Warning: some people die.
The two nurses on night duty stood in the doorway of the children’s ward as still as snowmen, and just as cold. The older one was taller, thin as a rail, and stooped in the shoulders from a lifetime of bending to the gossip of the other nurses in St. Nivelles Memorial, the other was a plump young brunette with a dimpled face more suited to giggling than fretting.
With mouth barely moving, the young nurse, Evangeline, whispered, “That one’s a goner. Sad…so young he is.”
“Aye. The prime of his life. But Marley never lies.”
Moonlight shone through the window and across the floor of the sixteen-bed ward. The two beds by the window, like most in the large room, were occupied, but in the one to the right of the window, a black cat sat upon the chest of the patient like a fat black spider. Its paws were curled under its chest, its tail around its haunches, the tip waving rhythmically like a larghissimo metronome.
Evangeline ‘tsked’ and the cat’s ears twitched. Maggie pulled the shorter woman back out of sight. She said, “I’ll alert Mr. Peeves when he comes in. Come now Ev, let’s finish our rounds an have us a cuppa tea.”
Mr. Peeves was the head orderly. A large, grizzled man lumpy with muscles in odd places and a rubbery scowling face topped with a fat grey unibrow. At the first grey light of dawn, Nurse Maggie accompanied Peeves and his assistant to the poor boy’s bed. In the doorway Peeves halted, his assistant, whom he called Smiley, bumped into his backside.
Maggie said, “Oh for heaven’s sake. It’s just a cat. He’s not even here. You know he leaves when the last breath is expelled.”
Peeves muttered, “You mean stolen.”
Maggie shook her head and rolled her eyes. Smiley snickered. Peeves whacked Smiley on his vast forehead with the heel of his hand, but Smiley kept on with his idiot’s grin, a slick of saliva glistened on his protruding lower lip. Peeves growled. “Shaddap. That thing’s not just a cat. Mayhap not a cat at all. Steals the breath he does. It’sa spawn of something from hell, it is. Mayhap Lucifer himself.”
Maggie said, “Oh Mr. Peeves…granted Marley is a tad bit unusual. But if he’s anything other-worldly, he’s an angel. An angel of death that gives comfort in one’s last moments on this earth.”
Peeves shuddered and cautiously stepped into the room. “Pah!” He squatted low to look under the beds, his knees cracked like pistol shots in the quiet, early dawn stillness. The squealing behind him made him jump and curse under his breath. It was Smiley wheeling in the gurney; Smiley giggled, and Peeves turned on him. ‘whack,’ another blow to his head. “I tole you. Shaddap. And grease them wheels for Godsake.”
As the odd pair wheeled the gurney down the hallway towards the back entrance of St. Nivelles, Maggie greeted the day shift nurses as they came on duty.
The pretty blond said, “We erd the cat did its job again last night.”
“Yes Francis, Marley attended the young lad with the lung sickness early this morning. The poor lad sounded like he was drowning…and oh, all the blood he was coughing up. All night he went on. When he quieted a little after one, Ev went an checked on him. Marley was with him.”
“Ahhhhh,” both day nurses exclaimed in unison.
“Yes, the cat comforted him to be sure. The young mister had a smile on his face.”
Later that evening, Maggie headed to the C Ward which consisted of four private rooms in a short hall. The C Ward was called ‘The Silk’ for often its temporary residents wore fancy bed clothing of rich fabrics. She was surprised to hear Peeves’ gravelly voice from the doorway so stopped and peeked in.
The large man sat at the edge of the bed nodding to the middle-aged man in it. Maggie could decipher no words, but the low voices made icy fingers tinkle down the piano keys of her spine. Peeves was not one with bedside manner, she herself found him repulsive and smarmy. She grew irritated with herself for halting in her duties, shook her head, and entered the room, “Ahem,” she said, clearing her throat.
Peeves turned around and stood. His cold eyes under the fat grizzly brow threw sparks of malice as his lips widened into a grin. His few remaining teeth stood like mildew blackened tombstones in a long-forgotten graveyard. She shuddered and said, “Mr. Peeves, be on your way, there are two beds in Ward A that require attention.”
“Ma’am,” he said with a nod and a smirk. He picked up the empty mug from the small bedside table and departed. A tall, grey, beaver-felt top hat sat on the table. It had a maroon velvet hatband; it was the hat of a well to do gentleman.
“I hope he wasn’t too offensive,” she said to the gentleman in the bed.
Mr. Burton turned his rather handsome face in her direction and said sleepily, “No…fine…tea…”
Maggie frowned and held Mr. Burton’s wrist to check his pulse. It was slow and regular, but she was concerned about the fogginess that the man exhibited. He was to be released the next morning- had received a clean bill of health from the doctor earlier that evening.
“Hm. Well, you get some sleep. Big day tomorrow, you’re going home.”
“Hmmmm.” He snugged down lower in his quilt and drifted off.
