Authors: Nevada Barr
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery Fiction, #Mystery, #Crime & mystery, #Fiction - Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Mystery & Detective - Series, #Pigeon; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Women Park Rangers, #Mystery & Thrillers, #Ellis Island (N.J. and N.Y.), #Statue of Liberty National Monument (N.Y. and N.J.)
Following the glassed-in passage toward the "front" of Ellis, the easterly shore facing Manhattan, Anna was caught up in the twin mysteries of water and time. Leaves pressed close against the ten thousand windowpanes. In places they forced their way in, tendrils that would, over the years, destroy the world of man. Westerly light, rich burnt umber from sun through the New Jersey smog, shone behind the green blood and bone of the foliage, streaked red-gold through the gaps. The hall, twelve hundred feet long, shimmered like a wormhole through a watery universe. Savoring the surreal nature of reality, Anna walked slowly, stopping every few yards to watch a changing pattern or see pictures in the debris on the floor or the rust and mildew on the window frames.
Offset one to the right, then one to the left, infectious disease wards thrust out perpendicular to the walkway. She peered down darkened corridors, noted squares of dusty light, sensed the heavy presence of stairwells and metal doors. The last three of the seven wards had different floor plans. Glassed-in walkways forked off from the one Anna followed, then divided into a wishbone shape providing a glass hallway that curved to either side of a tiny half-circle of what had once been garden. The prongs of these wishbones let into buildings wider and higher than the previous wards and sufficiently intriguing to lure Anna from the sun-green path.
These structures had suffered more from the elements than those she'd wandered through on Island II. Island III took the brunt of the wind and storms. Windows in the seaward walls were broken and the walls themselves beginning to crumble. She walked with care, avoiding flooring that looked particularly green or soft.
In these decrepit spaces the flotsam of many bureaucracies--Immigration, the Coast Guard, the NPS--was squirreled away. One upstairs ward, once sunny with sash windows from the chair rail to the fifteen-foot ceiling, now as muted and murky as any greenhouse from the encroachment of trees, was chock-full, wall-to-wall with rotting cardboard filing cabinets.
Rooms with screen doors opened into wide, dark inner hallways. Indoor screens struck her as odd till she realized it was the only way to provide internal ventilation and bug control simultaneously.
The last ward, at the end of the glass passage, had been battered from two fronts. On the southeast corner of Ellis, its windows looked out on both Liberty and Manhattan. This, Anna decided, would be where she would have her city abode. Two or three hundred grand and the place could be made livable.
The sun had sunk into the blood-red miasma over the western horizon. Shadows lost their edges and migrated out from closets and corners to cloak the passages and pool in the middle of the rooms.
It was time to get back to the world of the living. Even in the broad light of day these ruins were hazardous, and Anna hadn't thought to bring a flashlight. Prosaic physical danger, real as it was, wasn't the only thing that spurred her to finish her explorations. With coming darkness, the place was beginning to feel creepy. Like any self-respecting ruin, Ellis Island had its ghost stories. The first day Anna had lunched in the employee break room, the actors hired for the summer to portray immigrants filled her in on the paranormal wildlife. At noon she'd been polite but skeptical. Now, close to nightfall, in the confusing, disintegrating maze that was Island HI, stories of women in white, strange cries and flickering candles in abandoned attics were no longer amusing. With the willies came a preternatural sense of hearing. Shuffles and whispers, creaks and skritches that had been inaudible when sunlight was streaming in began to take on a sinister orchestration.
"Nerves are shot," Anna said. Her voice startled her and she wished she hadn't spoken aloud, called attention to herself.
Across the harbor the city would be donning its evening dress; she decided she would find her way above stairs, take in the view, then come back down and return to Island I by the outdoor path that ran along the eastern side of the island to the slip where the ferries docked.
