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Authors: Sandra Dallas

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

Fallen Women (8 page)

BOOK: Fallen Women
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“Did she care for him?”

Beret’s uncle shrugged. “She saw enough of him. Lillie could be wild, too, you know.”

“I suppose so.” Had Lillie been wild all along and she hadn’t noticed? She was confused. She had learned so many things about her sister that day.

The judge rose then, slowly, as if he were weary. “We can talk about it later, the two of us. It would be best if we didn’t discuss this in front of your aunt. She has had a hard enough time of it. Just hearing Lillie’s name spoken aloud is enough to send her into tears.”

“I’m sorry I’ve brought this on you.”

“You didn’t.”

“Yes I did.”

“It was not your fault, and the sooner you realize that, the better off you’ll be.”

“Then if not I, who bears the fault?”

The judge went to the fire and hit a log with a poker. It broke apart, the halves settling down into a soft glow. “It was Lillie’s.”

He left the room, his footsteps echoing as he walked across the marble foyer, but Beret stayed, so intent on watching the fire die that she didn’t notice the shadow that passed across the window again. The house was silent, as silent as death, Beret thought, as she closed her eyes only to rest a little, but fell asleep in her chair. When she awoke, the room was dark, the fire dead, and she was covered with a blanket taken from the back of a chair. The idea that someone, even a servant, had stolen into the room while she slept unnerved her.

 

Chapter 5

Detective Sergeant McCauley sighed audibly the following Monday as Beret walked briskly through the squad room and stopped beside his desk. He stood, and without greeting the woman, he said, “I was hoping your uncle had forbidden you to come here.”

“So I understand. But he did not.” Beret hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. That morning, when her aunt had asked again what in the world Beret could bring to the search for Lillie’s killer, Beret hadn’t answered. But now she knew: passion and determination.

“Well, he certainly was surprised to find out he’d given his blessing to your interfering in this investigation.”

“I am not interfering. I am participating. And once I explained that to him, he assured me that I had his blessing.”

“My bad luck.” Mick pointed to the chair beside his desk, and they both sat down.

“What do we have scheduled for today?” Beret asked.

“We?”
Mick scoffed. “
I
was going to talk to Miss Hettie. I’d have left before now, but I got held up. More bad luck. You’ll recall Miss Hettie owns the whorehouse where your sister was murdered.”

“And this is the first time you’ve talked to her?” Beret was displeased. Could the authorities really be that slow? Her uncle had assured her this case was a priority. She couldn’t help but wonder if the police even bothered to solve the murders of victims who were less important than a judge’s niece.

“The second.”

“It is early for a brothel to be astir. I can’t help but wonder if the madam is up yet.”

“She wasn’t when I left.”

“You may be crude if you want to, Detective, but I think we will get along much better if we are courteous to each other.”

“This is a police investigation, not a class in deportment.”

Beret would take her lead from the detective. She lifted her head a little. “Quite right. Shall we be on our way?” She stood and started across the room, aware of the smirks directed at the detective sergeant. She wondered how long it would be before he accepted her. Perhaps never.

Outside, Mick told her, “I hope you’re used to hoofing it. The department doesn’t pay for hacks or even streetcars.”

“I am quite used to walking.”

He nodded and set off at a fast clip, and when he’d gone half a block, he turned around as if expecting to see Beret lagging behind, but she had kept up the pace. “I can walk as fast as you can, Detective, but doesn’t it make sense for us to walk together so that you can tell me of any developments?”

He slowed only slightly. “There aren’t any, not since yesterday, at any rate.”

“You’ve already talked with the madam, you said. Why is it necessary to interview her again?”

They had reached a corner, and Mick suddenly took Beret’s elbow and propelled her across the street, past hacks and carriages and delivery wagons. Surprised at the courtesy, she nodded her thanks. “The drivers can be treacherous along Larimer Street, but I suppose they’re no worse than New York.”

“Have you been there?”

Mick nodded but didn’t elaborate. “I talked to Miss Hettie only once, the day we found your sister’s body. I want to talk to her again, now that she’s had time to think about the murder.”

“And has she had time to find alibis for herself and her girls?”

