No one in town could explain the tracks. Where they came from. Where they were going. And who—or what—had made them.
The three special investigators arrived a few weeks after the tracks were first seen. They each hailed from a different part of the country. Each had a different expertise. The supernaturalist. The medical doctor. And the philosopher. And each had been briefed on the happenings in the town.
But as was their practice, according to the root training that they shared, all three investigators sat in the mayor’s office, and entreated him to tell them in his own words what was happening in his town.
The tracks were first seen and reported after a particularly heavy snowfall overnight. The town was surrounded by forest. It was common to see the tracks of deer, horses, mice, and the like. But on that particular morning, as people gathered in the town square to begin their day, many noted that they had woken to the curious sight of tracks in the snow that looked like cloven hoof prints. In some cases, the tracks seemed to lead up to and stop at the wall of a house and then continued on the roof. In others, they appeared outside of the high garden walls of some of the older houses in the town, and then continue inside the walls, as if the creature making them had passed through the wall. As the day wore on, more and more accounts of the mysterious tracks emerged. Many spoke of seeing prints on the roofs of their homes, but hearing nothing during the night. A few people who lived dozens of miles outside of town, followed the tracks from their home into the town square.
The town’s people began to speculate. Had a herd of deer passed through and around the town? If that were so, why were the tracks not next to each other? And why did the tracks fall in single file, as if made by a creature standing on two legs, not four?
Over the coming days, the tracks would be the subject of much speculation and conversation. A farmer declared that mice, hopping mice in particular, had made the tracks. He had cleared an infestation of them in one of his unused barns at the beginning of winter. They were no doubt still wandering about, searching for food. They hopped on their hind legs, and weighed so little that one could expect not to hear them scrambling about on one’s roof. Still others thought it might be deer, though none could explain how deer could find their ways onto roofs, or jump over high walls. And the tracks resembled but did not exactly match those of deer.
As that first snowfall melted, talk of the inexplicable tracks faded. Then the next snowfall came, and with it, a new set of tracks.
After this second snowfall of the season, the people noted that at least some of the tracks appeared to be identical to the first set, as if whatever made them had walked the exact same path again. After the second snowfall, the mood of the town began to shift from curiosity to concern. People began to measure, observe, report, and study the prints more carefully.
And it was after this second snowfall that the first person fell ill with a malaise as inexplicable as the hoof prints in the snow.
The mysterious malaise afflicted no fewer than three of the townsfolk. They ran fevers, could not move due to severe weakness of their muscles, had trouble hearing anything but a constant ringing, were sensitive to all but the dimmest of lights, developed sores inside their mouths, and took food and drink with difficulty. One of them suffered mild nosebleeds through the day, but the child was known to have those nosebleeds during the coldest and driest weather even when he was otherwise healthy. The local doctors were unable to diagnose the patients. But it was noted that all three lived in town, and all three lived close together. If one were to mark their locations on a map of the town, which someone did, it became apparent that there was something of note at the center of those locations.
For several decades, the plot of land had been empty and vacant. The head of the town’s foremost family, the Flaicherths, purchased the land and began building a home there meant for his daughter. Construction on the Victorian-style house had been completed just prior to the start of winter. But the house remained empty—locked and boarded up—for the season. The family intended to wait for spring to furnish and decorate the house, and throw a ball as a housewarming for their only daughter.
The town had been excited by the prospect. The Flaicherth family was generous. Their factory employed a good portion of townsfolk. Their invitations to friends and prospective partners in business brought wealthy patrons to the town’s inns and shops. Their donations kept the roads, the public halls, and the like in good repair. The townsfolk benefitted from their insistence on comfort and convenience, for they often shared those comforts. They were the first to replace their horse-drawn carriages with motor buggies. And to wire their homes with telegraphs, telephones, and now, the electric current that powered the lights in the new house.
That new house, though empty, was checked upon at least once per day, by a hired proprietor. It was she who noted that the new house had not been spared from the presence of the strange inexplicable tracks that trampled over the rest of the town. And as she exchanged her own story with that of others, she realized that the tracks around the new house were different in one way from those found elsewhere.
All the tracks that she saw around the new Flaicherth place led away from the house.
“As we began to eliminate the other possible explanations—animals, pranksters—people began to spread rumors about more…unnatural causes,” the mayor said. “At first it wasn’t taken seriously. It was just a lark to gossip about a real mystery in the town. A mystery that most thought was harmless when all was said and done. But after people started falling ill, and our doctors couldn’t figure what they had…”
“Connections were made that may or may not be there at all,” Professor Tau said. She was the rationalist. The skeptic. The philosopher. It was her purpose to check for false connections, effects attributed to causes without apparent proof, links made between unrelated events, and so on. And it was her purpose to see and find true connections that might have been missed.
