Found Amongst the Private Memoirs of Doctor Alvis Mārtiņš, Late of Rīga.
Filips Finks was still alive when I reached the windswept courtyard on that dark April morning in ’32, though I could see from his injuries that his time in our world would be short. To lift his battered body from the damp cobblestones, I quickly deduced, would only hasten his demise. Instead, we found a good Samaritan amongst the gathered crowd to fetch a cup of soup and a blanket from his quarters and I fed the dying Filips, comforting this stranger during his agonizing final minutes in a role closer to a minister or priest than a night watch surgeon.
Before the light faded from his eyes, Filips’s utterances formed a narrative of sorts, a bizarre and superstitious tale I was made to repeat at the trial of his murderer weeks later. How the courtroom laughed as I spoke that day, and I was forced, for reputation’s sake, to denounce Filips’s words as folly, the delirious product of an injured mind slipping towards the abyss. Now safe in old age, I can admit I perjured myself then for I believed much of what was said, and have come to believe more.
As I finished my testimony and descended from the stand, I made a last glance at the accused. A dark and maddening intelligence passed silently between us, and subtle nod of her chin told me we were in secret agreement. This confidence with a suspected murderess chilled me to the bone and though I was not again admitted to the courtroom, I followed the case feverishly through the newspapers to the wanton detriment of family, practice, even health.
After the unsatisfactory sentencing, through my own determined investigations, I came to piece together the events that consisted of the last walk of Filips Finks. I set them down here for your consideration. Think me a mad old fool if you will, what I write is truth.
Procul his. Condemnant quod non intellegunt.
The beginning is easiest, when no one disputes the order of events. A little after seven o’clock on that final night, Filips Finks, chemist, scholar, and junior member of the House of Blackheads, stood before his looking glass preparing for his evening stroll.
“You shouldn’t go out,” said his wife, Ilze, standing behind him. “There’s work to be done at home. The baby’s window needs brickin’ up with the white nights coming soon.”
Filips nodded. It was true what she said. Their child had been born with illness and could tolerate no daylight. Window shutters often gave way in the gusting Baltic winds and the high-nosed neighbors wouldn’t let them board it up. The only way for the boy to be safe was to seal off the window forever.
He glanced at the pile of white bricks balanced precariously on the wooden platform adjoining their opened balcony and just beneath the child’s window. They had been sitting there a week, the trowel and pan perched on top showing a touch of rust from the spring rains. He should finish his work, it was already half-done.
Still, he had stronger desires this evening. Why couldn’t it wait? The white nights were months away.
“Let a mason do the job tomorrow, Ilze,” said Filips, fastening his cuff links. “I need the exercise of a stroll through my city. You know what the doctor said about my lungs…”
“Brickin’ is exercise.”
“You’ll be going to the bordello then?”
He feigned surprise, though this accusation was far from rare in his home. “Ilze, not since our marriage vows.”
“I smelled perfume on your collar last evening.”
“The barmaid at Fisher’s wears too much of the French stuff.” He slipped into his horsehair jacket, buttoned it tight. “The jasmine smothers all customers.”
He watched her through the mirror, arms crossed, face beet red. She was not the woman he had married. The wretched pregnancy had ravaged her body more than most, and if he was honest with himself, he wished to leave her, child or not.
But, then, he’d never make full member. The Blackheads tolerated many scandals, but divorce wasn’t one of them.
“You should learn to trust me, Ilze. You’ll be the first woman in our young republic to die of a stroke at thirty-three.”
“Heed the words, Filips: ‘the price of a prostitute is only a loaf of bread, but a married woman hunts down a precious life.”
He tried not laugh. The price of a prostitute is certainly more than a loaf of bread, my dear. “Who said that? Rainis or Shakespeare?”
“‘Proverbs 6:26,’ my husband. If you’d attend sermon you’d know.”
This irked him. “I’ll not ask permission to leave my own house, woman. Good night to you and our child.” He donned his Homburg hat and left.
Through the cigar haze, a well-tailored man asked: “Why not go with us to the brothel after drinks, Filips? It has been a long time.”
Filips sighed and watched his breath push back the smoke above his glass. “I promised Ilze I would be a good lad tonight.”
They laughed at this, all Filips’s friends crowding the bar in Fisher’s smoky pub, one of the many English-style cigar taverns that had cropped up on Kungu Iela since Latvia’s independence from Russia. A favorite haunt of the westward-looking Blackheads, the senior board were all here tonight, roaring drunk, and ready to roast Filips for his new prudish lifestyle.
“Since when do your promises to your wife have value?” asked the heavy, clever-eyed Otomars, pushing another shot glass of black balsam towards Filips. “I can think of a thousand lies you’ve told her.’
“A thousand, but not a thousand and one, my friend. And it won’t reach that count this evening.”
This answer engendered drunken boos among the members even as ancient Ludvigs Baumeisters gripped a boney hand over his shoulder, squeezing tight through the jacket until Filips winced. “Finks, you’ve refused to partake, since…since…” Baumeisters frowned at the memory loss, then scowled over at the American Negro jazz band disturbing his concentration with their foreign music. “…since.. oh, what was her name, again?”
“Let’s not discuss it.” Filips replied with a bravery he immediately regretted. To be flippant towards one like Baumeisters…He could feel their curiosity ebbing towards annoyance.
As always Otomars arrived with the solution. “We’ll flip a coin, Filips. You win, and we pay your bar tab. You lose, and you tell.” He pulled out a shiny five lati coin from his breast pocket. “Shall I?”
Filips looked down. How could a junior member resist the senior board? “Aye.”
The coin was flipped, the result clear.
He downed his licorice-tasting liquor, and shrugged off the alcohol in it. “What is to be said friends? I sponsored a girl across the river for almost a year. Not so different than many of you. Who doesn’t have a mistress over in Pārdaugava?”
“The girl’s name!?” demanded Otomars. “And the story.”
“Lelde. Beautiful, sweet Lelde from a Zemgale hamlet, though raised in one of the finest bordellos in Rīga before I set her in her own apartment.”
“Things were better for you then.”
“Things are still good for me, Rubess.” Filips answered, irritation in his voice. He traced circles in the moisture of the bar top with his finger. “Anyway, it went well enough for some months. I saw Lelde daily. There are moments, images, erotic sensations that enliven my dreams to this day.” His fingertips felt the coarseness in the wood grain. “But the girl began to expect something more of the visits. Promises were made. In the jest of romance, a man can be quite foolish, can’t he? For this I am guilty. But it was all part of the theater she unfortunately took as truth.”
“A girl like that should know” said Baumeisters.
“Lelde began to press me for meetings outside her room, for walks, the museums, plays, dinners, excursions… until it became uncomfortable. She once came to my home un-beckoned, though fortunately Ilze was away. Can you imagine my nerves? Finally, I told Lelde the sponsorship must end, that there would never be anything like the courtship she coveted, that we must never see each other again. It was then she…”
Filips’s eyes grew distant, haunted: “Lelde found a pistol and shot herself through the heart. An hour or so after I left her apartment.”
Murmurs of surprise arose among those who had never heard the story, while a few stodgy fellows asserted that they had read something of the matter in the Jaunakas Zinas newspaper a year or so before. One junior member, too intoxicated to be taken seriously, attested that there was more to it, rambling incongruently about arson and murder and the like before he was hushed by his betters. At the height of this drunken din, Otomars asked softly:
“You are certain you had left, Filips?”
“It’s not your fault, Filips,” shouted Baumeisters with an air of indignity. “A backstreet strumpet with greedy ambitions towards a man of station.”
“And towards your future,” added Otomars.
“Exactly,” continued Baumeisters. “It would have ended in blackmail anyway. It always does if you give out real names.” The old man’s eyes widened. “You didn’t tell her your real name, Filips?”
“No,” he said, the tone unconvincing.
“And that is why you so seldom join us in our outings to the brothel these days? Misplaced guilt?”
