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Authors: Elena Santangelo

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BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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“How appropriate that we’re spending this Christmas across the street from
that
place,” Beth Ann murmured.

Figuring she was baiting me, I snapped, “Just tell me which house is your grandmother’s.” That shocked both of us. Blatant crankiness wasn’t like me—I usually took the barbed sarcasm route.

Beth Ann slouched down in her seat as far as her seat belt would allow. “Next block. Second from the corner.” I assumed she meant on the left. The only things on the right were two long-horned cows chewing cud behind a rail fence.

I had to admit, I was impressed by the house, not by its size—on the small side compared to those in modern developments—but by its ambience of solid craftsmanship, especially as I realized it must have been built in an era that had no power tools. The house was white clapboard atop an orange brick foundation, flanked by two bulky brick chimneys. In front, where the weathered wood shakes of the roof continued down at a sharper angle, five dormers stuck out. Instead of a rain gutter, a line of pretty block molding decorated the bottom edge. The window shutters and front door were forest green.

I took in all this detail as I pulled into the drive—a car-wide path of crushed shells—and waited for Beth Ann to open the broad gates in the six-foot wooden fence that surrounded the rear yard of the property. Miss Maggie had said that in Williamsburg’s historic section, houses had tall fences or garages disguised as colonial outbuildings, to keep cars hidden from view. Our instructions said to park around back.

Inside the gates, the driveway spread out, but the coating of shells disappeared, revealing a thin layer of gravel pressed into hard-packed dirt. On my left, I saw that the house had a rear wing, forming an “L” with the front. In the crook of the L, a white VW Beetle was parked, so I pulled in beside it.

Beth Ann had closed the gates, and I assumed she’d come back to the car to help me carry in the suitcases and gifts. I got out, slowly, because my legs felt stiff and achy from the long ride, and headed around to my trunk. That’s when I heard her knocking at the door.

There were two back doors, actually, one on the wing and one in what would be the center of the main house. Beth Ann was at the latter, a white raised panel door with a black iron handle and latch.

“Hey, come help unload the car first,” I called.

“In a minute.” She put her hand to the latch, pushed open the door and went inside.

“Beth Ann!” I yelled, pretty sure no one had let her in. Then again, maybe knocking and walking in was standard procedure at her grandmother’s house. One thing was certain, I wasn’t going to unload the car by myself. I grabbed the fancy-wrapped coffee can of pizzelles I’d made for Mrs. Lee—not about to walk in without my hostess gift at the ready—and went after Beth Ann.

“Grandmom? Hello?” I could hear her calling as I passed through the open door.

Closing it behind me, I let my eyes adjust to the hall, which formed a straight line alongside a stairway to the front door. The transom over that portal let in the gray daylight, showing white plaster, beige-painted wainscoting, wide bare floorboards, and a small colonial-style hurricane lamp on an equally diminutive table. Immediately to my right was a niche with two doors, one open, giving access to a stair down to a dark cellar. But Beth Ann’s voice wasn’t coming from there.

“Grandmom?” She wandered out of the front room on the left, perplexed, then bellowed up the stairs, as I walked toward her.

“Doesn’t sound like anyone’s here,” I said, thinking it odd—we were expected, after all, and there
was
a car outside. “Maybe we should—”

“Bet she’s in the bathroom.” Beth Ann bounded up the stairs, calling as she went.

A feeling of uneasiness crept over me. No, not uneasiness. Foreboding? That wasn’t right either. Regardless, fear lay at the bottom of it—a cold, clammy paranoia—though I couldn’t say what I was afraid of, with the exception of being arrested for breaking and entering because perhaps we’d inadvertently walked into the wrong house.

And suddenly, I knew someone was watching me.

Spinning around, I was startled to see the outline of a man in the shadows by the back door. Startled because he wore britches, buckled shoes, and a long waistcoat over a ruffly white shirt. He was bald on the very front of his head, but the hair that remained was light and long, pulled back at the nape.

“If you wou’d have Guests merry with your cheer,
Be so yourself, or so at least appear.”

—Poor Richard’s Almanac
, December 1734

December 3, 1783—Mrs. Carson’s House

“Sirs!”

As we entered the house, we could hear Brennan’s voice, trembling, though cocky as ever.

“Sirs, I am indebted to you for your assistance.” He stood before the large hearth in our common room, and by the light of its dying fire I saw that he clutched the mantel with one hand, as if to maintain balance. The fingers of his other hand were splayed across his forehead, which evidently pained him. His face was so contorted, I wondered if, a moment previous, he’d retched into Mrs. Carson’s stew pot.

Jim Parker stood close by Brennan’s side, arms raised, ready to catch hold of the man. Or perhaps having just released him, since a vicious gash spanned the back of Jim’s hand. Dr. Riddick, though of small stature, was attempting to block the doorway. Sam touched his shoulder and he stepped aside for us to enter. I set my fiddle case upon the window ledge, so as to have both hands free.

“I assure you, I am quite recovered,” Brennan said, sounding far from that state.

Dr. Riddick advanced toward him with care. “You are not well, sir.”

“Ah, but I shall be, Doctor.” Brennan made a show of it, straightening his posture and lifting his head, his smile quivering, making the shadows upon his face dance. “I do apologize for my behavior—too much drink this night, I fear. I shall—I shall retire to my room. In the morning, I assure you, I shall be myself once more.” He walked toward us, determined in his course, but mindful of his steps, as if the floor had become a half-frozen lake.

Before the doctor could protest anew, Sam said, “I too shall retire, for the morrow is no day of rest for Mr. Greenhow. May I offer you an arm up the stairs, Mr. Brennan? I know well what cruel jokes Mrs. Vobe’s punch can play upon our eyes and feet.”

Brennan at first recoiled from Sam’s offered hand, but then nodded, saying, “I thank you, sir,” perhaps realizing that Dr. Riddick would not let him leave the room without escort. Or that his legs alone would not carry him much farther.

“A light, if you would, Ben,” Sam requested, and I retrieved and lit for him one of the two tin lanterns Mrs. Carson kept by the hearth. Her husband had been a tinsmith before the war. Fine examples of his craft could be found in all corners of the house.

The doctor, Jim, and I watched Brennan and Sam ascend from below, Sam all the while asserting that the quality of rum to be found hereabouts had declined from the British embargoes, and ’twas no wonder a man might suffer ill effects upon the drinking of it.

Once out of sight, we heard a door open above and Sam said, loud enough for all to hear, “There you go, Mr. Brennan. Good night to you.”

As we heard the door close, Jim turned back into the common room. There we found young Tom, who I’d quite forgotten, looking relieved. “Go to your mother and sister, lad,” Jim said. “Stay all of you together in one room this night, and block the doors.”

“Yes, sir.” With another awkward bow, the boy left.

“Perhaps we should each take a watch in turn,” the doctor suggested.

“Surely that’s not necessary,” I said. “Brennan was the worse for the rum in him and—”

“He had no rum,” Jim said. “Not at the Eagle, at least, for I sat beside him the whole time.”

“Aye.” Sam had come quietly down the stairs to join us. “He scarcely sipped at his one pint.”

Jim nodded. “I tossed it off when he took his leave. ’Twas small beer. Nothing more.”

Dr. Riddick gave the table a pat. “Sit here, Jim. Let me see to your hand. Mr. Walker, would you be kind enough to fetch a bit of fresh water? Fill this to half.” Taking up one of Mrs. Carson’s small iron pots, he passed it to Sam, who took up the lantern once more and left us for the well behind the house.

Jim scoffed. “’Tis but a scratch, Isaac.”

“Which I’ll wash and dress. The cleanliness of a wound is vital. It promotes the perspiration, which frees the body from superfluous humours that occasion disease.” Dr. Riddick had studied in Philadelphia, had taken his degree just this last year, in fact, and so embraced the scientific methods.

The new practices interested me, though I’ll concede my skepticism when they’d been applied to my own person. Still, I was anxious to hear the doctor’s views concerning Brennan. I related the odd behavior we’d witnessed at the tavern.

Riddick, in thought, stroked the bristle of his chin. “Unnatural of him. He was raving by the time he entered this house, as Jim will warrant. A mania too pronounced to be afforded to drunkenness. Had he taken any unwholesome food or drink that might account?”

“Not at the Eagle,” Jim said once more, and Sam, bringing in the water, concurred.

“Mr. Brennan’s not been himself the last fortnight,” Dr. Riddick observed with a frown. “Have you noticed? His skin’s gone paler, and his voice rough and low. A touch of ague, I thought, nothing more. Now I wonder.”

“He’s been talking to himself a good bit all week,” Jim told us. “I can hear him through the flue, since we share a chimney upstairs. The rumble of his voice, leastways, not the words.”

“Were you here tonight, Jim, when Brennan arrived?” I asked.

“I was. I held him while the doctor hastened Mrs. Carson and Polly into their rooms. ’Twas then that I hurt my hand.”

Sam took a pipe from the mantel. “But Brennan took his leave of Mrs. Vobe’s before any of us.”

“Aye,” Jim said, “by a quarter hour or more.”

As we pondered where Brennan could have passed that quarter hour, Dr. Riddick plunged Jim’s hand into the pot. Mr. Parker blasphemed the iciness of the liquid.

Before I could make
a sound, the man said, “Hello.” His manner was nervy, on guard, but he had the most disarming Peter O’Toole accent. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

All I found myself saying was, “The door was unlocked.”

He followed the direction of my vague nod to the entrance in question and his eyes grew narrow. “This door? I never disengaged the deadbolt. See, it’s still on.” He turned the knob of a modern brass lock right above the iron latch, and I heard the bolt snap back.

He had to be mistaken, I told myself. The dead bolt
must
have been open, and when I closed the door, it slipped across. I hadn’t even noticed the lock before now, but then, I’d been intent on catching up with Beth Ann.

As soon as I thought of her name, she appeared at my elbow, making me jump. “Who’s he?”

His brow cleared, and though his tenseness remained, he smiled. “You’re Beth Ann. Your grandmother’s shown me photos of you. And so
you
,” meaning me, “must be Hugh’s friend, Pat.” He came forward, hand extended. “So good to meet you both. I’m Ev’lyn Timmons.”

“You’re Evelyn?” Beth Ann and I exclaimed in unison.

“Not expecting a man?” His smile turned apologetic. “No one ever does.”

I shifted my can of cookies so I could shake his hand and say “How d’you do,” all the while doing my best not to stare at his clothes and pigtail. Beth Ann, ruder but more honest, left both her hands in her jacket pockets and moved back a step, as if needing the distance to do a complete scientific analysis.

Evelyn didn’t seem to notice. “Well, come into the kitchen. You can have a seat while I see if the stove’s working yet.”

“Stove?” Ah, a piece of equipment I knew something about. “What’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing the application of electricity won’t fix.”

He led the way through the dining room to the right of the hall—a spacious room with a long table in the center and a huge fireplace on the opposite wall. The thick mantel was six feet off the stone hearth and atop its highly polished surface were two identical arrangements of magnolia leaves and large green fruits that resembled oranges. Holiday decorations?

I did a more thorough scan of the entire room. A single, electric candle was centered in each front window, and a small sprig of real mistletoe hung over the doorway we’d just passed through. These were the only Christmas trimmings in sight.

My scan of the room revealed something else. Beth Ann wasn’t following us. She was standing under the mistletoe, waiting to be noticed. When I did notice her, she said, “Where’s my grandmother?”

Evelyn stopped in the other doorway. “At Greenhow’s Lumber House. She wasn’t scheduled to work today, but we’ve had an early flu outbreak and—”

I heard Beth Ann rush down the hall and open the door before I realized she was bolting.

Running after her, I reached the door in time to see her crossing the yard, bound for a gate in the fence. “Beth Ann!”

She turned just enough to yell back, “I know where the lumber house is.”

“Help me unload the car first.”

“Later.” And she was gone through the gate.

I got the urge to scream, “You wait ’til I tell your father,” but since I knew I wouldn’t—not wanting to admit to Hugh that I couldn’t handle his daughter—I settled for mumbling Italian oaths.

“She’ll be all right,” Evelyn said, right behind me. “The lumber house is a mere half block if she cuts across the back. I’ll help you unload. Let me go ’round and open the kitchen door. We can carry everything in that way.”

“No. I won’t let her off that easy. She’ll do the unloading when she gets back.” Stated as if I had a terminal case of PMS grouchies—I mean, it was Christmas Eve, for Pete’s sake, and Beth Ann was simply in one of her adolescent moods. I sounded like Scrooge cracking the whip over Bob Cratchit. What was wrong with me?

“Right. Well, I do need to get back to the kitchen,” Evelyn said. “I’m on my lunch hour and I’m running late as it is.”

Lunch hour? Of course, he worked for the Foundation, which explained the costume. I just never pictured living history guides wearing their work clothes around the house. Thing was, I was now loath to follow him back through the dining room—irrationally so. Maybe afraid that if I tried to make small talk, something akin to “So, how long have you and Hugh’s mom been shacked up?” would come out of my mouth.

Instead, I said, “That lumber house, it’s a half block away? I, uh, I should go after Beth Ann. You know, coax her out of her bad mood before dinner.” From Scrooge to
Touched by an Angel
in the blink of an eye. And truth to tell, I was beginning to feel as much a split personality as I was acting.

But Evelyn seemed relieved. “From our gate, you’ll spot a high hedge between the houses. There’s a garden behind it. You can go ’round it to the street. The lumber house is the second building to the right, with a sign out front about buying tickets. Could you—I mean, while you’re there—would you tell Glad I had to pick up more fuses from Maintenance? She’ll send someone up to the apothecary to let them know I’ll be late.”

That explained the source of his relief—he needed someone to run an errand. I still didn’t think I could make small talk with him, but I revised my image of him to someone having a job, house woes, and holiday stress all at once and, sympathizing, I agreed to his request.

I was almost off the porch when I remembered the gift I held. I hurried back and shoved the can into Evelyn’s hands. “Just some pizzelles. Cookies.”

“Lovely. I know the very spot for them.”

A curious response, I thought, but then, nothing about this weekend so far seemed normal.

* * *

The garden Evelyn spoke of was in its winter doldrums, though the geometric boxwood borders were green. A brick walk crisscrossed in the middle, and crushed shells provided paths between each section. I could picture it in the summer months, with beds of bright reds and yellows inside the boxwood triangles. At least, that’s the way I would’ve planted it. Since July, gardening had been my job. Granted, I only had two clients with real gardens—everyone else just wanted lawns mowed and leaves raked. Yet those hours I’d spent nurturing flowers and herbs and veggies had been some of the happiest I remembered in the last decade.

But I hadn’t stopped at this garden gate for professional reasons. I paused to catch my breath and rest my achy legs. I shouldn’t have been out of breath. For the first time in my adult life, I felt I was in half-decent physical shape, because, for the first time in my adult life, I’d been getting some variety of exercise almost every day instead of sitting at a desk. I’d actually lost a little weight over the last few months. Not that I was anywhere near lean, mind you. I mean, there’s only so much that could be done with my hips, given my gene pool. But there’s no way I should have been winded from the grassy slope I’d had to climb to reach the garden.

Evelyn’s words about an early flu outbreak came back to me. Did I have a touch of it? I’d had a flu shot—living with a ninety-one-year-old makes it compulsory—but maybe a different strain was going around. I’d thought about going to the doctor’s for my leg cramps. My health insurance, which didn’t pay for office visits or prescriptions, had discouraged me. Rheumatism, I’d told myself. Now I wondered. The last thing Miss Maggie needed was for me to be contagious.

Then again, this was Thursday afternoon of a holiday weekend, and Christmas Eve at that. Everyone would be going home early. I couldn’t see a doctor before Monday anyway.

“You can’t afford to be sick,” I told myself aloud. “Not this weekend. It’s just rheumatism. And standing out in the cold, damp air isn’t doing it any good.” Not that the air felt all that cold to me. I was warmer than I should have been, given the mid-fortyish temperature. A fever? I was too young for hot flashes, wasn’t I?

Telling myself again that ill health wasn’t in the weekend plans, I walked out to the street and paused again at the brick sidewalk, not because I was out of breath this time, but because I suddenly found myself in another era. Sort of. If I ignored the paved street and smattering of tourists—mostly fifty-plus couples dressed as if they were at a fashionable ski resort, with a family here and there done up in Gore-Tex and Timberland boots.

