Read Isolation Online

Authors: Mary Anna Evans

Isolation (20 page)

BOOK: Isolation
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

But she couldn't swear that there wasn't something in the museum that was related to Elias Croft. She'd never even heard of him before Oscar and Delia showed up in Micco County.

“We can go over there now.” As she spoke, Faye remembered what had happened to Delia that morning. She almost added, “If you're feeling up to it,” but she remembered at the last minute that she wasn't supposed to know anything about Delia's attack.

Delia set her mug down so firmly that a little tea sloshed over its rim. “If I have to sit here for another minute in this house with its locked doors and its fully armed alarm system, waiting to hear whether the police have arrested anybody, I will scream.”

So Delia didn't mind admitting that she was the woman whose story had been all over the news that morning. This meant that Faye could stop worrying about accidentally revealing that she had known this for hours.

Delia pulled the sleeves of her cardigan down, but they weren't long enough to fully cover the red marks on her wrists. “Shall we go?”

Faye watched Oscar spread the old linen across the ottoman in front of him, carefully laying the sword on it. It looked like a piece of a bedsheet. As he swaddled the weapon like a baby, she got a close look at the green leaves embroidered along one edge of the linen in a pattern that she'd seen before.

They formed a garland, caught up at intervals with flowing yellow ribbons to make a scalloped design. She owned a few pieces of china, all of them old and most of them broken, with that design painted along their rims. Stamped on the bottoms of those teacups and plates were the words “Turkey Foot Hotel.” Most of them had been found buried among the ruins of the hotel owned by Cally's husband Courtney Stanton. A few of them were uncovered by a hurricane that came more than a hundred and fifty years after the one that destroyed the hotel.

Faye had tracked down the china company who had made them, and she knew that they had been designed and custom-made for the hotel. There were no others like them in the world. She tried not to stare as she tracked back through the only reasonable sequence of events that put a piece of linen from the Turkey Foot Hotel into Oscar Croft's hands.

The Turkey Foot Hotel had died young. It had stood on Last Island, which had been so close to Joyeuse Island that Faye could see its remnants from her cupola, and the hotel hadn't survived the great hurricane of 1856. Neither had the island. Last Island had been blown into so many pieces that the area was now called the Last Isles.

In her oral history, Cally had clearly said that she attended the grand opening of Courtney Stanton's hotel as a slave in 1856. While she was still on the island, probably within days of the grand opening, a hurricane destroyed the hotel and killed most of the people in it, including her master and mistress. Courtney Stanton had been her master's son-in-law, and he had inherited Cally, all the other slaves on Joyeuse Island, and the island itself. Eventually, Cally had become his common-law wife, living with him in Faye's house on Joyeuse Island until he died sometime after the start of the Civil War.

There was almost no way that a piece of linen carrying the Turkey Foot Hotel's crest could have survived the hurricane. Perhaps someone had found it floating in the Gulf afterward but, more likely, a shipment of linens had arrived after the hotel was destroyed. Even a week's delay in shipping would have meant that a shipment of sheets could have outlived the hotel.

Cally's husband Courtney would have found himself poorer by the value of a hotel and the island it sat on, but very rich in bedsheets. Faye imagined that even the slaves in their cabins slept wrapped in sumptuous linen.

Cally, frugal to the bone, would have used those sheets for years. Then, when it came time to send Elias Croft's sword home—two decades after the 1856 hurricane? three?—she would have used the worn but still serviceable fabric to cushion it for the trip.

Was she looking at a scrap of fabric that Cally had held in her hands, washed and hung out to dry, and maybe even slept under? Resisting the urge to reach out a hand and snatch it, she answered Delia's question. The words “Shall we go?” had just left the young woman's lips, even though Faye had spent that instant traveling to 1856 and back.

She dragged her gaze away from the linen, met Delia's eyes and said, “Sure. Let's go check out Emma's museum.”

Chapter Twenty-six

Faye had come to her meeting with Oscar by boat, so it made sense for the three of them to ride together to the museum in Oscar's car. She sat in the backseat and listened more than she talked.

Oscar teased Delia while she smiled indulgently. “Do you think you could cram more paper into that briefcase?”

She laughed and teased him back. “If you'd focus on family mysteries that don't go back a hundred and fifty years, there would be a lot less paper and I'd be working a lot less. If you'd contain your curiosity to things I can find on the Internet, I could eliminate the paper altogether.”

“But then you might finish your work quicker, and I'd have no excuse to keep you around.”

“We can't have that!' She patted the hand resting on the stick shift between them.

This was not the kind of relationship that Emma had described during their endless conversations about Oscar and Delia and how to keep them out of Faye's personal business. Maybe Delia's near-escape had brought the two closer together.

At any rate, Faye needed to focus less on gossip about the feelings of people who were old enough to make their own decisions. The question at hand was not “Does Delia care for Oscar?” It was “Could Oscar have killed Liz or broken Emma's window or—and this was an awful thought—attacked Delia in a way designed to drive her into his own arms?”

