Nell Pratt, president of the Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society, has something to smile about thanks to a generous donation from a major Philadelphia developer who’s willing to help update their museum. But renovations have barely begun when a man is struck by a car in front of the building and killed.
The victim is a construction worker who found a curious metal object while excavating an old privy in the museum’s basement. Nell thinks the death is somehow connected to the Society, and her suspicions are confirmed when an antiques expert reveals a link between the objects from the cellar and a fellow staff member’s family.
Now Nell must unearth a mystery with ties to the past and the present. Because when someone is willing to kill over scrap metal, there’s no telling what they’ll do next…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
As I looked around the long table, I realized it was the first time I had ever seen the board members of the Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society look happy all at once. I was tempted to take a picture, just to remind myself of the moment when darker days returned, as no doubt they would.
The group had good reason to look happy. We were fully staffed, with the recent addition of a new registrar to complete the roster of management positions; we had a wealth of material to keep our staff busy cataloging for years; and we had earned the gratitude of the FBI for agreeing to sort through the bits and bobs of art and artifacts that their Philadelphia office had confiscated over the past several years. And we had just received a nice—make that a really nice—financial contribution from big-name local developer Mitchell Wakeman, who had asked me to help him smooth the path for his planned development project in the suburbs. Luckily he hadn’t blamed me when we had stumbled over a body along the way, but I’d shown him how to use the information we’d uncovered in solving the murder to strengthen the project, unlikely though it seemed. He had been appropriately grateful and had presented the Society (of which I, Nell Pratt, was president) with a pot of money, with the restriction that it must be used for physical improvements to our century-plus-old building, rather than collections or staff salaries. It was a reasonable request; he was, after all, a mogul of the construction industry, and we really did need those physical improvements. We had already moved from the planning stages to the physical preparations, and we were ready to start the construction phase.
I’d been pleased that I could introduce both the project designer—Kemble and Warren, a long-established firm with an excellent track record—and the contractor for our renovations, Schuylkill Construction, which had come highly recommended by Mitchell Wakeman at the fall board meeting. I hadn’t expected any problems, and there weren’t any. The companies involved in the project had taken part in a number of similar projects for local art or collecting institutions, so the staffs there understood the challenges of working around delicate collections and finicky researchers. We wanted to accomplish the overhaul with a minimum of disruption to patrons, and without closing the doors. There were sections we were going to have to restrict access to for a time, but all things considered, the plan was the best we could hope for. We’d make the best of the inevitable disarray by giving our annual holiday-season party a construction-related theme—paint-spattered tablecloths and mock hard hats for all. By spring we’d be all prettied up, structurally and environmentally sound, and ready to throw a big unveiling party.
“We’ve already given approval of the design aspects by Kemble and Warren. Now we are voting to approve the final work plan as presented by Schuylkill Construction. All in favor?” I asked, standing tall at the head of the table. Ayes all around. “Then the project is approved, and work will begin immediately,” I announced triumphantly. Actually, work had already begun. As a collections-based organization, for more than a century we had accumulated a lot of stuff, not all of it with historic importance. For example, the basement was loaded with wooden filing cabinets and computer terminals so old that the companies who made them had long since gone out of business. A Dumpster now occupied a permanent place next to the loading dock in the alley behind the building, and we filled it regularly these days.
I turned to Joseph Logan, head of Schuylkill Construction, who’d been invited to witness the final board vote. “Thank you, Mr. Logan, for all the work that you’ve put into this so far. We look forward to working with you—as long as you stick to the schedule.”
Logan smiled. “Don’t worry—it’s all under control. And you’ve got a great building here, so I don’t expect to find many problems.”
I knew full well that digging into any old building usually resulted in at least a few unexpected problems, but I had faith that they would be minor ones. At least, I hoped so. Hadn’t we had enough problems in the past year? We should have earned some good karma by now.
“Any new business?” I asked the group.
One of our older, more scholarly board members raised his hand. “How do you intend to prioritize projects going forward, when we have our own cataloging to do, plus the FBI materials, and now our space will be reduced?”
“Our vice president of collections, Latoya Anderson, has worked out a schedule to deal with that, and I have every expectation that she will run a tight ship,” I told him. “Of course, our own collections come first—there’s no particular timeline for the FBI materials. I didn’t ask her to attend this meeting because I wanted to focus on the construction aspects, but I can have her forward you a copy of her plans. Anything else?”
