Thick fog rolled inland like viscous ooze, swallowing everything in its path. Hammer still clenched in her fist, Aislinn knelt, placing the mallet on the floor before leaning against the wall. As long as her strength endured, she rang the bell. The warning would have to pause. Arms curled around her chest, she drew her shoulders together and brushed her hands up and down over her prickly skin to ward off the damp evening chill. An eerie tingle crawled from the base of her neck and slithered into her fingertips as if her own body warned of the imminent danger. Yet this gallery, at the top of the lighthouse, soothed her like no other place in Chimera Cove.
Sitting with legs crossed, she gazed across the whitecaps. The soft ebb and flow of the water, barely visible through the ominous mist, calmed her tattered nerves. Drawing in several long, deep breaths, she tilted her head against the cold, stone wall and watched the flicker of the lantern, its beams reaching through the haze, alerting sailors of jagged rocks below.
Before the lighthouse, many seamen fell victim to the treacherous shoals north of the harbor. But the dangerous reef paled in comparison to what now lurked within Chimera. The mere thought of the last few weeks jolted Aislinn with a stab of fear. Her heart pounded again, and she countered by clenching her fists so hard her nails bit into her flesh.
I’m safe here. Until she reclaimed her composure, she whispered those words over and over. Atop the lighthouse she could see in every direction, and forty feet above the ocean, the tower provided her a stone fortress. Truly, she was safe, despite the uneasy ambience looming through the village below.
“Aislinn? Aislinn? Are you still up there?”
“Yes, Mistress Hannah. I kept the bell ringing as long as I could.” She stood and brushed the wrinkles from her apron. A lady’s maid to Miss Hannah Cullwick was a proper trade, and Asilinn knew she should regard herself as fortunate. Most women made far less than $38.00 a month, especially in Chimera Cove. “I’ll be right down ma’am. Your dinner is simmering and the table set. I shall serve you as soon as you wish.” She straightened her damp scraggly hair as best she could before tying it into a knot at the base of her neck, then she descended the spiral staircase one level to the kitchen.
“All right dear. I should be ready directly.” After her husband’s death, Hannah Cullwick couldn’t bear to leave the lighthouse her husband held watch over for most of his life. But an ailing woman in her sixties, she could no more carry the load of the duties than her husband’s ghost.
One of many who hoped to be recommended as Mistress Hannah’s “lady’s maid,” Aislinn expected her duties to be of personal service. She excelled as a seamstress, a masseuse, a hairdresser, a beautician, and a secretary. Bringing her mistress breakfast in bed, helping the lady dress and undress as well as selecting her wardrobe and jewelry, or styling her hair was a small price to pay when Aislinn considered that one day those duties could afford her a promising future in high society. But having landed the position, she soon came to realize the job entailed more physical duties aside from that of a lady’s maid, like maintaining watch as a keeper would, making sure the light was ever shining and the bell tolled when fog moved into Chimera Cove.
Mistress Hannah promised the addition of second order Fresnel lens as well as a newly invented bell tower striking apparatus. She intended to add them within the year, which would make Aislinn’s work considerably easier, especially on nights like tonight. Mistress Hannah proffered that the newest technology 1876 had to offer would make Cullwick Lighthouse among the most extraordinary on the east coast.
Truth be told, though tolling the bell manually on foggy nights with a double blow every fifteen seconds took all her strength, Aislinn loved the lighthouse. Perhaps not as much during her first few weeks, but as time elapsed, she found herself looking forward to her watch duties. Each evening she’d stand atop on the gallery deck or in the watch room below, looking across the deep blue sea. The experience gave her a sense of purpose far beyond that of a mere chambermaid. She grew to love the solitude and beauty, and she felt content living out her life here in Chimera Cove––until last week.
Shuddering, Aislinn recalled the evening of what began as a most cherished day. The July forth celebration in Chimera typically commenced with an exquisite parade then a picnic to follow in the town square. Later, adults would gather for a twilight dance, which ended with glittering fireworks bursting into the velvety night sky. The morning went splendidly well for Aislinn, who had noticed on more than one occasion, the town’s strikingly handsome blacksmith, Micah Wheeler. The idea he had designs on her had her pulse racing.
Throughout the day they’d kept company. Was it his dashing good looks with sandy-brown hair and that glimmer of blond when the sun hit just right that held her spellbound? Perhaps his seductive, slate blue eyes. Or was her attraction piqued by the way he made her laugh? Not a simple girlish twitter. Micah had her holding an aching stomach from utterly fascinating narrative or clever riposte. By evening, Aislinn’s enchantment burned into warm desire. Not that she would ever allow her passion’s promise. Despite her lady’s maid position, she was a true lady by birth and felt the regality deep at her core. Perhaps that’s why her duties came so easily.
