Excerpt: Murder in the North End
Book 5: Nell Sweeney Mysteries
July 1870: Boston
“More tea, Lady Higginbottom?” asked Nell Sweeney, sitting Indian-style beneath a sheet arranged over four dainty little gilt chairs.
“I don’t mind if I do,” Gracie responded in her best attempt at an upper-crust English drawl. The five-year-old offered her tiny cup to be filled with imaginary tea from the little gold-rimmed bone china teapot in her governess’s hand. “And a spot of cweam, if you don’t mind? Cream,” Gracie corrected before Nell had a chance to do it for her. Her diction, thankfully, had seen major improvements over the past few months.
“More for you, Lady Wigglesworth?” Nell asked as she turned to her young assistant, Eileen Tierney.
“I shouldn’t, but I don’t suppose another sip or two would hurt,” said the waifish, flaxen-haired Eileen as she held out her cup. Her own attempt to sound like a British aristocrat was rather less successful than Gracie’s, due mainly to an Irish brogue far too deeply ingrained to disguise. “Aye, and this here’s the perfect mornin’ for a tea party, it is. Yes, indeed. What ho. Cheers, and all that.”
“Another drop, Lord Hubble-Bubble?” Nell proffered the teapot to Gracie’s little red poodle, Clancy, who sniffed curiously as she tilted it over his cup.
“I say, Hitchens, have you seen the Sweeney girl?”
The clipped inquiry, which came from beyond their little makeshift tent, prompted grimaces from Nell’s tea party companions. Even Clancy let out a weary little sigh.
“Mrs. Mott,” Gracie mouthed with a theatrical expression of repugnance.
From the nearness of the housekeeper’s voice, Nell realized she must have crept right into the third-floor nursery on those silent-as-death feet of hers. Edward Hitchens, Mr. Hewitt’s valet, was probably passing outside in the hall.
Nell was about to announce her presence when Mrs. Mott added, in a tone of hushed significance, “There’s a constable downstairs, asking for her.”
Hitchens responded to this news with an eloquent little grunt. The starchy valet was the closest thing Evelyn Mott had to a confidant among the household staff. Like the dour old housekeeper, Hitchens was appalled at Nell’s having supposedly finagled eccentric Viola Hewitt into hiring her as Gracie’s nursery governess despite her humble origins and even worse, much worse, her Irishness. It mattered not that Nell blended flawlessly into the world of Brahmin privilege in which she lived and worked. She dressed like them, spoke like them, and comported herself like them, and with the exception of a slight coppery burnish to her hair, there was nothing overtly Gaelic in her appearance to give her away. Still, she was Irish, foreign vermin in the eyes of most Bostonians, lowborn or high.
“A constable?” Hitchen said. “Good lord. He didn’t come to the front door, did he?”
“He did, indeed, just as bold as you please.”
“God knows what the neighbors will think.”
With a contemptuous little huff, Mrs. said, “God knows what they’ve been thinking for the past six years, with that Sweeney girl waltzing the child up and down Colonnade Row as if they belonged here. I’ve told Mrs. Hewitt it isn’t fitting, but you know her–she just does as she pleases, with no regard for what people think, or how it reflects on Mr. Hewitt.”
“Bad enough to take the child in,” Hitchens sniffed, “but to raise her like one of the family, with an upstart Irisher looking after her instead of a proper governess…”
“It’s not as if she merits a proper governess, but then, if she’d been correctly dealt with from the first, she’d be in the House of Industry instead of constantly underfoot here. I don’t care if she was sired by a Hewitt, a chambermaid’s by-blow has no business prancing about like a little princess under the roof of one of the best families in–“
“Mrs. Mott, is that you?” Nell called out as she belatedly realized, from Gracie and Eileen’s puzzled scowls, that they’d heard far more than they should have. She was tired, having awakened well before sunrise to pack her and Gracie’s luggage, or she would have put a halt to the conversation the moment she realized where it was going.
