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Murder on Astor Place (Gaslight Mystery Series #1)by Victoria Thompson
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As a midwife in turn-of-the-century New York, Sarah Brandt has seen pain and joy. Now she will work for something more--a search for justice--in a case of murder involving one of New York's richest families.
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At first Sarah thought the tinkling of the bell was part of her dream. It sounded so sweet and soothing, and she was following it across a sunlit meadow, as if it were a golden butterfly. But then the pounding started, and she knew this wasn't a dream at all. Dragging herself away from the meadow and out of the depths of sleep, she forced her reluctant eyelids open. Sure enough, someone was pounding on her office door.
"Hold your horses," she muttered as she threw off her covers. The night air was chilly for early April, and Sarah recalled the freak storm that had struck yesterday, dropping several inches of snow on the city. Shivering, she felt around in the dark for her slippers but failed to locate them. Padding barefoot through the darkness toward where she knew the bedroom door to be, she snatched her robe from the foot of the bed and shrugged into it as she went. "Coming!" she called, wondering if whoever was knocking could hear her over the racket he was making.
What she really wanted to say was, "Calm down! Babies usually take their own sweet time, so there probably isn't any rush." In the three years she'd been delivering babies for a living, Sarah could count on the fingers of one hand the times that had truly been an emergency. Usually those were the cases where she was summoned to some hovel on the Lower East Side to a woman too poor to pay her fee but whose delivery had gone horribly wrong. Left with no choice, the family summoned her in the often-vain hope that she would be able to save either the mother or the child.
Shaking off the lastvestiges of sleep as she moved through the frigid front room of her flat, which also served as her office, Sarah offered a silent prayer that this wasn't one of those calls. The gaslights on the street outside reflecting off the newly fallen snow cast enough light through her curtained windows that she was able to pick her way through the room without colliding with any of her equipment.
"Who's there?" she called when she reached the front door. A woman living alone in New York City couldn't be too careful, even if she lived in the relatively civilized section known as Greenwich Village.
"It's Ham Fisher. I just started boarding with Mrs. Higgins. It's her time, and they sent me to"
"I'll be right there. Just give me a minute." Sarah let herself feel some relief as she hurried back to her bedroom to dress. Mrs. Higgins should be an easy case, barring some unforeseen complication. This would be her sixth child, and her other births had gone easily. Sarah herself had delivered number five not quite two years ago. And she didn't have to go into the Lower East Side in the middle of the night, where any woman walking on the street after dark would automatically be considered a prostitute, even if she had an escort. She assumed Ham had been chosen for his ability to ensure her safe arrival, but she would have needed more than one bodyguard to protect her over among the tenements.
Tonight, however, she'd only have to go a few blocks through the Village to Mrs. Higgins's boardinghouse, which was a mercy because the snow was still deep in places. Who, Sarah wondered idly, would do the cooking for the lodgers while Mrs. Higgins was laid up? Sarah would have to be very firm about making sure the new mother didn't get up and back to work too soon, no matter what the temptation. Six children in less than ten years took a toll, and if Sarah couldn't prevent the children from being conceived, she could at least make sure the mother's health didn't suffer any more than necessary.
Hastily, as much from the cold as from the urgency of her mission, Sarah put on the requisite undergarments and what she considered her "birthing clothes"her oldest skirt and shirtwaist, which couldn't be ruined by the stray spatter of blood or whatever other bodily fluids might be splashing around during the birthing process. When she was ready, just a few short minutes later, she threw her heavy cape over her shoulders to protect her from the wintry winds and grabbed her medical bag. Tom's medical bag, that is. The one she'd given him when he officially became a doctor. The one still engraved with his name, Dr. Thomas Brandt. She always felt close to him when she carried it. Ruthlessly banishing the memories, she hurried out the door.
Ham Fisher was waiting for her. He was a strapping youth with a pockmarked face, a mouthful of bucked teeth and eyes that were, at the moment, unnaturally wide with terror. "We gotta hurry, Mrs. Brandt." As it did most men, the mere hint that a baby might be on the way had sent him into a panic.
Sarah knew it was useless to argue with him. "Of course," she said and followed as he started off at a brisk trot. At least the storm was over, and the clouds had cleared. The snow in the street had turned to slush where wagon wheels and horses' hooves had passed but the sidewalk was still ankle deep, except where other footsteps had smashed it down. Sarah felt the dampness already seeping through her boots, and she followed carefully in the trail Ham was blazing.
She'd only gone a few steps when she heard a window being raised in the house next door to hers, and a familiar voice called, "Mrs. Brandt, is that you?"
"Yes, Mrs. Elsworth," Sarah called back, smiling because she knew it was too dark for Mrs. Elsworth to see her amusement. She should have known she couldn't slip away without her neighbor noticing, even if it was the middle of the night. Sometimes she wondered if the old woman ever slept at all.
