Elias sunk uncomfortably into the high-backed deep rose armchair, puffing his meerschaum pipe. The drawing-room was dotted with expensive wax taper candles to combat the oppressive and encroaching darkness.
The puppet sat menacingly in the middle of the seance table. Its painted wood eyes bore a hole in Elias' face. Elias stared back as though he was sizing up a bloke he was about to box against.
"Mr. Dashwood, would you like a drink while we wait for the others?" Miss Polly Burns chirped.
Elias Dashwood broke his staring contest with the puppet.
"Just a tea for me, Miss Burns." He said, half paying attention.
Eleanor Williamson, the overly cheerful so-called medium, pipped up.
"Mr. Dashwood, I DO have to ask, any relation to THE Francis Dashwood ?"
Elias plucked the pipe out of his mouth.
"Supposedly, he's my father. However, my mother is eccentric and a frequent liar." He replied flatly.
"Oh. Interesting." Elizabeth replied, off-put.
Good. Elias didn't want to talk to Mrs. Williamson if he could avoid it. He was sure Polly had been swindled into hiring her for tonight. He was more concerned with the straw-haired wooden fiend sitting on the table.
Miss Burns returned with the tea. Elias had grown up with Miss Burns and admired how strong the tiny girl with mouse-brown hair had become. She was still petite and skinny, but she commanded the room with her strong posture and well-spoken and assertive voice.
"Miss Burns, if you don't mind, I have a few questions for you about our wooden friend."
The puppet's painted smile sneered at him.
"Ah yes, of course. My father found the puppet up for auction in Paris. He recognized it right away as a puppet from the production of a play called "The Little Red Wagon" that supposedly was a favourite of the French court. Upon closer inspection, he found the makers' mark of Jean Chinon Charron. So he bought it. It's precious as a collectible." Miss Burns recalled.
"How many years ago was this now?" he asked, sipping on the beautifully hot tea.
"Two years, I think. Papa passed around that time, so that year is a blur. I can't remember exactly what time of year Papa went to Paris."
"That's alright. Did the trouble start right away?" He probed.
The puppet seemed to slump a little more. Casting a dark shadow over the wooden face.
"No, it was only in the last 6 months the strange things began. Dottie, my ladies maid, kept finding William all over the manor…."
"-William?" He injected.
"Oh, sorry, yes, that's what we call him. In 'Little Red Wagon,' his character was called William the wagon master."
"I see. I'm sorry for the interruption. Please continue, Miss Burns."
"After we found him everywhere, the knocking began. Now I must say he wasn't misplaced. William has a display box, and my maids would never have moved him. We would hear knocking, and then when we followed the sound, we would find William in a new spot."
She paused to glance over at the puppet as though she expected it to suddenly be elsewhere. Her softly curled hair bounced over her shoulder with her sudden alarm.
The puppet sat where they left him.
"Dottie especially was becoming very upset and frightened with William. She said he had an aura of the devil about him. So I put William away in my trunk, and I figured I would sell him at auction next month."
A sudden thump made all three of them jump. Elias jumped up from his chair and turned toward the table where the puppet had collapsed dramatically on its back.
"No need to worry, nothing but a coincidence." He smiled as he returned to the chair.
He didn't believe it was a coincidence; however, he didn't want to dissolve into a panic over a puppet falling over. Miss Burns sat at the edge of her seat like she expected to leap into combat if the puppet moved again.
"Then Dottie and I were woken up by a horrible racket. The box I had put William in was bouncing and thrashing like a wild animal was inside. It's a heavy oak chest, and it was almost splintering the wood around the lock. We were terrified and fled the house immediately. We went to the inn down the road and stayed there until we called you Mr. Dashwood."
Elias nodded. He was glad she trusted him enough to call for his help.
"Thank you, Miss Burns. I have to say in my years investigating spiritual activity, I have never seen such strength and violence exerted by a spiritual item." He glanced back at the puppet.
It hadn't moved.
"The puppet hadn't quite broken through the box. However, it was quite splintered when I entered the room. I'm hesitant to have your friends as witnesses to the seance with such a reaction. However, I understand wanting to have loved ones close by."
