I wasn’t sure what part of this novel to post, so I figured I’d begin at the beginning. I’m currently editing this work in view of submitting it to publishers. Well, that’s the long term. In the short term, I just want to tie up all the loose ends and pick up the dropped plot threads so my characters will stop haunting me. Yes, I saw what I did there.
Note: This story takes place in the ’20s and I’ve done my best to be accurate to the time. Sometimes, I’ve used terms and reflected attitudes that aren’t acceptable in our era. My goal is not to normalize prejudice, but to illustrate what some people back then chose to perpetuate and others had to overcome. Mind the past or be doomed to repeat it, I reckon.
Early morning, April 4, 1924
It was a sunny Saturday morning when I finished packing my suitcases: books, laboratory instruments, clothes both practical and fancy, and of course my pistol. Regardless of what the vaudevillians might say, a Browning was a girl’s real best friend.
“Did you remember to pack your snowsuit?” asked my best friend and occasional investigative partner, Estella.
“Stell, Montreal’s just over the border. It’s not like the mercury’s going to drop below freezing again until next winter.”
Estella sighed and pretended to examine the flowered curtains in my window. “Well, it doesn’t have to be freezing to be cold. Besides, it’s Canada,” she said, adding particular emphasis to the last word.
I shook my head and gave Estella a good look over. She was wearing her Sunday best: A white poplin drop-waist with a mauve lace overlay. Her floppy-brimmed silk hat, carefully set on my dresser, had a sprig of violets tucked into the band. She was wearing stockings and (without her mother’s permission, I was sure) silver-buckled white patent leather shoes.
“Well, you’ll cut a fine figure at graduation,” I said, only half-sarcastic.
“You’ll cut a better one, in fact, you’ll be cut right out!” Estella rose to her feet, standing next to the foot of my bed. “I can’t believe you’re leaving right before the ceremony, Tony. Everyone will miss you terribly.”
I laughed, thinking of my fellow students at Miss Exeter’s Finishing School for Young Ladies. “Stell, everyone does not contain as many people as you think.” I saw her trying to interject, but raised my hand. “Most girls in this class wouldn’t care if I dropped down dead today, present company excepted. Or perhaps they would, given that my untimely demise would be the last bit of gossip they’d get out of me. Unless, of course, Pa managed to reanimate my corpse…”
“How can you be so morbid!” squealed Estella. “It’s saying those things that make the other girls, well, talk.”
“So let them talk,” I said, dusting off my chocolate corduroy jacket. I put it on over my coral cashmere sweater, then straightened my calf-length skirt in the mirror. A small topaz hung on a fine gold chain around my neck would be my only jewelry for this trip. “Besides, Stell, you know that graduating me would stick in Miss Exeter’s craw for decades. I’m her worst student ever. Ma would have had to bribe her with angel cakes and lemon curd for the rest of her natural life. So I took the honorable way out, not to mention less fattening for the battleaxe.”
Estella made a sound that sounded like a laugh strangled by a hiccup. She shook and turned slightly red. “Oh Tony,” she finally exclaimed, “I’m going to miss you so much!”
I stepped over and gave Estella a big hug. “Me too, Stell. I’ll write, though, and send a telegram if there’s anything urgent.”
“Do you have to leave so soon? You could at least wait for Easter,” she pleaded.
I sighed and shook my head. “You know that if I stay for Easter, then Ma will want me to stay for ball season. Then I’ll never leave Ellenberg. Besides,” I added, snapping shut my suitcase, “I got a lead in my case and I have to investigate before it goes cold.”
Estella picked up her hat and looked me squarely in the eye. “How do you get into such interesting situations, Miss Antoinette Lapierre?” she said in an affected tone.
I laughed a little, and wondered that myself.
