Poison to Purge Melancholy: A Pat Montella Mystery [NOOK Book]

Overview

Pat Montello would never spend Christmas away from her huge clan if she didn't think her boyfriend Hugh Lee was "Mr. Right." A weekend in Williamsburg, Virginia, with Hugh's family should be fun, right? Beset with inexplicable aches, anxiety attacks, and invisible kisses under the mistletoe, Pat realizes Hugh's mom's old house is haunted. Hiding embarrassing bouts with spirits from her potential in-laws transforms Pat's holiday into a crazed damage control mission. Finding refuge in Williamsburg's post-Revolution...
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Poison to Purge Melancholy: A Pat Montella Mystery

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Overview

Pat Montello would never spend Christmas away from her huge clan if she didn't think her boyfriend Hugh Lee was "Mr. Right." A weekend in Williamsburg, Virginia, with Hugh's family should be fun, right? Beset with inexplicable aches, anxiety attacks, and invisible kisses under the mistletoe, Pat realizes Hugh's mom's old house is haunted. Hiding embarrassing bouts with spirits from her potential in-laws transforms Pat's holiday into a crazed damage control mission. Finding refuge in Williamsburg's post-Revolution past, Pat uncovers a two-centuries-old mystery ...and it seems murder may be on the horizon in the present, as well.

Alternating between 1783 and contemporary life, Elena Santangelo presents two tantalizing mysteries spanning the centuries. With a smidgen of ghostly antics in the mix, the result is a refreshing spin on the mystery genre.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780738720357
  • Publisher: Llewellyn Worldwide, LTD.
  • Publication date: 9/1/2010
  • Series: Pat Montello Mysteries, #1
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 432
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Elena Santangelo (Pennsylvania) is an award-winning short story writer and an avid fan of both history and ghost stories. Her mystery and ghost tales have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Murderous Intent, and in the anthology Death Knell. An Agatha Award finalist, she is the author of Hang My Head & Cry (St. Martin's), Blood Possessed (Bella Rosa Bks), and the forthcoming Poison to Purge Melancholy and Fear Itself (Midnight Ink).
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Read an Excerpt

advent


December, Present Day

The first e-mail came the Sunday morning after Thanksgiving:

"hello how are you in dominion you know me"

The address was one of the free e-mail services with only "CMJSM43" as the name. The subject was simply "Message from the Internet," meaning the sender hadn't typed one.

He often got mail from unfamiliar addresses–the bane of having an e-mail link on an organization's website. Some of the messages were legitimate inquiries, most were junk mail–spam. At least CMJSM43 could spell.

The obvious choice was to hit the delete button. One word stopped him: Dominion. Yet he couldn't bring himself to reply, either.

The next Sunday brought another message from the same address:

"hello how are you we played cards hearts with spades remember"

Hearts with spades. He remembered all too well. Can insanity be forgotten? This time, because he needed to know, he did reply, "Where are you now?" and typed his initials below.

No answer. A relief. Until Sunday, December twentieth:

"hello how are you joyce erased your note i couldnt read it but Christmas i find you play spades"

"Strong-Beer, Stout Syder, and a good fire

Are things this season doth require."

–Titan Leeds, The American Almanac, December, 1714





December 3, 1783–The Eagle's Nest, Williamsburg, Virginia

"Ye've angels dancin' on your fiddle, lad." As John Brennan spoke, he set his pint of beer and his snuffbox upon the table. Every man in the room turned toward him in amazement.

Some twenty of us were gathered in the West Room of Mrs. Vobe's tavern, warmed by fire and drink and the company assembled at the long tables. The oaken panels softened the hearthlight so that our faces glowed the color of fine brandy. Our tall shadows swayed upon the walls not starkly, but as grasses 'neath the water of a millpond. I'd brought my violin and Jim Parker helped himself to one of the house guitars, so the lot of us had been enjoying an evening of song. No one had taken heed of Brennan, sitting quietly by the door, until he spoke of angels.

'Twasn't his praise that drew our notice. Compliments came to Brennan's tongue like mold to cheese. Once there, the flattery was tinted a soft Irish hue and delivered through a generous smile, the effect being that few listeners doubted his sincerity. However, he reserved compliments for his customers, not for poor men such as myself who could ill afford the luxury of snuff, even at Brennan's price.

But no, all eyes viewed his snuffbox. 'Twas never out of his hand in public and that hand never dropped below the plane of his shoulders, except to replenish his box from a cloth pouch in his coat pocket. He kept the snuff at the ready so that when a potential buyer happened within hearing, Brennan could sniff in a dose and remark upon the excellence of the tobacco. Red veins stood out on either side of his nose as testimony to the practice, but I'd seen him sell his wares on the street in this manner, and take away more shillings in an hour than I took in all week.

