—Alyssa Maxwell, USA Today bestselling author
In 1919 England, in the shadow of The Great War, many look to the spirit world for answers. But it will take an all too earthbound intrigue to draw in the discerning heroine of Anna Lee Huber’s latest mystery . . .
It’s not that Verity Kent doesn’t sympathize with those eager to make contact with lost loved ones. After all, she once believed herself a war widow. But now that she’s discovered Sidney is very much alive, Verity is having enough trouble connecting with her estranged husband, never mind the dead. Still, at a friend’s behest, Verity attends a séance, where she encounters the man who still looms between her and Sidney—and a medium who channels a woman Verity once worked with in the Secret Service. Refusing to believe her former fellow spy is dead, Verity is determined to uncover the source of the spiritualist’s top secret revelation.
Then the medium is murdered—and Verity’s investigation is suddenly thwarted. Even Secret Service agents she once trusted turn their backs on her. Undaunted, Verity heads to war-torn Belgium, with Sidney by her side. But as they draw ever closer to the danger, Verity wonders if she’s about to learn the true meaning of till death do us part . . .
Praise for the debut Verity Kent Mystery
“Sure to please fans of classic whodunits and lovers of historical fiction alike.”
—Jessie Crockett, author of Whispers Beyond the Veil
About the Author
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Oh, treacherous night! Thou lend'st they ready veil to ev'ry treason, And teeming mischiefs thrive beneath thy shade.
— Aaron Hill, from his adaptation of Voltaire's The Tragedy of Zara
July 1919 London, England
"I've a favor to ask of you," Daphne declared as she plopped down on the emeraldine cushions of the sofa in my drawing room. "Now, hear me out before you say anything," she added, removing her gloves.
I gazed at her in wary amusement. Her enthusiasm was boundless, as was her penchant for stumbling into bizarre circumstances. I could only guess what predicament she'd found herself in this time.
She inhaled swiftly and then leaned toward me. "I want you to attend a séance with me."
My eyebrows arched in surprise before lowering in displeasure.
She held up a hand to forestall me even though I hadn't uttered a word. "I know you don't believe in them. That you think they're poor form."
"I've never said that."
"No, but it's plain to see. Anytime anyone mentions them, your mouth gets all tight. Like it is now."
I relaxed the muscles pursing my lips, taking her point.
"I'm not saying you aren't right. There are a lot of fraudulent mediums about these days shamelessly swindling the bereaved."
This was sadly too true, and what lay at the heart of my objection to such things. It seemed all of England had gone mad for Spiritualism, desperate to speak to their loved ones who had died before their time, lost to the senseless carnage of the war.
This made them all too easy prey for the unscrupulous.
"But I have an appointment with one of the most gifted and attuned Spiritualists in all of London," she hastened to say. "She comes very highly recommended. Surely you don't object to all such things? Only the shams?"
Rather than answer her, I asked a question of my own. "Who recommended her?"
She sat back, plucking at a loose string on her pale pink frock. "Well, my sister for one."
"Your sister?" I couldn't withhold my disdain, for Melanie was not the most astute judge of character.
"Yes, but not just her. Several other ladies have told me how wonderful her manifestations are. I've even been told the Queen Mother and Princess Louise have consulted her."
This did not sway me, for I'd spent enough time with royals to recognize they were as fallible as the rest of us.
I tilted my head, studying her fretful expression. "Why is this so important to you?" I asked more gently. "Who is it you want to make contact with?" I could guess, but I wanted to hear it from her.
Her eyes slid to the side, staring at the pomegranate damask wallpaper. "Gil's birthday would be tomorrow." She swallowed. "His twenty-fifth. And mine is next month, and I can't stop thinking about how I'll be the same age he was when he was killed." Her stark gaze lifted to meet mine. "I ... I just want to know he's well."
I wanted to reassure her. To quote the same assurances I'd been told time and time again by clergymen, by my parents, by friends, and even by strangers over the long years of the war. They readily sprang to my lips, but I did not let them pass. I was as tired of repeating them as I was of hearing them. Daphne already knew them, and my reiterating them yet again would not help. What she really wanted was a connection, a way to reclaim that which war had severed, and I could not give her that.
I grimaced in understanding, allowing her a moment to compose herself again as she dabbed at her eyes. I was finding it very difficult to say no to her. Not only because she was my dearest friend, but also because her petite stature, golden tresses, and limpid blue eyes aroused a protective instinct within one. She might have been just another bland blond beauty, but for the pronounced hook in her nose. She was forever cursing her imperfect beak, never recognizing it saved her from being a cliché, and instead elevated her into the stratum of arresting.
It wasn't that I didn't sympathize with her desire to contact her brother. Many times, I'd contemplated what it would be like to be able to speak to one of the dozens of loved ones and friends I'd cared for — who had become casualties of the war and the outbreaks of Spanish influenza that followed. But for my part, I was having more than enough trouble dealing with the living.
