Excerpt: My Soul To Take

Book 3 : The 3rd Freak House Trilogy

My Soul To Take (Freak House Trilogy) by C.J. Archer

Hertfordshire, Summer 1889

“Cara, you must not leave! I’m begging you to stay a little longer.” Hannah gripped my wrist so tightly that my hand began to throb and turn purple. Her bright blue eyes implored me as fiercely as her words. “Sylvia’s hysteria will drive me mad if I don’t have your company to keep me sane.”

I’d already been at Frakingham House for a week, after sending the escaped spirits back to Hell. It had proven to be long enough. Hannah was right, and Sylvia’s current glum mood was infecting everyone. Everyone, that is, except her uncle. I’d decided to leave the following day, but only told Hannah so far. I’d not expected her to provide an obstacle to my departure.

“What about Jack?” I asked. “Surely you newlyweds want to spend some time together on long walks in the sunshine? That will give you some peace.”

“Jack’s too busy for long walks. His absence during our honeymoon means there’s a backlog of estate business waiting for him, and there’s no one to assist him, with Tommy gone.” She swiveled to face me more fully on the sofa. Her hand moved from my wrist to my elbow, allowing the blood to resume flowing.

I flexed my tingling fingers. At her distressed look, I gave her a sympathetic smile.

Her eyes narrowed and hardened. “I know that look, Cara Moreau.”

I tried to make my expression a picture of innocence. “I haven’t said anything yet.”

“You’re about to offer me sympathy then tell me Sylvia will probably only mope for another day or two, which we both know isn’t true.”

She was right there. It would be some time before Sylvia returned to her normal, bouncy self. Her heart was broken; Tommy had been banished from Freak House by her uncle, August Langley. As someone whose heart would forever bear the scars of a love lost, I knew how she felt. She might never be the same again. I knew I wouldn’t be, but it seemed I was better at containing my emotions compared to Sylvia. I saved all my tears for when I was alone at night, and didn’t talk about Quin to the others. Much. Certainly not as many times as Sylvia lamented Tommy’s absence.

“And then you’ll tell me your niece needs you,” Hannah went on, “when, in fact, I know you haven’t had any correspondence from Emily in four days.”

I swallowed my guilt. She’d picked out my lie before I’d even offered it. “It’s difficult for me to listen to Sylvia go on and on about Tommy when I’m feeling somewhat bruised by Quin’s departure.” Bruised was an understatement. My heart felt like it had been ripped from my chest, stomped on, shredded, and shoved back in. At least Sylvia had a chance of seeing her heart’s desire again.

“I do sympathize.” Hannah’s face softened. “But with you gone, and Jack out all day, the only person of any sense that I can speak to is Bollard, and a conversation with him is a one-way street.” She shot a glance up at the central rosette on the ceiling where, two levels above us, Bollard would be assisting Langley with his latest experiment. “Besides, he still makes me a little nervous.”

I sighed. I was out of excuses.

“I also have a suggestion to keep us both occupied and your mind off…” She blinked and looked away.

“Something other than playing intermediary between Sylvia and Langley? It will have to be very good, Hannah. I do miss Emily and the children.”

“I know.” Her voice was heavy with understanding. “We have some research to conduct. Here, this will explain everything.” She pulled out a letter from the pocket of her skirt and handed it to me. “It’s from Charity and Samuel. Oh, this letter was delivered today too. It’s for you.”

It was from Nathaniel Faraday, according to the return address. It was the second one that week, and I had yet to respond to the first. I set it aside and opened the other.

The first part of the letter mentioned that Tommy was helping Charity and the other teachers at the orphans’ school. “Thank goodness for that,” I muttered. “He’s well suited to be a teacher there, although hopefully it’s only temporary.”

“You think August will calm down and ask him to return?” Hannah looked up at the ceiling again.

“He’ll come to his senses when he sees that Sylvia isn’t recovering from her heartbreak.”

“He has to come out of his laboratory to see her, and he hasn’t done that all week. Except to berate her yet again over her ‘foolish and disgusting display with a servant,’ as he called it.”