She folded back the sheet and stood, smoothing out the wrinkles in her traveling dress of brown summer-weight wool. “Ah, and Mr. Hitchens, too. How lovely of you to pay a call on us this morning–a rare treat. Would you care to join us?” she asked, holding up the diminutive teapot.
The housekeeper and valet blinked at her from the doorway of the nursery, an opulent bower fitted out with child-sized rococo-inspired furniture swathed entirely, as of yesterday, in snowy linen sheets. Hitchens turned and left in stony silence, leaving Mrs. Mott to frown at Gracie and Eileen as they clambered to their feet.
Stiffening her back, her hands clasped at her waist, the housekeeper said to Nell, “Your presence is required downstairs. There is a Constable Skinner waiting to speak with you in the music room.”
Skinner. That ghastly little weasel. What on Earth could he be wanting with her?
Nell suspected she knew why Mrs. Mott had had him sequestered in the music room instead of the front parlor, as was customary. The parlor, which looked out onto the elegant stretch of Tremont Street known as Colonnade Row, had numerous tall windows, all of which would be thrown wide open with their curtains tied back on this sultry summer morning. The music room, on the other hand, faced a little-used side street. Even with its windows uncurtained, there would be few passersby to notice a policeman paying a visit to the venerable Hewitts.
“I’ll be down shortly,” Nell said.
“Do expedite your business with this…gentleman,” said Mrs. Mott. “It is imperative that we all be ready to leave promptly at ten o’clock. That’s less than an hour from–“
“Our bags are all packed and in the entrance hall,” Nell said. “We just thought we’d enjoy a spot of tea before our trip.”
Gracie lifted her empty tiny cup toward the housekeeper as if in a toast, and brought it to her lips. Mrs. Mott fixed the little girl with a nostril-flaring grimace before stalking away.
“Miseeney,” Gracie asked as she crouched down to gather Clancy in her arms, “what’s a by-blow?”
Eileen looked at Nell, her bottom lip caught in her teeth. She clearly did know what a by-blow was, even if she didn’t know, or hadn’t until now, that Viola Hewitt’s adopted daughter was the illegitimate child of one of her own servants. Viola had long ago forbidden the household staff to speak of Gracie’s origins, although clearly Mrs. Mott and Hitchens felt themselves above such constraints. As far as Gracie knew, her Nana had picked her out special after bringing up four sons because she’d always longed for a daughter.
“A by-blow…” Nell began hesitantly. She smoothed a hand over Gracie’s plaited and beribboned hair, as black and glossy as that of her father. “It’s a silly word for a child. It doesn’t mean anything.”
The little girl nodded uncertainly as she nuzzled the little dog, who responded by licking her chin. “What’s the House of Industwy?” Gracie was at the age where, once the questions started, they just kept coming.
Eileen looked at Nell as if wondering how she was going to answer that one.
Nell said, “It’s…a big house on a place called Deer Island where people go to live.” A house for paupers, orphans, the mad and diseased and doomed–a place not unlike the Barnstable County Poor House, where Nell had spent much of her dismal youth.
“It’s on an island?” Gracie asked, bobbing up and down as she did when she was excited. “Can we go live there after you and Uncle Will get mawwied? Married?“
Nell’s sham courtship with the Hewitts’ eldest son, William, was a fiction intended to facilitate his spending time with her and Gracie without arousing unseemly whispers. Will had proposed the ruse last summer in order to silence speculation that the prim and proper young governess might be carrying on with the notorious surgeon-turned-gambler who was the black sheep of the Hewitt family. If they were thought to be unofficially engaged, Will reasoned, no one would question their friendship.
It was a friendship that could never amount to more, given that Miss Nell Sweeney was, in fact, already married to an inmate at Charlestown State Prison. Duncan, whom she hadn’t seen in two years, was currently ten years into a thirty year sentence for armed robbery and aggravated assault. The only people in Boston who knew about him, and the rest of her questionable past, were Will and Father Gorman at St. Stephen’s, who served as her confessor. They were the only people who must ever know, lest she torn away from this charmed life and the child she’d come to love as her own.
