They were driving sheep through the middle of town again. The office window was open and Sebastian Becker could hear them from his desk. All through the afternoon Oakes, the bookkeeper, had been finding reasons to look down into the street. Now he had another.
Sebastian laid down his pen and tilted back his chair. His eyes hurt. He yawned and stretched and pressed the heels of his palms into them and wondered, not for the first time, whether he needed to be checked out for eyeglasses.
Then he realized what he was doing, and cut the yawn short as best he could.
He said, “Are you expecting someone, Mister Oakes?”
Oakes looked back into the office. “Only the boy with the bag from New York,” he said.
“The boy’s been and gone,” Sebastian said. “There was nothing that can’t wait until Monday.”
Oakes hesitated for a moment and then moved out of the slanting sunlight and away from the window. There were at least half a dozen other desks in the room, none occupied, but all of them piled high with paperwork. One chair had a waistcoat slung over the back of it. Another, a gun belt.
As Sebastian lifted his pen again, Oakes gathered together some ledgers and moved them from one place to another. The sheep were almost out of earshot now, their eerie half-human cries pursued by the impatient clanging of an obstructed streetcar. Oakes began to straighten chairs. Despite Sebastian’s permission, he seemed reluctant to leave.
“Mister Oakes . . .” Sebastian prompted him.
Oakes said, “Mister Bearce has said he’s unhappy with my work.”
“We’ll find some way to change his mind,” Sebastian said. “On Monday. Go home, Mister Oakes.”
“If you’re certain . . .” Oakes said, fishing for further reassurance. But Sebastian just looked at him, so he went.
Alone now and with one less distraction, Sebastian tried to return his attention to the words on the page. Despite having left the room, Oakes was still somewhere in the suite of offices. Sebastian could hear him moving around, bothering someone else, finding a few last things to do . . . almost as if the building might absorb his dedication, and then whisper of it to the absent Mr. Bearce.
The General Business letter was a report on the ongoing work of the agency. Compiled every two weeks and sent to George Bangs in New York City, it covered all the investigations that were under way and any new business that might have come in. Bangs would draw together information from all the agency offices and then deliver his summary to the Pinkerton brothers.
Sebastian had been an assistant superintendent for just over a month. The paperwork called for skills he could muster but didn’t enjoy using. It was a warm Saturday afternoon, and he and most of Philadelphia were in a weekend mood. There was also the distraction of the telegraph message that he’d tucked under the corner of his blotter. Personal to him, it caught his eye every now and again.
When the letter was finished, he dropped the handwritten pages into the out-tray for the stenographers and reached for his coat from the back of his chair. He was stiff from sitting, and his eyes ached from the sustained concentration.
Sebastian Becker was a man in his early forties. He had not yet gone to seed, and some thought him handsome—his wife, for one. When he looked in a mirror, what he mostly saw was the face of his father coming through. That, and some of the traces of old pain. Intending no offense to his late father, he didn’t see handsome at all.
He folded the telegraph message and slipped it into his pocket. Then he opened his desk drawer, took out a double-action Bulldog police revolver, and checked and spun its chambers before stowing it inside his jacket.
“Is there a problem, Mister Becker?”
He turned around. Oakes was watching him from the doorway, pulling on his own coat as he stood there.
“No problem, Mister Oakes,” Sebastian said. He closed the window and then followed Oakes out of the office.
As they descended the building’s stairway together, Oakes said, “Any plans for the Sunday, sir?”
“I promised to take the Mrs. and her sister out to Willow Grove,” Sebastian said. “She’s heard that Sousa’s conducting in the park.”
“Hardly the music for ladies, I wouldn’t have thought.”
“Mrs. Becker can be an unusual woman.”
The night janitor was waiting by the metal gates. He’d closed up the building and was letting the last few people out in ones and twos. He was a veteran, and never spoke. It was said that cannon fire had made him simple.
Out on Chestnut Street and raising his voice as the metal slid, Oakes said, “Will you take the boy?”
And Becker said, “I rather think we will.”
