Christmas had always been Ruth Klein’s favorite season. She had loved going out into the woods with her father to look for the perfect tree when she was a young girl and then stringing string after string of popcorn and cranberries to wrap around the tree before her mother carefully hung delicate glass ornaments from the branches.
The real trees of her childhood gave way to a flocked aluminum tree after her marriage and ensuing move to suburbia, and eventually to an artificial tree on which she could hang strings of twinkling multi-colored lights as well as the hodgepodge of ornaments collected by a growing family. Days of baking cookies and shopping for the perfect gifts were still a staple of her holiday, even though she was now a widow and her daughters were grown with teenage children of their own.
It was two weeks before Christmas when her oldest daughter, born on Christmas eve and appropriately named Noel, dropped by with an early gift that she insisted she open.
“But it’s not Christmas yet!”
“I know, but we have something else for you for Christmas day. This is something extra I picked up on my business trip.”
She gave in and unwrapped the package, gasping at the beautiful antique doll inside. She removed it from the cushioned cardboard box and carefully examined it. The bisque head wore an elaborate brown wig and was attached to a soft body covered by a deep green silk dress. Leather boots with tiny buttons completed the doll’s ensemble.
“Noel! You shouldn’t have! This is way too much – it must have cost a fortune!”
Noel shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. While I think we should probably get it appraised for insurance purposes, I honestly got it for a steal in New York. Found it in an antique store, and I suspect the seller didn’t know what he had. He mainly had a bunch of old plastic dolls and this one was sandwiched in between a twenty-year old Barbie and a Kewpie doll with a cracked head.”
She winced. While there was definitely a market for those dolls and she had friends who collected them, her own taste ran towards porcelain dolls both old and new. This doll, which she estimated was from the 1870s, was by far the oldest and most valuable in her collection. “Well, I love it! Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” Noel, smiling happily, gave her a hug. “Merry early Christmas, Mom.”
The two women rearranged the glass curio cabinet in the den to make room for the new addition until she decided upon a more permanent place to display it. After Noel left, Ruth logged on to the collectible doll forum on AOL, signing off only when her stomach reminded her it was time for dinner.
Late that evening, she was nestled snugly in her recliner with a mug of hot cocoa watching It’s a Wonderful Life with the tree lights blinking merrily in the front window when she heard a noise she couldn’t place. Her first thought was that her Persian cat, Xerxes, had gotten into something, but a quick glance confirmed that he was curled up on the sofa. She watched as he now raised his head and looked towards the curio cabinet. His ears swiveled back. He stood and arched his back, his long white fur puffing out to make him look twice his actual size. He hissed.
She quickly turned off the television and followed Xerxes’ gaze. The overhead light went out, and the television winked off. The lights on the tree were the only illumination remaining, except for a faint glow that surrounded the doll Noel had given her. Despite originally being placed to face the center of the room, it had now turned to face the tree.
A child’s voice broke the silence, singing words she did not understand.
Scintille, scintille, petite étoile
Je me demande bien ce que tu es!
Ruth screamed. With a final hiss, Xerxes fled to his hiding spot under her bed.
On Monday morning, December 15, Honey had barely turned on the lights in her office when the telephone started to ring. “Sleepyside Detective Agency. This is Honey Wheeler-Belden. May I help you?”
“Good morning, this is Wilhelmina. If you’re not too busy, I have a case I could use your help on.”
Honey’s stomach dropped. After Ferris Lake, she had rather been hoping that any cases related to the supernatural would wait until after Trixie returned from maternity leave. “What kind of case? I should let you know that Trixie won’t be back in the office for another few weeks, so if you need her help specifically…”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Honey,” Wilhelmina sighed. “Yes, she may attract ghosts, and I know you’re not quite as comfortable with them, but you’re still a good detective in your own right. And yes, I know she’s still on leave. She sent me an announcement when the baby was born, and I’ve got a bundle of cute little outfits ready to be mailed to her. My goal is to get them mailed while the baby can still fit into them…”
Honey laughed. “Better hurry. Chloe’s already growing like a weed. So tell me, how can I help you?”
