Vincent stood in front of the wall, staring up at the uneven letters. He breathed deep, but smelled only chalk and dust, tasted only the milk-cut coffee from lunch. “I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I don’t sense anything.”
“Don’t be daft.” Henry cut him a sharp look. “This...filth...certainly wasn’t here when we went down to lunch, or else we would have seen it. The starch and threads on the servants’ stair weren’t disturbed, and with the doors to the dining room open, no one could have gone up the main stair without us spotting them. It’s impossible for any human agency to have done this.”
“Mr. Strauss is right,” Bamforth said. “It had to be a spirit.” He swallowed and glanced at Miss Prandle. “Do you...do you think the ladies are safe staying here?”
Vincent refrained from saying he didn’t think any of them were safe. Was it possible he’d lost his skill? In refusing to channel the spirits, had he somehow let it atrophy like an unused muscle? First he hadn’t heard the steps on the tower stair, and now he didn’t sense any lingering presence.
Everything else had been so clear—the three spirits, their distinct flavors. So why couldn’t he sense anything now?
“Spirit writing doesn’t necessarily indicate the ability actually carry out any threats,” Lizzie said. Her mouth turned down into a frown, however, her brows drawing together.
“Surely it doesn’t bode well, either,” Bamforth argued.
“I say we put the matter to our experts,” Miss Prandle said. “Mr. Night, Miss Devereaux, Mr. Strauss—what do you think?”
“I would prefer to gather more preliminary data,” Henry said with a glance at Gladfield. “But if necessary, for the safety of the ladies, I’m willing to perform the Electro-Séance and banish the spirit for good.”
He made it sound so damnably easy. “You’ve never faced an actual haunting in your life, have you?” Vincent asked.
Color stood out high on Henry’s pale cheeks. “I don’t see that it matters. My theories—”
“Mean nothing.” God, the man didn’t even know they were dealing with more than one spirit. Whatever good qualities he possessed, his arrogance was unbounded. “An angry ghost isn’t a-a machine you can turn off or on.”
“Perhaps, when it comes to the old way of doing things.” Henry’s lip curled. “But this is the nineteenth century, not the Middle Ages. Progress has given us more than adequate tools for dealing with such matters, if we but use them.”
“I think,” Lizzie interrupted, “if this spirit is eager to communicate, we should give it the opportunity.”
Gladfield had stood back and listened to the argument without interference. Now, however, he cocked his head to the side. “What do you mean?”
“Spirit writing,” Vincent said flatly. “Lizzie, you can’t. It’s too dangerous.”
“Nothing here has attempted harm to us,” she said calmly. “The apparition in Mr. Strauss’s room was fearful in aspect, but it merely spoke to him. Jo’s sighting, and the sound of footsteps on the stairs with Mr. Strauss, might have been startling, but were hardly perilous. As for this...” She gestured negligently at the ugly words. “I’ve had far worse vitriol directed at me in broad daylight on the very streets of New York.”
On the surface of things, she was right. But Vincent couldn’t shake the feeling of menace. Of something watching which meant them real harm. Was it real, though, or just the product of his own paranoia? “It’s your decision,” he said at last.
“Indeed it is.” She turned to Gladfield. “If you’ll have Bamforth remove this, I’d like an hour to meditate in my room. After, I propose we try contacting this spirit through automatic writing.”
Henry’s eyes narrowed, and Vincent knew he was trying to come up with some reason to object. “My experiment—”
“You can continue with it,” Lizzie said. “I’m certainly not going to stop you.”
“I’ll sit in and watch the automatic writing, if I may,” Gladfield said.
Despite everything, Vincent struggled to suppress a grin. A point to Lizzie; surely she’d known anyone would prefer to watch a medium in trance over a man staring at a barometer. Henry knew it as well, given the way his face darkened into a glower.
“Oh, can we watch too?” Miss Strauss asked excitedly.
“Of course,” Lizzie replied with the air of a queen granting favors.
Henry all but swelled with indignation, and for a moment Vincent wondered if he’d make some outburst or force his cousin to attend him instead. Miss Strauss must have sensed the same, because she turned big eyes on him. “Please, Henry?”
