The air outside the house was bitterly cold, and the snow piled worrisomely deep. Vincent trudged after Bamforth toward the makeshift stables, carrying both his own bag and Lizzie’s. Bamforth carried the tack and harness for the horses.
The grounds had once boasted a large stable, of course. At some point in the last thirty years, the structure had burned down. For lack of any other options, a small garden shed had been hastily fitted to hold the two horses and their food. Even the tack had to be stored in the house.
“Do you think we’ll have any trouble getting through?” Vincent asked, looking around at the drifts. The gray sky continued to relentlessly spit snow: big, fat flakes caught in their hair and dusted their shoulders briefly before melting. The trip back to the rail station wouldn’t be pleasant, even with the wagon.
Far better than going without it, though. If Gladfield had lived long enough to have his way...
The man was dead, but it didn’t blunt Vincent’s anger at either him or Henry. Yes, Henry had seemed shocked and distressed when Gladfield attacked Lizzie, but what the devil had he expected to happen? Was the fool really so coddled he didn’t realize he’d exposed Lizzie to the threat of violence?
Well. Henry had shown his true colors. And if the thought of the other man still made Vincent’s chest ache, it said more about Vincent’s own stupidity than Henry’s worth.
“I hope not,” Bamforth replied. He stopped at the door to the stable, clearing away snow with his boot in order to drag it open. “But if it keeps on like this...well, best we don’t dawdle.”
“Agreed.” Vincent waited outside—there wasn’t enough space for them both within. While Bamforth led the first horse out, Vincent pulled the cover from the wagon and tossed their bags into the back.
“Do you think the house will ever be safe again?” Bamforth asked as they hitched the horses to the wagon. “I don’t mean perfectly, but once we’re gone, will things settle down?”
Vincent nodded. “They should. Without our presence adding energy to the house, and with the anniversary of the murders past, the ghosts will eventually become quiet again.”
“Good. I was thinking...well. Mr. Gladfield’s things, his family will surely want them, and we can’t bring everything in the wagon with us. I’d hate for them not to be able to return and fetch anything.”
A kind thought. “They should be able to in a few months, especially if they don’t linger in the house any longer than necessary.” Henry would probably need to return as well—his equipment wouldn’t possibly all fit in the wagon along with six living people and a dead body. “Did you work with Mr. Gladfield long?”
“All my life,” Bamforth said regretfully. “Not him in particular, but my father was his father’s valet, and my aunt worked here as the tutor.”
Vincent climbed into the wagon as Bamforth took the drivers seat. “The tutor? The one Reyer injured?”
Bamforth nodded, and for a moment his expression grew hard with anger. “Yes. She lost three fingers—the cuts from the knife were too deep to save them. Drank herself to death, she did. I suppose she couldn’t forget what she’d seen him do to the children.”
“I’m sorry.” The wagon lurched into motion, horses straining to drag it through the thick snow. “Coming here must have been difficult for you.”
Bamforth shrugged. “In a way. But it was a long time ago, and I was more curious than upset, if you understand. This house was a part of my family’s history just as much as Mr. Gladfield’s.”
“I’m sorry it had to end this way.”
Bamforth looked sad for a moment before shaking himself. “So am I.”
The horses dragged the wagon through the piling snow, making something of an effort—and this was over level ground, not the rutted, overgrown track leading back to the town. Bamforth’s expression became worried, but neither of them spoke their fears aloud. After all, what choice did they have? Staying in the house was out of the question.
When the wagon finally creaked to a halt in front of the door, Vincent swung down. “I’ll see how the others are coming and assist if necessary,” he said. “It’s probably safer if you stay out here with the horses in the meantime.”
Knocking the snow from his shoes, he went to the door. It refused to open.
“The devil?” he muttered and shoved harder.
“It can’t be locked,” Bamforth said. He dismounted from the wagon and came up to try the latch himself. “We just came out ourselves.”
Vincent rattled the door, then threw his weight against it. It didn’t budge, but he caught the lingering taste of rusted iron nails.
“Damn it.” He stepped back and stared at the heavy oaken panels. “It’s not locked. It’s Reyer. He’s keeping us out.”
~ * ~
“Mr. Dabkowski,” Henry began uncertainly as they started up the stair.
The medium spun on him, her—his—face drawn into a furious glare. “Let us get one thing straight, Mr. Strauss. I’m here to keep Reyer’s ghost from hurting anyone else before we leave. I could, if I wished, walk out the front door this moment and abandon you to your own devices—as you have repeatedly wished me to from the beginning, I might add.”
Taken aback, Henry held up his hands. “Of course. I understand—”
“Good. And in return for my services, which I am doing purely from a sense of honor and obligation, you will refer to me by my name. Elizabeth Devereaux.”
His green eyes flashed angry fire, and Henry took a half step back. What was it Vincent had said? About letting others define both himself and his partner?
