The Case of the Man of Ash: Chapter 1

A Detective Booth Mystery by B.T. Wallace (Rated G)

—Wednesday mid-afternoon—

The dreams began again. Not the ones whilst asleep. The ones that shimmer into this world like heat rising from hot pavement. 

No, not dreams. Not really. 

Nightmares.

Horrors of dust and ash, fire, and smoke. 

Every morning, I awoke drenched in sweat. Twice, I have fallen to the floor somehow during the night-terrors. More like, my own body was trying to get away from the chaos and void buried in my subconscious mind throwing itself to the ground. Not to mention the bruises on my abdomen, which I blamed on the falls. While there was nothing I could have hit on the way down—after all, the sofa in my office was not exactly a high tower—the abdominal bruising must have been from some associated trauma.

The rent was due, and I didn’t have the money to pay it off. The landlord had a soft spot for war veterans, and for those who worked with the local police department. He had a harder time with patience for me. I was not merely late this month, I was perpetually late in paying rent. It isn’t expensive, simply fifty dollars a month for office space on the second floor—a room I transformed from a studio apartment into my office. The frosted glass inset in the door read: Alexander Booth, Private Investigator. In this area, there were about three other detectives who worked in the private sector. I worked with the local police department off and on for jobs that they simply did not have the manpower for. Small jobs. Odd jobs. Little did I know that the oddest job was about to knock on my door.

She was a dame with the straightest posture, positively the tallest woman I had ever seen. The regal air embodied by the woman was not simply distracting, it was overwhelmingly so. Her shimmering red hair flowed in a cascade of gentle locks and curls. She stood in my doorway. When she opened the door, I cannot recall. At some point, I must have looked up from the folder on my desk—an old file not yet put in the cabinet after it was completed. We locked eyes long enough for the fire in her green scrutiny gaze to penetrate into my soul and set to torment a modicum of unexplainable anguish. I could see that something troubled the lass, something deep, and something quite startling, perhaps even chaotic. 

“Detective Booth?” Her voice was soft, like crushed cashmere wool, and warmer than a stoked fire in the dead of winter.

“I am.” Of course I am, what kind of answer was that? The door announced my name before anyone stepped through the threshold. “How can I help, ma’am?”

“Miss,” she corrected, tilting her head down and slightly to the right, her eyes focusing on a piece of lint on the shoulder of her blue Kitty Foyle dress. 

“Yes, miss, what can I do for you?”

Her gaze lost focus and seemed to drift, the moments of time it took for her reply feeling as if eons were drifting by unnoticed and undocumented. In her left hand hung a man’s briefcase—her knuckles had long since turned white from the tight grip. The leather was tattered and torn in the front, revealing a harder material underneath. It was as if it had been dropped several times, or maybe dragged along a rough road. A tear could be seen on the lower left-hand section, and a yellowish cloth had worked itself out enough to peek. The paisley print could barely be made out on the fabric, along with a darker brown, maybe rust-stained section. My intuition felt that whatever was in that briefcase would be the most important clue for me to start a long-awaited case. 

I motioned for her to come in and pointed absently at the accent chair across from me. She looked at the chair and stood next to it for a moment. I moved the folder out of the way and grabbed my notepad. If anyone compared the pad to that leather briefcase, one would be hard-pressed to determine which was older or experienced an easier existence. She did not take the offered seat—instead, she stood looking down at me as if she was analyzing my notepad and the organized chaos that I call my desk. She sat a briefcase on the edge of my desk, and as I looked at it, she reached down and absentmindedly played with a loose bit of leather for a second, perhaps thoughtfully trying to begin.

“This belonged to my uncle. It was all that was found near him.” She broke down then. It was a slight sniffle, enough that she shook from it and a solitary tear rolled down her rosy cheek. She continued to look down and fidget. “He had disappeared.”

“Have you filed a report with the police?”

“They simply say that he did not disappear, but took off. I am from Seaside, and my uncle lived in Warrenton. They say that maybe he left to come here to Portland, to get away from the coast. They also believe he might have gone to Seattle. I know that he did not run away. He has disappeared, been taken.”

Well, this certainly would be an interesting case. 

“How many?”

“Beg pardon,” a look of confusion swept across her face, like waves breaking upon the sand. 

“How many other detectives did you ask before you came to me?”

“No, none.” She sled a business card across my desk. “Lieutenant Frank, over at the police office, sent me over here. Told me that you were the detective to see, as this case would be out of their jurisdiction.”

Lieutenant Frank and I go way back. He was a beat cop merely ten years ago, and, after some college, rose in the ranks. He had come from the Army, while I had served in the Navy as a Master at Arms. Our Navy versus Army pokes, jabs and jokes went unabated for years. Which meant I had plenty of military-related police experience when I joined the Portland P.D. back in 1921. I started as a Sergeant, then became a detective shortly right around the time good ole’ Frank with his jerry curl and darting eyes put on the blue. I could work a case and not be stuck within this county, or city, or have to turn over the case to the State police. Sure, evidence I gathered would go a long way to helping the paid officials, but without all the red tape, I had a bit more freedom to roam. 

