by Melissa Lenhardt
“I’ll have some fresh ones on the morrow.”
I pulled on my gloves and donned a slouch hat. “I do not know when I will be back.”
“No, no. O’ course. Part of the job, idin’t? Not knowin’ where you’ll be, what you’ll be doin’. Hard on a woman.”
“No harder than on a man, I assure you.”
“O’ course.” He paused. “It’s jus’, my costs don’t change if you don’t show, you see.”
I stared at him beneath the brim of my hat. “I’m quite sure I’m not the only one who pays for your services.”
“No.” He drawled the word out into three syllables while his small, calculating eyes appraised me. “But you pay the best.”
The resurrection man was short, with a broad chest and dirty muscular arms no amount of scrubbing could clean. If his other clients knew he allowed me, a woman, use of his services, they would find another man to do their dirty work. It would be easy enough. Resurrection men were thick on the ground in 1871. If you knew where to look. But, Jonasz Golik was the only one with a dissection room for my use, a female doctor who overpaid for the privilege.
I buttoned my cloak at the neck. “How much?”
“That is absurd.”
“Is it? What’ud your fancy patients in Washington Square think o’ your activities, Dr. Bennett?”
They should be thankful I was constantly learning, staying abreast of new discoveries in anatomy and medical science, practicing difficult surgeries on corpses instead of taking risks with their own lives. The voices of the few that might take this generous view of my nocturnal activities would be drowned out by the outrage of my crime, by the disgust at a woman carving up naked bodies—of men—in the dark. It was unnatural, an affront to everything feminine and fine. My male colleagues, though participating in the same activities, would be the loudest critics. They would ruin my reputation and practice with unalloyed glee. Every respectable door would close to me. I shoved all the money I had into Golik’s hand.
“How did you learn my name?”
His grin widened as he counted the money, which was more than double his fee. “I keep my ears open. There ain’t many of you, are there?”
“No. There are not.”
Despite the thick layer of snow on the ground, I walked home, as I did every night, hoping this might be the day I could banish death’s smell from my senses completely. Death followed me like a determined enemy, dogging my steps, clutching at the hem of my cloak, pushing me forward, away from memories best left on the charred, desolate battlefields of my past.
I lengthened my stride, straightened my shoulders, and walked with the masculine purpose I learned masquerading as a young male orderly in the war. Walking alone in nighttime New York City was risky for a man, but lethal for a woman, and my disguise relied as much on attitude as it did darkness. The gun I grasped in my pocket helped.
In the early hours of this February morning, the streets were bare of the libertines who nightly stumbled from the whorehouses on Twenty-Seventh Street back to their mansions on Fifth Avenue and the robbers out to accost them. On a clear night, in my beaten Union slouch hat, worn oilcloth cloak, and scuffed boots, I was no thief’s idea of a good mark. That night, though, the snow was too deep and the air too cold for business to be lucrative. Occasionally, the tip of a cigar or cigarette would burn in the shadows of an alley or a darkened doorway. I kept my eyes forward and my step determined. I had turned my mind to how to disentangle myself from Jonaz Golik when I heard the humming.
The sound was muffled by the snow, but the crunch of footsteps was not. I paused, turned my head, and listened. The unhurried tread and humming stopped. I walked on straining to hear over my heartbeat pounding in my ears. When the humming resumed, louder, I turned the corner and ran into an alley.
I leaned against the wall and, with a shaking hand, pulled the gun from my pocket. I was three blocks from home, on a deserted side street whose gaslights had been extinguished by the lamplighter in anticipation of dawn.
I closed my eyes and told myself my imagination was running away with me. The night was quiet, save the distant sound of a carriage. I inhaled, gripped my gun tighter, and edged to the end of the alley to peek around the corner. The street was silent and empty. I collapsed against the wall with relief, chastised my overactive mind, and pocketed my gun. I stepped out of the alley and hurried toward the light on the bisecting street.
By the time I registered the sound and movement behind me, the man was upon me, driving me into the wall. My face slammed against the rough brick. A blinding pain shot through my right temple, and I cried out as he pressed his body against my back. The cold blade of a knife rested beneath my jaw.
His free hand forced its way between my body and the wall, searching for the wallet he expected in the inner pocket. When he felt the mound of my breast, his hand stopped and he went completely still. “Well, well. What do we have here?” His voice was pleasant, as if we were meeting in a drawing room instead of a dark alley.
“Please. I have money,” I lied. My voice sounded far away, lost amid the roaring in my ears and my jagged breath.
He laughed. My shirt ripped as if made of paper. His calloused hand worked beneath the top of my corset and found my bare breast. I shut my eyes and whimpered with a combination of mortification, disgust, and terror.
His breathing quickened as he fondled my breast. When I sobbed, he shushed me, as if quieting a recalcitrant child. My knees gave way. My gun, heavy in my pocket, knocked against my thigh. I opened my eyes.
