The man who sat before me at seven o’clock on a Tuesday evening was lying.
He’d come with an impeccable reference from a barrister client of mine, and though he was barely thirty-five, the tailoring of his three-piece suit and the glint of his watch chain spoke of success. He wore power easily in his posture and the set of his shoulders, like a man accustomed to it, and yet the problem he set me was not only trifling; it was false.
He dropped his gaze to the table, where my fingers rested over his, and I took the opportunity to study his face undetected. Slender, clean shaven. Almost handsome, but not quite; something about the width of the temples was off, and an absolute seriousness marred his expression, suggesting no sense of humor. His brows were drawn down as though something weighed on him, and his mouth was pulled into a grim line, as if he was thinking of something terrible and new. Whatever his true reason for consulting a psychic, he was not giving it away.
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I glanced at the clock on the mantel. We’d been here for an hour already. I’d earned my shillings.
The man looked up at me, uncomfortable in my silence. “I wonder perhaps—”
“Hush,” I said. “You must not interrupt.”
It never occurred to him to obey. “It’s just that—”
“Mr. Baker, if you cannot let me concentrate, I have no hope of finding your sister’s brooch.” I gave him a stern look, the black beads on my dress clacking. I was prolonging things needlessly now, but he’d annoyed me, and I was admittedly peevish.
“Please concentrate. Picture the brooch in your head. See it in as much detail as you possibly can. Picture where you last saw it.”
He sighed, shifting in his chair, as if it hadn’t been he who’d come to waste my time this evening. “I suppose I’ll try again.”
He would fail. The brooch he’d asked about did not exist; I’d known as much as soon as I’d touched him. What I didn’t know—what his touch hadn’t told me—was what he actually wanted from me. And here I was, trapped at the little table in my sitting room, hungry, my cold supper waiting for me in the kitchen. If this man didn’t want to be honest, then he could suffer in one of my hard chairs a little bit longer.
I waited for a stretch of minutes, my eyes closed, as the clock ticked on the mantel. “It really isn’t coming very clearly,” I said at last.
Mr. Baker, who was no more Mr. Baker than I was, squirmed just a little. “Perhaps I should come again another time.”
“No, truly, I can find it. Sometimes it takes a little while, that’s all, and you must concentrate harder. Just a little longer . . .”
“It’s quite all right.” He squirmed again, and from under my lashes I saw the first evidence of a conscience. “I’m afraid I have another appointment.”
I shook my head in a show of frustration and lifted my hands from his. “But of course. We’ve run out of time, haven’t we? I’m sorry the brooch did not appear to me, Mr. Baker.”
“No, no. You mustn’t apologize. I insist.” Now he seemed almost annoyed. His gaze wandered off and clouded over with disappointment, as if he’d expected something else entirely from this evening and was already forgetting my existence. “Perhaps I’ll come and try again another time.”
I stood, pushing my chair back coolly. “You could, but that wouldn’t make an interesting story, would it?”
He frowned. “I beg pardon?”
“For your newspaper.” My peevishness was fleeing now, leaving only tiredness behind. “I assume you write for one. ‘Famous Psychic Debunked,’ perhaps? Or ‘Seer Bilks the Innocent of Money’ may also work. Though I can’t imagine why any newspaper would want yet another story about people like me.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” His outrage was convincing. He pushed his chair back and stood as well, and though he was only slightly taller than I was, he somehow seemed much larger. “Do you honestly take me for a journalist?”
“Honestly? You don’t look like one. You dress too well, and your demeanor is wrong. Honestly, Mr. Baker, I don’t know what you are, but a journalist is the only kind of person who would go to elaborate lengths to get a referral, then come here and waste my time with a false story about a valuable brooch.”
He went very still.
I looked at his face. “Of course I knew it was false. Though if you like, you can publish in your newspaper that I have found the toy soldiers you lost when you were eight. That’s what you were really thinking about just now. Here it is: Your brother Tommy took them. He broke them in half and fed them to the dog while playing African Explorer.”