“How do you plan to handle dust spreading through the building?” someone else asked.
“Fair question. When we reach the stage of adding modern ventilation, we will address protecting the collections then. That’s why we’ve hired people who have worked under these conditions before, and they all have excellent reputations.”
“Wouldn’t it have been better to remove the collections to an off-site location?” he asked.
I swallowed a sigh; we’d been over all this before. “We did consider that, but off-site storage presents its own problems—we’d have little control over the physical conditions, and security is not always what it should be, no matter what promises the storage companies make. We’re talking about some priceless documents, among other things, and we’d rather keep them here, even if it means shuttling them from one location to another within the building.”
I scanned the group, and saw most of them making twitchy ready-to-leave motions. “And remember, when we’re done, we will actually have increased our storage space without expanding the building’s footprint, thanks to installing compact shelving wherever possible. I can’t tell you exactly by how much, because the contractor is still assessing the load-bearing capacity of some of the areas, but I have been assured that it will be substantial.”
Lewis Howard, the venerable board chair, stood up. “Thank you, Nell, for all the good work you have put into making this happen. If there are no other issues”—he looked sternly at the other people around the table, and nobody opened their mouth—“then I declare this meeting adjourned. Good night, all.”
The board members gathered up their folders and coats and hurried to the elevator. I thanked the architect and the contractor, who told me they’d be back early the next morning for a final walk-through before the physical work began. Finally I was left alone with Marty Terwilliger, a longtime board member (practically hereditary, since both her father and her grandfather had been very actively involved at the Society) and good friend, both professionally and personally.
“Good job wrangling the board, Nell,” she said.
“Thanks. It did go well, don’t you think?”
“I do. Of course, they had nothing to complain about, since you brought in Wakeman’s pile of money. Which you earned, since you helped save his butt on his pet project.”
“In a way, I’m glad he restricted how it should be used. He had a pretty clear idea what we needed to do here, and it saved a lot of squabbling among the board members.”
“He’s a smart man, and an honest one. If you throw a big bash, make sure you invite him—and that he comes.”
I’d certainly ask, although I knew that Mitchell Wakeman didn’t like socializing much. “Of course.”
Marty glanced at the clock on the wall and stood up. “I’m heading out. You ready? We can walk out together.”
I nodded. “Let me grab my stuff.” I went back to my office down the hall, picked up my bag, put on my coat, and rejoined her in the hall after turning out the last few lights.
“How’re you and Jimmy liking the new place?” Marty asked as we headed out. “Jimmy” was FBI Special Agent James Morrison, who had somehow gotten sucked into several crimes that I was also involved in, and since we were both single and intelligent and reasonable human beings, the inevitable had happened and a couple of months earlier we had bought a house together. Marty had a proprietary interest in our relationship because James was some kind of cousin of hers (one of many in the greater Philadelphia area) and because she’d introduced us and seen us both through some traumatic events. She was a snoop, but a polite and well-meaning one, and she was willing to back off if asked.
For the past decade, I’d been living in Bryn Mawr, in what had once been a carriage house behind one of the big Main Line houses. It had been cheaply converted before I bought it, and I’d spent a couple of years improving it. It was small, but it had worked for me.
And then James had happened, and the carriage house simply wasn’t big enough for two. And he didn’t want to live way out in the suburbs. When we first met, his own place was a Spartan apartment near the University of Pennsylvania, in a converted triple-decker. As in my case, it suited him but it wasn’t intended for two adults with decades’ worth of stuff. So we’d taken the plunge and bought a Victorian in an area that wasn’t quite city or suburb but the best of both.
“You know, I’m really not settled into this commute to Chestnut Hill yet. I don’t want to drive every day. I’m still trying to figure out the daily train schedule—I had the one to Bryn Mawr memorized, but this one is new to me. I catch a ride with James when I can, but his schedule is kind of unpredictable.” We’d been living in the house only a month, once all the closing formalities had been completed and we’d written checks with a horrifying number of digits on them, and we still hadn’t established any kind of routine. But if that was the worst of my problems, I wasn’t going to gripe. “Eliot waiting for you tonight?”
