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NEW YORK CITY—TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 1902—9:00 P.M.
FRANCESCA CAHILL PRIDED HERSELF on her common sense, her steady character, and her intellect. In fact, throughout the city she was considered a bluestocking and a reformer but also an eccentric. This was all much to her formidable mother’s dismay. Mrs. Julia Van Wyck Cahill, one of society’s leading matrons, wanted nothing more than to see her daughter successfully wed. Francesca, however, had other plans. Because recently, she had become rather infamous as the city’s most successful amateur sleuth. It meant she often had quite a bit of explaining to do.
And today, Francesca had received the most stunning proposal of marriage from the city’s most eligible (and most notorious) bachelor, Calder Hart. How happy Julia would be should she learn of his desire to marry her. Francesca was terrified of Julia and Hart conspiring against her. After all, not only did she have no wish to marry, but she was in love with another man.
Tomorrow she would call on Hart and set him straight. How she dreaded the encounter, knowing that it would be an unpleasant one.
If only she were fifty and fat, she thought, starting grimly from the salon. She promptly bumped into her father in the hall. “Papa?”
Andrew Cahill was a benign man in appearance, rather stout, of medium height, and to look at him one would never guess that he was one of the city’s millionaires. He had made his fortune in meatpacking in Chicago, moving his family east when Francesca was a child—she was now a woman of twenty. Francesca was well aware that she was the apple of his eye, and not because her sister and brother were older than she was. While she did not take after Andrew in appearance, as she resembled Julia, being blond and blue-eyed, she resembled him in character. Andrew was an avid reformer, as politically and socially involved as any one of the Mellons or the Astors. There was only one man whom she admired more—Rick Bragg, the city’s newly appointed police commissioner.
Now, distraught and worried, she prayed that her distress did not show, as her father knew her too well and would demand to know what was bothering her so. Worse, she sensed he was looking for her and he did not look pleased, oh no.
“You have a telephone call, Francesca. It is Rick Bragg,” Andrew said without smiling, his tone grim.
She stiffened with surprise. It was late and hardly the time for a social call—worse, Bragg would be furious if he ever learned of Calder Hart’s proposal. Calder Hart and Rick Bragg were half brothers—and theirs was a tense, uneasy relationship. She knew why her father sounded disapproving—Rick Bragg was a very unhappily married man. Her parents did not like their friendship. She thanked her father, changed direction, and hurried into the library, a room paneled in wood with stained-glass windows and beamed ceilings. The receiver was off the hook, on his desk. She lifted it to her ear. “Bragg?” She had to smile breathlessly, his image coming instantly to mind—handsome, golden, resolved.
He was one of the most charismatic men she had ever met and, more important, the most noble-minded. If anyone could reform the city’s terribly corrupt police force, it was he. Unfortunately, the political pressure he was under now to do so was vast.
“There has been another act of vandalism, Francesca,” he said without preamble.
She clutched the receiver, forgetting her personal dilemma instantly. Last week the studio of her friend Sarah Channing had been ravaged and nearly destroyed. The case had been temporarily shelved, however, as Sarah had not been hurt. “Not another art studio?” Francesca gasped.
“Yes, and it has been thoroughly destroyed, in a similar manner to Sarah’s studio, but in a more extreme way. It gets worse,” Bragg added tersely.
“How can it be worse?” she whispered, already sensing what was to come.
“The artist was a young woman, just a few years older than Sarah.”
Her heart lurched. “Was?”
There was a pause. “She has been murdered,” he said. “Francesca, I need you.”
Francesca forgot to breathe. Her heart leaped with excitement and a thrill she knew too well. “Where are you?”
“I’ll be right there,” she said, and she hung up the telephone, stunned anew. A killer was on the loose—another case was at hand. But this time the artist had been murdered. Francesca was suddenly afraid. Sarah’s life might very well be in danger, too.
