Hudson’s Kill

Paddy Hirsch

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Hudson's Kill, the new novel from Paddy Hirsch. New York City, 1803. During a time of conflict between the city’s Irish and black gangs, a young black girl has been found stabbed to death. City Marshal Justy Flanagan and schoolteacher Kerry O’Toole are each looking for the killer—but as they do, they stumble into a political conspiracy poised to use the racial tension as an excuse to do something terrible.

Justy Flanagan knelt beside the body. “Hold the lamp higher, please, Sergeant.”

It was a trick of the light, caused by the flickering candle, but Justy could have sworn the girl gave a slight smile. It could not be, though, because she was long dead, her limbs stiffening and her skin waxy and ashen.

She lay on her right shoulder, one arm draped so that her right hand was cupped loosely over her lower belly. The wound in her torso was a long, dark slash. Her entrails were a pale tumble of old ropes.

Sergeant Vanderool leaned close. “He must have been one unsatisfied customer.” He bumped against Justy’s shoulder. He smelled of grease and damp wool and whiskey.

Justy was a tall, narrow-faced man, with high cheekbones and long fair hair that flopped over a pair of blue-gray eyes. He was one of five Mayor’s Marshals, but he wore no uniform. Instead, he was dressed casually, in a dark green coat and cream-colored whipcord breeches that were now soaked through the knees with God knew what. His boots were not doing much better. They were made of butter-soft brown leather, but they were getting old. He had taken them from the body of an English cavalry officer that he had killed in a skirmish during the Rebellion in Ireland, five years before. He had worn them almost every day since. They had been repaired over and over, but now that he could feel water seeping through the soles and stitching, he wondered if it was time for them to retire.

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“That’s a lot of assumptions you’re making, Sergeant.”

“That so?” Vanderool hawked, and spat against the wall. “What other kind of woman’s going to be down this way but a stephoer? And only a man’s going to do damage like that.”

Justy looked around the dank, narrow alley. It was well past dusk, and the light from the lantern cast long shadows against the mottled walls and made the churned, muddy ground into a battlefield. Vanderool had a point. “Has anyone touched her?”


“Are you sure?”

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The sergeant rolled his eyes. He was a slope-shouldered, pot-bellied man of about fifty years, with thin hair and a receding chin covered in stubble. “Mister Playfair,” he called out. “Anyone been down here since you found her?”

“No, Sergeant,” a voice came back down the alley. “No one but you and the Marshal.”

“Satisfied?” Vanderool’s voice was sharp.

Justy ignored him. He touched the girl’s neck. She was as cold as the water soaking his trousers. He shifted position, took a breath, and slipped his fingers into the long wound that split her torso. The skin was as stiff as salt-soaked canvas; her intestines were slick and cold against the palm of his hand. He had to swallow hard to keep down the bile that seared the back of his throat. He closed his eyes and slid his hand into the body cavity, past the knuckles. It was freezing in the alley, but he could feel a trace of warmth under his fingertips.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” Vanderool was aghast.

“Something I learned in France.” Justy had spent time with the Paris police as a student, and had gone back the summer before to learn about the techniques their criminal detectives were developing. He sat back on his haunches, tugged a handkerchief from his cuff and used it to wipe his hands. “See how her legs are stiffening, slightly?”

“Rigor mortis. We all know about that.”

“Yes, but it hasn’t set in yet. It usually takes four hours or so, depending on the cold. And the core of her body is still warm to the touch. So we know a few things.”

“Such as?”

“Such as she wasn’t long dead when Mister Playfair found her.”

Vanderool sniffed and shuffled his feet. “Come on, then. We need to get her out of here. There’s a crowd gathering. We don’t want to set them off.”

Justy nodded. Vanderool might be an Irish-hating, nativist bully, but he was no fool. He knew the city well, and he knew that the alley they were standing in was only a stone’s throw from the Canvas Town slums. Which meant the crowd outside was almost certainly made up of poor black men, most of whom would resent the presence of white faces on their turf.

He stood up, wincing as a sharp pebble poked through the sole of his right boot. Another reminder to have the damn things mended.

“Very well, Sergeant,” he said. “Let’s get her up to the morgue.”