"Oh, my, is a baby coming on a terrible night like this?"
"That's right!" Sarah hoped all this shouting wouldn't wake the entire neighborhood. "I've got to be on my way," she added, seeing Ham Fisher had stopped to wait for her but with obvious impatience.
"Oh, dear, and here it is, the tenth day after the new moon. You know what that means, don't you? Anyone born on the tenth day after the new moon is bound to be restless and a wanderer. Do you think you could hold Off the birth just one more day? No sense in dooming the poor child to a life of"
"I'll do my best, Mrs. Elsworth," Sarah promised, shaking her head because she knew Mrs. Elsworth couldn't see her disgust. The old woman had a superstition for every occasion. Sarah had heard literally hundreds of them in the years she'd lived next door, but Mrs. Elsworth was still surprising her with new ones all the time. There seemed to be an endless supply.
"Mrs. Brandt, please." Ham entreated desperately.
"I'll see you in the morning, Mrs. Elsworth," Sarah called, hurrying to catch up with her escort, who had already set off again.
"I hope you're carrying a pinch of salt to protect you from disaster, going out on a night like this!" Mrs. Elsworth shouted after her.
"Yes, I am!" Sarah lied without a trace of guilt.
When Ham realized, half a block away, that she couldn't keep up with his pace, he slowed and waited for her, although his entire body fairly quivered with his eagerness to run. He pulled off his battered cap and ran long, bony fingers through his sleep-tousled hair instead.
"Who's that?" another familiar voice called from the shadows across the deserted street. Ham looked up in fright, but Sarah called, "It's Mrs. Brandt, Officer Murphy!"
The policeman, who had been checking all the doors along his beat to make sure they were locked, stepped into the glow of the gaslit streetlamp and squinted over at them. "On a call, are you?"
"Not going far at this hour, I hope."
"Oh, no, just to Mrs. Higgins's house."
He nodded, the light winking off the star on his domed helmet. "Get along with you then."
She knew better than to expect an offer of safe escort. The New York police were notoriously corrupt, in spite of recent attempts at reform, and Sarah couldn't afford to pay for their protection. She had to satisfy herself with winning their goodwill with small gifts for their children and the occasional sweet, baked in her makeshift kitchen. All she could hope was that if she ever truly needed help, they would come to her aid.
Obviously, Ham Fisher had no desire for a police escort. He was already hurrying away, pulling his cap back down over his head when Sarah reached him. She wondered for a moment if he had some reason to avoid notice by the police, but the thought was gone as soon as it formed. No one poor and powerless wanted to be noticed by the police, who might arrest you simply because they felt like it and might then beat a confession out of you for some crime you hadn't committed but for which they needed a suspect.
Sarah had long since denied herself the luxury of outrage over such things. One woman couldn't change the world. She could just make small pans of it better. That's what she was doing tonight.
She was fairly running to keep up with her companion now, and they reached the wide, snow-covered sidewalks of Fifth Avenue in mere minutes. Checking for traffic, Sarah glanced down the street toward Washington Square where she could see the outline of the enormous arch they'd built there recently, practically on the doorstep of the house where she'd grown up. It's edges were dulled by the mounds of snow, but it's distinctive shape was still plainly visible against the night sky. Then she glanced up the street, toward where her parents had moved a few years ago, escaping the influx of artists and freethinkers who had changed Greenwich Village from an enclave of the rich to a community of bohemians. The same street, but what a change it made in the fifty blocks that lay between her old home and the brownstone town house where they now lived.
Sarah wondered if they ever appreciated the irony. She could have asked her mother, of course, except she hadn't spoken to either of her parents since Tom's funeral. The fifty city blocks that separated her humble officeformerly Tom's doctor's office and now hersmight as well have been an ocean since she and her parents now lived worlds apart from each other.
Sarah turned her attention to crossing the cobblestone avenue. In the daylight, crossing against the flow of carriages, hansom cabs, and motor cars would be a dangerous and nearly impossible proposition, but because of the storm, even the prostitutes and their clients had retired for the evening. All Sarah had to worry about was picking her way through the piles of horse manure and garbage that the street cleaners hadn't yet carried away and which ` were now hidden beneath the snow.
A few more blocks, then they cut across Broadway to the tiny zig that was Astor Place and the quiet residential neighborhood beyond where Mrs. Higgins's boardinghouse lay. It had once been home to only her and her family, but when her husband's eyes had failed and he'd lost his prosperous tailoring business, they'd had to move their growing family into two back rooms and let the others out to lodgers.
Fortunately, one of the rooms was vacant at the moment, so Mrs. Higgins was laboring in relative privacy with the assistance of one of her neighbors. After shedding her cloak and stamping the snow off her boots, Sarah joined them.
