Murder on the Last Frontier (5 page)

BOOK: Murder on the Last Frontier
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Her brother gave the deputy a beseeching look, hoping for support even though he could have easily told her no himself. Eddington shrugged and started for the outer office.
“Your call, Doc,” he said. “I have a killer to find. Let me know what your exam shows.”
The exterior door closed hard, shaking the cabin. Charlotte kept her expression sober, but inside she was pleased as punch. Between not calling her out for spying from the other room and his neutrality on her providing help, Eddington seemed to be on her side. Though for the life of her, Charlotte couldn't figure out why.
“Fine,” Michael said. “Let's get some lunch, and then we'll start.”
The warm feeling of the deputy's support fizzled like a Fourth of July sparkler in the rain. Charlotte's stomach churned. “Lunch? Do you think eating beforehand is such a good idea?”
“If you're not up for it . . .”
His implication—no, challenge—put steel in her spine. “I have some salmon out. Let's eat, then get to work.”
 
Charlotte found it hard to concentrate on creating conversation with Darcy's body waiting for them in the next room, and Michael was lost in thought much of the time. She picked at her food, eating little more than a pilot bread cracker. It was something bland to settle her already jittery stomach, and better than nothing.
They stepped into the exam room, and he continued to the outer office to secure the front door.
“I don't think we need anyone dropping by unannounced,” he said upon returning. “My patients would probably rather not think about this aspect of my job.”
He squatted down in front of a cabinet and opened the door. Out came several glass jars with metal screw-top lids, a tray of shiny metal instruments, and a folded piece of black cloth. Atop the cloth was a pair of black rubber gloves.
“How many autopsies have you done?” Charlotte asked.
“More than a few.” The sour look on his face told her how he felt about doing them at all. “Most causes of death are obvious, and my findings merely confirm that someone died of natural causes, accidentally, or was shot or stabbed.”
Michael secured his sleeves with garters, then pulled on the black gloves. Charlotte helped tie the rubberized apron over his clothing. He opened a drawer and passed her a fountain pen, a jar of ink, and a form with the Alaska Territory seal and C
ORONER'S
R
EPORT
at the top.
“Just write what I say. I'll have to stop now and again to draw diagrams or pictures.” He caught her eye when he turned around. “Unless you want to do that too?”
Charlotte's mouth dried. “I can't draw.”
His wry smile did nothing to alleviate the heaviness of the task ahead. “I know. Don't worry. You just keep your back to the table. But to be on the safe side . . .” He withdrew a tin of Vicks VapoRub from the drawer. Opening it, he dabbed some inside his nostrils. “I suggest you do the same. The aroma of internal organs can be overwhelming.”
Suppressing her grimace, Charlotte dipped her finger into the camphor and mentholated ointment and spread some under her nose. Her eyes teared at the bite of the strong scent; she recalled having the gooey stuff spread across her chest as a child fighting a cold. After a minute or so, she became accustomed to it and nodded to Michael that she was ready.
She sat on the edge of the chair, the form on the counter that ran along the wall of the exam room. Positioned with her back to the table, head bent, she tapped excess ink into the jar and readied herself for Michael's narrative.
“The subject,” he began, his tone solemn, “is Miss Darcy Dugan, approximately twenty-two years of age. Miss Dugan was employed by Miss Brigit O'Brien as a . . .” He coughed, but Charlotte couldn't say if it was real or out of a need to find the right word. “As a lady of the evening. She is—was—” His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat again. “She was known to me over the last year from biweekly health exams. I last saw Miss Dugan yesterday afternoon at three. She had complained of exhaustion and a general feeling of malaise. She refused a comprehensive examination. The abbreviated exam I performed revealed a slight pallor of her skin and somewhat elevated heart rate, but no other indications of disease. I prescribed rest, fluids, and iron pills.”
Michael didn't speak too quickly for her to keep up, but Charlotte was glad for her shorthand classes in high school.
