Fiction: The Riverboat by Stephen Ross

There was an unfamiliar noise. It came from downstairs. Miss Mary chose to ignore it. She selected another piece: a greenish chunk of swamp forest. After a moment’s pause, she found a home for it. She had almost completed the upper edge of the jigsaw — the upper reaches of a line of trees, with a hint of blue sky peeking through. The foreground was so far only a brownish outline, with the foot of a tree at the far left.

Miss Mary’s strategy for jigsaws had been honed over many years. Start with the outer edges and build inward. The edges had flat outer-sides and were easily isolated and moved into position.

There was a second unfamiliar noise from downstairs.

Miss Mary was eighty-one years old. She wore thick glasses that made her eyes look supernaturally large, she had a head of white hair, and she walked with a cane. Her hearing was perfect.

She wondered if it was the cat — downstairs and making a mess of things. She remembered she hadn’t seen the cat in some time. It had either gotten lost or had left the house entirely. It was easy to lose things in the house. There were three floors and an abundance of rooms.

Miss Mary’s father had always known exactly how many rooms. He had counted them with annoying regularity. He would proudly boast of the number when friends or colleagues came calling.

Miss Mary didn’t count things — although she had once wished she had kept a record of how many jigsaw puzzles she had completed. She liked jigsaw puzzles. Things could be put in their places, and she liked putting things in their places. There was an order to jigsaw puzzles that met her satisfaction.

The clock on the mantelpiece chimed the half-hour. There was a third noise from downstairs. It was the noise of a door closing.

Miss Mary looked across at the doorway. The door to the parlor was open and the hallway outside dark. She was alone in the house. As cunning as the cat was, it had never yet developed the skill of opening and closing doors.

Miss Mary took her cane and got to her feet. She took the candle from the table and made her way out of the room. The only sounds she could now hear were the creaks from the floorboards as she padded her way along the hall.

She stopped at the top of the stairs and peered over the railing. Her candle danced light about the bare walls of the staircase. There was no light coming from the ground floor. The house was as it should be: dead quiet. Nonetheless, she had heard noises that were unaccounted for.

She shivered. It was winter and half past midnight. There was a cozy fire in her parlor. She would much rather be back there attending to her jigsaw puzzle. The thought of someone being inside troubled her deeply. She was the sole occupant of the house and the nearest neighbor was more than two miles away.

Miss Mary made her way down the stairs to the ground floor. By her reckoning, the sounds had originated at the rear of the house. There was still the possibility it was the cat. Maybe it had knocked something over, causing something to fall against a door, causing it to close.

Miss Mary made her way down a lemon hallway. The doors were all shut, and each one had a lemon-colored ribbon tied around its door handle. Lemon ribbons indicated the room inside was empty. Opening a lemon ribbon door would lead you into a bare space. No furniture would be found and there would be no carpet or rug laid upon the floor.

Miss Mary made her way down four more lemon hallways into the rear of the house, and then through a series of narrow passageways that lay in the heart of the servant’s quarters. There had once been a staff of nineteen — the last of them had been dismissed during the war. The doors to their private rooms were now all closed and lemon ribbons tied to the door handles.

Miss Mary came to the rear hallway. Something was amiss. The air in the hall felt disturbed. By the light of her candle, she could see down to the end of the hall. She could see the door to the outside was closed.

She noticed a door in the hallway was ajar. Doors were never ajar in the house. They were either open or closed.

Miss Mary wished she could return to her jigsaw puzzle. She would have preferred not to have heard anything. She would have preferred not to have come downstairs. She was too frail to run away, if anyone was there.

And no one had any business being there. She lived alone. She had done so since her family had passed on. No one had any right or reason to intrude into the house.

Miss Mary stood in the hall, with her candle, listening. There was nothing, just the faint wind outside. The door was ajar by mere inches. Around its handle was tied a lemon ribbon. There was no light coming from inside the room.

She approached the door. She pushed on it with the end of her cane. The door opened with the creak of a dry hinge. She entered. Her candle brought light to the blank walls and bare wooden floor.

She stopped.

The floor wasn’t bare. There was a man lying on it. He was on his back, staring up at the ceiling with open eyes. His mouth was open. There were teeth missing. His arms lay on the floor at his sides.

Miss Mary crept up and stood nearer to the man. She held the candle over him. He was a white man in his youth. Not more than 20. A mere boy. He was unshaven and had unkempt sandy hair. He was dressed in an old jacket and trousers. His shirt was dirty. His shoes held no laces and there were no socks. He stank of alcohol.

“Boy!” Miss Mary demanded. “What are you doing?”

The boy didn’t answer.

“Why are you in this house?”

The boy didn’t move.

Miss Mary tipped her candle forward.

