The woman stood in the doorway of the police department, looking over the room, her face tight. She was slender, tall, and might have been attractive if her hair under the drab hat had not been pulled back into a tight knot, making her forehead too high. She was dressed in a severe black suit, a traveling costume without a bustle or any of the absurd embellishments that women were affecting in 1885. At first glance, she might have looked a little like one of those dreadful mission solicitors, the sour women who held out their tambourines, demanding donations for the poor. But she was too poised, too neatly groomed, and she did not have the self-righteous look of a salvation peddler.
Most decent women who found themselves alone in the precinct with its tobacco-stained floors, its cigar-fouled air, amid Denver’s snouts and boosters and other lowlife, were timid, uneasy. They stood nervously, red-faced, eyes downcast, sometimes shaking, until one of the detectives looked up and asked what they wanted. But Beret held herself erect, businesslike, as she scanned the room, daring anyone to question her presence. The truth was, she was a little unnerved at being in a place that was so distasteful to her, knowing as she did how squalid police stations were, how corrupt the inmates on both sides of the law might be. But it couldn’t be helped, Beret told herself.
“Help you, miss?” A policeman spoke up at last.
Beret was startled by the question and almost blanched at the way the man looked her over, but she had had long experience in holding herself together and didn’t flinch. “I am looking for Detective Sergeant Michael McCauley.” Her voice was low and rather pleasant and had not one hint of her unease.
A man at a desk glanced up as the policeman waved Beret in his direction. Ignoring the stares from the other lawmen in the room as well as the reprobates, Beret walked quickly to the desk and said, “Detective Sergeant McCauley.” It was a statement, not a question. She had learned that was the best way to approach a policeman—or almost anybody, for that matter.
She did not appear to be a miscreant or the wife of some poor scapegrace come to beg for leniency for her husband. Perhaps that was why Mick stood up and nodded. “I am. What can I do for you, miss?”
“I’ve come about the death of Lillie Osmundsen.”
“You’re her mother?”
“Oh, sorry, ma’am. The light’s poor in here.”
Beret did not respond. Ten years older than her sister, Beret was used to being taken for Lillie’s mother.
“I wouldn’t have guessed you were sisters,” Mick said, after an awkward silence.
“You mean I am not a beauty like my sister.”
“I wouldn’t say that at all.” His reply was too hearty.
“Then I hope you are more observant when it comes to searching for my sister’s killer. It is obvious by far to anyone with a brain that she is beautiful, and I am unremarkable even on my best day.” She should not have been so touchy. Then she added, “Was beautiful.”
Beret’s voice was strident, and Mick frowned. “Yes, ma’am. I’m real sorry she passed over.”
“Yes. Thank you. I believe the term is ‘murder.’” Beret had repeated the word over and over in her mind, but she found it difficult to say it out loud, and she bit her lip to keep it from quivering. What an awful thing to have to say about one’s sister.
“Murder,” Mick repeated. “That’s what it is, all right.”
Beret felt her knees grow weak and asked, “May I sit down?”
“Sure.” Mick pulled a chair from a nearby desk and placed it beside his own. Both seated themselves.
They stared at each other until Mick broke the silence. “If you’ve come for your sister’s effects, the judge has them. There wasn’t much, a few trinkets. We had to break into her trunk because we couldn’t find a key. That’s when we learned her identity. I hoped there might be something there that … well … would have helped us, but there wasn’t. Hettie Hamilton, she’s the, uh, the … owner—”
“The madam, you mean.”
“Yeah, sure, that’s right, the madam. She said your sister had some diamond earrings that were missing. I guess you’d like to have them if we find them.”
Beret did not want the detective sergeant to think she was mercenary. “I’ve not come here for diamond earrings.”
“No.” Mick waited her out.
“I came to ask what success you have had in finding the man who killed my … my unfortunate sister.” Beret took a deep breath and held it.
