The coroner’s damp dungeon stank of formaldehyde and worse. Azmin Malcolm Dougall turned up the oil lamps to drive the eerie shadows into the corners. She chose to call the underlying scent mold—not decay.
She’d seen decomposing corpses before. Calcutta had unfortunately been littered with them after the cyclone. She accepted that the corporeal shell housing the human spirit was a natural element that returned to the earth just as dying leaves did. The spirit was what mattered.
To that end—she set up her tripod, slipped her experimental dry plate into her camera, and perched the box on the stand. The chemicals she was using to produce the dry process plates were cutting into her budget, but she’d created some exciting results that gave her hope she might have discovered her gift.
Tonight, she added to the experiment with her new—and dangerous—magnesium reflector.
The oil lamps flickered in an unexpected draft, and she frowned. The cellar shouldn’t allow air currents. That was the reason she had set her first experiment here. Light was the key to success and flickering would ruin the image.
She set up her new reflector to illuminate the corpse on the slab. Thankfully, for her purpose, the body needn’t be uncovered.
Lighting the last lamp, Azmin held her breath, positioned herself behind the box, lit the magnesium coil—and uncovered the lens to catch the flaring light.
The door swung in with a rush of spring wind, extinguishing half the lamps, and plunging the cellar into gloom except for the bright explosion of the magnesium.
“Bloody hell!” the uncivilized intruder shouted in fury.
Muttering an unladylike curse under her breath, Azmin covered the lens. The shot was ruined, and so were her chances of catching the corpse’s spirit.
The wretch entering practically electrified the chamber with a furious energy that might terrify both living and dead into fleeing. Azmin, however, wasn’t of the fearful sort. She studied the rude apparition in the remaining dim light.
Tall, lean, wearing a white lab coat that failed to conceal menacingly broad shoulders, the intruder visibly calmed himself by shoving a long-fingered hand into his mop of thick dark hair. Swinging to her, he glared. His unfashionably clean-shaven jaw and sharp cheekbones exposed centuries of intimidatingly aristocratic ancestry. In the dim light of the one overhead light, his eyes gleamed silver as they narrowed.
Azmin glowered back. Despite his white lab coat, Azmin recognized the professor, and her insides lurched. She’d once traveled halfway around the world to avoid the rake. He was even more magnificent now than he had been as a student.
“What the. . . Hades. . . are you doing?” he demanded, amending his intended obscenity.
“Packing my equipment,” Azmin replied in her brightest, most insouciant manner. She had always liked to irritate Dr. Alexander Dare the same way he irritated her.
Irritation might not be quite the correct word. But despite appearances, she was a lady, and she did not use carnal words. Or even think them. The frustration he caused had always been of a physical nature.
“Who gave you permission to be in here?” Recovering from his momentary shock, the good doctor proceeded to the slab and threw back a corner of the sheet, revealing a man’s bare chest. “I haven’t much time. You need to remove yourself forthwith.”
The man still had the world’s longest lashes, concealing stone-cold eyes—iron gray at times like this.
“Forthwith,” she mocked. “Who stuck that stick up your rump? You used to be fun.”
“Children have fun. Men work. And you haven’t answered me. What are you doing here and who gave you permission? This is no place for a lady.” Setting down his leather bag, he produced a small tool case and laid it open on a table.
Azmin packed her far less expensive carpet valise. “The coroner’s wife is interested in spiritualism. I have permission to photograph the spirits of the recently deceased, not that it’s any of your business, but it is thoughtful of you to remember that I am a lady.”
“Spiritualism,” he snorted. “Do you rattle bones and raise sheets? The dead are dead.”
“Their bodies are, agreed. And if a spiritualist would allow me into a séance, I might learn whether or not she was actually raising spirits. But for some reason, they won’t allow photographic equipment.” She snapped her valise closed and shouldered the long handle of her reflector.
“And what good would it do you to photograph a spirit, even if they existed? They can’t talk.” He drew a mark over the corpse’s chest. “You’re better off learning something useful, like knitting.”
He hit on a sore point. She wanted to be useful. She was a Malcolm. Malcolms had psychical talents that helped others. She should have more useful gifts than knitting—if only she could discover them.
If glass plates didn’t cost so much, she’d throw one at the professor’s head.
She didn’t want his attention, she reminded herself. Ten years ago, she’d traveled halfway around the world to India to avoid having anything to do with the man. It was just her rotten luck that when she chose to return to the most remote outpost she could visit—Edinburgh—he was here too.
She let herself out of the cellar. He didn’t even notice.