Chapter 2 – Intruder

Read Chapter 1

It was a sound so familiar Lucas almost didn’t stop reading. Who was in the house? His eyes burned from deciphering the faint writing in fading daylight. He returned the book to the chest and then dropped down the through the trapdoor and hurried to the entry hall.

“Hello!” Lucas called. He was sure the front door was locked, but didn’t remember checking it.

“Hello?” A woman’s voice answered from the stairway. Lucas stopped at the foot. A stunning pale face peered down at him from the first landing. “Who are you?” she demanded.

 “Who am I? This is my house. Who are you?” Lucas rested one foot on the first stair, ready to climb.

The woman skipped down the stairs to stand in front of him. Her sleek black hair was sculpted like marble.

“I’m Sloan,” she reached out her hand. Lucas shook the tiny white hand that felt like a kitten paw inside his own rough palm. She smelled like ripe pear. “You must be Lucas. Hey, great! I’m so glad you’re here, now we can get things moving.” Sloan scanned Lucas’ tall frame. “You don’t look much like your brother.”

“That’s true,” Lucas agreed.

Sloan laughed and her eyes glittered. “I’d say so. You two are nothing alike.” She looked him up and down. “Hey, love the dreadlocks, Lucas, very ‘90s, very ironic.”

Lucas felt himself flush. His cheeks burned. What right did this stranger have walking into Nana’s house through the locked door?

“How did you get in?” Lucas gripped the bannister.

Sloan took a step back and held up her phone case. A keychain dangled from the ring attached to it.

“Mark hired me to sell the house. I’m the realtor. I work the coast market, usually Seaside to Cannon Beach, so this is a bit of a push. But what a great property! Cannon Beach can be very lucrative, but Astoria is a dice roll. This house will bring loads of offers.” Sloan studied the hardwood floors and original wainscoting, nodding her approval as she scanned the architecture. “I’ll need to take a look around, give it a walkthrough. Then I’ll work up comps.”

“Where did you get the key?” Lucas cracked his knuckles. Sloan opened her phone and started typing.

“I picked it up from the attorney’s office,” she didn’t look up.

“What attorney?”

Sloan glanced up at Lucas but kept typing.

“Your probate attorney, Chad Walker, he’s the one handling the estate. I’m texting him right now.”

Lucas realized there would be paperwork when Nana died, but didn’t consider there would be lawyers involved, or a trespassing real estate agent, however attractive.

“Look,” Lucas paused a moment to wonder how much authority a realtor might have over him. “Give me back the key. I’ll see the lawyer tomorrow. I’m here now. I don’t want you, or anyone else, just coming in whenever you feel like it.”

Sloan swung her chiseled hair and shrugged as she finished her text.

“How about this, Lucas: since I’m already here, you show me around. I need to take some photos. I can’t give the key to you. I signed for it at Walker’s office. I’ll drop it off there tomorrow. You can pick it up when you meet with him, although that will be inconvenient going forward for everyone. How does that sound?”

Lucas scratched at his chest.

“OK, I guess. We can start upstairs.”

The tour concluded in the kitchen at the back of the house. Outside it was growing dark and the windows mirrored their movements through the rooms. Sloan peered down into the cellar but didn’t care to descend the stone steps, asking only a few questions about its construction and whether it stayed dry in winter. She stopped at the narrow stairway leading up to the attic.

“Where does that go?”

“The attic,”

Sloan took hold of the doorknob, but Lucas stretched his arm across the jamb. Sloan tugged at the door.

“Lucas, I need to see it too. I need to check for leaks, see the view. I know there are windows, some potential, maybe renovated into a loft, or raise these ceilings.”

“Too dark, not tonight,” Lucas shook his head. “I need to replace the light bulb up there. It’s rickety.”

Sloan backed away to the center of the kitchen. She swiped through the gallery of photographs she’d taken.

“Okay, I have most of the shots I need. A few of these might need better light, but they’re mostly good. I already have shots from outside. Maybe I can come by tomorrow and check-out the attic?”

“Maybe,” Lucas wondered how he would keep Sloan out of the attic. He wanted to go back and open the chest, continue reading Verity’s story. He didn’t want Sloan prying.

Sloan waited for Lucas to say more, but he was watching his own watery reflection in the darkened window.

“Well, give me your phone number, Lucas, and I’ll give you mine. We’re going to be working together, so that would be helpful.”

“I thought you were working for Mark?” Lucas finally looked away from the window and back to Sloan.

 “Mark hired me, but technically, I work for you.” Sloan cocked her head and studied Lucas. “Your Grandmother made you executor of the estate. You make the final decisions.”

“No shit,” Lucas laughed and then shivered. He shook his head. It seemed a ghostly joke Nana was playing. He shivered again and thought of the chest in the attic he’d opened just hours ago.

When Sloan finally drove away in her black Escalade, Lucas rummaged in the mud room. He found a light bulb and climbed up the narrow stairs to the attic.

