Read City of the Absent Online

Authors: Robert W. Walker

City of the Absent (7 page)

Philo Keane, acting in his capacity as police
photographer, arrived on the scene, and kneeling over the wretchedly dressed woman and the horrid wound, sleepily shouted, “Why in bloody hell've you pulled me from my bed, Ransom, for a dead prostitute? We don't go to such measures for old prostitutes.”

“She's no old pro of the night, Philo,” Ransom assured him. “Take a closer look.”

Philo finally looked into the face smeared with makeup. “Who is she?”

“One of Bill Pinkerton's operatives, undercover.”

“Incognito? Who was she? An acquaintance?”

“You've no doubt heard stories of her.”

“Really?”

“Nell Hartigan.”

“The saloon-keeper's wife who was robbed of her place?”

“Appears she was a magnificent actress,” said Fenger, a slice of his dry wit.

“Pretense at being a harpy apparently got her killed,” added Ransom, “but it may be that the man she was shadowing turned on her, or got the better of her, and this is the result.”

Fenger added, “And for the moment, this is all we know.”

“Butchery is your result.”

“Aye, agreed,” Dr. Fenger piped in again. “He took the devil's own time with her, and if you look closely, he's cut out most every major organ and carted half her weight off with him.”

“God blind me at this world that a man can do such harm, and cart off a woman's insides, but why?” replied Philo, bile and alcohol threatening to send him retching.

“The papers'll make a to-do o'er it, sure,” said big Mike O'Malley, who'd joined them with the intention of partnering on this case with Alastair. The two large detectives, O'Malley and Ransom, side by side, seemed like a pair of stone calves, weighty and bulky as Oriental sculpture.

“It'll be Jack the Ripper all over again, sir,” bemoaned a freshly besotted Thom Carmichael, who'd somehow gotten word and crawled from his bed and his stupor. “The nasty whore-killing, evil bastard's booked passage and come to America and found
us
to terrify!”

Ransom did not know for certain when Thom had come or how long he'd been near, or what he may or may not've overheard. Thom's drinking had obviously gotten him fired from the
Herald,
which Ransom found odd. Ransom knew of no newspaperman in the city who didn't drink and drink heavily, save for the obituary fellow and perhaps the fellow who replied to the Lonely Hearts letters—but even he, Ransom suspected, was a secret drinker.

Ransom guessed that poor Thom had continued to struggle with a self-imposed guilt stemming from the “Phantom of the Fair” case, that he still believed he was somehow culpable in the death of Griffin Drimmer, Alastair's young partner. Carmichael had seen something disturbing the night of Drimmer's initial disappearance and failed to act on it. Ransom knew the pain he felt; on that same fogbound night, exhausted, he had quit the intense surveillance of the very man who'd murdered Griff. To this day, whenever he encountered fog, he saw Griffin's accusing features in it, which didn't make any more sense than Thom's guilt, but there it was, like a vigilant entity.

Not long after that awful night, Alastair achieved his final vengeance on the so-called Phantom—a ferret-faced weasel, as it turned out.

How severe a vengeance it'd been, too, but at times, when reminded how many lives had been shattered by the Phantom, Alastair believed he'd let the foul, evil creature off too easily. No one in Chicago police circles doubted that Ransom had reeked revenge and justice where all others had failed.

Still, Alastair knew that Thom or Christian or Jane, even Gabby, could as easily blame him for the killer's motives and successes. He was hardly keen in his approach. Certainly hadn't been a model investigation, certainly not one for the books. But he did privately confess to his own guilt, and the part his history as a young officer played in the deaths of all the Phantom's victims. The best that could be said of it today was that it was over.

His thoughts were interrupted by O'Malley's booming voice as Mike kneeled over Nell's remains. “Appears the work of some madman for damn sure, but if it is done for money…that's the worst.”

“No…not a madman, but a cold, calculating bastard,” corrected Fenger.

“How so?” asked O'Malley.

“Whoever killed her, he
harvested
her organs.”

