Brittany’s head was swimming as she walked into the coffee shop with the doll still cradled in her arms.
“Lady, you look a little pale and peaked. How about you sit down at the counter, and I give you a free first cup of java?” The broad-faced man behind the counter had a huge and welcoming smile. It made her heart stop fluttering just a bit.
“World War Two is going on?” she tried not to gasp as she asked it. But she was sure the three other people in the place, all older than dirt, knew she was rattled to the point that she was about to shake herself to pieces.
“Husband fighting in Italy is he? We all think it’s almost over there. Patton is wiping out the bad guys. But it will be a while before Germany falls too. Or is he in the Pacific?”
“No… ah, my husband is… well, he’s not in this world anymore.”
“Oh! We’re so sorry for your loss.” The shop owner had tears in his eyes as he poured her coffee.
“That why you bought the doll over at Aunt Phillia’s place?” asked the old man three seats down from her at the counter. “It’s nice… um… an antique… but it’s naked…”
“Weren’t a good idea, Miss. The toys from that store are all cursed,” said the old woman sitting next to him.
“Hush, Mabel. She just told us her husband died a war hero. You gotta have more respect than that.”
“No, my husband didn’t die in the war… He just hasn’t been born yet.”
“You can’t tell them that,” said the doll. “They won’t believe you. And they will never understand the truth from your point of view.”
“Did you hear the doll talk just now?” she asked the shop owner.
“He can’t hear me,” said the doll.
“Listen, Ma’am, I know the world doesn’t make any sense for a while after you lose someone. Especially if you lose them overseas and far from home. You need something to eat? It’s on the house in view of your loss.”
“He’s being kind. You need to accept and be grateful,” said the doll.
“Maybe… the sausage smells good.” She tried to smile, but the tears were real.
“Certainly. Not real easy to come by with the war on, but certainly what you need about now.” The shop owner took the sausage out of the frying pan and put it on a plate for her.
“Where did he die, Sweetie,” said the old woman, trying to be more considerate.
“I can’t… I mean… I don’t…”
“You don’t have to say anything. Just eat. Mabel is being nosy. You need to recover from your loss.”
“It’s me you need to talk to,” said the doll. “But not here. They already think you’ve gone nuts from grief. Finish eating and then take me somewhere private.”
Brittany wolfed down the sausage, which really was savory and delicious, and then tried to get out of the shop and leave the doll behind.
“Miss, don’t forget your doll. She’s probably valuable. And you really shouldn’t be completely alone now.”
The old woman snatched up the porcelain doll and put it directly into her arms. She smiled at Brittany with a toothless smile.
“Please don’t leave me, Mommy,” said the doll. “I can’t lose you now. You are my last hope.”
Brittany burst into tears, hugged the doll to her, and started to run.
Stanley Menschen was a simple man, believing firmly in the right and wrong of many things. He believed in police procedures. He still believed in them now that he was no longer a member of the Dallas Police Department and was doing freelance investigative work instead. That’s why he didn’t participate in the initial investigation of Yesenia Montemayor’s disappearance. You needed to let the police do their jobs.
“Stan, you know she most likely ran away and threw down the underwear with the blood on it to get talked about as she hid out with friends somewhere.”
Stan leaned over the desk and looked Officer Jason Penny in the eyes. “J.C, tell me you don’t think the boy isn’t worth investigating because he’s doing the same thing?”
“He was her boyfriend. The connection is obvious.”
“So, the bloody underwear thing was a pre-planned throw-down? They plotted it out together?”
“That’s what I want to know. Any other clues that don’t indicate a simple runaway?”
“The detectives didn’t turn anything up.”
“Did you seriously investigate the store owner?”
“You mean the creepy guy? Old Eule Geist? You know he’s your stepdaughter’s alibi, don’t you?”
“Yes, but that shop has been investigated for years. What other current investigations involve that damned toy store?”
“Just a couple. The mysterious case of a woman dropping into a coma inside the store. Name of Brittany Nguyen. Currently in Parkland Hospital’s Long-Term Care Unit.”
“A prior medical condition?”
“Not that we can prove. But how would Geist have…”
“You know the toy store is owned by some guy named Mephisto? Has been for over a hundred years.”
“Same name on all the paperwork. Probably a Junior and a Third, though the documents don’t say that.”
“No way any of them poisoned the lady. Especially not the dead ones.”
Stan scribbled the name of the coma lady down in his notebook. “And the other cases?”
