Read City of the Absent Online

Authors: Robert W. Walker

City of the Absent (5 page)

The shots had brought the horde of police racing back, all either shouting the name of the killed policeman, Burt Menealaus, or asking, “Who did it? Who is he?”

No one recognized the dead shooter except for Ransom. It was the man he'd paid fifty-five cents to hail Thom's cab. Other than that, the man was a total stranger. His turned out pockets revealed the fifty-five cents and a workman's card proclaiming him Johnathan Noicki of the Netherlands.

One cop in blue held a young, dead cop in brown uniform to his chest. Muttering epitaphs under his breath, this older copper, named Cantebury Nuebauer, was a German Englisher and friend to young Menealaus, a Greek. Nuebauer had beaten the odds many years ago to gain a place on the largely Irish police force, while Menealaus had held his job with the Columbian Guard for mere months. Who wanted to police a fair the size of Chicago's?

Nuebauer said over Menealaus, “Never a healthy idea to stand too close to Ransom.”

“You'll think twice, then, comin' for a drink at Muldoon's!” shouted Ransom, stalking off. As he stormed away, he thought about it, and the truth hit him. Yes, people near him, people in his orbit, did indeed travel in danger just by association, just by standing at his shoulder, and it made him think how vulnerable he'd become since falling in love with Jane and Gabby, and then he thought:
Me with my foolish thoughts of having a real family someday.

Unsure how long Jane as the mesmerizing Dr. Tewes might be at the mayor's home, Alastair waved down a passing cab, the sound of the horse's hooves beating out a rhythmic
that went now with the quiet reigning over the Plaisance. As he climbed into the plush Fischer interior, he felt a pang of remorse at being Alastair Ransom. Laying his cane aside, grimacing with the pain in his bad leg, he thought how he'd allowed the scars of his past to determine his years since Haymarket, seven years now, and how that night obsessed him. Just a fortnight ago he had conferred with Mayor Harrison to attempt a meeting of the minds on the matter, but the mayor, like every Chicagoan, simply wanted the whole matter buried, and promised him that if he did not “get off it,” he'd find his badge and his title gone and himself on the street. The mayor would not listen to a word of Ransom's theory that Nathan Kohler had orchestrated the entire event, making puppets of both the workers and his own fellow officers.

“Kohler was a beat officer then, same as you!” Harrison had lit a cigar in tandem with his shouting. “If he orchestrated the riot as you say, he couldn't've acted alone. There'd have to've been a conspiracy involving men at the highest levels.”

“I'm aware of that, sir, but I think it Kohler's idea from the start, perhaps with help from the then chief.”

“Why stop at slandering Kohler's immediate supervisor? Look, Ransom, you're a valuable fellow. You've proven it time and time, but this witch hunt you insist on must go! Too many people could be hurt, daughters, sons, grandchildren. Bury it with the dead here, now.”

“Has Nathan Kohler got to you, too?”


“Has he got something on you?”

“Don't be ridiculous!”

“He's asked you to step on me.”

“All right, Nathan's come to me about the situation, of course, yes.”

“I knew it.”

“Why, you've bedeviled the man. So let me warn you, Alastair, if you persist—”

“But sir—”

you persist, Alastair, in your secret investigation, then you're going to feel the full weight of a huge shoe come down.”

“I see.”

“Don't do that, Ransom! You see nothing, and you won't see it coming. Not the next time.”

“Is that a warning, sir, or a threat?”

“It's a Chicago tip.”

For no accountable reason, the familiar phrase made Ransom think of the Henry Vaughn poem, the lines that ran, “I saw eternity last night…”

And now, alone, abandoned by his own kind, who'd thought to have a beer with him before Burt Menealaus was shot dead beside him, Ransom sat in the cab trundling off toward Muldoon's.

He felt a wave of loneliness wash over him like long faded, trailing clouds of glory, and wondered if anyone would remember Carter Harrison for the good he did Chicago. Then he wondered if anyone would remember Inspector Alastair Ransom for the good he did Chicago. Or would they remember only the bad decisions and actions of both men? Or worse yet, recall nothing at all of them?