“Miss Dugan,” he continued, “was found at eight this morning by Mr. Paul Avery while he was out with his dog in the copse of spruce where Dock Road and the railroad tracks meet just beyond Council Avenue. There doesn't appear to be any disturbance or damage to the body by dogs, bears, or other scavengers.”
Charlotte lifted her head and half turned toward her brother. “Bears this close to town?”
Michael had his back to her, blocking Darcy's body. He looked over his shoulder at Charlotte. “Black bears wander through all the time. Mostly at dawn or dusk, but they're active at night as well, so be careful if you're out and about. Ready to continue?”
She nodded.
“Miss Dugan was partially covered in duff, as if the killer kicked the debris onto her. A short, thick branch, believed to be the principal weapon in the attack, was found nearby.”
Charlotte paused in her writing and interrupted him again. “A weapon?”
Michael now stood near Darcy's head, hands resting lightly on Darcy's shoulders, ready to lift the canvas. The strain lines around his eyes and mouth seemed deeper. “Yes. We'll run tests later, but it's most certainly covered in blood.”
He started to unwrap the tarp. The rustling of the heavy material made Charlotte's mouth dry with apprehension. As though of their own volition, her eyes jumped to the young woman's face, a perfect view of her left-side profile. No one could mistake Darcy for being asleep. Her eyes were half open, and thick blood was smeared under the nose and across the slack mouth. Tendrils of reddish blond hair draped over the edge of the table, but it was matted, wet and black, close to her skull. Dirt spattered onto the floor.
Michael sighed, his face pinched with purpose and something Charlotte couldn't quite determine. Whatever it was, she didn't envy her brother the terrible task ahead.
Charlotte's stomach clenched like a fist, forcing what little she'd eaten for lunch back up toward her throat. She swallowed and returned her attention to the form. Being in the same room was proving to be more difficult than she'd anticipated. She had no desire to see the injuries inflicted on Darcy, if she could help it, but the need to know what, exactly, had happened challenged her ability to keep her back to the table.
“Miss Dugan is wearing a blue dressing gown over a white chemise, undergarments, and black boots. Her boots are loosely tied and covered in mud, as are her clothes. The lower half of her gown and chemise are darker, perhaps due to the rains we've had,” he said with cool formality that belied his earlier emotion. “There is severe bruising on the face. Swelling of the left eye, with a five-inch laceration along the orbital bone, suggests the assailant was right-handed. There's discoloration at the throat as well. The skull has been crushed in on both sides.”
Charlotte heard Michael move around the table, but dared not lift her head. He picked up the sketchbook and pencil set out on the counter. Of course he had to provide pictorial records. There was a resident photographer, Michael had said at lunch, but he was out of town. The scratching of lead on the thick paper seemed loud in the small room. Charlotte breathed deeply, and a renewed burst of camphor burned in her nose.
After a few minutes of sketching, Michael set the book and pencil down. The tray of instruments near Charlotte rattled when he reached for a pair of blunt-nosed scissors. She glanced up, careful to keep her gaze on him.
“I'm going to remove her clothing.” He spoke as if remarking on the color of paint, but she noted his unusual paleness. Michael might be going about the postmortem in an outwardly detached manner, but it bothered him, that much was certain. He'd said he'd performed autopsies before. Was he always so disturbed or was this one different somehow? Because Darcy had been a patient? Because of the manner of her death? “We'll cover her with some blankets or sheets I have here for the undertaker.”
“Do you need my help?” Charlotte was relieved when he shook his head. She tried not to think about the further indignity Darcy had to face of being handled by yet another stranger. “When will the undertaker arrive?”
Michael shrugged. “Later today. He'll get things from Miss Brigit for the burial.”
The sound of his moving Darcy's body about continued for several minutes.
“I'll be God damned,” Michael said in a harsh whisper.
Charlotte rose, startled by his expletive. Darcy's folded dressing gown was under the table. Michael stood near her lower legs, staring down at her with wide eyes. Charlotte followed his gaze and immediately wished she hadn't. The bottom half of Darcy's chemise was dark with blood, not rain or mud.
