About the Author
Brynn Chapman is a pediatric therapist who writes nonfiction and lectures on the subjects of autism and sensory integration. She is a medical contributor to the online journal, the Age of Autism and the author of Boneseeker. She lives in Lower Burrell, Pennsylvania.
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College of Physicians and Surgeons, Fall, 1911
"You must do a better job of containing her, Henry."
Dr. Earnest's mutton-chop sideburns waggle and his eyes are bloodshot and bleary — no doubt from another lost night of sleep. His meaty paw slaps the Philadelphia Herald down on the polished wood table.
Since the exposure of the Brotherhood of the Revolution, and the public catastrophe in the train station, the press keeps a keen eye on the Mütter — more specifically, on Miss Arabella Holmes.
One reporter in particular was quick to note not only her unique curation position, but her oddities, leaving her fodder for an interfering, ever-more-sensational, press. The man, Albert Whiffy, much like an expert switchboard operator, knows precisely which buttons to push in Bella's personality. Which has resulted in more than one public screaming match — complete with vivid photographs of Bella in all her manic glory.
The man is either infatuated with her or detests her. I suspect it's both. The contrast of her beauty and her complete lack of regard for it draws men to her. She's been reprimanded more than once for wearing trousers — but Bella is the walking, talking essence of practicality.
But chaps like Whiffy merely want to possess her, to tame her — ride her and put her out to pasture — or more accurately, damn her to their hearth — to join the overwhelming majority of her sex.
I swallow my anger and dig my fists into my thighs.
Squaring my shoulders, I meet Dr. Earnest's gaze.
"You would do well to keep in mind all the new revenue the hothouse shall soon infuse into the Mütter. Its potential success is the sole reason you now have three digs running simultaneously." I nearly blurt, none of which I am on. Bella and I are up to our proverbial necks in bloody plants. We were told this project temporarily took priority over my moulages and Bella's curation.
Earnest's eyes widen, but it's barely perceptible, lost in the basset-hound flesh surrounding his eyes. "Potential is the precise word, Henry. Until the hothouse is up and fully functional, we are operating in the red. It is a risky venture despite the funding."
The newly formed Watson-Holmes Foundation funds an elaborate greenhouse and conservatory where Bella might explore and maintain botanicals from all over the world in the hopes of drawing in a genteel clientele.
And this philanthropical endeavor is no doubt a thinly veiled bribe to assure her ever-teetering curation position remains secured.
The grand opening is but three months away. The conservatory itself is thus far amazing, but not one I am entirely sure Philadelphians shall embrace.
Plants from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, housed for a time at Pittsburgh's Phipps Conservatory, are soon to arrive.
Lavish stone walkways traverse and wind through climates ranging from the Amazon  complete with massive lily pads — to the desert and beyond. And Arabella is overwhelmingly in charge of it all, the added responsibility the final snip on her already fraying nerves.
Earnest looks ever more grave. "Just so. The hothouse is an expensive and serious project, no matter who is its patron saint. And at times, Miss Holmes is " He clears his throat. "Your feelings for her cloud your judgment, Henry. I thought other measures necessary to assure her success."
"What? Whatever do you mean?" I shoot up so quickly my chair tips and I scrabble around to catch it before it clatters onto the polished hardwood.
"Might I present Dr. Audra Clifton."
A woman enters, the click of her sensible shoes muted by the insulating multitude of books lining the library's walls.
She is British.
I know before her mouth even opens.
The cut of her business suit, the posture. Approximately our parents' age, I would guess. She is attractive, but as her shrewd eyes narrow at me; this is by origin of nature, as this woman will have nothing to do with the realm of nurture. Her face is entirely unadorned except for the slightest brush of lipstick.
Earnest clears his throat, and I realize her hand hovers in the air, thrust out in greeting.
"Really? This is the intrepid doctor's son? Perhaps you exaggerated his mental abilities, Dr. Earnest?"
My mouth drops, a shudder coursing up my spine.
It is as if Sherlock Holmes himself has somehow managed the ultimate disguise — to alter his sex — and infuse his infuriating spirit into this feminine shell, then drift across the great pond to arrive, size me up, and pronounce me lacking as usual.
"I assure you, Dr. Clifton, his mind is more than useful. I am afraid he is a little worse for wear. Henry has taken to lighting the entire candelabra at both ends of late."
Earnest refers to my obstetrical studies, on top of my antiquities position at the Mütter, and my full-time care of keeping Arabella safe. And out of the papers.
Striated blue eyes pin me. "You have a problem with a female doctorate?"
I snort. "Obviously not. Have you ever met Bella?"
The daggers intensify. "No, I have not had the unmitigated pleasure. My dealings with the family were long before Bel-la was an issue." Her tongue drags over the name.
The love of my life is an issue, then? Right, Queensbury rules do not apply here. Gloves and etiquette are off, woman or no. The heat of anger flushes my cheek and I welcome it, and hurtle back my own daggers. My teeth snap together and I force the words from between them, delivered in my best velvety tone. "Might I be so bold as to enquire what sort of doctorate, Madam?"
