Victoria Thompson

Murder On Astor Place

The first book in the Gaslight Mysteries series, 1999

To my agent Nancy Yost, who never stopped

believing and who always makes me laugh, even

when the news is bad. And to my dear husband

Jim, who eased the load so I’d have the time and

energy to write this.


AT FIRST SARAH THOUGHT THE TINKLING OF THE bell was part of her dream. It sounded so sweet and soothing, and she was following it across a sunlit meadow, as if it were a golden butterfly. But then the pounding started, and she knew this wasn’t a dream at all. Dragging herself away from the meadow and out of the depths of sleep, she forced her reluctant eyelids open. Sure enough, someone was pounding on her office door.

“Hold your horses,” she muttered as she threw off her covers. The night air was chilly for early April, and Sarah recalled the freak storm that had struck yesterday, dropping several inches of snow on the city. Shivering, she felt around in the dark for her slippers but failed to locate them. Padding barefoot through the darkness toward where she knew the bedroom door to be, she snatched her robe from the foot of the bed and shrugged into it as she went. “Coming!” she called, wondering if whoever was knocking could hear her over the racket he was making.

What she really wanted to say was, “Calm down! Babies usually take their own sweet time, so there probably isn’t any rush.” In the three years she’d been delivering babies for a living, Sarah could count on the fingers of one hand the times that had truly been an emergency. Usually those were the cases where she was summoned to some hovel on the Lower East Side to a woman too poor to pay her fee but whose delivery had gone horribly wrong. Left with no choice, the family summoned her in the often-vain hope that she would be able to save either the mother or the child.

Shaking off the last vestiges of sleep as she moved through the frigid front room of her flat, which also served as her office, Sarah offered a silent prayer that this wasn’t one of those calls. The gaslights on the street outside reflecting off the newly fallen snow cast enough light through her curtained windows that she was able to pick her way through the room without colliding with any of her equipment.

“Who’s there?” she called when she reached the front door. A woman living alone in New York City couldn’t be too careful, even if she lived in the relatively civilized section known as Greenwich Village.

“It’s Ham Fisher. I just started boarding with Mrs. Higgins. It’s her time, and they sent me to-”

“I’ll be right there. Just give me a minute.” Sarah let herself feel some relief as she hurried back to her bedroom to dress. Mrs. Higgins should be an easy case, barring some unforeseen complication. This would be her sixth child, and her other births had gone easily. Sarah herself had delivered number five not quite two years ago. And she didn’t have to go into the Lower East Side in the middle of the night, where any woman walking on the street after dark would automatically be considered a prostitute, even if she had an escort. She assumed Ham had been chosen for his ability to ensure her safe arrival, but she would have needed more than one bodyguard to protect her over among the tenements.

Tonight, however, she’d only have to go a few blocks through the Village to Mrs. Higgins’s boardinghouse, which was a mercy because the snow was still deep in places. Who, Sarah wondered idly, would do the cooking for the lodgers while Mrs. Higgins was laid up? Sarah would have to be very firm about making sure the new mother didn’t get up and back to work too soon, no matter what the temptation. Six children in less than ten years took a toll, and if Sarah couldn’t prevent the children from being conceived, she could at least make sure the mother’s health didn’t suffer any more than necessary.

Hastily, as much from the cold as from the urgency of her mission, Sarah put on the requisite undergarments and what she considered her “birthing clothes”-her oldest skirt and shirtwaist, which couldn’t be ruined by the stray spatter of blood or whatever other bodily fluids might be splashing around during the birthing process. When she was ready, just a few short minutes later, she threw her heavy cape over her shoulders to protect her from the wintry winds and grabbed her medical bag. Tom’s medical bag, that is. The one she’d given him when he officially became a doctor. The one still engraved with his name, Dr. Thomas Brandt. She always felt close to him when she carried it. Ruthlessly banishing the memories, she hurried out the door.

Ham Fisher was waiting for her. He was a strapping youth with a pockmarked face, a mouthful of bucked teeth and eyes that were, at the moment, unnaturally wide with terror. “We gotta hurry, Mrs. Brandt.” As it did most men, the mere hint that a baby might be on the way had sent him into a panic.

Sarah knew it was useless to argue with him. “Of course,” she said and followed as he started off at a brisk trot. At least the storm was over, and the clouds had cleared. The snow in the street had turned to slush where wagon wheels and horses’ hooves had passed but the sidewalk was still ankle deep, except where other footsteps had smashed it down. Sarah felt the dampness already seeping through her boots, and she followed carefully in the trail Ham was blazing.

She’d only gone a few steps when she heard a window being raised in the house next door to hers, and a familiar voice called, “Mrs. Brandt, is that you?”

“Yes, Mrs. Elsworth,” Sarah called back, smiling because she knew it was too dark for Mrs. Elsworth to see her amusement. She should have known she couldn’t slip away without her neighbor noticing, even if it was the middle of the night. Sometimes she wondered if the old woman ever slept at all.

“Oh, my, is a baby coming on a terrible night like this?”

“That’s right!” Sarah hoped all this shouting wouldn’t wake the entire neighborhood. “I’ve got to be on my way,” she added, seeing Ham Fisher had stopped to wait for her but with obvious impatience.

“Oh, dear, and here it is, the tenth day after the new moon. You know what that means, don’t you? Anyone born on the tenth day after the new moon is bound to be restless and a wanderer. Do you think you could hold off the birth just one more day? No sense in dooming the poor child to a life of-”

“I’ll do my best, Mrs. Elsworth,” Sarah promised, shaking her head because she knew Mrs. Elsworth couldn’t see her disgust. The old woman had a superstition for every occasion. Sarah had heard literally hundreds of them in the years she’d lived next door, but Mrs. Elsworth was still surprising her with new ones all the time. There seemed to be an endless supply.

“Mrs. Brandt, please.” Ham entreated desperately.

“I’ll see you in the morning, Mrs. Elsworth,” Sarah called, hurrying to catch up with her escort, who had already set off again.

“I hope you’re carrying a pinch of salt to protect you from disaster, going out on a night like this!” Mrs. Elsworth shouted after her.

“Yes, I am!” Sarah lied without a trace of guilt.

When Ham realized, half a block away, that she couldn’t keep up with his pace, he slowed and waited for her, although his entire body fairly quivered with his eagerness to run. He pulled off his battered cap and ran long, bony fingers through his sleep-tousled hair instead.

“Who’s that?” another familiar voice called from the shadows across the deserted street. Ham looked up in

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