Henry stood at the door to the schoolroom, feeling utterly, wretchedly miserable.
He’d let himself be taken in by a medium a second time. Isaac had been bad enough, though at least Henry could blame his former gullibility on the inexperience of youth. But now he had no excuse save for his own stupidity.
Vincent and Miss D—Mr. Dabkowski, had pretended to be everything they weren’t, and Henry had accepted the illusion without question.
Still, he wished Gladfield hadn’t hit Vincent. Or chosen to throw them out. The snow had begun to fall in earnest, and it was a long walk back to the rail station on foot.
Then again, they’d likely conspired to murder Henry. Although why Vincent would have brought up the secret passages and helped Henry map them if he truly was in on the scheme...
No. So what if it made no sense? Who could fathom the motives of such twisted liars? If the facts didn’t quite fit his theory, well, it simply meant he’d been duped even more thoroughly than he realized. Had there really even been a ghost on the stairs with them, or had Vincent used some trick to turn the lantern flame blue? A pinch of chemicals would suffice. “Ghosts” had been created through use of muslin and phosphorescent paint before—perhaps that’s all Henry had ever seen, and his imagination had supplied the rest.
What had happened during the Electro-Séance had been real. But anything else—everything else—could have been nothing more than a bit of clever trickery and playacting meant to humiliate him.
Henry’s throat ached and his eyes burned. Stupid. He couldn’t waste time thinking about this. He had to focus on using his equipment to remove the ghosts as quickly as possible, so he and Jo could get out of this house and back to Baltimore. Put it all behind them.
Jo’s skirts rustled as she entered. He forced himself straight and turned to her. “We should consider...”
“Consider how anyone can be this stupid?” she shot back. Anger gleamed in her brown eyes, but her mouth was set in a look of disappointment. “How could you do that to them? I thought you liked Mr. Night! And Miss Devereaux—”
“Isn’t a ‘miss’ at all,” Henry shot back. “It’s clear they’ve been playing us for fools from the start.”
Jo shook her head. “No. I don’t believe it.”
“Believe it. It’s all been nothing but lies,” Henry replied savagely. “Their names, their pasts, the automatic writing séance ‘Miss Devereaux’ conducted, every word out of their mouths a falsehood.”
Especially what Vincent had said about wanting to see him again. Every smile, every touch, just another way to use and trick. His chest ached with it as if Vincent had taken a knife to him. Perhaps that would have hurt less.
“You could have died last night!” Jo flung her arms out in exasperation. “Now you’re pretending it was all—all some sort of trick?”
“The spirit didn’t hurt me—hasn’t hurt anyone.” Henry swallowed against the knot inside his throat. “It was frightening, yes. It threw things around and broke the mirror, yes. But my injury was purely an accident—had I been wearing shoes, it wouldn’t have occurred at all. The only ‘evidence’ we have of real danger is the mediums’ claims, which they no doubt made up to make themselves look better.”
“How can you be so blind? Just because they lied about—about their pasts—”
“Enough!” Henry slammed his fists on the table. “I have made my decision, and I won’t have any more back talk from you, do you understand?”
Jo drew back, blood draining from her face. “You’re just going to pretend the thing in the hall last night didn’t want to kill us? Just throw two people, whatever their names might be, out in the snow and hope they don’t die?”
“What do you want from me?” he demanded.
“A heart? Vincent isn’t Isaac.”
Something heavy settled into his gut. “You don’t know anything about that.”
“Yes, I do.” Her lower lip trembled, but she stood her ground. “When I told Aunt Emma I wanted to meet you, she said he...and you...”
“I’m not having this conversation with you.” Curse Emma. “Not now, not ever. You’re too young to understand.”
“You’re wrong!” Jo’s hands balled into angry fists. “I understood. I just didn’t care! At first I just wanted to get away from Aunt Emma, but I met you, and I love you, and I don’t care.” She dashed away angry tears. “But now you’re going to let Mr. Night get hurt for no better reason than that Isaac hurt you.”
“That’s it.” Hot anger ran through his veins—at himself, at Isaac, at the damned liar Vincent. “I already told you this conversation was over, and you disobeyed me. One more word—one more—and I’m sending you back to Emma.”
Her lips parted, but no sound came out. Belatedly, he realized exactly what he’d just said.
“Jo, I’m sorry,” he said, reaching for her.
“No.” She stepped back, tears spilling over onto her cheeks. “I should’ve known you didn’t really want me.”
She turned and ran. Henry followed to the doorway, then stopped and stood alone, wondering how everything had gone so horribly wrong.
~ * ~
Vincent savagely stuffed the last of the things he could easily take with him into his valise. Most of his belongings would have to stay here. The walk would be long and bitter as it was, given they weren’t prepared for a hike in such weather.