“I had a call from my college roommate Thursday morning. She bought an antique doll on a recent trip to New York City and gave it to her mother Wednesday as an early Christmas present. She said that that night, the doll moved on its own, turned out the lights, and started singing. She thinks it may be possessed and asked me to try to exorcise it.”
“Can things really be possessed like that? I mean, I know people can, but objects?”
“I’d honestly say it’s a spirit or manifestation attached to an object and manipulating it rather than what people typically think of as possession, but that may be a matter of semantics. At any rate, she lives in Missouri and I’m currently in San Diego, so I had her overnight the doll to me. I got it on Friday afternoon and spent the weekend observing it. Saw some activity, but couldn’t actually make contact. At this point, I need more information. I was hoping that if I send you a copy of the receipt, along with photographs of the doll, that you could visit the shop and try to find out more of its provenance. Hopefully something that can help identify the spirit, but anything at this point would be a big help.”
“I can definitely do that,” Honey replied, relieved that she would just be talking to an antique dealer and maybe doing some research. “I do have another case I need to work on today, but I could rearrange some things and visit the City tomorrow. Would that be soon enough?”
“Absolutely. I’ll email the documents as soon as I get them scanned. Let me know if you need any more detail, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Honey Wheeler-Belden could count on one hand the number of times she had sworn in her entire life. She more than doubled that count when she opened the email from Wilhelmina, and to her chagrin, Bobby Belden walked in during the middle of her blue streak.
He stared at her with his eyes wide as he took off his coat. “Honey?”
She flushed. “Any chance you can pretend that never happened?”
“Don’t know. I may need to use some of the words I just learned,” he teased. “But seriously, what’s wrong? That’s not like you.”
“We have a new case. It sounded simple, and it should be. Talk to an antique dealer and find out the provenance of an antique doll. We’ll ignore the fact that the doll is either possessed or has a ghost hanging around it that even Wilhelmina can’t contact. Neither she nor the doll are in New York, so we should be safe with that aspect. But then I opened the email with the receipt and some pictures of the doll. The shop? While it has a new name, it’s the same location as the store where your sister insisted on buying the Incan idol that almost got us all killed. It was closed for a while after Pedro, Blinky, and Big Tony were arrested, but it’s too valuable a location to stay empty for very long. I have no idea how long this store has been there.” She grimaced. “And I told Wilhelmina I’d go there tomorrow. Her client is actually her college roommate, so she’s trying to move as fast as she can on it, which I understand, but your brother is going to have an absolute cow.”
“Too bad I can’t go with you, but with finals this week, there’s no way. But at least I can open the office for a few hours tomorrow afternoon.”
“And that’s a big help,” she assured him. “If all goes well, I’ll get the pictures of Regina Oliver and her boyfriend this afternoon and get that case in the bag. Then I’ll get over myself and realize I’m a professional. Brian will get over it, too.”
“Honey, you are one of the most professional people I know, if not the most professional. But may I make a suggestion?”
She nodded. “Sure.”
“It’s just a thought, but if I remember correctly, your mother is rather interested in antiques and you mentioned recently that she’s been hinting at a mother-daughter shopping day. Why don’t you ask her to go along? From what you’ve said, it should be safe enough, and it’s not like there’s anything that is too sensitive for her to overhear. You could visit the shop, have lunch somewhere, then do some shopping. She might even be helpful.”
She thought about it and realized his idea had some merit. While she didn’t like the thought of asking her mother for help, she had promised Brian ten years earlier never to go back there alone. She had also promised herself not to involve Trixie during her leave if at all possible, and the last time she had talked to Diana, she had mentioned volunteering in the twins’ classroom this week. She also didn’t want to ask any of the male Bob-Whites – including Brian – to rearrange their work schedules, especially at the last minute, and it wasn’t like she dreaded her mother’s company.
“Good idea,” she finally admitted, and picked up the phone. She put it back down and glared at her young brother-in-law. “You do realize that even though my dad takes the train every day, my mother has never once taken it? I’m going to wind up being chauffeured on a job!”
“Eh. Not like you’re undercover or have any need to blend in on this one. Just enjoy it. If it helps, think of Tom as extra backup. I’m sure that will make Brian happier, anyway.”
