EXCERPT: Lost Girls of Oz — Theodora Goss

Dear Dottie,

This will be a long letter, because I’m going on a trip—and such a trip! You won’t believe me when I tell you! But don’t tell Mamsie, because you know how she worries when she thinks either of us girls is doing anything the least bit—well, she would call it dangerous, but I’m going to call it adventurous.

But I do want to tell you about it, because I want you to know where I am in case anything goes wrong. That makes it sound dangerous, I know—but please don’t worry about me. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, and I wouldn’t be an intrepid girl reporter if I didn’t follow my story wherever it took me. And this is quite a story, my dear. I’m so glad that I came to San Francisco even though it meant leaving you and Mamsie. I would never have gotten a story like this, or the Ogilvie murders either, if I hadn’t left sleepy old Sacramento for the big city.

Do you remember how much Mr. Leavis liked my story on the murders? I spent months researching those girls, and when they actually caught and arrested Ogilvie, based on the evidence I had uncovered, it was quite a coup for the Ledger, I can tell you!

This morning, Mr. Leavis called me into his office, which always reeks of cigar smoke, and said, “Nell, you know these girls that have been disappearing?” Well, of course I did—they’ve been in all the papers, and there was a story on them in the Ledger last week. You remember the clipping I sent you—girls from respectable neighborhoods, gone missing and no bodies found. Quite the opposite of Ogilvie, who strangled them and left them in alleys. “I want you to look into it,” he told me. “You did good work on the Ogilvie case—under my direction, of course.” As though he’d had anything to do with it! Honestly, sis, the way he takes credit for everyone’s work is just sickening. “The Langs have agreed to be interviewed. We can run a story on the poor grieving family and at the same time launch our own investigation. How about it?” Well, of course I said yes! Imagine if I could find out where those girls have gone—I would be on the front page again, but this time I would insist on my own byline! No more “by Eleanor Dale and Edward Leavis,” thank you!

After lunch I went to see the Langs. At first I wasn’t sure if I was going to get the interview after all. Mr. Lang was obviously drunk and refused to let me in, but his wife pleaded with him, saying it was “for our Mary.” So we sat on the sofa and had a very stiff interview indeed. Luckily Mr. Lang passed out in the middle of it, and then Mrs. Lang really opened up. Poor woman! She was the one who had called the police and then the Ledger—her husband hadn’t even wanted to file a missing person report. “He said Mary had run off with some boy, but I don’t believe it,” she told me. “Mary was always a good girl.” She talked about how much she missed her daughter and what a help she’d been around the house and with the little ones. And she let me look around Mary’s room. She even showed me Mary’s diary. There wasn’t much in it, just an account of her daily life, but every once in a while, I came across a curious entry: “Father angry today,” or “Father especially angry today.”

Fathers do get angry, but it was the reoccurrence of the phrase that caught my attention. And there were mentions of a best friend, Sally Russell. I asked Mrs. Lang if she could give me Sally’s address. It was only a couple of blocks away. I walked along streets of placid houses surrounded by white picket fences. They seemed to be sleeping in the California sunlight. (Do you like that description? I’m going to use it in the story.)

Sally Russell was a tall, lanky girl with freckles and straw-colored hair. She wasted no time in telling me what was what. “Of course Mary ran away!” she said. “No, she didn’t have a boyfriend—Mr. Lang would never have let her. He used to beat her something awful—and her mother, too, but her mother never did anything about it. And he was going to do worse… He wasn’t Mary’s real father, you know—her father ran off, and then Mrs. Lang married Mr. Lang and had two more children. Mary could never go anywhere, because she had to take care of them. The little imps, she used to call them. I think it was the school nurse that told her—one day when she was afraid Mr. Lang had broken her wrist, it was so swollen, and she just couldn’t hide it anymore. The nurse told her that there was this underground—that it could get girls to Oz.”

Well, you can imagine how I responded to that! Everyone knows you can’t get to Oz anymore, not since the borders were closed. No one even knows where it is now. It could be in the middle of the sea or a great desert. And even if you could find it—what if you ran into Nomes or Wheelers or Winged Monkeys? I told her, quite sternly, that Mary had probably been tricked and could be in a lot of trouble. She grew frightened at that. There was something she hadn’t given the police—it was an address where Mary had said she could send letters. Well, she gave it to me, after I promised that I would investigate and make sure Mary was safe. I promised her I would do it myself and not turn the address over to the police. It was an easy promise to make—I didn’t want to be scooped!

