The large metal wheels glided along the track, producing a surprisingly gentle hum, as the train moved right into the station, stopping in its own time. Once there, the passengers dismounted the vehicle, pleasantly chattering about their experience on the luxury trip that had taken them through the quaint countryside. Soon enough, the next round of riders would enter the craft and take off to enjoy the sights and relax. To many people, the Southern Belle was a method of getting away during the weekend and avoiding the bustle of city life for just a little while.
That wasn’t true for everyone, though. Standing nearest the platform where the Belle had docked was a man in a pale grey suit and a white Panama hat. Detective Dandy played with his mustache absentmindedly. There was no time to enjoy the luxury train, this was a case. As he watched the passengers depart, he thought back to the phone call that had gotten him to his current destination.
Sitting in his office just this morning, he had received a call from Captain Dale Perkins, a friend of his from the days in the police department. Every now and then Dale would call in his old colleague to help consult on a case.
“How you doin’, bud?” Dale asked.
“Just dandy,” the Detective replied, as he always would.
“Got an interesting case, lots of pieces not adding up so we’d like to have you maybe come in and take a look. See if you can put something together that we might be missing.” Dandy put his feet up on his desk thinking for a moment.
“I’d love to help but I’m sort of busy. What’s the deal?” Dale cleared his throat as Dandy pulled out his little notepad to jot down the basic facts of the case.
“High schooler named Teddy Martin, Jr. He’s been missing for three days. Mom called in and reported him gone.”
“When was the last time anyone saw him?” Dandy asked.
“Last place he’s been seen was at the Young Republicans after school program. Everyone says he’s a good kid, and wouldn’t just disappear like that without telling anybody anything.”
“Any family problems?” asked the Detective.
“Doesn’t seem like it. Dad’s a big shot at the First National Bank. But that’s one of the weird things, can’t seem to get mom and dad together at the same time. Always some conflict in their schedule, and they won’t budge.”
“Uh huh. Interesting.” Dandy continued to jot down notes, finding it odd that the father, Teddy Martin Sr., seemed to have so little to do with the case thus far. And while he found it perplexing he had, indeed, seen stranger things.
“I know it doesn’t sound like much, Dandy, but my gut is telling me there’s a lot more to this than anyone wants to admit.”
“And with a gut like that,” Dandy said with a laugh, “how can it be wrong?”
“Will you take the case or not, old man?” Dale shot back. Dandy snorted at this remark, as Dale was only a few years younger than him.
“I’ll see what I can find. Maybe it’s just some high school kids running away for the weekend.”
“Could be.” Dale said slowly. “But it could be more. So let’s get to it.” Something did strike Dandy as odd about the whole thing. Was this a simple missing persons case? Or was there more going on that truly required his expertise? Of course, there was nothing simple in the art of working a case. There was always some angle, some corner to turn, something that didn’t add up, something that needed to be solved.
Getting into his car, Dandy decided that he would first interview the father, Teddy Martin, Sr. First National Bank was, after all, just a block away from his office. It only made sense to catch the man where Dandy knew he would be. Once inside the building, Dandy began asking around. He was pointed in the direction of a nice corner office.
“He’ll be with you in a moment,” said the teller. Dandy sat looking around. It was a plush office, decorated with the usual photos of family, a small bookshelf, a mug of pens on the desk.
“Uh, er, Detective?” Came a voice at the door. Dandy looked behind him. There stood a man in his 40s, thinning hair in a crisp black suit and, he couldn’t help but notice, nervous eyes.
“Mr Martin, I presume.” replied Dandy. He stuck out his hand.
“Yes sir, that’s me. Mr., uh, Martin.” He took Dandy’s hand. The Detective uncomfortably noticed it was the weakest handshake he had ever received.
“I’m here to ask you some questions about your son.” Teddy Martin Sr. took a seat, awkwardly, and steepled his fingers together under his chin.
“Detective,” he said, “I appreciate you looking into the matter, but…” he trailed off.
“Yes?” asked Dandy.
“Well, it’s just…Teddy is a senior in high school now and I have a feeling that he and the boys are just going on a wild weekend, is all. You’d be surprised what those Young Republicans get up to when school’s out.” He laughed and readjusted himself in his seat. Dandy knew there was more than Teddy Martin Sr. was telling him, he could see it in the eyes. After so many years on the job, he had developed a talent to tell when there was more to be said, if a person had omitted a detail. Dandy nodded, then decided to change subject.
“Are you a smoker, sir?” he asked after a moment. He had noticed when he was closer to the man that Teddy’s suit smelled heavily of smoke.
“No sir, why?” asked the banker, leaning forward. Dandy shook his head.
“Forget I mentioned it.” Dandy said, waving his hand. After a brief pause he began again. “Is there anything you can tell me about your son? Who he hung out with, where he frequented, things like that.” Teddy thought for a second.