Now here he was, beer and snuff forgotten, the smile gone from his lips and perplexity in its place, his gaze lingering upon my fiddle, his eyes becoming rounder, as if every host of Heaven now occupied the instrument's curves. All from my rendering of "The Jolly Miller." A common rendering it had been, since my bow was in need of new horsehair and to make it last, I'd been forced to restrain my customary musical vigor.

Sam Walker, the only one of us seemingly unaware of Bren-nan's unnatural behavior, stood and raised his leather tankard. "A toast, gentlemen."

Everyone laughed, for 'twas Sam's custom to make such a proposal no less than twice with each new round, and to address every man thus, regardless of his birth and status.

I'd first beheld Sam's lean, red face at Germantown in '77. In the thick fog that day, he'd been estranged from his militia and had come upon me, wandering senselessly, knocked on the head by the wayward musket barrel of a less fortunate comrade who'd taken a British ball to his chest. Sam had led me to safety and stayed the bleeding of my skull with a strip of homespun from his own shirt. He'd saved my life thrice more in the next six years, and I his as many times.

"To Mr. Dunbar's angels," he said now. "May they cavort upon his fingerboard for many an evening to come."

"Huzzah!" the company shouted as one, hoisting their cups to their lips.

I bowed deeply. "Your pleasure is my own, good sirs."

"Ah," said Sam. "A wager then."

The men gathered closer, for Sam's wagers were more legendary than his toasts.

"Benjamin Dunbar has delighted us with his fiddle since coming to Williamsburg a month ago." Sam paused to allow the lads to express agreement and, to a man, all did, many pounding the table for punctuation. "From the Eve of All Souls onward, each time we've gathered here, Mr. Dunbar has played every song or dance requested of him, not once claiming unfamiliarity."

Agreement once more, mingled with a bit of wonderment. Sam hushed them by raising a hand. "I propose that, for a stake of tuppence apiece, each man buys the chance to name a tune unknown to Mr. Dunbar. Winner take the pot, or Mr. Dunbar, if he can play all."

Further conditions were set. I was to play each melody through, at which I insisted that, should I fail, my challenger be prepared to sing his own ditty, to prove its existence.

Tucking a wayward lock of my red hair back behind my ear, raising my fiddle to my chin, we began. I played better than three dozen tunes that evening, triumphing until the fourth go-round, when the stake had risen to half a shilling and two, and those wagering had dwindled to four souls.

Then Will Knox asked for a Welsh hymn he'd heard as a boy, of which he recollected not the name, but recited the first couplet. I'd heard the song once, though my memory brought forth only the opening phrase. To resolve the chord, I added the refrain of "Yankee Doodle," which made all laugh.

So ended the wager known ever after as "Walker's Fiddler's Challenge." Though Will took the biggest pot, by the close of our evening amusements, I had in my pocket five shillings four and three bits of a Spanish dollar which had not been there before. Placing my fiddle in its hemp case, I bid the barkeep goodnight and, with Sam at my side, stepped out into the wintry air, both of us buttoning our coats across our chests. The chill penetrated the wool of my stockings. I tilted my tricorn down to shield my face from the wind, saying, "By rights, Sam, you should have half of tonight's purse."

"You earned it, Ben. You're the best fiddler in Williamsburg. Nay, in all Virginia." Yet no smile colored his voice, and he turned not west along the path, but stopped to gaze eastward, toward the end of the street and the old capitol building. 'Twas now a grammar school by day, but after dark it took on a gloomy, forsaken aspect.

"Here are your own wagers, at least," I insisted, holding forth a shilling. "I'll not accept money from a friend."

Sam allowed me to place the coin in his palm, though by his expression, you'd think he'd never before felt silver. His only remark was, "The days grow short, Ben."

Puzzled by his mood, I replied lightly, "That they do, as always in December. 'Tis your favorite time of year, Sam, for the nights are long enough to allow for several trysts."

His mouth twitched into a smile then, but there was no jollity behind it. "I meant for Williamsburg. Not five years ago these windows were ablaze with light each evening."

He gestured along Main Street, where too few lamps twin-kled–faint stars through the damp air. The dim flicker of hearth-light shown in both taverns and in one upstairs window of Dr. Galt's apothecary, but no candles at this hour. Candles were conserved in times like this, when money was hard won. Yet–and I thought of the surplus of coin in my pocket–'twas times as this when fools entered most into wagers, in hopes of easy winnings.

