The Music Boxes

The outskirts of London have changed dramatically since I have set foot upon their cobbled streets. Now markets with dull, chipped paint stand amongst unkempt houses, forgotten by their owners who now only remember the address of the local pub. Monstrous barns and useless soil reside where dense thickets of grass once stood with white, milky flowers peeking though. The only things that remain unchanged are the decrepit streets waiting for unsuspecting travelers to fall into their nooks, and the boys hiding in the alleyways waiting to rob the unwary person. Both boys and streets sport menacing grins, etched on their facades from the years.

If you continue past London, to the edge of M--, you'll find a lonely gravel road as narrow as they come. The path winds through a forest of fern taller than most men. No one goes down the path, not even the most feared criminal, because of what lies at the end of it.

The end brings you to a frail house engulfed in ivy and moss so that only a few mismatched bricks are able to peer through. Oversized windows swallow up what is left of the house, boarded up so that no one can look inor out. The door is missing from the time when a brave soul desperately needed firewood, and splinters reveal the hastiness of the job. Two single shadows grace the right side of the door, fading from age, but it is almost certain that this is where the address once breathed. If a traveler is bold enough, they may walk up to the house's fa'ade and notice pewter in the soil, the decayed remains of the address. It is quite clear that this house has been abandoned for some time now, half a century to be exact.

Why would someone be so frightened of this ghost of a house? It is not so much the house, as the story behind it that holds fast to people's souls. I will relate the story of this house to you; of how a merciless murderer resided in this house, and of how he got away.

The year is now 1899, but in order for my story to hold true I must go back in time 55 years. Back then before this case came around, I was the top inspector in the borough of M--. London's smallest borough, M--, had been a quiet town for many years. As such, most of the cases I dealt with were petty thefts, those made by the chagrin boys I described earlier. To tell you the truth, I was getting rather bored. I began to wish for a case of mass proportions, one that would keep me on my toes. The saying really does ring true: Be careful what you wish for.

I was dealing with a vandal on the morning the case came in. Or rather, a woman came running in screaming.

Murder! There's been a murder at the Brennan estate.

After finishing her statement the pale woman promptly fainted on the spot. Everyone became frantic. The desk secretaries all began fanning their faces with their hands. The other inspectors ran frantically around the room attempting to either wake the woman or collect their things to get on the case. The man I was interrogating, who I found to not be quite right in the head, kept laughing and mimicking the woman's fainting. I seemed to be the only one to remain calm through the entire ordeal.

As all this was going on, I attempted to grasp the attention of the troubled vandal, who was still laughing insanely. Finding this task quite impossible, I returned the convict to his cell and made way for the Brennan residence with several inspectors from the station.

What have we got so far, boys? I gasped for air, having sprinted in order to catch up with my cohorts. Yes, this case was definitely going to keep me on my toes, I thought, as I glanced over to my associates. All of them were still a bit frazzled from the news that had just come. They were a young lot, and many had not stepped out of the streets of M--, where murder was a distant fear.

However, one-my partner-spoke up. Artie Doyle was a young lad back then, but so was I. He had a strong jaw-line, very American. He had come over to England by boat when still a boy, rich, both in love for Shakespeare and in a thick New York accent. Surprise took him when he discovered a lust for Scotland Yard and that his love for Shakespeare had found an equal. Now he types up flowery reports for me, and they're damn good too.

Sir, it appears that the maid...

The woman at the station? I said, interrupting his report.

Yes, that's the one, boss, the boy continued, she appears to be the one that found the body, but given the condition we left her in, it's needless to say that the information she gave us is limited.

Please cut the crap. The boy had taken to calling me boss for some unknown reason, which both stained his language and annoyed me.

Sorry, boss. So anyways, that woman, he paused, careful to keep the conversation as blunt as possible, she didn't say much, like I said. We're pretty much going into the case blindly, Boss. All the information we got is that it happened at that Brennan house.

So, that's all we have so far I drifted off in thought for a minute before turning on my partner. You don't seem surprised about this at all. A bit odd, eh?

Boss, I grew up in New York. The city is drowning in murder and rape. It's nothing new to me, unlike for them. He nodded over to the rest of the inspectors who were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Artie was right. These boys had never experienced murder, nor had I. Still, I wasn't a nervous wreck, and I was extremely grateful to Artie for not interrogating me about that fact. I had reasons...

We arrived at the Brennan estate a few minutes after my conversation with Artie had ended. The estate was enormous, and the walk up the drive took about as long as the walk to the gate. At that time, the Brennans were the most prominent family in M--, and for many miles around for that matter. Mr. Brennan was a close friend of the prime minister, therefore receiving a plot of land that was incidentally half of M--. Mrs. Brennan rarely left the residence, though she could be seen outside when opening the doors for guests at her lavish parties.

As we got closer to the door, we could hear a soft tinkling sound. The full impact hit us as we ripped the locked doors open. The melody of a childhood rhyme pierced the stale air as it mingled with the smell of dried blood and rot. Bloody footprints graced the floor, leading away from the parlor- where the music's origin was. We all entered at once, getting partially wedged in the doorway before freeing ourselves and fully taking in the sight that befell us.

Mrs. Brennan was sprawled on the floor, completely bloodied. Her skin was a yellowing purple from the lack of blood circulation. Most of her hair was thrown feet from her body, and the strands left on her head were sickeningly glued together by caked blood from her empty scalp. Her stomach appeared bloated, and it was apparent that she had been carrying a child. Her face was most horrifying of all. Claw marks on her cheeks, left no doubt by fingernails, were etched permanently into her face. Her eyes were open, but had rolled to the back of her head so that looking at her was as if you were looking into a white abyss. Her mouth was open, gaping in an almost expectant way rather than in fear or surprise. The most peculiar thing, though, lay in Mrs. Brennan's outstretched hand.

