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The evil we complain of is increasing. Europe is flooding the country with emigrants—Great Britain has appropriated twenty-five million to deport to this country one million of Irish paupers, to compete with and destroy American labor.
—MR. LEVIN OF THE NATIVE AMERICAN PARTY, AS REPORTED IN THE NEW YORK HERALD, 1846
I have come to know my city too well. Not the pleasantest of afflictions. Presumably this wouldn't be a problem if I lived in a gorgeously crumbling stone wreck on the coast of Spain, casting my nets for sardines of a morning and catching strains of guitar music long into the night. Or if I kept a tavern in a melancholy little English town, pouring pints for widowers and reading poetry of an evening. I’ve never been away from here, so who can say? My knowledge of other places is bounded in books. It could be possible to know a city intimately and yet like it. I hope so.
No, the main trouble seems to be that I’m a policeman of Ward Six in Manhattan, the only copper star I know of assigned not to walk rounds but to solve crimes after the fact, and that so far I've not much cottoned to the content of the crimes. Not by half.
For instance, on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, I awoke with the faintly sick sensation that a law had been broken by someone or other in this city of near half a million, and I hadn't yet brainworked out who. The day before, Chief of Police George Washington Matsell—our unquestioned leader, the charging rhino of a man who set me up unraveling riddles—had appeared in my airless Tombs cave.
G. W. Matsell would already be impressive because he is enormous, over six feet tall and three hundred pounds if he’s an ounce. But it so happens he’s impressive because both his mind and willpower resemble a train running under full shrieking steam. He was a prominent justice before being appointed our chief, and thus already famous. Since we copper stars are a controversial band of ragtags to say the least, now he’s infamous. But infamy doesn't seem to chafe him overmuch.
I heard a scuff and looked up from my desktop. The previous instant, my doorway had seemed a reasonable size. Man-sized, anyhow. Now Chief Matsell stood within, and it had shrunk to a mouse hole. He stared at me placidly. Jowls furrowed into deep fleshy ditches and pale eyes gleaming. I’d used to walk my ward incircles as my colleagues did, on the lookout for trouble and finding it all too often. Since the end of the ghastly kinchin murderer business last August, when the chief decided my brains ought to be at his perennial disposal, I sit at the Tombs and trouble finds me either via notes from Matsell or in person. I’m damned if I know which is more disconcerting.
“A priceless miniature painting has been stolen from a private residence at One-oh-two Fifth Avenue, under unusual circumstances,” he announced.
A bead-sized but tightly worked knot formed in my stomach.
“You’re going to find it. Mr. and Mrs. Millington expect you to call round at nine.”
“Right,” I said, exhaling hard.
“Find the thief while you’re about it, Mr. Wilde,” he added over his shoulder, charging quietly away as if he’d battalions that wanted commanding.
Easier said than done, I surmised.
I’d been among the very first copper stars, as the Common Council had succeeded in forming the police only the previous summer. And I’d a hankering to be the best of the lot. But the work was still a coat that didn't fit me, all floppy sleeves and straining buttons, every fresh problem prompting my brain to prate, And just how will you set about solving that?
It’s a foul sensation.
Bizarrely, I still dreamed at night of tending bar as I’d used to—of running dry of rum with Wall Street speculators piled twenty deep in a hissing, writhing snake pit before my cedar plank. Not of stolen goods I couldn't find or of street brawls I couldn't tame. Nor murders I couldn't solve. In my usual visions, my face wasn't yet so scarred by the fire that erased half of downtown that no decent watering hole would ever hire me, my home and fortune hadn't evaporated, and my keenest concern was serving champagne to stockbrokers who were already half-stupefied. Mostly I dreamed of flimsy troubles.
I say mostly.
I dream about police work too, every month or so, and about last summer. Of course I do. But those dreams crack my skull a bit.
Anyhow, from the instant Matsell assigned me to retrieve that painting, I commenced skirting the edges of my wits. Since my removal from the company of patrolling roundsmen and promotion to solver-of-the-chief ’s-nastier-puzzles, I’d never investigated a crime committed against our white-sugar-dusted upper crust. And 102 Fifth Avenue turned out to be within sneezing distance of the annoyingly chipper Union Place Park.
Not my sort of neighborhood, speaking economically—I've five items of furniture and a rented room above a bakery. But what Matsell says goes, and thus so did I.
Alighting the hack the morning of February 13, I shook myhead at the miracle of Union Place Park. Our parks tend to become pig troughs or chicken yards within ten years’ time. But Union Place clings with religious frenzy to its prim shrubbery and raked walkways. The aisles whispered, Welcome and enjoy, supposing you belong here. Under the branches of the bare young trees, a matched set of girls wearing flounces of white lace beneath their furs laughed together in the knifelike daylight, sparks shooting from the diamonds woven into their hair.
