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MISS SMITH & THE DEVIL’S LIBRARY
Yes, I know, the original publication date has come and gone. The delays were beyond my control. However, I have some good news for those who’ve been waiting ever-so-patiently:  I’ve been assured that Miss Smith & the Devil’s Library will be published in August, which is just a couple of months away. Yay! As soon as it becomes available, I’ll post an update here.

This is an exciting, action packed, thrill a minute adventure novel, if I do say so myself. And it’s the first novel in what I hope will be a series to remember, so be sure to get your copy (and hey, books make great gifts, too, hint hint). 🙂

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As a treat for fans of my work, and a thank you to those generous souls who have helped me recently with good vibes and donations when I had to be hospitalized and my right leg amputated, here’s something for  you…

I’m working on the sequel to Barking at the Moon (watch this space, folks) but also working on a new project: a horror novel set in the American South during the Great Depression to be titled O Daughter of Jerusalem. The format will be unique, I think – each chapter is a story, and all the stories are linear and feature the same characters. Got it? Okay, here’s the first story, which I hope you enjoy!

O DAUGHTER OF JERUSALEM
Nene Adams copyright 2011


AND THE WORKS OF HER HANDS ARE PRESERVED
Pitchpine, Florida to Hartsville, Florida

The hennaed spit-curls framing the fat woman’s forehead were plastered down by sweat.. “Can you find her?” Mrs. McCall asked as she leaned forward, her eyes filled with hope and a terrible fear, her lipsticked mouth trembling. “Can you find Kathleen?”

“Maybe yes, maybe no…I reckon it depends on how bad you want that daughter of yours found,” said Madam Zenobia, otherwise known outside the traveling carnival’s gypsy fortunetelling tent as Olivia Jean Suggs. She flattened her hands on the table. “I got a spell would do the trick, but it sure ain’t for the faint of heart.”

“I don’t care what it takes…I’ve got to have my baby home, safe and sound.” Mrs. McCall’s pudgy white-gloved hands clutched the purse in her lap.

Olivia put on a sorrowful expression. “The ingredients are dear, very dear.”

Tears glistening, Mrs. McCall took a handkerchief from her dress pocket, using it to mop her face. “I’ll pay whatever you want. Money don’t matter to me. Ever since my Arthur was called home, bless his soul, Kathleen is all I have left of him. I can’t help thinking about her, how scared she must be, taken away from her home and all. You warned me,” she gasped. “You told me to beware this day. You told me something terrible would happen.”

“I did, I warned you ‘bout a future calamity. Wish to God I could’ve told you how to protect your daughter, your sweet Kathleen, only what I see ain’t always clear.”

“Oh, you aren’t to blame, Madame Zenobia! Please don’t think I blame you. How could you know? But now you’ll help me. How much money do you neef? If I don’t have the cash on me, I’ll go the bank in the morning, I swear. Just tell me what I have to do to save my baby and bring her home to me.”

“I reckon fifty dollars would about do it,” Olivia said. “It’s a lot, I know.”

Mrs. McCall fumbled in her purse. “Good thing I collected the rents today.”

Olivia made a show of reluctantly accepting the five dollar bills, keeping her grin tucked down deep inside where it wouldn’t show. Fifty dollars would buy food, cigarettes and illegal whiskey, even after the carnival’s manager and the fixer took their cuts.

“You can’t go to the police,” she said, pinning the woman with a sharp look. “Can’t tell nobody. They hear tell of your troubles, I can’t help you no more. Menfolk got theit own ways of doing things. Us women got to stick together, you understand?”

“Of course, of course, I understand, I do,” Mrs. McCall said with pathetic eagerness.

“All right then.” Olivia leaned back in her chair, drawing the shawl tighter around her shoulders despite the stifling heat. The dimness inside the tent, lit only by a single candle, lent a semblance of richness to the fake coins clattering on the shawl’s fringe, the cheap bangles on her wrists, the tattered rug thrown over the tabletop. A well-thumbed Bible lay near her hand, the black calfskin cover soft and greasy from daily handling. “This spell ain’t no Devil’s work,” she said softly, making the woman draw forward to hear her. “This here’s God’s work, the work of Moses and Jesus and Solomon, wise men all.”

“I believe you.”

“So first you gotta pray, ask for the Lord’s help.” Opening the Bible’s cover, Olivia withdrew a small sheet of paper covered in esoteric symbols copied from an old book of her mother’s. She had scrawled lines of text from another book in the center, her handwriting uncertain but legible. “You say this prayer tonight at exactly nine o’clock—not one minute before, not one minute later. You say it three times. Three times only.” She pushed the paper across the table to Mrs. McCall, who picked it up, frowning.

“Happy is she whose heart is fixed to call upon the name of the Lord,” she read aloud.
“When she remembereth the name of the Lord, she will be saved.
Her ways are made even by the Lord,
And the works of her hands are preserved by the Lord her God,
And what she sees in her bad dreams, her soul shall not be troubled.”

The creases in Mrs. McCall’s forehead disappeared. “Sounds kind of like the Good Book to me,” she said approvingly. “But what’s all this chicken scratch around it?”

“The names of angels,” Olivia said in her deepest tone, “in Moses’ own writing.”

“Moses himself…my goodness.” The woman looked impressed.

“Now you say that prayer like I told you. After that, you draw yourself a nice bath, nice and hot, and you put this powder in it. Be sure to put the water all over your body.”

“Why?”

“This here’s a special powder with hyssop in it, to purify you like the Bible says. ‘Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.’” Olivia quoted the Psalm from memory. The powder was actually made from salt and dried roadside weeds ground together with a touch of orange peel, but it sounded dramatic. She had never met a mark that didn’t love drama, the more thickly laid on the better.

“After the bath,” Olivia went on, “you go to bed with that prayer under your pillow. If God’s willing, He’ll either give you a sign about your Kathleen, or maybe, just maybe…” She paused, letting the tension build until the woman opposite her turned a brilliant shade of scarlet, squirming in her seat with ill-concealed impatience. Only then did she continue, “Maybe if God’s merciful, He’ll bring your little girl home safe.”

Mrs. McCall grunted out an explosive breath. “Do you really think so?”

Olivia inclined her head. “It’s in His hands now.”

“Amen. Oh, let it be so!”

“Now you go home and do like I told you. And I’ll give you one more piece of advice: whatever happens, don’t go in Kathleen’s bedroom tonight. The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform, so stay in your own bed, and don’t get up till after dawn.”

“I’ll will, don’t worry. I just want my daughter to come home.”

“This ain’t no easy task God asks of you.” Olivia tapped a fingernail on the Bible. “Do what I say, or He may visit more calamity upon you. Hear me?”

“Yes, yes, I’ll follow your instructions to the letter. Thank you, Madam Zenobia, thank you very much,” Mrs. McCall gushed, almost crushing Olivia’s hand in her grip. “I’m so grateful. You’ve been good to me, a true friend when I was in sore need, what with my Arthur gone and all, and me a woman alone.” She began to cry again, great gulping sobs she tried to muffle with her handkerchief. “Send my poor child home,” she said, her voice watery.

Olivia managed to calm Mrs. McCall after a few minutes, coaxing the sniveling woman out of the tent and sending her back to her nice house in town. As soon as she was alone, she tied the tent flap closed. Feeling frowsy from the heat, aware of the wetness trickling under her arms, she shed the shawl and the purple cloth turban she wore as part of her ‘gypsy’ persona, freeing her sweat-matted black hair.

Taking a bottle of cologne from its hiding place under the table, she poured a generous amount on a rag, wiping her bare arms and legs with it, pulling up her dark blue dress to stroke the cool rag over her inner thighs, her skin pink from the heat.

The tent flap shook as if someone was trying to enter. “Come back later,” Olivia called, rubbing the back of her neck with the sweet-smelling rag, enjoying the spicy fragrance that cut through the tent’s musty fug, as much a part of the canvas as the mildew stains creeping greenish black along the bottom. “I’m communin’ with the spirits.”

The shaking stopped.

Sighing in pleasure, Olivia unfastened the first four buttons on her dress, running the rag under her rayon slip, over her chest and breasts. Her nipples tightened. A bath sounded good, better than fried chicken and gravy, better than genuine sloe gin. Tomorrow morning, she would find out if any of the girls from the hoochie koochie show wanted to share a bath with her, since many hands hauling buckets of water made the labor lighter.

Hanging the rag on a nail stuck in the tent pole, she reached for a pack of cigarettes on the table, freezing with her hand outstretched, a jolt of shock jumping her heart to her throat.

Someone stood in the gloom, a tall figure with a burning crimson eye…no, Olivia realized, exhaling panic in a rush of breath, a person smoking a cigarette.

“I done told you not to come in here,” she snapped, hastily holding her dress closed. In her fright, her accent slipped from a genteel drawl to the Kentucky twang of her youth. She struggled to recover her composure. “Now get out before I holler for help, mister, ‘cause if I do, some mean boys gonna come in here and give you a whoopin’ you ain’t gonna forget.”

“You the conjure woman?” the figure asked, apparently unimpressed by her threat. The crimson end of the cigarette bobbed up and down with each word.

Olivia considered screaming—there had to be at least one roustabout in earshot, and for all she knew, the intruder intended to rape her or worse—but something about the voice made her pause. It did not sound much like a man.

The figure stepped closer to the candle on the table. Light bloomed on a woman’s face, tanned like a farmer’s with wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. Smoky red hair hung past her shoulders, the color sullen as if she had dipped her head in a greenwood fire. The cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth smoldered. “I asked if you was the conjure woman.” Her dark eyes stabbed at Olivia, who shivered before she recalled what she did for a living.

“I can conjure,” she told the woman, lowering her hand and raising her chin, pretending indifference to her unfastened dress. “Spirits of power obey me when I calls at the crossroads,” she went on, warming to her familiar spiel. “Got black cat bone. Got powders get a man to bend over and do your will. Got spells keep a husband faithful, hex your enemies, heal your ills, tell your future.”

“Do all that, huh.” The cigarette glowed briefly as the woman inhaled, then smoke trickled from her nostrils and mouth as she continued, “You find things been lost?”

“Sure can.” Olivia ran an expert eye over the woman’s attire: an old and much-washed faded black dress gone rusty at the seams, cinched in at the waist with a wide leather belt, and buttoned-up boots like her grandmother used to wear. Not much cash there, she decided. Probably had a couple of dollars pin money in a purse fastened to her girdle.

“Then I reckon you better find Kathleen McCall,” the woman said coldly.

The unexpected statement made Olivia’s throat close around a knot of fear. Everything she knew about blowing off marks flew out of her head She gasped, questions and accusations and protestations crowding her mouth so she could only let out a dismayed squeak, suddenly nauseated by the scent of tobacco smoke, and the strong cologne fragrance rising from her skin. While Olivia struggled to speak, the woman tossed her cigarette on the ground, planting the toe of her boot on the glowing spark, then she was gone, vanishing out s slit in the back of the tent in a swirl of rusty black skirts.

For several long seconds, Olivia remained rooted to the spot, her chest convulsing. At long last, she managed to suck in a wet breath, and another, and finally the cramps eased. Trembling, she sat down in the chair, pulling the discarded shawl over her shoulders for warmth despite the tent’s oppressive atmosphere.

Smoke from the woman’s cigarette lingered in the air, a long flat gray ribbon that twisted this way and that before dissolving a wisp at a time until nothing was left but the acrid smell. By that time, Olivia had calmed.

That woman saw Jake steal the girl, she thought. She followed him here. She’s tryin’ to put the frightener on me. Bitch probably wants money to hold her tongue. Who does she think she is? The notion of being played like a mark made her angry. She stood, jerking the shawl off, and stomped out of the tent.

James “Big Jem” Foster, the small outfit’s manager and talker; had trained for preaching in his youth, which showed in his beautiful, deep, cultivated voice that could charm the last cent from a mark’s pocket. He stood on the wooden platform in front of the big tent now, a tall, skinny man in a good suit overlooking the crowd—mostly men and boys in dungarees from the farms outside town, some town folk wearing string ties and clean shirts, their women and children in Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, all eager to be dazzled.

“Watch that doorway, folks,” Big Jem said, pointing to an opening in the tent behind him. “We’ve got a free show for you, that’s right, a free show right here, right now, just for you, the good people of Pitchpine, so come closer, don’t be shy, watch your neighbor’s toes and come on closer ‘cause you sure don’t want to miss a thing when the free show starts.

“Fellas, I want you to come right on up close for the best look, ‘cause when Wanda the Wickedest Woman in the Western Hemisphere begins her snake dance, you won’t believe your eyes at the things she can make her snake do! Wanda’s going to wiggle, and she’s going to jiggle, and she’s going to let you see it all, but you’ve got to move in, move in, never mind your neighbor, gentlemen, this is the free show you do not want to miss!”

Olivia skirted the gawkers packed around the platform, heading straight into the big tent. Ranged around inside were some of the carnival’s sideshow performers: a bearded, hugely obese woman covered in tattoos; Siamese twin boys attached at the waist; the lizard man with his scaly bumpy skin; Wanda Hayes the snake charmer, wearing a flesh colored bodysuit with spangles sewn here and there, a python wrapped around her waist while she waited for her cue; and Jake Schuyler, the Hollow Man, so emaciated every bone in his body poked out visibly, a skeleton wrapped in tight fitting skin.

She went over to Jake, careful to keep her voice pitched low in case they were overheard. Big Jem knew about the kidnapping con, but no one else. “A woman came to see me,” she said. “Told me I’d better find Kathleen McCall right quick.”

Jake had no eyebrows—he shaved off all his body hair—but one of the bony ridges over his eye quirked. “So what?” he asked in his nasal ‘Noo Yawk’ accent, so harsh to her ears. “We got the fix in good here. Even if the girl’s mama beefs us to the cops, they won’t do nothin’. Big Jem owns ‘em till we blow out of here.”

How to explain that the strange woman had frightened her? Olivia knew Jake would scoff at her apprehension. “I just think we ought to be careful,” she finally said.

He sneered. “Keep your nerve. Don’t be dumb. You got the money?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’ll deliver the brat home tonight, don’t you worry. Now scat, sister!” Hee-hawing with laughter, he spun away from her.

Still troubled, Olivia went to her travel trailer, unhitched from her black 1930 Ford Model-A pickup, which had been almost new when she bought it for twenty-five dollars cash from a desperate man on the side of the road somewhere…Kansas, maybe, she thought, walking up the steps and opening the door, or maybe Arkansas.

The trailer’s interior was small, containing a bed, a folding table, and two chairs. A wooden cabinet with a mirrored front held liquor, cigarettes, and a private stock of food, while a steamer trunk contained her clothes.

Although it was past nine o’clock at night, at this time of year the sky was still light, buttermilk clouds and pinprick stars against a broad swath of pink turning to lavender and blue at the horizon. Sun down, moon not yet up, and an irritation of mosquitoes already humming their thirst around her. Olivia lit a mosquito coil, a necessity in Florida, and opened the cabinet to retrieve the bottle of bootleg bourbon she had bought yesterday.

Closing the cabinet door, she thought she smelled cigarette smoke. Was that the scuffle of a foot on the floor? Turning her head slightly, she caught a glimpse of curly golden hair caught up in blue ribbons, a child’s pretty doll-like face with a pouting Cupid’s bow mouth…Kathleen! Whirling around, her pulse pounding in her head, she found no one there.

Could the girl have escaped? Olivia wondered, swallowing a mouthful of bourbon straight from the bottle to calm her nerves, buzzing worse than the mosquitoes. She went to the door, looking outside for any sign of Kathleen in her ruffled white dress. Nothing. Perhaps she was seeing things, she decided, but a chill of uncertainty drizzled down her spine.

Taking another drink, and a third swig for courage, she left her trailer, headed for Jake’s travel trailer about twenty yards away.

Tall grass and taller weeds whipped against her bare legs as she walked through the lot. Patter from the agents operating the joints drifted to her, promises of groceries from the Wheel of Fortune; inexpensive glass gravy boats, vases and candy dishes at the ball toss; doll babies and other worthless flash never to be won in rigged games. Garlands of bulbs on poles around the carnival, powered by a gasoline generator, further lightened the night.

Olivia reached Jake Schuyler’s trailer, a small metal box on wheels. Going through the unlocked door, she was immediately struck by the stink of vomit and excrement. Jesus, don’t Jake clean up after himself? Seeing no obvious cause for the stench, she decided an animal must have defecated under the trailer.

Light poured through a window on the side, white as melted vanilla ice cream, shining on the closed lid of a trunk next to an unmade pallet. She paused. Where was Kathleen? Jake was supposed to give the girl ‘medicine’—chloral hydrate—to keep her quiet. Kathleen ought to have been sleeping on the pallet, but she wasn’t there…and Olivia felt a horrible premonition grip her as her gaze turned to the closed trunk.

Her mouth went dry, her guts twisting in knots. Cold sweat swept over her body. She could hardly move, but she forced her stiffened legs to take her to the trunk, and forced her hand to reach out, to lift the lid and show her what lay inside.

The crawling horror she saw did not stick in her mind very well, just snatches of details like the little form so unnaturally still, and the golden hair untouched, and the ruffled dress no longer white but covered in filth, and the flies…sweet Jesus, the flies…

The lid slipped from her convulsing grip, slamming down with a solid chunk.

Somehow, without being conscious of running, she found herself in the cab of her truck, hanging onto the steering wheel, her foot on the accelerator. The road whipped by in the shine of headlights, dirt and gravel spewing under the tires. She drove until exhaustion forced her to the side of the road. When she woke, she drove on. Sunset to twilight, dawn to dusk, only stopping to fill the truck with gas or fall into a sleep troubled by dreams that left her sweating, dying inside, burnt up with a fever that would not die.

Every now and then, she thought she saw a glint of sunlight on golden hair, a child’s doll-like face with things squirming from a Cupid’s bow mouth, and she drove faster.

At last, after God alone knew how many days of driving through the flat Florida country, one morning she spied a familiar figure walking down the road: a woman with smoky red hair, her black dress fluttering against her legs in a whisper of a breeze.

Olivia stood on the brake, the truck coming to a shuddering halt. As if released from a spell, the reason for her flight came flooding back to her. She gasped, her belly clenching.

