The Last Case of Dr. Jonah Wexley Abbott (Pt. 1)
Steadily dripping an autumnal pool onto the front porch of White Manor, Dr. Jonah Wexley Abbott was strongly reconsidering many of his life choices. Squinting impatiently into the darkness past the porch’s weathered railing he attempted to scan the length of the house in search of any evidence of movement from within. Finding he could see nothing beyond the pus-colored gaslight cast by the lantern overhead, Jonah rubbed his temples and let out a frustrated sigh.
He had a head full of cotton and the back of his throat was still soaked with the sour tang of old mash. While the cold rain had done much to sober him, he still felt the faint, velvet pull of the whiskey behind his eyes. Shaking his head violently from side to side in an effort to beat back unconsciousness, he quietly recited a familiar affirmation of future clean living and lifted his hand to knock again on the large front door.
Normally not considered an ungodly hour by most devout drinkers, this particular three in the morning had found Jonah aggressively snoring away the effects of an early afternoon bout with the bottle. As always, Jonah had thrown the fight early and collapsed in a dingy heap on his office sofa hoping not to be disturbed until tomorrow. When tomorrow came, however, heralded by the splitting sound of his ringing phone, he was completely unprepared for its arrival. As if ashamed of its intrusiveness, tomorrow had brought with it several presents for him to open, and if his throbbing head, soggy clothes and general annoyance were to be held as examples, Jonah doubted he would enjoy any further unwrapping. Tomorrows usually gave lousy gifts.
Shifting back and forth in his wet loafers he took some pleasure in the disgusting sound they made, like churning squashed bugs. Smiling in spite of himself, Jonah decided to focus on carefully choosing just what he was going to say to Gretchen when he saw her. Her audacity had been a problem before but this latest stunt was unheard of. Having not received word from her in nearly half a year, Jonah would have expected that when the occasion finally did come it would have at least been at a more reasonable time of day.
Before working himself into a mild rage, however, Jonah resolved to err on the side of professionalism and remain cool in the face of his grievances. After all, it was possible this early morning summons amounted to an actual emergency, and if it was of the type that required his expertise then he would assuredly need a cool head. No matter how much it was pounding. He did allow himself one final buffet on the door to vent any lingering hostility.
As if recoiling from his blows the door flew open and a rush of molten air hit Jonah squarely in the face. Inside, the foyer was distorted, like a reflection on the surface of a soap bubble. The wavy heat watered Jonah’s eyes instantly causing him to flinch and blink furiously to clear his vision. Once his senses acclimated he was met by the stark form of White Manor’s butler, Wilfred Holmes. Tall and lithe, Holmes was a serious, devout man that had once reminded Jonah of a mortician or possibly a fallen priest. Now, however, his sallow, sagging skin and dark, sunken eyes gave him more the look of a grizzled old dog.
“Good evening Dr. Abbott. I apologize once again for the dreadful conditions and, of course, for your wait at the door,” said Holmes, beckoning Jonah inside.”Come in, and please allow me to take your wet garments. I’ll see to them and fetch you something warm and dry from the late Mr. White’s bureau. I believe he was about your size.”
The thought of wearing a dead man’s clothes gave Jonah slight pause, but he was too tired and miserable to argue the point and forcefully sloughed off his sodden outer layer with a grunt. Favoring Holmes with a half-hearted “thank you”, he watched the butler hurry away before moving into the adjoining den.
Plopping down into one of the dusty, overstuffed armchairs in front of the roaring fire, Jonah closed his eyes and leaned into the radiating heat. Filling his nose with the singed air he gave a comfortable sigh before hearing the echo of sleep’s delicate dirge reverberating in the back of his mind. Snapping his eyes open he searched the room for a distraction. Above the fireplace he found it.
Striving to appear every bit the variety of New England upper crust expected of his family, Alastor White had been a collector of high society’s most obvious relics. Never feeling like he had the respect of his peers he opted instead to let the comforts of wealth abide his ego. The den was littered with evidence of his monetary vanity but nothing captured the repulsiveness of his ostentation more than the painting that crested his mantel.
Most likely originating from the estate of some long forgotten European lord, the piece was ill-sized for the small space in which it had been placed. Gangling past the edges of the mantelpiece the monstrosity seemed to hover over the room like a floating portal into a bizarre dreamscape. Normally a more benign scene, this specific tableau of men and dogs hunting had always filled Jonah with dread. The men and their charges loomed like spectres across a dark hill in the background, their eyes flashing like drawn steel, while the foreground was littered with terrified foxes tearing through the rushes. The sheer panic captured in the creature’s faces never failed to catch Jonah’s breath in his throat. It was the wild eyed look of the damned.
So engrossed was Jonah that he nearly leapt from his seat when Holmes’ baritone voice sounded out, breaking his ensorcellment.
