Chapter 1 – An Introduction
In the summer of 1875, I found myself in New York City nearly penniless and with little prospects of finding any real gainful employment. The unexpected crash of the gold market in 1873 had caused several bank failures and a general social unrest that threatened to change the very fabric of society. Any job was hard to come by, so on the promise of an old army comrade, I had come to New York to take a position in his newly founded hardware store. You may consider it strange that a gentleman of my standing would take on such a job, but by this time I was tired of my old adventuring life as a soldier for hire. Too many years with too little reward had been spent fraught with danger, so I decided to enjoy the rest of my life in a more peaceable fashion.
Like many plans, it went awry from the start because by the time I arrived from Cuba, the business had already failed, and my so-called friend was bankrupt. He certainly was in no financial position to help me, so as expected, I was left to my own devices. The situation was nothing new to me. I held no ill will towards him for leaving me in the lurch. However, the cost of the boat fare to New York had left me terminally short of cash. Adding to my financial worries was the place I was staying at. The Hotel Wolcott was a rather expensive one, as befitting a gentleman of my distinction, but I had no money left to pay for my stay. I do not want to color the reader's impression, but one should not suppose that I’m some type of weak-kneed dandy who has lived a pampered life – quite the contrary - as I’ve slept in forests, deserts and even on a crowded lifeboat filled with thirst-crazed survivors. It is for these very reasons that I think I deserve the best in life. When you have seen the face of death as many times as I have, one begins to have an appreciation for the finer things in life.
I had been staying at the hotel for just over a week when the management began to suspect that I was not quite the well-heeled gentleman that I made myself out to be. I had managed to avoid the management's increasing demands for payment by staying out of sight. I really couldn't leave as I had nowhere to go. I wasn't about to sell off my guns since they are necessary for my rather specialized line of work.
With that in mind, you may understand my actions as I left my hotel room. I cautiously made my way down the stairs until I reached the lobby. The opening of the grand stairs widened out to a great room with the front desk to the left and a well-lit lobby to my right. A few late breakfasters were dawdling over their coffee, so I felt no need to make a scene. So I treaded carefully as I could past the front desk where the manager was bowing and scraping to a more well-appointed customer. I was hoping to make it by sight unseen, but as usual, my luck did not hold out.
A sudden voice bellowed out, “Mr. Parker, I wish to discuss the payment of your bill.”
That was the voice of Mr. Evans, the day manager.
“I’m sorry, I don't have the time as I must attend an important meeting,” I lied as I turned to face him.
Though he normally looked poised, his shoulders were coiled in anger, and his eyes had all the life of a gravedigger. He certainly had the look of a thug when his dander was up.
I tipped my hat politely and continued, “I really must go.” I then turned my back and walked on, as if I didn’t have a care in the world.
The front counter snapped open. Even with the luxurious rugs littering the wooden parquet floor, I could hear the tread of a heavy foot coming my way.
“But sir,” he said harshly.
That word “sir” was stated with considerable venom, so I quickened my pace until I was at the front door. I looked briefly over my shoulder and gave him a friendly wave with my cane. With a quick jerk, I opened the door and hastily stepped out into the boardwalk. A few steps later, I was around the corner, and from there I took off in a sprint. This understandably brought a few gasps from my fellow pedestrians, but I didn't have time to consider their tender sensibilities as my own hide was in jeopardy. As soon as I made it a block, I took a turn down another street and began walking in a decidedly calmer manner. I’m certainly no coward, but a fight would have seen me thrown out on my ear with nowhere else to go. I’ve lived on the street before and would go to great lengths to avoid doing it again.
I needed to do some further thinking on my financial situation, so I ducked into the nearest saloon. Of course the nearest saloon is one that I have visited several times before. It was a wreck of a place improbably named the Farmer’s Rest, located in a side street that few upright citizens would dare tread. It was the type of establishment frequented by whores, sailors, and the terminally unemployable. This place was hardly suitable for a gentleman, but at least the drinks were cheap since I only had a few coins left in my pocket. One had to make do with what one had when pursuing a lifelong interest in alcohol.
As the doors swung shut behind me, the conversation paused briefly as the few patrons looked curiously in my direction. These types were always on the lookout for an overzealous creditor or policeman. Someone in the back laughed in relief, and the level of conversation was quickly raised back to normal levels. Out of long habit, a nearby hooker gave me a predatory grin that revealed a row of missing front teeth. You could say that this was a friendly place, provided you didn’t drink enough to pass out. At that point your wallet, hat, and watch were bound to be stolen.
Sauntering up to the bar, I hooked my cane into the crook of my elbow and leaned my weight against the tobacco-burned and knife-scarred surface. The bartender, Old Tom, gave me a glance and smiled faintly my way before pulling down a bottle of unlabeled whiskey from the shelf. He was a big man with unkempt hair and a dirty waistcoat that looked if it had never been washed. His lips were so thin they hardly existed, and the face was formed from thick slabs of flesh. Yet I had been surprised to find out that he had been a decorated veteran of the celebrated Black Hats of the Iron Brigade. Looking at the fellow now, you would never have guessed that he had fought with the best regiment in the Union Army. However, upon closer inspection, one could see he walked quite comfortably with that big Army Colt pistol hanging on his hip and you knew by his eyes that he feared no man. There was very little real trouble in this establishment unless you came looking for it.
Tom plopped the bottle down and slid a grimy glass my way. “Still looking for work?” he asked with a friendly enough drawl.
“I’m afraid I haven’t had much luck,” I replied. Before, in one of my more drunken moments, I had laid out all my problems to him. But still, I really hadn’t been looking all that hard for work, at least not the type of work that your average man would take. For one, I wanted something that paid well, as I wasn’t about to go and drive a wagon or unload fish down at the docks. I was still hoping that blind luck would lead me to something more profitable than calluses.
“Plenty of workers, but not enough work to go around,” Tom said, with the air of a wise man imparting a deep secret to the religious novice. He then poured me a stiff drink and left to tend to some of his other customers. He had the good sense to leave me the bottle.
I found myself studying the glass in front of me, wondering whether I should start drinking. As you can tell, I have nothing against the imbibing of spirits, but it was still mid-morning. When did I ever find a solution at the end of a bottle? One never does, but it certainly dulls the unpleasant edges of life. So with that in mind, I took the drink anyways and enjoyed the familiar burning sensation in the back of my throat.
Casting my eye about the saloon, I noticed a crumpled newspaper on the dusty floor. Out of boredom, I bent over to retrieve it and discovered a copy of yesterday's New York Times. It was surprising to see the Times in this establishment, so some wealthy seeker of illicit pleasures must have left it behind. I rested the paper on the bar and began a methodical scanning of the headlines. It was the usual sort of thing with articles on the bank trouble in San Francisco, Yellow Fever, Indian affairs, and a far-too lengthy piece on the current state of foreign markets.
After spending a few minutes on those mundane stories, I took a large sip of whiskey. With my nerves steadied, I moved on to the work advertisements in the back of the paper. These terrible days there was a shortage of available work, so I certainly didn’t expect to find much of anything. My suspicions were proven true as I quickly read through the scant job postings. There was an opening for an engineer, newspaper delivery, and even a golden opportunity for raising rabbits at home. My attention was quickly grabbed by a more innocuous advertisement.
Doctor of Philosophy seeks research assistant. Some travel involved.
Interviews to be held between noon and four o’clock on Tuesday, July 23RD.
189 Cricket Court, Queens c/o Dr. Townsend.
Such an advertisement may not have sounded all that exciting to most, but to me it was a chance to free myself from money troubles. If I managed to land a job like this, then I could take a more secure path in life. I saw myself taking a daily trip to the library, setting up traveling arrangements on the doctor’s money and living a life of ease, visiting the various fine hotels dotted across the Americas. Perhaps there would even be a yearly trip away from the cold winter of New York.
My daydream was broken by the approach of Old Tom who asked, “How's the whiskey? You’ve hardly touched a drop of that bottle. That isn’t like you at all.”
“I was just looking at this job advertisement here,” I said as I pointed to the words on the paper.
He turned the paper about and began to read. His thin lips moved slowly with every word. After he had finished, he turned the paper back in my direction and rested his chin on the palm of his right hand.
“Townsend, eh?” he finally said with familiarity.
“You know of him?”
A nervous smile twitched on his lips before he said, “Oh sure, not that I’ve ever met him personal like, but he has made a name for himself ‘round here. Not the kind of work I would do, but still there is always a need for men like the good Dr. Townsend.”