Marty and Eliot Miller, the Penn professor she’d been seeing, were moving more slowly than James and I were, and still maintained their own domiciles. Marty lived in a lovely nineteenth-century row house in a convenient Center City location—the better to walk over to the Society when the spirit moved her, which was often—and I had no idea where Eliot lived. He taught urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania, though, so I figured he probably lived not far from campus. Marty and I hadn’t discussed their long-term plans, and she was volunteering little information, maybe afraid she would jinx the fledgling relationship. She had a couple of failed marriages on her résumé.
“Not tonight—he had an all-hands faculty meeting, and I had this, so we decided we’d see each other tomorrow. How’s Lissa working out?”
Lissa Penrose was one of Eliot’s advisees as she worked on a graduate degree. “Great. I’ve asked her to review the history of this building. She’ll be working with Shelby, too.”
Shelby had taken over my previous position as director of development at the Society when I’d been abruptly elevated to the position of president, and we worked well together. Her dash of Southern charm had proved to be an asset when wangling contributions from our members. She had submitted a brief report on contributions and attended this meeting for purely ceremonial purposes, as a senior staff member, but had disappeared quickly while I was still saying my farewells to the board members. “I’m hoping we can put together some material on interesting building details, to use for fundraising.”
We closed up the building behind us, making sure the security system was armed, and said good-bye at the foot of the stairs outside. Marty headed home, and I crossed the street and retrieved my car from the lot. At least this parking fee I could charge to the Society. At this time of night there was little traffic, and it didn’t take long to reach home.
Home. I had trouble wrapping my head around that. The house was gorgeous, and I still tiptoed around it waiting for someone to tell me I wasn’t worthy of it and throw me out. It had a parlor. It had five bedrooms. It was ridiculous for two people, but James had fallen for it on sight, and I had, too, when he showed it to me. And we could afford it, mostly. Neither the government nor mid-sized nonprofit organizations pay very well, but we were managing, albeit with not much with the way of furniture. But now it was . . . home.
I parked in the spacious three-car garage, then made my way to the back door, which led into the kitchen. “Hello?” I called out. “I’m home.”
I could hear James galumphing down the stairs (original woodwork! Never painted!), and then he joined me in the kitchen (which had a modern stove that terrified me with its array of knobs and digital indicators). As he approached I marveled once again that this tall, dark (well, greying a bit), and handsome—and smart and successful—FBI agent had fallen for me. “How’d it go? Have you eaten?” Rather than waiting for an answer, he gave me a very satisfying kiss. I was definitely enjoying coming home these days.
When he finally let me go, I said, “I’ll answer question number two first: no. What is there?”
“Check the fridge. I think there are still leftovers.”
“I’m afraid of the fridge. I keep thinking I’ll start looking in there and I’ll never find my way out again.” I walked over to the gleaming expanse of stainless steel, opened the door, and peered in. “I see . . . Ooh, Chinese. How old is it?”
“Three days, maybe?”
“Good enough.” I dumped a half-full carton of lo mein into a bowl and stuck it in the microwave. “As for the first question, fine. No surprises. The next couple of months will be chaotic, but we’ll survive. Wine?”
“Way ahead of you.” James handed me a glass of white wine, and we clinked glasses.
“Ahh, that’s good.” I sighed after downing a healthy sip and kicking off my shoes.
He carefully took my glass and set it on the shiny granite-topped island—and repeated his earlier greeting. It took a couple of minutes before we peeled ourselves apart. “Welcome home, Nell,” he said softly.
“You must have missed me. How was your day?”
“Very ordinary, thank you. That’s a good thing. No crises, no disasters. I filed a lot of reports.”
“And here I thought that working for the FBI was exciting,” I said, pulling the hot food out of the microwave. “Where did we hide the chopsticks?”
“That drawer? Or maybe the one over there. I haven’t seen them lately.”
Our few pitiful utensils looked like orphans cringing in the vast spaces of drawers and cupboards. It didn’t take long to look. “Got ’em. I assume you ate? Because this is all mine.”
“I did, and it is. Enjoy.”
When I’d all but licked the bowl, I drained the last of my wine. “Much better.”
“By the way, the faucet is still dripping in the bathtub.”
“Hey, you’re the big, strong man—you’re supposed to know how to fix it.”
“You’re the historian,” he countered. “This is definitely Victorian plumbing, therefore old, therefore your territory.”
“Uh-huh,” I said dubiously. “Well, let’s go look at it together, and maybe something will occur to us.”
On the way upstairs, something did occur to us. It was a while before we reached the bathroom.
