The Case of the Man of Ash: Chapter 4

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


The depth I must have plunged could not be accurately described. I stood upon a precipice overlooking the endless void of space itself. Below me there was nothingness, and it spread in all directions except for the outcropping of unknown white rock I stood on. A whistling breeze tremored through the chasm and moaned in twisting, tortured tones. Deep inside my body I could feel an uncontrollable desire to fall, to launch myself down into this endless night. Before I could catch my thoughts—as if my own body betrayed common sense—I fell forward and tumbled head over heels, falling. I screamed then, a deep, dark, maddening scream of unquenchable fear,  shaking my entire body and flailing my arms about madly. I no longer had any idea of up or down, or left or right. 

Every direction seemed the same, and I fell downwards no matter which way my body faced. In that deep darkness I could see things writhing in a mass of cephalopodic tentacles, and a light came into being. A rumbling sound of the most resonant vibrational hum began, and I could not truly understand the noise—but then, the mass opened a glowing orb of an eye. It pierced my soul and shred me asunder in my mind. Everything then was bathed in the light of this orb, and I could see a division in the abyss I fell through. Small pinpricks of luminesces began to flicker in the dark void. Then, as I fell, I could see beneath me a formless mass beginning to coalesce into something solid. My tumbling came to an abrupt end as my body slammed hard into this newly formed ground.

“No, he just fell out of the bed.” It was a female voice, older in tone and coming from somewhere nearby.

I sat up and looked around. A hospital bed towered loftily above me, and below me was a tile floor. The smell of astringents perfumed the air. I was not where I thought I should be. From my surroundings, it was not difficult to determine where I was—it appeared to be some kind of medical room. There were two people standing just inside the doorway: a woman, a nurse by her clothing, and a man of middle years dressed in a black suit. They were both staring at me while I stared at them. 

Last thing I remembered was standing inside the house of Mister Miller, and now I was on the cold floor of a hospital? This made no sense to me. I began to voice my thoughts, to make them known to these two people, yet in all my attempts, all I could do was let out a painful, hoarse groan. This was not my voice, which swam inside my head and reminded me vividly of the dream—was it even a dream?—I just experienced. 

“Listen here, Detective Booth. It would appear you have fallen out of the bed again.” The nurse and the man walked to me and helped me back into the bed. “You do not have to talk, just take some more time and rest. You are okay here.”

Then, as if on command, I drifted back to sleep. This time, I did not dream; this time I simply had no real recollection of anything happening. I knew I awoke to eat, I knew that I was tended to bodily, but I did not know why I was in this hospital room or what had happened. I am uncertain how much time had passed since I first arrived at the hospital, but in my more awake states when I could eat and drink down liquids, no one was around for me to ask questions. Then finally one morning—at least, I believed it to be morning—I simply sat up in the bed and attempted to stand up. At first, I was dizzy, and then as that faded away, I headed to the corner of the room. My personal suitcases were there, as were my wallet and pocket watch on a small table next to the luggage. I slipped out of the gown I was wearing and began dressing myself in clothes that were clearly washed, pressed, then folded nicely into my suitcase. I found my shoes and slipped them over my socks. With that, I walked to the door, tried the knob and—to my surprise—it opened. 

When the door opened, I was staring right at the face of an army soldier in uniform. He looked at me as if I had somehow magically appeared before him. 

“Sir,” his body snapped to attention, and his hand flew to his forehead in the crispest salute I have ever seen. 

“Sir?” I asked quizzically.

“Yes, sir, you are Chief Master-At-Arms Booth, veteran of the Great War, honored to meet you sir,” the young soldier stammered an honorific upon me.

“Easy, soldier. That was a long time ago, I do believe before you were even a twinkling in your fathers’ eye.” I instead shook his hand. “Listen, son, I don’t know how long I have been cooped up, or even where I am. Can you find me someone I can talk to?”

“Yes, sir! Right away, sir!” He snapped off another salute, and marched down the hallway. 

The hallways seemed to be made out of poured concrete, and extended in both directions. Illumination was provided by lamps spaced far enough apart that no shadows would form. After a couple of minutes of waiting, the nurse and the same man in a suit I saw earlier came down the hallway, led by the soldier. I didn’t catch his name, but once the two were within a few feet, he turned and marched back the way they had come from. 

“How are you feeling, Detective Booth?” The nurse asked first.

“I feel fine, except I want to know where I am and why I am here.” My response might have been sharp, but neither person seemed irritated.

“Sir,” the suit man spoke. “You are in the medical unit of Fort Stevens. You were brought here by the police in Warrenton after you attempted to swim in the river.”

“Swim? Last thing I remember is taking a walk around a client’s house looking for evidence of a disappearance.” I was befuddled.