Had I been in fit romantic condition to study them, maybe they’d not have hurt my eyes. But I continued west along Sixteenth Street, pretending as I went that there wasn't a girl across the ocean who’d long been corralling off ninety percent of the thoughts in my head.
Prime-grade, triple-purified mule headedness, my brother Val called the obsession. Unfortunately, I couldn't help myself. I wanted to plant flags for her, conquer city-states. If her mind had been a map, I’d have taken an ivory ribbon and pinned it softly and painlessly along the route of her thoughts. Barring the likelihood of that happening, I’d have settled for being the fellow to bolt her front door of an evening, as she’s far more audacious than she is sensible. Check window casements, generally stand guard against the frailty of locks. That sort of thing.
Mercy Underhill was in London, though, and I was in Goth-am, and so instead I rapped at the door of 102 Fifth Avenue.
The three-story house of brown stone couldn't possibly have reached its fifth year, its steps spreading in a great curved smirk between two despondent-looking stone gryphons hunched atop either pedestal. Carved teak door, window boxes stuffed with pine that somehow had sprouted gilt cones, a decorative stone face everywhere they could find on the facade to slap one. Even the roofing tiles reeked of new money. The gryphons wanted nothing to do with the place, and neither did I.
I tried the bell. It chimed like a gong summoning an emperor to dinner and the door swung open. The butler, when he saw me, looked as if he’d just glanced inside a slaughterhouse.
Granted, my winter coat is of pedestrian grey wool and was once someone else’s. And granted, the upper right quarter of my face does resemble a hardened wax puddle. But he didn't know a thing about the coat’s previous history. Or the face’s. So he ought to keep dark about it, is what I thought.
I waited for him to say something.
He stood there. Being altogether tall and silent and side- whiskered.
So I swept my fingers toward the dented copper star pinned to my lapel.
“Ah,” he said, as if discovering the source of a pesky smell. “You've been summoned to discover the whereabouts of the painting, I gather. A . . . policeman.”
Despite myself, I grinned. I was used to the disgusted tone people took with the infant police force by then, if not used to the word summoned, but none of that mattered. I've listened to thousands of people from hundreds of cities in my years tending bar. It was a game of mine, before. Placing them. One of many games. And apparently the Millingtons hadn't the ear to identify a Bristol man doing his level-best London accent and had hired a jack-tar for a snob butler. That kittled me. The barely visible hole where the ring had once pierced his ear kittled me too.
“How’s the shipping industry back home?” I asked.
If you've never seen a liveried sea dog turn purple and then an oysterish white, you’re missing something splendid. His muttonchops practically stood at attention.
“This way, sir, and . . . do please let me know if my services can be of use to you.”
We entered a foyer lined with portraits of unhealthy-looking women with their dogs and their children and their needlework. An active gentleman of about fifty-five burst through the opposite door, checking a gold pocket watch. Mr. Millington, it seemed clear.
“The policeman is here to see you, sir,” the Bristol butler reported.
“Oh, wonderful! What’s his name, then, Turley?”
Turley's mouth worked like a pike’s. The man was suffering so deeply, I solidified our new friendship with a rescue effort.
“I’m Timothy Wilde. I’ll be happy to see what I can do about returning your property.”
“My word,” Millington mused as he shook my hand. “Not what I’d expected from a note to Chief Matsell himself for help, but I suppose he knows his business.”
Unsure of which side to take in this argument, I kept mum.
“I’m due at the ’Change,” he fretted. “So I’ll just post you up on our way to the music room, the—well, how do you people put it? The stage of the crime, as it were?”
“I really couldn't tell you.”
“I see,” he said, baffled.
Mr. Millington informed me en route that, upon entering the music room the previous day at six a.m., their maid Amy had suffered a fright. The Millingtons were art lovers (the chambers we passed through were drowning in China vases and Japanned fire screens and oil paintings of cherubs at their never very strenuous occupations), and each morning the precious artifacts were cleaned.Inventoried, I supplied in my head. Unfortunately, Amy had discovered a gap in the miniatures hanging on the music-room wall. After a thorough search, Matsell was notified, and thus I was ordered to try my hand as an art bloodhound.
Not my strong suit. I knew it sure as gravity.
“My wife is extremely upset over this dreadful affair.” Mr. Millington’s pocket watch reappeared briefly. “Shall I tell you about Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin?”
