Chapter Twenty Four

 

Downtown St. Louis, 10:24 p.m.

 

“America is on the move, I tell you!” the fragrant man sharing the carriage told Alexis.

His meaning was clear as they approached the Union Depot. Even at nine o’clock on a Sunday night, the little depot had the crowded frenzy of a prize fight.

He continued as the driver slowed the horses and finally stopped. “Look at that! A beehive of activity and how far do you want to wager the bulk of those people going inside are headed out west and not east?”

The cabbie had begged Alexis to let him pick up the extra fare along the way. She wished she had offered him more money to clop on by so she could ride alone.

She did not wait for either the cab driver or her chatty co-passenger to open the doors. Before the wheels even stopped, she gathered her purse, parasol, and long, slim pistol case and hopped out onto the cobblestones. She motioned the driver to toss down her single piece of luggage. He was one foot on the runner, but due to her insistent nature, obliged her by loosing it from the strapping and lowering it to her.

“Here now, Miss! Please let one of us fellows—” the man riding inside cried. The acrid tang of his cheap toilet water clung in her nostrils as she rushed off.

“No time, Sir, but thank you ever so much. I am afraid I am quite late,” she replied as she collected her things from the road and darted between the traffic of man and beast alike.

She climbed the steps and went to the ticketing agent. The timetable board hanging next to the window was so overcrowded as to become undecipherable to most anyone else. She found the schedule to Kansas City and her shoulders sagged. Being a regular traveller to many points near and far, she had known the departures to the northern neighbor city by heart. Progress had once again confounded her as she learned the line had added stops, so she was not half an hour early as she had expected, but late and therefore early for the next departure.

Alexis stood in line and finally purchased her ticket. Kansas City was her nexus and from there she would purchase passage on the Union Pacific.

Though she had not eaten since lunch, she decided to forgo the oft questionable depot cuisine. Instead, she trudged with her baggage to a nearby bank of benches and deposited herself heavily. She took an apple from her clutch and ate it greedily.

She watched a pair of dirty-faced children playing with a small leather ball inside the terminal. The girl was of about six or seven years, and the boy was about twelve yet tall and gangly for his age. They threw the ball back and forth. The looked to have remarkable coordination, but he frequently missed the soft tosses from the her. In those instances, the ball would bounce and roll into a traveler’s baggage or between their legs and the young man would run off after it, often bumping into people or falling on them. He would back away with profuse apologies while receiving polite but disapproving acceptances from the offended. He would then return to the little girl and give her a hug and then the circus of clumsiness repeated.

Alexis watched the children’s odd behavior with a small amount of professional interest, but her thoughts returned to the chat she had with her father back at the Free household, shortly before she left for the station.

She had finished her research and returned for dinner and to pack. As they discussed the case, Alexis informed him of her suspicion the escaped asylum patient was in fact the same man who asked after Silas and Hercules at the hotel.

This was confirmed by her father, from information his friends on the asylum board had grudgingly given him. “His name is Kemper Bidwell. He admitted himself voluntarily a year ago and has been a wholly unremarkable patient. The doctor, a man by the name of—”

“Cuttrow. I have had the displeasure of meeting him,” she said through tight lips.

With raised brow, he continued. “Your friend, the doctor, has listed him as delusional to the point of obsession and mania. He does not go into more detail, but he does mention his penchant for certain medications. Now through my contacts in the Army, I have found the trio shared a sketchy history stretching back to the Civil War.” He paused and asked Alexis, “Do you think they may be in on some plan together? Something involving the girl? You say Estelle has strong feelings for these men, and is very protective of Emma, but that may not mean she knows these men as well as she thinks she does.”

“I do not think so, but continue.”

“More detailed records shall soon to be sent by post, but I have received several telegrams giving limited glimpses of the trio’s histories and military careers. Though the two men, Silas and Hercules, had escaped from Andersonville, Kemper was with them at the attempt. Kemper was recaptured and eventually was included in a prisoner exchange near the end of the war. There is quite a long stretch where Silas and Hercules are unaccounted for and, yet, during one of the amnesty campaigns by the president, the two had secured a pardon through the help of a lawyer. They were reenlisted and served out a three month term whereupon they were honorably discharged.”

“During their missing years, what was Kemper up to?”

“After his exchange, there was a long period of convalescence, and then he was attached to a division of the Army which hunted deserters. His record states he was brought up on charges twice for excessively violent treatment of some of the men they arrested. No court-martials.”

“Father, let me guess: he requested to be posted on that duty?”

Her father sifted through the telegrams, found the one he wanted, wiped away a bit of crumbs and said, astonished, “Yes. He asked for the post. How did you—”

“I’m a detective and my father’s daughter. We see the dots and we connect them.”

This brought a broad smile. “When the detachment was shut down, Kemper asked to be discharged.”

