Rain streamed down the bay window enlightened by the lamp beside the cherry desk, where Calder seated himself with a stack of calculus assignments and a pen. He sneaked a glance at the tattered diary of Galileo beside his arm with an inward promise to read a portion that night.
As he started to check the number beside an inaccurate answer, student Alyssa Martin appeared behind his door and entered with a tentative knock.
"Come in and have a seat," Calder scarcely raised his eyes. "Are you needing any clarification on your assignment today?
Alyssa approached and seated herself opposite him, lacing her fingers together on her lap. "I applied to this school because you are the most skilled mathematics lecturer in the area, and I assume you are also talented as a private detective. There is something that I have wanted investigated for years, and I would love for you to be the one to do it."
"I can do that." Enthralled, Calder leaned his arms on his desk while she reached into her leather satchel to extract a worn crimson clothed book. She opened it to the first page and laid it ahead of him, where he could see that it was a photo album opened to an antique family portrait.
"This was early April in 1920. Robert Mahoney owned a reasonably successful gold mine near Wicklow at the time, but lived closer to Cork with his wife Maureen," she pointed to a beautiful brunette woman with her chin raised with poise, "her sister Esther Smith," a flaxen, freckled woman with a pleasant smile, "and their three children. My great-great-grandpa was Owen, that newborn in Esther's arms. George and Áine are his siblings."
"This is a beautiful family," Calder observed as he evaluated each individual in the portrait. "So what is it that you would have me investigate?"
Alyssa sneaked a glimpse over each shoulder and leaned closer to her professor. "Aunt Áine was seven in this photo, and she lived another ninety years. As a child, my parents had me go to her house and keep her company. She shared a lot about her childhood with me, especially about her aunt.
"Aunt Áine always said Esther was considered to be rather slow by everyone around her, but she always knew when the kids were about to cause mischief. There was a Christmas dance downstairs one year, and the children were sneaking chestnuts to the banister to pitch at people beneath them. She said Esther appeared out of nowhere, crouched down beside them with a knowing smile, and asked what they were about to do. She used to serve iced tea and oatmeal and honey cookies to her family in the summer because, as she put it, 'Making the family smile is the most enjoyable part of the day.'"
"Two months after this photo, she was discovered dead in the reflecting pool. She was only twenty-five. Everyone assumed that it was an accident, or that perhaps she committed suicide because she used to struggle with depression as a child. That was accepted by everyone, but I was curious about something. Aunt Áine mentioned once that Esther came screaming up the stairs one evening when Robert was at the mine, shoved the children through an open door, and shrieked to her sister that she saw a dirty man peering into the window. Maureen assured her that she was only seeing things and that she would go out and see if anyone was there. She returned and insisted that no one was there."
"And you suspect he may have been there."
Alyssa ran a hand through her chestnut tendrils with pursed lips. "After all the stories Aunt Áine shared before her death, I am convinced that she made her best attempt to be the same aunt to us that Esther was to her. I have loved Esther, even without having met her, and she deserves the truth."
"I will do everything I can to provide those answers," Calder promised and extended his hand.
. . .
"Enjoy," a garda plopped the thin file on the wooden table ahead of Calder and exited the room. Rain showered in the illumination of the street lamp outside as he opened the file and analyzed the antique photographs paper clipped to the corner of the report. Esther was sprawled on her back in the reflecting pool in one photograph while the second revealed the gash that stained her hair with blood.
According to the report penned by the responding officer, there was a substantial amount of rain that morning that slickened the area around the reflecting pool by that afternoon. Blood stained the water around Esther after her skull cracked against the edge. Maureen ran into the house screaming after going out to search for her sister, as she had not appeared in time for lunch. Robert sent the children into their respective rooms and reported the incident to the authorities while his distraught wife locked herself into their bedroom and cried. There were no witness accounts of anyone else on the property, and there were no suspects to indicate foul play. Only the rain pointed to an unintentional slip, ruling the death as an accident, although Susan the cook mentioned that Esther was often depressed as a child, and that perhaps the incident was her own doing.
