A Pretty Girl
Captain George Washington Stanley stood in the forest over a body.
It was late autumn. The ground beneath her was covered in red and yellow forest litter. Leaden heat made Stanley’s woolen police tunic weigh heavily against his chest. He examined the scene, wondering what to make of it.
She had once been pretty. A young woman with china-white skin and coppery hair fanning across the forest floor. Her lips were parted as if she was talking the moment that she had died. Whispering the pureness of her love, perhaps.
She was sprawled across a narrow game trail. The path had become a highway for tramps living in the woods. The earth was dry so there were no footprints to show which direction she had come from. The dried leaves carpeting the ground were undisturbed. There had been no fight.
She was dressed in her church clothes. A white blouse buttoned to her throat. Her black skirt undisturbed, nothing to suggest it had been hiked, willingly or forced, but the coroner could tell him more about that later. She could not have been there for too long. Crows and foxes, much less worms and flies, hadn’t got her yet.
Stanley squatted, grasped her chin, and turned her head. Cool to the touch, but the neck moved easily. She was just newly dead. It was then he saw the ugly crater in her skull.
The tramp who had reported the body was standing an arm’s length away. He held the peaked cap in his hands, working the edge with his fingers.
“Did you touch her?” Stanley asked.
“Then how did you know about this hole?”
“Well, maybe I did touch her just to see if she was alive. That’s the truth of it.”
Still on his heels, Stanley spied a rock partially covered by debris. He had not seen it standing over the scene but from ground level, he caught a peek of it hidden beneath the leaves. He rose and took a few steps to reach it, a distance that would suggest that it had not been dropped but thrown instead and then intentionally hidden. When he flicked the leaves off, he found blood, hair, and bits of tissue stuck to the ragged stone edges. The murder weapon.
He took off his police cap, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, and fanned himself with his cap, thinking.
George Washington Stanley, police chief of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was standing over the corpse of a girl he had never seen. It was strange that he did not know her. He was acquainted by face and name with every man, woman, and child in his town and those from the neighboring farms and estates. It was his job to know the folks passing through his jurisdiction: the crippled Civil War soldiers, immigrants, the tramps, and the captains of industry now building their “summer cottages” nearby.
Despite these comings and goings, his town had remained peaceful. It was his job to make sure it stayed that way. Those who would never find work in Pittsfield, the Irish immigrants and tramps, were moved on quickly, sent in the direction of Adams town a few miles north where the cotton mill would employ anyone, American or not.
Stanley’s talent for handling the rowdy and lawless was why he had been hired to police Pittsfield. He was a large man, quicker than most, and enjoyed the exhilaration that came with brutality. The city fathers were happy to look the other way as long as he kept their town peaceful. And it was this special talent that had earned him Alistair Cunningham’s attention. The Scottish industrialist had taken residence in Pittsfield. Immigrant or not, he was tolerated and pandered to because he as rich. Of all those in Pittsfield who wanted to stand at his elbow, it was George Washington Stanley he had chosen because Stanley could get things done. And who was to stop him? Stanley was the law.
Before today, a Sunday no less, there had never been a dead girl in his woods. There would be those who would say Stanley had missed something or else this murder would not have happened. It would look bad for him. Worse still if he didn’t solve the crime quickly. The city fathers might replace him. Then what use would Cunningham have for him then, no longer the friendly police chief able to fix the Scot’s problems?
Stanley scanned the woods. There was no one in sight, not another tramp, no Sunday afternoon hikers. “You live in these woods?”
“That’s trespassing. I could arrest you.”
“Please don’t, sir. I mean no harm by it. It’s just there’s nowhere else to stay if a man has no coin in his pocket.”
“What’s your name?”
“Owen Sweeny, sir.”
“You’re not from around here.”
“I am not, sir.”
“Where do you come from?”
That accent did not sound like Boston. “And before that?”
“That’s in Ireland, right?”
Stanley had suspected as much. “How long have you been here?”
“Just a few days, sir.”
“Did you see anyone in the woods this morning?”
The fool frowned and pointed at the body with his cap. Stanley would have to talk slow to get through to him. “Anyone besides this girl?”
Stanley raised his voice to get the tramp’s attention. “Tell me again how you found her.”
The tramp’s face twisted with some deeply felt emotion. That was not the response Stanley would expect from a killer, unless of course he was a practiced liar. “Sure, I was walking through these woods, sir.” He waved the cap in a direction behind him. “Going to town, looking for work, and found her like that.”
Looking for work on a Sunday, the Lord’s day of rest? Unlikely. “You found her here, like this.”
Stanley did not have a grip on what had happened, but he was certain there were mysteries at work. A tramp, a stranger to this place, and a murdered girl, a stranger too. Their paths crossing in this lonely spot on a Sunday made for another mystery. “Did you know her before today?”
Sweeny doubled over, heaving. Guilty-looking. The muttering, the refusal to meet Stanley’s eye, the nervous play with his hat. An open and shut case if Stanley had ever seen one but no judge would hold this man over just because he found a body.
When he was done retching, Sweeny shook his head. “Never seen this girl in my life. I swear it on my mother’s grave.”
Stanley needed this murder solved in quick order. He needed to show the city fathers and Alistair Cunningham that he was in control, he was the keeper of the peace.
With that copper-colored hair, the girl at his feet could well have been another immigrant, or a daughter of one, yet she was well-dressed and clean. She had a home and a mother, had been taught to care for herself, to wash her face, brush her hair, and iron her dress. If she had been from Pittsfield, he would have known her. If she wasn’t from Pittsfield, then she was the daughter of an immigrant who lived nearby.
“Sweeny from Donegal, have you ever been to Adams?”