FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 14, 1902 -- 10:00 A.M.
Francesca Cahill began to plot how to steal out of the house the moment she awoke. She was in the habit of arising at an unfashionable hour, or so her mother accused, but then, Julia Van Wyck Cahill was as fashionable as one of the city's reigning social matriarchs could be. Francesca never deceived herself--not only was she a bluestocking and a radical reformer through and through; she felt rather certain that, behind her back, she was also sometimes labeled an eccentric. No mind. She did not give a whit for fashion anyway, or parties or shopping or teas. She had secretly enrolled at Barnard College, hoping to attain her degree and follow in the footsteps of her idol, the journalist and reformer Jacob Riis. But in the past month, since January 18 to be exact, her plans had somehow, fatefully, changed.
It had all begun with the abduction of her neighbor's six-year-old-boy. Francesca Cahill had discovered the odd, not-quite-a-ransom note and, more important, had been crucial to the city's police department in investigating and then solving the case. In fact, she had worked very closely with the city's new police commissioner, Rick Bragg.
She smiled as she paused in the huge front hall of the house that had been built eight years ago and dubbed "the Marble Palace" by the press. She directed her smile at the new doorman, who she thought was named Jonathon. He was her own age, and, as blond and blue-eyed as she, he smiled back.
The note had arrived fifteen minutes ago. It had been in a sealed and unmarked envelope, which in itself was somecause for alarm. The scripted contents had been a nearly indecipherable scrawl. It read:
we are in dire need of your help! Do come immediately.
Mrs. Richard Wyeth Channing
The note had been written by Mrs. Channing, her brother's fiancée's mother. And apparently it had been written in extreme haste, as the handwriting was so poor it might have been executed by a child in grade school, not to mention the fact that the envelope had not carried Abigail Channing's name or address. Francesca had not a doubt that the Channings were in trouble.
She smiled bravely at the doorman. "Jonathon, if you do see my mother, is there any chance you might not mention that you have seen me go out?" As she spoke, she glanced guiltily down the hall, where huge Corinthian pillars were set at intervals until a wide white alabaster staircase led to the three floors above. She had badly burned her right hand while saving the life of Maggie Kennedy--a poor seamstress with whom she was starting to have something of a friendship. Now it was thoroughly bandaged, and she had been ordered to remain in her bed--or close to it--for an entire week. As much as she had no wish to gain an infection, the doctor had told her two hours ago that she was healing quite nicely. In fact, her hand no longer hurt her at all.
And how could she refuse a call for help from the woman who would one day be her brother's mother-in-law and, by familial extension, a second mother to her?
Francesca was very glad now that she had refused to take laudanum that morning, which she had instead discreetly thrown away. Francesca suspected that her mother was hoping to do far more than merely obey Dr. Finney's instructions to keep her at home for an entire week. She thought, butcould not prove, that Julia wished to dull her own daughter's personality with the laudanum, in the hope of keeping her out of further jeopardy and any more criminal investigations. Her entire family had been thoroughly undone by this latest incident; in fact, almost everyone she knew was quite upset that she had been so badly hurt while attempting to protect Mrs. Kennedy.
Jonathon had turned white, apparently rather fearful of her mother. "Miss Cahill, er, if she does ask--"
"You have not seen me," she instructed with a cheerful smile, as she was simply thrilled to have a new case on her hands. "I promise you, Jonathon, no harm will come of it. My mother is quite used to my headstrong and independent ways."
Jonathon looked very unhappy indeed.
Taking a big breath, Francesca stepped outside into the frigidly cold air, the huge front door closing behind her. Her right hand was bandaged and so she wore only one glove on her left. She began to smile, a bit exultant. It was a rare day indeed that one outwitted Julia Van Wyck Cahill.
Of course, she must not gloat. There was serious business ahead, if her instincts served her.
The sweeping front lawns were crusted with hard, white snow. Francesca paused below the front steps, sighing with relief. Her gaze swept past the circular drive, the wroughtiron gates, and the light vehicular traffic on Fifth Avenue. A four-in-hand was coming down the street, as were two hansoms and a very elegant brougham. Even from this distance, she could see past the trees bordering Central Park, and several horseback riders were on the riding path, while a woman and two children strolled beside it. It was actually, in spite of the cold, a beautiful day.
