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Spring? Was there any spring this year?" the man in the jaunty brown derby asked. "Oh, that's right. I remember. It was on a Wednesday, wasn't it?"
This remark produced titters of laughter from the women standing in line at Giacomini's Fine Foods. The speaker was the only man in the store, other than old Mr. Giacomini behind the counter. He stood head and shoulders taller than the rest of us and his presence had caused quite a stir. It was unusual to see a man in a grocer's shop, seeing that cooking was women's work. He was well turned out too, with a smart hounds-tooth jacket, white spats and well-polished shoes, unlike the short, round peasant types who frequented this little store in what was still mainly an Italian neighborhood just south of Washington Square.
However he seemed quite happy to join in the chitchat as we waited our turn to be served.
"He's right," the woman ahead of me said, nodding her head. "There was only one springlike day that I remember this year. In my recollection we had howling gales until the middle of April."
"Then overnight it got hotter than Hades," the man finished for her.
There was general agreement to this last remark, although there was also a gasp from some of the ladies at this almost cuss word. It had been a terrible spring, followed by a hot spell for which we were unprepared. Usually I didn't mind waiting in line in Giacomini's cramped little store where the smell of spices and herbs stirred half forgotten childhood memories. But today it was almost too hot to breathe and the smells were overpowering, especially when mixed with the not so pleasant odors of stale perspiration andgarlic.
"They say there's typhoid over on the Lower East Side," one woman said, lowering her voice.
"You wouldn't catch me going over there, even when there's no epidemic," another woman muttered. "Packed in like sardines they are in those tenements. And they never wash. Serve them right if they get sick."
Mr. Giacomini poured sugar into a paper triangle, twisted it shut and handed it to the woman at the front of the line. "Anything else then, Signora? That will be one dollar forty-five, please."
Money exchanged hands. The stout lady loaded her purchases into her basket, then attempted to squeeze past us down the narrow center aisle. Good-natured chuckles were exchanged as close contact couldn't be avoided. As each person in turn attempted to flatten herself against the bins and shelves, I saw something I could scarcely believe. That man had reached into the open basket of the woman just behind him in line and taken her purse. My heart started racing. I wondered if I had imagined it and what I should do next. He was clearly too big and strong for any of us to tackle.
The line moved forward. The next customer made her purchases. I had to act soon or the man would reach the front of the line and be out of there before the poor woman discovered her purse was missing. I couldn't just stand there and do nothing. It went against my nature, even though similar bold and imprudent actions had landed me in hot water more than once in my life. I leaned across to the woman and tugged on her arm. She turned and stared at me in surprise.
"That man just stole your purse," I whispered.
She looked at me incredulously, then down at her basket.
"You're right. It's gone," she whispered back in a horrified voice. "Are you sure he took it?"
I nodded. "I saw him."
"What should I do?" She turned to stare up at the big fellow.
"You stay where you are. I'll go and find a constable and we'll have him trapped like a rat."
Before she could answer, I muttered an excuse about leaving my shopping list at home, then I pushed my way out of the store and ran all the way to Washington Square. There were always policemen to be found on the south side of the square, because that was the home of New York University, and students were known to be of unpredictable behavior. I found one easily enough.
"Come quickly," I urged. "I've just witnessed a man stealing a lady's purse. If we hurry he'll still be in the store."
"Looks like another pickpocket, Bill," he called to another constable who was standing across the street. "Back in a jiffy. Listen for my whistle in case I have trouble with him. Is it far, miss?"
"Giacomini's on Thompson. Hurry, before he gets away." I fought back the desire to grab his arm and drag him. But he set off with me willingly enough at a trot. Sweat was running down his round, red face by the time we reached Giacomini's. We stepped into the warm, spicy darkness of the store just as the man was paying at the counter.
"Is that him, miss?" the constable whispered.
This was hardly a necessary question as he was still the only man in the store, but I nodded.
"And the lady behind him---the one in the blue skirt---she's the one whose purse he took. I told her to act naturally until I came back with you."
"Nice going, miss. Don't you worry. I'll surprise the blighter on the way out."
The constable positioned himself in the doorway just as the big fellow turned and made his way past the queue.
"Not so fast, sir." The constable stepped out to block his progress. "I think you have something on your person that doesn't belong to you."
"I do? Now what might that be?" the man asked with feigned surprise.
"You were seen taking a lady's purse."
"A lady's purse? Me?"
"My purse," the woman in the blue skirt said.
The remaining women in the store spun around to stare.
"Ridiculous. How dare you suggest such a thing." The man attempted to force his way outside.
