Postbellum America makes for a haunting backdrop in this historical and supernatural tale of moonlit cemeteries, masked balls, cunning mediums, and terrifying secrets waiting to be unearthed by an intrepid crime reporter.
The year is 1869, and the Civil War haunts the city of Philadelphia like a stubborn ghost. Mothers in black continue to mourn their lost sons. Photographs of the dead adorn dim sitting rooms. Maimed and broken men roam the streets. One of those men is Edward Clark, who is still tormented by what he saw during the war. Also constantly in his thoughts is another, more distant tragedy — the murder of his mother at the hands of his father, the famed magician Magellan Holmes… a crime that Edward witnessed when he was only ten.
Now a crime reporter for one of the city’s largest newspapers, Edward is asked to use his knowledge of illusions and visual trickery to expose the influx of mediums that descended on Philadelphia in the wake of the war. His first target is Mrs. Lucy Collins, a young widow who uses old-fashioned sleight of hand to prey on grieving families. Soon, Edward and Lucy become entwined in the murder of Lenora Grimes Pastor, the city’s most highly regarded — and by all accounts, legitimate — medium, who dies mid-séance. With their reputations and livelihoods at risk, Edward and Lucy set out to find the real killer, and in the process unearth a terrifying hive of secrets that reaches well beyond Mrs. Pastor.
Blending historical detail with flights of fancy, Things Half in Shadow is a riveting thriller where Medium and The Sixth Sense meet The Alienist — and where nothing is quite as it seems…
For lack of a better starting point, I shall begin this particular tale on a foggy morning in April of 1869. The mist rose off the water in thick, brownish puffs that reminded me of cannon smoke. It moved in the same skittish manner — an ever-shifting curtain of haze that offered fleeting glimpses of Petty’s Island as the fog approached the dock. I felt a familiar, unwelcome shudder of dread when the fog crashed over us. Tucked in its rolling tendrils was a heady stew of familiar odors. Damp earth. Dirty water. Decay.
With the fog in my eyes and its smell in my nostrils, I couldn’t help but think of Antietam. So much was the same. The early morning chill. The silhouettes of men shimmering within the mist. The stench, getting stronger. As another wall of haze moved in, I cast my eyes to the ground, expecting to see it strewn with the shredded corpses of my fallen brothers.
But I was not at Antietam. I was right here in Philadelphia. On the waterfront of the Delaware River, to be precise, the city sprawling westward behind me. The smell that rode with the fog was merely the remains of yesterday’s catch, sitting a few yards away in a rotting pile of fish guts and lopped heads. The ground, instead of bearing dozens of broken bodies, contained only one. A woman. Fully intact, but dead nonetheless.
Dressed in a gray shift that clung to her body, she looked more girl than woman. Her blond hair, darkened by the water from which she had been pulled, spread across the dock like dredged-up kelp. Sand, pebbles, and streaks of mud stuck to her pale flesh. With her eyes closed and body still, she looked at peace, although I was certain she hadn’t died that way.
It was not, incidentally, the first corpse I had seen that week. I’d seen two the day before—an unlucky pair that had been stabbed in an alleyway on the city’s southern tip. Sailors, caught on the wrong end of a drunkard’s Bowie knife. After witnessing a sight such as that, a dead girl wasn’t so shocking.
Not that I was easily shocked to begin with. In my line of work, death came with the territory. As a reporter for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, I was called on to write about a wide assortment of subjects, but the one I covered the most was crime. Murders, mainly. And for a place nicknamed the City of Brotherly Love, there were an alarming number of them.
But the girl on the ground, it seemed, wasn’t a murder victim. At least that’s what Inspector William Barclay, standing on the other side of her body, thought.
“She drowned,” he told me. “The crew of the Cooper’s Point ferry spotted her floating in the river.”
The ferry was docked at Pier 49, ready to make the morning’s first crossing to Camden. Just beyond it, an impatient crowd grew along the end of Shackamaxon Street, waiting to board, with those in the front trying to peer past the line of policemen blocking their way. The rest of the waterfront rattled with activity, even at that early hour. The lumber mills and steelworks to the south were clanging and buzzing beasts. To the north of us, Kentucky boats filled with coal pushed out onto the river. But on the edge of the pier, it was just me, Barclay, and the dead girl.
“So there’s nothing suspicious about her death?” I asked.
Barclay shook his head. “Not particularly. Of course, that’s ultimately for the coroner to decide.”
“I assume he’ll rule it an accidental drowning,” I said. “But what do you think?”
Barclay, who had seen even more death than myself, tried to avoid looking at the corpse again. Instead, he stared at the pile of fish scraps nearby. A fair number of birds—gulls, mostly, but also a handful of crows—circled it, swooping down at regular intervals to scoop up pieces of the stinking bounty. Barclay watched two gulls battle for a bit of tail before saying, “If she was found in the water, then logic dictates that she also died there. So, to answer your question, yes. I believe that this poor girl drowned in the river.”