“Kemper was hunting them. Probably for some grudge incurred at Andersonville. When the Army was no longer paying him to do that, he decided to go it alone.”

“That must be quite some insult they cast upon this Kemper fellow,” her father said, fork in hand, stabbing the last piece of ham on the platter.

“Indeed, or this Kemper Bidwell is actually insane.”

Sitting there waiting for her train, she considered the added dangers this posed to Emma. Kemper was likely not interested in her, but by way of her traveling companions, she may be in his line of sight.

The crowd an hour later was as bustling as ever, and the children had not tired of their antics. Alexis exercised her mind by closely watching the sea of travelers. She was able to discern who was heading where by the baggage they carried. A West Coast bound person often had what seemed like their whole realm of belongings, while a person who was visiting relatives nearby or in the Plains was weighed down by a mere case or two.

She noticed one couple that appeared to loathe the idea of being together, and another that were together but were trying hard not to resemble a couple, perhaps married lovers on a week-end getaway. She never once spied the parents of the two children.

Her attention focused upon a sight which scratched at the base of her skull. Theodore Colson stomped through the Poplar Street entrance with luggage in hand.

He was in a brown suit with black string tie and had a felt bowler perched atilt on his small head. The broken nose had been tended to as was signified by the tufts of cotton swabbing protruding from his nostrils. She knew from experience Theo’s nose was not likely to bleed much after her resetting it, and assumed his display was for sympathetic gain. His face and nose had transformed into a purple and black swirl with yellowing around the edges of the bruise. The veins in his eyes were filled to the point the orbs looked like they were bleeding.

She looked away, not in disgust at his appearance, but to avoid him locking eyes with her.

Damned if it was too late; he called her name from across the terminal. Scores of travelers shrank back in horror from his visage as he stormed over to her on the bench.

The scowl he saved for Alexis did not help his countenance. “Ha, ha! I have found you at last! What is this outrage I hear of? You attempted to interview my wife without my permission and then accost the doctor assigned to her care?”

She was not surprised by his anger, or that he had learned of her earlier visit—no doubt from the spineless, petty son of a bitch doctor. She amused herself with the thought of how the doctor looked like a rat, so why wouldn’t he act like one?

“How dare you go nosing around that poor woman? Have you no shame? My wife has nothing to do with you finding Emma and it leads me to believe you implicate me or her in my niece’s kidnapping. You are dangerously near to having your services terminated. Your father may attest to your investigative skill, but now I wonder if it is bald nepotism and that no woman should ever be considered equal to a task such as this. Well, what have you to say?”

This volcano of bile was spewed forth before Theo had even set down his bag. Having slammed it down as punctuation, he crossed his arms and cocked his head back in anticipation. She let his lava cool as she calmly slipped on a pair of black cotton gloves.

“Have you no defense?”

Seeing Theo with a packed bag, she showed no signs of her consternation. “I am just taking in your questions and weighing which one is the most important and should be answered first.”

“How can you sit there and be so glib? Do you not understand you are in no position to sass me? The whole issue of your continued employment hangs on your answers and yet you are content to mock me.”

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she looked upon him, she struggled to keep the venom from her voice. “In truth, Theodore, every word out of your mouth so far has either been a half-truth or a pontification on anything but the one subject of importance: your niece and her safe return. So far, you have dressed me down as to my abilities as a female detective, you have threatened me with withdrawing your funding, you have withheld certain information of great importance as to Emma’s desire to flee, not to mention a few other tidbits about your own motivations for wanting her back. I am as unimpressed with you as you are with me.”

He blinked and stuttered. The flesh around his bruises turned bright red—the bruising itself unable to become any darker.

Sensing the implied depth of her knowledge as to his family life, Theodore straightened his tie and changed tack. “Perhaps we have started off a little shaky. In my ire as to the puzzling trajectory of your investigation, I have lost sight of the importance of returning Emma safely. I apologize. I realize now how truly unforgivable my behavior has been. To rectify my previous offenses, I humbly offer my services in any way. To that end, I feel it is best I accompany you in your investigation. From here on out, I will be with you every step of the way. It will give us a chance to combine our resources and get to know each other better. You can recount to me what you have learned so far about those men and I can add my personal insight as to what it could mean as to Emma’s behavior.”

The pathetic, contrite look on his face would not have fooled a blind man, but this abrupt switchback in direction threw her. His words were never weighed and he had a bad habit of letting everyone know exactly what he thought of things even if they didn’t care what those thoughts may be. It was her turn to be stunned. She took the last tart bite clinging to the apple core, but it was too sour.

She managed to swallow and said, “Theodore, that will be unnecessary. I have a few trails of information I am currently following and my itinerary may change any a moment’s notice. It will be rough travel and considering your injury, you may best stay here and recuperate. Any new findings will be relayed to my father and I am sure he will keep you abreast daily.”

