Read City of the Absent Online

Authors: Robert W. Walker

City of the Absent (6 page)

Philander watched her eyes study him as she died, and he realized the nature of her confusion, that she hadn't the strength now to pull the trigger, the weight of the gun too much to bear. As her firearm fell to the street, her eyes said,
I'm to leave this world ciphering how the runaway weasel shape-changed into my killer
. She must think him a supernatural creature, some sort of troll capable of disappearing in one direction and reappearing instantaneously in another. “The Brothers Grimm, madam,” he joked, his gravelly voice the last earthly sound she heard aside from a single long gurgling croak—her death rattle.

“Vander! Vander, get the 'ell over 'ere and help out, idiot! Bring the cart!”

Vander slowly meandered back with a four-by-four pushcart, still fearful, furtive, looking in every direction. His twin brother thought he looked every bit the weasel, just as the wench had said, regardless of his size. In fact, he looked like a Chicago wharf rat at the moment, and just as afraid.
Damn him…damn him to Hell…but he is blood…he is brother…and we are twins
regardless of the physical deformities.

With Vander's help, Philander hefted the body onto the cart, when the revelation began to sink in. The prostitute had layers of theatrical makeup on. Spying the line about the throat, he checked her forearms—clean and smooth of wrinkles. “Jesus, she's a young woman,” he said to Vander.


“A young woman pretending to be an old street whore? What's it mean?”

He heard someone calling out, “Nell! Damn it, Nell! Where've you got offta? Nelly!”

Footsteps and a handheld police lantern approached. Two men, one a blue-suited copper.

Vander ran.

Philander opened Nell from breastbone to abdomen and began scooping out any organ he might steal before the two men searching for Nell should see him. He then began placing whole organs into the jars that the doctor'd given him for such needs. He worked quickly, experienced at this. He flashed on how he'd cut open his mother before his father's dead and bashed-in eyes.

He left Nell splayed and lying as if she'd fallen from a great height, so twisted were her limbs. The men with the lantern must trip over her, so true was their path toward her, as if they could smell the blood.

Philander rushed carefully along the stones, against the walls, at ease with the city shadows. In his ear he heard Alex whisper, “We did it. Well done, brother, well done.”

A late night knock on a door in Chicago in 1893
was in itself cause for alarm, but nowadays Dr. Christian Fenger had a telephone, and its ringing at such an hour, on the heels of declaring the mayor of Chicago murdered by an assassin, felt doubly alarming.
Who could it be now? Not enough mischief for one night? When will I be left in peace? Damn it
I'm only one man, after all.

However, before he could lift the receiver, someone was pounding noisily at his door as if intent on breaking in.
Someone using a cane. Alastair Ransom perhaps? At this hour? Drunk
drinking to the living
toasting to the dead
specifically the passing of the mayor?
Sure, Alastair will most certainly have raised a pint too many by now.

But the silhouette through the curtain was hardly Ransom. Whoever it was, the fellow appeared slight, dwarfish even.

Fenger got his revolver first, a six-barreled old Winchester given him by Inspector Alastair Ransom to ostensibly “hold for a time.” That'd been several years before. Ransom had never come back to reclaim the revolver, so the surgeon had long since decided that he'd either forgotten about it or that the inspector had meant him to have it at his disposal for such intrusions as this.

A surgeon garners many enemies,
Ransom had told him, and this was an unfortunate truth. Some foes came with the price of a bill, waving it at him as if he'd fleeced them instead of having saved their lives. Some came with their wives, brothers, big-headed, muscular, large bicuspid cousins to beat him to a pulp for “botching” the job. So often, the surgeon, like the veterinarian, got the case days or even hours before there was anything humanly possible to be done. At which time the patient died. At which time the finger of blame was leveled squarely at the doctor. As he'd told Ransom over a pint of dark ale on their last meeting, “Sometimes, but rarely, am I capable of creating gold from straw or a silk purse from a sow's ear. Hafta leave such magic to the frauds and Rumpelstiltskins of the profession.”

“We're surrounded by the illiterate and unwashed,” Alastair had replied, toasting to the doctor's health.