He was highly aware Miss Burns was alone. The Burns family had been hit by one tragedy after another, and she was the last surviving member of the family after her father's passing. She had plenty of money, but he refused to take payment for tonight. The young woman had suffered enough in the last 10 years. He couldn't help but shoot a quick glare at Mrs. Williamson, who gladly accepted a large sum of money when she arrived.
They were interrupted by a subtle knock at the door.
Cora Amira Bennett was someone he was familiar with. She and Polly Burns were inseparable when they were children. The other three he was less familiar with. They had always run in the aristocratic circles. A part of society he was not welcome in due to his status as a bastard child. He did recognize Lia Adams, the infamous dollar princess from America. He raised his eyebrows with interest as she draped her arm over Dillon Clarke Hughes.
"Mr. Dashwood, you know Cora already." Polly smiled.
"Yes, hello again, Miss Bennett." He nodded.
"This is Rupert Angus Hughes, Cora's fiancée. As well as his brother Dillon Clark Hughes…." She paused at Lia.
"…and this is Lia Adams."
Mrs. Adams put her nose in the air and ignored Miss Burns.
"Charmed. Shall we begin? I'm sorry to rush everyone, but we're running late, and the guest of honour has a reputation for disappearing." He motioned to the puppet.
It was still where they left it.
"Ah, so that's the bugger," Rupert said in awe.
They made their way to the table, Polly keeping a watchful eye on the puppet as she sat down.
Mrs. Williams took over as Elias posted himself in the armchair away from the table.
"Mr. Dashwood, are you not joining the seance?" Mrs. Williams said curtly.
Elias was busy pulling open his case.
"I am here as a bit of a bodyguard. I will be doing my own thing while you work." He said while rummaging.
Elias pulled out a bottle of holy water and a few small taper candles. The last item out of the case was a Bible. Once unpacked, he stacked his tools on a small side table next to the large red armchair.
"Now that Mr. Dashwood is ready. Let's… *lift the veil."* Mrs. Williamson said dramatically.
Elias tried his best not to roll his eyes.
Mrs. Williamson waved her hands dramatically and closed her eyes, sitting in her chair slowly.
"Oh Diana, goddess of the moon! Allow my entrance into the world of the dead! Lift the veil on the world that is hidden from us! I call upon the power of the underworld to bring forth the spirit of this puppet." Mrs. Williams cried.
The puppet didn't stir.
Mrs. Williamson picked up a small brass bell and rang it vigorously.
"Come spirits! Come! Join us!" She yelled.
Elias could see Miss Burns was feeling slightly uncomfortable, while the other sitters had their eyes obediently closed. Polly Burns kept opening one eye. Looking at the puppet.
The puppet's head rolled toward her, slowly, until it looked Polly Burns in the eye.
Elias rose from his seat and stood behind Miss Burns. The puppet started at both of them with a look of cold insanity.
"Oh troubled spirit, tell us of your past! Your woes! Your Sins!" Williamson continued, unaware her performance was now background noise for what was happening.
The puppet on the table slowly twisted its limbs into a spider-like formation. The chest lifted, and the puppet crawled toward Polly Burns in a morbid insect-like fashion, the head staring at her menacingly from its upside-down position.
Miss Burns screamed, and Elias lunged at it, swatting the puppet onto the floor. It skittered along with the wood and began climbing up the dusty rose-coloured wallpaper. The other sitters had now noticed the horror taking place, and Lia Adams screamed in terror, clawing her date to get away.
Elias walked quickly to retrieve the bottle of holy water. Casually sprinkling it on himself and then strolling over to spread the water on the wooden daemon scrabbling up the wall.
It screamed in two voices, a higher-pitched voice and a deep guttural voice. Soon the air was filled with screams and yelps from the onlookers. The puppet fell from the wall, twitching. Elias took immense satisfaction in slamming his foot down onto its wooden form.
"HOW DARE YOU!" The puppet roared, the painted mouth animated and showing rows of pointed teeth.
