Ghost of a Chance

by Dolores Esteban

New England, 1812.

I stood in the background until people were leaving the cemetery. Fitzgerald's sons, his wife and her parents were the last who walked away. Mayor Montgomery had held a speech, a sad and touching eulogy. Samuel Cullen, the apothecary, had put a flower wreath beside the entrance of the crypt. I later read the words on the crapes. Solemn words, carefully picked from the Bible. I watched his family leave. Mary Fitzgerald was crying. Her father placed an arm around her and her mother took the two little boys by the hands. Rain had started to fall. It added to the sad and gloomy atmosphere.

Reginald Fitzgerald had died at the age of thirty-two. A tragic death, a fatal accident. He had died of arsenic poisoning, unintentionally. Parker Smith, suffering from bronchial asthma,  had come to see Fitzgerald who was the only doctor in town, apart from Edward Hensley who worked as his assistant at that time. Reginald Fitzgerald prescribed Parker Smith a remedy. Samuel Cullen, the apothecary, mixed the liquid and in passing the bottle to Parker, a thought occurred to the man. He checked the list of ingredients again and found that the dose of arsenic was lethal. Cullen warned Parker, but handed him the bottle anyway. Parker went to Fitzgerald, but the doctor laughed and said that the liquid was medicine and not a poison, and then, as a proof, he gulped it. Reginald Fitzgerald was dead ten minutes later. Parker and Holly, Fitzgerald's maid, ran to fetch Cullen and Osmond Carlisle, the veterinarian, but the two men could only confirm Fitzgerald's death. A tragic death, caused by a fatal mistake.

Cullen showed a book around the following day, a medical formulae book that he had taken from Fitzgerald's office. It was an old issue, published twenty-one years ago. Fitzgerald had copied the remedy from the book, so it seemed, as the book also contained the fatal mistake. The mistake had been corrected in later issues and nobody was able to explain why Fitzgerald had worked with the outdated book, but finally people stopped speculating and left it at this.

Mayor Montgomery said that he had seen a stranger at the funeral. He had waited until everybody had left and then had come back to look for his glasses that he had lost. He said that he saw a man with a bouquet of flowers, white magnolias, entering the Fitzgerald crypt and coming out of the Lagrange burial place that was located about twenty meters away. Nobody believed him because his eyesight was poor and some people even said he had seen a ghost. Samuel Cullen talked him out of pursuing the matter. The apothecary, who said gin was good for the joints and therefore drank a lot of it, suspected the man was a distant relative of the families Fitzgerald and Lagrange. He told the story again that his father had told him. The story was wearing him out and draining him, but he told it anyway. His father had had a crush on Isabelle Lagrange, but the woman had married Donald Fitzgerald and this had badly hurt the man. Ernest Cullen's heart broke and it healed only eighteen years later when he met Samuel's mother Josephine. Samuel Cullen said his father had been a hopeless romantic who was suffering in secrecy. The depressed man made his son listen to his tragic story over and over again and thus made him suffer as well. Samuel Cullen said that the story had bothered him to no end and he said that the gin was good for it also. It made him forget his past and Isabelle Lagrange and Donald Fitzgerald and what they had done to his good-natured father.

A year later, the widow Fitzgerald married again. Buckley Garner, a lawyer, who had lost his wife two years ago, had politely waited for the year of mourning to pass by before he proposed to Mary Fitzgerald, not without lending a helping hand to the widow whenever she felt she needed his help. Mary Fitzgerald accepted the proposal and finally found the strength to clear out her former husband's office. She put the things, medical stuff she said, into a box and handed it to the mayor. She had planned to give it to Cullen, but the apothecary was out of town that day. Mayor Montgomery looked into the box and found a medical formulae book, but it was not the one that Samuel Cullen had shown around. Montgomery opened the book and looked up the fatal remedy. He kept a record of the original list and he was surprised to find that the list in the book contained no mistake. This, however, was only logical as the mistake had been corrected in later issues and the book in the box had been published only one year before Fitzgerald's death. What puzzled Montgomery even more was a note next to the list that said 'Parker Smith, April 8'. The doctor had scribbled it on the day of his death. The note showed that Fitzgerald had used the new book and not the old one that Cullen had shown around. It made Montgomery think and he talked with Mrs. Fitzgerald again.

The woman told him that Parker Smith had run to fetch Samuel Cullen, the apothecary, while Edward Hensley, the doctor's assistant, had attended to her dying husband. Holly, the maid, had run to fetch Osmond Carlisle, the veterinarian, since there was no other doctor in town. Mary Fitzgerald said she had crouched beside her husband, who was tossing and turning on the floor, until Edward had sent her out of the room. She had broken down in the hallway. Cullen and Carlisle had come to the house a couple of minutes later, but could only confirm her husband's death. They left and Edward locked the room until Pastor Boyle had arrived. Her parents had meanwhile come to the house also. Her mother took the little boys with her and her father did what needed to be done. Mary Fitzgerald had no idea if Samuel Cullen had taken anything from her husband's office. She asked the mayor to speak to Edward Hensley who had his own medical office now. She asked Montgomery why he was so interested in the matter and the mayor told her that he wanted to complete a report. One year had passed by and he found it was time to finally settle the matter and move on with life. The widow Fitzgerald, soon Mrs. Garner, understood very well.

