Illustration to accompany "Before the Beginning" Copyright (c) 2018 by LA Spooner. Used under license.

Before the Beginning

Story by Richard Zwicker

Illustration by L.A. Spooner

With no cases pending, I spent a frustrating morning shopping for a hat. My head, with its large size and singular flatness, begs cover yet confounds the most ambitious milliner. When put to the test, each of my selections perched precariously, either pulled down over my eyes or tilted up in the style of a country rube. None would resist a brisk wind, so I departed unadorned and au natural, or at least as much as possible, being the monster of Victor Frankenstein. Monster doesn’t work in detective circles so you can call me what everyone prefers: Frankenstein.

Entering my office, I spotted a smudged piece of paper on the floor. Releasing its uneven folds, I read the following: “SEE YOU AT 11.” It was already 11:30. Despite the limited number of characters, three mistakes were crossed out. I glanced out the window at Geneva’s bustling streets. A horse cart clattered by, a beggar accosted an impatient, well-dressed man, and a mother dragged her protesting child to the other side of the street. Though mine was a specialized practice, I’d recently advertised heavily in the newspapers. Certainly, someone out there had a problem I could solve.

“Mr. Frankenstein.”

A man of below average height with a triangular mustache and black, curly hair stood in my doorway. His frayed, dark clothes spoke of a good past and a bleak future. His flattened nose suggested an encounter with a rock or a hard place. He smelled like a dead animal.

“Frankenstein will do. Are you the author of the note left under my door?”

“I am. My name is Hamlin Baudry.” His right hand shook slightly. ” Does that mean anything to you?”

It didn’t, yet there was a frustrated, downtrodden neediness about him that I found all too familiar.

“Sorry. There are many people in the city I don’t know.” He nodded and seemed relieved. “Have a seat and tell me how I can be of assistance.”

Baudry sat cautiously as if he didn’t always have the option of a chair. Clients usually find me intimidating on first sight, but Hamlin possessed either a tougher constitution or had seen me before, treating me as if everyone stood seven feet tall with electrodes protruding from their neck.

“I’m told you are good at what you do,” he said.

“My past is such that I have to be good. If you want something found, I will not give up until I find it.”

“Of course.” He stared at the floor, and I became self-conscious of the three cracked tiles I needed to replace. Finally, his eyes still averted, he resumed talking. “Do you work alone?”

I wondered when he would get to the point. “No one in this business works entirely alone and succeeds. Sometimes a man from my days at the Frankenstein castle helps me.” He didn’t look happy about that, so I added,” It doesn’t affect my fee.”

He nodded. “I don’t imagine you’re welcome at that castle.”

“No. I haven’t been there since the death of my creator. Mr. Baudry, if you would just tell me what I can do for you, I’m sure…”

But before I could finish, he abruptly stood, his head of curly hair lurching unnaturally to the left. He was wearing a wig.

“I’m afraid I’ve changed my mind.”

“Are you sure? I…” but he was already out the door. Puzzled and disappointed, I stood at the window and watched him vanish into the milling crowds. Why would he come twice, ask me some personal questions, and then leave? Did he wear an ill-fitting wig to hide his baldness or his identity? How had my short answers made him decide against hiring me? Clearly, something was bothering him. Had I been a busier man, I would have left it at that. But I have much to make up for, and after an uneventful hour, I decided to investigate on my own.

— ♦♦♦ —

As a detective, I found the City Hall’s Department of Records a useful resource but never liked the place. The ventilation was poor, and the short, mustachioed clerk hated tall people. As I walked into the main office, he sat perched on a high stool behind a cluttered desk, his bespectacled eyes glued on the pages of a thick book. He groaned when I asked if he could fetch me the latest register of people living in Geneva.

“Aren’t you here to serve me?” I asked, as he returned from the basement and handed me the book, which I took to an uneven table.

“Apparently,” he moaned.

I found twenty Baudrys listed but no Hamlins. Either he was from out of town, or his name was as false as his wig. At the risk of further perturbing the man on the high stool, I requested the register from ten years earlier. I thumbed through the dusty pages and there he was: Hamlin Baudry. He lived on Rue du Bouie with his mother, Berthe. I rechecked the current listing and found Berthe, though at a different address.

— ♦♦♦ —

Berthe Baudry lived in a basement flat. A primitive sign above rotted wooden steps said “Berthe’s Laundry and Sewing,” though her penmanship outclassed her son’s in every way. She saw me hesitate at the steps.

“No!” she exclaimed. “I do alternations, but there’s a limit.”

“Madame Baudry?”

“Madame Sauvage handles oversized men.” Her eyes lit on my flat skull. “What happened to your head?”

