Murder on the Last Frontier (20 page)

BOOK: Murder on the Last Frontier
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“Ruth's right.” He grunted when he shifted her weight again. “You are such a card.”
She hugged him tighter, and off they went.
 
Charlotte pulled on a pair of Michael's canvas trousers, tucked in the worn cotton shirt he'd lent her, and decided she needed a belt. The clothes were roomy and comfortable, and part of her envied men for the privilege of wearing pants in public. Women here learned the impracticality of wearing a dress or a skirt while doing physical labor. And trousers were considerably warmer. She'd been known to wear pants beneath her skirt on particularly cold days back in New York, but her mother would have been appalled to see Charlotte outside the house in them alone.
Luckily, Mother wasn't here. Besides, with Charlotte's own clothes destroyed in the fire and the pending mess of cleanup, trousers were the best choice for the time being.
She didn't want to think about what she'd find at Sullivan's. Not yet. Her nose scrunched with the acrid scent that still burned in her nostrils, even after several hours and a washup with Michael's strong antiseptic soap. The movement pulled at the drying plaster and bandage on her cheek. Reopening the cut might cause a larger scar than she suspected she'd have anyway, so she set her features to be as neutral as she could manage.
Hitching the pants up by the waistband, Charlotte limped to the other side of Michael's living quarters to the chest of drawers against the wall to search for a belt. She was able to put a little weight on the side of her foot with the cushioning from the wrap and a pair of thick socks. Michael had cleaned and stitched the wound, then wrapped it in a thick layer of bandages. Removing the piece of glass had hurt more than the stitches. The shard had felt like a knife blade, but was no larger than the pearl in one of her earrings.
She pulled open the top drawer. Socks, underwear, and long johns were stuffed inside. Charlotte searched for a tell-tale coil of leather. Her hand touched something crinkly. Several somethings, in fact. Curiosity getting the better of her, she pulled one out of the drawer and unfolded it. As she made out the obvious shape of a prophylactic, Michael came in from the exam room.
“Charlotte, Eddington's here to—” He stopped short, looking at what was in her hand. His face turned crimson, and he stiffly walked over to take the condom from her. “Do you mind?”
“I was looking for a belt, I swear. Not snooping.” His lips pressed together; he didn't believe her. “I wouldn't do that, Michael. Besides, what does it matter? You and Ruth are adults who are soon to be married.” Charlotte could scarcely believe her future sister-in-law would agree to get a jump on the honeymoon. By the deepening color on Michael's face and the way his gaze dropped, maybe she hadn't. “You're not using them with Ruth, are you?”
He stuffed the packets back under his clothing, focusing on the placement of socks and garters. “No,” he said, his voice rough. His admission stunned her. Michael was cheating on his fiancée. Having relations with another woman. The world had surely gone insane. “A man has needs.”
Shock changed to scorn. “Oh, please, Michael. Not that pathetic argument.”
Though she couldn't fathom how he and Ruth had become a couple, let alone engaged, she couldn't condone infidelity.
“She knew.”
Charlotte blinked up at her brother. “And she was fine with it?” That was not the Ruth she would have expected. “Wait, you said she knew, not she knows. Have you stopped seeing this other woman?”
Michael drew a hand over his face, smoothing his moustache, and looked her straight in the eye. “It was Darcy.”
“What?” Charlotte couldn't have been more stunned if he'd named Tess Kavanagh or Mrs. Sullivan.
He glared at her, then hurried to shut the door. “Quiet,” he admonished. “Eddington is in the office.”
“Michael, how could you? She was—”
“A prostitute?” He said it in a harsh tone, but Charlotte wasn't sure if the harshness was meant for her or himself.
“Your patient.” She couldn't help the sharpness in her voice.
His bravado didn't last long, and Michael's shoulders sagged. “I know. I shouldn't have started anything. But she was so sweet, so understanding of my . . . frustrations.”
Charlotte almost blurted out that understanding the needs and frustrations of men had been Darcy's job, but she saw something in Michael's eyes she'd never seen before. Not even with Ruth. “My God, Michael. Did you love her?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose, his face contorted as if in pain. “I don't know. She was so easy to talk to.” He looked at Charlotte. “I know. It was wrong to see her, to even imagine something like a normal life with her. That never would have happened. We knew it wouldn't go beyond what it was, but at the very least we were friends.”
