1928. The American economy appears to be booming. The world itself, following a devastating war, seems ripe with promise…and for the opportunistic, easy pickings. Albeit, there has been steady talk of war, the Great One having left Europe impoverished, with none of her resentments resolved. Behind the scenes, a stockpiling scheme disguised as charity waxes; a man in love, who can’t accept himself victim of blackmailers, has staked his life on one chance. Two couples linked by an inconvenient marriage sort themselves more happily; the ignored aggrieved feel ready for vengeance…and an expert in human behavior (manipulating of) is called upon to catch a crooked office-holder.
Table of Contents
1 A Personal Choice
He had taken everything.
12 Mud in Your Eye
Luberta Bragg was going out as a woman.
24 “You’ll Be Happy to Know This, Sir”
“Freda has gone off gadding.”
“It’s not a question of damned if you do or don’t…”
50 Rite of Spring
Talou had not, after all, tracked his prey…
60 How Is a Windmill Like a Waypost
Bruner walked alongside his father.
78 “Alas, Dear Falada, There Thou Hangest”
The mission house had been founded to shelter war orphans.
92 The Watcher Watched
Nora Huey had gone with Boxer.
107 The Heron’s Foot
“You have no money.”
137 Moving On
Phillip found himself catching up to Stanley.
161 Give a Dog a Bad Name and Hang Him
Not too many people liked hounding an orphanage.
198 Drawn Upon Imagination
As a man abandoned by his wife…
Even the walks had been only a nudge.
A Personal Choice
I loved to choose and see my path; but now―
from the hymn Lead Kindly Light
He had taken everything. He had grown sufficiently ruthless that he’d taken other people’s stories as well, stories they’d confided to him, in what amounted to a covenant, between a child, as it were, of his parish, himself…and the ever-present Auditor. The ease with which he’d surrendered to this expedient, when telling lies had become necessary; of rifling this treasure-house of private affairs, proved to Stanley Carpenter the depths of his own degradation.
“Carpenter,” he told the porter, who’d collected Stanley’s trunk, his suitcase, and his hand-bag. “I am only Mr. Carpenter.” The form of address was proper, in any case. Stanley wallowed a bit. He felt that God could not revere him, and if he permitted anyone else to do so, might trip him on the rails.
“Larry,” the porter said. He touched the brim of his cap, adding, “But I understand, some people over here get to be too friendly. No, sir, you let me do that.” He waved away Stanley’s preparatory crouch, from which position he’d meant to assist in upending the hand trolley onto its wheels.
“I see your bags aren’t labeled,” Larry told him. “Do you need help, Mr. Carpenter, finding a hotel? I got a card here…”
“I am visiting my niece. I have written to my niece. And she expects me.”
Larry smiled. His smile began uncertainly, but then, shrugging one shoulder, he said, “Nice when folks visit folks. You come a long way, Mr. Carpenter. Do you need a taxicab?”
“I would consider it helpful, if you would point me to a taxi. Larry…” He held Larry in suspense, while Larry, with a bag of Stanley’s tucked under each arm, and one trailing hand gripping the trolley, waited. The smile faded, and Larry shifted on his feet.
Stanley needed methodical proceedings to keep his nerves quiet. He needed to unfasten his topcoat, one cautious button at a time―or the buttons would twist askew against gloved fingers, and he would struggle, in public, over a simple task. He knew this. He had seen in minor things, as though a guardian angel with a dubious agenda lifted him out of himself, these evidences of slipping that others saw. But they did not see yet that his interior landscape had done more…
It had dislodged and slumped, and knocked away the foundation.
At length, he produced his pocketbook. The first item was the photograph. He’d torn Phillip away from this, on the grounds of not knowing him, and because Phillip and Freda, side by side, would not fit. Of course, Stanley did not know Freda, either. But one couldn’t choose…or rather, one’s American relations were it, for choices; and of those here to whom he might go begging, he had Freda. He must pretend that the doorstep of this girl―who, at any rate, was the daughter of the man his sister had married―would be one at which he might legitimately appear.
He had, had Larry known it, his earthly fortune from which to select his tip. He had withdrawn his savings at the Post Office. He had converted £2436.00 to travelers’ cheques, later most of it to American currency. These alien economics had knocked Stanley off his rocker; he felt alive to the vertiginous consequence. Touching his money caused Stanley agitated visions of sticking paper and dropped notes. He removed his right glove and tucked it, like a parlor-maid with her dusting cloth, into his right outer pocket. He extracted, slowly, rubbing the bill between his fingers, one dollar.
“Larry,” he completed his thought, “I would like for you to have this.”
This figment, this imaginary Mrs. Chamberlain had, with her dirty dealings, left Freda Murchison at a disadvantage. Freda had got back and been arrested, the thought of Phillip causing her hand on the key to lock in place. She’d found herself turning it in a stealthy, silent way―because he might be there, waiting for her…she had no idea what Phillip’s telegram had meant.
The bungalow proved dark, and empty as it soon would be, when for non-payment of rent she had been put on the street. Which was overly dramatic. She would ask her stepmother for help, no doubt, grown hardened to it. For Dolores had known it must come to this.
And after returning to Haworth, she would find herself a woman nearing thirty, on the lookout for a means of running from home. Into Colney Hatch, if need be. She’d run once, but at six years younger. While in less embarrassed circumstances, she’d still had some bargaining power. Freda could now foresee a spiraling descent. She dropped her purse, and walked into the kitchen to pick up the newspaper, lying where she’d left it on the breakfast table.
And she noticed now, reading more carefully through the “Wanted” listings, that many of these offices were located at the same address. Many offered as a telephone number the identical three-digit exchange. Mrs. Chamberlain, whose name had sounded so respectable, and whose advertisement had billed her as a seeker of maids—white only, clean and prompt―was an employment agency’s front woman.
Freda, arriving at the office block where High and 4th Streets intersected, had climbed four half-flights of stairs to knock at number 208B, there to discover an anteroom, with sofa, standing ashtray, and two armchairs. The room smelled different from a city bus, in that it had the building’s emanations of dry rot and mildew admixed with the layers of mothball, tobacco, sweat, scent, and stinking feet, gained from churning human traffic. Certainly it was an aromatic room, one made more so by the fact that everyone in it was wet, and every seat was taken.
Freda had come from the bus stop through a slop of gritty rain. She’d wrapped her head with a scarf of cotton batiste, covering her only good hat, which she’d thought she’d better wear. Umbrellas on buses were a nuisance, after all, and Freda didn’t like apologizing for showering a stranger with raindrops or for poking him in the leg. Some took it as an impetus to conversation, and some glared, frightening her.
Standing, she hesitated, just inside the door, looking at the misted-over window panes, the sofa (old, with a wood frame and horsehair-stuffed upholstery; blue, but so abraded and oiled, that it was purplish as well)—its springs sagging badly in the center, where a girl sank wedged between two older, stouter job seekers.
The girl glanced up, taking the measure of Freda. Freda smiled, without, she knew, any warmth―yet she’d hoped for some fellow-feeling from one more or less her own age. She allowed her eyes to stray, noticing water droplets captured sparkling on the girl’s shabby boucle. When Freda again met her eyes, the girl’s face had altered to a narrow hostility.
But the man in the closer of the chairs patted the armrest. “Sit here, doll.” He added, with an angry sort of jauntiness, belied by something beseeching in his eyes, “They ain’t called nobody.”
“I have an appointment with Mrs. Chamberlain.”
She had worked, altogether in her life, for about one year…she conceded unworldliness, but counted herself not completely stupid. Freda was only trying it on, at this point. The girl who’d taken a dislike to her laughed, then dropped her jaw and began chomping at her chewing gum with, Freda thought, a will to offend.
The woman hunching nearest the ashtray stubbed out her cigarette and lit the next. The other, whose place by the closed inner door did not necessarily indicate preference in the queue, lifted her head. Her hair was a uniform, and heightened, shade of blonde―it might have been a wig. Her cheeks were rouged and her nose bulbous. Freda wasn’t sure she was over forty.
“Listen to you,” the woman said. “Where’d you learn to talk like that?” She pushed a palm against the shoulder of the girl.
Freda thought about this loser’s game. She could stay and wait her turn; perch, for that matter, on the armrest and befriend the staring gentleman. That was a lesson she’d been taught in her stewardessing days. “Anyone might put in the good word, dear. You want to marry a Duke, be sweet to the bloody valet.”
She would wait half the afternoon; her consolation, the chance to provide a clerk her name and address. Perhaps also she would be given a number not disclosed in the advertisements. She could call daily, and they would let her know when they had anything.
As she contemplated all this, shy to catch a rival’s eye, the man must have noticed her glance down over his shoulder. He didn’t shift his own eyes from his crossword, but said, “Six letters. A sound that lulls or alerts.”
Well, it so happened she’d done the puzzle that morning. She didn’t mind looking bright.
“Oh, let me think. Could it be rattle?”
Stanley wondered if all lives of crime began in this way. Mrs. Luchow’s story suited best…but naturally, he’d needed to ask himself if her story suited in every particular. The analytic process had been thus self-prompting. First, he’d reviewed the details, then chosen what he could adapt for his own purposes, discarding what was of no use. Practically of its own accord, the refinement had carried on, and Stanley’s mind had taken on this calculating criminal aspect, all evolved as a chain of organic propagation.
Of course, he’d taken passage on the Leviathan. That had been Freda’s ship, so it would be clever to learn along the way―Stanley could not help but allow himself to observe this―some conversation-starting minutiae of the Leviathan’s routines.
And he must use this girl Freda, in the manner of an opportunistic cad, because her city was the one mentioned to Stanley by Robert. His second eldest brother’s relict in Ottawa—though quite possibly she longed for a visit, and would not greet his with a face of dismay—would not do. Captain Desanges had given this city as his place of residence; to Robert, the cheek of this transparency just one more of the man’s outrages, and not to be entertained.
But Stanley, who for many days had heard nothing, when for three months previous, Talou had been his dear companion, already had felt sunk by foreboding. As regarded his brother’s allegations…as to the photos Robert had obtained, furnished by Captain Desanges, Stanley simply could not believe the import. Desanges might be every sort of scoundrel, but Stanley had seen none of these proofs with his own eyes.
Crossing the Atlantic, he’d paced the deck alone, hoping his sufferings had not wrought on his face a lowering, repellent, visible madness, that would, as well as to his fellow passengers, be off-putting to his niece. He felt convinced, and found it somewhat handicapping to his calling, that he’d not been blessed with an approachable face. During these walks, Stanley gave thought to Desanges―of whose milieu he could form no picture. The name might be false. Or, in America, notorious. Robert would indeed have supposed this to be his game, a means of trapping a respectable baronet into a public exchange of letters with a felon.
Stanley was riding now for the second time, hand luggage hugged to his chest, in the rear seat of an American taxicab. Larry, with pity in his eyes, had advised him not to pay the driver until he’d found his niece at home. Stanley had thanked Larry for this, while not disclosing the whole of his plan. With both his finite funds, and his humiliation in mind, Stanley wanted no hotel room, where he could make inquiries only through the switchboard operator or concierge.
“Is there,” he’d asked the cabbie, “a rail station in the city of New York, one that is rather out of the way?”
Lying that night in his berth, having at some expense departed westwards from Hoboken, New Jersey, he’d winnowed away at the mistakes of Mrs. Luchow’s somewhat feeble relation. She’d always been, Mrs. Luchow, ostentatious over the quality of her tea things, and her annual basket from Fortnum’s. She’d laughed, not opening her mouth, an arch chuckle swallowed for charity’s sake, as she’d related the bit about the icing sugar candies, flavored with peppermint oil, offered in a cocoa tin.
“However, one accounts the intention as the deed.”
Mrs. Luchow had smiled upwards into Stanley’s eyes, saying this, as though her words had come from the Old Testament, and he must, of course, himself endorse them.
He had worked a refinement therefore on the original, and had bought for Freda from a platform vendor a little book, which he hoped would seem gauche, while not contemptibly so.
He felt a terrible sympathy for his template’s lonely dodge, her amateurish falsehood. “Well, Margaret, she said to me, you’d asked me down last year, so I felt sure the invitation had gone astray!”
Stanley had come to the decision that a telegram was the right idea. It would be tardy, and issued from an unlikely office, for he hadn’t thought of it in time. But one could not represent an entire correspondence to have gone missing. Much better if he wired what appeared a follow-up, presumptuous in its wording…yet vague. It was, he encouraged himself, exactly what one would do after disembarking, in any case. Minus the deceit.
Arrived New York. Expect two to three days. Stanley.
He’d hesitated over the signing of the telegram. He’d concluded Freda really would not remember his first name, unless Dolores had mentioned him often in her letters, and he found it impossible she should do so. To create uncalled-for mystery would muddy the waters. He must have Freda believe him sane and plausible. He meant for some days to force himself on her hospitality.
