Excerpt: The Medium
Book 1 : Emily Chambers Spirit Medium Trilogy
London, Spring 1880
Whoever said dead men don’t tell lies had never met Barnaby Wiggam’s ghost. The fat, bulbous-nosed spirit fading in and out beside me like a faulty gas lamp clearly thought he was dealing with a fool. I may only be seventeen but I’m not naïve. I know when someone is lying—being dead didn’t alter the tell-tale signs. Mr. Wiggam didn’t quite meet my eyes, or those of his widow and her guests—none of whom could see him anyway—and he fidgeted with his crisp white silk necktie as if it strangled him. It hadn’t—he’d died of an apoplexy.
“Go on, young lady.” He thrust his triple chins at me, making them wobble. “Tell her. I have no hidden fortune.”
I swallowed and glanced at the little circle of women holding hands around the card table in Mrs. Wiggam’s drawing room, their wide gazes locked on the Ouija board in the center as if Barnaby Wiggam stood there and not beside me. I too stood, behind my sister and opposite the Widow Wiggam who looked just as well-fed as her dead husband in her black crepe dress and mourning cap. However, where his face was covered with a network of angry red veins, hers was so white it glowed like a moon in the dimly lit room.
“Are you sure?” I asked him. If he knew I suspected him of lying, he didn’t show it. Or perhaps he simply didn’t care.
“Sure?” Mrs. Wiggam suddenly let go of her neighbor’s hands. My sister, Celia, clicked her tongue and Mrs. Wiggam quickly took up the lady’s hand again. It’s not as if anyone needed to hold hands at all during our séances but my sister insisted upon it, along with having candles rather than lamps, a tambourine and an Ouija board even though she rarely used either. She liked things to be done in a way that added to the atmosphere and the enjoyment of the customers, as she put it. I’m not convinced anyone actually enjoyed our séances, but they were effective nevertheless and she was right—people expect certain theatrics from spirit mediums, so if we must put on a performance then so be it.
Celia had taken it one step further this time by wearing a large brass star-shaped amulet on a strap around her neck. The recent purchase was as unnecessary as the hand-holding but she thought it gave us authenticity amidst a city filled with fake mediums. I had to admit it looked wonderfully gothic.
“Sure about what?” Mrs. Wiggam asked again, leaning forward. Her large bosom rested on the damask tablecloth and rose and fell with her labored breathing. “What does he want you to say, Miss Chambers?”
I glanced at Mr. Wiggam’s ghost. He crossed his arms and raised his fluffy white eyebrows as if daring me to repeat his lie. “He, er, he said…” Oh lord, if I repeated the lie then I would be contributing to his fate. He could not cross over to the Otherworld until he was at peace, and he would not be at peace until he let go of his anger towards his wife. Lying to her wasn’t helping.
On the other hand, it was his choice.
“Emily,” Celia said with the false sing-song voice she employed for our séances. “Emily, do tell us what Mr. Wiggam is communicating to you. Give his poor dear widow,” she paused and smiled beatifically at Mrs. Wiggam, “some solace in her time of mourning.”
“Mourning!” Barnaby Wiggam barked out a laugh that caused the edges of his fuzzy self to briefly sharpen into focus. For a moment he appeared almost human again. To me at least. “Tell that…that WOMAN who sits there pretending to be my demure wife that there is no fortune.”
“He says there’s no fortune,” I repeated.
A series of gasps echoed around the small drawing room and more than one of the elegant ladies clicked her tongue. Mrs. Wiggam let go of both her neighbors’ hands again. “Nonsense!” Her gaze flitted around the room. “Tell that lying, cheating, scoundrel of a husband that I know he amassed a fortune before his death.” She placed her fists on the table and rose slowly to her considerable height, well above my own. She even dwarfed her ghostly husband. “Where is he? I want to tell him to his face.” She reminded me of a great brown bear at the circus Mama had taken me to see as a little girl. The creature had expressed its displeasure at being chained to a bollard by taking a swipe at its handler with an enormous paw. I’d felt sorry for it. I wasn’t yet sure if I felt the same emotion towards Mrs. Wiggam.