At dawn, Maggie greeted the nurses coming on duty as well as the doctor. Dr. Weatherby was a stout man in his mid-fifties with beady black bespectacled eyes and a fringe of shoulder length white hair that hung from his bald pate like a privacy curtain around a bed. He had inherited the hospital, the cemetery behind it, and the admirable home located behind the wrought iron fence that surrounded all three.
Maggie said, “You’re up and at it early today Dr. Weatherby.”
“Nurse Maggie. Uh…yes. We are admitting a new patient to the D Ward this morning. An elderly woman.”
It was Dr. Weatherby’s duty to be present when new arrivals came in. Over the years he had grown lax in that duty, barely concealing an apathetic attitude towards the impoverished, a characteristic Maggie found appalling in a doctor. He was adamant of the duty when it concerned newcomers to the C Ward and also the D, which consisted of four rooms with two beds each. The D Ward was known as ‘the Golden Hall’ as it catered to those in their golden years. It was there that Marley was found most often.
Maggie said, “Nothing too serious I hope.”
“Stomach pains, some vertigo…one never knows at this point.”
“Well, I shall meet this new patient this evening upon my return to duty.”
“Yes. Go on home now, you look dreadfully tired.”
Maggie cringed at the doctor’s tactlessness. He was this way with all the patients…except the C and D Wards; she supposed it was why she was extra kind to them all. She could put herself in other’s shoes and being ill was no fun at all.
Later that evening Maggie headed back to the hospital for her night shift. She rented a room in a small house on the other side of town two miles from the hospital. To lesson her walk time by ten minutes, she cut through the alley alongside the doctor’s house and then walked through the graveyard. She knew her way through the dark graveyard well but carried a small lantern anyways, lest a fresh grave pop up in her path.
She was walking briskly through the alley when the sound of men’s voices made her stop halfway. When she recognized them, she put out the light and crept to end of the alley where she could hear the men but not see them.
Peeves raised his voice, “It’s me neck on th’ line, doctor. I wan me fair compence!”
Dr. Weatherby said, “I hired you when no one else would. We had an agreement, and I shan’t back down, sir.”
“Ahhhg!” Peeves horked up what sounded like an oyster and spat wetly. “We’ll see bout that den.”
Mr. Peeves clumped down the back stairs as the door closed and the light through the window by it went out. The vile man was wearing a tall grey top hat.
Alarm bells rang in Maggie’s head like the town was on fire. She decided to take the long way around. The last thing she wanted was to come upon Peeves in the graveyard alone.
At the hospital, Francis ran to her quite upset. Maggie said, “Mr. Burton…?”
“Yes. I found Marley with im two hours ago. I don understand…he was recovered was he not?”
“Yes. He was. Where is Mr. Peeves?”
“Ah…last I saw, he were in The Silk, makin up poor Mr. Burton’s room I spect.”
“Thanks Fran.” Maggie bent to pet Marley who’d come up beside her silent as a shadow. “Good kitty.” She then headed to meet the new patient.
On her way to the D Ward, Maggie peeked into the room in the C where Mr. Burton had passed. The bed was freshly made, the vase on the table empty of flowers. She continued on towards the softly lit room the new patient had all to herself. Peeves was there, standing by her bed, putting Mr. Burton’s white roses and pink begonias in the vase on the table by the window.
The elderly woman clapped with delight and said, “How kind of you sir. And that doctor too. So kind.”
Maggie grimaced. Peeves bowed and said, “It’s my pleasure Lady Maude. Oh. This ere’s Maggie, she’ll be carin ferya this evenin.”
“Nurse Maggie,” Maggie corrected.
Peeves left and Maude said, “What a nice gentleman. He has brought me warm milk and an extra pillow…I didn’t even ask for such things.”
“Yes, quite a pip that one. How are you feeling Mrs. Hodges?”
“Oh, just Maude please. My tummy hurts a bit but I’m no longer dizzy. I fell you know. Whacked my backside pretty good. The doctor says I had an allergic reaction to something I ate.”
“Is that so? Well, I am happy it’s nothing serious. You’ll be out of here in no time.”
Maude laughed. Amidst all her wrinkles she had sparkly blue eyes the color of a summer sky. Her teeth were pearly white and perfectly straight as expensive dentures ought to be. She had a few wisps of light auburn hair across the top of her thinning scalp. She said, “I’m not sure I want to leave so quickly.”
Maggie understood. She was not the first lonely elderly person she’d met here. “You’ve no family here then?” She sat on the edge of the bed.
“Alas, no. My dear Robert passed…oh…going on eight months now. Our one surviving son was awarded an Earldom down in Lanksmithy, don’tchoo know. It’ll be four days afore he can make it here. Though I expect that woman he’s with will have a frazzle at him going at all. She’s with child don’tchoo know. It’s just me and Bertraum- he’s getting on in years too now- and Miss Mary, she’s his grand-daughter.”
“I see. Well, Lady Maude, perhaps I will come call on you some afternoon, I’ll bring lemoncakes.”
Maude clapped her hands endearingly like a little girl. “Oh, I would so love that.”
“I’ve got to be going,” Maggie said, rising. “I’ll check on you in an hour or so.”
“Oh, Nurse Maggie?”
