In the midst of Sarah and Frank’s wedding preparations, Sarah accompanies her mother on a condolence call to the Upper West Side, where Charles Oakes, the son of family friends, has died unexpectedly after suffering from a mysterious disease. But Charles’s father believes his son was poisoned, and would like Sarah and Frank to look into the matter with the utmost discretion.
Putting off their own personal affairs, Sarah and Frank soon learn that not everyone wants to know more about Charles’s death, particularly if he was murdered. As they unravel secrets that reach back to the Civil War, they also discover that they are in the company of a very present danger...
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“Charles Oakes is dead.”
Sarah looked up at her mother in surprise. They were sitting at her kitchen table, and Sarah had spent the last half hour bringing her mother up to date on the arrangements she and her fiancé, Frank Malloy, had decided upon for their wedding and their future life. She hadn’t expected to hear about a death. “Is Charles the son? The one who was a few years older than I?”
“Oh dear. I thought maybe you meant his father.”
“No, his father is Gerald.”
“How did he die? Was it an accident?”
“No, he was taken ill and . . .” Her mother shrugged. Sometimes people just died, and no one knew why. As a nurse, Sarah understood that even better than most.
“Was he married?” Sarah had lost touch with most of her old friends when she’d eloped with her first husband, a lowly physician, and turned her back on her family’s wealth and social position.
“Yes, just over a year, I believe. No children, though, which is sad because he was an only child.”
“It’s always sad when a young person dies.” Neither of them spoke of Sarah’s sister, who had died young, but Sarah could almost feel Maggie’s presence in the room.
Her mother toyed with her empty coffee cup for a moment, carefully not meeting Sarah’s eye.
“Mother, what is it?”
She sighed. “I have to pay a condolence call on the family. I was hoping you’d go with me.”
Sarah actually winced. She’d been afraid of this. Not of an old friend dying, but of being drawn back into her mother’s world of high society with its strict and meaningless rules and obligations.
“I know you haven’t seen them in years,” her mother hurried on before Sarah could protest. “But you and Mr. Malloy are going to have to find your place in society now, and starting with your old friends seems like a natural way to begin.”
“My old friend Charles is dead,” Sarah reminded her.
“You know what I mean. I know you think my life is silly—”
“Oh, Mother, I don’t—”
“Don’t bother denying it. And you’re right, a lot of the things I do aren’t very important, but you and Mr. Malloy will need friends when you marry. Maybe you think your life isn’t going to change very much just because you’ll be wealthy, but you’ll see, Sarah. People you know now won’t want to associate with you anymore. They’ll either be jealous or they’ll assume you think yourselves too good for them.”
“But we won’t!”
“Of course you won’t, but they’ll think it anyway. You’ve seen it already. Mr. Malloy had to leave the police force, and his poor mother had to leave her old neighborhood.”
Once the story of Malloy’s sudden change of fortune had appeared in the newspapers, the Malloys had indeed been forced to leave the neighborhood where they’d lived since Mrs. Malloy had come over from Ireland as a young girl. “But that was just because the reporters wouldn’t leave them alone.”
“And because all her old friends wouldn’t even speak to her anymore unless they were asking for money. Sarah, when you’re . . .” She gestured vaguely.
“Rich?” Sarah supplied.
“I was going to say a member of the privileged classes, but yes, wealthy. When you’re wealthy, the only people who feel comfortable with you are people just like you. Believe me, you will feel the same.”
As much as she hoped otherwise, Sarah was afraid her mother was right. “So paying a condolence call on the Oakes family is to be my first step back into your world?”
“It’s your world, too, or at least it was for most of your life. And yes, it could be. Charles’s widow will need friends.”
Sarah knew when she was beaten. “When did you want to go?”
“This afternoon if you’re free. I need to go home and change, and I can send the carriage back for you.”
“That’s not necessary. I’ll change here and go home with you. At least I have some appropriate clothes now.” Sarah and her mother had started buying her trousseau. As a widowed midwife, her wardrobe had been much more practical and utilitarian than fashionable, so she’d been slowly adding new items.
Less than a half hour later, Sarah had changed into a stylish suit of myrtle green batiste in deference to the early fall weather. Since Sarah’s daughter, Catherine, and her nursemaid, Maeve, were off visiting the park, they were able to get away without too much fuss.
“Do you think you’ll keep a carriage when you’re married?” her mother asked as her own carried them away from Sarah’s Bank Street home.
“Our house has a mews, although the previous owners hadn’t used the stables for a long time. Keeping horses in the city is such a lot of bother, though. Now tell me about Charles’s family. I remember there’s something unusual about his mother, but I can’t remember what.”
“Oh, that’s right. Where is she from again?”
“Georgia, I think.”
“Now I remember. Charles was always ashamed of that, I think, or maybe just embarrassed. He was teased, I know.”
“Of course he was. After the war, people were angry and bitter. So many young men died or were maimed, and of course they blamed the South for starting it all.”
“Well, they did start it all by seceding from the Union.”
