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The Ragged Stranger

(c. 1928)

by Charles MacArthur

Chapter III.

First-Search McCool was discovered in his favorite speakeasy, across the street from the morgue. At the mention of the Ragged Stranger, his jovial face immediately darkened.

“In thirty years I ain’t seen such hell raising over one stiff,” he complained, bitterly. “Why don’t you give the poor guy a rest? He’s tired of being turned over by you newspaper bums.”

“How about me?” asked the coroner, with equal temper. “I was in the middle of a birthday party when they thought up this job.”

Benson said it was too damned bad about First Search, and the coroner, too; adding that a little work might save both of them from drinking themselves to death. Mrs. Soleski was making bewildered replies to a thousand foolish questions touching on her son’s probable life and loves, put by the romantic Miss Farrell.

In the second cement corridor First Search paused and snapped a switch. Several glass cases were revealed; each contained its sorry bundle, wrapped in white.

“Instead of printing your lies,” First Search grumbled, “Why don’t you write something interesting? You might start working for a new building, for instance. This one ain’t fit for a carbarn.”

Benson lightly advised him to button his nose.

Slab Number 105 held the Ragged Stranger; or rather, what remained of him. After seven months indifferent care the papier mache effect that passed for his body was too unreal to be regarded as anything but marked down mummy. The notion that it had once walked and talked and eaten and drunk and made love, seemed preposterous; and it quite staggered the imagination to associate such a harmless bushel of skin and bones with murder, mysterious and bizarre.

First Search spoke:

“This is a lot of hooey, having him here. Lookit. He’s getting punier every day. In another month he’ll look like an alligator bag.”

The harried morgue keeper indicated his profound contempt for newspapers, grumbling that if the Record was so damned anxious to show the Ragged Stranger to every Tom, Dick and Harry that came along why didn’t they keep him over in their office or stick him in a drug store window or stuff him or something.

“Anything,” he summed up, “to get him out of here.”

This constructive suggestion fell on deaf ears. The coroner was busy borrowing a plug of tobacco from one of the photographers; Miss Farrell and Benson were coaxing their quarry to have a look at the body, and Mrs. Soleski was advancing several foolish reasons why she shouldn’t look. It was bad luck, she said. It brought on warts. It was well known that such sights often were followed by fires in one’s house. When simple persuasion failed, Benson appealed to the coroner.

“Listen, madam, we’re busy,” said Hartmann. “Is that him or not?”

Impressed by his impatience and obvious authority, Mrs. Soleski shuffled forward and regarded the body gingerly, but curiously.

“I dunno,” she repeated, with maddening indecision.

Benson winked violently. The coroner ordered her to look again. She stared dumbly, and was about to shake her head.

“Not, let’s not make any snap judgements,” Benson hurriedly interrupted. “This is too important.”

“Joe was bigger than that.”

First Search sensed that, unless something drastic was done, the Ragged Stranger would remain in his care indefinitely.

“They shrink, madam,” he observed. “Very often.”

“That’s right,” said Hartmann. Mrs. Soleski remained silent, fascinated. The tension became unbearable.

“His hair was darker.”

“It fades,” declared First Search, inexorably.

Mrs. Soleski was still dubious.

“Of course,” said Benson, helpfully. “You got to remember he’s been here a long while and it’s hard to tell at first glance sometimes. Their own families can’t recognize them after six or eight months. Am I right, coroner?”

“I’ll say so.” The coroner was a little too flaccid. Benson threw him a lead.

“It takes an expert to tell -- somebody like the coroner. He’s identified a thousand of them, and never’s been wrong. Have you, coroner?”

“Not yet,” more heartily.

“Why don’t you leave it to him? He’s had a lot of experience with things like this. You give him the description, and he’ll tell you right off whether it’s Joe or not. Fair enough?”

“If the lady wants to leave it up to me, I’ll do my best.”

“Joe didn’t have any gold teeth I remember of,” continued Mrs. Soleski. Benson was obviously irritated.

“Now, madam! You say yourself you haven’t seen him for a year, and this boy was killed nearly nine months ago. That leaves three whole months for anything to happen. Isn’t it possible he got in a fight or had an accident or something and got his tooth knocked out? Well, what would he naturally do? Go and have another one put in. Wouldn’t he, Coroner?”

“That’s what I’d do,” replied the coroner, warmly.

“Yes, and that’s what he probably did.”

“I dunno,” reiterated Mrs. Soleski, monotonously.

“Now, madam! You don’t suppose for one minute we’d try to give you the wrong body, do you?” Benson laughed at this extraordinary hallucination. “You asked us to help find your son, and that’s what we’re here to do. And gladly. Only we want you to cooperate. I offered to leave it up to the coroner, didn’t I? And this body certainly answers to the general description. Doesn’t it?”

