|Pascal Hunter has barely started investigating Lord Pankov’s murder and already he’s sorry he ever took the case.
Forced to leave his body behind, he possesses a young woman he knows nothing about. He must hide his true identity while searching for a killer. And he must prevent the memories and personality of the body he occupies from overwhelming him.
There’s a reason he hates possessing people.
THE FAMILY PANKOV
“Good morning Simza. So nice of you to join us,” the Pankov matriarch said archly.
Her day just kept getting better. Pascal had gotten back to sleep only to have her maid return to wake her and help her dress for breakfast. This time the maid was wearing a uniform with a long skirt and blouse and a black armband around her arm.
“I’m sure you’re getting tired of black, Miss Gray,” she suggested, “and since you’re not a member of the family you don’t have to stay in mourning. Maybe some color to brighten up the table?”
She had no interest in being an ornament. Brightening up the table was the last thing on her mind. She was here to investigate a murder. The quicker the better. She suspected the suggestion was not so innocent as it seemed. It might be petty revenge for waking early. “No, I think I will mourn with them.”
That earned her a hard glance and Pascal resolved to find out her position here as soon as possible. The memories were there in her head. All she had to do was think about it and they’d be there. But she might not be herself if she did that.
I am Pascal Hunter, ghost and detective.
So she wound up stepping gracelessly into the well lit breakfast hall, walking cautiously in her low heels. One advantage of mourning was the simple clothing. She had to wear a dress, but it was straight, black, and unadorned. She did not have to wear jewelry or makeup, though her maid did give her a bit of perfume so she smelled of violets.
The sooner she could complete her investigation, the sooner she could get her body back. She’d open with kindness, though she didn’t expect it to work, “Thank you, Mother Pankov. I’m sorry I was running behind, I was out of sorts this morning.” Washing, dressing, and just walking to the breakfast table all took longer than it should have. It added up.
“I hope you’re all right, my dear,” said a thin young man with concern written all over his face as he stood up to greet her.
“Oh, do keep it together Andrei. At least wait until after breakfast,” interrupted the other man at the table, darker and taller than the first. These must be the brothers, Boris and Andrei.
Given his solicitude, she guessed she was here with Andrei. The mother didn’t seem to like her, so the brothers were her best bet for information. She would have to be careful not to give herself away. If the younger son knew her, he might notice when she behaved differently. All she needed was for people to suspect she was possessed and she’d be gone.
Both men stood when she came to the table. As she went to sit down, a young blond footman rushed forward to hold her chair. Her annoyance probably showed on her face, but she tried to take her seat with some semblance of grace. It suddenly hit her how short she was. Everyone towered over her, even the teenager seating her. She might not even top five feet.
“Please Boris,” the younger brother snapped back, “it is perfectly acceptable for me to show concern for my fiancee.”
Pascal snapped her head around so quickly her neck came near to breaking. So, she wasn’t quite a guest. She would have to be careful around Andrei. He would know her well and be alert to any change, but she would not not be able to avoid him either.
“Ah, thank you. But I’m fine, really,” she responded lamely.
“I hear you woke up in the middle of the night,” Andrei offered as an invitation for her to say more.
“It was nothing,” she demurred. “I was surprised how quickly the maid heard me.”
Boris chuckled. “Heard you? You pulled back the covering from the mirror. The mirrors are linked, you called her.” He managed to convey contempt for not knowing how the mirrors worked and for rudely calling a maid so early in the morning.
“Enough. We do not permit drama at the breakfast table. Decorum, please,” announced their mother.
The woman was shorter than either of her sons, but still stood a full head over Pascal. However, she probably matched either of her sons in weight, being much wider than her fit sons. Her dark red hair was streaked with iron gray and tied back severely to emphasize her chubby cheeks. Disapproval fairly rolled off of her.
“Will Dunyasha Ivatsovna be gracing us with her presence this morning?” she asked with acid on her tongue.
“No, Mother,” Boris answered. His well trimmed beard and strong square face made him look like a man but he flushed like a boy under his mother’s gaze. “Avdotya will be taking breakfast in bed.”
