The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

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New York cops had to start out the hard way – murder, religion and politics.

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Chapter Three

          [The] popish countries of Europe are disgorging upon
          our shores, from year to year, their ignorant,
          superstitious, and degraded inhabitants, not only by
          tens, but by hundreds of thousands, who already
          claim the highest privileges of native citizens, and
          even the country itself.

               American Protestant in Defence of Civil and
            Religious Liberty Against inroads of Papacy, 1843

    On the morning of July twenty-second, a strong wind from the ocean cutting through the summer stench, I headed down Spring Street, past the pineapple vendors and the barrel-organ man in Hudson Square, to find a dwelling place. One with shortcuts. I was going to need plenty of shortcuts on five hundred a year. Nick’s had paid me still less, but that hadn’t been a problem. Not when all the extra coin had been considered, the half-neds and coach wheels and deuces slipped into my palm by madmen in French shirtsleeves, the jacks that clinked in Julius’s and my pockets as we parted ways at the end of a shift. Wages were different – stable and frightening. I was looking at a fraction of what I’d earned previously, supposing I wasn’t inclined to extort madams for extra chink.
    Neighborhoods in New York change quicker than its weather. Spring Street, where Val lives, is a mix of people in the usual everyday sense: blue-coated Americans with their collars over their lapels and their hats neatly brushed, laughing colored girls waking your eyes up with canary yellow and shocking orange dresses, complacent ministers in brown wool and thin stockings. There are churches in Spring Street, eating houses smelling of pork chops with browned onions. It isn’t Broadway north of Bleecker, where the outrageously wealthy bon ton and their servants peer down their noses at one another, but it isn’t Ward Six either.
    Which is where I was headed.
    When I entered the district via Mulberry Street with two dollars of Val’s money poisoning my pocket, I knew first that there were no shortcuts to be taken advantage of in the row of godforsaken Catholic misery. Second, I thought, God save New York City from the rumor of faraway blighted potatoes.
    As for the swarms of emigrants gushing ceaselessly onto the South street docks, I’d found out their next stopping place: the entire block consisted of Irish and dogs and rats sharing the same fleas. Not that I hold any truck with Nativists, but I couldn’t prevent a shiver of sympathetic disgust constricting my throat. There were so many of them, scores passing to and fro, that I focused on one individual just to stave off a fit of dizziness. I lit on a still-sleepy peasant youth of about thirteen in trousers worn through the knees, entirely shoeless but wearing blue stockings, who stumbled past me into a grocery store. He bypassed the pale putrid cabbages set for show outside the entrance and headed straight for the whiskey bar. His posture matched the building he was patronizing. The Sixth Ward was built over the top of a swamp called the Collect Pond, but if you didn’t know that, you’d wonder why the buildings leant at lunatic angles, seemingly stitched onto the sky in crazy-quilt seams.
    I stepped over the fresh corpse of a dog felled by traffic and carried on, edging through the crowd. All the men walked with a purpose into groceries that didn’t sell edible vegetables, the women’s hands blazed redder than their hair from hard labour, and the children… the children seemed by turns harrowed and merely hungry. I saw one respectable fellow as I passed. A priest with a perfectly round head, faintly blue eyes, and a tight white dog collar. But he was ministering to the most wretched of the occupants, or so I hoped.
    No, there were no shortcuts for an American on Mulberry. And my face simmered in the heat, rendering fat into the already greasy bandaging [of his burned face]. Or something else, possibly. Frankly, I didn’t want to dwell on it.
    My face hadn’t been a Michelangelo exactly, but it hadn’t ever served me wrong either. Oval tending toward youthful roundness, and near enough identical to my brother’s. Broad and high brow, deeply arcing hairline, hair indifferently blond. Straight nose, small mouth, with a little upside-down crescent where lips turn to chin. Fair skin, despite our merciless summers. I’d never spent overmuch time mulling over my mazzard previously, though, because when I’d wanted a friendly hour or two with a shopkeeper’s daughter or a hotel maid with appetites, I’d always gotten it. So it was a good enough face - it didn’t cost me money when I needed a tumble, and I’ve been told my smile is very reluctant, which apparently makes people want to tell you their life histories and then pass you two bits for your patience.
