“You know, I’m still not sure how I got stuck with chauffeur duty,” Abbie grumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it.
Honestly, it was kind of a nice change to be hunting down some relic of the Founding Fathers that didn’t have life-or-death stakes attached to it. When she wasn’t worried about the end of the world, it was fun to treasure-hunt; it felt more like the work she did for the FBI, but with an extra helping of Indiana Jones. That was why she’d agreed to help Crane find the secret crypt under Trinity Church in the first place.
Of course, now the occupant of said crypt was in the backseat of her car, delivering a lecture. He didn’t seem to have noticed her grumbling.
“... And of course, when considered in the proper historical context, her argument does appear quite a reasonable one, lacking as it does any primary sources that might contest it,” Alex said. “Which is what I hope to remedy, while of course making amends for my own lack of academic decorum. Two birds, struck down by the removal of but a single stone from the cellar of General Schuyler’s house.”
“A very clean blow, to be sure,” said Crane. “Assuming, of course, that the archive remains.”
“There’s no sign of it in the historical record,” Abbie pointed out.
“I should think not,” said Alex. “When Peggy hid a thing, it stayed hidden. There’s probably still powder and shot concealed in every room in the house.” He frowned. “Ought I inform someone of that, as well? It must pose something of a fire hazard, and the need for it is certainly past.”
“Let’s start with the letters,” said Abbie, “and we can go from there.”
Abbie wasn’t expecting company when they arrived -- it was after hours, and closed for the holidays besides -- but Ron was waiting on the front steps with a couple of women. One was Abbie’s age, or a little younger; she had her hair up in a half-undone bun, and reminded Abbie strongly of Jenny after a couple of all-nighters in a row. The other woman, a white lady in her sixties, had the kind of impeccably styled gray hair that made Abbie assume a twinset and pearls were under her coat.
“Mr. Chernow! Ms. Harris! I am so very glad you shall be joining us,” said Alex.
“Like I’d miss it,” said Ron.
“If this is for real, it’s going to make up for every Christmas party I’ve had to skip,” said the younger of the two women. “So it had better be for real, Alex.”
“I shan’t disappoint, Ms. Harris. That is a promise. And this, I presume, must be the trustees’ chosen deputy?”
They made their introductions, all around: Abbie, Crane, Annabel Harris ("Call me Anna,” she said, shaking Abbie’s hand), and Marie Shippen, the gray-haired woman from the board of trustees.
“Enough pleasantries, I think,” said Alex. “Shall we proceed?”
Inside, the house was dim and quiet. “I figured it would just be us,” Abbie said to Crane, bringing up the rear, but Alex overheard.
“Provenance, Miss Mills, provenance must be proven,” he said. “The more, and more esteemed, the witnesses, the greater the credibility of the find. Mr. Chernow, I daresay, may be considered unimpeachable in that regard.”
“Well, and also if you’d done this without me, I might have dueled you myself,” said Ron.
“No need for that, I hope,” said Crane.
There was electric light in the basement, but even with it on the place was kind of spooky: their steps echoed off the stones, and came back from the shadowy corners sounding like the murmur of voices. It was setting off Abbie’s ‘incoming supernatural bullshit’ detector, though she knew the place had been full of tourists only a day or two before, and had no priors when she’d checked the archives for unexplained phenomena.
Nonetheless, Abbie switched on her flashlight, and congratulated herself for wearing a shoulder holster under her jacket.
Alex didn’t seem to pick up on the bad vibes, and Crane didn’t either; he had his ‘distracted by interesting history’ face on. Ron and Anna both had their phones out, recording. They were talking softly; Abbie caught “-- here at the Schuyler mansion with Ron Chernow -- say hi, Ron -- and we’re hoping to --”
“Now, it ought to be right along here,” Alex announced, running his hand along an ordinary-looking stretch of stone wall, just above floor level. “There should be -- ah! Here we are.”
