The following is a fictional story that will be published through the McNicholas Milestone in installments. All characters, settings, and dialogue are purely figments of the imagination.
Thumbnail courtesy of www.criminalelement.coment.
PART ONE: JOSEY
“Dead?” that one-word question sent my world reeling and falling down around my shoulders.
“Dead,” the slurred conformation slipped from Mother’s mouth. The pale yellow wallpaper was cool against my cheek as I pressed my face closer to the sounds coming from the other room. I could see the scene, tucked away in the back of my mind where it had lived and festered for the first sixteen years of my life. There was my fine-bones mother, sprawled across her usual chair like it was a throne. The once-pristine white fabrics faded into a sickly, worn yellow either from the amber liquid she most definitely held in her hand or from premature aging.
“How could a man like that be dead?” Miss Marion, my governess asked. A man like that. A man like Johnathan Andrews. A man who had everything, and everyone wrapped around his little finger. A man who could throw money at a problem and make it vanish like dust on the wind. Father’s employer had gone missing a couple weeks ago, but the fumbled words that fell from Mother’s mouth indicated that he was not only missing, in fact, but also pronounced dead.
“Dead,” I whispered the word to myself. It felt foreign on my tongue. I had only seen the man a couple of times. There was nothing particularly striking about his greying hair, or the permanent frown lines that graced his face. Still, thinking of him lying cold and stiff somewhere unmarked made my skin crawl.
A crash barked through the wall and I pulled my head back from its surface, shaking the thoughts from my head.
“Oh, Kathleen,” the voices were reduced to a murmur as I distanced myself. Miss Marion’s sturdy-heeled shoes clicked on the hardwood floors as she moved to aid my mother in cleaning up the broken glass cup.
“I’m so,” Mother hiccupped, “sorry.”
“It’s okay, Kathleen,” Miss Marion sighed. “Just… let me deal with this, don’t cut yourself.”
Another glass sent tumbling to the ground meant another trip to an antique shop for a maid. Perhaps today it was another one of my late grandmother’s collections. It was a tragedy those cups were often sacrificed like soldiers to a cause.
“It’s such a shame,” mother said as I pulled a decorative pillow off the arm of the claw-footed couch and into my lap.
“The cup?” the governess asked. I curled my body around the pillow as I hugged it to my chest, letting my head fall back against the wall.
“Mr. Andrews,” mother sniffed. “They never found the body, you know.”
“Then how do you know he’s dead?”
“Because my husband says so!” Mother’s voice rose like a tide. “And he never lies to me.”
“Perhaps Mr. Andrews went on… hiatus for a few weeks.” It was an empty suggestion. What new money executive leaves his company to the mercies of those vultures who call themselves business men for more than a month? Not one who was in his right mind. I had heard father say so through the vents from time to time.
“No,” Mother said. “He’s dead, and it’s a shame. Josephine would be lucky to marry a man like that.”
“Josephine is a child, and Mr. Andrews was a married man,” the governess lowered her voice.
“Not Mr. Andrews, someone like Mr. Andrews,” Mother scoffed. “Someone rich.”
“No amount of money can change the fact that Josey is still a child, and a child’s place is exactly that. Not the role of a wife.” I sucked on the inside of my cheek at the sound of my name on their lips as I ran my hands over the shin length, green dress that pooled around my knees. I had heard this conversation a thousand times, and every time it caused my stomach to sink.
“She needs to marry rich if she wants to be happy,” mother said. “Look at what happened to you.”
Silence. Painfully still, silence diffused through that too-thin wall and wrapped itself around my heart. A third pair of feet interrupted the stagnant air.
“Another brandy,” Mother commanded.
“Yes ma’am,” the maid’s feet disappeared to the kitchen.
“You’ll drink yourself to death,” the governess said.
“Good,” Mother’s short laugh caused me to grind my teeth. Chandeliers dripped crystals in every important room of this house. Every fabric was meticulously selected, and every wooden fixture was crafted from the same shiny oak. My father insisted that every meal was an event in and of itself. Ten years ago, images of war were all that dared to flash across my mind, courtesy of the radio in our living room. Now the dinner conversations were all talk of which model T my father wanted to invest in next. Now there were only lavish parties and shimmering lies buried deep within intoxication, and Mother was its victim.
The brass door handle clicked twice and I shot to my feet, flinging myself across the room to the couch, knee colliding with a side table and hands fumbling for a book to open in my lap. The couch creaked under my weight as the door swung open and the governess stepped over the threshold.
“Josey?” the surprise in her voice was evident. She surveyed me with her eyes, taking in my lounging frame, bruise forming on my knee. I lifted my eyes from my book to meet hers.