I’d heard him say those exact words too. He’d followed it up by reiterating that she had until Samuel and Charity’s wedding to find herself a suitable husband or he’d find one for her. Poor Sylvia. She’d run from the room sobbing. She knew as well as anyone that August Langley meant every word. While he might have allowed her to marry a man who wasn’t wealthy or titled, he certainly wouldn’t allow his hard-fought social status to sink by having his niece run off with a fellow who used to be the footman.

I pointed to a line on the letter that said Tommy seemed content with his role, although he hoped to one day return to his friends at Frakingham House. “Have you informed Sylvia?”

“I have. Read on. There’s more.”

The next part of the letter contained news of Charity and Samuel’s wedding plans; the ceremony was to be held at Samuel’s ancestral home in three weeks. They then asked if they could stop at Frakingham House after the wedding, since Langley and Bollard had declined the invitation due to Langley’s incapacity.

“Are you going to have them here?” I asked Hannah.

“Of course. Not that I think August deserves special attention. He could have gone to the trouble to attend the wedding, Bollard would be there to assist him.”

“I think large groups of people make him anxious.”

She sniffed. “We should endeavor to venture into territory that makes us anxious from time to time. It’s good for building fortitude.”

I said nothing. Hannah had an adventurous spirit and had been confined to an attic most of her life. It was no wonder she didn’t understand why some people preferred solitude and confinement.

“That’s not why I showed the letter to you,” she said. “The final page is most enlightening.”

The name Myer jumped out at me. I read quickly, then read it again. “This is interesting.” While Charity was busy with teaching and wedding plans, Samuel had decided to fill his time conducting some research into Everett Myer, our acquaintance who was last seen entering the portal at the Frakingham Abbey ruins. He could have been anywhere by now, in any realm. He might have even been dead.

Hannah leaned over my shoulder and pointed to the same line that had intrigued me. It wasn’t something Samuel had discovered about Everett Myer, but rather his wife, Edith. Or, more accurately, her family. “They all died very suddenly,” she said. “They were poisoned.”

“Soon afterward, she married Myer.” I lowered the letter to my lap. “That is suspicious. Do you think he killed them?” A shudder rippled through me, chilling my bones.

“I don’t know. For all that I don’t like him, he doesn’t seem like a cold-blooded murderer.”

“Yes, but they were poisoned. It’s easier to commit murder when one doesn’t have to get blood on one’s hands.”

Hannah blinked owlishly at me.

“So I suspect.”

“I’m not sure that I agree with that sentiment,” she said. “Anyway, Samuel says it was ruled suicide. I’m sure the coroner thoroughly investigated before coming to that conclusion.”

I agreed. “Particularly because they were a prominent family.” Edith Myer’s father had been a partner in the banking firm, Hatfield and Harrington. His wealth had been vast and his heiress’s hand in marriage highly sought after. Everett Myer had been fortunate to capture her, considering his own background was unspectacular. It was difficult to see what he’d brought to the union.

“What else did Samuel say?” I asked as I read further.

“He hasn’t got time to look into it, but suggests we should learn everything we can about the deaths.”

I handed the letter back to her. “And how do we do that?”

“There are some old newspapers in the attic from around that time. We could see if they contain anything.” Her eyes twinkled, and I knew she had something more adventurous in mind. “And we could pay a visit to the delightful Detective Inspector Weeks.”

I pulled a face. Weeks was a sycophant and a generally odious man. The sycophant part could be of help, however. The odious part would have to be endured. “Surely he won’t know anything about it. It was a long time ago, and I don’t believe he’s ever worked in London.”

“He could write to the coroner and ask for details of the investigation.”

“Won’t that seem suspicious after all this time?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “Perhaps, but who will mind? Besides, we’ll help him think up a convincing story.”

“After we convince him first.”

She smiled ever-so charmingly. “I’ve found Inspector Weeks to be quite accommodating toward Sylvia in the past. As the new lady of Freak House, I suspect he’ll be as equally accommodating to me.”

I grinned. “You’re probably right. If nothing else, it’ll get us out of the house for an afternoon and take my mind off…”

Her smile faded and she touched my hand. “I’ll be up in the attic looking through newspapers. Join me when you’ve read your letter.”