“She should be joining us at table during mourning,” the old woman insisted. Andrei was obviously uncomfortable with his brother’s grilling, but not enough to intercede.
“She has been— queasy. Upset stomach. She’ll join us again when she recovers.”
No one believed him. Pascal had just met him and could tell he was lying. Fortunately, their mother accepted it. Unwillingly, but she accepted it.
Conversation withered and died under her glare while the servants brought out breakfast. Perfectly poached eggs with a cheesy Mornay Sauce were accompanied by crispy fried sardines and toast with jam. They had some of the thickest coffee she’d ever tasted. She added a little fresh cream and it was smooth and rich. This body handled mornings better than her old one but she still appreciated a good cup of coffee.
She had to remind herself she was here for a case, not a vacation. It would be too easy to enjoy this. It would be unfair to the girl, Simza, to stay any longer than necessary.
There was a sudden nudge at her side. Andrei was poking her. He gave a slight nod and raised his eyes. Boris and Lady Pankov were watching her, and she realized she was digging into breakfast a little too enthusiastically.
She covered her mouth. “Excuse me,” she said with a small grin.
“Hmph,” sniffed Lady Pankov.
Boris shook his head sadly while Andrei turned back to his breakfast. She tried to eat more slowly and delicately, though it was hard to remember that in the face of such fine food. She sipped her coffee slowly but lovingly.
The wonderful food and luxurious setting almost made up for the chill at the table. Cold glares accompanied any attempt at conversation. Even the most anodyne openings were shot down when Pascal tried them. “It looks like a beautiful day today,” she’d tried.
“Only if you have nothing to do,” Boris responded. “We’ll have storms again this afternoon.”
“I’m sure she doesn’t know any better,” Boris’s mother said to him, pointedly ignoring Pascal.
It was clear they disliked her, but she did not understand the reason. Until she had the lay of the land, she resolved to listen more than speak. Her resolution lasted less than a minute.
“Sonya will be returning from Fall of Night this afternoon,” Lady Pankov announced. “And my father will be joining us for dinner tonight,” she added with a slight grimace. Pascal felt oddly cheered that the woman’s disdain was not reserved for her.
Then it hit her. Sofiya was returning today. It had taken her a full day to find a body. “I would like to meet Sofiya’s coach on the road,” she volunteered.
Silence fell like a lead balloon.
“Wonderful idea,” Andrei finally piped in with false cheer. “You two will be sisters, it’s very kind of you to meet her. You can get to know each other better.” He struggled to smile at her, but failed.
“I suppose so,” said Lady Pankov with a notable lack of enthusiasm. “Have Roman Ivanov saddle a horse for her,” she said to a tall old servant overseeing the room. After he confirmed the order, she turned back to Pascal, “Do you think you can be on time for that?” Her tone had enough acid enough to etch steel.
“That’s unfair, Mother,” Andrei remonstrated with her, “You’ve overslept on occasion as well. Look how hard it was to awaken you when father—”
“Ladies are present, brother,” the elder interrupted, “and that was a sign of how deeply connected they were. Are.”
“Yes, that was terrible,” Pascal put in. They were talking around the subject, but it was probably the murder. “It’s hard to believe his valet would—”
“Ahem. We are still at the table,” Lady Pankov announced with her hands flat by her plate. She stayed seated but looked like she was about to stand. “Whatever your people may discuss during meals, we do not raise such subjects here.”
“Of course, Mother Pankov. My apologies.” Pascal fumed inside.
The blond footmen who had seated Pascal smiled surreptitiously at his partner. She realized it wasn’t just the Pankovs and the maids who disliked her. This job was not going to be easy.
She wondered what Simza had done to earn so much enmity. The maid’s suggestion that she leave mourning looked more like sabotage and less like petty revenge. She was glad she sidestepped it.
“Do we have any visitors today, Mother?” Boris asked as he picked up another sardine.
“The Kustovs shall be paying their respects this afternoon,” she replied. “You remember them, they are the tenants on the old dairy farm. We will receive them in the gardens, I think. You and your wife will be there,” she announced. It was not a question.
