Back at the cabin, the smoke had dissipated but reek of char and wet ash remained.
“Windows first.” Lexie could deal with the mess after she let in fresh air.
With nothing better than the sturdy wooden chair to stand on, she picked it up from where it still lay on its side under the window. This time Lexie made sure it was stable before she went to work on the boards.
Careful not to overbalance, she began to pry off the boards covering the cabin’s three windows. The jelly splint kept her thumb immobilized, which made holding the hammer awkward and the nails gripped into the wood and resisted, but one by one, with dogged persistence, she worked them free.
First she uncovered the two side windows, one facing the overgrown meadow and the other looking toward the forest.
Easiest she saved for last. Lexie stood the chair on the porch, but she only needed it to reach the top planks covering the window in the wall next to the door, overlooking the sea. Even so, by the time she was done, her arms ached and she was sweating.
Lexie took an extra few minutes to pound the nails out of the boards, stowed them in her pocket, and neatly stacked the wood on one end of the porch. Maybe she could use them to fix the porch later.
Inside, she opened all the windows and the ocean breeze blew through the cabin.
A small twinge of satisfaction flickered as light and air flooded the interior, but faded as Lexie looked around the cabin. The floor and fireplace were still a huge mess.
Water and ash had spread across the hearth and onto the floor and dried into a thin gray layer, but most of the water had run through the grate into the ash pit below, creating a still-soggy mess.
Lexie began by clearing away the small pile of damp, slightly charred wood and debris still on the grate. Those few pieces had been all the firewood in the cabin. She was going to have to get more before she could even boil water.
The logs were mostly intact. The fire hadn’t burned long. Lexie separated them from the rest of the mess and set them in a sunny patch to dry.
“Maybe I can save them. I definitely need to get some firewood soon though.” There was an ax in the house and the forest was right there. How hard could it be to get some firewood? But that was a problem for tomorrow.
Right now she still had a fireplace to clean.
Her touch left a dark smudge on the door and Lexie realized her hands were black with soot and char from handling the logs. They were going to get dirtier before they got cleaner though, so she pushed the door handle with her elbow.
It wasn’t immediately clear how to remove the grate, so she picked up the shovel and used it as a lever to try and pry up the heavy iron grate in the fireplace. It didn’t come up easily, and Lexie had to lean into it, but eventually it moved, and she was able to drag it out of the way.
Using the same shovel, she scooped out the watery mess of ashes as best she could. It was an awkward angle, and she wasn’t able to get much. She carried it outdoors, trying not to drip any more on the floor, and dropped it at the edge of the forest. On her third trip, trying to scoop wet ash onto the long handled shovel, Lexie realized there was a small hatch on the back of the ash pit.
She ran outside and around the back of the cabin.
There, low on the back wall, set into the fieldstone of the fireplace and chimney, right where the ash pit would be, was a small door.
“I’m an idiot.”
The long iron handle was stiff from disuse, but after judicious application of the oil she’d bought for the pump, it gave when she leaned into it. Once it was open, Lexie was able to scrape the ash pit clean. She even sluiced a bucket of water in the opening for good measure before closing the hatch again.
Ash pit cleaned, she took her cleaning bucket back to the pump, half filled it, and carried it inside. Hopefully with some of the soap she’d bought it would be enough to do the job, even without warm water. She grabbed a rag and set about scrubbing the hearth and the floor around it.
When she finished, Lexie realized the floor around the fireplace was much cleaner than the rest, and went outside for a fresh bucket of water.
More soap and more scrubbing. She even dragged the bed and the table from their original position to clean where they stood.
Done, she sat back.
The floor wasn’t as bad as Lexie originally thought. The boards were pine plank, scarred in places, but worn smooth from years of tread. Clean, they had a burnished warmth. And between the open windows and the scrubbed floor, the inside smelled of sea breeze and soap. Only the faintest hint of smoke remained.
She carried her last bucket of cleaning water out and emptied it. The forest was just beyond, but the long late-day shadows made it dark and unwelcoming. Gathering firewood could wait until the morning.
