The Last Case of Dr. Jonah Wexley Abbott (Pt. 2)
She looked old. Not the type of old one earns at the end of a long and fruitful life, but old like rusted metal, blighted by rot. Her wasted arms, folded across her stomach with funereal grace, were sporadically stained by deep purple bruises. Propped up by two plush pillows, her shriveled head nested in a shock of white straw hair. Under dark lids, her closed eyes floated in pools of recessed shadow; fleshy orbs twitching at pained dreaming. Thin lips rattled her equally thin chest with struggled wheezes, filling the aseptic air with desperate gasps. It was almost more than Jonah could take.
Standing dumbstruck in the doorway it took him several moments to find the legs beneath him. Upon finding them he attempted to move as quietly as possible to the bedside while dragging a chair over from the nearby vanity.
Sitting down, Jonah leaned forward and stared at the widow for several minutes, trying to attune himself to this new reality. Absentmindedly, he began stroking his mustache, a nervous habit he’d picked up in college while stressing over exams.
“I know you’re sitting there stroking your mustache at me. I could smell the liquor on your breath before you got to the top of the stairs,” said the widow, startling Jonah upright and sending his hand quickly away from his face.
“I didn’t want to wake you,” said Jonah, turning away as Gretchen opened her eyes and struggled to sit up in the bed. Holmes rushed to her side to help and she smacked him away.
“Nonsense. I brought you here to talk about something important. I’d imagine I’d have to be awake to have that conversation, wouldn’t you Professor?” said the widow, condescension dripping from her mouth as always. Bristling, Jonah was reminded of just who he was dealing with, regardless of any illness. He proceeded accordingly.
“Okay then Gretchen, what am I here to talk about?” said Jonah, his tone appropriately clipped by anger.
“That’s the spirit my boy! Now that we have that out of the way, a question, have you ever heard the name Augustus Rayburn?,” asked the widow, milky eyes gleaming.
“As a matter of fact, yes I have. An acquaintance of mine mentioned this case to me a few months back, thought I might be interested in looking into it. Rayburn was a ship’s captain, brought back by his crew from an arctic voyage raving like a lunatic. They swore he’d made some kind of pact with a demon or some such nonsense after their ship had become lodged in ice. Claimed it had given him the knowledge to free the ship but had also driven him insane. That sound about right?” said Jonah, sitting back and steepling his fingers arrogantly.
“Was that acquaintance Hunter Foley?”
“Yes….you haven’t been dealing with that charlatan have you? I turned him away for a reason. He’s a useless toad who does reckless, slipshod research and you should know better than to….,” Jonah exclaimed, his face turning pink. The widow interrupted.
“Calm down, you blowhard. I sought him out myself, not the other way ‘round. I was the one who told him about Rayburn in the first place. If he brought the story to you I suspect he was merely trying to get you to do his work for him. I stumbled upon Rayburn’s journal in one of the many curiosity auctions I take part in. I only hired Hunter to authenticate it. What he found in the process is what I brought you here to discuss.”
Jonah calmed himself, duly rebuked and intrigued. “What did he find, then?”
“Rayburn,” said the widow, smiling,”alive!”
“Ridiculous. Rayburn’s been dead for over a century. I checked into it. He died in the fire that burned down the old nut house in Kingsport, where his family lived.”
“Wrong. Hunter found out that Rayburn was reported dead after the fire but his body was never recovered. I instructed him to look to other asylums in the area, hoping that he might have wandered away during the confusion and gotten picked up by another hospital. I was merely hoping for some records about the man since none survived the Kingsport blaze. At Danvers, in Salem, we found more than I ever could have hoped for.
A janitor who overheard the Danvers director give Hunter the run-around pulled him aside as he was leaving the hospital. After considerable compensation he told Hunter about a patient that was kept in isolation that none of the staff would talk about. The rumor was that the patient has been in the hospital for decades with no family or even a name. After a few well placed phone calls to some Danvers donors and several severe promises of discretion, I was able to get Hunter an interview.
He took photos and recorded everything. Suffice to say, based on the evidence, we both believe that the madman he spoke to that day is indeed Augustus Rayburn, former captain of the Mary Margaret,” said the widow, reaching into her nightstand and producing a cardboard box, “and this should be all the proof you need.”
Taking the box from her Jonah carefully removed the lid and looked inside. There was the journal, photos both ancient and new, and several folders containing typewritten pages of brittle, yellowed paper. Jonah laid it all out on the bed in front of him.
He started with the pictures. The oldest of them, dated some hundred years prior, was an intake photo for the hospital in Danvers. A man’s slack face, presumably Rayburn’s, held still by a rough hand erupting from hospital whites. Nothing unusual for the time. The most recent, however, taken by Hunter only weeks before, raised every hair on the back of Jonah’s neck. It showed a man lying in repose inside a filthy padded room. Mired in the same grime that covered the walls, his face was difficult to decipher, but the eyes were exact. As if no time intervened them the two photos appeared to contain the same man, the same fractured gaze. Remarkable.
The folders were next.