Will Anderson and Elizabeth Hume are called to the vast Eloise Insane Asylum outside of Detroit, where Elizabeth's cousin Robbie is a patient and now a murder suspect. The victim, like three others before him at the asylum in recent months, was killed with the infamous "Punjab lasso," the murder weapon of the Phantom of the Opera.
Certain of Robbie's innocence, they begin an investigation with the help of Detective Riordan. Will has himself committed to the asylum to investigate from the inside, and Elizabeth volunteers at Eloise and questions people outside the asylum. While Will endures horrific conditions in his search for the killer, Elizabeth and Riordan follow the trail of a murder suspect all the way to Kalamazoo, where they realize the killer might still be at Eloise, putting Will in extreme danger. They race back to Detroit, but will they arrive in time to save Will and bring the killer to justice?
Filled with Johnson's trademark roller-coaster plot, nuanced characters, and brilliant historical research, Detroit Breakdown is a compelling, dark mystery set in the once- flourishing Paris of the West.
About the Author
D.E. JOHNSON is the author of The Detroit Electric Scheme, Motor City Shakedown, and Detroit Breakdown. He lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
Monday, October 14, 1912
The man in the gray suit slipped behind a marble pillar and appeared again on the other side. His face was shaded by the brim of his fedora, but his eyes seemed to linger on the policemen. Unlike the two thousand other people who filled the convention hall at Wayne Gardens, he didn’t even glance at Elizabeth, who stood at the lectern onstage. Behind her, a dozen women sat in front of a burgundy velvet curtain, beneath a large canvas banner that read: MICHIGAN EQUAL SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION ELECTION RALLY: SPONSORED BY THE DETROIT SUFFRAGE CLUB. Elizabeth held her arms out to her sides, gesturing for the crowd to quiet.
I watched the man from across the hall. I knew he wasn’t a policeman. Detective Riordan had set up the security for this event. All the cops were in uniform. The only thing extraordinary about the man was his manner, furtive and nervous. I shook my head. He didn’t belong here. The men around me generally fell into one of three classes: portly husbands of rich women, men young enough to still believe they could make a difference, or stereotypical Socialists—emaciated, extravagantly bearded, a crazed cast to their eyes.
Still, I tried to dismiss him. He couldn’t be a serious danger. The police had searched everyone coming into the hall this afternoon after the Detroit Suffrage Club had received unspecified threats from some anarchist group.
I turned my attention to Elizabeth, bathed in the spotlight. Most women would have been made harsh by the glare, but Elizabeth’s beauty shone so true it put the light to shame. She wore a tight gray skirt and white shirtwaist, an outfit that she would have thought utilitarian and therefore perfect for this audience, but I’m sure she dazzled the rest as she did me.
I felt the weight of the little box in my coat pocket with the diamond ring seated in a silk bed. I was hoping for an opportunity to take her out after the donor party tonight, though she hadn’t been encouraging. I’d barely had five minutes with her since I’d gotten out of the hospital, but she had at least invited me to the party. That was a start, though I’d have to share her with a score of other people. We’d planned to go to the flickers the last two weeks, but she’d canceled both times. She said she’d make it this week for sure. I hoped she was right.
Elizabeth leaned down to the microphone and shouted, “It is time for us!”
The crowd roared back their agreement. The noise set my head to ringing, and the pain behind my eyes, which hadn’t abated in nearly two months, ratcheted up a notch.
I was just tall enough to be able to look over the sea of hats before me. A black derby or homburg poked up in spots, but most of the chapeaux were in muted colors—pale blues, greens, yellows, lavenders. Though the fashion had gone to narrow-brimmed hats, wealthy women still tended to favor brims that extended as much as a yard wide, and they were standing so close together that their hats touched those of their neighbors, which created the extraordinary effect of a field of massive flowers laid out before me, an effect magnified by the heavy flowery perfume favored by this set that permeated the hall.
