Set amidst the opulent mansions and cobblestone streets of Old New York, this enthralling historical mystery by Rosemary Simpson brings the Gilded Age to life—in a tantalizing tale of old money, new love, and grave suspicion . . .
As the Great Blizzard of 1888 cripples New York City, heiress Prudence MacKenzie sits anxiously within her palatial Fifth Avenue home waiting for her fiancé’s safe return. But the fearsome storm rages through the night. With daylight, more than two hundred people are found to have perished in the icy winds and treacherous snowdrifts. Among them is Prudence’s fiancé—his body frozen, his head crushed by a heavy branch, his fingers clutching a single playing card, the ace of spades . . .
Close on the heels of her father’s untimely demise, Prudence is convinced Charles’s death was no accident. The ace of spades was a code he shared with his school friend, Geoffrey Hunter, a former Pinkerton agent and attorney from the South. Wary of sinister forces closing in on her, Prudence turns to Geoffrey as her only hope in solving a murder not all believe in—and to help protect her inheritance from a stepmother who seems more interested in the family fortune than Prudence’s wellbeing . . .
“Simpson vividly recreates the world of nineteenth-century New York City in this exciting debut mystery.”
—Victoria Thompson, bestselling author of Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue
About the Author
Sarah Zimmerman is an Audie Award-nominated narrator, having recorded over 100 books to date, and has an extensive theater career. She has performed on Broadway, in regional theaters across America, and in numerous guest-starring TV roles. Sarah is a graduate of The Boston Conservatory and the Old Globe/USD.
Read an Excerpt
What The Dead Leave Behind
By Rosemary Simpson
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 Rosemary Simpson
All rights reserved.
March 12, 1888 New York City
Sunday's heavy rain turned to icy sleet and then snow after midnight, blanketing the sleeping city in layers of white that whirled into drifts and billows as the wind picked up. In the dark hours before dawn an unexpected spring snowstorm turned into a killing blizzard, the worst New York City had ever known.
The blizzard howled its way across Manhattan early Monday morning. Most of the city's inhabitants stayed home; the wind was strong, the ice slippery, and the snow so blinding that familiar stoops and sidewalks were too treacherous to risk. People who out of curiosity opened their front doors had to struggle to close them again against the howling gusts. New Yorkers turned up their gas furnaces, checked basement coal bins, fretted over the size of backyard woodpiles.
Despite the dangers of the storm, there were those who worried that if they didn't show up for work, there wouldn't be any work to show up for. Times had been bad after the war; jobs were scarce, hard to find and keep. Too many husbands and fathers lived in fear of being fired; for every man earning a weekly wage, another was ready to step into his shoes. Daily help, mostly women, lived hand to mouth; to lose a day's pay was to upset an already precarious balance. Empty bellies had to be filled no matter how treacherous the weather.
Easter was only three weeks away, they told themselves. How bad could a spring snowstorm get? How long could it last? Who'd ever heard of anyone freezing to death in mid-March? Few of the foolhardy who ventured out from their brownstones and apartments in the general direction of their places of employment got where they were attempting to go. Two hundred of those who did not turn back disappeared, not to be found again until the snow melted around their upthrust, desperate arms.
As Monday morning wore on, trains from the suburbs ground to a halt in monstrously tall drifts; the city's horse-drawn delivery wagons and hansom cabs failed to appear on snow-blocked streets. In front of every apartment building supers and doormen shoveled as fast as they could, but the wind and the snow beat them back into lobbies and foyers where they stomped their feet, gulped hot coffee, and warned the building's tenants against going out into the storm.
Already the phenomenon was earning itself nicknames. The Great Blizzard. The Storm of the Century. The Great White Hurricane.
Under any name, it brought death in its wake.
* * *
Wrapped in a fringed paisley shawl, Prudence MacKenzie stood at her bedroom window and tried to pick out where she had last seen the cobblestones of Fifth Avenue before the entire street disappeared under a blanket of white. All day long she had felt herself drawn to peer out through one or another of the mansion's windows, searching for a figure struggling through the impenetrable white. Charles had said he would be bringing the final copies of their marriage settlement documents today, just as soon as Roscoe Conkling, her late father's friend and lawyer, declared them fully in compliance with the Judge's will.
No carriage could have made it through the icy, snow-clogged streets, but Charles was a man of his word and nearly as stubborn as the notoriously immovable Conkling. Prudence could envision both men arguing their way out of their warm, safe offices into a storm that neither would admit was stronger than either of them.