Her mother smiled sadly. “Gerald liked to remind them that Jenny didn’t start it and that she was just as much a victim as they were. Even still, many people hated Jenny on principle, without ever bothering to meet her.”
“But how on earth did she ever get to New York in the first place?”
“Gerald sent her. Oh, it was all very romantic, although it was also very tragic.”
“Great romances are often tragic,” Sarah said. “Like Romeo and Juliet.”
“Fortunately, Gerald and Jenny’s ended much better than that one.”
“So he must have met her when he was in the army.”
“I’ve been trying to remember the whole story, but it’s been a long time since I heard it. Jenny’s family owned a plantation. I’m sure of that, at least. Gerald was with General Sherman, and of course they were burning all the plantations as they marched to the sea, so it must have been Georgia. When they got to Jenny’s home, she was the only one of her family left alive.”
“How awful! She must have been just a child.”
“Fifteen or sixteen, if I remember correctly.”
“And she was there all alone?”
“It was a plantation, so they had slaves. Some of them had stayed, but when our troops burned the house, they had no place to go, so they followed the Union army. I understand that a lot of slaves did that.”
“And Jenny went with them?”
“Apparently. I don’t remember the details. Probably, she had no choice, and at some point, Gerald noticed her. She really was a beautiful young woman. He was smitten, and he must have understood that such a beauty wouldn’t remain innocent for long when surrounded by thousands of soldiers, so he claimed her for himself.”
“Oh my, this is a romantic story. So he sent her North?”
“After he married her.”
“He married her? After just meeting her?”
“He had to, because it was the only way to ensure that his family would accept her, and even then . . . Well, as you can imagine, they were none too pleased, but what could they do? Gerald’s father had to travel down into the South to fetch her home. You can’t believe how dangerous that was during the war. They may have hoped Gerald would come to his senses when the war ended and he finally got home, but she was already with child. So they pretended not to notice the social snubs, and eventually, people got used to her.”
“And Charles was their only child.”
“Yes. I expect Jenny will be devastated.”
“And you said he was married. His wife will be, too.”
“I’m sorry to drag you into this, Sarah, but I just couldn’t bear to face it alone.”
“You could have just turned down the corner of your card and had your maid carry it in for you.” Such a gesture often replaced a visit when such a visit might be awkward or unpleasant.
Her mother’s lovely face hardened for a moment. “I couldn’t possibly do that. I know what it’s like to lose a child.”
“Oh, Mother, I’m so sorry,” Sarah said. “I didn’t think—”
“It’s all right. But it’s true. I always try to give comfort in situations like this. It’s the least I can do, no matter how little I might enjoy it. Besides, Gerald and your father have been friends since childhood. And they both belong to the Knickerbocker Club, of course. So no matter what I think of Jenny—”
“Wait, you don’t like Jenny either?”
“No, but not because she’s a Southerner. I don’t like her because I don’t like her.”
“Oh. That makes sense.”
Her mother sighed. “She’s a difficult person to know.”
“I’m sure she is, and is it any wonder? She lost her entire family and moved to a city she’d never seen before with people she’d never met who hated her on sight.”
“Southerners are supposed to be charming. She didn’t have to make it more difficult by being aloof.”
“Maybe she was just shy. Or terrified. She was still a child.”
“That was over thirty years ago. She’s no longer a child, and she can’t still be terrified.”
Sarah wondered if that were true.
• • •
The Oakes family lived on Amsterdam Avenue, just a few blocks from Sarah’s parents. The neighborhood was quietly prosperous. Understated town houses crowded the sidewalks with their marble steps before rising in stately elegance. These weren’t the monstrous mansions of the Vanderbilts or the Astors on Fifth Avenue. These were homes in which families lived for generations with the dignity, modesty, and money inherited from their thrifty Dutch ancestors.
A black wreath on the front door told the world that the Oakes family was in mourning. The maid admitted them, and after a perfunctory inquiry to see if Mrs. Oakes was “at home,” Sarah and her mother followed the maid upstairs to the formal parlor.
Not everyone could wear black well, but Sarah decided that Jenny Oakes could probably wear anything well. She must be nearing fifty, but her skin was still flawless and her melted-chocolate eyes revealed no trace of her age. Her raven hair lay completely tamed against her well-shaped head, showing no betraying gray. Sarah would have guessed her to be at least ten years younger than she must be. If Mrs. Oakes plucked the gray hairs to maintain that fiction, who could blame her?
“Jenny,” her mother was saying. “I’m so very sorry.”
Mrs. Oakes rose from where she’d been perched on the sofa in this perfectly appointed room. She wore a gown of unrelieved black, a black handkerchief clutched in one hand. She offered her cheek for Mrs. Decker’s kiss and said, “Thank you for coming, Elizabeth.”
Sarah heard just the slightest trace of the South in Mrs. Oakes’s voice. Thirty years in the North had almost worn it away.
“I’ve brought Sarah with me,” her mother said. “You remember her, don’t you?”
“Of course, although it’s been a long time, I think.”
