Authors: Ed Gorman
I decided to end all the fun. “The same goes for you, too, Wayland.”
He smiled, and the smile said that not only was he smarter, richer, and prettier than I was, but he was also better at the little game we were playing.
I was glad to leave.
espite what the ministers will tell you, there are whorehouses and there are whorehouses. There are some, for instance, where you are likely to get(a) robbed, (b) diseased, (c) blackmailed. There are others where you don't want to see the girls you'll be going upstairs with because if you saw them first you wouldn't go upstairs. And then there are those where the girls are pretty and checked once a month by the local docs, and the bouncer, usually Negro, is there to keep peace and quiet, not to rob you.
I had the impression, as soon as I stepped inside her door, that Luellen Conroy ran the latter variety. The house was clean, the furnishings new, the air fresh smelling. Luellen herself was a trim little woman in a tan business suit, pince-nez glasses, and a quick, pleasant smile. Her graying hair was pulled back into a chignon.
She answered the door herself and said, “I'm afraid we're not open now, sir. If you'd like to come back around four, we'll be glad to see you.”
I showed her my badge.
She smiled. “Well, a Federale. I'm impressed. Had a
lot of lawmen through here before, but never a Federal man. And especially not one as nice-looking as you.”
Prim and proper as she was, she had to get a whorehouse compliment out. In her calling, flattery was meaningless and mandatory.
“Afraid I'm here on business.”
“Business? A Federal man? Well, c'mon in.”
She led me down a narrow hall. A gray tomcat waddled after us. “He may hiss at you. I've put him on a diet and he doesn't like it. He takes it out on everybody. I've got a couple of gals who are just like him. I say lose a few pounds and they act like I told them to get an arm amputated or something.”
She said all this as she walked, without once looking back at me.
Her office was painted yellow, with yellow curtains and mahogany office furnishings. Clean, competent, like the lady herself.
“Like some coffee?”
“That sounds good, actually.”
She had a graceful silver pot on top of a three-shelf bookcase. She poured steaming coffee into two rather dainty cups and handed me one.
“I told the girls they could sleep in. Had a little trouble last night. Couple cattlemen got pretty rowdy and started fighting with a couple of the other customers. One of them pulled a gun and held one of the girls hostage.” She smiled. “He was so drunk he couldn't tell me why he was holding her hostage. I had to sit up half the night talking to him. He was a pretty sad case. Some people shouldn't drink. I didn't think he'd shoot her on purpose, but there was the chance he might accidentally misfire or something, so I had to be careful.”
“You didn't send for the marshal?”
“Charley Wickham?” She smiled. “Charley makes his money the easy way. He stops by to pick up his âstipend,' as he calls it, once a month but otherwise he wants to forget this house even exists. That doesn't make him bad, just sensible. Every lawman I've ever known takes sin money. He'd come out here if we had a murderâGod forbidâbut anything else, he lets us handle.”
“Never samples the merchandise?”
“Nope. Never did.” She sat back in her chair and picked up one of three cigarettes she'd rolled for herself. She lighted it with a stick match which she snuffed out between thumb and forefinger. “Your brother was here a few times.”
“Doesn't surprise me.”
“Some of the time I liked him.”
“Our whole family's that way. Some of the time we're likable.”
“Imagine I'm the same way, yes.”
“I don't think that nurse of his ever knew about it. Stuck-up gal. I send our girls to the hospital for their monthly checkups. She's never very friendly to them.” She took a long drag on her cigarette. “She put your arm in that sling?”
“Matter of fact, she did.”
“I could make a lot of money on her. A certain kind of man goes for a woman like that. Aloof. Makes the men think they're getting a real prize.”
“You want me to mention that to her?”
She grinned. “Oh, sure. And then you'll have your other arm in a sling.”
“She's a pretty decent woman, actually. Once you melt the ice.”
“If you like the type.” Another deep drag. The smoke was baby blue in the slanting autumn sunlight through the window. “But you're not here for small talk, are you?”