“Well, he’s usually with his best friend, Ralph Larkins. The two of them are basically inseparable. You might start asking around his house.”
“I thank you,” said Dandy, standing up.
“Here, I’ll walk you to the door, Detective.” said Teddy. On the way out Dandy couldn’t help but notice the awkward manner with which Teddy Martin Sr. was walking. As if he had never walked in these shoes before. His feet fumbled around as he led the Detective.
“I’ll be in touch.” He said. Teddy nodded. Dandy was left with the feeling that there was more to the picture than he had been shown. Of course, he almost always had that feeling in his line of work.
Upon approaching the Martin residence Dandy felt something was amiss. There was no civilian car in the driveway, only a cop sitting in her vehicle. Dandy approached the cruiser.
“Officer.” he said, flashing his ID.
“Dandy.” She replied.
“Alright to go in and have a look?” he asked.
“Well, sure. But there’s no one in there.” She said. “And no ones coming back.”
“How do you mean?” Dandy inquired, confused.
“Not even an hour ago, Mr. Martin robbed his own bank and we think the pair of them have left town. No one has seen them or their car since this morning. “
“You don’t mean it.” said the incredulous Detective, stroking his mustache.
“I’m afraid so. First the son goes missing, then the parents, it’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.” She said.
“I wish I could say the same.” Dandy murmured. “Still, I’ll go in and take a look, see if there’s anything I can pick up on that maybe was missed before. Thanks.” On the way up to the front door Dandy puzzled over the robbery. He had just seen Teddy Sr., he must have robbed the bank right after Dandy left. And where could they be that no one had seen them? It didn’t make any sense.
Opening the door gingerly, Dandy looked around. Nothing seemed to look that much out of place. He paced through every room of the house methodically . One thing was curious by its very absence: the smell of smoke. It had hung so heavily on Teddy Martin Sr. that somewhere in the house would almost certainly have to duplicate that smell. But there was nothing. As he walked through the front room a small glimmer caught his eye, something metal was just barely sticking out from underneath the couch. He knelt down and picked it up, tissue in hand to preserve any sort of fingerprints that might have been left behind.
It was a watch. A woman’s watch; the time had stopped at 11:55. But, more importantly, he noticed the little date had stopped working as well. Two days ago, just after Teddy Martin Jr. had disappeared. The face of the watch was cracked, too, hinting at some kind of struggle.
“Perkins,” he said to himself, “you and yours are getting sloppy, missing something like this. But what does it mean? Clearly someone struggled with Mrs. Martin, but it couldn’t have been Mr. Martin, they’re presumed to have left town together. But…” he paused, tapping his temple gently, “no one has seen her, just him. This is most peculiar indeed.” He continued to walk through the house, making his way to the upstairs bedrooms.
“No clothes have seemed to be packed,” he observed upon entering the parents’ bedroom. There were a row of untouched suitcases that helped this theory come to his mind. Teddy’s room was also intact, including the giant poster of Ronald Reagan just above his bed. Nothing seemed to be missing from his room, either. There was very little to go on. Then he noticed, from the window looking down, a set of footprints that had been cordoned off by the police. Making his way downstairs, he exited the back of the house and studied the prints.
They were big, that of a large sized man. Boots. Probably size 13, he would guess. Following the prints back through the mud he stopped in his tracks. The further back the prints went, the smaller they got, until they were finally the size of a young woman’s foot.
“What in the world is going on here?” he asked himself, making rapid scribbles in his little notebook. The footprints lead to the small patch of trees behind the house where they eventually disappeared. Dandy scratched his head and walked slowly back to his car. He tapped his pen against his pad.
“Maybe Mr. Ralph Larkins can shed some light on this situation.” He waved at the police woman and drove off.
Unlike the Martins, Ralph Larkins was home. Dandy had gone to the high school, flashed his badge, and was looking through the records in no time. When he knocked on the door, he was greeted by Mrs. Larkins, who, upon seeing his credentials, grew worried.
“It’s nothing.” Assured Dandy gently. “I just have some questions for the boy.”
“Ralph!” Mrs. Larkins yelled. “Ralph, you better come down here right now!” The young man, thin with dark hair and wearing his letterman jacket, rushed down the stairs.
“Jeeze, ma, what’s the matter?” he said, rolling his eyes. Dandy cut in before the mother had any time to explain.
“I’m Detective John Dandy, son. I have a few questions about your friend Teddy Martin. Care to help me out?” At the mention of Teddy’s name Ralph raised an eyebrow.
“But I already told the cops everything I knew about Teddy. I haven’t seen him for three days, just like everybody else.”
“Uh huh, and tell me, son, are you a smoker?” He leaned in. There was no smell of smoke.
“Uh, no sir, I don’t touch the things.” Ralph said, shaking his head. Dandy shrugged his shoulders.
