Tell Me, Pretty Maiden - By Rhys Bowen


New York City, December 1902

My feet were freezing. We Irish have been known to embroider the truth, but on this occasion I was being literal. The boots leaked badly, letting in snow and slush, and I could no longer feel my toes. If I had been sensible, I would have gone home immediately, but I have never been known for being sensible. Besides, I was on a case. A good detective wouldn’t leave her post just because of a little frostbite.

Winter had arrived in New York with sudden fury on the day after Thanksgiving, blanketing the city with snow and bringing traffic to a virtual standstill. Since then the roads and sidewalks had been shoveled and swept to make passage possible, but great mounds of snow and ice were piled in the gutters, and the wind that swept in off the Hudson cut through the warmest of winter coats. And this evening I wasn’t even wearing a coat. I was wearing a threadbare jacket, knee britches, and hobnail boots. My hair was piled under a cap and my face was dirty. I was, in fact, posing as a street urchin.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time, when I put on the clothes in the warmth of my little house on Patchin Place. My assignment was to follow a certain Mr. Leon Roth and I had already learned the hard way that women who loiter alone on the city streets at night are likely to be arrested for prostitution. Street urchins, on the other hand, are plentiful and invisible. For good measure I took a broom with me and made halfhearted attempts at being a crossing sweeper while I watched and waited. I had actually picked up all of twenty cents for my pains. But I hadn’t expected Mr. Roth to take so long. And I was rapidly coming to the conclusion that no job was worth risking pneumonia.

This had promised to be a straightforward assignment. A wealthy Jewish couple, the Mendelbaums, had hired me to check the credentials of the young man they wanted their daughter to marry. He had been produced by a matchmaker, which seemed to be normal for their tradition, and he seemed to possess all the qualities that would make an ideal husband. These qualities included a Yale education and a considerable private income. But New York was not the shtetl of their forebears, where everyone knew the habits of everyone else. These parents cared about their daughter and wanted to make sure that her intended harbored no secret vices—and was as rich as he claimed.

I had taken on the job with enthusiasm. It was one I thought I could handle without danger, one not involving the sordid peeking and sneaking of a divorce case. Besides, the fee was generous and if I carried out my duties to my clients’ satisfaction, then they might well recommend me to their friends. It had been easy enough to check on his place of employment at a major shipping and importing company and to learn that he was expected to go far. I hadn’t yet managed to obtain the details of his bank accounts, not having had much opportunity myself to know the inner workings of banks.

And now I was checking into his moral character, which was proving more interesting. I had stationed myself outside Mr. Roth’s address and watched and waited. He lived not too far from me, in an apartment hotel on Fifth Avenue. This was not the swank part of Fifth Avenue, up among the Vanderbilts and Astors on Central Park, but the lower part of that street, south of Union Square. It had once been the most fashionable address in the city, but not any longer. The big brownstone houses were mostly divided into apartments. Gone were the carriages and liveried footmen. It was still respectable but definitely not glamorous.

The first few days of my task convinced me that Mr. Roth was also respectable but not glamorous. I had managed to follow him to the Knickerbocker Grill, where he met with other young men and drank nothing stronger than water, to the Manhattan Theater where he saw a production of A Doll’s House, by a Swedish playwright called Mr. Ibsen—by all accounts a rather gloomy sort of play if one could judge by the sober pictures outside the theater. I even followed him to Macy’s new department store where he bought a silk ascot.

I was almost ready to report to the Mendelbaums that