“Took you long enough to get here,” the woman said as she opened the door, stepped on the running board and into the cab, setting a large black snakeskin doctor’s bag and a rucksack with a bedroll tied to it on the floorboards between her booted feet.

“Lady, who the hell are you?” Olivia asked, dulled by weariness.

“Evadne Wylde,” the woman replied. “Most folks call me Vandy.”

Sitting in the driver’s seat with the sun and the heat beating through the dusty windshield, Olivia did not know what to say or do. A fat fly hummed into the cab through the open window, making her shy violently.

“Be hush,” Vandy said, “it ain’t here for you.” She shooed the fly away.

Her throat raw from holding back what she suspected were screams, Olivia rasped, “What do you want?”

“Keep driving north. You’ll see when we get there.” Vandy’s dark eyes turned outward, to the dirt road lancing straight between two fields of green sorghum stretching east and west. “Move along, Olivia Jean Suggs. Daylight’s burning.”

Too tired to defy the strange woman, too frightened to ask how her name was known, Olivia drove north as directed. Soon she came to a sign—Pitchpine City Limits 1 mile— and a familiar lot fenced lot, the grass mashed down where the carnival tent and platform and joints and trailers and trucks had stood. Trash littered the place, mostly broken bottles, papers and empty cans. To her astonishment, it looked like the carnival had upped stakes just the night before when she knew Big Jem had intended to leave the morning after she found the dead girl—no, she would not let that image return—the morning after she fled. That had been, what, a week ago? Longer? And her driving all the while.

“Last night,” Vandy said in answer to her unspoken question. “The carnival moved on lasts night as planned.”

“I don’t understand,” Olivia said, keeping both hands on the steering wheel, her face as tight and hot as her chest. She felt as if the truck was the only real thing in the world, and if she let go, her mind would fly away with it.

Vandy affected astonishment. “Don’t you? My, my, my, how soon we forget.” She shook a cigarette from a pack she dug out of her dress pocket, striking a match to light it. The brimstone scent of the spent match coiled around the truck’s interior.

The woman’s mass of smoky red hair fluffed around her head like a lion’s mane, framing a tanned face with a beaky, thin-bridged nose and prominent cheekbones. Despite the fan of wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, her age seemed impossible to determine. Anywhere from thirty to fifty-five, Olivia decided. The body under the black dress seemed solid, the kind of strength that comes from a lifetime of hard labor.

“Have you forgotten sweet Kathleen McCall?” Vandy asked, blowing smoke out the passenger side window, her gaze intense. “Do you not remember what you saw?”

Olivia gagged. Scrambling out of the truck, she barely made it to the side of the road before she vomited, spewing bile and chunks of meat she did not recall eating. The vile taste made her sicker. Again and again she heaved, her stomach cramping until nothing else came up. Standing straight, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

What I saw in that trunk don’t own me, she thought, clinging to that slender hope with desperation.. I can forget. It weren’t my fault.

Her heart knew better.

“I see you do remember,” came Vandy’s cool voice from right next to her.

Unable to bear it any longer, Olivia rounded on Vandy, shouting, “What the hell do you want from me?”

“Retribution.” Vandy’s eyes glittered like black diamonds as she took another drag from her cigarette. “Go on, tell yourself you ain’t at fault, but you surely share the blame, yes, you do. There’s consequences, you know. Not thirty pieces of silver, but fifty dollars cash—the price of that little girl’s future. Olivia Jean Suggs, you hold life too cheap. Things have to change. ‘For the day of their calamity is at hand,’” she quoted, “‘and the things that shall come upon them make haste.’ Do you hear them? Do you hear the things coming for you?”

“No,” Olivia denied, though her ear caught an edge of a sound in the distance, a many-footed rustling reminiscent of hunting hounds, their bellies low to the ground, rushing eagerly upon their prey. Her mind shuddered away from what that sound implied. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re crazy.”

Vandy shook her head. “Am I the one who drove day and night and went nowhere fast? No man can escape his fate, and no woman, either.”

“Stay away from me.” Saliva filled Olivia’s mouth. Almost weeping, she spat a thick wad of sputum on the ground. “Leave me be.”

“I’m offering you a chance to live, which is more than you gave Kathleen McCall.”

“Don’t you talk to me…just go away.”

“Listen to me, and no back talk.” Vandy took Olivia by the upper arm and hauled her in close, so close the animal heat of her body seemed stifling. The smoke from her cigarette stung Olivia’s eyes. “You want to live, you do what I say. It’s that simple,” she said. “Otherwise, you might as well lay down right here in the road and die.”

A flash of gold in the corner of Olivia’s eye had her turning her head to catch the fading after-image of a little girl in a once white dress, her empty eye sockets shadowed except for the faintest malicious gleam in the center. Olivia sobbed, biting the edge of her hand. From afar yet nearer than before, the hunting pack belled.

“Our sweet Kathleen is…attached to you, let’s say,” Vandy said, releasing Olivia with a push, as if to deliver her into the phantom’s waiting arms.

Olivia stumbled, but caught herself. “What does that mean?”

“It means if you want to get rid of a wait-about afore it gets rid of you, you’ll have to do something about it.” Vandy said, flicking her cigarette away. “The longer a wait-about hangs on you, the more wicked it becomes, and the harder to dismiss. First thing we do is get back in the truck and go find them carnival folk of yours.”

Live or die. When it came down to the line, most of God’s creatures chose life. This might be some kind of con, but if it was, Olivia could not divine the meaning of it. She walked to the truck, pausing with her hand on the door handle. “I never believed in Mama’s spells and such,” she said. “I thought it was all a trick, just stuff out of books.”

“There’s tricks and there’s tricks,” Vandy told her. “You’ll learn the difference.”

Suddenly, the fear clutching Olivia shifted to resentment, a kicked dog showing its teeth. “I didn’t kill that girl,” she said, glancing at Vandy sidelong. “It was Jake done that.”

Vandy spoke almost kindly. “Not necessarily true to the core, but you done other bad things in your life, Miss Olive. You cheated and you lied, you stole from hard-working people who could ill afford the theft. You’ve left hungry families in your wake. You’ve left disaster. Maybe you ain’t murdered a body directly, not like pullin’ a trigger or cuttin’ a throat, but you been responsible for enough misery to taint your soul, and that’s like prime steak to a wait-about. They eat that up and don’t need no gravy to help it down.”

Olivia did not want to answer, getting into the truck and starting the engine. An instant later, Vandy swung into the cab. “Wait a sec,” she said, rummaging in her rucksack. She produced a white metal ear trumpet, a stylized dome with the S-curved stem of the earpiece rising from the side like a charmed snake. “I got to figure out the way.”

Pacing to the middle of the road, Vandy knelt, set the ear trumpet on the ground, and put her ear to the end of the stem, looking for all the world like a demented, deaf granny attempting to hear worm music in the soil. Unsettled, Olivia watched.

Utter concentration on her face, Vandy’s eyes drifted closed. One minute stretched to two. Olivia waited, squashing the mean urge to blow the horn just to scare the snot out of the woman. A couple of crows quarreling in the field caught her attention, a furious flapping of wings and raucous caws, black feathers swirling up and settling softly on the earth. When she returned her gaze to the road, Vandy was on her feet, brushing the powdery dirt off her skirts.

“Straight ahead,” Vandy said, climbing into the passenger seat and returning the ear trumpet to her rucksack. “There’s a crossroad about ten miles yonder. Go left there.”

“How you know that?” Olivia asked, curiosity overriding her wariness.

“If you listen hard enough, you hear what you need to hear,” Vandy answered, which was no real answer at all.

Huffing, Olivia sent the truck into motion. As she drove, trying to avoid the worst ruts in the road, she considered what Vandy had told her about the bad she had done.

Everybody sins, she thought. Ain’t nobody got a pure soul in the world ‘cept maybe a newborn baby. So what if she had fooled stupid greedy men who probably beat their wives and drank their paychecks away, or stupid greedy women who cheated on their husbands and told lies about their neighbors. A successful con depended on such people’s greed, their desire to get something for nothing, often at the expense of someone else. You can only cheat a cheater. An honest man passes by a racket every time.

Of course, Jake’s kidnapping scheme was not the same. She cursed the Hollow Man, and her own stupid greed that led her to help him.

Next to her, Vandy sighed, taking out two cigarettes. She lit them both with a match, handing one to Olivia. “You’re thinkin’ so hard your hair’s about to catch fire,” she said.

“Yeah, well, maybe I’m thinkin’ I ought to pull over and kick your ass right out of here,” Olivia replied, drawing the bitter tobacco smoke deep into her lungs.

“You’re welcome to try, baby girl. Can’t say as I think you’d enjoy it much.” Vandy’s glance was filled with amusement.

Setting her jaw to keep from yelling blasphemies, Olivia drove.

Smoking in silence, tapping cigarette ash out the open window, Vandy propped her booted foot on the dashboard . Harsh white sunlight lent an edge to the geometry of her features. When they reached the crossroads, she said, “Go left.”

Olivia obeyed. To break the silence which soon became oppressive, she turned on the radio, surprised to pick up a local station so clearly, a blast of gospel choir music she had heard in church as a child. After that, Vandy sang along to what sounded like an old murder ballad with the saddest violin Olivia had ever heard. The woman had a decent voice, strong if unschooled, but at least she could hold a tune—more than Olivia could say for herself.

O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O what did he do?
Fixed my grave, fixed my grave, and around it the white roses grew.
O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O where are you found?
In the water, in the water, forbidden the cold clay around.”

The song made her skin ripple with goosebumps.

About an hour later, Olivia estimated, a convoy of trucks hove into view. She recognized the vehicles, some with colorful banners pinned to their sides. Blowing the horn, she passed the line of trucks, headed for Big Jem’s Foster’s coupe leading the way. Spotting her, he signaled the others to go ahead, pulling his coupe over. She parked behind him.

“Hey, Jem, sorry about that last night,” Olivia said, hopping out of the truck to greet him. “I had me quite a scare—”

“What the hell’s going on with you and Jake?” Jem demanded, as furious as she had ever seen him. “He’s gone. Lit out on his own without paying what he owed, same as you.”

“Sorry,” she repeated, wilting a little under Jem’s glare. “How much?”

“I guess you owe me his share as well as yours.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Does it look like I care what you think? Give me a C, we’ll call it even”

A hundred dollars! Olivia opened her mouth to protest, shutting it hastily when Jem glowered at her, seeming to gain height and breadth as he loomed with menace evident in every long loose line of his body.

“Don’t think you can bamboozle me, girl,” he rumbled deep in his chest. “I figure that kid’s kidnap went sour, and you and Jake are on the lam. That’s fine, but there’s money owed. You can’t give me cash, you’ll pay in kind. Work it off till I say the debt is done.”

“Tell you what,” Vandy spoke up from next to Olivia, “let’s settle this nice and polite like friends ought to. Pleasure to meet you, sir.” Jem’s hands were as big as scoop shovels, but she took one and shook it as if welcoming a stranger to church. When she released his hand, Jem’s palm was dusted with a trace of white powder.

To Olivia’s astonishment, after a blank moment, Jem said to Vandy, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. How do, ma’am?”

“I do fine, sir, very fine indeed. Now you say Miss Olive here owes you a hundred dollars…are you sure that’s right? Seems kind of high to me.”

“Well, you see it’s two debts—”

“I think you’ll find it’s one debt alone.”

Jem paused, his brow crinkling. “Yes…yes, I believe you’re right,” he said slowly. “I must have made a mistake.”

Her eyes widening, Olivia clapped both hands over her mouth, deathly afraid of what might happen if she interrupted.

“That’s all right. We’re friends here. We forgive each other our mistakes.” Vandy shot Olivia a warning glance before turning back to Jem. “I suppose you deserve some compensation since Miss Olive left your employment without givin’ you no notice. Let’s say five dollars. Do you consider that fair?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am, fair it is.” Jem’s face was covered in sweat, his mouth drawn back in a rictus nearly to the angle of his jaw. His gaze rolled towards Olivia. She recoiled from the raging, agonized expression in his eyes, having no doubt that had he been free to do so, he would have struck her and Vandy dead. Nevertheless, when Jem spoke his voice held nothing but perfect courtesy. “Five dollars will do me fine, just fine.”

“Miss Olive, kindly give this gentleman five dollars,” Vandy said.

In her dress pocket, Olivia still had the fifty dollars she had taken from Mrs. McCall. She peeled a five dollar bill off the roll, pushing it into Jem’s hand. His skin seemed unnaturally clammy to her touch. She pulled away, moving closer to her truck when his fingers clenched into a fist, and his arm jerked as if testing invisible bonds.

“So we’re square now, ain’t we?” Vandy said, prowling around Jem’s rigid figure. If she noticed him struggling by inches to throw off her influence, she did not show it. “I suppose you don’t mind tellin’ me where I can find that fellow Jake.”

“I don’t know,” Jem gritted through hard clenched teeth. “Jake Schuyler ran off, snuck away in the night like a thief.”

“But maybe you know where he’d go,” Vandy pressed, taking the steps necessary to put herself right next to him, their bodies almost touching. “Where his people might be.”

The tendons in his neck straining, a vein swelling alarmingly on his forehead, Jem closed his mouth, compressing his lips. Sweat soaked circles under the arms of his white shirt. Finally, he let out an explosive breath mingled with tiny droplets of spit and blood. “Town called Hartsville,” he said hoarsely, “about a hundred fifty miles east of here, past Larondo Lake. Schuyler’s aunt lives there. He has no other living relatives.”

“Thank you, sir. Very much obliged to you for your help. If I was you, I’d forget about Jake Schuyler and Olivia Jean Suggs; they got no interest for you no more.” Vandy walked quickly to the truck, motioning for Olivia to get inside. “Drive, drive, drive,” she chanted under her breath as she slid into the passenger seat. “If you love your life, get us out of here.”

Wasting no time, Olivia put her foot on the accelerator, watching not the road ahead but over her shoulder to see Jem grow smaller and smaller in the distance, the man vanishing at last from view. “Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed, turning her gaze back to the road. “What the hell was that? What did you do to him?”

“A little something to make him bend to my will for a minute or two,” Vandy said. The doctor’s bag on the floorboard gaped open. She snapped it closed, but not before Olivia caught a glimpse of brown glass bottles, a jumble of bags, boxes and jars. “Had I the time, I’d have crossed him proper, but a dab of Do As I Say was what I had to hand.”

“I never seen Big Jem act like that.” Awed by the other woman’s demonstration of real power, Olivia slowed the truck’s headlong flight, reducing the speed to negotiate around a bend in the road. “My mama used to sell Bend-Over oil to women,” she offered. “S’posed to make their husbands and boyfriends go all soft for them. She put honeysuckle in it, I remember, though it didn’t seem to do much. What’s in that powder of yours?”

Vandy shrugged, slumping down in the seat. “Licorice root,” she said, “and Johnny Conkeroo, that’s what I use. I’ll learn you how to find the plants one day, tell the proper words over them..” She fell silent, finally rousing after several minutes to add, “Don’t expect me to compel folks like that every day of the week, baby girl. It’s hard work, I tell you, harder’n digging ditches in Hell with a candy bar spoon.”

“But you’ll teach me how to do that to men?” Olivia asked, thinking how easy it would be to use Do As I Say to make marks fork over their earnings without a murmur instead of running a risky game on them. Why, she could be Queen of the World in no time!

“You’re in for a mort of troubles, you keep them kind of thoughts in your speckled little head,” Vandy said flatly.

Olivia flushed, touching her freckled nose. The self-consciousness did not last, driven away by other concerns, such as how did Vandy keep reading her mind? Or had she grown so transparent? She did not know which possibility frightened her more.

“Use conjure like that, you won’t tend to live very long ‘cause the first man you lay that trick on and it don’t take, he’ll kill you dead, like that.” Vandy went on, snapping her callused fingers. “Better keep it for when you need it. And quit worrying so much about money. You’ve had money, more money than some folks. What good did it do you? Are you living in a fancy house, wearin’ fancy clothes with a fancy man on your arm?”

“Don’t want no fancy man,” Olivia retorted.

“That’s as may be, but I reckon what you want ain’t money, ain’t no fancy house…no, I reckon what you want is power. You want respect, which you ain’t had in your whole life.”

“You don’t know me one bit, lady. You don’t know shit.”

Vandy made another shrug. “I’ll teach you to conjure, Miss Olive. What you do with it is your own business.”

Olivia turned on the radio, letting the music wash over her to drown out her troubled thoughts. The further she drove, the more pops, hisses and crackles of static interfered with the station’s broadcast signal until it began fading in and out, rendering Gene Austin’s crooned When Your Lover Has Gone to an occasional ghostly soft snatch of song. Flicking the radio off, the risked a glance at Vandy, who appeared to be napping.

Two hours later, her eyes scratchy from the sun’s glare and the blood warm wind, Olivia stopped the truck beside an acre or more of strawberries, long rows of green plants sprawled limp on the sandy soil as if exhausted by the heat. The farmer’s clapboard house stood in the distance, a dingy white square against a blue sky.

Vandy sat up, yawning.

“Looks like a nice place to rest a while,” Olivia said, nodding at the wide ribbon of sparkling water stretching for miles. Cypress trees lined the bank, creating an umbrella of tempting shade.

“So it seems,” Vandy said, scrubbing her palms over her face and smoothing back her wind-ruffled hair. “Well, let’s shake the dust off. I don’t suppose you have anything to eat?”

All of a sudden, it struck Olivia that her trailer was gone, left behind when she took panicked flight from the carnival, and not in evidence when she later returned to the lot. “Damn! Damn, damn, damn it to hell and Gehenna!” she cried, hitting her fist on the steering wheel. The blow hurt, but not nearly as much as the loss. Everything she owned was in that trailer: clothes, liquor, a few bits of jewelry, and her bankroll, of course—five hundred sixty-two dollars and thirty-seven cents tucked into a jar hidden behind the bed. The only things she had in the world right now were the truck, the clothes on her back, the cracked patent leather shoes on her feet, and forty-five dollars in her pocket.

Vandy had the nerve to chuckle. “It’s not the end, you know. We’ll get by.”

“Easy for you to say,” Olivia muttered.

