London, Spring 1880
Whoever said dead men don't tell lies had never met Barnaby Wiggam's ghost. The fat, bulbous-nosed spirit fading in and out beside me like a faulty gas lamp clearly thought he was dealing with a fool. I may only be seventeen but I'm not naïve. I know when someone is lying—being dead didn't alter the tell-tale signs. Mr. Wiggam didn't quite meet my eyes, or those of his widow and her guests—none of whom could see him anyway—and he fidgeted with his crisp white silk necktie as if it strangled him. It hadn't—he'd died of an apoplexy.
"Go on, young lady." He thrust his triple chins at me, making them wobble. "Tell her. I have no hidden fortune."
I swallowed and glanced at the little circle of women holding hands around the card table in Mrs. Wiggam's drawing room, their wide gazes locked on the Ouija board in the center as if Barnaby Wiggam stood there and not beside me. I too stood, behind my sister and opposite the Widow Wiggam who looked just as well-fed as her dead husband in her black crepe dress and mourning cap. However, where his face was covered with a network of angry red veins, hers was so white it glowed like a moon in the dimly lit room.
"Are you sure?" I asked him. If he knew I suspected him of lying, he didn't show it. Or perhaps he simply didn't care.
"Sure?" Mrs. Wiggam suddenly let go of her neighbor's hands. My sister, Celia, clicked her tongue and Mrs. Wiggam quickly took up the lady's hand again. It's not as if anyone needed to hold hands at all during our séances but my sister insisted upon it, along with having candles rather than lamps, a tambourine and an Ouija board even though she rarely used either. She liked things to be done in a way that added to the atmosphere and the enjoyment of the customers, as she put it. I'm not convinced anyone actually enjoyed our séances, but they were effective nevertheless and she was right—people expect certain theatrics from spirit mediums, so if we must put on a performance then so be it.
Celia had taken it one step further this time by wearing a large brass star-shaped amulet on a strap around her neck. The recent purchase was as unnecessary as the hand-holding but she thought it gave us authenticity amidst a city filled with fake mediums. I had to admit it looked wonderfully gothic.
"Sure about what?" Mrs. Wiggam asked again, leaning forward. Her large bosom rested on the damask tablecloth and rose and fell with her labored breathing. "What does he want you to say, Miss Chambers?"
I glanced at Mr. Wiggam's ghost. He crossed his arms and raised his fluffy white eyebrows as if daring me to repeat his lie. "He, er, he said..." Oh lord, if I repeated the lie then I would be contributing to his fate. He could not cross over to the Otherworld until he was at peace, and he would not be at peace until he let go of his anger towards his wife. Lying to her wasn't helping.
On the other hand, it was his choice.
"Emily," Celia said with the false sing-song voice she employed for our séances. "Emily, do tell us what Mr. Wiggam is communicating to you. Give his poor dear widow," she paused and smiled beatifically at Mrs. Wiggam, "some solace in her time of mourning."
"Mourning!" Barnaby Wiggam barked out a laugh that caused the edges of his fuzzy self to briefly sharpen into focus. For a moment he appeared almost human again. To me at least. "Tell that...that WOMAN who sits there pretending to be my demure wife that there is no fortune."
"He says there's no fortune," I repeated.
A series of gasps echoed around the small drawing room and more than one of the elegant ladies clicked her tongue. Mrs. Wiggam let go of both her neighbors' hands again. "Nonsense!" Her gaze flitted around the room. "Tell that lying, cheating, scoundrel of a husband that I know he amassed a fortune before his death." She placed her fists on the table and rose slowly to her considerable height, well above my own. She even dwarfed her ghostly husband. "Where is he? I want to tell him to his face." She reminded me of a great brown bear at the circus Mama had taken me to see as a little girl. The creature had expressed its displeasure at being chained to a bollard by taking a swipe at its handler with an enormous paw. I'd felt sorry for it. I wasn't yet sure if I felt the same emotion towards Mrs. Wiggam.