Sam turned to view the Eagle behind us. "Williamsburg once had fourteen taverns, Ben. Now two are all that remain. Before the Revolution, this one was called the King's Arms. Only gentry passed through its door. Today I heard that Mrs. Vobe plans to sell."

"What then will you do for venison tarts?" I asked, joking, for Sam had a great appetite for Jane Vobe's meat pies. Yet the news was unsettling, for I was reminded how the citizens of Williamsburg seemed daily to dwindle in number, and that boded ill for my plans to situate myself here.

Sam moved then, turning westward, his feet crunching upon the oyster shells of the path. "The devil of it is that I cannot bear to stay behind Old Man Greenhow's counter much longer." Sam was a clerk in John Greenhow's store and had in the last month often stated his displeasure with the work.

"And yet," he continued, "the import trade is all I know. In truth, I fancy my own establishment." Sam paused, using his hands to outline an imaginary signboard in the air. "?Samuel Walker, Purveyor of Fine Goods.' A fine sound that has to it."

"You need wealth to open a store, purchase inventory, pay the ships–"

"Precisely my point." Sam resumed his walk, jamming his hands into his pockets in frustration. "Even if I had the means, with everyone leaving Williamsburg, who would be my patrons? Green-how already provides for the gentry still here–"

"And no one else can afford imports of late," I concluded, "with all the embargoes."

Sam agreed. "Still, if I could begin small, offering one item– French wine, perchance–that could be sold from my current lodgings, as Brennan does with his snuff."

I scoffed. "John Brennan's snuff is but the lowest quality tobacco, ground up with dry mint to make it tolerable. He sells for a shilling what costs him less than a penny to produce."

Sam paused, one foot poised in the air. When it came down, he touched his hat to me, saying, "Sir, I bow to your insight." Then he laughed, clapping me upon the back. "Do you see? I need not sell to gentry at all. I can claim as my customers Brennan's pa-trons–those middling folk who desire the luxuries of the gentry within their own means, and who already frequent Mrs. Carson's to deal with Brennan."

"Those folk can ill afford imported wine, even at cost."

"Imported from France, no. I could do my importing a bit closer to home. York County, say."

"And pass local wine as French? You'd be caught out."

We came even with the old powder magazine, an octagonal building used since the war as a market storehouse. Sam waved me ahead, for the path here was ill kept and it forced us to go Indian file to avoid the worst of the mud, but he carried on his plotting. "I'll call it Rhenish then. And if need be, I could travel farther afield for my stock. See you here, Ben, we've both maintained since the war began that Americans ought to trade more in their own goods. Why, I could make unwitting patriots of the lot of them."

I could but laugh at that and say over my shoulder, "I suppose this is no worse than your last week's scheme to marry a rich widow 'fore the New Year."

"The outcome is more pleasant. The wealthy widows hereabout all long ago lost their comeliness, if indeed they had any to start with. Why should beauty and fortune be so opposed, I wonder?"

"'Tis a device of rich men, to keep Sam Walker from bedding wife and daughter."

"A faulty device, then. A homely lass is often more willing than a pretty one, and the view remedied with ease by blowing out the candle. 'Tis only for the years of marriage that I require a handsome face, to gaze upon across the dinner table each day and not be put off my victuals."

The path widened before Mr. Greenhow's tenement and we walked abreast once more."Moreover, Sam, no widow would marry you, rich or poor, given your present income."

"Nor you," he returned with a laugh. "None save our landlady, at least, who'd meet you at the altar on the morrow if you showed a willingness. What about it, Ben? Elizabeth Carson owns her house and a half acre, and her Thomas has been in his grave more than two years now. Have the banns announced this month and you could be wed Twelfth Night."

I felt my face grow warm, for in truth, the prospect of marriage was one reason I'd come to Williamsburg. Yet the memory of Thomas Carson, my lieutenant for the late years of the war and as good a man as I'd ever known, could not be so easily dismissed. My reply was, "I'll not marry until I have means enough to improve my intended's circumstances."

"A noble heart, you have, Ben Dunbar. If it's means you want, well . . ." he looked about him, and though no one else occupied the street, brought his voice down almost to a whisper. "A few of us lads go about performing antics on Christmas Eve, and divide equally our take. With your fiddle along, I'll wager we'd double our profits this year."

