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Perils for Portents: Portents

Perils for Portents: Portents

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Perils for Portents: Portents

352 pages
5 hours
Oct 31, 2016


San Francisco, 1890s
Francie, an entrepreneur, wants to travel the world and make her fortune.
Rooney, her mechanical savant brother, wants to tinker in his uncle’s shop.
Mrs. La Fontaine, the ghost haunting the fortunetelling machine, wants to stay right where she is.
Big Jim, the carnival manager, wants to kill Francie to keep his murderous past a secret.
Not everyone is going to be happy.
But fortunes will be told and, possibly, made.

Oct 31, 2016

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Perils for Portents - Diana Benedict

Book Description

America in the 1890s is a land of dreams for anyone brave enoughand strong enoughto make them come true.

After Francie Wolcott’s parents die, leaving her and her genius younger brother, Rooney, penniless, she intends to tour the world with the fortunetelling automaton he built. But first she must bring Rooney to their uncle in San Francisco, where he will have a place to happily tinker and invent things.

With no traveling funds, Francie and Rooney join a traveling carnival heading west, using the automaton as an attraction to pay their way. All goes well at first—until a real ghost takes up residence in the automaton. As the fortunes become eerily more accurate, Francie believes real success is finally within her grasp, but the machine’s prognostications also implicate the carnival manager, Big Jim, in a murder.

Intent on murdering Francie to keep his secret safe, Jim pursues them across the country to the boomtown of San Francisco. Francie must use her all her wits and skill to stop him if she has any hope of achieving her dream of independence and of protecting her and her brother from Big Jim’s clutches.

Perils for Portents

Diana Benedict

Digital Edition - 2016


Diana Benedict

Copyright Diana Benedict 2016. All rights reserved

Cover Art: Brandon Swann

Cover Images:

Editor: John Helfers

Layout/Typesetting: RuneWright LLC

Author Photograph:

Published by Lilac Moon Books

First Edition: 2016

All Rights Are Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental.

Discussion Questions may be used and reproduced in a classroom setting.


Book Description

Title Page

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

About the Author

Other Work By Diana Benedict

Chapter 1

From her barker box in front of the tent on a warm and humid night in Cincinnati, Francie Wolcott heard women screaming. She lifted her skirts and jumped down in a most unladylike fashion and rushed inside the tent. A sea of men in black silk top hats shepherded women out of the tent in a state of panic. The women wore their Sunday best, and their colorful feathered bonnets bobbed like birds on a vast rolling wave as they rushed out.

One lone man, who turned out to be a doctor, pushed against the flood of people to kneel by a matron laid out awkwardly on the ground in front of the fortunetelling cabinet. She was deathly pale as he checked her pulse.

Francie stood over them both. What happened?

The man stood, shaking his head sadly. A heart attack.

Just then Madame LeGrue, the gypsy mannequin in the cabinet, raised her hands and twisted from side to side, saying, What? Where? Where?

Her younger brother Rooney rushed over, flipped open the back of the cabinet and began fiddling with it. It shut down in mid-what, and the rubber-face of the gypsy was left wide open in a comic expression of horror. He looked at her with a mixture of confusion and irritation as he closed the door with a click.

Oh, no. Everything had been going so well. She looked at the woman on the ground. Rooney, find a blanket or something. The woman deserved some dignity. Her younger brother peeked around the corner of the fortunetelling machine and nodded, running off to find something to cover her with.

Big Jim, the carnival owner, forced his way in, wreathed in a cloud of bluish cigar smoke, followed by the local constabulary.

Her heart gave out, the doctor explained.

On the strength of that testimony, the constable nodded. I’ll send to the morgue to have her taken and find her next of kin.

Francie’s legs felt weak and she staggered to Rooney’s stool near his tool trunks and sat, her heart pounding. Oh, this was awful. How would they get to San Francisco now? How would Rooney live with their uncle? She cursed the day her parents died and left her in charge.

Big Jim stood next to her, patting her shoulder after he covered the poor woman with the gray blanket Rooney brought from their tent. She recognized the patched corner as the one that came from her cot.

After the coroner came and took the body away, leaving the blanket in a crumpled pile in front of the fortunetelling machine, Big Jim turned to Rooney, who stood next the cabinet, a hank of hair twisting around his finger. She didn’t say anything even though he’d have a bloody spot when he pulled it out.

Can it be fixed?

