I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long. To prove I’m back in the saddle, here’s a taste of Dr. Bones #2, Divorce Can Be Deadly. Today I worked for almost seven hours at the computer, a record since my last eye surgery. I promise to finish this book as soon as I can–but you know me. I won’t release it until I’m totally satisfied. 🙂
PLEASE NOTE: This really is a special preview. Fact-checking, the final edit, and proofreading are still to come. So if you see a typo or inconsistency, please rest assured it will be remedied in due course.
Chapter One: Haunted Cornwall
7 December 1939
Two ghosts troubled Dr. Benjamin Bones. One he feared might never release him. Another he worried might slip away, no matter how he tightened his grip.
He’d arrived in the tiny village of Birdswing by government order. A native Londoner, he’d been fresh out of medical school when England declared war on Germany. It was grim news, but hardly shocking, given Herr Hitler’s pattern of aggression. That didn’t make the prospect easier to bear. The specter of the Great War, formerly called the War to End All Wars, still loomed over a nation that could not forget the horrors of Gallipoli or the Somme. Too many of Britain’s sons had been lost: killed, maimed, or driven mad. And by the war’s end their proud country, once the world’s wealthiest power, had been reduced to its biggest debtor. This time, the cost of another world war was easier to imagine, and consequently harder to face. Neither Ben nor anyone he knew thought this war would be over by Christmas.
He’d expected to serve his country as an Army doctor. But instead of call-up papers, Ben had received notice he was placed in a “reserved occupation.” That meant he was immune to conscription; his medical training was considered more valuable on the home front than at an Army hospital. But “home front,” as it turned out, didn’t equal “home.” London boasted plenty of seasoned physicians willing to come out of retirement to aid the war effort; younger, unproven doctors like Ben would be relocated elsewhere. And so in September of 1939, twenty-seven-year-old Ben said good-bye to his dreams of a state-of-the-art urban practice and hello to a part of England like none other: Cornwall.
Before the Anglo-Saxons, even before the Romans, the west country had been home to a seafaring people. They possessed their own language, their own culture, and their own forms of worship, as evidenced by the ancient standing stones that still survived. Cornwall, with its granite backbone and windswept moors, was almost a country apart. And certainly the Cornish folk were a people apart: tough, self-reliant, sometimes dangerous or wild. Only after a failed sixteenth century uprising did the Cornish consent to name themselves English, and glimmers of that independence still shone through. While many in the west country were proud Englishmen, others felt true allegiance only to the soil of their fathers.
Ben wasn’t surprised by such loyalty. There was a pull to this land, a curious magnetism to its abandoned tin mines, hidden groves, and jutting clifftops. But Cornwall was more than just picture-postcard-worthy fishing villages and golden beaches. There were plenty of bloodstained chapters in its history, too.
On Ben’s Sunday afternoon rambles, he’d explored the coastline where, not so very long ago, the wreckers plied their grim trade. Using false beacons, they’d lured unwary navigators toward the rocks, sinking ships and seizing the plunder that washed ashore. Most of the crew would drown in the pitiless waters. But as the wreckers searched the shallows, they occasionally found a sailor clinging to a floating crate or barrel. Then a knife would flash. The luckless man’s throat would open in a hot gush, and the wreckers would tear the crate or barrel from his faltering grip. Swiftly, the sailor’s body disappeared beneath the waves while the wreckers carried on, picking the beach clean.
There was more to the west country than natural beauty and ancient shrines, Ben felt sure of it. Memories of murder, of treacherous yellow lanterns and ice cold steel, had seeped into its granite bones, and granite does not forget.
Or so says Madame Daragon, he thought, studying the book in his hands, Revelations of a Reluctant Medium.
Bound in faded green Moroccan leather, the book’s pages were dog-eared, defaced with cryptic notes, and in some cases, ripped right out of the binding. Judging by the various signatures on the flyleaf, the book, published in 1899, had been passed among many owners before his friend, Lady Juliet Linton, discovered it in a Plymouth shop. Written by a psychic who called herself “The Renowned and Authenticated Madame Daragon,” (or as she was known on the mortal plane, Mrs. Petunia Smoot-Whorley), Revelations of a Reluctant Medium purported to explain many things: why ghosts existed, how they behaved, and under what circumstances human beings could make contact with spirits.
