“Won’t you tell me about the girls who have passed, Lily? No one else is willing to say anything.” The speaker was a brunette, dressed in a dark red and black corset with stockings and garters, and she sat at one of the saloon tables with a blonde girl wearing a similar costume in white and pale green. Both her accent and diction placed her origins somewhere far to the east of where she now found herself: St. Joseph, Missouri, ‘Gateway to the West’.
“Well, it’s like nobody even cares that they died, Dusk Rose! Not the John Laws, not Bo Shanks, who owns this whorehouse. We mean less than nothing.”
‘Dusk Rose’ pursed her lips, and glanced around to see who might be listening to her conversation. She leaned closer to Lily, working girl at the Garden of Endless Flowers, and when she spoke her voice was soft. “That’s exactly why I’m here, Lily. My real name is Nellie Bly, and I’m an investigative reporter for a New York newspaper.”
“What? You mean you ain’t a real ‘Flower’?’
“No. I came because we’d heard of the recent deaths of Becky Hargrave, Jill Wheaton, and Tai Meifing in recent months, and they certainly seemed unusual. I also don’t like the fact that the news hasn’t carried anything about why or how three young women might die unremarked upon. It’s not fair and someone’s got to speak for the dead, I say, but all I’ve really learned so far is that no one in charge seems to care much.”
“They wasn’t just deaths, Miss Bly. Them girls were murdered, and any of us could be next!”
A small furrow appeared between the reporter’s eyes. “But I was told that they Miss Hargrave’s and Miss Meifing’s deaths were accidents, and that Miss Wheaton committed suicide.”
“I don’t believe none of that. Pansy–that was Jill Wheaton, mind–was happier than a pig in slop working the Garden! She was a one who really liked her work, and she’d never have just killed herself. This life was just fine for her, though maybe she was a mite mouthy over who she took to bed.”
“What about the others?”
“Becky– she was Violet–had a powerful fear of the water. She’d never have gone down to the Missouri River for a swim, no matter what Sheriff Hooky says. And Lotus… uh, Tai… well, she drowned in the big tub downstairs, out back. They said she must’ve slipped and hit her head, but she didn’t have no bumps or cuts, just a peaceful expression like she’d gone to sleep at the bottom of it.” Lily leaned forward conspiratorially. “It weren’t natural,” she whispered.
“Is there anything that links them besides working here?”
“Can I trust the House Madam?”
“Miss Ruby? She’s about the only one here you could.”
“You mean here in the Garden?”
“In St. Joseph.” Lily maintained eye contact for emphasis before she finally stood. “I’ll take you.”
Nellie got up and let the girl lead her through the great room and past the early afternoon crowd of the saloon-brothel. Some of the girls were working the crowd, friendly as sunshine, but to the reporter’s trained eye there was an undercurrent of tension in the way they comported themselves. They went behind the main staircase and stopped at a door along the back wall. Lily knocked. After a muffled reply came indistinctly through the wood, she opened the door and led Nellie into the office beyond.
“Now, what do you girls want?” Madam Ruby Beaumont asked from behind her desk.
With an almost shy look at the reporter, Lily told the woman the truth about her newest Flower.
Nellie met the thinning of Ruby’s lips with a hurried explanation. “I’m convinced that people need to know about the needs of you and the women who work here. After all, they’re folk, just like everyone else, and especially vulnerable to the evils of the world when they have no one to speak for them.”
“You are looking to stir up a world of troubles, missy. No one around here cares about these girls except me, not even Mr. Shanks.”
“That’s exactly the problem I want to address, Madam Beaumont. I know I can make people care about them.”
“Like you did in New York last year, Miss Bly? With those poor wretches in the asylum?”
Nellie pursed her lips for a few moments, then abruptly sat in one of the chairs before the desk and crossed her legs. “You are awfully well-read for a house madam, Ruby.”
“And you don’t seem half surprised enough. How long have you known who I am?”
The madam leaned back in her own chair. “There was something off about you when we first met–too self-assured, maybe–but I didn’t twig to your identity until after I went through your things. After that it was just a matter of research.” She paused, put a cigarette in a holder and lit it. “So. What brings you here besides the thrill of having some cowpoke grunt in your ear as he tries to shove you through a bed?”
The reporter laughed out loud, and the madam smiled along with her. Lily, standing to one side, had a somewhat forced smile on her face.
When the hilarity had passed, Nellie’s tone was all business. “I’m here about the recent deaths of Becky, Jill, and Tai.”
Ruby grimaced. “They were good girls, and treated like less than nothing.”
“And that’s not right. Lily told me some of the circumstances; I’d like to know more.”
The madam turned to Lily. “You get, girl. I think Miss Bly and I need to talk.”
“Alright.” Lily went to the door and opened it.
“You done good bringing her to me, missy, but mum’s the word for now.”
“Yes, Ruby.” The girl curtsied and left.
The madam leaned back in her chair after the door closed. “These girls mostly have nothing else, Miss Bly. The sad truth is they mostly die young, from disease or rough treatment by unscrupulous men. Very few ever get out once they’re in this life… and now I’ve got three dead girls in almost as many months.”
Ruby let out a very unladylike snort. “Useless as balls on a milk-cow.”
The reporter was quiet for a moment, thinking. “Did the dead girls share a patron?”
Madam Beaumont bit her lip before finally replying. “A mouthy woman could get herself pretty dead.”
“I can’t promise you safety, but if there is someone to blame, maybe you and I together can protect your girls.”
Some moments passed as Ruby Beaumont considered this, then the lines of her mouth firmed. “Mayor Holloway’s wife, Virginia.”
The reporter’s eyes widened.
