Henry stared at the letter he held in his trembling hands.
“Jo?” he said; his voice cracked slightly.
She looked up from the velocipede whose bearings she’d been greasing. A strand of hair flopped across her forehead, and she’d managed to get grease all over the front of her heavy canvas apron. “What? Is something wrong?”
He held out the letter. “Could you read this and make certain I’m not hallucinating?”
Frowning, she wiped her hands on a rag before taking the letter. Her brows drew together—then a joyful smile transformed her face as she reached the end.
“I can’t believe it!” she squealed, flinging her arms around him. “Five hundred dollars! This is incredible!”
Henry returned her hug. Finally, someone had listened! He’d spoken briefly with Gladfield after the November meeting of the Psychical Society—if he recalled correctly, the man had been a visiting friend of the society president. But he’d had no idea Gladfield had truly considered Henry’s project worthwhile.
“I’ll wire him right away.” Henry grabbed Jo’s hands, and they danced around in a circle, both of them laughing like idiots. “We have only a week. We must start our preparations immediately.” Some of their equipment was delicate and would need to be carefully packed. They’d have to arrange a wagon to haul it to the rail station. And of course he’d have to close up the shop—but what of it? When he returned, he’d have five hundred dollars in his pocket and a wealthy patron. “The Psychical Society will be sorry they ever scoffed at me, once Strauss’s Electro-Séance is in every parlor in America!”
Jo sobered slightly. “What about the medium, though?”
“What of her?” Henry waved a dismissive hand. “She’s sure to be a fraud. She can perform as many tricks as she likes, but won’t be able to exorcise the ghost.”
Jo bit her lip. “Are you sure? What if the medium is real? Or tricks Mr. Gladfield somehow?”
“Hmm.” He regarded her thoughtfully. “You have an excellent point, Jo. Successful charlatans must be devious to hide their lies. Such duplicity would eventually be exposed, but it might take some time, depending on the nature of the haunting.”
“And if she isn’t a fraud?”
Henry snorted. “Oh, I don’t deny there are some mediums who genuinely channel the spirits of the dead. But even then, their methods will never be as reliable as those offered by science. And the chances of this one being genuine are slim indeed, given the number of fakes drawn to the profession.”
Jo pursed her mouth. “Why do you think that is? I mean, that there are so many charlatans.”
“Easy money, swindled from the grieving at their most vulnerable,” he replied. And of course the very nature of a séance—a group of persons sitting around in the dark, holding hands, legs brushing beneath the table—meant a certain relaxation in standards of behavior, which some found irresistible. But he wasn’t about to mention that part to Jo.
She only nodded. “Right. Can you find out who she is?”
“I’ll ask when I wire.” He chewed on his lower lip in thought. “But unless she’s famous, what will it tell me? A week isn’t enough time to delve into anyone’s past, especially if she doesn’t live in Baltimore. Even if she does, we have our own preparations to make.”
Jo’s eyes shone. “Hire a detective!”
“Hire a—Jo.” He regarded her sternly. “Have you been reading dime novels again?”
Her blush confirmed it. “They’re exciting.”
“A bit too exciting, I’d say,” he muttered. “Besides, how would I afford a detective?”
Unless...would Arthur lend him the money? And for once it would be a loan, not a gift. As soon as Henry had the five hundred dollars in prize money, he’d pay Arthur back. And if he walked into the haunted house with proof of the medium’s fraud already in his pocket, winning would be a certainty.
Henry hastened to the coat rack and pulled on his overcoat. “Lock up behind me, and don’t answer the door,” he said automatically. When Jo had first come to live with him, he’d tried leaving her to mind the shop while he ran errands. Unfortunately, he’d quickly come to realize callers would make propositions to Jo they would never have dreamed of making to a white girl. After thrashing one of the devils, and nearly ending up hauled in by the police for his trouble, he’d given up on keeping the shop open when he wasn’t present. Jo’s safety was far more important than any amount of lost commerce.
“Where are you going?” Jo asked as she followed him to the door.
“First to the telegraph office,” he replied, scooping up his hat. “And second to call on an old friend.”
“Oh.” She regarded him uncertainly. “Maybe I shouldn’t have hugged you. You have grease all over your clothes.”
~ * ~
“Five hundred dollars,” Lizzie said as Vincent lowered the letter slowly to the table. “Five. Hundred. Dollars.”
He tried to read the words again, but his hands shook too badly. He dropped the paper between them. “It’s...a lot of money.”