The next morning, James and I sat at the little round table (his—my larger table took up only a fraction of the space in the formal dining room next door) at one end of the kitchen, reading sections of the paper, drinking coffee, and munching on English muffins.
“What’s the schedule for today?” I asked.
“The usual, I hope. We don’t usually schedule ‘crisis today’ on our calendars, you know,” James said, smiling. “You?”
“The construction team has finished the clean-out and is going to do a walk-through today, before they start making any physical changes, and I want to tag along.”
“Is that part of your job description?”
“I have no idea, but I feel responsible anyway. Besides, I like to see the bones and guts of old buildings.”
“There’s a lovely image. Listen, about this weekend . . .”
My ears pricked up. “Yes?”
“We need to think about furniture,” James said.
“What do you mean?”
“Look around. Your stuff looks fine, but my IKEA-type pieces look like fish out of water in this place. And there isn’t enough of any of it. We’ve got an average of two-point-two pieces of furniture in each room—and some of those rooms could host an army. If we invite anyone over, they’ll have to sit on the floor.”
I couldn’t disagree. And if we didn’t fill in a few things, this place wouldn’t really feel permanent. Apparently I was missing a nesting gene, because I hadn’t really noticed until now. I was surprised that James had, but, of course, FBI agents were trained to be observant.
But then, I’d never really paid much attention to furniture. Most of my own furniture I’d inherited from one grandparent or another, and there had been more than enough to fill the small carriage house. I hadn’t realized how sparse it would look in a different, bigger space until we moved in and discovered that we could hold bowling competitions in the front parlor on the lovely parquet floors. And those five bedrooms? We’d each brought along double beds—two of mine, one from James—but what we really needed together was a queen or a king, since neither of us was exactly slender (although I had to admit, James was more fit than I was). The doubles would work fine for guest rooms, but that still left our loosely defined “offices” with nothing but boxes in them. James was right: we had to do something. But what?
“You have any ideas?” I asked.
“Go to a furniture store and look?” he suggested, with a gleam in his eye.
“We have a lot of rooms to fill, or at least start to fill,” I reminded him, “and not a whole lot of money. I suppose that rules out antiques.”
“Well, there are auctions, and some big antiques fairs. I don’t have a lot of experience, but I’d guess that’s kind of a long-range issue. Basically, though, I want this place to feel like home. Our home. And that means we have to choose things together.”
I loved the thought that we had a long range—I was still getting used to that. One more reason to love the man. He was brave, steadfast, and true; he served his country loyally at the risk of his own life; and he wanted to look at furniture with me. Life was good.
“I’m almost afraid to bring this up,” I said, “but we could ask Marty for advice. She has some nice stuff.”
“She does, and some of it is worth more than this house, although you wouldn’t know it from the way she treats it.”
I’d been to Marty’s home more than once, and even to my eye she had some impressive antique pieces. I assumed they’d been passed down through the family, which extended back centuries in Philadelphia. I gave him a big smile. “Okay, let’s start looking this weekend. If I see Marty, I’ll ask her for advice on where we should look. And I know we’ve got some members with expertise in that area—although they know more about eighteenth-century stuff than modern, and as I said, I’m guessing that’s well beyond our wallets at the moment. Oh well. We should make a list and set a budget. How does that work?”
“Sounds good to me.” James stood up and carried his cup and plate to the sink. His mama had trained him well. He even did his own laundry. “Want a lift to the city?”
“I’d love one.”
It was nice to arrive at work at a reasonable time, and to be delivered to the Society’s door (or at least the nearest corner—the street ran one-way opposite the direction to James’s office). It was also nice to walk into the building without worrying about which disaster was looming. I had been honest with the board the night before: things were good, as good as I could remember them being in the five or more years I’d worked at the Society. I hoped it would last.
Upstairs on the administrative floor, I found I had arrived before Eric Hampton, my indispensable administrative assistant. I hung up my coat and made my way down the hall to the staff room, where I filled the coffeemaker. We’d made a pact when he started working for me: whoever arrived first made the first pot of coffee. I thought that was fair, although Eric was better with the temperamental coffeemaker than I was; it had begun to make ominous gurgling noises, and I wondered if it was time to upgrade to something more modern. Maybe one of those single-serving-type things, so nobody would have to argue about who had emptied the last of the pot. Why not? I was feeling flush, on behalf of the Society. That’s what having a seven-figure balance in the bank did to me.