I frowned, and it wasn’t until she nodded at the letter I’d discarded on the sofa beside me that I remembered. “Oh yes. Nathaniel.”

“He’s a good man and he likes you.”

A combination that was quite rare, I’d found. While I was deemed pretty enough by most gentlemen of means, I was considered too “exotic” to be marriageable.

She winked as she rose. “Besides, he’s terribly handsome and charming.”

“He’s also available,” I muttered as I opened the letter. Not at all like Quin, who was condemned to Purgatory where he performed warrior duties for the administrators.

I swallowed down the lump in my throat. I must not dwell on him and his circumstance. It would only bring tears and more heartache, and I preferred to save those for the evenings when I was alone.

Hannah left me in the sitting room, and I read the letter. It was short and to the point. Nathaniel’s last letter had asked me when I would be returning to London, and if he could see me when I did. My response had been that I wasn’t sure, as my family had removed themselves to Jacob’s estate for the summer. Now he was asking if he could visit me there, or at Frakingham if I remained with the Langleys for any length of time.

I folded the single page and slumped into the depths of the sofa with a sigh. I liked Nathaniel, just not in the way that everyone wanted me to. While he was charming, handsome and kind, as Hannah had pointed out, he was no substitute for Quin. I didn’t want to receive his attentions because I couldn’t return them with any sincerity. Besides, the last time I’d seen him, he’d been disbelieving of the supernatural. If he found out I was a medium, he might think me mad altogether. Perhaps that would be a way to discourage him.

“Cara? Cara…there you are!” Sylvia plopped down on the sofa with a rustle of silk skirts. Her blonde curls danced artfully around her sweet oval face in a way that made my dark tresses seem lackluster and heavy. If it weren’t for her swollen nose and red eyes, she would have looked very pretty.

“Can I help you with something?”

“You can indeed.” She nodded at the letter in my hand. “Is that from Charity and Samuel?”

“No.” I didn’t tell her who it was really from. I didn’t need another lecture on how Nathaniel Faraday was perfect for me. Despite her own love for someone as unsuitable as Tommy, she still didn’t see how I could love someone like Quin over Nathaniel. “Hannah just showed me the letter from Samuel. The information about the Myers was most enlightening, don’t you agree?”

She waved that topic away with her handkerchief. “He’s safe and sound at the school, thank goodness. I’ve been so worried he’d fallen into his old ways again, or just…wandered off.” It seemed she wasn’t prepared to discuss topics other than Tommy.

She dabbed her handkerchief to the corner of her eye, and I saw that it was indeed watery.

I closed my hand over hers on her lap. “He wouldn’t wander off. Of course he’ll stay somewhere that he can be found easily. Charity and the others will see that he’s kept busy. There’s no chance he’ll resort to thieving or living on the street again.”

“Yes, of course. He wouldn’t stoop to such depths when there are other choices available to him.” She sniffed again. “So, will you do it?”

“Do what? You haven’t yet asked me anything.”

“Write to him, of course.”

I tilted my head. “On your behalf?”

“No, on your own, silly. As one friend to another, the way you would to Charity or anyone else.” She patted my hand and gave me a benevolent smile that would have pleased the most pious nun. “It would be nice if you mentioned a little about me in your letter. Perhaps you could tell him that I think about him. That my heart is true.”

“Sylvia, is that wise?”

“Oh yes! It would sound better coming from you.”

It wasn’t what I meant, but she prattled on and I shut my mouth.

“Perhaps you could mention that I’m showing courage under very trying circumstances.” She let go of my hand and smoothed out the non-existent wrinkles in her skirt. “Also that I’m being held against my will.”

“But you’re not.”

“I’m not allowed to go to London. I might as well be kept prisoner in my room if I cannot visit him.”

“Or go shopping.”

“Precisely. You do understand me, Cara.”

I somehow kept my smile from breaking out.

“Tell him not to give up hope.” Her chin shuddered. “Tell him Bollard is doing his best to convince Uncle that he should allow Tommy to come home.”

