Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Absent Harpist (part 2)

My suitcase contained nothing more than a folded shirt, a small jar of shoe polish and a paper back that had once held the name 'Elmore Leonard' but now missed the majority of the letters where the paper had flecked away. There was also a penknife tucked into a secret pocket near the bottom of the case and it was this that I removed, slipped into my pocket and appreciated before moving to the next matter of business.
The room that I'd been allotted at the Milliners was small and over priced, with nothing inside it but a sofa bed and a broken kettle. The window was on a latch to prevent people from throwing themselves out, except on closer inspection the latch was broken and the glass veranda extending beneath was abandoned by all traces of glass, except for a few fragments around the exterior frame. The walls were covered by a boring grey paper, much akin to the type you'd expect to find in prison, and the sofa bed itself was missing two springs, one of which I found covered in white dust at the bottom of the bagless bin. There was a constant scurrying inside the walls that sounded a little too heavy and deliberate to just be rats but seemed unlikely to be anything bigger. I left my suitcase lying open on my bed, beneath the picture of a neoplasticist seaside on the wall, and turned towards the trunk.
It wasn't mine and although this did induce some guilt as to the investigation of its context, this unsettling feeling quickly passed as I regained composure and embraced my investigative role. There were no locks on the trunk so I simply undid the latches with my thumb and lifted the lid.
No Maltese Falconesque light shone out. No secrets of the universe were imparted. I wasn't suffocated by the spirit of Rock and Roll or the soul of a local mob boss. Instead, I was greeted by nothing more than a couple of mouldy sandwiches, a rolled up issue of the aptly named 'Detective Weekly' and a selection of clothing, including a rather nice pocket handkerchief that I would ask the trunk's owner if I could keep as payment. There was also a well kept hardback book nestled amongst the clothing. I picked it up and opened the front cover; it was one of those that had nothing printed on the actual cover unless it was accompanied by the dust cover. The title was given by the front page, beneath a library card dated, most recently, December 12th 1963. I looked up towards the calendar on the wall by my bed. Months of destitute abandonment had left it still turned to February. Sighing, I reached out and flipped it to December. The Twelfth of December 1963 was two days ago. Whoever had left the trunk in the taxi had done it recently.
The book itself was on folk legends. I had no time for such ridiculous fantasises so, after a quick flick through to search for annotations, slung the book back into the trunk, dropped the lid and double checked my penknife was in the deep pockets of my trench coat. I headed to the doorway and set off for the reception.
Between me and it were five storeys of stairwell, purposely darkened so that the user was blind to the hideous mural adorning each wall and also to increase their risk of immediate death. The gentleman who had snatched my bags off me after I observed his grammar had seemed the sort that, if halfway through a transaction his customer had a heart attack, he would complete the transaction before calling an ambulance. A already dead cusotmer was easier pickings. (At this moment, the walls began to gurgle, almost as if a dragon was within them rather than a rat.) I hoped that I could avoid him on my way out; he would no doubt darken my day more than a rain cloud carrying an umbrella.
Not that my day needed darkening. A quick run through of everything to have already happened that day was rather grim by itself. I did what any methodical person would do and compartmentalised by problems into four sections: Montpelier, the Music Teacher, the Baroness and the Butler.
Firstly, there was Montpelier. It seemed unusually abandoned. Don't get me wrong, I'd been to Cornwall, I knew a desolate pit of abandonment when I saw one but this particular destitute settlement had one defining difference to those greying tin mining towns with more tavern patrons than yearly tourists; this one felt purposely emptied. I didn't know if it was the fact that there were way more houses than there could possibly be people or that it was the middle of December and the fully planted fields still hadn't been harvested, but there was something wrong in the air and it made me feel uneasy. The fact that the few occupants I had met seemed to be extras from a psychotic satire of country life didn't had any comfort to that feeling in my stomach.
The second matter was the Music Teacher. The Baroness had told me that he was a very sheltered man with no immediate family or friends other than his cats and her. Yet, in a town as small as this, surely it was impossible to leave a sheltered life? The unusual vacancy of the houses, shops and streets surely added to this: regardless of one's level of social ineptitude, it would become impossible to not be on first name basis with almost everyone in a two mile radius. Further more, a music teacher would have to be a very extroverted person due to his profession as a teacher; there's no point in being shy when you are paid to present. Due to this, the probability of an introverted music teacher living in a town such as this one and managing to avoid all interaction with everyone- including the local grocer when constantly going in search of buying food for his multiple 'cats'- was highly unlikely. The question, then, was why was the Baroness lying about his social status or, alternatively, why was the Music Teacher lying to her?
That brought me onto the Baroness. Who was she speaking to on the phone? Why did she hire a private detective to investigate her teacher's disappearance instead of simply calling the police? Why did she banish her mother as she had and why were all of those paintings missing? Most interestingly, however, was: Why was she surprised to see her detective arriving when she invited him? I removed my hat, itched my head, and then returned it. All very mysterious.
Then, of course, there was the question of the Butler. Firstly, why had a man of his age and experience working in such a formal situation cut himself shaving? Surely he'd have the experience to avoid such a mistake. Secondly, what the heck did he mean by "Stay away from high ceilings. That’s how they got my family." I suppose it might have been a customary farewell around these parts but I doubted it. No, something had terrible had happened to the poor chap's family and, for whatever reason, he felt as if he needed me to find them for him. I knew for sure I wasn't going to let him down.
I danced down the last few steps as the ancient gurgling died away. My eyes cast over towards the Check In Desk, where I saw the owner of the fine establishment fast asleep. I frowned at the greyish dust that adorned both of his shoulders and then sighed, hurrying out of the building.
There was a policeman investigating the base of the War Memorial, dressed in a black tunic and a rounded hat. The sun glinted off the polished numbers on both of his shoulders. I decided that, as a newly identified private detective, it probably wasn't in my best interests to go and talk to the local bobby. My experience via books was that such confrontations never worked out particularly well.
As I hurried away from the War Memorial, I heard the sharp shrill of a whistle and turned to see the gentleman marching towards me. Sighing, I closed the distance between him and smiled. "Good day, officer. How are you?"
"Well, that's besides point, isn't it!" His eyes narrowed as he looked me up and down. "Well then. Who are you when you're at home?"
I went to open my mouth but he raised a finger.
"Ah! But you're not at home, are you? I'm the local sheriff round these parts," his thumbs sunk into the claustrophobic space between his waist and belt, "and I know every face for twenty miles. Who'd you be, then?"
"I'm Stollery's new student. Roberto Stollery's new harpist."
"Mr Stollery has been missing these last two days, I'm afraid."
"Oh, that is quite terrible. Could you direct me towards his studio? I would care to pay my respects."
"Loot him more like! Oh no, you young rapscallion, I'm not directing you any place other than the cells. I bet you're one of those lanky haired hippies with the nose studs and the attitude."
I stared straight into his eyes, face to ruddy face. "I have no nose studs, attitude or long hair. I am, however, relatively lanky. My apologies in regard to that."
"Hm. Typical hippy response." He fixed with a hard stare. "What'd you want with Stollery anyway? Crafty fella, he was. Always spent too much time in the library if you ask me."
"Is it possible to spend too much time in the library?" I grinned.
"Weren't you listening, lad? Or are you one of those rhetorical lot? Think you're clever because you can ask questions with no answers, do you? Well, I'll have you know, we don't have no need of any fancy smancy rheotric around these parts, do we?"
"You do realise you just asked me four rhetorical questions, right?"
"There you go again!" He paused midway through his exclamation and fixed me with a further more suspicious glare. "That hat. Tell me, have you been paying a small child to repair and embellish your head piece, boy?"
"I don't quite believe you."
"Yet my testament is that I didn't and, seeing that you have no contradictory evidence, you can't act against it." I sighed. "I did, however, see a small child at the War Memorial with a comic book and a box of hat repairing equipment. When I approached him, he set off towards the market."
"Ah! Fantastic!" He pulled a torch from his side and began to flick it on and off rapidly, causing it to flash. He then raced across the square in the direction of the market.
Realising that was probably the best opportunity for me to run to the hills, I pulled the Music Teacher's address in note form from my pocket and set off in the direction of 42 Astley Terrace.

