Forty-six days ago, my aunt made a shocking deathbed confession. She said, “Release me from the death waltz, Reece. I’m tired of feeling haunted.”
Stunned, I had tried to calm her. I thought she was hallucinating from the heavy sedation needed to dampen her cancer pain.
Julia Carson grabbed my arm with strength I didn’t think she still had. “I didn’t kill the girl, but I helped cover-up for who did. Secrets are like the plague—without warning they’ll kill you. Remember that.”
She had gagged and choked while fighting for breath. I repositioned her on the bed and re-checked the oxygen tank.
Julia scolded me in a hoarse voice, “Reece Carson, don’t you dare forgive my actions because I’m dying. I’m guilty.”
It hurt to gaze into her eyes and see the truth. I had believed my aunt to be almost a saint, but I couldn’t deny the confession had relieved her pain. She looked serene. I released tears I had held back for weeks and asked, “Why?”
“No gumption. When you showed me the pictures of the yellow fever graveyard,” she said, “I realized you were standing on her unmarked grave.” Her fingernails scratched my arm. “Free the girls, dig up the truth, end the silence, and then forgive me if you can.”
Before I could protest, Julia had passed her guilt on to me. She became unresponsive soon after and died without waking. Since then, I haven’t had peace of mind.
I’ve done precious little to investigate Julia’s declaration of guilt, and I’m still grieving her loss from my world. That’s why I’m up pacing after midnight instead of sleeping. I have to make a decision, but I don’t want to hurt the girls, her three oldest and dearest friends, by exposing old secrets. Julia knew my fatal flaw—I’m a sucker for solving mysteries.
My cell vibrated and I answered, “This is Reece Carson at Text-A-Nurse.”
A raspy voice asked, “How do I cut off fingers?”
“Excuse me?” Had I really heard her right?
“Would a boning knife work?” the now familiar voice asked before clearing her throat.
I welcomed the distraction from my robotic pacing. Mary Belle Murphy was my neighbor and my patient. She was also one of the girls. “Are you sick, Mary Belle?”
“No dear.” Her voice sounded like a purr. “How are you?”
“Sleepy. Are you having trouble sleeping?”
“You sound like Julia,” she whispered. “I miss her.”
“Me too.” As a retired nurse, Julia had supervised her friend’s health issues.
“Sugar, do you mind hanging on while I potty?”
“Sure, I’ll hold, Mrs. Murphy.”
I forfeited job security in a slow economy after ten years of critical care nursing to provide at-home hospice care for my aunt. I invented Text-A-Nurse after observing Julia fielding calls from her neighbors even as she neared death. I also write a bi-weekly historical health column for my local paper. My recent article featured a killer yellow fever epidemic in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, in September 1878.
I listened to Mrs. Murphy screaming at her son to turn off his light. Her dementia had worsened, but she still had occasional sparks of brilliance. Mary Belle Murphy had urged me to write about the yellow fever epidemic. She’d said, “You’re not a true Mobilian if you don’t have ancestors killed by Yellow Jack.”
Locals described yellow fever as the “great ecumenical plague” when it crippled the city. Some panicked and fled, but the ones that stayed behind had to put aside petty grudges and prejudices to survive. Yellow fever swept across the South, taking twenty thousand lives. Mobile had over eighty-four deaths. Citizens announced its infectious arrival by harpooning yellow flags to their front doors. According to historical diaries, the fluttering flags crackled like dead leaves in tandem with nonstop church bells. The mournful bells haunted the survivors. They called living through the plague a “death waltz.”
Aunt Julia knew when she asked me to release her from the death waltz that I would understand the extent of her anguish for keeping such a terrible secret. Dying with yellow fever was excruciating. I have to believe her friends feel the same guilt she did. So far, both Dot Dearwood and Abigail Hamilton had denied any knowledge of a murder cover-up, but I could tell they lied. Abigail had gasped and slammed the front door in my face. Dot shunned me for days. I didn’t want to keep prying, but I would.
Mary Belle Murphy shouted into her phone, “He’s still awake, Reece.”
I glanced at my bedside clock. “Your son is on the computer now?”
“Yes, ma’am. Every time I shut my eyes to sleep I hear him tapping. It sounds like roaches scampering out of the light, and it makes my skin crawl. Would pinking shears do?”
“No,” I said, “they won’t. Stop thinking about his fingers, okay?” I pushed my hair out of my face and noticed someone had left me a text message, but I ignored it. No sense dealing with another patient until I helped this one. I triaged the old fashioned way—first come, first served, and everyone knew it.
“I can’t stand that sound!”
I decided on the spot never to place my phone number in a patient’s speed dial again.
“Are you there?” Mary Belle shouted in agitation. “I saw the girl’s body roll in on the wave surrounded by dying fish. She had white flowers in her hair. Abigail fainted.”
My breath caught. “You were there? May I come over and talk with you?”
She sighed. “Okay, but I need to spray the roaches first.”
“Mrs. Murphy!” I reached for my scrubs.
A minute later, I heard her son screaming and somewhere in the melee we got disconnected. I slid into flip-flops, grabbed my backpack and flashlight, and walked out into the humid night to help my patient.