Eyes shining, Elizabeth leaned down to the microphone. “We have waited for our time for one hundred and thirty-six years. We have waited, and watched men drive this country to near ruin. Allowed them to make our decisions for us. To brutalize us. To use us and cast us aside as if we were chattel.” She paused and glared fiercely at her audience. Her voice raw with emotion, she shouted, “Will we continue to allow men that power?”
“No!” the crowd bellowed back to her.
“The tide of time is with us now!”
Again, the crowd roared. I looked for the man in the gray suit. It took me a moment to find him, as he had moved closer to the stage. I could see none of his features. Now I saw his hand snake up inside his coat and rest there for a moment, as if he were reassuring himself that his gun was still in his shoulder holster.
Oh, Lord. I stood on tiptoes and turned in a circle, looking for Detective Riordan or one of the cops. None were in sight. Of course, for all I knew the man in the gray suit was fingering his Bible or some Socialist manifesto, but … I had to be sure.
I began working my way around to the front of the stage, but it was slow going. The Convention Center at Wayne Gardens was packed to the rafters for the event. These people had arrived early to claim spaces at the front and were only very grudgingly giving way for me to pass.
I glanced at Elizabeth as she began speaking again. “Before we hear from Miss Addams and Miss Pankhurst—Sylvia,” Elizabeth added, glancing back at the young lady with a smile, “I’d like to introduce one of the great leaders of the woman suffrage movement, who in 1884 helped found the Michigan Equal Suffrage Association, and has given loyal service to its cause ever since. As president, she led the drive that culminated four years ago in a decisive first step—women who pay taxes winning the vote on tax and bond issues—and is now leading us in our fight for real equality. Please join me in welcoming the president of MESA, Mrs. Clara Arthur!” Clapping, Elizabeth stepped back from the lectern and waited for Mrs. Arthur to take her place.
I squeezed between a pair of matrons, tipping my derby and shouting, “Excuse me,” so as to be heard over the tumult. Both women gave me withering glances. One reached out and swatted me in the side with her purse. The bag slammed into my burned right hand, and the glove did little to cushion the sharp edge of the bag from striking the inflamed nerves. Swallowing the comment that came to mind, I winced and pushed on.
Mrs. Arthur’s powerful voice boomed out over the crowd. “We have an extraordinary opportunity before us!” She paused and continued more quietly, though with no less passion. “But we have only three weeks to persuade those not yet persuaded. We must use that time—all of that time—to exert our will. This is not only a question of the vote. It is a question of a fundamental right of human beings. The right to have a say in our lives. The right to stand shoulder to shoulder with men as equals!”
The crowd responded as one, shouting and surging forward, knocking me off balance and nearly to the floor. My eyes focused again on the spot I’d seen the man. Now he was gone, lost in the sea of hats. I kept moving, zigzagging through the crowd toward the other side of the stage, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of him. There—a hundred feet from me and perhaps fifty feet from the stairway that led backstage.
No one stood guard at the base of the steps.
A policeman was supposed to be there. Detective Riordan had posted men at all the stage entrances. I checked when I arrived. Then again, Riordan’s man was a Detroit cop. Was he on someone else’s payroll?
I spun again, searching in vain for a policeman. Now I started shoving and shouldering my way toward the steps, shouting, “Coming through! Watch out!”
The crowd quieted again, and Mrs. Arthur got back to it. “You all know the story of Jane Addams and Hull House. Miss Addams, a tireless supporter of our cause, will tell us of her discussions with Colonel Roosevelt and his Progressive Party staff.”
The man in the gray suit bobbed in and out of my view as he moved toward the stairway. When he reached it, he turned back once before disappearing up into the darkness. I had narrowed the gap between us to thirty feet, but he was free of the crowd while I still waded through the mass of people.
“Sylvia Pankhurst,” Mrs. Arthur continued, “is the daughter of Emmeline and sister of Christabel Pankhurst, two of the other courageous leaders in the British suffrage movement. She has been jailed twice for her actions, sent to the miserable Holloway Prison, where she suffered through months of hunger, thirst, and sleep strikes to bring attention to the plight of English women.”