“Yes, it has,” Sarah acknowledged, giving Mrs. Oakes her hand. The woman was a bit taller than she and held herself like a queen, although Sarah noticed in passing that her dress wasn’t new or anywhere close to it. Every society woman had a good, black dress in her wardrobe for mourning emergencies. Death struck with alarming frequency and often without warning, so one had to be prepared. Obviously, Mrs. Oakes hadn’t needed her mourning dress in quite a while. “I’m so sorry to hear about Charles. I remember him well.”
Mrs. Oakes invited them to sit down and offered them tea.
When the maid had come with it and gone again, Sarah said, “I understand Charles had been ill.”
“Not really. He . . . he thought he’d eaten something that didn’t agree with him at first, especially when he was better the next day. By the time we realized how ill he really was and sent for the doctor . . .”
Sarah watched the woman’s face for any sign of grief and saw none. If she felt the pain of her only son’s loss, she hid it well. Of course, her mother would remind her of the lessons of her youth when she was taught it was unseemly to show emotions.
Her mother was murmuring something sympathetic when the parlor doors opened. A young woman wearing a very new and stylish black gown stepped into the room. The widow, Sarah guessed, although she didn’t look particularly grief stricken. She seemed pretty enough, although her petulant expression made it hard to really tell.
“Elizabeth, you remember my daughter-in-law, Hannah, don’t you? She was a Kingsley.”
Sarah had almost forgotten the habit the old families had of giving a person’s pedigree.
Jenny introduced her guests. Hannah nodded stiffly at Elizabeth, then glanced at Sarah before silently dismissing her as someone of no importance. Then she made her way over and dutifully sat down on the sofa beside her mother-in-law. She was at least five years younger than Sarah, so their paths would never have crossed growing up. If she had been weeping for her dead husband, her eyes gave no indication of it.
Sarah’s mother offered her condolences, but Hannah hadn’t quite mastered her mother-in-law’s restraint.
“Someone should be sorry for me,” she snapped. “It’s all so unfair.”
Jenny gave her a sharp glance but Hannah never saw it.
“We were invited to go to Newport this summer,” she continued, “but Charles said we couldn’t go. Now we’re in mourning, and I won’t be able to go anyplace at all for a whole year.”
“Charles didn’t die just to inconvenience you, my dear,” Jenny said with the barest trace of venom.
Sarah glanced at her mother, whose wide eyes betrayed her shock at such inappropriate behavior. She tried to smooth things over. “I’m sure not going to Newport was a disappointment.”
“It certainly was,” Hannah said. “And the worst part was that we couldn’t go because Charles said he had to go to work.”
“Charles had been appointed superintendent of the Manhattan State Hospital,” Jenny said, giving Hannah another glare, although Hannah didn’t appear to notice.
“Yes, I saw it mentioned in the newspapers,” Sarah’s mother said. “It was a very nice write-up about him and the hospital, too.”
“They call it a hospital,” Hannah said, “but it’s really an asylum. A place for crazy people. Can you imagine? What would Charles know about crazy people?”
“It was an administrative position,” Jenny said, more to Sarah and her mother than to Hannah. “His job was to manage the institution, not deal with the patients.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hannah said. “I still don’t know why we couldn’t go to Newport. The season there is only two months. That’s not very long to be away.”
Sarah’s mother had had enough of Hannah. She turned back to Jenny. “I remember hearing about Charles’s appointment. You must have been very proud.”
Some emotion Sarah couldn’t identify flickered over Jenny’s face, causing a tightness around her mouth. “Charles has many friends in the city.”
Or maybe she wasn’t so proud.
Sarah’s mother quickly began inquiring about funeral arrangements, which seemed cheerful by comparison to Hannah’s inappropriate bitterness over her husband’s inconvenient death. They managed to finish their visit without another outburst from the young widow, and gratefully followed the maid who came to show them out.
Sarah was quietly wondering if it was possible for her to withdraw from society completely after she and Malloy married, when the maid startled them both by stopping dead in her tracks. She turned to face them instead of leading them down the stairs.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Decker, but Mr. Oakes asked if you could see him in the library for a few minutes before you leave.”
“Why, certainly,” she replied, giving Sarah a puzzled glance. “My daughter, too?”
“Yes, ma’am. This way, please.”
She led them down the hallway, away from the stairs that would have taken them to the front door at street level. She opened one of the doors and announced them.
The library was a comfortable room with large leather armchairs and rows of bookshelves. The air smelled faintly of tobacco. A middle-aged man greeted them warmly. Sarah’s mother gave him both her hands and offered her cheek for a kiss.
“I’m so terribly sorry, Gerald,” she said.
“It’s a cruel trick of fate when a child dies,” he said, blinking at the tears neither his wife nor his daughter-in-law had bothered to shed. “You expect to bury your parents, but never your children.”
“I know,” she said, and Sarah knew she did. “You remember my daughter, Sarah.”
“Of course. Mrs. Brandt, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sarah said in surprise. He would have had no reason to have remembered her married name. She expressed her condolences, and he thanked her.
