“Reyhome Castle,” Henry murmured as if reciting a charm. And perhaps it was—this place would be the site of his vindication, after all. Of the triumph of science over fakery. But the first sight was rather daunting.
The Gothic Revival mansion’s imposing walls of gray stone competed with the trees for height—three stories at least, with an attic space beneath the sharply peaked slate roof. Tall, narrow windows stared blankly out over the remains of formal gardens now barely distinguishable from the encroaching woods. A tower loomed immediately to the right of the covered porch. Lightning rods jutted from various points around the house, like the spines of some poisonous animal.
The portico extended over the drive, allowing visitors to disembark with a minimum of exposure during inclement weather. As the wagon rattled to a halt, the front door swung open, and Gladfield emerged. The tip of the cigar he smoked glowed bright in the shadow of the portico. He paused at the bottom of the steps, resting his hand lightly atop one of the stone lions guarding the balustrade. “Mr. Strauss, thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for the opportunity, sir.” Henry hastily scrambled from the uncomfortable wagon seat and shook the other man’s hand. Gladfield’s suit and overcoat were of a sober cut and color, but the tailoring and fabrics proclaimed them to be of the best quality. His brown hair had started to thin, but he compensated with a luxurious mustache.
Gladfield removed his cigar from his mouth and frowned in Jo’s direction. “I thought you meant to bring your cousin with you?”
Henry sensed Jo stiffen, although she didn’t say anything. “Allow me to present my cousin and assistant, Jocelyn Strauss,” he said, struggling to keep his voice neutral. They needed Gladfield’s money and approval, but he’d be damned if he’d treat Jo like the shameful family secret.
Gladfield looked clearly taken aback. “I see.” Perhaps not knowing what else to do, he nodded politely to Jo. “Would you care to wait inside? My niece, Miss Prandle, would be grateful for the company, I’m sure.”
“I need Jo’s assistance to unload our equipment from the cart,” Henry said.
Gladfield frowned. “Surely Bamforth can perform the task.”
Heat crept up Henry’s neck. He sounded like a brute, forcing a girl to help him lift and carry, but there was nothing for it. “No offense to Mr. Bamforth, but some of my equipment is very delicate. I determined before we left only Jo and I would handle it, to make certain of its safety.”
“It’s all right, Mr. Gladfield,” Jo said cheerfully. “I helped load it on the train and off again. And it’s nothing to hauling water for the cows on Aunt Emma’s farm.”
Gladfield blinked, clearly uncertain what to make of her statement. Or of Jo herself, perhaps. “I see. I’ll leave you to it.”
Bamforth removed their personal bags, while Henry and Jo pulled out the first of three crates. All of the instruments within nestled in straw, but one of the first orders of business would be to open the crates and make certain nothing had been damaged in transit.
“Ready, Jo?” he asked, gripping one side of the crate.
She nodded, and they lifted it from the back of the wagon and maneuvered it up the stairs. Bamforth hurried ahead and held the door open as they passed within.
The vestibule was surprisingly small given the huge size of the house. A pair of narrow glass panes to either side of the oak door let in some light, but the gas lamps burned despite the early hour. Slate tiles covered the floor, and dark paneling hung on the walls, making the space seem even tinier.
“Go to the left or the right—both lead into the grand hall,” Bamforth advised. “I’ll get your luggage in the meantime.”
They carried the crate through the vestibule and into a narrow passage. Henry went to the right, noting a door that must open into the tower. Within a few feet, the passage came to an abrupt end, opening up into a huge hall. For the second time, he let out a gasp of amazement.
On the other side of the wall forming the passage, double staircases ran up to the second and third floors. The hall itself was open all the way to the rafters and had clearly been designed to mimic a medieval castle. An enormous fireplace dominated the western wall, and an iron chandelier fitted for gas hung from the crossbeams. Dusty heads of boar and elk decorated the walls alongside faded tapestries. A great bay window in the northern wall, directly across from the stairs, looked out onto a patio and what must have once been a formal garden. The rest of the windows were high and narrow; years of dirt covered them, adding to the general air of gloom. The scent of dust itched in Henry’s nose.
A woman rose from a chair near the fireplace as they entered. No doubt this was Miss Devereaux, the medium, given she dressed in the flowing draperies beloved of aesthetes. A thick choker circled her neck, and her golden hair hung in ringlets. Henry didn’t speak to her until he and Jo had the crate properly settled. When he straightened to greet her, he found her tall enough to look him directly in the eye.
“You must be Mr. Strauss,” she said. She spoke softly, in a deep, throaty voice. “Permit me to introduce myself. I am Miss Elizabeth Devereaux.”
He bowed over her hand only as much as required by politeness. Curse Gladfield for disappearing, leaving him no choice but to speak to the woman. “Mr. Henry Strauss. This is my cousin, Jocelyn Strauss.”
“I’m Henry’s assistant,” Jo added. “May I say how lovely your dress is? I—”
“We have work to do,” Henry interrupted.
Jo frowned, but Miss Devereaux only inclined her head. “Of course.” She glanced toward a dark-skinned man who stood staring out the hall’s bay window. “Please, let us know if we can offer any assistance.”
Probably she wanted the chance to wreck his equipment. “Jo and I are sufficient.” Still, no sense in making Bamforth suffer. “But if you’d have your boy help Bamforth with our luggage, I’d be grateful.”
Miss Devereaux stiffened, and the man at the window turned. “Mr. Henry Strauss,” Miss Devereaux said icily, “may I present to you my fellow medium, Mr. Vincent Night.”
Heat suffused Henry’s face—bad enough to have assumed the fellow was a servant based on his skin, but to have done it in front of Jo was inexcusable. A second look showed Henry what he should have noticed from the first: namely that the man dressed more fashionably than he did.
A third look sent heat rushing through areas of his body other than his face.
Mr. Night was clearly a Red Indian, his skin bronze and his black hair thick and shining. Heavy brows hovered over eyes so dark it was difficult to tell where iris ended and pupil began. He had a wide nose, full lips, and high cheek bones. A bottle-green coat, buttoned only at the topmost button, showed off the watch, chain, and patterned vest beneath. The somewhat foppish attire did little to hide the trim form underneath.
Henry swallowed against the sudden dryness of his mouth. It really had been too long since his last fumble if he found himself drawn to a medium, no matter how good looking. Night’s handsome face and form were no doubt tools he used to take advantage of those foolish enough to hire him.
Just as Isaac had done.
“Forgive me, Mr. Night,” Henry said, half choking on the words. “I didn’t mean to cause offense.”
For a moment, Night merely regarded Henry’s outstretched hand as if considering whether or not to shake it. The heat in Henry’s face grew, and he wanted to sink through the floor.
“Of course,” Night said at last, in a voice like honey drizzled over chocolate: rich and dark. He shook Henry’s hand with long, soft fingers.
“Are you an Indian?” Jo asked as Night bowed over her hand.
“Jo!” Why on earth was she determined to talk to these people? They were competitors, not friends. “We need to bring the rest of the crates inside.” He nodded to Miss Devereaux. “If you’ll excuse us.”
She waved a negligent hand. “Of course, Mr. Strauss. We wouldn’t want to keep you from your work, after all.”
The words were cool, but Henry had the distinct impression she was laughing at him. Silently seething, he turned and led the way back outside to the wagon.
~ * ~
“Here’s your room, Mr. Night,” Bamforth said a short time later.
Vincent nodded, striving to keep his expression from betraying how fast his heart beat or how badly he wanted to run from the house and never return. “Thank you.”
“Let me know if you need anything, sir.”
Vincent nodded again, as if he were used to receiving this sort of deference. “I will.”
The bedroom, which had originally been one of Reyhome Castle’s guest rooms, was larger than the main room of his apartment back in New York. Whatever the condition of the rest of the house, Bamforth and his hired cleaners had put a great deal of effort into making the guest rooms inhabitable: scrubbed walls and floors, clean windows, fresh mattresses, bedding, and curtains. A huge wardrobe lurked in one corner. Lavender and rose water scented the air, but a trace of dust and mildew lingered despite Bamforth’s best efforts.
Vincent dropped his bags on the bed and strode to the wardrobe, flinging it open. It was empty, of course: nothing inside but shadows and air.
With a muffled groan, he sat on the edge of the bed and drew his silver flask from his coat pocket. Why had he come here? Why had he let Lizzie talk him into this? The second he’d seen the house, he’d had an overwhelming presentiment of evil, as if the place was waiting for them. For him.
But it was just an illusion. He didn’t possess even a trace of precognition. The feeling was simply born of his own disordered nerves. His mouth tasted only of the cinnamon cachous he always carried with him; if any spirits walked these halls, they hadn’t yet drawn near.
And yet he couldn’t shake off the lingering sense of dread. Of something terrible waiting to happen.
There came a loud thud against the wall across from him, and he jumped. A moment later, Strauss’s voice filtered through from the other side. “Careful! We don’t want to break anything.”
Vincent sighed. Not a spirit making itself known. Just one of the mysterious crates Strauss had forced his poor cousin to help haul up two stories of steps.
When he’d read Gladfield’s letter, Vincent had formed a mental image of the scientist who meant to challenge them. Old, gray, and sour-faced. The reality had proved quite different. Strauss’s thick hair, tousled from his journey on the train, was the color of honey. Beneath his neat, if somewhat worn, clothing, his body appeared intriguing.
As for the cousin, she wasn’t what Vincent had expected, either. He’d grown up around too many black women who worked as servants or laundresses to find the relationship itself odd. But such ties were always illegitimate, unacknowledged, at least by the white half of the family. For Strauss to go about introducing the girl as his cousin—not to mention his laboratory assistant—was surprising. Surely he must be aware such acknowledgement would lower him in the eyes of men like Gladfield.
Apparently there was more to Mr. Strauss than Vincent would have guessed. Of course, the man had immediately proceeded to insult him...but at least he’d apologized for it. Had even seemed ashamed of his assumptions, which was a damned sight more than Vincent was used to. Not to mention that the flush tingeing Strauss’s pale skin had made Vincent wonder what he’d look like naked in the throes of passion.
Especially since the flush had only deepened when they shook hands, and he’d caught the way Strauss’s gaze lingered on him just a fraction longer than it strictly should have. Vincent had grown up in a place where accurately spotting a man who fancied a bit of buggery meant the difference between a hot meal and a beating, and he’d bet every dime of Gladfield’s prize money Strauss was one such man.
Which might come in useful. No matter how admirable Vincent might find his treatment of his cousin, Henry Strauss was still a competitor, someone who meant to replace the whole of mediumship with whatever gadgets he had packed away in his precious crates. A bit of subtle flirtation to keep him off his balance might be just the thing.
Not to mention it would provide a welcome distraction to Vincent as well. He looked again at the open wardrobe. The last time he’d slept with any doors closed had been the night before Dunne died. Before he started to fear what might have followed him back from that accursed house.
The ghost had been gone when he’d regained consciousness. Typically spirits stayed in one general locale, somewhere they’d known in life, or the spot where they’d died. But some of them—the strongest and most evil—occasionally attached themselves to certain people and followed them over vast distances.
He hadn’t sensed the spirit in all the months since. Nevertheless, he slept with all the doors and windows salted, and he never took off his amulet.
Just in case.
Vincent took another swig from the flask before reluctantly putting it away. Yes. A little distraction by the way of the good Mr. Strauss might be precisely the thing he needed.
~ * ~
Henry hurried down the stairs to the floor of the grand hall, pleased not to be the last to reconvene. Neither of the mediums had arrived yet—he’d glimpsed Night talking to his partner, probably discussing how to best ply their tricks, now they’d seen the house.
Were they partners of a more intimate sort as well? Not that he cared, of course. It was simply a matter of curiosity, and he would dismiss the thought from his mind. He had far more important things to concern himself with, after all.
Gladfield, Bamforth, and Jo already waited in the grand hall, chatting in front of the fireplace. Another young lady, perhaps twenty years of age, stood with them. Miss Prandle, no doubt.
“Ah, there you are,” Gladfield said as Henry approached. “And here come our mediums as well. Allow me to make introductions. This is my niece, Miss Wilma Prandle, whom some of you already know.” He smiled at her affectionately. “As soon as she heard of my plans, she insisted on accompanying me here to observe.”
“The séance in New York was fascinating,” Miss Prandle said to the mediums. “I look forward to seeing even more of your work over the next few days.”
“We were glad to be of service,” Miss Devereaux said. So this was why Gladfield had chosen these two—they already had a connection with his family.
Would Gladfield favor them for it? Henry folded his hands at the small of his back, fingers tightening on each other. It didn’t mean anything. He’d have to work even harder to prove himself, but if he revealed the mediums as frauds, perhaps Gladfield’s opinion would shift. Had they bilked poor Miss Prandle in some fashion? Or just dazzled her with the usual tricks—asking leading questions, performing a bit of sleight of hand, that sort of thing?
Curse the detective for not sending along his findings in a timely fashion.
Night arched an eyebrow at Henry. Damn it, he’d been staring. Henry made certain his expression was a glare. Night glanced at the others as if to make sure their attention was elsewhere...then shot Henry a deliberate wink.
What the devil? The effrontery of the scoundrel! Was he attempting to put Henry off his balance, or...
Or did he know about Henry’s proclivities, somehow? Mediums doubtless communicated with one another. If Night was clever, he might have asked Gladfield for Henry’s name, just as Henry had asked for the mediums’ identities. What if Night knew Isaac, had asked him about Henry?
The familiar mixture of anger and shame coursed through Henry, and he hardened his glare, fist clenching at his side. Maddeningly, Night’s full lips only curved up into a lazy smile.
“Well, now we’re all acquainted,” Gladfield said, “allow me to welcome you to Reyhome Castle.”
“Will you give us the history of the house now, Mr. Gladfield?” Miss Devereaux inquired. Henry noted it was she who seemed to take the lead between the two mediums.
“Not yet.” Gladfield grinned like a boy pulling a prank. “In the interests of thoroughness, I thought it would be best if everyone began with a blank slate, as it were. No expectations of what might be found.”
Night frowned and shifted. Clearly this didn’t sit well with him. “But the house is said to be haunted, correct?”
“Oh yes. To the point where it hasn’t been inhabited for thirty years, and spent the entire time draining the family’s coffers.” Gladfield clasped his hands together. “I intend to renovate Reyhome Castle into a resort hotel where those of means can retreat during the summer. For my dream to become a reality, the place must be cleared of ghosts, using whatever methods prove necessary.”
“It will be,” Henry said firmly.
“Confidence—I like that in a man.” Gladfield beamed. “Well, if you are all ready, let’s begin.”