“Yes, Miss Marion?” I lifted an eyebrow. A sigh pushed past her lips and her shoulders hunched in defeat.
“You were listening, weren’t you,” Miss Marion’s words were less of a question and more of a statement. She already knew the answer. “Your ears have such a bad habit of listening where they don’t belong. It’s not polite.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“How many times have I told you to let me deal with your mother,” she said, pacing across the room and settling on the couch beside me.
“I know, but it’s my life,” I studied the carpet, voice quiet and complacent, instantly guilty of speaking back. Miss Marion ignored the quiet challenge.
“She’s drunk. She doesn’t know what she’s saying,” Miss Marion pinched the bridge of her nose, muscle in her jaw feathering as if trying not to say something she would regret. I returned my attention to the book in my lap. Misty Grey and the Case of the Missing Rubies. I had read it more times than I could count, had traced my fingers over the words on the cover until it had become like braille.
“So Mr. Andrews?” I found myself asking. The governess hesitated for a moment.
“There is a lot to be said about your father’s employer, and it’s not my place to spread suspicion, but the police are investigating his disappearance as a murder,” she explained. “But, that is far too morbid a subject for a young lady such as yourself. You read too many mystery books.” Half a laugh escaped me as I closed my book gently and tucked in in the creased of my elbow under my arm.
“My apologies for prying,” I offered her a soft smile that was answered by an overdramatic sigh.
“Very well,” she said. “Now go gather your siblings and say goodnight to your father. You won’t see him tomorrow. There’s a party in the evening at the Conners’ and he’ll be up before you and back after you’re asleep.” I nodded a few times and pushed myself up from the couch to do as she said. The stairs creaked softly as I padded up them, hand trailing the rail and then brushing my mousy brown hair behind my ear.
Bedroom doors stood slightly ajar, and I peeked through each gap at the slumbering children. A few moments of contemplation were followed by the executive decision to only half fulfill Miss Marion’s orders and, in turn, allow my brother and two sisters to continue sleeping. The light seeped through the crack under the door at the end of the hallway, and every step closer to father’s study was accompanied by the growing sounds of deep chuckles from the other side.
“No, I know,” Father’s muffled voiced graced my ears. “I am… I’m sure.” The door knob was cool in my palm as I turned it slowly, almost reverently trying not to disturb him. I cracked open the door just far enough to peer in. He paced in front of the ornate, oak desk, both hands occupied by the candlestick telephone that had a tendency to consume the time he did not spend working or doing whatever unholy thing he wished. I was about to push the rest of the way through the door, but Father’s words halted my steps.
“If Andrews could see this,” he laughed to himself. “A disappearance, and then Clerk Conners’ release. That old skeptic would be pointing fingers directly at that poor family.”
My brow creased subconsciously as I wracked my brain for any information on Clerk Conners I had heard through the walls at some point or another, but I came up empty.
“I know, Reverend,” Father leashed his irritation. “But it’s not every day that an old friend gets out of prison… Alright… I’ll keep that in mind… Alright, you take care too.” Father sighed and set the telephone down on the desk, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands as he leaned on the wooden surface. I rapped at the door with two of my knuckles gingerly. Father’s gaze darted toward me.
“Come in,” he said, pushing himself up from desk. I paced into the study, carpet muffling my footsteps.
“I’m here to say goodnight,” I offered him a small smile. Father’s round cheeks stretched into a grin as he gathered me up in his arms. His body was warm and soft, no harsh edges or lines on his frame. He had lost his coat and loosened his necktie, but he remained dressed in the signature business attire which he dawned every waking moment of every day.
“Of course, dear,” he said, giving me one final squeeze. “Goodnight, Josephine.” He relaxed his hold on me and I slipped back out of the room as quickly as I had entered, book still secured to my side in its usual resting place. The familiar weight brought a fantastic sort of peace to me, a different life in a different time if I so wished to live it. Misty Grey, with her detective hat and her pipe danced across my memories, never afraid, never deterred by her femininity.
I paced into my bedroom and threw myself down on the bed with a sigh. Misty Grey would take one look at the disappearance of Jonathan Andrews and have an answer in an evening. She wouldn’t listen through the walls or the vents, but observe, and speak to people, and scribble in her notebook. I could see the story play out in my head as she started her investigation with the single name that kept ringing through my thoughts: Clerk of Courts, Mister Conners.
I rolled over in my bed, tracing the rose petal wallpaper with my eyes through the haze of darkness as I set my book beside my pillow. I pinched my eyebrows together and gnawed on the inside of my lip like the answer to the boredom that had fostered my habit of listening was buried there somewhere beneath my skin.
Perhaps it is, I thought to myself. There is a party at the Conners’ tomorrow night.
Perhaps I would be in attendance.