A BROUGHAM carriage clattered along Irving Place shortly after midnight. The driver turned the corner onto Twentieth Street and brought his team to a halt. The horses snorted frosty puffs of smoke beneath a cobalt winter sky.
The brougham was a four-wheeled affair, with the driver perched on a seat outside. A gas lamppost on the corner reflected dully off the windows of the enclosed cab. Otto Richter shifted forward inside the cab and wiped condensation off the window with his coat sleeve. He slowly inspected the streets bordering Gramercy Park.
The park was a block long, centered between Lexington Avenue on the north and Irving Place on the south. Darkened mansions lined the perimeter of what was an exclusive enclave for some of the wealthiest families in New York. The whole of Gramercy Park was surrounded by an ornate eight-foot high wrought-iron fence.
“Looks quiet,” Richter said. “Let’s get it done.”
Turk Johnson, a bullet-headed bruiser, followed him out of the cab. Richter glanced up at the driver.
“Stay put till we get back.”
“I’ll be waitin’ right here, boss.”
Richter led the way along the sidewalk. A few houses down, he mounted the steps to a three-story brick mansion. Johnson was at his elbow, standing watch as he halted before a stout oak door with stained glass in the top panel. He took a key from his overcoat pocket and inserted it into the lock. The door swung open.
A light snow began to fall as they moved into foyer. Johnson eased the door closed, and they waited a moment, listening intently for any sound. On the left was an entryway into a large parlor, and on the right was the family sitting room. Directly ahead, a broad carpeted staircase swept grandly to the upper floors.
The silence was disturbed only by the relentless tick of a grandfather clock. Richter motioned with his hand, stealthily crossing to the bottom of the staircase. They took the stairs with wary caution, alert to the creak of a floorboard underfoot. Their movements were wraithlike, a step at a time.
A single gaslight burned on the second floor. Still treading lightly, they paused to get their bearings at the stairwell landing. Neither of them had ever before been in the house, but they knew it well. There were two bedrooms off the head of the stairs and another along a hallway to the right. The master bedchamber, which overlooked Gramercy Park, was at the front of the house. The servants were quartered on the top floor.
Richter nodded to the doorway on their left. “Careful now,” he whispered. “The old woman’s a light sleeper.”
The remark solicited a grunt. Johnson was burly, robust as an ox, his head fixed directly on his shoulders. He grinned around a mouthful of teeth that looked like old dice. “Whyn’t fix her wagon, too?”
“Quiet!” Richter hissed sharply. “Try to keep your mind on the job.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
Richter turned toward the front of the house. A moment later, they stopped outside the master bedchamber. He gripped the doorknob, twisted it gingerly, and stepped inside. Embers from the grate in the fireplace faintly lighted the room. He moved closer to the bed.
A man and a woman lay fast asleep. The man was strikingly handsome, the woman a classic beauty, both in their early thirties. Her hair was loose, fanned over the pillow, dark as a raven’s wing. He snored lightly, covers drawn to his chin.
In the glow of the fireplace, Richter’s features were hard and angular. He was lean and wiry, with muddy deep-set eyes, and a razored mouth. He stared at the couple for an instant, his expression implacable. Then he pulled a bottle of ether from his overcoat pocket.
Johnson moved forward with two rags. Richter doused them with ether, quickly stoppered the bottle, and returned it to his pocket. He took one of the rags from Johnson and they walked to opposite sides of the bed. Neither of them hesitated, Johnson working on the man and Richter the woman. They clamped the rags down tight, covering nostrils and mouth.
The man arched up from the bed, his hands clawing at the rag. Johnson grabbed him in a headlock, immobilizing him with brute strength, and forced him to breath deeply. The woman’s eyes fluttered open and she gasped, inhaling raw ether; she struggled only briefly in Richter’s arms. Hardly a minute passed before they were both unconscious, sprawled on the bed.
