Murder on the Last Frontier (7 page)

BOOK: Murder on the Last Frontier
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The exchange in the alley played through Charlotte's head again. Whatever she could add—if there was any significance to what she'd heard, and there was no assurance there was—would have to be relayed to him anyway. Better to speak directly to the deputy than to be brushed off by the marshal.
“Don't you agree, Miss Brody?” Mrs. Bartlett said.
Charlotte jerked her head around to face the women she was supposed to be conversing with. Damn it all. What had they been talking about? She had no idea. “Um.”
Mrs. Bartlett pressed her lips together, her brow wrinkled with agitation at Charlotte's obvious slight.
“Are you all right?” Tess Kavanagh asked with more concern than annoyance. “You seem a bit flushed.”
Charlotte pulled her handkerchief from her purse and daubed at her throat. Maybe she could pass off the embarrassment as a dizzy spell or some other feminine malady. Her inner feminist cringed, but better that than insulting the women any more than she had. “I am feeling a little lightheaded. Will you excuse me, please?”
Without waiting for a response, she walked away from the others. Instead of heading to the powder room, or to the main doors, Charlotte skirted the outer edge of the crowd. Surely she'd run into Deputy Eddington.
There he was, speaking to a middle-aged couple. Now she just needed to get him alone.
Just as she reached them, the music changed to a slower tune. Perfect. She loosely knotted her wrap around her shoulders so it wouldn't slip off. “Pardon me, Deputy. I'd be honored to take you up on your offer of a dance.”
Eddington's dark eyebrows rose. At her boldness, perhaps? But then he grinned. “It would be my honor and pleasure, Miss Brody.”
He excused himself from the couple, then held his left hand out, palm up. Charlotte took it. His fingers gently closed around hers, and he led her to the dance floor. When they found an open spot, Eddington lifted their hands and twirled her into position, facing him. The move surprised Charlotte. Who would have thought the gruff deputy could be so suave? His right hand rested on her waist, and he stared into her eyes. She moistened her lips. “I hope I didn't take you away from any important business, Deputy.”
“Nothing of the sort. And please, call me James.”
The musicians were at the opposite end of the floor, making conversation possible. Other couples spoke to one another without her hearing them, and Charlotte hoped she could discuss the pair in the alley in some semblance of privacy. She moved in closer, inhaling a combination of tobacco and wool. His hand at her waist slid to the small of her back.
“I need to tell you what I heard,” she said, her mouth near his ear.
“Gossip about the Bartletts' cook?” he whispered. “I know she keeps a bottle of rye in the root cellar.”
Charlotte squeezed his hand in rebuke, but she laughed. “No. Something serious.”
Eddington drew his head back to look at her, but kept their bodies close. There was a glint of amusement in his eyes. “Violation of the Alaska dry law is serious, Miss Brody.”
“But probably not heeded as the government wishes. No, this is about Darcy Dugan.”
His amusement fled. “What about her?”
She gave him a brief description of what she'd heard and the circumstances. Though he continued to lead her through the dance steps without faltering, his gaze darted throughout the room. She knew he was listening, but he seemed to be searching for suspects as well.
“And you have no idea who it could have been?” he asked as he spun her around an older couple.
Charlotte surveyed the attendees. “No. They could have been anyone. I'm sorry.”
Eddington immediately brought his attention to her. “Nothing to be sorry about. You've given us more to go on. At least two people know more about the murder than they're willing to admit.”
“Do you think they were working together?” The possibility startled Charlotte. “Planned it?”
He shrugged and went through the motion of giving her a polite bow as the music ended. “Or one told the other. I'd wager a man delivered the fatal blows, though some women are certainly strong enough. I've questioned Brigit and the girls, but either they saw nothing or are lying for some reason. Hard to say.”
“Why would they lie? I'd think they'd want to find out who killed one of their own.” It made no sense, but human nature was often a mystery. It also led to some of the best stories.
“The houses here and the marshal's office have an understanding,” he said. “They operate more or less freely as long as they aren't blatantly advertising, but that doesn't translate to trust.”