A single trinket lay in her hand, and it was now apparent where the music had come from. The music box lay open, a pristine figure twirling with the soft chinking of music, unwary of how close danger and death lurked. The nursery song almost caused the scene that lay before us to appear innocent, had not a rotting corpse been inches away. The tune could easily be recognized as Ring Around the Rosy, ironically enough, a melody plagued by the anticipation of death in its underlying meaning.

The recognition of the tune made the scene even more sickening than it already was. Most of the inspectors couldn't handle such a sight, and they left the estate. The fact that they all had wives and children of their own aided their decision to depart. I, without wife or child, was told that I could handle it better. Besides, as I was the top inspector, I would need to be the one to handle such a tough case. Doyle stayed with me, possibly out of sympathy, but I had a feeling he knew that I couldn't handle catching the murderer on my own.

We stood in the house going over all of the evidence that could be collected. The body had been taken away already, and Mr. Brennan would be notified by telegram to return home as soon as possible. We weren't about to give him the information without making sure that he wouldn't be able to try anything drastic.

And so it was that first night on the case; just Doyle and me, and the mysterious music box, the only piece of evidence that we could find.

Hey, Boss. What do you figure this guy meant by leaving the box here? Is it some sort of callin' card or somethin'?

Well, Doyle, we're just going to have to wait and see. Just wait and see.

It appeared as if Doyle was right. It was now a week after the murder at the Brennan estate, and now three more murders had occurred. I will spare you the details, but I will say that these crimes equaled that of Mrs. Brennan's. All of the victims were females estranged from their men (it had turned out that Mr. Brennan had run off with a maid from the household never to return), and all held the same item in their left palm.

We were no closer to solving the crime than when we began, and the only evidence we had against the murderer was a collection of music boxes, each more elaborate than the next, and every one wiped clean of prints. The murderer was a sly one, one that would not be caught soon, if ever.

I was examining the music boxes, looking at them with an almost admiring eye, when Doyle came running into the station. I attempted to ignore his ranting, pretending to become very interested in a notch carved into the wooden base of the first box.

I proceeded to glance over all of the evidence when I heard a rapping at the front door, and when I unlatched the monstrous...

I gave my partner an annoyed look. Doyle, if you can't tell by now, I'm trying to ignore you. I might decide to listen to you if you would please, please, please stop wagging your tongue unnecessarily.

Sorry, Boss.

The boy's shoulders slumped a bit, and it was apparent that I had hurt him. I was sorry, but the boy needed to learn how to get the point across without rambling constantly. I went back to examining the music box's notches, but Doyle cut me short again. That young man's recovery rate was quite remarkable.

Boss? he hesitated for a moment, as if to make sure it was safe to proceed. About that knock on my door. Well, when I opened the door, there was no one out there. However, there was this.

He held out a single piece of paper. Written on it were the words Hello Again in dark red lettering. I reached into my pocket, took out my white handkerchief, and wiped my hands clean of sweat. Doyle gave me a sideways glance, but continued.

So, it appears that another murder has taken place, doesn't it?

What makes you say that? I replied, placing the handkerchief back into my pocket.

Well, Boss, the note. Doesn't it look like that's where it's pointing too?

It does Doyle, but let's not jump to conclusions.

Okay Boss... Doyle wasn't paying attention to me anymore. His eyes were now fixated on my pants pocket, keeping his gaze on it until his eyes began to slide out of focus.

Finally, he spoke up, and his gaze drew towards me. Boss, you ought to be more careful, you know. Your handkerchief is hanging out of your pocket. He pointed to the handkerchief and I quickly stuffed it into my pocket.

Doyle? Could we meet tonight and go over what little evidence we have?

Sure, Boss.

Doyle and I had gotten nothing accomplished that night. We had spent the entire night developing thousands of scenarios, each more elaborate and impossible than the next. Now, three days later, Doyle was missing. He hadn't come to work after the night we had met, and the entire department was getting worried. Doyle wasn't one to leave without telling someone, much less leave at all. So now I was left to work on the case all by myself, and I knew for a fact that there was no way the murderer would be caught if I were the only one working on it.

I entered my house after a long day at the office, weary from the workload that I had to go through during the day. Clocks and chimes hung on the walls from when I used to work in a clock shop back when I was a little kid. Whittling tools were strewn on my worktable, and wood shavings littered my floor. One of the clocks on the wall struck seven as I walked towards my dresser.

That clock's always been five minutes fast, I thought to myself as I walked past my armchair. I jumped back a bit when I noticed Doyle was sitting in it. He was staring straight at me, a glazed look etched permanently on his face.

I knew you'd be here when I came home, Doyle. I began shuffling through my drawers and shoving mismatched clothes and shoes carelessly into a suitcase. You know, the boys at the office are worried about you, wanting to know when you'll be back.

Doyle didn't say anything. He sat frozen in the seat, not even moving his gaze as I locked my suitcase. I picked up my red handkerchief and placed it in Doyle's lap. I then walked over to the door, struggling a bit with my luggage, and then slowly leaned against the nearest wall, casually lighting a cigarette.

I'm sorry Doyle, but you knew too much. Look at the bright side; you did a damn good job of keeping me on my toes. As I picked up my suitcase to leave, my favorite chime struck seven, and a very familiar nursery rhyme rang through the house. Bye, Doyle. I slammed the door behind me, and in-between the sound of two pewter house numbers falling into the soil I heard a soft thud inside the house. My final music box had fallen from the handkerchief, and now my chime began to sing again.

Inside Joko Jun

Joko Jun features Filipinos from around the world... musicians, writers, photographers, and other creative people.