Murder at Bertram's Bower: A Beacon Hill Mystery

Murder at Bertram's Bower: A Beacon Hill Mystery

by Cynthia Peale


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The Back Bay has been filled in. Palm readers and prostitutes ply their trade in South Cove. And the watchword of the day is “NINA:” No Irish Need Apply. Boston in 1892 is a town of Victorian pride, prejudice, and private passions.

Now, on Beacon Hill, a crusading woman and her genteel brother, Addington, are investigating two grisly murders of young women, the work, say police, of “a deranged person.” For Caroline Ames, solving the mystery is a matter of helping an old friend, the woman who runs a home for wayward women known as Bertram’s Bower. But for Addington, the investigation will lead to the revelations of a sexually alluring, scandal-struck actress...and to the secrets of some of Boston’s most “respectable” men.

As Addington confronts the hypocrisy of Brahmin society, he moves closer to a shocking suspicion about the killer’s identity. And as fear grips the city, the evidence points in one frightening direction: that London’s Jack the Ripper is alive, well, and killing again. . .

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440613954
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/26/2002
Series: Beacon Hill
Pages: 332
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Cynthia Peale is the pseudonym of Nancy Zaroulis, author of Call the Darkness Light and The Last Waltz, among other successful novels. She lives outside Boston, and is currently at work on the third book in her Beacon Hill Mystery series.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Boston: the January thaw, 1892. A watery gloom hung over the city like a shroud.

Day after day of heavy, relentless rain had threatened to submerge the new-filled Back Bay, and the miniature lagoon in the Public Garden had overflowed its banks. On Beacon Hill, streams of water pounded the brick sidewalks and cascaded down the narrow streets, splashing women's voluminous skirts, splattering horses with mud up to their blinkers. People clung to their firesides, waiting for winter to return.

In the South End, Officer Joseph Flynn of the Boston police was making his rounds. He had been on the force for less than a year, and he was eager to do well in this job which until recently would not have been given to an Irishman like himself. When he saw the shape on the ground halfway down the alley behind West Brookline Street, he paused. Because it was night, and very dark in that district, he could not immediately tell what the shape was. A heap of refuse, he thought, or a pile of rags. Or, at worst, some drunken tramp from the nearby railroad yards.

Still. Best be sure. On the lookout for rats, his bull's-eye lantern sputtering in the rain, he stepped carefully along.

When he came to it—to her—he could hardly believe what he saw. He had witnessed some serious mayhem during his brief time with the force, but he had never seen anything like this. Half crouching, holding his lantern close, he stared at her for a long moment.

Dear Mother of God. What monster had been at work here? He felt his stomach heave, and he heard the anguished cry torn from his throat. His lantern clattered to the ground. Suddenly overcome, he fell retching to his knees. Then he vomited onto the dirty, rain-soaked snow.

Chapter 2

"I will put Matthew Hale next to Harriet Mason," said Caroline Ames. Her pencil hovered over the sheet of paper on which she had written names around a diagram of her dining room table. "He is so terribly shy with women, and Harriet can get conversation out of a lamppost."

Dr. John Alexander MacKenzie had been struggling through a life of Lincoln highly recommended by the clerk at the Athenaeum. Now he laid aside the heavy volume and rose to knock the ashes of his pipe into the grate where simmering sea coal warmed the parlor at No. 161½, Louisburg Square.

"Might she not frighten him?" he said, smiling down at her. She'd given him permission to smoke when he'd come to live here several months before, and he'd been grateful to her—for that, and for much else.

She was a pretty woman of some thirty-five years, a little plump, with fair, curly hair caught up in a fashionable Psyche knot and frizzy bangs partially covering her wide, smooth forehead. Her eyes were brown, her mouth a vivid rose, and although her cheeks were tinged with pink, he was almost certain that she did not use face paint. She wore a high-necked long-sleeved dress of soft gray, plainly made and slightly out of fashion because of its bustle. Her only ornament was a mourning brooch for her mother.

She had been fussing over this dinner party for weeks, and now it was nearly upon them. Although MacKenzie had been invited to it, he hardly cared about it—only to the extent that it was a worry for her. When she had first announced her intention to have it—"For Nigel Chadwick, who is coming from London, and every hostess in Boston is maneuvering to get him to her table!"—he had thought the effort would be too much for her. She had been wounded by a bullet in the shoulder the previous November, and while she had healed well, her normal strength and vitality had been slow to return.