I burst out of the crowd at the stairway and ran up the steps two at a time. At the top, I whirled around, trying to get my bearings in the backstage gloom. A bright band of light glowed around the edge of the curtain, where half a dozen people stood in a pack, trying to see the stage. The man in the gray suit was not among them.
Mrs. Arthur’s voice blared on, drilling a hole behind my eyes. I ran around the back of the stage, passing a few men, though none was the one for whom I was looking.
There. The opposite side of the stage. He stood alone, illuminated by a single narrow beam of light that angled across his chest. I ran toward him. Fifty feet away. Dark metal glinted—a pistol. He raised it and aimed down the barrel, concentration so complete he didn’t see me streaking at him from the side.
“No!” I shouted and dove at him, batting at the pistol with my hand just as he pulled the trigger. The report blasted my ears. I fell to the floor, pulling the hot gun barrel down with me. I wrenched it from his grip and rolled, then braced myself, reversed the gun, and aimed it at the man.
Except that all I saw before me was shadows. He had already disappeared into the darkness.
Now I heard pandemonium out in the hall—people screaming, shouting, a stampede.
I climbed to my feet, with my bad hand against the side of my head, which felt like it would explode.
“Drop it!” a man shouted. “Now!”
I turned. A Detroit policeman stood ten feet away, his pistol aimed at my face.
* * *
When Detective Riordan scowled, the scar that ran from the left corner of his mouth nearly to his ear bulged into a fat burgundy earthworm. I tried to meet his eyes. “Are you out of your mind?” he demanded.
“I’m telling you, it was the other man! Why would I start a riot?”
By the time order had been restored, most of the attendees had fled. Elizabeth and Mrs. Arthur canceled the remainder of the rally. Fortunately the bullet hit no one, and the resulting rush for the doors caused only a few minor injuries, though a number of people had been taken away in ambulances.
Now, half an hour later, the ringing in my ears had decreased to a high-pitched hum. We were jammed in a little office tucked behind the stage. I sat on a wooden chair against the side wall, squeezed between a pair of old filing cabinets. I wore the tinted wire-rimmed glasses Dr. Miller had given me for light sensitivity, but the bright light in the room still found its way inside, burning into my brain. The room was stifling, and the space tight. Riordan stood across from me, staring down, fedora cocked over his brow. Behind him, the walls were covered in old playbills.
He held up the pistol I had stripped from the grasp of the gunman. “This is your gun.”
“It’s not. Do you know how many Colt .32s there are in Detroit?”
“Will?” Through the ringing in my ears, Elizabeth’s voice called out to me. She cautiously advanced into the office. Mrs. Arthur and Miss Addams stood behind her. “Will, what did you do?”
“I saved someone’s life is what I did. There was a man with a gun, and I ran after him. I grabbed the gun just as…”
Elizabeth and Detective Riordan had locked eyes. He gave one short shake of his head.
My face got hot. “Why in the hell would you think I’d shoot a gun backstage? I’m no assassin. Anyway, I’m on your side. I believe in universal suffrage.”
Elizabeth knelt down in front of me. “I know, Will. But you’re also … confused sometimes.”
“It’s nothing to do with that. I remember this clearly.”
She squeezed my knee. “It could be from the radium.”
Only a few months before, the administrator at Eloise Hospital, Wayne County’s huge insane asylum, had tried to erase my memory with a massive bombardment of radium to my head. I still had nearly constant headaches, light sensitivity, and gaps in my memory, but right now, even though my head pounded, my mind was crystal clear.
“If I’m so confused,” I shot at Riordan, “how did I manage to get backstage? You had a man guarding all the stage entrances, did you not?”
“We did,” he said.
“Ladies,” a man behind them said. “We need to get you somewhere safe.” He stepped into the room. He wore a gray suit, no hat. He looked like a tough, big—six feet, two hundred pounds.