I’m not sure, Rooney said, his finger coiled tightly in his hair. I’ll have to do a complete inspection tomorrow. It shouldn’t be doing that. He frowned.

Francie felt sympathetic. Rooney didn’t like inexplicable. He liked things routine, logical, straightforward. This entire carnival trip across the country was trying for him. For her part, thoughexcept for tonightshe had enjoyed traveling with the carnival, hawking the fortunetelling machine, seeing new sights.

What are we going to do? Francie asked Big Jim.

Do? Big Jim laughed, a great belly laugh that matched his smile. Girl, we’re going to sit back and rake in the dough. I always knew you had a moneymaker with that gypsy fortunetelling machine. But this, this is going to turn it into a gold mine.

Francie looked from him to the cabinet. Rooney had built the automaton with plans Alexander Graham Bell had given him. He fashioned a cabinet for it to hide the clever apparatus powering the automaton, and painted golden scrollwork along the front and sides, and lettered Madame LeGrue in careful script over the front glass. It was a truly beautiful work.

How can you say that? Francie asked. A woman died. Right there, in front of the cabinet.

Yes, she had a heart attack. Don’t you see? Any publicity is good, he said. And you two are absolved of any responsibility. He laughed again. It’s perfect. I can see it now. His hands blocked out the imaginary headline. Fortuneteller’s Pronouncement Pulls Woman from the Mortal World. You’ll see.

He left, chewing the stub of his big cigar.

The very idea was novel, but it made sense. Big Jim was good at spinning things. She’d learned a lot about this business since they had joined the carnival.

But the sooner they got to San Francisco, the better. Rooney simply wasn’t cut out for this kind of life. He liked things scheduled. He was happiest puttering around with his tools in the work shed out back of their parent’s house, reading the latest science news after lunch and attending the Thursday night lectures at the Philadelphia Mechanics Institute.

All that had gone, along with their parents. She’d get him to San Francisco and make sure Uncle Jasper was true to his word about providing a place for Rooney in his machine shop.

But she wasn’t going to stick around. No, she loved traveling, just not with a carnival. She wanted to experience new places, new sights, and new people. And more, she wanted the fame and the fortune that she could find by her wits with half a chance.

That’s all she neededhalf a chance.

Come on, Rooney, she said, with a last look around the tent. Let's go to bed. She blew out the kerosene lanterns, emptied the coin box in the cabinet, and closed up the canvas tent. Then she and Rooney headed for their tent, leaving the blanket on the ground. She'd beg another from the supply master.

Chapter 2

The next morning Big Jim came to the tent as she was getting ready for the carnival to open. Rooney had tested the automaton and Madame LeGrue seemed to be working fine. Francie was glad the tent flaps were open on both ends so the breeze, bringing the smells of the coffee and bacon, would take the cigar smoke with it. She wished he would smoke a better cigar. Her father had smoked cigars but they were sweetish, not harsh and thick like the stogies Big Jim favored.

He stepped in beside her and she angled so that she was upwind of the cigar. He flipped the paper open to show her the paper with its block headline, just as he had said. You’re gonna be famous. People will come from miles around to see the cabinet that pushed a woman across the mortal veil.

The mannequin suddenly swiveled and lifted on hand to point to them. And … Merry … was … buried … for … golden … coin, Madame LeGrue whispered in Francie’s apocryphal recorded voice.

Big Jim’s eyes grew wide and he stared at the fortuneteller.

Francie turned to the automaton, trying to figure out what was going on and why Rooney would choose that moment to fiddle with the damn thing. But he wasn’t there.

The pronouncement hadn’t made sense to her, but the words must have meant something to Big Jim because he’d looked to Francie, then the cabinet, and blustered, If you ever repeat that to a living soul, I’ll ruin you, before stomping out, flipping the tent flap so hard it slapped against the pole with a thwack.

* * *

The next shows were a mix of hit and miss as the machine worked smoothly one time and sputtered and skipped the next. Rooney was driven to distraction trying to discover what was wrong.

At last Francie started to feel like they were back on track and San Francisco was achievable.

Then she went into the tent after the show in Denver ended to count the take. Rooney had his head in the back of the cabinet. Oily wisps of smoke leaked out of the top of it.

What happened?

