Who was Elias Elleman?
In my mind’s eye, I see his portrait. Crow’s feet wrinkle the outside corners of his eyes, and spectacles pinch the bridge of his nose. Fine brushstrokes comb gray hairs across his scalp.
His lips press together in a horizontal line. Was he a solemn man? While posing, did he hold off a smile?
My investigation into his disappearance began in June when Himmelbrand Hall featured new works by Strauss and Sibelius. The sun cast its last light of a long, Scandinavian summer day through the windows. Milling about the lobby, patrons filled intermission with the din of chatter. I leaned against the bar, surveyed the crowd, and sipped vodka splashed with absinthe.
At the bar’s corner, one man rose over six feet tall, and he looked over the crowd with a steady, confident gaze. A lily blossom was threaded through his lapel buttonhole. His fingernails were cut and clean. Standing straight, hips and shoulders aligned, he carried himself with casual confidence. The crowd gave him the space afforded to a twenty-seven year old ascending aristocrat.
“Champagne with a touch of elderflower liqueur, if you please,” he asked the bartender, then he turned to me. “Though, I’d sell my soul for a mug of ale.”
Rather than carry the weight and heft of wealth, his silhouette was lean and lanky. A slight shadow angled along his jawline if you knew where to look—the result of a knife fight years ago, I had heard.
“Oscar Gulhund,” he said. “Do you have time for another?” He waved to the bartender and pointed at my glass.
“Captain, you need no introduction,” I said. “Alexander Dahl.”
“You were in the newspapers, weren’t you? Something about poisoning the Baron of Feberblod.”
“Turns out he died of tetanus?” he said.
I explained, “When he was vaccinated against diphtheria, the vaccine had been taken from a horse infected with tetanus.”
“You found that out?”
I nodded again. “The horse eventually died. So, the Baroness would have been acquitted without my help.”
“After spending weeks in jail,” he said, “while her reputation was destroyed.”
“Perhaps,” I said.
“My, my,” he said. “You’re just like Sherlock Holmes. A Sherlock Holmes with a mother institutionalized and a father who failed in politics.” Poking a finger into my breast pocket, he crumpled the arrowhead fold of my kerchief.
I stepped back instinctively.
“Did she pay you?” He pointed to my glass. “It’s how you afford libations at intermission, I suppose?”
I looked away, turning my gaze to an electric sconce mimicking a candelabra. As I sipped my vodka, the absinthe’s anise bite persisted on my tongue.
“You’re a scavenger, living off other people’s tragedies.”
“You flatter me with your contempt. I can’t say I’ve expended so much judgment on your character.”
He shrugged. “And it’s not worth your time, believe me.” He peered into his glass then shook the last drops into his mouth. “A man went missing earlier this week—Emil Lindholm, an official with the church. The clergy superintendent came to headquarters yesterday about it.”
This wasn’t a chance encounter, I realized.
“Dead or alive,” he added, “Lindholm would be easy to find with a squad of constables knocking on doors and sweeping his stomping grounds.”
“Why are you telling me?”
“The superintendent doesn’t want anyone to think Lindholm is missing. He threatened to deny it, should we say so publicly. Thinks it might look bad for the church.”
Possibilities popped up in my mind: dead in a brothel, wasted in a drug den, or in hiding after a breathtaking scandal.
“He asked me to look into this discreetly, but I’m the city’s senior chief inspector. I’m not ‘discreet’.”
I laughed. “Naturally, you thought of me.”
“Despite laws against bribery, the superintendent offered to pay. Handsomely. This kind of opportunity might be for someone in your position.”
The lights flickered, signaling ten minutes before the start of the second half.
“Excuse me, I must be getting back.” He reached into his pocket.
“Please,” I said, and I dropped a five crown note on the counter. “Allow me.”
He smiled. “Enjoy the rest of the show.”
Once he joined the crowd flowing back into the auditorium, I slipped out the entrance and returned home. I hadn’t purchased a ticket to the symphony. I’d attended the previous night, and I’d only come for intermission. To be surrounded by people, not to be alone.
Back at the boardinghouse, electricity to the hall lights was off. Stairs creaked on the way up to my second-floor rooms. There, I slipped into a robe, and I stood beside my bedroom window. A beam cut through the air, swung atop a lighthouse. It signaled the way into port. Saturating my suite with pale light, the moon cast a glittering path across the sea, beckoning to the empty horizon.
Filling an entire block with apartments and multi-story buildings, Dystertorg possessed one of the church’s three seminaries. It was its own village within the city. Under a copper mansard roof aged to sea green, the seminary housed diocese headquarters. Bookshelves of concordances, translations, and catechisms lined the walls of Superintendent Virtanen’s office. Sunlight through its gabled window was bright and clear.