“Looks that way to me,” vouchsafed the coroner.

“Hear that? If the coroner’s satisfied, you ought to be.”

In the end Mrs. Soleski was persuaded that the Ragged Stranger was indeed her Joe. The necessary documents were whisked, almost magically, from First Search’s inside pocket, and hurriedly signed and witnessed. Kramer, the photographer, unlimbered his tripod and caught Mrs. Soleski at the slab, in an attitude of prayer; Mrs. Soleski stretching out her arms, for no reason, and many other interesting views, all suggested and directed by Benson.

The bereaved and putative mother remained quite numb throughout the entire process, whether from grief, stoicism, indifference or plain stupidity, it is hard to say. The sorrows of the Soleskis seem to include all four qualities, at times.

Leak-proof oblivion on the part of First Search was assured by the purchase of two quarts of gin, Kramer remaining behind to see that he drank it, on the theory that a good morgue keeper was a dead drunk morgue keeper. At any rate, he was made inaccessible to Journal snoops. So was Mrs. Soleski, who was hidden in the Hotel Sherman under an assumed name.

Benson’s story was a pippin. The Record set it black-face, four column measure, under an eight column line. Mrs. Tanner’s picture again bowed from the front page, with sly innuendos that she had not been so innocent, after all. For the Ragged Stranger, under Benson’s imaginative touch, became a glamorous hell raiser who chose to live in the poorer district of the city from sheer eccentricity alone. In the middle of the story (“to take the smell off the name”) Benson discovered that Soleski was really a Polish count; and promptly despatched a reporter to the Hotel Sherman to prove it to Mrs. Soleski as well. Also she was caused to remember, in print, that her son was in the habit of getting mysterious letters on perfumed stationery, and was secretly known as “the Shiek of the Gold Coast.”

The Record printed fifty thousand extra copies of the paper and sold them all. Boone, the Journal editor, was so furious that he nearly sacked his entire staff and sought strenuously to have First Search removed from the morgue. Conversely, it was a day of rejoicing in the Record office.

But Truth is mighty, and will prevail. Early on the afternoon of publication, a smart, pugnacious man, somewhat semetic, appeared at the Record office and asked to see the editor with reference to the Ragged Stranger.

Scenting new and exclusive developments, Kearney eagerly admitted him and asked his business.

“I represent the Great Mutual Life Insurance Company of Hartford, Connecticut,” blustered the stranger, “and my company would like to know what in hell you’re trying to put over here.”

“I don’t like your language,” interrupted Kearney.

“Maybe you don’t,” retorted the stranger, vigorously. “But with regard to this here Joe Soleski, we’ve got a five thousand dollar policy on that case and if you think you can get away with any of these fooey identifications, you’re nuts! I had a look at that body this morning myself, and if that’s Joe Soleski, I’m Queen Marie. It doesn’t tally on one single point. Joe was as tall as I am. This guy is a midget from out of a circus or something. Everything’s different -- eyes, hair, nose, teeth --”

“And sometimes W,” interpolated Kearney, wearily. “Well, what of it?”

“You’re trying to palm off a phoney body, that’s what of it!”

“Mrs. Soleski swears up and down it’s her son.”

“She’d swear it was her left leg for five thousand bucks.”

Followed ten minutes of loud and acrimonious debate, in which Kearney was badly worsted. The stranger carried documents and descriptions too convincing for further doubt.

“Well,” said the Editor, with resignation, “You won’t get stuck, so don’t worry. Only,” thinking apprehensively of the Journal, “I’d appreciate it if you kept this under your hat -- you didn’t say anything to the undertaker by any chance?”

“I said plenty to that undertaker,” returned the other, darkly. “He’s one of those wise guys -- said I had to get a permit to see the body. I gave him a permit -- right on the nose! A Journal guy was bringing him to when I left.”

Kearney drew the line at murder. The stranger left in peace.

And so the entire Journal staff was turned loose on the Record’s mistake and would have injured the latter’s reputation irreparably the following morning, had not a cloudburst descended on the town toward nightfall, killing twenty-six people. A disaster of this importance took precedence over Boone’s outraged feelings perforce and his denial of the story consequently was boiled down to a bitter paragraph. The Record likewise was able to sidestep its identification in an obscure line or two; and the holocaust was looked upon as another instance of the celebrated “Kearney luck.”

© 2003-04 The Estate of Charles G. MacArthur. All Rights Reserved.

Continue to Chapter Four or Return to Charles Gordon MacArthur Page

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