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The Deception

The Deception

A sleight of hand. A trick up the sleeve. A call for the dead. It’s all part of the game.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ 100+ 5-Star Reviews

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A sleight of hand. A trick up the sleeve. A call for the dead. It’s all part of the game in this twisty tale by the bestselling author of After Alice Fell.

New Hampshire, 1877. Maud Price was once a celebrated child medium, a true believer in lifting the veil between the living and the dead. Now penniless, her guiding spirits gone, the so-called “Maid of Light” is desperate to regain her reputation―but doing so means putting her faith in deceiving others.

Clementine Watkins, known in spiritualist circles for her bag of tricks and utmost discretion, creates the sort of theatrics that can fill Maud’s parlor again, and with each misdirection, Maud’s fame is restored. But her guilt is a heavy burden. And the ruse has become a risk. Others are plotting to expose the fraud, and Clem can’t allow anyone―even Maud―to jeopardize the fortune the hoax has made her.

When the deception hints at a possible murder, Maud realizes how dangerous a game she’s playing. But to return to the light from which she’s strayed, she must first survive the darkness created by Clem’s smoke and mirrors.

Click to Read the Synopsis

🟠 The Deception

A gripping gothic mystery set in New Hampshire in 1865. The story follows Marion Abbott, a widow, and her brother Lionel Snow, who are summoned to Brawders House, an asylum, to collect the body of their sister, Alice. The official report claims Alice's death was an accident, but Marion suspects foul play. As she prepares Alice's body for burial, Marion discovers evidence suggesting murder, leading her to unravel family secrets and confrontations with her brother. Blakemore expertly portrays the societal constraints faced by women in the mid-1800s, highlighting Marion's struggles as a middle-aged widow. Against the backdrop of detailed historical settings, including the portrayal of women's clothing and household dynamics, the novel delves into themes of family, betrayal, and the quest for truth. With its haunting atmosphere and unexpected twists, "After Alice Fell" keeps readers on the edge of their seats until the thrilling conclusion.

🟠 Read Chapter One

Spring, 1877

Harrowboro, New Hampshire

Dear Miss Watkins,

I am in difficulty. My guardian spirit is unruly and serves distemperately. You have been recommended as a helper of those in need. If you could observe a sitting and give your thoughts and advice as to how I might amend my mediumship, I would be most grateful. I have included a card with my hours.

Yours in Faith,

Maud Price

Dear Miss Price,

Yes. I will help.

C—



Chapter One

Clementine Watkins hooked her thumb to the parlor curtain, tugging it enough to spy out on the proceedings of the room. It was a late night. A Wednesday. Her head hurt from too much whiskey the night before. Her bum, pressed to the window, had chilled to a state of numbness. The trousers and jacket she wore gave no protection from the seeping damp cold beyond the glass panes and shutters. She wriggled her toes in her socks, curling them under then stretching them out.

A yawn threatened. She swallowed it down and forced herself to ignore the cold behind her and take heed of the goings-on.

Or lack thereof.

Five people sat around a table, hands clasped, eyes shut, faces wobbling and gleaming in the light of a solitary candle. Two men, three ladies. The family Ott and a Mr. Sullivan, to be precise. Clem was close enough to touch the shoulder of Mr. Ott. He would have done better with two chairs. Now he shifted his weight from one buttock to the other and every so often let out a discomfited groan. To his right sat a young girl of longish neck and pinkish nose, her mouth already curved like her mother’s—the next participant at the table—in a permanent scowl. The mother wore the finest of mourning: soft velvet ribbons, hard jet buttons, crinoline that glimmered in the low light. The broach at her neck boasted a braid of hair and a dangling ruby. Next to her sat Mr. Sullivan. He had come alone, trailing behind the family and twisting his hat in his hand. He had bobbed his head in a mumbled greeting before the medium requested they sit.

The medium herself—Maud Price—sat still as a statue, elbows locked straight, shoulder blades pushed against the slats of her chair. She wore a simple dress of organdy, pale as her skin and hair. She was of no great beauty, with a high forehead, a pinch of nose and chin. Beauty, of course, had naught to do with psychical gifts, not at all. Still, Clem was of the opinion it did not hurt.