At this point I was feeling a little confused. What could this man do for the poor people of this neighborhood?
“And exactly what kind of work does he do?” I finally asked, fearing the doctor was involved in some dreadful charity.
Old Tom looked nervously about the room as if making sure our conversation was not being overheard. With a near whisper, he replied, “From what I’ve heard, he takes care of bad spirits and the like.”
I’m afraid I didn’t understand what Tom was talking about, so I asked, “Bad spirits? Like flat beer and watered down whiskey?” I took another sip of my wretched whiskey and thought that perhaps the good doctor would do well to visit this establishment.
“Now you're making fun of me,” Tom fumed and looked as if he was about to walk away.
“I’m doing nothing of the sort,” I said soothingly since I wasn’t about to make an enemy of the only friend I had left in this town. “I just don’t understand what this Dr. Townsend really does for a living.”
Tom paused thoughtfully before saying, “Have you ever been back to visit the old battlefields?”
Where was he going with this?
“I’m afraid I never had the chance,” I replied hoping Old Tom was not about to get sentimental. Some of these old veterans think about nothing but the war as if it were the best days of their lives. I can tell you otherwise.
“If you ever do, it is a truly moving experience. You swear you can hear the screams of the wounded, the crash of the musket and the whine of the minie ball going by.”
A chill from an old memory went up my spine. I remembered my own desperate fight at Gettysburg when Buford ordered us to stop two of Heth’s rebel brigades. I was up there on a ridge with the rest of my men. Our repeating rifles grew hot with the fire we poured on the enemy. I saw hundreds of dead men that day. Our own skins were only saved by the late arrival of General Reynolds. I shuddered at the thought of that horrific day and took another drink to steady my nerves.
Old Tom went on and said, “The spirits of the dead walk those fields and haunt the places where they have fallen. I can feel their anger and sorrow. Some say that spirits wrongfully killed haunt the homes of this very city. That is what this Dr. Townsend does – he lets the spirits free themselves of their shackles here on Earth.”
I looked at Tom wondering if he had gone off his rocker, but his face was dead serious. “I see,” I finally said cautiously.
“I don’t think you believe me,” he said, suspiciously, with eyes narrowed in distrust.
I wasn’t about to anger this man, so I replied, “It’s not that, but have you ever considered that this Dr. Townsend could be a fraud? I’ve heard stories about spiritualists taking advantage of poor mothers who have lost a son in the war.”
“Townsend gets rid of the spirits, he doesn’t bring them back,” Old Tom snapped back sourly.
There was no arguing with this man. Instead, I took out my pocket watch and checked the time. It would be noon soon, so I decided that if I wanted to get a job with this so-called doctor, I had better leave now. Slapping my last dollar on the bar, I saluted Tom in a friendly fashion before turning to leave. He shook his head and returned to tending the bar.
As I began walking towards the Ferry to take me to Queens, I wondered if poor Old Tom had ever been wounded in the head. His talk about spirits and such certainly made no sense to me. The reader may be wondering why after hearing the description of this Townsend, I would still consider taking the job, but I’ve worked for some less-than-savory characters in the past, and I had no good reason to disparage this doctor’s so-called profession. It did not really matter how he made his money, provided I could get a bit of it for myself. I know it sounds rather mercenary, but that's what I do for a living.
At Ferry Point Park, I hopped on a little boat called the Sylvan Glen, paid my two bits and walked up to the top deck for a cigarette. When the stubby ship was eventually packed with enough passengers, it began the quick journey across to Flushing Bay over on the island. As we chugged along, I leaned against the rails and with interest watched the chaotic shipping traffic weaving through the bay. They sky above was grey from the smoke of a thousand chimneys, and the water below was tinged a disgusting brown color. I wondered again how I had ever been persuaded to come to this rotten crowded city.
After getting off at the ferry terminal, I asked a few fellows standing around and found that Cricket Court was located off of Hoffman Boulevard in the Forest Hills neighborhood. I thought Forest Hills was a strange name for this area as it had nothing to do with hills or forests. It was just a collection of little dirty farms that were slowly being eaten up by more and more housing for those wishing to escape the filth of the city. People certainly have some strange notions of how they wish to live.