I blinked away the blood that dripped in my right eye while my left eye tried in vain to see my assailant. The darkness of the street helped camouflage his features, though nothing could mask his purr of desire or the erection he rubbed against my bottom. I squeezed away my tears and swallowed the bile that rose in my throat at the thought of what this man intended to do to me. My hand slid into my pocket and grasped the smooth wooden handle of my gun. Using every ounce of strength, I pulled the hammer back, sobbing again to mask the sound.
The knife under my jaw bit into my skin. “We’re goin’ ta the alley. Scream ’n I’ll slit your throat.”
When he pulled me from the wall, I pointed the gun at the ground between us, closed my eyes, and pulled the trigger. The shot cracked through the snow-muffled silence and echoed, along with the man’s screams, between the houses. He released me and I ran toward a carriage passing out of sight on the avenue ahead.
As I rounded the corner I glanced over my shoulder to see if my assailant followed and ran straight into a man. I screamed and tried to pull out of the strong grip that held me.
I looked up into the face of my oldest friend. “James?” I threw myself into his arms, heedless of the blood running down my face and neck.
He held me at arm’s length and gaped at the blood on his coat. “What happened? Whose blood is this?”
I held tightly to James. “He … I … tried to r—” I pointed a shaking finger down the darkened street.
James steered me toward the carriage and helped me through the open door. “Wait here.”
“Don’t. He has a knife.”
He patted my knee, glancing at my chest and away. “I’ll be fine.”
I pulled my cloak over my bare bosom and when I looked up, James was gone.
He seemed to be gone forever, but it was probably no more than a few minutes. He climbed in and the carriage started moving before he sat down.
He placed my forgotten medical bag and slouch hat on the seat next to me. “He was gone. There was blood on the snow. Too much to be yours.”
“I think I shot him in the foot.”
I trembled, pulled my cloak tighter, and avoided James’s eyes. I was afraid I would see judgment and accusation there. He didn’t disappoint me.
“Catherine, you are a stupid woman, walking the streets alone at night. Do you honestly think your disguise works?”
My terror turned to anger. “It did work. He didn’t know I was a woman until he searched my coat and—”
“And, what? Felt your breast?”
I clenched my jaw, looked out the carriage window, and forced myself not to cry.
“Christ, Catherine! What are you doing walking alone at this hour? Where have you been?”
“It’s none of your business, James.”
“None of my business,” he echoed. “I suppose it won’t be my business until I’m called on to identify your dead body one morning.”
Against my will, my body shuddered. I hugged myself tighter in an effort to stave them off.
James pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me. “Did you see him?” His voice had lost some of its gruffness, though not all.
I pressed the snowy white linen to my eyebrow and winced. It would need to be sutured. The cut on my neck was merely a scratch. I shook my head.
My assailant’s laugh echoed through my head.
“Catherine, are you listening to me?”
My eyes focused on my friend. “What?”
The carriage turned the corner onto my street. James tensed and swore under his breath. “Keep your eyes forward and your head down.”
Two men stood on the stoop of my house. One man knocked on the door while the other watched up and down the street. Before he could catch my eye through the carriage window or see my face, I gazed down.
“Are those policemen?” I asked in an undertone.
My maid, Maureen, greeted the policemen with as much warmth as I expected. “Yes? What da ya want?” I could hear her loud, Irish brogue from the carriage. The rest of the conversation was lost as we drove away.
“Where have you been?” James asked again.
“Were you searching for me?”
“Why? James, what is going on?”
“You don’t know?”
“Of course I don’t know.”
“George Langton is dead.”
For a moment, I forgot about my brush with death. “What happened? He was healthy as an ox last time I saw him.”
“Did you know him well?”
I shook my head. “Only professionally. We spoke briefly, last night, in fact. What does— ” I stopped. James’s jaw tensed, a mannerism I well knew was his attempt to hold in anger. “Please, tell me what is going on.”
“Were you having an affair with George Langton?” The words came out through gritted teeth.
“What? No! Good God, James. Why would you ask me such a thing?”
He stared out the carriage window.
It was answer enough. Indignation straightened my shoulders. “I can’t believe you would say such a thing after—” I swallowed. I didn’t want to think about what had happened to me, let alone mention it, but that James was so obtuse to my feelings infuriated me and pushed my lingering terror aside.
“Beatrice Langton has accused you of murdering her husband.”
The hand pressing the handkerchief to my brow fell to my lap. “What?”
“She said you were having an affair and when George ended it, you killed him.” I
laughed. “Don’t be absurd.”
James did not answer, nor did he laugh.
“How did he die?”
“He was beaten with a fireplace poker.”
“Heavens. Poor George.”
“George? You knew him well enough to call him by his Christian name?”
“A man is murdered, and I am attacked on the street, and this is what upsets you?”
When James remained silent I said, “He was a nice man. Intelligent. He wanted to be a doctor but his father had other plans. He and I would speak, sometimes, about medicine. Theories, new discoveries. He thought it brilliant, all I had achieved. He treated me and my profession with respect, unlike most men I know.” I hoped James understood the veiled barb, but he was too obsessed up with the idea I had been fornicating with George Langton to catch it.
