Nobody noticed when Inspector Christian Little of Scotland Yard disappeared, and nobody was looking for him when he was found. A black steamer trunk appeared at Euston Square Station sometime during the night and remained unnoticed until early afternoon of the following day. The porter discovered it after the one o’clock train had departed, and he opened the trunk when it proved too heavy for him to lift.
He immediately sent a boy to find the police.
Detective Inspector Walter Day was first at the scene, and he directed the many bobbies who arrived after him. He had come to London only the week before. This was his first crime scene and he was clearly nervous, but the blue-uniformed bobbies knew their job well and did not require much from him. They pushed back the commuters who had gathered round the trunk and began to scour the station for possible weapons and other clues.
An hour later, Dr Bernard Kingsley entered the station all in a rush and headed for the knot of people gathered on the gallery of the booking office. The trunk had been left against the railing overlooking the platform. Kingsley brushed past Inspector Day and knelt on the floor.
He opened his satchel and drew out a cloth tape measure, snaked it between his fingers, moving it up and across.The trunk was a standard size, two by three by three, glossy black with tin rivets along the seams. He closed the lid and brushed a finger across the top. It was clean; no dust.
With his magnifying glass in hand, he scuttled around the trunk, scrutinizing the corners for wear. He licked his finger and rubbed a seam along one side where black paint had been applied to cover a crack. He was aware of Day hovering over his shoulder and, less intrusive, the bobbies at the station’s entrance pushing back fresh onlookers who had arrived from the street outside.The lower classes were always out for a spectacle, while the better-off walked briskly past, ignoring the to-do.
His preliminary examination out of the way, Kingsley opened and shut the trunk’s lid several times, listening to the hinges, then eased it back until the edge of the lid rested against the floor. He peered into the trunk for a long moment, ignoring the sickly sweet odor of death.The body inside was folded in on itself, knotted and mashed into the too-small space like so much laundry. One shoe was missing, and Kingsley presumed it was somewhere at the bottom of the trunk, under the body. The man’s suit was gabardine, the hems lightly worn, dirt pressed into the creases. His arms and legs were broken and wrapped around one another.
Kingsley took a pair of tongs from his satchel and used them to move an arm out of the way so he could see the man’s face. The skin was pearl grey and the eyes and mouth were sewn shut with heavy thread, the pattern of parallel stitches like train tracks across the man’s lips. Kingsley looked up at Day. When he spoke, his voice was low and measured.
“Have you identified him yet?”
Day shook his head no.
“It’s one of you,” Kingsley said.
Mother and Father were sharing a bed. The Harvest Man hesitated in the open bedroom door, staring down at his bare feet, his face flushing scarlet beneath the plague mask. Mother and Father had always slept in separate rooms. He was certain of it. But perhaps their habits had changed over time. That made perfect sense. If they had remained the same, he felt sure he would have found them long ago.
Mother stirred in her sleep and the Harvest Man finally moved. He wasn’t ready for her to wake up. He uncorked a bottle of ether and placed a folded face cloth over the rim, tipped the bottle up and held it until cold liquid soaked through to his fingers. He set the open bottle on the floor next to the doorjamb, where he knew the liquid would silently turn to gas.
Everything always changing, things disappearing without a trace.
He moved forward in slow motion, keeping his head and shoulders straight up and down, only bending at the knees. He made no sound. Mother stirred again, rolled onto her back, and the Harvest Man moved around the foot of the bed to her side. He preferred to deal with Father first. Father was bigger and stronger and, if he woke early, he always caused trouble. But Father was snoring and Mother was moving, on the verge of waking. Better to tend to her.
He knelt by the bed and gazed at Mother’s sleeping face. The room was dark, but the window was open and the moon shone bright. He could see well enough even through his thick lenses. Mother was pretty. He thought she had always been pretty, but she didn’t look like he remembered. It took him a moment to categorize the differences. Fortunately, he had a very good memory for faces. Mother’s nose was slightly larger now, and was turned up at the tip. Her eyes were spaced closer together and her lips were thinner. She had lost a little weight, and her forehead was wider, her hair a different color, her neck longer, her cheekbones more prominent. He shook his head and the heavy beak at the front of his mask moved back and forth. Why did they always make so much work for him? They shouldn’t change so very much. It always made him cross.
Mother opened her eyes and they were not the same color as he remembered. He hesitated, confused, but when she opened her mouth he clapped the ether-soaked cloth over it, held it tight to her face. She struggled for a moment, then relaxed and her arm fell limp over the side of the bed. He picked up her hand and placed it on her chest.
Around on the other side of the bed, Father shifted his position and so the Harvest Man leaned far across Mother’s limp body, stretched out his arm, the moist cloth pinched between the ends of his two longest fingers, and shared the ether fumes with Father. When both parents were insensible, he left that room and explored the house. He had been in a hurry earlier and had bolted for the attic without taking his customary tour.
There were two children, both boys, sleeping in a small bed tucked under the staircase. He pushed the plague mask up to the top of his head so he could see them better, enjoying the feel of fresh air on his cheeks and chin. He rubbed his ear. Sometimes it still itched where the top of it had been pulled away. The mask’s goggles rested against the back of his head and the long pointed beak stood straight up like the face of a baby bird straining for food. The Harvest Man stood and watched the children’s chests move gently up and down. He gazed without affection at the nearest boy’s chapped lips, which were parted, the upper lip deeply grooved and dark pink. The boy’s eyelids fluttered. The Harvest Man placed his drying face cloth between the children, trusting that the remaining essence of ether would keep them from waking.
He climbed up the stairs above the sleeping boys and retrieved his boots and knife and a coiled length of stout rope from the attic. He sat on the top step and pulled the boots on. He tugged the plague mask back down into place and adjusted it so that it wouldn’t slip from his face while he worked.
He decided to ignore the boys. He didn’t know them. They might be his brothers, but he couldn’t remember their faces and so it would do no good to remove their masks. He would ask Mother and Father about the other children when they woke later. Then they could determine together what was to be done. As a family.
But first things first. Before they could be a family again, he would have to remove Mother and Father’s masks to reveal their true features. He smiled, excited, and stood, picked up the curved knife and the rope and trotted down the stairs, no longer concerned about making noise. He couldn’t wait to see his parents’ faces again.
How happy they would be that he had finally found them.