“I’m sure that will not be a problem, Mother,” he answered with ill concealed irritation.
When Pascal was quiet, they directed their barbs at each other. While that was pleasant, silence would not get her any leads. She had a murder to solve. She’d need a better plan soon. It was a bad sign when Sofiya was likely to be her best ally.
- ♇ -
“Simcha my dear, may I speak with you a moment,” Andrei called to her as they were leaving the breakfast table. His tone was a warning.
“Of course,” she agreed. He took her arm and escorted her to the library. She had to take a moment to look at the room. The walls were lined with shelves of leather bound volumes. Glass cases displayed prizes of the collection. A portrait of a man in chain mail holding a book in one hand and a sword in the other held pride of place over the mantle. She wondered briefly who he was. It was a large and impressive collection and she hoped she’d be able to find some time to peruse it.
The same dark iron lamps that decorated her bedroom were here in even greater number. They were uncovered, but she saw hooks above the lamps where covers would hang.
Andrei closed the door quietly behind him.
“What was that all about?” he said with obvious frustration.
“What do you mean?” she started to say, but stopped herself since it was obvious why he was upset. “I didn’t sleep well. Bad dreams, all night. About your father…” No sense wasting an opportunity.
“Please, kitten, be careful.” His voice was softer now, caring. “It was hard enough to get my father to give his blessing and now Boris takes over when we finish mourning. He will be Lord Pankov in five days. He can withdraw father’s blessing, and he will if my mother asks him.”
He grabbed her hands, held them close to his chest. Pascal resisted and tried to pull them back, then relented when she realized it was out of character. She could see pain in his eyes.
“Can we sit down for a few moments?” she asked him.
He agreed, and she took a seat on the plush couch. She sat down a touch heavily and found her dress pulling against the edge of the sofa. Recovering, she inched forward to sit less comfortably on the edge of the seat. The two of them were black blots against the dark green covers.
I am Pascal Hunter.
Andrei looked at her questioningly, but then relaxed.
She took a deep breath and pressed her hand to her forehead theatrically. “Tell me what happened that morning, when your father died.”
“Simcha, what brought this on?”
“The dreams I had. Please,” she lied.
With a suspicious gleam in his eye, he asked, “Is this why you wanted to meet Sonya today? I thought that was a fine idea, truly I did. But I hope you won’t share this unnatural obsession my sister has developed. Yakim Sergeyin Laskutin killed Father, and that’s the end of it.”
Andrei was upset, but he’d provided an excuse for her behavior. She wasn’t in danger of being caught.
“Humor me, Andrei,” she asked, then added, “my dear,” after a pause.
“Oh very well,” he said with a toss of his hand, “but this will end the matter, won’t it?”
She nodded, trying to appear demure, but probably failing.
“Let’s see now. Yakim Sergeyin woke me up, and I remember being surprised about that. He told me to come quickly, there was something wrong with Father. The man was agitated but not panicked, which I know now was a deliberate front. I started to dress, but he interrupted and told me to come quickly. A bit of cheek there, but I thought little of it at the time.”
“Was he dressed for normal duty?” she asked.
“Hm, well, let me see. Yes, I believe he was. I didn’t look too closely, still rubbing sleep from my eyes at the time. But he never left to change, and I know he was in uniform when the inspector got here. Suited up, tie fastened, I presume his shoes were shined and all the rest.”
She wanted to ask for more details, but had to keep it light. Investigating without appearing to investigate was a tricky business. It would slow things down, but people were less likely to clam up or lie, so it evened out in the long run. It was not her first time to operate under a cover identity.
Andrei was staring into the distance, wrapped up in his memories. Hopefully he was paying more attention to them than to her. She might be able to push him a bit.
“Boris and Fedya Illyitch,” the tall, bald butler, “were already with Father when I got there. Are you sure you want to hear this my dear? I do not want to shock you or disturb your sleep further.”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I think it will help settle my sleep and end my bad dreams if you tell me what really happened.” She tried to make her voice quaver, “It’s so horrible just imagining how it was.”
