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Authors: Sandra Dallas

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective

Fallen Women (3 page)

BOOK: Fallen Women
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“It’s not much,” apologized Mick.

“I’ve dined in far worse. Do you eat here often?” she asked.

“I prefer the saloon lunches.”

He’d paid her back for her jibe, but Beret liked that. She wouldn’t want to work with a policeman who felt he had to sugarcoat everything he said because she was a lady. She hoped they would get along. “Well, have you eaten here often enough to recommend something?”

“Chili. But it will burn your tongue.”

“Chili, then,” she said. “And coffee. Will you join me, Detective? I am paying, of course.” Beret was well aware that the policeman made eighty-five dollars a month, a hundred if he was lucky—plus whatever he got on the take.

“Chili gives me the heartburn.”

“What a pity. I’m rather fond of it myself, the hotter the better. Perhaps there is something else you would like.”

After Mick ordered for Beret, asking for coffee and a piece of apple pie with a slice of cheese for himself, Beret put her hands on the table and looked directly at the detective. “Now, perhaps you will tell me the circumstances of my sister’s murder.” Her voice was calm, but inside, her heart was churning.

“It’s not a pretty picture.”

“No, I don’t imagine murder ever is.”

“I’m talking about your sister’s life. Do you know about it, miss?”

At that, Beret almost lost her composure. Tears came to her eyes, and she turned aside. Mick apparently had no handkerchief to offer, so he patted her hand, but she did not want his patronizing and snatched her hand away. “You must forgive me. I’ve no experience in this.”

“I should hope not.”

“I mean in the murder of my sister. I am all too familiar with death itself.”

Mick waited for her to explain, but she didn’t. She sat, self-absorbed, thinking it was a good thing she knew about the sordid life of the underworld. It would make dealing with Lillie’s murder easier. But maybe not. Nothing could ease the tearing of her soul that her sister’s death had brought.

The chili came, and she ate it as easily as if it were pudding. “I know, Officer, that Lillie worked in a brothel,” she said as she finished the chili and put down her spoon.

“Not for very long, it seems, no more than three months.”

“Does it matter how long? She was a prostitute.” Beret blanched as she said the words out loud for the first time.

“It’s not easy for you—”

“Of course it’s not easy for me,” she snapped. “How would you like to discover your own sister was a woman of the streets?”

“I only meant—”

Beret dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “I apologize, Officer. My sister’s choice of profession is not your fault.”

“No, but it was someone’s fault, and I’d like to find out who was responsible. In my position, you get used to death, but there was something about Lillie … that is, Miss Osmundsen—”

“Yes, she had that effect on men, even in death, it seems.” Oh yes, Beret thought. She did.

The sergeant ignored the implication and continued, “Something about her makes me want to find her killer. She was so young.” He cleared his throat. “Do you know anything about your sister’s murder?”

“I know very little. In fact, my aunt and uncle hoped to keep the circumstances of Lillie’s death from me. At first, they told me only that she had died. They didn’t want me to come to Denver. They said everything had been taken care of, that I should grieve at home in New York.” As she remembered the telegram, Beret sipped from her cup, ignoring the fact the coffee was stale and burned and not very warm. “They were looking out for me, of course.” She added to herself, As I did not look out for Lillie.

*   *   *

She had found the telegram mixed in with the mail on the parlor table, had overlooked it until Maggie, the housekeeper, pointed it out, because Beret rarely received telegrams. Then she’d snatched it up with a premonition that it held bad news. But then, telegrams always seemed to bring bad news. The message was brief, cryptic, and told her in as few words as possible that her sister, Lillie, had died suddenly. Her funeral was being held that very day. She would be buried in Riverside Cemetery, in a plot set aside for her aunt and uncle. Everything had been neatly handled, so there was no need for Beret to make the long train trip from New York to Denver. The aunt and uncle sent their condolences. The telegram was signed Judge and Mrs. John Stanton.

Beret’s hands shook, and her eyes clouded as she walked to the telegraph office to wire back her response, her condolences, for after all, the Stantons had taken Lillie under their wing when Beret would have nothing to do with her. Lillie had fled to Denver after the sisters had had their falling-out.

