The Gods of Gotham (Timothy Wilde Mysteries #1) by Lyndsay Faye

PROLOGUE

When I set down the initial report, sitting at my desk at the Tombs, I wrote:

On the night of August 21, 1845, one of the children escaped.

Of all the sordid trials a New York City policeman faces every day, you wouldn’t expect the one I loathe most to be paperwork. But it is. I get snakes down my spine just thinking about case files.

Police reports are meant to read “X killed Y by means of Z.” But facts without motives, without the story, are just road signs with all the letters worn off. Meaningless as blank tombstones. And I can’t bear reducing lives to the lowest of their statistics. Case notes give me the same parched-headed feeling I get after a night of badly made New England rum. There’s no room in the dry march of data to tell why people did bestial things—love or loathing, defense or greed. Or God, in this particular case, though I don’t suppose God was much pleased by it.

If He was watching. I was watching, and it didn’t please me any too keenly.

For instance, look what happens when I try to write an event from my childhood the way I’m required to write police reports:

In October 1826, in the hamlet of Greenwich Village, a fire broke out in a stable flush adjacent to the home of Timothy Wilde, his elder brother, Valentine Wilde, and his parents, Henry and Sarah; though the blaze started small, both of the adults were killed when the conflagration spread to the main house by means of a kerosene explosion.

I’m Timothy Wilde, and I’ll say right off, that tells you nothing. Nix. I’ve drawn pictures with charcoal all my life to busy my fingers, loosen the feeling of taut cord wrapped round my chest. A single sheet of butcher paper showing a gutted cottage with its blackened bones sticking out would tell you more than that sentence does.

But I’m getting better used to documenting crimes now that I wear the badge of a star police. And there are so many casualties in our local wars over God. I grant there must have been a time long ago when to call yourself a Catholic meant your bootprint was stamped on Protestant necks, but the passage of hundreds of years and a wide, wide ocean ought to have drowned that grudge between us, if anything could. Instead here I sit, penning a bloodbath. All those children, and not only the children, but grown Irish and Americans and anyone ill-starred enough to be caught in the middle, and I only hope that writing it might go a way toward being a fit memorial. When I’ve spent enough ink, the sharp scratch of the specifics in my head will dull a little, I’m hoping. I’d assumed that the dry wooden smell of October, the shrewd way the wind twines into my coat sleeves now, would have begun erasing the nightmare of August by this time.

I was wrong. But I’ve been wrong about worse.

Here’s how it began, now that I know the girl in question better and can write as a man instead of a copper star:

On the night of August 21, 1845, one of the children escaped.

The little girl was aged ten, sixty-two pounds, dressed in a delicate white shift with a single row of lace along the wide, finely stitched collar. Her dark auburn curls were pulled into a loose knot at the top of her head. The breeze through the open casement felt hot where her nightdress slipped from one shoulder and her bare feet touched the hardwood. She suddenly wondered if there could be a spyhole in her bedroom wall. None of the boys or girls had ever yet found one, but it was the sort of thing they would do. And that night, every pocket of air seemed breath on flesh, slowing her movements to sluggish, watery starts.

She exited through the window of her room by tying three stolen ladies’ stockings together and fixing the end to the lowest catch on the iron shutter. Standing up, she pulled her nightgown away from her body. It was wet through to her skin, and the clinging fabric made her flesh crawl. When she’d stepped blindly out the window clutching the hose, the August air bloated and pulsing, she slid down the makeshift rope before dropping to an empty beer barrel.

The child quit Greene Street by way of Prince before facing the wild river of Broadway, dressed for her bedroom and hugging the shadows like a lifeline. Everything blurs on Broadway at ten o’clock at night. She braved a flash torrent of watered silk. Glib-eyed men in double vests of black velvet stampeded into saloons cloaked from floor to ceiling in mirrors. Stevedores, politicians, merchants, a group of newsboys with unlit cigars tucked in their rosy lips. A thousand floating pairs of vigilant eyes. A thousand ways to be caught. And the sun had fallen, so the frail sisterhood haunted every corner: chalk-bosomed whores desperately pale beneath the rouge, their huddles of five and six determined by brothel kinships and by who wore diamonds and who could only afford cracked and yellowing paste copies.

The little girl could spot out even the richest and healthiest of the street bats for what they really were. She knew the mabs from the ladies instantly.

When she spied a gap in the buttery hacks and carriages, she darted like a moth out of the shadows. Willing herself invisible, winging across the huge thoroughfare eastward. Her naked feet met the slick, tarry waste that curdled up higher than the cobbles, and she nearly stumbled on a gnawed ear of corn.

Her heart leaped, a single jolt of panic. She’d fall—they’d see her and it would all be over.

Did they kill the other kinchin slow or quick?

But she didn’t fall. The carriage lights veering off scores of plate-glass windows were behind her, and she was flying again. A few girlish gasps and one yell of alarm marked her trail.

Nobody chased her. But that was nobody’s fault, really, not in a city of this size. It was only the callousness of four hundred thousand people, blending into a single blue-black pool of unconcern. That’s what we copper stars are for, I think … to be the few who stop and look.

She said later that she was seeing in badly done paintings—everything crude and two-dimensional, the brick buildings dripping watercolor edges. I’ve suffered that state myself, the not-being-there. She recollects a rat gnawing at a piece of oxtail on the pavement, then nothing. Stars in a midsummer sky. The light clatter of the New York and Harlem train whirring by on iron railway tracks, the coats of its two overheated horses wet and oily in the gaslight. A passenger in a stovepipe hat staring back blankly the way they’d come, trailing his watch over the window ledge with his fingertips. The door open on a sawdusty slaughter shop, as they’re called, half-finished cabinetry and dismembered chairs pouring into the street, as scattered as her thoughts.

Then another length of clotted silence, seeing nothing. She reluctantly pulled the stiffening cloth away from her skin once more.

The girl veered onto Walker Street, passing a group of dandies with curled and gleaming soaplocks framing their monocles, fresh and vigorous after a session with the marble baths of Stoppani’s. They thought little enough of her, though, because of course she was running hell for leather into the cesspit of the Sixth Ward, and so naturally she must have belonged there.

She looked Irish, after all. She was Irish. What sane man would worry over an Irish girl flying home?

Well, I would.

I lend considerably more of my brain to vagrant children. I’m much closer to the question. First, I’ve been one, or near enough to it. Second, star police are meant to capture the bony, grime-cheeked kinchin when we can. Corral them like cattle, then pack them in a locked wagon rumbling up Broadway to the House of Refuge. The urchins are lower in our society than the Jersey cows, though, and herding is easier on livestock than on stray humans. Children stare back with something too hot to be malice, something helpless yet fiery when police corner them … something I recognize. And so I will never, not under any circumstances, never will I do such a thing. Not if my job depended on it. Not if my life did. Not if my brother’s life did.