After a moment, wax dripped. A cobweb of it landed on the boy’s face and cheek. He didn’t flinch.

“Have you been drinking?”

Miss Mary noticed dark bruises about the boy’s neck and the burn marks of rope. She knew immediately he had been hung.

Miss Mary left the room. She slammed the door shut. She had seen enough. She had no desire to stay on the ground floor. She hurried as best she could back through the house to the staircase.

With short breath and her heart racing, she made her way back up the stairs, and then back along to her parlor. Once inside, she closed the door and locked it. She fell back into her chair and let her cane fall to the floor.

After a minute, Miss Mary wiped her eyes and forehead with her handkerchief. Who was the boy? Why was he inside her house? She lived alone. She had done for many years. No one came into the house. There was no need for anyone to come into the house.

She looked at the jigsaw before her. The picture forming was no more than an outline. The tops of a line of trees, and at the foot, a grassy bank made brown by a searing sun. There was something familiar about it.

Miss Mary kept her jigsaw puzzles in paper bags. There was no indication at the start of how the puzzle inside would turn out. She had begun to suspect this one might be THE RIVERBOAT. She had put it together before, a long time ago. She remembered there was something curious and pleasing about this particular puzzle.

Miss Mary had collected jigsaw puzzles all her life, since before she could remember. She had no idea how many she now owned. Jigsaw puzzles were kept in rooms with mint-colored ribbons tied around the door handles. Many of the hallways on the floor above were now mint hallways.

Miss Mary completed more of the foreground, quietly and efficiently arranging and rearranging the pieces. At the left, the beginnings of two figures dressed in white began to emerge. At the right, the beginnings of a narrow wooden jetty had started to form.

She happily sat there until the clock on the mantelpiece chimed four and the fire below had long faded to embers. At which point, she decided to retire for the night.

Taking her cane and candle with her, Miss Mary unlocked the door to the parlor. She made her way through the house and along to the east hallway. The east hallway was one of the few halls in the house that had remained furnished and decorated. It was opulent. The splendor of the Antebellum lived there.

Miss Mary’s bedroom was at the far end. To get to it, she passed by the bedrooms of her mother and father, and those of her three sisters and her brother. The doors to their bedrooms were closed, with rose-colored ribbons tied around the handles. Rose ribbon rooms were rooms best forgotten. They held memories of long ago.

Miss Mary opened her bedroom door and went inside. She locked the door behind her. She poured herself a glass of milk from the tray on the sideboard and then took the milk to her bed. She set the candle down on the bedside table.

The milk was sour. She stood the glass next to the candle. She would have to go outside again soon. She would have to acquire some fresh milk. She hated going out of the house.

She changed into her nightgown and then climbed into the bed. She licked the tip of two fingers and reached out and snubbed the wick of the candle. In the darkness, she drew the blankets up to her chin.

She hated going outside. It was a long walk to the nearest town. Outside, people were frightening and loud, and everything was confused. There was no order, just an incomprehensible chaos, and it seemed to get worse every time she ventured out into it.

She remembered the boy downstairs.

She closed her eyes. Maybe there was no one in the house. Maybe she had imagined it. She reminded herself she was eighty-one years old. Maybe her mind was playing a cruel trick on her — someone entering the house was her worst fear.

She remembered her grandfather. He had once said to her: when you get old, your fears will come calling, and there is nothing you can do to stop them. Nothing.

***

Miss Mary rose in the late afternoon.

By the early evening, the figures of a woman and a girl had come into view in the jigsaw puzzle. They were dressed in long flowing dresses, with wide-brimmed hats to shade themselves from the sun. The woman had long golden hair tied in a tail and she gently rested her hand on the child’s shoulder.

The end of the jetty had been reached and the river had started to emerge. It might have been thirty years since Miss Mary had put the scene together, but she was confident of what she would find.

She used to like walking down to the river when she had been a child. After church, and still wearing her Sunday best, she would go down to the riverbank and wait until the riverboat passed by.

She would wave to the passengers and they would wave back. Cheerful and smiling faces in the distance, slowly moving up the river as the paddlewheels turned. She couldn’t hear them and she couldn’t touch them. And that was the way people should be: in the distance, unable to come near, and slowly moving away.

She would then lie on the riverbank and stare up into the clear day sky. She would imagine she was alone, and that there was no one else in the world. It was a daydream she would often drift into. It was where she found contentment.

There was an unfamiliar noise. It came from downstairs.

It was drawing up to midnight. By now, Miss Mary had almost completed the jigsaw puzzle. It was indeed a picture of a riverboat. It was paddling up the river, two plumes of smoke rising from its stacks. Its upper deck was bright blue, its lower deck shiny white. She remembered what was curious and pleasing about this particular picture. There were no passengers aboard the riverboat. None at all.