“Let me have a chat with the farmer yonder, see if he’s a mind to sell us a bite to eat. When we get to Hartsville, there’s bound to be a store that’ll be glad of your business. We’ll get you fixed up proper.” Vandy opened the door, stepping on the running board. “Why don’t you go and cool your feet in the water? I’ll catch you up.” She went tromping between the rows of strawberry plants towards the house, her smoky red hair ablaze under the sun.

Olivia drove on until she could park the truck closer to the river bank. Taking off her shoes, she hiked up her mid-calf length skirts to her hips. The grass felt prickly under her bare feet but the water was deliciously cool when she waded out a little way. After a silent debate, she took off her dress entirely, remaining clad in a thin slip.

Her dress frankly stank from too many days of wearing it in hot weather. She wished for soap, but decided she would have to make do with slapping the dress around in the river in the hope of knocking some of the smell out of it. As she twisted water out of the garment, Vandy returned, picking her way along the river bank balancing a wooden crate in her hands.

“Fresh milk,” the woman said, “half a loaf of bread, butter, cheese, a cucumber, a tomato, and Mr. Gibson said we’re welcome to strawberries, too.” She put the crate on the ground and stood surveying Olivia. “Didn’t think to buy a ball of lye soap from his wife, ‘cause I reckoned on finding a place to stay with a bath soon as we get to Hartsville. Hey, don’t be mad, Miss Olive…that dress’ll dry out quick in this heat.”

Wading out of the river and pretending she did not notice Vandy’s bright black gaze, Olivia spread her wet dress over a cypress branch, and flopped down on the grass which scratched her skin, promising herself a soak in a bathtub later. “I’m parched,” she said, holding out a hand. “Pass me that bottle.”

Lunch tasted good. Vandy used a pocketknife to cut slices off the bread and cheese, slapping them together with butter to make sandwiches. The cucumber and tomato they ate in chunks with their fingers, washing everything down with swigs of milk. Afterwards, Vandy picked strawberries so ripe they were sweet without needing sugar. Olivia gobbled far too many for her stomach’s comfort.

Licking pink juice off her lips at last, she lay down on her back, staring up at the leafy branches above her head, moved by a steady wind to show flickers of gray-edged clouds scudding west. Brutal humidity had sweat sticking to her skin. “Think it might rain,” she said, distracted by the lingering taste of strawberries in her mouth.

“Think you might be right.” Vandy sighed. Unlike Olivia, she remained fully dressed, right down to her buttoned-up boots. “Tonight, we’ll find a place to stay. Tomorrow, we’ll find Jake Schuyler’s aunt, maybe find Jake himself.”

“What for?” Olivia asked, rolling over to prop herself on an elbow so she could peer at Vandy. “What’s Jake got that you want?”

“That wait-about fastened on your neck as a millstone won’t go away by itself,” Vandy said. “Take a gander at your shadow What do you see?”

Looking down, Olivia caught a glimpse of her shadow, just a blot around her feet in the sun where the cypress tree cast no shade. Abruptly, she went cold, her lunch surging up to clot thick in her windpipe. Attached to her feet, another shadow stretched further out, a black shape with two pipe stem legs, an inverted bell of a dress, thin arms, a fluttering mass of thread-like hair…she scrambled up, choking on a scream.

“Easy, be easy, don’t do yourself no harm.” Vandy’s hand wrapped around her ankle. The touch made Olivia shiver. “Sit down, and I’ll tell you what we’ll do.”

Slowly, cautiously, Olivia sat on the grass, pulling her knees to her chest and wrapping her arms around her legs. After a comforting squeeze, Vandy’s fingers fell from her ankle.

“Told you before, wait-abouts can be right ugly,” Vandy said. “We need to get rid of the one ridin’ your shadow else it’ll surely take your life. Only way to do that is lay the girl to rest at a crossroads or in prayed-over ground like a churchyard. From what you said, Jake Schuyler killed Kathleen McCall. Stands to reason he knows where her body lies.”

O Karie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O where are you found? The mournful tune ran through Olivia’s head. She curled up tighter. “Don’t feel no different,” she whispered.

Vandy stood. “Give it time. You might find it a mite bothersome.” She paused. “You gonna run or you gonna do this right, lay that little girl to rest?”

“Ain’t going nowhere,” Olivia said, her stomach aching—from too many strawberries, or from the awful visible proof she was haunted, she did not know.

Taking the empty milk bottle, Vandy rinsed it in the river, careful not to wet her boots. The bottle and the waxed paper wrappings from the butter and cheese went into the crate, which she picked up. “Your dress looks dry to me. We’d best move on, got some miles to go yet. First, though, be sure to turn around and drive me over to the Gibson’s house, ‘cause I surely don’t feel much like stomping over Hell’s half acre to return a milk bottle.”

An hour and a half of driving brought them to Hartsville, a larger town than Pitchpine. In addition to the usual drugstore, feed and hardware store, grocery and other retail businesses downtown, Hartsville also boasted a library, a bank, a diner, a hotel, and a movie theater.

Vandy grimaced when Olivia suggested stopping at the hotel. “Word of a stranger runs through places like this faster’n grass through a goose,” she said. “We stay there, risks Jake getting word through his aunt and rabbitin’ out of here. But to be honest, I’m too tired to hunt up a boarding house, and you was promised a bath, so the Hotel Cocoanut it is.”

The clerk behind the front desk did not seem thrilled with their appearance, nor with the fact neither of them had proper suitcases, but Vandy paying for the room up front changed his manner from pompous to servile in a second. Olivia sniggered softly at the transformation, not caring when the man cut his eyes at her, the faintest sneer curling his lip. Money talked a language everybody understood, she thought, especially in the sticks.

The room was in the back of the hotel overlooking palm trees and a courtyard. A single bed, Olivia noted, but big enough for two, and the sheets were clean, the straw mattress and feather tick freshly aired. A table and two chairs stood under a window, open to let in a cooling breeze that smelled like rain.

Vandy plopped her rucksack and doctor’s bag on the dresser. “I seen worse,” she remarked. “You feel up to shopping?”

Olivia thought longingly of the bathroom at the end of the hall, but conceded to Vandy’s suggestion. Dragging herself out of the hotel and down the sidewalk, she let Vandy steer her to the department store where she selected some clothing and a suitcase to hold everything. Vandy paid the bill, and Olivia let her, figuring the woman owed her for turning her life upside down. Afterwards, they went to the drugstore for other essentials, and Vandy treated her to an ice cream soda at the lunch counter.

While Olivia found the treat nice, she wondered what Vandy wanted. In her experience, people gave nothing away without expectation of repayment.

On the way back to the Hotel Cocoanut, Vandy halted outside a Baptist church on Main Street, the steeple with its gilt cross shining like real gold. A banner tacked to the front of the building read Poor Relief Fund – Raise the Spirit by Raising Money to Aid Distressed Farmers. The woman nodded at the sign. “Seems like it’d be a good idea for you to get rid of that blood money you’re carrying around..”

“What?” Olivia released the handle of her new suitcase to clutch at her dress pocket.

“You heard me. That money’s been cursed, Miss Olive,” Vandy said. “Better to give it away, let it help other people, do good works to draw off the spirit poison.”

Olivia scoffed. “I worked hard for this bankroll, and every other penny I ever earned,” she said. “Ain’t nobody never give me charity. Root, hog, or die…that’s the same rule for everybody if they want to eat good and sleep dry. I won’t give my money to no farmers. They can work or starve, same as me.”

“You’re missin’ my point. This ain’t charity. Mrs. McCall’s money is cursed. The more you spend, the worse the curse. You haven’t looked in a mirror lately, have you?” The corners of Vandy’s mouth curled up in a tiny smile that chilled Olivia’s blood.

Panicking, Olivia dashed over to a parked Packard, looking at her reflection in the side-mirror. The sight was familiar: a fall of jet black hair chopped off at the angle of her jaw, brown eyes under straight black brows, nose and cheeks sprinkled with freckles, a dimple in her chin same as her father’s. Everything seemed normal. Sighing in irritation at such a waste of time, she began turning away only to stop when a change in her reflection caught her eye. Gazing in the mirror straight on showed her what she expected, but a sideways glance told another story. A sickly sinking feeling dropped her stomach to her toes.

A naked skull, all white bone and empty eye sockets, grinned at her in the mirror.

Backing away, Olivia heard Vandy say, “Was we in the middle of nowhere, I’d tell you to burn them bills, but giving them away to a church’ll take care of the problem.”

Olivia drew the money out of her dress pocket, handling the five dollar billsgingerly, at arm’s length as if they had changed to a nest of rats about to bite. “What do I do?” she asked, her heart fluttering like a trapped wild thing.

“There’s bound to be a collection box inside.” Vandy clasped her shoulder, steering her to the door and opening it. A wave of warm air scented faintly with vanilla gusted out.

“And this’ll fix me?”

“For now.”

She did not like the sound of that, would have preferred a more definite answer to her dilemma, but standing on the sidewalk arguing about it did not get the job done. Steeling herself, she went inside, half expecting the money in her hand to burst into flames.

In the vestibule, the pine floorboards gleamed with polish. Pegs for hats and coats made a line on one wall. On the other wall, a calendar hung from a nail. Below that stood a table with a vase filled with Queen-of-the-Meadow, or Joe-Pye or purple boneset as her mother called it, the clustered flower heads a pinky-lavender color. Next to the vase stood a big glass jar with a slit in the lid, a few dollars and some coins visible. A paper label pasted to the front of the jar read Relief Fund—God Will Bless You. In a shaky old man’s scrawl, someone had added, “There is that scattereth, and yet increaseth; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth to poverty. The liberal soul shall be made fat: and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.” So says God’s Good Book. Amen.

One by one, Olivia folded the bills and fed them through the lid, watching them fall to join the others in the jar. Finished, she fidgeted a moment, wondering if there was something else she ought to do—pray, maybe, but she hadn’t felt the urge to talk to that mean sumbitch Upstairs since He saw fit to kill her daddy in a mine accident.

Behind the door that led to the sanctuary, Olivia heard an organ groan as the player warmed up, then launched into a spirited rendition of Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

She left, blinking as she exited into bright sunlight.

“That’s better,” Vandy said, giving her a critical once over. “Grab your suitcase, and let’s see about that bath.”

Later in the hotel, in the blue-tiled bathroom down the hall, filling a tub with tepid water that had a rotten egg tang to it, Olivia poured in a handful of complimentary bath salts so she wouldn’t have to glimpse her reflection in the water.

The next morning after checking out of the Hotel Cocoanut, and eating a breakfast of coffee, toast and eggs in the diner, Vandy had Olivia drive to the grocery store. A brief consultation with the men already lazing on the porch playing checkers led them to a singe story white-washed house on Daly Street belonging to Jake Schuyler’s aunt, Mrs. Bernice Newman. Olivia parked the truck opposite the house.

From her doctor’s bag, Vandy produced a black candle and a vial of oil. Taking a square cut from a brown paper bag, she wrote Jake’s name nine times with a fountain pen filled with red ink, then turned the paper ninety degrees. Choosing a black ink pen, she wrote her own name nine times across his, spacing the lines of text as evenly as possible.

“I ain’t taking no chances, we need that fellow to speak if we find him,” she said to Olivia, anointing her fingertips with oil from the vial and rubbing them on the candle. Putting the paper square on the dashboard, she lit the black candle’s wick, letting wax drip on the paper a moment before securing the candle upright in its own grease.

Pointing at the candle, she murmured, “A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood are an anathema unto the LORD. From a deceitful mouth, from a froward mouth, from the false witness with wickedness in his heart, let there be uttered truth.”

Olivia watched with mingled fascination and dread. This went beyond any of the simple charms she had heard her mother speak when other women came to the house seeking help—to gain good luck in gambling, to bring straying husbands home, to receive a favorable verdict in a court case. “What’s all this for?” she asked.

“I’ve crossed his name with mine, to put my power over him,” Vandy explained, “and dressed the candle with Domination oil. Got sweet flag in it, and witch’s grass, and other stuff to bind a man’s will. It’s a stronger persuader than Do As I Say. Now, Miss Olive, tell me the truth and shame the Devil…can you pick pockets?”

The apparently nonsensical question made Olivia gape a moment before outrage set in. “Do I look like a thief to you?”

“Do you want me to answer such a damn fool question?” Vandy asked, the wrinkles fanned at the corners of her eyes deepening as she frowned. “Can you do it or not?”

“Yeah,” Olivia admitted sullenly, “I learnt how, but I ain’t real good at it.”

“You think you can put something in a man’s coat pocket without him knowing it?”

“Could try.”

Vandy made a face, but she reached into the doctor’s bag, coming up with a black flannel bag about the size of a match box. “Dried fire ants, graveyard dirt, devil’s dung, virgin scammony, broken piece of razor, sprinkled with holy water, over-spoke with words of power.” Using the point of a nail, she scratched Jake’s name on a little circle of flattened lead, which she added to the bag before pulling the drawstring tight. When she finished, she handed the flannel bag to Olivia, whose flesh crept at handling it.

“Go outside the truck and call her,” Vandy commanded.

Olivia almost asked who, but realization struck as she opened her mouth. “I ain’t callin’ no haint,” she protested, thrusting the loathsome object back at Vandy, who refused to take it from her.

“Listen, there’s more to this than finding that child’s body. You think the law will arrest Jake on account of a conjure woman hexed him to confess? Who’s gonna pay for Kathleen McCall’s death if not Jake Schuyler? If man’s law can’t touch him, a higher law will,” Vandy said starkly, pinning Olivia in place with her flat black gaze. “That trick bag is filled with ruination and damnation everlasting for whoever killed the girl. The wait-about wants retribution for a life cut short. You call her, ‘cause she’s ridin’ your shadow.”

Gulping, Olivia eyed the little black bag in the palm of her hand. “And if I don’t?”

Vandy shrugged, leaning back in the passenger seat. Smoke from the burning candle left a long smudged finger of soot on the windshield in front of her. “Then I reckon you’re gonna lose your life afore too long,” she said.

“I didn’t kill Kathleen. I didn’t!”

“So you said, but you helped Jake’s dirty scheming, didn’t you? You profited from it. Makes you as guilty as him what done the deed.”

Olivia closed her eyes, knowing Vandy was right. Unbidden, a memory of Kathleen’s face swam up from her memories—not the recent horror but as she lived, all pretty pink and white and gold, alight with simple joy, never knowing pain until the last lingering moments locked in a sweltering trunk. At last, she opened her eyes, surprised to find her cheeks wet. Wiping the tears away, she said, “Tell me what I need to do.”

A set of instructions later, Olivia found herself standing on the sidewalk in the morning sunlight. It had not rained yet, but the dark fat-bellied clouds boiling in the east promised a real frog-strangler by afternoon. Humidity wrapped around her like a sopping hot mop, but it was terror made her stink, the fear gushing acrid from her pores.

Turning so the sun fall across her to form a long shadow on the street, Olivia held the trick bag out. “Kathleen McCall, I call you once. Kathleen McCall, I call you twice. Kathleen McCall,” she said, “I call you three times.”

The breeze turned cold. Her shadow oozed, seemingly turning as liquid as bubbling tar, then transformed into a child’s shape, small and thin and somehow very, very angry. Death had stolen Kathleen’s innocence, given her strength and anun-childlike purpose.

Olivia licked her lips, repeating what she had been told to say: “Kathleen McCall, Kathleen McCall, Kathleen McCall, I call you three times.”

A thin, dry, reedy voice—a child’s voice scratchy from weeping—whispered in her ear, Not my Mama.

A powerful slap rocked Olivia on her heels. Trembling, her jaw and cheek on fire and already stiff, she said, “Kathleen McCall, I offer you retribution.”

An invisible hand slapped her chest, then her thigh through the cotton of her dress. The blows hurt, as did the sharp fingernails that tore three bloody strips from her arm. She forced herself to remain standing still.

“He hurt you, Kathleen. Jake Schuyler took your life. If you want revenge, take it.” She dangled the black flannel bag. “If you want justice, take it. I offer retribution.”

The shadow cocked its head. A blow struck Olivia, this one akin to being slugged with a concrete fist. Blood and snot flooded from her nose over her lips, the metallic taste coating her tongue. Hearing Kathleen’s wild laughter, she waited for the strike that would kill her. Instead, the shadow on the ground suddenly reared up, a flat black silhouette like a paper cut-out standing in front of her. She felt the menacing weight of its regard. The shadow leaped, but not at her. Thinning to a long snaky wisp, it flew around her head and into the trick bag she held, finally disappearing.

Olivia breathed heavily through her mouth, afraid her nose was broken.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Vandy asked, making a startled Olivia jump.

“Not bad?” Olivia spat blood on the ground. “Girl punches like Kid Berg.”

Vandy put a gentle hand on either side of Olivia’s face, turning her head this way and that as she assessed the injuries. “Beats being dead by a mile. Don’t think your nose is broke, though you’ll have one hell of a shiner before sundown. We’ll put a raw steak on it.”

“Don’t do me no favors, “ Olivia grumbled, probing the inside of her mouth with her tongue to check for loose teeth. “Now what?”

“Now we see Mr. Jake Schuyler.”

A brief delay to disinfect Olivia’s scratches with iodine and wrap a bandage around her forearm—magic supplies weren’t the only things contained in the doctor’s bag—she and Vandy walked up the porch steps and knocked on Mrs. Newman’s front door.

The knock was answered by a small nervous woman wearing a housedress, her hair in curlers covered by a pink net. “Can I help you folks?” she asked, her overly bright gaze flitting from Vandy to Olivia and back again.

“Mrs. Newman, I sure hope you can,” Vandy said, smooth as fresh butter. “Is your nephew Jake to home, by any chance?”

“J-J-J-Jake? Uh…he’s not here, hasn’t been here in some time.”

Olivia read the lie in the way the woman’s scrawny hand clutched the front of her housedress. Vandy must have seen it, too, since she said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, please excuse me,” while shouldering Mrs. Newman aside to go into the house uninvited.

Jake Schuyler waited for them in the living room, his skeletal frame disguised by loose-fitting trousers, a shirt and a jacket. On sighting Olivia, he gave her a humorless grin. “Hey there, sister, looks like you been ten rounds with a mean right hook.”