A streetcar ride and a ten-minute walk took Sebastian home. Home was in a narrow, tree-lined alley just off a pleasant square, a neatly pointed brick row house with shutters on its windows and a small garden to the rear. Before he let himself in, he checked around to see if anyone was observing. A nag was pulling a brewery wagon across the end of the alley, and that was about all.
It was a quiet neighborhood, and strangers would stand out. Come eight o’clock, you’d hear the banging of the shutters, and by nine, all would be dark. But that was the life he’d been looking for.
They’d lived here a month. The rent was a stretch even on a superintendent’s pay, but it was worth it for him to know that his family was secure. When they’d made the move after the rise in his fortunes, he’d had no idea how good the timing of it was. Their old Lehigh Avenue apartment had been right in the heart of the Irish quarter, and in the light of that morning’s news it would have been no safe place to remain.
As he closed the door behind him, his wife’s sister was crossing the hallway with an armful of cut flowers from the garden.
“Good evening, Sebastian,” she said.
“Hello, Frances,” he said. Before he’d finished speaking, the ceiling above their heads began to shiver with the lowest bass notes of a scale from a tenor tuba.
Becker had called his wife an unusual woman. In most respects she was not. She was slight, dark-eyed, pale and freckled and elegantly pretty —all attractive features, but none of them in any way startling or radical. What was uncommon was to find such a woman spending at least twenty minutes of each day in practice on a four-valve euphonium, entirely for her own enjoyment.
He followed the sound up the stairs to the sitting room at the back of the house. When he pushed open the door, there she was. She’d set up her chair and music stand by the window. Against the late sun, not just the brass of the instrument but the entirety of her shone like gold. The floor vibrated like a deck and the very air shook when the low notes sounded. Their son was at her feet, propped on his elbows, oblivious to everything but the magazine he was looking at.
Movement caught her eye, and she saw him. Without missing a beat, she raised her eyebrows in a greeting. Sebastian managed a smile, and wondered at the patience of their new neighbors. They’d discussed the possibility of occasional disturbance with them, of course. Both neighbors had thanked them for their thoughtfulness and insisted that they would not mind. But after a certain amount of Lohengrin, anyone could start to regret being quite so agreeable.
Robert was scrambling to his feet, his dime novel forgotten. He’d seen his father. He came running toward Sebastian and, avoiding his offered embrace, punched him in the leg as hard as he could before slithering by and away. Sebastian could hear Frances calling after him as he scuttled down the stairs.
Elisabeth lowered her euphonium and laid it down with care, before crossing the room to her husband.
“What’s the matter with him?” Sebastian said.
“He’d convinced himself you were going to be early,” Elisabeth said. “That’s all.”
“I never said I would.”
She rose on tiptoe to give Sebastian a kiss of greeting, steadying herself with a hand against his chest. He sensed her sudden tension as she became aware of the Bulldog revolver under his coat, even though her outward attitude showed no change.
“What’s wrong?” she said, dropping back to her usual height.
“I thought English policemen didn’t like to carry guns.”
“I’m no longer a policeman, and this isn’t England.”
“Is someone looking for you?”
He thought about showing her the telegraph message, and decided against it.
“Stop worrying,” he said. “It’s only a precaution.”
“Against what? Can we still go out?”
From most of the women he’d ever known, such a question would have been thrown down as a challenge or with a pout. But not from
“We can still go out,” he said.
After church the next day, and in their summer Sunday best, Sebastian and his family boarded a trolley to the park at Willow Grove. He wore his dark suit and a straw boater. The women wore long, light dresses and Robert a white sailor suit. In deference to Elisabeth’s worries, Sebastian had hidden the revolver in the waistband of his pants. He’d tucked it right around in the small of his back so that she wouldn’t be aware of it, even if the movement of the trolley should throw them together. He hadn’t anticipated its effect in church, where sitting in the hard pew had made the service into an even greater torture than usual.
