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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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Elizabeth Carson was a small woman, though not frail. Despite five births—only two of which produced healthy children—and the strain of her widowhood, Elizabeth remained strong and hearty, as well as comely. That, taken with the house and land she owned, brought many hopeful suitors to her door. I knew she favored me above the rest, though I had no illusions that the emotion of love occasioned my standing. ’Twas merely that a music master could introduce her to circles of society not now open to her. Yet, such was her charm that I cannot say I was unaffected by her smile on seeing me enter the room. As was her custom when hard at work, she’d put aside her shortgown to preserve it and wore only a modesty piece about her shoulders, over stays and shift. I found this fashion quite alluring.

“Ah, ’tis only you, Mr. Dunbar.” Dr. Riddick breathed out his relief. “I thought perhaps Brennan had heard our talk.”

I bowed to them both, my hat to my breast, to which Elizabeth returned a curtsy. “Brennan’s not yet left his room?” Odd, I thought, for his custom was to rise early and walk about the grounds of the college, snuffbox in hand, scouting new customers.

“No,” came the doctor’s reply, “though we’ve heard him dragging his trunk about all morning. Much as his case interests me, I fear for his actions, and have advised Mrs. Carson to turn him out.”

Elizabeth resumed her chopping, her voice unruffled. “And I have informed Dr. Riddick that it’s quite impossible. Mr. Brennan has paid his account through to the end of the month—his room and two daily meals—and I have not the means to repay him.”

“We shall collect the funds for you,” said the doctor. I nodded my agreement, all the while figuring in my head the tally of seven and a half pence for each meal and two shillings a night for a private room.

Elizabeth frowned. “The Public Hospital has been closed these last two years, and no other house would give Mr. Brennan lodging if he truly has become deranged, Doctor. I cannot turn a man out into the street. Not in winter, at least.”

“Madam, think of your children.”

As if by a conjurer’s trick, the back door burst open and the feet of young Tom were heard clambering up the stairs with an exuberance characteristic of his age.

“Thomas!” Elizabeth’s usually tranquil voice became that of a sergeant major.

Polly Carson appeared in the room doorway, the blush upon her cheek and nose testimony to the cold without. She was a girl of but fourteen years, and a deformity of her spine caused her left shoulder to slouch a bit—from being put into stays too young, Dr. Riddick maintained. Yet, the promise of her mother’s beauty was already evident in Polly’s smile, which she unfurled as she curtsied, greeting me and the doctor before saying, “I found him, Mother. He was leading the blacksmith Mr. Draper along Main Street—”

“Mr. Draper?” Elizabeth repeated, as the man entered the house.

“Something about a lock, ma’am.” Draper was winded from trying to keep pace with youth, and tugged loose the collar of the heavy wool shirt worn over his smithy’s apron. As if to make his meaning clear, he held aloft an iron padlock with key.

“Thomas!” Elizabeth called again.

We heard the lad scurry back down the steps. He thrust his head into the room, nodding in lieu of a bow. “Yes, Mother. Mr. Walker asked me to fetch his powder from the apothecary today, and Mr. Brennan said if I went directly and brought Mr. Draper, I’d earn two bits.” Tom held the coin wedges aloft. “I placed Mr. Walker’s powder on his mantel, Mother.”

“What’s this about Mr. Brennan?” Elizabeth set down her knife and, wiping her hands on her apron, hastened into the hall. Riddick and I followed after.

John Brennan stood upon the stair landing, as if ’twere a stage and we his tardy audience. He seemed pale in the stark light of the window above his head, but his deep bow was steady and his eyes rational. “I beg pardon, madam, for borrowing your son for my errand. I am in need of a lock upon my door.”

“A lock!” Elizabeth exclaimed.

“At my own expense, I assure you, madam.”

“But how shall we sweep your hearth, sir?” she asked. “Or lay your fire, or—”

“I shall happily do for myself,” Brennan announced with good cheer, “even in the draining of my chamber pot. I shall also fetch the water I require. As for firewood, Master Tom may place the usual quarter-logs beside my door each day and I shall bring them in. I shall no longer want my meals, though I shall continue to pay the cost to compensate any inconvenience.” This notion brought him such jollity that he laughed aloud. “Mr. Draper, if you would, sir?” He made a grand gesture along the stair to complete the invitation.

The blacksmith turned an eye to Mrs. Carson. “Ma’am?”

She gave a sigh and nodded. “Make a tidy job of it, sir. Mind my woodwork.”

“Yes, ma’am.” And he mounted the stair and both he and Brennan were lost from view.