He brought his hand to his chin, thoughtful. “I hadn’t thought of that. Very well then. Boris was leaning over Father, checking his neck for a pulse and talking to him. Fedya took me aside and explained that Yakim found Father in this state— Excuse me, you said you wanted to hear the raw truth. He said Yakim thought Father was dead.”
Andrei paused and looked at Pascal. She realized he was waiting for a reaction. She had to think a moment before she realized what he was looking for. She opened her eyes wide, and put her hand over her mouth. “Oh my,” she gasped.
“Yes, well…” He could tell something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what it was yet. She might be on dangerous ground.
“I tried to grab Father’s shoulders, to shake him awake, but Boris insisted we leave him alone. He wanted to be sure the gendarmes could inspect the scene as it was. Good thing too, they thanked us for our presence of mind when they were done.”
He thought a moment, then added, “I remember telling Yakim to wake Mother, that she should be there with Father. Fedya answered for him. Turns out he’d sent Yakim to get Mother before me, but he couldn’t wake her. We all agreed we’d let Sonya sleep until the gendarmes got there. Oh yes, I think Fedya said he’d contacted them while Yakim was getting me.”
“What was the bed like?” she asked forcefully, and again got a quizzical expression in reply. She had to watch herself. Andrei was giving her a great deal of information. She had to keep him concentrating on his memories and not on her.
“It was pulled tight, as though it had just been made up and Father squeezed into the bed without disturbing the sheets. It’s funny where your mind goes; I remember thinking that Yakim must have made the bed with Father lying in it. It was a bit rumpled near Father, probably from Boris trying to wake him. But overall surprisingly neat.”
“What did you do?” She finally got a sympathetic glance from him. This, it seemed, was a question he expected her to ask.
“I wish I could impress you with a tale of heroism or detective work, but the truth is that Boris is the one who held everything together. After he stopped me from disturbing the scene, I wound up staring out the window. Boris went downstairs to wait for the gendarmes and Fedya Illyitch left to organize the staff. Yakim and I stayed with Father. I don’t think I moved from the window sill until the officials arrived.”
“How long did it take?”
“An hour, maybe less. We have a page linked to their emergency book at the station house, and they responded quickly. Sonya woke up before they got here and found out what was going on. She tried to get in to see Father, but Yakim kept her out. I remember appreciating that at the time,” he grinned tightly. “Does that help settle your mind?”
“Yes, mostly. But I don’t see why you think your father was murdered, let alone why you blame his valet.”
“This is why you wanted to meet Sonya today then, isn’t it?” He said with a rising voice. He slapped the back of his hand on his other hand with a clap for emphasis. “Has she gotten you to believe her foolish ideas? She has a child’s attachment to Father’s valet, but I assure you, kitten, that the man is guilty.” He calmed down as he spoke. Pascal could tell he was making a deliberate effort.
“Please then, tell me why. Make me see it.”
“The gendarmes sent an inspector. While they had their doctor examine Father, he looked at the bed and found a piece of it had been cut off. Of course he asked us about it, and Fedya assured him they inspected the blankets daily when the maids aired them out. They searched the servants’ rooms, and found the piece in the dresser in Yakim’s room. The doctor said Father suffocated in bed, and they arrested the man on the spot. He used the piece to control the sheets and hold Father so tight he couldn’t breathe.”
She wondered briefly if there was a reason that the police were called gendarmes. The word came from a different language than they spoke. She didn’t get to consider it for long.
Andrei grabbed her hands and held them tightly. This time she controlled herself enough not to pull away. “Is that enough for you? I do not want you to upset yourself over this. It is not an appropriate topic for a lady and we must not anger my mother.”
“Yes, thank you. I think that was a big help.”
“Please try to get on with my sister, but you don’t need to join her conspiracies,” he said with a teasing smile.
With that he put his hand behind her neck and pulled her to him. As she saw his face get closer she pulled back for an instant, mouth wide. Suddenly remembering, she tried to relax as he kissed her. It was clear he knew something was wrong and was hurt by her rejection.
