This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. Gabe and Violetta have arrived in the town of Leyton, Virginia, where Violetta will reunite with an old friend who may be the victim of a witch.
The sun bore down on the town of Leyton. Gabe was used to the dry heat of the New Mexico desert, but in Virginia the sun was heavy and weighed into his skin. He leaned against the wood wall of the caravan station, the thin roof not casting near enough shade, fanning himself with his hat. They stood on the edge of the small town, where thin craggy walls of wood made up workers’ homes, but in the distance he could see the tall sharp roofed buildings of the more endowed. The land was hilled slightly, and a road curved its way up to a mansion on the top. From here he could only see white peaks and large round window.
“All settled,” a voice said beside him, and he turned to Violetta. She wore no hat, but her dark hair had been pulled up in a bun to keep it from sticking to the back of her pale neck, and she’d slung her heavy bag over her shoulder. Her staunch British accent hinted at a high class lady beneath dark work pants and a faded jacket that kept off the sun. Except for their clothes, she looked the opposite of him. He was half a foot taller, his curled hair grown out slightly since they hadn’t had a shave in a while, her white skin where his was black, and her sweet apple cheeks made her look younger, while his strong jaw and muscled build had passed him as older.
“We know where we’re going?” he asked.
“Sure.” She unfolded a letter. “Blackwood Manor, at the top of the hill, can’t be missed. Thank goodness they’re putting us up.” She waved it in front of his face. “Do you know the last time I saw Diantha Blackwood?”
“You told me.”
“Ten years, I don’t even remember what the girl looks like. Did I tell you I came in through Virginia?”
He let her talk, keeping a pace behind. It was hard to tell how folks could be first stepping into a town. Most places they’d been didn’t give them too much trouble, but he could already see the looks on some of the locals. The town was crowded in the late afternoon with women in ruffled skirts bustling between shops and men in wide brimmed hats carrying goods from one place to another. As they moved closer to the top of the hill they could see the Blackwood Manor clearer and clearer. The dark wood made tall, skinny walls, and white columns held up a small deck on the second floor. A white stone fence circled the land, and thin trees rooted up from the ground, thick green leaves brushing the sky. They could see a small garden in the back with bright vibrant plants around a sitting area. The wide gates were open as they approached, and a dirt path rounded to the front porch. A servant opened the door for them, and they were greeted by a tall man in a blue vest and jacket. His thin face carried a clean cut beard which was greying much faster than the top of his head. He passed a puzzled glance to Gabe but took Violetta’s hands in greeting.
“Miss Talbot,” he said, his voice also carrying a British accent, “it’s been so long.”
“Hello, Mr. Blackwood.” She nodded in Gabe’s direction. “This is my partner Gabe Valentine. Gabe, this is Thane Blackwood.”
“Partner?” the man repeated.
“We’ve been working together nearly a year now.” She stepped a little closer to him. “We’re both very capable.”
“Yes, well.” Blackwood adjusted his tie. “Your mother said so in her letter. I was very impressed when I heard from my associate about his problem in Sutter Creek.”
“Oh that.” She smiled. “It wasn’t even a ghost.”
Gabe nodded. “Fella just doused himself in white powder.”
“There were tracks everywhere.”
“As I said, very impressed.” Blackwood’s brow creased slightly. “I was happy to hear you arrested a charlatan in a costume instead of an actual ghost. I was hoping Diantha’s condition would be the same.”
“You think she’s faking?” Violetta asked.
“She’s still very young, the move to America was difficult for her mother, she didn’t dislike the attention. Recently, however… things have gotten a little out of hand.”
“You’ll have to tell us all about it,” Gabe said.
“Of course, of course. Eugenia and Diantha should return in a bit, if you’d like to freshen up first. There are two guest rooms prepared.”
They were led upstairs by the same woman who’d opened the door for them. For such a large house it was quiet in the middle of the day. Gabe only saw one other woman carrying a pitcher of iced tea and a man pulling weeds outside. It wasn’t lack of money. The inside of the Blackwood Manor was grander than out. White walls were leafed in gold and green, and double floored windows looked out into the lawn. Brightly colored curtains were pulled back with gold thread to give light to the dark colored war paintings and bright greenery. The two rooms were at the end of a long hallway up a winding staircase, and each held a dresser, a mirror, a large bed, and a wash bin. Two baths were drawn for them, and Gabe could not have been more pleased to remove the dust heavy vest and jeans and sink into the bathwater. He could’ve stayed in there all day if not for the obligation of their residence, and in half an hour he and Violetta were changed, sitting outside despite the heat, with a woman named Betsy serving them drinks. Thane Blackwood had disappeared, probably to find his wife and child.
“Have you seen anything?” Violetta asked as the woman laid down a plate of biscuits.
Betsy looked at her. “Have I seen what?”
“Whatever’s haunting poor Diantha?”
The woman’s hands did not shake as she picked up the pitcher and poured Gabe a glass. “The girl’s not well.”
Violetta leaned forward. “But have you seen anything?”
Betsy paused, but she shook her head. “No one’s seen a thing. I hear noises sometimes, but it’s a big house, and it’s mostly drowned out by the girl wailing. I’m told there was a major incident last week, but I wasn’t here.”
“What happened?” Gabe asked.
“I wouldn’t know. Margery was there though.”
She nodded to the young woman dusting in the main foyer. Betsy wiped her hands on her apron and returned to her duties. Violetta looked into her tea and wrinkled her nose.
“I still don’t understand iced tea,” she murmured.
He clinked the ice in his drink at her. “Mmm, I know I love drinking piping hot tea when it’s over a hundred degrees out.”
She clinked back at him. “I’m amazed my brethren adopted it. Should I talk to Margary or would you like to?”
He looked back at the young woman gently wiping the displays. She glanced up briefly and then ducked her head.
“I’ll talk to her,” he said. “You’ll be with your best friend Diantha anyway.”
“Hardly.” Violetta put her chin in her hands. “She was a gloomy child. Always moaning about something. I can’t believe my mother wrote anything kind about me.”
“I can’t believe he managed to track you down.”
She shrugged. “We did do work for his business partner. I don’t even remember it.”
“It was a lot of trudging around in a mine.”
“At least we can do this one from the comfort of someone’s home.”