"I'm glad to see you didn't start without me," Sarah said cheerfully as she quickly surveyed the situation. The room was spartan and bare, but perfectly clean, as were the bedclothes. Many doctors and midwives didn't see the need for cleanliness, but Sarah had long since observed that mothers who gave birth on laundered sheets did much better than those who did not.
The neighbor woman smiled, but Mrs. Higgins saw no humor in the situation. "The pains is coming one on top of the other. I don't think this one's gonna wait 'til morning. Oh, here it comes again!"
Sarah saw immediately that Mrs. Higgins was already pushing, a sure sign of advanced labor. She was right, this one wasn't going to wait until morning. Mrs. Elsworth would be very disappointed.
Sarah glanced at the gold watch she had pinned to her bodice, a Christmas gift from her parents in some year long past, to time the contractions. "I'll wait until you're finished before I examine you," Sarah said, "but I'm glad your lodger made me hurry. How long has she been pushing?" she asked the neighbor.
The woman opened her mouth to reply, but an anguished wail from the doorway startled them both. Sarah turned to find a young girl standing there. She could not have been more than sixteen or seventeen, her beauty still fragile and unformed, although unmistakable. Her golden hair lay in silken ringlets to her shoulders, and her hastily-donned gown gave proof that she had been awakened and had come to see what the commotion was. Plainly, she was horrified by what she saw. Her china-blue eyes were even wider than Ham Fisher's had been, and she had covered her mouth with the back of her hand, as if afraid she might be sick.
Sarah knew she'd never seen the girl beforeshe would have remembered such a lovely creaturebut still, a name came to her lips. "Mina?" she asked before she could think better of it.
The girl's glance shifted instantly from the woman writhing on the bed to Sarah, and the horror in her beautiful eyes turned to sheer terror.
"Get her out of here," Mrs. Higgins gasped as her pain subsided. "This ain't no place for her."
"Come along now, dear," the neighbor woman said, hurrying to do Mrs. Higgins's bidding. "We don't want to put you off having children of your own, now do we?"
At that, the girl's naturally pale face grew chalk white, and Sarah knew a moment's fear that she might actually faint. But the other woman was shooing her out. If she fainted in the hallway, she wasn't Sarah's problem. Banishing all thoughts of the girl from her mind, she turned back to her patient.
"Now let's see what's going on in there," she said, unbuttoning her cuff to roll up her sleeve for the examination.
Sarah didn't think of the girl again until a day and a half later when she was paying her first postpartum visit to Mrs. Higgins and her new son. Ordinarily, she went the very next day, but since the baby hadn't actually been born until nearly the next day, Sarah had waited until another night had passed to pay her usual call.
The city was very different this morning than it had been the other night. All traces of the snow had been shoveled into carts and dumped into the river, and with it had gone the silence of that night. The roar of the elevated trains over on Sixth Avenue was a constant backdrop to the usual sounds of urban activity. Wagon wheels and horseshoes clattering over cobblestone streets, drivers shouting to their animals or to other drivers, street vendors hawking their wares, women calling for children or to neighbors. Sarah might dream of peaceful meadows, but this was what she truly loved, the vibrant sounds of city life.
While she walked, she replayed the events of the other night and recalled the girl she'd called "Mina." Sarah knew exactly who she'd been thinking of. Mina VanDamm had been a classmate of hers at the exclusive private girls' school she'd attended. They'd also traveled in the same social circles, something that Sarah had once considered important, but which she now knew mattered not a wit. Perhaps Mina VanDamm had looked like that girl back when they were sixteen, but she certainly didn't look like that any longer. Mina was Sarah's age, over thirty now, and probably a plump matron with a houseful of children of her own.
As this girl would be, before long. Because Sarah knew something else about her, too. Something she hadn't realized until this moment. She was still mulling over her realization when she rounded the corner and saw the crowd gathered in front of the Higgins's boardinghouse. Several women, still in their plain housedresses beneath their heavy shawls, were huddled together on the sidewalk, which meant an emergency had called them out. Otherwise, they would have changed into their street clothes.
The women talked quietly while children ran around, playing games and rolling hoops, oblivious to whatever unfortunate event had brought their mothers together. Sarah thought of Mrs. Higgins and her new baby inside the house. If there was trouble, why hadn't they sent for her?
She hurried up to the nearest woman, Bertha Peabody. Sarah had delivered her of the fat baby now perched on her hip and contentedly sucking on his middle two fingers.
"What's happened?" she asked Bertha.
"There's been a murder," Bertha said, her shock obvious.
"Mrs. Higgins?" Sarah gasped in horror.
"Oh, no," Bertha hastily assured her. "One of her lodgers. A young girl. Hadn't been there long, only a few weeks, and this morning she turns up dead. One of the children found her when she didn't come down for breakfast."
"A girl with blonde hair?" Sarah didn't want to believe it.
"Yes, that's her."
"Terrible thing, just terrible," another woman declared, and the others murmured their assent.
