She was trespassing in another girl’s bedroom and wearing her clothes. This girl was her father’s daughter and Arthur’s intended. If only she could return to yesterday when these pink walls and her engagement was enough. The underside of her wrist was irritated from the clip she had stolen from Vera’s garter belt, and latched onto her cuff. A big red spot had developed, flaming scarlet. Dinner was threatening to come up. She smelled it – irony and something else, like the smell of a dead animal. Was it from the clip? She remembered the rat she had seen on her way to the morgue, its red eyes had stared at her without blinking.
Last night she was the other girl. It was the first time she heard Rhapsody in Blue. Miss Myra Rosen was in the Roseland Ballroom on 51st and Broadway in Manhattan dancing the Peabody, a jaunty foxtrot everyone had just learned. Young Ladies and Gents of New York City twirled around the thick chrome columns that supported the vaulted cabaret. George Gershwin was only playing a couple of numbers but the crowd had shown up for them. Gals were wearing leggy flapper dresses embellished with beaded necklaces and felt caps, men were swanky in thick pinstripe suits and fat ties. Under the glitzy purple paisley ceiling, Myra’s heels tapped across the lacquered wood floor. She wore a green dress embroidered with small white elephants that Daddy had bought for her. Strawberry blond and modern, she had been more than pleased to see herself in the powder room mirror.
Myra swiveled in Arthur’s arms, the youngest brother of the Gershwin clan. Handsome with a chiseled jaw and trim frame, he was planning on becoming a stockbroker. The couple had been steady for almost a year since Myra had finished high school. She was what they called ‘gifted’ and had skipped two full grades graduating when she was just sixteen. Her reputation was unblemished, as Myra had only kissed one other boy. She had met Arthur as a senior, and he had pursued her with determination. Soon they would be married and live in a new house filled with dinner parties, children and her own gramophone!
Abruptly the music ended, as did Myra’s reverie, its absence even louder. Couples drifted outside from underneath the dazzling chandeliers and gold walls of the grand hall. Like a beacon, a woman drew Myra’s attention. The streetlight’s glare reflected on her flushed cheeks. Petite and curvy, the girl’s plain dress made her look refined despite her olive skin and swarthy black hair. The gaze of several fellows fell upon her, wandering from her ruby pumps up to her supple shoulders. Was that Eddie she was talking to? He offered her a Lucky Strike from his pack. The woman smoked deliberately, as if waiting for something. Perhaps the two had just met. Myra knew Eddie was as yet unspoken for.
Arthur held her elbow like he was touching a swan.
“You look splendid tonight” he said.
Myra lost track of Eddie. She puffed her smoke delicately, watching her white-gloved hand as it danced towards her mouth, her cherry lipstick leaving a stain on the cigarette holder. They were truly a perfect couple. He was from a good family, and she had Daddy’s blessing. Gazing up into Arthur’s hazel eyes she could tell he was distracted. Myra offered a romantic kiss, which ended up being dry. Arthur didn’t notice. He was staring at the girl with Eddie. Something was odd about her.
“Have you seen her before?” Myra asked, gesturing with a slight tilt of her head. Arthur was turned toward Eddie and the tawny girl under the light.
“Indeed I have. She works in the towel room.” Arthur pursed his lips protectively.
“Oh,” said Myra, stifling her curiosity. She didn’t want Arthur to think she was intrusive. Now the towel girl was talking to a different man. They linked hands, turned the corner and disappeared.
The Gershwin family owned a Russian bathhouse called The Lafayette. New York bathhouses were known for their working girls but Myra trusted that the Lafayette was merely a soaking spot for regular men to bathe after work. Myra’s father took his steam and soak there every Shabbos. The Rosens were not religious, but Friday evenings were family dinner for them from as far back as Myra could remember. Since Myra’s mother had died in childbirth, Fanny, Myra’s governess prepared dinner. Even at age seventeen Myra still looked forward to the bright candles, warm challah and her father’s undivided attention.
The Rosens and the Gershwins had known each other for a long time. Long enough to know that the family used to be called Gershovitz and that George and Arthur had been born in New York like Myra. Myra’s father had also been born and educated in America, making her a second-generation citizen. Arthur’s father Morris, the senior Mr. Gershwin, was from St. Petersburg and had a strong accent. His wife didn’t speak English at all. Already Arthur had completed more schooling than his parents.
