There could be no unlikelier pair of amateur sleuths than Greta Roscoe and the Reverend Aaron Shane. Not because Greta is the most elegant courtesan of St. Louis’s high society during the Gay 1890’s, and Aaron the city’s most self-righteous minister. It’s because they’re dead.
And because an angelic tutor named Aridite has given them the assignment of solving their own murders:
[the angel replied] “The two of you are dead too soon. You can’t come forward, you’re not prepared ...I need to set you up with a goal to accomplish...”
If only things in the Afterlife were as simple as they seemed.
St. Louis, Missouri
"I wouldn’t let him in last night. Then this morning, when I unlocked the door and came out, he was there to hit me."
Gently, Greta cupped her sister’s chin, tilting the girl’s face toward the hurricane lantern so that she could see better. There was a dark bruise under the girl’s eye, the lid was puffed and reddened. Greta forced the lump out of her throat.
"It must hurt fiercely, Tess."
Tess’ eyes grew teary, and she whispered, "When can we leave?"
"I know it’s hard, but try to be patient. We have an ally now. Tonight should put it all in place. I promise you."
"Then tell me what I can do. I can help, I know."
"Darling, if I do, you’ll be at worse risk than you are and I can’t let that happen."
"I’m so angry. I’m so afraid. It feels like it’s been 20 years."
They clung to each other in Tess’ barren room, the young woman dressed in finest satin and the 14-year-old in a plain, cotton frock. And Greta thought, yes, it seems like decades. Yesterday made it two years since Marshall had had his way.
Greta stroked her sister’s hair, so much like her own--dark red, sable soft--and a shudder came over her to think what Marshall had wanted of Tess last night. Dear God, should she tell her sister to let him have what he wants? Wouldn’t that be easier to bear than a battered face? No. No.
"Hold your ground, darling," she whispered. "This is almost over."
She found Marshall waiting in her chambers, something he did frequently. It seemed bizarre in its normalcy, this ersatz gentleman standing by the elaborate gas hearth, its iron logs pretending to burn. All around him were the trappings of the elite: thick, dark tapestries against gilded wallpaper; the finest horsehair divans. Four feet above their heads the ceiling’s plaster molding recessed more deeply, because of the lamplight. Below Marshall the massive Persian carpet was so busy with magenta, indigo, and green it seemed to be in motion.
Greta looked at Marshall again, aware she was nauseous like she had been in the beginning. Everything in the room sickened her. The etched beveled crystal, everywhere crystal could possibly be, sparked and glinted, hurting her eyes. Even the water pitcher set beside the great mahogany bed, canopied with dark, embroidered silk. Oh, that silk. Its value alone could have fed Greta and Tess for months.
Marshall had been watching her. Her skirts had announced her arrival as they rustled across the threshold, but he had yet to say a word. She steeled herself to walk toward him, but Marshall held up a hand. The tangy taste of fear surged in her mouth. She’d given away something…in her expression, perhaps in her posture. But no. It was simply inspection time.
Tonight she wore emerald silk as luxurious as that adorning the bed. The gown was designed to barely escape scandal, provocatively snug at the bodice and hips, flaring below in a riot of ripples. Her opera gloves were cut from the same bolt of cloth; her diamonds were dazzling, but tasteful. Greta’s dark red hair was gathered away from her neck. An aigrette was set above her right ear; the jeweled comb at the feather’s base glinted in the gaslight. She was the most elegant courtesan in St Louis.
Marshall smiled. "Oh, the judge is going to be delighted."
Greta ignored his comment. She’d regained herself and was set on a comment of her own. A risky thing to do, but she couldn’t keep silent.
"Bad taste, what you did to Tess this morning."
She moved into the room, pleased to see Marshall lose his smile, pleased to see him pat his fashionable, macassared hair, too close in color to her own. Marshall did that only when he was nervous. It was rare to see him so. He turned and lifted a cordial glass that had been sitting on the fireplace mantel.
"She was belligerent," he said.
"Was she? What did she say, Marshall? ’No’?"
"I just wanted to talk to her."
Revulsion and anger knotted her stomach. "She’s not part of the agreement, you perverted bastard. If I see another mark on her, Marshall, I swear to you…"
His laugh stopped her. "You can’t swear a thing."
"There’s a stench around you worse than your father had."
He slammed his glass back onto the mantel and came across the room in four strides. Well, that was crossing the safe margin, she thought, and gasped when his nails dug into her arms. She refused to cry out.
"Watch your mouth, damn you. Watch your mouth."
"Careful. If I’m damaged goods, the judge may renege on your arrangement."
She could see the struggle in his eyes before his grip slackened. "He won’t see the damage on Tess, though. You owe me an apology."
Greta swallowed and, thinking of her sister, said woodenly, "I’m so sorry."
Smug and victorious, Marshall replied, "I don’t like your tone."
"You can’t do this to us forever."
Why did she bother to say things like that, what good did it do? Marshall’s smile became more civil. He rubbed her arms where his grip had pained her, almost brotherly in nature, and it galled her. But she said nothing. He returned to his cordial.
"Don’t worry about Elias tonight," he said. "Someone’s keeping him busy with supper and brandy until the judge can steal away with you."
"Oh, I never worry about your side of things. I just do as I’m told."
Marshall’s expression didn’t change, but he didn’t ignore her sarcasm. "You really don’t want to botch anything. This favor we’re doing…"
"Fine. This favor I’m doing the judge is valuable for all of us. He’ll be a powerful friend."
"How happy I am for you."
Marshall opened his arms in a gesture of reconciliation and moved casually toward Greta. She stiffened.
"Greta. Don’t be such a grouse. I’m very serious when I say this is good for all of us. Tandy’s a bigger catch than his fellow Elias. This could mean more of everything for you, except any cash, of course. That rule still applies. Why insist on making the good things so hard to live with?"
Greta needed a moment to gather her self-control, and she looked about her chambers in silence. The excess and opulence assaulted her. It was hard to pretend, so hard to pretend. Marshall smiled and rested his hands on her shoulders.
"All right, then?" When she didn’t reply, he gave her a firm, warning shake. She managed a quick nod. "Good. Now. Give us a kiss."