#1 of a quadrilogy of stories
Word count: 1,842
Clouds of dust floated down the steps leading to the attic in the upper reaches of the white hacienda coming to rest on the slim shoulders of Scott Lancer who waited at the bottom of the runged ladder. “Teresa, are you all right up there?” he shouted.
The only sound to meet his ears was a hacking cough. Starting up the ladder, Scott stopped when the dirt-covered face of Teresa O’Brien appeared through the rectangular access to the attic. “I. . .I’m fine,” but another gut-wrenching cough shook the woman’s small frame.
“That dirt isn’t good for your lungs. C’mon down.” Scott reached out with one hand to help her descend the ladder, but instead the young woman backed away.
“Teresa, be sensible!”
“I am sensible, Scott Lancer. The attic needs to be cleaned and I intend to do it now!”
Grumbling at her stubbornness, the blond ascended the ladder until his head was now in the attic itself. The sight, which met his eyes, was appalling. Layers of dust and smells of the past overwhelmed his senses as his nose began to twitch uncontrollably.
Cascades of dust rolled down the ladder as a sneeze exploded from the young man’s patrician nose, followed by another and another.
Her own nose dripping, Teresa frowned at the easterner. “If you’re going to do that, you can just go back downstairs.”
“Sorry. I thought you might need help cleaning up this mess.”
Teresa looked at him with suspicion. “Why are you offering to help? I’ve never known you or Johnny to worry about housework before.”
White teeth appeared in a smile in the midst of the dust-laden face. “Are you going to turn me down?”
“I can’t afford to. It will take me weeks to clear this up by myself. I don’t think anyone’s been up here in years.”
Scott climbed up into the attic itself and began to search among the trunks, boxes and forgotten pieces of furniture. It wasn’t difficult to believe that no one had been up here in years, particularly since the only prints in the dust were ones that either Teresa or he had made.
Removing a dust cover from a chair, Scott peered closely at it. “This doesn’t have a seat, why would Murdoch keep it?”
Teresa shook her head as dust motes moved in waves. “I have no idea, but I suppose his Scottish blood wouldn’t let him throw it out.”
“I guess. Doesn’t look like there’s much you’d want to keep up here.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t even started with the boxes. Maybe I’ll find a hidden treasure.”
“Certainly, didn’t you ever dream of finding buried treasure?”
“Buried is right. You could dig a grave in some of this dirt.”
“Dirt? It’s not dirt, just dust. I should have brought up a rag and a broom. I just didn’t realize it was this bad,” Teresa admitted.
“Well, you can’t work up here when it’s this bad. Why don’t I carry one or two of the boxes down and you can go through the contents when you have the time?”
The girl bit her lip. “I don’t know about that. I don’t want all that dust in my room or all over the house.”
Scott sighed. “All right, I’ll go down and get some wet rags so we can clear off the dust from some the boxes. Then if we sprinkle some water on the dust, we can sweep it into the corner.”
“At least, it’s a start. Maybe I can talk Maria into helping me later.”
“Right, I’ll go down and fill a bucket and bring up what we need.” Not waiting for Teresa’s agreement, the Lancer scion started to descend the rungs of the ladder, but stopped when he heard Teresa’s merry laughter. Glancing up, he sneezed and then asked what was so funny.”
“You look like Johnny! You’ve got so much dust in your hair that it’s dark.”
Scott rubbed one slender hand through his dust-caked hair and sneezed again. “Well, my hair may be dark, but I’m still the handsome one!” Grinning at her, he carefully continued his descent.
Ten minutes later he returned with all the needed paraphernalia. For one moment he did not see the young woman until he heard a muffled call, “Scott, I’m over here.”
Leaning the broom against an old chest, Scott set the bucket and rags down to walk over to where Teresa was sitting on the dustcover pulled from the chair. “What are you doing? I thought we were going to separate out the boxes, not rummage through the trunks?”
“Yes, I know, but then I. . .I saw this trunk and I couldn’t resist opening it.”
“Why? It looks just like the others.”
“Men! Can’t you see this one has my initials on it?”
Scott stared down at the small area which she had cleaned off with her hanky. “T.A.O. What’s your middle name?”
“Agnes. I was named after my mother.”
“Your mother’s real name was Agnes? I just assumed it was Angela.”
“She didn’t like the name, but my father insisted. They. . .they were still happy then.”