“Alright, please have a seat.” I motioned to the empty chair next to my desk. “Let’s begin with any details you can give me.”

She sat quietly for a moment and began to tell me how she came to discover her relation was missing, named Mister Giuseppe Miller. The briefcase she had in her hands that belonged to her uncle sat across her lap. She looked down at it frequently as she poured out details regarding her uncle. She had come up from Seaside by train and was looking to take over her uncle’s estates as he had grown in need of help. He had written to her concerning his investments in some of the local fish canneries and wanted to make sure someone could manage his portfolio. She had arrived merely three days ago, and had procured a room at the hotel and went to find her uncle. She tried his house and the local businesses, but no one had seen the man in a couple of days. She tried to ask the police, but they said they would file a missing person’s report. That was yesterday, according to her tale. She even went so far as to explain trying to get into the man’s house and being unable to because the house was locked. However, out back, under the foot of a wood-carved otter on the porch, was a key. It let her into the house, which was spotless and clean. The only thing at the kitchen table was the briefcase in her possession.

“That’s all I found, and the police don’t think he is missing, Detective Booth.” She looked at me, “He did go on adventures from time to time away from the area, the neighbors said, but…” She looked down. “I don’t think he would have left knowing I was going to be there to check up on him.”

“I have a fee, and my rates are dependent upon the hours I dedicate to your case.”

“I am aware and can pay whatever you need.” She pulled a folded envelope from a pocket and passed it to me. 

“Will you leave me with that briefcase?” I picked up the envelope. It felt heavy and full. Her hands had been idly tracing the delicate lines and leather accents on the otherwise black leather case.

“Yes, and you can have a key to his house, and anything else that you need.” She stood and passed the case to me, setting it on my desk. 

“Would you like to go through it with me? Help me identify and catalog the items?”

“I don’t know what the things are, I simply remember that case being a part of him. Any time he came down to Garibaldi to visit us, he always had that briefcase with him,” she sighed and moved to open the latches. After an audible click, she lifted the lid. 

I was not entirely sure what to expect, either. The reverence with which she seemed to care for the piece seemed extraordinary. Now that it was opened, she stumbled back and tripped on the chair, landing upon its cushion. To be honest, that kind of reaction was a bit odd and completely unexpected. I turned the open case so that I could see the contents. The yellow fabric that was peeking out seemed to be the lining of the case and was torn in some places. However, I could see that all that was inside was a glass cylinder, a journal of some kind, and a framed photograph. 

I lifted the photo out and carefully examined it. There were three people in the image: a man, a woman, and a small female child. The background looked like the Natatorium of Bayocean, which closed back in ’32. I had been there once before, just after the First Great War—a resort town, probably not the best place to be built. The man in the image had on an eight-panel hat and a great coat. The woman had on a day dress, and had her hair done up in finger waves. The little girl wore a day dress also, and her long hair fell in locks like flapper waves. 

“You said this was all you found near him?” I traced the lines on the frame with my index finger while looking at her to answer my question. She might have thought I was not paying attention. I was, but finding out if she had gone to the police was more important if she had found the body of her uncle in his house.

“Well, I don’t know. I saw this on the table, and I saw clothes on the chair. The hat he always wore sat brim up on the table, and his shirt crumpled and pants half on the chair, shoes under the table and tied, with socks still in them. It was as if he was wearing them before he disappeared. I can only assume the clothes were what was left of him.” She shook her head, as if trying to clear an image unexplainable to her memory. 

It was once said that humans have a peculiar way of cataloging things they see but cannot explain. As if the conscience is protecting itself from revealing some unseen thing. At least, that is what some people who end up in the asylum rant on about for hours. Sane people—normal people, real people—don’t see things that are not real. What she had just said must have had a reasonable explanation. 

“I will have to come and look through his home, with your permission.” 

She nodded as I picked up the glass cylinder. I held it in my hands, and it felt lighter than the size would imply. Maybe seven inches in length, and half that in diameter. Something inside began to swirl, as if a sand devil flared to life on the beach. She gasped then, and I looked up from the puzzling, churning, smoky chaos within. I made eye contact with her—well, it seemed like I did—from my side of the desk. Mere feet away, I could have sworn her eyes had turned completely black, as though the whites, iris and pupil were simply replaced with shadows. Even her face looked wrong, as if someone had molded it of clay. That’s what I thought I noticed, but once I blinked, she was looking at me quizzically. I shut the case and stood up. Somehow, in the briefest of moments, I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. I remember holding the cylinder, and then nothing.

“Let me write you a receipt of these items.” Using an item description form, I wrote down a description of the briefcase and its contents, and took a quick photograph using my camera. I handed the lady a carbon copy of the form and placed the original in a file. 

She nodded at me. “You have my contact information and where I am staying. Should you need anything more, feel free to contact me.”

I must have said something that encouraged this response. I politely thanked her for her time and, with that, she moved to leave my office. Out of formality and maybe punctuality—most likely from a sense of being taken back by her looks—I had forgotten her name. I asked, and she replied.

“Curwen, Emily Curwen.”

To be continued…

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