“And Ruth knew this.” Charlotte still found that hard to believe.
“I was discreet and didn't speak of it. I only went into Brigit's for health checks. I left Darcy notes when I went to the house with times and dates I wanted to see her.” He sat on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, rubbing his cheeks. “Ruth didn't approve, of course, but, as long as I was careful, she agreed to look the other way.”
Charlotte sat beside him. She didn't want to ask the next question, but had to. “Was the baby yours?”
Despite the evidence and claims of his caution, Michael didn't immediately deny the possibility. Charlotte's heart ached for him, but something approaching fear twisted in her stomach.
“I don't know,” he said quietly, shaking his head. “We were careful, but condoms aren't infallible.”
How well she knew that.
“But you didn't know she was pregnant until the autopsy, did you?”
His head came up. “No, of course not. I was as surprised as you. It made me sick to think someone purposely—” His eyes widened with shock and hurt. “Wait. Did you think
I
might have killed her?”
For a fleeting moment, she had, but she wasn't about to admit that to him. “Of course not.” Charlotte gathered his hands in hers. “Michael, you have to tell James before someone else does.”
“No one else knows. Darcy wouldn't have said anything. She never spoke about her . . . her other relations. I'm sure she didn't tell anyone about me.”
Brigit had said she prided herself on her girls' discretion. But how good were they, really, at keeping their client lists to themselves?
“Maybe so, but if anyone ever saw her going to you or suspected anything, they might say as much to James.” She couldn't believe she was having this conversation with her brother. “He's already considering that one of her customers might have killed her. You were there with us, talking about that very thing that night.” Was that why Michael had seemed so on edge? “If your name comes from anywhere else, you'll be questioned. Better to come clean with him right away, don't you think?”
Michael's sideways glance told her that no, he didn't think it was better. But after a few moments he sighed and nodded. “I guess so. Come on, he's waiting in the office.”
They both stood, and the trousers slid down Charlotte's hips. “I still need a belt.”
Michael shook his head, retrieved one from the second drawer for her, then led the way into the other room while she threaded the belt through the loops.
 
It didn't take long for James to take her statement. There wasn't much to add to what she'd already told him about the firebombs breaking through her window. He finished writing her account in a small book with a decisive tap of pen on page.
“And you have no idea who might have done this?” he asked yet again. One dark eyebrow was raised. Of course he suspected she'd said or done something to someone that had instigated a more forceful warning than a note. She couldn't blame him, though that might have been due to her own guilt over riling Tess Kavanagh.
“I didn't see anyone.”
“That's not what I asked.” James narrowed his gaze and leaned forward on the desk. “We talked about this just the other night, Charlotte. How you're not supposed to be doing your own investigation. Remember?”
She crossed her arms. “Of course I remember. I'm not senile.”
“No, but you are stubborn,” he said, flipping the book closed. “Could someone have learned you had been given Darcy's coat and the contents?”
Charlotte shifted in the hard chair. She didn't say anything and found it difficult to maintain eye contact with the deputy. He was going to be angry.
Michael, leaning against the wall behind her, said, “Charlotte, tell the nice policeman what you did.”
“I spoke to Tess Kavanagh yesterday.”
James's scowl brought out his dimple. “What did you say to her?”
“I'd walked with Brigit to the bank, and we met Tess as she was leaving. They gave each other such cold looks, at first I thought it was a social differentiation thing.” Charlotte knew she was rambling, delaying the inevitable, but she needed to explain herself. Not that it would likely help much. “I also noticed how very much alike they look. Like they could be sisters.”
James straightened at that. “Sisters?” He thought about it for a few moments, then nodded. “All right. I can see the resemblance. They're rarely at the same events, as far as I know. But what did you say to Mrs. Kavanagh?”
“Nothing then,” she said. “But I went to her home later and asked for an interview for my
Modern Woman
piece.”
“And?” He drew the word out, clearly suspicious of Charlotte's actions.
“They had both given me very similar answers to questions about where they're from. I also asked if they'd ever been to Fairbanks, and both were hesitant about responding. I think that pretty much confirms our conclusion that they're the women in the photograph, don't you?”