“There exists so much misunderstanding and wrong-headedness about what surgery can and cannot do.”

“Still…at the price, some miracle is in order,” joked Ransom.

The phone was ringing, and Dr. Fenger now grabbed it, only to find it dead. Whoever it'd been, they'd given up.

Again the incessant pounding at the door.

“Damn it, man! I'm coming!” Gun in hand, Fenger pulled his door wide.

On his porch, looking out over Lake Park and Lake Michigan, stood that ugly old gimp, peg-leg snitch Civil War veteran of Ransom's, Henry Bosch, aka Dot 'n' Carry. At the same time, the phone resumed its ringing.

“Mr. Bosch, what is it?”

“Aye, you've a good memory, Doctor.”

“Hold here a moment. Let me answer that infernal ringing.” Fenger went to the phone, lifted it, but found it dead again. “Damn thing!” he cursed, and pounded the thing back on its cradle.

Bosch had stepped into the foyer. “You're wanted o'er on Van Buren and Dearborn, Doctor. There's been a—a foul murder, sir.”

“Two killings in one night? What's this city coming to, Mr. Bosch?”

“You know full well it's goin' to hell in a hand—”

“I take it Inspector Ransom sent you?”

“Indeed, sir. Says there's extra in it for you.”

“Extra? Extra how?”

“Seems the victim is a Pinkerton agent.”

“A Pinkerton agent, really? Is it a lunatic's night?”

“They're all mad, one and the same, in my estimation, sir.”

Ransom had always said the old vet was well spoken when he wanted to draw on his education. “A Pinkerton man! Same night as the mayor's assassinated? Perhaps killed for what he knew?” A vague image of a circle of conspirators formed in Fenger's mind.

“She, sir.”


“The agent, sir, she is…she
a she, that is.”

“A female Pinkerton operative? I'd not known such an
existed,” countered Dr. Fenger, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Sure, and there's Kate Warne, of course,” said Henry Bosch, “but she died of consumption.”

“Consumption…a terrible thing.”

“Some say she smoked cigars till the day she died.”

“Is that right?”

“She was buried in Graceland Cemetery with all the pomp old Alan Pinkerton could muster. Kate helped old Mr. Pinkerton sneak Abe Lincoln into Washington. Was her who booked the train cars, including the dummy ones. Used the rails between here and D.C. like an expert in a shell game.”

“Can we get back to the here and now, Mr. Bosch?”

. Sure we can.”

“So when did our present murder happen?”

“Within the hour, Doctor, sir. They're saying her body was still warm and bleeding yet from her wounds when her partner found her. Say the sand and very stones 'round her're still soaking up her—”

“All right, sir, you've delivered your message.” Dr. Fenger tipped Ransom's snitch. “See to hailing me a cab.”

“This time o'night?”

“There's extra coin in it for you.”

“Right, sir, right you are.”

Fenger grabbed his clothes, hastily dressed, and snatched up his medical bag just as the sound of a hansom cab filled his ears. He opened his door on horse and driver, while Dot 'n' Carry held open the carriage door. In an instant the cane-carrying peg-leg was doing battle with the driver, the two men in a scuffle over who would hold the door and extend his palm for the gentleman's tip.


Inspector Alastair Ransom had gone to his knees over Nell Hartigan, butchered by some fiend. Nell's facial makeup had been smeared to reveal her actual features beneath the rouge and eye liner. The woman's eye sockets shimmered with blood, and the killer had gutted her. “Opened her up like a fisherman handling a carp,” said one of the uniformed cops standing over Ransom and the body. “And for what bloody cause? Her purse!”

“No money found on her?” asked Ransom.

“Not a dime.” The officer handed Ransom Nell's empty pocketbook.

“Empty save for a few personal notes and some change,” added Nell's sobbing employer, Mr. William Pinkerton. “Attacked by street toughs,” mourned the private eye. “And whoever it was learned of her true identity only after the attack, hence the makeup wiped away.”

“She didn't get a shot off. Gun's loaded,” said Ransom, holding her weapon up to the light, a standard .38 Remington, a sidearm issued to all Pinkerton undercover agents.