"Antics? Mummery, you mean?" In the years before the war, bands of masked mummers–sometimes as many as a dozen separate companies an evening–had yearly come to demand entry upon the steps of Mr. Ivey's townhouse in Norfolk, some on Christmas Eve, some New Year's, some Twelfth Night. I'd watch them from the third floor window, until the mistress would send one of her manslaves out to chase them away without recompense. Like as not, they'd fire their pistols and muskets at the house, cursing the master, before moving on.

"In the best tradition," Sam assured me. "St. George and the Dragon. This season our saint shall be Washington and our dragon, George the Third. We'll end the evening at the Eagle and toast the Yule with rum punch. You know all the lads–Jim Parker, Will Knox, Alex Fisher–and I promised young Tom Carson he could shadow us."

No sooner was the name out of Sam's mouth, than the youth himself came running at us out of the darkness, wearing no coat, nor even his waistcoat. Young Tom was a boy of nine years, tall for his age, with the same broad, kind face as Thomas the elder as I remembered him before he'd died in camp not a week after the surrender. But this night the boy's face was deformed in horror.

"Mr. Dunbar! Mr. Walker!" he called, his voice breaking into its highest falsetto so that he had to swallow hard to gain control of it. He halted, flustered, and performed an awkward bow. "Your pardon, sirs."

As we hurried our steps to meet him, Sam lost his patience. "Manners be damned, boy. Tell us what's the matter!"

Tom straightened, his breath coming fast, one hand quelling a stitch in his side. "Mother says to come at once. Mr. Brennan has took a fit, raving as one mad. Mr. Parker and Doctor Riddick fear they cannot restrain him much longer."





o n e



December 24, Present Day

Fifteen minutes outside of Richmond, I knew I was insane.

Wistfully, I recalled Christmas Eve last year. I'd goofed off at work until our department potluck began. My tray of chocolate pizzelles had brought kudos from my co-workers–the only time all year, so I'd lapped it up. After work, I'd gone to Uncle Mario's for dinner. Since his wife was second-generation Sicilian, that meant seven fishes on Christmas Eve. I'm not crazy about the smelts or baccalà, but nobody does calamari like my Aunt Philomena. Good squid isn't something I get every day.

This year would have been Aunt Sophie's turn to invite me. Italian sausage and ricotta pie. And after midnight mass, we'd all go back to the house for homemade cannolis sprinkled with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Thinking about them now sent my drool glands into overdrive.

So what was I doing instead? I was battling the afternoon traffic on I-64, which was so crowded you couldn't fit a riding mower in the spaces between cars. The sky was that shade of monotonous gray that makes bare tree limbs look the most bleak. Since the temperature was ten degrees above freezing, no pretty Christmas snow would come from those clouds–they existed solely to depress me. Worst of all, my destination was Williamsburg and the home of Gladys Lee, mother of the man I'd been seeing the last eight months.

Seeing? What an understatement. I was, after all, a Montella. Other people have "relationships." Montellas simply rip out their own hearts and give them away. Hugh, as far as my gut was concerned, was It–Mr. Right, Soulmate Central. Why else would I be mentally cursing him out right now?

Not that I minded meeting Hugh's family this weekend. I wanted to. Really. But no woman in her sane mind approaches this kind of first contact without her man at her side, right? Better yet, in front of her.

Sure, I understood that Hugh had to put in a full day at the post office–he was a mailman, after all, and up to his well-developed abs in late greeting cards and presents. And no, I hadn't minded driving Miss Maggie to Richmond. Even if I had, I couldn't say no to her.

Nearly eight months ago, Magnolia Shelby had brought me to Virginia because she had decided I should inherit her estate, Bell Run. The whole "why" of that decision would fill a book, so I won't go into it here. Anyway, since I came to Bell Run to live with her, Miss Maggie has become not only my benefactor, but my mentor, housemate, and best friend (I reserved a ventricle for her before handing the rest of my heart over to Hugh). She was pushing ninety-two, and no longer drove a car, so I'd also become her chauffeur. Every Wednesday, I drove her to Richmond to visit her son Frank, who was a psychiatric patient at the VA Hospital. Frank wasn't all that comfortable around me yet, so my routine was to stop in, say hello, then go fill a couple of hours reading in the car or shopping.

Today, though, was Miss Maggie's Christmas visit–she'd stay with her son all afternoon. It was too cold to sit in the car, and shopping on the day before Christmas was my idea of self-inflicted torture. Still, I could have found some way to while away the hours. But no, Hugh had come up with a Brilliant Solution. I would drive Miss Maggie to Richmond, taking Hugh's fourteen-year-old daughter Beth Ann with me. I would then drive on to Williamsburg so that Beth Ann could arrive early to help her grandmother with holiday preparations.

