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One of The Wall Street Journal’s Ten Best Mysteries of the Year
“Amazing...This is a series for the ages, it’s so spectacular.”—Gillian Flynn, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Gone Girl
1846: In New York City, slave catching isn’t just legal—it’s law enforcement.
Six months after the formation of the NYPD, its most reluctant and talented officer, Timothy Wilde, learns of the gruesome underworld of lies and corruption ruled by the “blackbirders,” who snatch free Northerners of color from their homes, masquerade them as slaves, and sell them South to toil as plantation property.
When the beautiful and terrified Lucy Adams staggers into Timothy’s office to report a robbery and is asked what was stolen, her reply is, “My family.” Their search for her mixed-race sister and son will plunge Timothy and his feral brother, Valentine, into a world where police are complicit and politics savage, and where corpses appear in the most shocking of places...
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Lyndsay Faye is the author of The Gods of Gotham—nominated for an Edgar® Award for Best Novel—and the critically acclaimed Dust and Shadow and is featured in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010. Faye, a true New Yorker in the sense that she was born elsewhere, lives in Manhattan with her husband, Gabriel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The evil we complain of is increasing. Europe is flooding the country with emigrants—Great Britain has appropriated twenty-five million to deport to this country one million of Irish paupers, to compete with and destroy American labor.
—MR. LEVIN OF THE NATIVE AMERICAN PARTY, AS REPORTED IN THE NEW YORK HERALD, 1846
I have come to know my city too well. Not the pleasantest of afflictions. Presumably this wouldn't be a problem if I lived in a gorgeously crumbling stone wreck on the coast of Spain, casting my nets for sardines of a morning and catching strains of guitar music long into the night. Or if I kept a tavern in a melancholy little English town, pouring pints for widowers and reading poetry of an evening. I’ve never been away from here, so who can say? My knowledge of other places is bounded in books. It could be possible to know a city intimately and yet like it. I hope so.
No, the main trouble seems to be that I’m a policeman of Ward Six in Manhattan, the only copper star I know of assigned not to walk rounds but to solve crimes after the fact, and that so far I've not much cottoned to the content of the crimes. Not by half.
For instance, on the morning of St. Valentine’s Day, I awoke with the faintly sick sensation that a law had been broken by someone or other in this city of near half a million, and I hadn't yet brainworked out who. The day before, Chief of Police George Washington Matsell—our unquestioned leader, the charging rhino of a man who set me up unraveling riddles—had appeared in my airless Tombs cave.
G. W. Matsell would already be impressive because he is enormous, over six feet tall and three hundred pounds if he’s an ounce. But it so happens he’s impressive because both his mind and willpower resemble a train running under full shrieking steam. He was a prominent justice before being appointed our chief, and thus already famous. Since we copper stars are a controversial band of ragtags to say the least, now he’s infamous. But infamy doesn't seem to chafe him overmuch.
I heard a scuff and looked up from my desktop. The previous instant, my doorway had seemed a reasonable size. Man-sized, anyhow. Now Chief Matsell stood within, and it had shrunk to a mouse hole. He stared at me placidly. Jowls furrowed into deep fleshy ditches and pale eyes gleaming. I’d used to walk my ward incircles as my colleagues did, on the lookout for trouble and finding it all too often. Since the end of the ghastly kinchin murderer business last August, when the chief decided my brains ought to be at his perennial disposal, I sit at the Tombs and trouble finds me either via notes from Matsell or in person. I’m damned if I know which is more disconcerting.
“A priceless miniature painting has been stolen from a private residence at One-oh-two Fifth Avenue, under unusual circumstances,” he announced.
A bead-sized but tightly worked knot formed in my stomach.
“You’re going to find it. Mr. and Mrs. Millington expect you to call round at nine.”
“Right,” I said, exhaling hard.
“Find the thief while you’re about it, Mr. Wilde,” he added over his shoulder, charging quietly away as if he’d battalions that wanted commanding.
Easier said than done, I surmised.
I’d been among the very first copper stars, as the Common Council had succeeded in forming the police only the previous summer. And I’d a hankering to be the best of the lot. But the work was still a coat that didn't fit me, all floppy sleeves and straining buttons, every fresh problem prompting my brain to prate, And just how will you set about solving that?
It’s a foul sensation.
Bizarrely, I still dreamed at night of tending bar as I’d used to—of running dry of rum with Wall Street speculators piled twenty deep in a hissing, writhing snake pit before my cedar plank. Not of stolen goods I couldn't find or of street brawls I couldn't tame. Nor murders I couldn't solve. In my usual visions, my face wasn't yet so scarred by the fire that erased half of downtown that no decent watering hole would ever hire me, my home and fortune hadn't evaporated, and my keenest concern was serving champagne to stockbrokers who were already half-stupefied. Mostly I dreamed of flimsy troubles.