“What happened?” Charlotte asked, her throat tight. “Was she stabbed?”
Michael shook his head. “We didn't see any cuts in her clothing when we rolled her onto the tarp. I think she hemorrhaged.”
Charlotte glanced down again, curiosity momentarily overtaking repugnance. Darcy's bared arms were bruised. Several fingers were bent at odd angles. She'd attempted to defend herself against the blows, or perhaps fight back.
You poor girl
.
Mud and water had seeped through her dressing gown to the cotton undergarments. Despite her revulsion, Charlotte peered closer at the muck on Darcy's clothing. “Look at this, Michael.” She pointed to the mud stain. “The edges here are too perfectly curved to be random.”
He bent closer, frowning. “I'd say it's a shoe print. Or a boot. Difficult to tell. But there's more than one, for certain.”
Charlotte straightened. “Most of the mud that came through to the chemise and knickers is concentrated on her lower body. The killer was aiming for her stomach.”
Michael's already pale complexion turned ashen. “I think you're right.” He reached for the scissors and began cutting the front of Darcy's chemise. “Faster and easier this way.”
Folding back the thin material, Michael exposed her breasts and belly. The discoloration of her abdomen confirmed her attacker had focused his attention there. It took a bit more effort to cut through the blood-soaked lower half, and when Michael revealed the area of her hips and upper thighs, both he and Charlotte startled. Charlotte's body went cold.
Darcy's smallclothes were nearly black with blood.
“Go sit down, Charlotte.” Michael's roughened voice seemed to come from far away. She remained standing. He came around the table and, using the insides of his forearms to avoid touching her with the exam gloves, gently urged her back to the counter. “I need you to record this. Please.”
Charlotte didn't sit, instead positioning herself so she could watch him out of the corner of her eye while she wrote. Michael gave her a long look, though he himself appeared as shaky as she felt. Satisfied she was as removed from the proceedings as she would get, he stood between the table and Charlotte to block her view as he continued.
“Severe bruising of the lower abdomen and thighs. Hemorrhaging from the—” His voice caught, but he recovered quickly. “Hemorrhaging from the vaginal canal indicates ruptured organs. No other exterior injuries evident. I will commence the internal exam.”
Michael retrieved a galvanized bucket from the corner and arranged the tarp to funnel into it to catch fluids. He took up a shiny scalpel from the tray, gave Charlotte a quick check, then returned to the body. His brow furrowed with determination. “I've made a Y incision from under each armpit, meeting below the sternum, down around the umbilicus, then to the top of the pubis.”
Charlotte tried to write without thinking about what the words meant, without connecting them to the procedure. She had to distance herself, as Michael had. Later, when she transcribed the coded marks of her shorthand, she hoped she could retain that distance.
“Heart and lungs appear normal,” Michael said. “Stomach and intestines slightly enlarged. On the left, rib three is cracked and ribs four and five are broken. Ribs four and five on the right are cracked.” There was a pause and the squelch of scissors on something thicker and wetter. “Stomach contents are not identifiable, so she'd eaten several hours before her death. I'll collect them to test for poisons, just to be sure.”
He took a specimen jar and spoon from the counter. Charlotte looked over her handwriting until he was finished filling the jar and set it back on the counter.
“Spleen has been ruptured, and there is blood within the abdominal cavity, as expected. Pancreas and liver swollen. The reproductive organs appear discolored. One ovary is ruptured; the other appears bruised. The womb is dark and distended.” More wet scissor sounds. “I'm dissecting the womb to determine its condition. Quite a bit of blood and—Oh, my God!”
Charlotte spun around and peered over his shoulder. Dark blood and pale pink and gray tissue were their own sort of horror, but what Michael held in his hand made her knees watery and her lower body cramp. A two-inch-long gray, curled form stood out against the palm of his black glove.
“She was pregnant.”
Chapter 4
T
he room tilted and blurred. Charlotte felt herself sway and automatically reached out to steady herself on the nearest object: the exam table. The sudden realization she was about to touch Darcy made her jerk back, only increasing her disorientation.