“True, but still. It just feels weird.”
He laughed. “Honey, you’re going back to an antique store where my sister bought an idol to research a possessed or haunted doll. The probability of Tom driving you is probably the least strange thing about it…”
Madeleine Wheeler accepted Honey’s invitation with alacrity and suggested that she come by the Manor House for breakfast before leaving for the City. It was a good opportunity for them to make a plan for the day, and the next morning, Honey seized the opportunity to warn her mother what the case could entail.
“I really appreciate you coming with me today. I’m hoping the visit to the antique shop won’t take that long, but I have a feeling it’s not as cut and dried as it sounds. Not many cases are.”
“Take your time, Honey,” Madeleine assured her, sipping at her coffee. “To be perfectly honest, my Christmas shopping is already finished, so there’s no problem even if it takes all day.”
“But I thought…”
“Honey, darling, while I admit I’ll never turn down a shopping trip, I just wanted time with you. There’s also a part of me that’s always wondered what it would be like to go sleuthing with you, so I’m going to enjoy this.”
“We really do need to spend more time together,” Honey said, smiling softly. “And while I’m relieved you’re willing to investigate with me, I have to admit that this isn’t really one of our typical cases.” She took a deep breath. “When I called you yesterday, I mentioned that there’s a good chance the doll is haunted, or possessed, or whatever you want to call it. And when I first told you about our agency’s involvement with Wilhelmina James, Dad was obviously nonplussed, but you just seemed to take it in stride. I’m thankful, but I have to ask. Why? Even Brian wasn’t fully convinced that ghosts actually exist until our trip to Ferris Lake.”
“Your father is a businessman, and a very good one. There’s a part of him that worries about your, and your agency’s, reputation if it becomes common knowledge. You and Trixie both have too much discretion for that to happen, though, and even if it does, I’m sure you’ll make the best of it. Honestly, it might even be more interesting for you if you wind up focusing on those types of cases. I’ve never really pictured you two being happy with run-of-the-mill divorce cases and such long-term.
“He also struggles with accepting the supernatural. Like Brian, he believes in a world where things are black and white and there are no shades of grey. You’re either living or you’re dead. Oh, I know he goes back and forth on whether or not there’s a Heaven or a Hell, but even so, that doesn’t include getting stuck somewhere in between.”
She nodded. “It seems like most of the ghosts we’ve dealt with have some kind of unfinished business keeping them here on this plane. Is it easy for you to believe in them?”
“Once upon a time, I would have said no,” she replied. “Let’s just say I had one convince me otherwise. From the reading I’ve done on the subject, I’d also say that while they’re terrifying, they’re also less likely to actually hurt you than the living criminals you and Trixie have tangled with on a regular basis, so I’m not going to complain…”
The once dingy windows Honey remembered from her previous visit to the storefront were now sparkling and had the logo for Boutique Antiques and Collectibles stenciled in blue. The window display area was filled with vintage Christmas decorations, including a working model train set up under a flocked tree, and after Tom dropped them off, the two women spent a few minutes watching it circle the track before going inside.
The inside of the shop was actually bigger than Honey remembered. Merchandise was organized into separate display areas, and her heart sank when she caught sight of codes indicating booth numbers on the price tags. While nothing on the receipt or store window indicated that it wasn’t a regular antique store, she was starting to think it was actually an antique mall. Her hunch was confirmed when after fruitlessly looking for the doll display Wilhelmina had mentioned, she approached the young woman at the register.
“Good morning. May I help you?” the clerk asked, putting down her cell phone.
“I hope so,” Honey answered. “I have a friend who bought a doll here last week, and we were wondering if you could tell us anything about it.”
She shook her head. “I’m sorry, but probably not. We just rent space to dealers and handle the sales transactions. My mother, who actually owns the store, might have been able to tell you something if you’re wanting to know what vintage it is, but she’s out of town today.”
“Is there any way I could contact the dealer? I mean the one who actually rented the space?”
“Do you know which booth it was?”
“No, but I have a copy of her receipt, as well as a few pictures of the doll, if that might help.” She slid a printout of the receipt and photographs Wilhelmina had sent over the counter.
The clerk’s response was instantaneous. “All sales are final. No refunds.”
“She doesn’t want a refund,” Honey stated. “Just information. Do you know when that dealer may be in?”
“Look. He moved out over the weekend, and while I’m sorry for your friend, she’d be better off just trashing the doll. Trust me on that one.”
“Why?” Madeleine asked, joining them. She had been browsing a booth a few feet away, and now she set a porcelain robin on the counter. “And I’ll take this please.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” the clerk replied as she took the delicate bird and began to ring it up.
“I really can’t say,” she sighed. “I’ve said too much already.”
“We’re not trying to get you in trouble,” Honey assured her. “Let me ask it this way. Did strange things happen here when the doll was here?”
“Did it talk or move on its own?”
“I never heard it talk, thank goodness. It was in a different spot almost every morning, though. I came in one morning and it was sitting here behind the register. I could have sworn it was grinning at me. Another morning, it had derailed the train set in the window. I thought for sure it was done for, but thankfully my dad was able to get it going again.”
“Any one else that could have moved the doll?”
She shook her head. “No. We checked the surveillance tapes, and Mom swears I faked them somehow, but that cursed doll moved on its own. Floated through the air like someone was carrying it, but no one was on the tape. You can’t believe how glad I was when it sold. I suspect the dealer was, too. It was the only one he had that actually looked like it was worth anything, and once he got the money for it, he terminated his lease then and there.”
“Do you have his name and number? Or an address?”
She handed a receipt to Madeleine and wrapped the bird in several layers of tissue paper and slipped it into a paper bag. Then she turned and typed a few keystrokes on the computer. “I’m really not supposed to give out personal information. I’m sorry. But we appreciate your business,” she said, as she carefully put the bag on the counter. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some work to do in the back.” She picked up her cell phone and walked away.
Madeleine began to sputter, but Honey quietly shook her head and gestured to the monitor. She made short work of memorizing the information – the screen had not only a name, but also an address and telephone number. Once they were back outside and waiting for Tom, Honey quickly wrote it down.
“But why not just write it down for you?” Madeleine asked. “Why the subterfuge?”
“She’s already in trouble for altering videos she didn’t alter,” Honey explained. “If the surveillance cameras run in the daytime, it’s possible our conversation was recorded, but the camera probably doesn’t pick up the computer screen. This way, she can say truthfully say she didn’t tell me, but that I must have snooped. She’d still be in trouble for leaving her post, but not as much as she would be for divulging the information.”
“So where do we go next?”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to see if we can catch the dealer at home. It’s easier to get information face-to-face than over the telephone. Do you need to drop your purchase off at the penthouse?”
She shook her head. “No. It will be safe enough in the sedan, and then I don’t have to remember to go back for it tonight before we head home. We’re having dinner with the Lynches tomorrow evening, and I’ll give it to Robin then. For now, though, we can follow your lead. Isn’t that what you call it?”
Honey grinned. “Yes, at least when we have them to follow! This one is out on Long Island.” She handed the paper where she’d written the name and address to her mother, then hesitated. “Mother? I’m not trying to be snobbish here, but don’t you think it’s odd someone living out there would have a simple booth in an antique mall instead of his own store?”
“Oh, he has his own store, although it’s not antiques,” Madeleine told her after staring at the paper for a long moment. “And most likely, that’s where he’ll be this time of day. Your father has bought quite a bit of jewelry for me there over the years.”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Honey quoted softly. “I’m getting the feeling he had the whole booth just to get rid of the doll.”
“Me, too. Although for what it’s worth, Jean Fontaine is as honest as they come. Took his trust fund and sank it into building his own business. I’d be really surprised if the doll was stolen property. Somehow, I suspect he was spooked by it, too.”
“I’m inclined to agree. I know I am…”
Once at the jewelry store, the two women were quickly whisked into the owner’s private office. “Madeleine! Great to see you. And you simply must introduce this lovely young lady!”
“My daughter, Madeleine Wheeler-Belden. Madeleine, this is Jean Fontaine.”
“It’s a pleasure, Madeleine. You’re just as beautiful as your mother, and that’s really saying something,” he told her. “How may I help you today? I have a one-of-a-kind pendant that would look astonishing on you.”