Chapter 1 – The Sea Chest

There was a large leather-bound book at the top. It reminded Lucas of the family bible down in the parlor, worn at the corners with the gilt-work nearly gone, though not nearly as thick. Lucas took the book from the chest and tilted it toward the southern sunlight. He opened the cover with care, smoothing the thick parchment pages, and began to read.

——————-

          June 1750 – Istanbul

It is with gratitude for the infinite grace of God and Fortune, I am finally able to take up pen and paper to transcribe my tale. All who once knew me must believe me dead, lost, or forsaken, a woman beyond hope. It is my fervent wish that someone may one day preserve my story, so that the memory of me, and my family, does not simply vanish from the world.

My name is Verity Hightower. I was born in Hathersage, England, near Sheffield, on May 1st in the year of Our Lord 1726. I am the only surviving child of James and Virginia Hightower, may God rest their blessed souls. I grew up in the parsonage in Hathersage, a snug cottage with tilled gardens, fruit trees, and a tidy stable yard. There were grassy hills and forest nearby, open places where I rambled as a girl. I stood for hours on the old stone bridge dropping primrose petals into the stream and waiting for trolls.

My father was an enlightened man. He encouraged my education and love of music and reading. I taught church school for the village children on Sunday mornings, inventing small theaters from bible stories to enact during Christmas and Whitsunday. My mother instructed me in domestic arts, as well as indulging my youthful talent for portrait painting. My life was small and homely. My fondest hope was to marry a young vicar and share the same parsonage with my parents when my father retired.

Alas and woe! Fie to the wanton twists of life, lures to the unwary and naïve, grief to the unlucky, to believe a snug sheltered life is simply an apple ripe for picking! Come the hard winter of 1743, my entire life came crashing down. A freezing fog fell for weeks on end, a bitter pall of frost, with little sunlight to warm the bones or cheer the spirit. Noxious vapors rose from the river and covered the vale. Bess, our lovely white milk cow, took fever at Epiphany and died within a day. Soon after, both my father and mother took the fever and were dead in less than a fortnight.

I was alone and bereft. An ox cart came and bore away my parents’ bodies to be burned. For many days, I scarcely kept the hearth fire stoked to warm a little broth to sup. Neighbors brought bread and porridge, yet I had no heart to brew them tea and listen to hushed words of faith spoken to comfort me.

In March, the spring rains came and the malaise over our township lifted. The roads were slick with mud. With the rains, came the Bishop. If I did not understand that my family was poor while my parents lived, the Bishop disabused me of any illusions I might retain about my prospects. Squeezing into my father’s chair in the rectory, he looked me over and pursed his lips. At last, he shook his head until his jowls trembled.

“Have you any prospects to marry?” He finally asked.

“Marry?” I knew very few boys and fewer young men, only those in our village. I never entertained the question before, in real terms, of securing a suitable groom.

“My dear,” The Bishop looked me up and down. “I am sorry to say that your prospects appear…how shall I say?…severely limited.” The Bishop tutted and scowled across the desk. “By your womanly appearance, I presume you are of an age and fertility to marry. I understand you are well-versed in letters, music and domestic management, however eccentric your appearance. Perhaps you know of a young man who might take you to wife?”

By this, I understood the Bishop to mean that despite mature bosom and hips, my red hair would deter any superstitious suitors from matrimony. Most in the Midlands still held to the belief that a woman’s red hair meant she was wanton, at best, and at worst, a witch.

“I hadn’t thought to marry,” I said. I hadn’t thought to marry because I’d never even kissed a boy, only danced with one at the harvest fair. I had no idea who the Bishop thought I might marry.

“Ah, then,” the Bishop grimaced and shook powder from his wig with a little pinch at his forelock. “There are only one or two alternatives to marriage, you see. You must earn your bread in this world my dear, even as an unfortunate orphan, by the sweat of the brow. Another vicar is appointed to this parish, and he will arrive soon. We must arrange for your removal with all alacrity.”

My heart sank. My lips felt numb. I stared down at my father’s writing desk and the stained blotter on which he wrote weekly homilies.

“You are young and healthy, that is good. Your father left no debt, so you need not fear the poor farm, yet. By the Lord’s grace, I have learned of a position for you to serve as a domestic of the higher order. Though this engagement is somewhat exotic, it is with a well-born family, a noble family. I understand you excel at instructing children.”

I nodded. I felt dumb as old Bess just before she died.

“Very good,” the Bishop scratched at his wig again and stood up. “Pack your things, my dear. We’ll have you on the coach for Liverpool tonight.”

With that I was dismissed. I returned to the cottage to gather my clothes and what few mementos I could squeeze in my mother’s portmanteau. The Bishop was true to his word. I was bundled up with my scant luggage, given a small basket of bread and sour apples, and set on the night coach to the west. In Liverpool, I took ship for Brighton to meet my new employers, the Sackvilles. With that family, I boarded a tall sailing ship to parts east, bound for Istanbul.