But he and Lizzie would make it. They’d lived through worse, hadn’t they?
And so what if everyone they left behind would be doomed? Henry and Gladfield deserved whatever fate the ghosts had in store for them. Vincent had done everything possible, given every warning. If they chose to ignore him, it was their fault. Their blood certainly wouldn’t be on his hands.
As for Miss Prandle, Bamforth, and Miss Strauss...well. You couldn’t save everyone. Sometimes, you couldn’t save anyone.
Dunne hadn’t believed that. But he was dead, killed by the very apprentice he’d taken in. Clearly his judgment had been faulty from the start.
Flinging his bag over his shoulder, Vincent shoved open his door. It nearly collided with Miss Strauss, who stood trembling outside, her face stained with tears.
“Miss Strauss? I didn’t realize you were there,” he began.
“Take me with you,” she blurted out.
What the hell was happening? “I can’t,” he said automatically. “Why would you even ask such a thing?”
“H-Henry.” She scrubbed angrily at her cheeks “He said he’d send me back to my Aunt Emma, and I-I can’t go back there, I can’t.”
Had Henry completely lost his mind? “Your cousin is an idiot,” Vincent said. “But he loves you, and he would never send you back. If he threatened otherwise, it’s because...well, as I said, he’s an idiot.”
She shook her head frantically. “He meant it. He was so angry. Please, take me with you.”
Damn Henry. Vincent put a hand to her shoulder, feeling her tremble beneath his fingers. “Trust me. Last night, Henry was willing to risk death for your sake.”
“He says there isn’t any danger.” She glanced up at him apologetically. “You made it all up.”
God. Maybe he should take the girl with him. But it wouldn’t be allowed, by Henry or Gladfield or anyone else.
Meaning he had to talk to Henry.
Vincent didn’t want to see Henry. Didn’t want to look at him and remember those moments over the last few days, when their eyes had met. How Henry’s initial shock and annoyance had given way to something softer.
Vincent should have said something last night. No, before last night. The moment Henry told him about Isaac, he should have confessed the truth about his own past. But he hadn’t, because he wanted...
Wanted Henry to like him.
“Let me talk to your cousin,” Vincent said resignedly. Giving her shoulder a squeeze, he went to the stairs and thence to the schoolroom.
Henry stood in the middle of the room, looking lost. His head snapped up as Vincent stepped in. Miss Strauss lingered outside, unwilling to come too close. Henry’s eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to say something—to condemn Vincent, no doubt.
Vincent held up his hand sharply. “Shut up and listen for once in your damned life. You believe I’m a fraud? Go ahead.”
“It’s more than that.” Henry had regained his power of speech a little too quickly for Vincent’s liking. “You are a fraud. Fake séances. Fake name. Even your partner is nothing but a falsehood.”
Vincent’s chest grew tight, and his nails cut into his palms. “There are two things you need to understand, right now,” he said in a low voice. Henry took a worried step back, but Vincent didn’t give a damn and stalked after him. “I am Vincent Night, and Lizzie is a woman. And if you honestly think what someone else might have named me or what Lizzie was born with between her legs defines us, then I’m ashamed I ever touched you.”
Henry took a quick sip of breath, brows climbing to his hairline, but Vincent wasn’t done. “The prize money is gone. The only thing Lizzie and I had left of Dunne’s is gone. You’ve ruined us, Mr. Strauss, and if that makes you happy, so be it. But this spirit is dangerous and it will kill you. And if you think I’m so petty as to want to see such a thing happen, to you or your cousin or anyone else, you’ve committed almost as grave an error in judgment with me as I did with you.”
“Vincent—” Henry started.
The tang of iron and blood bloomed on his tongue.
“Damn it!” Vincent turned his back on Henry, casting about frantically. Miss Strauss hovered by the door, so he yelled, “Reyer’s here—get in the schoolroom now, put down salt, and don’t come out!”
He ran past her without waiting to see if she obeyed. Footsteps pounded behind him—Henry following, although God only knew why. No doubt the man thought Vincent was making everything up again.
Lizzie’s cry of pain sent Vincent’s heart jolting against his ribs. Angry voices echoed from the third floor, and the taste in Vincent’s mouth grew stronger. He took the stairs two at a time, emerging to see Gladfield strike Lizzie a blow which sent her to the floor.
Gladfield loomed over her on the balcony just outside of the door to her chamber. She’d changed into her most sensible dress for the trek through the snow. A single bag lay on the floor beside her, its contents spilling out onto the wooden boards. Miss Prandle and Bamforth both hovered not far away, Bamforth with his hand on Miss Prandle’s arm as if he’d tried to restrain her.
“How dare you?” Gladfield roared. “To continue to dress in such a fashion?”
