Read The Reservoir Online

Authors: John Milliken Thompson

The Reservoir

BOOK: The Reservoir

Copyright © John Milliken Thompson 2011

Production Editor:
Yvonne E. Cárdenas
Text Designer:
Simon M. Sullivan

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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Thompson, John M. (John Milliken), 1959-
The reservoir / by John Milliken Thompson.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-1-59051-445-0
1. Richmond (Va.)—Fiction. 2. Virginia—History—19th century—
Fiction. I. Title.
PS3620.H68325R47 2011


, E

The way it floats in the water so serenely in the moonlight and the sunlight you would have thought it was meant to be there. Pure and unyielding and as solid as silk. She floats there, a mystery as deep as the moon and the mind of God. What does it mean? A pregnant girl floating in the city’s drinking water?


14, 1885, a body is floating in the old Marshall Reservoir, in a light snow, and then under a waxing moon.

In the morning the superintendent of the reservoir, Lysander Meade, discovers a furrowed place on the walkway that he does not remember seeing the night before. Someone has crawled through the fence again—early in the year for youngsters to be out cavorting at night. He glances down toward the water and sees what appears to be a dress. It’s floating along the edge of the water, where the embankment slopes down to a picket fence. He’s seen a lot of oddities in his years—rubber condoms and smutty books and the occasional sack of puppies—but never a dress. He tries to imagine the scene. Mighty cold last night for such carryings-on. Except now he sees it isn’t just a dress, but a whole person. A woman. And a dead one at that, or what appears to be. Never has he found a dead woman, nor man neither for that matter.

So down he goes for a better look. Who would not want to see a dead woman? Could she be something to look at? Could she be a fine-looking lady, or might she be one of your more common sorts? Mr. Lucas comes up from the pump house where he has been repairing a stopcock, and helps Mr. Meade with his speculations. They stand there together, Lucas a head taller, loose-limbed and slack-jawed, with stick-out ears, while Meade, wearing thick eyeglasses, bends rigidly forward at the waist, his navy jacket stretching across his back, his neat mustache crinkling as he sniffs the air. All they can make out at first is a gray wool dress with flounces at the bottom and hair hanging like dark weeds about her head. “The grappling hook’s the thing,” Mr. Meade says.

Mr. Lucas comes back presently, hook at the ready. But now Mr. Meade is not so sure. He nudges the body closer to the shore. Then he stops and yells. “Hello, ma’am? Hello, miss? Hello?”

“I expect you’ll have to yell louder than that,” Mr. Lucas suggests.

Mr. Meade nods. “Yep, dead sure as I’m standing here. Dead as dirt.” But now he thinks that Mr. Lucas should go fetch the coroner. “Let him decide what to do.”

So off goes Mr. Lucas again. And now it’s a long wait. Mr. Meade stands guard with his hook like a spear hunter over his kill, thinking of all the time this is going to take, when he would be nearly finished with his morning walk and inspection by now and heading back to the warmth of his house. The girl’s legs swing out, the gray woolen skirt going with them, and Meade reins her back to the edge. A lock of hair has come loose from her combs and curls lazily across her forehead, her eyes looking glassily heavenward. Her prim little jacket looks so dignified against the dishevelment of her condition—as if she were only momentarily delayed here on the way to some important engagement.

And then Lucas returns with Dr. Taylor. He’s wearing his black coat and carrying his medical bag. Balding and wall-eyed, he appears to survey both men at once. The three of them maneuver the body to the little gate in the picket fence, which Mr. Meade opens. Mr. Lucas goes out onto the narrow grassy ledge and, because the water level has dropped during the night—what with people drawing from the pipes—has to lie on his belly, Mr. Meade holding his legs, and take hold of whatever he can, which happens to be the woman’s right arm. It’s up and stiff. He takes it at the wrist. It’s like cold gutta-percha, and the hand is clutching mud. He tugs and she comes right up, dripping water. Smaller than he thought, like a child, but round-faced and strangely stout.

“Could be one of your German women, from over in Manchester.” He nods toward the industrial section across the river.

Dr. Taylor pays no attention. He’s feeling for a pulse, examining her eyes, pushing at her skin, unbuttoning her coat. Mr. Meade is not looking at the girl at all. But Mr. Lucas can’t take his eyes away from her. She looks like a perfect little doll, and now he wishes he had found her and could take her home with him. What an odd thought to have, he tells himself. “Why would she come all the way over here to do herself in?” he says. “When the river’s right there?”

