Book 1 in the Samaritan Files Trilogy
PRAIRIE MUSE PLATINUM
New York City’s Tenderloin District
— 1876 —
The dark-haired young man could scarcely believe his good fortune. He tried to slow his breathing, but the plush, deep carpet felt strange beneath his feet, keeping him off balance. Between holding his breath so as not to fall over and trying not to hyperventilate, he was a trembling mess. He had to steady himself. This was the reward everyone coveted, and it had come to him.
He focused on the deep folds of the gold-fringed drapery that hung across the entrance. Intricate nets of transparent fabric laced the ceiling, muting the light and casting the place in an unearthly, beckoning dimness.
Pale-faced boys in black silk knee britches, gold chains looped across their chests, glided slowly about the room, filling opium jars, retrieving spilled whisky glasses that had slipped from comatose hands and rolled beneath lush potted ferns.
The rich fabrics of elegant women’s gowns draped haphazardly across the settees upon which their owners reclined—some still adorning their mistresses, others not. Here and there a man’s head reclined in the lap or upon the bosom of a sleeping female.
It was as they had said. The riches were right here for the taking. He stepped forward, drawn by the pocket watch that hung from the vest of a man who would not be waking for some hours yet. Cautiously he reached down and palmed the watch, looking it over as if considering the time. He looked into the face of its owner.
He twisted the fob loose from its button hole and felt the weight of the expensive timepiece in his hand. It was his now. His reward. His heart swelled.
He stepped toward the woman and relieved her of her rings. She would never report them missing. At least she’d never dare expose where and when she’d lost them. The woman twitched, and he jumped a bit, but she didn’t waken. Her earbobs followed her rings into his pocket.
A beautiful girl walked toward him, her dress cut in a garish fashion with glittering stones pushing up the perfect orbs of her breasts. Her hair was a tumble of black curls that swept high, then cascaded down her neck. One lock rolled across the white delicate flesh of her bosom as she stepped into the soft light. He reached out to touch it but her eyes stopped him. She looked not so much at him as through him. The rich brown pupils were hugely dilated, floating in a light opium daze. It gave her a look of contentment, of euphoria, of acceptance. It was the kind of gaze that had never been shed upon him in his entire life. Acceptance. Welcome.
Except by one person. Except by her, the perfect Julia. The one he wouldn’t let himself think about right now.
“Are you for me?” he whispered.
A semblance of a smile moved across her lips and she turned. Beckoned. And he followed.
They were right. This was indeed Heaven.
Twenty Years Later
New York City – 1896
Jess Pepper was a people-watcher. If he thought about it, he most likely would not remember a time when he had not been. So the large windows in his new office constantly occupied a bit of his peripheral vision as he sought to square away his space. Vague images of people moving in the city beyond the walls of his building drew him mercilessly, tugging his attention away from the battered desk he was angling out from the corner where it had sat in dusty neglect. He gave it one more nudge, then checked the view. Almost perfect.
His tall frame stretched easily across the dry leathered inset as he pulled the desk two inches further from the wall and felt the satisfying tug at his well-toned muscles. He smiled. A guy who pounded out as many words a week as he did on his trusty Blickensderfer No. 6 could waste away in a hurry—if it wasn’t such a good workout chasing down the bad guys to get the story.
He lifted his typewriter off the floor and off-centered it on the desk just the way he liked it. It was a heavy cuss. A few minutes a day hoisting the Blick overhead while he waited for the words to come hadn’t hurt his muscle tone a bit.
Some men felt naked without a sidearm. For Jess it was the Blick. Take away the typewriter where he could put words on paper as fast as he could think them and he was Samson after Delilah had absconded with his hair.
Words and the way he put them together were not only his livelihood, they were his life. Exploring the human condition was his pastime. Recording what he found in ways that prompted readers to dance or weep was his passion.
Jess re-positioned the piles of paper within reach and rolled a clean sheet of onionskin into the Blick. He always kept it at the ready for the moment of inspiration when the words began to flow.
In a move he’d executed countless times, his right foot hit the top of the desk at nearly the same instant that his posterior slid into the well-worn captain-style rolling desk chair. He flicked his left ankle up and across and locked his hands behind his head. The chair fit his bony backside perfectly, which was why he’d brought it with him all the way from the Denver Post to the New York Times.
Beyond his window crowds milled, strolled, and even stalked along the boardwalks of Park Row. There were many tempos here, and familiar tempos at that, Jess realized. The slowest paced—the window-shoppers—milled about in front of lavish store displays, and wandered in and out of shops with packages in tow. Their movements were erratic, meandering, their faces animated in lively conversation with companions.
The faster paced seemed to be just passing through. Not interested in the shops, they just kept moving. Then there was the quiet, steady rhythm of those who were bent on completing their errands, and the still, shadowed presence of the hustlers who lurked in darkened doorways, doing the same thing Jess was doing now. Watching and waiting.
The scene was new to Jess, the buildings finer, taller, but the pace, while somehow familiar, seemed unique to this city. There was no doubt about it. New York City had its own heartbeat. The question was, how well was his own pulse going to mesh with the beat of this new town.
Getting his first column out and fielding the reaction it garnered would go a long way toward answering that question. Jess focused on the activity beyond his windows, searching for the inspiration that would lay down the opening words of that column for him. And he was not disappointed.
In the space of five minutes, Jess saw three women fall victim to the confidence men who scavenged along the boardwalks, duping unsuspecting innocents into miserable bargains. Where were the constables who should be watching out for this kind of unsavory activity? Busy elsewhere? Or bribed to look the other way?
Jess followed with his eyes the path of a well-dressed young woman in a feathered hat and fawn duster, her three young ones—little girls in sashed dresses and high-button shoes—skipping alongside. No meandering here. This woman walked with a purpose.
Her posture and pace told Jess that her mission did not appear to be a frivolous one, but her step slowed infinitesimally as she passed an elegant hat shop. Her own jaunty hat suddenly dipped sharply away from the street, and Jess knew she was sneaking a peek at the array of plumed and jeweled millinery beyond the window glass.
A pitchman who was sizing her up from a few paces away capitalized on her momentary distraction. He slicked back his greasy hair that curled over his loosened collar and descended upon her abruptly with his sales spiel. She stopped, startled to find the shabby pin-striped suit blocking her path.
Walk away. Walk away.
Jess sent his strongest mental urging in her direction, willing her to escape from the man bent on separating her from her husband’s earnings. The interloper’s commanding posture and obsequious politeness were carefully calculated, Jess knew, to seduce her confidence, to remind her that he—a man—knew what was best for her.
What was he selling? A side of beef? Doctored water? Whatever it was, the sample would be delectable. The delivered product, if indeed anything ever arrived, would be suitable only for the dust bin.
Jess dropped his feet to the floor and rested his elbows on his knees, as if leaning toward the window might lend strength to his mental urgings. The woman’s head inclined, and Jess smiled at the arrogant angle of her hat feathers as they caught the breeze.
She must have changed her tone, too, because Jess saw the children stop their playful gawking and fall into place in back of her skirts as the woman stepped away from the man. He began to close, to keep her in his circle of control, but her gloved hand came up stiffly into the space between them, stopping him cold. She swept the children to the outside, keeping herself between them and the stalker, and hurried on down the street.
Jess’s fingers found the keys even before he pulled his gaze from the window. He was already spilling his thoughts onto the paper. This might very well do for a series of articles. A diatribe on women victims of the ‘confidence man’, perhaps, alternating with great examples like the commanding mistress he’d just witnessed, followed by a readers’ course in street defense. The auburn-haired woman was the perfect model of the female he wanted to convey, the woman who would not be managed or coerced, the woman who would fearlessly stand her ground. Jess catalogued the idea as he paused for another quick glance toward the window.
A satisfied smile crept across his face as he watched the hawker make his way to the far end of the boulevard, his heels slamming a bit harder than necessary into the cobblestone.
Your days on the streets are numbered, my friend.
Jess Pepper knew well the power of his written word. After all, it had saved the lives of forty children who’d been spirited away from an orphan train and nearly shipped out of the country into the flesh trade. His investigative reporting had earned their freedom.
And his ticket to New York City.
But the power was not intoxicating. It was more shackling than anything. He’d made it his job to reveal, expose, defend. To modify the joys and assuage the fears of his fellow citizens through his newspaper articles. Now it seemed that a day without doing so was a day wasted.
Yet he wouldn’t have it any other way.
His window on the thoroughfare provided a compelling view of activity both saintly and seedy. Plenty of fodder for his first series of Times articles under the byline that had recently foisted him into the national spotlight.
From the Salt Mines by Salty Pepper.
The move to New York City had necessarily interrupted his investigative rhythm, and now that he was settled into his new office, his veins thrummed with a familiar adrenaline surge. Jess Pepper was impatient to get a story out.
From the corner of his ever vigilant eye, Jess saw heads in the outer office turn in surprise toward the industrious sound coming from his windowed domain. He knew he was putting someone in the typing pool out of work, but never before had he entrusted his writing to a middle man. Or woman, as the case may be. And he certainly wasn’t going to start now. From the sounds of it, the typing pool had plenty to keep their pretty little fingers busy.
The scenario for his new article hit the pages polished. No stopping and starting. Jess could think two paragraphs ahead while he punched out a perfectly paced story – already mentally edited – on the shiny Blick.
The clacking stopped as words continued to race and tumble in his mind. The story needed facts. And facts meant research.
Jess rolled the platen forward and read for the first time the words his furious fingers had planted on the page. It was good. And definitely worth an hour or two in the newspaper’s morgue to flesh it out.
. . .
All too soon the young violin teacher delivered her three little charges into the hands of their nanny and headed toward the streetcar stop that she knew took her near her new rooming house. The afternoon had fairly flown. Her three little students had been thrilled with the entire excursion — the ride uptown to Carnegie Hall, the backstage tour, their skipping trek down the long ramp to the orchestra pit. Everything about it had their bright faces transformed with wonder and delight.
She’d wanted to take them onstage, but the stage manager had taken one look at the three bobbing heads and denied permission. She’d hoped to cajole him into changing his mind, but not only would he not budge, he had a stagehand escort them to the door. She was offended, miffed, with no opportunity to express it, lest she embarrass herself in front of her students.
But when that scroungy, mangy, cocksure confidence man had approached her on Park Row, she’d let him have it with both barrels. All her disappointment at being kept offstage at Carnegie Hall had come rushing out in clipped, terse words, and she’d delivered a tongue-lashing that had the man shrinking before her very eyes.
Oh, it had felt so good.
But cocksure? Where had that word come from? Was she even allowed to think it? The young woman felt the flush singe her cheeks. Adelaide Magee was no prude, but if anyone had been able at that instant to read her mind, she’d have to dye her hair, change her name, and move to Timbuktu. Cocksure, indeed. New York City was having a bad influence on her already.
. . .
They were trying so hard not to stare at him that he almost laughed.
The newly transplanted investigative reporter walked self-consciously through the typing pool to the main staircase. He felt eyes on his back, saw the whispering behind discreet hands, and realized he wasn’t as anonymous as he’d thought.
Clicking typewriters seemed to lose their rhythm as he walked past. Women began furiously flipping through steno pads as he neared the longest bank of desks in the typing pool. How would they know if they’d found what they were looking for, when their eyes seemed bent on another task? The task of looking him over. Ogling him, if truth be told.
“Well, I declare,” a chirpy southern voice suddenly erupted to his left. “Why, shugah, he looks like some kinda wild west sheriff to me. You shore he’s a—” An unnatural bevy of coughing sprang up suddenly, drowning the unguarded words.
