The Ghost of Christmas Past by Rhys Bowen is the 17th book in the Molly Murphy historical mystery series (available November 14, 2017).
Semi-retired private detective Molly Murphy Sullivan is suffering from depression after a miscarriage following her adventure in San Francisco during the earthquake of 1906. She and her husband, Daniel, are invited for Christmas at a mansion on the Hudson, and they gratefully accept, expecting a peaceful and relaxing holiday season.
Not long after they arrive, however, they start to feel the tension in the house’s atmosphere. Then, they learn that the host couple's young daughter wandered out into the snow ten years ago and was never seen again. Molly can identify with the mother's pain at never knowing what happened to her child and wants to help, but there is so little to go on. No ransom note. No body ever found. But Molly slowly begins to suspect that the occupants of the house know more than they are letting on.
Then, on Christmas Eve, there is a knock at the door and a young girl stands there. “I'm Charlotte,” she says. “I've come home.”
New York City, December 1906
It had been a year of losses. Losses and uncertainty. Of a darkness I couldn’t shake off. Daniel’s job with the New York police still hung in the balance although a new commissioner was due to take office in January—a commissioner we hoped would be less in the pocket of Tammany Hall. Daniel had avoided the unpleasantness of a corrupt department trying to find a reason to get rid of him by accepting assignments from Mr. John Wilkie, head of the U.S. Secret Service. The first assignment had taken him to San Francisco, and nearly cost us everything we held dear. He had subsequently been summoned to Washington on several occasions, but still hadn’t made up his mind whether to accept a permanent position there. This was probably because of me. Because he knew that I worried terribly when he was away and I relied on the support of dear friends in New York. And frankly I needed that support at the moment.
You see, I was not quite myself after we returned from San Francisco. I had told myself that all was well and I could get on with my old life again, but all was not well. I had been wounded both physically and mentally. Pushed to the edge, actually. And the result was that I lost the child I had not known I was carrying. A miscarriage after three months, just when I had told myself that all would be well. The doctor had made light of it: a good percentage of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, he had told me. It was just nature’s way of making sure imperfect babies didn’t come into the world. But I was essentially a healthy young woman. Nothing to stop me from having another baby right away. He talked of it as if it was only a matter of discarding one dress and choosing a new one. But I mourned that baby and I was overcome with guilt. If I hadn’t been impulsive and gone out to my husband in San Francisco, I was sure the baby would have been all right. I’d have been giving birth right about this time. A Christmas baby. I tried to remind myself that if I hadn’t gone out to San Francisco, I might have lost a husband, but nothing I could say or think could bring me out from the darkness that threatened to swallow me.
I went about my chores, took care of my son and my husband, pretended to enjoy my friends’ attempts to cheer me up and make me laugh, but in reality it felt as if I was looking at the world through a black veil. And just when I felt that I couldn’t handle one more piece of bad news, ever, it came anyway. In October we received a telegram to say that Daniel’s mother had been taken to the hospital, stricken with pneumonia. She was so sick that we thought we’d lose her. I have to confess that I had never been that fond of Mrs. Sullivan, as I still called her. I had always felt that she saw me as a disappointment; that she had wanted her son to make a better marriage and rise higher in society. But it hurt me to see Daniel so distraught at the thought of losing his mother. I suppose the bond between mother and only son is a fierce one.
Amazingly she came through the worst, and I took our son, Liam, up to Westchester County to help the elderly housekeeper, Martha, look after Daniel’s mother as she recuperated. My young ward, Bridie, I left with my neighbors Sid and Gus, so that she could continue her schooling. She was blossoming into a confident and cultured young woman and I didn’t want to interrupt her education. Giving me a challenge like that was probably a good thing. It took my thoughts away from my own current state. In fact as Christmas approached I found myself actually looking forward to it. Daniel would be coming home from Washington, then he’d bring Bridie up to Westchester to join us. I pictured us cutting a big tree from the nearby woods. Mrs. Sullivan would not be up to baking, but she could teach me to make her favorite recipes. And Liam was now two years old and big enough to help with decorating the house. In fact we’d already been through the woods collecting pinecones and holly.
Then two weeks before the holiday, Mrs. Sullivan received a letter. Her face lit up when she saw who it was from.
“Why, it’s never Florence Lind,” she said, looking up at me. “She and I were bosom friends when we were growing up. We’ve kept in touch ever since, although our lives have taken such different paths. She always was a headstrong young girl and she became a strong woman. She never married, but she became a leading voice in the suffrage movement. Not that I approve of that, mind you. I’ve always believed that a woman’s place is in the home and it’s up to the men to run the country. But Florence was passionate about it. That is until her favorite sister died tragically, leaving two young daughters. Florence immediately abandoned her cause and went to raise her sister’s children.”
