Sneak Peek: Against a Brightening Sky by Jaime Lee Moyer

Against a Brightening Sky by Jaime Lee MoyerBy 1919 the Great War has ended, peace talks are under way in Paris, and the world has been forever changed. Delia Martin, apprentice practitioner of magical arts, and her husband, Police Captain Gabriel Ryan, face the greatest challenge of their lives when fragments from the war descend on San Francisco.

Against a Brightening Sky is the thrilling conclusion to Jaime Lee Moyer’s glittering historical fantasy series. We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

CHAPTER 1

Delia

In an age of empires, princes were raised to rule, and often, to fight and die. That time of soldier kings was over by Armistice Day. Far too many kingdoms had shattered in the Great War, the power of their rulers broken forever.

Some kings and princes had gone into exile, saving themselves and their families. Others had simply vanished. The papers were full of their pictures and speculation about whether they were alive or dead. Fortunes hung in the balance in some cases, the peace of knowing what had happened to a loved one in others.

Far too often I saw faded and smudged images standing behind the somber-faced royalty posing for the camera. I knew those hazy figures for what they really were—ghosts. The men and women and children in those pictures would never be found.

Knowing their fate, being certain while the rest of the world wondered and waited, gave me nightmares. Each dream held the feeling of truth, not imagination, a glimpse into secrets and things I couldn’t possibly know. That the details of what I’d dreamed didn’t carry over into my waking hours was both a blessing and a curse. Not remembering let me hope the dreams would stop.

The ghost gazing at me from my dressing table mirror was real enough. She looked to have been no more than twenty or twenty-two, chestnut haired with dark-blue eyes and delicate features. Her skin was fair, making the roses in her cheeks all the brighter. I thought her pretty, but not a great beauty. She clutched a folded fan in one gloved hand and stared at me intently, as aware of me as I was of her. Judging solely by her beaded white silk dress, the tiara in her hair, and the strand of pearls at her throat, I guessed she’d been a member of royalty in life. I didn’t remember her photograph from the papers, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t been amongst the missing.

I slipped a last hairpin into the twisted knot of hair at the nape of my neck, never taking my eyes from the ghost. She still appeared solid and lifelike, no doubt recently dead, mourned and missed by someone who’d loved her. This ghost had died on the other side of the world, yet she’d sought me out and managed to cross my boundaries.

That said a great deal about her determination. I feared it might say even more about the circumstances of her death. Those who’d died a horrible death made the most stubborn ghosts.

She’d haunt me if given half an opportunity, but I didn’t intend to give her one. I pulled my wards tighter, doing all I could to shut her out of my house. My life. “You can’t linger here, spirit, and I can’t help you. Whatever you’re looking for is far away. Leave this place and seek your rest.”

The ghost stood fast, her gaze never wavering from my reflection in the mirror. I’d expected the anger common in strong spirits to fill her eyes, or a demand for me to bow to her will. What I saw instead was patience and a willingness to wait. I’d no idea what she waited for.

“Delia?” Gabe’s image appeared in the mirror near the ghost, startling me. My husband couldn’t see her, that was plain, but I’d no doubt from the way the ghost moved to one side that she was aware of him. “Are you ready to leave? We’re supposed to pick up Jack and Sadie and the children in half an hour.”

“I’m ready.” The ghost was gone between one instant and the next, leaving me with a racing heart and a catch in my throat. I tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear, staring at the emptiness where she’d stood. She’d gone because she chose to leave, not because I’d sent her away. “I just need to get my hat.”

Gabe put his hands on my shoulders, worry in his eyes. “You’re very pale, Dee. Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. A ghost took me by surprise, but she’s gone now.”

His frown deepened. He’d watched me deal with ghosts of all kinds for more than four years, becoming more sure of my abilities as I gained experience and knowledge. Isadora Bobet, a master practitioner of spiritual arts, was my teacher, mentor, and a good friend to both me and Gabe. Before she took me on as a student, I was awash in a world I didn’t understand. Without Dora’s guidance, I might have gone mad.

Spirits and haunts seldom surprised me now, a fact Gabe was quite aware of. I covered his hand with mine and smiled. “Truly, I’m fine. We should get going. Sadie’s more excited about going to the parade than Stella. She’ll be very cross if we keep her waiting.”

“As long as you’re sure everything’s all right.” Gabe kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll pull the car out. Meet you at the end of the drive.”