Abbie blinked, and what had looked like an unremarkable patch of stone, maybe a little darker than the ones around it, resolved into a clearer shape. “What is that?” she asked.
“Here, would you be so good as to shine the light directly? Thank you, Miss Mills. Mr. Chernow, Ms. Harris, perhaps a closer look before I go further?”
With the light on it, Abbie could see that the dark patch was a carving, small and careful, tucked into the bottom corner of a larger block of stone. It looked like some kind of animal. “Is that what I think it is?” Abbie asked.
“A little lion, I believe,” said Alex. “Peggy’s idea of a joke.”
“That -- someone should have noticed that, before now,” said Marie. “People have been going over this house with a fine-tooth comb for over a hundred years. How on earth did we miss it?”
“I cannot answer that, I’m afraid,” said Alex. “Perhaps no one knew what to look for.” The actual answer, Abbie knew, was probably ‘it’s magic,’ but that wouldn’t be a whole lot of help either. “At any rate, it is discovered now. Might I borrow your light, Miss Mills?”
Abbie handed him the flashlight, and was a little surprised when he turned it around to tap the butt-end on the carved stone. One, two, three hits -- a little more force behind the fourth -- and the carving broke free of the surrounding wall and fell to the floor.
Alex quickly reversed the flashlight and aimed it into the hole he’d made. “As I’d hoped,” he said, and Ron and Anna both leaned in close. Only Anna was still filming. From her own vantage point, Abbie could just see the fat bundle of letters, tied up with string, tucked into the hole in the wall.
Crane, standing next to her, leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Apparently there’s an absolutely blistering missive from Abigail Adams in there,” he told her. “I am quite looking forward to reading it; she was an inventive wordsmith.”
“See, I wouldn’t have kept that,” Abbie whispered back.
“Oh, you couldn’t destroy a letter from Mrs. Adams,” Crane said. “She’d find out somehow, and then you’d really be in for it.”
Alex reached out for the letters, but before he could pull them free Anna made a sharp, distressed noise and swatted his hand away. “You’re not even wearing gloves!” she hissed at him. “Be careful!”
“I beg your pardon,” Alex said. “I had not thought -- Chernow, did you happen to bring...?”
“Here, let me,” said Anna, producing a pair of white cotton gloves from her pocket. She paused after tugging them on. “I mean. If you don’t mind?”
“By all means, Ms. Harris,” said Alex, and stepped aside so she could do the honors. Ron crouched beside her to film it. When he turned back to Abbie and Crane, though, Alex paused.
“Mrs. Shippen,” he said, frowning, “are you quite well?”
Abbie spun around. Marie Shippen had backed up to the foot of the stairs, where she was gripping the railing so hard that Abbie thought she could hear it creak. Her face had gone bone-white, and her eyes... Her eyes looked darker than they had, upstairs.
“So you were telling the truth,” Marie said. “Now there’s a stroke of luck. I’d just about given up on finding anything else hidden in this house. Tell me, how’d you do it?”
“Madam, I am unsure of your meaning,” said Alex. “I only knew where to look.”
Abbie nudged Crane with her elbow. He shifted, and blocked Marie’s line of sight for long enough that she could tug her jacket open, freeing up access to her shoulder holster.
“If you could find that, you could find other things,” said Marie. “And I’ve been looking for such a long time, Mr. Fawcett. I’m so tired of looking.”
The lights started to flicker. Marie raised her free hand -- her nails couldn't have been that long before -- and gestured at Alex. He went rigid, and when she flicked her wrist he started to drag across the floor towards her, pulled by nothing, still frozen. From behind her, Abbie heard Anna make a choked-off sound of shock, quickly muffled.
“You’re going to show me where dear old Margarita hid her spellbook, Mr. Fawcett,” said Marie, and god, her teeth --
Abbie flicked the safety off, raised her sidearm, and fired. One, two, three shots, all hitting center mass, and with the fourth Marie let out an absolutely unholy screech. She seemed to stretch, somehow, blurring sideways and up--
And she was gone. The lights came back on and held steady. Alex collapsed to the floor, wheezing.
