Thursday, March 5, 2009

Smoking Can Be Deadly - Part 1

[Written several months earlier, this piece has been waiting for the right moment to see the light of day. I finally decided that the right moment would never arrive, so I'm posting it, starting today. So there! - RJ]

The messenger pounded on my door early in the morning. I was still abed, and hastily threw on a robe over my night clothes as I stumbled to the doorway and threw open the door. “For goodness’ sake, boy, quit that racket!” It had been a long night for me – all in the name of chasing down a story, mind you – and I was feeling a little fragile.

“Sorry, miss, but I gots a tellergram fer you,” the boy replied. He was a sooty-faced urchin in hand-me-down clothing. I felt a little ashamed of myself, as he was earning his living, and surely was as uninterested in being up at this hour as I was. “The guv’ner said there was an extra ten Lindens in it fer me if I got this to yer by haff-pass six.”

I took the note. “As indeed you have. Thank you very much.” I pressed some coins in the boy’s hand. He tipped his hat and was off. Sinking into a stuffed chair, I ripped open the envelope. Something up your alley. Come at once. 613 1/2 Border St. (Signed), Armstrong. Bob Armstrong was a captain in the Caledonian police, something closer than an acquaintance and something less than a friend. I had helped him out recently, and given him the credit (although I got an exclusive on the story, and sold it for a handsome sum). It was hard for me to imagine what police business might be for which Captain Armstrong could use my presence, much less ask for it. Border Street was a walled street along which the train tracks ran, separating the slums of Victoria City, sarcastically named The Manors, from the nicer area; the wall, it was said, kept the riff-raff penned in. It wasn’t hard to imagine crime on Border Street.

I dealt with my morning ablutions as quickly as possible, threw on an old frock, and grabbed fountain pen and paper on my way out the door, ignoring the pounding in my head as well as my empty stomach. Traffic was light, almost non-existent at that hour, so I made good time to Border Street, moving through a gap in the wall into The Manors, then crossing the tracks. I found No. 613 with no difficulty, as the tenement had several police vehicles in front of it, but it took me some time to find the “one-half.” This turned out to be in an alley behind No. 613, and was a seedy two-story building that likely began life as an out-building for the much larger 613 in front, but was now occupied by a half-dozen or more families. The alley continued for a number of feet behind the smaller building, eventually connecting with Fulton Street, which ran parallel to Border Street.

Standing in the alley was Captain Armstrong, surrounded by several uniformed officers. The Captain was a short but burly man, and his men all had similar builds, as though their superior was uncertain that tall, thin officers were up to the job. The police contingent watched as a medical team crouched low.

I exchanged greetings with Captain Armstrong, and he introduced me to the policemen – “Shortz, Gustafson, and MacGregor,” pointing left to right.

“What can I do for you, Captain?” I asked.

He hesitated, and drew a breath before continuing. “I suppose now that I’ve gotten you out of bed, I can’t stop now. You must understand, Miss Jameson, how irregular this is. My men are uneasy at the idea of a civilian being brought into a police investigation, and I can’t say I blame them. At the same time, I appreciated your discretion the last time we met, and thought…well, thought you could perhaps be of service to the force again. I ask that you show the same degree of discretion this time, and ensure that you use no information in a story that is not authorized by someone in my department.” I nodded my agreement, although I kept a pair of fingers crossed behind my back. A girl likes to keep her options open.

“It will be easier to show you than describe the scene. Before I do, however, I must warn you that it is most grisly.”

He led me to where the medical personnel were engaged in their consultation. “Are you done, gentlemen?” Armstrong asked. They stood and moved back a little, though clearly protective of their charge.

Looking down, I saw a newborn, lying very still and covered in blood. My stomach churned, and I was grateful for having skipped breakfast, though I was regretting the final whisky of the previous night. I fought back my revulsion, and looked more carefully. The baby was male and naked, though surrounded by blankets. His skull appeared to have been crushed. What appeared at first glance to be a copious amount of blood was, upon closer inspection, a fairly modest amount, though liberally spread over his body and the blankets; my sense was that he died fairly quickly as a result of his skull fracture, and much of the bleeding stopped when his heart did, although it was possible he died elsewhere and was brought here post mortem. Some dark, flaky material I could not identify dotted the head. Flies were starting to gather around the body.

“Who is the child, and who could have committed such a foul deed?” I asked when I found my voice. I thought I had kept my tone steady, but I must have been mistaken, for Captain Armstrong put a hand on my shoulder as though to reassure me.

