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In Search of Breadcrumbs

By Shelly Jones

 

Teo Tarras/shutterstock

 

I was working a case up in the lochs when I received the letter.  A woman had hired me to find a missing textile, a family heirloom she had said. Her husband had tried to hide it so she would never find it – or else it would transform her back to her seal self. But I figured if that’s what the selkie wanted, why shouldn’t it be up to her to choose? Luckily the husband hadn’t been very creative and I found the skin tucked beneath a rock on the beach where they had first met. Kind of sentimental, I’ll admit – but there was no denying that the selkie wanted to escape her imprisonment, or that’s how it must’ve felt.  She said she hadn’t been happy on shore under duress, false pretenses. I read the letter on the beach as she dove into the waves, her grey skin slipping beneath the murky waters. 

The letter was from my brother – a first for him. I read his blocky words that marched across the paper in a thick, blotted ink. His message was terse, thin like overpruned branches. It was clear there was a problem: a missing girl, a dangerous employer, a pattern of absent wives – but how he was involved and what he wanted me to do about it wasn’t apparent from his brief outline. I would need to talk to him in person before I could investigate any further. Folding the letter, I placed it in my pocket and scanned the empty coastline with a rueful smile before heading up the beach toward the road. 

 

****

 

I pulled up to Bluebeard’s mansion, the drive a narrow and winding stretch that seemed designed to befuddle and confuse. Lush green lawns swelled along either side of the formidable brick building. As I walked up the stone steps toward the doors, a familiar voice trailed behind me. 

“Grey?” 

I turned to see grass-stained overalls and a sweaty, furrowed brow. I stepped down into the sunshine and waited for my brother. 

“It’s about time you came,” he said, his wiry arms wrapping around my shoulder. I squeezed back, smelling his familiar odor: bone meal, dirt, dead weeds. I tried not to pull away at the stench. “Did you get my letter? What took you so long?” 

“Had to wrap up the case I was working on first. Just drove in from the lochs.” I answered, stiffening at his impatience, remembering how it had gotten us in trouble before as kids. “Besides, it doesn’t sound like you have a lot to go on. A missing girl. Maybe she went off to see friends. Maybe this Bluebeard fellow sent for her without you knowing. Maybe she finally got some sense and ran away as soon as he left.” I glanced up at the three storey mansion and tried to imagine living in its echoing ballrooms and drafty studies, loneliness settling like dust. Surely he could see that this lifestyle wasn’t for everyone. But he waved my logic away as though battling a nuisance fly. It was a familiar movement, something he inherited from our father. 

“There’s something weird here, I’m telling you. She isn’t the first one to ‘disappear’ or to have something bad happen to her. Will you just have a look around?” 

He was appealing to my curiosity and I hated that he knew me that well – that I couldn’t say no to a case like this. I nodded reluctantly and watched as a smile bloomed across his face. He pulled me along the stone covered drive, round to the back of the house. 

“Maybe we should start out here since the master isn’t back yet. I can show you what I do.” 

“The master?” I asked, disgusted by the antiquated term. “If this guy is such a creep, why do you work for him?” We passed rows of flowers, beds overwhelmed with dark green leaves and pungent, sickly-sweet flowers. I wondered if Hans could name all of these blossoms by sight, by smell, the way our father could identify any tree in the forest by its bark, leaf shape, or root structure.  I pushed back an instinct to pluck a small jewel-colored bud, remembering what touching out of turn can do. I shoved my hands in my pocket and tried to listen as Hans rattled on about mulch and manure and whatever the difference was between them. He was leading me through the garden nearest the house when I heard a growl coming from behind us. A streak of blue loped by, teeth bared, and I yelped reflexively, pulling away from Hans, nearly falling into a bed of roses.

“They won’t harm you,” a thick voice came from the side yard. 

I turned to see a broad-shouldered man standing with his arms crossed over his chest, as if he had been admiring the scene. He had a closely trimmed beard of blue-ish grey that startled me, despite the fact that I knew I stood on the property of a man named Bluebeard. 