“Like her to put up a fight before giving up her gun.”

Something in the words or tone struck Ransom as faintly odd. An element of anger at Nell for “letting” herself become a victim perhaps, and something of a deep hurt or loss in there at the same time.

While Ransom had no reason to dislike or distrust William Pinkerton, he knew the Pinkerton reputation for holding cards close to the vest, and for bluffing well. He also knew that any
operative working for the “Pinkies” was universally hated by every workingman in a union. If Nell had been infiltrating a secret society or group, she may well've been executed—a far cry from being attacked by some street thug.

Ransom had known Nell. They'd shared a beer from time to time, and she'd always urge him to end his career with the CPD and come to work for her wonderful boss, Mr. Pinkerton.

Nell's remains had the shocking appearance of an autopsy—as though her killer's level of hatred had caused the extreme mutilation. Could it be a message? A warning? An executioner's song, singing loud of “take heed all infiltrators and Pinkertons”?

The American Federation of Labor, some 250,000 strong, the Knights of Labor, now dropped to 100,000, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, 50,000, and countless others all saw a blue Pinkerton uniform as a strike-breaker, and unionists and anarchists alike considered a Pinkerton undercover operative, man or woman, a traitor to humanity as well as a grave threat to their private meetings. The Pennsylvania coal mining wars ended when Pinkertons infiltrated the ranks of the Molly McGuires and began wholesale arrests of the most violent group in the nation.

Alastair admired the Pinkertons for having broken up conspiracies all across the nation. They'd averted many anarchist plots, but their presence at a labor rally or strike nowadays only added to the powder keg. The mere sight of a Pinkerton watchman's blue uniform enraged union men in a strikebound area, and the Pinkerton watchmen were often accused of setting explosions themselves in order to gain public sympathy for management and owners. The same argument had often been leveled at the Chicago Police Department as well. Labor routinely charged that the Pinkertons fabricated evidence and saw plots everywhere simply to serve their own ends.

It was an allegation that'd become rampant since the infamous Haymarket Riot, and he had to admit that he himself continued to have niggling and persistent problems every time his scars from that riot acted up.

To date, no one could satisfy him on the point of who threw the bomb at Haymarket, and he suspected that the Pinkerton Agency had files in a secret chamber somewhere with precisely that information. However, getting at such official and semiofficial information proved a difficult proposition at best. And for this and other reasons, Ransom did not entirely trust the Pinkertons. It hadn't been so long ago that a Pinkerton and a Chicago cop were arrested for selling confiscated nitroglycerin to would-be anarchists!

Still, countless small plots to blow up trains, machine shops, and roundhouses had been foiled by undercover Pinkerton agents. The agency had amassed a fortune on strike-related assignments over the years, but in the end it was revenue they'd decided to turn their backs on. For one thing, many a Pinkerton agent had been killed or maimed for life defending the property of the Pullmans, the Vanderbilts, the Carnegies, the railroad moguls, the so-called “Robber Barons,” and other leaders of manufacturing. The Pinkertons, to their credit, had simply refused to be a private army against labor any longer.

In fact, Alan Pinkerton had, for a lifetime, stood for the same principles as most labor platforms. For anyone in the know, it'd come as no surprise when the sons ended the days of Pinkerton being called on as “guns for hire” by the owners against labor. With the passing of Alan Pinkerton, who'd come to believe his agency should never have become embroiled in the labor movement on the side of big business, the two sons honored their father by never again accepting work as strikebreaking guards.

Knowing all this, Alastair was still unwilling to accept William Pinkerton's remarks hinting that Nell Hartigan had been a victim of a simple street murder, some rabid mugger after her purse, as the killer or killers had taken far more than her purse or even her life. They'd taken her


“I think, Mr. Pinkerton, we need a serious talk,” suggested Ransom.

Pinkerton disagreed, stepping away from the body and the others to step away with Ransom.

Ransom now stood below the corner lamppost
at Van Buren and Dearborn, a stone's throw from the Levy District where Nell had told Pinkerton she'd been running a scam.

