Read City of the Absent Online

Authors: Robert W. Walker

City of the Absent (10 page)

Ransom took Jane to the Palmer House, Chicago's
premier hotel and eatery, and there they saw celebrities such as Oscar Wilde, the actor Booth, the dancer and singer Sarah Bernhardt, as well as politicians and others Ransom called legitimate crooks and loan sharks: bankers and lawyers who were making a killing on Chicago's growth alongside the land speculators and developers, some of whom were former saloon keepers in the Levee District who'd exchanged commerce in drink, drugs, and lewd women for land and location.

Stepping abruptly to their table from out of this crowd was Chief of Police Nathan Kohler, who had sometime back learned that Jane was Tewes. Kohler had, in fact, used his knowledge against her for a time, until she steadfastly decided she would not be blackmailed by the likes of this man. What he had held over her head—her daughter Gabby's out of wedlock birth, and the disgraceful way that Gabby's father had died in France—Jane had chosen to impart to Gabby, defusing any power that Kohler might have had over them. But now his new threat was to expose Tewes's true identity as Dr. Jane Francis.

She had called his bluff with one of her own, telling him
in private that it was time she shed Tewes, go to work at Cook County Hospital alongside Dr. Christian Fenger—who'd repeatedly offered to help her out. In the strange relationship, she had as much on Kohler if not more, knowing of several “execution” style deaths that Kohler had been part of out at a farmstead in Evanston belonging to a certain Senator Chapman.

In her dealings with him, Jane had also learned that Kohler feared Alastair Ransom, not simply out of a sense of physicality, but from some dark long-ago mystery held between them like a rotting corpse. Something having to do with an old hurt, and from that wound a cankerous series of additional cuts and bruises characterized the pages of their respective history together; like a series of healed over scabs reopened, it seemed, each time their eyes met.

Sitting or standing between the two was no easy place to be.

“William Pinkerton called my office today, Inspector Ransom,” began Kohler, sitting at their table and buttering a roll that he pawed from the centerpiece basket.

“He does have a vested interest in our case.” Alastair used as few words as he could with his superior.

“Yes, I knew Nell. Knew her in the biblical sense, in fact.” Kohler's laugh fell hollow.

Jane grimaced at his lack of grace.

“Not to offend you, Miss Francis, but I want to hammer home a point to your friend here that—”

“Then direct your ‘hammer blows' my way, Nathan,” Alastair replied.

“All right. The upshot is this, Inspector: I have a vested interest in this case along with Mr. Pinkerton, and if you go plodding along without result, as has been your style of late, then I won't hesitate to replace you. Is that understood?”

“I am sure you have an interest in any case that William Pinkerton is capable of making a stink about, Nathan.”

“Then you have it clear. Results alone will save your job.”

“You needn't worry unnecessarily about my future, Nathan, as I am, as they say, ‘on the case.'”

“Funny…I see you here in the Palmer House, but you're saying you're not here, that you are ‘on the case'!” He laughed and wickedly winked, giving a jerky nod toward Jane. “Now why am I
not
reassured at seeing the two of you here, Ransom?”

“Shall we find another place to dine, Alastair?” Jane asked.

“Somewhere where they are more selective about their clientele?” he asked, staring down Kohler now. Kohler, who had lit a cigar, smashed it out in the half-eaten roll, stood, and marched off.

“A most unpleasant man.”

Alastair agreed. “So why isn't he the victim instead of Nell?”

“You'll have to tell me more about Nell Hartigan. Are the stories about her all true?”

“True enough. She's…she was a firebrand, a real…”

“Spitfire?”

“Aye, that she was.”

They got up and left for anyplace else.

Together, they walked the downtown area under the glow of the Randolph and State Street gaslights, some sections under renovation, slowly being replaced with Mr. Edison's electric lights. “I know a place not far from here,” he told her.

“In the infamous Levee District I've heard so much about?”

“You stay away from such places, whether you're Jane or James! It's no place for a lady.”

