Book excerpt

City of Darkness and Light

Molly Murphy Mysteries

Rhys Bowen

St. Martin's Press

One
 
 
New York City, May 1905
Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense. In fact I had prided myself on mine. I credited it with alerting me to danger more than once during my career as an investigator. So I can’t explain why it let me down on such a critical occasion, when an advance warning might have spared us all such grief. Maybe the perpetrator of this evil had not planned it in advance. Maybe it had been a last-minute order from above, so I had not been able to sense his intention or his presence … or their presence. I’m sure there must have been more than one of them. That was how they worked.
Anyway, there were certainly no uneasy thoughts in my head that bright May morning as I fed my little one his breakfast. He was eight months old now, a strapping boy with a shock of dark curls like his father and an impish smile. Now I think back on it I wonder if Aggie hadn’t been the one with the sixth sense, although she had no Celtic connections that I knew of. She came into the kitchen while I was feeding Liam, bearing two letters in her hand.
“Mail just arrived, Mrs. Sullivan,” she said. “Two letters for you. One with a foreign stamp.”
“That will be from my friends in Paris, I expect,” I said, taking them from her. “How nice.”
I took in Sid’s bold black script on the foreign envelope and noted that the other was my mother-in-law’s weekly missive. The former would wait until I had the proper time to savor Sid’s latest account of their adventures in Paris. The latter could simply wait.
“Aren’t you going to read them?” Aggie hovered at my shoulder, still fascinated by the foreign look of the envelope.
“Later, when I have time.”
“If anyone ever wrote to me, I’d want to read it right away,” she said wistfully. Then she shivered and wrapped her arms around her scrawny body. “It’s awful cold in here today, isn’t it?” she said. “Cold for May.”
“Is it? I hadn’t noticed.” I looked out of the window where early roses were climbing up a trellis. “It’s a nice bright day. You can come with me when I take Liam for his walk and you’ll feel warmer in the sun.”
“I need to be getting on with the laundry,” she said, eyeing Liam, who now had a generous amount of cream of wheat over his front. “That child gets through more clothes than a little prince and I expect I’ll warm myself up scrubbing away at the washboard.”
She stood there, still hugging her arms to her skinny body. Although she had been with me since Liam was born, and had an appetite like a horse, there wasn’t an ounce of flesh on her and she still looked like a pathetic little waif. I had taken her in out of pity, after she had been forced to give up the child she had had out of wedlock, but she had surprised me by being a hard worker and wonderful with the baby. She’d been the oldest of ten and had grown up taking care of the younger ones—a valuable asset to her family, but that hadn’t stopped her parents from throwing her out the moment they learned she was pregnant. She was pathetically grateful to come to us and I in turn was grateful for her knowledge in those first difficult weeks with the new baby.
“The laundry will wait,” I said, smiling at her. “Come on, get Liam changed out of those messy clothes and we’ll go out.”
She shook her head. “No, Mrs. Sullivan. I think I’d better stay and get those diapers out on the line, if you don’t mind. A morning like this is too bright to last. There will be rain by the end of the day, you mark my words.”
She had grown up on a farm in the Adirondacks so I believed her. “All the more reason for me to give Liam his daily dose of fresh air,” I said. “It’s been a gloomy spring so far, hasn’t it? I was beginning to think summer would never come.”
“It’s been gloomy enough around here,” Aggie said, “with Captain Sullivan going around with a face that would curdle milk and hardly a civil word in his head.”
“It’s not for you to criticize your employer,” I said sharply and watched her flinch as if I’d slapped her. Then I relented, of course. “Captain Sullivan is under a great deal of worry at the moment. A policeman’s job is never the easiest and right now I think he’s battling a major problem. Not that he ever confides in me, but if his current bad temper is anything to go on, then I’d say he had a particularly difficult case on his hands. It’s our job to make sure his life is as pleasant as possible when he comes home.”
She nodded silently as she lifted Liam out of his high chair and bore him away up the stairs. I cleaned away the aftermath of Liam’s breakfast and considered my little speech. I realized it had been a pep talk for me as well as Aggie, because I had found Daniel’s current black mood hard to take. More than once I’d wondered why I ever thought that it had been a good idea to leave my life of freedom and independence as a private investigator to get married. I think I’d expected to be able to share in his work, mulling over complicated cases with him and giving him the benefit of my own experience as a detective. But that hadn’t happened. Daniel remained tight-lipped about his work. He was gone from morning till night most days and only popped in for a hasty meal. A quick peck on the cheek as he ran out of the door again was the best I could hope for. For better or worse rang through my head. That was what I’d promised at the altar. I sighed and put the dishes in the sink for Aggie. Then I went up to my room to change my clothes. A walk in the sunshine would soon do wonders for my current mood.
