The Gilded Hour Page 44

He inclined his head. “True.”

“I am asking you to act as a kind of unofficial—detective, I suppose the title would be. And as such, you should be compensated.”

As if she had spoken Jack’s name aloud the boy said, “I don’t want no business with no cops.”

“This arrangement is between you and me,” Anna said. “No one else. With the understanding that you will not put yourself in danger, under any circumstances.”

He broke out in a wide and amused smile, and rightly so: it was naïve to think he could avoid trouble, or even wanted to.

She said, “Now about compensation. I’ve been thinking about it. Do I understand that staying here costs ten cents a night?”

“For older boys. The little ones pay six cents. Another dime for two meals,” he said. “Morning and evening. Ma Howell runs a good kitchen.”

“Very well,” Anna said, endeavoring not to smile. “Let’s say one and a half dollars a week for your lodging and meals. Six dollars would cover four weeks. That will serve as a retainer. If you are successful tomorrow or if we are successful, if anyone finds Tonino or reliable word of where he’s gone, you will still keep the fee I am paying today. If you find him or reliable word of where he is, I will pay you another ten dollars. If in four weeks there is still no word of him, we will reassess the situation and discuss whether to continue. Are these terms agreeable to you?”

“Yes,” he said with great dignity. “I accept.”

She took papers from her bag and placed them on a corner of the desk. She had asked permission to use the pen and ink, and so she got those ready, too. “Now, I believe that you’ve been attending classes since you first came here, and so you can read and write English. I’m going to write out our agreement here and we’ll both sign it. If that’s acceptable?”

“I’m always ready. Write on, Dr. Savard.”

•   •   •

WHEN SHE RETURNED to the parlor, both the manager and his wife had gone to take up their duties. Jack sat alone reading a paper, his legs stretched out and his ankles crossed. Something changed in his face when he saw her, but there was no suspicion there. She wondered if he was ever surprised by anything. She wondered if he played poker.

“What?” Anna said, as he unfolded his long frame from the chair.

“What?” she said again, as he stopped right in front of her, not touching but so close she could smell the starch in his shirt collar.

He said, “Did you bribe that kid?”

She raised her head sharply and took a step back; Jack moved two steps forward.

“I paid him for his services,” Anna said, refusing to step away again and trying to convince herself this had to do with calm self-assertion and nothing else. “That’s not bribery. Why must you always put things in terms of criminal behavior?”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “Because I’m a cop,” he said. “And Baldy is a criminal.”

Anna felt her heart pick up a beat. “He may have broken the law—” she began.

“Laws,” Jack said. “Multiple. Often, with great skill and enthusiasm.”

“Well,” Anna said, shifting in her irritation. “Of course he’s no angel.”

“How much money did you give him?”

“Six dollars with the promise of a bonus if he’s successful. And before you say anything else, Mezzanotte, you should know that if he just takes the six dollars and never does anything to earn it, I will still consider the investment to have been worthwhile.”

For a long moment he looked down at her, a crease in the fold between his eyebrows, and one corner of his mouth pulled up, as though she were a puzzle that resisted solving.

“Come on,” he said. “We have a couple more stops to make.”

Anna said, “I’m almost afraid to ask.”

•   •   •

FOR THE NEXT two weeks, Anna was on high alert and agitated with herself about it. Some days there was a note from Jack Mezzanotte with news about the search, but more often when she left for the day the porter would have a note asking her to meet somewhere: the Protestant orphan asylum, the Our Lady of the Rosary convent, the Boys’ Protectory on Broome Street, the Sheltering Arms Home, the Society for the Relief of Destitute Children, the Asylum of St. Vincent de Paul.

They would meet, talk to the head of the asylum or hospital, and go their separate ways. If it was dark when they finished, Jack insisted on seeing her home, and they talked of everything and nothing at all. Anna wondered if she had imagined his interest in her. But then he would come to call and sit down to talk to Rosa about what they had learned and where they would go next, and during those visits she was well aware of his regard.

He touched her often, in ways that a more strictly brought-up woman would not have allowed. She felt his hand on her shoulder, very briefly, or he touched her lower back when they made their way through one room to another, so lightly that she might have imagined it, if not for the satisfied look on Mrs. Lee’s face.

He was playful with the little girls and could make even Rosa laugh, while Lia giggled so hard that she would dissolve into hiccups. He told tall tales in English and Italian, he produced butterscotch drops out of a seemingly bottomless pocket, and all the time his gaze returned, again and again, to Anna.

One early evening on an omnibus traveling down Broadway he had picked up her hand and examined it as if it were some strange object found on a park bench. He undid the three mother-of-pearl buttons at her wrist, and then, too late, looked to her for permission.

“May I?”

She wanted to say that he should not, but somehow his manner was so disarming that she just nodded.

“The only time I’ve ever seen you without gloves in public was on Randall’s Island, when you treated that infant with—” He couldn’t recall the name.

“Ankyloglossia,” Anna supplied. “He died that same week.” After a moment she said, “I only take off my gloves when I’m working, or when I’m at home without chance of company.”

With a few quick tugs he slipped it off and cradled her hand like an injured bird. And it was pitiful, rough and red and swollen, the nails cut to the quick for the sake of antisepsis. There was no denying that her hands were terrible.

“I wash—I scrub my hands and forearms dozens of times every day.”

“What exactly do you use?”

“We used to scrub nails, hands, and lower arms with potash soap and then rinse with a five percent carbolic acid solution.”

“Used to?”

“It worked fairly well. You can tell by dipping your hands in nutritive gelatin just after finishing the process. If no microbes grow in that culture in three days, that’s proof that the regimen is killing all infectious agents. Unfortunately it also was horrendously hard on our hands. So now we start with scrubbing, as before, but rinse first with eighty percent alcohol for a minute and then a three percent carbolic acid solution. It works as a sterile procedure and isn’t quite so hard on the hands. Still, Mrs. Lee’s hands are not nearly as bad, and she’s been scrubbing floors for all of her life.”

She was rambling, but it was hard to watch him studying her hand while her fingers twitched, ever so slightly. “The whole thing is made more complicated by the fact that I can’t operate if there’s even the slightest break in my skin. Then I put myself at risk. Someday they will come up with a better way to protect the patient and the surgeon both from infection.” And then, more hesitantly, “Are you put off by my hands?”

She had startled him. He raised his head to frown at her. “That would be very narrow-minded of me.”

Anna tried to draw her hand away, but he held on to it, his grip gentle but unyielding. For a moment she had the sense he might kiss her palm, and the idea of his tongue against her skin made her squirm.

“Don’t,” she said quietly, and, with fingers that were almost numb, put the glove back on.

“What you need,” Jack said after a long moment, “is some kind of glove made out of thin material. Not cloth, that wouldn’t work. Something like—”

His expression went momentarily blank, and then cleared. “Something like condoms, for the fingers and hands.”

The image that came to mind was outrageously funny. And intriguing, somehow.

He said, “Condoms are made out of lamb intestines, I think. If they could be sterilized and sewn into a glove, wouldn’t that work?”

Anna couldn’t help smiling. “This must be the oddest conversation of all time.”

“But wouldn’t it work?”

She thought for a moment. “That particular material is permeable, so the surgeon would still have to scrub diligently. I don’t think soap alone would be enough.”

“But say for a minute that it’s possible to sew a sterilized glove out of lamb’s intestine or something similar. You could test it with your gelatin—what did you call it?”


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