I must have glanced sideways at her husband because she turned on the spirit beside me even though she couldn’t see it. He took a step back and fiddled with his necktie again.
“I know there’s money somewhere.” Her bosom heaved and her lips drew back, revealing crooked teeth. “I deserve that money for putting up with you, you wretched little man. Rest assured Barnaby dearest, I’ll find every last penny of it.”
A small, strangled sound escaped Mr. Wiggam’s throat and his apparition shimmered. Fool. He was dead—she couldn’t do anything to him now. Her four friends shrank from her too.
My sister did not. “Mrs. Wiggam, if you’ll please return to your seat,” Celia said in her conciliatory church-mouse voice. She ruined the effect by shooting a sharp glance at me. Mrs. Wiggam sat. She did not, however, resume handholding. Celia turned a gracious smile on her. “Now, Mrs. Wiggam, it’s time to conclude today’s session.” My sister must have an internal clock ticking inside her. She always seemed to know when our half hour was over. “Everyone please close your eyes and repeat after me.” They all duly closed their eyes, except Mrs. Wiggam who’d taken to glaring at me. As if it were my fault her husband was a liar!
“Return oh spirit from whence you came,” Celia chanted.
“Return oh spirit from whence you came,” the four guests repeated.
“Go in peace—.”
“No!” Mrs. Wiggam slapped her palms down on the table. Everyone jumped, including me, and the tambourine rattled. “I do not want him to go in peace. I do not want him to go anywhere!” She crossed her arms beneath her bosom and gave me a satisfied sneer.
I’m not your husband! I wanted to shout at her. Why did everyone think I was the embodiment of their loved one? Or in this case, their despised one. I once had a gentleman kiss me when I summoned his deceased fiancée. It had been my first kiss, and hadn’t been entirely unpleasant.
“Let him go,” Celia said, voice pitching unusually high. She shook her head vigorously, dislodging a brown curl from beneath her hat. “He can’t remain here. It’s his time to go, to cross over.”
“I don’t want to cross over,” Mr. Wiggam said.
“What?” I blurted out.
“Did he say something?” Celia asked me. I repeated what he’d said. “Good lord,” she muttered so quietly I was probably the only one who heard her. Especially since Mrs. Wiggam had started laughing hysterically.
“He wants to stay?” The widow’s grin turned smug. “Very well. It’ll be just like old times—living with a corpse.”
One of the guests snorted a laugh but I couldn’t determine which of the ladies had done it. They all covered their mouths with their gloved hands, attempting to hide their snickers. They failed.
“Tell the old crone I’m glad I died,” Barnaby Wiggam said, straightening. “Being dead without her is a far better state than being alive with her.”
“No, no this won’t do,” Celia said, thankfully saving me from repeating the spirit’s words. She stood up and placed a hand on Mrs. Wiggam’s arm. “Your husband must return. We summoned him at your behest to answer your question and now he needs to cross over into the Otherworld.”
Actually, he probably wouldn’t be crossing over. Not while there was so much lingering anger between himself and his wife. He needed to release the anger before he could go anywhere. Until then he was tied to this world and the Waiting Area. That’s why some places remain haunted—their ghosts aren’t willing to give up the negative emotion keeping them here. Although Celia knew that as well as I, she couldn’t be aware of the extent of Barnaby Wiggam’s sour mood. She certainly couldn’t have known he deliberately lied to his wife about his fortune.
I sighed. As always, I would have to explain it to her later. After we returned the ghost to the Waiting Area. “You have to go back,” I urged him. “You shouldn’t be here. Tell your widow you’re sorry, or that you forgive her or whatever and you can cross over and be at peace.” At least that’s what I assumed happened. Since I wasn’t able to summon anyone from the Otherworld—only the Waiting Area—I couldn’t know for sure what occurred in their final destination. For all I knew the Otherworld was like a political meeting. Endless and dull.
From what the spirits had told me, all ghosts ended up in the Waiting Area until they’d been assigned to a section in the Otherworld. Which section depended on how they’d behaved in life. However, none knew the fate awaiting them in their respective sections. It caused many of the ghosts I’d summoned an anxious wait.
