Whispers From the Past

October 25, 2017 12:19 pm

The shadows of her past threaten her future.

In 1928 Evie Woodward is running from a past she barely understands. A widow with a young son she agrees to become partners with Daniel Roxburgh in a Psychic Detective Agency.
But their bogus investigations soon take on a very real turn.

Daniel lives his life in the shadows of Melbourne’s gangster world. He’s a dangerous man but he’d do anything for Evie. Just as happiness is in their grasp an investigation in a house called
Blue Waters goes very wrong.

Evie’s past is catching up with her and Daniel may not be able to save her.

Whispers From The Past was first printed in 2005 under the penname Lilly Sommers

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An Excerpt of Whispers From The Past

THE DOORBELL CHIMED SOFTLY INSIDE the house, competing with a popular jazz quartet on the wireless. Daniel met Evie’s nervous glance with a wink. He looked the part in his grey suit. It was their biggest case yet, although he didn’t appear to be any less confident than usual. But then that was Daniel’s talent, pretending to be something he wasn’t.

Evie turned back to the garden, to the wavering lanterns and moths. Here on the south side of the Yarra the very wealthy lived in isolation. The Jones’s estate seemed a long way from Evie’s house in Earle Street, but in reality it was barely two miles. Although reality, Evie found, had little to do with the very rich.

It was a warm summer evening with only a slight breeze – enough to stir the hem of her new dress. Black with thin shoulder straps, it dipped at the back and exposed far more skin than Evie was used to. Her shoes were new, too, the latest thing, with cut-outs over the instep. Daniel had bought the outfit for her so she could look the part.

‘You’re in disguise, Evie,’ he told her. ‘A beautiful,mysterious woman. Untouchable, unreachable. Closer to the spirit world than this one.’

He had bought the veil, too. The sheer black net attached to her fair hair turned her face into a blur. ‘Perfect,’ he’d said when he picked her up in the car this evening. His fingertips flicked her cheek warmly. His eyes shone with a creator’s pride.

The door opened and the music was suddenly louder. ‘Mr Roxburgh! At last!’

Muriel Nelson, widow of the late Howard Jones, Melbourne Clarion tycoon, and lately remarried, came forward smiling. The beaded fringes of her pale pink dress swung jauntily. She had a cigarette in a long holder and her auburn hair was cropped as short as a boy’s. Though not in the flush of youth, she was striking, with a lean figure perfectly suited to the fashions. Her face was heavily made-up in Clara Bow style, with kohl-rimmed eyes and blood-red lips.

‘We’d begun to think you weren’t coming,’ she said with a pout.

Daniel smiled. He had an attractive smile which couldn’t help but impress. Evie had noticed that most of his clients were women. They were probably all in love with him.

‘The motor car needed a few repairs.’ He was explaining away their lateness in a suave English accent. ‘I’m most terribly sorry, Mrs Nelson.’

He didn’t sound sorry, but Muriel Nelson didn’t seem to care. Her eyes skimmed past him to the driveway and noted the gleaming Oldsmobile.

‘Call me Muriel,’ she said, and twisted a finger in the double string of beads about her throat.

‘Muriel.’ That smile again. ‘This is Miss Evangeline Woodward.’ Daniel drew Evie forward. He always used her full name because he said it made her sound like a film star.

‘Miss Woodward.’ Muriel took in the veil. If Muriel Nelson was Clara Bow, then Evie was Greta Garbo.

She led them down a long hallway. There was a spotlit painting on the wall with its jangling colours applied thickly and, to the uninitiated, amateurishly. Boxes and rectangles stacked in an
untidy pile. Evie was sure it was worth thousands.

‘I have some people waiting. I hope you don’t mind? I couldn’t keep something like this to myself.’

She took them into a large room at the back of the house where a cocktail party was in progress. About half a dozen bored people looked up at Evie and Daniel. Fashionable clothing, glittering
jewellery and faces flushed from alcohol and the Black Bottom. Evie could see their eyes literally light up at the prospect of Something New.

