Stealing Mercy

Some herbs, like eucalyptus and wormwood, can be used to repel animals and insects.
From The Recipes of Mercy Faye


New York, New York
December, 1888
New York City’s night noises seeped through the wall chinks and window: the jingle of horse harnesses, the stomping of hooves, the mournful howl of a dog, but one noise, a noise that didn't belong, jarred Mercy awake.

 A creak on the stairs that led to her apartment. The third from the top, five steps past Mr. Bidwell’s door. Only those wishing to reach her home crossed that step. She never entertained visitors in the tiny attic; she wasn’t expecting company.

Lying in bed, she held her breath while the unwelcome guest paused. The walls were thin, the door as substantial as paper, the lock inconsequential. Her thoughts raced and her body shook. A shock of cold hit when she slipped from the bedding, the wooden floor felt like ice beneath her feet. The embers in the grate had burnt to a smolder and her shivering had as much to do with cold as with fear.

Mercy padded through the doorway to the sitting room. Dying coals in the potbelly stove cast an orange glow and shadows loomed large. Grabbing a fire poker from the hearth, she waited for a knock on the door. She tried to think of an innocent reason for a neighbor to call, an emergency or crisis in which she could assist, but when no knock came, she crept behind the pie safe stocked with the previous day’s unsold pies and pastries. Stars winked through the window and Mercy wondered if their pale light could penetrate her chiffon shift. She felt naked, alone, and friendless.

She could call out. Let the visitor know she was awake, alert and fire poker armed. Perhaps someone on the street below would hear, but would they come to her aid? Her only neighbor, Mr. Bidwell, as old as Satan and twice as mean, would never stir from his bed for her. As she so often did, Mercy missed her father and longed for family.

The splintering wood shattered the air as the lock gave way.

Across the room, a mirror, tarnished and misty, gave a wavy reflection of the opening door.  Mercy slid a fraction lower behind the pie safe. The odors of the pies mingled with her own smell of fear. She could feel the panic spilling out of her like a cloud that blurred her vision.

In the mirror she saw first a boot and then a thigh. Then Mr. Steele, his face a study of lust and cruelty, stood in the semi-darkness. The moonlight glistened on the six inch knife blade in his gloved hand. Mercy choked on a sour tasting sob. Suitors don’t carry knives.

Mr. Steele pushed the door open more, inviting in a breeze that circulated through the room. She knew why she’d been attracted to him. He looked and moved like royalty. His dark hair curled away from his forehead and his lean muscles rippled beneath his breeches. She thought of his laughter, the lilt of his voice when he asked if he could call, the gleam in his eye when she’d accepted his gift. Mercy fingered the silver charm, a four leaf clover that he’d given her. She’d tied it with a ribbon and wore it around her neck. Why hadn’t she taken it off when she’d denied his suit? When had she become suspicious of his flattery? Why was she not surprised to find him in her room past midnight wielding a knife?

Of course, he’d been angry and insulted that a mere shop girl would reject his favors. Impoverished girls without families and connections should fawn over a handsome, wealthy and prominent man such as Steele, but Mercy wasn’t typical, and she wasn’t as impoverished one might suppose. And so when Mr. Steele had invited her on a voyage to South America without proposing marriage, she’d turned him down.

Rumors whispered that Mr. Steele had also invited her friend Belle on such a voyage, before Belle had disappeared.

Mercy held her breath as Steele passed the pie safe, and then stopped, as if thinking. Mustering strength from the muscles that spent long hours kneading dough and beating eggs, gathering courage grown from burying first her mother and then her father, Mercy shoved the pie safe and it gave way with a creak and shudder. The safe caught Mr. Steele on the shoulder and he stumbled under the assault of the swinging doors and sailing pies. Apple, cherries, peaches, the sweet cinnamony odors of Faye’s wares pelted Mr. Steele. He danced in the pastry goop and landed hard on one knee. In a different circumstance, she’d have laughed at his abandoned dignity and awkward bobbling, but now she stepped into the fallen pastries with her mouth in a stern line, her anger as hot as fire.

One blow from the poker sent him to the floor. A second blow brought his arms over his head. With the third he shuddered, fell face first into the smashed pastries and then went still. When she stopped beating him her arms were shaking and her breath ragged. Blood oozed from behind his ear. His body sprawled in the spilt pies; his face pressed against the floorboards. She nudged him with the poker and he didn’t stir. For a long moment she stood above him, waiting for a sign of life.

Her heart raced as she considered her options. The police? Would they believe her plea of self defense? She tried to imagine herself in a court of law, pitted against the wealthy and prominent Mr. Steele.

He lay motionless in a mess of stewed fruit and crust. A smashed, oozing cherry clung to his eyebrow. And then she noticed papers protruding from his jacket pocket. It looked like passage fare and she considered it with a hammering heart.

Squatting beside him, she drew the papers loose, her fingers shaking so badly the papers caused a noisy breeze. A silver key slipped from the packet to the floor and landed with a ping. The skeleton key had a curlicue top with embossed leaves swirling around the words Lucky Island. The papers were first class passage to Seattle. It seemed Mr. Steele had been undeterred from the voyage he’d proposed. The boat left at first light.


She couldn’t.

She had an aunt in Seattle.

She mustn’t.

Silly Tilly, her father had called his sister. Mercy hadn’t met her aunt, but Silly Tilly always remembered Mercy’s birthday.

Why not go? Mercy turned her head away from the tiny sitting room and looked out the window to the river while hastily drawn plans formed in her mind. Perhaps Lucky Island was in the Puget Sound. It sounded more fortuitous than Faye’s Bakery off Elm. Would her aunt take her in? Mercy had written Tilly of her father’s death, but hadn’t, as yet, heard a reply. Perhaps an invitation was already in the mail.

Mercy went to the wardrobe and tossed through her dresses, nothing seemed practical. What did one wear for flight? She caught sight of her father’s trunk and nursed an idea as she drew out her father’s clothes.
The pants, well worn and loose, she slipped on and then tucked into her boots. She rolled the sleeves of the cotton work shirt and shrugged into a boiled wool coat. She tugged at the belt holding up her father’s pants and took a deep breath in an effort to restore the calm she’d lost the moment she heard the boot on the stairs. The jacket made her warm and the faint smell of leather and shoeshine she always associated with her father gave her courage. It felt odd and freeing to move without the cumbrance of skirts and petticoats. She kept one eye on Mr. Steele as she packed the knapsack: her father’s watch, her mother’s bible, a bag of gold coins, a loaf of barley bread.

She sat down at the table where she’d taken her solitary meals and she struggled to control her shaking hands. One pinned the paper and the other grasped the quill. Her handwriting looked spidery, the ink blotchy. A splash of ink stained her father’s denim work shirt, but Mercy didn’t care.

To whom it may concern, I, Mercy Faye, have taken my life on the night of December 15, 1888, she wrote, but she mentally added, to Seattle.  She left the note on her unmade bed.

She snuck a glance at the blood still seeping from the man’s temple and fought the bile rising in her throat as she squatted and pulled out a locked trunk from under her bed. Her shivering increased, making it difficult for her fingers to work the key. Quickly, she rifled through her mother’s things which smelled of must, neglect and a lingering hint of lavender. Forgive me, Mama, she thought, when she found the velvet bag containing the Bren jewels.

Not trusting the sapphires in the knapsack, she tucked the bag next to her heart beneath the ink-stained shirt. Then she went to the safe where she kept the shop’s proceeds. Perhaps someone, most likely her landlord, would wonder, but who would question the scant means she left behind? The coins seemed to weigh a hundred pounds and they jingled like a tambourine in her father’s pockets.

Since her father’s death four months prior, there’d been times when Mercy contemplated selling the jewels, but the bakery had become increasingly successful. Mercy took a deep breath, inhaling the warm pastry smells that permeated her life. She would miss the shop, and it would only be a few hours until her customers would miss her. She pictured Mr. Lester, impatient for his muffin and coffee, Mrs. Nicole, eager for her biscuits. The customers would wander away, wondering what had happened to their supply of baked goods. Eventually her landlord would bang on the door, demanding rent, fair compensation. Would he find Mr. Steele?

Two hats hung on the hook by the door, a simple straw affair and summer bonnet that she wore walking. Mercy tucked bonnet beneath her arm, shouldered the knapsack and then bade a silent goodbye to the only home she’d ever known.

Then she felt it. A shift in the air.  She stopped, listened and heard movement. Mr. Steele flinched.

Stealing Mercy is available on Amazon and on most e-readers.