The house was two storeys tall and accessible by a cadre of steps leading up from the pavement. Stollery had no definable character traits from the exterior besides the obvious quality of horticultural love. The huge bay window to the right of the front door was half hidden behind a flower box, and this same conditioning applied to the window above that one and the one above the front door itself. The flowers were a range of different colours but they appeared, to me at least, to all be well grown. Evidently the Music Teacher had other hobbies.
I respected that I wasn't going to be able to get in through the front door, so instead I wandered to the end of the street and walked down the alleyway that ran along behind the houses. The wall was about the same height as me and although it did look scalable, the open gate built into it look less time consuming. I stepped through and latched it behind me. Then I walked up to the backdoor and pulled out my penknife.
It took me a minute and a half to pick the lock and most of that minute and a half was spent realising that the door was already unlocked. It swung open and I stepped through the door into a kitchen. There was a bowl of milk, white ripples passing through it as a walked by. I sniffed deep and frowned. It hadn't gone off yet.
Continuing, I found myself entering a hallway and then the front room. I assumed this was his studio and work place; a piano and a harp sat on opposite sides with the relevant seating arrangements clustered around them, and a selection of other acoustic instruments were hanging from the walls. I took another deep sniff. Something had gone off but it wasn't the milk. It smelt like flesh.
I stepped over to the desk in the centre of the room and pulled out the chair from behind. I sunk into it but I ignored the comfort to instead inspect the desk. There was a pad of sticky notes so I quickly shaded that in. A print of a robotic dog and a note reading, "Bills? - Up prices?' appeared. There was a sheet of music in front of me, notation for a folk ballad accompanied by several lyrics. I ignored it and instead pulled open the drawers. In the top one, there was a money box and key and in the second there were three elastic bands, a ball of Blu-Tac, a dogeared issue of Harp Column and a letter of rejection for an article written for 'Folk Tale,' a magazine about folktales.
Deciding there was nothing of interest in the desk, I stood up and left it, walking straight into the hallway. The smell intensified and I became aware of its source. In the middle of the floor were three dead cats. It was warm inside the house so I wasn't surprised they were already decomposing. From the look of things, they'd been poisoned rather than bludgeoned or stabbed. I supposed that firstly it was a nicer way to go and that secondly it explained the fact that the milk was fresh; someone had recently put it out and poisoned it.
I instinctively looked to the balcony above me but there was no one looming over me that I could see. That did, however, inform of the hallway's high ceilings. High ceilings. That was how they got my family. I stumbled backwards, slightly, only to feel a mammoth hand clamp around my mouth and another grab hold of my struggling arms, holding them both still in one huge grip. I tried to bite it but the hand was as hard as nails and just gripped tighter. I felt my lungs beginning to burn and then my eyes slipping shut, the black taking over...

