Author Note: This is the second episode of my virtual season for Houdini & Doyle. If you haven't read the previous episode, Pavo ad Mortem, you should read that one first. Feedback is always welcome, let me know what you think!
Thomas James Sullivan was not the type of person usually found as a guest in proper English homes. Working for the estate? Certainly. But not a guest. For starters he was Irish, though he hid the lilting accent well. His hair and eyes were dark, his clothes were acceptable though his plain yellow waistcoat and rumpled, brown suit coat weren't of the latest fashionable cut. He was a young man, barely thirty, but thanks to a generous benefactor he had his own small photography business that gained him access to the world of the well-heeled and well-to-do.
He stared at the house on the slight hill as he lifted down his camera and equipment from the cab. There was certainly money in this job he realised as he looked over the well-manicured grounds and house. The house itself was three stories high and sprawled along the top of the low hill. Sullivan counted the windows in the second floor and decided there were at least six guest bedrooms in the side of the house facing the drive, the servants quarters were marked by the tiny windows under the eaves.
The cab man impatiently waited as he removed the last of the baggage, Sullivan paid him and the man drove off, the clop-clop of the horse rather loud now he was on the outskirts of London. He picked up his travel case and the camera case in one hand, the tripod and the bag with his case of photographic plates and other equipment in the other and started up the long, sweeping gravel drive.
He glanced around the grounds as his feet crunched along the drive and whistled softly to himself. The lawns were clipped short and were already a lush green, the flower beds had been worked, he could smell the faint odor of manure, and a few hearty plants pushed through the loamy dirt. As the drive curved, Sullivan caught a glimpse of the back of the property and the twinkle of sunlight as it played off the river at the bottom of the hill.
The river was why he was invited to the fashionable manor belonging to Mr and Mrs August Ellis. Emily Ellis had died in that river the summer before, but Mrs Hazel Ellis was sure her daughter's spirit still remained in the house. She had hired Thomas to take Emily's spirit picture and prove once and for all to her husband she was not crazy.
He climbed the three steps up to the main entrance and pulled the bell-rope beside the door. He heard the chimes echo faintly through the house and composed his face into a proper sense of decorum as the heavy door was pulled open by an older man in a formal coat.
"Mr Sullivan for Mrs Ellis," Sullivan announced himself to the doorman and waited with a polite smile on his face.
The man at the door looked Sullivan up and down, glanced at the bags and tripod in his hands and nodded. He opened the door wide enough for Sullivan to enter and asked, "Do you require assistance, sir? Mrs Ellis is waiting for you in the library."
Sullivan couldn't help himself as he stared around the wide entry hall. The floor was tiled in marble and the tables flanking to door were also marble with ornate crystal vases holding cut flowers. Several paintings lined the walls leading away from the door and he recognised a few of the famous artists represented in the collection.
Thomas looked back as the door closed behind him and remembered he'd been asked a question. "Umm, no I think I've got it, thanks."
The older man merely nodded and led the way down the hall. Sullivan peered through doorways as he passed and saw an ornate sitting room off to his left with comfortable chairs, lace-covered tables with smaller vases of flowers or small knick-knacks, a fireplace opposite the door, and a piano. The walls were papered in a subtle paisley, and more paintings hung on the walls. A single wide window lit the room with a view of the front of the house and the gravel drive.
The room on the right a little further down the hall was a study paneled in dark wood with a huge carved desk along the back wall flanked by two floor to ceiling windows that looked out on the back lawns and the river below. A large painting of a beautiful woman hung on one wall over the fireplace. Bookcases lined the wall to the left of the door.
He entered the library and tried to keep the sense of naked greed from showing in his eyes. The room was paneled with the same dark wood as the study he'd passed, but somehow managed to still appear light and airy. Two walls were lined with more bookcases and another fireplace; the shelves lined with leather-bound books of all sizes. A case to the right of the door held several smaller books open so as to admire the ornate calligraphy. A two leather chairs sat opposite each other to the left of the door with a heavy wooden table between them holding a lamp.
Windows lined the wall opposite the door and looked out on the river, the gently rolling hill with a copse of trees just starting to bud, and a painted gazebo behind the house. A man and a woman sat in the two chairs in front of the windows, a china tea service dominated the table between them.
"Mr Sullivan, ma'am," the doorman announced.
"Thank you, William," the woman said as she and her companion stood.
Thomas carefully set down the camera and other equipment near the leather chairs and stepped forward.
The woman before him was tall, nearly the same height as her companion, her dress emphasizing her stature. The dress itself was the height of current taste made of a dark material without being completely black. The collar and sleeves were finished with fine lace. The only ornament she wore was a large broach with a silhouette of a child worked into it clasped at her throat. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face in a loose bun and she held a lace kerchief in one hand.
The gentleman beside her was tall and dignified, his green waistcoat finely embroidered and the cut of the grey suit coat and trousers spoke of expensive tailoring. His hair was dark brown with a touch of grey at his temples. He smiled politely at Sullivan as Mrs Ellis stepped forward. Thomas thought he looked vaguely familiar.
