The national bestselling author of Gaslight Mysteries returns with a case of murder in the field of higher learning in Victorian-era Manhattan.
Frank Malloy's latest client Will is searching for his brother, a newsboy named Freddie, who runs off as soon Will's name is mentioned - only to be found dead a short time later. A suspicious Frank tracks down Will who spins a tale of lust and deceit involving a young society woman Estelle Longacre.
Estelle's risky behavior took a fatal toll but Frank can't be sure if the company she kept is to blame or if her own ruthless family had a hand in her death. Frank will need Sarah's help to discover if there is a connection between Estelle and Freddie's death. Together they must navigate an underground web of treachery to find answers.
Release date: May 2, 2017
Print pages: 304
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Murder in the Bowery
Copyright © 2017 Victoria Thompson
“I need to find my kid brother, Mr. Malloy.”
Frank Malloy leaned back in his office chair and studied his newest client across the expanse of his desk. The young man had introduced himself as Will Bert. He was a handsome fellow, sporting a fairly new suit of brown, checked fabric and a pristine shirt with a fresh collar. He had settled his smart-looking derby on his knee instead of leaving it on his head, as too many young men did today. He wasn’t the usual sort of client who came to Frank’s detective agency, but then his agency was also fairly new, so he really couldn’t claim to have a “usual” sort of client.
“How did you come to lose your brother, Mr. Bert?” Frank asked.
Bert shrugged almost apologetically. “Well, I didn’t exactly lose him. It’s kind of a long story.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“All right then. Well, you see, Freddie and me are orphans. After our folks died, we had to look after ourselves, so I started selling newspapers to support us. Freddie did, too, even though he was still really small.”
A common enough story, Frank knew. “You were street arabs?” he asked, referring to the hundreds of orphaned and abandoned children who lived on the New York City streets.
“Yes, sir. We stayed at one of the Newsboys’ Lodging Houses whenever the weather was bad, of course, and I always looked out for Freddie, but it was a hard life. That’s why we finally decided to go out West on one of those Orphan Trains.”
The Orphan Trains had been taking children from the city out West to find homes since before Frank was born. “I guess you were hoping to be adopted by some farmer out in Iowa or something.”
Bert smiled a little at this. “I know it sounds strange, especially for a city boy like me, but those people from the Children’s Aid Society make it sound like a fairy tale or something.”
“But it wasn’t a fairy tale for you and your brother, I guess.”
Bert’s smile disappeared. “Not exactly. We went to Minnesota, not Iowa, although I don’t guess it makes much difference. We wanted to go with the same family, but none of the families wanted me. I was too old, already sixteen, but Freddie was eight by then and still real cute, so he got picked right off. I ended up in another town with a storekeeper, Mr. Varney.”
“That was probably easier than farm work.”
“I guess so. Mr. Varney, he never had any children, and he wanted somebody to take over his store when he was gone, so he trained me to do that. He wasn’t going to adopt me or anything. He just put it in his will that I got the store when he died.”
“And did he die?”
Bert seemed surprised that Frank had guessed. “Yeah, he did, as a matter of fact. He just keeled over one day after we’d unloaded some heavy boxes. The doc said there was nothing could’ve been done. His heart gave out on him. So now I’m a businessman, Mr. Malloy. I’ve got a bright future ahead of me back in Minnesota, so naturally, I wanted to find Freddie and bring him to live with me.”
“I thought he’d been adopted.”
“Well, they don’t always go through with the legal adoption. The families, I mean. That’s what I was counting on, anyway, but when I went looking for Freddie, I found out the family who got him decided not to keep him after all. He’d been sent back to New York.”
That seemed harsh to Frank, but he shouldn’t be surprised at how cruel people could be. “And nobody told you?”
Bert shrugged again. “Of course not. They probably didn’t even know where I was. At least the family wouldn’t, and the Children’s Aid Society, what did they care?”
“And Freddie didn’t write to you or anything?”
Now he had the grace to look embarrassed. “We was never much for writing letters, and I figured he was in a good place, being looked after, so what was the need? But when I found out he’d been sent back here, I came to find him.”
Finding one small boy in a city like New York would be a daunting task indeed. “Have you looked?”
“Of course I looked. I figured he’d be selling papers in the old neighborhood, but now . . .” He gestured helplessly.
“Oh yes, the strike.” The newsboys had gone on strike a few days ago. They’d done it last year when they thought the newspapers weren’t treating them fairly, and this time they were trying to force both William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer to pay them better. The struggle between a gaggle of children and the two most powerful newspaper moguls in the country promised to be very interesting.
