The Thief of Souls
by Vincent L. Scarsella
What has been so far done by electricity is nothing
as compared with what the future has in store.
- Nikola Tesla
When Nancy Lane entered my office that Tuesday afternoon, the first thing I noticed was her red, swollen eyes. An attractive, slim blonde in her mid-thirties, she had been referred by her divorce lawyer, Tom Bridge, who regularly used my services to spy on cheating spouses.
“Tom said your divorce became final last week,” I began after Mrs. Lane sat down on the chair facing my desk. “That begs the question why you need my services in the first place.” I gave her a kindly smile. “Perhaps my fee would be better spent on a vacation, a Caribbean cruise perhaps?”
“I don’t need a vacation,” she said. “What I need to know is why Paul, my ex-husband, left me.”
In the next moment, Mrs. Lane was sobbing into her hands. I said nothing, letting her grieve. After a time, she drew in a breath, composed herself. “What I need to know,” she continued, sniffling a moment, “is what could make a man be perfectly happy and in love with a woman one day, and then leave her the next?
Sometimes there was no explanation, no reason, I thought to myself. Sometimes, love just dies. But I saw there was no use talking her out of hiring me, or if not me, someone else. So why not me? I could use the money. And if I didn’t take it, one of my competitors certainly would. According to Tom Bridge, Paul Lane, the ex-husband, had been surprisingly accommodating in the divorce, and had left Mrs. Lane quite financially secure. So now the ex-Mrs. Lane had plenty of money to spend, even for a foolish purpose.
I accepted the job, quoted my usual rate. She signed a standard retainer and wrote out a check for my initial fee and expenses.
Afterwards, she filled in some details to help me better understand the case, and I had to admit, the more I heard, the more I understood why something was bothering her. Again she stated her basic premise: The Paul Lane who had come home from work one night two months ago, and brusquely demanded a divorce, was not the same Paul Lane who had left the house that morning. How and why that had happened was what she wanted to know.
The night before, they had made love, a torrid session in another of their futile attempts to get her pregnant. But this session was not a mere biological act; it was full of passion and delight.
“He was my soul mate,” she said. “My best friend. And we had never been closer than that last night.” She stopped, drew a breath, again close to tears.
She told me a few more things, and some of them, if true, were certainly curious. For example, the day after he had left her, Lane had inherited the fortune of an eccentric, reclusive scientist, Desmond Rostow, including Rostow’s locally celebrated mansion, a sprawling Georgian monstrosity on Old Lake Shore Road along the shores of Lake Erie.
I asked her about Mister Lane’s connection to Rostow that would cause the old man to leave him his fortune. She had no idea. Paul had not once mentioned the man, or even the Rostow name, in their ten years of marriage
After Mrs. Lane left my office that afternoon, I sat for a time at my desk thinking about the case. I had to admit that despite my initial reservations, the job intrigued me. The Rostow angle added just the right dash of mystery to get the juices flowing.
The first thing I did was stake-out the Rostow mansion. I found a hidden nook along the shoulder of Old Lake Shore Road where I could park my inconspicuous little Ford Focus sedan, giving me a clear, unobstructed view of the long, narrow driveway that wound its way down from the mansion. My initial thought was to simply watch Lane’s comings and goings for a couple of days to get a sense of the man, what he was about.
But during those two days and nights of observation, nothing much happened. Lane stayed put for the most part, taking occasional jaunts in a black Mercedes E-Class sedan to a small diner in a nearby village or to a shopping mall a little farther out. The car was driven by a stone-faced, thickly built, twenty-something chauffeur with Lane an impassive back seat passenger.
Finally, I had enough and decided my time would be better spent back at the office researching the connection between Lane and Rostow. I went to straight to the Internet, googled the name, “Desmond Rostow,” and was instantly rewarded with a long list of web links, including a Wikipedia entry. What I learned surprised and intrigued me. They could have made a movie out the guy.
Though certainly not a household name, Rostow had an interesting and mysterious career. It had even started off quite extraordinary. In the early 1940’s, Rostow had been mentored by none other than Nikola Tesla toward the end of that famously eccentric inventor’s career. During this phase, Tesla had spent his time on bizarre inventions such as the Hyperdimensional Oscillator, the Teleforce Weapon, also known as the Death Ray, and the Wireless Brainwave Magnifying Transmitter.
