The Domino Effect

‘Domino cloak, black silk velvet, lined with white silk satin, a little worn at the lower edge, style consistent with circa 1775.’ Vera muttered the words to herself as she lifted the garment out of the trunk that it had arrived in, then draped the cloak carefully over the inspection frame, filled out an index card with the details, and updated the museum’s database. Belt and braces as Cynthia, her supervisor, said. If one system fails, there was the other one as a back-up. It was the last item to be inspected and catalogued, after the donation’s arrival at the museum some months before.
It had been a surprise. Often such private collections were known about, their owners coming to the museum for advice on conservation, or on whether a prospective purchase was genuine, but this collection had come out of the blue. The result of a house clearance, apparently, where the owner had died, and the heirs were either unknown or not interested in the house contents. Oddly there had been nothing identifying the benefactor, just the firm of solicitors who had been the intermediaries – Poppinghole, Caldbec and Bourne.
She cast her mind back across the many weeks of inspecting and cataloguing the contents of the bandboxes, travelling cases and trunks that had turned up via DHL one rainy August afternoon. The conservation needed on some of the pieces had been quite extensive – they were obviously well-used – and she had begun to suspect that they had all been made for the same person at around the same time, rather than being a selection of garments and toiletries acquired over many decades by an avid collector.
She let her mind wander as she inspected the cloak for any other damage, and tried to imagine the original owner, as she had so many times before. Initially she’d thought that the owner must have been quite elderly, as it was unusual for the young to wear such rich fabrics at that time, unless very wealthy. Then as piece after piece was revealed, she had begun to think that the owner must have been quite young. The styles had been the height of fashion as the last quarter of the eighteenth century was just beginning, and the colours were pale such as an ingénue would wear, rather than the dark tones of a dowager. Except for this cloak, though. This was the only item of clothing that wasn’t bright and glittering.
The cloak was floor length, hence the wear on the lower edge where it would have brushed along the ground as the wearer walked. The hood was cut generously – even when worn over the huge, elaborate, hairstyles of the era the hood would have been loose. The cloak was full, designed so that the front edges met all the way down to the ground, completely covering the body. The velvet was soft, and so fine that she wouldn’t have been surprised if it would pass the wedding ring test. Not that she was about to attempt that, her supervisor would probably sack on the spot if she tried that.
Whoever it was must have been extremely rich: every single item of clothing was pure silk, even the undergarments and night gowns, and the cosmetics case was filled with crystal bottles with silver caps, solid silver hair brushes, all encased in a silk-lined box – everything of the finest quality that money could buy.
The colours were intriguing though, she thought. The underlying colours were fairly muted, but the fabrics had been adorned with crystals and gold thread to create a shimmering look that was dazzling in the bright lights of her basement laboratory. Still, definitely a young person from the style of the designs. Maybe 5’ 2” in height, and slight, even before the corsetry was applied. In fact, now she came to think of it, it had been odd that no corsets at all had been in the trunks. Every other item of clothing a fashionable young lady about town might require had been there, but no corsets.
As she tilted the Domino this way and that to look for wear and tear she noticed the occasional gleam from the lining. Putting the cloak down on a work bench for a better look, she identified thousands of specks spread over the red silk, which caught the light as the fabric moved. Using tweezers, she selected a sample and took it over to view under the microscope. What she saw horrified her – it was a piece of a moth’s wing. Insects could wreak havoc on the museum’s collection within weeks if there was an unchecked infestation, and she ran back to look at the trunk that the cloak had come in, to see if there were any signs of larvae. None, thank goodness, but she made a mental note to double check every item that had arrived in that consignment nonetheless. And to set the controls for the laboratory to flood the room with pesticide after she had locked up for the day.
Around mid-afternoon she had finished cataloguing the collection and decided to go up to the museum café for her break. Having missed lunch, she figured she was owed some extra time and a trip outside to get some fresh air, so she left by the staff entrance at the rear of the building, walked around to the front, and came in the main entrance like a tourist. Jo was there, as expected, and she was looking forward to having a chat as the queues were light at this time of day, but her old friend just stared at her, puzzled, as she walked up to the security desk.
