The fifty-room, Victorian-style Winnaford mansion, nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac, was surrounded by expansive gardens. Its sizable, ornate library was gloomy, even on bright sunshine days. A massive fireplace dominated the room, and its fire's warmth warded-off the morning chill. Above its mantel, a larger-than-life portrait of a young woman hung, awash in soft spotlighting.
A tall, thin woman stood, gazing at the portrait as the glow of the fire's flames bathed her figure. She took a hanky from her pocket and wiped her eyes and then, her nose.
Mrs. Abigail Winnaford (69), a widow, stately appearance, bedecked with jewels, and dressed in 1900 through-back fashions, was beautiful under her wrinkles and heavy makeup. She spoke to the portrait in a hushed voice. "Emma, dear." She sniffled. "Soon."
Anna Miller (32), a plump, short, and dark-haired woman, was the maid and confidant of Mrs. Winnaford. She overheard and confronted Mrs. Winnaford. "Abigail. What did ya mean by soon? We agreed."
"I agreed to no such thing," said Mrs. Winnaford, whirling toward Anna and shaking her head. "You said no more, not I."
"It must stop. No more killin', Abigail," said Anna, shaking her finger at Mrs. Winnaford. "Ain't twelve enough? Besides, the garden's full."
"We'll never know for certain that Emma has found their spirits, so we must keep sending them."
"Yer sick, Abigail. See a doctor."
"Remember your station, Anna."
"Station or no station. End this or I'll..."
"Or, what, Anna? You're as deeply involved as I."
"I'll find a way."
"Until then, we'll send one more spirit to Emma. A new candidate is arriving at three o'clock."
"Yes, I did," said Mrs. Winnaford, looking at the portrait. "Mr. Gamboni will conduct a séance in this very room under Emma's watchful eyes." She turned to Anna. "And you'll prepare the unique-desert coffee as always. Is that clear?"
"Do as you're instructed," said Mrs. Winnaford.
"Yes, ma'am. But... No... More... He'll be the last one."
"We shall see. Now be a good girl and get everything ready for his visit."
Samuel Albertson, aka Gamboni The Great, (48), was a tall, dark, and handsome, charlatan who duped old widows by faking séances using hypnotism and ventriloquism. He sat at a desk, reviewing the bookings and accounts.
Alfred Young (62), a medium-build, graying, older man, was Gamboni's business manager and chauffeur. He had been crippled in an accident and had to walk with a cane. His cane thumped as he entered the sitting room. "How'd we do with the widow Winslow?"
Gamboni looked up from the ledgers. "Excellent haul, Albert. The old darling was convinced her dear Harold had returned from the hereafter. They spent the afternoon reminiscing their most intimate escapades." Gamboni shook his head. "Quite disgusting, actually, but it earned us a sizable bonus and probably, considerable word-of-mouth business."
Albert hobbled closer and took a ledger from Gamboni. "I don't know how you do it, Sam, bilking those sweet old widows out of their fortunes for a chance to talk to their dead husbands, without so much as a blink of an eye." He ran his finger down the entries. "How many widows is it? Twenty? Thirty? And how many cities have we visited? I've lost count."
"Don't turn all rightness on me, Alfred. If your conscience overwhelms your sensibilities, you can return to the penny-ante vaudeville shows where I found you. How much did you earn? Twenty dollars per week, tops?"
Albert closed the ledger and put it on the desk. "Let's not get hasty, Sam. I'm too old to return to the stage, and since my accident, my skills have lapsed. I didn't mean anything by it."
"I'm indebted to you, Alfred, for teaching me your ventriloquism and hypnotism act while recovering. Still, I've taken it beyond anything you could've imagined. Instead of a few dollars per performance, I'm rewarded hundreds, sometimes thousands. And I'm willing to share my good fortune with you." Gamboni grinned. "Call it royalties."
"I am grateful for your kindness. It's just I never dreamed you'd push it this far."
Gamboni gazed out the window, ignoring Alfred's last response.
"And if I remember by the last accounting, Alfred, you've got a pretty sum put away for yourself. So long as the gullible old gals want me to entertain them—and that's all it is: entertainment—I'm ready to accommodate them for the right price." Gamboni gestured with a wave of his arms. "We've reached the pinnacle of our game. Fame, fortune, and beautiful women for the asking, what more could we ask for?"
Alfred looked at Gamboni and cringed.
"But aren't you playing with fire?"
Gamboni looked at Alfred with amazement.
"What do you mean?"
"What if there is an afterlife and you're making the spirits angry. They may decide to get even with you. Every time you fake a séance, the god of the afterlife may reach a breaking point and finally say, "Enough!""