“I thought…or, I worried…”
Stanley bent with his teacup and saucer over the table, pausing here, and glided The Mason Bees to one side. Freda reached for the book. It was a naturalist’s work, if not an entomologist’s—its contents, to be sure, all the title promised. She’d leafed through it, after Stanley had rooted it from a coat pocket; Freda had then laid The Mason Bees aside. But while he might only have been making space for the crockery, she considered that this uncle was a Carpenter…and so also was her stepmother. Dolores, had she felt a gift underappreciated, would draw attention to it in exactly that way.
“Let me just go put this on my nightstand. I’m so glad you thought of a book, Uncle Stanley.”
Alone now, and welcoming this privacy for the heaving of a sigh, Freda told herself Stanley’s comment could well linger. That would make it the conversational equivalent of portioning. Stanley’s supply of talk seemed limited; likewise, Freda’s larder was limited. She had been able, with the tea, to offer toast and jam. As a rule, she didn’t have guests.
She’d dropped her newspaper, found a working jet, filled the kettle and set it to boil. The first thud on her front stoop, the rattle of the door, only half caught Freda’s notice. But a second, more muted weight landed, and she heard a male voice speaking, another male voice answer. Phillip, she told herself…he really has come back. I hope he’s flush, damn him, spending money on a bleeding cab.
Mrs. Ruald, owner of the house, had two tightly strung lace panels fitted to rods top and bottom, over the front inside glass. Freda parted these, and saw the taxi-man’s pained expression turn ironic. He gave her a salute. The other man was a stranger. He faced the driver in three-quarter profile, engaging in a fussy and tedious business over the extracting of his fare from his wallet.
He was thin, haggard-looking, this stranger. But handsome, she thought…almost dashing with it, that suffering air. And, Freda estimated, probably aged forty or so. He had neglected visiting a barber recently. She saw him hike his valise under his arm, cast a glance that followed the driver’s gaze, then contract his shoulders with a start, as though she’d caught him stealing the welcome mat. He made her think of a scolded mongrel.
Next, he’d marshalled himself round with a sort of shiver…and she began to believe she’d once met him. This disturbance, this nagging unanchored memory, was like Mr. Bruner’s crossword clue. It distracted Freda’s mind―she’d nearly missed the significance of the luggage. She was brought back by a soft knocking at the door.
“You were saying,” she took up with her uncle, rejoining him on the sofa.
He looked worried, as he eyed Freda, but didn’t seem to remember having said he was. “About”—she raised her eyebrows—“the telegram. I told you, Stanley is Phillip’s middle name. I had guessed it one of his jokes.” Truthfully, Phillip didn’t play jokes of that type. When he was cryptic, it was a warning sign. He’d been out selling his booklets, she’d thought, and had in some way run afoul of the law.
“Well…as for myself, I rarely send them. I don’t suppose I’ve explained things very well. But then, of course, you had the letter. Only, as you say, you have never received my letter. I find it unaccountable.”
“Stanley.” She felt she ought to be frank. She decided, at that moment, to dispense with calling him Uncle. What had come to Freda’s mind was a friendly bargain.
“Don’t worry about it,” Phillip told her. “Stanley gets the luck of the draw, for showing up unannounced. He’ll just have to be a man.”
Phillip, Freda noted, had shown up unannounced, although the point was arguable―there were times he chose to live in his own house. Stanley, more sensible by contrast, had brought a gift, and a pretext. Phillip also had not closed the bedroom door. She bent her knees, twisting away from his hands on her shoulders; then briskly, she pushed the door and heard the latch click.
“Phillip.” Freda levered herself onto the dresser, sitting with her back to the mirror, and crossed her arms. “You are too sly on the subject of Captain Desanges. You know Captain Desanges.”
“Not in the least.” He sat on the bed, and his secretive smirk decorated his face, to Freda’s eye, like that of a liar.
“You had better not be cruel to Stanley. I was about to take his money when you spoiled the mood.”
“Well, we will take his money in good time. But you’ve never told me about these Carpenters.”
“Because…I don’t know them. They don’t, apparently, know one another―socially speaking. Not one representative of Dolores’s family attended my father’s wedding. I wish to heaven I hadn’t been forced to attend…”
She had been fourteen. Her new stepmother had taken her aside for a talk that Freda feared might run to any sort of ghastliness.
“One generally says, I expect we will become good friends,” Dolores said, her expression self-congratulatory in its openness. “I expect we will not. You are rather far along in years to form an attachment to a new mother. I hope we need not be enemies. And I see no prospect of that, unless you are a very provoking girl.” Dolores had smiled. That had been her humor.
Beyond Dolores, Freda had learned, the Carpenter family was gentry, on a modest and descending scale, for through two marriages the Carpenter patriarch had generated something like eight or nine offspring. The eldest son was a baronet, reasonably well-to-do. And Stanley, as Freda was reminded, had been a curate. He might still be.
“Stanley,” she’d asked him, “do you anticipate a long stay in America?”
He murmured the name of a friend he hoped to locate, cleared his throat, and repeated, “Desanges. Captain.”
Freda watched Stanley’s hands, as his fingers furtively—perhaps uncontrollably—caressed the teacup. Here, she thought, was a segue one might use to advantage. “Hotels,” she had just ventured to suggest, “can be quite expensive…”
At that moment, the knob began to turn. The door eased back an inch or two. A familiar face soon peered round the crack.
“Yes, quite. What have I done, love?” He came in without luggage, and took the armchair opposite, throwing an ankle onto a knee.
Freda poured herself a cup of cold tea, rather than meet Phillip’s eye. “Has been away,” she finished, for Stanley’s benefit. “He sells things.”
Stanley, shrinking against the cushions with a greater self-doubt, had earned a long study from Phillip; Phillip, with his salesman’s gift, at once locking onto the salient detail, with the teeth of a badger-hound.
“Desanges. Now there’s a respectable-sounding nom de guerre. Military man, one assumes. Where did you happen to meet him?”
“Oh, I suppose…we are such old friends…I hardly recall.”
Freda sat forward. Mr. Bruner, from the agency, was a secret of her own. If she could earn the money he’d promised, she would not share that news with Phillip. Bruner had mentioned missing persons. He’d mentioned this aspect of his work with a derisive snort he hadn’t explained.
And dear Uncle Stanley—she noticed it as readily as Phillip had—was ashamed of his connection with Desanges. A light shined up a side alley…where Freda had, in former times, walked only on the broad avenue. She felt she was getting the hang of this job she had not yet agreed to take on.
Today the waves were dangerously high
And I chained from the path
Climbed until I saw the summit’s bleak shape
Echoed in a pillar of cloud
My view obscured
Stayed here by a warning sign
And this was only a dream
I have not been to the sea
Lacking faith I looked behind to see your eyes
Then I awoke
Stanley was unable to sleep. The hall light was on, the streetlamps glowed through the window, the room’s varied shadows in yellow and blue feinted at his tired mind. His thoughts wandered. He sought another line he might add to the poem for Talou, and gave it up. He’d expected Phillip to be there. He’d been pleasantly surprised, at first, to find he was not. He’d met Freda only once, at his father’s funeral; this death, coming a year or so after his sister’s marriage, an event to draw most of the Carpenters.
“I know,” his brother Robert had been saying (Robert, hunkering beneath his black umbrella; Stanley, rain dripping from the brim of his hat), “what you will get, and it will be no more than fifteen hundred.”
Dolores, her new husband, and the girl, all three bearing umbrellas of their own, making for an absurdly awkward business, had crowded up, and Dolores had said, “Stanley, you don’t know Aubrey. Aubrey, this is my brother Stanley.”
He’d glanced at the disregarded girl, and could see of her face nothing, only an umbrella top, and an angry gloved hand gripping the metal shaft…but he’d had no use then for Freda, and only lately had any thought of her crossed his mind.
Stanley wondered if she were attractive. He knew of no reason why, to an average man’s eye, she should not be. His sister had sent him Freda’s wedding photo, and being Dolores, had written on the reverse, “This is my only copy.” She might have meant for Stanley to look at it and send it back, but he hadn’t done it. He tested himself with Freda, as he did at times with women. She was a woman (and not a blood relative); he could appraise her in that light.
Keeping his face out of direct view, Stanley had fished in his pocket for the book. He was lying, and trying to remember how he’d invented the story as he’d rehearsed it.
“…as I mentioned in my letter, you will not recollect, perhaps, having met me on the occasion of my father’s funeral. However…” He straightened, and thrust The Mason Bees at Freda, once and again, until she’d accepted it.
“I’m afraid,” she began, and then, after staring at the book’s title, seemed to come to a resolution. She’d grown warmer, more attentive.
Was Phillip attractive? Stanley listened to the conversation in the other bedroom, and all he could make of it was his own name, and Desanges, Desanges. Phillip, he decided, holding his opinion in reserve, had attractive manners. But these weighings of his reactions to others did not answer for Stanley the larger question. Talou had meant more to him. Talou held a place that was unique and set apart from the simple considerations of attraction and affection.
It had been a churchwarden, Mr. Parker, who’d told him about the fishing on the river Spey. Stanley had never angled in his life, but that circumstance must make his misadventure seem the more likely in retrospect. He had sacrificed a portion of his savings solely to strengthen appearances. To reach the riverbank, he must walk, and be seen walking, a distance of about a mile. He had done this for three days, before tossing his gear in the river and striking off cross-country.
The thread of Parker’s story, what Stanley remembered of it (“…rotten weather, and nearly tipped in when I dropped my fly-book…had to part ways with my two best minnows…”) Stanley had copied into his letter verbatim, with no certainty of Parker’s meaning. The words held portent; they meshed, he hoped, into the explanation that would naturally occur to Dolores. He could envision Parker at the memorial service—if Dolores could be bothered to organize one―shaking his head, and the hand of Stanley’s brother-in-law.
“Almost the same thing happened to me, sir.”
Stanley would shock his sister with this giddy talk, rattling on as though some holiday spirit could have made his Carpenter blood effervesce, but there were aspects of the scenario that must, for the sake of escape, be established. Dolores was intelligent, she would put two and two together, and the story would gain authority under her retelling. Stanley had thrown in, as well, a suggestive anecdote about a drowned man…it didn’t matter, nor could he recall, where he’d read it, but he’d recast it for his sister as both a local and a recent event. One could not pray to become the beneficiary of coincidence, but friendless men did sometimes drown themselves. He could readily picture Dolores, if confronted with a badly decomposed corpse―one held in a morgue until a family member claimed it (as had the estranged daughter of the article’s suicide)―taking a cursory look and calling it Stanley.
“Well, touch wood,” he’d written in conclusion. “I will be alone on the river for the better part of two weeks.” This would annoy Dolores, his writing to her as he never did, thus imposing on her an obligation―if not to answer, at least to have read his letter. But Stanley had given her a gift, too, which she would appreciate later on, when he was gone. The letter would be evidence; Dolores, its possessor. This chance to bully a Scotland Yard man would brace her up nicely.
Otherwise, he’d worn no disguise, traveled under no alias when he’d boarded the train for Southampton, not trusting…or rather, supposing it must inevitably fall thus, when a hapless man went fugitive…his not running across an acquaintance. His fishing holiday was flimsy cover; it would unravel under actual suspicion. Yet the first idea would surely be to search along the riverbank. And they might not think of doing so for another fortnight, if Stanley were lucky.
Mud in Your Eye
Her footsteps had the lightness
Her voice the joyous tone
The tokens of a youthful heart
Where sorrow is unknown
“She Wore a Wreath of Roses”
Thomas Haynes Bayly
Luberta Bragg was going out as a woman.
The public Luberta’s netted chignon was affixed, of necessity, to the evening headgear, this shaped like a wedge of orange-peel. Desanges had wanted her tonight in some pale, glowing fabric…which must be, in the event, a butter-colored taffeta, festooned with side bustles. He’d given her permission to shop. (More to the point, given her money.)
And now, instructing Luberta, he framed her hips with his two hands.
“So. A blank canvas, you understand me.” She was to place herself, standing, behind a certain individual, who ought at the crucial moment to be sitting down. That was all. Luberta didn’t question Desanges.
It was for Harvey she’d cultivated her persona of hats…though, if anyone wanted to know, Luberta loved them, breadbox-sized or teacup, fin de siècle floating island or cubist staircase…cocked, feathered, madly bowed, swathed in chiffon, making Harvey’s impoverished heiress an asset to his own drama. She kept, or rather, Desanges assisted her by doing the barbering, enough length in her hair to feather the back of Talou’s collar, and an overlong forelock he could brush carelessly from his brow, glancing up doe-eyed, catching another’s, his smile tentative.
When she was the other woman, nameless (“If you had to guess, what would you think? Oh, really? No, no!…not so fast, darling”), she wore a wig. She could brass it up in certain dim settings; she could sometimes be a redhead or a platinum blonde…but most often, she was mouse-brown, mid-toned, a gal, a sympathetic ear to the lone traveler, one who might soon—if he proved the right sort—meet Talou. Luberta had one or two reliable accents that would have astonished her father, and all this shipboard sociability invited a biography to bloom in the mind of her conversational partner.
Desanges inclined his torso over her shoulder. She lifted an eyebrow, meeting his assessing gaze in the mirror.