Montgomery learned another piece of news that added to his suspicions. Brenda, his maid and cook, and a gossiper as well, told him that Mrs. Fitzgerald had dismissed her maid Holly to the end of the month. Buckley Garner, Mrs. Fitzgerald's future husband, said he could not keep Holly as he already had a cook and two maids. Holly, bearing a grudge, ran to Edward Hensley who testified that Holly was ill and had to stay in bed for the rest of the month. Brenda said that Mrs. Fitzgerald, who would move in with Mr. Garner soon, now had to clear out the Fitzgerald house on her own. She said it served the woman right now that she had treated Holly so badly, a loyal maid who had always been much liked by everyone. Holly had never left Mrs. Fitzgerald in the dark. She had always told her what was going on in the house. Brenda then told Montgomery of the abominable things that Holly had witnessed. The maid had found out about Edward Hensley's secret affair. Hensley lived with the Fitzgerald family at that time. Holly found a paper box in the wastebasket in his room. The box contained a bunch of love letters that the duteous maid carried to Mrs. Fitzgerald. After reading the letters, Mary Fitzgerald wanted to throw Edward out of the house, but her husband intervened and let the man stay. The day after her husband's death, however, Mrs. Fitzgerald threw Edward out. Montgomery inquired about the man's secret lover and asked if the person was a married woman that lived in their town. Brenda told him with a meaningful look that the secret lover was not a woman, and no, the man did not reside in their town. Montgomery understood.
All this made him think again and he wondered if Reginald Fitzgerald had really made a transcription error or if somebody else had manipulated the prescription paper. Montgomery found that only two persons possessed the necessary medical knowledge: Samuel Cullen, the apothecary, and Edward Hensley, the new doctor in town.

The mayor went to see Edward Hensley and confronted him with Brenda's words. Edward, young and not yet hardened by life, a kind and naive man who placed love letters in the wastebasket in his room, gave in quickly and confided his secret to Montgomery. He told him that Brenda had spoken the truth. His lover lived in another town and there they had usually met up with each other. The man had come to Edward's place only twice when the Fitzgerald family had been out of town. Alas, the last time, they had returned earlier than they had planned and although Edward's friend Cameron could hide from Mrs. Fitzgerald, he ran into Mr. Fitzgerald when he was leaving the house. Mayor Montgomery asked how Mr. Fitzgerald had reacted to this. Edward told him in a firm voice that Mr. Fitzgerald found Cameron Thompson very likeable and Cameron vice versa was downright fond of Reginald. A moment passed and then tears showed in Edward's eyes. Montgomery, feeling embarrassed meanwhile, could see why the young man had thrown the letters in the bin. He expressed his sincerest apologies and then quickly took his leave.

Although shocked by the bitter truth, Montgomery could not stop thinking about it. Edward Hensley clearly had a motive and Samuel Cullen had acted strangely, showing around an outdated book, as if in an attempt to stifle suspicions against him. Montgomery stopped by the notary who kept the Fitzgerald documents, among them the fatal prescription and the letters he had exchanged with Fitzgerald's life insurance company. Leland Johnson quickly understood what Montgomery was alluding to. The life insurance company had also had doubts, but in the end they had paid a small amount of money to Mrs. Fitzgerald that unfortunately was not enough to sustain her living standard, which was why she had accepted Mr. Garner's proposal. Leland Johnson took the prescription out of a drawer and showed it to Montgomery. They did not detect a manipulation. Leland had no doubt that if one really wanted and acted carefully, they could manipulate every document, but in this case there had simply not been the time and the opportunity to do it. Fitzgerald had copied the list from the book and had given it to Parker Smith. Edward Hensley had not had the opportunity to intervene. Parker Smith went to Samuel Cullen. The apothecary mixed the remedy and Smith watched him while he did. Cullen handed the bottle to Smith who went back to Fitzgerald and the doctor gulped the liquid. A tragic death, an accident, so to speak. Leland advised Montgomery to stop his investigations.

The mayor, however, did not. He found that one question was not yet answered. Although everybody told him that he had been mistaken, Montgomery was sure he had seen a man entering the Fitzgerald crypt and coming out of the Lagrange burial place a couple of minutes later. He was certain now about the man's name, Cameron Thompson, but he still had no clue of how the man had managed to get from one crypt to the other. Montgomery speculated that there was an underground tunnel.

