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Authors: Elena Santangelo

Tags: #mystery, #fiction, #midnight, #ink, #pat, #montello

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BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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“Oh, you won’t
see
the ghost,” Nick assured me, sounding disappointed. “Nobody ever has. Just plays tricks—blowing fuses, turning the hot water ice cold. Stuff like that. More of a nuisance than anything.”

“You mean all it does is play with the electricity and plumbing?”

“Nothing worse. A nuisance, as I said.”

I breathed a sigh of relief. I’d grown up in a hundred-year-old row house outside of Philly. Our fuses blew regularly, and our archaic oil heater never kept up with the hot water demand. The stairs even creaked all by themselves during the hottest and coldest months—a great way to freak out friends during pajama parties. It didn’t mean the place was haunted.

“The theory,” Nick continued, undaunted by my relief, “is that he’s a soldier, which leaves a wide field of possibilities. The British, French, and Americans were all here during the Revolution, and both North and South during the Civil War—”

“Shouldn’t you send someone to deliver Evelyn’s message?” Rude, yes, but I wasn’t sure how else to change the channel.

“Can’t. What with Glad up at the Governor’s Palace and Clyde—my other cohort—out with a walking tour, I’m here by myself. When Clyde comes back, I’ll go, though by then, Evelyn might be back. Let’s see, who should I call? The Secretary’s Office isn’t open today—we’re short-handed. Not that it matters. No one’s been in here the last hour to buy tickets. Still—”

“I guess I can’t get in there either without a pass?” Be faster than waiting for him to explore his options.

“No, but—oh, you mean, you’d go for me? If you wouldn’t mind, that would be terrific. You can tell whoever’s in front of the door about Evelyn. Do you know how to get there? Here, let me show you.”

On the counter was a stack of visitor’s newspapers. With a practiced motion, Nick opened the one on top to the centerfold, a map of the surrounding blocks with each building drawn in, all in different colors. Taking an orange highlighter from his breast pocket, he circled the Lumber House Ticket Office, then the Galt Apothecary. They were on the same street, but to my dismay, four blocks stretched between, though two of those blocks were short. Or were the other two long? Still, I said I’d go. I told myself to think of the chore as last-minute Advent penance.

“Say, here’s an idea,” he said, tapping his highlighter beside another building, colored blue, across the street from the apothecary. “Zela’s at the King’s Arms this afternoon. She tried living in the Carson house a few years back. Since you’re so interested, she could tell you anything you want to know.”

I’d come across as interested? As I opened the door, he added, “One last word of advice. Don’t call Glad ‘Gladys.’ She hates it. Goes by Glad Carson-Lee. Adamant about it.”

I thanked him, silently cursing Hugh for not warning me.

I opted to walk in the street and avoid the tourists on the brick walks. Instead, I had to avoid the piles of manure, and the occasional horse-drawn carriage that caused those piles, but I could view both sides of the lane better. My pace was a relaxed stroll, to humor my knees, yes, though I found myself enjoying the Christmas decorations. Every building seemed to have garlands or wreaths, most fashioned from natural materials—fruits, vegetables, dried flowers, and all kinds of evergreens. Inside each window, I could see a single candle, of the electric variety, so not quite authentic. I imagined the Foundation’s insurance premiums would skyrocket if they used the real thing.

According to the map, which I was carrying folded in half for easy reference, the block that I came to next was Market Square, a field of matted brown grass behind the neat little Courthouse on the left side. The field continued on my right across almost the entire block to an octagonal building labeled “Magazine.” For the storage of black powder, I presumed, rather than periodicals, though my imagination conjured for my amusement a colonial newsstand selling copies of
Poor Richard’s Almanac
. Perhaps the notion was suggested by the line of rough vendor booths along the road on that same side, each booth occupied by a costumed peddler hawking reproduction souvenirs like tricorn hats and food items like cookies and hot cider. The thought of yummy, warm sweets made me salivate.