Henry seemed to deflate. “Very well. We’ll attend this ‘automatic writing’ session of Miss Devereaux’s. With barometer and Franklin bells,” he added. “It will help to verify whether any spirits actually attend or not.”
The devil? “Are you calling Lizzie a liar, sir?” Vincent asked. He took a step forward.
Henry failed to step back, but instead glared up at him. “It doesn’t matter what I think of Miss Devereaux. My aim is to scientifically measure—and manipulate—spirit phenomena.”
Lizzie turned to Gladfield. “Surely this isn’t fair—Vincent and I don’t hover over his experiments! Why should he be allowed to use my efforts to bolster his case?”
“Miss Devereaux does have a point,” Miss Prandle said, looking to her uncle.
Gladfield stroked his mustache as he considered. “True, true. But the aim of the contest is to rid Reyhome Castle of this spirit activity. Mr. Strauss’s measurements won’t affect your séance, and shall be allowed.”
Vincent’s stomach turned sour. Of course Gladfield had always been in Henry’s corner. The whole purpose of the contest had been to give Henry the opportunity to prove his theories, not to vindicate the work of reputable mediums. If the lure of five hundred dollars had obscured the truth from him before, it was certainly clear now.
He turned to Lizzie, wondering if maybe they should just leave, and to hell with Gladfield and Henry and everything else. Except...
Except if they did just abandon everyone, and the haunting went bad...Henry might have more than his share of confidence, but Vincent had glimpsed his capacity for kindness and loyalty, at least when it came to his cousin. Vincent couldn’t abandon him, let alone Miss Strauss or Miss Prandle, to face an angry ghost.
Lizzie’s scowl did nothing to conceal her anger. But she nodded once, stiffly. “As you say, Mr. Gladfield. Let’s reconvene in an hour.”
“Where?” Henry asked immediately.
Vincent half expected her to suggest the master bedroom. But instead she said, “The schoolroom.”
“Why there?” Miss Prandle asked.
Lizzie offered nothing but a thin smile. “Medium’s intuition,” she said before turning her back on them all and walking away.
~ * ~
“You don’t have to be cruel, you know,” Night said from behind him.
Henry paused, his hand on the latch of his bedroom door. Vincent—Night—stood close behind him, like something materialized from the shadows. “I don’t know what you mean,” he told the boards of his door, not daring to turn around. Not daring to put himself in such close proximity.
The boards creaked as Night drew closer. “Whether you approve of us or not, this is our livelihood. If you win this, it will see Lizzie and me out on the streets.”
Henry swallowed hard, his fingers tightening on the latch. He found he didn’t wish to sound unsympathetic. “How many candlemakers found themselves out of a job when gaslight was introduced?” he asked. “Progress marches on, whether we will it or no. Clinging to the shadows of the past will help no one in the long term. I’m sure a woman as clever as Miss Devereaux will find her footing in no time.”
Night let out an explosive hiss of breath, so close that the hairs on Henry’s neck stirred. “As always, you miss the point. At first I thought you had no heart at all, but your conduct with your cousin convinced me otherwise. Yet you insist on challenging us—belligerently—on every point. Could you not just quietly stand back for one moment?”
Henry wavered. All too well, he recalled Jo condemning his behavior as beastly only hours before. “I’m sorry. But this contest is important to me.”
“And to me as well. But not for the reasons you think.”
Henry snorted. “You’re here for the money, the same as the rest of us.”
“Lizzie is,” Night corrected. “I came to protect her. I’m here because I want to save both the living and the dead. Can you say the same?”
Night stepped away, and Henry felt the loss of warmth against his back more keenly than he would have guessed. “I didn’t mean—that is—it isn’t just the money,” Henry protested. “The prize is the means to an end. The Electro-Séance will make people’s lives better.”
“I believe you.” Night stepped away, then paused. “But we all know what the road to hell is paved with. I only hope you know which direction your good intentions will ultimately lead.”