“Boardman is not well liked.” He nudged the wig-form on which the brown hair sat, sliding it aside a fraction of an inch. A crescent moon of clean ash veneer emerged on the vanity’s surface from a film of face powder. Desanges touched only the wire base. He had a distaste for dead human hair. “I believe he treats the help badly. But you are not trying to impress him.”
Luberta, just to be clear, said: “I’m not wearing that. A full wig is too much with a hat.”
“No, I don’t suggest it.”
She would, however, impress Boardman. After she’d seen him, watched him, noticed all that Boardman himself noticed. Talou could be any sort of young man, to suit the customer, just as Luberta could be any sort of woman. Though she had her limitations. She would, for one thing, be thirty-nine this year.
Talou could still of course be much younger. (Twenty-five or six was how she thought of him.) And when a woman, Luberta knew herself stronger in the role of sister or friend. The Bragg line had gifted its daughter with social status―on which she traded freely―and with a face that was not round, small-chinned, doll-eyed, or button-nosed, but opposite of all those things. Luberta knew she was not desperately plain, but she was not winsome.
“Desanges,” she said, and stopped herself. She opened a pot of lip paint, swirled the brush in the air, inviting his opinion. “Would a red lip be too much?”
“I would not wear color at all.” He weighed such cosmetic variables without irony. “You are accompanying Mr. Planter to this affair. You will go as yourself. You must consider…what expectation will Boardman have when Planter introduces you?”
Curtis Boardman, well-publicized for it, disliked Harvey. But most playwrights disliked drama critics, Harvey Planter especially. Boardman might try to play her against her boss, taking a tack she knew well, treating the help, in this case, as the greater object of interest. She would then annoy him by deferring back to Harvey…their cross-talk would provide valuable intelligence.
She asked: “Desanges, do you think about the future?”
“The future is whatever comes along next. Remember not to overdress.”
“I would rather have them dead.”
Harvey had once explained his system to Luberta. She was not a secretary, because Harvey Planter worked only, these days, three months of the year. He called her his factotum, and at times would lower her status to dogsbody. The terms were meant to disdain the notion of an automaton, or a creature, not to make Luberta feel like one.
“You may have this.”
Disregardful, he flipped the clipping that dangled from his fingertips. “Saw it in the obits this morning. Take it, take it.”
She scanned the printed words. She saw Harvey had got at it already with his notations. She would have to type a cover sheet, tape this scrap of newsprint to a second sheet of letter paper, and file both among the deceased, the ones Harvey felt free to name openly in his memoirs. Soon they’d have enough libelous anecdotes to fill the first volume.
“But the maid, the one who stole the necklace…”
“Appropriated. Possibly for the good of society.”
“She is living, is she?”
“I haven’t checked. Maids don’t sue.”
Luberta suggested to him that families sometimes sued.
In this case it didn’t matter. The story was only about a smuggling escapade, one with a twist at the end for its perpetrators. Next to the Volstead Act, Harvey’s crowd most enjoyed flouting the customs laws.
Harvey could attend Boardman’s gathering without a female by his side, but in addition to helping him keep his stories in order, escorting Harvey was Luberta’s other occasional duty. He liked seeing his old friends face to face, able thus to judge who belonged on death watch and who, in robust senescence, pottered on. His conduct at these meetings could be scandalous.
“How many have we got?”
“We’ll need at least fifty.” Harvey sighed. “They’re dropping like flies, the ones my age.”
The ones Harvey’s age, in the meantime, made unpleasant work for Talou. Luberta knew them well. And Harvey, knowing everyone in the theater, had a light touch with his witticisms, the joke to his intimates not veiled. Luberta carried Harvey’s gossip straight to Desanges.
She disagreed with Desanges about Boardman. Not as a target, per se, but that they ought to be taking on new work at all. They’d enjoyed a profitable stay in England, picking up the price of their passage home six times over…for Desanges, expert practitioner, never made unreasonable demands. His victims were never so wealthy as to be dangerous; never so footling they might reason to themselves, “I have nothing to lose”.
The pair of them needn’t skulk about like petty criminals, employing a dozen assumed names. Safe in the milieu of the parvenu and the minor title, Talou could always be Talou.
“Because you see where that would lead. Soon, it must be disguises, since a description can be put about readily enough. And then other names and other disguises…no, I am not a clown.”
Nor was his assistant Desanges.
And if she’d asked, he would have tasked her on difference between a costume and a disguise. But no, they were black sheep, belonging otherwise to the same social sphere as their victims. Were it not for this business disagreement, we would be friends, you and I, the candid manner of Desanges, as he accepted payment―“It will need to be a cheque, I’m afraid”―implied.
“I hadn’t anticipated this difficulty,” Desanges, making his usual speech, had said to Sir Robert Carpenter. “I would like to do you a good turn…if you will think about it, sir, you might get a laugh out of such a story yourself, supposing you had heard about it in one of your clubs.”
Carpenter, by Desanges’s description, had turned pale, aghast at this picture conjured, Stanley’s disgrace becoming dining room fodder. He would keep silent, his mortification profound—he was of that type. However, many of their victims, coming from more worldly estates, understood Desanges to perfection. Yes, the thing did make a good joke. And having—at some cost—been let in on it, they were quite prepared to watch the career of Talou with interest.
“They might as well call it ‘Song of the Dockyards’, and be done with it,” Boardman said.
He had specified, inviting over the telephone, informality of dress. Two or three of the women wore kimono-style wrappers, and Boardman stuck close to his own guardian, a pug-nosed, heavy-browed person who resembled Alfred Oliver, and who might have borrowed his trousers.
Luberta was interested only in Boardman’s personal taste in informality. He was not unbuttoned. He wore a collar and tie, but no suit jacket or vest. His face―and she was careful that her eyes moved with each speaker; that she never let them linger on Boardman’s face―had prominent cheekbones, dark, glowering eyes, a mouth it would be pleasant enough to kiss, should this fish rise to the bait. But his tone was cynical ennui. He kept an arm draped over the back of the very new white Chesterfield, and with his free hand, dismissively punctuated his talk.
Luberta was forming an impression. The impression was that Boardman loathed himself. Talou would come on, then, like temptation foretold, hesitant in the lighted doorway of a smoky barroom, one pocketed hand drawing back the flap of his jacket.
“But I don’t know what a crimp is,” Boardman’s friend observed.
“Well, stay away from waterfront dives. You’ll wake up on a merchant ship, and they won’t know their error until you’ve had your morning shave.”
“You mean to say…” Another of Boardman’s coterie joined in. He was seated on one of the boudoir chairs that passed for lounge furniture, in this elevated nook above the dance floor, here in the Hotel Grenadier’s private clubroom. Too tall to sit comfortably on the round cushion, unable to rest his arms, he turned three quarters this way and that, as he addressed Boardman. And with a sudden shift in his gaze, looked up at Luberta, as though he’d noticed her all along, and was now amiably including her. He was almost handsome―his face, in contrast to Boardman’s, untroubled and disingenuous; his accent, southern.
“Ma’am, why don’t you have a seat?” he patted the chair beside his own, and finished his earlier remark, turning back to face Boardman.
“…you were going to call the play ‘Crimps’?”
“Louis thought if no one understood the name, they’d assume it was dirty. So he insisted on subtitling it―‘A Tale of the Dockyards’. But you notice on the poster how they chose that peculiar watery lettering. The subtitle ends up being easier to read.”
The man chuckled, taking this gripe of Boardman’s as a quip. Again, he met Luberta’s eyes, and she cocked her head, after shaking it, in the direction of the flowing tidal wave of chatter that moved with Harvey Planter, threatening to inundate Boardman and knock him off his perch.
The threat was not idle. Harvey had gathered Louis Guion himself in his wake.
“Louis, your color is excellent. Is it your own?” Guion had a bad liver. Harvey had moved him to the front of the file.
“Listen, Van Nest,” Boardman said, fishing in his trouser pocket, and withdrawing from his wallet a clipping. He made a business of it, laying the folded paper on the table, next to the ashtray, restoring his wallet, leaning forward again to spread the clipping open, flattening it once, twice…and then Boardman read:
“This latest effort is something of a diamond in the rough, trading on allegory to whip tepid verbal traffickings into a species of meringue.” He raised an eyebrow at Van Nest, who commented, “That’s Mr. Planter’s review.”
“When we speak of meringue.” Boardman, with a finger, located his place. “Here in Act One, we find ourselves shanghaied, as it were; here we endure characters and dialogue, but Mr. Boardman will not disclose to us his reasons for making them…”
“Well, Louis,” Harvey’s voice, close by, drifted across the nook, “I suppose you’ll go back now to your strong suit. And you know, it’s been ages since I’ve really liked a musical…”
“Nah, that’s okay…” The Blonde said.
She was not blonde at present―without her stage wig, her hair was reddish, and she wore it in a short braid. “Just talk to me slow.”
Her voice lowered to its usual pitch; no longer in character, she un-bugged her eyes, telling Freda, “But, they cut the joke. They figured no one in the audience would get it. I say, they would get that a professor uses a lot of fancy words, right?”
“Context,” Freda nodded. “And what does ‘adumbrate’ mean?”
The girl hesitated. The man at the piano said, “To outline…an idea, a concept. Generally. Jessie, get over here!”
Jessie’s projecting voice, Freda had heard break out of conversational clusters into spontaneous song, two or three times already during the evening. Jessie was small and gaminesque, not pretty―but done-up for show, lips magenta, headband of silver lamé. Freda looked across the room at Bruner’s back.
Her escort, so far—to his unsociability—loyal in devotion, waited only for a signal. There was a bouncer working Boardman’s private affair, who would come out to smoke a cigarette. By this arrangement Bruner would know all the guests had arrived, and Freda, sent scurrying, safely could slide in through the service entry.
“I will play, and you will imagine the strings. However,” the composer caught her eye, “it’s better with strings.” He and Jessie traded lyrics. Freda, who had just seen “Hopeless Romance” in performance, could visually stage the number—the musical’s set-piece. The opening verse, coming on a lush, rising melodic line, the principles entering, stage left and stage right:
You and I
Addled by the heady sent of lilac in May
Find our foolish lovers’ fancy wand’ring astray
These enchanted butterflies live only a day
Until chilled by the fall
What becomes of it all?
Then they exited, the chorus line emerged…a syncopated rhythm kicked in.
Infatuation in its fugacity
Furnishes proof of our heart’s capacity
For hopeless romance
Futile endeavors desperately striven for
Souls in perdition linger left living tor―
mented by hopeless romance
“So why,” she asked, “do they allow fugacity?”
“The tap dancing confuses them.” The composer shrugged.
The smell of the developing solution had a horridness all its own, but Bruner’s darkroom otherwise had fascinated Freda.
“You get maybe three shots…I wouldn’t push it. You need to feel confident handling the camera. I can’t go in there myself, but I’ll be just outside the door.”
Not having anticipated Phillip, never mind Stanley, she’d given Bruner her address. Then she’d had no number to reach him.
“There is a gentleman, behind the wheel of an antiquated motorcar, tootling at the curb,” Phillip remarked, his hand parting the curtains. “Is this your boyfriend, Freda?”
“Mr. Bruner has offered me work.”
Throwing on her coat, she had no time for the arranging of her hat. (Or why, at any rate, spoil this opportunity to rush off, shooting her spouse an insouciant ta-ta, by taking it?) Freda squashed the soft felt under her arm, along with her purse, and tried, allowing the barest clearance between herself, Phillip, and the door, to efface him from Bruner’s sight.
He reached above her head, pulled it wide, and came out on her heels.
He beamed at Bruner, who’d come round to the passenger side, and stood with reluctant body language, holding the door. “Mrs. Murchison has a husband. That would be the present speaker. I hope you don’t find your plans disarrayed by the news.”
At the agency, he’d said to Freda, “Why don’t you forget this place and take a walk with me?” Bruner added, with a compressed little smile, “It’s a public street. You can always call a cop.”
And as they’d walked, and talked, Freda had taken him up, degree by degree. She even waved that wave, now, to Phillip, and let Bruner drive her away, knowing no more of him than that he represented himself a private investigator. He was probably ten years her elder, premature in world-weariness, shabby in small things that ought not to matter―his shoes unshined, his clothes ill-fitting. Yet, the quality of these shoes and clothes suggested he was not impoverished, only indifferent to appearances.
He had an appealing habit of looking at Freda sideways, as though, dubious proposition that he was himself, Bruner did not fully trust her. She read these signs, and found herself believing in him. He’d explained―neither boasting, nor embarrassed―that when he needed help, he sat in the agency’s anteroom and poached their applicants, a method both efficient and cost-free.
“I don’t have to rent a post-box…I don’t pay for ads.” Nor, as none of these people yet worked for them, could the agency complain.
And this day as they drove—as they bumped along a back street, where brick pavement pitched and rolled uplifted by the roots of sickly elms, depressed under the wheels of delivery vans; through a neighborhood of rentals and kit-built homes with Gothic gables, shrinking to suburban bungalows—Bruner began Freda’s training.