After his apprenticeship ended with Tesla’s death in 1943, there was a long period of nothing regarding Rostow. But in 1960, he re-surfaced. Several patents for ingenious inventions, each related to the wireless transmission of electrical energy, were filed in his name, some of which gained top secret, and still unpublicized, military application. Of course, all of this made Rostow filthy rich.
Then, in 1971, just as suddenly as he had emerged, Rostow returned to obscurity. Quite literally, he was never heard from again in academic or scientific circles. He became a recluse, a mad scientist cliché. Thirty years later, what he had been working on all these years, or whether he was even working at all, was still the subject of speculation among obscure journalists and conspiracy theorists. Between his self-exile from the world of science and the public eye in 1971, until his sudden death in 2009, at the age of 86, not one patent had been filed in his name.
All this was nice to know, and added a measure of further intrigue to the case, but after finishing my research that night and going to bed bleary-eyed for the effort, I was no closer to understanding why Rostow had left his fortune to Paul Lane, seemingly a perfect stranger. And I was no closer to understanding what my client needed to know - why Lane had suddenly and mysteriously left her.
The next morning, I headed downtown to the record room of the county surrogate’s court, and after an intolerable wait, a grumpy clerk told me there was no file for Rostow’s Estate. The clerk glared at me when I told her she must be mistaken and with a shrug, sent me on my way.
I walked to another old building next door, rode up an ancient, rickety elevator to the third floor, and found the musty index room listing all property transactions in the county dating back to the 1790s. There, after a much shorter wait, and for a ten dollar fee, I obtained a copy of the deed to the Rostow mansion which indicated, to my surprise, that Rostow had signed the property over to Lane on the very day he died.
When I got back to the office, I called Tom Bridge. After telling him that the Rostow mansion had passed to Lane directly by deed, and not, as I had expected, through Rostow’s will – that, in fact, Rostow hadn’t even had a Will - I asked him to explain, first of all, was that legal, and second, why it had been done that way.
“Sure, it’s legal,” Tom told me, then after a pause, continued, “My best guess is that it was done that way to avoid probate. Saves a ton of money in estate fees and taxes. And, second, the transfer is instantaneous. Probating an estate takes months.”
“So a person can transfer everything he owns to another person before he dies - real estate, bank accounts, stocks and bonds - without a will?”
“Sure,” Tom said. “Only problem, once the property, bank account, or stock certificate is transferred, it ceases to be the property of the transferor. So he’d have to trust the transferee immensely. Or, know that he was going to die in fairly short order.”
“Well, that appears to be exactly what happened here. Rostow signed over his fortune to Paul Lane the same day he died.”
After speaking with Bridge, I called Mrs. Lane to give her an update.
“It’s all very curious,” I said, “but, unfortunately, provides no answers.”
“So what’s next?” she asked.
“I stake out the mansion again. Maybe that will lead to something.”
I sprawled out on the narrow cot in my office and slept for a couple hours before heading back to the nook along the road across from the Rostow mansion. Nothing much happened until nine p. m., when out came the Mercedes sedan. Like before, Lane wasn’t driving, but was a dark figure in the back seat, with the same chauffeur.
The Mercedes took a left turn onto Old Lake Shore Road and I hunkered down as it went directly past the nook. I waited a moment before starting the engine, then quickly made a u-turn and headed after them.
They took a fifteen minute drive toward the city, until finally pulling into the lot of a diner in a suburb immediately south of it not far from an expressway interchange. The chauffeur waited in the car while Lane went into the restaurant. I pulled into a parking space, which was empty at that time of night. I strolled into the restaurant. A dour hostess led me to a booth a couple down where Lane was sitting. With him, was a lovely, long-haired, shapely blonde who looked to be in her mid to late twenties. They were speaking casually, smiling, laughing now and then.
I ordered coffee and a tuna melt, and went on observing. After a couple minutes, the girl got up and went to the ladies’ room. While gone, Lane craned his neck to observe his Mercedes in the lot and waved, some sort of signal for his driver it seemed. Frowning, I watched as Lane next pulled a small vile out of the inside pocket of his jacket and poured some kind of liquid into his lady friend’s bubbling glass of diet coke.
The blonde returned, smiling, looking happy to be with Lane. I resisted the urge to come to her aid and stop her from drinking the coke. Lane intended to drug her, and then what, I had no idea.
After several sips of the coke, the drug had the desired effect. The girl appeared drowsy at first, before slumping over sideways on her side of the booth, just as my waitress delivered a tuna melt and freshened my coffee. I took a bite and watched as Lane’s chauffeur entered the restaurant and strode up to his booth. He sat next to the girl, pulled her toward him so her head rested on his shoulder while Lane got up and went over to the cashier. As he paid his check, he gestured back to the booth, apparently informing the clerk that his girlfriend had taken ill and therefore, they had to leave.