“I am sure he would do his best, but would it not be more timely and therefore ease my mind more quickly if I were to just get the news from the source? That, being you.”

“There will be long stretches in between stations and rough travel, leaving you in much anxiety. Perhaps you should remain here—that would give your injury time to—”

“Oh, that! Thanks to your unorthodox treatment, my nose is actually healing quite rapidly. I have always been a bit of a fast healer. See?” He plucked the cotton from each nostril and gave no time for her to see how bloody they may be, for he quickly tucked them away in a pocket. “Good as new!”

She tried another notion. “Don’t you think you should stay near your wife? She is in a very sensitive state and her recovery depends on having those around her who will support and love her. And your other daughter . . .”

“Elizabeth is under the best care possible and there is nothing to be done for her but let her rest and see that her mind restores itself, besides,” he said with a disturbing and confidential tone, “she is so medicated, she wouldn’t even know if I was there. Louisa is in the warm bosom of a family friend, so I am assured of her care as well. There is now only my deep concern for my imperiled adoptive daughter which must be tended to.”

She was about to respond with another volley, but sensed it was a bushel of wasted words. A fresh distraction nearby also kept her silent.

A raucous swirl of men came bursting through the front entrance and they hooted, hollered and howled. One or two had suit coats, but many were in shirtsleeves rolled up around swelling biceps. At first Alexis took it for an angry mob set on violence of some sort, for they all carried wooden clubs. It was then she spied many carrying baggage and a small number clutched base ball hats and one or two gloves.

She surmised it must be the local ball club, The St. Louis Brown Stockings, as they travelled to some scheduled match nearby.

One man stood out in the crowd. He was in his late thirties, with a tightly trimmed, bright red beard. He had taken off his hat to reveal a thick but closely cropped mane of the same ginger hue. At six foot and a few inches, he towered above the heads of not only his fellow sportsmen, but everyone in the terminal. He had a handsome face and a confident gait that did not flaunt or exploit his sharp good looks. In a well-tailored blue suit, he weaved his way to the ticket counter, set down his bag and leaned his bat against his leg. No others in line before him, he made his transaction.

The other players milled as a herd, but eventually gravitated toward the obvious leader, the tall red-headed man. A few stragglers of the group roamed the terminal, opting to secure a bite before booking passage.

Theodore withstood the jostling from the boisterous ball players as they passed. “I believe I had better get in line, or I may not make our departure.”

He slipped in front of a few of the late-arriving Brown Stockings. She overheard one turn back and remark to Theodore, “My, my! The wife sure did lay one on you, didn’t she? What was it? It looks like a skillet. Hope you don’t mind a little friendly advice: learn to duck.”

Though Theodore pretended not to hear the man, several others in the group burst out in wild laughter. They patted him on the back good-naturedly. He was buffeted and bounced out of the line due to his slight built.

Alexis took the opportunity to collect her things and transport herself to the platform. She estimated the train coming in soon. She stepped around a drowsy family strewn across a bench along the way, the father cradling his young daughter with her head under his chin as they both napped.

She was about to descend the steps leading out back of the station when she spied the young boy and girl who had been playing ball earlier. They were in an inside corner sitting cross-legged and deep in some conversation. She sidled up beside the boy and startled him as she crouched down to speak.

“See that fellow in line there? The one with the bruised up face? I hear is quite loaded down with money…”

“Why are you telling me this?” He asked as he craned his neck to get a good look at Theo.

She patted him on the head and turned toward the platform, where she paused outside the doors to peer back inside.

The two children stood and slowly ambled close to the wall near the ticket office. Theo was third in line from the window. He was looking around dumbly, trying not to have to speak to the athletic men around him.

The girl bounced the dark leather ball then they tossed it back and forth, each throw sending the boy farther from his sister and closer to the line of people. She heaved the ball and when it came near, the young boy stepped out of the way and let it hit Theo in the hip. Theo turned in surprise and immediately had a young boy launching into him. The boy splayed his arms around Theo and gave a loud yelp as the ball bounced away.

The base ball players, who obviously had not not warmed up to Theo in their brief time together, jeered and laughed at his misfortune.

“See here!” Theo whined, “what is the meaning of this? You clumsy little—”

“I’m sorry, Mister!” The boy said as he backed away in fear. “I didn’t see you there and my sister ain’t a good thrower.”

One of the players elbowed Theo. “Don’t be scratchy, Mister! They’re just kids playin’.”

“Playing in a congested terminal? They have the whole outside of St. Louis to go galloping around without running into innocent bystanders. Hmph.”

“Sorry again, Mister!” The boy said, already towing his sister by the hand as they made for the Poplar Street doors.

Alexis smiled and went along her way.

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