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It is not the first night screams have rung through the halls of Ashbury Manor.
It will not be the last.
The shrieks of his mother and brother pierce the boy’s ears as he darts down the hallways of his ancestral home. The home of his father and his father before him, a line of fathers, all of them glaring at the boy from their portraits as he runs, his bare feet muffled by the thick carpets.
His brother is not screaming anymore.
His mother is.
He knows that she has gone mad. Papa said so, and everyone in the village knows it.
She calls his name. The boy wants to go to her, but he remembers the terror in his brother’s face as she yanked him from his bed in the nursery. And so he scrambles under a heavy table in the hallway to hide.
The creature that had once been his mother lurches into view, words wrenching from her throat in such anguish they are unintelligible to boy’s ears. She carries a knife in one hand, its blade sharp and wicked.
The boy crouches in the dark as the woman in white searches for him, and he has the strangest feeling that the shadows around him are deepening, as though the house itself is trying to hide him. To protect him.
He hears her mutter something and catches his own name. Then a glimpse of the knife flashing. For one horrified moment, he thinks she’s found him, that she is lunging to him. But it is not the boy she has turned the knife on.
And when her blood slowly spreads across the carpet to lap hot and thick against his bare feet, it is the boy who begins to scream.
It was so irksome when ghosts were late.
This particular ghost was meant to be one Mr. Roger Latham, late son of the woman currently sitting in Beatrix’s parlor. Her fingers convulsed around a black handkerchief.
“Perhaps he is not coming?” Mrs. Latham suggested, her voice almost a whisper, as though she were afraid of scaring off the ghost of her son, who had been lost at sea for more than a decade now.
Beatrix glanced again at the parlor door, waiting, listening.
No footsteps. No low moans.
Beatrix lowered her head. “I sense his presence, Mrs. Latham. We must simply be patient.”
And never work with bloody actors again.
“Roger Latham, I summon you forth!” Beatrix called, raising her voice, and, next to her, Mrs. Latham flinched before lifting a black handkerchief to her lips. Even in the dim light of the candles—she could make out the stitched initials on the dark cloth.
Roger Simon Cholmondeley Latham.
A little sting went through her. Beatrix rarely felt guilt for what she did. Her clients may leave her parlor with lighter wallets, but their hearts and souls were lighter as well. She was providing a service.
It was a service provided by others as well, of course, the showier types with their rattling tables and flickering lamps. She didn’t fault them for it––there were so few ways for women of their class to make money, after all––but Beatrix Greene had made a name for herself by acting like a proper young lady with the extraordinary talent of speaking to ghosts. She gained the trust of her clients—almost all of whom were women—this way. It’s why she took such care with her parlor. It was a genteel space of light colors. There was no black lace, no crystal balls, no stuffed ravens perched on the mantlepiece. She herself wore plain dresses, white gloves, her hair neatly pulled back from her face. This look had served her well.
It was . . . inconvenient, then, when she had these little moments of, if not shame, exactly, but something akin to regret.
Abandoning all hope that “Roger” might appear, Beatrix lifted her head, fixing her gaze on the far wall where her floral wallpaper had begun to peel up slightly.
“He is here, Mrs. Latham,” Beatrix said, her voice low. “But he cannot speak.”
“Why?” Mrs. Latham cried. “Roger, please! Let me see you.”
“Roger is content where he is in the afterlife, so it’s harder to pull him through to us. But I can hear him,” Beatrix replied, already filing that explanation away for future seances.
“Roger says that he loves you very much.” Her words were halting and slow, as though she were trying to repeat something heard from a great distance. “And that he is sorry. That you were right—he never should’ve left England on that ship.”
Mrs. Latham let out a sob. “He belonged at home with me.”
So much of Beatrix’s success lay in reading people correctly, and she’d accurately sensed that Mrs. Latham was the type who’d object to her son taking to sea. She nodded, remembering the photograph of father and son that Mrs. Latham had shown her at the beginning of the visit. “His voice is very faint, but he wants you to know that he did not suffer. His death was quick and painless, and he has been embraced by his father.”
Beatrix lifted her head to see Mrs. Latham still staring at the wall, her eyes wide with the fervent belief Beatrix had seen so many times.
“He is gone now,” Beatrix said. She let her hand tremble as she reached out for Mrs. Latham’s. “I hope that was some comfort to you.”
Mrs. Latham’s eyes were shining as she nodded, her fingers curling around Beatrix’s. “Quite, my dear. Quite.”
A quarter of an hour later, with Mrs. Latham gone, Beatrix was putting a neat pile of pound notes into the lockbox she kept hidden in a basket of knitting.
She had not charged Mrs. Latham as much as she had originally suggested. She was not sure the woman could truly spare it and, in the end, Beatrix had not been able to provide the experience she had promised.