“It’s not so plain, Otomars. You know a life with Lelde was not the farthest thing from my mind. With this girl, if she had only been my equal…Lelde once talked of children.”
“Oh, Filips, you don’t mean…?”
“Well,” he laughed. “It would take little to place her ahead of Ilze at least.”
A few chuckles arose at this, then someone on the margins gave an impromptu toast to fraternity. In the pause afterwards somehow the discussion of Lelde crumbled away. The others turned to private conversations on trade and profits, citing bloated numbers beyond the capacity of junior members to appreciate. Alone, in the eye of the conversational storm, Filips lit a cigar, and took a long puff, deep in dark thoughts.
All witnesses agree Otomars approached him then, and more than one patron saw the heavy-set man slip the note into Filips’s jacket pocket. Of this, and Otomars’s dangerously persuasive abilities, there is no doubt.
Alone and quite drunk, Filips climbed the steps up from Fisher’s hours later. The street chilled him after the warmth of the basement bar. The night too was darkening, storm clouds following the great river inlands. By the winds, they would break on the city soon.
Well, he’d have shelter for an hour or two soon.
Filips continued through the lighted city center, strolling along German-style streets, between blocks of stone buildings covered in folklore facades from the Jugendstil boom of three decades before. He soon passed beneath the mammoth square tower of the Dome Cathedral, whose heavy bells toll by legend when an adulterous woman walks by.
“Fortunately,” Filips said to himself, “the belfry is silent on the sins of men.”
He now crossed the grey-flowing Daugava by bridge, to where the city turns low and wooden, the architecture a composite of Scandinavian, Slavic and Baltic native. At this hour in the “wooden district” there were no street lights, but somehow Filips found the address Otomars had given him on a sloping street down by the river shore, stopping before a warped, peeling building with pin cushion hearts hanging in the window. He tarried outside, strangely nervous, laughing at himself for acting like a boy calling on a sweetheart for the first time. Finally, growing cold in the river winds, Filips went inside, climbed the stairs, introduced himself. Bought a room.
She smelled of honey and apricots.
There were no nerves or regrets when the man left two hours later. Filips kissed the girl at the steps, handed her a calling card, made promises he’d never keep.
As he headed down the street, he checked his pocket watch – past two o’clock – then considered the weather. The storm clouds hung above the city now, crowding the top of distant St. Peter’s tower and darkening every route home, the air still and pregnant with moisture.
But what was a little rain? He felt a new man and decided to take a circuitous path through wooden district, planning to cross the river again by another bridge closer to home. It would take him through the poorest and darkest alleys of Rīga, but who would harm a member of the Blackheads? Soon, he thought, senior member if Otomars’s promise held.
Through the lamp-less streets Filips went at a leisurely pace. No companions walked with him at this morning hour and only the growls of a dog chained in a shallow yard, and the repetitive squish of his boots in the road mud, disturbed the brooding storm silence. Here and there between the buildings were open lots used in summer for gardens and animal pens, though they sat empty and dead this early in the year. Through these spaces Filips could see out across the expansive river.
On the opposite shore the lamps burned even at this hour in the windows of a well-known bachelor, famous for his late night gatherings. The distance to this sole sign of life, however, made him feel terribly alone, and with each step the angles changed, the buildings cutting off the river and choking away the last rays from the distant window. The black night, somehow, grew blacker still.
Filips began to whistle a seafaring tune Ilze had taught him during their brief, unhappy courtship, and he hurried his steps a bit for he was no longer enjoying his walk. He soon turned onto a narrow paved way penned in by the tall black shapes of linden trees on either side, their branches brushing across the low rooftops in the slowly rising storm winds. He had not gone far when Filips realized he had frequented this street before. He was approaching, though by opposite way, the very corner where poor Lelde had lived and died. The spot was now an open lot for in the panic when her body was found, a lantern had been kicked over and the building consumed with all its residents.
Though a year had passed, nothing had been built in the opening other than a small mourners’ bench set before a few crooked wooden crosses left in remembrance. His vision clipped by the night, it was not until he had nearly passed the entire lot that Filips realized a woman sat silently on the end of that isolated bench.