January 4, 1924
It was a freezing cold Adirondack evening when Mrs. Raymond Evans came calling. I’d asked her to visit on Friday when I knew Ma would be out playing canasta with the neighbors. It’s not that Ma didn’t like visitors, she just had a particular idea of what class of visitors she could stand to entertain. And while Mrs. Evans did come from what Ma called “good stock”, her questionable choice of associates had gotten her on Ma’s persona non grata list. Pa, on the other hand, would welcome anyone in, as long as he wasn’t too busy in the lab. Unfortunately, as this was nearly always, Ma had the final word in all invitations.
Despite her determination, there was one type of visitor my mother could not keep away from me: my customers. As Ellenberg’s first female private detective, my goal was to build a client base and keep them happy. “Referrals are key,” my father often said, and I certainly believed in that kind of logic. Since hanging up my metaphorical shingle (as Ma refused to let me install an actual one outside the house), I’d had a few nibbles. So far, I’d researched genealogy and foiled a livestock rustler. Admittedly, the livestock were chickens and the rustler was a stray dog, but it was still work for my fledgling agency.
I rushed downstairs as soon as I heard the doorbell. Our maid Molly was already there, ushering Mrs. Evans inside. “It’s an awful night out there, ain’t it? Bright and cold as a new steel pan,” she said, taking Mrs. Evans’ raccoon coat.
“Yes it is, dear,” said Mrs. Evans. She was a woman of 24 who carried herself like one of 42. She removed her hat, patted her brunette hair into place, and called out, “Ah, Antoinette, there you are!”
“Welcome, Mrs. Evans. And thanks, Molly. Do you think you could make us some tea, please?”
“Of course, Miss Antoinette,” replied Molly, tucking a wayward strand of red hair back under her cap. At 17, she was two years younger than me. “Should I bring it to the study?”
“Yes, please,” I answered. I looked back at Mrs. Evans, who had a slightly disapproving look on her face. Smiling despite it, I said, “Shall we?” and gestured to the study. She quickly smiled back and and stepped in the direction I’d pointed.
As Mrs. Evans turned around, I tallied several observations about her. Her hair was showing some strands of gray. She wore a heavy felt coatdress with pilled elbows. A loose edge of lace from her slip showed beneath. She’d removed her galoshes and put on soft leather shoes which had seen far better days. Were these signs of poverty, or distraction? Perhaps she’d let her maid go altogether? Mrs. Evans had not told me exactly why she wanted to see me, so these guesses added to my existing knowledge of her.
As soon as we entered the warm, book-lined study, Mrs. Evans whispered loudly in my ear. “My dear, you don’t have to be so… familiar with the help. It will give them… expectations.”
“Mrs. Evans,” I replied while sitting down in my favorite green armchair, “I hardly consider it inappropriate that Molly expects to be treated like a human being. Do you?”
The brunette clucked softly, playing with the hem of her heavy dress. The more I studied it, the uglier the garment became. “There are simply some things of the world that you do not appreciate,” she pronounced.
“Oh, I’m sure of that. But one thing I do appreciate is having contacts everywhere, at all levels of what you wouldn’t call society. Thanks, Molly,” I added as the maid silently carried in the tray. She shared with me a small, impish grin before bowing slightly and backing out of the room.
I turned once again to face Mrs. Evans, who’d positioned her rotund self into a olive green velvet chair. Seeing a look of concern on her face, I rose and gently closed the study doors. When I returned to my seat, she started talking in a relentless monologue.
“You see, Antoinette,” she began, “I haven’t seen Raymond since Thanksgiving. We had dinner with the whole family, put the children to bed, tucked ourselves in and the next morning, he was gone! Now, he often travels for gigs, but he’d always tell me where, you know? Oh, did you know he’s a musician?”
I nodded. “A drummer, right?” Mr. Evans’ artistic profession was my mother’s main source of disapproval of the entire Evans family unit. Mrs. Evans continued her speech.
“Well, I thought maybe he’d received a call that night and didn’t want to wake me. Oh, but I’d have thought that telephone bell would have woken me. Ever since we had that device installed last year I still find the din shocking. But I suppose I could have slept through it. All that turkey and stuffing makes anyone soporific, doesn’t it?”
