The Case of the Murdered Muckraker

BOOK: The Case of the Murdered Muckraker
To all the readers in Eugene who have asked me over the years, “When are you going to set a book here?”
My thanks to Sue Stone, Keith Kahla, and Teresa Theophano for their help with New York research; and to Mr. Stanley Bard and his staff for his willingness to answer questions about the Hotel Chelsea. All errors, omissions, additions, and alterations for artistic purposes are strictly my own.
oices raised in anger: in the quiet when the clacking of the typewriter keys ceased, as Daisy reached the bottom of a page, the muffled sound came through the wall from the room next door.
It was not the first time. Apparently her neighbour was not of a conciliatory nature. This time there were two men and a woman, Daisy was pretty sure, but try as she might, she could not make out the words. None of her business, she told herself firmly, and turned her attention back to her work.
Squealing, the Remington reluctantly released the two sheets of paper and the carbon between. Daisy used them to fan herself. Not yet accustomed to the indoor temperature preferred by New Yorkers, and bred as she was to an age-old tradition of roaring fires tempered by icy draughts, she found the hotel room stifling. Her battle with the balky radiator had been less successful than that with the typewriter provided by the management.
She looked longingly at the French windows, surrounded by elaborate rosewood carvings, then scowled at
the typewriter. The Hotel Chelsea was a noted haven for writers and catered to their needs, but the Remington was on its last legs. Daisy suspected it had stood on this very desk for forty years, ever since the place was built in 1883, pounded daily by fingers expert and inexpert. It creaked and groaned at every touch and strongly objected to demands for capital letters. The prospect of resuming her battle with the beastly machine made her feel hotter than ever.
Beside the typewriter, the piles of paper were growing. Mr. Thorwald had requested few changes in her article about the transatlantic voyage. It was all typed, ready to be delivered tomorrow. The article on her first impressions of America was coming along nicely. She had time to spare.
Stepping out onto the balcony, she shivered in the biting chill of a wintry breeze. The yellow-grey sky threatened rain, or even snow, though it was not quite November yet. Petrol—gasoline—fumes drifted up from West Twenty-third Street, mingled with dust, but the tang of sooty coal-smoke was not as predominent as in faraway London.
Daisy leant on the flowery wrought-iron rail to watch a tram rattle and clang past seven stories below. Not a tram, a streetcar. She wondered why Americans insisted that they spoke English, when they might just as well call their language American. The oddest thing was that people kept telling her, an Englishwoman speaking the King's English, that she had a quaint accent!
An unmistakably American voice interrupted Daisy's musing. The window of the next room was open a few inches. The woman whom Daisy had heard indistinctly before was now clear as a bell—no mellow church bell, no
tinkling harness bell, but the shrillest of shrill electric bells.
“You bastard!” she cried venomously. “I wouldn't come back to you for a million dollars.”
“If I had a million dollars,” retorted a biting male voice, more sarcastic than irate, “you still wouldn't squeeze one red cent out of me.”
A different man said something indistinguishable in a soothing, rather nervous tone. A moment later a door slammed.
Guiltily aware that curiosity as much as overheating had driven her outside, Daisy ducked back into her room. She hoped she had not been spotted eavesdropping on the balcony. Rather than sit there awaiting an indignant knock on her door, she decided to go in search of a cup of tea.
It was, after all, past four o'clock. Prohibition had led some Americans to rethink the Boston Tea Party and agree that the British custom of afternoon tea was worth adopting. True, other Americans appeared to obtain alcoholic drinks without the least difficulty. Despite its bohemian clientele, however, the Chelsea was a respectable hostelry, not to be compared to a speakeasy. With any luck, a pot of tea and perhaps even a few biscuits—cookies—might be available below.
Why on earth
? Daisy wondered, making for the lifts. No one she had asked had the foggiest.
