Authors: Kate Rothwell
The Detective’s Dilemma
Copyright © 2015 by Kate Rothwell
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To the pup who left us this spring The best writing companion, walk partner, and foot warmer I’ll ever know. She wasn’t much of a reader--though she tolerated being read to, and even contrived to look like an intelligent listener. Nevertheless I feel better saying hi again to the pup in writing. So hey, girl, I miss you a lot. Woof
New York City, 1884
He’d made an error, a stupid mistake, and now he’d pay. First came a beating, and now, far worse, his enemy’s victory dance in the form of a lecture. Caleb Walker stood as straight as he could in front of the politician’s bare and polished desk and waited for the crowing to end. It would take a while. Gregory always did like to listen to himself gabble.
As he considered his future, Walker touched his sore jaw and stared out the window at the Stars and Stripes snapping in a brisk spring breeze. Gregory moved on to the topic of dishonesty in cops. Walker considered growing indignant—Christ, such hypocrisy—but Gregory wasn’t so far wrong. When a law enforcer broke the law, it was time to move along.
He could take up work in an office. A shopkeeper…no, too many people to talk to. Walker had had more than enough of his fellow man. A quiet job involving books, far from crime, would be all right.
It had been hard, grubby work, but he’d loved working as a patrolman, and his duties as a detective were even more interesting. Quiet bored him almost as much as Gregory.
“Detective, are you listening?”
He squared his shoulders, wincing at the pain from his bruised side. “Yes, I get the picture. I’m a disgrace and a bounder.”
“A what?” Gregory eyed him suspiciously.
“A cad. A failure,” Walker said.
“Horse hockey.” Gregory, as crooked a politician as ever entered the Grand Room of Tammany Hall, never cursed—and often mangled words and phrases. “You’re good at the work. I won’t admit it outside this office, but you did manage to track down the misgrant.”
Walker didn’t bother to correct him or point out that discovering that particular criminal hadn’t been difficult. The guy killed anyone who got in his way and barely bothered to cover his tracks.
“You just made the mistake of getting caught breaking the law as well.”
Again, Walker didn’t speak up. He could have said the only reason he had put the gun at the scene was that he knew the wealthy murderer had friends in high places, people like Gregory, who made sure records were changed and evidence lost.
God, he wanted a drink. Which beverage was appropriate to toast the end of a career?
He shifted his gaze from the window to the handsome gray-haired Gregory. “Are you done yet? I’ll be on my way. Obviously I’m not going to ask for a reference.” Walker hadn’t bothered to add a “sir” to anything he’d said during this meeting, but Gregory didn’t seem to notice—which was a bad sign. A very bad sign.
“On your way? What are you talking about? You’re still working for the department.” Gregory gave his warmest, most reassuring smile, and Walker’s blood went cold. The pol sat back in his big armchair and ran his fingers down his graying mustache. “After this talk, you’ll go back to your job. Keep up your good work and, ha, simply do some extra work on the side for us. Nothing too rough and fumble for you. But leaving? Oh no, no. We don’t want to lose a man with your talents.”
“I think it best if I tender my resignation.” Walker had trouble getting the words out.
“Nonsense.” Gregory’s smirk made Walker want to smash a fist into his face. He wasn’t that far gone, yet. But maybe Gregory could see Walker’s anger, because the slick politician’s good humor vanished. Gregory stared back. “You’re not going anywhere, Detective. Let me put it this way. We’ve already made it clear that we do not want to arrest you, thus this friendly meeting. We could change our minds, though. And if we did take you into custody, we would be very sure to make the case against you airtight.”
“If I survived long enough to go to trial.”
“Precisely!” Gregory smacked his desk enthusiastically, as if Walker had made a brilliant point. “A few words here and there about a crooked cop’s abuse of power—you’d get a…what do they call it? A sieve? In the gut.”
, Walker didn’t tell him. He shifted his gaze back to the flag.
“Look here, Walker. I promise you won’t have much extra work. The jobs won’t require much of your time and they are all in the course of justice.”
“Justice for the wealthy.”
“Don’t be so quick to dismiss money, boy. Say now, stop sulking. You won’t get any reason to complain. I don’t plan on giving you anything too…sensitive.” The smile was back in place. “I know you’re not my friend, but no need to be enemies. Really, compromises are all part of the system, and I’m willing to make some of my own.”
He explained someone else took on the tougher cases, in other words, the beatings and worse. Wasn’t that a relief for Walker.
Gregory picked up a piece of paper and handed it over. “Your first job for us.”
Walker was to visit a union organizer and tell the man to move along. Walker guessed it was on behalf of the shipping magnate who showed up to every big rally at the hall.
“Nothing too strong,” Gregory assured him. “Let him know we’ll send some other boys if he needs more physical persuasion. Yes, I think we’ll be using you as the advance man when we need to start with the genteel touch, Gentleman Walker. That’s what they called you back on the force, right?”
Walker had hated that name.
Gregory winked. Jesus Christ, that jolly wink made Walker dizzy with rage. He shoved the paper into his pocket and left without a word or a look back. Back at his apartment, he drank most of a bottle of whiskey and started his new life.
Three months later
Walker stopped at the wrought iron fence and examined the gargoyle ogling the world from the top of the door arch. Its leer reminded him of Gregory.
No wonder the address seemed familiar. Who could forget the entrance with its assortment of cement creatures and garish brickwork? He’d come to this house years ago, back in the days when he burned to pursue justice as if it had been some kind of shiny prize. Easy to remember too, because that callout had come during his first week on the job. He’d worn a new uniform made of blue wool that hadn’t reeked of sweat or piss and had glinting brass buttons.
He’d been with other coppers then. Now he was alone, for the moment. He trotted up the stairs.
As he stood under the goggle-eyed gargoyle, waiting for someone to answer his strident knocking, the details of that first call came back to him. He’d been summoned because of a young lady who’d apparently run away. She’d been one of those sorts of girls: well-bred, lovely, and going after the sort of fun well-bred females shouldn’t. The girl had been found by a servant and brought home to her relieved parents. She’d refused to speak. Not a word passed her lips, at least not while the police were present.
Had he heard of her again? Walker didn’t recall. He supposed she’d wed the man she’d been found with. Not a bad end to that sort of story.
Here he stood on the same doorstep again because of a salacious woman—or so he’d been informed.
He’d probably been drafted for the job because Gregory’s “client” had even more money than the family that lived in this brown-and-gray mansion. Gregory sent him on this errand because the wealthy liked discretion and always preferred someone literate who could speak their language and wear their clothes.
Never mind the details, he would follow the script and wait the half an hour until someone else took over. A dreary assignment.
His own damned fault.
The woman who answered looked like a slovenly maid. She wore a loose blue gown and an apron. Her hair had been haphazardly gathered at her neck. “Yes?” She gave him an irritated glare.
“I’m here to speak to Mrs. Winthrop.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you a lawyer?”
He suddenly understood that he’d seen her before—about eight years earlier. Now he remembered Winthrop was the name of the boy she’d been discovered with. That answered the question. She’d married her partner in, well, not exactly crime, not the way Walker defined it nowadays.
She had the same hazel eyes, a little less bright now, and her chocolate hair had been better arranged that day. He hadn’t spoken to her back then but had watched her walk slowly to her parents after the episode. He’d thought she looked like a beautiful, overdramatic martyr.
Now she looked like an annoyed cook about to slam the door on a persistent tradesman.
“Ma’am?” He took a step forward, inserting his foot between the door and the frame. She looked down at his sturdy shoe, then up at his face.
I won’t make a scene but I won’t leave easily
She looked him up and down again, more deliberately this time. “You’re from the Winthrops, aren’t you?”
Maybe this wouldn’t be so terrible after all. She knew what was going on and didn’t seem the sort to fall into hysterics.
“They are concerned about the safety of their grandchild, ma’am.”
“If you start in on more threats, I’ll summon the police,” she said.
the police. My name is Walker.”
“What? Why are you dressed as a lawyer?”
Though he was dressed as a civilian, he carried his badge. He pulled it from his jacket pocket and held it out to show her. She reached for it, so he put it in her hands.
She looked down at the odd detective shield that looked more like a symbol for the firefighters.
“All right. You can come in.” She opened the door, and he walked into the front hall, which had been larger and less dusty in his memory.
She took a step back from him. “You asked for Mrs. Winthrop. I am she,” she admitted. She still held his badge flat on her palm and ran her fingers over the engraved surface. “Heavy,” she remarked.
He nodded. She had no idea. He took the badge back, his fingertips grazing her skin.
She rubbed her hands together as if ridding herself of the sensation of that light touch. “So you’re the police. Are you going to arrest me?”
If he had a penny for every time he heard that jeering remark…but something else she’d said had caught his attention.
“You were going to summon the police. What do you mean by ‘more threats’?” he asked, ignoring her disdain—and his assignment. “Do you feel you might be in danger?”
She reached to her lower back and untied the apron, dragging it over her head and draping it over the newel post that was carved like an acorn.
Another memory came to him. He’d stood in this hall, surreptitiously rubbing that polished wood years ago.
“Come down into the kitchen,” she said. “I have to get the bread out of the oven.”
“Where is your staff?”
“Out,” she said.
The people who’d sent him would know what sort of numbers they’d have to deal with—he was just the advance guard, to make sure the key players were in place, this woman and her child. He hadn’t been given a count of employees.
They walked through the front rooms that were nearly empty of furniture. As they entered the narrow corridor, signifying they’d entered the servants’ area, he asked, “There’s hardly a stick of furniture out there. What’s going on?”
The beauty of being a cop was you could ask as many nosy questions as you wanted, and no matter how angry you made the person you asked, they couldn’t stop you. Like most cops, he was nosy. “Are you leaving this house? Selling it?” he asked.
“I’d like to. I’m selling off everything I can.”
He followed her down the narrow stairs into the below street-level kitchen that smelled of slightly singed flour. From the back, he could see she had the straight back and raised chin of a lady who’d been trained to walk with a book on her head.
She grabbed a cloth and opened the oven.
“Bah.” The three loaves she pulled out were too browned, but the scent of fresh-baked bread was getting to him. He’d missed breakfast because he’d been finishing up a report from his real work and then meeting with the “special unit.”
He leaned against the doorway and finally took off his bowler hat. The script called for him to threaten—just as she’d suspected—but genteelly.
“What the hell does ‘genteel threats’ mean?”
“Keep it vague,”
had been Gregory’s reply.
“Keep her in place and get an agreement to stay calm. Be diplomatic. I expect you can manage that? They’d like her as quiet as possible. Avoid scandal.”
Gregory had claimed that the woman was putting up a fight about a perfectly reasonable request. The clients were the kid’s own grandparents, after all. They wanted her capitulation to give up the boy and stay quiet. There’d been stories about the Widow Winthrop. Walker had checked on those, and yeah, she wasn’t exactly a pattern of virtue. That had to be one reason the grandparents wanted the kid.
The horror of gossip loomed.
But somehow the fact that other people had already gone after her—even frightened her, probably for the Winthrops—made Walker uncomfortable. Hell, Gregory’s errands usually did. A nice bully to throw against a wall suited Walker better than threatening orphans and widows.
He asked, “So who’s threatened you?”