“Daaa night grew dark, da sky went bluuue,
an-an-and down da alley a shhh-shit-wagon flew,” twenty-eight-year-old, hunchbacked Vander Rolsky sang to himself to pass time, and to feel less lonely in the night, although his twin brother waved at him from just down the street. In his big, childish voice, Vander intoned the street rhyme he'd heard repeatedly from children playing jacks or hopscotch as he moved about Chicago's various ethnic neighborhoods. “A scream was heard, the man was killed by a flying turd.” He laughed hyena fashion through his pushed-in nose, and a passing pair of gentlemen in cloaks, taking him for a simpleton down on his luck, each pushed pennies and one nickel into his pawlike hands.

“The wagon overturned, see?” he said, stepping after the nice men, laughing more, pocketing the coins, certain his twin brother Philander had seen the exchange and would take it all from him.
For your own good,
Philander would tell him.
Everything is for my own good
, he thought now as the two gents rushed off, their steps wider, faster, increasing the distance between him and them.

Looking up and down the street, there was a pattern of light and dark from the well-spaced gas lamps.

It was past ten, and all but the lewd houses and saloons were shut down and asleep below signs that designated a millinery shop here, a grocer there, a wainwright, a smithy, a bakery, and a reader of palms. The street stood alone, solitary; silent but for the onerous low growl of Chicago, the by-product of the myriad gas lamps and hum of concentrated animal and human life here, the stockyards not far off. Still, small sounds carried down the streets and alleyways, as did Vander's voice, reaching his brother, who had Vander's height but not his heft nor his gargoyle features. Philander didn't have Vander's hunched back either, as he'd been the lucky one at birth and looked normal by everyday standards.

Philander now gesticulated like a wild baboon at his brother to
Shut up and back up into the shadows!

Domestic sounds from the windows of houses warmed by a hearth on either side floated on the air. And the hint of anyone who rode past in a cab came to the ear immediately and with such force as to spin Philander Rolsky, a man of instinct, to the next sound and the next opportunity.

The report of approaching footfalls again seemed shockingly vivid to Philander's ear. The sound of even the slightest, thinnest vermin could be heard as a result of so crisp a night.

Philander settled in for a long watch below the shadows of McCumbler and Hurley's law offices, old-world Polish or Austrian castlelike turrets forming overhanging window facings. Chicago's architecture proved as varied and multifaceted as its population.

Philander looked at the list again, his eyes and mind ticking off the anonymous names—people the good doctor had targeted for harvesting, people the good doctor felt contributed nothing to their families, their neighborhoods, their city, their world. Disposable people. People that Philander and his brother could watch and in a vulnerable moment snatch.

From his vantage point, Philander—the smart twin—watched for a victim from the list, a Mr. Burbach, who fre
quented this street each night about this time to go through the garbage set out by the grocery and the restaurant beside the attorney's office. Philander grimaced now, disapproving of Vander's pacing, singing of all things, drawing attention to himself, while the men who'd dropped Vander coin had not even known that a second man was here. They'd gone right past him and never knew.

His teeth began to hurt from the grinding caused by worries brought on by Vander. “My counterpart,” he muttered, “the one of us without patience or cunning or boldness. My broken, timid other self.” He flailed with both hands again to signal his disgust at his brother for being under a light and easily seen and recognized.

“Let the fool be arrested and tossed into the Cook County loony bin,” he muttered to himself. “Deserves nothing better. Fool will get me caught as well.”

The dead
could've been me
, he thought,
else the thought was forced on me from my second and dead brother. Just as I could've been born Vander
and Vander could've been me. Just barely escaped being stillborn
then being Vander
and in a sense
I've not escaped either. Not at all.

“Vander, oh…Vander,” he muttered. “He'll never fly.”

His dead brother's creaky voice sounded a reply. “Yes, b-but he makes a g-good diversion t-to the real show.” Philander had become so accustomed to his third self, speaking from inside his head, that it never shocked or surprised him.