They could just get used to it. He was not going to cut his hair. Jess kept walking, wondering which he should be most grateful for—the southern belle’s outburst that made them all avert their eyes in embarrassment, or the fact that he was interesting enough to cause a ruckus.
From the well-honed corner of his eye he assessed the voluptuous beauty who had modulated her tone but still managed to keep the focus on herself. She caught his eye, raised an eyebrow, and dropped a seductive wink that had Jess working hard not to break stride.
She was a corker, all right.
He supposed he’d have to find another route to and from his office. Running the gauntlet wasn’t altogether annoying, just annoyingly distracting. As Jess reached the foyer and began his descent, he worked hard to drag his mind back around the points he’d left his desk to research.
He patted his pocket, checking for a handkerchief. He’d been warned he’d need it when he entered the dusty, mold-ridden basement of the Times. Adolph Ochs himself, the day he’d welcomed Jess onto the paper’s staff, had walked him to the stairwell that led to the cavernous basement. But at the top he’d stopped, turned, and admonished Jess to be wary. His tone seemed to portend of things much more sinister than mere dust and mold, but then it had been Jess’s first day, and he had been a mite nervous just being in the owner’s presence.
Jess entered the poorly lit stairwell leading to the morgue that dated back to the newspaper’s founding in 1851. Handwritten news histories originally stored neatly in organized collections had been surrounded over the years by hodgepodge bins of hot-metal galleys and photo engravings. But there was still plenty of bookbinding and paper to supply the massive low-ceilinged room with a musty odor.
He stepped noisily off the bottom stair and ignored the furtive looks from small groups of stringers huddled in dark corners among the stacks, intent on their games of craps. He’d forgotten it was payday, and stifled a grateful shudder that he was able to put things like payday out of his mind. It hadn’t been all that long since he himself had received the pittance paid to freelance news reporters who were paid by the column inch, the inches measured out on a string that always seemed to come up shorter than it looked.
A dim glow from scattered gas lamps cast eerie shadows across signs scrawled below them on the basement’s bare brick walls. ‘1840 to 1861’ was written in four-inch letters at about eye level, with an arrow pointing left. The words ‘War Between the States’ with an arrow pointing right had been added in a different hand just below. Clearly, the history collected here predated the paper’s beginning.
These crude signs were surprising. Most morgues he’d prowled had no organization at all. Perhaps it wouldn’t take as long as he’d thought to find what he was looking for.
His eyes adjusted to the gloom and he saw just ahead of him the central kiosk, identifiable only by a small grill nearly hidden in the floor-to-ceiling clutter. The stern warning his editor had issued rose unbidden to his thoughts. “Don’t even think of working in the morgue without checking in with Twickenham.”
While every possible justification for violating that rule tugged at him, Jess was determined to get off on the right foot and headed for the darkened grill behind which he hoped to find Twickenham’s desk.
There was no echo in the damp hall, and his greeting fell dead, soaked up instantly by the tons of leather and parchment that surrounded him. He was about to speak again when a tablet was thrust through a slot in the grill, a crudely sharpened pencil dangling from it by a string.
Apparently he was to register his request.
As he wrote, Jess noted the times and dates and materials that had been sought most recently, according to entries further up on the page. The requests largely asked for information for obituaries.
He scribbled his name, date, and interest in street crime reports for the last decade and slid the tablet back through the opening. It disappeared with the pencil into the dark cavern and Jess heard a chair scrape, followed by a shuffling. The tablet came flying back through the slot and fell neatly into his hands.
“Try again,” came the guttural prompt.
“And this time, use your full name.”
Jess re-read his entry.
April 19, 1896...J. Pepper...street crimes over last decade.
He was anxious to get on with his research, and this fellow’s rules were holding things up. Biting back a grumble, he licked his thumb and rubbed it across the penciled name, then wrote in the smudged space the legal name he tried to use as little as possible.
Jessiah Saltingham Pepper.
It was the grandiose name with which his single mother had so proudly burdened him before she promptly up and died. He laid the tablet back on the slotted shelf, and with a tentative finger, pushed it through.
Jess interpreted the silence from the other side of the cubicle as permission to continue. He turned away from the grill and was startled to come eye to eye with the keeper of the rules. He hadn’t heard the man leave his desk. But now a thin, cranky face peered around the stack nearest him and looked him sharply up and down.
Jess stopped and extended his hand.
The man’s scraggly eyebrows narrowed over a perilously perched pince-nez. A straight Roman nose pointed the way to a jutting chin over a scrawny neck and bobbing Adam’s apple. The encircling starched collar was impeccably white but badly frayed.
“You truthin’ me?” He asked the question as he shook the tablet in Jess’s face. It seemed his social skills were as frayed as his collar.
“Why would I not?” Jess was still uncertain what it was about his request that had set the old fellow off. “Are you Ollie Twickenham?” Jess held his smile but dropped his hand.
Twickenham ignored him still. He wiggled his nose and cheek to dislodge his eyeglasses, and the pince-nez promptly tumbled from his face to dangle on a thin black ribbon attached to his vest pocket. He stepped down out of his nook and Jess realized for the first time just how short the man was.
Jess stood his ground as the man studied him, looked down at the page, then fixed his eyes on Jess again. He was coatless, with muslin protectors covering the cuffs and forearms of his green-gartered white shirt. Streaks of old ink and other unrecognizable stains proved the muslin’s necessity.
Twickenham drew himself up to his full height, which brought his beady eyes just above Jess Pepper’s elbow.
“Hmmph. You’re far too young to be Salty Pepper,” he spat, “but then, you’re so wet behind the ears you wouldn’t know that!”
Jess absorbed the accusation that had been delivered with an unnatural, gravelly bark that sounded like planks dragged across river rock. The damaged effect was most likely the result of years of forcing a high-pitched voice to a more authoritative register.
“Ah, but I am. Salty Pepper, that is. But please, call me Jess.”
A suspicious eyebrow launched itself halfway up to Twickenham’s receding hairline. “Of the Denver Post?”