“Just curious.” The old Detective said finally.
“Uh, sure,” Ralph began, “listen, I’ll be happy to help any way I can if something’s happened to Teddy. He never goes anywhere without telling his parents, and he never stays out too late. He’s never done anything like this before.” Dandy thought for a moment.
“And did he say anything about where he might be going to you? Anything he might be doing?” Dandy asked after a brief pause. Ralph thought for a second.
“Well, he never said anything to me but…there’s this girl, Juliette Peters. She’s totally infatuated with him, you know. Maybe they’re together. I forgot about that, earlier.”
“Juliette Peters, eh?” Dandy began to feel a bit like a ping pong ball, bouncing all over the place between person to person, place to place. But even with all this trajectory, he still had no information on where Teddy Martin Jr. could have been.
“But you say she’s infatuated with him? It’s not mutual?” Ralph thought for a moment.
“Well, the truth is, Detective, Teddy talks to lots of girls, but Juliette really likes him. She’s been trying to get him to hang out with her for like two weeks. I guess I don’t really know how he feels about her.”
“Well,” said Dandy, “I think that probably speaks volumes about how he feels about the young lady.” Dandy rubbed the back of his head. It had been quite some time since he had been involved in any such high school drama.
“Thanks for your help, Ralph. I’ll be sure to keep in touch.”
“Gee, I hope you find him.” Said Ralph, staring at the ground.
“Don’t worry, son, I’ll find him.” Dandy said.
Back in his car, Dandy thought about what he had learned. There might be something to this Juliette Peters character. He felt it in his gut. There was more going on here than anyone was willing to admit, more than a simple case of high school romance and a quick weekend retreat. But he couldn’t prove anything. Not yet.
“Most peculiar.” He said to himself.
On the way to Juliette Peter’s home, Dandy began to feel like he was running out of breath. Going from location to location at such a rapid pace, well, maybe this was a young man’s game anymore. However these thoughts disappeared from his mind as he pulled up to the house. Much to his surprise, there was a strong presence of police.
“Dandy!” called Dale Perkins, waving his arms. Dandy approached the officer.
“What’s going on here, Dale?” asked the Detective.
“Well we’ve got another disappearing family, the Peters. Neighbors say they haven’t been seen in–”
“Let me guess, two days?”
“ Right. We’re going in now.” Dandy followed Perkins and a few other officers in.
“I’ll take low, you take high,” Dandy said. Dandy crept down the steps and fumbled for the light on the wall. When the room was illuminated he let out a gasp. Tied up in the middle of the room was Mr and Mrs. Martin, and beside them, Mrs. Peters, whom he recognized from the photos in the living room. There was no sign of movement from the bound forms, so Dandy moved from body to body feeling for a pulse.
He let out a great sigh and ran back up the stairs.
“Dale, they’re downstairs, alive, but they look like they’re in bad shape. Get help.”
“I’ll radio it in right away.” Dale said, beginning to rush back to his car, but Dandy caught him by the arm.
“Did you find anything upstairs?” Dandy asked.
“They’re still looking around, go ahead and have a glance.”
Upon ascending the stairs Dandy quickly studied Juliette’s room. There was a small leather wallet on the floor. Dandy examined it.
“This belongs to Mr. Martin,” he said to himself. “But what’s it doing here?” Then, finally he looked up and he saw one of his missing puzzle pieces. There, on Juliette’s dresser was an open pack of cigarettes.
“I think this might be something very important,” he said finally. He walked over to her curtains and he could smell the scent of smoke. They were hers alright. He stroked his mustache. “There continues to be more and more to this case than we can see. But I think I’m starting to see–what’s this?” He knelt down beside Juliette’s bed and came back up with a small slip of paper. A police officer came up behind him.
“What is it?” asked the officer.
“It’s a receipt for the Southern Belle. You know, that leisure train that takes you through the countryside. According to this receipt someone bought a ticket…three days ago.”
Outside, Dale was observing some footprints.
“Let me guess,” said Dandy casually, “They start off small, like a woman’s and then get much bigger.” Dale turned to his old friend.
“How’d you know?”
“Keep up, Dale.” Dandy said with a chuckle. He handed the receipt over to Perkins.
“We better check this out.” Dale said finally. He spoke into the radio on his shoulder, alerting some units to intercept the Southern Belle as it docked. But, before he was done, Dandy was gone.
Sitting in the railroad station, Dandy waited for the Southern Belle to pull in, making its full stop before its next voyage. Dandy stood there, reviewing the facts of the case thus far. Finally, when the train pulled in, wheels screeching to a halt, he stood up and approached the locomotive. Flashing his credentials he boarded the vehicle.
“What’s this about?” asked the conductor.
“I’m investigating a kidnapping.” Dandy said flatly.
“On my train?”
“Quickly,” said Dandy, “do you have a smoking car?”