Mick nodded. “We’ve sure been working on it. We’re doing our best.”
“Does that mean there’s been no progress?”
“You can rest easy that we’ll leave no stone unturned—”
Beret interrupted. “My sister is dead, my only sister. I did not come here for platitudes. Nor do I wish to be coddled. I want to know if you are close to finding Lillie’s killer. And if you are not, why not. You may speak plainly.” She detested men who treated her like an imbecile. Such straightforwardness in a woman was not a redeeming quality in most men’s eyes, but Beret did not care. Lillie had been the carefree one, the flirt, the one who drew men like cats to cream, just as Beret had always been drawn to her.
She wondered if the detective was competent or if he was simply some political appointee. He was nice looking, tall, with reddish-blond hair, not gone to fat from too much free food and drink like so many officers she had encountered. Most detectives were untrained, she knew, and their appointment was political. It was unlikely this man knew much about investigating serious crime. She stared at Mick until he looked away.
“We have some ideas, men she might have known,” he said.
“And they are?”
“I can’t say just now.” Mick looked at two men sitting nearby who were listening in on the conversation. He smirked and pointed with his chin at one of them. “That pickpocket with the copper tried to lift the wallet of the Reverend Tom Uzzell, no less. He must be new in town or else he’d have known that the Reverend Uzzell would have given him the money if he’d asked but would come down hard on any poor thug who tried to steal it.”
“I am not here to discuss pickpockets,” Beret said, glancing around the room and taking in the stares, the silence as the policemen as well as the malefactors tried to determine her business in the station. “I see that this is not a place conducive to conversation. Well, Detective, I have not had luncheon. Is there somewhere I can get a cup of coffee and a bowl of soup, a place where we can have a private conversation?”
Mick pulled out his pocket watch as if to show he was pressed for time, but he nodded. He stood, and Beret let him take her elbow and propel her back through the room to the door. “There’s a restaurant down the street, if you’re not too choosy. The food isn’t the best, but it’s cheap.” The two went up the stairs from the basement of City Hall, where the station was located, Beret raising her skirt to keep it away from the vermin and the wads of chewing tobacco that repelled even the rats. Out on the street, Mick pointed to a little café a few doors away.
“I imagine you would rather have a drink, but I am not fond of coffee in saloons,” Beret said, and Mick’s mouth dropped in surprise. Beret saw that and smiled to herself. She did like shocking people—sometimes, at any rate. She and Lillie had had that in common. She felt a stab of pain at the thought of her sister.
The two walked down Larimer Street, Denver’s major thoroughfare, past an undertaker’s parlor, a clothing store, a drugstore, without talking, until they reached the Parr Café. Mick opened the door, and Beret preceded him into the restaurant, glancing around the room at the wooden tables bare of any cloths, the mismatched chairs, at the black-and-white marble floor that was chipped and stained. She headed for a table in the back.
“It’s not much,” apologized Mick.
“I’ve dined in far worse. Do you eat here often?” she asked.
“I prefer the saloon lunches.”
He’d paid her back for her jibe, but Beret liked that. She wouldn’t want to work with a policeman who felt he had to sugarcoat everything he said because she was a lady. She hoped they would get along. “Well, have you eaten here often enough to recommend something?”
“Chili. But it will burn your tongue.”
“Chili, then,” she said. “And coffee. Will you join me, Detective? I am paying, of course.” Beret was well aware that the policeman made eighty-five dollars a month, a hundred if he was lucky—plus whatever he got on the take.
“Chili gives me the heartburn.”
“What a pity. I’m rather fond of it myself, the hotter the better. Perhaps there is something else you would like.”
After Mick ordered for Beret, asking for coffee and a piece of apple pie with a slice of cheese for himself, Beret put her hands on the table and looked directly at the detective. “Now, perhaps you will tell me the circumstances of my sister’s murder.” Her voice was calm, but inside, her heart was churning.
“It’s not a pretty picture.”
“No, I don’t imagine murder ever is.”
“I’m talking about your sister’s life. Do you know about it, miss?”
At that, Beret almost lost her composure. Tears came to her eyes, and she turned aside. Mick apparently had no handkerchief to offer, so he patted her hand, but she did not want his patronizing and snatched her hand away. “You must forgive me. I’ve no experience in this.”
“I should hope not.”
“I mean in the murder of my sister. I am all too familiar with death itself.”
Mick waited for her to explain, but she didn’t. She sat, self-absorbed, thinking it was a good thing she knew about the sordid life of the underworld. It would make dealing with Lillie’s murder easier. But maybe not. Nothing could ease the tearing of her soul that her sister’s death had brought.
The chili came, and she ate it as easily as if it were pudding. “I know, Officer, that Lillie worked in a brothel,” she said as she finished the chili and put down her spoon.
“Not for very long, it seems, no more than three months.”
“Does it matter how long? She was a prostitute.” Beret blanched as she said the words out loud for the first time.
“It’s not easy for you—”
“Of course it’s not easy for me,” she snapped. “How would you like to discover your own sister was a woman of the streets?”
“I only meant—”
Beret dismissed him with a wave of her hand. “I apologize, Officer. My sister’s choice of profession is not your fault.”
“No, but it was someone’s fault, and I’d like to find out who was responsible. In my position, you get used to death, but there was something about Lillie … that is, Miss Osmundsen—”
“Yes, she had that effect on men, even in death, it seems.” Oh yes, Beret thought. She did.
The sergeant ignored the implication and continued, “Something about her makes me want to find her killer. She was so young.” He cleared his throat. “Do you know anything about your sister’s murder?”
“I know very little. In fact, my aunt and uncle hoped to keep the circumstances of Lillie’s death from me. At first, they told me only that she had died. They didn’t want me to come to Denver. They said everything had been taken care of, that I should grieve at home in New York.” As she remembered the telegram, Beret sipped from her cup, ignoring the fact the coffee was stale and burned and not very warm. “They were looking out for me, of course.” She added to herself, As I did not look out for Lillie.
* * *
She had found the telegram mixed in with the mail on the parlor table, had overlooked it until Maggie, the housekeeper, pointed it out, because Beret rarely received telegrams. Then she’d snatched it up with a premonition that it held bad news. But then, telegrams always seemed to bring bad news. The message was brief, cryptic, and told her in as few words as possible that her sister, Lillie, had died suddenly. Her funeral was being held that very day. She would be buried in Riverside Cemetery, in a plot set aside for her aunt and uncle. Everything had been neatly handled, so there was no need for Beret to make the long train trip from New York to Denver. The aunt and uncle sent their condolences. The telegram was signed Judge and Mrs. John Stanton.
Beret’s hands shook, and her eyes clouded as she walked to the telegraph office to wire back her response, her condolences, for after all, the Stantons had taken Lillie under their wing when Beret would have nothing to do with her. Lillie had fled to Denver after the sisters had had their falling-out.
As an afterthought, Beret asked the cause of death. Lillie had always been healthy, and Beret wondered if her sister had died in an accident. Her aunt and uncle were right that there was no reason for her to make the trip. The funeral was done with, and Lillie might as well sleep for eternity in the Stanton plot. Beret’s traveling to Denver to grieve for her sister would be hypocritical. At least, that was what she told herself. The real reason she hadn’t wanted to go was she did not know how to act in front of her aunt and uncle. Did they know about the rift between the sisters? Surely they did. Would they blame Beret? Would she have to reveal the details, to relive that awful time? After she thought it over, Beret realized her reaction was more about herself than about her sister. Lillie was dead, and that changed everything.