She sighed, again remembering the events that evening. After several dances, Micah held out a hand. “Do you care to take a walk and let the night air cool us a bit?”
She happily nodded and laced her fingers through his. Strolling down Main Street, they paused at the stable to watch the fireworks. The smell of gunpowder and hay mingled with Lily-of-the-valley, while bursts of fire exploded, lighting the night sky. Micah drew her close and she welcomed his embrace. No doubt the night of July 4, 1876 would imprint in her memory as the night Micah Wheeler stole her heart.
“Aislinn. Do you not realize how beautiful you are? Even your name dances across my lips when I speak of you. What took you so long to honor me with your presence?” He lifted a loose strand of hair and tucked it behind her ear. “Can you not see how much my heart yearns for you?”
Convinced he could hear the pounding of her own heart, she angled her head and gazed at the starry night. “I thought you immune to my charms.” She smiled, parting her lips in hopes they would lure a kiss.
A soft brush of his finger traced around her mouth before a crooked finger perched below her chin, coaxing it upward. His lips, soft and warm, covered hers with a gentle graze that tempted her passion and tingled between her thighs.
One day, she promised herself…one day she would have this man as her husband. She’d never felt an attraction as strong as this, or the comfort she felt in his arms.
Micah held her close. So close she had to close her eyes to breathe. When she finally lifted her lashes, a blast of emotion ripped through her and she clung to Micah––frozen in fear.
He immediately responded to her frantic grip. “What is it?” He spun, still holding her close.
Yes, the fourth of July might have been the day she’d remember forever as the first blossom of love touching her heart. Instead, the memory seared into her mind as an image of panic. Aislinn shivered as the warm July night shifted with a chill that held her ridged, paralyzed by fear. No longer did the air smell of flowers and hay. The putrid stench of death now swirled around her, stealing the breath from her lungs. She coughed, choking from the dank, heavy air surrounding her, still clinging to Micah.
What she saw––what they both saw––radiated a feeling of dread, and yet the phantasm had no real substance. Something transpired right in front of them. An encounter? A possession? A hallucination? If a dream, then Aislinn and Micah experienced the same nightmare. They saw, smelled, and felt something that shifted the atmosphere and emitted a sense of dread. Whatever emerged that night, floated through them then drifted toward the town square and hovered like an obscure dome looming over the town.
Was the vision an illusion, an apparition, or a spell of some kind? Aislinn didn’t know and she spoke of the event to no one. Who would believe her, aside from Micah? The two were now bound together, but not by love. Whatever evil the phantom possessed, it cast an invisible veil over the square that shrouded everyone with mistrust and apprehension. For a week, neither she nor Micah could shake the feeling that––
An echoing shriek pierced through the night, breaking Aislinn’s musings. She lifted her skirts and rushed down the spiral staircase toward Mistress Hannah…
Micah held the iron in place on the anvil while his apprentice, Frank, struck it with the large hammer. Not even a wisp of air moved through the overheated shop. Sweat dripped from Micah’s face onto the sizzling metal. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve, but it was useless. His entire shirt was drenched.
Frank stopped hammering and took a long, exhausted breath. “I’m too old for this shit,” he muttered.
Micah scowled in irritation. “You can’t stop now. The anchor’s not even close to being forged.”
“I don’t give a damn. I’m spent.” He lowered himself onto a nearby stool, took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his face.
“Yeah, this is bullshit.” Micha dropped the tongs to the floor. “He couldn’t have sent me here as, I don’t know…a sheriff or saloon owner. He had to make me a blacksmith.”
Frank grinned. “Ellory isn’t exactly out to make your life easier.”
“No shit.” He’d only been in this century a few weeks and he already hated everything about it. Everything except seeing Aislinn again. She didn’t remember that she despised him…didn’t even remember she knew him. So, he could be with her, enjoy the pleasure of her company, her sweet smile, touch her… Without her wanting to drive a knife through his heart. He’d enjoy it while he could. As soon as the full moon came around, he’d have to jerk them both back to reality, and to the twenty-first century.
Dirt clung to the wrinkles in Frank’s red face. “You know, it’s not exactly a pleasure trip for me either.”
Frank had been sent to keep an eye on Micah. Although it wasn’t necessary. Ellory had all the insurance he needed to assure Micah would follow his orders. If Micah didn’t bring Aislinn back to the twenty-first century, Ellory would kill the only person Micah loved.
“Yeah, well, he’s your boss. I can’t believe you’d work for him after what he did to your sister.”
