My partner, Mr. Kitsbury, and I were astonished at what we were reading. "27 DEATHS IN CATASTROPHIC FIRE ON 18 CARTER DRIVE. VICTIMS CLAIMED TO BE SKELETONS." was the title of the main article, scrawled across the front page.
"Says here every victim was picked clean. Not an ounce of flesh on any of the victims. No ashes around them either. No fingernails, skin cells, not even a hair. Just bones. The police don't know what to think." Arthur Kitsbury sighed and wiped his nose. The fifteen-year-old investigator always seemed to be down with something.
"This is today's paper, yes?" I quickly scanned the date in the top right corner. "November 20, 1842".
"Got it from the front steps this morning." He proclaimed with what sounded like triumph. I swear I'll never know how he managed to achieve the position of head investigator after his father's death. "So, what do you think of all this stuff, Langley?"
"I don't think I'd give my opinion too hastily. I say we head to the station and hear this for ourselves. We're sure to get more realistic information that way." I set about rummaging through the junk drawer by the pantry in hopes of finding some scissors to snip the article out with.
"Are you saying the paper is fraud?"
"No, I'm saying it isn't always truthful. Go up to the room and freshen up, then meet me down here." I found some black-handle scissors and worked on freeing the article.
"For only twelve years, you sure are a knit-pick." Arthur grunted as he plodded up the steps.
"I'll take that as a compliment." I folded the article and shoved it in my coat pocket. A pipe creaked above me. Arthur had turned on the bath.
I busied myself about gathering the supplies we would need while he took his time. My black leather suitcase full, I headed for the den and sit on the dull red sofa. Many a night was spent here with Arthur at my side drinking his whiskey, and I my wine. I'd scolded him many times about his drinking habits. I always fretted one day his liver would just give up. He'd drink himself drunker than an Irish man, kick his shoes off, rest his feet on the dark wooden coffee table, stare at the ceiling, and jabber on about nonsense. The next day he'd be hung over, wheat-blonde hair plastered to his head and still child-like face. I'd be forced to sit on the floor while he moaned and groaned, only to drink himself up again the very same night. It didn't surprise me why he was sick so often, his immune system was going to dust from it all.
I rolled my braid between my fingers as I waited. My hair was long enough to reach my buttocks unbraided, and just above while in the former hairstyle. I had long bangs, which I pinned back over the top of my head. The only reason I kept my hair at such an extreme length is because it pleased my older sister Molly, and so little pleased her. She said it reminded her of our late mother, Madoline. She died after my birth from loss of blood, and nine years after that our father was trampled by his horses beyond repair, dying later that week. Molly found work as a maid in the mansion of some wealthy individual, and was doing rather well for herself onwards from there. I found work at a tavern as a bus boy. Arthur frequented there, and it was often my job to drag him out after last call. For some reason he took a liking to me and made me to stay with him rather than let me sleep in the bar any longer. Before I knew it, I was his partner in investigations. I didn't like or dislike the job any more than being a bus boy, but Arthur said I had a knack for it. I've stayed by his side ever since.
These thoughts of my past still buzzed in my head as Arthur came down the steps again. He always had this odd, glazed-over look in his eyes when he left the shower. I never really understood it. Today he was dressed in dark blue pinstripes. The suit complemented his light blue eyes. I was dressed in a dark green suit that complemented my own. We each had top hats to match.
"Are you ready to be out, Langley?" He asked absently, as though his mind were on other things.
"Everything is in the suitcase." I assured him and stood, adjusting the buttons on my coat.
"I'll bring the horse around. Wait here." I nodded and lifted the suitcase. It was heavy, but I could handle it.
Arthur strolled out the door to the stable, coming back with our steel-grey steed, Silverbelle. I was never one for knowing the breed of a horse, but she was a fine one. She was lean and muscular. If there was one thing Arthur loved almost as equally as boos, it was his horse. Only the finest of grain and hay for his old gal. The horse was older than he was by at least three years, and she was a sweetheart. The only problem I really had with her was her height. I was short for my age, being only 4' 3", and Silverbelle was an exceptionally long-legged horse. I would try and try and never be able to lift my leg high enough to the stirrup. Then I would stamp over to Arthur and have him push me up by my bottom, legs angled out to lock onto the horses side. Then I'd adjust myself so I sat properly. Arthur would clamber up behind me and tak the reins. He would say my butt was so small it hardly took up any room on the saddle, taunt my height by saying he could see miles over my head, and we'd ride off. That is exactly how it went that time around. Silverbelle never seemed to mind my extra weight, and Arthur would taunt that too.
We clopped down the road steadily. It was still rather early in the morning, so a fog hung heavily, keeping other citizens inside. Thick clouds covered the sky. They seemed to threaten rain. We had to pick up pace if we wanted to get to the burned building before everything was washed away. I rested my back against Arthur for support.
"What do you think about when you bathe? You always seem out of sorts when you leave." I asked him, my child's curiosity getting the better of me. He seemed to lightly blush at the mention of it.
"Well, It's not so much thinking as acting." He said after a long pause.
"Why? What do you do in there?" I persisted.
"A mind as young as yours is better off in the dark about it. Close your little lips and forget it." His blush solidified into a bold pink.
"You're only three years older!" I exclaimed "Why can't you tell me? Are we not friends?" I prepared to guilt-trip him.
"We are friends! The closest of them. But I won't tell you. Now hush your whining and watch the path." He stared ahead hard, not meeting my angry gaze.
"I don't see why it's got to be such a secret." I hissed. He only groaned and kept his eyes trained ahead.
The station came up ahead of us, engulfed in the morning's fog. Arthur hopped off of Silverbelle at the entrance and helped me down.
"I'll bring Silverbelle to the stable, you're free to go inside. Go ahead and talk to Wesley DeGory." He led Silverbelle by her reins around the building while I climbed the steep steps to the front door. It creaked as I pushed it open and peeked inside. I came face to face with Lulu, Mr. DeGory's daughter. She was a year younger than I, and crazy for me.
"Langley!" She constricted me in a hug so tight I could hear my bones crack from the pressure "Oh Langley, I've been waiting for you to come see me again! I knew we were meant to be together! It is fate! It is destiny!" I patted her head.
"I-It's nice to see you too, Lulu. C-can you let me go? I h-have some business to attend to with your father . . ."
"You're going to ask him for my hand, aren't you? You sly dog! Marry me! Marry me and buy me nice things! Daddy never buys me nice things!"
"Lulu, I bought you that nice dress just this morning." Mr. DeGory snickered as he stepped out of his office "Let Mr. Jessup go so he can talk to me." Lulu pouted and released my frame reluctantly.
"You're still going to marry me." She whispered. I shivered involuntarily.
"Yes, well, we came about the fire." I said, straightening my coat and cracking my back.
"When you say we, I assume Mr. Kitsbury came as well?" Mr. DeGory inquired.
"He's out back putting Silverbelle in the stable." I mused.
"Ah, the love his life." He chimed in. I nodded and reached in my pocket for the news clipping.
"I clipped this out of the morning paper. We need you to tell us what's fact and what is nonsense. Also, we'd like to take the case, if there turns out to be one." He smiled, amused.
"It was a fire, Mr. Jessup. I doubt there will be any case. These things happen."
"No natural fire I know of could strip a body clean of everything." I scowled "Which 'naturally' leads me to believe that the fire was planned.
"That so, huh?" He took my hat and mussed my hair "You're a feisty little thing. You're both welcome to investigate. The only thing we're really looking for is what started the fire at the moment."
"We can certainly help that out, Mr. DeGory." Arthur came striding in "I apologize if my prepubescent friend gave you any trouble, he can hardly control that sharp tongue of his." He gave me a teasing look, and I glared at him.
"Oh, the boy was just on about a case is all. He didn't cause any trouble." Mr. DeGory chuckled.
"Go on and play with Lulu, Langley. Let the big boys talk." He sneered. I gave him a 'you're pay for that later' look and joined Lulu sitting in a row of chairs across the room near the front desk.
"Langley, it's boring here!" She griped "Let's go exploring! I know all the cool places! I can show you them." I decided to humor her because she'd only complain more if I declined.
"Fine, Lulu. Show me these places." She jumped up in glee and grabbed my arm, dragging me into the nearest dim hallway beside the front desk. We stopped halfway down the hallway.
"I know you're after a case, Langley. I can help you out." She whispered urgently to me
"There are some things in daddy's office you can look at." I was surprised. She was usually so hyper and distant, I didn't think she'd ever listened to our conversations.