She smiled and handed him her business card. “I actually have some questions for you. If you have a few minutes, I would really appreciate your assistance.”
His eyebrows raised as he read the card. “Ah, yes. Matthew mentioned you had opened your own business. But I don’t understand. How can I help you?”
“My client bought an item from you last week,” Honey began. “Please, please understand that she simply wants information about it. She’s not asking for a refund, nor is she insinuating anything criminal with the purchase. She just wants to know where it originally came from, and any other details you may know about it.”
“Christmas is coming, and we sold quite a bit last week. You’ll have to be rather more specific.”
“She bought a doll you had in inventory at Boutique Antiques. It’s an antique doll, and I believe she bought it for quite a bit less than what it’s truly worth.”
He turned pale. “How did…”
“That’s not important,” she told him. “Like I said, this isn’t a legal issue, and she doesn’t want her money back. It’s an unusual doll, and she’d like to know more about it.”
“Unusual is a good word,” he sighed, taking a long drink of the water on his desk. “I admit, too, that I’d hoped I wouldn’t be connected with the doll. While my wife collects them, she no longer wanted this one and I couldn’t exactly dispose of it through my usual channels.”
“Where did you get it?”
“As a jeweler, I make frequent buying trips overseas,” he explained. “Sometimes Asia, occasionally Africa. Most often Europe, and as my father was French, I spend a lot of time in Paris. One of my former Parisian suppliers ran into some legal difficulties a few years ago, and his inventory was liquidated. His shop was primarily focused on watches, with some other jewelry thrown in, but he himself had a magnificent doll collection that his mother had amassed. When they went up for auction, I bought quite a few of them for my wife.”
A sudden feeling of deja vu swept over her. “Please tell me that this shop wasn’t called Emile Faurier.”
“Oh, but it was,” he replied, his eyes wide. “Emile was my supplier’s grandfather, and the store kept his name. How on earth did you know?”
“He was involved in a counterfeiting ring,” she sighed. “He supplied printing plates to a Sleepyside businessman by secreting the plates in an antique doll. The local businessman had an unwitting accomplice bring the doll to him from Paris.” She refused to admit that she and Trixie had been the unwitting accomplices. “My business partner and I worked with an officer from the French Surete who was investigating the Sleepyside connection.”
“She and Trixie were prodigies,” Madeleine interjected with a proud smile. “They were barely in their teens when that happened.”
Honey flushed. “To be honest, despite the thrill of working with a foreign police force, it wasn’t one of our better cases. We made a lot of mistakes with that one, although we’ve both learned a lot since then. At any rate, this doll came from his collection?
“Correct. I honestly have no idea where or when Michel obtained it, but you can tell your client that it was in Paris as of ten years ago.”
“And your wife has had it ever since? Why did she decide she didn’t want it?”
“Yes. And well, as you noted, it’s rather unusual. It didn’t really fit with her collection.”
“Because strange things happened when it was around,” Honey stated bluntly.
“Yes. She kept it in a glass cabinet, and while it never left it, it would often turn around or even move inside it.”
“What was the last straw?”
“For years, it was just a curiosity. Things would occasionally happen, but then they increased in frequency about a year ago. We started to hear noises, and then the blackout happened.” He shuddered. “You see, Sharon’s doll cabinets all have lights that she keeps on a timer. They turn on at dusk and turn off about the time we usually go to bed. While we do have an emergency generator, the display cases are not plugged into it, but that night, that particular cabinet was lit just as it usually was. When I looked, I could see the bulb wasn’t on. It was as if the doll itself was providing its own light. Sharon declared she didn’t care about the value and put it in the trash that night. She’s convinced that she heard it crying and took it back out the next morning.”
“And so you opened the booth at the antique mall.”
“Not immediately. I had to figure out how to do it first. I didn’t want to risk my reputation, or the reputation of my shop, by selling it to anyone in what my wife calls the local ‘doll community.’ Yet, without a reputation, it’s hard to sell through most normal channels. I even tried creating an account on eBay just for that purpose, but since I had no feedback rating, it wouldn’t sell. I eventually decided to try the antique mall. Bought up enough cheap, or at least semi-cheap, dolls to make it look like I was truly in the doll business. I actually made money on a few of them, but I priced this one at less than a tenth of what it’d get on the open market if it was just a normal doll. I hoped someone would either think I didn’t know what I had or just assume it was a reproduction. I never intended to be outed as the seller.”