Leaving the open area of the ward for the stairs, she realized how much of the day was gone. For a moment she had to wait in near darkness for her eyes to adjust. The stairs were in bad shape. Risers were missing. Plaster, moss and mold covered others so it was impossible to guess at their condition. The rail, but for the upper third, had fallen away from the wall and lay partway down the stairwell. In the black recess beneath the steps, between a rotting upright and a door to another room or closet, was a small storage cache long abandoned like the rest of the islands. A rank smell both sweet and nasty permeated the air. The wise choice was to wait till daylight returned, but then the view would be lost. Taking pains to stay near the wall where the support would be strongest, and never to put all her weight in any one place, Anna eased up the staircase.
Manhattan's lights seen from the high windows of the upstairs ward were worth the climb. The harbor sparkled with its own brand of industrial fireflies and the bridges were strung with necklaces whiter than diamonds and bisected by the ruby and gold of auto running lights. All this against a sky of pale sea green. Enjoying the show, breathing the soft air of a June evening, Anna stayed longer than she had intended.
When she finally turned to go, darkness had crept closer. As had the ghosts. Mocking herself even as she listened for clanking chains and spectral footsteps, she made her way back through the inner twistings of the building, darkened by empty cupboards and closed doors, to where she remembered the stairs being.
Shut away from dusk's ambient light, she felt her way along, trailing her fingers against one wall and straining her eyes for the gleam from a polished drawer handle, any scrap of light to focus on. Flapping, sudden and loud, stopped her heart for an instant.
she reminded herself. The old hospital was haunted by roosting pigeons.
The head of the stairs brought some small relief. Though the bottom opened into an unlighted hallway, to her night-wide irises the faintest tinge of gray was discernible where the hall angled into the downstairs ward room with its generous windows. Wishing she'd been born with more sense--or more rods on her retina--Anna trod gingerly on the top step, her foot close to the wall, some of her weight suspended on the remnant of handrail. The tread gave slightly, not through structural failure but because a woodland soil of dust and moss had taken root there.
Ghouls and wraiths continued to scuttle to and fro just out of sight. Below her, floors settled and creaked as if the dead walked there. Above, suspicious whispering suggested starched aprons from the turn of the century and long skirts of wool. The skin on the top of her head tightened and she felt the chill that came into her veins when she was truly afraid.
she said again but this time to herself. The situation called for care, not fear. She was overreacting, but it was nothing daylight and open air would not set right. The next step groaned alarmingly but held.
Of course it held,
Anna growled mentally.
You don't weigh any more going down than you did coming up.
Three more stairs and she was out of handrail. Willing herself as weightless as pigeon-down, she took the next step. A shriek: old wood ripping from older metal. Most of her weight was on the lower step, and with a suddenness that took her breath away, it was gone. Gravity would pitch her face-forward. With a spine-wrenching twist, she threw herself back onto the stairs she knew had recently been able to carry her. Arms flung wide, she tried to spread her tonnage over the most territory possible. Her left hand smacked painfully into the edge of something solid and vicious. Her right hit the railing behind her head.
Her fingers closed around the smooth hardwood. Searing pain in her shoulder, as it took the brunt of her weight when her body dropped, let her know the remainder of the stairs had fallen away. Without the lower steps in place, their own inertia dragged them down. Twisting, she felt every pound of her crack into the ball-and-socket joint in her right shoulder. Numbness wanted to travel up her arm, loose her fingers, but she willed her grip to tighten instead. Screaming timber, the muffled crash of time-softened wood, then mold-ridden dust billowed up in a choking cloud that clogged her throat and nose. The racket of her coughing and retching drowned out all else. By the time she had it under control, all that remained of the shattering was a liquid-sounding trickle of dirt and plaster.
Held aloft by the fingers of her right hand, Anna dangled over the ruined stairwell. Between dust and night there was no way of knowing what lay beneath. Soon either her fingers would uncurl from the rail or the rail would pull out from the wall. Faint protests of aging screws in softening plaster foretold the collapse. No superhuman feats of strength struck Anna as doable. What fragment of energy remained in her arm was fast burning away on the pain. With a kick and a twist, she managed to grab hold of the rail with her other hand as well. Much of the pressure was taken off her shoulder, but she was left face to the wall. There was the vague possibility that she could scoot one hand width at a time up the railing, then swing her legs onto what might or might not be stable footing at the top of the stairs. Two shuffles nixed that plan. Old stairwells didn't fall away all in a heap like guillotined heads. Between her and the upper floor were the ragged remains, shards of wood and rusted metal. In the black dark she envisioned the route upward with the same jaundice a hay bale might view a pitchfork with.