“Here you are Dr. Abbott,” said Holmes handing him a plush robe and slippers,” I’ve brought fresh coffee as well.”
Gracing the butler with a wan smile Jonah slipped into the dry clothes and dutifully took the proffered cup and saucer. He waited for Holmes to sit down in the chair opposite before speaking.
“As much as I appreciate the hospitality Holmes, I’d really like to know why I’m here, if you don’t mind,” said Jonah, sitting back down and taking a long pull of the rich coffee.
Easing himself onto the edge of his chair and leaning forward Holmes fixed Jonah with a grave look.
“I can’t really say sir. After your students left she instructed me to…”
“Wait,” Jonah interrupted,”my students were here? Tonight?”
“Yes sir,” replied Holmes, his frown deepening,”I take it you didn’t know.”
“No, I didn’t, but go on,” said Jonah, snarkily.
“As I was saying, she waited until they took their leave and then asked that I call you. I was to tell you only that the business was both urgent and work related and nothing more. Not even that…,” Holmes trailed off and his face became uncharacteristically distressed, turning a light shade of crimson.
“Not even what Holmes?”, said Jonah, straightening in his chair, his displeasure dissolving into curious anxiety. He’d known Holmes for over a decade and had never seen his stern decorum shaken so thoroughly. Even when he’d sat in on meetings between Jonah and Gretchen that broke down into screaming matches, or worse still, ones that didn’t. Even at those meetings where they spoke plainly of things usually only mentioned in whispered conversations or, better still, not mentioned at all. The man’s resolve had never wavered, yet now he seemed jolted to his core. It was enough to make Jonah shiver, despite the thick robe.
“Not even...that she is dying, Dr. Abbott. Not even that terrible fact,” blurted Holmes, reaching into his breast pocket for a handkerchief.
“Dying?,” said Jonah, mystified, “Of what?”
“Cancer, I’m afraid. She was first diagnosed about six months ago. It was shortly after that your students began coming to the house. I had assumed that you knew about her health and had sent them to assist her. That your lengthy absence was due to your search for a mystical cure of some kind. I didn’t know until this evening that the widow had not informed you of her ailment. She didn’t tell me. She said you didn’t need to know before now. That you would only have “gotten in the way”. Whatever that means,” said Holmes, dabbing his eyes.
“What has she been up to, I wonder,” said Jonah thoughtfully, before standing up and clapping the butler on the back. “Why don’t we just go ask her ourselves? Shall we?”
Standing as well, Holmes replaced the handkerchief, cleared his throat and straightened his waistcoat.
“Of course sir. If you’re ready sir.”
“Lead the way,” said Jonah, waving his hand dramatically toward the doorway.
Following Holmes through the foyer and up the stairs Jonah couldn’t help but notice the state of disrepair the house had come under. Having crowned Whitecroft Hill since the time of the nation’s independence, the house was certainly old but had always been well maintained. Being one of the first American dynasties to wrest great wealth from the untamed woodlands of the north, the White family had always made sure to keep their grand estate in top form. They saw themselves as Massachusetts royalty, after all, and anything short of stately simply would not do for their manor.
Royalty, however, requires a bloodline and this was something that Alastor and Gretchen found tragically unattainable. Being too proud to adopt, no heir existed to see to things and with Alastor in his late eighties when he died and Gretchen being nearly there herself the upkeep of the estate had long ago fallen on Holmes and the rest of the help. When most of the money dried up due to a combination of Alastor’s bad investments and Gretchen’s obsession with supernatural research, the help dried up as well. Wilfred, even at a solid sixty-five, proved no match for the many daunting needs of the palatial beast.
He’d tried his best, at first, but eventually Holmes gave up the ghost and began focusing his efforts on making Gretchen as comfortable as he could in a small section of the house. The rest he surrendered to dilapidation. Jonah almost felt sorry for the willowy old hound before remembering that upon Gretchen’s death the estate was to be liquidated with everything split evenly between Holmes and an endowment for Jonah’s department. Even in its current state the house and the land it sat upon would be worth millions and would provide Holmes with more than enough reward for his indomitable dedication.
Reaching the third floor, Jonah stared down the long hallway at the two enormous doors that led to the widow’s chambers. As he moved toward them his stomach tightened in manic fear. His head swam and he imagined the doors as a giant maw, waiting to swallow anyone foolhardy enough to approach them. A feeling of imminent doom washed over him and, mixed with his considerable weariness, caused him to lean heavily on the oak wainscoting outside the bedroom.
“Are you alright, Dr. Abbott,” inquired Holmes, reaching out to him.
Swatting the butler’s hand away wordlessly, Jonah took a moment to collect his frayed wits. Taking a deep breath and steadying himself he turned to face the old man.
“Sorry, I just got a little overwhelmed. I’m alright now,” he said, turning back to face the doors.
“Of course,” said Holmes as he opened them, giving Jonah his first look at the dying widow White.