Translation: he wanted his moody kid out of his hair for the day.

Hugh would then stop for Miss Maggie on his way down to Williamsburg. She was a family friend of the Lees–practically a surrogate grandmother. Four of the five siblings had been her students back when she taught junior high history. As a teenager, Hugh had come out to Bell Run to do chores for Miss Maggie. After his wife died, and Hugh decided to leave Richmond and all memories of her behind, Miss Maggie helped him get a job at her new post office annex. When Hugh brought Beth Ann–then a toddler–to live in the postal service trailer at Bell Run, Miss Maggie started spending holidays with the Lee family.

So here I was, me and a teenager who'd said nothing since I picked her up this morning except "cheeseburger combo" when we stopped for lunch. The air in my Neon had been replaced with her sulkiness. I couldn't take a breath without being aware of every one of the injustices she felt had been done to her in the last month, all of them somehow my fault.

That wasn't just my normal Italian guilt kicking in. Familiarity does breed contempt. The more familiar I got with her father, the more contemptible I became in Beth Ann's eyes. I was okay as a neighbor–she'd even liked me for a few months–but she wanted nothing to do with me as a potential stepmother.

Not that Hugh had ever suggested wedlock. I couldn't blame him–his first marriage had been a nightmare, which is why I hadn't brought up the subject, either. Fear of scaring him off. Problem was, Rule One in the Nice Italian Girl Manual, drilled into me by my mom and aunts, is "No sex until after you dance the Tarantella at your wedding reception." Oh, I was willing to give up my "NIG" status for Hugh–like I said, we Montellas don't have simple love affairs. We mate for life. Emotionally, I'd already taken all the vows.

Well, maybe not obedience.

But the main reason I'd been stalling Hugh off was Beth Ann. First of all, she was always around. Second, if Hugh and I did decide to get away for, say, a romantic weekend, she'd hate me all the more for it. Third, I was a role model. I didn't want Beth Ann coming home pregnant or with AIDS or cervical cancer or even a bad self-image because I'd sent the wrong message.

I couldn't stall much longer, though. Hugh had asked me two months ago what I wanted to do on New Year's Eve. I'd always ushered in the New Year with aunts, uncles, and cousins–playing Michigan rummy until our midnight feast of porchetta and tomato pie–so I was naïve about how far in advance reservations had to be made. The upshot was that Hugh booked us at a swanky hotel in downtown Richmond for their New Year's special, which included dinner, dancing, and a room with a king bed. I was looking forward to that night with an anticipation I hadn't felt since I was ten, when I knew I was getting a five-speed bike for Christmas.

If only I could quiet the voice of my mother in my head ("You're breaking my heart, Patricia Marie!") or keep at bay the image of Beth Ann's face–the betrayal on it when her father finally got around to telling her our plans for next week.

I glanced over at my passenger. Her face was slanted toward the window, and her long, fox-red hair hung down along her cheek so I couldn't see her expression at all. I couldn't picture myself as her stepmother. Or anyone's mother–not yet, anyway, no matter how loud my biological clock was ticking–which was why I'd gone on the Pill two weeks ago (I would have gone on it sooner, but couldn't get a GYN appointment until December).

Thing was, when she wasn't sulking, Beth Ann was a great kid. Less self-centered than most teens. Big heart. Equally big brain that was fascinated by every green thing on the planet. I liked her a lot, and couldn't help feeling that she and I would get along better if Hugh wouldn't push us into mother-daughter situations like this little outing. That scared me, too. As affectionate as Hugh could be–extremely affectionate, in fact–some insecure part of my psyche wondered if he merely wanted me around to give himself a break from parenthood. Especially now that Beth Ann was old enough to ask questions about sex.

Though, come to think of it, even a question about sex would be welcome right now if it would end her silent treatment.

For the umpteenth time, I tried conversation. "Hey, no school until next year."

I got a half grunt, the kind that implied that my comment wasn't worth so much as a condescending roll of her eyes.

Second try: "I liked your band concert last week."

"The drums screwed us up."

"I thought it sounded fine."

"How would you know?"

Was she criticizing my lack of musical knowledge? Or had she caught me nodding off during their last number? Not that it was boring–I'd never before heard "Jingle Bell Rock" played quite that slow, with a German oompah beat. I hadn't been sleeping well, though, a combination of holiday stress and leg cramps–rheu-matism, I thought, inherited from my mom, or maybe tendinitis from standing so much while I cooked batches of pizzelles to give as gifts. Anyway, for the last week, every night around eight, no matter where I was, my eyelids got heavy.