Knowing the contents of Delia's heart couldn't answer that question for Faye. Nobody knew its answer but Oscar, but Faye was hellbent on finding it out.

***

Emma looked startled to see Faye enter the museum with Oscar and Delia, probably because she was the one who had been listening to Faye babble for weeks about how badly she wanted to avoid the two of them. Faye gave her an I'll-tell-you-later glance and settled herself at the work station next to Delia's.

Oscar left them to their work, taking a seat in Emma's office and launching a conversation with the not-creative gambit of “So…how've you been?” If Emma minded him interrupting her work, Faye couldn't tell it. She could see Emma listening intently. Sometimes, Oscar even took a breath and let her talk.

Whenever a new woman came into view, Oscar was captivated, at least for the moment. Did this bother Delia? Not that Faye could tell.

Sitting down to a computer, Faye logged into the museum's collection catalog and typed in a search term that she'd used many times before: “Cally Stanton.” As a curator of the museum, she had access to more data than Delia, so Delia was hoping for new information. She was destined to be disappointed. Delia didn't know that, but Faye did.

Once Faye's computer screen showed the expected “No matches found” message, which she very helpfully showed to Delia, Faye was free to watch the other woman work. Delia certainly did know what she was doing. Faye could tell that Delia already knew about the Micco County courthouse fire in the 1890s, because she was ignoring local records and focusing on records from the U.S. Census. Faye would have done the same thing.

With a portal to the census records open on her screen, Delia pulled a file from her briefcase and unfolded several large copies of old maps. She smoothed their creases and spread them across their shared workspace. On them, Delia had highlighted every visible island in Micco County. Most of the islands were in the Gulf but, damn, the woman was thorough. She had even marked small islands in rivers and lakes, all over the county. If an island was visible at the scale of any of her maps, she had highlighted it in yellow.

Next, Faye watched her unfold another set of maps, one for every publicly available census after the Civil War, ending with 1940. When Faye saw what Delia had done with these maps, she stopped being impressed and started panicking. Delia had used detailed historical maps, along with the cruder census maps, to figure out which of the censuses' Enumeration Districts had contained islands.

This was huge. Delia was no longer looking for Cally Stanton on a list of everybody who had lived in Micco County over an eighty-year stretch. Now Delia could focus her laser-like attention on lists of people who had lived
on islands
in Micco County in those years. How many could that possibly be? A hundred? Two hundred, tops.

Delia still wouldn't find Cally herself. Faye already knew she wasn't listed in any census report. But there was one faint thread that could possibly take Delia's search to Joyeuse Island. And then to Faye, who would have an interesting time explaining why she had failed to mention that she had inherited her island from ancestors named Stanton.

Cally was invisible to history for so many reasons. She had been a slave without a birth certificate. Her “marriage” to her legal master, the first Courtney Stanton, had been an illegal thing forged between two people who loved each other, so there was no marriage certificate.

Courtney Stanton had torn up the deed showing his ownership of his wife, so it was long-gone. For the rest of her life, Cally had retained her suspicion of the government that had let people own her, so she had never once filled out a census form. In Cally's day, it had been possible to get away with that when you lived on a remote island.

Since she had never had a birth certificate, there had been no pressing need to get her a death certificate. Her daughter, the second Courtney Stanton, had buried her on Joyeuse and her grave marker had washed away in a hurricane before Faye was born. Faye knew of no document in existence that gave Cally the surname of Stanton. She had never had any legal surname at all. Faye was as sure as she could be that there was no paper trail to lead Delia to Cally Stanton.

This was not true of Joyeuse Island.

Cally's daughter had been more law-abiding than her mother. She appeared as a resident of Joyeuse Island in the 1940 census, the first one taken after Cally's death. This was not a huge problem, as she was listed under her married name, Courtney Wells.

Faye's problem lay in the archives of the
Micco County Sun-Record
. Courtney Wells had been in a highly publicized court battle to keep property she had inherited, all of which had been located on islands off the coast of Micco County. It was not possible that a researcher with Delia's training and determination who was looking for an island in Micco County had missed newspaper coverage of a battle over ownership of most of its offshore islands.

Cally's name did not appear in the newspaper coverage—Faye had checked—but the name of Cally's husband Courtney Stanton did appear and he was identified as Courtney Wells' father. Oh, how Delia's eyes would light up to see someone named Stanton associated with a lawsuit over islands.

After reading that article all Delia had to do was reach back a single generation and look for the first Courtney Stanton. More accurately, all she needed to do was to reach back a single census report. She had to do something not obvious—look for a man named Courtney Stanton living on an island years before Elias was supposed to have been imprisoned by someone named Cally Stanton.

If Delia looked at the 1860 census, she would see Courtney Stanton living on Joyeuse Island. Pairing this with the knowledge from the newspaper article that Courtney Stanton had a daughter named Courtney Wells who was making trouble in court in the 1930s would give Delia almost everything she needed. She would have a set of data with a single fascinating, woman-shaped hole: Who was Courtney Wells' mother?

