The Ghost in the Machine

For two years, widowed photographer Naddy Lewison has lived with her husband’s ghost. Now she finds herself drawn to a living man. Marshal Bill Crawford is handsome and cynical, yet beneath his bluff exterior Naddy sees a kind heart, and a loneliness to match her own. When a figure from her past threatens her future, Naddy turns to Bill for aid. Captivated by the beautiful widow, Bill is glad to help – until the first body turns up. Suddenly the marshal is accused of murder, and the only other suspect is a ghost in whom Bill refuses to believe.

Called back from their honeymoon, the hundred-year-old vampire Connor Franklin and his human wife Charlie must work to clear Bill’s name, and put Walter’s ghost to rest. Along the way, Charlie learns what it means to be in love with an immortal, and the price she must be willing to pay. But as the newlyweds dig deeper into the secrets of the Lewison family, they learn there is much more to the story than anyone knows, and that Naddy may be the ghost’s next victim – for Walter has no intention of letting her go.

Nadia Lewison awoke to the warmth of the morning sun on her face. She moaned softly and pressed her face against her pillow. Not yet. When she felt a pair of fingers playfully walk across her bare shoulder, she gave a groan of annoyance.

“Time to get up,” a voice purred against her hair.

“Don’t want to.” Groggily, she reached around behind her and took his hand. “Stay here,” she begged, as she pulled his arm snug about her waist.

His warm breath teased at the nape of her neck. “But I have to go.”

She felt him slowly disengage his hand from hers. She rolled over to stop him before he could rise. “Walter...” she mumbled, hearing the childish whine in her voice and hating herself for it. After ten years of gentle rebukes, her only excuse was that she would never be a morning person.

He was. He was made for the mornings. The same sunbeams that burned her eyes and set the dust motes dancing seemed to electrify him. The light turned his dark blond hair golden; his skin took on a youthful flush, the fine lines under his blue eyes seemed to melt away. He was handsome in all lights, her Walter, but never so radiant as at dawn.

She was seized by a need to tell him so, an irrational fear that this would be her last chance. But sleep had drugged her tongue, and she was only able to manage a slurred string of sounds she hoped he could decipher as “You’re beautiful.”

He grinned, wide enough to crinkle his eyes, and flash his crooked right incisor. For some reason she thought back to their early courtship, when he had been so reluctant to smile.

“Sleepyhead.” He bent his head to kiss her brow.

She snuggled against him gratefully, closing her eyes against a rain of feather kisses as he tried to coax her out of sleep. Their old morning ritual, from half-forgotten newlywed days.

She felt his touch withdraw. “Don’t go...”

“But, Naddy, it’s time to wake up.”

~ * ~

When she lifted her head from the pillow, Walter was gone. His side of the bed was still warm, the linens untucked. She stretched out across the bed, trying to find some imprint of his body in the mattress. A small hand knocked on the door. “Ma?”

“I’m here,” she called back. Reluctantly she sat up and righted her nightgown. “I’m coming. Help Henry to wash and I’ll be down in the kitchen in a few minutes.”

She quickly made the bed, a much more haphazard affair these days. As long as the sheets didn’t trail on the floor, she was happy. She washed at her bedside stand, then began to dress. She noted with some annoyance that her corset seemed a little loose of late. She had always prided herself on maintaining an exact figure.

She stared at the skirts hanging in the wardrobe. Every morning, the same choice—which one of the four variants of gray would it be? The smoky broadcloth? The pewter trumpet skirt? The slate walking suit? Some days it seemed she spent hours contemplating her options.

She finally settled on the black-and-white pinstripe with the lavender trim. Then she sat down at her vanity to scrutinize her reflection. Had any new lines of weariness etched their way under her eyes? She was losing the war against time, morning by morning. Her fair skin was slowly hardening in the dry climate, the bloom of youth had to be mimicked with carmine. It was a defect of her character, she knew, to worry about such things when she had a business and a family to tend to. It made no difference to her customers nor her children if she was a fresh beauty or a faded matron.

