Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Absent Harpist

There’s a little village about fourteen miles out from the nearest train station and its name was Montpelier. You won’t have heard of it; it’s not there anymore, replaced by an industrial blob of rippling metal powered by a faceless organisation who care as much about the little man as they did about original naming. The village made its fortune mining but countless recessions and a fever I’ll refrain from describing on the off chance it sickens you to its very core- much like it did to the poor few who were inflicted with it- had robbed the town of work and a workforce. When I visited it those many years ago, it managed to scrape by on the footfall of lost and frightened tourists and the internal ecosystem of monetary exchange that occurs when there are only two grocers and a half decent bookshop.
I won’t talk about the chain of events that led me to the train station that fateful evening, except to say that when the conductor’s whistle shrilled loudly I was instantly reminded of the jingle of bullet casings dancing against the floor. I snapped from my slumber and, after a brief period of gaining consciousness in that strange eyelash fluttering way human’s excel in, I readjusted the fedora slipping down my face. A sign came up past the open window of my carriage, announcing the train was entering Montpelier-en-Clancy, the mentioned river being the dusty trench that had been empty of all water since the dam was put up five years prior to my visit. It looked dismal, it looked devoid. I decided it was the type of place I would regret not visiting.
The train started again, steam hissing from its side like a dragon was caged within the cylindrical iron tank of its nose. Once the locomotive had moved out of the way, I could see a row of iron fencing, and beyond it a yellow taxi with a sleeping man inside.
There seemed to be no safe way of crossing the tracks; a huge green bridge had fallen halfheartedly into the bushes on the other side and no one had seemed to care enough to move it. I jumped down from the platform and ran over to the invulnerable fence, using a gate in the centre of it to walk through to the Taxi on the other side. I knocked on the hood a couple of times but the driver’s snores only seemed to intensify. Sighing, I pulled the door open and climbed in, giving his seat a jolt. He snapped awake and turned, his eyes groggy, to face me. “That’ll be five quid, please, mate.”
“Deliver me first, good sir, and then perhaps our relationship will have developed to the level of ‘Mateship.’”
“Montpelier-en-Clancy. And quick with it.”
He twisted the key and pressed down on the gas pedal. The wheels of the taxi screeched, but I couldn't hear them over the thumping of the country and western music as the wireless came on. The way my ears stung, I almost wished I had a decibel meter. It was the fourth time in my life I’d been in such a situation with such requirements. The other three times, I had been, or was about to be, ankle deep in blood. I shivered at the thought of those poor pigs.
The taxi was dark, the windows tinted by grime, and my arms were restricted by the insurance modified seat belt. The only sense that worked to maximum efficiency was my nose, but I wish it didn't, because all I could smell was discarded cigarettes, burnt out brothers of the one hanging from the driver’s moustachioed lip. 
I squinted as much as I could and managed to watch the roadside. As we approached the village, a sepia tint seemed to influence the world around us. The fields were full of beige crops, occasionally the dipping iron head of an oil well diver sticking out. In the far distance, I could see mountains but they were as monochromatic as the clouds hanging in the sky above them. 
We kept driving, the moustachioed driver occasionally mumbling half remembered phrases along to the screeching donkey rock coming from the grilled speakers in the taxi’s dash. I would have complained but I could see Montpelier looming up and I knew I wouldn’t have to put up with it for much longer.
Like that, the stone buildings dawned around us, clambering out of the ground in their uninspired way. There were about four rows of terraced houses between the exterior fields and the village centre. The driver shot through them and skidded to a halt in the town centre. “Beatty’s House is your best bet.” He said, clambering out of the car. “I’ll get your trunk out the trunk.”
I didn’t point out to him that my leather suitcase was next to the already dusty Oxfords adorning my feet and instead climbed out, watching him fight with the boot to get it open. Eventually, the latch gave and the lid lifted, revealing the claustrophobic interior. Nestled within a cluster of empty Scotch bottles, punctuated merely by a misplaced woman’s high heel stained by a small splodge of something red, was the trunk. He reached to it and hauled it out, before sitting it on the floor next to me. “There you go, mate. Just as you wanted. Give the baroness my love, will you?”
I watched as he began to trudge back to the driver’s seat without closing the boot. “How much was it?” I called to him.
He turned, his eyes wide and frenzied. “How dare you! Do I look like a bleeding charity?”
