The Dress Shop Doll: A Malachi Burke Mystery

Finally, after what seemed most of the night, something happened; a step and a rustle on the balcony. Maureen, on edge, jumped and nearly shrieked at the sound, but Burke’s huge hand caught her arm to steady her.

The door to the balcony slid silently open. The moon was hidden in the clouds, so Maureen couldn’t see the figure that entered very well, but she could see that it carried a covered lantern that let a very faint line of light out upon the floor. The figure shut the door behind it and began to cross the room in the direction of the desk.

“Good evening, Miss Taskel,” said Malachi Burke suddenly into the darkness.

The figure jumped and nearly dropped the lantern. Burke pulled back the cover of his own lantern, flooding the room in light and revealing the white, strained face of Miss Jane Taskel.

“What…what is this?” she demanded, blinking in the sudden glare.

“I could ask ye the same thing,” Burke answered. “’Cept I already know. ‘twas all very clever really; all ye needed to do was to stitch together a few near-identical dolls, put one of them in the room, and then begin moving it about each night, or when no one else was looking. Being in the clothing business, ye knew very well how to match the colour scheme of the room, and making the dolls’ clothes out of the leftover upholstery material was a good touch. Makes them look as if they belonged. Not even really illegal, ‘cept for destroying the dresses and such. But not very nice either; trying to deprive a woman of her life’s work.”

Miss Taskel listened to this recital with a very still, stiff expression. She drew herself up with dignity.

“And who, exactly, are you, sir?” she asked.

“My name is Malachi Burke,” he answered. “I am a detective.”

Maureen saw her face flicker with fear for just an instant before regaining its stern dignity.

“There seems no point in denying it, since you apparently know everything. So what are you going to do about it?”

Burk didn’t answer right away. Instead, he took out his pipe, filled it, and lit it, watching the woman with an appraising eye the whole time.

“I shall tell what I’ll do,” he said at last after a few puffs. “About noon tomorrow, I’ll be payin’ Mrs. Milner a visit. By then you’ll have received a temptin’ offer with an establishment far away from here and regretfully put in your resignation. I will then deal with the doll in my own way and be able to promise faithfully that it will never trouble her again.”

He paused and pointed his pipe stem firmly at her.

“And if I find ye haven’t resigned, or if you’ve tried to make trouble for any of the other ladies, then I’ll tell her the whole story and let her take what steps she thinks best. Do I make myself clear?”

Miss Taskel’s face was white, but she maintained her poise. She nodded.

“Perfectly clear.”

She flashed a venomous look at Maureen, then marched stiffly out through the balcony.

###

“And there ye have it, lad,” he said by way of conclusion. “The next day I called on Mrs. Milner, who was very upset over Miss Taskel’s sudden resignation. But I was able to soothe her and explain that I’d had some experience in these matters and would take care of everything. I went down to the shop, did a little work in secret, and came out with the doll, able to promise faithfully that she would never be troubled by it again.”

“Yes,” I said. “Very simple, after all. And, of course, I suppose it was fairly easy to work out the logical explanation, knowing that it could possibly be supernatural.”

“Who says I knew that?”

“But…”

“Don’t be quick to dismiss the unknown, lad,” he said, shaking an admonitory finger the size of a chisel at me. “I’ve seen many a strange thing in my time, and it don’t do to leave ‘em out of consideration. But from the story Miss Maureen told me, I didn’t think it was so in this case.

“Ye see, it wasn’t the behaviour of the doll that struck me as odd, so much as it was that of Miss Taskell. I got the impression, which Miss Maureen confirmed, that she was one of those hard-headed, logical females without a romantic or imaginative bone in her body. Not the kind of person who would get the idea of a doll takin’ offence into her head. By rights she ought to have been the first to suggest simply throwing it away and the last to admit that anything odd were happening. Instead, she feeds the idea. That didn’t fit; she weren’t the type to believe in ghost stories, even if she were in one.

“But she was the type to covet a successful business enterprise, and not to let a little thing like honesty or compassion or friendship get in her way. She knew Mrs. Milner very well; knew she was forgetful, unobservant, and mildly superstitious.”

He pointed his pipe emphatically at me. “When you face the unknown, don’t go forgetin’ the known. People don’t suddenly change their character, even in odd cases. A mundane, efficient woman in a haunted house will still act mundane and efficient, or try to at least.”

“Was that all it took for you to figure it out?” I asked.

“That, and the fact that Miss Taskel always seemed to be on the spot when the doll did something especially odd. Who came in and found it on her desk? She did. Who first noticed it was moving? She did. Who was putting clothes in the closet on the day it jumped on Mrs. Milner? She was. She even was the one to suggest Mrs. Milner take a sleeping draught that night, knowing that even she would probably hear her going about the shop and tearing up all those dresses. ‘Twas enough of a coincidence to be worth lookin’ into.”

“And what about the balcony and the planter?”

“That? That was mere common sense, lad,” he answered. “She has to get in during the night. She can’t go through the front door or someone will probably see her, and in any case she doesn’t have a key. But most people don’t worry about a balcony being unlocked, and she was still a fairly young, strong, and tall woman. All she had to do was make a little step for herself. She’d been planning this for quite some time, of course.”

“And all to get hold of the shop.”

“Aye, that’s something for you, especially, to keep in mind, lad. You’ve never had to worry over much about money; you don’t know how powerful the lure of riches, or even simple competence is for most people. But it wasn’t only greed; it was pride. She was so sure she could have run the place better than Mrs. Milner, and was impatient to try it. I daresay she may have been right.”

“Is Milner’s Lady’s Wear still going?” I asked after a moment.

“Oh, aye,” he answered. “You can go see for yourself if you like. Miss Maureen practically runs the place; will be taking over herself before long I suspect. Very smart girl, that.”

He knocked out his pipe and leaned back in his chair. Lightning flashed across the window, casting stark shadows across the doll’s stitched frown. I shivered a little.

“But, honestly,” I said. “You don’t really believe in such things, do you? I mean, you didn’t seriously consider the idea that the doll might be alive?”

He fixed me with one of his stern gazes.

“Hush, lad,” he answered. “Ye might offend her talking like that.”

Discover another of Malachi Burke’s thrilling cases in The Ten Commandments of Murder

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