Murder on the Last Frontier (10 page)

“Was Brigit angry that Darcy wasn't working like the rest of you?” Charlotte couldn't imagine the madam murdering a girl who wasn't bringing in money. Fire her, perhaps, though a threat to the madam's livelihood could be motivation.
Marie rolled her eyes. “Brigit's always angry about something. Not in front of the customers, of course, but we'll get a tongue-lashing if something goes wrong.”
“Does she ever get physically violent?” From what Charlotte had seen, Brigit had a temper, and despite her smaller stature she might be able to inflict serious injury. Especially if she had a weapon like a sturdy tree branch.
“No.” Marie blinked at Charlotte, and her mouth dropped open. “You don't think Brigit hurt Darcy, do you?”
“Do you?”
Marie thought about it for a moment, slowly shaking her head in denial, but then stopped, uncertainty in her eyes. “I don't know. I don't think so, but you never truly know people, do you?”
“No, you don't.” For some reason, Michael's face popped into Charlotte's mind's eye. And Richard's. Charlotte pushed aside the issues she had with both her brother and her former lover. Those issues were nothing compared to solving a girl's murder. “You were Darcy's best friend, Marie. Did she share anything with you—anything at all—that made you think she was in trouble or having a problem with anyone?”
“No, I told the deputy that. She'd been fine, except for being sick. Got quiet just before, but I figured it was her coming down with whatever illness she'd picked up. Do you think it wasn't?” The girl's face crumpled. “Why wouldn't she tell me if something were bothering her? We were friends.”
Marie buried her face in her hands and sobbed. Charlotte wrapped her arms around Marie's shoulders, offering what little comfort she could. The billiards players and Albert glanced their way, but probably preferred to stay out of “women's business.”
The door of the Edgewater opened, allowing a swath of gray light into the room. A dark-haired boy, eight or nine years old, in knee-pants with suspenders and a long-sleeved shirt, stopped at the entrance and looked around. Albert, leaning on the counter reading a newspaper, nodded in Charlotte and Marie's direction. The boy came toward them.
“Marie, Brigit needs you back at the house.”
Marie looked up, sniffed back tears, and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief from her coat pocket. “What for?” The boy pressed his lips together and glanced between Marie and Charlotte. “It's okay. She's a friend.”
“I'm Charlotte,” she said, holding her right hand out.
He shook it quickly and shoved his hands in his pockets when he let go. “Charlie.”
Charlotte smiled. “My brother calls me Charlie sometimes.”
She was hoping the similarities of their names would set the boy at ease, but it didn't. He remained vaguely suspicious of Charlotte's presence and spoke to Marie. “Brigit needs you to help with Darcy's service and all.”
Marie stiffened under Charlotte's arm. “Tell her I'll be right there.”
“She said to find you and send you home,” Charlie said. “I'm going to pick some flowers for her.”
He ran back through the doorway, waving to Albert as he went.
“Does Charlie run errands for Brigit?” Charlotte asked. If the boy was regularly at the house, maybe he knew something.
“Sometimes. He's Brigit's son.”
“Really?” Charlotte couldn't help her startled response. In her few years talking to women from every walk of life, she'd never met the child of a prostitute or madam living with his mother.
Marie sighed, and the two of them rose together. “I heard you helped Doc with his report,” she said as she put on her coat. “Are you looking at helping Deputy Eddington too?”
“If I can,” Charlotte replied.
If he'll let me
.
Marie nodded and suddenly pulled Charlotte into a hug. “Thank you.”
She hurried out after Charlie, the door slamming behind her.
 
