Too seldom happy, and never satisfied, he cannot help but see his father in himself, and now once again in his youngest daughter. Yet, in his study of the past, he can glimpse whole lives and imagine how and why they were lived. There he might even imagine his own life complete.
Now, by the merest of accidents, he has briefly stumbled on love again, only to lose it. For one moment everything was new once more, and yet he has lost her. What is it that he’s actually good for then? Perhaps only to protect the lives of others.
Divorced, unemployed, and given to too many words, what would any woman see in him? He would likely be better off if he could just find out what happened to another girl who was lost two hundred years ago—and avoid getting shot in the mean time.
Praise for Vincent McCaffrey’s Writing
“McCaffrey is never cloying or playing to demographic. He’s just telling a compelling, old-school yarn, the kind of story a man who knows his literature tells.”
“Vincent McCaffrey is obviously a man so well read that he seems to have gleaned a deep understanding of human nature from his studies. His characters are appealing and sympathetic and his story well plotted. I look forward to his next novel after what was a most enjoyable debut.”
“McCaffrey has a gift for crafting quirky characters and original dialogue…”
First Chapter Preview
This all happened a few years ago. It took me awhile to get it together and, regardless, stories often begin before you notice them. When you finally do, people are already dead, or gone. Things are missing or stolen. Places are lost.
This story actually got started mid-winter. I was over by East Cambridge, shoveling snow. There was at least ten inches on top of the four that dropped the day before. The morning was stone dark and the snow was smelling sweet, like it does when it’s been falling long enough to clean the air and the daylight hasn’t poked into it yet. I figure it’s a little before 6 A.M. No traffic. No sounds but a street plow maybe two blocks over and the scrape of my own shovel. There was a light in Doddie Parker’s bedroom window and the yellow of it was brilliant against that blue hollow before dawn.
I looked toward the growling of the plows. In the trough between the rows of tightly spaced houses at either side of the road, a single streetlight was centered there like a train in a tunnel. Out of this I see a big fellow coming who’s walking like someone I know. He’s got his parka closed over his face and a spume of breath trailing him. I think of the train again.
When he gets close he says, “Hey John!” Then stops his trudge and says, “Say! I been lookin’ for you.”
It’s Ricky Haven’s voice. I say, “What’s up?”
He says, “I got a story. Kind you’ll like.”
Ricky lives in Charlestown now, but I’ve known him since he was in my oldest daughter’s class at St. Agnes. Later on, in high school he used to help his dad deliver the newspapers at the crack of dawn from the back of an old Ford van. Now he works the grill at the Columbus Diner over on Broadway in Cambridge. He likes his gossip. Local stuff. It’s usually better than reading the newspaper while I’m eating my eggs. I just haven’t been over that way in a bit, for budgetary reasons.
I’ve only done about twenty feet of Doddie’s driveway, but I could use the breather and I prop myself against the handle of my shovel.
“So, tell me.”
Ricky looks up the street ahead as if measuring the journey ahead. “Gotta open for the boss. He’ll never get in from Lexington with the snow and all. Can’t stop for long, but I’ve been meaning to tell you about this. You’ll like it.”
“What’s it about?”
He pulls at the opening of his parka a bit more, so I can see he hasn’t shaved his fat cheeks. Then he looks back and forth. “Why ya over here? I thought you lived over by Porter Square now?”
You have to be patient with Ricky. He works his topics in his own time. It’s part of the charm—at least when you’re sitting down.
I tell him, “It’s on my way to work. Doddie had another heart attack in November. He can’t do his own drive anymore. So, tell me the story before I fall asleep here.”
Ricky looks up at the light in Doddie’s window and then pulls at the opening in his parka again. “Yeah, he’s stopped taking butter on his toast. Orders only the one egg now.” I stand there, waiting. He finally gets himself in gear. “Anyway, you’ll like this. It’s great. It’s like one of those Halloween episodes they do every year on television cop shows. You know? Where the cop picks up the plastic skull from the leaves in the gutter, with the trick‘r-treaters running by, and he says, ‘Hey. This isn’t plastic! This is the real thing.’ And then they trace it back to a kid who’s been selling bones to all his friends and they get the kid to tell them where he got them, and it turns out to be right in the kid’s basement. Only the kid lives next door to my Dad’s house up by Spy Pond and it’s Paulie Green and I’m practically his older brother, so I get to hear the whole deal and it’s great. He’s a good kid. He just did what anybody would do. It fell in his lap, you might say.”