Ben Hartley rolled in as I watched the coffee dribble into the pot. Ben was our most recent hire, the new registrar. He’d been badly injured in an auto accident several months back, before he started at the Society, and he was still coming to grips with the day-to-day realities of being confined to a wheelchair. “Morning, Nell,” he said.
“Coffee’ll be ready in a minute. You’re in early,” I commented.
“I was up, figured I’d come in. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping—it’s hard to find a comfortable position. Better now that the weather’s cooling off.”
The machine sputtered, signaling that coffee was ready. “Can I pour you a cup?” When Ben nodded, I filled a mug and handed it to him, then filled one for myself and added sugar. “Are you ready for the construction to begin?”
“I plan to stay out of the way as much as possible. But Latoya and I have worked out a schedule for keeping one step ahead of the work crew without misplacing half the collections.”
“Good! Because that’s what I told the board last night,” I said. “I’m hoping everything goes smoothly, but you never know. In the meantime I’m sure we’ll field complaints from angry patrons who can’t get access to that one document they’ve waited years to lay hands on, but it’s a small price to pay, as I’m sure they’ll agree—eventually. The good news is, the renovations are already paid for. Do you have any idea how rare that is in the nonprofit world?”
“I can guess,” Ben said. “You did Wakeman a good turn, and it paid off—literally, in this case.”
And changed a little piece of history along the way, I reminded myself. That made me feel good, too. “Every now and then the gods are kind. Well, I’d better get my day started. I’m supposed to walk through the place with the architect and the contractor one last time, to see what they’ve got planned. See you later, Ben.” I topped off my coffee and went back to my office, where Eric had just arrived.
“Coffee’s ready, Eric,” I told him. “Oh, could you do some research on current coffee systems? The one we’ve got has been here since before I started working here, and I think coffeemaking technology might have improved just a bit.”
“You don’t like my coffee, Nell?” Eric smiled.
“Hey, I love your coffee, especially when you bring me a cup. I’m so happy you don’t mind doing that. But I just thought we could check out the new technologies. Maybe even get a new fridge for the staff room. Wouldn’t that fall under the ‘physical improvements’ mandate?”
“Whatever you say, Nell. Oh, Scott Warren left a message saying he’d be here at ten for the walk-through. Does that work for you?”
“Unless you tell me something different. You haven’t seen Marty Terwilliger yet this morning, have you?”
“No, ma’am. You need her for something?”
“I’ll give her a call later, if she doesn’t come in. This isn’t about Society business anyway.” I went into my office and surveyed the scene: a beautiful antique mahogany desk I was terrified of spilling something on or scratching, and a damask-covered settee and flanking chairs. All these were for show, designed to impress people with the president of this venerable institution’s importance and good taste. The filing cabinets were more practical, as was the sleek laptop computer (the connected printer was out near Eric’s desk, so as not to mar the elegance of the ensemble). At the moment what pleased me most was the absence of any important “must do immediately” papers and messages cluttering up the desk. It looked serene.
But I found enough to keep me busy until Eric popped his head in and said, “Mr. Warren is here.”
“Can you bring him upstairs, please? I want to talk to him before we start rambling around the building.” The administrative floor was off-limits to the general public, so anyone without an elevator key had to be escorted upstairs.
“Will do,” Eric said and darted down the hall. He returned a couple of minutes later with Scott Warren, one of the senior partners of the architectural firm he had helped found. He was an attractive man, older than I was, with an unassuming manner—and I appreciated that he treated me as an equal yet was also happy to answer any construction-related questions I had.
“Hey, Scott. You want some coffee?” I welcomed him.
“No, thanks, I’m fine. You ready for the tour?”
“Sure. By the way, I just wanted to thank you and your construction contractor for delivering all the documentation for the board meeting early enough so the members might actually read the material—they don’t always, you know. And you made it clear and simple. Well done! As you saw, the final approval sailed right through, and we’re ready to go.”
For a moment he looked like he wanted to hang his head and say, Aw, shucks. But instead he said, “It’s a pleasure to work with the people here, and it’s a great old building.”
“Before we start, can you give me the high points one more time, so I know what to look for?” I asked.
“Of course,” Scott said politely. “As you know, with the help of some of your people we’ve had the construction crew clear out the non-collection items—”
“Otherwise known as trash,” I interrupted, smiling.