“A birth-defect. I’ve been looking for a hat to cover it, but as you implied, my size is problematic. At any rate, it is not your ability as a seamstress that brings me here. I’d like to talk to your son, Hamlin.”

Her face clouded, and her eyes moistened. “Why?”

“I’m a detective. He came to my office this morning. At first, he seemed anxious to see me, but then suddenly he just left.” She looked at me as I’d suggested arsenic be used as a coffee additive. “Perhaps I’m wasting my time…”

“Hamlin has been dead for nine years,” she said, her voice cracking.

Confused, I described the man.

“I’ve never seen him in a wig, but otherwise that could be Andre, my good for nothing brother-in-law,” Berthe said. “I have no idea why he’d want a detective. Usually, it’s the law and landlords that are looking for him.”

In a torrent of words, she told me Andre was the shame of the family, a cruel, unpredictable man who could never hold a job and spent whatever money he had on alcohol. She had no idea where he lived these days and added, “He probably doesn’t either.” Nor did she know why he would pretend to be her son.

“How did Hamlin die?”

The woman’s fleshy arms fluttered then flopped to her sides. “Nine years ago he never came home from work. The next day I received a note from him saying he was sorry but had to leave for a while. Later that day I learned his employer had been robbed in the night.”

“But you say he’s dead.”

“Hamlin was a blacksmith’s apprentice. He would not have robbed his employer, and he would never have left me.”

“Were you in need of money at the time?”

“Of course. And after Hamlin disappeared, I had to move to this place.” She waved dismissively at her house. “But Hamlin was not a thief. He had plans. If you want a case, you should find out what happened to him.”

“What kind of a relationship did Hamlin have with Andre?”

She sighed. “No one is close to Andre. Not even Andre. If the human body didn’t need food and shelter, I’d never see him, which would be fine with me.”

I stared at this tiny woman whose life had been turned upside-down by tragedy. The Romantic poets could write pages of the nurturing sea, healing trees, and singing birds. Reality resembled more an implacable stone and a desolate mountain. Since I’d returned from my exile in the Arctic, I’d made it my job to bridge the gap.

“Do you know the name and address of the blacksmith?”

— ♦♦♦ —

The next day I paid a visit to Franz Koehler at his small property on the northern edge of the city. The metallic odor and smoke of heated iron assaulted my nostrils as I entered his backyard. Koehler stood over a table, banging on a future pair of horseshoes. His bulging biceps argued for the iron’s submission.  I’d informed him of my visit and its reasons by afternoon post, so no surprise showed on his bearded face as I entered.

“You must be Frankenstein,” he said in a voice of gravel and phlegm.

“And you, Franz Koehler, former employer of Hamlin Baudry.”

He looked at me with suspicion. “I am. Why are you asking about Hamlin Baudry?”

“Have you ever met his mother or uncle?”

“No, but I hear his mother does capable sewing work and that his uncle does no work at all. Hamlin did all I asked of him. He would have been a good blacksmith.”

“He had the ability?”

“That, and patience, maturity, and a willingness to learn.”

He shook his head. “The last day I saw him, eight or nine years ago now, he robbed me. If he’d asked, I would have lent him the money.”

“How much did he steal?”

“Nearly two hundred francs.”
“What do you think happened to him?” I asked.

Koehler kneaded his expansive forehead. “I’ve given that much thought. He wasn’t used to money. Maybe after he stole it, he let it be seen, and someone killed him for it.”

The next step was to find out why Andre Baudry had pretended to be Hamlin. Unfortunately, despite his infamy, no one knew where he lived. I asked around, but the clearest answer I got was, “Where he falls.” More often than not, that was in the poorest areas of Geneva. I decided to consult my specialist.

Igor had been the faithful if addled assistant of Victor, my creator. With my indirect contribution to Victor’s death, one might have expected Igor to shun me. He viewed his years living in Victor’s castle as his best, however, and I was the only living connection who tolerated him. After I left the Arctic three years ago and came here, hoping to start a new life, I often sought out Igor for some of my legwork. Though not his favorite person, I gave him a reason for being.

He lived in a tiny flat I anonymously subsidized. I found him where I usually did, sprawled on his floor.

I gently roused him. “I don’t know why you ever invested in a bed.”

“Sometimes I have guests,” he growled, “who, unlike you, have the decency to come only when I pay.”

“Ever hear of Andre Baudry?”

He turned onto his side and gagged. “Heard, seen, and smelled. I may have brushed up against him as well, but that might have just been a nightmare.”

“When did you encounter him?”

“Baudry was a grave robber. Victor needed bodies for his experiments but wanted nothing to do with Baudry, who had a terrible reputation. Part of my job was to keep him away.”

“Were you successful?”

