Saturday, March 7, 2009

Smoking Can Be Deadly - Part 3

When I returned to the newspaper offices, I wrote my story, asking readers to contact the police if they could help identify the dead woman. Regardless of the fetching sergeant, I thought that was the end of my involvement in the investigation. Much as I was filled with curiosity over the entire incident – the pregnant woman in the squalid room, the aristocratic lover, the late-term abortion of the child and murder of the mother – I knew the police would have no further use for my services, as I could hardly imagine another murder of another anonymous victim. Indeed, the likely outcome seemed to be that the woman forever would remain unknown, and the crime would never be solved. Although this bothered me both personally and professionally, I accepted that this happened occasionally, despite the best efforts of the police to maintain law and order in Caledon.

As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts. First, although the article and sketch of the dead woman produced the usual hodgepodge of useless information, one respondent recognized the woman and was prepared to identify her. Second, this informant was an occasional source of mine, with a deep distrust of the police, and he was willing to meet with me only.

I met Skunk – I never knew his last name, if indeed he was blessed with one – in a seedy bar in Caledon Cay. Years ago, the bar was a notorious pirate den, and even today a sharp-eyed observer could see a fair number of illegal activities under way. Skunk was already at the bar with a pint of foul-looking liquid in his glass. His unwashed odor explained his nickname. Upon seeing me, he drained the glass and held it out to the bartender for a refill. “The loidy will be payin’ for this round,” he announced.

I sighed and found a few coins. “What’ll you have, miss?” the bartender asked, spitting out “miss” as though it were a threat.

“Nothing for me today, thank you,” I replied.

He leaned over the bar and stared at me. “It wasn’t an option. I got rent to pay, and you’re standing where a real customer could be standing. Now what’ll you have?”

“Whisky. Neat.”

“That’s the only way we serve it.” He pulled a green bottle off the shelf, uncorked it, and splashed a little in a glass. I noticed the bottle had no label. The liquid in the glass was very pale. I was really hoping that I was being served actual whisky mixed with a great deal of water, rather than something lethal, such as kerosene. Handing the bartender a few more coins, I leaned against the bar, facing Skunk.

I slipped some money into his hand – our usual deal – and it disappeared into a grimy pocket. He hoisted his glass. “Here’s to crime.” He swallowed half the pint at once, simply opening his throat and letting it wash down, a gesture with which he no doubt had considerable practice. I threw back the shot of…whatever it was, thinking that sipping it would be more painful.

“Okay, Skunk, I appreciate your contacting me.”

“Oim a civic-minded lad, I am. Besoids, I seen your name on the piece. I says to meself, blimey, it’s Miss Jameson – see, I remembered your name because it’s just loike the drink, clever, eh? – I can talk to her. ’Cause I ain’t talkin’ to no coppers, not Skunk.”

The monologue was getting difficult to follow, but I stayed with him. “Brilliant, Skunk I appreciate it. Now, do you know that woman in the picture?”

“I don’t want my name getting’ back to the coppers, all roight, then?” I nodded. “She’s Nancy O’Reilly. Says she’s a costermonger, but everyone knows she’s really a hoor.”

“Did she have a regular clientele?”

“Not as a rule. She’d take on anyone with the right coins. But lately…”


Skunk finished his beer, and looked at me. I gathered that he needed additional refreshment before going on with his story. I motioned to the bartender and paid for another round. This time I let my “whisky” sit in front of me, and nodded for Skunk to continue.

“Lately she hadn’t been seen around much. She said she had a beau, a real swell. His deal was he didn’t want her hooring around, so he paid her enough every week. I’d a thought she’d earn some on the side, if you know what I mean, but she was afraid he’d find out, and that would be the end of the gravy train. This was mebbe a year ago.”

“And then she became pregnant.”

“A-yah. Her swell done put one in the oven. She tried to keep it from him as long as she could, but eventually there was no hidin’ it.”

“When was the last time you saw Miss O’Reilly?”

Skunk laughed, a particularly unpleasant sound. “ ‘Miss O’Reilly’ – ha! No one called ’er that! Anyway, I saw her two, mebbe three weeks ago, headin’ to her little love shack in The Manors. Her swell always met her there. I never seen her since.”

“Did you ever meet her gentleman caller?”

He shook his head. “Naw, can’t say’s I did. He were a careful one, all right.” Skunk finished his beer and stood. “That’s all I can tell ye.” He scurried out of the bar before I could thank him. Before the bartender could insist on my further patronage, I left the bar as well, leaving the untouched glass of pale liquid on the counter.

* * *

“So we know who the woman was, and we can infer it was her baby in the alley. What we still do not know is the identity of her client, or whether he was the one who killed her.” Captain Armstrong summed up our position as we sat in his office. He leaned back in his leather desk chair, hands clasped behind his head. Sergeant Bishop stood next to him, and I occupied the sold guest chair in the office. I had relayed the gist of what Skunk had reported to me, albeit in a less colloquial manner and keeping Skunk’s name out of my retelling. The captain looked unhappy to have to take the word of an anonymous informant, but knowing the woman’s name was a significant step forward in the investigation, he chose not to press further.

“That’s right, Captain,” I replied.

“And,” he continued, “you are once again in the middle of one of my investigations. I do say these coincidences are becoming quite annoying.”

“I imagine you would, sir.” Sergeant Bishop’s mouth turned up at the corner, but she did not permit herself the luxury of any further display of emotion.

“Sergeant, what do you suggest we do next?” Armstrong asked.

“We need to find the man – this ‘swell’ – but I’m at a loss for how to go about it. We can hardly ask the richest men in Caledon if they got a woman in the family way and then murdered her.”

Armstrong mulled that over, as though he would like to do nothing better. Finally, good sense prevailed, and he said, “No, I suppose not. Miss Jameson, the floor is open to suggestions.”

“The one avenue for investigation that suggests itself to me is to track the source of the tobacco we found in Miss O’Reilly’s room. It may be a long shot – the tobacco may be too common to be of any use to us – but I think otherwise. I believe it to be fairly expensive, with an uncommon aroma.”

“Uncommonly disgusting,” muttered Sergeant Bishop, making a face.

“It is perhaps a little pungent for me, as well,” I replied.

Armstrong signaled his impatience. “Yes, I suppose that’s a possibility. You make a leap of faith: that the cigar residue belongs to our murderer.”

The sergeant came to my rescue. “Of course, Captain. But Anna Marie Jones, her mother, and Rhianon’s – I mean, Miss Jameson’s – source all believe that the victim was seeing no one else. Even if the tobacco alone is not enough to convince the magistrate to charge its owner with murder, knowing who it is will let us work the investigation from the other direction.”

He nodded his agreement. “Go ahead, then, Sergeant. Take MacGregor with you if you need an extra pair of legs for your field work.”

“If I may, Captain,” I put in timidly. He shot a dirty look in my direction, but said nothing. “Perhaps the sergeant and I can consult my knowledgeable friend to try to narrow down the tobacco type, which may also allow us to narrow down our field of search amongst tobacconists.” Sergeant Bishop gave me an enigmatic smile. She really was very cute, I decided.

“I hope you don’t expect us to start paying you, Miss Jameson.” I took that to be an assent.

As it was approaching the cocktail hour, it seemed reasonable to us to take a chance and see if my friend Harland Wimsey was at the Burning Leaf pub. Harland’s wife put up with a great deal, but she refused to allow him to smoke cigars inside their house. For him, the opening of the Burning Leaf was a Godsend. He was a banker by trade, and thus kept fairly regular hours, which allowed him a pre-prandial drink and cigar or two, and a return visit after dinner until closing.

Sergeant Bishop excused herself, and returned about twenty minutes later with a small tin, wearing a broad smile on her face. “Sorry for the delay, but I left to get the tobacco residue from the Evidence room, and then it occurred to me to ask the coroner whether he found similar residue on the fetus. It turned out he did! Although we have been operating under the assumption that whoever killed the O’Reilly woman also performed the abortion, this is the first piece of direct evidence to connect the two cases.”

I frowned. “I suppose that is good news. But I find it difficult to envision a wealthy cad smoking his expensive cigar while performing an impromptu abortion.”

“I’ve long ago stopped trying to get inside the minds of rich people.”

The journey to South End was a lengthy one, and by the time we reached the Burning Leaf it was close to the dining hour. We disembarked from the hansom cab and walked into the pub, crowded as it was with revelers and almost impenetrable from the tobacco fog. I scanned the crowd.

“Ah, there he is! Mr. Wimsey!” I shouted, and waved a hand. We made our way over to the table where Harland Wimsey sat, a glass of claret before him and a large cigar in his mouth.

He looked up. “Miss Jameson, delighted to see you again!” I introduced Sergeant Bishop, and briefly explained the nature of our visit. He seemed eager to put his knowledge to use, so the sergeant produced the evidence tin and showed him the residue we had discovered.

“May I touch it?” The sergeant nodded, and he picked up some of the burned leaf between his fingers, first examining it visually, then twirling the ash between his fingers, and, finally, placing the ash to his nose and inhaling deeply. “Oh yes,” he said. “Unmistakable.”

Sergeant Bishop controlled herself from using her mechanical arm to smack Mr. Wimsey in the head in order to get him to speak more quickly and coherently. “Yes?” she asked.

“No question about it, this is a rare blend. The tobacco comes from the Saint Kitt Islands, where the volcanic soil gives the leaves the somewhat sulfurous smell you may have noticed. [Author’s note: this conversation took place before the recent events on the Islands, as recounted in “Lost at Sea” or one of the contemporaneous Aetheric Journal entries.] I have had such a cigar only a few times in my life – trade with the island is rare and expensive, and this tobacco is hard to acquire at any price. He returned his sample of the ash to the tin.”

“Do you know where it is sold?” the sergeant asked.

Harland Wimsey drained his claret as he considered. “If anyone stocks it on a regular basis, it would be Pons and Swettloe, the tobacconists in Regency. Almost no one else in Caledon would want to stock it, as there would be little demand for such a rare and expensive variety. I smoked mine in the company of a group of tobacco enthusiasts who meet once a month to smoke and discuss our latest finds. One of the group, Lord Rolfe, had several boxes of such cigars, and each of us left with a handful. I cannot say with certainty that Pons and Swettloe stock such an item, but that would be your best bet.”

Thanking Mr. Wimsey, we left the pub in high spirits. It was too late to call upon Pons and Swettloe that evening, but we made plans to do so first thing in the morning. I turned to go, but then, in an impulsive and mischievous gesture, I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. To my surprise, she reached out with her mechanical arm, using it to trap me against the wall.

“Don’t toy with me, Jameson. If you have something to say, say it.”

Of course, at that moment I could say nothing even if I had the words, as I was gasping for breath. Instead, I merely watched as the fetching sergeant calmly walked away.

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