“Exactly,” he replied, matching my smile, “and we’ve completed all the stress analyses. We’ve mapped out the new ventilation system and how it will integrate with what is in place. The roof replacement will happen first, since you’ve got a lot of leaks as it is, and we want to seal up the building better and reassess before we can fine-tune the ventilation. Only after all of that has happened will you need to start moving collections around so that the compact shelving can go in.”
“I know that compact shelving won’t work everywhere. What increase of shelving space can we expect?”
“Probably twenty percent, give or take.”
“I love it! We get that much more space without altering the building—it’s win-win.”
Scott nodded. “I agree. You ready to see it now?”
I stood up. “Yes. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve visited everything, and I can’t wait to see the place stripped down. You’ve taken pictures, I assume?” I wanted to be sure that the Society had a complete record of what had been done to the building, in case future generations needed to know.
“Of course. We always document each step of our projects.”
“Then lead the way!”
As we walked down the hall, Scott asked, “Do you want to start at the top or the bottom?”
“Top, I guess,” I told him. “Although you don’t have to point out all the leaks—I know them all too well.” There were some areas of the stacks on the top floor that were draped with plastic, to keep the collections dry, and it broke my heart every time I went up there. But that was going to change, thank goodness. “You mind walking up?”
“Of course not.”
We took the side stairs up to the top floor, and meandered through the forest of shelves, which held a wide variety of items—books, of course, often old leather-bound ledgers from nineteenth-century companies long gone, but also boxes that held china and fabric items and various oddities that had been given to the Society over its long history and we’d never had the time or the heart to get rid of (at least, not as long as any of the donors or their heirs were still living). It was an intriguing jumble, but its storage was unprofessional and messy—another thing that would change soon.
It was a blessing to have an excuse to overhaul everything in the building, even though it was going to be a heck of a lot of work. Collecting institutions like ours acquired stuff over decades or even centuries, but there were seldom enough staff members to manage said stuff, which meant that sometimes it wasn’t cataloged fully and accurately or stored in an archivally appropriate manner. Mainly, something would arrive, the donor would receive a nice thank-you note, and unless the item was of significant historical interest (and to be fair, a few of those did pop up from the most unlikely donors), a brief note would be entered in our computerized cataloging system and the item would get stuck on a shelf, wherever there was room for it. Sometimes that remained the status quo for years.
Now that we were going to have to move these items, we’d have a chance to sort through all of the accumulation and redistribute much of it throughout the building. Some things we would likely dispose of, discreetly. Other things we might discover needed conservation, which was beyond our staff’s skills, so they’d be sent out for treatment. Yet more things would be consolidated, like with like, so we could more easily find them in the future. And everything would be cleaned along the way—that board member last night had been right to worry about dust, because we were looking at the dust of ages here. Maybe I should poll the staff for allergy sufferers and hand out dust masks. Or maybe I should trust the renovation team to have planned for all this and stop worrying.
I was happy that Scott Warren proved to have an interest in historical objects, and he didn’t rush me through. We toured the top floor, then the portions of the third that weren’t given over to offices. The second floor housed the processing area and fewer stacks; the ground floor was the public space, with the sumptuous reading room, computers for public access, and open stacks—we didn’t plan any significant changes there. It was nearly noon by the time we made it to the basement, which was seldom visited by the staff, and never by the public.
I hadn’t seen the lowest level lately. I’d had a regrettable experience with the former wine cellar down there some time ago, but I’d surprised myself by asking that the architect preserve it as a memorial to the original planners of the building. Nowadays there was no call for fine wines for the gentlemen who had once run this establishment along the lines of a private club, and in the past few years it had served only as storage. The rest of the basement space had until recently held a jumble of retired furniture and files. But now the files had been properly archived, and most of the usable furniture had been donated to a local charity. Anything else had ended up in the Dumpster (under the watchful eye of a member of the collections staff). As I looked around I realized how large the space actually was, and how we’d wasted its potential.
“You’re putting shelving in here, too, right?” I asked Scott.
“We are,” he replied. “Since this is the lowest level, it can easily tolerate the weight of that kind of shelving. It’s up to you to decide what you want to store down—it won’t be public space, right?”
“Right, staff only. My staff and I will be discussing the best use for the space,” I told him, “but I’m sure it will be a big improvement. We won’t have a problem with damp, will we?”