After returning to his booth, Lane and the chauffeur immediately lifted the girl out and unsteadily onto her feet. Though dazed, she was able to walk with them out of the restaurant to the Mercedes. I watched as they unceremoniously dumped her into the back seat. I quickly got up and paid my bill.
I followed the Mercedes back to the Rostow mansion and waited for a time in my observation nook, undecided what to do. The drugged blonde girl was now an unwilling guest of in the Rostow/Lane mansion. I could report this to the police, and they might even believe me and pay a visit, but what would that solve?
Finally, I decided to take matters into my own hands by going across to the mansion and breaking in if need be.
First, I opened the glove compartment and pulled out a small silver 8 millimeter revolver which in my twenty years as a private investigator, I had never once used. With the revolver safely tucked in the inside pocket of my jacket, I got out of the car and trotted across the street to the mansion to a line of brush before the small open lawn at the side of the house. Crouching there, I spotted a light on from a basement window and the movement of shadows. The rest of the mansion was dark, eerily still.
I sprinted to the basement window and got down on all fours to get a look. Craning my neck, I was finally able to make out a room and confirm the shadows from within. Then, I heard a woman’s voice. I thought it posed the question with some alarm: “What are you doing?”
Then there was a thump, followed by a humming sound coming from the room, the start of an electric motor. The girl’s voice became muffled, as if she had just been gagged. Nothing much happened for the next minute or so. There was only the hum of the motor. I patted the outside of my jacket, felt the revolver, and broke into action.
I hugged the thick, granite wall of the mansion until I came upon a small, innocuous window that looked easy enough to break into, security system be damned. I took off my jacket, rolled it around my right arm and hand and threw a punch. To my relief, the window smashed easily. After clearing the shards from the wood frame, I pulled myself up and rolled around through the window landing feet first into the room.
I found myself in some kind of sitting room, furnished with an antique couch and several high-backed chairs, tables, and a rather imposing grandfather clock. I quickly exited the dimly lit room and negotiated a hallway in the silent, apparently deserted upper part of the mansion. Finally, I came upon a portico attached to the back kitchen and found a door. As I cracked it open, I realized it led to the basement.
There was a light on down there, and I could hear the hum of a motor I had heard from outside. Taking the revolver out of the pocket of my jacket, I started a slow, careful descent down the narrow stairway.
It did not take me long to find the room where the blonde girl was imprisoned. My concern about the security system had apparently been misplaced because Lane and the chauffeur were standing with their backs to me at a gurney upon which laid the blonde. The room was glaringly lit, and there was an odd, squat contraption filling up almost the entire far wall beyond the gurney. Several wires streamed from it, attached to a crown-like gadget which itself was set like a hat on the head of the girl. The annoying electric hum had been coming from that contraption.
Lifting the revolver, I shouted, “Hey!”
Both Lane and his driver swung around with surprised looks.
“Stay put, fellas,” I told them and nodded to the pistol. “It works, and I know how to use it.”
I directed them to move away from the girl, away from the gurney, to the far wall of the room. They quickly obeyed, expressionless. Once they had moved and seemed well out of reach, I stepped toward the gurney. The girl seemed asleep, her head propped uncomfortably on a pillow to accommodate the ridiculous metal device that had been strapped to the top of it, like something out of a “B” science fiction movie.
Turning back to Lane and his driver, I asked, “What the hell is going …” but I never got the chance to finish the question. The girl had suddenly sat up and, removing the metal contraption from her head, used it to knock me out cold.
The next hours were a blur. I was placed on a bed somewhere in the mansion, strapped down, drugged. I drifted in and out of consciousness. There were shadows, forms hovering about, inaudible, echoing voices as if from a dream. My arm was lifted, pricked, and off I went again into a dreamless sleep for an unknown time.
The next thing I remember is waking up in my car, parked along the gravel shoulder of some park. After a time, I sat up. My head ached, and there was a metallic taste in my mouth. I checked my watch. It was one o’clock. What day, I didn’t have a clue. It took some moments for the cobwebs to clear - and for me to realize that I was not alone.
Paul Lane and the blonde girl were in the back seat.
Seeing them, I gave a start. Finally, each of them began stirring, awakening, no doubt, from the same drug that had been administered to me. Once they came to, all we could do was stare at each other for a time.