Vanderool barked an order, and Justy walked back to the street, stepping out of the way of two lads carrying a stretcher and a blanket. Perhaps a dozen men stood a few yards away, watching. They were all a little drunk and a little curious, speculating about what was down there in the dark.

There was no tension in the air, but the two watchmen were taking no chances. They stood in the center of the street, facing the crowd of black men, their clubs on their shoulders. Playfair was the bigger of the pair, an inch over six feet, and broad as a heifer. Justy had seen him in action before, and knew he was the kind who relished a fight and never held back. Tasty, in the vernacular. He caught Justy looking at him and grinned, showing a broken tooth.

Gorton was slighter and shorter, although not by much. His eyes flicked back and forth, scanning the faces in the crowd. He looked older than Playfair, with long, steel-gray hair and a face like a hatchet. Justy didn’t know him well. He was a Londoner, a former soldier who had come to New York less than a year ago. A quiet, thoughtful man.

The stretcher bearers emerged from the alleyway. The blanket bulged obscenely. The men had tucked it in under the dead girl’s body, to keep her entrails from spilling out.

A growling sound came from the crowd. Justy felt his skin prickle. Suddenly, men were shouting, loud and angry.

“What have you done?”

“They’ve killed him!”

“Damn them!”

Playfair and Gorton swung the clubs off their shoulders and planted their feet wide. Justy motioned at the stretcher bearers to stop. He stepped forward between the watchmen. “Gentlemen, please disperse and leave us to do our work.”

“Looks like you’ve done your work already, you cossack bastard!” The voice was heavy and slurred with drink.

Justy held up a hand. “Someone called us here. A person has been killed. We are taking the body to the morgue. Please let us pass.”

The man was fast. He lunged out of the crowd, straight for Justy, the dull gleam of a blade in his hand.

“Murderers!” The man was fast. He lunged out of the crowd, straight for Justy, the dull gleam of a blade in his hand. Playfair swung hard, a killer blow, but the man slid in the mud, and the club slashed through the air above his head. The man recovered and sprang forward, his knife aimed at Justy’s belly.

But Justy was no longer there. He had taken a long step forward with this right foot, so that he was side-on to the man. His left forearm kept the knife hand clear, and his right hand shoved the man in the back, driving him forward under his own momentum until he tripped over Justy’s outstretched foot. He sprawled on the ground, his face in the mud.

Playfair stepped up and kicked the knife away. He raised the club.

“Let him go,” Justy ordered.

Playfair lowered his weapon, a sour look on his face. The man scrambled to his feet. He went to pick up his knife, but Playfair lunged at him. “Go on, ya madge. I won’t miss twice.”

The man slunk away. There was a smatter of applause from the crowd. “Nice moves, Marshal,” someone shouted.

“Frisk’s over, gents. Time to go back to your cribs,” Gorton said. He was still facing them, standing easy, his club on his shoulder as though he was out for a stroll. “Unless you want me to set the Marshal here on you, o’ course.”

There was a ripple of laughter. The workers began to drift away.

Justy looked for Vanderool, but the sergeant had disappeared. Scuttled back to his warm bed, no doubt, Justy thought, then chastised himself for the thought. The man had come immediately when he was called, after all.

Justy motioned to the stretcher bearers. They picked up the girl and walked slowly away from the alley. One of the men slipped on the mud, falling to one knee, and the stretcher lurched sideways, the body shifting so that the blanket slipped back, revealing the girl’s face. Her eyes were still open, staring emptily up at the sky, her skin slack, her lips parted slightly.

Gorton pulled the stretcher bearer upright. He stood over the body for a moment, then smoothed his palm over the girl’s face, closing her eyes. He pulled the blanket up. The stretcher bearers carried her away.

Gorton and Playfair were Watch wardens. The Watch was mostly made up of volunteers who worked during the day and stood in sentry boxes around the city during the dark hours, keeping an eye out for fires. But there were six professionals, full-time employees of Federal Hall, whose job was to patrol the city during the night. These wardens went in pairs from box to box, ensuring the volunteers were awake, and acting as runners in the event of a fire.

“Which one of you men found the body?” Justy asked them.

