Vincent’s heart pounded in his ears, and he forced himself to take several calming breaths. Lizzie needed him. The shop needed him.
But Gladfield’s refusal to tell them what might lurk in the house left his gut unsettled. The man wanted them to go into this blind, without any idea of how powerful—or how angry—a spirit they might encounter.
And it must be powerful or angry. No one would abandon a mansion like this otherwise.
Vincent forced himself to concentrate on Gladfield’s words as their host led them across the enormous open hall. “As you can see, the house was built around the hall,” he said. “But the hall isn’t quite in the center, and the layout itself is uneven, with the bay window slightly closer to one end than the other.”
Subtly off—that described the whole damned house.
“We’ll begin on the eastern side of the hall,” Gladfield went on. “You saw the door to the right when you came in—it leads to the tower. Here in the east wing, we have the library, drawing room, and morning room, respectively.”
They shuffled into the library. Light came through the small bay facing the front of the house, but it seemed to struggle through the thick panes. Two walls were lined with bookshelves, while a desk and chair lurked in the bay. The air was cold, the fireplace unlaid, and everything stank of dust and mice.
“Feel free to borrow any of the books the silverfish and mice haven’t gotten to,” Gladfield said, indicating the shelves.
Vincent crossed the room slowly, swirling his tongue around the inside of his mouth. Waiting for some foreign taste to burst upon his tongue, warning of a watching spirit.
Despite the efforts of the cleaners to freshen the place, the air of the house was thick and oppressive, heavy against his skin. Vincent stopped at the desk. Stuffing hung from the seat of the chair, mice having used it as a nest. He pulled open the center drawer; it came out with a shriek, the wood warped from years of hot summers and freezing winters. A few scraps of paper lay inside, chewed to illegibility by mice and insects.
“Forty degrees,” Henry Strauss said. He and his young assistant stood together, she recording in a notebook while he read the temperature from the thermometer he carried.
Vincent grinned to himself. He’d managed to knock Strauss off his stride earlier, all right. His suspicions had been entirely correct. He watched the cousins from the corner of his eye as they worked. Although Strauss issued orders and the young lady obeyed, he didn’t behave as if he thought her his inferior. Did the rest of the family embrace her as well, or was Strauss the exception?
Not that it mattered. It wasn’t as if they’d ever be friends, after all. Still, Strauss’s predilections weren’t the only intriguing thing about him.
After the library, they went to the drawing room, which had an even larger bay looking out over a patio and the remains of the once extensive gardens. Strauss again measured the temperature, while the rest of them milled about.
“Do you sense anything?” Lizzie murmured, sidling up to him.
Vincent shook his head. “No. You?”
“I’m not certain.” She turned her gaze to the ceiling and the shadows clinging to the corners. “It feels as though something here is watching us.”
“Yes.” But was it just nerves?
He would have known, once. Half a year ago, before he’d learned to fear the things lurking in the dark.
They trooped to the morning room, again finding nothing of interest. From there it was back out into the grand hall and to the rooms on its western side. “Here’s where we’ll take all of our meals,” Gladfield said, flinging open the doors to the dining room. The huge chamber was decorated much like the grand hall, meant to recall a medieval castle. Bamforth and the hired women had clearly been at work here, with the long wooden table scrubbed and polished, the chairs in good order, and the cobwebs swept from yet another huge iron chandelier. “Breakfast will be served at nine, a light lunch at one o’clock, and dinner at six.”
“Including tonight?” Miss Strauss asked hopefully.
“Jo, don’t be rude,” Strauss said with a frown. Did the man ever smile?
Miss Strauss flushed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Gladfield—I don’t always think before speaking.”
How had Strauss come to be in charge of his cousin? Poor girl—she appeared to have a boisterous nature, and finding herself in the care of a dour creature like him couldn’t be easy. At least he seemed to treat her well otherwise.
Vincent shifted closer to Lizzie. “The girl,” he murmured. “Do you think there will be a problem?” Spirits drew upon the energy of young people far too easily, which was why poltergeist hauntings almost always centered around a boy or girl past puberty, but not yet an adult.
“I hope not. If you think Mr. Strauss would listen—”
Vincent snorted. “I doubt it. But if it becomes an issue, I’ll mention it to him.”
They left the dining room behind. “The butler’s pantry,” Gladfield said, opening a discreet door.
As they passed into the chamber, Vincent frowned. Leaving the furniture behind in the house, he understood. But the serving dishes and silverware?
Miss Prandle apparently had the same questions. Picking up a tarnished fork, she said, “Why in the world is this still here? With a bit of polishing, it would look grand on your table, uncle.”
“Indeed,” Gladfield said ruefully. “But the last inhabitants left everything in the house as it was, and my father was a superstitious sort. He feared removing anything of value would only make the situation worse.”