Betsy opened the door, and the Blackwood family was all together. Thane had his hands on the shoulders of a stick of a woman, whose fashionable bustle made her appear off balance. Her hair curled slightly at her sweating brow, and she’d tried to pull it all into a bun at the top of her head, but it was quickly coming undone. She could only be Eugenia Blackwood, which made the small girl drowning in her soft blue dress Diantha. Gabe and Violetta stood, and Eugenia cast a disparaging look over both of them. She pushed something into her husband’s hands and marched up the staircase, barking orders at the maids that appeared around her. Thane turned to his daughter and pushed her gently out onto the lawn.
“Diantha,” he said, nudging her forward, “you remember Miss Violetta. And this is her associate.”
“Gabe,” Violetta said helpfully. “I haven’t seen you in some time, Diantha.”
Diantha only nodded. She’d made no attempt to contain her black hair, which stuck to her round face in thick tendrils. Dark circles were prominent under her bright red eyes. She tugged gently on her sleeve, pulling it over a small round bruise on her hand.
“Well.” Thane stepped back. “I’ll give you a minute to get reaquainted.”
He shuffled away quickly. Diantha ducked her head and remained silent.
“You look like you’ve had some trouble,” Violetta continued, reaching out a hand. The girl flinched away. “Gabe and I specialize in trouble.”
Diantha glanced in Gabe’s direction and then back to her childhood friend. “I heard your parents kicked you out.”
“Not for that.” She sat back down and gestured to the other chair. “Your father said my mother called me capable, but that sounds like a lie.”
Another glance, and Diantha took a seat. “Your mother couldn’t spare a kind word for the Lord Himself. Does she know you’re traipsing all over the Americas with a black man?”
“It’s probably better than what she thinks I’m doing.”
Gabe mouthed “best friends” over Diantha’s head and took a seat. “You’ve got a nasty bruise there, Miss Blackwood.”
Diantha’s hand flew to her sleeve and again her eyes dipped low. “It’s nothing.”
“Your father says you think you’re haunted,” Violetta said.
She shook her head. “Everyone thinks I’m making it up.”
“He said something happened recently to make him change his mind.”
She looked at them both with wide brown eyes. Slowly she began to roll up her sleeve. Her white skin was freckled lightly and colored with more dark bruises, and on the underside of her forearm in sharp scraggy script someone had carved the words WITCH.
“It started with rocks,” she said quietly. “In the middle of the night I was woken by the sound of rocks hitting my window. In my dreams I heard voices, but I started to realize I wasn’t dreaming. Someone was standing over my bed and speaking to me. My parents told me it was only nightmares. Some of the maids heard the rocks, and when the banging started many of them wouldn’t stay past sunset. But everyone said it was me. That I was looking for attention. Worse was when people started thinking it might be my father. I’d wake up covered in bruises and everyone would talk. My mother took me to a doctor, and he called me hysterical. I stopped sleeping all together and they said they’d send me away to get help.”
She sucked in a breath. They waited.
“A few days ago I was getting ready to bathe. My mother was in a mood to argue. I felt a sudden pain, and I saw my arm was bleeding. I started to scream, and they tried to help me, but the words were carved into my skin right in front of them. Margery ran out screaming, which made my father come running. He’d already written you at that point, I told him to.” She looked at Violetta fervently. “I remember when we were kids and you’d run around chasing red caps and fairies. I thought you would know, and your mother said you were already in the States. I don’t know if I’m going insane or if something’s really happening. I can’t sleep anymore, I can’t keep food down. Every sound makes me jump. I think it’s trying to kill me, whatever it is. Please, Violetta, I need your help.”
“Of course.” Violetta touched the scarred skin. “Of course, Diantha.”
“Is it only when you’re sleeping?” Gabe asked. “The voices and noises and things?”
“At night.” Diantha paused as she pushed her sleeve back down. “I’ve seen something during the day. I don’t know if it’s the same. It’s an animal.”
“What kind of animal?”
“I’m not actually sure. Maybe a dog? A mangy thing if it is, and it doesn’t look right.” She shrugged. “Sometimes I see it at the edge of the property and it looks like it’s watching me. It’s the least odd thing happening to me now.”
“Have you only seen a doctor?” Violetta asked. “Your parents didn’t bring you to the church?”
“I went to Father Bailey myself. He blessed me as an act of comfort, but I don’t think he really believed. Have you seen something like this before? Father told me you found someone who wasn’t a ghost, but have you ever seen a real one?”
Violetta and Gabe looked at each other briefly, and Violetta adopted a comforting smile, pulling Diantha’s hands in hers.
“We’ve seen a lot of things,” she said. “Some of it very real, some of it not.”
Diantha looked between them. “Is that how you met? Did you find a ghost?”
Gabe chuckled lightly. “Something much stranger. I was a ranch hand.”
“Really?” A curious look came over the young girl. “I have a friend who buys those dime novels. She’s obsessed I think.”
He wrinkled his nose. “You showed me one of those.”
Violetta grinned at him. “It was a very interesting retelling.”
“Trust me, looking after cattle is dull and dirty work.”
“We met about a year ago,” she said. “I’d heard something was killing livestock in New Mexico. It left this strange puncture wound and the poor animals were completely drained of fluids.”
Diantha’s lip curled, but Gabe waved a hand. “It’s not that uncommon. Leave a cow dead long enough, it’s missing all sorts of things. It definitely seemed like a wolf or coyote kill, so me and a few of the boys went to check it out. We saw Miss Talbot here sniffing around.”
“I’d heard people talking about a strange lizard,” she said. “When I explained what I was looking for to these gentlemen, they agreed to help.”
“Did you find it?” Diantha asked.
“We’re still not sure,” Gabe said. “It was too dark. It was definitely bigger than the average lizard.”
“Huge spines on its back.” Violetta splayed her fingers. “Long tail. I’d never seen anything like it before.”
He shrugged. “I’m still not sure. Silva shot it and we couldn’t find the damn thing.”
“You were convinced enough to come along with me.”
“It took the smallest amount of needling to get me to leave. I hated the cowboy life.”
Violetta ran a hand through her hair, pulling it over her shoulder. “We’ve seen a lot of things, Diantha, and we want to help, if we can.”