“One and the same, sir. Now of the New York Times for...” Jess checked his pocket watch and continued, “three days, four hours and twenty-two minutes, to be exact.”
Twickenham’s jaw dropped and his eye began a rather alarming twitch.
Jess drew a gold-embossed card from his pocket and turned it with a sheepish grin toward Twickenham who settled his spectacles back onto his nose and peered over them at it. He sputtered and choked and looked to be deciding if he should just stomp off or make a stand.
A furious battle raged across his face and left the man heaving for breath before he finally seemed to capitulate. This fellow was not accustomed to being wrong.
“Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place? I thought you’d be older. Your reputation precedes you, sir.” Twickenham blustered, his voice soaring into its more comfortable range.
“And yours, as well,” Jess offered magnanimously with a slight bow. If the rumors were true, Twickenham had been one of the best investigative reporters in the city, relegated years earlier to the morgue by a scandal of which he could not prove himself innocent.
Twickenham tried unsuccessfully to hide his pride at the unexpected compliment. He all but swaggered as he reached up to take Jess by the elbow.
“I’ve got just what you’re looking for right back here, son.” The little fellow stayed slightly in the lead and moved past a bank of books as if he were presenting a visiting lord to the gallery. Jess allowed himself to preen for just an instant, then followed. Whatever it was that had possessed him to actually follow the instructions this time had landed him squarely in the good graces of an icon of his profession. And it felt pretty fine.
Twickenham led him deep into the maze, talking and gesticulating the whole way. “The basement’s much larger than you’d think. It’s connected to the basements of buildings on either side of us. Tunnels and dead ends all over the place. Runs clear over to City Hall. You want to know where something is, always ask.”
He stopped in the middle of an aisle created by stacks of boxes labeled ‘Unsolved’ and turned to Jess. “One other thing you need to know. I keep a gun. You come prowling around here without checking in, you’re likely to get shot. Just a friendly warning, you know.”
He resumed his tour and Jess followed, taken down a notch by the ominous statement the old man had just spoken as calmly as he might voice an invitation to dinner.
A few paces further they stepped into an alcove created by shelves surrounding a battered desk and chair. From the layer of dust on the table, it was apparent the area was not much used.
“I believe you might find what you’re looking for in here.” Twickenham pulled back the chair and used his own muslin cuff to banish the worst of the dirt collected there.
He spent a few moments identifying the various piles as to what Jess might find in each, until he reached the far end of a cluttered shelf. He reached a hand toward a thick file bound with string and seemed to hesitate. Twickenham chewed his bottom lip, glanced sideways at Jess, took in a long, rattling breath and at last made up his mind. He tugged it from the shelf and plunked the tattered blue folder onto the table.
“This is a bit outside the scope of what you asked for,” he began, his face crinkling into a clandestine grin, “but it’s some of our best stuff. All that,” he said, as he swept his short arms out toward the orderly piles on the surrounding shelves, “is mostly appetizers and the occasional main course. But this,” he beamed and plucked the frayed brown shoelace that held the bulging folder together, “is better than Christmas pie.”
If there were mice, they knew enough to stay away when Deacon Trumbull took the back stairs to Heaven. The men who joined him might have profited from that wisdom. But it was greed and nothing more that had brought them to the table in the abandoned room above McGlory’s. And it was greed that kept bringing them back.
“He won’t last long.”
The hard voice and clipped words hushed the whining tones that had escalated around the crude table. Deacon Trumbull’s malignant self-assurance hovered about them, silencing any objection the three men might have offered. His crisp, pristine shirtsleeves rested on the scarred surface, diamonds glittering in the opulent studs of his cuffs. The cigar he nursed covered the room’s shabby mustiness with its rarefied aroma.
Below the table, supple gray leather shoes bespoke the man’s wealth, their white linen summer-weight spats ornamented with understated elegance. They weren’t such a vast step above those of the other three men, but there could be no doubt that their Italian felted leather linings made them the finest to be had in New York City.
The man they called Cash cleared his throat and flicked an ash from his own Havana Partido. “He completely shut down that Denver operation, Deac. He’s no slouch.”
Trumbull glared, his blue eyes hooded. The nickname annoyed him, had ever since boarding school days when Cash had begun to shorten his name. It had been a power play, purely designed to make the pampered brat seem an equal with Deacon. As if that could ever happen.
He waited a beat, and let his companions work equally to hide their nervous swallows. He would have laughed outright, if there had not been such a strong element of truth in Cash’s warning. He was absolutely correct. Jess Pepper was no slouch. But Deacon had already resolved that the man’s luck at uncovering a Denver syndicate that had been selling young, nubile boy-flesh to a hungry European market would be his own undoing.
Jess Pepper might have brought a million-dollar enterprise to its knees in that cow town, but he was in New York City now, lured by the fame a byline in the Times offered. And not only was he in New York, but he’d planted himself right in the center of the cross hairs. The offices of the Times were, after all, in Chief Deacon Trumbull’s precinct.
“You leave Pepper to me, gentlemen.” He swept his gaze around the table, pausing just long enough to see the subtle submission he required before changing the subject. As was his habit, he brought them back to the point of tonight’s emergency meeting before adjourning. “Tell that shyster at the Blue Blade that he can continue to deal for us or prepare to meet his Maker.” Trumbull stood, drawing the meeting to a close.
“And if he says no?” The question came from the only one among them who had come up from the gaming hells to earn his place at the table.
Deacon Trumbull speared him with his own questioning look. The man knew very well what to do if O’Hanlon balked again, but Deacon felt no compunction at spelling it out for him. “If he says no, my boys will tell his widow she has three days to get out of my tenement.”
The three men nodded, rose, donned their hats and the suit coats they’d carefully laid across a spare chair earlier. Each one engaged in his own ritual of tidying his look before stepping out into the darkness of a Tenderloin back alley.
Four men went four separate ways. But in each mind a brief yet fascinating game of running the odds was taking place. Just how long would Jess Pepper last?