“And no one aside from us and the antique mall will know,” Honey assured him. “I can even tell my client that you’re a businessman in the City, and leave it at that. The Parisian origin is what she’s really interested in.”
“Why is she so curious? I’d honestly have expected her to be demanding a refund, or has the doll quieted down now?”
“No.” She hesitated and shared a glance with her mother, who had been silent throughout the conversation. “Mr. Fontaine, I’ve promised you that we’ll keep your identity secret. You also know the value of discretion in your own business. Would you promise to keep what I’m about to tell you quiet, as well?”
He nodded. “Certainly.”
“The doll was purchased by my client as a gift for her mother who lives in Missouri. She gave it to her as an early Christmas present, and as you noted, once in the mother’s home, the doll moved and even spoke, although she wasn’t able to tell just what it said. I suspect now that that was because it may have been in French. Once she heard about it, my client called Wilhelmina James, who is a psychic investigator. While my cases are in the practical, every day world, hers are in the supernatural world. She actually has the doll in her custody now, and she’s trying to make contact with it. She’s been unsuccessful so far, and she brought me in on the case in hopes that knowing the provenance would help.”
“What if she is successful?”
“She believes that there may be a manifestation, or what we would call a ghost, attached to the doll. If she can make contact with it, she’ll try to help it pass out of our realm and into what she calls ‘the other side’. I’m honestly not sure what she’ll advise if she can’t make contact, but she has a very high success rate.”
“Let’s assume she does. Will your client’s mother be willing to keep the doll? I can’t see Sharon ever wanting it back.”
“She’s a doll collector,” Honey explained. “She can’t really afford truly rare or antique pieces, so my client was ecstatic to find the doll at the price you sold it for. It was essentially her dream doll.”
“That she was thrilled to receive, only to be disappointed and probably frightened out of her wits.” He shifted guiltily in his chair. “This is my fault. Tell you what. Let me know what happens. If she doesn’t want to keep it, somehow, I’ll make it right.”
“And if he doesn’t, I will,” Madeleine told her after they left the jeweler’s and were waiting for Tom. “It’s Christmas, after all. Honey, I have to say, you were magnificent in there. Did you get what you need for Wilhelmina?”
“I think so. At least, I’ve got something for her to go on. Honestly, I’m just going to suggest she try contacting it in French, but I’m not sure if she speaks it.”
“But you do.”
She stared at her with eyes wide. “Not that fluently! I’m good with restaurant French and casual conversation. I’d probably pick up on the gist of the conversation, but I don’t want to risk using the wrong word in that type of situation!”
“You’re underestimating yourself. However, if she will tell me what to say, I’m willing to give it a try.”
Honey’s dreams of her involvement in the case ending with a final report to Wilhelmina that evening evaporated. “Seriously?”
“If she’ll have me, sure. I’m involved in this now, and I want to see how it wraps up.” She frowned. “Might be best if I have Bob fly us out there, though. I’d offer to have her bring the doll here, but your dad would totally freak if Manor House winds up with another ghost….”
“Let’s just say she’s gone, and I want to discuss it about as much as you wanted to tell Jean that you and Trixie were the ones who brought that doll back from Paris. So where exactly is the client? And are you legally able to work there? You’re still only licensed in New York, aren’t you?”
“Somewhere near Kansas City, I believe. And yes to both. As you know, we’re in the process of getting licensed for the states closest to us, but Missouri is one of the few that still doesn’t require PIs to be licensed.”
Tom pulled up with the sedan, and after they were safely inside, Madeleine asked him to drive them to the penthouse. She told Honey, “I’ll order out for lunch, and we can both make some calls. We should still have time to drop by a few shops this afternoon. I suspect I should have something sweet when I tell your father about all of this.”
