New York, August 1902
There was that maniacal laughter again. I looked around, but I couldn’t detect where it was coming from. It seemed to be part of the very darkness itself. Black water lapped up at me as I stepped onto the iron lacework of a walkway. I thought I could hear a child’s voice calling, “Save me, save me,” and I started toward it. But beneath me were other faceless forms, and they held up white arms to me, calling out, “Help us first.”
The laughter grew louder until it was overwhelming. I started to run. Water splashed up at my feet and when I looked down at my shoes they were black. That’s when I noticed it wasn’t water at all. It was blood.
I woke with my heart pounding and sat up, my hands grasping the cool reality of the sheet before I realized I was in my own room. I sat still for a while, conscious of the empty quiet of the house around me, wondering what the dream might mean. It was the third time I had dreamed it this week. The first time I’d put it down to an exotic Mongolian meal at my friends’ house across Patchin Place (they were into a nomad phase at the moment), but dreaming the same thing three times must mean more than just plain indigestion.
Back in Ireland dreams were always taken seriously. My mother would have been able to interpret mine for me in a wink, although I rather think her interpretation would be influenced by the fact that I was rude, didn’t mind my elders, and was heading for a bad end. But I recall the women sitting around in our cottage over a cup of tea, debating whether dreaming of a black cow meant future wealth or a death in the family. What would they say about an ocean of blood? I shuddered and wrapped my arms around myself.
My life had certainly been in turmoil since I had returned from my assignment on the Hudson, but I couldn’t think what could have sparked such a terrifying nightmare. There was my frightening ordeal in the river, of course. That might have prompted me to dream of water. And I had almost lost little Bridie O’Connor to typhoid. She was still far from well and had been sent to a camp for sickly city children in Connecticut, run by the ladies at the settlement house on Sixth Avenue. Was it her voice I had heard in the dream? Had she been calling for me to come to her? Should I have gone to the country to be with her?
I got up and walked across the landing, feeling the cold of the linoleum under my bare feet. I paused at what had been Bridie and Shamey’s door, almost expecting to hear the children’s regular breathing. But the only sound was the rhythmic ticking of the clock on the mantel downstairs. I shivered suddenly, although it was still midsummer and the night was warm. I went back to bed, but I was afraid to sleep again. It occurred to me that this was the first time in my life that I’d been alone in a building. Normally I would have been proud to be mistress of my own establishment, but at this moment all I felt was overwhelming loneliness. I sat hugging my knees to my chest, staring out of the window at the shadows dancing on the houses across the alleyway. When the first streaks of dawn showed in the sky I got up and made myself a cup of tea, drinking it with one eye on the front window until I saw my neighbor Gus go out to buy their breakfast rolls from the Clement Family Bakery around the corner on Sixth Avenue.
I dearly wanted company at the moment. I knew I was always welcome at their house, but my pride and disgust with my own weakness wouldn’t let me barge in on them uninvited at this early hour or tell them about the dream. So I waited until Gus returned, opened my front door with the pretence of shaking out crumbs, then feigned delighted surprise at bumping into her. Of course she invited me in for breakfast, and of course I accepted.
“Look who I just found, Sid dear,” Gus called as we went down the hall to their bright and airy kitchen. At this hour it was still cool. The French doors were open, and the sweet scent of honeysuckle competed with the enticing aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
Sid was standing at the stove, dressed this morning in an emerald green silk gentleman’s smoking jacket and baggy black pants that looked as if they had come from a harem. The striking effect was completed with her black hair, which she wore straight and chin length, like a child’s pageboy bob.
“Molly, my sweet. How good to see you. You’re looking pale. Sit down and have some coffee and a hot roll.” Sid gave me a beaming smile and started pouring thick, murky liquid into a small cup, then handed it to me. I took a sip, pretending, as always, that I liked my coffee to look and taste like East River sludge. Sid always insisted on Turkish coffee and French croissants in the morning. I’d no objections to the croissants, but I’d never learned to appreciate the coffee.
I sat in the chair that Gus had pulled out for me and accepted the still warm roll from her basket.
“And what were you doing up and about so bright and early this morning?” Gus asked.
“I didn’t sleep so well last night.” I was willing to confess to that much. “I just needed to get out of the house and breathe good fresh air.”
“You’re missing those O’Connors, that what’s the matter with you,” Gus said.
“I most certainly am not,” I replied indignantly. “I’ve spent most of my life looking after someone else’s children. I’m glad to be taking a break from them.”
The knowing look that passed between Sid and Gus didn’t escape me.