“Me,” Playfair answered. “We was passing this way and I thought I heard a sound. Come down to see what was what, and there she was.”

“Did you touch her?”

“Just to see if she was quick or dead.”


Playfair shrugged. “She was still warm.”

“And then you came straight down to the Hall?”

“Mister Gorton came down. I stayed on stag.”

Justy nodded. Playfair was the senior man, in terms of time served. “Is this your usual route?”

“We vary the routes. Captain’s orders.” Playfair looked smug.

“I see.” Justy looked him in the eye. “Why didn’t you raise the alarm when you found her? She wasn’t long dead, so her killer might still have been in the vicinity. If you’d blown your whistle and raised the Watch, we might have had a chance at catching him.”

Playfair scowled.

“The doer was long gone, Marshal,” Gorton said. His eyes were fixed on a point over Justy’s left shoulder.

“How would you know that?”

“Stomach wound like that, it takes a long time to die. No major vessels cut. No damage to the heart or lungs. Just a long, slow bleed.”

“You sound as though you’ve some experience.”

“I seen a lot of men die with their guts opened up. In Guadeloupe.”

Justy nodded. He remembered reading Gorton’s file. The man had been a corporal of the King’s Marines. He had fought in the vanguard of the British force that had taken the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe from the French in a savage, almost suicidal action. The newspapers had been full of the story at the time. The assaulting forces had run out of ammunition early, and a resupply had been intercepted. But the British had attacked regardless, and taken the outpost using nothing but raw bravery and the bayonet.

Justy suppressed a shiver. He knew what it was like to face a wall of English bayonets.

He looked around at the muddy street and the ramshackle warehouses. Several were tanneries. There was a strong smell of fermented urine. It was a bad place to die.

“I’ll assign one of your watchmen to stand guard here until the morning. Instruct him that no one is to go down this alley until I return. Then go to the Almshouse. I need you there, in case anyone comes to claim the body. If they do, one of you stay with them, while the other comes to fetch me. Is that clear?”

“Aye, Marshal,” they said in unison.

Justy followed the stretcher bearers along Chapel Street. The mud clung to the heels of his boots, and he could feel water sloshing around his sodden right foot. He had a sudden memory of Ireland, cool mud between his toes, and then of the ensign of cavalry who had owned the boots before him, sitting atop his horse, his pistol leveled at Justy’s head. Justy had stood in the marshy water and waited, staring at the small, black hole of the pistol’s muzzle. But the ensign had failed to cock his pistol properly. He had squeezed the trigger but the hammer had not snapped forward as he expected, and when he realized his mistake, his eyes had opened impossibly wide. Sky blue, the same color as the facings on his jacket. Justy had hurled himself out of the marsh, dragged the ensign off his horse, and stabbed him in the throat. The man hadn’t needed his boots after that.

He heard footsteps behind him. Playfair was hurrying along the street, his feet squelching in the muck. The big watchman stopped and kept his eyes on the ground. “One thing I left out in my report, sir, before.”


“When I said it was me what found her, sir, well, that wasn’t quite right.”

“What do you mean? You didn’t find her?”

“Not exactly, sir.”

Justy sighed. “Be direct, Mister Playfair, please. I have an appointment.”

Playfair had a sour look on his face. “Very well, sir. What I meant to say is, I did find the girl, but I was tipped off.”

“By whom?”

“By a young woman, sir. She said she knows you. Asked for you by name.”

“And did she give her name in return?”

“Kerry O’Toole.”

Justy was glad it was dark and there were no streetlights in this quarter of the town. “Miss O’Toole found the body?”

“Yes, sir. She said she heard the girl breathe her last, and that we should fetch you.”

“I see.” In the dim light, far behind Playfair, the bend in Chapel Street looked like the entrance to a dark, narrow cave. Justy wondered why Kerry had come this way. “I commend you for coming to tell me the truth, Playfair. What was it that prompted you to do so?”

The sour look returned to the watchman’s face. “I couldn’t rightly say, sir.”

Justy hid his smile. “Well, whatever it was, you would do well to cultivate it.”


From Hudson’s Kill by Paddy Hirsch. Used with the permission of the publisher, Forge. Copyright © 2019 by Paddy Hirsch.

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