Richter stuffed the rag in his pocket. He removed the pillow from beneath the woman’s head and placed it over her face. Johnson, working just as swiftly, buried the man’s face in a pillow. There was no resistance from the couple, for they were anesthetized into a dreamlike state, incapable of fighting back. The men slowly smothered them to death.
When it was over, Richter arranged the woman’s head in a comely pose on the pillow. Johnson followed suit, and they stepped back, admiring their handiwork. “Well now,” Richter said with a note of pride. “They look quite peaceful, don’t they?”
Johnson grinned. “Damn good way to kick the bucket. Never felt a thing.”
“Yes, all very neat and tidy. Let’s see to the children, Turk.”
Richter hurried out the door. At the staircase landing, he once again saturated the rags with ether. Then they separated, Johnson moving to the bedroom on the right and Richter proceeding along the hallway. Some moments later they returned, each of them carrying a child bundled in a blanket. Richter gave Johnson a sharp look.
“Everything all right?”
“Went off smooth as silk.”
Johnson was holding a boy, perhaps nine or ten years old. The girl in Richter’s arms appeared to be a year or two older. She was a mirror image of her mother, just as the boy favored his father. They were both unconscious, breathing evenly.
“Time to go,” Richter said, darting a glance at the other bedroom door. “Take it easy on the stairs.”
Johnson trailed him down the staircase. They moved quietly through the foyer just as the grandfather clock chimed the half hour. Richter paused outside the house, juggling the girl with one arm, and locked the door. The snow was heavier now, thick white flakes swirling across Gramercy Park. They turned upstreet toward the waiting carriage.
One at a time, the children were loaded into the cab. Richter was the last to clamber aboard, signaling the driver to move out. The horses lurched into motion, heads bowed against the squalling snow. The carriage rounded the corner at the far end of Gramercy Park.
“Whatta night!” Johnson said, motioning to the huddled forms of the children. “Who are these kids, anyhow?”
“Augustus and Katherine.”
“They got last names?”
Richter permitted himself a thin smile. “Not anymore.”
The carriage trundled off toward the Lower East Side.
Manhattan was an island. Some two miles by fifteen miles in mass, it was connected to the outside world by railroad bridges along the northern shoreline. The only other outlets were ferries that plied the Hudson River.
The settled part of the island, more commonly called New York City, was a five-mile stretch at the southern tip of Manhattan. With the population topping a million, there were a hundred thousand people for every square mile, a teeming cauldron of humanity. Worldly men called it the Bagdad of North America.
Delancey Street was located in the heart of the Lower East Side. There, in tenements wedged together like rabbit warrens, the working class of the city struggled to outdistance squalor and poverty. New Year’s was just a week past, but the people of Delancey Street found no reason to celebrate 1872. Their days were occupied instead with putting bread on the table.
The brougham carriage halted at the intersection of Delancey and Pitt. A faded sign affixed to the building on the southeast corner identified it as the New York Juvenile Asylum. The two-story structure was worn and decrepit, a battered wooden ruin much like the rest of the neighborhood. It was a warehouse for the flotsam of the city’s young.
The driver hopped down to open the carriage door. Richter emerged first, carrying the girl, followed by Johnson with the boy. Heavy wet snow clung to their greatcoats as the driver hurried to jerk the pull-bell outside the entrance to the asylum. A pudgy man with wispy hair and dewlap jowls opened the door on the third ring. He waved them inside.
“I was getting worried,” he said. “Thought maybe something had gone wrong.”
“Nothing went wrong,” Richter replied. “Just this damnedable snow, that’s all. The streets are a mess.”
“Hardly the night for an abduction, hmmm?”
“Your mouth will be the death of you, Barton. Let’s hear no more about abduction.”
Joseph Barton was the director of the Juvenile Asylum. He was a man of small stature, and corrupt to the core. He spread his hands in a lame gesture. “No harm intended. I was just making talk.”
“Don’t,” Richter warned. “All the talk stops tonight.”
The anteroom of the asylum was warmed by a potbelly stove stoked with coal. There was a tattered sofa and a grouping of hard straight-back chairs meant for the infrequent visitor. The children were placed on the sofa, still wrapped in their blankets. Richter took a moment to check the pupils of their eyes.