They were born triplets, a rarity if only the third born had not died and the second hadn't come out a brain-dented fool. So their mother had lamented all their lives. Who knows? Perhaps the trio
been celebrated as a rarity.
Perhaps mama wasn't exaggerating, but what kind of a freak did that make him?
Philander wondered.

The dead one was Alexander, but even dead, Alex still had a voice—a sepulchral voice to be sure, but clear as a bell inside Philander's head. The other one, across the street, surveying another direction for prey, Vander, couldn't hear Alex's voice. He hadn't the imagination or element of empa
thy, Philander had decided years before. Mama had called the dead one simply
Number Three
, adding,
Though it'd come out after Philander and before Vander.

The stillborn one was never christened, except by his first-born brother years later when it made itself known inside him like a phantom limb or phantom frontal lobe.

It was in fact a welcome entity, a welcome possession, and Philander knew that Alex wanted him, something he could not say of his mother and father.

Strangely, oddly, Alex often told him that he wanted Vander to die off, even as children, warning that the big fool could come to harm in this world, that he'd ever be a burden to Philander, and that Vander would indeed be safer inside him, like Alex…safe and close as close gets.

Guilt. It's all just guilt
, he told himself.
Ignore it,
he'd been telling himself for years. But Alex never gave up petitioning for Vander to join them, in a sense reuniting as one whole instead of three disparate parts.

“How long've you asked for Vander to join you?” Philander muttered.

“T-Too long.”

“Since childhood.”

“And tonight bears me out—yet again…” Philander, the normal one, had a wild imagination and bizarre, meaningless, chaotic dreams, all filled with horrors and curious creatures, and he imagined such things often. He decided it was due to his upbringing in the back woods of Germany—the Black Forest region—where as children he and his Polish brother were beaten until Alexander's urgings that he kill his parents in their sleep came to pass. He'd placed a brick in a burlap sack, knocking his father and mother unconscious with two quick blows. Seeing the blood ooze over their pillows made the rest of the blows come easy, and he rained his anger on them until their faces were no longer recognizable as human. After that, he'd taken his slow-witted twin in hand and come to America—land of the free, where no one knew them, where they could all three begin life anew.

They'd boarded a merchant marine ship, working their
way to America. Once in the United States in a place called Boston, they'd drifted to Chicago by way of Syracuse, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; to Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio; finally, Indianapolis, Indiana, riding the rails into Chicago in the company of hobos, whose existence meant nothing to anyone—and one whose death had meant nothing to anyone either. Philander had killed for a piece of bread and a scrap of potato for himself and Vander.

Vander, Philander, and Alexander had all found Chicago a frightful place, huge as a monster and just as uncaring. Philander had never seen such tall buildings, reaching to twenty stories and beyond, with news of even taller ones in the works. He'd tried to find work in the brickyards, the stockyards, the cemeteries. Nothing, nothing, and nothing. He'd tried to find work in the garbage collection business. Nothing. His accent, he knew, held him back; he'd have to perfect talking like an Irishman to get anywhere in Chicago.

He'd never seen such rampant community growth, and so much money in one place, and he unable to tap into the least of it. Still, he'd determined to have whatever share he could get. To this end, he began to watch things closely, to learn how things worked in the city. He hit upon a plan to make large sums by going into profitable business with a medical man in need of corpses. Garbage collection of another sort.

With the help of Vander, he arranged nowadays to fill the doctor's every needful prescription. This sent them out nightly and sometimes by day to stalk and eventually trap and harvest fresh bodies, and the fresher the body or organ, the more Doc paid for it.
Disposable people
, he'd called them. “I only want disposable people.”

“Ahhh…disposable, sir?”

“In the sense they contribute nothing to society, are a burden on the public trust fund, have no purpose, and…”

“I understand your meaning, sir.”

“…and they've no ties whatsoever.”

“Ties, sir?”

Vander piped in, repeating the question, “Ties? Neckties?”

“No familial ties.”

“Familial?” asked Philander.

