Murder in the Walls

[Murder in the Walls]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
Murder in the Walls
by Richard Martin Stern

1

The house was one story, of brown-stuccoed adobe; in places the walls were four feet thick. A brick portal ran the full length, its roof supported by immaculate white posts and carved corbels. The garden, through which brick paths swirled, was solely of cactus and lichen-covered rocks in fine gravel: prickly pear, cane cholla, pincushions, hedgehogs, claret cups, all indigenous to this high mesa country; all, with a minimum of care, prepared to flower -- but, beware, stranger, touch us not.

The house was set back from the street by the garden's depth and along the sidewalk there was a wall, also of adobe, into which was set a stout wrought-iron gate. In the face of the wall at intervals gay glazed tiles from Mexico, spiritual home, formed diamond-shaped patterns. From outside the wall you could not see into the central bricked patio around which the house was built and on which the bedrooms opened, where a tiled fountain splashed and even on a summer midday the air was cool.

*

The maid, Consuelo, local Spanish-American, came out of the bedroom this noonday stumbling backward into the patio, her hands held before her in an attitude of supplication. Above the splashing of the fountain her scream was clearly audible, although the muttered prayer that followed it was not: "Santa Maria, Madre de Dios . . ." She screamed again and fainted.

By the time Flora Hobbs had hurried out from the small parlor where she was doing accounts, Consuelo was already sitting up again, telling her beads, and staring fearfully at the open bedroom door. Flora went to look.

The girl's body, naked, lay facedown, angled across the large bed. There was no mark of violence, but to Flora the position of the girl's head resembled nothing so much as that of a small bird that had flown into a window and fallen to the ground, its neck broken. Flora hesitated, then backed out of the room and closed the door gently.

As she crossed the patio she spoke sharply to Consuelo. "Get up and stop chattering. Go to the kitchen. Have a cup of coffee. I'll talk to you later." She went on, into the small parlor. There at her desk, facing the opened account sheets, she picked up the telephone and dialed the operator. "The Santo Cristo police, please," she said.

"Yes, ma'am. Is this an emergency?"

Flora felt suddenly old and tired. "I don't know how you would classify it," she said. "I have a dead girl. I think she has been murdered." Old, tired, and for almost the first time in her life, despairing. What do we do now? she asked herself, and found no answer.

Flora had come from the East to the high, clear air of Santo Cristo twenty-five years before with some money and a tubercular husband. The husband had taken two years to die. With what was left of the money Flora bought the Francisco Sanchez house, patched up its floors, re-plastered its walls, had plumbing and heating installed, and furnished it with pieces from the East -- precise location unknown, but thought to be upstate New York. Then she took in girl boarders -- simple as that. "Flora's House" was known, and usually well thought of, throughout the Southwest.

She was a slender, aristocratic woman with a modulated voice and an air of quiet authority. She kept her girls in line and she allowed their visitors no rowdyism. It is said that there was a Texan once -- but that is another story.

She was waiting in the small parlor, her accounts carefully put away, when the police arrived, Lieutenant Ortiz, Johnny Ortiz, in command. After a quick examination of the dead girl, Ortiz came back to the small parlor.

He was a middle-sized man, lean and wiry, this Johnny Ortiz, with straight black hair in a crew cut. Dark eyes in a dark face, and although the white teeth flashed often, the eyes rarely seemed to smile. Old Ben Hart who was popularly supposed to fear neither man nor devil had been heard to say, "I like Johnny Ortiz, always have, but if he ever takes it in his mind to come in my front door waving a scalping knife, I'll be out the back door like a coyote with his tail on fire. You study on Johnny and you'll see why the word Apache scared folks half to death."

Johnny Ortiz sat at Flora's invitation on the horsehair sofa, notebook in hand. "Doc Easy will have a further look," he said, quiet and polite. "Maybe you can tell me a little about the girl, Mrs. Hobbs." Opening question, innocently put, devoid of booby traps.

Flora hesitated. "Her name -- her professional name -- was Carlotta." If as they said the life of a drowning person passes through his mind as he goes down that third time, she wondered, did it then follow that at a moment like this all that one knew of another marched in swift parade through memory? "For a time she danced at the Peek-a-Boo Lounge." It was difficult to keep from shuddering -- the vulgarity of the name, and the place, was almost too much.

"I remember," Johnny Ortiz said. In line of duty he had seen the girl billed as Carlotta, topless and all but bottomless, dancing, if that was what you called it, with no enthusiasm and not much more grace. "They closed out her act."

"She came to me," Flora said. "She was broke. I took her in." Stray kittens, she thought, human or feline, you didn't just turn them away. "She wasn't one of our more notable attractions." She paused. "Nothing like this has ever happened here before, lieutenant."

"I'm aware of that, Mrs. Hobbs."

"I run a quiet house. I--" She stopped, and shook her head. "Vulnerable, lieutenant, that is the word." She was silent.

Johnny Ortiz said, "Carlotta. Was she Mexican, or Spanish-American, Mrs. Hobbs? I would have said Anglo."

Flora nodded. "I think she was Anglo. But I think she had spent time in Mexico. She spoke Spanish--is that important?" Speaking of the dead girl now in this clinical fashion brought to mind earnest talk over the butcher's counter concerning the quality of the rib roast in the display case. Always Flora had thought the mournful faces and hushed solemnity of funerals hypocritical in the extreme, but this somehow was worse. "What did you ask, lieutenant? Her age?" Flora shook her head faintly. "If I had seen her shopping in the supermarket, I might have put her age in the thirties." She paused. "My guess is that she was twenty-two, twenty-three."

Johnny Ortiz hesitated. "Did she have a customer last night, Mrs. Hobbs?"

"No." Those dark eyes watched her, and she thought, there is no mercy in him, none. "No client, lieutenant."

"A visitor?"

"No one."

Johnny Ortiz shook his head faintly. "Someone, Mrs. Hobbs. Her neck is broken. She didn't do that herself."

"A burglar. There have been burglaries reported lately in the papers, many of them." She was aware that she was being defensive, trying to shift the burden to the police for not having stopped the burglaries before they began.

"Burglaries," Ortiz said, and he nodded. "And some of the kids carry knives." He shook his head. "Ventilated spleens, yes. Broken necks, no."

Flora shuddered.

"I am not trying to shock you," Johnny Ortiz said, and wondered why he bothered. He had a dispassionate view of humanity--and the distress he sensed rather than saw in Flora Hobbs was to him almost an affront, not because it was insincere or unreal but because it was totally without logic: a whorehouse madam grieving over one dead putan who, by the madam's admission, had not been much of an asset anyway? "This is a lovely house," Johnny Ortiz said.

Flora stared at him as if he had gone suddenly mad.

"I mean it. Built in 1620?" He flashed the white teeth then. "While the renowned Pilgrims were still skulking in Holland wondering what they were going to do, and this was already a Spanish capital of the New World?"

Flora had regained some of her balance. "I think you are about right on the date. Cassie Enright thinks so."

"The well-known Doctor Enright," Johnny Ortiz said. He smiled again, closed his notebook and stood up. "We'll have the body taken away, Mrs. Hobbs. Then will you go over the room, please, and her belongings, to see if anything is missing?"

Flora nodded numbly. "A few clothes, a packet of letters, I think that's all she had." Epitaph. She studied the dark face that looked down at her. "What are you thinking?" she said.

For the third time the white teeth flashed. "The point is frequently made that we come into this life with nothing. Shouldn't we leave it the same way?"

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