A special Gaslight short story for Halloween 2009

by Nene Adams ©2009

“The dead speak seldom, but they never lie.”

---The World’s Desire, H. Rider Haggard

“Let us touch hands and form the sacred circle,” moaned the medium, Madame Coralie Girard, tossing her head back as the trance seized her. “The spirits are eager to come to us tonight! Ah, I feel their emanations… they are close!”

The parlor was suffocatingly dark save for a tiny oil lamp in the center of the table, the flame dimmed by a red glass shade so that it cast very little light. On the medium’s right side, Rhiannon Moore shifted in her chair, feeling oppressed by the claustrophobic atmosphere. The air seemed stale, scented with some strong cloying fragrance that stuck in her throat. Worse was the chill draft on her neck, a constant caress that made her shiver.

Beside her on the left, her partner Lady Evangeline St. Claire leaned over to whisper in her ear, “Do not be afraid, my dear, there are no such things as spirits. The dead do not rise to haunt the night, except in Gothic novels of the more feverish kind.”

Rhiannon did not reply. Like everyone else around the table, she kept her hands pressed palm down on the lace cloth that covered the top, her little fingers touching those of her neighbors. A loud rap sounded, and Rhiannon jumped. Lina’s somewhat condescending chuckle did nothing to soothe her nerves. She did not really believe in ghosts, but it was Halloween. Who knew what might happen on such a night?

The faint glow cast by the red-shaded lamp left the other seven participants looking fairly demonic, their faces leering crimson out of the darkness as if they had been dipped in blood. Rhiannon was not acquainted with any of them apart from Lina, which added to her discomfort. A room full of friends would have made the séance easier to bear.

A series of raps vibrated under Rhiannon’s hands. Madame Coralie let out another moan. Her face had stiffened into a contorted mask, horrible to see. The table shuddered, then rose and tilted a little before bumping onto the floor. Rhiannon’s mouth went dry. A moment later, the table levitated higher, several inches into the air. At the same time, a jangling tambourine floated across the room to hover above the medium’s head.

Rhiannon sat frozen in place, her blood turning to ice.

The table thumped back into place while the medium babbled, a confused tangle of syllables that meant nothing, and afterwards she fell silent. Rhiannon dared not make a sound to break the expectant hush that settled over the parlor. A pair of disembodied glowing hands flashed out of the dark. The tambourine swooped down to be grabbed and vigorously shaken before both instrument and hands whisked away, vanishing from sight.

Suddenly, something peeped out of Madame Coralie’s half open mouth. It looked like a fat luminous white slug. Rhiannon found it loathsome, but equally fascinating as more and more of the stuff emerged from the medium’s mouth, squirming its way between her lips. Ectoplasm! Having read about such physical manifestations of the spirit world in books and magazines, Rhiannon could not tear her gaze away. When the ectoplasm had emerged about a yard, the end rose up until it formed a glistening rope reaching for the ceiling.  

A woman’s voice echoed hollowly, “David? Oh, David, darling, I am here!”

“El-el-eleanor?” one of the men around the table replied, stuttering over the name. Rhiannon recalled him from the brief meeting of the sitters in Madame Coralie’s drawing room earlier that evening, before they moved to the parlor for the séance. Slender, brown-haired and aristocratic, the Honorable David Lancelot Bliss had seemed withdrawn, somewhat melancholy. The wide band of black crape of the type known as a “weeper” on his hat had told Rhiannon that Mr. Bliss was in deep mourning for someone close to him.

“David, I hear you… I am happy now,” the ghostly voice stated.

Rhiannon knew Madam Coralie could not be speaking; the woman’s mouth was filled with ectoplasm, more of which oozed out to plop into her lap.

Apart from David Bliss, there were two other men and three other women around the table, not including Lina and herself. As far as Rhiannon could tell, none of them was speaking, either, and Eleanor’s voice sounded as if it came from very far away… perhaps as far as the spirit world, she thought, shivering. Her ultra-logical partner Lina did not believe in ghosts, but she was not so sure.

“Eleanor!” David sobbed. “My God!”

He appeared so affected, Rhiannon feared for his sanity. An older bearded gentleman seated next to him—Dr. Carrington, she believed—put a hand on the stricken man’s arm. “Try to stay calm, please. You’ve only just left the sickroom.”

David shook him off. “Quiet, Neville, damn you,” he said, his expression edging towards desperation. “She’s here.”

As if on cue, Eleanor spoke. “David, I’m so very happy here… so happy… there is no pain anymore.” A pause, then the spirit continued, “Our son is with me, darling.”

It was impossible to tell for sure in the dim red light, but Rhiannon thought David blanched. “Our son?” he asked softly, his face and voice becoming so devoid of emotion that Rhiannon found him more frightening than the activities she had seen so far.

“Our child, our son… he is with me, darling. We are happy together,” Eleanor sighed. “I’m sorry for what I did, but God forgives our sins… I must speak, everyone must know.”

The high-pitched childish giggle that followed made Rhiannon’s flesh creep. Something fell from the ceiling near David, striking the table in front of him—she made out a baby’s rattle, probably silver, with a coral teething bar. An apport! She had heard of the famous medium, Agnes Guppy, and her amazing ability to produce items out of thin air. Rhiannon had to confess herself impressed by Madame Coralie’s demonstration.

Beside her, Lina shifted, pressing her knee against Rhiannon’s under the table.

David said nothing. Turning his head, he gave Madame Coralie a long, steady look that Rhiannon could not interpret. Whatever he felt, he was no longer so grief-stricken. Reaching out, he picked up the rattle, holding it delicately as if afraid it might shatter under his touch, and finally slipped the object into his jacket pocket.

Another voice came from a different corner of the room. It sounded like a man, deep and resonant. “Katherine, where is she? I can’t find her.”

One of the women at the table, a plump, middle-aged female with tightly curled, marmalade-colored hair, gasped loudly and exclaimed, “Henry? Is that you?”

“What happened in June, Katherine? What happened to her?”

The woman called Katherine let out a nervous titter. “I don’t know what you mean, Henry. Aren’t you happy? Everyone always says they’re happy in the next world.”

“Where’s Helena? What did you do?”

An object drifted down, settling on the table in front of Katherine: a woman’s silk scarf. At the same time, a strong fragrance of violets filled the air.