Steeling herself, Olivia went over to give him a hug, slipping the trick bag into his jacket pocket as she embraced his hard bony torso. “Good to see you, too, Jake,” she said, releasing him and stepping out of his reach.

Vandy remained to one side. In her black dress, against the living room’s pastel painted walls and fussy decor, she resembled a crow trapped in a mass of cotton candy. “Ma’am,” she said to the aunt, “do you think you might spare me a glass of water? And in the meantime, I’ll just have a friendly little chat with Jake here.”

“Oh! Oh, yes, certainly, where are my manners,” Mrs. Newman fussed, turning wide round eyes on her nephew. “I’ll just be…I’ll be in the kitchen,” she added, leaving the room.

“Who the hell are you?” Jake growled, leveling a glare at Vandy, who stuck her hand out. In an automatic reflex, he took it. When he withdrew, his fingers had a slight oily sheen. Like Big Jem, he suffered a blank moment before his body went rigid, caught by the spell.

“My name’s unimportant,” Vandy told him. “I want to talk about Kathleen McCall.”

A tremor ran through him. His face flushed. “Okey-doke,” he said, sounding more pleasant than Olivia expected. He might have been making polite chit-chat at a church social. “What can I do you for, Red?”

Vandy made no objection to the nickname. “Did you kill Kathleen McCall?”

“Yes, yes I did.”

“How did you do it?”

“A stupid accident.” A bead of sweat ran into his eye. He blinked. “I was keepin’ the brat quiet with knock-out drops, yeah, but then Wanda came over lookin’ to get some dope offa me. Man, that snake-hipped bitch was beggin’ for it, and I gave it to her all right.” The bald man cupped his crotch to make his meaning clear. “But I had to hide the kid, so I gave her an extra dose and stuck her in my old trunk. Guess Wanda fucked my brains out ‘cause I forgot about the kid until Olivia showed up screechin’ and snivelin’ about it.”

Anger put heat in Olivia’s face. Vandy laid a quelling hand on her arm. “Where did you put Kathleen’s body?” she asked.

Jake twitched. “I dumped the body in Lake Larondo on my way to Hartsville.”

Olivia felt faint. Jesus, she had waded in that water! A noise from behind made her turn to see Mrs. Newman standing in the doorway that led to the kitchen, an apron with apples printed on it pressed to her face with both hands. She could offer the woman no comfort, so she switched her attention back to Jake and Vandy.

“I want you to listen to me, Jake,” Vandy said, ignoring Mrs. Newman’s quiet muffled sobs. “We’re fixin’ to leave your aunt’s beautiful house in a minute. When we do, you’ll get in your car and follow us to Lake Larondo.”

“Sure thing, Red, I can do that, yeah,” he replied, still jovial despite the muscle jumping in his jaw, and the desperate helpless fury in his eyes.

When Vandy walked out the front door, Olivia followed, aware of Jake strolling along at their heels. In the truck, the candle still burned. A pool of soft black wax covered much of the writing “Drive to the lake,” Vandy said. When Olivia made to roll up the window, the woman stopped her. “That flame ain’t going out ‘less I tell it to,” she said.

Olivia drove to out of Hartsville to Lake Larondo, peeking every now and then into the rear view mirror to see Jake’s flashy, movie star Chrysler Imperial tooling about a car’s length behind her Ford. True to Vandy’s word, the candle flame guttered but did not blow out despite the wind of their passage. Nothing was said during the journey.

Reaching the lake, Olivia parked under a cypress tree. She remained in the truck nursing her bruises while Vandy got out, waiting for Jake to park his Imperial. When the bald man joined her, Vandy spoke to him quietly, too quietly for Olivia to overhear.

Swallowed by clouds in a leaden sky, the sun disappeared, leaving only a weak grayish light behind. A rain-laden wind sent Vandy’s smoky red hair streaming forward to hide her face. Olivia watched as Jake waded fully clothed into the lake, each stride taking him deeper and deeper, the water rising to his knees, his waist, the middle of his chest.

He stopped.

The candle flame went out with a sound like the softest sigh.

Olivia gripped the steering wheel, her stomach aching worse than her battered face.

A swirling began in the water, centered around his body. Jake’s expression turned to utter horror. His mouth falling open to let out a bellow that reached Olivia’s ears, he scrambled towards the shore only to jerk to a stop. His scream took on a shrill, disbelieving note as the water around him billowed with red. Pulling his arm free of the whirlpool, he stared at the blood-spouting stump where his hand used to be.

Jake’s scream was cut off as some force yanked him under. He surfaced after several moments with water and incoherent yells bubbling out of his mouth, flailing and splashing with handless arms, his face a bloody ruin with a single eye bulging white from the socket. Olivia sat there, no longer shaking but numb as she watched him sucked under the lake again, and this time, the mutilated man did not reappear.

The agitated swirling gentled, finally ceasing all together.

A trunk bobbed to the surface, sedately floating to the shore where Vandy waited.

Remaining in the driver’s seat, Olivia waited, listening to the scrape and bump of Vandy loading the trunk into the truck’s bed.

A few minutes later, the woman opened the passenger side door, sliding onto the seat . Her boots and the hem of her black dress were wet. She took a pack of cigarettes from her pocket, scraping a match into flame with her thumbnail. Lighting both cigarettes, she passed one to Olivia, saying, “There’s a crossroads three miles back. I’ve got one of them folding shovels in my rucksack. Think we can beat the rain?”

Taking a drag off her cigarette, Olivia looked at the lowering sky, feeling clean for the first time in what seemed like years. The future stretched ahead—not the one she would have chosen, but it would have to do. “Yeah,” she replied, starting the engine, “I think we can. How long’s it gonna take you to dig a hole six feet deep?”

Vandy blew smoke out the window. “Aw, Miss Olive, that hole I’m fixin’ to dig is for the crossed paper and candle.” Her smile made her briefly handsome. “Always bury your conjure work at a crossroads when it’s done, or throw it in running water. As for sweet Kathleen…that girl’s mama deserves to know what happened to her child, so we’ll drop the trunk off at the church in Pitchpine if that suits you, and then be on our way.”

Thinking of the fat woman with her hennaed spit-curls, and the raw piteous pouring out of her grief, Olivia nodded. “Suits me fine.” She flicked the radio on, unsurprised when the mournful strains of a violin filled the cab as she drove the truck onto the road.

O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O why you away?
‘Cause he took me, ‘cause he took me, on a darkened and gray dismal day.
O Katie, pretty Katie, tell me Katie, O what of his crime?
He will die, he will die, and I will be revenged in my time.”

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Flowers of Edo: A Ghost Story
A terrifying novel of historic Japan by award winning author Nene Adams
Coming soon from Black Car Publishing

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THE CUPID’S DART
Nene Adams Copyright 2005

My hand doth not bear witness with my heart,
She saith, because I make no woeful lays,
To paint my living death and endless smart:
And so, for one that felt god Cupid’s dart,
She thinks I lead and live too merry days.
—Sir Phillip Sidney, Must Love Lament

The ladies were tucking into a luncheon of jellied chicken and asparagus béarnaise when the butler, Jackson, entered the dining room bearing a calling card on a silver salver. As usual, he affected the sort of mournful mien that a bloodhound might have envied.

“Begging your pardon, milady,” the old man said to Lady Evangeline St. Claire in his most funereal tones, “but the gentleman caller insisted that his business could not wait. I have taken the liberty of showing him into the study.”

Lina wiped her mouth with a napkin, taking the card and examining it. “Sir Richard Somerset. I do not know the fellow. Do you, my dear?”

“No, his name doesn’t sound familiar to me,” confessed her partner, Rhiannon Moore.

“Well, we shall leave Sir Richard to cool his heels a little while. Jackson, if you will be so good as to fetch the ‘S’ volume of my Compendium?”

“At once, milady.”

Rhiannon took a sip of wine and signaled the footman to remove her plate. “What do you suppose Sir Richard wants?”

“I have no idea,” Lina replied, shrugging, “and it is impossible to speculate. Ah, here is Jackson with my Compendium. Let us see if the Somerset family is represented.”

The Compendium, Rhiannon knew, was a multi-volume set of large books into which Lina pasted articles from newspapers and periodicals, as well as hand-written notes on various items and persons and happenings that she deemed worth recording, in case they might be of further interest. Lina accepted the leather-bound book from Jackson, turning the pages while a footman finished clearing the table.

“Ah, here he is… Sir Richard Somerset,” Lina said, consulting the Compendium. “Not of the beau monde, my dear, but rather a parvenu, an upstart who made a fortune in trade after his business partner, Jonathon Cox, disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Mr. Cox took his habitual constitutional after dining at his club and was never seen again. Sir Richard – at the time, merely Mr. Somerset – inherited his partner’s share of the business. Quite a wealthy gentleman these days. Married to Minerva Somerset née Dalrymple of the Northumberland, Kent and Staffordshire Dalrymples – an old family with old money and a great many social connections.”

“Do you know Mrs. Somerset?” Rhiannon asked as the footman slid a plate with a portion of Cook’s excellent apricot iced jelly in front of her.

Lina shook her head, slapping the leather covers of the book closed. She declined a serving of iced jelly with a wave of her hand. Jackson, who had been discreetly hovering nearby, took the Compendium from her lap and tottered out of the dining room.

“No, I have not had that pleasure,” Lina said, answering Rhiannon’s question, “although I believe her mother and mine are contemporaries and shared a London season when they were both girls. He must have urgent business to attempt an interruption of our luncheon, for the hour is far too early for paying polite calls. Are you finished, my dear? Then let us repair to the study and satisfy our curiosity.”

Lina rose from the table, spending  a few moment straightening the skirts of her leaf-green Liberty’s silk dress, made in the loose aesthetic style that she preferred. The color made her emerald eyes seem even darker, an effect Rhiannon appreciated. She followed Lina into the study to take her first look at Sir Richard Somerset.

The gentleman, though beyond the first flush of youth, had aged very gracefully. He was still handsome as the Devil, with a charming smile and a smoldering look of appreciation in his dark eyes that spoke eloquently of past successes with the ladies. He first apologized for being so bold as to forgo convention and introduce himself. The pleasantries and requisite chit-chat dispensed with, he directed the conversation straight to business.

“Lady St. Claire,” Sir Richard said, hooking a thumb in the pocket of his gorgeous peacock-blue waistcoat, “I have heard from friends that you sometimes act in the capacity of a confidential inquiry agent.”

“That is correct,” Lina answered. “How may I assist you?” She sat on the settee, drawing Rhiannon down to sit beside her, while Sir Richard sat in the chair opposite.

“The matter is a delicate one,” Sir Richard said. “My son, Bertram, had gotten himself entangled with an actress, Charlotte Palmer. The affair is over; I’ve seen to that. However, Miss Palmer is armed with certain indiscreet letters written by Bertram, in which the boy foolishly promised to wed her. I want those letters.”

“And how much are you willing to pay Miss Palmer to get them?” Lina asked bluntly. He jerked in surprise, and she continued, “In my experience, Sir Richard, extortionists – even of the genteel variety – require their monetary demands to be met before they willingly surrender their advantages.”

Sir Richard smoothed his well-trimmed mustache. “It galls me to give that harpy a single shilling,” he said, shrugging broad shoulders. “I had hoped that you might… one hears tales, you know, at dinner parties and the like.”

“Oh?” Lina arched a dark brow. “Pray tell, what secrets has that barking dog, rumor, disclosed regarding my activities and proclivities?”

“That you occasionally utilize, shall we say, less-than-legal procedures should the case require taking measures beyond those deemed lawful by the police.” Sir Richard took a heavy silver case out of his jacket pocket, removed a cheroot and asked silent permission, which was given with a nod. Taking a paper spill from the vase on the mantelpiece, he leaned down to the fire, and then used the flaming spill to light his cheroot.

Rhiannon got up to pull back the heavy velvet curtains and open a window against the strong reek of smoke.

“I use whatever methods are necessary in order to bring the case to a successful resolution, if such a thing is within the realm of possibility,” Lina said, her expression carefully neutral. “You ought to know that I am a private citizen, Sir Richard, not a police detective, and furthermore, the authorities frown upon extra-legal procedures.”

“Very well, let me be frank, milady. I wish to hire you to extract those letters from Charlotte Palmer’s possession by any means whatsoever, legal or illegal.” Sir Richard blew out a thick cloud of smoke, working the cheroot in the corner of his mouth. “She is asking for five thousand pounds – quite impossible, as you may imagine, and I reckon hiring you will be a cheaper and more effective means of stilling the woman’s ambition. Bertram is engaged to a perfectly respectable young heiress, and I don’t want the girl upset.”

Lina flushed. Rising to her feet, she turned a blazing glare upon the man. “I do not approve of blackmail, sir. Less still do I approve of bullying males who, having tasted of the fruits offered by a woman, flinch upon receiving the bill.”

“My son was generous enough with the Palmer woman,” Sir Richard said coolly. “Five thousand pounds is too much to pay for a reputation already tarnished by other lovers before she got her claws into Bertram. However, out of deference to your lady-like sensibilities, I am willing to pay five hundred pounds for the letters, not a penny more. That is, I feel, a more than adequate recompense for an actress who has likely found another victim.”

“And if she refuses?” Lina asked, twitching with what Rhiannon recognized as impatience and the aftermath of ire.

Again, Sir Richard shrugged. “Then I shall know what to do,” he said, sneering. “I am not a man who can be easily crossed, Lady St. Claire. Charlotte Palmer will discover this fact to her sorrow if she attempts to take matters further than I am willing to indulge. I’m not one of your soft-hearted, deep pocketed, weak-blooded dandies who haven’t an ounce of common sense. I came to my fortune the hard way, and I’m a harder man for it.”

Lina nodded, looking grim. “I shall certainly bear that in mind. And you ought to know, Sir Richard, that I am hardly soft-hearted or weak-blooded. Should anything untoward happen to Charlotte Palmer – I am well aware that acid thrown into the woman’s face is considered by some to be justice for her crime – I shall know who is to blame and act accordingly. Am I rightly understood?”

“You are, madam. I like the way you state yourself and your intentions without coyness or falsity. Plain dealing is the way I do business.” Sir Richard took a last puff and tossed the stub of his cheroot into the fire. “Act as my representative in this matter and I’m certain that Charlotte Palmer need not fear retribution of any kind.” He checked his pocket watch. “I must fly, for I’ve an urgent appointment at my club. Contact me at any time, but particularly when you have possession of the letters.”

Jackson was summoned to show Sir Richard Somerset out of the house.

When the man had gone, Lina grimaced. “Well, that was an unpleasant interview with an unpleasant fellow,” she said.

“Poor Charlotte Palmer,” Rhiannon murmured. “She’s an actress, he said.”

“Yes, although her name is unknown to me. Miss Palmer is therefore not one of the stage’s foremost divas. I must send a note of inquiry to a theatrical agent of my acquaintance; Sidney will be able to tell us the latest gossip regarding our erstwhile blackmailer.  One would think that the son of a businessman such as Sir Richard would have had more sense than to write incriminating billet doux to a mistress.”

“Do you think that she’d be so bold as to try and break up Mr. Somerset’s engagement to his respectable heiress?”

“No, but Miss Palmer is most certainly threatening a breach of promise civil suit, and I am certain that Sir Richard wishes to avoid adverse publicity.” Lina sighed. “It is early days yet, my dear. Let us find out what we can regarding Charlotte Palmer before we confront the lady in her lair.”

The plan was not to be. The same morning that Lina received a letter from the theatrical agent Sidney Graves in answer to her query, she also received an urgent summons asking her to come at once to Sir Richard Somerset’s home in South Kensington. She and Rhiannon donned jackets and hats and gloves, and eschewing breakfast – much to Cook’s outrage – they set out at once via Lina’s private carriage for Somerset House.

The place was magnificent, a newly-built brick edifice skillfully  crafted to seem as if it had simply sprung full-grown from the earth, as the goddess Athena from the brow of Zeus. The surrounding gardens were no less marvelous. As their carriage rolled up the crushed stone drive to the front of the house, Lina noted the presences of police constables prowling around the grounds in an attempt to appear busy.

“A Scotland Yard inspector must be… ah, my dear, there he is.” Lina nodded at the paunchy figure of Inspector Harold Valentine standing on the front steps. The man was flanked by a pair of stone lions. Above the doorway was inscribed the Latin phrase audaces fortuna iuvat – Fortune favors the bold. It was obviously the Somerset motto and, as far as Lina was concerned, suited the man she had met.

“Milady, what brings you to Kensington so early on a Sunday morn?” Valentine asked, automatically moving to help Lina and Rhiannon out of the carriage.

“I received a message to attend an emergency meeting here,” Lina replied.

“I see.” Valentine’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “Would you care to tell me how you’ve involved in the matter?”

“Until I know what the matter is…” Lina’s voice trailed off suggestively.

Valentine sighed, shifting his feet. “Sir Richard Somerset has been murdered,” he said. “Poor fellow was shot with an arrow through the heart, if you can believe it.”

Although Lina was taken aback – Rhiannon could tell by the way the woman stiffened all over – she showed nothing of her surprise. “Has he indeed? Then I suppose it was his son, Bertram, who sent me the note urging me to come to Somerset House post haste.”

“I couldn’t say, milady,” Valentine replied blandly.

Before the Scotland Yard inspector could speak further, a tall, thin young man burst out of the door and descended upon Lina. The newcomer’s manner was suggestive of a lost lamb who has, after enduring many horrors in the night, at last found his shepherd.

“Lady St. Claire!” he babbled, wringing Lina’s gloved hand. His gooseberry-pale eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. “I am ever so glad that you’ve come! We’re all at sixes and sevenses, you know, on account of what’s happened to Father. Please, you must tell these awful policemen that Charlotte isn’t responsible. She couldn’t be! The most delightful, gentle creature… wouldn’t hurt a fly…”

Lina wrenched her hand out of the young man’s grip. “Might you be Mr. Bertram Somerset?”

“Yes, yes!” he nodded. “Do come in! This is some dreadful mistake, I know it-”

“In a moment, Mr. Somerset. Kindly permit me to have a few words with Inspector Valentine first, then Miss Moore and myself will be happy to join you in the house.”