“My God.” Carmichael's hand shook as he jotted this down.

“Every major organ from the thoracic area, and he attempted to pull out the uterus.”

“Explains the amount of blood,” Ransom dryly added.

“To what purpose? Why'd he take her organs?” asked Naughton, still highly distraught. “I loved her spirit, you know. So…so!”

“Take him home, O'Malley,” ordered Ransom.

“I'm needed here, Rance.”

“Please, Mike.”

O'Malley frowned, disgruntled at such duty, but shrugging it off, he took the young man under wing, and together they left.

“You didn't answer the boy,” said Philo, eyeing first Ransom and then Fenger. “What do you men think the killer's doing with the organs? Making a stew of 'em?”

“Medical reasons no doubt,” said Fenger.

“Medical reasons?”

“There's money to be had from organs and cadavers sold at back doors at every medical school in the city.”

“Even your own?” asked Philo.

“No, neither Rush College nor Cook County is in need of cadavers, thanks to my bargain with the city. My hospital and teaching college gets all the Jane and John Does we need.”

“Ahhh
…an exclusive contract with Nathan Kohler?” asked Philo.

“I assure you, Keane, it's better than the grim alternative, as you see tonight.”

“Do you know who's behind it, Christian?” Alastair asked, point-blank, staring Fenger down.

“H-Harvesting people off the street?” muttered Thom. “Not so much as a pretense of burial anymore. What'd happen if there were no more wakes in Chicago? No free beer days?” Thom laughed at his own joke.

Ransom snorted. “I'll not hazard a guess. What about you, Christian? Any answers for us?”

“Like you, I can't hazard a guess.”

“What 'bout your two ambulance men, Doctor? Reformed resurrection men, as if a ghoul can be reformed!”

“I assure you, Inspector Ransom, Shanks and Gwinn had nothing to do with this.”

“They've alibis for one another, I'm sure.”

“They're out of town, Ransom, till Monday, on holiday.”

“Holidaying ghouls? Where do ghouls go to vacation?”

“The bloody Indiana Dunes, for your information.”

“How happy for them.”

 

Philo Keane had heard enough of cadavers and harvesting organs, and in fact had heard more than he wanted to know,
so he went to work photographing the body from every angle, leaving Alastair to probe Christian Fenger on the bizarre subject of modern-day ghouls among them.

“There are men in the profession at every level who pay well for fresh cadavers and organs to dissect, yes.” Fenger dismissed it as if to say everyone knew it and accepted it as a fact of life.

“But to murder a woman for her parts. It's positively…ghoulish.”

“Yes, I know. The laws enacted to safeguard the dead resting in the cemeteries appears to be backfiring on the living, I'd say,” replied Fenger. “Most surgeons have a scarcity of,
ahhh
…materials to work with.”

“Great God, but to stoop to this? Outright murder?” asked Ransom.

“Men have killed for less, and you well know it. You recall just last week a man was killed in a knife fight over a melon.”

“Aye…so I recall.”

Fenger busied himself measuring the wounds with a tape measure he had to roll and unroll. It made him look like a tailor.

“Then how, Christian, do we locate the professional ghoul who murdered Nelly here?”

“Canvass the medical schools?” asked Philo.

“And hospitals, and private clinics.”

“Damn, there're hundreds of doctors' offices about the city. Many in the Polish, Ukrainian, German, and Italian communities as well—doctors with little to no training and unable to speak English.” Ransom leaned on his cane.

“And there're a great lot of hospitals and surgeries and schools,” added Fenger.

“So…how do we canvass them all for fresh organs? And even as we do so,” said Ransom, “how do fellows as ignorant as Mike and I know a fresh heart, say, from a feeble one?”

“It won't be beating,” replied Fenger.

“Very funny.”

“Look, send yourself and any detective working the case to my lab, and I will show you healthy organs alongside those that've bathed in formaldehyde for a year, as well as pickled ones from too much drink and smoke. And by the way, I thought you'd given up smoking.”

“I thought you had.”