"You're saying you'll show me these things without your father knowing?" I ventured, looking into her hazel eyes. She looked very much like her father. Hazel eyes and curly brunette hair, but she had her mother's gentle face with round cheeks and dimples.
"Listen, Langley. I don't like it when you have a case. I don't want you to get hurt! But I like seeing daddy flustered, so I'll show you those things." She hugged my arm bone-crunchingly tight.
"Ok, take me to see these things then. For once I'll have the upper hand over Arthur. And maybe your father will think twice before taking my hat."
"But your hair is so gorgeous!" Lulu began leading me down the hall again towards Mr. DeGory's office.
"I don't think so." I sighed.
"Well I like it. When is miss Molly going to visit again?"
"I don't know, Lulu. She's a very busy woman." We stopped in front of a door marked 'Police Chief'.
"Well she better find some free time. There aren't enough girls around this god-forsaken place." She turned the knob and let us in "The things are on his desk." I hurried over and looked over the surface of the desk. There were photos of the site of the fire sprawled across it. Pictures of the cleaned skeletons everywhere, charred furniture, and shrapnel on the grass. The fire had burned everything to either ashes or close to. There were no walls to the one-story building any longer. No ceiling. But even a fire like that shouldn't have entirely cleaned the bodies of everything. And what could cause a fire of that size? I pocketed a few of the photos I thought held the most important views and moved away.
"Did you find what you were looking for?" Lulu chirped.
"I think I did. Let's go back to the lobby." I began to lead the way out. She followed after me obediently and gripped my arm painfully again.
"Will those things be helpful?" She asked as we strolled down the hall.
"For now." I said.
"Well look, here come the two lovebirds." Arthur sang "Have some nice playtime?"
"You could say so." I said with a smug smile. He looked back curiously.
"Well ok then . . . We're heading to the site now. Let's go." He headed out the front door, and I followed quickly after.
I waited out front while Arthur brought the horse back around. He helped me mount her with a little taunting, as was customary, and then got on himself.
"Mr. DeGory will lead us there on his steed. Lulu will be coming too, lucky for you." He laughed.
"Oh, yay." I said sarcastically.
Mr. DeGory brought his horse around in front of us, a male white horse named Vodka. As anyone could imagine, Arthur had affections for this horse before even seeing it. Mr. DeGory helped his daughter up, and then himself. He snapped his reins, and his horse began galloping. Arthur did the same, and we were off.
The ride was a short one thanks to our speed. We stopped in front of the lawn that held the charred remains of the building. I hopped down with Arthur, and he tied Silverbelle to a lamp post.
"Daaaaaaddy, I don't like it here! It feels gross!" Lulu wailed. And she was right, the place did hold an atmosphere that was most unsettling. I strolled up the grass to the remains of the building. Arthur followed close behind me. Mr. DeGory stayed behind to sooth the raging bull that was his daughter.
"Mr. DeGory told me what happened as far as the report went." Arthur breathed "The place was already blazing high in the sky when they arrived. They did their best, but they couldn't quell it. They waited it out and contained it as best they could to the building. When it was over, this was all that was left. They didn't hear anyone inside all throughout it, which was the odd part."
"That's very odd, because it is a one-story building. There was no elevation or extra walls to muffle any screams. And from the looks of it, it wasn't a very large building. Let's begin looking." I moved across the bit of charred lawn and into the building. I could easily see the clean skeletons of all the victims. I bent closer to one of the corpses. The paper and DeGory had been right, there had been nothing on the bones. They were clean and white. I examined one of the skulls. There was a hole in the top, not a large hole, but big enough to fit two fingers. I was certain a fire couldn't do that. There was nothing inside the skull but more clean, white bone. The rest of the victims had the same hole. I wondered how Mr. DeGory and his partner could have missed them.
"Arthur, all of these skulls have holes in them." I declared.
"What do you think it means?" He said, coming to join me at one of the bodies. I showed him the skull.
"I think it means either fire has evolved to the point where it can cut holes in bone, or this was a very grotesque murder." I said.
"What kind of sick bastard would need to cut holes in skulls, or strip their skeleton of everything?" He grunted.
"I don't know." I sighed "Let's keep looking." He nodded and I went back to poking around the remains of the building. Something red caught my eye. I neared it.
A single rose, blood red and completely untouched by any fire.