“Please, sit down. I won’t keep you long, but I have a favor to ask.”
They each took one of the armchairs that sat grouped together in front of the unlit fireplace. The soft leather enveloped Sarah, and she thought perhaps she should get some chairs like this for her new house. She would have to mention it to Malloy.
“You know we’ll be happy to do anything for you and Jenny, Gerald,” her mother was saying. “All you need to do is ask.”
“Actually, Mrs. Brandt is the one I must ask,” he said.
“Me?” Sarah asked in surprise.
“Well, you and your fiancé. You’re engaged to Frank Malloy, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, thinking he couldn’t possibly have remembered that tidbit of information from casually reading the society pages of the newspapers.
“I know what Mr. Malloy did for the club, Mrs. Brandt. The Knickerbocker Club,” he added in case she didn’t know. “He handled a sensitive situation discreetly, and all the members were very grateful.”
“I’ll be sure and tell him you said so.”
“Please do. And of course we know about his . . . his recent good fortune. As you can imagine, it has been a topic of interest to all of us.”
“I can easily imagine that,” Sarah said with a small smile. It had been a topic of interest to many people.
“I say all this so you know that I understand he is no longer with the police and that he no longer needs to earn his living, but I am wondering if you think he would be willing to assist me in another matter that is even more sensitive than the one he handled at the club.”
Sarah’s mind was racing as she tried to figure out where this conversation was taking her. “I really can’t speak for Mr. Malloy,” she hedged, although she could easily imagine he would be thrilled to do anything besides oversee the renovations to their house, which had been his sole occupation for the past few months. “But I will be happy to pass along your request. Can you give me some idea of what you’d like him to help you with?”
“Yes. I’d like him to investigate my son’s murder.”
• • •
At first Frank thought the knocking was just more hammering from the workmen who were somewhere in the bowels of his monstrosity of a house doing something to, hopefully, make it fit for habitation, if he lived long enough to ever see the end of it. He tried to remind himself that eventually, the house would be finished, and he and Sarah would be married, and she’d live here with him. Unfortunately, he’d begun to give up hope that would ever happen, because, at this rate, the house was never going to be finished.
After a few minutes, he finally realized the knocking was coming from the front door, though, and he made his way to answer it.
The front hallway didn’t look too bad, he acknowledged, glancing around as he approached the door. Except for some dust, which was unavoidable as long as the workmen were here, it was almost presentable. If only the doorbell worked. He’d asked the workmen to fix it at least a dozen times, to no avail. Who knows how many visitors had given up and gone away because he hadn’t heard them knock? A lot, he hoped, since the only people who knocked on his door nowadays were reporters looking for a story or people looking for a handout.
Frank threw open the door, ready to do battle with whoever was there to ask him for something, and he caught himself just in time. “Sarah.”
She smiled the way she always smiled when she saw him, and he had to resist the overwhelming urge to take her in his arms, because her mother was standing right beside her.
“Mrs. Decker, how nice to see you.” He stood back and motioned them inside.
“It’s lovely to see you, too,” Mrs. Decker said.
Sarah gave him a peck on the cheek and a knowing smirk as she passed. Both women looked around appreciatively as he closed the door behind them.
“It’s starting to look very nice,” Mrs. Decker said.
Just then someone upstairs started pounding, raising a deafening racket. Frank motioned them into the room he’d just left and closed the door. They could still hear the pounding, but they could also now hear one another, too.
“This is going to be Mrs. Malloy’s sitting room,” Sarah told her mother. “And her bedroom is through there. We made her a suite down here so she wouldn’t have to manage the stairs.”
“It’s lovely,” Mrs. Decker said.
“She made me bring all her old furniture,” Frank felt obligated to explain, because it didn’t really look that lovely.
“Which was very sensible,” Mrs. Decker said, always the lady. “You wouldn’t want to put anything new in here until the workmen are finished. Where is your mother?”
“She’s at school with Brian.”
“She still stays with him every day?”
“She helps out there,” Frank explained, “and she’s learning to sign, too, so she can talk to him.”
“That’s such a wonderful thing,” Mrs. Decker said. “We should all learn to sign now that Brian will be a member of our family.”
Frank knew he was probably gaping at her in surprise at the thought that she would actually want to learn sign language to talk with his deaf son, but she was much too polite to notice.
“Uh, why don’t you sit down,” he managed after a moment. “Can I get you something?”
“Oh my, no. I wouldn’t think of sending you to the kitchen for anything,” Sarah said, still giving him that knowing smirk as she and her mother sat down on his mother’s old sofa. “Besides, we’re here on business.”
“What kind of business?”
“Gerald Oakes wants to hire you to investigate his son’s murder.”
“Possible murder,” Mrs. Decker added quickly. “Actually, he wants you to figure out if his son was murdered or if he died a natural death.”
Frank sank down in one of his mother’s old chairs. “Who is Gerald Oakes?”
“He’s a member of the Knickerbocker Club,” Sarah said.