“What the hell is going on?” Lane finally mumbled. “Who are you?” Then he turned to the blonde. “And who are you?”
“You drugged me,” the blonde accused Lane.
“I – I think we need to report this to the police,” I suggested.
We were out in the country somewhere so it took some minutes to find a local police station. The girl was growing increasingly agitated, alleging that Lane had kidnapped her, then drugged her, and then maybe even did things she didn’t care to mention.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about lady,” he said. “I was the one who was kidnapped.”
“Who kidnapped you?” I asked.
“Some old man, and some young guy. They approached me in a bar where I had stopped after work. The old guy and me started talking. He said he was rich and didn’t have an heir. At some point, I went to take a leak. When I returned, I took a sip of the beer they had bought me. Then, I got dizzy. Sleepy. After that, I can’t remember much. A mansion near the lake. Then, just a funny dream. Voices and images. Not, not sure.”
The girl had calmed down. “That’s what it was like for me, too,” she said. “Funny dreams I couldn’t wake up from.”
I found a police station in a small town. We walked and made our collective, somewhat incoherent report to a lonely, skeptical desk cop. One thing I learned was that two days had passed since I had tried to rescue the blonde girl in the Rostow/Lane mansion.
“Kidnapped?” he kept saying. “We don’t get any kidnappings around here.”
In light of the serious allegations, the matter was referred to the state police and, after an hour wait, we were separately interviewed by two state police investigators. At first they seemed interested, concerned, but the more they heard the fantastical nature of our respective stories, the more skeptical they became. I got a downright smirk from one of the investigators when I told them about the goofy metal device that had been attached to the blonde girl’s head and used to knock me out.
When it was over, I asked, “So now what?”
One of the investigators promised to check out the mansion, see who was there, what corroborating evidence they could turn up. He wasn’t enthusiastic.
“What about Lane? He going to be arrested.”
“For what?” the other investigator said. “We’re treating him as a victim himself for the time being, until we check out that mansion you told us about.”
I nodded, seeing where this was going. It all sounded so goofy, so strange, that it was only fair to check it out before drafting and filing what could turn out to be frivolous charges.
They let us go, and we each went our separate ways.
When I got back to the office late that afternoon, I laid down on the black leather couch at the far wall that was about as old as my career and tried to take a nap. I was awakened fifteen minutes later by a call from Tom Bridge.
“Congratulations,” he said. “Not only are you a top notch investigator, but I think you’ve got a career in marriage counseling.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, still groggy and ornery from the ordeal of the last couple of days. I had been knocked unconscious and drugged for two straight days, hardly good for my health.
“Paul and Nancy Lane,” he said. “He showed up at the ex-marital residence this afternoon. Just about an hour ago. They reconciled. It was as if nothing had ever happened. She called me wanting to know how I could undo the divorce. I told her they just had to get re-married. You may be the best man.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t laugh. I didn’t even smile. I had no idea what was going on. I told Tom the same crazy story I had told the cops. My surveillance of Lane and his youthful chauffeur; their meeting with the blonde girl; what I saw in the basement; the contraption strapped to the blonde girl’s head with wires leading to the mysterious humming apparatus against the wall in a brightly lit room, like a laboratory or something down there; and, finally, me getting bopped on the head; floating in and out of consciousness after that, and waking up some time later in my car in some park in the middle of nowhere, with Lane and the blonde girl unconscious in the backseat. It sounded ridiculous and made no sense. Tom didn’t seem to have an answer either.
In the next few days, I learned some additional facts that didn’t make much sense. For instance, during the two days I had been kept against my will at the Rostow mansion, it had been conveyed for $1.00 from Paul Lane to one Hector Jarvis. I dug around various sources and learned enough about Jarvis to decide that he had been the youthful chauffeur. The day after the property was conveyed, Jarvis sold it to an Arabian businessman in a cash deal for a rock bottom price. Not only that, but the bank accounts and stock certificates that had been put in Lane’s name after Rostow’s death had been transferred by Lane to none other than the mysterious Hector Jarvis. For his part, Jarvis had cashed out both the accounts and stock certificates.
Not surprisingly, after these transactions, Jarvis was nowhere to be found.
But one thing I did know, Nancy Lane had been right in her conviction that the Paul Lane who had divorced her was not the same Paul Lane who had now returned home.