Charlotte clamped her hat onto her head with one hand and held the collar of her coat closed with the other as wind and rain whipped between buildings. By the time she arrived at Michael's office, both her hands were numb and dripping wet. The thought of wearing gloves in August seemed ridiculous, yet not. How long before she could take the weather in stride, like most here?
She pulled open the door and hurried inside.
Michael and the three people with him in the office all looked at her. An older Native woman, a teenage girl, and a boy of six or seven with a plaster cast on his left arm all stared at her with curiosity in their dark eyes. The three wore heavy trousers and boots. The two women had long tunics, almost but not quite dress-length, of deep red with black trim. The boy wore a too-large plaid shirt tucked into his pants.
“Excuse me,” Charlotte said, stepping aside.
“Charlotte,” Michael said, “this is Mary Ivanoff and her grandchildren Rose and George.” He looked at the Ivanoffs in turn. “This is my sister, here from the States.”
Charlotte carefully removed her hat to avoid flicking rain on them all. “It's nice to meet you.”
The girl spoke softly to the woman, the language a mix of glottal consonants and flowing vowels unlike anything Charlotte had ever heard. The woman responded in quiet tones.
“Grandma says welcome to Alaska,” Rose said, offering a shy smile.
“Thank you,” Charlotte replied. “Sorry to interrupt your appointment.”
“We're just finishing here.” Michael ruffled the boy's shiny black hair. “George is healing just fine.” He spoke to the girl and her grandmother. “I want the cast to stay on for another couple of weeks. Either come back in and I'll take it off, or you can do it on your own if you're not able to make it to town. Just be careful when you cut the plaster. And be sure to stop in when you can, so I can look him over.”
Rose translated once again. The older woman nodded and spoke a few short sentences. She reached into the woven bag slung over her shoulder and pulled out a bundle of newspaper. The smoky fish aroma was strong; it made Charlotte's stomach rumble.
“Grandma says thank you for your help. We'll return when we can.”
Michael took the offered packet, smiling at his patient and the family. “Thank you. Safe travels back home.”
The trio put on foul-weather gear that had been hanging on the hooks behind the door and left the office.
“How far do they have to go?” Charlotte asked as she hung up her wet mackinaw and hat. She knew little about the Native settlement along the lake shore several miles away, and made a mental note to include women from that culture as well in her articles.
“They live in Alice Cove, about ten miles northwest by boat.” Michael headed back toward his room. Charlotte followed. “Mary makes the best salmon jerky this side of the sound.”
“Ten miles by boat?” Charlotte looked out the window at the rain and wind slashing through the trees near the cabin. What was it like on open water in this weather? “And they come all this way to see you?”
He set the bundle on the shelf near the sink. “No, not specifically. They came to town for some goods and to visit family and friends. George broke his arm pretty badly a few weeks ago when they were here last, so I set it. I expect I won't see him before they remove the cast themselves.”
Rural living wasn't so unusual to her, but that sort of travel seemed on the extreme end of things. What if there was an emergency? How did such isolated people cope when foul weather set in?
“I was going to call down to Sullivan's for you in a bit,” Michael said, turning around and going back through the exam room.
“Oh? What for?” Charlotte followed him into the office area.
Michael sat at his desk. He pulled open a drawer and removed patient files and the gold fountain pen he'd received upon graduation from medical school.
“A copy of the autopsy report needs to be sent to the territorial governor's office.” He held up several sheets of paper, one covered in familiar symbols.
“I'm sorry, Michael. I completely forgot.” She took the pages and sat opposite him. “If you have some blank forms and another pen, I'll transcribe my shorthand right now.”
He provided both. Charlotte took up the outside corner of his desk while he continued to make notes on living patients' files.
She tried not to attach images to the words she spelled out, but it wasn't easy. The memories were too fresh. After twenty minutes of writing, only stopping to wipe her hands on her skirt, she handed the pages back to Michael.
“Make sure I have things as you recall them,” she said. She didn't want to have to rewrite anything, or add a gruesome detail that might have been missed.
He read through the pages quickly, his lips pressed tight. Had she made a mistake or was it the content of the report? Michael signed the bottom and had her countersign as his secretary. “We want to make sure the official paperwork has you on it as a witness.”
“Since I'm officially your secretary,” she said with a grin, “do you want me to take them to the post office?”
He smiled back, but he looked weary. “I still have to write up a cover letter and ask Eddington for a copy of his report. It'll be another day or so.”
“Let me know if I can help with anything. You don't need to do it all on your own, you know.”
“Well,” he said, drawing out the word, “I'm a bit hungry. Saw patients all morning then got caught up with paperwork.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes. “Very subtle. I apologize for not keeping up my end of our deal with cooking chores. I promise to be better.”
“Just a sandwich and a cup of coffee will suffice.”
She swatted at him, then headed into his living quarters to make him lunch.
While they ate bowls of soup and salmon salad sandwiches at his desk, Charlotte considered the best way to approach the subject of Ruth and her plans. Charlotte started to speak a couple of times, but stopped herself before she could get the proper words out. How was it she could speak her mind with the Bartletts and the Kavanaghs, but she couldn't with her own brother?
“What?” Michael asked around a mouthful of bread and fish.
Charlotte heaved a mental sigh and sat up straight, girding herself for what was sure to be a knock-down, drag-out confrontation. “I was at the Bartletts' yesterday for lunch.”
“I know. Ruth told me. Sorry I missed it.” He took another bite of his sandwich and looked at her expectantly.
Ruth had told him Charlotte had been there, yet Michael hadn't stormed over to lecture her on proper behavior? Odd. Either Ruth hadn't told him everything for some reason, or he was getting used to Charlotte's way of doing things. She would bet on the former.
“I'm glad you weren't there.”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Oh?”
Charlotte cleared her throat. “We got on to the topic of ladies of the evening and some who decide to pursue the profession.”
“Oh, my God, Charlotte. What did you say now?”
“Probably everything you think I did, and worse. But that's not the point.”
Michael squeezed his eyes closed, a pained expression on his face. After a moment, he opened them. Pain had turned to suppressed anger. “They are to be my in-laws.
That
is the point.”
“We had a lively discussion. It's not like I insulted them or their beliefs.” Well, maybe a little, she thought, but that's not what she wanted to discuss with him now, if ever. “Honestly, Michael, I wouldn't have said anything, but the reverend brought up Darcy during grace. I just expanded the conversation.”
Michael wiped his mouth, glaring at her over the linen napkin. “I'll bet. Why must you irritate people?”
She couldn't deny that her approach could be annoying. Her job was to get people to talk to her, and sometimes that required stirring things up. “My irritating your fiancée's family isn't as big a concern as the conversation I had with Ruth afterward.”
“What did you say to her?”
“Why do you assume I was the one to say anything?” Charlotte held up both hands, palms out, to ward off his growing anger. “Never mind. I didn't say a thing. It's what she told me that has me worried.” Charlotte lowered her hands and leaned forward. “Have you spoken to Ruth about her plans for your future?”
“Of course we've discussed our future. It's natural when two people get engaged.”
She shook her head. “No, not the future she sees for the two of you, together, but your professional future as a doctor.”
Michael frowned, more in confusion than anger. “What did she tell you?”
“That once you become the senior doctor here in town, you'll be dropping your less prestigious clients to maintain your income and image.”
He didn't say anything for a few moments, and Charlotte couldn't read what he was feeling. Was he angry at her? Upset that Ruth was making critical decisions for him?
Finally, he sat back in his chair and tossed the napkin on top of his plate. “She's not completely wrong.”
Charlotte stared at him, mouth agape. Surely she had heard him wrong. Their parents had instilled in both of them the duty to serve the less fortunate. Michael had gone into medicine to heal physical ills, while she had opted—to her parents' dismay at times—to shine a journalistic light on unfair conditions and injustices. How could Michael turn his back on the very people he'd sworn to help?
“I don't understand,” she said, finding her voice.

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