Aggie was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs with Liam already strapped in his buggy. “You could take those letters with you to read,” she said, handing them to me.
I laughed. “I believe you’re more interested in my mail than I am.”
“I love hearing about foreign parts,” she said. “It’s like a fairy tale.”
“I’ll read Miss Goldfarb’s letter to you later if you like,” I said. Aggie hadn’t yet managed to learn to read, in spite of my efforts to teach her. I put on my hat, adjusting it in front of the hall mirror, then Aggie helped me maneuver the buggy down the front steps.
“I hope you have a nice walk, Mrs. Sullivan,” she called after me as I set off.
I almost asked her again to come with us, but I reminded myself that she was the servant and the laundry was her job. I’d bring her a cake for tea, I decided. She loved the cakes I brought from the French bakery around the corner. As Liam and I bumped over the cobbles of Patchin Place I couldn’t help glancing across at the doorway of number 9. It had been two months now since my friends Elena Goldfarb and Augusta Walcott, more familiarly known as Sid and Gus, had taken it into their heads to go to Paris, so that Gus could study art with the best painters of the day. I had never thought that Gus’s talent for painting was as great as she believed it to be, but her cousin Willie Walcott had gone to study in Paris and was now apparently making a name for himself as a painter of the Impressionist school. He had promised introductions for Sid and Gus.
From their letters they seemed to be having a roaring good time, while I missed them terribly. I had come to count on their comforting presence across the street, their extravagant parties, and their bohemian lifestyle that Daniel only just tolerated for my sake. With Sid and Gus, life was never boring. You never knew when you’d open their front door and find the front parlor turned into a Mongolian yurt or a Turkish harem. They never had to worry about the day-to-day trivialities of normal life. They had enough money to live as they wanted, according to their rules. This is not to say that they were always frivolous. They were keen supporters of the suffrage movement and I missed attending those meetings at their house as well.
I sighed as I came out onto Greenwich Avenue and steered Liam’s buggy around a pile of steaming horse droppings. Ah, well. They’d grow tired of Paris and come home eventually, wouldn’t they? And in the meantime I had a husband to look after and a son to raise. Things could be worse. Liam leaned forward in the buggy, urging me to go faster, and babbled in delight when an automobile drove past us, its driver’s long scarf streaming out in the breeze behind him as he steered the contraption around a slow moving dray. Just like his father, I thought, smiling at his excitement. We were seeing more and more automobiles these days. I know Daniel secretly hankered after one. He was allowed to drive the police vehicle when there was a special need, but that didn’t include giving his family a ride.
I waited for a gap in the traffic before I pushed the buggy across into Washington Square, passing beneath the great arch and into the relative tranquility of the gardens beyond. Here activity was confined to mothers pushing buggies while toddlers clung to their skirts, bigger boys bowling iron hoops that rattled over the gravel paths, and even bigger boys playing a game of kick the can. I wondered why the latter weren’t in school as it certainly wasn’t a holiday. I suppose they could have been newsboys, taking a break from long hours standing on street corners.
I found a bench in the sun and turned the buggy so that Liam could watch the bigger children at play. He seemed more fascinated with the fountain in the center of the square and a flock of small birds that perched on the lip, daring each other to take a bath in the spray that flew out in the breeze.
With my son content for the moment I opened my letters. I dutifully read Daniel’s mother’s letter first, as he’d no doubt want a report on her doings and she’d no doubt want a reply from me. Usually her weekly letters were a recital of what she had done around the house, what her young charge Bridie was doing, interspersed with slivers of local gossip. But today I was surprised to read, By the time you read this I shall be gone.
My heart lurched in my chest. I have to confess that I wasn’t overly fond of Daniel’s mother, but this was so sudden. Then I read on.
