St. Louis Insane Asylum, 2:02 pm
The knock on the door did not startle Kemper Bidwell. Though he medicated himself sufficiently, he always made sure he never overdid it, as some of the other vacant patients did, and he had never been prone to being jittery. He merely lay on his lumpy cot, in his barren room, staring at the mildew stain on the ceiling that closely resembled General Ulysses S. Grant.
The knock had not agitated him, but it did start the usual howls and moans of the fellow residents up and down the hall. They reminded him of neighborhood dogs baying to each other when some commotion needed their communal attention and vigilance. It did not take much for them to begin their pitiful chorus. At night, a good-sized moth batting against a gaslight globe would do it, or, in this case, an unexpected mid-day rapping on a patient’s door by Felix, the giant orderly.
Kemper had convinced himself he was only “staying over” at the asylum—while the other patients were true residents and therefore belonged in such a hopeless terminus. He had admitted himself much the same as some folks checked into a hotel suite.
Kemper waited to see if he was merely daydreaming the interruption when another knock, this one much more earnest—even irritated—echoed briefly around his room and through his head. The springs of his cot complained and the rusted legs of the frame scraped as Kemper took his time to roll slowly off onto his bare feet. His soles did not register the chill of the cement floor, as most feeling had long since left.
He stretched idly and yawned. He was in no hurry to see to the purpose of the interruption, for he was known by no man or woman and thereby was certainly not being called to meeting with a visitor. He had actually even given up hope on receiving any more correspondence, since the last letter of inquiry he sent out came back “addressee not in residence.”
He was a man in waiting who sometimes forgot he was waiting.
He winced as he shuffled to the door. The limp was a constant reminder of the pain of betrayal and the succor of promised vengeance. His fate at Andersonville Prison was that of a survivor, but barely. The diseases thriving at the camp ravaged his limbs and the rifle wound in his leg took a toll. They had stamped him forever, but he embraced that brand.
The men responsible—the ones who left him behind–and the justice he intended to mete out by his own hand to those men were what buoyed him above the rough seas of insanity. The medicine sometimes made him forget about it, but the moment he put his full weight on his infirm leg, the world spun back into sharp focus.
Though he had a good guess who rapped upon the door, Kemper took a moment to adjust his rags. The tunic hung so loosely a good sneeze might make it slough off to the ground. He smoothed down his sparse grey hair and used both hands to shape his brown and white streaked beard. He stood before the heavy, wooden door and looked around the room to make sure his small amount of contraband was hidden from the limited view of the small window set in it.
He had been artful at setting a serene, innocent scene with his cot along the wall, bedpan neatly in place, and a chair by the barred window—all in plain view for the nosy. His small cache of personal belongings were ensconced to different degrees of secrecy depending upon their illegality. Mostly it was the letters and a few maps of the United States he kept in a secret hole in the wall, but they would never find his extra laudanum—no matter how hard they looked. He’d even stashed some things behind the broken radiator—things he wanted them to find—so they were satisfied at being so smart and thorough, and thereby give up a more involved inspection.
He cleared his throat, then returned the knock as per the agreed-upon protocol. Felix and Kemper had struck up an “understanding” long ago, after Kemper found himself standing over Felix with his foot on the man’s neck. Felix had taken the liberty to “inspect” Kemper’s room one day while the patient was off using the privy. Though he had not hurt the orderly physically, the emotional damage was significant enough that Felix did not mess with the old Civil War Veteran. Kemper was damaged, but he was still very dangerous, as Felix discovered.
From that point on, they had a mutual respect if not clear understanding for each other. Kemper did not cause trouble and Felix let him be. They had even struck up a form of commerce as Kemper traded his unused medication for a steady flow of laudanum, though the flow was a trickle in Kemper’s opinion. Still, Felix made a steady profit from the patients and some of the interns and nurses, so a shaky truce was honored.
Having heard the coded response, Felix swung the view door open. His face was so large, only his eyes and nose were visible in the six-by-six square. His lips were hidden from sight, but Kemper heard him say, “You got another letter. What’s it been? Six months? I ain’t even knowed you sent more off.”