With that, he leapt behind the wheel of his car and, with a cloud of black smoke and a scream of Country and Western, drove with incredible speed back towards the train station. I watched him leave and then turned towards the trunk. He’d propped it against the War Memorial. There were wheels on the bottom, so I walked over and grab the leather handle on top, hauling it after me. My arm began to ache already.
Beatty’s House was directly in front of me. The sign made it easily recognisable, but unfortunately this sign was sat above two boarded up windows. Realising that it probably wasn’t my best bet after all, I instead entered the building to its immediate right. Some stone carvings above marked it out as a Market Hall. 
There were two huge oak doors in the arch that led in and I pushed them effortlessly, gliding through to the huge hall. The room was cavernous in its abandonment, its almost entirely clear floor merely extenuating the giantism of the stone walls. Rather pathetically, an old lady sat in the direct centre of the room, knitting behind a table filled with woollen figures. She was wearing hearing aids switched firmly off.
“Oi! You the detective, squire?” Called a voice from my side.
I turned and saw, in the far off left wall, a large rectangular hatch opened up onto a kitchen. A man with a heavily greased quiff and equally exciting side burns was leaning against the counter and staring at me. “Are you?”
“What if I am?” I replied. I could understand why he was making the misconception; the town evidently got few visitors, so the appearance of a randomer in trench coat and fedora around the same time as a stereotypical detective was expected was probably too much to consider a coincidence. 
“Well if you are, you want to be getting yourself gone.”
“Are detectives not welcome here, sir?” I replied.
“Not a case of that.” He replied. “Case of the Baroness wanting to see you.”
“Perhaps you could direct me towards this Baroness.” Evidently the taxi driver had made the same misassumption. 
“You’ll be wanting to drop those bags off first methinks, squire.” The man said. As he leant forwards, I saw he was wearing a blue shirt beneath his white apron. “There’s a good tavern just ‘cross the square. Called the Milliners, can’t miss it. Should suit you perfectly.”
“Thank you, sir.” I smiled.
“All thanks I need are to be remembered to our dear baroness, thank you.”
I smiled at the gentleman and turned on my heel, marching back to the door and heaving the suitcase behind me. The woman continued knitting.
Across the square, a bald man with a pristine handkerchief in his top pocket and a waistcoat perfectly tailored to his rotund figure finished putting up a sign. He stepped back and stared over half-moon spectacles at his handiwork. I approached him and saw it read, “The Milliner’s- We have RATS.”
“Hello.” I spoke.
The small gentleman leapt from his skin and flailed his arms madly in the air. His face reset from a petrified scream to a soft yet bemused frown. “ZOUNDS!” He cried. “Good sir! You scared me half to death you did! Oh good golly! Whatever do you want?”
“Room and board for a few days.” I replied. “And preferably no visits from rats.”
“They provide an authentic experience they do.” He said, his voice wandering the octaves as he spoke. “Authentic, it is. Proper authentic. And we don’t cost you extra for the privilege, no we don’t.”
“You said ‘We.’”
“I did. Me and the others Milliners.”
“There’s only one Milliner mentioned in the sign.”
He laughed for two minutes solid, a raucous, ricocheting, rib tickling frenzy that looked just about as painful as it sounded. Then he completely regained his composure and said, “Do they not teach you to read?”
“They taught me to read much better than they taught you to write. The apostrophe should be after the S.”
He stared at me over his half-moon spectacles, his face sinking back, becoming less inviting, more pained, more curious, more rat like. “You, good sir, must be the detective. Why aren’t you visiting the Baroness?”
“I was told to deliver my bags here first.”
“Yes, well, that will be a good idea.” He snatched them off me. “A room will be waiting upon your return. Off with you.”
I watched him scuttle up the steps to the hotel, throwing my bags through the door, and then spinning. “ZOUNDS! Why are you still here?”
The doors slammed shut behind him and the Vacant sign twisted to Full. On the far side of the hotel, the venetian blinds opened up wide enough for a pair of beady eyes to fix on me. I stared back and there was an instant flicker of activity before the blinds closed and the town as a whole once more seemed dead.
I turned and spotted a boy sat on the steps by the War Memorial. He was wearing a monochromic jumper and reading a Space Age comic about someone with an alliterative name, a fire engine red space suit and a golden quiff, no doubt. To his side was a wooden toolbox. “Young sir, do you know where the baroness is?”