As an afterthought, Beret asked the cause of death. Lillie had always been healthy, and Beret wondered if her sister had died in an accident. Her aunt and uncle were right that there was no reason for her to make the trip. The funeral was done with, and Lillie might as well sleep for eternity in the Stanton plot. Beret’s traveling to Denver to grieve for her sister would be hypocritical. At least, that was what she told herself. The real reason she hadn’t wanted to go was she did not know how to act in front of her aunt and uncle. Did they know about the rift between the sisters? Surely they did. Would they blame Beret? Would she have to reveal the details, to relive that awful time? After she thought it over, Beret realized her reaction was more about herself than about her sister. Lillie was dead, and that changed everything.

The news brought a wave of emotion to the young woman, conflicting emotions that she knew she would have to sort through in the following days in her methodical way. At first, she was overwhelmed by grief. She remembered Lillie as the angel-child she had been as a little girl, her golden curls and curious blue eyes, her sunny temperament, the child’s grief when first their mother, Marta, and then their father, Henry, had died, and Beret, young as she was, had taken the responsibility of raising her.

And then Beret was angry, as she remembered Lillie in the last year, her sister’s devilish betrayal, the hate that developed between them. Something about the telegram didn’t sit right with Beret. It was wrong that Lillie was dead. The thing between them had not been settled. Beret had expected Lillie to repent, to beg forgiveness, and when she did, Beret would hold out her arms, because after all, wasn’t the bond between sisters stronger than any other? But Lillie had died, leaving Beret’s arms empty, the business between them unfinished.

Beret returned from the telegraph office but could not eat supper and had gone to bed, and to her surprise, she had put her face into her pillow and cried, cried first from loss and then from rage as she realized she would never be able to extract the remorse from Lillie that was due.

She slept poorly, going out at dawn and walking far downtown, along streets enveloped in a gray mist and smelling of animal droppings and cheap kerosene, walking carefully past the human refuse that was huddled against the buildings, ignoring the stench from the bodies and the ragged clothing. She watched a fetid pile of rags move. A woman slowly rose to her feet and took a step or two, then fell to the ground and curled back into a ball. A man in a soiled apron stood in the window of a restaurant, shucking oysters, for at that early hour, men were coming off work for their supper of beer and mollusks. Two newsboys fought over a street corner, the larger boy pushing the smaller one into the thoroughfare and stamping on his hat. She’d gone to the boy who was sitting in the gutter crying out filthy words, and bought a penny paper from him, giving him a dime for it. The lad started to give her change, but Beret shook her head. Then, she went into a restaurant that was all but deserted and ordered coffee and a roll and opened the paper.

The paper was the
one of the cheap sheets that specialized in scandal and murder, bearbaiting and cockfighting, and she did not care to read it. But reading might turn her mind from Lillie, so she broke off a piece of the roll, which was dusted with flour, and ate it as she scanned the headlines, reading of an actress who had overdosed on laudanum, a child who had been trampled under the wheels of a wagon, a sport who had robbed the poor box of a church to pay his gambling debts. As she was closing the paper Beret spotted a small headline near the bottom of a page:
. She set down the soft roll and unconsciously brushed her hands of the flour as she read the paragraph.

Denver. On Monday last, a Denver nymph of frailty was the victim of foul play, in her room at Hettie Hamilton’s House of Dreams, an establishment of ill fame on Holladay Street, in the heart of the Denver tenderloin. Police say that Lillie Brown, for that was the name by which the frail sister was known, was murdered in a most foul manner, stabbed repeatedly, her blood spraying the room with a fountain of red. Seasoned officers cringed at the viciousness of the crime, which has put the Cyprians of the street on edge. Police are anxious to apprehend the fiend and make sure he is punished. It is hoped the former bride of the multitudes has repented of her wicked ways and that her soul has found peace.

Beret read the story again—and again, four or five times—because she knew, knew as if Lillie’s full name had been in the paper, that Lillie Brown was her Lillie. She put her hands to her head and cried, the tears mixing with the flour left on her hands, the hatred she had felt for Lillie replaced by sorrow and guilt. “Oh, Lillie,” she muttered. “It’s my fault. I should have protected you. I promised, and now you’re dead.”