“I got a Graflex compact. That’s one you can fold up. I leave it to you, ma’am, to decide where you’re gonna hide it. Today I’ll show you how to work the camera, and I want you to practice. You can smuggle it into the room okay, but once you take it out, you can’t disguise what you’re doing. Then you gotta be smooth, and cool. When you can’t conceal your business, you better look like you know your business.
“This job could go a couple of ways. You may get away with it completely…only keep in mind I don’t want you taking risks. Someone might come after you…so in that case, better high-tail it. But, if you get caught, I got you set up with a cover story. You get maybe three shots. I wouldn’t push it.”
(The cover was this cast party. Tickets to the show, gratuitous. Her date—almost endearingly—had sat in pretense of taking some sort of notes, covering with these patent motions his stiff-mannered reticence. Bruner, it evinced, knew Jessie, and Jessie, knowing nothing more than that Bruner introduced Freda as a chorus hopeful, must say as much, if asked. So also could the others verify her movements; Mr. Orne’s word above doubt…the composer being actually somewhat celebrated.)
“But that’s a long shot. It’s no crime to take someone’s picture. Besides the Gren’s got no beef, anyhow…anyone can walk in off the street. Hotels are open to the public. I mean, sure, order you off the premises…hold you for the cops if you kick up a fuss. But you wouldn’t do that. Now, you make your story good by telling it. You get me? So mingle around the room, and let ’em know who you are. You’ve been in the chorus—you never said what show—you heard about this shindig across the way… You’re gaga for Boardman. I think a lot of the women are.”
He looked at her, then, frowning as though he expected her to disappoint him by saying, oh yes, I know.
She had seen Boardman’s picture in the paper. Freda sat up. There was something…a recent thing…that she couldn’t pin down…
“The door was just standing open,” Bruner prompted.
“Yes, well.” She shook her head. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t be gaga.”
“Martin…” Mrs. Bruner leaned over the sofa back, while Freda sat, applying herself to the first lesson, withdrawing the camera casually, opening and closing it. At the moment she wore a cardigan and the Graflex would not fit in the pocket. But as Bruner was intending, with this rehearsal Freda’s imagination began to encompass new possibilities. She was tying knots in her Persian shawl…she would wear it with the low-backed black sheath, dressed thus as a friend of Boardman’s might, while concealing her extra baggage.
“…says I’m not allowed to offer you cake. But I have cake. Or some little lemon wafers, if you like, hon. I can make coffee.”
“Mom, I never said you weren’t allowed. I said Mrs. Murchison,” he emphasized her married status for the second time since introducing her, “is here to help me with a job. That’s the only reason she’s here.”
“Everyone knows about this. But they don’t necessarily know it on a conscious level.”
Freda knew Boardman, or rather, she could now identify Boardman quite thoroughly well. Having studied Bruner’s file, she’d seen the famous face from varying angles; and yes, she’d got it…the thing…the niggling, odd congruity.
Pointless boring Bruner with chit-chat about her family…
But it was queer.
Boardman’s female friend was Rica Bullard. Bullard had been in Hollywood, and wrote for the Herald a locally famous, mildly caustic column, found on the Sunday variety page.
Contrary to the opinion of the pedants, the movies have plots, just as do rows of cabbage. Why, I once asked Mr. Seymour (as we two scenarioized together…a true H’wood coinage, that…), does the heroine not pull a faint, when the villain drags her to the cliff’s edge, and then catch him by the legs? Why is the movie heroine wily in matters of seduction, while stupid at such times her life is at stake?
Freda also could recognize Louis Guion, and of course, Harvey Planter. The man speaking to Boardman, whose remarks had elicited this peevish frown, frozen in place now on Boardman’s brow, she thought either a reporter, or society gadfly. But yet the man must be of value to Boardman, who permitted him inner-circle seating, and had in the first place invited him. Although Boardman tapped fingers against the sofa, and did so whenever the other man spoke, he remained engaged in their conversation.
“Think about something that makes you happy.”
“Nothing makes me happy. Well, I’ll amend that. However, I’ve been warned you never shut up. My bad luck.”
And saying this, Boardman squinted across at Freda, making her heart thump. She had just accepted a drink from the waiter’s tray, not yet to the sticking point having screwed her resolve, to, as Bruner had told her: “Mix in, make yourself inconspicuous. When you talk to anyone, you know what to say.”
She wasn’t sure she did. Her quarry had almost made eye-contact, and she hadn’t known―with a split-second to decide―if she would do worse to stare back boldly, or in haste glance away.
And after all, he’d wanted only the waiter’s attention.
“Drinking makes you happy, liar,” Miss Bullard commented. “I believe you’re helping Van Nest prove his point. Sub-consciously.”
“No, we can take it from the opposite perspective.”
Van Nest nodded to Bullard’s dig, leant towards Boardman, rested his finger on the table-top next to an amber-glass ashtray. Sitting back, he added, “You showed us a clipping you carry folded in your wallet.”
“Well,” said Boardman. “Planter didn’t kill the play in New York. He may have drummed up some interest.” Planter was speaking to a group of actors, not entirely out of earshot. “But I rate Planter’s work a better cure for insomnia than depression.”
“So forget happiness. Let’s take a scenario. You set out from your room…maybe Mr. Guion has asked you to come down to the theater…”
“Yes, as it turns out, the mystery woman who drowned herself in the East River hails from a Chicago hog-butchering dynasty, and they’ve just announced a lawsuit…”
“Too close to the bone,” murmured Rica.
“Well, sure, maybe so.”
Van Nest gave Boardman a tolerant smile, killing his sarcasm. “You get into the elevator, and another guy gets on, and pulls out his wallet. He unfolds a piece of paper, and stands there reading it.”
Boardman slumped and crooked an arm behind his neck. He did this with too much deliberation to convey indifference. “I would be struck, as it were, by a nightmarish apparition…is that the idea?”
“The idea is, here’s a symbolic token of communication that works for you and you alone. Not to say the same symbol couldn’t bear a different significance for other people. Only that you have an emotional response to this particular signal. That’s the hidden language I’m talking about.”
The lounge walls were sectioned by gilt moldings; each span papered in gold geometrics, and lighted by sconces, whose opaque shades beamed a soft circumference to the floor. However, a standing lamp had just been brought by a waiter, placed and plugged in behind Miss Bullard’s half of the sofa. When he switched it on, Bullard clapped, and Boardman scooted further into his slump, squinting. Freda set her glass on the cushion of a divan. She gathered her skirt, her other hand cradling the camera in its sling. She laid down her minaudière. She felt that, rather than a soignée party guest, she looked like a bus passenger sorting her shopping on the seat.
And sitting without grace, Freda picked up her glass, hiding her face to the extent she could, sipping the yellow liquid—punch, she thought. She hoped it was spiked with vodka. Her knees seemed to have given out. Her hand did not shake, but Freda knew she had lost her nerve. She had a minute or two to regain it.
Rica, cackling at Boardman’s distress, clambered round to test the lamp farther back, closer to. A young man in rolled-up sleeves sat bent over the table, and a sheaf of papers. Trading a pencil back and forth, he and Bullard had counterpointed Boardman’s and Van Nest’s talk with upticks of animation, little barks of laughter. The chair at Van Nest’s right was empty; a woman clad in poufy taffeta had risen at Bullard’s invitation, and got behind the sofa, looking down over what Freda thought must be a script. She watched Van Nest’s gesturing hand cut across Boardman’s face, and thought about the long exposure she would need in this light (which circumstance seemed to have greatly improved).
“What has Boardman done?” she’d asked Bruner.
His dark room was in his parents’ cellar. Freda had taken ten shots of Bruner and of Mrs. Bruner; after developing these, he’d given her a quick tutorial on her mistakes. “If you’re sitting down, use your knee to steady the camera, or use your hip bone if you’re standing up. See here, you’re shooting into the light from the window, and you can’t make out my mother’s face. You lose this whole side of the room. Remember, tomorrow night you can only choose one position. You’ll have to consider carefully.”
Upstairs, he’d shown her his file on Boardman, newspaper stories and photos. She’d looked, finding nothing there in the nature of case notes.
“Because I might do a better job, understanding what it is we hope to catch him at.”
“I’ll tell you exactly what I know.” Bruner scratched his chin. “It can’t hurt. The guy that hired me said, put Boardman at the center, and capture as many of the people surrounding him as possible.”
She now held the Graflex, an object still compact and non-descript, on her lap. Freda’s fingertips and nape prickled, and she deplored her lack of composure. She could not frame the shot until she’d seen it through the view-finder. She must pop the camera open, stretch the cable and grasp the bulb. This, she encouraged herself, is something like a lifeboat drill.
(“Mind your instructions, ladies.”)
She listened to the southern cadence of Van Nest’s speech, and concentrated on the tiny view of the taffeta skirt, framed by which she saw Boardman’s dark eyes seem to meet her own. Freda snapped, advanced; snapped, advanced… She looked up, hoping for Bruner’s sake that two of her shots might be useable, and saw Boardman rise to his feet.
“They ignored each other violently,” Luberta told Desanges.
Desanges, his back to the hearth, viewed his own image reflected in the glass panes of the French window. His pale face was stark, above a vee of shirtfront, his suit a shadow merging into the armchair’s oxblood leather. Behind him the embers glowed orange.
“…is a banked fire. He may dislike Planter, but he prefers to be close to Planter.”
“You mean, for the bellows-like effect.”
Her partner was not a joking man. His smile amounted to a glance over his nose. But Luberta felt she’d amused him.
“What about Van Nest?”
“He comes from Hollywood. I don’t,” she corrected herself, “suppose people really come from Hollywood. But I gather he’s striking a deal of some kind with Boardman. He was needling Boardman, and I can’t say I understand his objective.”
“Desanges.” Luberta wiped from one eye the artfully dusted shading that aged it, and turned from the mirror, addressing him face to face. “No, truthfully, I don’t know if Van Nest was trying to get Boardman’s goat… He showed signs of buttonholing me. Now. Rica Bullard has a little protégé. They were cozy together over some bit of script work. Boardman”—she held her mentor’s gaze—“ended up having a great deal to ignore tonight. And then…there was the woman with the camera.”
“You’ll Be Happy to Know This, Sir”
“How much,” I asked, “will you sell the covers for without the insides?”
From Adventures in Contentment
Ray Stannard Baker
“Freda has gone off gadding.”
Murchison had caught Stanley padding from his bath, wearing his striped dressing gown, and hoping to avoid this encounter. For two mornings, Stanley had awakened to this discovery, that Freda had left him alone with her husband. He could not begrudge his niece earning a wage. But Phillip did not keep to himself.
“You’re on holiday.”
His voice, now close at Stanley’s back, and the bounce of the springs as he sat on the bed, startled. However, the house was his, and Phillip was entitled to enter any of its rooms. Turning, with the wrinkled shirt in hand he’d just added to the list of faults in his appearance wanting correcting, Stanley considered Phillip’s open-ended remark.
“I am more at loose ends, I suppose. But be assured, I do realize you won’t like having me here…”
“Stanley, you’re wrong. I like very much having you here. I will be a friend to you, what’s more, and tell you what Freda wishes to conceal. You may have this room and welcome to it, but you must pay for your lodging.”
Stanley hooked the shirt on a knob, then reached to the top of the wardrobe for his pocketbook.
“Brilliant,” his nephew-by-double-marriage smiled. “Just give over a tenner and I’ll not trouble you ’til next week. Now, how do you propose to spend your day?”
Stanley had no plan other than his usual—that he would collect the morning papers, and having done so, spend the afternoon interrogating them. He would rather happen upon news of Desanges’s having attended some society affair, unearth him in the business directory, at a club meeting, in the church bulletin (though he found this unlikely); mentioned among the political disgraces, the police blotter’s round-up, the marriages…or, the obituaries. In this way, Stanley would learn more―about the city itself, about Desanges―and give away less of his own state of mind.
“We take no paper, we take no milk. We economize.”
Two mornings ago, Phillip had explained this (a hint, Stanley told himself—if I were a more seasoned houseguest, I’d have got it); today, Stanley, who did not know the way, was following him to the market. The Murchison bungalow was four blocks from the end of the trolley line. Here houses were small and free-standing, showing along their foundations frost-heaved soil, black-speckled snow drawing away from front walks, patches of grass, dead.
Nearer the commercial thoroughfares, attached houses began to crowd the street, lead-white clapboard giving way to brick. Trees were taller on this block, and their girth encroached the walk, crowding the way for passersby on foot. Stanley had fallen behind.
“My booklets…” He heard Phillip carry on with something he’d been saying. “There are six. That is, if you subscribe, you will receive at absolutely no cost to yourself, merely through the publisher’s generosity, volumes one through six. Afterwards, every six months, or bi-annually, if you prefer the term, another sampling of speeches, apothegms, sermons, anecdotes, and sound advice.”
Stanley reached the corner just as Phillip began to cross at a diagonal, catching up to him a thing become tricky. He was making for a storefront, painted green, its façade curving into fronts on both Water Street and 103rd—so the signs informed Stanley. This was the Water Street Cash Grocery.
