By Vicki Weisfeld
When Bruce Pritchard unlocked the door to his weekend Cape May, New Jersey, cottage one Friday early in June, the wind crowded in behind him like a presence, gusts of rain snapping at his heels. He flipped the light switch and shed the old-fashioned boots, oilskins, and sou’wester he affected, a fully wired city boy summoning the crusty New England sea captains of his imagination.
He lit the fireplace to exorcise the weekday shadows and dispel the ocean’s powerful breath, swirling about him like a salt-tinged mist. In the kitchen, he unpacked provisions — steaks for friends, a purple cluster of mussels for himself, a bottle of prosecco, ditto. This he opened at once.
He toured the four downstairs rooms, glass of wine in hand, shedding the week’s frustrations like a sodden overcoat. The cottage’s renovations were finally, finally finished, and the next evening his six best friends — and investment clients — were driving down from New York to help him celebrate.
A line of sand-clouded puddles tracked from door to fireplace disturbed the perfection of the moment, and Bruce chided himself as he fetched a towel to dry them.
After dinner, he sat in front of the fire and paged through a musty volume of nautical prints — oversized engravings of merchant ships, three-masted clippers, an artist’s impression of The Flying Dutchman. Tonight he’d skip the blood-soaked ghosts of the Stephen King he’d been reading, the book slumbering like a serpent on his beside table.
He’d rescued the book of engravings from the attic, a farrago of yellowing volumes, framed pictures, half-empty chests, and broken whatnots he’d barely glanced at as yet. The elderly sisters who sold him the cottage said they’d never been up there and exchanged a secretive look. “Noises,” one said, and the other said, “Best not to be too curious.” “Or disturb things,” the first one nodded, but her sister cut off further comment with one glance. Of course they didn’t want to call attention to how they’d left everything “undisturbed,” and unrepaired, and unpainted, un, un, un, which was why the place was crumbling around their ears and why he’d been able to buy it at such a good price.
Well into the night, the storm provided a soundtrack for dreams of howling seas and wind-battered sailors, decks slippery as glass, whiplashing ropes and renting sails, so that he awoke feeling he’d tussled with the elements for hours. From the bedroom window, he watched the morning sun chase the ocean waves, a quarter-mile away. His prize view.
Mary Benaker’s station wagon pulled into the smoothed patch of sand next to his BMW. He threw on a robe and met her at the front door. Mary was the real estate agent who kept an eye on the place for him, arranged his cleaning service, and oversaw any weekday workmen. She’d been a godsend during the renovation. All 18 harrowing months of it. Now she greeted him, holding a flat of annuals.
“Thought you might want these,” she said, too cheerful for the hour. “I just drove past the farmer’s market. They’ve got strawberries.”
Bruce regarded the banal mix of orange marigolds, red salvia, and purple and white petunias. Nothing he would plant. Certainly not in that color combination. “No thanks. I’m headed to the garden center today myself. Very generous of you, but, no.”
She looked a bit sadly at the unwanted annuals, but said nothing.
As an afterthought, he said, “One thing, though. Was the maid service here last week?”
“Next week. First and third Wednesdays. Everything OK?”
He looked past her, head cocked. “Yes, but …” He paused to focus a thought. “Everything looks moved, slightly, like someone dusted. And, it just feels like … someone’s been here.” He’d had a parade of unsettling feelings when at the house in the last few weeks, but he wasn’t going to tell Mary about the worst of them — that someone was watching him. That he chalked up to urban paranoia and, possibly, too much Cabernet.
Now she hesitated. “Anything missing?”
“Nothing like that. Probably my imagination.” The uncertain way he said this made it clear he didn’t believe it was his imagination at all, and he turned to go back inside the house. “Thanks, anyway.” He indicated the plants.
“Suit yourself,” she said to the closing door.
Bruce leaned his back against the door, annoyed. Throughout the endless renovation, she always managed to slip in a dig. “If that’s what you like,” “Of course, that’s up to you,” “Suit yourself.” Her distaste for his choices, his polished style couldn’t be clearer.
“So what!” he scolded himself, then gasped. He took a step forward, then another, transfixed by what he saw over the fireplace. In place of his prized large-format Robert Mapplethorpe photograph — ambiguous portions of two male torsos, one black, one white, so rich in tone it seemed a color print, but wasn’t — sailed a four-masted windjammer, sheets unfurled and running with the wind, straight at him.
He wheeled and opened the door. “Mary!” he shouted, but the station wagon turned onto the road and disappeared behind a stand of beach plums.
The frame of the Mapplethorpe peeked above the back of a low sofa. He pulled it from its hiding place and marched to the fireplace to switch the two. And stepped in a puddle of seawater containing a miniature beach of sand and trailing a seaweed thread.
Maybe a shower would clear his head. But in the bathroom, he found scrimshaw ornaments cluttering the glass shelf. Where the hell did those come from? Figuring they were cheap plastic souvenirs, someone’s idea of a joke, he picked up a piece to toss it into the trash, and noticed the weight, the fine detail, a map he recognized as Nantucket Island, and the date: 1846. He set it back on the glass and contemplated it.
* * *
A piece of toast in one hand and his smartphone in the other, he called Mary. “Who lived here before me, do you know? Before the sisters.”
“Let me ask Chuck. If he doesn’t know, he can find out.” Chuck Benaker was her husband, another realtor and a past president of the county historic society. These combined interests could generate a dizzying amount of genealogical detail about any parcel of local property. Bruce found Chuck tiresome, but Mary was right. He’d know.
