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Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades-Oakley Hall.

Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades-Oakley Hall. Электронная библиотека, книги всех жанров

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that week, made no reference to the murders, which had occurred after The Hornet had gone to press, but Bierce had taken shots at his usual targets:

      “The worst railroads on the Pacific Coast are those operated by the Southern Pacific Company. It owes the government more millions of dollars than £eland $tanford has vanities; it will pay fewer cents than Collis B. Huntington has virtues.”

      He reiterated the fact that the cost of the transcontinental line had been kited to twice the maximum estimates. “Collis B. Huntington and his associates have made enormous fortunes by letting contracts to themselves‌—‌a felony under our state laws‌—‌dividing the profits and burning the books.”

      Of the Spring Valley Water Company he had written that it “flowed with bilk and honey,” and “Included in the cost of the water is the price of nine Supervisors.”

      His usual theological butt was the Reverend Stottlemyer: “His latest announcements from Washington Street intimate that the praise for the propagation of the Lord’s only begotten son could perhaps more fairly be shared. Certainly in the realm of plucking pigeons the proprietor of the Washington Street Church reigns supreme.”

      

      In Mrs. Cornford’s establishment on Morton Street, I was taken upstairs to inspect the scene of the murder. Off a narrow corridor that bisected the second story were doors at regular intervals, tin numbers over the doors. Number 7 was a room about eight by ten feet, stinking of carbolic. It contained a bed stripped of its mattress, a straight chair, and a stand that held a white crockery bowl and pitcher. The floor had been scrubbed until the pine boards looked soft as chamois.

      I interviewed Edith Pruitt in the parlor, under Mrs. Cornford’s surveillance. Edith had heard some sounds in the crib next to hers and had seen the man depart. I sat in a wooden rocker with my pencil and pad, Edith on the window seat and Mrs. Cornford planted in the middle of the settee. The room was redolent of orris root, furniture polish, sweat and, faintly, an odor like rotting flowers with a medicinal tinge to it.

      “He was a young man, you told Sgt. Nix.”

      “Maybe about as old as you, mister.”

      “With a beard.”

      “With a fair beard, yes.” Edith Pruitt was a farm girl with a pleasingly plump bosom in her chaste gingham check, and a pretty piglike expression of fat cheeks and narrow eyes.

      “Anything else about his appearance?”

      Edith glanced at Mrs. Cornford, who smiled at her reassuringly. Edith shook her head.

      “Did you see the knife?”

      “She didn’t see no knife,” Mrs. Cornford said.

      Edith showed her teeth in her nervousness. I tried to think of questions an experienced reporter like Jack Smithers would ask.

      “What were the sounds like, that you heard?”

      “Like somebody fell heavy on the bed. And some scraping. I didn’t think what it might be. Sometimes a mister will pay extra for extra business.”

      “Esther would do that,” Mrs. Cornford said, nodding.

      “How long after the racket before you saw the man?”

      “She told the copper maybe five minutes,” Mrs. Cornford said.

      “You kind of know how far along you are with a mister, you see,” Edith Pruitt offered.

      Mrs. Cornford smiled at me. She had a tapestry bag in her lap, from which she had taken a wad of blue yarn and two ivory needles.

      When I returned to the subject of the man Edith had seen, Mrs. Cornford said, “The big copper had a photygraph. The higher-up one.”

      “Captain Pusey?”

      “Older fellow with a shock of white hair. He had this photygraph.”

      “And was it the man?” I asked Edith.

      “I told him it were him, all right,” Edith said. “I told him I’d heard there was a mister, maybe it was this chap, that didn’t have no dingle.” She colored prettily. “Had to use a kind of leather thing strapped on. Might’ve been this one.”

      She hadn’t seen this mister, only heard about him from Esther. Mrs. Cornford looked disapproving, whether of the lack of the dingle or the information proffered, I couldn’t tell. No, none of the other girls had mentioned such a client.

      The murder of Marie Gar had taken place at Mrs. Rose Ellen Green’s place, but Mrs. Green was tired of sightseers and reporters and turned me away at the door. I inquired of other madams up and down Morton Street if there had been any reports of a mister with no dingle.

      No luck.

      

      Bierce’s office was L-shaped, and I’d been promoted to a desk, a chair and a spittoon in the foot of the L.

      I was writing up my notes when Miss Penryn put her head in the door to announce Miss Amelia Brittain. I jarred the desk jumping to my feet. Amelia wore a white dress with shingled lace on the bosom. Beneath a shadow of bonnet her face was stiff with anxiety. She swept the skirt of her dress past the doorjamb, her eyes fixed on me.

      “Please sit down, Miss Brittain!” I dragged a chair around the corner.

      She tucked her skirt under her and sat, daubing at her eyes with a handkerchief from her reticule.

      “They’ve arrested Beau!”

      I gaped at her. “For the Morton Street murders?”

      “Yes! It is simply‌—‌monstrous!” She daubed at her lips. “They took him to jail. Mr. Redmond, I must again ask your assistance!”

      “Anything.”

      “They say they have his photograph that one of the women in the premises where the murder took place has identified.”

      Captain Pusey’s photograph!

      “Mr. Redmond, I must believe it is a plot! Certainly Beau has enemies, any wealthy man has enemies. His mother must have enemies!”

      I said it had seemed curious to me that her fiancé had not accompanied her to the Firemen’s Ball and immediately wished I had not said it.

      She flung herself up from the chair, her eyes blazing with indignation, then sank back.

      “He had to work with Mr. Buckle on some of his mother’s affairs,” she said, in a controlled voice. “His mother has enormous business in the City.”

      “Who is Mr. Buckle?”

      “He is Lady Caroline’s manager here.”

      “Who are these enemies of Mr. McNair?”

      “I don’t know!

      Amelia’s fiancé out strangling and slashing Esther Mooney while Amelia and I were waltzing at the Firemen’s Ball seemed an improbable coincidence.

      “I have a friend who is a police detective,” I said. “I will try to find out from him what they have against Mr. McNair. Will Mr. McNair talk to me if I go to see him in jail?”

      “You must tell him that I sent you!”

      “Miss Brittain, I only know of Mr. McNair as the son of a very rich woman. Will you tell me something about him?”

      She relaxed visibly in the chair.

      “When Mr. McNair’s father was still alive, they lived not far from my father’s house. Beau and I attended Miss Sinclair’s Seminary. He was eleven and I was ten.”

      A blush climbed her face, like a pink shadow sweeping upward from her throat. It was charming. “We were sweethearts. Then the elder Mr. McNair died, and Mrs. McNair‌—‌Lady Caroline‌—‌left San Francisco for England, taking Beau and Gwendolyn with her.”

      “Gwendolyn is Mr. McNair’s younger sister?”

      “Who

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