171 West Seventy-first Street. 1:30 A.M.
Despite my best intentions—not to mention an excellent cup of French roast—I had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion. Lying on a gold and green paisley sofa, halfway through W. D. Morrison’s treatise Crime and Its Causes, I was startled awake by a ferocious pounding at my door. I bolted upright—causing Morrison to tumble to the ground, followed by my now empty coffee mug.
I fumbled for my battered pocket watch. Half past one. At such an ungodly hour, most people would telephone. Thanks to the modern black and brass Strowger dial telephone installed in my new quarters here last month, I could be reached at any hour. That was a mixed blessing, of course—but I’d already come to appreciate the telephone as a more civilized method of interruption than the incessant knocking that disturbed me now.
Why the devil was someone determined to wake me in person?
I walked barefoot to the door over newly varnished hardwood that was cold and smooth against my feet. As I drew close, the pounding stopped, but an urgent voice called out my name.
“Ziele! Open up.”
I turned the lock and withdrew the chain. By the flickering light of the gaslight lanterns that lined my hallway, I recognized my friend and colleague: criminologist Alistair Sinclair.
The normally poised and garrulous professor staggered into my living room, collapsed onto my paisley sofa, and looked up at me helplessly. “Ziele, I need your help.” He managed to rasp the words, before he succumbed to a fit of coughing.
“What’s happened?” After I closed and locked my door, I lit the additional oil lamps in my living room, then surveyed Alistair closely for signs of an injury. I saw none.
Not once in our acquaintance had I ever seen Alistair in such a state. His dark hair, heavily lined with silver, was not smoothly coiffed; rather, it stood up on end as though he had run his hands through it repeatedly. His expensive cashmere-blend coat was torn at the sleeve and splattered with mud. But most disturbing was the blank expression in his blue eyes when he looked at me. Clear as ice, and always too cold for warmth, his eyes normally blazed with intelligence—yet tonight all I saw was emptiness.
I brought him a glass of water. He accepted, saying nothing.
The lanterns flickered, the result of a draft that perpetually ran through the room, and I pulled my dressing gown tighter. Then I sat in the overstuffed green armchair opposite Alistair.
My professional demeanor was carefully practiced for times such as these, so my voice was calm when I asked him what had happened. But my manner belied my deep private concern—for whatever had undone his usual composure had to be significant. My immediate worry centered upon Isabella, Alistair’s widowed daughter-in-law who assisted him in his research into the criminal mind—and who preoccupied more of my own thoughts than I usually cared to admit.
“A man was murdered tonight,” he finally managed to say. “Someone I once counted among my closest friends.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and meant it.
We were silent for several moments while he composed himself.
“Who was he?”
“Hugo Jackson. He’d gone to Harvard Law with me, class of ’seventy-seven.” With a quick, wistful smile, he added, “We’d not spoken in years, but we were close once. In fact, he was the best man at my wedding.”
“You had a falling-out?”
He shook his head. “Nothing like that. We simply drifted apart. We made different friends, developed varying interests, saw each other less often…”
“You’re certain it was murder?” Now wide awake, I crossed my arms and regarded him soberly.
“Without a doubt. His throat was slashed from ear to ear.”
“If you weren’t close, why are you among the first to know?” A long-ago relationship of the sort he described wouldn’t merit his involvement. Or explain why he was so broken up about it.
“Our wives had developed a friendship that lasted through the years, even as our own waned. In part, that’s why Mrs. Jackson called me immediately.”
“And the other part?” I asked, knowing that what Alistair didn’t say was usually more important than what he did.
“There were unusual circumstances.” Alistair lowered his voice instinctively, though no one was here but us. “Mrs. Jackson found him in the library, slumped over his desk in a pool of blood.” He frowned and grew silent, lost in some thought of his own.
“Go on,” I urged.
He passed me his water glass. “You don’t have a stiff drink, do you, Ziele? Something to buck up our strength?”
All I had was the Talisker single-malt scotch that Alistair himself had given me for my birthday last summer—a souvenir from a recent trip to Scotland’s Isle of Skye. I poured him a generous glass, neat, then waited for him to continue.
He swirled the tawny mixture, seemingly more content to smell its earthy essence than to drink it.