Even if James agreed, Charlotte was also pretty sure he'd be upset.
James closed his eyes, his lips moving silently, as if in prayer. When he looked at her again, she resisted the instinct to scoot back on the chair. They needed to know for sure who was in the article Darcy had hidden. Now they did. “So now both Tess and Brigit know you think they had something to do with the crimes in Fairbanks a decade ago.”
“No, they don't,” she said, splitting hairs with her next words. “Only Tess does.”
The deputy threw his hands up and rose from the seat. He turned his back to her, grumbling something about damned meddling reporters.
“Maybe it's not so bad,” Michael said. He stood beside her, hand on her shoulder in support. “Maybe this will be too much for them and one of them will confess.”
James spun on his heel and glared at both of them. “Maybe. And maybe they'll hare off on the next steamer before I can get solid
proof,
” he said while pinning Charlotte with his hard gaze, “that either of them actually killed her.”
“I took a chance, I know,” she admitted. “But I don't think Brigit killed her, and if Tess is involved, it's not directly.”
Chapter 15
“W
hat are you talking about?” Michael asked. “Why confront Tess if you don't think she was involved?”
“I needed to see her reaction for myself.” Charlotte got up. Putting pressure on her injured foot made her wince, but moving helped her think. She paced gingerly between the two men. “Brigit's desire to learn who killed Darcy feels too real to me. She's not just putting on a show. And Tess was appalled when I suggested she had a hand in the murder.”
“They're living lies,” James said, “so their acting abilities are probably well beyond casual observation.”
She faced him. They were close enough that she had to look up into his eyes. “Agreed, but that lie is in regard to their past in Fairbanks. To possible involvement with a man's death, true, but I never mentioned him. I think they're guilty of trying to reinvent themselves here, and had to pay Darcy to keep the secret. But I don't think either of those women killed her.”
“Then who?” Michael asked. He came alongside her and gently took her arm. “Sit down, Charlotte, before you tear open those stitches.”
She did as he instructed, tapping on the desk since she couldn't pace. “You saw the condition of Darcy's body. The blows were concentrated at her stomach. Whoever killed her was furious over her pregnancy.”
“Couldn't Brigit have been angry over it?” James suggested. He sat on the corner of the desk.
Charlotte shook her head. “I don't think so. She has a son, so she knows pregnancy is a risk in her business.”
“The father of the child.” Michael stared hard at her. She wanted him to tell James about his relationship with Darcy, and he didn't like it.
“More likely,” she said. “Someone important. Maybe even the mayor.”
“The mayor?” James and Michael said simultaneously.
“Are you out of your mind?” Michael asked.
“What in the name of God makes you suspect the mayor?” James stared at her as if a third eye had grown in her forehead. “There are plenty of men who could have been the father.”
Charlotte and Michael locked gazes. “It's just an idea. Until we know for sure, it could be anyone. Right?”
No one spoke for several seconds. Though she couldn't see his face, Charlotte suspected James was frowning at them.
“Is there something someone wants to tell me?” he asked. “Charlotte? Doc?”
Michael flinched first. “Damn it. Fine.” He looked at James. “I was seeing Darcy.”
The deputy's lips pressed together. There wasn't anger so much as irritation in his expression. “And you chose not to tell me because you didn't want to be under suspicion.”
“He had nothing to do with her death,” Charlotte said. “Michael wants to be up-front, that's all.”
“You knew this.” James took a step forward, hands clenched, then stopped. Visibly calming himself, James drew in a deep breath. “You knew he was seeing her, and you were protecting him. I get it.”
“She just found out, Eddington,” Michael said. “Charlotte convinced me it was best to give you all the information. Yes, so I could be ruled out as a suspect.”
“Where were you that night, Doc?” James's tone was 100-percent deputy. Such doggedness pushed the boundaries of trust between the three of them. Yet, Charlotte admired his professionalism even as it annoyed her.
But Michael didn't blink. “At a city council meeting until nearly midnight. We were discussing land purchases.”
“Was the mayor there?” Charlotte asked.
“For a little while,” Michael said. “He left at ten or so.”
She gave James a significant look. “Giving him time to go to Brigit's.”
James crossed his arms. “Charlie said the man who gave him the note was built more like your brother, not the mayor.”
