Cast of Wonders 427: The Curious Case of Miss Clementine Nimowitz – Part 3
The Curious Case of Miss Clementine Nimowitz (and her Exceedingly Tiny Dog)
by Alex Acks
Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3
Simms had greeted his change of costume with relief, finding himself far more comfortable in the clothes of a lower-class laborer than those of a gentleman. He felt nearly buoyant after ridding himself of the hated collar and turned his energy fully to the task of finding out more about Clementine Nimowitz’s missing maid. Or as the Captain often put it, “Turning over all of the obvious and boring stones.” This was fine with Simms; boring was his loudly proclaimed preference.
Though he could admit in the privacy of his own mind that the sort of boring he’d been subjected to before had partially led him down a path that ended at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey. Ultimately, his desire for boredom was similar to a wealthy man crying for the simplicity of poverty from the comfort of his sumptuous drawing room, and he knew it.
And he would have liked a bit less boredom when it came to the search for the housemaid. Simms had been around the Captain long enough to know that the best way to find some things out was to simply ask in a friendly manner. He’d also learned from the Captain that simple, easy to remember lies were the best sort. Thus he became Zebulon MacElroy, a shockingly honest cab driver who had conveyed the lady from Miss Nimowitz’s house to an appointment across town last week and discovered, to his dismay, that she’d left her scarf behind. Finally he had a day off and just wished to return the item to the lady in question, only no one at the residence was answering the door, and if it please you sir or ma’am, he didn’t just want to leave it waiting on the doorstep because you never knew who might happen by.
Thus armed, Simms took himself to the shops nearest the late Miss Nimowitz’s house, since it was likely the maid would see to the more domestic shopping for the household on her mistress’s account. His first few inquiries came up with nothing, but then he had the luck of running across the mailman, a bluff and red-faced fellow with sparse curly hair and a generous mustache. “Oh, the maid? Yeah, name’s Elizabeth Strickland. No one’s answering, eh?”
“No one at all. Maybe the lady’s out for a constitutional or some such.”
“Miss Nimowitz? Don’t think so. Used to see the sweet old lady out all the time, mucking about in the garden. Caused such a scandal back a few years ago, you wouldn’t believe. But lately, she’s not been out much. Lizzie—Miss Strickland to you, mate—runs all the errands.” The man smoothed down his mustache, fingers lingering on the waxed tips. “Come to think of it, I ain’t seen Lizzie in a couple of days.”
“That so? Think she took ill?” Simms prompted, wishing he had the Captain’s deft touch for this sort of thing. Then again, the mailman seemed like the kind who loved a good gossip, leaning in with a conspiratorial nod even for more mundane topics.
“Looked fine when I saw her. Though it was a funny thing. She came out to get the mail all wrapped up and ready to leave, right? Then when I was working around to the other side of the street, I saw someone heading for the house. Thought it was her, out the corner of my eye, maybe back for something she forgot, but she was with a gentleman. Tall, dark fellow, sporting a goatee. Looked a bit like a circus ringmaster, if you ask me, only Miss Nimowitz wouldn’t hang out with that sort.”
That description gave Simms pause, considering Morris’s slightly sinister facial hair choice. Unfortunately, he couldn’t ask more pointedly about it, since he had no reason to even know Morris Nimowitz existed. “’Course not, great lady like her. And she took him inside the house?”
“Right through the front door. Then Lizzie came out a few minutes later and went on her way. Had this big envelope tucked under her arm too. I offered to take it but she said it weren’t for the mail.” He shrugged as if to indicate no accounting for some people. “But she left the gentleman in there with Miss Nimowitz. Well, you know, at her age I guess the fine people don’t bother with chaperones no more. Not that I’ll hear a word against the great lady, not in my neighborhood. If Lizzie took him in, there weren’t any nonsense going on.”
Simms nodded, carefully trying to not think on the fact that “nonsense” had very obviously gone on, and was currently putting an extensive stain on an otherwise lovely floor.