I tramped along Hoffman Boulevard, past several farms and new blocks of apartment flats. The entire area was a strange mix of old and new. With their rough wooden sides and dirt driveway, the farms looked to have been built over a century ago. The newer apartment buildings were modern brick, and some stood at an amazing eight stories high. Packs of dirty children ran down the streets, making their playful, familiar noises as they dodged past the men and women going about their business.
Eventually I found Cricket Court, which to my ears sounded like an imaginary street in some gothic book. At the end of the dead end, there was a small low-rising hill with a large house planted on top. The home was painted black and looked like a place that Edgar Allen Poe or some other depressing writer would find most cheery. The dreariness of the structure seemed to dominate the area with a brooding menace that was hard to shake. I just knew that the Gothic structure was going to be my final destination.
As I drew closer, I noted the vine-covered brick fence that was strung around the hill. The grounds inside looked unkempt and disused. The next door neighbors obviously did not approve of this residence as both sides of the yard were bordered by a high hedge in a feeble attempt to block the gloomy structure from view.
I walked up the dusty road leading to the house and rested my hands on the closed rusty gate. The address placard showed that I was at the right place, but there was no one about to receive guests. The gate was held closed with a padlock the size of my fist. Peering past the bars, I saw that the grounds were a motley assortment of gnarled trees and overgrown flower beds. The air was dead still, and I could only hear some bees buzzing by and the chirp of a few excited birds. The sun beat hard on my shoulders. A nagging thought went through my head that I had misread the advertisement and had ended up here at the wrong time.
I then noticed to a door to the right of the gate. It was a rusty metal door set into the brick that was half-hidden by thick ivy that covered the wall. I went on over and gave it a push. My ears were greeted by a grating squeal as the ancient hinges protested the sudden movement. I gingerly crossed the threshold and cautiously took the sloping road up to the front of the house. There was a feeling of foreboding in the air that I could not place.
As I walked, my suspicions were confirmed that it had been sometime before anyone had given any proper care to this place. The house was certainly in no better condition with buckled wooden siding and stretches of weather-stained gray showing under peeling paint. I began to wonder at the prospect of this job. How could this Townsend afford a clerk if he couldn’t very well keep his own house in order. At this point, I had nothing to lose, so I steeled myself to continue on.
The entrance to this massive house was guarded by two man-sized gargoyles that had seen better days. Their stony faces were flecked with dirt and grime, adding more lines to their already stern countenance. I stepped gingerly past them as if they could spring to life. The front door, which was large enough to swallow a wagon, thudded dully against my heavy knock. It was almost as if I was expected since it was just a moment before the door swung open and revealed a very beautiful woman.
The black dress she was wearing was worn with use, but it clung fetchingly to her taut figure. A black choker circled her neck which only accentuated her lovely clear skin and raven hair. With a straight nose, long dark eyelashes and a dainty chin, she could have been an artist's model. Her youthful skin was wonderfully alabaster white and her eyes, oddly enough, were dark blue. It was a lovely combination of features, and I’m afraid my jaw must have dropped in surprise. One gets tired of the same brown-eyed Spanish beauties down south, and after all my time down there, this lovely thing seemed quite exotic. I quickly took off my hat and gave a polite little bow.
Her eyes narrowed, and she said in a beautiful but forlorn tone, “You are here about the job?” Her lovely voice had a lovely, lilting quality, but it lacked any trace of friendliness. She was a cold one alright.
I swallowed hard from unexpected nervousness and replied with my best smile, “Yes, Miss, if the job is still available I would like to see the doctor.”
She took my hat and cane, swung around on her heel without a further word, and I followed behind, shutting the door as I went. I'll admit I spent my time watching the curve of her backside lustfully and hardly noticed the rundown carpets and dark dusty furniture. I nearly ran into her when she stopped at a door which was open.
“If you will wait in the parlor, sir,” she said with a bit of spite added to her charming voice.
With another ingratiating smile and a bow, I brushed past her. I found that there were five other gentlemen waiting inside. They looked expectantly up at me and quickly turned their eyes away when they saw I wasn’t her. Striding confidently in, I cast my glance around trying to find somewhere suitable to sit. Someone snickered as I managed to find a rickety rocking chair near some fat man with bookish airs. He shifted nervously in his own chair as if I was the class bully about to the steal his lunch pail.