I’m only thirty-two, she mouthed to the mirror. But she felt so much older.

She brushed out her hair until it fell heavy as winter silk against her shoulders, and she took some consolation from its healthy sheen, the color of oiled teak. She gathered it into a long braid and pinned it up. The green glass bottle labeled Dr. Harper’s Female Nerve Tonic lay just beside her box of hairpins. She waited until she had finished with her toilette before filling the teaspoon and swallowing the bitter concoction. Only one spoonful for now. There was no need to be a glutton, even with one’s medicine.

She still looked too pale. With a tut of irritation she withdrew her little tin of rouge from the middle drawer and dabbed some color to her lips and cheeks. Satisfied she was at last ready to face the world, she slipped into her shoes and made her way downstairs.

The kitchen already smelled of breakfast. Freshly buttered toast sat on the table in front of little Henry, who ate greedily with his fingers. Eight-year-old Rose knelt in front of the wood stove, stoking a miniature fire.

“Rose!” Naddy scolded. “Come away from there. You know you’re not to play with the matches.”

Rose shot her a sullen glare. “I only wanted to help.”

Naddy shooed her away. “Just go fill up the kettle.”

“Kettle’s already filled and on the stove. Aunt Vicky lets her girls light the stove!”

“Bully for Aunt Vicky.” Naddy knelt to inspect the fire: Rose had built it well, she had to admit. “I suppose you were planning on going to see your cousins this morning.”

“Ma, I already told you. I’m going up to Gemma’s to work on our clubhouse.”

“Well, take Henry with you.”

The four-year-old looked up at the sound of his name. His sister was far less pleased.

“Ma! Can’t you just keep him with you?”

“Lovey, I have to work.”

“You always have to work!”

Naddy sighed. “Yes, Rose. I always have to work. Just like you always have to eat. Can’t do one without the other.”

“Can’t Aunt Vicky watch him?”

She probably could. And then whisper around her tea circle how her brother’s lazy wife couldn’t be bothered to raise her own children. Naddy could hear Victoria’s scornful voice even now. And she only has the pair of them. Honestly, a decent woman considers children a blessing.

“I am not going to impose on your aunt just because you are feeling selfish. I indulge you horribly during the school year, but it’s high time you started to pull your own weight come the summer.” She tied on her apron and set to work making the oatmeal. Her daughter watched the process with barely concealed distaste.

“Can’t we have bacon?” Rose asked.

“Not today. I’ll see if we can get some at the end of the week.”

“We always used to have bacon.”

She tried to keep her voice cheerful. “Well, today we’re having some nice porridge with brown sugar and dried bananas. You like bananas, don’t you, Henry?”

Henry grinned and clapped his hands. “Bana-na-nas!”

“You’re saying it wrong. Dummy.”

“I know that! Mumma thinks it’s funny.”

“No, she doesn’t.”

“Enough!” Naddy snapped. “Rose, sit down and hush up, or there’ll be no clubhouse today.”

Rebellion flashed in the girl’s eyes. She had Walter’s eyes, pale and prone to hardness. “You promised!” she stamped her foot. “You can’t take back a promise.”

“One more word, and you’re housebound for the week.”

Rose crossed her arms defiantly and sat down with as much vehemence as her sixty-pound frame could muster. She could pass for a tiny adolescent with her hellcat temper. Naddy tried to think when this vicious, defiant streak had first begun to surface. Certainly when she started walking to school with Gemma and the other girls, all a grade ahead of Rose and full of false sophistication. Nothing good ever came of children trying to act older than they were.

No, truth be told, her fits of temper dated back at least two years.

Had it been two years already? Naddy did not like to think of the passage of time.

They ate in silence, but for Henry’s noisy lip smacking. More than once Rose shot him a look that said she longed to smack him. Naddy wondered what sort of complaints Rose unburdened on her friends. Or her aunt.