There was no mention of the man Esther screamed about seeing peering in the windows at night, and an eerie suspicion slithered down his spine. Perhaps Esther was not as paranoid as everyone assumed.
So, by this account, there were several possibilities to evaluate: there may have been an accident, there may have been a suicide, or there may have been a murder. And because casting herself backwards seemed a potentially unproductive method of suicide, Calder shifted his attention to the other options. He closed the file and returned it to the garda who gave it to him.
Patches of shimmering stars revealed the gaps in the storm when Calder thundered down the garda station stairs and out the door. Why was Esther so dismissed in her alarm when she saw a man in the window? Was there a running history of paranoia that caused such nonchalance?
. . .
He spread the vintage photographs across his coffee table with the painted portraits beneath them. The diary was at one end and a pile of letters with edges aged into a brittle ochre were at another corner. He seated himself on the ebony leather sofa and dropped a stack of printed newspaper archives from 1919 and 1920 in another spare corner. He started with the archives, but after extensive reading, the primarily reported criminals were a swindler, several violent drinkers, and the sporadic robber. Not one was reported to be peering into houses. He raised his eyes to the painted portrait of Esther. The freckled woman with a pleasant smile and silver mist eyes had gathered her golden strawberry hair into a low bun, and she wore a mint dress. Maureen piled her rich chocolate curls atop her head with a crimson feathered hat and raised her hazel eyes with poise in her portrait. He searched out the portrait of her husband and saw that Robert was also dignified in stance and brunette in color, with a handlebar moustache. Their son George was a robust child with a ruddy complexion and auburn curls. Áine also sported an abundance of auburn curls and a lovely burgundy dress. But Owen was sunny in color and demeanor, reminiscent of his aunt. The desire to discover the truth of the death of such a lovely woman stirred within him more strongly, so he reached for the diary and started to read. Some of the most significant entries are these:
August 15th 1919
My love gave me this diary to record anything I so desire, so I will start with the events of the day.
This afternoon, Esther let the children play outside and expel the energy they stored up during the rains. She smiled and laughed while their hems were muddied and their shoes all but ruined. My sister is a dear, but sometimes common sense escapes her. George returned to the house with a toad, but at least Esther had reason enough to convince him that the toad would need to return to his own home outside, or else his ma may be vexed with him. She promised to clean them up while I drove into town to the mercantile. While there, I dined with the man I love until he was to return to the mine. There was more to do than I expected, as I was asked to deliver the child of a woman who attends our church to his house after his horse bolted and abandoned him in the street, so that Susan was prepared to serve supper upon my return. George and Áine were yet scarcely presentable, but as there were no guests for us to shock, I was not unreasonable to Esther. She is more entertained by these games than the children. She was so often teased about the absence of ability in arithmetic and spelling as a child that I sometimes ask myself if perhaps this is her experiencing an average childhood as an adult.
I suppose I must return to my reading, as I scarcely have time after ensuring the cleanliness of my children. What a mess! The maids will be awake after hours washing these clothes.
After a moment of contemplation, Calder scanned the array of print around him to see if there might be any more immediate information on Esther. By this account, she seemed clear of mind and rather reasonable, despite the rebellion of the common propriety of the time. Seeing none at the present, he returned to the diary.
August 29th 1919
About seven days ago, Esther came screaming up the stairs that she saw a man staring at her behind the window. Robert came rushing down the stairs, but I managed to rush outside ahead of him and scoured the perimeter of the house. By the time I returned, I was positive there was no one outside. Esther was hysterical, pleading that the children must be within our reach at all times. Robert strove to console her, but the only strategy that prevailed was allowing her to calm on her own. Eventually, she accepted my promise that there was no one else in the area. The children were even more challenging than she was, as they seemed to believe that when Aunt Esther was upset, there was definitely something to be upset by. My love and I agreed that we must allow her to continue to accept my promise, and that with some luck, perhaps she would believe it herself. She looked into my eyes with tears in her own and said, "Only if you know you're right, Maureen." To that, I answered with "I do."