Suddenly, Maud Price lifted her shoulder—an inadvertent jerk of movement, enough to alert the others that soon there would be communion, soon the dearly departed would join the circle—causing the stiff material of her skirts to rustle.

The girl’s eyes snapped open and she watched Maud.

Clem slipped the curtain back, lest her hiding place be spied. She had seen the sharp spark in the girl’s eye. Doubt.

Well, after all, they had been sitting now for an impossibly long time. And Maud had made no movement save that twitch of shoulder and a few bobbles of her eyeballs under the translucent skin of her lids.

Mr. Ott cleared his throat. “So sorry.”

“It’s the weather,” the mother said.

“Horrible spring.”

“Why are your eyes open, Celia?”

“Why are yours?” the daughter answered.

Then Sullivan began to burble and broke into a sob. “Would you all be quiet?”

Clem leaned against the window frame and picked at her thumbnail. This would be the time for a good, long disembodied screech.

She was tempted.

But this wasn’t her place. Her place was to observe.

I am in difficulty.

The note had come to Clem’s boardinghouse, slipped under the tea mug on the breakfast tray and nearly used as a napkin by Russell. But Clem had nicked it in time, and now she was here in the too-hot room with the too-cold window.

“You’re squeezing too tight, Mother.”

“Pay attention.”

“I don’t believe in ghosts. I—” The girl gave a shriek.

Clem flicked the curtain.

The candle had been snuffed. The wick glowed orange and umber and then went out.

An odor curled through the room, like cat urine and last week’s offal. Clem pinched her nose to it.

Someone gagged at the reek.

Maud moved. The organdy dress hissed.

Maud spoke. “Aaaaaahhhh.”

Nothing but a long groan, but still, Clem felt relief that something had happened.

“Are you there, Matthias?”

My guardian spirit, she had written, is unruly and serves distemperately.

Nothing then but breath drawn and released.

“Matthias is . . .” Maud’s voice rose to a keen, then dipped to a whisper. “Here. He is here.”

“Is it our Tom?” Mrs. Ott’s voice quavered.

Clem turned her head away. How often she heard the plaintiveness, the scraping ache of a mother for a son.

“Is it my Maisie?” Mr. Sullivan asked. A wife, a sister, a mother, a sweetheart. Gone too soon and leaving a grown man in fits of sobs and sighs.

The girl whined, and then stopped herself.

Mr. Ott moaned. “Tom?”

Then came the clapping. Solitary. Winding round the room, ricocheting from corner to corner, then circling closer and closer. Clap behind the girl’s back, clap behind her mother’s. Sullivan’s shoulders hunched to his ears in readiness. Clap. The claps floated to the ceiling and faded into the plasterwork. Clap clap clap clap . . .

“Tom misses . . .” Maud’s voice was that of a child’s. “. . . everything. No, Billy.”

“Billy?” the father asked. “Who’s Billy?”

“Quietnowquietbe.” The deep voice shot down Clem’s spine.

“Who’s Billy, I ask?”

“Billy’s my new friend. Billy play.” Maud gasped, her breath rasping in short bursts. “No, no.” Her shoulders shook, and she hunched over until her forehead touched the table. “They have left me.”

The air sagged, sinking back into itself.

“That is all.”

***

You have been recommended—but here the words bled from a drop of cider. Russell had picked up the enclosed calling card, holding it to the tavern’s whorled window.

Miss M. Price

MEDIUM

328 Hall St H’boro

Circles at 7p Mon–Sat.

25c All Welcome

Russell scratched his stubble. “Here we go, Clem, here we go.”

***

Nothing much happened after. A chair scraped. A match fizzed and flared. Maud leaned over the table to light the candle. She cupped the flame, moved to a sconce by the fireplace, opened the glass and lit that before dropping the match to the grate. Then she crossed her hands before her, one resting upon the other on top of her skirt. How small she was, how unassuming and bland, sloped shoulders and downcast gaze. “Perhaps tomorrow, Mr. Sullivan. Perhaps then.”

