Copyright © 2012 Summer Devon and Bonnie Dee
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“I’m getting a name. I believe it starts with a W.” The young man in the checked jacket spoke in the sepulchral tone one expected from a Spiritualistic medium. Lush, dark lashes fluttered against his cheeks, and full lips parted as his eyebrows drew together in a frown.
He might sound the part, but his appearance was wrong, Court decided. His clothes, for one thing. Most mediums he’d observed wore dark, dignified clothing, as if to lend gravity to their incredible claims. Oliver Marsh’s scarlet waistcoat and checked jacket were too flashy by far for the role he was playing. Made him appear more like a fly-by-night salesman than a portal to the other world.
“Wilma? No. Winifred.” Marsh’s head cocked as though hearing an unseen voice whisper the name in his ear.
Court forced his eyes not to roll at the act. The young lady beside him gasped, and her limp, clammy hand gripped his tighter. “I have an aunt named Winifred. She died two years ago.”
The spiritualist inclined his head. “I’m getting the sense of her presence, a sense of great love and peace. She’s content on the other side, but she has a message she needs to deliver.”
Miss Abigail Fontaine leaned forward, eyes wide. “What does she want to tell me?”
Mr. Marsh’s frown deepened, and he moved his head slowly from side to side as though searching for a sound that came in intermittent bursts. “She says…” A long pause. “Don’t. There is something you are about to do, a big decision. She’s warning you against making the wrong choice.”
The redhead gasped again, and her grip on Court’s hand became almost painful. “Rodney? Aunt Winifred doesn’t approve of my fiancé, Mr. Pepperidge? But that’s impossible. Why not? Ask her why not?”
Court’s jaw tightened as he watched the medium play the young woman like an angler taking his time reeling in a fish. He didn’t know how Marsh had secured the details of the Fontaine woman’s engagement or why he would interfere. Perhaps her family or the Pepperidges didn’t approve the match and had paid Marsh to encourage Miss Fontaine to end it. Any scenario was feasible except for the possibility that Miss Fontaine’s aunt was actually transmitting a message from beyond the grave.
It was Court’s job to expose Marsh as a charlatan to stop him from taking money from gullible people. Posing as a believer, he’d observe the man until he was able to prove he’d fleeced a customer or coerced money from someone. Because he’d been too damned persistent on a case that hadn’t been assigned to him, Court no longer hunted murderers. It was some consolation to reflect that he would be stopping a predator. A man who gave false hope to the desperate was the lowest sort of scum.
He would maintain his cover so he could continue to interact with the spiritualist. Soon enough the false medium would be arrested, ending another shameful career.
Marsh paused and frowned some more, belaboring the effort it took to reach through the mists of time and space to reach the dead. “This spirit seems to feel your young man is not all he has represented himself to be. I’m getting two messages from her, a sense of deep love for you and a clear warning, but nothing more specific.”
Court had tracked another medium a few years earlier—that one had stolen works of art during weekend parties—and he’d been to enough séances now to know the routine. At this point, the medium usually snapped out of his or her trance, making a great show of weariness, and would leave the table. The excited guests would break for refreshments as they pondered his great spiritual gift and discussed the messages. In Court’s opinion, there was more thrill-seeking than actual spiritual resonance about these affairs.
But tonight the medium didn’t immediately open those long-lashed eyes. Instead, he held very still, and his face turned markedly pale. He caught his breath before he spoke again, and when he did, his voice was low and rasping, scraping up Court’s spine like a file. “There is another presence.”
Their hostess and fervent spiritualist, Lady Markham, was beside herself with excitement at the prospect of more messages from beyond. “Are you all right, Mr. Marsh?”
“Oh God.” Marsh grimaced as though in pain. “She is… She needs…” he stammered.
“Who? Do you have a name?” Lady Markham murmured, anxious not to break the medium’s concentration at this delicate moment.
“A flower. White. Not a daisy. She’s”—Marsh caught his breath and exhaled a name—“Lily.”
Court felt like someone had driven a fist into his stomach. Lily. The image of his cousin’s face came to him. God, he wished he could see a picture of Lily laughing, but no, he saw the moment of her death. Every detail from the blood oozing from the back of her head, to the anguish in her eyes just before they closed for the last time—he bit down on the inside of his cheek to stop himself seeing the rest. God damn Marsh.
“The man scared her. He said she’ll join the others.” Marsh’s voice was anguished and his expression contorted. It was quite a performance, and Court was having a hard time keeping his dyspeptic stomach from lurching. The medium must know he was a police inspector and his true purpose in attending the séance. But how had Marsh found out about Lily?
Marsh choked on a sob. “She’s looking at Robert.”
“Robert Littleton?” Lady Markham looked at the white-haired gentleman seated across the table from her.
“Not I, madam.” Littleton’s handlebar moustache twitched as he spoke. “There’s never been a woman named Lily in my life.”
Robert Court stirred uneasily. He hadn’t given his first name when he’d contacted Lady Markham about her interesting new protégé; he’d simply called himself Mr. Peeler, the name he often used for this sort of work.
What was Marsh’s goal? What did he hope to achieve by baiting him? Court wanted to let go of the sweaty palm of the man named Abernathy on his left and Miss Fontaine’s slender hand on his right to jump up and walk away from the table, but he mustn’t react to Marsh’s words. He couldn’t let any of them know who he truly was, and they would interrogate him if they thought the pronouncement from beyond held meaning for him.
“He said there were others,” the medium’s desolate voice continued. “Murder. Murder.”
“Oh my goodness.” The elderly woman beside Miss Fontaine broke the circle and reached for her handkerchief to dab at her forehead. “This is too much, Lady Markham. Entirely too much. I don’t wish to participate any longer.”
“Shh, Marjorie,” their hostess said. “A murderer’s identity may be revealed here tonight. What greater purpose could there be for these gatherings than to bring about truth and justice?” Diamonds flashed in Lady Markham’s ears, matching the sparkle in her eyes. Her ladyship was the type of woman who wore jewels even for an informal gathering with friends, overdressed and with too much time on her idle hands, but a caring person at heart, Court believed. She’d be appalled to learn she was the reason her good friend Mr. Marsh had come under the gaze of the authorities.
The relatively minor case of a spiritual medium had been handed to the serious-crimes officer because Marsh had begun to bilk the wealthy. Lord Markham disliked having his wife throw money at Marsh and had complained to Sir Bradford, the commissioner.
“Carry on, Mr. Marsh,” Lady Markham said. “What else does Lily say?”
Court studied the medium’s face, noting how his eyes darted back and forth beneath the lids. He was quite an actor, with a full arsenal of emotions in his quiver. Tears leaked from the corners of his closed eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Court watched in fascination as they dripped off that smooth-shaven jaw onto his crisp white shirt collar and felt a ridiculous urge to lean forward and wipe away the tears.
It’s all a sham, he reminded himself. Bits of facts stitched together with fancy. A swindler was adept at learning everything about the people he planned to cheat and then striking them at their Achilles’ heel. How Marsh had learned about the Lily Bailey case was all that mattered.
“He was stronger than I imagined. I didn’t listen to you about being careful, dear. I should have listened to you. Oh, Phillip,” Marsh whispered the words.
Court felt another blow to his gut, for only he had heard those words after he’d been summoned to the scene by the constable. She’d returned to consciousness for a few heartbeats, whispered the few garbled phrases, just as roughly as Marsh had, and no one else had been within hearing distance. Another thought came to him—there might be a simple explanation why Marsh might have been lurking so close. He could be the murderer.