“Thank you for mentioning my concerns over dinner,” Vincent said as he settled into a chair across from Lizzie, near the roaring fire in the grand hall. The wind had strengthened after sundown, and branches of overgrown shrubs rubbed against the glass of the huge bay window. When the gusts blew in a particular direction, a soft keening came from the tower. Henry had trooped up with his poor cousin to investigate and had come back half an hour later, shivering and miserable, to report it was nothing but the wind blowing around the open parapet.
Lizzie shifted, the silk folds of her dress whispering together. “You were a good medium once,” she replied quietly. “I don’t want to you to feel as if I’m dismissing your warnings altogether, or rushing headlong into danger without a second thought.”
Lizzie shook her head. “I think you’re becoming far too fond of him.”
“He’s not a bad sort. Deep down.”
“Very deep,” she agreed. She indicated the hairbrush which lay on the table between them. “Shall we begin?”
As darkness fell, he and Lizzie had gone to the servants’ quarters and made a second survey, not for spirit activity but for objects left behind. It seemed likely the ghost he’d sensed on the servants’ stair, and who Miss Strauss had seen, had been a maid.
Their search had uncovered a great many empty beds and barren dressers...and one space with women’s clothing left in both a trunk and drawers. Odd, to say the least. After a few moments of handling various objects, Lizzie had chosen the hairbrush.
At least psychometry wasn’t like spirit writing. There was no direct channeling of the spirit, the object itself forming the conduit of communication. The results were more limited, but still might be useful.
Lizzie closed her eyes and put her hands on the brush. Her breathing gradually became deeper and slower as she slipped into trance. Vincent watched her carefully, the pencil in his hand poised above a sheet of paper, ready to take note of anything she might say. Around them, the house creaked in the rising wind. The firelight threw flickering shadows, the movement making the skin between his shoulder blades crawl. He had to resist the urge to glance behind him.
There was nothing there. Nothing coming up behind him in the shadowy hall.
A shiver ran through Lizzie, dragging his attention back to her. A faint acidity, like vinegar and lemons, coated his tongue.
Lizzie’s brows drew together. “Cold. Dark. She’s trapped.”
Vincent’s pencil scratched softly on the paper as he recorded her words. Outside, the wind strengthened. The winter-bare branches tapped harder against the window, like skeletal fingers seeking entrance.
“It’s dark here,” Lizzie went on. Her frown deepened, lips drawing tight against her teeth. “There was a light, but he wouldn’t let her go to it. She can’t leave.”
All the hair stood up on Vincent’s neck. “She can’t leave...?”
There came a loud snap as one of the dozens of windowpanes on the bay cracked in half.
Vincent jumped violently, and Lizzie’s eyes flew open. They both stared at the broken window, but nothing further happened. The wind died down, and the violent strikes of the bushes against the glass calmed.
Vincent barely bit back the impulse to swear. “Lizzie...”
“The lavender ghost was worried ‘he’ would come for us. Now this other one is trapped in the house, unable to move on, because ‘he’ won’t let her.” Vincent tossed the pencil down. “This is getting worse by the minute. This goes beyond any paranoia of mine. We have to leave.”
Lizzie sighed. “There’s nothing to be done tonight. For now, I’m going to bed—and laying a good line of salt down across the door first. Tomorrow morning we’ll hear the history of the house and make any necessary decisions.”
He wanted to argue, but she was right. There was nothing else to be done at the moment.
And who knew? Maybe Henry was having better luck with his measurements and devices. “I think I’ll see what mischief Mr. Strauss is getting up to.”
Lizzie arched a brow. “Well. That should be entertaining.”
~ * ~
Henry leaned out the window, trying to attach the copper wire in his hand to the lightning rod outside. If he was to prove the action of Strauss’s Patented Ghost Grounder, it had to be, well, grounded.
He’d used the same lightning rod for the Franklin bells earlier in the day, but at the time the weather had been relatively mild. Now it was practically blowing up a hurricane, with every surface slick with ice and snow. The windowsill he’d perched on earlier had become too treacherous to trust, unless he wished to tempt both gravity and fate.
“Do you need assistance?” Vincent inquired from the door to the schoolroom.
Henry was half tempted to refuse. But in truth, he did need help, and with Jo busy taking readings, he couldn’t exactly turn Vincent away. “If you don’t mind. I need to lean out a bit farther than I’m comfortable. I’d take it as a kindness if you’d keep me from plummeting to my death.”
Vincent grinned. “Any chance to manhandle you again.”
Henry glared in response. “Perhaps I should rethink things. I trust you have no desire to murder me in order to win our contest?”
“I might.” Vincent ambled closer. “But shoving you out the window would be rather pedestrian. If I choose to do you in, Mr. Strauss, the fashion won’t be nearly so common.”
Henry snorted. “I think sometimes you say things just to hear the sound of your own voice. And it’s Henry.” He wasn’t certain why he offered the familiarity, except it seemed absurd to stand on formality when the man in question had made him spill in his trousers.