“I'm here to find out if a couple of men named Spenser and Wayland rented your whole house Tuesday night?”
“And that would be the night your brother was murdered.”
“You keep up on the news.”
“Half the merchants in town sneak over here. We hear all the news and all the gossip.”
“So did they?”
“I can't give you the answer you want because I wasn't in town. I have a man I see over in Riverton. I was there that evening. It was my birthday. As far as I know, they were here from about eight in the evening until about four or five the next morning. Spenser had a little trouble getting excited enough to do anything until the girls gave him a bath. That got him going. They giggled about him the last time, too.”
“The last time?”
“Spenser and Wayland and the other two who came to visit your brother several months backâthey all ended up here one night. The girls don't mind helping men who're having a little troubleâmen who're a little shy or nervous or feel they're doing something wrong. A lot of the time that's actually sweet, believe it or not, makes the men more human and they're more grateful when they finally do get all fired up. And that means tips for the gals. But what they don't like are men who blame them. Insult them.
Tell them if they were prettier or this and thatâwell, they blame the woman. Spenser's like that. So they don't like him much. Wayland's fine. He just wants to have a good time.”
“You say you hear gossip? You hear anything about my brother's murder?”
“Nothing you haven't heard.”
“You know James Andrews?”
A sour face. “Everybody knew James. And almost nobody liked him.”
“He had a way of snooping around. Finding things out that people didn't want found out.”
“He ever bother you?”
A deep drag on her cigarette. “Are you kidding? He used to sit up in that tree over on the corner of my property and write down the names of all the so-called respectable men who snuck in my back door. I think a few of them gave him a little money a few times, but that wasn't good for my business. I had to hire a couple boys who were passing through townâgunnies, I guess you'd sayâand they gave James the kind of beating that takes a long, long time to get over. He never sat up in that tree again, I'll tell you that.”
There wasn't much more to say. I wondered about Spenser and Wayland. Unless one of the girls contradicted them and said that she saw one or both of them sneak out, their alibi from eight to dawn was covered. But the doc who'd examined David's body said that he'd probably been killed in the very early part of the evening. It wouldn't have taken much to kill him just at twilight and then sneak back to town and the whorehouse.
“Ask your girls if they saw either Wayland or Spenser sneak off that night, would you?”
She ground her smoke out in a glass ashtray and stood up. I guessed our meeting was over. She came around the desk and gently touched the elbow of my good arm. “I'll make a point of asking them this afternoon.”
She guided me to the front door.
“You're welcome here any time, Mr. Ford.”
“I appreciate the invitation. Maybe I'll take you up on that.”
“That means âno,' doesn't it?”
I laughed. “Yep, I expect it does.”
I shook her hand. She had a hell of a grip for such a small woman.
“No,” I smiled, “too cheap.”
“Oh, sure. I'll bet.”
I spent an hour at the mortuary where they were boxing David up to be shipped back to the ancestral home down South. I hadn't had any contact with my folks in years, and didn't intend to start now. I just wanted to make sure that David looked as good as possible. My mother would appreciate that. She was awfully fussy about how people dressed. Even dead people. Or maybe especially dead people. In her crowd, looking your best included being buried.
While I was working with Mr. Harold Newcomb, who owned the mortuary, a thin, middle-aged woman in an appropriately black, high-collared dress, slammed
away at typewriter keys in a small office off the room that could be rented for wakes.
Whenever Newcomb was called away, which was frequently, he told me to look over the three types of shipping boxes he sold. A couple of times when he was called away, the thin woman in black quit her typing and came quickly out of the office, heading in my direction. But each time she started to speak to me, Newcomb came back, and she pretended to be just walking through the viewing area.
I concluded my business in Newcomb's office, paying cash, with the woman pounding away on the typewriter. I got a receipt, a damp handshake, and an offer to escort me to the front door. But before I could say anything, the thin woman said, “I have to run over to the newspaper for some more letterhead, Mr. Newcomb. I can walk him outdoors.”