“Please—I don’t have anything else to wear,” Lizzie protested.
“I should burn it, with you in it,” Gladfield shouted and drew back his foot to kick her.
“No!” Vincent didn’t even remember crossing the distance between stairs and balcony. The taste of rusted nails grew strong enough to gag him, and the air went from cold to freezing. Gladfield’s rage, Lizzie’s pain and misery—Reyer was feeding off it, growing stronger by the instant.
Vincent fell to his knees and hunched over Lizzie in an attempt to protect her. Gladfield’s kick landed on his thigh, and he bit back a cry of pain. Then Henry was shouting, and Gladfield shouting back, and the malevolence in the air coalesced thick on Vincent’s tongue.
He spun and grabbed blindly for Henry, pulling him to the floor just as the world around them exploded into fury.
Every picture on the wall tore free in a shower of wood and canvas. The gaslight burned blue. Miss Prandle screamed, and Bamforth dragged her back, his arm up to shield them both from the flying debris.
Gladfield was hurled like a doll into the balcony’s railing. The old wood, weakened from years of neglect, shattered like kindling. For a moment he seemed to hang in space, arms reaching, legs flailing. Eyes wide with shock and terror.
Then he fell. The sound of his body smashing into the flagstones two stories down echoed in the sudden silence.
~ * ~
Henry dragged one of the rugs from near the great hearth and flung it over Gladfield’s broken body. Everything had happened so fast. Gladfield beating Miss Dev—Mr. Dabkowski, Vincent’s intervention, the ghost...he felt in shock, as if he clung to the back of a galloping horse, able only to hang on and hope he would make it to the end of the ride.
The rest made their way down the stairs, Miss Prandle leaning heavily on Bamforth’s arm. “Uncle,” she sobbed. “Mr. Strauss, is he...?”
“I’m afraid so.”
Jo made a small, scared sound in the back of her throat. Henry moved to her side and put an arm around her. A moment later, she pressed her face into his shoulder, her entire body shivering.
Vincent stared at the rug and the body it concealed. When he lifted his gaze, he met Henry’s unflinchingly. His eyes were dark and cold as the night sky, and Henry had to look away.
“Well, Mr. Strauss?” The snow falling past the window couldn’t compete with the chill in Vincent’s voice. “Aren’t you going to accuse us of murdering him through some use of sleight of hand? Or perhaps we simply lied him to death.”
“Don’t, please,” Miss Prandle begged. She wiped away tears and straightened. “What—how did this happen? In the middle of the day?”
“It’s the anniversary of Reyer’s death, and Mr. Gladfield’s attack just gave the spirit more energy to feed on.” Vincent’s lips formed a hard line. “Reyer seems to have expended his reserves for the moment, but it won’t take long for him to regather strength. We must leave the house before that happens.” He glanced at Henry. “Unless you actually believe Lizzie and I conspired to kill you.”
“What did you mean?” Jo asked Henry, looking up from the shelter of his arm. “You said something about the chandelier earlier.”
Henry shook his head. “There are secret passages in the walls. The chandelier was rigged to fall.”
“What does it matter now?” Bamforth cut in. “We must get Miss Prandle to safety.”
Miss Prandle said nothing, tears streaking her face. Henry stared down at the rug concealing Gladfield’s body, feeling numb. This was his fault. If he’d just done as they’d agreed this morning, told Gladfield they had to leave...
But he’d suspected that Vincent’s partner was a potential murderer. And after learning the truth about them, he’d been sure of it.
Hadn’t he? Maybe he hadn’t been sure at all. Maybe he’d just been angry.
And now Gladfield was dead.
“Very well.” Vincent looked around at them all. “This is what we’ll do. I don’t want anyone wandering about alone. Bamforth and I will bring the wagon around to the front of the house. The rest of you go upstairs and pack whatever you need. Don’t split up even for a moment.” His gaze first met first Henry’s, very deliberately, then Miss Prandle’s. “And if Lizzie tells you to do something, do it. Don’t ask questions, don’t dither as to whether or not you can trust her. If you do, you’ll end up like Mr. Gladfield here. Do you understand?”
Miss Prandle nodded shakily. “Yes, Mr. Night. I’m sorry, I...yes. We’ll do whatever he says.”
“You’d better.” He turned to Bamforth. “I’ll get my bag and Lizzie’s and rejoin you in a moment. Wait here.”
The man nodded. “I understand, sir.”
Vincent started for the stairs without another word. As he brushed past, Henry put out his hand. “Vincent—”
“Excuse me, Mr. Strauss.” Vincent evaded his grasp easily. “We really do need to move quickly.”
Henry’s hand fell to his side, and he fought back a surge of disappointment. “Yes, of course,” he said, but Vincent had already started up the stairs and didn’t look back.