“No, it’s surprisingly dry. Well built, for its time. You know the history of the building?”
“I know where to find it in our records, but I haven’t memorized it. What I do remember is that there used to be a nice large house here, but when the Society decided to expand they looked at the existing building and found that it was falling apart, not to mention inadequate for the growing collections, so they started fresh.”
“Smart move,” Scott said, with an architect’s appreciation.
We’d been alone in the basement, but now a workman stuck his head in the door and addressed Warren. “Hey, Scott? There’s something you’d better come see.”
“Trouble?” he asked quickly.
“Uh, I don’t really know. It’s kinda odd.”
I felt the slightest hint of a knot in my stomach. We hadn’t even started construction. This could not possibly be a problem. Could it? Maybe we had vermin? Maybe toxic mold? I was still running through a menu of possible issues when Scott nudged me. “You okay? Let’s go check this out.”
“Of course.” I followed the two men to a windowless room toward the back of the basement. As we walked, the man who had come to find us was saying, “So we hauled the last of the old cabinets and junk out yesterday—first time we’d seen the floor. Then we notice this wooden cap thing in the middle of the floor. Tight fit, looks like it’s been there forever. So we find us a pry bar and pull it up, and damned if there isn’t a hole going down who knows how far?”
We’d reached the room in question, and it was easy to see the circular hole in the floor, about three feet in diameter. My first wild thought was to wonder if there was a dead body down there—clearly, I’d been through some rough times lately. I shook it off.
“Hey, Joe,” Scott Warren said, and I recognized the construction foreman from the board meeting earlier in the week. “What’ve you got?”
“Always surprises in these old buildings, Scott. Looks like an old privy hole.”
I found my voice. “Can you see anything down there?”
There were a couple of other workers clustered around the hole, and Scott moved forward to peer into the depths. “Anybody got a light? Flashlight, whatever?” Someone handed him a heavy-duty halogen flashlight, and he pointed it down the hole.
I found I was holding my breath. “What do you see?”
Scott squatted on his haunches. “Not much. No water, so it wasn’t a well, most likely. Probably an old privy pit.”
Ick. “From the house that was here before?”
“Maybe. I imagine the builders would have expanded the footprint when they put up this building, so the pit would have been outside the earlier house you mentioned.”
“What should we do?” I asked. I wondered why the pit hadn’t been filled in and covered with concrete when the floor was poured a century ago. “Can you see anything down there?”
“Not much. Looks like trash from here, but it’s maybe twenty feet deep. You want us to clean it out?”
I thought for a moment. “Actually, yes. If it’s old, who knows what might have been thrown down there? One of our former members coauthored a wonderful book on the archeology of privies in the city. They found all sorts of interesting stuff in them. Well, interesting to an historian, anyway. Is it, uh, sanitary? Any health risk?”
“I doubt it. Anything, uh, biological should be long gone. Okay, then . . .” Scott turned to the work crew. “Can you guys clear it out? But keep whatever you find—don’t just pitch it.”
The guy who had announced the find to us looked skeptical. “You want us to keep the trash?”
“That’s what I said. Fred, make sure it gets set aside rather than tossed.” Scott turned to me with a smile. “Sorry, Nell—we can’t do a formal dig, with strata and all that. Are you okay with that?”
“Sure. I’m just being nosy,” I said. “But if anything interesting turns up, maybe we can use it for our promo pieces. Thanks, guys.”
Fred peered down into the hole. “Shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. You want we should seal it up when we’re done?”
“Let me take a look at it when you’ve finished cleaning it out,” Scott told him. “It might be a good chance to see what the underlying soil and rock look like. I’m surprised it wasn’t affected when the PATCO line went in.”
I knew the PATCO line ran along Locust Street, practically under the building. It was easy to tell when a train went past. “You got it.”
Scott turned to me. “Seen enough, Nell?”
“I think so. Are you going to stick around for the rest of the day?”
“I’m got to put in some time at the office, but I’ll probably be back later in the afternoon.”
“Then I’ll walk you out, if you’re ready to go.”
We returned to the first floor and I escorted him to the lobby. Before he left, Scott said, “You know, we’ve talked about the dust, but it’s going to be noisy, too. There’ll be equipment out back to get the roofing materials up to the top. There’ll be pounding. There’ll be people hauling shelving and stuff through the building—and those shelving units are heavy. So you maybe should warn your staff and your patrons that things will be less than peaceful for a few months.”