The mayor nodded. “There are now a dozen people in town who have succumbed to this mystery disease. And the tracks keep appearing after each snowfall. People are keeping watch through the night, over their houses and the roads, for whatever or whoever is making the tracks. And they are keeping watch over those who are sick, to make sure that they are not being visited by some demonic presence in the night.”
“Demons?” the supernaturalist, Mister Dietrich, said. “Truly?”
The mayor sighed. “The ill seem to be growing weaker as time passes. To some if seems as if their life essences are being sucked out, likely by whatever is leaving those tracks in the snow. Cloven tracks.”
Doctor Sanong, the medical doctor, leaned toward the mayor. “Have your doctors considered that it might be a parasite?”
“I wonder,” Dietrich said, before the mayor could answer. “I can’t recall the name off the top of my head, but there is a rare creature I’ve heard of that has such qualities. It’s like the parasites that drain one’s life from within, only this creature, like a leech, attaches to the outside of the body. It’s nocturnal. It lives within the walls of a dwelling and comes out at night to slowly drain the blood of mammals.” He pointed to his neck. “From the large artery that runs along our necks.”
“Do you mean to say all this foolishness about a demonic presence could be true?” the mayor asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve encountered strange creatures and people capable of doing things that we average folk cannot do. But I’ve never encountered incorporeal spirits like ghosts. In my experience, in cases of supposed demonic possessions, the possessed were usually afflicted with some other ailment. An infection of the mind for example. Or the consumption of substances that alter the mind’s perceptions and even the person’s very character.”
“Has anyone died?” Sanong asked.
“Not yet, but we fear it’s only a matter of time.”
Tau narrowed her eyes. “Have you noted flukes in the quality of the snow falling this season?”
The mayor frowned. “We wondered on it.” He shook his head. “I don’t know. Could it be that simple? What could it be? We checked for salt. When we thought it was a prank, that someone had sprinkled salt in some pattern on the ground below. Perhaps it melted the snow above?”
“We can examine the snow,” Tau said.
“And I’d like to study the tracks,” Dietrich added.
Sanong nodded and chimed in. “And I of course would like to see the patients who have contracted this vague illness.”
“People want the house demolished,” the young woman said, absently taking a sip from the finest teacup that Tau had ever seen, or had the pleasure of sipping from herself.
Professor Tau was sitting in the receiving room of the original Flaicherth home, a manor much bigger than the new Victorian that had been built for the very person who sat before her.
“Most don’t really believe there’s any harm to the new house,” Miss Flaicherth said. “But I don’t hear from most. I hear from the few who come here demanding that we demolish the house, because they think that it somehow attracted an evil spirit or energy or demonic presence.” She pressed her lips together and shook her head. She huffed out a humorless laugh. “They say it’s the lights.”
Tau blinked. “The lights?”
“It is the only house—rather, the first house—to be wired with electric current. The current isn’t even turned on. But I’ve been told that it must have brought these things that are leaving the tracks. That that’s why the tracks are all leading away from the house.”
“It is an interesting detail, and significant, provided we can confirm it ourselves.”
Miss Flaicherth’s calm expression suddenly collapsed into upset. “But does it mean the house is the reason that people are getting sick?” She set her teacup down. “Local clerics are trying to calm the people, and assure them that there must be some simpler explanation. My father is prepared to bring in priests, mystics, witch doctors, whoever might succeed in ‘cleansing’ the house and the town.”
She rolled her hands into fists. “I would have the house demolished if that would cure them.”
“Steady, miss,” Tau said. “We must not take any actions that might make matters worse. My colleague is seeing to those who’ve fallen ill. Our first aim is to help them heal. But to that end, we must find out if there truly is some link between their illness and these strange tracks.”
“And my house.”
Tau gave a single nod. “And your house.”
Professor Tau completed her interviews with Miss Flaicherth, the proprietor of the new house, and various witnesses of the tracks. She used a field chemistry kit to perform some simple tests on the snow around the town, according to the instructions of their expert chemist (who was himself bedridden with flu, and unable to join the other investigators).
She had not eliminated the possibility of a prankster, even after seeing the extent of the area covered by the recent occurrence of tracks. If it were a prank, the prankster would need to have great skill, and likely a deeper motive than simply giggling at the baffled townsfolk. Considering the focus on the new Flaicherth house, someone with a grudge against the family, or perhaps Miss Flaicherth in particular, seemed a reasonable suspect. But no one who had kept watch during the last few snowfalls had seen anyone or anything, further fueling the conclusion that a mischievous—or outright evil—spirit was to blame.