She had to solve Lord Pankov’s murder quickly and without much help. The woman, Simza Gray, had her own life to live. Pascal was stealing a portion of her life, and now she risked driving off the girl’s fiance. Her body shivered with despair at the thought.
I am Pascal Hunter. And I hate possessing people.
- ♇ -
She did not have to ride side saddle.
That had worried her, it was a stupid way to ride. Fortunately it wasn’t expected. The maids set out black riding clothes and so she got to wear pants again. She’d have to see if she could find more excuses to go riding.
Walking to the stables gave her a chance to see Nuvye Park from outside. Huge. She’d only seen a small fraction of it that morning. It had been built at that odd point in time when people still knew how to build castles for defense but didn’t really think they’d need them.
It sat on a hill with a commanding view of the surrounding areas. The ground floor was hard stone with narrow slits for windows, but the upper floors had wide picturesque windows with great views. A ditch around the base of the hill could have been a moat or filled with spikes, but instead it was a flower garden with walks leading straight to the doors. Four gray stone towers at the corners rose high into the air, and gargoyles at the top provided cover. The rest of the roof was designed to prevent rain from getting in rather than defense. It was a strange and yet beautiful place.
The stable master was a deeply tanned, heavily muscled man with black hair hanging down to his shoulders. “Afternoon Miss Gray,” he greeted her. If he wasn’t overly profuse, at least he was not openly hostile. So far, that was the best she could hope for.
“Good afternoon, Roman,” she answered back.
He looked past her, to see if she’d come alone. “None of that,” he nearly snarled. “It’s Roman Ivanov to your kind.” After a pause he grudgingly added, “ma’am.”
He was openly hostile after all. Without missing a beat she asked, “You have a horse for me, Roman Ivanov?”
“Yes, and a better one than—” he trailed off with a guilty glance at two stable boys who were leading in a draft horse. “Her name’s Bright Eyes, an even tempered filly. You’ll have no problems. The coach has two drivers, have one of them bring her back to us.” She could hear him grinding his teeth while being polite.
One of the stable boys led her horse over, a chestnut mare that looked to be in excellent condition. Roman might not like her, but he would not give her a poor horse. Mounting proved awkward. She tried to step up herself but misjudged her height and nearly toppled to the ground. The boy stepped in to help her and she shied away instinctively, only to relent and let him help her up. “Thank you,” she mumbled as she rode off.
For a moment she considered breaking into a gallop and seeing how far she could push Bright Eyes. That urge didn’t survive a moment’s reflection. It had been years since she’d ridden and she was out of practice. Instead she enjoyed a few moments alone and thought about the people she’d met and the problems she’d face. Andrei was her biggest help so far but was likely to be her biggest stumbling block if he considered detective work unladylike.
Pascal knew a different class of ladies. She remembered Sharon, a woman she knew back during the Arcadian Invasion. Sharon set up barricades, berated anyone who even thought about falling back, and managed logistics for two hundred fighting men. And she was all woman every moment. There was someone who was ladylike even when covered in dirt and soot. Especially then. Pascal rejoiced, knowing those were her memories.
I am Pascal Hunter.
Her opinions to the contrary, she’d have to try to appease Andrei. She wouldn’t ruin Simza’s life if she could help it. As much as possible, she’d try to avoid pushing him away.
The road led through a small town. People stared at her but did not wave or speak. That was probably a good thing since she didn’t know who they were. The local church steeple towered above and was visible from everywhere in town. She was very tempted to stop at a local tavern, the Bloody Chalice, to compare it with the Goose, but she decided against it. She rode past rows of houses, a music hall, law offices, and grocers. A few hundred people, maybe a thousand tops, and she was on the other side.
Down the road from the town, she pulled up to the coach and dismounted, handing her horse to one of the drivers. Sofiya was taken aback when she climbed in. “Simza. This is an unexpected pleasure.” Her tone indicated anything but.
“Well, that’s not—” she started to say.