"You may. Biology. Forensics and botany specifically."
Earnest hovers, plainly out of his league, his gaze volleying back and forth between us like a Wimbledon match.
"So you might be able to help us with Miss Holmes's behavior?" Earnest inquires.
"Never fear. The English cavalry has arrived. I have been dispatched by the Foundation to assist you and Dr. Earnest. And Bel-la." She's so smug.
I cock my head, ignoring the tightness about my collar. "Sorry?"
"Do keep up, Henry." She arches her eyebrow perfectly.
"She is your superior, dear boy. And Arabella's as well. Dr. Clifton has degrees from Oxford and then from our very own Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania."
Merciful heavens. A combination of Watson and Holmes, wrapped in feminine form.
She nods. "The Mütter has hired many new professors, Mr. Watson."
I interrupt. "I am Dr. Watson, now."
She inclines her head at Earnest.
He gives confirmation. "Very newly acquired, but yes."
"Very well, Dr. Watson. You and Arabella should report to my classroom tomorrow at dawn. Much, much to go over and be done prior to the hothouse opening. I shall want to inspect all the new specimens, check temperatures, soil readings — all of it." She nods again. "Dr. Earnest."
He stands, obviously intent on accompanying her.
She shoots up her slender white hand. "I require no escort. I look forward to wandering these halls, and I've already seen my quarters."
For a moment Earnest looks as dumbfounded as I feel, but he quickly recovers.
Anger burns my nose, flaring my nostrils as I wrestle to contain it, my hands dancing a jig at my side as I wait for her footfalls to fade.
"Why, Dr. Earnest? Have you any idea the strain I am under, trying to deal with Bella and the vermin of the press intent on her destruction? Now you add" — I turn around to stare at the space recently vacated by the intuitive force of nature — "this? The phrase, 'heaping burning coals upon one's head' comes to mind!"
Earnest eases his bulk into the ornate captain's chair, reminding me of a massive sailing ship scraping into port. "There have been many new appointments, Henry. Not all to my liking. A new board of directors has taken control, so my opinion no longer carries the weight it once did."
He too looks weary.
I inhale and close my eyes briefly, pinching the bridge of my nose. "We are to meet with Dr. Grimm as well? On top of our other duties?"
"Yes, Dr. Grimm is the temporary new director of medical antiquities. If you and
Bella expect to ever be dispatched on digs again, you must continue to meet and confer with him."
Bella is in charge of categorizing antiquities as they arrive and now this ruddy hothouse.
And I deliver the occasional baby, typically on the poorest side of Philly, just for an added laugh.
These turns of events have significantly decreased our chances of being dispatched on digs.
And it has left her bone obsession out in the cold, as it were. Which ensures her disposition has followed suit.
It is as if bones calm her mind; while she assembles their macabre puzzles, it somehow helps her make sense of our confusing world. And they tell her secrets — which more often than not, I am not privy to. What Bella lacks in social niceties, she has in spades for science.
I've stared in awe as her tiny, steady hands traverse skeletal remains that would make a seasoned officer flinch. As her fingers traverse protuberances and trochanters, the dead tell her their story. And she is the undisputed master of deciphering bony cryptograms.
Earnest clears his throat.
The Bella images dissipate, and I smooth my hair, then my waistcoat. "Does Bella know any of these fascinating developments? Of Dr. Clifton's new employ?" He shrinks back.
I stifle a laugh. The man is nearly racist; Bella, to him, is an utterly uncategorizable alien. An ambulating foreign brain in an hourglass body.
"Thanks for that as well, then." I pivot to leave, but my proper English manners bade me say, "Have a good day, Dr. Earnest. I am not happy, but who is, of late?"
"That's a good lad." He seems to hesitate.
"What is it?" My heartbeat picks up. Something in the set of his jaw gives me pause. More bad news? Can this day possibly get any worse?
"I trust you, Henry. Despite your youth, you are able to bear heavy burdens upon those shoulders."
I fidget with the edge of my waistcoat. "Dr. Earnest?"
"Have you seen The Enquirer?"
I shake my head. He points to the headline, Heiress Disappears in Broad Daylight"
That is the third woman in a month. Please keep your eye on Bella. All the women had one thing in common. They were strikingly beautiful. I know she's a corker, but she certainly fits the bill."
"I shall do my level best." I walk out the door, musing on the best way to break this deluge of bad news to Bella.
* * *
The Bell in Hand Pub, Philadelphia, 1911
"Miss Holmes, you all right, then? You look like a goose right walked over your grave?"
Brewmaster Herald's voice brings me back and I blink repeatedly, staring blearily about The Bell in Hand. I tug the bowler further down my brow.
His voice is low and quiet, so as not to give away my disguise.
I fight the memory of the previous evening, but it blazes without my consent.
* * *
I eavesdrop at the sitting room door and listen to Henry's voice shake.
He is on the newly installed museum telephone and speaking much too loudly. "What do you mean Stygian escaped? He was in custody and being extradited!" He pauses, listening.
Once again, Stygian has gone missing. And I fear I will put all I love in danger — as if my very presence evokes the angel of death to hover over the Mütter.