Francesca rushed from the library, determined not to alert anyone to the fact that she was about to enter another criminal investigation—one with Bragg at her side. Her family was well aware of her sudden penchant for sleuthing, as she had been a feature in the press several times, unfortunately. Neither her mother nor her father approved. And while Francesca was rather adept at wrapping her father about her little finger, Julia was a formidable opponent indeed. Francesca wished to avoid her now at all costs, for otherwise she would never get out of the house at this hour, and there was no possible way she could bypass the scene of this terrible new crime.
As she hurried upstairs, past a hallway lined with several paintings, an image of Calder Hart reared itself in her mind—darkly handsome, dangerously arrogant. Even the sudden happenstance of a new crime could not quite keep her mind off the personal matters confronting her. And following his image came an equally compelling one of Bragg. She shivered. How had her life ever come to this impasse?
She hadn’t meant to fall in love with him. But it had been impossible not to do so, with them working so closely together. And he despised his wife, who had left him four years ago, who roamed Europe while he paid her bills, collecting lovers. More dread filled Francesca. But Leigh Anne was no longer in Europe. She had returned to the city, and she had made her intentions clear. She wanted her marriage back—intact.
Francesca knew she must not dwell on Bragg and his wife now. She quickly rushed into the bedroom of a large guest suite where Maggie Kennedy’s four children lay sleeping on two large beds. Maggie was a seamstress and Francesca had suggested that she and her family stay with the Cahills for a while, since Francesca’s most recent case had put them in harm’s way. Her eldest boy, Joel, was a cut-purse, but he had become indispensable to Francesca in her investigative work, as he knew the worst wards of the city intimately. She quickly roused him. “Joel!”
“Miz Cahill?” he murmured, brushing long black bangs out of his dark eyes.
“There has been another murder,” Francesca whispered in his ear. “The commissioner just called. Meet me in the hall.”
And Joel was instantly awake. Their gazes met. Then he nodded, leaping out of bed as Francesca quickly left. A few moments later, she and Joel, both bundled up in their heavy winter overcoats, were slipping from the kitchen’s back door, so as to avoid the doorman in the front hall. Outside, the night was inky blue, with a million glittering stars—and it was frigidly cold. Snow-clad lawns encircled the mansion, and a graveled drive led to a pair of wrought-iron gates, closed now, which let out on Fifth Avenue. The gaslights there lit up not just the avenue itself but Central Park on its other side. Carriages and broughams crowded the street, with one black motorcar in its midst. But as it was a weekday night, the traffic was moving quite swiftly. Francesca had just seen a horse and hansom. “Let’s run. There’s a cab!” she cried.
Joel grinned at her as they raced up the slick, snow-covered driveway. “Looks like we’re in business again,” he said happily.
Francesca raised her hand. “Cabbie! Cabbie!” she cried. The driver of the hansom saw her, yanked hard on his horse’s reins, the animal and cab veering abruptly toward the curb. The driver in the following carriage cursed, slamming on his brakes to avoid a collision, the two bays in the traces rearing in order to stop.
Panting, Francesca reached the hansom. “Yes, Joel, we most certainly are in business once again,” she said, and smiled.
But it was a grim smile, as murder was always a deadly affair.
The murder had taken place at 202 East 10th Street, which was just off Third Avenue. As Francesca and Joel climbed down from the hansom, the El thundered by overhead. She winced, as the noise was deafening, the train even causing the street beneath her feet to shake. But once the Elevated had passed, leaving a cloud of thick smoke in the otherwise cool, clean air, she surveyed the scene.
The buildings lining 10th Street had once, in years gone by, been extremely fashionable single-family brick homes. Francesca recognized their style as being Georgian—they had undoubtedly been constructed at the turn of the previous century. Three and four stories high, they had been converted into apartments. One gaslight illuminated the entire block, and poorly. Frozen snow, black with dirt and other refuse, covered the sidewalk. Patches of black ice gleamed here and there.
Several roundsmen in their blue serge uniforms, carrying heavy nightsticks and in their leather helmets, had congregated outside Number 202. A police wagon was parked there as well, and behind it was Bragg’s snow-dusted black Daimler. Several ragged young boys had gathered about the Daimler, pointing at it, while ignoring the cold looks sent their way by the policemen. Francesca did not like the look of the boys—they were all young adolescents, on the verge of manhood, with sullen and calculating expressions. A very drunken old lady, carrying her beer in a bucket, was sitting on an adjacent door stoop, apparently engrossed in the evening’s entertainment. Every now and then she cackled at the policemen; then she began muttering to herself.