“Details…her notes, sir? I will need both.”

“Nell's one of several women operatives working for me, but she was especially keen.”

“Undercover, infiltrating, you mean.”

“That yes, but lately she'd gotten on to something we had no business in, and no evidence of.”

“Really? Yet she proceeded?”

“Once on a scent, she was tenacious.”

“Perhaps she got too close to her prey, then?”


“And perhaps you can be more specific, sir?”

“As I said, there was no credible evidence what she was working on had any merit, so what can I tell you?”

“Are you being deliberately evasive, sir?”

“I am being prudent, Inspector.”

“Can you tell me in a general sense precisely what Nelly Hartigan was chasing?”


“What sort of phantoms?”

Pinkerton pulled his hat from his head, gritted his teeth, and pulled a newspaper clipping from his hat, handing it to Alastair. Ransom scanned a small story, a paragraph long, someone seeking a missing sister named Flossie Widmarck, of 448 Atgeld Street, who'd simply disappeared without a trace in the span of an hour off city streets. The story ended with a diatribe on the uselessness of the Chicago Police Department in the matter, according to the outraged sister, Katrina Widmarck, who had heroically searched for her sister for months.

“Then Nell had taken up Miss Widmarck's cause?”


“A missing person's case?”


“But she'd gone against your wishes?”

“It was not a case brought to us in any formal sense. Miss Widmarck was not a client.”

“I see.”

“It'd been Jeff Naughton, another operative supposedly watching her back tonight. I saw to it that she not be out here without someone watching her back.”

While you were home by a warm fire with your wife and kiddies
, thought Ransom, wondering why this image popped into his head. “Naughton did a fine job,” he replied, sarcasm dripping off each word. “It was young Naughton who discovered her murdered, right?”

“I've already raked Naughton over the coals and the spikes, but the man's already so distraught as to be unable to cope. Finding Nell in the condition she'd been left…well, it turned my stomach.”

“I don't think it an overreaction in this case.”

“She was a fine and intelligent woman,” continued Pinkerton. “Very quick-witted, well-suited to the work, meticulous, a real Jack-bull for a woman, once she got on someone's heels.”

“I know. I've known Nell for years. She trusted me. Why didn't she come to me about this Widmarck case?”

“I wasn't aware you two were acquainted.” Pinkerton wiped his brow with his sleeve, the big man perspiring despite the cool night air.

“She was the definition of discreet. Besides, not even you can know everything about everybody.”

Pinkerton nodded, accepting this.

“I knew her best when her saloon-keeper husband died, and the sleazy politicians found a way to relieve her of the well-placed property.”

“Swindle, I think is the word. She had her own way of operating after that. She'd get word on a dark little operation, usually involving a Chicago politician, and she'd follow every lead…taking chances…risks.”

“What about labor unrest? Anarchists? Did she think this Widmarck girl disappeared because she'd fallen out of favor with her local? Was the girl a seamstress in a sweatshop?”

“I haven't a clue about any such connection, no. Fact is, Nell had been conducting an interview with the girl's last known employer—a Dr. Mudd—last I heard. Damn her…”

“Damn Nell?”

“She was to work with another operative tonight, but Frederick Hake is on his back with a horrid flu.”

“Damn him, then.”

“She was told to stand down, but if you really knew her, then you know stubbornness personified.”

Ransom nodded and lit his pipe, wondering if Pinkerton were distraught or simply dodging his questions.

“We'll get the bastard done this, the agency will,” Pinkerton muttered.

“Look, William…can I call you William?”

“William, Bill is fine.”

“You need to trust me here.”

“It's not so much a matter of trust as…as—well, there are issues like liability and lawsuits. You know how litigious everyone is nowadays…and this matter is yet too sensitive and unsubstantiated, you see, and…”

Christian Fenger joined them, overhearing their last
words. “Mr. Pinkerton doesn't want the facts getting circulated before they are, of a certainty,
, right, Bill?”

“Precisely, yes.”

“What's going on, you two?” asked Ransom. “Something I know nothing about? In my city?” He folded his cane into his arm and puffed his pipe.