Gabe’s smile thinned. “Sometimes there isn’t a solution. Most ghosts were solved by convincing the folks to leave.”
“Do you think…?” Diantha rubbed her arm. “Do you think it could be more than a ghost? Something like a demon?”
“Doubtful,” Violetta said. “The only people who see demons everywhere are clergymen.”
“Or people looking to make a dollar,” Gabe muttered.
She tapped his arm. “We’ll do what we can, Diantha. We’ll find a way to solve this for you.”
Noise rose from the front hall, and they all turned. Through the large doors they could see Thane and Eugenia Blackwood standing close together, a candlestick turned over at their feet. The Lady Blackwood shoved away Margery as she hurried to clean up the small commotion and tossed it onto the table. She hissed something at her husband, who held out his hands in a motion of comfort.
“Maybe moving is the right idea,” Diantha said, turning away from her parents. “Mother’s been on a rampage the past few months.”
“Why?” Violetta asked.
“She wants to return to London. She hates it here, and she’s sure the climate is causing my condition.”
“Does she think it’s a ghost?”
“She didn’t for a long time. I went to Father Bailey myself because she refused to take me. I think she’d rather believe I’m doing this to myself.”
Eugenia Blackwood brushed out of the door like only a lady of breeding could. Gabe and Violetta stood again at her approach, but Diantha remained seated, putting her chin in her hand.
“Miss Talbot,” she said in a hurried tone. “How happy I am to see you again. Do your parents know you’re here? I’m sure they’d love to recollect their money. Mister Valentine, was it? Thank you so much for responding to my husband’s letter but your services will not be required.”
“Mother!” Diantha jumped up and turned on her.
She snapped a finger in her daughter’s face. “This nonsense has gone on long enough. We do not need the help of charlatans and psychics and–”
“Lady Blackwood,” Violetta said quickly, “it’s clear something is hurting your daughter. If it’s not spirits we can at least try to shed light on another cause.”
“Mother, please.” The young Blackwood’s voice cracked. “I can’t even sleep.”
Eugenia pressed her palm to her daughter’s cheek and shook her head. “The solution isn’t sorcery. There are better doctors in London. We’ll be back in the city, and your mind will feel clearer.”
“I don’t want to have to go across the ocean to get a little rest!”
“Eugenia,” Thane Blackwood said from the door. “They’ve travelled all this way. At least let them stay the night.”
“No!” The matriarch’s voice was shrill. “No more feeding into our poor girl’s delusion! This is not a solution!” She turned again on the travelers. “Do you have any proof of your abilities? Have you captured a ghost for us to see?”
“If you’d give us a chance,” Violetta said calmly, “we were in the middle of telling Diantha that most ghosts are cured by leaving the residence, and that many times we find a practical explanation. It would only take one night to determine that.”
Eugenia sucked in a breath through her nostrils and turned back to her husband. “A single night, Thane, and then they are gone. I won’t have my daughter exposed to witchcraft.”
She stormed away and the Blackwood patriarch let out a little sigh. He nodded to his daughter and stalked off on his own. Diantha let out a long breath, and Violetta touched her shoulder, guiding her back into the house.
“Why don’t you show me your room, Diantha?” she said. “I’d like to see where this is happening.”
She glanced back at Gabe as they started towards the stairs, and he let out a sigh of his own and meandered after them. Margery was still in the hall, readjusting what Eugenia Blackwood had knocked over. He paused at her side and offered a smile. Her hair was pinned up, but a few stray curls had stuck to her cheek, and she looked up with wide brown eyes.
“Hello, sir,” she said in a small, nervous voice. “Can I help you?”
“You don’t have to call me sir. You’re Margery, right? My name’s Gabe.”
She looked at his outstretched hand and took it suspiciously. “Are you helping Miss Diantha too?”
“I’d like to. I heard there was a commotion recently.”
“The lady doesn’t like us talking about it.”
“So you didn’t see words mysteriously carved into the girl’s arm?”
Her mouth twisted up, and she gently set her hand against the table. “I don’t know what I saw.”
“It’s alright if you don’t want to talk.”
“No, I–” She paused, glancing back towards the stairs. “I thought she was doing it to herself. She’s been haunted for nearly a year, and we all rolled our eyes at it. I’ve had to work past dark plenty of times, and it’s a big empty house. I hear noises all the time, but I’ve never thought it was ghosts. Girl gets scared at night, girl has a nightmare, even with the bruises I thought she might’ve been running into things and not noticing. There’s no reason to think ghosts.”
“Did that change?”
She shook her head. “I was thinking there might’ve been a way she did it. Cut herself and it just reopened, or, I don’t know, freak accident? But it–it–”
“It seems real?”
“Yeah.” She looked at him with worried eyes. “She does need help. She needs sleep. Her mother isn’t making it better.”
“I noticed.” He scratched a hand through his hair. “Nothing stood out to you before that then?”
She shrugged. “You hear rocks hit the walls every time the wind picks up, and knocking on walls could be just about anything. I guess… I always thought it was silly, but a couple of us who worked at night would hear moving in the attic, even though the door’s been locked for ages.”
“No one can get in?”
“No one can find the key. Hannah’s another girl, she always got scared ‘cause we could hear something like footsteps, but I told her it’s just squirrels or raccoons. That’s the only thing I’ve seen anyone else worry about.”
“No animals that caught your eye?”
“She told you about the dog?” She rolled her eyes. “It’s just a dog I said. Girl’s too jumpy. Don’t tell your woman I said that.”
He tapped his nose. “I only repeat what needs repeating.”
Margery smiled and curled her fingers around the dust rag. “If someone could bring her some peace of mind, I’d be a little happier. Not a lot, mind, but it’s easier not to watch someone do this to themselves. Or whoever.”
That gave him pause. “What does that mean?”
Again her eyes glanced around, wary of her employers. “It did start suddenly, is all. She wasn’t a happy girl, but she wasn’t paranoid. She didn’t run around looking for ghosts and spirits. She didn’t even really listen to Father Bailey. The oddest thing is how she changed.”
“People do that to themselves sometimes.”
She ducked her head as footsteps signaled the return of other parties. Violetta came down the steps ahead of the others and grabbed his arm, pulling him aside. A pouting Diantha walked a step behind her parents, who were quietly fuming at each other.