“Indeed,” I sighed. “Have you heard anything from Mr. Evans since Thanksgiving night?”
“Not a word, by phone or telegram,” she replied, shaking her head. “I simply can’t believe he’d leave me and his children in the dark like that. Raymond is kind, Antoinette, always smiling with a kind word for everyone. Something terrible must have happened to him!”
“Have you contacted the police, then?” I asked.
“Yes, but they don’t want to hear about it. They say he’ll come back in his own good time, and that I shouldn’t worry.”
Mrs. Evans ran her hands down her sides, belly, and lap. She rubbed the tops of her legs nervously. The wool of her dress gave off static sparks.
It was then that my impression began. Now, when I say impression, I don’t mean exactly what other people mean by that word. Most people use it quite generally, to mean any strong effect on the intellect or emotions. I, however, have been gifted from childhood with an altogether different type of impression. My father is a scientific man, with unusual leanings, and he attempted to train me to extend my vision beyond that of most people. Just as birds see color while dogs cannot, I can see forms of existence invisible to other humans. Ma made him stop after I told her of some of the things I’d seen. She attributed them to youthful imagination, but I suppose that she feared my father was giving me nightmares, or, worse yet, driving me insane.
So when I say that Mrs. Evans’ dress gave me an impression, I do not merely mean it made me think she was of low taste or income. Instead, I could almost see a pale blue caul shifting over it. By squinting, I could see a better definition of the shape: a round form, about the size of a loaf of bread, enveloped in a translucent sheet. I suppose most people would have been frightened by this. Myself, I considered it yet another discovery into the world of panoptry.
“What are you staring at?” asked Mrs. Evans.
“Your dress,” I answered, knowing a direct response might throw her off guard. “When did you last wear it?”
“To the doctor’s,” she answered automatically. But of course, a woman of Mrs. Evans’ pride would not go to the doctor’s in any less than her finest. Was she trying to hide something, or herself? As she shifted uncomfortably, she briefly raised her hands to her stomach.
Ah ha, I thought, confidently marrying my impression to deduction. The dark shape paused for a moment to hover in mid-air. “This may be an indelicate question, but, did you recently lose a child?”
Mrs. Evans’ face turned bright red, and she blinked rapidly. Looking as fragile as the china teacup beside her, she said, “How, did you…”
“There’s no shame in this, Mrs. Evans. From your reaction, it seems that something went very wrong.”
A rush of sobbing confirmed my guess in a messy, emotional way. “He wasn’t like my other children. My, my doctor said there was no heartbeat… but it was too far along to… I had to carry him…”
I shook my head. I tried not to look at the darting shadow as I spoke. “Mrs. Evans, I’m not here to sympathize or judge. I just want to understand all the circumstances that may relate to your husband’s disappearance.”
“How can you be so cruel?” cried Mrs. Evans. I felt a pang of sympathy, but pushed it away for pursuit of the truth.
“It’s not cruelty, just precision. From what you’ve told me and implied to me, since having Mr. Raymond Evans as your husband, your fortunes have turned sour. He is not often at home, as he leaves to work in a profession that traditionally doesn’t pay very well. And now, you have both experienced a loss that may have upset him in a way similar, though certainly not to the same degree, as you.”
“Well yes, he seemed rather off about it, but he supported me.” Mrs. Evans stopped crying for a moment. “He did strange things, Antoinette. From the time the doctor told me there was no hope, he kept asking me to take long walks in the woods with him. He cried out into the empty trees as if he were summoning Indians, asking for help. I assumed he was just in one of his artistic tempers.” She turned to me with a bright fury in her eyes. “Are you saying you think he’s left me?”
I sighed. “I can’t be sure, of course. I suppose it is possible that he’s been waylaid.”
“Of course it is,” said Mrs. Evans, straightening her posture. “And you’re going to find him.”
“Mrs. Evans,” I said slowly, “It would be an honor.” I really meant it. Whether this case were abandonment, kidnapping, or even murder, it could make my career. Heck, especially if it were murder. “Do you have any idea where he could be? Where had his recent shows been?”
