New York City, 1913. Twenty-year-old Louise Faulk has fled Altoona, Pennsylvania, to start a life under dizzying lights. In a city of endless possibilities, it’s not long before the young ingénue befriends a witty aspiring model and makes a splash at the liveliest parties on the Upper East Side. But glitter fades to grit when Louise’s Greenwich Village apartment becomes the scene of a violent murder and a former suitor hustling for Tin Pan Alley fame hits front-page headlines as the prime suspect . . .
Driven to investigate the crime, Louise finds herself stepping into the seediest corners of the burgeoning metropolis—where she soon discovers that failed dreams can turn dark and deadly . . .
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New York, June 1913
On Thursday nights, my aunt Irene's Upper East Side townhouse hummed with conversation, laughter, and music coaxed from a temperamental old Chickering upright by whatever guest felt the urge to tickle its yellowed ivories. There was no predicting who would turn up on those at-home evenings: writers, painters, theater people, men of business, and even the odd tradesman whom my aunt deemed interesting for her own particular reasons. And me. I had to shrug off my feeling of being an out-of-town imposter as I threaded my way among the second-tier luminaries Aunt Irene's open invitation attracted. Here was a sophisticated world I barely could have imagined as I'd plodded away at the account books of my uncles' fish and butcher shops in poky Altoona. Even after six months, I wasn't entirely convinced I belonged.
Above all else, Aunt Irene wanted her guests to be fascinating. I never kidded myself that I was fascinating to her, except perhaps in the way that a scientist might find a specimen under a microscope fascinating. Irene Livingston Green had made her name — and a pile of money — churning out sentimental stories of youth such as Myrtle in Springtime and Pretty Is as Petunia Does. I suspected I was Exhibit A in her study of Small-Town Girl in the Big City, which was flattering because I had nothing of the heart-stopping beauty, self-confidence, or can-do spirit of my aunt's fictional heroines. I was useful as an extra pair of hands when canapés needed handing around, however, and Aunt Irene was happy to make use of me in that way, too.
Once a guest paid proper homage to the hostess, it was all very casual. People drifted in and out, clumping together between the brocade settee where Aunt Irene held court with Dickens and Trollope, her two toy spaniels, and the point on the opposite side of the room where Walter, the butler, tended bar at the mahogany liquor cabinet. Those uncomfortable with crowds could snatch a moment of comparative quiet in the dining room, which communicated with the parlor but whose windowless, cramped atmosphere discouraged clustering. The space felt dwarfed by a massive dining table and sideboard, and there were nothing but Jacobean high-backed chairs to perch on, with barley twists that seemed specially designed to dig into the occupant's shoulder blades. Only recluses and misfits tended to camp out there.
But I often found glamour even among the dining room castaways. This night, the guest who captured my attention was a young man named Ford Fitzsimmons. From the moment I'd overheard a magazine editor introducing him to Aunt Irene, I'd tracked his orbit around the room and edged closer to him. He clearly wasn't enjoying the party and knew few people here. As the evening progressed, he receded farther from the action, growing gloomier and more inebriated. Once, I found myself next to him, but before I could introduce myself I was buttonholed by a lady who appeared to be in the process of being devoured by the beady-eyed head of her voluminous white fox stole. She'd survived the sinking of the Titanic and was grabbing egg-salad sandwiches off my tray as if compelled to bulk up in the event of another unscheduled sojourn on a lifeboat in the North Atlantic. I fed her and listened patiently. My personal disasters hadn't been as newsworthy as the Titanic, but I understood about lifeboats. New York City was mine.
Finally free and spotting my quarry alone in the dining room, I sped over with what was left of my plate of sandwiches and took the chair next to him. "Please try to eat something, Mr. Fitzsimmons," I urged.
His blue eyes took in my diminished tower of dainty, crustless offerings as if it were a pile of garden slugs. "I'd rather have another of these." He twirled his drained glass.
"Not until you eat something," I insisted. "Food in your stomach will do you good. I bet you haven't had a real meal in days, have you?"
My tone coaxed a hint of a smile. "No, Mother, I haven't."
I nudged the plate toward him and held it rigid until he dutifully took one and popped it whole into his mouth. "I don't see why you want to starve yourself," I said as he chewed.
He swallowed, and took another. "It's cheaper. Also, one is supposed to earn one's bread. I've barely earned a dime by my own wits since coming to this infernal city."
Small wonder he wasn't a hit at the party. No pep. He needed beefing up, physically and psychologically, and I appointed myself chief pepper-upper. "You had a story in Gotham Magazine, didn't you? That's a good beginning."
"You read that story, did you? Well, you have more confidence in me than the rest of the world does."
Tired of holding the plate, I slid it in front of him on the table. "That's because I know your work. It's just a matter of time before you'll be the envy of most of the people milling about here this evening. In a few years, that crowd will gather around you."
I nodded through the opened French doors into the parlor, but his eyes, wide with amazement, remained focused on me. Absently, he grabbed another sandwich and gobbled it down. "Are you real, or is this some kind of fever dream fledgling writers are susceptible to?"