“Surely, madam,” Dr. Riddick whispered, “you cannot mean to keep the man in your house after that?”

Elizabeth spoke to her children first. “Thomas, is the wood split?”

“Nearly all, Mother.”

“Polly, help him finish, then bring it in to my hearth.”

They each murmured, “Yes, Mother,” and with bow and curtsy, turned toward the back door.

Elizabeth returned to her pippins before giving the doctor her reply. “Quite frankly, sir, I cannot afford to lose a lodger right now. Certainly not one who pays for a private room, with an additional shilling and three a day for meals I need not prepare. Mr. Brennan apparently means to lock himself in, Doctor, relieving the worry of my children needing to enter his room. If he becomes a further danger, I shall take action. Now, Mr. Dunbar, will you breakfast before you leave for Master Akers’s music lesson?”

I had quite forgotten my appointment. “No, madam, thank you. I’m behind my time as it is.” I bid my landlady and Dr. Riddick a good day, took up my fiddle case from where it rested on the sill, and left by the back door.

The morning was chill, with a breeze from the northwest. Polly and Tom were at the chopping stump, white fog escaping their lips as they debated the portioning of the task. All else in the yard—well, privy, refuse pile, and Thomas Carson’s now abandoned tin shop—seemed frozen in place by the hoarfrost, thickest to the right where yard bordered marshland.

I paused upon the stoop, setting my violin beside me as I unbuttoned my lapels and drew my coat across my breast. “You look quite well, Mistress Polly,” I commented, for she’d had a bad colic not two days previous. “A remarkable recovery. Did Dr. Riddick attend you?”

“Thank you, sir, and no. Mother fed me pepper and a drop of quicksilver.”

“Made her puke up a worm, it did,” Tom said with enthusiasm.

Polly flushed, but chose to disregard her brother, instead hiding her embarrassment by bending to place the split logs into a leather sling. “So I shall be able to attend my singing lesson today, Mr. Dunbar.”

“I shall anticipate the hour.” And I would, for distinct from her brother, Polly had a musical ear and pleasing voice.

’Twas then that hammering commenced abovestairs. Glancing toward Brennan’s window, wondering what had possessed the man, my gaze fell upon an item on the ground beneath. Even at that distance, I knew it.

Brennan’s snuffbox.

So, the house definitely
wasn’t haunted, but it might make me hurl. What was up with that?

Zela had returned to the porch of King’s Arms and was casting an occasional glance in my direction. A worried glance? Or just annoyed? Did it matter? Here I was, standing in the street, gaping, acting like a stalker.

I began retracing my steps toward the house, wanting to say “Humbug” good and loud, to see if it made me feel better. Unlike Scrooge, though, I already believed in the spirit world.

I reminded myself that I’d only had two run-ins with ghosts in my life. Both had been in the past year and both at Bell Run. Ergo, Bell Run contained some supernatural energy or other that allowed its phantoms to poke through death’s curtain and con poor schnooks like me into helping them. Nothing had ever happened anywhere else I’d visited, so nothing would happen here. Period. End of story.

Two blocks farther on, it dawned on me that I might not be able to get back into the house. I cursed myself for not asking Evelyn for a key. I’d have to sit in my car and wait. Ironic, since I’d come to Williamsburg to avoid sitting in a cold car to wait for Miss Maggie. I could turn on the car to get heat, but I’d be wasting gas and polluting the air for no good reason outside of hypothermia.

My fears proved unfounded. When I pushed through the backyard gate, I saw lights in the first floor, rear wing of the house. Parked beside my Neon was a white Miata with a tan leather top.

As I stepped onto the porch, I spied what looked like a playing card on the floorboards by the kitchen door—an Ace of Spades. Picturing someone inside playing solitaire with a deck of fifty-one, I slowly bent to retrieve it. It wasn’t a card at all, but a photocopy of one on plain paper, cut to card size. Nothing on the back.

Before I could straighten up, the door swung open and giant-sized running shoes stepped into my field of vision. I moved that field up, over six feet of blue jeans and a double-extra-large ice hockey jersey, to the face of a red-haired Adonis. In build and facial features, he could have passed for Hugh’s twin, though he sported no mustache and his hair was a crew cut. Also unlike Hugh, his grin seemed a permanent part of his face.

Flustered, I slid the fake ace into the folds of my map.

“My niece says if I let you in, you’ll kill her.” His voice was deep like Hugh’s, too, but his attitude more carefree.

“I wouldn’t kill her
inside
the house.”

“Fair enough.” He stepped back to let me pass.

