In the Shadow of Gotham (Detective Simon Ziele)

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9780312544904: In the Shadow of Gotham (Detective Simon Ziele)

Dobson, New York, 1905.

Detective Simon Ziele lost his fiancée in the General Slocum ferry disaster—a thousand perished on that summer day in 1904 when an onboard fire burned the boat down in the waters of the East River. Still reeling from the tragedy, Ziele transferred to a police department north of New York, to escape the city and all the memories it conjured.

But only a few months into his new life in a quiet country town, he’s faced with the most shocking homicide of his career to date: Young Sarah Wingate has been brutally murdered in her own bedroom in the middle of an otherwise calm and quiet winter afternoon. After just one day of investigation, Simon’s contacted by Columbia University’s noted criminologist Alistair Sinclair, who offers a startling claim about one of his patients, Michael Fromley—that the facts of the murder bear an uncanny resemblance to Fromley’s deranged mutterings.

But what would have led Fromley, with his history of violent behavior and brutal fantasies, to seek out Sarah, a notable mathematics student and a proper young lady who has little in common with his previous targets? Is Fromley really a murderer, or is someone mimicking him?

This is what Simon Ziele must find out, with the help of the brilliant but self-interested Alistair Sinclair—before the killer strikes again.

With this taut, atmospheric, and original story of a haunted man who must search for a killer while on the run from his own demons, Stefanie Pintoff’s In the Shadow of Gotham marks the debut of an outstanding new talent, the inaugural winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Novel Competition.

In the Shadow of Gotham is the winner of the 2010 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.

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About the Author:

Stefanie Pintoff is the author of A Curtain Falls and Secret of the White Rose. In the Shadow of Gotham is the winner of the 2010 Edgar Award for Best First Novel and the Washington Irving Book Prize, and she has earned nominations for the Agatha, Anthony and Macavity Awards. She is also a graduate of Columbia University Law School and has a Ph.D. in literature from New York University. Now a full-time writer, she lives with her husband and daughter on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The scream that pierced the dull yellow November sky was preternaturally high-pitched. Its sound carried effortlessly, echoing through a neighborhood of Queen Anne Victorians into the barren woods beyond, fading only as it descended toward the Hudson River. Those who heard the sound mistook it for that of an animal—perhaps the call of a screech owl, maybe the shrill cry of a loon. No one believed it to be human.

I did not hear it myself. I can only describe it as others did, after the fact.

But memory can be an odd thing. The report of that inhuman sound, relayed countless times, took root in my mind. It played upon my imagination, creating an impression so vivid it came to seem authentic. I know all too well that memory sometimes refuses to let die what we most want to forget. But now, I also know that memory can create something that never really existed. That is why this particular scream haunts me as surely as though I had been present, then and there, to hear it with my own ears. And I cannot mistake its origin: I know it is Sarah Wingate's dying cry, sounded just before her brutal murder.

News of her death came as the oversized grandfather clock in our office chimed five o'clock. My boss, Joe Healy, never one to stay a minute late, was putting on his coat, ready to leave for the day.

"You'll lock up when you're done?" Joe tucked his scarf around his neck.

I was at my desk finishing the paperwork for an arrest I'd made that morning. Thomas Jones had shown up for work at the Conduit and Cable factory with a hot temper and liquor in his belly, an unhappy combination that led him to sucker punch his foreman.

"Of course," I said, turning over the final page in the file. "Only Tuesday and our third assault this week." I blotted my pen before I signed and dated the report. "At this rate, the local paper will proclaim it an epidemic and we'll have the women's temperance union on our doorstep. Though I'd say it was lucky the assailant in each case was drunk. Men who can't see straight rarely land a solid punch."

We were interrupted by the sound of footsteps clattering up the short flight of stairs that led to our office at 27 Main Street. I stiffened with a flash of foreboding, for no one ever rushed toward our headquarters. After all, the sort of serious crime that might lead anyone to need a police officer in a hurry tended to circumvent the sleepy village of Dobson, New York, at the turn of the century.

Charlie Muncie, the young man who served as village secretary and had taken charge of the building's sole telephone downstairs, brought a terse message from Dr. Cyrus Fields. He needed our immediate assistance at the Wingate home.

"Mrs. Wingate's home on Summit Lane?" Joe asked, frowning in puzzlement.

There was only one Wingate family in town but I understood why Joe was perplexed. The Wingate home was in the estate section of town, and Dr. Fields was not the preferred doctor of Dobson's wealthier residents. One of several local physicians who served in rotation at the county morgue, he also treated the blue-collar factory workers in neighborhoods along the waterfront. He partnered closely with us on calls involving domestic disputes or drunken brawls since, if the altercation were in progress, we could intervene more effectively than the portly but diminutive doctor. The affluent classes of Dobson preferred Dr. Adam Whittier, who catered to their whims with absolute discretion. While rumor had it their homes were not immune to violent disputes, they tended to handle such matters behind a wall of secrecy. The police, certainly, were never involved.