“And anyway, they’ll be back soon enough when Bridie is quite recovered and healthy again,” I went on. “She’s making splendid progress, you know. And in the meantime, I’m doing some serious thinking about my future.”
They looked at each other again, this time with amusement.
“Did you hear that, Gus? Serious thinking about her future. Will she be reconsidering the earnest Mr. Singer’s proposal, do you think?”
I picked up The New York Times that had been lying on the table. “Would you be quiet, you two? Why should you of all people think that any young woman’s future would automatically have to be linked to a marriage proposal? I have no intention of accepting any proposals, decent or indecent.”
Then I opened the paper and buried myself in the advertisements page, ignoring their chuckles.
“How about Nebraska?” I looked up expectantly from the The Times and saw two bewildered faces staring at me.
“Nebraska?” Gus asked.
“Yes, listen to this. ‘Schoolteacher needed for one-room schoolhouse. Start August. Must be unmarried, unencumbered, Christian, and of impeccable character. References required. Accommodation provided. Apply to the school board, Spalding, Nebraska.’ ” I paused and looked up again. My friends were still smiling.
“Dearest Molly, are you suggesting that you should become a schoolmarm in Nebraska?” Sid asked, pushing her bobbed hair back from her face.
“Why not?” I demanded. “Do you not think I’m up to life on the frontier? And where is Nebraska anyway?”
At this they both broke into merry laughter. Gus reached across to me and patted my hand. “You are priceless, my sweet,” she said. “Who would make us laugh if we let you escape from our clutches?”
“And why this sudden desire for the frontier, anyway?” Sid looked up from spreading more apricot jam on a croissant.
“Because I’ve had enough of New York City. Life has become too complicated.”
“And you think it would be less complicated having to kill grizzly bears with your Bible on the way to school each morning or having to fight off amorous pioneers in need of a wife?” Sid asked.
I put down the newspaper and sighed. “I don’t know. I just want to make a new start somewhere faraway. Never have to see Daniel Sullivan’s odious face again. Never have to convince myself that I don’t want to marry Jacob Singer, however well behaved and earnest he is.”
“One can accomplish both these things without going to Nebraska, I should have thought,” Gus said. “If you’ve finally decided to give up this crazy notion of being a lady investigator, I’m sure we could help you make a new start in the city here. But if you insist on escaping, I’m sure I can come up with some connections in Boston for you, even if my own people don’t want to know me anymore.”
I looked at Gus’s sweet, elfish face, framed in its pile of soft, light brown curls, and finally smiled. “You’re really too good to me by half. I don’t deserve your friendship. I do nothing but interrupt your breakfast with my whining and complaining.”
“Nonsense,” Sid said. “Just think how dull and ordinary our lives would be without you.”
Since Sid and Gus lead the least ordinary lives I had ever encountered, I had to smile at this. I suppose I should mention that their real names are Elena Goldfarb and Augusta Mary Walcott, of the Boston Walcotts. Both families had cut them off without a penny, but thanks to a generous inheritance from Gus’s suffragist great-aunt, they lived a blissfully unconventional existence in Greenwich Village. Gus was attempting to make her mark as a painter, while Sid wrote the occasional left-wing article. Mostly they just had fun, hosting the literary and bohemian set to wild and extravagant parties. They had taken me under their wing when I had been new to the city and treated me as a spoiled younger sister ever since. As I looked at them I realized how I would hate to move away from their company.
“All right,” I conceded grouchily, “maybe not Nebraska.”
Sid went over to the stove and picked up the coffeepot. “Have another cup of coffee. You’ll feel better,” she said.
“I haven’t finished this one yet,” I said hastily.
“So let’s see.” Gus put down her own cup and stared across at Sid. “What sort of job should we find for her? Bookshop, do you think?”
“Too dreary. Not enough life.”
“Ryan could help her get something to do with the theater. She’d like that.”
“Ryan is unemployed and seriously short of funds himself at the moment.”
“Well, if he will write plays that mock the American theatergoing public, what can he expect?”
I looked from one to the other, amused that I was not being consulted in this discussion.
“You don’t understand,” I finally cut in. “It’s not the change of profession I’m anxious about. It’s worrying about whether I’m going to find Daniel Sullivan lurking outside my front door every time I come out. Or Jacob for that matter.”
“Jacob doesn’t lurk, does he? He doesn’t seem the type,” Sid said.
“No,” I conceded. “He’s very well behaved as usual. Waiting patiently for my decision.”
“And I don’t think we’ve spotted Daniel lurking recently, have we?” Sid turned to Gus. “Not for the last few days anyway. Maybe he’s given up in despair.”
“He’s still writing to me,” I said. “At least a letter a day. I throw them all in the rubbish bin without opening them.”