“It has to do with some medical school in the area, Alastair,” Fenger blurted out. “Indelicate as it is, someone's going to notice soon enough, Mr. Pinkerton.”

“Are we speaking of cemetery thieves, body-snatchers? Ghouls at work?”

“A new sort of ghoul,” said Fenger, “one who does not require a cemetery or a shovel. Only a blade or a scalpel.”

“When the second of the sisters went missing,” said Pinkerton, “Nell became certain of her course.”

“Murder for a person's corpse?” asked Ransom.

“It explains the missing organs,” said Fenger, lighting a cigarette.

“Do you suspect this Dr. Mudd?”

“No…he's a mere pharmacist,” said Fenger, “not a surgeon. He'd have no interest in purchasing a corpse or body parts.”

“Damn it! No one catches Nell Hartigan off guard,” shouted Naughton from where he sat on the curb. “It just doesn't happen.”

“Obviously, it does.” Ransom glanced back at the body, punctuating with pipe and a raised eyebrow. “You know, William, much as you ‘operatives' would like to believe otherwise, all of us are vulnerable to one trick or another.”

“I suppose you're right. Damn, if she had any family, I'd know what to do, where to go next, I mean. As is…what am I to do?”

“Go home and calm yourself, William,” counseled Fenger. “Leave it to us. Perhaps I can say more about what happened here, and if that is the case, I'll most certainly inform you.”

“Will you do that, Christian?”

“Absolutely, as soon as I know anything.”

“I feared you were out of the city; called you twice and no answer.”

“I am a heavy sleeper.”

“A demonic hand is at work in this,” predicted Pinkerton.

Dr. Fenger gave Pinkerton a brief, male hug. Ransom noted their closeness, and wondered how long standing their relationship was.

Young Naughton had climbed to his feet and coughed out, “It's surely to do with
she was chasing! I just know it. And had I been quick…”

“Easy on yourself, son,” said Fenger.

“…quicker…perhaps Nell…perhaps I could've pre—”

“I'll want to see any notes she kept, and yours, Mr. Naughton,” said Ransom.

“Not likely,” replied Naughton.

Pinkerton explained. “Nell kept it all in her head. I yelled at her about this habit, that it was no good, but she gave it right back at me. Said if it's on paper, someone can get at it, but no one was getting it out of her head.”

“But she reported to you. You must've kept notes, and what of you, Naughton?”

“Fred Hake's her partner. I was just filling in.”

“Then by damn what of Hake's notes?”

“She'd just begun to dig on this case,” said Pinkerton, shrugging, “and all reports so far were preliminary and verbal, and none whatsoever from Hake, who didn't believe in the case any more than…than I.”

“Chalk it up to that cursed invention!” said Fenger.

“The telephone, yes,” agreed Pinkerton.

“So no written record?” muttered Ransom.

“None save my own notes, but they are

“Cursory is better than nothing.”

“Cursory is what we've just voiced.”

God, this man is frustrating
, Ransom thought. “All the same, bring these notes 'round to my address on Kingsbury, or to my desk at the Des Plaines station house.”

“It will be done.”

“Night, then, Bill, and accept my regrets over the loss of one of your own. Nell was a good woman and keen.”

“Too keen to go out this way, I'd thought.”

“None of this is your fault, Bill, nor even Naughton's over there. Whatever kind of butcher can carve up a woman like this is a fiend and a maniac, no less than Jack the Ripper. She was murdered, pure and simple, whether by someone she was tailing or some random act of violence—we will unearth.”

Fenger repeated the words, “Random act of violence. All too common nowadays here.”

“No more so than Rome in the time of the Caesars,” said Ransom, defending Chicago.

“Nor London, nor Moscow, nor New York,” added Pinkerton, “nor any metropolis in any time. Read your Dickens, sir.” Pinkerton then took Alastair by the elbow and led him off a bit. “God attend your work, then, Alastair Ransom, to find and punish Nell's murderer.” Pinkerton then rushed off, but with a heavy appearance, as if someone rode his back.

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