For a time they were silent, Alastair's cane the only sound aside from the innocuous but rhythmic noise of the street and the hum of locusts and a low distant rumble of threatening thunder, seeming as far away as Canada.

Their shadows preceded them along the gas-lit concrete sidewalks. Concrete had changed the face of the city, from what was underfoot to what towered overhead to that new creature, the ever-growing skyline looking out over Lake Michigan, a doleful giant race of centaurs with windows for eyes.

Jane demurely asked him as he stared at his feet, “Alastair, do you think Nell's death the tip of the iceberg?”

“Depends on what she was investigating perhaps. Until I can get that information out of William Pinkerton…well, we may never know.”

“Wasn't Pinkerton to meet with you, share his notes on what hole Nell was digging at?”

“He was, yes…supposed to.”

“Instead he's complaining to Kohler, trying to have you removed from the case?
Ahhh
…and why? Do you suppose Pinkerton's not gotten back because he distrusts your remaining committed to the case?”

“Busy man. His father's agency has blossomed to cover the entire country. In fact, cases he takes on span the globe.” She watched his eyes as he continued excusing Pinkerton. “The man employs countless operatives, and each one is chasing some fraud, murderer, or fiend of one kind or another as we speak.”

“Yet, the man has time to talk over the case with Kohler but not you?”

“Stop it or you will have me suspecting ill of Pinkerton.”

“I only mean that perhaps the case that Nell had been pursuing was and still remains so sensitive that, well, Mr. Pinkerton cannot compromise himself in the matter, yet he wants the killer brought to justice all the same.”

“My God, Jane.”

“What?”

“You must live inside a Ned Buntline dime novel.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“Such intrigues go on inside your head.”

“Hold on. Any cynicism I have gained, I have gained by association with you.”

“All the same, this is no opera we're in, my sweet dreamer.”

“I resent that. I am no dreamer, but a pragmatist.”

“And a liar it seems.”

“How dare you!”

“Please, I know you are a
dreamer
at heart, else you'd have never reached your goal to become a surgeon.”

“Ha! Reached my goal? Me? I can't practice surgery; few people trust surgery as it is, and no self-respecting, self-pre-serving person, man or woman, will come to a female for surgery. And they certainly wouldn't entrust a wounded or broken child to a surgeon named Jane.”

“You've but to hang out your shingle,” he insisted.

“No, I must go about as Tewes, called on by the highest society ladies to read tea leaves and to bring about a ghost of a loved one.”

“Did your machinations in that regard help Mrs. Harrison?”

“I believe I soothed and consoled her somewhat…actually far more than either of those so-called theologians.”

“That fool, Hobart Jabes? And Father O'Bannion?”

“At least Father O'Bannion doesn't subject a person to three-hour hell 'n' brimstone sermons.”

“Jabes—a nastier man of the cloth I've never met.”

“Both men make…a pretty living off the Golden Ones along Michigan Avenue.”

“I can well imagine.”

“As for surgeon Dr. Jane Francis,” Jane concluded, sighing to the wind, her deep blue eyes a wine-tinted purple in the light reflecting from Marshall Fields' display window, “she has a long way to go before she can say her dreams are come true.”

“Nice speech, Jane, but listen to yourself.”

“How so do you mean?”

“Speaking of Jane as if she were another person instead of you, in the third person?”

“Really, it is but a manner of speaking.”

“If I have learned anything from our association—from your interest in the human mind, Jane—it is that people speak volumes more than they mean to impart
between
the lines, and that a man's language…or a woman's speech, is her thought.”

“Language and thought, yes, they are in consort, and heed me when I tell you that when interrogating one of your suspects, you can read much into his language.”

“Ahhh
…ever the master you are at deflecting attention away from an uncomfortable moment, when my focus is what's best for Jane.”

“Really, Alastair,” she began, holding her eyes on the latest Paris fashions in Mr. Field's window. They stood now below the huge iron clock at the corner of State and Dearborn.

“I suspect,” he dared, “with a year of working alongside Christian Fenger, Jane, you'd be fighting off
real
patients with
real
maladies and surgical needs.”