“Oh, very well! But Charlotte is most upset and so is Mother and Jenny, and the servants are in an uproar, and I’ve no idea what’s to be done!”

Rhiannon almost felt sorry for the man,  a quivering bundle of nerves who might suffer a collapse at any time.

Lina patted him on the shoulder, steering him towards the open doorway. “Mr. Somerset, go inside and have a cup of tea, or… yes, perhaps a brandy might be more efficacious. My companion and I will join you shortly.”

“Will you? Thank you, Lady St. Claire. Thank you.” Somerset stumbled back into the house.

Valentine quirked an eyebrow at the retreating young man’s back. “A definite rabbit, milady, as opposed to the wolf that was his father.”

“Indeed. So what has happened here?”

“Minerva Somerset is the chair-mistress of the Alborium Toxophily Society; that’s a group of amateur archers in her social circle who meet weekly for practice shooting,” Valentine said. “The Alborium Society recently scored a victory over rival toxophilists, the Viburnums, headed by Mrs. Somerset’s sister, Lady Florence DeBurgh.”

“Married to Lord Inglemarch,” Lina supplied. “Go on, Harry.”

“At any rate,” Valentine continued, “last evening, Mrs. Somerset hosted a victory dinner for the Alborium members. After dinner, the attendants were gathered in the drawing room for coffee. At some point in the evening, after midnight and before one o’clock in the morning, Sir Richard Somerset disappeared. His body was discovered by his wife.”

“When was the discovery made?”

“Some time after midnight, according to Mrs. Somerset,” Valentine said. He peered at Rhiannon. “And how are you faring, Miss Moore?”

“Quite well, Inspector Valentine,” Rhiannon answered, giving him a smile. She liked the inspector, and he always treated her with a grave and sincere sort of courtesy.

“We had better go and speak to Mrs. Somerset,” Lina said, taking Rhiannon’s arm. “If you will excuse us, Harry.”

“So long as you don’t interfere in an official investigation, milady,” he replied, inclining his head.

Lina snorted, escorting Rhiannon into the house.

Minerva Somerset was a plump and pretty matron of indeterminate age. Her slightly graying hair was dressed in little ringlets; her fingers flashed with jewels. She regarded Lina with a somewhat jaundiced expression. “I cannot imagine what Richard was about, asking you to interfere in my darling Bertram’s affairs.”

“Do you refer to Mr. Somerset’s affair with the actress Charlotte Palmer?” Lina asked without any attempt at subtlety. “It was my understanding that Miss Palmer was blackmailing your husband using indiscreet letters sent to her by your son in which he recklessly promised marriage.”

Minerva waved a dismissive hand through the air, gemstones striking sparks in the early morning light. “The merest trifle, the indiscretion of a naïve, unworldly young man.”

“The breach of promise suit,” Lina prompted.

“An annoyance, to be sure, but not worth murder, surely.”

“Mrs. Somerset, under what circumstances did you discover your husband’s body?” Lina asked.

Rhiannon had come prepared to take notes, jotting down everything said in a little mother-of-pearl notebook she kept in her pocket for the purpose.

“It was around one o’clock in the morning,” Minerva answered. “I had gone to the dining room to speak with our butler, Truemay, as I had found his after-dinner coffee to be an inadequate offering and wished to call him to account at once, while the matter was still fresh in my mind. As I spoke to Truemay, I glanced outside and saw my husband’s body in the garden, at the foot of the statue of Eros. It was obvious from the body’s position that Richard was beyond the aid of mortal man, therefore I instructed Truemay to send for the police without delay.”

Minerva turned in her seat at a noise from the doorway of the very formal parlor, where she had deigned to meet with Lina and Rhiannon. “Ah, dear Bertram, do join us -” her cooing voice turned to ice “- although that creature with you may remain in the servant’s hall, if she must remain at all.”

Bertram came into the parlor, followed by a woman who sported hennaed hair and a daring décolleté. “Mother, you know that Charlotte isn’t a servant…”

“Well, she certainly doesn’t belong here!” Minerva said tartly. “Let her stay with those of her own class. How dare a female of low birth and dubious occupation pollute our home!”

Charlotte Palmer turned to go, stumbling in her haste. She stopped in her tracks when Lina said, “Miss Palmer, may I have a word with you?”

“I am hardly in a position to object,” Charlotte murmured.

“I say, Charlie, don’t let anyone bully you!” Bertram cried.

“It’s all right, Bertie dear.”

“Oh, Lord, Bertram, get away from that woman!” Minerva squirmed on the couch, casting  a supplicating look at a willowy, horse-faced girl in pink satin who sat in a chair opposite. “Jenny, can you not take your fiancé in hand?”

Jenny – Lady Jane Fanshaw, daughter of the Earl of Moncrieve, as Rhiannon had read in Burke’s – gave Somerset a withering glance and said to Minerva, “Far be it from me to prevent Bertie from making a ass of himself over a common tart.” She sniffed, elevating her nose in clear dismissal while Bertram Somerset’s bulging gaze traveled from his mother to his fiancée and back to his former lover Charlotte in a clear agony of indecisiveness.

“Pray excuse us, Mrs. Somerset. Thank you for your time.” Breaking the dead-lock, Lina rose to her feet, urging Charlotte out of the parlor and down the corridor. Rhiannon remained at her partner’s side, moving in a rustle of ivory taffeta skirts. As they walked, Lina introduced herself and Rhiannon to Charlotte Palmer.

“Now, Miss Palmer, perhaps you’d care to explain your relationship with Sir Richard and Bertram Somerset. I have been told that the police believe you may be involved in Sir Richard’s death. Tell me everything and I shall attempt to help you,” Lina said, staring down at Charlotte from her superior height. The actress’ brave front dissolved without further prompting.

“Oh, Lady St. Claire! What am I to do? The police think I’m responsible for killing Richard but it isn’t true! I hated him but I would never have done him harm,” Charlotte said, her voice cracking. Lina drew the woman into a small room – a linen closet – and Rhiannon shut the door behind them after taking a candle from a hall table and lighting it with a lucifer. The air inside the closet was redolent with lavender and Charlotte Palmer’s desperation.

“Why five thousand pounds? Did you really suppose a self-made man, a noveau riche like Sir Richard, would pay a king’s ransom to hush up his son’s indiscretion?” Rhiannon asked, moved to pity by the actress’ tear-stained countenance.

“Not Bertram’s but Richard’s,” Charlotte sniffled, accepting the handkerchief that Rhiannon offered. “Before I met dear sweet Bertie, I was involved with Sir Richard himself. He was the one who introduced me to his son. It is my belief that he hoped a love affair would improve Bertie’s confidence. Believe me, I do love Bertie. He’s kind and gentle, a truly beautiful soul. He had no idea, of course, that Sir Richard was my former protector, and I never told him. I had letters from Bertie, true, but as far as I was concerned, the more valuable billet doux were from Richard himself.”

“And when you learned of Bertram’s engagement with Lady Jane Fanshaw…?”

“I lost my temper. The arrangement is not of Bertie’s choosing. Richard is selling Bertie off like a stallion at Tattersall’s, trading the heir to his fortune for the social respectability and connections that the daughter of an Earl can bring his family and himself. I thought that if I made an impossible demand of Richard, he might at least be willing to negotiate.” Charlotte mopped her face with the handkerchief. “All I wanted was a little pension and a promise from Richard not to interfere if Bertie continued to see me after his marriage.”

“Adultery is…” Lina began, but shewas interrupted by Charlotte, who tossed her head and said with a gleam of defiance in her hazel eyes, “Expected of a wealthy gentleman, and you won’t hear too many wives complain so long as their husbands are discreet.”

“How did you come here to the house?” Lina asked, shifting the topic of the conversation.

Charlotte’s shoulders slumped. “Bertie sent me a note telling me that his mother had forbidden him from seeing me anymore. I needed to see him, and Richard, too. Mrs. Somerset is somewhat manic on the subject of infidelity, which is why I thought Richard might give me what I wanted rather than risk exposure. He holds the purse strings, but Mrs. Somerset’s connections among the beau monde are very important to him and his business. When Richard and I were together, he was quite frantic lest someone see us and inform his wife. I had the feeling that she had made it plain, in the early days of their marriage, that infidelity would not be tolerated. Mrs. Somerset is a woman used to having her own way.

“At any rate, I wanted to try to make Richard see reason. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t take one seriously unless one is holding an advantage, which those damnable letters gave me. I also wanted an opportunity to speak to Bertie. He doesn’t understand that he’s his own man. He doesn’t need Mama or Papa to make decisions for him.”

Lina rubbed her chin. “Are you familiar with the use of bow and arrow?”

“My father was a gamekeeper as well as a poacher,” Charlotte said with a bitter laugh, “which is how my family came to live in London after he was let go from Lord Valery’s estate for poaching his Lordship’s deer. I am no expert but I suppose that I could fit arrow to bow well enough to be accurate at short range. There’s no point in hiding my past, milady; the police will find out soon enough, if they don’t know already.”

“And they will consider you a chief suspect?” Lina asked.

“Naturally. I am a crow among swans, milady. The rest of the guests were titled and wealthy. I am a woman of uncertain means and dubious reputation. Even if I should be proved innocent in the end, an arrest will be enough to ruin my career and my livelihood.”

“Did you ever threaten to harm Sir Richard?”

“I was angry. I may have said something… I don’t know.”

Rhiannon stifled a sneeze. The scent of lavender in the small room was almost overwhelming. “What happened last evening, Miss Palmer?” she asked.

“When the play was over – I have a small role in a West End production of The Rose of Amiens – I received a message from Richard. It was a nasty, insulting note filled with threats,” Charlotte said. “He was being quite horrid; Richard had an ugly side that roused when he was thwarted. Some of the things he wrote made me very angry, including the news that he had hired a detective whose sole purpose was to make my life a misery unless I entirely gave up any expectations I may have had.

“I came to Somerset House to confront him. Richard was a dark man with dark appetites and I feared his temper. Nevertheless, I hoped that here, in his own home – surrounded by guests, as I found out – he would not dare make a scene.  I never had the chance to see him. By the time I arrived in a hired cab, it was around midnight and Richard was nowhere to be found. Bertie was terrified that his mother or his fiancée might take umbrage at my presence, so he bade me stay hidden in the library. That was before Mrs. Somerset discovered Richard’s body and the police were fetched.”

“Are there any witnesses to your waiting  in the library?”

“No. Only Bertie, but he did not stay with me very long.”

Rhiannon suddenly remembered something that Minerva Somerset had said. She tugged Lina’s sleeve to gain her partner’s attention, and asked Charlotte, “Did you see Mrs. Somerset when you arrived?”

“I don’t…” Charlotte hesitated. “No, I don’t recall seeing Mrs. Somerset but the house was full of people and Bertie hurried me straight into the library.”

“Did you see the dining room?” Rhiannon asked, earning an odd glance from both Lina and Charlotte.

“Yes, Bertie took me through the dining room as it was empty of all save servants.”

“And were you able to see quite well in the room? The gas jets were lit and so on?”

Charlotte’s confusion was clear but she replied, “Yes. The illumination was quite bright, as servants were still cleaning the room.”

Understanding bloomed on Lina’s face. She gave Rhiannon a proud grin and said to Charlotte, “Miss Palmer, I believe that you have nothing to fear from the police.”

The door opened and Inspector Harry Valentine stood there, scowling. “I beg to differ, milady,” he said. “Miss Palmer, if you’ll come with me to Scotland Yard, I have some questions to ask you.”

“Harry, do not arrest Miss Palmer, I beg you,” Lina said. “It would be a mistake.”

“Is that so, milady?” Valentine crossed his arms and regarded the tall, dark-haired woman with speculation and curiosity writ large on his face. “I’m listening.”

Lina said, “What sort of arrow was used to kill Sir Richard? It is my understanding that each toxophilist’s arrow is unique in regards to color and fletching, in order to distinguish it from that of another archer.”

“The arrow used belonged to the Honorable William Yates, the younger son of the Duke of Godolphin,” Valentine replied, “but we’ve already established that young William couldn’t have killed Sir Richard, as he was caught by the butler in flagrante delicto with Mrs. Somerset’s maid. According to Truemay, Yates was drunk as a boiled owl and incapable of either rising to his feet or rising to the occasion.” The inspector chuckled. “Everyone’s bows and quivers were stacked in the mud room. It would have been easy for the killer to slip through the mud room, pick up a weapon, and nip straight out to the garden.”

“Do you recall Mrs. Somerset’s statement?” Rhiannon asked. “About finding her husband’s body in the garden.”

“She said that she was in the dining room. She looked out of the window and saw Sir Richard’s body. What of it? Seems straightforward to me,” Valentine said.

“At one o’clock in the morning, Harry,” Lina said insistently.

Valentine frowned, his brows drawing together over the bridge of his nose. “Milady, are you trying to make a point?”

“The dining room was well lit,” Rhiannon said, willing him to understand. “The garden was not. The night was dark. Under those circumstances, it would be virtually impossible to see anyone or anything in the garden from the house. The only thing one would see in looking out of the window would be a reflection of one’s self in the glass panes.”

Valentine gaped at her a moment, then his mouth settled into a grim line. “Mrs. Somerset lied about that,” he said. “I wonder what other tales she may have told?” He spun about on his heel and stomped away in the direction of the parlor, presumably to further interrogate the dead man’s wife.

Charlotte’s eyes went wide in amazement. “Mrs. Somerset killed Richard?”

“Perhaps, perhaps not,” Lina said with a shrug. “It seems likely. She must have found out that Sir Richard had an affair with you, Miss Palmer. A wife always knows, although she may pretend to ignorance for the sake of domestic tranquility. Seeing you at the house must have confirmed her worst suspicions. Killing her husband was the impulsive act of a jealous woman driven to violence by Sir Richard’s infidelity. It would have been easy for her to lure Sir Richard to the garden under some pretext, slipping out through the mud room and taking a handy weapon with her. As chair-mistress of the toxophily society, Mrs. Somerset must be a decent shot with bow and arrow. She might have gotten away with the crime, too, had it not been for that lie about seeing her husband’s body from the house.”

“Murder will out,” Rhiannon said.

“Charlie!” Bertram Somerset appeared, his gooseberry-pale gaze fastened hungrily on Charlotte’s face. “Darling! Are you all right?”

“Yes, Bertie,” Charlotte replied, moving easily into the scrawny man’s embrace. “I am very well, indeed.” She guided him down the corridor, talking softly while Somerset made contented noises and occasional wordless exclamations.

Rhiannon looked at Lina. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” she quoted.

“As always, the Bard of Avon is apt in his observations of human nature. Bertie has lost a Papa and a Mama – and presumably, a fiancée as well, as I do not think he will marry Lady Jane now – but he has gained an affectionate and loving companion, as well as his freedom and the fortune necessary to ease his passage through life. In that, we may suppose Mr. Bertram Somerset to be the most fortunate of men.” Lina smiled. “And I am the most fortunate of women.” She  took Rhiannon into her arms, blew out the candle and kicked the door shut.

THE END

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THE EMPTY TRUNK
Nene Adams Copyright 2006

“Oh, Evangeline! Thank God you have come!”

Lady Evangeline St. Claire stripped off her kidskin gloves and surveyed the thin, anxious woman standing in front of her. Lady Florence Westmacott’s blond hair and blue eyes had faded somewhat over time, gently blurring her beauty to watercolor softness. She appeared far too pale, however, and the woman’s look of distress made Lina reach out to take her hands.

“What has happened?” Lina asked, drawing Florence to a sofa and sitting down with her. “When I received your note, I came straightaway.”

Rhiannon Moore, Lina’s partner in all things, sat on a nearby hassock without a murmur at not being introduced. Lina shot her a grateful glance; at the moment, she needed to concentrate on Florence. The older woman was her godmother, and a sweet, gentle and generous soul. Lina intended to do everything within her power to root out the cause of Florence’s apprehension and eradicate it. She noted with approval that Rhiannon had taken a small notebook and mechanical pencil out of her reticule, preparing to take notes. Turning back to Florence, Linsa said, “Tell me everything that has happened.”

Florence’s mild blue gaze was red-rimmed, as if she had been crying. “I am at my wits’ end, and hardly know where to begin,” she murmured.

“Begin at the beginning,” Lina advised her. “Omit no detail, however unimportant you feel it may be. You are among friends who wish only to offer assistance.”

Still, Florence hesitated. Lina waited patiently. An earlier analysis of the woman’s note (delivered by a messenger boy in Brown’s Hotel’s distinctive livery) indicated it had been written in some haste and under extreme emotional distress, as evinced by the near savage slashing of pen’s nib into the surface of the foolscap in some places, and in others a weak dragging of ink barely discernible. As for the handwriting itself, the broken loops and cramped lines spoke of worries held in check by the thinnest of threads.

“I suppose it began when the Teutonic docked in Liverpool,” Florence said at last. She was not relaxed by any means – the corset she wore beneath her floral ruffled dress appeared to keep her spine too rigid for slumping – but she did appear a trifle more at ease. Lina made a wordless sound to encourage the woman to continue her tale.

Florence went on, while Rhiannon scribbled in her notebook, “I have been in New York City visiting my daughter Mary, who is, as you know, married to an American businessman, one of those railroad millionaires. My husband was required to stay in England on business, so I traveled alone with my maid, Hill. The Teutonic returned to Liverpool four days ago, and as I was wearied from the journey, I decided to spend the evening in a hotel rather than take the train down to London. Hill collected my trunks from the ship’s hold, arranging for them to be delivered to the hotel.

“I particularly wanted to wear a new gown I had purchased in New York, and directed Hill to lay it out for dinner. She gave me the shocking news that the gown was gone. In fact,  everything inside that particular trunk had been stolen. Well, Evangeline, you can imagine that I immediately sent a scathing note to the White Star Line’s head office! Who else had access to my trunks save the ship’s porters? Hill assured me the baggage had not been out of her presence since it was loaded into the hired cart. I also made a complaint to the police.”

“What was taken?” Lina asked. “Can you be more exact?”

Florence waved a hand in dismissal. “Nothing of immense value. I carry my jewels in a locked portmanteau which never leaves my side. The trunk contained a few gowns, a hat, my favorite pair of slippers. At any rate, I examined the trunk and thought that the lock had been forced. I had done everything that could be done, so I directed Hill to put my jewels into the hotel safe and went to dinner. The following morning, quite early, a gentleman paid a call upon me. It was one of the most bizarre interviews I have ever experienced.”