“Right, the strike,” Bert said. “The newsboys are giving lots of speeches, but they aren’t selling many newspapers, and none of them are on the corners where they usually are. They aren’t even staying in the lodging houses.”
“I guess they aren’t making as much money as usual with the strike,” Frank said. The lodging houses charged the boys six cents a night and the same amount for dinner and breakfast if they chose to eat.
“And with it being summer, they like to carry the banner anyway.”
“Carry what banner?” Frank asked, confused.
“Oh, that’s what they call sleeping out on the street, carrying the banner. It’s a matter of pride for the newsies.”
“So you want me to help you find your brother, Mr. Bert?”
“That’s right. I can pay. I told you, I own a store back in Minnesota, and I have money. Even still, I’d do it myself, but with the strike, I figure it’s going to take some time, and I can’t be away from my store very long. I’ve got someone minding it, but you know how it is.”
Frank didn’t know how it was. Luckily, he didn’t even have to worry about his own business and getting paid like other private investigators did. Because of an accident of fate, he was now rich enough to only take the cases he liked, even if he didn’t get paid at all, and Frank liked this case. He felt sorry for these two boys, being separated like that. He’d let Bert pay to save the boy’s pride, but Frank would give him a reduced rate. “All right, I’ll give it a try, Mr. Bert. I can’t make any promises, though. You must know how hard it will be to find him. Do you know how long ago your brother came back to the city?”
“It’s been a couple years now.”
“Then you know anything might have happened to him.” Life in New York was uncertain at best, and for the boys who made their own way on the streets, it was downright dangerous.
“Freddie’s a smart kid. I know he’s out there somewhere. I want to give him a good home, Mr. Malloy, the home we never had. Will you help me find him?”
“I’ll certainly try. What can you tell me about him? You said he’s eight years old?”
“Not anymore. That’s how old he was when we went west. Now he’s thirteen, I reckon. I don’t have a picture of him, of course, but anybody who’s met him will remember. See, when he was a little tyke, he almost got run over by a trolley. It cut off part of his foot, so now he only has two toes on his left foot. Makes him walk a little funny, and the other boys, they called him Two Toes. All the newsies, they like to give each other nicknames.”
Frank had noticed that, although he’d never given it much thought. “When you said ‘the old neighborhood,’ did you mean where you lived with your parents?”
“Oh no. Wouldn’t sell many newspapers there, would we? I meant the corners where we used to sell our papers. Newsies are real jealous of their corners. If you try to horn in on another boy’s spot, you’ll likely find yourself beat up pretty good.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Frank said. “So where were these corners where you used to sell?”
Frank wrote down the streets on the pad he pulled from his desk drawer. “And your brother’s name is Freddie Bert.”
“That’s right. I’ll be much obliged to you, Mr. Malloy, and so will Freddie, when you find him.”
For once, Frank might have a case with a happy ending.
The house sat in the middle of one of the worst slums of the city, mere blocks from the notorious Five Points neighborhood and surrounded by boisterous saloons and teeming tenements and places so wicked they didn’t even have signs. The house itself was dilapidated and filthy, and the roof had holes. Rain had ruined one of the bedrooms, rats had taken over the cellar, and pigeons roosted in the attic.
“I’ll take it,” Sarah Brandt Malloy said.
The owner, a rather rascally-looking fellow in checked pants and a threadbare suit coat, looked her over in disbelief, taking in her expensive gown and stylish hat. “Are you sure, miss?”
“It’s perfect, isn’t it, Gino?” she asked her companion.
Gino Donatelli, her husband’s partner in the detective agency, was functioning as her bodyguard today as she toured the latest offerings of ramshackle houses available for sale on the Lower East Side of the city. The young man looked around doubtfully. “If you think so, Mrs. Malloy.”
“Of course it isn’t worth half of what you’re asking, Mr. Bartholomew,” she told the owner. She’d been looking for months, so she was an expert now. “I saw a larger place over on Mulberry Street for only a thousand.”
Mr. Bartholomew began to sputter his outrage, but in the end he happily accepted Sarah’s offer, as she’d known he would, and made an appointment with her the following week to visit an attorney to sign the necessary papers.
“May we drop you somewhere, Mr. Bartholomew?” she asked when they’d concluded their negotiations.
He eyed her carriage longingly. “Thank you, miss, but I wouldn’t want to be seen in such a fine vehicle on this street. People would start asking me for money.”