The mystery of the experience would not stop bothering me. I started digging on the internet again, thinking that the solution might lie somewhere in Desmond Rostow’s past. His last position, before escaping into obscurity in 1971, was on the faculty of the applied electronics department at the University of Buffalo. I located an old directory on microfiche at the school library and learned the name of his contemporaries from back then, thinking they might lead somewhere. Call it instinct or something that made me a decent enough private investigator, but that research eventually led me to Dr. Frank Addington, now a doddering old man squirreled away in a fairly decent nursing home in the far suburbs. And it was Professor Addington who helped me solve the mystery, at least partially, though nobody except Lane, the blonde girl, and perhaps Mrs. Lane and Tom Bridge would ever believe it.
Addington was pushed in a wheelchair into the day room to meet me by one of the nursing home orderlies. I had asked to see him on the pretext that I was writing a book about Rostow. Addington was old, but still sharp, probably something like a 160 IQ. He’d had his share of academic success, important papers, awards, though nothing like Rostow.
He regarded me with a smack of suspicion as I started asking him about Rostow’s years at the university, roughly dating from 1968-71. What was he working on for instance?
“What was he working on?” Addington said with a smirk. Finally, he smiled. “It was something Tesla came up with but never perfected.”
Addington stared off, perhaps remembering those days as if they were only yesterday, with Rostow in the some cramped lab in some inaccessible dark corner of the science building, perhaps marveling at the man’s genius, and envying it, too.
“What was it?” I asked.
“He called it, Apparatus for the Transfer of Brain Electricity,” said Addington with a complete poker-face.
“Apparatus for the …” I tried to repeat it but got lost somewhere.
“Apparatus for the Transfer of Brain Electricity,” the old man repeated with an impatient snarl. “All the brain is, young man, is soft-tissue electrical machine, if you will, part hard-drive, part transmitter. The electricity it generates constitutes the mind, the thought of a man, his soul. What if you could find a way to transfer that electricity from a dying brain to another hard-ware? Some mechanical housing, for instance. Or better yet, to another brain.”
Addington asked me to get him pen and paper so that he could draw me the apparatus. I pulled out the small notepad I always carried in my jacket pocket, a pen, and handed them to the professor. In the next few minutes, he drew something and handed the pad, and pen, back to me.
“There’s the electric impulse generator,” he said, pointing to the squat machine he had drawn on the pad that looked something like the mysterious humming device I had seen in the room in the basement of the Rostow mansion. “It attaches to the brain activator.” Addington was pointing to the odd, metal head gear, with wires running to the generator.
“Finally,” he went on, pointing to a small box, a container of some kind, “there is the brain energy storage unit.”
There it was, the solution to the mystery. In the years following his departure from the university and into hermitage, Desmond Rostow had perfected an actual Apparatus for the Transfer of Brain Electricity. As he and Mrs. Rostow grew older, and faced the prospect of death, they decided to use that device to gain immortality. But first they had to find suitable, young, strong and attractive bodies from whose brains would be extracted the electricity, or souls of the owners, and replaced by their own. Paul Lane had been the body selected for the transfer of Desmond Rostow’s brain electricity, or soul, and the blonde girl’s brain was to house Mrs. Rostow’s mind. Thus, it had not been the blonde girl who had struck me on the head with the curious looking head gear, but Mrs. Rostow.
“I hear Rostow’s gone and died,” said Addington.
“Yes,” I said with some distraction. “Died three months or so ago. Stroke, I think.”
“Pity he never finished it,” he said. “that machine. Or perhaps it was a pity he got so consumed with it.”
I have not been able to solve the mystery of Hector Jarvis’ present whereabouts, or his relationship with the Desmond and Judith Rostow that had convinced them to entrust him with their souls. They had no children, and there was no family that I could find. I did discover that a Hector Jarvis had been an engineering student at MIT but had dropped out after his junior year. Somewhere along the way, I surmised, he had run into Desmond Rostow and become his protégé and perhaps his surrogate son.
In any event, what I did know was that Jarvis had left town not only with Rostow’s fortune – but with the Apparatus for the Transfer of Brain Electricity. And he had most certainly also left with the brain electricity – the souls, of both Desmond and Judith Rostow entrapped and stored in the silver rectangular containers like the ones Addington had drawn for my benefit. The same containers which had, for a time, held the stolen souls of Lane and the blonde girl.
I also surmised that wherever Jarvis had run off to, he was checking the local population for suitable hosts for the souls of Desmond and Judith Rostow to inhabit. And the day would come of course when Jarvis himself would need a body, and a soul to steal, so that he, too, could live forever.
And on and on it would continue, eternally.