The Flaicherths were indeed well-liked. Tau had not uncovered any feelings of personal affront in those who had shared their accounts with her. But she was newly arrived in town. It would take time for the outer layers of caution to peel away, and for people to tell her what they truly thought.
Professor Tau spent the day gathering information: the details of the newly constructed house, the timeline of when the hoof prints started being noticed, accounts from those who witnessed the prints and found explanation for them, and examination and interviews with the caretakers of those who had fallen ill. She would convene with her colleagues and add their observations and discoveries to her own. They would sort and shuffle their knowledge until they could discern a pattern or discover the edges of the various pieces, to see how they fit together and revealed the truth.
“I’m convinced,” Dietrich said, a few days later.
The three investigators were gathered in the private study of the town’s library—a quite impressive library by measure of its collection and the beauty and comfort of the building itself.
Sanong crossed his arms. “So it has nothing to do with the house?”
Tau had just confirmed that there had been no reports of similar tracks prior to the construction of the new house. Sanong was convinced that the illness, which seemed to be some kind of infection, was connected to the house. Most who had fallen ill either lived near the new Flaicherth house, or had worked in its construction over the past months. He could not explain why the illness did not emerge sooner. Or why only some were afflicted, while others who lived nearby or worked on the house were unaffected. But he was eager for their upcoming visit to the house in the hopes of finding a cause.
According to Dietrich, however, the mystery was solved. He had uncovered enough evidence to believe that he knew what was causing all of the observed effects.
His original guess had not been far off.
“I wouldn’t say nothing,” Dietrich said. He pulled a small notebook from his inside coat pocket and flipped through it until he found the detail he was looking for. “Yes, here. They prefer living in cold, dry enclosed environments. And have often been found in abandoned buildings. This would explain why the tracks lead away from the house. They’ve taken up in there. And they are shy and stealthy enough to escape the attention of a proprietor who is only looking for obvious signs of disturbance, like a human vandal, or a larger animal.”
“I can accept that they avoid notice when no one is trying to notice,” Tau said. “But there are people watching now. They are watching their grounds, their roofs, their roads, and they are watching their people. Some are convinced there is a malevolent spirit—or many spirits—haunting their town. Yet no one has reported seeing anything.”
“Are they invisible to direct sight?” Sanong asked. He glanced at the open book that Dietrich had set before them from his own collection of texts that he had brought along. It was turned to a page with a drawing of a creature that looked somewhat like a platypus with a tapered tail and two horn-like ears behind the eyes. It was standing on its hind legs, with the tail raised above the ground, and feet that formed a cloven shape.
Dietrich shook his head. “I’m not certain. But they do seem to have some power to escape attention that seems far in advance of the natural methods we know of—say, the patterns and shapes that hide some animals from predators. Despite appearances, they also seem able to move quite quickly. So all of the tracks that people have seen could have been made by just one of them.” He sighed heavily. “The damage is done as far as your patients are concerned, I’m afraid. The people who have fallen ill were affected long ago, perhaps weeks ago when the tracks first appeared.” Here, he too pointed to the creature in the book. “I think they are falling ill at different rates because some are more sensitive than others to the creature’s secretions. Its venom.”
“And what do these secretions do?” Sanong asked. “Tell me there’s nothing growing inside those poor people. Can we flush out whatever has taken a hold of them?”
“I don’t know if we can do anything ourselves. The text mentions an illness like the one we’re seeing, but doesn’t mention anything about the people recovering or being treated—or dying, for that matter.”
“I suppose there’s some comfort in that,” Tau said.
“We have to capture one,” Dietrich said. “They have an antidote to their venom in their own bodies. We can milk it as one can do with a snake.”
Dietrich was convinced, in part, because he believed that one of the people he had interviewed that very day had seen the creature. It was the description the man provided that guided Dietrich to identifying the creature. The supernaturalist admitted there were some details that didn’t quite fit. But that might just be because their understanding of this particular creature was lacking.
Neither Tau nor Sanong had discovered anything solid in their investigations over the past few days.
“Proceed with your plan, Mister Dietrich,” Tau said. “The doctor and I will continue investigating other leads, unless you need our help. I trust you’ve sent word to the local field office, so they can try to find a supernaturalist who might have personal experience with this creature, and more importantly, might know of other treatments for its venom.”
Dietrich tried to contain an eager smile. “Yes, Professor.”