"I'm real, and I have a real job at Van Hooten and McChesney."
"Oh." Gloom descended on him again. "They rejected my book."
"It wasn't on my account. Live Till Tomorrow kept me up an entire night reading it. I gave it a glowing report."
He sat up straighter. "Then why ...?"
"I'm low man on the totem pole at Van Hooten and McChesney. I was hired to be general secretary and receptionist, but I pestered my bosses to let me read manuscripts that come over the transom." They hadn't required much persuading, actually. Heaven knows my bosses didn't want to read any more than they had to. Sometimes I wondered if either of them liked books at all. "Most of the submissions are pretty forgettable. Yours was that one in a thousand that's truly remarkable."
In my opinion, at least. Jackson Beasley, the editor at Van Hooten and McChesney, had skimmed my report, read two pages of the manuscript, and declared it "amateurish flub-dub." I feared that was primarily because I, a mere clerical underling, had recommended it. Jackson might be an unappreciated editor at a past-its-glory publisher, but he had his pride.
Ford's lips quirked into a bitter smile. "And you're that one in a million who thinks so."
"Van Hooten and McChesney is so ... well, fusty. Mr. McChesney's tastes in particular are rather outdated." I didn't bother to mention Jackson, or Guy Van Hooten. On work days, the scion of our floundering firm could be found in the city clubs and Turkish baths more often than in his office. No one knew his literary tastes, or if he'd ever read a book more intellectually taxing than The Rover Boys. "Our company makes most of its earnings from BulwerLytton reissues. The only new book we've acquired in the past few years that's turned a healthy profit was The Healthy Effects of Pickle Juice on Digestive Disorders. All things considered, they might have done you a favor passing on your manuscript."
A mirthless laugh huffed from him. "Many people have done me the same favor. How will I ever repay them all?"
"I didn't mean to be glib," I said. "But please don't feel discouraged. And if you ever want a reader for your work, I'd feel honored."
That perked him up. "Is that offer genuine?"
He looked at me in wonder. "Who are you?"
I smiled and offered my hand. "Louise Faulk, lately of Altoona, Pennsylvania."
"Ford Fitzsimmons, of Worcester, Massachusetts." He might have golden boy looks, but his rough hands and a certain hardness in his eye told me he'd worked his way through college — if he'd finished college at all. I didn't think he was much older than I, but my guess was that he'd seen much more of the world. "What brought you to the big city, Miss Faulk?"
"Louise, if you don't mind." I considered how much I should tell and decided, as usual, on the abbreviated version. "Does anyone need an excuse to flee Altoona? I finished a secretarial course and did accounts in the back of a butcher's shop for two years before I remembered I had a perfectly good aunt in New York City whose hospitality I could take advantage of."
"You live with your aunt?"
I shook my head. "That's where I was naïve. I turned up here with my suitcase and she promptly directed me to the Martha Washington Hotel for women. Except for these Thursday nights, Aunt Irene likes her privacy."
"Aunt Irene?" He gaped at me. "You're the hostess's niece? I beg your pardon. I thought you were hired help."
"She has the charming habit of treating the entire world as hired help. But I owe her so much, I don't mind popping round and lending a hand. Without her, I never would have found my job at Van Hooten and McChesney. I'm very grateful."
His gaze strayed to my aunt, ridiculously regal in a dress of drifts of lace with a jeweled headdress that featured a plume that was nearly half as long as the settee. Dickens and Trollope bookended her. The expression on Ford's face spoke volumes about what he thought of her. No one who'd read a title from her syrupy oeuvre would mistake her for a literary giant, and her pretensions at hostessing these soirées probably struck him as absurd. I had my mental dukes up, ready to jump to her defense, and was relieved when he changed the subject.
"Still at the women's hotel?" he asked.
"Oh no. I share an apartment now with a girl I met there."
"Just the two of you?" His tone conveyed surprise, but I didn't read any judgment in his eyes. I was used to my independence raising eyebrows. My boss, old Mr. McChesney, had acted positively scandalized when he found out I was living on my own, and not even in a respectable boardinghouse. I was sick to death of boardinghouses, though, and had little patience with the idea that any woman not living under her family's protective roof or under the watchful eyes of snooping strangers would inevitably sink into a life of sin and dissipation.
"Just the two of us," I said, although that wasn't technically true at the moment. I just wished it were.
I glanced around the room and found Callie. She'd arrived fifteen minutes ago and was now perched on the arm of the chair of the gray-haired man she'd come in with. I was a little nettled with her. I'd been late getting to Aunt Irene's because I'd waited for Callie to meet me at my office as we'd planned, and she'd stood me up. But my irritation was short-lived, especially when I saw the old geezer administer a pinch to her thigh. She often got stuck with my aunt's more tiresome guests.
"There she is." I pointed her out.
