View Halloo: Hammersmith (twenty-three)
Swan’s lodging house…or private business of some other type…began its intercourse with the visitor in a sunlit parlor, flanked by closed doors. Hogben, for having breakfasted at Aimee’s, ridden on a train, walked a half-dozen city blocks to Krabill’s, gone by cab to lunch at the St. Bernard, come by cab again to this address, would for all the world’s curiosity have preferred his afternoon nap. Not to be a shirker in the face of citizenly duty, but it was almost unfair.
He’d mourned (at least regretted) the professor; had visited Philadelphia on a gentleman’s errand only, and Mossbunker would now have him confront his late partner, a much diminished figure of a man…sunk, as it seemed, into some skullduggerous scheming, a crime of which Hogben knew nothing…and yet the industrialist, again without perfect justice, insisted he could help resolve.
He admitted to one or two butterflies. He wasn’t sure why they were waiting. Mossbunker had taken a wooden bench under a window that overlooked the street. He began to manifest a sort of steam-engine effect, shoulders rising, chest expanding, eyes bulging. He mumbled words, that might have been: “I knew it!”
He said aloud: “Zetland!”
Piggott, who with Hogben occupied the adjacent bench, stood and went to peer for himself. “Mack seems all right,” he told Mossbunker. “I don’t think we ought to wait for Swan.”
“Swan will fail us, that I foresee. We’ll go up.”
The ward boss rose, to swing back one of the doors and stand demure. Mossbunker rose, and halted. Hogben saw himself expected to give the lead. It was not unlike the professor’s way with his old colleague, a habit Hogben had never got around to mentioning his dislike of, this schoolmasterish stinginess with information. But, no doubt he could find room eighteen…even if Piggott could find it faster.
He turned left at the head of the staircase. He heard a grunt behind him. He turned right. He came back and tried the door directly across. This proved a storage cupboard, dizzyingly scented with furniture paste, two tins of it and a pile of rags on the shelf nearest Hogben’s head, an open shaft for a dumbwaiter at the back.
The handle of a mop clattered from a corner to ding a can of window wax opposite. Hogben leant to straighten this—he hadn’t felt a thing under his shoe—and noticed a pair of familiar eyes, importuning from slightly above the floor.
He contrived to knock the mop back the way it had come, then stooped as though to pick up another thing. There was another thing. Le Fontainebleau nudged a white envelope between the dumbwaiter’s top and the cupboard’s floor. Many times the two men had wordlessly coordinated a variety of dodges, and Hogben thought he understood the professor’s dropping-in-a-slot gesture, hampered as this was by restricted space. He pocketed the letter in a hurry.
“There is one way only from the cellars to the street. I took the precaution of having our cabman block the door, in case Swan got himself busy. Doing two things at once.”
Piggott’s remark came on Hogben’s upturned heels, but he’d judged from the piney scent of a suitcoat’s approach that Piggott, though catching the professor dead-to-rights (and Hogben could not feel much dismayed at this), had not witnessed the envelope pass.
(copyright 2017 Stephanie Foster)