The Case of the Man of Ash: Chapter 3

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

–Monday–

The plane was descending. The flight did not take long, and I was going to be thankful to be on the ground again. The old DC-3 landed with a jolt and the struts gave the plane the feeling of bouncing down the runway, although I knew full well that the wheels never left the ground. As the engines sputtered and coughed their protest at being turned low, the pilot was taxiing towards the offloading area. The craft came to a halt, and the stewardess stood and gave directions regarding the gathering of luggage and how to exit the plane—as if no one remembers that they climbed a staircase to get into the fuselage in the first place. I stood and gathered my things. Besides myself, the two stewardesses and the three for the flight crew, only ten other people occupied the area. I was the last to shuffle my way down the stairs.

The smell in the air was the first thing that I noticed. The air was heavy with the scent of the ocean. Though Astoria is not exactly close, the aroma of the Pacific wafted to the open area of the airport. Holding my two suitcases, I made my way to the bus terminal. There would be a simple bus that would take me the rest of the way to Warrenton. The dust hadn’t settled by the time I heard the plane’s engines fire up again. The mighty Pratt & Whitney engines on the bird began to chirp and whine as the blades started spinning. The signature cough and sputter followed by a gentle purr filled the air. The pilot drove the airplane to the taxi lane before rotating to the beginning of the runway. The engines wound up and, even at a hundred yards away, the noise rose to a solid pitch. Then, lurching down the runway and catching the wind beneath its wings, the steel machine took to the skies on its return flight to Portland. I turned my eyes away from the plane and continued to the bus depot. 

The old Mack CT Bus sat in front of the terminal building. I made my way inside to purchase a ticket to Warrenton. The interior of the building held nothing special, just simple décor about a decade out of date: the yellow wallpaper and the wooden benches spoke of the quaint personality of this small port town. I approached the lady who sat upon a wooden chair at a small desk offset next to a couple of file cabinets. A cash register sat on one corner of the desk, leaving the other area open and occupied with a magazine: Weird Tales, January 1942. It had a couple serial stories listing Robert Arthur and, amidst a coffee ring, it looked like The Shadow Over Inns…something. The stain blurred the last of the word of the title, and the author claimed to be by someone called H…something…Craft.

Meanwhile, she looked over her paper at me and asked plainly, “May I help you?”

“A ticket to Warrenton?” I asked if it was a possibility.

“The driver can stop there, but you will have to pay for a ticket to Hammond.” 

“Alright, how much will that be?” I began to doubt that this woman could be any more bored.

“It will be one dollar.” She reached her hand out, took my dollar, pressed some keys on her cash register, and produced a ticket. She punched out the time and date on the preprinted card.

“Thank you. When does this bus leave?”

She looked at the clock on the wall above the exit door. “In about ten minutes. Oh, and don’t mind the bus driver. He is a bit odd but leaves well enough alone.” 

I took the ticket and made a mental note of the lady’s word of advice, then I made my way out the building and towards the old bus which had already started its rumbling engine. I approached the open door and took note of the driver. His large bulbous eyes looked as if he had recently received two black eyes. His large nose, fat upper lip and pallid skin nearly made me feel queasy simply looking at him.

One word croaked out of his mouth: “Ticket.” 

For a moment, I couldn’t resolve in my mind what he said, as I was too busy trying to evaluate the features and guess at his parentage. If not genetic, he must have been a boxer or someone to get into scraps a lot. Pugilism could leave someone looking like that. Several good knocks to the face, and bam: frog face. I set my suitcases down, pulled out my ticket and handed it to him. He punched it and motioned for me to board. Once I had stored my luggage, I took a look around the bus and found that there were a couple other people on board—either faces looking out the window or buried in the local paper. 

After a few more moments the bus lurched along the road chugging and puffing and billowing out dark diesel exhaust.

My only company would be this old journal. Whatever Giuseppe had to write about might lead to a few clues to his disappearance. I had two suitcases with me. One contained my tools and the journal, and the other some clothes and toiletries.