As she approached the nearer lift, the outer gate of the farther one clanked shut. She hurried, but when she arrived, the inner gate had also closed and the lift was already moving down the shaft with a rattle and whine of aged machinery. It left behind a whiff of mingled bay rum, expensive cigars, and still more expensive perfume. Daisy
caught a glimpse of the top of the lift boy's livery cap, and beyond him a man's head, thin on top, and a scarlet cloche hat with a spray of white egret feathers.
“Missed it!” she exclaimed. “Blast!” On the other hand, if that was the couple who had been quarrelling in the room next door to hers, she was quite glad not to be boxed in with them.
She walked back to the other lift and pushed the button to summon it.
A young chambermaid popped out of a linen room just down the passage, her arms full of towels. “'Tis a long wait ye'll be having of it, I'm thinkin', miss,” she remarked in an Irish brogue thick enough to spread on soda-bread. Her carroty hair and freckled face reminded Daisy of her stepdaughter, Belinda. A pang of homesickness struck, unexpectedly strong.
She smiled at the girl, who was probably just as homesick, with far more reason. “Is this one out of order?” she asked.
“The elevator boy's a bold young limb o' Satan, ma‘am. This time o' day he'll likely be off creating ‘stead o' minding his duties.”
“I dare say this is a slack time and it must be frightfully boring going up and down in a cage all day.”
The girl beamed at her. “'Tis me little brother, ma'am. He's been on since six this morning. Sure, 'tis hard on a lively lad, but he's his bread to earn and lucky to have a job.”
“I shan't tell tales,” Daisy promised. “I'm in no hurry. I suppose I could always take the stairs, at that.”
“Oh no, ma‘am, 'tis a desp'rate long way down. The
other elevator'll be back in a minute, if our Kevin don't come.”
In fact, the groan and clatter of cables and ratchets announced the imminent arrival of the maligned Kevin. Daisy had only to wait while his lift made its laborious way aloft, but during that interval a man came along the passage to join her.
At the sight of him, the chambermaid turned pink and ducked hurriedly back into her linen room.
He didn't look at all bohemian—in his forties at a guess, dressed in a medium grey tweed suit, with a black homburg and tan leather gloves in one hand, an attaché case in the other. Stocky, slightly bowlegged, he walked with a swagger. His jaw had an aggressive thrust, and his nose was long and inquisitive above a narrow moustache. His glance at Daisy was bold, impertinent even, with a sort of cynical dismissiveness which at once raised her hackles.
At the same time, she wondered if he was the man next door, if he had seen her on the balcony, and whether she was blushing like the Irish girl. She hoped not. She despised blushing as too, too Victorian. She gave him a haughty, withering look worthy of her mother, the Dowager Viscountess Dalrymple, but the bounder had already turned away.
He punched the call button, quite unnecessarily as the cage's rackety approach was obvious. Impatiently he opened the gate onto the empty shaft, where loops of cable performed their mysterious trigonometrical functions. Unless it was calculus Daisy was thinking of—her girls' school had not plumbed such mathematical depths, but she remembered looking over Gervaise's shoulder while he groaned over holiday cramming.
All that cramming for nothing, she thought mournfully. Her brother had gone off to the War instead of to university, and all his maths had not saved him from death in the Flanders trenches.
Maths would not save her impatient fellow-resident, either, if he plumbed the depths of the lift shaft, as he seemed in imminent danger of doing. However, he pulled his head back safely. The lift arrived, piloted by a youth of fourteen or so, whose carroty hair and freckles proclaimed him to be Kevin, while his watering eyes and scarlet ear suggested misconduct chastised.
Nonetheless, he gave Daisy a cocky, snaggletoothed grin and enquired, “Going down, ma'am?”
Perhaps his words recalled the impatient man to a sense of common courtesy. He was already stepping forward, but he drew back and, with an ironical half bow, allowed Daisy to go first.
“Where can I get a pot of tea?” she asked the boy as the lift started down.
“In the lobby, m'lady.” He tipped his cap, the gesture of respect cheekily exaggerated. His native Irish was overlaid with nasal New York. “Stanley—that's the bellhop, m'lady—'ll take your order to the dining room and a waiter'll deliver, m'lady.”
