William Sloane did not believe in the ability to commune with the spirit world. Hell, he didn’t even believe there was a spirit world.
Yet here he sat, inside a ramshackle theater in the Tenderloin district, watching this audacious spectacle. Madam Zolikoff, she called herself. The mystifying medium who could commune with spirits and perform extraordinary feats. The woman was the worst actress he’d ever seen—and Will had seen plenty.
Eyes closed, she swayed and waved her hands, all while chanting. The man across from her, one she’d pulled up onstage, stared, enthralled, as Madam attempted to speak to his dead mother. The electric lights overhead flickered, and the audience tittered.
“Ah! I think we are close!” she announced loudly in an appalling Russian accent.
Will nearly rolled his eyes. Was anyone really buying this charade?
Shifting in his uncomfortable seat, he took in the meager audience. About twenty men and women, all average-looking, a far cry from the extravagant crowd he usually associated with. No diamond tiaras or ostrich feathers here, just derby hats and plain bonnets. But every pair of eyes was trained on the young woman working the stage.
She was attractive, he supposed, if one preferred liars and cheats, which he most definitely did not. Still, her pale blond hair showed off her striking light brown eyes. Straight, delicate nose. High cheekbones. Arching brows. Full lips painted a scandalous red.
He liked those lips. Quite a lot, in fact. If he were dead, those lips alone might bring him back.
“I hear her!” A steady rapping reverberated around the room. An accomplice, no doubt, yet the audience gasped.
“Mr. Fox, your mother is here with us now. What would you like to ask her?”
The man onstage asked simple questions for the next fifteen minutes, with Madam Zolikoff “interpreting” the dead mother’s answers. Will absently rubbed his stomach, anger burning over this performance, that she would take advantage of someone’s grief in such a profoundly fraudulent way. When Will’s own mother had died, he’d fervently wished for something—anything—to bring her back. Nothing had, however, and he’d been left in a cold house with an even colder man.
Madam Zolikoff prattled on, regaining his attention. Had this woman no shame? No empathy for the heartbreak that went along with losing a loved one? For the first time since he sat down, he looked forward to the confrontation with her.
He planned to shut the medium down. Run her out of Manhattan, if necessary, because she was standing in the way of something greater, a different sort of power than he possessed now, but one of greater import. A power he would not fall short of achieving.
John Bennett, a former New York State senator and current gubernatorial candidate, had asked Will to partner on the ticket as lieutenant governor. It was something Will’s father had always wanted, to wield political influence, yet he’d died before his political career could take wing. Now Will would be the Sloane achieving that goal—and dancing on his father’s grave after he and Bennett won.
But John Bennett had a weakness, one by the name of Madam Zolikoff. Seemed the madam had dug her hooks into Bennett, and the candidate would not listen to reason regarding the dangers this presented. But Will wasn’t about to allow her to jeopardize Bennett’s political career—or his own. They could not afford a scandal six months before the election.
When the performance finally ended, Will didn’t bother clapping or stamping his feet like the other patrons. He rose, turned on his heel, and headed straight for the door he’d learned would take him backstage.
No one stopped him. More than a few curious glances were thrown his way and he tugged his derby lower to obscure his face. He’d run Northeast Railroad for the last thirteen years and came from one of the most prominent families in New York. The name Sloane was as well known as Astor, Stuyvesant, and Van Rensselaer. Consequently, Will had never shied from public attention, but he’d rather not be recognized here.
For several minutes, he cut through the long hallways in the bowels of the theater. Now at the door to her dressing room, he knocked. A slide of a lock and then the door opened to reveal a brunette woman in a black shirtwaist and skirt, the same costume she’d worn on stage. Her lips were still painted a deep red. He inclined his head ever so slightly. “Madam Zolikoff.”
“Come in, please.” Her voice was deep and husky, a sultry tone more suited to a bedroom than a stage. Thankfully, there was no trace of that ludicrous Russian accent she’d used in front of the crowd. Perhaps this conversation would not be as difficult as he’d feared.
She stepped aside. “I’ve been expecting you, Mr. Sloane.”
No surprise she knew his face, but had she noticed him in the audience? Three steps brought him inside her dressing room, if one could call a space no bigger than a cupboard a “room.” Not enough square footage existed here to allow for more than the small table and chair already in place. A mirror hung on the wall above the table, and a blond wig rested on a stand atop said table. With nowhere to go, he folded his hands behind his back.
She glided around him and lowered into the sole chair, facing away from him, and reached for a cloth. He watched in the mirror as she slowly swiped the cloth over her mouth to remove the lip color. She didn’t rush and Will had plenty of time to study her mouth. He highly suspected the display another type of performance, one designed to throw him off balance.
“Is there another name I may call you, other than your stage name?”
“I feel ridiculous calling you Madam Zolikoff.”
“That is your problem, not mine.” Finished with her cloth, she dropped the scrap to the table and caught his gaze in the mirror. “We are not friends, Mr. Sloane, so let’s not pretend otherwise. I know why you are here.”
“Is that so?” He hadn’t expected her to be so forthright. In his mind, she’d been meek and frightened, concerned over the unpleasantness a man in his position could bring down on a woman in her position. But this woman seemed neither meek nor frightened. “And why am I here?”
“You want to scare me away from John. Get him away from my evil clutches.” She wriggled her fingers menacingly on this last sentence. “How’s that?”
“Good. This saves us both time. Now you may agree to never see Bennett again, stop bilking him out of hundreds of dollars, and stay out of his life forever.”
“Bilking him?” Her lip curled, drawing Will’s attention back to her mouth, damn it. “I’ve got news for you, mugwump, I’ve earned every dollar providing services to your friend—and not those kind of services, either. John and I are strictly business.”
Will smirked. He’d never met an unmarried man and woman who spent hours together with money exchanged who were “strictly business.” “Miss whomever you are, I don’t care what kind of lies you’re shoveling out there to audiences, but I’m not some rube fresh off the farm. I know what you’re about, and all of it stinks.”
“Oh, indeed? So what am I about, then?”
“Blackmail. And if he doesn’t pay, you’ll take whatever personal details you’ve learned about him to the papers and turn him into a laughingstock. I will not let that happen.”
She rose, and, because of the tight space, this put her close enough to where he could see the hazel flecks in her brown eyes. Were those freckles on her nose? “I don’t care who you are or what you think of me. If you think I’m going to let some stuffed, pompous railroad man scare me away from my best client, you are dead wrong.”