THE STRANGE FILES OF MODESTY BROWN
FILE NUMBER 1: The Night Train
This is that thing most hated and feared, the thing they will tell you to skip, like the opening minutes of a meeting. It is the thing everyone says to cut – Cut it off like Cinderella’s poor stepsister cut off her heel to fit in the shoe (once you are queen you won’t have to walk anymore). This, my dear readers, is The Prologue. But trust me when I tell you that all this is for your own comfort and delight (as everything in here shall be, I assure you). But I really must insist that we all know what we are getting into from outset. Trust me. You’ll be happier for it.
Now I know the Bard tells us that what’s past is prologue, but I don’t want you thinking that this is the kind of story that you need to read with a pen in your hand, underlining the important parts in case there is a quiz later. Because it is not that story. And the past is something I’m only ready to reveal in part. All in good time, kittens. All in good time.
There are stories that welcome you with kid gloved hand, something familiar and sweet and safe. A body in the library, a shoe with a broken heel, a missed taxi, the first day of school. Often, they don’t feel like stories at all, like you’re not even reading but reading to, the story handing you a cocoa at the end of a long day, pulling the good blanket up on your lap, purring on your chest until you fall asleep. These are good stories. I like them, too. But this is not that story.
Or perhaps it is. Who am I to judge?
No. This is the story that begins with a mysterious message.
In the small outlying places, far enough away from The City to only see its magic from a twinkling distance and not yet close enough to The Sea to have that magic either– here our heroine, Modesty Brown, gets the City Paper delivered, as do most folk who want to keep up with what’s going on in the world. She doesn’t read the news or the society pages or the lifestyle section. Only the crossword puzzles (a passion) and the Personal Ads (a curiosity).
One day, amid the Missed Connections and Situations Sought, she finds a very long advert that reads like a rambling nonsense poem. But as she looks more closely, she sees a pattern, a puzzle. She is very good at puzzles as you may have guessed. The first word of the first line, second word of the second line, etc. spelled out something altogether unexpected.
TYPIST SOUGHT FOR PECULIAR PI. SMARTS, DISCRETION A MUST. SOME DANGER INVOLVED. MUST HAVE TYPEWRITER, CITY PNEUMOTUBE NUMBER. RESPOND IN KIND.
So she takes out her own coded ad. This one a substitution code. CLEVER DISCRETE TYPIST SEEKS PECULIAR PI FOR PAYING POSITION. READY TO RELOCATE. SEND DETAILS TO…
The details arrive in the form of a manila folder full of handwritten notes with three 10 dollar bills attached with a paper clip. On the inside of the stiff folder, a tiny key attached with cellophane tape. Along with this, a blank sheet of paper bearing the name WONDERLY INVESTIGATIONS, a picture of an eye, a black cat and two crossed pistols like heraldry at the top. The application of a warm iron reveals:
DEAR MISS BROWN:
I like a gal who asks about the salary first. We need somebody with a head on their shoulders in this two-bit operation.
Thanks to you doll, for lightening the load here. I figure if anyone can crack my personal ads, deciphering my chicken scratch notes won’t be a problem. Despite what it looks like, I am not suffering from the palsy or from a mental breakdown. Just never paid attention during penmanship. Type them up, make me neat little file, and send the file back to PNEUMO #JWI28209. Here’s your first week’s salary in advance so you know I’m on the level.
As for the little extra on the inside of the folder. Well, I’m sure a bright kid like you can figure it out. Look forward to our ongoing partnership.
Jack Wonderly, LPD (Licensed Peculiar Detective)
Now, there are stories that start with a red velvet curtain, and the susurrus murmur of crowd in their best gowns, their stiffest ties. A tight white spotlight, and the heat from the footlights like a radiator. And you don’t know what it’s going to be, but you know it’s going to be strange and exciting and maybe a little dangerous and maybe a little sad, but that pinch under your breastbone tells you that something is going to happen.
Ladies and Gentlemen. Mesdames and Messieurs. Please take your seats. The show is about to begin.
We are on the Night Train to the City. Through the dark, and through the rain (it always seems to be raining the closer you get to the City), the engine gallops over the tracks, pounding like metal hoof beats toward the shining brass and neon of the City. Somewhere between Beantown and the Big Apple, somewhere between the wars, somewhere after the Flappers but before the Bobby Soxers is the broken beating heart of this half-ruined City. Tall buildings and shiny black cars with enormous chrome tailpipes, trench coats and fedora hats, and all the women wear gloves.
Neon signs twist into the silhouette of anything you could possibly want (martini glasses, hot dogs, a steak erupts with waving heat lines, gartered legs kick out and back, one-and-two, one-and-two), and some things you should never touch in the first place. It’s a place to get lost in, a place to find silk stockings and pawned clarinets, music and hooch and the man of your dreams and the woman who shot him with a Berretta 418. You can buy anything here: crooners and tycoons, chorus girls and caped crusaders, mysterious boxes, dangerous books, you can play a hand (and maybe lose a finger) in illegal Pie Gow parlours and place bad bets in the sweating meat cellars of underground boxing clubs.
And from the black market: a French perfume that will make everyone say yes to you for twenty four hours; dinky little shops that will buy your past, shine it up and sell it back to you at three times the price and it won’t be until after you get it home again and hold it close that you realize that you never wanted to part from it in the first place. Bullets that turn to ice and leave no trace, and you could even buy a kidney if you know the right people. Dime-a-Dance Halls, the poor girl’s dresses crushed in front from wearing change belts like so many toll booth operators. I know a woman who can pour out a glass dispenser of sugar onto a table at the Automat and read your future in the white grains, and I know another who can take hold of your sugar bowl or your watch, and tell you (within a reasonable accuracy) the last conversation held in its vicinity.
Through the dark and through the rain, the Night Train to the city is a Local, not an Express. Of course. Because it has to stop at every one-horse, two-cow, three-stoplight town along the way to pick up its nightly shipment of aspirations: young men clutching letters in their hands: meet me at the station, I’ll be carrying a spray of violets, young women with cardboard suitcases filled with sheet music and a stack of 8×10 glossy photos of a girl who only vaguely resembles the girl her mother knows, and the one good silk dress she saved for months to buy from a mail order catalog. Every tweed jacket and A-line skirt headed to University dragging the weight of their family’s, their whole town’s expectations, and believe me when I tell you there are few chains heavier than those.
And not just young people either, although past a certain age, say 50 or 60, the numbers seem to drop off. By that age, you’ve usually decided either to stay put, stay anchored to the place where you are already, the weight of the life you’ve built either a comfort or a fortress – or, you’re already there, and have made for yourself a different kind of castle. Not everyone stays, and not everyone means to. Some are just there to visit their sweetheart at University, to see their daughter dance in a show, or see their cousin marry that girl he ran off with. Some people who intend to stay forever return in a week, and some who only meant go for the day live there still.
But three times a week the Night Train stops to pick them all up, dreamers and visitors alike, and she carries them in her brass and steel heart through the night and through the rain to meet whatever it is they are going to meet.
And this is where we begin, in the swaying carriage of the Night Train, all brass angel’s wings and repeating patterns on the carpet, all mismatched luggage, and your second best pair of shoes.
Want to keep reading? You totally can.