Sarah couldn't have agreed more. People died every day in the city, often by violent means, but hardly ever did someone in this neighborhood die by another's hand, and certainly not someone as young and innocent as this girl had been. And if Sarah was upset, imagine how Mrs. Higgins must be affected. "I've got to check on Mrs. Higgins. All this trouble can't be good for her or the baby."
"They ain't letting anybody inside," Bertha warned her, but Sarah was already climbing the front steps to where a portly police officer stood guard at the door.
"Can we take her out now?" the fellow from the medical examiner's office wanted to know.
Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy took one last look at the crumpled body of the girl and nodded wearily. This wasn't the way he had planned on spending his morning, not today or any other day. Finding out who murdered this slip of a girl wasn't going to accomplish anything, and it certainly wouldn't help advance Frank Malloy in the world one little bit.
He'd seen hundreds of girls just like this, new in town, trying in vain to find honest work that would support them until their money ran out and then being forced onto the streetsor into a bawdy house if they were lucky. This one would've been lucky. She was pretty enough to go into one of the better houses on Fifth Avenue. She might even have caught the eye of some rich man looking for a mistress, someone who would've set her up in style. Maybe she would've been smart and saved her money and eventually opened a house of her own. That was the mark of success for a woman of pleasure, although few whores ever achieved it. Most of them ended up dead in a gutter somewhere, the victim of disease or a dissatisfied customer.
Instead, this one had ended up dead on a boardinghouse floor. And a respectable boardinghouse, too, not one simply calling itself that but functioning as a brothel in reality. And this girl never would've become the successful whore of Frank's fantasy. She wasn't smart enough. He knew because she'd apparently just begun to engage in the flesh trade and no sooner had she started than she'd chosen the wrong man and gotten herself killed.
It was a pity, a pretty girl like that, but Frank couldn't afford the luxury of pity. He had a job to do. And responsibilities. He needed to make Captain, and he was carefully saving his money to bribe his way up to that exalted positionthe only method of advancement that had ever been possible in the New York City police force until the recent wave of reform had swept the city. Of course, Frank figured the wave would pass, just like every other attempt to change the system that had been in place for centuries. He'd continued to save in the meantime so he'd be ready when the reformers gave up and went back to their gentlemen's clubs. No one was going to give him a little extra under the table for solving this girl's murder, though, and solving it would take up valuable time that could better be spent serving people who were willing to show their appreciation in a practical manner.
"There's a lady on the stoop trying to get in. Says she has to see Mrs. Higgins," the officer he'd left guarding the front door reported as Frank made his way down the stairs into the front hall. This wasn't unusual. There was always at least one old biddy in the neighborhood who felt compelled to get some firsthand knowledge when a crime had been committed.
"Who is she?"
"A Mrs. Brandt."
"Does she know anything about the dead girl?"
"I didn't ask her."
Frank sighed. He'd reached the bottom of the steps. "Let her in. I'll talk to her in the parlor." The old biddies also usually knew all the gossip. Whatever he could learn might help get this case over with sooner.
The officer nodded and opened the front door. Frank was surprised at the woman who entered. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting, but certainly not this. Mrs. Brandt was a handsome woman whose fine figure was encased in clothes that, while a little shabby, had once been expensive and well-made, and she was carrying what looked like a black medical bag. She was also much younger than the type of harridan who usually insisted on being admitted, to a crime scene, much too young at least to have acquired the kind of brass it took to challenge the police. And most certainly too young to be quite as sure of herself as she appeared to be. Her amazing blue-gray eyes met his with the kind of defiance that set Frank's teeth on edge. This was the last thing he needed. She was probably one of those suffragettes, intent on making every man's life miserable just on general principles.
"This here's Detective Sergeant Malloy," the officer was saying. "He wants to talk to you."
"I'm Sarah Brandt," she told Frank without being asked. "I'm the midwife who delivered Mrs. Higgins's baby yesterday, and I need to make sure she's all right."
Midwife? No one had told him about this. Higgins had simply explained that his wife was indisposed and hadn't seen or heard a thing, so Frank hadn't bothered to question her yet. But she wasn't really ill; she'd just had a baby. A baby this Sarah Brandt had delivered. The knowledge tore at the old wound in his soul, bringing a pain he couldn't allow himself to feel while at the same time sparking a rage he didn't dare express. From habit, however, he managed to keep his reaction to himself.
At least he'd be prepared when he had to meet Mrs. Higgins. Or as prepared as he could be.
He forced himself not to sigh. "Step into the parlor for a minute, Mrs. Brandt. I'd like to ask you a few questions."
Now Frank was sure she was one of those suffragettes. Imagine questioning an officer of the law. "A young girl was murdered here last night."
"I know that," Mrs. Brandt assured him impatiently. "That's why I need to see my patient, to make sure she's all right. A shock like this can sometimes cause problems."