Stanley dodged traffic, stalling and starting, at length finishing his thought. “You don’t mean to sell me your booklets? I must of course help with expenses, but I am limited…”
“Stanley, I don’t mean to sell anyone my booklets. Unless you would like to purchase a sample set and go into the literary trade yourself. Although…” Phillip held the door, and ushered Stanley inside. The place smelled of ground coffee and apples on the brink of over-ripeness.
“…people do subscribe. And why not, if they enjoy that sort of thing? But no, what I sell is opportunity.”
Sal, the doorman at Junior Durco’s Imperial Club, always stepped promptly for his boss’s clientele, even in the snows of early March. The carpet he bustled along was rolled out at ten minutes to six p.m., when the club reopened for the evening crowd. Sal offered an arm to the ladies, but when it came to the gentlemen―his source of tips―his warmth depended. They had regulars, Junior’s three or four personal friends (which was no joke) among them, whose nicknames Sal knew and with whom he would clutch forearms. They had regulars who owed the club money. And Junior liked keeping a table in reserve for the cultivation of newcomers.
The vice committee had rated the Imperial whistle-clean. But it was a fact that, and Sal had heard Junior speculate on this from time to time, if a club owner was gonna serve spirits in some back room—“What’s he got to lose? A guy like that, Sal, could make money a couple of ways.”
Sal observed a portly gent come up the street…without his watch, he could judge the hour a minute or two past eight-thirty. This one wore a brown suit, no overcoat, and as he looked up at Sal, pushed back the brim of his hat; Sal meeting his eyes through the ring of tiny starbursts, acanthus leaves, and the elaborately scripted “I”, decorating the glass. The man wiped his shoe on the carpet, then strolled on. A second man, following, Sal thought, too close, passed under the awning, hands in his coat pockets, collar turned up, shoulders hunched.
Martin Bruner followed Summers because he didn’t know the way. He didn’t frequent speakeasies. He hunched because on the inside of his coat he had the pictures in an envelope, tucked under his arm. Freda had done okay. She had probably done better than he would himself…he’d stand out in a crowd like that, even had Van Nest not been in the room to identify him.
All along the street, the club’s windows, and the white lining of their curtains that faced Bruner, framed each dining couple with the shape of an hourglass—and the light inside looked golden, radiant. The winter night was frigid. Bruner’s shoes kept finding slippery islets of snow that traffic had compressed into ice. He was losing Summers, and couldn’t hurry to catch up.
“Summers!” he risked calling out.
Summers, who seemed anchored by his weight, pivoted at the corner around which he’d been about to disappear.
“Bruner, you might just as well walk up with me. Course, I don’t make the rules.”
“You may not like what you get.”
Bruner thought he could say as much. They were on Landis Avenue now, where the Imperial building’s other half was tenanted by two shops. Summers, looking into a jeweler’s window empty at this hour of goods on display, said, “Bruner, I’m easy going.”
As they shuffled on towards the cigar shop, its door clicked open.
“There’s an elevator.” A waiter, a small and nimble figure in cummerbund and bowtie, snapped the door shut behind them. The shop was unlit, but from the street lamp’s ambience, they could see his arm move in a sweeping gesture, as he continued. “Go through that door behind the counter. I’m following you.”
Upstairs Junior Durco, waiting at the threshold, leaned in, smacking Summers on the arm, before the elevator had fully settled.
“This’ll work out good for you, using my office.”
Bruner saw a second Summers, a fat man a few inches shorter than himself, and far better dressed. Durco stepped back, smiling, allowing Summers to go ahead of him; then Summers, stopping beside Durco, looking like his brown-suited younger brother, said:
“Junior, let me introduce you to Martin Bruner.”
Bruner guessed he and Durco were on an equal footing in this respect―they knew each other by reputation. Of course, Durco’s reputation was known to everyone. And when he’d arranged this visit, Summers would have answered for Bruner, called him trustworthy…a type of endorsement Bruner couldn’t use. But maybe Durco believed it. Shaking hands, Bruner saw only the eye of a man who guards his own interests. The smile on Durco’s face had not altered.
The room they entered teemed with human traffic, Bruner’s lungs filling with a bazaar’s worth of scent and body heat. Four pillars surrounded a sunken lounge, the rest was an open arcade…the sofas purple, the carpet on the bandstand purple. Piano and bass played over a drumbeat. Bruner noticed one woman look up as he passed by. She rested like an odalisque in an ivory beaded gown, against a tasseled cushion, and perched her chin on one hand, dangled a heeled shoe by its strap from the other. Her eyes shifted from Bruner to Summers, and she seemed bored.
Under the windows of the Imperial Club’s 7th Avenue front (drawn curtains purple as well), a croupier ran a roulette wheel, and Bruner saw four card tables. Durco didn’t, he figured, have the space up here to profit from the games as he wished. He had read about this…a paragraph, seen at the end of a piece about some Polish chess master’s visit…Durco was disputing the Imperial’s lease, a second gambit after he’d failed to purchase the building outright. The third floor was divided into two apartments, Durco and his wife in one; the other belonging to the owner, the drama critic Harvey Planter.
The dark, smoky mirror over the bar, the bar itself, and its shining brass rail, ran nearly the length of the east wall. As Durco passed each of three bartenders, his attention sharpened, his footsteps slowed. Under the boss’s eye, the staff’s movements also sharpened and slowed. The clack of glasses, brought out in twos and threes, began to grate on Bruner’s nerves. But Durco’s machine was well-oiled. Each stool was taken, every space between had a customer, or a waiter―or a hostess―leaning into it.
“Rob,” Durco said, “ask these gentlemen what they’re drinking and bring the order to my office.”
Rob put his hands behind his back, came forward and stood too close to Bruner. He tilted up his face, wearing a sarcastic smile. They’d met this waiter, their escort of a minute ago…but these mannerisms baffled Bruner. He found himself disliking Rob.
“Whiskey and soda.” He backed up a step.
“Well,” Summers said, scratching his nose, “I’ll have the same.”
Durco’s office proved as painstakingly effaced as Bruner’s would have been, had he anticipated saying to a city inspector, with an open-palmed gesture, “Go ahead, look at anything you like.” The desk had nothing on it but a blotter. No file cabinet drawer overflowed. The only unsightly object was the backside of Alfred Oliver, clad in grey trousers. On a wing-back chair, his other foot on the floor, he half-kneeled.
Oliver had his eye to the wall.
But the sound of pleasantries exchanged called to him…he hopped on one leg in reverse, exposing—this leaning on the seat—a Durco family photo, in a frame about the size of an atlas. “Well, Junior, that’s not bad.” Oliver bent to rub his knee. “I can see the whole room, like I was a fly on the…up by the clock, I guess.”
“It’s optics,” Durco shrugged. “You gotta let Bruner take a look.”
Bruner had doubts now, whether his client were not Oliver, rather than Durco. He could not catch Summers’s eye. The easy-going Summers waited by the door, holding his hat at chest level and rotating it, appearing lost in thought. Bruner was inclined to hand over the snaps and wash his hands of these complications. He slid his coat from one shoulder, letting the envelope drop into his fingers, and Durco, who noticed things without seeming to, quit rummaging in a desk drawer, and bustled to Bruner’s assistance.
“Hey…lemme take your coat. I’m serious, Bruner. See for yourself.” He cocked his head towards the black ring on the wall, the lens through which Oliver had been peering. Someone knocked. Summers turned the knob and backed away, opening this while concealing his presence, just like he was Durco’s henchman.
The knocker was Rob, bringing the tray of drinks. Durco watched him lay coasters and glasses on the desk, eyes never straying towards the empty picture hook.
“Okay, get out.”
To Bruner he said, “Lemme have a look at that envelope, while you’re busy. I got nothing to do with this, but I’m curious. Then I got work to do.”
Bruner thought he would not disobey this order and be instructed a third time. There was a guest in the club Durco wanted him to see. The framed portrait, he saw, was of a young Junior, black haired, smiling in a contained way over the head of a plain-featured woman. She, in twisting her neck to look up at her husband, seemed to have slackened her grip on the baby in her arms. And the child, pert sausage curls and sailor blouse belied, stared at the photographer with round, maledictory eyes.
He leaned over the chair. He put his own eye to the lens. The effect was that of a down-facing periscope; the view somewhat distorted. Yet once Bruner got used to it, he realized that, as well, the mirrors on three interior walls reflected traffic moving through the front and kitchen doors, at opposite ends of the room.
He heard Durco, rifling paper, snort. Then he heard Durco laugh aloud, and the laugh, with more genuine mirth in it, was derisive nonetheless. Durco stopped laughing, and Bruner heard the thwack of the envelope changing hands. He heard the door click shut. He concentrated, sighting a table for four, occupied by three people. The table was in an alcove near the front, a quarter-circle reflected by a pair of windows. A big man, with an alcoholic’s flush and a cluster of glassware surrounding his plate, dug his fork into a pile of red meat.
Yesterday, Bruner had taken Freda out, dogging the woman Horace Gersome had hired him to intimidate. He had no business, and he could not afford, bringing Freda on these jobs. It meant, for one thing, shined shoes and ironed shirts (he’d noticed that about her) and no bag lunches. But he could justify it.
“I can easily spook this lady,” he’d told Gersome. “It won’t take much of my time…I mean your money. That is, if scaring her is all you want.”
If the object was to follow a subject without her knowledge, the time involved, and the technique, were different. He couldn’t spend all his hours on one job, unless it paid well. But Gersome had waved that aside.
“Mr. Bruner, it will take less of your time if you begin today. And as far as money goes…I pay for what I get.”
The woman watching Gersome eat―a pale figure of restrained incredulity, her hands folded on her lap, her chair backed away from the table, her chin and eyebrow lifted, posture correct, meal pecked at, profile knife-edged―was Mrs. H. Bruce Van Nest. The third diner, although shadow concealed his face, had therefore to be (Bruner hadn’t doubted it), his ex-colleague. These hands that thrust in a conversational rhythm across the table-top meant Van Nest was actively boring Gersome, who chewed, and nodded, and said nothing.
They’d pulled chairs up to Durco’s desk, and Summers had Bruner’s three prints laid out so that only Bruner had to look at them upside-down. He thought he ought to have been sharper. He saw now what Durco found entertaining. True, he’d had an uneasy feeling, recalling the behavior of the waiter…but what were feelings? Oliver, hustling with the easy conscience of the yellow press, was the better man. He’d have made the connection more readily, and hadn’t said a word.
The quality of the prints was so-so. Bruner pored again over each face, not with any personal interest in what Summers―or Oliver―meant to do with the information, only to deflect criticism.
In ’17, he’d passed his first army physical…the doctor’s sympathies with the hopes of every would-be soldier. But during rifle training, Bruner had been sent back for a second eye exam―and booted out. Now and again, he found the greater profit in confessing his astigmatism. If Summers complained, he would take the fault on himself, never mentioning Freda. He thought again that it was a good time to leave.
“Can I tell you anything else?”
“You let Bruner keep the negatives?” Oliver asked Summers, and Summers, who had been peering at the best of the three images, sat up, pushing away from the desk.
“Sure. I have no use for junk like that. I need to trust the people I hire, Oliver. You’re gonna work for me another time, right?” This last, he said to Bruner, and Bruner, finding himself acknowledged, repeated his question.
Oliver changed the subject. “So, what is it troubles you?”
He was getting the ball rolling. He gestured at the Durco family on the wall, the picture that Bruner, feeling almost superstitious about it, had re-hung.
“You saw something you didn’t like.”
He, Summers…and Durco, probably, despite his claim of having nothing to do with it…wanted Bruner to tell them about the work. He thought his face had been disinterested when he’d flicked through Summers’s file. He must have twitched, or flinched, when he’d seen that shot of Van Nest, and…
What was Freda’s phrase? No, it was Boardman, by her report, had said it. Nightmarish apparition. All these mushroomings of disquieting remembrance had been, rather, the ticks of a mechanism, leading to this interview.
He tried to explain the nature of what they’d done.
“I can’t give a specific example,” he told Summers. “I mean, I can’t give you names, that type of thing. Consider Durco…” Maybe it was unwise to speak of Durco in his own office, but of what Bruner had to say, Durco must already know. And if he didn’t, it would do him good to learn.
“…we’ve all heard Durco is just a short version of his father’s name. Remember, this was ten years ago. A man like Durco, who does well for himself in America, who has a lot of friends…whether anyone could think he has tendencies or not, needs to be watched. He’s a conduit for sedition; his household is a conduit. But at the same time, information can be funneled back the other direction, to Durco’s people. We’re promoting wartime initiatives. We might say, ‘Mr. Durco, you’re a businessman. Can you give us a list of community-minded folks you know, who are willing to help?’”
Bruner slumped in his seat, gaze fixed on his hand, on the armrest, his wristwatch, without seeing the time. He raised his head and looked Oliver in the eye.
“Uh huh.” Oliver nodded. “But the idea…”
“The idea was that Bolshevism was a kind of foreign hysteria. That…if you want to know…the eastern Europeans, the Slavs, were temperamentally inclined to it.”