I hadn’t lied; everything was fine. Still, I avoided looking at the mirror. If she’d come back, I didn’t want to know.

There’d be time enough to deal with stubborn ghosts later.

San Francisco was always full of travelers come to see the sights or passing through to other parts of the country. Spring of 1919 brought an influx of well-to-do refugees from Europe into the city: skilled craftsmen and prosperous merchants, minor nobility and retainers who’d served royalty for generations. All sought a safe haven or to flee memories of the horrors they’d witnessed before the final battles on the Continent stopped. Diplomats came as well, new faces to man the embassies abandoned at the beginning of the Great War or to carry news about the current state of the Paris peace treaty.

Diplomat or refugee, they’d all brought their ghosts with them. The haunts attached to most of the refugees were family or friends, people who they’d recently lost, missed, and mourned. Watching a dead soldier trail behind a weary woman clutching a child’s hand struck me as very sad, but nothing about these ghosts appeared out of the ordinary. But not all the newly arrived spirits I saw were quite so mundane. Rulers haunted their subjects as well.

Phantom European kings and queens, princes, duchesses, and nobility of lesser stations roamed the busy downtown streets in large numbers. Some were dressed in ermine-trimmed capes, coronation robes heavy with gold braid and golden crowns, while other dead royals wore simple linen shirts and trousers, or plain summer cotton dresses. The richness of their clothes and their confident, often haughty bearing left no doubt about their station in life.

Many of these noble ghosts looked lost, bewildered at how they’d come to be in this strange city and unsure of where to go. Others followed closely on the heels of the person they haunted, holding tight to someone familiar or who’d known them in life. Perhaps the ghost in my mirror had come to San Francisco the same way, riding on the memories of someone who’d loved her.

Strolling down Market Street with Gabe, Jack and Sadie, and their two children, I found myself face-to-face with the spirits of European nobility at every turn. I might have said no to Sadie’s invitation to watch the Saint Patrick’s Day parade if I’d known how many new ghosts inhabited the city. The only saving grace was that few showed evidence of how they’d died, sparing me a small amount of distress. All I could do was make the best of things.

The majority of the ghosts I saw ignored the world of the living, too busy reenacting some part of their past to take notice. A few appeared keenly aware they’d traveled far from home, going so far as to stare in bewilderment at storefronts or reach out to touch people passing on the street. Those spirits turned to watch Sadie’s children intently or moved closer.

That made me uneasy. I whispered charms, telling them to move on and forbidding them to haunt me or mine. All but two of the ghosts did as I’d ordered. A middle-aged man dressed in a formal coat and a slim young woman in a crimson gown resisted, but I won in the end.

I relaxed once they’d gone, determined to enjoy our outing. We hadn’t had a free day to spend with Sadie and Jack Fitzgerald in far too long. Sadie and I had been best friends since childhood, and ours was a friendship that had endured through both the best and worst of times. Jack and Gabe had been partners since they joined the police force nearly fifteen years before. They’d grown close as brothers. Time with Sadie and Jack was always well spent.

March weather was often unpredictable, but we’d gotten lucky. A cool breeze blew off the ocean, carrying the scent of salt and seaweed, but the sun was warm and bright in a cerulean sky. Thick gray fog sealed the mouth of the Bay but showed no sign of moving inland. Flocks of ducks formed giant vees and raced toward the wetlands lining the Bay shore, while gulls and terns wheeled in thick, dark spirals, their keening cries echoing so that I heard them from blocks away.

“Isn’t this a glorious day, Dee? I knew the fog would stay away until dark.” Sadie set two-year-old Connor atop Jack’s shoulders, her face flushed and blue eyes bright with excitement. Blond curls bubbled out from beneath her stylish cloche hat and framed her face, accenting her already considerable charm. Her shawl-collared dress was the latest fashion, made in chocolate silk and broken at the waist with tiny pleats. Bell-shaped skirts ended at her ankles. The day was warm, but she’d tossed a honey-colored mink shawl over her shoulders.

Half the fun of going anywhere with Sadie was watching heads turn as she passed by, a game her husband enjoyed as much as the rest of us. Most of our amusement stemmed from knowing those who judged Sadie solely on her looks vastly underestimated her. Given the opportunity, she never hesitated to set them straight.