“Bizarre? In what way?”

“He introduced himself as Franklin Weems of New York City, New York. He was a stranger to me. Mr. Weems carried no letter of introduction, nor could I ascertain that we had any acquaintances in common.”

Lina raised an eyebrow. For a gentleman to introduce himself to a lady with whom he had no previous connection, or any acquaintance in common, was astonishingly forward behavior. Add to that calling on Florence in the early morning in her hotel room… but Lina understood that some Americans did not necessarily behave with the same degree of social decorum as their English cousins. “What did Mr. Weems want?” she asked.

“He told me that our trunks had gotten mixed up on the ship,” Florence said. “Mr. Weems had my trunk, and I presumably had his. I informed the gentleman that he was welcome to examine the trunk, but it was empty, the contents having been stolen. Mr. Weems flew into a rage, Evangeline. I was taken aback. His language… well, suffice it to say that I requested him to take his leave several times, and was ultimately forced to send Hill to fetch the hotel manager. I quite feared for my safety! After thoroughly anathematizing me, and accusing me of stealing his effects, he was forcibly ejected from the hotel by the manager. Since Mr. Weems left me no card or address, I was unable to contact him further and request the return of my own trunk. It was all very vexing, and frightening, too.

“But that is not all.”

Florence faltered. Lina gave her an encouraging nod. “Go on.”

“Hill has relations in Liverpool.” Florence took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. Her gaze fell to her hands, clasped together in her lap. “I gave her permission to pay calls on her family, since we would not be traveling to London until the following day. One of the hotel’s maids assisted me with dressing and with my hair, and when I retired, she stayed in Hill’s connecting room in case I required anything. Her name was Symmons. Sometime during the night, her room was broken into, and she was strangled with the curtain cord.”

“Good Lord!” Rhiannon exclaimed.

“Yes, it was dreadful,” Florence said, shaking her head. “The poor girl… she was younger than my own daughter, you know. I found her in the morning, in that little bed, her face almost black… her tongue… her eyes…” Florence turned even more ashen.

Lina laid a hand atop Florence’s. “Take your time.”

“My baggage was in that room. The police believe the maid’s murder was the work of a thief, but the only thing stolen was the empty trunk belonging to Mr. Weems. I provided them with a description.” Florence paused and seemed to be trying to collect her thoughts. “That poor, poor girl,” she repeated, sighing. “I told the manager if there was anything I could do for Symmons’ family, he was to let me know. Needless to say, when Hill returned and learned what had happened, she turned white as a ghost.”

“And you came to London directly after the discovery of the maid’s murder?”

“Yes, that seemed prudent. On the way to the train station, however, our cab was deliberately blocked in the street by several ruffians. Fortunately, a nearby police constable intervened and the men fled before anyone came to harm. I don’t mind telling you, Evangeline, that my nerves are in a shocking state. What if this Mr. Weems was responsible for the maid’s death? What if I am next? Or Hill? Oh! I can hardly bear it.” Tears trembled on her lashes.

Without waiting to be asked, Rhiannon rang the bell to summon Hill, who proved to be a plump, middle-aged, cheerful-looking woman in a black bombazine dress with white celluloid collar and cuffs. Her apron and hat were freshly starched. Rhiannon asked her to order tea to be brought up to the suite, and she left at once.

“Do you wish me to locate Mr. Weems and ascertain his intentions?” Lina asked Florence.

“I would like you to discover who…” Florence broke off. “Do you smell smoke?”

Lina sniffed the air. There was a stronger trace of smoke than might be expected from the single small fire burning in the sitting room’s fireplace grate. She stood. “Perhaps we ought to-”

A male voice bellowed from the corridor, audible through the closed door: “Fire! Fire!”

“Oh, God.” Florence shot to her feet.

Hill ran back into the room, out of breath. “Milady, there’s a fire down the hall. We must leave now.”

“No one panic. Remain calm,” Lina ordered. “We will proceed to the stairway in good order. My dear, remain close to me. Hill, be kind enough to lead the way. Florence,  I beg you will stay close to Miss Moore.  Should we be separated, we will meet below in the street.”

Rhiannon took Florence’s hand. “It will be well, milady,” she said with a reassuring smile. Florence returned the smile, but she still appeared frightened.

The four women proceeded into the corridor. Hill had left the hotel room door open. Billows of choking grey smoke poured into the room. Lina coughed. Her eyes immediately began to water. She reached behind her, fumbling for Rhiannon’s wrist, only for her grasp to be broken as a bulky body barreled into her, knocking her off her feet.

“Lina?” Rhiannon called, a note of panic in her voice. “Lina!”

Lina could not make out much in the disorienting smoke. “Go on,” she called, coughing. “I will follow you.”

The man who had run into her reached down and hauled Lina to her feet, setting her upright with a thump that rattled her teeth together. “Gimme what I want,” the man said, the menace in his tone clear, “or you ain’t gonna live to see another day, lady!”

A part of Lina’s well-trained mind processed the few clues that could be gleaned, even as her body was prepared to respond to the threat with force. He was American, that was certain, his vocal expression roughened by a New York accent that sounded nasal to her ears. The man was her height but much burlier, his strength evident in the way he had lifted her without apparent strain. There was an overlay of fat on his hard muscles, telling her that he was a man who worked hard but enjoyed some luxuries in his life. His face was hardly more than a smudge in the smoke that filled the corridor, his features reduced to invisibility.

Why had he attacked her? What did he want? Was this Weems? These were questions whose answers would have to wait.

“Gimme back what you took, you damned thief…” he demanded, shaking her a little.

Using the Oriental martial art of baritsu, Lina broke his hold on her arms, then drove her elbow into the soft spread of his belly. He let out a gust of beer-scented breath and doubled over, clutching himself. Had they been on the street, Lina would have likely followed up her initial blow with a strike to his vulnerable head with her knee. However, the hotel was on fire, her lungs felt as if they were three sizes too small, and somewhere Rhiannon was waiting. Another man was passing them at that moment, stumbling alone with his hand on the wall for navigation. Lina felt the vibration of his footsteps. She reached out, snagging some part of his costume – his jacket, she thought.

“Help me,” she wheezed, guiding him down to put his hand on her attacker’s shoulder. The other man let out an exclamation and began to help the American to his feet. Shouts and heavier footsteps told her that members of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade had arrived, bringing with them the crystalline sound of shattering glass – no doubt Patent Fire Grenades, she thought, filled with carbonic acid to extinguish the blaze. Lina took the opportunity to leave the scene, wondering if the fire would be of sufficient interest to the Prince of Wales, who was known to have a keen interest in fire fighting and would often make his presence felt at notable blazes.

The stairwell was thankfully almost free of smoke. Lina gasped fresh air and made her way down to the street level where she found Rhiannon, Florence and Hill standing in a group with other hotel guests and employees who had fled the fire.

“Thank God!” Rhiannon said, going to Lina and embracing her in obvious relief. Lina put her arms around Rhiannon’s waist, holding her tightly for a blessed moment.

“Good heavens, what a to-do!” Florence said. Her face was smeared with soot, as was her taffeta dress. “I hope you were not injured, Evangeline.”

“I am quite well,” Lina said. During the walk down the stairs, her mind had been making deductions at rapid speed. She had some conjectures that required more facts to prove or disprove. “My dear,” she said to Rhiannon, “I must send some telegrams. Will you stay with Lady Westmacott until my return?” A realization struck her and she continued, “I beg your pardon, Florence. May I present Miss Moore, my companion?”

“How do you do?” Florence murmured politely. “Evangeline, must you send telegrams at this precise moment?”

Instead of answering her, Lina turned her attention back to Rhiannon. “I want you to take Lady Westmacott and Hill to our home. Once you arrive there, have the footmen arm themselves as a precaution.”

“Is there… is Lady Westmacott in danger?” Rhiannon asked, gazing at Florence out of the corner of her eye.

“In a word, yes,” Lina answered. “Stay with her. Do not let her out of your sight. Upon no account admit strangers into the house, not even delivery men by the servant’s entrance. Let Grosvenor Street become a fortress.”

“And you? Do I need to worry about you, love?” Rhiannon’s hand stole out to smooth a crumpled ribbon on Lina’s bodice.

“Suffer no such apprehension, my dear. I am not the intended victim.”

Lina took a cab-whistle out of her reticule and stepping close to the curb, summoned a four-wheeled ‘growler’ with a single shrill blast. Helping Florence, Rhiannon and the maid into the conveyance, she gave the driver the address and sent the cab on its way.

That task completed and the fire in the hotel having been put out – it proved to be the result of arson, she learned, but the purpose seemed to have been the creation of smoke rather than serious damage – Lina was able to engage a room and spent a bit of time cleaning the smut from her face and hands. After these necessary ablutions, she directed her steps to a nearby telegraph office, sending a telegram to the New York City Police Department, as well as numerous telegrams to banks in the vicinity of Brown’s Hotel, as well as several banks in Liverpool. It was fortunate that she had once been in New York following a counterfeiter, and assisted a detective in solving a case of murder involving a debutante found dead in a locked room. She and Detective Jacob Hawley still corresponded from time to time.

Going to a tearoom to refresh herself with a full pot of Oolong and a plate of dainty sandwiches, she returned to the telegraph office. There were already some replies. She perused the flimsy yellow papers, nodding to herself. Yes, the situation was as she had thought; her deductions had been proved correct. Stuffing the telegram flimsies into her reticule, she directed the telegraph office clerk to have further replies delivered to Grosvenor Street. Back at the hotel, she engaged an idle messenger to deliver a note to Inspector Harold Valentine of Scotland Yard.

At home, Lina was met by a relieved Rhiannon. “Inspector Valentine is here,” the red-haired woman said. “He’s with Lady Westmacott in the drawing room.” Rhiannon paused. “Are you alright?” she asked.

“My dear, all is well and all is well in hand,” Lina replied, bending to give her a nuzzle and a kiss, just a chaste brush of mouth upon mouth that was also a promise of more passionate embraces to come. “Let us join our guests,” she said, parting from Rhiannon reluctantly. “I have information to impart which will provide an explanation of current events.”

Rhiannon’s smile was dazzling. She threaded her arm through Lina’s, and led her to the drawing room where Florence, Inspector Valentine and Hill were waiting.

“What’s this about a New York murderer?” Valentine asked upon catching sight of Lina. He stood near the fireplace, his elbow propped on the mantel.

“Good afternoon to you, too, Harry,” Lina said. She turned to Florence, noting that her godmother had a little more healthy color in her face. “How are you?” she asked.

“Oh, the inspector and I have been having the most fascinating conversation regarding criminal elements in Brunswick Street,” Florence said. She had changed her smoke-damaged dress for one of Rhiannon’s unstructured tea gowns, and sitting among the elegant furnishings in the drawing room, was the picture of a genteel dowager.

Lina saw that Valentine’s face was acquiring some color as well – twin stripes of ire-induced crimson on his cheekbones. As amusing as it was to watch the inspector simmer, she did not want to keep Florence waiting. Gesturing for Rhiannon to take a seat, she said, “I am now prepared to disclose the details concerning Lady Westmacott’s empty trunk, the subsequent murder of Symmons – the hotel maid in Liverpool – the fire at Brown’s Hotel earlier today, and the connection these events have to a recent robbery in New York City.”

“Get on with it,” Valentine growled.

“I deduced there had been some kind of robbery, otherwise why harass Lady Westmacott? My conjecture was confirmed after I sent a telegram to the New York City Police Department and received their reply furnishing me with the particulars. ” Lina could not help pausing for dramatic effect.

Valentine rocked back and forth on his heels. “Go on,” he said. “I’ve heard somewhat of this New York robbery. The American police asked Scotland Yard to keep an eye out for one of the fellows involved, a real nasty character.”

“According to Detective Hawley, with whom I am acquainted, the robbery was perpetrated by one Frederick Slattery Whitaker, aided by his gang.” Lina opened a camel bone box on a table and took out an Egyptian cigarette. After lighting it with a lucifer and blowing out a stream of smoke, she tossed the spent match into the fireplace grate and went on, “The thieves escaped with $50,000 but not without engaging in a firefight with law enforcement officials. In the process, three police officers were killed and innocent bystanders wounded. I am certain Inspector Valentine will bear me out when I say that no matter the country, the police take a dim view of the murder of their own.”

“Just so, milady. Just so,” said Valentine.

“Whitaker betrayed his gang and took the entire sum for himself, eluding detectives and boarding the Teutonic in New York under the name Weems,” Lina said. “One of his trunks contained the stolen money. This was the same trunk that was mistakenly switched for one of Lady Westmacott’s when she disembarked in Liverpool.”

Florence put her fingertips against her lips. “Lord! But the trunk was empty… the ship’s porters took the lot, I presume. Why blame me?”

“No, the original error may be laid at the porters’ door, but it was, in fact, another who purloined the cash.” Lina surveyed the room, relishing the tightening of tension that could be felt in the atmosphere. She let it build a moment before saying, “I took the liberty of making inquiries at banks here and in Liverpool, desirous of ascertaining if a large amount of American dollars had recently been exchanged into pounds by a woman…”

The maid, Hill, burst out, “I didn’t do anything wrong!”

Florence was clearly taken aback. “Hill? What did you do?”

For a moment, Lina wondered if Hill would maintain her air of defiance, but a mild look from Florence had the woman sinking back into her chair, her shoulders slumping in a classic sign of defeat. “I didn’t mean any harm,” Hill said. “My sister’s got so many little ones, and her husband’s out of work these six months… it wasn’t milady’s money, so I thought it would never be missed.”

“Oh, Hill…” Florence sighed. “Had you told me, I would have gladly done what I could to help your sister. Do you believe me to be so hard-hearted?”

Hill gulped. “I’m sorry, milady.”

“Well, the harm’s been done. How much of the money is left?”

“Most of it, milady. I only gave Hetty fifty pounds.”

“Where is the remainder?”

“In a bank on Threadneedle Street.”

Florence sighed again. “I will not dismiss you,” she said, “but I do expect to be kept better informed of your family situation and obligations. I can’t have my servants pocketing stolen bank funds. You will naturally return what is left of the money to the police, and the fifty pounds will be repaid in increments from your salary.”

Hill wiped her wet eyes with a handkerchief and hiccupped. “Of course, milady. Thank you. You’ve been too kind to me.”

Valentine nodded. “You’ll be coming to the bank with me when this is over, my good woman,” he said to the maid. “And count yourself lucky that I don’t press charges myself.”

Lina interrupted before the unfortunate Hill could burst into noisy tears. “To continue, as soon as Whitaker discovered the mistake, he inquired at the shipping office for potential passengers who shared his initials F.W. and was put onto Lady Westmacott. No doubt he made further inquiries at hotels in the area. Having located her, he assumed his Weems guise and paid a call to retrieve his trunk. One can imagine his fury and frustration upon being thwarted by a mere woman, and a woman who had presumably stolen $50,000 of his money at that!

“Unbeknownst to him, Hill took the money secretly and went to visit her family in Liverpool, leaving Lady Westmacott alone save for a hotel maid.

“During the night, Whitaker broke into Lady Westmacott’s room, determined to locate his trunk. He found it in the maid’s chamber, empty. Enraged, he strangled the maid, took the empty trunk and left. Why did he not perform a more thorough search for the money?” Lina shrugged. “I do not know. Perhaps he feared discovery if he lingered any longer, or perhaps, like many criminals, he harbors a dread of remaining in the room with a dead body. I have seen hardened career criminals blanch when confronted by a corpse of their own making.

“At any rate, it was Whitaker who arranged for her ladyship’s cab to be attacked by ruffians. I believe he thought the missing money was in your jewel case, since you keep it always about your person while traveling,” Lina said to Florence. “He was thwarted for a second time. Whitaker then followed you to London, waiting for another chance.”

“The hotel fire!” Florence exclaimed.

“Yes, begun with a few handfuls of smoldering straw. I believe it was not Whitaker’s intention to burn the hotel to a cinder, but to drive you out of your room so that he might search it in relative peace. Do you know the fellow attacked me in the corridor?”

“What?” Rhiannon stood up, her face paling. “You said nothing of this!”

“I had no wish to cause undue apprehension,” Lina said hastily. She had forgotten that Rhiannon was likely to have a negative reaction to the news. “My dear, in the mistaken belief that I was Lady Westmacott, he merely threatened me with violence should I not return to him the missing money. I was able to defend myself against him quite handily.”

“Yet you promptly went off alone,” Rhiannon accused, “with that man Whitaker free to act as he pleased, and who knows what he might have done!”

“All is well,” Lina said soothingly. “Pray do not trouble yourself with ‘what ifs.’ I am certain that he did not remain at the hotel, but followed the cab here and is no doubt watching the house.”

Rhiannon sank back onto the settee. “I still don’t like it.”

“I will endeavor not to incommode you in the future.” Lina tried to convey to Rhiannon the silent message that she would submit to a discussion later. Finally, Rhiannon sniffed, nodding at her to go on.

“To return to Whitaker,” Lina said, gesturing with her cigarette, “it is my belief that he remains in London. Indeed, where can he go without his ill-gotten gains? Therefore, I propose a trap be set for him. Harry, if you followed my instructions and brought with you a smooth-cheeked and youthful constable…”

“Aye, that’d be young Dashwood,” Valentine said. “He used to play petticoat roles at school, he tells me. A prettier man you’ll not likely see. He’s in your kitchen now, milady, being petted and spoiled by your cook, scullery maids, and every other female in the house, I’ll wager. Women are drawn to Dashwood like flies to treacle.”

“Excellent. And the other arrangements?”

“Done.”

“Harry, you are a pearl among men.”

Valentine bared his teeth in a smile.

Lina finished smoking her cigarette and threw the remains into the fireplace grate. “I suppose I ought to help Constable Dashwood don his disguise.”

“Lina, what arrangements have you made?” Rhiannon asked.

“Constable Dashwood, costumed as Lady Westmacott and shadowed by the inspector’s men, will attempt to lure Whitaker into a trap and capture him.”

