Excerpt from Costumed Foolery: A Jewish Regency Short Mystery Story, by Libi Astaire
In this latest addition to the Jewish Regency Mystery Series, London’s Jewish community is getting ready for Purim—and more mystery. After her wealthy father disinherits her and makes a new will that leaves all his money to an obscure charity, Bashe Bunzel’s father mysteriously dies. Has there been foul play, as the now penniless former heiress insists? Or is Miss Bunzel making a “megillah” out of a molehill of odd coincidences and manufacturing false clues to regain her lost fortune? It’s up to Mr. Ezra Melamed to uncover what lies hidden beneath the surface of this baffling puzzle and unmask the true culprit.
“THIS COLD WILL make honest men out of you and your boys, will it not, General Well’ngone?” called out Mr. Samuel Lyon, exhaling breathy clouds of vapor that swirled about his unusually red cheeks and nose.
I like Mr. Lyon, most of the time. Unlike some people, who think they are better than poor orphans who are only trying to keep body and soul together in a hard-hearted world, Mr. Lyon does not pretend he does not know me from Adam, when he sees me on the streets of London. But I did wish he had not slapped me on the back at that moment and spoken so loudly. I was at work, you see, and my fingers were in the pocket of a coat that did not belong to me.
The friendly slap caused my fingers to jump, which caused the owner of the coat to spin round and glare down at me in a decidedly unfriendly way. Mr. Lyon, possessing a quick eye and a ready wit, saw my predicament at once. Clasping a hand on my shoulder, he said, using the gruff tones of a Bow Street Runner, which he is not, “I’ve caught you red-handed, you young ruffian. Come along and don’t try any of your tricks.”
He pulled me away before the owner of the coat could say a word—or lodge a complaint at the Magistrate’s Court at Bow Street. So, I was safe from transport for another hour. Although considering how freezing cold it has been in London this winter, when even the River Thames turned into a shivering block of ice just the month before, I sometimes wonder if Australia might be such a terrible fate after all.
I knew what was going to happen next, after Mr. Lyon had led me into a quiet side street. He likes to think that one day he will convince me and the leader of our gang, the Earl of Gravel Lane, to leave pickpocketing behind and take up an honest profession. I let him ramble on, because he often invites us on the Jewish holidays to eat a meal with his family at their home in Devonshire Square—which is located on the posh side of Houndsditch, unlike Gravel Lane, where the Earl and I live with our boys—and I was already thinking about the meal we might have for the upcoming Purim holiday: Chicken soup with kreplach filled with meat to begin with, followed by sweet and sour stuffed cabbage and a joint of beef and roasted potatoes.
The Earl likes to pretend it is a bother, because he insists on powdering his wig before he goes into genteel society; the Earl dresses in the manner of a gentleman of the previous century, to show his disdain for the present world, which he feels is in a sorry state of decline. But I have no objection to eating a hearty meal in a well-heated room, even though all the pretty silver forks and spoons on the table are a temptation, especially when the deep pockets of my greatcoat are crying out to be as well-filled as my belly.
But to get back to my story, which has only now arrived at the point that can properly be called the beginning, Mr. Lyon had gotten to the part of his speech where he was telling me that I was an intelligent, hardworking lad, when we heard a woman shriek. We both turned toward the sound, and waited. Sometimes a shrieking woman is truly in distress. But sometimes, I am very sorry to inform you, the woman is a member of my profession; while she is yelling her head off and attracting a crowd, her husband and children are merrily picking the pockets of all the onlookers, who are pressed so tightly together in their eagerness to see what sort of misery has befallen the woman they do not notice at all that they have been unburdened of their handkerchiefs and watches. Consider yourself warned—of the danger of rejoicing over the troubles of another human being.
Now you understand why we did not rush back to Cheapside at the first cry. But then we heard a second woman call out, “Oh! Miss Bunzel! Are you hurt?”
That got us both running, because Miss Bashe Bunzel is a member of our community, the Ashkenazic Jews who pray at London’s Great Synagogue, and she, I can assure you, does not spend her mornings picking pockets. My heart sank, though, after I had pushed my way through the crowd and saw what was causing the trouble. With one hand old Mrs. Ida Koch, the widowed aunt of the young woman, was supporting her niece, and the other hand was tightly grasping the collar of one of my boys.
Manny, a new member of our gang, who is only about six years old, despite what he says about being older, was trying to squirm out of the old woman’s grasp. His scrawny body went limp when he caught a glimpse of my scowling face. My boys have strict instructions to steer clear of members of our synagogue; it causes more problems than it is worth to do business with them. Manny, being young and not a frequent synagogue-goer, does not yet know the faces of everyone, especially not the faces of the ladies who sit in the balcony, and so I could have excused him for this mistake. But he had also had orders to only observe during the beginning of his apprenticeship, and this breach of conduct I could not pardon. A boy who cannot obey orders is of no use to me, and I planned to tell him as much as soon as I could extricate him from the crowd.