Despite the gloom certain features could be made. She wore a faded maroon dress, bonnet, and mourner’s veil. He thought it very odd to be grieving here so late, and alone. She must live close by. A friend of one of the deceased, perhaps the woman had even known Lelde herself.
She then raised the hem of her dress slightly, revealing the white of her petticoats.
Ah, a street girl, he thought. All is explained.
“No thank you, my dear. I can’t stop tonight.” And he tipped his hat respectfully.
She pulled the hem up to mid-shin. He did admit to himself an ache of arousal, for even sitting in the dark, he could see the woman had a most pleasing shape. But he was satiated, and even if not, preferred the privacy of the brothel to a pickup in the street.
“You are very pretty, madam,” he said with another bow, “but it is too late to tarry. And I am wanted at home.”
She patted the space on the bench beside her.
“I’m sorry. Another time.” He continued on his way, but had gone perhaps a hundred yards before a queer feeling rose up his spine. He turned over his shoulder to see that this woman was but a few steps behind.
She must be desperate for money, he thought and regretted the compliment he had given her. “I’ve spent my salary elsewhere, girl. There’s no reason to be following me.”
The woman nodded under that veil and held out a hand towards him. Though he had nothing to fear – she was only a helpless female after all – there was something dreadful in the silence of this vagrant, and he hastened his steps to expand the distance between them. In the twisting, turning alleyways of Pārdaugava, she was soon out of sight.
The encounter troubled Filips, perhaps more than it should, and he was only just regaining his composure when he reached the iron pontoon bridge which connects Pārdaugava to Rīga’s lighted center and home. Filips hurried across, relieved to be walking again beneath the brilliant street lamps and over firm, tightly-bricked roads. The presence of other people, even if at considerable distance, cheered him greatly.
He was only a few blocks from home when a woman’s shadow stretched up the wall and he heard the click-clack of boot heels on the road stones behind. He glanced back. She stood not ten feet away.
“Confound you stranger. I told you I had no money. What do you want of me?”
She did not answer, but took a few steps closer, and with halting, bird-like movements opened her palms wide to him, beckoning for an embrace. In the brighter light of the center Filips discerned details hidden before. Her dress was coated in a clinging grey dust across the chest and shoulders, the skirt too was marred with deep creases as if it had been long folded in a box or closet, and her veil, while obscuring the particulars of her features, was just thin enough to reveal wide, black eyes and an unhappy mouth. Though no individual point was truly terrible, the composite birthed in him the strongest revulsion. Filips felt his pulse rising and his breath quickening as he said:
“Go back to your own side of the river, girl! People will see us together. They’ll make assumptions.”
She didn’t stir during his outburst, though a sadness radiated from her very form. The woman’s only reply, when it came, was to unfasten the top buttons of her dress and bare a breast before him. As his eyes widened in surprise, she motioned for Filips to come closer.
How gauche, he thought. “Have you no shame?” He turned and marched away, determined to be rid of her, and aware how dangerously close to home he was. If some friend of Ilze’s burning the midnight oil should see him with this backstreet tart…
She tried to take his arm, and desperate Filips jogged away, then burst into a full sprint, dashing through Cathedral Square as the bells tolled three o’clock. He eased his pace in the narrow streets beyond, snuck through a side passage to the very edge of his apartment courtyard. Here he paused at last, adjusting his hat, and wiping the perspiration from his brow. The stranger was nowhere to be seen.
Irritated, sweaty, pulse still pounding in his ears, Filips walked briskly along the iron fence that separates his building from the road, the small square on the other side darkened save a few lights shining bright in balcony windows above. Reaching the entrance, Filips unlocked the gate, passed inside, and had just relocked it, when a feminine hand reached between the bars to caress his wrist. He looked up to see two dark, pained eyes staring at him. This close the translucent veil hid nothing and to his great horror Filips knew the face beneath. A beautiful, pale, half-burned face that yearned for him, desired him fully. His alarm increased as Filips realized that the dust which covered her dress could only be ash, and that she, or it, now had a firm hold on his wrist. But the greatest terror, that which drove him mad in his final moments, was what he saw at the base of her bared breast. Directly above her heart lay an open bullet wound, the black liquid pumping out in rhythm with her pulse; a heartbeat that quickened as she looked at him longingly. And smiled.