. . .
New York City was noisy, noisier than Denver in a million ways. Denver had cattle being herded to the stockyards down side streets, their bellows bouncing off nearby buildings, shuffling hooves muffled by hard-packed dirt. This city, on the other hand, had folks being herded into clanging trollies, their heels making clipped rhythms on the bricked causeways, their piercing voices sailing above the street ruckus as they hawked their wares or called for a hansom cab. All this escalated to carry above the sound of ferries trumpeting their departures from nearby piers. He reckoned he’d just have to get accustomed to it.
Jess propped one leg on a footstool and rubbed at a kink in his neck. He’d resisted reading the information he’d collected until he was back in his apartment, knowing from painful experience what happened when he became absorbed in a project. Spending the night in that basement morgue wouldn’t have been the worst thing to ever happen to him, but it was certainly something he’d consciously avoid.
For two hours he’d been so caught up in his reading he hadn’t moved. Now he dragged his eyes from the page and let his gaze roam the walls of his flat, blinking his bleariness away.
He followed the pattern of faded wallpaper upward until it disappeared beneath simple cherry cornices that topped the windows on two sides of his parlor. The east and south exposures had been a big part of what had drawn him to the place.
After all, a writer needed plenty of light.
Jess had found the third floor furnished apartment at the corner of Broadway and East Fourth just a week earlier. He’d passed up a quieter second floor spot on the back of the building for these rooms overlooking the busy intersection.
Three dollars a month more, but the light and the view were worth it.
He didn’t mind that the curtains flanking the French doors that led to his balcony had seen a brighter day. What was important was the fact that the balcony existed, and Jess had already taken to sitting there for a half hour at the end of each day. People-watching.
But not so today.
Today, Jess sat in a cane-seated rocker he’d dragged away from the heavily manteled fireplace and into the late afternoon light that streamed through the window. Articles he’d already studied were piled up on the floor beside him.
Many had provided tidbits of information that he could weave into his diatribe against the confidence riffraff, and his mind had followed a very lucid trail as he gleaned facts for the story in progress.
He had the makings now of several fine columns and even allowed himself to feel a bit of enthusiasm. That is, until he opened the last folder — the tattered blue one with the knotted shoelace holding it together. Twickenham’s “Christmas pie”. It had sat there on the table, taunting him, daring him to find out why the old geezer had hesitated to trust him with it.
Within seconds, the entire premise of his earlier work was forgotten as he absorbed the details of the reports he now held in his hands. The reports that had been tied into a bundle marked in large, faded letters, ‘Samaritan Files’.
The pages revealed details on twenty cases. All unsolved. All having taken place two decades earlier. And all fascinating.
The final article, printed more than a year after the last reported attack, when the city was beginning to feel safe again, encapsulated the crime history in chilling prose. The eloquent words stood out in harsh relief against the yellowed page upon which the column had been printed nearly twenty years earlier.
Twelve maidens and six young matrons venture out onto the streets of New York City once again, each excursion inciting a bit less apprehension than the previous.
More than a year has passed since the last of these women fell victim to a crime of the streets. A year to heal and mend. A year to find courage in their survival.
And while they did survive, their lives must surely have been forever changed.
Two who shared their experience, however, shall never again see the light of day, their hearts having given out over time, perhaps unable to shed the recollection of horrors that descended upon them in the dark of night.
In truth, these two have perished of fright, and traded this earth for heaven’s safe haven.
And yet the other eighteen victims might easily have perished as well, were it not for the heroic intervention of a man known to this city as The Samaritan.
Tall, he is, and rugged of face, they say. But gentle of voice. His grip of steel wrenched fainting victims from the clutches of a fiend bent on killing. Or worse.
“Fear not, darlin’,” reportedly the only words spoken by their rescuer who appeared out of the gloom at the very moment each broken victim thought she had breathed her last. And each, when coming out of her fainting stupor, was reported to have asked her medical attendant, “Where is the good man?”
And that, dear reader, is the question that remains unanswered a full year later. Where, indeed, is the good man?
Some say the good Samaritan was a traveling clergyman. Others insist he was the ghost of a Civil War soldier, bereft at having left his womenfolk as he went off to fight the war, unable to find them when he returned.
If the sabered ghost could not save his own, perhaps he could save the daughters of someone else.
Still others, like Deacon Trumbull, a flatfoot cop on the beat, maintain the Samaritan and the attacker are one and the same.
Samaritan or Saint? Ghost or Angel? Perhaps we shall never know. Perhaps we can only be left to wonder.
To wonder at the flicker of fear in a maiden’s eye as we, mere men, approach.
To wonder if she might be one of the many who survived to fear another day, rescued by a good man with a gentle voice.
Who saved her from death. Or worse.
Then melted into the black night.
It was eight o’clock by the time Jess had re-read the most gripping stories from the faded folder, and he’d stopped only once, to light the gas lamp on the wall.
The scenarios were strikingly similar. Young women alone on the street after dark. Brown hair, small stature. Accosted and nearly beaten to death before being saved by a passing Samaritan.
And many of the incidents had taken place not ten blocks from where he sat at this very moment.
Jess focused on the random tapping of the crocheted shade pulls that danced at the ends of their strings in the light breeze. Was this the kind of place those young women had been coming home to when evil had waylaid them on the street?
Jess closed his eyes and sifted through the detail he’d gleaned from the stories. The victims were surely terrified. He shuttered his mind, forcing it to take on the darkness of the street. He tried to cover himself with the panic and fear the victims must have known. To render himself helpless.
But it was useless, sitting here in his sanctuary. How could he hope to describe a terror he’d never known himself?
The answer was simple. He wouldn’t.
After nearly twenty years, these were dead stories. Glimpses of happenings that had gone stale in memory. He should not dredge up the anguish for eighteen survivors who may never have fully forgotten their nightmare. He shouldn’t bring a fear of the streets back into the public mind.
