Authors: Paula Paul
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright © 2015 by Paula Paul
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
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colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 9781101883211
Cover design: Caroline Teagle
Cover photograph: © French School/Getty Images
A necromancer, some say, should be able to call up spirits of the dead from anywhere. However, Alvina Elwold always insisted that her clients come to her cottage on St. James Lane. The little house in the Essex coastal village of Newton-upon-Sea was small and dingy, but it was where Alvina did her best work.
She disliked the term
anyway. She preferred
instead. The man who came down to St. James Lane from Montmarsh had the gall to refer to her as a medium, which was even more distasteful to Alvina. In her mind, she was medium at nothing. She was the best money could buy.
The man came to fetch her one day in November and insisted that the client he was representing would be seen at Montmarsh, which was the country estate of the sixth Earl of Dunsford. The client, he said, could not, under any circumstances, visit a hovel such as the one Alvina called home. Alvina was of a mind to give the old devil a thundering and put a hex on him as well, but the bastard came up with enough quid that Alvina changed her mind.
She’d never been even close to Montmarsh Castle where it perched on a hill overlooking the sea. She’d seen it from a distance and noted how, when the earl was in residence, the house shone like a collection of stars at night and how it lurked in shadowy mists when he was in London. The stars of Montmarsh had been out in full luminosity recently, but it wasn’t the earl who was in residence, she’d heard. Word had spread that it was the earl’s mother, Lady Forsythe, who occupied Montmarsh at the moment. Alvina couldn’t imagine why Her Ladyship would be there when, according to gossip, she had an even grander country house of her own up in Yorkshire. However, Alvina had no reason to believe the story of Her Ladyship’s presence was not true.
The bloke who’d been sent to fetch her waited in a carriage outside Alvina’s cottage after Alvina agreed to accompany him. Alvina made no attempt to hurry, however. Let the bugger wait. Thought he was better than her, did he? Call her house a hovel, would he?
Alvina took her time getting ready to leave, pouring Doxy, her cat, a saucer of milk, and finally winding her long gray hair into a bun and donning a woolen shawl to protect her against November’s bite.
The man said not a word as the carriage made its way up the hill to Montmarsh, and a grand house it was, with its four levels of light-colored stone sporting a dome in the center of the roof flanked by statues of men on horseback, many chimneys and windows, and a wide stairway leading to the front entrance. The mansion appeared even more imposing to Alvina than it had when she’d viewed it from a distance.
The carriage driver did not stop at the front of the grand house but drove around to a side entrance, where Alvina was led down to the basement and into a short hallway off the kitchen. She caught an agreeable scent of savory meat roasting and heard the clanging of pots and the rattle of spoons scraping against the pots.
The disagreeable man who’d been sent to fetch her walked ahead of her now, past the kitchen, to another stairway, dark and steep. Alvina followed him up two flights until he opened the door on a hallway lined with panels of what looked to Alvina like carved marble interspersed with niches holding the white marble busts of men who must have lived a hundred years or more earlier, judging by their hairstyles, many of them long and curly, some of them cropped like a Caesar.
When the man opened one of the highly carved wooden doors in the hallway and indicated, still without speaking, that Alvina was to enter, Alvina noticed with some chagrin that the man was not breathing heavily after the steep climb, while she herself was gasping.
As Alvina peered into the room, she saw a woman sitting in front of an elaborately draped window, her back to Alvina while she stared out onto an enormous garden dotted with Grecian-style buildings that grandees such as the earl called “follies.” The woman had to be Lady Forsythe, of course, although she was a bit plumper than Alvina fancied she’d be. Wanted a séance to call up the dead, of course. But who? Her husband, perhaps. Or a lover? Well, she’d find out soon enough.
The man who had escorted her in finally spoke.
Alvina was surprised as well as confused by those two words. That was not the way people addressed a countess such as Lady Forsythe. The figure at the window turned around slowly. As soon as she got a good look at the woman’s face, Alvina thought she was going to fall into a swoon. Sitting in front of her was Her Majesty, Victoria Regina, queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, empress of India. Oh, Alvina knew the sovereign’s full title, all right. Who of her subjects hadn’t memorized it? Alvina managed to recover sufficiently to bow.