Stripping off my gloves, I entered the kitchen, which smelled seductively of roasting poultry. “Friendly” was my first impression of the room, though I couldn’t say why. With windows on both side walls, it might be a bright place on a sunny day, but today extra illumination was needed, provided by an overhead brass chandelier (in need of a good polish), and a plug-in fluorescent light that hung over the stove. The stove itself looked to be the first electric one of its kind ever made—chipped white porcelain with black dials above thin-coiled burners that were all the same size. The double sink was about the same era, but the refrigerator was 1960s avocado green. The floor was covered with vinyl red brick squares, nicked and scarred. Mismatched cupboards and hutches filled the spaces between the windows. Beside the stove, a long wooden table served as counter space. On it was the newest thing in the kitchen—a small white microwave.

To my right was a bricked-in hearth, smaller than the one in the dining room but still larger than normal. A cast-iron stove protruded from the bricks. On one side was a picnic table with separate benches. On the other side, what appeared to be a closet jutted into the larger room.

Beth Ann stood by the closet door. “I couldn’t unload the car because you had the keys.” Her attitude was half-defensive, half-accusing.

Too tired to argue, I took my keys from my pocket and dangled them at arm’s length. “Here.”

She shifted her gaze from me to her uncle. He turned toward her, so I couldn’t see his face, but her lips quivered, trying to hold back a smile, as she came forward to take the keys.

“I’ll crack the whip,” he said when I started to follow her out. “Go warm yourself by the stove.”

He apparently meant the cooking stove, because the other was cold to the touch. Since I wanted to sit more than anything, I set the map on the table and made use of a bench, propping my left leg along its length so I could massage my knee.

Beth Ann and her uncle unloaded the car in one trip, with him lugging two suitcases, a large tote, and a carryall bag stuffed with gifts. He made it look effortless.

Pushing the door shut with one foot, he told Beth Ann to put her own things in her room. “And ask Ma which room she put Miss Maggie and Pat in.”

“Your mother’s here?” I asked, torn between thinking I should get my foot off the furniture and wanting to continue the massage.

“Upstairs, changing.” He set his load by the closet door, then handed me my keys. “What’s wrong with your leg?”

“Nothing. My knee hurts a little, that’s all. Which brother are you?”

“Lighthorse Harry Lee, at your service.”

I laughed, not only because his bow was outlandishly Antebellum, but because when I met Hugh, he’d introduced himself the same way.

“Call me Horse. Everyone else in the family does, except Ma, and Foot, who doesn’t do
anything
anyone else does.” He meant his brother, whose name was Francis Lightfoot. Horse took my coat, but merely set it atop the suitcases. “Want me to take a look at that knee?”

I felt my jaw drop. Was Hugh’s brother hitting on me? Or being a little too brotherly a little too soon? I quickly slid my leg from the bench, which made my knee spasm so that, wincing, my “Uh, no. I’m fine,” wasn’t very assuring.

“Come on, I promise I won’t charge for a house call.” Horse was eyeing my leg, but it wasn’t an ogle. In fact, he had the exact look Beth Ann gave Bell Run’s chestnut saplings as they succumbed to the blight—one third concern, two thirds scientific observation.

That and his comment made me ask, “Are you a doctor?”

His eyebrows rose. “Hugh didn’t tell you?”

Hugh hadn’t told me anything about his siblings, other than the fact that his mom had named them all after famous Lees. Then again, I hadn’t asked. Not wanting to sound like a total doofus, I said, “I know Ann’s a doctor.” I’d discovered that on my own, after trying to find a local gynecologist. Miss Maggie’s wasn’t taking new patients, so Hugh called his sister for me. When he handed me the slip of paper with her recommendation, all he’d said was, “They’re right across the hall from her office.” It wasn’t until I went there and actually saw “A. C. Lee, D.O.” rounding off a list of family practitioners on the door opposite that I realized her profession. Anyway, to Horse I said, “I’m just surprised to find two doctors in the same family.”

“Two?” Horse hunkered down to give my leg closer scrutiny. “Hugh’s the only one of us who can’t write prescriptions. Is this where it hurts?” With his large hand, he cupped my left knee, pushing against it with his thumb.

The pain made me jump. “That’s the spot. On the other side, too. All four of you are doctors?”

“Yup, we all followed in Daddy’s footsteps, though Foot went into psychiatry. Rich would tell you that Acey’s Doctor of Osteopathy isn’t the same as a bona fide M.D.—she likes to be called Acey, by the way, instead of Ann. We used to call her ‘AC/DC’ when she was little and it stuck. Foot insists on ‘Francis.’ We call him Foot anyway.” With his other hand, Horse gently lifted and lowered my ankle. “Hurt when I do that?”