But Jess could not shake the feeling that from the newspaper morgue, from that repository of things long dead, had come this folder with one resonating voice that refused to die. The voice of a Samaritan never identified, a hero never thanked.
Jess knotted the shoestring around the bulging folder and wondered idly if the man still lived. If saving the lives of twenty young women had changed his life in any way.
Beyond the balcony the rumble of heavy-wheeled market wagons and trolleys had given way to the pleasant rhythm of carriage horses and the occasional sputtering vehicle motoring up Broadway. It was getting late. As the city sounds abated, the rumbling of his own stomach finally wrestled his attention away from the folder. Best attend to supper.
Jess organized the files on the empty half of an already cluttered marble-topped chest. His fingers ran back and forth over the word ‘Samaritan’, and even as he backed away from the table, he felt the thickening air that hung between his hand and the musty pages.
The story had him now. He knew that. He could no more disregard it than he could his empty stomach.
Jess snatched his Stetson from the hook beside the door and descended the three floors of Sutton House. With garish images from the gruesome stories still tumbling in his mind, he strode out into the night looking for food.
. . .
The tantalizing smell of pot roast kept Jess from walking further down the block to his new favorite sidewalk café. He followed the scent into the Warwick Hotel dining room and gave his name to the hovering maitre d’.
His table for one was a bit near the kitchen, and the clattering of spoons and plates set up an annoying barrier between Jess and thoughts of the compelling files he’d just left behind. But even as he settled into his chair, Jess found himself drawn to yet another sound, a sound he was surprised his habit of a lifetime hadn’t managed to completely block out.
Beneath a draperied arch at the far end of the dining room, the small women’s orchestra that had captured his ear accelerated into the finale of a catchy folk rhythm. Something unusual in the intensity of the chamber group kept Jess from assigning them his usual label. This group was, to his surprise, definitely not ‘ear clutter’.
Jess looked for the limp-wristed, pale-faced mannequins that usually plodded through hotel dinner music and saw none of what he’d expected. These were young, intent, lively faces of women who must, he assumed, be playing technically well, because the sound was actually interesting. But it wasn’t their correctness that set his toe tapping. It was their spirit. Or perhaps more accurately, it was their athleticism.
There they sat in their starched shirtwaists and gray gabardine over primly crossed ankles, playing with the spunk of a gang of hooligans. Jess doodled on a scrap of paper, trying to draw the costumes their music brought to mind. His first bold slashes of dancehall ruffles were entirely wrong. And that’s when he realized that his fountain pen wouldn’t be able to do justice to the design.
Because the thing that was missing was color.
This women’s orchestra made a demure picture in their muted dove grays, alright, but they played like they were gowned in scarlet and gold.
Jess tucked the pen back into his pocket and studied the ensemble. He counted three cellists modestly hidden behind six violins, flanked by a majestic harp. A small group to be making such a robust sound.
Amusement over the contradiction between sight and sound kept Jess interested, and he slid a glance over the trio of violins in the front row. Seated furthest from him was a black-haired wraith of a girl whose eyeglasses and excruciatingly thin face gave her a far greater seriousness than he’d seen elsewhere in the group.
Next to her was as complete a contrast as one could conceive. Even from a distance the girl’s pug nose and riotous red curls announced her as a tomboy. Her peaches and cream complexion was flushed nearly orange with the exertion of playing. The girl bit her lip intently as she muscled her instrument through the score.
And then a movement on her left drew his eye. Jess felt his breathing still as he took his first impression of the concert mistress, the girl who occupied the first chair of the first row of violins. He’d seen her before, that proud, swanlike neck below a high tumble of rich auburn curls. Could it really be her? The auburn-haired beauty with the spine of steel he’d seen from his office window, with three little girls in tow?
He watched as she tumbled through the lively music, changing from woman to girl to goddess to imp. Yes. It had to be her. And in seconds he knew that she was the leader of this group. The signals she threw with a lift of the head or shoulder spoke as clearly as if she’d whispered some magical fairy language only the musicians could hear.
Right on cue, the music swept upward into a gypsy ballad. The young lady’s thick piles of auburn curls began to bob as her shoulders swayed and leaned into the passionate, virile piece, and Jess could not have pulled his eyes away had he tried.
As the orchestra continued to play, the girl slipped from her chair to stand in the center half circle created by the seated musicians. Her violin never left her chin as she moved into place, and now her intense notes soared over the Hungarian tune. She was taking a solo turn.
Her over-sized amethyst ring seemed almost too heavy for the delicate fingers that flipped her violin bow with tantalizing speed and grace over the strings. The rich purple gem left ribbons of color hanging before his eyes as Jess watched her hand vault back and forth, up and down in furious swipes across the violin. Perhaps the colorful gem was her own small rebellion at their quiet attire.
The music dipped into languid hollows and then taunted with a maddeningly slow progression toward the ripping tempo with which it raced toward its finale.
Jess didn’t know which was more surprising. The realization that his heart was actually trying to keep pace with the primal tune, or the fact that he’d just spent the last few minutes drinking in the music rather than trying to shut it out.
He watched the violinist’s fingers fly faster and faster up and down the fingerboard of her richly polished instrument. This girl seemed to know instinctively where and when to drop her fingers on the strings, just like he did with the Blick. He recognized the magnitude of her skill that made the mechanics so much second nature that she could give her whole attention to simply flirting with the music.
The orchestra dived into the final eight chords and held the last one in a tremolo as the girl he watched zoomed through a mind-numbing flurry of notes and plucked the final stinger.
Applause erupted from the room. Jess lifted his hands to join their eager approval and dragged his cuff through mashed potatoes and gravy. When had his meal arrived?
He saw her taking her bows as he wiped clumsily with his napkin. Her eyes were black and piercing, her cheeks suddenly flushed. Her smile, he noted, was at an odd tilt, as if she were surprised to discover they liked what they’d just heard. No, as if she were surprised to discover they were even there.