Perhaps an unbiased third party like herself could get more out of Brigit and her girls. Charlotte already had a rapport with Marie. That would be a good place to start.
Deputy Eddington tucked Charlotte's arm under his and escorted her to the table where Michael and Ruth sat with another couple. Michael glanced between her and his fiancée, his expression a familiar one of exasperation. What had she done now?
“Are you all right, Charlotte?” Ruth asked coolly. “Mother said you were feeling poorly.”
“I'm—” Oh. Right. She'd been “unwell” while in conversation with Mrs. Kavanagh and Ruth's mother. Charlotte's malaise being miraculously alleviated by dancing with Deputy Eddington didn't go over well with Ruth. “I am feeling better now, thank you.”
“I couldn't let Miss Brody leave without dancing with me,” Eddington said. He turned to Charlotte and inclined his head. “I hope I didn't exacerbate any symptoms of nausea.”
It took considerable effort for Charlotte to control the laughter that threatened to bubble out of her. He was a rogue, just as Ruth had said. She gave him a wan smile. “I'm sure I'll recover, Deputy.”
Their shared pretense shone in his eyes as he bowed to her, then the others at the table. “I'm afraid I have to return to my duties.”
The deputy bid them good evening and, with his hands clasped behind his back, resumed his patrol of the perimeter of the room.
“If you're feeling ill, Charlotte, perhaps I should bring you back to your room.” Michael stood and straightened his coat.
Charlotte started to protest, then thought better of it. “I'd appreciate that. I promise to send him back here right away,” she said to Ruth.
Ruth's pinched expression, so like her mother's, softened slightly. She offered a tight smile. “Of course he should take you home. I think that's for the best.”
I'm sure you do,
Charlotte thought.
She bade good-bye to the others. Michael came around the table and gently grasped her upper arm. He guided her toward the coatroom to pick up his mackinaw. On the way, he shook his head. “I don't even want to know.”
“No,” she said, “you probably don't.”
Chapter 6
A
light rain fell throughout much of the morning, lending a cold dampness to the room. Charlotte snuggled under the down comforter, loathe to move lest she touch the cooler portions of the sheets. The patter against the window and the warmth of her bed lulled her into an in-between state of consciousness. She had no reason to be up with the sun, such as it was on a gray Sunday. She certainly had no plans to attend morning services. Let Cordovans see her as a godless heathen, for all she cared. She'd behave herself in other public forums. Mostly.
Would Michael be joining Ruth and the Bartletts at the Lutheran church? Charlotte and Michael had gone to services now and again with their parents, but it was more for show than due to any sort of piety. What had possessed him to become engaged to a preacher's daughter?
Must be love, she thought with a surprising lack of envy.
Eventually, her bladder determined it was time to get up. The rest of the house was quiet as Charlotte made her way to the lavatory. She returned to her room, dressed, and read through the first installment of her series she'd be sending to Kit. It couldn't be posted until the next day, and it would take at least a couple of weeks to reach New York, but Kit and Mr. Malone should be pleased.
At ten thirty, her stomach rumbling, Charlotte decided to see if the café was open. It should be late enough afterward that Miss Brigit's house would be stirring. Hopefully Marie would be willing to talk to her. Charlotte donned her mackinaw and wide-brimmed hat and headed out into the rain.
Henry was just setting up the coffeepot in anticipation of the after-church crowd. “Morning, Miss Brody.”
“Good morning, Henry.” Charlotte shook off rain from her coat. “Goodness, what a day.”
“At least it isn't snowing yet. We usually don't get this sort of weather until late in September. Might be a bad winter this year if it keeps up.”
Charlotte hung her hat and mackinaw on the provided coatrack. “That's something to look forward to.” Henry cocked his head, not getting her sarcasm. “Never mind. Can I have some coffee and toast, please?”
They chatted about the weather—the possibility of thirty feet of snow by the end of February boggled her mind—then Charlotte steered the conversation to the mayor's party the night before. Henry had been washing dishes in the kitchen the entire night, but had enjoyed the music.
“Did you see or hear anything unusual?” she asked. No one else was in the café yet, assuring privacy with her inquiry.