"Hogwash, Alfred. I don't believe any of that malarkey. It's an act, and I'm pretty good at it; in fact, I'm one of the best, if not the best. Have you seen the backlog of bookings recently?"
Alfred picked up the ledger again. "Yes. There are solid bookings for the next six weeks."
"That should be proof enough, Alfred. Crosscheck them. Decline any widow who isn't wealthy and schedule one who is. We might as well capitalize on our popularity as long as we can."
"Okay, Sam. You're the boss, as they say."
Gamboni gazed out the window again.
"By the way, Alfred, it's Mr. Gamboni."
Gamboni pivots to Alfred.
"You heard me. From now on, address me as Mr. Gamboni, not Sam."
"Isn't that a bit too far, even for you?"
"No, it's quite fitting for someone of my standing, don't you think?"
"As you wish, Mister... Gamboni," said Albert, closing the ledger and placing it back on the desk.
Gamboni looked out the window, ignoring Alfred.
Alfred turned, shook his head, and hobbled toward the door.
Gamboni began dressing for his three o'clock appointment. "Ready, Alfred? I hate being late for an appointment."
Alfred's cane thumped as he hobbled toward Gamboni's room. "Did you study the notes I collected on Mrs. Winnaford?"
"Yes. A glance."
Alfred entered Gamboni's dressing room. "She's a mysterious one."
"What do you mean?"
"Her daughter died four years ago, and she holds séances to reach her in the afterlife."
"There's more. Some mediums have gone missing after holding a séance at the Winnaford mansion."
"Probably struck gold with the old gal. And, now, traveling the Continent, most likely."
"I'm not so confident that's it. Let this one pass."
"Not on your life, Alfred. She'll be our wealthiest fleecing."
"Please reconsider. I don't often get premonitions, but I've got one now. A sense of foreboding hangs over this appointment, and I can't shake it. For once, take my advice, dear friend, and skip this one. Please. "
Gamboni waved his arms, rejecting the suggestion. "Ridiculous, Alfred. There's a fortune waiting for us." Gamboni adjusted his tie. "And I'll be late if you don't get a move on. Bring the car around."
"If you insist," said Albert, hobbling to the door.
"Can't you move any faster?"
The approach to the Winnaford mansion was a long, curving driveway with ornate statues and an iron-chain draped from marble columns on either side. Alfred stopped the car under the portico, got out, and opened the passenger door.
Gamboni hesitated and looked up. "Let's not have a scene, Alfred."
"Listen, Sam... Mr. Gamboni, I have an awful feeling about this place, something evil. Please stay in the car, and let's go back to the hotel."
Gamboni shook his head. "Don't be like an old mother-hen, Alfred. This'll be our greatest haul, and then, we'll travel to Europe, Far East, Japan. Just two old friends enjoying the good life. Now, go back to the hotel and await my call."
Gamboni got out of the car. "I'll be alright, dear friend. After all, I'm The Great Gamboni."
They chuckled and shook hands. Gamboni climbed the stairs to the front door and knocked, while Alfred drove away.
Anna opened the door.
Gamboni stood under the portico and removed his hat. "Mr. Gamboni, at your service. I have an appointment with Mrs. Winnaford for a private séance."
"Yes, Mr. Gamboni. My mistress is expecting ya. May I take yer hat and coat?"
"Certainly. Thank you."
"Please come this way."
Gamboni entered the mansion and followed Anna into the library. The fire was casting a warm glow on the room.
"Ya may sit in the comfy smoking chair if ya please," said Anna, pointing to an over-stuffed chair. "My mistress will join ya shortly."
"I prefer to examine the portrait for a few moments," said Gamboni, gazing at the painting above the mantle. "Who is this woman? She's stunning. Tell me all about her."
"Tis Emma. Emma Winnaford. My mistress' daughter."
"Emma? My word. The obituary photo didn't do her justice."
"The gloom over this house lasted a year or more."
"I'm sorry for your loss. Perhaps we'll contact Emma's spirit during the séance."
Anna cocked her head. "That's why yer here, isn't it, sir?"
"Yes, it is. Quite..." Gamboni cleared his throat. "Well..." He cleared his throat again. "I'll enjoy the portrait while I wait."
"As ya wish, sir," said Anna, curtsying and leaving Gamboni to admire the portrait alone.
Anna joined Mrs. Winnaford in the butler's pantry. They each peeked through the partially opened door and watched Gamboni, unobserved.
"Well?" whispered Mrs. Winnaford.
