Painted Ladies and a Bottle of Wine
Posted on Wed May 24th, 2017 @ 6:27pm by H.G. Mercer
Edited on on Fri Jul 21st, 2017 @ 7:33pm
The Long Road Home
Location: Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, California
Timeline: Late June 1875
The carriage swayed with the movements of the high-stepping matched pair of Hackney horses. The lone woman passenger leaned back in the cushioned comfort of the seats. She preferred driving herself but had simply been too exhausted after her arduous journey home. She also preferred speed. H.G. Mercer could match almost anyone in a race and come out the winner. Winning was important to her.
The motion of the small, well-appointed coach was minimal. It was well-sprung and traveled over the cobblestone streets easily. From habit, Harriet Gene Mercer, known to all as H.G., calculated the distance without looking at the passing scenery. She stirred from her semi-slumber within seconds of the vehicle pulling to a stop in front of an imposing row house. It was not painted in the same brilliant colors as the other Painted Ladies that lined the street, but it was not completely somber either with its whimsical tower and intricate fretwork. H.G. gathered her purse and carry all and exited the carriage before the driver could jump down and assist her. She smiled pleasantly at the young man and thanked him for a comfortable ride and on how well he handled the high strung horses that she preferred. Walking forward to the two carriage horses, she stood at their heads, admiring their strong confirmation and how closely matched they were.
H.G. turned to the waiting driver, "See they get a little extra treat tonight, Patrick, they deserve it." She ran her gloved hand down a powerful neck before turning to walk up the stairs to the house.
She would have preferred to live closer to the sea although the views from the top of the hill were spectacular. The house had been inherited and was considered prime real estate in the fashionable Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Selling it simply to assuage her desire to live near the ocean was impractical, and H.G. was nothing if not practical. As she walked through the door, she was greeted by the tall, angular form of the housekeeper but servants did not scurry to help divest H.G. of her coat and hat. They had learned that H.G. hated being swarmed and fussed over.
"Is Josephine in?" H.G. asked Mildred, the housekeeper, as she pulled the pins from her fashionable hat that matched her dress perfectly.
"Miss Josephine has gone out for the evening. She is attending a book reading at the home of Miss Smythe," Mildred replied.
Abigail Smythe was a school friend of her younger sister. They had both attended the same boarding school in Sacramento. That Josephine had gone out for an evening at the Smythe home was not a matter of concern. The other attendees at the gathering were of concern and would be addressed at the appropriate time.
"Thank you, Mildred. Please see that Miss Josephine is informed of my arrival. I will expect her to join me for breakfast in the morning," H.G. paused, "I think I will take supper in my rooms, please." She turned and mounted the stairs. Her apartments were on the third floor.
H.G. entered the private sanctuary of her rooms just as she pulled the last pins out of her hair, allowing it to cascade in thick waves down her back. She did not fling her hat and gloves carelessly on the settee but continued through her private sitting area into her bedroom. From there, she walked into her vast closet where she placed the hat and travel gloves on a shelf next to the dirty clothes hamper. Mildred would see that everything went to the cleaners. Carefully, Harriet removed her dark emerald green traveling jack, divested herself of the pale green silk blouse and the voluminous skirt and petticoats with their cleverly hidden split. Next, she removed the arm sheathes that housed her throwing knives. She donned a wide-sleeved oriental type robe made of heavy silk. It was in shades of forest green with wide gold embroidered accents. Once wrapped in its folds, H.G. moved to a cushioned bench, sat down and removed her low-heeled boots. She slid her feet into dark green slippers that matched the robe and walked back out to her private sitting area.
She seated herself at her large mahogany desk and began sorting through the accumulated mail. There was only one letter that needed her immediate attention. It was a missive from a legal firm in Montana. H.G.'s upper lip curled in disdain. Carson Tyndall had been fired as Chance Harper's attorney on her recommendation. Now, it seemed that he felt Chance's death was an opportunity to reinstate himself. She had received the telegram informing her of the Harpers' death while she was in St. Louis. She'd concluded her business there and headed back to San Francisco as soon as she could.