“It’s an absolutely perfect day.” I sidestepped the ghost of a prince kneeling in the middle of the sidewalk, head bowed to receive a crown. “Not a trace of fog anywhere. I’m so glad we could watch the parade together.”

“Oh, so am I, Dee.” Sadie brushed a hand over her son’s cheek, and her bright smile dimmed a little. “I just hope the crowd and the parade noise don’t frighten Connor. He cries so easily when we’re downtown.”

Sadie didn’t see the world as I did, but I suspected that her son did. Connor was wild eyed and flushed, trying to look everywhere at once. Not telling my dearest friend that her baby boy watched ghosts was a guilty secret that weighed on me; one I couldn’t keep much longer. Since early infancy, he’d had that telltale stare Gabe said I adopted when ghosts were present. I couldn’t deny that Connor watched unseen things in the corner of the room rather than the people around him. Not when I saw spirits in those same corners.

Dora and I had half hoped Connor might grow out of it, but as time went on, I became convinced that wasn’t the case. The question had become when to tell Sadie, not if we’d be forced to.

At least I’d be there to help Connor and teach him how to protect himself. Slim consolation for his mother, but that was all I had to offer.

I reached up and brushed the hair back from little Connor’s face. His hair was red and curly like his father’s, but the curls were fine and soft like Sadie’s, his eyes the same shade of blue as his mother’s. Stella was the miniature of her mother through and through, including the ability to charm the moon from the sky. I could never firmly decide who Connor resembled most, but many days I thought it was his grandmother Esther. “I’ll take him for a walk if he starts to cry. That way Stella can enjoy the parade and you needn’t worry. Where are we meeting Sam?”

“Near Lotta’s fountain and the Palace Hotel.” Gabe picked Stella up, making it easier for us to move along the increasingly crowded sidewalk. She looped an arm around his neck and rested her cheek against his. “Sam said he’d be at the corner on the Palace side of the street. We won’t be able to miss him that way. The parade turns right there, so it’s the perfect place to watch. Sam and Miss Mills are going to save a spot on the curb for us.”

Sadie’s eyes lit up at the mention of Sam Butler in connection with a woman’s name. Time and motherhood hadn’t dulled her matchmaker instincts. If anything, fewer opportunities made her more eager. “Miss Mills? I didn’t know Sam was courting anyone. Why didn’t you tell me, Jack? We could have had them come to supper.”

“Sam’s not courting her, sweetheart.” Jack and Gabe traded looks, but Gabe’s amused expression made it clear Jack was on his own. “They’re friends. Colleagues, I guess you could say. She’s new in town and Sam’s making an effort to introduce her to people.”

“Colleagues?” Sadie appeared thoroughly unconvinced. Now that she had the scent of a possible romance in her nose, she’d not let go. She’d pointed out more than once that her matchmaking had worked with me and Gabe. Sadie lived in hope of another success. “Is Miss Mills a reporter as well? I’ve read that some of the more progressive papers do have women on their staffs.”

I felt sorry for Sam. Samuel Clemens Butler was young, a successful reporter for The Call, and romantically unattached, and thus the perfect candidate for Sadie’s efforts. We’d all been friends since he came to San Francisco a little over two years ago and helped Gabe with a case, but poor Sam had no idea what was in store for him.

Attempts to sidetrack Sadie usually failed, but I felt honor bound to try. “Libby Mills is a social worker. The Examiner has run several articles about her. Miss Mills negotiates with local businesses to provide respectable employment for soldier’s widows at decent wages. It’s quite noble work from what I’ve read, and she’s gotten good results. I’m looking forward to meeting her.”

The words “social worker” must have summoned visions of an older woman with ample bosoms and frumpy clothes. Sadie’s smile dimmed ever so slightly, but she put a good face on things. “Perhaps I can persuade a few friends to host a luncheon or an afternoon reception for Miss Mills. Introducing her to San Francisco society is bound to do her cause a world of good. I could even ask Katherine to include Miss Mills in the garden party she’s hosting next week. She’s always looking for a new charity to support.”

The corners of Jack’s mouth twitched, but he kept a straight face. “That’s a marvelous idea, sweetheart. My dear stepmother loves to throw money around in public. She has an image to maintain, after all.”

Sadie laughed and slipped an arm around his waist. “What you really mean is giving money to charity eases her guilt. Katherine would never admit to that, but we both know it’s true. If Miss Mills’s people benefit, well, that’s all to the good, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll ring Katherine this evening.”

