Authors: Sonia Gensler
“If you thought me a creature of air, why’d you grope me every chance you got?”
She was pleased to see him wince at that.
After a moment he took a step closer, his eyes glistening.
“Did you …” He cleared his throat. “Have you come at Mrs. Martineau’s bidding, as my colleagues suggested?”
Kate risked a glance at the medium. Only one eye was open, but it was trained on Kate and the message was clear.
Don’t even try it
“I came on my own,” Kate whispered.
Eliot’s fists tightened. “You should be made to pay for your deceit.”
“She’s not worth the trouble, Robert,” Mrs. Martineau whispered, still slumped in her chair.
“But she’s done you great harm, so great that I should take her to the police this instant. Don’t you mean to prosecute?”
“You are kind to take an interest, but I fear such action would only draw more dark spirits our way.” Mrs. Martineau glanced briefly at Kate before closing her eyes again. “I will recover in time. When
leaves this house tonight, she will take the darkness with her, and eventually it will consume her.”
Eliot nodded. “Wise words.” He turned back to Kate, nostrils flaring. “If I see you again, girl, I
take you to the police.” He moved a step closer. “Either that, or I’ll deal with you myself.”
Kate lifted her chin and stared back. With his clenched mouth and high color, he looked like an angry brat about to bellow. She longed to tell him so, but the insult stuck in her throat. She directed her gaze to the floor instead.
As soon as Eliot was gone, the medium’s eyes snapped open. Her trembling and heavy breathing ceased, and she abruptly stood to close the door. Kate watched with numb detachment as the woman turned, the skirt of her delicate white dress flaring. In three steps Mrs. Martineau was upon her. “Fool!” A backhanded slap sent Kate reeling, and a moment later she was pinned against the wall.
“How could you be so careless?
of effort to lure Eliot into my scheme, and in one night you’ve ruined it all.”
Kate knew better than to struggle—the woman liked a tussle far too well. “You didn’t wait long enough to call the spirit, ma’am. I wasn’t ready.”
, idiot girl.”
Kate kept her head down. “Why did you say my father’s name?”
Mrs. Martineau grunted. “Your father?”
“The spirit you called. Frederic Stanton.”
“I called on Stanton’s spirit because the little detectives gave his name as one associated with the sitters. I’m sure it’s no business of yours.”
“Stanton is dead?”
“Yes, you thick-skulled creature! Frederic Stanton has been dead for years.” She paused, and Kate glanced up to find the woman’s eyes narrowed. “And I happen to know he had no living children.”
“Not with his wife.” Kate looked at the floor again.
“Have you lost your wits?” Mrs. Martineau shoved Kate’s head against the wall. “Clearly you have. And now you’ve lost your situation as well. Your clumsiness has compromised my reputation, and the damage will be impossible to repair if you remain here. Pack your things and leave this house immediately. Take only the items you brought with you.”
Kate blinked. “But where am I to go? You can’t just kick me to the streets.”
“I can and will. If you don’t go, I’ll get the police after you. See if they don’t lock you up as a fraud.” She paused, her face turning sly. “Or perhaps I
allow Mr. Eliot to discipline you. You’re a frightful little criminal, after all. Shall I call for help?”
The glint in the woman’s eyes forestalled further argument. “No, ma’am, I will go.”
Mrs. Martineau released her and stepped away, a satisfied smirk on her face. Kate kept her back against the wall as the woman swept out of the parlor.
Kate dropped the wig to the floor. The shroud soon followed, and it took a powerful exertion of will not to trample them both. Rubbing her damp and throbbing head, she slipped out to the hall and dragged herself up two flights of stairs.
As she reached the attic floor, a shadow shifted near her door.
“Who’s there?” she gasped.
“It’s just me,” the shadow replied, sounding more like a boy than a ghost.
“Christ, Billy! You shouldn’t scare me like that.”
She opened the door to the attic room and made her way to the washstand. Billy lit the lamp and sat on the small bed, watching in silence as she poured tepid water into the basin and scrubbed the white paste from her face, neck, and arms.
“You must have heard all that,” Kate muttered as she dried herself.
“You’ve been sacked,” said Billy sadly.
“Yeah.” She sank onto the bed next to him. “What am I to do, Billy?”
