9 May, 19—
My dearest Cecilia,—
You must forgive my delay in writing to you. Since I have left our sleepy little town of Bram, I have thought of little else save the moment we can once again be together. Still, I am writing to you this day with—I scarcely know what. As you know, I was first called away from your side by work, a seemingly standard missing person case in a distant town known as Franzka. I need not remind you of how difficult work has been to come by as of late. Oh Cecilia, how I wish I had never come to here. Strange, frightful occurrences are taking place as I write to you, and I fear what it could all mean. I will tell you all I know, but you must promise to show or tell no one. Please Cecilia, my Eve, please believe what I am about to tell you, outlandish as it may seem. Know I would never lie to you, you alone who I can bare my soul to. I will start at the beginning…
I arrived by train in the late afternoon two days ago and, wanting to enjoy the warm afternoon air after being cooped up in a compartment all day (which I was lucky enough to have to myself) I decided to walk to my destination. Stretching out my legs, suitcase in hand, I set out at a leisurely pace. As I walked up and down the streets I found Franzka to be a pleasant sort of town, bigger and more developed than our Bram; I have no doubt it will one day metamorphosis into a thriving city. Before long I arrived at my destination, a boarding house in which I had secured a room. A three story cottage, it was picturesque without being overdone or flashy, with a green lawn and a freshly painted picket fence. Walking up the walkway, I rang the doorbell and was shortly greeted by an elder woman, as short and quaint as you would suspect. “Mary,” I greeted simply. “I called a few days ago and requested a room.” I left no last name when I called, and gave no last name now. The issue of a last name often causes me worry, as you well know. I am often tempted to give your last name, Cecilia, as you have given me permission to; however, I hesitate, lest people begin to suspect we are sisters. At the same time, I refuse to use the name of ‘Utterson’ ever again, as I am no longer that person. I must solve this predicament soon, as it will become a problem sooner or later. Regardless, the old woman remembered me, and admitted me straight away without incident.
The room proved to be small, but sufficient. Pale, floral wallpaper enclosed a twin bed, next to which stood a nightstand with a lamp. One rectangular window offered the afternoon sunlight, enveloping the room in a warm glow. Satisfied with my arrangements, I did my best to settle in and, checking my watch, laid down for a nap. My meeting with my summoner, the one who had offered me work, was not until late that night, and I had little else to do.
Awaking a few hours later, I decided to wash my face and do my best to reapply the little makeup I felt comfortable dabbling in. We must really go over these things again, Cecilia, as I am still lacking. I had worn a dress on the train, but opted for trousers that night. They are my preferred working attire, although, worn in the daylight around men, they can call attention to me in all the ways I dread. Leaving the boarding house a little after eleven thirty I again decided to walk, as the night was cool but pleasant. I reflected upon what I knew concerning the missing person case for which my assistance had been requested. The letter had been brief, and signed only with the name ‘Alfre’. Missing person cases are not uncommon, I have solved over a dozen in my time, and are not particularly difficult. So why had I been summoned? I, who had little credit to my name save the claim of being tutored by Harold Utterson, the great detective? I suppose, at the time, I cared little.
I was instructed to meet my potential employer at midnight at a local church. I saw its shadow as I rounded another quiet street corner, and could not help but pause in awe when I came to stand before it. As traditional a town Franzka seemed to be, I was surprised it held such an impressive building at its heart. The design was clearly gothic in nature, complex beyond what I considered humanly possible. The light of the moon, though a small sliver this time of the month, cast a florescent light over its many arches and spires, leaving most of the building in shadow. I pondered the seeming lack of gargoyles, as I thought gothic designers loved the impending atmosphere the ghastly creatures gave off. Still, I could not help but feel I was being watched by eyes hidden in shadow, from inside the church or outside the courtyard I could not tell. Shivering suddenly in the night air, I bundled up my jacket and quickly made my way inside, the heavy doors giving my determined jerk little resistance.