“Couple of runaway grade school kids. Eight years old. Shandra Johnson, age eight, and Mark Merriweather, also age eight. The boy’s bicycle was found near the toy store. But the girl’s old man is a prime suspect. He’s been on our radar for wife beating and child abuse for quite some time.”
Stan noted that down too.
“Your girl’s case.”
“Yeah. At least it is something to start with.”
“There’s nothing there, Stan. Really. It’s all coincidence and rumors about a place we all said was haunted when we were kids. Nothing there, I tell you.”
Stan nodded. Nothing on the surface. But a lot of dark and deep water to dive into. You never prejudge anything… at least, not if you’re wise.
Maria came into the kitchen, finally home from the police station where she had spent the night and half of the next day. Her mother, Bonita, dragged herself into the kitchen after Maria, obviously, a wreck from the ordeal her daughter had put her through again.
“So, what did the criminal do this time?” asked Stanley. He had been sitting at the table reading the news from his phone.
“You coulda helped, you know,” said Bonita, firing off an angry glare in his direction.
“I told you I was on a case last night. My job pays for the bail money that got her out of the slammer.”
“Well, at least there is no money to pay. The store owner isn’t pressing charges. And he’s gonna let her make up for the mess she made by helping him clean the store.”
“And the murdered boy?”
“There is no murdered boy. They found bloody clothes in the alley again, just like in Yesenia’s case. But no body. And the store owner said Maria was in the store with him when the boy was taken.”
“Well, I guess we both knew she didn’t kill him,” said Stanley. “She’s in love with him or something.”
“Shut up, stupid,” Maria said to him with acid in the delivery.
“Don’t talk to your stepfather that way. He loves us both and takes care of us both.” Bonita’s eyes were filled with fatigue and pain. “I need sleep, Stan. You have to deal with her for a while, please.”
Stanley looked at his beautiful wife, his overweight, slightly defeated-by-life beautiful wife. “You get a good sleep in. Maria and I will talk this out.”
Bonita smiled at him and dragged herself towards the bedroom.
Maria looked grim. She pulled a chair out from the table, turned it backward, sat on it with her arms folded across the back of the chair, and laid her head on her arms.
She looked at Stanley with tears in her eyes. She didn’t pick her head up when she said, “You have to help me find Rogelio, Stan. I love him. If you can find him for me, I’ll have sex with you.”
“I told you before, it is not appropriate to try to bribe your stepfather with sex. I am not interested in underaged kids.”
“You know I don’t have any money. I can’t afford your detective skills.”
“This isn’t the same as when Yesenia disappeared. You didn’t really know the girl. It wasn’t something I was willing to interfere with when the police were investigating the disappearance of a girl from your school who wasn’t even your friend.”
“So, you’ll find Rogelio, and in return, I’ll sleep with you?”
“No, kid. I will investigate for free. Have you bargained sex for something with anybody else I should know about?”
“My answer is the same as last time.”
“But you know I didn’t believe you when you said it last time.”
“Why do you care?”
“I’m your stepfather. Protecting you is part of the job. And if you and I are going to find Rogelio, you are going to have to be more honest with me than you have been in the past.”
“Um, well… I may have used that instead of money for a couple of things. But I’m not telling you who.”
“Honesty at last. Well, I’m a detective. I already know who, and I already threatened both of them.”
Rogelio met Maria at the bus stop on the corner of Mockingbird Lane and Brookriver Drive just as they had planned in Mrs. Broadbent’s English class at the end of a long high-school day.
“You see it?” Rogelio asked, pointing across the street. “The toy store is right there, just like Fernando said.”
“Yeah, but nobody proved that it was the place where Yesenia disappeared.”
“They found her bloody clothes in the alley behind it. What more proof do you need?”
“Well, I’m going in to look around. Are you brave enough to go with me, Roge?”
“Anything you can do, I can do.”
The two high school freshmen walked across the street at the stoplight. The building was spookily in shadow in spite of the gray-white sunlight trying to penetrate an overcast sky.
As they entered the shop together, the old storekeeper looked up from his old, leather-bound ledger at the front checkout counter.
“Little old for toys, aren’t we?” the white-haired loser asked. It made Rogelio a bit angry.
“We came because of the disappearance of Yesenia Montemayor a month ago. We need to look around. They found her clothes behind this place.”
“So, here to solve a Hardy Boys’ Mystery, are we?”
“Do I look like a boy?” Maria said, now angry too.
“Hard to tell nowadays. Nancy Drew, then?”
“You are just so old and out of date!” said Rogelio.
