Excerpt from ‘The House that Went Down with the Ship’

An excerpt from my mystery novel set in Chesapeake City:

The Chesapeake City Historical Society and Museum was located in Franklin Hall, a three-story brick structure in the heart of the town’s historic district. Built in 1878, the building had been home to many uses and causes over the years: Masonic hall, arts council, town library, various shops and businesses, even a butcher’s shop in the cellar at the turn of the previous century. (It was the Mason’s who had named it after one of their own, Benjamin Franklin.) The building itself was owned by the town’s historical society, which, I had learned, was constantly struggling to pay the upkeep on Franklin Hall. Even in the short time that Delmarva Renovators had been in town, the historical society had spent more than one hundred thousand dollars to have the building’s foundation overhauled. Our show had taken time out to film the masons as they worked to remove the old mortar between the foundation stones and then painstakingly repointed the cellar walls with an historically correct mortar mixture. To use modern Portland cement would not only have been a travesty, but it might have cracked the original field stone.

Iver Jones was president of the historical society and self-appointed museum curator. As museums went, the Smithsonian it was not. Worn blue carpeting covered the floor and the walls themselves held a menage of black-and-white photographs, old maps, yellowed newspaper clippings and the occasional “artifact” — such as the Civil War sword carried by Captain Ezra Cosden’s father. The leap in time and events from one square foot of wall to another had an effect that was a little like being trapped in an elevator that stopped at random floors. However, the quirky nature of the museum was part of its charm, and on first coming to town I had spent hours reading everything on the walls and poring over the local history books.

In theory, the museum was self-guided, but nine times out of ten visitors received a personal tour from Iver. His antiques shop was located just across the street in one of Canal Town’s oldest houses. No sooner would someone walk into the museum than Iver would pop in after them. Those who knew Iver said these personal tours weren’t motivated as much by his love of history as they were by the fear that a tourist would walk off with something valuable, such as the program from the fire company’s seventieth anniversary banquet back in 1981.

I didn’t have to wait long for Iver to appear. He must have been keeping watch from behind the lacy curtains of his antiques shop. Even though I’d been in town now for several months, he still didn’t trust me alone in “his” museum.

“What can I help you with today, Tom?” he asked, drifting through the museum door with all the grace of a dancer. Iver was short and thin, quite the opposite of what his robust Nordic name might suggest. “Iver” was the sort of name that seemed to suit a Viking better than the effete owner of an antiques shop. It was hard to know Ivy’s exact age, but I was pretty sure he could see seventy in his rearview mirror. Iver was a direct descendant of the Swedish settlers who had arrived on what was now the Delaware coast in 1638, and he never failed to let that fact slip in the first five minutes of any conversation with a newcomer.

Not that he put on airs when it came to his appearance. Iver wore jeans, off-brand sneakers, and a green hoodie patterned with a leaping rockfish and emblazed with the slogan: “Hooked on Chesapeake City!” Iver’s wardrobe usually consisted of whatever sweatshirts and T-shirts he picked up at the end-of-season sales in the gift shops in town. There were severals such shops in town that catered to the tourists, selling everything from those T-shirts to tchotchkes like ceramic frogs with the slogan “Hop on over to Canal Town” and coffee mugs with pictures of the soaring Chesapeake City bridge on them. Iver would sniff in a superior way at Merchant Association meetings as he pointed out that he sold antiques. And it was true that he had a high-end shop that drew buyers from a wide area, though lately the Internet had been taking its toll on his in-store sales. He was very interested in our renovation project, because the Pritchards had been good customers, buying up several local pieces for the house—if and when it was ever finished.

“Just the person I was looking for,” I said. It paid to butter up Iver like an ear of corn, since he held the keys to all those locked filing cabinets filled with town records. “I could use your expert help.”

He shot me a look and set one hand on his out-thrust hip, a move that would have suited an actress in an old black-and-white movie. The butter must have been a little thick, even for Iver. “This must be a good one.”

“Oh, it is,” I said. “What can you tell me about Leo Cosden?”