“The medium?” the queen asked.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” came the answer from behind Alvina.
“We would see your eyes,” the queen said.
Alvina raised herself enough to allow the queen to see her eyes and all of her face. The queen studied her face in silence, while Alvina gave the queen the same scrutiny. Her face was plump and smooth, and her black-clad figure generous. Alvina thought she looked very much like the German she was. Except for her eyes. They were darker than she’d expected and too brooding to be radiant, but they shone with intelligence.
“We have heard of your reputation, and we would seek your assistance.” The queen spoke with a clear, refined accent that Alvina associated with those above her class. The royal voice was low-pitched and self-assured.
Alvina bowed again and spoke with her own brand of self-assurance. “Yes, Yer Majesty.”
“We would speak with the Prince Consort, who is in the spirit realm.”
“Of course, Yer Majesty.” She meant Prince Albert, her husband, who had been dead for twenty years.
The queen smiled slightly. “You sound confident. That is a quality we appreciate.”
“I knows I can be of service to you,” Alvina said.
“Many have tried and failed to bring the prince to us. It is our fondest desire to be with him again.”
“Yer Majesty will not be disappointed. I knows the spirit world like I knows me own mind.”
“The spirit world is elusive,” the queen said.
Alvina had no idea what the word
meant, but she looked into the queen’s eyes and spoke. “The spirit world is different from the world we lives in, but ye knows that o’course, and I needs yer help to call up the prince.”
“You’ll need our help?” the queen asked with a rise of her very light and thin eyebrows.
“I will. I needs first for ye to truly want wif all yer heart to see the prince.”
“Oh, we do, we do!”
“Second, I needs Yer Majesty to put away all doubts that I can bring him up.”
The queen stared at Alvina, wearing a serious expression for several seconds, prompting Alvina to speak again.
“The spirits knows when ye doubts. They takes it as insult. They thinks it means ye doesn’t want ’em.”
The royal face took on the light of understanding. “We’ve never been told that before. Perhaps that is the reason that in the past…” Her voice trailed off, but she kept her eyes trained on Alvina for several more seconds before she spoke again. “Rest assured that you will have our full cooperation and we can promise our strongest faith.”
“I thanks ye for that, Yer Majesty.” Alvina was well aware that she had managed to gain control of the encounter. That fact didn’t seem to bother the queen, however.
“You understand, of course, that no one must know of our arrangement and whatever is revealed during our session with you will not be spoken of, either,” the queen said, showing a little more of her vulnerability.
“I understands, Yer Majesty.” Alvina also understood that she’d been brought here for an examination and that she had passed with distinction.
“You will be paid well for your service, but as your sovereign, we expect loyalty, and that loyalty will be expressed in the form of your discreet silence.”
She’d had to say the same thing twice, giving Alvina even more confidence in her own powers. For the first time since their encounter, Alvina felt a shiver of excitement. Being in the presence of the queen was less exciting to her than the prospect of a sizable payment from the royal house. “I understands, Yer Majesty,” she answered. “Yer secrets are safe wif me.”
“Tomorrow at half past seven is the time you will be brought here. We expect promptness.”
Alvina assured the queen that she would be prompt. When she was dismissed, she was shown out by the same man who had escorted her to Montmarsh. As Alvina struggled without his assistance to get into the carriage, the man spoke in a harsh whisper.
“If you value your life, you’ll deliver what the queen wants.”
A few hours later, Alvina Elwold lay dead in the graveyard, propped against the tombstone of a long-forgotten Will Fagen, who had been dead more than three hundred years. His epitaph bore a date of 1561 and read:
Here the bones of Will Fagen be.
His wish was to be buried at sea.
Alvina’s long gray hair was loosened and spread across the tombstone in a spiderweb effect that was unfitting for a woman as old as Alvina. She had lived more than two score and ten years.
