Time of Fog and Fire by Rhys Bowen is the 16th book in the Molly Murphy Mystery series where Molly's husband Daniel takes a secret service job in San Francisco, and Molly fears he is imminent danger and must travel across the country to help her husband (Available February 23, 2016).
Molly Murphy Sullivan's husband Daniel, a police captain in turn-of-the-century New York City, is in a precarious position. The new police commissioner wants him off the force altogether. So when Daniel’s offered an assignment from John Wilkie, head of the secret service, he’s eager to accept. Molly can’t draw any details of the assignment out of him, even where he’ll be working. But when she spots him in San Francisco during a movie news segment, she starts to wonder if he’s in even more danger than she had first believed. And then she receives a strange and cryptic letter from him, leading her to conclude that he wants her to join him in San Francisco. Molly knows that if Daniel’s turning to her rather than John Wilkie or his contacts in the police force, something must have gone terribly wrong. What can she do for him that the police can’t? Especially when she doesn’t even know what his assignment is? Embarking on a cross-country journey with her young son, Molly can’t fathom what’s in store for her, but she knows it might be dangerous―in fact, it might put all of their lives at risk.
New York City, March 1906
It had been an unsettled spring, both in the weather and in my life. We had experienced an early warm spell that encouraged blossoms and narcissus to appear, birds to chirp loudly in mating calls, and New Yorkers to cast off layers of clothing and emerge from hibernation. Even the beggars and crossing sweepers managed a smile and a cheeky reply for the odd coin. Then no sooner than March had come in like a lamb it turned into a lion, blasting us with frigid winds that stripped blossom from trees and then with snow that sent us all scuttling indoors again.
My own life had been just as unpredictable and unsettled as the weather. We had started the year with Daniel still recovering from a bullet wound, shot as he tried to stop a new and keen recruit from taking on that dreadful new Italian gang called the Cosa Nostra. Daniel had survived but it had cost the young recruit his life. To make things worse the current police commissioner did not like Daniel. He and his cronies at Tammany Hall found Daniel too straight for them, not willing to toe the party line, and not open to the occasional bribe. So I suspect they’d been looking for a way to get rid of him, which wasn’t easy as he was one of New York’s most respected police captains. But while he was out recovering from a bullet in his shoulder dark forces had been at work, trying to besmirch his name when he was not around to defend himself. Some unknown source had spread the rumor that Daniel had ordered the young recruit to go and arrest the boss of the Cosa Nostra—a foolhardy move, as he surrounded himself with more bodyguards than the emperor of China. The truth had been quite the opposite. Daniel had found out what the young man planned to do and rushed after him. Unfortunately Daniel couldn’t stop him in time and he had been shot and killed. Daniel had taken the second bullet himself, but survived. But now half the police force believed Daniel was to blame. My husband, as responsible and brave a man as you could ever meet, was desperately unhappy about this and unable to set things straight. Now, for the first time, he talked about resigning, about becoming a lawyer or going into politics as his mother had been suggesting. I hated to see him silent and brooding, picking at his meals, hardly noticing his young son. It had almost reached a stage when I was tempted to go down to that police headquarters myself and give them a piece of my mind.
Luckily it didn’t come to that because John Wilkie came back into our lives. As the wife of a police captain, I suppose I should have learned not to be surprised by any unexpected twists of fate. But opening the front door and finding John Wilkie on the doorstep certainly caused my jaw to drop. For one thing it’s not every day that the head of the U.S. Secret Service comes to visit, and for another, we had not parted on the best of terms the last time I had encountered him. When I found out he had used me as bait to catch my brother, who had come to America trying to raise money for the Irish Republican Brotherhood, I had not been able to contain my anger. The result had been my brother’s death, for which I blamed John Wilkie.
Mr. Wilkie seemed to have forgotten this unpleasant episode as I opened my front door onto our quiet little backwater called Patchin Place to see him standing there on a blustery March evening. Snowflakes swirled around him and it took me a second or two to recognize him, muffled as he was in a big red scarf.
“Good evening, Mrs. Sullivan,” he said, extending a gloved hand. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Mr. Wilkie,” I replied, not returning his smile. “This is an unexpected pleasure.”