He shrugged. “You hated working for Missus. Weren’t you sick of parading about in your petticoat? And never able to come out in the daylight? Don’t cry, Katie.”
“I’m not crying.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I
hate prancing for Missus, though it was a lark to scare those fools at the table.” She turned to face him. “It’s the time I spent with you and Tec in the kitchen, with Cook sneaking us morsels, that I’ll miss.”
“I’ll miss it, too. You shouldn’t worry, though. I’m working a new scheme, and it could bring enough to keep the two of us going for a while, at least until you find a better situation.”
“You’d do that for me?”
He nodded. “Of course.”
A rush of affection prompted Kate to kiss his cheek, and she giggled at the boyish fit of cringing that followed. “What’s this?” She gently laid her finger on his jaw, tracing a bruise. “Has Martineau struck you?”
He shrugged her hand away. “She never touched me. It’s nothing.”
“This scheme, Billy—are you sure it’s safe?”
“I’ll be fine.”
She bit her lip. For such a scrappy kid, he seemed fragile and hollow-eyed in the lamplight.
“Go to Tec’s cottage,” he said. “It’s too late to go anywhere else. I’m workin’ tonight, but I’ll come by in the morning or thereabouts.” His expression sobered. “If you don’t see me tomorrow, you’ll know someone’s done me in.”
“Don’t say that! If the scheme is that dangerous, you shouldn’t try it.”
“I was only joking.” Grinning, he reached down and pulled something out of his boot. “But take this, just in case.” He held out a knife with a four-inch blade. The slick ebony handle shone in the lamplight. “I’d give you the sheath, but it’s sewn into my boot. You’d better wrap the blade in something.”
just keep it?” Kate shivered at the strangeness of an angel-haired child holding such a thing.
“I’d feel better if you had it,” he said. “Give me something in return, and we’ll swap back when I see you again.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“You might find a better situation and forget all about me. This way, I know we’ll see each other again.”
Kate’s rigid spine softened at that. She looked about the room, considering her few possessions. “I don’t have anything that’s a match for such a blade.”
“How ’bout your father’s watch?”
She paused. “It doesn’t work anymore.”
“That’s okay. It still might come in handy. You’ll get it back; I promise.”
Kate stared at him a moment, wondering at this request. But his wide eyes did not blink, so she knelt by the narrow bed and retrieved a muslin-wrapped parcel from under the mattress. She unfolded the cloth and gave him the watch.
As soon as it was in his hands, Billy opened it. His thin finger traced the inscription inside. “It’ll do perfectly.”
“So it’s a fair trade … but only for now, right?”
She took the knife from him and placed it on the bed. Billy politely looked away as she sucked in a great gasp of air and buttoned herself into the too-tight dress she’d worn the day she first knocked at the service entrance of Mrs. Martineau’s house. The rest of her possessions—including the knife—fit easily into her mother’s old sewing basket, which she clutched to her chest.
She turned to Billy, thinking to clutch him to her chest as well. “See you tomorrow,” she muttered, chucking him on the chin instead. He grinned and blew out the lamp, melting into the darkness once more.
Kate stepped lightly down the stairs and through the corridor to the deserted kitchen. Without looking back, she opened the door and yielded herself to the damp embrace of night.
light rain fell as Kate picked her way over the slick cobblestones to the lair of the little detectives.
Their leader had long ago been christened Thomas, but those who knew him called him Tec, for he managed a group of vagrant boys who “detected” spirit clues for Mrs. Martineau. Though only sixteen, Tec ran his business as efficiently as any grown man. He taught his team to scan obituaries, search trash bins, and question staff for details on Martineau’s clients, saving the cleverest boys for lock picking and stealthy home searches. All the detectives had sweet faces and enough schooling to know how to read, and were easily coaxed out at night with the promise of a meal, a few coins, and a safe place to sleep.
Kate knew Tec and his boys lived in a ramshackle cottage near Castle End, but she struggled to remember the details Billy had told her. It took ages of shuffling through side streets and peering in windows to actually find the place. She pounded on the door and slumped wearily against the building to wait. When Tec finally opened up, she smiled.
“Hello, Tec.” The sight of him always warmed her.
He stared for a long moment. Then he glanced about before pulling her inside. “Missus will have my hide if she knows you’ve left the house to come here.”
