Prologue: Prelude to a Hiss

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When It Happened (Chronicle Time): May 11-14, 1999

Who Was There: George Phillapoussis (Storn), Jonathan Wertham (Matt)

What It Was:

George Phillapoussis and Jonathan Wertham are hired by wealthy importer/exporter Demetrius Katsoulakis to attend an auction on his behalf at Christie's in New York City. Their prize: the Speaking Machine of Wolfgang van Kempelen. They win the machine, but have to steal it out of the building when one of the bidders turns out to be not quite human.

The Full Horror:

One quiet afternoon, stage magician and taxi driver George Phillapoussis gets a call from a woman named Alexandra Pappas, who introduces herself as the personal assistant of Demetrius Katsoulakis. Alexandra starts to explain that Katsoulakis Imports does business all over the world, but George interrupts to say he already knows who her boss is.

Katsoulakis once employed a man named Tom Patton, who was married to George's sister, Mary. Patton had been an archaeologist, and he used to travel the world, looking for items to add to Katsoulakis' impressive collection of Greek, Roman, Etruscan, and Persian/Sasanian antiquities. Unfortunately, Tom was in Kuwait City in 1991 and was killed during the Iraqi invasion. Feeling responsible for her husband's death, Katsoulakis gave Mary (and her son, Ben) financial support until she remarried. So, while George has never actually met him, he has a good impression of the man.

Alexandra says Katsoulakis would like to arrange a meeting. He understands that George doesn't know him very well, despite the family connection, but Katsoulakis would like to ask George to do a small favor for him. He needs someone he can trust to attend an auction at Christie's in Rockefeller Center and to bid, on his behalf, for a certain item.

There are two things George must remember if he agrees to do this: 1) Tell absolutely no one he is there in Katsoulakis' stead, and 2) Don't stop bidding until he gets the item, no matter what it costs.

George immediately figures out Katsoulakis' problem. The item must be something important to him, so if he attends the auction himself, the bids on the item will skyrocket and cost him much more than he thinks he should pay for it. George agrees to meet with Katsoulakis the next day at noon in the importer's luxury residence near 90th and Lexington (near the Guggenheim and the Met).

Alexandra adds that her boss said George should bring along a trusted friend, someone discreet and competent who can back him up. So George asks his friend, Jonathan Wertham, a gifted, English architect to go with him.

At 11:40am the next day, a stretch pulls up in front of George's apartment. The streets are gridlocked, but Niko Kakoyannis, the chauffeur, gets them to the residence faster than even a jaded cabbie like George can believe.


Katsoulakis' apartment is sumptuous. Niko escorts them from the limo to the front door, where the two men are greeted by Alexandra. They follow her down a short hallways and turn left into Katsoulakis' office. The importer greets the two men warmly. He offers them ouzo from his own private label: "My own little patch of Plomari" (where the finest ouzos are distilled). Trays of appetizers follow. Then Katsoulakis settles back in his chair and gives them the back story.

First, he shows them diagrams and pictures of a wooden box with a bellows attached. He says they are plans for something called a Sprechende Maschine, a Speaking Machine, which was invented by a courtier of Empress Maria Theresa, in the city of Vienna in 1791. That courtier's name was Wolfgang von Kempelen.

"Kempelen was a brilliant man, in his way. And his passion was the study of human speech. He thought if he could create a model of the human larynx, no matter how abstract, it would herald a new age of medical science. He was the world's first speech therapist. Or hoped to be anyway."

"He published the plans for his Machine in 1791. Think of it, gentlemen. This man hoped to create a new field of medicine barely a year before Europe fell into war, and only two years before the Reign of Terror and the darkest days of the French Revolution. And yet, by all accounts, his Machine was a success. Those who saw it said the Machine could reproduce whole words and short sentences."


"How many Kempelen built is not known, but there can't have been many. The one in this photograph is in the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The one you will bid on for he bellows connected to the windbox here. You will find that our Machine has a strange metallic cylinder mounted right here, beside the windbox. That is the only difference, but that makes all the difference, gentlemen, because that cylinder is said to offer the secrets of the universe."

"You smile, and I don't blame you. But that metal cylinder is said to have been crafted to meet specifications and sacred numbers first laid out by Pythagoras himself, and because of that, this particular Machine can intone syllables that would be impossible for the human larynx. I know this must seem like madness to you, but I believe it to be so, and that is why I asked you here today."

Katsoulakis then explains that "his" Machine had another odd twist in its history. It was once owned by a magician named Doc Nixon, who used it for his trick "Voices from Beyond", an illusion that was the centerpiece of his stage show in 1939, the year before he vanished.

George has heard of Nixon and the stories about his mysterious disappearance, and he even remembers a description of "Voices from Beyond": Nixon would reveal the machine with a flourish of colored cloths and a shimmering spray of confetti. Then he would sternly warn the audience not to speak, not to say a word, for fear that they might attract the attention of some Thing to themselves or to their loved ones. He would then place both hands on the windbox and command the "voices from beyond" to heed his call and answer the questions he put to them.