Yeah, well, we all have our own problems, don't we? he thought, and Sarah Brandt was going to be his. Ordinarily, Frank knew exactly how to handle a reluctant witnessa little shake, a slap or a punch, then the nightstick if all else falledbut he didn't think the usual methods would work on Sarah Brandt, as tempted as he might be to try them. He certainly couldn't be blamed for wanting to, even if he didn't dare raise a hand to a respectable female, and no one would fault him for being short with her. "Your patient will wait a few minutes while you answer my questions."
She widened her eyes at his toneout of amazement, not fright, he couldn't help noticing with annoyancebut at least she went into the parlor when he indicated she should, leaving her black bag in the hall. She wasn't happy about it, though. She made him understand that without saying a single word.
Maybe he ought to try a different tack with her, much as it might gall him to do so. Butting his head against a wall would just give him a headache.
"Have a seat, Mrs. Brandt," he said, trying to muster up some civility. He hadn't used it in a long time and was very much afraid he'd lost the knack.
Apparently he had, because Mrs. Brandt didn't sit down. "I don't know what you think I can tell you."
"I don't either, so why don't we find out?" Frank said without even grinding his teeth. He was amazing himself with his patience. "Did you know the dead girl?"
This was going to be even harder than he'd thought.
Frank closed his eyes, summoning up more patience, and tried again. "Did you know anything about the dead girl? Her name was ..." He consulted his notes. "Alice Smith."
Sarah Brandt sighed with obvious exasperation. "I only saw her once in my life, the night before last when I was here to deliver Mrs. Higgins's baby. She came into the room for a moment and ..."
"What is it?" Frank prodded when she hesitated. Plainly, she knew more than she was telling. Perhaps she even knew more than she realized.
"Nothing. I was mistaken."
Frank figured Sarah Brandt was hardly ever mistaken about anything.
"Come on, Mrs. Brandt. A girl has been murdered. Anything you can tell me will help catch her killer. You don't want a killer running loose, do you? A woman like you who makes her living traveling around the city, going to strange places"
She sighed again to let him know how put-upon she felt. "I thought she looked like someone I used to know," she admitted. "An old friend."
"An old friend here in the city?"
She nodded grudgingly.
"Could she have actually been who you thought she was?"
"No. She resembled an old schoolmate of mine, a woman my own age, so I know this girl couldn't have been the same person."
"What part of the city are you from, Mrs. Brandt?"
"Right here in Greenwich Village."
Frank looked her over again in the better light of the parlor windows. She stiffened at his effrontery. She probably figured he was sizing up her figure, which was even better than he'd originally thought, but actually, he was sizing up her clothes. Just as he'd thought, they were quality, although she'd been wearing them for a long time. "You came from money, didn't you?"
"I don't think my background is any of your business, Detective Sergeant Malloy," she said coldly.
Oh, yes, she came from money, all right. Only a rich person knew how to use that tone to put an underling in his place. But Frank wasn't her underling, not in this situation. "At the moment, everything is my business, Mrs. Brandt. And for your information, the dead girl came from money, too."
"How can you know that?"
"The same way I can tell about you, her clothes."
The sound of footsteps on the stairs distracted them both, and Frank looked toward the open parlor door to see the orderlies carrying the sheet-covered body out on a stretcher. He heard Sarah Brandt's gasp and smiled at his good fortune. Nothing like a little shock to soften up a reluctant witness. He waited until they had carried the body out of the house. The bloom had noticeably faded from Sarah Brandt's smooth cheeks.
By then Frank had decided he would use Sarah Brandt a little, and possibly get back at her in the bargain. "Maybe you'd help me out by going up to her room and looking around. Since Mrs. Higgins is, uh, indisposed, I mean. See if anything looks out of place, and give me your opinion of her things. Maybe I'm wrong about her background after all."
He'd figured Sarah Brandt would jump at the chance to prove him wrong about anything, but her natural reserve was apparently stronger than her need to prevail. "I couldn't."
"Couldn't what? Snoop through her things? Make judgments about her? Mrs. Brandt, when a person is murdered, they don't have a right to privacy anymore. Or maybe you'd rather I took you down to the station house to finish questioning you," he added, forgetting his plan to be civil.
"Why?" she challenged, anger flashing in those marvelous eyes of hers. "So you can beat me into confessing to her murder? That would save you a lot of time, wouldn't it? Then you wouldn't even have to conduct an investigation."
Frank felt a flash of anger himself. How dare she judge him like that? How dare she assume he was something he wasn't? Understanding instinctively, however, that any attempt to defend himself would only make her more certain she was right about himand consequently make her more obstinatehe somehow managed to swallow his own fury and sound reasonable again. "No, so I can get you to tell me what you know about this girl. What you may not even realize that you know about her," he amended quickly when she would have protested.
"I really need to see Mrs. Higgins," she insisted.
