Seven for a Secret (Timothy Wilde Mysteries #2) by Lyndsay Faye

PROLOGUE

On the day the worst happened to her—and by worst I mean the tragedy you’d die to prevent, kill to prevent, the cruelty beyond endurance—Lucy Adams was working in a flower shop, arranging scarlet and orange hothouse roses whose colors could have put a midsummer sunset to shame.

How little I learned about her, that day when we met. How tragically little. The details would come later. Long after I’d told her that I, Timothy Wilde, copper star badge number 107 and defender of whomever I damn well pleased, would set it all right again. That I would stop at nothing to help her and to that end, I wanted her to spin me a tale.

Just tell it to me like a story, and I’ll fix this.

God, what hubris men can achieve after six months working at a job.

An impossible job, at that. Or maybe just one too taxing for the likes of me. I’d like to say that my brother Valentine manages better, this being a fledgling star police of New York City business, but he’s the captain of Ward Eight and complicated the whole wretched affair the way a kitten complicates a ball of yarn.

So, no. Wildes, in this case—the younger and the elder—made precious few sound decisions.

I could pretend that recording Lucy Adams’s story is important for posterity. Justice, even. But that would be humbug. Smoke obscuring a charnel-house landscape. What truly matters just now to me is that a black saga resides at the back of my eyes.

And the last time that happened, I wrote it all down.

•   •   •

At six o’clock in the evening on February 14, 1846, Mrs. Adams stood at a worktable behind the front counter of the flower shop, peeling thorns from rose stems. St. Valentine’s Day had dawned frigid and clear, but now winds churned above Manhattan, and snowflakes swooned their way to Chambers Street outside the frosted display window. The shop ought to have closed an hour previous, but still swarmed with men in swallow-tailed coats demanding artificial armfuls of summertime. Scarves flapped, watch chains whirled, acres of forced conservatory flowers disappeared out the door into the snow.

Mrs. Adams hummed a tune as she worked. A melody too old for a name that drifted along the exhalations of her breath. She thought with a pleasant longing of supper, for her cook had promised to stew a pair of ducks for the family, and imaginary scents of orange rind and dried mint teased at her nose.

Minutes ticked past, and still more minutes, and she began to wrap the stem of her bouquet with blood-red silk. Winding it as if casting a spell. Fingers sure and length of ribbon supple as skin. It was the last time she would ever do so. The bow she tied was perfection. A soft, elegant ending.

The shop owner—Mr. Timpson, a former Manchester dweller with kindly eyes and a grey, sagging complexion save for his crimson nose—tutted when he glanced at the clock next to the yellow sprays of lilies. He’d just warmly thanked a trio of departing swells with maroon greatcoats and ivory trousers, and Timpson’s Superior Blooms at last had emptied. All the day long, it had resembled the Stock Exchange.

“I’ll sweep up, dear,” he told his single shop assistant, Mrs. Adams. “It’ll be ghastly out there in a quarter hour, and I’ve only to climb the stairs to reach my supper. Get along home with you.”

Mrs. Adams protested that her final order for the next day wasn’t quite finished. That it was only a little snow, that anyhow her house was round the corner from Chambers, just down West Broadway. But Mr. Timpson insisted, with a jovial clap of his hands followed by a shooing motion. And it was late, so much later than usual, the busiest day of the year, and Mrs. Adams yearned to be home.

And so she went.

The shop windows ticked past Lucy Adams’s vision like the unnoticed beat of a bedroom clock as she hastened homeward. A safe rhythm, familiar as your own pulse. M. Freeman’s Old and New Feathers Emporium. Needle and Fishhook Manufactory. The Museum Hotel. The snow whirled above the cobbles, as if gripped by an undertow, and she pulled her fur cloak close. She passed a man driving a cart piled with burlap sacks and calling, “Sand-O! White sand-O!” A shopkeeper dove out of his dry goods store at the cry, nearly running into her. But she stepped neatly aside, and the whiskery gentleman apologized as he fed coins into the sandman’s palm for the Rockaway silt that would keep his storefront pavements safe a while longer.

And Mrs. Adams went on her way.

When Mrs. Adams opened the door of her narrow brownstone in West Broadway, shivering as she removed her fur, silence greeted her. She dropped the cape on a damask chair in the hallway and went into the parlor. The room was empty. Mrs. Adams fanned her fingers before the waning fire, pulling off her gloves. She unpinned her hat. Her eyes drifted over the pressed flowers framed on the brick mantelpiece, over the pair of tiny china horses and the single holly sprig in a vase of amethyst glass. She called out to the household that she’d arrived.

No one answered.

Unhurried, she went into the dining room. Not the echo of a whisper met her ears. She turned to climb the stairs, still cheerily announcing her return.

All was silence. A quiet deeper than death.

Five minutes later, Mrs. Adams hurtled out of her house into West Broadway, her skirts in her fists and her mouth torn wide in a scream, flying through the gathering storm in the direction of police headquarters at the Tombs.

That’s where I come into it. I work there.

As for me, I sat in the windowless closet space I’d the previous month eked out for use as an office, a glass of Dutch gin in my hand and a crooked smile on my ruined face, toasting the health of my friend Roundsman Jakob Piest. We having just solved a pretty thorny problem and feeling none too humble about it. He lifted his ugly wrinkled fist and tin cup, laughing like the maniac he is, and then Mrs. Lucy Adams stumbled against my half-open door with a bang.

Can I describe her properly, as she was before I came to know her secrets? I suspect not. If secrets are gems to their owners, to be cradled in dark cases, I plundered Lucy Adams’s jewel chest thorough as a highwayman despoiling a carriage. It hurts to be a thief, when what you stole was a person’s history. I am not that man. I loathe being that man. People, all manner and persuasion of people, want to tell me things of their own accord. Always have done, since I was a barman. Even before. But I can’t stomach knowing secrets without an invitation, a wave of the hand to walk inside.

So what did she look like, this mystery of mine, before I laid bare the stories carved into her before we met?

Lucy Adams was dressed for winter so simply that every garment announced its high quality. The toe of one boot keeking out from swirls of a cobalt-velvet day dress was soaked through with snow. So she’d quit the house hurriedly, without donning rubber overboots. An ivory ermine cape around her shoulders had been tied with a violently asymmetrical red bow, and a score of other things about her that evening pleaded for help. White leather gloves gaping, their pearl fastenings loose. No hat, not even a lace cap for decency’s sake and not warmth’s. Just wave after wave after wave of pinned-up chocolate-brown hair in the tightest corkscrew curls I’ve ever seen, with white snowflakes melting tenderly into them.

Something horrible had happened to her. I didn’t need a barman’s sleight of hand to realize that. Lucy Adams’s eyes were the color of lichen on a stone wall, mossy flecks of green shot through the grey, and they stared wide as if she’d just been pitched into the Hudson off a steamer deck. Mr. Piest and I stared at her, shocked. Her lips were very full, very round, and she peeled them open to speak as if the motion agonized her.