That was a maneuver requiring considerable dexterity—and all of it wasted, as it turned out. Having forced my way into the innermost circle, I urged the onlookers to disperse and give the distraught lady a little air to breathe, in between demanding that old Mrs. Koch look in her reticule for some smelling salts before the young Miss Bunzel fainted. Having distracted her, I yanked Manny from her grip and tried to push him into the crowd. But instead of dropping to the ground and crawling through the jumble of legs to safety unobserved, the boy was too frightened to budge.
“What has happened?” asked Mr. Lyon, who had also pushed his way through the gaggle of onlookers.
Before Mrs. Koch could empty her mouth of what was certain to be a flood of unflattering words about Manny and me—for she and I were on hostile terms after a certain little incident I do not care to go into—Miss Bunzel cried out, “What does a handkerchief mean to me, when my life, my happiness is over!”
As the young lady looked like she was about to burst into tears right there in the middle of Cheapside, Mr. Lyon informed the ladies he was summoning a carriage to take them home. I thought this was an excellent plan, because the sooner I was rid of them all and could go back to work, the better. But instead of closing the door after they had climbed into the carriage, Mr. Lyon extended his hand to me and said, “You had better come along, General Well’ngone.” He then motioned to Manny to climb into the carriage too.
Like I said, sometimes Australia does not sound so bad.
THE BUNZELS LIVE near Duke’s Place, not far from the Great Synagogue. I do not know why Mr. Samson Bunzel—the widowed father of Miss Bashe and brother of Mrs. Koch—never moved to grander quarters. From what I hear, and in my profession a person hears plenty, Mr. Bunzel has made a fortune from trade, although I cannot remember if it was sugar from the West Indies or spices from the Indies in the East. Yet a person would never have supposed it from the look of his rooms, which are situated above Mr. Izzy Esser’s barber shop.
The drawing room, the room we were herded into, was small and shabby and crowded with chairs and sofas that had neither elegance nor comfort to recommend them. In contrast to the multitude of furniture, there were only a few skinny logs on the fire, which cast little light and less warmth. Yet I would not say that Mr. Bunzel is a miser, and so you should not think it either. Miss Bunzel is always elegantly dressed when she goes out walking and she sometimes wears a pair of very fine lace cuffs, which would fetch a very good price at the Rag Fair. Mrs. Koch’s dress is not so fine, but if her plump figure is an accurate indication, she has never risen from the tea table with her belly still grumbling, as some people that I know must do. I would therefore say that Mr. Bunzel is like many people, when it comes to money: He spends it upon the people and things he likes, and does not bother with what is, in his opinion, unimportant.
Miss Bunzel bade us all be seated, which I thought was very handsome of her, considering that at least one member of the party had tried to pick her pocket just an hour earlier. But when Manny and I took our seats, Mrs. Koch glared at us, as though she thought we were going to stuff the chairs into our pockets and make off with them.
“Auntie, could you see about some tea? And please tell Abner to see to the fire.”
We could see that Mrs. Koch was none too pleased to be dismissed from the room in this manner, but she removed herself from our presence.
“I do not intend to prosecute, Mr. Lyon,” said the young lady.
“I am sure the General and the boy thank you. But I would like to speak with your father, if I may.”
As that gentleman had entered the room just at that moment, trumpeting a sneeze that must have been heard all the way to Jericho, Mr. Lyon’s request was speedily fulfilled.
“My daughter takes after her mother, may her memory be for a blessing. Her heart is much too kind.” Mr. Bunzel dabbed at his nose with a large handkerchief. “In my opinion, there are too many of these lawless youngsters on the streets and London will be none the worse if we ship a few of them off to other climes.” Mr. Bunzel then took out his spectacles and, after having given them berth on his nose, gave Manny and me a stare. “What have they done?”
“Nothing, Father,” the young lady said with admirable alacrity. “I am certain it was all a misunderstanding. I thought this child was trying to remove something from my reticule, but he only bumped into me. The street was unusually crowded, and …”
“And your aunt tells a different story. But I shall not go against your wishes, my dear, at least not in this instance.”
The father gave the daughter a knowing look, and even though I did not yet know what was behind that look, I did see that Miss Bunzel turned pale.
For information about when Costumed Foolery will go on sale—or more information about the Jewish Regency Mystery Series—visit Libi’s website.