“A dock worker happened to spot you standing on a rock in the river way and watched you lean forward and fall in. He was watching to see if you would go for a swim fully clothed. When you did not resurface, he dove in and swam to rescue you.”

“So, it would seem I owe my life to a dock worker then?” 

“Not just that. After getting you to the shore, he managed to get you breathing again, but you would not wake up. When they searched your body and found your military papers in your wallet, protected somehow from the waters, they assumed you belonged here. So the police delivered you to us.”

This was an odd thing. Why would I be brought to this place instead of the hospital in Astoria? It still did not explain why my effects are here with me, and how it was that they got here. The man in the suit answered my questions, and told me that the bartender where I had a room went to check to see if I was coming back in the evening. When I did not show, he gathered my things and kept them in his room. When he overheard a couple dock workers celebrating a young chap for rescuing a crazy old man from drowning, the bar owner asked where I was and brought my suitcases to me. 

“Alright, so the biggest question of them all: how long have I been here?” 

“This is not going to make a lot of sense to you right now,” the nurse looked to the man in the suit, then back to me. “You have been in and out of it for three days.”

“Three?” I was shocked. I could feel a conniption coming on, so I did what made the most sense and sat down on the table near my suitcases. “I need to get back to my investigation.”

“Yes, and I am here to take you back to Warrenton anytime you would like.” The man in the suit stepped forward. “I am Agent Philips.” 

“Let me guess: FBI?” 

“That is correct. You are investigating something that those in my office are very interested in and would like you to continue.”

“Let’s grab my things and get moving then. I am certain we are losing daylight here.”

With that, Agent Philips helped me with my bags, and we exited the building. It was a short walk from the building to his car: a nice, new black Ford. He opened the trunk and placed my suitcases inside, then opened a passenger door for me, and I climbed in.

“This is a nice car.”

“Brand new, 1942 Ford Super Deluxe Sedan.” He beamed as he spoke about it. “This one came off the lot and was delivered by train to our office in Portland. It was then ferried out here to Astoria. I picked it up just two days ago.”

“How did you learn of me even being out here?”

“Listen, Detective,” he said, glancing over at me, “you have been followed by me since you landed. You are on a case that we find very important.”

“Then why is the FBI not investigating this one then?”

“That is because our office does not technically exist.” He left that to sink in as he turned out of the base exit and onto the highway. “We operate within the Bureau of Investigation, and we are financed by the US Army. Our office started in April of 1880. We have been investigating individuals like your Emily Curwen for a long time.”

“Then why are you not investigating it?”

“We do not officially exist, and because of that, we utilize local law enforcement. However, we have had no success with the Curwen case when utilizing actual police. They always seem to go insane or have mental breakdowns. We have more than a hundred men living in insane asylums as a result.”

“Okay, then why am I doing this then?” Insane people? I should walk away. 

“The last thing we want you to do is walk away. Keep investigating it. We believe that this is a result of who is doing the investigations. Nothing strange has happened to you?”

“Well, I fell in the water.”

“Sure, but you probably saw something and simply slipped in, right?”

“Yes, I believe that’s right.” It was not and I knew it, but this was a lot of information being told to me right out of the gate. The admission that law enforcement has been going insane meant I was not about to spill the beans about my incident. Besides, I had no idea who these people were, or even if they were legitimate. How could I even determine that? I was sure that they could get a voucher at the local office, yet the presence of the three agents I encountered since beginning this investigation had set me on edge. 

“Detective Booth?’ I am unsure, but I believe this wasn’t the first time the agent said my name in a short time.

“Yes,” I replied simply.

“Where should I drop you off?? He gestured around, and I could tell we were back in Warrenton already.

“Well, seeing how I was supposed to be on my way back to Portland already with information to give to Emily,” I droned on, in hopes that the agent would give me clues, “where should I begin?”

“I would begin by asking the owner of the fish cannery. Your disappeared person had a rather hefty investment in it, and it might end up being a connection.”

I nodded, climbed out of the car, and took my suitcases from the trunk. “So, where am I supposed to be staying?”

“You have permission from the local authorities to stay at Emily’s uncle’s house,” he pointed out the window. I had not even noticed that he actually had parked just down the street from the two-story house. 

I walked down the street with trepidation rising in my heart. The thoughts of that sailing ship and its sailors grew in my mind. I tried to shake off the image I had remembered, and only when I nearly stumbled over a rock on the pathway did my mind snap back to the now. I entered the house again and noticed nothing had been touched. Even the jar with the dust was still on the table in the library, along with my notepad dropped by the front window. How I had traveled from this window to the river without being aware of doing so escaped my mind. However, I was here again, and I needed to look into the rest of the house. 