Virtanen wore a clergyman’s white collar under his black suit. His gray beard was a few hues lighter than his widow’s peak of hair. Both were well-trimmed.
“I’m afraid Reverend Lindholm is dead. I called upon the police captain, hoping to avoid vulgarity. Instead, he sends you, fishing for answers.”
I shrugged. “As they say, ‘It is good fishing in troubled waters.’ Tell me about your concerns.”
He grunted his harrumph. “The tangled knot of it is that, as an ordained minister, Lindholm’s words to me are private. I’m not a priest taking Roman Catholic confession, but I’m still bound by my duties not to betray what he told in confidence.”
“If he’s dead, then you have no one to keep a promise to,” I said.
“My duty extends beyond death…” He paused, deliberating behind his eyes. “But I’m not breaking any trust by saying that something loomed over Emil’s mind. It cast a dark shadow.”
“What do you mean?”
“Finding happiness in a conversation or a day’s good weather was easy. Then, as quickly as the conversation ended or the weather changed, his happiness faded and passed. People considered him a depressive. And that made friendships difficult, even within the church.”
City hall’s carillon rang the half-hour. A faint smell from the herring cannery settled in the air.
Virtanen waited for the bells to stop before continuing. “Emil used to wonder if there was a limited supply of happiness in the world. As he suffered long spells of melancholy, he could rationalize that, somewhere in the world, someone else felt joy.”
“Is that sacrilegious?”
He shrugged. “It was just a fanciful notion. Then again, a minister’s work is full of fanciful notions—parables, visions, and metaphors—for things we can’t comprehend.”
“What kind of work did he do?” The national church maintained a dense web of administrators and attendants.
“Emil supervised the newly ordained: helped them find congregations and connect with local bishops. With churches all over the world, his position was consequential.”
“He supervised them in other countries?”
“From the confines of his office, yes.” Virtanen said, “Managed immigration paperwork, accounted for their salaries and taxes in the first year, and tried to ameliorate homesickness as much as possible. Want to see his where he worked?”
He led me down the hall and unlocked the door. Inside, I detected the smell of tobacco ash. Hues of brown, yellow, and green divided a stained glass window into an ear of grain ready for harvest. Sunlight turned the yellow panes into gleaming gold. The office was small: a rolltop desk, a bookcase, and a radiator.
“May I present Emil Lindholm,” he said, gesturing to a portrait painting hung at eye level.
“John twelve?” I pointed to the window.
He nodded. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
The rolltop on the desk was open, and an appointment book rested on it. I flipped through the pages. With the extra fine tip of a fountain pen pressing hard, his notes were scratched into the paper. Its final entry mentioned seeing someone named Elias Ellemann off to Yankee lands. The rest of the book was blank.
“What’s this?” I pointed to the note about Ellemann.
“Arrangements for passage—Amsterdam to London to New York City. Elias Ellemann was one of Emil’s seedlings. Perhaps he was more of a transplant.” He turned his gaze upward as if retrieving the memory from thin air. “Not fresh out of seminary, but an older man unhappy with his assignment.”
“Where is his church?”
“Somewhere in America. He left shortly after Emil went missing.”
“What about before this office re-assigned him?”
“Did Lindholm have a will?”
He shook his head. “Emil didn’t own land or a stake in any business, but he did have money stashed away.”
As the wind shifted, the stench of herring poured through the window. “You can smell the cannery, even from here,” I said.
“I don’t notice it anymore. All these farmers are free from the land. But not free from work. So they wind up canning herring or shoveling coal like flesh-and-bone extensions of machines.” He sighed. “A condition of this electrified age we live in, I suppose. Did you know that in 1820, a scientist discovered an electric current causes the needle of a compass to move?”
I nodded. “Oerstad.”
“Electricity re-oriented our lives, changing the whole world’s direction. It’s as if the cave man discovered fire, all over again.”
Virtanen intellectualized society—“minister’s work of fanciful notions”—until it was little more than a riddle.
In 1783, two men released an unmanned balloon near Paris. It landed in the countryside kilometers away, and farmers in nearby fields attacked it with pitchforks. Sometimes, mankind wasn’t eager to adopt progress. I kept this thought to myself. “Did he have any friends or relatives I could talk to?”
“His sister died last year. He had no children, and she had no children. Although the people who knew him most were fellow clergy, we were more acquaintances than friends.”
“Was he married? Or a widower with former in-laws I could talk to?”
He shook his head. “A long time ago, he was engaged to Sofia Wiechel, but—”
“Sofia Wiechel, the commander’s wife?”
“A long time ago,” he said, nodding. “They never married.”
“Why? What happened?”
He shrugged. “Emil never talked about it, so I never asked. The only reason I know is because he’d been the envy of all us fellow seminarians at the time.”
Commander Wiechel’s estate spread out amid the farms nearest Dystersorg. Instead of pigs or milking cows, his land raised rolling hills of grass. Here, he could peacefully reflect upon his distinguished military career. Although the navy is small, it is proud. The northern kingdoms were surrounded by danger: the tsar in Saint Petersburg, the Kaiser in Berlin, and British dreadnoughts in the North Sea. Centuries after wars between Protestants and Catholics and even more centuries past Viking rule, we still longed for permanent peace.
A maid showed me into the parlor. Alongside the entrance, it was far from the inner sanctum reserved for family and most favored guests. A bearskin rug and stove of honey-colored tiles warmed the room. A phonograph horn blossomed in the corner.
Sofia Wiechel entered moments later. More people recognized the twenty-three year old than knew her. Her elegant gowns adorned socialite small talk. And a portrait illuminating her large, dark eyes—like pools reflecting the night sky—hung in Bitterbrud Hospital to honor her generous donations. Her most beautiful attribute was her smile. Unabashedly, her rose petal lips parted widely. Her teeth were as white and perfect as two rows of oval pearls set by a jeweler and bookended by dimples. Unmanufactured and unhidden with cosmetic creams and powders, her smile revealed true, natural beauty.
“I’m sorry we haven’t met before.” Her house dress was embellished with a lace collar and cuffs. “But I’m indebted to you for the help given to my dear friend Nora, the Baroness of Feberblod. Tea?” An empty setting laid across from her. The silver was so polished, the dim sun shone on it. Like sugary clouds, puffs of meringue cookies covered a blue saucer.
“What can I do to repay your kindness?” she added, sitting down in a two-seat sofa. The curve of its S-shaped back allowed two people to sit intimately close yet chastely apart. Looking at the empty half beside her, I felt the commander’s presence.
“I’m told that you once knew Elias Lindholm—”
Her teacup clattered against its saucer. She fumbled, trying to place them back on the table.
I thought of the grief in losing people in life. Losing a loved one is like ripping a hole in the air; it tears the fabric of your life. Was the ragged edge of his current absence apparent from his past relationship with Sofia Weichel? “He’s gone missing. Do you know where I might find him?”
She looked down at her lap where she rubbed her hands together. “Wilma, will you bring the letter from my writing desk?”
“Of course.” The maid who had shown me in stood silently over my shoulder. Momentarily she disappeared, then returned with an envelope. It had been torn open, then carefully refolded together with a letter inside. I removed the letter and read it:
Eight years ago, I asked for your hand in marriage—and I took back the proposal. Nothing makes me more ashamed.
Please accept this as a token of the love I could never give. I hope you remember me fondly.
I folded the correspondence together again. The date of his disappearance postmarked the envelope. Had he sent this before he went missing? Did someone else send it for him? Had he anticipated his vanishing?
“What ‘token’ did he offer?”
The maid left again and returned with a slip of paper. It was a bank certificate for two thousand crowns.
“I don’t care how he feels now—I do care, but I’m committed to my husband—and I don’t know how I can accept this.”
“Is there a way I can return it to him?” Her eyes were tense with anxiety but guileless.
“You don’t know what happened to him?”
“Why would I?”
Lindholm wouldn’t need a last will and testament as long as he gave away his wealth before he died. Two thousand crowns was more than what most men kept. And a banker would have allowed only Lindholm himself to withdraw it. If he withdrew it under duress, it made no sense for anyone to let him give it away.
“Is he capable of taking his own life?” I asked.
Slowly, she placed the bank note in the loveseat’s vacant spot. Her gaze lingered on it. “When he broke our engagement, I remember, he said he wanted to die. His soul was always troubled, and the long cold winters wore him down.”
“Had he always felt that way? Even when he graduated from seminary and was newly-ordained?”
Tilting her head, she paused in thought. “I’m sure that he understood God wouldn’t want him to take his own life. Did Emil lose his faith? Did he stop loving God?”
“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “I’ve never met him.”
“Your pocket kerchief,” she said, tapping her heart. “Is folded into a symbol of Saint Sebastian. Do you feel abandoned by God?”
How or why Sebastian became the herald of sexual inversion, I don’t know, but he had his followers after a fashion, just as Oscar Wilde’s dandies and King Christina eonists in other decades. The arrow-shaped fold was a sign of fellowship. Perhaps it was a phallic representation in the unconscious. Since Sebastian was called upon during the plague, I preferred to think he was a symbol of suffering and endurance amid our strange disease.
How could I answer her? “It’s hard to understand the minds of those we love.”
When I left, she remained on the sofa and stared into the fire. The gears of her mind kept grinding, turning over questions but finding no answers.