“I’ll be sharing a bed with Diantha tonight,” Violetta said. “Since most of it happens in her sleep. What did you learn?”
“It might be a very good trick.” He glanced up. “Did she say something about the attic?”
“Nothing specific. Why?”
“Some of the other girls might’ve been spooked by something up there.”
“I guess we’ll know tonight.”
They both looked towards Diantha, who was shrinking back into herself. The sun had started to dip below the horizon, embracing the trees that grew tall around the property, and she looked pallid in the low, her long hair hanging over her face. It seemed unlikely anyone would act violence on her except for cruelty’s sake, but they’d seen worse for much less. Violetta touched her arm and led her to the dining room and thought about the night ahead.
Violetta had become accustomed to sleeping in her clothes, and she felt uncomfortable in the night dress she’d borrowed from Diantha. It didn’t feel like the sort of thing she’d leap out of bed to chase a spirit in, and it embarrassed her lightly to think Gabe would see her in it. She’d never felt at home in her parents’ estate back in London, and here in soft cushioned bedsheets in a home created to remind them of a place across the Atlantic, she felt very much a small child again, hiding from her family in her room and pretending to be someone else.
As night had fallen, Diantha had become increasingly nervous. Her hands shook slightly, and she picked at the scabs forming on her arms. Violetta had politely turned her back as they’d changed, but she’d caught a glimpse of more bruises and long scratch marks on the girl’s back. It seemed impossible that she might do this to herself.
“Isn’t this what got you kicked out of London?” Diantha said as she pulled back her sheets. “Sharing beds with young ladies?”
Violetta narrowed her eyes. “And who told you that?”
“Cerise and I still write. That’s how I knew you were already over here.”
“She always was a gossip.” Violetta laid her head back on the pillow. “My parents disowned me for many reasons, but yes I suppose that had something to do with it.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Oh.” She closed her eyes as Diantha dimmed the lamp. “No. It’s so wet and cold, I hated all the people. At least here nobody knows me, or doesn’t have to for long.”
She felt Diantha curl beneath the covers, pulling the edges of the blanket under her body for extra protection. “Mother wants to return so badly. I went with father for a business trip a year or two ago, but the last time we lived there I was a child. I can’t even think of it as home.”
“I was unhappy there, but you might feel better for returning.” Violetta opened her eyes in the dark and let them adjust. There was only a sliver of the moon out tonight, and its light didn’t reach the window. A few lamps still burned outside, and she could just see the edge of the grounds when she turned her head to look. “Do you think you’ll sleep tonight?”
Diantha curled tighter, folding her body into a ball. “I haven’t in a long time. Not real sleep.”
“Then I’ll try not to either.”
Violetta did try. She listened to the ticks of the downstairs clock and the gentle night noises. Odd creaks and squeaks occasionally filtered up through the house, but she recognized the sound of the stairs and the sharp plunk of metal meeting cool air. Eventually she did sleep though. Her dreams were filled with birds that sat in empty branches over dry desert land. She saw an animal she did not know and dipped her fingers in a stream of water trying to escape the hard dirt. She had dreams like this often, mostly of birds that watched. She looked back and felt someone behind her, a tall dark presence that towered over her and made her freeze in fear. For a moment she could not breathe, and her waking mind and her sleeping mind confused one for the other. She felt Diantha’s hand squeeze her own and saw the birds watching from the window, and she was too scared to turn her head because the presence was still there but she did. Diantha lay on her back staring up at something over her bed. At first Violetta could not see anything but a shape like a person too tall and bringing with it a sort of blackness that filled the room. The more she stared the clearer the shape became, almost like a woman, almost like a woman with hair that was too long and wild, almost like a woman with long sharp nails like talons like knives, and that woman reached over the bed and touched Diantha’s face with her long sharp talons and gently stroked her cheek. Tears were welling in Diantha’s eyes but she couldn’t move and Violetta felt frozen as well. The shape that was a woman seemed to expand to the shadows of the room but her face turned upwards and saw Violetta, and even though Violetta could see no eyes and no nose and no lips she could see the sharp contours of a jagged face like carved from stone, and the eyes saw her, and she saw herself being seen.
Violetta moved. It took all the effort she had but she pulled up from the bed and the curse was broken. The woman faded again into the shadows, her long talons pulling back as Violetta grabbed Diantha, becoming nothing more than a shape again and then a shadow and then a dream. Violetta dragged her friend free from the bed, and Diantha was sobbing into her shoulder. They stood there for a moment as Violetta processed what had happened. She grabbed the young girl’s hand and pulled her along as she opened the door. Gabe was in the hallway and saw them, putting a finger to his lips. Diantha swallowed her sobs and gripped tighter onto Violetta. He stalked forward, carefully stepping down the stairs, and paused. The large glass windows looked out onto the garden, not lit except for the dull light of the moon and the soft glow from the surrounding town. The shadow of the house cast over the garden where the flowers were sleeping and the grass glittered with dew. Violetta looked closer and saw what Gabe saw. An animal in the garden, almost like a dog, almost. Its thin body pulled forward like it was stretched, but its legs were short and rabbit like. Long ears stood upright, and the thin snout pointed out. Its fur shone in the low light and its rib cage was visible under its thin frame. Two eyes stared up at them, two dark eyes that were nearly impossible to see. Beside her, Diantha was shaking.
Gabe turned to them, and sound exploded in the quiet night. Noise banged against every wall, large thumps and a great rumbling. Diantha put her hands to her ears and fell to her knees, and there was a noise like hail against the outside walls. One window broke and another as rocks pounded against the house, splintering wood and smashing objects. A door slammed elsewhere and the Blackwood elders appeared, shouting and shaking their fists. More windows shattered, and they moved back to clear the glass pouring over the floor. The house shook and howled and every surface seemed to be hit with invisible fists and they all cowered there until it stopped.
It did stop, after some time. The rocks fell away until silence took over the manor. The only sound was Diantha’s quiet sobs as she laid her head against the floor, a new red streak across her face from the spirit’s touch.