“Mugheads,” Joel growled beneath his breath.
Francesca had been about to cross over the short distance to the sidewalk; instead, she froze. “Joel?”
He shot her a look. “You seen ’em before. Looks like their turf been growin’ a bit. Either that, or they’re on the road.”
Francesca glanced in the direction of the four boys, all bundled up in torn wool coats, with rags on their hands and dirty wool caps on their heads. “Yes, I have. Wasn’t that on Avenue C and Fourth?” If she recalled correctly, she had been investigating the Cross Murders at the time.
“Dunno, but yeah, that’s about the right hood,” Joel said.
The gang was certainly out of its home turf. “Do they usually wander about so far from their usual location?” she asked.
“Not really. C’mon. Let’s get outta here.” Joel tugged on her hand.
Francesca realized that the four boys had seen them. They were all still now, and staring at her and Joel as if they might be fresh meat for their dinner plates. She inhaled for courage, took Joel’s arm, and they crossed to the sidewalk. The roundsmen stood between them and the Mug-heads now.
“Excuse me, miss.” An officer moved to bar their way. “There is a police investigation under way. No one is allowed inside, not unless you happen to live there.”
Francesca smiled. “I am a personal friend of the commissioner. He has asked for my assistance on this case. Which apartment is he in?”
The officer, a young man hardly older than she, blinked. And then a very familiar face appeared behind him—a face dominated by beefy red cheeks and thick gray sideburns. Inspector Newman’s eyes met hers. “Let her go in, Wallace. Good evening, Miss Cahill. C’mish is expecting you. He’s in Apartment Seven.”
“Good evening, Inspector,” Francesca said with a slight professional smile. “Thank you. Come, Joel.”
As she went past the wide-eyed Wallace, she heard him exclaim, “Hey, she’s the lady who got the Cross Murderer!”
“That’s right, and she works closely with the commissioner,” Newman replied, respect in his tone.
Francesca could not help being pleased. But she had worked very hard to earn the respect of the few men who worked directly with Rick Bragg.
“Hey.” A lanky youth who was almost six feet tall barred her way. His eyes were shockingly blue, and red hair curled out from under his wool cap. “What business could a lady have here?”
Francesca tensed with some fear but stiffened her spine and her shoulders. “I don’t believe that is your affair. Please step aside.” She could feel Joel bristling beside her.
“Just about anything that happens around here is my affair,” the redheaded boy said, mimicking her genteel vowels.
“Bugger off, Reid,” Joel growled.
Reid laughed. “Like you can tell me what to do?”
“Please,” Francesca began, but it was too late. Joel stepped aggressively forward—a diminutive four-foot-ten and perhaps a hundred pounds—and Reid stuck out his foot. Joel went facedown in the dirty snow. Reid laughed raucously.
“That was uncalled for,” Francesca said, trying to control her anger. And she looked the redheaded miscreant right in the eye.
“Oh, yeah? Well, get this. We ain’t in no fancy ballroom, Miz Cahill,” he spat with sudden anger. “You don’t belong here. Go home.”
He knew of her—somehow. Francesca reached down to help Joel up. She did not think this boy read the newspapers. So how did he know her name? “Let’s go, Joel,” she said, laying a restraining hand on his shoulder. She knew he wanted to attack the bigger boy. She had little doubt he would be quickly humiliated—and even hurt—should he try.
“You stay out of our way,” Joel snarled.
Reid laughed again. “Isn’t it past your bedtime, ass-wipe?”
Joel started for him. A knife appeared in Reid’s hand. But at that exact same time, Francesca yanked Joel backward by the collar of his torn overcoat. “I would put that away, if I were you,” she said softly. And, from the corner of her eye, she recognized the man who had just appeared on the doorstep of Number 202.