There was a long beat of silence. I hadn’t meant to say that, not exactly. It had just come so clearly to me—the crisp fall day, the little boy roaring as he pretended the dog was a man-eating tiger, eagerly snapping up Stanley and Livingstone. I wondered whether the dog had gotten indigestion from the enterprise. It seemed likely, though the vision didn’t specify. A shadow crossed the vision of the boy, something foreboding, but I pushed it away.
Mr. Baker was looking at me with the shocked expression people wore when they first realized I was telling the truth. “There’s no way you could know that,” he said softly. “No way at all.”
This was a telling moment. People came to me for answers, yet they were always knocked on their heels when I actually gave them. Some customers tittered nervously; others grew angry and defensive, accusing me of trickery or lying. Those were the dangerous ones. The truth, even one so small as the fate of a few wooden soldiers, affected everyone differently. You couldn’t predict it. It was why I kept my client list so select.
But the look on Mr. Baker’s face was one I hadn’t seen before. He stared at me with a sort of profundity, as if I’d answered a question he hadn’t even known he’d been asking. And yet the revelation seemed to strike him as a blow, and his look of desperate misery almost made me step back. It was the look of a man who has just seen proof of hell’s existence, an answer to one of life’s deepest questions, and not the answer he wanted to hear.
“Mr. Baker,” I said, keeping my voice level, “I’m asking you to leave the premises.”
He swallowed, and something indescribably sad crossed his features. “If only you’d let me explain.”
“There’s no need.” My voice rose almost to shrillness. I wanted no part of the sadness and desperation on his face, none at all. “I’m well acquainted with the local constable. If you don’t leave, I’ll have no choice but to send for him.”
It was a bluff—the local constable thought me a hussy, when he thought of me at all—but Mr. Baker only looked ashamed. He took an expensive handkerchief from his pocket. “I’m sorry,” he said, dabbing his forehead and looking away. “Good night.”
And then he was gone, without another word to me, my front door shutting on the back of his well-cut suit. I still had no idea why he’d come, what he’d wanted, or even why he’d left so quickly. I told myself the most important point was that he had gone. You’re a woman alone in this job, my mother had taught me. You must never take chances.
I sighed into the lonely quiet of my sitting room. I looked around at the narrow chintz sofa, the heavy draperies over the front window, the plum velvet curtain hanging artfully over the door to the corridor. In the middle of the room was the session table, a simple square with a flowered tablecloth and wooden chairs on opposite sides. Every piece in the room had been picked out by my mother.
“At least he paid me in advance,” I said to no one.
The room stared silently back at me. Theatrical, my mother had called the decor, yet respectable. It’s the sort of look that works best.
The Fantastique. That was what my mother had called herself. It had made my father uneasy and the neighbors had never approved, but séances were a very lucrative business. For as long as I had memory, there had been a small hand-painted sign in the window next to our front door, a crystal ball with striped rays emanating from it. THE FANTASTIQUE, it read. PSYCHIC MEDIUM. SPIRIT COMMUNICATION. DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FROM THE DEAD? Everyone, it seemed, had someone dead they wanted to talk to.
“It looks a bit like a sunset,” I’d said to my mother of that painted crystal ball when I’d been old enough to notice.
“It’s theatrical, yet respectable,” she’d replied. “It’s the sort of look that works best.”
Then my father died in the war, and my mother and I were left alone in our little house in St. John’s Wood, my mother grieving and, eventually, sick. She taught me everything she knew. And when she died three years ago, what was I to do? Her clients still needed someone. The money was good enough, and steady. I was beholden to no one. Now The Fantastique was me.
But I meant to get the sign changed. The Fantastique now found lost things; that was her only offering. She didn’t do séances anymore.
I left the sitting room through the velvet curtain and went up the small staircase to my bedroom on the first floor. I undid my dress—a custom creation, dripping in black jet beads, that had been my mother’s—and set it carefully in the wardrobe. It was The Fantastique’s only costume. I disposed of my stockings and heels and untied the black scarf wound in my hair. I brushed out my short waves with a silver-backed brush. Then I tied a silk wrapper over my underthings and went barefoot to the kitchen, making a stop in the lav to wash the makeup from my face.