No maids came to clean the place until dawn. Diantha had been placed in Violetta’s guest bed, where she’d given her a cross necklace and spread salt on the floor around her, explaining that it might protect her. There was nothing else to do for the poor girl, who had gone limp and listless, staring straight ahead. The Lord Blackwood went to get someone to fix the windows as soon as the sun was over the horizon, and Lady Blackwood came to comfort her daughter, pushing a warm cup of tea into Diantha’s hands but gaining no response. She shook her head sadly as she pressed a hand to her daughter’s face.
“This has gone on too long,” she said and left the room.
Violetta removed her bag from the cabinet and opened it. They travelled far and rarely stayed, so she carried few things with her. Two changes of clothes were rolled tightly on top, and beneath them was a small purse of money, carefully laid so it made no noise. Dried foods and a canteen also took up space. At the bottom of her pack was a single letter, enclosed in an envelope and still smelling faintly of lilies, and a small leather bound journal worn with wear and with no more room to write in. She removed it and found Gabe outside, walking the perimeter of the manor.
“A beast,” she said, flipping carefully through the pages that contained her own handwriting.
“I wouldn’t call it a beast.” He touched the iron fence that stretched over their heads. “Too small to be a beast.”
“Beasts can be any size.”
“It wasn’t very beastly.”
She frowned at him and flipped a few more pages. “But it was strange. It didn’t look right.”
“Maybe? What do you think happened last night?”
He shook his head. “It was a strange looking animal, but that don’t make it a ghost. We saw something, and something strange happened afterwards.”
“What about what I saw?”
“You were sleeping.”
“I was! But Diantha had that cut!”
He waved a hand. “I don’t think it’s just her imagination, but I don’t think it’s what we think it is.”
“What do you think it is?”
“Haven’t decided yet.”
“Well I have.” She opened the correct page and pushed it into his hands. “A witch.”
He frowned at the page. “God your handwriting is impossible.”
She narrowed her eyes and snatched it back. “Witches are shapeshifters, they spread curses. They can wish ill with only a thought. Lots of times they appear as animals. Who else would attack a young girl?”
“Lots of folk find a reason.” He put a hand on the fence. “I thought iron kept out witches.”
“Maybe it was silver? She could’ve found another way in. What’s that face for?”
He’d pulled his lips into a worried line, and his brow creased. “I wonder if someone let her in.”
She looked at him, distractedly thumbing the page. “Why would anyone do that?”
He shrugged. “Folks find a reason.”
She turned back to the house. From a distance she could just see the shapes of the Blackwood elders in another argument. The window to Diantha’s room faced this side, though she couldn’t see inside of it, but she could see another window to the attic, clouded up with time. They’d found no tracks for the strange animal, but rocks piled up around the walls and windows. The garden was decimated.
“You think they’ll let us stay another night?” she asked.
He looked on as well. “There’s only one way to find out.”
Eugenia and Thane Blackwood did not notice them as they came into the house. The maids had their heads ducked as they swept around the shouting couple. Eugenia swiveled as they approached, pointing an accusing finger their way.
“One night!” she shouted. “And my Diantha is worse off!” She turned back to her husband, jabbing his sternum. “In two days a ship leaves here to England, and Diantha and I will be on it. You can decide for yourself where you’d like to be.”
She swept up the stairs to warn her daughter. The Lord Blackwood swept a hand through his greying hair and looked to the travelers.
“It’s not a delusion,” he said.
“Definitely not,” Violetta said. “And I would recommend going with your wife. Under normal circumstances.”
“You’re suggesting we’re an outlier of the unusual?”
“I think a curse is not so easily broken by distance.” She stepped forward. “One more night, please. We’ll stay out of your wife’s way, but I’d like to find the source of this darkness. Please, are there any neighbors you’ve angered? Old women who’ve given your daughter the evil eye? Someone with a grudge?”
“I–I’m not sure. You’ll have to ask her yourself. If you can.”
“Alright.” She grabbed Gabe’s sleeve. “We’ll ask some questions.”
They wandered out of the wave of Eugenia’s wrath. A number of neighbors had appeared out of interest, bearing gifts of food and gossip to get a peek at the damage. There was little to be seen beyond the broken windows, and by noon the window workers were already applying new glass to the frames. Violetta waited, overhearing the gossip at the gate of the property, while Gabe chatted again with the maids. A few names of interest reached her ears, but none sounded promising.
“What did the lovely Margery say?” she asked as Gabe returned to her side.
He adjusted his hat in the midday sun. “Too worried to speak ill of the damned. No old women stood out to her, and Diantha didn’t do anything she thought worthy of cursing.”
“Girls can be surprisingly petty.”
“Diantha doesn’t seem the type to offend.”
“Damn.” Violetta leaned her head back and looked into the eyes of her partner. “What do you think, Gabe? We’ve got no suspects, we’ve got no solutions. Maybe London is the best option.”
“I’d let them leave, but if you’re really concerned about results, I do have a thought.”
She thought for a moment. “I suppose if it was someone close to her, it’d be a convenient spot. You said the key went missing.”
He nodded. “It’s worth exploring.”
“It wouldn’t be one of the maids though, would it? If I had to work there, I’d rather target Eugenia.”
“What are you thinking?”
He waved a hand. “Nothing yet.”
They returned to the house, already near repaired and looking as it had a day before. Violetta headed up the stairs and found Diantha still in the guest room, hugging a pillow and staring off into space.
“Your mother’s taking you home,” she said as she sat beside her on the bed.
The girl didn’t look at her and held the pillow closer. “It’s not my home.”
“Well she’s taking you from your home, and that may be just as well.” Violetta placed a hand on her shoulder, and the girl flinched. “Gabe thinks someone might be doing this to you on purpose. I think he might be right.”
“Why would someone do this to me?”
“I don’t know, Diantha. Can you think of a name or a reason?”
Diantha remained still, her red rimmed eyes unblinking. “I’ve lost all my friends. I’ve lost my sanity. I’ll lose my home. If someone is doing this to me why haven’t they stopped?”
Violetta pushed the scared thing’s hair back off her forehead. “If someone is doing this to you we’ll find out. One more night, Diantha. I think Gabe has a plan. Or an idea of one. Do you know about the attic?”
“That I have one? It’s been locked for some time now. The key was lost.”
“Do you know who lost it?”