“No bloody family, no one who's going to be filing a missing persons report.”

…clever, sir, most clever.”

“Then you do understand?”

“I do, sir.”

“And your hunchback strongman? What of him?”

“Oh, not to worry, Doc, as I'll drill it in his head.”

“See that you do. Should you begin indiscriminately,
…harvesting, then we're all three sent to the gallows.”

So here they were, continuing their hunt for the people on the list, who, once killed, went absolutely unmissed.

“No ties…no ties…” Vander chanted during each hunt.

“Jump 'em, mug 'em, rob 'em, kill 'em, transport 'em, and collect a second fee,” Philander had told him. “It's all too easy. And it's good pay.”

“No ties…no ties.”

On hearing footsteps coming along Van Buren Street, Philander backed into the depths of an unlit alleyway. A short, hefty man with a bowler hat and a cane was approaching, an easy mark, but then another appeared alongside. Two drinking companions who'd come up to street level from the last ferry boat along the river that transported folk to and from the grand fair. Philander knew never to attack two men at once, and he'd drilled Vander about this as well. He let the boisterous fairgoers pass, while his stupid brother actually tipped his hat to them! Fool.

Then Philander saw the slight figure of another person alone, not ten feet from him. He or she had a silent step and had come up along the crossroad yet to be paved in this section of town—where Dearborn met Van Buren. This waiflike figure could not see the body-thief in shadow, and so came staggering ever closer, obviously drunk or hung over. As the figure neared, Philander saw that indeed it was a woman alone…the perfect victim, except that she was not on the list.

Perhaps he'd have more than her wallet, he thought now. He could not remember the last time he'd been with a woman.

As she passed near, he allowed her to move on without disturbance. She absolutely reeked of alcohol, as if bathed in it. She looked the vile prostitute she was. Dirty and unkempt. Too dirty to rape, he decided, and no way to bathe her, for though her teeth appeared knocked out, and her face a mask of sourness, her body seemed lithe and curvaceous.
Odd, that.

In a handful of additional steps she was confronted by his deformed look-alike across the street. She immediately halted, taking in his brother. The street bitch was fishing for a proposition out of the idiot, his face glowing with utter confusion under the lamplight. Philander thought it a funny sight on the whole.

The plucking of the woman for the doctor could not have been so well choreographed if he'd planned it himself, and Doc could bathe her after she was dead. Despite her not being on the list, she obviously contributed nothing to society, and if she had any ties, they must be loose tethers at best.

He saw his dummy deformed twin leap at the woman, causing her to cry out, and then he feebly put the muzzle of his unloaded gun into her ribs and ordered, “Back into the alleyway.”

She instead turned and spat in Vander's face, shouting, “You go ta'ell!” while pulling forth her own pistol.

Vander was stunned, unable to respond.

“Have at it, ya bastard creature!” she shouted at the disfigured giant. “But you'll end with a bullet to yer brain! Putcha outta yer misery!”

Plucky Chicago whore
, Philander thought as he moved serpent fashion to take her from behind.

“If you mean to rape me, go ahead! Make a try!” she continued to taunt Vander, waving her large pistol. Vander, frightened, his hands in the air in response to her gun, kept saying, “No ties…no ties…”

“Go on, throw down on me! You've got a gun!” she challenged.

Vander, taking her words literally, responded by throwing down his weapon. Its thud sent up a little dirt cloud at her feet, causing her to cackle witchlike, as she looked the picture of a banshee—all her teeth gone, her face a mask of wrinkles like a badly treated dollar bill.

Vander ran.

She gave a few stomps and a laugh after him, before shouting to the rooftops, “I've chased off a giant hunchbacked weasel so's people can sleep at night!”

Still laughing, smiling, when she turned, she felt the blade slice open her abdomen as her eyes met a man with a gleeful grin that showed a set of perfectly white teeth and eyes that burned with a fiery hatred. But he was no one she knew, and yet he was strangely familiar, in fact identical to the figure she'd run off, save now his features were pleasant—at least normal in shape and form.

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