The inside of the church was illuminated slightly better by rose-tinted ceiling lights, and, walking forward a few steps, I found myself in the chapel. Cecilia, how I wish you could see it. Details so vast and all encompassing I felt dizzy taking it all in. The ceiling was vaulted, causing every little sound to echo. Walking up the aisle, carpeted with a deep red rug, I saw directly ahead an image of Jesus Christ in eternal suffering on the cross hanging above the altar. Above him, in all her glory, was Mother Mary in stained glass. Captured in impossible beauty, her face beyond perfection in her mercy and grace, the image appeared dull and listless in the night hours. To see the image of the Holy Mother in darkness disturbed me, and I looked away. A grand organ sat off to the right, glittering gold even in the dim lighting. I have never seen such an impressive instrument, its pipes reaching well beyond my line of sight to, I presume, the top of the highest tower the building possessed to cast its music over the whole town. Anyone not attending Sunday morning mass would surely regret it as the notes found their way to them, enveloping their soul in melancholy. I imagined the church with full congregation, organ music lofting about the heads of those bent in prayer, foretelling the morose day when God will descend from Heaven to pass judgment on all us sinners. I took a seat three rows from the altar, the worn, dark mahogany pews cushioned in red velvet matching the aisle. I did not, and still do not, understand why this person, Alfre, wanted to meet in such a place for private business. I tucked my hair behind my ear out of habit. I felt my short, dirty blonde hair run briefly through my fingers and once again determined to grow it out. A hat to cover the oddity was easy enough, but I still feel it would be more convincing if I had long hair. But, as you know, the ingrained instinct to cut it every time it grows past my ears is a difficult thing to overcome.
I heard the slow tap of a cane on hard wood echo from down a corridor. I might have suspected the owner of the sound to enter from the back of the church, but no, she entered from the side of the altar just as a pastor would. A black woman dressed in a dark suit slowly made her way to the edge of the altar and took a stance, planting her cane firmly before her as she cast her gaze onto me. She gave the impression of a weeping willow tree—tall, thin yet strong, her branches casting a sense of calm, confident shade over her surroundings. Her short salt and pepper hair and the deliberate way she moved told me she was at least in her fifties, while deep set eyes rested high on sharp cheekbones, defining her gaze as one of quiet authority, commanding respect without offense. “Hello, Miss Mary.” She greeted me with a mature, smooth voice.
“Alfre, I presume?” I greeted.
“You are correct.” She smiled. “Thank you for meeting me at such a late hour. I’m glad to see you were able to make it here without incident.”
“Of course,” I responded. “This church would be difficult to miss.”
“Indeed,” she nodded, stepping down from the altar to the main aisle. “This church is a special place.”
“You asked me here for a case?”
“Yes,” Alfre nodded past me, and suddenly another woman appeared next to me. Looking up, I was greeted with the face of a Native woman, who held out a few loose papers for me to take. Also dressed in a top and trousers, her long black hair hung down her back in a curtain. Dark, thick brows framed her eyes, deep brown like the freshly tilled, fertile earth in spring. Taking the papers, I began glancing through them as the woman moved to sit across the aisle from me. “About a week ago,” Alfre began, once the woman was seated. “I was contacted by a woman, Mrs. Stevenson, who lives in this town. I was surprised, as she is well off, and the upper class tends to avoid working with me, as I am not the typical poster child for investigative services. Regardless, she seemed desperate, and through various channels found her way to me. Her husband, Mr. Stevenson, has been missing for a month.”
“A month?” I questioned. A picture, small and square, slipped into my lap from the handful of paper I held. A white couple, standing shoulder to shoulder, presumably Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson, looked out at me without smiles. They were unremarkable in every way. Mrs. Stevenson, small and pretty; Mr. Stevenson, short yet robust, perhaps the barest hint of a bald spot just beginning to show. “Has she not called the police?” I asked.
“She has; however the police have found little, and the case has by and large been set aside in favor of others.” Alfre said.
“Any hints as to where, or why, he’s gone?”
“Not at all. Married for twenty years, getting along as well as can be expected,” Alfre began to pace as she told her story, the other woman listening intently, leaning forward ever so slightly in her seat. “Mr. Stevenson was known to be quiet, but kind. No enemies, no major events at any point in his life. Nothing to suggest anything amiss, when a few months ago he began to act differently. He would become agitated and irrational, even violent at times, though how violent Mrs. Stevenson would not say. He began staying out late at night, when he had always been punctual before. Then, one night, he simply didn’t come home. Mrs. Stevenson has not seen or heard from him since.”