Bruce was planting herbs next to the kitchen door when Mary called back.
“Chuck says your house was built by a retired sea captain. This would have been about 1850. The house was in his family for 75 years or so until the Darby family bought it. The parents died soon after World War II, and they left it to their daughters — the sisters who sold it to you. Not many owners.”
“What does he know about this sea captain?”
“He said the historic society has some papers and such. They open for the season in a couple of weeks, but wait.” Mary put her hand over the receiver and spoke to someone. “Chuck says he can meet you there about three.”
* * *
The historic society headquarters and museum occupied a simple clapboard house on Washington Street. Chuck Benaker looked up from a pile of mail. “So, your house? Quite a history.” He handed Bruce a folder. “Captain Newsome was a true legend. You have there the original deed to the property and records of some purchases. Stuff found after he was murdered, I suppose. Plus the registries kept by his nephew, who lived with him and let out the upstairs rooms to lodgers. The Darbys —”
“Newsome? Oh, yeah. Made enemies like Dunkin’ makes Donuts. If he hadn’t died, he would have been charged with a murder or two himself. Beat the rap by bleeding to death. The clippings are here somewhere,” Chuck walked to a file cabinet and rattled a drawer open. “We’ve been closed since fall, and the girls left everything a mess.” He slammed the drawer. “But I remember the story.”
Bruce leafed through the folder, mesmerized. So much for his house as a peaceful place, a refuge. He held up a green feather.
“Ah. Newsome’s parrot, ‘Cap’n,’” Chuck said. “According to their diaries, the Cape May ladies were more terrified of Cap’n than of Newsome himself. Stunning vocabulary.
“Newsome was captain of a merchant ship in the mid-1800s, sailed out of Massachusetts,” Chuck drawled, and Bruce could see the rest of the afternoon unwinding drearily in front of him, despite Chuck’s rendition of the despicable Newsome. Chuck pulled open the shallow drawer of a map cabinet and located a floor plan of the house. “Carpenter’s records.” He pointed to a second floor room. “Happened right there. When I unearth the newspaper stories, you can read the police description. Strong stomach?” He looked at Bruce over the top of his half-glasses.
“That’s my bedroom,” Bruce said, staring at Chuck’s tapping finger.
“Really.” Chuck paused, as if he found that fact somehow significant, and the word hung ambiguously in the air. “Newsome and his killer, Henry Carver — now that was a prophetic name — had a royal feud about your property. Came to a head one night, both of them drunk. Carver tried to escape across the Pine Barrens, but a timber rattler got him, so the police said.”
Bruce caught the skepticism. “You don’t believe it?”
Benaker shrugged. “The other lodgers didn’t believe it. The night in question they were all jammed in the doorway of the murder room, but none of them lifted a hand while Carver did the bloody deed. Newsome’s last words were, ‘I’ll come back and get you,’ and he shook his fist at the lot of them. When Carver turned up dead, they hightailed it.”
“What time is it?” Bruce startled, as if wakened from a bad dream, and checked his watch. 5:30.
“Oh. Sorry to keep you.” Chuck looked disappointed. “I get all wound up in these stories. Cape May County has a colorful history, that’s for sure.”
Bruce stood up, a little wobbly from information overload. “No, it was . . . helpful. But I have friends coming at seven.”
“You go on. When I dig up those clippings, we’ll talk again.” He rubbed his hands together, a gesture that made Bruce wince.
Back at the cottage, The Windjammer was back above the fireplace. He found the torn Mapplethorpe outside in the trash barrel, frame and glass shattered.
* * *
Bruce’s guests said the cottage was fantastic and thought the painting an inspired bit of camp. But their admiration gave him no pleasure, and he was uncharacteristically quiet all evening. He couldn’t talk to his New York friends about ghosts, then expect them to invest their life savings with him.
He gave two of the men the “murder room,” as Benaker termed it. As he stood in the doorway to point out the switches and extra bedding, he began to shake, and he hurried back downstairs. He slept on the sofa and hoped a sunny Sunday morning at the beach would expunge Newsome’s gory phantom.
Too soon he was awakened by a commotion in the kitchen. Up already before seven, his visitors prowled for coffee. He found them clustered around the kitchen table, staring at a tall bell-shaped object covered with a fitted cloth.
“Looks like my mother’s mixer,” said one, “only bigger.”
“Your mother dressed her appliances, too? I thought that was my Mom’s Midwestern chic.”
Bruce knew what the thing was. But he lifted the cover, anyway.
“Cap’n’s back,” squawked the parrot, followed by an outpouring of dark obscenities.
* * *
Late that afternoon the phone rang in the Benaker real estate office, and Chuck picked up. “Hey, Bruce,” Chuck said. He continued to listen for several minutes. “Sorry to hear that. . . . No, I do not believe in . . .” He listened some more. “Well, OK, if you’re sure.” Finally, he hung up.
He looked across the office and smiled at his wife. “Your dream house? As good as yours.”
Excellent story. You had my attention all the way to the sudden terrific ending.
I wasn’t sure where you were going but I loved the ending. Well done!
Never saw the end coming, Vicki. Great story, well paced with lovely literary language. A terrific story teller and inspiration to those of us who write.
Exquisite twist! Now that’s how you write a short story.
Well done, Vicki, you kept me scrolling!