“How cryptic,” Vincent murmured. He’d meant to direct the comment at Lizzie alone, but Strauss looked up from his perusal of the china cabinet. For an instant, their eyes met in agreement. Behind the lenses of his spectacles, Strauss’s irises showed a deep blue, like the waters of a still pond. Pretty.
Strauss blinked and averted his gaze quickly.
A door opposite opened directly onto the servants’ part of the household. Just on the left side of a short passage, a stairway let out. As he reached the foot of the stair, the air around Vincent went from cold to downright icy. The acidic bite of lemons and vinegar stung his tongue.
He grabbed automatically at the amulet beneath his shirt, the silver disk suddenly cold against his skin. “There’s something here.”
~ * ~
One moment, the tour was proceeding normally. The next, Night’s eyes went wide and he shrank back from the foot of the stairs. “There’s something here,” he exclaimed, clutching at his chest. Dear God, could the man be any more theatrical if he tried?
In contrast, Miss Devereaux remained calm. Her eyes narrowed, and she blew out a puff of air. It turned to steam in front of her face.
“A cold spot!” Henry rushed forward with his thermometer. “At last!”
The two mediums hastened out of his way. He thrust the thermometer into the cold spot, feeling the chill bite into the back of his exposed hand. The mercury fell steadily, and he had to suppress a grin at the sight. “Thirty—no, it’s still dropping—twenty-eight degrees!” he said, and Jo hurried to scribble down the results in their notebook. “A difference of twelve degrees from the rest of the house we’ve measured thus far.” Of course, they’d have to rule out any natural causes, but they finally had a phenomenon to investigate.
“Lemons,” Night muttered, making a sour face. He took a tin of cachous from his pocket and popped one into his mouth. A moment later, Henry caught a faint whiff of cinnamon.
But no lemons. What on earth was the man on about? Miss Devereaux only nodded thoughtfully. Perhaps it was some sort of code between them.
Gladfield looked interested. “Lemons, did you say? Did you get any other impressions?”
“What do you mean?” Jo asked. “What’s this about lemons?”
Night’s mouth lifted into a half smile. “The talent I have is known as clairgustance. Some people—clairvoyants—can see things others can’t. Clairaudients might hear a spirit whispering to them. I receive impressions through my sense of taste.”
Jo’s eyes went wide. “You taste ghosts?” She sounded delightedly horrified.
“In a way.” Night smiled ruefully. “Spirits are creatures of energy. The way the energy is perceived varies by the individual medium. In my case, it’s taste.”
“All the more reason the Electro-Séance will be an improvement over the current way of doing things,” Henry said smugly. “Properly calibrated, gauges and instruments always respond in the same manner. There will be no guesswork, no uncertainty introduced by the varying perceptions of mediums.”
“No humanity,” Miss Devereaux shot back.
“No imperfections. No tricks.”
“Enough,” Gladfield said with a laugh. “Testing which method is best is what this week is all about. Unless either of you want to study the area further at the moment, let’s move on.”
“Agreed,” Henry replied, a bit stiffly. The rest of the group shuffled after Gladfield. As Night passed by, his hip brushed against Henry’s.
“You don’t like for things to be out of your control, do you?” Night murmured, the words almost lost beneath Gladfield’s booming voice as he led the way down the hall.
Henry scowled and tried to ignore the rush of heat to his groin. Why did the man have to be so handsome? “Who does?”
“Why, no one, Mr. Strauss.” The grin Night gave him seemed to promise all sorts of intimacies. “But sometimes losing control can be...invigorating.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Really?” Night turned half away, then glanced back. “Such a shame. And here I thought once you finished measuring your ghosts, you might like to measure something of mine.”
With a last, wicked grin, he sauntered away down the corridor, leaving Henry to stand flustered until he regained enough control to catch up with the others.
~ * ~
Perhaps fortunately, the rest of the servants’ quarters proved unremarkable. They encountered no other presences, with the exception of Bamforth in the kitchen preparing their dinner. From the servants’ quarters, they rounded off the first floor with a stop in the billiard room, which lay directly to the west of the front door.
From there, they made their way up to the second floor. A wide balcony overhung the grand hall on all four sides and provided access to the rooms. “These were the family’s quarters,” Gladfield explained.
“Is there access to the tower?” Night asked. Henry avoided looking directly at him.
“Only on the first floor,” Gladfield replied, leading the way to the eastern cluster of rooms. “This first room belonged to Mrs. Reyer, the lady of the house.”
Unlike the guest rooms, these had been left unaired. As they stepped inside, Henry’s eyes were drawn to the gauzy hangings around the bed, now tattered from mold and the passage of time. They hung limp around a bed reeking of mice. No doubt wildlife of every sort had made use of the down mattresses and bedding. A portrait lay on the floor, having fallen from its place on the wall. Something had chewed away part of the canvas, leaving only the image of a woman’s hair and shoulders around the gaping hole where her face had been.