The mailman didn’t know anything else of use, though the name helped immeasurably. Simms headed back into the shops and thankfully had at least a vague direction in which to aim himself on the fifth try—She comes from Bonnie Brae, bless her, my daughter did her laundry before she went into service. Thus armed, Simms took himself to the neighborhood in question, feeling quite accomplished.
That smug sensation was quickly quashed as he observed row upon row of terraced houses, each no doubt divided into several apartments, each crossed and recrossed with new levels and temporary additions. So far from his normal stomping grounds, Simms had nearly managed to forget what a mess Bonnie Brae actually was. The neighborhood looked like a rabbit warren had been covered with brightly-painted gingerbreading, with the occasional stringy tree here and there for decoration. Here the steam-powered carts and cabs were far less frequent than hand and even horse-drawn carts, several of which he had to dodge to cross the street. The paving stones were a bit uneven and the drainage far less certain.
What would Captain Ramos do in his now unfortunately dampened shoes? Well, knowing her, she’d sniff the wind, pick a few leaves from the nearest tree, and declare that obviously Elizabeth Strickland lived in house number 415, as observation so clearly showed.
Simms slunk off to a bakery that he was able to locate by scent alone, catching the sweet, warm smell above the clinging sulfurous stink of coal smoke. He’d need a new story if he was going to go door to door looking for one woman in this mess. Without the Captain’s seemingly natural facility for lies, he could only hope that coffee and a few pastries provided the necessary fuel. At the very least, it got him out of the noise and bustle of the street.
As Simms brooded into a rather scummy cup of coffee, two women entered the shop. One had a badly pockmarked face and was roundly pregnant; the other seemed to be along to help her manage her parcels and was quite a bit older. “—haven’t seen her myself, but her sister said it’s quite terrible. Poor thing’s still laid up in hospital, not even awake,” the pregnant woman said. “Anna’s been with her, night and day.”
“Wasn’t Anna watching her boy already? And she’s got children of her own, doesn’t she?”
“Lizzie’s boy’s in grammar school, and Anna’s two aren’t even out of diapers yet. Though Missus Potts next door is watching over them, bless her.”
“Bless, indeed. Should we pick up a bit of bread extra for her, you think? Can’t be easy, with all those extra mouths to feed.” The older woman smiled. “Bad enough, just trying to manage your own.”
Simms carefully put down his coffee cup. It seemed a bit too lucky, this, but there was no harm at all in asking. Even if he made an ass of himself, he’d not be back to this area again anytime soon. “Excuse me, ladies,” he said, rising to his feet. They both directed startled looks toward him, and he gave them a workmanlike bow. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop at all, but I can’t help but wonder…are you speaking of Elizabeth Strickland?”
The older of the two women frowned, one hand reaching out to touch the other’s arm. “Maybe, maybe not. What business is it of yours?”
Simms groped for another convenient lie. The cab driver one was a bit too fantastic, but he’d seen a milk delivery box at the house, hadn’t he? That was common enough. “I drive the milk wagon, ’round where her employer lives. Last few days, no one’s been picking up the milk out the box, right? So I thought maybe some trouble might be up with Missus Strickland, thought I better check up on her, what with her not havin’ a proper man to pay her mind.” He hastily pulled off his cap and held it nervously in his hands. The nervousness was sadly not feigned. He could feel his ears going red with the pressure of being so untruthful, but hopefully they’d think it the blush of a lovesick milkman.
The women gave him nearly identical searching looks, though their end results seemed to diverge. There was one vote of proper enough from the older woman and no, not in the slightest from the younger. Since the older woman seemed to have taken charge of the conversation, her vote was the one that counted in the end. “Yes, we are, I’m sorry to say.”
“What happened to her?”
“Trolley accident, three days ago. Fell on the track, she did.”
“Or was pushed,” the pregnant woman added darkly. The very mention of it drew a cold line down Simms’s spine.
“Oh you. Always such drama.” The older woman shook her head. “She must have had the afternoon off, unexpected-like. Went downtown, to see a show I’d bet. She’s in that great hospital down there, St. Joseph’s. It was the closest one, so her poor sister has to go halfway across town to see her.”
Simms nodded. He shouldn’t be feeling so triumphant over the terrible maiming of a maid, though he reassured himself the feeling was more satisfaction that he’d found out such a compelling bit of information entirely on his own. “That’s terrible news. I’ll…I’ll have to pay a visit. With some flowers.”
“Hope she wakes up to see them, then,” the pregnant woman said tartly.
He gave her a sickly smile. “Maybe it will tempt her back.”
“Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news,” the older woman said.
“No, no. It’s better to know something for certain, even if it’s dire.” Simms sighed heavily. “Thank you both.” He shook his head and added, “Her mistress must be worried sick.”
“Can’t be that worried,” the older woman observed acerbically. “Anna said there ain’t been a peep from her, for three days straight, not even to complain about her missing work. And to think, Lizzie always spoke so highly of her mistress. To hear her tell, you’d think she was a wise woman and a saint, rolled up together. If a bit forgetful.”
“Couldn’t really afford to not,” the other woman remarked. “Never know who might be listening.”
“Aye,” Simms agreed. He had no allegiance to people of Miss Nimowitz’s class, and he certainly couldn’t afford to act as if he knew the reason behind her curious silence. “Can’t really say either way, myself. Drinks her milk proper, that’s all I can tell you.” He cleared his throat. “Can’t say as I feel like finishing my food after that. You ladies both have a good day.”
“And you,” the pregnant woman said. “I’ll be sure to let Anna know you’ve been asking after her sister, Mister…”
“Sim…mons,” Simms supplied, almost blurting out his own name in a moment of panic.
“Mister Simmons. She’ll be glad to know her sister’s missed, at least.”
He put on his cap. “Her absence has been a cause of great concern, you can trust that.” He made his escape from the shop as quickly as he could without seeming to literally run away. So the missing maid had fallen…or been pushed. He couldn’t wait to pass that fascinating bit of news on to Captain Ramos.
As Simms retraced his steps, headed for the coffee shop where he was supposed to meet with the Captain, a small and rather dirty child of indeterminate gender scampered up, brandishing a bit of paper. He dug out a few coins from his pocket in exchange, used to these particular messengers by now.
The text on the grubby note was plain enough: Need you back at the warehouses at once. V. urgent. —EM
“Bollocks, Elijah. What have you done now?” Simms asked. The question earned him a sharp look from an elderly woman passing by but no other answer.
“I don’t know what happened,” Elijah said thickly.
Simms had no immediate answer for that assertion; he was a bit too busy looking Elijah over in horrified fascination. The young man’s eyes were swollen nearly shut, his skin gone red and frighteningly blotchy.
“I picked him up and… I hadn’t meant him to lick my face again, but then I started feeling so peculiar…”
“Right.” Simms cleared his throat. “I think perhaps you’d better sit down.”
Elijah did so on the nearby crates. Chippy, who had been spinning in circles in what seemed like a vain attempt to strangle himself with his own leash, immediately jumped into Elijah’s lap and started licking his face again.
Hastily, Simms snatched up the little animal, who let out a squeaky yip. Immediately, Chippy turned on him and started trying to wash his muttonchops, and then Simms’s hand when he tried to protect his pride and joy from the dog. “Perhaps a bit less dog slobber is in order as well.”
This was the point when Captain Ramos showed up, turning the corner between two warehouses at a rapid clip, the heels of her shoes clicking boldly along the paving stones. “Mister Masterson, if you please—” She took in the tableau for a moment before delicately coughing into her hand. “Ah. Right. I see.”
“I barely can,” Elijah wailed.
“You never said you were allergic to dogs.”
“How was I to know? We never had any when I was a boy!”
“Well then, Mister Masterson, it seems you’ve developed an allergy to dogs spontaneously, like the overachiever we all know you to be.” Captain Ramos made a peculiar little cough. “And during his time with you, has Chippy achieved anything equally spectacular?”
“If you mean, has he shat,” Elijah said bitterly, “I wouldn’t recommend going anywhere near the park until we’ve had a good rain.”
“And the jewelry?”
