No one in 1840s New York likes fires, but Copper Star Timothy Wilde least of all. So when an arsonist with an agenda begins threatening Alderman Robert Symmes, a corrupt and powerful leader high in the Tammany Hall ranks, Wilde isn’t thrilled to be involved. His reservations escalate further when his brother Valentine announces that he’ll be running against Symmes in the upcoming election, making both himself and Timothy a host of powerful enemies.
Meanwhile, the love of Wilde’s life, Mercy Underhill, unexpectedly shows up on his doorstep and takes under her wing a starving orphan with a tenuous grasp on reality. It soon becomes clear that this wisp of a girl may be the key to stopping those who have been setting fire to buildings across the city—if only they can understand her cryptic descriptions and find out what she knows. Boisterous and suspenseful, The Fatal Flame is filled with beloved Gotham personalities as well as several new stars, culminating in a fiery and shocking conclusion.
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SELECTED FLASH TERMINOLOGY*
ARTICLE. A man. “You’re a pretty article.” A term of contempt.
BAT. A prostitute who walks the streets only at night.
BESS. A pick of a very simple construction.
BLEAK-MORT. A pretty girl.
BOARDINGHOUSE. City prison.
CAVED. Gave up; surrendered.
CHAFFEY. Boisterous; happy; jolly.
CHANT. To talk; to publish; to inform.
COLE. Silver or gold money.
COVE. A man.
CROSS-COVE. A thief; any person that lives in a dishonest way.
CRUMEY. Fat; pockets full; plenty.
DARBIES. Handcuffs; fetters.
DARBY. Cash. “Fork over the darby” (Hand over the cash).
DIMBER-MORT. A pretty girl; an enchanting girl.
DOXIE. A girl.
FADGE. It won’t do; “It won’t fadge.”
FARMER. An alderman.
FIGNER. A small thief.
FLAM. To humbug.
FLY-COP. A sharp officer; an officer that is well posted; one who understands his business.
GIGGER-DUBBER. A turn-key; a prison-keeper.
GRAFT. To work.
GUNNED. Looked at; examined.
HAMLET. A captain of police.
HASH. To vomit.
HATCHES. In distress; in trouble; in debt.
HICKSAM. A countryman; a fool.
HUSH. To murder.
KATE. A smart, brazen-faced woman.
KEN. A house.
KINCHIN. A young child.
KIP. A bed.
KITE. A letter.
KITTLE. To tickle; to please.
KNOCK-ME-DOWN. Very strong liquor.
LACE.To beat; to whip.
LAG. A convicted felon.
LAND-BROKER. An undertaker.
LAY. A particular kind of rascality.
LEAK. To impart a secret.
LEERY. On guard; look out; wide awake.
LENTEN. Having nothing to eat; starving.
LION. Be saucy; frighten; bluff. “Lion the fellow.”
LOOBY. An ignorant fellow; a fool.
LULLABY-KID. An infant.
LUNAN. A girl.
MAB. A harlot.
MANDERER. A beggar.
MAZZARD. The face.
MILL. A fight.
MIZZLE. Go; run; be off.
MOLL. A woman.
MOLLEY. A miss; an effeminate fellow; a sodomite.
MOUSE. Be quiet; be still.
OAK. Strong; rich; of good reputation.
ON THE MUSCLE. On the fight; a fighter; a pugilist.
OPTIME. Class. “He’s optime number one as a screwsman” (He is a first-class burglar).
PAP LAP. An infant.
PEACH. To inform.
PECULIAR. A mistress.
PHILISTINES. Police officers; officers of justice.
POLT. A blow. “Lend the pam a polt in the muns” (Give the fool a blow in the face).
PRIGGER-NAPPER. A police officer.
QUARRON. A body.
QUEER. To puzzle.
RABBIT-SUCKER. Young spendthrifts; fast young men.
RIG. A joke; fun.
ROPED. Led astray; taken in and done for.
SKINNERS. Small lawyers who hang about police offices and figuratively skin their clients.
SKY BLUE. Gin.
SLIM. A punch.
SLUICE YOUR GOB. Take a good long drink.
SNUG. Quiet; all right.
SPICER. A footpad.
SPUNG. A miser.
SQUEAKER. A child.
STAG. One who has turned state’s evidence.
STAIT. The city of New York.
STARGAZERS. Prostitutes; street-walkers.
STIR. A fire.
STOGGER. A pickpocket.
TAP. To arrest.
TO RIGHTS. Clear. “Oh! Then you are to rights this time” (There is a clear case against you).
TUNE. To beat.
WARE HAWK. Look out; beware.
WHIDDLER. An informer; one who tells the secrets of another.
WHIPSTER. A sharper; a cunning fellow.
DUNFHLAITH Ó DUFAIGH, as she had been called in the green mother country, where the rocks pierced the grasslands the way gaunt collarbones pierced the peaceful slumbering corpses in the streets, recalled what it felt like to be hungry. To long for thick brown bread with salt, to taste pipe smoke on her tongue as if it were solid charred beef. To find mushrooms in a tree stump and sell them for whiskey—not out of recklessness but because mushrooms could barely touch her appetite, while a pint of whiskey might help her forget her ravenous belly for an entire day. With care, maybe two.
Dunla Duffy, as they called her in New York City, remembered Ireland with a fondness that lingered like the mists which used to flinch away from the doorstep of her hovel when the stern sun rose. Because Dunla Duffy wasn’t hungry anymore.
These days Dunla was starving.
When I was a younger version of Timothy Wilde, not copper star 107 of the New York City Police Department but a kinchin running feral through the streets, I knew hungrylike I knew my own name. But I’ve never known starving—and if my brother, Valentine, had never done me a single other good turn in his mad life, that would have been enough.
He did more for me than that, of course. But if I get ahead of myself, I’ll never manage to put any of this on paper.
Just before dawn on the day we met, Dunla and I, she sat in the corner of a ground-floor chamber in Pell Street, listlessly hemming ankle cuffs in the rented room she shared with other molls who did manufactory outwork in their living quarters. Trousers were heaped into ziggurats throughout the room, waiting for the brutal sunrise and for the women to rouse themselves. Both the workers and their wares were on the splintering floor, furniture being a luxury. Both were, by Manhattan standards, worthless, because the year was 1848 and the British Isles hadn’t glimpsed a potato that wasn’t blackly leprous since 1845. At daybreak others like Dunla would arrive. Such women were similar to the piles of garbage heaped on our street corners.
No one wanted to look at them. And there would be more the next day.
“You thief,” snarled a crone’s voice from the opposite corner.
Dunla, distracted by a rash that had recently bloomed along her limbs like frenzied spring wildflowers, didn’t reply.
“You’re a thief.”
The room’s twelve other residents stirred fitfully at the noise. Dunla managed, with an effort she found frankly unfair, to raise her head.
As Dunla informed us later, she was fourteen years old. Her huge eyes shone out pale green from straggling locks of equally green and greasy hair framing her round face. She’d once owned pale copper tresses and couldn’t recollect quite how they’d faded to the color of rotting corn silk—I worked out the mystery of her seaweed-bright curls for myself eventually, of course, as I’ve a tendency to unravel puzzles. For all the meager good it does my acquaintances. Dunla did remember that, with her sweetly blank expression and her unnerving eyes, the villagers had given her wary glances when she was a child. But her mother had once lifted her high in the air toward the full silver moon and called Dunla her brightest light, brighter even than the gealach lán above their heads. Whenever Dunla’s imagination attempted to reproduce fresh butter and failed, she thought about being someone’s moon.
Dunla, to be truthful—because Christ knows the tale is too grim to be anything but true—was simple. But she managed in spite of the fact.
The moon seems far off and all, she told me on the day she watched my heart break, but the tide still comes in. Don’t it, now?
From Dunla I learned that people, like deities, can move in mysterious ways.
“What?” she said toward the rusty voice.
“I say you’re a whorish, no-good, shit-eating thief,” the old woman snapped.
Dunla blinked in surprise.
The Witch continued sewing. She stitched quickly and without finesse, her iron hair massed in thunderstorm billows under a disintegrating scarf. The others whispered that the Witch was mad. Dunla had never seen cause to disagree with them. Anyway, she’d glimpsed the Witch before they shared this stifling Pell Street purgatory—she’d been conjuring flames out of a cauldron, Dunla was sure of it.
Dunla had crossed herself, terrified, and hurried away.
