The Gilded Hour Page 36

“Is there a medical issue?”

She hesitated. “Only indirectly.”

“Now you’ll have to satisfy my curiosity.”

She looked him directly in the eye. “Not every whim has to be satisfied, Detective Sergeant. I can tell you this much. Sophie and I refer to the matter more generally as the Corset War.”

He laughed, he couldn’t help himself. “That’s enough information, you’re right. Let me ask you something else then,” he said. “Do you think you could call me by my first name?”

“You want me to call you Giancarlo?”

“I like Jack better. You object?”

She tilted her head a little, considering. “It might be seen as inappropriate, if we were to use first names.”

“According to—”

She gestured at the city around them. “Everyone. We are two professional people working together to solve a problem, a certain degree of formality is called for.”

“I call Oscar by his first name.”

“Really? I have heard you call him Oscar, but more often you seem to call him Maroney. And he calls you Mezzanotte for the most part, as I recall. I could call you Mezzanotte, I suppose, and you could call me by my last name. It’s how we were addressed in medical school until we earned our degrees.”

“That would be a step in the right direction. In the spirit of cooperation. And friendship.”

The word seemed to give her pause. “I don’t have many friends outside the women I went to medical school with and other doctors,” she said. “I scare people off, I think.”

She had said more than she meant to; he saw that in the way she averted her gaze.

“Then,” he said, “it’s high time you widened your circle of friends.”

•   •   •

THE POLICE DEPARTMENT ferry was small and used primarily, as far as Anna could guess, for transporting convicted criminals from the Tombs to the city penitentiary on Blackwell’s Island. Jack’s prisoner was a middle-aged man wearing a good suit; he might have been a shopkeeper or a schoolteacher. He sat inside the locked cabin, his head thrown back against the wall and snoring so loudly that the glass rattled in the windowpane.

Jack went to talk to the pilot as they moved into the middle of the East River, crowded with anything and everything that could float. Another hour until the end of the workday, but it would be light for a good while yet.

She liked being on the water, the chilly air against her heated skin. Anna watched the city and the traffic, as busy now as it had been at nine in the morning. As they got closer to the island the different buildings began to distinguish themselves, all of them facing Manhattan like a pack of squat, humorless bulldogs. As a student Anna had been assigned here twice, for short periods. It was one of the few places so desperate for doctors willing to donate their time that they allowed women medical students to attend. It had been a useful experience, but she could not recall one positive memory of the place.

Today, she reminded herself, she wasn’t here to treat anyone, but to interview a man who might be Carmine Russo. She was glad to have Jack Mezzanotte with her, not just because he spoke Italian, but because without him she would have no idea where to start beyond the very obvious and blunt question Why did you abandon your children?

Anna wondered if this sentence was on Mezzanotte’s list of things he needed to be able to say in multiple languages. In her experience police detectives did not bother with abandoned children, but Jack Mezzanotte seemed to be the exception.

He came back to stand beside her at the rail, his eyes scanning from the workhouses to the hospitals and on to the penitentiary and back again. Anna was very aware of his size, the width of his shoulders, the way he held himself. He was far bigger than other Italians she knew, and why, she asked herself, was she comparing him to anyone at all?

And that was a truly inane question. Not an hour ago he had leaned toward her and declared his interest; he had opened a door, and she stood on the threshold, considering.

•   •   •

A MATRON MET them in the waiting room of the men’s workhouse, a bony, unusually tall woman wearing a starched white apron and an old-fashioned white dimity cap over thinning gray hair. She listened to Jack’s request with eyes averted, then led them through corridors toward the back of the building.

They passed through rooms where tailors and cobblers and rope makers were bent over their work. From the windows Anna saw the larger shops for carpenters and blacksmiths and wheelwrights and tinsmiths, with fewer uniformed guards than she might have supposed. The noise that came to her was all mechanical: saws and hammers and shovels. She wondered if the workers were not allowed to speak, or if they simply had nothing to say to each other. A good many of them bore clear signs of the choices that had brought them to this place. Sunken cheeks, broken teeth, palsy, wasted muscles, missing fingers, skin mottled with bruises and the dark red flush of broken capillaries in the cheeks and nose.

