Rising early, Inspector Prescott dressed in a sharp suit with a high collar and wrapped a puffy white cravat about his neck carefully. He tucked his badge and pocketbook into his jacket and headed out the door. His home was in Apollo Drive, which was a quiet street nestled in a little North-end neighborhood. Squat brick and stone houses dotted the street, occasionally giving way to larger brick buildings fronted with shops. Prescott enjoyed his morning constitutional about the neighborhood; seeing the world come to life gave him a hopeful feeling for the day ahead.
“You look tired son,” said his mother when he arrived at her narrow townhouse with a box of pastries from Edison’s Bakery. In her youth, she was a copious woman, but old age and the death of her husband had whittled her down to just bones. Her doctor suggested a diet of rich foods, so Prescott was certain to bring her cakes and other delights through the week.
“I am most fatigued, Mother. The latest case has me up late; it tugs at every fiber of my consciousness. I think of that poor woman’s fate and I can’t get any rest.”
“You worry so, you will end up like your Father, bless his soul. He was as tenacious as a dog when he was on a case. There was no stopping him once he started. You shouldn’t let it all tax you so much.”
“True, but I feel my duty is in my heart and it pervades my very soul.”
“All the same, a good rest would do you well. Your brain needs air in order to think fresh thoughts.”
“That is why I decided to see a play tonight. It will get my mind off of the case for a while.”
“Are you going with a woman?” asked his mother, the corners of her mouth raised devilishly.
“Yes, Mother,” confessed Prescott.
“Is she young? The marrying sort? Is she connected?”
“She’s just a woman, Mother. I cannot say anything until I know her better.”
“Wait too long and there’ll be no women left on the earth. They’ll all have been snatched up, then who will you have to comfort you and keep you?”
“I care for myself well enough Mother.”
“Says the fatigued bachelor” she remarked sharply.
“Promise me,” she implored, “that you will give her a chance. Don’t be so picky. Remember Julia Moore?”
“She was a drunk. When offered wine, she’d take gin. When offered tea, she’d take gin. I swear when she was weaned, it was on a tap flowing with gin.”
“You are so cruel, Turner. You could have saved her from that kind of life. Love changes people, makes them better.”
“True, but some things it won’t change.” he said.
Prescott left his mother’s townhouse with a dismal demeanor that matched the gathering clouds. He had been hoping for a good day, but now felt that it was already fallen to pieces. He strolled down the cobblestones past towering five-story tenements filled with boisterous children and their angry mothers. It seemed that, in a mother’s eyes, it was every man’s fate to have a screaming child biting his ankles and a wife armed with a rolling pin and pointed words of contempt. He was happy to be a bachelor, and would pick a wife carefully, if at all.
Raucous fiddle music glided on the wind, flying from the fourth floor of Mrs. Browne’s Boarding House. Most young men spent at least a week of their lives at Mrs. Browne’s; it was a cheap home that catered to bohemians and travelers. It was a way to see the world without ever leaving the city. Further, Mrs. Browne’s cooking wasn’t half bad.
“Look now or do my eyes deceive me, is that or is that not Mr. Turner Prescott?” asked Mrs. Browne, smiling as she swept the stoop of the tall brick house. She swayed her hips as she swept, nearly dancing; she seemed to do everything with joy.
“It is Inspector now, Ma’m” said Prescott.
“My stars! Well it is nice to see one of my lads make it somewhere worth going. What brings you back? Looking for solace from your Mum again?”
“I wish it were so. I’m on a case. I’m here to speak with a certain Mr. Harper. I was told he boarded here.”
“Just follow the fiddle. You’ll find him on the fourth, number 3. Billy isn’t a bad lad, Turner.”
“I’m sure he isn’t. But Ma’m, before I go up, do you mind if I ask if you’ve seen one Molly Cobble here abouts?”
“I’ve seen her, but not on account of Billy. She’s fiddled about with more than a few of the lads; I’ve even had to shoo her away not two nights ago. You know I don’t let ladies stay the evening. Growing boys need their rest, after all.”
“Do you know if she ever spoke to Mr. Harper?”
“Once, and it was an awful row. I didn’t put my nose in it, but I know he wasn’t keen on her coming about. He got a black eye from Tommy Bobbin when he tried giving him a talking to about the troubles of being with a, if you’ll pardon the term, ‘loose woman’.”
“Was she a woman like that?” asked Prescott discretely.
“She was a nice enough girl, maybe made bad decisions, but a new day’s coming. You can’t expect a woman today to be like a woman yesterday, not anymore. Why do you ask? Did she get in trouble?”
“More than she deserved,” said Prescott. He nodded to Mrs. Browne and walked past, leaving her puzzled. He climbed the narrow stairs past the open doors of a dozen young men that made the boarding house their home, smelling a myriad of smells from spicy colognes and boiling stews to acrid sweat and rotten trash. Prescott followed the wild reel that Harper was playing up four flights of stairs before he came to the young man’s door, huffing like a steam engine.
“Harper,” bellowed Prescott after catching his wind, “please open up. This is Inspector Prescott of Queensborough Yard.”
Prescott tested the knob and found that the door was unlocked. He nudged it open and peered inside, knocking as he did.
“Harper, I’m coming in” he announced.
The room was rudely appointed and poorly kept. Yellowed cotton sheers hung from the curtain rods and clothes littered the floor of the apartment’s main room. The music was coming from behind a door, probably a bedroom. Prescott proceeded slowly, knowing that danger could come from any corner.
“Harper!” shouted Prescott as he kicked open the bedroom door.
Inside, a brass mannequin fiddled wildly. Prescott noticed that it had a passing resemblance to Molly Cobble before he pressed his back against the bedroom wall. If Harper wasn’t here, perhaps he was lying in wait elsewhere. Prescott carefully opened the other doors, sweeping the entire apartment thoroughly, finding only the fully wound automation and a pile of schematics which included the plans for McKay’s Trephine. He tucked the parchment into his pocket and made his way back into the hallway.
He asked many of the lads that were milling about the building where Harper was, but none of them knew if Harper had come home or not, never mind where he was.
“Fuck all if I know,” said Tommy Bobbin, a gruff red haired man with features like a bulldog.
“I know there was some bad blood between you. Mrs. Browne told me he gave you that shiner” said Prescott, indicating the wound.
“He blind sided me, he did. He’d never touch me in a fair fight. If I didn’t think he was so queer, I’d give him a good lashing, but I think he’d like it. You know the sort, eh Inspector?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he don’t care for it sir.”
“It?” asked Prescott.
“Relations with, you know,” Tommy made a heavy gesture with his hands about his chest, “a woman. He says today’s woman needs know her place, and it’s with a husband. Now, tell me, what lad thinks that way? Sure, the marrying kind is the sort that should work with needles on a Saturday night, but the other kind should find different past times. And that’s the sort that a lad can be friendly with, you know?”
Prescott tried not to roll his eyes and just shook his head. He looked at the information he gained: Harper seemed to believe a woman should be virtuous, he had a machine that appeared akin to Molly Cobble (a woman of dubious virtue), and he expressed interest in McKay’s drill. He certainly seemed a viable suspect, but what drove him to murder?