The sprawl of her body was even more disgraceful. She lay with her legs splayed apart and her simple dress pulled up above her knees, showing her oft-mended stockings. Later, when the village gossips spoke of the indecent display, they would sometimes mention as an afterthought that her throat was slit.
Dr. Alexandra Gladstone, the doctor in the village of Newton-upon-Sea, was eventually called to examine the body, but not until it had been brought to the home of Percy Gibbs, the undertaker, by one of the men of the village. Constable Robert Snow had sent a messenger for Dr. Gladstone just as she was leaving for her daily rounds to visit patients in their homes. She rode her mare, Lucy, the short distance from her home on the outskirts of Newton-upon-Sea and was greeted by Percy as she entered.
“Ah, yes, Dr. Gladstone. The constable alerted me that he’d sent someone to fetch you.” Percy spoke in his usual voice, as dark as the sea at midnight. His folded hands rested on his belly in a manner that could be thought of as pious. But that would be erroneous.
“It is Alvina Elwold, I’m told,” Alexandra said. “Her body was found in the graveyard?” Alexandra had never known Miss Elwold well, although she had spoken to her several times over the years when she met her on market days or at the apothecary. She’d visited the surgery three or four times for minor ailments.
Percy nodded, half closing his eyes as he did so, giving himself a half-dead look. “Found last night, but not brought to me until morning.”
“Why the delay?”
“It took a while to find a way to transport her, I’m told.”
“I should have been called before the body was moved,” Alexandra said, removing her cape and gloves as she prepared to inspect the body. “In truth, I should have been called as soon as the body was found.”
“Would have made no difference. She’d still be just as dead. Death passes upon all, for that all have sinned.”
“It is important to see the body at the scene of death in order to be certain of the cause of death.”
“A slit throat. Plain as day.”
She gave him a surprised look. “Then why was I called?”
“You shall have to ask the constable that question. He’s in the back.” Percy took her arm and led her through a sitting room, where a cheap painted cloth meant to resemble a tapestry hung on one wall. It was a garish rendering of Lazarus being raised from the dead. “Poor woman might have expected this.”
“Why do you say that?”
“There shall not be found among you anyone that useth divination,” he said, adding another dash of the salt of Holy Scripture to his pronouncement—an odd habit, since he professed to be a nonbeliever.
“Good Lord! You’re surely not suggesting that she deserved to die because she claimed to be able to divine the future,” Alexandra said.
“And conjure up dead spirits,” Percy said in his morose voice. “I make no such claims, but others do, as you well know. Others say it’s an evil practice, and it could well be there’s many a one who thought it a good thing to rid the world of such evil.”
Alexandra knew that he spoke the truth. Alvina was a newcomer to Newton-upon-Sea. She’d lived in the village no more than ten years. That alone was enough to make her suspect. To compound her disadvantage, she was known to tell fortunes with her tarot cards and to be able to connect with spirits of the dead when she was sufficiently coerced and sufficiently paid by those who wished to speak to their departed loved ones. It was the work of the devil to be able to do such things, some said. Never mind that many of the same people who condemned her also used her services.
They stopped in front of the closed door that led to the back room where Percy did his work. He opened the door and stepped aside for Alexandra to enter. She saw the constable first. He stood over the body, one of his long, slender hands holding his chin as he studied the corpse. He glanced toward Alexandra and Percy when he sensed they’d entered the room.
“Dr. Gladstone,” he said with only the slightest nod.
“Constable Snow,” she replied, and then added, “You sent for me.”
“Yes,” he replied. “I want your opinion on how long the victim has been dead.”
She nodded and approached the body, noticing first the deep gash at the throat as well as the coagulated blood. Rigor mortis was well established. She touched an arm with the tips of her fingers, feeling the cold, clammy skin and noting that the skin did not turn white when she applied pressure.
“How long has the body been in this room?” she asked.
“No more than an hour,” Snow replied.
“Then I would say death occurred no less than twelve hours ago, and perhaps as long as fifteen hours, given the cool temperature of the November night. The coolness would slow decomposition.”
The constable nodded. “That would place the death around ten, perhaps. No later than midnight.” He seemed to be speaking to himself more than to Alexandra. “Very well,” he added. “Thank you for coming. I know you were in the midst of your rounds, visiting patients.”