But Dabkowski wasn’t a woman. He couldn’t be, with male anatomy. The thick chokers she—he—wore concealed his Adam’s apple, and the flowing gowns covered a frame that was decidedly delicate for a man’s. His features would be sneeringly called pretty on a man, but the line of the jaw was rather rugged for a woman, although the long golden curls distracted from it. Dabkowski must either have an exceptionally light beard or spent hours each day skillfully plucking away any offending hair. The mimicry was masterful—other than his height, which could hardly be altered downwards, everything from gesture to dress to soft voice would lull an observer into assuming him female.
An involved performance indeed. Too involved to be part of a single, bizarre scam, as Henry had earlier accused. Dabkowski obviously spent his everyday life as a woman. But that didn’t make him one the way Vincent seemed to think it did.
There were people who said Jo wasn’t a person. She couldn’t be, with her skin color.
It wasn’t the same, though...was it?
God, he didn’t know. But it seemed Dabkowski, or Deveraux, or whatever he—or she—wanted to be called was trying to save them. And it would hardly cost Henry anything to agree to his—her—demand. “I...yes. Please, forgive my poor manners, Miss Devereaux.”
“Apology accepted.” She turned back to the fore and started up the stairs again. Henry had the distinct impression that the apology was only understood to cover his latest faux pas.
“We’ll go to Miss Prandle’s room first,” Miss Devereaux said as they gained the third-floor landing. Her skirts rustled as she strode before them, her head held at an imperious angle proclaiming nothing would break her spirit, their opinions least of all. “Miss Prandle, please gather only what you absolutely need. I’ll remain outside and attempt to sense the ghost.”
“Attempt?” Henry asked.
“Vincent is far better at such things than I. It’s what makes him such an extraordinary medium.” She cast him a glance edged with scorn.
If only he had his galvanometer. Or anything, even...
“Do you have a hair pin, Miss Devereaux?” he asked.
The look she shot him could have frozen lava. “Yes.”
“If it’s steel, may I borrow it? If the electrical charge of the air shifts, it might give us a small amount of warning.”
They’d come to Miss Prandle’s door. Miss Devereaux’s look didn’t warm, but she pulled free a hair pin, leaving a blonde lock to tumble over the shoulder of her dark dress. Henry pulled a bit of string from his pocket and used it to hang the pin from the balcony railing. It swung gently in the air currents, and he wondered if his makeshift galvanometer would really do anything to alert them or not.
“Shall I help?” Jo offered. “To make the packing go quicker?”
“Thank you,” Miss Prandle said and led the way inside the room.
Henry remained on the balcony with Miss Devereaux. The medium stepped a few paces from the door, her head cocked as if trying to hear a conversation just out of reach.
It seemed as good an opportunity as any. “Miss Devereaux?” he asked, pitching his voice too low for the ladies to hear in Miss Prandle’s room.
“What is it now?” she asked impatiently.
He winced. “You have good reason to be angry with me. I only wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t realize Mr. Gladfield would react with such violence.”
“How nice for you.” Her eyes narrowed, and she touched the bruise beneath one. “This isn’t the first—or the worst—time I’ve been beaten for the simple crime of living as a woman.”
“Then why do you do it?”
She arched a brow. “Why do you do any of the things you do, Mr. Strauss? Surely you have some behaviors upon which society frowns.”
Heat crept up Henry’s neck. No doubt she guessed what he and Vincent had done together...was it just last night? “Yes, but...”
“But why not stop?” she challenged. “Change yourself. Become someone else. You can’t, can you?” She turned away from him. “Neither can I. I am what you see before you, and I will not be less simply because other people wish me to be. Even if it costs me everything.”
Henry took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Could he be so brave? True, he’d found himself unable to conform to a world which said he should desire women, but it wasn’t as if he’d even considered living openly with another man.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last. “If Vincent had just told the truth from the beginning...”
“And what lie did he tell which did you such injury?” Her lip curled. “Should he, upon meeting you, have given you every detail of his life, including episodes from long in the past, of which he is justly ashamed?”
“He didn’t have to make up everything from whole cloth,” Henry hedged.
“Because men like Gladfield can’t wait to invite former street rats into their homes. How charmingly naïve you are, Mr. Strauss.”
Henry wanted to protest. To say Vincent was no better than Isaac, using lies and tricks to work his way into a man’s heart.
But his mentor’s death hadn’t been a lie; that at least the detective had confirmed. The bravery it must have taken to come here, even after seeing the worst that could happen, was genuine. All of the soft smiles and small kindnesses, admiring Henry’s ingenuity even when disagreeing with the use he put it to...it had all felt real.
Should Henry judge Vincent on the circumstances of his life, on whatever lies he’d felt the need to tell about his background...or on the fact that Vincent had stayed behind and vowed to help them all get away from Reyhome Castle alive even after the way they—the way Henry—had treated him?