“Down, girls,” he commanded, snapping his fingers at the dogs, who shuddered to a halt and sat at attention looking up at their master.  “Now, who do I have the pleasure of meeting?” 

“Mr. Bluebeard, this is my sister, Grey. She is a detective. I asked her to come, to come and see…” Hans’s voice drifted off as Bluebeard stepped closer to me. 

“And what exactly are you detecting, Ms. Grey?” He held his hands behind his back, his shoulders stooped as he bent forward, looking down at me. 

“I’m not sure yet, Mr. Bluebeard. It isn’t clear there’s anything the matter now, is there?” I returned his gaze, staring back until his eyes drifted back to Hans. 

“I suppose your brother has mentioned that my fiance is missing.” 

“You misplaced her?”

He laughed at my poor joke with a choking chortle, a forced laugh that I imagined he had practiced in many board rooms. “No, no, nothing like that. I went down to the city for a week on business. Laura had planned on staying here this week to deal with wedding arrangements. My butler says she went to take a walk on Tuesday before the meeting with the florist and then never returned. He telephoned me that she was missing. I had him check Laura’s apartment in town in case she had returned there for work. She was always losing herself in her work, spending hours reading studies, forgetting to eat, forgetting anything else in the world existed. But she wasn’t there. I drove in as soon as I could. I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding.” 

“You say she often gets absorbed in her work. Is she in the habit of going off for days without checking in?” 

“Have you ever been married, Ms. Grey?”

I could feel myself blush and hated it. “No,” I muttered. Hans had wandered off and was errantly picking at some weeds growing near a cherubic fountain. I watched him dart quick glances back at us, as if scared of his employer, eager to be away from him.  

“It’s been my experience that spouses don’t always trust each other enough to tell each other every detail of their affairs.” He plucked a rose from the garden and tucked it into his lapel. He picked another and handed it to me. I stared at the flower, buttery petals folding in on themselves. I took it, careful not to touch the thorns on its stem. “I don’t know why Hans brought you here, but if you insist on searching for her, I see no harm in it. My house is at your disposal.” 

“You don’t think she’s in any danger?” I asked, cradling the rose stem between my index finger and thumb, letting it twirl like a mini parasol.  

“Not in the least. Good day.”  He nodded sharply, a weary smile perched on his lips. I watched as he walked into the house, the blue dogs following him obediently. After a few moments, Hans returned and we began walking back toward my car parked out front. I handed him the rose with a shrug. 

“Were those dogs painted blue?” I asked Hans quietly, wondering if we were being watched from one of the many windows of the mansion. 

“Not painted. Turned,” he whispered emphatically. “The chemicals at that factory of his. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I don’t go anywhere near there. My job is here.” 

I had heard of pollutants affecting the local environs and wondered what the dogs had gotten themselves into – and if their master’s beard was a result of the same pollution. Or perhaps he had dyed it to look more distinguished, more commanding behind his mahogany desk or at a board meeting. 

“Where are you going now? You’re going to keep investigating Bluebeard, aren’t you?” Hans asked, closing my car door. 

“Yes, Hans. I’m on the case. For now. It’d be more helpful if I could tell if an actual crime has occurred though. Don’t worry. Keep your head low and your eyes and ears open. Let me know if you discover anything. I’ll be back in the morning.” 

 

***

 

I had done my homework on Laura and found where she kept an apartment in town. Before I went nosing around the unsavory corridors of Bluebeard’s mansion, I was going to investigate Laura’s former home first. I still had my doubts that anything menacing had happened to her and half-expected to find her flipping through a magazine or engrossed in a book when I knocked on the door: anything to escape the imposing presence of Bluebeard.

The apartment was small, cramped. If her betrothed had given her any of his exorbitant wealth, she hadn’t used it on the apartment or other finery. Instead, the studio was cluttered with stacks of books – on the table, the couch, the bed and floor. Coffee rings wrinkled some papers, making them curl and brittle as I perused their contents. Essays on environmental pollution, waterways, something called dendrology were all dog-earred with notes scrawled in the margins. A microscope sat on the coffee table; I looked through its lens at a smudge of green. 

A few photos were posted on the refrigerator: a thank you card for donating to a local arboretum, a postcard with a poorly printed copy of Monet’s water lily, a close-up of some vegetation – perhaps of one of her projects. I opened the fridge to find it full of yogurts, tofu, and vegetables, but the kale had turned slimy, the celery limp. Laura had certainly intended to be here. It didn’t preclude the possibility that she had been simply called out of town, or become preoccupied with some project, but Hans’s suspicions were ripening in my mind as I continued to look around. Three small potted plants sat perched on the windowsills, but their stalks were brittle, brown husks. I wanted to call up Hans to ask how to care for them, what they needed – but I didn’t have a phone number for him and decided calling Bluebeard’s mansion was not a priority.  I added a small amount of water to each container, hoping simultaneously that I wasn’t overwatering or overstepping. 

I poked around some more, examining the room, letting her clothes, her furniture, her books tell me the story of Laura. I must have dozed off after a while, sitting in a green, overstuffed chair, the fabric worn and beginning to wear thin on the arms. It was nearly midnight when a turn of the doorknob woke me and I opened my eyes to see a familiar blue visage before me. 

“What are you doing here?” Bluebeard asked, standing over me. 

I stretched, feeling a kink in my neck stiffen, and stood up slowly. “I wanted to learn more about Laura. Figured it was as good a place to start as any. Hard to know what she’s likely to do if I don’t know anything about her.” 

“Yes, well, that makes sense I suppose.” He nodded and began pacing the apartment, his large frame and long legs problematic in the cramped space. 

“Kind of a strange couple, aren’t you? A corporate bigwig and a, what? Environmentalist?” I picked up a book entitled The Corporatization of the Natural Landscape and showed it to Bluebeard. 

“I suppose it must look very odd to someone outside of us. But Laura and I love each other. We don’t let things like EPA regulations come between us.”  

I shrugged and continued looking at the titles of the books on the table. 

“You don’t believe me. Have you ever been in love, Ms. Grey?” 

“Not like that,” I admitted, turning toward the kitchenette  I glanced back at him and watched him flip over a few papers as if searching for something underneath. “If you love her so much, why did it take you so long to turn up? I’ve been here for hours.”

His jaw clenched, his shoulders squared. “Searching through her things. It’s not right. What authority do you have, Ms. Grey?”  

“I haven’t taken anything – just observing. You can learn a lot just by watching, you know. Like the way you keep looking for something small tucked under the papers or in the drawer of the half-moon table when you came in earlier. Lost something? A key perhaps? A note? Lots of papers around here, index cards, sticky notes. If she had a system of organizing things, it was certainly one of her own design. I haven’t been able to deduce any rhyme or reason to it.” 

Bluebeard shoved his fists in his coat pockets, annoyed that I had noticed his pawing fingers. 

“I just thought maybe there was something that could lead us to her. A clue. Isn’t that what you do?” 

“Yes,” I admitted. “But I know what I’m doing.” I smiled ruefully at him and watched as he continued to pace the cramped apartment, stepping around piles of books. 

“Well I know Laura,” he insisted.  

“Oh? Do you know her well enough to stop buying her diamonds?”
“What are you talking about? What do you know about that?” 

“There’s five jewery boxes in the nightstand – all diamonds still in their cases. And from the few photos around, doesn’t seem like she ever wears them. Even to that gala event you went to. The photo on the nightstand in the bedroom. Oh, and a few articles tucked in her desk drawer on the ethics of blood diamonds and predatory sourcing. I’m not so sure you knew Laura as well as you think you did. Which makes me wonder if you’re lying. Or if she was.” 

“I think you need to leave now,” he said, walking toward the door. He opened it, waiting for me.  

“Why? So you can look for whatever it is you want? I’ll stay, thanks.” I sat down in the oversized chair again and smiled up at him. 

“You’ve no right to be here. I wouldn’t want to have to get the authorities involved,” he threatened. 

“And tell them what? That I’m investigating the disappearance of your beloved, who you don’t seem to be all that concerned about? Don’t you think they’re bound to ask you a few questions rather than me? Statistically speaking her fiance is more likely to be involved in her disappearance than a complete stranger.” 