“I’m not sorry.” Barnaby Wiggam sat in an old leather armchair by the hearth and rubbed his knee as if it gave him pain although it couldn’t possibly hurt now. He seemed so at home there, nestled between the enormous rounded arms and deeply cushioned high back, that I wondered if it had been his favorite chair. “I think I’ll stay a little longer. I rather fancy haunting the old witch. It’ll be a jolly time.”
“Jolly!” I spluttered. I appealed to Celia but she simply shrugged. “But you can’t do this!” I said to him. “It’s…it’s illegal!” Nothing like this had happened to us in a year and a half of conducting séances. All our spirits had duly answered the questions their loved ones posed then returned to the Waiting Area, content and ready to cross over. Then again, we’d never summoned anyone who clearly wasn’t a loved one.
What had we done?
Mr. Wiggam picked up a journal from a nearby table and flipped open the pages.
A woman screamed, others gasped, and one fainted into the arms of her friend. Only Celia, Mrs. Wiggam and I remained calm. Celia was used to seeing objects move without being touched, and I of course could see the ghostly form holding the journal. I suspect Mrs. Wiggam was simply made of sterner stuff than her companions.
“The Ladies Pictorial! Utter trash.” Mr. Wiggam threw the journal back onto the table where it collected a porcelain cat figurine and sent it clattering to the floor. The two ears and the tip of the tail broke off. He laughed. “I never liked that thing.”
Mrs. Wiggam simply stepped around the pieces and flung open the heavy velvet drapes. Hazy light bathed the drawing room in sepia tones. London’s days were not bright but I suspected the Wiggams’ drawing room would always be dreary even if the sun dared show its face. The dark burgundy walls and squat, heavy furniture made the space feel small and crowded, particularly with all of us crammed into it. I took a deep breath but the air was smoky, close, and stuck in my throat.
“Let’s have some refreshments, shall we?” Mrs. Wiggam said as if she didn’t have a care in the world. She tugged the bell-pull then bent over the woman who’d fainted, now reclining in one of the chairs at the card table. She slapped her friend’s cheeks then saw to it she was made comfortable with an extra cushion at her back.
I turned to Celia. She frowned at me. “Close your mouth, Emily, you are not a fish.”
I duly shut my mouth. Then opened it again to speak. “What are we to do?” I whispered.
Celia huffed out a breath and looked thoughtful as she fingered the large amulet dangling from a strip of leather around her neck. She’d purchased it last Thursday from the peddler woman who sells bits and pieces door-to-door. Considering Celia was a stickler for maintaining the same format for our drawing room séances, I was surprised when she’d produced a new artifact. It was rather a magnificent piece though, made of heavy brass in the shape of a star with delicate filigree between the six points. Etched into the brass were swirls and strange, twisting patterns. It looked like an ancient tribal token I’d once seen in a museum. I could see why she’d accepted it although the fact it cost her nothing was probably a factor. Celia was not so careless with our meager income that she would squander it on trinkets.
“I wonder…” she said.
“Wonder what? Celia—?”
Celia’s soft chanting interrupted me. With both hands touching the amulet, she repeated some words over and over in a strange, lyrical language I didn’t recognize. Considering I only knew English and possessed a basic knowledge of French, that wasn’t saying a great deal.
She finished her chant and let the amulet go. As she did so a blast of wind swept through the drawing room, rustling hair and skirts, dousing candles and flapping the journal’s pages. A shadow coalesced above the table, a shapeless blob that pulsed and throbbed. It was like the mud that oozed on the riverbank at low tide, sucking and slurping, threatening to swallow small creatures and boots. But the shadow—I could think of no other word to describe the dark, floating mass—altered of its own volition.
No longer shapeless, it became a hand reaching out. Two or three of the guests screamed and scuttled to the far side of the drawing room. Beside me, my sister tensed and circled her arm around my shoulders, pulling me back. She said something under her breath but the loud thud of my heart deafened me to her words, but not to her fear. I could feel it all around me as I stared at the shadow, which was quickly changing shape again.