He was? While I knew the dour mute cared for Sylvia as if she were his own niece, I didn’t think he’d jeopardize his position for her over this. Bollard may be more than a confidant and assistant to Langley, but he was still only a servant in his master’s eyes. He was still walking a precarious line by standing up for the couple.

“Tell Tommy that I am doing my best,” Sylvia went on. She turned those big watery eyes to me and my heart softened. “I care very much for him. I love him, Cara. You know what it’s like. You understand that I’ll do anything to be with him. Don’t you?”

I kissed her damp cheek. “I do.”

“Then please write to him. Assure him that if I cannot convince Uncle…” She shook her head.

“That you’ll what? Run away with Tommy? Sylvia, are you certain that’s what you want?”

“It’s not what I want.” Her vehemence had me jerking away from her. “I want Tommy to live here, with me, in his home. But I will leave here if I have to. I will, Cara.”

“So I see.”

“But I don’t think it’s wise to tell Tommy that. Not yet.”

I frowned. “Why not?”

“Because he’ll disappear without telling anyone where he’s going.”

She was right. Tommy was a gentleman, and he adored her. He would do what he thought was best for her, even if he thought walking away was the right thing to do. On the surface, perhaps it was. She would continue to live here in comfort, under Langley’s protection. She would have a home for life. But she would be miserable.

I knew it better than most. At night, when I lay in bed and contemplated my future, there was nothing but a yawning expanse of nothing ahead of me. Without Quin to share my life, it was simply an endless stretch of days, minutes and seconds, strung together one after the other.

I drew in a deep breath and pushed my own melancholy aside. I now had two things to focus on that didn’t involve Quin. Discovering what happened to the Hatfield family, and helping Sylvia and Tommy be together. After that, I would find something else to do. I could conquer this melancholy. I could live a fruitful, interesting life without him. It would just be lived alone.

“I’ll write to him this evening,” I told her.

“Why not now?”

“I need time to consider what to say. Besides, I promised Hannah to help her in the attic. There are some old newspapers up there we want to check for news of the Hatfield family deaths.”

“Can I come? Please let me join you. I need a distraction.”

I grinned. “Of course. But on one condition. You do not mention Tommy.”

She considered this then nodded. “As long as you don’t mention Quin.”

“When have I mentioned Quin?” I thought I’d been very quiet about him, in fact, and kept my feelings to myself.

“Not with words,” she said, rising. “With your eyes. They’re all sad and filled with hopelessness.”

I refrained from telling her that I couldn’t mention Quin with my eyes, but decided it was best to leave the entire discussion alone and focus on the task ahead. It would be best for both of us.

***

“Here’s another one,” Hannah said, adding a newspaper to our collection of two others.

Sylvia and I joined her at the small table that we’d cleared of knickknacks and read the article. All three articles had appeared on the front pages, and all were rather sensational in their reporting, describing how the bodies had been found and the reaction of the neighbors and police alike.

Sylvia shuddered. “It reminds me of those horrible Jack the Ripper murders last year.”

“It’s nothing like those,” I said. “They were committed in Whitechapel for starters, not Mayfair, and the victims were horribly mutilated. This appears to be poison or something…less gruesome.”

Hannah gasped. “How awful. Did they ever catch the murderer?”

I blinked at her, momentarily forgetting that she’d been living in an attic at the time of the Ripper murders with no outside communication. They’d been the topic on everyone’s lips and the focus for the journalists and newspapers for some time. “Unfortunately not, but there’s been no murders of that nature since, thank God.”

“This is new,” Sylvia said, pointing to a paragraph in the middle.

I read it and was about to say something when the light coming through the doorway was blocked. “There you all are,” Jack said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.” He joined us and kissed his wife. She smiled at him and looped her arm around his waist. “There must be something interesting up here to have all three of you sifting through the dust. Sylvia in particular.”

His cousin put her hand on her hip and shot him a glare. She waved a newspaper in front of him.

“We’re researching the Hatfield family’s deaths,” Hannah told him.

“Edith Myer’s family?” He peered down at the paper. “What have you discovered?”

“Not terribly much,” I said. “The deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Hatfield occurred a mere two months before Edith married Myer. They died from poison, which they drank directly from bottles clearly marked ‘poison.’”