“Yes. I had principles then. Victor was noble, brilliant, self-sacrificing. Baudry was the opposite. They needed to stay apart. He never gave up though. Even a year after Victor died and I was still caretaker of the castle, I saw Baudry lurking outside the gate, as if he was hoping I’d buy his dead bodies. What do you care about him?”

I described Baudry’s visit to my office and how I was now looking into the death of Hamlin.

Igor bellowed a ghoulish laugh that seemed to shake his vital organs against the bars of his ribs. “You’re lucky Baudry didn’t hire you. He and money don’t go together.”

“I have some questions for him. From what I’ve heard, you two frequent the same low roads.” I pressed a fistful of francs into Igor’s hand. He stared at them thoughtfully, then kissed them.

Next, I stopped at the police station to see what they had on Hamlin’s disappearance, which turned out to be no more than I already knew. They had a lot more on Andre, who’d been arrested for vagrancy, public disturbance, and twice for grave robbing, most recently four months ago.

— ♦♦♦ —

I returned to my third floor flat, heated up some leftover sauerkraut and washed it down with murky beer. Sometimes the combination inspired me. Baudry had pretended to be Hamlin and asked if I’d ever heard of him, if I worked alone, and if I frequented the Frankenstein castle. Why did he care? According to Igor, Baudry had badgered Victor to buy his wares. What if Victor had relented? What if Andre killed his own nephew and sold it to Victor? A ghastly thought riled my senses. I was the product of dead bodies, and Hamlin disappeared in 1792, the same year I was created. What if a part of Hamlin lived in me?

Early the next morning I checked on Igor. After cursing at me for waking him up, he muttered that he’d tracked down several of Baudry’s unpaid bar bills but hadn’t caught up with him yet. “Hope you don’t mind, but I’ve hired myself out to two of the tavern owners.”

“I’ve always encouraged you to improve yourself.”
“One of the owners thought Baudry was still involved in body snatching, and there is a burial scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. He thought Baudry was a good bet to dig up the body tomorrow night.”

“Lots of people die,” I said. “Does Baudry dig up everyone?”

“No, but the deceased was young. He drowned in the river. He’d be a perfect specimen.”

We agreed to meet at the cemetery at dusk. In the meantime, I decided I needed to visit a place I’d avoided since my return to Geneva.

— ♦♦♦ —

Seeing Victor’s boarded-up castle again reminded me of a caged phoenix. Inside its walls, Victor had dreamed of becoming a benevolent God who ushered in a new dawn, but his audacious reach had resulted in something he could never grasp: me. Outside I walked to the back of the room where I was created and saw the corrosion on the window’s metal mesh. It stood twenty feet off the ground, but under it laid a storage shed. I clambered onto its sagging roof, and with a grunt, yanked the metal mesh free.

Tangled wires still lined the walls and ceiling as if spun by a monstrous, metallic spider. Dust covered a network of pipes, wheels, and levers that only Victor could comprehend. Angular lightning conductors pointed toward the sky. In the center sat the long, narrow table where I was made, the restraints hanging like broken arms after I’d escaped.

As Victor believed his every thought and deed worthy of preservation, he would have recorded a transaction with a body snatcher. The lab was his office, sanctuary, and prison, and in a far corner, I found what I was looking for: a bookcase with his writings. Diaries, poetry, and experiments all lay untouched, as no one wanted to walk down Victor’s road. You might think it strange I didn’t seek these notebooks earlier. In response, I would ask, if you had access to the private thoughts of your creator, would you want to know them? I had more than enough information to fuel my shame.

I found Victor’s book of financial transactions buried in a bottom shelf. I flipped through the yellowed pages. Every electrode, gear, and scalpel were listed, including the seller and the price paid. A day before I took my first breath was this entry: “30 Swiss Francs, organic materials, AB.” There it was. Victor had done business with Andre Baudry, and chances were, as he was obsessed with only one experiment at the time, the organic materials were likely used in my creation. Igor once asked me if I felt guilty that others died so I could live. I responded that those unfortunates were already dead. But what if Andre killed his nephew for the express purpose of selling him to Victor? Had I not been created, Hamlin might have raised a happy family. I closed the notebook and stuck it back in its place, but its contents stayed inside me.

— ♦♦♦ —

I hid behind an enormous statue of a rich businessman’s dead wife. A crescent moon poked in and out from behind drifting clouds. Oblong headstones appeared and vanished under the intermittent light. A fitful breeze moaned snatches of a broken song. Normally, this was my favorite time of day, dark and quiet enough to escape the evidence of sight or mind. Not tonight, though. I was worried that Igor was late, but then I heard scuffling footsteps approaching me from behind.

“Nice night for robbing a grave,” I said, turning around. It wasn’t Igor.