"I see." Unlike most males with a heartbeat, Ford uttered no word of admiration. Very peculiar, given that Callie was by far the most dazzling creature in the room. In coloring, she could have been Ford's sister. They shared the same honey-colored hair and blue eyes. Callie's personality rarely ran to gloom, though. She was one of those lucky souls who floated through life on good spirits and optimism, tempered with a grit gained, I supposed, from living in the city a full six months longer than I had.
"Callie grew up on a dairy farm upstate near Little Falls. She calls it Little Yawns. Now she's in the big city, works as a mannequin at a dress house called Solomon's, and auditions for shows on Broadway." So far she'd never been cast, but I was impressed by her persistence.
"Sounds like one of your aunt's books."
"Aunt Irene loves her. She says it's only a matter of time before Callie has the town at her feet."
He glowered as another guest leaned close to whisper something in Callie's ear. "It would appear she's made a good start here today." Before I could respond, he turned back to me. "Where downtown do you live?"
"Bleecker and Tenth Street."
"We're practically neighbors," he said. "I live on Christopher."
"Then if you ever need bracing up, you should drop by. 391 Bleecker. Third floor."
A blond brow arched. "Won't your roommate mind your giving an open invitation to a virtual stranger?"
Callie wouldn't mind a bit, but there was someone else in our apartment who would. Ethel. However, I refused to elevate Callie's visiting cousin to the status of roommate.
"How can we be strangers?" I asked. "I read your book."
A hint of a smile touched his lips. "That's right. I spent an entire night with you, by proxy."
I felt myself blushing, which was so ridiculous and unsophisticated. So Altoona. To cover my embarrassment, I swung the subject back to my roommate. "Anyway, Callie loves company. Though I should warn you to guard your heart. She breaks about one per week."
His mouth flattened into a grim line as he watched Callie extract herself from an unwanted tug toward the piano, where a few couples were dancing to a new rag tune. Everything was a rag now, or purported to be. "The Hungarian Rag." "The Crazy Bone Rag." "The Swiss Cheese Rag." I was in a position to know all about music crazes, since the apartment below ours was inhabited by a saxophone quintet called the Bleecker Blowers. Their foundation-shaking renditions of all the popular songs of the day sometimes made me nostalgic for the Caruso phonograph records my Aunt Sonja would put on the Victrola back in Altoona. Opera was her sole indulgence.
Ford was still eyeing Callie. "No need to worry about my heart. Women are the devil."
From his bitter tone, I surmised he was nursing a wounded heart already. In this he was not alone. Everyone in New York seemed to be suffering from some kind of ailment of the heart. I was no exception — a fact that probably would have surprised most people who knew me. Some days, the ache inside surprised even me. I had no one to pine for, but I'd discovered there was more than one way a heart could break. Back in Altoona, I'd attracted a few louses and even one devoted admirer. A frustrated musician, Otto Klemper had worked as an assistant in Uncle Dolph's butcher shop. But it was impossible to fall in love with a man who made eyes at you over a meat slicer. The most immediate emotion Otto had aroused in me was fear that he'd lose a finger.
"I should go," Ford muttered.
My straying thoughts snapped back to attention. "Already? Are you tired?"
He smiled at me. "You're priceless. It's not bedtime, it's tavern time."
That didn't sound good. "I've failed to give you any encouragement, haven't I?"
"Guess again. You've given me the only shot of cheer I've had in a long time." He stood and bowed with exaggerated reverence. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Louise Faulk. You might be my first real friend in publishing."
"Please stay a little longer," I said. "I'd like you to meet Callie."
He frowned again at my roommate, who at that moment had tossed back her head to laugh at something the man next to her had said. The laugh was too big for the room, and drew other stares, as well.
"No, thanks," Ford said through a clenched jaw. "I feel as if I've already met her."
He turned and left without saying any further good-bye to me, or to his hostess.
Bad manners. And yet, perversely, part of me found his stark lack of susceptibility to Callie's obvious charms refreshing. Maybe I'd discovered the one man in America who preferred bookish brunettes to shapely blondes with dazzling smiles. Not that he'd shown much interest in me, especially. No one could accuse him of being a wolf. But there was something in Ford's brooding genius, his very indifference, that appealed to me. I told myself that my interest in him was purely professional. I imagined taking Ford under my wing and spurring him into further flights of creativity. Then, once he realized to what degree he owed all his great success to me, and how invaluable I'd become to him ...
From there my usual sensible self gave way to an imagination run amok. I wasn't Irene Livingston Green's niece for nothing.
After the party broke up around nine thirty, Aunt Irene led Callie and me to the kitchen. As far as I knew, these were the only times my aunt appeared in that functional room. Bernice, her dervish of a cook, kept her domain gleaming and spotless, and the cabinets, some of which reached the eleven-foot ceiling, were painted a stark white to match the tile countertops. Compared to my aunt Sonja's kitchen, with its perpetually floury butcher block tables and inescapable vinegar and cabbage smells, this place was as clean and ordered as a hospital dispensary. Aunt Irene navigated it with her usual efficiency, boxing up leftovers for us and fixing herself a pot of coffee on the stove.
Excerpted from "Murder In Greenwich Village"
Copyright © 2018 Elizabeth Bass.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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