“Mr. Meade,” Dr. Taylor says, “would you mind lifting her head just so?” But Mr. Meade cannot seem to make himself touch the girl, and so Mr. Lucas obliges. It’s not every day, he tells himself, that a dead girl washes up in your very own reservoir. And now as sure as anything they’ll be wanting him to drain it out, but as for himself he doesn’t see how a girl like this could unpurify the water. He wouldn’t mind drinking it himself. Not at all. He is on the verge of telling this to Dr. Taylor, when Dr. Taylor slaps her between the shoulder blades and water trickles from the corner of her mouth. Mr. Lucas keeps her head off the ground as if she were a sick child, and he is reluctant to let go when Dr. Taylor turns her onto her back again.

By now onlookers have begun making their way up to the embankment, which rises like an earthen fort above the reservoir grounds. It’s a pleasant Saturday morning in Richmond, with a hint of spring in the air, and news of something going on at the reservoir spreads abroad like pollen. Here comes Detective Wren, his greatcoat unbuttoned and flapping as he lumbers at an angle up the embankment, then pauses to get his bearings. In his mid-thirties, he is large, bulldog jowly, sideburned, and pink-faced, with a divot in his chin; he gives the impression of worldliness, gaining respect by appearing to know what others have just discovered. Mr. Meade fills him in and points out the footprints. “Has anybody else walked up here?” Mr. Wren thunders, moving toward the footprints. Mr. Meade is not sure but says he can find out, and Mr. Wren shakes his head in exasperation and in a surprisingly high, yet commanding voice tells everyone nearby to please step off the walkway. Mr. Meade obeys and, unsure how much authority Wren really has and how well he knows Meade’s boss at the waterworks, decides just to try to avoid this meddlesome bear who has intruded as much as the dead girl on his morning’s routine. He rejoins Dr. Taylor at the water’s edge.

Then, under Mr. Wren’s direction, Mr. Lucas removes one of the girl’s shoes and brings it up to the walkway so that Mr. Wren can compare it with the footprints. Mr. Lucas is delighted to be of assistance. The shoe feels tiny in his big hand. He places it delicately within the footprint and finds that it fits. But there are some bigger ones as well, half-prints really. “Do you think she was here with someone?” Mr. Lucas says, as though to himself.

“Could be,” Wren says. “Could be.” Taking the shoe from Lucas, he holds it to his large nose and inhales.

“But why would she come out here with somebody when she was planning to do herself in?” Lucas wishes he had thought to smell the girl’s shoe.

“She might not have been planning any such thing atall,” Wren says, taking notes, looking around, sniffing the air as though for clues. Mr. Lucas nods, trying to imagine the girl coming out here with a companion, who then left her alone—at which point she climbed over the picket fence, or else found the little gate on the south end. But Mr. Meade always keeps the gate locked at night.

Now a young reporter from the
has arrived and is down by the picket fence where the body lies covered on a stretcher, lately brought by Dr. Taylor’s assistant. The reporter is talking with Dr. Taylor and Mr. Meade, so Wren goes down to avail himself of the opportunity for free publicity. He pushes his way into their circle, to Meade’s relief and Taylor’s annoyance—though both use the opportunity to get back to work—and introduces himself to the reporter, telling him that he’s unofficially investigating the case. The reporter eagerly takes note. An actual
. An
. “Do you not subscribe to the suicide theory?” he asks Wren.

“Let’s just say there are some unexplained circumstances. Such as the presence of two sets of footprints, one larger than the other. One would naturally like to know to whom does that second set belong.”

“Any ideas yet about the identity of the girl?”

“That is a mystery yet to be solved. But Jack Wren does indeed have some ideas. I can crack this case in three days.” He tilts his chin in a knowing way.

Mr. Lucas comes down from the walkway with the girl’s shoe, surreptitiously smelling it. As he puts it back on the girl’s foot, Dr. Taylor winks at him. “There’s something those two would be interested to know.” He nods toward the detective and the newsman, standing a little ways off. “The girl was pregnant.”

Lucas’s eyes grow large. He looks back at the body. “Going to have a baby?”

“That’s the kind of pregnant I mean.”

Lucas shakes his head. “That’s a shame,” he says, somehow a little disappointed now in his drowned angel. “She’s a pretty little thing, though.”

Dr. Taylor waits until he’s asked—by the newsman—if there was anything unusual about the body. At first he says no, then mentions the mud in her hands. “Oh, yes,” he says, “and she was with child.” The newsman scribbles away, while the detective merely nods, as though he’d suspected as much all along.

When it’s time to take the body away, Mr. Lucas insists on helping. “No trouble atall,” he says, lifting the foot of the stretcher. “She’s light as a feather.” The assistant takes the head and they proceed up the embankment, then down the walkway to the steps at the far end and out the gate where Dr. Taylor’s ambulance is waiting, its blinkered horse standing patiently. The sheet covering the body has worked itself up to where the feet are visible. Mr. Lucas notices. Such dainty feet in their little shoes, and her stocking-covered ankles. Her foot had been stiff to his touch when he removed the shoe for Mr. Wren, but now they look so lifelike that he cannot resist the temptation to touch one as he helps slide her into the back of the ambulance. “Good-bye,” he says.

It’s late on Friday the thirteenth, the night before the discovery of the body. A young man, pale and slender, stands on the embankment atop the reservoir. He looks down into the inky water a final time, but in the darkness it’s hard to distinguish smooth water from human form. There’s no sound of any struggle. What more is there to do except to pick up her hat and gloves, here on the gravel walkway. But why not just leave them here? Would a suicide leave her things lying about? He tries to think, but his head is throbbing. “O dem golden slippers” comes to mind, though he couldn’t say why. He can find only one glove, and her scarf—was she not wearing a red scarf? It’s nowhere, and yet he cannot swear she wasn’t wearing it when she went in the water. He can’t think straight.

Now his heart is beginning to thump blood through his ears. He has to get out of here. He picks up her clothes bag, pulls his hat down tight, and very nearly trots down the embankment to the hole in the plank fence, where not thirty minutes earlier the two of them came in. He crawls through and then heads out the opposite way, cutting across the Clarke Spring property and past the smallpox deadhouse. And here he stops and does a curious thing. The deadhouse hasn’t been used for years—the few sufferers at the smallpox hospital are simply buried over in the little plot by the hole in the fence. Lillie just now said something about the graves, but what it was he can’t bring to mind. One of the deadhouse windows is broken, so he tosses the hat in and continues on. Won’t be found for days, he thinks, and by then if any connection is made, it will simply be, “She was in a state of mental distress, not aware of what she was doing.”

He wants to get rid of her bag, but where to hide it? Now he sees that he has dropped the glove. He scans around for a minute, but every instinct is screaming at him to get out now. So he skirts the little hospital building and heads for the tall outer fence, where another hole should get him free. He peeks through, then shoves the bag out. It’s a tighter fit than he remembers, though he has never been here wearing a winter coat. A button pops off as he goes through, but there’s no time to look for it—there’s someone on the other side of the street, coming this way, singing.

Has he been seen coming out? He picks up the bag and walks briskly, as though he has been here all along. The man on the other side steps into the street and Tommie feels himself go limp with fear. Yet now the man is weaving and singing even louder. “A drunk negro,” Tommie says to himself. He practically laughs in relief. But the strange thing is what the drunk negro is singing: “O dem golden slippers! Don’t ’spect to wear ’em till my weddin’ day.” Could he have heard Tommie singing this? But he wasn’t singing it, was he? Could the negro have heard it in Tommie’s head? And now Tommie wonders if he’s not more than a little crazy.

He turns right and heads down Cherry past Hollywood Cemetery to the little cart bridge over the canal. From there it’s a quick scurry over the railroad tracks and down to the river. The clanging from Tredegar ironworks arises several hundred yards downstream. He looks around, sees no one, and heaves the bag out into the current. A skinny little splash and it’s gone.

Now he’s nearly a free man. Back up to Spring Street and thence to Main, where he joins with the after-theater, late-supper crowds. In fact, was he not just now coming from the Dime Museum, the evening performance of
The Chimes of Normandy?
Of course he was. He saw it this afternoon—his friend Bernard Henley saw him there—and liked it so much he decided to go back this evening. Nearly convinced of his clever alibi, he stops at Morgenstern’s for a glass of beer and a plate of fried oysters.

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