The Dress Shop Doll: A Malachi Burke Mystery


Maureen stood shivering in the dark courtyard behind the shop. It was late autumn and a chill breeze was blowing in off of the ocean, but she had a good shawl on and in any case, that wasn’t the real reason she was shivering.

She stood in the backyard of the shop, under the shadow the wall and overgrown bushes marking the yard out from that of the house behind it. She had a small, covered lantern with her, and the sky overhead still showed a faint rim of pink, but it was very dark nonetheless. Before her was the rear of Milner’s Lady’s Wear, and overhead the balcony and windows looking in on the room where that horrible little creature had taken up its abode.

She had looked in on the room before leaving work. The doll, still with her face in a frown, had been sitting on Miss Taskel’s desk amid a heap of shredded papers and overturned inkwells. They had now stopped trying to clean up after her tantrums. Maureen wondered whether that made the doll more or less angry.

The wind picked up and the darkness deepened around her. Maureen was just starting to get really anxious when she head the thump of a stick upon the cobblestones and saw the swinging lantern that heralded the arrival of Malachi Burke.

“Ah, you’re here; very good,” he said. “Pardon my lateness. This is the place, is it?”

She nodded. Malachi Burke opened his lantern a little further then limped around the courtyard, tapping the flagstones with his stick and examining the great stone flowerpots that stood on benches along the walls. One of these, just beside the balcony, he seemed to find particularly interesting. He tapped it with his stick, then tried to shift it with his hand. Then he looked about and nodded.

“Here we are,” he said. “Just what I expected.”

“What is it?” Maureen asked.

“Someone has used a bit of mortar to hold this one in place,” he replied.

“Why would they do that for?”

In answer, Burke handed her his lantern, telling her to hold it so the light fell on the planter. Then he hoisted himself up onto the bench, took a breath, then set his good leg onto the planter and stepped up nearly to the level of the balcony, where he caught the balustrade and hoisted his enormous bulk up and over the side.

“Bloody leg,” he muttered as he pulled the lame member into place. “Ye see lass? Now you come.”

Maureen was a quick and energetic girl and was now interested enough to almost overcome her fear. She scrambled up onto the planter, handed up the two lanterns, then took Burke’s offered hand and he lifted her up and over the railing as easily as if she herself had been nothing but a rag doll.

“You see?” he said. “Quite easy. Now we can get in and no one need know.”

He turned the latch and opened the balcony door onto the darkened fitting room.

“Yes, but…” Maureen hesitated. “But it’s in there,” she whispered.

Burke looked down on her, and in the lamplight she thought his deep green eyes looked faintly luminous. But they twinkled kindly on her.

“I told ye there’d be a bit of dread and danger involved,” he said in a soft voice. “The best way to see what the thing really does is simply to sit up and watch it. That is what we’re gonna do.”

Maureen took a breath and squared her narrow shoulders.

“Right,” she said. “Let’s do it then.”

“Good girl,” he said, patting her small shoulder with one of his enormous hands. And he led the way into the dreaded room.

The covered lanterns cast deep, waiving shadows across the carpets and walls as they entered. The doll still sat upon the desk where Maureen had last seen her. She didn’t turn to look at them as they entered, though, as Maureen realized a moment after thinking it, why on earth would she expect her to? Burke moved to the big armchair in the opposite corner, which gave a good view of the whole room.

“I hope you don’t mind this bit of rudeness,” he whispered as he seated himself. “It’s just my leg, ye see.”

She nodded and settled down on the floor beside him, between the chair and the mirrors. She quietly crossed herself, rather hoping he didn’t notice her doing it. If he did, he didn’t say anything.

“Now what?” she asked in a whisper.

“Now we wait and see what we see,” he answered, closing the cover on his lantern and setting it down beside him. “Ye can put out your light; no sense in having two. Try not to fall asleep, lass.”

This warning was hardly necessary. Maureen had never felt less like sleeping. As her eyes adjusted to the dark she perceived the faint variations of shadow among the fittings of the room, though the hateful little shape of the doll remained hidden and indistinguishable.

The longer she sat waiting, the more uneasy she began to feel. They were here, in this room, with that thing. What if it were moving right now, in the dark, where they couldn’t see? What might it be doing? Her ears strained for the slightest rustle of sound, such as might accompany little rag feet walking about.

Malachi Burke, meanwhile, sat utterly still in his chair, his lame leg stuck out before him, his great knobby stick resting at his side. For all the sound he made, he might well have been a carved wooden figure. She wondered what he was waiting for.

An image flashed across her mind: the little rag creature pitted against the great wooden one beside her; a duel of inhuman wills. She shook her head, realizing that she was half-dreaming and set herself more firmly to wait.

Slowly, the deep darkness of the night faded into the faint silver light of the half-moon, frequently eclipsed by hurrying clouds and the branches of trees rustling in the wind outside. This put Maureen even more on edge, for the shifting shadows made her imagine she saw movement in the shadow-filled room, like a small figure moving swiftly and stealthily among the furniture….

<Previous ———— Next >

One thought on “The Dress Shop Doll: A Malachi Burke Mystery

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s