Other than that, though, everything was old bricks, clapboards, weathered shake roofs, and picket fences. Across the street was a stately church of salmon-colored brick. In the street itself was a pile of manure. Authentic enough for me.

Old City Philadelphia had brick townhouses, with a crowded city feeling to it. Williamsburg was more spread out—small town America circa 1776. The houses were set back farther from streets lined with tall trees. Even now, with the trees bare, and the grass between sidewalk and road a dry brown mat, this place had a homey feel that made the day seem less dismal.

I followed Evelyn’s directions to the lumber house, a garage-sized building with the gable end to the street. The two windows flanking the door each boasted a holiday wreath of pine, dried flowers, and small slips of brown paper which all seemed to have “Admit One” written on them in bold script—eighteenth-century ticket stubs, I supposed. A clue to what I’d find inside, in case I missed the big easel placard by the door that said “Tickets Sold Here.”

I knew what I’d find inside, though—Hugh’s mother. Wishing I had a mirror, I ran both hands over my hair to flatten any stray frizzies. I took a deep breath, mounted the two steps, and opened the door.

My preening was in vain—the room inside was empty. On the left was a counter with computer stations behind it. The rest of the space was taken up by a maze of crowd-control ropes, but no one waited in line.

Then a head popped up over the far computer terminal, or rather, a pair of blue eyes surrounded by liver spots, beneath a brown tweed cap. “Hi, what can I do for you?” said a perky tenor voice.

I walked over to the counter for a better look. The man had been sitting on a stool. Now he stood, though I still looked down on him by an inch. He was elderly, neatly dressed in a sport jacket over a tan cable sweater, and he radiated energy. Change his costume and he’d be perfect as Santa’s chief elf. If the elf had one of those mild Virginia drawls. His nametag identified him, appropriately enough, as Nick.

“Is Gladys Lee here?” I asked.

“Popular lady. Someone else was just in looking for her.”

“A teenager with red hair? I have to find her, too.”

“Well, if the young lady followed my directions, you should find them both at the Governor’s Palace. Glad’ll be there ’til all the regulars get back from lunch. You can’t get in without a pass, though. I tried to tell the young lady that, but—”

“She didn’t listen? Yeah, that’s the kid I’m looking for.”

He nodded. “Had teenagers of my own. Think of it as a disease. She’ll eventually develop antibodies and get over it. Someday the fever’ll break and you’ll have your daughter back.”

I didn’t correct his assumption—his sympathy was welcome. God knows I didn’t get it from Hugh.

“So, want to buy passes?” Nick asked.

Miss Maggie had given me explicit instructions not to purchase tickets of any kind without her, because she was planning to give me her own guided tour of the place. She may have retired from the classroom twenty-odd years ago, but she’d never quit being a history teacher. So I said, “No, thanks, but speaking of lunch hours . . .” and went on to relate Evelyn’s request.

“Fuses,” the man echoed, shaking his head. “That’s the third time this month. We warned them not to move into the Carson house.”

Like I said, if you own old houses, you have to fix everything constantly. I now said it aloud.

“Well, sure, that fuse box isn’t new,” Nick said. “Put in around 1965, I think, but it shouldn’t be burning fuses out at the rate it does. Nothing wrong with the wiring.” He leaned closer, with the air of one about to impart a juicy scandal. If he hadn’t been so short, and the computer not been in the way, I think he would have rested his elbows on the counter. “They told you about that house, didn’t they?”

I must have looked as clueless as I felt, because he went on. “Just like Glad not to say anything, but be prepared if anything happens while you’re visiting. That place is as haunted as they come. Nothing scary. Ghost plays tricks is all.”

“Ghost?” was all I could get out of my throat. Not that I was afraid of spooks. Well, not much anyway. But Hugh—I couldn’t blame him really, after those two little incidents during my first months at Bell Run. Okay, maybe not so little. Ghosts threaten Hugh’s manly sense of guardianship. He can’t protect the women in his life from anything whose solar plexus is made of air, which is why last July I’d promised to go cold turkey on all things Other Worldish. Personally, I’d be happier if Hugh would save his sense of guardianship for when I need to deal with, say, a car mechanic, but we do what we must for love. So being in a haunted house, on the very weekend I was to meet Hugh’s family, sounded like a recipe for havoc.

BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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