I am writing this in haste to let you know that I am about to embark on a journey. I decided not to mention this plan to you in advance as I rather think that Daniel might have tried to dissuade me. And I don’t think it would have taken that much to dissuade me since it was such a huge undertaking for me.
You remember my friend Letitia Blackstone? Her daughter Imogen married a young engineer who is now designing a bridge across the Mississippi River. Letitia wanted to visit her daughter who has just had a baby, but was reluctant to travel alone to such wild and barbaric parts. So she asked me if I would accompany her if she paid my way. Of course I agreed. What an adventure at my time of life to see a little more of our beautiful country before I die. And Letitia insists on doing everything first class so I don’t expect it will be too uncomfortable or dangerous. It will also be a perfect opportunity for young Bridie. I’m taking her along as my companion as she’s been worried recently about her papa and this will take her mind off things.
I stopped reading and stared out across the square. Poor little Bridie, whose father and brother had gone down to Panama to work on the building of the canal. None of the news that came from that hellhole had been good. Men had been dropping like flies, so it was said, from yellow fever and terrible working conditions. And there had been no news from Bridie’s father for months so we had to assume the worst.
I read on. Martha the maid was to visit her ailing mother. The house was to be shut up and Mrs. Sullivan didn’t know how long they would be away. She sent her warmest regards and a fond kiss to her grandchild. I folded the letter and put it back in its envelope. Well, that would be a surprise for Daniel. His mother was not the kind one would expect to make rash, last-minute decisions to go out into the wild west.
I glanced across at Liam and saw that he had fallen asleep. I adjusted his pillows, covered him properly and then turned to my other letter. It was as I expected, full of exciting tidbits of news of life in Paris. Sid wrote:
Willie has obtained an introduction for Gus to none other than Reynold Bryce. You know who he is, don’t you, Molly? He made a name for himself as part of the Boston School back in the eighties—particularly with his paintings of the young girl he called Angela. Then at the height of his fame he took off for Paris and has remained here, becoming one of the leading lights among Impressionist painters. Anyway, he is THE patron and lodestone for American artists in Paris. His salon is where one needs to be seen. He holds an exhibition every spring and if he includes your work, you are IN! Gus is hoping he’ll include her, naturally. She’s been painting some really interesting canvasses recently, although I think she may be a little avant-garde for traditionalists like Reynold Bryce. Gus says she’s not sure whether she’s a Fauvist, a Cubist, or simply a modernist, but she’s thrilled to be among artists who dare to paint with her boldness. We met a rather dashing young Spaniard in a bar. His name is Pablo Picasso and he said that Gus’s work shows promise. I’m not sure I can say the same about his daubings—most odd.
Speaking of young painters, we have just made an astounding discovery. Remember it was Gus’s cousin who lured us to Paris in the first place. Well, it turns out that I have a relative here as well—a distant cousin. When we were about to leave for Paris my mother told me that we had family members who had settled there when the family left the turmoils in Eastern Europe. My grandfather came to America and my great-uncle’s family went to Paris. Mama had no current address for them but their last name would have been Goldfarb like ours. I asked at several synagogues but to no avail—in fact the Parisian Jews did not exactly extend the welcome mat. Well, I admit that I do not look like the good traditional Jewish woman, nor do I practice my religion, but it turned out that the cause of their caution had more to do with the current wave of anti-Semitism that has swept this city, culminating in the dreadful treatment of Captain Dreyfus—falsely imprisoned and shipped to Devil’s Island mainly because of his race.
Having heard this, we’re not sure how long we’ll stay, though of course among the more bohemian community of artists and writers, race, gender, or even appearance don’t matter a fig. Talent is all that counts. You’ll be amazed to learn that I was the first of us to have a talent acknowledged here. We went to a soiree and were each instructed to write a poem. I read mine with great trepidation but it was pronounced good. At this gathering I was instantly drawn to a young man with an interesting face and such soulful dark eyes—clearly also Jewish. We started to share information about our ancestry and lo and behold he turned out to be my long-lost distant cousin, Maxim Noah. Apparently his mother was a Goldfarb. His parents are dead, and he lives in a studio with artist friends up on the hill called Montmartre. And the poets I met have invited me to join their group. It seems that in this city poetry is as important as painting. Did you ever imagine that such a place could exist on earth? If it weren’t for the anti-Semitic sentiment and for missing our delightful godson Liam, we might never want to come home!
