Authors: Sheila Connolly
Tags: #mystery, #genealogy, #cozy, #psychic powers, #Boston, #Salem, #witch trials, #ghosts, #history
“I dunno. I don’t think about it, except when I’m in a place. Maybe.”
“How do you feel when you see them, or feel them?”
“Sad, sometimes. Most of the time they weren’t happy when they died. What about you?”
It was only fair to answer Ellie. “I feel sad too, but sometimes it’s the other relatives who are there to mourn them that are sad, not the ones who are buried. I’ve run into people in other places, like houses, but usually only when they’re upset there too. I guess it takes a really strong signal to get through to me. Does that make sense to you?”
“Yeah, I guess. And it doesn’t happen all the time with me. Just sometimes. Am I weird?”
How to answer that? “You can see things that other people can’t. Sometimes that makes other people scared or angry, but that’s not your fault. You just have to be careful who you share it with.”
“Like you, you mean?”
“Yes, like me. I understand, and so does Ned. But I know how many people don’t.”
“I know. It’s up to us to try to help her understand.”
“Okay.” Ellie bounced up quickly. “Can we go back to the house now?”
Abby hadn’t spent much time admiring Ned’s house yet, and certainly not from this angle. It was imposing, and she couldn’t see the shabby bits—the peeling paint, the missing bits of gingerbread—from this viewpoint. It sat squarely on a nice large lot—Abby didn’t want to think what the property was worth, given the location, but then, Ned had a lot of money. She didn’t want to know how much. She was pretty sure he’d bought the place for cash. At least he hadn’t had much competition, despite the neighborhood—it was pretty rundown, and it was going to take a lot of work to bring it back to the state it deserved.
Nor had she explored the yard much. There was a cellar hatch that opened onto the back—not that she’d checked out the cellar either. Her first impression was that it was damp, dark, and infested with spiders. There were odds and ends left behind in corners, but she felt no need to either check them out or remove them quickly. All that could wait for later, maybe when it was midsummer. It would be cool then, unlike the rest of the house, which had nothing so modern as air conditioning.
Ellie had gotten ahead of her and was now roaming around the perimeter of the property. She’d found a dead branch somewhere and was poking aimlessly at things. Abby couldn’t see anything that could be harmed by that. “Are you looking for something?” she called out.
“Nope, just exploring. Were there buildings here? Before, I mean?”
When was “before”? Ellie could be referring to any century since the town was founded, somewhere around 1712 if she remembered correctly. “Probably. This house dates to around 1870, I think, but it was a town long before that.”
“And there were probably Indians too,” Ellie said, but didn’t seem to expect an answer. “What’s that?” She pointed.
Abby followed her finger and saw only a pile in a corner of the lot, against the back fence, covered with many generations of leaves. “I don’t know. I haven’t lived in this house for long. Should we find out?”
“Sure.” Ellie approached the mound, which was about six feet across, and poked it with her stick. “There’s something hard under there.”
“You want me to see if I can find a rake or a shovel or something?”
“Okay,” Ellie said, not looking away from the mound.
Where the heck would rakes or shovels be? Abby wondered. She hadn’t needed one before, since she’d arrived in the spring, so no leaves to collect or snow to move. Cellar? There was no garage, which seemed surprising. Maybe there had been a small barn or stable at some point, but once horses were no longer part of daily life, it had been torn down or fallen down on its own. If she looked she might find the remains of a foundation, but that wouldn’t explain the mound at the back. She approached the back porch and peered under it, and was rewarded with a rusty rake. She made a mental note: if she was going to do any kind of gardening, even if it was no more than clean-up, she needed to find the right tools. And garden gloves. And trash bags.
She carried her find back to Ellie, who was now kneeling at the edge of the mound and digging like an eager puppy. “What’ve you got?”
“Old china. Some bottles. I think there were cans, but they kind of fell apart because they were rusty.”
“Be careful, Ellie—if there’s glass, you could cut yourself. I’ll have to get some gloves, but I don’t have any now.” Of course, Ellie might lose interest quickly.
“You found a rake? Can you take the dead leaves and stuff off the top so I can see better?” Ellie asked.