“Henry! Just stop it!” Katherine swallowed, obviously struggling to maintain her composure. “It’s good to hear from you, dearest,” she said with artificial sweetness, “but perhaps you ought to stand aside and let somebody else have their turn.”

Ectoplasm continued slithering from Madame Coralie’s mouth. The last few inches flopped out, dripping wet, and she began to make low, guttural groans that sounded inhuman . The ectoplasmic column rose higher, swaying slightly like a charmed snake. Because she sat so close to the medium, Rhiannon not only had an excellent view of the ropy, slimy ectoplasm, but also detected a smell that incense and violet perfume failed to mask: an offensive sour tang that reminded her of spoiled milk.

“Is Arthur there?” asked another of the women at the table—young, blonde and chocolate box pretty. The strong family resemblance she shared with the man seated next to her made it clear they were siblings.

A horn flew across the room, stopping just above Madam Coralie’s head. “I am here!” intoned a male voice issuing from the horn. “I am here, Mary. I’ve journeyed far to see you.”

Mary inhaled sharply, visibly shaken. “Oh, Arthur… oh, I do miss you.”

“But Stephan doesn’t, does he?” Arthur said through the horn.

“What?” Mary asked, startled. “What do you mean?”

“For God’s sake!” Stephen muttered. “This is ridiculous.”

The horn dropped  several inches, performed a lazy rotation, then lunged at Stephen, stopping short of the side of his head. “You, you, you,” Arthur said. “You did it.”

“I’ve had quite enough!” Stephen lifted his hand to bat at the horn, knocking it away. “Stop taunting me, you evil hag!”

“Stephen, Stephen, you mustn’t break the circle!” Mary protested.

“Mary, you fool!” Swinging at his sister, Stephen struck the oil lamp on the table instead, knocking it over and shattering the red glass shade. Thankfully, the lamp went out instead of setting the cloth on fire. At the same time, Madame Coralie let out a piercing scream that went on and on before being abruptly cut off.

Rhiannon sat still in the utter darkness, knowing her eyes were wide open but unable to see anything at all. Hearing the crash of a chair falling over, she winced. What was happening? A woman’s loud sob came from across the table, punctuated by someone’s heavy breathing as they fumbled around the room crashing into the furniture.

“Stay in your seats,” Lina commanded. “Remain where you are!”

The scritch of a lucifer being struck was followed by the near eye-watering glow of the little wavering orange flame. Rhiannon blinked, relieved as Lina crossed the parlor to turn on the gaslight. The illumination revealed Madame Coralie slumped over the table, and no sign of the ectoplasm. Everyone except Stephen remained in their seats; he stood in the corner, gripping the edge of the thick red velvet curtain that completely smothered the window.

Rhiannon feared the worst, but after catching her raised eyebrow, Lina pressed a finger against the medium’s wrist and shook her head. “In a faint,” she said. “My dear, is your vinaigrette conveniently at hand?”

After rummaging through her reticule, Rhiannon produced a gilt-silver vinaigrette which she gave to Lina, who flipped open the top and waved it under the unconscious woman’s nose. The potent ammonia fumes from the hartshorn inside the small box soon had Madame Coralie’s eyes fluttering open.

“Oh,” she groaned, sitting up slowly. “What happened? Was the communication successful? Did we make contact?”

“Oh, yes! Arthur came straight away,” Mary enthused, then her smile faded to an anxious frown. “But my brother Stephen broke the circle, though I’m sure he didn’t mean to. Are you well, madame? Were you hurt very much?”

Madame Coralie’s kohl-rimmed gaze flickered to Stephen, who stared back at her defiantly, his mouth set in a thin line. “Oui, I am well enough,” the medium replied in her French-accented English. “Did everyone receive their messages?”

David Bliss made a short, sharp jerk of his head. “Yes, my wife Eleanor was here,” he said. “I want to speak to you, madame, in a place more private, just the two of us,” he added. “We have some matters to discuss.”

“In a little while, monsieur.” Madame Coralie looked at Katherine. “You are satisfied, oui? That your dearly departed Henry sent you a message from the other side?”

Katherine drew herself up and replied coolly, “I haven’t made up my mind.”

Madame Coralie gave the woman an unpleasant smile. “Ah, can there be any doubt remaining? Perhaps the lady requires more evidence?”

Katherine pressed her lips together and shook her head.

“I suspect everyone’s a little fraught owing to the extraordinary events we’ve witnessed this evening,” said Dr. Carrington. He sported a full, thick black beard and mustache that practically concealed the lower half of his face, and his left eye was covered by a patch, giving him a piratical appearance at odds with a gentle voice and bluff, jolly manner. “I prescribe drinks all round, an excellent tonic for the nerves, Who’ll do the honors, eh?”

“There’s a good chap,” Stephen murmured, moving to the other side of the room. He stopped at a small table with a sherry decanter and a number of glasses on it. As he poured out a measure into each glass, Dr. Carrington passed them around the room, not forgetting Madame Coralie, who tossed her sherry back with a practiced tilt of her wrist.

Merci. Now I must retire upstairs for a few minutes to rest and recover from my ordeal,” the medium announced, rising from her chair. The starry spangles covering her loose sky-blue robe caught the light, glittering like the large cut-crystal ornament fastened to the front of the turban that covered her head. “I will return shortly. When I do, there will be other messages from your loved ones… this is promised.” She glanced at Lina and Rhiannon, then at Dr. Carrington. “Eh bien, not always do the spirits communicate through me. We will see. If not tonight, another night.”

Having given this pronouncement, Madame Coralie shook out her spangled skirts and sailed out of the room, the bells sewn on her hems tinkling at every step.

Rhiannon found the promise somewhat  more threatening than reassuring. “What do you make of it?” she asked Lina.

“The madame plays a dangerous game,” Lina answered, her expression remote. After a moment, she glanced at Rhiannon with her usual fondness. “My dear, you look out of sorts. Are you finding the séance a dreadful bore? I thought you might enjoy yourself more, considering your insatiable appetite for Gothic horrors populated by ghosts, vengeful spirits, mad monks, cemeteries, maidens with quivering bosoms and the like.”

Rhiannon flushed, though she was not ashamed of her passion for reading ‘penny bloods’ and Gothic literature. No, it was the intensity of Lina’s emerald green gaze that brought the color to her cheeks as she recalled how pleasantly they had occupied themselves in their bedroom before coming to the séance. She cleared her throat, blushing brighter at the knowing look in her lover’s eyes. “I just don’t understand why we’re here,” she said. “I can’t imagine why you’d want to attend a séance of all things.”