What followed was a pretty standard "mind-reading" schtick, but it was said the voice from the box was so disturbing, it made at least one member of every audience flee in terror from the theater. Usually it was someone near the Machine, and sometimes the entire front row would panic. Before the year was out, people fought to get into the closest seats, daring to get as close as they could to the notorious "voice from beyond."

That connection to stage magic made Katsoulakis think of asking George to go to the auction in his place. No one would question a stage magician bidding on a piece of stage-magic history, no matter where it came from. Katsoulakis has made all the arrangements George and Jonathan will need to attend the auction, and he offers to pay both men $5,000 each for their trouble.

The Auction

The auction takes place two days later, on the 14th. Niko drives them there in a Lincoln, and stays in the car behind its smoked-glass windows. An usher guides them through a slightly darkened hallway to an elegant auction room set apart from the other rooms.

The auction is an exclusive estate sale of the last effects of Everett Rolston, a very secretive multi-millionaire who had a vast collection of quack science and the occult. The estate had been tied up in legal problems for nearly three years, thanks to Rolston's still-unexplained death.

There are several other people attending the auction:

lady margaretLady Margaret Jameson: A twenty-four-year-old Englishwoman and very jaded socialite. George and Jonathan bond with her because she really isn't part of the scene. She's there because "the Underground expects her to keep up Alistair's collection." Her ex-husband, Lord Alistair Jameson, had an impressive occult collection when he dropped dead, boringly enough, of extreme old age back in 1996. Lady Margaret thinks Lady Catalina has bad taste, and thinks Michel Borsavin personifies bad taste.

Michel Borsavin: The Emeril of celebrity psychics. No one in the room is happy to see him. He's about forty and very primped. He's also a pompous boor, and the loudest mouth at the auction, which is saying something.

martinMartin Murray: Another private collector, about forty-three years old. At first George and Jonathan think Martin is quiet and harmless, but then he starts going on about the Hand of Glory, and how he hopes to create one some day from the body fat of serial killers. He's turns out to be a disturbing little fuck, with shining eyes and greasy hair.

Contessa Catalina Saragossa: A beautiful Latina, about thirty, who parades into the room with her three studly escorts, Ramon, Esteban, and Fernando. The "boys" head for the food table and spend the auction munching away, while the Contessa ignores everyone, except when she glares with pure hate at Klaus Hunderprest for some reason.

Lesek Czernin: An Austrian man. Elegant, probably about fifty, though he carries himself like his was 150. Lesek chats up Lady Margaret, who seems to like him, and then ends up moving around the room, trying to avoid Martin Murray.

George Walker: He looks like a forty-something corporate drone, but apparently he's there to represent the Smithsonian. Walker tries to blend, but he's far too Establishment to pull it off in this crowd. He talks about golf a lot and dresses like an ambitious middle-manager.

Boris Gergiev: Agent for a third-tier Russian oligarch in St. Petersburg. His suit was decent enough to get him into Christie's, but only just barely. Big beard, thick accent, he's a walking caricature. He really is Russian, but seems like a fake anyway.

Klaus Hunderprest: Another Austrian and a real wind-bag. He must be fifty, but he hits on Lady Margaret so much, she finally edges over to George and Jonathan, who gallantly drive Hunderprest away. Hunderprest often stops to glare with seething hatred at the Contessa. He acts like a guy she might have coldly cast aside years before.

The auction goes smoothly, and eventually the Kempelen Speaking Machine is brought forward. This is the first chance George and Jonathan have to see it. It looks just like the Machine they saw in Katsoulakis' photographs, except for the metal cylinder, about the size of a large coffee can, attached to the wind box. The Contessa and Hunderprest also try bidding for the machine, but it's obvious each one is only bidding because the other one is. Neither of them can compete with Katsoulakis' wealth, so George ends up winning it.

After the auction, George and Jonathan go to the back room to pick up the Machine. Everyone is there, collecting their lots, when the Contessa and her three "boys" come up and ask George and Jonathan to reconsider and let her have the Machine. They say they aren't interested, but she insists, saying "But it's so very important to me." As she says this, she puts her hand on the windbox.

Suddenly, several things happen at once. The room is filled with a piercing, disembodied scream which seems to stab into everyone's brain. George just sees stars, but when Jonathan opens his eyes again, the Contessa now looks like a human-sized, green serpent, and her three studs look like walking corpses. When she sees Jonathan looking at her wide-eyed, the "Contessa" looks down at her body and hisses.

Suddenly Hunderprest is there, and the Contessa does something that makes the Austrian wind-bag start to shriek as his skin crisps and turns black. Meanwhile, the three "boys" are chowing down on some people nearby, including Lesek Czernin.

George and Jonathan, along with Lady Margaret, make a quick exit, and the two men don't stop until they are in the back seat of the Lincoln, the Machine safely between them. Niko puts the pedal to the floor, and they make it back to Katsoulakis' residence within minutes.

Katsoulakis actually pays each man $7,000, a little extra for their "added trouble." They check the papers, but none of them have a story about what happened. A few weeks later, though, George passes by Lesek in the street, and the Austrian man now sports a dashing scar across his head.

Next Recap | Updated 3/19/12, by the Croupier