“Are you all right?” Michael started to grab for her, but immediately withdrew his gore-slick hand.
Charlotte waved him off, not trusting herself to speak without vomiting. The image of what he'd held burned into her brain. She collapsed onto the chair, bent forward with arms crossed over her knees and forehead resting on them. Her skin felt clammy through her cotton blouse sleeve.
Swallowing to keep her stomach contents down, she heard Michael moving around with some urgency, muttering. The wet peeling sound was probably his gloves coming off. The squeal of an opening cabinet. The soft snap of cloth. His footsteps faded into his living quarters, and Charlotte heard the squeak of the pump handle and splashing water. He returned, his warm hand on her shoulder.
“Drink.”
Charlotte straightened and drew in slow, even breaths. Michael stood beside her, blocking her view of the table, an enameled mug in hand. She wrapped her shaking hands around his and brought the cup to her lips. Michael's steady hold kept the water from splashing out. Something stronger would have been preferred, but the water helped. The roiling of her stomach subsided to a quiver after several sips.
“I'm sorry. I didn't realize I'd be so squeamish.”
“You did better than I did my first time at an autopsy.” His mouth quirked into a sympathetic grin beneath his moustache. “Barely got through the Y incision before I passed out cold.”
The weak smile she managed faltered when Charlotte caught a glimpse of Darcy's now-shrouded body behind him. She looked down into the mug and swallowed hard. “I remember you becoming ill when I gashed my forehead falling off the swing in the yard. Always wondered how you'd manage being a doctor.”
“I guess my desire to heal overcame my nausea after a while.” He gently tugged a loose lock of her hair. “Maybe having you bang yourself up all the time helped too.”
She chuckled and nodded. Charlotte had rarely been without some bump, bruise, or laceration, but the head wound had been positively gruesome, if not deep. Between her history of childhood injuries and the aftermath of her procedure, she thought she'd be used to blood by now.
But it wasn't the blood, she realized, so much as Darcy's situation. Surely the girl had known she was pregnant.
“You were her doctor. Didn't you know?”
Michael's lips pressed together, and he looked pained again as he shook his head. “I haven't conducted a full exam on her for a couple of months. Mostly just quick visits and a few swabs to test for syphilis and other diseases. She'd said everything was fine with her menses.”
“So she lied to you.”
“Probably.” Michael let Charlotte hold the mug. “It's possible she didn't know for sure. But more likely she lied and tried to hide it from me. She might have been afraid of being let go from Brigit's. Babies aren't particularly good for that business.”
Charlotte drank the last of the water, then set the mug on the counter. “What would she have done once the baby arrived? How would they have made do?”
“If she'd kept it and Brigit didn't want her around? Server at one of the cafés or clubs. Laundress. She could have found something.” His gaze focused elsewhere as he became lost in thought. After a moment he shook off whatever he'd been considering and met her eyes. “I can finish up the rest of the examination and report. Go lie down for a bit.”
She straightened in the chair and picked up the pen. “No, I'll be all right.” He started to protest, but she held up a hand. “Honest. It was a bit of a shock, but I'm fine.”
Liar
.
She knew exactly what the dead girl on the table had gone through. Passing off morning sickness as a bit of a cold or a bout with bad food. Explaining away tiredness as having stayed up too late or working too hard. Secrets to be kept, hidden away from friends and family until a solution could be found.
Michael nodded, his expression one of sorrow. “All right, stay. But keep your back to the table and let me know if you need to stop.”
Her stomach threatened to rebel again. Charlotte pasted as much of a smile onto her face as she could and held up three fingers. “I will. Scout's honor.”
The remaining details of Darcy's autopsy were far less jarring, though it would have taken quite a revelation to top what Michael had already discovered. Charlotte concentrated on taking notes rather than on what the words meant. Still, the ache in her stomach migrated into her head. By the time the autopsy was finished, it felt as if someone were squeezing her temples inward, trying to get them to meet within her skull.
