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Authors: Maureen Jennings

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BOOK: Under the Dragon's Tail
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“A man, then.”

“Possibly, although some women are equal in strength to men.”

She laughed. “A hit, sir, a palpable hit. Frankly, it is impossible to determine whether the injury occurred very shortly after death or very shortly before. There is little bleeding.”

“Could the blow have rendered her unconscious?”

She sighed. “I wish I could be more definite but I’m afraid I cannot say. She had so much liquor in her stomach, I would think she was staggering drunk. An easy pushover–literally. She may have fallen and banged her head on the fender, been dazed, and…well I suppose her assailant could have taken advantage of that. Her gown, by the way, was splattered with beer, but from the pattern, I’d say the liquor was thrown down on her rather than she herself spilling it. Perhaps to reinforce the notion of her inebriety.”

“Dr. Ogden, if you get tired of medicine you could be a consultant for the police force.”

“Not very likely, Mr. Murdoch. I’ve met Colonel Grasett. I don’t think he would believe a word I said.”

Privately Murdoch thought the police chief had difficulty accepting anything anybody said, other than himself, but he didn’t say so. He didn’t want to overstep the mark and get too comradely with the lady. He was enjoying the conversation so far.

“Mr. Murdoch? I’m sorry I’ve not been of much help.”

“You have, ma’am. Whatever the sequence, this was deliberate murder.”

“That I concur with.”

She said her good-bye and hung up. Murdoch replaced the receiver on the stand. She must be quite young because it was only recently that lady doctors could be licensed. He wondered what she looked like.

 

CHAPTER NINE

C
onstable Robert Wiggin was the only officer available to assist, and Murdoch wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t like or respect the man. Wiggin was sallow-faced and lanky, with a caved-in chest that no amount of reprimand from Seymour the duty sergeant could straighten. He bullied the unfortunates who ended up in the jail, but was smooth as butter around his superiors. If the inspector were to ask for an arse wipe, the constable would have done it.

Murdoch set a brisk pace over to River Street, and he took a rather mean pleasure in the fact that the constable was quite winded when they reached the corner.

The house looked abandoned, all the curtains drawn, the black ribbon on the door drooped.

“Stand back a bit, will you, Wiggin, don’t want to scare them into next year.”

Murdoch thumped hard with the knocker and after a few minutes the door was opened a crack. A pair of frightened eyes peeked out at him.

“Hello, Freddie, isn’t it? Can I come in?”

The boy nodded and stepped back. George appeared behind him. He too looked afraid, although he had more air of bravado than the younger lad. Murdoch entered the hall, which reeked of cigars.

“We’ve got to have a talk, my bravos. Kitchen?”

Freddie glanced quickly at George, who nodded. Both boys were even more unkempt than before. Murdoch followed them into the kitchen, which was lit by a single candle on the pine table. The stub end of a cigar sat in a used plate. He wondered how they had been taking care of themselves and he felt guilty that he hadn’t given them more thought.

“Has Miss Lily come back yet?”

George answered. “No, we haven’t seen hide nor hair of her, have we, Freddie?”

The boy shook his head.

Murdoch paused. He didn’t know how to proceed. He didn’t want to shock them unnecessarily.

“Boys, I want you to tell me the truth. No con do you hear? On your honour, so help you God.”

They stared at him.

“The night your foster mother died, was there any
kind of barney? Did she and Lily have a set-to, for instance?”

They both tensed but George said, “They was always having rows. Never stopped, did it, Freddie? She went at Lily terrible.”

“Did Lily fight back?”

“Sometimes.”

“Did they go at it Thursday?”

“Don’t remember.”

“Freddie, what about you?”

“Don’t remember,” he whispered.

“Did anybody else come in to visit? A neighbour for instance? Late I mean.”

“We was in bed, sir. Fast asleep.”

“So your answer is no or don’t know?”

“Don’t know, sir.”

Murdoch pushed aside the plate with the cigar. “I’m asking because we’ve got new information about the way Mrs. Shaw died.”

“She fell didn’t she, sir? And topped her noggin.”

“That’s what we thought, George, but it’s not true. I’m afraid somebody killed her.”

“Done in?” George gasped.

“Yes, done in.”

“How?”

“She was suffocated.”

“On purpose?” Still uncomprehending. Or pretending to be.

“Yes, on purpose. Probably with some kind of pillow. That’s why I’m asking you if anybody had a barney with her. If you heard anything.”