Looking around the room, I could see why he felt this way. The whole lot of them were serious-looking gentlemen with a distinctly domesticated air. They were obviously experienced clerks and vying to become the assistant to this Townsend. My spirits sank with the thought as I had little offer against these learned men. Sure, I could read and write like any proper gentleman, but I certainly did not think I knew my way about an office like these Sunday soldiers. I would bet anything that not a single one of them ever saw a battle or the sharp end of a sword. It was sickening to think of all the good men who died, so deadbeats like these could go on breathing. It was a waste of good air.
My thoughts were interrupted by a nudge of an elbow into my right side. It was the fool sitting next to me. He had little gold-rimmed glasses, a spotty, chubby face, and held a damp handkerchief clutched tightly in his thick hand. His voice was high with anxiety as he asked, “May I ask, who do you currently clerk for?”
“I have never clerked for anyone, and I’m afraid I’m without work,” I replied tersely.
“And who was your previous employer?” he sniffed.
“A rather wealthy sugar plantation owner down in Cuba.”
“It must have been awfully hot down there,” the clerk sniffed again before dabbing at his nose.
“It wasn’t the weather that bothered me,” I replied easily and leaned back into my chair. I so hate describing what I do to civilians. I could tell he was about to ask further questions when we were interrupted by the arrival of the girl.
All of our heads swiveled in her direction like love-sick calves. She looked over the room without interest and soon pointed at some reedy looking gentleman. He nodded eagerly, dusted off some imaginary dirt from his pants and followed her out.
“She’s a pretty thing,” I commented.
“Rather,” my newly found friend agreed with me readily enough. “As I was about to ask, what bothered you down in Cuba? Let me guess, was it the lazy peasants or the tropical sun?”
I laughed, drawing the attention of the other waiting applicants. The so-called peasants down there worked harder than anyone I had ever seen. It was no easy task cultivating sugar with the sun scorching your back. “No, I’m afraid it was the rebels trying to shoot my head off, but we soon took care of them.”
“And how is that?” he gulped.
“We strung them up, one by one, on the nearest tree.”
“You mean you hanged them?” he asked as his faced blanched white.
“Oh yes,” I replied nastily. “That’s what happens down there to men who break the law.”
He turned away from me. I could see him visibly tremble with fear. My little lie was enough to stop his conversation with me, which was a relief since he was obviously a bore. However, I will admit to the reader that I did no such thing down in Cuba. Instead, I just ended up playing guard for a farmer. Sure there were rebels on the island, but I never saw any in the part I was stationed at, since men with just machetes won't bother those armed with guns. My time down there had been boring enough that I had decided to leave for New York, but my new friend here had no reason to know that.
The room eventually cleared out as the other applicants were quickly called one by one. My companion was the last to go, and as he followed the girl out, he shot me a fearful glance. It was a relief to finally be free of that tedious lot and have the room to myself. My time alone, however, was cut short. Within a minute, the girl had already returned and was beckoning for me to follow her.
“The doctor will see you now,” she stated flatly.
Her eyes looked past me as if I wasn’t there, but I still gawked at her nonetheless as we began walking down the dark corridors of this house. She led me further into the interior with my previous lust quickly tempered by the strange new sights. There were now too many curiosities about to make any further study of her possible, for the hall we went down was crowded with glass cabinets crammed with strange objects – wicked-looking daggers, ivory boxes, shrunken heads, jars filled with unspeakable things, and a myriad of other items that I could scarcely describe. The girl just walked past these horrible curios as if she was used to the sight. I’ll admit those objects darkened my mood since it showed that this mysterious Townsend took his business rather seriously.
“Excuse me,” I finally said to her, “my name is Stephen. What is yours?”
She did not reply but suddenly stopped at a wide oak door that was shut. Reaching over, she opened the door to reveal a room which was pitch black inside. She motioned for me to enter into the darkness beyond.
“Is the doctor in there?” I asked weakly, wishing that I had brought a pistol. A little firepower goes a long way to even the odds.
She nodded, and I girded myself to enter the room. As soon as I did, the door slammed shut. Across the room a match was struck. As the flame of an oil lamp suddenly lit up the room, my hand was unconsciously going for a non-existent gun hanging on my hip.
