The Viper, Chapter 02

Chapter 02

I took the train from Savin Hill into Boston, then dragged my bicycle up and down slippery stairs, through downpours and puddles. When I reached Copley Square, not even the foul-smelling chicken on a costermonger’s cart ahead of me seemed more dishevelled than I. Vowing to take the streetcar next time instead, I locked my bicycle to a lamppost and knocked the mud off my soaked knickerbockers.

The stern gaze of the Public Library's porter followed my progress up the stairs to the entrance. I gave him a sheepish half-smile, relieved I wasn’t the only person trailing mud across the marble floors.

This was my first time visiting the McKim Building, which had opened its doors to the public only weeks earlier. Some sections were still under construction, and I hoped the newspaper archives would already be accessible to the public.

Stepping into the vestibule, I navigated my way through a gaggle of visitors led by a guide who was praising the grand architecture and interior design, ‘…magnificent sculpture of our esteemed Sir Henry Vane, setting a tone of refinement and sophistication! Proceeding forward into the McKim Lobby, home to a grand staircase flanked by lion sculptures…’

I pushed my way through the throng of people and searched for someone who could point me toward the archives.

News reporters had made a racket about Bates Hall, and when I stepped through its doors I understood why. The reading room was bustling with readers and onlookers alike. A good portion of those standing were craning their necks to admire the grandeur of the vaulted ceiling soaring above, supported by pillars of white marble and illuminated by soft light falling through tall windows.

Oddly enough, the new library did not smell any different than had its ageing predecessor: Beeswax, polished oak, a hint of turpentine, and the comforting off-vanilla aroma of old books scented the air.

An attendant told me that the newspaper archive was located on the ground floor. He politely requested I leave my damp jacket and gaiters in the cloakroom and pointed me toward the elevators — horrible contraptions that people awkwardly shuffled into, then tried to avoid getting the tail of a coat or hem of a dress caught between one floor and the next.

I took the stairs instead.

The man behind the front desk at the newspaper archives introduced himself as Edmund Whitaker. He was tall, had sombre eyes and a bitter tilt to his mouth. His hair and beard were as dark as the sky just before a November rainstorm. Behind thick spectacles, his eyes peered at me with suspicion, not quite focusing on my face. Despite the softness of his voice and his somewhat grumpy exterior, he made the "mum" sound like a soothing whisper.

Suppressing the urge to stand on my tiptoes and lean closer to him for better understanding, I asked him to kindly point me to the National Police Gazette archive.

He shot me a sardonic glance and turned away without a word. I followed as he steered toward one of the many towering shelves filled with stacks upon stacks of newspapers. He gestured at a small mountain of pinkish paper muttering something that sounded like ‘There,’ and sauntered off, leaving me to my own devices.

Mr Whitaker's reaction to my inquiry didn't surprise me the least. The Gazette was a sensationalist piece of toilet paper — only with fewer splinters — that advertised electric devices to “restore manhood” as well as “rubber goods” and cards that showed “men and women together” as they described it in a roundabout way. But if you looked past the cover that more often than not sported females in various states of gratuitous and fumbling hand-to-hand combat, you'd find reports on notable crimes.

I held on to a sliver of hope that the Police Gazette could provide me with a quick overview of America's noteworthy counterfeit cases much faster than if I were to rummage through the entirety of the Public Library's newspaper archive.

Only minutes into digging my way through the Gazette, I stumbled across a lengthy and rather infuriating article praising the Milan Conference and its supposed positive effects on the deaf community. The reality, however, was bleak: The education of deaf children had become a national mission to force them to act as though they could hear, sometimes going as far as to withhold sign language from them because it was seen as a crutch, not as a useful, and often their only, means of communication. The needs of deaf children were entirely disregarded in favour of avoiding discomfort for those who could hear.

A wave of gratitude toward Annie washed over me. Not only was she a kind and compassionate young woman, but she also understood and accommodated Arthur's delayed development and unique learning style.

It served as a reminder that I was there for Arthur, but my focus was on the counterfeit gang.

I heaved another stack of Gazette issues onto my desk and opened the newest issue.