Henry's hand balls into a fist which he presses to his forehead as a grimace mars his handsome face. "I see. I ... I don't know if I should tell her. I will think on it first. Thank you. Yes, of course. I shall ring if anything new transpires."
* * *
Stygian, my former would-be mentor, was the clandestine leader of the Brothers of the Revolution. Their core belief was that a person's appearance was the outer manifestation of their inner self. The pseudo-science of Phrenology and a near worship of Darwinism were their hallmarks.
I shake my head and rub the gooseflesh on my arms to banish the memory. Quickly remembering my assumed persona, I take a rough, manly swipe at my bulbous false nose.
Around me, men belt out drinking songs in slurred harmonies. Giggling barmaids and whispered conversations assault my hearing as the pub sounds reorient me, fixing me firmly in the present.
I readjust myself on the barstool. "Sorry, Oliver, I was just ... thinking."
"About gowns and the latest Paris fashions, then?"
He says the words so deadpan I have trouble suppressing a smile. He knows me too well. However, unlike most men, he is not appalled by my interests, but rather enthralled. He was the first friend I made after arriving at The Mütter.
I recoil, remembering my first fortnight in Philadelphia, of eating alone, working alone, so reminiscent of my boarding school days.
But then, as if the dreary, smog-filled skies had parted to make way for the sun, Oliver entered my life.
Unbelievably, he accepted my quirks, such as, say, my propensity to collect and examine every fashion of skeletons — as if this were a pursuit for any average girl.
And I immediately appreciated his carefree, devil-may-care attitude, a stark contrast to my tightly reined upbringing. I lean in close, so that only he can hear. "Yes, fashion. That is about as likely as Mr. Pinkerton squaring his bar tab tonight."
I nod behind me as the stout man sloshes ale over his handlebar moustache, leaving a white-bubbled foam — like a gargantuan, drunken walrus rising from the seafoam.
Oliver laughs. "Quite right." He sets a heavy pewter mug onto the bar between us.
I stare from beneath my hat, searching The Bell in Hand for lingering gazes or darting glances, but men and women huddle together against the autumn afternoon air, savoring the heat of their warm roasted potatoes and nut-brown ale, paying me no mind.
The Philadelphia Herald has been left open and is partially beer-sodden on the bar. A headline proclaims, "The Mann Act Passes" I scan further down.
"In a landmark case, The Mann Act passes — making it illegal to transport underaged women for untoward or illicit purposes across state lines."
Philadelphia and other cities are slowly but surely cracking down on their red-light districts. This new law will make it even more difficult for criminals to kidnap young, insipid farm girls and fashion them into strumpets.
Oliver's hearty laugh rips me back again as he claps a regular on the shoulder, shoving a massive, foaming mug into the man's outstretched hand.
I nearly smile. Oliver is more than an informant, he's a friend. And truth be told, perhaps he's a bit sweet on me.
More than a bit.
His merry eyes flicker back to regard me and then crinkle with concern, his beard not able to hide the concerned set of his lips.
"All will be well, Oliver," I murmur quietly. I take a swig of the fragrant, bitter ale and carefully dab the excess from my faux mustache.
He scans over my disguise, lingering on the sideburns. His dark blue eyes crinkle further. Leaning on the bar, still wiping out a flagon, murmurs, "I do wish you'd let me talk you out of this mad quest."
The door opens and my stomach drops. Albert Whiffy, reporter, voyeur, and the bane of my existence, enters the bar. It is as if that man is a bloodhound and I am his only target.
"Might we hurry this along, Oliver?"
He stares straight ahead as he tries to call no interest to me.
I square my shoulders. "This is necessary, I assure you. Do you have it, then?" His nod is grim. "Aye, I do, sir." He twists a rag inside the mug in a practiced fashion, his gaze simultaneously sweeping behind me, looking for unsavory characters as much as for the pub's proprietor, Ma McGillian, who does not fancy me.
He lowers his voice. "Follow me." And then he raises it, but it rings a bit false. "Would you fancy a sample, sir? The vats are down those stairs."
I fight the urge to roll my eyes and instead produce a gruff nod and slide from the barstool.
Oliver needs to stick to espionage and bar-keeping ... and away from the stage.
The smell of ale climbs the staircase to meet me. I inhale deeply and feel the squeeze of melancholy around my heart.
My childhood gave not a fig for propriety. I was dragged to every alehouse in London from the time I could balance on the stool. I grew fond of them, for the outings meant far more sweets than I needed, as barmaids fulfilled my every childish whim. Anything to keep me quiet, out of trouble, and within earshot.
"Arabella," Oliver calls.
I squint against the dim light across the rows of hogsheads and vats of ale, Ma McGillin's pride and joy. I sweep down the aisle and find him pouring me a sample of Indian Pale.
It makes a tinny thud as he places it on top of the vat. "A ruse, in case we're interrupted."
"Of course. Well?" I stop my boot from tapping. Patience.
He's taking great risks to help me.
But with every tick of the clock I'm in ever more danger of losing my quarry.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Boneseeker"
Copyright © 2019 Brynn Chapman.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
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