Read The Alienist Online

Authors: Caleb Carr

Tags: #General, #New York (N.Y.), #Literary, #Historical Fiction, #Serial murders, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Psychological, #Mystery Fiction, #Historical, #Suspense, #Crime

The Alienist (6 page)

BOOK: The Alienist
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“You’re a real rabbit, aren’t you, Ellison?” I said, although the man could have broken me in half without much thought. “What’s the matter—run out of little boys to push around, you need to start on women?”

Ellison’s face went positively red. “Why, you miserable piece of scribbling shit—sure, Gloria was trouble, a whole bundle of trouble, but I wouldn’t a cooked her for it, and I’ll kill any man says I—”

“Now, now, Biff.” Kelly’s tone was pleasant, but his meaning was unmistakable: Knock it off. “There’s no cause for any of that.” And then to me: “Biff had nothing to do with the boy’s murder, Moore. And I don’t want to see my name connected with it, either.”

“Hell of a time to think of that, Kelly,” I answered. “I saw his body—it was worthy of Biff, all right.” In fact, not even Ellison had ever done anything so horrendous, but there was no reason to acknowledge that to them. “He was just a boy.”

Kelly chuckled as he took a few steps farther down the stairs. “Yes, and a boy playing a dangerous game. Come on, Moore, boys like that die every day in this town—why the interest? Did he have a secret relative somewhere? A bastard kid of Morgan’s or Frick’s?”

“Do you think that’s the only reason the case would be investigated?” Sara asked, somewhat offended—she hadn’t been working at headquarters very long.

“My dear girl,” Kelly answered, “both Mr. Moore and I
know
that’s the only reason. But have it your way—Roosevelt is championing the benighted!” Kelly continued down the stairs, and Ellison pushed by me to follow. They paused a little farther down and then Kelly turned, his voice for the first time hinting at his occupation. “But I warn you, Moore—I do
not
want to see my name connected with this.”

“Don’t worry, Kelly. My editors would never run the story.”

He smiled again. “Very sensible of them, too. There are momentous things going on in the world, Moore—why waste energy on a trifle?”

With that they were gone, and Sara and I collected ourselves. Kelly may have been a new breed of gangster, but he was a gangster all the same, and our encounter had been genuinely unsettling.

“Do you know,” Sara said thoughtfully as we started upstairs again, “that my friend Emily Cort went slumming one night specifically to meet Paul Kelly—and that she found him the most entertaining man? But then, Emily always was an empty-headed little fool.” She took hold of my arm. “By the way, John, why in the world did you call Mr. Ellison a rabbit? He’s more like an ape.”

“In the language he speaks, a rabbit is a tough customer.”

“Oh. I must remember to write that down. I want my knowledge of the criminal class to be as thorough as possible.”

I could only laugh. “Sara—with all the professions open to women these days, why do you insist on this one? Smart as you are, you could be a scientist, a doctor, even—”

“So could you, John,” she answered sharply. “Except that you don’t happen to want to. And, by way of coincidence, neither do I. Honestly, sometimes you are the most idiotic man. You know perfectly well what I want.” And so did every other friend of Sara’s: to be the city’s first female police officer.

“But, Sara, are you any closer to your goal? You’re only a secretary, after all.”

She smiled wisely, with a hint of that same tense sharpness behind the smile. “Yes, John—but I’m in the building, aren’t I? Ten years ago
that
would have been impossible.”

I nodded with a shrug, aware that it was useless to argue with her, and then looked around the second-floor hallway in an attempt to find a familiar face. But the detectives and officers that came from and went to the various rooms were all new to me. “Hell’s bells,” I said quietly, “I don’t recognize
anyone
up here today.”

“Yes, it’s gotten worse. We lost a dozen more last month. They’d all rather resign or retire than face investigation.”

“But Theodore can’t staff the whole force with googoos.” Such being the colloquial term for new officers.

“So everyone says. But if the choice is between corruption and inexperience, you know which way he’ll go.” Sara gave me a firm push in the back. “Oh, do stop dawdling, John, he wanted you right away.” We wove through uniformed leatherheads and “fly cops” (officers dressed in civilian clothing) until we were at the end of the hall. “And later,” Sara added, “you must explain to me exactly why it is that cases like this one are not usually investigated.” Then, in a flurry, she rapped on the door of Theodore’s office, opened it, and kept on shoving me till I was through. “Mr. Moore, Commissioner,” she announced, closing the door and leaving me inside.