And, too, he thought darkly, she was not an ideal patient, too quick to take up her multitudinous activities, many of which were good works. Only that morning she had been summoned on an errand of mercy for the Ladies' Committee at her church, and to his chagrin, she had gone.

"It is my turn to go, Doctor," she'd said.

He had protested as much as he thought he dared, for he was only a boarder, after all. "In this weather?" he'd said.

"They wouldn't ask me unless it was important. I know this family. The committee has been working with them for months—since last summer, in fact. The woman is an excellent person who is trying very hard to keep the family together. I must go—but to ease your mind, I will take a herdic."

He'd offered to go with her himself, or even in her place, but she'd refused, allowing him only to go down to Charles Street at the foot of the hill to find a herdic-phaeton for her and bring it to the door. These were small, fast cabs unique to Boston, whose strong, agile horses darted about the city at all hours.

Now, safely home once more, she'd been struggling for the past half hour with the seating for her party.

"I don't think so," she said in answer to his question. "Harriet isn't a frightening kind of person, just very chatty."

"Then by all means," he said, "you must seat her next to him."

She looked up at him, returning his smile. He was stockily built, not much taller than herself, and a few years older (she'd turn thirty-six in May). He had graying hair, a broad, honest face adorned by a not too brushy mustache, and kind, wise eyes. She'd liked him from the moment he had presented himself the previous September, bearing a note from Boston's most famous surgeon, Dr. Joseph Warren. MacKenzie, a surgeon himself with the army on the western plains, had taken a Sioux bullet in his knee; after the army doctors in Chicago had informed him that he must lose his leg, he had come to Boston, to Dr. Warren, to see if he could save it.

Warren had done so, and had recommended his neighbors across Louisburg Square, Addington Ames and his sister, Caroline, as a place for MacKenzie to board at not too great an expense while he recuperated.

The Ameses' elevator, installed for their late mother's convenience, had been a great help, particularly in the first days after his operation, when he was confined to his room on the third floor at the back of the house. Margaret, the all-purpose girl, had brought him his meals, and Caroline herself had come up once or twice a day to see how he did. Eventually, when he could hobble about, he sat by the window and enjoyed the view: down over the crowded rooftops of the western slope of Beacon Hill to the river, and to Cambridge beyond. On fine days, all the autumn, he enjoyed the sunsets, and as he recovered further and could go downstairs in the elevator, he had enjoyed the Ameses' company as well. He had become, he thought, not so much a paying boarder as a friend. Now, in the winter, he could not imagine a life apart from them. From her.

He moved to the bow window that overlooked the square. Its lavender glass was old, original with the house. Caroline had told him that it had been imported from Europe; imperfect, it had turned color when the sun first struck it. Her grandfather, a China trader and one of the first proprietors of the square, had been too thrifty to replace it. It gave the trees and shrubbery in the central oval an eerie, purplish cast; MacKenzie still wasn't used to it. This day, rain lashed against the panes, making him glad to be indoors. He'd heard about the vagaries of the New England weather before he'd come, but rain in January seemed very odd indeed.

A tall, cloaked figure was striding through the downpour. In a moment more, he had passed beneath the window and they heard him coming in.

Caroline brightened. "There! That will be Addington. He is probably soaked to the skin—I can't imagine why he felt he needed to go to Crabbe's in this weather."

Her brother was a devotee of Crabbe's Boxing and Fencing Club down in Avery Street, beyond the Common. He went there nearly every day, sometimes very early in the morning after a night of stargazing. He kept a telescope on the roof of the house, but for the past several nights, the thaw, with its clouds and rain, had made stargazing impossible.

They heard him stamping in the vestibule, and after a moment he slid open the pocket doors to the parlor. He was a tall man, whippet thin, with dark hair combed straight back from his high forehead, dark, deep-set eyes in a long, clean-shaven face, and a pronounced nose. Ordinarily he was self-contained, not given to displays of feeling; just now, however, they saw from his expression that something was obviously amiss.

"What is it, Addington?" Caroline asked.

"Bad news, I am afraid." He carried a folded newspaper, which he gave to her. "Look at this."

As she opened it, MacKenzie saw that it was an "Extra," and he caught sight of the bold black headline: MURDER AT BERTRAM'S BOWER!!! And in slightly smaller type: vicious crime!!! woman's body found in alley!!!

Caroline quickly scanned the page. They saw her amazement—then shock, then horror. Deathly pale, she looked up at them, while the newspaper dropped to her lap.