~ * ~
They gathered in the schoolroom. Vincent and Bamforth hauled a table and chairs from the third-floor parlor while Lizzie hung heavy curtains over all the windows to block out as much light as possible. A thick cloth shrouded the table, its hem brushing the floor, its black surface drinking up any stray light. Henry and Miss Strauss installed a set of their infernal bells at one end of the table and took readings from a thermometer and a barometer.
“Jo, I’d like you to measure the temperature outside the room,” Henry ordered when they were done.
Miss Strauss’s face fell. “But I want to see the séance!”
Vincent barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Did Henry think they’d somehow corrupt his young cousin if she remained?
“Her youthful energy would be a useful addition to our company,” Vincent pointed out. “Even though Lizzie will be the point of contact, the spirit will draw from everyone present.”
Henry shot him a scowl. At a guess, Vincent’s disparaging remark about good intentions had stung. “Allow me to conduct my experiments as I see fit, and you may conduct your séances as you see fit.”
Looking disappointed, Miss Strauss took a thermometer and a notebook outside and shut the door. Lizzie sat at the head of the table, a pencil and paper in front of her. Everyone else crowded around, knees bumping, Vincent to her left and Gladfield to her right. A bit of subtle maneuvering on Vincent’s part ensured that Henry sat to his left.
Gladfield wore an air of expectation. Something significant in the house’s history must have happened in this room. Had they been the frauds Henry feared, Gladfield would have been an easy victim.
“Whenever you’re ready,” Gladfield said grandly, as if he had command of the spirits.
Vincent wiped his hands surreptitiously on his trousers. He hadn’t attended a séance since the night Dunne died. True, Lizzie had chosen this room in order to interact with the lavender spirit, not the more threatening one Vincent had sensed in the bedroom, which hopefully meant there was less risk.
But what if something went wrong? What if he turned around and found something else wearing Lizzie’s skin? What if the amulet didn’t work, and something else ended up using his body like a puppet? Something cold and evil, staining him from the inside with slime and rot...
“Will this be like the trance in New York?” Miss Prandle asked. Startled out of his thoughts, Vincent jumped. Henry shot him a concerned look.
Lizzie nodded. “Very much like. Mr. Gladfield, would you put out the light?”
Darkness shrouded the room, with only the faintest glimmer of muted sun filtering through the twin draperies of cloud cover and heavy curtains. “Now, if I may have silence from everyone,” Lizzie said. “I’m ready to begin.”
Henry let out a soft snort as if he thought it easy to go into a trance state. Lizzie ignored him. “If everyone would please join hands. Vincent, Mr. Gladfield, both of you will take my right hand to leave the left free to write.”
Vincent did as instructed, taking Lizzie’s hand in his right and Henry’s in his left. Hopefully his palm wasn’t sweating too badly. As no one else could see in the dark room, he ran his thumb slowly across the back of Henry’s hand and was rewarded with a hitch of breath.
If they were to be deprived of the youthful energy Miss Strauss would have brought to the circle, sexual energy would do just as well.
“Spirits of this place.” Lizzie’s voice seemed to float above them in the darkness. “My hand is prepared to write your words. Draw from the energy of this circle and direct my pencil as you will. I stand ready to receive you.”
Vincent slowly traced the length of Henry’s thumb with his own, taking his time. Exploring a callus, caressing the cuticle of the nail, mapping the creases of flesh above the knuckle. Henry’s fingers tightened on his, breathing quickening even as Lizzie’s slowed. Her chair creaked as she leaned back, body relaxing into trance. There came the soft scratch of pencil on paper—only looping now, idle circles which would resolve into words if the spirit took the chance to communicate thusly.
Lavender in his mouth, with just a hint of blood. The spirit was responding.
Might as well give it more energy. If Henry could use their skills to further his own goals, surely it was only fair to use Henry in return.
He shifted his grip on Henry’s hand slightly, running his thumb over the vulnerable skin of the palm. Henry’s breath caught audibly. A moment later, his chair creaked, as if sitting had grown uncomfortable. His pulse fluttered in his wrist beneath the swipe of Vincent’s thumb.