"As soon as we're finished in the girl's room. And just to put your mind at ease, I'm pretty sure you didn't kill Alice Smith, so I won't bother trying to beat a confession out of you," he added.
She didn't smile.
"You want me to catch the killer, don't you?" he tried.
Plainly, it galled her to admit it. "All right, I'll give you a few minutes, but then I must see Mrs. Higgins."
"Sure," Frank agreed amiably. A few minutes was probably all he'd be able to stand of Mrs. High-and-Mighty anyway. "Her room's upstairs, on the right."
She didn't wait for a second invitation. He watched her go, wondering how a woman could convey so many opinions without uttering a word. Well, if she could give him any information at all, he would forgive her just about anything.
Frank followed her up the stairs, resisting with difficulty the temptation to fall far enough behind to possibly catch a glimpse of her ankles beneath her swishing skirt. He already knew way too much about Sarah Brandt's figure for his own peace of mind.
Sarah couldn't believe she was doing this. Going into a dead girl's bedroom to give the police information about her. And what could she possibly tell them? Besides being able to look at the girl's clothes and know if they were expensive or not. And what would that prove? Countless young women from good families found themselves suddenly penniless every day because the man who provided for thembe he husband or fatherdied or otherwise abandoned them. If this girl still had a family or any means of providing for herself, she would not have taken a room at the Higgins's house.
The door to the girl's bedroom stood open, and Sarah stopped in the opening, looking around. Everything seemed unnaturally quiet here, as if the girl's death had muffled even the ordinary sounds of the city. The room was oddly neat for being the scene of a murder, too. Somehow Sarah had pictured overturned furniture and smashed and broken crockery. But nothing here had been disturbed at all except the plain, iron bed. The coverlet was rumpled, as if someone had laid down on it, and what appeared to be a red shawl lay casually discarded at the foot of it. Other than the bed, there was little else in the room to disturb. A stuffed chair, a dresser and a cabinet for clothes. It looked, in fact, hardly more inhabited than the unoccupied room downstairs where Sarah had delivered Mrs. Higgins's baby the morning before.
"Go on in," Malloy said.
Sarah bit back a sharp retort. Good breeding forbade her from speaking rudely to anyone, but good sense played a part in her serf-control as well. He might not have been bluffing about taking her down to the station house. She entered the room.
The first thing she noticed was the smell. Could there be an uncovered chamber pot in here? But then she remembered that sudden death loosened control over bodily functions, adding one final humiliation to the process. She thought of the girl she had seen, dying in her own excrement, and she shuddered.
"You all right?" Malloy asked.
Sarah bristled at his feigned concern. "How did she die?" she asked, looking around reluctantly for any evidence of foul play. Mercifully, she saw no blood.
"Was it someone who broke into the house?"
"No sign of a break-in."
The top drawer of the dresser was half-opened, as if someone had already been rummaging through it. Probably Malloy. Unable to bring herself to rummage, Sarah went over and examined the articles that were readily visible. At first she couldn't believe her eyes, and without meaning to, she reached down and fingered the topmost garment. She hadn't been mistaken, she realized as she rubbed the fabric between her thumb and fingers and noted the fine hand-stitching. Silk. For an instant, she pictured the cloth lying against the girl's flawless skin and snatched her hand away.
"She's dead," Malloy reminded her crudely. "You can't offend her."
Sarah gave him what she hoped was a quelling glare. He was the kind of man her mother would have called common. A man who lacked education and refinement. Even his body seemed designed for manual labor with its broad chest and powerful shoulders. She thought of her father and the other men she'd known in her old life, slightly built men whose power came from wealth and knowledge. They were dangerous, able to crush anyone who stood in their way, but Detective Malloy was dangerous, too, in a very different way. Sarah would do well to remember that.
She glanced back at the dresser. Nothing on it but a brush, a comb and some stray hairpins. Except that the brush, when Sarah turned it over, had a silver back, and the comb was tortoiseshell.
Something was very wrong here. Very wrong indeed. Forgetting Detective Malloy, who still watched her from the bedroom doorway, Sarah pushed the top drawer shut and opened the next one. It was empty.
"All the others are empty, too," Malloy said.
Sarah didn't even acknowledge him. She was too busy trying to make sense of something. She went to the clothespress and pulled the doors open. Only a few garments hung inside. "Was she in her nightclothes when she died?" Sarah asked.
"No. She was still completely dressed. Even had her shoes on."
Only two spare shirtwaists and a jacket in the clothespress, and just enough underclothes to fill one drawer. Those details told her something, although she wasn't yet sure what. The waists were simply made, but Sarah instantly recognized the work of a skilled seamstress in the delicate tucks across the bodice of one. She reached for the jacket, trying not to think of the girl who had so recently worn it. Sarah could still catch what must have been the girl's scent in the folds of the finely woven wool, and for a moment her head swam. She fought off the momentary weakness and examined the jacket. Mother-of-pearl buttons and intricate braiding down the front. She turned the garment in her hands, knowing what she would find or at least what she should find, unless the girl had been clever enough to remove it. But she hadn't, and there it was, embroidered into the lining by the seamstress who had custom made it, the name of the person for whom it had been designed,
With a cry, she dropped the jacket as if it had burned her.