"Well, my purse has gone from my basket and this young lady says she saw you take it," the woman said. The man's gaze fastened on me.
"She did, did she? And did anybody else see this brazen act? Did any of these other women standing in line with a good view of me?"
Nobody answered. Some women averted their eyes. The man turned to glare at me again. "I don't know what you hope to gain from this," he said, "but you can wind up in serious trouble from making false accusations against upright citizens. Go on then, Officer. Search me if you must."
"If you'd just step outside, into the light, sir, and don't think of making a run for it. There are plenty of other officers close by."
"I'm certainly not about to make a run for it until I've cleared my name." The man stepped out through the door and spread out his arms. "Go ahead then. Search me."
His complete confidence unnerved me. He had an insolent smirk on his face as the constable began searching. He knows the purse isn't on him, I thought. And then in a flash it came to me:
He must have already hidden it somewhere, to be picked up later.
I slipped inside the store and looked around frantically. If I were he, where would I stash a stolen purse? He could have dropped it on the floor easily enough and kicked it under one of the shelves, but he'd have to get down on all fours to look for it---which would make him most conspicuous. So he must have made good use of his height. On the right side of the aisle there were shelves of bottles and cans right up to the ceiling. I stood on tiptoe, reached up with my right hand to the top shelf that contained canned tomatoes and was rewarded as my fingers touched a softer, slimmer object. I stretched and reached even harder and managed to knock it down. Then I pushed past the women and ran outside, waving it triumphantly.
Only just in time too.
"There. I hope you're satisfied," the man was saying. "And believe me, your chief's going to hear about this."
"I'm sorry, sir, I was only doing---" the constable began as the man turned on his heels.
"Don't let him go," I shouted. "Here's the purse." I waved it at the constable, who grabbed the man by the arm. "He put it up on the top shelf where it was too high for anyone else to see it. He was going to come back for it later."
"Very smart," the constable said. "Unfortunately for you, this young lady was smarter." His grip tightened on the fellow, who wasn't looking smug any longer.
"You can't pin anything on me. You've only got her word. Anyone could have taken it and put it there. She could have taken it herself," he blustered.
"Nobody else in the store could have put it on that shelf," I said. "I was the tallest woman in there and I had to stand on tip toe to reach that high. Everyone would have noticed me if I'd tried to reach up there. But you---all you needed to do was pretend you were adjusting your hat or brushing your mustache."
"Come on. I'm taking you in," the constable said. "Jefferson Market Police Station is where you're going."
"I'm not going anywhere with you." The man broke away, shoved at the constable and started to run off. Instantly the constable blew his whistle. Two other policemen appeared from the direction of Washington Square. There was a scuffle and the man was grabbed and held fast.
"What's he done, Harry?"
"Tried to steal a lady's purse in the grocer's shop," my constable said, "only this young lady was onto his tricks. She's a sharp one if you like."
"All right, get him back to the station," one of them said, looking at me appreciatively. "And you'd better come along too, miss, to report to our sergeant."
I didn't like to admit that I was loathe to go anywhere near the Jefferson Market Police Station, as I had once spent a night there, having been mistaken for a woman of a very different profession. I trotted along beside them, feeling rather pleased with myself. I was getting rather good at this investigation business, wasn't I? More observant than the average person, with sharper senses and quicker reactions. It was about time the police realized how useful I was. It was a pity that I couldn't tell Daniel Sullivan of my expertise.
"You guys is wasting your time," the pickpocket said, reverting to a more common way of speech. "Ain't no way you'll make this stick." And he glanced back at me as if giving me a warning. I met his gaze and gave him my famous Queen Victoria stare, still feeling rather proud of myself.
We crossed the square and made for the market complex on the far side of Sixth Avenue. Squashed fruit and straw littered the sidewalk and a barrow was pushed past us piled high with cabbages. In the afternoon heat the smells of rotting produce and manure were overpowering. The triangular complex housed a fire department and the police station beyond it. We were about to go in to the latter when the door opened and a couple of men came out, so deep in conversation that they didn't notice us until they almost collided with us.
They were not wearing uniforms, but they reacted instantly to our little procession.
"What have you got here then, Harris?" one of them asked.
"Caught the fellow stealing a lady's purse," my constable said.
I noticed the half-amused look on the plainclothes officer's face as he observed the prisoner, held firmly between the other policemen. "Been a bad boy again, Nobby?" he asked.
"Go boil your head," the man said easily enough. "No way youse guys will pin anything on me. It's only her word against mine."
