Not Even the River Would Have Him
May 1920: An inexperienced Detective Campbell enlists the aid of the city's corner, Dr. Laforet, to solve a crime. This story took the Wolfe Island Prize at the Scene of the Crime Festival in 2010.
“It was those two found him?”
“Yes,” said the constable. “They were fishing and spotted him bobbing in the wake of a passing trawler. He got close enough they could reach him with a landing net.”
The sodden corpse was lying between them, waves lapping gently at the shore just a few feet away.
“The trawler dump him?”
“No, sir. He’s been in longer than that.”
In the time it took the detective to arrive on the scene, dusk had faded beneath a starless sky. He swept his flashlight beam slowly once over the length of the body and then moved on to his witnesses. He avoided shining the light directly in their faces; he wanted to see their eyes.
“I’m Detective Campbell. You boys do all your fishing at night?”
“We’re after walleye,” said the tall one. “They’re running now.”
“Uh-huh. Can either of you tell me anything about our floater?”
“We just found him.”
Campbell put his cigar between his fingers, clamped the butt of his flashlight under his chin, and pulled out his notebook.
“I’ll need your names and addresses.”
The two looked at each other.
“We got names,” said the tall one, “but no addresses.”
Campbell lifted his chin and let the flashlight drop in is hand. This time he shined the light in their eyes.
“We’re not looking for no trouble.”
“No, just walleye,” said Campbell. “you know, I can charge you both with vagrancy, take you into the station, and ask you lots of uncomfortable questions.”
“Russell Pettiford,” said the tall one.
“If we’re not under the bridge at London Street – by the streetcar barns – then you can find us at the church.”
“Down in Sandwich,” said Russell, “on Peter Street.”
“Sandwich, eh? So why aren’t you boys fishing down there?”
“It gets crowded.”
“So we come upriver.”
Without taking his eyes off the pair, Campbell addressed the constable still standing near the corpse.
“Fields – you find anything on our victim? Money? Identification?”
“Nothing of the kind, sir.”
“You boys casting in our floater’s pockets?”
“That’d be a sin,” said Clarence.
“Sides,” said Russell, “a man with nothing on his feet ain’t got nothing in his pockets.”
“Point taken,” said Campbell. “all right, go wherever it is you go to clean your catch and leave us to our business.”
The two grabbed their gear and disappeared into the night. Campbell turned to the constable.
“So what do we have here?”
“Male, white, approximately five-foot six, mid-thirties, possibly drowned…”
“If you would shine your light this way, sir.”
Fields bent over the body and with some effort rolled it on its side.
“The back of his head.”
It had an unnatural shape to it.
“Beaten and dumped in the river?”
“Could have happened while he was in the water. Remember the trawler.”
Campbell turned to the mile of water that separated the Border Cities from the metropolis on the other side where church steeples had already given way to smokestacks and office towers.
“Should we let Detroit know?”
“Yes, I suppose we should,” said Campbell. “Stay here and make sure he doesn’t go anywhere before the coroner arrives.”
Campbell trudged back up the grassy embankment, now wet with dew, to Riverside Drive where he had parked his Essex. He climbed in, got the vehicle running and headed back downtown to City Hall.
Police headquarters was located in the basement and was just as practical and dignified as one might imagine. A proper justice building was in the works and as far as Campbell was concerned it couldn’t happen soon enough. He didn’t feel the city was equipped to deal with the volume and variety of crime that Prohibition was bringing to its door.
There were a few men on duty. Campbell made his inquiries and checked the latest bulletins but there was no word of any missing persons on either side of the border fitting the description.
After a restless night’s sleep he showered and shaved, put on a clean shirt and collar, donned his other black suit, threw on his light-weight overcoat as it looked like rain, and drove to the coroner’s office. He lighted his first cigar of the day in Laforet’s lab. After some small talk while standing over the autopsied body of John Doe, he said
“Okay – how long was he in the water?”
“Given the time of year, his height and estimated weight, and his condition – swollen hands and feet but otherwise fairly intact – I’d say no more than five days.”
“And the blow to the head? Pre- or ante-mortem?”
“Not sure yet. All I can tell you is I found wood slivers.”
“Somebody hit a home run?”
“Not that kind of wood. Softer – and treated. Smells like creosote.”
“Bridge timber, railway ties…”
“Hm. What else?”
“Have a look at this ankle.”
Laforet handed Campbell his magnifying glass.
“What happened here?”
“From a rope. See the impressions,” Laforet was pointing with his scalpel, “and the hemp fibers in the flesh?”
Campbell straightened up.
“Now for the big question.”
“Yes – he was alive when he went in. There was fluid in his lungs.” Laforet raised his clipboard. “Also, his last meal was roast chicken and potatoes – only partially digested, washed down with a copious amount of peach brandy. Is any of this helping?”
“Can I tell you what I think?”
“You saw the tattoos?”
“Tattoos, rope burns, callused hands: maybe he came off a steamer.”
Campbell took a drag on his cigar.
“Or he worked on the docks upriver. These his clothes?”
Campbell walked over to an adjacent table where a shirt and pair of trousers were spread out, still damp.
“No blood on the shirt,” he said. “Nothing fancy but the trousers are well-made.”
Campbell placed his bowler square on his head.
“Do you have a photo I can walk around with?”
Laforet handed Campbell the large brown envelope from his clipboard. On it was written “John Doe: Tuesday, May 11, 1920.” Campbell pulled out some paperwork along with a few photos.
“Jesus, some people just can’t tale a good picture.”
By mid-morning there were no reports of any missing persons. Campbell was sitting at the counter of White City Lunch, a lukewarm cup of coffee and half-eaten slice of lemon pie pushed aside, and the photos of John Doe spread out in front of him. There was something bothering him about one of the images. It was taken when the victim was still fully clothed: the shirt buttons didn’t line up properly with the holes.
“Get you anything else?”
“No thanks, Eunice.”
The victim didn’t drift over from the other side of the river, that much Campbell was sure of. It was too far and the angle wasn’t right. But that still didn’t rule out John Doe being dumped from a ship, and the ship could have come from anywhere.
Campbell knew he had to start someplace, and that was going to be the docks near the source of the river. He’d methodically make his way down to the point where the body was retrieved, checking in with police headquarters whenever he happened to be near a telephone.
He gathered his things, threw some silver on the counter, and headed out the door. The spring rain was already drizzling down on the city so he pulled his collar up around his neck.
“Never seen him before.”
If Campbell had a nickel for every time he heard that through the course of his investigation, he’d have a big pile of nickels.
He had visited every establishment with any kind of a dock or mooring, from Ford’s factory down to Walker’s distillery, from the pump house at Langlois to the Grand Trunk railroad station, and from the downtown all the way to Canadian Pacific’s railroad terminal and everything in between. What’s more, there were still no missing persons reported and – after broadening the scope of the investigation – no wanted criminals fitting the victim’s description.
Campbell couldn’t tell if he was narrowing down the possibilities or making room for more. He telephoned Laforet and asked him to come down to the Mildred for a late lunch. The Mildred was a hotel on the waterfront downtown, known affectionately to the locals as the Mildew.
“I’m liking your steamer theory.”
Campbell set his bowler down on the table.
“John Doe was earning his keep on a fishing vessel. He caught his foot in a net and got pulled down. Knocked his head against the side of the vessel or got hit by another passing in the river. Either no one noticed or no one cares that he’s missing. Deck hands are easy enough to come by on these lakes.”
Laforet pulled at his short, pointed beard.
“So you’re giving up?”
“Did I say that?”
The waiter came around and after he left with their orders, Laforet continued.
“Why do you like my theory?”
“I don’t know.” Campbell was looking around the room. “Most victims, they talk to you. This guy isn’t talking to me. And that alone tells me something.”
“Maybe he’s telling you something you don’t want to hear.”
Over their plates of pan-fried walleye, Laforet got Campbell to agree that the dots were still too far apart to form any kind of picture. More work needed to be done. Campbell could start by giving the photo of John Doe to each member of the local constabulary.
He signaled the waiter and when he reached for his billfold he exposed his badge. The waiter returned moments later with the change and someone in tow.
“Good afternoon, officer. My name is Cunning. I’m the manager.”
Cunning had that kind of forced smile that one only finds in the hospitality industry.
“While you’re here, I was hoping you could look into a matter of an unpaid bill and a theft.”
“We’re not talking about guest towels, are we? If you would just contact the department I’m sure…”
“I’ve been trying for days to get someone from your department to come down here, but to no avail. Why is it no one wants to take this matter seriously?”
“We’ve been a bit stretched lately.”
“But this is important.” Cunning sensed the waiter hovering so he leaned closer to Campbell. “I’m trying to handle things. You see, the new owners, well, they’re - .”
Campbell put his hand up.
“All right. What’s the problem?”
Cunning glanced at Laforet.
“It’s okay,” said Campbell. “He’s with the department. Now let’s hear your story.”
“A couple left without paying their bill, and they stole a sink.”
“A sink basin. If you follow me I’ll show you.”
Campbell replaced his bowler on his head and walked with Cunning up the stairwell. Laforet trailed behind.
The detective paused at the first landing.
“What’s all this?”
Cunning apologized for the mess and explained with great enthusiasm that the Mildred was in the process of complementing the single full bath on each floor with a sink in each room. They had to remain competitive, he said. The wooden crates on each landing held the new fixtures.
Campbell had fallen a few paces behind Cunning and Laforet by the time they reached the fifth floor.
“This is the room.”
He held the door open for the detective and Laforet.
“See?” Cunning was pointing to a pedestal. “And look around – no basin.”
“Tell me,” said Campbell, “how someone gets a sink basin through your lobby without anyone noticing? I see a half-finished project here, Cunning, with wooden crates open on each floor.”
“I know, but every other basin has been accounted for.”
Campbell stopped himself from chewing his cigar end to a pulp.
“You say you noticed it missing on Friday?”
“We came to collect when the couple didn’t materialize in the morning to pay the balance of their bill.”
“You tried to contact them?” Campbell could see Laforet out of the corner of his eye, poking around the room.
“I tried to reach them through the number they left in the registry, but the woman who answered claimed to know nothing about it.”
“I assume someone got a good look at them.”
“You’ll want to speak with Mulcooter, the evening desk clerk. His shift begins shortly.”
Laforet was standing at the window now. It provided a nice view of the Detroit skyline and the river.
Could we have a look down there?”
“I suppose so.”
When they got back down to the lobby, Cunning spotted the evening desk clerk flirting with a chambermaid.
“Mulcooter – a word please.”
Campbell asked to see the registry. Mulcooter opened the big book, found the page and pointed to the entry. In a crude hand was written “Mr. And Mrs. Jacob Binkherst.” The address was a house on Wellington.
“Can you describe them?”
Mulcooter looked at the ceiling and blew some air out of his cheeks before sketching the double portrait.
“She was fair, slim build. Wavy hair but pinned back. Big brown eyes. He was my height, red hair. Shirt, no collar, a jacket. Looked like some kind of uniform – but nothing like you see the vets wearing. He may have been drinking. They had one bag between them.” Mulcooter smiled. “I thought it might be their anniversary.”
“You’ve got a good memory.”
“Some people stand out.”
Campbell had the envelope Laforet had given him rolled up in his pocket. He pulled out the photo.
“Is this Binkherst?”
“This fellow’s dead.”
“So you’re a doctor too?”
Mulcooter looked closer at the photo.
“Yeah, that’s him. Same nose.”
“Thanks.” Campbell turned to Cunning. “Now take us around back.”
Cunning led them out the front door and around the side to a narrow walkway behind the hotel. Campbell had to crabwalk it and Laforet followed close behind. They stopped directly below the window of the room visited by Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Binkherst.
“Could you please step back, Mr. Cunning.”
Railroad ties were fastened together vertically, knee-high, creating a barrier between the walkway and the water. It was weather-beaten wood, and there was a fresh impact mark with a few strands of red hair embedded in one of them. Laforet measured the impact mark with his hand and pried a small wedge of wood off with his pocketknife.
“What do you think?” asked Campbell.
“I’ll say it’s interesting. You’ll have to wait of you want something I can sign my name to.”
Campbell leaned closer to Laforet.
“Do you think we’re looking for a second body?”
“You might be.”
They made their way back along the walkway.
“Cunning, what else was on the balance of that unpaid bill?”
The hotel manager pulled a piece of paper out of his coat pocket and unfolded it.
“A roast chicken dinner.”
Campbell was heading down Wellington Street, trying to light a fresh cigar while pushing the accelerator in the Essex.
He found the house. It was a narrow, two-storey clapboard affair. What passed for a porch ran along the right side, ending halfway down at the front door. The postman was just leaving.
“I’m Detective Campbell. Are you Mrs. Jacob Binkherst?”