She brushed off his words with a wave of her hand, nodding at the two boys who sat by the potbellied stove. The room smelled of coal smoke, bacon, and dirty boy, but at least it was warm and dry on this damp August evening. She was safe now. Tec was kind—the most reliable person she knew. And though he must have known she fancied him, he’d never once tried to grope her like the old fools at Martineau’s.
“Billy told me to come,” she said. “Missus has sacked me.”
you? You must have done something awful if she done that.”
“I stumbled, is all. One of the sitters—a new gentleman—grabbed me and held tight while his friend turned up the lights.”
Tec clucked his tongue. “You’re not much use to her now, I suppose. And she’ll have to back off the game for a time.” He glanced at the boys by the fire and lowered his voice. “Not good for us.”
“You’ll get more work once Missus gets a new scheme worked out. I’m at loose ends, though. Can I stay here tonight, Tec?”
“Course you can. We’ll find you a space on the floor, and I’ll lend you a quilt. But there’s more boys coming in from their rounds tonight. May not get quiet for a while yet.”
She nodded with a yawn and stood waiting as he tossed a ragged quilt in the corner, several paces from the stove. He glanced at her, eyes apologetic. “It’s only proper not to jumble you up with the boys. And this way, you might not smell too bad in the morning.”
“Ha,” she said, yawning again. At his prompting, she placed her basket and hat next to the makeshift bed, kicked off her
shoes, and sank to her knees. Tiny clouds of dust billowed up from the quilt, tickling her nostrils. She gave Tec a sidelong look.
“It’s all I’ve got,” he said.
She hadn’t noticed before how his eyes were shadowed with weariness.
“It’s fine, Tec. Just fine.”
The boys came in throughout the evening, each announcing his arrival with a loud pounding on the door. Kate jerked awake each time, thinking Eliot was knocking down the attic door to punish her just as Missus had threatened. It was nearly impossible to fall back to sleep with her heart thumping, so she stared at the cobwebbed ceiling as Tec questioned the boys on their activities.
Doubts plagued her. What was she to do with herself? How would she keep fed and sheltered? She was lucky to have this dusty pallet for tonight, but in another day she might be sleeping on a street corner or curled up under a shop awning—at least until the angry proprietor brushed her away with his broom.
Finally she did fall asleep, but it was a heavy sort of slumber that dragged on her eyelids when she tried to blink herself awake the next morning.
Head aching, Kate rose to her feet and stumbled through the room, sidestepping various lumps of sleeping boy on her way to the window. She pulled back the curtain to find the sun perched high in the sky. It wasn’t morning anymore. She turned back to the sleepers, stepping lightly around them and peering closely, but Billy was not among them.
Kate jumped when the front door opened.
Tec grinned at the sight of her. “Why so spooked?” he whispered, gentling the wild thumping of her heart. “It’s just me
with the pasties.” As he lifted the large sack in his hand, the fragrance of onions and beef wafted toward her.
Her stomach rumbled in reply.
Tec glanced about the room before turning back to her. “The boys will wake once their noses catch a whiff of these. Come outside with me—the sun’s shining and I’ve something to show you.” He placed the sack on a chair, but not before taking two paper-wrapped pasties and placing one in each pocket.
It had been ages since she’d walked outside in the full light of day. Kate raised a hand over her eyes, blinking against the glare of the sun in the nearly cloudless sky. The street bustled with carts and wagons, the occasional bicycle speeding through the knots of traffic. She couldn’t pause to look about, however, for Tec was making his way westward to a grassy area.
He paused at the foot of a hill and turned to face her, eyes twinkling.
She glanced beyond him. “It’s Castle Mound, isn’t it?”
“Have you never climbed to the top in the daylight?”
“Only at night with you and Billy. But that was forever ago.”
“Thought as much. Let’s have our pasties up there. The sun is nice today.”
A memory scurried through her mind as they climbed the steep, snaking path to the top. That night the three of them had sat upon the hill—Kate shivering in terror at the prospect of Missus catching her out of the house—Tec had told them the mound was the remnant of a fortress built hundreds of years ago. She’d nearly forgotten to breathe as he pointed out stars and helped them trace the constellations. He was such a clever boy, so quick with a diverting tale. In truth, she’d stared at
more than the sky, her miserly little heart opening like a flower each time he smiled.