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Authors: Maureen Jennings

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BOOK: Under the Dragon's Tail
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His package stuffed in his pocket, he edged out of the shop, Mr. Bright still suggesting medicines he might like.

As he stepped outside, he almost collided with a young woman who was walking at a brisk pace down Parliament Street.

He tipped his hat. “Sorry, ma’am.”

Initially the woman was prepared to be cross at his clumsiness, but suddenly she smiled up at him.

“Mr. Murdoch. What a surprise.”

For a moment, he didn’t recognize the chubby, rose-cheeked face below him, then he realized it was his dancing partner from the previous evening. She was soberly dressed today in a charcoal-coloured silk cape and black skirt. Only in the crimson plumage and cherries that decorated her straw hat were there indications of the little exotic bird he’d danced with.

“Miss er…”

“Kirkpatrick. Clarice. I do hope the matter wasn’t too dreadfully serious that made you run off like that.”

“Unfortunately, it was.”

She gazed up at him curiously but he didn’t elaborate. He never talked about police work if he could avoid it. People had very odd reactions.

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?” he asked her.

“I’m going to work.” She giggled a little. “I’m always late and today won’t be any exception.” She pointed down the street. “I work at Heineman’s on King Street. I sing the latest songs for people to hear before they purchase the sheet.”

“How marvellous.”

“You should come and hear me sometime. You can pretend to be a customer. They’ll never know.”

“Thank you. I will.”

Miss Kirkpatrick had pretty blue eyes which were twinkling at him, but she wasn’t a coquette, rather a simple, open-hearted young woman.

“Promise?”

He smiled. “I promise.”

“And will you be at the next dance party?”

“Only a tidal wave would stop me.”

The red cherries bounced a little as she lowered her head with a blush.

“I’ll say good afternoon then, and be on my way. I don’t want to get sacked.”

Murdoch watched her briefly, admiring the jauntiness of her steps. The encounter warmed him. He sighed and retrieved his wheel from the curb. He didn’t expect his next meeting would be as pleasant.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

A
s Murdoch crossed the intersection of Parliament and Queen, two boys dashed in front of him, kicking an inflated pig’s bladder back and forth between them. They were ordinary-looking boys, reasonably well cared for, and he thought about the boy who no longer had a future of any kind. He’d pay for a Mass for his soul when he went to church on Sunday. Distracted, he didn’t dodge the fresh horse droppings in the road and the bits of manure flew up into his face. He cursed.

He cycled past the Derby which was quiet, not open for business yet. Close by, the foundry was belching salmon-coloured angry smoke. Thor with stomachache. Or a case of poisoning.

On Front Street, he turned east and immediately hit the strong cool wind from the lake. Pushing against it was like riding uphill. His legs were aching from this morning’s hard training ride and he didn’t feel like another challenge. He cursed again.

The steel-blue lake glittered in the sun, and a steamer chugged and puffed on its way, heading for Buffalo. A fat, dark plume of smoke, more tranquil than the foundry, was drifting from the tall stacks of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, which was busy making the devil’s brew, as Mr. Golding would have called it. In spite of the fact Murdoch disliked the self-righteous stance of so many Temperance folk, he also had some sympathy with their views. He’d seen what drunkenness did. His own father for one. As a young man, Murdoch had, in fact, taken the pledge. He’d lasted six months full of virtue, might have gone on to be an unbearable prig until he was offered a swig of cool ale at the end of a strenuous day of chopping. He was seduced and was conquered. Nothing he could remember had ever tasted as good as that smooth brew against his parched throat.

He was on Cherry Street now and he turned south, past a long trim warehouse. Opposite, close to the lakeshore, was the big distillery and the sweet smell of the whiskey was on the wind.

Mill Street was a narrow dirt road, dotted profusely with mounds of manure. It was the route to and from the distillery and many huge draft horses plodded by
daily. The Brogan sisters lived at the end of a row of workmen’s cottages. Theirs was distinguished by the height and abundance of the weeds that grew in front.