“Don’t move,” a familiar voice said. Baudry, now bald without his wig, stuck a knife under my chin. His left eye was puffy, and his torn shirt splattered with blood.

“Cut yourself?”

“Igor did, though I suspect most of the blood is his.”

“Where is he?”

“He is no more. I cracked his head open with my shovel. I should have killed that camel years ago, but I let it go because no listened to him. Then I saw your advertisement. You hadn’t died in the Arctic. I had to know what you knew about Hamlin.”

Had I caused the death of yet another person close to me? It was too terrible to consider.

“I didn’t know anything.”

“That was clear from our meeting, but then I found out the hunchback was asking questions and following me around. Why would he suddenly do that, unless you’d discovered my secret? So, I got the owner of Le Baron Rouge to point him in the direction of this cemetery.”

“Igor didn’t know anything about you and Hamlin either. If you’d just stayed away, we would never have known.”

Baudry shook his head. “You’re a detective. I couldn’t take that chance.”

So, he had taken Igor’s life, and he was going to take mine unless I could stop him.

“What I don’t understand is how can you kill your own nephew and sell his body to a mad scientist?”

He smiled without joy. “Hamlin threatened to report my body-snatching to the police. I needed to convince him otherwise, but I wasn’t welcome at his house, so we met as he was leaving the blacksmiths. The argument got heated, and…he accidentally hit his head against a concrete wall.”

“Did you steal the two hundred francs he had in his pocket?”

“He never had two hundred francs in his pocket. Unbeknownst to my sister-in-law, Hamlin liked to join me in an occasional drink at the pub after work. He let slip the location of his employer’s savings. I stole it later that night to make it look as if Hamlin had the money to run off.” He laughed, a hollow sound, as a drop of blood welled above his eye. “We have two things in common.”

“What’s that?”

“Hamlin was the first person I killed. He made me what I am today. Just like he’s a part of you.”

“What’s the other thing?” I asked.

His eyes settled on me. “We’ve both killed.”

I couldn’t justify myself, but I had to keep him talking. “We can’t change that. What’s important now is the present and future.”

“Yes, and I will have neither if I’m arrested for the murder of Hamlin.”

Time stood still, and I thought how ironic it was that the two people responsible for my life, Victor and Baudry, both wanted me dead. Then a shovel clanged on top of Baudry’s skull, dropping him senseless to the ground. Igor laid the shovel next to him. “You shouldn’t leave shovels in the woods where camels can find them.”

I stared at Igor, dazed. “I thought you were dead.”

“So did he. His shovel glanced off my hump, absorbing most of the impact. I guess it’s good for something.”

He had blood on his head and back, so I resisted the urge to embrace him.

While Igor stood guard on our captive, I rousted a farmer and borrowed his horse cart so I could take Igor to the hospital and Baudry to the police station. Baudry never admitted to the murder of Hamlin, and Victor’s account book wasn’t enough to convict him. He was wrong about Igor though. A jury did listen to him, and Baudry got five years for attempted murder.

Before the trial, I visited Berthe, revealing Andre’s confession to Hamlin’s murder and theft of the blacksmith’s money. She’d always suspected the truth but feared her brother-in-law. She could not afford to pay me but promised a lifetime of free sewing services. Certain it would not give her solace, I did not reveal my connection to her son. I didn’t even know what parts of him if any, lived on in me. I could only try to honor his unfulfilled life with mine.

The last time I saw Berthe was in my office, after the trial. Looking humble but unbowed, she handed me a sack.

“Please accept this. It’s outside my area of expertise, but it could help when you feel the need to fit into a crowd.”

From the sack, I pulled out the largest flat cap I’d ever seen.

— ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

Thumbnail illustration for "Hard Times" Copyright (c) 2018 by John Waltrip. Used under license.Hard Times.  By Jason J. McCuiston, Art by John Waltrip

Nick’s heart leapt. “You mean you got the money back?”  “Sadly no. Apparently Mr. Bean’s last few days on earth were appallingly expensive.”

Nick swallowed. “So, I guess I’m a dead man.”  The Dutchman laughed, set the pistol on the desk and sat down behind it. “Not at all, Mr. Bowman.” Nick stopped breathing when Huber added, “at least not yet.”  “You’ve a proposition,” Nick said. “You know I don’t have the money, but I do have skills that you can use.”  “Precisely, Mr. Bowman.” Huber leaned back and folded his bloody hands. “I am, after all, a businessman. And while your death gains me nothing, I happen to have a client who is willing to pay enough to offset your debt and then some in exchange for your services.”  “I’ll do it,” Nick said. Whatever the job was, he knew it was his only chance of getting out of the basement with all his parts in working order.

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