Ben had read as much of the book as a university-trained physician with a scientific mind could stomach. And incredibly, some of Madame Daragon’s ramblings had made sense to him, at least with respect to the apparition he longed to see again: his cottage’s former owner, Lucy McGregor. But none of the spiritualist’s so-called revelations applied to the ghost he wanted vanquished: his late wife, Penny.
Although Ben hadn’t known Lucy McGregor in life, and had glimpsed her only once, during what must have been an extraordinarily vivid dream, he acknowledged there were certain similarities between Lucy and Penny. Both had died young—Lucy at twenty-three, Penny at twenty-seven. Both had died suddenly. And both had perished in Cornwall, a place Madame Daragon, in her typical flowery fashion, called “so haunted, in the dark of night, wights, phantom animals, and even the stones of long-tumbled castles do cry out, seeking remembrance.”
Beyond those parallels, however, Ben thought Lucy and Penny had nothing in common. Lucy had died peacefully in her sleep due to a gas line rupture. Pretty, well-liked, and not yet attached to any young man, she’d perished without sampling many of life’s greatest joys, her happiest days unlived. According to Madame Daragon, “unfinished business” was the most common reason for a haunting. An unfulfilled woman was the sort of ghost most likely to linger in her former home, making herself known to new residents with thumps, knocks, or whispers.
By contrast, Penny Bones’s demise had been far from peaceful. She’d been murdered. Her final moments had been brutal, probably painful, and perhaps not unexpected. She’d received at least one death threat, after all, but refused to turn from her chosen path. Penny had been many things, but easily frightened wasn’t one of them. And though only a few years older than Lucy, Ben could hardly call Penny unfulfilled.
Born in Birdswing, Penny had enjoyed an ordinary girlhood, trading rural life for London glamor after her father’s ship came in. She’d danced in jazz clubs, gambled in Monte Carlo, sipped champagne in Paris and taken several lovers, before and after marriage. An accidental pregnancy had driven Penny into Ben’s arms when he was young, bookish, and painfully naïve. For a few weeks he’d been the happiest man alive. Then came the realization that his beautiful, stylish bride carried another man’s child. It had crushed his trust—not only in Penny, but in his own good judgment.
The child had been lost before it ever drew breath. Thereafter, Ben and Penny teetered on the brink of divorce, worlds apart but still legally one, until the night of her death. An event which left Ben feeling many things: shock, anger, guilt, but above all, relief.
That’s why she haunts me. It has to be.
Yet Penny’s presence was very different from Lucy’s. To Ben’s way of thinking, Lucy was indisputably real, if for no other reason than others had experienced her presence, too. Long before he came to Birdswing, most of the villagers had called Fenton House haunted. It had doors that slammed by themselves, curious knocking at all hours of the night, and the lingering scent of books in her old library, which was now Ben’s medical office. Moreover, there had been manifestations. Lady Juliet had heard Lucy speak; Ben had witnessed an object fall out of thin air. As a man of science, he liked hard facts, and when it came to Lucy, there were plenty.
Besides, he wanted to see her, wanted to speak with her, to open a dialogue more meaningful than a half-remembered dream. Sometimes he wondered if his very eagerness, his impatience for a second encounter, had somehow blocked the way.
Ben opened Revelations of a Reluctant Medium. The Table of Contents promised everything a haunted man might require.
Chapter One: In Which the Celebrated Authoress Introduces Herself
Chapter Two: The Boundless Mysteries of the Ethereal Plane
Chapter Three: Séances and Channeling
Chapter Four: Crystal Balls, Talking Boards and the Tarot
Chapter Five: Sinister Phantasms and Rancorous Ghosts
Chapter Six: The Final Revelation of Madame Daragon
Naturally, upon his first reading, Ben had skipped directly to Chapter Five to learn about sinister and/or rancorous spirits. Though he preferred not to think Penny fell into that category, it seemed wisest to assess the risks up front. Unfortunately, while the first page was there, the bulk of the chapter was missing, leaving a wide gap in the binding. And that first page was not reassuring. It read:
And now, dear reader, we come to that unhappiest of places. Here I must confirm the dark truth you already perceive in your heart of hearts, but nevertheless beg me to disprove. It is my solemn duty to be honest, and above all, clear. Yes, hauntings are rare. Most can be classified as what in Chapter Two I called “mementos”—impressions stored in granite or other hard stones the way sounds are pressed into gramophone records. The rest are what I call “specters”—ghosts that observe, learn, and above all, yearn to communicate. And some of those specters despise the living.
Some are the ghosts of men and women who led wicked lives. Others are peculiar and outlandish phantasms who have lost all humanity, or perhaps were never human at all. In either case, they utterly and irredeemably hate all living things. Once attached to a particular individual, said specter will not depart until it has hounded that tragic soul unto his death.
Thus, I beseech you, dear reader: Heed my words. Before you dare attempt a séance, the Tarot, or the talking board, you must first
But there Madame Daragon’s breathless counsel ended, midsentence. Ben could only assume the pages lost, destroyed, or kept like a talisman by another man preoccupied by ghosts. Until Lady Juliet located a second copy of the book, or a different manual written by some other “renowned and authenticated” spiritualist, Ben would have to proceed without Madame Daragon’s warnings if he intended to initiate otherworldly contact. And intend, he did.
As he thumbed to the chapter on séances, Ben wandered into Fenton House’s tiny kitchen. Some boiled chicken and half a bottle of milk awaited him in the icebox. Thursday was his half-day, when he stopped seeing patients at noon, and it was Mrs. Cobblepot’s day off as well. Out of maternal concern, she insisted on cooking him breakfast, so she could be certain he ate at least one solid meal. (Apparently, he was never going to live down his willingness to call a peach cobbler and tap water “lunch.”) Afterwards, she was off to play cards with her friends, or embark on a nature walk, or window shop in Plymouth. That left Ben with plenty of time and privacy to try a séance.
Of course, a séance requires three people. But a talking board can be used by only one….
Chicken forgotten, Ben veered back into the front room. Not long ago, he’d discovered a talking board, also called a Ouija board, tucked away in an old steamer trunk that had once belonged to Lucy. Opening the trunk, he pulled out the board.
Made of walnut, it had been hand-carved, probably by two or more craftsmen. The letters A through G were shaky, and 0-9 looked like the work of a rank amateur. But HELLO at the top and GOOD-BYE at the bottom were nicely rendered, as were the depictions of sun and moon.
Ben carried it to the window for a better look. There were flaws in the finish. Perhaps the board had been scrubbed so harshly, some of the stain had been rubbed out? There were also several long, deep gouges. Maybe Lucy’s former pet, the grumpy orange tabby called Humphrey, had used it as a scratching post. Or an effort to use the board had gone seriously awry.
Whether Madame Daragon was the genuine article or a mad old bat, I doubt she’d advise me to try anything alone, he thought. Lady Juliet might be free to join me. Rose, too, in another hour.
On the face of it, Lady Juliet, who lived on Old Crow Road in a sprawling eyesore called Belsham Manor, and Miss Rose Jenkins, a primary school teacher whose classes dismissed at one o’clock, were perfect choices. Lady Juliet had already expressed her eagerness to try Madame Daragon’s methods. And Rose seemed sweetly interested in whatever Ben suggested, be it the pictures, the dance hall, or a stroll along the high street. Moreover, Lady Juliet had time on her hands while her garden slumbered, and Rose always passed Fenton House on her way home each afternoon. But there was a problem. Despite protestations to the contrary, it was evident that Lady Juliet did not care for Rose. And Ben had no idea why.
She tries to be friendly, but it’s painful to watch, Ben thought. And perhaps the feeling is mutual. Rose did say she found Lady Juliet a tad intrusive. Which is unfair, because—
“Used and abused, Dr. Bones! Used and abused!”
The front door banged open. Over the threshold surged Lady Juliet, six-foot-three in her boots, with wide shoulders, powerful limbs, and a broad face that was more pleasant than pretty.
“Fine, thank you,” he muttered as she swept past him, a wicker hamper tucked beneath one arm.
As usual, she wore mud-stained jodhpurs, a button-down shirt, and her winter coat. It was a horrible woolly thing, blackish-gray with a sheen of purple where the fabric had worn thin. She claimed the coat was marvelously warm and a great bargain, bought for sixpence at a church jumble. Ben thought it looked like something nicked off a sleeping vagrant, but refrained from saying so aloud.