He gave them a chance to answer but they both stared at him, looking frightened, especially Freddie.

“I’m going to have a look in the parlour in a minute. See what I can find. Have you been in there?”

Again the vigorous shaking of heads. Believable this time. Murdoch stood up. “If you do remember anything, I want you to come straight down to the station and tell me. And when Lily comes back you’ve got to make her understand that we need to talk to her. Can you do that?”

“Yes, sir. We will, won’t we, Freddie?”

At the door Murdoch hesitated. “How are you boys managing? Have you got work yet, George?”

“No, sir. I’m going out tomorrow to look. They always needs bun boys down at the stables. I’ll try there.”

Again Murdoch wished he had taken more care. Freddie was a child and George not much more.

“Come and see me next week if you haven’t got anything.”

He went back to the front door. The constable had positioned himself at the bottom of the steps, in guard position.

“Start having a look around the front and back of the house, will you, Wiggin.”

“Yes, sir.” He hesitated. “What exactly am I looking for, sir? I haven’t been on this sort of investigation before.”

Murdoch waved him off. “Use your brain, Wiggin. Wake it up. Collect anything you think might have relevance.”

He went back into the dark hall and over to the parlour. A waft of rotten air hit him as he entered the room. Most of the odour came from the dishes that were still sitting where Dolly had left them, with leftover food on them. The boys were certainly telling the truth about not coming in here. It was untouched since he’d last been.

Given what he now knew, the Turkish couch took on a new and sinister aspect. There were two pillows, one brown, one emerald green. He picked up the green one, which was on the floor. The cover was knitted and the words
Love Conquers All
were oversewn in red. He replaced it gingerly. He’d take it in to Dr. Ogden to examine. The grimy sheet on the couch was rumpled and the sateen comforter was half off, dragging on the floor. He couldn’t tell if that was an indication of a struggle, however, or just of an untidy housekeeper. He began to inch slowly around the room, studying everything with new eyes.

The second Morris chair by the hearth had served as Dolly’s wardrobe. Her skirt, a black cotton lined with canvas, and her grey silk waist, very stained, were draped across the back of the chair. He moved them aside. Underneath were her undergarments. Somewhat squeamishly, he gave them a cursory examination. There was a pair of stays, most of the laces broken and
knotted, a white underskirt, and a pair of dirty drawers. No stockings.

He tried the desk but it was locked and he left it for the moment. Next to it in the corner was a triangular glass-fronted hutch, and he opened it up. The shelves inside were bare, no display of fine china dishes or glass-ware here. The dust was thick enough to write a letter in, but nobody had been that helpful. He moved on. The window that faced River Street intervened. The flowered velvet curtain was closed and he lifted the corner to peek outside. The street was deserted, but he fancied that at the same time he had lifted his curtain a neighbour across the road had dropped hers. He returned to his task.

The top of the sideboard was covered with figurines of various sizes, all nestling in dust balls. At one end was a gilt birdcage, empty, at the other a pitcher and bowl. The pitcher was half-filled with water and inevitably was now the swimming hole for several flies, some still struggling. Next to it was a dish crusted with the remnants of what was once some kind of stew, and beside that two empty glasses. He opened the right-hand drawer of the sideboard. It was empty. So was the left drawer and the lower cupboards. Mrs. Shaw seemed to have preferred to have furniture for show rather than function. Given the poverty of the house itself, these pieces were quite swell.

The japanned side table by the couch told him nothing except that Dolly did not have a green thumb. The fern in its brass pot was wilting badly. He reached
for the pitcher and watered the poor plant, flies and all. That left the desk. He went out to the hall.

“George!”

As fast as a jack-in-the-box, the boy’s head popped through the kitchen door.

“Yes, sir?”

“I want to have a look in the desk here but it’s locked. Any notion where the key is?”

George shook his head. “No, sir. We never went in Missus’s room. Weren’t allowed.”

Murdoch returned to the parlour, almost ready to retch at the foul air. He took out a clasp knife from his pocket, opened the blade, and pried open the lock. It yielded easily. He rolled back the curtain top. The inside was nearly bare: a blotting pad, well used, an inkwell with the top off, and a steel pen. Sitting on top of the blotter was an empty tin that had once held Frey’s Homeopathic Cocoa. There was no lid. At the rear of the desk was a large jar, containing what looked like herbs. There was a label, torn and faded, the writing almost illegible. He could just make out the word
Comfrey
. The cubbyholes were all empty, and all that was in the two drawers was a bag of boiled fruit candies that had melted together. He lifted the blotter and underneath was tucked a piece of notepaper. It was good quality, thick and creamy, but the edge was ragged as if it had been torn from a book.

