Read City of the Absent Online

Authors: Robert W. Walker

City of the Absent (9 page)

With the black man dead, the killer shouted at
his brother. “Damn it! Do I have to do everything? Bastard! Get over here and help me wrap 'im in the sheets!”

“We don't gotta cut 'im open this time?”

“The doctor wants a whole man this time.”

“But he's a black man. Doctor
won't want
no black man.”

“Don't be stupid. The doc put us onto the man.”

“You're smart, Philander, real smart.”

“How so, Van?” He often shortened Vander to Van. Their hands worked busily to wrap the body.

“I mean…how did you know you could find someone here so easy?”

“Are you just stupid? This place and places like it are full of walking dead. All we have to do is harvest 'em. It's why the doc sent us here. He set it all up with Maude, and Maude pointed him out.”

“That's a hard lotta cal-ca-lating, Philander.” Vander never shortened his name, never used Phil. “Safer than on the street, huh?”

“We almost got caught last night when that copper came along.”

“So how're we going to get this fella to the doctor now?”

The other indicated the open window. “We go out that way.”

“Now? In broad daylight?”

“Who in Chicago is going to question it? We're just helping a friend out of a den of inequity to sober him up and return him to his family.”

“What about the blood?”

“That's why we wrap him in the brown wool blanket. Now help me mummy 'im up.”

“You're smart, brother,” said the other as they finished wrapping the body.

“No one'll ever miss this Negra.” Philander gave another thought to the woman they'd eviscerated only the night before. As he'd worked over her, it slowly began to dawn on him that she had the body of a much younger woman than he'd thought her to be. This came as a gradually growing shock. Her skin proved supple, her muscles taut, and her breasts firm. The killed woman simply wasn't what she'd appeared.

On closer inspection of her features, wiping away caked, oily makeup, he realized that she was no homeless old witch, but a young wench instead! Her makeup was as thick as oil paint, and he peeled it away. “Blind me, she's hardly more'n a child,” he'd told his brother, who squinted in response. “She's hiding under a ton of makeup. Why?”

“I dunno,” his brother'd said.

“When does a woman hide her youth below a mask of age? Queer indeed. What woman hides her beauty to become a grandmotherly street tart by comparison?”

“Dunno.”

“Why does a woman present herself as more pitted and wrinkled and pickled than her years?”

“Philander, I—I—I donnnw't know.”

He'd then dug for anything to help identify the real woman he had killed, but there was nothing on her. Only the handgun, which had skittered a little away when she fell. Vander had picked it up, terrifying Philander, who was sure the fool
would fire it off, alerting every copper in the area. He'd snatched it from his brother and laid it aside the body.

Philander then shook it off, both the fact she was a much younger woman, and the near disaster of a gun in his brother's hands. He'd then continued to harvest organs. He most assuredly would prefer to take her entire body to the doctor—it'd mean a great deal more money, as even skeletons had a bounty on them—but this was too near a police beat and station house.

He'd gotten the major organs and was thinking he could get at the uterus when he changed in midstream to the eyes. Just as the good doctor had ordered:
I could use a good, healthy pair of eyes.
And he was about to take the eyes when the sound of firm, steady footfalls of heavy boots and the light of an approaching police lamp startled his brother, who raced off, leaving him alone with the jars and the cart.

A final glance at the accusing blue-blossom eyes that he'd begun on, and he decided they were hardly worth facing a copper over. He grabbed the pushcart and rattled off ahead of the approaching police lantern, gritting his teeth against how his dummy of a brother made him feel. Certainly, the approaching copper heard him, even if unable to see him in the gloom, as the cart and jars filled with fresh organs bumped and screamed over the cobblestones. Down the alleyway and into blackness he'd disappeared ahead of the lantern.

Even now, bumping Newly's body against the window frame, the smart one glared at the fool and wondered again what a huge liability if anyone ever got hold of the weakling and asked him three questions. The straighter of the two twins stared at his crooked other self and felt a mixture of pity, grief, guilt, and hatred all at once. But he put such thoughts on hold against the day he feared he'd be taking his brother's body to the doctor for money.

Working together, the strange twins managed to push and pull Nightlinger's body out onto the wharf and into the rented wagon standing wait. A patient, calm horse with one eye as large and as swollen as a melon looked over its shoul
der at the noise made when the twins dropped the body into the rear and covered it with a canvas. The horse's eye studied the killers for a moment, then returned to the oats strapped in a canvas bag around its ears and hanging below its mouth. The ears, which had been alert, relaxed now in acceptance of the load, as if marking the significance of it all.

A shiver went through Vander, his skin rippling like that of the horse whenever Vander brushed him. Vander had named the old nag Carrie, for Carrie Nation, as a little joke, and Philander was quick to call it a very little joke.

The brothers, somewhat exhausted by their efforts, each took a side and climbed onto the seat, and with their faces shaded by hats, the sun reflecting off the water here, they and Carrie trundled off. The wagon made a terrific noise over the wooden boards of the wharf, but even this was silenced by the chaos and symphony of noise here from fishmongers to warehouse screaming machines.

“This means good money, Van.”

“A—A—A job
done well
…”

“Well done
, damn it. It's a job
well done
.”

“Yeah…well done.”

Philander blew out a long breath of air in a gesture of disgust. He let it drop and was just glad that they could now go in search of good payment to make up for the failure of the night before.

For days and nights, Alastair Ransom made
ceaseless calculations about the nature of this killer who'd dispatched Nell Hartigan, and he held no illusions about Nell's having become the only victim of this organ-harvesting ghoul. But his calculations all proved unsatisfactory in the end. It was like chasing phantoms into bottomless burr holes. He found he'd been absolutely inept and unable to establish a single bloody clue—nothing.

He had sought out his longtime friend, police photographer Philo Keane, and they hashed it out over half-decent brandy and Bach, but it had no end, this chase. Countless ghouls worked the cemeteries and streets here, but most he knew and had jailed at one time or another. Most of these crows were careful and meticulous types who left nothing of the body to be found by the lawmen. But here was a fish of another scale. Someone who didn't know enough to know that it was Nell Hartigan plying her trade as a hired operative, and not what she pretended. It told Ransom that the killer was likely new to the area, as nowadays anyone in the neighborhood could point to Nell no matter her disguise.

Conversely, Nell would've known her attacker, too, if he were a staple of the area. After all, she grew up a girl of the
streets, born and bred to Chicago. It's why she made a good operative for Pinkerton in the first place and in this location. She knew the players, among them the snitches such as Bosch, but did she know her attacker? It might well be how he got the drop on her, reasoned Ransom. Human nature being what it was, a person lets her guard down if a man is the least ingratiating and solicitous. Alastair imagined fifty scenarios at once that might explain why tough little Nell might let her guard down, lower her weapon back into the folds of her petticoats, take her eye off this mystery man interested in her entrails and on the verge of pouncing.

The one who struck her down must've been an unknown, else there'd have been a trail of his blood going away. Yes, she'd have been on guard; she'd have struck back in one fashion or another. She wouldn't've taken it lying down, not Nell.

When he decided Philo was of little help in the matter, Alastair again went to confer with Christian Fenger. Their quiet discussion ended in an argument when Alastair called Shanks and Gwinn, a pair of so-called reformed Resurrection Men—grave robbers. “Those two might at any time renew their former profession.” Fenger didn't want to hear it, didn't want to rehash old arguments between them about his “deliverymen,” as he called the odd pair. “Besides, they're still out of the city!”

When Fenger proved a dead end, claiming he knew nothing of any doctors in the surgical field who would stoop so low as to accept the organs of a murder victim for their practice, or for the teaching of students in surgery, Alastair asked him to dig deeper for some names, and said he'd return, expecting a list, then abruptly left.

Finally, Ransom went to Jane. “Let's have dinner with you in a dress,” he suggested.

“All right.”

“I'm buying, but you'll have to listen to me.”

“How romantic,” she jibed.

“To act as a sounding board on this Hartigan matter.”

“I understand you promised Mr. Pinkerton that you'd avenge Nell Hartigan.”

“Damn, does a secret exist in this town?”

“None that I know of.”

“You mean none that you do not know of.”

“That, too.”

He gritted his teeth. “How do you get your information?”

“I've cultivated
your
sources. Dot 'n' Carry for one.”

“Wait, hold on. Are you saying that Bosch is now working for you?”

“He's branched out, yes.”

“That weasel is
my
weasel.”

“I suggest he belongs to the highest bidder.”

“Damn the man.”

“He came round to my—to Dr. Tewes's residence the other night—”

“To report on Nell's murder, did he?” Alastair considered the intricacies of it all. Sometime back, he'd set Bosch onto Dr. Tewes only to learn from Bosch that Tewes and Jane were one and the same. At the time, he'd chased Bosch off with rocks as a result of the impossible idea. Now Bosch, knowing Jane's secret, had made a pact with Tewes while likely holding in abeyance his knowledge of Tewes's true identity. “When?” Ransom asked Jane.

“When?”

“When did Bosch come to your doorstep?”

“I presume just after he left Dr. Fenger's. He has no phone, so it was a foot message.”

“That man nearly got me killed in his wheeling and dealing and double-dealing, so if I were you, Jane—”

“I'm quite aware he knows my true identity, but it's a fact that Dr. Tewes
pays
well.”

“He'll one day turn on you. It's the nature of the snitch.”

“But for now,” she repeated with an arched brow, “he knows I pay well for information. He'll not want it to dry up.”

“But he's
my
snitch,” Ransom repeated.

“He's always been anyone's snitch, Alastair. Search your memory.”

“Aye, as in the time I was near shot dead by that crooked
lowlife back of the yards. It was Bosch who led me right into that ambush.”

“Sure he took money to lead you there, but in the end, he did come to your rescue.”

“Rescue? Him? Come to my rescue?”

“That's how he tells it.”

“Damnable swine. I had to shield him and fight for my life at once, and he leapt a fence and was gone, wooden leg, cane, and all.”

“But his warning shout kept you alive, as he tells it.”

“I suppose, if you stretch a point, he saved me that night, yes, if—”

“If he tells the truth.”

“I've never been satisfied that
he
was set up along with me that night.”

“You suspect Nathan Kohler of it still?”

“Oh, I surely do.”

“And the Haymarket Riot? Do you really believe that one man—
even Nathan Kohler
—could've planned that to come off as it did?”

“It came off badly—wrongly timed. Has Kohler's hand all over it, and one day I'll prove it.”

“Or else?”

“Go to my grave trying.”

“Alastair, you're a bitter man, and this obsession is beginning to cloud your judgment.”

“Bitter? Perhaps so, but with good reason. Clouded, not me.”

“But it poisons everything around you.”

“All right, anything in excess is poisonous, I get it.”

“Can't you see that this includes your every relationship?”

“I am a determined fellow! A noble, admirable quality!”

“No, you are a cynical, scarred soul.”

“Is there so large a difference? Damn it, Jane, can we speak of other matters?”

“I'm not so sure I wish to have dinner with so cantankerous a man, not tonight.”

“I need to talk about this case with someone.”

“Someone willing to listen is what you need.”

“Where's Gabby, then?”

“Leave Gabby out of this.”

“She'll know of it soon enough. The papers have it.”

“All the same, I don't want her in harm's way.”

“I'd never put her in harm. Surely, you know that.”

She relented in both position and tone. “Give me a bit to freshen up, and I'll be your guest for dinner then. You must secretly like to be told off.”

“Perhaps…it's your wit that I love. The well-directed word, as incisive as a fencing sword.”

“Good…good. Then there is hope for you yet.”

Alastair watched this woman of substance turn and haughtily make her way to her bedroom, the same as she shared with a makeup mirror and Dr. Tewes's array of wigs and mustaches. “It's you I want to have dinner with, not him!” he shouted after, but the door closed in his face. “Wear something feminine and dainty!”

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