I headed up the stairs to the second floor, though the steps were not really stairs, more like a ladder, as they climbed so steeply upwards. The area opened up into one large room. Support beams held the roof aloft in areas, and the slants marked off shorter ends of the room. In one corner sat a bed with a nightstand next to it. An oil lamp and a book was all that was on it—a simple story, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. 

In another corner sat a desk. This looked clearly like the place Mister Miller would have paid his bills and handled correspondence. Shuffling through the papers upon the desk and taking a quick glance at headers and signatures, I observed an interesting correlation. It appeared that this man had quite a large investment profile. There were dividend notes from several companies and rent payments from several properties, many of which were not local. As the good agent suggested, there were quite a few letters from Pacific Packing. However, many of the letters from Pacific Packing spoke of the profits and well-doing of an older business in Astoria. This Thornhand Cannery seemed to have a large investment in Pacific Packing also. It would seem that Thornhand would not accept any investment money from Giuseppe, nor had any interest in doing any kind of business with the man. 

Shuffling the correspondence around the desk stirred up some kind of black residue. I rubbed a sample between my fingers and smelled it, and the scent of charred wood filled my nostrils. I moved the papers off the desk and onto the floor, and noticed deep grooves cut into the wooden desk. I traced the scratches absentmindedly thinking about the next step. I could not find anything nearby that could have caused the damage to the surface of the desk, and so I figured it must have happened in the distant past. But the charcoal dust was fresh, and there was nothing around that I could use to establish what had happened. 

My next step would involve going out and talking to the people around. I thought it was about time I did some rumor hunting. Perhaps those dockworkers would loosen their tongues at the bar this evening.

As the day progressed and I searched the rest of the house, nothing could explain the clothes in the library and the dust that I had gathered. It remained odd to me, but I would not have any way of getting it tested out here. After all my searching, there did not seem to be any evidence that foul play was at hand. There must be something that I was missing, but in the house it was not obvious. What kind of man owns enough property and gains enough income from investments, yet still chooses to live here? The more I dwelt on the peculiar house, the less I could understand it. It was time to go to the bar and see what I can find out with these two canneries and their connection to Giuseppe.

“Evening,” the bartender said, looking towards me. “Seems you are still alive after all.”

“Well, I wanted to come down and hopefully meet the man who saved me.”

“He is that one, sitting there with his back to us, with his two coworkers.” The bartender did not hide his pointing finger.

I picked up my pint and walked to the table. As I sat down, the man that was identified as my savior opened his eyes wide and smiled at me. He began to tell the other two who I was. So, before I could introduce myself, this man had told his two coworkers the entire story of how he saved my life. I enjoyed my beer as he spoke. Finally, when he finished, he asked me bluntly what I was doing here.

“Well, I have come to meet the man that saved me,” I said, smiling, “and offer him a drink.”

The four of us talked about a wide range of topics for about an hour—from the news about the boys leaving for war, the factories shelling out food for that effort, and even about actors and actresses. As the conversation waned, I began asking questions about their work. After all, they were working here—closer to home—at the Pacific Cannery that just opened last year. I asked where they worked before, and the one that saved me told me about working at Thornhand’s. 

“How long did you work over there?”

“Well, I began working back in ‘35. They started getting a huge boom in tuna and really needed more workers to come handle the product coming in off the ships.” 

“What did they do before the tuna?”

“They did salmon and trout like everyone else around here, but the salmon runs started coming up short. They laid a lot of people off. But things were bad, you know, in the thirties. We couldn’t get bread to eat if we did not grow the grains, but all the sudden, out of nowhere, Thornhands’ guys start bringing in ship after ship full of tuna.”

“Industry changes, and they went with what was available,” I interjected.

“Oh no, their ships never went out of the river for anything. The mouth of the Columbia has always been treacherous, but they would not risk it.”

“Then who brought in the tuna ships?”

“See, that’s the thing, we don’t know. I was working at night, and that’s when the boats pulled in and it was always one of our trollers filled with tuna. This is ocean tuna you know, but it’s right there coming in our river boats.”

The other guys with my savior definitely were agreeing. They did not know how the fish came in, they simply unpacked it from the boats—at night, though. This was not a day job by the sounds of it. 

“This was a night shift you worked?”

“Oh yes, the boats only came in at night, and always right around 4 a.m. We would be there from midnight to about 8 in the morning, working on getting the area ready, unloading the fish or boxing up products to be shipped out later on in the day.”

“I used to work at night out in Portland. It’s not so bad—usually getting calls to take drunk people home or pick up some vagrants using the city parks as a bed.”

“Out here, mister, out in Astoria off the pier at night, there is no sound. You barely hear the river lapping against the posts. Until about 3 a.m.,then all the sudden, you hear the croaking of frogs and the growling of some big animals. The sounds make your skin crawl. It’s hard to know where the sound is coming from because it gets all foggy out at that time towards the north there by the mouth of the river.”

To be continued…

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