The room was absolutely as it should be. Sterile, organized and a bit on the chilly side. A small, steel table was set with a thin liner and a gleaming metal tray. Laid out on the liner were stainless steel tools; polished to a mirror shine and in their proper order of use. A large metal gurney on wheels was in the center of the room right over the drain in the concrete floor. Elsie Turner was locking down all four wheels with the toe of her boot. She was wearing her long skirts and a tight, long sleeve blouse that had a high collar. Over her clothes she wore a sturdy, white apron that was crisp and clean. Her long black hair was in its usual style for work; piled on top of her head in a tight bun secured with pins. Her gloved hand touched all the tools for a third time and straightened the liner on the gurney, then she took out her pocket watch and was surprised to see that Dr. Benton was a few minutes late already. She was just about to break protocol and retrieve the body herself, when she saw Dr. Benton and a strange man enter in through the main lobby. The two men were all smiles and chatting as they removed their jackets and hats and hung them by the door. Then they made their way to the examination room together.
Elsie suddenly didn't know what to do with herself. She was so accustomed to her daily routine with Dr. Benton, the slightest difference was causing confusion. Realizing she was standing awkwardly with her arms hanging at her sides in the middle of the room like a Neanderthal, she quickly picked up some paperwork off a side table and began shuffling through the pages. She also stole a glance at her reflection in the two way mirror at the back of the room. Elsie never wore makeup to work, but she looked pretty without it—she pinched her cheeks for a splash of color seconds before the door opened.
“Elsie!” Dr. Benton entered the room, “Aren’t you a wee bit early?"
She opened her mouth to protest but thought better of it. The other gentleman was smiling at her. He looked to be her age, about thirty. He had longish, curly brown hair and thick sideburns. The men were doing that these days, growing out their sideburns in lieu of a mustache and beard. She thought the style looked very becoming on him. He wasn't attractive in a traditional sense. His eyebrows were bushy and wild, framing his dark, small eyes but he had a playful smile that caused her to smile automatically in return. Setting the papers aside and determining that Dr. Benton was forgetting to introduce his young friend, Elsie removed her medical gloves and threw them in the receptacle before crossing the room and extending her hand to the man, “Hello, I'm Elsie Turner. Dr. Benton's assistant.”
“Oh!” Dr. Benton raised his hands in the air, “Where are my manners? I'm so sorry! Jacob, this is my assistant Elsie Turner. Elsie, my nephew, Jacob Benton—er, my brother's son.”
They were already shaking hands but the secondary introduction forced them to remain shaking hands until they were both smirking about it. His hands were strong and smooth.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Elsie. Uncle has told me so much about his eager, female assistant!” he gestured quotations around “female”.
Elsie blushed, “Dr. Benton has been so brave to take a risk having a woman do a man's job! He's very proud of his edgy business decision!”
“So revolutionary! Clearly!” Jacob laughed. It was hearty and sincere.
Poor Dr. Benton didn't know if they were joking with him or about him and quickly changed the subject, “Elsie, Jacob just graduated from medical school and is looking to see what it is I do here as a small town medical examiner. I'm so flattered!” he clapped Jacob roughly on the shoulder, “I hope you don't mind having an extra set of eyes and hands around for awhile?” Both men looked at her.
“Oh! Of course not!” secretly, she hoped this wouldn't mean that when the time came for Dr. Benton to retire, Jacob would be considered to inherit his uncle's practice. A very assumptive thought but she couldn't help thinking it. She also couldn't shake the butterflies in her stomach thinking about having Jacob Benton around indefinitely. Dr. Benton turned to his nephew, a funny pair: Dr. Benton short, bald and wearing spectacles and Jacob Benton, who stood at least four inches taller than him with his full head of hair and broad shoulders. Despite the differences, the family resemblance was strong. They had the same unique nose in profile and practically identical shade of mossy green eyes—but she wasn't staring. She was actually very busy shuffling her feet and looking like she was about to be busy.
“Perhaps you could show Jacob where we keep the bodies pre-examination? I can get Jacob a coat and gloves.” she offered.
“Yes!” Dr. Benton slapped his hands together, “A good plan, Elsie! Thank you. This way Jacob!” Dr. Benton led the way back out through the lobby towards the morgue. As soon as they disappeared through the double doors out the back of the lobby, the front door opened and a young girl came inside. Elsie tipped her head and approached the girl, “Hello. Can I help you?” It immediately bothered her that Jacob and Dr. Benton would be returning with a body—it would have a sheet covering it but still, a shocking sight for a young woman who already looked like she had seen a ghost.
“I'm sorry to bother you ma'am. Are you terribly busy?” the girl was trembling, either cold or fear, she couldn't tell which but one thing was for sure, she didn't want the girl to be here when the body came through,
“Let's step out into the hall. What's your name, Miss?” she put a firm hand on the girl's back and led her back out through the front door. It was very early in the morning, none of the other businesses that shared this space were open yet, so the hall was very quiet and a bit dark. Elsie crossed to one of the lights on the wall and manually turned up the gas a little bit. The brighter light helped the atmosphere be a little less, ominous. The girls hands were fidgeting and wiggling. She seemed to notice Elsie staring at them so she stuffed them in the pockets of the overcoat she was wearing, which looked too big for her and maybe a man's coat to boot,
“My name is Madeline, Ma'am. I'm a servant girl at the Briarwood Manor.”
