The Dress Shop Doll: A Malachi Burke Mystery

A very old client had come to call – one who had been buying dresses from Mrs. Milner ever since she was a girl and was now looking for something for her own daughter. With such a woman it was absolutely necessary to service her in the fitting room. Mrs. Milner chatted with her old friend in the lobby for a bit, while Miss Taskel collared Maureen to help her prepare the room.

They entered with the kind of caution used when one suspects a wasp may be about. But today there was no sign of the doll. She wasn’t in any of her usual places, and a quick search of the room revealed nothing.

Maureen felt even more uneasy at that, and she went about on tenterhooks as she dusted and aired out the furniture (taking care to check the cushions for any little surprises) while Miss Taskel arranged the day’s dresses in the closet.

“Do you…do you think maybe she’s gone?” Maureen asked in a whisper.

“I couldn’t say,” answered Miss Taskel. “But see you don’t say a word about her in front of the customers!”

Mrs. Milner brought the lady in, and Maureen was ordered to stay to help with the fitting. Despite everything, she couldn’t help but be pleased at that; it was the first time she’d been given such a responsibility. She wished she’d had time to comb her hair better.

Only, the fitting never took place.

Mrs. Milner, whose mind never could address two things at once, was so preoccupied in chatting with her friend that she didn’t even consider the doll as she led the woman and her daughter into the fitting room, nor when she entered the closet to select the first dress to try.

She only remembered the doll when it dropped onto her head.

Mrs. Milner screamed loud enough to be heard down the street, dropped the dress, and nearly fell over scrambling her way out of the closet and batting the little creature off of her head. The doll flopped onto the floor, smiling up at them all with her cross-stitched mouth.

With an oath, Mrs. Milner darted forward, snatched up the little rag figure, ran out onto the balcony and threw it as hard as she could out into the overgrown garden next door.

Turning back on her shocked clients, Mrs. Milner hastily calmed herself and apologised as well as she could. But the customer said that she was evidently unwell and made a hasty exit, despite Mrs. Milner following her all the way out the door with explanations and apologies.

“Was that…really wise, Sarah?” asked Miss Taskel when they had gone and Mrs. Milner had slumped back into the fitting room. Everyone was standing about in shock. Even Miss Appleby, coming from the sewing room and receiving a hasty recital from Maureen, was evidently too stunned by the occurrence to consider it as gossip just yet.

“I couldn’t help myself,” said Mrs. Milner. “It was like it jumped at me!” She shivered and pointed a shaky finger at the windows. “If she’s going to stay, she has to learn there are rules! We can’t have that kind of behaviour here!”

She shook herself, took a deep breath, and smiled.

“Well, it’s gone anyway,” she said. “We ought to have done that a long time ago.”

They all did their best to act normally the rest of the day. But no one really believed that the doll was gone for good. But what form her return would take they could not begin to imagine.

Mrs. Milner clearly felt the anticipation more than anyone. For the rest of the day she went about as though in constant fear of attack, and she jumped as every sound. Miss Taskel finally convinced her to take a sedative that night so that she could sleep.

And when she woke up in the morning after her first good night’s sleep in a long time, Mrs. Milner felt much better. Indeed, she felt as though a great weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Really, she thought as she prepared to open the shop, why had she kept the wretched doll about for so long? Now things could at last go back to normal….

Then she looked into the fitting room.

Maureen, just approaching the shop outside, heard a terrible scream. For a moment, she froze in her tracks. She wanted badly to turn and run home as fast as her thin legs could carry her. But she was a conscientious girl, and felt strongly that it was her duty to find out what had happened. So, reluctantly, she rushed into the shop and up the stairs to the fitting room.

Mrs. Milner lay on the threshold in a dead faint. And it was clear why.

All of yesterday’s dresses – not only from the fitting room, but all the ones they had been working on downstairs – lay torn and slashed in a great heap on the sofa, as though someone had ripped into them with a knife. And perched on top of them was the same hateful little doll. Only, her cross-stitched mouth was no longer a smile.

###

“You see, Mr. Burke,” said Maureen shyly. “Something needs to be done, but I can’t say what. I thought of asking Father McKenna, him being the pastor at St. Peter’s, but…well, I didn’t suppose Mrs. Milner would appreciate a Roman priest poking around, her being reformed and all.”

“That’s good thinking, lass,” Malachi Burke answered kindly, nodding across his big oak desk at the small, skinny teenager who appeared almost to be shrinking into the folds of the big chair.

“And my brother, Jonathan, he’s a policeman,” she went on, “and he says that everyone in the police knows about you, that you’re a right genius when it comes to problems, and that ye can solve just anything, so that I should go to you with it.”

“Very sensible of him,” said Burke.

For the past fifteen minutes or so, the girl had been detailing the entire story of the doll’s reign at Milner’s Lady’s Wear as well as she was able (including the conversation between Mrs. Milner and Miss Taskel which she’d ‘accidentally’ overheard when she paused by the door to clean up a bit before going downstairs to work). She had expected the great detective to dismiss her at once, but to her immense relief he had listened intently the whole time, asking only a few shrewd questions here and there.

“Do…do you think you can help, sir?” she asked.

“I can certainly try,” he answered. “But I need to know two more things. First, can ye describe the other women in the office; their personalities, their appearances, and so on?”

“Surely,” said Maureen, and gave him a summary of them all: brisk, kind, slightly-scatter-brained Mrs. Milner, stern, severe, and efficient Miss Taskel, and jolly, plump, gossipy Mrs. Appleby.

“Very good,” he said, nodding. “Now one more thing: was that sofa re-upholstered any time to yer knowledge?”

That surprised her, but she thought about it.

“Yes,” she said after searching her memory for a bit. “About six months ago; just before I came. I remember them mentioning it to me and saying I should be extra careful not to damage it on account of it’d just been re-done. But that was long before any of this started.”

He nodded.

“Now, what does Mrs. Milner mean to do next?”

“I think she means to sell the place,” said Maureen. “She’s staying with some friends at the moment and she won’t set foot in the shop for love or money. She hasn’t been to work for two days.”

“Just so,” said Burke. “And has anyone checked on the doll since?”

“Yes,” said Maureen. “We…we look in now and again. She still moves. And now she keeps destroying things. Threw all the threads about in the sewing room last night, she did.”

“That is very good,” he said, which was now how she would have described it, but she supposed detectives had their own way of looking at things.

“Now, then let me ask you; would you call yourself a brave girl, Maureen?”

She shrank a little further at the question.

“Not especially, sir.”

“Then let me put it to you another way; do you think you could face a bit of danger and a bit of dread for the sake of clearing up this mystery? Do you trust that Our Lord’s stronger than the forces of darkness?”

“Well…yes, I suppose I do, sir,” she said uneasily. “When ye put it like that…and I suppose I could for the sake of helping Mrs. Milner.”

“Very good. Then here’s what we’ll do….”

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