The Gilded Hour Page 7

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THE DUTY SERGEANT at 333 Mulberry looked up through a twisted thicket of graying brows and ran his gaze over Jack Mezzanotte, from beard stubble down to the highly polished shoes and back again. Then he shook his head slowly, like a long-suffering teacher.

“Better get a move on, Mezzanotte. They’re about to start the meeting without you.”

“Had to change,” Jack called over his shoulder as he sprinted up the stairs two at a time. Really he should have stopped to see the barber—he ran a hand over the bristle on his jaw—but better unshaved than late. He paused long enough to make sure that his collar was straight and slipped into the back of the room, where thirty of New York’s detectives sat talking among themselves, steadfastly ignoring the men at the front of the room.

He found a chair next to his partner in the last row. Oscar Maroney had a dearly held theory, one Jack had never been able to disprove: it was best to be humorless and forgettable while in the station house. Invisibility was a valuable skill that had to be practiced. But today Maroney was violating his own rule, because the expression on his face was anything but blank. Oscar was not just unhappy, but unhappy in a way that he would not be able to keep to himself.

“Brace yourself, Jack.” Maroney could summon, temper, or banish his brogue as needed, and now it simmered just below the surface. “Comstock’s on the hunt for victims. Pardon, I mean volunteers.” He wrinkled his substantial nose and lifted a lip at the same time so that his mustache jumped. He had a wide range of insulted, angry, accusatory, and reproachful expressions, and he used more than a few of them now.

Jack turned his attention to the front of the room, where the captain stood leaning against the wall, arms folded, chin on his chest. Front and center was the focus of Oscar’s hate. Anthony Comstock, dressed as he always was, summer and winter, in a black wool suit somber enough for a pulpit.

The postal inspector was a squat, solid plug of a man with muttonchop whiskers that stood out like bristles on the face of a boar, a shiny pale pate, and a small mouth as well defined as a woman’s. He had the censorious gaze of a bantam rooster, his eyes darting back and forth, ready to draw blood to keep his flock in line. Eager to draw blood. He was a bully of the first order, the worst Jack had ever seen in a career populated by bullies.

Baker knocked on the wall to get their attention, and Comstock threw his shoulders back and raised his arms like an orchestra conductor.

“My name and mission will be well known to you,” he began. “I am Anthony Comstock, senior inspector of the Society for the Suppression of Vice and special agent to the post office by appointment of the postmaster general of the president’s cabinet. I’m here to talk to you as officers of the law about a matter of grave importance.”

He drew in a ponderous breath that filled his cheeks and escaped with a soft hiss.

“Any God-fearing, thinking man knows that lust is the boon companion of all other crimes. In their wisdom the Congress of this great country has vested me with the responsibility to stop the posting, sale, loan, exhibition, advertisement, publishing, dissemination, or possession of the obscene and profane. You will all be familiar with the kinds of materials I’m talking about—” He paused, brows raised, as though he hoped someone would contradict him. Jack saw now that there was a small box beside him on the desk on which he rested a fist as if to keep some vermin safely within.

“His own personal treasure chest,” Maroney said in a low voice, following Jack’s gaze. “The Larkin brothers are determined to have it before he leaves the building.”

There were five Larkin brothers on the force, two of them sergeant detectives sitting in the front row, two more roundsmen on duty somewhere in the city, and the youngest new to the force. Good officers, for the most part, but irreverent practical jokers of the first order, a leaning that would have cost them friends if they had not practiced on each other with such obvious enjoyment. But they couldn’t be called incorruptible.

Of course, Comstock was by far the biggest crook, and worse, he was spiteful, vengeful, and mean to the bone. In Comstock’s case Jack could not begrudge the Larkins whatever larceny they were planning.