Voluminous reader and writer that he was, Theodore had a penchant for massive desks, and his office at headquarters was dominated by one. A few armchairs were crowded around it uncomfortably. A tall clock sat atop the white mantel of the fireplace, and there was a shiny brass telephone on a small side table; otherwise the only items in the room were stacks of books and papers, some resting on the floor and going halfway up to the ceiling. The shades on the windows, which faced out onto Mulberry Street, were drawn halfway down and Theodore stood before one of them, wearing a very conservative gray suit for the business day.

“Ah, John, excellent,” he said, hustling around the desk and then mangling my hand. “Kreizler’s downstairs?”

“Yes. You wanted to see me alone?”

Theodore paced about in a mix of serious yet merry anticipation. “What’s his mood? How will he respond, do you think? He’s such a tempestuous fellow—I want to make sure I take the right tack with him.”

I shrugged. “He’s all right, I suppose. We were up at Bellevue seeing this Wolff character, the one who shot the little girl, and he was in a hell of a mood after that. But he worked it out during the ride down—on my ears. However, Roosevelt, since I have no idea what it is you want him for—”

Just then there was another quick, light knock on the door, and then Sara reappeared. She was followed by Kreizler: they had evidently been chatting, and as their conversation faded away inside the office I noticed that Laszlo was studying her intently. At the time this didn’t seem particularly remarkable; it was how most people reacted to finding a woman employed at headquarters.

Theodore got between them in a flash. “Kreizler!” he clicked loudly. “Delighted, Doctor, delighted to see you!”

“Roosevelt,” Kreizler answered with a genuinely pleased smile. “It’s been a long while.”

“Too long, too long! Shall we sit and talk, or shall I have the office cleared so that we can enjoy a rematch?”

It was a reference to their first encounter at Harvard, which had involved a boxing match; and as we laughed and sat, the ice very nicely broken, my thoughts drifted back to those days.

Though I’d known Theodore for many years before his arrival at Harvard as a freshman in 1876, I’d never been very close to him. In addition to being sickly, he’d been a studious and generally well-behaved boy, whereas both I and my younger brother had spent our youths ensuring that anarchy reigned as much as possible on the streets of our Gramercy Park neighborhood. “Ringleaders” was a label my brother and I were usually given by our parents’ friends, and there was much talk about the remarkable misfortune of one family being afflicted with two black sheep. In reality there was nothing very evil or malicious in what we did; it was more that we chose to do it in the company of a small band of boys whose homes were the back alleys and doorways of the Gas House district to the east of us. Such were not considered acceptable playmates in our staid little corner of Knickerbocker society, where class counted for much and no adult was prepared to tolerate children with minds of their own. A few years away at preparatory school did nothing to discourage my tendencies; indeed, so great had the general alarm over my behavior grown by my seventeenth birthday that my application for admission to Harvard was almost rejected, a fate I would gladly have accepted. But my father’s deep pockets swung the balance back in my supposed favor and off I went to the stultifying little village of Cambridge, where a year or two of college life did absolutely nothing to make me more inclined to accept a young scholar like Theodore when he arrived.

But in the fall of 1877, during my senior and Theodore’s sophomore year, all this began to change. Laboring under the twin burdens of a difficult romance and a gravely ill father, Theodore began to develop from a rather narrow youth into a much more broad-minded and accessible young man. He never became anything like a man of the world, of course; but we nonetheless managed to discover philosophical dimensions in each other that allowed us to pass a good many evenings drinking and talking together. Soon we were conducting expeditions into Boston society, both high and low; and on that foundation a solid friendship began to grow.

Meanwhile, another childhood friend of mine, Laszlo Kreizler, having earlier completed an unprecedentedly quick course of study at the Columbia Medical College, had been drawn away from a job as a junior assistant at the Lunatic Asylum on Blackwells Island by a new graduate course in psychology offered at Harvard by Dr. William James. That gregarious, terrier-like professor, who would go on to fame as a philosopher, had recently established America’s first psychological laboratory in a few small rooms in Lawrence Hall. He also taught comparative anatomy to undergraduates; and in the fall 1877 term, having heard that James was an amusing professor who was sympathetic when it came to grades, I signed up for his course. On the first day I found myself sitting next to Theodore, who was pursuing the interest in all things wild that had consumed him since early youth. Although Roosevelt often got into spirited discussions over some minor point of animal behavior with James, he, like all of us, quickly became charmed by the still-young professor, who had a habit of reclining on the floor when his students’ participation was flagging and declaring that teaching was “a mutual process.”

Kreizler’s relationship with James was far more complex. Though he greatly respected James’s work and grew to have enormous affection for the man himself (it really was impossible not to), Laszlo was nonetheless unable to accept James’s famous theories on free will, which were the cornerstone of our teacher’s philosophy. James had been a maudlin, unhealthy boy, and as a young man had more than once contemplated suicide; but he overcame this tendency as a result of reading the works of the French philosopher Renouvier, who taught that a man could, by force of will, overcome all psychic (and many physical) ailments. “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will!” had been James’s early battle cry, an attitude that continued to dominate his thinking in 1877. Such a philosophy was bound to collide with Kreizler’s developing belief in what he called “context”: the theory that every man’s actions are to a very decisive extent influenced by his early experiences, and that no man’s behavior can be analyzed or affected without knowledge of those experiences. In the laboratory rooms at Lawrence Hall, which were filled with devices for testing and dissecting animal nervous systems and human reactions, James and Kreizler battled over how the patterns of people’s lives are formed and whether or not any of us is free to determine what kind of lives we will lead as adults. These encounters became steadily more heated—not to mention a subject of campus gossip—until finally, one night early in the second term, they debated in University Hall the question “Is Free Will a Psychological Phenomenon?”

Most of the student body attended; and though Kreizler argued well, the crowd was predisposed to dismiss his statements. In addition, James’s sense of humor was far more developed than Kreizler’s at that time, and the boys at Harvard enjoyed their professor’s many jokes at Kreizler’s expense. On the other hand, Laszlo’s references to philosophers of gloom, such as the German Schopenhauer, as well as his reliance on the evolutionist theories of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer in explaining that survival was the goal of man’s mental as much as his physical development, provoked many and prolonged groans of undergraduate disapproval. I confess that even I was torn, between loyalty to a friend whose beliefs had always made me uneasy and enthusiasm for a man and a philosophy that seemed to offer the promise of limitless possibilities for not only my own but every man’s future. Theodore—who did not yet know Kreizler, and who had, like James, survived many and severe childhood illnesses by dint of what he reasoned to be sheer willpower—was not troubled by any such qualms: he spiritedly cheered James’s eventual and inevitable victory.

I dined with Kreizler after the debate in a tavern across the Charles that was frequented by Harvardians. In the middle of our meal Theodore entered with some friends and, seeing me with Kreizler, requested an introduction. He made some good-natured but pointed remarks about Laszlo’s “mystical mumbo jumbo concerning the human psyche” and how it was all the result of his European background; but he went too far when he spouted a jibe about “gypsy blood,” for Laszlo’s mother was Hungarian and he took great offense. Kreizler laid down the challenge for an affair of honor, and Theodore delightedly took him up, suggesting a boxing match. I knew Laszlo would have preferred fencing foils—with his bad left arm he stood little chance in a ring—but he agreed, in keeping with the
code duello,
which gave Theodore, as the challenged party, the choice of weapons.

To Roosevelt’s credit, when the two men had stripped to their waists in the Hemenway Gymnasium (entered, at that late hour, by way of a set of keys I had won from a custodian in a poker game earlier in the year) and saw Kreizler’s arm, he offered to let him choose some weapon other than fists; but Kreizler was stubborn and proud, and though he was, for the second time in the same evening, predestined for defeat, he put up a far better fight than anyone had expected. His gameness impressed all present and, predictably, won him Roosevelt’s heartfelt admiration. We all returned to the tavern and drank until the late hours; and though Theodore and Laszlo never became the most intimate of friends, a very special bond had been formed between them, one that opened Roosevelt’s mind—if only a crack—to Kreizler’s theories and opinions.

BOOK: The Alienist
10.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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