It became a foot then the head of a rat then a dog with snapping jaws and hungry eyes. A hound from hell, snarling and slavering and vicious. It stretched its neck toward me and before I could react, Celia jerked me back.
The shadow creature’s sharp teeth closed around my shoulder. I squeezed my eyes shut and braced myself. Nothing happened. Oh there was screaming coming from everyone else, including Celia, but I heard no tearing of flesh or clothing. I felt no pain, just a cool dampness against my cheek. I opened my eyes. The creature had turned back into a shapeless cloud. For a brief moment it hovered near the door and then with a whoosh it was gone.
A breathless moment passed. Two. Three.
“What was that?” I whispered in the ensuing hush.
Celia looked around at the white faces staring wide-eyed back at us, hoping we could give them answers. We couldn’t.
She indicated the armchair. “Is he still here?” Her voice shook and she still gripped my shoulders.
“Still here,” both Mr. Wiggam and I said together.
“Did you see that?” he said, staring at the door. He didn’t look nearly as frightened as the others, but then what did a dead man have to fear? He went to the door and peered out into the hall. “I wonder what it was.”
“It’s gone now,” I said. My words seemed to reassure the ladies who stood huddled in the corner of the room.
“The air in this city,” Mrs. Wiggam said with a click of her tongue and a dismissive wave of her hand. “It gets worse and worse every year.” She ushered the ladies to seats, plumped cushions and pooh-poohed any suggestions of a menacing spirit ruining her social event. “It was a trick of the light, that’s all,” she said. “The tense atmosphere in here has got to you all, stirred your imaginations.”
“Stupid woman,” Mr. Wiggam muttered. “She can’t possibly believe that cloud was natural.”
I didn’t care what Mrs. Wiggam thought, as long as her guests accepted her explanation. Clearly some of them did, or perhaps they simply wanted to believe it and so willingly forgot what they’d seen only moments before. One or two seemed unconvinced and I hoped they would not gossip about it later. If word got out that we’d released something sinister during one of our séances, our business could flounder. Celia and I could ill afford such a disaster becoming public knowledge.
“Well,” Celia said, peering down at the amulet hanging from its leather strip. “I thought it a harmless piece.”
“Then why use it?” I hissed.
She gathered up the tambourine and Ouija board, packed them into her carpet bag and snapped the clasp shut. “The peddler who gave it to me said I was to say those words three times if I needed to solve something.”
A maid entered carrying a large tray with teapot and cups. Two other maids followed her with more trays laden with cakes and sandwiches. Celia’s face relaxed at the sight of the refreshments.
“What were the words?” I pressed her.
She waved a hand as she accepted a teacup with the other. Her hands shook so much the cup clattered in the saucer. “Oh, some gibberish. She didn’t tell me what they meant, just that I should repeat them if I needed to fix something. Well I did need to fix something.” She leaned closer to me and lowered her voice. “The spirit of Mr. Wiggam wouldn’t leave.”
I wasn’t entirely convinced that the ongoing presence of Mr. Wiggam was what the woman had meant. Nor was I convinced that the words were gibberish. I looked at the door then at Mr. Wiggam. He stood with his back to the fireplace as if warming himself against the low flames—although he couldn’t feel the cold—and stared at the door, a puzzled expression causing his wild brows to collide.
“The peddler was a mad old thing,” Celia muttered around the rim of her teacup. “Completely mad.” She sipped.
“At least it’s gone, whatever it was, and no one seems affected by it.”
No. No one at all.
“Tell me about the peddler woman,” I asked Celia when we were almost home. We’d decided to walk from Mrs. Wiggam’s Kensington house instead of taking the omnibus. It wasn’t far and we would save on the fare as well as gain some exercise. Celia is all for exercising in the fresh air, although London’s air couldn’t be considered fresh by anyone’s standards as Mrs. Wiggam had reassuringly pointed out to her guests. It stank of smoke and horse dung, made eyes sting and left skin feeling gritty. It was cool, however, and certainly invigorating as the chilly spring breeze nipped at our noses and ruffled the ribbons on our hats.