“None of that. Just…just mess. Everywhere. I think my shoes will never be the same.”
“My heart bleeds for you,” Simms said dryly.
Captain Ramos coughed again. “Right. Stubborn little thing that he is. I suppose in the interests of pretending I have some humanity left, I shall relieve you of this wee beastie and send you on your way before you have some sort of anaphylactic fit.”
Elijah sagged back against the wall. “It itches so, sir,” he said, one hand coming up to his eyes. Simms promptly slapped it away again.
“When you get back to the Roost, ask Cook for some oatmeal. I imagine she’ll give it to you just to keep your face from scaring the yeast right out of her bread.” Captain Ramos turned her attention to Simms. “Come along. You look like a cat that’s eaten several small birds recently, all stuffed with feathers and proud. You must have found out something very interesting.”
As they walked Chippy back toward the Captain’s bolt-hole, Simms described everything he’d learned and listened to her description of her talk with Deliah. “Doesn’t sound nearly so evil as Morris made her out to be.”
Captain Ramos laughed. “If she’s that good of a con artist, she wouldn’t. But I don’t take his statements on their face either. I need to go collect a bit of gossip, I think.”
“All right, so you’ll be sniffing about their respective neighborhoods, I take it?” They drew to a halt as Chippy suddenly developed an interest in a nearby post box. Simms averted his eyes as the dog proceeded to paint it down with a surprisingly robust stream of urine.
“Yes. And in the meanwhile, I want you to go back to Miss Nimowitz’s neighborhood, since you’ve now a useful bit of gossip to share with the people there. See what sort of wild speculation springs up when you mention the possibility her poor maid might have been shoved from the platform.”
“And what about him?” Simms tilted his chin toward Chippy, now regarding the humans with the ever hopeful look of a dog certain that treats will appear any moment now.
“He’s with me. There is something thoroughly disarming about walking a dog. He’ll provide excellent cover.”
And that Chippy did, performing his part admirably by bouncing energetically around and sniffing endearingly at the shoes of everyone they encountered. Feeling as if she ought to offer him some reward despite the fact that he wasn’t working per se, Marta fed him a bit more jerky on the sly as they moved between streets. Besides, hopefully the addition of more food into his digestive system would wash the necklace out since the croton oil had failed thus far.
People already charmed by the tiny dog seemed quite happy to stop and gossip a bit, of course only after covering the rapidly fraying subject of the weather. The talk from Morris’s neighborhood revealed that the man did indeed have both a gambling habit and a love for stupidly risky business endeavors, as if one sink to his rapidly dwindling fortunes wasn’t enough.
And in Deliah’s neighborhood, what rumors Marta did pick up about the woman exceeded only in removing the middle ground, while leaving the extremes of innocent woman versus con artist completely untouched. Deliah was well-liked, generous with her neighbors, and apparently threw the most lovely parties every time she came back from a visit overseas so she could share all the stories of her travels and distribute small trinkets. She was either one of the most innocently generous people Marta had ever encountered, and she hadn’t seemed quite wide-eyed enough for that, or she was very, very good at playing other human beings like a sophisticated musical instrument. If anything, it only piqued Marta’s curiosity further. She already knew Deliah had lied to her once, and done so very well, in a way that never would have been caught without astute observation.
That really nudged her firmly toward the con artist camp. Fascinating. Any further thoughts she might have had on the subject were interrupted by Chippy, who suddenly began to bounce around like a demented rubber ball, wagging his tail so hard his entire body squirmed with uncontainable vibrations of happiness.
“Is that you, Missus Smythe?” A familiar voice asked.
Marta swallowed back the automatic, dry inquiry as to who else she might possibly be; that would definitely not be in character. And maintaining character was suddenly of the utmost importance, because the object of Chippy’s excitement was none other than Deliah Nimowitz. Marta smiled at her. “Well, hello Miss Nimowitz. Oh Chester, do calm down,” she admonished the dog in her most fatuous tones.
Chippy had no intention of doing any such thing, it seemed. Instead, he tugged on his lead with his pathetically small mass, somehow dragging Marta forward the few steps necessary so he could get to Deliah.