Jo turned and looked out of the doors. ‘How come you’re so dry?’ Didn’t you get wet in all that rain out there?’ She turned and looked out too, and saw for the first time that it was tipping it down – which was hardly unusual for the last day of October, but she hadn’t noticed it at all. She had no answer – while inside her hermetically-sealed basement bunker she’d had no idea what the weather was like outside, and the rain hadn’t made any impression on her when she left. Jo turned her around and around. ‘Are you hiding an umbrella somewhere under that skirt? Or have you just invented rain-proof clothing down in that secret lab of yours?’
The answer to both was no, and yet she didn’t have any other answers either. Jo just shook her head and waved her through to the museum itself. As she walked through the remaining crowds to the café she wondered what she had thought she was doing when she’d tried the cloak on. She had intended it to be for just a moment, to test her theory that the original owner was her height and build, but she had almost forgotten she was wearing it and had nearly walked out of the lab with it still on. If she hadn’t caught sight of her reflection in the window of the door and realised in time, she would have exposed it to all that rain. The mere thought of having to explain her behaviour to anyone at all, let alone her pernickety and stickler-for-the-rule-book supervisor, made her blood run cold.
As Vera sat and drank her tea she watched the people moving in and out of the café. It was her favourite thing to do, trying to work out which half of the couple had wanted to be there, which half was there under sufferance, and which parent was in the dog house for letting the toddler run off and worry everyone, before being found hiding behind a statue. A sudden panic that her supervisor had walked in without her seeing, and sat down a few tables away, made her freeze mid-sip of tea, but the woman turned her head and she realised that it had been an illusion created by the way the light fell on the mask she was holding up to amuse a small child. Relieved, she decided to not push her luck any further, and head back to the lab.
Something was wrong. She could hear the whir of the ventilation grills closing as she walked down the corridor, and the sound of the machinery used to flood the lab with pesticide starting up just as she reached the door. There was a note on the window, from Cynthia, telling her that the settings had been changed to come on earlier, since she’d obviously finished early and gone home for the day. Damn. The woman had obviously dropped by, seen the cloak, and decided to step in, without thinking that she may have just stepped out for a moment. It made her blood boil, the woman seemed to think she wasn’t allowed to be human and need time to breathe and take a rest.
She looked through the window in the door helplessly as the gas filled the room, then stood there rooted to the spot as she noticed that the cloak, now hung over the inspection frame, was starting to unravel and disintegrate. Her mouth dropped open as it appeared to dissolve – she couldn’t imagine how or why it was happening, but she knew that she was going to be in the biggest trouble of her life if she couldn’t stop it. She tried to reach out for the door handle, but it was impossible.
She tried to look down at her arm, but realised that she couldn’t move her head either, she couldn’t move anything, in fact. She swivelled her eyes and saw that she was surrounded by moths. A cloud of them, no, a hurricane of them as they flew around her in tight circles. Silk moths, by the look of them, and they were binding her up in a cocoon as they flew around her in a swarm.
The moths had worked so fast, and the touch of the threads had been so light at first that she was almost completely covered before she realised what was happening, and by the time she had started to panic it was far too late. The moths worked on, stuffing her mouth, her nose and her eyes with silk, and hiding her face.
Struggling was useless, every movement bound her tighter, and the cocoon was complete. Her struggles tipped her over onto the floor, but she was no nearer to being able to break free. She felt herself growing warmer and then lost consciousness. The cocoon rippled and gurgled in the late afternoon light, as the contents rearranged themselves.
When Vera failed to turn up at Cynthia’s office in response to a terse email asking her to explain yesterday’s absence, the supervisor went down to the lab to see for herself. There was nothing to be seen except for a single item of clothing, which Cynthia picked up and placed on the inspection frame.
Damn, she thought, that’s another lab assistant just disappeared on me. Where do they go?
Weeks later, Vera’s replacement arrived, and picked up where she had left off. First item on the agenda was to re-check the item of clothing that had been found outside the lab door on the day of Vera’s disappearance.
‘Domino cloak, black silk velvet, lined with white silk satin, a little worn at the lower edge, style consistent with circa 1775,’ she muttered to herself as she turned the cloak this way and that, looking for any damage.


About kentishlol

Wife, mother of three, dog owner, and rank amateur at everything. You don't really want to know that I bake, knit, garden, make marmalade and sloe gin, do you? Thought not.
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