New Winslow S5E51
The leather on the front of the tiny book looked pale and worn, like it had been crushed under heavy objects and neglected for decades. And, as Judith explained the process of digging through mountains of forgotten papers in the archive’s basement, Iris realized that was exactly what had happened.
“It was hidden,” Judith said as Alicia stood gravely beside her. “There’s no mention of it in our files and the spot where I found it was strategic enough that it had to have been a former archivist who put it there. The inventory sheet shows a few other records that mention the ‘Strangeness’, which has to be the curse. But none of them are in the collection anymore. Just the Harbinger and this, which was inside.”
Judith pulled on a glove, then gingerly picked up a small piece of paper from her desk. Iris hadn’t even realized it was there. She unfolded it, then held it out so that Iris could see it.
It was singed, but whole enough to read. And as Iris read the text, she realized she was looking at the deed of sale that Barlow had attempted to get Rosalind Alderidge to sign. Her name was on it, but the signature line remained blank.
“I’m not sure why it’s burned,” Judith said. “Maybe it’s in the Harbinger. I haven’t read it yet.”
Iris glanced at Alicia. “Did you tell her…”
“Of course I did,” Alicia snapped. “She knows about Baxter. I wouldn’t just toss her in danger like that without her consent, she’s my wife.”
The heat in Alicia’s voice was enough to make Iris take a step back. Andrew was looking at her pointedly, and she grimaced. “Sorry,” she said.
Then she took a breath and tried to stay focused. She could worry about her flaws later. “Rosalind Alderidge’s house burned down,” she said. “I think Barlow had something to do with it. And I think that she was killed in the fire. I don’t know how that’s connected to the curse, but it is. And I need to prove it. Because it means that Baxter knows what caused the curse and he’s been covering it up.”
“And if he’s hiding the solution, I will skin him,” Andrew added.
“I don’t know what to do about it,” Judith said. “The town was very clearly trying to hide this, and it was only because someone in the past thought that this information was important that the history survived. I’m not going to leave you alone with this, Iris. I’m sorry, but I’m not taking that risk again. But if you want to look through it now, you can use my desk to do so.”
Shame and gratitude in equal measures coursed through her, as did the tiniest bit of undeserved outrage. Iris nodded, her face on fire. “I understand,” she said. “Could you hand me some gloves?”
The first recorded case of the Strangeness was a young woman. Edith Roberts, aged 24. She was walking from New Winslow into Barre to meet a family member when she was unable to cross the town line. Other cases followed quickly, with nearly everybody in town impacted at least once. Most of the time, these spells ended quickly, with the afflicted able to move like normal after an hour’s time. A day at most. Two elderly gentlemen were impacted for well over a week, but eventually able to leave.
These developments obviously unnerved the town. Combined with the deaths of Harrison Barlow and his assistant Gerald Costello in the weeks before, many people in town believed that it must have been connected with the business dealings of these two men.
Iris looked up from the Harbinger and frowned. “This is saying that Barlow and another man died in 1927. But don’t the town records say Barlow died in 1933?”
“I can check,” Judith said.
She slipped out of the room, closing the door behind her. Iris went back to the book, conscious of Alicia’s gaze on her.
It seemed to them that in the flames of the Alderidge estate, the men must have made a pact with Satan himself. One that proved to be their downfall. If Barlow wanted the land so badly, many reasoned he would resort to such measures. As outlandish as these tales seemed, nobody could explain why ordinary townspeople found themselves up against a physical barrier that no one else could feel. They thought it was a curse, punishment for the men’s deeds.
“This is it,” Iris said. “This has to be it.”
Andrew was reading over her shoulder, and she was tempted to nudge him away, but stopped herself. He glanced up. “You think it’s the devil?” he asked, skepticism obvious.
“No, of course not,” Iris said. “But remember what Roman said. How he thought this was demonic? Maybe its origin is literally right here in the flames?”
“But how?” Andrew asked. “I’ll give you, it confirms that the Alderidge house burned. And we’re thinking Rosalind died in the house? What about her son?”
“Maybe he died too,” Iris murmured, looking back at the Harbinger. This one was much smaller than the others, less than half the number of pages in the one Roland had desecrated. “Or maybe she died, and the curse started with him.”
“Revenge,” Andrew said.
Iris poured through the rest of the book, but there was no mention of what had happened to either Rosalind or Samuel. Rosalind was a widow and had been since well before the planning of the reservoir. After her husband’s death, money was tight. But not tight enough for her to want to sell the family home. Iris knew all of this already, so she didn’t learn anything new there. But this book confirmed the things she knew, but hadn’t been able to prove.
“Does Samuel Alderidge come up again in the town records?” Iris asked Judith, who had returned as she was reading.
“I haven’t seen anything,” Judith admitted. “Though you’re right, Barlow’s death was recorded in 1933. I have a bad feeling that the town records were altered. Which would explain why he seems to have both died in the flames in 1927 and of scarlet fever in 1933. If that’s the case, Rosalind and Samuel could have been wiped from the records too. Does Harbinger say anything about them?”
“No,” Iris said. “It’s like the house was empty, then burned, then cursed.”
“Do you reckon these censors got to Harbinger as well?” Andrew asked, from where he was now sitting thoughtfully in the corner.
“It’s very possible,” Judith said. “With the number of gaps in the town history regarding the curse, and now them as well.”
Iris flipped to the last page of the Harbinger, gently pushing the book flat on the table. The spine was delicate, and she knew that if she broke it right now, that was the end of the search. But the slight pressure allowed the spine to separate just enough for her to see the tiny, jagged tear along the side.
“There’s pages missing,” she said.
All three of the others jerked up to look at her. “Excuse me?” Judith said.
“Look at this.”
Judith hurried back behind the desk, pulling on a glove as she did so. Iris stepped aside so that she could take the book. “You’re right,” Judith breathed, gently brushing the weathered paper. “I can’t tell how many pages there were.”
“The back cover is whole though,” Alicia said, joining her wife behind the desk.
“They could have recovered it,” Judith said, inspecting the leather. “It explains why this volume is smaller than the others.”
The cautious excitement Iris had felt since they got here was dissipating. “So she probably explained everything in there,” she said.
“Possibly,” Judith said. “But not definitely.”
“This confirms what we do know, though,” Andrew said. “And now we just need to find the connection between the curse and the house.”
“Samuel Alderidge had a best friend as a child,” Iris said, not looking at any of them, instead keeping her gaze on the book. “His name was Billy McBride and he lived next door.”
“In the Countess building?” Judith asked.
Sometimes Iris forgot she wasn’t the only person to ever glance at a New Winslow history textbook. “Yeah,” she said. “I think he’s still there and I’ve been trying to reach him for months. His footsteps are there, it makes so much sense. But every time I try, it doesn’t work.”
“That’s a lot of faith to put in a ghost that might or might not exist,” Alicia said.
Again, Iris tamped down her frustration. “He’s there,” she said. “I’ve heard him and plenty of other people at the Countess have, too. But if the books aren’t working, I think he might be my best option. Trying to reach Rosalind made me sick and I don’t know anything about Samuel and I haven’t felt him anywhere.”
“I’m going to leave all that to you,” Alicia said, still sounding skeptical. “That’s your world.”
Even though it was said with a degree of irritation, Iris agreed. It really was.