“As to that, I received an interesting invitation. I didn’t tell you because I thought you might enjoy the surprise.” Lina produced an envelope from her reticule, offering it to Rhiannon. “Read it, if you like.”

Taking the envelope, Rhiannon drew out a sheet of folded foolscap and read the handwritten lines:

Lady Evangeline St. Claire—

I’m afraid something terrible may happen this evening at a séance being given by Madame Coralie Girard. Please come to 110 Gower Street in Bloomsbury at eight o’clock. You once proved a great help to my friend, Lady Fitzroy; I beg you will assist me now.

Yours most sincerely,
            Mrs. Mary Josepha Whitmore

The writing was a hurried scribble, made more difficult to read by blots and careless splatters of ink. “Lady Fitzroy?” Rhiannon asked, finding something else inside the envelope—a black-edged card printed on heavy stock, the type usually reserved for funeral announcements. The card contained an invitation to attend this evening’s séance.

“Lady Amanda Fitzroy, a singularly stupid woman married to Lord Peter Fitzroy. She gave a footman—her lover—the contents of her jewelry case, intending to run away with him, but the blackguard instead made off with the jewels, leaving her behind to face her husband’s wrath. I tracked the footman to a relative’s house in Ireland.” Lina’s lips quirked upward. “He proved a vicious fellow, but a few knocks on the head convinced him to turn over the stolen goods. Lord Fitzroy declined to press charges, fearing scandal. The case was hushed up.”

“And do you know Mary Whitmore? I assume that’s her over there,” Rhiannon said, nodding at the pretty blonde woman standing beside Stephen, sipping from a glass of sherry.

“The invitation is the first contact I’ve had with Mrs. Whitmore. Her brother, however…” Lina paused before continuing, “Stephen Wilcox is well known to Scotland Yard for acts of drunken violence. Their father, Sir Maccabees Wilcox, is a High Court judge who has often uses his wealth and influence to get Stephen out of trouble, most recently when the young man’s mistress accused him of beating her so savagely, she was almost blinded. Her case was settled out of court, no criminal charges were filed.”

“Good Lord… I had no idea.” Rhiannon regarded Stephen with alarm.

“Have no fear, my dear; should he dare touch the merest hair of your precious head, I will thrash him within an inch of his life.” Lina emptied her untouched sherry into a potted aspidistra on a plinth near the window as Mary approached them.

“Lady St. Claire, I’m most appreciative that you came tonight,” Mary said. “Please forgive the impertinence of introducing myself to you.”

“Quite all right, Mrs. Whitmore,” Lina replied, “We have at least one acquaintance in common, and I confess myself intrigued by your note. You said you were expecting trouble?”

“Yes.” Mary glanced at her brother, who was frowning in her direction. “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t give you any details at the moment. After the séance, may we meet somewhere? I’ll think of an excuse to give Stephen.”

“If it suits you, we can go to my home. My carriage is outside.”

“That would be fine. Oh! Pray excuse me,  I’d better go. Stephan wants me.” Mary hurried away, returning to her brother’s side.

Rhiannon wondered about the spirit of Arthur and his relationship with Mary Whitmore. Her late husband, perhaps? She wore a lavender dress trimmed with white, which could indicate half-mourning—changing from stark black ‘weeds’  to subdued colors like mauve and grey was permitted after twelve months of full mourning for a close relative.

“I know you,” said Katherine, eyeing Lina up and down. She had come over to them  right after Mary left. “You’re that Duchess’ daughter, aren’t you,  the vulgar one who pretends to be a detective.”

Lina met the insults with a cool demeanor. “I am Lady St. Claire, daughter of the Duchess of Inishglen, and I pretend nothing. As to vulgarity… may I remind you, Mrs. Sweeney, who approached whom without a proper introduction?

Rhiannon gave an inward cheer at Katherine’s obvious chagrin: the woman’s scarlet blush clashed horribly with her orange hair. After glaring at Lina, her double chin quivering with affront, Katherine whirled around and stalked off.

Taking a drink from her glass and wrinkling her nose at the dank, faintly rancid flavor of cheap sherry, Rhiannon watched the last two sitters, a middle-aged man and woman, as they stood by the unlit fireplace, deep in conversation with each other. He was tall and running to fat, his face tanned with deep lines graven in his forehead and around his eyes. A former naval captain, Rhiannon thought, judging from his military posture.

Much shorter than her companion, the woman’s thin figure and obvious middle years were not flattered by the girlishly pink, ruffled and beribboned gown she wore. Her mouse brown hair (complete with a false fringe) was dressed in corkscrew curls in a fashion at least twenty years out of date. Rhiannon could not help but notice how much the woman twitched—making minute adjustments to her shawl, toying with the rings that weighted every finger, lightly tugging an earring, patting a curl into place.

“Captain Abbott Hallchurch and his wife, Clara,” Lina said, following the line of Rhiannon’s gaze. “Ardent spiritualists and supporters of Madame Coralie, I believe.”

Twenty minutes passed. Rhiannon stayed close to Lina, watching the people in the room. Mary talked with several other sitters including Dr. Carrington, her brother sticking close and drinking glass after glass of sherry. Katherine Sweeney kept to herself, running the silk scarf through her hands, while David Bliss stood alone in stoic silence. Every now and then a muscle in his cheek quivered.

Finally, Dr. Carrington let out a loud cough, instantly gaining everyone’s attention. “Pardon me, friends,” he said, smiling, “but I’ve never attended a séance, and while I’m not an impatient fellow, I wonder how much longer the madame might be?”

Captain Hallchurch and his wife exchanged a glance. “She rests five or ten minutes in her room between communication sessions,” Clara admitted, peering around with a concerned frown. “I don’t know what’s keeping her tonight.”

“To hell with that bloody witch!” Stephen exclaimed, drawing a shocked gasp from Clara. “I’m done cooling my heels, now I’ll get her whether she likes it or not!”

“See here, Mr. Wilcox,” Captain Hallchurch objected, “you could endanger Madame Coralie’s health by interrupting her meditations.”

“Well, to hell with you, too!” Stephen lurched forward, grabbing a bell pull on the wall and giving it several vigorous yanks. The distant sound of a bell ringing upstairs came to Rhiannon’s ears. Stephen continued to jerk the bell pull until his sister Mary protested.

