A First Look
A rookie detective, new in town, inherits a high-profile murder case.
Barrachois overlooks the cold, dark edge of the world. It’s a city that’s a little crooked by necessity, but it’s an oddly safe place – joyous, even. Until two little kids witness the death of the limping man.
© D.E. Ring 2023. All rights reserved. Not to be copied without written permission.
Death of the Limping Man
It was only two days after Christmas, but Mary Petrie now viewed the tree with foreboding. The boy insisted on the lights, and she hated leaving the room with the electric lights plugged in, yet she craved a bowl of ice cream.
Alec was playing with his new train set. Because it was plugged in as well, Mary was convinced it was just a matter of time before the boy would be electrocuted — as if the brace on his leg wasn’t already enough.
She stood, pulled her robe tighter, and automatically picked up her cigarettes. ‘I’m just getting some ice cream. You watch that tree. And don’t touch the track.’
‘Yes, Momma,’ said Alec, and he turned the dial so that the engine sped around the oval as fast as possible. Mary didn’t trust the electrical smell of the transformer either, but she left anyway for the fridge.
She was hardly down the hall when Alec heard the slam of a car door. He hoisted himself up and got to the window, where he saw a big lime-green Pontiac station wagon at the top of the street, gleaming wet in the lamplight. A man stood beside the car. It was Cramish Wilmot. With a goodbye honk, the car drove off. Alec saw the flare of a match and watched Cramish smoke his cigarette.
Cramish worked at City Hall on something. Alec didn’t know quite what, because he was seven years old and didn’t really care. Cramish was his friend, and he wore a brace like Alec did — he’d had polio, too. Cramish lived just around the corner, and the two were buddies.
The lane was steep but not especially narrow, and it ran almost down to the harbour. It was paved with cobblestones, but the rain made them treacherous for Cramish, who slowly, carefully limped down towards his house.
Mary came back into the living room just as Cramish looked up from the lane. He grinned and waved to Alec.
‘Come away from there. But open the window. The smell of that thing,’ said Mary, pointing to the train’s transformer.
Alec waved happily back at Cramish and dutifully opened the window something a little more than a crack.
‘Who you wavin’ at?’ asked his mother, setting down her bowl of ice cream.
‘Cramish,’ said Alec, settling back down.
‘Mr. Wilmot to you. Shoot. I forgot my smokes.’ She left for the kitchen again, quickly this time, fearing for the integrity of her maple walnut ice cream.
Alec put his train in reverse. A bright light suddenly flashed up through the window. The tinsel on the tree flared, but only for an instant. Alec heard the full-throated roar of a car accelerating down the lane. The clacking of Cramish’s brace was quicker, insistent.
He’s trying to run, thought Alec.
Cramish swore, angrily.
Then came the plea. ‘No, Donnie, for the love of God! No, Donnie, no!’
The words froze Alec’s hand on the transformer. Alec tried to call for his mother, but nothing came out.
The scream and the thud came almost together.
Alec, scrambling up, heard the gun of an engine and tires squealing. Finally at the window, he saw a black sedan lurch up, then down, as it reversed. A thick blue cloud eddied away. Cramish lay on the cobbles, his pale coat dark.
Alec left his train and the tree and the living room, tore the door wide, and thumped down the stairs.
‘Where do you think you’re goin’?’ demanded his mother, torn between following and the danger of leaving the lights. A sudden flash lit up the tree momentarily. She darted, unplugged the tree and the train, and then ran down the stairs. She caught up with Alec at the at the bottom, but Alec pushed past her and scooted outside.
Alec stood in the rain over the body. The pool of blood was prodigious. Telling. Lana from across the street stopped next to Alec. Lana was five.
‘A sedan,’ said Alec, pointing up the street.
‘A black car,’ said Lana, firmly, intent on the corpse.
Lana’s mother Ronalda Beckwith emerged from their door with a barking Dalmatian at her heels.
‘Sweet Jesus,’ said Mary Petrie.
‘Holy Mother of God,’ said Ronalda.