"He's a handsome one. More so than any of the others."
"Beyond his outward appearances."
"I encountered him only a few minutes ago," whispered Anna.
"First impressions then."
"He's the only one who wanted to know more about Emma. He is quite taken by her portrait. Almost mesmerized by it."
Mrs. Winnaford peeked to observe him again. "He is tall and broad-shouldered and..."
Anna joined her. "And in the prime of his life."
"A good gauge of age, Anna?"
"Mid to late forties, I'd guess."
"My guess, as well."
"Should I prepare the unique-blend dessert coffee?" whispered Anna.
"You're too hasty, Anna," said Mrs. Winnaford, adjusting her dress. "I must meet Mr. Gamboni first. Then I'll decide. Meanwhile, prepare tea and sandwiches."
Anna murmured and turned to her chores. Mrs. Winnaford stepped into the library.
Gamboni extended his hand and lightly held hers for a moment. "Mrs. Winnaford, I presume. Gamboni at your service."
"Glad to meet you, Mr. Gamboni. Your reputation precedes you."
"A good reputation, I trust." Gamboni reached for a business card and handed it to Mrs. Winnaford. She took it and gave it a quick glance.
"Gamboni... The... Great..." Mrs. Winnaford turned the card over. It was blank. "That's it? Nothing else? It's rather pretentious, don't you think?"
Gamboni shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He tried to force a casual smile without looking too fake. "Uh... Shouldn't we sit and start the séance."
"Before starting, we should have some refreshments. Anna... Anna."
They sat where the fire cast its warmth on them. Gamboni's card casually slipped from Mrs. Winnaford's fingers and landed on a side table as Anna entered the room.
"Yes, ma'am. Coffee?"
"No, Anna... Not yet. First, some tea and sandwiches."
Anna frowned, curtsied, and left.
"I am deeply sorry for the loss of your daughter, Emma. Please accept my sincerest condolences."
"Most kind, Mr. Gamboni."
"Perhaps we will contact Emma's spirit."
"Perhaps we will. Perhaps we will indeed..."
Anna returned, pushing a serving cart of refreshments. "Refreshments are served. Tea, ma'am?"
"Yes, thank you, Anna."
"Mr. Gamboni? Milk? Sugar?"
"Thank you, no—just tea."
"That'll be all, Anna. We'll manage the sandwiches."
"Yes, ma'am. Shall I brew the coffee, now?"
"Yes... But not too hot, Anna. Too much heat bitters the taste, you know."
"Yes, ma'am." Anna smiled, curtsied, and left.
"Now, Mr. Gamboni, may I ask a few personal questions before the séance?"
"No. My business manager, Alfred, and I travel where my appointments take us. We are staying at the Grand Arms Hotel on this trip."
"Alfred managed to book four, besides you, and then we pack up and move on. You're our last one."
"Interesting... No relatives or acquaintances in town?"
"Except for appointments, Alfred and I are strangers in your beautiful city. Shouldn't we proceed with the séance?"
"Not before a dessert coffee. Anna..." Mrs. Winnaford raises her voice. "Anna."
Anna entered and curtsied. "Yes, ma'am."
"Coffee... The unique blend, Anna."
"Right away, ma'am. Right away." Anna grinned, curtsied, and left.
"You'll like this unique blend, Mr. Gamboni. Smooth as silk to the palate."
"Who's your roaster?"
"Oh no, Mr. Gamboni, I couldn't reveal our roaster. It's a family secret."
"A unique blend from a mysterious roaster. Oh, the anticipation... You heighten the delight of a good cup of coffee all the more, Madam."
"You have no idea."
Anna returned with two coffees on a silver tray with a creamer and a sugar bowl. "Cream? Sugar?"
"I like my black," said Gamboni.
"Thank you, Anna," said Mrs. Winnaford. "I'll fix my own."
Anna curtsied and stood off to one side.
Gamboni stood to admire the portrait from afar. He brought the cup to his lips but didn't drink.
Anna and Mrs. Winnaford glanced at each other. Mrs. Winnaford stood and walked to the fireplace. She looked up at the portrait, her back to Gamboni.
"Emma's beautiful, isn't she?" asked Mrs. Winnaford.
"More beautiful than any woman I've ever met."
"Em. Emma, my dear," said Mrs. Winnaford, speaking to the portrait. "What do you think of Mr. Gamboni?"
Mrs. Winnaford threw her voice using ventriloquism. "He's very handsome, mother." Winnaford turned around and faced Gamboni.
Gamboni's mouth was agape. His eyes were as large as saucers. For a moment, he couldn't move.