“And what if you fail, Evangeline?” Florence asked. “I should not like to spend the remainder of my life in fear of this American scoundrel.”

Lina crossed the room and put a reassuring hand on Florence’s shoulder. “Have no worries on that score. Whitaker will be taken. His greed ensures it.”

A short while later, Lina was dressed in a black bombazine maid’s outfit, her hair drawn back into a severe knot and powdered to simulate traces of grey as Hill was, like Lady Westmacott, ‘un femme d’un certain âge.’ Opposite her in the growler was Constable Dashwood, looking willowy in a violet silk dress, his features blurred by the net veil on his hat. Judicious corseting and padding had given him a credible female figure.

There was a single source of dissatisfaction, however, and that came from the presence of Rhiannon in the growler, crouched down between the seats so that she was not visible to casual view. Lina had argued against her lover’s presence, but Rhiannon remained adamant about her inclusion in the proceedings. In the end, Lina had been forced to acquiesce. Rhiannon was armed with a British Bulldog revolver at Lina’s insistence, although the woman had promised not to become involved in any shooting unless it was absolutely necessary. Both Dashwood and Lina were also armed. The driver of the growler was a police detective, and the growler was being follwoed by other constables and detectives in various vehicles and on foot. Lina was confident of success.

When it came, the attack was almost an anti-climax.

As had happened in Liverpool, a furniture cart drawn by large horses halted in front of the growler to stop its progress. A nearby hired carriage disgorged several rudely-dressed men bearing cudgels. One of them – broad shouldered, barrel-chested, broken-nosed and possessing carroty red hair – came to the growler’s door and jerked it open.

“I want my money, you…” Whitaker gritted, hefting the cudgel. His eyes widened considerably upon seeing the muzzles of three pistols aimed in his direction. He glanced about. His hired help was being apprehended by a veritable flood of uniformed constables pouring from vehicles and side streets. Whitaker’s shoulder tightened, and he snarled.

“Do not attempt an escape, Mr. Whitaker,” Lina told him coolly. “I am an excellent shot, and so are my companions. We can hardly miss at this short distance.”

Much to Lina’s satisfaction, the cudgel dropped from his hands just as a constable approached to put the darbies on him and take Whitaker away to Scotland Yard. She tucked the pistol back into her reticule, assisting  Rhiannon in rising stiffly from her crouch on the floor.

“My dear, shall we return home and tell my godmother the good news?” Lina asked, certain that she already knew the answer.

Rhiannon nodded, a gloved hand seeking Lina’s. “And on the way home, perhaps we can discuss certain matters…” Her voice trailed off as she arched her eyebrows.

An excellent conclusion to the case, Lina thought, and after seeing Dashwood off to a Black Maria that held his uniform, she directed the growler’s driver to take them back to Grosvenor Street, pulling the shades down on the windows for privacy’s sake before taking Rhiannon into her arms.

THE END

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THE BODY ON THE SERPENTINE
Nene Adams Copyright 2004

It was, Lady Evangeline St. Claire reflected, a perfect day for a picnic.

Having some time to themselves with no criminal cases in sight, she and Rhiannon Moore – her lover, partner and other half of her soul – had purchased a large hamper of delectables from Fortnum and Mason, purveyor of ready-made luxuries, and hied off to fashionable Hyde Park to bask in the late summer sunshine.

Having found a lovely spot near the Serpentine, the artificial lake that separated Hyde Park from its neighbor, Kensington Gardens, she and Rhiannon settled beneath a shady tree to indulge in the time-honored occupation of watching passers-by. From shopgirls in bombazine and nannies with their charges, to gaily dressed ladies of leisure and the gentlemen who escorted them, the park was a popular place to be seen en promenade.

“Isn’t that Baroness de Witt?” Rhiannon asked. She was seated on the picnic blanket, leaning on one hip with her legs folded together on the other side – a sidesaddle posture that seemed more uncomfortable than it truly was.

“Yes, I believe that is Cordelia de Witt,” Lina answered, “but the gentleman is not her husband. I had thought her to have a tad more discretion than parading a lover in public. What the newspapers will make of it, I dare not guess.”

“He might be a cousin or a some other relation,” Rhiannon said, biting into a plump scarlet strawberry. “You needn’t assume the worst.” A bit of juice collected at the corner of her mouth. Lina wrestled the urge to lean over and lick it away. The sweetness of the berry juice would not, she knew, equal the sweetness of Rhiannon’s lips.

To quell the sudden insistent thud-thud-thud of her heart, Lina investigated the contents of the picnic hamper. If one appetite could not be satisfied, perhaps another could. The uniform-clad, white-gloved assistant at Fortnum and Mason had outfitted them in style with heavy silver-plate cutlery, crystal glasses and delicate china tableware; the hamper also contained an outstanding selection of foodstuffs including a crock of goose liver paté, a cold lobster, ham, boned quails in aspic with prawns, strawberries and a bottle of champagne.

She expertly eased the cork from the champagne bottle with her thumbs – not for her the showy explosion that resulted in the loss of half the contents and left the remainder unpleasantly flat. After serving herself and Rhiannon with bubbly champagne, Lina took some ham and a bit of quail aspic, happy and content and full of joi de vivre.

This state of affairs lasted until a wail from nearby startled her into dropping her glass of champagne, wetting her skirts most  unpleasantly. Lina looked around to locate the source of the contretemps and saw a woman struggling to rise from the grass, her motion hampered by her bustle; the tight sleeves of her dress threatened to split at the seams under her agitated movements. On the opposite side of the blanket, a fat and florid man seemed to be choking, both beefy hands clutched around his neck, his eyes fairly bulging from their sockets.

“My husband! Someone help my husband!” the woman screamed, wringing her hands in the depths of her distress.

A bewhiskered gentleman with their party was slapping the victim on the back with no discernible result. A second female – much younger than the first, possibly a daughter – had swooned. Lina leaped to her feet, knocking over the champagne bottle, and hastened to help. A fellow in brown tweed, accompanied by a curly-haired spaniel, declared himself a doctor and began to tend to the choking man, who had already collapsed, spasming in every limb. After a few moments, the doctor declared the man dead.

The older woman, whom Lina deduced was the dead man’s wife, let out a blood-curdling scream of grief that sent the doctor’s spaniel into hysterics. The dog raced around in a circle, scattering the picnic things and making an unholy mess in the process. The daughter recovered from her faint, only to lose consciousness again when she learned of her father’s demise. Letting out loud sobs and moans, the girl’s mother clung to the fourth member of their party, the gentleman who had been smacking her husband’s back to so little effect.

Lina took hold of the doctor’s arm, drawing him aside. In the confusion, she had taken the opportunity to perform a cursory examination of the body. What she found was troubling. “We must notify Scotland Yard,” she told him.

The doctor curled his lip. It was clear he disapproved of meddling females. “Madam, there is no reason to summon the Yard for what is a clear case of accidental death. The fellow choked or suffered an apoplexy.”

Lina shook her head. “Did you fail to notice the foam on the man’s lips? The extraordinary floridness of his complexion? The smell of almonds? My dear sir, that man has been poisoned. Considering the symptoms, I suspect prussic acid.”

“Who are you?” the doctor asked, his mustache bristling fiercely.

“Lady Evangeline St. Claire,” Lina answered, having no reason to conceal her identity. “If you will not send for Scotland Yard, I will do it myself.”

“Very well, milady, although I think it’s a fool’s errand.” He bared his teeth in what was not a smile.

A considerable crowd had gathered to observe the proceedings; it was not every day that a man died in Hyde Park, Lina mused, and that generated no little excitement among the hoi polloi and the better classes alike. A police constable’s appearance made the throng sigh with anticipation. The doctor spoke to him at length, both men shooting her glances, but Lina remained unperturbed. She knew she was right and, she believed, the doctor knew it, too. Like most men, he had to show the appearance of reluctance in order to preserve the façade that he was merely indulging a lady, not taking orders from her – a tiresome but necessary self-deception to avoid damaging male pride.

And this is the master of all he surveys, she thought, snorting in amusement.

“May I know your name, sir?” Lina asked the doctor when the constable had gone off to fetch his superiors.

“Dr. Julian Idlewyld,” he replied, cutting his glance towards the victim. Idlewyld had had the decency to cover the man’s engorged features with a clean handkerchief.

Rhiannon joined them, having had the presence of mind to lure the spaniel with a slice of ham and secure the dog before it could continue running amok. “He’s a sweet creature,” she said to Idlewyld, leading the dog over to him, “but perhaps a trifle excitable.”

The doctor snapped the leather lead on the panting spaniel’s collar. The smile he directed towards Rhiannon was distinctly friendlier than the one he had given Lina. “Thank you, Miss…?”

“Miss Moore,” Lina said firmly, “is my companion. Thank you, my dear. There has been enough confusion for one day, I think.”

Idlewyld tipped his hat at Rhiannon. “A pleasure, Miss Moore.”

“Likewise, Dr. Idlewyld,” Rhiannon replied pertly, much to Lina’s disgust.

The constable returned with more Myrmidons of the law, including a figure well-known to both Lina and Rhiannon: Inspector Harold Valentine of Scotland Yard. He drummed his fingers on the round, hard paunch of his belly and squinted at the women in a relatively friendly fashion.

“If it ain’t Lady St. Claire and Miss Moore,” Valentine said, chewing an unlit cigar with his usual ferocity. “Fancy meeting you two at the scene of a murder. Hah!”

“I assure you, Harry, our presence at the unfortunate affair is pure coincidental. We were having a picnic,” Lina said, lacing her arm through Rhiannon’s, “when our idyll was interrupted by this most unfortunate happenstance.”

The bewhiskered fellow comforting the new widow spoke up. “What’s all this hullabaloo? Have some common decency, won’t you – the lady has just lost her husband, damn your eyes”

“And who might you be?” Valentine asked, rocking back and forth on his toes.

“Frederick Gideon Mordecai Butterfield III,” he answered, his hostility clearly written in the sneer and the gimlet glare he directed towards the police inspector.

That Butterfield was American was evident by the man’s accent; his occupation as a photographer could be deduced by the chemical stains on his hands and sleeve cuffs, Lina thought, her keen observational skills making such deductions as natural to her as breathing. In fact, the right jacket sleeve was positively peppered with tiny burn scars from the explosive magnesium and potassium chlorate combination known as flashpowder, which enabled him to take photographs in low light. Lina further concluded that Butterfield was an habitual pipe smoker, as evident by the matted and nicotine-stained section of beard near the corner of his mouth. Thick calluses on his hands indicated that Butterfield had done heavy labor at some time in the not-too-distant past.

Inspector Valentine questioned the sobbing widow gently and patiently while Lina shamelessly eavesdropped. He learned that the dead man was a wealthy dilettante named Simon Barnabas. He left behind a widow – Henrietta – and a daughter, Louisa; no other relatives remained to carry on the family name. Mr. Butterfield offered the information that he was a distant relation of the widow’s; she was his cousin from the English branch of his family.

In the meantime, Dr. Idlewyld applied sal volatile to the fainting Louisa in an effort to restore her to sensibility. The girl recovered slowly from her swoon with much fluttering of eyelashes and soft breathy sounds. Idlewyld muttered something about loosening her corset, which made Louisa spring up as if hot coals had been applied to her feet. She burst into tears, burying her face in the doctor’s waistcoast, clinging to him like a particularly soggy limpet. As she was a very pretty girl despite the tears, it seemed to Lina that Idlewyld did not much mind.

“Poor man,” Rhiannon said, leaning companionably against Lina and nodding at the corpse. “It wasn’t a very pleasant way to die.”

“All persons aspire to slip away peacefully at the ripe old age of one hundred or thereabouts, my dear, but in my experience, death is often violent or painful or both, and usually unexpected.”

“How do you suppose the poison was introduced into Mr. Barnabas?”

“That is a question,” Lina answered, pushing a stray lock of black hair behind her ear. Murder was hard on the coiffure; half her pins had been loosened in the excitement. “Let us wait upon Harry, since he has official sanction here. I am certain that I can winkle the facts out of him when he has finished his interrogation.”

Rhiannon smiled. Lina’s heart was so swollen and tender with affection, she could not help the idiotic grin that stretched her own mouth. Nearly two years together and she could not imagine life without her fiery, red-headed partner.

“In the meantime,” she said after regaining control of herself, “let us beg a quantity of empty bottles from the onlookers. I wish to take samples of the food to test for poison myself. The police laboratory is adequate for the court’s purposes but I would prefer to verify the work with my own hands.”

“What poison is it?”

“Did I not tell you? Prussic acid, my dear. At least, I believe it to be so based upon the symptoms that Mr. Barnabas displayed.”

“Prussic acid…” Rhiannon frowned. “That sounds familiar.”

Before Lina could expand upon the subject, Valentine sauntered over, his eyes narrowed to slits. “Well, I’ll wait upon the surgeon to confirm your diagnosis, milady. Barnabas may have been poisoned, but he may also have choked on a chicken bone.”

Lina was about to give him her opinion of his opinion – Harry Valentine had known her long enough to show a modicum of trust – when it suddenly struck her that the Barnabas’ picnic goods were unusual, to say the least. The damage done by Dr. Idlewyld’s spaniel could not explain what was scattered over the blanket. She got down on her knees, the better to examine the mess.

Vichyssoise – she wrinkled her nose at cold potato and leek soup – had made a creamy white splash on the blanket. The orange pool in the corner was carrot soup flavored with (from the smell) plenty of dill. There was evidence of turtle soup, a nice clear consommé au naturel, something that she tentatively identified as potage a la Crécy from the Wellington supper rooms in Piccadilly, and an oxtail soup spiked with sherry.

No bread, no fruit, no meat… just soups which had, Lina discovered when she peered into the Barnabas’ hamper, been preserved at the proper temperature in large glass bottles. The party had been eating their meal of soup out of earthenware bowls; each ‘place’ was set with a water glass, a spoon and a napkin. No, not a single spoon, Lina thought. Simon Barnabas had six spoons, while the rest made do with one apiece.

Someone nudged her shoulder. Lina looked up; it was Rhiannon, balancing a number of empty beer bottles in her arms. “Will this be enough for your samples?” Rhiannon asked.

“Yes, my dear, more than sufficient,” Lina replied. She took the bottles and proceeded to take a sample from each of the spilled soups on the blanket. On the chance that the prussic acid had been present in the bowls used by the man, she took those , too, and all six of Barnabas’ spoons, blessing Rhiannon when the woman distracted Inspector Valentine by asking after a mutual acquaintance. Lina quickly turned up the hem of her petticoat and pinned it to form a large pocket under her voluminous skirts, large enough to hold her booty securely.

Rising, she joined Rhiannon and said to Valentine, “If you are quite done reminiscing on the career of ‘Blinker’ Pinker the one-eyed burglar, I ought to be returning home.”

“If you must,” Valentine said, giving Rhiannon a friendly wink. “You remember me in your prayers, luv. I reckon the Good Lord’ll listen to an angel like you instead of an old reprobate like me.”

Rhiannon chuckled, giving him a brilliant smile, and took Lina’s arm.

It was the work of a moment to gather their own picnic things and summon thecarriage driver, Henry, to take them back to their house in Grosvenor Street. As soon as she returned home, Lina took her bottles and bowls and spoons to the study, keeping the footmen busy fetching instruments and apparatus from the attic. Soon, she had a small chemical laboratory set up on a table near the Chinese screen that hid the overflowing bookcase.

Rhiannon remained coiled upon the green velvet settee, chin in hand, while Lina prepared the samples. Unfortunately, testing for prussic acid was a meticulous, time-consuming process. First, one had to combine the sample with chlorine; if the poisonous substance was present, cyanogen chloride would be formed. That was the first step. While she worked, Lina explained the process to her watchful lover.

“The introduction of pyridine into the flask should form glutocondialdehyde, which, when combined with dimethylbarbituric acid, will turn the substance a violet color if cyanide is present,” Lina said, watching the flask. “The intensity of the hue varies upon the strength of the poison.”

Rhiannon sat up straight. “Did you say cyanide?”

“Yes, I did.” Lina put the flask down on the table. The color had not changed; no prussic acid was present. She marked the result on a scrap of paper.

“You said before it was prussic acid!”

“My dear, hydrogen cyanide and prussic acid are one and the same.”

Rhiannon bit her lip, then blurted, “The photographer did it. Mr. Butterfield.”

Lina had donned a white smock before beginning her work; she wiped her hands on the protective muslin garment and inquired, “How do you know this, my dear?” It was not that she did not believe Rhiannon, but the law and logic demanded proof.

“As you know, my late father’s hobby was photography. He once poisoned himself with potassium cyanide, which is used in the photographic process.” Rhiannon shivered. She stood and fetched a paisley shawl, which she wrapped around her shoulders. “Would potassium cyanide work as well as hydrogen cyanide?”

“Oh, yes, for a murderer’s purposes, the two substances work in similar fashion.” Lina considered her next words carefully; she did not want to hurt Rhiannon’s feelings. “Mr. Butterfield certainly had access to cyanide, but that is not the only question which must be answered. He had means and opportunity… but what was his motive?”

“I don’t know,” Rhiannon said. “He seemed somewhat close to Mrs. Barnabas, but she was in shock and he is a relation, although a distant one.”

“We have only his word for that.” Lina picked up a new sample – the turtle soup, she thought. “Let me complete the laboratory tasks first, then we will pay a visit to Inspector Valentine in Scotland Yard… provided we have news to tell.”

However, it was not until the following morning that Lina was able to compete her tests. The results made her raise an eyebrow until it ached. Not quite what she expected, and there remained the troublesome question of motive, but there was evidence that needed to be presented to Inspector Valentine.

Rather than go to the Yard, Lina elected to send a note to the inspecor, asking him to join her in Grosvenor Street. His arrival coincided with the tea tray brought into the study by a footman. Valentine let out the glad cry of a bachelor condemned to his own cooking, and wasted no time tucking into egg-and-cress and tomato sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Eccles cake and toasted muffins dripping with butter.

Rhiannon, a woman who enjoyed her afternoon tea, watched Valentine make a proper pig of himself with some dismay before ringing Jackson to bring more sandwiches and cake from the kitchen. Lina stifled her amusement and poured tea, although she did wince at the obscene amount of sugar cubes that Valentine dropped into his milk-laced cup.

