Friday, March 6, 2009

Smoking Can Be Deadly - Part 2

“Miss Jameson? I’m Sergeant Bishop, in charge of this investigation.”

We greeted one another outside No. 613 1/2. Sergeant Bishop turned out to be Natalie Bishop, a solidly-built, attractive woman, perhaps thirty years of age, with a steely cop’s look. She wore her uniform with the jacket sleeves rolled up as far as possible, as though to protect the material from the grime of The Manors. But the feature that drew my eyes toward it was her right arm – a mechanical arm. The servo motors were visible from the elbow to the wrist, although her hand was enclosed in remarkably lifelike material. Her face was scarred on her right side, adding to the tough look.

She noticed my over-long stare, or perhaps she was merely used to having to explain. “The result of not listening to my sergeant when I was a young cop. I entered a room too soon, and set off a tripwire. They tell me they spent six million Linden dollars on my reconstruction, just to test the technology.”

I expressed my amazement that prosthetic devices could allow her such natural motions. “I’m even better than before, in some ways,” she said. “My right arm is so much stronger than a human arm that I am able to lift an upended carriage, or force open a locked door. And the arm is faster than a human arm, too, so I can grab pickpocketing urchins before they can get away.” She turned serious. “Let’s go into the building. I have something to show you.”

“Has there been a development in the baby’s murder? Have you identified him?”

She shook her head. “No. Come with me, and you’ll see.” I followed her into the tenement, past stained walls with peeling paper, and up a flight of warped wooden stairs to a hallway where four doors – presumably leading to separate flats – stood. Two were closed. One stood ajar, and I could sense someone just on the other side, watching us. The fourth, No. 6, stood wide open, and a constable stood guard. Bishop walked in, and I followed close behind.

Inside, the apartment was just as dismal as the rest of the building. It consisted of a single room, with a rusted cooking top to one side, an old iron-framed bed on the other, the same peeling wallpaper as in the hall, and a single bedside table, upon which a water ewer stood. On the bed was an adult woman, quite dead. The smell of decomposition was strong.

The bedclothes, a floral pattern that was popular many years ago, had been soiled repeatedly over the years and still kept in use. However, the blood that had sprayed and spattered everywhere finally made the old sheets quite useless. The woman on the bed was a striking-looking blonde in her early 20s, wearing a lacy negligee. Through the negligee she had been stabbed repeatedly in the torso. My guess was that she had not died quickly or quietly, as her hands had several deep cuts, as though she had tried defending herself from her attacker until he had found an artery or a vital organ and finally stilled her.

I turned to Bishop. “I do not understand why Captain Armstrong asked me here.”

The sergeant stared at the body. “I asked him to send for you. You see, we received word of the body from the landlord, who had come to investigate complaints of a foul odor emanating from this flat.”

“He could hardly have concluded she died a natural death.”

Bishop continued as though I had not spoken. “The captain sent me here, and put me in charge of the investigation. Yet we both thought it too much of a coincidence that a body should be found so close to where the fetus was discovered. The medical examiner said she had recently given birth – or had a late-term abortion. Presumably, then, she is the mother of the fetus outside. But we found no identification. We have no idea who she is, much less who murdered her.” She turned to face me. “I suggested to Captain Armstrong that he request you here to again plead with your readers for information on her identity.”

“I thought you received no useful information last time. Ahhh, I see: before, we did not know the child had been aborted. This time, someone might recall an attractive, pregnant woman.”


I moved around the room as I made my sketches and took notes. The room showed few signs of long-term habitation. The woman’s street clothing was stacked neatly inside a small valise that stood in a corner. The ewer contained a quantity of water, and the table had a large amount of ash from a strong-smelling cigar. Under the bed was a chamber pot that had been used. However, the stove showed no signs of recent use, nor were there any other clothes. I saw no books, magazines, or newspapers. Had the room been used for an assignation, and nothing more?

Convinced there was no more to be seen in the dead woman’s room, Sergeant Bishop moved into the hall, and I followed her. She moved to the flat whose door was still open ajar, and raised a fist to knock on the door. Whoever was behind the door attempted to close it, but the sergeant demonstrated how quickly her mechanical arm could move, inserting her arm between the door and the jamb in an instant. Although the door banged against her arm with enough force to break bones, the sergeant never flinched.

“Police! Open up!” she yelled, but she was already inside the room. I looked around for someone to tell me I had to stay where I was. Failing to see anyone, I accompanied Sergeant Bishop into the room.

Like No. 6, this apartment was a single, squalid room. Unlike No. 6, it showed all too many signs of habitation. Our nosy neighbor turned out to be a girl, perhaps sixteen years old, pimply and malnourished. Her mother stood behind her, attempting to look furious at the intrusion but succeeding only in looking afraid. The room was crowded with three adjoining beds, though two were little more than cots, and the stove contained a vat containing a cabbage-based meal, bubbling away. Overhead, clothes of varying colors and sizes hung on a line. At first glance, the mother could have been in her fifties, but upon closer inspection she was much closer to my age. “Anna Marie, I told you to leave the police to their work!” she admonished the child, although in her voice I could hear the underlying tone was one that regretted having any involvement with the police. I wondered where her husband was, and how much of a police record he had accumulated.

“Sorry to disturb you, ma’am,” Sergeant Bishop said, not sounding sorry at all, “but we have found a woman dead in No. 6 across the hall, and we need to ask you and your daughter a few questions.”

“I knew she was dead,” Anna Marie said. “I could smell her.”

“Anna Marie!” her mother exclaimed.

The child looked petulant. “Well, I could. I told you so, Mama.”

“Who are you, ma’am?”

“Eugenie Jones. Mrs. Rudolph Jones.” She stressed the “Mrs.” as though this was a source of pride. Perhaps it was, in the neighborhood.

“Do you know the woman who lived there?” the sergeant asked, looking at the mother but addressing the daughter as well.

Mrs. Jones gave out a shrill laugh. “Lived there? Hardly. She came for a few hours once or twice a week. Did her business and left. I told the landlord that respectable families lived here – children lived here – and what was he going to do about the shameful behavior, but he didn’t have the decency to give me an answer.”

Sergeant Bishop nodded, and jotted something in her notebook. “What was her name?”

“We wasn’t on what you’d call a friendly basis.” Mrs. Jones sniffed. “No, I don’t know her name, and I reckon no one else here will, either.” The girl shook her head as well. If she got to know the mystery tenant better, she was smart enough not to let on to her mother.

“What about her guests?” asked the sergeant. “Guests” got another laugh. “Were there many men? Different each time, or the same?”

“I’m sure I wouldn’t know. I’m not nosy, not like some people.” It wasn’t clear whether “some people” referred to her neighbors or her daughter.

I spoke for the first time, addressing Anna Marie: “Have you seen who came to visit her?” The girl took a quick glance at her mother, then nodded. “Just one man?” She nodded again.

“Can you describe him for us?”

This time the look at her mother was more questioning. Mrs. Jones gave an exasperated sigh. “Oh, go ahead then. This is what you get for being such a busybody.”

Anna Marie said she never had a good look at the man, as she was too concerned about being caught, but he was well-dressed (“like a toff,” as she put it) and, after some probing regarding her definition of “old,” a middle-aged man who walked and talked like a member of the aristocracy. He carried a silver walking stick and invariably wore a top hat.

“Did he smoke cigars?”

“Oy, did he ever!” Anna Marie exclaimed. “Big, smelly ones – I’d never smelled no cigar that foul. You’d have thought a swell like him could have afforded somethin’ good-smellin’.”

I was privately amused. Although I did not smoke, much less cigars, I had a friend with expensive tastes in tobacco whom I would occasionally meet for drinks at The Burning Leaf pub in South End. If I was not mistaken, the residue on the table next to the dead woman’s bed smelled distinctly of a cigar he once smoked in front of me, one of which would set me back nearly a week’s salary. Nonetheless, I could see the girl’s point: I, too, thought that particular brand smelled of burning rubber mixed with rotting tomatoes and sulfur, but maintained a tactful silence. Sergeant Bishop continued to ask questions, attempting to gain further detail about the gentleman caller, but it soon became clear that neither Anna Marie or her mother had additional insights to offer.

We left the tenement. Several constables were given instructions to canvass the building for more information on either the dead woman or her lover – for it had become impossible to think anything else about the situation – but we did not hold high hopes for the task. Sergeant Bishop rubbed her mechanical arm, then caught me looking quizzically at the gesture. “When the power starts running low, I get the sensation that my arm aches. Silly, I know.” She prepared to return to the police station to recharge the batteries and write a report on today’s activities, while I planned to type a news story about the murder. She turned to depart, and the morning sun caught her face. Even with her injuries, it was a most handsome face, I thought…

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