“There are laws in this country,” the Witch declared.
The Witch had moved into the front room the previous month, carrying seven vile candles she’d made from rancid lard and twine contained in clay cups. When alight, the contraptions reeked of smoldering entrails. One burned now, and Dunla was using the devilish dregs of its glare by which to sew. She’d woken the instant the glimmer touched her eyelids. Mistakenly thinking it dawn.
“Laws, ye say?” Dunla repeated, frightened. She’d never broken a law before.
“I do say. Laws against stealing light.”
Twelve other pairs of eyes narrowed, appraising. The young mother and her daughter. The two sisters. The stargazer and her very close friend, the other stargazer. The three German women who were always weeping, staring at the walls and clutching one another’s hands. The pregnant lass curled on a pile of newspaper. The girl from the House of Refuge with her hair shorn off. The eleven-year-old kinchin mab.
“It’s my light,” the Witch hissed. “You want to use it, you pay me. What can you pay me, little rat?”
When Dunla saw the other women staring, her spine began to quiver. Some looked vexed, some pitying.
All looked afraid of the Witch.
A knife appeared in the Witch’s hand. It shimmered in the glare of the sputtering animal fat.
“Pay up now, precious,” the Witch whispered, “or I’ll carve my dinner out of your backside.”
“Tomorrow,” Dunla squeaked. “I can sure enough pay ye tomorrow.”
“By tomorrow I’ll have every last one of you roasting over a spit.”
“Pay up now, or suffer the consequences.”
A minute later, maybe less, after screams and chaos and cries of Get out, for God’s sake, Dunla found herself on Pell Street—shoeless, as she’d been for months—with her arms full of unfinished trousers. A thin, miserly rainfall heralding her arrival.
Huddled half under the clothing, Dunla remained on the front steps until the feeble clouds expired and the April sunlight glared dully down at her, illuminating the hordes of Africans and emigrants bustling through Ward Six—the neighborhood known worldwide as a ripening lesion on the face of New York.
It’s my ward too, of course. So I don’t mean that personally.
Tottering through horse droppings and far worse, Dunla staggered past the unconscious drunks with the flies buzzing about their grog-stained shirts, past the drooping wooden houses parroting her own imbalance, past a legless veteran returned from Mexican glory, propped against a porch. We all refer to them as the “returning volunteers,” which makes a pleasanter time for us than saying “ruined men.”This one had tied his uniform into knots at the knees and sipped steadily at a bottle of morphine. The veteran made a bitter grab for Dunla’s skirts. But he was nearly as weak as she was, and so she lurched with her armful of pantaloons onto Chatham Street and turned south.
On Chatham Street it’s impossible to tell where the shops end and the road begins. The borders fluctuate, as porous and fickle as our laws. The storefront of WM. DOWNIE’S HARDWARE EMPORIUM gushed into traffic in the form of tool-burdened tables and a dozen open boxes of carpentry nails. Dunla nearly overturned a precarious pyramid of hats stacked before HABERDASHERY BY P. J. COPPINGER but avoided it when the shop attendant shoved her aside and she fell into the fragrant spring mud.
The next thing Dunla remembered was standing before the foreman of the manufactory in Nassau Street for whom she did “outwork.” That’s a new market, modern as the telegraph, meaning “work without the sordid taint of decent wages.”
“You’re daft,” Mr. Simeon Gage said, incredulous. “I’ll have to charge against your next batch for these materials. They’re ruined.”
Dunla looked down at the mud-soaked pantaloons and couldn’t think of a single word to say.
On her way out of the manufactory, past rainbow rows of flashily dressed Bowery girls at tables doing the more difficult cutting, one familiar face hurried up to her. A pretty peaches-and-cream face with clear, defiant amber eyes, framed by the palest shade of ash-brown waves.
“Oh, Dunla, thank heaven,” the cutter said softly, pressing a folded paper into her hand. “I’ve been looking for you. Here’s four bits. You can pay someone to read this note and then have enough left for some real peck. Lord, but you’re lenten, my girl. Run along now! And you mind what it says!”
Of this dialect, spoken by our criminal element and our rowdier gentry and called flash patter, Dunla comprehended little. Just then she understood it precisely as well as she did the note in her hand, which was not at all.
Thanks to my downright bizarre thirty years of informal education surviving here in New York, I can both speak flash and read English, so I know that her friend had said, You can pay someone to read this note and then have enough left for some real food. Lord, but you’re starving, my girl.
And I know that the note said:
I fear that my friend means to set your house aflame and burn you all alive.
Dunla did understand the fifty cents, however, and soon found herself shoving a fried-oyster sandwich into her mouth, weeping as she did so, salty juices and tears running down her chin and fingertips while the world flowed soundlessly around her like a cold river eroding a stone.
It is impossible to go a rod in any of the more thickly frequented thoroughfares without meeting some apparently miserable supplicant for the bounty of the charitable. All kinds of deformity and suffering are put to use in this business; mis-shapen children, pale and pining infants, wretched old age. . . . Many of these objects are shocking if not disgusting, and ought to be strictly excluded by the authorities from the public streets.
—NEW-YORK DAILY TRIBUNE, AUGUST 17, 1847
I AM NOT THE HERO of this story. I don’t suppose I ever was the hero of any of these stories I set down to make some sense of the senseless. At least I’ve been writing of the hero all this while. Even back when I’d supposed my brother little more than a flaming plague on the surviving Wilde household.
Admittedly I played a role in the war between the manufactory girls and the men who’d wronged them so savagely. And I managed to be clever and discreet, which is why Chief of Police George Washington Matsell trusts me with solving his most controversial crimes in the first place. Though I always take justice as far as I can, I’ve hushed up many a shame-stained scandal in my time as a star police.
I’d stand up and applaud myself if I deserved it. So I’ll sit here and keep writing.
Despite my former bartender’s attention to detail and the fact that people tend to press their darkest secrets into my palms like razor-edged love tokens (neither of which qualities I can even take credit for, as they come naturally), I’m not particularly bright. Clever, yes. Oh, I’ve found myself so very, very clever at times. But as my brother, Val, frequently mentions, I am also dim as dusk. And when I think about that now, about how much more I could have done and what others were forced to do in my stead, something in my chest begins a deliberate downward tear.
Oh, not that yet. That part of the story will come all too soon.
I am not the hero, as I mentioned, but I was playing at one when it began.
I stood huddled in the doorway of a sail-repair shop in plain view of the lumbering East River, jostled by leathery first mates placing orders. I’d a fine vantage point of the James Slip, just at the corner of Oliver and South Streets—briny April wind in my face, a pickled seaside sun in my eyes. Birds wheeled above, screaming for scraps. There are plentiful dregs to be found along the waterfront.
We were after the human variety.
“When can we expect this coldhearted villain to make his appearance?” my friend Jakob Piest asked, ducking into his gruel-speckled muffler.
My closest police comrade has a tendency to wear what he eats. I think of Piest as my partner-in-whatever-it-is-we-do, since I don’t know the name for hunting down criminals after the fact rather than stopping crimes in progress, as the roundsmen do. Somebody should conjure one up. The police have existed for three years now—that’s plentiful time to have figured out a title for my job. Most of the copper stars walk in circuits, eyes peeled for mayhem. Thanks to Chief Matsell’s esteem, I decipher unsolved mayhem. Whenever I can borrow Piest, I do—it’s keener sport with a mad companion beside me. His eyes are invaluable, and he’s honest as the frayed cuffs on his frock coat. I likewise appreciate that he resembles your friendlier breed of barnacle and talks like a knight-errant. It’s a good job there aren’t many windmills left in Manhattan and that jousting poles are similarly scarce, or Mr. Piest would never set aside the time police work requires.
“According to the shipping wires, they’re smack on schedule, so he should be here any minute now,” I mused. The vessel before us rocked and groaned in protest, lashed down like a frothing wild creature. The gangway was rising, and swarthy stevedores with tobacco in their cheeks leaned against dollies, waiting to grapple with the huge ship full of luggage and dry goods about to be disgorged.
“I hope that I am neither a vicious nor a petty person, Mr. Wilde.” Piest’s stringy grey hair waltzed in the spring breeze. “But I relish the thought of Ronan McGlynn passing his days in a Tombs cell, watching the mice cross the great mountain range of his belly as he attempts to lull himself to sleep.”