Frank’s jaw clenched. “Rose was wrong to do what she did.” The quaver in his voice made the words less than convincing. “She took his child away from him. Far away, not only in distance, but in time.”
Aislinn’s mother was a sorceress. She’d finally had her fill of Ellory’s controlling, abusive ways and had spelled her daughter into another century, where she thought Ellory would never find her. And she’d been killed for her efforts. Although Ellory was accustomed to hired help doing his tasks, he’d performed this one himself, choking the life from his wife—the mother of his only child. Micah was glad Rose hadn’t known she’d died in vain–that after searching for only two years, Ellory had found Aislinn. Micah didn’t know how. Ellory himself was not magic. But, he was a powerful, wealthy man, who, thanks to the supernatural family he’d married into, had connections to the world of magic. One of those connections had apparently helped him find Aislinn. And he wanted his daughter back.
His thoughts went to the evening of the celebration. In spite of the intense heat from the nearby hearth, cold fingers of dread skipped down his spine. “Do you think that shit that happened last week was Ellory’s doing?” He didn’t know why the man would want to unleash an eerie cloud of evil. But what other explanation was there?
Frank shook his head. “I got no idea. I wonder if it’s something else.” His voice lowered ominously. “Something that knows what Ellory’s up to and is making its presence known.”
Aislinn reached the bottom of the stairs and let out a gasp. Heavy fog hung over the room. She squinted through the murkiness. The front door stood wide open. But still, how could fog enter like that? It was…uncanny. Cautiously, she started across the room to close the door when she stumbled into something on the floor. She waved her hands, trying to clear the fog so she could see. It dissipated somewhat, and fear shivered over her skin. Mistress Hannah was lying on the floor, deathly still, her eyes closed. Aislinn dropped to her knees and touched her fingers to Mistress Hannah’s neck, nearly crying in relief when she felt the steady pulse.
“Mistress, are you all right?” Aislinn was surprised to find her voice strong in spite of the way her insides quaked. She gently shook Mistress Hannah’s shoulder. “Wake up. Please, wake up.” No response. Aislinn’s head swiveled as she frantically searched the room, even though she knew no help was to be found. She turned her attention back to the unconscious form, her gaze falling on Mistress Hannah’s right hand. A fully-bloomed, gorgeous, red rose was gripped between her fingers. Aislinn blinked in confusion. Where had that come from?
Finally, Mistress Hannah stirred. She opened her eyes and slowly sat up. “What…what happened?” She looked down at the rose and quickly flung it away. Blood dotted the inside of her hand, where she’d gripped the thorned stem. “Aislinn, what on earth is going on?”
Aislinn shook her head. “I’ve no idea. I heard a scream and rushed downstairs to find you on the floor.” She gestured around the room. “And this bizarre mist.”
“Help me up, dear.”
Aislinn shifted her skirts aside and stood, then took Mistress Hannah’s hands and pulled the older woman to her feet.
Mistress Hannah held her hand out, palm up, staring in bewilderment at the red splotches. “Where did the rose come from?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know. Do you not remember anything at all?”
“I was going to go up for dinner, and I heard the door open.” Mistress Hannah swayed, and Aislinn guided her to her favorite arm chair, helping her lower to the silk-covered seat. Mistress Hannah fluttered a hand to her forehead. “I-I looked back down and no one was there. Fog was pouring in. I was frightened out of my wits, but I hurried down to fasten the door. The next thing I remember, you were waking me. I don’t know how I ended up on the floor. Do you suppose I fainted?”
“Perhaps.” But that did not explain the rose. Could it be related to the apparition she and Micah had seen? Micah…suddenly she wanted nothing more than to see him, to have him wrap his strong arms around her—arms that were muscular from all the hours of blacksmithing. What was it about him? She’d only met him a few weeks ago, yet she felt secure with him, comfortable. As if she’d known him for years. She pulled her mind away from Micah. Mistress Hannah needed a doctor. She might have sustained unseen injuries. She was not a young woman. “I’ll get Mr. Hydro to take me into town and bring the doctor to look you over.” It would not be a good idea for Mistress Hannah to take the bumpy trip into town. Not to mention, she seldom left the lighthouse and would likely be unwilling to go.
“Oh no, my dear. I’ll be fine.”
“We don’t know that. You need to be seen. I’ll be back in no time.” Aislinn was not anxious to leave the lighthouse herself. She had no idea what had occurred, what kind of darkness had befallen the townspeople. But her concern for Mistress Hannah overrode her fear—as did the hope that she might catch a glimpse of Micah.
Thank you for following along with our virtual mystery as it unfolds week by week. Be sure to check back next Monday, May 28 for Chapter 3, by Maureen Bonatch.