Gino helped Sarah into the carriage, which actually belonged to her parents, and instructed the driver to take them to Sarah’s home. When they were safely away, Gino turned to her with a perplexed frown. “Are you sure you want to buy that place?”
“I know it looks horrible right now, and it didn’t escape me that someone had obviously been living in several of the rooms so we’ll have to deal with that, but it’s the perfect location. We aren’t going to live there ourselves, remember.”
“I know, and I guess you’re right. If you want poor women to find it, then it really is the perfect location. Is it going to be a hospital?”
“We’re going to call it a home for unwed mothers, so they can come to stay as soon as they need to, have their babies there, and stay until they’re well again. We’ll have a matron living in to watch over the girls and several midwives who will be available. They may even live in also and serve the rest of the community as well. I haven’t figured that out yet.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to do that while you get somebody to fix the place up.”
“Yes, and I’m thinking I’ll put Maeve in charge of that.”
Gino grinned. He was such a handsome boy, and he was so obviously enamored of their family’s nursemaid, Maeve Smith. Sarah was pretty sure Maeve felt the same way about Gino, but Maeve wasn’t one to give herself away. “She did a pretty good job of managing the workers when you were fixing up your own house.”
“Indeed she did. Without her help, Malloy and I would probably still be waiting for them to be finished.” Sarah opened the fan hanging from her wrist and began to flutter it, trying to stir up some air inside the carriage.
“You were right about bringing the carriage,” Gino said. “I’m glad we don’t have to walk in this heat.”
“Or try to find a cab. My mother insisted we take it, and she was right, although I think she was more worried about our safety in this neighborhood than our comfort.” Sarah glanced out the window at the street urchins running alongside the fine carriage, shouting for a handout. Her heart told her to throw some coins out the window, but her head told her that would only draw more children and encourage them to be bolder, endangering life and limb as they ran perilously close to the wheels and the horses. In the city, even charity could be dangerous. “Thank you for coming with me today.”
Gino grinned. “I know you would’ve been fine on your own, but Mr. Malloy worries.”
“I know he does, even though I used to travel these streets alone at all hours of the day and night when I was called out to deliver babies.”
“He didn’t have the right to worry then, but now that you’re married . . .” He shrugged.
“I have to admit, it’s very nice to have someone worrying about me. Oh dear, what’s going on here?”
They both leaned to look out the window at a crowd of children gathered on the street corner. One boy stood on a box and appeared to be giving a speech while the rest of them cheered. Adults were stopping to listen and enjoy the spectacle.
“Newsboys,” Gino said.
“Newsboys? Oh yes, I’d forgotten. They’re on strike, aren’t they?”
“That’s what they call it. They aren’t selling the World or the Journal, although I guess all the other papers are still available.”
“But it looks like that one boy is giving a speech.” Sarah stuck her head out the window to keep the newsboys in sight as their carriage pulled away from the corner.
“He probably is. They have to keep the boys stirred up or they’ll give in and start selling the papers again.”
“Why are they striking?”
“Because of the cost of the papers. The boys used to buy them in bundles of ten for five cents, then sell them for a penny apiece, but last year during the war with Spain, the Journal and the World raised the price of the papers to six cents for ten. The boys didn’t mind then because people were buying more papers during the war, so they were still doing well, but the war is long over and the two papers haven’t lowered their prices.”
“That’s not fair to the boys.”
“I guess it would be if they could charge more for the papers, but nobody is going to pay more than a penny for a newspaper, so they’re stuck.”
“You know a lot about it, Gino.”
“I used to sell newspapers when I was a kid. It’s a hard life. I was lucky because I had a home and a family to go to every night, though. A lot of the boys are orphans.”
Sarah nodded. “Or even worse, they’ve been abandoned by their families. I used to think all the children on the streets were orphans. I just couldn’t believe that people would turn out their own little ones to fend for themselves. Then I came to understand that sometimes they have no other choice.”
“It’s amazing how many of the kids seem to do all right, though. I’ve seen boys as young as six or seven managing on their own. Of course, some of them end up in gangs, but the rest of them look out for each other.”
“And the lodging houses help, too, I suppose. At least they don’t have to sleep on the streets in the dead of winter.”
Gino shook his head. “The boys actually prefer sleeping on the streets. They like being able to come and go as they please. The lodging houses make you come in by nine thirty, but the boys like to stay out late and go to the theater.”
“The theater?” Sarah exclaimed in delight.
“That’s right, and then they go to a diner and have supper and smoke cigars and talk about the show.”
“I had no idea!”
“The boys also don’t like the way they’re always preaching to them in the lodging houses, trying to make them take classes and giving them lectures and even trying to convince them to go on the Orphan Trains out West to get adopted.”