Francie wiped oily steam off the glass and peered through it at the gypsy woman. Smoke trickled from her nose and from under the red silk chemise, drifting through the thirty-two strings of cheap glass beads around her neck. The mannequin’s curly brown hair was frizzed on one side from the heat, and her parti-colored scarf was scorched. One brown glass eye was wide open, the other clicking as it winked shut over and over.

She blew a hose and the motor overheated again, Rooney said, swiping lank brown hair out of his face as he stood up from behind the red varnished cabinet. His shirt—his best one, Francie noted—was now smeared with black soot across the front. And he’d torn the knee of his tweed pants. It was a measure of how upset her brother was that he hadn’t changed into his coveralls before he worked on the automaton.

Francie shook her head. They were lucky the automaton’s rubber face hadn’t been damaged. It was Rooney’s most clever creation. The eyes moved back and forth, the lids closed, and the mouth could open and close. She actually looked like she was speaking—if you didn’t look too closely—and Rooney had arranged the lighting inside the ornate wooden cabinet to enhance the illusion.

She stood back and looked around the canvas push-pole tent. Puddles of greasy water surrounded the cabinet, and Rooney’s trunks were open, parts and tools neatly laid out in perfect ranks on the cropped, dead grass. The smell of kerosene from the lamps was overlaid with the stink of burned rubber and machine oil. She could see swirls of gray smoke in the lantern light, but there was no way she was going to open the tent flaps to let fresh air and more light in. No, then people would know there was a problem.

And they couldn’t afford that.

His face had that stubborn look. It can’t be blowing the hoses.

She sighed and watched him wipe his greasy hands on a rag. He stopped when they were clean. That was good.

Sylvia doesn’t blow hoses, Rooney said. We can use Sylvia.

The problem with Rooney was that he could build anything, fix anything, but he had no understanding how life worked. He didn’t understand showmanship, or the lure that brought people from far and wide to see Madame LeGrue, and made them drop penny after penny into the slot to hear her talk.

But Sylvia doesn’t talk, and the planchette is old news.

Denver is a new frontier, and Fort Logan is just two point three miles away from Sheridan, he said. Which, he added, has eight blacksmiths, and three of them are quite clever. One of them has built a steam-powered bench press

She raised her hand to forestall him. "Sheridan is a tiny little way station as you head south from Denver, and even Denver didn't net as much business as Kansas City. And blacksmiths notwithstanding, there are more soldiers and they’ll be more interested in the tattooed lady and Salome’s scarf dance than your cabinet.

No, Madame LeGrue appeals to people who want the thrill of supernatural knowledge from the other side and your blacksmiths, appreciate the elegant craftsmanship from your very clever hands. The rest just see it as a curiosity that might be worth a penny.

Francie stroked the smooth, gold-varnished gingerbread carving on the corner of the cabinet. "Besides, novelty only travels as fast as the train or the telegraph or the paper. People may have read about Alexander Bell’s automaton, but he’s back East, and Madame LeGrue is here right now. And thanks to Bell generously sharing his translation of Baron von Kempelen’s book with you, your genius has given us a gold mine. And this is the only way we’re going to get to California. No, Rooney, we’ve got to wring every penny we can out of it before it’s played out.

Please just get to work on Madame now, she said, waving at the cabinet. We can’t afford to lose any more money, or we’ll be stuck with this carnival forever. And then you’ll never make it to Uncle Jasper’s.

We, Rooney corrected.

"Yes, of course. We will never make it to Uncle Jasper’s. And, please get some straw from to sop up all this water." Francie swished her long brown cotton skirt away from the greasy puddles and gave her brother a tired hug.

Okay, he said, although he didn’t sound so confident. He sighed mournfully and turned back to the cabinet.

An hour of puttering later, Rooney declared the voice cylinder warped. He had pulled it out of the cabinet and held it in his hands turning it this way and that in the flickering light of the kerosene lamps. That has to be the cause of all the skipping. I have another. You’ll need to record it

She had recorded the first one in the quiet of the night in their father’s study, a small and stuffy room that Rooney said had good acoustics.

Okay. I’ll look for a place when we get to Sheridan.

Chapter 3

So, once they gotten off the train in Sheridan, Francie got Rooney settled in, and walked to town and borrowed a back room in the hotel centered between one of the eight blacksmiths and the thirteen saloons on Sheridan’s pathetically short, rutted main street in return for tickets to tonight’s big top performance for the manager, his wife, and their seven children.

