When a murder hits close to home, Frank finds himself in an unusual positionthe prime suspect in the latest installment of the national bestselling Gaslight Mystery series...
Sarah and Frank Malloy are enjoying married life and looking to make their family official by adopting Catherine, the child whom Sarah rescued and has been raising as her daughter. The process seems fairly straightforward, but at the last minute, the newlyweds discover that Parnell Vaughn, Catherine's legal father, has a claim on the child, and his grasping fiancée is demanding a financial settlement to relinquish parental rights. Even though exchanging money for a child is illegal, Frank and Sarah's love for Catherine drives them to comply.
When Frank returns with the money and finds Vaughn beaten to death, all evidence points to Frank as the culprit. A not-quite-famous actor with modest means, Vaughn seems an unlikely candidate for murder, particularly such a violent crime of passion. But Frank soon uncovers real-life intrigue as dramatic as any that appears on stage.
Sarah and Frank enlist those closest to them to help hunt for Vaughn's killer as Frank's own lifeand the future of their familyhang in the balance.
About the Author
Victoria Thompson is the Edgar® and Agatha award-nominated author of the Gaslight mysteriesincluding Murder in the Bowery, Murder in Morningside Heights, Murder on St. Nicholas Avenue, and Murder on Amsterdam Avenueas well as numerous historical novels. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.
Read an Excerpt
What do you mean, we can't adopt Catherine?" Sarah asked the attorney.
"Michael Hicks gave her a look that told her he shared her frustration. "I'm sorry-"
"I thought Mr. Wilbanks settled all of this in his will," Sarah's husband said. Frank Malloy reached over and took her hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. They'd come to Michael's office today expecting good news. Plainly, they were going to be disappointed.
"I thought David had settled everything, too," Michael said. "And I know he certainly intended to as well. My father-in-law was a very careful man, but you see, I didn't draw up his final will. Estates are not my area of expertise, and it would be unethical for me to prepare a will for a family member in any case, so I referred him to a colleague of mine, Bill Jonson."
"Are you saying this colleague made a mistake?" Malloy was angry now but trying not to take it out on poor Michael. Sarah understood completely.
"Not a mistake." Michael was being very diplomatic. "My father-in-law was careful but also very private. He didn't believe he needed to tell Mr. Jonson all the sordid details about Catherine's birth."
"Which ones did he leave out?" Malloy asked.
Michael winced. "I, uh, I've asked Mr. Jonson to join us, if you don't mind, so he can explain it all to you." He got up and went to his office door to admit a man who had obviously been waiting for this summons.
Michael introduced Mr. Jonson, who was a distinguished-looking man of middle age wearing a conservatively cut, tailor-made suit and immaculate shirtfront. When they were all seated again, Michael said, "Bill, I have informed Mr. and Mrs. Malloy that they cannot adopt Catherine, but I haven't explained exactly why yet. I thought you could do that better than I."
"Of course." Mr. Jonson gave them his best reassuring smile. "You see, Mr. Wilbanks told me that Catherine was the illegitimate child he had with his mistress, an actress named Emma Hardy. However, he didn't think it necessary to explain that Emma Hardy also happened to be married to a Mr. Parnell Vaughn at the time of their affair. He probably thought it was none of my business."
"But what difference does that make?" Sarah asked. "Even Mr. Vaughn admitted he couldn't possibly be Catherine's father because he and Emma were separated when she met Mr. Wilbanks."
"Which is why Mr. Wilbanks didn't think it necessary to mention Mr. Vaughn at all," Jonson said. "Unfortunately, the law is rather unforgiving when it comes to matters of paternity."
"What does that mean?" Malloy asked.
"It means that the law considers a woman's husband to be the father of her children, regardless of any evidence to the contrary."
"But that's ridiculous," Sarah tried.
"In some cases, yes, but it is nevertheless the law."
"So you're telling us that the law considers Parnell Vaughn to be Catherine's father?" Malloy asked, no longer bothering to hide his anger.
"Yes," Michael said, "and that's one reason why David decided to leave part of his estate to Frank rather than directly to Catherine."
"You mean he knew about this paternity law?" Sarah asked.
"No, I'm sure he didn't," Mr. Jonson said. "And I certainly didn't explain it to him because I had no idea Miss Hardy was ever married to Mr. Vaughn. Rest assured, I would have made sure to settle the matter prior to Mr. Wilbanks's death. Even without knowing about Mr. Vaughn, I was already very concerned that if he left Catherine a great deal of money in her own right, she'd be a tempting target for any greedy family members Emma Hardy may have had or anyone willing to pretend to be her family member. A large inheritance would also make her a target for fortune hunters later in life."
