Elizabeth Miles Bates has returned from her honeymoon with Gideon and is taking great pride in having completely forsaken her disreputable past. Then her friend, Anna Vanderslice, begs her to use her talents to save her widowed mother from a unscrupulous medium. Since the war and the flu epidemic left so many families in mourning, séances have come back into vogue as desperate families long to communicate with their loved ones.
Anna's mother has been attending séances in hopes of connecting with her son, David, who died of influenza. Anna had thought it a heartbreaking but harmless activity but she's just learned that Mrs. Vanderslice is paying the medium ever-increasing sums of money in her eagerness to make contact. Since David's death has already caused Anna and her mother financial hardship, Mrs. Vanderslice's obsession is in danger of ruining them.
Madame Ophelia is working with a group of con artists to fleece as many grieving New Yorkers as possible before moving on to another city. Several of Mrs. Vanderslice's friends, as well as some of Gideon's clients, have already been victims. Elizabeth knows that simply exposing the medium as a fraud will not be enough to recoup the stolen money; the only way is to con the medium and her cohorts. But will Elizabeth's family help her when it means betraying other con artists? Elizabeth recruits Gideon, her aunt Cybil and her partner, Zelda to lend a hand. Can Elizabeth and her gang of amateurs fool the professionals? Or will speaking to the dead lead to deadly consequences?
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Elizabeth looked up from the letter she'd been writing when the maid announced the unexpected arrival of her best friend, Anna Vanderslice. Before she could rise to greet Anna or even open her mouth to ask the maid to show Anna in, Anna brushed unceremoniously past the startled maid and cried, "Elizabeth, you've got to help me!"
Being a gently reared young lady, Anna wasn't given to outbursts like this, especially in front of the servants. "Of course, I'll help you," Elizabeth said, rising quickly from the small lady's desk where she'd been sitting and moving to where Anna stood, anxiously wringing her hands, just inside the library doorway. "Lucy, would you bring us something cool to drink?" Elizabeth asked the still-flustered maid.
Lucy scurried out, obviously glad to escape what promised to be a strange situation.
"What's the matter?" Elizabeth asked, taking Anna's hands in hers. They were like ice in spite of the warm day. "What kind of help do you need?"
The despair that clouded Anna's face truly frightened Elizabeth. She hadn't seen her friend so upset since Anna's brother, David, had died of influenza last fall. "Oh, Elizabeth, I . . ." She glanced at the still-open library door, obviously just realizing that she shouldn't be discussing anything upsetting where the servants could hear.
"Sit down," Elizabeth said, hurrying to close the door and give Anna the privacy she needed.
Anna took one of the comfortable chairs placed in front of the now-cold fireplace, sighing wearily as she sank down into it. Elizabeth took the other chair when she had shut the door securely. The chairs had been chosen for comfort so two gentlemen could sit and smoke and converse in the quiet of this cozy book-lined room at the end of a long day, but they would serve just as well for women to share a bit of bad news.
"Now what is it?" Elizabeth demanded almost desperately.
"Your mother?" Elizabeth echoed in alarm. "Is she ill?"
"Oddly, no," Anna said with a frown. "You knew she took to her bed after David died. I think her heart was truly broken."
"She came to my wedding," Elizabeth reminded her.
"And she would sometimes go to church, but until recently, she rarely left her bedroom."
Anna sighed. "Recently, she has discovered a medium."
Elizabeth blinked in surprise. "You mean, a fortune-teller?"
"Oh, she's far more than a fortune-teller. She conducts sŽances."
Elizabeth knew a little about sŽances and what she knew wasn't good. "Does she make the table move and do the spirits knock in coded raps to convey messages?"
"I have no idea, but Mother is convinced this woman, this Madame Ophelia," Anna added in disgust, "can contact David."
"Yes, oh dear," Anna agreed.
For a long moment, the two friends silently considered this very disturbing situation.
Then Elizabeth found something comforting to say. "I know it must be upsetting to you, but if it gives her some peace to think that-"
"You don't think this woman can really talk to David, do you?" Anna asked in outrage.
"Of course not. It's all a con."
Anna brightened at once. "Then you know all about it?"
"Not much. I may have been raised by a con artist, but even he had standards. Bilking little old ladies out of their last pennies is beneath him. But I do know it's a con."
"It's also more than just a few pennies," Anna said gravely.
"What do you mean?" Elizabeth asked, newly alarmed.