It had been difficult to make clean recordings as the maids clomped past and the cook chopped away in the kitchen. Toward the end, she’d just said whatever stock phrases she could think of, and hoped the noises didn’t sound too loud.

She took it to him then left, walking past the midway, holding her breath as she passed the reeking piles of straw raked from the animal tents.

She followed the smashed path through the dry, golden grass toward the dressing tents. The stalks rustled in the light breeze, brushing against her skirt, embedding little V-shaped seeds into it, her petticoats, and stockings—fox tails, the local folks called them. Devil’s fingers, she thought of them when she had to pick them out of the fabric.

This frontier land was so open, so dry, nothing at all like Philadelphia. They were camped along the Platte River, a cool green snake wending its way north, surrounded by a waving golden sea of high prairie. Just to the west, the sea was bifurcated by a line of cottonwood trees hugging the Bear Creek as it headed for its confluence with the Platte.

That golden sea stretched on for miles, until it butted up against the purple Rocky Mountains looming against the bright blue sky. They’d have to cross those peaks to get to California. Luckily, the carnival traveled by train, and it was only early August, so they’d miss the snow.

A few men and women sitting in front of the dressing tentsher carnival matesnodded to her as she headed toward the dressing tents.

She and Rooney were still considered green as grass and wet behind the ears after three months. Her brother fit in more because he could fix anything mechanical, and all the carnival hands came to him when something broke or didn’t work right.

Her they considered not much better than a gillyan outsiderwho put on airs. She’d tried to fit in, but the men took her efforts as a come on, and the women considered her competition for the gritty carnival men.

Once she reached her dressing tent, she started picking the fox tails out of her skirt, but realized it would take longer than she had before the carnival opened. She stripped down quickly and put on her best clothes, a pale purple-striped taffeta skirt and a cream-colored blouse with mutton leg sleeves, lace cuffs, and a ruff around the collar that spilled a waterfall of lace over her chest.

After brushing out her dark brown hair, she quickly coiled the mass into a bun and fixed it with an ivory comb. Over it went a stylish straw hat perched at an angle, its lilac dyed feather plumes swooping jauntily over her left shoulder.

She buffed her short black boots before lacing them up. Glancing in the mirror, she added a bit of rouge on her cheeks and lips, giving her a rakish look, perfect for a hawker at a carnival. She loved this part, the theatrics, the challenge of drawing the crowds in.

She stopped by the cook’s tent to eat dry salt beef and johnnycake with chicory coffee, pretending it was caviar on water crackers and champagne. Afterward, she wrapped up food in a cloth for Rooney.

When she reached the tent, he’d opened the flaps. As she entered, she smelled the carnival on the breeze blowing through—the food they served the attendees, animals, sweat, grease, hay, and the thick, sharp tang of the vinegar Rooney was using to clean the cabinet glass.

He leaned past the gypsy to reach the front of the case.

So, is Madame LeGrue ready for her performance? Francie asked.

He shook his head as he rubbed at a smear. There’s no reason for it to be acting up, he said stubbornly.

She reached for the cloth. Did you eat yet? Never mind, she said as he thought about it. Here. She handed him the wrapped food. Go wash your face and hands then eat. We can’t have your belly grumbling, and you won’t get a chance to eat until things die down when the big top performance starts.

As he left she poured vinegar onto the cloth from the bottle on the ground next to the cabinet. And wash up afterward, she reminded him.

Francie leaned into the cabinet. In no time she had the glass sparkling in the lantern light. She took off the automaton’s scarf. Once the scarf was refolded on her head, the scorch marks barely showed and the frizzed hair was hidden.

The sharp smell of vinegar dissipated, replaced by something kind of sweet, but thick. Was it a new concession for the performance?

She walked around the cabinet, examining the gypsy from all sides, fussing a bit with the chemise. The cheap bangles on the painted wooden arms jingled and clinked as she straightened the paste-jeweled rings on the carved fingers.

Outside, some handlers led the tent ponies to the big top for their performance. In the quiet after they clopped by, she realized she couldn’t hear the hiss and hum of the boiler behind the tent and the chug of the motor that pushed the steam through the pipes in the cabinet, running the complex machinery. That was good; he’d finally insulated them better.

You look good, much better, Madame, Francie said as she stood back to take in the full effect. No wonder the people love you.

The cabinet whirred and the gypsy nodded her head smoothly and winked as she said, Love is a wonderful thing, but money, now that’s better.