The matron led them outside to a shed where older men were sorting through nests of leather goods in need of repair. Bridles and harnesses, stirrups and straps, horn bags and saddles in great piles. The air was thick with the smells of castile soap, wax, and the vinegar used to clean mold from leather. Not unpleasant, but the air in the shed was heavy and hot, even on a cool spring afternoon.

A guard came up and asked a question not of the matron, but of Jack.

The matron ignored them both and called out in a voice that carried through the shed, “Carmine Russo.”

All the men looked up, but only one got up from the stool where he had been working, surrounded by buckets. In one hand he held a large brush and in the other what looked to be a leather cartridge box. Middle-aged, his hair shorn almost to the scalp to discourage lice, pure white at the temples. His arms were ropy with muscle; his belly was rounded in a way that spoke not of hunger or even of beer, but of ascites. Worse still, his eyes were a startling blue in whites that had taken on a yellow cast. His natural skin tone was a bronze made deeper by jaundice.

Jack touched her elbow and they walked into the shed. Russo waited for them, water and suds dripping from the brush he still held in his hand to puddle on the packed earth floor.

“Signore Russo.” Jack spoke in Italian for some time. Anna heard names: Rosa and Vittorio and Tonino and other words that she thought might mean children and wife.

Russo’s gaze flickered toward Anna and away again while he listened. When Jack had finished, he shrugged.

“Why?” Anna said. “Why did he leave them in Hoboken and come to the city?”

It took many more minutes for Jack to get a reaction from Russo that went beyond a shrug. When the man spoke his voice was strained and rough, as though his vocal cords had suffered an insult. He might have been drinking something caustic for its alcohol content. She feared that he had been looking for a relief from pain and found only more of it, because it was clear to her that he was very ill.

“He couldn’t feed them, he couldn’t look after them, he couldn’t bear to look at them,” Jack translated. “He left them to the nuns.”

“Does he want to reclaim them?”

Carmine Russo looked at her directly as if he understood her, but he said nothing.

“Please ask him to put those things down,” Anna said, making a sudden decision. “Tell him I’m a physician and I’d like to examine him, just very quickly.”

Jack’s hesitation was so brief that she might have missed it had she not been expecting exactly that reaction. But then he spoke to Russo in a firm tone, one that sounded more like an order than a request.

She would have expected a protest, but instead Russo did as he was asked and then stood, his arms at his sides while Anna approached. She took off her gloves and handed them to Jack, and then gently turned Russo’s head so that the light from the open door fell on his face. Then she ran her fingers over his jaw and neck, hesitating over swollen lymph nodes, and finally palpating his abdomen through his overalls, very gently. Three touches that told her everything she needed to know.

To Carmine Russo she said, “Your daughters are well. Healthy and cared for. If we can find your sons, we will see to it that they have what they need to grow into good men.”

He had understood some part of that, she was sure of it, but he still looked at Jack. For the first time Russo asked a question, and Jack spoke to him for a few moments. When Carmine Russo looked at Anna directly, his eyes were damp with tears.

On the way out Anna took the matron aside to talk to, and Jack followed along.

“Mr. Russo’s liver has failed,” Anna said. “There’s one very large tumor and other smaller ones. I’m surprised he’s still on his feet, to be honest. The pain must be overwhelming. He needs to be admitted to the hospital.”

The matron said, “Is there anything they can do for him there?”

“No,” Anna said. “There’s no treatment. It will just be a matter of days.”

“Well, then,” she said. “I’d send him to the incurables hospital but there isn’t a single free bed. Can’t send him to the regular hospital if there’s nothing they can do for him. I’ll have to send him back to his cell.”

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