I say mostly.
I dream about police work too, every month or so, and about last summer. Of course I do. But those dreams crack my skull a bit.
Anyhow, from the instant Matsell assigned me to retrieve that painting, I commenced skirting the edges of my wits. Since my removal from the company of patrolling roundsmen and promotion to solver-of-the-chief ’s-nastier-puzzles, I’d never investigated a crime committed against our white-sugar-dusted upper crust. And 102 Fifth Avenue turned out to be within sneezing distance of the annoyingly chipper Union Place Park.
Not my sort of neighborhood, speaking economically—I've five items of furniture and a rented room above a bakery. But what Matsell says goes, and thus so did I.
Alighting the hack the morning of February 13, I shook myhead at the miracle of Union Place Park. Our parks tend to become pig troughs or chicken yards within ten years’ time. But Union Place clings with religious frenzy to its prim shrubbery and raked walkways. The aisles whispered, Welcome and enjoy, supposing you belong here. Under the branches of the bare young trees, a matched set of girls wearing flounces of white lace beneath their furs laughed together in the knifelike daylight, sparks shooting from the diamonds woven into their hair.
Had I been in fit romantic condition to study them, maybe they’d not have hurt my eyes. But I continued west along Sixteenth Street, pretending as I went that there wasn't a girl across the ocean who’d long been corralling off ninety percent of the thoughts in my head.
Prime-grade, triple-purified mule headedness, my brother Val called the obsession. Unfortunately, I couldn't help myself. I wanted to plant flags for her, conquer city-states. If her mind had been a map, I’d have taken an ivory ribbon and pinned it softly and painlessly along the route of her thoughts. Barring the likelihood of that happening, I’d have settled for being the fellow to bolt her front door of an evening, as she’s far more audacious than she is sensible. Check window casements, generally stand guard against the frailty of locks. That sort of thing.
Mercy Underhill was in London, though, and I was in Goth-am, and so instead I rapped at the door of 102 Fifth Avenue.
The three-story house of brown stone couldn't possibly have reached its fifth year, its steps spreading in a great curved smirk between two despondent-looking stone gryphons hunched atop either pedestal. Carved teak door, window boxes stuffed with pine that somehow had sprouted gilt cones, a decorative stone face everywhere they could find on the facade to slap one. Even the roofing tiles reeked of new money. The gryphons wanted nothing to do with the place, and neither did I.
I tried the bell. It chimed like a gong summoning an emperor to dinner and the door swung open. The butler, when he saw me, looked as if he’d just glanced inside a slaughterhouse.
Granted, my winter coat is of pedestrian grey wool and was once someone else’s. And granted, the upper right quarter of my face does resemble a hardened wax puddle. But he didn't know a thing about the coat’s previous history. Or the face’s. So he ought to keep dark about it, is what I thought.
I waited for him to say something.
He stood there. Being altogether tall and silent and side- whiskered.
So I swept my fingers toward the dented copper star pinned to my lapel.
“Ah,” he said, as if discovering the source of a pesky smell. “You've been summoned to discover the whereabouts of the painting, I gather. A . . . policeman.”
Despite myself, I grinned. I was used to the disgusted tone people took with the infant police force by then, if not used to the word summoned, but none of that mattered. I've listened to thousands of people from hundreds of cities in my years tending bar. It was a game of mine, before. Placing them. One of many games. And apparently the Millingtons hadn't the ear to identify a Bristol man doing his level-best London accent and had hired a jack-tar for a snob butler. That kittled me. The barely visible hole where the ring had once pierced his ear kittled me too.
“How’s the shipping industry back home?” I asked.
If you've never seen a liveried sea dog turn purple and then an oysterish white, you’re missing something splendid. His muttonchops practically stood at attention.
“This way, sir, and . . . do please let me know if my services can be of use to you.”
We entered a foyer lined with portraits of unhealthy-looking women with their dogs and their children and their needlework. An active gentleman of about fifty-five burst through the opposite door, checking a gold pocket watch. Mr. Millington, it seemed clear.
“The policeman is here to see you, sir,” the Bristol butler reported.
“Oh, wonderful! What’s his name, then, Turley?”
Turley's mouth worked like a pike’s. The man was suffering so deeply, I solidified our new friendship with a rescue effort.
“I’m Timothy Wilde. I’ll be happy to see what I can do about returning your property.”
“My word,” Millington mused as he shook my hand. “Not what I’d expected from a note to Chief Matsell himself for help, but I suppose he knows his business.”
Unsure of which side to take in this argument, I kept mum.
“I’m due at the ’Change,” he fretted. “So I’ll just post you up on our way to the music room, the—well, how do you people put it? The stage of the crime, as it were?”
“I really couldn't tell you.”
“I see,” he said, baffled.