Had Francie actually recorded that? She must have been really tired at the end. Lord, she hoped that particular saying didn’t come up. And Madame shouldn’t be saying things anyway without having a penny drop through the slot. Francie went to the back of the machine and looked at the complicated mess of gears and pulleys and hoses.

Ah. He left it in his testing mode. She flicked the switch up, and, pleased that she’d figured it out, shut the cabinet door with a click.

Rooney came back in, face and hands pink from scrubbing, holding the piece of johnnycake and an apple. He’d put on a clean butcher’s apron, which covered the grease spot on his shirt.

You did a wonderful job, she said. And you insulated the boiler, too. Thanks, Rooney. But, hurry up and eat so we can get your tools put away. We’ve got just enough time.

No, I didn’t, he said. I spent all the time trying to understand why the hose blew. It’s impossible. He crammed the piece of the bread into his mouth and stuffed the apple in his apron pocket, then bent to start picking up his tools.

When everything was put away, she helped him cover the trunks with tarps. Good, she said. Now just a final tidy up. Can you get one of the men to take this straw out and put down some fresh? And please don’t wipe your hands on your jacket. Use your apron. She gently brushed off his cheeks.

Counting change carefully so she’d know how much they made, she filled the pockets of her black duck cloth lap apron, and tied it around her waist. I’m going out.

As she walked by the cabinet, she tapped the glass with a nail and said, And you behave, please, Madame LeGrue. I don’t think either of us wants to be stuck with this carnival for any longer than it takes to get to California.

The gypsy cocked her head to one side and grinned a terrible death’s head smile.

Aghh. Rooney had no sense of theater. The gypsy was supposed to move her hands a bit, gesture come closer, and knowingly nod to draw the rubes in. But that grin would scare most anyone.

Ah, well, no time to do anything about it now. The trumpet blew, announcing the carnival was open for business

She grabbed her cream-colored parasol and flounced out of the tent. Several people walking by, most notably men, and a few soldiers in their blue uniforms, paused to watch her take her position on her barker box. She nodded regally at everyone.

The summer sun blazed down from a clear blue sky untouched by even a wisp of cloud. How could anyone want to live here? She opened the umbrella with a snap. Without it she'd be sunburned for sure. Big Jim had offered her an awning, but it would have eaten into their profits. And he already got thirty-five percent.

The air was filled with expectation and spiced with cigar smoke and the smells of the cheap candies, drinks, and food the carnival served. The people strolling down the broad walkway were in their Sunday best, the children’s faces scrubbed clean, their hair combed.

Ladies and gentlemen, she called out gaily. See Madame LeGrue, the amazing automaton, built with plans from the Greeks, and surely one of the unnamed wonders of their ancient world, invented perhaps by Vulcan, the god of inventions, and fused to an inextricable link to the other side.

Some of the younger men and all of the soldiers walked on when they realized there was nothing risqué. That was fine, the word always got around and curiosity would drag many of them back after they’d seen the tattooed woman and watched sinuous Salome dance.

The rest made a half circle in front of her and she reveled in the limelight, the rapt attention she commanded. If only it was somewhere besides a small town on the edge of a vast empty prairie. London or Paris, perhaps.

She sees beyond the vale, speaks with those gone over.

Francie leaned forward and cocked her head, imparting a sense of intimacy in the broad daylight. Everyone had their own reasons for wanting to see the automaton. Some of the men were interested in the invention, some wanted to debunk it, others, mostly women, wanted to hear the unknowable. In the end, anyone’s disbelief, especially the men’s, was inevitably overshadowed by the wonder of Rooney’s genius and they benevolently looked on it like a game. Which was fine by Francie; either way, she got their money.

For only one penny you can ask your question and watch her search the spirit world and issue a prognostication that will raise the goosebumps on your arms.

Several of the folks moved to the open tent.

Yes, please, go right on in, form a line here. No, give your penny to Madame LeGrue. There were always people like that, women mostly, eager to give everything away. And there were plenty of grifters here who would gladly take it.

She could hear organ music and in the distance, the cries of the other hawkers and kids shouting and the chime of the bell on the carnival hammer exhibit. It all combined to create a sense of excitement and that fed the well-being of the attendees, which made them more eager to spend money.

Business came in fits and spurts. She could hear Rooney in the tent, managing the line, instructing people in where to put the money, how to phrase the questions so that the general proclamations on

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