When my stomach complained angrily about the lack of food, I realised that I had been searching for hours. Unfortunately, all I had were reports on two counterfeit cases involving well-made bank notes.

Mr Whitaker, who seemed to have vanished from the library during my research, suddenly popped up at my desk, inspecting the piles of various newspapers I had accumulated.

'The Black Eagle scandal,' he murmured, his spectacles perching low on his nose. ‘Interesting case. Very interesting.’

I leaned back in my chair, puzzled at his change in attitude.

‘Silver certificates were of such high quality they even fooled bank officials,' he continued. With nimble fingers, he pushed through the assorted papers on my desk. 'And here, the Irish American counterfeiters. They made fakes of almost anything; gold coins, silver certificates, nickels. A great number of those arrested for counterfeiting held jobs as artists and printers.’

‘This fascinates you?’ I asked.

He produced an apologetic shrug and a soft, ‘It is a bit of a hobby of mine. When I was young, I wanted to be a journalist, you see. Back then, a third or so of all banknotes were counterfeit money. Most were of very low quality. Still, many families were ruined.’

Including his own, I surmised. Nodding, I lied, ‘It ruined my late husband's family. The culprits were never found.’

Curiosity sparked in his expression, but societal norms prevented him from prying into personal terrain. So I provided an unspecific, ‘It occurred in Britain a few years back. But with the recent news of skilled counterfeiters being reported by the Boston Post, I couldn't help but wonder whether…um…they came from Britain.’ I shrugged helplessly. ‘It may seem like a silly assumption, but the case has caught my interest.’

‘The Gazette isn't exactly known for its reliability.’

‘Oh? Well, I only heard they specialise in crime so I thought I'd look there first.’ Another helpless shrug, and with a lowered voice I added, ‘It's quite an awful paper.’

‘Yes. Well.’ He fingered the corners of a yellowed news magazine on my desk. After a drawn-out pause that made me wonder how much longer he wanted to linger silently, he said, ‘It might be wise to be careful. Skilled counterfeiters don't work alone, you see.’

Looking up at him, I blinked and smiled kindly with a strong dose of cluelessness. It had the desired effect.

He pulled in a deep breath and explained in painstaking detail that skilled criminals of any kind are more often than not under the protection of criminal organisations, and corrupt policemen are on such organisations' payroll.

‘Oh. That isn't good, is it?’

Another measured breath. He pushed his glasses further up his nose and leaned a little closer to me. ‘What it means, miss, is that if you continue digging deeper, you may unknowingly draw their attention and put yourself in harm's way.’

‘Oh please!’ I waved a hand and rolled my eyes. ‘I’m not a threat to anyone, least of all seasoned criminals.’

He sighed and started sorting the jumble of newspapers into neat piles. ‘Surely you didn't spend hours here just out of curiosity?’

‘Well, I…’ I made a point of glancing around the room. Four men were searching through the archives. They all appeared to be journalists with the usual pencil and notebook small enough to be tucked into a coat pocket.

Lowering my voice to a whisper, I said to Whitaker, ‘To be perfectly honest, I am researching counterfeit cases for a book I am writing about the counterfeiters that nearly ruined my late husband's family. The names and locations will be altered, of course, and there will be elements of fiction blended in, but I want to make sure my descriptions of the criminals, their techniques, and the police investigation are as accurate as possible.’

Whitaker straightened with a small grunt and wordlessly walked away with my newspapers in his arms. I rose, gathered up my notes, and prepared to leave when Whitaker addressed me softly, ‘If you give me a week, I will find reports that may be of interest to you.’

I clapped my hand to my chest and thanked him profusely, as would be expected of a woman who posed no threat to anyone.

Although the point of my visit to the Public Library was to avoid attracting unwanted attention with my enquiries, least of all that of the police and the counterfeiters, I lacked the patience to wait an entire week for an old librarian to deliver information that might or might not be of interest. A part of me longed to exchange thoughts on the counterfeit case with Quinn. Another part shrank back at the mere thought of being near him again, while yet another part wanted nothing more than to repeat our first kiss.