I smiled at my friend’s quixotic turn of phrase, eyes skipping across coal-stained enginemen and the chalk-and-rouge-smeared whores who survived off their nickels. Piest’s tone was pure poison, but so was our target. We’d recently learned that for months Ronan McGlynn had been turning a tidy profit in plucking comely Irish virgins straight from the gangways and welcoming them to worse than hell with a smile. And nothing scrapes either of our tempers thinner than the exploitation of wide-eyed innocents.
Before us, reporters from the Herald and the Tribune gathered, salivating over the freshest news from overseas. Beyond, the water lapped at the tugs and the sloops and the freighters, striking in lacy plumes against the docks.
“Ah,” breathed Mr. Piest.
“Bully,” I agreed.
The great ship, hull glistening, had commenced hemorrhaging first-class passengers. Fine-featured ladies, feet invisible under the great swaying bells of their skirts, once-careful curls harassed by the ocean wind. Gentlemen at their sides, nodding vague approval beneath their black hats and checking the time and generally congratulating themselves. In ten minutes they’d have disappeared with their steamer trunks piled high behind the hacksmen, gliding away to make vastly important decisions about proper hotels and appropriate restaurants and the writing of letters back to wherever they came from.
We didn’t give a damn about them, though. Another figure had materialized, bouncing on the tips of his boots in anticipation, carrying a sign tucked under his arm. It read APPLICANTS FOR MANUFACTORY WORK WANTED. Which is true enough, now that these eerie mass workplaces have begun cropping up like dry rot.
Ronan McGlynn, however, didn’t mean a word of it.
I set McGlynn’s age somewhere north of fifty, for while his blue eyes remained clear and his ruddy skin hale, his shoulder-length hair was white and his legs sticklike beneath a jolly round belly. He wore perfectly cut doeskin trousers—not the ready-made slops New York has begun vomiting out, but sewn to measure—and a white vest beneath a violet frock coat. A snowy beard and a grey top hat completed the benevolent picture. But he was only a pantomime of a prosperous businessman. McGlynn owned a thin gash of a mouth and the stare of a born slave trader, the outline of a flask marred his jacket, and his nails where they gripped the pasteboard sign were dark with grit.
I notice that sort of thing, though. When the Irish lasses poured off the boat, dazzled and hungry, they’d be lucky to notice a twenty-one-cannon salute. Not that they’d get one.
“If it isn’t the ugliest pair o’ copper stars this side of Connell’s arse,” came a gruff Irish voice to my left.
“Me arse is widely considered comely, truth be told. The shape of it, the heft and all. Are ye blind, Kildare?” a still-thicker Irish brogue questioned, amused.
“Welcome to the festivities.” I smiled crookedly beneath the brim of my broad black hat.
Maybe I ought to have objected to the greeting, but Mr. Piest’s bulging blue eyes and absent chin admittedly resemble a carp’s. As for my own appearance . . . the Fire of 1845 had replaced the upper right quarter of my face with skin like a poorly cobbled thoroughfare. No one to my knowledge found me unbearably ugly previous, but I hadn’t exactly taken a survey. People find Val plenty spruce in appearance, and we could be twins apart from the fact he has me beat by six years of age and eight inches in height. We’ve deep-set green eyes and a little downward half-moon stamped in our chins, clean features with a slender nose below double-arched dirty-blond hairlines. Youthful faces for all that we’ve both seen too much, his marred only by weighty bags beneath his eyes and mine by a scar ugly enough to pickle cucumbers.
So I wasn’t going to argue with Connell. Not when I enthusiastically agreed with him that neither Piest nor myself belongs on a facial-tonic advertisement.
As for our fellow copper stars, Connell has a pleasantly boxlike head, rough-featured and approachable, with flaming red hair he ties back with a short ribbon. Mr. Kildare, the taller and quicker-tempered of the two, rubbed at his wiry black side-whiskers. They joined us in the sail-repair shop’s shadow, leaning with indolent nonchalance against the brick wall.
“Where’s the pimp, then?” Kildare wondered.
“I’ll be after thinkin’ ye really are blind.” Connell nodded toward where McGlynn preened. “Will you look at the airs and graces o’ the scum.”
“Shit’ll fly, if ye hit it with a stick,” Kildare reminded us.
The last of the first-class passengers descended.“You hired McGlynn?” I asked quietly.
“Yesterday, ’twas. We’re meant to be the muscle for a goosing slum in Anthony Street,” said Kildare, whose beat had bordered mine when I’d spent sixteen hours a day trudging in a circle as one of the first New York police.
“A real brothel or an imaginary one?” Jakob Piest asked, brow askew. He doesn’t speak much flash, but we deal with so many brothels it would have been absurd for him not to recognize goosing slum.
“O’ course a real brothel. Don’t be insulting,” Connell said mildly. “Paid the madam five dollars in case McGlynn wanted to check up on our sincerity, didn’t I now? She’s a motherly sort to her stargazers, more than game t’ help flush out the likes o’ this rat.”
“An unnecessary and ungallant query on my part, Mr. Kildare,” Piest apologized.
Prostitution, I should mention, is illegal. Not in fact—merely on paper. When women resort to the practice due to hunger or cold, I mourn for them. Arresting them, though, all the many thousands of them, would be a bit of a wrench, since testimony from the gentlemen who’d bought their kindnesses would be required to convict them. That doesn’t mean, however, that forced prostitution is a form of commerce we’re willing to tolerate. We calculate there are enough slaves south of the Mason-Dixon without treating Manhattan women like the cheaper sort of broodmares.
“We ordered a great bloomin’ lot o’ fresh dells, plump virgin dells fit to break yer hearts and raise yer flagpoles,” Kildare explained, smiling. “Dells with small knubbly titties, dells with great pillow titties, dells with perfect round peach titties to make ye praise the Maker fer—”
“He’s to bring in six new girls for us special like.” Connell pulled out a small notebook. “To be viewed directly, at a quarter past twelve.”
A thick stream of respectable dull greys and browns and maroons seeped from the boat as the second-class passengers, faces hopeful and wary, descended the gangway, their plain woolen traveling costumes thrice mended. Shabby young unmarried men who’d carefully brushed their hats, bespectacled women with the addresses of female boardinghouses clutched in spotless gloved hands. The one thing more disgraceful than being poor, I’ve found, is looking the part. A penniless but chastely dressed woman is graciously allowed to beg for a stale crust. A slovenly dressed one with a cache of gold in the flour jar from her midnight admirers is widely considered better off dead.
McGlynn, still hopping a little in expectancy, stilled when the steerage passengers—no better than ambulatory cargo but treated less tenderly—began to stumble blinking from the bowels of the ship onto American soil. I was peering with grim intent at the older man when the flash of a blue hat and a sweep of black hair passed the corner of my eye.
Before I knew my legs had made a decision, they’d taken two quick steps toward James Slip.
“Mr. Wilde?” Piest questioned, instantly alert. I must have looked like a greyhound quivering at the starting gate, electric shimmers gliding along my skin.
I forgot to answer him.
And it was all nonsense, of course, because that can’t have been her, the last of the second-class passengers. That can’t possibly have been Mercy Underhill.
Mercy Underhill, an old friend and correspondent of mine who held my heart in her hands when she imagined she was merely embroidering with them, or doling out beef tea, or writing her darkly magical short stories, lived in London. Not New York. Not since she’d left it, in 1845, three years back.
But it was just the way she held her head, exactly so, inky hair and papery skin. Since I was a boy, I’ve been studying the way Mercy carried herself at the slightest of angles, as if reading a book held in one slender hand, as if she were always looking for someone who’d disappeared round the corner, just out of her reach.
I stepped back, embarrassed. “I fancied I saw someone I used to know.”
Nothing remained of her. Only swarming Irish, emaciated to the point of weightlessness, some bloodlessly pale and others burned nut brown from outdoor labor, coming thick and fast as petals blown from fruit trees. That was sensible, though, because Mercy had breathed not a word of returning to the city that had treated her so poorly in her last correspondence to me. And anyway, I love her. I see echoes of her everywhere. I could probably find her face in tea leaves and collapsed puddings, as if she were my first and forever saint.
“We had him pegged, all right,” Connell said, eyes fixed on our true prize.
I shook my head in considerable self-disgust, though that didn’t go far toward clearing it.