Celia sighed as if the task of recollection was a burden. “She looked like any other old crone. As wrinkled as unpressed linen, I do recall that. Gray hair, which she wore long and uncovered.” She sniffed to indicate what she thought of that. “Oh and she had a foreign accent. Greek or German I suspect.” Those two countries were neither close nor alike but I didn’t want to interrupt Celia’s flow lest she forget something vital. “I’d never seen her before, she wasn’t the usual Thursday peddler. I don’t know her name, and I don’t know anything else about her except that she was dressed all in black. Now stop fretting, Emily. We’ll let Mr. and Mrs. Wiggam sort out their differences then return him to the Waiting Area tomorrow. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“How can they sort out their differences when she can’t see him or speak to him?” A strong breeze whipped up the street, flattening our skirts and petticoats to our legs. We both slapped a hand to our hats to keep them from blowing away. We lived on Druids Way in Chelsea and it’s always windier than everywhere else in London. It must have something to do with the length and orientation of the street as well as the height of the houses lining both sides of it. None of them were less than two levels and all showed signs of neglect. Much of Chelsea was still occupied by the reasonably prosperous, but our street seemed to have slipped into obscurity some years ago. Paint flaked off front doors and the brick facades were no longer their original red-brown but had turned almost black thanks to the soot permanently shrouding our city. All one had to do was turn the corner and see streets swept clean and houses tenderly kept but Druids Way was like a spinster past her marrying days—avoided by the fashionable set.
I hazarded a sideways glance at Celia and felt a pang of guilt for my unkind comparison. At thirty-three she was unlikely to find a husband. She seemed to have given up on the idea some years ago, preferring to dress in gowns that flattered neither her slim figure nor her lovely complexion. I’d tried many times to have her dress more appropriately for an unwed woman but she refused, saying she’d prefer to see me in the pretty gowns.
“We’ll pay a call on Mrs. Wiggam tomorrow,” Celia said, bowing her head into the wind. “Perhaps Mr. Wiggam will have tired of his wife and be willing to cross over by then. Will that satisfy you?”
“I suppose so.” What else could we do? I couldn’t simply let the matter drop. Not only had we failed to return Mr. Wiggam to the Waiting Area, we’d left him with a person who despised him. There was no handbook for spirit mediums when it came to summoning the dead, but I knew deep down that this situation wasn’t acceptable. Celia and I had no right to rip souls out of the Waiting Area and reignite emotional wounds in this world. It had never been a problem in the past, so I’d never given it much thought. Besides which, the ghosts we summoned at our drawing room séances had always willingly returned to the Waiting Area afterwards, and they’d done so feeling content that their loved ones could move on too.
Or so I liked to think. The Wiggams’ situation had shaken me. Celia and I were fools to think we could control the deceased, or the living for that matter.
I also had the awful feeling we’d released something else in Mrs. Wiggam’s drawing room by using that strange incantation. Something sinister. I only wish I knew what.
“Now, what shall we have for supper?” Celia asked.
I stopped with one foot on the stairs leading up to our front door and suppressed a small squeak of surprise. A man stood on the landing, leaning against the door, his arms crossed over his chest. He looked older than me but not by much, tall, with short dark hair and a face that was a little too square of jaw and sharp of cheek to be fashionable. It wasn’t a beautiful face in the classical statue sense but it was certainly handsome.
The odd thing about him wasn’t that we’d not noticed him earlier—we’d had our heads bent against the wind after all—but the way he was dressed. He wore black trousers, boots and a white shirt but nothing else. No hat, no necktie, jacket or vest and, scandalously, the top buttons of his shirt were undone so that his bare chest was partially visible.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the skin there. It looked smooth and inexplicably warm considering the cool air, and—.
“There you are,” he said. I dragged my gaze up to his face and was greeted by a pair of blue eyes that had an endlessness to their depths. As if that wasn’t unsettling enough, his curious gaze slowly took in every inch of me, twice. To my utter horror, my face heated. He smiled at that, or I should say he half-smiled, which didn’t help soothe my complexion in the least. “Your mouth is open,” he said.
I shut it. Swallowed. “Uh, Celia?”