"Did Cyrus say what's happened?" Joe asked. A stout man in his early sixties with bushy white hair and a normally pleasant, ruddy face, today he glared at the young man as though it were his fault Joe's dinner would get cold.

"He says there's been murder done." Charlie whispered the words as though he were frightened to utter them.

In an instant, I recalled the reason why. His mother had worked for Mrs. Wingate as a house keeper for years. He would have practically grown up in the Wingate house hold. In fact, the one time I had met the elderly Mrs. Wingate, she had come by the village offices to vouch for Charlie's character and recommend him for the secretarial job he now held.

"Who's been murdered?" Joe's voice thundered more loudly than he must have intended.

"The doctor said it was a young lady. A visiting relative. But he gave no details." Charlie's face blanched. For a moment, I worried he might faint.

"He told you nothing more because your mother is fine. Not to worry." I patted his shoulder and tried to smile reassuringly. I knew Charlie was eighteen already, but right now, he seemed little more than a boy. "And not a word to anyone, okay? Not yet."

He nodded in agreement as I grabbed my coat and worn leather satchel. Joe and I then sprinted to the corner of Main and Broadway, where we hailed one of the waiting calashes that hovered near the trolley stop. It was not far to the Wingate house. However, it was situated at the top of a steep hill—and we were in a hurry.

Once we were seated, I glanced over at Joe, the "chief" of our two-man force. Tight lines framed his mouth as he drew his oversized black wool coat closer to him in a futile attempt to ward off the icy gusts of wind from the Hudson River that buffeted the carriage.

"When did you last see a murder case in Dobson?" I asked. My voice was quiet so the driver would not hear.

"Why? You're worried I'm not up to it?" He bristled and gave me a withering look that I did not take personally. My hiring five months ago had been the mayor's doing, part of his plan to modernize Dobson's police resources by adding a younger man with newer methods. I was thirty years old and a seasoned veteran of the New York City Police Department's Bureau of Detectives, specifically the Seventh Precinct. But Joe had been Dobson's sole police officer ever since the police department was first created. After twenty-seven years on his own, he did not welcome the addition of a new partner, believing I was the replacement who would force him into retirement. His dark suspicions often strained our relationship.

It was several minutes before he spoke again, and when he did, his answer was grudging.

"In the winter of '93, a farmer was shot dead," he said. "We never solved it." He shrugged. "But we also had no more trouble of that sort. Always figured the culprit was someone from the man's past with a personal score to settle."

Then he looked at me sharply. "I'm sure you've seen your share of murder cases in the city. But maybe I should ask if you're sure you're up to it? You look a bit out of sorts."

I searched Joe's expression, looking for some indication that he knew more of my recent past than I had thought. But there was no sign. His question had reflected his own concerns; he had not expected it to hit a particular mark.

I swallowed hard before I said, "I'm fine," with more confidence than I actually felt. I had a weak stomach, especially for certain kinds of cases, and I feared this would prove to be one of them.

What Joe did not know was that I had come here this past May in search of a quieter existence with fewer reminders of Hannah, a victim of last year's General Slocum steamship tragedy. I was not alone in my grief; nearly every family in my Lower East Side neighborhood had lost someone that awful day—June 15, 1904. For almost a full year following Hannah's death, she haunted me, particularly in cases where other young women met tragic, violent ends. I had planned to marry Hannah and build a life with her—but I had no desire to live with a ghost. That was why this job in Dobson, a small town seventeen miles north of the city, had seemed just the right opportunity: I could grieve quietly and rid myself of unwanted nightmares in a place where murders and violent deaths were not to be expected.

But still they came . . . and this one would test whether my rusty skills—and my weak stomach—were up to the task.

Behind us, the cragged cliffs of the Palisades loomed large over the Hudson River, colored in the faded oranges and yellows of late fall. The character of the neighborhood changed with each passing block; "hill and mill" was how the local townspeople described the division between the row houses and apartment flats nearer the riverbank and the imposing estates situated at the top of the village's rising landscape. Church's Corner marked the dividing line, an intersection with three churches—all Catholic, each distinguished solely by ethnicity, with one church for the Italians, one for the Irish, and still another for the Polish.

As the hills became even steeper, the homes became noticeably more capacious and ornate, some characterized by elegant stonework, others by latticed wood trim and dentil molding. The Wingate house was one of the statelier of these homes, situated on a particularly large expanse of land. It was a magnificent stone Victorian with a pink and gray mansard roof and an angular wraparound porch. On past occasions when I had visited this neighborhood, I had admired its majestic lawn and gardens. Today, it scarcely resembled the place I remembered, for the scene surrounding the house was one of complete chaos.