“So how did the business break up?”
“It didn’t break up. It was plowed under. You can’t promote war interests without a war. But Van Nest had a gift for figuring out how to position his pieces on the board, let’s say. I didn’t work for Van Nest…” Bruner left this alone. It was easier to tell what he had done. “They moved me into a little office. I was given stacks of documents, correspondence, news clippings…and told to search for certain key words and phrases. I didn’t believe in this work, but I tried to get it done. They said it was important to get it done. Then I might go back to the field work I’d been doing before. But half the time, just about when I got one folder organized, I’d come to work next morning and find someone had taken it. Or I got called to appointments, and they’d keep me waiting…”
Van Nest would show up and remark, drawling like a yokel in search of a chin-wag, “Your desk looks like mine, Martin.” Van Nest was a slob. But Bruner hadn’t created his own disaster, and the office wasn’t his either…it was, in effect, a cell. He’d come to realize it. He had started out as part of the organization, and been treated fairly, as far as he’d known. And then…a label had been put on him. Propaganda had been Bruner’s profession, but he was not adept at the work like Van Nest. He began to mistrust these visits, believing Van Nest had been sent to monitor his level of frustration. Bruner knew the methods his own team employed, but could not learn what poisonous word had pitched him to the gutter.
A has behaved consistently. B has shown marked alteration.
Luberta returned Desanges’s diary to his bedside table. She matched its original angle, touching two sides of the drawer. If his ways were more subtle than that, he would know what his housemate had been about. If he were exceedingly subtle, she might read the notation itself as an ironic joke. She had never before distrusted Desanges to the point of snooping.
Again, she was making plans to hob-nob with the Boardman set. Luberta had a lunch date with Rica Bullard.
“Well, I’m nosy,” Rica had said, over the telephone. “But you are the Potash Princess―or you were at one time. How did you ever end up Harvey Planter’s errand girl?”
“That nonsense,” Luberta told her, “was conjured by the yellow press. I haven’t inherited a dime. And why should I not work for Harvey?”
“Considering, for one thing, that Harvey hardly works…” Rica paused, giving Luberta a second. Luberta gave it back. Rica gave up. “I have a dirty little plan, chickpea. Would you be averse to meeting a new friend?”
Bullard herself counted somewhat as a new friend, being that Luberta had known her only as a name, prior to Boardman’s party. But recklessly, it seemed—gratifyingly—events were dovetailing.
The apartment on the twelfth floor of the Garfield Tower was, kitchen and lavatory excepted, one high-ceilinged room, made spacious by its view; the balcony seen beyond a wall’s span of undressed panes. Luberta was invited to step out, “…for just a sec. I know it’s cold, but from inside you only see the skyline. There’s something poetic about the street. I suppose…”
Rica led the way, throwing open a door, leaving the radiator to strain against the draft; unconcerned, she leaned over the balustrade. Luberta wanted nothing to do with it. But Desanges had pointed this out before, that a phobia marked the individual. Even that must be shed or overcome, rather than a characteristic shying at heights prove a link between Luberta and Talou. Vulnerability, she’d decided, belonged to seduction. The stodgy old spinster could show some courage.
“…I don’t mean poetic. I mean, look…this morning, from on high, I watched two taxicabs crash bumpers and I said to myself, I saw that coming. But they, down there, can’t see what’s coming. You understand. I step out here and read the tea leaves, now and then, when I’m stuck for inspiration.”
Rob Healy took the cigarette from his mouth. He had followed them in a disaffected way, as though he merely owed to his sponsor that much of being a sport. He pondered the lighted end, propped himself on an elbow, and studied the length of the avenue.
“Yeah. I might toss this over and see who it lands on. Fate takes an unexpected turn.” He laughed. This laugh, Luberta noted, produced an interesting effect. Rob was half-smirking, but then his eyes became wistful. His unfunny quip seemed to remind him of something melancholy. She hoped she would see this again.
“Okay, enough…come in or don’t come in, Rob.”
Rica swept back to the love seat, clicking the door shut behind Luberta. Her protégé’s self-regard seemed to be stalling him in the cold. “My reason for cultivating you, ma’am, is to cultivate Harvey. I admit the deed freely. I mean to divine, clued by an inside source, his aesthetic Achilles heel. The play isn’t finished…the characters might say anything. Not to damage Rob’s opus…”
Rob, sneaking in, was with them once more, and the shot went home—though silently he lingered by the radiator.
“…but then again, a line or two that makes Harvey sit up and smack himself won’t hurt.”
She could respect Rica’s underhandedness. Luberta was using Rob herself, and not for his own good. At his party, she’d eyed up Boardman, seen the tortured insincerity when answering Van Nest’s questions. He perpetuated this conversation that bored him, for the proximity, for the excuse, to remain where he was, rather than mingle with his guests. Constantly, his brooding eyes strayed. Each time Healy shifted, and thrust a hand into his hair, Boardman mirrored this.
But Talou, the more artful, would be the more irresistible young man, once invested with Healy’s mannerisms.
“You’ll be happy to know this, sir.”
It was late, nearing midnight, and Horace Gersome said to Summers, “Come over to the house.” Gersome offered to drive. “Only take a cab one way.”
“True,” Summers agreed. “I’ll save a little money.”
He saw no way out. He could not take the wheel of Gersome’s car…his instructions on where to steer it would be as hampered as his driving. They exited the side door, from a private bar, one that stayed open an hour later than the Imperial Club’s dining room. Gersome’s black Durant was idling in the alley, the valet waiting…to salute, receive his tip, and call it a night.
“I’ve just been thinking,” Summers said, and he slid, with some delicacy, onto the seat next to Gersome. They were both fat, Gersome fatter than Summers, the two of them side by side making for a snug fit.
Gersome muttered, “I can’t see.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Summers carried on. The car crashed gears, and lumbered forward. “You might drop me off at the corner. My hotel is only a couple blocks away. And what I have to report—” He stopped, as Gersome veered around the mouth of the alley, merging, with a thud against a parked car’s rear fender, into a lane of traffic.
“What I have to say,” Summers finished, “is really only that we’ve made a promising start.”
“Where’s your hotel? Take you to your door. No reason.”
“No reason not to walk.” Summers chose this interpretation. “It’s a fine night. Brisk.”
Gersome pulled to the curb. “I’ll walk with you. The lights bother my eyes.”
He threw his door open, and Summers heard a horn blare. “Well, sir…”
But the alderman’s alertness, in the winter air, showed signs of improving.
“…we identified three individuals worth our attention…”
“The idea…” Gersome said. They strolled down the avenue, past another hotel, which was not Summers’s. Its architecture was modern, squares subdivided into smaller squares, until reduced along the windows fronting its restaurant, to a border of glass blocks.
“Idea…subversives out there. Troublemakers. Agitators. Take the neighborhood I represent. Mostly good people. You know, a guy has a born tendency to do wrong, he’s gonna do wrong. You agree, Summers?”
Summers never agreed with arguments framed in this way. He said, “Hmm.”
“What you have to do is put the pressure on. Flush the bad ones out…you see what I mean?”
Phillip, with regard to Stanley, plied the salesman’s craft; persistence, the first and bluntest of its tools, having got him wedged fast in the door. He had made himself Stanley’s daily companion. He was a juggernaut of sociability…and Stanley, by degrees, had confided much, but not all. The balance, Phillip would extract from Desanges.
“But, you do surprise me, claiming to have not laid eyes on Desanges.”
Stanley wanted rousing up. He tended to fall into a stupor. Phillip leant across the table and gave him a bracing pat on the shoulder.
“Stanley, did it not occur to you…”
“No!” With both hands, Stanley picked up his cocoa. “I could not involve my brother under any circumstance.”
It was necessary to rebuke him, but Phillip’s tone was mild. “You know that’s nonsense. In a manner of speaking, your brother is more deeply involved than you are.”
He had an appointment; but in the fifteen minutes or so that could be spared, Phillip hoped to winkle from Stanley’s memory at least one bit of color giving form to a faint outline. “You are not financially dependent on your brother. Will he refuse to answer a question? You might wire him today…”
Again, with vehemence, Stanley shook his head.
“Well, then, you may yourself know more than you suppose.”
Phillip knew a number of ways of getting at weaknesses. Whenever a prospect balked at the price of subscribing, he would insist that she accept Volume One as a free gift. “It is difficult, making ends meet…I entirely grasp your reluctance.” Smiling with a certain special warmth, Phillip would tuck his card inside the cover, and add, “On another occasion.”
Yes, a touch of obligation, a bit of shame, could often crack the nut. The customer, who wanted the booklet―people wanted anything they could get for free―but hated feeling herself in the wrong, would offer an excuse: illness in the family, it might be. Phillip could be an extraordinarily sympathetic listener.
However, he had been sympathetic with Stanley…and up to a point, had broken through his reserve.
“I entirely grasp your reluctance,” he began. “Now, think, Stanley”—he glanced at the clock—“what did your brother say to you? Did he not, using any words you can recall, describe Desanges?”
“I must suppose that, overwhelmed by your duties, you have suffered…”
Robert had looked at Stanley, and so palpably in light of the photos Desanges had shown him, that Stanley could see on his face the thought of them.
.…a kind of mental breakdown. I ought to have you declared incompetent!”
He had not believed this possible; yet the menace inherent in his brother’s wish to strip him of autonomy, stirred a panic. Stanley had barely heard the rest.
“…continental adventurer. A base pretense…it would not astonish me to learn―if Desanges is any sort of captain at all―that he had derived his rank from mercenary exploits.”
“That,” Stanley told Phillip, “is all I know.”
And what, thought Phillip, does a continental adventurer look like?
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
From the hymn Abide with Me
“It’s not a question of damned if you do or don’t. You lose three ways.”
Charles Huey, in the course of his address, had moved behind the counter, and out again. He paced the floor where Viola knelt, her skirt tucked under her knees. She had got three of the boxes opened. Charles moved to the window. Squinting through reversed, still authoritative Gothic lettering, he gazed at the street and glowered, scrutinized passers-by, as though any of these people might know something.
The glass panels were divided, each by a sort of fluted half-column painted pale green, as were the walls of the Armistice House offices. Which firm, while sounding grand in the city directory, comprised only this front sales room; and, in the other at the rear, accounting, receiving, stock, a cot for Charles’s afternoon nap. The boxes were from the printers. And yet, apparently they were not.
“I don’t join organizations, Viola. And I don’t join organizations, I’ll tell you why…because first, they wanna claim everyone is equal. Which manifestly is not the case. You get handed a bunch of rules. They made the rules before they invited you to join. So figure.”
And when Charles used the word “invited”, he gave to this a bitter inflection. “They don’t ask you what you think the rules should be. They argue you down if you disagree with the rules. You don’t call that equality!” He turned to Viola, who didn’t, if he wanted to know; and who, knife in hand, weight balanced on one wrist, waited poised by the fourth box. On the brink of prying up its staples, she found the moment had become fraught.
“You begin,” Charles Huey’s blue eyes locked on hers, “in a weak position. So you start out as a loser. Second.” He let this word stand alone. He crossed back, and behind the counter again, rapped its pitted top with his knuckles―not, she presumed, for luck. “Already, you’re set back, forced to deal with their people on their terms, prohibited”―he rapped four times, once for each syllable of the word―“from dealing in your own best interest. And when you’ve been crippled by conforming with a buncha stuff that isn’t right for your business, and you’re clawing for survival, you’re accused of not following the rules! They may even use that excuse to kick you out.”
Viola, her hands busy while her eyes were attentive to her adoptive father’s complaint, had opened box number four. She said, “Charles! This one’s legit.”
“Well, that’s something. Third.” He held up three fingers. “After you’ve been kicked out on the street, you get blackballed. Open the other two.”
So far they had got brick-ends, eight per box, cushioned with balled newspaper. Also, they’d got four dozen copies of Volume Three. “But there’s another way you forgot,” Viola ventured to say. “You haven’t even decided yet, and already…I mean…”
She didn’t use the word “threats”. Her father had his superstitions.
“Hell, I have decided. What have I been saying?” He pointed to the boxes. “But all those are going back. I don’t care who refunds me, but somebody’s refunding me.”
A figure from the street, dodging round a sluggish shopper, cast a shadow between the Hueys and daylight as he peered through the window. The bell rang.
“Christ almighty!” Charles stepped to the door, yanking the knob and precipitating Phillip Murchison, whose hand had just attached to its other end, into the shop. “You disappeared, Murchison! You owe me money!”
“Sir, I have not disappeared. You don’t find that obvious? And as for your money, I come offering opportunity. You will earn it all back. Viola.” He doffed his bowler hat. He popped it on again and crouched beside her. Slipping his fingers under its edge, he ratcheted up the lid to which she applied her knife, and rummaged the box’s contents. Viola saw twitchings of an ironic smile. When Phillip lifted his eyes, she widened hers, shaking her head. If he cracked wise one more time, Charles might forgo earning back his money, and put his boot to Phillip’s trouser seat.