Her head was beginning to ache by the time she sent her children off for the day. But she resisted the temptation to slip upstairs and fortify herself with another spoonful of tonic. She couldn’t afford to be light-headed. It was time for work.

~ * ~

Lewison Photography had been a bustling little enterprise when she had first joined her husband in Virginia City. But ten years of dwindling returns had emptied out the mining town. Anyone with foresight had fled for the coast long ago. And the few who were stuck on the Comstock, either out of habit or poverty, seldom wanted their pictures taken.

Still, she made sure to be ready at ten o’clock sharp, to unlock the front door and turn the sign to read OPEN. Though a week could easily go by without a morning customer, she refused to shorten her workday, or sneak in chores at the back of the house when she was meant to be minding the shop. To fill the hours, she dusted the many props Walter had collected over the years, or reorganized her supply of postcards in the display racks. Most were generic shots of the city— the bustle on C Street in better days, dirty-faced miners posing around one of the mine hoists, St. Mary of the Mountains and Piper’s Opera House. Her favorite was a picture of little Henry, struggling to sit upright atop their stuffed buffalo, with the caption Home on the Range, Virginia City, Nevada.

Nevermind that the elusive buffalo was a prairie beast, or that the “range” originally referred to the sprawling fields of Kansas. The tourists who came to Virginia City in hopes of glimpsing the Wild West did not care about the particulars.

When the boredom grew oppressive, but a sense of duty kept her from brewing fresh coffee, she would sort through the family snapshots. A stack of shoeboxes held a decade of memories. She found moments as solemn as births and deaths, and as trivial as a Sunday picnic. There was Henry in his first pair of short pants, and there Rose perched on a swing over the creek, eyes crinkled shut, mouth agape with laughter. Half the shots were blurry, or poorly framed. Naddy clucked her tongue absently. How much money had they burned into film every month? Perhaps their finances now would not be so precarious, if they had showed more thrift in those times of plenty.

But Walter would never hear of economy where his trade was concerned. She could almost hear his voice at her ear, reciting his personal creed.

“A photograph is a moment pulled out of time. It never lies. It takes what we give it, and it reproduces it faithfully, the good and the bad. A man’s memory may fail him, but a photograph never will. These are true memories; we have to hold onto them.”

She flipped backwards through the years, watching the children grow younger and disappear from the record. Eventually the family portraits gave way to stiffer, faded compositions of a childless couple, until Naddy and Walter themselves parted ways, to occupy their own pocket-sized prints, taken on opposite sides of the continent.

So many years...

She knew she would find the newspaper clipping at the very front of the box marked 1887-1890. She plucked it out and carefully unfolded it, mindful of its yellowing edges.

A bachelor photographer, aged 26, seeks a partner in life and business. She must be an amiable and industrious lady of some education, under the age of 30, preferably with a basic understanding of the photographic arts. Initial financial investment not required.

A bittersweet smile tugged at her lips. He was no poet, her Walter. Still, she would have framed the clipping and hung it proudly in their parlor, had he not been so embarrassed by it. She had read hundreds of classifieds in her quest to properly dispose of herself, and though there had been men aplenty seeking trophies and accessories, only Walter had been bold enough to ask for a partner.

She had never so much as seen a working camera before, but she had found a fairground vendor willing to explain the fundamentals. With a cribbed vocabulary and one poorly developed snapshot, she had won a husband. Later, Walter would tell she was the only one of his correspondents who had thought to send a photograph.

She plucked the faded portrait out of the box and examined her younger self: the worn dress and stubborn mouth, the hair imperfectly curled into fashionable ringlets. She remembered how the smell of burnt hair had dogged her all day.

A moment pulled out of time... she thought, and she had to swallow a sudden flood of grief. She longed to pull her whole world out of time.


Jane Senese 2013.