Peter Sheridan’s ears thud, sharp and punchy, on seeing the swaggering Constable stalk into the Bohemian Club. It’s his brain searching for a clue about Fairbanks. The Cabaret star woke up with sick in his mouth on the Club’s marble bathroom floor two hours before. Now, as the Constable slams the oak door shut, Peter reassesses the clean bill of health he gave the entertainer. Could he have been wrong to send Fairbanks on his way an hour ago? Before security found Fairbanks’ body in the bushes outside the club’s hallowed walls, Peter figured the star was fine—at home sleeping off his alcohol binge.
Now with the Constable called in twenty-five minutes after Fairbanks was found, Peter reminds himself that going out is as easy as breathing. He’s seen death many times before. Pushing away familiar feelings of helplessness in the face of mortality, above all thoughts of his dead fiancé, Peter squares his shoulders. He stands up from the brocade sofa on wobbly feet to greet the Constable.
After the slimmest of pleasantries, the Constable says, “Where is it?”
Peter assumes the Constable is asking for the wine Fairbanks was given the other day. He points to the empty, gold-leaf emblazoned bottle on the side table.
As the Constable picks up the bottle for examination, Peter gives the man a sidelong glance. Dressed well in a dark overcoat and white spats, the Constable is nothing but strange. He hunches, making him short and squat, and his cowlick hair is overlong. Something of the beast inhabits him. The man’s glasses don’t help matters. The Constable seems inscrutable behind the dark, red-tinted lenses.
“’Congratulations on the nomination,’ signed ‘A Fan,’” reads the Constable aloud in a musing tone. “Anyone know who this fan might be?”
Peter, not knowing the answer, looks around the room at the well-heeled Bohemian Club members mingling nearby. Everyone is scared. But the men must be as unaware as Peter is of who gave Fairbanks the wine. All shake their heads no.
Peter wishes he could be excused from the interview he knows is coming. The Constable sent a messenger ahead ten minutes ago, requesting a consultation with him, claiming all the city’s medical examiners were occupied at this early hour of the morning. Peter finds the Constable’s contention unbelievable. How can all of San Francisco’s medical personnel be busy? The entreaty is just plain odd. He’s a physician but no forensic analyst. He doubts he’ll be able to deduce what killed the actor.
In truth, all Peter wants is to proceed with his evening, rather than examine Fairbanks’ dead body. He doesn’t want to see the actor’s corpse. Besides, his friend promised to take him to a show. He could use some entertainment.
But Peter realizes release is not in the cards for him as the Constable points at him and barks, “Come with me.”
Peter, giving in with a sigh, struggles into his coat and hefts his doctor’s bag from the sofa. The last thing he wants is to step into the cold air and perform a post-mortem. If only he’d stayed away from this elite club. He’s not even a member. But he was here the year before when Jack London married Charmian Kittredge. The Bohemian celebration the party-goers threw for their most famous member warmed his heart. When his friend invited him again to the big brown club on Nob Hill, Peter could not refuse the invitation.
The Constable takes his arm, which makes Peter flinch. Something eerie, repulsive, reptilian, about the policeman compels Peter to move away. But he maintains his composure with an iron force of will.
The Constable leads Peter to the front door where his friend stands, holding his pocket watch. Peter shakes his head and his friend nods with a philosophical shrug, understanding Peter’s gist. They must wait before going to the show.
Peter gestures outside with his hand so his friend will understand he wants him to meet him by the carriages, and his colleague nods again. Then Peter watches his friend lift one finger in the air, nod toward the clock on the wall and turn to the bar, no doubt signifying he is about to indulge in one of the club’s delicious cocktails. Peter longs to join his colleague, but he knows they can drink together later. And his friend won’t be long. The man chugs all beverages, whatever sort. By the time his colleague reaches him outdoors, the Constable will doubtless let him go. His friend is quite prominent and influential in San Francisco affairs.
The Constable pushes the door open, inviting a blast of fog-soaked air to accost Peter. But the cold isn’t the sole reason for the frisson of his footsteps. Pulled by the Constable out and down the marble steps to the bushes where Fairbanks was found, Peter wishes he were anywhere but here. Trying to distract himself from painful memories of the woman he lost, he watches the Constable slip a notepad out of his coat pocket. A fountain pen is attached to the leather cover. The Constable must be thorough.