A change of subject was called for and it occurred to me that I could pump her for information at the same time. "Tell me about your grandmother."

"She's old." No insult intended. A statement of fact, with a silent "duh" for punctuation. Hugh had said his mom was sixty-five. She'd retired this past year from an accounting job she'd held since her divorce, when Hugh was fourteen. Another reason to be intimidated by her–she'd survived an office job well over a decade longer than I had.

"I mean–" I paused to decide what I really did mean. "Tell me what sorts of things she likes."

"Old things."

I gave up on conversation.

* * *

Hugh had written the directions down for me but, of course, I couldn't look at them and drive, too. I managed to remember exit number 238 before having to ask Beth Ann to read the rest. Since she saw the logic in my request, she agreed–one thing about her, no matter how grumpy she is, she stays logical–but between directions, she groused.

"Why'd Grandmom have to move, anyway?" she asked when we were stopped for a light on Route 132. A sign for a hotel sat up on the hill, but otherwise the area was more of a park, all trees and well-tended lawn. "I liked her other house."

"Your father said her new place used to belong to your family. Your grandfather grew up there."

"So it's not a ?new' place. It's old."

"Old" was the word of the day. The light changed, I drove on.

"And," Beth Ann continued, bent on proving my total lack of knowledge, "it isn't Grandmom's house. The Foundation owns it."

Miss Maggie told me that the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation owns something like a hundred houses. The little Julia Bell Foundation that Miss Maggie and I dreamed up last May, and had been midwiving through birth pains since, only encompassed a couple hundred acres of mostly forest, which didn't require much upkeep beyond trail maintenance, fire prevention, and discouraging vandals. I couldn't imagine having to take care of a hundred houses, all in need of heating, painting, good roofs, and, worst of all, housecleaning.

"That's probably why she moved," I reasoned aloud. "All her kids are grown and she's retired, so maybe having her own home was too much trouble for her. Now that she's doing volunteer work for the Foundation, she's able to share one of their houses with an employee."

"That's not what Dad said."

To me, Hugh hadn't said much at all, simply that his mom moved less than a month ago and was now sharing her father's childhood home with someone named Evelyn. I knew Hugh wasn't happy about it, but I assumed that had to do with her selling the old house without consulting him or any of his four siblings. Now I wondered. "What did he say?"

That was met with Beth Ann's most profound silence yet, then, "I can't tell you."

I was willing to bet she wouldn't tell me because she'd been eavesdropping–maybe while he was on the phone with one of his brothers–and she didn't want to get caught. Especially since she tried to redirect my attention with, "Three blocks farther, you'll make a left onto Francis Street."

Route 132 was now Henry Street, the road narrowing as the trees gave way to low modern buildings on our right, then again, farther on, as older brick and clapboard shops lined the way. Older, but not very colonial, at least not colonial the way I remembered Old City Philadelphia, which is sort of what I'd expected, since Williamsburg had been the capital of Virginia when Philly was capital of Pennsylvania. Oh, this place was quaint all right, but the quaintness seemed more of a veneer, for the sake of luring shoppers. I was disappointed.

I hung a left where Beth Ann indicated and the scenery changed. On the right, set back across a wide lawn dotted with fat magnolia trees, was a dignified brick building, half a block wide and two stories high, with multi-pane windows and a white, domed cupola flanked by two massive chimneys. At last, architecture that had the same aura as Independence Hall. Was that the old capitol?

"How appropriate that we're spending this Christmas across the street from that place," Beth Ann murmured.

Figuring she was baiting me, I snapped, "Just tell me which house is your grandmother's." That shocked both of us. Blatant crankiness wasn't like me–I usually took the barbed sarcasm route.

Beth Ann slouched down in her seat as far as her seat belt would allow. "Next block. Second from the corner." I assumed she meant on the left. The only things on the right were two long-horned cows chewing cud behind a rail fence.

I had to admit, I was impressed by the house, not by its size– on the small side compared to those in modern developments– but by its ambience of solid craftsmanship, especially as I realized it must have been built in an era that had no power tools. The house was white clapboard atop an orange brick foundation, flanked by two bulky brick chimneys. In front, where the weathered wood shakes of the roof continued down at a sharper angle, five dormers stuck out. Instead of a rain gutter, a line of pretty block molding decorated the bottom edge. The window shutters and front door were forest green.