“Brother to Captain Ezra Cosden,” Iver said right off the bat. He really was like a walking encyclopedia of town history. “He was a captain himself. Drowned in Chesapeake Bay when his ship went down during a storm. I thought you would have known about him.”

Iver somehow managed to make one’s lack of historical knowledge seem to be a serious personal shortcoming, like leaving home without your pants. “Do you have any other information about him?” I asked. “Were there any newspaper accounts of what happened?”

“Well, we might be able to find something. But I am supposed to be running my shop. I guess I could spare a few minutes. What’s so important about Leo Cosden all of a sudden?”

“About twenty minutes ago someone threw a brick through our front window,” I explained. “Leo’s name was scratched on it.”

Iver didn’t so much as blink. “In that case, I can see where it might be worth looking him up.”

I followed him deeper into the museum. The front half of Franklin Hall was rented for shops — selling jewelry and more tchotchkes — but the back half that held the museum had a mysterious air, with tiny rooms hiding off hallways and steps leading down to a cellar that seemed to go on and on. Depending on your point of view, the cellar held either priceless antiques and town mementos, or else piles of rusting and mildewed junk. It really depended on how one viewed the intrinsic value of everything from ferry landing signs to milk bottles from the long-gone Losten’s Dairy just outside town.

“How much do you know about Leo Cosden?” I asked.

“Not much,” Iver said. “He died almost a hundred years ago. It’s his brother, Ezra, who’s the famous one. You do know about him, don’t you? You are working on his house, although I understand not everyone is happy about it.”

Iver must have heard about the slashed tires. News got around this town faster than a stray cat finds a fish bone. I glanced at my tour guide and wondered how long it would be before everyone knew I’d been asking about Leo, the other Cosden. Iver was a notorious gossip. I mean, the man loved to dish.

We climbed a set of creaky stairs. From my previous visits, I knew that the second floor of the museum was off limits to the public. Not that anyone could have gotten far anyway. It was crammed so full of boxes and filing cabinets that I stepped gingerly onto the floor, half afraid that my weight would be all it took to finally collapse the building.

Every time an old person died in Chesapeake City and the relatives cleaned out the attic, Iver was famous for interceding as the boxes headed for the local landfill. They wound up jammed into the second floor instead. These boxes held photographs of long-dead relatives, outdated legal papers, old newspapers. Anything that seemed especially important ended up stuffed for safekeeping into one of the cubbyholes under the eaves.

Iver led the way, switching on low-wattage bulbs that barely cut through the gloom. Blinds covered the dormer windows to keep out the deteriorating effects of sunlight. He was surprisingly agile as he slipped down the narrow walkways between the stacks, almost like a spider dancing down a web. Dust swirled up and made my nostrils twitch. The second floor smelled of old paper, mildew and mice. Something touched my face and I recoiled, then realized it was only a cobweb.

“That’s the late eighteen hundreds over there,” Iver said, gesturing toward a corner. “The early nineteen hundreds are right here. Great Depression in that pile by the back corner.”

“Where do you keep the Ark of the Covenant?” I wondered. “Right behind the Holy Grail?”

Iver didn’t dignify that with an answer. His organizational system might have worked for him, but to me it was all just a jumble of boxes and filing cabinets. We stopped in front of a pint-sized doorway into a cubbyhole. A brass padlock secured the door. A heavy key ring appeared from a deep pocket in the rockfish sweatshirt. Iver was full of surprises. He began flipping through the keys and muttering in a way that reminded me of the old nuns fingering their rosary beads back when I was an altar boy.

“Let’s try this one,” he said, fitting a key to the padlock. He grunted with the effort of trying to turn it. When the lock didn’t open, he went back to the key ring until she found another likely suspect. This time, the lock popped free. He opened the door to reveal the dark depths of a cubbyhole. “This is where I keep the Cosdens,” Iver said. He cleared her throat. “The Cosden family papers, I mean.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s a start.”

“Go on in and bring out a couple of boxes,” he said. “Let’s see what we can find.”