There was another noise from downstairs. It was a door slamming.

Miss Mary looked across at the open door of the parlor. There was no light outside in the hall. She listened carefully. She could hear the gentle ticking and tocking of the clock. She closed her eyes and let her ears venture beyond the room. There were other sounds. Faint ones. There was a rustling and a tinkling.

Miss Mary got to her feet.

She quietly made her way down the stairs to the ground floor. Her hand trembled as she held the candle.

She made her way through the house. The closer she came to the rear, the more noises she could hear. There were metal sounds and wooden sounds. Things were being dropped. There were footsteps.

The rear hallway was lit up in a murky light. Miss Mary peered around the corner into it, just enough for one eye. The murky light was coming from a lantern. It stood on the floor in front the lemon ribbon room where the hung man had lain. The door to the room was now wide open.

The door at the end of the hall — the one leading to the outside — was also wide open. The cold air of the night was being sucked into the house.

Miss Mary could hear footsteps. They were outside — slow steps, coming closer, walking along the path leading up to the rear door. Miss Mary couldn’t move. The red frame of the rear doorway mesmerized her.

A black man walked in.

Miss Mary couldn’t breathe. She dared not move. She prayed the murkiness of the light would hide her.

The black man carried a large length of metal tubing. He wore dark clothes. He was middle-aged, thin, and unshaven, with graying hair. “Where do you want this?” he asked. His accent was as Southern as Miss Mary’s.

“In here.”

The second voice had come from inside the lemon ribbon room. The black man carried the metal tubing into it. A moment later came the sound of the tubing hitting the floor.

Miss Mary stepped back from the edge. She could hear two men. There was the black man’s voice and the other — an Irishman. His voice was deeper, with the scrape of a lifetime of tobacco.

She couldn’t concentrate. She caught words, but not sentences.

She heard a match strike.

She closed her eyes.

“What are we going to do with him?” the black man asked.

“We’ll take him down to the swamp and bury him someplace,” said the Irishman.

There was the sound of the two men picking the body up. There was the sound of the dead boy’s shoes falling to the floor. There were labored footsteps. They were carrying him.

“We’ll get the shovel from the dinghy,” the Irishman said.

Miss Mary peered back around the corner into the hallway.

The black man came out of the lemon ribbon room backwards. He carried the dead boy by his bare feet. The boy was as stiff as if he was made of granite. Then came the Irishman — a scrawny white man. He carried the dead boy by his shoulders.

The Irishman was older than the black man. He was dressed in similar dark clothes, but wore a felt hat and smoked a stinking cheroot. His face was ragged with age and weathering. “You want to sing me that song again?” he grunted.

“Sing it your damn self,” the black man grunted back.

The two men made hard work of carrying the dead boy. They hauled him down the hallway, and then took him outside.

Miss Mary heard them walk away along the path. She heard the Irishman cough. After a minute, she couldn’t hear them anymore.

She crept into the rear hall. She went to the lemon ribbon room and entered. Inside the room stood another lantern. On the floor about it lay all manner of wooden and metal objects. Stacked against the wall were four wooden crates full of empty bottles.

Miss Mary poked the metal tubing with the end of her cane. She wasn’t uneducated in the ways of the world. The junk lying strewn on the floor was apparatus for the construction of a still. They were moonshiners.

***

The two men returned within the hour. They toddled up the path and back into the house. Once in, they stood in the rear hallway and swayed. The black man dumped a shovel on the floor. It was dirty and wet with mud. Their shoes and trousers were caked in it.

The Irishman took a mouthful from his hipflask. “And the lesson for today is?” He was soused. He could barely stand. He passed the flask to the black man.

“Don’t deal a hand from two decks,” the black man intoned with a nod. He took a mouthful for himself. He was just as drunk.

“Here endeth the lesson.”

A floorboard above them creaked.

The two men looked up.

The floorboards creaked again.

The two men looked at each other.

The black man shook his head. “I thought you said this place was abandoned?”

The two men ambled through the house, looking and listening. The black man held one of the lanterns. The Irishman carried a length of rope.

“Why have all the doors got ribbons tied in bows around the handles?” the black man asked.

The Irishman shrugged his shoulders.

They found the staircase and began to make their way up it.

“Maybe it was just the wind?” the Irishman suggested. “This is an old rotting house.”

“Wind or no,” the black man said. “What the hell’s that?”

There was a pair of eyes at the top of the staircase. They were caught in the lantern light and shone in the dark. They were staring down at the two men as they came up.

“You there,” the Irishman demanded.

The eyes narrowed.

As the two men came closer up the stairs, the lantern brought the outline of a shabby old cat into appearance. It was coiled, ready to spring.