“I do enjoy hearing myself talk,” Vincent agreed shamelessly. “Please call me Vincent.” He smiled with what seemed like real pleasure, though, his teeth very white against his copper skin.
“Then, as I am safe from simply being tossed out the window, I accept your offer of assistance, Vincent.” Henry uncoiled the wire. “Come over here and hold my legs.”
“Bossy. I like that in a man.” Vincent strolled over and did as ordered. His grip on Henry was warm and firm, and Henry did his best to ignore it. At least the icy air whipping in through the open window cooled any ardor he might have otherwise felt.
As Henry leaned out into the cold air and began to attach the wire to the lightning rod, Vincent said, “May I ask you a question?”
Now? The man had a dreadful sense of timing. “If you must.”
“You said you’d seen a spirit before. What caused you to pursue the secrets of the hereafter in this fashion?”
Henry gritted his teeth. His fingers were clumsy from the cold, and he swore mentally when the wire slipped loose. “You mean scientifically?”
Henry didn’t owe the medium anything. He could simply say it was none of Vincent’s business and tell him to be off.
But Vincent, for all his impertinence and lack of shame, had shown genuine kindness last night when he’d come in response to Henry’s fearful cry. He’d comforted Jo after her encounter this morning.
He’d called Henry clever, praised the way he thought. The words had warmed Henry even more than the kiss they’d shared a few moments later. Who would have imagined the first person to appreciate his ingenuity would be a medium?
“My family was never wealthy, but we had more money than most.” Henry finally got the wire into place. “Nothing like Mr. Gladfield, of course. My father was the president of a bank and did quite well for himself...at least until he died.”
Henry pulled himself back inside. For once, Vincent let go and stepped away instead of pursuing anything more. Henry hurriedly closed the window as much as he could given the wire running outside. His fingers were like ice, and he jammed them beneath his armpits in an attempt to warm them.
“As am I, but he...he came back. To reassure me, I think. I was fifteen, and only just fully realized I was...different...from other lads.” He looked up to see if Vincent took his meaning. A small nod assured him that the medium did. “I was confused and afraid, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t just as well my father had died. If he’d ever found out, surely it would have broken his heart. One night, I woke up and discovered him standing at the foot of my bed.”
Vincent cocked his head to one side. “Were you frightened?”
Henry laughed ruefully. “I should have been, shouldn’t I? But all I felt was a sense of warmth and love. As if he’d come to tell me everything would be all right. Then he was gone, but I heard something hit the floor. I jumped out of bed, and what did I find but an emerald stickpin?” Henry began to pace, trying to work some warmth back into his limbs after the chill of the outside. “He’d been buried with the pin—I knew he had, I’d seen it myself as they shut the coffin. There was no explanation for how it arrived on my floor, except as an apport from a spirit. From him.”
“It makes sense.” Vincent perched on the edge of a school desk, watching Henry pace. “Young people like you were—like Miss Strauss is now—generate a great deal of energy. Given your emotional distress, it was probably even higher than usual. Concentrated as it was around a single spirit, it gave your father enough energy to cross the veil and apport the pin. To say goodbye.”
Henry came to a halt, his eyes fixed on the wall in front of him. Faint marks revealed the old vandalism left behind by some child, not quite removed by subsequent scrubbing. “Yes.”
Vincent folded his arms over his chest. “But it doesn’t explain why you’re determined to replace me with a machine.”
Henry wanted to protest that he didn’t. Not Vincent. But that would be the effect of winning the contest, whether he wished it or not. “When Father died, Mother was utterly devastated,” Henry said. “I told her about my vision and showed her the stickpin. It got her hopes up, I suppose. She longed to see him again, too. So she hired a medium. Isaac Woodsend, or at least that was the name he went by.”
“Oh dear.” Vincent winced. “A fraud?”
“In every possible way. Only we didn’t know it.” Henry laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. “He took us in completely. Within a week, Mother was convinced not only that she could talk to Father again, but that she might do so any time she wanted. Almost as if he wasn’t dead, but just on a long journey. Isaac moved in with us—the house was quite large, and there was plenty of room. Before long, he said Father wanted us to do things—little things to begin with, like give Isaac his diamond cufflinks. Over time the gifts became more extravagant: money, clothes.” He lowered his voice. “Me.”
“Shit,” Vincent said, with a sort of soft viciousness. His eyes blazed with dark fire.
“He didn’t say as much in front of Mother, of course,” Henry said hurriedly. “But privately...and since I knew Father still loved me, it seemed reasonable. Not least because I wanted it, too. Isaac was handsome and charming. I was fifteen and stupid.”
“The man was a scheming bastard who took advantage.” Vincent’s cold anger seemed an impossibly sharp contrast to the languid amusement he generally displayed. “I hope this story contains a bad ending for Mr. Woodsend.”
The sentiment warmed Henry even as he shook his head ruefully. “Quite the opposite. Isaac drained our bank accounts and took everything—even the emerald stickpin.” Somehow, that hurt the most, even now. “But I determined I wouldn’t let anyone else fall prey to such an unscrupulous ruse ever again. The Electro-Séance is important, not just to me, but to everyone who has been taken in by a fraud. If I can keep one other person from going through what my family did, it will all have been worth it.”
A small, sad smile played on Vincent’s mouth. “I won’t deny your devices may have some use. But if you could replace every doctor with an automaton, would you? For no better reason than that there are quacks as well as trained professionals?”
Oddly enough, Henry still remembered the smell of Dr. Jones’s tobacco when he’d attended Father during his last hours. The kindly old man’s soothing voice telling Mother it was over and Father hadn’t suffered at the end. The weight of his hand on Henry’s shoulder. “You’re the man of the house now, lad. But don’t worry. Your father and I were old friends, and he was always proud of you. He still is.”
“It isn’t the same,” Henry said.
“Isn’t it?” The smile grew even sadder, more wistful. “Maybe you’re right, Henry. Maybe machines can replace us all. Maybe if they did, Dunne would still be alive.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Vincent turned back to the closed doors of the schoolroom. “If you’ve made your preparations, let’s see what this device of yours can do.”
~ * ~
Vincent leaned against the balcony railing, watching while Henry finished setting up what he referred to as his ghost grounder. Listening to the man’s story hadn’t been easy. The thought of someone taking advantage of people—of Henry—in such a way, while real mediums like Dunne died trying to make the world a better place, made his chest hot with anger.
No wonder Henry had turned to machines. They would never break his heart.
“Are you ready, Jo?” Henry asked. His cheeks were still flushed from the cold, but his eyes sparkled with anticipation. As did Jo’s—despite the differences in the color of their skins, in many ways the cousins were more alike than not.
Henry had connected his wire, now trailing from beneath the schoolroom doors, to a thick copper rod. The rod he handled with a heavy rubber glove. They’d gathered at the cold spot on the balcony, set up a thermometer, and noted the temperature. The faint taste of lavender spiced Vincent’s tongue—this cold spot belonged to the ghost who had tried to warn them. It was a connection to this world where she could draw energy from the ambient air. Given the dark stains on the floor, he thought it likely she’d died here.
Of course he didn’t say as much to Henry. They were still competitors after all, and he doubted Henry would care, given his tart remarks about “provenance” earlier.
Vincent held up his hand. “One moment, if you please. What exactly do you mean to do here?”
Henry, of course, jumped on the opportunity for a lecture. “Ghosts—or their manifestations on this side of the veil—are electromagnetic in nature. They interact with our fields of energy, and with those naturally present all around us. Cold spots form when spirits drain the ambient energy out of the air.”
“And your ghost grounder?”
Henry beamed. “We use the ghost’s connection with a certain place in our world against it. The copper rod will ground any sort of energy in the area—it doesn’t distinguish between that generated by a static charge or a spirit. By introducing it into the cold spot, it will make contact, if you will, with the energy of the spirit and begin to drain it. When the ghost loses sufficient energy to keep up contact with this side, the cold spot should return to normal temperature.”
There was a certain amount of genius to Henry’s ideas. “And the spirit?” Vincent asked. “How will she feel? Will it hurt her?”
“No more than when a séance’s circle is broken and the energy no longer available to the summoned spirit,” Henry said.
“I see.” Vincent arched a brow at him as Miss Strauss turned away to check one of their instruments. Lowering his voice so only Henry could hear, he said, “Then by all means, give us a demonstration of your thrusting rod.”
Henry’s cheeks reddened again, with something other than the cold now. “Ready, Jo?” he asked, turning his back deliberately on Vincent.
“Cold spot is at twenty-seven degrees,” she reported, her pencil hovering over the notebook, ready to spring into action.
“Then let us begin.”
Henry carefully aimed the tip of the copper rod into the center of the cold spot. There came the tiny flash of a spark and a soft crack, like touching a door latch after shuffling over carpet.
“Thirty-one degrees!” Jo said.
The taste of lavender began to fade.
Jo recited changes in temperature at regular intervals. Henry’s eyes all but glowed in triumph, but his hand remained steady, keeping the copper rod in place until at last Jo declared their two thermometers read the same, both in the former cold spot and a few feet away.
Vincent swirled his tongue around his mouth. No lavender, just the lingering flavor of cinnamon cachous.
She was gone. Or rather, her connection to this place was gone.
“Well done,” Vincent said softly.
Henry looked uncertain, as if he thought Vincent might be mocking him. “Thank you.”
Vincent gave him a small bow before leaving Henry and his cousin to clear away their things. But as he laid down lines of salt across his bedroom door and window, and checked inside the wardrobe one last time, he couldn’t help but think back to that terrible night last summer. If Dunne had something like the ghost grounder, might things have gone differently? Might he still be alive?
By competing against Henry, were Lizzie and he potentially dooming future mediums to the same death?