There was no salutation, but in large letters was written,

 

I’m sure you remember the occasion of our first meeting. I have had some family troubles which has forced me into changing my name for reasons of privacy as I am sure you of all people can understand. I did as good by you as I could. Times are hard, my business has fallen off. A small gratuity would be kindly received. Or else

 

The letter stopped there. Murdoch read it through again. The threat of the last two words was intriguing. Had it been written recently or was it of the same vintage as the candies? He couldn’t tell. What was her business? The neighbour said she didn’t do anything and that her daughter supported them. What were her family troubles and did any of this have to do with her murder? The letter cast a different light on the money he’d found in Dolly’s pocket. Was she into blackmail? Maybe the five-hundred dollars was pay-off money? People with something to hide can get desperate if threatened with discovery.

There were two banks of drawers on each side of the desk and he pulled them open. Dolly had used this piece of furniture as her pantry. In every drawer was some food: stale bread, mouldy cake, a piece of black meat crawling with maggots.

He was just about to close up the bottom one when he glimpsed the end of a calling card sticking out from beneath a saucer that had found its way into the drawer.
He plucked it out. In plain black lettering was the name
Mrs. Walter Pedlow
. The cardboard was bent and dirty but of good quality stock. He frowned. The name had unpleasant associations for him. Walter Pedlow was a judge, and Murdoch had been a witness in his court a few years ago. Pedlow had seemed harsh, erratic, and of great personal vanity, an unfortunate combination of qualities in a judge. What was Dolly Shaw doing with the calling card of his honour’s wife? He put both the letter and card in one of the envelopes he’d brought with him and stowed it in his pocket. On an impulse, he shook out some of the herbal mixture that was in the jar and also put that in an envelope. Finally, he pulled out some of the threads from the emerald pillow and saved them.

For the next several moments, he stood looking around the room, trying to read the story of what had happened. But there were still too many variables and he felt frustrated with them.

He went back to the kitchen.

George and Freddie were at the table, not doing anything that he could see, except waiting.

“Come on, boys. I have to look upstairs and you might as well come with me.”

Mutely, they followed him up the stairs to the landing. There were two doors, both closed.

“Whose is whose?”

“That’s ours,” said George, pointing to the one on the left.

“Come on then, open up.”

George opened the door and Murdoch stepped into the small bare room. There was a narrow bed against the wall, a washstand, and a chair. Nothing else.

“Excuse me, sir,” Freddie said timidly. “But could I ask you what you’re looking for?”

Murdoch grinned and ruffled the boy’s hair.

“Anything that don’t belong.”

Freddie looked puzzled. “Nothing belongs really, sir. Was all Mrs. Mother’s.”

George didn’t say anything. His turned-in eyes made it difficult to read his thoughts.

“All right, next room. Is that one Miss Shaw’s?”

“Do you mean Lily?” asked Freddie.

George thumped him hard on the arm. “Don’t be so nocky. ’Course that’s who he means.”

The boys behind him like an entourage, Murdoch went across the landing and opened the door to the other room. In the bright morning light the little chamber seemed almost cheery. The quilt on the bed was colourful, the edge of the huckaback towel on the washstand was crocheted in white, and another doily covered the top of the small dresser.

“Wait here, boys.”

He closed them out. It seemed more respectful to give the absent woman the dignity of a private search. He started with the dresser which, like the furniture downstairs, was good oak. The mirror was missing but otherwise it was in excellent condition. He was curious
about the objects that were placed on it. In the centre was a black marble clock. Once probably beautiful, it no longer had hands and only two bits of the coloured inlay were left on the facing. Beside it was a china dog, about six inches high. The eyes were blank and most of the nose was gone as if in some fierce fight. It sat lopsidedly because it had no rear leg but there was a clean, red ribbon around its neck. He replaced it carefully. On the left side of the overbearing clock was a posy of field daisies in a cracked crystal vase. Lily had obviously collected discarded treasures, attempting to make beauty bloom in the barren desert of her life.

BOOK: Under the Dragon's Tail
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