Ricky takes a full breath and I get my hopes up that he might get it all out in the next go.
“Paulie can see right off that the bones are old. He’s not stupid. He figures there wasn’t any murder going on or anything. These are real old bones. But Halloween is like two weeks away and he needs a little pocket money. There were like a hundred bones down there. More. All wrapped up in some kind of cloth behind the foundation. Paulie’s dad, Nick—you know Nick. He was the goalie that—”
I raised a hand at him to stop, “I know Nick. So, what about Paulie?”
He’s on a roll now, my interruption hardly breaks his stride. “So, Nick had to pull some of the old granite blocks out of the foundation of his house to reset ’em before winter. They get water in the basement. Dad gets it too but not so bad. Nick’s been complaining about water in the basement since—”
“Ricky! You have to open up for your boss. Get to the punch line.”
“Yeah. Well. Paulie goes down there to see what’s going on when his dad ain’t around. You know. And he sees something odd in the dirt behind where the granite blocks were and digs at it with his finger. The way kids do. And it’s the edge of some kind of cloth. So, he pulls at it and the dirt collapses and the bones fall out right into his lap. Scared the crap out of him. Really. Messed in his pants. He wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true. A pile of bones right in his lap! If it was me, I woulda had a heart attack. Right?”
“Cool as hell. Happened just before last Halloween. I’ve been meaning to tell you about it. It was in the papers, so I figured you heard about it anyway, but I know how you like all that historical stuff and I got some more dope on it after. Nick has been calling the people at Harvard every week.”
I hadn’t heard anything about it. “Why Harvard?”
Ricky puts his gloves up in the air like it was obvious. “Looking for a little cash back! You know! The bones have to be worth something. Right? They were on Nicky’s property. Right? And the cops gave the bones to some woman at Harvard to look at. A professor. Nick says she talks like she has a tooth’s been taken out and the cotton’s still in her jaw. Lady named Sawyer. It turns out the bones were from some woman and a guy. The professor came over and they dug out more of the dirt next to the foundation and they figure that there was an old well there. Nick’s house was built in the 1890’s. Just like my Dad’s. They dug a trench for the granite foundation back in 1890’s and didn’t notice a thing. But there was an old well there before. And that’s why he gets so much water. And now his problem is solved. They put in some pipes—”
“Yeah. Well. So. She finally tells Nick a couple of weeks ago that the bones were from the Revolution. Some time like that. The professor says it looks like somebody dumped the bodies down the well and then a lot of gravel and other crap on top of that. And guess what? It was a murder after all! Both the man and the women were stabbed to death. By a bayonet! Like on the end of a gun. Just like my gran’pa used in the war. A friggin’ bayonet. Both of them! I don’t know how they can tell something like that. Do you?”
“So, it was a murder after all. Only they won’t catch the murderer now. Right?”
“Yeah. Thanks for telling me.”
“Yeah. I thought you’d like that.”
So, I know Sawyer. Rebecca isn’t as pure pretty now as she was when we were in school, but she has style and she’s pretty enough. The stiff jaw came later. I think her first husband taught her that. I made a play back when, but I wasn’t her type, I guess. And I’ve bumped into her a couple of times since. She’s divorced and remarried. She’s the first person to tell me I was stupid for wanting to teach high school history. She was right about that. I would have been better off at a college, where you can keep your distance from the students and say anything you damn well please as long as you aren’t a Republican and you remember to use footnotes.
Anyway, that was then. This was now.
The next day I went down to Harvard. Rebecca is in a building right next to the Museum of Natural History. In fact, that’s how I happened to bump into her one other time. I like the Blaschka glass flowers at the museum there, as well as most the older displays. Stuffed animals. Whale bones. Polynesian boats. They remind me of being a kid. All the wonder. All the questions. Museums aren’t the same anymore. Everything is bright and shiny now. Just a lot of answers. But when I was growing up, museums were dark and gloomy. Full of questions.
I think that may be the reason I look at history the way I do.