He looked up from his comic book, fixed me with the steely eyed glare of someone irritated by your very existence, and then spoke one word before looking back down. “Yes.”
“Would you be able to share that information with me?” I asked.
He sighed and looked up from his comic book. “I’m trying to run a business here, fella, and your questions, they ain’t making me any money. You either move along now or bring some commerce to my door, you know what I mean?”
“What business are you running?”
“I’m the goddamn Milliner in this town. Forget what that sign might say, I’m the proper hat fixer.”
“Then how come no one in this town wears a hat?”
“Cause no one in this town has style, do they? Now, if you haven’t wasted enough of my time already, move along. I’ve got places to be and people to see, capiche?”
“Message taken.” I replied. “My apologies for disturbing you.”
I straightened the hat on my head and wandered off in the direction of the sign post sitting on the black lamppost in the corner of the square. A large wooden arrow announced a Mansion was half a mile out and so I headed there, my collar turned up against the non-existent breeze.

The Mansion looked as if it had started out as a stone block and then been attacked by a hoard of ravenous sculptors, who had carved out its innards and left a footprint of artistic finesse. I arrived at its gates, huge iron castings bound together in the centre by equally iron chains. There was a dry ditch, no doubt an estuary of the Clancy, that struck underneath the land bridge the gate sat on, so I simply jumped across the ditch and walked around. From there, a large gravel path led me up to the mansion.
I walked it relatively quickly. There was a rife humidity in the air, so much so that I eventually removed my trench coat and carried it over my sleeve, allowing the sepia sun to beat against the grey material of my waistcoat. The hems of my trousers and the dress shoes beneath them were even dustier by the time I reached the Mansion.
A well sat in a small patch of brown grass in front of the main doors. The paint of the red roof was flecking and dried from the ever casting sun. I would normally have ignored something like that but I can’t help but notice that there was a smudge of white fluff stuck in the stippled black paint. I frowned but didn’t investigate. The dark shadow of a butler was watching from the window above the stairs and his eyes would no doubt be feeding directly into the Baroness’ ears. 
I stepped towards the door and knocked on it three times. There was the quick patter of footsteps and then the door swung open, revealing the butler himself, addressed in a black and yellow waistcoat. “Sir.” His voice was as elongated and deep as his face. “Were we expecting your arrival?”
“I rather think that only the Baroness can answer that.”
The Butler led me through the door and across the checkered floor. The walls were covered with wooden panels, intricately carved and perfectly polished. Delicate splashes of oil on stretched canvas occasionally interrupted these panels in the form of paintings. They all depicted a middle aged woman, a man who screamed wealth and a child who could only be their daughter, usually accompanied by a small dog. I could only help but notice, as the Butler led me up a staircase, that a few of the paintings were missing. “Not stolen, I hope.” 
“No, sir.” He said, his voice monotonous and bored. I noticed a shaving cut on the underside of his chin, all red and blotchy. “We merely elect to keep some in storage due to their… antiquated stylings.”
“You seem much more of an art expert than I.”
He humphed and continued walking, leading me up the stairs and across a carpeted balcony towards a large ballroom. The roof was levered and arched, long and decorated in hand painted mural. The far walls were covered in bookcases and the wall opposite the entrance was, although occasionally interrupted by stone pillars, entirely stained glass with cushion abound window seats built in. The furniture looked like the contents of an Auction Room’s storage vault, all plush sofas and ceramic globes encasing Drinks Units. A gramophone was playing in the far corner, masking the talking of the Baroness over a candlestick phone.
She held the receiver to her ear and spoke quickly into it. As I approached, she said, “Ah, thank you for the notification, anyway. I’ll get back to you.”
Hanging up, she turned to me and fixed me with a large smile. She looked like the poster girl for stick insects, almost engulfed by the flowing white robe she wore. Her hair was blonde and perfectly styled, almost scarily perfect. I smiled at her as I approached. “Baroness, it is an honour to finally meet you.”
“Detective,” she said, almost surprised at my arrival, “I was told you were delivered.”
“Only to Montpelier. I didn’t mind walking up here.” I smiled. I pulled my trench coat back on. “Sorry about my informality.”
“Oh… don’t worry about it.” She frowned at me for a second longer and then spoke, “Would you like to talk business?”
“Yes! That sounds like a good idea. Do you mind if I sit?”
She gestured to the chair to my side. “Be my guest.”