The décor was subdued, with ecru walls and a huge silver framed mirror over the fireplace. A big red and brown African rug lay on the polished floor surrounded by chairs and a sofa. Glasses, coffee cups and an ivory inlaid cigarette box cluttered a low table. The jazz quartet Evie had heard from the door bubbled out of the wireless.

The introductions were made. Friendly but businesslike, Daniel shook hands, while Evie smiled mysteriously and stood back. Daniel was impressive, she had to give him that. Tall, dark and
well-dressed, he was very much the part he played: an English gentleman stranded upon Antipodean shores.

A member of the London Psychic Club with letters to prove it, come to share his expertise with others similarly interested – those who could pay, anyway.

And Muriel Nelson certainly could, and would.

Kenneth Nelson, Muriel’s new husband, was younger than her, but his sleepy look had nothing to do with his expensive suit and brilliantined hair. Evie had been told he was a spoiled gigolo. She
guessed he was only here tonight for the fun of it.

Diana Ashman was a brunette about the same age as her hostess. Amused and worldly, she was a famous film star, or had been a year ago when “Bushland Lady” was made. The way she sat, with
a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was obviously a pose. And with her crossed legs showing large expanses of flesh-coloured stockings held up by black garters, she was clearly after attention. What type of attention was also clear when she gave Daniel a sultry smile and ignored Evie.

Leo Grieves, standing behind Diana, was in his late forties, big and hearty, with thick wavy fair hair and large hands. When he moved forward to shake Daniel’s hand, Evie noticed that he walked with an unmistakable limp. He turned and caught her staring. ‘Miss Woodward,’ he said, and swallowed her hand with his warm one. His blue gaze slid over her face, and lifted the veil. When he stepped back he did not look away.

‘And this is Adele Browning, our very own aviatrix!’ Muriel gushed. Adele, it turned out, had been up in an aeroplane three times but was determined to fly solo one day. She wanted to make an epic flight, as Bert Hinkler had done earlier in the year when he flew from England to Australia.

Robertson Coleman was the senior editor of the Melbourne Clarion. A small man with round frameless glasses, he seemed out of his depth in this company. His wife Celia, younger and prettier, was lapping up the attentions of Kenneth Nelson like a greedy kitten.

‘Well.’ Muriel took a deep breath. She was nervous, Evie realised. Excitement and fear were a heady mix. ‘I think we’re ready if you are, Mr Roxburgh? Or would you prefer a drink first?’

There was a rounded walnut cocktail cabinet against the far wall, the doors open to display a bewildering array of bottles. Nearby a lamp stood on a glass table, the bronze statue of a naked woman with arms that held aloft a glowing beach ball.

‘Thank you.’ Daniel smiled. ‘Whisky.’

‘Miss Woodward?’ Muriel raised thinly plucked eyebrows.

Daniel answered for her. ‘Miss Woodward doesn’t drink alcohol.’

Muriel laughed shrilly. ‘An abstainer! I’m afraid I couldn’t do without my little drink. Thank God the wowsers haven’t managed to stop us drinking in our own homes yet!’

‘Muriel,’ murmured Robertson Coleman, ‘do remember that some of our most important advertisers belong to the temperance movement.’

‘Oh, for God’s sake, I can speak my mind in my own home, can’t I? I’m sure Daniel agrees with me. Don’t you, Daniel?’

Daniel had followed her to the cabinet. He smiled politely, hesitated, and then stopped. He stood frowning at a spot on the African rug. Muriel, turning with his glass in her hand, watched him,

‘I’m awfully sorry,’ Daniel murmured, ‘but it’s terribly cold just here. Quite clammy.’ He looked up and met Evie’s eyes. ‘Do you feel it, Miss Woodward?’

Evie approached him cautiously, as if feeling her way in the dark. She tensed when she reached the spot, clasping her arms about herself as if with a sudden chill. ‘I do feel it, Mr Roxburgh. Something has happened here. Something tragic.’

Muriel Nelson dropped the glass. It bounced on the rug and rolled against the sofa. Diana Ashman rose quickly, smoothing her short skirt over slender thighs, and slid a thin supporting arm around her friend’s shoulders. Far from expressing concern, she seemed to be struggling not to laugh out loud.