“I call that rather devoted,” Gus said.
“Gus! We’re talking about Daniel the Deceiver! The man possesses all the worst qualities of the male sex—untrustworthy, flirtatious, and an all-round bounder,” Sid said fiercely. “He promises Molly he’s broken off his engagement one day, and the next he goes running back to that spoiled Arabella creature as soon as she snaps her fingers. Molly is quite right to ignore him. And Jacob Singer, too. He may profess that he’s no longer under the thumb of his family, but I know Jewish families, trust me.”
Since she came from one, I did trust her.
“It’s not only that,” I said. “I don’t want to marry just for convenience or security. There is just no spark with Jacob. He’s a good man. He’ll make some girl a good husband, only not me.”
“Quite right,” Sid said. “At least we’re all in agreement that women don’t need to attach themselves to a man to make them happy.” She glanced up at Gus with a smile.
I got up and walked across to the French windows. The first fierce rays of summer sun were painting the brick wall behind the tiny square of garden. “I just wish I knew what I wanted,” I said at last. “Part of the time I think I must be crazy to try and carry on the detective agency. But at least when I’m on a case I know I’m alive, and it’s exciting.”
“When you’re not fighting for your life, getting yourself shot or drowned, or pushed off bridges,” Gus said dryly.
I grinned. “So it’s a little too exciting sometimes. But I can’t see myself sitting behind a desk all day. Or being a governess to spoiled children, or a companion, for that matter. I can’t think of what other job would give me pleasure or prevent me from bumping into Daniel.”
“I don’t see why you are so worried about bumping into Captain Sullivan,” Sid said. “You’re not usually a shrinking violet who avoids confrontation or hesitates to speak her mind, Molly. You’ve faced anarchists and gang members without flinching. Surely you’re not afraid of a mere police captain?”
“Not afraid, no.” I looked away to avoid meeting her eye. “I just lose all common sense when he’s around. I know he’ll try to sweet-talk me into forgiving him, and I’m afraid I’ll be weak enough to listen to him.”
“You’re a strong, independent woman, Molly Murphy,” Sid said firmly. “Face him, tell him what you think of him, and get it over with.”
“You don’t know Daniel. He has too much Irish blarney in him. This time I have resolved to be strong. Never seeing him again is the only way of accomplishing this. And I fear that involves leaving the city.” I touched Gus’s shoulder as I walked across the kitchen. “Thank you for the breakfast. I am quite revived and restored, and I’m off to look up Nebraska on the map.”
I let myself out of their front door to the sounds of their renewed laughter. Then I paused, glanced down Patchin Place to make sure that it was devoid of life, before I sprinted across to my own front door opposite. This was no way to live, to be sure.
Silence engulfed me as I closed my front door behind me. No little high voice singing, no Shamey leaping down the stairs yelling, “Molly, I’m starving. Can I have some bread and dripping?”
My friends were right. I was missing the O’Connor children. I had felt myself encumbered by the O’Connors since I arrived in New York, but also responsible for them, since they had essentially saved my life. I had posed as their mother to bring them across from Ireland, when their own mother found that she was dying of consumption and not allowed to travel. Thus I had been able to escape Ireland with the police on my tail. So I could hardly abandon them. And the poor little mites with no mother, too. Seamus and young Shamey had gone to the country to be with Bridie during her recovery, Seamus hoping to find some kind of farmwork to support them.
As I stood lost in thought, there was a plop and the morning post landed on the doormat. I picked up two letters. The first, in Daniel’s black, decisive hand, went straight in the rubbish bin. The second a childish scrawl I didn’t recognize, liberally dotted with ink blots. I opened it and saw it was from the O’Connors.
My pa telled me to rite this as he don’t rite so good. (Little Shamey had clearly not benefited overmuch from his recent schooling). We’re doing fine here. Bridie is up and walking agin. Pa and me is camping out in a farmer’s barn and, we’re helping him with the harvest. You shud see me, Molly. I can lift great bales of hay jest like a man. Pa likes it so good out here, he says he don’t want to go back to the city where there is sickness and gangs and all. He’s trying to get a job all year on a farm. I wish you’d come out here and join us, Molly.
Then underneath in an even more illegible scrawl, “It don’t seem the same without you, Molly. I know there’s no question of love between us, but we get along fine, don’t we, and the children already think of you as their mother.”
I put down the paper hurriedly on the kitchen table. If I read this right, I now had three unwanted suitors. I wished I hadn’t left The Times over at Number Nine. Nebraska was sounding better by the minute!
Copyright © 2006 by Rhys Bowen. All rights reserved.