“She contacted you,” I continued. “And then you contacted me.”
“I wanted to bring you on this case. As it stands, it is only Mina and me,” she indicated the woman sitting across the aisle. “The police have come up empty, and after a bit of searching ourselves with few results, I felt we could use some assistance. After all, you tutored under Mr. Utterson, the great detective, did you not? How is Mr. Utterson, by the way?” Alfre cocked her head to the side. “I, as well as many others, was shocked to hear he has decided to take a sudden, extended trip to South America. No one seems to know when he will return.”
“Or if he ever will,” I let slip, before thinking better of it. I felt my heart race in my chest, and fought hard to keep my composure. Oh Cecilia, you alone I can be myself with. With you alone I fear nothing, no judgment, no hate. The woman I am today I owe all to you.
“Ah well.” Alfre shrugged. “I would like your help finding Mr. Stevenson. We have tracked him to his last known whereabouts, a house on the edge of town, though admittedly he has not been spotted there for over a week. Time is running long, and I would like to give Mrs. Stevenson something new she can hope and pray over. Are you interested?”
“I believe I am.” I responded. Though I had a curious feeling regarding Alfre, not to mention the silent Mina, I surmised the case was easy enough and saw little reason to refuse the opportunity.
“Excellent,” Alfre smiled widely. “I would ask you to begin as soon as possible. Also, if you don’t mind—Mina, my apprentice.” She motioned to Mina. “I am teaching her all I know in this life, but there are only so many experiences I can offer her. As such, I would like for her to accompany you on this investigation, however long that may be. I hope this is agreeable to you?”
“Of course,” I said, and nodded a greeting to Mina. The woman gave an almost imperceptible nod back.
Alfre looked at Mina with a bemused look, and continued, “She is like a daughter to me. I have cared for her for quite some time, so do look after her. I’d hate for her to act foolishly and hurt herself.”
“Alfre,” Mina spoke for the first time, sounding cross. She was young, younger than she’d like to appear. Early twenties, I would guess. Younger even than you, Cecilia. Alfre turned her attention back to me. “She is full of spark that may be useful to you. Use her as you see fit. I would have you return to your bed for tonight, and tomorrow begin by searching the house Mr. Stevenson was last seen at. Meet here again at midnight, Mina will be waiting.” I nodded my understanding, and stood to leave. “Miss Mary?” I looked to Alfre, who by now was making her way back up the altar. “Since you are not from here, I feel I should inform you concerning the recent rumors spreading through Franzka. A darkness has fallen over our town. There are rumors of strange creatures prowling the streets at night, attacking anyone caught in the dark, away from the light of the street lamps.” Alfre paused, folding her hands over the nub of her cane she looked up at the stained glass image of Mother Mary. “Of course, these are just rumors. No one has died yet, to my knowledge, but do be careful regardless. I would feel personally responsible if something were to happen to you.”
“If I were eaten by a monster, you mean?” I questioned, amusing myself at the thought. “What an awful bedtime story.”
“Every fairy tale has its roots in reality, Miss Mary. Good night.” With that, Alfre disappeared the way she came, the tapping of her cane slowly fading away in the distance. I looked to where Mina had been sitting to see she too had disappeared. The whole experience was strange, but tucking the few pieces of paper I had under my arm I headed out the church and back onto the street.
Cecilia, you know I am not one to believe in ghosts and ghouls, but the feeling of being watched once again returned to me as I walked down the street, and I would lie if I said I did not breathe a sigh of relief once I stepped foot back into the boarding house, the door firmly shut and locked behind me.
The next day I spent in leisure, waiting for the agreed upon meeting time that night. I looked over the papers given to me the night before by Mina, hoping to glean additional information concerning Mr. Stevenson. Unfortunately, the files were sparse and contained little that I had not already been told by Alfre. I had dealt with many cases such as this before, husbands gone missing after a few good years of marriage and a few short weeks of trouble. While the house Mina and I would go to that night would most likely be a dead end, I assumed we would eventually discover poor Mr. Stevenson somewhere or another down a dark alleyway taking part in any number of miscreant behaviors. From there, it would be up to Mrs. Stevenson what to do.