“This child is Brynn,” Sofiya interrupted. “He is an orphan from Fall of Night, and will be joining us as a pot boy for the year. Brynn, this is my younger brother’s fiancee, Simza Gray” she added with clear distaste. If her voice could curl, it would have. “You should call her Miss Gray.”
Brynn stared at Pascal suspiciously. “Well hello there, you hot young thing, you,” Brynn said while breaking into a laughing grin.
“Do we have to go through this every time I possess a woman?” complained Pascal to her partner. With her high pitched voice it sounded more like a whine than a rebuke. “You made the same jokes when we were hunting the Brizzan Pearl.”
“That was ten years ago,” the young boy whined back. “I’ve been saving up a whole mess o’ new ones.”
“Wait. Wait. Just. Wait,” interrupted Sofiya. “What are you? I don’t.” She composed herself. “Brynn, you will tell me what is going on. I do not expect to be kept in the dark. Is this Simza?”
Sofiya was quick on the uptake. It was the first time Pascal was even remotely impressed with her. “Shut up, Brynn. I’ve got this. I’m Pascal Hunter.” It felt good to say it aloud instead of keeping her mantra locked inside her head. “I’m a ghost. Rules in Fall of Night let me have my own body most of the time, but that’s not true here. If I’m going to investigate, I need to possess someone.”
“Then why Simza?” she asked with a slight sneer.
“It’s hard to describe what draws me to one person over another,” she answered honestly if evasively. “I was lucky to get this close.”
“And how close have you been getting, Paz?, asked Brynn with a leer. “Engaged? Drat, what a waste of an opportunity. You know, I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell…”
“Enough, Brynn,” she commanded. “We’ve got a murder to solve, so let’s get serious about it. That’s the first order of business. We have to keep cover, so until this is over, remember to call me Simza.”
“Harder than you might think,” Sofiya said, “You look like her, but you don’t act like her. It’s like seeing her in a funhouse mirror. It’s just— wrong.” Tapping her chin, she said, “Maybe we can make the best of this. You can put an end to my brother’s foolish mistake.”
“No. I don’t do that,” she snapped back. Knowing moral qualms would have no impact on Sofiya, she added “It would interfere with the investigation. I need to blend in, and I’m already making people suspicious. You will have to help me with that.”
“I hired you, remember?”
“And to do what you hired me for, I need to fit in. We will find out who killed your father. As of yet, I have no reason to doubt the police. Yakim might be guilty. On the other hand, I have just started to put together a time line. Speaking of which, do you know the time of death?”
“No thanks to my brothers. They seem to think I’d fall to pieces if I heard anything. Of course I know. Between midnight and 3 AM. I overheard the inspector.”
“A three hour window. That helps. I will need one more thing from you. I would like to see the police report. You probably have connections with them that I can’t duplicate.”
“That goes without saying.”
She decided against reacting to her client’s arrogance. Instead she turned to Brynn. “You’ll be working in the kitchens, so you’ll be interviewing the servants. I want to know where they were during the murder. I can already place a few at the time of discovery, but I’d prefer independent confirmation from you. So I won’t go over what I’ve found yet.”
Brynn had a predatory smile that was out of place on his cherubic face. Sofiya shuddered, but Pascal had seen it before. Many times. “Shouldn’t be a problem. People talk so freely around innocent little boys.” As soon as he stopped smiling and started picking at the seats he looked like a normal ten year old again.
“Brynn, it should be easy for Lady Sofiya and I to keep in contact but you’re largely on your own. We’ll see what we can do, but I don’t have a drop set up yet. Watch for opportunities.”
“It’s what I do best.”
Sofiya jumped in. “Take an afternoon walk in the gardens,” she said to Pascal. “That won’t look unusual, even for her. You. Then you, Brynn, have somewhere to go to find her.”
“Gardens. Sounds good,” Pascal answered while Brynn nodded.
“And Mr. Hunter. That is, Simza. You shouldn’t be calling me Lady Sofiya anymore. Let’s make it look like this little gambit of yours worked and we’ve become— friends. Call me Sonya Stanislovna or just Sonya.”
Pascal smiled. “It sounds like we’re ready to go,” she said.
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