Sighing, she looked around her parlor. She couldn’t keep giving in to these little moments of charity. Her flat was beginning to look a bit shabby, and she felt painfully aware of how tenuous it all was, this life she had wrested for herself out of nothing.
Beatrix turned the key in the lockbox, just as a banshee shriek came from the hallway.
“Mother! Mother, I have—”
“Shut your bone box, Harry,” Beatrix said as she turned up the gas lamps.
The room brightened and Harry Smythe, out-of-work actor, stepped into the room, his dark hair slicked back from his handsome face, his clothing soaked.
“What, has she not arrived yet?”
“Been and gone,” Beatrix answered, then studied him for a moment. “Did you jump in a rain barrel?”
Harry grinned. “A nice touch, eh?”
Moving further into the parlor, he made to sit on her sofa, but Beatrix quelled that impulse with one look.
“You said the fellow was lost at sea, so I thought it would add a certain realism,” Harry answered.
“What it’s adding,” Beatrix replied, “is several water stains on my rug. And besides, she wasn’t meant to see you, Haz. Only hear you.”
Harry glanced at his feet before offering another one of those cheerful smiles that had both helped him get away with far too much in life and made him the most wretched Hamlet she’d ever had the misfortune to see.
She’d met him years ago when he was performing at a cheap theatre, and he had become the closest thing she had to a friend these days—or even family. Beatrix’s parents had died in a theatre fire when she was ten, and Harry had lost his army captain father to malaria in Kashmir. His beautiful Punjabi mother had died of illness on the ship to England. He’d arrived in London an orphan.
Like her, Harry knew what it was to make your own way in the world, and she valued that.
She just didn’t plan on hiring him again. She had thought he might be helpful to her profession, but tonight reminded her that she was better off depending on herself and only herself.
It was, after all, what she had always done.
Being a medium afforded Beatrix a certain degree of independence and financial security, but it also drew less savory attention, and the more she could minimize that, the better.
She just couldn’t tell him tonight. She was tired, and a faint headache was building behind her eyes. What she needed was a cup of tea and bed.
Beatrix pressed a few coins into Harry’s hand. “For your trouble,” she told him and he had the decency to look chastised.
“I’m sorry I was late . . . I was getting into character.” He gestured toward himself and glanced around her flat. “You run a real nice show, Bea. Elegant. It’s good, keeps your head down. Some of these other ones have gotten dodgy, have you heard? Like those Italian fellows.”
Beatrix nodded. “The Facinelli Brothers,” she said. They were neither brothers nor Italian, but Beatrix had heard of their seances—extravagant affairs with red velvet and masks and black candles.
“Well, they were rumbled. Some bloke showed everyone the wires they were using to lift things, the phonograph they’d hidden to make noises. Bobbies ended up taking them in. Didn’t hold ’em, but they had to give back every penny. Ask me, they’re lucky it weren’t worse.”
Shaking his head, Harry reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a pamphlet. “Pretty sure this is the gent that did it all,” he said. “Someone was handing these out on the street outside the Rose and Bell this evening.”
At the mention of Harry’s favorite pub, Beatrix smirked. “And here I thought you were late because you were busy committing yourself to the part of Roger Latham.”
Harry had the good grace to look a little sheepish as she plucked the pamphlet from his hand.
The paper was damp thanks to Harry’s attempts at artistic integrity, and the ink had smudged in some places, but this was not the cheap sort of handbill she was used to seeing.
Beatrix studied the words, feeling her eyebrows creep up.
It is my belief that this great age in which we find ourselves is one of science and of learning, of intellect and progress rather than superstitions. These so-called “mediums” are nothing more than frauds who appeal to that most primal and most vulnerable of human desires: the desire to know there is in fact life after death. And I have made it my mission to expose every one of their ilk for the liars they are.
“He calls himself a scientist, but seems like he’s just a posh git with too much time on his hands if you ask me,” Harry offered.
“He certainly has a high opinion of himself, this James Walker,” Beatrix murmured as she took in the illustrations of the various tricks of her trade. The wires, the mirrors, the secret devices under tables that could produce knocking sounds or wobble the furniture.
And there at the bottom was an invitation in large, bold lettering:
The Shepherdess Theatre
See James Walker Reveal the Deceit and Trickery of Spiritualists and Mediums.
Beatrix considered. The last thing she wanted or needed was for this man to be aware of her. But curiosity had always been one of her stronger vices, and didn’t it make sense to know one’s enemies? Besides, if he had already come after the Facinellis, he might sniff her out soon enough. Better to get ahead of things.
“You think he’s serious with all this?” Harry asked, nodding at the pamphlet. “Exposing every medium in London?”
“I think, Harry,” Beatrix said, putting the pamphlet on the table, “that you and I have a lecture to attend.”