“There was a Bible next to his body—not the family Bible but one his wife had never seen before. And my friend’s right hand was resting on top of it,” he said at last.
I tried to envision the scene as Alistair described it. “Like the way you take an oath in court?”
He nodded, adding, “My friend was a judge.”
“But don’t judges usually administer oaths, not take them?”
“Exactly.” He gave me a meaningful look. “And, given it was a Bible unfamiliar to his wife, we might presume his killer brought it with him to the crime scene.”
His hand trembled, forcing him to put his drink on the table.
I leaned in closer, more concerned now. I’d never seen him so shaken up.
“We are,” I reminded him, “discussing a crime scene neither one of us has actually seen. But you already believe it signifies something of importance?”
“What do you think, Ziele?” he said, bursting out with an exasperation suffused with grief. “Have I done nothing this past year to convince you of the importance of crime scene behavior?”
He was right: it had been nearly a year since the Fromley case, when he first waltzed into my office and announced that he could use his knowledge of the criminal mind to help me solve a brutal murder. He had not been entirely correct, of course. But as he himself would say, knowing the criminal mind is as much an art as it is a science—and I never doubted that he understood more about criminal behavior than I ever expected to.
He shook his head. “There’s more: a single, white rose was placed next to his hand.”
“A white rose? Like a bride’s?”
He nodded sagely. “I know. Hard to come by this time of year.”
“The color of purity, innocence,” I added, thinking of brides I had seen with such roses on their wedding day.
“Sometimes it is.” He paused. “Other times, it’s the color of death—usually associated with betrayal. During the War of the Roses, a white rose was given to traitors who had betrayed their word. It warned them that death was imminent.”
“So you think—”
He cut me off. “I don’t know what to think. But I want you involved.”
“Where was Judge Jackson killed?” I glanced at him with skepticism.
“Gramercy Park West.”
“That’s in the Thirteenth Precinct; not my jurisdiction.” I was now working as a detective under my longtime friend Captain Mulvaney of the Nineteenth Precinct.
“I’ve seen you help out other precincts.”
“This new commissioner is a stickler for protocol.” Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham didn’t want officers straying beyond their jurisdiction, absent specific orders from him.
“I can make the necessary connections,” Alistair said, getting up and crossing the room toward my Strowger telephone. “May I call a cab?”
He picked up the receiver and spoke into it. “Operator, yes, telephone twenty-three eighty Columbus, please.”
While he waited for the connection to be made, he spoke to me again. “My friend was an eminent man. Your police will be under significant pressure to solve his murder quickly.”
I was obviously going to have to accompany him downtown. I got up and started toward my bedroom to get dressed. But his mention of the police brass triggered something in my memory. “What did you say this judge’s name was?”
“Jackson. Judge Hugo Jackson.”
My brow furrowed as the name he had just mentioned stirred a flicker of recognition. The name registered, and I spun back around toward Alistair. “Not the same judge who is hearing the Drayson case?”
“Of course.” Alistair held up a finger as he spoke into the telephone once again. “New York Transportation? Yes, I need an electric automobile at Seventy-first and Broadway, please.” He then hung up, grim-faced as he turned back toward me. “The jury was to have begun deliberations today. Now? There’s a strong chance a mistrial will be declared.”
That changed everything. The death—the murder, even—of the judge presiding over the most controversial trial the city had seen in years would set off the worst unrest imaginable.
Like everyone, I had been following the trial with great interest—more so because I’d known men like Al Drayson. They grew and flourished in my native Lower East Side neighborhood, where new immigrants weary of hardships in their adopted country were sympathetic to those who championed their rights. Most were idealists who wanted only better working and living conditions.
But I’d seen the way some men’s eyes fired with passion when they discussed their cause, lit with an enthusiasm I could not comprehend. Not when their talk turned to guns and dynamite. Not when they showed no regard for the human lives they destroyed. It made no sense to fight one injustice by creating another. I understood the devotion and sacrifice men might feel for another human soul.
In my experience, even the loftiest ideals were often twisted for individual profit and ambition.
Real good rarely came of it. The worst sort of evil often did.
Copyright © 2011 by Stefanie Pintoff