Her violin was tucked between her waist and left elbow now, and her violin bow dangled from the fingers of her left hand. She flung her free right arm in a half circle indicating her sister musicians, then swept it back out to the audience of diners.
Her long fingers curved delicately as she brought the hand gracefully to her heart and dropped her head slightly. The amethyst glittered prettily against her high-necked white shirtwaist.
Pride. Gratitude. Humility. Jess saw all three communicated in her stance and gestures. But her eyes were alive with fire and challenge. Like a warrior who’d just proven his worth on the battlefield.
Jess tore his eyes away from her and caught a dollop of whipped potatoes that was about to slide off his cuff. He’d best repair the damage he’d done to his coat sleeve before he tried to meet the girl.
But he would meet her. The passionate musician with the blazing eyes and piles of auburn twists had captivated him. He wanted to know her story.
He dipped the linen napkin into his water goblet and took enough stabs at the most stubborn gravy spots to remove the worst. Satisfied that he could walk across the room without leaving a trail of mashed spuds in his wake, he stood, dropped the napkin on the table, and turned toward the orchestra.
But he was too late. Even though the music still seemed to be bouncing off the walls, the players’ chairs were vacant. At the keyboard tucked into a corner of the room an old fellow was already slipping into a Viennese waltz.
. . .
Adelaide Magee wasted no time getting from the hotel to her apartment. She was exhausted.
Six hours at the bank and four hours playing at the hotel made for excruciatingly long days. Days that most young women her age wouldn’t put up with.
But the smile that lingered on Addie’s face proved that it was just the kind of day she relished. Her Avalon Strings, the women’s orchestra she’d put together in a mere two months, had been more ardently received than she had dared dream.
It was that plucky bunch of girls that had made it happen.
“Look like St. Agnes and play like Beelzebub and we might get our foot in the door,” she’d said at their first rehearsal. And they’d taken it to heart.
The hardest part had been finding a performance venue. But the manager of the Warwick Hotel who’d been so staunchly opposed to women entertainers was now begging her to extend their contract from three weeks to three months.
Addie dropped her hair brush onto the vanity and checked her starched cuffs. Still clean. She’d wear them tomorrow. But the shirtwaist would have to be rinsed out. She hoped no one had seen the gauzy fabric sticking to her sweaty shoulders when she played the gypsy piece.
Particularly not the handsome fellow who sat alone near the kitchen. She’d botched three full measures when he made visual contact with her, drilled her with his eyes that she’d decided were cobalt blue. Not that she could really tell from that distance, but what other color could have made them so piercing?
Knowing a man watched her was nothing new. But his wasn’t the usual leer to which she’d become accustomed. This fellow’s gaze held intelligence. And surprise.
Addie caught the look on her own face and laughed at the mirror. Well, it had been surprise on his face. And she liked that. Liked it very much.
Addie twirled the cuffs on a lazy finger and realized she wanted to see him again. Not just because he filled out his western-cut suit coat so admirably. But because something tangible had lived in the space between them while their eyes were locked. Whatever it was, she wasn’t ready to name it just yet. It was just...something.
She dropped the cuffs into the cuff box on top of her dresser and poured a pitcher of water into the white porcelain bowl. One quick chore and she could crawl into bed.
Addie plucked an errant curl off her brow and vowed she’d find a better room with running water before summer. If the Warwick really wanted to keep her string group on contract, that might actually be possible.
She rubbed a stubborn spot in the wet fabric and promised herself she’d double her wardrobe as well. In the two months she’d been here, she was certain everyone had figured out that she owned only two shirtwaists and three blouses—two ecru and one white.
She hung the lightweight blouse over the wire she had strung from her bedpost to the top of the window casing. The light fabric would dry before morning. And it wouldn’t need pressing, so she wouldn’t have to warm up her little room by stoking the little coal stove to heat up the flatirons.
Addie smoothed the wrinkles out of the sleeves and fingered the unique embroidery along the collar points. They were some of the last stitches her mother had sewn—another reason why it was the perfect thing to wear tomorrow.
She’d wear it to work at the bank, and since the orchestra didn’t play on Thursdays, she’d have the evening free to attend to the one last errand she’d been putting off since moving back to New York City.
She knew the shirtwaist showed off her long neck and slim waist and gave her the look of a modestly successful, independent woman. Exactly the way her mother had taught her. Exactly the way she wanted to appear when she met the father she hadn’t seen since she was four years old.
Addie swung around the last street corner before reaching the bank and grabbed her hat brim as a gust of wind caught it. Morning in New York City was a far cry from morning on the smelly outskirts of Chicago.
Windy, yes. And colorful. Though here, the color was merely painted onto the side panels of horse-drawn trucks. In Chicago, the streets were made bright by actual mounds of tomatoes and squash and every conceivable vegetable jouncing along in the backs of open wagons.
New York City, it seemed, was much too civil to parade its produce through Battery Park, much less the middle of Manhattan. Everything here was concealed.
The breeze died down for a moment and allowed the city smell to creep up once again from alleyways and gutters. She wrinkled her nose. Maybe that’s why goods traveled in enclosed panel wagons — to secure them from taking on the odor as they passed through.
But she did love mornings here, in this city so purposefully striding into its day. She joined a cluster of women crossing the boulevard and stepped up onto the wide walk that would take her directly to the bank. It had been a good walk. Her shoes had stayed fairly clean and wouldn’t need to be buffed before she stepped into her cage.
Chase National Bank occupied most of the block at Cedar and Greenwich. It was the bastion of financial authority in the city. And, for that matter, many parts of the world. Aristocratic to the core and provincial in the most minute detail, it was a hallowed place. Its fortressed walls told the people of the sprawling city that their money was safe.
As it had each day for the past two months, the click of her heels on the granite steps signaled that it was time for Addie to switch roles. Check the independent impresario attitude at the door, and don the pleasant smile of subordinate to the men who actually ran the institution.