Alexandra was surprised that she was being dismissed so quickly. “May I examine the wound?” she asked.
Constable Snow nodded and stepped aside.
Alexandra first asked for water to clean the wound. Percy, who had been standing several feet away, complied immediately by bringing her a basin and a sponge before he stepped back again, resuming his pious appearance with hands clasped in front of him and his eyes half closed. When Alexandra had cleaned the wound, she saw that there were three slices in the flesh of the woman’s neck, as if the knife wielder had not known exactly how to cut in order to accomplish the deed. Alvina must have struggled, but the killer had obviously overpowered her.
“Must have been a horrible, terrifying ordeal for her until the jugular vein was finally severed,” she said to the constable as she moved away from the body. “The killer was not particularly expert with a knife.”
Again his answer was no more than a nod. Alexandra was in no mood to linger for a conversation anyway. She was glad to leave the dead body and the mystery of who the killer might be to the constable and to return to her job of healing the living.
Within a few hours, she’d stopped by to see the few patients who required her visit and was back at her home. Artie and Rob, her two stable boys, met her at the gate as soon as she returned, and they helped her dismount. The two boys had been with her ever since she’d rescued them from the ship docks in Newton-upon-Sea, where they were part of a group of other boys who survived by stealing anything they could find that was worth a few pence.
“So it was old lady Elwold what got her froat cut, was it?” Rob, the older of the two, said as he took the reins to lead Lucy back to the stable.
“Miss Alvina Elwold,” Alexandra corrected him. “No need to speak disrespectfully of the dead.”
“ ’Tis no disrespect to call her old lady, for that’s what she was,” Rob protested.
“Was she a demon?” Artie, the younger boy, asked.
“Of course not,” Alexandra said, “and I won’t have you suggesting she was.”
“But she hobnobbed with the dead, they say.” Artie’s eyes were wide with what might have been fear or perhaps awe.
Alexandra smiled and ruffled Artie’s mop of hair. It was impossible to stay angry with him. “Don’t believe everything you hear, Artie,” she said. “Let us just say that she wanted people to believe that.”
Rob laughed, a loud guffaw that was meant to sound manly. Artie wasn’t convinced. “I know some who say it really happened. Her calling up the dead, I mean.”
“I wager you even believe they’s mermaids out there looking for the likes of you to come sailin’ out,” Rob said with a laugh and motioned with his head toward the sea.
“All I can say is they’s some that says they’s seen ’em out amongst the rocks just beyond the shore,” Artie said, making Rob laugh louder.
Alexandra left the boys to argue over the supernatural and let herself into the house she’d lived in all her life, using the surgery entrance. Her father, who had been the first Dr. Gladstone, had built the surgery onto the house after he inherited it from his own father. He’d provided the attached surgery with a convenient entrance for patients. As Alexandra opened the door, she met the rotund Mrs. Pickwick, who was just leaving.
“Dr. Gladstone!” she said, as if she was surprised to see the doctor entering her own surgery.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Pickwick. How are things at Montmarsh?” Mrs. Pickwick was the head cook at Montmarsh, the large country home of Nicholas Forsythe, sixth Earl of Dunsford. At Montmarsh, she was known simply as Cook.
Mrs. Pickwick rolled her eyes. “It’s not my place to complain, now, is it? Even if it gets to the point that I need a tisane to stop the headache brought on by the turmoil.”
“Turmoil?” Alexandra was at least mildly concerned. Mrs. Pickwick was not given to exaggeration and was not one to ask for medication often.
“Aye, there’s turmoil, there is. Not so easy to please, that one.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Pickwick,” Alexandra said, removing her hat and cloak. “I hope Nancy was able to give you something for your headache.” She smoothed her dark auburn hair where the hat had mussed it. She knew without asking Nancy, who served as her nurse and her maid-of-all-work, that the remedy would be to bathe the patient’s forehead with spirits of vinegar along with administering several drops of essence of peppermint by mouth.