Michael touched her shoulder, making her jump. Gently, he took the pen out of her hand. “Go into my room and rest. I'll fetch the undertaker.”
Charlotte nodded. Deliberately ignoring the table, she entered his living area and pushed the door closed. It didn't latch, leaving a gap like the one she'd spied through earlier that morning. Not that it mattered. She had no intention of watching the undertaker removing the body.
She lay down on Michael's bed, wishing she'd asked him for some aspirin or bicarbonate of soda. With her hands and brain no longer occupied by concentrating on dictation, Charlotte couldn't force the thoughts and images out of her head.
Though she'd seen other murder and assault victims, she didn't recall being so affected by them. She was supposed to be a tough New York journalist, one who'd waded into the fray at more than a few protests.
But it wasn't the blood and bruises that had turned her stomach. It was the obvious rage of Darcy's murderer. The merciless blows meant to kill, meant to convey how the person felt. Pregnancy—particularly one that was unplanned or unwanted—stirred up strong emotions. Darcy's had clearly sent someone over the edge.
Sudden tears burned Charlotte's eyes and closed her throat. She curled into a ball, arms wrapped around her middle. Unexpected news like that could even change a lover into someone you hardly recognized.
Like Richard.
He'd been as shocked as she was after her doctor's visit confirmed what she'd suspected. Dreaded. They'd been using birth control, but even Margaret Sanger had stated that nothing was 100 percent guaranteed. Charlotte's immediate reaction upon learning her condition was that she didn't want a child. Not yet, anyway. But when she told Richard her plans to seek an abortion, he'd been furious.
Abortions were for poor, desperate women or prostitutes. Not for women of their social standing. She would marry him, he'd said, and have the baby.
Charlotte had considered it for a few seconds, half a breath from accepting, until he continued. “After the baby's born, you'll stay home, of course.”
She would become the wife and mother he'd need to maintain his family's standing in the business community. No outside pursuits like a career to distract her from her
real
duties.
Charlotte had been stunned into silence. He'd been a staunch supporter of her efforts to tell important stories about women's rights and equality until then. At least while they were attending lectures and dances, or as they fell into bed pulling at each other's clothes. Equality was fine for everyone except whomever he married.
The bastard. The lying, self-centered bastard. How had she not seen the truth of him?
But it was the truth within herself that caused her the most anguish.
The outer door squealed open, interrupting her thoughts. Heavy footsteps and the rattle of the door closing again followed.
“I've cleaned her up as best I could.” Michael's voice carried in from the exam room.
A pang of guilt went through Charlotte, shaking her out of her bout of shame. She was supposed to have helped him, but she couldn't bear to see Darcy Dugan again.
Another man replied, his tone too low for her to catch the words. Wood clattered on the floor. A third man asked if Michael had an extra sheet or tarp.
Charlotte listened as the men prepared Darcy for the undertaker, her limbs locked. She'd withstood the chaos of marches and counterprotests. She'd pulled a man off a woman old enough to be his mother as he assaulted her because he didn't agree with her views. She'd recorded interviews with women who had bruises and broken bones, women who had seen friends hurt because they wanted equality with men.
Damn it, she should be tougher than this.
“Put 'er on the stretcher, Jimmy.” Feet shuffled. “We'll get somethin' from Miss Brigit. The missus'll fix her up right pretty.”
“Thank you, John,” Michael said. “And no talking to Toliver or allowing pictures. This is still an open investigation. Eddington and Blaine will have your hide.”
“Learnt my lesson last time, Doc. Okay, move 'er out, Jimmy.”
Two sets of heavy footsteps retreated from the exam room. The front door slammed closed, rattling the log cabin. Charlotte heard Michael move about, cleaning up by the sound of the clattering instruments, cupboard doors closing, and sweeping.
Charlotte closed her eyes, pushing memories out of her head. Maybe she could help Darcy some other way. Her desire to help Michael and the deputy find who had killed a young prostitute was now a quest to seek justice for a kindred soul of sorts.