Clem could see only a sliver of the group now. Mr. Ott’s bald pate and circling curlicues of gray. The girl’s mouth hanging open. The mother curled into herself.

“Sometimes the veil is too thick.” Maud dipped her head. “We can try again tomorrow?”

“Yes. If you think Maisie—”

“Thank you, Mr. Sullivan. For your confidence.”

The father twisted from his chair.

“I won’t come again. There’s Mrs. Martin. We’ll go to her.”

“Yes, of course, Mr. Ott. If you must.” Maud’s real voice was no more than a murmur.

“Where is Tom now?” Mrs. Ott had moved to the door. “Where is he, Miss Price?”

“I do not know. I think he needs guidance.”

“Which you cannot give.”

“Not tonight.”

Clem sat on the window ledge and listened to the shuffle of chairs, then the quiet as the room emptied. The rain plonked against the glass. She watched a spider spin a tendril of web in the fold of curtain, then climb the web to spin another length of silk.

“You can come out.”

Clementine pushed the curtain aside, then dropped it behind her. Maud sat in a stuffed chair by the cold fireplace, her hands gripping the wooden arms. “Oh.” She tilted her head and puzzled over Clem’s gray serge trousers and vest.

“It allows me the night.” She shoved her hands in her pockets, strode across to the door, and peered out to the hallway. The stairwell was dark, as was the entryway. The only illumination came through the arched window above the front door, a pallid glow from the streetlight. Clem’s brown beaver-felt bowler hung from the rack near the door. Her umbrella rested in a tin bucket.

“Hello?” Her voice echoed and was not answered.

She closed the parlor door and looked at Maud. “The smell.”

“I’m sorry?”

“How do you do the smell?”

“I don’t—”

“It’s clever.”

Clem ran her gaze along the wall, peering into a curio cabinet that held nothing but aperitif glasses and a single half-empty crystal of liquor. She pulled its stopper and sniffed. Sherry.

The room held very little. Just the chairs, the table covered in a lace cloth. The glass globe sconces. Two portraits: a scowling man with wild brows and high collar facing a woman of great resemblance to Maud. White walls. Heavy curtains, but it was still April, and the days too dismal to change to a lighter set. Rag rug on a dark, scarred wood floor. And Maud herself in the chintz chair with an antimacassar starched and neat on its back.

Clementine followed a ceiling beam across the breadth of the room, then snapped her fingers. “The fireplace. Very good. But easy to spot.” She leaned down, hands to knees, twisting to look up the chimney. It smelled of old ash. But easy for the maid or an accomplice to toss some oils and cat piss when the timing was right.

“No. No, that comes when—if—Matthias comes.” Maud raised a hand to her forehead and smoothed her hair. “I sent Margaret away. She doesn’t approve of these nightlies.”

“She let me in, though. Well, she left the kitchen door open.”

“She’s Catholic.”

“They have their spirits.”

Maud let out a great sigh. “Never mind the maid. She’s only one of slews.”

“Who gave you my name?” Clem pulled a chair from the table and sat. The room had cooled, now that there were only her and this Maud to heat it. “A fire would be nice.”

“Yes. Oh, I . . . I’ve sent the maid home.”

“You said. May I smoke?”

“I . . .” Maud shook her head. “If you must.”

“I must.” Clem flipped open her jacket and removed her pipe case. She set it on the lace cloth, opened the leather pouch of tobacco, and stuffed it into the pipe bowl. “What do you think you need from me, Maud Price?”

“I have a reputation.”

“It precedes you.”

“But you see the room.” Maud gestured. “It once held twenty.”

“And once you enraptured hundreds. I saw you once. When I was a child and you were too. At a fair in Laconia.”

Maud’s mouth quivered and then rose in a smile. “Yes.”

“The Maid of Light. I remember.”

“Yes.”

“It was on a banner. Tied to the side of the wagon cart. You sat on a white chair.”

“You watched.”

“Mm.” Clem remembered. The sky the bluest of blue. The girl in her poplin, holding white roses and swinging one white-booted foot. Her father in his shiny suit with apple-red cheeks and swaggering walk.

“O Wonder, O Light, hear the dead speak.”

