Late morning sunlight bright as burning lime shone through the window when I came in. The body hadn’t been moved yet, and was still sprawled—or heaped, rather, like a dropped doll—across the iron bedstead pushed against the middle of the far wall. The body lay angled toward the left shoulder, both arms pulled so that the hands almost touched behind the back. The right leg was bent under itself, foot hidden under the thigh, the other leg extending half off the bed, toes not quite touching the floor. It looked like a photograph of somebody stumbling down stairs.
Blood had spread entirely across the Union suit underwear, turning it rusty and dark. Blood had soaked through the blanket and sheet and matting, through the cotton and horsehair, onto the broad dull floorboards, and flowed out from under the bed in a long puddle, looking like black tallow floating on brown water.
Flies had followed the stink of alcohol and blood and excrement in through the dead-looking branches of some neglected vine, through the open windows, rattling their wings like beggars’ cups, angry and hungry. Oddly, I could see only one sucking at the blood on the floor, its head dull and bright with blue and green, like part of an ugly rainbow. Flies live through the winter in Los Angeles, sustained by an abundance of filth.
Three patrolmen stood near the windows, thumbs in belt or behind lapels or flicking at large brass buttons. Two of them smoked cigars. They talked about cockfights, beer, women, laughing once in a while in not-loud barks. The patrolmen hardly lowered their voices when I entered. They hadn’t removed their hats.
An ice wagon groaned by along the side street, the unequally-yoked dray horses plowing the road-ruts just that much deeper.
The coroner, a fat Irishman with side whiskers and tobacco-stained mustachios, had just finished closing up his bag. “Pretty clear,” he muttered. “Suicide. Cut his throat, shallow but thorough. Bled to death. Razor still in his hand. Nearly had to break the fingers to get it out. His razor. Dead all night. Since ten maybe.” A few more words between us, then he nodded a good-bye and positioning his belly toward the door left the room.
The dead man was young, lean, with a medium build and pale, hairless arms and legs. Even more pale, of course, now. Blood hadn’t gotten at his face or hair, and I could see the smooth, flawless skin of a triangular face, a small straight nose, dimpled chin, full, womanish lips with a sulky downward curve now that he was dead. Wavy brown hair still neatly slicked back from the perfect arc of his eyebrows and the smooth, perfect surface of his forehead. Slivers of blue iris showed from beneath the upper lids, the whites almost as clear as a newly born baby’s. His lashes were thick and long, and gave him an oddly innocent aura. He had been a handsome lad. The ladies must have swooned for him.
A skinny-legged table stood up against the right side of the bed, closest to the body. It held a whiskey bottle, two-thirds empty, no cup. Crowding the rest of the table-top was a gray washing bowl and pitcher, both limned with soft red roses. Above the table, the gaslight still flickered.
The man’s clothes had been draped neatly across the bed’s foot rail. Wherever he’d been Saturday evening, he’d cut a dashing figure in a Norfolk jacket of pale blue, matching trousers, a Madras shirt with small oxblood dots, and a wing collar now looped over it casually. A boater hung on a post, with a bright pink-checked necktie wrapped around it like a maiden’s kerchief knotted to a shield. Patent leather shoes rested pigeon-toed on the floor, forlorn as only the empty shoes of a dead man can be. A dollar-sized ruby stain marred the front of the shirt, suggesting spilled wine. Even among the other smells, when I held it to my nose it still had a vague fruity odor.
Sergeant Gregory entered, and said, behind me, “His name was Vladislaw Moes. Been here about ten months according to the landlady. I just finished up talking to her. He was twenty-three. Clerk at Caven & Son. Got paid yesterday. No known debts, or enemies. Moderate habits, personable. Spent the evening out, don’t know yet where, then came in about 8:30. Made an early night of it, what with today being Sunday. Wasn’t heard from since.”
“Came home alone?”
“The landlady in the room closest the outside door. Three other roomers, one across, Suarez, one by the front door, Krueger, and McKinley above. Stairs the first door as you come in, on the right.”
“McKinley. Talk to them yet?”
“Yeah. Landlady’s a half-deaf widow name of Mrs. Quincy.” Gregory paused, took a deep breath, shifted his large feet and continued: “Maybe she drinks a little. And it looks like she runs a pretty loose place, doesn’t mind her fellas entertaining, if you get my meaning. She locks the door at nine, and the roomers let themselves in with a key after that. McKinley was entertaining. The woman was still there this morning. Took a lot of knocking to rouse them. Suarez didn’t come in till after midnight, and made enough noise to wake the old lady. Krueger doesn’t have much to say – home all evening, reading and listening to his gramophone, he says.”
I moved over to the other side of the bed, to the wardrobe and dressing table. A good-quality long mirror had been secured to the inside of one of the wardrobe doors, and the other held a colorful array of cravats, neckties, hats. More hats rested on a high inner shelf, several stylish coats were carefully hung from a stout wooden bar, and a neat row of shoes, polished, lined its floor.
The dressing table showed the dead young man’s personal effects scattered across its top – Mysteria Pomade, a set of men’s brushes and toiletries, Flumel’s Divine Hair Tonic for the Gentleman of Particular Taste, a silver and enamel engraved pocket watch, an unopened packet of a dozen high-band linen collars, a scatter of coins, tobacco and paper, talcum powder. Several collar studs lay on the cover of an incongruous Fairchild’s Magazine a couple years old, which was at the top of a stack of Men’s Wear, The Young Man’s Journal, and the like. A few squares of paper, canary yellow, were scrawled with numbers and idle pencil scratches. A receipt for the collars, and another for two shirts, lay folded by the collar studs. A razor strop hung from the knob of the top drawer, close to the bed.
Below, partly open dresser drawers held a few neatly folded and well starched shirts, and two other shirts, clearly new, white, one with heliotrope stripes, the other with Hunter green double diamonds. The middle drawer held trousers, again neatly folded, and several white linen Union suits — so under the blood, he had worn white. Soiled clothes in the bottom drawer, awaiting a launderer who would never see them.
“So was this Vlad a Russian?” I asked Gregory.
“Or something, a Polack or something, but didn’t have an accent. Been here since he was a kid. Came west from St. Louis, and before that from New York – ten months ago like I said.”
“O.K. McKinley and Suarez are out of it for now. I’ll talk to Krueger and see what’s what.”
“Think it’s worth it? Doc says suicide.”
“Yeah. I heard. I hope he’s better at his job than he is at ours. How does he know whose razor it is? Why would a dying man keep hold of the razor? – especially with the arms and hands in such an awkward position? Why would a fellow buy new shirts and collars, and that very day kill himself? It doesn’t make sense. Where’s the money from his pay? Why were the windows open on a cold winter night?”
“Well, we opened it. It was getting pretty ripe in here.”
“Then why didn’t you turn off the gaslight?”
He didn’t answer.
“Why was there no note? Why is his hair still so neat? He combed his hair and then sat down in his underwear and cut his throat? I’ve never seen a drunkard with such neatly combed hair. For a young man so obviously concerned about his appearance to end up dead in blood-crusty underwear just doesn’t ring true,” I said. “It might be suicide,” I said, “but it’s not clear at all.”
I went into the hall, to Krueger’s room. He opened his door as soon as I knocked, like he’d been listening at the door. I introduced myself and entered. His room was more of the same, except its occupant was alive and the prevailing odor was the innocuous incense of pipe tobacco rather than the exudations of death. Bed in the far left corner, with a gramophone on a small trunk at its foot, window to the bed’s right, two chairs and a table in the middle of the right wall.
“Come and sit here,” he invited, motioning awkwardly to the near chair. “You will have something to drink?”
He was a fattish man of middle years, aging badly, bald with graying blond side locks that hung around his head like a cannibal’s grass skirt. His nose bent down and sharply to the left, and a ragged scar puckered the right side of his face. The whites of his eyes were the color of tobacco smoke. His hands were thick as muffins, with short sausage-fat fingers – he could have been holding breakfast. He wore clean, faded gray overalls, a washed-out sidebutton shirt without a collar, and scuffed brown workman’s boots, square-toed and heavy. A shapeless felt hat hung on a peg by the door.
Ignoring his invitation, I walked past the table and chairs to the window on the far wall and stood next to the bed. “So, Mr. Krueger, as you know, your neighbor next door has been killed.”
Krueger sat with a thump in the chair, looking stricken. “Killed?” he said in a choked voice. “He did this to himself I thought.”
“That remains to be seen. Tell me, if you would be so good, if you can shed any light on the matter.”
“I know nothing.”
“By which you mean?”
“Ach, well, no, I am in my room all night. That boy, he was a good young man, very quiet. It is like they say a tragedy.”
Krueger went on like that, speaking in the vague platitudes of a simpleton. I listened to the nervous words filter though his thick mushy accent, just to hear him speak. He sounded slightly drunk, but no bottles were in sight.
“Might I trouble you for a drink of water?” I interrupted.
“Forgive me. I am a bad host. I am bothered by this thing, this death.” He rose and went to the cabinet behind him. He took a drinking glass from the standing cupboard, held it under the spout of a burnished nickel water urn engraved with large florets. He pressed the tap button, hunching his shoulders as he did so as if exerting great effort. His hair hung like wet fraying rope over his neck. Showing through the crossed bands of the overalls, the back of his pale blue shirt was blotched dark with sweat. He looked uncertain and strangely small.
I crossed the room and looked at the books in a narrow bookcase – a dozen or so heavy tomes with long German titles. On top of the case were a couple of candle stubs. A partly-eaten black-bread sandwich was growing stale on unfolding brown paper. A pipe lay on its side, and next to it a box of matches and a leather tobacco pouch sat on a square yellow envelope about four inches across. A few coins. A silver-framed photograph of a foreign-looking matron flanked by two younger women, all seated formally before a painted seascape – rough waves breaking across ragged rocks on a storm-clouded beach. Odd place for a trio of Prussian hausfraus to pose. Sturm und drang.
“Your water is here,” Krueger said, after a moment. He had been looking at me silently. I walked to him and took the glass, then went back to the window. He sat again.
Under a half-hour of questioning, he told me about his Saturday, uneventful – his job, as a trolley motorman – his relationship with Moes, cordial. Then I thanked him and left. We did not shake hands.
In the dead man’s room, two men had placed a canvas stretcher on the bed, next to the body, and were pushing and sliding and tugging it into place between the poles. The man on the right, burly as a bear, seemed squeamishly aware of the blood on the floor. Then they covered the body over with a horse blanket and carried it out of the room and down the hall, into the bright winter sunlight outside. I followed. A crowd of children and adults idled around the doorstep and on the corner, but parted to let them pass. The men worked the stretcher into the back of their van, then climbed up onto the seat.
The big man took the reins and with a gentle shake signaled the horses to move. Jerking to a start, the wagon jogged slowly north on Central toward the city morgue. An automobile came snorting down the road like a blind black bull, making the horses nervous and blowing out smoke enough to make you think it was heating an office building. More and more autos every day, it seemed. There was a lot of traffic for a Sunday. I watched it moving along the long avenue for quite a while — riders and buggies and carriages and omnibuses and trolleys and automobiles, the din of metal and leather and rubber and stone and dirt — until the wagon was just an anonymous spot in the distance.
Then I returned to Moes’ room, empty now, devoid of occupants living or dead, and paced its floor restlessly. For about an hour I looked through the entire room again, under the blood-soaked mattress, between the pages of journals, inside the scribbled yellow envelopes on the dressing table, inside shoes, pockets, behind the wardrobe. Gramophone music seeped through from Krueger’s room – a sad, slow waltz with too much brass.
The low solstice sun sent long rays across the floor, full on the thick and drying bloody pool. At least no one had stepped in it. I sat at the foot of the bed on a clean spot, the toes of my shoes inches away from the stain on the floor, my eyes fixing morbidly on the flies settling again to lap at its edges.
Then I got up and pushed the bed away, up against the western wall, revealing all of the blood on the floor. In the center of the blot, where the blood was thickest, a slight triangle of imperfection broke its surface. I looked closer, squatting on my heels. With my nails I plucked at it, pulling out a square of thick sodden paper, lines of viscous fluid trailing beneath it. I carried it gingerly to the wash basin and dropped it in. Then I emptied the rest of the whiskey into the bowl, sloshing it around to remove the blood.
It was an envelope, about four inches across. Pulling it open and apart, I could see that the inside was still yellow. Empty.
I dropped the paper on the table, wiped my fingertips on a clean part of the bed, and stood thinking. Something about square yellow envelopes. So many square yellow envelopes.
I moved to the door. Out of the room, down the hall, to Krueger’s door. Sorry to trouble you again but. Inside, at his bookcase. Under the tobacco pouch, a square yellow envelope, canary, filled with cash. Printed in small elegant type on the flap, Caven & Son.
Oh, Mr. Krueger. What have you done.
The case was a sensation, in large part because the young man had been so achingly handsome. Newspapers published his photographs, of which there were very many: he had been an artists’ model in both St. Louis and New York. Soulful profiles, tasteful nudes, poses heroic. The rooming house, its shabby clapboards now wreathed with pink and lilac Wisteria blossoms, became a Mecca of sight-seers, and Mrs. Quincy forsook her laudanum long enough to bask in the implicit glory of having for a time nurtured the fallen hero. Both Caven and Son gave interviews lauding the lad’s diligent and noble character, fit to wed any mother’s daughter. A line of ‘Moes Neck Wear for the Daringly Fashionable’ was produced by some enterprising capitalist, and did brisk business.
Articles mourned ‘The Sacrifice of Ninus to Mammon,’ and urged the feeling public to ‘Weep for Adonis,’ and all such variations. Letters to Editors were published of various females, claiming to be his fiancée, his widow, his paramours, his hareem. Society women attended the trial in black garb severe as Castilian doñas, draped in veils, making spectacles of themselves on the Court House steps, imploring the prosecutor to avenge The Slaughter of Beauty & Youth. Balladeers composed lachrymal dirges, and pilgrims trekked to his graveside, where young girls in flowing gauze danced like Isadora Duncan to timbrel and lyre among the headstones. Donations were taken to pay for the erection of a larger-than-life marmoreal statue in his likeness, in the archaic Greek style of a Kouros — so precise in its anatomy that the statue itself became a scandal, remedied late one night by the hammer and chisel of some skulking Bowdler – or perhaps Baudelaire.
But the trial was short. Krueger was convicted and sentenced to be hanged for the capital crime of murder. His violence and propensity for the knife was attested by the fact that, some months before, he had been somehow involved in a drunken brawl in a beer hall down on East 57th – and one of the men had been found stabbed dead late the following evening.
Krueger had been in poor young Vlad’s room, the prosecutor declaimed, on that fateful and dire Saturday night in question. Young Vlad had innocently revealed his hard-earned savings, bursting probably with optimism over his fine prospects. But, woe, the fiendish Krueger grew swollen with greed or was enraged by an insane blood-lust, and snatching up the deadly blade had slashed the sweet victim’s tender throat as he sat helpless and unaware on his bed. Then the beast Magog with his innate low-cunning placed the murder-blade in the dead or dying fingers, and taking care to avoid getting blood on his sweat-soaked clothes, seized the money and skulked back to his own filthy dark lair of depravity. Twisting at imaginary mustachios, no doubt.
In any case, it was a stupid crime, and senseless, committed for a sum too paltry to cost a life. But that’s every crime.
Krueger complained of his innocence in hard German consonants, but he was an ugly man, and his story was unpersuasive. He claimed that the money was his, then changed his tune, saying he had borrowed that sum a few weeks before and was about to repay it. But young Vlad had just received a raise, and the amount in the envelope exactly matched the new salary. Hearing that, Krueger then claimed incoherently that the boy had handed him the money on the evening of his death, without explanation. By this point the young Dionysius could have arisen from his flowered grave to testify that Krueger was innocent, and the jury would still have convicted him.
That was that, then.
For several months I continued investigating cases for the D.A., fraud and embezzlement and blackmail and larceny and assault and murder and the whole litany of malfeasance propagated by modern city life in the young twentieth century. One morning, though, I found a letter waiting at my desk. No return address, but the Folsom postmark made its own insinuations. I opened the cheap envelope and stood reading the enclosed letter. It was written in a pointed old-fashioned hand. From Krueger, of course.
Dear Mr. Investigator Matson,
I am writing this letter. I saw him at they say La Main Gauche, this is eine schlechte Verein for men, when I pass by in my trolley as a motor man. And I told him that I seen him going into such a place that you will know about. He very bothered and crying and give to me money and did not say nothing and I think it is so strange and I think about it all night also. About why he does that. And I find out now I am in prison what such a place is from a man here. But I know nothing about this then. I only tell him I seen him like to say hello for him be so nice and polite always. But he is very bothered and go in his room. Then he come to me very drunk and hand to me this money and he talk so I understand nothing and crying. But I say nothing about no money he gave to me to you because then it look bad for me I think. But now I understand what he do that for. He thought I am for the black mail. And I will not say nothing ever also. But then he cut himself. And it is not me who did this thing. Ich bin unschuldig. But he was a poor young man who when I am young is what we say ein Arschficher. And I am going to be hung but you must know this please and help me and save me from this for I am innocent of this. And now what is true you know.
I uttered a word, and threw the letter at the desktop. It caught the air and fluttered to the floor. I left it there. The half-drawn window shade clattered arrhythmically against the casement in the cool breeze. Footsteps tapped their way down the hall, passing and passing behind some distant door. I sat down, sat still, arms stretched out, fingertips arching off the desk like a ribcage eroded from black dirt, then palms flat, cold and sweaty.
I sat for quite a while.
What have I done.
Downtown near the corner of 8th and Olive, recessed between a tobacconist and a haberdashery, a very pale red door bore the words La Main Gauche in minuscule script. A ceramic tile had been attached as a plaque, painted like fine china with the likeness of a satyr, facing away, hands clutching at some unseen waist-level object, tossing a knowing leer over his shoulder to the outside world. I pushed the door open. Inside, downward-leading stairs disappeared into the darkness of a pit. I touched the wall and descended. At the bottom, dim electric light shone from behind a cornice, revealing another door, locked.
I knocked. A Judas window opened and I held up my badge.
It wasn’t a saloon, it was a sort of club, where a sort of waiter passed between tables looking for wrist movements. He was dressed the way a woman would dress if she dressed like a man.
I spoke to a sort of manager. He said his name was Lysander, and he was the shiniest man I had ever seen. He almost glowed. His eyes had a way of lingering, of querying from behind lazy lids. Peek-a-boo. A machine-made cigarette hung slender and loose from his lips, a single curl of smoke rising tranquilly from its end.
“Oh my heavens yes, I should say so, who could ever forget that lovely boy. Such a shame, and it was only his first visit here too. The poor boy, whatever could have possessed that monstrous brute to harm him I shall wonder for the rest of my days.” And on he went, every now and then removing the cigarette by caressing his lips with the fingertips of his left hand, squeezing with index and middle fingers, slowly waving his hand away as if he were blowing languid kisses. He did it with practiced insouciance, in case the shade of Oscar Wilde might be watching from hell.
Lysander was not as discrete as his position and proclivities warranted. But I wasn’t working a vice case, and so I wasn’t interested in the back rooms of his club.
Yes, Vladislaw Moes had been to La Main Gauche that Saturday evening. So what did that prove? That Krueger had the means to blackmail him, and a motive perhaps to kill him.
But it also meant that Moes had a reason to kill himself. To try to bribe Krueger, and then in guilt and shame and self-loathing to go and kill himself. He had been raised by a very devout mother. Perhaps he’d been trying to turn over a new leaf – or to keep a new leaf from turning over – but succumbed to his urges, as not only young men are wont to do. Perhaps he thought in his flight westward he would leave such things behind, shed and out-run the demons lodged in his flesh. Perhaps he grew weary of abusing himself to underwear advertisements in men’s fashion gazettes. But I will leave the interpretation of dreams to prophets and quacks.
That’s it then.
Krueger was hanged at Folsom Prison.
I tried to get the case re-opened, and the prosecutor was first amused then irritated and then seething with anger at my efforts. I had been the one to make the case against Krueger, after all.
“So what if he bought collars that day,” I said, rebutting my former arguments. “You buy collars, I buy collars. Everybody buys collars. I guess everybody who cuts their throats buys collars. So what? So what if he didn’t leave a note. Maybe he had other things on his mind. Maybe he was preoccupied. His hair was neat? He used a lot of pomade. It would have stayed in place in a 70-knot gale. Of course it was neat. And he was in his underwear. If you cut your throat in a frenzy of fear and despair, maybe clothes and hats and shoes and lovely flowery cravats don’t have as much meaning as they used to. So what if he was holding the razor. Galvanized froglegs jump. Who can say what a dead man will hold onto. I’ve seen dead men holding guns and coins and clumps of hair, and somebody’s torn-off ear.
“And Krueger never killed anybody after any beer hall brouhaha. He wasn’t in any knife fight in a saloon or anywhere else that anybody knows about. He was just there, and there was a fight between some Mexicans. Nobody says he was in it. And he was at work the next night, when the Mex was killed.”
But of course he was a lawyer, and a prosecutor, and was not without a rejoinder. A man as ugly as Krueger had to be guilty – a weak argument that was somehow compelling. And he was a blackmailer. Or they both went to this club, this salon together, and had a tiff afterwards that ended in death. Or something else that nobody can think of but this ****ing Katzenjammer scum was guilty, no matter what.
“What we’re not going to have,” he said, thrusting forward his large head perched upon his thin neck, “is headlines about us ****ing up, or about a vice problem that nobody at all wants to hear about or read about. We’re not going to spit in the public’s eye by saying that their beautiful Adonis was a ***** boy, now are we. You’re *** **** sure we aren’t. That wouldn’t do anybody any good at all. You want to have your name permanently linked to that? I don’t think so. And I’m sure not. I have a future in this town.”
I threatened to take it to the papers. I knew how stupid that sounded even as I said it. I tried anyway. But Los Angeles is a small town, and the Brahmans all belong to the same schlechte clubs, and they know where their interests lie. Even Rosenburg wouldn’t print it, Socialists being in sympathy, apparently, with all manner of practices – strange bedfellows and all that.
So that’s it then. Krueger was hanged, protesting his innocence with his last breath. Maybe he was guilty. But justice has to be guarded, and it wasn’t. So hard luck for Krueger and hard luck for me. And for everybody else too.
The day he was killed, I left my badge on my desk and haven’t seen either since.
I walked down the broad low steps outside the stately government building and caught a random trolley – for all I know, Krueger’s trolley. It took me south, down into the slummy areas. It was summer by now, and afternoon. The flies that don’t die in winter swarmed like a minor plague through the streets, shadowing the trolley, afflicting the horses, eating ****. I rode until evening, back and forth like a played-out Sisyphus, thinking about nothing at all, or about logic, or about a city, any city, every city, where men sit alone in rooms devoid of any beauty except what rises from the gramophone or reflects from the mirror. Then I went to my room, my own room, and sat up alone late into the night.