The mysterious woman would have been an adult when Elias Croft went missing. As Courtney Stanton's wife, she would have carried the surname Delia was seeking. And she would have lived on an island. A woman with a PhD in history could mate this information with Oscar's oral history and make a compelling case that she had found Elias Croft's Cally Stanton. Then she could write a hell of a research paper with a title like “Documentary Evidence Supports Oral History: Union Hero Was Kept Prisoner for Years by a Confederate Woman.”

Even worse, Delia could take her story to the public. With any public relations savvy, and Faye did not doubt that Delia had it, she would make piles of money by publishing a lurid book from Oscar's point-of-view. The notoriety would bring in well-heeled private clients for the rest of her career. Faye might live to see the nonfiction bestseller listed topped by
Imprisoned, Tortured, Sexually Abused, and Murdered by a Madwoman named Cally: My Ancestor's Story!

But before all that happened, Delia would come for Faye and she would ask her this: “You knew I was looking for Cally Stanton and that she lived on an island. Why didn't you tell me that there were Stantons on your family tree and that they lived on your island?”

Faye wouldn't blame her if she went on to say “What are you hiding? And why?”

Faye didn't know the answers herself. She was acting on instinct, and that instinct was to protect Cally.

Her instincts were urging her to do something…anything…when Delia reached out a graceful hand toward the keyboard and said, “I've been reading some interesting stuff in the
Micco County Sun-Record
. There was a lawsuit involving the Last Isles and some nearby islands. It made me think I should go back a little further in the census. To 1860, at least.”

***

Faye was never sure how long she sat there watching Delia wade through the 1860 census of Micco County. The younger woman was oblivious to Faye's misery as she checked her maps and scrolled through on-screen data. Faye sat waiting for her to turn her wide blue eyes on her and ask, “Why didn't you tell me that you've known the answers to our questions all along?”

Oscar, too, had been oblivious to Faye's silence as he leaned over Delia's shoulder to watch her work.

Faye needed to say something. It wasn't her way to let trouble lie. She needed to address the problem while she was still in control. She reached for the file holding Delia's newspaper research. “Did you say that the woman in the newspaper article was named Courtney?”

Delia nodded, hunching over a map and tracing the route of a river with her finger.

“My great-grandmother's name was Courtney. It's an unusual name for a woman.”

The finger stopped in mid-river. “Where did she live?”

“Not far from here, on Joyeuse Island. My home.”

“When did she die?”

“My mother was a teenager, so probably in the late 1940s.”

Delia's fingers flew to the keyboard and she pulled up the 1940 census. Checking the map to see which Enumeration District included Joyeuse Island, she searched through the names in that district.

Several minutes passed, then both Delia's hands dropped into her lap. “Her last name was Wells. She's the woman who sued for ownership of those islands, and the newspaper said that her maiden name was Stanton. Faye. Your great-grandmother was born with the name Courtney Stanton. ”

Her statement didn't demand an answer. By not giving one, Faye was neither confirming nor denying that she had already known her great-grandmother's maiden name.

Delia backed through the census records, finding Courtney Wells on Joyeuse Island in 1940, but nobody named Stanton, because Cally had died in the 1930s. Crawling through time, she found no census records at all during the years when Cally would have been in charge of filling out the forms—1920, 1900, 1880. If she'd stopped then, Delia would have had nothing but a woman on an island who had been born with Cally Stanton's last name. But she didn't stop.

Census records from 1860 were on the screen when Delia's composure finally slipped and she squealed out loud. As Faye had already known, the first Courtney Stanton had been scrupulous about filling out his census forms, at least when it came to reporting the existence of people who weren't slaves.

“What is it?” Oscar asked.

“There was a man on Joyeuse Island in 1860. His name was Courtney Stanton, also. The female Courtney Stanton doesn't show up, because she hasn't been born yet.”

“But no Cally?” Oscar asked. “You don't see her name there?”

“This is the next best thing. In two years another Courtney Stanton will be born, probably on the same island where she will live for the rest of her life. She didn't drop from a cloud. She had a mother, and that mother would be the right age to be your Cally Stanton. Make that
Elias'
Cally Stanton. And, like your Cally Stanton, she would have lived on an island. I don't know why she's not on the census—maybe they weren't married yet?—but I think the woman who married Courtney-the-man and birthed Courtney-the-woman is the woman we came here to find.”

Oscar pulled Delia up out of the chair and gave her a hug. “You found her! The U.S. Census missed her, but you didn't.”

He turned to look at Faye. “We need to go out to your island. If we see the place where Elias Croft suffered, maybe we can get to the truth of what happened to him. That's all I want. The truth.”

Faye was being completely honest when she said, “I don't know the truth.”

BOOK: Isolation
12.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. Smith
Signal by Patrick Lee
River Runs Deep by Jennifer Bradbury
Longarm 242: Red-light by Evans, Tabor
Fun House by Appel, Benjamin
Shine On by Jewell, Allison J.
Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis