Authors: Sandra Dallas
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective
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For Arnold Grossman
My friend of a lifetime
The smell. It was always the smell that got to him. No matter how many times he’d been inside one of these wretched places, he was overwhelmed by the smell that hit him like the odor rising from a cesspool. He could smell it even in the better houses, such as this one. Others might not pick up on it, but he had spent too much time in these places not to be aware of the faint smell. It was a mixture of perfume and body powder, of cigar smoke, vomit, and unemptied chamber pots. Sweat, spilled beer and brandy, flat champagne from bottles stuck into buckets of melting ice, basins of dirty water. There was the stench of spittoons filled with chewing tobacco so harsh it gagged a man. And over it hung the woman smell of tired and used bodies, something that lingered even after the house was aired out and scrubbed before the evening clientele arrived. He’d smelled that whorehouse stench a hundred—perhaps hundreds of—times, but there was something more this time, the metallic smell of blood and, worse, the odor he always thought of as flesh beginning to rot, to decay. The smell of death.
He took out his handkerchief and held it over his nose as he walked down the hallway past the half-opened doors, sad girls peering out. They were dressed in their underwear or kimonos that were carelessly buttoned. “What happened, Mick?” one whispered in a voice that was husky from too many cigarettes, too much beer. Her face had begun to show the ravages of her life, although she was not yet halfway through her twenties.
“Hello, Elsie. You tell me,” Mick replied, putting down the handkerchief. It didn’t do any good anyway.
“How would I know? I just got back.” She sniffed and rubbed at her nose, and Mick wondered if she had a cold or was a snowbird. “I liked her. Did she do it to herself? She was kind of snooty, but she was all right. You want to come in? You’re always welcome, you know.”
“I’m on duty, honey.” Mick smiled to think what his fellow officers would say if he detoured into one of the rooms. It was tempting, just to get their reaction.
“You’ll come back and tell me, won’t you? Madam says it was suicide, that maybe she swallowed that poison, Rough on Rats, but me and some of the girls, well, we think…” Her voice trailed off.
“Think what, honey?”
“We’re not so sure.”
They never wanted to believe it was suicide, Mick thought. Maybe that was because they didn’t like the idea that they, too, might be wretched enough to take their own lives. The life of a prostitute was a short one, maybe seven years. “You got any ideas?”
“I’ll come back when I finish up, then.” A patrolman had come out of a room at the end of the hall and was beckoning to him. Mick hurried off and told the cop, “I got sidetracked.”
“I’ll bet.” The officer smirked.
Mick gave him a stern look. “Listen, hamfat, she says she might know what happened. Do you have something to say about that?”
Mick stared at the man until the cop turned and began studying one of the pictures in heavy gold frames that lined the hall. The paintings were mostly of women lying naked on beds or of satyrs romping with nubile young ladies. This particular painting was of a man with a human torso and the legs and horns and ears of a goat, chasing two naked girls whose breasts and pubic areas were hidden by tree branches. “They’re waiting for you,” the cop told Mick, without taking his eyes from the painting.
“His name is Pan.”
“The man in the painting.”
“I never saw anybody who looked like that. You suppose he’s real?” The patrolman hooked his thumbs over his belt.
Mick frowned, wondering if the officer were really that dumb. He was young—and hadn’t been in the force long. Mick could tell by the new coat with its gleaming brass buttons. But then all the buttons gleamed. No policeman would go on duty with tarnished buttons. He wondered how long the patrolman had worked the beat on Holladay Street, the center of Denver’s tenderloin. Maybe not long. The young officer would find out soon enough about the goats in the whorehouses.
“Mick.” An older police officer had come out of the door at the end of the hall and was gesturing to him.
Detective Sergeant McCauley put his handkerchief into his pocket, and without a glance at the rest of the pictures in the whorehouse art gallery, he entered the room.
“Cronin.” Mick acknowledged the officer who had gestured to him. Then he turned to a second man and said, “Doctor.” The coroner was tall, ascetic, his face and hands with their long fingers an unnatural white. He dressed in a long black coat, and he himself looked like death. In fact, that was what he was called, Dr. Death. The man gave a single dip of his chin to acknowledge Mick, then turned his glance to the woman lying on the bed.
Mick had seen dead whores before, seen the lifeless faces ravaged by drugs and liquor and disease, faces (and bodies) that no longer attracted men, and so the girls had ended their lives with laudanum or arsenic. Those were usually the crib girls, the lowest rank of prostitute, however, girls who might have started out in a parlor house like this one, then gone downhill. It wasn’t often that an inmate of one of the better brothels took her life, although it sometimes happened at Christmas, when she started thinking about home, a home she couldn’t go back to or maybe a home she’d never known. He’d seen the bodies of prostitutes bruised from beatings, too, scratched or sliced with knives.
But he’d never seen anything like this. When he’d been sent to investigate the death of a prostitute, he’d assumed she’d taken her own life. But this was no suicide. The woman lay on her back on an iron bed, her arms folded across her chest. She was covered with blood. Blood was everywhere—on the floor, the bed, splattered on the walls. Drops of blood were scattered across the picture of a bowl of fruit, making it appear as if one of the plums had burst and was dripping its juice. But mostly the blood was on the body of the dead whore and on the sheet beneath her. The woman was dressed in only a torn wrapper, which would have been sliced by a knife as the killer attacked her. The garment had been pulled across the woman to cover her body, although it hadn’t covered much. She was small, maybe five feet two inches, and trim, her skin firm. “Doesn’t look like a suicide,” Mick said.
“Murder, plain and simple. Eight stab wounds, not counting the ones on her hands and arms where she tried to defend herself. She got two in her neck,” Dr. Death said. “Most vicious killing of a woman I ever seen. She looks like a pound or two of dog’s dinner.”
“She died like that on the bed?” Mick asked. He frowned. The body’s position was unnatural.
“Not like that. My guess: she fell on top of the bed and whoever done it to her put her legs up like that and crossed her arms over her. I never saw arms folded that way on a dead woman outside of a coffin. And her robe, it’s been pulled across her.”
Mick looked into the face of the woman. He’d worked Denver’s tenderloin for ten years and thought the girl looked familiar, although he couldn’t place her. That wasn’t surprising, however, since the girls came and went. She must be new, he thought, not just because he didn’t know her but because she looked fresh. Under the smear of blood, her face was soft, unlined. Her hair was a pale yellow, untouched by chemicals, and there was no trace of rouge or powder. She didn’t look like a whore, so she might have turned out recently. Mick stared into a face that was covered in blood. “Who was she?” he asked.
Mick turned to find a woman sitting behind the door. He hadn’t seen her when he came in, and he touched his hat. “Miss Hettie.”
“She said her last name was Brown.” The woman gave a soft snort. “With all the names in the world to choose from, why’s so many of them pick Brown? She’s been with me only a couple of months, maybe a little more.”
“Where is she from?”
“New York, so she said, but how would I know? She didn’t have references, but she wasn’t no innocent, I can tell you. I don’t break in young ladies. I’ve got my standards.” She raised her chin, waiting for Mick to agree, and when he didn’t, she continued. “But Lillie didn’t need no breaking in. She fell off the primrose path before she ever come here. She was real mink, as high class a girl as you’d ever find. Her death is a real loss to me.” Miss Hettie paused, as if in a moment of sorrow. “You might find something in her trunk. She kept it locked.” The woman rose and walked to a steamer trunk against the wall of the small room. Miss Hettie was short and plump, wearing black satin, her hands covered with gold rings, a diamond cross at her neck, her hair an unnatural color of red. Mick thought she might be in her sixties.
“The other girls like her?”
The madam shrugged. “She was standoffish, didn’t mix much with the others. They thought she was stuck-up. Some of ’em at any rate.”
“Enough to kill her?”
“No, my ladies aren’t nothing like that. My guess is it was a burglar. She was alone. The rest of the girls went off this morning. Lillie said she was feeling punk. I checked in on her before I left, but she was sleeping.”
“One of the others could have come back and stabbed her,” Mick mused.
“They didn’t none of them come back until later. Like I say, it was a burglar. Her diamond earbobs are gone. I saw them myself on the dresser when I left. They weren’t there when I came back. Valuable, they was, shaped like stars.”
“You checked when you found her, did you?” Mick stared at the woman, who didn’t blush but was defiant. She met his gaze.
“’Course I did. They was valuable, shaped like stars, like I say. They was unusual. I ain’t got nothing like them myself.”
“Do you now?”
“You asking if I stole from one of my own ladies?” She tried to look injured but failed.
Mick shrugged. “She didn’t have any use for them.” He pointed with his chin at the woman on the bed.
“I might have my faults, but I wouldn’t steal from a dead whore.”
“How about one of the other girls?”
“None of them’s been in here except to look through the door. I found her myself. I sent Elsie to get a copper, and I ain’t left the room since.”
Mick went over to the trunk and tried it, but the lid wouldn’t budge.
“I told you it was locked. The key ain’t around nowhere, either.”
“You looked, then. Was that before or after you sent Elsie for a copper?”
“You got no right to accuse me, Mick. You know I run an honest house, and I pay my protection money regular.” She stiffened her back. “Now can’t you get rid of her? I got a business to run, and no john’s going to want his ashes hauled in a house where there’s a stiff.” Miss Hettie turned and left the room, calling down the hallway, “Shut your doors, ladies. This ain’t your business. You got to get ready for the customers, and I’ll skin any one of you that tells what went on here. Poor Lillie died a natural death. Suicide.”
“Natural death,” Mick muttered.
The patrolman returned to the room and asked, “Was it suicide … sir?” He’d started to say “Mick” but changed it to “sir,” perhaps in deference to the older officer, who was smarter, more experienced, and had spent more time on Holladay Street.