Because she was too young to attend college and Columbia didn’t accept girls anyway, her father had arranged for her to take class at the newly founded Barnard College for women. Myra was at her best there. Her only class was titled Inquiry. Students were taught the basics of uncovering and reading skin ridges. With infectious curiosity, Myra would rush home and tell her father the latest on fingerprinting, as he listened to his insightful daughter attentively. Was she truly to leave him alone with Fanny after she wed? Would Arthur allow her to assist her father as a secretary in his office and confidant on cases and criminal activity?
Later that evening there was a rare telephone bell, shrill in the foyer, and her father’s tense response “The Lafayette? …Oy vey iz mir!” There was the coroner’s knock on her front door and her father’s insistence she not come along. “No, Myra darling I’m sorry…a girl has died…” She had never seen a dead body, but knew she was up for the job, she wasn’t squeamish and she didn’t want to be left out.
“Daddy, I’m grown now, I’m to be married soon and I’ll stay out of the way, I promise!”
He never could tell what a girl was or wasn’t supposed to do, and Fanny had gone home. Maybe she would learn something, he rationalized. Plus she was insistent, so the detective let her win. “Ok, you can come along, but be like a mouse. Quiet.” Myra smiled wide, almost giggling with excitement.
Though her father was a criminal lawyer that also meant being a detective too. In fact the coroner was also a butcher. “Daddy.” She handed him his gloves and hat as she wrapped herself in a black trench coat that matched her father’s. Her father was oblivious to the coroner’s reaction as Myra wedged herself into the back seat of the carriage. Pushing his seatback hard against Myra’s legs, the coroner made his punishing feelings known. The horse clacked against the cobblestones swiftly en route to the Gershwin’s Russian Baths. The city was sleeping save for the soft red glow from the smelting factory in Brooklyn and a few wandering tramps. Night shadows danced between the bricks and on rooftops. Both men ignored Myra, just as they ignored the sudden downpour drenching the driver and steed outside.
“She was Ashkenazi?” her father asked.
“No, from Portugal I think…the pretty one with the space between her teeth? …Emmm the towel girl…” The coroner lowered his voice as he spoke the last words, causing Myra’s ears to catch. The meaning was implied. Could there be working girls at the Lafayette, Myra worried. Her father and the coroner knew these women. Did Arthur? She had assumed he had never bedded before, but what if he had? She pretended to look out the foggy window. The two men lapsed into silence as if they could hear her thoughts. The carriage passed between the rows of tenements and finally rounded the corner to stop directly in front of the bathhouse. Rain fell from the black sky without a star in sight.
This was Myra’s first time inside the Lafayette, as it was not a proper place to go alone and Arthur had never invited her. She had been upstairs in the family’s apartment only once. She wondered if Arthur thought her proper, or if she really was. Guided by her father’s absentminded love, Myra had grown untethered by convention. Her will and relentless speculation had driven her behavior. She thought of Arthur sleeping nearby, warm in his bed. Would he ever really know her? Who did he think she was?
The victim’s room was brimming with plush ivory bath towels for the clientele. They hung on bars with neat metal hangers, and were stacked to the ceiling on shelves. Myra had never seen so many towels, there must have been hundreds. The scent of fresh detergent was broken by the stench of blood.
The group of men parted for the detective and the coroner, only Morris stayed by the body. The girl looked diminished in death, small and vulnerable, and very still lying on the floor in the cramped towel room.
The air in the room was stiff, only a sharp tool could pierce it. Had any of these men had been a part of the girl’s demise? Aware of being the only living female present, Myra was stirred to contained alarm. She heard the soft inhaling and exhaling each man took from their common air and moved closer to her father. One man looked particularly upset, his eyes were bloodshot; he was young, perhaps Arthur’s age. Another was worn and nervous. Maybe Morris was the murderer? Because they were almost family, Myra knew her father would never engage this possibility. Morris was hovering over the towel girl, his lip curved up into a strange smirk. He watched the girl like she might awaken, not noticing Myra or her father. Was her future father in law a violent man? Her apprehension grew, as she took in the vicious killing of the girl she had seen alive at The Roseland only a few hours earlier.
‘Be rational,’ Myra told herself. Carefully she looked at each man, trying to imprint them in her memory. She had learned the technique of ‘camera eyes’ from her father as he often asked for Myra’s observations when solving a case. She mentally categorized the three elements; victim, scene and witnesses. She wrote about each man in her small notepad. It read;
‘Man 1-crooked finger
Man 2-Reddened Blue eyes (Handsome)
Man 3-Neck mole, stout
Man 4-Missing tooth, scar above brow
Man 5-Mr. Gershwin. Odd.’
