Read City of the Absent Online

Authors: Robert W. Walker

City of the Absent (8 page)

As the cab they shared waddled along brick
streets, the fog hid in alcoves like timid souls in flight, blocking out rat-infested, damp, dingy streets just outside their windows. They passed a number of gin palaces, a low French eating house, a shop selling two-penny salads, a barber's pole, an apothecary below one of the ugliest structures in the city—meant to appear as a little European castle with turrets and multiple doors, the place instead proved a monstrosity, as each section had apparently been built by a separate contractor. The strange six-story structure had a sign above reading: h.h. holmes apothecary & inventions. But the sign was swallowed up in the gloom and fog as dark as umber while Alastair read it.

Ransom had heard of Holmes through various dealings with Pinkerton; the man had a shady past, according to records the Pinkerton Agency had begun to amass against him. In fact, his past was riddled with scams and hoaxes, swindles and boondoggles, and there was the question of a partner in Philadelphia who had mysteriously disappeared after Holmes was named beneficiary on his will of last testament. Following this came the disappearance of the partner's wife and two children. Pinkerton was building an airtight case against the obvious villain.

As the Pinkertons were on the case, Alastair had not concerned himself with the so-called Dr. Holmes, but now he told Jane what he knew of Holmes, and when finished, he said to her, “If you are not careful, one day, the Eye that Never Sleeps—Pinkerton—will be overly interested in Dr. James Phineas Tewes as well.”

“Not for murder, I can assure you!”

“Someday, Jane, one of the people you swindle with your spiritualism, someone high up—”

“Like the mayor's wife, you mean?”

“Good example. Now you see my meaning. Should Mrs. Harrison, for whatever reason, find fault with you, why next you know, the Pinkertons'll be all over Tewes if hired to do so.”

“I take your meaning. Now can we drop it?”

“The man Holmes set up a booth at the fair and claims to have invented a machine that turns air into water, Jane.”

“And beside him, someone has an elixir to prevent hair from turning gray, so what?” she asked. “How can you be so naive, Alastair? After all you've seen?”

“Naive?”

“Such flimflams are older than the Bible. To keep your hair from falling out, anoint your head with the blood of a black calf, but it must be one boiled in oil! Else use the fat of rattlesnakes.” She laughed after this.

“Now you're being silly, mocking me.”

“No…I am quoting from the Papyrus Ebers.”

“The what?”

“Papyrus Ebers, a medical book, or rather a scroll found in Egypt and dating back to 1552 B.C.”

“I see.”

“It prescribes for people who're losing their hair.”

“Is that so? Are you saying that you think I should read it?”

“If memory serves, you apply six fats—”

“Six fats?”

“Fat of the horse, hippopotamus, crocodile, cat, snake, and ibex, I think.”

“Ibex? What's an—”

“I think the hippo hump will be the most difficult to get hold of.”

“Not the ibex?”

“I suspect the hippo will cause more problems.”

“Where do I find such ingredients? Your dispensary?”

“More chance with H.H. Holmes's apothecary.”

“I think I'll pass.”

“A special hair dressing for the queen of Egypt, called
schesh
, consisted of equal parts of the heel of an Abyssinian greyhound, date blossoms, and hooves from an ass boiled in oil.”

“In other words, making an ass of the queen.”

“Don't prejudge! An ass's dung took out the pain of a bee sting or a splinter.” She was having fun, and he realized this. “Splinters killed our ancestors then because the cure carried a disease. The tetanus virus thrives in dung!”

“Was there anything the ancients got right?”

“Not in chemistry or medicines.”

“You mean there's nothing useful in lizard blood, swine teeth, putrid meat, stinking fat, moisture from a sow's ear, goose grease, or even fly excretions?”

“They got surgery right, the Romans did, thanks to an ancient genius named Galen.”

“And the point of this lecture?” he asked as the cab came to a halt before Dr. Tewes's shingle.

“What point? To pass the time of a tedious ride, and to cope with this morning's awful find.”

“Nothing more? Not to defend the surgeon who may be out there paying for Nell Hartigan's remains so he can drop them in his specimen jars?”

“I don't condone it; I certainly am for advancing science, but this…this robbing of life in the name of giving life, no…this is not right in any light or angle.”

“But you are a surgeon. A scientist.”

“I am.”

“And you understand the need, the urge to cut.”

“I do. I practice every day that I can, even though—”

“Even though you have no surgical patients. So what or whom do you ‘practice' on?”

“Animals and animal organs.”

“And they are secured how?”

“From a connection Tewes has with a knacker at the stockyards.”

“A horse butcher? You put shivers through me at times, Jane.”

“Why so? Because I am a woman wielding a scalpel?”

“Because you dare associate with knackers at the yards!”

She laughed at this. “Knackers know a great deal about the anatomy of men, thanks to their skill with animals. They're not such a bad lot.”

“For all we know, Jane, a poor knacker, unable to feed 'is family on what they pay at the yards, is now delivering up human organs to surgeons in the city, and in this case, Nell Hartigan's organs.”

“I don't know what you want me to say further, Alastair.”

