MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
Or, My Theory About Pezullo Just Doesn’t Stand Up
“Did you spot a
bear back here or somethin’?” I asked as my brother strapped on his holster. “Cuz I have no idea why you’d need to be packin’ iron just now.”
“You wanna be treated like a lawman, you gotta look like a lawman. Get yourself heeled.”
Gustav nudged our carpetbag toward me with his toe.
I nudged it back. “Who says I wanna be treated like a lawman?”
“Fine.” Old Red waved a hand at me as if he was excusing an unruly child from the dinner table. “You just go to bed or smooth-talk the ladies or whatever it is you think’s more important than
a goddamn murder
. I’ll handle this by myself.”
“Brother, from the looks of you, you can hardly
standin’ up just now. For Christ’s sake, get some rest.”
“I’ll rest when it’s time to rest—not when we got us a killer to catch.”
I sighed. “Do you know how much I hate it when you start talkin’ like a dime novel?”
“Not half as much as
hate it when
won’t get off your big butt and—”
“Alright, alright,” I said, throwing up my hands to call for a truce. “Enough bickerin’. Let’s just stop for a second and talk this out Holmes-style. I ain’t had much time to think on it, but it don’t take much thinkin’, as I see it: Your ‘killer’ ain’t nothin’ but a bottle of whiskey.”
My brother greeted this (to my mind) dramatic pronouncement with nothing more than slightly raised eyebrows and a look of strained forbearance.
“There was a bottle in the baggage car, remember?” I forged on. “Right by the side door. Well, that deducifies up pretty plain. Half-empty bottle, completely drunk baggageman. That Pezullo feller probably opened the side door to take a piss or get some fresh air or make like you and do some pukin’, and—
The train does a shimmy and he goes flyin’. Ain’t no mystery to it, really. So what does that leave for us to do? Hang the bottle?”
Old Red shook his head. Not to answer my question, mind you—more to register his weary disappointment with everything I’d just said.
I shrugged. “Why not?”
“Because that bottle was upright when we found it, that’s why not.”
Gustav stared at me a moment, waiting to hear something I didn’t know to say.
“How is it,” he finally said when it was clear he’d get nothing from me but a blank look, “that this train could brake so hard the passengers end up on their asses, yet a half-empty bottle sittin’ by an open side door not only doesn’t roll out, it doesn’t even fall over?”
“Oh,” I said. “Damn.”
Someone had put the bottle there
the train stopped. And the only reason they’d have for doing that was to lead lunkheads like me to a false assumption.
Without another word, I squatted down and fished my Colt from our bag.
“‘Ain’t no mystery to it,’” my brother grumbled as I hitched up my holster. “Feh.”
When I was ready, he turned and gave the door handle a twist. Or tried to, I should say. The door to the baggage car was locked.
“Shit … and I ain’t got any pickin’ wire on me,” Gustav said.
“We can’t just knock?”
“Best we don’t announce ourselves.”
Old Red tried the handle again, as if it might have taken a shine to us in the last few seconds and unlocked itself. It hadn’t.
We turned to find Kip joining us in the vestibule. At the sight of our badges and guns, he let loose a low whistle.
“So … you really are railroad dicks.”
He looked impressed—and I felt embarrassed. The badge on my chest seemed silly, childish, like a costume party getup. Wearing it would take some getting used to.
“You tryin’ to get into the baggage car?” the news butch asked.
“Yup. O-fficial business,” Old Red answered. He wasn’t embarrassed in the slightest.
“I can let you in.” Kip put down his box of gimcracks and started fishing around in his pockets. “I keep all my merchandise in the baggage car, so I’ve got a passkey.”
Gustav’s eyes took on such a shine they practically glowed like hot coals. “A passkey? Like a skeleton key?”
“Yessir. Everyone in the crew gets one. It’ll open any door on the train.”
“Everyone in the crew, huh?” Old Red mumbled, the fire in his eyes dimming to a smolder as he drifted off into one of his dreamy trances.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Kip. “He’ll snap out of it in a minute or two. If he don’t, we can just throw a blanket over his head and come back for him in the mornin’.”
Kip gave me a small smile, but it wilted quick. He’d gone through every one of his pockets, and now he was starting over again.
“Where’d that little bugger go?”
“You can’t find your key?” my brother asked, blinking his way from his stupor.
The butch gave his trouser pockets one last, irritated smack. “It’s gone.”
“When’d you last use it?”
Kip shrugged. “A while ago. I came up to get a special package for that drummer—the one seated across from you two. He asked for something I don’t carry around with me when I’m workin’ the aisles. A Parisian novelty. For discreet gentlemen only.” He clucked his tongue and gave us a wink. The kid was sixteen at most, but he already fancied himself a worldly sport.
“This was before the train stopped,” Old Red said.
“Is there any chance he might’ve—?”
Suddenly, all the talk about a key seemed beside the point, for the door to the baggage car came swinging open.
“Alright, then. I’ll—,” Wiltrout was saying over his shoulder as he stepped into the vestibule.
The conductor’s words turned into a grunt as he collided with my brother.
“What do you want, ‘Holmes’?” he sneered when he saw who’d just bumped off his belly. He drizzled so much acid over the “Holmes” his tongue should’ve sizzled and melted.
“To do our jobs,” Old Red snapped back, pressing past him through the door. I was on his heels, and Kip was on mine.
“Ahhh, my champion—come to rescue me at last!” El Numero Uno called to Gustav merrily, sounding darned chipper for a man with enough rope wrapped around him to hog-tie a dozen calves. “Well, don’t you worry. Aside from being lashed to my throne here, I haven’t been mistreated—yet.”
