The Gilded Hour Page 40

I’m sorry I couldn’t come with you today to help with Rosa and Lia.


•   •   •

AS JACK CAME out of the front door of the shop on Sunday afternoon, he saw Anna. She walked right by him, lost in her thoughts. He called her name and she came to a sudden stop and turned toward him.

“Detective Sergeant Mezzanotte.”

Back to the formal, then. He inclined his head. “Dr. Savard.” Her gaze moved over the sign above the door: MEZZANOTTE BROTHERS FLORISTS.

“Oh,” she said. “This is where you live. I don’t know why I didn’t realize; I pass this corner all the time.”

She was nervous, and embarrassed about being nervous.

“I don’t live in the shop,” he said, and turned to point. “The house is farther down, behind the brick wall. If you’d like to see—”

She shook her head, flustered now. “Another time, maybe.”

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s stop for coffee, and you can tell me how it went yesterday.”

•   •   •

IT WAS A reasonable idea and something concrete to do; a chore to focus on. As soon as they found a table in the coffee shop across the street, Anna started talking and she didn’t stop until she had related the whole grim story.

“It would have been so much worse without Detective Sergeant Maroney,” she said. “We owe him—and you—a great favor. The girls needed more help than we could provide.”

“You don’t owe me anything.” He paused as the waitress put down their coffee cups. “But if you feel strongly about it, there is something you can do for me.”

Anna drew in a deep breath. “If it’s in my power, of course.”

He leaned forward—something he did a lot, she was noticing—and smiled.

“I’d like you to relax. There’s nothing to be anxious about.”

She let out a small laugh. “I’m normally a very composed person,” she told him. And in a fit of honesty: “You make me nervous.”

“That much is obvious.”

For a minute there was a silence between them while they tended to their coffee cups.

She said, “I didn’t realize that there was more than greenhouses behind that wall. It must feel like an oasis in the busiest part of the city, living there.”

“The house was part of the original farm,” he said. “With a walled garden. My uncle Massimo bought it when he first came from Italy, thirty years ago. There were still orchards then.”

He talked easily about the extended Mezzanotte families, the uncles who came from Italy, one by one, and were all involved in the florist business in one way or another, about the cousins who worked in the shop and greenhouses, and about his aunt Philomena, a benevolent dictator, her supremacy in the kitchen unchallenged.

“She made the sandwich you liked so much.”

“I still think about that sandwich,” Anna said, a little wistfully. “So you live with your aunt and uncle while you’re here in the city.”

“No, there are two houses. Massimo and his family live in one on the far end of the original property. In the other it’s just my two sisters and me.”

“The sisters who embroider.”


He was easy to talk to and slow to take offense, and so she let her curiosity rise to the occasion. She said, “When did you come to the States?”

It was a question he had answered before, most probably many times, no doubt sometimes put to him by people who were unhappy about immigrants or Italians or both. But he answered her in what she imagined was more detail than was usual with nothing in his tone but friendly interest. He had been three, he told her, with one younger and one older brother. They came at the invitation of an uncle who had bought a large farm about fifteen miles outside Hoboken.

“Massimo, the one who manages the business?”

“A different uncle. I’ve got a crowd of them.”

When they had left the coffee shop and had started uptown, she gave in to her curiosity and picked up the subject again.

“Then you don’t really remember Italy.”

“Sure I do. I spent two years at the University of Padua.” And in response to her raised brow: “Reading law. But I wanted to be home. My parents weren’t happy, but it was the right decision.”

After a moment he said, “How much do you know about this organization we’re going to?”

He was changing the subject, which might mean she had asked too many questions, or questions he didn’t care to answer. And really, she told herself, she shouldn’t be surprised if he did take offense.

She cleared her throat. “Almost nothing, I have to admit, but even Sophie couldn’t tell me much about it. She said she thought it was fairly new. She knows most of the orphan asylums, some of them quite well.”

He struck his brow softly with a half-curled fist. “That reminds me. We’ll have to get a sister from St. Patrick’s to come with us when we go to the Foundling Hospital, or we won’t get very far. Preferably someone who had personal contact with the Russo children. Maybe Sister Ignatia, since you got along with her so well in Hoboken.”

He was grinning at her.

“You’re teasing me.”

“And you like it when I tease you.”

Anna quickened her pace in an effort to regain her equilibrium. “Tell me what I need to know about this organization and what help they might be to us.”

“For right now,” Jack said, “you should know that they take in children in order to place them out. Sometimes to local foster families, but over the last few years they’ve been sending boys west by train. Mostly I think they go to farms.”

“But Tonino Russo is so young.”

“As I understand it, they sometimes place children as young as four.”

Anna was silent for a long minute.

“You disapprove?”

She almost laughed. “On what grounds could I judge them? I can see that things would go wrong sometimes, maybe even disastrously wrong, but somebody is trying, at least.” And then she told him what she had really been thinking.

“I shouldn’t have to ask you or Sophie about these things. It’s a failing, I recognize that. I close myself off in my work. I don’t even read the newspapers. In some ways it feels as if I’m just waking up, and that’s Rosa’s doing.”

•   •   •

JACK WATCHED HER color rise as she told him about something that she saw as a flaw in the way she lived her life.

“I’d be at the hospital right now,” she was saying, “if not for Sister Mary Augustin showing up at the door on that Monday morning. There was something about Rosa when I first saw her in that church basement. My history is nothing like hers, but feels as though it is, to me.” She raised her head suddenly to look at him, disquieted, embarrassed. As if he would judge her.

She changed the subject abruptly. “I haven’t told you about my visit to St. Patrick’s Orphan Asylum. I went to vaccinate the children—you remember that conversation I had with Sister Ignatia, I’m sure—and found that in the meantime the mother superior had seen to it that they were all vaccinated.”

“They didn’t let you know?”

She shook her head. “She let me come anyway, because she wanted me to examine some of the sisters. My guess is that she knew one of them needed surgery and they don’t want to go to the Catholic hospitals where they don’t allow female surgeons.”

“And you examined them, of course.”

“Of course. And in the next weeks sometime I’ll be operating on one of them.”

“For . . .”

“That’s not information I can share, Mezzanotte.”

Back to last names; some progress was being made. “Well then,” he said. “Tell me about some other surgery, something you’ve done recently.”

She gave him a frankly suspicious glance. “You’re not interested in the fine points of suturing internal incisions.”

“But I am. Really, I’m curious.”

She started slowly. As she went on and saw that he was paying attention, that his curiosity was sincere, she spoke more freely. Jack listened closely, because he had the idea that later there might be a quiz. It was one he wanted to pass.

•   •   •

UNLIKE THE DEEP quiet at the Catholic orphan asylum that had made such an impression on Anna, the offices of the Society for the Protection of Endangered Children were chaotic. The society occupied most of an older building on Thirty-first Street, three floors of offices and children. Anna’s first impression was that the place was cramped and overextended, but then that had been true of most of the agencies she had seen thus far. There was no lack of orphaned and homeless children, but funding was always sparse.

They passed a large room where a group of a dozen boys had presented themselves for some kind of meeting, all of them subdued. Anna paused to scan the faces she saw there. Two of the boys were of the right age, but neither of them was Tonino Russo. She knew it was naïve to hope that this search would end so quickly and easily, but then she realized that Jack Mezzanotte was studying the boys as well. It seemed that the detective sergeant was less cynical than she would have expected.

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