“Suicide.”

“That’s the conclusion everyone drew.”

“I don’t necessarily agree,” Sylvia said.

“Nor do I.”

She seemed surprised and pleased that she’d jumped to a reasonable conclusion that the newspapers, and perhaps the police, seemed to have missed.

“Two of the maids died too!” Hannah gasped as she read to the end of the article with Jack. “So…murder andsuicide?”

Jack glanced over the other two articles. “It’s not entirely unreasonable that all four committed suicide. A lovers’ pact, perhaps, or…” He waved his hand in the air then shrugged. “No, I can’t think of any reason why the maids would kill themselves.”

“I’m not sure your lovers’ pact holds water either,” Hannah said. “I know I’ve lived a sheltered life, but four?”

Sylvia nodded. “I agree with Hannah. Even three seems somewhat…complicated.”

Jack’s eyes danced with mischief, and I suspect he held back a retort for my sake, the only female in the room that he wasn’t related to.

“So we’re back to either murder-suicide, or four murders.” Hannah chewed on her lip. “Perhaps the maids hated their employers, killed them, then killed themselves because they knew they’d be discovered and it would distress their families too much to think of them as murderesses.”

“Or perhaps the maids were the lovers and Mr. and Mrs. Hatfield discovered their tryst then dismissed them from their positions.” Sylvia nodded emphatically. “I do like that theory.”

Jack eyed her cautiously. “Your theory is interesting, if somewhat macabre.”

Hannah and I exchanged worried glances. Sylvia’s doomed lovers theories were most unlike her. We’d best keep our eye on her over the coming days and weeks.

“There is, of course, the most obvious theory,” I said. “That Myer himself somehow killed them all.”

“But why kill the maids as well as the parents?” Hannah asked.

“Perhaps they saw him direct the Hatfields to drink the poison.”

“Hypnosis.” Sylvia pressed her fingers to her lips. “Oh my. Yes, of course. He hypnotized them and forced them to kill themselves. That is diabolical.”

“And yet plausible,” Jack muttered. “You’re probably right about the maids. They realized what he was doing and had to die too.”

Sylvia plopped down on a chair covered by a dusty sheet. Her dress would get filthy, but she didn’t seem to care, or notice. “What should we do with this information? Go to the police?”

Jack snorted. “They won’t believe our theory. Besides, too much time has passed. As far as they’re concerned, the matter was laid to rest years ago. They’re too busy to reopen old cases.”

“But he cannot be allowed to get away with this,” Hannah said. “It doesn’t seem fair somehow.”

“We could tell his wife what we suspect.”

We stared at him in silence as we thought through his idea. I was the first to speak. “Surely she has considered it already. She possibly even confronted him over it. She knows he’s quite capable of the hypnosis side of things.”

Hannah nodded. “Perhaps that’s why she hates him now.”

“So why not divorce him?” Sylvia asked. “Or just leave him?”

I shrugged. “Fear?”

“But she doesn’t seem all that afraid of him,” Hannah said.

“True. In fact, it’s he who avoids her. Perhaps he has suggested through hypnosis that she must never leave him. Is that even possible?”

“I don’t know,” Jack said. “We could ask Gladstone.”

I leaned my hip against the table and scanned the newspapers again. What we needed to do was speak to Myer. He wouldn’t admit to anything, of course, but we might know if he was guilty or innocent from his eyes or his mannerisms. While he was secretive, whenever we confronted him over his secrets, he often divulged more information than we hoped for.

The problem was Myer had disappeared through the portal, according to the ghost who’d seen him enter it. He was free. Perhaps that was his intention all along—escape his crimes by traveling to another realm. Except he hadn’t been found guilty on this realm yet; he hadn’t even been a suspect until now.

“Cara, you’re right.” Jack’s dark voice had us all looking at him.

“But I haven’t said anything.”

“I know what you’re thinking.”

Hannah’s jaw dropped and she stared at me. “Cara, is that wise?”

“I haven’t spoken!”

Sylvia glanced between us all. “What? Why am I always the last to know?”