“Yes. What’s this about?”
Gladys Binkherst didn’t come near to fitting the description from Mulcooter.
“A hotel bill.”
“I already told them I don’t know nothing about it.”
Campbell stuck his foot in the door.
“Okay, let’s forget about the hotel bill. Is your husband home, ma’am?”
“Died in the war.”
“Well we’ll just have to take Ottawa’s word. They say there was nothing left of him to bury.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Tell me, Gladys, who’d be walking around town using your name that wasn’t you?”
She waited for the locomotive horn – the Michigan Central ran behind Wellington – and then squinted her sharp blue eyes and said
“I got an idea.”
She invited Campbell in and threw him some more dots to connect. From the kitchen he telephoned Laforet. The wood splinters matched the wedge taken from the railway tie and the strands matched that of John Doe. A picture was forming.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Campbell climbed back into the Essex and raced down Wyandotte Street to the city’s east end. He turned left at Langlois and found the house. It was as Gladys described: a bungalow with a small verandah and a wide gable slightly off-centre. Campbell knocked on the screen door and when no one answered he let himself in.
“I’m Detective Campbell of Windsor Police. Is anyone home?”
In the front room he found a woman in her nightgown and bed robe who fit the description Mulcooter gave, sitting in a cushioned chair, calmly reading the final edition of today’s Star.
“I don’t understand what’s going on in Europe.”
“Are you Lucy Gallagher?” Campbell looked around the cluttered room. “Can you tell me where your husband is ma’am?”
“I mean the war’s been over two years now.”
“I’ve been to see your sister.”
She looked up. “So you have.”
There were two cats on the chesterfield that paid him no never mind. He pulled over a wooden chair and sat himself down across from Lucy.
“Can you tell me what happened to your husband, Mrs. Gallagher?”
Eventually, after some incoherent mutterings, she told Campbell how her husband, Jimmy, was never there for her. Campbell couldn’t help but think Lucy wasn’t all there either. She was either drunk, or a little loopy.
“Jimmy could never hold a job. Lately he was with the railroad, gone for days at a time. When he came home a week or so ago, it was without his wedding ring.” She chuckled to herself. “No, he wasn’t unfaithful, just unlucky.” She seemed to want to talk and so Campbell let her. He could have a calming effect on people.
“The Mildred was his idea. I went along with it. Rekindling an old flame, he said. I knew we couldn’t afford it but I went along anyways.” She snorted. “And then he passed out before we even got started.”
She was staring out the window now, not looking at anything in particular. Campbell glanced around the room and noticed a man’s jacket draped over a chair at the dining table. It matched the trousers Jimmy Gallagher was wearing when he was pulled out of the Detroit River by two vagrants fishing for walleye. That seemed like days ago.
“I said a prayer,” Lucy continued, “buttoned his shirt. I had trouble with his shoes – they were the first to go, dragged him over to the window. That’s when he started coming around and I thought I might need something to keep him down.
“I spotted the sink basin leaning against the wall and remembered the rope on a crate in the landing. I threaded the rope through the drain and tied the other end around his ankle. I lifted the sink up to the windowsill.
“I just raised his legs and gave him a push. He took the sink down with him. I threw everything else I could find in the room out the window, crept down the fire escape at the other end of the hall and walked home. It was a lovely evening.
“I defended him for a good long time. But that was just my own stubborn pride. The other girls envied me at first. Later, not so much.”
When Lucy seemed out of words, Campbell let the room lie quite for a moment and then said
“May I ask one more question, Lucy?”
Laforet was sitting across from Campbell in a booth at White City Lunch, two empty coffee cups between them. The sun was peaking through the clouds, bathing Pitt Street in a warm glow.
“Don’t let yourself get caught up in the why,” said Laforet.
Campbell lit what would be his last cigar of the day.
“I know. But the why is what always lingers. She said she had had enough of him, couldn’t bear the thought of having to listen to any more of his excuses and his promises. Why did she have to kill him? She said she still loved him. That doesn’t make any sense. I mean, for Christ’s sake, she tossed him out of the window.”
Laforet leaned closer.
“Don’t waste time poking around in their souls, Peter. Make up your mind. Do you want to be a priest or do you want to be a detective?”
“You call what I just did detective work?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Campbell sat back and took a breath.
“I want to be a detective.”
“Very good then. Case closed."
copyright Michael Januska, 2011