I absentmindedly thumbed through the journal, noticing what looked to be a couple pages of simply random words. Not all of them were in English; many in a couple different languages. I recognized German, Latin, and Greek, but the scribbles did not make any sense to me. The strange wedge-shaped symbols clustered together down a page looked little more than geometric rubbish. However, even though I could not make it out as a written language, it must have been code or shorthand, for it had a clear pattern—maybe even the flow that many languages have. Regardless, I kept looking through the pages. One finally caught my eye as I turned the book horizontally. In printed letters that seemed to have been written over again and again, were the words. 

“My mind does not seem to know, but my body will never let me forget” 

Forget what? I wondered. What would drive a man to scribble over and over these words, as if an incantation for memory? Perhaps this uncle of Miss Curwen was troubled by who he was? Too many questions were left in my mind regarding the oddity of this strange passage. There were many more words spread throughout the entire journal. As the bus pulled up to a designated stop, I was notified to exit. So I did, grabbing my cases and stepping down onto the street.

The bus would be coming back from Hammond to Astoria and picking me up at this spot the day after tomorrow. I had about 43 hours of time to investigate the area, talk to the local police and sort some details. I have never been to this part of Oregon before, and the coast had a pleasant, nearly sensational atmosphere compared to the humdrum of the city. The air smelt of fish and sea, and large steam barges slowly sailed past. A couple of fishing boats could be seen docked in the wharf. Several old buildings built with the classic western false front on either side of the road provided a bar, a restaurant, a shop or two, and a bakery. The two and three story buildings also had windows for apartments—probably for the workers at the docks and fish canneries.

I wanted to get my bearings, so I walked into the bar. It was still early afternoon, and there was a bartender absentmindedly cleaning the bar and an old man —an Oregonian, by the looks of it— reading a newspaper and drinking something. 

“Help you?” The Bartender looked at me.

“I am Booth, Alexander Booth.” I reached for my wallet in my jacket and pulled a contact card from it. Handing it to the man I continued, “Are you familiar with the area?”

“Private Detective,” he said, glancing down at the card, “we don’t get many of your profession in town. Help you?”

“Yes, are you familiar with the town?” I asked again.

“I am. Can I help you?”

“I am looking for this address,” I held out my notebook which contained the address of Miss Curwen’s uncle’s house.

“Ah, Mister Miller’s home,” he nodded and looked down, perhaps reminiscing. “If you head on down the road towards the cannery…” By the puzzled expression on my face, the bartender knew he had lost me. The directions would not work if they were built on local landmarks. 

“I am not from around here, if you could give me street names?”

He motioned for my notebook and pencil. He drew a rough sketched map, including a couple of those local landmarks and road names, all of which showed me how to get to the house from this particular bar.

“Do you have room upstairs for rent? I need lodging only for tonight and tomorrow night.”

“Yes, I have a room. It’s little more than a lampstand next to a bed. There is a small bathroom with a shower. I charge three dollars for a night. We don’t change linens except between guests. We won’t make your bed either; this isn’t a luxury place. You tend to it, tell me when you’re done and then you leave.”

I nodded and handed the man two fives. “This will cover a couple small meals?” 

He gave me a yes and slid me a key, “Use the stairs behind the building, it will lead to a door. This key unlocks that door. It’s the room you will be staying in.”

I took the drawing, tipped the man a nickel and departed. I walked around back and took the stairs up, then unlocked the door that pushed into a small area. Sure enough, it was nothing more than a bed up against a wall, with a candelabra of three beeswax candles on the nightstand. A small foot locker substituted as a dresser, I suppose, and the bathroom was not merely cramped, it was an excruciatingly narrow space. The sink and shower occupied the same area and the toilet was placed so close to it that if one stepped out of the tub wrong, a foot could easily end up in the bowl. After storing my suitcases and taking my notebook, I left the room, locked the door and looked at the hand-drawn map. I followed the roads towards the house—in the small town it took about five minutes to reach. 