He left the house in the afternoon and went to the cemetery where he spotted a figure raking leaves. Montgomery recognized Parker Smith who now and then did community work. A thought occurred to the mayor and he asked the man about the crypts. To his surprise, Parker Smith confirmed his idea. The man told him that there was in fact an underground tunnel that had been built about one hundred years ago.

Albert Lagrange had come from France. He was a wealthy man. He had the crypt built and rumors spread that there was a secret chamber filled with treasures and money. Nobody was able to investigate, however, because the door of the crypt was always locked. Isaac Fitzgerald, not a man without means either, had his own crypt planned and built only one year later. It turned out that the workmen had not only built the crypt but also an underground tunnel to the secret chamber of the Lagrange burial place. Parker suspected the same architect had worked for both men. Fitzgerald's efforts had been in vain, however. The secret chamber was empty. Lagrange and Fitzgerald had fought a duel, but none of them won, and then everybody forgot about it. Parker had spoken with Louis Lagrange, Albert's son, a couple of years before Louis' had died. The man said his father had never kept anything down in the crypt. He had planned to do so, but he had given up on his plan after Fitzgerald had built the tunnel. Montgomery was somewhat stunned and Parker felt encouraged to continue.

He said that his father had told him the story and that it was true because he himself had been down there and had also seen the tunnel. Montgomery asked for more details and Parker told him that he had searched the Lagrange crypt when he was a boy. The door had long been removed. Parker was enthusiastic by that time and Montgomery was curious. They went into the crypt and Parker showed Montgomery a trapdoor, a brass plate next to a stone coffin. Parker pulled expertly on a brass rose that Montgomery had thought was only an ornament. The trapdoor opened. Parker went back outside and returned with a memorial candle. The two men descended the stairs and entered the secret chamber. The room was empty except of a candle that Montgomery found on the floor and that he supposed Cameron Thompson had taken from the Fitzgerald crypt and had left down there before he climbed out of the trapdoor. Parker showed Montgomery the opening in the wall and the two men crossed the tunnel that led to a small chamber in the Fitzgerald crypt. They ascended the stairs. Parker pushed forcefully on the trapdoor and then they climbed out. Montgomery was flabbergasted and Parker was pleased.

Mayor Montgomery was mostly satisfied, although he kept wondering why Cameron Thompson had climbed down and why he had crossed the tunnel. The question was nagging on his mind, but he was able to silence the voice when it grew too loud and started to bother. Montgomery would have given up on his investigations, if Brenda, the maid, had not opened her mouth.

The mayor was sitting in his parlor. Brenda came in and started dusting the furniture and suddenly asked him if he had already heard that Parker Smith had bought Mrs. Fitzgerald's house. Parker had gotten it cheap. Nobody else had wanted it because of Mr. Fitzgerald's tragic death, arsenic poisoning, in the house. Montgomery felt bewildered. He wondered why Parker had not told him and moreover he wondered where Parker had gotten the money from. Brenda thought the man had saved the money and she told the mayor that it was possible to buy a house after carefully putting aside a certain amount every month for fifty years or so. Montgomery doubted it. The nagging voice in the back of his head became louder. It was screaming at him. He thought of how expertly Parker had opened the trapdoor and this made Montgomery think again. A question was forming in his mind.

It was a legitimate question and it led to Parker Smith's full confession. Reginald Fitzgerald had led a double life in many respects. He was out of town every second Saturday. He went to Bridgeport in order to buy medical stuff. He did so, but he did other things also. One thing he did was gambling. He won a large amount of money and he hid it in the secret chamber of the Lagrange crypt. Parker, doing his community work, saw Fitzgerald enter one crypt and leave the other. He remembered the old story and his own quest as a boy and climbed down and found the money. He went down often and stole a few bills. Fitzgerald didn't notice in seven years. Parker saw his chance when Cullen handed him the poisonous drink. It was not a calculated risk, Parker rather seized the opportunity when it arose. He talked the doctor into drinking the liquid as a proof that it was medicine and not a poison. Parker entered the crypt later that day and stole Fitzgerald's money.

Reginald Fitzgerald had copied the list from the new book and had made a transcription error. Samuel Cullen, the apothecary, detected the fatal mistake, but handed the bottle to Parker Smith anyway. Samuel Cullen found the old medical formulae book in Fitzgerald's office. He spotted it in a shelf when he crouched beside the dying man. The old book had belonged to Fitzgerald's father, a doctor also, and, by sheer coincidence, contained the same mistake that Reginald Fitzgerald had made.

This was what people told later, but I learned the details from Edward after we had gotten in touch again. I had been a part of Reginald's double life, and so had Edward been, but that's another story. Anyway, Reginald told me one day where he had hidden the money and he also described the trapdoor to me. Montgomery was right about the mysterious stranger. I was there, but Parker Smith had already bagged the money. I didn't have a ghost of a chance.

© 2013 Dolores Esteban


First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction