The Case of the Empty Casket

— Marisa Roemer

There is a peculiar type of rain in Scotland that comes not from any one direction, but rather from all directions at once. Miss Beatrice Walker found herself angling an ineffectual umbrella against just such a downpour, but every way she tried turned out to be the wrong way. In defiance of the laws of physics, meteorology, and common courtesy, the rain soaked her cerulean gown, rising to her knees like a spreading ink stain.

Walking was almost unnecessary. Stopping was impossible. The gusting Edinburgh wind, responsible for the misbehavior of the umbrella, drove Beatrice up Hanover Street as if she were a sailing vessel, eventually washing her up on the shores of a prim sandstone building. Fortunately, this happened to be her destination. Beatrice was whisked inside the door of the Angel Tea Room, umbrella and all, by an elegant and surprisingly firm hand.

“There has to be,” Beatrice said, shuddering like a wet cat, “a way to make a better umbrella. Oiled silk does not suffice. Perhaps India rubber. Do you think they could make an umbrella out of India rubber?”

“You’re dripping all over the floor,” said her sister Desdemona, the owner of the elegant hand. “And I don’t think anyone has invented a process for that yet. Leave your coat and come have a cup of tea.”

Beatrice followed her younger sister’s demands and seated herself at the table by the window. She had a watery view of trussed-up hams in the shop window across the street and of the foundations of the Royal Scottish Academy rising at the foot of the hill, its nascent masonry silent in the rain. Water does not have the same effect on construction as it does on foliage. At this rate it would be at least 1825 before the Academy building was complete.

Beatrice dropped a heavy textbook on the table, saying, “Father forgot his anatomy again.” She flipped through the pages, heavily annotated and dog-eared; illustrations of a splayed chest cavity caused the lady at the next table to send her spoon clattering into her saucer. “We’ll take it to the university after tea.”

“He can manage a lecture without it,” offered Mona, who never went by her full name if she could help it, “and once he starts applying electrical charges to the cadavers, the normal lecture goes out the window, anyways.”

The spoon lady requested her bill.

The sisters prepared to relax into quiet conversation and the muted sounds of the downpour, but no sooner had the waitress departed than a short, round man in blue-striped pantaloons went running by the window outside, pulling at his thin hair and clearly speaking aloud to himself. He disappeared into a fog of steam let off by the basement kitchens, but eight seconds later he passed by from the opposite direction, hopping like a robin on hot coals. On his third pass by the window, he finally registered that there were people behind it and, seeing the Walker sisters, rushed through the door, ran up to them, and exclaimed, “They want to see him!”

Beatrice and Mona had, in his brief and strange parade of Hanover Street, recognized the sprinter as Mr. Francis Ailan, undertaker and upholsterer by trade. They knew him well from their mother’s penchant for re-covering the parlor furniture every few months, usually in shades of grey that—to the rest of the family—seemed indistinguishable from each other. But this disheveled, wild-eyed man was nothing like his usual calm, dapper self.

“They want to see him,” Mr. Ailan repeated. “But he’s gone!”

Who is gone?” Beatrice urged.

“Mister Yaniewicz.”

And at that, Beatrice and Mona, without pausing to pay for their undelivered tea, scurried after him across the street to his shop. For they knew, as did everyone in town, that the famously mustachioed Anton Yaniewicz, eminent professor of music, had been dead since Sunday.

“He was here this morning,” Mr. Ailan explained, finally regaining coherence as he ushered the Walker sisters into the back. “Then Madame Yaniewicz sent word that she wanted to see him and would be along shortly—you know how these Eastern Europeans are about death—so I went to lift the lid, anticipating her arrival, and as you can see…”

He gestured to the coffin. It was a fine ebony wood affair, lined with plush, tufted black velvet. Very comfortable-looking, all things considered, but most definitely unoccupied.

As Beatrice and Mona began to prod the lining for any clue as to its erstwhile occupant’s whereabouts and Mr. Ailan checked to see if Mr. Yaniewicz had possibly fallen under the table, the bell on the front door let out a chilling jingle.