I stood out front of the building: it was a simple two-story structure with a whitewashed picket fence out front. The yard had been overgrown a little. There were a couple of shrubs and a nice row of rose bushes along the front, beneath the large window of the sitting room. One could stand by the window inside and look down at glorious roses in the summer, or open the side windows and the breeze would carry in the delightful perfume from their blossoms. There was not much of a front yard—maybe from the gate to the front door seemed to be about fifteen feet. Instead of grass, the yard was comprised of rocks, driftwood and sand. A miniature fresco of an ocean scene could have been the desired outcome based on the white rocks that lined the fence on the yard side. The fence sat practically against the curb of the street. As far as could be determined, there was no car parked. 

I decided to take a walk around the property. As I opened the gate, the old rusty steel gave a squeal of protest and opened after heavy pressure. I followed the stone walkway. The paving stones might have been made from petrified wood by their crystalline appearance. There was a secondary pathway that led along the row of rose bushes and around to the side of the house. In the back, a tiny building—painted in the same light blue with white trim—appeared to be a garage. There was no backyard, either—instead, a small shed and the garage shared a small rutted road of packed dirt behind the couple of houses on the drive. The smaller garage building held a wagon and tack for the horses that would pull it. However, I couldn’t see any evidence of there being horses on the property. Aside from some tools and gear associated with the wagon and its maintenance, the garage was empty. The tool shed had some kind of rather rusted—but heavy duty—lock keeping it closed. The back of the house itself seemed like a typical turn of the century building. 

As I made my way around the house, the detail lines that gave away multiple additions were clearly distinct. In the early 1900s, this house might have been a two-room home. Now, it was clearly a two-story home, with probably two rooms upstairs. However, without entering, I was guessing—and guessing is poor detective work. When I finally made it back around the front of the house, I stepped up to the door. The lock responded easily to the key, and with a quick turn of the nob, the front door opened. Since no one had been in the house now for about a week, I anticipated an odor. However, besides the normal house smell—the one that every home has: a mixture of cleaning solvents, tile floor, wallpaper glue, and wood polish—there was no peculiar scent. There was no modernization of the house, either—no electrical switches for lights, no plugs for appliances. Instead, as far as my first glance around the entryway revealed, the house, quite frankly, seemed quaint. 

The entryway led into a hallway, and off to the right-hand side was the stairwell comprised of the old short and narrow steps that lead up to the next floor—typical with a modified home. The hallway on the left had a doorway that led off into another room, and as I approached it was clear that this room was the kitchen. A wood-fired stove with a copper water tank attached to the side. Copper piping leading to a simple sink along a counter space. A simple open slotted space above the sink gave a recess for plates. Drawers next to the sink and a single cabinet on each side probably held other cooking utensils. A table with four chairs occupied the center of the room. Peach and teal tiles placed like a checkerboard covered the floor in a peculiar design of horrendous colors. The hallway led down a short distance to a break of two doors, one likely to a study, and the other to another hallway leading towards what I assume is the living room. The shape and design of the space within the house felt off, like the architect had a bout of mania and was determined to craft the house as though the imagination of disorder and chaos would move in to occupy this house.

The study was what drew my attention. Just as Emily had said, she had found her uncle—or the clothes he could have been wearing—laying in an odd manner. As I entered the room, I took note of the shelves of books—titles that I did not bother reading or taking a count of. Instead, I observed the table. There were two chairs: one sat on one side and the other directly across from it. The table was not made of wood. Instead, it was built of granite with a single thick pedestal below, ending in four eagle talons, each grasping an orb of obsidian. The pedestal itself was made of marble except the feet, which looked made of a yellow metal, perhaps gold. The table top was smooth and bare, except towards the chair with clothing on it. There was a light coating of dust upon the tabletop, except a rectangular space that had no dust, probably the dimensions of the case that was sitting here before the niece took it. The dust was everywhere on the chair. 