I took in all this detail as I pulled into the drive–a car-wide path of crushed shells–and waited for Beth Ann to open the broad gates in the six-foot wooden fence that surrounded the rear yard of the property. Miss Maggie had said that in Williamsburg's historic section, houses had tall fences or garages disguised as colonial outbuildings, to keep cars hidden from view. Our instructions said to park around back.

Inside the gates, the driveway spread out, but the coating of shells disappeared, revealing a thin layer of gravel pressed into hard-packed dirt. On my left, I saw that the house had a rear wing, forming an "L" with the front. In the crook of the L, a white VW Beetle was parked, so I pulled in beside it.

Beth Ann had closed the gates, and I assumed she'd come back to the car to help me carry in the suitcases and gifts. I got out, slowly, because my legs felt stiff and achy from the long ride, and headed around to my trunk. That's when I heard her knocking at the door.

There were two back doors, actually, one on the wing and one in what would be the center of the main house. Beth Ann was at the latter, a white raised panel door with a black iron handle and latch.

"Hey, come help unload the car first," I called.

"In a minute." She put her hand to the latch, pushed open the door and went inside.

"Beth Ann!" I yelled, pretty sure no one had let her in. Then again, maybe knocking and walking in was standard procedure at her grandmother's house. One thing was certain, I wasn't going to unload the car by myself. I grabbed the fancy-wrapped coffee can of pizzelles I'd made for Mrs. Lee–not about to walk in without my hostess gift at the ready–and went after Beth Ann.

"Grandmom? Hello?" I could hear her calling as I passed through the open door.

Closing it behind me, I let my eyes adjust to the hall, which formed a straight line alongside a stairway to the front door. The transom over that portal let in the gray daylight, showing white plaster, beige-painted wainscoting, wide bare floorboards, and a small colonial-style hurricane lamp on an equally diminutive table. Immediately to my right was a niche with two doors, one open, giving access to a stair down to a dark cellar. But Beth Ann's voice wasn't coming from there.

"Grandmom?" She wandered out of the front room on the left, perplexed, then bellowed up the stairs, as I walked toward her.

"Doesn't sound like anyone's here," I said, thinking it odd–we were expected, after all, and there was a car outside. "Maybe we should–"

"Bet she's in the bathroom." Beth Ann bounded up the stairs, calling as she went.

A feeling of uneasiness crept over me. No, not uneasiness. Foreboding? That wasn't right either. Regardless, fear lay at the bottom of it–a cold, clammy paranoia–though I couldn't say what I was afraid of, with the exception of being arrested for breaking and entering because perhaps we'd inadvertently walked into the wrong house.

And suddenly, I knew someone was watching me.

Spinning around, I was startled to see the outline of a man in the shadows by the back door. Startled because he wore britches, buckled shoes, and a long waistcoat over a ruffly white shirt. He was bald on the very front of his head, but the hair that remained was light and long, pulled back at the nape.

"If you wou'd have Guests merry with your cheer,

Be so yourself, or so at least appear."

–Poor Richard's Almanac, December 1734





December 3, 1783–Mrs. Carson's House

"Sirs!"

As we entered the house, we could hear Brennan's voice, trembling, though cocky as ever.

"Sirs, I am indebted to you for your assistance." He stood before the large hearth in our common room, and by the light of its dying fire I saw that he clutched the mantel with one hand, as if to maintain balance. The fingers of his other hand were splayed across his forehead, which evidently pained him. His face was so contorted, I wondered if, a moment previous, he'd retched into Mrs. Carson's stew pot.

Jim Parker stood close by Brennan's side, arms raised, ready to catch hold of the man. Or perhaps having just released him, since a vicious gash spanned the back of Jim's hand. Dr. Riddick, though of small stature, was attempting to block the doorway. Sam touched his shoulder and he stepped aside for us to enter. I set my fiddle case upon the window ledge, so as to have both hands free.

"I assure you, I am quite recovered," Brennan said, sounding far from that state.

Dr. Riddick advanced toward him with care. "You are not well, sir."

"Ah, but I shall be, Doctor." Brennan made a show of it, straightening his posture and lifting his head, his smile quivering, making the shadows upon his face dance. "I do apologize for my behav-ior–too much drink this night, I fear. I shall–I shall retire to my room. In the morning, I assure you, I shall be myself once more." He walked toward us, determined in his course, but mindful of his steps, as if the floor had become a half-frozen lake.

Before the doctor could protest anew, Sam said, "I too shall retire, for the morrow is no day of rest for Mr. Greenhow. May I offer you an arm up the stairs, Mr. Brennan? I know well what cruel jokes Mrs. Vobe's punch can play upon our eyes and feet."