Rebecca was in her office with a student, so I sat down on a window ledge in the hall and read the book I had in my coat pocket until the kid comes out and I go in. Becky went wide-eyed. Right from the start, I know her second marriage isn’t going very well. She did a lot a smiling where I wasn’t being very funny.
The two best words in the French language are décolletage and lingerie. I have never seen Becky’s lingerie, but I had always been taken by her décolletage. She still made good use of it even in a blue wool suit.
She’s cut her hair short, of course. That’s the ‘independent woman’ thing to do. And she’s wearing glasses pretty much all the time now, but she took them off as I came in the door. Reflex, I guess. She had them on again inside a minute. She asked me what I was up to. I hit the big item first and told her about my divorce. This made her squirm in her seat. I swear she did. Very flattering to a guy like me. So, then I told her I’d quit teaching and was working in an office shuffling papers. I think the part about working in an office dampened the fires in her eyes just a bit.
After the preliminaries I finally tell her about talking to Ricky and ask her about the bones. She sat up straight again for that and turns around in her chair. She’s got a couple of them right there on a shelf behind her in a box—including the skull of the woman.
She pulled the skull out and held the jaw up to the top part and moves it like it’s talking. The teeth are missing at one side and she even does a Boris Karloff lisp that seems to fit.
“You came over to ask about me? A woman who’s been dead for two hundred years? And here’s this beautiful creature who hasn’t heard a peep out of you in what—eight years—sitting right in front of you, very much alive?”
This is Becky. She does a wicked Peter Lorre as well. I corrected her. “Nine.”
She waited for more talk from me. I just smiled. I wasn’t interested in anything else. Not then. I was lonely enough for it, but I wasn’t ready to be going back for anything I’d left behind. I was figuring that was history of a different sort.
After a few uncomfortable silences she finally says, “So, what can I do for you?”
I told her, “I was curious. That’s all. You know, I raised my kids in a house near Mass Ave in Arlington just over from where the British soldiers killed Jason Russell on his own doorstep. But I was full of all that sort of stuff from the first day I could read. It started when I was a kid cleaning out attics in Hingham. Hingham was always loaded with the kind of stuff people leave behind. And when Ricky told me you were investigating the whole thing with the bodies in the well, I just got curious.”
She smiled. She nodded. She smiled again. I tried to guess what the thoughts were.
She says, “That’s you, John. Always curious. Well, I’m sorry to say, I’m not really investigating anything anymore. There’s nothing much left to investigate. It’s all just a lot of history now. Mary here—that’s her name, by the way—Mary Andrews.” Becky fit the skull together again in her hand and held it from the bottom, turning it to face me. It had a questioning look to the hollow of the eyes. “Mary lived in a house about forty feet from the well. There’s another house there now, right on the exact spot. But we’re pretty sure it’s her. She disappeared on the very day—April 19, 1775. She simply disappeared. The family wrote letters to everyone for miles who might know her, looking for her. They’d been separated in the rush to get away before the British came through. But she never turned up. And she had a distinctive feature. She’d lost a finger in a kitchen accident and that was mentioned in both of the letters as an identifying mark. The index finger on her right hand. And this poor woman had the same piece of her finger missing. So, we think it was Mary. She was killed and dumped down the well.”
Becky set the skull down carefully atop the papers on the desk in front of her. “And maybe more. Maybe worse. I wrote a paper about it for an academic magazine, but they haven’t taken it because there isn’t enough evidence to it. We found scraps of clothing. Buttons. A few bits of leather. The man was fully clothed when he was killed, but she was naked. Both were killed the same way. Direct thrust from the front. Ribs broken and clearly marked. A vertebra was cracked, and the remnant of the metal tip was there in a bit of rust. So, I tried to imagine what happened. I speculated that she’d been raped. There was a barn close by. We know that. She might even have been hiding there, foolish girl. Remember, the British outriders who came through Menotomy that day were charged with clearing out snipers and making the way safe for the retreating soldiers as they came back from Concord and Lexington. It was bloody all around. Officially there were only about 25 colonials killed in the immediate area. Maybe 50 died, in total. But the records were poorly tallied. There was more than one missing person. We found that much right off.”
This was the stuff I had hoped for. This was the kind of thing that had been sitting in the back of my brain for years.
I told her, “I’ve read a few things. I read the Fischer book, Paul Revere’s Ride, a few years ago. I’d like to read more about it.”