Then they noticed me for the first time. I tried to remain calm and composed, even though I had been very aware of one of them from the moment he stepped through the door. It was Daniel Sullivan, my ex-beau. Captain Daniel Sullivan, of the New York Police. I saw his eyes widen as he recognized me.
"The young lady spotted this gentleman helping himself to another lady's purse," my constable explained. "And she was smart enough to figure out where he'd stashed it."
"Was she now?" I could feel Daniel still looking at me, although I didn't meet his gaze. "All right. Take him inside and book him, boys. I'm sure he knows the way as well as you do."
When I went to follow them inside, Daniel grabbed my arm. "Are you so cocky about your skills as a detective that you've decided to take over the duties of the New York Police?" he asked in a voice that wasn't altogether friendly.
I looked up at him. "I was in a store. I witnessed a pickpocket at work. Luckily I used my wits and was able to get him arrested."
"Not so luckily for you," Daniel said. "Do you know who the man is?"
"He's one of the Hudson Dusters, Molly. You do know who they are, don't you?"
I did know, only too well. There were three gangs that ruled lower Manhattan and the Hudson Dusters was one of them. I had experienced an encounter with a rival gang a few months previously and had no desire to repeat it.
"I don't need to remind you what they're like, do I, Molly," Daniel went on. "And this character, Nobby Clark, is known to carry a grudge. He took a pot shot at one of our men who arrested him once before, you know."
He continued to stare at me while I digested this. "I don't want you to testify if it comes to trial, is that clear? I want you to make yourself scarce before he is released. He doesn't know your name, does he?"
I shook my head.
His grip on my arm tightened. "Molly, when will you learn not to get yourself mixed up in police work?"
"Holy Mother of God, would you let go of me," I exclaimed, shaking myself free of him. "I was only doing what any decent person would have done. If it had been my purse, I'd have wanted someone to alert me."
He sighed. "I suppose so. And with most pickpockets that would have been fine. Trust you to find the wrong one. Come on. I'll escort you home. We'll leave Nobby to cool his heels in a cell for a while and then release him."
"Release him? But he stole."
"Your word against his, as he said. The gangs employ good lawyers. They'd get him off and he'd come looking for you. Don't worry. We'll catch him when it matters."
"I suppose the Hudson Dusters pay you off, like the other gangs do," I said. He glared at me. "Contrary to popular belief, the New York police force is not in the pay of the gangs. We just learn which battles are worth fighting and which aren't. If Nobby is charged with picking a pocket he'll be away for a few months at the most. I'd rather wait to pin the big one on him."
He attempted to steer me toward the curb.
"Wait," I said. "I'm not going home. I still have my shopping to do."
"I don't want you going back to that store." Daniel continued to scowl at me. "You go straight home and I'll have one of our men do your shopping for you. What was it you were buying?"
I wasn't going to let Daniel know that my finances were rather precarious recently, owing to a distinct lack of work, and that I was going to buy a couple of slices of cold tongue for our evening meal.
"It's all right. Nothing that can't be purchased in the morning, I suppose," I said. "But I'm a big girl now. I can cross streets by myself."
"Sometimes I wonder about that," he said and he smiled.
The aggressive Daniel was easier to handle than the smiling one. I went to pull away from him. His fingers slid down my arm until he held my hand in his, examining my fingers.
"No ring yet, I see," he said. "Not yet promised to the bearded wonder then?" "If you are referring to Mr. Singer, we are not exactly promised but we have an understanding," I said stiffly.
"Molly---" he began in an exasperated voice.
"And I take it you are still affianced to Miss Norton?"
"I think she tires of me at last," Daniel said. "She told me I was boring and lacked ambition the other day. That's a good sign, wouldn't you say?"
"Good for whom?" I asked. "Really, Daniel, my life is too busy for idle thoughts about you and Miss Norton."
"Are you still pursuing this ridiculous notion of being an investigator?"
I nodded. "Doing rather well at it, if you want to know. Almost as good as Paddy Riley was."
"Paddy Riley got himself killed," he reminded me.
"Apart from that."
He crossed the street beside me and stopped at the entrance to Patchin Place, the small cobblestoned backwater where I lived. "I have to go back, but you'll be all right from here, won't you?" he asked.
"I was perfectly all right before," I said. "I really can take care of myself, you know, Daniel. You need not worry about me."
"But I do. And I think about you often. Don't tell me that you never think of me?"
"Never have time," I said briskly. "Good day to you, Captain Sullivan. Thank you for escorting me home."
I left him standing at the entrance to Patchin Place.
Copyright 2005 by Rhys Bowen