"What is it? What's the matter?" Malloy demanded, crossing the room with long strides.
Sarah hardly heard him. She was too lost in memories, visions of a tiny girl with long, golden curls and enormous blue eyes. A girl of delicate beauty who always seemed much older than her years and who hardly ever smiled. Mina's baby sister.
"Sit down," Malloy was saying, and he put his big, workman's hands on her and forced her down into the chair. "Don't go fainting on me now. Put your head down."
Before she could stop him, he'd forced her head down almost to her knees.
"Let go of me!" she cried with as much dignity as she could muster with her face practically in her lap. She had to twist her head from side to side to dislodge his grip, losing her hat in the process, but finally he released her.
Sputtering in outrage, she sat upright and glared at him again. If she'd been a man, she would've punched him, policeman or not. As if guessing her thoughts, he hacked up a step and put up his hands as if to ward her off. Or maybe he was just letting her know he was finished manhandling her.
"Good, you've got your color back," he said. "For a minute there, I thought you was gonna go all vaporish on me."
"I don't get the vapors, Detective," she informed him.
"If you say so," he replied, unconvinced. He picked up the jacket from where she'd dropped it. "What did you see on this?"
Sarah swallowed against the dryness in her throat. "Inside, in the lining."
He turned the jacket and found the embroidery. "This her name?"
"You know her? Is that why ...? But you said you didn't know her," he recalled.
"I said I thought she looked like an old friend. The old friend is Mina VanDamm. Alicia is her baby sister. Or was."
"Unless the girl stole the jacket."
Sarah only wished that were true. She shook her head. "No, I'm sure it was she. I haven't seen her since she was a child, but she looks ... looked," she corrected herself, "too much like Mina for there to be any mistake."
"What would she have been doing here all by herself, then?" he asked, staring at the jacket as if it would give him the answer. "Did the father die? The family break up? Lose all their money?"
"Not that I know of." Indeed, she was certain Cornelius VanDamm was very much alive and well and still a millionaire. Suddenly, Sarah had to get out of that room. She rose to her feet. Where was her hat?
She saw where it had rolled over beside the bed. She went for it in the same instant Detective Sergeant Malloy guessed her purpose and went for it as well. He beat her there, and in his haste, brushed against the shawl that lay at the foot of the bed. It slid to the floor and something metal tumbled from its folds, clanging to the uncarpeted floor between them.
"What's this?" he asked of no one in particular. Since he still held the jacket in one hand and had picked up her hat with the other, he shoved the hat at her and bent to pick up the long, slender object. When he rose, he held it up to examine it.
Sarah couldn't contain her surprise.
"Do you know what it is?" he asked.
Sarah was very much afraid she did. "It's a curette."
"A medical instrument." She had a set of them, although she had no use for them now. They had belonged to Tom.
"Why would the girl have had it?"
"I don't think she did." Everything was making sense now, or at least a little bit of sense. Sarah remembered her impressions of the girl in those brief moments when their paths had crossed yesterday, and the realization she'd had this morning on her way over here. "I think someone must have brought it here."
"Why?" His eyes were dark, almost black, and he suddenly seemed very large and dangerous again. She didn't want him to know this about Alicia, but she had no other choice. He would find out soon enough anyway.
"Because ... It's an instrument that ... Well, it can be used for other things, but it's what an abortionist uses."
He didn't say a word, but his very silence was a force, compelling her to continue.
"I thought when I saw her yesterday ... it was just an impression, but sometimes you can tell just by looking at a woman. Something in the eyes ... And that would explain why she was here, why she'd left her family. I think ... I think you'll find that Alicia was with child."
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Meet the Author
Victoria Thompson is the Edgar(r) Award-nominated author of the Gaslight mystery series and 20 additional historical novels. She lives in Pennsylvania with her family.
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I had never heard of Victoria Thompson, but her latest novel in the series was on the bestseller list, so I decided to start with the first book. What a pleasant surprise! I love Historical Fiction, and this book paints a beautiful scene. It is very well-written, and I felt as though I really got to know the characters. I felt so involved in the story, that when I realized one of the twists, I actually gasped out loud on the train. I purchased the second book not long after, and I have to say that I'm hooked. It's light, easy reading. Perfect to wind down after a long day.
This is for a reader who does not care if the content is consistent with the period. After browsing through this book I will not buy another one.
Ay,yi,yi. This is one of the most poorly written books I have encountered in a long time. I am amazed it was published. The writer mixes phrases of contemporary life, 'postpartem depression', with genre writing, and does not do it well. Instead of allowing the reader latitude in reaching conclusions about the characters, Thompson slams the descriptions in your face. Bad, bad, construction and bad, bad development. Paltry application of research.