He sighed and closed the door reluctantly. “Do you really think something could have happened to her?” 

“Do you? Is it like her to up and leave? No note. I’ve looked. No call. A fridge full of moldering vegetables? Seems unlikely to me that she left on her own. Or at least her disappearance wasn’t planned.” 

Bluebeard nodded. “You better continue your investigation. Call me the minute you discover anything.” 

“You do the same. The smallest detail could be the key to this whole case.” 

 

****

 

I stayed there all night, waiting, watching, learning more about Laura.  It was nearly eight when I was getting ready to leave, when the door opened. A thin, greying woman stood there, her lips pinched, her eyes narrowed.  

“What are you doing here? Are you a friend of Laura’s?” The woman clutched her purse fiercely to her body, her arm rigid. 

“No, I’ve been asked to investigate her disappearance,” I answered, picking up my coat. “And you are?”

“Her step-mother.” 

“Oh, I see. Does Laura have a lot of friends?”

“What?” She seemed perplexed by my existence and kept looking back and forth between me and the room, as if trying to understand how I could be there. Or maybe trying to deduce if I had stolen anything. 

“You asked if I were her friend. Does she have a lot of friends that you’d expect to find here? I didn’t notice any photos of them, cards or letters. ” 

She shook her head. “No, not exactly. Laura kept to herself mostly.” 

“I see. And when was the last time you talked to Laura?” 

She studied me cooly, still standing in the doorway. “Laura doesn’t usually contact me that often. We’ve had our issues in the past. But she came to me about him.”

“About Bluebeard?”

She nodded, sighing. “About whether she should really go through with it or not. There was something she wasn’t telling me. Or at least that’s what it felt like.” 

“And what do you think of him?” 

“Her fiance?” She loosened her grip on her handbag and stepped further into the apartment. “Too old. Too experienced,” she elongated the word for emphasis. “If you get my meaning. I didn’t understand what she saw in him or why she wanted to go through with it.”

“People do crazy things when they get around all that wealth, I suppose.” 

She chortled at my remark. “Ha! Laura was never the type to do things for money. Look at this apartment – look at her work. She’d rather be a pauper as long as she could do her research.” 

“So if not money, what? Love?”

“Doubtful.” 

“She doesn’t seem the type to act out of spite. Marry to get back at you for something, for example. So what then?” 

“I really couldn’t tell you,” she sighed, sitting down on the loveseat. “Anyway, isn’t that what you’ve been hired to find out?”

“In a way. But my main goal is to find her. Did you think she’d be here?” 

“Why, no. I thought she may have left something, a note, a clue. That’s obviously why you’re here too.” 

“Yes and no. I came here to learn more about her – the type of woman she is. The kale and the books told me a lot, more than Bluebeard could tell me about her, that’s for certain.” 

The step-mother looked wryly at me. “He doesn’t know the first thing about her. He just likes to bring her to events, show her off to prove some point. Prove that he isn’t the heartless factory owner poisoning everyone.” 

“You’ve seen the dogs, I take it?” 

“Abominable.” She shook her head in disgust. “He should be arrested for animal cruelty. Instead they’re practically trophies of his gross negligence. They follow him everywhere and everyone crows over them, over him.”   

“If your step-daughter is such an environmental activist, why is she with him?” I asked, pointing to the books, the microscope.  

“I thought at first she thought she could change him. She’s young, you know. Naive like many are at her age. At least in the ways of love. She’s smart about books, but never was smart about boys. And Bluebeard has his ways. He introduced her to many influential people, people who could get her better lab equipment, access to resources she wouldn’t otherwise have. He knew the right names to help her get some grant. She’d do anything for her research.” 

I nodded. “And by then, perhaps she thought she owed it to him to go through with it?” 

“Something like that, I suppose. Like I said, she didn’t tell me. Not in so many words. But I felt something was wrong, holding her back from going through with it. She called me the morning she disappeared. She wanted to see me, but I put her off. I regret that. Perhaps if I had agreed to meet with her, things might be different.” Her voice trailed off and she looked sheepishly around the apartment, as if hoping Laura would appear suddenly and alleviate her guilt. 

“Maybe. Maybe not.” 

 

***

 

I returned to Bluebeard’s mansion later that morning. This time my brother was nowhere to be seen. It was warm and humid, the kind of weather that he and his plants thrived in. I knocked on the door and was greeted by an older man, the butler, who escorted me to Bluebeard’s study. As the butler cleared his throat to introduce me, I watched as Bluebeard frantically leafed through papers on his desk, pulled out drawers and emptied their contents onto the floor. “Ms. Grey for you, sir.” 

“Hmm? Oh, yes, very good. Send her in. That will be all, Thomas. Unless perhaps Ms. Grey would like some coffee?” 

“If it isn’t too much trouble,” I acquiesced. I had spent all night at Laura’s apartment, steeping in her belongings. I was weary and irritable, the sun too bright through the floor to ceiling windows in Bluebeard’s study. Thomas bowed slightly and left us in the untidy room that was starting to remind me of Laura’s apartment. “Still looking for something, eh?” 

“If you must know, before I left on business, I entrusted a very important key to Laura. I have not been able to find it since I’ve returned. That is what I was looking for at her apartment last night that you so expertly deduced. It would appear she had the key on her person when she went missing. And now it is missing too.” 

“What’s the key to?” I asked, leaning against a chair in the corner that faced away from the windows. 

“A store closet. It is of little importance.” 

I was about to reply when Thomas returned with a tray of coffee. He handed me a cup and retreated under the dismissive glare of Bluebeard. I sipped the black, bitter coffee and held it on my tongue for a moment before swallowing. Looking up at Bluebeard, his large frame silhouetted in the sunlight, I smiled.   

“Then why the frantic searching if it’s so unimportant?” 

“The room is of no importance,” he explained exasperated. “But I live a very orderly life. The idea of that key being lost, my property lost, out in the world for someone to find, for some stranger to open my chamber – I couldn’t stand the idea of it. That lost key haunted my dreams, kept me awake. I had to find it.”   

“More uneasy than your beloved missing?” I asked between sips.  

He sneered at me and thrust himself in the chair behind his desk. “Have you made any progress on her disappearance?” 

“Some,” I admitted, finishing off the coffee. “Do you admit now that she has disappeared? Or are you still resistant to that theory?” 

“I spent a lot of time thinking last night, Ms. Grey. Thinking about Laura. Reflecting on our relationship. You must be right. Laura wouldn’t go off, leaving her responsibilities behind.” 

I nodded and stood, my eyes and head finally adjusting to the room, to the man behind the desk. I walked to the windowed wall and looked out at an enormous maze of hedge in the distance. 

“What is that?” 

“What? Oh, the hedge? Haven’t you seen it yet?” He asked, surprised.   

As I looked out the window at the acres of carefully carved branches, I suddenly remembered a photo from Laura’s apartment: swirls of greenery that I had assumed had been a microcosm, an ecological fingerprint of some obscure environmental relic Laura had wanted to save. But the scale had been far larger than I originally thought. Why would Laura have a photo of Bluebeard’s hedge on her refrigerator? And who took the picture, I wondered. 

“Has anyone been out there?” 

“To the hedge?” He turned and looked out the window, brow furrowed as though squinting to see through the greenery in the distance. “Surely you don’t think Laura has been lost out there all this time. She knows the path better than anyone. Well, almost anyone. Your brother is the designer afterall.” 

“That’s what Hans has been working on? He didn’t say.” 

“Of course. He’s a very fine gardener,” he said in a manner that sounded more like a compliment of himself for being able to afford such a master craftsman rather than a critique of my brother’s ability.  

“Yes, I’m sure he is,” I agreed, remembering Hans’s proclivity for the woods, for the hidden retreats of a canopy, making himself at home in the gentle embrace of a limb. A hedge maze would be second nature to my brother. “Do you mind if I go out there and investigate?” 

“Not at all,” he acquiesced. “There’s nothing out there of interest. It’s merely decorative.” 

I nodded, wondering how long he manicured his indigo-colored beard, trimming the whiskers for hours while Hans labored, pruning the branches of the hedge. I headed outside. The grass was stiff, a cold dew still clinging to the stalks. By the time I reached the entryway to the hedge, my shoes were drenched, the moisture soaking up my pant legs. The hedge was thick, branches tightly interwoven to the point of being unpenetrable, even uninhabitable to wildlife. I could hear no bird call, no rustling of a shrew or squirrel darting to escape my wet footsteps. Only silence. As I turned the first corner in the maze, I wondered briefly if I should have used Ariadne’s old trick: a thin strand to unwind my way back, to keep me safe along the path. But Theseus had a far greater danger lurking in his labyrinth. What did I expect to find out here except perhaps my brother snipping a stray limb. Still, something didn’t feel right. Hans was not the type of child to keep everything tidy, everything in order. He had been a messy child, scattering his belongings to the wilds, to the winds at every turn. It was then I remembered his breadcrumbs scattered along the path in the woods, pecked at by jays and juncos, crumbling our chances of a safe return. I stopped and began backtracking out of the maze. Crossing the yard once more, I picked up several handfuls of stones from the driveway and filled my pockets. They were heavy and wet, but their heft swinging in my coat with each step was somehow comforting. 

I returned to the mouth of the maze and began charting my path toward its center. With every corner turned I dropped a pebble along the way. If I reached a deadend, an impenetrable wall of boxwood, I traced my way back to my signal stone, returning it to my pocket until a new choice, a new branch opened up before me. As I continued my way through the maze, my mind kept returning to the photo in Laura’s apartment. And what had Bluebeard said in his office? Laura knew the path as well as Hans. How often had she wandered in here, how often had she met Hans while he worked? Why had Hans contacted me about her disappearance in the first place when Bluebeard seemed so reluctant to accept that she was missing? The questions spiraled through my mind as I turned a final corner, the branches opening to reveal a little clearing, an artificial glen of boxwood. At the center of the glade was a small building made of hedge. I stood dumbfounded, a sharp stone clenched in my fist as I stared at the cottage: an exact replica of the witch’s hut from our childhood. 

“I knew you would find this place eventually. You were always the curious one, Grey.” Hans’s voice crawled along my skin as I searched for him within the greenery, my eyes still adjusting to the sunlight pooling into the clearing. “Welcome home.” Hans stepped out from behind the cottage and toward me once more. 

“Hans, what is this place? Why have you built this?”   

“It’s our home, Grey. Come in. I had hoped you’d come.” He started into the hedge house and I followed hesitantly, feeling for the few stones I had left in my pocket. 

As I entered, I knew the layout of the space immediately despite the darkness of the hedge. I looked around and marveled at the details, all perfectly crafted: the table, the witch’s bed. He’s even recreated the witch’s stove with thorny vines mimicking the vicious flames of the fire. Near there sat a little cage built out of hawthorn, positioned in the same spot at the back where Hans’s cage had once been. Laura was in there now, the sharp barbs of the hawthorn branches pointing inward at her, preventing her from escaping. She was bound and gagged, her eyes wide and pleading as she saw me. 

“Hans, why do you have Laura here?” I asked, trying to steady my voice, to swallow the panic building inside me. 

He moved further into the hut, setting down his shears on the little hedge table where the witch would eat her wretched meats. I shook the image from my head, tried to concentrate on what was happening here and now, but the sight of Laura in the cage was overwhelming. 

“I had to save her from him, Grey. She was investigating the pollution at the factory. The toxins that turned the dogs blue. I had to save her from him before he killed her like all the others. I’m the hero, Grey, like you were.” 

I remembered the articles in Laura’s apartment, the microscope with a slide covered in a smear of algae. Her step-mother had been right. She wasn’t marrying Bluebeard for his money, but to expose him, so she could get access to the intricacies of his factory for her research. I glanced at Laura and saw her nodding vigorously in agreement. 

“That’s good work, Hans,” I praised as though talking to a child who had rescued a fly from a spider by suffocating it in a jar. I moved closer toward the cage where Laura sat, eyes alert. “But if you’re saving her, why did you lock her away? Can’t we let Laura out? Surely she’s safe here with us. We won’t let anything happen to her.” 

“No,” he pounced, rushing toward the cage in front of me. “She must stay here. It’s the only place she can be safe. Like I was.”

“Like you were?” I asked. Hans wasn’t making sense. He was erratic, unnerved. I felt for the stones in my pocket once more.  

“I didn’t hurt her,” he insisted, his frame melting before me as though he might burst into tears. “I just kept her here for safekeeping. Like the witch did. She saved us from da’s new wife until it was safe for us to go back home.” 

My mind reeled at Hans’s interpretation of our childhood: the witch, a savior who locked him in a cage, fattening him up like a duck for foie gras. I wondered what other mental gymnastics his mind had performed, blocking out the trauma of our youth. I looked around the hedge cottage once more and shuddered. 

“Hans, why don’t we let Laura go and you and I can talk about this,” I pushed.  

“Let her go?” Hans asked, incredulously. He stared at me, his eyes vacant. “Back to him? He’ll kill her if she goes back there. He kills them all.” 

“Hans, what are you talking about?” I was growing impatient with him. The cottage seemed to be growing inward, suffocating me. I needed to get out of there.  
“He’s married many women over the years and they all wind up missing, disappear. Oh he gives the help some excuse, but they all know.” 

“Know what?”  

“That he murders them and keeps their bodies. Hidden away.” 

Laura gasped through her gag and began examining the thorny bars of her cage for a way out. 

“Hidden where?” I asked, sniffing the air for the familiar scent of tinny blood – but all I could smell was vegetation and sweat. 

“In a secret room. He keeps it locked,” Hans shouted suddenly and began pacing the cottage anxiously. “He’ll kill her. He’ll kill her,” he insisted, his head shaking.  

Laura’s eyes flashed and began darting back and forth between us. I held my hands up to try to calm Hans down, nodding subtly to Laura. 

“Locked with a special key? Do you know where the key is, Hans?” 

Hans shook his head. “No, he keeps it with him always. I had to take Laura away from him before it was too late. You understand that, don’t you, Grey?” 

“I do, Hans. I do.” I said, trying to calm him. But something was still bothering me. I had to press him further. “But why the letter?” 

“What?” he asked. He began nervously plucking at the hedge wall, pulling its branches bare. I looked around the cottage and noticed other worry spots where he had had similar fits of anxiety. While his back was turned to me, I pocketed the shears he had dropped on the table. 

“Why did you write to me, pretending not to know where Laura was when you had her here the whole time? Why didn’t you just tell me the truth?” 

“I had to, Grey. It was the only way to get you here, to investigate. He’s killing the land.  I had to get you here. You were always the crafty one. The one that schemed, that survived. I knew you’d figure this one out soon enough. We were so happy in the woods. I thought you’d want to go back there with me after you learned what was out here. Didn’t you feel at home here?” He gazed around the hedge cottage admiringly and I couldn’t help but wonder what he saw: tightly woven branches of greenery or the toffee walls and candied frames of our childhood? “I thought you’d come back to be with me. After you saw how it was out there. But you like it out in the world. You like getting your hands dirty in their lies, dealing with men like Bluebeard. You’re of that world now. I thought you’d come back with me, but you didn’t. But Laura,” he said, gazing back at her in her cage. “She likes my world. She would always come out to the garden and read her studies, examine leaves or collect soil samples for her work. She was always so kind to me. I had to keep her from Bluebeard.”

Laura reared back in her cage at Hans’s gaze, as if trying to dissolve into the woods, away from his cloying attention. I stepped closer to her as Hans picked at the wall and slipped the shears through the thorny bars to her bound hands. Feverishly she sawed the twine from her wrists against the sharp metal as I walked around the cage closer to Hans, obscuring Laura from his view.  

“And keep her here with you instead?”

“Well you wouldn’t come. What choice did I have?”  