“Manufactory work for the healthy and willing!” McGlynn rang a small chiming bell, sign in hand. The lettering wasn’t meant for the emigrant Irish, since nary a soul of them could read it, but for our colleagues—roundsmen passing with a curious eye. “Skills taught upon hire! Fair pay for dependable and virtuous females! Women only need apply, to preserve the safety of our workplace!”
“D’ye find it more disgusting he’s speakin’ o’ workplace safety or virtue?” Mr. Connell growled.
A nicely plumpish Irish lass who’d apparently survived the voyage with occasional meals, though God knows how she’d come by them, approached McGlynn. Is there yet work to be had, sir? I saw her ask. Her voice was soft, but if you can’t see the difference between champagne and whiskey in a deafening saloon, you make for a poor barman. The trick had remained handy when I became a copper star.
“Work aplenty!” McGlynn crowed. “This is New York, my girl—the most commercial city in a rich nation. Welcome, welcome! Manufactory work for the chaste and diligent!”
Within three minutes, dozens had lined up. Girls with midnight-black tresses and blue eyes like cornflowers, girls with locks the pale orange of a sweet September leaf. Eyes latched onto McGlynn as if he were a lifeline.
“Give us the plan, then, Wilde,” Kildare demanded.
“Take off your copper stars,” I answered. “You and Connell split off to meet McGlynn at the designated address. Which is?”
“Northwest corner o’ Rose Street and Frankfort. A brothel called the Queen Mab.”
“Best to turn up early so he doesn’t suspect you. Meanwhile, I’ll track these girls with Piest, make certain McGlynn doesn’t drop off any human deliveries before he arrives there.”
“I’d nary think it likely, for by all accounts the Queen Mab is a clearinghouse,” Connell reported icily. It’s a personal opinion of mine that buildings where women are systematically violated for commerce should have a worse moniker, and if I ever find one to express the proper feeling, I’ll employ it. “Screams at all hours, curtains sure enough plastered over the windows, though ’tis a weight off my mind—don’t let ’em out of your sight fer love or money.”
“And when the pair o’ ye arrive at the Queen Mab?” Kildare put in, cracking hoary knuckles.
“We linger outside until you’re being shown the main event, then burst in and cry inspection,” I answered. “Keep McGlynn from escaping out any rabbit holes. Simple.”
“It’s never simple, Wilde, y’ brilliant little tit,” Kildare chided, not without affection.
“Ye’ve titties on the brain, Kildare. Leave off the resident genius until something goes sideways,” Connell chuckled as they set off for Rose Street. “Then we can blame him, don’t you know. Won’t that be nice.”
They never did any such thing, of course. Even when they ought to have done.
Piest, meanwhile, was jutting his inadequate jaw toward McGlynn’s bevy of unwashed beauties in a pugilistic manner I found alarming. He’s a passionate man, but never a violent one. Then I glanced back and felt something thickly furious turn over at the bottom of my stomach.
There were far too many girls for McGlynn to take.
Of course there are, I thought, repulsed by my own surprise.
And so, naturally, McGlynn was standing with elbows akimbo, calling out regretful dismissals in a fatherly baritone. Sending skinny, heartsick maidens and pregnant widows away in tears while he selected the prize lambs for the slaughter. The ones with long lashes and tender little mouths. The fair ones and the rosy ones. The ones gratefully gathering off to the left of a massive pile of parcel post, stroking one another’s shoulders in the depth of their collective relief.
I ought to have expected McGlynn to have his pick. We city dwellers were all of us standing on the tip of Death’s scythe just then, arms flung wide with terror and the sharp point sinking through the boot sole. It was a pretty universal sensation. The young New Yorkers and the old, the Irish and the blacks, the natives and the emigrants, the Protestants and the Catholics, the men and the women. None of which sets got on with each other too amicably. The year 1848 was not, by any standard, a comfortable one. We’d just finished a war with Mexico, and the houses of Congress’s newest hobby seemed to be waging a new one against each other; the country was tearing itself apart at the seams, our rancor poker-black and spiteful. Meanwhile, here in my arrogant young port town, folk were clawing for supremacy like distempered street cats. Nearly half a million of us. The newcomers had proved too plentiful. Too frail and too numerous to live.
I might have mentioned already that the potatoes in Ireland were rotting. It seems worth mentioning again. There was a problem regarding the edible nature of the tuber on Irish shores that directly affected our general welfare.
So of course there were too many girls lining up to be raped to accommodate the man who wanted to rape them. But generally when circumstances set my blood stewing so hot, terrible things happen.
That day was no exception.
“Ready to lock this worm underground?” I questioned.
“Always a pleasure, Mr. Wilde,” the eccentric Dutchman replied.
When our grandfatherly Pied Piper had assembled his elite band, ignoring the pleas of those left behind, he set off, and we followed at a good easy distance. We weren’t any too leery that he could speedily change direction with so many girls in tow. Nine of them, by my counting, six special-ordered by Connell and Kildare. He turned left on Cherry Street, which curves into Pearl as the nautical-supply stores fade along with the smell of sharp vinegar blasts from the billowing water.
I’d figured McGlynn for chaffey enough to parade the whole merry troop right through the main door at Rose Street, but I underestimated him. Sliding the sign beneath his arm, he started making a god-awful racket. This is New York—that’s the way to instantly stop people from listening to you. I made a show of pulling a newspaper from inside my greatcoat while Piest pretended interest over the advertisement I pointed at.
“Applications for manufactory work with mandatory sewing skills, speed test this way!” McGlynn boomed, beaming at the women as he waved at the more discreet service entrance. “Step right through! Training is provided at all aptitude levels, ladies!”
“I’m going to feed this man his own bollocks,” I mentioned behind the paper. Meaning the sentiment, if not the literal activity.
“We’ve only to wait until they are cloistered with Mr. Kildare and Mr. Connell, and then I will gladly assist in the . . .” Mr. Piest’s voice trailed off as he spared a glance above the page.
“What?” I whispered. Not daring to look up, when from the rigidity of his limbs I knew that Mr. Piest was staring intently.
“Erm, very likely the most innocent of misunderstandings and nothing that ought to cause you the remotest alarm.”
“Jakob,” I said forcefully.
“It’s just that your brother . . .”
My attention snapped like a whipcord up to the front door of the Queen Mab.
And yes, there was Val, walking tranquil as you please up the front steps of a clearinghouse. My brother, Valentine Wilde, the captain of the Ward Eight copper stars and the neighborhood’s Party boss, the legendary hero of more fires than I care to ruminate over and the undisputed bane of my existence, carrying a leaded walking stick twice as dangerous as his tongue—and that is saying something—shut the door of the Queen Mab without a backward glance.
“He didn’t see us,” I assured Mr. Piest.
“Oh, Christ,” I interrupted him for the second time.
For Val wasn’t the only visitor I recognized entering the Queen Mab just then.
The man following close after my brother—not a sinister shadow, just a fellow arriving at an appointment—was also known to Piest, for he stiffened again. The newcomer was tall and superficially dashing. I didn’t know him well, and I didn’t want to know him better. At all. In fact, I’d once known him only as Pocket Watch. That was on the occasion, of course, when he’d volunteered to kill me. His real name was Robert Symmes.
I might as well have introduced him, though, as Tammany Hall.
. . . an old lady called, asking aid in reclaiming a grandchild who had been led astray at the age of fourteen, by a married man, a father, Superintendent of the Sabbath School to which she belonged! She had been under his deadly influence for more than a year. . . . They fear, young as she is, she is so contaminated, that nothing but coercion and a long confinement will avail anything. The House of Refuge was recommended as the most suitable place for her.
—THE ADVOCATE OF MORAL REFORM AND FAMILY GUARDIAN, 1852
JAKOB PIEST AND I STOOD outside the Queen Mab on the languidly brightening morning of Wednesday, April 19, 1848. Wondering what was best, or in fact possible, to do.
Briefly, I assured myself that Val’s personal roster of less-than-desirable habits—which so far as I was definitely aware included narcotics, alcohol, bribery, violence, whoring, gambling, theft, cheating, extortion, sodomy, spying, forgery, and lying—could never lead to the sort of debased vice indulged in that place. He’d always been especially infuriated by the notion of the gentler sex being bullied, come to that. I pictured his bold, cynical, morphine-strained face when he discovered just where he was and realized we were in for a hearty serving of warm trouble.
As is pretty usual practice for me.