And then a man she had quickly come to despise--and fear--spoke into her ear.
"Good afternoon, Miss Cahill. It is a beautiful day, is it not?"
Francesca nearly jumped out of her skin as she whirled to find Arthur Kurland, the dastardly reporter from The Sun,standing behind her. He had been hiding behind two mansize Greek urns just below the mansion's front steps.
Francesca was breathless. This man was extremely skilled at uncovering secrets, and she certainly had a secret or two that she wished to hide. She tried to smile. "Mr. Kurland. Were you about to call on someone in my family--or were you lurking about the hedges trespassing?"
He smiled and stepped forward. He was in his thirties, dark-haired, and of a medium build. His appearance was nondescript. But there was nothing nondescript about the articles he wrote for The Sun or his perceptiveness and acuity. The man missed nothing--unfortunately. "I suppose I am guilty as charged." He grinned. "I am waiting for you, Miss Cahill."
"Then you are wasting your time, as I have had a touch of the flu and I have nothing interesting to report to you." She started walking briskly down the drive toward the avenue. Her intention was to hail a cab, as her father, Andrew Cahill, had his coach and Julia would be out to lunch shortly in the other Cahill vehicle.
"Surely the police commissioner brought you some interesting news for me to scoop," he said, falling into step beside her. He smiled. "I do believe he has called on you every day since the Cross Murderer was apprehended. What happened to your hand?"
Francesca halted in midstride, facing him with a dreadful feeling. Was he insinuating something? He had seen her and Bragg together too many times to count--they had investigated three politically sensitive cases together, starting with the Burton Abduction.
"Miss Cahill?" Arthur Kurland gripped her arm. "It is so interesting--but hardly newsworthy--that Commissioner Bragg has been calling on you every day since the Cross Murderer was incarcerated. Or is it newsworthy?" He grinned.
"If the commissioner's social life is newsworthy, then you are in dire trouble, indeed, as a newsman," she said tartly. "Bragg goes way back with my father, in case you did not know."
"I know all about your father's political associations. He is even closer to Bragg's father, Rathe Bragg, who has just returned to the city, by the way."
Francesca started. Bragg hadn't said a word about his father returning to the city.
Kurland grinned. "An exchange of information, Miss Cahill. You do recall how we work? I give you something, and you give me something."
She had been conned by this man once before, with the terrible consequence of betraying Bragg's brother Calder Hart. She fought to recover from her surprise. "I truly have no information for you."
"Somehow, I doubt that," he said as she began walking even more briskly toward Fifth Avenue. He kept pace with her. "I think Bragg has been making condolence calls. Did you know that the Cross Murderer is in Bellevue Hospital, with second-degree burns?"
"Really?" Francesca was cool, hardly feigning surprise.
He smiled again. "What happened to your hand, Miss Cahill?"
"I broke it," she snapped, but her anger was only a mask for her fear.
"Why do I always get the most distinct impression that you are hiding something from me?" he asked, with obvious delight. "Why do I have the strongest feeling that you and Bragg are hiding something from me--from the city?"
She didn't have to look at him to know that he was grinning. "You are like a gnat," she said very rudely. "No one is hiding anything."
"Not really. But I do have a sting, my dear, one that can be fatal."
She froze in midstep and faced him. Real fear seized her. This man was a prize-winning journalist. And he had no compunctions, no morals. It was only a matter of time before he pieced together the puzzle of all of their lives. And then what?
Her heart beat hard. "What do you want?"
"Tell me something important, something that I do not know." His eyes were suddenly hard.
"I have nothing to tell," she said tersely.
"Really? Then why is guilt written all over your face?" Kurland asked.
If she gave him what he wanted, he would be satisfied and go--at least for now. "Very well. You win. But you shall owe me for this."
He whipped out a small notepad and a lead pencil. "Yes?" he asked eagerly.
"I stopped the Cross Murderer from striking again. I am the one who set the fire, and that is why my hand is burned."</div...