I stare blankly at the man, my mind slowly processing his request.
“Right! I’m so sorry of course!” I rustle through my bag searching for the long slip of paper. That was foolish. It wasn’t like he was speaking a foreign language.
I find the ticket and present it to the ticket taker. The tall, rather rotund man is smiling politely as he waits. However, there’s something off-putting about his demeanor. He takes my ticket and punches it, handing it back to me. As he walks to the next compartment, a shiver crawls up my spine, nagging the back of my mind.
That smile is the essence of nightmares…
With the distraction gone, I return to my papers. I am on a train to my next case. Well, my first real case, I suppose. It looks to be interesting, if simple.
I was engrossed in my research before the train employee had disrupted my reading. We had received word of an ecto-based infestation. A ghost threatened the estate of one Doctor Robert Maladar. I’m unsure of the extent of the hold the spirit has on the manor, as the telegraphed messages were kept short, but I can guess based on the history of the family.
The lady of the house, Madam Maladar passed away from illness a few years ago. However, if she were the cause, it would mean that household has been dealing with this ghost for a very long time. Far longer than they should. While ghosts are among the most benign creatures to plague mankind, having it there for so long would mean it has gained much strength.
I remove my glasses and rub my forehead. Am I overthinking this? Am I not thinking hard enough? Doctor Maladar is unbelievably wealthy. His medical practice aside, he was the heir to a vast family fortune. More recently, he invested early in the very railroad upon which I travel. This took him from being merely incredibly rich to… well… something past incredbily rich. If I can solve this case for him, it would mean my business might finally see something resembling a profit.
The stack of disorganized papers poking every which way from my bag seems to be taunting me. I do wish Ms. Francis had taken the time to at least align the research before shoving me out the door. That cursed woman.
Nothing to do about it now. Focus, Branner.
Robert Maladar will not be an easy person to deal with. The powerful rarely are. Yet, if he’s willing to pay my fare to come examine this phenomenon, perhaps there is a sense of desperation. Indeed, that is my angle. Desperate men are still a chore to work with but do provide some leverage.
I sigh, and return to my papers.
The coach ride to the manor was pleasant enough. The sky is all but clear, with only a few clouds to add character. This countryside might make one think of something from a light novel, starkly contrasted with the dark and busy cities to which I’m accustomed.
The path to the manor was long and winding. Precisely the sort of ostentatious thing a rich person might have. The carriage was already nearly there, so it is time for my final preparations. I gather the papers and trinkets I’d been using into my bag. As each item was placed in its proper storage location, I reminded myself of what was at stake.
I finished straightening out my coat and hair as much as possible as the coach pulled around the front of the manor. Proper presentation is keen in dealing with the wealthy and the supernatural. In front, the servants were lined up, bowing. Dr. Maladar stood in the center, arms behind his back. It was odd though. Normally for such a presentation the entire family would be here yet, his daughter is nowhere to be seen. Such a curiosity.
The coach came to a stop in the middle of the arrangement. The driver came around and opened the door to announce my arrival.
“May I present Archibald Branner, paranormal investigator.”
I step out the door, my tall, thin figure extending fully as I exit the transport. My hair is parted, a little frayed at the edges, yet I had tried my best to make it presentable. My dark vest contrasts with the light, glimmering pendant swinging from my neck as I take each step. My brown coat is old and considered unfashionable, but I will only go so far to appease my clients.
In my right hand I held my cane, a rather unassuming piece of polished black wood. The top was fit with a brilliant cut gem, though any jeweler worth his weight would laugh at the quality. My left hand held my bag, containing more of the tools of my trade.
In all, my appearance might have been off-putting to one of Robert Maladar’s stature, but I am hoping not so much that he sends me away.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Doctor,” I say, as cordial as I can muster.
The gentleman in the center of the display steps forward. His cool stare seems to pierce the air around us. The master of the house was not quite as tall as I, but his stance and presence more than made up for that. He lacked a coat, yet even without it, he was the far more fashionable one. The materials of his clothing were of the highest quality, easily seen at a glance.
I try to match his stare, but find myself lacking. He was not dressed menacingly, nor any action one of malice, but he projected intimidation all the same.
He extends his hand in a welcoming handshake. I tuck my cane under my arm and return the gesture.
When he speaks, his deep voice sounds almost emotionless, like all this pomp and circumstance meant absolutely nothing to him.
“Greetings, Mr. Branner. I certainly hope you can help. Come, let us step inside.”
He turns and heads into the house. The servants break off from their formation and set back to work, a few walking past me to grab my bags from the carriage. Others head into the house to finish preparing for my arrival, or around the side to wherever else they’re needed. I notice some go around the back and follow them with my gaze. The sun is setting, as my train arrived a little later than we had planned. Far off to the side, a young boy stands by a tree. It’s difficult to tell, as he appears as a silhouette against the setting sun, but he doesn’t look like he belongs here.
I’m about to inquire about him, when I step into the entrance hall.
It should have been lovely. I should have thought it absolutely gorgeous. And had I seen it at any other time in my life, I might have. Instead, the grotesque image imprinted itself onto my mind. The oozing red liquid seemed fresh on the walls, the stench of copper all too telling. Almost a dozen servants were washing away what they could. Tables, flowers and other decorations were strewn about, likely bystanders to some rage filled spree. And in the center of the hall, letters carved into the stone floor, a message carved in carnage. The blood flows down the walls, filling the miniature pools.
It merely said:
GIVE THE GIRL TO ME