‘Howard died there!’ Muriel’s eyes were as brilliant as the diamonds in her long-drop earrings. ‘My first husband. Two years ago. A heart attack. Right there, on that very spot. Oh, how marvellous!’ One might almost have thought she was glad Howard was dead.

Evie closed her eyes and swayed slightly. She heard Daniel shush the others and could envisage the look on his face: professional and completely focused on what was happening. The others would take his lead. ‘I sense a man,’ Evie murmured at last, and heard someone catch their breath. ‘A large man. He’s angry.’ She was saying the words they had decided on, and yet somehow there really was a man. She was so engrossed in her part that he seemed to hover at the edges of her vision, vague, but vocal. She squeezed her eyes shut tight to see better. ‘He says . . . he says that his wife is smoking again and she knows how he feels about that.’

Muriel clapped her hands, pulling away from her friend and reaching out for Daniel. ‘That’s marvellous! How does she do it?’

Daniel smiled. ‘A gift, Mrs Nelson. A very special one.’ But the glance he gave Evie said, Be careful. Don’t overdo it.

‘Does he tell you anything more?’ Muriel demanded.

Evie hesitated. The fat man was still there and still angry. She closed her mind to him, forcing him back into the shadows. Imagination, it was all imagination. Daniel had done the research on
Muriel Jones-Nelson: photographs, dossiers, facts and rumour. Evie probably knew more about Muriel than she did herself.

‘He says that he’s happy and he doesn’t want you to grieve for him. He’s leaving now . . . He’s gone.’

Diana Ashman smirked. ‘Howard’s become an angel complete with wings? I find that rather difficult to believe.’

Muriel looked annoyed, but shrugged it off. ‘What would you know about angels, Diana? I’m sure that Howard has learned to be a better person since he left us – and that is exactly what he would say now.’ Struggling to control her fluctuating emotions, she drew a shaky breath.

Daniel eyed her sympathetically. ‘There was something you wanted to show me, Muriel. You said in your letter.’

‘Yes, yes of course.’ She gave him a grateful smile. ‘I wanted to show you the room upstairs. I’m sure it’s haunted. Can I use that word?’

‘Of course you can. You told me that one of your servants saw a child in the room, a little girl?’

‘Yes, that’s right. A girl in a long dress with ringlets in her hair. Old-fashioned – you know the sort of thing. It sounded most unlikely at the time, but then I heard about you from a friend and thought, well! If we have ghosts then I should investigate them.’

‘Are you trained or a natural?’ The voice startled Evie. She glanced up at Leo Grieves and he smiled modestly down at her. ‘My mother is a great one for the spirits. Won’t move an inch unless they tell her to. All hokum if you ask me.’ He grimaced, realising what he had said. ‘Sorry.’

Evie bit back a smile. ‘I’m a natural, Mr Grieves. Mr Roxburgh and I met quite by chance, and he has helped me to understand my gift. It was fate.’

‘Do you come from around here? Your face is familiar.’

‘No, no I don’t,’ she lied.

‘Have you worked with –’

‘I won’t answer any more questions just now, if you don’t mind,’ Evie murmured softly. ‘It disturbs the atmosphere. I can’t work without the right conditions.’

She began to follow Daniel and the others up the stairs. Adele was carrying a candle and giggling like a schoolgirl. Leo seemed to see Evie’s request as reasonable and fell in behind her, climbing rather awkwardly. Evie took a deep breath, readying herself. The veil was annoying her and she wanted to throw it back and rub her eyes vigorously, but Daniel would be furious with her if she broke the spell he had worked so hard to create.

‘This is the room!’ It was Muriel’s voice. ‘Oh, isn’t this deliciously spooky?’

‘Delicious, anyway,’ Diana Ashman muttered and there was laughter. Daniel gave her a smile, but it was not quite enough to encourage her. She placed an elegant hand on his arm and stretched to whisper in his ear.

Pausing outside the door, Evie could smell the closeness, the warmth of their bodies about her. Perfume and hair oil, tobacco and alcohol, burning wax and perspiration. Someone breathed in her ear and she turned her head sharply, thinking it was Leo Grieves. But he was watching Daniel. At her glance Leo moved closer, his hand firm against the cold skin of her back, urging her forward.