As if summoned by my thoughts, my husband strode into the drawing room of our Berkeley Square flat. As always of late, my heart beat a little faster at the sight of him. Until a month ago, I'd believed Sidney was dead, killed in France during the Germans' brutal final push in the spring of 1918. But although he'd been critically injured, he'd managed to survive, using his reported death to clandestinely search for evidence that would uncover the traitor working amidst the fellow officers in his battalion. The same man who had shot Sidney and left him for dead.
Although we had worked together to unravel the nest of traitors, I was still coming to grips with his return. Still trying to reconcile myself to the fact that he'd allowed me to believe him dead for fifteen months. Still trying to bridge the distance four and a half years of war had built between us. Our five-year wedding anniversary would be in October, and yet these four weeks since his reappearance were the longest we'd ever spent together.
Correctly sensing that my conversation with Daphne was somewhat delicate, he nodded a greeting to my friend and then settled in a chair on the opposite side of the room, screening himself from our view with his newspaper.
"Can't you take George?" I asked Daphne, feeling only a small twinge of guilt for suggesting she plague our mutual friend with her request.
Daphne's mouth pursed. "He's even more against it than you are. Thinks it's all hogwash, you know that. And he's twice as vocal." She crossed her arms over her chest. "He'd probably tell Madame Zozza to her face."
I well knew George's thoughts on the matter. A brilliant cryptologist and mathematician, George's mind worked along strictly logical lines, and Spiritualism did not fit those. He and Daphne seemed the unlikeliest of friends. He with his stoic logic and calm precision, and she with her wide-eyed naïveté and vibrant enthusiasm. But though Daphne might be a bit thick at times, she was unfailingly, unflinchingly loyal, and George and I both valued that quality almost above all others. As for Daphne, I'd long suspected she'd taken to George because he reminded her of her older brother, Gil, lost early to the war. The same brother she hoped to contact.
"Madame Zozza?" I queried.
"Yes! Quite dramatic, isn't it? I'm sure it's merely her stage name, so to speak."
Her brow lowered. "Yes, but don't let that dissuade you. After all, one hardly wants to visit a medium named Betty Smith."
Perhaps she didn't, but I would feel better about her consulting a woman without such pretensions. Sadly, I knew I was in the minority. After all, the number of séances being conducted across London was nearly as abundant as the number of dances. Those mediums who were most popular performed sessions that were often more spectacular than they were accurate, and consequently were able to book as far in advance as the tickets for a popular revue at one of the theaters.
I had only ever attended one séance — an amateur bit of table-turning at a country house party — and I hadn't found it to be the least entertaining or enlightening. It had all seemed like nothing more than a ridiculous bit of theatrics, even before the ladies involved decided it would be capital fun to channel my still-believed-dead husband. Now that I knew my husband was very much alive, their cruel trick did not bother me over much. But the memory of that night still made my jaw tight with anger and my skin prickle with unease.
To Daphne's credit, she didn't know about what I'd endured at that house party. Otherwise, she would never have asked me to attend this séance with her. And if I told her now, she would be horrified. So I kept the matter to myself.
Torn between my desire to protect Daphne from her own gullibility that would make her an easy mark and my own revulsion at the practice, I tapped my fingers against the arm of my bergère chair. "When is this séance?"
She pressed her lips together, hesitating before she admitted, "Tonight."
I narrowed my eyes in suspicion. "If this Madame Zozza is as gifted as you claim she is, how long have you had this session booked?"
"I know, I know. I should have asked you sooner. But ... I was afraid you'd say no."
I scowled, furious at this bit of manipulation. "It would serve you right if I did. Let the woman bilk you of all your money. See if I care."
I folded my arms over my chest and turned to stare out the tall Georgian-style windows where a light summer rain fell. Sidney's newspaper rattled, and I was certain he'd heard at least this outburst. That is, if he wasn't already remorselessly listening to the entire conversation.
Daphne's eyes flicked toward him before she shifted forward on the sofa, leaning across the distance toward me. "You have every right to be furious with me. I would be cross, too, if I were in your shoes. I know how you feel about these sorts of things. Which is precisely why I need you to be the one who comes with me." She pressed a hand to the powder blue serge of my skirt. "Please, Ver. I wouldn't ask you if it wasn't extremely important. You know I can't go alone."
She was right about that, and I was relieved to hear her admit it. A good con woman would recognize how much she'd loved her brother, how terribly she missed him. And she would also quickly realize how naïve and trusting she was. After all, the success of her scams depended upon that knowledge. She would twist that to her advantage if someone wasn't there to shield her.
I turned to look at her and then wished I hadn't. Then I wouldn't have seen that cursed gleam of hope shining in her eyes. Or watched it dim as I remained silent.
She heaved a sigh. "I suppose I shall just have to take my sister then. Though she'll make the entire session about her. Who knows if I'll even be able to slide in a word edgewise?" She frowned. "She'll probably wish to summon Humphrey, and you know how tiresome her husband was in life. Well, to hear Melanie talk, he's even more so in death."
I couldn't help but crack a smile. Not that I believed a medium had actually ever summoned Humphrey. But if she was skilled enough, she would read Melanie's clues and respond appropriately.
