Archive for June 23rd, 2012

Mrs. Congreave was like a cat in hot ashes, trying to be gracious and prepared at the same time. Mrs. Stubbs was conspicuously genteel, chatting easily with her daughter’s guests, asking them kindly about their parents. Everything was correct and mannerly. It was dreadful, like waiting for a bomb to go off.

None of the guests seemed to sense any impending doom. Instead they seemed, in a somewhat lukewarm way, pleased to see Mrs. Stubbs. Or simply curious that she was still living and coherent.

In my quiet corner I had a chance to study the women and, frankly, was less than impressed. An entire life of being my father’s daughter, with the weight of family that simply bearing our name brought, had inculcated in me a deep sense of social priorities. Or, if you prefer, snobbery. They are much the same thing.

The air of nouveaux riches in the Congreave parlor was stifling. Fashions too up-to-date. Accents too studied and genteel. Manners applied rather than absorbed. None of these ladies would have been admitted to either home of my past. It is to my shame that I sat there and felt superior to them.

When all six of the ladies arrived, Annie brought in the tea, and it underscored the feelings of social superiority that plagued me. The service, silver of course, was so heavy and ostentatious that I wondered she could carry it. No hostess I had known in my old life would have had it in spite of the beautiful design and obvious value—it was too conspicuously new. My former mother-in-law had said repeatedly that family silver wasn’t really acceptable until it was at least three generations old.

Then I paid for my silent snobbery. With ostentatious graciousness Eula called me to pass the teacups and carry around a three-tier tray of Mrs. O’Toole’s cookies and shortbread, a chore which perfectly indicated my place in the household. Had I not been there Annie would have handled the chore before leaving the room. As it was, I got to play servitor and as a reward could have my own cup of tea and piece of shortbread.

How many times had I heedlessly called for the same service from one or another of our poor relations? I felt scalded in memory.






There was one lightbulb in the servants’ stair, a poor thing that gave little light. It gave more than enough, though, to show the twisted body of Annie lying in an unnatural heap on the landing, her legs lying indecently up the stairs, her head jammed against the wall at a forty-five degree angle.

I screamed.

Then the incredible happened. She blinked.

I could hear footsteps, but my entire focus was on Annie. I scrambled down the steps, maneuvering as best I could over her legs and contorted torso until I was level with her face.

I stared at Annie. She saw me, I know she did. She blinked again. Then she died. The transition from a living—however tenuously—creature to a dead one is unmistakable to anyone who has ever witnessed it. I don’t know if it is a soul, or a life force, or what, but some invisible something leaves and suddenly everything is changed forever.

Eula was shrieking.

Behind her, Mrs. O’Toole was weeping and calling on her pantheon of saints. Behind her, Dawkins, to my intense surprise, was swearing with both fluency and unrepressed emotion.

I could not take my gaze from Annie’s twisted body. Though it was almost as close to dawn as dusk, she wore her everyday pale brown uniform and the work-stained apron from earlier in the day. She was not, however, wearing shoes. Her feet, indecently stuck almost straight up, were clad in nothing but heavy socks that showed signs of darning.

There was something else.

Her arms were thrown about as if she had tried to break her fall, but from under her right hip I could see a small flash of green. I leaned forward, startled at the sight of a twenty-dollar bill. Twenty dollars in a single bill, when that was probably most, if not all, of her monthly salary.

“Should we send for a doctor?” Milton was asking. “Mrs. Brunton? Should we—”

“No,” I said softly, feeling oddly that I should keep my voice low so as not to disturb Annie. “No, she doesn’t need a doctor. I think we need to call the police.”



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