I took the address and looked it up on a map. It was in an older, rundown part of the city. The trolley took a while to get there, and it was already dark when I arrived. But that allowed me to sneak around to the back of the house and look in through the windows. Only one room was lit, and in it was a man, rather old and stooped, sitting at a table and writing something in a book.

Well, he didn’t seem terribly frightening! And I knew what to do next. Just a few blocks from the house, close to the trolley stop where I had gotten off, was a diner. I asked the waitress if she had any rubber bands and then went into the bathroom and washed all the makeup off my face. I put my hair in two pigtails. When I came out, she looked at me curiously.

“I went to a party with my boyfriend,” I told her. “He’s in college—he doesn’t know I’m just in high school. But someone took my school uniform. I don’t know what to do. If I go home like this, my Mom is going to kill me.”

“I used to do that,” she told me sympathetically. “Here, why don’t you take my sweater? And I’ve got some shoes you can borrow. You can tell her that someone accidentally took your uniform at gym, and you had to borrow clothes from another girl.”

“I could just kiss you!” I told her. Then I traded my hat and jacket and pumps for her sweater and a pair of rubber-soled shoes. I looked at least five years younger. It’s a good thing I carry a leather postman’s bag instead of a silly little purse! In the dark I thought it would look enough like a school bag.

When I knocked on the door, the old man answered it and said, “Yes, my dear? What is it?”

“Mary Lang sent me,” I said, looking fearfully around as though afraid someone might have followed me. “She said you could help!”

“Oh goodness, come in, come in quickly,” he said. “Along that hallway to the back, where we can’t be seen.”

Well, I was alone in the dark house with him, but I wasn’t afraid. He looked so old, and not particularly strong. And you know I’ve taken jiu-jitsu.

I followed the hallway and found myself in a room at the back of the house. When he turned on the light, I saw that the curtains were drawn. There was a bed along one wall, a dresser, and a table with two chairs. Really, it was a perfectly ordinary room.

“You must be hungry,” he said. “What would you like to eat? Ask for anything—anything at all.” Laughing at him a little—surely this funny old man couldn’t produce anything I asked for—I said I would like a pork chop with mashed potatoes and peas. And then—you won’t believe this, Dottie, but it’s true—he pulled out a wand from inside his jacket, waved it over the table, and there it all was! With a glass of lemonade to drink. Of course I knew who he was immediately.

“You’re Oz, the Great and Terrible,” I said.

“Oh, I don’t go by that name anymore,” he said, smiling modestly. “I just go by Oscar, or Mr. Diggs if you prefer. To make up for the terrible deception I practiced on the Ozites, I spend my life helping Ozma in her great work.”

“And what work is that?” I asked.

“Why, helping girls like you and Mary,” he said. “By royal decree, any girl who asks for refuge in Oz is granted it. What did you say your name was again, my dear?”

I hadn’t said. “Sally Russell,” I told him. “Mary gave me your address so I could send her a letter. She didn’t know I would need it myself! But my uncle—he lives with us, and he’s such a frightening man! He—”

“You don’t need to tell me, my dear,” said the Wizard. “It’s a story I’ve heard many times, from girls very much like you. But there is a place and a purpose for you in Oz. Finish your dinner, and sleep here tonight—there is a nightgown under your pillow—and tomorrow we shall go to Oz!”

“How will we get there?” I asked him. “Aren’t there terrible dangers in the way?”

“Oh, we have our methods,” he said. “Don’t you worry. Just get some sleep. We have a long journey tomorrow.”

Well, Dottie, you can imagine what was going on in my mind! This was undeniably the Wizard: he had made a dinner appear before my eyes, and a very good dinner too! And he was taking girls who had run away from their families to Oz. That’s where all the girls were going. What a story this would make! It would be on the front page, to be sure. Imagine if I could go to Oz and interview Mary Lang!

I ate a bit of everything he had given me and then waited half an hour to see if it contained a sedative, but I felt perfectly fine, so I finished my dinner. Now I am sitting at the table, writing this letter to you. As soon as I finish it, I’m going to sneak out through the window and post it in a letter box I saw down the street. Then I’ll get some sleep. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but this is quite the adventure, isn’t it?

Don’t worry about me, my dear. But I do want you and Mamsie to know where I’ve gone. Just in case something does happen to me (but it won’t). Love you, little sis! I’ll write to you again when I can.

Your own,

Nell

[End Excerpt]