The victim’s lips were a lovely rose, and parted slightly like they yearned to speak, but they were forever silenced. She reminded Myra of her doll Tessa, except the girl’s skin was dusky not porcelain. Beautiful, Myra thought without a wisp of sentiment. She held herself above the massacre. The girl was curled under the towel like she was napping, except for the blood sneaking out. It was rusty and thick, pooling on the white floor.
Myra positioned herself so that when her father did his inspection she would be able to see what lay beneath. He gave her a hard stare, but she held her ground behind her father, breaking contact. She made a mental note that the woman had probably expired within an hour or two. If only she could touch the victim she would know by her temperature.
The men of the bathhouse respectfully averted their eyes. Myra did not. The white towel was raised and Myra saw the girl’s skirt was intact but that her britches were absent. The clips of her garter belt dipped their heads into the bloody mess. Dark blood was caked on the woman’s vagina and had congealed between her legs. She lay twisted in her own fluid. There was no other sign of violence and Myra wondered how the killer got in so close. A wave of nausea came over Myra.
“Feh!” said the detective, and then softly “Kaddish?”
The men in the room mumbled out the first line of the mourner’s prayer in Hebrew with Morris’s voice the loudest. The coroner pronounced her dead and the bath men loaded her into the carriage covered with fresh towels for her journey to the Jewish Morgue. A man bore what was left of the towel girl inside.
They learned that her name was Vera Bertoli and she arrived in New York alone and had worked at The Lafayette for three months. Morris said he would tell the matron of her boarding house the news in the morning. Myra wondered why her father and the coroner didn’t question the men at The Lafayette. The three rode along quietly as if all was resolved. Obviously the coroner was uncomfortable with her presence, but he wasn’t her father! Could they have figured out who had killed the towel woman already? Or was the victim not worth their time? Well, Myra would not abandon the poor Miss!
Murky images of the dead girl haunted Myra as she looked unseeing over the adornments of her own life. Her festive red lipstick looked loud and immature in her vanity mirror. The thought of a brutal murderer on the loose terrified Myra. Her father’s words came to her, “Examine what you know to be true.” She reviewed the case. Honor and virtue were violated… he must be a snake inside a man, nasty and cruel. That young woman was stabbed in the most private of places! How dangerous it was to be a working girl and all alone in this crowded city. Her own womb flashed with pain.
One thing Myra knew for sure was that since the woman had no family in the city, she would be buried in the unmarked area of the public cemetery. Because of tradition she would be interred within twenty-four hours, so Myra would have to work fast. Her mind trotted over the cobblestones into a future where she was an esteemed detective that solved murders in all the five boroughs of New York.
At dawn the next morning, Myra slipped out telling Fanny she was off to take in the fresh air of Central Park. The sugar maples were just beginning to unfurl their giant leaves above a long line of carriages promenading on the pathways. The ladies of New York would safely congregate on the wooden benches with needlework and small children.
She closed the front door quietly and headed for the morgue. Just as the trolley pulled up a rat surfaced from the sewer and its body was crushed underneath the wheels of the vehicle. Myra sensibly stepped over it and settled into a vacant seat.
A sinewy gentleman cracked the door upon Myra’s knock. “Yes.” It wasn’t a question. His skin was oily and dank, unwashed. Bloodshot eyes inspected her.
“I’m Myra Rosen… sent by my father…the lawyer…” A white lie, but it was in the interest of justice. “Can I see the girl that was brought in last night from the Bathhouse?”
“The lawyer’s daughter…” The man grunted and closed the door fully as if to unlatch it. Myra waited but the door remained shut. She knocked again hesitantly, this time only two taps. She was anxious, but held position. The door opened fully. “What do you want, Missy?” He wore a suit that hung off his emaciated frame like he was its hanger. Myra didn’t want to think of its origins. Saliva leaked through blackened teeth as he appraised her from top to bottom as if she was a ripe peach.
Childlike, Myra piped, “I need her clothing…for my father…” The man opened the door wide and Myra stepped into the dim parlor. Myra raised her glove over her nose to block the putrefying smell. There was a wrapped body against the sidewall, and the beautiful towel girl was laid out on a wood table in the middle of the room. She was naked with strips of linen over her breasts and pelvis. Myra wondered if the strange man had covered her for Myra’s benefit. He stood behind Vera smiling like he owned her. “Her clothing…” Myra whispered. She was losing her nerve, no one knew where she was. Vera was only an object now, her lips were white and rigor mortis had set her fingers in a small contraction and frozen them.