Dr. Fields was certainly inside, for Henry, the son he was grooming to take over his practice, was keeping several agitated neighbors off the Wingate porch. Two small white terriers were leashed to a stake in the middle of the lawn; they protested their restraints with ear-piercing yaps. And Mrs. Wingate herself, now approaching eighty years old, was seated on a straight-backed wooden chair in their midst. She looked cold, despite the fact that someone had brought her a warm wrap to protect her from the evening's increasing chill. She repeated a series of questions to no one in particular in an anxious, petulant voice. "Why can't I go inside my own home?" "Won't anyone tell me what sort of accident there's been?" And most frequently of all, "Where's Abby?"

Joe and I rushed past all the confusion, hurrying toward the main porch and front door, where Henry acknowledged us with a brief, grave nod. Inside the entry hall, we found Dr. Fields organizing his equipment. Cyrus Fields was a short, middle-aged man who seemed to have boundless energy and a remarkable enthusiasm for each case he encountered. His wide face usually held a jovial expression, even when tending to the dead or dying. But today he appeared unsettled. Heavy lines marked his forehead and his full head of salt-and-pepper hair was uncharacteristically mussed.

He looked up, and when he recognized us, his relief was palpable.

"Thank God you're here," he sputtered. "In all my years, I've never seen anything quite like it . . . I just can't imagine why . . . or what kind of person . . ." And the normally garrulous doctor trailed off for lack of words.

"It's all right," I said calmly. "Why don't you take us to her?"

"Of course. Where are my gloves?" He didn't mean ordinary winter gloves, but rather the cotton examination gloves he used for each new patient. They were behind him, on top of the black bag he had set on the floor. "Oh, yes, here they are. Come then. We're headed upstairs."

We followed him as he began to ascend the giant staircase that rose in a half circle above the entry hall.

"Is anyone else in the house?" I asked, adding, "We saw Mrs. Wingate outside."

"Yes, and her maid should be with her," he said. "Her niece, Miss Abigail, is resting in the library. I didn't want them to overhear us, or worse yet, disturb anything. No one has touched anything. I know that's always your preference even with our, ah, less serious cases." He fumbled before he found the words that would do.

We continued to climb. The stairs creaked under the weight of our steps, despite the plush carpet runner designed to cushion the wood. Upon reaching the first landing, I detected an unmistakable odor—the sickly-sweet smell of blood. I cleared my throat before commencing the next set of stairs. But death's odor is a singular one that, once detected, manages to pervade all the senses. With each step, my awareness of it—and my revulsion to it—grew more intense. I could taste it, feel it, almost see it by the time we reached the top.

I had to pause for a moment. I gripped the banister, fighting to suppress the wave of nausea that welled up, threatening to overwhelm me.

Dr. Fields pointed toward the bedroom immediately on our right, facing south toward the street.

We followed with hesitant, slow footsteps.

When he reached the door, he stepped aside, allowing me to enter first.

I took two steps inside before I halted—for there she was.

I stared woodenly, at once repulsed and transfixed by the scene of ghastly carnage before me. The victim lay propped against the bed, her body precisely positioned, hands folded together in a demure pose. Her head had been so badly battered that I no longer recognized the features of her face. Splattered on the blue toile wallpaper nearest the bedpost, intermingled with red blood, was a gray substance I knew to be brain. I swallowed hard, again fighting the sensation of nausea that threatened to resurface.

"What is her name?" I asked.

"Sarah Wingate. She has been visiting since Friday," the doctor said. His voice was even, but the beads of sweat on his forehead and the way he averted his eyes from the figure by the bed belied his apparent composure.

"And she is a relative of Mrs. Wingate's?"

"Yes. Her niece."

To refocus my wits, I forced myself to survey the undisturbed portions of the room. It was apparent it had been decorated in a tasteful and pleasing style—a fine dark blue and red oriental carpet complemented a pale blue bedspread and curtains, and two delicate Chinese vases adorned matching mahogany tables at either side of the bed. It was an atmosphere that suggested wealth and privilege. Yet today, it was nearly impossible to see past this senseless display of violence. I drew closer to the swath of blood on the wallpaper. Not yet dry, I noted as I came close enough to touch one stain, which indicated her death had occurred within the last few hours.

I breathed deeply through my mouth, vowing not to be sick. Such a response to the sight and smell of blood was a liability in my profession, and I never failed to be frustrated with my body's visceral response. The hollow pit in my stomach was a familiar physical reaction, though it had been nearly six months since I was last summoned to a murder scene. That was in May, just before I left the city. There, I'd seen more than my share of the squalor and crime end...

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