“Stop Stephen! Please, I beg you… don’t make things any worse than they already are,” she pleaded, almost in tears.

His face turning red with frustration, Stephen dropped the bell pull and rounded on Mary. “Don’t tell me what to do,” he spat at her.

Embarrassed on poor Mary’s behalf, Rhiannon wanted to leave, but Lina shook her head. “Not yet, my dear. Not yet,” she murmured.

“Perhaps we’d better go upstairs and check on Madame Coralie,” Dr. Carrington suggested to Captain Hallchurch.

The two men walked out of the parlor into the entrance hall. Rhiannon watched them trudge up the narrow staircase. After a moment, Captain Hallchurch called down, “The door’s locked, and Madame Coralie isn’t answering!”

Without hesitation, Lina went across the parlor in a few strides, snatching at her grey velvet skirts and bounding up the stairs. Rhiannon hastily set her sherry glass aside and followed Lina, aware the other sitters were hot on her heels.

On the upstairs landing, Captain Hallchurch and Dr. Carrington stood in front of a closed door, the doctor’s hand on the knob. “We’ll have to break it down,” he said shortly, his good humor turned serious. “Mr. Wilcox will help us, I’m sure.”

With surly bad grace, Stephen consented, putting his shoulder to the door. Captain Hallchurch and Dr. Carrington added their efforts, and the lock soon gave way, splintering out of the wooden frame. At once, the doctor bounded over the threshold into the bedroom, headed towards the figure crumpled on the hearth rug.

Rhiannon crowded around the entrance with the rest. The medium’s bedroom was dark except for smoldering embers in the grate. Lina pushed her way through, lighting a paraffin lamp that stood on a chest of drawers beside the bed. Bringing the lamp over to the doctor, she watched grim-faced while he examined Madame Coralie.

“I’m afraid she’s dead,” he pronounced at last, rising and wiping his hands on a handkerchief taken from his jacket pocket. “Stabbed through the heart.”

“No!” Mary exclaimed in horror. “She’s been murdered? But how? Who?”

A glance showed Rhiannon a gilded dagger hilt sticking out of the dead woman’s chest. Firelight glimmered on the red gem set in the pommel, the color matching the surprisingly small bloodstain on the front of Madame Coralie’s sky blue dress. She thought she recognized the weapon—an Oriental styled letter opener she had last seen on a table beside the front door when she entered the medium’s home at the beginning of the evening.

Lina tested the only window. “Nailed shut,” she said. “And as far as I can determine with a brief examination, there is no other way in or out of the bedroom.”

“So how did the killer get inside?” Captain Hallchurch muttered, clearly shocked. Scrubbing his hands over his face, he backed away, bumping into Stephen, who turned around and shoved through the crowd, stomping downstairs.

“Oh, Abbot! I can’t bear it!” shrieked Clara, latching onto her husband and digging her fingernails into his sleeve. “I can’t bear it!” She began to weep noisily, gasping for breath, while a disconcerted Captain Hallchurch awkwardly patted her back.

“Let us return to the parlor,” Lina suggested. “There is nothing more to be done here.”

Katherine Sweeney, who had been staring transfixed at the dead woman,  turned and snarled at Lina, “Just who do you think you are, ordering us about?” Her fingers twisted and knotted the silk scarf, threatening to shred the delicate fabric.

“Just come with me, Mrs. Sweeney,” Dr. Carrington said in the sort of soothing tone one used to calm an upset child. “You’ve had a terrible shock.” He led Katherine out of the bedroom, pausing to collect Mary, Captain Hallchurch and the weeping Clara on his way.

Left alone with Lina, Rhiannon asked, “What happened?” as she pulled the bedroom door shut to give them some privacy.

“It appears Madame Coralie was stabbed through the heart by an unknown assailant.” Lina grimaced. “I do not mean to state the obvious, but that is what happened.”

Rhiannon nodded. “If the door was locked, and the window’s nailed shut, who killed her? How did they get in? No one could have come from the street, either through the front door or the back… the parlor we were in has a clear view of the stairs. Someone would’ve noticed a stranger creeping through the house.”

“True, and we were in sight one another the entire time, so it appears our murderer must be a ghost.” Lina bent to examine Madame Coralie’s body, setting the paraffin lamp down close. “The madame has not been dead long, not even ten minutes, I would wager. Her flesh is still warm to the touch.”

“No one passed us on the stairs. Could the murderer be hiding in another room?”

“A plausible hypothesis, though too late to be tested properly. Bah!” After rummaging through the dead woman’s clothing, Lina rose from her crouch. Rhiannon noticed some white stuff poking out from beneath the spangled gown’s hem.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“The ectoplasm produced by Madame Coralie during the séance,” Lina replied. “Fine muslin soaked in egg whites. Presumably she was a regurgitator, one of those persons who can swallow a quantity of prepared muslin and vomit it up on cue.”

“Good Lord!” Rhiannon swallowed her own gorge. That explained the sour milk smell she had detected.

Lina shrugged. “As for the perpetrator’s escape, following the chaos of everyone running up the stairs, the breaking down of the door, the general hysterics upon discovering Madame Coralie weltering in her gore… frankly, my dear, an elephant could have blundered down the stairs and away without anyone the wiser.”

“Still, we could search the other rooms, see if they’re locked, too,” Rhiannon suggested. “But first we ought to summon a policeman.”

“Indeed, my dear, you are quite correct, though I would prefer testing the rooms, then turning the scene over to the inspectors and their minions.” Lina started to walk out of the bedroom, and paused so abruptly, Rhiannon almost ran into the back of her.

Making a desperate effort not to fall on her face after losing her balance, Rhiannon forced herself upright, taking a step backwards to avoid knocking Lina over. “What is it?” she asked, a trifle annoyed.

Lina stared at the bedroom door without answering. Grasping the brass knob, she swung the door open, looking at the floor. Whatever she sought, she did not find because tutting under her breath, she held the lamp high and examined the entire floor from corner to corner, including laying full length to peer under the bed.

“What’s going on here?” asked Dr. Carrington from his position in the doorway, startling Rhiannon, who had not heard him approach He sounded curious.

Lina rose from the floor, brushing dust off her velvet skirts without much success. “My dear,” she said to Rhiannon, ignoring the doctor, “I wish you to leave at once, find a constable, and report the murder to him.”

Rhiannon recognized the familiar light in Lina’s eyes, but she knew better than to say too much too soon. “I’ll go right now,” she promised. Dodging around Dr. Carrington, she hastened downstairs and out the front door, walking as quickly as she could while her heart raced in excitement. Lina knew who had killed Madame Coralie Girard!

It took a good hour before Rhiannon returned to the house on Gower Street with Inspector Saunders, a police surgeon, and several constables in tow. She found everyone in the parlor, watched over by Lina, who was smoking one of the little brown Egyptian cigarettes she preferred.

On sighting the Inspector, Katherine let out an aggrieved shout, “I demand to be allowed to go home! This… this woman is holding us captive!”

“Nonsense,” Lina replied, flicking cigarette ash into the potted aspidistra. “I said you were free to go at any time, but as potential witnesses in a homicide case, the police will surely want to speak to you forthwith, and in the interests of good citizenship, should you choose to absent yourself, I would be happy to provide names and addresses to them.”

Katherine subsided, casting a look of hatred at Lina.

“Lady St. Claire, is it?” Saunders said, not hostile but not approving, either. He had the grizzled, world-weary air of a policeman who had seen everything. “Harry Valentine’s told me you’re a good ‘un, but this is murder, and I’ll not have any interference.”

“Perfectly correct. I assume you wish to examine the scene of the crime?”

“I do.”

Lina exhaled a plume of smoke at the ceiling, a faint smile touching the corners of her mouth. “Inspector, will you first indulge me with a few moments of your time? It could be that I have made some observations which you may find interesting.”

His eyebrows rose, but he nodded. “Very well, milady, I’ll listen, but I want to send Dr. Harrison to examine the body.”

“By all means. I appreciate your diligence, Inspector.”

Saunders gave orders to his men, who went upstairs with the surgeon.

Rhiannon took a seat at the table. Looking around the parlor, she saw Stephen Wilcox standing sullenly in the corner, the empty sherry decanter in his hand. Mary Whitmore sat huddled in on herself; it was clear she had been crying. Dr. Carrington and David Bliss sat side-by-side; David had the child’s rattle, absently smoothing the coral teething bar with his thumb. Captain Hallchurch and his wife, Clara, were also seated together.

 Katherine Sweeney maintained a defiant stance by the window. Someone had turned on all the gaslights, the yellowish illumination giving her marmalade-colored hair a distinct brassy tinge. “I refuse to remain here a minute longer,” she declared.

“All right,” Saunders said phlegmatically, “but you’ll have to come with me to headquarters, madam, and stay there until I have time to take a formal statement from you.”

She lifted her chin but made no further protest.

Lina crushed out her cigarette in the aspidistra. “Let me begin by stating that my companion, Miss Moore, and I were invited to the séance by Mrs. Mary Whitmore, widow of Arthur Whitmore.” She turned to Mary. “Mrs. Whitmore, will you explain to Inspector Saunders why you asked me to come here this evening?”

Mary flushed. “I thought there might be trouble,” she said in a half-whisper. “My brother… he’s been so overwrought since Arthur died.”

“Shut up,” Stephen growled.

“No, no, I won’t be quiet. You’re drunk again!” Mary cried in a sudden passion. “You’re always drunk! And I know what you did to Mrs. Kennecott, too!”

“Mrs. Kennecott?” Lina asked, casting an inquiring glance at the Inspector.

“A spiritual medium,” Saunders answered, turning a narrow-eyed gaze on Stephen Whitlock, “who was badly beaten in her home six months ago. Mrs. Kennecott has not accused anyone of the assault... yet.”

“Damned woman told a pack of lies,” Stephen muttered.

Mary gave him a hurt look. “That’s no excuse for what you did, and besides, you’re wrong—Mrs. Kennecott is a very skilled medium.”

“Tell  us exactly what happened, Mrs. Whitmore,” Lina said. “Matters have gone beyond protecting your brother from the consequences of his vile temper. The truth will out.”

“It doesn’t matter, does it? Father will save Stephen, he always does,” Mary replied bitterly. “When Arthur died a year ago… it was very hard for me. I know people talked about us. Arthur was my elder by thirty years, but I loved him. I loved him so much!” She paused to regain her composure, letting out a sigh. “Arthur treated me with such kindness that I hoped he might live forever. After he died, I turned to spiritual mediums, trying to contact Arthur and hear his beloved voice once more. Such a comfort to me.”

“I take it your brother disapproved?”

“Very much so. He discouraged me at every turn, insisted on attending séances just to disrupt them, and made himself so disagreeable we were asked not to return. Mrs. Kennecott was different. She faced Stephen down, refused to be intimidated. That’s why I’m sure he went to her house and gave her a beating, because she was not afraid of him.”

“And tonight? What did you fear might happen?”

“When Madame Coralie contacted me a week ago, I had half a mind to refuse—for her own good, not mine. Stephen would never really harm me, but he might hurt the madame. She assured me she could protect herself. Still, I feared something ugly might happen, so not knowing what else I could do, I contacted you, Lady St. Claire.” Mary gave Lina a wan smile. “You would not be afraid to contact Father directly if you knew Stephen had done something wrong, and Father would listen to you. He has a great respect for the peerage—some might say he’s a dreadful snob—and you will inherit your mother’s title some day.”

“So I was to act as spy and informant,” Lina mused, shaking her head. “Well, let us move on to more relevant matters… you say Madame Coralie contacted you?”

“Yes, I was surprised to receive her letter.”

“You did not know her?”

“Not at all.”

Lina addressed the room: “Who else here was unexpectedly contacted by Madame Coralie, and invited to join tonight’s séance? Indicate by a show of hands, if you please.”

Most of the sitters raised their hands, including Katherine Sweeney. “This is a waste of time,” the woman snapped.

Rhiannon remembered how Madame Coralie had looked at her and Lina, and Dr. Carrington as well, just before she retired upstairs, when she spoke about the spirits not always having a communication for their loved ones. Did that mean the doctor had not been invited by the medium?

“Dr. Carrington,” Lina said, as if she read Rhiannon’s thoughts, “are you certain you were invited to attend by Madame Coralie herself?”

“My apologies,” the doctor answered, lowering his hand. “I’d forgotten, you see. It was David who asked me to come.”

“Thank you.” Her hands clasped behind her back, Lina began to pace while she spoke, stalking around the room like a hunting lioness scenting her prey. “Mr. Bliss, during the séance, you believe you spoke to the spirit of a woman, Eleanor,” she said, stopping in front of David, who remained sitting in his chair.

“My late wife,” he replied shortly. “I would prefer not to discuss the matter.”

“I am sorry if these proceedings cause you any hurt, sir. Now as I recall reading in the newspapers a few months ago, Eleanor Bliss died of complications in childbed, is that not so? Yet you were taken aback and angered when her spirit mentioned your son, who presumably died with his mother. The rattle which fell to the table… did it belong to your unborn child?”

David clenched his jaw, refusing to meet her eyes.

“I do not think so,” Lina continued, her tone sympathetic but resolute. “You did not even know Eleanor was enceinte, did you?”

“What is the point of this interrogation?”  Dr. Carrington interrupted.

“To establish a motive for murder,” Lina replied, ignoring the collective gasps and curses from the other people in the parlor. “I make no accusations at the moment, merely collect the necessary facts.” Turning back to David, she said, “Mr. Bliss, the police will ascertain the truth, and I doubt they will be discreet about it. Inspector Saunders will question your family and friends, rattling old skeletons that were best left alone.”

“What do you want me to say?” David burst out. “Eleanor… I loved her, I did, but she… she…” He let out a harsh sob, gritting his teeth. “Carrington told me what happened. Ask him. He might as well tell you as well.”

“Doctor, will you elaborate?”

Put on the spot, Dr. Carrington cleared his throat. “Ah, if David agrees… well, I shan’t varnish the truth. It seems the beautiful and vain Mrs. Bliss, concerned not to lose her figure, had no wish to carry her husband’s child to term. She visited one of those blasted female abortionists, and no, Inspector, I do not have the woman’s name. The operation, if it can be called such, resulted in a severe infection that ultimately caused Eleanor’s death. To spare her family, I made no mention of the abortion on her death certificate. David did not know the real cause of his wife’s demise, either, until I told him after the séance ended. I would have preferred to keep the knowledge to myself, but in light of what the so-called spirit hinted at, I thought he should be informed in case of more revelations.”

“I thought Madame Coralie was trying to manipulate me, take advantage of my grief,” David said, his face like stone. “She would not be the first spiritual medium who pretended to contact my late wife in order to get money from me.”

“If you do not believe, why did you come?” Lina asked.

“Because I still hope Eleanor will return to me, even for a moment. It doesn’t matter what she’s done. Had she given me a son, I would have cherished him, but I love my wife more. I would have chosen her over an unborn child.” David’s expression softened, his eyes filling with tears. “I wish she’d told me. God! If she’d only had the courage to tell me.”

Dr. Carrington put a hand on David’s shoulder, but he spoke to Lina. “Lady St. Claire, I think we’ve answered enough of your questions.”

“For now, I agree. Next, we have Mrs. Sweeney, who was also chosen to receive a communication from her late husband, Henry, as well as a curious object: a silk scarf,” Lina said, swiveling to confront the woman. “Who is the Helena your husband’s spirit mentioned?”

Katherine seemed to swell with indignation, but a glance at the forbidding figure of Inspector Saunders left her deflated and looking a bit smaller, as if the loss of anger had lessened her. “If you must know,” she replied with a hint of acid, “Helena Fabian was an actress and my late husband’s mistress. The stupid woman took her own life about two months before Henry died of a fit of apoplexy.”

“Helena Fabian was found poisoned in her dressing room at the Maugham Theater,” Inspector Saunders put in. “The coroner ruled it an homicide.”

“I believe I recall the case,” Lina said, speaking to him but with her gaze locked on Katherine. “Strychnine, wasn’t it? And she died in the second week of June?”

“Indeed so, milady.”

“Any suspects of note?”

Saunders also looked at Katherine. “The case is still under investigation.”

Before Katherine could say anything, Lina walked away, moving to stand with her back to the fireplace, and subsequently fixing everyone’s attention on her alone. Rhiannon could not help feeling a trifle annoyed by the woman’s theatrics, but over time she had become resigned to Lina’s eccentricities.

“The spirit messages given to some of the sitters seem to be hinting at darker matters,” Lina said, her handsome face alight with intelligence. “We know Helena Fabian was poisoned, but was the late Henry Sweeney accusing his wife of the crime? Remember the question the spirit asked: ‘what did you do?’ Not an outright accusation, but a threat.

“What can we surmise from Eleanor Bliss’ message to her grieving husband? ‘Everyone must know’—must know what? That she obtained an illegal abortion that cost her life? If the newspapers got hold of the story, it would create a terrible scandal, destroying the reputation and loving memory of the woman David Bliss still loves.

“Now we come to the last two persons invited by Madame Coralie: Mrs. Mary Whitmore and her brother, Stephen Wilcox, a man with a reputation for violence. The spirit of Arthur Whitmore said to Stephen, ‘you did it.’ Kindly tell us, Mrs. Whitmore, how your husband died?”

“Poor Arthur, he fell down the stairs and broke his neck,” Mary replied, dabbing at her wet eyes with a handkerchief. “I was away at the time, staying with friends in the country. He was supposed to join me after completing some business in town. Stephen found Arthur’s body. It gave him quite a shock.”

“The coroner ruled it misadventure,” Saunders supplied.

“A most unfortunate accident… or was it?” Lina’s gaze fell on Stephen, who sneered and flung the heavy glass decanter down.

“If you think I killed the old man, just say it!” he said in a clear challenge.

Rhiannon thought he did not appear as drunk as she had first thought.

Lina shrugged. “I have no evidence of wrong-doing, but Arthur’s spirit seemed to think you are guilty of something.”

“Hah! You mean Madame Coralie’s accomplice, don’t you?” Stephen swept an arm through the air. “We all know she was nothing better than a confidence trickster.”

Feeling partly stupid and partly relieved that the séance had been a fraud, Rhiannon nevertheless glanced at Lina for confirmation.

“Very astute of you,” Lina said to Stephen. “I congratulate your perception.”

Mary inhaled sharply, her expression stark. “You mean Madame Coralie was a cheat? Everything that happened was a lie?  Arthur wasn’t… he didn’t…”

“No, Mrs. Whitmore, I fear your late husband has not spoken to you from beyond the grave, not on any occasion.”

“That’s impossible! I recognized Arthur’s voice!”