I thought back to the warning Alfre had given me. Monsters prowling the streets at night, attacking people here and there. I’d like to believe I’m a practical woman, Cecilia. I had initially taken Alfre to be the same, but perhaps I was wrong. Looking back to the picture of the Stevensons, I once again took Mr. Stevenson in as a remarkably unremarkable man. No rhyme or reason for his disappearance, with only a few leads that had left both the police and Alfre stumped. Perhaps he really had been eaten by a monster? I scoffed and dismissed the odd topic as easily as one brushes dust off a shelf, and waited for night to fall.
I set out again a little after eleven thirty, and quickly made my way back to the imposing church in the middle of town. Walking up the walkway to the doors I expected to see Mina waiting for me, but it appeared I was alone. The night was silent, cool, and I wrapped my coat around me, displeased my supposed assistant for the case was seemingly late.
“Hello.” I turned sharply to see the young woman, Mina, standing behind me. Dressed in a long trench coat, I noticed she once again wore trousers, with her hair down to frame her face and keep the chill from her neck. How she developed this habit of appearing out of thin air and sneaking up on people, I will never know.
“Miss Mina,” I greeted.
“Are you ready?” She asked.
I nodded, and she turned with a bounce in her step and set off. I followed close behind, and once onto the street we walked side by side. After a few minutes of walking in silence, I decided to inquire how far away the house was.
“Not far,” Mina said. “It’s on the outskirts of town in a poorer neighborhood.”
“When was the last time you were there?”
“About a week ago, when last we saw Mr. Stevenson.”
“What do you think has become of Mr. Stevenson?” I asked. I am not a talkative individual, as you well know Cecilia; however, I felt if Mina and I did not engage in conversation the quiet streets would turn on me and the old sense of being watched would creep back under my clothes and rake my nerves. So talk it was.
Mina scoffed in response to my question. “Isn’t it obvious? It’s an affair. Mrs. Stevenson claims, in the weeks leading up to his disappearance, Mr. Stevenson began acting distant, coming home late at night. ‘He would not talk to me,’ she lamented over and over. Then came the fighting, yelling and throwing things. ‘So unlike himself!’, she said. The usual sort of thing. I suspect we will find Mr. Stevenson has taken up with a lover of sorts, and has surely skipped town by now. All we have to do is prove it. It’s up to Mrs. Stevenson what to do from there, the poor woman.”
“What does Alfre think?”
“She never tells me her suspicions. She wants me to think for myself.”
“Are you nervous?” I asked. “We’ll be going inside that house tonight. Someone might see us.”
“Me?” Mina asked, wide eyed. “Never. I’m always prepared.” I looked at her with curiosity. Without further prompting Mina pulled aside her coat to reveal a dagger strapped to her side. “For a long time, I’ve had to fight to survive. Alfre has taught me to always be prepared, and always be brave. Although she is not here with us, tonight is no different.”
What a curious young woman! “Alfre raised you from a child, correct?” I asked, and waited to see her reaction. While I pride myself on maintaining proper manners, I have always had a nosey tendency. It is why I became an investigator after all. I was content to let the personal topic drop if Mina so desired, but was interested nonetheless.
“Yes, she did.” Mina looked down, her hands in her coat pockets. After a bit she continued. “I don’t know my family. I know I was born on a reservation, though I scarcely know when or where. All I remember is being wrapped in my mother’s arms, held against her breast until her warmth radiated through me. She smelled of cloves and cedar. Then, I was no longer in my mother’s arms, and I was taken away to a boarding school. They stripped me bare and began anew. They said, the white teachers, I was better off. My family was abusing me, they said. But I don’t remember any of that—All I remember is my mother’s arms, the smell and the warmth they held. Those teachers, they tried to take from me… me. I felt so alone, so alien, and they treated me terribly. When I was old enough, I ran away and lived on the streets. I tried to find my way back home, but couldn’t remember where home was. I would probably be dead now if it were not for Alfre finding me. She’s cared for me ever since. She was born a slave, so I think in some way she understands me, though our circumstances are drastically different.” She looked at me then, and I felt a keen awareness of the color of my skin, pale white in the dim moonlight, and all it affords me. “She’s helping me find my family.” Mina added, almost a bit shyly.