As they walk forward, Peter ponders the question all the club members have been asking. Is it possible Fairbanks was murdered? Although the star had an obvious problem with spirits, Peter doubts the man was suicidal. Fairbanks had far too much to live for to kill himself, not least his thriving career.
Yet Peter figures that, bottle still in hand, self-loathing must have sometimes overwhelmed Fairbanks. Fairbanks had to be remorseful on occasion. The club members said the actor, flirting with inebriation, often headed to a spare bedroom at the Bohemian and slumped on the side of a bed after a night’s carousing. Peter figures tonight’s slip from grace may have tipped the scales for Fairbanks.
Winter leaves crackle beneath their feet as the Constable leads Peter away from the carriages to the edge of the Bohemian Club. Just inches part them now, misty night air steaming from their mouths, a phantom, uncanny quiet expanding between them.
Then, against the stone wall, in the shadows, Peter spies the corpse. He is unprepared for the sight of Fairbanks. The entertainer’s body, wrapped in stiff muslin cloth and bound by rope, save for his right arm, lies on the leaf-strewn ground, immobilized. The fabric and stifling bindings must have constricted Fairbanks, ensuring the star couldn’t take a deep breath. Fairbanks’ eyes are open, begging for help that won’t come. Next to his contorted facial muscles, already waxy and ossified stiff, lies a letter.
The Constable picks up the small piece of paper and takes off his glasses to read aloud:
“‘Do not mourn, do not think me a coward, do not believe I didn’t love, do not think I was unloved. There is more to me than my failings. It is this poison I take and retake that has ended my life.’”
The Constable heaves a sigh and shakes his head as he tosses the letter back down in the dirt by Fairbanks. “We’ll wait for the coroner’s report, but I think we should be able to rule this a suicide pretty easily.”
Peter looks around the area in dismay, wondering where the other police personnel are. All he sees are the horses by the carriages. No detectives talk to passersby. The area isn’t even cordoned off. How can the Constable make such a snap judgement without further investigation or a squad to assist him? Though he doesn’t want to get close to death, Peter owes Fairbanks at least a cursory examination. He kneels down and sniffs at the dark alcohol stains on the entertainer’s cheeks. The smell is familiar.
“I think rum must have been poured down his mouth. His body gorged itself on the fresh influx of alcohol.”
“You’re theory is good, in part. Yes, it looks as if his body gave up and he passed out. But he must have left his arm free so he could do the deed himself.”
Peter looks at the smug Constable, so sure of his assessment, and shakes his head. Fairbanks might not have committed suicide. Although the body’s position lends credence to the policeman’s words, things are progressing too fast. Peter doesn’t want to jump to conclusions. How could Fairbanks have bound himself in the short interim after Peter released him from the club and then drunk himself to death? The Constable’s logic failing him, Peter examines the ground, desperate to find evidence that foul play might have caused Fairbanks’ death.
“He struggled to sit up but couldn’t,” says Peter, pointing to the leaves cleared willy-nilly by Fairbanks’ bound legs.
The Constable shakes his head and snorts, dismissive to the point of rudeness. If nothing else, the Constable’s inexplicable demeanor makes Peter more certain that Fairbanks struggled, raged, to leave some clue that he was being murdered. Peter can’t believe the same carefree, boisterous actor he treated on the floor of the Bohemian club was a suicide. Ignoring the Constable, insistent, Peter indicates the clearing on the ground again by Fairbanks’ legs.
“Did a neighbor, anyone, see anything suspicious?”
The Constable shakes his head, indifferent, inspecting his shiny manicured fingernails. He yawns as he says, “One onlooker saw Fairbanks on the front steps at midnight.”
“Just after he left my side.”
The Constable nods. “And then the night guard discovered him here, having a one-man party.”
Peter jerks his head up, astounded by the Constable’s sarcasm.
“Too bad. I was a big fan, you should know.”
Peter, hearing these words from the Constable’s mouth, in a moment of clarity goes still. He recognizes something significant. Changing tack, he decides to see if his gut may be right. If luck is with him, his friend will be finished at the Bohemian Club bar now, heading out to meet him. He will have support if he needs it; if he’s right about the Constable.