Popping his head up over the coffin-edge, Mr. Ailan whispered, “They’re here!”

Exchanging only the smallest sisterly glance, the ladies swept gracefully out to the front room and addressed the assembled Yaniewiczes: a softly weeping woman supported by her son and a pale, pinch-faced daughter.

Beatrice began, “Madame Yaniewicz, we are so very sorry for your loss. You are fortunate in your choice of Mister Ailan, though. Not an undertaker in a hundred would do what he has just done.”

She turned her eyes on Mr. Ailan, fixing him with her stare.

“No, no… I didn’t do anything,” Mr. Ailan stammered.

Miss Yaniewicz furrowed her brow quizzically.

“Don’t be so modest,” Mona continued. “Why, his fabric distributor was here not a moment ago and Mister Ailan could not have been more vocal on your behalf. Apparently the man sent in some appalling, second-rate fabric, passing it off as the best quality, and Mister Ailan simply would not have it.”

“He said it would be a disgrace to Mister Yaniewicz’s memory to line his place of eternal slumber with such rubbishy stuff,” Beatrice picked up.

“And that he disdained to present a man of such stature to his grieving family in any state lower than perfection,” Mona finished.

“Did you?” Mrs. Yaniewicz sniffled. Even her sniffle had a heavy Polish accent.

“Did I?” Mr. Ailan looked bewildered, as Beatrice and Mona nodded encouragingly. “I mean, I did.”

Beatrice continued, “Which is why…” She raised her eyebrows suggestively in Mr. Ailan’s direction.

He caught on. “Which is why—though it pains me, dear lady—I cannot allow you to see Mister Yaniewicz until all is in proper readiness.”

“This is so distressing. I had hoped…” Mrs. Yaniewicz could not go on and ended in tears.

“I think she might, just for a moment,” her steady son suggested.

Mr. Ailan whispered, “Owing to the delay, he is not in a state of the greatest dignity at the moment. I am afraid it might upset your mother further. The, well, the preparation table…”

He let the words hang in the air.

“Let’s just leave, Mother. I said this was morbid and pointless anyways,” said the pinch-faced daughter.

“Rose,” her brother said warningly. “You’re upsetting Mamma.” The children had been raised in Scotland and sounded nothing like their wailing mother. “Perhaps we can wait while you—“

Rose Yaniewicz interrupted, “We’ll be on our way. Good day.”

Mr. Ailan began, “I am so sorry for the delay, but I would not for the world—“

“Quite all right,” Rose said, ushering her family through the door.

The bell rang again, punctuating the sudden stillness. Beatrice leapt to action, “Now then, how did anyone get a body out of here in the middle of the day without being noticed?”

“Not through the front, I’ve been here all morning,” Mr. Ailan noted. “And even walking out the back door, people would notice someone hauling a corpse.”

“Perhaps because of the rain, no one saw,” suggested Mona, as they proceeded to the back door of the shop, which exited onto a narrow close. The sun, also in the strange ways of Scottish weather, was now shining brightly.

“It’s market day,” Mr. Ailan explained. “There were tradesmen in and out all morning. Everyone took deliveries today.”

“Then there must be at least one witness,” Mona said.

“Unless no one knew what they were witnessing,” said Beatrice as she looked at the service entrance of the butcher next door. “Mister Ailan, does your cellar connect with your neighbor?”

“It does, in fact.”

“And rigor mortis is long passed, I presume. So he’d have been more…”

“Pliable,” Mona suggested. “Easier to move.”

The misses Walker had never been what could be called squeamish. They were proper, but practical. Owing to their father, they had more medical training than half the physicians in Edinburgh, and Mr. Ailan felt comforted by their competence, allowing them to treat his back stoop as a crime scene. Which, he supposed, it was.

“Your thief could have come in through the basement and taken Mister Yaniewicz out through the butcher’s. Well-wrapped, no one would notice. He’d appear to be a rather cumbersome side of beef, nothing more,” said Beatrice.

“And if he was in several pieces, it’s less conspicuous still,” said Mona.

Mr. Ailan, who was no stranger to a bone saw, could only agree.

“Why, though?” Beatrice went on. “It’s a particularly daring crime. Who would steal his body with so many people nearby? Was he wearing any valuables?”

“None at all,” Mr. Ailan said, shaking his head assuredly.

“Or it could have been to prevent a closer inspection of the body itself. Was there anything strange about him? Punctures? Discolorations,” asked Mona.

“Poison does leave signs in the corpse,” Beatrice agreed. “Or an attack. Strangulation? Other trauma?”

“There were bruises, but that’s not uncommon,” said Mr. Ailan. “Definitely not around his neck, though.”

“I think we can safely say how the body departed,” said Beatrice, “but we won’t know where it has gone until we know who has taken it, and why.”

“Who needed Mister Yaniewicz to disappear? Who had reason to kill him or do something to the body that would not bear closer inspection?” Mona’s brow furrowed, reminding Beatrice of Rose Yaniewicz’s face before she removed her family from the shop. Why did she so willingly hurry them away?

“His family,” said Beatrice. “Charity and malice both start at home.”

So, too, did their line of investigation. To the Yaniewicz house Beatrice and Mona promptly went; bluntly asking Madame Yaniewicz if anyone might have been poisoning her husband was out of the question. They could also not draw undue attention to Mr. Ailan’s unfortunate problem.

No, the Walker sisters knew it was pointless to approach the family, but no one knew more about the Yaniewicz family than their servants. No one ever knew more about any family than the servants. From loyal retainers to gabbing parlor maids, they were the backbone of a household, knew its secrets, knew its skeletons, knew more about a family’s lurking monsters and petty backstabbing than any family knew itself. A household staff was a living, breathing entity with multiple intelligences working as one to ensure that, to the rest of the world, their family looked the picture of happiness.

Thus, a householder might never know of his good wife’s indiscretions, but his valet and her lady’s maid most definitely will. If there were any tales to be told about the Yaniewiczes, the servants would be the ones to tell them, and they would definitely tell them to Beatrice and Mona.

Illness was the great social leveler, and as they attended their father in his rounds of patients, the girls had made friends above stairs and below. Beatrice and Mona were good listeners, and being listened to was not something to which most servants were accustomed. Somehow, being treated as human went a long way to loosening tongues.

So, to the grand front door of 35 George Street—situated conveniently for Mr. Yaniewicz directly across from the Music Hall—they did not go. They went through a winding back alley just off Hanover Street and knocked on the kitchen door. Within moments they were seated comfortably in the housekeeper’s room, ensconced with tattie scones and cups of tea, trying to avoid displaying the urgency they felt.

Mrs. MacDiarmid seated herself opposite them as Mrs. Stuart, the cook, settled down on a cushioned bench against the wall. Beatrice and Mona asked after their health, happy to hear that Mrs. MacDiarmid’s sprained ankle was entirely healed and offering recommendations for the cook’s nervous headaches.

And, of course, they offered their condolences.

“But then, I suppose you’ve all had time to prepare,” said Beatrice, as if she knew what she was talking about. “He’s been in poor health for some time, I understand.”

“Not really to speak of, Miss Walker,” replied Mrs. MacDiarmid. “No more than would be expected of any aging man.”

“No change in the last few weeks, even? Sometimes these things come on so quickly,” Mona suggested.

“Right as rain,” the housekeeper informed them. “We were all rather shocked.”

“Sometimes you don’t even realize something was wrong until later. Was he off his food? Maybe complained of it tasting odd… not that it had anything to do with you,” Beatrice reassured the cook, while thinking: could it have something to do with you? “Some… illnesses manifest that way.” Illnesses. Poisons.

“Not a complaint in the world, and he had a healthy appetite to the end,” Mrs. MacDiarmid assured them.

“And it’s not only food,” said Mona. “There could be headaches…” Both employees shook their heads. “Strange rashes? Muscle spasms? Ringing in the ears?” They looked at her with wide eyes. “That does happen sometimes,” she offered apologetically.

“I’m afraid it was just an ordinary heart attack. That happens, too,” said Mrs. Stuart.

Beatrice and Mona were starting to agree. But they had not quite given up, yet. They had not forgotten Rose Yaniewicz’s nonchalance toward her father’s death, nor how she speedily seized the opportunity to leave Mr. Ailan’s shop, body unseen. It was as if she knew there was nothing to see.

“It is so easy to miss signs of poor health, if a person is as busy as Mister Yaniewicz must have been,” Beatrice started again. “Our father is always working in his study. Half the time we have to bring him supper. I suppose Miss Yaniewciz did that for her father, too. Brought him his meals?”

Mrs. Stuart laughed. “Good Lord, Miss Walker, Miss Rose has never lifted a finger for anyone other than herself. And even then, she’s not very good at it. No one ever brought him his tray but myself.”

“And life will only get harder for her now that her father’s gone. Her brother’s an even greater cheapskate than her father was, and he inherited everything. Oh, she’ll hate to be begging him for her allowance,” added Mrs. MacDiarmid.

“Miss Yaniewicz inherited nothing from her father?” asked Mona.

“Nothing at all. We were all a bit surprised, but then, you just never know about people,” said the housekeeper.

Dejected, Beatrice and Mona took their leave. No clues of poisoning, no sign of foul play, and their best suspect did not gain at all by her father’s demise. The son benefitted, but again, there was no indication of murder. Or none that had been noticed. Or it could have been someone completely unrelated to the family.

As they walked out the back door, several boys arrived with packages from Christie’s Dress Shop, brightly colored boxes stacked above their heads.

“Delivery for Miss Rose Yaniewicz,” said the eldest boy. “Could you sign, please, madam?”

Beatrice and Mona skirted around the towers of boxes, walking away as the housekeeper came to the door.

“I suppose these are all on credit?” Mrs. MacDiarmid asked grimly, taking the bill.

“Oh no, madam, paid for in full two days ago.”

Which struck an odd chord with Beatrice. “How could a woman with no income and obligated to her stingy father and brother afford such a large order from Christie’s? She’s obviously come into some money, if not from her father.”

And, suddenly, the combination of a missing corpse and nine new petticoats gave Beatrice a very good idea where Mr. Yaniewicz might be.

“I think it’s time to return father’s book,” she said.

Hailing a hansom cab, the girls made their way quickly to the college medical buildings. There were many places a cadaver might be laid away, ready for use, but only one held imminent grotesque consequences for the earthly remains of Anton Yaniewicz.

Running into Dr. Walker’s office, Beatrice dropped the heavy textbook on his desk and asked, “Is there a class in the Anatomy Theatre today?”

“There is,” he replied. “Why—?”

But the girls had already gone.

They raced down the hall and up the stairs to the lecture room, bursting in to see a grey-haired surgeon standing in front of a diagram of human musculature and poised with a sturdy scalpel at the base of a cadaver’s jaw.

And protruding from behind that hand was the luxuriant moustache for which Mr. Yaniewicz had been famous, undiminished in death.

“We’re going to be needing him,” Beatrice cut in, imperiously. And, in as dignified a manner as possible, she and Mona wheeled the gurney out into the hall, with the mouths of the professor and his students falling agape.

And so it was that the body of Anton Yaniewicz was returned safely to his casket. Beatrice and Mona forever won themselves a place in the heart of Mr. Ailan, and Mr. Ailan learned the important lesson of locking the cellar door, now that he knew the departed went for fifteen pounds apiece.

The hysterical Madame Yaniewicz was never the wiser to the fact that her daughter had sold her husband’s body to Resurrection Men for spending money. Rose was the first person to do so, but not likely the last. There was a healthy demand for corpses in Edinburgh. It was, after all, a university town, and a sense of entitlement does the strangest things to people.

 

 

Marisa Roemer is an educator, attorney, and editor at Black Hill Press.