“You’re probably right,” Henry said. He turned back toward the door to Miss Prandle’s room. “I should—”
The pin suddenly jerked and danced madly on its string. An instant later, the temperature plunged around them. “Jo!” he shouted and lunged instinctively for the door.
It slammed in his face. He jerked back—then gasped.
The wall in front of him was completely smooth, without trace or sign the door had ever existed.
~ * ~
“Damn it!” Vincent struck the front door with his fist, but the heavy oak remained unmoved.
This was bad. Reyer had regathered his power far more quickly than Vincent had expected. The amulet around his neck burned cold, and he shuddered. Lizzie had no such protection—what if Reyer tried to possess her? Or what if he simply decided to kill everyone in the house?
Was Lizzie all right? Henry?
“We have to do something!” Bamforth exclaimed. His face had gone pale, and Vincent remembered how solicitously he’d behaved toward Miss Prandle.
“We will,” Vincent reassured him, although what exactly they would do, he didn’t know. “The ghost wants to divide our forces. Weaken us. At a guess, once he’s done toying with those still inside, he’ll let us enter.”
Toying with—or murdering?
He closed his eyes, saw a body lying dead on the floor. Only this time, the body didn’t have Dunne’s face, but Henry’s.
No. He’d lost too much already.
“We must get inside now,” Vincent went on, blinking rapidly. “And do whatever we can.”
“How?” Bamforth asked. “Through the servants’ entrance, maybe? It’s over off the kitchen, not too far from the patio.”
“Reyer will have it blocked,” Vincent said with grim certainty. They might be able to smash a window, although with the ghost so strong, he wasn’t even certain of that.
“What about the root cellar entrance?” Bamforth suggested. “There’s a door connecting it with the main basement. We can go through there.”
Going into a basement, where it was completely dark, in a house possessed by a ghost, was madness. Utter madness.
“Stay here,” Vincent ordered and hoped Bamforth put any quiver in his voice to the cold air. “I’ll try the root cellar.”
“No. It’s too dangerous.” Vincent’s heart had climbed up into his throat, and he tried to swallow it back into position. “Remain here, in case the others manage to escape. If they do, don’t let Lizzie go back inside after me.”
Bamforth nodded. “I understand.”
Vincent went to his bag in the back of the wagon. The last of his stockpile of salt was within, and he hurriedly stuffed as much of it as possible into his pockets. The cellar would be unlit, so he took one of the wagon’s lanterns and a packet of matches. Hunching his shoulders against the cold, he made his way around the west side of the house to where the cellar door lay.
Away from the portico, the drifts came above his knees in places. If they didn’t leave soon, they’d be trapped here.
It didn’t matter at the moment, so Vincent put the thought from his mind. He located the cellar door, shoved accumulated snow from it, then braced himself and tugged on the handle, half expecting it not to open.
The wooden door swung back with a squeal of rusted hinges. Either the ghost’s power didn’t extend out this far or it wanted someone to come in through this entrance. If the latter, he’d best be on his guard.
Lighting the lantern, Vincent climbed down the wooden steps. Wooden boards groaned beneath his weight, but thankfully held. The pale flame of the lantern barely penetrated the gloom. Stone walls seeped moisture, and the air was only slightly warmer than the freezing temperatures outside. The remains of old shelves lined the walls, along with barrels covered in mold. Thankfully any foodstuffs inside had rotted away too long ago to leave anything in the way of a smell.
At the far end of the root cellar, beneath the house, stood a door set into the stone foundation. Vincent tried the latch, and his heart sank when it opened easily.
A trap. How nice to be expected.
Holding the lantern aloft, he stepped into the basement proper. He’d investigated it with Miss Prandle two days ago and found no trace of spirit activity. Of course, at the time, Reyer hadn’t possessed the entire house. The lack of any cold spots or activity before meant nothing today.
The first part of the basement had been used as a wine cellar, and racks filled with dusty bottles turned it into a bit of a maze. Vincent walked slowly, his gaze tracing the shadows, making sure they stayed put or moved as they were supposed to. The hair on the back of his neck pricked, and there came a faint scrape behind him, as if he were being followed.
Rusty nails and blood on the edge of a razor slid across his tongue.
His heart quickened, and he began to walk faster, determinedly fixing his eyes ahead. The basement stair wasn’t far, if he could just get through the cellar—
A bottle smashed against the floor behind him. Vincent spun around. The flavor of iron grew stronger in his mouth, and the lantern flame turned sickly blue.
Something flickered in the shadows behind him. A man-shaped blot of darkness not dispersed by the lantern’s light as it should have been.
Flicker—it was at the end of the row.
Flicker—it was halfway up the row.
Flicker—almost on him.
Vincent turned and ran.