“Beatrice Langton has numerous servants who confirm your affair.”
“They are lying. I am the family doctor—her doctor—nothing more.”
James stared at me with eyes as familiar to me as my own. I could see the scar above his left eyebrow, courtesy of a rock I threw at him during a rather fiery argument we had when we were six years old.
When he remained silent, I understood. James believed the accusation of the affair because I’d had one before, with him. My voice rose. “My God. You believe her, don’t you?”
The realization pierced my soul. For how many years had he been gazing at me through untrusting eyes? Was he angry at my supposed loss of morals or with the idea I had chosen to share myself with someone besides him?
“Do you truly believe I would be so angry and distraught over a man that I would bludgeon him to death? I am a doctor, James. I could never intentionally kill someone. I would hope, after what we have been to each other, you would at least trust that.”
“You shot that man.”
“To scare him off, nothing more. He wanted to rape me!”
The word shocked him. Civilized society preferred their euphemisms for such things: violate, depredate, insult. But, the word had the effect I wanted; it jolted him, briefly, out of his selfish musings. With genuine contrition he said, “Of course you didn’t kill Langton. That’s why I came searching for you. The police have been searching for you all night.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
James moved next to me and took my hand. My doctor’s bag was wedged between us. “You were the last person to see him alive. Did anyone see you leave?”
“No. I let myself out through the front door. There was a dinner party going on. Surely he returned to the party.”
“I was there. He did not.”
“There must be other suspects. Everyone at the dinner party, the servants.”
“Everyone at the dinner party was a prominent New York citizen. You are the focus.”
“I am the scapegoat, you mean.”
“You know how corrupt the police are. It will cost Beatrice a pittance to get you arrested and thrown into jail. With her father’s judicial connections, a conviction is almost assured.”
“I did not kill Langton.” I turned to the window and we rode in silence for a few minutes. James released my hand.
“You know if you had married me like any right-thinking woman would have done, neither of us would be in this situation.”
“You know if you had not asked—no, expected—me to give up medicine, I would have.”
We stared out our respective windows, nursing past disappointments and present resentments. I wanted someone to love me because of my mind and accomplishments, not despite them.
I had long since resigned myself to being alone. But being alone had a price. I was unprotected. My father was dead and I had no family in America, save my maid, Maureen, and James, who worked for Langton’s lawyers. My English relations would distance themselves as far from me as possible. James’s father, Ezra Kline, was in Saint Louis. He would do what he could to help, but a former professor at Syracuse Medical College had no influence with the police or courts. I tried to imagine what advice he, my mentor, would give in this situation and couldn’t. The predicament was so absurd as to be unreal. James and Ezra would do what they could, but it would not be much. I could not fight Beatrice Langton and her family alone.
“What should I do?”
“You must leave town.”
“No, James. This whole situation is absurd. I did not kill Langton and I will not leave town as if I’m guilty.”
“You would rather go to the gallows?”
“I have patients who need me. Who rely on me. And, there’s Maureen. I cannot leave her.”
“I am trying to help you, Catherine.”
“By encouraging me to act guilty for a crime I did not commit? How is that helping me, James?”
“Do you have an alibi? Can you attest to where you’ve been?”
I thought of Jonaz Golik’s beady little eyes and outstretched hand and knew it for a devastating alibi.
James exhaled sharply. “Stay or leave, you will be accused. What will your patients think? How many of them will stand by you?”
I closed my eyes and shook my head. The only patients who would support me would be the whores I tended on Twenty-Seventh Street. Their support would ruin my practice as much as the accusations against me.
“Will you leave?”
James lifted his fist and brought it down on his thigh. “Your stubbornness will be your downfall, Catherine.”
“Do you want to help me, James?”
“However I can.”
“Then talk to Beatrice Langton. Convince her I didn’t kill her husband.”
“She knows we are lifelong friends. I don’t know she’ll listen to me.”
“You must try. Please. I’ve worked too hard to lose my life and career over something I did not do.”
James nodded. “I will try. What will you do? You cannot return home.”
“I will stay with a friend.”
“They’ll be checking with your friends.”
I smiled and despite having my life upended in the last ten minutes, almost laughed. “Tell the driver to take me to Twenty-Seventh Street.”
James balked. “Catherine, you cannot be serious.”
“No one knows of my clients there. Not even Maureen. Who would expect the doctor of choice for New York’s society women of hiding in a brothel?”
He shook his head. “No one.”
“I will wait there until tomorrow night. If I don’t hear from you, I will return to my home.” I grasped James’s hand. “I know you haven’t always agreed with my choice of profession, but I have worked so very hard to be where I am. I do not want to lose it. I am counting on you to save me.”
A flicker of guilt darkened his expression and was gone. He patted my hand. “Rest assured, I will do whatever I can.