at how calm Louis had become. Perhaps it was because he knew the truth of all this now, knew it wasn’t demonic possession or something permanent.

“It’s only fifty-seven,” he said.

“But... fifty-seven!” I shook my head.

“We can manage it.”

I sighed. “I suppose we have no choice. I’ll keep this dagger on me for now, though I’ll give it to you if I start to feel abnormal. Don’t be afraid to cut the strings that move my limbs, for I shall be no more than a puppet then. And tell me if you start to feel any strange wind.”

“Wind? But it’s so windy in this hall already.” Louis had stopped, and was squinting as if caught in a great headwind.

I hurried back to him. “Give me your sword.”

He handed it to me, though seemed confused.

And so it began.

* * *

Nearly a year later, Louis arrived at my house with an ornate golden box lined with jade filigree and letters in an East Asian script upon the lid. A great smile was spread across his face as if he had just conquered the world.

It had been a few months since we’d run through the intentions, at least, fifty-six of them. After wild dashes around town, heartfelt discourses with fair widows, three more murder attempts, a few robberies, and many more peculiar occurrences, we had taken a break from investigations to focus on more theoretical philosophy. We had naturally assumed that the remaining fifty-seventh intention had either returned to the world it had come from or had dissipated.

I asked Louis what this ornament was, and he said that my Uncle Winthrop had brought it back from his journey to the East.

“Louis, are you...” I began, but he shoved the box into my hand before I could question him properly. Seeing that he wasn’t about to murder someone or do anything more than watch me open the box, I refrained from retrieving my dagger, and opened the tiny clasps.

The box was lined with folds of red silk, and at the centre was an enormous pearl that glowed with a hint of rose. I touched its cool surface tentatively. Had this really been meant for me? My Uncle Winthrop had been dead for five years, and I hadn’t expected any inheritance to fall my way.

I then heard Louis gasp. “Edwin?” he said, glancing about in bewilderment. He looked at the pearl and his eyes widened.

I couldn’t help but laugh. “That, Louis, was fifty-seven. And perhaps, despite everything, some good did come out of this, at least, for the funds of the Order.”

Copyright © 2017 by Mary-Jean Harris

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