He checked his quip, stood, and faced Charles.
“It may be, the booklet game being brisk, and you finding me an…though I don’t know how you can think it…inadequate flogger, you prefer to part company. However, you and I know, Huey, that you are a tick on the city’s underbelly.”
“Don’t misunderstand. I compliment you. What I mean to say is, that you, sir, will help me to discover the whereabouts of a man named Desanges, and this will redound to our mutual benefit.”
Zeda Van Nest troubled Summers, who’d come to talk business; or, taking the matter to a point…had come to make one. The Van Nests were leasing a service apartment at the Hotel Lowden. Summers couldn’t say if the kitchen had provided the coffee and cake—but on very short acquaintance he suspected Mrs. Van Nest of non-domesticity. Van Nest had opened the door. His wife, not rising from the sofa, cut across her husband’s greeting; her voice rang like a lacquered nail striking the rim of a martini glass.
“I’m Zeda. You’re Mr. Oliver.”
“Summers,” he corrected.
“Oh, well.” She lifted a hand. “Don’t let the coffee get cold, Mr. Summers.” He interpreted this to mean “serve yourself.” Summers appreciated coffee, more so an almond torte; and noted, taking a bite, Van Nest’s wife inch into her corner, silk-clad elbow propped against the ogee of the sofa’s elegant frame. He had the impression she liked her thin bones touching something solid and unyielding.
He carried on eating with a degree of self-consciousness.
“How’s the weather out there?” Van Nest asked, lowering himself and jolting his wife’s knee. Summers, mouth full, had to forestall answering until he’d gulped some coffee. Someone knocked. Van Nest jumped up, and Summers caught a look on Zeda’s face. He supposed he was, to her eyes, a slob. Even so, you didn’t know about people…her smile might turn down at the corners naturally. And it was to Van Nest he’d come to make his observations.
“Summers, how’s the weather?”
Oliver crossed to perch beside him. The hotel’s apartments appeared refined in décor—and not by way of the Paris Expo. Placed either side of a low table were these matching sofas, small in proportion, their resisting seats covered in satin stripes. Oliver, a short man, slid at once to the edge, then toed himself to an equipoise.
“Cold. Snowing a little. Where’d you come from?”
Over the plate on his lap, and with a fork, Oliver gestured at the ceiling.
“Oh, right, the belfry.”
Summers turned to Van Nest. “So…you look at the pictures…” For example, he was thinking, but remembering Van Nest’s profession, added, “That’s your job, right?”
“Well, not to look at them.”
Van Nest draped an arm over the sofa-back, then leaned forward, elbows on his knees. The stiff padding depressed and bounced. Zeda Van Nest’s eyebrows drew together.
“Bruce! Pour me a cup of coffee, will you?”
“Not to look at them myself,” he repeated, lifting the pot, weighing it to see how much was left. “I have to figure out what makes the public want to look at them.”
“And that’s what I mean. Your studio wouldn’t make a movie about malfeasance in office, dereliction of duty, misuse of public funds, perjured testimony…”
“Perjured Testimony,” said Oliver. “I would go see that.”
“Listen, you newshounds are in the same business as Van Nest, when you come down to it. Piquing curiosity. You tell me who you’d cast as your leading lady, Oliver, and I’ll tell you what kind of story you have in mind. And it’s got nothing to do with perjury.”
Zeda, sly…not in her manner, which was bland, but in import, said, “Mr. Oliver, didn’t your paper’s story about the millionaire and the ‘sin palace’ involve perjury?”
Oliver seemed surprised, somewhat abashed. “Well, ma’am, all that was true. I reported it myself.”
“Ah. I suppose you haven’t understood Mr. Summers.” She moved her shoulders, not quite shrugging.
“No, my point…”
Summers wondered if Van Nest wanted this interference.
“…we make laws to protect society. Why is one crime more exciting than another? These things should be measured by impact. A purse snatching―if the victim is the right lady―gets more press than jury rigging, vote selling. But those things have an impact. There’s a class of people who, if they were allowed to keep the forty or fifty dollars they pay in income tax, could put bread on the table…well, you know what I mean. Pay the doctor bill, move to a higher-rent neighborhood. To them, it would make all the difference. And”—he felt he hadn’t grabbed his audience yet—“when the working class spends, the money goes on to the next guy. Whereas, with the moguls, you get the same corruption―and it doesn’t matter what party you vote for. The money stays inside the same dirty circle.”
“Summers,” Oliver boosted himself again and looked at Summers, “you’re a socialist.”
“No, I stay out of politics.”
Luberta and Desanges did take the telephone, while many of their building’s tenants did not. Thus, the messenger boy, source of a thudding she thought she’d heard somewhere at the foot of the door, surprised her.
“Are you Mrs. Bragg?”
She looked down over his grey cap, brown eyes, and brass buttons, accepting with a grave face the heavily fingered envelope.
“Thank you. Please wait.” The message might be for Desanges.
She and Desanges bowed to the moral tone of their building, and the result was an absurd irony. They lived together. They did not share a bed, or a great deal of camaraderie…but privacy casts its cloak over innocence as well as guilt. The Braggs being well-known―in the case of her brother, notorious―Luberta found it easier to claim Desanges as a step-relative, a pseudo-sibling, with no further elaboration. Her father, sire, to her knowledge, of only herself and Ethan, had been married three times; he had also once held a diplomatic post in Switzerland.
She sent the boy away with a quarter. Carrying the envelope to the French window, she stepped onto the narrow balcony, into strong daylight. She saw a car, a cream-colored limousine, roll along the avenue. Harvey had such a car. She hoped he wasn’t paying a call. She ran a finger under the flap, expecting to pull out an obit scissored from the Herald…
Then understood what she’d been given.
Luberta sat in Desanges’s leather chair. He could not be consulted; he’d gone to his club.
And the trouble had no precedent…
Knowing how in many ways Desanges disregarded her, she wondered if he would fault her judgment in this. She tried to hear his voice, his advice, and could not. She’d seen her name: “Luberta Bragg”—the pen having borne against the paper with the weight of an emotional hand, the writing bearing a self-effacing copybook formality that, she feared, was familiar. Yet Stanley’s message was only a poem.
One that began: Talou.
Of course, if he were capable of waiting on the street, he would not know from which street to stare upwards. She’d looked over her balcony, and had not seen Stanley huddled in an overcoat below, red-eared and bare-headed. Nor did she know why she pictured him this way.
By some means he’d discovered her right name. Nothing more, perhaps, than a word with the doorman. “I’m sorry, Mr. Desanges has gone out. Miss Bragg may be at home.” Then why split hairs? Stanley had left England. That was enough to know. He’d written these words…
She finished the second verse:
Today the smell of leaf mould newly raked
A bowing snowdrop’s pale foretelling bloom
The mourning angel’s pose above the tomb
Echoed in the fall of happenstance
Lie as they have been left
And this was an idle thought
I have no home
My misbelieving heart denies what memory knows
Then let me sleep
She pulled the false hair from her head and let it drop to the floor. She laid the poem on Desanges’s reading table. The unconscious gesture made Luberta consider. Do I want Desanges to find this? Or do I want to make my own plan first? She picked up the paper and refolded it.
In her bedroom, she slipped Stanley’s communication under her mattress. She went to her vanity, and smeared cold cream on her face, wiping away the powder and lipstick she always wore…for there was always the possibility of being surprised. Their neighbors found Miss Bragg bohemian, appropriate here only because she was, all said and done, a Bragg. But they did sometimes call. Harvey dropped by now and again, unannounced.
And Luberta did on occasion, but not often, question how she had fallen between life’s cracks.
She had not lied to Rica Bullard. Pioneer Braggs once had owned shares in potash mines; later, they’d sold these, reinvesting the profit in every sort of mining stock. When she turned thirty—and a few months, as it turned out, before his death—her father had sighingly given her an allowance. Her shares, in trust, would have been her wedding gift…to her husband. So he’d said.
The Potash Princess had wanted only a man dashing as Desanges. He, at her estimate, was some years younger than herself. The light in which he saw his criminal associate…
Was concealed in his mind’s coffer of private calculations, behind his single eye. Luberta told herself she had no hope—and really, therefore, she had every hope. She took up her comb and arranged her hair. She put her shoulders back and her chin up, set her mouth in a certain way. Instinct told her she must be Talou, if she were to draw Stanley out.
She would need Stanley.
Viola tested mild evasion. Her pursuer and his lady friend―she, the first to step aboard the trolley, seating herself in front of Viola, meeting Viola’s eyes in the mirror of her compact (Viola giving her a hard stare in return); he, moving to the car’s rear, with his newspaper and show of indifference towards the woman Viola had seen at his side, driving slow in their shabby Ford, three mornings in a row―were either inept detectives, or they menaced her on purpose.
Another passenger had pulled the cord, but Viola knew this street. She saw the woman’s tweed coat pilled all across the back with white fluff, as though she wore it to bed at night. Well, she might do…not everyone’s rooms were heated. Viola, not minding that her voice was loud for the foot of space between them, called out, “Ma’am, this is my stop. Will you let me carry your packages?”
Tucked in each armpit, the stranger had a bundle…and a handbag over one elbow, a basket over the other. On the sidewalk, she would yield none of these. She drew away from Viola, the fall of her soft hat not hiding her prominent eyes; and if she spoke English, Viola supposed it was her own gypsy looks had frightened the woman speechless.
She watched the trolley recede up the avenue, the furtive crossing the instant the way cleared. She hooked her hands into her coat pockets. They would reappear, these Keystone Kops. The man reminded Viola of the downtrodden veterans who sometimes rang the Armistice House bell, Charles not wanting to hire them, because they made poor salesmen. And she…his moll, Viola wanted to call her…
But really, that one was nothing of the kind. The fair and willowy antithesis to Viola herself, the lady detective had made an enemy of her, without Viola’s knowing anything about her, but that she much disliked this useless, fluttering type. Ha. Hostile-mindedness might distract a person from her work…that also could serve as a kind of menacing. She might cut Charles to the quick, daydreamingly undercharge a customer…
Viola made a face, the sneer Nora had told her never appeared on a lady’s. They had not been bold enough to jump from the car and follow on her heels.
She walked to the corner of 103rd and Columbiana, shoved open the sticking door of Bud’s—an eatery with three stools, one booth, and so little space between door and grill that Viola, not quite five feet in height, might fit snug lying flat between the lunch counter and the plate glass. The early March sun struck a low angle under the awning, finding an arc of filmy grease, evidencing the wiping down of the counter. It cast a grey wash, in general, over Bud’s interior.
Viola ordered coffee she hadn’t wanted; with this encouragement, and needing an excuse to sit for a while keeping an eye on the street (reflected in the steel coffee urn), Viola ordered pie. The pie was a baked shell filled with strawberry preserves. It was very sweet, room-temperature—and still, she kind of liked it.
It was not much, she thought, to get at Charles Huey through his adopted daughter.
For the family business, Viola did no more than Nora might have accommodated into the hours of her own day…a wasteland of martyrdom, to Viola’s mind, of boiling things on the stove, balancing housework and books, acting as sounding-board (still shouted down, at the least peep, by Charles); used, for her good nature, by all the neighbors. Her mother had always set this example. And so what?
By no stretch did Viola blend in with the Irish Hueys. Her coarse black hair, the bones of her face, had brought the comment from others…but Phillip alone could raise a smile calling her Theda Bara. Only her slate blue eyes faintly resembled the cornflower of her dad’s. At twenty-three, Viola saw herself growing old. She had no career, and only the married Phillip Murchison for company.
She’d begun, at fifteen, calling them Charles and Nora; and Charles had taken her, almost, into his confidence. She understood why he rejected placing his business under the thumb of the Association. Charles had a way of doing things.
Viola and Nora cribbed the stuff for future booklets—poetry and homily—from the pages of old magazines, whatever was thrown out with the trash. When the pickings were poor along the alley, there was always the library. Because it was, for other reasons as well, good practice, Charles would write a lecturer, one he might have heard orate (for a minute or two, before adjusting the tuner) on the radio, and ask permission to reprint his words.
“The Armistice House, as you may well imagine, Mr./Mrs./Miss ______, serves, with its inspirational publications, the cause of humanity. It is the rare speaker who possesses, as to which, without flattering yourself, you may fairly lay claim, that clarifying turn of phrase, that elucidation that does not fall into pedantry, that natural eloquence that so pleases the ear of an audience—and all this, with such humble sincerity! I count myself, sir (madam, miss), among your fans.”
He did not claim, in so many words, that the concern was a non-profit. Only, that printers had certain minimums, unless the job were a special one…and that sort of thing, of course, had its price.
Their subscriber list was not long. Charles had designed the plan to grow punishing in its terms, and most who signed on, cancelled, freeing the Armistice House from obligation. They did not publish much new material. They kept a great supply of Volume One on hand, the inducement to a shy customer. No salesman was, however, permitted to give this away free…each copy cost him a nickel. Phillip, who routinely paid Charles in cock and bull, gave out a profligate shower of Volume Ones.
