Authors: Evelyn Archer
THE STRANGE FILES
OF MODESTY BROWN
FILE #1: THE NIGHT
By Evelyn Archer
The Night Train by Evelyn Archer. Published by Harlow Gold
Publications, Providence, RI, 02906
© 2016 Evelyn Archer
All rights reserved. No portion of
this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher,
except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For permissions contact:
Cover and Book Design by Jessica
Author photo by Olivia Sauerwein.
Thanks to everyone who helped get this little novelette on her feet. Jessica
Herron, Design Goddess. I want to rub that website on my face like it’s a
pussycat. Spencer Crockett, for Copyediting Sorcery, for being the Wizard of
Continuity Errors. Couldn’t have done it without you, old thing. Amy Lynn Budd,
for many things, Modesty’s name among them. Vanessa Gilbert, for always
thinking this was a good idea. Speaking of good ideas, thanks to Jessica Abel
from the “Out on the Wire” podcast and Google Group, who was the first person
to suggest self-publishing. Okay that’s not entirely true. The very first
person was Maureen Taylor, so thanks to you for planting that seed so long ago.
Thanks to all the baristas and counter help at the Seven Stars Bakery on Hope
Street, where much of this was written. Special thanks go to some folks I don’t
actually *know*, but were nonetheless instrumental in making this story. Kathe
Koja, for encouraging me to do what “rings my cherries”. Catherynne Valente,
who through her own books, gave me permission to tell a story like this one.
And Amanda Palmer who encouraged me to Ask.
For Allan. Of course. You are the cheese to my macaroni, you are the tommy to
my gun. You are the bee’s knees. You are the cat’s pajamas. This is for
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 (
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.
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.
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 being read 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.
perhaps it is. Who am I to judge?
This is the story that begins with a mysterious message.
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).
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.
SOUGHT FOR PECULIAR PI. SMARTS, DISCRETION A MUST. SOME DANGER INVOLVED. MUST
HAVE OWN TYPEWRITER, OWN CITY PNEUMOTUBE NUMBER. RESPOND IN KIND.
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
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:
like a gal who asks about the salary first. We need somebody with a head on
their shoulders in this two-bit operation.
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.
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.
Wonderly, LPD (Licensed Peculiar Detective)
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.
and Gentlemen. Mesdames and Messieurs. Please take your seats. The show is
about to begin.
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.
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.
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 can 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.
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 8x10 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.
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.
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.
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.
here sits our heroine, Modesty Brown, wearing a coat of red wool. The very
large pockets are decorated with flat red braid, as are the very wide cuffs. It
is brand spanking new and very smart besides. She has left her trunk with the
porter, and protectively tucks a hard case with a handle between herself and
the window. It is a brand new Underwood Noiseless Portable Typewriter. The coat
and the typewriter are the only things new about her. The coat, the typewriter,
and her name. The new coat hides a jersey dress mended over so many times
at the elbow that there's nothing left to mend but hope and desperation. Her
gloves are a bit overlarge, a fading coffee stain on the inside left wrist is
shaped faintly like a mouse.
conductor is all stiff blue coat and shining buttons. He's all pocket watch,
and ticket punch and false gruffness. He is all promise and anticipate.
reaches into her pocket and it is so deep it swallows her arm almost to the
elbow. Inside, her train ticket is safe, along with a full packet of
Chesterfield cigarettes, a box of matches, and the stub of a pencil. She hands
the ticket over, tries not to smile. He brandishes his ticket punch, gives it a
couple of practice squeezes, then punches the ticket with a flash of metal
said, you're going all the way in. To the City."
you go, Miss." He hands her back the punched ticket, a hieroglyph of
negative space, and lifts his finger to the brim of his blue and brass cap. He
sees women like this every night. And the fresh and the new of a first time
traveler is like a spotlight on her round face.
you find it," he says.
you for choosing the Night Train. Dining Car is officially closed for the
evening. The Club Car's open all night, but it's strictly cold sandwiches after
midnight. Remember to keep your bags and packages with you at all times. The
Night Train is not responsible for any theft or destruction of property."
runs her hands over the typewriter case. "I'll bear that in mind."
a good trip."
he is gone, leaving behind a spray of popped paper rounds on the patterned
carpet, like the remnants of a party.
train rocks away into the night and with each rhythmic chug she gets further
and further from where she was. She can feel her old life dissipating behind
her, like the trail of a comet or the exhaust from an airplane, leaving her
gloriously empty and free. She'd been anxious before the conductor came; so
much was there to go wrong. Lost tickets, a bag left behind. She'd expected to
feel calm once her trip was well underway, expected the fretfulness to be
replaced with serene repose. Instead, her fluttering fear spreads out and away
from her, along with the comet-tail of her life before, and it changes to
something she cannot name, but which is entirely wonderful.
in the carriage, she rummages in the bottom of her carpet bag for a flimsy
paper notebook. Quietly, she rips a strip from a sheet and spreads it on the
typewriter case. She takes the pencil stub from her pocket and scribbles.
is not lost. Empty is a cup. I wonder what will come
fill me up.
does not read it over, nor even glance at it. She rolls it into a tight
cylinder, and lights it with the matches from her pocket. She holds the tiny
torch to the end of the Chesterfield in her mouth and lights it. Drops the poem
into the sand of a tall brass ashtray shaped like a woman holding up a bowl and
watches it blacken and curl, and in a matter of moments all evidence of it is
leans her head back, and exhales a cloud of smoke, and stretches her toes out
in her beaten leather oxfords. She spreads her arms and toes and fingers out in
the empty train carriage, the way she does on a fresh set of bedsheets or in
the ocean on a warm day. She runs her hand over the sturdy black case of her
Underwood Portable Typewriter, and taps it with her unpolished nails.
only word she can think is: