It was raining when I arrived in Chicago. I wasn’t surprised; it always rains when I come to Chicago.
The train pulled into the station at 6:20, right on time. I have friends who wonder why I take the train after all these years. Airplanes are faster, cleaner, less crowded, more luxurious, ad infinitum. I know all that, of course. But I happen to enjoy the feel of the train, the smells of the oil and the smoke, the rhythmic sounds of the wheel carriages on the track, the feel of polished chrome and well-worn wood in the old cars. I like being about to walk about from my seat to the club car and the dining car. I especially enjoy overnight trips; something about a sleeper car rocking through the night relaxes me.
I strolled through the station, picked up my cases, and made my way to the cab stand. As usual, it did not take long for me to get a taxi. I called out to see if there was anybody else going to the Walton Hotel, and found myself sharing the ride with an older couple who looked to be about my age. We chatted through the ten minutes of the ride, and I must admit that I smiled when Mrs. Mertz commented to her husband that she rarely saw young men with my sort of manners these days. It was after we departed the cab, so I’m not even sure if she knew I heard her. I doubt it.
At the desk of the hotel, the clerk seemed distracted. I gave him my name, and he looked up the reservation. He pulled out the card, then reached for the house phone.
“Excuse me, Mr. Ayers, but I have a guest checking in who is booked for twelve-seventeen. Do you want me to–?” He stopped, apparently interrupted by Mr. Ayers on the other end of the line. “Yes, sir. I will.”
He hung up the phone and turned his attention to me. “I apologize for the delay, sir. There has been a bit of a problem on the twelfth floor, so if you don’t mind, we will be changing your reservation.” He paused, looking through a list of rooms. “Ah, here we are. Suite eighteen-oh-three. The upgrade, of course, will be with the management’s compliments.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary. I can take a standard room if one is available. I have no need of any extra arrangements.”
“Please, sir, it was my manager’s request.” He placed a ring with two keys on the counter, letting them hit the marble hard enough for the sound to echo in the large lobby. “Next!” he called, summoning the next available bellboy who quickly came over and picked up my two suitcases. “Andy, please sho — er, please take Dr. McNider to suite eighteen-oh-three. And, Dr. McNider, I hope you enjoy your stay.”
“Welcome back, Dr. McNider. How long are you in town for this time?” Andy Warwick, the bellhop, and I were getting to be old friends. We met when I visited Chicago three years ago, and on each of my visits since then, he managed to be front when I checked in. By now, I knew that he was working his way through college, working on a degree in forensic science at Northwestern. Naturally, he had recognized my name when I checked in, both from my published works in medicine, and as the author of several of the mysteries that led him to his choice of careers.
“Just a few days, Andy. I’m here for a conference on arthroscopic surgery techniques.” The young man placed my baggage on a cart, then allowed me to take hold of his sleeve and started walking toward the bank of elevators. More than four decades of feigned blindness has served to reinforce my belief in the basic goodness of the human race. Wherever I go, there are always people like Andy willing to help me out in a strange place. It is difficult, at times, to let them do this when I am capable of finding my own way, but it does my heart good that they are willing to do so, without my requesting aid.
“Hey, I heard about that one. Any chance you can get a lowly college student in there?”
I chuckled and reached into an inner pocket of my sports jacket. “I thought you might be interested. I hope you don’t mind playing ‘guiding eye’ for me. Not for long, I promise you that.”
“Are you kidding? I’ll be glad to help you out, Doc!” We reached the elevator, and I discretely handed him the ticket. It wouldn’t do for his coworkers to see him receiving a gift from me, other than the expected gratuity. Once we were on the elevator, I changed the subject.
“I understand there was a problem on the twelfth floor, Andy. Any idea what was going on?”
“Just between you and me, Doc? They found a dead body in room twelve-twenty-one. Word among the help is, it was pretty gruesome.” Andy had lowered his voice, though we were all alone in the elevator.
“I assume the police have been called in?”
“Oh, yeah. After the one last week, they pretty much had to.”
“Last week? Another death?” Suspicion was starting to simmer in my mind.
