Larger-than-life Charleston hotel owner pays the ultimate price for messing around with the mayor’s wife in Nick Zegarac’s twisted ghost story of murder and revenge from the spooky streets of old Charleston.
About a mile outside of Charleston, past a forgotten bend in the main road that overlooks a now equally abandoned stretch of property facing the ocean, sits Branson Park. At the turn of the last century, this acreage had been a much sought after destination for the local gentry – an elegant playground, lit nightly by tea lamps and rose coloured lanterns. It was a place for long walks and good conversations with cherished friends, and it positively wreaked of the gallantry and gentile charm that had once been so emblematic of the entire south. Its moonlit courtyards and secluded, meandering pathways through the lumbering pines and luscious willows, were the absolute perfect spot for sparking after sunset, tasting the cool salty breezes after a nice hot meal.
Now, truth be told, the locals liked Branson Park just the way it was. Especially with the likes of Humphrey McDonaugh there. He had come from back east to erect a formidable hotel at the embankment facing the ocean. This was a rather stately retreat that catered to very swell affairs indeed. And Humphrey was, himself, the most congenial sort, good natured and even tempered. He was a big, tough scoundrel of a man, with a barrel chest and meaty hands that could break any man in two. Not that Humphrey ever tried, but he certainly gave every indication that he could if the spirit moved him. But for a time he was liked by everyone, and not just for the cold whiskey and elegant clean rooms he could provide.
Now Humphrey was good friends with the mayor, Alec Renault, better still acquainted with his wife, Isabella, who liked her men tall and strong, and a little rough around the edges. She was willowy and smart, with a thick ebony mane and piercing green eyes that sparkled in the moonlight. But she was severely bored with being married to Alec, who had all the money to pamper her, but none of the proclivity to creatively mistreat her as she wished to be in the bedroom. For this latter excitement that would have raised more than a few handsome eyebrows in her husband’s front parlour, she came to Humphrey two or three times a week. Afterward, the two would acquit themselves quite nicely of the ball and claw bathtub in Humphrey’s suite, where Isabella could pleasantly cool the remnants of her lusty palpitations and wash off their sweaty flesh as it continued to twitch toward relaxation beneath the tepid waters together.
Only on this particular eve, Isabella was to encounter a most gruesome end to their affair. As the moon hid behind an approaching bank of storm clouds, she had encouraged her lover to light a candle next to the tub, then to run down to the pantry for another bottle of gin they would share together. It was all so tawdry and sinful and quite exciting to her. But she had already consumed far too much that night, and had oddly stepped into the smooth porcelain without Humphrey at her side for balance. She lost her footing and toppled backward with a sudden thud and miscalculated splash beneath the water. As she slid downward, her head struck the hard sharp and curiously greasy edge of the tub, knocking her unconscious and cracking the back of her skull wide open.
When Humphrey returned several long moments later he did not see this spectacular demise – at least, not at once. It was too dark to see anything at all. The candle next to the tub had been snuffed out.
“Where are you, my lovely?” he whispered into the dark.
But there was no reply.
Again, he called to her in the night, feeling about the shadowy room and bumping into furniture while approaching the bathtub and whispering softly that he adored her, still with visions of her ripe, sweaty cleavage bobbing about his filthy mind.
But now the floor underfoot was sopping wet, and not from an overflow of bathwater either. Humphrey had stepped into a vast pool of Isabella’s blood. As he struggled to compose himself, Isabella’s swollen head, face down, crested ever so slightly above the water’s edge. Outside the moon grew full, casting long tenacious fingers of pale light through the thickening moss covered branches of the willows.
There she lay, swollen and quiet, like the great bow of a tall ship turned over in a gale. As Humphrey quietly approached in utter disbelief there came from below a terrific scream; the scream to end all that had come before and any he was likely to experience again. Isabella’s blood had soaked between the floorboard and through to the ceiling of old Mrs. Macintyre’s bedroom just below. Within moments, the old crow – who had come to the hotel for medicinal reasons, and under a doctor’s care no less – had awakened the entire house. Panicked guests beat a path to Humphrey’s room.
Their host lay prostrate before them on the floor, blood stained and cradling Isabella’s nude lifeless body in his arms. And although their horror was somewhat quelled by their more immediate sympathies for Humphrey as he quietly relayed the story of the accident, there arose almost immediately a disquieting disdain for both this man and the newly departed.
A coach was sent at once to fetch the Mayor at his home. Now, the town gossips began to form a more odious opinion of Humphrey McDonaugh. He was hardly an innocent. He had corrupted the most generous woman in town. He had betrayed a trusted friend. And he had done all of this before their very eyes. Humphrey McDonaugh was a louse!
“You’ll hang for this, Humphrey McDonaugh,” began the jeers and cheers, “You’ll burn, then hang, then burn some more if we have anything to say about it.”
And talk they did. Every last guest put in his dirge into the court of popular opinion. All except the Mayor who, having returned from an all night constitutional in the woods, listened to his wife’s fate with an almost passionless acceptance.