“We can’t say. A charlady on her way to work early this morning stumbled across the boy; the sky was still dark. She found the beat officer, who roused me. Our medical examiner estimates he has been dead no more than a few hours – see, the flies have not yet descended in great numbers. But we have no idea who he was, or who he belonged to.” Armstrong wiped his chin. “We – I was hoping you could write a story for your newspaper, provide a description of the boy, and ask your readers if they could help identify him, but to withhold many of the details of the crime scene. My men will make enquiries within The Manors, but I fear it may be the case that the crime was committed elsewhere and the body merely left here. Look, the blood does not seem to have sprayed here. The examiner says this indicates the deed was done elsewhere.” The bearded doctor nodded. “If so, the people here may know nothing about the victim, or the crime.”

I readily agreed to suggest the story to my editor (who would surely agree to publish it) and to the captain’s limitations on my description of the scene. Caledon had few crimes, and murder was even rarer. A crime of this depravity was unique, and I had an exclusive on it, for the moment at least. I would have agreed to far more had it been necessary.

For a few moments I sketched the scene and the baby, although my skill in drawing a likeness was negligible. No doubt the police would send someone to photograph the scene, but no photograph would be ready in time for the early edition and, in any event, would be considered far too lurid to display. I added a many details as I could gather at the moment, then stepped back with relief. The bearded examiner and his colleague resumed their perusal of the body, although it seemed to me their ministrations were unnecessary at this stage. Shortz, Gustafson, and MacGregor dispersed at Captain Armstrong’s request to interview as many of the residents of The Manors as they could find. I suspected their job would be difficult, as many of the residents who held jobs, such as the charlady who discovered the body, would be at work already; many of the others distrusted the police, and were unlikely to answer the door or otherwise cooperate. Still, the men had to cover that aspect of the investigation, and perhaps the heinous nature of the crime would lead some to consider a temporary alliance with the police.

When I finished, I told Captain Armstrong that I would do my best to have the article and sketch run in the evening edition of the paper, and left to see my editor.

In the end, my editor was more than happy to have an exclusive (if only temporarily) on such a lurid story, and a few hours’ work moved us from notes to final typeset. Although the story doubtless sold many copies of the newspaper, and earned me my rent for the week, it failed to have the effect that Captain Armstrong had hoped. Several citizens did contact the police with tales of infants disappearing, but while the police tracked down each lead, none turned out to be connected with the dead child.

The next day, I returned again to The Manors in the hope of developing a follow-on story. I encountered Constable MacGregor, still pounding on doors in the hope of learning something from one of the residents. He did not seem delighted to see me, but he chose not to threaten to arrest me, which was a pleasant change, and from which I inferred Captain Armstrong had talked with him about me.

“Have you had any success in identifying the infant?” I asked.

“You know I canna answer that, miss,” MacGregor answered in his soft burr. But his expression indicated that he had other things to do than walk The Manors had he learned who the child was. “What I can tell ye is that ’twas no baby we found. The coroner took a closer look back at the mortuary, an’ concluded the poor bairn was a fetus, almost full term.”

I looked surprised and horrified. “Was he killed in utero, then?”

MacGregor nodded. “Aye. The wee fellow was aborted not more than a few weeks before he would have been born.”

“What would be the sense in that?”

“Damned if I know, miss. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“And who would perform such an operation? I would imagine it would have to be done by someone with medical training.”

“I suppose so. I’ve heard of many a way a woman can rid herself of an unwanted bairn, but not this close to term. We’re looking for a medical man.”

Nothing about this case was making sense. A late-term abortion was a little pointless; having carried the child for more than eight months, why take the risk of fatal infection or, at the least, arrest, to avoid the last month? And the orphanages were filled with unwanted children, so caring for the child was not the issue. And what doctor or nurse would risk a career to perform the operation? And for someone reduced to the squalor of The Manors? I shook my head.

I thanked MacGregor for his time, and retired to a tea shop on the other side of the tracks in Victoria City to write some notes for a possible follow-up story. While I learned some new details, I envisioned this piece moving from the front page, where the previous day’s story appeared, to a small box two-thirds of the way through the paper, near an advertisement for bunion relief. I much preferred the front page.

Another morning, another loud knock on my door. At this rate, I mused, my neighbors were likely to complain and my landlady was likely to throw me out. She was not terribly warm to the idea of renting rooms to a professional woman, apparently thinking there was only one profession in which a woman could make money. I assured her there would be no parade of gentlemen callers on my staircase, but this week was starting to make a liar of me.

I again dragged myself from my warm bed far too early for my taste, although my head was in somewhat better condition than the previous episode. Again I hastily threw on my dressing gown, and again the same sooty-faced urchin was at my door with another communiqué from Captain Armstrong. Go to 613 1/2 Border St again – Apt #6 – see Sgt. Bishop. Armstrong. Tipping the child and sending him away, I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. Was this a new development? I dressed quickly and sped to Border Street to find Sergeant Bishop.


Darien Mason said...

I remember being consulted on this case...tragic indeed.

Rhianon Jameson said...

Indeed, Doctor. And many pretend that the seedy corner of Caledon does not exist, so your efforts there are doubly appreciated.