Even today, she came to me with earnest eyes and a tremor in her voice.
"Sometimes, Maureen, there are eyes on me. I know that because I can feel them."
"You have a vivid imagination, Esther, and that is all we will speak of it."
She smiled and disappeared into the kitchen to spend some time with Susan. While they were preoccupied with preparing supper, my love and I discussed the mine and the sky above and families in general. It was pleasant to have a sincere discussion about our lives. It was not something I have experienced in quite some time.
Afterwards, I dined with Esther and the children, who chattered on about the antics of a Shetland pony when they sneaked him an apple and the sweet scent of the roses beside the house. After supper, I retired early to read.
September 25th 1919
I have discovered myself to be with child. What a surprise this will be to Robert! We were convinced that Áine was to be the last, as she is already at the age of. I have not revealed this to my love, but I shall when the opportunity arises. Another child shall be an adjustment, but I know Robert will be pleased. I am grateful that George and Áine are at a mature age to be able to assist with their sibling when needed. Esther is going to attempt to spoil the child, if I know her. She came racing to the house today, beating the children by the length of a mere bolt of fabric. How she cheered, then smiled and kissed their heads when they seemed dismayed. She promised them that if they keep running, they will soon be able to beat her. At this rate, I am afraid Áine will have no desire to act a lady when the time comes. One can only hope she acquires Esther's more pleasing habits, such as the tendency to play the piano in the mornings and stitch the loveliest patterns of petals. Esther is the most gentle and acceptable as a lady when she is engaged in these activities. She also assists Susan in the kitchen, but it seems to me that our hired cook should be the one who cooks. She is teaching Áine to ride the horses, as "Áine should be able to use and enjoy one, if she needs to." I suppose this is an acceptable reason.
Anyway, I shall have plenty of time in the coming year to teach my daughter the requirements of a respectable disposition. She is already a gentle, rosy lass who enjoys her dresses and her stitching. She does not seem amused by the wild tendencies of her generation. George also shows more an interest in what Robert manages to hunt and his ownership of the mine than some of the games boys his age entertain themselves with. And the child to be delivered in the coming year – what shall he or she enjoy? I can scarcely bear the anticipation the arrival! Robert is going to be so pleased.
Yesterday, we celebrated Áine's sixth birthday. She was absolutely showered with attention from Esther, and even George let her have a ride on his pony. She was given a book she has been asking about, so that it might be read to her until she learns more, and two pretty dresses. Robert says he has a set of drawing pencils he has yet to give her. I am pleased she will be learning another skill. Esther promises to show her what she knows how to draw, and I may endeavor to do the same, though I am not as creative in that manner.
October 1 1919
My love drove me around the outskirts of town to picnic in the meadow this afternoon. After, we spent some time driving to the most sophisticated milliner in the county, where he awaited my return as I purchased a lovely ruby colored hat with a peacock feather attached to a black ostrich plume pinned to the side. There was another with pheasant plumage, but there was a special elegance in the one I selected. As I was leaving, someone caught my eye. I stopped and pivoted to see none but Esther with her nose in an away of hats. She refused to even raise her eyes until I approached and stopped beside her. She then confessed to leaving the children with Susan to see where I was, as I was gone later than I promised. She also expressed surprise that I did not take the nicer of the carriages. I apologized about the inconvenience and slipped my arm around her while we exited the milliner's to go home.
"Good morning. Man, your coffee was apparently useless last night."
Calder peeled open his eyelids to see the teal eyes of Tristan staring down at him, then steal a glance into his empty mug. He straightened and smeared his palms across his eyes. "How did you get in here?"
"With this," Tristan raised a shining key with a smile. "I made you a key that can open any door."
"That is the creepiest gesture of kindness you have ever displayed," Calder pressed his eyes into his palms and leaned his elbows on his knees. "So why are you here right now? I hate mornings after sleepless nights."