The writer's social and political commentary were too strong for my tastes. I guess if you agree with someone, you tend to notice that less. I made a valiant attempt to put myself into her mindset and finish the book to understand her perspective better, but could not.
Perhaps my opinion would change if I finished the book, but it was so slow I archived it for another time. I made it through to the halfway point, and did not care.
light reading will stick with the author and read others....
This is the first in the "GASLIGHT SERIES". It was interesting for me because the author gave a view of women & their rights during this time period. I think it is very well written. It is such a good book. One I couldn't put down. I have purchased 7 more books in the series. And will buy the rest. I think it would be a good read for young adults as well. Gives an idea of how things were in the "olden days". Good mystery. Great love story too.
I love period books. This takes place in New York - turn of the century. The characters are interesting and well thought out. They seem to step right off the page. Love the book!
Step Back in Time and See Just Why This Book is So Popular When you buy two or three books for every book you read, you wind up with books you fully intend to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. (And now with my blog, it’s even worse.) One such book is Murder on Astor Place. I don’t know for sure when I bought it, but I figure I’ve had it sitting on my shelf for at least a decade, probably longer. After meeting the author, Victoria Thompson, at Malice Domestic this year, I finally dusted it off and dove in. This is the first book in the Gaslight mysteries, set in New York City 1896. That’s just a few years earlier than Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy series started, and it was fun stepping into a city I know (fictionally) just a few years earlier. Sarah Brandt is a midwife working in the city. One night, she is called out to deliver a baby for a family that has turned most of their home into a boarding house to pay the bills. She sees a young woman living there who reminds Sarah of a friend she hasn’t seen in years. When Sarah goes back to check on the mother and new born, she discovers that the young tenant had been murdered. Sarah identifies the victim as Alicia VanDamn, the younger sister of her friend. Frank Malloy is the detective assigned to the case, but Sarah doesn’t trust the police to solve the case so she starts trying to find clues herself. Can the two of them solve the case? This really is a book with two detectives. Despite the corruption of the police at the time (Teddy Roosevelt is trying to reform things as the book opens), Frank investigates as well. The book splits time between the two in third person narration, giving us great clues and twists. When Frank and Sarah come together and share information, we aren’t treated to rehash, but the two of them brainstorm what the clues mean. Now, if this is sounding like the police are purposefully involving a civilian in a murder investigation, don’t worry. Frank is actually less than impressed with how Sarah inserts herself into the case early on. And their first scenes are almost funny with how the tension unfolds. The plot really is strong with a steady pace of twists and surprises. I did guess a couple of the twists early on, but I didn’t have the killer worked out at all. I did find the climax a bit over the top and sad, but that is my only complaint about the book. The characters are already strong. Sarah and Frank are from two different worlds in New York society, which gives them access to different people. It’s a great way to show just how fractured society was at the time. Both characters have their own backstories, which we get over the course of the book. The other characters are just as memorable. Being a historical novel, there are plenty of details that transport us to not only another place but another time period. And yet, they never slow the book down. The characters and plot are first, just the way it should be. So I now need to find the time to read the rest of the books in this long running series. It is popular for a reason. Pick up Murder on Astor Place and you’ll be swept back in time and left wanting more.
This book has a murder to solve and introduces the characters, Sarah, who comes from a wealthy family but chooses to work as a midwife in some of the lower areas of New York, and Mr. Malloy, the policeman involved in solving the murder. The hint of an attraction between these characters as they work together to solve the murder makes you want to read more. I couldn't wait to read the next book!
This is the first book I read by Victoria Thompson. I am hooked. Loved the characters and the plot. I am going to read all the other books in the series. Fun reading.
This is a good review. Makes you want to read the book to see just how slooooooooow the romance progresses. ;-D That was funny.
This is the beginning book to a historical mystery series. A widowed midwife (from a rich family, although she's separated from them at the moment) helps a police detective (back when the police bought their positions, this police detective is saving his money to buy the position of captain) solve a murder mystery. It was a very interesting read which led me to look up her other books. There is a very slow moving romance that progresses throughout the series. But it is vvvvvveeeeerrrrryyyy sssssllllloooowwww. Yeah, you get the point :D
I really enjoyed this mystery. The characters seem so real. I couldn't leave the book until I found the murderer. What a big surprise!
Even though I have only read the preface so far I cant wait to get started on the book itself. I definitely recommend you read this book.
i though it was very good. first time i have read any of Victoria Thompsons books. though it wasgood
An enjoyable read...not demanding but evocative of the time and place. A good break from "heavier" books.
I really liked this book. The murder mystery took many twists and turns. Even better was the relationship developing between Sarah and Frank. It made me interested enough to search out the rest of the series.
Historically accurate and first in series