A collared shirt slumped upon the back of the chair, crisp from being starched. Pants draped over the seat, also stiff from starching. The dust did not seem to be on the clothing, but in the clothing. Even the shoes below the pant legs were filled with dust, with a mound along the sides, as if someone had poured sand into the shoes and did not stop once they were filled but poured more over the tops. What the substance was, I couldn’t clearly determine. As I rubbed some in my fingers, it felt like a mixture of ash and sand. It was slightly rough, but gave way to the friction of my fingers into a sandy soot. This material was practically in a condensed spot: around the chair, in the shirt, pants, shoes, and a little on the table. It was not anywhere else in the room. 

I was unsure as to what was before me. These were clearly men’s clothes draped on the chair. If I was given to pranking, as I was as a boy, this would make a great gag—especially for my grandparents. They followed that man John Darby and his Plymouth brethren. This would fit right in their idea of some kind of rapture. I am thankful that once I joined the military and left Massachusetts for good, I left all those bad memories behind. Regardless, I didn’t believe this man was raptured, because, according to that belief, the man would have been taken bodily and this dust or whatever it is wouldn’t be left behind. I licked the tip of my finger where some of the substance had adhered. Taking out my notebook I made a small detail: 

“Ashen substance appears like blacked sooty sand, and tastes of salt, smells slightly of sulfur.” 

I did remember seeing some canning jars in the kitchen. After fetching one, I scooped up one shoe and poured the material into the jar. Sealing it with a lid, I set it on the table. This room was clearly a study or library of some kind. However, there was no desk, which means this man paid his bills in a different room. There were a few more rooms to explore, and I thought I might as well take a look around.

The rest of the downstairs area contained one other room, this one arranged as a sitting area. A phonograph machine sat under the window overlooking the roses. A settee and matching armchair sat along one wall. Across from these were two leather cigar chairs. Between the furniture was a coffee table with an ornate tea set. The teapot seemed to be made of porcelain, and the cups were obviously thin china. The tray itself was silver with golden ornamentation upon it. Each piece looked to be decorated in the similar style, with golden orbs and lines connecting them. The orbs were of of differing sizes and lines of varying thicknesses. The uniquely odd shapes drew my eyes, and as my focus upon them tried to correlate the design more clearly, my vision instead blurred, and I caught a glimpse out the window.

I could see all the way to the river. The great Columbia River stretched out and flowed out to the great Pacific Ocean. My view could see a masted sailing ship with sails billowing in the wind as it made its way towards a dock. The figurehead looked like a carved cephalopod, its bulbous head facing towards the prow and the tentacles reaching back along the hull. Then I heard some moaning in the air, and it was as though I no longer stood in the house, but I stood upon the shore. I could make out the figures who were sailing the boat. Their heads looked large, and their eyes bulged. Their chant vibrated the air and resonated in my bones but they didn’t sing words in any language I had ever heard. The barbarous tones and guttural groans felt as though they came not from the mouths of men, but from the croaking throats of frogs.

The clouds overhead grew dark, and the winds grew in intensity. There was definitely something wrong with what I saw. No more was the river at a great distance, but as I looked the street itself became the shore, and the river water and the ship drifted by close enough that I could make out the crew. They wore striped shirts of black and white cloth, and some kind of trousers. The helmsman steering the ship stood at the wheel dressed in clothes unlike the attire of the sailors— this one had a hooded garment of some kind. His face and head was covered and hidden, except when it looked at me. From such a short distance, I could clearly see eyes that were not eyes and a face that glowed with a light that was no face. A deep chasm of chaos and a swirling vortex of despair flashed through my mind, wave after wave of fear and panic set my heart racing, and my pulse quickened, as if my very heart would jump from my chest to find an escape. As I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it, I felt something I never knew before: inevitability. Then the dizziness struck my mind and it simply shut off.

To be continued…

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