Brennan at first recoiled from Sam's offered hand, but then nodded, saying, "I thank you, sir," perhaps realizing that Dr. Rid-dick would not let him leave the room without escort. Or that his legs alone would not carry him much farther.

"A light, if you would, Ben," Sam requested, and I retrieved and lit for him one of the two tin lanterns Mrs. Carson kept by the hearth. Her husband had been a tinsmith before the war. Fine examples of his craft could be found in all corners of the house.

The doctor, Jim, and I watched Brennan and Sam ascend from below, Sam all the while asserting that the quality of rum to be found hereabouts had declined from the British embargoes, and 'twas no wonder a man might suffer ill effects upon the drinking of it.

Once out of sight, we heard a door open above and Sam said, loud enough for all to hear, "There you go, Mr. Brennan. Good night to you."

As we heard the door close, Jim turned back into the common room. There we found young Tom, who I'd quite forgotten, looking relieved. "Go to your mother and sister, lad," Jim said. "Stay all of you together in one room this night, and block the doors."

"Yes, sir." With another awkward bow, the boy left.

"Perhaps we should each take a watch in turn," the doctor suggested.

"Surely that's not necessary," I said. "Brennan was the worse for the rum in him and–"

"He had no rum," Jim said. "Not at the Eagle, at least, for I sat beside him the whole time."

"Aye." Sam had come quietly down the stairs to join us. "He scarcely sipped at his one pint."

Jim nodded. "I tossed it off when he took his leave. 'Twas small beer. Nothing more."

Dr. Riddick gave the table a pat. "Sit here, Jim. Let me see to your hand. Mr. Walker, would you be kind enough to fetch a bit of fresh water? Fill this to half." Taking up one of Mrs. Carson's small iron pots, he passed it to Sam, who took up the lantern once more and left us for the well behind the house.

Jim scoffed. "'Tis but a scratch, Isaac."

"Which I'll wash and dress. The cleanliness of a wound is vital. It promotes the perspiration, which frees the body from superfluous humours that occasion disease." Dr. Riddick had studied in Philadelphia, had taken his degree just this last year, in fact, and so embraced the scientific methods.

The new practices interested me, though I'll concede my skepticism when they'd been applied to my own person. Still, I was anxious to hear the doctor's views concerning Brennan. I related the odd behavior we'd witnessed at the tavern.

Riddick, in thought, stroked the bristle of his chin. "Unnatural of him. He was raving by the time he entered this house, as Jim will warrant. A mania too pronounced to be afforded to drunkenness. Had he taken any unwholesome food or drink that might account?"

"Not at the Eagle," Jim said once more, and Sam, bringing in the water, concurred.

"Mr. Brennan's not been himself the last fortnight," Dr. Rid-dick observed with a frown. "Have you noticed? His skin's gone paler, and his voice rough and low. A touch of ague, I thought, nothing more. Now I wonder."

"He's been talking to himself a good bit all week," Jim told us. "I can hear him through the flue, since we share a chimney upstairs. The rumble of his voice, leastways, not the words."

"Were you here tonight, Jim, when Brennan arrived?" I asked.

"I was. I held him while the doctor hastened Mrs. Carson and Polly into their rooms. 'Twas then that I hurt my hand."

Sam took a pipe from the mantel. "But Brennan took his leave of Mrs. Vobe's before any of us."

"Aye," Jim said, "by a quarter hour or more."

As we pondered where Brennan could have passed that quarter hour, Dr. Riddick plunged Jim's hand into the pot. Mr. Parker blasphemed the iciness of the liquid.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2006

    Mysterious Christmas in Williamsburg

    Christmas in Williamsburg¿a tourist¿s delight. But what goes on behind the scenes in those charming old houses? Elena Santangelo¿s third Pat Montella mystery, true to its title, involves poisonous overdoses of 18th century medicines. The historical medical mystery, set just after the American revolution, complete with mummers and Christmas revelry, is one of two intricate plots interlaced in this intriguing page turner. The parallel modern day plot finds smart-mouth Pat coping with boyfriend Hugh¿s zany relatives at a family Christmas in a historic Williamsburg house, complete with a reenactment of a traditional 18th century dinner. But why do some of the guests develop mysterious symptoms of illness? The food is great, but it¿s the ghosts of the family ancestors, the house¿s original inhabitants, who stir the pot and make Poison to Purge Melancholy a distinctively different treat for lovers of mysteries old and new.

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    Posted December 5, 2010

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