Folding the paper, I peered at the Queen Mab. Three stories, some of its windows ominously boarded over. Built before the population explosion and thus sturdy if obscenely crumbling. Carpenters these days will lean a pair of uncured planks against each other in the wildwoods north of Chelsea, spread a welcome mat in front, and call it a town house. That would be amusing, supposing humans didn’t actually live in such places.
“It’s to do with the election, it must be,” I conjectured.
“I question this choice of meeting place in the strongest terms,” Piest replied gloomily.
Robert Symmes was about to be reelected, which meant he needed my brother. Val is a police captain by virtue of wit and nerve, a fireman by virtue of tragic history, and a deity to countless Irish by virtue of feeding them. Or if not feeding them directly at the Knickerbocker Engine Company Number 21 on charitable Sundays, then setting them up with the work enabling them to buy cabbage. They’d have plenty to palaver about, the Tammany politician and the Tammany legend who’d deliver him the election on a scrollworked platter. Especially considering the recent splintering of the Party along Hunker and Barnburner lines. But whatever was afoot, it muddled our own ploy.
“I don’t like this at all,” I confessed. “Trust Kildare and Connell to keep the girls safe in the meanwhile . . . but we can’t very well start a raid in the middle of a Party meeting.”
“I cannot see that we have any alternative choice in the matter,” Piest observed worriedly. “We ought to tip a hat to our betters, take the lay of the land, and then I propose it’s on to McGlynn.”
He was right to be anxious. The neophyte police force has always been loathed by the Whig Party, which makes us a pretty squarely Democratic affair. Thus, copper stars who cross Tammany tend to be summarily transferred to the bottom of the Hudson. Grasping this fairly relevant principle had proved one of the nastier lessons of my none-too-peaceable lifetime.
“Right, then,” I said, and we strode across the street.
I eased open the unlocked door. We found ourselves in a dank hallway decorated in the style typical of bordellos inhabited by the semistarving. Someone had taken a pornographic magazine, the sort one seeks in dusky alleyway racks, framed all the moldering pages, and hung them from the plaster. It was not an inspiring display, in light of circumstances.
Voices drifted through a crack in a nearby door. This time I did knock. Though I didn’t wait for an answer.
“. . . the reason I knew you could be counted on,” Symmes continued. “Oh, here’s your brother. I’d no idea you wanted to bring him in, Captain. But it’s genuinely rewarding to see how Party-minded you’re becoming over time, Mr. Wilde.”
Had Symmes seen my true mind, he’d have read printed along the inner circumference of my skull the motto DAMN POLITICS, DAMN THE DEMOCRATS, AND DAMN YOU FOR THE LOW WEASEL YOU ARE. But admittedly I’ve spent the past few years at intensive training in keeping my mouth closed when necessary. The hard way. So I touched the edge of my broad hat and nodded, saying, “This is my colleague, Roundsman Jakob Piest.”
Robert Symmes sat with a glass of brown liquor in his hand, smirking at nothing specific. He seems always to be wishing he could be better occupied or in flasher company, compulsively checking his heavy silver pocket watch. This might flam the foolish into thinking he’s powerful, but to my mind he’s impressive only in the way inert solid-gold bars are. He’s tall and broad-shouldered and blue-eyed and blond, with fairer hair than my brother and a sharper face—all angles and edges in a way that makes him look strong, even thoughtful. He isn’t thoughtful, though. He wears an artful moustache, brilliant waistcoats, turned-down white collars, and a smug expression, and if he’s ever done a good thing for Ward Eight other than to leave it alone, I can’t imagine it.
Meanwhile, my brother was fighting the lingering effects of a spree. His bright green eyes shone feverishly, and the sporadic twitch of his chin meant nothing good. I’d used to spend my nights wondering with a spear in my belly whether, if Val survived the amount of morphine he’d swallowed, it would merely mean he’d die fighting a fire the next day. Rendering the lucky recovery moot. The man thinks he killed our parents in the leaf-crisp brown autumn of 1828 when our home in Greenwich Village tragically went up in cinders. Thus the firedogging, and the narcotics, and the not-very-bearable fact that I can’t change any of it. I’d have better luck requesting in a stern note that the British Parliament stop shipping us Irish peasants than I would persuading my brother to forget what happened the year he turned sixteen and accidentally dropped a lit cigar end in our stable. Or so I assume. There are things, 1828 foremost among them, that we absolutely do not discuss in English. Occasionally in blistering silences. In quick-shuttered looks. Nothing more.
But lately Val, though he hasn’t changed, has mellowed. He’s more inclined to break a scoundrel’s nose than his leg. Lose consciousness in a dazzling white fog of liquor and opiates on the floor of the Liberty’s Blood saloon rather than in a ditch. It’s . . . nice. Sort of domestic, I suppose. If baffling. He wore the same cut of rich Bowery duds as Symmes did, tailored black trousers and a tightly fitted emerald jacket over a morning-glory-patterned waistcoat that was equally expensive as laughable.
“Tim,” Val grunted, electing not to be surprised. “Mr. Piest. Well, since you both savvy what I do already, the podium’s yours, Alderman. Keen to report a crime in a private way, I take it?”
It was smoothly done. The pair of us sat on the molding settee across from my brother and his alderman, by now plenty fretful over our own designs. I reached down to tug at a bootlace and tapped at Mr. Piest’s skinny calf en route. Understanding me, his scarecrow limbs popped upright again.
“Alderman Symmes, I wished merely to pay my sincerest personal respects, since I’ve another, unavoidable engagement. Rest assured that my esteemed, nay, my renowned colleague Mr. Wilde here will inform me in the greatest possible detail how it is we may assist you, and to that end may I wish you a very good day.”
The door clicked shut behind us. Which muffled the direction of my friend’s clamorous boot soles, thank Christ. I leaned forward with my fingers linked, all attention. Val ran a finger over the semicircle etched in his chin.
“Well,” Symmes sniffed. “To begin with, Mr. Wilde, as you may know, I am the owner of a considerable amount of property, ranging in description from housing for our newest voters to estates north of Thirty-fifth Street to modern textile manufactories.”
My brain readily translated, Slums, rectangles of woodland, and human gristmills.
“You could call me a rich man without being a liar, Captain,” Symmes continued. “And I’ve earned it too, every chipped penny—my manufactories are the universal pride of Ward Two. It’s to do with one of them I called you here.”
The manufactory girls who work downtown and populate the Bowery are the least terrible sight in a legion of piss-poor vistas of late. They’re bizarre creatures, to be sure, outlandish as elephants. We’ve never seen their like. They live in all-female boardinghouses empty of fathers and husbands, walk to work sharing secrets and grainy ripe apples. They wear scarlet vests over yellow frocks and cry “Bully!” at the drop of a hatpin when they’re pleased. Their hours are long, I hear tell, and the labor both difficult and tedious. But they throw “check-apron” dances at the Red House come January. Feast on charred pigs and hot cider. Smile when a fellow like me dares to look them in the eye and then laugh at me when I nod back. It’s disorderly, confounding, and—for a man who sees starving women on an almost daily basis—downright pleasurable. The Bowery girls own a frankness that looks like pride, and it’s mesmerizing.
The outworkers, though, the emigrant women. The ones who aren’t whores and aren’t American and still sew clothing. They’re another story entirely.
“Rich man, you say. By Christ, can you imagine I’d guessed as much? And just which bit of velvet is feeling coarse against your delicate bits, Mr. Symmes?” Val inquired testily.
Symmes drew a much-folded piece of paper from his frock coat. “As a boss who manages many sets of laborers, I’ve identified certain . . . types. Malcontents who are only satisfied by dissatisfaction, for instance—eager to slander authority but sluggish over actual exertion. Of course you must have combated such slow rot yourself, Captain, within your copper stars.”
My brother showed a lightning glimpse of canines that has never boded well for anyone. “Truth be told, I’ve a pack of fly-cops posted under me, and the only hicksams honest heavy lifters.”
“In English, if you please, I refuse to endure common flash cant.”
“I trust my men, and I like them,” Val drawled. “So you’ll have to touch on the specific.”
Lifting an eyebrow, Symmes offered the crumpled document.
Valentine took it without any theatricality whatsoever and spread it on his thigh. Something in his face changed from dismissive to intrigued.
“Specific enough?” Symmes sniffed as the pocket watch made an appearance.
“Not that Tim here can always tell east from elbow, but he might help shine a lantern on this.” Val snapped the paper against his knee, passing it to me.