Comstock was saying, “It is also my duty to seize any drug or instrument of any kind that may interfere with conception or bring on abortion. Items I have seized range from informational booklets to objects made of rubber and designed for immoral purposes. The punishment for the guilty is severe. Anyone engaged in these pursuits is subject to a sentence of hard labor for a minimum of six months and a maximum of five years, and a fine of up to two thousand dollars.”

He paused to survey the room. Most of the squad looked back at him as if they were deaf and hadn’t taken in a word, while a few others—Maroney among them—were openly contemptuous.

“In the last years we agents of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice have seized and destroyed more than twenty-five tons of obscene tracts and photographs, six hundred pounds of books, some twenty thousand stereopticon plates, almost a hundred thousand rubber articles, six hundred decks of indecent playing cards, forty thousand pounds of aphrodisiacs, and eight tons of gambling and lottery materials.” He looked around the room but did not find the acknowledgment he believed his due. He coughed nervously and went on in a grimmer tone.

“Today I am here to recruit detectives to assist in fighting an epidemic that is raging across this country. A disease being spread by medical practitioners themselves. And not just charlatans or low men, no. Doctors, nurses, druggists, and midwives supply information and instructions on contraceptive methods to any woman who asks—and worse, they will sell syringes and rubber caps and the like without compunction or shame.

“And then there are abortionists. I have been able to bring only a small portion of these criminals to justice. It is a slow process. Regrettably slow. Our success rate must be improved, by whatever means necessary.” He smirked, openly prideful. “You’ll remember the abortionist Madame Dubois, I’m sure.”

Jack had allowed his mind to wander off to other matters, but with the mention of Madame Dubois his attention snapped back to Comstock. The man had hooked his thumbs in the lapels of his coat and was rocking back and forth on his heels, delighted with himself.

“Rather than submit to the authority of the court,” Comstock went on with his satisfied smirk, “Dubois put a bullet in her brain and saved us the cost of bringing her to trial. She was not the first such sinner to end her own life, and if I have my way, she will not be the last.”

Oscar jumped to his feet.

“And you call yourself a Christian, you sanctimonious overweening godforsaken bag of shite!”

Oscar was a big man with the look of a brawler, the kind who dealt out pain but didn’t feel his own broken knuckles and torn flesh until the storm was done. Comstock, shorter and softer, still didn’t flinch, which went along with his reputation as a brawler of another kind. He carried a pistol, and he liked to use it.

Baker put a stop to it with a shout. “Maroney!”

Oscar’s posture relaxed just enough to let Jack know he was in control of himself. Then he turned on his heel and pushed past the row of men on his way out, cursing in the most spectacular manner. The door slammed behind him with such force that the glass in the windowpanes rattled.

“Did you hear that man?” Comstock barked at Baker. “I demand that he be officially reprimanded for his foul and profane language!”

“That’s one of the officers who found your Mrs. Dubois in a bathtub full of her own blood,” Baker said. “His first day on the job, it was. Now why don’t you just get on with it. We don’t have all day.”

Comstock huffed, his mouth twitching. With a voice gone hoarse he said, “I’ll do that, but assured. I’ll report him for his profanity and you for failing to check it.” He scowled expressively at his audience, as if he had demonstrated an important lesson they should remember.

“As you are aware,” he went on, “police officers do not always see through the elaborate screens set up by these medical practitioners who are so contemptuous of the laws of God and man. But I believe that detectives are equal to this challenge and I would like all of you to volunteer to serve as agents of the Society for the Suppression—”

Baker said, “The time, Mr. Comstock.”

Comstock whirled around to glare at Baker—captain of New York City’s detective squad—as if he were a young boy caught with his finger up his nose.

“Captain Baker! You agreed to let me address the detectives. There is a meeting of the society this evening and new volunteers must attend.”

“And I specifically told you that you could not ask for volunteers, not tonight. More than half these men are working double shifts and none of them will see their beds until tomorrow. They are on special assignment.”

“Special assignment? Special? By whose definition? May I remind you, Captain, that the Congress of the United States has vested me with—”

“Mr. Comstock—”

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