She shrugged at me. “A great book. But I can tell you, there isn’t enough written on that retreat. They say about 40 of the British troops died between Concord and Boston, but I’m certain there were more. They never properly counted the casualties who died later from wounds, in the aftermath of battle. And the man killed with Mary was not a soldier. He was not even a man, I think. Just a big healthy farm boy. We don’t know his name. So many boys ran off to fight and some were never heard from again. And then there were the indenture contracts that were broken. The war was a good excuse for those who could get away from a bad indenture. He was clearly a farmer by his boots and his straps. He might even have come to the sound of her screaming and been killed by her assailant. Or assailants. There are accounts of gang rape at the time. Mostly in Boston, but they happened. Any soldiers caught at such things were often hung to keep discipline, so they would have hidden the body. Both bodies. And there were other things in the well. Even parts of a slaughtered pig and glass from a window. My guess is they tried to hide the evidence. And afterward the well was abandoned. Here . . .” Becky pulled the side drawer of her desk and fingered the files until she came up with a thin sheaf of paper, “Take this. It’s a copy of the article I wrote.”
Becky was not leaving anything to chance. She wanted me to know she was interested. It made me hesitate just a bit before I took the copy. She was always quick. But I had the feeling she had just come up with a way to put a string on me.
I asked about the letters. She had found two of them at the New England Historical Society and they referred to even more being written. The family was distraught over what might have happened to the girl. Then Becky ripped a page off a pad on her desk and wrote down some notes so that I could find the letters again if I went into the Historical Society looking for them myself. She did that first, and then she asked, “So, why do you want to know about all this, John? You have a purpose. I know you, John. You always have a purpose.”
I shrugged a little to try to lighten the answer up a bit. But I was committed now to giving her a serious reply.
“I’m writing again.”
Again, she waited for me to say more. I was just not ready with the complete thought. I said, “Just background, I guess.”
She said, “Good. Good. I told you to keep up with that. Remember? And what happened to that piece you were doing about the glass flowers and Leopold Blaschka and his son?”
I told her. There was no good in hiding anything. “I gave it up. I got lost in it. I think I didn’t understand the father. I think he was just too European for me. That, and my high school German failed me.”
She took one of those long deep breaths meant to let you know she was thinking all kinds of serious thoughts. But then, she probably was.
She said, “At least you’re writing again.”
That was the string. I could see it there between us.
“Yeah. You told me I should. And you told me a couple of other things. Do you remember that too?”
“No. I don’t. What did I tell you?”
“You told me not to write fiction. ‘No novels.’ That was your advice. If I was going to have any standing as a historian, I should stay away from the fiction. But that’s what I’m up to now, Becky. I’m writing stories again.”
She nodded, but the smile faded a bit more. Her voice lost a little color. “I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Does it? You aren’t looking for a career at a university anymore, are you, John?”
It was my turn to smile and say something to soften the truth. But I said, “Never was. That was all you. Not me. I remember you wanted me to go that direction, but it was never the way for me.”
She sat back and looked every bit the professor I had first seen from the door earlier.
“History is so much more interesting than fiction, John. You have to admit. Look at this woman. Look what we’ve found. That’s history!”
I gave the pause an extra half-second. I didn’t want to be arguing with her now.
“What you have here is just the bones, Becky. All you found were the bones. But the story you told me is fiction. Good, isn’t it? It’s the story that makes those old bones talk.”
She smiled as if there were something humorous to it all.
“Well then. Here we are again. Back at the old argument we were always having in college. Back in what? 1987, or thereabouts?” She looked at me as if I was supposed to say something, but I knew it was better to keep my mouth shut. Then she says, “But I guess that’s history too, isn’t it?”
I could have accepted that without comment. But I didn’t.
“Yeah. Guess it is.” I held up the sheet of paper she had given me with the reference to the archive at the Historical Society. “But this is a story! This might be something to work with. And I like what you’ve imagined, Becky—what might have happened to Mary Andrews. Would you let me use that? I’ll even put in a footnote for you if you’ll let me use some of that.”
She inhaled loudly on the thought. It wasn’t a hesitation. More of a confirmation of something.
“Sure. It’s yours to use. But forget the footnote. My life has too many footnotes as it is.”
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