By late Monday afternoon she'd worried herself into exhaustion and fallen asleep fully clothed when she lay down on her bed to stretch out for a moment. She dreamed of Charles until another howling blast of wind hurled itself against the corner of the brownstone and woke her up.
In her dream Charles had been a figure barely discernible through fiercely waving veils of snow, a living sculpture of ice struggling blindly up Broadway from Wall Street, calling out to her.
The nightmare part of the dream had been that she couldn't answer him.
* * *
New York's fifty-eight-year-old ex-senator, Roscoe Conkling, was pleading a case that Monday morning. Flamboyant, indefatigable, and commanding enormous fees, he mushed his way two and a half miles down Broadway from his apartment in the Hoffman House Hotel to the United Bank Building at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street where he received one of the few telephone calls completed in Manhattan that day. Telephone, telegraph, and electric poles were already toppling down into the streets, blocking access, spitting and sparking until the cold, wet snow shorted out the lines. The judge before whom Conkling was to appear was snowbound at his home. Court had been canceled.
Resigning himself to being stuck in the office, Conkling waded through the paperwork that was so much a part of every lawyer's life. This morning it was the last of the trust documents that his late friend, Judge Thomas MacKenzie, had had him draw up to safeguard the considerable fortune he had bequeathed to his beloved daughter by his first marriage.
Prudence, whose mother died when her only child was six years old, was two weeks away from becoming Mrs. Charles Linwood. Before that happened, Conkling had to be certain her interests were as well protected as the Judge had wanted. Not that Charles Linwood showed any trace of being the type of husband more enamored of his wife's fortune than the person of the lady herself. Far from it.
The Judge had been delighted when Linwood asked for Prudence's hand. Charles had gone from Harvard straight into his family's law firm where he'd proved himself as adept at drawing up finely crafted wills and contracts as he was persuasive before a jury. Already a skilled lawyer with a bright future, Charles Linwood loved Prudence MacKenzie in the honest, gentlemanly fashion every father wished for his daughter. The man could be trusted to care for his young bride and make her happy in her new life.
It was a perfect match.
* * *
The afternoon was turning shadowy despite the whiteness of the mesmerizing snow. Prudence lit the gas lamps on her bedside tables, listening for a few moments to their reassuring hiss, drinking in the comforting light. She had been awake most of the previous night, ever since the storm began to blow in earnest. Regardless of the weather, she had seldom slept through the hours of darkness since her father's death barely three months ago.
She had been given drops to dull the immediate agony of loss, but as the weeks of mourning wore on, a furious itching began to interrupt her sleep at night. She'd wake up to the bite of her fingernails scratching and digging at the thin, dry skin of her arms and legs. If she didn't stop herself soon enough, rings of dried blood showed reddish brown beneath her nails in the morning. She'd open her eyes, light the gas lamps, then reach for whichever book she was currently reading. She would still be awake at dawn.
And always there was the aching longing for her father, the memory of standing at the gate of the family crypt, hearing the creak and clang of wrought iron shutting him in forever.
Prudence unbuttoned the left sleeve of her black mourning gown, pushed it above the elbow, and examined the skin, bending to hold the arm under the soft yellow glow of one of the lamps. The scratches that had so recently been an angry red had faded into the faintest of tracks, as if she'd absentmindedly run the tip of a folded ivory fan along the length of her arm. The itching was less, almost unnoticeable, tamed and soothed by the face cream she'd rubbed into the sore skin morning and evening. Something else, too.
The cup of boiled milk brought up to her from the kitchen every evening had sat undrunk on the mantel for hours again last night, an ugly, wrinkled skin formed across its surface. It was after she'd stopped drinking the nightly milk that she noticed the itching no longer tortured her, that when she woke in the night, it was with a clear head. Despite the fatigue of too little sleep, she now felt restless where for a while she had been so lethargic that it was all she could do to get through the day.
The first time she left the milk undrunk, her stepmother, Victoria, folded her lips in tightly, made an odd clicking sound deep in her throat, but said nothing except to remind her stepdaughter that it wasn't the only thing Prudence had forgotten to do recently.
"You haven't been yourself since the Judge's funeral," Victoria insisted. "I worry about you. Grief has been known to do strange things to a woman's delicate sensibilities."
It wasn't grief that was destroying Prudence, deep though that was. It was the laudanum she had been given to help her through the mourning and soften the pain of loss. Prudence recognized its effects, but not its dangers. Not until it was almost too late.