“An older fella, found dead in one of the rooms. Coroner said it looked like natural causes, so Mr. Ayers tried to keep it quiet.” The bell chimed as we reached the eighteenth floor. “Look, this is just between you and me, right?”
I understood. In the hotel business, reputation is everything. If word got out that an employee was spreading bad news, such as patients dying in the rooms, that employee was not going to be around for long. I reassured him that everything said was held in strictest confidence.
Five minutes later, Andy was on his way back down to the lobby, and I was settling into my suite. I opened the larger suitcase, pulled out my two wool suits, and hung them in the closet. Then I opened the false bottom underneath and pulled out a suit of a different kind.
It was time for Doctor Mid-Nite to make a house call.
Ten minutes and six floors later, I stood on a masonry ledge, listening to the voices of two police officers and a third person whom I presumed to be Mr. Ayers, the hotel manager.
“You sure none of the workers came in here this afternoon?” asked a deep baritone, whom I had identified as a Sergeant Cominsky.
“The cleaning staff goes through all of the occupied rooms between eight and twelve, unless the guest leaves the do not clean tag on the doorknob. After twelve, they take care of changing out the empty rooms. The goal is to have them all done by three; that’s when our normal check-ins start to arrive.” Judging by his voice and phrasing, Mr. Ayers was well-educated. However, he still retained more than a trace of a deep Southern accent.
“I see. Since Miss Holden has been your guest for a few days, the staff should have been done with her room before she came back from that press conference.”
At this point, I tapped on the window, then tried lifting up on it. Not surprisingly, it was locked. I bent over to look in as a young woman in the uniform of the Chicago Police Department stepped toward the window, but two steps to the side of it, with her pistol drawn, held pointing toward the ceiling. I noted that the other officer, a burly man with gray streaks in his straight, oily brown hair, extended an arm in front of a middle-aged gentleman in a blue suit. The officer guided the hotel manager back and out of any potential line of fire.
“Hey, Art, that looks like that Doc Mid-Nite, from back east.” The female officer glanced quickly at her partner for a sign of confirmation. I noted, however, that her eyes only left me for a fraction of a second.
“Let’s see, Matchuk: black mask, bright red vest, funny green eye lenses, and, oh, yeah, he’s hangin’ around, outside, up on the twelfth floor!” Cominsky’s voice rose on the last part of his sentence, and I could detect more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Who else d’ya think it’d be, the welcome wagon? G’wan and open the window for him.”
She holstered her weapon and opened the window, closing it after I came in.
“Please, don’t tell me this has attracted the attention of the Justice Society. We don’t have one of those costumed maniacs on the loose in my hotel, do we?” asked Ayers.
“Assuming that you aren’t calling me a maniac, I don’t think so.” I saw Sergeant Comminsky smile. Now that I had an unobstructed view of the room, I saw what Andy had meant about the scene being a gruesome one. The victim had been taken away, but I could see that she had been lying on the bed. Whoever had killed her hadn’t been satisfied with a simple stabbing: the patterns of the blood on the headboard, walls, and floor showed me that she had been systematically cut to provide the widest area of bloodshed as possible.
“The JSA is not involved; I just happened to be in town and heard about the problem.”
Murder weapons left in plain sight — a pair of Japanese-style draw knives. Extremely thin, steel blades, set into a heavier, grooved metal piece that ran down one side of the blade and extended out to fit into a wooden handle. Very fine serrations on the blade, something on the order of thirty-six to sixty per inch, almost invisible to the naked eye, but I’m sure they would be excruciating when drawn across, or into, flesh. They were sitting on the headboard, and I could tell by the blood smears on them that the murderer wore gloves, probably latex.
“Look, Doctor Mid-Nite, I been an admirer of you JSA types for a long time. You want me to step aside on this case, I’ll talk to the captain and get it done for ya.” It’s funny, I became accustomed to this sort of admiration — hero worship, as Ted calls it — a long time ago with most people. It still shocked me to hear it from a police officer, though. When it came right down to it, I and most of the other mystery-men were just part-timers in this business. Officers like Cominsky and his partner, they did it every day, every week, throughout their career. If anything, they were the heroes, not me. Still, it was a nice gesture, well-intended.
“I appreciate that, Officer, but I think we stand a much better chance of catching the person responsible for this if the local police take the lead on it. You have the connections, and there’s no question that people around here know that you’re the authorities. Sometimes, wearing a mask isn’t such an advantage.”
“Tough luck, Artie; you don’t get to duck out on this one.” I got a quick look at the nameplate on the younger officer’s uniform: Carol Matchuk. “How much did you hear from out there?”
“Not much. I’d appreciate it if you could see your way clear to let me look over your notes.” I looked over at Mr. Ayers. “Unless the manager would prefer to tell me all about it.”
“Actually, gentlemen, ma’am, unless you need me further, I do have a hotel to run. We will, of course, keep this room locked up until your people are done.” He glanced at the bed, his already-pale face turning a bit paler in the distorted view my lenses give me. “Um, will your people clean that, or…?”
“We’ll let you know when we’re done, but then it will be your responsibility to clean it up. I do have the names of some outfits that specialize in that sort of thing, if you like.” Cominsky reached into a breast pocket, obviously accustomed to offering this information.
“Thank you, yes, that would be very helpful.” Ayers took the business card offered to him, then hastily made his exit.
“Now, you wanted to know all the pertinents, eh?” Cominsky flipped back through a few pages in his notebook. “Here’s what I got.”
Two hours later, I sat in the darkness of my room, analyzing what I had found so far.
Andrea Holden, aged twenty-seven, single, of St. Louis, was a reporter for the St. Louis Dispatch. She was in Chicago for the past three days, covering the start of the Rolling Moss’ latest farewell tour. The first concert had been held last night, during which Matt Bower, the lead singer (if that’s what you want to call it) of the Rolling Moss had taken a fall on the stage, injuring his hip. This morning, the other members of the group held a press conference announcing that the start of the tour was being postponed for three weeks, and that the first few stops would be rescheduled for the end of the tour. The press conference ended just before noon.
She spent an hour using a computer terminal in one of the courtesy rooms offered by the hotel, presumably to type and upload her report to an online service used by her employer. At approximately 1:30, she picked up her messages from the front desk and went up to her room. Two hours later, Lawrence Gilbert, the guest in the room next to Miss Holden, called the desk to report sounds of a woman screaming, then went into the hall looking for the source. When Roger Ayers, the hotel’s manager, arrived, Mr. Gilbert had determined that the screams were coming from room twelve-twenty-one. Ayers unlocked the door with his master key, and they found Miss Holden on her bed, dead from multiple cuts to her body.
Amazing, how antiseptic it sounds, when we speak about the ending of a human life.
Sergeant Comminsky was the one who noticed the blood at the bottom of the bed. It appears that the first cut was to Miss Holden’s ankle, or more specifically to her Achilles tendon. She fell backward onto the bed. The killer must have been waiting for her under the bed itself, slashing out when she came close enough. Such a cut wouldn’t bleed as quickly, but the cuts to the insides of her upper arms, the insides of her thighs, and the sides of her neck created such a rapid loss of blood that she was probably dead within thirty seconds of the cut to her ankle. Nevertheless, the killer was bold. He, or she, had to know that Miss Holden would cry out. Mr. Gilbert didn’t see anybody in the hallway, but there was an adjoining room to twelve-twenty-one on the opposite side of Mr. Gilbert’s room. The connecting doors showed signs of tampering, so that likely explains how the killer entered and left.
Then, of course, there was the first death.
Ed Lomax, aged sixty-two, of Detroit, Michigan. In Chicago to see his grandson graduate from basic Naval training. His daughter and son-in-law flew in from Texas for the graduation, then left that same evening, while Ed remained in the city for two more days. During the night, he appeared to have suffered some sort of attack, which caused him to vomit. It wasn’t enough to wake him up, and as he was sleeping on his back at the time, he choked to death.
On the face of it, a horrible way to die. Still, he probably never realized anything was wrong, I suppose there was something to be said for that.
Still, if a killer knew enough about the workings of the human body, it wouldn’t be too difficult to induce an attack of the type that killed Ed Lomax.
As I got up to prepare for bed, I was determined to find out two things:
Was Ed Lomax’s death natural or induced?
Who was responsible for his death and that of Andrea Holden?