Wilhelmina gratefully accepted Madeleine’s offer, and they flew out to Missouri Friday morning. Honey introduced the two over lunch, and by afternoon, they were at Ruth’s home setting up for the seance. Chairs were moved into the living room from the kitchen and arranged in a semi-circle around a long, low coffee table. As the doll had previously shown interest in the tree, the end closest to it was left open, and the doll placed in the middle of the table.
Three days before the winter solstice, sunset came early, and as dusk fell, Noel plugged in the Christmas tree. As the darkness grew, the multi-colored twinkling lights provided the room’s only illumination. The women, who had been idly chattering, grew quiet and gathered in the chairs around the table. Madeleine and Wilhelmina took the seats nearest the tree, and Honey reminded herself to breathe as she felt a sense of foreboding wash over her.
“Something’s here,” she whispered. Wilhelmina nodded in agreement.
It was only a few minutes before the doll slowly began to glide towards the twinkling lights.
Madeleine quietly spoke in French. “Are you here?”
“Yes. What is this? Such pretty little stars!”
The childish voice that answered sent shivers down Honey’s spine.
“It’s a Christmas tree. It’s part of how we celebrate Christmas.”
“My doll was a Christmas present,” the voice said sadly. “I named her Hyacinthe, after my mother.”
“That’s a beautiful name. What is yours?”
“Clothilde. My stepmother slapped me, though, and hid her from me. She told me to never mention her again.”
Her grasp of French better than she’d wanted to admit, Honey’s eyes widened as Madeleine gasped. Madeleine continued, “What happened to your mother?”
“She got sick and died. Then my father married Camille. She was nice until she had a baby, then she didn’t want me anymore.”
There was a soft sniffle and the lights on the tree went dark.
“I found Hyacinthe in Camille’s wardrobe. That night, my milk tasted funny, and my body went to sleep. It never woke up.”
A soft glow lit the floor near Madeleine’s feet, and the vague outline of a little girl slowly appeared. Brown ringlets cascaded down her back, and her dress was similar to that worn by the doll. “I’m tired, Madame. I’m all alone except for Hyacinthe and I’m scared.”
Madeleine took a deep breath. “There’s someone here who can help you, but she doesn’t speak French. I’m going to tell her what you told me, and I’ll tell you what she says.”
The tiny figure nodded soberly, and Madeleine quickly relayed the gist of the conversation to the others. Wilhelmina frowned. “Ask her why she can’t rest.”
Madeleine translated into French, and the apparition shook her head.
“I watched over my brother while he grew up. I didn’t want him to wind up like me. Then I watched his daughter grow up, and then her son. She was nice, but he was a bad man, though, like Camille. He was sent away, and I’ve been playing with Hyacinthe ever since. There’s been a lot of new things. We went in some kind of metal bird thing over the ocean. I can’t understand anyone here. Except you.”
Honey watched in horror as the little girl climbed in her mother’s lap, just as she herself had done in her pre-boarding school days. Madeleine awkwardly tried to pat Clothilde’s shoulder, but winced as her hand passed through.
“Sometimes, I can almost see a bright light and hear my mother – my real mother – calling me. But I don’t know how to get to her.”
“Tell her the light is good,” Wilhelmina directed after hearing the translation. “Her mother is there waiting for her. Not to be afraid, but to relax, and pretend like she’s going to sleep.”
“I’ll try. Madame? My mother used to hold me in her lap and sing to me until I fell asleep. Could you do that?”
Madeleine nodded, stroking the air right above where Clothilde’s head was. Clothilde snuggled against her chest, and she started to sing a classic French lullaby. “Sleepy time, the young one sleeps, The child will sleep very soon. Sleepy time, the young one sleeps, The child will sleep oh, so soon.”
Clothilde seemed to relax under Madeleine’s soft soprano, and after a few verses, whispered a soft “Merci, Madame” before fading away.
The tree lights came back on. The air seemed to get lighter for Honey and she took a deep breath. “I think she’s gone.”
Wilhelmina nodded. “She just crossed over. Great job, Madeleine.”
Madeleine, who had been the epitome of calm and poise during the manifestation, barely nodded. Her body began to tremble, and tears streamed down her face. “I think… I think I need to go change clothes.”