“She already had them. What I’m hoping is she’ll give us the name of your sister’s mac. Miss Hettie hates pimps. I’m thinking if Lillie, that is, Miss Osmundsen, had one, Miss Hettie might be willing to talk about him now. She wouldn’t the day your sister was killed. These madams, they don’t admit to anything. Why, I bet if you gave her a thousand dollars, she still wouldn’t give you the names of your sister’s customers.” He paused. “But I guess you already know that, you being a mission lady.”

Beret ignored the taunt. She was used to such remarks. “Can’t you compel her to?”

“To remember something she can’t remember? How would I do that?”

“I see your point.”

Beret held her tongue then. It was clear the detective wasn’t going to confide in her any more than he had. She was grateful he hadn’t skipped out on her. They hurried up Larimer Street, past cafés and rooms to let, a millinery, a hardware store, then a block of gambling halls in striking buildings of carved stone and stained glass. Beret paused to glance inside, and Mick told her those were the places the macs hung out—the Arcade, Murphy’s Exchange, and two or three others. If Miss Hettie gave them the name of Lillie’s macquereau, they would come back and look for him there. Beret shivered to think those were the men her sister had slept with. She studied the few customers visible from the street but saw no one who was swarthy. It was early, however. The men probably didn’t gather until later in the day.

They went on, past the Windsor Hotel, an elegant five-story stone castle with cast-iron porte cocheres that would have drawn admiring glances even in New York. Beret had been inside, with her sister, on previous visits to Denver when their uncle had escorted them to the hotel. They had taken in the rotunda with its glass ceiling and marble floor and admired the three staircases, although Lillie, superstitious, had said she would never use the “devil’s-head” staircase, which threw a shadow on the wall like the head of Satan. Beret wondered if Lillie had climbed it after all, perhaps to visit some john. She would have to stop thinking of Lillie that way, imagining the men who paid to sleep with her sister.

Instead, Beret concentrated on that afternoon with their uncle. He had ordered champagne and strawberry ices. Lillie had been young then, perhaps twelve, and she had begged Beret to let her taste the champagne. Beret had given in, of course, then watched in astonishment as Lillie drained her glass. The rest of the afternoon, Lillie had been as bubbly as the champagne. If Lillie had gone into the Windsor in the past few months, had she remembered that day when they were so carefree? Beret desperately hoped that Lillie had kept a few good memories of her sister.

Mick turned, and Beret followed him to Holladay Street. “A strange name. Is it purposely misspelled?” she asked.

“Named for Ben Holladay of the Holladay Overland Mail and Express. There’s talk the city will change it. Mr. Holladay’s friends don’t want the most notorious street in the West named for him.”

“Change it to what?” Beret asked.

“Market.”

When Beret raised an eyebrow, the detective explained, “There is a wholesale market at the other end of the street.”

They walked another block, and Mick stopped in front of a sedate brick house whose only adornment was iron cresting on the roof and a shuttered two-story bay window. “This is it, Miss Hettie Hamilton’s House of Dreams,” Mick said.

Beret was taken aback. The building, which was set back only a few feet from the street, looked like the home of a middle-class merchant. It was neatly kept and hardly ostentatious, with its conservative porch and heavy front door set off by a transom, nothing like the elegant sin palaces she had observed in New York, with their carved-stone trim and crystal windows covered by heavy draperies. “I thought my sister was in one of the better bagnios.” The idea of Lillie working in a second-rate house tormented Beret, who knew firsthand how prostitutes spiraled downward from bawdy houses to cribs to the streets. At least Lillie hadn’t lived long enough for that indignity.

“This
is
one of the better houses. There’s not a one that’s better. But don’t worry. The outside’s deceptive. Wait till you see what’s inside. It’s much nicer and bigger than it appears. These are all whorehouses along here.” Mick waved his arm at the plain buildings around them that Beret had missed.

He started up the steps, but Beret hung back, until he asked, “You’re game, aren’t you? Or have you changed your mind?” He almost smirked at her.

“Of course I’m game,” she replied, and he rang the bell.

After a time, a large colored woman opened the door. “We ain’t open, sir … oh, it’s you, Mr. Mick.” She looked past the detective at Beret but said nothing more.

“Is Miss Hettie up?” the detective asked.

“She up. You want talk to her?”

“I do.”

“I’ll see if she want talk to you.” The woman started to close the door, but Mick stuck his foot inside, and he followed her into the house, Beret behind him.

