Victoria Thompson

Murder on Washington Square

The fourth book in the Gaslight Mysteries series, 2002

To my beautiful daughter Ellen and her new husband Dave.

May all your dreams come true.


SARAH OPENED THE DOOR TO FIND A RAGGED LITTLE BOY on her front stoop. He was fidgeting from one grubby bare foot to the other, either impatient or nervous. He clutched a folded piece of paper to his sunken chest and glared up at her suspiciously.

“You Mrs. Brandt?” he demanded.

“Yes, I am,” she replied, eyeing him cautiously. He might be young in years, but she knew he was as dangerous as a serpent. Obviously, he was a street Arab, one of the hundreds of homeless children who lived on the streets, doing whatever was necessary to stay alive. What on earth did he want and how did he know her name?

“Here,” he said, thrusting the paper at her.

She took it gingerly, still watching him with one eye while she unfolded it. Someone needing her services as a midwife must have hired the boy to fetch her. Usually a family member or a neighbor came to tell her a woman’s time had come, but perhaps they’d had no one to send.

“Dear Mrs. Brandt,” the note read in a careful, masculine hand. “I find myself in need of some professional advice from you on behalf of a lady of my acquaintance. However, this is a matter of some delicacy, and I would prefer that my mother not be made aware of it. Would you be so kind as to meet me this evening at five o’clock in Washington Square near the hanging tree?” The note was signed, “Your obedient servant, Nelson Ellsworth.”

Nelson lived next door to her with his elderly mother. Mrs. Ellsworth had become one of Sarah’s dearest friends, in spite of the difference in their ages. She hardly knew Nelson, however, since he was so seldom at home. According to Mrs. Ellsworth, he spent long hours working at the bank. He hoped to become a vice president soon.

“You gotta answer,” the boy informed her, still dancing from one dirty foot to the other. His clothes were filthy, too, and his body was skeletally thin. Every instinct demanded that she take him inside and give him a hot meal and clean clothes and a warm bed. She’d be a fool to do so, though. Once in her house, he’d probably steal everything of value and vanish.

“Please tell the gentleman that I said yes,” she told the boy.

“No, you gotta write it! He won’t pay if you don’t write it, and he promised me a nickel!” he cried, his small body fairly quivering with urgency.

She should have known Nelson would be careful. He wasn’t one to take chances, even with five cents. The boy could simply throw the paper away and return whatever message he wanted to if Nelson hadn’t required a written reply.

“Just a moment.” Sarah carefully closed the door, resisting the urge to lock it. She couldn’t bring herself to insult the boy that much, no matter how little she trusted him.

Her front room had been converted into a medical office when her physician husband had conducted his practice there. Since his death, Sarah used it to see the patients who were able to come to her. She went to her desk and found a pencil.

“I would be happy to meet with you, unless I am on a call,” she wrote and signed her name. Babies arrived when they wished, and Sarah could never make a firm appointment with anyone.

She folded the paper again as she made her way back to the front door. This whole thing was very puzzling. There was only one reason someone would require her professional opinion, and Nelson Ellsworth was not only a male but a bachelor, too. In fact, according to his mother, he did not even have any lady friends. Which meant that his mother probably didn’t know him nearly as well as she thought!

The boy still stood on the porch, looking even more unhappy than he had before. She held out the paper, and he snatched it from her fingers. In that instant, their eyes met, and Sarah saw him for the child that he was. He couldn’t have been more than seven or eight, and she wondered what evil things he had been forced to do to stay alive this long. Her heart ached with a longing she refused to identify.

“If you ever need help…” she began, ignoring all common sense. But her effort was wasted. The boy was gone, running down the street as fast as his skinny legs could carry him, off to find Nelson Ellsworth and earn his nickel.

Sarah sighed. It was just as well. What had she been thinking to invite a child like that to visit her? She smiled at the thought of what her friend Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy would have to say about her sentimental feelings for a street urchin. He would be horrified and wouldn’t hesitate to let her know it. When she might have an opportunity to share those feelings, however, she couldn’t imagine. She hadn’t seen Malloy for several weeks, not since he’d taken his son Brian home from the hospital.

Brian had been born with a club foot, but a surgeon Sarah knew had operated on him to correct it. The cast might even be off by now. Sarah decided she might actually be brazen enough to pay the child a visit, just to see how he was doing. She’d have to be careful not to go when Malloy might be home, of course. She wouldn’t want him or Malloy’s mother to think she was using his child as an excuse to see him. Especially Malloy’s mother, who hated the sight of her. Besides, she knew if she visited Brian, Malloy would feel obligated to come by and thank her later.

Washington Square was quiet that evening as Sarah made her way through the Greenwich Village streets toward it. The nurses with their baby buggies were gone, the old men playing chess and checkers and the respectable ladies taking the air had all retired to their homes for supper. Soon night would fall, and the Square would fill again, but with an entirely different class of people. In the darkness, prostitutes would ply their trade, and pickpockets and other thieves would gather to prey on the customers the women would attract. This time was the twilight of the Square, between the respectable and the dissolute, when a gentleman and a lady could meet without attracting too much attention.

As always when she was here, Sarah’s gaze instinctively found the house where she had been raised. It sat on the east side of the Square, perched like a middle-aged woman who still bore signs of her previous beauty but who was beginning to show the inevitable effects of age. Sarah knew the place had become a boardinghouse after her parents sold it. The Deckers had moved uptown to escape the rising tide of immigrants whose lodgings were encroaching the Square on the south side. But it would always be her home, and she felt a twinge of sadness for happy times now gone forever.

Nelson Ellsworth sat stiffly on a bench near the giant elm tree that was said to have been used as a hanging tree in the early part of the century. Beyond him, across the expanse of green grass, the large fountain sparkled in the fading sunlight. Put there to provide water for thirsty horses, it also provided an oasis of beauty amid the harsh brick and mortar of the city. Sarah’s bedroom window had looked out on the fountain, and she’d spent many hours as a young girl watching it.

Nelson rose as soon as he saw Sarah. He wore a tailored suit that was still neat even after a day of work, and his shirt and tie were immaculate. Still a young man, he was already beginning to stoop from hours spent over a

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