The taper candles began to flicker violently, and soon at least half the candles were out. The growing darkness made it hard to see what was happening, but Elias was determined to keep his foot on the little beast.
He heard a strange bumping and flapping and turned to see the table tipping itself and slamming itself on the floor. Adams, Bennett and Williamson were cowered into the farthest corner of the drawing-room while the Hughes boys picked up a frozen and stunned Polly Burns to carry her to safety. The window hangings bellowed and flapped in an invisible wind while picture frames on the walls rocked back and forth.
"What a show, little spirit! What do you hope to accomplish by all this fanfare?" Elias said as he sprinkled more holy water on the puppet.
It cried out, "DON'T TOUCH ME, YOU BASTARD."
"What is your name, spirit?" Elias commanded.
The floor of the study rumbled unnaturally, making the furniture rattle. Phantom gusts of wind now blowing small objects off the mantle, tables and side tables.
Elias increased pressure on the puppet, feeling the puppet's wooden head begin to press a dent into the floor's planks. The straw hair crinkled.
"You'll never take me away from her!" It cackled.
"Take you away from who?" Elias pressed harder with his foot.
"Polly…" It hissed.
Elias looked over to Miss Burns, who was nearly faint with shock… or was it shock?
"I'm sorry, but Miss Burns isn't keen on you. It's time to rest now, spirit." Elias tried to concentrate, but he was concerned about Miss Burns.
He poured the remainder of the holy water onto the puppet and began his exorcism in Latin. He wasn't an ordained priest (far from it); however, he always got spirits to respond.
A guttural shriek filled the drawing-room. The puppet's limbs bent and cracked in odd angles violently, and an animalistic scream emanated from the wooden face. Elias could feel the thrashing beneath his foot, clawing at the sole of his shoe.
The rumble stopped, the wind died. The puppet slumped back into a lifeless object. Elias picked up the puppet, its eyes no longer sinister and its mouth painted with sharp teeth. He placed the puppet back onto the table.
"Interesting. I believe we do, in fact, have some sort of object-based spirit possession. Miss Burns, may I take the puppet apart to inspect it?"
Elias turned to the pile of guests cowering in the farthest corner of the study. Miss Burns nodded numbly, still in shock. Elias pulled out a pocket knife and cut off the tiny shirt and pants on the puppet, then pulled off the little red leather shoes. On the feet, someone had carved a maker's mark, 'Jean Chinon Charron.' Elias ran his fingers over the spot, feeling rough and splintered pieces around the edges of the letters. The maker's mark had scratched through the lacquer.
"Miss Burns, have you looked at this maker's mark?"
"Y-yes." Miss Burns slowly rose to her feet and began regaining her composure.
"I'm not an expert in puppets or woodcraft; however, this looks like it was done after the puppet was lacquered. Is that normal?"
"No, that defeats the purpose of lacquering the puppet. Damp would get into the wood, and it would damage the puppet." She came closer.
Elias turned the puppet over in his hands, looking over each surface. Attempting to find a hint of where this puppet may have originated. He finally pushed back the straw hair and found it.
The handwriting was messy and done with shoe polish and a brush.
"I'm sorry, Miss Burns, your father may have been fooled into thinking this puppet was from a famous production. It looks like it's actually a child's toy."
Elias showed Miss Burns. Then placed the puppet back on the séance table, which was now sporting chips and splinters from tipping.
"I'm disappointed to hear my father was swindled, but after that… I don't want to see this puppet ever again." She said meekly.
"I understand, Miss Burns. I'll probably take it with me and dispose of it." Elias turned to pick up the puppet from the table.
It was gone.
"I… It… it crawled out the window… it was so fast… "Cora Bennett managed to croak.
A dreaded silence fell on the party.
"Let's get everyone home. Miss Bennett, can Miss Burns stay with you for tonight? I believe it's unsafe for her to be in this house until I can find the puppet." Elias plucked up.
Miss Bennett nodded and began shuffling around for Polly's things. Elias sighed. Tonight was going to be a long night. He wasn't going to rest until he found that puppet.