“Ahhh,
instead of phantom-hunters and their spirits? And the dispirited deviant drecks coming and going from Dr. Tewes's clinic?” she asked.

“The phrenologically challenged?” he countered.

“It's a living,” she finished, perturbed.

He chuckled and threw an arm about her. “I only worry about you, dealing with the dregs of society.”

“Do not dismiss the science behind phrenology so easily, mister. Look what it's done for you.”

“Your hands have done that,” he snickered, “
not
the bumps on my head, but your touch!”

“Go away with that!”

They were suddenly interrupted when a street child, a boy, pulled them from their entire and complete attentiveness to one another. The little scrawny guttersnipe whispered from the alleyway they passed. “Inspector! It's me, Sam…Sam O'Shea,” as the boy had renamed himself to have the quick and easy street name.

“Who's this, Alastair?”

“My youngest snitch, Samuel. I couldn't've ended the career of Leather Apron without the invaluable help and input of this brave young soul.”

“But it's Sam O'Shea, now, Inspector, and I'm a man now.” The boy was but two months older than his earlier age of ten, and the grime on his torn clothes and dirty face still marked him as what Jane was thinking: a street snipe in serious need of help along the order of Jane Addams's Hull House.

A bath and a change of clothes and a bed to call his own wouldn't do any harm
, Ransom thought.

He stepped into a shadow with the boy, and their mutterings could not be heard save an occasional word, but Jane caught the name Nell Hartigan coming from the boy's lips.

“Indeed…well done…you're my boy, Sam,” she heard Ransom's cryptic responses to whatever the boy imparted about the murdered Nell. The whole of it made her feel like she was in a Charles Dickens serial tale in the
Tribune
newspaper, anxiously awaiting the next chapter.

When finally Alastair emerged from the shadows, the boy having vanished so thoroughly she hadn't seen him go, he apologized for having left her standing alone under a lamp on the still busy street.

“Never mind. What did the boy have to say about Nell?”

“I rather distrust his information, so passing it on to you would be ill-advised, I think.”

“If 'tis worthless, why not share it?”

“You are a curious feline, aren't you?”

“Curiosity may've killed the cat, but satisfaction brought her back. Now out with it. What did your boy have to say? And why's he not home this time o' night?”

“He has no home.”

“No home?”

“None but the street, and besides, he suggested that I watch my back, that there is some collusion between William Pinkerton and my worst enemy.”

“Nathan Kohler?”

“Something about there being a plot set in motion between them, having naught to do with Nell's death, but all the same, directed at me.”

“Hmmm
…sounds like a cunning little fellow at work, and a gifted gossip, this boy, Sam.”

“Indeed, but he's the second voice tonight's warned me about Pinkerton's dealings with Nathan.”

“Then perhaps you should pay heed, that is, if you trust the snitch and my intuition.”

“I do trust both, and I will watch my back.”

“But Sam had no help with who killed Nell or why?”

“Like all others on the subject, deaf and dumb, but he promises to keep an ear to the bricks.”

“Appears he sleeps on the bricks. Look here, we ought to do something for that child.”

“He will not have it; he's a wage earner now and likes it that way.”

“He should be under the care of—”

“Addams? Her home would only vex a boy of his nature. Besides, it's overcrowded as is.”

“How can you deny him an education, an upbringing? Religious training, a caring hand, Alastair? It's the cruelest kind of abuse—neglect and denial.”

“I've not denied Sam anything.”

“But you have! Making a mere boy your snitch!”

“Chicago's formed him, not I.”

“Do you Chicagoans intend blaming this city for all the ills you perpetuate here? What sort of responsibility have you shown this child? Putting him on your payroll is not helpful.”

“He eats as a result. I have helped one homeless.”

“La-de-da! Pat yourself on the back, if only you could reach so far!”

“Jane, I tell you, this boy is not for your saving. He would only run away after a few hours at Hull House, and you would've wasted everyone's time and patience.”

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