“I hope I don’t call at an inopportune moment,” he said.
“Not at all. I take it this is not a social call on such a cold and miserable New York evening?”
He smiled then. His mouth was still hidden under the scarf but I saw his eyes smile. “I hoped for a quiet word with your husband. Is he home?”
“He is just finishing his dinner,” I said. “Won’t you come in and I’ll go and tell him you’re here.”
I had just closed the front door behind him when Daniel came out of the kitchen, wiping the corners of his mouth with his napkin. It had been Irish stew for dinner, Daniel’s favorite.
“Who was that at the front door, Molly?” he asked, then I saw his eyes register surprise. “Mr. Wilkie. This is an unexpected honor, sir. Let me help you off with your overcoat. And Molly, would you be good enough to take Mr. Wilkie’s gloves, hat, and scarf?”
We divested Mr. Wilkie of his outer garments.
“I’m afraid we’ve no fire in the front parlor so it will have to be the back parlor, which also serves as my study these days, now that all the bedrooms are occupied,” Daniel said as he led Mr. Wilkie down the hall.
John Wilkie smiled. “Of course. You need a nursery now, don’t you? You’ve had a child since I saw you last. Boy or girl?”
“A boy,” I said. “He’s eighteen months old now. We called him Liam, after my dead brother.”
I saw Daniel shoot me a warning look, but Mr. Wilkie seemed unaffected by my comment. Perhaps he had already forgotten how my brother died. Perhaps he didn’t care.
“Congratulations,” he said. “A fine son to start your family.”
“Can we offer you something to drink, Mr. Wilkie?” Daniel said as he paused to turn up the gaslight in the back parlor. “I believe I’ve still got decent whiskey left, or I’m sure Molly would be happy to make you coffee or tea.”
“I wouldn’t say no to the whiskey.”
“Then please take a seat near the fire and I’ll see what we can do,” Daniel said. He looked at me again. “Molly, could you bring us two glasses?”
That was indeed making it clear that I was not to be included in the conversation, especially since Mr. Wilkie said nothing as he pulled up a chair to the fire. Fair enough, I thought. The further I kept away from John Wilkie’s kind of business, the better. I went back to the kitchen, where Liam was protesting about sitting in his high chair when there was clearly company in the house, and Bridie, the young girl I had brought across from Ireland all those years ago, was starting to clear the table. She was currently living with us so that she could go to school in the city, and was proving to be a grand little helper.
“Leave those for now, Bridie love,” I said. “Could you take Liam out of his chair and get him ready for bed? Captain Sullivan has a visitor.”
She put down the plates she was stacking. “Come on, Liam,” she said. “We’re going to get you ready for bed.”
Liam let out a wail. “Mama,” he cried.
“Bedtime, young man,” I said firmly. “And if you’re good Bridie will tell you the Three Bears story and then Dada will come up to tuck you in.”
Bridie carried him upstairs, still protesting. But then she whispered something in his ear and he smiled at her. She was becoming quite the little mother, I thought. So grown-up. Ready to blossom into womanhood. I took two of our good glasses from the cupboard, wiped them clean, added a dish of cheese straws I’d baked the day before, and carried them through on a tray.
As I opened the door Daniel was saying, “I admit you’re not wrong about what your spies tell you and I think I might be wise to look for…”
Conversation was broken off as I came in. I placed the tray on Daniel’s desk. “Is there anything else I can get you before I go to put Liam to bed?” I asked.
“No, thank you. It’s very kind of you, Mrs. Sullivan,” Mr. Wilkie said.
“I’ll leave you then.” I went out and closed the door behind me. In the past Mr. Wilkie had told me I was a fine detective and wanted to recruit me to work for him, but clearly this time I was to be excluded from whatever they were discussing. Unfortunately I could hear nothing through the door although I confess that I did try pressing my ear to the wood. My mother always told me that my curiosity would get me into trouble one day. So I was forced to go back to wifely duties and wash up the dishes.
I had cleaned up the kitchen and still they were closeted in that room. I went up to check on Liam only to find he had already fallen asleep. Bridie was sitting beside him, reading a book in the dim gaslight.