"What's the matter, Mr. Gamboni?" asked Mrs. Winnaford. "You haven't touched your coffee."
Reactively, Gamboni chugged the coffee in one gulp. His eyes were locked on the portrait.
"Not well, Mr. Gamboni? Something startle you?"
"The... The portrait spoke."
"Yes, so it seems. But you're not the only one here with theatrical skills."
"Then, the portrait didn't speak?"
"Oh, no, it didn't." Mrs. Winnaford walked to her chair. "But the illusion made you gulp your coffee."
"To what end?"
"Poison," said Mrs. Winnaford, smiling.
"The coffee, of course."
"I tasted nothing unusual."
"Our unique blend. Don't you remember, or has the poison already entered your bloodstream and fogged your memory?"
"Madam, I beg of you. The antidote..."
"There is none."
"Surely... There must be..." Gamboni loosened his tie and collar. "I need air..."
"Don't fight it. Soon you'll pass into the hereafter and be with Emma... You'll be the perfect couple."
"But there's no afterlife," yelled Gamboni.
"You're wrong, Mr. Gamboni. There is an afterlife, and Emma is there. And she's very much alive."
"You crazy old bat." Gamboni coughed. "Emma's dead."
"Emma lives, I tell you, and I want her to have the perfect companion throughout eternity."
Gamboni cleared his throat. "It's... It's all a fake, a sham. I'm a fake. All mediums are fakes."
"I knew that about you, about all mediums when I scheduled séances."
"All? Then I'm not the first?"
"No... But you're the 'Greatest.' Your card said as much. And your answers were the best of all..."
Gamboni teetered, unable to navigate on his feet. He extended his hand to the mantel for support. "Gamboni is my stage name. I'm Sam Albertson, an actor. I came here to dupe you, to prey on your vulnerability, to trick you. That's no reason to murder me."
"There's reason, aplenty."
"You're handsome, healthy, and full of vitality. Perfect in every way for Emma."
Gamboni tried to grab for Mrs. Winnaford. "Damn you..." Gamboni's knees buckled, and he side-rolled to the floor. His body jerked as his muscles spasmed.
"Be calm, Mr. Gamboni. It won't be long now."
"No... Don't... Do... This..." Gamboni's breathing was labored. He frothed at the mouth. He tried to lift his arm, but it quickly dropped to the floor. He mumbled. "Help... Me. Hel... p..."
Mrs. Winnaford whispered in his ear. "And you should know, Mr. Gamboni, Emma is far more beautiful in person than any portrait could show."
"Is he... Dead?" asked Anna, leaning over him.
"Not yet... There's no escaping the poison." Anna and Mrs. Winnaford stood by Emma's portrait. "Mr. Gamboni should be joining Emma very soon."
As the women conversed, they ignored Gamboni gasping for air.
"Can ya be sure?" asked Anna.
"What do you mean?"
Behind them, Gamboni convulsed and breathed his last breath, but they took no notice of him.
"How they gonna find each other?" asked Anna.
"Considering how many people have died and are dying every minute, the afterlife must be a crowded place."
"Good point, Anna..."
"How will she find..."
"Not our concern. Emma has eternity to work that out."
"Ya plan to keep on, then?" asked Anna.
"Yes, if we send enough companions to her, she'll eventually find one."
"Ma'am... But ya agreed."
"What's the count?"
"Twelve, plus this one. But..."
Turning away and looking out the window, Mrs. Winnaford disregarded Anna's objection. "Fortunately, our garden is expansive. Under the shade of the lilacs should be an excellent place for Mr. Gamboni. And afterward, a bed of yellow and orange tulips will brighten our spring."
"And we've got the problem of his manager, Alfred. What'll we do about him?"
"Wasn't he to meet Mr. Gamboni later?"
"Yes, he was."
"Couldn't you ring and invite him for an early dessert coffee?"
"Once the grave is dug, one or two bodies make little difference."
Anna rubbed her callused hands together. "Might we ask the gardener to help with the digging? My hands, ya know..."
"I suppose so." Mrs. Winnaford looked out the window and mumbled. "Roots under oaks and maples run wide and deep, but we have many bushes. Room for so many more..." She nearly fainted but leaned against the wall.
"Ma'am, are ya alright?"
"I feel funny... My left hand and arm are numb... Weariness, that's all... So many to deal with, but Emma must have a companion... She must... She..." She stood and looked at Anna, the left side of her face sagged, and her words slurred. "Is it Friday? Mr. Gamboni should be arriving soon..."