The place was stuffy, sour smelling, and Beret was tempted to find a handkerchief and cover her nose, but that surely would offend Miss Hettie, so she took a few breaths through her mouth, lagging behind Mick as she glanced up the staircase near the door, then peered into the rooms along the corridor. She had helped prostitutes escape from the cribs and brothels in New York and was curious to see how Denver’s nests compared to them. There was a front parlor with a piano and easy chairs, a velvet banquette that she assumed was for the girls. Lillie would have sat there stroking her long blond hair.

A Turkish room was next to it, decorated with Arabian rugs and heavy figured draperies, silk fabric on the walls, cushions ornamented with large tassels scattered over the floor, couches and ottomans. The room smelled of tobacco and spilled liquor, and Beret wondered if the windows were ever opened. She hurried to catch up with Mick, passing a dining room where the remnants of a banquet had been left on the table, a chair at its head overturned, and found herself in a large kitchen at the back of the house.

Four women sat around an oilcloth-covered table, eating eggs. Beret recognized Elsie, who gave her a hard stare, and she decided to act as if they had not met. Two others were Elsie’s age, women with sleepy eyes and uncombed hair, and they stared at Beret, bored, as they ate. One put out her cigarette in her plate and rose, stretching like a cat and letting her robe fall open to reveal she wore nothing beneath it except for white stockings held up by rosebud garters. She traced a tear in a stocking with her fingertip and said, “Come on, Rose, you said you’d mend my stocking.” Her companion dipped a piece of ham into her egg and ate it, then picked up a coffee cup, and together, they went down the hall to the staircase.

“Well, Elsie, ain’t you got nothing to do?” asked the fourth woman, who was obviously the madam, Miss Hettie.

Elsie, in no hurry to leave, spread jam on a piece of toast, shoved it into her mouth, and chewed.

“Well, ain’t you? And where’s your manners anyway, cramming in food that way? What’s a gentleman to think if you eat like that?”

As Elsie stood and tightened the sash of her robe, she cocked her head at Mick and said, “Whyu’t you come see me later, Mick? Whyu’t you?” Without looking at Beret, she left the room, pausing at the door, but the madam flapped her hand to shoo her away.

Miss Hettie had not risen from the table. Clad in an old robe whose lace ruffles had yellowed, she looked a little yellow herself; her face without its layer of powder was sallow. Her hair was a hideous red, almost the color of blood, and the hands that peeked from the yellowed ruffles that adorned the sleeves of the robe were clawlike. Beret noticed that even at that early hour, the madam wore half a dozen rings, diamonds mostly and good ones it appeared. A diamond cross was at her throat. Her earrings were diamonds, too—four-leaf clovers, not stars. Miss Hettie gave Mick a resigned look, and ignored Beret. “Coffee?” she asked him.

“Thanks.”

The colored woman glanced at Beret, who nodded, and the woman brought two cups of coffee in good china cups with saucers. Then she cleared the plates from the table. “You want me to tell them other girls they can wait for their breakfast?” she asked, and Miss Hettie told her yes.

“Might as well sit down,” the madam said. “Who’s that?” She didn’t look at Beret but merely pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “You didn’t bring me fresh fish, did you, Mick? That one ain’t so fresh.” She gave a hoarse chuckle and cocked her head as if waiting for Beret to react.

“This is Miss Osmundsen. Miss Osmundsen, you are in the presence of Miss Hettie Hamilton, the queen of Denver’s demimonde.” With a flourish, he indicated Miss Hettie.

Beret felt the introduction insulting to both Miss Hettie and herself and said quickly, “I am Lillie Brown’s sister.”

Miss Hettie raised herself up and looked directly at Beret for the first time. “You don’t say.” She scrutinized her—in a way that she must look over the girls who applied for jobs in the house, thought Beret, who did not blanch. “You don’t look like her. You look more like a salvation biddy.” She seemed to remember herself then and said, “Your sister was a real nice girl. I’m sorry she crossed over.”

“Thank you.” Beret closed her eyes for a moment. The remark had been kind, even if the madam hadn’t meant it. But why should she? Miss Hettie had known Lillie only as a whore, not as the lovely young woman she had been. But which one of them really had known Lillie better?

BOOK: Fallen Women
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ads

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