‘Come, Miss Woodward, don’t be afraid,’ he said with a hint of amusement.

Impatient with herself, Evie stepped into the room. It was a small, sparsely furnished bedroom and clearly not used very often. Daniel was by the window doing his ‘Is-there-anybody-there?’ routine. The candle threw his face into a striking combination of light and shadow and his hushed voice added to the disturbing effect.

Diana, unimpressed, plumped down on the bed and tipped her head back to drain the glass she had brought with her. Kenneth Nelson bent his oily head over her, murmuring something and his lips almost touched her cheek. Ignoring Muriel’s loud ‘Shhh!’ Diana laughed huskily.

The spirits were waiting, with Evie, for Daniel’s cue. He gave it, his voice vibrating with so much excitement even Diana Ashman stopped flirting. ‘There’s someone here, Miss Woodward.’

Evie stepped closer. ‘Yes, there’s a presence, Mr Roxburgh.’ A child, she thought. A small child. It was what they had agreed upon. ‘I feel it. A hand in mine. She’s lonely. No one to play with, no one to talk to. That’s why she follows the servants around.’ The information should have evoked some sympathy at least, but as Evie surveyed the bored, cynical faces of Muriel Nelson’s friends, she knew that dead children, no matter how lonely, were of no interest to them.

The fat man leapt back into her mind with a will of his own. Suddenly it was as if she had learned her part so completely that she had become him. Howard Jones with his shiny red face and thinning hair combed back so that each strand was visible against his speckled scalp. He was vain and powerful. And he was angry. Evie could no longer contain him. ‘Muriel,’ she gasped in a voice she hardly recognised. ‘Muriel, this is Howard.’

Everyone froze – their eyes and mouths open. Daniel took a step towards her. His voice was low and careful. ‘What do you want, Mr Jones? We’re listening.’

Evie rudely turned her back on him and advanced on Muriel. ‘Listen to me!’ she shouted. ‘I said listen. Two years I’ve been dead – two bloody years – and you’re already all to hell. It was bad enough you having that slimy bastard in your bed, Muriel. Yes, that was bad enough. But did you have to go and marry him? For Christ’s sake, he’ll bleed you dry!’

Muriel let out a half-scream and slipped to the floor in a dead faint.

‘That’s quite enough!’ Robertson Coleman edged forward, pink with shock and embarrassment.

‘Hello, Robertson,’ Evie drawled, her voice deepening. ‘Useless as ever, I see. Your career is in the s— and you’re taking my newspaper with it. No one respects you anymore, not even your wife.
Christ, I wish I’d given you the boot before I died!’

The little man stumbled back, silenced. Everyone was watching Evie and waiting as she stood trembling before them. Diana Ashman looked up from where she was tending Muriel. Her pale eyes glittered oddly and she glared at Evie as if she really was seeing the newspaper tycoon’s image. ‘Well,’ she said softly, ‘this certainly has turned out to be an interesting evening. Have you anything to tell me, Howard? Don’t stint yourself, now; you never did when you were alive.’

Evie laughed savagely. ‘Why should I bother to tell you anything? You know what you are. You all know what you are: leeches, syphoning my fortune into your own greedy bellies. I didn’t work twenty
hours a day so that you and your kind could spend my money! Bastards, the lot of you. Bastards!’ Spittle sprayed out of her mouth.

Daniel stood behind her. ‘Miss Woodward!’ It was a command. He wanted Evie to stop, but she didn’t seem able to.

‘You’ll be sorry,’ Howard Jones’s deep, angry voice vibrated in her throat. ‘You think you can do as you like and get away with it. Well, you bloody can’t. There’s a reckoning on the way. A reckoning!’

Cold fingers closed on her arm and their long nails scratched her bare skin. She shuddered, and Howard Jones vanished in an instant as something else began to seep into her head: smoke from a
damp, sulky fire. It drifted, formed shapes, grew a voice. Shocked and terrified, Evie swayed and would have fallen if Daniel hadn’t grabbed her.

‘Au secours, Evangeline,’ a voice whispered. Help me, Evangeline. ‘Voulez-vous m’aider?’ Could you help me?