I grew up pickling my brains in an erudite Protestant minister’s extensive library, so I answered, “The court miniaturist? Later official painter to the king of France?”
“Oh. Well, then.”
“What’s it look like?”
As I was being told that it looked like a shepherdess wearing a straw bonnet with pink ribbons, we arrived at what could only have been the music room, as it was possessed of two pianos facing each other down like duelists, a cello, several decorative lutes, and a winged harp the size of a broom closet.
“I’m terribly sorry, but I really must be off,” Millington concluded. “See that this policeman’s questions are answered, yes, Turley? You know best what to do from here, Mr. Wilde.”
I didn't. But he departed so swiftly, I hadn't the pleasure of telling him.
When his master’s footsteps had faded, Turley wriggled his side-whiskers apologetically. “About earlier, sir. I regret—”
“You could be the queen of the Gypsies for all I care. Besides, they expect it of you. That ghoul of a dead high-court judge act.Just because you can’t flam me doesn'tmean you’re not doing handsome work flamming them. Help me sort this, and we’ll forget about it.”
He smiled, showing crooked teeth that likely hadn't glimpsed public daylight since he was hired. “I call that fair play, Mr. Wilde. I suppose first you’ll want to examine the room.”
Thinking it a spruce idea, I peered about. At the instruments, the bow windows, the pink draperies, the leering dragons guarding the fireplace. I wrestled back an audible sigh.
It looked like a room.
Obviously, an artwork had been removed. Eleven miniature portraits hung as a collection, most of vacuous rosy-cheeked dignitaries but some of vacuous rosy-cheeked peasantry. There ought to have been twelve, though. The third from the right in the second column was missing, and the papered wall was dirty from lack of cleaning beneath the absent painting, dark streaks mottled over the sprays of blushing tea roses. Three little parallel smears of ashy grime. I leaned closer, examining the gap.
It looked like a gap.
I lightly worried at the eyebrow bordering my scar as I went to look over the locks on the chamber’s two doorways. “Turley, the chief said unusual circumstances.”
“I called it peculiar myself, sir. This room was locked at midnight when I made my nightly tour. I've a key; Mr. Millington has a key; Mrs. Thornton, the housekeeper, has a key. They’re all accounted for. And like Mr. Millington said, weren't we all bleeding searched to our eyeteeth and past yesterday? As if any of us would ever dream of touching this swag.”
I tossed him a wry look as I quit the second—and likewise untampered with—door lock. His stately London vowels had dissolved entirely by this time into Bristol’s River Avon. I was almost fond of him for it.
“They’re worth a fortune, some of them. That miniature certainly is. Nothing has disappeared before now, I take it?”
“Never, sir. There’s none of us as needs the money, not in that way. We've fine victuals below stairs, three sick days a year, bonuses every Christmas. And all of us with family away home to support and ten thousand more Irish crawling into the city every day. It’d take a bedlamite to risk being sacked without a character,things as they are.”
Irish were indeed flooding New York as if a Donelly or a Mc-Kale were contained in every raindrop of every thunderstorm. No one liked them—no one save for Democrats of my brother Valentines stripe, who liked their votes considerably—but certainly not house servants of British extraction who could be on the streets in the breadth of a hat pin should their masters take a turn for the frugal. I sympathized with Turley. His brand of animosity was practical, at least, and not the vicious anti-Catholic paranoia that makes my hackles rise.
But the Irish had commenced starving the year previous, when their potatoes disintegrated. And now it was wintertime, and that particular fellow feeling went beyond sympathy. I've Irish friends, Irish fellow copper stars, and I know what missing mealtimes feels like. Val and I once made a supper out of the mushy mass of vegetables a restaurant had strained from a stockpot, kernels scraped from a half-eaten husk of buttered corn, and three street-foraged chestnuts. My older brother had salted it, peppered it, plated it, garnished mine with two chestnuts and his with one, and deemed it salad.
It was unconvincing.
“When you locked up, did you notice anything amiss?”
“It’s a pity, but can’t say as I looked. Last member of the household to use the room was Mrs. Millington, after breakfast.”
“And the only way in is through those two doors and these two windows, unless a duplicate key exists.” I unlatched one of the bow windows.
“Aye, sir. But you police types can tell, maybe, if a key’s been duplicated?”
Biting my lip in annoyance directed almost entirely inward, I leaned out, the sudden chill making my eyes burn. The alley side of the building was brick, with a single ivy strand hauling its way upward, and we were on the second floor. The other window faced frenetic Fifth Avenue. Both difficult to reach without being seen, and both locked anyhow.
Refastening the hasp, I returned my attention to what I’m good at: stories, and the people who tell them to me.