“I remember Betsy complaining that it’d been removed from the key ring. Father’s been talking about replacing the lock since but he always finds something else to do.” She closed her eyes and laid her head back. “Mother’s the only one who went up there anyway. She had her own key, but I guess that got lost too.”
“Thank you, Diantha. Do you want to sleep here tonight?”
She nodded meekly.
“Alright. I’ll return in a little while.”
Night fell, eventually. At sunset Gabe stood outside, watching for any strange beasts, and Violetta helped tuck Diantha into bed. She left a light glowing as she went downstairs to sit with Gabe. The evening cooled as the sun disappeared beneath the trees. Rocks remained piled around the house, and she kicked a few out of her way. The house was already quiet. The maids had gone home, the Blackwood elders nervously completing the day’s activities. Violetta stood at the edge of the porch and watched the trees.
“Still having those dreams?” Gabe asked from his seat.
She sat beside him and tugged her hair over her shoulder. “I dream all sorts.”
“Hm.” He didn’t look at her, eyes trained to the property’s edge.
She leaned forward. “You’ve had nights like this before, haven’t you? Waiting with a gun for some scoundrel.”
“Mostly just coyotes. And horrible lizard creatures.”
She smiled. “It wasn’t that horrible.”
He rolled his eyes. “It was pretty horrible. It almost ate Silva.”
“We almost die all the time. I’ve never been obscenely worried.”
He pointed an accusing finger at her. “You’ve got no survival instinct. You’re all ‘let’s chase unknown terrors into the dark night where we will certainly trip and die.’”
She grinned at him. “And yet here we are.”
Gabe sighed as he leaned back. A thin moon moved gently over the treetops. The air smelled different here, carried through the tall trees instead of over desert plains. The trees shook slightly, offering a dull rhythm to the night symphony of crickets and birds and other odd animals. The town around them had grown quiet as most turned into their beds, but the occasional night workers sent errant shouts and clangs through city streets.
A disturbance shook its way through the night concert and into Gabe’s dreams. His brow furrowed as he heard the light rustling beside him, and he realized he’d fallen asleep only after he saw how the moon had lifted itself above them. Midnight at least. He turned to address the worrisome noise that had woken him and stopped. The creature sat amidst a circle of rocks perfectly in their center, and its black eyes looked directly at him. It did not move, did not blink, did not turn its head as he reached across the table and touched the dozing Violetta’s arm. She murmured something, and he squeezed. He kept his eyes locked with the animal’s.
“Gabe?” Violetta stirred from her seat. “What–”
A shrill scream sounded from the house, and Gabe jumped from the chair, dragging Violetta with him. The animal only watched as they ran past it and up the stairs. The door to Diantha’s room was open, and Violetta burst inside, finding the girl shivering in terror in the center of her bed. But Gabe paused as he saw another door at the end of the hall slightly ajar. Half-hidden by shadow, it was easily missed, but a heavy bronze handle sat on a large lock. He stepped towards it and pulled the door open, finding a thin staircase that went straight up. The entrance to the attic was dark and seemed to bleed out onto the stairs, but a thin flickering light somewhere else in the room illuminated shadows of trunks and dress stands. Someone was in there. Someone was in there right now. He took a step up, cringing as the stairs creaked, and then another. The flickering light changed positions and then was blown out. A sudden darkness overtook his vision, and he almost tripped on the third step when he became aware of a figure standing in front of him. For a moment he mistook it for Eugenia Blackwood, but the figure was made of shadows and had no face. Her hair grew out around her, and she curled out like a bent tree, her arms raised with clawed hands reaching out. Her jaw descended into a wide screaming mouth and she was on him.
Gabe fell back, landing hard on the thick wood floor as thick talons scratched his face. The vision on top of him flashed between woman and monster with blood red teeth and inky black eyes and a scream welled up in his ears like roaring water. Fingernails dug into his flesh and pain blinded him and the weight of her threatened the air in his lungs and then all at once it was gone. He felt something like sand hit his face and when he staggered up he saw Violetta with fistfuls of salt looking terrified. She dropped it to help him up and held a hand over the scars on his face.
He was still short of breath as he gasped out, “It was–”
“I saw,” she said.
She turned to the door just as it slammed shut. Behind them Diantha stared on, hands to her mouth. The figure appeared behind her, and Violetta could barely let out a shout before the ghost screamed straight through Diantha and went for the pair. Gabe was knocked into the wall and Violetta grabbed by the throat. The air was sucked from the room as the woman dug her nails into Violetta’s neck, her vision fading at the edges, sharp blood in her throat, only the ghost’s face bearing down on her with cold dark eyes. Gabe tried to move up the wall, his arm aching and blood speckling his collar. His hand reached out and grabbed whatever it could find and he pulled a silver candlestick round through the ghost’s head. She turned, eyes blazing, but her hands released Violetta, who sunk to the floor. Door slams brought the rest of the Blackwoods running, and the ghost rose up, dark tendrils of shadowy hair pulling in all directions, talons pressed against her face as a shrill screech rose from her tongue.
“You are not welcome here!” she screamed. Her head swivelled around and she bared her teeth at the travelers. “Leave!”
And she was gone.
Diantha was sobbing into her father’s shoulders at her bedroom door. Violetta slowly stood with Gabe’s help and saw Eugenia beside them, staring up at the ceiling.
There was no longer an argument about leaving. Silently the Blackwood elders made plans for the house and their things and the ship leaving the next day. No maids came today. They were released from their duties.
Violetta sat with Diantha, helping her fold clothes as they were placed in trunks. Thin pin pricks dotted Violetta’s neck, and Gabe carried a scraggly line on his cheek. Diantha looked paler than she had, but some of her bruises were starting to fade, and the mark carved into her arm was losing its shape.
“The attic door was open,” Gabe said as Violetta finished a stack of folded shirts. “I saw someone.”
“It’s locked now.” Violetta dragged another pile of dresses closer. Diantha sat beside her on the bed, listless. “Anyway it won’t matter much longer.”
His lip curled down. She gently set the dresses in Diantha’s lap and grabbed his arm, pulling him into the hall.
“I don’t like leaving things this way either,” Violetta said. “But they’re going. Honestly I wouldn’t stay here after all this.”
