Edition 25: An Almost Tidy Case by Meghean Major
Fanny and Wolfram, with their faithful hound Helen, are drawn to Beesdon, investigating an usual disappearance. Their experience in paranormal investigations didn’t quite lead them to expect an offender hiding in such plain sight. Meghean’s submission to the 2015 Story Quest contest charmed the judges into making her a finalist. SY
The Maiden rumbled along the tracks, cutting through a low valley of wildflowers and docile cows. Morning dew nestled onto the crisp leaves as the sun crept across the sky. It was a picture of a rural paradise that was slowly dying. Fanny Helhouse peered over her newspaper to eye the idyllic surroundings. She had kept herself in the city, bundled in the soothing cacophony of noise and violence. But as her eyes wandered the horizon to the lazy tendrils of smoke from snug cottages, she uncovered a forgotten comfort.
Her husband, Wolfram, slouched across from her with a boot on the edge of her seat. Helen, their Leonberger, rested her head on his lap. Both were drifting in and out of sleep. Wolfram’s bowler hat had slid over his eyes. Fanny wasn’t quite able to relax as well as them. The carriage jostled her dreams, leaving her restless and irritable. She flipped through the pages of her newspaper, half-reading, half-worrying.
Fanny prodded Wolfram gently with her boot. “Darling,” she chirped, “We appear to be close to civilization.”
“Do wake up.”
Helen lifted her lionesque head and stretched her wide jaw in a yawn. Wolfram groaned, tilting his bowler up.
“If I must,” he grunted.
“This is your case, my sweet.”
“A case I never should have taken,” he said, stretching his arms up over his head. The buttons of his vest pulled taut over his wide frame.
“Are you worried there will be nothing to shoot?” she said with a grin, a delicate brow arched above the twinkle in her eye.
“If you must know, yes,” he said, scratching at the untamed growth of whiskers on the curve of his jaw. “I have tracked a pack of werewolves through the Black Forest. I have tracked vampires within the catacombs of Paris. Hell, I’ve tracked a giant squid over half the damn ocean.”
With an involuntary shudder, Fanny chimed in, “Yes, that was unpleasant. The smell of fish still haunts me.”
“But a missing child?”
Fanny set the newspaper on her lap. “Darling, the moment this case arrived you had a bad feeling. There was something…unnatural. And there is none better at the unnatural than you.” she said. “Well, perhaps me but that is neither here nor there.”
Wolfram laughed and gave his wife a whiskery peck on the cheek. “You make a fine point. Now once we get to Beesdon, I have an appointment with the constable.”
“Which will be undoubtedly useless.”
“True, but there will be clues they have overlooked,” he said, absentmindedly scratching behind Helen’s ears.
“And Helen and I will do reconnaissance.”
After nearly an hour and an uncomfortable breakfast, the train reached the Beesdon station and the trio disembarked. Fanny was relieved to have still and quiet earth beneath her feet. Her stomach began to unknot. Wolfram bid farewell and Fanny and Helen were left to their own devices. With a giant dog whose head reached her hip, Fanny could go anywhere without question.
They entered the predictable throng of villagers, both searching the air for a sign of trouble. The missing child in question was a wealthy little girl. She had been on her way to boarding school, accompanied by a lady’s maid. The carriage arrived with luggage but no girl and no maid. The driver appeared just as confused.
Wolfram paid him a visit in his cell. The man was on the verge of madness. But he confessed to the sound of music.
On an empty road, as the sun dipped below the horizon, a reedy tune caught them. The girl had asked the driver to stop; to listen awhile. He did as he was bid and after a moment, the song stopped and he continued. He was certain the girl and her maid were still inside.
The driver was sentenced to hang in a week.
The empty road had been near Beesdon, an unassuming little town. For centuries its only charms were verdant pastures and mild climate.
Recently industry had found a foothold. Factories had sprouted and were beginning to choke the green pastures. Already Fanny could see the world-weariness in the passing farmers. They knew they had lost. Their children would join the ranks of the factory workers and their parents would be clambering over each other for a job.
As she and Helen wandered through the quaint neighborhoods, Fanny spotted the smoke wafting from the new factories and rolling off nearby buildings.
She took a sharp left with Helen at her heels. If one wanted to find the unnatural, there was no better place to start.
The street had begun collecting dirt and trash. Instead of washed, alert faces of the middle class, Fanny saw the downtrodden faces of smudged workers in their tattered coats and shawls. Every face looked forward; not one glance connected with another.
The alleyways shrunk to narrow corridors as brick buildings clustered together. Tiny windows let in little light and great gates blocked off the factories.
A crowd had gathered near the gates of one in particular. They were not workers. Dressed in vibrant colors and lacy bonnets, a group of women held their linen handkerchiefs close to their faces. Men in silky top hats and brushed whiskers puffed their chests and nodded frequently. Their guide was a soberly dressed man with orange hair and splotchy freckles. An attempt at a mustache was made but so far, it was a losing battle.