“Chester?” Deliah’s eyebrows went up momentarily, suspicion lighting her eyes. The expression smoothed away almost instantly as she bent to let the frantically wriggling dog lap and nip at her lace-covered fingers. “You know, he’s the spitting image of my Grandaunt’s dog Chippy.”
“I know. They were littermates,” Marta supplied smoothly. Deliah glanced up to meet her eyes. She doesn’t believe me one bit, Marta realized. And yet Deliah did not protest further, simply held Marta’s gaze longer than was at all polite, long enough to be rather captivating.
“Lucky you managed to get one of the litter, then,” Deliah said. “They’re very much in demand.”
“There was quite a bit of squabbling over who would get him. All that decided the matter in the end was the will of the owner.” She smiled slightly, wondering if Deliah cared to play that game.
“That’s always the way, isn’t it.” Deliah straightened with a sigh, her eyes never leaving Marta’s. “One hopes the owner got what he or she wanted in the end.”
“I’d like to think so.” Interesting indeed. “Have you been by your grandaunt’s house yet?”
“I’ll be on my way once I’ve finished my walk, as chance would have it. What do you think I shall find?”
“I haven’t the foggiest, of course.” Marta shrugged. “With luck, someone who will open the door for you.”
Deliah laughed, the sound almost musical, completely at odds with the levelness of her gaze. “Of course.”
“Oh, my husband and I happened to have tea with your cousin.”
“Is that so?” Deliah smiled. “What did he have to say about me, I wonder?”
“Nothing but kind words.”
Deliah took a step forward so they were nearly shoulder to shoulder. She smelled nicely floral, a corner of Marta’s mind noted, but with a darker hint beneath, mixed and metallic, like a chemist. “Oh, you are good,” she breathed.
Marta touched the brim of her delicate lady’s hat with two fingers. “As are you.”
“Whatever you’re thinking…Missus Smythe, it’s not nearly so simple as that.”
Marta smiled, for a moment showing her teeth in a grin that had no business being on Missus Smythe’s face. “I count on it. That is what makes life so very interesting.”
Deliah’s lips quirked slightly in response. “Good day. I shall let my grandaunt know you’ve inquired.” She stepped past, paused, turned. “Oh, and you asked about that plant Grandaunt Clementine gave me, did you not?”
“I did indeed. It’s quite pretty.”
“Kensington’s Compendium might provide the answer you seek. I never had much of a head for plants.” A polite smile and duck of her head and Deliah continued on her way, Chippy straining on his leash to follow.
Marta absently ran one finger over her lips and watched her go, turning their conversation over in her mind and trying to decide which of those myriad of hints and cracks to pry at first.
End of Part 3
About the Author
Alex Acks is an award-winning writer, geologist, and sharp-dressed sir. Angry Robot Books has published their novels HUNGER MAKES THE WOLF (winner of the 2017 Kitschies Golden Tentacle award) and BLOOD BINDS THE PACK under the pen name Alex Wells. Their steampunk novella collection, MURDER ON THE TITANIA AND OTHER STEAM-POWERED ADVENTURES, was nominated for the Colorado Book Award, and the sequel WIRELESS AND OTHER STEAM-POWERED ADVENTURES is available from Queen of Swords Press. They’ve had short fiction in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and more, and are a contributing editor at Book Riot. They’ve also written several episodes of Six to Start’s Superhero Workout game and races for their RaceLink project. Alex lives in Denver (where they bicycle, drink tea, and twirl their ever-so-dapper mustache) with their two furry little bastards.
About the Narrator
Sandra is a New York born and raised voice actress with a background in literature and writing. After a childhood where video games were banned from the house, she one-eighty’d so hard she’s finally in them and never leaving.
Some games Sandra’s voiced for include Heroes of Newerth, Marvel’s Avengers Academy and the critically acclaimed Wadjet Eye Games adventure RPG “Unavowed” as Mandana. Catch her on Twitter or Facebook under the handle “DustyOldRoses,” obsessing over good food, good games and the color pink.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.