He continued stacking cups and saucers. “Nope. Just the chef yelling about limp lettuce and soggy toast points.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “Why?”
Chances were slim that Henry knew anything about Darcy Dugan, but he might have overheard something at some point.
“Just wondering. A lot of folks were talking about Darcy last night.” From what she'd heard, the attendees had been horrified, but certain the young harlot had tried to cheat a customer, thus instigating a drunken rage.
“I bet,” he said. “There hasn't been an outright murder here for a good bit, and that one was more of an accident than anything.”
She recalled Michael mentioning something of the sort. “What about other problems with Miss Brigit's girls? Does the marshal get many calls about them?”
Henry refilled her coffee cup, a pensive look on his smooth face. “Not that I've heard. Miss Brigit is a bit of a stickler. Doesn't let the girls get too wild. They're kinda nice, really.” Charlotte caught his eye, and the boy's cheeks flamed. “I mean, when they come in for lunch or something, they're always nice to me and tip well. Like you do.” His dark eyes widened, and the color on his face deepened. “Not that you're a—I didn't mean—”
“I understand what you mean, Henry.” Charlotte smiled, suppressing a laugh, and deposited a dime and a nickel on the counter. “Let me know if you hear anything, will you?”
With his eyes downcast, he nodded, swept the money into his palm, and concentrated on sorting coins in the till.
“Speaking of Miss Brigit,” she said. Henry met her gaze, his cheeks still flaming. “Can you direct me to her house?”
Other than his eyes widening with shock and curiosity, he gave no other outward reaction. Henry described the house that was located just below Michael's office, closer to the railroad tracks.
Back outside, a gust flung cold rain into Charlotte's face. She ducked her head, one hand holding her hat to keep it from blowing off, and made quick time to the two-story clapboard. This unassuming residence housed Brigit and her girls? She knocked on the green door and waited.
No one responded, so she knocked again, louder. Was she too early? It was after eleven. Did the girls get Sundays off? The railroad tracks were less than fifty yards away, and she wondered how anyone living there got any sort of rest.
“Get locked out, girlie?” called a deep voice from the road.
Charlotte turned around. Three men sauntered past the house, heading toward the canneries closer to the water along the railroad tracks. All were bearded, wearing rough clothing and rubber knee boots. One passed a brown bottle to another. They didn't seem interested in approaching her, thank goodness, but her heart pounded at the possibility of having to deal with the men. Would someone in the house hear if she called out?
“Is she a new girl?” one asked.
The man with the bottle shrugged. “Who the hell looks at their faces?”
All three guffawed and, thankfully, kept walking.
Heat rose on Charlotte's face. She'd received her share of rude remarks, especially when she confronted a man who didn't think women should be journalists. There were more of those than she cared to count, but this was the first time she'd felt so vulnerable.
The one man's words echoed in her head.
Who the hell looks at their faces?
Was that how they saw, or didn't see, these women? As anonymous playthings? Did a man like that kill Darcy because she'd been nothing to him? Easy to get rid of?
They were no better—or worse—than Richard.
The thought turned her stomach. Something had to be done about antiquated attitudes of people who viewed a woman, any woman, as less than a man.
Charlotte stepped down from the low wood porch and walked around the side of the house. There wasn't much of a yard, mostly scrubby grass and overgrown patches of fireweed. Wood stacked against the wall beside the back door. A couple of old folding chairs.
And a narrow, beaten path leading up the slope to the walkway that paralleled Main Street.
Charlotte mentally followed the trail that ran behind the buildings. A small cabin, Michael's office, a clothing store, the tailor. There was a gap between buildings where the wooden walk was supported by pilings that had been sunk down into the water twenty feet below the main part of town. The trail continued all the way to Sullivan's rooming house, then down the slope on the opposite end. This was the path Darcy took the other night while trying to escape her killer.
But why did she leave the house if she was ill? What could have been such powerful motivation? And why hadn't she yelled for help?
“Can I help you?”