“Cara thinks we ought to open the portal and find him,” Hannah said, turning a hard glare onto me.

I thought it rather unfair to be condemned for thinking something.

“And I agree with her,” Jack said.

“What?” Hannah and Sylvia both exploded.

“That is the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard you say,” Hannah told her husband.

“Sweetheart.” He reached for her hands but she jerked them away and thrust them on her hips.

“Do not ‘sweetheart’ me. Promise me you won’t open the portal, Jack.”

He appealed to me, but I held up my hands. I wasn’t going to get involved. What I was going to do was find a quiet place to think things through.

I left the three of them arguing in the attic, both women against Jack. He watched me go with a resigned twist of his mouth.

I headed up to the tower room and sat in the window embrasure. The summer sun bathed the countryside in muted light, softening the green of the grass and the blue of the sky. Usually I avoided these quiet, contemplative moments during the day because my thoughts always headed in the one direction—Quin. But this time I allowed myself to wallow in the peace and let my mind wander.

I could summon him and ask him to find Myer for us. Would the administrators let him do that upon our request? Surely if Myer was a threat in another realm they would have sent Quin to fetch him already. Perhaps. I wasn’t entirely sure how the rules worked or the degree of interference the administrators had.

We didn’t actually need Quin to open the portal. Myer had the book of spells but we possessed a page with the spell to open the portal. But even if we opened it and climbed through, how could we be certain we’d end up in the same realm Myer traveled to? I sifted through the pros and cons in my head but it really only boiled down to one on each side.

Cons: It was dangerous.

Pros: It would give me something to do—and I might see Quin again.

That settled, I went to find the others. Sylvia was nowhere to be seen, but I found Jack and Hannah still in the attic, their backs to one another. Hannah looked close to tears. I went to her and she gave me an arched look that lasted only a moment before her lip wobbled.

Her sniff had Jack spinning round. “Hannah,” he murmured, gathering her in his arms. He tucked her head beneath his chin. “Don’t cry.”

“It’s too dangerous,” she said. “I don’t want you to do it, but I know you. You’ll go anyway because you think you must.”

“He won’t,” I said before he could respond. They both looked at me. “Hannah is right,” I told him. “She needs you here. You have a life to build together. Samuel and Charity too,” I said when he opened his mouth to speak. “And Tommy is not yet fully recovered from his injuries and may never be. I’ll go.”

“You will not!” Hannah said, pulling away from Jack.

“Agreed.” His face darkened and I could see the steel of the man I would have to convince to stay behind while I went through the portal.

“I want to,” I told them. “I’d like to see the other realms, for one thing. And secondly…” I sighed. “Moping about here is not doing me any good. I need…activity.”

“Take up croquet,” he snapped. “Or horse riding.”

Hannah’s face softened. “It doesn’t mean you’ll get to see him, you know. Wherever he is.”

“I know. But…” I shrugged. “I want to go regardless.”

“No,” Jack said. “It’s too dangerous for a woman.”

Hannah dug her elbow into his ribs. “It’s too dangerous for a man, too.”

“I’ll leave you two to think about it.” I turned away. “But you can’t stop me.”

My exit was blocked by a very stern looking Sylvia. I’d never seen her mouth set in such a determined line, not even when she was haggling over the price of a new gown with the seamstress. “I knew you’d do this,” she said, not letting me past.

“I’m glad you overheard,” I told her. “It saves me explaining my reasons again. I am going through, Sylvia. Please fetch the parchment with the spell on it.”

She didn’t move. “You are so stubborn, Cara, and Jack is little better.” Her eyes flashed at her cousin beyond my shoulder.

“I’ve decided Jack isn’t coming. The parchment, please, Sylvia.”

“And if I don’t give it to you?”

“I’ll search your room until I find it.”

She made a huffing noise. “Well, for once, I am ahead of you.”

Damnation! “Have you hidden it elsewhere?”

She gave a defiant tilt of her chin. “Better. I’m going to stop you from entering the portal altogether.”

“How?”

“I’ve summoned a secret weapon.” She stepped aside, not to let me to pass, but to allow someone else through the doorway.

“Quin!”

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