“Yes?” Celia dug through her reticule, searching for the front door key.
“You can’t see him, can you?”
She glanced up, her hand still buried in her reticule, the carpet bag at her feet. “See who?”
“That gentleman standing there.” I waggled my fingers at him in a wave. He waved back.
She shook her head. “No-o. Are you trying to tell me Mr. Wiggam is here?”
“Not Mr. Wiggam, no.”
“But…” She frowned. “Who?”
“Jacob Beaufort,” the spirit said without moving from his position. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. I’d shake your sister’s hand,” he said to me, “but given she can’t see me she won’t be able to touch me either.” I could see him, and therefore touch him, but he didn’t offer to shake my hand.
Unlike ordinary people, I could touch the ghosts. Celia and the other guests at our séances simply walked through them as if they were mist but I couldn’t, which made sense to me. After all, they could haunt a place by tossing objects about, or upturn tables and knock on wood, why wouldn’t they have physical form? At least for the person who could see them.
I wondered what he would feel like. He looked remarkably solid. Indeed, he looked very much alive, more so than any ghost I’d ever seen. Usually they faded in and out and had edges like a smudged charcoal sketch, but Jacob Beaufort was as well defined as Celia.
“Er, pleased to meet you too,” I said. “I’m Emily Chambers and this is my sister Miss Celia Chambers.”
Celia bobbed a curtsy although she wasn’t quite facing Mr. Beaufort, then picked up her bag and approached him. Or rather, approached the door. She walked straight through him and inserted the key into the lock.
“I say!” he said and stepped aside.
“She didn’t mean any offense,” I said quickly.
“Did I do something wrong?” Celia asked as the door swung open.
“You walked through him.”
“Oh dear, I am terribly sorry, Mr…”
“Beaufort,” I filled in for her.
“As my sister said, I meant no offense, Mr. Beaufort.” She spoke to the door. I cleared my throat and pointed at the ghost now standing to one side on the landing. She turned a little and smiled at him. “Why are you haunting our front porch?”
I winced and gave Mr. Beaufort an apologetic shrug. My sister may be all politeness with the living but she’d yet to grasp the art of tactful communication with the deceased.
“Celia,” I hissed at her, but she either didn’t hear me or chose to ignore me.
“It’s all right,” Mr. Beaufort said, amused. “May I enter? I won’t harm either of you. I simply need to talk to you and I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable out of this breeze.”
“Of course.” How could one refuse such a considerate suggestion? Or such beautiful eyes that twinkled with a hidden smile. I told Celia what he wanted. She hesitated then nodded, as if her permission mattered. If a ghost wanted to come into our house, he could.
He allowed me to enter behind Celia then followed—walking, as ghosts don’t float like most people think they do. They get about by walking, just like the living. Oh and sometimes they disappear then reappear in another location, which can be disconcerting.
Bella our maid met us at the door and took our coats and Celia’s bag. “Tea, Miss?” she asked.
Celia nodded. “For two thank you.” She didn’t mention the addition of Mr. Beaufort. Bella was easily frightened and we didn’t want to lose another maid. The last three had left our employment after witnessing one of our in-house séances. It was difficult enough to find good help with what little we could afford to pay but it was made even harder thanks to our line of work. Gentlewomen of leisure may find our séances a diversion, but I’ve found the servants and poor to be far more superstitious.
Bella hung up hats and coats and had retreated down the hall to the stairs. I indicated the first room to our right. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting in the drawing room,” I said to Mr. Beaufort. “I need to speak to my sister for a moment.”
The ghost bowed and did as I requested. “Celia,” I said turning on her when he was no longer visible, “please don’t ask him any questions about his death or haunting…or any morbid things.”
“Why? We have a right to know more about the people we invite into our home, dead or alive.”
“But it’s so terribly…” Embarrassing. “…impolite.”
“Nonsense. Now, why do you think he’s here? To hire us perhaps?”
“I suppose so.” I couldn’t think of any other explanation.
“Good. Hopefully the other party can afford our fees.” She tilted her chin up and plastered a calm smile on her face. “Come along,” she said, “let’s not keep him waiting.”