"Mr Sullivan, I'm so glad you could come," Mrs Ellis said as she stopped in front of him. "I was told you were the best man for this job and I hope you will be able to help me."
"I will do whatever I can, ma'am," Thomas replied and glanced at the man beside her again.
Mrs Ellis turned to her companion and held out her hand beckoning to the man standing near the table. "This is a dear friend of the family. Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle, Mr Thomas Sullivan." She turned to Doyle. "He is going to help me prove to August Emily is still here," she said to the doctor in a whisper as she brushed her fingers lightly over the broach.
"Really?" Doyle asked his eyes curious as he shook Sullivan's hand and glanced at the equipment piled near the leather chair.
"Spirit photography, Doctor Doyle," Sullivan explained and nodded at the camera case. "My photographic plates are specially treated in order to capture images of the dead."
"He will photograph my dear Em, and August will have to believe me," Mrs Ellis added. "There will be no way he could sell this house once he knows his daughter is still here with us."
"Well, Mr Sullivan, I hope to see the results of your work. I've recently become rather interested in such things; the idea of photographing spirits sounds intriguing," Doyle said with a smile.
Thomas smiled thinly. "It's not a guarantee, Doctor Doyle, spirits can sometimes be rather shy. But I have high hopes I'll find something of interest while I'm here."
Thomas James Sullivan looked at the abandoned house with smug self-satisfaction. It soothed his ego to know the Ellis family fortunes sank along with his own prospects after what had happened a year and a half ago. Even in the dim twilight, he noted the vacant holes where the windowpanes were broken and appreciated the sight of the ivy growing wild up one side of the house. The grounds were no longer immaculately trimmed, the flower beds were full of weeds. He didn't have any use for the manor or Mrs Hazel Ellis now, he just hoped the gazebo behind the house was still standing.
His steps crunched loudly up the drive and he quickly stepped over to the long grass as the drive curved around to the house. He jogged around to the back of the house and let out a sigh of relief when he saw the gazebo still stood near the bare and skeletal trees in the gloom. The gazebo, like the rest of the property showed signs of abandonment, chipped paint did little to hide the decayed and brittle wood as he carefully stepped into the little structure.
He reached up into the eaves near the back and pulled out a small wooden box roughly eight inches by four and stained a mellow brown. Since it was protected from the weather, the box was in better shape and still tightly sealed. Sullivan popped the lock with ease and pulled out the cloth-covered contents as he tossed the box aside. He felt the knobby contents through the cloth and smiled, finally his luck with this job was changing.
"I'll be having that now, mate," a harsh voice said from behind him.
Sullivan jerked around in surprise. "How did you find me here?" he asked. A tall, burly, red-haired man with a crooked nose and a bowler hat too small for his head stood at the front of the gazebo.
"You weren't that hard to follow, Tommy-boy," the man said with a negligent shrug. "Now why don't you just hand over that there packet." The man took a step into the gazebo and Sullivan heard the wood creak loudly in protest.
Sullivan scoffed and backed up a step. His back hit the railing of the gazebo and he felt the wood break away. "I've waited more than a year for this, Red. I earned it sitting in that stinking jail while you all were still on the outside."
Red shook his head and stepped forward enough for the dim light to bounce off the metal barrel of the gun in his hand. "Earned, Tommy-boy? You've had six months to come back with the goods once you got out. Jackie's done waiting and wants what you owes him."
Sullivan dropped the small pouch in his coat pocket and lunged to one side just as the gun fired. The bullet missed him by inches as it plowed into the solid frame of the gazebo where his head had been a moment before. He was up in an instant with a chunk of the broken railing in his hands. He swung the wood trying to hit Red's gun hand, instead the wood connected with Red's ribs.
Red let out an "umph" of pain as he doubled over, his left hand grabbed at the injured bones as the gun clattered across the gazebo.
"You'll pay for that," Red growled and lunged forward. He tackled Sullivan to the floor of the gazebo, the wood protesting loudly as they rolled back and forth. Red reached for the gun lying nearby, but instead of firing it, he slammed the gun against Thomas' head and got to his feet.
Thomas' vision blurred and blood ran down the side of his face, but he knew he had to move if he wanted to stay alive. He rolled away from where he thought Red was and his hand landed on the length of wood from the railing.
Sullivan staggered to his feet, grimaced in pain as he swung his wooden club again. He missed the other man but his momentum sent him off balance and he fell. He managed to get to his knees before Red took advantage of his mistake and fired the gun again. The bullet caught Sullivan low in the chest and he dropped to the floor of the gazebo as his legs refused to support him any longer.
He knew he was about to die. He couldn't even move his arm enough to stop Red as the other man rifled through his pockets and found the cloth pouch. He faded out when he felt Red grab his feet as the other man pulled him out of the gazebo and across the grassy hill down to the river.
He may have had a vague impression of a black ribbon of water before Red tossed him down the last few feet of the hill and into the cold river.