Lotta’s fountain came into view. All the people of San Francisco knew the fountain built by Lotta Crabtree, her gift to the city. Most had a story to tell. The brass fountain with its tall, ornate central column, lion’s-head spouts, and griffin-guarded basins survived both the 1906 quake and the fire that swept away all the surrounding buildings. People used the fountain as a rallying point in the aftermath, a place to leave messages and post lists of who’d survived and who had died. Esther had brought Sadie and me to the fountain to hear opera soprano Luisa Tetrazzini sing on Christmas Eve of 1910.

Survivors of the quake still gathered around Lotta’s fountain each April 18 to sing hymns and remember. Not that anyone would ever forget.

Sam was easy to spot. I’d always thought of him as tall and lanky, but today he stood inches above the people around him. His straw boater hat and the thin pinstripes in his ash-gray suit made him appear taller still, especially in comparison to the tiny woman holding his arm.

Libby Mills was much younger than I’d imagined, and her clothes far from frumpy, edging dangerously close to being fashionable. Her green dress had a square neckline, a large lace collar that covered her shoulders, and a pleated skirt that ended scandalously far above her ankles. She wore her hair loose, and soft black waves rippled over her shoulders and down her back.

My father always referred to small, pretty women as doll-like, but I’d never pin that label on Miss Mills. I could see strength and determination in her stance, even from a distance, and she watched everything with a keen eye. If she missed much, I’d be greatly surprised. She laughed easily at Sam’s remarks, revealing dimples in an open, friendly face.

I glanced at Sadie, wondering if she’d seen them too. Her utterly blissful smile told the story. I’d no hope of saving Sam from her meddling. He’d have to save himself.

Sam saw us and waved. “Gabe, Jack, over here.”

Police officers had already halted traffic for the parade. We crossed the street quickly and filled the space Sam had saved on the curb. Cheery music carried from around the corner, a sign the first band would be here before long.

Sam made the introductions. “Libby, you already know Gabe and Jack. These are their wives, Delia Ryan and Sadie Fitzgerald. It’s a mystery to me why such smart women put up with these two scoundrels. Delia and Sadie, this is Miss Libby Mills. Go easy on her, Sadie.”

Gabe winked and I hid a smile. He’d warned Sam.

“Why, Sam, I don’t know what you mean.” Sadie was positively beaming as she shook Libby’s hand. “Pay no attention to him. I’m very pleased to meet you, Miss Mills. And please, call me Sadie.”

“Only if you and Mrs. Ryan call me Libby. Sam’s told me a lot about both of you.” Libby gave Sam a sideways glance. “All good things, I promise.”

I stuck my hand out in turn. “And please, Libby, call me Delia. Sam’s a good man. I’d listen to him if I were you.”

The music grew louder as the parade came around the corner, cutting off further conversation. Gabe set Stella on the curb at his feet, giving her a clear view as well as room to dance and bounce to the music. The first band was followed by another, cars full of pretty girls tossing paper flowers to the crowd, and solemn-faced men carrying banners for aid societies and fellowship halls. Policemen marched in full dress uniforms, while men from local firehouses drove old horse-drawn fire wagons and tossed candy to children. People clapped and cheered when a group of dancers stopped at our corner. They gave a grand performance before moving on.

I kept an eye on Connor, looking for signs that the crowd and the ever-present ghosts had gotten to be too much for him. Jack bounced his son up and down in time to the music while Sadie rested a hand on Connor’s back. So far, he seemed to be faring well, watching everything with excitement and not fear. I stayed close, just in case.

A new group of men came around the corner, carrying flags and a different kind of banner. Some of the men had hand-lettered cards stuck into their hatbands that read BREAD OR REVOLUTION. The cheering stopped, the crowd growing quiet and subdued. Sam scowled and wiped a hand over his mouth. “I didn’t think he’d go through with it. Dominic Mullaney should have more sense.”

People booed loudly and a few shouted insults. I touched Gabe’s arm. “What’s wrong?”

He gestured toward the men marching past. “Mullaney and his crew are trying to organize labor unions on the docks. They’ve already started organizing waiters in the big hotels too. The business owners involved have done their best to turn people against the idea. Father Colm over at Saint Mary Magdalene was afraid there’d be trouble and tried to talk Mullaney out of marching in the parade. Father Colm was right. I just hope things don’t get too far out of hand.”

