The Dress Shop Doll: A Malachi Burke Mystery

Maureen came into work one rainy morning out of breath and slightly late, her unmanageable hair dripping wet and lank about her shoulders. To her slight surprise, she found Miss Taskel sitting at the narrow front desk doing up her reports. Miss Appleby, her round face glowing like a chestnut in evident anticipation of new gossip, was hovering around her.

“There you are,” said Miss Taskel sharply, looking up as Maureen entered. “Mrs. Milner has been asking for you for the past ten minutes.”

“She has?” Maureen’s heart sank. Mrs. Milner placed great store on punctuality; she insisted that it was bad luck for the staff to arrive after the shop opened.

“Yes. So you had better look sharp.”

Maureen wiped her feet more carefully on the front mat and hurried up the stairs, desperately trying to comb her wet hair with her fingers and tangling it worse than ever.

“Don’t worry, deary,” Miss Appleby called up after her. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Maureen knocked softly on Mrs. Milner’s office door and received no answer. A wave of anxiety flashed through her, picturing herself so thoroughly in disgrace that the lady would not even deign to speak to her…until she recalled that her employer was slightly deaf. She knocked again, harder, and was bidden to enter. Mrs. Milner’s inner sanctum was a small, but bright room full of disorganized artistic clutter and one or two little charms.

“I’m very Sorry I’m late, ma’am,” Maureen said as soon as she entered. “’T’won’t happen again….”

But Mrs. Milner waved an impatient hand.

“Never mind that,” she said. “Maureen, did you move the doll last night?”

The girl stared in shock. This was the last thing she’d expected.

“Oh, no, ma’am!”

“Now, you aren’t in trouble,” said Mrs. Milner kindly. “There’s no harm in putting a doll on Miss Taskel’s desk, but…”

“I didn’t touch it, ma’am,” said Maureen fervently. “I never touch her if I can help it. I…I don’t like the thing.”

Mrs. Milner opened her mouth, then shut it again.

“You’re sure you didn’t move it?”

“Very sure.”

“Do you remember…where it was when you cleaned the fitting room?”

“Yes, ma’am. It was on that big chair in the far corner.”

Mrs. Milner frowned and fiddled with the pair of scissors on her desk.

“Is…something wrong, ma’am?”

Mrs. Milner started.

“No, no,” she said hastily. “Not wrong, just…odd. You see, this morning Miss Taskel came in and found the doll sitting on her desk. And she was quite sure that it had been in the armchair last night, so it, ah, was a bit of a surprise for her.”

Maureen’s eyes became as wide and as round as coat buttons. That explained why she was working at the front desk….

“Never mind,” said Mrs. Milner hastily. “If you’re really sure you didn’t move it then I’m sure there must be some explanation. That’ll be all.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Maureen, but she didn’t leave. “Will…will it be necessary for me to clean the fitting room tonight? There ain’t much needs to be done at the best of times…”

“You will continue your duties as usual,” said her employer sharply. “Do you understand?”

Maureen nodded with no great relish and withdrew with an order to summon Miss Taskel.

“Well?” said Miss Taskel as she entered, shutting the door behind her.

Mrs. Milner detailed her conversation with Maureen.

“I’m sure she’s telling the truth,” she added. “She’s a very honest girl.”

“Then how do you suppose the thing ended up on my desk?” asked Miss Taskel.

Mrs. Milner had no answer for that.

“This…isn’t the first time either,” said Miss Taskel her voice taking on slightly different tone. “More than once I’ve come in to find that she wasn’t where she’d been the night before. I naturally assumed someone was simply moving her. Now, though….”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Jane,” said Mrs. Milner. “Dolls can’t move on their own!”

“Of course not,” said Miss Taskel. She hesitated. “Did we ever discover where she came from?”

“No,” Mrs. Milner admitted. “To be honest, I’ve almost forgotten to wonder. It’s as if she’s always been here.”

“Yes….” said Miss Taskel. “You’ve felt that too, have you?”

There was an uncomfortable pause as the two women looked at each other.

“Well, regardless,” said Mrs. Milner. “She’s becoming a bit of a nuisance. Maureen doesn’t want to clean the fitting room, and I’ve noticed the others seem to be avoiding it.”

“You as well,” said Miss Taskel.

“And you,” Mrs. Milner countered. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you’d taken to doing the evening reconciliation in the front lobby, even before this.”

“The light is better there in the evening,” said Miss Taskel, though she couldn’t suppress a flush of conscience.

“This settles it,” said Mrs. Milner. “We’ll just get rid of the thing.”

She had expected her friend to be in complete agreement. To her surprise – and disquiet – Miss Taskel’s frown deepened. She looked very thoughtful.

“Yes,” she said slowly. “I suppose…if you think that’s advisable.”

“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Well,” said Miss Taskel. “I only thought…she might not like that.”

There was a very heavy silence.

“I suppose,” said Mrs. Milner slowly. “She isn’t really…hurting anything.”

“No, not at all,” said Miss Taskel. “And we aren’t in there much.”

So they left the matter there and, by unspoken common consensus, used the fitting room as seldom as possible over the next few weeks. Miss Taskel did more and more of her time in the lobby, and clients were generally serviced in one of the sewing rooms (“More convenient for the staff,” as Mrs. Milner said).

But they were still obliged to use the fitting room now and again, and every time they did, they found the doll in a different place. The sofa seemed her favourite spot, but sometimes she sat in Miss Taskel’s old chair, or in the big armchair in the corner, or – more rarely – perched on top of the mirror, smiling down at the clients and staff.

Worse still, the doll soon took to re-arranging things. The ornaments on the coffee table or the contents of Miss Taskel’s desk would end up in different positions. Once or twice, the doll hid a scissors in the sofa to surprise anyone who sat there. And once she made a little pile of shoes on the coffee table and propped herself up against it in what could only be described as a cheeky manner.

Things went on this way for about two weeks. Maureen, despite Mrs. Milner’s orders, soon stopped cleaning the dressing room entirely. The sun set early now, and it was simply too unnerving for her to go in there after dark. No one rebuked her for this. The room was used so seldom now that it hardly made a difference, and Mrs. Milner or Miss Appleby would simply tidy up a bit if they ever needed to service a client there.

Poor Mrs. Milner though lived in the shop, right across the hall from the dressing room, and she confessed to Miss Taskel that it was beginning to wear on her.

“Sometime I imagine I can hear her,” she said. “Moving about in the other room. Last night I fancied I heard her laughing.”

Her normally brisk and cheerful face was becoming strained, and her eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep. But still she pressed on, doing her best to ignore the the little figure whose presence had cast a shadow over the whole shop.

But then, one day, the doll took things too far.

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