"May I?" said MacKenzie, taking the paper and reading: Last night a young woman, Mary Flaherty, a resident of the well-known home for fallen women, Bertram's Bower, had been murdered in a South End alley not far from the Bower. A brutal crime; robbery not a motive; Deputy Chief Inspector Elwood Crippen of the city police stated that "the crime was probably the work of a deranged person."

"I am sorry, my dear," Ames said to his sister. He advanced to the fire and took up his customary position, one slim, booted foot resting on the brass fender. "I know that Agatha is your friend."

Agatha Montgomery was the proprietress of the Bower.

"I must go to her at once, Addington."

"In this downpour? Surely she will be distraught, distracted—"

Just then Margaret knocked and announced lunch, putting a brief end to Ames's protest. But as they spooned up their leek and potato soup, and ate their minced beef patties and boiled beets, Caroline explained to Dr. MacKenzie about Bertram's Bower.

"It is a most worthy establishment, Doctor. And, unfortunately, a necessary one. Agatha takes in girls who—well, they are girls of the street, if you follow."

He did.

"If Miss Montgomery felt the need to speak to you," Ames said, "she would have sent you a telegram." He eyed his plate warily. He did not like beets.

"Not necessarily. She was never one to ask for help, even when she most desperately needs it. It is her brother, remember, who does all the fund-raising."

She turned to MacKenzie. "Agatha has been a friend of mine since we were children, although she is a few years older than I. The Montgomerys grew up around the corner on Pinckney Street. When Agatha was seventeen, her father went bankrupt. She never had a coming-out. She started Bertram's Bower about ten years ago, when an uncle left her a small inheritance. Now she and her brother, the Reverend Randolph Montgomery, support the place from donations."

"You go there regularly," MacKenzie said. Caroline had recently resumed most of her schedule: church meetings, Sewing Circle, Saturday Morning Reading Club, and, of course, the Bower.

"Yes. To teach the girls to read and write, and to sew and do fancy embroidery. They come to the city in search of work, and if they cannot find it, or if they find it and are then dismissed, they end up on the streets." She shuddered, and her brother frowned at her.

"Not a suitable place for you, Caroline," he said. "You know I have never approved of your going there."

"If Agatha Montgomery can devote her life to those poor creatures," she replied with some spirit, "surely I can give them one afternoon every other week."

She turned to MacKenzie again. "She is very strict with them, of course—and of course she must be. She must maintain the highest moral standards. The girls violate the rules at their peril, and well they know it. But they know, too, they are fortunate to be there, because a girl from the Bower can almost always find decent employment when she leaves. Agatha's reputation for high standards guarantees that. At first, when she had just opened the place, she used to go out at night, searching for girls on the streets. Can you imagine? She would talk to them, persuade them to go with her. She keeps them for three months, usually. Feeds them, gets medical attention for them at Dr. Hannah Bigelow's clinic. And she recruited all her friends—her former friends, that is—to teach them."

"Did you know this girl—the one who was—ah—"

"Mary Flaherty? Yes. Not well, for she already knew how to read and write when she came to Agatha, and she could sew a pretty seam. She was a lovely girl, bright and hardworking. You could see she wanted to advance herself in the world. And in fact Agatha kept her on when her three months were up, employing her as her secretary."

Her eyes held MacKenzie's in a steady gaze. "Sometimes I think the work that Agatha Montgomery does over there in the South End is more important than all our charity fairs and sewing for the poor and Thanksgiving baskets of food that the church gives out. We play at good works, but when our hour or two of service is done, we return to our comfortable homes. Agatha lives her charity, she works at it twenty-four hours a day. It is her life. Oh, dear, she must be devastated!" She turned to her brother. "And think of the harm such a scandal will do to the Bower's reputation, Addington. No one will want to volunteer, donations will fall off—they might be ruined because of this!"

"The Reverend Montgomery is a skilled fund-raiser," Ames replied. "I don't imagine this incident, unfortunate as it is, will crimp his style."

"Unfortunate!" she exclaimed. "Is that what you call it?"

"Unfortunate—yes. Hardly a scandal. It is not Agatha Montgomery's fault if some deranged person—as your friend Inspector Crippen put it—has murdered one of her girls."

"Do not call him my friend, Addington." She shook her head. "If Inspector Crippen has charge of this case, they might never find the man who killed Mary."

"True. But a random killing in the night—if it was random—is a difficult thing to solve."

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