“Mother? Our mother?” Jim asked, incredulously, a grin on his face. A few days had passed since the seance, and Honey had finally gotten a chance to relate the story to her brother. “She told me the gist of it, but somehow she left out that little detail.”
“Yes, she did,” Honey chuckled. “Honestly, though, I can’t say that I blame her. As many ghosts as I’ve now seen or talked to, I don’t think any have ever tried to actually touch me. I know Trixie claims the one in Minnesota pulled her out of the river, but that’s still different than having one sit in your lap – especially one who just told you she’d been murdered. I did some research, and I suspect the funny taste to her milk was laudanum.” Her smile left her and she reached over to hug him. “I think that’s what got me the most. Thinking that could have been you.”
“But it wasn’t. In large part, thanks to you and Trixie.”
They were silent for a moment, then Jim said, “So. Mother mentioned that you were asking about her past experience with a ghost.”
She nodded. “It apparently piqued her interest in the supernatural, but she wouldn’t actually talk about it.”
“I know. It wasn’t one of her finer moments.”
“But she told you?” Honey looked up sharply, trying not to feel hurt.
“It was my mom,” he said softly. “And she didn’t tell me until I told her about talking to Uncle James last Thanksgiving. Until then, dad was the only one who knew, and that was only because he saw her, too.”
“Your real mom?”
He patted her hand. “I have two real mothers, Honey. Just like I have a full-blooded adopted sister.”
She gave a small smile and swatted him. “You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do. And yes, it was my first mother. Do you remember when you first talked to our parents about me?”
“Of course. Daddy was very eager to find you and see what he could do.”
“And Mother was more reluctant. You know Dad knew my first dad in school. Well, apparently he also knew my first mom. They were actually dating when he met Mother.”
She raised her eyebrows. “I did not know that.”
“Neither did I, until Mother told me this story. At any rate, they broke up, and Mom started dating his roommate, whom she eventually married. Three months later.”
“Yep. I knew that growing up. Dad spun it as one of the great romances of our time – sweeping her off her feet and getting her to the altar before she could change her mind. They married about two weeks after his graduation. However, I was born almost exactly nine months later… and the rumor mill went into overdrive.”
“And because Dad and your dad look somewhat alike, people assumed you were actually Dad’s.”
“Not many, but enough that it got back to Mother. And while she didn’t quite believe it, it still planted a seed of doubt that she buried. She never told Dad, but then when you started talking about Win Frayne’s son, it reopened old wounds for her.”
“You know I once heard my governess talking about how Mother wished I had been a boy. I wonder if that’s why.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know about that. All I know is that my mom somehow showed up and told her the truth. Then she refused to leave until Mother agreed to adopt me.”
“Are you okay with it? You know both Mother and Dad really do love you. You are their son and my brother now.”
“Honestly, I always knew Mother had been reluctant before she actually met me, so none of that was a surprise. It did bother me that Mom never appeared to me, but eventually I realized that there’s no way I could have handled that at that age. I probably wouldn’t have even believed what I was seeing.”
“And at least you know she was trying to look out for you,” Honey pointed out.
“That’s what Joeanne told me. It took me a while to come to terms with it, but now, I’m glad that she and Uncle James were both trying to protect me the only way they could. I’m even happier that they’re both now at peace.” He took a deep breath. “It’s up to you if you want to tell Brian or Trixie, but I’d honestly prefer for it not to go any further than that. It still bothers Mother that she ever doubted Dad. I am curious, though, about the doll. Did your client keep it?”
Honey shook her head. “Somehow, knowing the history and seeing Clothilde only made that doll seem even creepier, even with the ghost now gone. So Mother talked to Mr. Fontaine and put him in direct contact with Ruth. He told her to find a doll that she wants that’s worth roughly what this one would be without the history and he’ll pay for it. Of course, she told him that wasn’t necessary, but he told her that she can either pick one out or he’ll find one for her. He really does feel bad about the whole thing.”
“He’s a good man,” Jim said. “I bought Joeanne’s engagement and wedding rings from him. So who has the doll now?”
“Mother,” she sighed. “I’m honestly not sure if she feels a responsibility to Clothilde for taking care of it or if she just wanted a souvenir of her first case…