At first sight, I found myself standing in a well-populated library with an elderly fellow sitting behind an old desk that had seen better days. The library was large but had an air of decay with piles of musty books stacked high to the ceiling. Heavy curtains stopped any light from penetrating into this mysterious place. A few well-cushioned chairs were placed in front of an empty fireplace where an enterprising spider had been busy spinning webs.
The man blew out the match and began fiddling with the oil lamp. When he was finally satisfied with the amount of light, he began speaking to me in an easy confident tone.
“I am Dr. Edwin Townsend. And your name is?”
“Stephen Parker,” I said without expression, since I did not want to reveal my initial surprise. I guessed that the other applicants must have scampered off in fear, and I was the only one left in the running.
“You’re a military man aren’t you?” His voice was dry like paper, but stiff and careful, as if long-practiced with speaking from authority.
“Yes, sir,” I answered stiffly. He must have noticed when I went for a pistol that wasn't there.
“Come closer, so I can get a better look at you,” he said, politely enough.
“Yes, sir,” I answered again.
I took a cautious step forward. I was now able to study this Townsend a little more closely. His hair, though gray, was long and messily pulled back around his ears. He had a craggy face with intelligent looking blue eyes that were framed with heavy lines. The eyes were an odd shade of china blue and nearly shone in the dim lamp light. He was dressed in a dark suit that an undertaker would have found quite favorable.
“I see that you’ve been abroad for quite some time,” he commented. “And you’ve recently run into a bit of money problems, haven’t you?”
“How do you know all of this?” I asked with expected consternation. Coming here had truly been a random event so how could this doctor possibly know so much about me?
“That’s easy,” he cackled with self-satisfaction. “You still have the vestige of a dark tan - the sort of tan that a man could only get in the bright sun of the southern climate. As for your money problems, I can see that your clothes are of a fine cut and obviously tailored. However, they are looking a little threadbare from long use, and your boots could do with some mending since I can see they have been clumsily repaired. From that, I was able to deduce that you are a gentleman who has fallen upon hard times.”
“And you knew that I was once a soldier by my violent reaction to the match being lit?”
“Oh, you are a clever one. That was exactly my train of thought. Of course a man of your age would also be likely to have been involved in the Great Civil War that embroiled our country only too recently. A few years in the army makes a mark on a man.”
“Cavalry,” I corrected him out of habit. Those of us who rode in the war considered ourselves superior to the poor infantry. “On the face of it, your conclusions were foregone.”
He looked rather pleased with himself as his eyes twinkled. “I must admit that I used to be a student of the famed Dr. John Bell. As you may have heard, he had a remarkable method of learning the most from his patients by examining their voices and physical characteristics. He used his power of observations to further his medical research while I chose to use mine for the unusual profession I have undertaken.”
“And what exactly is your profession?” I asked suspiciously. “The advertisement wasn’t very clear on the duties you are assuming of the applicant.”
He gave me a wintry smile and replied, “Let’s just say that I handle problems that most men can’t. There are little mysteries and unexplained phenomenon that will vex most mortals. My profession is to assist people in such matters. But this is not the time to discuss such things. I will fill you in on the details once I think you are suitable to take up the position. As far as the job goes, I will require a man with a strong mind and an equally strong back. Do you possess such characteristics?”
“I believe I do.”
“Very well, Mr. Parker, tell me about your life and military experience.”
I gathered my thoughts and answered, “I was raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan and lived there until my early twenties. At the outbreak of the war, I tried to join the army but was refused due to my last name. You see, my father was a well-known judge but was not in favor of the war. I was recognized by the local recruiter and turned down. However, a month later I went to another town and enlisted there. After some basic training, I was sent to the cavalry as a lieutenant. I eventually rode under John Buford, who was a good commanding officer.”
“The Brigadier General Buford?” Townsend asked.
“The very same,” I replied with a touch of pride. “My first taste of war was when we fought the rebels at Brandy Station. We showed those Confederates that we could ride just as well as Stuart’s men. Then we fought again at Upperville where we made some daring attacks before being repulsed by superior firepower.”
“And then Gettysburg?”
“Yes,” I replied, surprised by the knowledge of this doctor.
“What was that like?” he asked solemnly. His voice was soft, but the eyes were intent with interest.
