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ISBN 978-1-62268-028-3 print
ISBN 978-1-62268-029-0 e-book
illustration by Nick Deligaris www.deligaris.com
HOUSE THAT WENT DOWN WITH THE SHIP
A Delmarva Renovators Mystery
Author: David Healey
builds a fine house; and now he has a master, and a task for life:
he is to furnish, watch, show it, and keep it in repair, the rest
of his days."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Later that morning,
after we found the body, I realized that the sight of such a long-dead
person didn't bother me all that much. Working on an old house, you have
to be prepared for just about anything. Sparking wires. Bats. Leaky plumbing.
Bodies. And did I mention the flying tools?
I barely had time to shout a warning before Mac's
hammer sailed through the dining room to punch a hole in the plaster wall.
A fine powder drifted up and horsehair bristles sprouted from the edges
of the hole. I sighed. One more job for the renovation list.
"Son of a moth-eaten whore!" Mac waved
the thumb he had smashed moments before with the offending hammer. "That's
the second time today."
"Maybe you ought to wear your glasses,"
I suggested, motioning at our cameraman, Iggy, to take a break.
"What kind of TV show carpenter wears glasses?"
demanded Mac, who was now holding his throbbing thumb and doing a kind
of jig across the dusty floor. The house shook under his weight.
"The kind who doesn't whack his thumb,"
Robert "Mac" MacDonough was six foot
four, built square and solid as a refrigerator, and there are firecrackers
with longer fuses. When Mac gets mad, I've seen him pick up cinder blocks
and hurl them like horseshoes.
Once, I watched Mac toss three guys out a window
at a construction job when they tried to pull a fast one with some shoddy
worklucky for them we were only on the first floor. Working
with Mac, I had learned better than to provoke him, and I was proud to
say he hadn't flung me out any windows yet.
I'd known Mac for twenty years, ever since we'd
been thrown together as college roommates. In fact, it was Mac who had
given me the nickname when he learned that my last nameMartellmeant
"Hammer" in French. Back then, the nickname had more to do with
how many beers I could chug, but I had developed new skills in the intervening
decades. Mac and I even got our introduction to home improvement together,
working for contractors every summer to earn our beer money. I had gone
on to a career in magazine editing and Mac had become a builder. Both
of our careers had evaporated in the Great Recession, and now we were
back together, producing our own on-line home improvement show based on
the Delmarva Peninsula, that long spit of land between the Chesapeake
and Delaware bays that was a world unto itself.
Mac was more than a little nearsighted, but I
couldn't get him to wear his glasses while we were filming. Maybe it was
simple vanity or maybe, like me, he didn't want to admit that we weren't
as young as we used to be. One of these days he was going to cut off something
important, and then he'd be sorry. Depending on what he was holding at
the time, we all might be.
Mac was much better at acts of brute strength
than he was at carpentry. He served as our licensed contractor. He was
good at threatening and cajoling lazy subcontractors into getting the
job done right. He was also currently the acting star of our show, Delmarva
Renovators. Maybe you've seen the Web cast? Our real star had disappeared
in the middle of our first big rehabbing project. She hadn't quitit
wasn't like Jenny Cooper to quit anythingbut she had made
some vague excuses about "some business to take care of" and
said that she needed some time off. It was no small coincidence that her
departure had come shortly after a late-night editing session had wound
up with Jenny in my bed. So far, nobody else knew about our little tryst,
and I was trying hard to keep it that way.
"Okay, when the crew comes back, I want to
explain exactly what you're doing," I said.
"What am I doing?"
"Anything but whacking your thumb. For starters,
see if you can pry off some of that molding. We want to save as much of
the original woodwork as we can."
The molding around the doors and windows was more
than five inches wide, with lovely rosettes in all the corners. Replicating
it would cost us time and money, and we were already over budget. It had
to come off so we could access the antique pocket doors. There was no
way to do the work short of taking down the wall, which was going to be
a messy and time-consuming job that threatened to put us even further
behind schedule, short-handed as we were.
Our project was a waterfront four-square house
in the historic district of the small town of Chesapeake City on Maryland's
Eastern Shore. The house had more problems than a stray cat has fleas,
but it was also a gem deep down, which made it perfect for our inaugural
Built in 1913, the house had been home to six
generations of the Cosden family before being sold to a couple who had
made a bundle running a service franchise on the Western Shorewhich
was how local people referred to anything on the other side of Chesapeake
Bay, as if it were a slightly foreign country, like Canada. A lot of Cosdens
still lived in Chesapeake City, and it rubbed them the wrong way that
the home of their patriarch, Captain Ezra Cosden, had gone to outsiders
from the D.C. suburbs. Some of the extended family had even taken to hanging
around and watching the progress on the house with the same mournful expressions
on their faces that Confederate veterans must have worn for the surrender
at Appomattox. You would have thought the Cosdens would be grateful we
were preserving their family home, but they seemed more concerned that
some of the family history was going to be tossed into the industrial-sized
Dumpster out front on Third Street.