“Sure, no problem.” Luckily it hadn’t rained recently, so the leaves and the leaf mold they had turned into were easy to move aside. Once she’d cleared a portion, she realized that a whole patch of ground over six feet wide seemed to be littered with detritus. “Ellie, I think we’re looking at an old dump for the house.”
“Well, a century ago there was no garbage collection. Actually there was much less garbage or trash anyway. Food stuff you could compost, or just let rot, or feed to pigs if you had any. Same with paper stuff—you could burn that, along with leaves. So what’s left?”
“Things that don’t burn or rot,” Ellie said promptly. “Like glass and china.”
“Can we keep digging?”
“Sure, why not? I don’t have any other plans. Let’s see what we can find. You know, when I wasn’t much older than you, I wanted to be an archeologist.”
“You mean, look for dinosaurs?”
“More like historical sites, from the Middle Ages or even earlier. Do you know how much you can learn from a dump like this?”
“You gonna tell me?” Ellie asked with a wicked grin while she kept on sifting through the antique trash.
“Of course. I like teaching. And looking at this kind of thing, and what you pull out of it, you can tell what people ate—at least, when they didn’t grow all their own food—and
they ate. I mean, from what we’ve already seen, it looks like they had more than one kind of china, and some of it’s pretty fancy. Which meant they sat down to dinner, nicely, and maybe even had a lot of guests. And given the time this place was built, they probably had a servant to do the dishwashing, maybe even the cooking.”
“Wow,” Ellie said, looking impressed. “So this is kind of like a diary of
instead of words.”
“You could look at it that way,” Abby agreed. “Why don’t I take this side and you can work on that one?”
“Deal,” Ellie said and resumed scrabbling.
After a couple of hours, both Abby and Ellie were covered with mud, dirt, and some things Abby didn’t want to examine too closely. She had wondered for a moment if she was violating Leslie’s primary instruction: don’t do anything dangerous. What were the odds that there was something poisonous in this heap of trash? Hadn’t people used arsenic and the like for rat poison back in the day? And goodness knows there was plenty of broken glass with sharp edges. But watching Ellie, Abby realized that the girl was surprisingly careful and methodical. Each piece she extracted she looked at carefully, dusted it off, and then put it with matching pieces on the lawn. Good thing they had plenty of lawn to work with.
By the time they’d taken the heap down to the level of the lawn, they were both running out of steam. Abby stood up, stretched, and surveyed the field of shards. “So, Ellie, what’ve we got?” she asked.
Ellie got up, brushed off her pants, and came over to stand by Abby. “Mostly china, but lots of patterns. Six, maybe? Bottles—plenty of those.”
Abby laughed. “It looks like somebody really liked patent medicine.”
Ellie looked up at her. “Were they sick?”
“Not exactly. Patent medicine had a lot of alcohol in it. It was okay to buy tonics and use a lot of them, but not to buy liquor, especially if you were a woman. So this was a way around it.”
“Huh,” Ellie said. “I don’t like liquor—it tastes strong.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to drink it. What else is there?”
“Other glass stuff—some is pretty thin.”
“Lamp globes for oil lamps, I’m guessing. Have you seen any of those?”
“Maybe. I guess they break pretty easy. Then there are the things there’s only one of, like an old umbrella, and a wooden toothbrush. And what’re those big china things that look like cups?”
“Chamberpots,” Abby said promptly.
“Well, there was probably only one bathroom in the house when it was built, and it was pretty cold, so if you had to go in the middle of the night, you could use a chamberpot. You kept it under the bed, and that maid we talked about would empty them all in the morning and clean them out.”
“Ewww! Like potty seats for grown-ups?”
“Kind of. Anything else?”
“There’s a pile of shoes—looks like leather lasts pretty well even when it’s buried. And then there are some pretty things, like decorations.”
“I think you’ve about covered it. There’s more of the china than anything else, right? What does that tell you?”
“Well, it might mean that maid was real clumsy and dropped things a lot. But . . .”
“But what, Ellie?”
“There’s an awful lot of the china. I think somebody broke it on purpose.”
“Why do you say that?” Abby asked carefully.
“Because he was mad.”
“It was a he?”
Ellie nodded. “Yeah. He was mad and he wanted to break things.”