Before Anna could answer, Lucy knocked at the door and brought in a tray bearing two glasses of lemonade and a plate of cookies. Elizabeth insisted Anna drink some of the lemonade before continuing. "You must be parched after walking over here."
That made Anna smile at last. "Hardly. One of the best parts of you finally marrying Gideon is that now you only live a few blocks away."
Elizabeth could think of other wonderful reasons to be glad she and Gideon were married, but she knew Anna didn't want to hear about that part of married life. "It is nice being so close to you. Now tell me what you meant about it being more than pennies."
Anna's smile vanished again. "Madame Ophelia charges twenty dollars for each session."
Elizabeth winced. "That does seem expensive."
"And Mother has been going to see her three times a week." Three visits a week would cost as much as an average man would earn in a week, but Madame Ophelia most certainly catered only to the wealthy members of society. Her high prices would keep the riffraff away.
"Yes, good heavens. You do know that we aren't really rich, don't you?"
Elizabeth did know that. Many of the old New York families had seen their early fortunes dwindle with the generations. Gideon's family was one of them, but she certainly hadn't married him for his money. "Is it causing you a hardship?"
"More than a hardship. Father left us some money that provides a modest income, but we relied on David's salary, too. With David gone . . ." Anna's voice caught, and she needed a moment to compose herself. His loss was still fresh enough to cause tears.
"You don't have to explain," Elizabeth assured her as Anna dabbed at her tears with a handkerchief.
"But I do. I had to let some of the servants go, but if we're careful, we should be fine. Or at least we would have been, but now . . ."
"Have you explained this to your mother? I'm sure if she understood-"
"Of course, I explained it to her, but she refuses to understand. Father and David always took care of everything. She has no idea how much things cost or how much our income is. She thinks Father left us wealthy and the money will never run out and I'm just being mean because I don't believe in Madame Ophelia's powers. On top of that, this Madame Ophelia has bewitched her. Mother becomes furious if I even suggest she stop attending these sŽances, and this morning she told me she's going to start seeing the woman every day. We can't afford that! I won't even be able to go back to college in the fall." Her tears were falling freely now, but at least Elizabeth could offer a bit of comfort.
"You don't have to worry about college, my darling girl. Your fees will be paid no matter what."
But this news was far from comforting, if Anna's scowl was any indication. "What do you mean?"
"Just what I said. The fees will be paid."
Anna's scowl deepened. "I can't take charity from you, Elizabeth."
Oh dear, now she'd hurt Anna's pride. "It's not charity and it's not from me."
"Who is it from, then? I won't take anything from Gideon, either."
Elizabeth sighed in defeat. "Not Gideon. Jake."
"Jake? Your brother, Jake?"
"The very same."
Anna's shock was almost comic, but Elizabeth knew better than to laugh. "Why would Jake pay my college fees?"
"Because you helped him with a con. Do you have any idea how much he made on that?"
Anna stiffened her spine. "No, I don't."
"Well, it was a lot, and he hardly had any expenses. By rights, you should have had a share, but we didn't think you would take it, so Jake set up to pay your school fees instead, and there will be a nice little sum to get you started when you graduate."
"But . . . what about you? You helped, too, and a lot more than I did. Shouldn't you get that money?"
"Some of it, yes, but I couldn't possibly take it since I promised Gideon I had given all that up."
"But Gideon knows you helped with that con."
"Yes, and he did, too, in his own way, but we didn't do it for the money. That makes a difference, at least to Gideon."
"I didn't do it for the money, either."
"I know, dear one. You did it for the excitement, but there's no reason you shouldn't benefit. You don't have to answer to a painfully honest husband, after all."
"And I never will," Anna said with some satisfaction. "But why would Jake go to so much trouble for me?"
"Because you're his friend. I think you may be the only friend he's ever had."
"But I'm a female."
"That's what he likes best about you, I think. Men are always competing with one another and women want to get married. You don't compete and you don't want to marry him. You're also smart and clever, and I think he feels smart and clever when he's with you."
"And that makes him want to give me money?" Anna asked doubtfully.
"It's his way of showing his respect for the way you performed."
"He can be very aggravating," Anna reminded her.
"He's a man. Try not to hold that against him."
That finally brought a small smile to Anna's lips. It lasted only a moment, though, before she remembered her other problems. "I may need that money to support us if Mother ruins us, though."
"Nonsense. You're going to college so you can have a profession and support yourself for the rest of your life. Your whole future depends on it. You can't give that up."