“A Scandal in Bohemia” first appeared in translation when I was a boy. Living in Dystersorg, I was thrilled that the tale dealt with the King of Bohemia’s marriage to Princess Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meiningen. Not long afterward, Sherlock Holmes mentioned the King of Scandinavia was his client in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor.”
Since reading those stories, I graduated from university and moved into my own rooms. Watson’s reminisces are still published, case by case. But I never anticipated how much those first stories would come to shape my life.
When I finally had an inkling of what happened, I was at the tailor’s shop. I called Virtanen, and I asked him to meet me in Gulhund’s office.
They were waiting by the time I arrived. On the walls hung several city maps and (perfunctorily) the king’s portrait. Pastel marks and scribbles colored the maps’ glassed frames—precinct stations, patrol routes, and public telephones—battle plans in a ceaseless war against crime.
“Ellemann killed Lindholm.” I turned up my palms. “And his body was disposed of in a way so it would never be found."
Gulhund sucked the information in with a big breath, then he sighed slowly and let the facts settle. “I don’t know what extradition arrangements we have with the United States.”
I looked at Virtanen. “We can trace him through the church. Lindholm’s office must have records of the congregation or bishop he’ll go to.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said as a pink hue heated his cheeks.
Gulhund nodded. “If nothing else, we can cut him off from his income. He’ll be forced to return.” Thanks to the national church, taxpayers provided Ellemann an income.
I continued to watch Virtanen.
He fidgeted, scratched his chin, and shifted his weight from foot to foot.
“Yes, superintendent?” I said.
Rather than maintain eye contact, he glanced between Gulhund and myself. “Ellemann didn’t kill Lindholm.”
Gulhund raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Ellemann is Lindholm,” Virtanen said. “Lindholm created a persona, a character to step out of his life in Dystersorg and start over in America. He became Elias Ellemann.”
Just as I’d suspected as I stood in the tailoring shop. The two assistants sitting at benches, doing lacework and sewing buttons, weren’t journeymen but master craftsmen. Yet, they worked for journeymen wages because they couldn’t leave to start their own shops. There wasn’t enough business to go around.
“There’s hardly enough to employ them as it is,” my tailor explained as he presented fabrics. “We get only enough new orders to handle by myself.”
In the shifting tides, people spilled from farmlands into cities. Europeans flowed into the Americas. Lindholm was just a drop of water in the current.
“The city needs people who can draw blueprints. Blueprints need builders. And the dockyards need sailors. But who needs tailors like me when a lesser suit will do just as well—and for a lesser price?”
Thoughts on the fabric of life, the fabric of suits in my tailor’s shop, and the changing economics of my tailor’s work mingled together. Few threads bound Lindholm to others. His family was gone, and he estranged himself from his former fiancée. Like Virtanen’s philosophizing about people losing ties to their way of life, Lindholm had little holding him to his life. Thus, an inkling trickled through the gaps in my thoughts, connecting everything together.
Ellemann was an illusion. By feinting toward him, I’d forced the superintendent himself to break the pretense.
“Why didn’t you tell us before?” Gulhund asked.
Withholding the truth and maintaining this fiction was a crime itself.
“The words of a congregant to his minister must remain undisclosed. I’m still bound by my duties to not betray what Emil said in confidence. Right or wrong, it’s Emil’s life to live. Who am I to judge? ‘There is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool. All shall be forgotten. How dies the wise man?’”
“‘As dies the fool,’” I said, completing the verse from Ecclesiastes.
Virtanen could still be arrested. The law wouldn’t convict him for hiding the truth; the law was compelled to respect ministerial secrecy. Yet, Gulhund could charge the church superintendent with obstructing justice, presenting a false crime in the first place, and perpetuating a falsehood.
Lindholm hadn’t wanted to end his life. He just wanted to uproot it and replant in the new world. Virtanen abetted his departure.
I told Gulhund, “Ask a judge to sign his arrest warrant.”
“Arrest who?” Virtanen said. “Lindholm?”
“Ellemann. On suspicion of killing Lindholm. Should he ever return, he’ll need to answer for the deception. If he never returns, then we have a way to rationalize his disappearance.” I looked at Virtanen. “A way that doesn’t break the minister’s confidence.”
I accepted a financial offering from Virtanen. Having never asked for anything, I didn’t think of it as payment for my efforts. Captain Gulhund had asked me to find Lindholm—and Virtanen had asked him, expecting the police to conclude he was dead.
Gulhund approached me with other problems until he was summoned to the capital where he helped maintain peace and neutrality during the Great War. He died in the influenza outbreak. I never saw Sofia Wiechel again. Within a few months of these events, Lindholm was dead in New England, having taken his own life privately with grace and tact.
Adam McFarlane is an active member of the Mystery Writers of America, a cancer survivor, and a former history teacher. He lives in Minnesota. His work appears in Pulp Adventures, Thuglit, and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.