Amazingly, the house had gone nearly untouched
for most of its long history. There was indoor plumbing, electric and
a furnace, but that was almost the only concession to modern conveniences.
Not that any of those systems were in great shape. The plumbing consisted
of leaky copper tubing and there wasn't so much as a single vent pipe.
The electrical system was a spaghetti bowl of modern wiring cobbled to
downright scary knob and tube, an early form of wiring that resembled
an electric fence inside the walls and ceilings. It was a wonder the house
hadn't burned down by now. The furnace, converted from a coal-burner,
was the size of a locomotive and slathered in asbestos. Every time that
behemoth clicked on, I was sure that a small oil well somewhere in the
world ran dry.
No air conditioning, no insulation. Definitely
no new roof in the last four decades. On windy days, bits of crumbling
slate shingles rained down on the lawn. Termites. A colony of bats lived
in the attic. Evicting them had made for great video, although some of
the leathery winged residents stubbornly refused to leave.
Over the years, the Cosdens had attempted a few
home improvements, all of which we were having to undo. Every wall was
blanketed in multiple layers of old-fashioned wallpaper. Nearly every
ceiling had been covered with asbestos tiles. The reason for that became
clear when we pulled away the tiles to discover that the plaster ceilings
were sagging away from the lath beneath. In the single bathroom upstairs,
some trendy Cosden in the 1970s had stuck down adhesive-backed squares
of lime-green shag carpeting around the original claw foot tub. All of
itthe wallpaper, the ceiling tiles, the sagging plaster,
the shaghad to go.
The good news was that under those cosmetic nightmares,
the house was solid and filled with fine details. Truly, it was a lovely
old home. Two sets of pocket doors with the original brass hardware slid
out to enclose what had been the living room. The cast iron radiators
featured intricate scroll work that our interior designer, Marsha LaRue,
planned to highlight with a fine brush so that each radiator was like
a work of art. The staircase still had its original coat of shellac, having
been spared the paintbrush. The crowning feature of the house was a widow's
walk where in decades past the Cosdens could literally watch for their
father's ship to come in. And the view of the Chesapeake and Delaware
Canal was to die for.
Four-squares were the ranch houses of the early
1900s, a popular and economical building style for the time, though Captain
Cosden's was built on a grander scale than most. They took their name
from their designalmost always square, sometimes rectangular
on a small lot (like the Cosden House). The yard was small, but Captain
Cosden had been a Chesapeake Bay captain, not a gardener. Four-squares
were so named because they had four rooms downstairsfoyer,
living room, dining room, kitchen. Most had three or four bedrooms upstairs.
Our project house had three, not counting the bath that was big as the
smaller bedroom, plus a large walk-up attic that functioned as an unfinished
third floor. Completing the atticand evicting the bats for
goodwas part of our plan. Finally, like all other four-squares,
the Cosden House had a hip roof, but with a leaky dormer in each side.
Add them to the renovation list. It was the job of Delmarva Renovators
to update the Cosden House for the twenty-first century while keeping
the best of the early twentieth, all for the entertainment and edification
of our on-line viewers.
Trouble was, we were running out of time. The
new owners were planning a big housewarming party in late June during
the town's annual Canal Day street festival. We'd had six months to get
the job done and we were already deep into the fifth. They were footing
the bill for the renovation work, but we were perilously close to being
over our budget of two hundred thousand dollars. The money went toward
materials and subcontractors. The homeowners were essentially getting
our labor for free. Our only paycheck came from the revenue provided by
Delmarva Renovators. And that was pretty skimpy so far.
According to our contract, the homeowners weren't
obligated to give us a single nickelor a single daybeyond
what we had agreed upon. Short of a miracleand the reappearance
of our charismatic host and master carpenterit was going
to be hard to come in within budget and on schedule. People watched home
improvement shows partly because the race-against-time created drama and
suspense. Our show was never going to get off the ground if our first
full-house project didn't have a happy ending.
Iggy came back with a tall cup of coffee and our
gofer, Kat, in tow. They made an interesting study in contrasts. Kat was
maybe nineteen and had what appeared to be the contents of half a jewelry
store glittering from her ears, eyebrows, nose and lipsand
God knows where else. Tall and skinny, Iggy was vague about his age, but
he looked somewhere between thirty and fifty, judging from the strands
of gray mixed with the long black hair of his ponytail. He wore black
boots, black jeans, a black silk shirt and oversized, wrap-around eyeglasses
like Bono. But Iggy was no poseur. He was good with a camera and fearless,
willing to crawl into the darkest crawl space or balance on a windy rooftop.