“It’s a damn cat,” the Irishman bellowed with relief.

The cat hissed at him.

“Damn thing!” He threw the rope at it.

The cat sprang. It landed on the Irishman’s face.

The old man struggled viciously with it until he managed to pull it off. He threw it down the stairs. The cat landed on its feet in a run and disappeared into the darkness.

“Damn you!” the Irishman yelled after it. His face was bleeding. “There’s no one in this place except for a damn cat.”

“A cat didn’t light no fire,” the black man said.

The Irishman joined him at the top of the stairs.

Down the hallway leading away from the staircase was a doorway. The glow and flicker of a fire emanated from the room within.

The two men came into that room. There was no furniture save for a sofa. It was nearby the fireplace.

“A cat didn’t light no fire,” the black man repeated. He walked over to the fireplace.

The Irishman followed. His eye caught a bottle. It stood on the floor by the sofa. He stooped down and picked it up. It was two thirds full and shone like gold in the firelight.

“Tennessee Rye Whiskey,” the Irishman purred, reading the label. He opened the bottle and took a swig.

“It’s good and warm in here,” the Blackman said, studying the sofa. “I’m done with the cold.”

The Irishman offered the bottle.

The black man stood the lantern on the floor. He took a swig. He felt its bite. “That’s fine.”

The Irishman took the bottle back. He wiped the blood off his cheek with the sleeve of his jacket. “Let’s have us a snort, and then we’ll go hang ourselves a cat, and whoever lit this fire.”

The black man nodded. He sat down on the sofa and bathed in the firelight.

The Irishman joined him. He took another swig and then smiled a set of dirty teeth. “We could be mighty comfortable in a place like this.”

The black man took the bottle. “We could, at that.”

The Irishman began to sing:

                 I’m a rambler, I’m a gambler,
I’m a long ways from home.

The black man joined in:

                And if you don’t like me,
well, leave me alone.*

The fire warmed the two men and the whiskey soothed them. They forgot all about the cat and whoever else was in the house. Neither of them noticed the door closing. The crackling of the wood on the fire hid the sound of the key in the lock.

Miss Mary reckoned the deadly poison would quiet them within the quarter hour. She listened through the door. She could hear drinking and the bottle changing hands. The two men attempted a couple more verses.

Miss Mary made her way downstairs.

She shut the rear door to the house. She went to the room where the men had stored the pieces of their still. She frowned, more junk to deal with. She extinguished the lantern they had left behind and she shut the door.

She made her way back upstairs.

Miss Mary looked through the keyhole. The two men were now slumped on the sofa. The fire had begun to fade. From a bucket, she scooped a handful of paper soaked in paste and she wedged it firmly into the gap under the door. She plugged up the entire length of the doorway. She then jammed up the keyhole with the substance.

She looked for gaps where the doorframe met the door. Finding them, she wedged them with the soaked paper. She did this until all air passages out of the room were sealed. The air inside would with time grow foul — the necessity of sealing a room was a lesson she learnt a long time ago.

After washing the paper and paste from her hands, Miss Mary returned to the door. She cut off a length of rose ribbon and carefully tied it in a bow around the door handle. She then returned to her jigsaw puzzle and set about completing it. The house was quiet again. Things had been put in their places.

#

* Footnote: Lyrics from “The Moonshiner” (Irish, Traditional)

Stephen Ross is an Edgar and Derringer nominated crime and mystery writer. His short stories have appeared in the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and other publications. His website is at: http://wwwStephenRoss.net

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Jack Getze

Spinetingler's Fiction Editor is a former newspaper reporter and author of the screwball crime novels BIG NUMBERS, BIG MONEY, BIG MOJO and BIG SHOES from Down and Out Books. His short fiction has been published on the web at BEAT TO A PULP, A TWIST OF NOIR and THE BIG ADIOS.

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About Jack Getze

Spinetingler's Fiction Editor is a former newspaper reporter and author of the screwball crime novels BIG NUMBERS, BIG MONEY, BIG MOJO and BIG SHOES from Down and Out Books. His short fiction has been published on the web at BEAT TO A PULP, A TWIST OF NOIR and THE BIG ADIOS.

3 Replies to “Fiction: The Riverboat by Stephen Ross”

  1. Stephen’s is the first of many full-length short stories Spinetingler will be publishing this year. Thanks to our writers and readers for their patience. If you submitted long fiction last year and haven’t heard back, please resend or contact us at spinetinglermag@gmail.com. We think the Unread File is caught up through December 31, 2012.

  2. What a wonderfully atmospheric tale, and the ending was delightfully unexpected and creepy. Excellent work by Stephen Ross…as usual, I might add.