The Bridge That Would Not Burn

by Christina Rauh Fishburne


Defenestrationism.net presents
a serialization in 14 parts





Week Three:

in which the highly recommended Lt. Atchison takes the top apartment at Number 14 K Street, and Charlotte ponders how most to dislike him.




Lieutenant Thomas Atchison came highly recommended to the bank and didn’t disappoint. Atchison proved indispensable at the office and displayed a chilly and distinguished aversion to small talk, which impressed his employer. In this regard he reminded Laurence Foster Worthington—now Senior Vice President—of Charlotte, but unlike his daughter, Atchison possessed a delightful lack of passion and a statuesque heartlessness. Worthington’s recovery since the substantial loss in his railroad investment during The Panic wasn’t entirely as complete as he’d let on. Finding a Vice President of such youth and life experience was sure to promote Worthington’s own appeal as the board prepared to choose the next Managing Director. And when rumors reached him that Lieutenant Thomas Atchison had been in the 1st Maryland Infantry regiment, possibly even in the — platoon itself during ’65, Worthington felt his legacy at the Bank of Columbia was secure.  He hadn’t forgotten the significant talk of confiscated valuables missing in the confusion and frustration at the surrender near Burke’s Station. It became essential to him that Atchison be invited to every private dinner party hosted by the partners, included in every public gathering he himself attended, and generally integrated into as many facets of his own professional life as possible. At each turn this Atchison struck Worthington as a stoic and reliable article of both curiosity and detachment. More importantly, from what Worthington had gleaned with near catholic patience and devotion, Atchison could very well be in possession of the valuables.

His best chance: create a place for Atchison at Number 14 K Street. Laurence Foster Worthington became obsessed with the fruition of a still unformed plan. Charlotte was clever, frightening, and the last of him. And nothing of his would be wasted. This Thomas Atchison would live in the top apartment left vacant by that fool of an aid, Coleburn. This Atchison. He would be their future.

*

Atchison made his way down the staircase after settling in his new apartment at the top of Number 14 K Street. His legs were stiff. No one had observed any change in him, he was certain. Still, something was different. Wrong. Atchison knew somewhere inside his body was a spreading death.

He paused at the foot of the stairs, peering at his face in the gilded mirror to his right. Well-groomed, sandy hair still waved slightly in rebellion against the pomade. Clear, narrow, hazel eyes, no sign of the fog he felt behind them. Smart brown suit, shined shoes. The cough had returned and he did his best to suppress it.

He met calculating brown eyes in the mirror and, coughing softly into his hand, turned slowly to face Charlotte. She said nothing. He angled his head slightly and raised his eyebrows in expectation. She appraised him openly in silence.

“It’s nearly eleven. We eat at noon.”

He stood aside as she passed, the wake of skirts chilling the air around him as much as the creature’s eyes as she surveyed him.

Charlotte wondered in which manner she was to dislike Atchison. He was no sycophant, to his credit. He was twice her age but wasn’t fat or unattractive. He didn’t seem a stupid man and he had a potentially interesting past. That evening she was in the parlor doorway, with no real memory of walking down the corridor.

Atchison sat in the chair near the fireplace, a small notebook on the arm of the chair, and a book in one hand, fidgeting with a pencil in the other.

“Sorry to disturb you,” she lied.

“You don’t disturb me,” he shrugged.

“I’ve misplaced my bookmark. It’s sterling and was a gift from my mother.” That was true.

She waited for his reply. His head tilted back down to the book. The pencil did acrobatics. She sighed and reached for a novel from one of the shelves lining the wall. He stilled the pencil to mark in the notebook.

“Do you always read with a pencil to hand?” She cleared her throat and went on. “Marking your favorite passages?”

 “Only notes to myself.”

She made a noise in her throat and replaced the novel she had taken.

“I write things down too sometimes.” She turned to the side and paid particular attention to the crystal dish on the sideboard. “You,” she tried to contain her curiosity and lower her register, “keep a journal then?”

“I did once.” His eyes dragged up the wall behind her. “It seemed the thing to do.” She felt something in the air shift. She read once that hunters and hunted animals could sense such things. She made no sudden movements. 

“I’m sure it’s interesting to look back on. If you kept it, that is.”

“I lost it in those last weeks. But yes,” his eyes settled on her own in a very unsettling manner. “I don’t always trust my memory of things.” Then, “I don’t tend to look back on things at all really.”

The next morning, she finished dressing in darkness. She experimented with combs and twists when she heard a light swish at her door. Dropping her hair as if it burned her, she went to the door where a small, pale blue page, folded once, lay on the floor. Nothing so mysterious had ever happened to her! That thought in itself was infuriating. She snatched the note and opened it, darting glances at the door as if it would burst open and her ridiculous excitement would be exposed.

Two words scrolled neatly across the middle.

Good morning.

Hours later, reading her book in the chair near the window, Charlotte pulled the note from between the pages. Good morning. She refolded it and smiled very slightly as she placed it back under the cover.

Atchison began to feel quite pleased with his situation.  It was a large and very fine house.  The soft tapping of shoes on the polished planks of the floor, the gentle rustling of skirts, his own height measuring up neatly shoulder-length with the framed artwork and tapestries along the walls, and the general smell of antiquity, finery, and stability encouraged him that if he were to suffer physical deterioration at least it would be done in style.

Then a very faint sound settled on him.  It was singing from very far away.  At first, he thought he had imagined it, but finally he was forced to stop and concentrate.

“Ma’am?” he called to the housekeeper who had only just reached out her smooth hand to the glass doorknob of the study.  She indulged him with a tilt of her head.

“Yes, sir?”

Atchison hesitated to be sure he did in fact still hear the voice.  “Is there a …musician… in the house?”  He tried to sound amused and impressed, to be every bit the politely complimentary guest.  The voice was high in the air it seemed.  He could barely make out the words, but they made him feel uneasy.

The housekeeper’s eyes flickered to the wall beside him, and breathing in she pronounced, “It’s chimney cleaning week. I’m afraid the girl is a bit queer sometimes.  Does she disturb you?”

“She sings while in the chimney?” He ignored her irrelevant question.

“Yes.  I have mentioned it to Mr. Worthington, but he says he cannot hear her from his study,” she gestured to the room they stood outside, “and so she remains. But if at any time she bothers you from your apartment, she’ll be released.”

“No need,” Atchison was anxious to leave the hallway and commence his meeting with Mr. Worthington. He had not been listening well to the woman. The words from the voice were closer, descending. He moved toward the door as she opened it.

Mr. Worthington stood behind his large oak desk to greet Atchison with a broad smile.

*






Join us Sunday of the Seventeenth, for Week Four:
in which Charlotte slurps her tea, again, and does not ask Lt. Atchison if he found confederate treasure.

You may enjoy more of the Bridge That Would Not Burnhere.





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Who’s responsible for this madcap affair: Masthead
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