“Do you think you’ll find them?” I asked, surprised by the young woman’s candidness.
“I believe I’ll find my family when we find this missing husband!” Mina grinned widely in a way I suspect only children are capable of.
“You don’t think we’ll find him?”
“Perhaps yes, perhaps no.” She said simply, tossing her head.
Without the presence of Alfre, Mina seemed much more free spirited, and I saw for the first time who I suspect she truly is: a young woman full of life and mischief. Looking back, I understand now why Alfre had teased her as she did the night before.
We rounded one more corner, now firmly in a residential part of town, and walked to the end of the street, a dark patch of trees and various other foliage acting as a roadblock from there on. “This is it.” Mina nodded, as we stood in front of the last house on the block, feeling quite separated from the rest of the neighborhood. Though the street was dark, I was able to make out the dwelling was in need of repair. Small, two stories, the curtains predictably drawn, I was sure it was an eyesore in the daylight. All in all it looked thoroughly, albeit freshly, abandoned. Walking up the porch, I glanced around to confirm we were alone. I could not help but notice, during our walk, not a single soul was out. Though it was indeed late at night, you typically still see or hear some activity bustling about you, for the world never truly sleeps in silence. But all was quiet, not even crickets kept us company. I turned to the door, tried the handle, and was not the least bit surprised to find it locked. Crouching down, I pulled out an old small pouch full of little tools handy in such situations from my pocket and set to work picking the lock. Mina stood over me, observing my every move.
“Are you worried?” She asked suddenly.
“About what? ” I was only half paying attention, concentrating on my work. The lock was old, and needed a great deal of coaxing before it’s pins would relent their hold.
“About the monsters,” Mina asked, suddenly excited. “It’s not just Mr. Stevenson who has disappeared lately after all. Other men have disappeared too. But only men, no women. Don’t you think that’s odd?”
“I supposed it is.” Struggling with the lock, having only two hands at my disposal, I grew frustrated with her questioning. Her willingness to talk suddenly seemed a burden, as she would have been wise to hush up once we arrived at the house. We were now working, and work demands a certain level of professionalism. I saw little merit in discussing opinions of monsters at the moment.
Mina continued, oblivious to my annoyance. “Some people are saying the monsters are eating the men. That they’re some sort of vengeful she-demons feeding off the souls of wayward men. So I was simply wondering if you were worried. You were born a man after all.” I froze, despite myself. The old, familiar fear crept up inside me, dashing all thoughts of the lock and Mr. Stevenson. Mina surely noticed, but continued mercilessly. “Your teacher, Mr. Utterson—that’s you. It’s only recently that you’ve begun calling yourself Mary, right? Alfre told me all about it. So, I was wondering if you were worried about disappearing along with the men.”
I flicked my wrist and the lock on the door jumped beneath my hands. I roughly stood up and turned to Mina. “I am a woman.” I said sternly. “What body I was born in does not concern you. I am not worried about being snatched up by some imaginary ghoul because I am not a man. I am not Mr. Utterson. I am Mary, and I am a woman.”
Mina looked at me with wide eyes. Folding her arms, she leaned back retrospectively. After a moment she commented, “When I was taken from my home and put into the boarding school, I lost a great deal of knowledge regarding who I am. Thankfully, Alfre is helping me learn. Gender is not such an easy thing to define. Man, woman, it is not as stagnant as some believe. If you say you are a woman, you are a woman. That’s good enough for me.”
Satisfied, I nodded. “Thank you.” With that, I turned the handle and opened the door. Pulling out two flashlights, Mina handed me one before flicking on her own, dousing the room in which we entered with yellow light. Not surprisingly, it was a mess. What sparse furniture there was was upturned and thrown across the floor, along with various scattered pieces of paper, coating the room like ash after a fire. Turning to Mina, I motioned forward and we began exploring. Looking for what, I do not know. Taking each step carefully, I swept my light back and forth, waiting for something to jump out at me. Picking up a sheet of paper, Mina looked over what was written.
