One more hour and Clara Stole could turn criminal.
Could, that is, if she managed to stand her ground until then, for every eye in the crowd was watching her, waiting for her to say something impressive, something to commemorate the day. And she was so tired of fumbling through grand words that were never quite grand enough for such hungry, thirsty people. Hungry for food, thirsty for a numbing drink—but even hungrier, even thirstier, for hope.
What would Hope Stole have thought of Clara, on this strange, wintry day? What would she have thought of her elder daughter? She would have been proud of Clara, surely, for the speech Clara was about to make, and for keeping the Bowery Hope Shelter project alive despite the gradual decrease in funding.
And, just as surely, she would have been angry at Clara for what would come after—the criminal part, the part that would involve sneaking, thievery, breaking and entering.
The part Godfather had unknowingly inspired.
Yes, Hope Stole would have been disappointed, and her eyes would have flashed in that famously fearsome way, and she would probably have railed at Godfather about responsibility this and safety that. She
had always been worried about her daughters’ safety, even more so than most mothers Clara knew, as if the world were full of dangers only she could see. Funny, that, as without her mother’s influence, Godfather wouldn’t have been brought into their lives, and without Godfather, Clara might not have ever thought of doing something like what she would do in—fifty-seven minutes, now?
And anyway, the daughter of a New York City gang lord is criminal by her very blood. Being uncriminal, Clara had decided—being good—would have been like snubbing her heritage.
Somehow she didn’t think her mother would have been impressed with that line of reasoning.
But her mother was dead, and it was past time for Clara to find answers. If she could only, for this short while, manage to keep her head.
That was her credo these days, and an increasingly difficult one to follow: Keep your head, Clara, while everyone around you loses theirs, or already has.
And when you yourself are close to doing the same.
Beside her, Leo Wiley, her father’s secretary, cleared his throat. Her cue.
Clara approached the edge of the stone steps, breathing deeply to calm her racing heart. Anxiety nipped at her insides; as always, she shoved past it. There was no place for it here, not when she was playing the good, glamorous mayor’s daughter. A tangle of red hair came loose from its knot and fell across her eyes, as though it knew her true state of mind. Before her the crowd waited, shifting, eyeing her—blankly, skeptically, and, a few, with hope.
“My mother loved this city,” Clara began, “and the people in it.” Her voice wanted to shrink and crack, and her hands were shaking. She wasn’t good at this, but she had to be, so she pretended. She didn’t like wearing this fine gown; even with its many layers and her winter coat, she felt bare, exposed, too prettied up to feel safe. But she had to look
the part, so she tolerated her raging discomfort. Not for the first time that day, she wished her father were up here instead. It should have been him dedicating this building in his wife’s honor. But her father was different now; he had changed over the past year. Everything had.
“She, er . . .” Clara’s voice trailed off. The crowd glanced around, uncertain. So many of them, so many mouths and fears and empty bellies, measuring her. Surely they could see through this lace and satin and velvet brocade to the shaking nakedness underneath.
Pull yourself together, Clara Stole. You can’t afford not to.
“Pardon me.” She dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief, fingered the ebony cross at her neck. “She would have loved to be here today, you see.”
Ah. The crowd nodded sympathetically, shared knowing glances, shifted forward to better see the dear, tenderhearted, motherless girl. Clara felt Mr. Wiley puff up with pleasure; he would be proud of her performance. There would be a warm, supportive summary of the event in tomorrow’s paper. It would be fantastic press for the mayor’s office.
Clara clutched the worn wooden podium. It was the only thing preventing her from running away to hide, preferably in Godfather’s shop. There, no one’s eyes were ever on her except his solitary, sharp gray one—and the stern black ones of the statue in the corner.
“Again, pardon me.” Clara cleared her throat; the sound of tears in her voice, at least, would be genuine. Fifty-five minutes now, perhaps. She clung to the estimate with slipping nerves. Only fifty-five more minutes. “My mother worked tirelessly for the betterment of our city,” she continued, addressing the bare black branches in the park beyond, avoiding the eyes in the crowd. “She dreamed of a place where the less fortunate could turn for shelter, warmth, and rest.”
Clara gestured at the narrow gray edifice behind her—the new Bowery Hope Shelter, the building stained here and there with ash from the 1879 fire that had left several east-side neighborhoods in ruins.
“My great hope is that this shelter will do justice to her memory, and help fulfill her dream of a city that provides a place for everyone.”
Clara smiled at the crowd and stepped back, allowing Walter Higgins, the Commissioner for Human Health, to take the stage. A Concordia lord otherwise known as the Merry Butcher, his skill with a cleaver was legend—but today, he was all respectable reassurance. As he spoke, some of the crowd’s tentative smiles grew. Perhaps they believed his words—that the new shelter would provide a spot of relief for the growing number of people forced to live on the streets, and boost city morale in time for Christmas. Clara sighed; she knew better. Inside the shelter would be warmer than outside, yes, but the building was shoddy and flea-ridden, and instead of beds, poorly constructed coffins halfheartedly disguised with tarpaulins lined the walls. It was the only thing Clara had been able to persuade her father to provide.
“There’s no money, my sweet one,” John Stole would tell her again and again while he smoked imported cigars and reeked of fine alcohol, and while the other lords of the underground syndicate-turned-empire that called itself Concordia attended the theater with their wives, in silk top hats and heavy furs.
No money, indeed.
