Victoria Thompson

Murder on St. Mark’s place

The second book in the Gaslight Mysteries series, 2000

To Roselyn O’Brien and all the staff and volunteers

of the March of Dimes, in appreciation for all you

do to save babies.


SARAH HEARD THE WAILING WHEN SHE WAS STILL halfway down the street. She knew the sound only too well, the howl of a grief too great to bear, and she was certain she had arrived too late.

A midwife by trade, she had been summoned to deliver the third child of Agnes Otto, a strong, healthy young woman whom Sarah had seen only a few days earlier. Everything had seemed fine then, but if Sarah had learned nothing else from her years of midwifery, she knew that things sometimes went terribly wrong when a baby was making its way into the world, no matter how strong and healthy his mother might appear to be.

Certain of what she would find and praying she wasn’t too late to save at least one of them, Sarah picked up her heavy skirts and tucked her medical bag under her arm. Dodging the puddles left from the freak rainstorm yesterday that had dropped over an inch of rain in a hour’s time, she hurried down the sidewalk, past the neat row of tenement buildings here on St. Mark’s Place, in the heart of Little Germany, until she reached the one where Agnes Otto lived. The front door stood open to catch what little air stirred in the early July heat, and Sarah was up the stoop and through it in an instant. Inside, the dark hallway was deserted, but the sound of weeping echoed down the stairwell. She followed it unerringly and found several women gathered on the landing above, just outside the door to the Ottos’ flat. They were crying and wringing their hands and sobbing into their aprons. That was when Sarah began to suspect that whatever was wrong was not what she’d been expecting at all.

Then she saw the policeman.

He stood just inside the flat, the brass buttons of his uniform straining over his big belly, sweat streaming off his face in the oppressive heat, and his expression oddly panicked. His presence relieved her on one level. Nobody called the police because a baby or a mother died in childbirth. But the police didn’t just show up for no reason, either. Something terrible had happened, even though it wasn’t the thing Sarah had most feared.

“Oh, look, Mrs. Brandt has come,” one of the neighbor women said, seeing Sarah. “Thank heaven you’ve come.”

The policeman turned to look at her, and his sweaty face brightened. “The midwife’s here now, missus,” he said to someone inside, someone who was crying more loudly than any of the women in the hallway. “I’ll just be on my way. Someone will let you know when you can claim the body.”

The body? Good heavens, what was he talking about? Had something happened to Agnes’s husband? No wonder everyone was hysterical.

“What’s going on here?” Sarah demanded of the policeman, but he was in too much of a hurry to leave. He tipped his hat as he passed, but he did pass, as quickly as he could push his way through the group of women and squeeze by Sarah, and then he hustled his bulky frame down the dark stairwell and was gone.

“It is Mrs. Otto’s sister, Gerda,” one of the women obligingly explained, dabbing at her eyes with the comer of her apron. “Somebody has murdered her!”

The words brought back ugly memories that Sarah had worked very hard to store away forever. Her own husband had been murdered a little more than three years ago, and just last April, Sarah had helped solve the murder of another unfortunate young woman. Although she sometimes had to deal with death in the course of her work, that at least was natural. She’d hoped never again to encounter the kind that came unnaturally, from the violent hand of another.

Sarah didn’t have to push her way into the Ottos’ flat. The women parted to allow her to enter, apparently as grateful for her arrival as the policeman had been.

Agnes Otto sat at the table in her small kitchen with her head on her arms, sobbing as if her heart would break. Plainly, Sarah would get no straight answers from her.

She turned to the women still hovering in the doorway. “Is she in labor?”

“We do not know,” one of them said. “But we were afraid, with the shock of it…”

Sarah nodded. Shock had a way of hurrying things along, and Agnes was due anytime now. Sarah set her medical bag on the table and started to unbutton the jacket that fashion dictated she wear out in public, in spite of the heat. From the front room of the flat, the one facing the street, Sarah could hear the cries of a young child. That would be Agnes’s daughter, who was about two. Looking around, she found Agnes’s son, a boy of about four. He was huddled in the comer, practically under the sink, and staring at his mother with wide, terrified eyes.

“Would one of you take care of the children, please?” Sarah asked as she rolled up her sleeves. “They shouldn’t be here.”

Two of the women hurried to do her bidding, removing the children from the flat and leaving her alone with Agnes. “Do you want me to send for your husband?” Sarah asked, gently stroking the other woman’s shoulders in a gesture of comfort.

Agnes didn’t hesitate. She shook her head vehemently, then made an effort to raise her head. Her usually pale face was swollen and blotched with weeping. She brushed at her running nose with the cuff of her sleeve, and said, “He will not come. He would lose his day’s wages.”

Some men would count that a small cost to be able to comfort a pregnant wife, but Agnes knew her husband better than Sarah did. “How are you feeling? Are you having any pains?”

“Pains?” As if she’d forgotten for a moment that she was pregnant, Agnes sat up in the chair and wrapped her arms protectively around her distended belly. Then she looked at Sarah and seemed to recognize her for the first time. “Nein, I don’t think so. Why have you come?” she asked in alarm.

“One of the neighbor boys came for me. I thought it must be your time.”

“I did not send for you. I did not think of anything but-” Her voice broke as she remembered her sister, and she covered her face with her hands.

“I guess your neighbors thought you might need me.” Sarah pulled out a chair and sat down beside Agnes. “Can you tell me what happened?”

For a long moment Sarah was afraid Agnes wouldn’t be able to speak, but she continued to stroke her back and croon meaningless phrases of comfort until at last she was rewarded for her patience.

Slowly, Agnes lowered her hands, revealing eyes filled with so much pain, Sarah had to force herself not to look away. “It is Gerda. My little sister. You remember her?”

Sarah nodded. Gerda was a lively young girl of about sixteen, with blond hair and sparkling blue eyes who had come to America less than a year ago to live with her married sister. Her parents hoped she’d do as well as Agnes had, find a suitable husband and a good life here. She had a job in one of the sweatshops, where she would have earned enough to pay Agnes and her husband, Lars, for her keep, but not much more. Sarah vaguely recalled Agnes’s concern for her.

“You were worried about her, weren’t you?”

Agnes nodded, shuddering under a fresh onslaught of tears. “She would not listen. She would not stay home like a good girl. She was only sixteen…” Once again, the tears choked her, and Sarah had to wait, her own eyes

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