Professor Tau peered through the trees, but could not see the traps that Dietrich had devised with the help of Smithon, the man who had reported seeing the creature and on whose property they were setting the traps. They were cleverly hidden in and around the rotting logs blooming with winter mushrooms where the creature had been spotted a few times. Each trap would release a flash upon being triggered. That had been Dietrich’s idea. The creature was nocturnal and would be blinded by the flash for a few moments. So even if it managed to dash away from the traps, it might be unable to escape the circle of people who surrounded the area, lying in wait.
Tau was not well-schooled in the supernatural and was surprised that Dietrich had not painted the trap with arcane symbols or doused it in holy oils. It looked much like a turkey trap that she’d seen her uncle build when she was a child. But Dietrich had assured her that most ordinary forest animals would not trigger the trap.
She had committed to waiting there for a few hours before returning to town. She was warmly dressed, but the cold was persistent, and it managed to seep through any minuscule gap in her clothing, so that before a single hour was through, she was growing numb and remembering why she had moved to warmer climes.
She checked her watch in the dimming light. Beside her lay one of the watchers, peering through a pair of binoculars. She glanced at him, considering whether she should abandon her post. When she noted the sudden shift in his shoulders, she glanced forward again, to where he was looking. There was a shape moving through the trees ahead. It was tall, growing taller.
She glanced at the man beside her again. He had a rifle by his side, but did not reach for it. Their aim was to capture the creature, not to kill it.
A sudden crash drew her attention forward again. And she gasped when she saw that the shape was closer now, coming toward them. Now there was a shout, and another.
Two men came rushing into the clearing and Tau heard an animal sound that she would have easily placed had she not been half-blinded by the approaching dark, cold and startled, and primed to expect something unearthly.
The man beside her rose and pulled her up without a word. He guided her away just as something large galloped past them, trampling the very spot where they had been settled.
As Tau caught her breath and turn to look, she heard a defiant neighing and a nervous grunting, and watched as two men appeared and grabbed the reins and the harness of the runaway horse.
They calmed the horse as Tau glanced down and noted its tracks in the slushy snow.
“I wonder what spooked him,” the man beside her said.
And just as he spoke, a flash of light erupted from the clearing.
After the trap went off, Dietrich immediately brought it inside the well-lit barn that Smithon had prepared. A few others followed, but most stayed outside, still stationed around the remaining traps in case there was more than one creature.
Tau stood by and watched, while the others warned Dietrich to be careful. She had only met the supernaturalist a few days before they arrived in the town, but she had learned that he was one of the most knowledgeable and experienced supernatural investigators they had.
But when he opened the trap and peered inside, it was clear that he did not expect what he saw inside.
“False alarm, then,” Smithon said as he leaned over Dietrich’s shoulder.
But the expression on Dietrich’s face did not indicate that was a false alarm.
He gently lifted the creature out of the trap. It was furry and on first glance looked like a cross between a mouse and a squirrel. Its eyes were large and black. Its gaze darted between Dietrich and all those gathered, as if nervous, or curious.
One of the other men who had followed them into the barn stepped forward. “I don’t recognize it. But that’s definitely not what we’re aiming for. Look at its feet.”
The creature—the animal—that Dietrich held in his hands had rodent-like feet, and it seemed to prefer being on all fours.
Dietrich considered the breathing ball of fur in his hands. “Another piece of the puzzle? Or a distraction?”
The furry rodent was warm-blooded, so Tau and Dietrich kept it warm as they returned to town. Dietrich had left instructions for contacting him should any more traps go off.
None of the people they showed the animal to recognized it. Sanong and the mayor met them in the town square.
“Is that it?” the mayor asked, narrowing his eyes accusingly at the small creature.
“It’s definitely not a platypus,” Sanong said.
“This animal may be unrelated to all the happenings in your town,” Tau said. “But I’m hoping it can provide us some clues. It seems too much a coincidence for this fellow to emerge at a time like this.”
With the mayor’s permission, they carried the creature into the town’s library and had the librarian direct them to all the records and books about the town’s own history, including records of the wildlife that was native to the area.
Tau wanted to study the animal they had captured, but also wanted to release it, assuming it was not the culprit in the illnesses that were afflicting the town. From the townfolk’s reaction to the rodent, she feared they had discovered some animal so rare that if they did not release it, especially if it was of mating age, then they might be hastening or bringing about its extinction.
Sanong admonished them to take care that the animal was not infested with fleas or that it didn’t bit them. He was still convinced that the illness was being caused by some bacterium. If that were so, it was possible the large-eyed innocent-looking rodent was indeed responsible. And perhaps the tracks in the snow were an altogether unrelated phenomenon.