“Oh, he’d played New York several times, and Plattsburg,” Mrs. Evans said between gulps of tea. “Albany too, though that was back in the summer.”
I pushed my thoughts. The man could be anywhere. The shade in Mrs. Evans lap seemed to have two beady eyes, staring at me mockingly. Desperately, I calculated in my head and grasped at a straw.
“Where was he playing last February?” I asked.
“February… Oh, he went to Montreal around Valentine’s,” said the brunette. “He stayed there about a month. He did write me then, though, several letters full of such passionate sentiment… Oh, but never mind that.”
Out of the country just before the unfortunate conception… Drugs? Social disease? “I’d like to see those, please, and I’d like to examine his possessions.”
“They are very personal,” chided Mrs. Evans.
“They are also evidence, ma’am,” I replied.
“So you’ll take the case, Antoinette? I admit I can’t pay you very much…”
I raised my hand once more. “Mrs. Evans, an honorarium for expenses is all I ask. As this case is of a new species for me, I will treat it as an educational experience.”
“Oh, thank you dear. I apologize, I didn’t mean to call you cruel.”
“You did, but that’s alright,” I answered. “It’s my job as a detective.”
January 5, 1924
The next day, I visited the Evans’ place and found nothing particularly out of order. Chintz draperies, oriental carpets… it was a typical exercise in genteel excess. The only want in the furnishings was a father. Four small children were running around constantly. Their exuberance was such that it took me a while to establish the number.
“Who helps you take care of the children, Mrs. Evans?” I asked after narrowing dodging a charge from one of the younger boys.
“Oh, we normally have Gertrude, but she’s gone home for a while to visit her family…” Mrs. Evans trailed off in the telltale way polite liars do. Not wishing to repeat the emotional awkwardness of the night before, I decided to leave it be. At least, for now.
“Did your husband have a particular room where he worked, or passed the time?” I asked. “A music room, perhaps?”
“Yes, right through here,” said Mrs. Evans, fishing through her pockets. She walked to the kitchen and opened a door leading off it. “I have to keep this locked, or the boys would be playing the drums day and night.”
I followed her into the small but bright alcove. The room was unheated, but had a large window facing a snowy field. Shelves held books and scores, and a full set of drums took the place of honor at the center. Mrs. Evans reached out with a rag when I stopped her.
“Please,” I insisted, “don’t disturb anything.” I carefully set down my examining case on a large pile of Victrola records. I cracked it open and withdrew a pair of white gloves, which I quickly donned. Then I removed my brush and powder and carefully eyed the drum kit.
“What on earth are those for,” asked Mrs. Evans.
“Fingerprints,” I answered. I then began my usual speech. “European and American scientists have discovered that fingerprints are unique among human individuals. Criminologists have put this to use by using them to identify the perpetrators and victims of crimes. In other words,” I added, “If I can identify your husband’s fingerprints here, I can recognize them elsewhere he’s been.”
“How novel,” said the housewife, not sounding very convinced.
I positioned myself as a drummer might, standing behind the cracked leather stool where Mr. Evans had surely sat. I mimicked what I thought might be his actions. Of course, he would play with drumsticks, except… I carefully leaned forwards and gently blew some dust off the cymbals. Several smudges appeared. Mrs. Evans watched as I gently lifted the prints: index and middle finger on the bottom, and thumb on the top. There were multiples of each, but I would isolate the best samples at home.
The prints safely stowed in wax paper envelopes, I turned to the rest of the room. It was relatively orderly for a room occupied by such an artistic type. The scores and songbooks were stacked neatly. I believed they were jazz artists, though I knew little about them other than their peculiar names: Jellyroll Morton, King Oliver, Fats Waller. I heard Mrs. Evans cluck softly behind me. “Colored music,” she sniffed.
“What would you prefer he play?” I asked, half out of personal curiosity.
“Decent music, waltzes and such. Perhaps enlightening sacred tunes.”
I resisted telling her what I thought of enlightenment vis a vis religion when my eyes caught sight of the one book that didn’t belong in the room. On the windowsill, at an odd angle, sat a bible. As I picked it up, Mrs. Evans said, “See, he does have a mind for the divine.” She smiled condescendingly as I flipped through the pages and removed a telegram.
“Montreal, November 20, 1923,” I read. “Come now, stop. Oro needs you, stop.”
“Why that’s, two days before Thanksgiving!” exclaimed Mrs. Evans.
I inserted the telegram into its own envelope. “You’re lucky he stayed for turkey, then.”
Mrs. Evans looked like she was about to cry, again. “I knew this jazz music would be his ruin!” she said. “Accepting some job in Montreal without even telling me about it, the nerve of that man! I suppose he meant to apologize to me when he returned,” she added in a softer tone.
“That may be so,” I said, packing up my case, “But the fact remains that he hasn’t come back. If this is indeed a gig, either it lasted for several months, in which case he would have written you, or it ended far before then, in which case he would have returned.”
“Oh, there you go again being so, rational,” said Mrs. Evans. “You’ve found this, but I can’t possibly go to Montreal, not with the children here. Besides, that is a wicked city full of Frenchmen!”
“Well, I’ve always wanted an excuse to go myself,” I answered honestly. “This would be my first international case.”
Mrs. Evans shook her head. “I couldn’t possibly ask you to go there.”
“You don’t have to ask, Mrs. Evans. I’d go right now if I could, but I suspect my Mother will never forgive me if I don’t finish my school year.” In fact, I usually skipped my classes at finishing school to attend a local college, but of course this was none of Mrs. Evans’ business. Mr. Evans was either dead or alive, but my date of departure would do little to change the odds of either. “I’ll leave in spring when the term, I mean, session ends.”
“I simply can’t imagine how a girl like you could survive there. So innocent and young… People will take advantage of you if you’re not careful.”
“Ma’am,” I said with a grin, “I’ll be taking advantage of them. Now good day, and let me know if there is any word from your husband.” I left the house and walked home over the carriage path, thrilled at the thought of the adventure to come.
Late morning, April 4, 1924
After Estella left for the pre-graduation brunch, I went downstairs to say goodbye to Ma and catch up with Pa. Ma, clad completely in black, sat in the dining room. She even wore her funeral bonnet.
“Goodbye, flapper,” said mother, venomously.
I refused to be dragged into this conversation, again. We’d had it dozens of time over the last few months. “I am going to Montreal for work, mother.”
“Your work, Antoinette, consists of being a proper young lady, not in traipsing off to some booze-sodden Canadian muck-hole.” With that, Ma stirred her tea and took a bite of some dry toast.
I reached forward for a muffin, wrapped in in a napkin, and slipped it into my coat pocket. “Ma, if you want to play the martyr, go right ahead. This case could take a few weeks, so you’ll have time to get good at it.”
Mother sniffled, holding back her final stage of drama, tears. “You’re breaking my heart, Antoinette. I didn’t ask for a daughter like this, you know.”
“You didn’t ask for any, as I recall,” said Pa, entering the room in his usual sunny disposition. He wore a goldenrod tie with an ivory shirt and chocolate brown suit. His mustache was impeccable. “You said you wanted a sweet little boy who’d play with boats and ride a hobby-horse around the sitting room.”
“Around the backyard, Chester,” said Ma. “Not the sitting room.”
“Mere details, Essie. Now Tony, are you ready to go?”
Pa wrapped a muffin in a napkin and handed it to me. I slipped it into my other coat pocket and nodded. “I’m ready,” I said, my excitement starting to ferment into worry in my stomach. “Let’s not miss the train.”
“Of course we won’t, I have the car cranked and ready to go!” Pa was very proud of his Lincoln, one of the final few made before Henry Ford took over the company. Pa, being a researcher in factory automation, admired Mr. Ford’s assembly techniques but still preferred Leland’s designs.