“If you don’t mind me asking, aren’t you the fellow who was called in for the last celebrity suicide?” Peter adds an ingratiating nuance to his voice. “You know, you’re almost famous yourself.”
The Constable bristles with importance, thrusting out his bulbous chest so far that his tight wool overcoat strains at the seams. “Yes. I get called for high profile deaths when suicide is suspected. Suicide is my specialty. Actually sniffing out suicides disguised as homicides is my specialty. With these notorious cases, the boys at the station want to make sure they get things right.”
Peter can hear his friend’s footsteps descending the marble steps of the Bohemian club. He hears the horses snort in greeting. The time has come to play his hand.
“It looks so much cleaner for the police if you’re drunk when you die,” says Peter, as he takes several steps back so that he will be seen from the street.
He watches the Constable’s face as a strangled expression of agreement flits over the man’s strange features. Then the policeman covers his obvious sentiment with feigned surprise.
Peter, suspecting his hunch is right, wonders why the Constable brought him outside to examine the body in the first place. Was the man courting detection? Did he want someone to figure out that he is the killer? Maybe he was waiting to be caught? Peter doesn’t know, but he moves back another step so his friend can see him. Then goes for broke. Together he and his friend can overpower the Constable.
“You’re Fairbanks’ killer, aren’t you?”
The Constable guffaws, an effort to deflect Peter’s words. But his face contorts with a sickening pride, a smug, immodest delight. Then, seeing Peter register acknowledgement of the emotions visible on his face, the Constable screws up his eyes as if tasting sour lemon and shakes his head.
“You’re a creative sort. Imagine thinking I was responsible for this.”
Disgust rises in Peter’s gorge as the Constable throws his arm out in an offhand gesture, indicating Fairbanks’ dead body lying in the leaves and dirt. Peter moves back, even closer to the carriages, surer than ever that the Constable is guilty. But has his colleague seen him?
“The suicide letter was good.” Peter points to the Constable’s poised pen. “I notice you’re carrying your notebook with you.”
The Constable looks from his notebook to the sheet of paper on the ground, the exact same width as the notebook in his hand. “You can’t be serious to think I am the killer!”
Peter knows his intuition is right. Just how to prove it? The notebook won’t be enough. He needs to keep the Constable talking until his friend is close enough to hear. He needs a witness.
But Peter isn’t sure how long he has before the Constable turns on him. The policeman is angry now, his chest heaving with rage and what Peter takes as fake indignation. Every fiber of Peter goes on alert as the Constable reaches into his pocket. Sure the Constable will attack, he fights the urge to run.
But what motive would the Constable have for murdering Fairbanks? All that comes to Peter’s mind is the forewarning he experienced when the Constable labeled himself a ‘big fan’ of the actor.
Peter points to the corpse, moving back a step further toward the horses, taking a chance on his instincts. “I hear he almost never signed autographs.”
The Constable nods. “Fairbanks showed the public contempt and they loved him anyway.”
Peter smells his colleague’s distinctive aftershave wafting from the shrubs behind him. He hears quiet, short, punctuated breaths. He knows his friend is nearby.
“You worked hard, detailing in the suicide note how Fairbanks felt. Were you cementing his greatness before he alienated his audience?”
At this, the Constable smiles, slipping a small silver knife from his overcoat pocket. In a singsong voice, he waves the weapon. “I ensured he killed himself at the right time. I made him immortal. As I said, I’m a big fan. I do this for all the greats from time to time. Twice last year alone.”
Peter remains silent, certain his friend is listening, crouched in the shrubs.
“All he could do was lay there.”
The Constable’s hands shake with some delighted emotion in admitting his crime, ecstasy or glee. Peter hopes the policeman’s movement will make him drop the knife, but the chances are slim. The Constable is enjoying himself.
“He looked into my eyes as he waited for the inevitable. Like falling asleep, death came for him.”
Peter, hearing his friend’s shout of outrage, charges the Constable. He detects dead leaves decaying in wet fog; churned earth collides with his cheek; the ground forces him down to his fate; he remembers the woman he lost. He and his colleague fall heavily on top of the Constable, next to Fairbanks’ rigid, lifeless body.
By Marian Lindner
Select all writings of Marian Lindner
Select biography of Marian Lindner