“And an old friend of our family,” Mrs. Decker said.
“And he knows all about you and what you did for the club,” Sarah said.
“And he also knows your current situation,” Mrs. Decker said, “so he didn’t want to insult you by offering to hire you, but he thought you would appreciate a businesslike arrangement of some sort.”
The women were making him a little dizzy. “You said he wants to find out if his son was murdered. How did he die?”
“It was sudden,” Sarah explained. She looked especially beautiful today, he noticed, but then, he thought she looked especially beautiful every day. “He became ill, vomiting and other unpleasant things, apparently.”
“He thought he’d eaten something bad,” Mrs. Decker said.
“When he didn’t get any better over the next few days, they called in the doctor, but he died shortly afterward.”
“So Oakes thinks his son was poisoned?” Frank asked.
“Wouldn’t you?” Mrs. Decker asked.
He gave her a tolerant smile. “It probably wouldn’t be my first thought unless I had a reason to think someone wanted him dead. Did someone want this fellow . . . What’s his name?”
“Charles Oakes,” Sarah said. “He’s . . . he was only a few years older than I, and otherwise in good health.”
“Tell him about the milk,” Mrs. Decker said.
“Yes, tell me about the milk,” he said with a grin.
“The night he died, he’d asked for a glass of warm milk,” Sarah said. “He drank most of it, and at some point later, while the doctor was working on him, the glass got knocked over. No one noticed it until the next morning.”
“There wasn’t much milk left, apparently,” Mrs. Decker said, “but the cat—his wife has this pet cat—had apparently lapped up what was left.”
“And they found the cat under Charles’s bed, dead,” Sarah said.
“After the undertaker had come for Charles’s body the next morning,” Mrs. Decker added.
“That’s interesting,” Frank said.
“Of course, it doesn’t prove anything,” Sarah said. “Sometimes cats just die.”
“And sometimes people just die,” Mrs. Decker said.
“But when they both die after drinking the same glass of milk, you have to wonder,” Frank said.
“Exactly,” Mrs. Decker said.
She looked much too excited for somebody talking about an old friend being poisoned. Frank knew he shouldn’t encourage her morbid fascination, but he couldn’t help himself. “What did the doctor say?”
“He said gastric fever. He didn’t know about the cat, of course,” Mrs. Decker said.
“I asked Mr. Oakes where they took the body, and he said it’s at a funeral home now,” Sarah said.
“So they didn’t do an autopsy?” he asked.
Sarah shook her head. “No, and it’s probably too late now, isn’t it?”
“If the body is already embalmed . . .” Frank shrugged.
“And the milk glass has long since been washed and put away,” Sarah said.
“Does Mr. Oakes have any reason to think somebody wanted his son dead?”
The two women exchanged a glance, then Sarah said, “He didn’t want to discuss that with two gently bred ladies, but I think if you are willing to help him, he would discuss it with you.”
“If there’s no proof he was poisoned, I don’t know what I can do,” Frank said.
At some point, the pounding had apparently stopped, which Frank hadn’t noticed until it suddenly started up again, making him wince.
“You won’t know until you talk to him,” Sarah said, “and helping him would give you a reason to get out of the house.”
Frank sighed. “Do you think he’s still at home?”
• • •
Frank stepped out of the cab on Amsterdam Avenue and looked up at the Oakes house. Once he would have been intimidated to enter the home of one of the wealthier families in the city. Knowing Sarah Brandt had brought him into many such homes, however, and if he’d learned nothing else, he’d learned that rich people suffered from most of the same problems as poor people. Rich people also killed each other as often as poor people. They were just a little neater about it.
Frank rang the doorbell and thought again how he needed to remind the workmen to fix his. A maid answered and looked him up and down. He couldn’t do much about his Irish face, but he knew his suit told her he was somebody to be taken seriously. Sarah’s father had sent him to his own tailor to make sure he looked like the millionaire he now was.
“Frank Malloy to see Mr. Oakes. He’s expecting me,” he said.
He’d occasionally been told to use the back door when calling on houses like this, but today the maid let him in without a protest and only kept him waiting a few minutes while she asked her employer if he was at home for Mr. Malloy.
Oakes was in a room Frank suspected he spent a lot of time in. Bookshelves lined the walls and the chairs were oversize and well-worn. The lingering scent of tobacco told him no females frequented this sanctuary.
Oakes was a handsome man in his fifties. He’d developed a slight paunch but otherwise seemed fit. His blond hair was graying at the temples, and he looked like he hadn’t slept much the night before.
“Mr. Malloy, thank you for coming.”
“Mrs. Brandt said you were anxious to talk to me.”
“Indeed, I am. Please sit down. Can I get you something? I have bourbon and some excellent Scotch.”
Frank didn’t usually drink in the middle of the day, but Oakes looked like he could use one, so he said, “Bourbon.”
Oakes poured their drinks into some leaded crystal tumblers, then sat down opposite him. The chairs were as comfortable as they looked, and Frank wished he were here for just a social call. “I’m sorry about your son.”
