I feel like exclamation points. Lots and lots and lots of exclamation points. Instead of using them, there are pedicures and champagne, and the first pages of the first draft of the tentatively titled “The Worst Laid Plans,” a novel loosely based on a true story of grave robbing doctors in rural Western Pennsylvania in 1857.
“Before God, I am exceeding weary.”
Augustus Bell swallowed his whiskey and slid the glass down the bar.
“Are we about to argue the relative demerits of patients before and after the prescription again?” he asked the man who had spoken. “If so, I require another drink.”
Swinging the door securely closed behind him, the new arrival nodded his confirmation to the bartender. Downing his first quickly as his companion sipped, he signaled for another and sighed.
“The Widow Barnett arrived this afternoon, interrupting an appointment, demanding to know why half the town’s doctors appeared hungover yesterday.”
Bell shifted his eyes, searching for listeners.
“Do you think she suspects?”
“That we’re all raving drunkards and desperately looking for excitement? Absolutely.”
“No,” Bell said, “Do you think she suspects?”
“That only a few of the town’s unmarried doctors are behaving as appropriately as expected while squiring young ladies? Absolutely again.”
“Heichhold, you test my patience. Do you think she knows we have performed sustained physical labor in the previous thirty-six hours?”
Heichhold gave his chin a nod to thank the bartender for prompt service and used the opportunity to make his own scan for eavesdroppers.
“Harriet was delightfully robust in manner this afternoon.”
“You vex me. And, do not allow anyone to hear you call her Harriet. You are on thin enough ice with your ingratiating manners and constant demands for a dance.”
“Don’t be on about dancing again, fellows.”
William McKnight sidled up to the bar, somehow drifting through the cold wind without the slamming door that had followed the entry of all previous patrons.
Nick was ready with a whiskey poured, wondering like all the others how the town had come to this. He had never seen such grim faces, nor heard the whispers so loud. The various townsfolk shared the gossip they traded like currency all through the afternoon.
Some whispered that it had been the Freemasons. Others suggested one last, long-hidden band of Indians, bent on cannibalism.
That morning, young Willie Miller woke the last layabeds at seven with a bloodcurdling scream. He had found blood, several scraps of hair, and a completely skinned body, later determined to be the body of a grown Negro male, nestled between the blocks of ice at Kennedy Blood’s ice house. Though blood and skin, even sometimes human, were often to be found floating in the ragtag collection of streets in Brookville, Willie had only arrived a few days earlier. He was displeased with the discovery, but soon turned Tom Sawyer-like in his tales.
By the afternoon, as he told the story,
“the finger beckoned me closer, seeming to shake with dismay and misery,” he said with a shudder. “It pointed to the furthest reaches of the dank cubby, encouraging me in my grim discovery. The body had no skin, only bits of muscle surrounding hacked bones, the skin flayed off in sickening streamers.”
Willie had found nothing of the sort, but his inventive embellishments soon spread. Others, with their own agendas, added details. Folks gathered on street corners, whispering, demanding to learn anything they did not yet know.
A crowd grew. Some brave soul demanded to see the sheriff, the judge, anyone. They were already meeting in the upper story of the jailhouse.
“It is imperative that there be no riot.”
“Someone must examine the body.”
“We’re hardy people, no one will be afraid of a corpse.”
“It’s not the corpse people are afraid of.”
“Gentlemen, Gentlemen, if we could have some sense of order.”
No one in town could gather the sheriff, the judge, the coroner, nor even the postmaster: they were all already gathered, though most acrimoniously.
The town’s leading men had gathered in the structure just built, huddled in a small room that seemed too cramped for their bulky overcoats and hot air. A fireplace kept the chill away, but did little to mend fences long maintained by good neighbors. Though they were somewhat less inclined to hysterics as the crowd searching for them, each had his own methods of inciting anger in others.
“What say you, Dr. Clark? Has someone been murdered, or has merely a misplaced medical operation taken place?” asked Parker Blood.
“Why is the postmaster even amongst us?” asked Thomas Mitchell. “In any case, such a question ought be directed at myself, the Sheriff of this county.”
Bristling, Blood retorted, “you’re sheriff only for a couple more months now Mitchell. As the only member of the Federal Government available in town,”
“you’re the Postmaster, Parker, not exactly a ‘member of the Federal Government,’ ” interjected the Judge.
“I most certainly have a right to demand answers,” responded Blood. “As such, I’ll ask them of the man most qualified to answer. Again, Asaph, I wonder if, as our most recent coroner, you could tell us what happened.”