The trio of investigators spent the night searching the town’s records for mention of the rodent. They kept the animal contained in a cage. Tau tried to feed it seeds, and it nibbled on a few, but let most be. The poor creature was properly nervous and agitated from being contained.
At last, Dietrich found the journal of a naturalist from almost a hundred years past, who described and sketched an animal that was surely the rodent they had captured. The naturalist named it the “skiptail mouse.”
They searched for and found further mentions of the skiptail mouse. The creature never received an official designation. For it seemed to vanish after people began settling the town, and later naturalists believed it had gone extinct. In particular, it was noted that the mouse might have died out because its favored food source had died out first, a particular type of fungus.
Sanong suddenly pulled the text out of Dietrich’s hands. “Fungus,” he said, flipping through the book. “Fungus…what kind of fungus.”
Tau exchanged a glance with Dietrich.
The skiptail mouse. It was not just another puzzle piece. It was the key piece. The piece that helped the supernaturalist, the medical doctor, and the philosopher assemble the facts of the happenings in town into the truth.
After a few days, with further study, after consultation with experts in their field office, and most importantly, upon finding a way to treat and cure the afflicted in town, the three investigators met once more with the mayor in his office. They presented their findings to him, as he had several days prior, presented his dilemma to them. Miss Flaicherth too was present, as was Smithon, the man who had spotted the creature that he thought was the culprit in their town’s recent woes.
“It wasn’t the house,” Tau said with a glance to Miss Flaichert. “It was the ground that the house was built on. You uncovered something that has remained buried for quite some time.”
“A rare thing. A thing that will excite the mycologists back home, eh, Dietrich?” Sanong said, elbowing his colleague.
“The who?” the mayor asked.
“They are specialists in the study of fungi,” Dietrich said.
The mayor narrowed his eyes and Professor Tau realized that he must have thought they were having some “fun” with him.
“Funguses,” she clarified. “Mushrooms and the like. This particular variety had been sleeping in the ground. It’s hardy. It managed to survive there for many decades, but the variety is able to spread far and wide when conditions are favorable.”
“Which happened when the ground was broken for the construction of the house,” Miss Flaichert.
“We believe so,” Tau said. “The fungus grew, and as construction continued, it released spores.”
“These spores were inhaled by the workers who were building the house,” Sanong said. “And in some of them, it took hold and grew within them, making them sick. I performed some tests and found this to be so. I have begun treatment. I am hopeful that all will recover.”
The mayor frowned. “But if that’s so, why did people only start getting sick after the house was completed? And why didn’t they all get sick? I don’t understand.”
“Symptoms of fungal infections may take some months to manifest,” Sanong said. “That people fell ill just as the house was completed, was likely a coincidence. And I’m not sure why some are resistant and others not. We will study it, but for now, we only want the ill to get well.”
“That still doesn’t explain the tracks,” Smithon said.
Professor Tau smiled. “Ah, but it does, Mister Smithon. And as a lover of mushrooms, I believe you will appreciate it. According to our mycologist friends, there are some fungi that grow in such a pattern that their fruiting bodies—the parts that emerge from the ground—can melt the snow above them in interesting patterns.”
“How does that explain the prints that people found on their roofs?”
“Now those prints were indeed unrelated,” Tau said. “And only a few people reported tracks on their roofs. It’s just that they repeated their story so often and to so many that it seemed more people had seen tracks on their roofs.”
The mayor suddenly laughed. “Could it really be so?”
“Colleagues of ours will be arriving soon,” Tau said. “They will be able to confirm that is it so.”
“But in the meantime,” Dietrich said, “I am happy to report and admit that I was wrong about there being a supernatural cause.”
“Then we are indeed responsible,” Miss Flaicherth said, her heavy expression the opposite of the mayor’s relieved one.
“You don’t need to demolish your lovely new house,” Tau said. “But you may help your town to manage the spread of the fungus.”
“And what about that strange little mouse we caught?” Smithon asked.
“She was the reason we were able to put all the pieces of this puzzle together,” Tau said. “The mouse and the fungus were both thought to have gone extinct. They existed together once. The fungus was the mouse’s favorite food. It didn’t sicken them at all. And the mouse, with its fluffy tail would spread the spores of the fungus farther than it could otherwise spread. The spreading fungus drew her out and led her to us. And she led us to the fungus.”
The job of the three special investigators was done. Others would follow up and carry on after them, with the continuing work of treating the sick, studying the rare mouse and fungus, and managing the fungus.
The supernaturalist, the medical doctor, and the philosopher bid each other farewell as they left town, sincere in their declared hopes of working with each other again someday, and practiced in the skill of shifting their curiosity to their next case, their next mystery.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel.