Read City of the Absent Online

Authors: Robert W. Walker

City of the Absent (4 page)

Ransom grabbed a sunken-eyed scarecrow of a
man leaning against the mayor's fence and made him an offer. “I've a job for you. Could you use some coin?”

The sunken eyes lit up. “Sure could.” The man looked as if he'd not eaten in days.

“Look here, friend, if you'll hail a cab for Mr. Carmichael here and see he gets in it, there's two bits in it for you. More than enough for a good meal at Rayburn's or at the fair.”

“Fifty cents,” the man haggled, “and I'll do it right, sir.”

Ransom frowned at the ante but nodded, doling out one recently minted quarter, explaining that the second would come once the job was done. Now the stranger frowned, but he rushed off to find Carmichael's ride home.

“Get yourself indoors, Thom. Else I'll be reading about you in that rag of yours.”

“It's not my rag anymore.”

“What?”

“Fired…boss got orders from above.”

“Mayor Harrison?”

“Ironic, isn't it? He as much as kills me. A political writer who can't harangue and bluster as he sees fit is as useless as a corpse! No disrespect to the dead!”

“I'm sure none taken.”

The crowd around the mayor's home had quelled in its desires, some singing mournful dirges, others beginning to leave the area. A grim pall cast a lead heavy sadness over those remaining, candles lit and waving as they sang “Amazing Grace,” followed by “Leaning on the Everlasting” and other hymns, led in prayer and song now by Father O'Bannion and Reverend Jabes, the two religious leaders taking polite turns.

With a hansom cab secured, Alastair and the scarecrow forcibly placed Thom into it. Alastair had to pinch his nose against the stench coming off the homeless helper. He next paid the driver in advance and shelled out the second of two bits to the seedy-looking, sad-eyed fellow who'd jumped at the chance to earn it.

The city is full of such blokes
, he thought, and dug deeper for another five cents. Overhead, a public gaslight flickered as if to go out, followed by another and another, yet the night was still, windless, the trees limp. Orders perhaps from authorities? Shut off the lights and people might disperse? The gas lamps were covered, protected from the wind, and the flow of gas controlled. When the lights flickered out for the final time, it threw the remaining mourners into darkness.

Against all reason, this Chicago crowd began to shout that it'd been Mayor Harrison's doing, shutting down the lights so magically, although it occurred every morning come twilight. This crowd wanted to believe that Carter Harrison's spirit still had a hand on the controls. As if the mayor's own spirit had blown past the lamps and over the crowd. But of course Alastair reasoned that this was but a ludicrous fantasy, like something out of a romance novel like
Jane Eyre.

He looked up at the mayor's house, where he made out Jane's silhouette as Dr. Tewes going about the parlor, and in a moment he saw her hugging Mrs. Harrison, whose own silhouette shivered and sobbed behind the lace curtains.

Alastair quietly counseled himself. “Perhaps Jane can do some good in there after all.”

 

Ransom made his way to the Plaisance at the Midway in White City. On a good day, a balmy day, with wind and sun filtering through the lakefront at Jackson Park, this large open air garden for food and drink looked like a combination of an August Renoir painting and one of Mr. Edison's new moving pictures, which had enjoyed so much attention at the fair. Renoir right down to the sailboats in the harbor, but recently the Plaisance had become more a haven for every kind of insect, vermin, lowlife, and foul bastard found in the city. All manner of underworld activities, once reserved for back alleys and places like Mother Gatz's Parlor, Moose Muldoon's Bar, or Mike Hinky Dink Kenna's “back o' the yards” saloon were being played out here, often in plain view of the fairgoers, the most outrageous being the pimps who'd dressed some local addict like Lulu Lee, Ugly French Mary, Lizzie Allen, or Lottie Maynard up as a Little Egypt or a Lillian Russell and touted “fair” prices for such tarts!

Tonight the usually pleasant Midway had become a hotbed of new sedition and rantings. Men who felt disenfranchised, and men who
were
disenfranchised, got up on soapboxes and began politicizing about the
“Unfair!”

The only ones getting wealthy off the fair appeared those who least needed it. This fact had had a long-smoldering effect on many displaced small-time merchants and vendors, and their cry had been building all summer long. Others shouted about the shabby state of affairs in the city in general. Some began to sound a lot like the arsonists and the anarchists of Haymarket days. In fact, the situation and its potential for violence reminded Ransom just how perilous circumstances in his city were, regardless of the laws passed since the Haymarket Square labor riot and bombing that'd left him physically and psychologically scarred. For many Chicagoans, not a lot of change had come about, and they'd grown impatient this sultry night that had taken the mayor from their midst.
When leaders die
,
chaos reigns
, Ransom thought; that much, even a casual reading of Shakespeare or the Bible warned.

Ransom had caught one of the police wagons going from
the mayor's Ashland Avenue home to the fairgrounds at the lake. Leaving the night's greatest tragedy in more capable hands, he now found himself pushing past people bent on rebellion and mayhem in the wake of the assassination. He also found a small army of brown-uniformed police in formation—the Columbian Guard—slowly, cautiously, but forcibly guiding the revelers from the area.

The semimilitary unit of coppers moved in mass, every face a stern admonition even if silent; in fact, their silence was the more frightful and perhaps their strongest weapon, along with upraised night sticks. Orders had been given by Chief Agustus Pyles, head of the guard, to clear the fair and close it down for good and all this night, despite what the mob wanted.

Already the fair had been held open two days over the original closing date to accommodate a visit from former President Benjamin Harrison, who, as visiting dignitary, had been whisked from the city by rail the moment word of the mayor's assassination had reached William Pinkerton of the famous and infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency. President Harrison was guided by Pinkerton out of the Chicago area to an undisclosed location. Word filtering through the blue grapevine said that Pinkerton had indeed handled the matter personally.

Ransom knew Bill Pinkerton, the eldest son of the famous Alan Pinkerton, President Lincoln's bodyguard on the now legendary, dangerous trip to the White House days after Lincoln's election. Out of the services provided Lincoln throughout the Civil War, the Pinkerton Agency had become the model for the U.S. Secret Service. Ransom believed the Pinkerton Agency set the standard for criminal detection. Many a police program had been designed in the same fashion.

After Alan Pinkerton died in the summer of 1884, Bill had taken over operation of the Chicago branch of the agency, while brother Robert did the same from the New York home office. The brothers now co-partnered the business they'd been raised on. Ransom had recently read that the brothers
captured bank robber Giant Jack Phillips—whose modus operandi was to carry out a bank safe on his back! He recalled hearing that the Pinkertons had opened new branches in Seattle, Denver, Kansas City, and Boston.

For once, Ransom found himself in complete agreement with the Columbian Guard chief and, most likely, Nathan Kohler, who, if rumor proved true, had conferred with Agustus Pyles. It always felt strange to Ransom to come down on the same side of an issue as the brass. But this made sense—
shut down the fair immediately
. Set and enforce curfew, an effective method used by Pinkerton agents during labor disputes and strikes.

Chief of Police Kohler had in fact ordered a citywide curfew, and when a copper, whether a guard or a flatfoot, did let out a cry, it was a simple declarative sentence:
“Curfew is past! Curfew is past
,
you men!”

“Off with you now, lads!” another added.

“The fair's come to an end.”

“A bad end!” shouted a crone among the men in the crowd. “I warned it would, and it did!”

“Go home! Fair's come to an end,” went the mantra.

“The fair, yes, but not the drinking!” shouted one reveler. “You can't stop us drinking!”

“We got a right to celebrate the death of that bastard mayor!” came another as he toasted Harrison's death.

“He were never no friend to the working man!” came another, lifting his bottle to his lips.

Next a bottle was thrown, hitting one officer across the bridge of his nose, cutting him badly. Then a half-crushed brick flew at the police, leaving a gash in another officer's cheek.

“That's enough!” shouted Ransom. “Curfew is on! To your homes, now! Every runt and mother's child of you! Else you've me to deal with!”

The grumbling continued but more subdued now, and no one dared stand against Alastair Ransom. No one wanted to be in his jail, under his glare, or interrogated by him, as most
knew his reputation and the stories circulated about him, and those who did not know the latest tales were shushed and quickly told.

There lived few within the city limits who had not heard the urban “truths” that swirled about Ransom, how it was his city, how he had killed more than one man who'd challenged the fact. People spoke in whispers about how he had “cleaned” the city of the worst sort of gutter life imaginable. That he had taken “bloody good” care of the Phantom of the Fair, quietly and discreetly and completely when the wheels of justice had turned the murderer loose to kill again. Other tales told of Ransom's having put an end to the career of the butcher commonly known as Leather Apron. Still others maintained that Inspector Alastair Ransom had occasion to once burn a man alive, and was anxious to repeat it with any man daring to stand in his way or refusing to level with him.

In fact, such grandiose legend had grown up around this bear of a man that others went silent when he stepped up onto one of their upturned apple crates, and when he shouted for them to disperse, they grumbled and sputtered and made out as if it meant nothing as they thinned out.

The men of the Columbian Guard watched in awe as the crowd began to slowly disintegrate, first at the edges and soon at the seams.

Ransom stepped from the crate and rejoined the humanity around him, almost as a dare, certainly as a man unafraid, and drawing the respect of men on both sides of the situation here at the Plaisance on the Midway.

When it became sufficiently clear that no one in the mob was going to dare knife or otherwise attack Ransom, and that indeed the worst instigators and most wretched rabble had scurried off into the city proper like a horde of rats for their sewer homes, the brown and blue uniformed police surrounded Alastair and began patting him on the back and shouting, “Buy that man a pint!”

The cheers and camaraderie of the gathered officers made
Alastair feel, if for only a moment, part of something larger than himself. And this felt good; in fact, this notion floated spiritlike through him.

Several firemen on hand joined in his praise. By now he'd begun shouting for them to stop with this foolishness. “Enough of it! Off with youse!”

“You averted a sure riot, Inspector,” said one of the firemen.

“We all know that,” added a Columbian guard.

“Then we celebrate at Muldoon's in an hour, lads!” railed Ransom. “My second office, where we'll hold a barroom wake for Carter Harrison.”

This remark broke the comrades into separate camps, those pro-mayor, those against Harrison.

“Come on, you men!” shouted Alastair. “Whatever your leanings, the mayor died on duty, a captain of this whaleboat we call Chicago.”

“Yeah, a regular Ahab he was!” blustered another guardsman.

“Treated this bloody fair like the White Whale, he did,” said another.

“Show a little generosity and respect,” countered Ransom.

“The man—like all the bigwigs—put this blasted carnival ahead of everything,” commented one of the firemen. “Including the homeless and starving folk!”

“And why not?” asked Ransom. “Whatever ills it brought, fellas, it's brought a boon to the city as well! Hell, it's given a lot of you jobs!”

“Jobs gone now,” lamented one guard.

Ransom pleaded, “Lads…lads, in the end, it brought fame to our city.” He was surprised at himself for taking so strong a stand on the matter. He'd never voiced it before, and wondered why he was doing so now. In fact, he'd always been the first to condemn the extravagance of it all.

Someone pointed this out to him.

“I guess I don't know what I think until I hear it come out
here!” He indicated his mouth, making the men laugh. “Or out my arse!” he added, creating more laughter.

Still, the assembled police and firemen began slouching off now, and Alastair was left standing with a handful of Irish cops who'd agreed with him from the beginning.

Then a shot rang out in the darkness. The cop beside Alastair fell wounded and bleeding out badly, others rushing to his aid. Ransom, meanwhile, instinctively pulled his weapon and went to his knee, aimed and fired, killing the assailant instantly: one of the drunken revelers who'd quietly returned.

“Damn you, man! Damn you!” he shouted at the man he'd been forced to kill, wondering if it were a hired job or a second lunatic at work, and if a Columbian guardsman would die only because he'd stood too close to Alastair Ransom. He knew there was many a man in the city who would pay to see him as dead as Mayor Harrison this final night of the World's Fair, not the least being his own chief and arch nemesis, Nathan Kohler.
Could it've been a contract hit on me?
he wondered.

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