I’ve always known that the hotel was haunted, though not necessarily the neighborhood. Nevertheless, there it was, all laid out nice and neat in the snow, a very pretty death. We were two blocks from the hotel. At the long empty stretch where the dry goods store would be built in spring. Nothing in the lot but dead trees covered in vines, and beyond it, a marsh that spread out dark and bumpy all the way to Lake Michigan.
The doctor spotted it after me. “Hold up,” he said.
I shoved my fists deeper into my coat pockets and obeyed. Spirits in my place of employment didn’t bother me any (some are the spirits of my ancestors, and as such, they protect me). And just before dawn in Chicago, like anyone, I would rather be indoors than out in the bone-cracking cold.
“Intentional.” The doctor stooped closer, careful to stay on the boardwalk. “Look at the way it’s arranged symmetrically. No animal did that.” He waved a hand without looking up. “Light a match.”
Orders. I told myself, he’s a doctor, he treats everyone like this.
I stepped off the boardwalk and crunched two steps through snow-crusted grass to the edge of the street’s gaslight. I struck a match and held it so we could see every detail: a plucked and charred bird, wings evenly outstretched, throat slashed. Its dark eyes stared up at the fading full moon. Blue-gray feathers surrounded it, projecting outward. The icy blood sparkled.
“A pigeon,” I said. The match flickered out.
“A bad egg was messing about here.” The doctor wrenched his black hat down against the wind. “Someone all-possessed, like.”
I shrugged. Perhaps he was right, a human did it. There were some bad ones.
“What do the tracks mean?” The doctor gestured at boot prints in the frozen mud.
“No, you can say.” A nicer tone. Maybe like I was his friend, not his barber.
“Don’t know.” I said it more firmly. The mud marks were impenetrable to me. The doctor had no way of knowing that, of course. I just trimmed his white sideburns once a week, after the doctor had checked on the slow death of Edgar Mulgrave, the hotel’s owner.
An eagle screamed. We jerked our heads up at the sound. The eagle flew low, as if it wanted us to see it, made a circle, and disappeared into a cloud.
That sign I understood. So, a man did this after all. And the spirits were angry.
The doctor glanced at me and chopped a hand at the dead pigeon. “Do something about it.”
That I would not do. I stepped back to the boardwalk.
The doctor clicked his tongue. Without a care or a prayer, he stepped onto the hard ground himself and mashed the bird under his boot. The breastbone snapped and I tried not to gag. The rest squished and blood leaked out like syrup. He messed up the feathers. He scraped the slime off his boot using the edge of the boardwalk. He did it all very slowly and casually, like he was teaching something to me.
“A dog’ll get it now,” I said. “Would’ve scared people.” Now I felt concerned. Maybe it would help if the spirits knew why the doctor had just done this.
“Maybe people should be scared.” The doctor rubbed his chin. “A hotel guest did it, perhaps. Someone from out East. Off his head, to do that to a bird.”
I frowned, first at the doctor and then at the hotel. The Royal Chicago loomed taller than any building on the avenue, a flesh and blood colored stone palace that Mulgrave’s almost-widow had opened last year. The wind kicked up stronger, into the kind that aches ears and spits rain. That is not what worried me. I took off toward the hotel with quick strides.
“Get back here,” the doctor called out. “You’re my windbreak, Nate.”
Employees weren’t supposed to use the front entrance but I ignored the rule. I could explain the situation to Mrs. Mulgrave, if need be. I took the hotel’s grand steps two at a time and strode through the lobby and main promenade. I pulled out a key and opened the door to the hotel’s barbershop.
My boots squeaked on the tile floor. The crystal chandeliers were dark and the red leather chairs stood empty. I went to a domed cage sitting on a pedestal and whisked off the cage’s black felt cover.
A single yellow canary sat inside on a carved wooden bar. It blinked, stretched its wings, and tweeted.