Clara was not her mother; she could influence her father only so much. Concordia had chosen him for their figurehead two years before, when Boss Plum had helped her father become mayor, bribing and threatening John Stole’s way to the top. But at what price? Her father’s integrity, for one. John Stole had barely resisted the most heinous of Concordia’s demands that first year in office. Clara had heard her parents’ arguments through their cracked-open bedroom door—her father insisting he must bow to Concordia’s wishes, her mother incredulous that he had gotten himself into this position.
But Hope’s murder had weakened John Stole, destroyed in the space of a day the last vestiges of his crumbling fortitude. It was as though something had eaten away at him over the past year, transforming him
into a powerless ghost. Sometimes Clara felt as though she had lost two parents instead of just the one—one to murder, the other to the snarls of Concordia’s web.
She could still recall the headlines from that dreadful day, just after Christmas last year: HOPE IS DEAD!
“The headline writes itself, don’t it?” Clara had heard one of the scandalized servants whisper to another outside her mother’s parlor. There Clara had sat, sixteen years old and numb, her eleven-year-old sister, Felicity, sobbing in her arms, for once not worrying about her face turning blotchy.
The headline should have read, HOPE IS MURDERED: BLUDGEONED, SCALPED, MAIMED, AND HUNG LIKE A SPLIT-OPEN DOLL BY THE RIVERSIDE! Her father had not allowed her to see the photographs of her mother’s body, but Clara had heard Concordia gentlemen whispering about the grisly details at the mayor’s mansion when they’d slipped in through the underground entrance and thought no one was listening—especially not the mayor’s quiet elder daughter, who, thanks to Godfather, knew how to sneak.
And in sneaking—through the mansion and throughout the city—she had learned many things. Though her mother had been officially declared a victim of the downtown gang wars, Police Chief Greeley had confided to a Concordia gentleman, “The way she was killed, the unnecessary, disfiguring violence . . . The Townies don’t kill like that. None of the gangs do. I think it was something else entirely.” And there had been similar killings, more and more of them, in the past few months—bad ones, violent ones, most of them by the water and all of them so shockingly gruesome that Concordia had ensured they were kept out of the papers, to prevent a citywide panic.
Clara had also learned that her father was losing favor. In recent months, during lunches and private meetings at the mayor’s mansion, he had begun slandering his own people—Concordia people. He would accuse city council members, bought judges, even the chief of police, of
unthinkable crimes. It was mutinous talk. Mutinous, anti-Concordia talk. Entrenched in every city department from sanitation and fire to law enforcement and the courts, the empire of Concordia had noticed John Stole’s discontent. At first they had dismissed it graciously as the rantings of the recently bereaved. But their patience had worn thin now, almost a year after Hope’s murder, and they were not happy. John Stole’s efforts were largely ineffectual; Concordia could see, just as Clara could, that he was all froth and bluster, without any real power behind his words. But a loose tongue, even that of a grieving, weak-willed figurehead, could be dangerous, and John Stole knew too many secrets for his actions to go unpunished.
Clara had to act fast, before her family lost all credibility with Concordia, before she lost her chance to find out what had really happened to her mother. At least for tonight, she had to become the person Godfather seemed to think she could be—someone not trapped by circumstance and crippled by fear.
She had to be more like her mother.
Hope Stole had never let Concordia weaken her. She had looked its cruelest lords straight in the eye and lambasted them unflinchingly for their corruption.
Clara wondered if they’d had her killed for that.
Regardless, it seemed an unattainable goal. “I’m not my mother!” she had cried more than once during her training with Godfather, frustrated that he would expect such things of her, things so far out of her grasp—her mother’s strength, her mother’s courage.
“No, you are not,” he would say each time, with the sort of conviction that had eluded Clara since her mother’s death, “but you are her daughter. You have that same fire within you.”
Godfather said it to encourage her, but his words served only to increase her fear. Yes, her mother had had a fire within—and look what had happened to her.
Mr. Wiley cleared his throat; the commissioner had finished his
speech. Clara took the offered pair of shears and positioned the blades around the red satin ribbon stretched before her. She paused so the Times photographer could adjust the plates of his camera just so.
“Nice smile, Miss Stole, there we are,” said Mr. Wiley. “Nice and bright.”
Yes, a smile. A smile for the city still recovering from the recent depression, for the city thick with the rising violence of the downtown gangs and reeling from the unstable food prices, for the streets poisoned by a fear as rampant and deadly as disease.
She had to keep smiling, despite the many reasons not to. Concordia grew suspicious otherwise.
Clara pressed the shears’ blades together and cut.
The bright red ribbon floated away on either side. Tepid applause came from the weary-eyed crowd.
Mr. Wiley directed her down into the press of people—to shake hands with Commissioner Higgins, whose fat, grinning face shone pink; to place a hand on the shoulder of a stooped old man who scowled up at the shelter. Coffin house, his expression seemed to say. He knew—he was not a fool—and yet what was there to do?
Clara swallowed, each brush of someone’s arm against hers, each glance of every citizen she passed making her flinch. For there was nothing to do, except to pretend, and take what was given, and stay silent.
In this city Concordia had become law. And for the daughter of its figurehead, Concordia had become life.
So Clara stood beside the scowling old man and turned toward the photographer with a smile on her face. The old man’s shoulders shook with cold against her arm. Above them a bedraggled cluster of ribboned holly hung limply from a streetlamp.
All things considered, the decoration looked ridiculous. Parodic. Cruel.
Clara stared up at it, the crowd dispersing around her.
Merry Christmas, indeed.