“Thanks for thinking about that, Scott, but we’re already on it.” We’d been warning our patrons for months through letters and our newsletter and our website, so they could plan around the construction, but that didn’t mean they’d paid attention to the warnings. We planned to apologize a lot to disgruntled researchers. “And we know it will be great in the end. I’m looking forward to working with you.”
“Me, too. See you later, Nell.” As he went out the front door, I turned to go back to the elevator. I paused for a moment at the door to the reading room. There were perhaps fifteen people at the large tables lined up there, all silently reading or taking notes, their books and laptops and research materials laid out around them. I sighed: they would not be happy about working in the midst of a construction site. But at least we’d stay open. Maybe we should keep boxes of earplugs handy, too. I turned and went back to my office.
I found Marty Terwilliger waiting for me there. Marty had an unnerving ability to pop in unexpectedly, and when I’d first gotten to know her, I’d sometimes wondered if she actually lived in a burrow in the stacks somewhere. She was at the Society early and late, and any time between. Since Eliot had appeared in her life, her appearances were less frequent, but her passion for the place—and in particular, the Terwilliger collections of letters and memorabilia donated by generations of her family—was undiminished.
“Hi, Marty. What’s up?”
“You free for lunch?”
“I think so, unless Eric tells me otherwise.” I turned to my assistant. “Am I free for lunch?”
“That’s fine. Marty, I’m all yours.”
I gathered up my things and we went downstairs and strolled along the sidewalk outside, talking of nothing in particular. “You have some ulterior motive, or is this really just lunch?” I asked as we crossed the street.
“Hey, I just wanted to catch up. You’ve been busy with your new place, I’ve been busy, and then there was the board meeting. Now it’s clear sailing until the holiday party, right?”
“In terms of running the place, yes. I don’t know how our patrons will react to the construction, but Scott Warren says we’re good to go.”
We went into the sandwich place a block away and ordered. “So how’re things going?” Marty asked, once we were seated with our food.
“With the house, you mean? Good. Although things still feel unsettled.”
“No, because we don’t have that much to unpack. And that’s a problem. We need more furniture. What few pieces we have look kind of lost in all the space.”
“What’re you looking for?”
“I have no idea. Something that doesn’t look out of place in a grand Victorian house with nine-foot ceilings and oodles of carved moldings. Oh, and that we can afford.”
“Those two may not go together,” Marty commented, munching on her sandwich.
“I had that feeling. You have any ideas?”
Marty got a faraway look in her eye. “Maybe. Let me think about it. You looking for Victorian furniture, or earlier?”
“The real stuff? I don’t think we’re that picky, but if I could choose anything, then sure, probably Victorian. Why, do you have a warehouse full somewhere?”
“Not exactly, but I do have a lot of relatives, as you know.”
I wasn’t sure of her point, and Marty didn’t elaborate. Was she thinking donations or loans? Or were we supposed to pay for the furniture? If so, who was going to set the price? I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing yet. If Marty came up with some real items, then we could haggle. “Oh, guess what? We found something interesting in the basement at the Society this morning.” I proceeded to outline the discovery of what I was mentally calling The Pit.
“Huh. A privy?” Marty asked, chewing.
“Scott said maybe. Hey, we could add a bathroom down there and call it historical, if we modified the plumbing discreetly.”
Marty snorted. “Lots of history for that site, even before the Society bought the land. You never know what might turn up.”
“Well, I told Scott to have the crew clean it out and save whatever they found, so we could take a look at it. If it’s just trash, it goes straight to the Dumpster.”
As we ate we discussed the timing of the project and the events we were planning around it and other normal Society business, as appropriate between the president and a long-term board member. As we were finishing, Marty said, with unusual hesitation, “What would you think about asking Eliot to join the board?”
I considered. “Does that mean you think this thing you’ve got going will last? I think as a candidate he’d be great—his scholarly connections and his area of expertise would be big plusses for us. Who’s planning to leave the board?”
We hashed over board prospects and plans, then walked back to the Society. Before we reached the building I asked, “Have you talked to Eliot about this?”
“Not yet. I’m just thinking about it. But you’re good with it?”
“I am. Go for it,” I said firmly.
“Maybe I will.”
Excerpted from "Privy to the Dead"
Copyright © 2015 Sheila Connolly.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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