But I digress. As I mentioned, Maxim lives with some other young artists up in the rural part of Montmartre and invited us to visit him. “Primitive” is hardly the word to describe it, my dear. No heat, no running water, just a group of young men painting, creating, discussing. Maxim suggested that Gus and I take a place nearby, but I pointed out that we were no longer eighteen and that civilized New Yorkers needed heat and a daily bath.
But having finally made artistic connections in the city we wanted to move closer to the hub of the current art world. We have finally found a place of our own in that general area that suits our needs. Our previous lodging was in a more genteel area near the Seine—preferable in some ways but too far from the exciting world of the arts. What’s more the landlady was a fussy old bird who objected to the smell of paint and our late hours. So we have found what we consider a wonderful compromise … a top floor atelier on a street close to Pigalle. Not as primitive as the streets further up the hill and mercifully close to a station of the Métropolitain railway—yes, dear Molly, they have a perfectly fine working subway here, making travel across the city quick and easy. There are already three lines with more under construction.
As you can see from the address at the top of this letter, our new home is on Rue des Martyrs. I must confess we picked it for its name. Gus was tickled pink to be part of the martyrs—she said she always knew that she’d have to suffer for her art! The street itself is a good mixture of commerce and residence, lively yet not too raucous. We can take advantage of the little cafés around Pigalle and yet escape from the hubbub by climbing the five flights to our little nest whose balcony gives us a glimpse of the new church that is being built at the top of Montmartre (if we lean out far enough). I wish you could see it, Molly. You’d love it here. Do policemen ever get time off for good behavior? Would Daniel ever consider traveling to Europe? If not, please persuade him to do without you for a while. You know we’d pay for your ticket if that was a problem. We yearn to see our adorable Liam. He must have grown so much since we parted from you. Think of the cultural opportunities of Liam being exposed to Paris at an early age. Gus says we are to keep pestering you until you agree to come. It’s too lovely and breathtaking and exciting not to want to share.
Gus sends her warmest regards, as do I, and a big kiss to dear Liam.
Your friend Elena (Sid)
I shut my eyes, enjoying the feel of warm spring sunshine on my face and tried to picture Paris. Then suddenly I was back in Ireland, sitting in the schoolroom at the big house with Miss Vanessa and Miss Henrietta. When I was ten I had rather impressed their mother, Mrs. Hartley, with my eloquence and cheek and she had invited me to join her own daughters for lessons. They clearly didn’t think much of this idea and never made me feel welcome but their governess was delighted to have a pupil who was so keen to learn. On this day she was telling us about a trip she had taken to Paris. I was plying her with questions about the Louvre and Notre-Dame when Miss Vanessa cut into our discussion.
“I don’t see why we’re wasting time like this. It’s not as if you’re ever likely to go to Paris, Molly,” she said scathingly and her sister had tittered as if this was a great joke.
A sudden cold breeze swept across the square, almost snatching the paper from my hands. I looked up and saw that Aggie’s prediction was right. Dark clouds were racing in over the Hudson. It would rain before the day was out. I folded the letter replaced it in its envelope, and then stood up. I should get a move on and do my shopping for tonight’s meal now, rather than later in the day. Liam slept on blissfully as I set the buggy moving in the direction of home. Another gust of wind sent spray from the fountain in our direction. And then it was almost as if I was having a vision: before they left for Paris, Sid and Gus had taken me to an exhibit of Impressionist painting at a gallery in New York. I had found the paintings delightfully light and fresh and free, although others viewing them had pronounced them as shocking daubs with no substance to them. Now, as I glanced back across the square it was as if I was seeing one of those Impressionist paintings of a park in Paris—a young girl holding onto a white straw hat with red ribbons flying out in the breeze, while her small brother ran to retrieve a red ball, pigeons pecking hopefully, and sycamore trees coming into leaf, casting dappled shade on the gravel walkways. I smiled wistfully as I moved on. Such a scene in Washington Square was the closest to Paris I was likely to get.


 
Copyright © 2014 by Rhys Bowen
RHYS BOWEN is the author of the Anthony and Agatha Award–winning Molly Murphy mysteries, the Edgar Award-nominated Evan Evans series, and the Royal Spyness series. Born in England, she lives in San Rafael, California.