....I allowed myself to fall asleep for one second and then I awoke....

...with the bright sunlight screaming at me. I frowned. I was tied to a chair, a harsh solid one unlike Stollery's armchair, and all I could see was the gleaming sun and a ranch building cast almost entirely in a silhouette. Between me and it was an open plain of gravel. I spotted two large mounds of gravel that, after a few seconds of staring, I realised were filled in graves. To their side, a monstrous man was digging another. I looked around desperately, trying to work out a way to escape. In the process, I realised I had some tape over my lips, preventing me from calling for a help. Not that I'd be able to; we were in the middle of one of those huge crop fields I'd seen on the way in. There was no one to listen to my screams for miles and miles. I mentally cursed.
The monstrous man seemed to have noticed my struggles and so marched over, bringing with him a chair similar to mine. As he approached, he only seemed to grow, bigger and bigger until he blotted out the sun. I had to squint but his eyes came into focus and I realised that he looked hauntingly familiar. He placed the chair in front of me and sat down opposite me, smiling.
"We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Which one?" He reached out with a meat slab of a hand and tore away the tape.
"What's the different?" I asked after taking two huge gulps.
He smiled again, his horselips peeling up above his stubby teeth. "The hard way involves my little friend."
"Is your little friend a dog that'll tear me apart?" I asked, almost hopefully. I was good with dogs.
"No." He said and drew a revolver that he held up against my forehead. "It's the single bullet inside this gun."
Pulling back the hammer, he spoke five more words. "First chance down, my friend."
Then he pulled the trigger.

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