“Ginny’s a very rich and powerful woman, Miss Bly, and it’s no secret among certain quarters of her preferences. And yet, if aspersions were cast on a lady of her stature that might threaten her relationship with the Mayor or her standing in town, well, any of us would likely meet the hangman’s noose faster’n a virgin finishes his first time.”
“And you think she’s somehow responsible for your girls’ deaths?”
“I know how crazy it sounds. But I know Ginny gave Becky a present after their first time together because she showed it to me. Horrid thing it was, too; looked mean and nasty first time I saw it, and thought ‘what a strange gift to give’.” She licked her lips. “But you know keepsakes–what’s important to someone may make it more valuable than what it is, right?” At Nellie’s nod, she continued. “But then it showed up later in Jill’s things after she died, and again in Tai’s effects after hers. I think, somehow, maybe it killed them for Ginny.” The Madam crossed herself in a very incongruous gesture, considering the surroundings. “It’s a cursed, evil thing, Miss Bly.”
“Ruby, you strike me as one very sharp woman. You can’t believe that superstitious nonsense, can you?”
“You haven’t seen the devilish thing, or you wouldn’t think it’s so crazy. I asked questions about it, quietly: an ugly jade toad that first came to town with Ginny’s first husband, a confederate officer. I don’t know where he got it, maybe somewhere during the war.”
“Yes. He drowned–sound familiar?”
“In the river?”
“In a damned horse trough.”
“I think I’d like to meet this Ginny Holloway.”
“Oh, she’d just love you as you are right now,” Ruby gestured at the reporter’s ensemble with a half-hearted leer. “But you might want to fancy up instead, and catch her over at the Women’s Temperance League for tea right about now.”
Thirty minutes later, Nellie Bly strolled into the building housing the Temperance League, suitably accoutered for the surroundings. “May I help you?” asked a starchy matron by the entrance.
“I’m a reporter from New York, doing a feature article. I’d very much like to speak to Mayor Holloway’s wife, if she’s about.”
A quick glance at a table with three ladies affirmed she was there. “I’ll ask her.” She went, spoke to a woman easily in her fifties, but immaculate in dress and appearance, then returned to Nellie. “Mrs. Holloway would be happy to have tea with you in one of our private rooms. Please come with me?”
The reporter followed the matron to a room in the back. After a few minutes, Ginny Holloway swept in shortly to take her own seat. “To what do I owe this honor?”
“I’m doing a story about events in St. Joseph, Mrs. Holloway.” She told the Mayor’s wife her name and occupation.
“Oh! Regarding the upcoming Faire?”
“Actually, I’m more curious about the recent deaths of three prostitutes from the Garden of Endless Flowers.”
Ginny’s face closed like the book of Judgment. “I’m certain I know nothing about such distasteful matters.”
“Are you talking about the deaths or the prostitutes, Mrs. Holloway?”
The look she received in return was scornful. “I don’t generally concern myself with either of those subjects, Miss Bly.”
Nellie met her gaze evenly, underscoring her disbelief, and the older woman looked away first. “Even so, you don’t find the circumstances of their deaths worrying for women of this city, Mrs. Holloway?”
“They weren’t proper women! And, as I understand, their deaths have been ruled accidents or whatever, so it’s nothing to me.”
“So, you wouldn’t have any objection to me looking into their deaths in pursuit of, say, a common patron the girls had, if I believed that the investigation has been incomplete?”
Ginny’s cheeks reddened, and when she spoke her tone was harsh. “Young lady, if you are not out of this city by dusk, I will have the Sheriff arrest you for troublemaking and we’ll just see how you like that.”
“And he’ll jump to do your bidding? Are you sleeping with him too?”
“You bitch!” Ginny breathed. She stood so quickly that her chair crashed to the ground behind her.
Just then the matron came in, and Ginny turned and pushed roughly past her. Bewildered, the woman looked at the reporter with concern.
“I don’t think she enjoyed the tea, I’m afraid.” Nellie finished hers and stood. “Good day. I’m certain Mrs. Holloway is generous enough to cover the bill.”
She left the Women’s Temperance League and returned to the Garden of Endless Flowers to speak with Ruby Beaumont. “I’m afraid that I’ve worn out my welcome in St. Joseph.”
“You’d best be out of town then, and right quick.”
Nellie nodded. “I’m not letting this drop though. I just wanted you to know that I’m going to write the story as I understand it, and let the facts speak for themselves. What the women do here and elsewhere may not be glorious, uplifting, or heroic, but it’s not like they could do it if there wasn’t a market for it.”
The madam looked away, then nodded slowly.
“And, what they do doesn’t mean they don’t merit kindness, justice, and recognition as people just like everyone else.”
When she turned back to look at the reporter, Ruby’s eyes were tear-filled. “Thank you, Miss Bly.”
Nellie stood, shook the madam’s hand, and went directly to the rail station to take the first train back to New York.
A week later, Nellie Bly was at her desk at New York World, editing the article which would champion the rights of all women, not just those of privilege. A young man from the mailroom arrived in her office.
“Package, Miss Bly.”
“Thank you, Wally. Where’s it from?”
“Postmark says St. Joseph, Missouri. Where should I leave it?”
There was a considerable pause before she replied. “Do me a favor, Wally, and just toss it in the garbage?”
“You really don’t want it?”
“Okay, Miss Bly.”
The young man took the package with him when he left her office, and took it home at the end of the day to see what it was.
He was found drowned in the pond in Central Park later that week.
Sadly, his was not the only such incident to occur in New York City that year…
Deadman’s Tome is a growing horror zine that publishes short stories and flash fiction whether it’s ghost stories, zombie invasions, bigfoot sightings, slasher sprees, bizarre fiction, classic horror literature or erotica. The darker the tale the better. If you enjoyed the story, or even if you didn’t, leave a comment below as it helps the authors.