I began to wonder if somehow this was all my fault. How long had we been out of touch? How long since I had last connected with him? I sighed. “But I’m here now. If I stay here with you will you let Laura go?” 

He hesitated, squinting at me as though trying to see past the sun, to see past all the years we’d grown apart. “But if I let her go, Bluebeard will kill her,” he reasoned. “No,” he shook his head, looking back at the wall. “She must stay here safe with me where we can be happy just like we were with the witch.” 

“But we weren’t happy with the witch,” I insisted, my voice growing shrill. “She wanted to eat you, Hans. That’s why you were locked in that cage. She wanted to kill us.” 

“Us?” he asked, looking up at me. “She would never kill you.” 

I hesitated for a moment, wondering how much he knew, wondering if he knew that there was a moment when, as a child, I nearly chose the witch over him – chose becoming like her, a future apprenticing with her, over my own brother. Had he seen me hesitate, just for a moment, before pushing her into the oven, calculating my every step? 

“No, I suppose you’re right. She wouldn’t.”

“Why is that?” he asked, sadness rimming his eyes. 

But it was then he noticed motion from the cage: Laura hunched on her knees, snipping away at the barbed bars with the shears. 

“No, you can’t leave!” Hans shouted. 

This time I didn’t hesitate. As Hans leapt toward Laura, I lunged at him, shoving him head first into the thorny flames of the stove. He screamed as the nettles pierced his flesh, jagged burrs affixing to his shirt, his skin. I stood motionless for a moment watching him squirm in torment, remembering how the flames devoured the witch’s screams as I had closed the oven door. 

“I knew I could never trust you. I knew you’d changed!” Hans wailed from the thicket. 

Had I changed, I wondered momentarily as I watched him flail helplessly. I knew he was hurt, but his wounds wouldn’t be fatal, merely incapacitate him long enough for me to do what I needed to do. I rushed to the cage as Laura stepped out, clutching the clippers close to her. Hans still writhed in the bramble, trying to emerge from the hedge like a breached birth. 

“Come on. Let’s get you out of here. Can you walk?” I asked, noticing her legs heavy and stiff, her ankles popping under her. She winced, but nodded taking a few tentative steps. Hans continued screaming in shrill peals, as I led Laura to the door. 

Rushing toward the maze entrance, I picked up my pebble and pointed in the direction it signaled. 

“Clever,” Laura said approvingly. 

“Don’t suppose we’ll need them though. Bluebeard said you knew this maze as well as my brother.” 

Laura nodded. “It used to be a favorite retreat from all the social obligations of Bluebeard’s world. But now,” she looked up at the sky, as if yearning to fly up and out of the enclosure forever. “I just want to get out of here. I know the way.” She led us back along the path of my stones, not needing them as a guide – but driven by some internal map, intuitively feeling her way through the greenery. I considered picking up the pebbles, but left them along the path for Hans, a last remnant of our childhood for him to find, if he ever emerged from his labyrinthian prison. 

Once out of the maze, Laura breathed deeply, as if breathing for the first time.  She didn’t stop though, her eyes scanning the mansion before us as we walked swiftly across the yard. I wondered how long we had before he would see us from his study windows, if he had been waiting for us all this time.  I imagined the dogs, blue and lethal, snapping at us, trapping us back in the hedge. 

“My car is in the driveway,” I announced. “We haven’t got much time to get you out of here. I suspect he’ll be around anytime now.” 

As we neared the mansion, Laura stopped suddenly. She held out her fist and opened it, palm face up. There sat a small, bronze key. “There’s something I need to do first,” she said, her eyes hungry. I nodded and followed her inside, knowing I could never stop her from her research.  

 

About the author: Shelly Jones (she/they) is a Professor of English at a small college in upstate New York, where she teaches classes in mythology, folklore, and writing. Her speculative work has been published in F&SF, Podcastle, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Find them on Twitter @shellyjansen.

 

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My name is Jack L. Bryson and I'm the editor of Teleport. I studied literature at University of Montana. I live in Mountain View Ca, and my email is coffeeant1@gmail.com

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