But he expected no trouble today. Today he was just a man with his family, one face in a very big crowd. The park at Willow Grove had been opened by the Rapid Transit Company to give people a reason to ride on their line, and its model of free concerts and fairground entertainment was being imitated in cities all over the nation. Brooklyn had its Steeplechase Park, Salt Lake City its church-run Saltair. But Willow Grove, Philadelphia’s Fairyland, was ahead of them all. Sousa, the March King, had brought his band to play there two years before, and now his visits were becoming an annual fixture.
Elisabeth loved the sound of a marching band. She always said that she’d inherited the love from her maternal grandfather, an old soldier who would forget everything when he heard one in the street. He would follow the musicians until they stopped playing, whereupon he’d discover himself lost in some unfamiliar part of town and unable to find his way home.
At the terminal station, they moved with the crowd through a tunnel under the tracks to emerge into the park. Frances took the boy off toward the midway while Elisabeth took Sebastian’s arm, and together they crossed to the pavilion of music. Elisabeth’s sister was good with the child, there was no doubting that. She lived with them for that very reason, and earned her keep as his tutor. He did not attend any school.
Sebastian found his son difficult to fathom. He had not begun to speak until he was five, and now cared for little other than his dime novels. Sebastian had forbidden them at first, thinking them inappropriate. But Robert’s interests were not engaged by anything else. He was a shy boy, indifferent to friendships or learning unless it was a subject that drew him. In the end, Elisabeth had allowed him one new dime novel every two weeks. He’d go down to the newsstand with Frances and could take anything up to an hour over his choice. He saved them, reread them, could recite entire passages by heart. Frank Reade, Deadwood Dick, Buffalo Bill. He could give you tables of contents with page numbers, list all the back-page ads for any issue. And yet a schoolteacher, whose name they’d agreed would never again be spoken in their house, had once tried to persuade them that their son might be an imbecile.
The band was playing “The Belle of Chicago” as Sebastian and Elisabeth took their seats. Sebastian cared little for music of any kind, but he cared for Elisabeth and as she watched the band, his eyes were on her. At thirty-one, she was his junior by a number of years.
After a while, she became aware of his attention.
“What’s the matter?” she said.
“You’re bored, aren’t you?”
“How could I be?”
She smiled and looked toward the stage, where the forty members of the Sousa orchestra were turning pages and making ready to strike up again. She tilted her chin up a little to catch a cooling breeze that came and went in a moment, and Sebastian’s heart seemed to swell in his chest.
She said, “Daddy once told me he’d buy me an orchestra to play in.”
“The price was that I’d have to learn the cello instead. But that was before he lost his fortune.”
That was typical of Elisabeth’s father. When her family had money they’d lived in one of the big houses north of Market Street. Not quite the “best” district, North of Market was where the new money settled. Elisabeth had spent most of her childhood in a mansion on North Sixteenth Street, just below Columbia. Their neighbors had included families like the Stetsons and the Gimbels.
Despite his own humble background, her father had been a terrific snob, and even financial ruin hadn’t managed to knock any of that out of him. He’d disapproved of Sebastian—too old for Elisabeth, an immigrant, a lapsed Catholic with a Jew name, a paid-by-the-hour Pinkerton Man—and disapproved of him still. Only Frances passed between the two households, and brought them whatever news there was.
Until her teenage years, Elisabeth had been a princess of the nouveau riche. She’d owned several horses and had a servant of her own. She’d had Sebastian walk her by their old mansion once. He’d gazed at it in awe, while she gripped his arm and looked the other way. It had been quite something.
Now he said, “What do you miss most?”
“I’m the richest woman in town,” she said. “There’s nothing to miss.”
The band played “Liberty Bell.” Men tapped their feet, and women waved their programs in time. When it ended, Sousa turned and bowed to the applause. He was a slight, balding and bearded figure in pince- nez. As this was a Sunday concert, he wore a white uniform and gloves.
Joining in the applause, Elisabeth leaned over to Sebastian and said, “I wish you could tell me more.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” Sebastian said.
“It’s not for my sake,” she said, “it’s for Frances and for Robert. How can I warn them if I know nothing at all?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Kingdom of Bones by Stephen Gallagher. Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Gallagher. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.