“Suppose a knock came at your back door, Jane, and you—or rather, Tewes—was offered, say, a human brain, a human heart, kidneys, lungs at a price?”

“From some miscreant like your Mr. Bosch?”

“Let's say Shanks or Gwinn. What would be your response, Doctor?”

“I should shoo him off.” But she'd hesitated half a second.

“Are you sure?” he asked, breaking into her thoughts.

“I…I am quite sure.”

“You don't sound sure.”

“I tell you, I would refuse it.”

“Such a gift, such an opportunity to use your skills, your father's surgical tools on human flesh?”

“Damn you, Alastair, I am no part of this movement afoot in your city to have involuntary organ donation going on amid…amid murder and intrigue.”

“It has been going on for years, curtailed only during wartime when there are always enough unidentifiable bodies and parts to fill every medical school in the land, so why should it be any different here in Chicago?”

“Science must progress at all costs,” she said, climbing from the cab. “We all accept that. There is always a cost, but
harvesting a living person of her organs? It's an abhorrent notion on so many levels; no, Alastair, I know of no medical people who would stoop that low.”

“Or admit to it?”

She gritted her teeth at this and glared at him. “You can be so exasperating! Read my heart. I am not one of your bloody suspects.”

“Who, then, in the medical community?”

“Only the most ambitious.”

“No one is more ambitious in the field than is Christian Fenger.”

“Don't be ridiculous. He has scruples. He's above such behavior.”

“Only because he has the city to supply him with cadavers.”

“Which rules him out! God, and he calls you a friend?”

“Who, then, in the city has Christian's obsession but not his access to cadavers?”

“Whom, Alastair, do you wish me to speak ill of? All those who worked so hard to keep Jane Francis out of the medical field? All those who refuse to stop killing babies and pregnant women because they fail to grasp the simplest medical wisdom? Stupidly rationalizing such practices as going from an autopsy to a birthing without use of soap and water? Or those still bleeding people because they hold firm to an idea of all disease residing in ‘bad' blood rather than treating the organ?”

“Can you provide me with a list of names?”

“Don't you get it, Alastair? I suspect none of these idiots of wanton murder.”

“Perhaps Christian will be more forthcoming when I interrogate him on the subject, after I get some sleep.”

“Ohhh! Just how infuriating can you be!” She stomped over the boards of her porch and disappeared into the semi-darkness of her home.

“What'd I say?” he asked himself, the coachman, and the horse.

None had an answer.

The cool morning passed reluctantly but finally
gave way to a warm sun and clear skies with scattered clouds, and anyone passing the corner of Van Buren and Dearborn would never have known anything untoward had happened there, so complete had Shanks and Gwinn's replacements cleaned up after the murder.

As the cityscape changed from gloominess to brightness, the city of big shoulders shook itself awake and began to tremble with the noise of rumor, gossip, innuendo, and half-truth as the story of Nell Hartigan's unnatural death circulated. Chicago cast its jaundiced eye over the streets and over the rumor that a Pinkerton agent, and a female at that, had not only been raped and murdered, but had her unborn child ripped from her insides by some maniac who had likely sacrificed the fetus to Satan himself.

Chicagoans cast a furtive eye down every alleyway and bystreet, feeling a growing sense of unease, as if a living Devil had climbed from the sewers and walked among the population, interested in feeding on babies. Chicago looked over its big shoulders, down roads that yesterday were mud, today paved over proper thoroughfares. The meandering, amber-tinted snake called the Chicago River invited further
rumor as the highway by which Satan made stealth possible with a barge from Hades that wended its way through the earthbound community, evil coming ashore, doing the deed, and returning to the safety and invisibility of the barge on the crowded waterway. Tinted, dappled green and brown, was the brow of the riverbank, the only witness to the chaotic evil along its shore. For in darkness the black ribbon of water became a sullen place for suicides and murder. And on either side of the dark waters stood monuments to the god Mammon, warehouses and businesses and brothels of export and import for all manner of goods and services. The myriad blinking gas-lit windows winking, like the million eyes of Hell's own, as wharf lights gleamed like fireflies and small beckoning hearths, flaring red and glaring yellow, summoning the naive, the destitute, the sick, poor, and addicted.

One small window acted as a shaft for an oblique green light reflected in the water and across the wharf. Endless threats to burn this place to the ground came in at police stations across the city, angry ministers and ladies' organizations, upset fathers, distraught mothers, outraged brothers, enraged sisters, and even an occasional hopping mad grandparent. This window was Madam Maude DuQuasi's brothel—the Silver Palace—a symbol of everything ugly and decadent in Chicago, and make no mistake about it, Maude, the girls who worked for her, and the clapboard shack she called the “old palace” were all three so frightfully ugly and pigsty in nature that many considered them a separate race of beings, as their surroundings and their sexual appetites were those, it was said, of apes.

This is where Newly Nightlinger found himself this morning, waking in the bed with three of the ugliest, homeliest, dirtiest, smelliest women he'd ever set eyes on. It startled him, as he could not recall the previous several days, and even now, staring at his big black hands, he felt dazed, confused, hazy in the extreme. One moment he was drinking at a tavern after a long day of work hefting feedbags off Cap'n Wakely's boat at Grathian's warehouse on the wharf, and now this, waking to such a horror, finding himself com
pletely naked amid a snake pit of black and white-skinned pig-women! In fact, the white women here were such low creatures that a black man could not be hung for making love to them, or so it was said. In the deep South, he knew such considerations got no play—that despite the horrid look of a woman or her vile animal nature or profession, that ultimately she remained a white maiden, a
dove
—spoiled perhaps but yet a dove that his black ass had defiled. And he'd be hung at the nearest stout tree for sleeping with it. But Chicago was a progressive town.

He had lost three days and nights to a drinking binge, and he'd likely not a cent left to his name, and had surely lost his job by now. He tried to imagine a worse circumstance and could not, until he realized that he couldn't find his shirt and pants. His face must tell all, because a thin, straight, lanky white man in the hallway looking in on him asked, “Do we need help here, Mr. Nightlinger?”

He knows my name, and he calls me Mister. Must be he works here. Maybe they've laundered my pants and shirt…

“I sure do. Don't even know where my pants're.”

“Look here, wrap yourself in this”—the stranger tossed him a grayed, stained sheet—“and follow me. I need a strong man for a day's work. Are you interested?”

“Absolutely, boss. I'm your man!”

“Climb outta there then, and come along.”

Newly Nightlinger's father had been a slave in Mississippi all his life and had died before the Civil War that ended human bondage in America. His mother's name had been America, but she, too, had died a slave when, on the verge of Emancipation, she died of cholera. Newly, as a young man, traveled north and had settled in Chicago after many a ride atop a train, and he had bumped from one job to another in the city, until landing the permanent job with Captain Jeremiah Wakely, who, although a white man, treated him as damn near his equal.

Newly had seen many things, but nothing so horrid as his own behavior at this moment.

Still, he was eating well enough, and he had a good,
strong back, and he believed there was always work for a man like him, a man willing to lift any weight for any length of time so long as he was paid. But he did have his bad habits, number one being whiskey, and this followed by women.
Cigarettes and whiskey and wild-wild women
,
they're enough to drive ye insane
, he thought, recalling the words of an old tune. He often said that his life would make a fine, fine moaner-groaner of a blues song.

Wrapped in the sheet given him by the stranger, Newly stepped out into the hall, where he again spied the stranger, now at the end of the corridor half in shadow, idle in another doorway, his finger curled and indicating that he was to follow.

“Need you to help me carry Vander outta here, boy,” the straight-backed man with sharp features said to Newly. “Hurry on!”

Don't call me boy
, Newly hotly thought, but said, “What 'bout dem pants? A shirt?”

“You can have Vander's damn clothes. Come on!”

Newly tripped on the sheet, his big, awkward foot almost tearing it from his grasp. It occurred to him that he was vulnerable and naked except for the sheet, but this creeping fear was a sporadic thought and did not firmly take hold. Rather, he prized the missing pants, a shirt, and a dollar bill for helping carry out this chore named Vander—some poor fool perhaps in worse shape than he himself. These thoughts had formed solid in his mind. He had an immediate goal, and he rushed headlong toward it. Newly's normal way.

When he stepped through the door, a garish bright light hit him as if flush from heaven through the open eye of God, but then he saw the hazy outline of the window overhanging the wharf outside, and he felt a crisp, cool breeze. But the open window had momentarily blinded Newly with morning light, bathing him in it, so he failed to see any Vander. No one but the stranger, and he in silhouette like one of those black and white portraitures done at the fair.
Silhouetting with paper and scissors,
his mind told him, while simultaneously asking,
Wherebe this Vander fella?

He did not see the man behind him. He failed even to detect the door slam behind him, his full attention on the stranger before him, oddly the same man, yet oddly different. Had the man stood hunched over before like some gargoyle ready to pounce? Then he heard the final click of the door behind him, turned to the sound. Here was the man who had beckoned him, locking the door.

Two men in the room, both standing, one locking the door and a flood of light and fresh air streaming around the hulking one who stood guard at the window.

“What's this?” muttered Newly.

The man behind said nothing. The man before him grunted. This one gave off a vague sense of deformity—
off center somehow
,
maybe a hunchback
,
perhaps a hobbled foot.
And it grunted. Something in the eyes of the grunter, something vacant and something deviant at once, something both present and missing, eyes clearly as confused as Newly's own, like the misfiring engine on that old boat. But Newly hadn't time to cipher why the two men seemed identical yet not quite the same when he felt the other man, the straight one, take him in a full choke hold.

“You sick sons a bitches! I don't go that way! Keyrist! Let me go!”

Then Newly realized that he was saying nothing as his throat was lathered with his own blood while his brain was screaming
I'm no queer!
But nothing of sound or noise other than the sputtering and gurgling of rattling death filled the room.

Newly died looking into the eyes of the hunchbacked twin whose gaze registered a certain timid and eager horror as Newly lost consciousness.

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