At last, his appetite satisfied, Valentine sat back, made a discreet belch behind his hand, and said, “Thank ‘ee kindly for the tea, milady. Now what can I do for thee, eh?”

Lina showed him the things she had taken from the picnic, earning a cry of outrage from the man. “B’God, milady, that ain’t fair doings!” Valentine said, his cheeks gone red with fury. “You stole them spoons from under my nose!”

“So I did, Harry,” Lina replied calmly. “Now do you want to waste time berating me for my sins, or do you wish to solve this case?”

“Don’t think we won’t have more words about your sticky fingers,” Valentine grumbled, but Rhiannon thoughtfully supplied him with a slice of Cook’s best lemon tart, and he subsided into a sort of sugar-induced state of semi-bonhomie.

“Can you tell me, Harry, whose idea was the picnic?” Lina asked.

“Mrs. Barnabas, or so the daughter says,” Valentine replied around a mouthful of tart. “The soup was her idea, too, being as how the late Mr. Barnabas was having some trouble with his teeth.”

“I see. Why did Barnabas use six spoons instead of one?”

“To hear Mrs. Barnabas tell the tale, her husband was one of those fellows that can’t stand a flyspeck. When he ate his supper, he used a different fork and knife for every item on his plate, not just different cutlery for every course. Daft, eh? Oh, beg pardon… Barnabas was eccentric ‘cause he could afford not to be mad,” Valentine snorted. “A poorer man we’d have just called insane and sent to Colney Hatch in a leather jacket.”

“Did everyone eat the same?”

“Yes, all four of them ate some of each soup.”

Lina sat back on the settee, steepled her fingers together and asked the final question that would either confirm or deny her suspicions. “Harry, you have a keen sense of judgment when it comes to your fellow man. What is your impression of the relationship between Mr. Butterfield and Mrs. Barnabas?”

Valentine’s sandy brows came together in a frown. “What might you be after, milady?”

“The truth, of course.”

“I had a wee chat with the Barnabas family’s butler, a cheeky fellow name of Quillard,” he said, leaning back in the chair. “You know servants, milady; they see everything, they hear everything ’cause folks forget they’re in the room.”

Pas devant les domestiques,” Lina murmured.

“As you say, milady.” Valentine delayed a few moments choosing a cigar from a case that he took from the inner pocket of his  jacket. After the business of lighting the cigar with a lucifer and seeing that it was drawing properly, the inspector continued, “Quillard says that Mr. Fred Butterfield showed up about two months ago claiming a cousin’s privilege from Henrietta Barnabas. The husband was happy to accommodate his wife’s relation; ‘tweren’t no skin off his nose to give bed n’ board to an American abroad. Only Simon Barnabas didn’t know his wife was sneaking into Butterfield’s bedchamber at night, when she thought everyone was asleep. She never reckoned on Quillard bein’ one of those chappies who can’t go to bed without a drink or two of the master’s brandy.”

Rhiannon nodded. “Motive,” she said to Lina.

Sui bono?” Lina asked Valentine, who blew a smoke ring and professed his ignorance. She repeated the question in English: “Who benefits? I assume his wife is the principle beneficiary in  Mr. Barnabas’ will.”

“I’ve not had time to question the solicitor but I reckon you’re right,” Valentine said. “Now, milady, it’s my turn to ask the questions, if you don’t mind.”

“As a matter of fact, I do mind,” Lina said, cutting him off rather rudely. “Harry, I know who murdered Simon Barnabas; I know how it was done and why. If you would be so kind as to request the presences of Henrietta Barnabas, Frederick Butterfield and Louisa Barnabas here tonight, I shall reveal all.”

“What are you, a bleedin’ conjurer? You’ll tell me now, milady, or I’ll know the reason why!”

Lina smiled in the face of Valentine’s bluster. “Tonight, Harry,” she repeated.

Familiar with her stubbornness, Valentine gave in with a frustrated grunt.

That evening, the scene was set. Lina had sent out to several restaurants to obtain the right sort of soups, while Rhiannon was dispatched in the carriage with a wad of notes in order to purchase the rest of the required stage props. When Mrs. Barnabas, her daughter Louisa, and Mr. Butterfield arrived at Grosvenor Street, they found a reconstruction of their ill-starred picnic laid out in the study. A blanket was spread on the floor. Earthenware bowls, cutlery and napkins were set out in the correct places; the hamper itself was off to one side.

“Is this some sort of disgusting joke?” Henrietta asked, a handsome, thin woman whose complexion owed a good deal to rouge and pearl powder. Her brunette hair was tightly curled. Deep lines carved from nose to mouth were evidence of a spleenish nature; Lina would have wagered that Henrietta Barnabas rarely smiled.

In contrast, her daughter Louisa was pretty, pert and a dreadful flirt. Lina had seen the girl trying to work her infantile wiles on Dr. Idlewyld in the park; now she witnessed the painful spectacle of Miss Louisa batting her eyelashes and wriggling her hips at poor Harry Valentine. Judging the inspector’s color, Lina thought he was mortified.

Fortunately for Valentine’s countenance, Rhiannon intervened, sending Louisa to sit on the blanket in approximately the same position as she had been the day before. The bewhiskered Mr. Butterfield was persuaded to assume his proper place. Although she continued to protest, Henrietta allowed herself to be lowered to the floor.

Lina knew that she was shamelessly indulging her love of the melodramatic and theatrical, but it felt good to have an audience, even a captive one. “It is incumbent upon me to make this announcement,” she began, glancing around to gauge the expressions of the people staring at her. “I shan’t be coy but state my business –  Simon Barnabas was murdered yesterday by someone in this room.”

As she had anticipated, there was a loud and noisy burst of protests from both of the Barnabas women – Louisa was particularly shrill for such a young, tender creature – but Mr. Butterfield overrode them. “I have never been so insulted in my life!” he bellowed. “How dare you, madam! I cannot believe this farce is approved by the authorities. You, sir, ought to be ashamed!” He shook his finger at Valentine. The inspector shrugged.

“Shut your hole or I’ll shut it for you,” Valentine said in a silky drawl. His rude response was so shocking, Butterfield’s mouth closed with a click.

“Thank you,” Lina said to Valentine. “To continue… I do not know who formulated the plot, but I can tell you this – Mr. Barnabas was poisoned with potassium cyanide.” To quell the new uproar which greeted her words, she held up both hands for silence. Valentine put on his best glare, which proved most effective.

When she was certain of being heard, Lina said, “The poison was not in any of the soups because all four members of the party consumed a sample of each. My tests have concluded that cyanide was not present in the earthenware dishes that Mr. Barnabas ate from. The true culprit was a most unusual article at the picnic. Can you guess what I mean?” She tilted her head. “Can you guess, Mrs. Barnabas? Mr. Butterfield?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Henrietta said.

“Your husband was an extremely fastidious gentleman. His habits were, to say the least, somewhat strange.” Lina went to the fireplace, resting an elbow against the mantelpiece. “I have heard that he required a different set of cutlery for each item on his dinner plate.”

Henrietta snapped, “What of it?”

“Simon Barnabas needed six spoons at the picnic – one for each of the different soups which you caused to be purchased, Mrs. Barnabas. Soup is such an unusual item to bring to a summer picnic. I must ask myself why you did not choose more traditional fare.”

“My husband suffered from bad teeth.”

“It is more than that.” Lina suddenly stooped down to contront the seated woman. “Mrs. Barnabas, the amount of cyanide solution that can be painted on a knife or fork is fairly minimal, but on the bowl of a spoon…! And six spoons at that, madam – enough potassium cyanide to kill a man. Hence the soup, since you were familiar with your late husband’s habits. Each spoonful that Simon Barnabas consumed brought him closer to his doom.”

A bead of sweat slipped down Henrietta’s brow. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Lina pointed a finger at her. “Shall I spell it out for you, madam?” She swung that finger to include Mr. Butterfield. “You were having an affair with this man under your husband’s very nose. Yes, there is a witness to your infidelity. You and your lover plotted to be rid of an inconvenient spouse. Butterfield has access to potassium cyanide; it is a chemical much used in the photographer’s profession. Did he lead you to the murder, madam, or was it you who seduced him into committing the deed?”

“No!” Henrietta gasped, while at the same time, Louisa Barnabas drew her hand back and slapped Mr. Butterfield hard enough to knock him over.

“You poncy bastard!” Louisa shrilled, her face turning an ugly shade of brick red. “You told me I was the only one!”

Sometime later, when Valentine had departed with his prisoners – mother and daughter having turned upon Butterfield, whose crime other than a murder conspiracy was to believe he could get away with playing the merry sultan with two females in the same house – Lina sat on the settee with a well-earned whiskey-and-soda.

Rhiannon sat next to her, working on a piece of embroidery.

“Poor Simon Barnabas,” Lina sighed, sipping from her glass and watching Rhiannon out of the corner of her eye. “For him, cleanliness was truly next to Godliness; had he not been such an obsessed individual, it is doubtful that Butterfield’s plot would have gone off as successfully as it did.”

“Poor Mr. Butterfield,” Rhiannon replied, plucking the glass out of Lina’s hand and taking a sip before putting it on the floor. “The Chinese write using a system of pictograms. The pictogram illustrating ‘discord’ is two women under one roof. Of course, however wise the Chinese are supposed to be, that’s not been my experience at all.”

“Oh?”

“I would never describe what is between us as discord, my love.”

“How would you describe us, my dear?”

“Words simply will not suffice.” Rhiannon laid the embroidery aside. “I must demonstrate, I’m afraid.”

Lina tensed.

Rhiannon pounced, her hands rucking up Lina’s skirts, her voice muffled against Lina’s bodice.

“Oh… oh… oh!” The glass of whiskey-and-soda was tipped over onto the hearth rug, but Lina did not notice.

THE END

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The Gaslight Series Novels
Black by Gaslight
The Madonna of the Sorrows
The Witch’s Kiss
The Curse of the Jade Dragon – 2010

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THE SCARLET POOL
Nene Adams Copyright 2006

“ Who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’” Lady Evangeline St. Claire muttered the Shakespeare quotation while surveying the corpse on the floor. Beside and slightly behind her, Rhiannon Moore – her partner in the private detective enterprise as well as in life – pressed a handkerchief to her mouth, staring at the body in the centre of the wide spread scarlet pool.

A fly buzzed in through the open window and settled on the dead man’s eyelid, which had frozen open to show a crescent slit of white.

“That’s not all blood, you know,” said Inspector Harry Valentine, rocking back and forth on his heels as was his habit. The Scotland Yard inspector had a unlit cigar jammed in the corner of his mouth. “A deal of it is paint. Alfred de Morgan was an artist, may his soul rest in peace… but perhaps I ought to let his friend, Mr. Watts, give you the particulars.” He indicated a gentleman standing nearby, his back to the gory scene.

Solomon Watts proved to be a very neat and tidy figure of a man: spotless and perfectly groomed from his pomaded head down to his masterfully shined shoes. “Alfred and I were boys together in school,” he said, looking down his nose at Lina – a difficult feat since she was unusually tall for a woman – and sniffing loudly. It was clear from his expression that he disapproved of her, a female inquiry agent whose conduct was far outside the bounds of polite Society… even though she was the daughter of a Duchess.

He glanced at Valentine, received a grin of encouragement, and went on with obvious misgivings, “At any rate, Alfred and I were rivals for the affections of a young lady, the Honourable Miss Caroline Leighton. Last week, I learned that Alfred was the lucky chap who won the fair lady, and we had a falling out. He’s one of my oldest friends, after some consideration, I felt that I should extend the olive branch, hence my visit to his studio.”

“What happened?” Lina asked.

Rhiannon risked a glance at the body. In death, Alfred de Morgan was unlovely, lying on his face with his limbs a-sprawl in the pool of blood and vermilion paint that surrounded him. The stain was contained to the immediate area, and had not spread beyond. There was a single small splash of blood – a few elongated droplets – on the wall near the window, where the artist had set up his easel. She caught Lina’s gaze and nodded towards the splatter, gratified at her partner’s answering nod and approving smile.

“The poor fellow!” Watts grimaced. “In his haste to greet me, Alfred dropped a large pot of paint on the floor, then he slipped and struck his head on the corner of the work table. I suppose the blow killed him instantly. A most unfortunate incident, most grievous…. had I not been eager to take his hand, had I been able to break his fall, Alfred might still be alive.”

“Yes, if you were close enough,” Lina said, her eyes hooded and watchful.

Watts interrupted. “Our fingertips actually touched,” he said, pinching the bridge of his nose and turning pale. “I blame myself. I might have saved my dearest friend! This guilt will haunt me forever. I do not know what I will tell Miss Leighton. She will be utterly desolate.”

“I see.” Lina turned to Inspector Valentine. “How were the police alerted?”

“The maid,” Valentine said, taking the cigar out of his mouth and inspecting the chewed end. “She was upstairs and heard a thud. She came straight down, and found de Morgan as you see him, and Watts in the room as well.”

“Harry, Alfred de Morgan was murdered, and before you stands the murderer!” Lina said, taking hold of Watt’s upper arm. The man’s convulsive jerk was arrested by her strong grip. Rhiannon took a step backwards, realized she was almost treading in the pool of drying blood and paint, and found herself standing near Inspector Valentine.

“Care to explain?” Valentine asked Lina with a hint of sarcasm. He took a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket and held them loosely while watching Watts, who pulled his arm out of Lina’s grasp.

“Woman, are you deranged?” Watts asked Lina angrily, smoothing his rumpled jacket sleeve, then turning to Valentine. “You should keep better control of your… of Lady St. Claire. I am not in the mood for jests, nor do I appreciate being mauled.”

Lina’s expression might have been carved from stone. “Did you believe that by eliminating Mr. de Morgan, you might have a better chance at winning the fair lady?”

“I will not stand here and be insulted.”

“On the contrary,” Lina said, her voice cold and silky. Rhiannon recognized that tone, and felt a frisson of sympathetic apprehension shiver down her spin. When her partner spoke so softly, so smoothly, it boded very ill, indeed. “Are you certain that you do not wish to make a confession at once, and save Scotland Yard and the Crown a good deal of trouble?” the lady asked.

Watts sneered. The glance he threw Valentine’s way was full of scorn. “Are you going to allow this female to usurp your duty? What sort of man are you?”

A flush crept into Valentine’s cheeks, but he did not say a word.

Lina went on, “You came to the studio to see your ‘old friend,’ and I suspect you did not intend to kill him. That decision was made later, at the spur of the moment. Perhaps you argued with Mr. de Morgan regarding Miss Leighton. You snatched up a weapon and struck! Hearing the maid coming downstairs, you thought quickly, and poured red paint around the body to support your tale of accidental death.”

“Madness! Hysterical madness!” Watts was sweating. Fascinated, Rhiannon watched a glistening bead slide down his temple, and slant towards the corner of his mouth. “Why are you subjecting me to this travesty?” he asked Valentine.

“I suggest you pay attention to the lady,” was the inspector’s laconic reply.

“Harry, you ought to have some of your men comb through the garden, particularly in the area beneath the open window. They will be searching for a candlestick, a small bronze statue… something with blood on it. I doubt Mr. Watts had time enough to cleanse his weapon of the evidence of his crime.”

Valentine moved to the window, while watching Watts out of the corner of his eye. “Oi! You lot! Come here!”

A muscle beneath Watts’ eye began to twitch. Lina gave him a predatory smile. The hairs on the back of Rhiannon’s neck prickled. Tension thickened in the room. A fat fly buzzed into the air and butted against the window pane, its sound a harsh rattle in the otherwise quiet room. Rhiannon blinked. Suddenly, Watts moved.

He started for the door, which put him between Lina and Valentine. The inspector made an aborted lunge, brought up short by Rhiannon, who darted forward and thrust out a foot to trip Watts. The man fell headlong, struck the wainscoting, and lay in a crumpled heap, semi-conscious and groaning. Rhiannon, meanwhile, clung to Lina’s hastily offered arm until she regained her balance.

The fly found the open window and escaped to freedom.

Watts did not. In a few moments, he was handcuffed in the custody of a pair of burly constables. Rather than accompany his prisoner to the Metropolitan Police headquarters, Valentine lingered behind, raising his brows at Lina, clearly waiting for an explanation.

In response to his mute inquiry, Lina said, “Had events transpired in the manner in which Mr. Watts described – had he indeed been close enough to the unfortunate de Morgan to touch him – then he should have red paint splashed about his person. Most especially his shoes, which you will note show no trace of anything other than the boot boy’s polish.”

Rhiannon remembered Watts’ shoes, the leather glossy and without a speck of dust or paint to mar the shiny surface.

“Furthermore, I believe when the police surgeon removes the body, you will find that the area directly beneath it is clean, therefore proving that the paint was spilled after de Morgan’s demise.” Lina took a breath, and transfixed Watts with a triumphant glare. “The fact that he chose a weapon of convenience speaks to the ill-considered nature of the crime. Had he intended harm to his former friend, Mr. Watts would have brought something more appropriate to the scene, such as a revolver. As to his haste… you told me, Harry, that the maid was summoned by a thud, which must have been caused by de Morgan’s collapse after Watts inflicted the fatal head wound. The murderer had no time for detailed concealment. He threw his weapon out the open window, tipped the paint pot, and pretended horror.”

A young woman, fashionably and expensively dressed, came to the door. She was pretty in a chocolate box fashion, all blonde and pale except for twin spots of hectic colour on her cheeks. “Solomon? What’s happened?” she cried. “They told me that Alfred is…”

The silence in the room was broken by a brassy buzzing as a fly, disturbed by a constable who had found a bloodied candlestick in the rose bushes outside and raised a shout. The insect flew in through the open window. The sound quieted when the fly settled on the sticky blood surrounding the body, and began to feed. A heartbeat later, startled by Miss Leighton’s screams of anguish and horrified disbelief, the itdeparted through the window once more.

The fly did not return when the silence was restored after Miss Leighton swooned.

THE END

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The Gaslight Series Novels
Black by Gaslight
The Madonna of the Sorrows
The Witch’s Kiss
The Curse of the Jade Dragon – 2010

Award winning novels of suspense, mystery and romance available at on-line retailers and your favorite bookstore

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