Henry’s grip shifted, and Vincent grinned at the feel of a hesitant caress across the back of his own knuckles now. He ached to draw Henry’s hand to his mouth, to plant kisses over it before kissing him more thoroughly. That would be noticeable even in the darkened room, though. Instead, he tugged Henry’s hand off the table and slid their joined fingers into Henry’s lap.
The taste of lavender grew stronger.
Henry jumped slightly as Vincent found the outline of his prick. Vincent slowly drew their clasped fingers up and down the length, feeling it go harder beneath the barrier of cloth separating them. Henry’s fingers tensed but he didn’t pull away.
Blood spiked the lavender. The scratch of the pencil shifted, going from the idle loops to something more deliberate, and the Franklin bells began to ring. Henry tensed, so Vincent deliberately ran the nail of his thumb over the rigid outline of the head of the other man’s cock. A startled gasp escaped Henry, largely covered by the bells, and his hips shifted. Vincent grinned into the dark, imagining how Henry must be fighting the need to move, trying to keep his left hand from shaking and giving anything away to Bamforth.
The bells rang more and more frantically, and Lizzie’s hand tugged against his with the violence of her movements. On his other side, Henry tried to pull away, to break the circle. His fingers shook in Vincent’s—he must be close.
Vincent gripped his fingers hard to keep him from pulling away and ran a final, firm caress down Henry’s prick, from head to base—
Lizzie cried out sharply, the pencil snapping, bits flying away. The racket of the bells crescendoed, the suspended ball striking them so fast as to be deafening. Vincent’s mouth was lavender and blood. Henry’s head arched back in a silent cry.
Then nothing. The bells fell silent, as if a hand had reached out and stilled them. The only sound was of ragged breathing from both Lizzie and Henry—albeit for different reasons.
“L-light, please,” Lizzie said, sounding tired. “The spirit has left. Let’s see what it had to say.”
~ * ~
As Gladfield pulled open the curtains to let the gloomy daylight inside once more, Henry hurriedly dropped Bamforth’s hand. Had he given himself away? He’d tried not to, but that damnable Night...
He shot a glance at the man beside him. Night’s lips were turned up in a smirk. Although it was hard to tell given the color of his skin, Henry thought his face was flushed. Still, he seemed composed enough, although the voluminous tablecloth hid any evidence of arousal.
Henry’s burning cheeks grew even hotter. He should have pulled away or forced their hands back up onto the table. He was supposed to be observing the séance scientifically, and instead he’d let Night use the cover of darkness to bring him to orgasm. And allowed it to happen in the middle of a group, where they might have been caught at any moment. Had he entirely taken leave of his senses?
But it had felt so good he hadn’t been able to bring himself to make Night stop. Now he’d have to leave the room last and make certain the hang of his coat covered any wet spot. And put up with Night’s knowing smirk.
Of course, Night probably wasn’t feeling terribly comfortable at the moment. A small revenge, but he’d take it.
Damn it, he was supposed to be recording data, not staring at Night. Turning hastily to the equipment, he checked the barometer. “A slight change in pressure. Temperature decrease by four degrees,” he said, hoping his voice sounded natural and not like a man who’d just come in his drawers like an untried youth.
“Your bells performed quite adequately,” Night put in.
Henry flushed again, but answered the comment as if there had been no double meaning to it. “Assuming no one broke the circle during the séance in order to play a trick on us.”
“I certainly couldn’t have if I’d tried,” Bamforth said. “You’ve got quite the grip there, Mr. Strauss.”
Perhaps he’d just die from shame and become a spirit himself.
“What does the writing say?” Gladfield asked, rescuing him from further humiliation.
Miss Devereaux stared down at the pad, her mouth pensive. “See for yourself,” she said and passed the paper to Gladfield. He frowned and handed it across to Night. Henry peered across the table.
The upper portion of the paper was covered in nothing more than loops and swirls, scrawled without lifting the pencil. Gradually, however, the scribbles became more and more defined, until they were first linked words, then finally separate ones.
Getoutgetoutgetout get out Get out.
I can’t hold him back much longer.
Before he comes for you.