Knowing that Teresa still hadn’t reconciled herself to the fact that Angel Day was alive, Scott peered into the trunk, hoping to find something that would deflect Teresa’s sad thoughts. “Say, what’s this?” Scott held up a somewhat round object with three holes in it. Blobs of blue and red were smeared over part of the surface and there were some fading yellow threads still attached by something that might have been paste.
The young woman flushed and tried to grab it out of Scott’s hand. “Give me that, it’s not important.”
“But what is it?”
Teresa held it up against her small face. The eyeholes did not match up anymore, particularly since one was nearly a half-inch lower than the other and the mouth hole was tiny, much smaller than Teresa’s lips. Muffled sounds emerged. “I w. . .a. . .prin. . .ss.”
Scott gently pulled the mask away from her. “Did you say you were a princess?”
The young woman nodded. “We had a Halloween party and I wanted to be a princess so I made this mask with blue paint around the eyeholes and a red mouth. My father found some yellow yarn and I attached it like hair. See you can still see a few threads.”
One long finger touched a thread tenderly. Scott looked into the brown eyes. “You must have looked beautiful.”
Teresa laughed. “You are the perfect gentleman, aren’t you? I was seven years old and I looked absurd in the mask and an old dress that my mother had left behind, but I felt beautiful. My father danced with me at the party and so did Murdoch. I remember he almost had to pick me up because his back hurt so much from stooping over.”
“Was. . .was Murdoch in a costume?” Scott couldn’t imagine his father wearing a costume, but he had to ask.
“Of course, he was! I insisted on it. Even then he tended to spoil me. I guess he thought all little girls needed to go to parties so I made the most of it. My father was a ghost. I remember because Maria was so angry that he used one of the good sheets. Murdoch, he. . .promise you won’t tell Johnny what I’m going to tell you?” she anxiously asked.
“If you don’t want me to,” Scott reassured her.
“It’s just that you know Johnny, he’d tease Murdoch and Murdoch will get angry and the two of them have had enough arguments.”
“I knew you would. That’s one thing I noticed about you right away. You try to understand people, even put yourself in their shoes. Like with Dan Cassidy. I know what he did must have hurt you a great deal, but it could so easily have been you, couldn’t it?”
“Easily.” Scott stood up slowly. The kneeling position cramped his long legs. “I don’t suppose I’ll ever forgive what Dan tried to do, but I have to admit I would have wanted revenge if I had thought someone had betrayed us.”
“I don’t believe that!” Teresa protested.
An almost shy smile crossed the blond’s face. “War does strange things, Teresa. Violence begets more violence. For a time there I’m not sure I was even human. I just wanted to survive. It took me some time to shake off those memories after the War ended. If I had been tortured with the thought that a friend had been responsible for the death of those sixteen men, I’m not sure what I would have done.”
“I still don’t think you’d have tried to kill the one responsible.”
“Maybe not, but thankfully I won’t be put to the test. Anyway, it was just Dan’s bad luck to become ill. It could have been any one of us.”
“I guess you’re right. Dan Cassidy certainly didn’t choose to betray his men.”
“Life takes strange roads at times. If Pardee hadn’t come after Lancer, I would never have known I had a brother or met Murdoch and you.”
A hint of moisture filled the brown eyes. “That’s the only good thing that came of losing my father–you and Johnny came here to live, even though you both make more work for me!”
Scott rubbed behind one ear as he admitted, ” I suppose that’s true, but don’t think all this talk about Johnny and me is going to deter me from my question. What costume did Murdoch wear at your party?”
The young woman blushed. “I should have known you wouldn’t forget. He wore his kilt.”
“A kilt? Now, that I would have liked to see!”
“That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him wear it. I’m sure he still has it though. In fact it may be in one of these trunks.”
“Hmm, maybe we should rummage through them then. I’d like to see his face if he walked in and find it laid out for him to wear.”
Teresa giggled. “I think he has a set of bagpipes too.”
“Bagpipes? The only time I ever heard someone try to play the bagpipes, it sounded like Johnny does when he tries to yodel!”
“Oh, I don’t think Murdoch ever played them himself. I think they belonged to someone in his family, but don’t tell him I told you.”
“I can see that it is time for me to start doing a bit of research. I’ve been content with what I’ve been able to discover about Murdoch and Johnny on my own. Now I think it’s time to find out what’s behind their masks.”
“And what about yours, Mr. Lancer?”
“Mine? I’m an open book.”
“Of course, you’re as open as a miser’s money bag.”
Scott blinked in surprise. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“No? Well, I’ll be glad to enlighten you while you help me clean out this attic. Who knows what we might find?”
To The Key —>
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