‘Get back in,’ said Mary, shoving Alec toward the open door.
‘He probably just couldn’t get out of the way,’ said Ronalda. She grabbed the dog by the collar. ‘I’ll go back and phone the police. One of us should stay. Don’t touch that, Lana.’
Inspector James Urquhart watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty from the second-last row of the Chelsea movie theatre. It was Saturday night, and he was out on his very first date with Sandy MacDonald. To differentiate her from the ten or twelve other Sandy MacDonalds in Barrachois, she was known as Notepad Sandy, since she was a reporter on The Expositor.
Barrachois was a small city, only about 30,000 people or so, with many Scots and Irish but not so many surnames. Nicknames had become a necessity in everyday conversation. Some were occupational, like Notepad’s. Some were historical, like Billy Wireless, who had the first store-bought radio in town. Others were descriptive, like Ice Cream Mary or Alistair Mòr and Alistair Beag — Big Alistair and Little Alistair, respectively. The Gaelic was often used.
Urquhart sneaked a look at Notepad MacDonald in the dark: a perfectly beautiful profile, lit by flashes from the screen. Her hand fished in the popcorn beside his leg, and he was happy. He caught her glancing sideways at him periodically. She smiled every time, and he thought that was a good sign. As if in proof, her upper arm moved into warm contact with his.
Things were just getting tense between Danny Kaye and Boris Karloff when a man shone a flashlight on Jimmy and Sandy. The Chelsea had usherettes, so a man with a flashlight was disconcerting. They got up without a word and followed the manager to the lobby.
‘You’re Inspector Urquhart, right?’ he asked. Jimmy nodded, and the manager took him to the phone in his office.
Jimmy listened, spoke little, and then put down the phone. He took a deep breath and decided, in that moment, to be collected and authoritative. He had been put in charge while the chief was away. It didn’t matter that he was a new cop. It didn’t matter. Everyone would be looking to him for direction. He was in no way ready.
He had felt the same impossible, numbing responsibility as a junior officer in the war. Shape up, he thought. He had managed then. He’d manage now. Evidence. Delegate. Double-check. Just keep a poker face and look like you know something, he said to himself and opened the door out into the lobby.
‘I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. I’m the senior man,’ he explained. Jimmy put his hat on his head and shrugged on his coat as he left the theatre.
Sandy followed, trying to keep up. ‘Where’re we going?’
‘Hit-and-run. In the alley below Petrie’s Autos,’ he said. ‘Sorry about this.’
‘Don’t worry. I would’ve been sent there anyway,’ she replied to his back.
Jimmy loped along, mind racing: procedure, reports, use your eyes. He pulled his hat down against the rain. Sandy put up her umbrella. Main Street was decorated by the city with scores of white angels blowing golden trumpets. The angels floated overhead, facing each other, creaking in the wind and dripping. Below, the muddy street was piled with bricks and yellow barriers against pedestrian dangers. The old street railway was being dug up all over town. Cars were the future.
They got to the top of the alley. Clarion Lane announced the sign. A rope stretched across the top of the little street, but Jimmy lifted the rope and walked under. The rain had changed to snow.
‘Can I come down?’ asked Sandy.
‘In a minute,’ said Urquhart, and he left her to watch from the top of the little street. He thought about the advisability of a date with someone who worked for a newspaper. He wondered if Notepad was thinking the same thing about stepping out with a copper.
Urquhart walked down the cobbles toward a small group: police, a doctor, and a photographer. Good, he thought, they’re on top of it. A constable with a flashlight scoured the lane. Police photographer George Pauley took pictures with a Speed Graphic. The flash froze the snow in its flight and set buildings at wrong angles to each other.
‘Who is it?’ asked Urquhart.
‘Duncan Wilmot, sir,’ replied Jimmy’s sergeant.
‘Cramish Wilmot? The city clerk?’ demanded Urquhart. While Urquhart was new to Barrachois, he knew a few nicknames, especially those in the news.