Fanny sauntered over, casually glancing around her. Helen began to sniff at the ground. They reached the group as if by accident and hovered near the back.
“For years, labor has been a pressing concern. Not only for the masters of these factories but for the community as well,” the spotty man said, waving his nimble arms about. “But I have created a system that not only guarantees the output of my labor force but of their well-being!” The group mumbled and nodded dutifully.
One of the men with salt and pepper muttonchops cleared his throat, and with a noble lift of his chin he said, “I have toured your establishment before and I commend you highly. If the ladies will bear it, I would like to show them that the Society for Orphans and Unwed Mothers need have no fear.”
Fanny could feel her eyes start to roll. With a bite of her lip, she managed to keep them under control. Helen huffed at her feet.
“Gladly!” the man said with another wave of his arms. F
anny was afraid he may take flight if he continued flapping so.
The group began to shift, whispering and muttering and taking no notice of a stranger and a large dog. Instead, as the gate opened, they oohed and awed. The courtyard was bare with well-worn paths to and from the factory. Nothing unusual apart from the spotty man’s enthusiasm.
The factory was predictable in appearance. Its machines spanned most of the room in a chaos of thread and gears. Children scuttled beneath the large mechanical looms, picking at the fluff on the floor. Cotton floated in the air like snow. The women clustered tightly together, protecting themselves from the white flakes of labor. Helen attempted a taste but found it displeasing. It was then that Fanny noticed the tinny noise coming from the ceiling. It was difficult to hear above the factory noise but it had a strange way of attaching to one’s ear.
The group continued to be oblivious, lapping up the man’s continued praise of his system. Fanny, however, took note of the children’s faces. There were so many and every one bore a strange, wide-eyed and slack-jawed visage. Their movements were small and predictable as if their brains had turned off. No fidgets. No chatting. No humming.
As they began to cross the room, Fanny slowed her pace.
“In here is where the real magic is,” the man announced, leading them into another room.
Fanny took her chance to linger behind. Whatever the “magic” was, it wasn’t nearly as interesting as what was happening here.
Fanny and Helen took another walk along the length of the factory floor. Not a body moved that wasn’t synchronized. Every child was a gear. She gave a small cough near a little girl of seven with braids down her back beneath her bunnet.
“Excuse me?” she said, tapping the girl on the shoulder.
She waved a hand in front of her girl’s face. Again, nothing.
“She won’t budge until closing time,” a voice squeaked.
Fanny looked down to see a little boy beneath the threads with pockets brimming with cotton. His head was shaven and his fingers smudged. He pulled himself out from under the machine. Helen pressed her nose against the little boy and after a sniff and a little slobber, she deemed the boy a friend.
“What is your name, boy?”
The boy blinked at her.
“Your name,” she said again, enunciating her words carefully.
He stuck a finger in his ear and shook it vigorously. “Huh? Can’t hear you.”
His voice was flat, lacking a natural rise and fall of one’s cadence. The gears clicked in her brain. “Can you lip read?” she said slowly. The boy shrugged, absentmindedly stroking Helen’s fur. “Do you know what is going on with the children?” She pointed at the children and the boy began to understand.
“Can’t say. The master’ll whip me for sure. He thinks I’m one of them.”
“One of what?”
“The others. They act right when we leave for the night. But when we come in and they set to work, they get all funny. You can do anything to ’em or say anything and they just gawp at you.” The boy’s voice rose as he spoke, unable to catch his own volume. Secrecy did not appear to be in his nature.
“Why don’t you take my hand and show me to the foreman’s office?” she said slowly.
The boy hesitated as Fanny held out a gloved hand. The weariness of the world had already taken root in him but as he stepped forward and took her hand, she knew it had yet to bloom.
With a thumb in his mouth, he led her to stairs leading up to an office on a second floor. The music grew louder. Helen began shaking her head.
The door was unlocked and they walked into a tidy office with a large phonograph anchored onto the wall. Fanny followed the wires as they snaked from the machine and up the walls. She pressed her face against the glass window that overlooked the factory floor. Several trumpet shaped horns bolted to the ceiling piped in the music. With a deep breath she patted Helen on the head.
“My dear, please fetch Wolfram,” she said.
Helen barked and with a wag of her tail she bounded down the stairs. The boy had taken a seat at the desk, swinging his legs. Fanny ran her fingers along the phonograph before jamming a hat pin into the mechanism. The sound box cranked to a stop and the music sputtered off.
“Did you turn it off?” the boy shouted.
Fanny nodded, peering out the window. As the music stopped, the children began to slow. Their arms grew slack and their heads began to turn. Their bearings were collected among them and the machines grew quiet.
“The master will whip us if we stop working!” the boy said, jumping out of the chair.
Fanny pressed a hand against his chest, preventing him from leaving.