To distract my stomach, I tried, as Miss Maggie had taught me, to visualize the scene as it might have appeared on a market day in the 1700s, the open space filled with farmers, merchants, craftsmen, and shoppers. Smells, not only of manure, but of garbage, livestock, cooking aromas, the contents of chamber pots emptied from upper windows of adjoining houses, and the combined body odors of everyone present, perfumed or otherwise. Sounds of talking, shouting, barking dogs, bleating sheep and goats, cackling chickens, and gobbling turkeys. Music? I supposed, though I didn’t know enough about the era to invoke more than a fife and drum playing “Yankee Doodle.”

Yet, the picture seemed only half complete, and wasn’t helped by a bus that pulled behind the magazine over on Francis Street. I gave up and moved on.

Ahead, framed between the bare trees that lined the street, loomed an imposing but graceful brick structure. I flipped over the map to identify it. Ah, so
this
was the capitol. Then what was the building we’d passed on Francis Street? I flipped the map back and located it over on the left side. Public Hospital of 1773, it read.

I was still walking, head bent to the map, trying to puzzle out Beth Ann’s comment about the building’s location vis-à-vis Christmas, when I plowed right into what felt like a well-padded iron column. My left knee gave out and I suddenly found myself sitting on my tush, looking up at a woman in a black cloak over a red satin dress, complete with a powdered wig and a fake mole drawn on one cheekbone. She carried a bulky cloth sack in each hand. Something about her made me think of a teddy bear in a Marie Antoinette costume.

“Madam,” said the woman, raising an eyebrow, but otherwise not changing her perfect posture, “are you much in the habit of charging about our streets like a runaway horse?”

“No, I—” Flustered, I pushed myself to my feet. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

“Evidently. Your speech is of the northern colonies, which explains your want of manners. Where are you from?”

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be insulted or charmed by how she stayed in character. Then again, the haughtiness of her words wasn’t bolstered by her height, which, subtracting her hair, was only an inch or two above me, and, as I said, she was teddy-bearish. So I laughed instead. “Near Philadelphia—”

“Ah, yes, Philadelphia. Quite the frontier yet, though they pretend otherwise. You’ll find gentility here in Virginia, Madam, not unlike that of London. You would do well to learn from it. Good day to you.” With a proud curtsy, she sailed off up the street, just in time, too, because I realized that every tourist within earshot had stopped to watch the show. Feeling hot with embarrassment, I hurried on my way.

Galt’s Apothecary was a two-story structure with a gray stone block facade, and the first-floor windows stuck out from the walls. Two wide steps led up to the door, beside which stood a young, husky man dressed in britches and a matching waistcoat. No cloak, no topcoat. I felt chilly just looking at him.

He gave me a smile as I approached, but also the kind of eye contact that said he was about to keep a nonpaying customer from the premises. Come to think of it, I’d seen similar “bouncers” in front of most of the houses on my walk, and all the tourists had large badges with conspicuous expiration dates clipped to their outer garments.

I delivered my message and he thanked me, his breath a faint white cloud through the cool air. “Figured it was something to do with that house. Needs new everything in it.”

He, at least, didn’t mention a ghost. On a whim, I crossed the street to King’s Arms Tavern, a Dutch Colonial, like the Carson house, but with an off-center door protected by a small, square porch. Colored blue on the map and therefore a restaurant. Tourists loitered around it, waiting to be seated for a late lunch. On the porch, a petite young woman dressed in colonial garb and holding a tan cloak tight around her arms was manning a podium of sorts. She looked cold.

As I walked up the stairs, she turned toward me. “There’s a twenty-five minute wait.”

I shook my head. “Are you Zela?”

“No, I’ll get her for you.” She disappeared inside before I could stop her, probably glad for the excuse to warm up.

A minute later, a statuesque black woman emerged. She had a beautiful face—high cheekbones, compassionate eyes, and a wide smile. Her bearing was noble, though she was dressed like a slave extra from
Roots
.

“I’m Zela. How can I help you?” she said in a low, soothing voice. She must have been curious how I knew her name and why I’d asked for her, but she didn’t show it.

In the face of all that calm dignity, I felt silly. “I have a question—it’s stupid, really, but—I understand you once lived in the Carson house.”