He must have pounded on the door for several minutes and was about to give up when Annie finally came to answer.

Shielding her eyes from the light, she squinted at him.

“What now?”

“Can I come in?”

She shrugged. “If you want to. The place isn’t too tidy. I haven’t got going yet.”

He stepped inside. The front door opened directly into the one room of the house, where she and her sister obviously slept. Annie dumped a pile of undergarments off the single chair.

“Here, sit down. I’d offer you some char but we’re all out. My sister isn’t the best manager in the world. She’s at work now.” She nodded in the direction of the window. “At the distillery. She glues the labels on the bottles.” She yawned. “Could you stand me a bit of shag? I’m all out of that too.”

“You mean tobacco?”

“That’s it.”

Murdoch took out his tobacco pouch and shook some Badger into her open hand. She reached over to the washstand and picked up a clay pipe.

“You can have a smoke too,” she said. “I don’t mind.”

“Not right now.”

He waited while she lit up and took a deep draw. She was the first woman he’d ever seen smoking and it was odd. As if Mr. Kitchen would take up crocheting.

Through the fug she smiled at him. “Why should men have all the fun? A find it calming, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“All right, Mr. Murdoch. What’s happened now?”

He got straight to the point.

“There’s been another death. A murder.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Last night we found the body of a young boy. His name was George Tucker and he was Mrs. Shaw’s foster son.”

“My God. What happened?” She was gazing at him in horror.

“Do you mean how was he killed?”

“Yes. Was it a fight?”

“Possibly. He was stabbed to death.”

“My God,” she said again. “But who would do that to a child?”

“He wasn’t exactly a child. He must have been thirteen or fourteen.”

She tamped down the tobacco in the pipe with the end of a spoon, not looking at him. “That’s dreadful. I’m real sorry to hear it.” More agitated tamping. “But why’ve you come here? What’s it got to do with me?”

“That’s for you to tell me.”

“Mr. Murdoch. For Christ’s sake. I’ve already told you I didn’t know the woman, let alone this nipper.”

“That’s what you said, but you never know, things come back to us after a while. And seeing as how I’d come before, I thought it only right I should tell you what happened. See if in the shock, as it were, your memory got jogged.”

“How could it if there was nothing there in the first place?”

“’Course we don’t know yet why the boy was killed, but it’s highly likely the two deaths are connected.”

“How d’you mean?”

“He probably knew something. Maybe even knew who killed his foster mother. Saw somebody!”

Annie’s pipe was unheeded, about to go out. “Look. Let me scrounge around a bit. Maybe I can find some char. Cheer us both up, won’t it.”

She went into the tiny adjoining room and he heard her banging cupboards around.

“Good news,” she called to him. “Millie was hiding some on me. There’s enough for both of us.”

“You have it. I’ve had mine already.”

“Suit yourself.”

More thumping. The sound of a poker in a grate. She came back into the living room.

“It’ll just take a minute for the kettle to boil.”

Plopping down on the bed, she reached for the pipe.

“Other than me, do you have any suspects?”

“Dolly’s daughter is still missing. She’s a likely one.”

“If anybody had a reason to off Dolly Shaw, she did.”

“Why’s that?”

Annie froze, realizing what she’d said.

“You told me the old lady was cruel to her daughter.”

“I don’t remember saying anything of the kind.”

“Yes, you did. How would I know otherwise?”

“Exactly my thought.”

Suddenly the kettle whistled shrilly, and she jumped up to tend to the tea. He heard the clink of cup and saucer, the vigorous stirring of the pot.

She came back carrying a tea tray, but she had regained her composure and she was once again in control of the situation. An entertainer who knew how to command attention. Murdoch didn’t know how to get back his advantage.

“I remember now,” she said, rather coyly. “It wasn’t you who told me, it was the manager at the Derby. I had to explain what you were doing there. He knew somebody who lived up near Dolly. She’d told him about the daughter and how bad her mother treated her. Here.”