That child was now staring at her with her big, guileless eyes, waiting to find out whether she could take the place of a real daughter to the couple she’d grown to consider her surrogate parents. It was a question she’d asked a number of times since learning, no doubt through servants’ careless comments, that Nell and Will were presumably destined to marry. This was the first time, however, that she’d proposed the county almshouse as their family home.
“We can’t live at the House of Industry, buttercup,” Nell answered, deliberately skirting the crux of the issue. “It’s for people who don’t have any other home. You’ve got a home here with Nana.”
“But Nana’s legs don’t work. That’s why she needs you.” Clutching Clancy tight to her chest, the child gazed up at Nell with the exaggerated pathos of an actress in some tawdry melodrama. “I need you, too, Miseeney. Who will look after me if you aren’t here?”
“What about Miss Tierney?” Nell asked.
“Aye, what about me?” Eileen demanded with pretended severity as she tweaked one of Gracie’s braids.
“She could come, too, couldn’t she? Please, Miseeney?” the child begged, hugging the dog tighter. “Pleeease?”
Nell crouched down so that they were at eye level and told her what she always ended up telling her. “Engagements can last a very long time, sweetie. It might be years before Uncle Will and I get married.”
“But when you do, can I–“
“We’ll settle that when the time comes.”
“I don’t have time to discuss this right now.” With a kiss on Gracie’s forehead, Nell stood and said, “There’s a constable downstairs who wants to speak with me, and one mustn’t keep constables waiting. Why don’t you and Miss Tierney make sure you haven’t left anything behind that you want to bring to the Cape. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
As she was leaving, Nell heard Gracie ask Eileen, “Miss Tiewny, what does ‘sired’ mean?”
“‘Sired by a Hewitt,'” Gracie said. “What does that mean?”
Oh, hell. Pausing in the doorway, Nell said, “I’ll explain it to you later,” although she’d no notion of how she would wriggle out of that one.
Nell opened the door of the music room to find Charlie Skinner standing with his back to her, lifting the sheet hanging over the largest of the many family portraits lining the rosewood paneled walls–a colossal full-length likeness of August Hewitt executed by his wife, Viola, a gifted amateur painter.
“You wanted to see me?” Nell asked as she closed the door behind her. Best not to let others be privy to their conversation, at least until she knew what in the devil he wanted with her.
Skinner turned, dropping the sheet, to address her with that look of vaguely amused disdain he seemed to reserve just for her. He hadn’t changed much over the past year: same slight build and rodentlike features, although his prematurely salt-and-pepper hair had gotten noticeably grayer.
He surveyed her up and down with a trace of a sneer. “Miss Sweeney.” The emphasis on her Irish name was intended as an insult.
Giving tit for tat, Nell allowed herself a lingering appraisal of Skinner’s attire, the dark blue uniform of the Boston constabulary. A pair of handcuffs, a truncheon, and a holstered pistol hung on his belt; policeman’s hat sat on the sheet-draped grand piano.
“Constable,” she said with a cool little smile. “It is ‘Constable’ now, not ‘Detective?'”
Skinner’s mouth compressed into a churlish slit. The last time Nell had seen him, over a year ago, he’d been wearing a sack suit and one of those gaudy plaid vests he was so inexplicably fond of. At the time, he’d been one of seven officers assigned to Boston’s prestigious Detectives’ Bureau headquartered at City Hall. In February, however, following a battery of hearings prompted by widespread police corruption, the Detectives’ Bureau was abolished. Its members, save for a single detective who was found innocent of any major wrongdoing, were either sacked or downgraded to rank-and-file patrolmen. It would appear that Skinner had contrived to stay on as one of the demoted officers, but the reduction in rank had clearly stung.
From outside in the central hall came the thud of something heavy striking the marble floor, followed by a male voice hissing, “Shit!”
“You will watch your tongue in this house, young man.” It was Mrs. Mott, in her shrill supervisory mode. “Pick up that trunk, you two. Come, come.” She delivered two sharp claps. “You’ve not been hired to lollygag.”
“It’s bedlam out there,” Skinner observed.