Here women, like children, were to be seen and not heard. As Addie had learned the hard way, deviating from the prescribed procedure was not an option. Whether slow or cumbersome, or downright antiquated, the bank’s way was the only way.
Once she became accustomed to the idea, she found it had one very nice benefit for her. She wasn’t required to think overmuch. Just do the job and follow the rules, and save all that creative energy for the other job to which she could truly give her heart and soul at the end of the day.
The tails of her hair ribbon tickled her neck as the heavy doors closed with a rush of air behind her. The rhythm of shuffling papers and thumping hand stamps had already begun, and Addie welcomed its calming effect as the grandness of the place descended upon her.
And so did Hamilton Jensen.
The moment she saw him approaching, Addie veered to the left to put an additional rank of desks between herself and the fellow who was closing fast. Addie hoped her move looked as though she were simply attempting a more direct route to the women’s coat room.
It was clumsy at best. Surely Hamilton had seen through it. But her maneuver worked. If he were to adjust his path to meet up with her now, it would be a most obvious and embarrassing display. She knew Hamilton would never pursue her so blatantly.
A vicious bite to her tongue kept the smug smile from her face. It was satisfying to have escaped this most persistent fellow. She had precious little time for herself these days, but if Hamilton Jensen had his way, she’d have none at all.
Addie walked as quickly as she could without swinging her arms or losing her composure and made it to safety beyond the louvered doors of the women’s “robing room”. It took just seconds to unpin her hat and hang her summery shoulder cape in the narrow cubby assigned to her.
She checked the bow she’d pinned at the base of her curls and straightened her grandmother’s opal brooch at her neck. The efficiency of her movements, the routine, always helped cement her transformation as Addie began another day at Chase National.
Addie slipped her tan sleeve protectors on over her forearms and stopped at the vault to pick up her morning tray for Teller Station No. 8. She moved easily into her teller stall, made her own count of the tray’s contents, and began to slide the drawer into place.
As always, it stuck on the right side, and Addie had to bend down to watch the runner as she lightly jostled the temperamental tray to the exact angle it needed to achieve before rolling into place.
“Here. Let me help you with that, Miss Magee.”
Addie did her best not to groan at the solicitous tone coming at her over her left shoulder.
“Oh, thank you, Mr. Jensen, but I’ve just got it now. Thank you.” She gave an angry little tap and the runner clicked into place and the drawer slid closed.
“Well, then. Very good. But Ridley should really see to getting that repaired. I see you wrestling with it every morning.”
“I hardly wrestle, Mr. Jensen.” His choice of words embarrassed her, and her tone bristled out cold and hard. Surely she hadn’t made a spectacle of herself as she teased the drawer into place.
“Of course not, Miss Magee, I only meant...”
“My apologies, Mr. Jensen, I know you meant to commiserate. Please forgive me. Now if you’ll excuse me...”
“Ah! Certainly.” Hamilton’s voice dropped to a whisper and he moved further into her station. “I shall forgive you if you accompany me to hear Scott Joplin this evening, Adelaide.”
Scott Joplin! Could it be possible?
“Mr. Jensen,” she whispered, bent on refusing and trying to find a way to do it cordially. “I’ve seen nothing announcing Mr. Joplin’s presence in the city this week. Surely you’re mistaken.”
“Ah, ah, ah,” he whispered, “Hamilton. It’s time you called me Hamilton. And it’s a private affair. By invitation only. Now, I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Seven o’clock tonight. May I call for you at home?”
Addie looked up into his square face. His handlebar mustache was perfectly waxed and his hair gleamed with just the right amount of pomade. Everything about his appearance was handsomely groomed. He’d mastered the look of successful, if a bit over-fed, bank officer.
Scott Joplin. Was he really offering her an opportunity to hear this amazing fellow? She might never have another opportunity. He’d found the perfect carrot to dangle in front of her. She reached a hand to tidy her hair, stalling. Surely she could put up with him just one more time.
But she’d intended to introduce herself to her father tonight, though her father knew nothing of her intentions. He had no idea she was even living in New York City. Probably didn’t even realize she was twenty-four by now and successful in her own right.
Addie sighed, not so much in resignation but in anticipation. It wouldn’t hurt to wait another week to meet her father. She’d see him another night. Tonight she’d go with harmless Hamilton to hear the king of ragtime.
“Well, I...” she blushed, wondering how she dared accept after her horrid treatment of him.
“Then you’ll go?” His face was so pathetically hopeful she almost laughed.
“Yes, Hamilton,” she whispered, “I would enjoy that very much. I’ll meet you at the Warwick at seven.”
“But I would so much rather call for you at home.” The poor man simply couldn’t keep his emotions off his face and she nearly laughed again.
“That’s so kind of you, Hamilton, but I have a bit of business to take care of with the hotel manager after work—for my orchestra, you understand—and it would be much simpler for you to meet me there. If you don’t mind, that is.” Now she was shamelessly peeking at him from beneath her lowered lids. Had she no pride?
For their two previous afternoon outings, she’d managed to meet him away from her meager flat, though she had no doubt he could obtain her address from the bank if he had a mind to.
This would be the last time she’d have to worry about it. She’d not be seeing Hamilton Jensen again. At least, not socially. If she promised herself that, she could manage to get through one more evening. Joplin was indeed worth the misery.
“The Warwick, it is. At seven. I shall look forward to the evening with great anticipation.” He ducked his head in a surreptitious bow and strode down the teller line.
“Likewise,” Addie answered, meaning, of course, that she would look forward to the entertainment. She didn’t mind Hamilton so very much, but he was so maddeningly flirtatious that she’d been forced to spend most of the outing countering his advances. Perhaps tonight she would just give up and let her silence speak for itself.
Three bells signaled the start of the business day as two liveried attendants opened the massive front doors. Addie put the evening out of her mind as the first morning customers began to line up just beyond the bars of Teller Station No. 8.
. . .