“That little kitty, the black one…does it belong to Mr. Peeves?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, it seems to follow that man everywhere.”
“Hm. Marley is his name and no. The cat belongs to no one, he is a free spirit.” Maggie picked up the ceramic mug on the night table and said, “This is cold now. I’ll go warm it for you.”
“I insist.” Before Maude could protest any further, she whisked out of the room.
In the apothecary, Maggie smelled the milk. Peeves had added vanilla…and almond extract? She dumped the milk into a wastebucket and heated a fresh one, adding vanilla but finding no almond. She was perceiving Mr. Peeves’ odd behavior had gone from disarming to quite disturbing.
She found Evangeline in the children’s ward and said, “Please take this to Lady Maude and sit by her side this morning.”
“Yes ma’am.” She took the mug and bustled off, her backside jiggling like fresh goat’s cheese in big round bags, and her shoes squeaking like mice on the tile floor.
The children’s ward was nearly full, the common flu was going around, and the A Ward with its sixteen beds was always near full.
At five am Maggie was waiting for a young boy to finish with his bedpan. She looked towards the hallway to give him privacy and glimpsed Peeves skulking by. Maggie’s exhausted eyes perked open as she witnessed the small black cat-shaped shadow padding silently behind. “Com’on now Jimmy, pinch it off if ye must.”
The boy grunted and Maggie took the bedpan and placed it on the dry sink hutch next to the door. She flew down the corridor and rounded the doorway to Maude’s room. She cried out in horror when she saw Marley laying on the old woman’s chest. Evangeline was fast asleep in the chair by the bed. She shook her and became afraid she, too was a goner. She slapped Ev across the face hard, the red welt sprang up against her pale skin, even in the low light of the lantern, it was quite a contrast. Ev’s eyes fluttered open.
“Oh, thank god!”
“Wh-wh-oh my.” Ev clutched at her brow. “I don’t feel so…” then she screamed when she saw the cat upon the old woman’s chest. The two nurses held each other until the cat departed.
Maggie said, “Fetch the orderlies.” She then went back to the apothecary and discovered the wastebucket had been emptied. “Curses! I am so stupid!” She heard the gurney squeaking by in the hallway. ‘Good ole obedient Smiley,’ she thought.
In the alley alongside the doctor’s house, Maggie crouched and waited. As the sky lightened by dismal degrees, at last she detected the orderlies guiding a gurney over the combed dirt path towards a mound of dark earth she hadn’t detected in the dark. It no doubt had a six-foot deep, rectangular pit afront it.
Dr. Weatherby came out from his darkened porch wrapped in a maroon and chocolate paisley robe lined with soft tan fur.
The two men with the body halted at the grave. Smiley took off the way they’d come.
The doctor passed a small item to Peeves.
Peeves said, “Thankee sir, and now we are done.”
“Wh-wh-what the blue blazes man?! You’re far from done here!”
“I’ve got me a mansion to attend to.” He held up the small item, in the strengthening light Maggie saw it was a key. The doctor tried to snatch it back, but Peeves pocketed it quickly.
“Fill that grave!” Dr. Weatherby demanded and pointed to the grave, the body, and then stopped to get control of his temper. Maggie saw from her perspective the doctor drawing a pistol from the sash behind him.
Before the doctor could fire, Peeves blew his head off with his own pistol, one he’d concealed alongside the body on the gurney. A doctor was no match for a career thug. The doctor’s headless body crumpled. Peeves laughed and turned towards the path that led back to the hospital.
Maggie crept out of the alley and ran into the graveyard. She quickly took in the scene: sheet covered body on a narrow table with wheels, an open grave containing an empty pine box, the lid lying against the mound of fresh dirt, and another body headless and heaped. She hefted the doctor’s fallen pistol and ran after Peeves. The evil man raced along the moonlit path through the cemetery, but he halted and shrieked, the sound comically high-pitched like a girl’s. Maggie saw a cat-shaped shadow in the path in front of him.
Before he could shoot the cat, Maggie cried out, “No!”
Peeves whirled around. Maggie could not conceal herself any longer in the dark, dawn had come full on to display the graveyard scene in stark reality. He fired at Maggie.
She felt a fiery, acidy burning in her upper arm. She screamed and threw herself to the ground, knowing she had to use her brain to defeat one such as him. As he crept closer, she remained still. As he peered over her, she held her breath.
As Peeves knelt to brain her with his empty gun, she raised the pistol in her hand.
He saw and dealt her a blow across her face.
Maggie’s gun went off. When she sat up, she saw the awful man slumped in a heap next to her, his meaty arm across her thighs.
Maggie wasted no time. She dragged the man who was twice her size down the path back to the grave. She dumped his body into the pine box in it and dragged the lid over.
It was full daylight by the time she finished. Her mind was racing. She needed to contact the sheriff and show him the graveyard and care for Lady Maude and…and…she collapsed to the ground, overwhelmed.
As she sat in the dirt path and cried, Marley came out from the shadows between the gravestones and sat upon the fresh dirt of the grave.
“Oh my. Seems he was indeed alive.”
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