"But after seeing how much you loved Catherine, Frank," Michael said, "David decided you were the man who could and would protect her from both of those dangers."
Malloy winced and glanced at his wife. "He should have left the money to Sarah."
"I'm afraid David was also old-fashioned. He would never trust a female with so much money, and besides, Sarah had already told him she wouldn't accept it." Michael smiled slightly. "I must also tell you that Mr. Jonson did not approve of David making you one of his heirs, Frank."
"I certainly did not," Jonson said. "Even though Mr. Wilbanks's will instructed you to become Catherine's legal guardian, there was no way to compel you to do so. Such a provision causes an attorney great concern."
"Yes, it does," Michael said. "Bill was almost apoplectic about it."
"So was I," Malloy said. "I wish I'd suspected he was going to do it so I could have threatened to refuse it like Sarah did."
"Which is why he never informed you, I'm sure," Michael said.
Mr. Jonson still looked distressed. "You see, after you received your inheritance, you could have abandoned Catherine completely, and even now you have no obligation to share any of the money with her."
"But we would never abandon Catherine," Sarah said.
"David believed that, I know," Michael said, "which is why he did what he did, but the fact remains that he has put you in a difficult position. You can't adopt Catherine as long as Vaughn is legally her father."
"You might get a judge to name you as her official guardian," Jonson said, "but it would mean a court case and publicity you'd find distasteful and a scandal that could follow her all of her life. You'd probably win in the end, although there's no guarantee of that, but even if you did, you still wouldn't be able to adopt Catherine, and Vaughn would always be there."
"You might never hear from him again, of course," Michael said, "but whenever there's money involved, people do tend to make nuisances of themselves. There's no telling what he might do, and after what happened before . . ."
"You don't think he'd try to kidnap her?" Sarah asked in alarm, remembering the horror of her first encounter with Catherine's blood relatives.
"It wouldn't legally be kidnapping," Michael said. "In the eyes of the law, he's her father, so he could be entitled to custody."
Sarah couldn't help groaning.
"So what can we do about this?" Malloy asked impatiently. "I know you lawyers always have an answer for everything."
Michael glanced at Jonson, who said, "We do try, but there isn't always an easy answer for everything. In this case, you would need for Vaughn to relinquish his parental rights. I could have the documents drawn up and when he has signed them, you could then proceed with the adoption."
"And Vaughn couldn't come back later to reclaim Catherine?" Sarah asked.
"No, he couldn't."
"I wonder how much he'll want in exchange for his signature," Malloy said.
"Uh, that's another thing we need to discuss," Michael said uneasily. "It's illegal for you to pay him to give up custody."
"What?" Malloy nearly shouted. "Why would that be illegal?"
"Because it's considered selling a child, and selling human beings is illegal in the United States, I'm happy to say."
Sarah wanted to weep. "So we're supposed to convince Mr. Vaughn to sign Catherine over to us out of the goodness of his heart?"
"I'm afraid so."
"And if he doesn't have any goodness in his heart?" Malloy asked.
Michael and Mr. Jonson exchanged looks again. "Let's just hope he does."
What are we going to do?" Sarah asked Malloy the moment Michael's office door closed behind them.
"We're going to find Parnell Vaughn and convince him to sign Catherine over to us."
"What are the chances he'll do it?"
Sarah didn't like Malloy's expression one little bit. "Very small, I'd guess."
Sarah wanted to weep again. "He'd do it if we paid him, I'm sure."
"I know, which is why I think we'll have to pay him."
"But Michael said that's illegal!"
"Which means we're stuck either way."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, when Vaughn finds out he's legally Catherine's father, he'll probably decide he'd be a fool to sign her over. He'll know that as long as he has the right to claim her, we'll be willing to keep paying him off to keep him from doing so."
"But if he signs the papers . . ." Sarah said.
"Which he won't do unless we pay him, and if he knows that's illegal, he'll always have that over us, too. If we don't keep paying him, he'll accuse us of 'buying' Catherine and try to get her back again."
"So, we're back to my original question: What are we going to do?"
"I'm going to find Vaughn. We can't decide anything until we've talked to him."
He was right, of course. "He's probably touring in some theater company, though." Vaughn was an actor, too, which was how he'd met Emma Hardy. "How will we track him down?"
"Same way we did before, and with any luck, we'll find out he drank himself to death since we last saw him."
"Oh, Malloy, we don't really wish him dead," Sarah said, although she couldn't help thinking how Vaughn's death would make everything so much simpler.
Mr. Malloy is right," Maeve said. "If Vaughn was dead, that would make everything so much easier."
Sarah gave her nanny a look meant to chasten her, although she was sure such efforts were wasted on the girl. "We do not wish Mr. Vaughn ill, Maeve. We simply want him to sign some papers." Sarah had gone straight home after their meeting with Michael Hicks, while Malloy had gone to find out what he could about Parnell Vaughn. Maeve had just returned from the Lower East Side, where she was supervising the workmen who were turning the old house Sarah had purchased into a maternity clinic that would provide services free of charge to women in need. She'd wanted to tell Sarah how she'd outsmarted the workmen yet again and terrorized them into doing exactly what she demanded, but she'd forgotten all that when Sarah told her about their meeting with the attorney.
"Oh no, I don't wish Mr. Vaughn any misfortune," Maeve assured her with just the right amount of sincerity. "But I'm afraid your lawyer is right. People act strange when money is involved."
"Then we'll deal with that when we must. In the meantime, tell me how the clinic is coming along."
"Women are still coming to the door every day wanting to know when we're going to open," Maeve said.
"I know. You've told me that before. I'm sure everyone knows the midwives have moved in, too, so that probably doesn't help."
"Those two women you hired are going to be perfect, and having them move in to make sure the place is occupied at night was a very good idea. They're already making home visits, and Miss Hanson delivered a baby last night."
"She did?" Sarah couldn't have been more delighted. "Oh, I do miss those deliveries." Sarah had made her living as a midwife for years before her marriage.
"I already told them they'll need to let you deliver a baby every now and then."
"Thank you," Sarah said with a grin.
"Oh, and I almost forgot, you'll never guess who I saw today."
Sarah didn't particularly care, since her mind was still focused on Catherine and their situation, in spite of Maeve's best efforts to distract her. "Who?"
"That fortune-teller, Serafina Straface."
"Serafina? Really?" Sarah asked in surprise. "How long has it been since we saw her?"
"A couple years, I think."
"What did she want?"
Maeve gave her a pitying look. "The same thing all the other women want."
"Oh!" So Serafina was expecting.
"Yes. Apparently, she's still telling fortunes or whatever it was she did."
"She's a medium."
Maeve rolled her eyes at such a notion. "So she says. Then I guess she's still a medium, but I gathered she's looking for a private place to have her baby."
"I suppose she married her young man, Mr. DiLoreto."
"You can suppose that all you want, but when she told me her name, she said it was Straface."
"Oh dear." The world was not kind to unwed mothers. Then she remembered. "In Italy, women don't take their husband's name."
"That's interesting. But I guess in America, actresses don't either. Emma Hardy didn't."
"You're right, she didn't. So Serafina is interested in using the clinic?"
"I think she was just interested in using you as a midwife. She said she went to your old house, and they sent her to the clinic to find you."
"Our neighbors have been very good about not telling people where we live now," Sarah said.
"Yes, they have, and it sure cuts down on the number of people coming here looking for a handout," Maeve said with a smirk. "She didn't tell me when, uh, she'll need the clinic, but she seemed glad to hear it should be ready in a few days."
"Do you think so?" Sarah asked in surprise.
"If I have anything to say about it, it will. I have those workmen terrified of Mr. Malloy, especially after they tried to pretend they didn't know they were supposed to fix the wall in the back today."
"Maeve, you missed your calling."
"I know. I should've been a man. I would've been good at it, too. Better than most men, anyway."
Sarah couldn't help laughing, in spite of everything, which she guessed had been Maeve's intention. "I didn't mean that. I meant you should have been a . . ."
Maeve waited a few seconds while Sarah tried in vain to think of some profession to which a woman could aspire that would use Maeve's talents. "See? You can't think of anything. I was right. I should've been a man."
"But instead you're going to help other women."
"I suppose, and maybe someday Mr. Malloy will let me work for him."
Finding Parnell Vaughn turned out to be much easier than Frank had anticipated. As an actor, Vaughn often worked for touring companies, and he might have been anywhere in the country. The last time they'd tried to locate him, he'd just been returning to New York from a tour. Frank tried the theatrical agent who had helped him then, only to discover that agents represented shows, not actors, and Vaughn was no longer appearing in any of that agent's shows. Frank had to visit only a couple more agents, however, before he found his quarry.
"Oh yes, Parnell Vaughn," Mr. Dinsmore said with obvious distaste. "He's having quite a successful run with Mrs. Hawkes at the Palladium Theater."
"Mrs. Hawkes?" Adelia Hawkes was one of the most famous actresses in the country. "Are you sure? It's Parnell Vaughn I'm looking for. Maybe you have him confused with someone else."