“Sure, it’s right that way.” Said the conductor, pointing his finger. Dandy followed it and began his way toward the smoking car. Standing just at the entrance to the car, he caught a whiff of smoke. Someone was still in there. Dandy flung the door open and was greeted by Teddy Martin Jr., who sat smoking a cigarette. But he wasn’t alone. Beside him was–
“Teddy Martin Jr.” Two identical Teddys sat side by side, one smoking, one with a bruised eye.
“Don’t come any closer, old man.” Said the smoking Teddy. The bruised Teddy let out a stifled cry. Dandy could see the barrel of a small gun jammed into his ribs.
“Don’t do anything rash now, it’s all over. Police are on the way, Juliette.” The Smoking Teddy let his jaw drop.
“No, you can’t have figured it out, nobody knows about me!”
“Sorry to say you used your abilities too much, you left too many threads behind for me to tie together. The footprints, the smell of smoke where there shouldn’t have been. I just kept pulling and here we are.” Teddy, holding the gun, smiled once again.
“It doesn’t matter what you say, I’m Teddy.” Then, suddenly her features changed, her face morphed and transformed until, like a metamorphosing butterfly, she was Teddy Martin Sr. “Oh, but now I’m Mr. Martin.” Once again she changed, her features now that of Mrs. Martin. Then she grew, shoulders widening, to the man with the big boots, until finally, gun firmly in hand she melted back down to Juliette Peters.
“Juliete Peters,” Dandy paused for a moment, “you’re a shapeshifter. You pretended to be Mr. Peters to get the money and then skip town with his son. You became a big man to attack and tie up the parents after they reported Teddy missing. Didn’t want anyone on your trail. Attacked your own mother because she probably knew too much. You left them to die. They won’t though, they’re fine.” At this, Teddy, the real Teddy, broke in.
“You’re some kind of freak, Juliette! I don’t understand.” At the word freak, Juliette raised the gun to Teddy’s head.
“Now, Teddy, is that anyway to talk to the one you love? Hush now, me and the old man are having a discussion.”
“I’ve read books, done my research, there’s tales of shapeshifters in cultures all around the world. I’m not your average detective kid, I knew there was something wrong about this case ever since I saw you as Mr. Martin back in the bank.”
“Detective, everything I did, I did for love.” Said Juliette.
“We are not in love.” cried Teddy.
“Teddy, please keep quiet.” Dandy said. “Put the gun down Juliette. You don’t want to kill anyone. Slowly removing the gun from Teddy’s head, Juliette coldly pointed it at the Detective.
“Shut up old man, I’ll do what I–” she was interrupted, as just then the train lurched forward and then came to a sudden stop. Dandy, who had steeled himself on a rail overhead, let out a grin. Juliette and Teddy flew forward, the gun launching from her hand.
“Just in time, conductor.” Dandy said to himself. He had given the conductor orders that, in ten minutes, he should start and stop the train as suddenly as possible, and it had worked. With a sudden swiftness, Dandy kicked the gun out of reach. Teddy Martin Jr. shot up and stood next to the detective.
“It’s over, Juliette.” Dandy said, his body firmly between her and the weapon. Juliette looked up, angry and desperate.
“You can’t stop me!” She cried, trying to scramble toward the gun. In mid move she transformed herself into Dandy
“I’ll kill you, at least!” she said in his voice. Dandy struggled with himself. They wreselted back and forth, Juliette reaching for Dandy’s throat, desperately trying to strangle him. They remained locked, she pushed him up against a wall. Dandy let out a gasp, unused to fighting anyone, let alone himself. Finally he raised his foot and stomped on the imposter Dandy’s left knee. Juliette reared back screaming, grabbing for her kneecap.
“My leg, what did you do?” she wailed from the floor.
“Well,” Dandy said, straightening his tie, “I reasoned if you were me, you might have my bum left knee, too.” He said tapping his own leg. Juliette, wasting no time, turned into Teddy, whose body was not aged like the Detectives, and sprang at Dandy. But before she could lunge at him, Teddy, the real Teddy, intercepted her with a hard punch to the face. She crumpled back to the floor, reverting to her natural form.
“I just…knocked myself out.” Teddy said, looking at his fist.
“Once you get introduced to scotch, you’ll get used to that feeling.” said Dandy, patting the boy on the back. “Nice hook, by the way, son.” He added. Before the two could get off the train, Perkins stepped on, gun in hand.
“I got your message, Dandy.” he said, looking at the unconscious girl. “Care to tell me exactly what happened here?” He said, puzzled.
“I don’t think you’d believe me, Dale.” Dandy said, shaking his head. “But I’ll try to explain it later.”
Stepping off the train with Teddy by his side, Dandy looked back at the locomotive and swore that one day he would ride the rails on the Southern Belle and relax, and he would leave it all behind him. The shapeshifters and the monsters and the criminals.