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The Lonely Bones
I used to be a shrink. I had a practice of my own, big billings, wealthy clients, a big house in the suburbs. I had A-list clients and a posh office in the better part of town. All day every day, I sat in my soft leather chair and listened to patients tell me their problems. After listening for a while I’d prescribe some mood altering substance or other—whatever big pharma was peddling that month—and send them on their way problems unresolved, spirits artificially raised. Now I don’t mean to sound cynical of my profession or critical of my colleagues, somehow we manage to do a lot of good. But, after twenty years of treating the whining rich, I’d had enough. I sold my half of the practice to my partner, Leon Terran, and set out to do what I always wanted to do—be an investigator.
My name is Murphy, George Murphy MD, PhD, PI. Those last two initials stand for Private Investigator. It’s my newest credential and the one I’m most excited about. Call it a mid-life crisis. Call it anything you like but it’s what I always wanted. And, take it from a pro, the best therapy is to try and live your dreams.
If there’s one thing being a doctor and a shrink has taught me, it’s a healthy respect for the human mind. Even professionals like me don’t understand more than a fraction of what’s really going on in there—the brain’s dark and mysterious byways, its powers, its ability to create alternate realities—these things have long fascinated me. I’ve always been drawn to the mind’s darker, dustier, less explored corners, its curious byways and poorly understood powers. Powers that no self respecting scientist dare even study for fear of losing his or her reputation and funding. I’m talking about things like telekinesis, precognition, clairvoyance, teleportation the list is long and goes on and on.
The timing was good for me. I had worked hard and had plenty of money. My ex-wife was in Buenos Aires with her hot little boyfriend, Pino. She wasn’t asking me for any money. maybe she felt guilty enough running off the way she did. Well, if I could live my fantasies, why can’t she?
Our only son, Robert, was a successful computer scientist in Albuquerque. He lived with his partner, Julio. They planned to marry as soon as the governor signed the gay marriage law. How times have changed. It wasn’t long ago that such behavior was considered deviant and I would have prescribed electro-convulsive shock therapy or something equally as misguided. These days we are so much more enlightened.
So with no pressing family considerations to hold me back, I took leave of Murphy and Terran Mental Health and at age forty nine struck out on my own. The day they scraped my name off the door was the happiest day of my life. I had no commitments and didn’t owe anybody anything so when the opportunity came along, I chucked the old life and enrolled in classes leading toward a Private Investigator’s license. It hasn’t been an easy transition. I only take the cases that interest me. I know they’re out there, I just don’t know how to get them
Here’s a personal example of the kind of thing I’m talking about. For years my sister in law, Rita, had been having the same strange dream. She mentioned it whenever we got together. The dream went like this: She was in a tiled room, like a public bathroom only bigger. She could hear voices echoing off the hard walls. She was hiding in a closet afraid for her life. Dogs were barking in the background. There was a pervasive feeling of panic in the air. Then the closet door was flung open and she woke up with her heart pounding, face sweating, gasping for breath. She often made light of it but in the sixteen years Paula and I were married, Rita must have told us the “dream” story two dozen times. I guess she thought I could help her unravel what it meant. They don’t teach much about dream interpretation in med school. Jung and Adler were interested in dreams but they thought in terms of archetypes. Paula’s dream seemed more personal, more like a premonition. Other than listen and prescribe a sleeping pill, there was little I could do.
The last time we saw Rita, shortly before Paula and I broke up, we were at a restaurant in New York. Rita cornered me and told me her latest revelation. The dream had taken a sinister turn. This time the tiled room echoed with the sound of panicked screaming and gunshots were added to the barking. Smoke was in the air. Rita stood in her little room more peaceful than before. When the shooting stopped and her door flung opened she stared into that bright white glare unafraid.
“What do you think it all means, George?” she wanted to know. All I could do was shake my head and up her dosage of Ambian.
A few days later she was dead. Shot in her office bathroom by a fellow office worker gone berserk. It was take your pet to work day at the office and several dogs were present. Seven people were killed and nine wounded. It was the worst mass shooting in Connecticut history. I can only imagine the terror of that day. I can picture Rita in those last few moments. She knew how it was going to end. She’d been living that scene hundreds of times. She didn’t need to panic, she knew exactly how it was going to end. She stood up in the toilet stall and faced the inevitable.
How can she have known? Seen it so clearly so many years in advance? A dream from the future was the logical explanation but modern science doesn’t allow for such logic. It was enough to convince me that science didn’t have all the answers. It convinced my wife Paula that I was an ineffectual fraud. I think she blamed me in part for Rita’s death. A few months later she was in Argentina with her Tango instructor, Pino, doing the horizontal Tango I suppose. I hope they’re happy.
My first case came along quite by accident. My old partner, Leon, stopped by and told me about something strange that he had just discovered.
“Now, I know that this sounds really weird and I don’t want to make a big thing out of it but we all know how you love a good mystery and I think I have one. Do you remember when Pat and I bought that old wreck of a house on Elmont Street?” I dimly remembered him mentioning it but Leon and Pat were always buying and selling properties.
“No matter,” he continued, “we’ve been fixing up this old house we bought in Greenwich. It’s an old Victorian with towers and gingerbread. It even has a winding back stairs for the servants. it was in terrible shape when we found it. We’ve spent a year renovating the old place. We’ve also done a lot of research about its history.” Leon handed me an envelope with a few typewritten sheets in it. “This is what we know about the place. It was built for a wealthy whale oil merchant in the 1870’s. We’ve been taking down a lot of the interior walls and modernizing the wiring and plumbing. Well, to make a long story short, yesterday we were taking down a wall in the basement and found the skeleton of a woman. I immediately thought about you. Sounds like your kind of thing doesn’t it, Murph?”