But Clem’s mother had shaken her wrist and dragged her past, turning only to spit. “Godless.”

The tobacco tasted of apples and cherries, which made Clem’s stomach growl. How long since her last full meal? And damn the last of the whiskey. She gave a shake of her head. “How did little Tom die?”

“He . . . he didn’t tell me. He’s with Billy.”

“Who is Billy? Another of your . . . ?”

“I don’t know. Another child lost. Perhaps someone come to bring him to the other side. It was so faint.”

“You should’ve known the child’s death before sitting with his grieving parents.” Clem crossed a leg and swung her foot. “Now they’re twice as upset and sure to visit someone else. There’s no shortage of you all.”

“If I know this beforehand, I leave myself open to accusations of fraud. I am not a fraud, Miss Watkins.”

“I am not accusing you. It’s just . . . clapping and rapping. I see no planchette. No levitating tables. Do you know a three-hundred-pound man levitated at Mrs. Martin’s last week? He still has a bruise on his crown from smacking into the ceiling. You can bet those around that table will return to her.”

“The spirits speak through me. They are not circus performers.”

Clementine leaned forward, an elbow to each knee. “You need a three-legged monkey.”

“A three-legged what?”

“You need fish that drop from the ceiling, or floating goblets—and you definitely need to know what poor Tom died of, and darling Maisie, and if you had a bauble or two to return to the grievers? Well, that’s the three-legged monkey.”

Maud just stared at Clem.

“An act. You need an act.”

“That’s fraudulent.”

“It’s a small necessity. For when your Matthias disobeys.”

“Harriet said—”

“Ha. Mrs. Martin sent you. I’ll have to thank her.” Clem shrugged. Harriet was as fake as a medium could be.

“She said you helped.”

“I do.”

“Not like that. I don’t want that. Flying trombones and . . . I feel I fail those who seek me now. I serve, Miss Watkins, that’s—”

“You don’t have money for the maid because you don’t hear the voices. Your guiding spirit takes runners when you need him most. What money you do have comes from paltry twenty-five-cent entry fees, not leaving people to their own generosity. You’re serving no one.”

“Miss Watkins—” Maud rose from her chair and stood directly in front of Clem. She smelled of lavender and cedar. “There’s a spirit right next to you.” How keen she was, her breath coming in quick gasps as she ogled something just past Clem’s shoulder. “Very weak, but there, nonetheless.”

Clem forced herself not to turn. “There’s nothing behind me.”

Maud studied her. “It’s there. Touching your shoulder.”

“You should have done that during the séance. When the girl opened her eyes. That would have sold her.” Clem emptied the ash into the candleholder, packed the pipe in its case, and stood.

“But it follows you.”

“No. Nothing follows me.”

“You are not a true believer.”

“My convictions are as strong as yours.”

“It is beautiful. To believe.”

“Yes.” Clem glanced at the empty fireplace grate, then back at Maud. She lifted a shoulder and dropped it. “You found me before. Send a note. If you want a full parlor, I can help.”

“I was mistaken to have you—”

“Tom Ott fell from a tree. He broke his neck. His sister Celia was the one watching him, or supposed to have been, anyway. She is torn with guilt and she’s afraid of her brother’s ghost because she blames herself.”

“He fell?”

“An oak in the yard. It’s been cut down. What mother would want to look on that every day? It’s like a murderer leering from the edge of the yard. What comfort she could have if she knew little Tom felt no pain. If just once she could feel a kiss on her cheek. Something, anything. But you know all this.”

Clem opened the door and took her hat from the rack. She twisted her hair into a bun and tucked it under the brim. “I don’t know about Mr. Sullivan’s Maisie, but I can find out for you.”

Maud followed her to the foyer. “I do wish to bring solace. That has always been the aim.”

“Then we are agreed.” She lifted the umbrella and pointed it across the entry at Maud. “It’s never about the dead, Miss Price. What counts, in our line of work, is bringing comfort to the living.”

***

Clem pulled the collar of her coat tight around her neck and jumped the steps to the street, grazing the edge of a puddle. She tipped the umbrella to shield herself from the rain, now coming at a sharper angle than it had been earlier in the day. At the shadow’s edge of the second gaslight, she turned to look back at Maud Price’s.