Elsie nodded her head. She knew the place. Everyone in this town knew of it. The large estate sat on a knoll just outside of town and could be seen bearing down on the landscape from any direction.
“Madeline, why have you come here? And at this early hour?”
“I'm not to start my tasks at the manor for another hour. I have a bit of time to ask you something and then be on my way for the morning duties.”
“Ask me something? Do we know each other? You know of me?”
“Yes ma'am, you know my ma, Pearl. She goes to that reading group on Fridays.”
Murder Mavens! Elsie went to Lady Hatfield's estate every Friday night where several women read a murder mystery book together and discussed it over whisky and cigars.
“Oh! Yes! I know Pearl very well. Oh, Madeline what could you possibly need me for? Is your mother all right? Are you in trouble?”
Madeline’s eyes welled up with tears and her bottom lip trembled, “My ma, doesn't know I'm here. I got something real important to tell you. I hope you can help me?”
“Yes, yes, I can try! What's the matter?”
“I was hoping you could help us. At the manor. Concerning the Lady Briarwood and the Master.”
Elsie sighed and rubbed her brow, a little telltale sign of impatience, “Are they sick? Madeline, I'm very busy right now and I'm not a doctor you know?” she moved towards the door so she could open it and see if Dr. Benton and Jacob had returned but Madeline rushed to stand in front of her.
“Listen, something is happening at the Manor! Something dark and sinister. I'm really the only one who notices besides just a few other staff members like the head footman, Mr. Ewliss. He let me borrow his jacket. He knows I'm here. He encouraged me to find someone who could help us.” Something about Madeline's genuine fear and the fact that she came all this way to seek her out, was adding to her desire for mystery and adventure. Elsie was a standout at the Murder Mavens get togethers. She had been silenced, by the other women, until everyone else attempted a guess at the mystery first. Perhaps Pearl told her daughter about her knack for mystery solving.
“I think maybe you should tell the authorities if you think you're in real danger.” even as she said it, she knew there would be an argument.
Madeline was shaking her head, “We've tried that. Nothing happens when they're around and there's nothing to report. I cannot explain it but Master is able to deceive them.”
The door opened and Dr. Benton stuck his head out, “There you are! Is everything alright out here, Elsie?”
The two girls looked caught in something. Dr. Benton couldn't put his finger on it but there was an energy between the two that made him uncomfortable. The young girl had a desperate face he didn't like.
“I'm just finishing up here with Madeline. I'll only be another minute or so.” said Elsie. There was a tone of confidence in her voice that assured the doctor that all way well, so he nodded and left them to their conversation.
Madeline sighed a big sigh. Her shoulders were slumped, extra slumped actually under the weight of the heavy coat and she looked so small and helpless in that moment that Elsie made a decision,
“I'll help you.”
The girl's face lit up, her eyes wide and searching, so full of hope and gratefulness, Elsie's heart could barely take it,
“I'm not sure what all I can do, I mean, I'm not an authority or a real investigator or anything!” she laughed, “I'm just a girl, Madeline. We both are. But I'm a smart girl, a wise one. And I have friends that might be interested too. I don't know if we can figure anything out but we can try.”
“Oh! Thank you! Thank you!”
Madeline leapt in for a big hug, her arms squeezing Elsie hard enough to make her spine pop a few times, she returned the hug then pushed her away a bit,
“Listen, I'm not sure how this is going to all work out but in the meantime, don't tell anyone you came here. Understand? Nobody! Except maybe that Mr. Ewliss.” she touched the coat.
Madeline nodded her head enthusiastically, “I think Master is always keen on hiring new help. We go through staff a lot there. Just a few of us have been there over a year or so. Maybe you could get a job there of some sort?”
“We'll see. Off you go, Madeline. I have work to do.”
The girl smiled weakly and looked like she could burst into tears, “Thank you so much, again. Thank you.” then she slipped out the front door.
Elsie's head was full of the girl's odd request until she saw Jacob and Dr. Benton waiting for her in the examination room, then all thoughts were focused on her new acquaintance.
The girl in the oversized coat exited the big, brick building and flew down the long flight of stairs. As she passed by the alleyway between two buildings, a man stepped out from the shadows and fell in step behind her. She was humming a little tune and walking with a much lighter step compared to when he followed her into town this morning. Maybe she got what she came for. He stopped for a moment and put a hand rolled cigar between his lips. He lit a match and cupped his hand around the end of it while he brought the flame close. He drew smoke into his mouth, allowing it to release in thick puffs until the cigar was well lit and he could see some good ash building. The man looked for the girl. She was still on the sidewalk, just a block away. He started walking, one hand taking the cigar from his lips, the other hand fingering a blade in his pocket.