She paused and I could see her reading the letter. “Oh, how nice,” she exclaimed. “That is thoughtful of her.”
She looked up again. “It seems that she also hasn’t been well recently and has gone to live with one of her nieces. Not far from here as it happens. Scarborough. Do you know it? On the Hudson. Some fine mansions in that neighborhood.” She gave a satisfied nod. “The house is called Greenbriars, apparently. Florence says it’s most comfortable. I remember she told me that the girl had married well. Cedric Van Aiken, from one of the old Dutch families, you know. Anyway Florence has now moved in with them and this is what she says: ‘I hear from mutual friends that you have been quite ill, Mary dear. My sweet niece Winnie has told me I should treat her house as my own and invite whatever friends I wish, so I thought of inviting you to come to Greenbriars for Christmas. It would do you a world of good. Big roaring fires and good food and we two old ladies can chatter away to our hearts’ content. It will be just like old times, won’t it? Do say you’ll come. And if I must confess, it would be a boon to me as well. I am still feeling a little like a fish out of water here, away from my old life, and would dearly welcome an old friend. They will send the carriage for you whenever you wish to come. Your affectionate friend Florence.’”
There was an excited smile on her face when she folded the letter. “Isn’t that a surprise? Being invited to an elegant house party at my age. I wonder if I have anything suitable to wear? And you’ll be able to go back to your little house in the city. I know you were only planning to spend Christmas here to humor an old lady, and now you can be with your friends and spend another merry holiday.”
“Will you be well enough to go?” I asked. “You are still quite weak, you know.”
“I’ll take Ivy with me to help me,” she said. “You’ll take good care of me, won’t you, my dear?” And she reached out to pat the hand of the young girl who had just come into the room with a cup of chamomile tea for her mistress. She was a skinny little thing with big dark eyes. She looked younger than her true age, which must have been around thirteen. Somehow she epitomized the word waif.
“Yes, ma’am. Of course I will.” The girl’s voice was scarcely bigger than a whisper and she gave a shy smile.
“She’s working out well, don’t you think?” Daniel’s mother asked as Ivy left the room again. She had recently acquired Ivy from an orphanage in New York City, and the girl was being trained by Martha in all things domestic. From what I had seen she had proven herself a fast and willing learner. But since my mother-in-law had formerly taken in Bridie to train her for a similar domestic position, only to become so fond of her that Bridie was never destined to a be a maid, I wondered if Ivy would have a similar future.
“And what will I have to do at Greenbriars, except sit and be waited on?” Daniel’s mother went on, still smiling. “And it will be such a tonic to be with dear Florence.”
I could hardly say that I had been quite looking forward to Christmas in the country with her. Now I would be back at my house on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village and my neighbors would have lively parties and shower us with gifts, and I would make an effort to look as if I was enjoying myself.
I helped my mother-in-law decide what to take with her, suitable for a grand house party. We discussed what sort of gifts to buy for her friend and niece.
“I don’t think I can be expected to bring gifts for the husband and his family, can I?” she said. “Since I have never met him and don’t know his taste.”
“A box of chocolates for the family, or crystallized fruit is always acceptable,” I suggested.
She nodded. “Good idea. That shows willing, doesn’t it? But I must think carefully about what to get for dear Florence. She is not the type of woman who will be thrilled with frou-frou. A book or a journal maybe.”
In the end she sent me off into White Plains, where I chose a leather-embossed journal for her friend Florence Lind as well as some French soap for the niece. “Who doesn’t like French soap?” as Mrs. Sullivan put it.
On the appointed day the carriage came—a grand-looking affair with a pair of perfectly matched grays and a coachman in black and gold livery. The coachman helped the old lady into her seat, then Ivy helped with the luggage before climbing in beside Mrs. Sullivan.
“Have a wonderful Christmas, my dears,” Daniel’s mother called to us. She blew a kiss to Liam, who had to be restrained from joining them. He loved anything on wheels, just like his daddy. We waved as they set off, then packed up our things and rode to the station on a far less glamorous wagon driven by the handyman, Josh. A trace of snow had fallen the night before, the first of the season. It made the trees and fences look quite festive as they sparkled in the sunshine. As the train approached the city I vowed that I would make sure my family had a lovely holiday and that I would force myself to snap out of my black mood. I looked forward to seeing my friends again, and my dear Bridie, not to mention my husband, whom I had only seen on brief visits for over a month. We’d be reunited for a lovely Christmas. All was going to be well.
Copyright © 2017 Rhys Bowen.
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Rhys Bowen is the author of the Anthony- and Agatha Award-winning Molly Murphy mysteries, the Edgar Award-nominated Evan Evans series, In Farleigh Field, and the Royal Spyness series. Born in England, she lives in San Rafael, California.