What the hell,
How far can it be?
And she let go.
With no visual reference, the fall, though in reality not more than five or six feet, jarred every bone in her body. Unaided by eyes and brain, her legs had no way of compensating. Knees buckled on impact and her chin smacked into them as her forehead met some immovable object. The good news was, the whole thing was over in the blink of a blind eye and she didn't think she'd sustained any lasting damage.
Wisdom dictated she lie still, take stock of her body and surroundings, but this decaying dark was so filthy she couldn't bear the thought of it. Stink rose from the litter: pigeon shit, damp and rot. Though she'd seen none, it was easy to imagine spiders of evil temperament and immoderate size. Easing up on feet and hands, she picked her way over rubble she could not see, heading for the faint smudge of gray that would lead her to the out-of-doors.
Free of the damage she'd wreaked, Anna quickly found her way out of the tangle of inner passages and escaped Island III through the back door of the ward. The sun had set. The world was bathed in gentle peach-colored light. A breeze, damp but cooling with the coming night, blew off the water. Sucking it in, she coughed another colony of spores from her lungs. With safety, the delayed reaction hit. Wobbly, she sat down on the steps and put her head between her knees.
Because she'd been messing around where she probably shouldn't have been in the first place, she'd been instrumental in the destruction of an irreplaceable historic structure. Sitting on the stoop, smeared with dirt and reeking of bygone pigeons, she contemplated whether to report the disaster or just slink away and let the monument's curators write it off to natural causes. She was within a heartbeat of deciding to do the honorable thing when the decision was taken from her.
The sound of boots on hard-packed earth, followed by a voice saying, "Patsy thought it might be you," brought her head up. A lovely young man, resplendent in the uniform of the Park Police, was walking down the row of buildings toward her.
"Why?" Anna asked stupidly.
"One of the boat captains radioed that somebody was over here." The policeman sat down next to her. He was no more than twenty-two or -three, fit and handsome and oozing boyish charm. "Have you been crawling around or what?"
Anna took a look at herself. Her khaki shorts were streaked with black, her red tank top untucked and smeared with vile-smelling mixtures. A gash ran along her thigh from the hem of her shorts to her kneecap. It was bleeding, but not profusely. Given the amount of rust and offal in this adventure, she would have to clean it thoroughly and it wouldn't hurt to check when she'd last had a tetanus shot.
"Sort of," she said, and told him about the stairs. "Should we check it out? Surely we'll have to make a report. You'll have to write a report," she amended. "I'm just a hapless tourist."
The policeman looked over his shoulder. The doorway behind them was cloaked in early night. "Maybe in the morning," he said, and Anna could have sworn he was afraid. There was something in this strong man's voice that told her, were it a hundred years earlier, he would have made a sign against the evil eye.
Dwight was on time. Dwight was always on time. Effortlessly, Cal lassoed the piling, and in the seedy back lot of Ellis Island's showcase museum, between the old powerhouse and a rickety-looking bridge that tied the island to New Jersey, Anna and Patsy boarded the
"Was it you who got me busted?" Anna asked the captain good-naturedly as she slid onto her favorite seat on the high bench.
"Serves her right, doesn't it, Patsy?" Dwight pretended to be shocked, keeping his back to Anna. "Creeping around closed areas like a middle-aged mutant ninja ranger."
Patsy laughed and Anna assumed they had a private joke. She smiled to be part of the gang but didn't participate in the conversation. She was as tired as if she'd done something all day, and was content to sit in the sweet wash of air that came off the bow through the open window, to be part of the night life of stars floating on the water.