I had to stoop down to get inside the cubbyhole. I felt around for a light switch. Nothing. Not even a pull cord for an overhead bulb. It was good and dark in there.

“Iver, have you got a flashlight or something? I can’t see a thing.”

“Go on, you’re a big boy. You’re not afraid of a few spiders, are you?”

Well, yeah, as a matter of fact. But it wasn’t like I could expect Iver to haul the boxes out. He was spry enough, but he was an old man. And he took pleasure in ordering people around. I ducked lower and felt my way into the darkness. Just enough light spilled in that I could make out the edges of the boxes stacked inside. And there were enough spider webs in there to weave a parachute out of the silk.

“What am I looking for?”

“Don’t worry, you’re not even close.”

I inched forward. This must be how cave explorers felt. My knees kept running into my elbows as I shuffled inside. I blinked, trying to get used to the darkness. The tiny room felt like it was holding its breath. Something way back in the corner rustled. Crickets, I told myself. Mice.

Let’s get something straight here, okay? I’m not a total wimp. Mice, bugs, bats and snakes don’t bother me much. Spiders, on the other hand, are a different story. I loathe anything with eight legs. Hey, I know arachnids do a lot of good, catching insects and all that, but there’s nothing lovable about them. Glancing once more at the veil of webs, I had a reassuring thought that black widows preferred lairs with more air and sunlight. On the other hand, the place was just right for a brown recluse.

“You have to go farther,” Iver said. “The box I want is toward the back.”

Then maybe you ought to crawl in here and get it. But I kept my thoughts to myself and crept deeper into the cubbyhole. Looking over my shoulder, I could just see Iver’s silhouette in the open doorway. In my mind’s eye I could imagine him shutting the door and snapping that big lock shut. I had another crazy notion, which was that I really didn’t know much about Iver. He might even be a Cosden himself, way back somewhere in his family tree. This town seemed to be full of twisted family roots.

I regretted not telling anyone I was coming here. Nobody would come looking for me anytime soon in a forgotten cubbyhole on the second floor of the Chesapeake City Historical Society. When they finally got around to unlocking the door I would be a twin to the mummy that tumbled out of the wall at the Cosden House. Maybe they could put me in one of the glass display cases downstairs like a relic from a circus sideshow, or maybe a warning to other meddlesome outsiders.

Pushing that thought from my mind, I grabbed a box and started toward the doorway. I tossed it out and started back for another. My head got a good whack against the low ceiling when I forgot to duck. The impact brought down a nest of cobwebs that stuck to my face like shrink wrap. Something lively scurried across my shoulder. It took a real effort not to go running out right then and there—OK, I’ll admit it, running like a little girl—but Iver would have gleefully spread that story around town by suppertime. Even an arachnophobe has his pride. Leo Cosden, you’d better be worth it. I took a deep breath and tried to forget about the spiders as I dragged out another box.

Iver had started rummaging through the boxes. By the time I carried out a fifth box, he was waving a piece of paper at me.

“This is it,” he announced, unfolding an old newspaper clipping. Someone had penciled a date at the top. October 20, 1913. Oddly enough, the newsprint wasn’t nearly as brown and brittle as might be expected. In fact, it was in pretty good shape. I knew that was because old newsprint contained a higher percentage of “rag content” — actual cotton fibers. Books and newspapers today were all wood pulp and chemicals, which was why they turned brown so quickly. However, it wasn’t the quality of the paper I was interested in so much as the events of ninety-plus years ago.

“What does it say?”

“Do you expect me to do everything!” Iver snapped. Not that it bothered me—Iver was famously cranky and overly dramatic. He sighed. “The fact is that I left my cheaters in the shop. My eyes are getting old, Tom. You can read it for yourself.”

With Iver looking over my shoulder, that’s just what I did.

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2 Responses to Excerpt from ‘The House that Went Down with the Ship’

  1. I’m already hooked! Looking forward to reading this mystery, David. Oh … the copy editor in me noticed this: ““This is where I keep the Cosdens,” Iver said. He cleared her throat.” I’m thinking this should be, ‘He cleared his throat.’, no? JW …

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