“Why do you really want to look for clues in my store then?”
“Yesenia was his former girlfriend.” Maria’s glare was defiant.
“And you’re his new girlfriend?”
“Well… yeah, I kinda hope so.”
“Then you probably don’t want to go digging up his old girlfriend, eh? Not in your best self-interest, I’d say.”
“We need to find out what happened to her,” Maria said matter-of-factly. “…So people don’t keep saying one of us had something to do with it.”
“Hated her that much, did you?”
“No! I didn’t kill her and eat her or anything! And I intend to prove that.”
The old man looked at Maria with eyes magnified by his thick glasses. He looked like a Lechuza, a soul-stealing barn owl, that one. Rogelio gritted his teeth.
“Can we look around your store, or what?” he said.
“Help yourself. If you want murder clues, there’s an old decorative Day of the Dead skull by the back door. Pick it up and ask about the missing girl.”
“Tell the cops to do that too, didja?”
“Yep. They didn’t take me seriously though.”
Rogelio simply turned and walked towards the back of the store.
“Do you believe that guy?” Maria mumbled as she followed him.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I believe you either.”
“What… what do you mean?”
“Well, that remark about digging her up and you talking about killing her and eating her.”
“I said I didn’t do that. You believe me, don’t you?”
“Let’s see what that skull has to say.”
Eerily, the skull was right in front of them as he said it. It was a sort of Halloween decoration for the Hispanic holiday of the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos in Spanish. It was a white papier-mâché skull with brightly colored flower blossoms painted on it for eyes, and an intricate vine design all over it in bright pink and orange outlined with green and dark blue.
“Hola, mi sabio amigo, ¿qué me puede decir sobre el asesinato de Yesenia Montemayor?” He used the Spanish because he knew Maria didn’t understand very much of it. She was raised in an English-speaking house with an Anglo stepdad.
“Ella no está muerta. Ella un juguete con el que juega Imelda.” The skull seemed to be speaking with no moving mouth.
“What? She’s a toy?”
Maria looked horrified. “Who are you talking to? And what’s this all about?”
“I… I don’t know. The skull says she is not dead. She’s a toy, being played with by someone named Imelda.”
“Ahora, Steven jugará contigo,” said the skull.
“Roge, the skull didn’t say anything.” Maria was as white as a ghost.
Rogelio’s mind, however, was being invaded.
“I am Steven, Roger. I will be playing with you until we find out what Imelda’s game really is.”
“Get out of my head!” Rogelio shouted. But his lips didn’t move. And he couldn’t put the skull down either. Instead, he walked to the back door and opened it. It did not open into the alley as it was supposed to. There was a dark room there, with a staircase going upwards, and at the foot of the staircase was Yesenia, naked as the day she was born. And her dark-brown hair was all bleached white like snow.
“Steven! No! You cannot be here. Not now!” shouted Yesenia.
“Stay where you are, Imelda. I am coming to you!” Rogelio heard his own voice say.
“No, Roge! Don’t go out there!” cried Maria.
Rogelio shut the door behind him so Maria couldn’t follow.
Covid has thrown me for a loop this month. I am forced to rely on my Work in Progress for the NOVEL WRITING post for this work. My writing time has been seriously curtailed for a while, and I will get back to projects in their proper order as soon as I recover.
Canto 1 – The Toy Store on Mockingbird Lane
Hannah was ten, looking more like her Asian-born father than her Texas-born mother Brittany, but she definitely had her mother’s passion for things that were exotic, unusual, or simply out of place.
“Look at that spooky old toy store, Mom! Doesn’t it look like a haunted house? Can we go in there and look?”
The little building on 1300A Mockingbird Lane in Dallas was built like a Victorian house from the 1800’s. It was hard to tell if the place had been painted white so long ago that the peeling paint made it look like that, or if someone had intentionally painted it light gray with black speckles. Brittany’s curiosity was peaked.
“That store has been there for as long as I can remember. But I’ve never been in there. They used to tell me it only sold old, antique toys.”
“I don’t wanna buy anything,” pouted Hannah. “I just want to look for ghosts.”
Brittany laughed as she pulled into the parking lot that served the two office buildings that surrounded the toy store and kept it in perpetual shadow all during the sunniest of days.
“We don’t have long to do this. We have to meet Daddy at five so we can go to the movie this evening.”
“It won’t take long. I can almost hear the spooks calling to me.”
Brittany laughed again as she collected the parking ticket from the lot’s operator in his little booth.