He looked to me, hoping his answer was satisfactory. He could tell from my expression that it was not.
“You don’t agree?”
“Not precisely,” I said, pausing to let Barclay issue the sigh that I knew was coming. When you spend lengthy periods of time with someone, as I had with William Barclay, you quickly learn their particular habits. For Barclay, that included shifting his weight to his left leg and putting his hands on his hips when he was impatient or sighing when he was annoyed. Since his hands had already fixed themselves on his hips as soon as I arrived, I knew what was next.
“I know your readers are a bloodthirsty lot,” Barclay said, “but try not to turn what’s simply a tragic accident into sensationalistic fodder for your newspaper.”
I intended to do no such thing, although I couldn’t hold the accusation against Barclay. The Bulletin’s readers were rather ghoulish. No crime was too foul, bloody, or unthinkable for them. There was a reason the motto among the city’s crime reporters was “The morbider, the merrier.”
“I’m not wishing that this girl had been brutally butchered,” I said. “All I’m asking is that you not be so quick to conclude what killed her.”
Because Philadelphia is flanked by two rivers, I had seen a fair number of drowning deaths. The lack of oxygen colors the faces of most victims a pale purple. Their bodies are often bloated. Quite a few of them have pieces of flesh missing from the hungry fish that found them before any human got the chance.
The pitiful creature at my feet possessed none of these telltale signs. Granted, she could have thrown herself into the chilly Delaware only minutes before she had been found, yet it looked to me that something else was at work. If it wasn’t for the soaked clothing and the dirt on her skin, someone waiting for the ferry couldn’t have been blamed for thinking she was still alive and merely napping on the bleached wood of the pier.
“She looks at peace,” I said. “As if she had passed in her sleep.”
Barclay sighed again. “So you’re a trained coroner now, I see.”
“I’m simply saying that she doesn’t look like a drowning victim. Surely, you can see that.”
“All I see,” Barclay said, “is that it was a bad idea to grant you access to the police department that your competitors in the press do without. I’m sure the gentlemen at the Times or the Public Ledger wouldn’t ask me to second-guess myself.”
“They also didn’t save your life on the battlefield,” I replied. “Or have you forgotten about that?”
“How could I when you’re always around to remind me? Now, do you have any more questions or can I proceed without further interruption?”
I had no doubt that Barclay was speaking in jest. He and I had been friends for close to seven years now, having met as members of the Union Army. While it was true that, during a surprise skirmish in a Virginia forest, I threw him to the ground before a minié ball to the skull could do the honors, I think he rather enjoyed having me around. Whenever a ghastly crime occurred, Barclay sent a policeman to my house to whisk me to the scene. That’s exactly what had happened earlier that morning. Much earlier than I would have preferred or was prepared for. The bell at the front door clanging at five o’clock had not only jerked me from a deep sleep, but sent Lionel, my butler, practically tumbling down the stairs to answer it.
But now, forty-five minutes later, I was starting to wonder why Barclay had felt it necessary to disturb my slumber and almost cause physical harm to a member of my household staff.
“If this is a simple case of drowning,” I said, “then why am I here? Why are you, for that matter? Certainly a few policemen could handle this. It doesn’t seem important enough to take an inspector away from his home so early in the morning.”
“It’s about the girl’s identity, Edward.”
“Do you know who she is?”
Barclay turned to face the river, where another wave of fog was threatening to crash upon the shore. “We do not. That’s the reason I summoned you.”
“Ah. You want my bloodthirsty readers to try to identify her.”
“Exactly. No matter how she died—and I fully believe it was accidental drowning, by the way—we’ve found nothing to indicate who she is or where she came from. From what I can tell, she looks like she was relatively healthy.”
What he meant was that the girl didn’t resemble those desperate or ill women who sometimes threw themselves into the drink, their pockets stuffed with bricks. Nor did she look like one of the prostitutes who prowled the waterfront. Occasionally, those same wretched women would be found floating down the river, done in by either their employers or one of their customers.
“You think she has family somewhere in the city?” I asked.
“Has no one reported a girl of her description missing?”
Barclay shook his head. “Not yet, anyway. But a vivid description of her in today’s Evening Bulletin might help us find out who this poor thing is.”
The fog bank he had been watching rolled onto shore and enveloped the pier. A policeman burst out of it, leaving tendrils of haze in his wake as he ran toward us.
“Inspector,” he called, “someone is demanding to be allowed onto the pier.”
“Tell them to wait for the ferry like everyone else,” Barclay snapped.
“They don’t want the ferry, sir. They want to see the girl. They think they know her.”
We both turned to the crowd at the cusp of the pier, which materialized into view as the fog bank drifted farther inland. At the front were two women, one young and the other much older. Their arms were linked as they tried to bypass the wall of policemen. The younger one spotted me and Barclay standing next to the dead girl. The wail of grief that followed told us both that she did indeed know the victim.