Damn. She'd forgotten that. “Unless the mayor had someone else deliver it. He'd be very conspicuous and wouldn't want to be seen anywhere near Brigit's if he wanted to meet with Darcy.” It was a bit of a stretch, but not a completely insane supposition. “Perhaps the man delivered the note, then Darcy met Kavanagh outside. She tells him she's pregnant. Between that and the blackmail, he goes off the deep end and kills her.”
Silence hung between them as they considered such a scenario. The more she thought about it, the more it made sense to Charlotte. Frank Kavanagh certainly had the physical strength to subdue a smaller woman like Darcy. He had the motive to shut her up about his past, even if he wasn't the father of her baby. And he had opportunity to get to Brigit's that night.
“It's a decent line of thought,” James said, surprising her, “but I need proof or a witness.”
“That is a bit of a sticking point,” Michael quipped.
James scratched the scruff on his jaw. “Yeah. And I can't focus solely on Kavanagh to the exclusion of all other possibilities. As far as real evidence goes, anyone could have killed Darcy.” He narrowed his eyes at Michael as if imagining her brother doing something so heinous. Before she or Michael could challenge him, the deputy seemed to shake off the thought. “I need something solid. I searched the probable path from Brigit's to the railroad tracks again. Found a cigar stub, a shoe, and a button.”
“Those could belong to anyone,” Michael said. “If it makes you feel better, I don't smoke cigars and have all my shoes and buttons.”
A wry smile quirked James's mouth, and he gave a humorless grunt.
“The mayor smokes cigars,” Charlotte reminded them.
“So do half the men in town,” Michael said.
“We'll figure it out.” She'd ease up on the line of thought pointing to the mayor for now, but he was her prime suspect. “Can I look at your findings?”
James's intense gaze shot straight to her. “You've been involved more than necessary, and obviously you're getting under someone's skin.”
A bubble of pride formed in her chest, but Charlotte could tell by his demeanor that he wasn't praising her efforts. Not in the least.
“With threats and now an attempt on your life, you will not make a move without consulting me. As I asked you before.” He leaned over her, bracing himself on the arms of the chair and bringing his face within inches of hers. The smell of burned building emanated from his clothing. “If you do anything—anything at all—without talking to me, I will arrest you for obstruction. Is that clear, Miss Brody?”
The back of her neck prickled. Part of her understood James was trying to keep her safe, but there was an overwhelming desire to shove him aside and tell him she could look out for herself. Physically, she knew she would never be able to move him. So she resorted to her preferred method of dealing with an overactive sense of control.
“I understand,” she said, acknowledging his threat, but not agreeing to the conditions. She wouldn't withhold evidence or information, but she wasn't about to ask anyone's permission to do her job either.
James stared at her for a moment longer. Surely he felt the tension vibrating between them, as she did, and realized she hadn't conceded. Before he could say more, someone opened the outer door.
“Oh. Sorry to interrupt,” a male voice said. James straightened and stepped away from her. A man of forty or so stood in the doorway. “Deputy, the marshal was asking for you.”
James reached for his coat hanging on the back of the chair. “I'll be right there.” The man departed with a nod to each of them. James shrugged into his mackinaw, the one he'd lent her just hours before. “The rooming house won't be safe to live in.”
“There's a smaller hotel closer to the railroad yard,” Michael said.
“The Lakeview,” James acknowledged. “It's a bit more expensive than Sullivan's, but cheaper than the Windsor. They might have a room available.”
“Thank you for the information, Deputy.”
He frowned at her use of his title rather than his name. “Come by later to look at what I found, but I don't know what good it'll do.”
Shoving his hat on his head, James touched the brim then strode out.
“What's going on between you two?” Michael asked.
Charlotte stood. “Nothing. Nothing at all. I'll need one of your spare jackets and pairs of boots so we can go see what's left of my things.”
 
Nothing. There was nothing left of Charlotte's belongings except for the metal workings of her Royal typewriter among the scorched bits and burnt wood of the carrying case. Darcy's coat had been destroyed as well, but luckily James had taken possession of the newspaper clippings and money as evidence.