“Do the Millingtons have children?” I asked, ruminating.
“Not them. Just two sets of coronation china, a dozen Wilton rugs, five—”
“Does the master of the house have any unsavory habits? Gambling, women?”
Turley snorted. “His notion of sport is hauling in money as if it’s schools of sardines. Good at it too, as you can see. Better than most.”
“Mrs. Millington. Suppose she had debts?”
“I suppose she’d draw on her allowance. Comes to a hundred a month, excepting December. Then it’s two hundred, if you please, in the spirit of the season.”
How convenient for her if she ever needs a tenth silver bud vase in the shape of a swan. I glared at the nine arranged on the mantelpiece, fuchsia hothouse buds sprouting tortuously from the creatures’ throats.
Then I caught sight of something more disturbing: a mirror had been hung over the fireplace.
It isn't that I was worthy of a block of marble being devoted to my face previous to the explosion. But faces are personal, and I’d preferred mine intact. The reflection gave me back my dark blond hairline with its sweeping double arcs, the downward-edged crescent stamped on my chin, the narrow but curving lips above, the straight nose, the deep-set green eyes. But it also gave me a healed
over torrent sweeping across my temple, as if a penny had been thrown in a pool.“The house servants,” I said, wrenching my eyes away. “Who are they?”
“Myself, and at your service, Mr. Wilde,” he listed, counting on his fingers. “Mrs. Thornton, the housekeeper. Agatha, the cook. Amy, Grace, Ellen, Mary, and Rose, the maids. Stephen and Jack, the footmen. Lily, the scullery maid. That’s without the coach driver and grooms who bunk at the hostelry.”
“Anything you’d like to tell me about any of them? Anything . . . interesting?” Turley dissected this. Hope shone like a distant lighthouse in my breast.
“Agatha’s knee can tell her when a storm’s coming,” he answered me shrewdly. “That’s always terrible interesting. It acted up something fierce this morning, so we’re in for a parcel of trouble, Mr. Wilde.”
He hadn't the faintest idea.
By the time I’d interviewed all of the servants and trudged in defeat out of 102 Fifth Avenue that afternoon, I had, in fact, learned several interesting things.
First off, the household had sunk into a clawing panic of self-preservationist accusations. According to Ellen (a downstairs maid), who was a breathless Cockney lass fresh from the Thames, it must have been Grace who took the miniature. Because, well, Just look at her. According to Grace (an upstairs maid), who was a short black girl who stood always with her hands neatly behind her back, it must have been Ellen. For Ellen talked funny, and the Irish talked funny, and Everyone knows how the Irish are. Then Ellen had called Grace an uppity wench who went with all the fastest gadabout coloreds in the city, and Grace had called Ellen a dry little prune who’d be lucky to give it away for free disguised as a hat, let alone sell it or marry it off.
I left them both teary-eyed and regretful, staring horrified at each other from either side of the kitchen table. Each of them minus a friend.
Next I called round to the hostelry on Fifteenth Street where the Millingtons’ coach staff resided. Grace did indeed have a male caller: one of the two black groomsmen, whose name was Jeb, paid his respects every afternoon and would marry her when he’d enough coin for a farm plot in Canada. The white coachman suggested as we parted ways that Jeb might have a motive there.
Blacks are accused of thievery every ten or so seconds in these parts. Almost as often as the Irish are accused of witchcraft. And I've sweated alongside too many free blacks, in ferry yards and restaurants and the like, for that not to lodge in my craw sideways. It’s infuriating. They own the same wrenching ambition that drives Yidishers to sew sixteen hours a day. Anyway, I grew up haunting the Underhill rectory, and you’d be hard-pressed to dig up a more bullish clan of abolitionists.
So I chalked up my interviews to less than useless and went on about my day.
Still . . . nothing any of the servants had said surprised me. This city plays with its residents a mortal game of musical chairs, and when the clanging pianoforte stops, the consequence for the loser is either a slow death or a short one. There is simply not enough here. Not enough work, enough food, enough walls with roofs topping them. Maybe there would be if we filled in half the Atlantic. But today, there aren't enough chairs for the tens of thousands tearing their way into the parlor for a try. And if only one seat out of a dozen is marked for coloreds, and that identical seat is the only one marked for irish . . .
Then it’s a question of who pitches whom on the hardwood first.
After some herring and potatoes at the nearest dining hall, I returned to the main house to conduct my own search, including a heart-hammering interlude digging through Mrs. Millington’s bureau while she was out delivering calling cards.
I went home and drank three glasses of New England rum. That seeming the useful thing to do.