“You don’t have to stay up here, my darling,” I said. “Come down and keep me company in the kitchen. It’s nice and warm in there.”
“All right.” She followed me down the stairs.
“What are you reading?”
“Little Women,” she said. “My teacher lent it to me. She knows I like to read.”
“You’re turning into quite a student,” I said. “Your mother would be so proud of you.”
“And my father?” She looked up at me wistfully. “He was never much for books and reading. I think he must be dead too, don’t you?”
Bridie’s father and brother had taken a boat to Panama to work on the new canal and we’d not heard any news from them for a year or more. Having heard rumors of the horrendous conditions down in that hellhole, I thought it was quite possible that Seamus was dead, but I put an arm around Bridie’s shoulder. “Not at all. I think he might be in a place far from any communication. There aren’t any roads or post offices, you know. And as you say, he was never one for writing much. Perhaps it never crosses his mind that you’re worried about him. Men are different that way. They don’t think that we women worry.”
She managed a brave smile then. “He won’t know me when he comes back,” she said. “I hope I can still stay with you or with Captain Sullivan’s mother out in the country.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it…” I said, and broke off as I heard a door opening and voices.
“You’ll think about it then?” John Wilkie’s voice. “What will I tell President Roosevelt?”
“I’ll give you my answer by the end of the week,” Daniel said. “It’s a big step. I can’t decide lightly.”
“I’m sure I can smooth it over with the commissioner, especially if the request comes straight from the president,” Mr. Wilkie said. He stood in the hall as Daniel helped him into his overcoat and then handed him his scarf, hat, and gloves.
“So good to see you again, Mrs. Sullivan.” Mr. Wilkie turned to me. “Many thanks for the cheese straws. They were delicious.”
I nodded politely as Daniel ushered him out the front door. The second the door was closed I demanded, “What was all that about? Mr. Wilkie wants you to work for him?”
“I’m afraid I can’t talk about it,” Daniel said. “But yes, that’s the gist of it.”
“You’d leave the police force?”
“If Wilkie can work it out properly, I’d be seconded to him, on assignment.”
“And the request would come direct from President Roosevelt?”
“So you’d be working for the president himself?”
“You are infuriating, Daniel Sullivan,” I said in exasperation. “How can you not tell your wife what you’ll be doing? Surely any decision in your life concerns me.”
“I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “I need to weigh the pros and cons. This assignment is not exactly straightforward. It involves an element of subterfuge.”
“Possibly that too. But I live with danger every day in my current job, as you know only too well. I’ve already taken one bullet recently.”
I put a hand on his arm. “Then do what your mother wants. Go into politics.”
He laughed then. “Can you actually see me in Albany as a congressman? Or worse still, in Washington? If I’ve fallen foul of the police commissioner because I won’t take bribes and turn a blind eye to corruption, how much worse do you think it would be in politics? I’d be beholden to those who elected me. I’d have to toe the party line and go against my conscience.”
“Is this assignment from John Wilkie in New York?” I asked. “Can you tell me that much?”
“No, I don’t think it would be in New York.”
“We’d have to move?”
“No. It would only involve a brief trip away from home, I hope. A month or so at the most.”
“And I would stay here?”
“You’d stay here,” he said. “Much better all around. Bridie has her school. You have your friends to keep an eye on you. And I’d be free to do—what I have to.”
I wrapped my arms around his neck. “I don’t want you to do anything dangerous, Daniel.”
“Don’t be silly.” He kissed me on the forehead. “I know how to take care of myself. I won’t take any stupid risks. It will be fine.”
“You sound as if you’ve already made up your mind.”
“I think I have,” he said. “I’d rather be out and doing something than hanging on here, watching my colleagues get handed the juicy investigations, waiting for my enemies to find the next nail to hammer into my coffin.”
“Don’t speak of coffins, please.” I looked up into his face.
Copyright © 2016 Rhys Bowen.
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Rhys Bowen is the author of the Anthony and Agatha Award-winning Molly Murphy mysteries, the Edgar Award-nominated Evan Evans series, and the Royal Spyness series. Born in England, she lives in San Rafael, California.