New York – the city that never sleeps. If you believe Walt Whitman, there’s no place like it. But if you ask me, something’s gone rotten in the Big Apple, and the whole damned place is decaying from the inside out. My name’s Ainsworth – Fred Ainsworth – and I’m a private investigator.
The papers had been thick with the murders all week. Ivy Morgan, a Sugar Hill snake-oil salesman, was found dead on a farm in rural Massachusetts, along with a few college professors and some unlucky farmers. The coppers had a suspect – a down-on-his-luck, deformed drifter named Thomas Parkhill, who the local hacks lost no time dubbing Tin-Mask Tommy. The bulls believed Morgan and her accomplices headed up to Arkham to steal a priceless statue, and in the process Parkhill double-crossed them. All-in-all, it seemed pretty neat – perhaps too neat. And looking back, had I known what I know now, I would have never agreed to find out the truth.
The morning had hit me like a Gene Tunney upper-cut, and I needed some of the hair of the dog that bit me. I had just managed to shake out the cobwebs, when I heard a knock. I opened the office door and was greeted by a haughty-looking older gentleman, who introduced himself as Lewis Morgan. He said that he was the grandfather of Ivy Morgan, and that he wanted to know more about the events leading up to her death. He told me a sob-story about not really knowing his granddaughter, and how that guilt was eating him up inside. He wanted to know how she became associated with the cast of characters who ended up dead alongside her at the barn in Massachusetts. He knew nothing about Cuthbert Sorensen, Thomas Parkhill, or the two farmers, but did mention that Ivy had recently met with a former colleague of his, Rudolph Pearson. Pearson was a professor of Medieval Literature at Columbia University, and had told Lewis that he wanted him to broker a meeting between he and Ivy. The old man told me he’d pay me ten dollars a day plus expenses, and then handed over the keys to Ivy’s Morningside Heights house. He also gave me a business card to a place called the Church of Cana – it seemed that Ivy had a very hedonistic viewpoint on life (She’d even written a few editorials in the Times that caused a bit of an uproar), and had rented out an old Baptist church in Sugar Hill to preach the end of the world. He told me that he’d appreciate frequent updates, and then walked out the door.
I poured another glass of the hair of the dog, and contemplated everything Lewis Morgan had told me. The most logical place to start was Columbia University. Within the hour, I had jumped in the car and headed downtown, regretting with each passing block that I hadn’t asked the old man in which building I could find Professor Pearson. Thankfully, amidst the sea of tweed and privilege, I found a helpful coed who pointed me towards Philosophy Hall. Once there, I headed up to Pearson’s office and encountered his secretary, who said that the professor’s schedule was booked solid until the following week. I tried to sweet-talk my way into his appointment book, but the dizzy dame wouldn’t have any of it.
Despite striking out at Columbia, it all seemed pretty cut-and-dry to me – interview the professor, search the dead flapper’s house, explore the archives at the Times. If Ivy was up to no good, I was bound to find something to go on. If I played my cards right, I could have the case sewn up by the end of the week. But by the time I got back to the office, the cobwebs had returned, and the hair of the dog wasn’t doing the trick. I wretched in the sink for a while, pulled out the bed, and passed out cold. Ms. Morgan could wait until tomorrow.
The banging sounded like a jackhammer on 42nd and Broadway. I couldn’t figure out why someone was pounding on my office door before the crack of noon, but pounding they were.
“Mr. Ainsworth?” bellowed a humorless voice from outside. “Mr. Ainsworth!”
I put on some clothes, took a swig from the bottle on the nightstand, folded up the Murphy bed, and stumbled to the door and opened it.
She looked like someone’s maternal aunt. There was a plainness to her that made me think of the State of Nebraska. Her face was hard. She had her hair pulled back in to a bun, and wore a simple dress than did nothing to accentuate her slightly mannish frame. She had a small bag tucked tightly under her arm, and a fierce, determined look in her eyes.
“Mr. Ainsworth,” she said, “My name is Bernice Monroe. Lewis Morgan told me that he hired you to investigate his granddaughter’s murder. My uncle, Ben Monroe, and cousin, Luther Monroe, were also victims of that alleged crime. I have some information that may be of use to you.”
I ushered her into my office and offered her a chair. Bernice sat down and launched into her story – she was a nurse at Congressional Hospital in Kingsport, Massachusetts, and had encountered Ivy Morgan there a few months ago. Ms. Morgan and two male acquaintances had come to visit Father Dario Alighiero, who had been horribly burned the day before in a fire at St. Francis Catholic Church. Bernice alluded to several strange occurrences that seemed to follow Ivy into town – the fire at the church, a tornado that snatched several locals into the sky, and the grisly murder of a Kingsport newshawk by the name of Julian St Jerome. She also recalled (with a barely perceptible tone of bitterness) that one of the local police officers followed Ms. Morgan around like a love-sick puppy.
Bernice was at work when the bodies of her uncle, cousin, and the others were brought in to the hospital. She was able to identify her uncle easily, and although he was burnt beyond recognition, felt certain that one of the corpses was her cousin, Luther. In the days that followed, the police were convinced that the lone survivor, Thomas Parkhill, was the murderer – despite his claims that he and his associates, along with Bernice’s uncle and cousin, were attacked by wild animals.
Bernice said that she felt the police were more interested in closing the case than investigating it. She saw her uncle’s corpse in the morgue – Ben wasn’t burned in the barn like everyone else. He was found in the woods with a number of gruesome wounds that did not appear to be caused by gunfire. She was concerned that if Parkhill was telling the truth, there was still a pack of wild animals loose in the woods, and her family was at risk. In desperation, she conducted her own search of the farm under the cover of darkness. While scouring the surrounding woods for clues, she found a series of large, claw-like footprints that the police either seemed to have missed, or did not think were important.
That sealed the deal for Bernice – if the police weren’t going to do everything in their power to bring Ben and Luther’s killer to justice, she was going to have to take matters into her own hands. She remembered meeting Lewis Morgan when he came to Kingsport to identify Ivy’s remains, and thought he seemed like a good man. Perhaps he could shed some light on why his granddaughter, who seemed an intelligent and well-bred woman, would end up associated with such nefarious characters. Perhaps he’d be able to tell Bernice something that would help her piece together the gruesome puzzle that had become her uncle and cousin’s deaths. So, determined to find out the truth, she bought a ticket, hopped on a bus, and came to New York.
When she had finished her story, I looked across the desk at her – at the stony determination etched onto her hard face – and I could tell that she wouldn’t leave New York until she had the answers she was looking for. I don’t know why I did it – maybe because I understood how it felt to be hungry for the truth – maybe her steely resolve impressed me – maybe she scared the hell out of me. Whatever the case, I asked her if she wanted to assist in my investigation. She agreed.