He was hitched to a chair on the right-hand side of the car, near a small desk upon which sat, among other things, the whiskey bottle—which was now empty. An unused stove lurked in a corner, its pipe running out through the ceiling. The rest of the compartment was crammed with boxes and bags in a maze of tall stacks. The only freight in the car that wasn’t buried under yet more freight was on the left-hand
side, opposite El Numero Uno: two coffins and something long and bulky wrapped in red-stained sheets.
Sitting next to the beshrouded body was a large, lidded cooking pot.
Lockhart was nearby, hunkered atop one of the caskets. He’d finally discarded the collection of barbershop sweepings he’d tried to pass off as a mustache, and without the distraction of it hanging from his nose as long and limp as a bat from the rafters, I noticed again how truly worn and hollow the man looked.
At the sight of us, however, that hollowness was quickly filled—with rage. The Pinkerton came unsteadily to his feet, his hand hovering over the glossy pearl grip of his gun.
“Just the man we came to see!” I said, stepping in front of my brother. “We’re here to relieve you, Mr. Lockhart. Figured you were up here on guard duty and thought that was rightly our chore, us bein’ on the S.P. payroll and all—thanks to you, I might add. The train’ll be in Carlin in … what would you say, Mr. Wiltrout? Another hour? There’s really no more to do here in the meantime but sit on your duff. And believe you me, that’s the one and only thing my brother and I could do just as well as you! So you might as well turn in. I reckon you’ve done enough on-the-house law work for one day.”
The more I talked, the more Lockhart cooled, and by the time I finished, the fire in his eyes had almost entirely flickered out.
“I don’t know why a feller like you’d wanna be a detective,” he croaked, his voice husky, his words slurred. There was so much booze on his breath you could get drunk off the fumes, and the Mystery of the Empty Whiskey Bottle was quickly solved. “You got enough mouth on you to be a politician.”
He started to stumble away, moving with such a decided leftward tilt he could almost have stretched out his long, thin arm and touched the floor.
“Yeah,” he said, coming to a stop beside me. “
I like.” Then he moved on, “accidentally” bumping Gustav as he headed for the door.
“Well, we will be in Carlin soon,” Wiltrout said as Lockhart staggered past him. “I suppose I can trust you two to guard a man tied to a
chair … for fifty minutes, anyhow. I’ve got rounds to make. Try not to wreck the train before I come back.”
And then he was gone, too.
El Numero Uno shook his head in wonderment. “My, my, my—you two are almost as popular as
“Good looks and charm just rub some folks the wrong way,” I said.
didn’t kill anybody,” Kip spat at the tramp.
“Nor did I, my boy,” El Numero Uno said. “In addition to being an accomplished ne’er-do-well and a dedicated inebriate, I am a committed coward … I mean, pacifist.”
“You sure talk fancy for a damned dirty hobo,” Kip shot back.
“Well, I am
of the hoboes, remember,” El Numero Uno replied with an air of indulgent benevolence.
“You’ll have to excuse my impertinence, Your Grace,” I said, “but I’ve heard of other fellers who claim the same title.”
“I’ve heard of twenty or thirty,” Kip threw in.
The King of the Hoboes smiled broadly. “So why not one more?”
I chuckled, but Kip shook his head, looking disgusted. His gaze drifted to the big, white-draped bundle on the floor and the pot sitting next to it.
“You really think this tramp didn’t kill Joe?” he said, aiming the question at my brother.
“Yup,” said Old Red, who’d squatted down to examine the floor near the desk.
“So what happened, then?”
“That I can’t say.” He stood and pointed at the bottle. “Was that Pezullo’s?”
Kip nodded reluctantly. “He always had some squirreled away somewhere. I didn’t want to say anything before, but I guess it can’t hurt Joe now. He looked at Rule G as sort of … voluntary.”
“Rule G?” Old Red asked.
It was El Numero Uno who offered the answer.
“The railroad’s regulation against drinking on the job. Get caught breaking it, and you’re blacklisted for life.” The tramp lowered his
head, as if contemplating the tragedy that is man. “Barbaric. Fortunately, in my line of ‘work,’ drinking on the job is practically mandatory.”
My brother cocked an eyebrow at him. “
you drunk when Pezullo went through the door?”
“Sadly, no. I was sober for every ghastly second of it.”
“So did you see anything that might tell us what happened to the man?”
“No. Suddenly, he was just … there. Or at least part of him was.” It was hard to tell, what with the rocking of the train and the ropes wrapped around El Numero Uno, but it looked like a shudder passed through the ’bo’s body. “There was no warning. Not even a scream.”
“‘Not even a scream’ … ,” Old Red repeated slowly, as if trying to wrap his tongue around some strange foreign lingo.
“Joe was probably too pie-eyed to know what was happenin’ to him,” Kip said, carrying his tray of merchandise to a large strongbox next to the desk. He unlocked the chest and stashed his wares inside. “Well … I’d better turn in. I have to be up early to start hawkin’ the mornin’ papers.” He tipped his cap to me and Old Red as he headed for the door. “Night, gents.”
We offered our own good-nights—even El Numero Uno—as Kip left the car.
“Tough on the kid, losin’ a pal like that,” I said.
Gustav walked over to the coffins.
“Death’s always tough on somebody.” He knelt and stroked the top of one casket, then the other. “Funny … it’s ‘the great equalizer,’ the preachers say. Yet even now I can tell rich from poor.” He gave the darker of the two coffins a rap with his knuckles. “Brass fittin’s on mahogany for the gentleman.” He tapped the other coffin, and the wood gave off a surprisingly low
. “Rope handles on pine for the pauper.”