“What is ‘Return the Kings’?” She asked. Drawing closer, I observed over her shoulder the paper she held. It was covered in messy, smudged writing, illegible in some places and reading ‘Return the Kings’ in others.
“Keep it,” I whispered, and walked away. On the other side of the room, I found the only standing piece of furniture, a small desk set against a wall. It was surprisingly neat in that it was bare of contents save a single sheet of paper. Bending over, I saw a sole line of writing near the top. ‘I Am Returned’. Behind me, I heard a shuffling of papers I assumed to be Mina still exploring. “Mina,” I began. Picking up and folding the sheet of paper, I tucked it safely in my coat pocket. “Let’s move upstairs…” Turning, I flashed my light around the room and caught sight of an odd figure. Crouching low to the ground in the center of the room, two round, yellow eyes flashed back at me. My momentary, rational confusion (or was is curiosity?), gave way to horror as the figure stood up.
The… creature, as I can only label it, I shudder to describe to you, Cecilia. Lord knows the nightmares it will give me. With thick, leathery skin and a large mouth, my eyes were filled with the image of a weeping wound. I heard the creature let out a breath, sounding like a growl only Satan himself could make, and I gagged. Even across the room, the smell was horrendous. Rotting flesh, if I had to say. The creature took a step forward, and I fell back in fear, dropping the flashlight as I clutched myself, tears rolling down my face. I could not move, could not cry out. I was powerless in the presence of such a beast, such a hell hound. Though my light had rolled out of reach, it still captured the inhuman monster as it took one step forward, then another. It crouched down and made as if to leap towards me, surely to end my life. All I thought of was you, Cecilia. Even in this moment of retelling this tale, I so want to be wrapped in your protective arms, to feel safe.
Just as the creature leapt forward, Mina, that brave little soul!, leapt out from the dark onto its back, knocking it to the side. The struggle that ensued was godlike, Mina clinging to the monster’s back as it shrieked in anger, struggling to claw her away. Standing up to its full height, I saw its talons rake Mina’s arm, causing her to cry out in pain. I saw a flash of metal and, just as the archangel Michael stabbed the Devil, Mina brought her dagger down with such strength it pierced the monster’s skull clean through. Shuttering in death spasms, the creature slowly sank to its knees. Mina, with great effort, pulled her dagger from the head of her enemy, letting the limp body fall forward. Covered in blood from her bleeding arm and the monster, she looked at me and I at her. “Are you all right?” She asked.
I nodded, finding little to say and having no voice to say it. Mina’s arm looked bad, and would need to be seen to as soon as possible. Leaning forward, I snatched up my flashlight and held it close. “So much for imaginary monsters.” I whispered, shaking uncontrollably. “Maybe men really are being eaten.”
“Maybe not,” Mina remarked. Finding my footing, I stood up and walked to her side. She pointed to the fallen figure on the ground, and we watched as, before our very eyes, what had once been a monster from hell slowly morphed into a human figure. Looking at the face, my heart dropped. Lying there before us, dead as one could be, was Mr. Stevenson. While my mind lay blank before me, unable to rationalize what I saw, Mina spoke.
“I guess I owe Mrs. Stevenson an apology. For killing her husband and all, that is.”
The quick wit of the young mind, as well as how easily it is able to accept even the impossible, astounds me.
I suppose it will not surprise you to learn I intend to stay in Franzka a while longer. Returning to the church that night, Mina’s good arm slung over my shoulder as I helped her walk up the church aisle, dripping blood on the carpet, Alfre greeted us at the pulpit, looking ever the righteous priest. Grimly, she took Mina from me and, with her cane in tow, led her away. To where, I do not know.
I write this letter to you the morning after these events. Just now, I have received a note from Alfre asking me to meet her once again at the church tonight. ‘While the case of the missing Mr. Stevenson is solved,’ she wrote on church stationary. ‘I trust you will stay on my team to help solve this new turn of events’. Cecilia, I must stay here to help these women. Whatever is going on has the potential to affect us all, and I feel I have already experienced too much to simply walk away, even if it is to return to your side, which will act as my longed-for heaven as I struggle through this Purgatory. I trust you will understand, my love.
Forever and always,