She handed him a cup, which was quite elegant except for a long crack on one side and a saucer that didn’t match. Murdoch had a sense of unreality. Here he was sitting next to a woman’s unmade bed, that woman barely clothed, constantly revealing generous amounts of flesh, offering him tea in a fine china cup.

“Eager, are we?”

“What?”

“You said you didn’t want tea and now look at you, snatching at it.”

Her glance actually flickered over his crotch. Murdoch felt a rush of anger up his back.

“Miss Brogan, I’m a police detective investigating two violent deaths. Now maybe that’s nothing extraordinary to you but it is to me. I don’t want tea or anything else you’re offering. I’d just like some straight answers.”

She actually flushed. “You don’t have to get funny. I’m sorry about the boy, but I can’t help you. I never seen him or the old woman.”

“And you’re sticking to that story?”

“Frigging right. It’s my word against the sodding blind neighbour. You can’t prove anything either way.”

She stirred her tea with the handle end of a knife. “Besides, it don’t mean that the woman who went into the house, if there was such a bint, it don’t necessarily follow that she was the gallows finder, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t. But it might be very helpful to talk to her.”

Annie kept stirring. “We could all do with a bit of help in this world, couldn’t we?”

“One more question, Annie. Why is Henry Pedlow paying court to you?”

She looked at him blankly. “Who’s he when he’s at home?”

“Mrs. Pedlow’s nephew by marriage. He’s the fellow who was waiting outside your dressing room the other day.” She still looked puzzled. “He danced with you. Right after me. Dark hair, long. Sallow complexion.”

“Jules! Gave his name as Jules LaVerne.”

“He’s Henry Pedlow. He’s just got back from India.”

For the first time, she appeared frightened. “What’s he doing hanging around me?”

“That’s what I’d like to know. What did he want?”

Annie stared at him for a moment, tried to look cynical, but her expression was weary.

“What’d you think? What you want, what they all want. But don’t worry. I wasn’t interested in that dried-up piece of shoe leather.”

“I wasn’t. Worried, I mean.”

Annie shrugged. “He said he wanted to send me red roses as an expression of his appreciation and admiration.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s a lot for starters. Flowers now, next the best French bon-bons, then a nice pair of combs. Why are you men so predictable? You can have all the evil thoughts you like. Flog yourself with them if you want. I’m not for hire. I go with whoever I choose.”

At that moment there was a loud knocking at the door.

“Annie! Annie! Rise and shine, my girl.”

She jumped up. “Mother of God! That’s a gentleman friend who’s coming to take me to luncheon. Don’t want him to see me like this.”

She turned her back, undoing her dressing robe as she went towards the paper screen that was in the corner of the room. There she paused, and said over her shoulder, “Go tell him I’ll be just a minute, there’s a good-heart.”

The robe slipped just below her plump, naked buttocks and she held it draped there for a second. An excellent exit.

The eager suitor knocked again, thunderously.

“Annie. Get up or I’ll break the door down.”

“Please Mr. Murdoch,” said Annie from behind the screen. “Shut him up or we’ll have the landlord in here. He lives in the next house.”

Annoyed, Murdoch went to answer the door. The young man outside had his fist lifted ready to thump once more and he froze in mid gesture.

“Who are you?” he asked belligerently.

“A police officer and if you don’t quiet down I’ll have you up on a charge of drunk and disorderly.”

“I’m not drunk,” said the man. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a bird’s eye cravat. A country boy if ever there was one.

“Go to the end of the street and wait there. Silently. You sound like a bull in rut. She’ll be there in a minute.”

“Less than that,” said Annie and she stepped from the screen. She had dressed very quickly indeed and she was still pinning up her hair as she came to the door.

“Thomas, you are a one. I’m ready.” She glanced at Murdoch. “I wish you luck with the case.”

Thomas beamed in triumph and offered her his arm. They walked off, leaving Murdoch to close the door behind them as if he were the butler.

BOOK: Under the Dragon's Tail
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