“I shall inform you next time I post,” Kemper said with gravel in his gullet. His voice was coarse as he did not speak much. “Just hand it over, Felix, and you can go back to scratching the balls of the straight-jackets on the top floor.”
Kemper could not see his mouth, but knew from his eyes he was smiling, which fired up Kemper’s suspicion. How much would it cost him this time?
Felix waved the letter in view and taunted Kemper by jabbing it through the window. Kemper sighed, “You didn’t open it, did you?”
“I know it’s worth more if I don’t. Besides, the Doc has done lost interest in your extracurriculars. You done got so many returned letters about them boys, he figures they must be as dead as you are.”
“Still, you are one Nosy Nelly.”
“One bit. Pay up or I burn it.”
“When have I ever not held up my end of the bargain?”
“True, true, but you have to confess to being a wily customer.”
Kemper decided against further babble as he never found this Felix fellow as entertaining as Felix thought himself. He merely stepped back and stared at him.
“Alright! Alright!” The wide-faced orderly disappeared from the window and it was closed and locked.
Watching the view door, Kemper padded to the cot and bent over the bed leg nearest the door. He lifted the corner quietly and, propping the frame against his thigh, he tugged at a small piece of cloth stuffed into the bottom of the hollow leg. He held his hand beneath it and several coins slid out and tinked together in his palm. He counted the twenty five cents in hand then re-stacked the coins in the leg and replaced the cloth. He lowered the bed silently and came back to the door.
He knocked again and Felix opened the window and shoved his hand into Kemper’s space. Kemper dropped the payment in Felix’s palm and Felix slipped the letter through.
“I’m in need of a signature of receipt,” Felix said with a high giggle.
Some of the other patients took this twisted mirth as a cue to join in. By the time Kemper had returned to his cot, the cackles of the happy customers along the hall echoed through the closed door, drowning out the dying sound of Felix’s huge, clomping feet.
He sat peering at the envelope for quite some time. On the front, his name was neatly printed and below was the address of the Asylum, but he had taken the liberty to rename the institution. He had come to the realization many of the letters were returned because of his being truthful about the fact he was in an insane asylum. People of good repute naturally had misgivings about corresponding with a person in a pixie palace.
The return address on the reverse did not strike a bell. He had kept detailed notes of the inquiries sent, but was remiss to think of even one that had not reached a dead end. He took the letter to his “desk”—a small stool in the corner along the wall shared with the door. He carefully pried away a long black tile from the base of the wall to reveal a hollow he had carved out of the concrete. A stack of folded letters rested on the ground inside. A scrap of well-creased paper lay on top.
He retrieved the paper and checked the list. There, down near the bottom, second from the last name and address was the un-check marked contact. How could he have missed this? He tore open the letter greedily.
Dear, Mr. Bidwell,
It is my great pleasure to aid in reuniting you with my brother, Hercules. It is quite fascinating your letter has found me at such a time. The fact I am to be your last hope in reconnecting is even more joyous to me. He will be so excited to reclaim such a steadfast friend. So many poor souls were lost in the war, but so many other brotherhoods that were forged under dire circumstances have been left fallow. It should be emboldening to your quest to know that Hercules and his companion, Silas, are actually in the same fair city where you presently recuperate. Though he is a scoundrel at keeping correspondence with his family, he has sent some money and wishes us well from St. Louis. I see by your address that you are convalescing at the soldier’s home. I hope your pace to health quickens at my news. Perhaps one day my brother will grace his poor sister with a visit and he may regale me with the story of your reunion. Oh, happy! Oh, joy!
He skipped past more of her fluff and drivel to the end, to the address of the hotel where the men worked and the date she had sent the letter.
The letter had only taken a month to get a response, but he had his first solid morsel of the breadcrumb trail left by Hercules and Silas and he savored it. He only hoped the men stayed put long enough for him to get close.
He collected his thoughts and his belongings. Tonight he was to bid farewell to the Saint Louis Insane Asylum Hotel.