Indeed, a kind of semi-controlled chaos had gripped the Hewitts’ Italianate mansion at dawn that morning, as twenty or so servants, aided by a fleet of hired cartmen, strove to transfer a vast array of household gear to the row of tipcarts and wagons clustered in the stable yard and lined up out front at the curb.
“The Hewitts spend most of July and August at Falconwood, their summer house on Cape Cod,” Nell said. “We leave this morning.”
“‘We?’ The servants, too?” he said.
The implication, that Nell was on the same level as the maids and footmen, wasn’t lost on her. In fact, her status as governess put her in that shadowy borderline between the hired domestics and the family, a distinction that the constable surely recognized, but chose, in her case, to disregard.
“The entire staff travels with the family,” she said. “The house will be closed up until the end of August.”
Skinner made a show of looking around. “This big, swanky house standing empty for what–six, eight weeks? Aren’t they afraid somebody might break in, make off with some of this fancy stuff?” He lifted the sheet over Viola’s prized Limoges urn sitting on the piano.
“It happened a couple of years ago,” Nell said. “Mr. Hewitt had stronger locks put on the doors.”
“There’s no lock so strong it can’t be picked if you know how,” Skinner said, reminding Nell the time Will had unlocked Virgil Hines’s writing box with a flick of a hairpin. You have a great many shameful talents, don’t you? she’d asked him.
“I could crack any lock in this house in less than a minute,” the constable bragged.
“I’m all too sure you could,” said Nell, who recalled that burglaries were among the infractions of which the disbanded detectives had been accused, in addition to rapes, extortion, bribery, murder for hire, and savage and unprovoked beatings of Irishmen and Negroes. “Did you come here just to chat, Constable, or is there a purpose to your visit?”
Crossing to the console table next to the door, Skinner uncovered a pair of Venetian lamps, very old and fragile. “There’s been a murder in the North End. Local hood name of Johnny Cassidy took a bullet in the head last night in a concert saloon called Nabby’s Inferno.”
He picked up one of the lamps and held it aloft, turning it this way and that to watch the exquisite blue glass ignite in the sunlight from the open windows.
Carefully lifting the lamp from his hand, Nell set it back on the table and re-cloaked it with the sheet. “What happens in the North End is of no interest to me.” Aside from the fact that it was home to tens of thousands of Irish, crammed together in their wretched waterfront hovels.
With a little snort of amusement, Skinner said, “Oh, yeah, you lace-curtain colleens think you’re too good for that rat warren, don’t you? Well, I happen to know you never miss early Sunday mass at St. Stephen’s up on Hanover Street.”
Rattled, but determined not to show it, Nell said, “Have you been spying on me, Constable?”
Skinner lifted the sheet draped over one of the six-foot obelisks flanking the entrance to the Red Room, Viola’s private haven. “The North End is my beat–and us cops like to keep track of them that make trouble for us.”
“I still don’t see what the murder of a perfect stranger has to do with me.”
“What it has to do with you,” Skinner said as he strolled around the room, eyeing the shapes beneath the linen shrouds, “is that the murderer happens to be an old friend of yours.” He met her gaze with a smug grin. “Detective Colin Cook.”
Nell somehow managed to keep her expression neutral even as her thoughts careened. Colin Cook, one of Skinner’s former colleagues in the Detectives’ Bureau, not that the rest of them had ever considered him as such, given his Irishness, had been the lone member of the bureau to escape the retribution meted out to the rest of them after the corruption hearings. Though not entirely blameless–Cook had been known to pocket a few greenbacks now and then–the bearlike black Irishman had enjoyed a singular reputation for integrity and competence. When the rest of the Boston detectives were fired or sent out to patrol the streets, Cook had been offered what amounted to a promotion: a coveted appointment to the Massachusetts State Constabulary. As a state detective, Cook was primarily charged with stemming Boston’s rising tide of vice, although murder investigations also fell under his purview.
“I can’t imagine that your information is correct,” Nell said evenly, “if you’ve come to the conclusion that Detective Cook is the responsible party.”