Supper was set on the table, a dome placed over it. I removed the dome and looked at a chop, a potato, and cooked carrots. I had a daily woman who came, cleaned, prepared a few meals, and left again, always while I was working. She didn’t mind me and I didn’t mind her. I paid her on time and she ensured I had a bottle of wine uncorked by supper. It worked out well enough.
I sat and ate in silence. Work always made me ravenous, if it didn’t give me headaches. I cleaned the plate of every crumb, trying not to think of Mr. Baker, of the sadness in his eyes. I wondered whether I should buy a gramophone to break the silence. But no, the image of a girl alone listening to a gramophone seemed a lonely one.
After supper, I poured myself my first glass of wine for the night and took up my cigarettes. It was the first week of September, with summer just beginning to let go, and the cold and dark not yet arrived. Night had fallen when I stepped into my tiny back garden, and there was no breath of heat on the breeze, but the stars were clear and the air that slid down the neck of my wrapper was warm enough to be soothing.
I lit a cigarette, and in the flare of the match I saw a man at the back gate.
I stilled. He stood in the lane that ran behind the row of houses, the wrought-iron fence barely reaching to his chest. He loomed as tall as he had in my sitting room.
“I’m sorry,” said Mr. Baker.
I couldn’t see him in the darkness after the match died, but I didn’t hear him move any closer. “I can scream,” I said, my voice curiously calm. “There are neighbors in every direction.”
“I don’t mean to frighten you,” he said from his place in the dark. “Really I don’t. You needn’t scream.”
I took a drag of my cigarette, thinking. I was still close to my back door, close enough to duck inside if he came at me. I hadn’t been lying about the neighbors. I wasn’t friends with any of them, but they would at least come to investigate if I screamed. I felt horribly vulnerable in my wrapper and bare feet, the makeup scrubbed from my face. “Look,” I said. “Just leave. I don’t know how else to make this clear. I’m not selling what you’re buying.”
“Dear God, it’s nothing like that.” Even through his desperation, he sounded disgusted. “I apologize for what happened . . . in there. I was rather shocked. I hadn’t expected . . .”
“The truth? Of course you didn’t.”
“I can explain all of it,” he said. “You’re right—the brooch was a lie. I had a good reason. I had to see you for myself, see what kind of person you are. It was important.”
I sipped my wine. I still wanted nothing to do with whatever drove him, but I was a little curious despite myself. Perhaps I’d find out why a powerful man had taken the trouble to come to a paid psychic on a Tuesday night. “And did I pass?”
He made a hoarse sound that was almost a laugh; it was unpracticed, as if it was a sound he’d never made before. “You find lost things,” he said at last. “You really do.”
“It’s my specialty, yes.”
“You knew what I was thinking. Exactly what—” He cut himself off, then made the hoarse sound again, only this time it sounded like grief. “Ellie Winter,” he said. “You have to find my sister.”
I shook my head, a senseless weight of dread filling my stomach. “No. Oh, no. I don’t find people. I made that clear to you from the beginning. I make it clear to every customer.”
“I know. You told me.”
“No exceptions, Mr. Baker.”
“My name isn’t Baker,” he said. “It’s Sutter. George Sutter.”
There was a long beat of silence in which I stared into the dark and hoped I was wrong and none of this was happening, not ever.
“My sister is—” The man at my gate stumbled over the words. “My sister was Gloria Sutter.”
My cigarette fell to the ground. “Gloria is missing?”
“Gloria is dead.”
My vision blurred, black circles overlapping black circles.
“She got herself murdered,” he said. “But before it happened, she left me a note. It said, ‘Tell Ellie Winter to find me.’ Now what do you think that means?”
I couldn’t answer. I was lowering slowly to the paving stones in my garden, my knees giving way almost gracefully, the wineglass clicking to the ground and rolling away. George Sutter said something else, but I didn’t hear it. I had raised my arms and locked my hands behind my head, squeezing my arms over my ears, blocking out the world and everything in it. I closed my eyes and felt the cool silk of my dressing gown against my cheek, and I never wanted to get up and feel anything else again.
Excerpted from The Other Side of Midnight by Simone St. James. Copyright © 2015 by Simone St James. Excerpted by permission of NAL, a division of Penguin USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Author Photo: © Adam Hunter