The Dress Shop Doll: A Malachi Burke Mystery

I had seen her – it – many times, of course. It sat in the corner of the glass cabinet, propped up among the many relics and trophies of my friend and mentor Malachi Burke’s celebrated career as a detective; an ugly little rag-doll in a blue-checked dress, with black curls of yarn and a cross-stitched frown. But she had never troubled me so much as she did tonight.

No doubt this was due to the atmosphere. An October storm had blown up out of the Atlantic to assault Brooklyn with torrents of rain interspersed with great artillery blasts of thunder and lightning. Burke’s sitting room was crowded with shadows under the flickering light of the kerosene lamps. These shadows danced softly across the malevolent little creature’s sewn-on face, creating a faint but maddening impression of movement.

Maybe also there was just the fact that it was nearly Halloween, and Burke carried the air of Ireland in his presence, with its druids and fairy-haunted forests, and strange spirits stalking mist-shrouded nights.

At any rate, after a mighty struggle to keep my attention on my book, I suddenly lost control and snapped, “Why on earth do you have that foul thing?”

Malachi Burke looked up from his own ponderous volume of criminal history, a line of smoke streaming from the corners of his mouth as he puffed on his pipe. His sharp green eyes – which looked faintly luminous in the dark – turned to the doll.

“Ah, that,” he said, nodding. “That, Alfred m’lad, was a very curious case….”

He set his book aside, drew deep on his pipe, and told me the following story, which I now reproduce in my own words.


Mrs. Milner was a large, handsome widow just past fifty. When her husband had died leaving her no children, she had taken the money left to her and started a small dress shop in a neighbourhood of Brooklyn where now, twenty years on, she had a thriving business with three full-time employees.

Milner’s Lady’s Wear occupied both floors of a small two-story storefront. On the first floor was a cramped lobby in front and sewing rooms in the back, and on the second was Mrs. Milner’s office and personal apartments at the front of the house and a large fitting room in the rear. This was designed as far as possible to resemble an upper-class sitting room – with the aim of creating the flattering impression in customers that such would be where the lady clients would actually wear what they were buying – with soothing blue-and-white carpets, furniture that been re-done so as to appear posh, and full-length mirrors standing in the full light of the large windows looking out on the small and little-used balcony over the back garden. The one discordant note was a desk tucked unobtrusively into the corner behind the hall door, where bills could be made out and settled while the excitement of the new purchase was as fresh as possible.

On this particular morning, Mrs. Milner and her two senior employees were preparing the room as usual when her eyes, sweeping over the familiar trappings and decorations of the room, suddenly landed on something that was not familiar.

“Miss Taskel,” she said in her rather loud voice, “where did this doll come from?”

Miss Taskel, a hard-faced, thirty-odd spinster with a nose like a hatchet looked up from the desk where she was reviewing the day’s orders as she had every morning for the past ten years or more. She peered in the direction of the sofa, standing with its back to the window, where a little rag-doll sat propped up against the cushions.

“That?” she said carelessly. “That’s always been there.”

“I’m sure it hasn’t!” said Mrs. Milner at once. “I’ve never seen that before! Have you, Miss Appleby?”

Miss Appleby, who was hanging the day’s orders in the closet, peered short-sightedly in the direction of the doll.

“Oh, sure,” she answered promptly. “At least, I think so. I’m pretty sure it’s been there for a while. Thought you’d brought it in to lend a family atmosphere to the room.”

Mrs. Milner frowned. She didn’t think she’d ever seen the doll before, but then again, she wasn’t a very noticing kind of woman. Her mind was completely occupied in her business, and anything that wasn’t related to dresses or clients tended to skate right on by her. It was, she decided, entirely possible that the doll had been there for some time without her giving it any thought.

“I suppose you’re right,” she said slowly, picking it up and examining it. “She certainly looks like she belongs.”

The little rag doll smiled vaguely up at her with its cross-stitched mouth. It was formed out of a soft ivory-coloured material, with black yarn for hair and a blue-and-white check-patterned dress that exactly matched the fitting room sofa.

At this point the apprentice seamstress and office girl came in carrying the morning coffee.

“Maureen,” said Mrs. Milner at once, brandishing the doll. “Is this yours?”

Maureen, a thin girl of sixteen with a lot of tangled brown hair that she tried very hard to make neat and presentable, looked at it in surprise.

“No, ma’am,” she answered at once. “I’m a mite old for dolls, and I’m sure I never had one like that, nor any of my sisters.”

“Of course,” said Mrs. Milner. “But you’ve seen it around during the course of your duties, yes?” It was part of Maureen’s job to clean the fitting room every night.

“No, ma’am,” Maureen answered. “I’m sure I never saw it before now.”

“Nonsense,” said Miss Taskel sharply. “It’s been here for ages.”

“Well, I’m sure I never saw it,” said Maureen with a shrug. “I can’t imagine why not.”

Mrs. Milner frowned again. She wondered whether this meant the girl had not been particularly thorough in her duties. The same thought, she perceived, was passing through Miss Taskel’s mind and trembling on her severe lips.

“Oh, well, it isn’t important,” Mrs. Milner said, setting the doll back onto the sofa. “I’m sure we’ll find out where she came from sooner or later. Now, about today….”

So the matter rested. Before long, amid the hurry and worry of day-to-day business, the mystery of the doll’s origins ceased to occupy the minds of the staff at Milner’s Lady’s Wear. Except, that is, for young Maureen, who was obliged to be alone with it in the fading light of evening whenever she cleaned the fitting room. Facing to the east, the room became very dark very early in the evening. On such occasions, she couldn’t help wondering just where it had come from…while trying very hard not to read any kind of meaning into its vacant smile.

But for the rest of the staff the doll remained an accepted and little-thought-of part of the shop as summer faded into autumn. They barely even mentioned it until around about the start of October.

For it was then that the doll began to move.

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