Money which could make all of the difference. Save the shop. Dunne’s shop.
But a haunted house...
“I can’t even bring myself to channel the spirit of a harmless little girl.” There. The words were out. “And you expect me to go to a haunted house?”
She leaned back in her chair and regarded him steadily until he looked away. “We don’t know the circumstances of the haunting.”
Vincent reflexively touched the amulet, the silver a hard disk beneath the soft cotton of his shirt. “We know it’s bad enough the place is uninhabitable. I can’t, Lizzie.”
“You can.” She remained silent until he turned his gaze back to her. She sat with her long fingers folded in front of her, an unyielding expression on her face. “Don’t hide from your gifts, Vincent. It’s the last thing Dunne would have wanted.”
“I’m pretty sure the last thing he wanted was for me to stop strangling him,” Vincent snapped. “He didn’t get that wish, either.”
Lizzie flinched as if he’d slapped her. But her implacable gaze remained pinned on him. “You didn’t kill him. The ghost did.”
“Wearing my skin.” He rose to his feet, the chair clattering behind him. “What if it happens again? Dunne is dead. Do you think he’d want you to risk ending up the same?”
“Of course not.” She finally looked away, shoulders slumping. “But he’d want you to learn from the experience, not lock yourself away from life.”
“You don’t know what he’d want.” He went to the window and stared out at the street beyond, because it was easier than seeing her disappointment. “You haven’t been able to contact him, have you?”
“I haven’t tried.”
Surprise caused him to glance over his shoulder at her. “You haven’t? I would have thought...don’t you want to hear from him? One last message?”
“Why would I?” There was sorrow in her eyes, but she met his gaze. “Dunne loved us. He wanted us to be happy, and he wanted us to use our ability to contact the spirit world to help people. He said those things often enough when he was alive. Why would he change his mind in death?”
Vincent turned back to the window, but he sensed her still watching him. “Using Dunne to bolster your argument? That’s a low blow, Lizzie.”
“You know I’m right.”
“What if I say no?” He could just make out her reflection in the glass, her face a pale oval amidst the darkness of the room. He wished he couldn’t. “If I refuse to get on the train, to take part in this madness? Will you forget about the contest?”
Her lips tightened. “No. I mean to accept Mr. Gladfield’s offer whether you accompany me or not.”
“Are you insane?” God, he needed a drink, and it wasn’t even close to noon yet. “Your talents are psychometry and spirit writing. You can’t exorcise a haunting.”
She shrugged. “I have to try. I can’t let go of the shop...of him...without making every effort possible. If the spirit only needs some prompting to move on, I’ll be able to convince it to do so even if you aren’t there.”
He ran his hand over his face as if he could scrub away all his fears and misgivings. The amulet felt heavy around his neck. “Lizzie...”
“You have to make a decision,” Lizzie said. “Who are you? Are you still a medium? Still Vincent Night? If not, then let this all go: the shop, the guilt, everything. And if you are, then come with me.”
If only it were that simple. “You win. I’ll go with you. But this is a terrible idea.”
“You’re probably right.” Her shoulder lifted in an elegant shrug. “But it’s the only one I have.”
~ * ~
Henry huddled deeper into his coat, cursing the temperature, which was much lower in upstate New York than in Baltimore. Hopefully his winter things would be up to the task, as he hadn’t been able to afford anything new.
“I can’t believe we’re here!” Jo exclaimed as they stepped onto the platform. Steam from the train’s engine billowed around them, and a brisk breeze forced her to grab her hat to keep it from blowing away. Her brown eyes sparkled, and she smiled as if this were all some sort of grand adventure. No doubt it was to her.
Arthur had been kind enough to lend him the money to hire a detective to investigate the mediums he would be up against: Elizabeth Devereaux and Vincent Night. “Night” was certainly some sort of stage name, and heaven knew if Miss Devereaux used the name she was born with or not.
Unfortunately, Henry didn’t know either. The blasted detective had failed to send any information before they’d boarded the train. Henry had left instructions to forward any findings to the train depot here, as he still didn’t know what their final destination might be. But he didn’t have very high hopes that the detective would deliver as promised. Once he returned to Baltimore, he’d warn Arthur against paying the wretch.
“Mr. Henry Strauss?” asked a pleasant voice.