Anna rushed to Mrs. Winnaford's side, took her arm, and guided her to a chair. "Maybe ya ought to sit awhile."
Mrs. Winnaford flopped in the chair. Coffee... And yes, Anna, we'll need coffee for Mr. Gamboni..."
Anna mopped the perspiration from Mrs. Winnaford's brow. "How about some tea, ma'am. A hot cup of tea is what ya need."
"Tea?" mumbled Mrs. Winnaford.
"I'd like some. Thank you, Anna."
"I'll brew a fresh pot. A unique blend just for ya. It's smooth as silk to the palate." Anna went to the kitchen.
Mrs. Winnaford's eyes followed her until Anna left the room. Her head flopped to one side, and she half-smiled. Raising her voice, she said, "Anticipation heightens the delight of a good cup of tea all the more, don't you think... Remember, not too hot, Anna. Too much heat bitters the taste, you know."
From the kitchen, Anna answered. "I know, ma'am... I know."
A few minutes later, Anna returned, carrying a silver serving tray with tea, milk, and sugar. "Piping hot, ma'am."
"Not too hot... Not too..."
Anna mixed a little milk and sugar with the tea. She handed the cup to Mrs. Winnaford. "No, ma'am. Just the way ya like it..."
Mrs. Winnaford brought the cup to her lips but didn't drink.
Anna's face contorted. "Yer tea'll get cold."
Winnaford looked past her toward Emma's portrait. "Mr. Gamboni will arrive soon. Emma... Companion... We must..."
Anna stood facing Emma's portrait, her back to Mrs. Winnaford. "Em. Where are you, Emma?" Anna turned to Mrs. Winnaford, who was transfixed on Emma's portrait.
"Drink your tea, ma'am... Don't ya remember?"
Mrs. Winnaford took a sip.
"Another sip... That's right, said Anna, tilting the cup to Mrs. Winnaford's lips. "Emma's not with us anymore; she died four years ago... Remember?"
Mrs. Winnaford shook her head.
Tipping the cup again, Anna said, "One more sip... Good, good." Anna returned the empty cup to the serving tray. "Now rest, ma'am."
Mrs. Winnaford slumped in her chair. "You're so good to me, Anna," said Mrs. Winnaford, sobbing. "But, I miss Emma so."
"I know, ma'am, but you'll see her soon enough..."
"What do you mean?"
"What about the tea?" asked Mrs. Winnaford.
"It's another unique blend, ma'am."
"It won't be long," said Anna, patting Mrs. Winnaford's hand.
"Too many bodies," said Anna. "I couldn't murder another one..."
"They were all for Emma."
"In the beginning, maybe, but after a while, it became more. Something purely evil. I had to stop ya."
"But you helped..." Mrs. Winnaford loosened her collar. "The antidote... Top shelf... Kitchen... Hurry..."
"No antidote," said Anna, shaking her head. "Try to be calm, ma'am. 'Don't fight the poison,' is what ya always said. Ain't so easily done when yer clinging to life, is it?"
Mrs. Winnaford's muscles twitched and spasmed. Her breathing labored. She frothed at the mouth. She tried to lift her good arm, but it flopped to her lap.
"Anti... Dote... Help... Me... Hel... P..."
Mrs. Winnaford's body convulsed one last time and then was still.
"Hopefully, ya'll find Emma and the peace ya could never find here..."
The ground was wet from overnight rain. Clouds blocked the morning sun.
Anna and Ezekiel Moses (65), the gardener, poked the soil near the lilacs with a shove, looking for the softest ground.
"Try here, Zeke," said Anna, pointing to the earth beneath a tall, ancient bush whose arching branches were laden with fragrant blooms.
"Yes'um, Missy Anna," said Ezekiel as he sunk his shovel into the dirt. Easy digin'. Not many roots neither."
"Good. Bury them, here."
"Be less digin' if'n they's all goes in one hole."
"That don't seem respectful."
"They's won't minds a bit," said Ezekiel. "My old bones can't be diggin' no three holes today."
"Alright, Zeke. Ya dig. I'll get them ready."
"Yes'um, Missy Anna."
"When we're done, plant a bed of yellow and orange tulips. Madam liked their cheerful colors. They'll brighten our spring."
"Yes'um. They will, for sure."
Anna disappeared in a side door of the mansion. Ezekiel's shovel struck a stone, he stopped, pitched it aside, and kept digging.
A light fog snaked through the gardens. Birds sang from their treetop perches, a rabbit scurried to a nearby clump of tasty grass, and squirrels busied themselves searching and burying. All-in-all, the gardens were a peaceful place.