‘Yes, sir,’ said the sergeant. As luck would have it, his sergeant was also one of the ten or twelve Sandy MacDonalds in Barrachois — and cruelly known as Pretty Sandy. ‘Pauley knew him.’
‘George?’ said Urquhart. ‘Pretty says you knew the victim.’
‘I did. Cramish Wilmot. He lived just there.’ He pointed to the house on the corner.
‘Cramish. I’m sorry… it means what?’ asked Urquhart.
‘Scots word. Like “crunch,” I think,’ said Pauley.
‘Cripes,’ said Jimmy, as he regarded the corpse.
‘Anyhow,’ continued Pauley, ‘I knew him from the Veterans Guards. He was commander of the Barrachois company.
‘He lived here?’ asked Urquhart, looking around at the less-than-appealing neighbourhood.
‘He did. Sorry, I’ve just got a couple more shots to take. The snow’s coming down, so I best get cracking,’ said Pauley.
‘Of course,’ said Urquhart. He looked up the lane toward the car dealership. He’d been with the artillery and automatically estimated the distance to the street above and the incline of the hill. One hundred sixty feet the former, fifteen per cent slope the latter. Short and steep.
He turned back to Sergeant MacDonald. ‘What do we know?’
Pretty was efficient. ‘Around nine o’clock, the deceased got out of a car at the top of the lane. A bright green Pontiac station wagon.’
‘The mayor.’ Everybody knew Billy Gillis’s new car.
‘That’s what the boy reported.’
‘The only eyewitness is seven years old. Alec Petrie. He heard a car’s horn toot goodbye, saw the victim wave, light a cigarette, and start down the street. Young Alec went back to playing with his Christmas toys. He heard someone swear. Then he says he heard “No, Donnie, no. For God’s sake. No!” When he got to the window, he saw a black sedan backing up over the body. Alec and his mother went down into the street from their apartment.’
‘He didn’t see Mr. Wilmot get hit?’
‘No. But his story is largely confirmed by Lana Beckwith, who also heard the screams. But she says Wilmot shouted, “No, Ronnie, no. For God’s sake, no.” Ronnie, not Donnie.’
‘Ronnie, not Donnie. She’s sure?’
Pretty Sandy brushed snow off his pad. ‘Positive.’
‘Well, I’m glad. I can’t hang a case on a seven-year-old’s word.’ Urquhart held a law degree but had never practised.
‘No, sir,’ agreed Pretty. It was highly unlikely a child would be allowed to testify in court. Pretty stared at his notebook for a long moment, then looked up at Urquhart.
‘What is it, Sergeant?’
‘Lana Beckwith is five years old, sir. But she’s very sure of herself.’
‘Five? For the love of Jesus, Pretty,’ said Urquhart.
‘A five-year-old and a seven-year-old?’ came a voice from a doorway. Urquhart turned to see Notepad Sandy with pad and pencil in hand.
‘I said to wait,’ he said with a little sigh.
‘You said “In a minute.” It’s been almost five,’ she replied. She waved at George Pauley. ‘Hey, George. Any chance of getting copies? I left my Brownie at home.’
‘Ask the boss,’ George replied.
‘This is not a game. How long have you been there?’ asked Urquhart.
‘Long enough,’ replied Notepad.
‘The ages of the witnesses are not for publication. For their safety,’ he warned.
‘Not an accident, then?’ she asked. ‘Who’s the body?’
‘Pretty?’ said Urquhart, turning to his sergeant.
‘Right, miss. You’ll have to move back now while we do our work. The inspector will have more to say in the morning,’ said Sergeant MacDonald.
‘The morning? It’s cold out here. And it’s snowing and I don’t have boots and you were supposed to be taking me home.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Inspector Urquhart. ‘But please … oh, cripes. Pretty, where’s your car?’
‘There,’ he said, and pointed to a car blocking the bottom of Clarion Lane. ‘You can wait inside there, if you like, miss.’
‘What do you know? A gentleman.’ She peered at the body as they passed. ‘That’s Cramish Wilmot.’
‘This way, miss,’ said Pretty, guiding her.
‘Thank you, Sergeant,’ she said, stepping carefully down the snowy cobbles. She sat behind the wheel — and then rolled down the window to listen.
Urquhart walked around the corpse to where Doctor Grandage was kneeling. ‘Well, Doc?’
Al Grandage stood, a little stiff from the cold. Grandage was originally from Grenada. He now had a thriving practice, but when he arrived in Barrachois from the Caribbean twenty years before, he earned much of his bread as the city’s medical examiner. He felt a duty to stay on.
‘Well, Jimmy, I’ll know more after the autopsy. Victim is a well-nourished male, late thirties, steel brace on one leg — likely polio as an adult. Smell of beer.’
‘Drunk?’ asked Urquhart.
‘Can’t say. I’ll do a blood alcohol content.’
‘Anything else?’ asked Pretty Sandy.
‘He was already on the ground when he was run over, I can tell you that.’
‘How do you know?’
‘If he had been hit while standing, his legs would’ve been broken just below the knees. And he would have been thrown. Probably tried to get out of the way, slipped in the wet. There is no blood anywhere else but here,’ Grandage said, pointing to the body. ‘Which means this is where he was run over. His pelvis is smashed. Given the amount of blood, there’s probably been an abdominal aortic dissection. Dead in seconds,’ said Grandage, who paused, then continued. ‘The body is on this side of the lane. If the driver was coming down the hill, then the car was on the wrong side of the road. Wilmot was run over a second time — probably the driver reversing. Dragged some little distance, I’d say, first this way, then back,’ he concluded.
‘Mud on his coat. Tire tracks — might be able to give you something there,’ he said, pulling on his gloves. ‘Somebody have my hat?’ A constable stepped forward with a black homburg. ‘Thank you. Let’s get him to the morgue.’
‘Thanks, Alvin,’ said Jimmy, as he walked with Grandage toward his car. Jimmy’s mind raced to find a way to seem in control, collected. ‘How’s the lodge going?’ blurted Urquhart, attempting to be conversational. Grandage was building a hotel up the coast, a place for golf and swimming.
Grandage stopped, turned, and a slow smile spread over his face. ‘Open this spring, I hope. Might have a trial run at Eastertime. Interested, Jimmy?’ Because neither the Grenadian Grandage nor the Ontarian Urquhart was from Barrachois, they had developed the casual affinity that outsiders often do.
‘When’s Easter this year?’ asked Urquhart.
‘End of March,’ replied the doctor.
‘If the weather’s okay, that’d be great. Thanks!’ said Urquhart.
‘Good,’ said Grandage, getting into his car. He spoke quietly before he closed the door. ‘Take it slow, Jimmy. You’ll be OK if you don’t try too hard.’
Urquhart suddenly felt a fool and he felt himself blushing. He waved to Grandage as he pulled away, then stepped toward the young constable. Jimmy kept his face averted from the boy. ‘Hoegy? Get the ambulance boys going.’
Constable Hoegy waved his flashlight at the ambulance waiting on King’s Quay and then twisted back to Urquhart and Pretty.
‘Yes?’ asked Urquhart.
‘Tire marks. The only ones. Down there at the corner. Looks like he laid rubber backing up,’ said Hoegy. ‘Nothing else. No broken car parts. Nothing.’
‘Photos and measurements,’ instructed Pretty.
‘Done, sarge,’ replied Hoegy. He was young and shambling, but he was alert.
‘Good man,’ said the sergeant. ‘Get a tarp and cover up everything pertinent. We’ll look again in the light. And keep someone here overnight — just residents allowed in. Got that?’
It was wise direction. Urquhart made a thankful mental note.
Hoegy nodded. ‘Sarge.’
‘Well, Pretty, I guess it’s kindergarten time. Which is which?’ asked Urquhart.
Pretty pointed to the Petries then the Beckwiths. As Urquhart and Pretty knocked the snow off their shoes and went in the Petrie doorway, Notepad Sandy stepped out of Pretty’s car and went straight for the phone booth opposite.
Character should always drive plot.