Sometimes, I thought Iggy might follow the action into hell itself if
He gave his ponytail a shake, then took a big
swig of coffee. I used to think of myself as a caffeine junkie until I
met Iggy. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he swallowedmake
that gulped-the coffee. "So, what are we doing?"
"Trim molding," I said. "Mac is
going to show us how to salvage it."
"Okay." Iggy reached for his camera.
He had another camera set up nearby on a tripod so that he could cut back
and forth between angles. Kat rigged up one of the umbrella lights. Mac
shook out his sore thumb one last time. Then he got down on one knee next
to the wall with the pocket door. He was working in the corner where the
dining room wall concealing the pocket door met the structural interior
dining room wall at a right angle.
"Tell us some of the history behind the wood,
Mac," I prompted. "The saw mill, remember?"
He nodded and our gofer handed him a molding bar
and a hammer. "Hit yourself with that again and we're going to make
you sit in the truck the rest of the day," she warned.
"I'd like to see you try and make me, girlie
"Happy thoughts, everybody," I said.
Mac scowled at the camera. "What we're going
to do now isvery carefullypry off some of this
molding so that we can reuse it once we're finished working on the new
wall." He held up what looked like a smaller, more elegant version
of a crow bar and Iggy zoomed in on it. "We'll be using this tool
here, which is commonly called a pry bar. Look at the shape of itthe
flat end here slides under trim molding to pull it away from the wall
with as little damage as possible. It's for prying with a light touch."
He pointed to the other end. "For those stubborn nails, there's also
a notched tip to pull them out."
Mac went on: "Now, why bother with the molding?
First off, you're not going to find a hardware store that carries anything
like this. Close, but it won't have the width we need. So we want to save
it. It's in pretty good shape. Second, this molding has some historical
value because, like all the lumber in the house, it was actually produced
at a saw mill that once stood about a hundred yards behind the house.
Years ago, they used to float logs from Pennsylvania down the Susquehanna
River into the Chesapeake Bay, then on to the canal, which is why the
saw mill was located on the waterfront. That saw mill disappeared when
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers widened the canal in the 1920s, so it's
not like we can go back in time and get more wood."
I nodded encouragement. He was doing fine. Mac
worked the molding bar under the trim and was tugging to loosen the nails
that held it to the door framing. Iggy zoomed in with his hand-held camera.
One by one, the nails popped free, some of them sounding loud as gun shots.
The last couple of nails were stubborn. A bit
more finesse might have done the trick, but this was Mac we were talking
about. The big veins on the side of his neck stood out like cables as
he strained to make the nails release their grip.
"Just a little more," he said for benefit
of the camera.
The molding gave way with a rending shriek. The
piece of trim seemed to explode off the wall. Mac went flying backwards,
fending off wood and plaster with a big forearm. His full weight hit the
dining room wall behind him. An ominous cracking sound followed. He threw
up his hands to protect his head as a large section of sand plaster wall
"Mac!" I cried, but I quickly saw that
the plaster wasn't heavy enough to do any real damage and that he wasn't
hurt. My concern soon changed to annoyance that Mac's clumsiness had just
created another major job for us when we were already behind schedule.
Having both walls come down at once was definitely not part of the script.
Iggy bent over the camera, protecting it as best he could while trying
to shoot despite the swirling dust. There was nothing so messy on a rehab
job as demolished plaster. It coated everything with a powder fine as
talcum. Silently, I said a prayer of thanks that we hadn't yet refinished
any of the floors in the house or even put on a coat of paint.
Choking and coughing, Mac sat on the floor, covered
in crumbled sand plaster. He looked like he'd been rolled in flour. He
still clutched the molding bar. The salvaged trim molding lay across his
knees. When the lath and plaster gave way, a bundle of rags about half
as big as Mac had come tumbling out of the wall. It now lay on the floor
"What's that?" Iggy said.
We all took a step closer. As the swirling cloud
of debris cleared, the bundle began to take on shape. Mac swept some crumbled
plaster off the rags and it became clear that the rags were, in fact,
a very dusty suit.
And at the top of the suit was a mummified face.
Like a huge dried apple with deep-set eyes, the
face stared back at us. If I hadn't known better, I would have sworn the
corpse had an angry expression. The lips had shrunken to reveal teeth
the color of old ivory, caught in an eternal scowl that somehow looked
familiar. Wisps of brown hair fell down over the mummy's face.
That was the moment that our decorator chose to walk in. Marsha LaRue
took one look at the grinning corpse on the floor, its head nearly in
Mac's lap, and let out a scream that rattled the old windows in their
Iggy's camera was rolling the whole time. "Ladies
and gentlemen," he said. "I'd call that a wrap."