Jacob Beaufort was studying the two framed daguerreotypes on our mantelpiece when we entered the drawing room. A small frown darkened his brow. “A handsome pair. Your parents?”
“Our mother,” I said, “and Celia’s father.”
“Ah,” he said as if that satisfied his curiosity. I could only guess what had piqued his interest. Most likely it was my skin tone, so dusky next to Celia’s paleness, and the fact I looked nothing at all like either of the people in the pictures he held.
Celia sighed and sat on the sofa, spreading her skirt to cover as much of the threadbare fabric as possible, as was her habit when we had company. “Really, Emily,” she muttered under her breath.
The ghost’s gaze darted around the room. “Is there no image of your father here?”
“My father?” I said for Celia’s benefit. “No.”
She narrowed her gaze at me and gave a slight shake of her head as if to say not now. It was a well-chewed bone of contention between us. She insisted I call our mother’s husband, Celia’s father, Papa as she did. She in turn always referred to him as “Our father” and even Mama when she was alive had called him “Your Papa” when speaking of him to either one of us.
Despite the fact he’d died over a year before I was born.
I knew he couldn’t possibly be my real father but I had long ago accepted he was the closest I’d get to one. Mama had refused to discuss the matter of my paternity despite my repeated questions. Not even Celia cared to talk about it, but I wasn’t entirely sure she knew who my father was anyway. She had only been sixteen when I was born, and it was unlikely Mama had confided in her. It must have been terribly scandalous at the time, and explained why we never spoke to any of our relations and had few friends.
Although I accepted I may never know, a part of me still burned to learn the truth. I’d even tried to summon Mama’s ghost once after her death to ask, but she’d not appeared.
“Mr. Beaufort,” I said, shaking off the melancholy that usually descended upon me when thinking of my father.
“Call me Jacob,” he said. “I think we can dispense with formalities considering the circumstances, not to mention my attire.”
“Of course.” I tried to smile politely but I fear it looked as awkward as I felt. His attire was not something to be dismissed casually. It was what he happened to be wearing when he died. Mr. Wiggam must have died wearing his formal dinner suit but it seemed Mr. Beaufort—Jacob—had been somewhat more casually dressed. It’s the reason why I’ll never sleep naked.
“What’s he saying?” Celia asked, linking her hands on her lap.
“That we’re to call him Jacob,” I said.
“I see. Jacob, do you think you could hold something so I know where you are? The daguerreotype of our father will do.”
I rolled my eyes. There she goes again—our father indeed.
“That’s better,” she said when Jacob obliged by picking up the wooden frame. “Now, please sit.” He sat in the armchair which matched the sofa, right down to the faded upholstery. “Who do you wish us to contact?”
“Contact?” Jacob said.
“She means which of your loved ones do you want to communicate with,” I said. “We can establish a meeting and you can tell them anything you wish, or ask a question. It’ll give you peace,” I said when he looked at me askance. “And help you cross over. Into the Otherworld.” Good lord, he must be a fresh one. But he didn’t look in the least frightened or wary as most newly deceased do.
“For a small fee,” Celia added. “To be paid by your loved one of course.”
“You have the wrong idea,” he said, putting up his free hand. It was broad and long-fingered with scrapes and bruises on the knuckles, which struck me as odd. They looked fresh. He must have got them just before he died. So what was a handsome man with an aristocratic accent doing brawling with his bare knuckles? “I’m not here to contact anyone.”
Bella entered at that moment carrying a tray of tea things. I had to lean to one side to see past her rather prominent rear as she bent over to set the tray on the table. I forked my brows at Jacob to prompt him—asking him outright might seem a little odd to Bella, particularly if Celia, the only other person in the room as far as the maid was concerned, failed to answer.
“I’m here because I’ve been assigned to you,” he said.
“What?” I slapped a hand over my mouth.
Bella straightened and followed my line of sight straight to the framed daguerreotype of Celia’s father hovering—as she would have seen it—above the armchair. She screamed and collapsed onto the rug in a dead faint.
Celia sighed. “Oh dear. She was such a good maid too.”