“Are you certain?” Lina asked in a gentle voice. “Perhaps because you wanted very badly to speak to the husband you lost, you were willing to believe what spiritualist mediums told you, no matter any evidence to the contrary.”

Shaking her head, Mary shrank back in her chair, the handkerchief pressed to her face.

Turning once again to Stephen, Lina said, “Your devotion and willingness to protect your sister does you credit, sir, if your methods leave much to be desired.”

“Those damned vultures,” he growled, “making promises, taking her money, and for what? A magic show that wouldn’t fool an idiot.”

“Maybe I wanted to be fooled!” Mary exclaimed, lowering the handkerchief to glare furiously at her brother. “Did that never occur to you, Stephen? I miss Arthur. He was good to me. He treated me like a grown woman, not an empty-headed child. And I was also afraid.” Her voice fell to a whisper. “I’ve overheard some of the servants talking about you. They believe you pushed Arthur down the stairs that night. You were in the house, after all.”

“I was in the house because you asked me to look in on Arthur while you were away! Now you’re listening to servants’ tattle?” Stephen sounded as grim as he looked. “I did not murder your husband, Mary. What reason would I have to want him dead?”

“Money.” Mary lifted her chin at Stephen’s snort. “Since I married a wealthy man, you’re always after me for money. Arthur didn’t like it. That’s why he was going to town. He intended to alter his will and appoint a trustee who would prevent me giving you any money when he died. You knew what he intended, Stephen. He told you.”

“Why, you ungrateful little—!”

“Mr. Wilcox, I suggest you say nothing more in the presence of Inspector Saunders until you have consulted your solicitor,” Lina interrupted. “For the moment, let us return our focus to the murder of Madame Coralie.

“I believe Madame Coralie gave hints during her séance to the people she knew were ripe for blackmail. How she obtained her information, I cannot tell, except in my experience, extortionists generally rely upon a network of informants, disgruntled servants and the like, who betray their masters’ secrets. While I have no proof, I feel confident that blackmail was indeed Madame Coralie’s game. Is that not so, Captain Hallchurch?”

Startled, the man jerked in his chair. “I beg your pardon!” he blustered.

Lina remained confident. “You and your wife acted as Madame Coralie’s accomplices. Denial is fruitless. No one else in the house could have helped her produce the effects.”

“How can that be?” Mary asked. “I touched hands with Captain Hallchurch during the séance. I’d swear he never left his seat.”

“A false hand,” Lina explained. “He slipped it onto the table when you were distracted.. In the dark, fascinated by the phenomena, you did not notice. Mrs. Hallchurch would have done the same with her neighbors, leaving them both free to manipulate the props as needed. It is a common device among spiritualists.”

Fiddling with her shawl, exchanging glances with her husband, Clara Hallchurch finally said, “Abbott and I were told what to say during the séances. Madame Coralie was very strict. Everything had to be done according to her wishes. We didn’t know what it meant. If she was blackmailing people, we didn’t know anything about it.”

“Neither of you will leave this room,” Inspector Saunders ordered the Hallchurches. “I have some questions to ask you, and we’ll be doing it at police headquarters.”

Lina addressed the rest of the sitters. “You see, the flying instruments, the ghostly hands, the levitating table were nothing more than set dressing. The true purpose of the séance was to give her potential blackmail victims a hint that their secrets were on the verge of exposure. No doubt afterwards, Mr. Wilcox, Mr. Bliss and Mrs. Sweeney would have been asked to make a ‘donation’ to Madame Coralie to keep the spirits silent.”

 “It’s true,” Katherine offered, tossing the silk scarf on the table. “This belonged to Helena Fabian, or at least it’s very like the one I saw her wearing once at the theatre. Can you believe Henry took me to see her perform? Of course, at the time I had no idea she was his mistress. At any rate, Madame Coralie was going to ask me for money, I’m certain of that. It was obvious she thought I poisoned the woman.”

“Did you?” Lina asked blandly.

Katherine glared, her arms crossed over her chest..

Rhiannon noticed Lina carefully did not smile.

“We have three people here who had good reason to want Madame Coralie dead,” Lina said. “However, all of us were in this room, visible to one another from the moment the madame went upstairs to the time she was found dead. No stranger could have entered the house. The bedroom window was nailed shut, and the door locked. Yet somehow, someone managed to get by us, stab Madame Coralie in the heart, and escape without leaving a trace.” She paused. “Of course, we all made an incorrect assumption.”

Several seconds passed while Lina let them stew. Rhiannon felt the tension in the room rising, humming feverishly along her nerves like an electric current. At last, when she could bear it no longer, someone else broke the silence.

“Well?” demanded Inspector Saunders. “Have you aught to add, milady, or should I join my men upstairs?”

Lina made a slight grimace as the Inspector shattered the suspenseful moment, but she said graciously, “I’ll continue, if you do not mind. As I was saying, our incorrect assumption was that the bedroom door was locked before the murder took place.”

“But Dr. Carrington told me—!” Captain Hallchurch broke off, looking distressed and pressing a hand to his mouth.

“Did you test the door yourself?” Lina asked him.

“Just wait a moment!” Dr. Carrington exclaimed, half rising from his seat. It was the first time Rhiannon has seen him less than good-humored. “How dare you accuse me!”

“Sit down and be quiet!”  Saunders commanded.

Dr. Carrington complied, though his stiff movements spoke of reluctance.

“Captain, did you test the bedroom door yourself?” Lina repeated.

“No, I did not,” he replied. “When the doctor told me the door was locked, I had no reason not to believe him.”

“And you have no proof, either,” Dr. Carrington put in. “I tell you it was locked!”

Lina shook her head. “If the bedroom door was locked, where is the key?”

“Well, it must’ve fallen out of the keyhole when Captain Hallchurch and I broke down the door,” Dr. Carrington answered dismissively.

“I searched the entire room and found no key.”

“You must not have searched thoroughly enough,” he countered.

“I checked the room from top to bottom, not forgetting beneath the bed and in the corners. Furthermore, Madame Coralie’s dress has a single secret pocket into which she hides the ‘ectoplasm’ produced during her séances—in reality, no more than yards of egg white-soaked muslin. There is no key on her body,” Lina said. “Unless the woman drifted through the walls like the ghosts she claimed to contact, she could not have gotten in or out of the bedroom without a key. Therefore, I conclude the door was never locked.”

“But why would he lie?” David Bliss spoke in defense of his friend.

“Because Dr. Carrington murdered Madame Coralie.”

Lina’s announcement caused excitement. Several people began speaking at once, Clara Hallchurch squawking the loudest of them all. Inspector Saunders finally held up both hands, shouting,. “Enough! I’ll ask you all to be quiet. Quiet, now!” Turning to Lina, he added in a more normal volume, “That’s a serious accusation, milady.”

“To be sure, but allow me to continue and I will try to make my conclusion clear.” She addressed the room once more, “Why would Dr. Carrington lie about the door being locked? Only if he desired to conceal the fact that it was not locked. Why would he do that? To make a straightforward murder seem inexplicable, and give himself an unshakable alibi. The explanation makes sense.”

David asked,  “How could Neville have stabbed Madame Coralie? He was here with us. Seven witnesses, including yourself, can attest to his presence..”

“I have no proof that would guarantee a guilty verdict at trial,” Lina said. “What I do have is a collection of fact which, when taken together, tend to point in a singular direction.” She ticked off the points on her fingers. “Fact: Dr. Carrington suggested someone ought to check on Madame Coralie. Fact: Dr. Carrington lied about the bedroom door being locked. Fact: the letter opener used as the murder weapon was on a table near the front door, clearly visible and easily accessible to anyone passing by. And a final fact: the wound through Madame Coralie’s heart ought to have produced a quantity of blood, but it did not, therefore she was already dead when she was stabbed. Why would a murderer stab the corpse? Only to try and conceal the cause of death.”

“You’re mad,” the doctor said, but his voice faltered when he spoke.

“You have your medical bag with you, do you not?” Lina asked. “Yes, I see it there. Every doctor of my acquaintance carries a selection of sedatives with him. What did you slip into Madame Coralie’s drink? I suspect chloral hydrate, an overdose which killed her.”

“I remember Stephen poured the sherry, but you handed round the glasses,” Mary remarked to Dr. Carrington. “And you suggested we all have a drink.”

“Having given Madame Coralie the drugged sherry, you must have been elated when she went upstairs to rest,” Lina went on. “Thinking quickly, you devised a plan. If she died from a drug overdose, there would be questions asked by the police. As the only doctor in the group, you would be the natural suspect. Knowing she must be unconscious or dead, after an interval you expressed concern for the woman’s welfare. Palming the letter opener as you followed Captain Hallchurch upstairs was child’s play.

“You pretended the door was locked, sounding an alarm. When the door was broken down, in the confusion you made certain you were the first person over the threshold. Bending over the body, you thrust the letter opener into her heart. No doubt you hoped by creating mystery around Madame Coralie’s murder, you would deflect attention and suspicion away from yourself. It very nearly worked, too, except for the missing key.”

“Why?” David asked Dr. Carrington, grasping his arm and giving it a shake. “Why did you do it, Neville? I’ve never known you to… I never thought you capable of murder.”

Rhiannon caught her breath at the emotions simmering in Dr. Carrington’s expression: grief, resignation, a deep abiding fury and a great deal more.

“You’re right,” he said hoarsely, smoothing his beard and pushing his tousled hair off his forehead. “I killed her. She was a parasite, a black-hearted witch who deserved death.

“Ten years ago, a woman named Girard found out my wife had born a child out of wedlock, and threatened to make the matter public. I knew about the bastard child, of course—it happened long before Emily and I married—but I had forgiven her. I loved my wife, and did not care about her past. Still, she feared her old sin being exposed for the boy’s sake. He lives with a family in France, and knows nothing of the unhappy circumstances of his birth. Girard apparently worked for the family, found some papers relating to the boy’s irregular status, and came to England for the purpose of blackmail.”

“What happened?” Lina asked when he paused.

“Girard wanted money,” Dr. Carrington snarled, thumping his fist on the table. “We managed to meet the woman’s demands, but she wanted more, and more, and more! It never ended!” He glared at the silent onlookers, and after a few seconds a kind of eerie calm settled over him. He continued much more mildly, “Emily could bear it no longer. She stole a bottle of chloral hydrate from my surgery and committed suicide.”

“You never reported the extortion to the police, did you?”

“The police are worthless in such cases. No, Girard tried to ruin us, and she killed Emily with her greed. Afterwards, she disappeared. I never saw her again until tonight.” He exhaled, his one eye glittering. “How can I describe how I felt when I walked into this house, and there she was, the devil woman! She did not recognize me; I lost my eye in a hunting accident a few years ago, and grew the beard to hide some facial scars.

“Everything came rushing back to me in an instant, as if ten years had never passed. I had to kill her. I would not rest until she was dead. So I did as you described—gave Girard an overdose of chloral hydrate in her sherry. I carry a supply in my bag. Then I waited until I was certain the drug had done its work, and suggested we ought to check on her. I took the letter opener when Captain Hallchurch and myself were on the way upstairs, and I pretended the door was locked. The rest you know.” He shrugged. “She was already dead when I stabbed her. A pity, since I hoped she might suffer as my poor Emily suffered, but I am satisfied that justice was served.”

“And justice will be served again,” Inspector Saunders said. “Though I feel sorry for you, sir,  it is my duty to place you under arrest for the willful murder of Coralie Girard.”

“So be it. At least my Emily can rest now, and if they hang me, I will join her on the other side.” Dr. Carrington seemed at peace. He allowed Saunders to screw the cuffs around his wrists, and went with him without protest. Rhiannon thought his steps were lighter, his back straighter, as if a terrible burden had been lifted from him.

“I cannot blame the man,” Lina said, coming to wind an arm around Rhiannon’s waist. Her voice lowered, taking on a darker tone. “If you were taken from me, my dear, I would go to Hell itself to find the person responsible.”

Rhiannon felt the same. Shivering, she  pressed briefly against the length of Lina’s body, solid and warm and reassuring. “If it happened,” she replied around the knot in her throat, “my spirit would come back to you. I wouldn’t leave you alone, I swear.”

Lina squeezed her, saying, “Perhaps God will be kind, and leave neither of us mourning the other, but the subject is depressing, my dear. Let us not think of such things. Besides,” she added, laughing a little, “have I not proven to you that ghosts do not exist?”

Despite Lina’s logic, Rhiannon fancied she heard the soft chime of a tambourine, and smelled the scent of perfume, and heard a whisper that sounded like a woman’s sigh when Dr. Carrington was led out of the house, his head held high.



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