I looked at Elizabeth. “Who’s this?”
“Name’s Warren Brennan,” he said. “With the William J. Burns International Detective Agency.”
Gray suit, I thought. I tried to piece him together with what I remembered of the man with the gun. I tried without success to picture his face. He had always been in the shadows. Brennan wore a bushy bottlebrush mustache, with small features in a no-nonsense blocky face. The man with the gun was smaller. Wasn’t he? Still, it wouldn’t hurt to ask. “Where were you when the gun was fired?”
He gave me a dismissive smile and turned back to Elizabeth. “Miss Hume?”
“Will, don’t be silly. Mr. Brennan is protecting us.”
“Where was he?”
“I was onstage,” Brennan said, “with my eyes on the crowd. I didn’t think it would be necessary to watch my client’s friends.” He shot a glance at Riordan. “I didn’t think I had to keep a man everywhere you were supposed to have one, either.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Brennan,” Elizabeth said. “All right. We should go, ladies.” She turned back to Detective Riordan. “You’re not going to arrest Will, are you?”
He took a little longer to answer than I was comfortable with. “No. It was an accident.”
“An accident?” I said. “My God! Why don’t you believe me?” The headache was rapidly becoming a drill bit cutting into my brain.
“Detective,” Brennan said, “I have to get the ladies out of here. We obviously can’t rely on the DPD’s security.”
Riordan shot him a warning glance but said nothing.
“Mr. Brennan,” Elizabeth said, “I’m sure they did their best.”
“Sorry, miss,” he said, with no apology in his voice. “But—I’m sure the detective here will agree with me that the Detroit Police Department is one of the most corrupt in the country. You hired us for a reason. So, could we go now?”
Riordan glared at him. “Mr. Brennan, you are treading on thin ice.”
Brennan shook his head. “What I’d like to know is what happened to your man, Detective. He was supposed to be guarding the stairway. If he had been there, this man would never have gotten onstage.”
Riordan’s ice blue eyes gave Brennan nothing. “I’m looking into that.”
Brennan glared back at Riordan. “Are you on the take too, or is it just your man?”
A little smile snuck onto Detective Riordan’s face. “I’ll give you that one, Mr. Brennan. The next time you impugn my character you and I are going to spend a little time together—and you’re not going to like it.”
I was hoping Brennan didn’t take him up on it. Detective Riordan looked sick and weak—hollowed cheeks, sunken eyes, pale complexion. He didn’t look like he’d recovered from the injuries he suffered while he and Elizabeth were trying to find a murderer a few months back. Three of his ribs had been broken, and one of them punctured his spleen. I didn’t think he’d be able to take a body punch.
“Fair enough,” Brennan said. “We’ll see what your bosses think.” He threw open the door, strode out without closing it behind him, and began herding the women away.
Elizabeth stopped at the door. “Will, wait for me, will you? We’re just going to talk for a few minutes.”
I nodded. She left with Brennan and the ladies.
I looked back at Riordan. “Do you know Brennan?”
“Yeah. He headed up the Wabash-alderman case for Burns last summer.”
William Burns, otherwise known as “America’s Sherlock Holmes,” had blown apart a bribery ring in Detroit’s city government involving the confiscation of real estate for the expansion of the Wabash railroad terminal. One of Burns’s men, posing as a representative of the railroad, had elicited the demands for tribute, which were transmitted from a sound collector to a machine called a Dictograph that recorded the conversations. The case terminated with the arrests of nine alderman. At the moment, Burns’s name was solid gold in this city.
“Oh, you were involved in that?” I asked.
“No, but I think they railroaded those aldermen. Tom Glinnan asked me to look into it for him.”
Glinnan was the secretary of the council and, prior to being arrested for accepting a thousand-dollar bribe, had been a leading mayoral candidate. Now he was just hoping to stay out of jail.
“He’s what?” I asked. “A friend?”
“Of sorts,” Riordan said.