The woman was certainly spare with her candles. Clem spied only one at a second-floor window. She wondered if Maud had carried it from the parlor table. Perhaps this was her last candle, the very last, and after it was gone, soon the maid would go, and then the cups and saucers and carpets, and finally the house itself.

Then Maud would be left chasing her unreliable, unruly Matthias straight to the poorhouse, and no one there believed in ghosts. If they did, of course, the road to the asylum was short.

Maud seemed like a nymph those years ago. Now the woman’s bland visage gave little away. Her hands, though, were smooth, dimpled on the knuckles and obviously not wont to labor.

Was the woman a true believer? An actual born medium? How many really were? Oh, the Banner of Light reported many spirit manifestations, and flying tables, and rooms caked with ice. Mr. F. H. Hawley stated he conjured seven spirits from seven various Abenaki tribes and commanded them light seven separate woodstoves at his Portsmouth manse. And Mrs. J. H. Conant healed a girl with scarlet fever and cleared the gout from a neighbor, all while entranced and channeling the healing wisdom of dead Dr. Fisher. Harriet Martin’s room swelled with the cacophony of floating violins and an oboe (here Clem made a bow to herself for her cleverness).

Miss Price did none of these things. She sat in her chair and waited for the spirits to speak. Not the other way around. God alone knew how many nights had been spent like this one, with the dead too stubborn to converse, and the table of mourners crumpling ever further into their grief.

And that figure Maud saw, just behind Clem’s shoulder?

It had given Clem a fright, and very, very little did.

The candle in the window was now out. Or had been moved to a rear bedroom. Either way, the glass was black, leaving only the reflections of the streetlights in the windowpanes and on the brass knocker.

Clem sniffed and rubbed her nose. “I could make you a pretty fortune.”

A carriage rumbled past. Clem leapt back from the spray of water and continued her walk. She tapped her finger to the tips of a wrought iron fence. Harriet’s house was just down the way. Might as well stop in; she, too, held late hours. Clem could check the drawing room setup. Get a few coins for the extra care. Maybe a drink and a meal.

And ask after Maud Price.

A heavy arm wrapped around her shoulders. She stumbled forward, the umbrella falling to the ground.

She smacked her hand to the stomach of the assailant. “Get your fat hands off, you bastard.”

“I’m insulted now. There’s not an ounce of fat on me.”

“You got fat for a brain, Russell.” She grabbed her umbrella and swung it up, forcing the man to twist away.

He cocked his head and peered under the canopy at her. “Did you catch your fish, Mrs. Sprague?”

“Don’t call me that. I’m not your wife.”

“We could make it more so.”

“I like my own name.”

“Still.”

“I like my own life.”

Russell ducked under the umbrella and took the handle. “I’ll crook my neck regular and permanent if you keep hold of that. Let me.”

She shoved her hands under her jacket and underarms, hurrying her pace to keep up with his. “Look what you’ve done, fat brain. I’m going to die of pleurisy. Then what’ll you do?”

He looked back at her with a slow grin. “I’ll conjure your ghost, woman. What do you think I’ll do? Your spiritual magnetism won’t be able to resist my animal magnetism.”

“Is that so?”

“’Tis so, my girl.”

She jogged up to his side and wrapped her arm around his waist. “I couldn’t resist if I tried.”

“Well, that’s that then. What are you on for this fine drab and damp eve?”

“Harriet Martin’s for a drink.”

“Ha!” He switched the umbrella and pulled her close. “Harriet’s it is.”

***

Mrs. Harriet Martin was not a missus. She eschewed marriage, having witnessed her sister’s personality turn “the color of week-old linens.” Clem suspected her name wasn’t Martin, either, though she had yet to find out what exactly it was. She had been through every nook and corner and cranny of the three-story house. First it had been to suss out the areas to set up the necessary equipment. Walls were plastered and replastered; none but Clem was aware of the pulleys and strings she’d rigged through the slats and along the joists and between the floorboards. A high D plunked on the pianoforte set off an echoing call from an invisible violin. An angle of silvered glass instead of brass behind a gaslight gave just the right shimmering image of a searching hand.