As I made my way back to the train station, I went through my mental notes. Using hand signs and gestures, Arthur had told me that he and two men had engraved copper plates, with him being the one responsible for forging signatures. The gang was made up of six men and one woman, who appreciated Arthur's skills. It seemed unlikely that they would let someone go who could describe their illegal activities in detail, was able to identify every single one of them, and had a skill they coveted.

The Secret Service had conducted an extensive investigation into the case and raided multiple suspected counterfeiters' workshops in Medford, only to come up short. It appeared the counterfeiters had been tipped off about the raids and had hastily vacated their operations before the authorities arrived. I could only assume Arthur's gang was connected to these workshops, though I could never be certain without solid evidence.

Quinn had been looking into Charles Hartwell's death and potential ties to Arthur and his orphanage. In a stroke of luck, Quinn discovered Hartwell's diary which held the only significant clue linking the man to a counterfeit case: a remarkably well-crafted imitation bill tucked between its pages.

The police had also discovered trace amounts of copper shavings in the pockets of Arthur’s clothes — copper of such quality as was used in printing plates. 

All of Hartwell’s notes were rather diffuse. Not once did he provide names, locations, or any details that would make it easy to identify the deaf boy. Nonetheless, with some effort, it was possible to match the descriptions in Hartwell's diary to Arthur.

To make matters even worse, Hartwell's last entry confirmed our worst fears: There was a corrupt police officer who had his fingers in the counterfeiters' purse.

Quinn and I knew that Arthur had seen Hartwell's murder, but to protect the boy, Quinn had not included that in his reports. The looming question was whether the counterfeit gang knew Arthur was an eyewitness to the murder.

Hartwell's investigation had posed a threat to the gang, so they made sure he disappeared. I was certain that they would have no qualms about getting rid of Arthur too, even though he was just a young boy.

To protect Arthur, Quinn kept the diary, the counterfeit bill, the information on the corrupt police officer, and Arthur's witness account of the murder hidden from everyone, including his Chief and his own sergeant, Boyle.

By concealing evidence from both the Medford and the Boston authorities, Quinn put himself in a precarious position.

Unfortunately, the Boston PD had a record of Arthur's legal guardians: Quinn and myself. If the officer who was working for the counterfeiters happened to come across this information, it would put the boy in great peril.

The one small silver lining in this disastrous situation was that the Secret Service had taken over the case from the Boston PD. The officer involved with the counterfeiters would have a difficult time obtaining any shred of information about the ongoing investigation.

The Secret Service detective I'd met weeks back called this counterfeit case a highly coordinated and hazardous conspiracy, unlike anything the Treasury Department had encountered before. They were convinced that the group in Boston was the same notorious gang they had been pursuing for over two years across the nation.

Soaking wet, I finally reached the train station with water dripping down my stockings. The moment I made to hoist my bicycle onto the train bound for Savin Hill, the wind picked up and whipped my wet hair around my face. A man on the platform cursed and clutched his hat to keep it from blowing away, then pulled it low in his face. The collar of his dark coat was turned up against the rain.

I had a strange feeling that I had seen him before.

Disgruntled commuters jostled me until my shoulder bag nearly slipped my hold. With shock, I realised the man on the platform had been walking by when I locked my bicycle to a lamppost before entering the library.

His attire was nothing suspicious on a rainy day like this. If he had remained quiet and simply turned away to fix his hat, I wouldn't have noticed him.

With a shiver that had nothing to do with the weather, I eased my gaze back to my bicycle and fiddled with a pedal as though it was about to come loose in some way. I couldn't linger forever, so I shouldered the bicycle and boarded the train. Outside, the man in the dark coat nonchalantly strolled past my compartment. Perfectly inconspicuous, and probably regretting his prior slip. He was lanky and tall, perhaps more than a head taller than I, though difficult to discern from my vantage.

He walked with the spring of a man used to running long distances. His coat looked new from the tailor, and somehow I had the feeling it didn't fit his frame quite right. As though he preferred a different style altogether.

When he disappeared from my sight, I fought the urge to open a window, stick my head out, and track his every move.

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