However, I sobered quickly at the preposterous idea of Melanie being trusted to protect Daphne. Melanie was enough of a spendthrift that no matter how deeply she was taken in by a medium, such a person would never be able to defraud her of all her money. But Daphne was much more impressionable, and her heart bruised easily. I'd seen it often enough. The walls I'd been able to erect around myself during the war, to shield me from the full impact of hearing of yet another death, seemed nonexistent for her. She felt it all. Perhaps in the end, that meant she was better off than the stilted, jumbled mess I'd become, but it also meant she was vulnerable.
I swallowed my affront, reaching across to clutch her hand. "You're determined to see this medium? I can't sway you to let it go?"
She shook her head. "I know you mean well, Ver, but I'm going, no matter what you say." Her mouth set with stubborn determination.
I glanced up at the ceiling, just knowing I would regret this. "Then, I'll go."
Her eyes widened. "Truly?"
She gasped in delight and sprung forward to embrace me, enveloping me in the scent of lavender. "Oh, thank you, thank you! You'll see. There won't be any shenanigans."
I smiled tightly, wishing I could believe that.
She gathered up her hat and gloves, and hurried toward the door, lest I change my mind.
Sidney lowered his newspaper as she approached. "Good morning, Miss Merrick."
"Hullo, Sidney. And remember, I told you to call me Daphne. I'm not about to stand on ceremony with my dearest friend's long-lost husband." She grinned at me over her shoulder, though the wattage was a shade too bright. I could tell she was somewhat unnerved by Sidney. Since his return, he was more reserved, more intense, and combined with his brooding, dark good looks, it was difficult not to feel off-balance. But nonetheless, I appreciated the concerted effort she was making to befriend him. Even if it was a tad too relentless in its cheer.
His answering smile was polite. "Of course. Shall I ring down to ask the doorman to hail you a cab?"
"No, I've brought my umbrella, so I think I shall walk," she replied breezily, already bustling out into our entry hall. "Goodbye!"
At the click of the door to our flat closing, Sidney dropped all pretense of reading the newspaper. "What was all that about?"
I crossed the room to the matching sofa closest to his chair, folding my legs underneath me as I leaned against the arm. He was turned out quite impeccably today in a crisp white shirt and deep blue suit that offset his eyes. His dark hair was once again cut neat and trim, the curls smoothed flat, save for that one stubborn lock that insisted on falling over his brow — as if to tip off unwary strangers that his interior was not quite so ruthlessly set in order.
"She wants me to attend a séance with her tonight after our dinner at the Langham's."
"Well, I suppose she at least shows some sense in taking you along with her." He dropped the newspaper on the table and reached over to remove one of the Turkish cigarettes he preferred from its silver box. "I suspect if you sent her off to sell a cow, she'd return with a handful of beans."
I sighed at his derisive tone of voice. He'd yet to warm to Daphne. He thought her flighty and ingenuous, both counts I couldn't entirely dispute. His wit was darker, more sardonic since his return, but on this matter he usually kept his opinions to himself. Especially after I'd explained what a boon she'd been to me during the war.
"She's not quite so foolish as that," I retorted.
His expression as he lit his fag was doubtful. "I still have difficulty imagining her working for the Secret Service." He exhaled a stream of smoke, tilting his head in consideration. "Unless it's all a charade."
"I told you she worked for counterespionage, managing the Registry." A massive filing system that kept track of every foreigner or suspicious person on British soil. "And artless as Daphne might seem, she's not stupid, and very good at minding her tongue."
I still found it odd to be sharing such information with him after I'd spent the entire war hiding it. I'd been forbidden to reveal my part in the Secret Service to anyone. Very few people even knew of the agency's existence, particularly the branch in which I worked, handling the military intelligence from overseas. Later in the war, Sidney had grown suspicious about the true nature of my war work, and uncovered the truth by getting a colleague of mine drunk, a man who also happened to be an old school chum of his. However, he'd not revealed to me that he knew what my real war work was until after he returned from the dead.
It still irked me that he wouldn't tell me who had betrayed me. Loose lips were extremely dangerous in that line of work. I could only hope the fellow hadn't shared sensitive information with someone less honorable than Sidney.
"Regardless, she doesn't work there anymore," I added, uncomfortable with this turn in our conversation. Just as I had been let go a few months after the armistice, my services no longer needed, what with the men returning from overseas.
I still didn't know what Sidney thought of my having worked for the Secret Service, and part of me was afraid to ask. After all, there were many who thought of spies, particularly women ones, as sordid, licentious, and untrustworthy. The manner in which they were portrayed in books and in films at the cinema did not help, for they usually fit the mold of the infamous Mata Hari rather than the more realistic portrait of the vast majority of the women I had known in the service.
I resisted the urge to squirm under his regard, uncertain what he was thinking. Whatever it was, it wasn't light or frivolous.
He exhaled again. "So you're attending a séance at this ... Madame Zozza's."
So he had been listening, at least to part of our conversation. I rested my chin on my hands. "It appears so. What of you?" A sudden thought occurred to me. "Will you be all right?" I hadn't ventured far from his side in the past four weeks, and the few times I had gone out in the evening without him, I'd returned home to find him staring morosely into the fire while he nursed a glass of whiskey.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Treacherous Is the Night"
Copyright © 2018 Anna Aycock.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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