“Do a lot of them go on the Orphan Trains?”
“Not as many as you’d think. They like their freedom, I guess, and city boys are a little afraid of living in the country and doing farm work, too. The Orphan Trains have more luck with the really small kids who are too young to know what’s going on.”
“I expect the families like getting younger children, too.”
“I don’t know. Maybe they do if they really want more kids in their family, but a lot of them just want free labor for their farm, so they choose the older children and then turn them loose when they get too old to manage, or else the kids run away on their own.”
“Not exactly the happy ending the Children’s Aid Society claims, is it?”
“Not many orphans have happy endings anywhere.”
Sarah supposed he was right.
“So she finally found a house to suit her?” Malloy asked Gino when he turned up at their office. “I was starting to think it would never happen.”
“The houses in that part of the city aren’t . . . Well, there’s not a lot to choose from.”
“So I’ve heard, over and over again, every time Sarah goes looking.”
“This one is pretty bad, too, but it’s the best we’ve seen, and it’s big enough. And Mrs. Malloy said she’s going to put Maeve in charge of supervising the repairs,” Gino added with a grin.
“If you think I’m embarrassed because Maeve did a better job of that than I did at our own house, then you’re crazy. She can have that job and welcome to it. Now, we’ve got a new case, and it sounds like it might be fun for a change.”
Gino perked up immediately. “Fun? Did somebody get killed?”
“Gino, I’m ashamed of you. What would Maeve think if she heard you say a thing like that?”
“She’d wonder why you were ashamed of me for telling the truth.”
Frank sighed. “I guess you’re right. But no, nobody got killed. We’re just looking for a missing boy.” He gave Gino a summary of the story of the two brothers.
“I always suspected those Orphan Trains weren’t a good idea. I was just telling Mrs. Malloy about them this morning. But you say this Will Bert wants to take his brother back to Mississippi?”
“Minnesota. That’s what he said, so it can’t be too bad out there.”
“Mrs. Malloy and I saw a bunch of newsboys on the way home. They were all gathered on a street corner, and it looked like one of them was giving a speech. The strike is going to make it harder to find this Freddie.”
“I know, and even without the strike, we might not find him. A boy alone like that, there’s no telling what might have happened to him in two years, but the missing toes should make it easier to identify him. The boys remember things like that.”
“Where do you want to start?”
“I thought you could ask around at the Newsboys’ Lodging Houses, and I’ll check with the Children’s Aid Society just in case they sent him back out on another train or something.”
Gino pulled out the pocket watch he’d just started carrying. “I should have time to visit at least a few of them this afternoon. They don’t serve supper until six, and not many boys will come in on a hot night like this anyway, even if they weren’t on strike. They’ll get supper from a street vendor and find a nice, cool rooftop to bed down. But like you said, if this Freddie ever stayed there, they’ll remember him, so at least we’ll find out if he’s been seen around lately.”
“They also might know where he usually works, which would give us an idea of where to start looking.”
“Maybe I’ll get lucky and find the boy tonight,” Gino said.
“If you do, hang on to him. He seems like he might be a slippery one.”
Frank found the Children’s Aid Society offices in the United Charities Building on 22nd Street. Many of the major charities had taken office space in the building in order to more efficiently coordinate the distribution of charity in the city. What that meant in practical terms was that the charities were able to keep a master list of everyone who had received aid, so the poor couldn’t “abuse” the system by applying to more than one charity. Frank didn’t think that sounded very charitable, but nobody had asked his opinion, nor were they likely to.
The Society’s office was a busy place with several clerks typing or filing. One of them took his name and escorted him in to see a Mr. E. E. Trott. The clerk described Mr. Trott as an agent for the Society. Trott was a tall, slender man with a shock of white hair and a matching goatee. His eyes were kind but a little suspicious.
When the two men had shaken hands, Frank said, “That young man said you were an agent. What exactly does an agent do?”
“I have the best job in the world, Mr. Malloy,” Trott said, motioning for Frank to take a seat in one of the chairs placed in front of his desk. “I help gather up the children here and escort them safely to their new homes out West.”
“Is it difficult to find homes for the children?”
“I wouldn’t say it was difficult, although it isn’t easy either. You see, another part of my job is to identify the leading citizens in each of the cities where we stop. I do this a few months before we bring the children out. Those individuals know their communities, and their task is to recruit the right kind of families who would be willing to take a child. Often, the families themselves will state their preference for a girl or a boy and the age of the child they want. Sometimes they even specify hair and eye color so the child will look like the rest of the family. When that is the case, we can sometimes match a child with a family even before we leave the city.”