The shouting grew louder, people in the crowd and the men who’d been marching taunting each other. Ghosts appeared amongst the marchers: men dressed in miners’ gear with coal dust smeared across their faces, blacksmiths in leather aprons and longshoremen in sweat-soaked shirts, phantom boxes balanced on a shoulder. There were child ghosts as well, barefoot waifs holding spindles from textile mills or battered lunch buckets. The spirits’ anger rolled through the crowd, feeding the growing rage of union organizers and spectators both.

Spirits of dead royalty shimmered into view, clustered near a group of the spectators along the curb. These ghosts were nervous, afraid. I tried to discover who in the crowd they haunted, but there were far too many people.

“I don’t think it’s safe for the children to stay here.” Gabe picked up Stella and handed her back to Sadie. He took his badge out of an inside pocket and pinned it to his coat. “Take them down the block and into the Palace, Dee, and stay as far from the front windows as you can. All the way to the back of the lobby would be best. Libby, I think you should go as well.”

“There used to be seating areas at the back. We’ll go there.” I took Connor from Jack. He was shaking and crying, staring at the ghosts, and I’d no doubt their anger washed over him as it did me. I pulled Connor’s head down to rest on my shoulder, doing what I could to wrap wards and protections around him. They must have done some good. I felt Connor sigh and relax against me. “Be careful, Gabe.”

He smiled and turned away, wading into the thick of the angry mob. Jack and Sam went with him. I met Sadie’s eyes, knowing what I’d see. Fear for Jack struggled with the need to get her children far from danger. She couldn’t protect all of them at once. Neither could I.

Libby was small but adept at making her way through crowds. She went ahead of Sadie and me, forcing openings to let us through, and going so far as to shove a large man who tried to block our way deliberately. I couldn’t shake the sick feeling that something was very wrong here. Few people made an attempt to leave. Instead, men and women both pushed forward, faces eager, and scrabbled to get closer to the heart of the disturbance. I didn’t understand why.

We broke through to a clear patch of sidewalk. A large plate glass window on the front of a jeweler’s shop loomed in front of us. Black moiré taffeta lined the window display and showed off rhinestone bracelets, necklaces, and earrings to their best advantage. The crystals glinted rainbows, mimicking the pattern in the fabric.

The window glass was flawed, full of ripples that distorted the reflection of the milling crowd behind us and the buildings across Market Street, buildings that overlooked the parade route. Images wavered, appeared to move as I stared.

All but one. The princess ghost I’d seen in the dressing table mirror stood in the center of the glass, still and calm. She’d known I’d be here, in this place at this exact moment, and waited for me. I couldn’t say how I knew that was true, only that I did.

The ghost raised an arm and pointed, the fan in her hand touching the reflection of a building directly across the street. I turned and saw tiny figures moving on the roof, men who appeared no bigger than children from a distance. One carried a bundle to the iron railing that edged the roof and stood there, waiting on his partner. The other man got down on one knee, arms held at a strange angle. He shifted position, and sunlight shimmered dully on the long barrel of a rifle. “Oh, God … Sadie! Sadie get down!”

Libby looked up immediately, instinct or divine intervention drawing her eye to the same rooftop. Shock froze her in place for an instant, but no more. She grabbed Sadie’s arm, dragging her into the shelter of the jewelry store doorway. I crowded in as well, heart hammering, and jammed Libby, Sadie, and Stella up against the shop door, little Connor wedged between us.

The door must have been unlatched. We tumbled inside, landing in a heap of tangled skirts and frightened, crying children.

Explosions sounded from outside, followed quickly by panicked screams, frantic shouts, and breaking glass. A clerk came around the front counter, an older woman in a prim gray dress, who stood and stared at us, mouth agape. “What … what are you doing on the floor?”

Libby lifted her head and glared at the woman. “Trying not to get shot. Get down, you ninny.”

The front window shattered, spraying glass into the shop. Shards skittered across spotless marble floors to land at the clerk’s feet. She squeaked in fright and scurried into the back room, yelling for Mr. Perkins to call the police. I curled over Connor as he sobbed, and made shooshing noises in his ear, trying not to think of Sam and Jack out there.

Most of all, I was trying not to imagine Gabe lying in the street, cold and still.

Copyright © 2015 by Jaime Lee Moyer

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