The news brought a wave of emotion to the young woman, conflicting emotions that she knew she would have to sort through in the following days in her methodical way. At first, she was overwhelmed by grief. She remembered Lillie as the angel-child she had been as a little girl, her golden curls and curious blue eyes, her sunny temperament, the child’s grief when first their mother, Marta, and then their father, Henry, had died, and Beret, young as she was, had taken the responsibility of raising her.
And then Beret was angry, as she remembered Lillie in the last year, her sister’s devilish betrayal, the hate that developed between them. Something about the telegram didn’t sit right with Beret. It was wrong that Lillie was dead. The thing between them had not been settled. Beret had expected Lillie to repent, to beg forgiveness, and when she did, Beret would hold out her arms, because after all, wasn’t the bond between sisters stronger than any other? But Lillie had died, leaving Beret’s arms empty, the business between them unfinished.
Beret returned from the telegraph office but could not eat supper and had gone to bed, and to her surprise, she had put her face into her pillow and cried, cried first from loss and then from rage as she realized she would never be able to extract the remorse from Lillie that was due.
She slept poorly, going out at dawn and walking far downtown, along streets enveloped in a gray mist and smelling of animal droppings and cheap kerosene, walking carefully past the human refuse that was huddled against the buildings, ignoring the stench from the bodies and the ragged clothing. She watched a fetid pile of rags move. A woman slowly rose to her feet and took a step or two, then fell to the ground and curled back into a ball. A man in a soiled apron stood in the window of a restaurant, shucking oysters, for at that early hour, men were coming off work for their supper of beer and mollusks. Two newsboys fought over a street corner, the larger boy pushing the smaller one into the thoroughfare and stamping on his hat. She’d gone to the boy who was sitting in the gutter crying out filthy words, and bought a penny paper from him, giving him a dime for it. The lad started to give her change, but Beret shook her head. Then, she went into a restaurant that was all but deserted and ordered coffee and a roll and opened the paper.
The paper was the World, one of the cheap sheets that specialized in scandal and murder, bearbaiting and cockfighting, and she did not care to read it. But reading might turn her mind from Lillie, so she broke off a piece of the roll, which was dusted with flour, and ate it as she scanned the headlines, reading of an actress who had overdosed on laudanum, a child who had been trampled under the wheels of a wagon, a sport who had robbed the poor box of a church to pay his gambling debts. As she was closing the paper Beret spotted a small headline near the bottom of a page: DENVER WOMAN MURDERED. She set down the soft roll and unconsciously brushed her hands of the flour as she read the paragraph.
Denver. On Monday last, a Denver nymph of frailty was the victim of foul play, in her room at Hettie Hamilton’s House of Dreams, an establishment of ill fame on Holladay Street, in the heart of the Denver tenderloin. Police say that Lillie Brown, for that was the name by which the frail sister was known, was murdered in a most foul manner, stabbed repeatedly, her blood spraying the room with a fountain of red. Seasoned officers cringed at the viciousness of the crime, which has put the Cyprians of the street on edge. Police are anxious to apprehend the fiend and make sure he is punished. It is hoped the former bride of the multitudes has repented of her wicked ways and that her soul has found peace.
Beret read the story again—and again, four or five times—because she knew, knew as if Lillie’s full name had been in the paper, that Lillie Brown was her Lillie. She put her hands to her head and cried, the tears mixing with the flour left on her hands, the hatred she had felt for Lillie replaced by sorrow and guilt. “Oh, Lillie,” she muttered. “It’s my fault. I should have protected you. I promised, and now you’re dead.”
She took money from her purse and left it on the table and went out into the drizzle, lifting her face to let the drops of rain wash away her tears. But the tears continued to fall, mixing with the moisture and the smoke of fires from food stands that were being set up along the street, the vendors crying out their offerings of sausages and hash. She had loved Lillie, loved and hated her at the same time, but no matter how she felt, she had been responsible for her. Beret had failed to watch over her, and now Lillie was dead. Lillie was dead because of Beret.
Copyright © 2013 by Sandra Dallas