Myra’s plea had caused the man to move, and he was reaching towards her – too close, with a pile of disheveled female clothing. Snatching the pile, she bolted out the door just in front of the man’s groping hand.
Myra marched the fourteen blocks uptown to her classroom at Barnard. Other classes were just beginning and Dr. Stein’s room was unlocked. She spread out the girl’s garments carefully on the sterilized steel lab table. Vera’s dress was drenched with stiff blood reminding Myra of her own menstrual cycle and its stains on the rags Fanny gave her.
The only piece of clothing with readable finger ridge markings was the garter belt’s four metal clips. These belts were expensive, at more than a dollar each, and this likely was the only one the girl owned. Oddly Myra owned one exactly like it. After a soft dusting, Myra used a large magnifying glass to examine the prints. Garter belts were rarely laundered so there were many layers of prints. Myra made notes and small drawings of the finger maps she discovered. She was able to discern a family of feminine prints, the thumb, pointer and middle finger, which were most likely Vera’s. There were others too, many in pieces and lying on top of each other. On the clip of one garter was a large thumb print that had a match of a partial middle or pointer finger on the back strap. These were fresh and Myra thought they could be the killer’s. Could it be Morris or someone she knew? Using a shop knife she cut off this clip and fastened it to her cuff on the underside of her wrist.
Her next stop was The Lafayette. Last night it had appeared clean and wide but in daylight it looked disreputable, the shrunken building hunched in its row, its paint peeling from old age. A mouse scampered away from her boot and bits of trash blew in front of the stoop. Myra pushed open the heavy door and was accosted by heat that had an intimate odor. Faint notes came from a piano somewhere. Was that song George’s Summertime?
“Good mornin’ Miss,” said a chubby woman behind a small desk covered with a large appointment schedule. Her bright rouge and eye paint was inappropriate for this time of day.
“Myra Rosen.” She extended her hand, which hung unanswered. “I’m the detective’s assistant and I’d like to inspect the towel area, if you don’t mind.” The woman waved lazily to the left so Myra gently opened the door and stepped into the room.
In the middle was a chair where a young woman was smoking slowly, waiting. The towels were soft and innocent. Balmy air from the heated waters floated in from the pool doorway. Myra pictured Vera siting in this same chair in life less than twenty-four hours ago. “Hi. I’m Myra.” This time her hand was grasped warmly.
“I’m Bess.” The girl raised herself, gathering her jacket and offering the seat to Myra. Apparently Bess thought Myra was a towel girl too. The lush towels had mopped away last night’s victim, the modest room was clean and renewed.
“Thank you kindly,” an awkward chuckle slipped out of Myra, “but I’m here to ask a few questions about Vera Bertoli. Did you know her?” Bess sucked a gulp of hot air. A quick tear streaked down her face, leaving a faint trail of mascara in its wake. Myra got right to the point. “Did anyone want to hurt her?”
The clip on Myra’s wrist felt scratchy. “Not that I know of…” Mice droppings rolled onto the clean tiles as Bess reached beneath the towel rack. She held a straightened metal hanger. Like a kosher dog on a stick, the rod pierced a wax candle on its wick line. Above the candle the hanger was sharpened like a miniature spear. It looked like a weapon. There were brown flecks of dried blood on the instrument. “The girls use these…” Myra wasn’t grasping Bess’s meaning. “…you know if they get in the family way…” Bess looked at Myra tenderly like a sister.
The door opened and Morris filled the frame. “Eh-low, Meera! Vat a surprise!” The strangeness was gone from his face, Myra could see his resemblance to his son. Respectfully he asked, “I get you Arthur?”
“Yes, thank you, that would be lovely,” said Myra in proper form. She turned to Bess taking her hand once more. “So nice to meet you.”
Up the stairway she followed her father-in-law to the family’s living room on the third floor. Encased in a plush armchair by the window she awaited Arthur, hands folded. The street below was in full shadow, the bustle entirely silenced. Shuffling footsteps broke the quiet and then her Arthur was there. “Myra.” He inclined his head slightly. Myra rose and gave him her hand. Had he been sleeping? Arthur’s eyes were red. Did men cry? His hair was rumpled and his shirt tail wasn’t tucked in right. Myra remembered he hadn’t been there in the towel room. Had he known the towel girl before the night at the Roseland? Maybe he had bought her ticket too. Did Arthur know why the girl died? She imagined Arthur touching Vera. Myra wanted to run away. Could she still love him?