"Cheer up, mate, this is Tristan Tuesday," he crossed the room to the converted jukebox to insert a disc and started playing "Blue Suede Shoes" by Carl Perkins. "And I have an array of devices to show you that could not wait until tomorrow. Aside from this key," Tristan returned and pressed the key down on the one spare corner of the coffee table, "I have made these apparently average glasses that will magnify your vision to the same extent as a telescope. What are you poring over here, anyway?"
"Nothing I am permitted to share," Calder moaned. "Get on with it."
"There is also this pen that has an extremely vibrant pinpoint flashlight on one end and a fine inked nib on the other, as well as an almost microscopic camera embedded within the cap. That is all I have today, but let me know if you don't remember anything I said by this afternoon."
With that, Tristan crossed the room to shut down the jukebox and exited. Calder raised his eyes and peered down at the devices and then toward the door.
"What exactly just happened?"
He rose and made his way to his room with the carnation sunrise in his window, but his curiosity was reignited by the glimpse of the artifacts of his case and sent him storming back to his living room. He cast himself back onto his sofa and snatched the diary again.
Although there were patches detailing Esther and her habits, the vast majority of the diary contained mercantile exploits, descriptions of dresses, exasperations and praises toward children, mere mentions of Esther, and narrations of her day.
May 5th 1920
This February, we welcomed a lovely son! I have not been able to record anything about him, as he has absorbed all my spare time. He is a rosy lad and Robert adores him. So does Esther. She is so pleased to have another child to help look after. He is a consistent sleeper, and I could not be more grateful. There is only one problem to dampen my mood, and that is that Esther plans to confront Robert. I cannot imagine how any good could come of such a discussion, and I have managed to discourage it to this day, but I cannot promise it will last. I must attend to Owen, as he is crying.
July 27th 1920
There is no more music in the house. Esther cracked her head when she slipped in the reflecting pool in June and died. I have only now mustered the strength to chronicle the events. The violin only gathers dust, there is no more laughter, and there is no summer tea. The entire house has been darkened with her death. It shall never be as it was, nor shall I. All I can do now is strive to be an Esther to my children, but she was special. In addition to the tragic loss of my sister, the man I love has shamed me in a manner I dare not mention here. I pray that I am not alone when everything settles. Already, I cannot imagine a life without my sister, but I shall try for the sake of the rest of my family. My poor sister! It was all an accident. God above, please help me. This may be the last I write. Goodbye for the moment.
Calder closed his eyes and allowed the entries to stream through his mind. Maureen seemed to love her sister, despite her despair toward her many antics. She loved her children in the same manner, with the desire that each may reach his or her potential. Esther seemed clear in mind with spurts of instability that may be vindicated by the manner of her death. He cleared the excess from his mind and started on the pile of letters.
I regret spending such an extensive amount of time here at the mine, but it is unavoidable because of the accusation by the miners of treacherous conditions. I realize that only about fifteen days have been spent at home since the start of July, and I apologize to Áine that I was unavailable for her September birthday. You must have given her a wonderful celebration. Six years old! Doubtless, she will be pouting when I see her, but I promise I have a surprise in store for her. Those drawing pencils I have been seeking out have arrived, and I have also ordered a lovely doll that resembles her to an almost frightening extent. Perhaps this will help amend my absence. Do send my love to everyone. I shall see you when I return home sometime in October.
With All My Love,
I will arrive in the middle of the month of October! The matter of treachery in the mines has been sorted out, and we have made improvements. Then I plan to remain at home as many weeks and months as I can manage without having to return to the mine. The day cannot come soon enough when I see you and the children and Esther. I can scarcely bear to await the arrival of our child. I apologize that I have spent so much time at the mine and strategizing for the mine and pondering over the mine while spending so little time with my family. Believe it or not, the reason I labor is because you all matter to me so much. I want to provide the best I can, but I also realize that I have gone to the extreme end of providing and been shallow in appreciating and enjoying. Send my love to everyone.
