The dream of William Burns

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Apr 15, 2013

Note: On March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped, prompting a years-long investigation into the crime. Six weeks later, William Burns died following a prolonged period of illness. The rest of what follows is entirely the invention of the author.

William Burns puffed out his cheeks in frustration. As he exhaled, a small jet of vapor formed for a moment. It was damn well cold enough up here, he thought. Florida was a Hell of a lot more livable in March.

Burns crossed his arms, and tilted his head one way and then the other, as though looking for something. There was nothing to see, though, at any rate nothing more than there had been all morning. Just that big new house, off through the pine trees. A couple of cars out front. No one coming or going, though, and nothing else anywhere nearby but more trees. He believed—no, he had seen—figures moving inside the house a few times, even from this far away. But that didn’t prove anything useful. What was he doing here, really?

What was Lindbergh doing here was a better question, he thought, squeezing himself against the frosty evening air. All that money, beloved by everyone and opportunities anywhere he went, and he chose to make his home up here halfway to the Arctic? Year-round? He had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, surely the concept of removing someplace warm at least for the winter wasn’t too daunting for him…

He might try to drop a hint, perhaps, an offhand remark about someone he knew who wintered in Florida. Though for that matter, his family might want to relocate entirely after this; god knows Burns knew the feeling. If only Lindbergh would talk to him. Burns could help, he wanted to help, he understood what this was like. He had been through much of it, more than once: threats to his family, anonymous notes, and of course the whole circus that always converges on a case like this. Burns had been in the middle of those too many times to count and he understood the instinct to hole up in a fortress, shut everything out, trust no one, but dammit they needed his help and here he was, ready to offer it, but stuck tramping around in a forest like some gumshoe amateur.

Burns sat down in his chair again and stared through the papers covering his desk. There was no point wearing a hole through his study floor with pacing; if he was going to accomplish anything from here it would be by sitting down and working, though he had little hopes for even that.

What did he have to work with? News clippings, mostly, the same as every other Tom, Dick & Harry in the country. They weren’t telling him anything useful besides what he knew from the beginning, what he always knew: he needed to be there out in the field, in the midst of the case, with access to people. Burns was no armchair detective. He was the American Sherlock Holmes, not the American Dupin.

He was William Burns, for that matter, which meant something if these older newspaper features in frames on the wall were anything to go by. BURNS FOILS COUNTERFEITERS. DYNAMITERS CAUGHT BY BURNS. BURNS TO HEAD FBI. The paper was yellowing behind the glass, even in that last one, and it had been a while without any more banner headlines—at least any he wanted to be reminded of.

He was still the greatest detective in the country. Why hadn’t they called him? There was a time when everyone called Burns, from Presidents on down. Yet there his phone sat, obstinately refusing to ring even as he glared at it with all the frustration of these weeks of waiting.

Then a thought. A crazy thought. Burns turned his eyes from the silent phone and reached up to his lips as he considered the possibility: what if they had called?

At any rate, what if they had been trying to reach him? What if the Lindberghs, the police, the papers, what if all of them had been ringing the agency and leaving messages urging the great detective to help, and for some reason everyone was keeping those messages from him? Was he going crazy? Was it any crazier than the idea that a crime like this would take place and no one would ask William Burns’s opinion?

Everyone around him had been acting awfully strange lately, truth be told. His wife and children kept insisting he needed to lie down and rest, that he wasn’t well, that the doctors had said this and that… Nonsense, all of it. What did he need a doctor for? He had turned 70 last year but he was perfectly fit; he had always had a younger man’s energy, his whole life.

What he needed was to get out of that place for a while, and do some work again or his brain would go soft. This case was just the thing, he admitted as he watched the posts flash past out the train window. Terrible business, but a welcome distraction from the monotony of so-called retirement. He would get up north to take charge of things first-hand.

He shifted in his seat, then rolled his eyes. No one else was going to be any use in a case like this, certainly, not hayseed county detectives, or the Bureau now that Hoover was running things, that little kiss-ass. Nor those Pinkerton buffoons, obviously! The local police would probably grab some random joe off the street to pin it on, and the Pinkertons would probably jump to help them; god knew it wouldn’t be the first time!

Burns suspected a terror group, perhaps another labor plot, but it was obviously an organized group of some sort. That much had been plain from the start; any “lone culprit” theory would be simply a lot of baloney, end of story. The rest he would work out once he reached the scene and began questioning the family and their acquaintances. The old Burns touch was still as deft as ever.

He surprised himself with a great, sudden yawn. Perhaps he should catch a nap. He wasn’t sure where they were—some sort of heavy fog had settled on everything outside when he wasn’t looking—but forty winks couldn’t hurt. He could take a little rest like everyone had been nagging him to do, then tackle this case properly and show them that the old man’s mind still worked.

This one was going to be remembered, he thought as he folded his arms across his middle and closed his eyes. This was destiny rushing to meet him.

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