“Someone else was here,” he said. “Someone else was in this house creating magics to torture a young girl. What makes you think they’re leaving that problem behind?”
“They’re going across an ocean.”
“You were in a bit of a state so I don’t expect you to remember. When the commotion happened, the sir and misses arrived from two different locations.”
“They–” Violetta placed a hand to her mouth. “Her father was in front of us.”
“Her mother came from behind us.”
Her eyes lowered slowly as the thought took over her. “Diantha said her mother might have a key to the attic.”
“You see my issue with walking away.”
“But she–” She curled her fist to her mouth. “But why? That horrible mark, the nightmares, to your own daughter. She’s been trying to get her out of he–”
She stopped the minute the thought formed on her tongue. Gabe nodded.
“I just–” Violetta sighed as she pushed a hand through her hair. “I shouldn’t be surprised I suppose.”
“I am only suggesting,” he said, “that if this is the length she’s willing to go to for something she wants, what will happen next time she is denied?”
“Goddamn. Goddamn!” She threw up her hands. “How do we tell Diantha her mother is haunting her? If we bring this accusation to her father there’s no way we’ll be believed.”
“We could tell Diantha at least. She should know.”
“You’re right. You are absolutely right.” She groaned. “This is something my mother would do. It’s all her classic manipulation, secrets, and communion with the dark forces.”
He shook his head as he pushed open the door. “You have so many issues.”
“I’m aware.” She peered in at the hunched over Diantha. “Do you think it’s kinder not to say?”
“It never is.”
Violetta sat in front of her childhood friend and carefully took her hands. Diantha’s head hung down, eyes empty. Sleepless nights had turned her sallow, and her bones were starting to show through skin. Violetta supposed most would wonder how a mother could be so cruel, but she knew exactly how parents could be. She didn’t coat their suspicions in kindness. She only offered the truth.
“Why would she do this?” Diantha asked. Her eyes turned to Gabe for some reason.
He shifted uncomfortably. “Suppose she really wants to go back to London.”
Violetta gripped her hands a little tighter. “We want to see the attic to be sure. She’d want to hide the key so no one would find it.”
She offered a dissonant smile. “I’ve snuck into their room so many times, looking for Christmas presents and other secrets. My mother has so many secrets.”
She was crying now. Violetta waited, uncomfortable with this display of emotion.
Diantha swallowed a sob. “There’s a small door on the right side of her closet, hidden behind some dresses. I don’t know if father knows about it, but she’d hide all sorts of things there.”
Violetta looked to Gabe. He held up his hands.
“You know I’m not sneaking through a white woman’s closet,” he said.
“I know.” She let out a breath and stood, patting Diantha’s shoulder. “I’ll have a peek, I guess.”
Thane Blackwood was out of the house. There were a number of things he had to wrap up for his business before he went across seas again. No maids should be in the house. Eugenia Blackwood had been making her own arrangements for herself and her daughter. Violetta heard no one moving around in the house. She waited for a moment outside the master bedroom before pushing open the door. Trunks were open, spilling out clothes and belongings. The bedsheets were removed. The curtains to the window were opened, looking out on the yard. Violetta saw only swaying trees.
The closet had been pulled apart. Shoes remained on the floor, but the clothes had been pulled and tossed into luggage. The ship was leaving tomorrow. They had little time to care for their belongings. Violetta got on her knees as she crawled into the small space of the closet. Her hands pressed against the wood wall, searching for any kind of hidden opening. Her fingers felt the bump of a hinge, and she dug her nails into the thin crack.
Her breath caught as a creak sounded just outside the door. She waited. Above her head she heard movement, and that was worse. The spirit had appeared during the day, in different forms. It occurred to Violetta she may be watching for Eugenia, keeping an eye on the unwanted guests investigating her home. She gripped the edge of a panel and pried it free. Beneath was a small crawlspace. In front was a stack of letters, tied with a string, and a small package wrapped in a paper bag. She pulled them out and saw something in the back of the space. She grit her teeth as she reached into the darkness. Her hand closed on something large and flat. A book. It had no title. Thin handwriting filled each faded page, and dates at the top of the book revealed it to be a journal written in 1798, nearly a hundred years old. The name scrawled in the front read Kate Bell. Violetta flipped through the pages, catching glimpses of texts. Kate Bell’s inner thoughts were nasty things and thought little of her friends and family. The writing became more frantic further into the journal, and Violetta turned the page again to see a large diagram. A circle with six arrows spread from its center. A list of ingredients: morning dew collected in May, a white rose, three pink candles, blood. Another page had a list of names, half of them crossed out. She turned another page, and the key dropped into her lap. The image on the page was of a circle divided into five parts. Symbols were scrawled into the separate parts. Written beneath it were the words: Find Me.
A thump landed somewhere in the house, and Violetta dropped the book. She clutched the key in her fist and quickly put the items back and shut the hatch. Its opening was a little more obvious, but she put it out of her mind. She fled the bedroom and found Gabe just outside. The front door was open downstairs, and she could hear the Blackwoods arguing. Diantha had risen, peeking into the hall. Something had changed in her expression. Violetta held out her hand to show him the key, and they moved towards the end of the hallway. Violetta inserted the key into the attic door. It opened.
Diantha was behind them. “I want to see.”
“What about your parents?” Violetta asked.
“They’ll see too.”
She brushed past them both. Gabe only shrugged at Violetta’s look. They followed the thin staircase up. Again it creaked beneath their feet, but they continued on. The only light was from a single thin window. Violetta wished they’d grabbed a lantern. It was disorienting coming up into darkness. Violetta reached for Gabe’s arm, and he guided her up the final steps. Diantha moved across the floor and crossed the floor to the closed window. Streams of light came from its slats, but she found the cord and pulled it open. Sunlight exposed the room for what it was. Boxes and trunks took up most of the space. Dresses no longer worn were draped across an old chair. Work tools stood in one corner, and a pile of documents were weighed into place by a rock. Space had been cleared in the center of the room. In red paint on the floor was the same symbol from the book: five points within a circle, odd geometric shapes filling the spaces. A half-melted black candle sat in the center.
“What is it?” Gabe asked.
“There was a journal,” Violetta said. “From a woman, Kate Bell.”