“The master is nothing more than a pied piper,” she yelled, unconsciously matching his tone.
She yanked the sound box from the phonograph and tucked it into her purse.
“What’s a pied piper?”
Fanny sighed. “I’ll tell you later. Right now, we must leave!”
She took his hand and they hurried down the stairs. As they reached the factory floor, chaos erupted. The children began to talk. None seemed to know where they were. Some called for their parents. Some started to cry. Most started for the door.
The group of concerned citizens returned with the spotty man. Shock twisted their faces.
“What is the meaning of this?” shouted the man with mutton chops.
The spotty man began to sputter. His eyes went directly to the office. Then, suddenly, they landed on Fanny.
“You there!” he shouted.
Fanny and the boy froze.
“She didn’t mean it!” the boy squawked.
“I did mean it!” Fanny shouted, “You have enslaved all these people!”
The spotty man’s face erupted into a bright red. “This woman is mad! We must alert the authorities!”
Fanny raised an eyebrow. The women began to scream in hysterics, adding to the panic. The men attempted to be quite manly and comfort their womenfolk. Yet fanning them with their handkerchief did little to appease them.
Fanny took a moment and pulled a small pistol from a beaded reticule. More shrieking ensued. Most of the children had fled but a few remained, transfixed in terror.
“Please call the authorities. I would be thrilled to watch you hang!”
The boy hid behind Fanny, clinging to her voluminous skirts.
“I have done nothing wrong!” the spotty man insisted, “Those children had work. They would have been idle in the streets and tempted into gangs and prostitution without me!”
“You lured those children away from their homes and hypnotized them. You have taken their lives away for your own ends. Your crimes will not be pushed aside!”
“You can’t prove anything, you daft cow!” he said, lunging forward.
He called her bluff but as he approached, crossing half the factory floor, a shot rang out.
The man stopped in his tracks. He patted at his chest until his fingers touched the small red bloom of blood staining his gray coat. He looked down and staggered against the wall.
The Society visitors retreated back into the factory, searching for another way out. The spotty man took a quivering breath and continued forward.
“Still?” Fanny said, “Do you enjoy being shot at?”
“I will make you pay!” he growled, blindly lunging towards her with his hands outstretched. Before he could reach her, the butt of a rifle caught him in the head. Wolfram appeared from behind the man and rested the rifle on his shoulder.
“What manner of beast is this one?”
Wolfram’s brows furrowed. “Are you sure?”
The spotty man attempted to rise to his feet but found the sudden application of a hundred pound weight of two paws too much to bear. Helen gave a half-hearted woof above her captive.
“Does it disappoint you that he is not some creature of the undead, darling?”
With a scratch at his whiskers, he said, “Well, a little. What did he do anyway?”
Fanny took the sound box from her purse and held it out. “He enslaved children with this.”
“I imagine it has some kind of hypnotic ability. One can lose one’s self in a beautiful melody. This man has apparently amplified that effect.”
“A mad musician…” Wolfram huffed, “How common. The police can handle him.”
The boy appeared from behind Fanny, eyes wide and unblinking. He dug a finger into his ear and shook it vigorously. Wolfram tilted his head. “Who’s that?”
“He was unaffected by the music. I imagine it’s due to his hearing loss. He can’t sign but he can nearly understand you if you speak loudly and slowly.”
Wolfram knelt down, locking eyes with the boy. “What is your name?”
The boy blinked but after a reassuring look from Fanny, he introduced himself as Oliver.
“Why did you stay with the other children?” he said, attempting crude hand signals to convey his message.
“I had nowhere else to go!”
Wolfram and Fanny shared a look. “What now?” he said.
After a duplicitous conversation with the authorities, Wolfram installed the spotty man on the train in a makeshift cell. Fanny insisted on keeping the sound box for study.
The children were taken in by the orphanage or returned to their worried families. The missing girl was discovered among them, identified by her white lace and a fashionable tilted bonnet. The driver was released and allowed to return his charge to her parents.
The group of upstanding gentlemen and ladies of society weren’t quite sure what to make of it so they maintained ignorance of their connection.
At the station Wolfram clapped his hands together as he stepped off the train. Fanny and Oliver were seated on a bench.
“They’ll be boarding in just a moment. It would appear that everything has been wrapped up neatly.”
“Apart from the lady’s maid,” Fanny reminded him.
Helen raised her head from the top of Fanny’s shoe, looking for a petting.
“Yes, an almost tidy case,” Wolfram admitted.
An hour later, the motley crew boarded. Oliver sat across from Wolfram and Fanny with half of Helen on top his lap.
“I neglected to ask the name of our dastardly villain,” Fanny said.
“Yes, his name is Mr. Fifer.”
Fanny groaned. “I rather think someone is having a laugh at us.”
Meghean Major comes from Oregon, where she works by day as a customer service representative.