“Can you see him?” Abby said softly.
“No, but I feel his mad. I don’t like him. Can we go in now?”
“Sure. You’d better get washed up—I have to take you home soon.”
“Okay.” Ellie gave one last long look at the items spread out across the grass, then turned and headed for the back door. Inside, Abby supervised scrubbing the worst of the dirt off, but it didn’t make much of a difference. Leslie would have laundry to do. But Abby was pleased that Ellie was a normal kid who wasn’t worried about getting dirty—Abby had always hated the prissy little girls who wanted to stay clean.
After another snack and a drink, Abby shepherded Ellie out to her car and headed toward Littleton. Leslie’s car was in the driveway but she hadn’t gone inside yet, so she waited while Ellie and Abby climbed out of the car. And did a double-take when she looked them over.
“What on earth were you doing?”
“We were playing archeologist at the house.”
“We dug up Abby’s dump, Mom,” Ellie said enthusiastically. “There was all sorts of stuff there, like old bottles and china, and even an umbrella. It was cool!”
“Well, I’m glad you had fun, sweetie, but I think you might need a bath while I make dinner. Here, take my keys and let yourself in, will you? I want to say good-bye to Abby.”
“Okay.” Ellie skipped over to the door and unlocked it.
“So, you two found something to entertain yourselves?” Leslie said, arching one eyebrow at Abby.
“We did,” Abby replied cheerfully. “Accompanied by a lecture on Victorian society, agriculture, trash disposal, and the alcohol content of patent medicine. It was fun.” Abby decided not to mention the earlier visit to the cemetery. “Ellie was the one who found it—I think it was the trash heap for the house, and while they stopped using it a long time ago, nobody ever bothered to clean it out. Which describes a lot of the house. You know, Leslie—Ellie is one smart kid. She was careful, methodical. She didn’t get bored and run off to do something else—she kept working until we’d finished, or at least the easy stuff. She really was interested. Maybe she does have the makings to be an archeologist, or at least a scientist.”
“That comes from her dad’s side.” Leslie squared her shoulders. “Well, I’ve got a family to feed. Thanks for filling in on such short notice. I’m glad you two had a good time.”
“No problem. I enjoyed it, although now I’ve got antique trash strewn all over my backyard. But I learned something about the house. Call me if you need me again.”
When Leslie had gone inside, Abby started up her car and headed home. They were working things out, she and Leslie and Ellie. And as she’d said, Ellie really was smart and focused—far beyond her age. Which was another thing that made it hard for her to fit in with her age group at school. Maybe she would benefit from a private school? If Leslie and her husband couldn’t afford it, maybe Ned could help. If Leslie would accept his help, which was not a sure thing. She’d ask Ned what he thought.
And she wanted to know more about the angry man who had broken all that china.
Ned arrived home at the same time she did, after driving back from Leslie’s house. He had much the same reaction.
“What on earth have you been doing?” he asked, taking in her muddy clothes and grimy nails.
“Playing archeologist with Ellie,” she told him, grinning.
“You’re going to have to explain that, you know,” he said with a smile.
“Can I shower first? Most of this dirt is older than I am. By the way, would you happen to have the title search for this property handy?”
“In a file somewhere. You shower, I’ll hunt for it.”
“Deal.” Ned hadn’t even asked why she wanted it. Of course, he’d fielded a lot of strange requests from her over the past few months. It was very comforting to know that he wasn’t easily rattled.
Abby came downstairs fifteen minutes later, toweling her hair, and Ned handed her a glass of wine. “Okay, tell me all about it.”
“Am I cooking?”
“No, I am. You’re entertaining me.”
“And you’re spoiling me! Anyway, Leslie called after you’d left this morning and said there was some mix-up with her sitter and could I pick up Ellie and keep her amused for the afternoon, and I said sure. So I did—pick her up, I mean. And we came back here, and first she wanted to visit the cemetery.”
“The one out back?” Ned busied himself chopping onions.
“Yes. You’ve spent some time there, right?” When Ned nodded, Abby continued. “She made a beeline for the Reeds on the far side. You know, that whole row of them?”
“Sure. Prominent citizens, if I recall. We know we connect through that line. Interesting that she would pick up on them so fast.”