“Sis.”
Charlotte startled and her eyes flew open. Her face felt hot. Michael crossed the room to sit on the edge of the bed.
“You all right?” He brushed a strand of damp hair off her forehead.
She pushed herself up into a sitting position. “I'm fine.”
His brow furrowed.
Charlotte dropped her gaze and nudged him so she could swing her legs off the bed. “It's fine. Just a temporary shock.”
More lies. There was nothing temporary about the guilt and sadness that dwelled within her; they were always there, waiting for an opportunity to reappear. It had been several months since she had woken up shaking, if not crying, after one terrible dream or another. Now those dreams would surely return for the next few weeks.
Charlotte and Michael both stood, and she busied herself with straightening her clothes so she wouldn't have to look at him. She grabbed her coat from the chair where she'd left it earlier. Michael helped her slip it on.
“Maybe you shouldn't go to the party tonight,” he said, sounding a lot like their father.
Charlotte cocked her head, confused. “Party?”
“The mayor's gala. You can stay here, if you'd like.”
That party. He meant well, but there was no way she would stay in his room with the constant reminder of the day's trauma just beyond the door.
“No, I think a party is exactly what I need.” He looked skeptical. Not a surprise. Charlotte pecked him on the cheek. “I'll go back to my room and freshen up.”
He followed her through the exam room, where she avoided looking at the table, and to the front door. “Are you sure?”
“The distraction will do me good.” She put as much of a smile on her face as she could muster. “Seven o'clock?”
“I'm supposed to escort Ruth from her house. Can you meet us at the Windsor?”
Charlotte's jaw muscles tightened, fixing the grin on her face. Of course he'd have to escort his fiancée. What else should she expect? “I'll do that.”
Michael reached past her to open the door. Watery sunlight dappled the stone step and street beyond. “See you there, but if you don't feel like it later, don't worry. It's completely understandable.”
Charlotte walked the three blocks to Sullivan's without speaking to anyone. Folks went about their business, allowing her to hurry past as if invisible. That suited her just fine. There was no way anyone in Cordova knew what she'd been through. Not today, not last year. But Charlotte couldn't help feeling that, if she made eye contact with any of the shopkeepers sweeping mud from the walkway or patrons carrying their purchases, they'd know everything, as if she wore a sandwich board outlining the grim details.
She pushed open the door to the rooming house, grateful for the next several hours during which she could write up the day's events and get ready for the gala. Her words might never see the pages of
Modern Woman,
but perhaps if she made them just words on paper, it would help reduce their visceral kick.
Charlotte unlocked the door to her room and got to work.
 
Mrs. Sullivan offered to press the burgundy gown while Charlotte bathed. One of the Sullivan boys—who was older than Charlotte by a good fifteen years and sported a fresh black eye—hauled in the heated buckets of water to fill the claw-foot tub in the bathroom. Though she'd just had a bath the day before, this one felt particularly cleansing.
After she donned the gown and slipped on her shoes, Charlotte stopped at Mrs. Sullivan's door for a final inspection.
The older woman smiled, her blue eyes damp from emotion. She grasped Charlotte's hands in hers. Strong hands that had been through so much. “You look lovely, dear.”
Charlotte knew Mrs. Sullivan was seeing her daughter yet again. She smiled and squeezed the older woman's fingers. “Thank you. I promise not to disturb you when I return.”
Mrs. Sullivan patted her arm. “If it's not too late, dear, stop in for a sherry and you can tell me all about it.”
Adjusting the embroidered silk wrap around her bare shoulders, Charlotte waved good-bye as she stepped outside. The sleeveless gown with the deep neckline was more revealing than her typical garments. It had been a less than practical selection while she packed necessities, but now she was glad she'd thrown it into the trunk. As she walked toward the four-story hotel—the tallest building in Cordova—Charlotte wondered what her future sister-in-law might think of the dress. Ruth didn't strike her as the type to share Charlotte's fashion choices. Or many other choices, to be honest.
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