After writing December’s story “Serpentine”, I conceived of the notion of making it the first of a loose trilogy, connected not by characters, events or setting, but by shared motifs. This is the second in that trilogy, and you’ll have a month to ponder which other aspect I plan to explore last.
Jacob Ellis was a nervous young man. That is, he was habitually nervous; he had trouble sitting still for long unless he occupied his hands with something, and it was often difficult for him to focus on the task before him unless he was very, very interested in it. It wasn’t that he was stupid; quite the opposite in fact. His mind was so agile, so filled with curiosity, that he found it difficult to keep it from wandering to things that were more worthy of consideration than the dull matters of clerking. But since it had been determined long ago that he would follow his father into the legal profession, that was what he had done, despite the fact that he would probably have been more suited to a trade involving more motion and less focus on dry-as-dust wills, deeds, contracts and all the other mundane matters of a family law practice.
But today, he was also situationally nervous, because his father had entrusted him with his first important client: the estate of Magnolia Machen, the wealthiest woman in the county. Mr. Machen had been killed in the War, and since many a lost fortune and devastated farm had been left behind in General Sherman’s wake, it had not been difficult for his widow to purchase a grand old house (in need of some repair) and most of the other valuable land in the area, and to build up a considerable income from it. And since Mrs. Machen was a woman of reclusive and frugal ways, that income had enabled her to invest in the stock market and to acquire other, more valuable properties stretching from coast to coast.
She was so reclusive, in fact, that Jake had not even been aware that she had a daughter until his father told him that he was to meet her at the house today. And that meeting was the cause of yet a third layer of nervousness: Miss Machen was stunningly beautiful, with mounds of lustrous hair, dark, piercing eyes and a sinuous grace that more befit a dancer than a debutante. Being in her presence filled him with powerful feelings he could not clearly define and was not at all comfortable with, and he felt himself perspiring under his seersucker to a degree he felt was profuse, even considering the June heat. Could she really be almost forty years old? She didn’t look a day over twenty-two, but if she were that young she’d have been born more than ten years after the late Mr. Machen’s demise. Best not to think too hard about it. “You’ll have to forgive me, Miss, but up until today I wasn’t even aware that you existed; I had assumed the estate would go to more distant relatives.”
If she noticed his clumsy handling of the statement, she was far too well-mannered to show it. “I haven’t lived here since before you were born. You see, my mother was a singularly cold-blooded woman, and didn’t really want to be burdened with a child. So I was shipped off at a very young age to be educated in Europe, and have lived with various relatives in various parts of three continents since then. I have only seen my mother a handful of times since childhood, and the only reason I was here when she died was that she wrote me a letter summoning me here a few weeks ago, once her doctor told her that she only had a little while yet to live.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” said Jake, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. He was a bit surprised that Doc Thompson’s prognosis had been so accurate; he had been largely retired for twenty years, and the only people who still consulted him were those more concerned with his legendary discretion than with his very average level of skill. Thompson probably knew about the dirty laundry and closet skeletons of most of the best families in the region, and would take that knowledge to the grave in a very few years. It had been a very profitable specialization for him; people said there was no secret, however dark, that a sufficient sum could not persuade him to keep.
Miss Machen shrugged. “Hardly a loss, Mr. Ellis; as I just told you, she and I weren’t very close. The only reason her death affects me more than the death of a business associate is that it stands to be extremely profitable for me.”
Even after hearing about their estrangement, Miss Machen’s coldness in regard to her mother shocked him. I reckon the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, he thought; I won’t be surprised to hear she sends her daughter away, too. But out loud he said, “Well, um, yes…that is, ah, er, you’re her sole beneficiary.”
“I’m well aware of the contents of the will, Mr. Ellis; my mother did not like surprises, and was therefore not one to inflict them on others.” Her voice was soft as silk, but her gaze sank into his being like…he preferred not to think about it. “In fact, if it’s all the same to you we can dispense with the customary formalities; I’d rather just sign what I have to sign and then be on my way. I’ve a train to New Orleans to catch in only a few hours.”
“Of course; my father has been your mother’s attorney since the early seventies, so it’s the least I can do to, ah, expedite things for you. There are just, um, a few questions…”
“Oh?” The brief syllable dripped impatience.
“Um, yes, well, just one really important one, and a minor one. First, I see we have a copy of the death certificate, but there’s absolutely nothing anywhere about funeral arrangements.”
“My mother didn’t believe in such frivolities, nor do I. Her remains were cremated.”
“You find that frightening?” The trace of a smile flickered across the lovely lips, but only for an instant.
“N-no, not exactly, it’s just, um, I’ve never seen that done before.”
“There are no local crematories, Mr. Ellis; my mother’s doctor took it to the nearest one. It’s all in these papers here, and the ashes are in that urn.” She gestured to a rather plain metal container placed unceremoniously among other boxes on the parlor table. “Now what was the other matter?”
“Oh, um, it’s just these, um, Arizona ranch holdings; I don’t have all the information I need to deal with them from here, and I’d rather not have to bill you for a trip all the way out there.”
“I believe a telegram to my attorney in Denver would clear that up,” she said, rising from her seat; “I’ll just tell him to respond directly to you.”
Since Miss Machen had pointed it out, Jake had been unable to keep his mind off of the urn; he had never seen the ashes of a human body before, and was consumed with curiosity about what they would be like. Were they fine, or coarse? Were the teeth and bones wholly reduced, or were there still shards? He just had to see, and Miss Machen would be on the telephone with the telegraph office for at least a few minutes. What would be the harm? After all, neither the old lady nor her daughter seemed very sentimental about the remains, and neither of them was in a position to see him peeking anyhow. He turned to the container and lifted the lid, but was startled and confused when he found not ashes, but something white and papery. He quickly glanced down the hall to be sure his hostess was not yet returning, then reached into the jar and pulled out the contents. As a boy he had once seen the cast-off skin of a snake, thin and translucent but still retaining the shape of the animal which had left it behind when it became too old and worn to be of use any longer; that’s what the thing in the urn reminded him of, though it was much larger. And though it had been crumpled and broken in the process of compressing it into the undersized container, it was still quite obvious that the creature which had shed this decrepit husk was possessed of a human shape.