A spasm of pain flickered across Oakes’s face, but he squared his shoulders as if steeling himself for a fight. “Thank you. Charles was my only child. Do you have children, Mr. Malloy?”
“Then you can imagine what it’s like.”
“Mrs. Brandt said you’re concerned about the circumstances of your son’s death.”
Oakes took a fortifying sip of his whiskey. “I’m very much afraid he was poisoned.”
“Mrs. Brandt also told me about the milk and the cat, but I’d like to hear from you exactly what happened.”
“I wasn’t there for everything, you understand. Charles felt ill one afternoon. He vomited, and he assumed he’d eaten something bad.”
“Was he at home that day?”
“No, he’d been out all day. He returned home when he was taken ill. He didn’t feel like eating much, and over the next day, he got better. That was Sunday. By Monday, he was well enough that he went out again.”
“But he wasn’t really better,” Frank said.
“No. The same thing happened again. He became ill and returned home. He couldn’t keep anything down, but he complained that his throat was burning and asked for some milk to soothe it.”
“Who brought him the milk?”
“I have no idea. One of the maids, probably.”
Frank nodded. “So he drank it?”
“Yes. Actually, I didn’t know about the milk until much later, the next day in fact. All I knew was that he started vomiting again. He also had the bloody flux and was in a great deal of pain. We sent for our physician, and he tried giving Charles some medicine, but he died within the hour.”
“And the cat?”
“Yes, Hannah had this cat. The thing went missing, but we thought maybe it was just frightened by all the disturbance when Charles died or maybe that it had gotten out somehow. The maid found it when she was cleaning Charles’s room after . . . after they took him away.”
Oakes took another sip of his whiskey, and Frank waited for him to compose himself. “I understand the milk glass had spilled.”
“Yes. Charles was in a lot of pain at the end and delirious as well. He was thrashing around, and I suppose the glass got knocked to the floor. It had rolled under the bed, you see. When the maid reached under to get it, she saw the cat.”
Frank had dealt with poisonings before, and this certainly sounded like a possible case of it. He wondered if Oakes had thought beyond that, though. “I can see why you think he was poisoned.”
He perked up at that. “Then you agree?”
“It’s not for me to agree or disagree. Maybe he was poisoned, but knowing how someone died is only the beginning in a murder investigation. The important question is why.”
“Why someone killed him, you mean?”
“Yes, and because your son was killed here, in his own home, an even more important question is who . . . because the killer must be someone who lives here with you.”
Oakes frowned. “But no one lives here except our family and our servants.”
“And if your son really was poisoned, it’s very likely one of them did it, because only people in the house had access to the glass of milk.”
Frank watched the emotions play across his face. The horror of thinking someone in his own house had killed his son, the reluctance to believe such a thing, and finally, a resolve Frank hadn’t expected to see.
“I need to know why my son died, Mr. Malloy, and I’m willing to deal with any consequences that knowledge may bring. Will you help me?”
How could he refuse? “Of course.”
“Then where will you start?”
“Do you have the glass the milk was in?”
“Yes, but it’s been washed and put away.”
“And I suppose you had your son’s body embalmed.”
“Yes. Everyone does nowadays.”
Frank sighed. Only one thing left. “Then what became of the cat?”
The storefront gave little indication of the business being conducted inside, Frank noticed. Just a modest sign, slightly faded, that said: TITUS WESLEY, CORONER.
Frank wasn’t sure what he expected, but it was certainly not the young man who emerged from a back room when the bell over the door announced his arrival in the shop. Wearing a stained leather apron over his clothes, he was wiping his hands on a filthy towel. Tall, scrawny, and horse-faced, he grinned at the way Frank was holding the odiferous sack out at arm’s length.
“What have you brought me?” he asked pleasantly. “Something dead, by the smell of it.”
“A cat,” Frank said, setting the sack on the floor and stepping away, although the shop was much too small for him to escape the stench, short of leaving entirely.
The young man raised his eyebrows. “I don’t handle animals. Usually people just throw them in the river or the street cleaners pick them up.”
“It’s evidence in a murder investigation,” he said. “Doc Haynes told me you could help me determine if the cat was poisoned.”
The young man laid the towel he’d been using on the counter that ran along one side wall. “Why didn’t Haynes do it himself, then?”
“It’s not an official police investigation, so I asked him to recommend someone as good as he is.”
The young man straightened at the compliment. New York had dozens of men who called themselves coroners and who took care of the thousands of people who died each year in the city. Most of them had no medical training at all, and they would determine any cause of death their clients requested for the right price, no matter what the condition of the body indicated. Frank had always requested Doc Haynes for murder investigations because he knew Doc would give him an accurate cause of death.
“You’re not a copper, then,” he said, looking Frank over. Not many cops could afford the suit Frank wore.
“So you want to find out who murdered this cat?” he asked with some amusement.
“A man died after drinking a glass of milk. The cat lapped up what was left and then it died, too.”
“Ah, I see! This sounds like an interesting case, Mr.. . .?”