She took money from her purse and left it on the table and went out into the drizzle, lifting her face to let the drops of rain wash away her tears. But the tears continued to fall, mixing with the moisture and the smoke of fires from food stands that were being set up along the street, the vendors crying out their offerings of sausages and hash. She had loved Lillie, loved and hated her at the same time, but no matter how she felt, she had been responsible for her. Beret had failed to watch over her, and now Lillie was dead. Lillie was dead because of Beret.


Chapter 2

Beret didn’t wait for her aunt and uncle to reply to her telegram. Instead, she wired that she was on her way to Denver, leaving in the morning, and so she never received the message from her aunt begging her not to come.

She had telegraphed her arrival time, and her aunt Varina met her at the depot, arms outstretched, a look of sorrow on her face, explaining the judge would have been there to welcome her, but he was in court and could not get away.

“Oh, Aunt Varina, I should have looked out for her. I should—” were Beret’s first words.

Her aunt cut her off. “We all should have looked out for her. It was not your fault.” And then Varina stopped a moment, as if realizing that neither she nor her husband had told Beret how Lillie had died. “What do you know about Lillie’s death?” Before Beret could answer, Varina added, “You knew it was murder, then?”

“There was an article in the New York papers. I know only what was in that dreadful account.”

“You poor dear. We wanted to keep it from you, your uncle John and I, so you’d remember her as the angel-girl she was once. She left us three months ago. We thought she had run off, and John tried to find her. We didn’t know she was in that place until, well, until just before she died. It was embarrassing.” She cleared her throat. “Of course, that doesn’t matter. What matters is she is dead, the poor, troubled child.”

“Why did she leave you?”

Varina paused, thinking, but did not reply because a small man with a long nose like a snout appeared beside them and picked up Beret’s trunk. “This is Jonas Silk, our driver. He cares for the horses,” Varina explained.

The man snatched off his hat and said, “I’m sorry about Miss Lillie.” He glanced at Varina, waiting.

“Thank you, Jonas. You may bring the carriage.” The man turned, and moving low to the ground, he hurried off with the trunk. Varina said in a low voice, “I think he had a crush on Lillie. She was horrified, of course, and I had to reprimand him. She attracted so many men, but I suppose it was to be expected, her being such a beauty. Whoever dreamed it would lead to this?” Her aunt shook her head at the distasteful disclosure and changed the subject. “I’ll have a bath drawn for you as soon as we get home, and you can rest. It has been a terrible ordeal for you, for all of us.”

The offer was tempting. Beret was tired and sooty from the train ride. Still, she said, “I can rest later. I’d like to go to the police station, Aunt.”

Varina protested. “Your uncle is being kept informed. There’s no need for you to degrade yourself by going down there. It’s an unpleasant business, what with all the newspaper accounts making it clear Lillie is the judge’s niece. At first, in deference to your uncle, the police let it out that she was Lillie Brown, not Lillie Osmundsen, but of course, the reporters found out, and it is a scandal. I can hardly hold up my head. I hope it goes away quickly for us—and for yourself, too, Beret. Come home and talk to your uncle before you do anything.”

Beret had intended to go directly to the police station, but the trip had been hard, the train cold and dirty, and she was tempted by the offer of a hot bath. Her aunt would have the servants prepare tea and sherry. Lillie was dead. What did it matter if Beret waited a day or two to talk with the police?

“Come, Beret,” Varina said again. “Your uncle will want to see you. And you are the only one who can console me. You understand this is not something I can talk about with others.”

Her aunt, her mother’s sister, had been a comforting presence in Beret’s life, kind, generous, and like Beret, she was made of strong stuff. Nonetheless, she looked frail and old, well over fifty. Beret had been selfish, thinking only of herself. This was a family tragedy. “Of course,” she said, and Varina led her to the carriage.

They sat in the vehicle, gripping each other’s hands. “I asked why—” Beret began.

Varina cut her off. “Not now, dear. We’ll talk later.” They were silent until they reached the Stanton house. “I hope you will not think me rude, but I must leave you here while I return a call to the wife of one of your uncle’s political backers. It is not to be helped. Please understand, my dear. Although it saddens me, life must go on. I won’t be long. Your uncle and I will see you at dinner.” She told Jonas to stop the carriage in front of the house, and the young man helped Beret out of the conveyance.

BOOK: Fallen Women
2.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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