“Nancy’s a good one, she is,” Mrs. Pickwick said. “But I fear ’twill take more than vinegar and peppermint this time. Her nibs is not an easy one to please.”
Alexandra gave Mrs. Pickwick a noncommittal nod, although she had no idea who “her nibs” was. She had never known of the earl to bring a woman to Montmarsh, and she was fairly certain he wasn’t on the premise anyway. Rather, he was in London, where he still maintained a law practice, in spite of his recent rise to the peerage.
“Oh, yes, her nibs is there,” Mrs. Pickwick said when she saw that Alexandra was not going to pry. “The earl’s mother is in residence, she is. And with a guest that I must say is even more demanding than the Lady Forsythe herself. And one I dare not make a mistake with, I might add.”
Alexandra gave her what she hoped was a comforting pat on the arm. “If the vinegar spirits and peppermint don’t give you relief, please send for me. Or come back here if you prefer,” she added, thinking Mrs. Pickwick might want an excuse to escape the troublesome guests at Montmarsh for a while. Alexandra had never met the earl’s mother. Since she was a countess in her own right, she had her own even larger country house elsewhere and had apparently never found a need to visit Montmarsh. By several relationships, birthrights, and marriages, the family seemed to be connected in a complicated way to most of the empire’s aristocracy and had access to the grandest of estates.
Mrs. Pickwick breathed a heavy sigh and left the surgery, shaking her head. As Alexandra stepped inside, she saw Nancy putting away vials of medication.
“Ah, you’re back,” Nancy said when she saw Alexandra. “And was Alvina dead of a slit throat, as they say?”
“By all appearances.” Alexandra knew Nancy had undoubtedly heard the gossip from some of her patients. Nancy had a way of attracting all of the latest news when she was left in charge of the surgery. “I suppose the whole of Newton knows the story by now.”
Nancy shrugged. “Couldn’t say, what with me being stuck here in the surgery, seeing nothing but quinsied throats and a few knees swollen with rheumatism and hearing no more than coughs and moans.” Nancy was busy with a teapot as she spoke.
Alexandra smiled to herself at Nancy’s feigned innocence as she poured water in a basin to wash her hands in preparation for the next patient.
“You were busy while I was gone, then,” Alexandra said, tying a long white apron around her dress. “Who besides Mrs. Pickwick?”
“Nell Stillwell claimed she had aches all over, but I found nothing wrong with her. Then there was Mr. Taylor with his usual complaint of indigestion, and Young Beaty stopped by to ask you to bring a tonic and a plaster to his father for his rheumatism before night falls.”
John Beaty, though he was past fifty, was still known in the village as Young Beaty because his father, who was well into his seventies, was Old Beaty.
She accepted the cup of tea from her maid. When Nancy had poured her own cup, she sat down at the small table in the surgery with Alexandra. The relationship between the two of them was more relaxed than most mistresses and hired girls. Nancy had been Alexandra’s companion since childhood when Nancy’s mother was the old doctor’s maid-of-all-work and surgery nurse. They had even shared the same tutor for their schoolwork, since, being females, neither was allowed to go to school. It was Robert Snow who had been their tutor. Before he took the position of constable, he’d been a schoolmaster. His salary as a teacher had not been remarkable, and he was happy to have the extra work as a tutor for the two girls.
“If truth be told, I say ’tis Young Beaty who’s in need of your services as much as his father,” Nancy said.
“You believe he’s ill?”
“He’s of a poor color and his hands trembled. Was distracted, too. If he’s not coming down with a complaint of some sort, then he’s carrying a heavy weight on his soul, I’d say.”
“If he’s sick of body, perhaps he’ll send for me or else show up at the surgery door again. If it’s his soul that’s troubling him, we shall have to trust he’ll go to the vicar,” Alexandra said.
“Young Beaty’s the one who brought Alvina in to Percy Gibbs. Brought her in his wagon. And he’s the one who notified the constable.”
“Did he indeed?” Alexandra said, not at all surprised that Nancy had garnered this tidbit of information. “And I suppose he was the one who found her in the graveyard as well.”