H.G.'s heart ached. Chance Harper had been her first big client. He'd inherited numerous businesses and the vast Lost Lake Ranch upon his father's death. He had also inherited his father's legal counsel in the form of Carson Tyndall III. After several business losses and being underbid on a livestock contract with the army, Chance had haired H.G. Mercer and Associates to do an in-depth review of the Harpers' holdings. To H.G., the irregularities had stood out like multiple sore thumbs. Upon further investigation, she had learned that Tyndall was also employed by Elinor Steelgrave, an obvious conflict of interest as the Steelgraves were implacable rivals of the Harpers. She had reported her findings to Chance Harper.
With Chance's approval, she had cleaned house, metaphorically speaking. The end result was that Tyndall Associates was summarily dismissed and H.G.'s firm took over the duties as legal counsel for the Harpers. Unfortunately, H.G. had been unavailable when Chance, his wife, Regina, and their older children were killed while en route from Missoula to Kalispell. Her heart ached as she thought of their loss. Chance had meant a great deal to her, he had given her firm his confidence. In a way, she felt she'd let him down. Her absence had been all the opening Tyndall needed to try to slither in and do more damage. He had presented a substantial case to the local court that challenged the dictates of Chance's and Regina's wills that left Jess Harper, Chance's younger brother, as the surviving children's guardian and trustee of their estate. It also left him half of Lost Lake Ranch. Carson's case brought suit based on the fact that no one had heard from Jess in years and there was some question to him having a criminal record.
H.G.'s first priority was to get some rest and start investigating Mr. Jess Harper. Chance had located him more than once and observed him, but had not contacted him. She had a notice from Tyndall that he was assuming legal representation and responsibilities for the five-year-old Harper twins. Her next move would be to repack and head for Kalispell, Montana.
Picking up a chilled bottle of wine from the ice bucket on her desk, H.G. turned it so she could read the label. It was an excellent vintage. It also meant that Cook was serving poultry or fish that night. H.G. hoped it was lobster. Since she was home alone, she'd be able to dig into the shellfish with gusto, something that was unseemly in the company of others. She poured some of the pale golden liquid into a cut crystal wine glass and took a sip, smiling appreciatively.
Now for the other problem that she had to deal with. She picked up a folder with a simple label affixed to it that read Fitzpatrick. Her fine lips folded thin, and her gray eyes turned cold. She knew what was in the folder. Her loyal friend, business associate, mentor and sometime bodyguard, Fang, had kept her informed. She had wired Fang after receiving letters from her younger half-sister that increasingly revolved around the subject of one Jeremy Fitzpatrick. Nothing in the folder was news to her. She'd known the Fitzpatricks for many years. They were a fine family, in general, but something had gone wrong with their youngest son. He did not work, and from what Harriet gleaned from Fang's reports, he had no plans on ever working. He was wild, irresponsible and looking to hook his wagon to an heiress. Josephine was not the first one he'd had in his sights. H.G. was not about to allow her sister to make the same horrible mistake that both of their mothers had.
Franklin Hartwell Mercer, H.G.'s and Josephine's sire, had been a handsome, dashing, and charming ne'er-do-well. He had cut a swath through the well-to-do ladies of various cities, managing to escape marriage with all but two of them. A duel over another heiress while he was still married to Josephine's mother, Evelyn, had ended Frank Mercer's life. Despite his failings, H.G. had adored her father but knowing him had left her decidedly jaded where men were concerned. She was not going to tolerate Josephine making the same mistakes Evelyn and Winnifred, her mother, had made.
Josephine would be accompanying her to Montana, whether she liked it or not. H.G. just needed to put the pieces into play and force Jeremy's hand. Young Fitzpatrick was no match for H.G. on her slowest days.
H.G. leaned back and tapped a long, perfectly manicured and lacquered nail against the crystal of her glass, enjoying the sound of it ringing. A tap at her door heralded the arrival of dinner.
It was lobster.
Harriet Gene Mercer smiled coldly.