Raps and knocks were for amateurs.

Though they had their place, if only to startle.

“I want them to weep in wonderment,” Mrs. Martin said.

“Wonderment is expensive,” Clem answered. She did not need to mention the price to keep secrets. Mrs. Martin paid it all.

With each successive envelope of cash—no banker’s check, upon mutual agreement—Clem grew more and more curious. She came by more frequently to “check the lines” and sneaked her way through closets of feathers and velvets and deep purple wools. She’d rifled the secretary for bills—only to find the ledger blank, as well as the stationery.

She was a woman after Clem’s heart.

Now, she leaned across the table to pass Clem the clotted cream. When Russell reached for it, Clem ground her heel on the top of his foot.

“No need for that.” Russell smiled and gestured for the creamer to continue its way from Harriet’s side of the table to Clem’s. “She should be a cat,” he said.

Harriet raised an eyebrow and settled back in her chair. “A sleek Siamese.”

“An alley cat.” He humphed and dug his fork into a mound of scrambled eggs. “Meow.”

Clem took a scoop of cream and spread it on her toast. Then she took another and let the silk and sweet of it melt on her tongue. “I like breakfast at 1:00 a.m.” She sighed, leaning back and angling her head to watch the blue flames in the lamps. There were three of them with simple clear globes. The table itself was set with mismatched silverware and plates with nicks and cracks. The only honest room, Clem thought. The breakfast room was one of the few Harriet left to its own uses. It wasn’t a maze of ferns and vases and peacock feathers and stuffed pigeons and marmots. Even the séance room had its share of marble busts and ruby-red crystal chandeliers.

She had witnessed more than one soul faint away at the frowning Caesar on his plinth by the front entrance.

“Maud Price,” Clem said.

“Yes? What of her?”

“You gave her my name.”

“She is . . .” Harriet slid her eyes to the side. “An earnest woman.”

“A once famous woman.”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

Harriet’s green eyes sharpened. “You have a trick up your sleeve.”

“No trick. She did not wish my services.”

“Her creditors might disagree.”

“But she will. I’ll provide her a small gift. Then she can decide one way or the other.”

“And the gift?”

“I don’t give my secrets away. You know that.”

“And you don’t give free gifts. I know that too.” Harriet stirred her coffee, then ran the spoon across her tongue before setting it to the saucer. “I have a man coming Friday night. Herodotus Parker. He is a very rich man with a very dead wife. You can get me something, can’t you? Of hers?”

Clem tucked her thumbs to the pockets of her jacket. She flipped the gold chain of her watch against her vest, then slipped out the timepiece and snapped open the lid. “Herodotus Parker’s very dead wife is very well buried. As of 10:00 a.m. yesterday.”

“They were believers.”

“I know that. I have read his musings on the nature of ethereal mists.”

“Can I have the cream now?”

Clem slid it to Russell and watched him put a dollop on half a biscuit and then eat the whole in one bite.

“They have been here often. Their two boys . . .” Harriet lowered her gaze. Then she gave a shake of her head and looked out to the hallway.

“Their two boys and all the others killed in the war have made you rich.”

“Nevertheless.” Harriet pursed her lips and stared at Clem. “She had a bracelet made with the boys’ hair twined and set in a glass bead. I want to give that.”

Russell bit into the other half of biscuit and chewed. He rubbed a crumb from his lip. “It’s on her wrist, isn’t it?”

Harriet’s cheeks rose as she smiled. “Think of the solace it would give. Were it to drop from the heavens to his lap.”

Clem twisted in her seat. She bit the inside of her lip. What Harriet wanted—it was too damn cold and wet to dig up another grave. Horse Hill was notorious for its muck and mud.

But Harriet was a consistent and discreet client. “I’ll have what you want.”

“My man will wait for it tomorrow night. At the usual spot.”

 

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Meet the Author

Kim Taylor Blakemore writes historical novels that feature fierce, audacious, and often dangerous women. She writes about the thieves and servants, murderesses and mediums, grifters and frauds - the women with darker stories, tangled lies and hidden motives.

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