I took a seat and smiled. “Perhaps you could remind me of the details of my employment?”
“We did discuss this over the phone. I would expect a detective of your calibre to remember such details.”
“Sometimes, repeating a story in person exposes the true matters.”
Again, she frowned at me. “This is most irregular.”
“Irregularity implies regularity.”
“Excuse me?”
“How often you consult detectives, Baroness?” 
There was a pattering of feet from the door and an old woman struggled into the room. She hobbled her way across the wooden floor, almost tripping where it became carpet, but continued regardless until she reached the two of us. She looked once at her daughter- this was undeniably the aged version of the middle aged woman in the paintings- and then to me. “This is the Detective, mother.” The Baroness said, a little too loudly.
“Oh! Fantastical news! Your face has come flooding back now! You look hardly a day older than you were last time I saw you.”
I frowned. I’d never seen the doddery old woman in my life before, but I wasn’t going to let this slip. “Nice to see you too, my dear.” I said, and patted at the liver spotted hand she was stroking my face with.
“Parker, why don’t you take Mother to have a rest?” The Baroness suggested. “We don’t want to strain her.”
“Yes, milady.” The Butler grumbled and let the old woman away. I watched as she left and then turned back towards the Baroness, smiling.
“So, where were we?” She asked.
“You were about to re-explain the details of your case.”
“Ah yes, of course.” She sighed. “My harp tutor, Mr Roberto Stollery, has been missing since my lesson with him last Tuesday. I arrived at his classroom and received no response from knocking on the door. Despite waiting a ten minutes, it appeared there was no one home, so I returned home and phoned him. Again, no response. Nobody has heard anything from him since.”
“Have you attempted to communicate with his family?”
“He has a very sheltered and private life; besides me his only other regular company are his cats.”
I nodded. “And do you have any idea where he may have disappeared to? A new suitor, perhaps, or an old friend?”
“No. His life is here in Montpelier-en-Clancy. I can’t imagine him straying much further than his office.”
“Could you give me the address of that fine establishment?”
She did just that and I scribbled it down on the first piece of paper I could find. 
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“No, thank you, Detective… Hm, I forgot to ask your name.”
I smiled. “That’s really quite unnecessary. I must away now, I think. Investigations must be carried out.”
“Yes, time is of the essence.” She smiled. “There is to be a ball to celebrate the upcoming Yuletide festivities in two days time. I would appreciate it dearly if you would be able to return him by then.”
“I will try my hardest.” I shook her hand. “Rest assured, ma’am. I am on the case. I will find your music teacher.”
“Please do, Detective.” She blinked a few times and a tear trickled down her face. “I would hate to think any ill had… had come to him… I’m sorry, Detective, please give me a moment.”
She burst from the room, exiting through the same doors that the Butler had led her mother. I frowned and looked around for a few seconds to ensure no one was watching me, and then leant forwards to the Baroness’ side table. There was nothing particularly interesting a top the turtle shelled table besides a rusty key that would have looked out of place elsewhere but not in a house of that size. I went to pick it up but heard creaking footsteps and retracted back to my seat.
The Butler entered. Parker, his name was. “I’m afraid our Ladyship is momentarily discomposed. If you would like to get off, we both understand.”
“Of course.” I smiled and stood. The Butler didn’t walk straight towards me, instead making a beeline for the Vinyl Record Player and twisting the volume knob to the top. The gramophone began to play deafeningly loud. He strolled over towards me and began to escort me towards the doorway I’d entered through. 
“Did you know Mr Stollery, Parker?” I asked.
“Yes, sir.” He sighed. “He was a good man, but I suppose that was his downfall.”
“Oh, really? What makes you say that?”
“Montpelier isn’t made for good men, not any more.” He sighed and leant towards me. I paused and looked at him. His eyebrows screwed up as he listened to the music and, just in time with one of the trumpet solos, he whispered, “Stay away from high ceilings. That’s how they got my family.”
My eyebrows raised but he simply smiled and continued walking me down the staircase, towards the door. “As I was saying, good luck with your investigation. Stollery was a good man. It’d be a shame if anything had ill fallen him. Best of luck. Goodbye!”
He pushed me out of the door and locked it behind me. I frowned and then settled the fedora on my hat. I had a missing detective’s boots to fill and a missing music teacher to find. No doubt the answers to those questions would explain what had happened to the Butler’s family, before whatever it was could happen also to me.

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