“You don’t think he’s capable of killing a man?”
“For just cause? Certainly. He fought for the Union, after all. But outright murder?” She shook her head. “I wouldn’t expect the likes of you to understand such a thing, but there are men in this world who have moral standards, and Colin Cook is one of them.”
“A pretty speech, Miss Sweeney,” said Skinner with a mocking little bow, “and I’m sure if Cook were present to hear it, he’d be moved by your faith in him. But as it happens, that faith is sadly misplaced. He did do murder. He did it savagely, and I must say, rather sloppily. I was the first cop on the scene, and I can tell you it was pretty cut and dried. They all know him there–he’s a regular–and we got three witnesses that say he done it.”
“‘We?’ Surely you’re not the officer handling this case. That would be the responsibility of the state detectives, would it not?”
“It would but for the fact that Major Jones, who’s in charge of that unit, feels it would be a–what did he call it?–‘conflict of interest’ for his boys to investigate one of their own. Now, me, I’ve got experience as a detective, and no reason to want to go soft on Cook. So, in the interest of justice, I stepped forward and offered to–“
“In the interest of justice?” she scoffed. “In the interest of revenge, you mean. You’d like nothing more than to see Detective Cook hang.”
Skinner tugged the sheet off the round marble table in the center of the room, laid out with a selection of August Hewitt’s favorite antique musical instruments. He picked up the pocket hunting horn, a heavily coiled brass trumpet less than a foot long, dented and tarnished with age. Viola thought it ugly, and didn’t see the point of keeping it out, but as the music room was her husband’s special haven, the instrument remained on display.
Skinner hefted the horn as if testing its weight. “I won’t deny that it gives me a warm feeling inside to see murderers twitch at the end of a noose.”
Nell said, “It would give you no end of glee to see Detective Cook hang, if only because he’s Irish, and a better man than you. But on top of that, he was actually rewarded when the truth came out about what you detectives were up to, while the rest of you ended up–“
“He sold us out,” Skinner said, teeth bared. “He ratted on us in secret sessions during the hearings, just him and those big bugs that don’t have the slightest idea what it takes to deal with the foreign vermin who’ve overrun this town. Next thing you know, I end up policing Paddyland for a Paddy captain, of all damn things, who treats me like I’m some stray cat he’d like to drown, while that humbug-spouting mick gets bumped up to Jones’s unit. He’s earning almost twice what he used to, while I’m still making do on eight-hundred bucks a year.”
“Surely, Constable, you’re making the job pay better than that,” Nell said with a knowing little smile.
In a crude imitation of an Irish accent, Skinner said, “Oh, you fancy yourself quite the clever little lass, don’t you, now?”
“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I know how you and your kind do business. As for Cook spouting humbug, what are you saying? Are you claiming he lied?”
“He made stuff up just to get us in hot water, and they swallowed it whole and asked for more.”
“And how would you know that,” she challenged, “if those sessions were so secret?”
“Oh, you are clever, aren’t you?” He closed in on her, clutching her arm in a painful grip; she could smell the rum on his breath, the sour tang of his sweat. “You’re two of a kind, you and Cook, a couple of crafty, high-reaching bogtrotters out to get what you can over the backs of all us regular, hardworking Americans. Yeah, but I’ll bet you’re not so high-and-mighty when the good detective gets you alone, eh? Do you give him a good ride, Miss Sweeney? Do you buck and scream and–“
“Get out.” Nell tried to wrestle free of his grip, but she was no match for his wiry strength.
He slammed her one-handed against the door, holding her there as he tilted her chin up with the mouthpiece of the horn. In a menacing murmur he said, “I wouldn’t mind hearing you scream.”
“Nor I you.” She wrenched the horn from his hand and whipped it across his face.
He stumbled back into the piano with a yowl of pain, his hands cupping his nose. “You bitch!” he screamed in a nasal rasp. “Jesus! You goddamned–“
“Get out.” Nell opened the door to the hallway. Two kitchen maids passing by with armloads of pots and kettles paused to gape at the constable.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he snarled as he advanced on her.