“Good lord,” Crane said, rushing forward to help Alex up. “Hamilton, are you well?”
“Fine, fine,” Alex said, voice a little hoarse. “Quite all right. My thanks, Miss Mills,” he added turning to Abbie. “That could have been a great deal more unpleasant -- and the joke’s on her, really; I haven’t the faintest idea what Peggy did with any spellbook.”
“What the fuck,” said Anna, too loud. She was clutching the letters close to her, curled up around them on the floor. In crisis situations, Abbie had seen people yank their spouses behind them, or shield their children with their bodies. It just figured that when threatened with supernatural evil, an academic's first instinct would be to protect her primary sources.
“Seconding that,” said Ron, backed up against the wall beside her. He had the cellphone he’d been using to record held behind him, too.
“My apologies,” said Crane. “Miss Mills and I had not expected this sort of interference.”
“You call that interference?” said Ron.
“I’d have gone with ‘nightmare lady with monster teeth,’ myself,” Anna said, a little weakly. “Um. Could someone give me a hand? I can’t seem to put these letters down. Or stand up.”
Crane and Ron, between them, took custody of the letters and got Anna vertical, while Abbie swept the house for any more signs of Marie -- or whatever had been calling itself Marie. There were none: she’d disappeared, along with Abbie’s four bullets.
“At least I didn’t put any holes in a historical landmark,” Abbie mused, running a hand over the stair rail. Crane was still fumbling through the ‘supernatural bullshit for beginners’ speech. Ron had gotten the monster-free version when he first met Alex, which helped a little, but Anna wasn’t taking it all that well.
“Oh, believe me, it’s seen worse,” Alex said. “Has the story of the tomahawk in the banister survived to the present day?”
“Wait just a god damn minute,” Anna said, loud enough to stop all other conversation. She pointed accusingly at Crane. “You called him Hamilton, didn’t you.”
“Er,” said Crane. “Well. In fact, Miss Harris--”
“In fact I owe my presence here in large part to Mr. Crane and Miss Mills,” Alex cut in. “That is, my presence in the present day. Mr. Chernow has been good enough to assist me in acquiring a false identity, my true one being too improbable for most. I apologize most sincerely for the deception, Miss -- oh, but I must beg your pardon once again -- Ms. Harris. ”
Anna took a minute to process that; it was interesting to watch her put the pieces together. She glanced back at the hole in the wall, behind her, and then at Alex again. “So you knew those letters were here --”
“Because I asked Peggy to put them there, yes,” Alex said. “She told me I could reclaim them if ever a day came that their contents could no longer hurt her sister. It is a source of great regret that I could not fulfill those terms while Eliza lived, alas, but I should like it if they did some good, regardless.”
“... Okay,” said Anna. “Sure. I guess that’s not actually more impossible than the nightmare lady with monster teeth.”
“Only by a very little, in my experience,” said Crane. “It seems that history is full of improbable things, many of which do not confine themselves to the past.”
“I think I’ve had my fill of living history for the day,” said Ron. “No offense, Alex.”
“None taken, certainly,” said Alex.
As they emerged from the house, though, Alex stopped short in the doorway. “Aha! I should have known -- Shippen!” he cried. “Of course!”
Abbie tensed, reaching for her sidearm again, and Anna squeaked, and Crane looked around wildly. “What is it? Abbie asked. “You figured out what she was?”
“No, I haven’t the faintest idea,” said Alex. “But the name -- Benedict Arnold married a Shippen! I should have known she’d prove treacherous.”
“How is he real,” Abbie heard Anna hiss at Ron, as Alex and Crane launched into a brisk argument about the loyalties and possible supernatural abilities of the Shippen family.
“Don’t ask me,” Ron muttered back. Behind them, Crane was trying to explain to Alex about the Judas coin.
“Yeah, welcome to my life,” Abbie told them.