“Malloy. I’m a private investigator.” Frank liked the way that title rolled off his tongue. He no longer inspired fear, as he had when he’d been a detective sergeant with the New York Police, but he also no longer inspired contempt for being part of the police force either.
“Titus Wesley, at your service, Mr. Malloy.”
Frank was relieved he didn’t offer to shake hands. “I know this is out of your usual line, but my client is willing to pay for your services, the same as if it was human.”
“Why don’t you just let me examine the dead man?”
“He’s been embalmed.”
Wesley shrugged. “I still might be able to tell something. If they didn’t discard his organs, I’d like to have a look at them, too.”
“I’ll write down the name of the undertaker for you.”
“And you’d better have someone from the family tell them it’s all right for me to see him. Undertakers can be a possessive lot.”
“I’ll do that.” Frank pulled a small notebook and a pencil from his coat pocket and scribbled down the information, then tore out the page and handed it to Wesley.
Wesley eyed the sack. “How long has the cat been dead?”
“A couple days. They’d buried it in the yard.”
“Good thing or we might never be able to prove the poisoning.”
Frank gave him one of the calling cards Sarah had ordered for him. At the time, he hadn’t been able to imagine using them, but now . . . “How long until you’ll know something?”
“I’ll come back then. If you need me before, that’s where you’ll find me.”
• • •
“You’re getting an autopsy on a cat?” Sarah asked when Malloy had finished telling her about his afternoon.
They were sitting at her kitchen table as they had been doing every weekday evening since the Malloys had moved into the house down the street where they would all live together when Sarah and Malloy married. Malloy would have dinner with his family, and Sarah with hers. After his mother put Brian to bed and Sarah’s daughter, Catherine, was asleep, he’d walk down to visit with her for a few hours. It was a strange courtship, but Sarah cherished their time alone.
“You should have seen the coroner’s face when I told him.”
“I’m sure Dr. Haynes was thrilled.”
“He would have been, but he couldn’t do it. Too busy. He sent me to a fellow named Titus Wesley.”
“He’s a coroner?” she asked with a frown.
“Doc Haynes says he’s a real doctor, and he knows what he’s doing.”
“Too bad he can’t look at Charles’s body.”
“He’s going to try. He said he still might find something.”
“I hope he finds nothing,” Sarah said. “I just hate the idea that poor Charles was poisoned. Who would do such a horrible thing?”
“Poison is a woman’s weapon.”
Sarah glared at him. “That’s unfair.”
“Maybe, but it’s also true. Women aren’t usually strong enough to kill with their hands, like men can, or with a weapon like a knife or a club, and women hardly ever know how to shoot a gun. They also don’t usually kill in the heat of passion unless it’s self-defense or they’re defending a child or someone weaker.”
“So you’re saying women take their time and plan murders.”
“As a general rule. They also don’t like to make a mess.”
Sarah had to smile at that. “Of course not! They’re the ones who’d have to clean it up.”
“Poison is a great equalizer. A tiny woman can bring down a man twice her size with very little effort at all.”
“I’d never thought of it that way before, but I suppose you’re right. So who do you think killed Charles? Assuming he really was poisoned, of course.”
“I won’t know that until I know more about who lives in the house. What can you tell me about the family?”
“Oh, it’s a wonderful story of how his parents met.” She told him what her mother had said about the two and their wartime romance.
Malloy leaned back in his chair when she’d finished, frowning. “I guess you think it was all very romantic.”
“And you don’t?”
“I can see it might have seemed that way from the girl’s side. She’d lost her home and her family and everything she’d ever known. Then a handsome young soldier saves her.”
“I know. It’s like a fairy tale from her point of view, but are you saying it’s not the same from his?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it was. Maybe rich young men like the idea of saving a young girl in trouble.”
“A damsel in distress,” Sarah said.
“And she was certainly that. I’ve never been a rich young man, but I wouldn’t want a wife who only married me because she didn’t have any other choice.”
“I can’t imagine they saw it that way. Surely they were in love.”
“If she was pretty, he probably thought he was. I wonder what she thought.”
Sarah smiled again. “I do know that young men can be as silly as young girls about love.”
“So maybe they were in love, but you said his family wasn’t happy about it.”
“How could they be? They didn’t know anything about her, and she probably came to them with little more than the clothes on her back. They may have even suspected that she tricked him somehow.”
“Maybe she did. She had a baby right away, after all. You’ve met her. What do you think?”
“It’s funny you should ask. I thought she was remarkably composed for a woman who had lost her only child. Of course, I was taught from birth not to let my emotions get the better of me in public. No one wants to see a woman cry.”
“That’s true enough, but do you think she was just being proper or do you think she didn’t love her son?”
“I can’t imagine a mother not loving her son.”
Malloy gave her a crooked smile. “I’m sure you can’t. You even love my son.”
“He’s very lovable. But you love my daughter, so we’re even.”
“Yes, we are, but no closer to knowing who might have poisoned Charles Oakes. What about his wife?”