It would have been nice to boil some hot water to wash herself, but the logs she’d set aside were still damp. Dirty as she was from the grime of the fireplace, and sweaty from cleaning, even a sponge bath with a bucket of cold water from the pump sounded good.
But first, Lexie wanted to look at the chimney.
Louise had said something about how the flue could be blocked. Lexie wasn’t one hundred percent sure what a flue was, and normally she’d have asked more questions, but she’d been distracted by the pain in her hand at the time Louise was giving out fireplace advice. It might be the chimney. That would make sense, since smoke was supposed to vent there and hadn’t. In any case, she should at least try and look for something blocking it, and she’d probably get dirtier.
The fireplace was large enough for Lexie to crouch inside, and she did her best to see up the chimney. If everything was open, she thought she ought to be able to see some light.
There was none.
She wished she had a flashlight as she craned her neck to try and see better.
A solid barrier of some kind blocked the rest of the chimney. Lexie reached up with her good hand and touched it. Metal. Not a nest or leaves then.
Maybe that was the flue Louise was talking about. Lexie tried to remember. Make sure the damper is open. Louise had said something like that when they were eating the scones.
If this was the damper, it seemed like a dumb design. How were you supposed to open it if you forgot and started a fire with it closed?
She pushed the metal flap, trying to open it. A scraping sound came from the side of the fireplace and Lexie realized the knob she’d taken as a place to hang a potholder or poker on the side of the fireplace moved when she pushed the damper. She pushed at the damper again to be sure, and the knob moved as well.
“Well that solves that.”
She backed out of the fireplace and attempted to open the damper by turning the knob. It turned a fraction, then stopped.
Not sure how much a damper was actually supposed to open, or how far she would have to turn the knob to open it, Lexie crouched and looked up the fireplace again. It was still mostly closed. She was pretty sure it needed to move more than that to let the smoke out.
It was stuck.
She crawled further in and reached up, pushing at the damper, harder this time. Again, it moved, then stopped. It felt like something shifted on top of it.
Louise had mentioned animals could nest in the chimney or debris could blow in, blocking the flue. Lexie listened for a minute. She didn’t hear anything that sounds like birds. She remembered the sign from the quest board. Or rats.
Cautiously, she slipped her fingers into the narrow opening. If she could shift whatever was in the way, maybe she could get the damper to move enough to get the object out.
Her exploring fingers encountered what felt like canvas, or some kind of cloth. Wrapped around an object. It didn’t feel like something that would have just been blown into a chimney.
Whatever it was, it seemed to be at an angle, blocking the flap from moving further.
Lexie scooted further and managed to work the fingers of her good hand into the opening enough that she could push the object up off the flap. With her other hand she pushed the flap open a bit more open.
The object wasn’t heavy, but it weighed enough to be difficult to move with just fingertips. Once Lexie managed to get the flap open wide enough to fit her whole hand in, she grabbed the object and lifted it. With her other hand she pushed the flap fully open, and was able to retrieve the thing which had been resting on top.
“Let’s see what you are.”
The parcel was rectangular, and wrapped in a piece of oiled and waxed canvas. It didn’t show signs of being damaged by the brief fire and Lexie took it to the table. The canvas had been secured by a leather strap with a buckle. Lexie unwrapped it.
Inside was a cardboard manuscript box. Lexie recognized Martha’s handwriting on the lid immediately.
Island Mystery - Untitled
A chimney seemed like a terrible place to store a manuscript, for several reasons. Why would Martha have put it there? She started to lift the box lid, then saw the black smudges her fingerprints left.
“I better wash up first.”
Now that the floor and fireplace were clean and the chimney clear, Lexie could wash herself.
Outside, the shadows had grown even longer and the last rays of sunset colored the water red and purple. There was no chance of gathering wood before dark. Lexie wasn’t going in the forest, the wood she’d salvaged was still too wet to burn, and she wasn’t waiting for tomorrow to take a bath. She could smell herself. That was never good.