“Marvelous invention, ether,” he said with some satisfaction. “They’ll be out for at least another hour.”
“I’d hoped for longer,” Barton said in a piping voice. “The train’s scheduled to depart at eight. What if they make a fuss when they wake up?”
“How many brats do you have in this sinkhole?”
“At the moment, probably five hundred or so. Why do you ask?”
Richter stared at him. “You ought to know how to handle hard-nosed kids. Get them some clothes out of your stockroom, nothing too fancy.” His gaze shifted to the children. “Turn ’em into regular little orphans.”
“Yes, but—” Barton hesitated, undone by his nerves. “What if they resist being put on the train?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something clever. That’s what you’re being paid for.”
There were hundreds of men and women in New York who devoted their lives to homeless children. Most of them were affiliated with religious organizations, or charitable foundations. There were, as well, men without scruple or conscience who looked upon indigent children as a means of lining their own pockets. Joseph Barton was just such a man.
The opportunity for graft stemmed from the fact that youngsters under fifteen represented one-third of the city’s population. At any given moment, upward of a hundred thousand homeless children were roaming the streets of New York. Some were orphans, their mothers and fathers dead from the ravages of disease and overwork. Others, children of the poor, were simply turned out by their parents to fend for themselves. To survive, they raided garbage bins and learned to live by petty crime.
The crisis brought swift action by the state legislature. The Truancy Law, enacted at the close of the Civil War, authorized police to arrest vagrant children ages five through fourteen. Some were brought to the House of Refuge, operated by a coalition of religious concerns. Others, particularly the troublemakers, were packed off to a secular facility, the Juvenile Asylum. The latter institution was dedicated to discipline, instilling the virtue of daily toil. The children were then indentured as apprentices to tradesmen.
Those youngsters considered beyond redemption were shipped West on the Orphan Train. Farmers and ranchers on the distant plains welcomed them with a mix of Christian charity and a profound belief in the values of hard work. All of which nicely solved the problem of delinquents and mischievous street urchins. The Orphan Train departed New York’s Grand Central Station every Friday.
“I’ll certainly do my best,” Barton said now. “None of the children especially like the thought of being sent West. We’re sometimes forced to restrain them until the train leaves.”
“I don’t want them harmed,” Richter told him. “The whole idea is to get them adopted. The farther West, the better.”
“Oh, yes, I understand completely.”
“Make sure you do, for your own good.”
There was a veiled threat in Richter’s tone. He pulled out a wad of greenbacks and started peeling off bills. “There’s the thousand we agreed on,” he said stiffly. “A thousand more once they’re adopted.”
Barton thought it unwise to count the bills. “How will I satisfy you the adoption has actually taken place?”
“You’ve no need to worry on that score. I’ll know.”
“Very well, just as you say.”
“One last thing,” Richter said. “You’ll likely read about some missing children in tomorrow’s papers. Don’t try to put two and two together and get four.”
“How could I not put it together?” Barton asked guilelessly. “Were there all that many children abducted tonight?”
“Pretend you’re deaf, dumb and blind. Otherwise …”
Richter motioned casually to Johnson. The bruiser fixed Barton with a cold, ominous look. Barton quickly averted his gaze.
“Otherwise—” Richter went on, “Turk will pay you a visit some dark night. I doubt you’d recover.”
“There’s no reason to threaten me. I’m quite good at keeping a confidence.”
“Then I predict you’ll live to a ripe old age.”
Richter walked to the door. Johnson gave Barton an evil grin, then turned away, closing the door as he went out. On the street, the two men crossed to the curb, where Richter paused before entering the carriage. He looked up at the falling snow.
“I’m afraid we’ll have to sleep fast, Turk.”
“Why’s that, boss?”
“We have a train to catch.”
Otto Richter was a man who left no stone unturned.
Copyright @ 2001 by Winchester Productions, Ltd.