Mr. Millington informed me en route that, upon entering the music room the previous day at six a.m., their maid Amy had suffered a fright. The Millingtons were art lovers (the chambers we passed through were drowning in China vases and Japanned fire screens and oil paintings of cherubs at their never very strenuous occupations), and each morning the precious artifacts were cleaned.Inventoried, I supplied in my head. Unfortunately, Amy had discovered a gap in the miniatures hanging on the music-room wall. After a thorough search, Matsell was notified, and thus I was ordered to try my hand as an art bloodhound.
Not my strong suit. I knew it sure as gravity.
“My wife is extremely upset over this dreadful affair.” Mr. Millington’s pocket watch reappeared briefly. “Shall I tell you about Jean-Baptiste Jacques Augustin?”
I grew up pickling my brains in an erudite Protestant minister’s extensive library, so I answered, “The court miniaturist? Later official painter to the king of France?”
“Oh. Well, then.”
“What’s it look like?”
As I was being told that it looked like a shepherdess wearing a straw bonnet with pink ribbons, we arrived at what could only have been the music room, as it was possessed of two pianos facing each other down like duelists, a cello, several decorative lutes, and a winged harp the size of a broom closet.
“I’m terribly sorry, but I really must be off,” Millington concluded. “See that this policeman’s questions are answered, yes, Turley? You know best what to do from here, Mr. Wilde.”
I didn't. But he departed so swiftly, I hadn't the pleasure of telling him.
When his master’s footsteps had faded, Turley wriggled his side-whiskers apologetically. “About earlier, sir. I regret—”
“You could be the queen of the Gypsies for all I care. Besides, they expect it of you. That ghoul of a dead high-court judge act.Just because you can’t flam me doesn'tmean you’re not doing handsome work flamming them. Help me sort this, and we’ll forget about it.”
He smiled, showing crooked teeth that likely hadn't glimpsed public daylight since he was hired. “I call that fair play, Mr. Wilde. I suppose first you’ll want to examine the room.”
Thinking it a spruce idea, I peered about. At the instruments, the bow windows, the pink draperies, the leering dragons guarding the fireplace. I wrestled back an audible sigh.
It looked like a room.
Obviously, an artwork had been removed. Eleven miniature portraits hung as a collection, most of vacuous rosy-cheeked dignitaries but some of vacuous rosy-cheeked peasantry. There ought to have been twelve, though. The third from the right in the second column was missing, and the papered wall was dirty from lack of cleaning beneath the absent painting, dark streaks mottled over the sprays of blushing tea roses. Three little parallel smears of ashy grime. I leaned closer, examining the gap.
It looked like a gap.
I lightly worried at the eyebrow bordering my scar as I went to look over the locks on the chamber’s two doorways. “Turley, the chief said unusual circumstances.”
“I called it peculiar myself, sir. This room was locked at midnight when I made my nightly tour. I've a key; Mr. Millington has a key; Mrs. Thornton, the housekeeper, has a key. They’re all accounted for. And like Mr. Millington said, weren't we all bleeding searched to our eyeteeth and past yesterday? As if any of us would ever dream of touching this swag.”
I tossed him a wry look as I quit the second—and likewise untampered with—door lock. His stately London vowels had dissolved entirely by this time into Bristol’s River Avon. I was almost fond of him for it.
“They’re worth a fortune, some of them. That miniature certainly is. Nothing has disappeared before now, I take it?”
“Never, sir. There’s none of us as needs the money, not in that way. We've fine victuals below stairs, three sick days a year, bonuses every Christmas. And all of us with family away home to support and ten thousand more Irish crawling into the city every day. It’d take a bedlamite to risk being sacked without a character,things as they are.”
Irish were indeed flooding New York as if a Donelly or a Mc-Kale were contained in every raindrop of every thunderstorm. No one liked them—no one save for Democrats of my brother Valentines stripe, who liked their votes considerably—but certainly not house servants of British extraction who could be on the streets in the breadth of a hat pin should their masters take a turn for the frugal. I sympathized with Turley. His brand of animosity was practical, at least, and not the vicious anti-Catholic paranoia that makes my hackles rise.
But the Irish had commenced starving the year previous, when their potatoes disintegrated. And now it was wintertime, and that particular fellow feeling went beyond sympathy. I've Irish friends, Irish fellow copper stars, and I know what missing mealtimes feels like. Val and I once made a supper out of the mushy mass of vegetables a restaurant had strained from a stockpot, kernels scraped from a half-eaten husk of buttered corn, and three street-foraged chestnuts. My older brother had salted it, peppered it, plated it, garnished mine with two chestnuts and his with one, and deemed it salad.
It was unconvincing.
“When you locked up, did you notice anything amiss?”
“It’s a pity, but can’t say as I looked. Last member of the household to use the room was Mrs. Mi...
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