“Cold water it is.” Lexie took the washing up bucket and a clean rag and headed for the pump.
She rinsed out the bucket and added fresh water, and a dash of the all purpose soap for good measure.
Gently, she rinsed her face and hands. Lexie wasn’t sure how the jelly splint would react to the water, she’d tried to avoid getting it wet while cleaning, but now after some careful experimentation, it seemed the bandage was immune to the water, and she immersed her hands and scrubbed her arms and face and neck thoroughly.
The water took on a gray tinge.
“Oh man. I was even dirtier than I thought.”
She poured out the used water and pumped a fresh bucket and carried it out of sight behind the cabin. Not that there was anyone around, but it felt weird to stand in full view of anyone walking up the coast road and take a sponge bath.
Lexie washed quick because the water was cold. Very cold.
In the end, she was shivering, but at least she didn’t smell herself anymore. But now her clothes really smelled.
She should’ve brought fresh clothes. No way was she putting those smelly things back on. Lexie gathered her dirty clothes and washing bucket, and after a quick peek around the corner to make sure the coast was clear, made a dash to the cabin door.
Inside, she tossed on the tshirt and shorts she’d slept in the night before and wrapped herself in the scratchy wool blanket from the bed. The inside was well aired, and Lexie closed the windows against the cool wind coming off the sea.
Sitting at the table, she pulled on a pair of warm socks and then opened the manuscript box.
Island Mystery - Untitled - Chapter 1
Bixby Walker stepped onto the rain slicked dock, suitcase in hand, and looked up the hill toward the lights of the town. It was a long time since he’d been home. Seagull Cove hadn’t changed.
A man exited the ferry beside him, carrying his own suitcase. “This the place, then? Your hometown?”
“This is it. Seagull Cove.”
The men walked the length of the pier to the cobblestones of the dockyard. Despite the weather, the harbor bustled with activity. Fishing boats unloaded and [Fisher]:s weighed their catch, packing it into crates of ice for the ferry’s return to Ville Raton.
Next to a pile of fishing nets, out of the wind, Bixby’s companion stopped and cupped his hands against the weather. A match flared and Liam took a long pull of his cigarette. He released a lungful of smoke into the drizzle.
“Lead on to chez Walker,” he said, and gestured up toward the town with his cigarette.
It was an inauspicious day to return. The leaden clouds and thick drizzle painted the village gray and grim. The slate steps leading up the hill to Main Street were slick and slimy under the leather soles of Bixby’s shoes.
It was only a few minutes’ walk to the west end where the Walker mansion squatted. Bixby approached the square white building with the wide porch, roof supported by pillars. It was differentiated from the grand house across the street only by the foundation of white granite blocks, an expensive import speckled with quartz that sparkled on sunny days. The floor to ceiling windows shone with light in the late afternoon gloom.
Liam whistled and dropped the butt of his cigarette on the flagstone walk, scuffing it out of habit, though the wet ground had already extinguished the ember. “You weren’t kidding when you said there was plenty of room.”
Bixby didn’t reply. He sat his suitcase on the floor of the porch and clanked the brass knocker shaped like a ship’s wheel.
Lexie looked up when it grew hard to read. The sun had nearly set and the interior of the cabin was in deep shadow. She returned the pages she’d read to the manuscript box, tearing a small strip from a blank piece of paper in the stack by the typewriter to serve as a bookmark, and replaced the lid.
She was tempted to light the oil lamp and continue reading. But she was exhausted. It had been a long day. And now that the cabin was in order, tomorrow she started on the farm. She put the manuscript box away in the trunk at the foot of the bed.
Why had Martha put this up the chimney? And.... Lexie had another thought. If the manuscript was in the cabin, did that make it hers? An unpublished Martha Archer manuscript would be worth… well, enough she wouldn’t have to worry about money while she was getting her farm off the ground. Maybe ever.
She should talk to the [Solicitor] tomorrow.
Lexie was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.