“Well, it’s done then” he muttered to all their collected shock and amazement.
For he had been the one to grease the rim and the bottom of Humphrey’s porcelain tub with thick lard earlier that afternoon while the guests were at play in Branson Park.
“But I’m innocent!” declared Humphrey.
The mayor took his old friend by the hand. Humphrey squeezed it tightly. He would believe him. He must. He knew him too well.
But Alec just shook his head.
“Not of wounding a man in the deepest way any man can,” suggested Alec with a queer half smile.
Humphrey rubbed his fingers together. They were smooth with fresh lard that made Humphrey realize the truth they now shared between them.
Humphrey lunged at Alec with all his might but it was no use. No one believed him. How quickly he had gone from being everyone’s fair weather friend to a social pariah. He was restrained by the mob and held down until someone returned with a fresh cord of rope from the cellar.
“And now you’ll pay,” said Alec calmly.
There was no trial. As far as anyone was concerned no need for one either. Humphrey McDonaugh was bound and carried out of his beloved hotel, writhing on the shoulders of men whose last round of drinks he had poured himself earlier in the day, and fitted with a noose to satisfy the mob’s bloodlust. They strung him up without knowing the reason why, and watched with vengeful pride as he convulsed and twirled in the air, the thick leather soles of his bloody boots leaving deep imprints in the craggy stalk of the tree.
It was a most awfully pleasurable sight for the mayor. Alec stood by long after the morbid appeal of the hanging had elapsed for everyone else and relished every moment as his old friend was left to ferment in the blistering noonday sun. By late afternoon a gaggle of sea cranes and a few brooding pelicans had picked apart the juicy innards of Humphrey’s eyeballs, had torn into the crisp crinkly flesh of his fingers and ears and nibbled off the tip of his left nostril. The next day the mayor and a few of the more stouthearted men returned to cut loose these tattered remains and bury them in a plot not far from the hotel.
Afterward, things were never the same at Branson Park. The place developed a perverse reputation that frightened away most anyone who dared even think of the area now as the idyllic lover’s lane it had once been. The hotel was left to fall into disrepair, and gradually became shuttered from view by the encroachment of burdensome vines that kept even the most ardent curiosity seeker at bay.
Months passed. Years too. And finally Branson Park became nothing more than a distant memory in everyone’s mind. Everyone, that is, except Mayor Renault. Elected twice more to his current post, then to the state legislature – some would later claim on sympathy alone for his forthright handling of this most sordid affair, Alec Renault became something of a legend in his own time.
He married in 1920 for a second time to Caroline Maine; a woman of high born pedigree and sterling reputation, and moved away to a big mansion far removed from the reality of Branson Park – though perhaps not its memory – where he grew old and fat on the promises kept to his constituents. Indeed, the rest of his life had become exemplary. Still, one part of that life was forever tainted and this stain – kept secretive from the second Mrs. Renault – on an otherwise unblemished life together, gradually gnawed away at Alec’s self respect. It was a rot on his mind, a decay that grew like a malignant fungus and caused him great emotional stress. Isabella lay damp and rigid, her eyes staring up at him from the sopping wet floor in the hotel.
She came to him nightly in this fashion, an almost sweet apparition, slowly rising to her feet from the watery grave he had doomed her. These many years had been ageless for her; those cat green eyes glistening through the fog of his slumber, seemingly peaceful for him without her.
“I didn’t mean it,” Alec began to whisper in his sleep, “I didn’t mean it.”
“What?” said Caroline, nudging her husband to awaken him from his nightmare.
She had become all too familiar with these episodes. But most recently they had begun to annoy, rather than concern her.
“What?” said Alec, rubbing his eyes.
“You were having another dream, dear,” Caroline insisted.
“Oh,” said Alec.
He was sweaty and exhausted.
“Go to sleep,” said Caroline.
“I can’t,” Alec replied.
“Fine. Then let me go to sleep.”
Perhaps a nice cool bath would settle him down. Yes, it might. He would go and take a nice long bath and forget about his worries. They were all in the past and unknown to everyone but himself. Yet, as he crawled into the claw legged tub to ease his conscience, a whisper filled his brain, softly at first, then more assured and pronounced until it rattled every fibre of his being. He shut his eyes and clasped his hands over his ears but still the voice echoed through his mind.
“Leave me alone,” Alec whimpered, “Leave me be.”
The room fell silent. He could hear the sound of his own heart violently beating in his chest.
“And now you’ll pay,” a voice soothingly suggested.
Alec opened his eyes. But there was no time to notice the large meaty hand firmly gripping the top of his head and forcing him beneath the waterline. As he kicked and struggled and gasped for air he could barely make out the rippled reflection of a woman standing over him. But he knew those green eyes so well, knew better still the last time he had firmly shaken his best friend’s hand, and knew too well that they had both come to claim their revenge for his crimes against them.
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