“You think the Burnsies cheated somehow?”
“Tom says they planted the thousand dollars in his pocket. I don’t know that he’s past looking the other way for a bribe, though. The whole thing just stunk.”
“To get back to today,” I said. “Do you know the cop? The one who left his post?”
He shook his head. “No. Brennan was probably right about him. He claimed he ate some bad oysters and had to run to the toilet. The odds are good he’s lying.”
“Listen, you need to protect these women. Someone is trying to kill them. Even if you don’t believe me, you know what a divisive issue this is. And you have to admit there are a lot of crackpots out there.”
“They’ve received threatening letters at the office. Someone threw a rock through the window last week.”
“Any idea who?”
“What was the threat?”
Shaking his head, he said, “That’s confidential information.”
“You can’t tell me? Why?”
“Because I can’t trust you in your current condition. Who knows who wrote those letters?”
“As in … I might have?”
“What the hell are you talking about? Why would I threaten Elizabeth?”
“People who’ve gone through what you have get confused. Sometimes they try to reenact the situation that brought them success before. You’ve had to save Elizabeth. Maybe you’re re-creating that situation.”
My heart thumped faster. Blood rushed to my face. “So I threaten her, come backstage and shoot my gun, then claim I was fighting with a nonexistent attempted murderer.”
I spat out a laugh. “Is this your theory?”
With his wolf eyes still locked on mine, he slowly shook his head. “But I have to guard against all threats just the same.”
Goddamn you! My eyes focused on his nose. The first disorienting punch to the nose, double him over with a shot to the solar plexus, kick him in the face, stomp him into the floor.
Watching me from the corner of his eye, Riordan said, “Now tell me about your gunman. What did the man look like?”
“If you think it’s me, what’s the sense?”
“I told you—I guard against all threats.”
I should do it, I thought. Take this son of a bitch to the floor, take out my frustrations. It wasn’t like he hadn’t done it to me before. But … Elizabeth. I had to remember, this was all for Elizabeth. “I couldn’t see his face. Frankly, I mostly remember the gun, but my impression was that he was smaller than you or Brennan—more my size. He had dark hair. Gray suit.”
He pointed at my head and then my chest. I caught his point. I also had brown hair and wore a gray suit. “Oh, good one, Dr. Freud,” I said. “It’s my subconscious trying to get me caught.”
After watching me another moment, Riordan said, “Anything else you remember?”
“Not very helpful.”
“I saw him at a distance and then I saw him in the dark.” I stood. “Can I go now?”
Riordan put his hand on my shoulder. He seemed to tower over me in the little room. His six feet in height had me by four inches, but his ramrod-straight posture and ever-present gray fedora made him seem like an even taller man. “Listen, Will, I know you’ve been through a lot, but you’ve got to stay away from the campaign. You’re not helping.”
“You have to be kidding me! I kept that man from shooting—”
“Elizabeth needs to get through this election.” He spoke over the top of me. “Let her do that. That’s a remarkable young lady you have there. Saved my life.”
I nodded, thinking again about the ring in my coat pocket.
* * *
I was waiting for Elizabeth in the convention center’s lobby when people suddenly began shouting and screaming in the backstage area.
He’s still here! I drew my gun and ran down the hall. When I burst through the door, searching for the man with the gun, all I saw was Elizabeth and her companions with their arms around each other. Many were crying.
“Don’t worry,” an older man said loudly. “He’s a bull moose. He’ll be fine.”
“He was shot in the chest, James,” a woman said through her tears.
I pulled up next to Elizabeth, who was embracing a woman I didn’t know, and took her arm. My eyes still scanning the room, I said, “Where is the gunman?”
She stepped back and turned to me. Her eyes floated in tears. “President Roosevelt was shot, Will,” she said, her voice strangled. “In Milwaukee. He’s still alive, at least he was half an hour ago. We just got the wire.” She burst out crying. “They shot the Colonel.”
Copyright © 2013 by D. E. Johnson