“Businesses are closing soon, Ma’am. You don’t have long. I close the gate for the night at six o’clock.”
“It won’t take us that long. We are just going to look in that old toy store.”
“Aunt Phillia’s Toy Emporium? You don’t want to go in there. Nobody hardly ever goes in there. And when they do, sometimes, the police have to show up later for something bizarre that happened.”
Brittany looked at the old Hispanic-looking guy over the top of her sunglasses. He looked serious. But that really only made her want to have a look inside even more.
“I hope something happens that makes the parking fee worth the money.”
“You are braver than I am, lady. I remember when I was a kid, some white boy disappeared in there. They never found him.”
He was seriously trying to scare her out of going in. But Hannah was hopping in her seat, anxious to get out of the car.
“The parking spot is F13, over there in the southwest corner. You have to be out of here by six or your car is locked inside the gate.”
She laughed. “No worries!”
She managed to park, and Hannah burst out of the passenger seat, headed for the store. By the time she got to the front door, Hannah had already disappeared into the store.
Inside the front door, there was a man sitting behind the check-out desk. He had an antique-looking cash register there, and his clothes were definitely long out of style.
“That house monkey was yours, I take it,” said the man. He was apparently old… or old…ish. Somewhere between forty and a hundred and forty. He had a flattop haircut, white hair, and super-thick lenses on his glasses that magnified his eyes, making him look like an eerie sort of owl-man.
“That was my daughter, Hannah, yes…”
“She took off for the wooden toys in the back of the store. I’ve got nobody back there to supervise her, but what trouble can she get into surrounded by wood-goods?”
That struck her as funny. She laughed. “We’ll soon see.”
Looking around the store, she was fascinated by what she saw on sale there. One wall was covered by marionettes, all of them with unusually large and roundish eyes, and all of them hanging from their control strings. There were shelves of costumes and masks, stuffed toys that looked threadbare and poorly sewn together, metal wind-up toys that walked or rolled on wheels, bows with sucker-tipped arrows, porcelain dolls whose eyes looked positively real and alive, staring as if they wanted or needed something from Brittany, and a far wall lined with books, children’s books, classic books, and encyclopedias.
“Hannah? Remember, we were just supposed to be looking for a moment. Hannah?”
There was no answer. So, Brittany walked down the metal wind-ups’ aisle towards the wood-goods in the back.
Suddenly a child’s voice was screaming. “I’m on fire! My dress is on fire! Mommy! Help me!”
Brittany was instantly panicked. But it wasn’t Hannah’s voice. And Hannah had been wearing a Miley Cyrus t-shirt and blue jeans. Still, she ran to the back of the store.
Standing there in front of a wall of wooden cars, trucks, trains and train cars, carved wooden boats, and baseball bats was Hannah, completely naked, her black hair now completely snow white.
“Where are your clothes?”
“I had to tear them off. They were burning.” There were ashes and bits of burned rag on the floor around her. And most alarmingly, the voice coming out of naked Hannah was not Hannah’s voice.
“Hannah? What is going on here?”
“Oh, I am not Hannah. My name is Molly Beeman. I just have her body now.”
“What?” She also began to realize that her own clothes were different. The dress she now wore had puffy shoulder things on it. It was made of a patterned material that she thought was called “gingham.”
“Hannah, let’s get out of here.”
She pulled the naked girl to her, picked her up and carried her to the front. There she saw the same old ghost of a man, sitting and staring with his magnified eyes.
“I see you found what you were looking for…”
“What have you done to my daughter?”
“…Molly, you only have three months to play with it. Be wise and you may actually get your mother back.”
“What?” cried Brittany. “What are you talking about, you… you… crazy old man!”
She burst out of the store through the front door. But she was horrified to see that her car was no longer there. Neither was the parking lot, or the office buildings it served. In fact, there was now what appeared to be a linoleum store and Mexican Cantina where those things used to be. Then she saw an old-timey newspaper stand. It was abandoned and empty. She ran to it. There were newspapers there. She saw a headline about how the U.S. Eighth Air Force suffered the loss of 60 bombers on the Schweinfurt–Regensburg mission. That happened on the 17th of August. World War II? The paper was dated August 24th, 1943!
Hannah cuddled against her, still naked in her arms.
“Just hold me, Mommy. Nobody has held me since I burned to death.”
Brittany stared at the pale Asian-American face with snow-white hair. This thing in her arms was no longer human. It was a porcelain doll, cuddling her with jointed, porcelain arms. It’s porcelain face smiled at her. This thing in her arms was no longer her daughter.