“We came to Gettysburg and nearly ran right into the rebels. Buford then ordered us to take up positions to stop the coming enemy infantry. You see, he wanted to save the high ground for Reynolds, who was a few miles back. Though we were just considered cavalry, Buford had given us repeating rifles, and always ordered us to dismount when fighting the enemy. We were more like mobile infantry than true horsemen. I was ordered with my men to hold a ridge on the left flank. We dug in and waited until the rebels were almost on top of us before we fired. They kept on coming even though we gave them everything we had. Our battered lines curled up on the sides, but we held until we had no choice but to retreat. It was Reynolds's men who came to our rescue that day. After the battle, I was promoted to captain.”
“So you have seen death close up?”
“I’ve seen and experienced enough of it to last a lifetime,” I said distastefully since I hated dredging up old memories of terror and fear. There is nothing brave about being in a battle as you just hang on and try to survive. When you have lived through something as terrible as a war, you can only wonder why you are still alive while so many other men are gone from this mortal world. What gives you the right to go on breathing while others are buried six feet under? I don’t want to sound morose, but this doctor had a strange way of bringing that out.
“And what did you do after the war?” the doctor asked, reaching over to a side table and drawing out a cigarette case. Opening it, he held out a dark-looking cigarette for me which I stepped forward to take.
Up close, I noticed his hands were stained with ink and liver spots, which made him look even more ancient than I had guessed. With my own match, I lit the cigarette and found it was made from fine Virginian tobacco.
I took a puff and replied, “After all that excitement, I wasn’t ready to go back to a normal civilian life. Instead, I went panning for gold out west, and after I failed at that, I went down to South America to try my hand at being a soldier again. There is always something to do down there for a man who happens to be good with a gun. I was involved in a few revolutions on both sides, and after a few years of that, I decided to come back to the States to enjoy some civilization for a change.”
Townsend smiled vaguely. “You know how to read and write?”
“I do. Perhaps not as well as the other applicants I saw waiting in your parlor, but well enough to get by.”
“As I said, my father was a judge. He educated me in his own way. Latin was part of my schooling as was geography, math and logic.”
The doctor nodded thoughtfully before lighting a cigarette for himself. A cloud of smoke engulfed him as the man smoked like a locomotive. After a few moments, he coughed and said, “As you can see, I’m no longer a young man. I have little time left in this world. I need someone to help me with my work. My house is in disrepair, and my daughter will be wedded soon. Would you be willing to help me out?”
His daughter? What kind of ogre-ish offspring could I expect to spring forth from such a man? I hemmed and hawed before replying. “I’m not sure if I want to be a servant looking after the interests of a young girl.”
“I certainly wouldn’t ask you to do that,” he countered. “I’m looking for a business partner, not someone to slave under me. As for Ellen, she is certainly no longer a young girl as you could tell when you met her. She will require no attention on your part.”
I was shocked to find that wonderful creature was his daughter. Her mother must have been a real beauty since Townsend was not a handsome man. I put that thought aside and cautiously said, “A business partner? I’m afraid I cannot hold up any financial obligations on my end.”
He waved his cigarette about in an agitated manner. “You bring experience to the table. A man with steady nerves and a strong arm is all I’m looking for. Consider this an apprenticeship of sorts, but remember that someone has to take care of the mundane side of life so I can carry on with my research. That is the only task I ask for you while we are not out working a case.”
“I think I can handle that,” I readily agreed.
He added darkly. “But I have to warn you that you will see things that would break most men.”
I merely shrugged my shoulders to dismiss his cryptic warning and said, “What kind of pay are we talking about?”
“Thirty dollars a week,” he answered.
I frowned at him and protested, “That is all you can afford to pay? I can barely live within my means on those wages.”
“Don’t worry, Captain Parker,” he replied easily. “It will also include lodging and food. You will be staying here at the house and eating from my well-stocked larder. That will certainly take some of the edge off of your expenses.”
I took my time answering as I didn't want to appear too eager, but what choice did I have? It was either this or end up starving out in the streets.
With some mild resignation, I finally replied, “I will accept your generous offer.”
He stood up from his chair. I was surprised by his height. He was tall, lean and - for his age - managed to walk easily enough. His hand shot out, and we shook on our new partnership. Little did I know what strange journeys this man would take me. If I had the ability to foresee the future, I would have swam back to Cuba and stayed there.
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