Her smile disappeared. “Yes?”

“I’m staying there for the weekend,” I hastened to explain, feeling how lame I must sound, “and I was curious—that is, I heard—” I lowered my voice, so everyone standing around wouldn’t peg me for a crackpot. “Someone told me the house was haunted. Not that I believe—I mean, I just wanted—”

“If you want spooky stories, take the
Ghosts and Legends
tour.” Zela’s voice was surprisingly cold. She turned to the podium and read from the clipboard. “Capp, party of two?”

I recognized the dismissal in her tone, thanked her, and left. But I’d only crossed the sidewalk and stepped back out into the street when she ran up behind me and caught my sleeve.

“Listen,” she said, softly and earnestly, “if you feel ill, go to the kitchen. That’s all I’ll say.”

Before I could get a word in, she dashed back to the King’s Arms and vanished inside.

“This month the Cooks do very early rise,
To roast their meat, & make their Christmas pies.”

—John Tully’s Almanac,
December 1688

December 4, 1783—Mrs. Carson’s House

Taking turns at watch
that night proved needless, for Brennan kept us all from sleep with his infernal pacing. His voice could be heard at intervals, carrying on a discourse with himself, though his words could not be distinguished, even by Sam when he boldly put an ear to Brennan’s door.

Perhaps an hour before daybreak, Brennan exclaimed, “The devil!” and we heard a scraping sound.

“He’s raising a window,” Sam said, sitting up in the bed we shared, the wood of it creaking as the ropes strained under the tick, and his shirt a white ghost in the dark of our room.

“Does he mean to hurl himself out?” I wondered.

“With our luck, he’d not achieve more than to break a leg.”

But the scraping came once more as the window closed. Brennan’s laugh followed, vainglorious and surely mad. Then another scraping noise, more onerous.

“Moving the bed,” Sam guessed. “Or perhaps his trunk.”

Then all was silence and, at last, I dozed.

At dawn, I was roused by the sound of Sam gasping as he splashed cold water from our washbasin upon his newly-shaven cheeks.

“Can you wake yourself more quietly?” I asked with a yawn.

“Wake myself? I’m yet asleep, and have three cuts upon my chin to prove it. Remember how Lieutenant Carson used to say that if his men would but rise when ordered during the war, he should take us all with him to the Ohio Valley afterward, where the sun would accommodate us with an extra hour’s sleep? Days such as this I warm to the notion.”

I did indeed remember. “I wonder if he might have. Gone west, I mean. Thomas always spoke of going there in jest, or as a man dreams of boyish adventures, yet perhaps, had he lived—”

“And not had a wife, children, and his father’s house to consider. There’s a thought. If I’d have that extra hour’s sleep, I’d best go before some woman ties me down.”

“You’d still rise at dawn, no matter what the o’clock.”

“Yes, but to unbar the doors of my own shop, not Greenhow’s. I’m off. Go back to sleep, Ben.”

I did, and when I next awoke, the south windows of the room were awash in sunlight and the orb of its making, risen more than a quarter arc to its zenith. I dressed in haste, for an appointment awaited me with Mr. Akers in Richmond Road.

Of the doors opposite in the hall, only Brennan’s remained closed and no sound issued from within. Jim and the doctor had propped their door open, as was customary, to allow any warmth wafting from the downstairs hearth to enter. They, too, were already off about their business, hurriedly it seemed, for the pallet Jim slept upon by the hearth remained in disarray.

As I descended the stairs, my nostrils detected the spicy staleness of the stewed pumpkin of two days past, warmed over for yet another morning meal. In the common room, I found Dr. Riddick with Mrs. Carson, who stood at her table chopping the pippins which would comprise the bulk of sweetmeats in her Christmas pies. Doubtless the bulk of all the filling, for meat was costly, and since October at least, this house had seen but four paying lodgers. I received my room and board in exchange for the weekly music instruction of the Carson children. A bargain for their mother, for any music master would ask thrice the rate to endure young Tom’s playing of the violin.

BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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