The scrap of foolscap read:
Women across the nation are on the rise. As strikes don’t move you, we’ll see whether vengeance might. Improve the hateful conditions of those who wield the needle as a sword or watch your outwork go down in flames. We will not be cowed by those who think us less than human. You might not weep over the martyrs we will create in the name of justice. But you will mind about your lost pantaloons when they burn.
This was enough to give pause.
Our gunpowder keg of a local workforce has been shrieking itself dumb of late over multiple thorny questions, two topics trumping all the rest for volume and bristling hostility. First, I don’t think announcing a “right to work” and then proceeding to slaughter one another as they’re currently doing in France is a very sensible proposal. But reading about the catastrophic scope of dead Frenchmen in the Herald excites the appetites of our equally ravenous laborers, their callused and empty hands itching for doughy capitalist necks.
Second, I don’t suppose targeting female workers—who constitute the next ax on the workingmen’s grinding stone—any too practicable, since they haven’t any wealth to redistribute in the first place. Though the Married Women’s Property Act just allowed them marginal safety as regards inheritance, they’re still about as well-off, legally speaking, as your more pampered stock of Georgia house slave. When once married, they don’t own their kinchin, they don’t own their wages, they don’t even own their own hides if the master of the house is inclined to regular doses of the belt.
As women have recently begun to point out. To vigorous and near-universal ridicule.
So the note was genuinely worrisome. Meanwhile, Val had indirectly asked me to play my little saloon-keeper’s parlor trick with it. So I set to.
“This was wrapped around a small brick or stone. The wrinkles radiate from four points. Thrown through your window, maybe?” I asked, eyeing the alderman.
Symmes blinked in surprise and then shrugged the insight off. “It was, at that. I suppose next you’ll pinpoint the perpetrator?”
“I’m not a magician. But the author probably has access to a printing press. Maybe an apprentice at one of the smaller journals, though a man who does small batches from home isn’t impossible. Whoever made this wanted it to resemble a major newspaper, but that’s hocus. The Herald, the Tribune, they’re all printed double-sided. This is printed on one side only—a special order, then. From the tone I’d figure the writer for educated and plenty familiar with foreign politics.”
Symmes sat with a smirk hastily scrawled over his face, trying to decide whether to be mocking or bored. Valentine merely coughed in contentment, running a pugilist’s knuckles down his costly waistcoat.
“Threats of this sort are common enough,” I reasoned, keen to escape upstairs. “People borrow wild language from the morning editions, lay ideas that never hatch.”
“Granted, I suppose many locals are corrupted by the writings of foreign anarchists and Yidishers,” Symmes owned, yawning.
Not caring to address this topic, I returned to the previous one. A man can own the deftest tongue on the planet, but I’ve found if his audience lacks ears, talk is ineffectual. Anatomically speaking.
“I suppose we burn the letter, then?” I hazarded. Knowing the Party’s ways.
“Oh, no, not when it’s clearly of such use to you.” Symmes sighed pettishly, staring now into the middle distance. “That document will be further proof against the culprit, who has been threatening to incinerate me in my bed for weeks.”
My black boot stopped inches from the fireplace, a reddish haze gleaming hungrily over its toe.
A mad correspondent was one thing. We’ve both local and imported religious radicals, utopians in pristine white uniforms, half-witted screeds in the place of journalism, and a national congressman who insists that the solution to the slavery dilemma is to slit the throats of all blacks and chalk the experiment up to an honest mistake. Hell, Hunkers within the Party are calling for Barnburners to hang for traitors to Tammany, and vice-versa arguments are screamed with equal bloodthirsty enthusiasm.
But a mad correspondent who actually acted—I’ve dealt with such vipers’ nests before. As for a genuine incendiary, exactly nil words in the English language ketch me quite the way fire does.
I needed out of that room.
Valentine shifted in his chair. “In that case just give out the guilty party’s moniker and we’ll—”
“Who do you imagine wrote this, then, Mr. Wilde?” Symmes demanded of me lazily. “Make use of your . . . faculty, whatever it is, and identify the perpetrator.”
I’ve lived for thirty years on this unfortunate planet, six years less than Valentine. And the only person I have ever heard interrupt him without fearing for his health is me. My brother’s eyes were sparking like the Harlem line train’s iron wheels.
“A tailor, obviously,” I grated out. “They think the seamstresses lower than fleas for stealing their livelihood, and the unemployed ones breathe in air and breathe out inflammatory articles. You’re after one with an idle needle and a busy press.”
“Wrong.” Symmes checked his pocket watch again. “What a disappointment you are in the end, Mr. Wilde. I’m after a bumptious wench with a busy press and a busier mouth. A Fanny Wrightist harlot by the name of Sally Woods, whom I was forced to sack from one of my aforementioned manufactories. You can find her at one-thirty Thomas Street.”
My abnormally patient brother at last stirred. “You’re being threatened by a bluestocking,Alderman?”
“Yes, to my profound annoyance. I’ve so very many demands on my time during this eventful elec—”
Val sat forward with such abrupt force that Symmes stopped midsentence. My pulse quickened uncomfortably. But at least the world as I knew it had returned the north to its pole.
“You mean to suggest to me,” my brother said in an undertone dark as coal dust, “that you called me here, wherever here is—during, I need not remind you, the height of your election season—to ask me to muzzle a moll who sent a kite through your window for a lark. Because this doesn’t go very far toward guaranteeing an actual fire. Sir.”
“I asked you to speak plain English, and I meant it. Of course she’d never dare to go through with her threat, but—”
“But since you’re not up to controlling your manufactory wenches, you summoned me. Notwithstanding the sprees I’ve yet to plan nor the spungs I’ve to wring for campaign funds nor the manderers I’ve to dress like Democrats within a fortnight for you. Sir.”
“Captain Wilde—” Symmes sputtered, furious.
“Do you honestly think you’re the only man in this room with starch in your collar and time at a premium? Or can’t you lion a Bowery gal at all? They need ginger management, I’ll own as much, spitfire creatures to the last of them, and if you’ve a weak hand—”
“Valentine!” I exclaimed, aghast.
“Treat me like a spicer,” my brother growled to Symmes with a positively voracious smile on his face, “and I will—”
Several thumps and a muffled shout emanated from the cracked ceiling, sending my hackles skyward.
“Enough of this posturing, Captain!” the alderman cried. “Show a modicum of respect. Of course I’d thought to make the errand, and I’ll admit an errand of sorts it is, albeit likewise a civic duty, worth your while. Why do you think we’re here, for God’s sake?”
“Try me,” I shot back, glaring upward at the plaster dust drifting onto the brim of my hat.
Seeing my expression, Val pushed to his feet. “You’ve ten seconds left to jaw, Symmes. Make them bleed for you.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, don’t act the innocent, Valentine,” Symmes snapped. “It’s ludicrous on you. You’re a man of appetites, and everyone knows it. This afternoon is just a small token, a gratuity if you will, for settling this little matter of mine—fresh as they come.”
“Val,” I hissed, stomach knotting, “we’re—”
“Just what in the name of the devil,” Valentine said tenderly, advancing toward the politician with his mother-of-pearl-topped stick firmly in hand, “were you planning to tip me with, Alderman?”
A sharp scream sliced through the thin flooring. I was off like a hare, my brother audible at my heels.
Whatever was happening needed to end. Instantly.
“Do I want to savvy why you’re really here?” Val demanded from the stair behind me. He’s quicker, but there wasn’t space for him to pass.
“No,” I admitted, swinging myself up and into the hallway by the newel post. “Should you have insulted—”
“No,” he snarled, “but I’ve been keen to for years. And if what I suspect is true—”
I skidded to a halt in an open doorway, my brother towering behind me.
It was a spare room with six straw mattresses in it. Filthy and lice-ridden as their scores of temporary occupants, pooled with tallow-colored stains that didn’t bear scrutiny. The floor was achingly bare, the two windows boarded over, the room’s only light emanating from a set of brass kerosene fixtures attached to either wall, leering like rotten teeth. Pondering what had been done in that room countless times over would have been hard enough going without a set of nine frightened Irish girls herded inside, suffering torments.
But that wasn’t quite the case either.
Carefully, I took in the scene.
Ronan McGlynn had his dirty hands up in apparent shock. Mr. Connell stood in the corner with his burly arms spread wide. Mr. Piest murmured soothing words from a spot near the door. The nine Irish lasses did indeed look frightened, pale skin waxy in the jaundiced light, huddled into a pack with their backs together and their teeth bared.
And one of them—a blazing redhead with a face freckled as if she’d been lovingly splattered by her ancestors with a tiny paintbrush—held a makeshift knife point-up against my friend Mr. Kildare’s throat.
Woman’s Rights, or the movement that goes under that name, may seem to some too trifling in itself and too much connected with ludicrous associations to be made the subject of serious arguments. If nothing else, however, should give it consequence, it would demand our earnest attention from its intimate connection with all the radical and infidel movements of the day. A strange affinity seems to bind them all together. . . .
—HARPER’S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE, NOVEMBER 1853
AS WITH MOST SITUATIONS ending in life, death, or arrest, the arrival of newcomers garnered a healthy percentage of the room’s attention. Piest fell silent, Connell speared me a canny sidelong look, and the Irish girls as one organism inched farther into the back of that beastly room. Kildare suffered a tensing of the knife at his throat and murmured an appeal in his own language. Whether to God or to the redhead more immediately deciding his fate, I couldn’t say. His face was chalk-drawn in the way only a man with his life taken out of his hands can look.
Meanwhile, I’d been having a chat downstairs with a politician. I will never lose the ability to surprise myself. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.
“All right. Let’s have a short palaver, and then we’ll all be on our way. Except for that man,” I added, pointing a finger like a pikestaff at McGlynn, “who will be going to jail.”
McGlynn’s eyes narrowed into snake slits, white beard jutting in defiance. I feared a hidden exit but suspected there wasn’t one—any molls incarcerated to be broken there might have found it. Unfortunately, I’ve rich experience with girls being abused as men please. My very young friend Bird Daly, who’d provided not only my first crime of citywide significance but my first friend after the fire had scarred me, was once imprisoned in a chamber with cleaner bedclothes but an identically rank purpose. One finds few escape routes built into dungeons, whether they belong to the absent-hearted Madam Silkie Marsh, who sold mere kinchin for pleasure, or to dockside kidnappers.
I stepped ever so carefully aside. For the single reason that I wanted my brother to have a clear sight line more than anyone else in the room.
Mr. Piest’s brow was damp, but his voice emerged calm and reedy as ever. “I was just saying the same, Mr. Wilde, and also that these two fellow Irishmen you see here, madam, as well as myself and the two noble gentlemen who have just arrived, are star police of New—”
“Liar!” she hissed. Her blade seemed to have been honed from the end of a cheap pewter soup spoon, the bowl of which was clenched in one hand, Kildare’s hair fisted in the other. “These ten minutes and all they’ve been a-standin’ there, ogling, arguin’ our price.”
“I know.” I advanced a single step more. “It’s part of our—”
“Saints have mercy, what call d’ye expect me to trust a policeman fer, even if ’tis gospel yer speakin’? Pigs,” she added, spitting at us.
There was a point that I couldn’t rightly argue. We’re not all of the same stripe, we copper stars. Oh, we wear the same badge and we work under Chief Matsell, who, for a political man, is a shockingly decent one. But none of us are quite meant to be here, after all. Some of us are meant to run a distillery or own a haberdashery or till a farm. Others are meant to keep a gambling hell or host a bear-baiting ring or rob headlong midnight stagecoaches. Plenty are a little of both sorts, like my brother, both ruthless and pastoral, and skirt dangerous boundaries. But we’ve all been blasted by something that scored lasting marks. Not a man of us woke up and said, May I one day be a policeman of New York?—because we simply didn’t exist. Who could imagine such work as keeping a city safe?
And that makes for a wide, wavy ribbon of light and dark.
“’Tis from the docks themselves we’ve been tracking ye this past hour,” Connell pleaded. “When y’ came off the gangway, that bonnie lass wi’ the dark hair and the blue shawl there was on your arm, and us watching, a-fixed to trap this rat in his—”
“That proves a great barrel o’ nothin’ as I figure it.” She angled the knife higher, shining wide grey eyes on each of us by turn. “Could have been spying fer any reason, and none of ’em decent.”
“What if—” Piest began, advancing.
“Get back afore I cut his bollocks as well as ’is worthless throat!” she cried.
We did. Posthaste. Kildare glared daggers at Piest, who blushed crimson and then promptly continued, dogged as ever.
“They’ve copper stars in their pockets, madam, the identical ones that we wear,” Piest repeated. “Show her, Mr. Connell, that you are a stalwart vessel of the—”
“I. Hate. Pigs.” The emigrant woman jerked at her captive’s scalp. I couldn’t muster the energy to fault her for it.
“Please tell us, just what is your plan here?” I begged, palms forward.
“Now, that’s the right question,” Valentine said pleasantly from behind me.
The Irish girls swept eyes made all the brighter by dint of dirt and tear tracks toward us. It was like being stared down by an ancient, many-headed creature in the gloom of its echoing cave. Downright uncanny. And my lungs were already strapped tight with fear.
“Do you want to kill that man?” he inquired. As if asking after the likelihood of rain or location of the closest apothecary.
If the panicked huddle knew what to make of the giant who’d stolen the spotlight, they didn’t let on. Propping his stick against the wall, Valentine pulled something from his waistcoat, which act violently alarmed both sides. But it was only a cigar stub. He smiled, a real one, with teeth that weren’t meant to rend, and lit the cigar with a vesta struck against his thumbnail. The instant the tobacco aroma began to drift, soporific and familiar, the charged atmosphere shifted.
“I did actually want to know,” Val objected when the lass holding the shiv stood glaring wordlessly. “You can want to kill him or not, as long as you tell me which.”
What in hell is wrong here, I thought, other than the obvious?
I realized in another clock’s tick that my sibling wasn’t speaking flash. And that—after long wondering—I at last knew whether or not he could tell the difference. It was the right lay to make, to be sure. How could a green girl from a green island understand our blackest speech? And so he was talking plain English. As I’d not heard him do since . . . I could scarce remember.
“What’s yer part in this?” the girl demanded. “Boss o’ the place, are ye? Or just a patron?”
“I’m another star police, same as these.” Val waved the cigar in a cordial arc. In every direction save McGlynn’s, whom we’d trapped in the corner when we crowded the entryway. “This is my brother here, the small one. Ever seen a family work that way? All the height, brains, and good looks to one brother?”
“Don’t forget vices,” I couldn’t help but retort.
But he had the girls, if not remotely in the palm of his broad hand, at least listening. Part of his appeal to them was the charm he can gush as if he’s a Croton pump fitted for the purpose. But the rest was simpler far—he was the only man in the room not exuding a rank musk of dread. Deliberately, I lowered my shoulders. One or two faces at the other end of the room, meanwhile, almost smiled at the thought of their siblings.
“I’d still appreciate knowing what you plan, miss.” Valentine blew a fat smoke ring as if reclining on a veranda.
“Gettin’ out o’ this den of whores and pimps alive,” she snarled. “What else?”
“A very fine goal, and may I—” Kildare began before his speech was stopped by the pressure of an exceedingly sharp spoon.
The other copper stars froze, statuelike. All save my brother, who leaned against the left side of the doorframe with his arms crossed.
“Do you want to kill that man, though?” he insisted. “It would be messy for everyone, all that mopping up blood and filling out paperwork, and you’d be a murderess, you see, and we’d be forced to lock you up. Not that Kildare here is so very inspiring. He isn’t. I hardly need to tell you that—you’re the one netted him like a butterfly. It’s just the principle of the thing. Anyhow, I’ve a suggestion. You can take it or leave it, but hear me out?”
By then I was on a kinchin’s merry-go-round, reeling inwardly. Not having heard Val speak actual English since, say, around 1830. It was like watching him whisk his own face off to reveal a second one, but one I recognized from childhood.
“D’ye need my permission t’ speak, or shall we mill about till yer ready?” Kildare’s captor returned.
Two of the girls giggled, several smiled. Valentine dropped his head backward and laughed, flinching as if he’d a cracked rib.
“Right, yes,” he agreed. “I’m going to offer you a trade. I will remove any man you please from the present situation. Take your pick. One of us I eliminate for you as a gesture of good faith.”
“And then?” she prompted defiantly.
“And then you march Kildare here or whomever else you like downstairs at the end of your blade, me if you fancy, and when you breathe the fresh air, you let the poor bastard go. You’ve won, you see. This is me negotiating the terms of our defeat. I like my plan better than your plan, and I figure you do too. So I’ll just wait until you’ve picked a fellow, and then I’ll get rid of him.”
Piest stared at Valentine with eyes wide as chowder bowls. Kildare appeared, as was only to be expected, less than pleased with this lay. Connell glanced heavenward as if praying for it to work without killing anyone.
I searched my brother for a signal. None seemed remotely apparent.
Valentine returned to smoking, pointedly not looking at anyone, leaving the girl to her choice uninterrupted. Then, quite by accident, he studied the gritty floor beneath the doorframe, and his boyish, careworn face turned hard as exposed bone. I followed his gaze and saw along the cheap pine a pattern of nail gouges from previous attempted escapes. Just as a frothy tide of rage washed over me, Val snapped back into focus.
“Well?” he asked in a friendly tone. “Any ideas?”
She’d already nerves of sheer Irish cliffside and a heart to stand up for her friends—even if they weren’t her friends at all. That would have been more than ample, for my money. But the girl thought it over, and she gave it time.
“That one,” she determined, her eyes staking a claim on Ronan McGlynn. “Give me the dog who dragged us t’ this den and call it even.”
“Thank Christ.” Valentine shoved his cigar in my direction. “Hold this. For a moment there, I thought we’d all have to witness something unpleasant.”
My hand had scarcely moved before McGlynn hurled himself at my brother with a knife snatched from within his boot, swinging wide and wishful. Val, pivoting on the instant, blocked the strike with his forearm. Snarling, McGlynn tried his luck with a backhanded stab, twisting all his weight onto his opposite foot to lend more strength to his gnarled fist.
It didn’t work.
Valentine caught McGlynn’s wrist with a little circle that looked like a waltzer’s flourish and tethered it, the knife now pressed against the hollow of the villain’s spine. With his other hand gripping McGlynn’s shoulder, Val took four quick steps forward with his shorter, weaker antagonist and sent his head through the wall.
By saying through the wall, I mean literally. For the walls were crumbling back into forest sod, and the upkeep was nonexistent.
One speechless moment passed, everyone staring at the hole with McGlynn’s motionless pate resting inside it. A fragile bird cradled within an inhospitable nest. Then Val uncurled his hands and Ronan McGlynn slumped to the floor. Breathing, as I could see plain in the swells of his swollen belly. As oblivious as an unborn babe, fresh blood caressing his eyebrows.
I traced my mouth with my fingers introspectively. Wondering just how Val expected me to drag a fourteen-stone villain to the Tombs. And certain as the Party is crooked, he wasn’t going to be helping.
The girls burst into spontaneous applause. All except their ringleader, who was still shoving honed metal into my friend Kildare’s neck. Exchanging a look with Piest that was equal parts relief and exasperation, I lowered my hands.
“Everyone back flat against the walls save Kildare, who doesn’t try anything exciting.” I hoped she remembered he had a name, however much she mistrusted him.
Val strode in my direction and plucked his cigar from my fingers as the others retreated. I’d forgotten I’d been holding it.
“Victors first,” he announced, winking.
The girls, Kildare, and his lovely freckled captor foremost, headed for the stairs. Connell raised a ginger eyebrow at me as if demanding to know what abominable alchemy had created my only sibling and what in bloody hell we were doing with our lives.
I’d have given him an answer or two. But I hadn’t any.
Excerpted from "The Fatal Flame"
Copyright © 2016 Lyndsay Faye.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Lyndsay Faye:
“[A]tmospheric and exciting . . . [Seven for a Secret] is swift but poignant, full of violent encounters and thrilling escapes.” —The Wall Street Journal
“This gripping, beautifully written, chilling, heartbreaking, and exciting novel . . . [Seven for a Secret] is an amazingly rich story, worthy of the word ‘epic’ . . . definitely one of the finest crime novels of the year.” —Mystery Scene
“[Gods of Gotham is a] rollicking historical novel . . . a sensational account. . . .”
—The New York Times Book Review
“If your concept of paradise is popping in a DVD of Gangs of New York while rereading Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, then put Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham on your to-buy list.”
Reading Group Guide
Lyndsay Faye THE FATAL FLAME Reading Guide
1) The Potato Famine famously brought thousands of people to New York, like Dunla Duffy, who would otherwise have perished in Ireland. They were greeted largely with disgust rather than welcome, and they lived in dire poverty. Can you think of other cultures whose immigration experiences have proved similarly difficult? Do you know of any modern-day anecdotes that might likewise correspond?
2) Women such as Ellie Abell and Sally Woods who endeavored to stake a claim for female rights were considered far more disgraceful than abolitionists, and in general male liberals flatly refused to assist them. What explanations can you think of for this reluctance? In what ways did the male protagonists of this book, Timothy and Valentine, also fail to regard women as equals?
3) Timothy Wilde has a close relationship with Bird Daly, a child he met as she fled brothel work during The Gods of Gotham. To what extent do you think her past captivity at the hands of Silkie Marsh affects how he treats her? Do you think her dark experiences color any of his opinions about women in general, or about female rights in particular?
4) Valentine Wilde makes a great many difficult decisions in this story when attempting to juggle his relationships with Tammany Hall, James Playfair, and Timothy, and he largely stands by his choices. Do you think his actions are justified under the circumstances? Why or why not? Do you think Valentine secretly regrets any of them? Who or what do you think Valentine cares about the most?
5) Tammany Hall strongly affected the dialogue among various political factions, controlling parts of the media and of the legislature. Why do you imagine it was so powerful? Do you see any parallels to similar forces in today’s politics or media, be they liberal or conservative?
6) Sally Woods does many things her contemporaries find shocking, including running her own business and wearing trousers. Were you sympathetic to her character or suspicious of her? Why or why not? Do you think Timothy is right in calling her trapped by love, and not fear, after the truth is discovered?
7) Bird Daly is growing up quickly, and Timothy is fiercely protective of her as she matures. To what extent do you think this is a story about major life transitions for Bird? Or for Timothy, Elena, Mercy, or Valentine? Of the five characters, whose life do you think is changed the most at the end of the novel?
8) James Playfair is in a relationship with a high-functioning drug addict. Why does he stay, and why is their partnership long-standing? Conversely, why would a Tammany insider like Valentine risk his reputation for James? If you were surprised by their relationship, were you aware of Walt Whitman’s queer poetry written during the same period in New York City?
9) Valentine Wilde has committed many sins according to Timothy, including indulgence in narcotics and alcohol, bribery, violence, whoring, gambling, theft, cheating, extortion, sodomy, forgery, lying, and murder. How many of these acts do you consider sins? How many do you think are justifiable due to Valentine’s motives? Do you consider Valentine a good person, a moral reprobate, or something in-between?
10) Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792 wrote, “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” How do you think Sally Woods, Silkie Marsh, or Elena Boehm would feel about this quote? How do these three women express feminism, and which do you think is the most successful?
11) Mercy Underhill, by the end of the novel, is proven to suffer from a severe mental illness, possibly paranoid schizophrenia. Aware that she would be cruelly mistreated in a madhouse and shunned by polite company, Timothy delivers her to Dr. Peter Palsgrave. Do you think there is still shame attached to mental illness today? Why or why not? Do you think Timothy’s decision to entrust Mercy to Dr. Palsgrave was the best solution?
12) In Seven for a Secret, Timothy says that Valentine never deliberately keeps secrets from him. Is that true in this novel? After James Playfair is severely injured, Timothy avoids telling Valentine about the attack. Do you think he was right to respect James’s wishes, or wrong to keep Valentine in the dark? If James had died, would your opinion differ? Why or why not?
13) Elena Boehm lists a number of cardinal differences between Timothy’s feelings for her and his feelings for Mercy, suggesting he would “prefer to find new lodgings than to stain [her] bedsheets.” Do you agree or disagree with this assessment? Elena also implies that Timothy wants Mercy to be obsessed with him. Do you think Elena is right? Why or why not?
14) When Timothy finishes his last manuscript, he decides to give all three to Mercy Underhill and says, “We so stubbornly speak to each other in our best pet languages. When really, how much simpler would it be to speak to the listener in his or her own?” What do you think Timothy meant by this? The novel is full of references to poetry and miscommunication and the real language of flash patter. At what points do you think the characters’ use of “pet languages” is effective or ineffective?