He was tall and broad-shouldered. The gaslight illuminated him, revealing sun-streaked hair, a bronzed complexion, and a tan greatcoat. He was handsome in an unusual way. Indian blood ran in his veins. And he was already striding purposefully toward them.
Her heart sped. She could not help smiling. They had agreed to remain friends, to fight the attraction that had formed, but dear God, could they really do so? Francesca had never fallen in love before. She knew she would never do so again.
Reid looked over his shoulder, saw Rick Bragg, and tucked the knife away. Whistling for his three friends, he hurried across the street, weaving in and out of the several carriages passing by. Bragg paused beside Francesca and Joel, for one moment staring after Reid with hard, unwavering eyes. Then he turned to her and their gazes met and held.
And her heart skipped wildly. So much had happened and so quickly. . . . She did not ever want to hurt this man. She simply cared too much.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his amber gaze softening.
She smiled then, as always, no matter the circumstance she found herself in, glad to see him. In the course of four difficult and confusing investigations, he had become her best friend and perhaps even an anchor for her. “Of course. I am hardly afraid of one delinquent boy.” The exaggeration was a slight one, but she so enjoyed seeing respect and admiration in Rick Bragg’s eyes when he looked at her.
“He has a record a mile long. And he’s fifteen going on sixteen, which makes him a young and dangerous man. When he was Joel’s age, he was also a kid.”
Francesca knew by now that kid meant a “child cut-purse.” Before she could comment, Joel said, “He’s mean an’ smart. An’ he buzzed molls. Still does, from time to time.”
Francesca blinked. Bragg said, “He preys upon the ladies, Francesca, so watch your purse the next time he is about.”
“I can take him,” Joel declared, two bright spots marring his pale cheeks.
Bragg raised a brow. “He’s twice your size, Kennedy. I’d think twice about such an act of folly if I were you.”
Joel spat into the street, precariously close to Bragg’s feet. Fortunately, the spittle missed his shiny polished shoes.
“Joel,” Francesca said in reprimand.
“We got a murder to solve or what?” Joel said angrily. He slipped past Bragg and hurried toward the front door of the building.
Francesca and Bragg watched him. He was not willing to give up his hatred of anyone associated with the police. But then, he had been in trouble with the police for most of his young life. He was a pickpocket with his own criminal record. She tugged on Bragg’s sleeve. “You are so patient with him. Thank you.”
“Do I have a choice? When my favorite sleuth has made him her assistant?” A smile was in his tone.
She smiled and he smiled back. And in that single moment, the past few hours—and weeks—disappeared. In that single instant, his terribly beautiful wife did not exist, and neither did Calder Hart, his dangerously provocative half brother. In that instant, the moment when Leigh Anne had faced Francesca and demanded she stay away from Bragg had never happened—as if she had not returned from her four-year absence in Europe in order to reclaim her marriage, as if she had not confronted Francesca to discourage her and Bragg’s friendship and to warn her away. Leigh Anne had, in fact, shaken Francesca’s confidence thoroughly. For she had insisted that she shared a bond with her husband that Francesca could never sever.
Francesca had to pinch herself to remind her that the past few hours, days, and weeks did exist, very much so. That Leigh Anne had returned to the city and that she was Bragg’s legal spouse. That Calder Hart, in what had to be a moment of madness, had told her that he intended to marry her. She shivered, feeling very much as if she were wedged between a rock and a hard place. But at least now she was on familiar footing—a crime had been committed, she and Bragg had a case to solve, and once again they would be working together.
Bragg took her arm, guiding her across the icy street. “What happened?” she asked as they entered the building.
“I have spoken to one neighbor, Louis Bennett, in Number Five,” Bragg said, pausing inside a pleasant entry hall with a single chair, a table on the wall, a mirror above that. A small chandelier light burned above their heads. Joel had plopped down on the chair, swinging his thin legs. “Number Five happens to be across the hall from Number Seven, where Melinda Neville was murdered. He had come in at half past seven, saw her door open, called out, and did not receive an answer. So he peeked inside. And then he saw the vandalism—and her body. He immediately ran outside and flagged down a roundsman.”