Charlotte spun toward the voice coming from the back of the house. A petite, dark-haired woman of thirty or so stood in the open doorway, hands on her hips. She wore a pale green, Oriental-inspired dressing gown, and her feet were bare, the toenails painted bright red.
“Good morning,” Charlotte said. She made her way toward the door. The aroma of bacon frying made her stomach gurgle. Perhaps she should have eaten more than toast at the café. “I was hoping to talk to Marie. Is she available?”
The woman gave Charlotte a slow perusal, taking in her drooping hat and wet mackinaw. “Who are you?”
“Charlotte Brody. Marie knows me.”
“Marie's not up yet.” The woman smiled wickedly. “She had a busy night.”
Apparently the death of one of Brigit's girls hadn't stemmed the flow of customers. Did business take precedence over grief, or was it an attempt to keep things as normal as possible?
If the comment was meant to scandalize, this woman was wasting her efforts on Charlotte. She returned the mocking grin with one of sweet innocence. “I'm sure Marie made a lot of clients happy. Does she get some sort of bonus for a job well done?”
The woman's smile dropped into a tight-lipped frown. “I'll let her know you're looking for her, Miss Brody.”
She started to retreat into the kitchen. Charlotte took a quick step forward, her hand out in a placating gesture. “Wait. Are you Brigit?”
The woman stopped. “What of it?” she said curtly.
Charlotte had to make amends or she'd never get anywhere with Brigit, and likely not get a chance to question Marie. “I apologize for the flippant remark. I'd like to talk to you about Darcy.”
Brigit drew in a sharp breath, obviously surprised by Charlotte's request. “Why? What do you care about her?”
How could Charlotte explain to this woman that Darcy's death—and the reason it might have occurred—had affected her in the short time Charlotte had been in Cordova? That the young woman's condition had churned up Charlotte's own painful past? Did Brigit know Darcy had been pregnant?
“I helped my brother during her autopsy yesterday,” Charlotte said. Brigit's dark eyebrows rose, but she didn't respond. “I want to help find out who killed her.”
Brigit reached back into the kitchen and picked up something from the windowsill. She stuck a cigarette between her lips and concentrated on flicking the wheel of her silver lighter as she spoke. “Some drunk, I'd reckon. It happens.”
The flame caught, and the pungent aroma of burning tobacco cut through the rain.
“You have no idea who it could have been? Who she was . . . with that evening?” Charlotte found that hard to believe.
Brigit blew a stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth. “She was supposed to be taking the evening off. Doctor's orders.” The emphasis on that last bit told Charlotte exactly what the madam thought of Michael's directive. “No one went up to her room, and no one saw her come down. Eddington was already here asking.”
He'd mentioned that while they danced last night, but Charlotte hoped she could talk to Marie in a more relaxed and friendly manner than would likely have been used in an interrogation by the local law.
“She hadn't been having trouble with anyone lately?”
“No.”
Charlotte tried to read the truth behind the woman's simple denial. Brigit held her gaze, challenging Charlotte to come right out and refute her too-pat answer. But why wouldn't Brigit let James know if there had been trouble?
Unless there hadn't been, and Darcy's death was a spontaneous reaction by an angry customer. That didn't sit right with Charlotte. The beating Darcy took was too specific, too personal to be a random act.
What would it take to get Brigit to talk?
“Look, Miss O'Brien—”
“Brigit will do,” she said. She drew deeply on the cigarette, then flicked the butt into the damp bushes. The cloud of blue smoke she released obscured her scowl for a moment.
It took considerable effort for Charlotte not to huff in frustration. “Miss Brigit, I only want to help.”
“You've been here for, what, two days, Miss Brody? You have no reason to stick your nose in my business.” She stepped back into the kitchen, hand gripping the edge of the door. “I'll tell Marie you want to talk to her, but unless you're willing to pay the five-dollar minimum or looking for work, I'll kindly ask you to otherwise leave me and my girls alone. If you'll excuse me, I have a funeral to arrange.”
Slam.
Charlotte stood in the overgrown yard, staring at the scuffed door while rain soaked the lower half of her skirt and blew into her face with each gust of wind.
Damn it.
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