Diantha looked at her. “A witch.”
“Do you know the name?”
She shook her head. “They hanged her, I thought.”
“She summoned her.” Gabe kneeled down and touched the circle. “This is–”
A scream sounded behind them, and they all turned. The figure of Kate Bell stood behind them, the edge of her figure shaking. Her mouth was wide open and alight with some kind of inner flame. Her eyes were black.
Her voice was a low rumble. “You are not welcome here.”
Violetta moved to Diantha. The witch floated closer.
Noise on the stairs. The Blackwoods had heard. Eugenia’s head appeared from the staircase.
“Don’t–” She stopped as the witch turned to face her.
Violetta’s hand found Diantha’s arm, and she gently moved her so she was blocked from the witch. Her other hand reached towards her pants pocket. It closed around the smooth handle of a knife. There was little a blade or bullet could do against a ghost, much less the long dead spirit of a vindictive witch. She edged it out of its case. Gabe was moving as well, his eyes on the Blackwood matriarch.
The witch floated forward, arms outstretched. She grinned at Eugenia and then flew, wrapping her talons around Gabe’s throat. He couldn’t grasp the ghost to fight. Violetta gave a shout as she pulled the knife free and dropped to the circle. At once Eugenia jumped up the stairs, her husband just behind her, and she reached for Violetta. It was Diantha who stopped her, shoving her out of the way.
“What are you doing?” Eugenia shouted.
Violetta ignored her, digging the blade into the wood floors. Her eyes caught Gabe’s expression, and her jaw set. She tore the knife across the floor, peeling the wood away. Eugenia tossed aside her daughter and grabbed her.
“You’ll set her free!”
Violetta slammed a fist into the woman’s stomach, ignoring the cries from her family. Eugenia stumbled back but came at her again, shoving her so hard she landed in a pile of ancient bedclothes. The witch had let go of Gabe and now floated towards her, faceless gaze still focused on Eugenia. Gabe coughed and wheezed as he rolled onto his feet. Red welts covered his neck.
“Stop it!” Diantha screamed, gripping her mother’s arm. “This is your fault!”
Eugenia turned and slapped her daughter across the face. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Eugenia!” Thane Blackwood said. “What is going on here?”
The witch was on top of Violetta. She was dragged up by her hair, and a long slick claw slid down her face, leaving a trail behind. Kate Bell’s empty face stared into her, and her head filled with sickness that rolled down her body. Gabe had climbed to his feet and was marching towards Eugenia. The witch moved swiftly again, dropping Violetta to her knees, and tossed him into the wall. Violetta crawled forward, eyes swimming, and her hands reached for her knife. As she looked up she saw it in Diantha’s hands. Diantha stared at her mother as she raised it. Eugenia was trying to calm down her husband and took no notice of her daughter’s action. Diantha stepped forward, knife outstretched, and dropped to the floor to stab the knife in, scratching it through the red line. She gripped it in her hands and looked at Violetta.
The witch had stopped. She floated above them all, darkness clinging her to the ceiling. Eugenia quieted when she saw what her daughter had done and looked up. Her eyes filled with fear.
“What did you do?” she said.
Kate Bell threw back her head and laughed. The sound shook deep into Violetta’s heart, and the sickness rolled back into her throat. Her eyes caught Gabe, limp against the wall. The witch reached down and touched a talon to Eugenia’s forehead.
“You trapped me in that circle,” she said, her voice heavy and resonant. “You made me your servant. Now I am free.”
“No, no!” Eugenia backed away and turned to her husband for help. “She’s wrong. I didn’t.”
“You did!” Kate laughed again. “You played with the devil and thought you could not get burned.”
The darkness was expanding out. Eugenia gripped her husband’s shirt, but he stepped away from her. Diantha watched, her eyes blank. The witch held out her arms and with a banshee-like screech dove into the matriarch’s body. Eugenia screamed and clawed at her own skin. Something boiled from within her, patching her body with ugly red welts. She fell to the ground and pulled at her hair. Her throat wrenched, and she folded up. Her skin seemed taut over her bones, and blood streamed from her eyes. Diantha reached for her and touched her face and just as quickly pulled away. Her father pulled her up, hugging her close.
Violetta ran across the room, shaking away the residual nausea. She grabbed Gabe in her arms, but he groaned and pushed her off. The darkness faded. If the witch remained, she did not do so here.
Thane Blackwood did not speak as paid the travelers. It was clear they had outstayed their welcome. Violetta found Diantha anyway and sat with her one more time.
“She did a terrible thing,” Diantha said.
Violetta nodded. “Mothers usually do.”
She hung her head low. Violetta placed a hand on her shoulder. There was something new in Diantha. Relief strengthened her bones.
“My mother–both my parents were cruel,” Violetta said. “Maybe I feel badly for how I left things. Maybe I consider paying back what I stole. But I am so happy now. I am free of them.”
Diantha allowed a smile to pass over her lips. “You think I should run away and chase ghosts?”
“I think you should allow yourself some happiness. Find a way to do what you want to do.”
She wiped her eyes and tossed her things into the trunk. “We’re still going back to London.”
“Well.” Violetta removed her hand. “I can’t blame your father for that. This wouldn’t be an easy place to live in now.”
“I know.” She sighed. “It’s worse thinking she got her way anyway.”
Violetta smiled. “Well if you’d like to live my life, hold onto that spite. It’s taken me many places.”
Gabe knocked at the door, and they offered their goodbyes. They left quickly. There was little more they could do.
“We’ve got a bit of change,” Gabe said. “Could probably find a decent horse for it.”
“I get so tired riding horseback.” Violetta sighed. “I can’t think of where I’d like to go next.”
“I can barely stand it this far north.”
“Fine, we’ll head towards warmer climates.”
They strolled down the road together. Violetta’s steps faltered, but Gabe offered her a gentle pat on the back.
“Nothing more we can do for them,” he said.
“Yeah.” She glanced behind them. “It’s different when it’s someone I know. She deserves better.”
“Most people do. Few people get it.”
“Hm.” She shook out her hair and tugged on her hat. “We’ll see.”
After a bit of bickering they got two horses. Gabe led the way, though there were few paths they followed. They didn’t know where they’d stop next, but that was part of the adventure.