As they’d done in the other rooms, Henry carefully measured the temperature while Jo recorded his findings. He glanced up once to find Night watching him with a bemused smile. Henry flushed and looked away quickly.
Really, the fellow was intolerable.
Once Henry finished his measurements, they moved to the next room, which proved to be Mr. Reyer’s study. Henry wracked his memory for the surname—obviously the man had been wealthy to afford such an enormous house—but came up with nothing. There was no knowing how long ago Reyer had died. If it had been some time ago, and his only accomplishment in life had been to amass a small fortune, his name might already be lost to history.
Henry’s name wouldn’t be so lost. Future generations wouldn’t recall the quacks and frauds who had sullied the study of the spirit world with their acts, but everyone would speak of Strauss’s Electro-Séance, which finally brought the study of psychical phenomena out of the Dark Ages. He’d make sure of it.
The study was dark and rather gloomy, even more so than the library downstairs. Much like the library and the bedroom, there proved to be nothing whatsoever of interest inside.
“And lastly on this side of the house, we have Mr. Reyer’s chamber and dressing room,” Gladfield announced, opening a heavy door of some dark wood.
Miss Prandle stepped through—and immediately wrapped her arms around herself. “Another cold spot!”
Before the mediums could approach, Henry lunged forward to measure with his thermometer. It was like thrusting his hand into a snow bank; even the density of the air felt different. He’d have to bring in the barometer to make measurements as well, after this initial tour. “Twenty-four degrees,” he said triumphantly. Jo scribbled it hastily in the notebook.
Miss Prandle rubbed at her arms as Henry advanced into the room. “I don’t like this place,” she murmured.
“Indeed. Now you see why I took one of the guest rooms instead of staying here,” Mr. Gladfield said with a chuckle.
It was, Henry had to admit, incredibly gloomy. The carvings on the massive bed resembled the ornaments of a gothic cathedral. The curtains lay on the floor as if they’d been wrenched down with some violence. A layer of dust coated everything, but unlike the other bedroom, there was no smell of mice and nothing else seemed disturbed. A man glared out at them from a portrait on the wall, seeming almost to sneer at them, as if he observed their efforts and judged them lacking.
Henry did a slow patrol of the room, discovering three more cold spots: twenty-nine degrees, twenty-five degrees, and twenty-four degrees. As with the one downstairs, he’d have to thoroughly investigate the room and rule out any other causes. Still, it was impossible not to feel a surge of excitement. At last, after years of studying and tinkering, he would have the chance to test his theory, that the science of electromagnetism would allow mediums to be replaced with machines, with what seemed a genuine haunting.
Night walked around the room as well, a faint look of disgust warping his full lips. He ate another one of the cachous but said nothing aloud. Miss Devereaux watched him closely but remained silent as well, clearly content to let him keep his own counsel for the moment.
After leaving the bedchamber, they walked along the northern balcony to the western cluster of rooms. Another cold spot, this one quite large, made itself known just before they reached the end of the balcony.
“What’s that stain?” Jo asked, nodding at the floor. Wooden boards showed beneath a rat-chewed runner, the ones at the cold spot marked with an irregular patch as if something dark had seeped into the grain itself.
Night’s eyes narrowed. “Blood,” he said flatly.
Henry sniffed, but smelled only dust and age. Going down on his knees, he touched the stain, but detected nothing to indicate its origins. “Don’t be preposterous,” he scoffed. “You can’t possibly know. You’re only saying it because it sounds dramatic.”
The glare Miss Devereaux leveled at him would surely have felled him had she the power to do so. Night, however, leaned casually against the balcony rail, not far from where Henry crouched. The position gave Henry a rather...interesting...view. “Take a close examination, Mr. Strauss. I’d like to hear your expert opinion.”
“It could be from anything,” Henry said, hastily directing his gaze back to the floor. “An attempt to apply new varnish to cover a repair, which didn’t age the same as the rest. An incontinent rat. A glass of wine.”
“Of course,” Night murmured, but something in his tone made Henry certain the man laughed at him.
Gladfield said nothing, only looking keenly interested. Did he know the source of the stain? What if it was blood? Henry’s stomach went sour—had he just made a fool of himself for no better reason than to argue with Night?
“It hardly matters,” he declared, rising to his feet. “The cold spot suggests there may be phenomena worth investigating here, whatever the nature of the stain.”
“On that we agree,” Night said. A rueful smile flickered across his face, there and gone again so fast Henry must have imagined it. “What else do you have in store for us, Mr. Gladfield?”
Gladfield led the way to the next door; this room must be directly over the dining hall downstairs. Flinging open the doors, he said, “See for yourself.”