And thus, when February 14 dawned, atmosphere wildly clear with a silken grey sheet of sky spread high above, I’d the sensation that today held a trip to the barber’s to have a rotten tooth pulled.
I kicked off my bedsheet. My chambers are above Mrs. Boehm’s Fine Baked Goods, which means that my landlady’s bread ovens bake my floor in the wintertime. Bless the woman, my rooms are like June. They’re also briefly inventoried: a secondhand four-poster under the window, a claw-footed table my brother scavenged from a fire, a chair I found in a ditch, a rug from Mrs. Boehm’s attic. And finally, a chest of drawers I’d gritted my teeth and purchased on the fourth occasion I found local insect life thriving in my neatly folded togs. The room doesn't look empty, though, maybe because its walls are plastered with charcoal drawings. I sketch scenes when I’m troubled.
I sketch a great many scenes.
The tiny “sleeping chamber” hasn't any windows. So I've lined it with shelves, with Mrs. Boehm’s permission. Five books reside there at present. But I’m working on that. I’m accustomed to a much bigger supply.
A strange object that isn't precisely a book also lives there: a long manuscript I wrote about what happened last summer, as a handy alternative to screaming my lungs raw about it in a public square.
Last August, a little girl by the name of Bird Daly collided with my knees. She was brave and terrified and inexplicably covered in blood, and I’d about as much notion of what to do with her as I’d have over a malfunctioning threshing machine or a wounded sparrow. But I was broken myself, after the fire. My world had vanished. And so I would speak with Bird as if she weren't a kinchin whore, and she would look at me as if I weren't a freak, and we made sense to each other. She was running for her life from a brothel madam called Silkie Marsh, who has a fair face and golden hair and no trace of a heart that I've been able to discern.
I wrote it all down—the unspeakable mass grave in the woods to which Bird led me, everything. Unlike writing police reports, which I detest, the words emerging from my pen siphoned off the pressure in my skull by small degrees. I've no notion what to makeof that stack of parchment or why I didn't burn it upon stabbing the final period into the page. But humans are largely inexplicable and I’m no exception. So there it lies.
Bird yet flits in and out of my mind like a firefly in the dim, and I’m glad of it. Often enough, I see her in person, and I’m gladder still of that. She’s much more sensible than I am. But at times, thoughts come unbidden of a madam smiling at me. Not with malice either. With comprehensive indifference. As if I were a sum to be calculated or a fish to be gutted for supper. And when I think of Silkie Marsh, I shut the door to the sleeping closet, as if the manuscript about her were possessed of mystical eyes.
I was feeling just enough out of sorts on the morning of February 14 to pull it closed with a dull thud.
After dressing, I marched downstairs to find Mrs. Boehm slamming a rolling pin with obvious satisfaction into a ballooning ball of dough. It pillowed in the center, emitting a honeyed yeast smell.
“Good morning,” she said without looking up.
Something about my landlady’s failing to spare me a glance feels comforting—as if I’m expected to be somewhere, anywhere, and her lack of surprise means I’m in the right place. Mrs. Boehm’s eyes are rather too big, rather too wide, and the soft blue color of a dress wrung out to dry in the sun for too many Junes, and they’d used to track me everywhere. Keenly too. Now I could parade a brass band through the door and she’d go on sifting flour. Her hair looks grey in low gaslight, but it’s a strawlike blonde, wispy as the tips of pussy willow wands, and I found myself addressing the part in the center of her head.
“Good morning. What’s that, then?”
“Hefekranz,” she said happily. “Special order, by Germans next door, for a birthday celebration. Sugar it has, yeast, eggs. Very rich. Into a braid it goes, then in the oven. I like very much making this. Find anyone wicked?”
Endearingly, my landlady has a taste for sensationalist literature. And thereby for my career.
I picked up a day-old seeded roll on my way out. “I can’t even find an oil painting.”
“But you will,” she called, smashing the pale ball again with a childlike smirk on her face.
Seconds afterward, I realized I’d have paid good money for that confident little smile. Without even having been aware I’d needed it. Meanwhile, I stopped, blinking up at the dawn.
I’d not the slightest idea where I was going.
Admittedly, I paced for a few blocks in grim circles, skirting the malarial murk produced by the nearby Five Points, stewing over the futility of ever returning to the Millington residence. Butthen it came to me: I know someone whose wholehearted passion is finding things. Lost objects are his relics and pawnshop records
Finding things is what Jakob Piest does.
And so I strode with a purpose up Elizabeth Street toward Mr. Piest’s beat. Practically whistling in relief as I went, and entirely unaware that Mr. Piest and I were about to meet the most fascinating human being either one of us had ever encountered.