"But what about Madame Ophelia?"
Elizabeth pretended to consider this very seriously. "Hmmm, Madame Ophelia. She's surely a con artist. I've never tried to con another con artist, but I think it could be a lot of fun."
Elizabeth wore a veil when she went to Dan the DudeÕs Saloon on Twenty-eighth Street. She wasn't ashamed of her connection to the place, but she didn't want Gideon to be embarrassed if someone saw her and reported it in a gossip column. Why anyone should care where she went was a mystery, but Gideon's family was one of the oldest society families in New York, and people did care.
She didn't actually enter the saloon, of course. She slipped down the alley, found a nondescript door and knocked a coded knock. This put her in mind of her question to Anna about spirits knocking out messages, but then the sliding panel in the door opened, distracting her from her musings. A curious eye peered out, and then the door opened at once.
"Contessa!" the elderly man said with obvious pleasure, using the title of respect she had earned. "Come in, come in."
"How are you, Spuds?" she asked.
Spuds, so called because his face resembled a dried-up potato, grinned. "I'm better for seeing you. I am guessing you're here for the Old Man."
"He's out, but I expect him soon. Come in and say hello to the fellas."
Spuds led her back to a large room where several men of various ages sat playing cards or reading the Daily Racing Form and arguing over upcoming races. Dan the Dude's back room was where New York City con men gathered to tell one another lies and hopefully meet up with someone who had a job for them. She knew every man there, and they enjoyed a few minutes of conversation where they teased her about marrying a Mr. Bates, which was her new husband's name but also what con artists called their marks.
After a while, Spuds went to answer another knock, and a silver-haired gentleman wearing a tailor-made suit came in. The Old Man was already smiling because Spuds had told him Elizabeth was waiting for him.
"Lizzie," he said with mock consternation, "what are you doing talking to all these old reprobates?"
"You mean, when I could be talking to just one old reprobate?" she asked, making everyone laugh.
"Exactly. Come into my office before you are completely corrupted."
Elizabeth followed him into his spartan office and waited while he dusted off the visitor's chair with his snowy white handkerchief. When she was seated beside his desk and he was comfortably ensconced in his own chair, he said, "Does Gideon know you're here?"
"Do you think I need my husband's permission to visit my own father?"
He didn't exactly roll his eyes, but he might as well have. "If you want to visit me, you invite me to dinner. If you want to see me on business, you come here. So, does Gideon know you're planning another con?"
"Not yet," she said shamelessly.
The Old Man groaned with feigned dismay.
"He'll be only too happy about it when he finds out, though," she said.
He didn't seem so sure. "Who are you helping this time?"
He blinked in surprise. "How has the lovely Miss Vanderslice gotten herself into a situation that requires her to be rescued?"
"She hasn't. It's her mother. She's been going to sŽances."
"SŽances? I thought they'd fallen out of fashion after those famous women admitted they were frauds and that the spirit tapping was just them cracking their toe joints or something."
"I don't know about that, but Mrs. Vanderslice found this medium named Madame Ophelia and-"
"Why are they always madame something or other?"
"I'm sure they have their reasons. At any rate, Mrs. Vanderslice wants to contact her son, David. I imagine a lot of people want to contact loved ones they lost in the war or to the flu."
The Old Man didn't look like he thought that was a good idea, but he said, "Why should Anna care, though? If it gives her mother some comfort, I mean."
"Because the medium is charging her twenty dollars a session, and Mrs. Vanderslice wants to go see the woman every day. Anna and her mother are already in reduced circumstances because of David's death, and they can't afford it. And yes, Anna explained that to her mother, but her mother doesn't want to believe it."
"Or give up seeing the medium, I expect. I don't suppose it would help to reveal the woman as a fraud."
Elizabeth gave him a pitying look. "You know people never want to admit they've been bamboozled. That's the basis of every con ever devised."
The Old Man shrugged apologetically. "Then what did you have in mind?"
"I don't know yet. I thought I should find out more about mediums and how they work first. Do you know anything about them?"
"Besides what I read in the newspapers, you mean? Let me think."
She gave him a minute to do so, and after a few seconds, a slow smile spread across his handsome face.
"I just remembered old Barney. He had a slick little racket out in Chicago about ten years ago. Set himself up as a fortune-teller. He followed the market and was pretty savvy about guessing which stocks were going to do well. People would come to him, and he'd advise them which stocks to buy. When they increased in value, the marks thought he really could foretell the future."