Charlotte and Michael stood at the back of Sullivan's, peering into the dark, smoldering space that had been her room through the huge hole in the wall. Several rooms above and around hers had suffered similar damage. The rest of the rooming house had filled with smoke and then been drenched in water. The rain had stifled the spread of the fire to other buildings and allowed the exterior to remain somewhat intact. Thankfully, no one had been hurt, but the interior, and much of what was in it, was destroyed.
Poor Mrs. Sullivan had lost almost everything, and it was Charlotte's fault.
The weight of anger, fear, and guilt pressed in on Charlotte, making it difficult to breathe. Michael's arm settled around her shoulders.
“We'll replace your things eventually,” he said, reassuring her with a kiss to the top of her head.
It wasn't the loss of material goods that bothered her so much, though her favorite books had gone up in flames. No, it was the idea that someone had wanted her hurt—possibly dead—for what she knew, and was willing to endanger others for it. Even if she didn't really know anything.
“Maybe James is right,” she said, sniffing. The stench of burned wood and other material made her eyes water. She'd left Yonkers because of broken windows and angry letters. This was worse. Much worse. “I should just forget the whole thing before someone else is killed.”
At Michael's office, she'd instinctively wanted to oppose James, to do anything she had to in order to get to the bottom of the case. But now, standing outside the ruins of her room, the ruins of other people's lives, she knew she couldn't risk it.
Michael squeezed her tight against him, but didn't argue. He agreed with the deputy. She'd gone too far. Charlotte wiped her eyes and nose. She'd find a new place to live and go to work for Mr. Toliver reporting on the happenings in Cordova's social circles, perhaps the odd burglary or accident. She'd need to do something to make enough money to get back to the States. Alaska might not be her refuge after all.
“Charlotte?” Brigit picked her way along the debris-filled path beside the building. She lifted her dark skirt away from charred boards. Her plain hat and coat made her look like any other woman in town, her typical daytime persona. “Are you all right?”
Michael lowered his arm. “I'll go check on Mrs. Sullivan. Will you be okay here?”
Charlotte nodded, feeling the tension between Michael and Brigit as they eyed one another. Surely Brigit knew he'd been seeing Darcy. Was that part of the reason for their strife? Brigit had said something about Darcy's needing him at her funeral. Did Brigit know there might have been more between Michael and the young lady of the evening?
Did she know about Charlotte's chat with Tess? Probably not. Or at least not yet. And if Tess didn't tell Brigit, what did that mean? That Charlotte's assumption they were sisters was wrong? That her supposition that Brigit was innocent and Tess knew something was correct? Perhaps neither woman knew a damn thing, and Charlotte was dreadfully mistaken about everything.
After Michael was out of earshot, Brigit stepped closer. She took in the burned-out rooms and shook her head. “I'm so sorry. It's a miracle no one was badly hurt, or killed.”
“Just a few minor injuries,” Charlotte said. The cut on her cheek itched, and her foot started to throb as if in response.
Brigit glanced at the drying glob of plaster on Charlotte's face. “You poor dear. I have some dresses, skirts, blouses, that sort of thing, you can have to replace what you lost.” She gave Charlotte's borrowed men's attire a quick perusal. A teasing smile curved her lips. “Though you look rather adorable in trousers. Fits right in here.”
Charlotte smiled at the madam's attempt to brighten her mood. “They're very comfortable. I may take to wearing them upon occasion.” Both of them laughed. “But thank you. I appreciate the offer.”
“I'd offer you a room at the house too,” Brigit said, her grin turning wry, “but I don't think that would work well for you.”
Charlotte could imagine the wagging tongues should she move into Brigit's house. Much of Cordova seemed to have the live-and-let-live sort of attitude she'd expected, but the push to make the town more civilized and proper meant behavior was keenly observed by some. For Michael's sake, she'd exercise some measure of care.
“I don't think it would work out for either of us. I told you before, I already have a job.” Charlotte winked at the other woman, who laughed again.
She enjoyed the rapport with Brigit, and something that felt like friendship seemed to be forming between them. But if Tess was her sister, Brigit would soon learn that Charlotte suspected them of wrongdoing in Fairbanks a decade ago. That accusation alone could cause a rift. The thought of losing their tenuous relationship sent a pang of regret through Charlotte.
“I can bring some things around to your brother's for you later today,” Brigit said. “And don't worry, they'll be quite appropriate.”
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