It did sound like my kind of thing except for it being a hundred and forty years late. “The trail’s a little cold, don’t you think?”
Leon shrugged, “Sorry I couldn’t come up with a fresher corpse on short notice. Don’t you want to look into it? Aren’t you curious to know what she is doing there?”
“Well, sure Leon, thanks for thinking of me. Have you called the police?”
“We did. They’re coming tomorrow. You can have the rest of today and all night to spend at the house. There’s a cot in one of the bedrooms but you’ll have to bring your own food.” Leon knew I was hooked. He handed me the keys.
The house stood on a weedy lot surrounded by construction equipment. There was no one around. The old place was dark and eerily quiet. There were a few lights but no heat and there was a noticeable chill. I found the bedroom with the cot and put down my things. I was glad I brought warm clothes and an extra blanket. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was low in the sky. I wanted to see the corpse in what was left of the daylight so I dumped my things and hurried to the basement. A dim light filtered through the small windows high on the walls. A bulb hanging from a wire provided the only illumination.
I found the remains behind a half demolished brick wall exactly as the workmen found her. Leon assured me that nothing was touched or disturbed. The corpse was that of a young woman, her dried skin stretched like parchment over her bones. Wisps of long dark red hair still clung to her skull in patches. She sat propped against a wall in what must have been a claustrophobic space. Not more than two feet from front to back and completely sealed without light or air. Her last hours or days must have been agony yet her countenance was peaceful. She wore a white dress and clutched a small gold locket in her hand.
There was nothing else in the space. She must have been deliberately walled in. Buried alive. Who could have done this to her and why? No one deserved such a cruel end. Hopefully she was dead before her coffin was sealed. As much as I would have liked to understand her circumstances, give her anguished soul some rest, I had no idea how that could happen. There were no clues left to follow, no suspects remained alive, no motives that I could fathom. I felt saddened for her terrible fate but beyond sympathy, what could I offer?
I knelt before her and reached out to touch her hand. As soon as my fingers made contact with her brittle bones, I felt a jolt of electricity travel up my arm and into my brain. In an instant I understood what had happened here. I knew who she was and why she was killed. It was an amazing thing. Inexplicable. Well outside the realm of ordinary experience. It was as though her soul was waiting all this time for a chance to tell its story. Holding back what little power it had until it could make contact with the living.
Her name was Mary Brynne. She’d come from Ireland as an indentured servant. She had to work four years to pay her bond. She was placed in the household of Captain Louis Strong, a wealthy merchant in the whale oil business. All her pay went to the bond holder. For all intents and purposes, Mary was a slave.
Captain Strong was a widower living in a big house with his son, Edgar, and a cook and a housekeeper. The cook was a kindly soul named Emma Rich. She took Mary under her wing and protected her from the domineering Miss Peach, the housekeeper. Eliza Peach was a dried up prune of a spinster who lauded it over the “help” and spared no opportunity to correct Mary and Emma’s many faults.
Captain Strong had retired from whaling and gone into business after suffering an accident that left him crippled. He was forced to drag one leg behind him and got around with the aid of a heavy cane. He was generally ill tempered but removed from the everyday affairs of the household.
Mary had been working in the Strong house for a year. She was a pretty thing all of 16 years of age. She did her work and tried to stay invisible. She had her own room in the back tower which she loved. It was her sanctuary and her refuge. As much as she tried to be invisible, Mary was always visible to Miss Peach, who kept her busy from early morning until the last lamp was extinguished. She was also visible to Edgar Strong who was 17 and becoming a man.
Edgar’s flirtations were not lost on the all observant eye of Miss Peach who took note of it and filed it away for future reference. Emma, busy as she was in the kitchen, could see Mary blush when the young master spoke to her.
“Be careful now child,” she warned, “There’s no good can come of that.”
But what could Mary do? She had no power over either events or her own life. She was caught between her duties and her loneliness. She was a woman. Edgar’s charms were hard to resist.
Edgar was handsome and rich. He was learning the business from his father and would some day inherit it all. When Edgar began to visit Mary’s room at night, Miss Peach whispered a warning in the Captain’s ear. Captain Strong had other plans for his son. A dalliance with a serving girl was one thing but vows of love were quite another. For that was what Miss Peach told him she heard the two whispering behind closed doors.
The Captain took immediate action. He sent young Edgar off to sea in a whaling ship he owned. “The better to teach the boy the business,” was how he described it to friends. The night before the ship sailed, his last night at home, Edgar lay with Mary for the last time. He did indeed pledge his love and gave her the gold locket as a token of it. A few weeks later his ship was in a storm. He was drowned at sea with all the crew.
The Captain, crazy with grief, Blamed Mary for his misfortune. He crashed into her room, raped her and beat her with his heavy cane until she was unconscious. He was unaware that she was carrying Edgar’s child. When he’d calmed down and realized what he’d done he called Miss Peach. She helped him carry the dying girl to the basement. The captain was having a wine cellar built and used the bricks and mortar to build a false wall two feet out from the original. Together they dumped Mary’s body into the narrow space and closed it tight. Miss Peach’s price for her cooperation was to marry the captain. She lived as the mistress of the house for the next twenty years. Mary’s things were burned and the bond holder was told she ran away. No one looked for Mary Brynne.
Pat and Leon sat in stunned silence as I related the story to them. “You learned all this simply by touching her?” asked an incredulous Leon. What could I say? This was what happened. This was just the sort of thing I was trying to explain. The kind of paranormal experience which modern psychology offers no explanation. Is it true? it’s true as far as I’m concerned. Did I make it up? In a sense I did. It came from that same place where all stories originate. A place deeper than reason, beyond the reach of our conscious minds. A murky place of myths and legends where science can never go. Personally, I can’t wait for my next case.
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