Filips hurled himself from the gate into the narrow courtyard. But she clung to his arm, somehow through the fence, embracing his body, whispering “my love” in his ear, as he collapsed with her atop of him. Filips’s scream split the night before she silenced it with a kiss and he succumbed to her amours as the world came crashing down.
By the time the night watchman reached my surgeon’s station it was too late for Filips Finks. All in the crowd around his broken body knew his injuries were fatal and as I sat with him and he relayed his tale to me, many raised white candles high to light the path to Heaven for his departing soul. There was a moment of somber tranquility while all silently considered the fragility of life on this planet. But this passed, as did Filips, and then the incessant and fiercely logical investigation into what had happened to the man began. It was a matter of a few minutes before the first, and only, suspect was arrested.
At her trial Ilze Finke maintained that she didn’t mean to kill her husband then. That after a long night continuing her watch for him on their balcony, she only meant to startle Filips and the woman he was embracing in the courtyard below, that her aim was to simply separate the lovers when she swung the trowel with man-like strength, severing the support braces on the platform beneath her son’s window and sent its deadly payload of bricks raining down upon her husband five stories below.
It was a terrible thing to hear in court. Her frank admittance to killing her husband, if not murdering him, was a subtle difference lost on the newspapers that vilified Ilze as a monster and threw the investigation into chaos, adding to the innumerable problems for the police.
Chief among these, of course, was the matter of the mysterious stranger. It remains the rarest case in Latvia’s brief history, where only murderer and victim agreed, for no one but Ilze and Filips saw a woman in the courtyard that night. No tenants called to their windows by screams or the great crash of bricks that followed spied anyone in that plaza save the broken and bleeding Mr. Finks. The judge, in his own primitive investigation, also concluded it extremely unlikely that any human could have slipped out through the courtyard’s only exit, a locked gate no less, and remain undetected by the eyes of alarmed citizens. Ilze, herself, never satisfactorily explained how the bricks could crush her husband but leave the lover he held unscathed and capable of flight. In the end, the judge told the jury to ignore references to this stranger “for what was unseen is unlikely to have existed.” A most dubious maxim, surely.
Before the return of Stalin though, Latvia was a kinder place. Ilze’s life was spared, and she was committed to the upper ward at Sarkankalns Hospital. If she wasn’t mad before she entered that cold asylum, she soon became so. Ilze was known to remain at her window deep into the night, the white light of the electric torch she held in her hands becoming something of beacon or landmark for that region of the city. In my nightly rounds as a surgeon, I more than once passed within sight of Ilze’s shining window, and would raise my lantern in solidarity to our shared secret. For I knew she didn’t stand waiting for the spirit of her husband, as some speculated, nor for the return of her child given to relatives in far off Canada. No, from that high window she probed the maze of streets stretched out before her with unblinking, forever eyes, much as I watched the road over my shoulder on cold and dark mornings on my way back from some fatal accident in the “wooden district.” Together we searched though we never found what, or more accurately “who”, prowls Rīga’s backstreets in the early hours of the morning. I don’t have to tell you her name; a young woman raised in a brothel, who lost her grip on Filip’s love not once but twice. In life and in death cruel Fate cheated poor Lelde every time.
This story was originally published in the Oct. 2016 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. William Burton McCormick’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, and the CWA Anthology of Short Stories: Mystery Tour. William lived more than 3 years in Riga, Latvia, the setting of this story.
May 2, 2018 at 10:27 am
Nice to see McCormick’s work here! I hope to see more in the future.
April 30, 2018 at 2:08 pm
An excellent short story! Strong beginning which drew me immediately and made me want to read the rest.