Henry turned to find a man who appeared near his own age of twenty-six. Hazel eyes, a broad grin, and ruddy cheeks showed above a thick scarf and coat. Despite the layers of clothing, it was clear he had broad shoulders, and Henry imagined a fit form underneath.
Not that he should have been imagining anything. “Yes?”
The man gave him a neat bow. “Please, sir, permit me to introduce myself. I’m Connor Bamforth, Mr. Gladfield’s man. I’ve come to take you to the house.”
“Oh, excellent.” Henry indicated Jo. “This is my cousin and assistant, Miss Jocelyn Strauss.”
Bamforth looked surprised at the “cousin” part, but to his credit gave her a small bow as well. “A pleasure, Miss Strauss.”
“If you’d be so kind to help us, we’ll get our baggage loaded and be on our way. Is it far to the house?” Henry added with a casual air.
Bamforth laughed. “Mr. Gladfield said he hadn’t told you where you’d be staying. He didn’t want either party to be able to look into the history of the house and thus have an unfair advantage.”
“Quite right.” It had prevented Henry from learning anything, but with any luck it would limit the mediums’ ability to plan their fakery ahead of time as well. “Your employer is a wise man.”
“If you say so, sir,” Bamforth said. “But to answer your question, the road hasn’t been very well maintained over the last few decades. We have a bit over two hours’ journey ahead of us.”
Henry winced. Two hours wasn’t long, but over an uneven road, with the instruments subjected to even more rattling than they already had been, he feared the chances of breakage were high. Still, it couldn’t be helped.
“Very well,” he said. “Let’s load our things and be off.”
~ * ~
The two hours proved to be some of the dreariest Henry had endured in quite some time. As soon as they left the small village and entered the low hills, their progress slowed to a crawl. The road had probably once been a fine one. Now, though, it was nothing more than a pair of ruts hemmed in by trees gone bare with winter. Branches scraped at the sides of the wagon and snatched at sleeves and hats. The overcast gray sky blended with the gray trees and the outcroppings of granite. Snow had fallen at some point in the last few days, the surface no longer pristine but pockmarked with raccoon tracks and fallen branches. The passage of the wagon had reduced the snow in the road to a brown slush, which splattered the flanks of the horses trudging stolidly through it.
“Can you tell us anything more about where we’re going?” Henry asked eventually.
“Ordinarily I would,” Bamforth replied. “But Mr. Gladfield wants to be the one to relate the details. He gave me strict orders to say nothing.”
Blast. “But you’ve been there?”
Bamforth hesitated. “I suppose it won’t hurt to tell you. Mr. Gladfield sent me ahead to prepare rooms for sleeping, cooking, and eating. I can’t say as I liked the place, and I made sure I was back in town by sundown.”
“Quite a long drive to make twice in a day,” Henry observed.
“I’m not a coward, but Mr. Gladfield couldn’t pay me enough to stay there alone after dark,” Bamforth said flatly. “I hired some women from town to help with the cleaning, and every one of them quit by the end of the week.”
“Why?” Jo asked, sounding more fascinated than afraid.
Bamforth cast her an uncertain glance. “I shouldn’t say any more, begging your pardon, miss. Mr. Gladfield’s orders. It’s no place for a young lady, to my way of thinking—no place for any of us, really.”
They fell silent on that pronouncement. Henry watched Bamforth from the corner of his eye. Was the man trying to scare them? Or had he—presumably with foreknowledge of the house’s history—been frightened by his imagination? Or was the place truly haunted?
Certainly Gladfield believed it was. But part of their procedure would be to establish whether there truly was spectral activity in the house. If so, they would proceed. He’d use the Electro-Séance to call up the spirit, then send it to the otherworld where it belonged. And he’d do it all without the help of a medium, real or fake.
The clatter of hooves and creak of wheels formed a constant background, occasionally punctuated by the caw of a distant crow. Just as Henry began to slip into a light doze, Bamforth said, “Look—there it is.”
Henry pushed his spectacles higher on his nose and peered through the net of branches. “I don’t see anything.”
“Just wait until we get around this bend here—you’ll get a clear enough look.” Bamforth’s earlier cheer had slipped away, as if the prospect of returning troubled him.
The narrow road dipped sharply and looped around a boulder. The wagon rounded the other side—and the house lay before them.
Henry gasped at its sudden appearance, even though he knew it was nothing more than a trick of dense woods and winding road. Bamforth must have heard, though, because he smiled thinly and said, “Welcome to Reyhome Castle, Mr. Strauss.”