His cheek was good-natured. Daisy laughed. “I'm English,” she admitted, “but not ‘my lady.'”
“We can't all be bishops,” he commiserated. “It's the real tay you want? You tell Stanley Kevin said to tell 'em make it good and strong, not the dishwater the yankees call tay.”
The man behind Daisy snorted. From the corner of her eye, she saw him take a flask from his pocket, uncap it, and swallow a hefty pull. She assumed it was neither tea nor
dishwater he had swigged, as his face turned an unbecoming purple.
Not that she was looking. She wouldn't give him the satisfaction. “I'll remember your advice,” she said to Kevin with a smile.
He winked. “I can get you the other stuff, too,” he whispered. “Not moonshine, gen-u-wine Irish whisky straight from the Emerald Isle.”
“No, thank you.”
“It's safe enough. All the right people been paid off.”
“Paid off?” The man was suddenly sticking his long nose between Daisy and Kevin.
The lift boy gave him a wide-eyed, would-be innocent stare. “Musta misheard, mister. I was tellin' the lady how me brother was laid off. Worked down on the waterfront, he did.”
It was obvious the man did not believe him. Daisy thought he might have pressed the issue if she had not been there. She did her best to look thoroughly respectable, and they reached the bottom with no further exchange. He strode off without a backward glance.
Stepping out, Daisy passed the untenanted reception desk and went on through to the lobby. The floor was patterned in white, grey, black, and dried-blood-coloured marble, and grey marble lined the walls to waist height. In every corner potted palms lurked unhappily, as
de rigueur
here as in London. In this unlikely oasis, a fire flickered beneath a dark, ornately carved mantlepiece. Against the wall on either side stood a stiff, uninviting bench of the same dark carved wood, with red and ivory striped upholstery.
The stripes reappeared on two armchairs and a small
sofa arranged in front of the fireplace around a low glasstopped table. Matching stripes adorned the seats of the rather spindly wrought-iron chairs set out around several small, equally spindly tables. Two of these pushed together were surrounded by a group of earnest-looking women and rather long-haired men. Their clothes tended toward the flamboyant, the men with floppy, kaleidoscopic cravats in place of neckties, several of the women wearing corduroy trousers. Daisy felt positively staid in her powder blue costume.
She had seen virtually identical gatherings in Chelsea—the London suburb, not the hotel—where she had lived before she married. They were discussing either the future course of serious literature or the malevolence of editors.
In Chelsea, such a group would have scorned afternoon tea as too bourgeois for words (their preferred drinks were beer or cheap sherry, depending on their pretensions), but here they all held teacups. In fact Daisy saw teapots on the tables, all occupied, on both sides of the lobby.
One young man sat on his own, on one of the stiff benches against the wall. His teapot was perched on a side table, at an awkward height and distance, his cup and saucer balanced equally awkwardly in one hand, as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with them. He was soberly dressed in a dark, businesslike suit, his fair hair cropped short above studious horn-rimmed spectacles. Three or four years younger than Daisy's twenty-six, he appeared to be deliberately avoiding her eye.
Of course she would not have joined him even if invited, but she did wish she had someone to sit with.
She was a modern independent woman, she reminded herself. For years now she had looked after herself, having
concluded that absolutely anything was preferable to living with her mother in the Dower House, after her father died in the '19 influenza pandemic. Just because she was married now, had been married for a
whole month
, and her darling Alec was hundreds of miles away, it didn't mean she could no longer take care of herself.
The only free place was the other bench, but as she resigned herself to it, a couple stood up to leave a table on the other side of the lobby, by the door to the little-used Ladies' Sitting Room. Daisy was moving to take possession when a short, plump woman with untidy grey hair bustled up to her.
“Oh dear,” she said, “I do hope you don't mind?” She looked up appealingly at Daisy over half-spectacles.
“Mind?” Daisy asked, bewildered.
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