The pair held up their hands to one another. “You hear that, Philo?” said Ransom to his photographer friend.

“What's that?”

“We're invited to Cook County Morgue. Be sure to take the doctor up on his promise. Get pictures of healthy and unhealthy organs.”

“Duplicate the shots?”

“Enough for a squad room of police to use, yes.”

“Awful how her eyes've pooled with blood,” Thom said. “Did the fiend slash her eyes?” He leaned in over Nell. He was such an accomplished reporter that he became like a fly on the wall; people forgot he was on hand, absorbing every word.

Philo eased Thom aside as he moved in for a shot of Nell's bloodied retinas.

“At first, I thought it running makeup,” replied Dr. Fenger, “but later determined otherwise.”

“The ghoul meant to take her eyes as well?” asked Ransom, staring into the dead eyes, eyes that looked as if she'd died with a question posed to God but intercepted.

“Yes, but…”

“But? But what?”

“…but the removal is incomplete, as if…as if he were disturbed from going any further. As though finding the uterus too difficult or time-consuming, he thought then to take the eyes, but then he had no time even for that.”

“Perhaps a passing cab frightened the monster off?” suggested Philo, still clicking away with his Night Hawk camera.

“Naughton's arrival,” said Ransom.

Meanwhile, Carmichael made furious notes, drawing the detective's curiosity.

“Thom, I thought you
retired
from the
Herald,
” Ransom said.

“There are twenty-six some odd papers in this town, and one of them is going to need a topnotch reporter.” Carmichael kept jotting notes, quite sober now, ignoring Alastair.

“Enough here in this horrid light,” muttered Fenger. “We'll need to get Nell to my morgue to learn more.”

But Carmichael asked, “Are the organs, you know, surgically removed?”

“Any fool with a scalpel can surgically remove the organs in the chest, Thom,” said Dr. Fenger. “But—”

“But the uterus, that's another matter,” came the voice of Dr. James Phineas Tewes over them. The sound of Tewes caused the hairs on Ransom's neck to stand on end. Dr. Tewes then added, “If the killer in fact started in after the uterus, going at it through the abdomen, don't we need to ask ourselves was this a medical man at work? And how much of surgery does he know?”

“Trust me, he did not know how to remove the uterus through this route, Dr. Tewes,” Fenger said. “You and I would've made short work of it, although it is no simple task. This fellow turned the uterus, but he came up short.”

“So you suspect an amateur? A butcher?”

“I do, yes, perhaps having had some rudimentary lessons on how to open the chest and abdomen.”

“Then we suspect a man,” began Jane as Tewes, imagining the killer in her mind, “who has limited surgical skills, interrupted in the process of body theft.”

Fenger calmly replied, “Nell's near detached eyes and the condition of her body say it is so, yes.”

“Who bloody asked you here, Tewes?” Alastair's
voice could not mask his distaste for the man who was called a charlatan in twenty-six languages—the number of neighborhood newspapers in the city—using every word for fraud. “You don't mean to do a phrenological reading of Nell Hartigan, do you? Or attempt to conjure up her spirit, so that her dead, dangling eye there can tell us what her killer looks like, now do you?”

“I came when I heard it was a murder so close to my home. I'm here to lend what help I can.”

“Which is none. Go home to your dispensary of potions and snake oils,
Doctor
.” Alastair sneered the last word.

Tewes blanched, grit his teeth, and said, “If it is a ghoul's work, I know of ghouls in this city, and they never work alone.”

“Nell knew this city far, far better than you, Dr. Tewes, and she would've known that…would've been attuned to the fact, and yet the ghouls got her. Does your magic explain that?”

“No. I profess no magic, only a divining of the human heart and head.”

“Our victim has no heart, Tewes,” said Dr. Fenger, follow
ing Alastair's lead. Both men had long ago given up the fight to see Jane end her charade as Dr. Tewes.

“No heart?”

“No lungs, no spleen, no entrails, no heart,” replied Fenger, to which all fell silent.

“I was told only that a woman had been attacked for her uterus, which had been cut out but left behind.”

“A little less than a half-truth,” replied Fenger.

“Who informed you of the killing?” asked Ransom of Tewes.

“Does it matter? He was ill-informed, obviously.”

Fenger knit his brow as if in deep thought. The uniformed officer who'd discovered the body in Naughton's company had stood all the while over Fenger with a police-issue lamp that could be made brighter or dimmer by pulling a lever. Fenger now asked that the officer make as much light as possible for Dr. Tewes's perusal of the gaping chest and abdominal wound. Fenger's lips then moved as if chanting a magical formula under his breath, his index finger guiding Jane's eyes to the looted thoracic area.

All could see that the woman's clothes had been ripped apart and her insides eviscerated. The flickering light cast Fenger's queerly shaped big head in silhouette, and created a dance of all their shadows only a handsbreadth away. Everyone listened to Christian Fenger's words. “There remains some element…a missing element as to why Nell Hartigan allowed herself to become overpowered.”

“Was she…raped?” asked Tewes.

“It does not appear so.”

“What do you mean, ‘allowed' herself to become overpowered?” asked Tewes.

“She let her guard down, I suspect.”

“You speak as though she contributed to her own murder.”

“Go on, Doctor,” said Ransom. “I gather your meaning.”

“Well I don't! Explain it to me.”

“How does a trained, instinctive Pinkerton operative as savvy and as streetwise as Nell Hartigan allow herself to be taken by surprise?” shouted Ransom, frustrated and fatigued.
“Unable to fire off a single shot from her concealed weapon?”

“She is stabbed deeply, a traumatic single blow with a huge carving knife, after which he sets upon his true prey—her organs,” continued Fenger. “He makes quick work of the chest and stomach, followed by the female organs—and failing this, attempts the eyes.”

“But he comes at the uterus through the aperture already created,” added Tewes. “As a medical man might.”

“Or the untrained and foolish.”

“But in extracting the missing organs efficiently…perhaps he does know
something
of surgery. Notice the Y-incision made from each shoulder to pelvis. Classic.”

“Then he is no mad slasher?” asked Alastair.

“Well yes and no, but whoever did this,” replied Fenger, “he did so with calm aplomb.”

“But he left the eyes and uterus,” Tewes said.

“Only, I think, due to a sudden apprehension.”

“Perhaps he is a failed physician,” suggested Tewes.

“Or one whose license has been revoked?” asked Carmichael, still taking notes.

“Someone frustrated at being unable to practice?” asked Ransom. “So this mad surgeon goes out and carves up people out of what? Frustration, boredom?”

“Practice,” said Tewes. “Perhaps he intends to stay in
practice
.”

“That's even colder.”

“If it is about medical rehearsal, it may well be about medical training,” added Fenger.

“Yes, if he must, absolutely must, practice and perform…” said Tewes, pausing. “It may well be he needs the organs for…dissection.”

“Performances, rehearsals? Do you mean he is a practicing medical doctor, training others, like your daughter, Gabrielle?” Ransom asked Tewes.

“Hold on there, Ransom,” Fenger took issue. “I am training Gabrielle Tewes.”

“It's a possibility,” continued Tewes, “that it is someone paid to procure the parts for a medical man.”

“Gawd,” groaned Philo Keane, finished with his photos and lighting a cigarette. “But why not use cats, dogs, cattle, for God's sake!”

“You are a photographer, Mr. Keane, can you understand being unable to work in your field while your camera there sits idle?” asked Tewes. “Having to sketch with pen and pencil rather than shoot pictures with a camera?”

Thom Carmichael added, “Like a journalist without a journal. I see it.”

Bellowed Ransom, “But to murder a woman for one's bloody career or
practice
?”

“Please, Ransom,” said Tewes, “you're about as knowledgeable of medical people as…as a bagpipe, I think.”

“Watch your tongue, Tewes.”

“Think of it, man. What obsesses any surgeon but the curiosity of cutting into flesh and revealing disease and repairing tissue?”

“So by your design, we have a mad surgeon on the loose?”

“No, not a mad surgeon but a
typical
one.”

Fenger raised his eyebrow at this. “Dr. Tewes has a point we can't ignore, Alastair. However…”

“However?”

“My gut and my vote goes with a
procurer
of organs and bodies—one with just enough knowledge of anatomy to make quick work of it.”

“You think so, Christian?”

“I do.”

“You speak like a man who has seen a lotta autopsies,” Carmichael said, attempting to get a laugh out of the dour-faced Dr. Fenger but failing miserably.

Silence again reigned as Fenger climbed creakily from his knees over the victim, backing the lantern-holding cop away as he did so. Around the corner there stood a bystreet with rows of freshly built brick houses and apartments, an im
provement in the area to be sure. Included also were a number of storefront businesses within sight: a map engraver, an architect, a law office or two, and a number of other more obscure agencies and enterprises alongside a thriving signmaker's business.

“You're saying he got at her like a regular Jack-in-the-box, then?” Ransom asked of Fenger.

“There's no sign she got in the least struggle, not a single wound on her hands or forearms, for instance, which occurs when one is assailed and instinctively throws up the hands and arms in this fashion.” Christian demonstrated for the others.

Tewes frowned and stepped away as if something disagreed in the man's bowels or as if he meant to ruthlessly disregard what Dr. Fenger had to say and wanted a change of subject.

At the same time, the waning night grudgingly gave sway to a frosty seasonal fog, looking like a great gray pale over the heavens. However, the fog found itself embattled. Battered by winds, the fog, sluicing here and drifting there, formed smaller ghostly forms of itself as if creating a regiment of spirits. As a result, Alastair and the others, all but Nell Hartigan, were treated to an array of marvelous hues and textures of twilight, for here was the darkness of evening, and there a glow of rich cream and brown and orange, like the light of some strange, ethereal conflagration.

The dismal street corner, and what they stood over, conspired with the besieged twilight to create of Van Buren and Dearborn a dark cityscape out of a nightmare Ransom often found himself inside. When it appeared for a time that the gas lamps were going out and the darkness of fog and overcast skies might win out over light, for a moment Ransom believed the reinvasion of darkness might be permanent over the earth.

That's when Shanks and Gwinn, their battered old ambulance wheels making a terrible noise like the coach driven by a battlefield banshee might, came thundering toward
them. Come to take Nell back to Fenger's mortuary deep in the bowels of Cook County Hospital.

When it became apparent that it was not Shanks and Gwinn, but an equally unpleasant looking odd couple, the replacements, Ransom accepted the fact that Shanks and Gwinn were indeed out of town. Still, he would follow through to be sure. One of the replacements was a lumbering giant of a man whose back was swollen with a lump, while his partner appeared a sallow-faced, stern fellow with a furtive eye that went everywhere.

“Little more I can do for her than to sew her up for the undertaker,” commented Fenger, dispelling the pall that had descended over the small party.

Riding with Shanks and Gwinn's fill-in fellows was a Dr. Hiram Hautman, Dr. Fenger's new assistant, a German surgeon who'd recently come to Chicago carrying impeccable credentials.

“I gathered the men as soon as I could,” said Hautman to Fenger even before he could climb down from the wagon, recently painted a bright blue with a white cross, finally covering for good the old lurid sign that had once graced the wagon due to its previous owner: Oscar Meyer wieners in a bold arc.

“I'll see that Nell is properly handled,” Fenger said to Ransom. “You needn't worry on that score. Best get some sleep, all of you.”

They dispersed, rushing from the grim work of this morning. “Share a cab?” Ransom asked Tewes, surprising Carmichael, who thought the two men, inspector and phrenologist, sworn enemies.

“Don't mind if I do,” replied Tewes.

Thom's note-taking hand had been stilled, and he scratched his scalp over this, but then suspected Ransom had a plan, that there must be method to his madness. Yes, as in the past.

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