    Now I had absolutely no notion of what I looked like. The physical pain was already bad enough to make me steal a little of my brother’s laudanum without added aesthetic horror.
    ‘You’re spooney,’ my brother had announced, shaking his head as he studiously roasted coffee beans. ‘Don’t come over all squeamish on me now, for God’s sake. Have a keek at yourself and be done.’
    ‘Sod off, Valentine.’
    ‘Listen, Tim, I can understand perfectly why you’d keep shady at first, in light of when you were just a squeaker and all, but –‘
    ‘By tomorrow at the latest I’ll be clear of this house,’ I’d replied on my way out, effectively ending the conversation.
    Cutting across Walker Street, I turned up Elizabeth and then all at once shoved my fists in my still-sooty pockets in shock.
    The structure directly before me was a miracle. A carefully printed wish list of shortcuts.
    Thresholds and shutters on this block weren’t quite gleaming, but they’d been scrubbed with vinegar and glinted respectably. The laundry strung along the hemp lines between buildings, fickly fluttering in the sun, was mended instead of lagging in limp shreds, giving me a settled feeling. And neat and humble and right before my very eyes stood a two-storey brick row house wearing a ROOMS TO LET BY DAY OR MONTH sign. On the first floor, attractively lettered on a small awning, MRS BOEHM’S FINE BAKED GOODS held court. Not ten feet away from the entrance stood a pump ready to gush out clean Croton water.
    That was potentially four shortcuts, if you’re counting.
    First, the pump meant pure Westchester river water and not the filthy stew drawn from Manhattan’s sunken wells. Having Croton River piped in your home means your landlord paying up front for the service, which happens just as often as the Atlantic freezes so a man can walk to London. Better to live by a free public pump. Second, residing above a bakery meant cast-off day-old bread. A baker is a thousand times likelier to give neighbours the surplus rye loaf than a stranger. Third, bakeries stoke up their ovens twice a day, which come November meant a pallid fraction of most people’s heating costs, since the ovens would be baking caraway rolls while heating my floor.
    Finally, Mrs Boehm’s meant a widow. Women can’t start their own enterprises, but they can manage to inherit them when very careful. And I could see where the sign’s paint was fresher on the ‘Mrs’ than on her surname. Making shortcut number four. If you’re short on rent and a widow needs a roof mended, you might not find yourself back on the streets.
    I pushed open the door to the bakery.
    Very small, but well loved and cared for. A simple pine counter displayed stacked rye and plain brown farm loaves, the smaller treats arranged on a wide flower-patterned serving dish. I could see sultanas poking out of a thousand-year cake, and its smell of candied orange peel livened my senses.
    ‘You would like some bread, sir?’
    My eyes swept from the baked goods to the woman who’d made them, approaching me as she rubbed her hands against her apron. Mrs Boehm looked around my age, closer to thirty than twenty. Her jaw was firm and her faded blue eyes alert and inquisitive – which, combined with the newness of the ‘Mrs’ above her door, led me to believe her husband hadn’t been long absent. She’d hair the color of the seeds dotting her sunflower rolls, a dull shineless blond that looked nearly grey, and her brow was too wide and too flat. But her mouth was wide too, a generous sweep that oddly reversed how thin she was. When her lips were considered, I could picture Mrs Boehm scraping ample butter over a thick slice of her fresh farmer’s loaves. I liked that at once, feeling strangely grateful for it. She didn’t seem mean.
    ‘What’s your best seller?’ I was pleasant but not smiling. Smiling sent a burn like a brand through my skull. But it doesn’t take much effort for a barman to sound friendly.
    ‘Dreikonbrot.’ She nodded at it. Her voice was low, pleasantly rough and Bohemian. ‘Three seeds. A half hour ago I baked it. One loaf?’
    ‘Please. I’ll be having it for dinner.’
    ‘Anything more?’
    ‘I’ll be needing a place to eat dinner,’ I paused. ‘My name is Timothy Wilde, and I’m pleased to meet you. Has the upstairs room been let yet? I’m in terrible need of lodgings, and this seems the perfect fit.’

Copyright © 2012 Lyndsay Faye