“She’s a piece of work. All she could talk about was how angry she was that Charles wouldn’t take her to Newport this past summer and now she’s in mourning and won’t be able to go anywhere at all.”
“Why wouldn’t he take her to Newport?”
“Because he couldn’t leave his job.”
Malloy blinked in surprise. “He had a job?”
“Yes, he’d been appointed as superintendent of the Manhattan State Hospital.”
“The Asylum? Oh, that’s right. I read about him in the newspapers when it happened. So that was Charles Oakes. But why would he want a job like that?”
Sarah had to think about that for a minute. “I imagine he needed the income.”
“I thought his family was rich.”
“His family is old, and they once were wealthy, but sometimes . . . Well, we don’t talk about it, but sometimes the family money runs out or is lost in bad investments or what have you. A lot of families were hurt in the financial panic in ninety-three. Why do you think Theodore took a position as police commissioner?”
“You mean he’d lost his fortune?”
“The Roosevelts—at least his branch of the family—have to earn their keep, yes.”
“Is that what happened to the Oakes family?”
“I don’t know for sure, and I would never be so rude as to ask them,” she added before he could suggest it. “But now that you mention it, I did notice that Mrs. Oakes’s mourning gown was past its prime. And maybe Charles didn’t take his wife to Newport because he couldn’t afford to.”
“So Charles decided to run the Asylum. That’s an odd choice.”
“I doubt he had a choice. Young men like him often don’t have any skills when it comes to earning a living, so they ask their friends for help finding something. If you’re asking for a favor from your friends, you have to take what’s available.”
“Oh, like when Tammany Hall gets jobs for the people who do them favors.”
“Exactly, except I’m sure Charles went to his Republican friends instead of Boss Croker.”
“And now the family has lost its wage earner. That’s a pity.”
“And it also means his family didn’t have much reason to want him dead.”
“Unless his wife was a lot madder about not going to Newport than he expected.”
“Ordinarily, I’d take you to task for saying something like that about a poor widow, but in this case . . .”
He perked up at that. “Do you think she really might’ve killed him?”
“You always tell me not to decide someone is innocent just because I like them, so I’m not going to decide she’s a killer just because I don’t like her.”
“Ah, but you’re not saying she couldn’t possibly have done it either.”
“No, I’m not, but good heavens, they’ve only been married a year. She’s hardly had time to grow to hate him that much.”
“How long do you think it takes?” he asked with interest.
“I have no idea.”
That made him grin. “So who else lives in the house who might’ve learned to hate poor Charles?”
“Besides the servants and his parents, I don’t know.”
“Are Gerald’s parents still alive?”
Sarah tried to remember. “I haven’t really kept track of my parents’ friends, but I think his mother is.”
“You didn’t see her when you were there?”
“No, she probably isn’t receiving visitors. I was surprised Jenny Oakes was, in fact. Most of the time when there’s a death, the family just lets people drop off their cards and doesn’t see anyone at all except at the funeral. I suppose we should attend, shouldn’t we?”
“I suppose we should. It’s day after tomorrow, isn’t it?”
“Yes. You’ll have an opportunity to see the family for yourself.”
“I can hardly wait. Now come over here and sit on my lap for a while before I have to go home.”
• • •
Frank was starting to wish he’d made arrangements to visit Charles Oakes’s body along with the coroner Wesley. The day had been a series of construction disasters as the workmen installed a second bathroom upstairs in the suite of rooms Sarah and Frank had claimed for their own. He was just about to lose his temper completely and order all of them out of the house when someone knocked on the front door, reminding him again about the broken doorbell.
Ready to shout at some nosy reporter or some bum looking for a handout, he found a soldier on his doorstep instead. He needed a moment to recognize him.
“Gino! I didn’t know you were back from Cuba,” he said, absurdly happy to see the young man.
Gino grinned. “We’ve been back for a few weeks. They kept us out on Long Island for a while before we got discharged.” He’d resigned from the police department several months ago to fight with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the war with Spain. Mercifully, the combat had only lasted a few weeks before the Spanish had been soundly beaten, at least according to the newspapers.
“Come in. Don’t mind the mess. We’ve got workmen fixing the place up. How’d you find me?”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Edgar® and Agatha award–nominated Gaslight Mysteries
“Tantalizing.”—Catherine Coulter, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Backfire
“Victoria Thompson has a knack for putting the reader inside her characters’ heads and…[brings] the setting vividly to life.”—Kate Kingsbury, author of A Bicycle Built for Murder
“Victoria Thompson shines…Anne Perry and Caleb Carr fans, rejoice!”—Tamar Myers, national bestselling author of The Witch Doctor's Wife
“Fast-paced…Another Victorian page-turner!”—Robin Paige, national bestselling author of Death on the Lizard
“A fascinating window into a bygone era.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Vividly re-creates the gaslit world of old New York.”—Publishers Weekly
“Gangs of New York, eat your heart out—this book is the real thing.”—Mystery Scene
“Enthralling…Fascinating characters with a story to tell.”—Fresh Fiction