Frank thought that sounded a bit too much like ordering a child out of a catalog, but he kept his opinion to himself since he couldn’t afford to offend Mr. Trott. He still needed more information. “I see, and do you keep records of the children you place?”
“Of course we do. We have a file on every child who has received our services. Is there a specific reason you’re asking, Mr. Malloy?”
“Yes, a very specific reason. You see, I’m a private investigator, and I’ve been hired to locate one of the boys you placed out in Minnesota about five years ago.”
Mr. Trott frowned. “Mr. Malloy, may I ask who hired you?”
“Ordinarily, I don’t reveal my clients’ names, but in this case, I understand the matter is sensitive because it involves a child, so I’m going to make an exception. My client is this boy’s older brother. Your agency placed both of them in Minnesota, but in different towns.”
“That does happen from time to time. Siblings don’t want to be separated, of course, and we do try to place them together, but that isn’t always possible.”
“I can understand that. The older boy was about sixteen, too, and he said not many people wanted a child that old.”
“This is true, unfortunately. With a boy that old, you never know what his background might be, and people are afraid to take them into their homes.”
“The older boy was placed with a storekeeper who recently died and left the boy his property. He was anxious to find his brother and share his good fortune. The younger boy is about thirteen now. But when he went to find the child, he discovered that he’d been sent back.”
“Back here, you mean?” Mr. Trott asked with a puzzled frown.
“That’s what he was told.”
“And this happened recently?”
“No, I believe the boy was sent back shortly after he was placed, so it would have been several years ago.”
“Ah, I didn’t remember anything like that happening recently, although it does happen from time to time. We always try to find another family locally to take the child, of course, so the child doesn’t actually have to return here. I’m surprised that didn’t happen in this case. And the older brother didn’t know the boy had been sent back?”
“The boys didn’t keep in touch.”
Mr. Trott nodded. “The families would discourage that, of course. They’d want the children to forget their past. Even still . . . Well, I must tell you, Mr. Malloy, that children are hardly ever returned to the city.”
“But you’d have a record of it if they were?”
“We should have a record of both boys, and I’ll want to update the older boy’s record to record his good fortune. We like to tell stories like that to the children we’re trying to recruit. In fact, if this young man is in the city, perhaps he’d be willing to tell his story at the Newsboys’ Lodging Houses. The Society operates them as well, and they have proved a fruitful source of children for whom we have found homes. We like to have special visitors from time to time to convince the boys they can have a bright future if they leave the evil influences of the city.”
“He might be willing, since he and his brother were both newsboys. I’ll certainly ask him, but meanwhile, I’d just like to find out if the younger brother stayed in the city or if he went someplace else.”
“That is another possibility, of course, and there is also yet another possibility, although I hesitate to suggest it.”
“The younger boy, well, the family said he’d been sent back, but it’s possible he simply ran away. We’ve had that happen a few times, I’m sorry to say. Perhaps he thought to join his brother or even come back to New York on his own. If that’s the case, we would have no way of knowing what became of him.”
“I understand that. There’s also the possibility that the boy is dead, but I’m not going to even think about that right now.”
“Of course not. Let me check our files. What are the boys’ names?”
Frank told him, and Mr. Trott frowned again as he wrote them down.
“Is something wrong?” Frank asked.
“No, but I suspect the name Bert is not their real name.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
Mr. Trott shrugged. “Sometimes the children change their names to disguise their ethnicity. People might be reluctant to adopt an Italian child, for example, or one they suspected of being Jewish or foreign in any way. I’m not saying this is true of these boys, but it’s possible.”
“But if that’s the name my client gave me, it’s probably also the name the boys gave you folks.”
“That’s true.” Mr. Trott was smiling again. “Let me take a look. Our files are very well organized, so this should only take a moment.”
It took longer than a moment, though, and when he returned, Mr. Trott was empty-handed. He also looked very unhappy. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Malloy, but it appears that we have no record of either of these boys.”
“Then maybe you were right, and they used a different name.”
“I thought of that, of course, and my clerks and I searched the records for all the boys whose names started with B, but we did not find any that could possibly be these two brothers. I don’t have any indication at all that either of these boys rode the Orphan Trains.”
Gino started his search at the Duane Street Lodging House, since it was closest to Newspaper Row, where the boys picked up their papers. Located on the east side of Williams Street between Duane and Chambers, it stood seven stories tall and filled the entire block. U
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