“I don’t suppose you’ve brought lunch?” he asked hopefully, following her into the kitchen.
“How remarkable. Even the dullest male specimen transmogrifies into a bloodhound at the slightest hint of food.” The basket struck the kitchen table with a thump. She was as robust as ever, red-cheeked and bristling with energy, but her light brown hair fell limp. Ben thought he knew why. Lady Juliet was such a force of nature, clinging doggedly to her scalp was the best it could do.
“Never mind my complaining. Far be it from me to bore you with my ruminations… my deep frustrations… the sad truth of my existence in this wasteland,” she continued slowly, giving him ample time to interrupt.
He didn’t. Not because he wasn’t interested, but because teasing Lady Juliet was one of his favorite pastimes.
She waited. He waited. He could almost feel her core temperature rising as she realized he wasn’t going to ask.
“Right!” she cried, throwing off her coat and marching toward the cooker. “Why on earth did I expect any different, even under this roof? Lunacy, simple lunacy. I’d better make myself useful and put on the kettle. A spot of tea is apparently the only comfort I shall receive, and only if I make it. And yes, Dr. Bones, if you look inside that hamper, you’ll find the fruits of Cook’s munificence.”
“Roast beef sandwiches?” Ben opened the basket, pushing aside a blue-checkered cloth.
“Well-spotted. Or should I say, well-sniffed? You’ll also find scones, jam, clotted cream, and half a dozen treacle tarts.” Lady Juliet thrust the kettle under the tap. “None of it meant for you, if you want the truth. But as some have named me persona non grata, their culinary loss is your gain.”
“Persona non grata?” Ben repeated, bringing out cups and saucers. “Surely that’s an overstatement. You’re well-loved in the village. Apart from Gaston, of course, and I’m sure that’s temporary. Wait—I don’t suppose you meant this for him? As a peace offering?”
Ben referred to Clarence Gaston, Birdswing’s ever-officious, often-meddling ARP Warden. Recently, Gaston had petitioned the village council, which consisted of Lady Juliet, her mother, Lady Victoria, and the vicar, Father Cotterill, to implement a new wartime preparedness scheme. According to Gaston, in the great houses of England, the gentry were setting an example by tearing out their flower gardens and replacing them with something more practical: winter veg.
The villagers, who regarded Belsham Manor’s gardens as a point of residential pride, had been shocked by the suggestion. When Lady Victoria requested specific examples, Gaston had been unable to name a single estate. Red-faced and stammering, he’d doubled down by insisting Lady Juliet should plow under her fragrant heirloom roses and replant the entire area with cabbage. That made Lady Juliet surge up like an inflamed crocodile. Before anyone could stop her, she’d demanded Gaston first plow under the village cricket pitch and replace it with a field of turnips.
The ladies had cheered. The men had howled with rage. And despite Lady Victoria’s frequent gavel-banging, nothing of substance followed, just a lot of shouting and gesticulating. By the next morning, the village of Birdswing had wisely decided, not by vote or committee, but through that strange telepathy sometimes developed by tightknit communities, to carry on as if the whole thing never happened. But Lady Juliet and ARP Warden Gaston had yet to mend the breach.
“Gaston? Hah!” Lady Juliet banged the kettle onto the cooker. “I wouldn’t offer that repellent creature a crust of bread. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t spit on him if he were on fire. No, the hamper was for Father Cotterill. Alas, I was turned away on his doorstep, and denounced as an agent of the occult.”
“A what?” Digging into the hamper, Ben found a roast beef sandwich and bit into it. It would have been more proper to wait until the tea was brewed and they both were seated, but Lady Juliet’s grievances tended to require a detailed explication. He preferred not to attempt it on an empty stomach.
“An agent of the occult,” Lady Juliet repeated. “Father Cotterill was out attending the sick, you see. So his guest, Lady Maggart of Fitchley Park, took the liberty of telling me off. She accused me of consorting with dark forces and practicing necromancy.”
“What? Why?” Ben was doubly confused, as he had never heard of Lady Maggart or Fitchley Park.
Ben jumped. The noise had come from somewhere above his head—the master bedroom, or the attic.
Looking grimly satisfied, Lady Juliet pointed at the ceiling. “Because of her. Because of Lucy.”
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