With All My Love,
Something alarmed Calder as he read the first, and then the second letters. He closed his eyes again and remained silent after praying to have an extra measure of wisdom and discernment. The exhaustion in his mind seemed to scramble the ideas in his brain. Suddenly, his eyes sprang open and he snatched the newspaper archives, rifling between pages until he came to one of the articles of an arrested criminal. A mug shot revealed the spherical visage of a man whose colors appeared pale by the shading in the photo. There was a description that read –
Ian Manser is the son of a Dutch man who immigrated to Ireland and married Mary Manser. She died when he was hardly a boy, and Van Manser worked as a miner. Ian Manser started swindling attractive women on the train between his school and the mine to provide for the family. Upon the death of his father, Manser continued stealing for himself. He has been sentenced to two years prison with hard labor.
. . .
"So you have answers already?" Alyssa appeared at the door of his office and came inside to sit across from him at his desk. Calder gave a single nod and extracted the report from his satchel.
"Robert was gone much of the time during several months, and Maureen was emotionally compromised. She was swindled by an attractive miner on the train ride home from the mine, and she continued the affair until Robert arrived home. He was the man in the window. Esther suspected something because, as you mentioned, she always knew when there was something stirring. She pursued after her sister's carriage when was drove into town with him. That man she mentions being her love is not Robert, but the man Ian Manser. She was the only one aware that Owen was his child until Esther understood the relationship she got a glimpse of in town. Maureen mentions that Esther planned to approach Robert about something, and that she was attempting to keep the secret back. This was months after Owen was born, so I assume she resisted out of loyalty quite some time.
"On the afternoon of the death, this is what I suspect happened: Maureen pursued her all the way down to the reflecting pool, where she caught up with her sister and pleaded with her not to reveal anything. Esther was angry, and said that she already made up her mind because it was right. Maureen lost her temper, and in one moment, she shoved her sister and her head was cracked against the edge of the pool. Rain was still showering that afternoon, and rinsed the blood on that edge. Maureen was distraught by accidentally causing this death of her own sister and never mentioned the incident again, except to express sorrow and repent.
"Maureen mentions that her love has shamed her. One may assume that means Robert and his controversial record of safety in the mines, but I believe that is actually when she realized Manser was a swindler. I have enclosed, along with me report, some articles and obituaries I discovered in me research that you may be interested in, as well as a record of financial transactions to an unknown subject that makes me suspect Ian Manser realized sometime that Owen was his, and Maureen paid him to remain silent on the matter. She would, no doubt, have lost her respectable reputation if he spoke."
Alyssa seemed completely stationary. Her eyes alone darted between the letters and the diary and the photos. Calder observed her several moments until he cleared his throat rather awkwardly.
"I suppose that may not have been what you suspected. There are some interesting archives in here, however, that may be of importance…"
"No, no, you must be wrong about Owen."
"These letters Robert sent are dated on the same days that Maureen mentions the daily adventures she and 'her love' take to town," Calder persisted with a gentle surety. "She purchased several items he expressed interest in at the time. Owen even resembles him in his structure and colors."
Alyssa slumped against the chair with crossed arms. "So I am not even who I always believed I was."
"No," he replied simply. "You are the exact same mathematician Alyssa Martin that you knew you were. The only difference is that you now know more about your origin. Do not assume, Alyssa, that your genetics are going to determine anything about who you are. You have always known who you are. Your life depends on the choices you make, not the choices Maureen or Ian made."
She considered these words, then gave a wry smile. "Thank you, doctor. I appreciate having answers for the first time. See you in class Monday."
After she rose to leave, accepting her possessions and the manila file containing his report, Calder started to dial his cell phone and reached into a drawer to withdraw a bottle of cranberry wine. As soon as the person on the opposite end of his call answered, he said, "Good morning, Ma. Wanted to say I love you and that I appreciate who you are."