“Well then, Barclay,” I said quietly, “it appears you don’t need the help of the Bulletin readers after all.”
Barclay took a few steps toward the street and ordered his men to let them pass. As the women, arms now linked more tightly, continued onward in halting steps, I got a better look at them. The younger one appeared to be thirteen or so, although her face was so contorted by anguish that it was difficult to tell. The older woman appeared to be approaching forty. Unlike the girl, her features were as blank and unreadable as a recently erased blackboard.
When they reached us, the girl fell to her knees, keening and crying next to the corpse. The other woman—her mother, very likely, for the resemblance was undeniable—remained standing. She kept hold of her daughter’s hand while staring not at the body but at the river from where it had come.
She said something to the girl in German, words too quick and rough for me to comprehend. Her daughter eventually stood and, still weeping, wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist. Barclay gave her a moment to compose herself before saying, “I take it that you know this girl?”
The girl looked first to her mother, who nodded faintly, then to Barclay. When she spoke, every word was punctuated with grief.
“Yes, sir. She is my sister, Sophie.”
Barclay gave me a brief, knowing look. This turn of events wasn’t a surprise to either of us.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” he said.
The woman nudged the girl. A brief exchange in German followed, their conversation both hurried and hushed.
“My mother thanks you for your condolences,” the girl eventually told Barclay.
“I’m going to need to ask a few questions,” he replied. “Giving me your names would be a good start.”
“I am Louisa Kruger.” The girl gestured to the other woman. “This is my mother, Margarethe.”
I stepped away from them, listening at a discreet distance while Barclay and Margarethe Kruger conversed, using young Louisa as an interpreter. During this complex back-and-forth, I learned that the family lived in Fishtown, just a few blocks from the waterfront. Sophie had last been seen at nine o’clock the previous night, when she climbed into the bed she shared with her sister. Sometime during the night, Louisa awoke to find her sister gone. When she hadn’t returned by dawn, Margarethe knew something was wrong, and they went looking for her.
“And you don’t know when or why she left?” Barclay asked Louisa.
“No, sir. When I fell asleep, she was there. When I awoke, she wasn’t.”
“Does your mother have any idea?”
“She doesn’t, sir.”
“Did your sister disappear like this often?”
I watched Mrs. Kruger’s face as Louisa repeated the question in German. The woman’s stoic expression didn’t change, even as she shook her head. Her daughter, however, revealed her emotions freely, making it clear she didn’t agree with her mother.
“Wir mussen ihm sagen,” she said.
Margarethe Kruger shook her head again. “Nein.”
Barclay moved his gaze back and forth between them. “Is there something wrong?”
“My mother does not want me to tell you that Sophie often left our home during the night,” Louisa said, eyeing her mother with caution. “I am grateful she does not understand English, so I can tell you without her disapproval.”
“Why did your sister leave so frequently?”
“I do not know, sir. I was usually asleep when it happened. But sometimes I heard people at the door, whispering if Sophie was awake. Sometimes she wouldn’t be, and my mother would wake her and send her off with the people who had called.”
“You never asked why?”
“I did once,” Louisa said. “But Mother slapped me and said, ‘Die neugier ist ein gift.’ ”
“What does that mean?”
Louisa lowered her eyes. “Curiosity is a poison.”
Barclay stroked his chin before tugging slightly on the ends of his mustache. It was another one of his gestures that I knew well, indicating he was confused by something and trying to make sense of it all. I often said it made him look like a villain in a penny dreadful.
“How long have you been looking for your sister today?” he asked.
“An hour, sir.”
I glanced at my pocket watch, seeing that Louisa and her mother had been walking the streets since well before five o’clock. They must have searched every square inch of Fishtown before reaching the waterfront and seeing the crowd gathered there.
“When Sophie left during the night, was it uncommon for her to return after sunrise?” asked Barclay.
“Sometimes,” Louisa said, “she would arrive as late as seven or eight.”
“If that’s the case, why did you and your mother go looking for her so early?”
The girl turned to her mother again and presented the question. This time, a flicker of emotion passed over Mrs. Kruger’s face, as quick and unwieldy as the tufts of fog sliding off the river. But it was enough for me to tell she was feeling an enormous amount of pain. The hurt filled her voice as she uttered her response in German.
“My mother says we needed to go looking for Sophie because she knew she wasn’t going to return,” Louisa said on her behalf.
“She suspected your sister had run away?”
Louisa shook her head. “No, sir. My mother says she knew my sister was already dead.”
Barclay’s eyes widened. I suspect mine did the same. For a moment, I thought a mistake was made and that something had been lost in translation. Then Barclay said, “How could she possibly know that?”
“Because,” Louisa said, “Sophie told her so.”