“Fine, Beth. I appreciate that.”
She grabbed a shawl and off we went.
She didn't speak until we were outside on the steps. “I'm sorry about your brother, Mr. Ford.”
“I don't mean that professionally. I mean, I don't say it just because I'm in the funeral business.”
“I know what you mean. And thanks again.”
Clamor from wagons, buggies, a stagecoach. Bright-sounding birds; merry people in the cherished sunlight. Odd to see all this life from the steps of a funeral home.
“I don't mean to speak out of turn, but there's something I wanted to tell you about because there's no other lawman around.”
I'd felt that she had some message for me. “All right.”
“Last year a friend of mine died. A woman named Louise. I happened to be working late when they brought her in. Mr. Newcomb is also the county medical examiner. I know what he put on the death certificate, but I don't think it was correct. I think somebodyâwell, you know.”
The door opened. Mr. Newcomb, who did not look happy, said, “Something's come up, Miss Cave. Would you come in here, please?”
“But I need to get paper andâ¦”
Unhappiness became frozen anger. “Right now, if you please, Miss Cave.” Then, nodding to me, “Good day, Mr. Ford.”
I was being dismissed. But I had the idea that she was facing an even sterner fate. He'd obviously overheard us talking. Obviously.
The next place I stopped was to visit Thomas Brinkley and Giles Fairbain, the other two men who'd been dealing with my brother for his new machine gun. They were staying at the Excelsior Hotel, which was a bit finer than where I was staying. The halls had been waxed and smelled of sweet polish. The maids scurried rather than walked, and smiled rather than merely nodded.
Neither man was in, as the rather disapproving gent behind the desk told me after grudgingly giving me their room numbers. Apparently, my sling displeased him. Must've given him the impression that I was some sort of ruffianâthat was the prissy word his kind would useâand therefore not the sort of man one would expect to stay at such a refined hotel
as this. Too bad I didn't have some fresh horse shit on my boots. I could have given his Persian rug a little more color of the brown variety.
I walked over to the marshal's office. Clarion was clearing off the front desk for the day. Most of the items went into the wastebasket. “You looking for the marshal?”
“Yep. He in?”
“Anything I can help you with? He's pretty busy with paperwork.”
“Why don't I just walk back there?”
He said, “Believe it or not, we have a system here.”
It wasn't worth pushing. He was doing his job. “Ask him if he'll see me.” We stared at each other a long moment.
“I'll be right back,” he said. He walked back and spoke to the marshal in a low voice.
Clarion came back and said, “The marshal said c'mon back.”
I walked back. Wickham's door was open. He sat behind his desk, staring at a small photograph. I couldn't see the side with the chemical on it, the side with the actual picture, but even so he hurriedly got rid of it. Opened the middle drawer of his desk, dropped the photograph in, slid the door shut.
“Well, if it isn't Mr. Ford.”
He nodded to the chair in front of his desk. “Sittin's free this time of day.”
“Who could turn down an offer like that?”
He leaned back in his squeaky desk chair, folded his
hands over his stomach. “I'll bet I know why you're here.”
“You a mind reader, are you?”
“Nope. A snoop is what I am. Well, not personally. But my men are. And one of them told me James's wife came to see you in the hospital.”
His chair squawked when he leaned back. “I imagine she told you the same story she told me.”
“You want to go first?”
“Don't bother me none. She doesn't think that your brother and her husband and Tib died because of that gun. She thinks James was blackmailing somebody.”
“And you don't believe that?”
“You mean was he blackmailing somebody? Hell, yes. But he was never into big money. Just enough to keep food on the table.”
“Where'd he get the money for the new house?”
“Maybe he saved his money. Maybe he got lucky one time. But if he was blackmailing somebody that important around here it would've had to involve some kind of crime. And if it involved some kind of crime, I would've heard about it by now.”
“When's the last murder you had here before my brother?”