When her mother's pain had grown too excruciating to be borne, the only thing that eased it was the tincture of opium commonly sold as laudanum. She'd seen Sarah MacKenzie claw fretfully at the thin skin of her chest, drops of blood staining her nightgown. Not everyone who took laudanum suffered from itching, but those who did often scratched themselves raw.
One day Prudence had touched a finger to the spoon lying on her mother's bedside table and then licked the bitter drop from her skin. Her father knew what she had done the moment he saw the grimace on her face and the telltale brown smear on her fingertip.
"Promise me you'll never taste Mama's medicine again, Prudence. It's only for very sick people, and my precious little girl isn't sick, is she?"
She had promised.
Then years later the father she adored died and she found herself alone with a stepmother she despised and distrusted and an uncle by marriage who made her skin crawl every time he looked at her. Her world fell apart, and so did Prudence. Laudanum was prescribed. Nearly three months of what were supposed to be only a few drops a day had brought her perilously close to the cliff of ladylike addiction. She remembered the worried frown on Dr. Worthington's face when he took the brown glass bottle with its tight-fitting cork out of his leather satchel.
"Not too much," he cautioned. "I would limit the dosage to five drops at a time, and no more frequently than once or twice a day."
Stepmother Victoria had taken the bottle from the doctor's hand with ill-concealed relish.
"She's not to dose herself, Mrs. MacKenzie."
"Of course not, Doctor."
"Accidents have been known to happen."
Barely ten years older than her stepdaughter, Victoria was now a widow whose much older husband died less than two years after pronouncing the marriage vows. By the terms of the Judge's will, this relative stranger had immediately upon his death become the trustee of her nineteen-year-old stepdaughter's inheritance and the arbiter of her every daily activity. But the legal loophole of Prudence's fast-approaching wedding would force Victoria to relinquish the control she obviously enjoyed. The mask behind which lay another Victoria was slipping; power once seized is never given up without a fight.
Prudence was counting the days until she would pass from the guardianship of a stepmother to the protection of a husband, slipped along with the signatures on her marriage contract, her future safely, predictably, and comfortably arranged by the father who was no longer here to care for her himself. The Judge had built high legal fences around his only child so no one could take away what was rightfully hers, had foreseen all eventualities. Or had he?
Two weeks after Dr. Worthington gave the first bottle of laudanum to Victoria MacKenzie, Prudence's stepmother declared Prudence capable of measuring out her own doses. After all, she wasn't a child any longer. Victoria handed over the brown bottle with a smile of encouragement, a pat on the hand, and a promise that when that bottle was empty another would be obtained.
Prudence hardly noticed that the doses she gave herself gradually grew larger. Five drops, then six, then seven. Laudanum numbed the agony of losing a parent, flattened out emotional peaks and valleys, made it possible to sleep. And really, it was only drops.
Charles worried, she knew he did, though he said nothing.
Not until the bedtime milk began appearing did she begin to wonder how much laudanum she was actually ingesting every day, how much was being given to her in addition to what she prepared for herself. And why? The wedding was so close. Victoria would be leaving the house that would then become Charles and Prudence's first home together. The Judge had bought his second wife an apartment in the Dakota before he died. As always, he'd seen to everything.
Or had he? Prudence was convinced that Victoria MacKenzie never did anything that would not benefit her, never moved a muscle unless it was to her advantage. She wondered if all stepdaughters disliked their father's new wives, if perhaps she should be less wary of Victoria. The Judge had taught his daughter to be fair, to consider an argument from every side. But where Victoria was concerned, there were questions, always questions. Never answers.
Now that the laudanum fog had dissipated, Prudence's unease about her stepmother was fast becoming something stronger than disquiet or simple anxiety. It was suspicion tinged with apprehension, a feeling that Victoria was determined to shape Prudence's future in a way the Judge would never have countenanced. Was there some hidden menace in the wording of her father's will that not even Charles had spied out? No matter how hard Prudence tried to figure out her stepmother's intentions, Victoria was always one step ahead. What could Victoria possibly gain if Prudence became one of those sad women whose pathetic lives were lived inside a brown glass bottle?
It was only when she tried to deny herself that Prudence discovered how very deep, dark, and comforting was the well down which she had begun to slide. No one had forced her to seek solace in laudanum. A trusted family doctor had provided a time-proven remedy, but cautiously, and she had taken it willingly. Drop by drop, until finally she knew it was time to stop. Some women carried tiny vials of the bitter potion with them everywhere they went and appeared none the worse for it. She did not think she could be one of them; the urge to feel the powerful warmth spreading through her body was too strong, too compelling.
She could not bear it if Charles broke his discreet silence, if he were finally driven to ask about the laudanum. And worst of all, what would her father say if he knew?
Since the night she had first denied herself the laudanum-laced milk, Prudence had resolutely refused what her body craved. She made sure Victoria saw her mix five drops of dark brown liquid into her coffee at the breakfast table and six drops into her afternoon tea, but she knew herself to be finally free of the drug. She replaced the laudanum in the bottles Victoria gave her with strong unsweetened tea nearly as bitter as the tincture of opium. It wasn't difficult to feign a moue of dislike as she drank it down. Victoria always smiled when Prudence shuddered at the sharp afterbite. To do any good, medicine had to taste bad. Everyone knew that.
The question she could not answer was why it was so important to continue to pretend she was taking Dr. Worthington's laudanum, why she emptied her nightly cup of milk out the window, why she didn't say a word to anyone about what she suspected her stepmother had tried to do to her.
Two more weeks. Then she'd be with Charles as his wife. Safe.
Last night, sometime between midnight and dawn, while the storm was gathering strength, Prudence had carried the teacup of tepid milk with its calming dose of laudanum to the window against whose glass panes snow had already mounded. She had eased the window frame open, gasped delightedly at the touch of icy flakes on her fingertips, then watched the milk freeze as it flew through the wind, as it became one with the snow and fell harmlessly into the street below. Every refusal was a victory.
She was not naturally a secretive person, nor one given to fanciful delusions. Her father had trained her to see life as realistically as intelligence and a tender heart could bear.
But there was something about Victoria that was deeply disturbing, even frightening.
Two more weeks. Then she'd be safe.
* * *
With his desktop clear for a change, Conkling ate the last two apples in the bowl of fruit that was normally replenished every morning by the very competent secretary he'd occasionally caught in the act of eating chocolates at his desk. Sure enough, there was a half-full box of cherry cordials in one of Josiah's drawers. Roscoe scribbled an IOU, dropped it into the now-empty container of candy, and gave himself a mental reminder to replace what he'd eaten.
Excerpted from What The Dead Leave Behind by Rosemary Simpson. Copyright © 2017 Rosemary Simpson. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What The Dead Leave Behind is the first book in the Gilded Age Mystery series. I have to say that I consider this book one of the best that I have recently read. The book starts on March 12, 1888, with a devastating blizzard bearing down on New York City and centers around the death of Charles Winwood. Prudence MacKenzie is to wed Winwood in two weeks and is expecting Winwood to call on her in the evening with marriage settlement documents that she needs to sign in accordance with her father’s will. The devastating storm had begun to cripple NYC and businesses and shops are closing early, as Winwood, Roscoe Conkling, lawyer and long-time friend of the MacKenzie’s, and William Sulzer set out for their lodgings. But the next day the body of Winwood is found sitting on a bench and death has been attributed to the snow storm. As the story continues it becomes clear that Prudence’s stepmother, Victoria, has been dosing her with laudanum so that there is a question of her sanity so that she can get her hands on Prudence’s inheritance. So, Prudence with the help Conkling and Geoffrey Hunter, a PI and former Pinkerton agent set out to find out just who this Victoria is and what she had on Prudence father to get him to marry her. A well-plotted and very interesting story with a wonderful cast of believable characters. Will be watching for the next book to see what Prudence and Geoffrey will be investigating next.
This first book in the Gilded Age Mystery series is a terrific addition to the historical fiction genre. Prudence MacKenzie, has recently lost her father who has left her under the control of her hateful stepmother, Victoria, until age 30. And Victoria has no intention of settling for only half of the inheritance and is bent on ensuring that her stepdaughter will be unable to inherit. Prudence must either marry in the next few weeks or prove that Victoria is unfit to be a guardian. Both of these seem impossible. Set in 1888 New York, what follows is a rich story of the wealthy living in the mansions the city, the downstairs servants of the household and the sleazy killers and prostitutes living in the city’s underbelly. Prudence and new friend Geoffrey, an attorney and investigator, create a team from all levels in their efforts. I truly enjoyed the diverse characters, particularly those who were “lower” class: they proved to be faithful, caring and honestThe juxtaposition of the Southerners living in New York after the Civil War was fascinating. Naturally we read historical fiction because we have an affinity for history. So much research goes in to making these characters fit their setting and come alive to us and Simpson succeeds beautifully. As noted earlier (and signaled at the end of the story) this is the beginning of a great new series; I am thrilled with the prospect of reading more about these wonderful characters. A terrific read!