“You might get stuck in the mud, Chester,” said Ma, still not looking directly at either of us. “You’d be better off taking the wagon.”
Pa laughed as he lifted my heavy suitcase. “I am not taking our only daughter out to the train station in a wagon, Essie. Now kiss her goodbye, and wish her luck in her first big case.”
I leaned forward before my mother, who kissed me gently on the forehead. I heard her take a breath, then hold it before letting out a sigh. I shook my head and said, “that’s alright, no luck will be involved. Only hard work.”
“And scientific intuition!” said Pa, heading out the door. I pulled on my galoshes and followed him closely to the car, consciously not looking back.
The mud had made us an hour late, but cattle on the line stalled the train by two. Our conversation along the bumpy road was one of our typical series of non-sequiturs.
“So, what are the possibilities for this name Oro on the telegram?” asked Pa to begin.
“Oro, perhaps from aurum, Latin for gold. Chemical symbol Au, known as a highly non-reactive metal, excellent conductor, valued for its decorative nature and resistance to tarnish. Oro is the actual Spanish word for gold.”
“And in French, it’s or,” father continued. “Sounds like the name someone in authority would give himself, if not a given name.”
“Unless Oro isn’t a person, but a group,” I remarked. “Like the Golden Bough.”
“Perhaps. ‘Oro needs you’ could be a call to action from a society. What instrument did you say the gentleman plays?”
“The drums,” I answered.
“Military units always need drummers,” my father mused. “A good drummer or bugler can make the difference between a successful sortie and total chaos. I remember when I was posted in Liege….”
The conversation went on until we reached the train station. We walked to the single platform in relative silence. When the train finally arrived, Pa handed off my suitcase to a bellhop while I checked my tickets for the last time.
“Be a good girl, Tony. Don’t forget to write, even if there’s nothing happening.” With that, he kissed me on the forehead. I climbed onto the train and found the last window seat left. I watched Pa fade into the distance as we pulled out of the station.
A conductor entered the car and called out, “Adirondack Line, next stops, Ticonderoga, Port Henry, Westport, Plattsburgh, Saint Lambert, Montreal.” I settled in for a very long journey. I had planned to read, but sleep overtook me with the rocking motion of the train.
The blare of a trumpet awoke me with a start. A glance at my watch told me it was noon, but a glance at my fellow passengers made me think it was midnight, New Year’s Eve. Men and women were chatting loudly, and some even danced in the train car’s aisle. Three men in plaid suits played a brass rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band.
A young man in a blue cap slid into the seat next to me. He proffered a silver flask and asked rather loudly, “Wanna drink?” My mind flashed back to my mother’s recriminations, and for a moment I feared she might be right.
“No, no thanks,” I said, with a polite laugh. This man was far too close for comfort, and I’d never smelled such a strong odor of alcohol outside the laboratory.
“Come on, we just crossed the border. Welcome to Canada!” he exclaimed.
“Welcome to Canada!” came a chorus around us. The band switched to the Maple Leaf Rag while the young man stood up and proffered his hand to me.
As I shook my head, a conductor appeared in the aisle. “That’s alright, sonny,” he said, laying a hand on the man’s shoulder. “There’s much easier sweethearts in Montreal.”
The younger fellow laughed and continued sidling down the aisle, while the conductor smirked at me. “First time on the Prohibition Express?” he asked.
“Indeed, sir. I hardly knew such a thing existed.”
“Don’t worry, then. It’s all downhill from here.”
With that, he continued down the aisle, pausing occasionally to pick up fallen hats and loose shoes. I retrieved a notebook from my handbag and looked around at the developing debauchery. I could barely remember when alcohol was banned, and while my parents did offer their guests a little ration of whatever they could find, I’d never seen such open consumption of the stuff. I wondered if this was what taverns were like, and realized they probably weren’t all the cheerful places Mr. Dickens described in his novels. No, these people were acting more like Robert Louis Stevenson’s pirates, brash in their disregard for social niceties. I decided that Montreal would certainly be an interesting psychological study, and began to take notes.