“Same places. Not as much as when you pressed on it. No more than the other knee.”

“Both knees?”

“The left one’s worse.”

Removing his hands and standing, he stroked his chin a moment. A bunch of questions followed: Was the pain sharp or dull? Burning? When do I get it most during the day? Anyone else in my family have anything similar?

“That’s why I think it’s rheumatism. Three of my dad’s sisters have it. Poor circulation,” I said. Of course, those aunts were also fond of artery-clogging foods like Italian sausage and cream cake, and all defined “aerobic workout” as a good gossip session over coffee and cannoli. I had a healthier lifestyle, didn’t I?

Horse nodded to himself. “I want you to lie down up here on the table.”

“What? I’m not going to lie down on your mother’s kitchen table.” Picturing myself prone, with him leaning over me—looking and sounding so much like Hugh—my face heated up, turning, I imagined, a bright poinsettia pink.

He shrugged. “Okay, we can do this upstairs on one of the beds.”

“No!” For an instant, I suspected that he wasn’t a doctor at all, but was trying to play an elaborate joke on his brother.

Seeing my horror, his grin broadened. He took a wallet from his back pocket and extracted a business card, which he held out for my inspection.

Kratzhower Orthopedic Associates
, it read.
L. H. Lee, M.D. Certified in Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine
.

My face must have gone from pink to Santa-suit red. He was a specialist, offering a free examination—no referral, no HMO approval, no appointment, no copays, and no outdated, dog-eared magazines in his waiting room. And here I was, the pro bono patient from hell. “How ’bout if I stretch out on this bench? Will that do?”

“If you think you can keep your balance.” A polite way of pointing out that my hips were slightly wider than the seat.

So I became horizontal, with my head toward the back wall. He lifted my ankle again, wrapping one arm around my lower leg, cradling my calf in his palm, and began to move my leg, bending the knee and hip. “Any pain?”

“No more than before,” I said. “My knee just feels stiff—
oh!
” Slow and gentle had changed to one swift knee bend and the pain was blinding.

“Where?” he asked.

“From my knee up toward my hip.”

“Here?” Still cradling my calf, he used the fingertips of his other hand to trace a path up my thigh.

It tickled, almost sensually, and I was reminded again how much he was like Hugh. I felt every one of my muscles tense and all I could do was nod.

“Lighthorse! What are you doing?” The voice came from the other end of the kitchen. I couldn’t see the speaker—Horse was in my way—but since the tone was mature female, I knew it must be Hugh’s mom. Panicking, I pushed myself up, wrenching my knee again as I tried to yank my limb free. Horse let go and turned, giving me an unobstructed view.

There, in the kitchen doorway, with Beth Ann gaping over her shoulder, was the Marie Antoinette teddy bear, only now she was wearing a pink sweatsuit that clashed with her short crop of Miss Clairol Spiced Bronze hair. The fake mole was still in place. Or maybe it wasn’t fake.

All Horse said was, “Where do you keep your aspirin, Ma?”

Ignoring him, she came forward, her face lighting up in a smile as she recognized me—gracious of her, considering I’d laughed at her when last we met. “Well, look who it is.” Gone was the haughty colonial British accent from earlier, and in its place were homey modern Southern inflections. “So, how’d you like Elizabeth?”

“Beg your pardon?” I stood, still in shock enough to think I hadn’t heard right.

“Elizabeth Carson. That’s who you ran into this afternoon. One of my ancestors. She lived in this very house during the Revolution,” she said, as if she thought I’d lose sleep without the knowledge. Then, with the air of someone teaching a less-than-astute tot, she added, “I portray Elizabeth as a living history character, you see.”

“Ah.” I didn’t mean that to come out sounding so relieved. What with her insistence on a theatrical name and her jump into the subject of her latest role, I had an epiphany about the woman. She was an actress greeting fans at the stage door, I thought. Getting on her good side should be easy. “Elizabeth was charming.” Offering my hand, I introduced myself.

Her grip was stronger than expected. “Call me Glad. I’m delighted you liked her, Pat. You’ll see her again before the weekend’s out.” Such a twinkle came into her eye that I wondered if my relief was premature.

I glanced at my companions. Beth Ann wore a half smirk that said I deserved this. Horse didn’t seem at all perturbed by his mother’s behavior, but said, “Ma, the aspirin.”

BOOK: Poison to Purge Melancholy
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