And each new salesman (Phillip recruiting most of them), must buy his own sample kit. He must book his reservation to the monthly sales seminar held at Gamotte’s Hotel, and was urged…badgered until he’d agreed…to bring a friend. But few who’d been once needed further persuasions.
“Viola, my sloe-eyed suzeraine, you don’t suppose we spend all our time toasting one another with readings from the Armistice catalogue? No…”
And Phillip had smiled tenderly at Viola, thrilling her.
“…I will need to take you down to Gamotte’s one day.”
Freda knew she was dishonest. Phillip’s bit of fluff, whose eyes in the mirror had beaten back at her own, would curl her lip at this play-acting, no doubt. Yet…on tottering heels, she made her steps mince like a fawn’s among the acorns; she took up the skirts of her coat with feminine fretfulness, and swayed before a tombstone. Bruner gave her his arm, drew her beside him, settled her on its slanted edge.
“Are you cold?”
The Mount Olive cemetery had been for many years filled to capacity. The incline on which these dead slept, and had done since the Civil War, was barely a knoll. But it sat a block uphill from Bud’s, and Freda, if she were any judge, guessed that Phillip’s boss’s daughter (Bruner had told her the girl’s name) could not see them. And, of course, she was meant to see them.
“But don’t you suppose…I am not really cold.” She moved closer, saying so, and snugged herself against his arm, squirming until she’d got him to put it around her shoulders. “Don’t you suppose that she will begin, after so many days of this, to feel that we may be there, whether we are or not?”
“I don’t know.” Bruner made himself treat the question with the greatest concentration. “It’s the first day she’s tried anything to get away from us. Viola…”
He’d been going to say Viola Huey might be annoyed, but he wasn’t buying she’d been spooked. He was arrested by Freda’s face, so close to his own. He’d seen anger, resolution, then softness.
“Martin, the trouble is, you think I’m married.”
“It’s what you told me.”
Junior Durco could easily have trailed after Planter’s houseman.
This formality of waiting in the vestibule, as though he cared whether he disturbed Harvey; as though he could not have left his card and requested Harvey drop by his own place, Durco endured only because the apartment fascinated him. Its dramatic foyer stirred one of Durco’s earliest memories. Each of the pedigreed chandelier’s pendant crystals seemed to ring a liquid note, twisting in serenity, Durco in the dark below, his movements in check.
This chandelier, an objet of Harvey’s, seemed never to be used; the vestibule’s dimness a contrast to the light from a row of windows that flooded Harvey’s drawing room. The building was Harvey’s; the roof terrace, framed by an ell in the upper story’s architecture, his to claim. But this theatrical emergence from shadow to brilliance always made Durco, when visiting Planter, think of the rooms he’d known in childhood, the windows shuttered and stuffed with rags. He had been only three or four. Things both real and imaginary bearing equal weight to his mind, the picture he retained of this world was monochromatic, charcoal-toned. The basin had been of the ordinary enameled sort, white in color, but that too, Durco saw cast with a leaden pall. He saw himself, the youngest of six, washing last, in tepid, unclean water.
“Mr. Planter asks you to come sit, Mr. Durco.”
The houseman’s head, indicating he would show the way, made a restrained, dodging motion. The mannerly charade could last no more than a few seconds, Ned having consulted Harvey’s preferences within Durco’s hearing.
He took note of Harvey’s guest. The youthful features began to be marred by a deflated jowliness; the flyaway, flaxen hair was by nature unkempt. Ethan Bragg’s fingers splayed there, among its strands, in what appeared bewilderment. He angled his eyes to meet Durco’s. They dropped suddenly to his shoes.
“Thank you, Ned.”
Choosing not to sit, Durco moved into a fall of glittering dust motes, where sunlight crossed the landing.
Harvey’s place was to Durco a kind of church. And not for its rich decoration alone, for the vein of cinnabar that ran mixed with gold throughout; the Brussels carpet, the flocked wallpaper, the damask drapes, competing in pattern, unified in hue. Though these things, and the ceiling-high lacquered cabinets that displayed behind glass chinoiserie and antique books, awakened in Durco the most primal envy. Sin and sumptuousness were linked to the first passionate emotion he’d known.
No, this contest with Planter had become his religion. He did not find himself reminded of his origins―of the boy whose memory instinctively had colored the spheres of impoverishment and wealth, smoke-black and crimson―without knowing that today, some five decades later, the message could not be ignored.
“Junior, have you met Ethan? I know you must have done, but the Braggs are somewhat non-descript. As with the Alamo, one forgets them.”
“Sure, I know Ethan.”
Durco trotted down red-carpeted steps and offered his hand. Planter, finding himself too superior to be rude, rose to his feet, and on Ethan’s behalf, took it. Bragg remained slumped in a nest of cushions, gripping his cigarette case. Durco did not believe three nights in jail—almost a month ago, now—had made an invalid of Ethan. He also did not trust luck this good.
“Ethan, whenever you feel up to getting out and about, I have a table waiting.” He cast a glance at Planter. “Bring Harvey along. And of course, Miss Bragg.”
Ethan, lulling himself with his thumb, studied this as it traced the line of his monogram. He woke, popped open the case, and Harvey, leaning across the ottoman, offered his lighter.
“…I doubt Luberta thinks of me. I haven’t seen her for at least a year. Harvey, does she ever mention me?”
“Ethan, I discuss only business with my staff. You may as well ask if Ned mentions you.”
Durco noted Ned’s practiced hand, unshakeable as he poured their coffee, and sought a means of shaking Planter.
“Ethan, make Harvey an offer on this place, why don’t you? Harvey doesn’t like me for a friend. But he likes you.”
“You’re wrong, Junior,” Harvey said. “I doubt anyone likes Ethan. Now I think of it, I suppose it would not tarnish your reputation much, taking him on as a silent partner. Assuming he can be kept silent.”
Harvey’s practice, on all days but Mondays, as he exited his apartment―whether to inflict his wit on cronies (Planter sometimes even lunched at the Imperial), or to walk his small dog, Ulalume―was to tap at the Durcos’ door. The maid, answering, would be told, “Please inform Mr. Durco that once again my sleep has been disturbed by noise from his second floor lounge.”
Durco’s practice was to drop by, an hour or so before the Imperial opened for the evening, and apologize. “I can solve your problem,” he would tell Harvey. That was enough conversation; he no longer offered to purchase the building. Harvey, he knew, meant to wait out the lease. It puzzled Durco. Harvey was nobody’s Aunt Gertrude.
He had thought already of tripping him up in front of a witness, and far from stepping in the trap, Harvey had openly used the word “prostitution”, smiling—but modestly—when Durco flinched.
Planter could not, at some fortuitous moment, happen to notice unlawful conduct under his own roof. His product, as Durco analyzed it, wasn’t a thing badly wanted, and plenty of others could supply it. So by rights, any scandal would strip away a mere drama critic’s veneer of respectability, put a man like Harvey Planter out of business.
Wouldn’t hurt him much, either, letting go of this. He lived on his portfolio’s dividends, and didn’t need the work. Durco, whose customers would always be there, could better handle the ups and downs. His old pal Gersome, chairman of the vice committee, provided him another safeguard. Yet Harvey acted like a man holding an ace. Durco knew of only one thing…
He could not see what Harvey Planter had to do with it.
If he ceased paying courtesy calls on his wife, passed by her room without asking how her day had gone, and left the choice to Rose, would she (lonesome perhaps…was it possible?) feel spurred at last to speak words of consequence, to say to him what she held back? They had not always been either silent with one another, or semaphoric, gaining passage from one day to the next by bowing out of each other’s way.
Durco remembered Rose hurling a dinner plate against the plate glass window. Nine in the evening, he’d dart out of the club and come up for supper. The Springer building across the street towered over No. 302, its upper floors glowing, a patchwork of electric lights. He could see people in their apartments, and supposed they, too, could look down and see the Durcos eating. The Armstrong Hotel’s new corner sign winked off, and began again.
H. O. T. E. L.
All along Landis Avenue, climbing and descending one of the slopes that circled the city’s heart…its priciest district a shallow bowl on the water’s edge…headlamps glared. Then, at once, with the explosion of china, the window spider-webbed and all these lights multiplied, their images shuddering into abstraction.
Not a fight. Some wrong thing he’d said, the act not even passionate. Almost to say…this guillotine fling of the hand, Joe, this contempt, is the answer.
He had wanted Rose, in this new place, to care about making it hers. The free rein, the open wallet, had been his overture of atonement. And he had nothing for which to atone. Durco, because Rose would not speak to him, by himself had borne his share of the burden…but he knew what he had borne. He could not have chosen differently.
She had made the apartment hers through an act of aesthetic vandalism, rebuked the man she blamed with this desert of beige. From time to time, in their ten years as Harvey’s tenants, Rose had gone further, done away with a vase, a throw rug. The room was a cell, ringed in mirrors.
But go back twenty years…
He’d believed he’d known the rules.
Durco had always trafficked in hooch, even in those days before prohibition became the law of the land. Being young and smart, he had not expanded his string of blind tigers and waited to be beaten back by rivals. He’d been a general, studying his frontiers, casting his eye on the city map, evaluating the weakness of his vulnerable salient, paring profits to strengthen his defenses. He’d gained control of two mid-town precincts by clamping down on the arteries that fed them. The streetcar men were Durco’s eyes and ears, and Durco kept tabs on those who crossed into his territory.
“Yeah, mine. Not yours no more, Bergen.”
This alliance, that had boosted his career, had been his father’s legacy. The immigration papers had Jozef Djorovic down as a tailor…but frustrated by a lack of steady work, Jozef found himself persuaded to do a job that would be paid, not in cash, but in opportunity. The accident had done him no lasting harm.
His testimony had a natural beauty that could not have been staged. A cautious ear to the words of the judge, one eye on uniformed authority as embodied by the bailiff, Jozef essayed his English slowly. He noted condemnation in the frown of the defendant, a local organizer accused of paying him to take a fall. He rephrased his response, using different words.
“Are you changing your answer?”
“Ah…let me say what I mean to say. Yes.”
He changed his answer. Jozef Djorovic made an inherently confusing and contradictory witness.
“You shoulda seen how they twisted it in the courtroom, kiddo. You figure a guy gets knocked over by a streetcar, someone’s workin against the company. Heh! But see how neat it comes out for em!”
His older brother, living the envied life of a dishwasher, under nobody’s thumb but the manager’s, had adopted an air of American street swagger. Durco had been a schoolboy, the only one forced to it. To him, this education was a sissy waste of time.
The company won.
His father’s desserts, for his brush with the law, had been fifteen years―working to his death, driving a car, up and down 22nd, between Market and Main. Durco had grown up being asked, “You Joe’s kid?” They called him Junior, pronounced his surname the way it looked to them on paper. And he didn’t mind starting out like that, being some nobody from nowhere. He lived in a churning, hustling town, and Junior Durco was by nature pragmatic.
He’d been a married man with four children, not so different from Horace Gersome, his pal—deputy police commissioner then, and very much, from Durco’s point of view, on the right side of the tracks. Durco promoted his interests, calling every favor. He understood he was fighting a battle. Any prod at enemy boundaries might bring ugly retribution. But he had not believed Fritz Bergen would break the code.
“I don’t keep enforcers, Fritz. I’m small fry. You can shoot me dead.”
He was in his back room office on Front Street, the fan going beside the window, muting his talk with an ice cold bastard who, shooting him dead, wouldn’t have blinked.
But Fritz, grave today, having refused a seat, opened his coat to show himself weaponless. “I came here alone. I’m looking you in the eye. Junior, I’m not lying to you. I had nothing to do with it.”
And Durco had in the end shaken Fritz’s hand. They might yet do business with each other. He knew, though, because he could himself, if he chose―if he had done the sums and found the final slash of the tally justified the act―pull aside a man he trusted, to pull aside the next man, and the next; and somewhere along the line the chain would snap. It would be done. No one would have asked that it be done.
He had begged Rose.
He had told her, his thumb and forefinger pressing the hollows of her shoulder, “Not a word. You’re wrong, Rose. We don’t want the police. Above all, we don’t want the reporters.”
She’d thought it was the business he cared about, and she had not forgiven him.
But Durco, feeling almost transcendent after days without sleep, loathing himself enough to make a trifle of his wife’s anger, had been able to see, either with clarity or lunacy, the logic of his position. Priscilla might be alive. She might even be returned to them. Or he and Rose could―wanting so badly to have done everything, to have consulted every resource, to have kept busy through each moment of wakefulness―make too much noise, pile on too much pressure. And their daughter’s kidnappers would flee, lightening their passage, ridding themselves of a burden. He knew nothing about them, but Durco knew they were a couple of heavies, with rocks for brains.
It was, he thought, as though Priscilla were trapped under the hulk of a streetcar…she, fragile, and the car a mass of steel, her life in the balance. How would the weight be shifted, other than painstakingly, by inches, over time? You could not be so mad, so rash, as to blunder in with a wrecking ball. And this was how he had meant to recover his daughter. Painstakingly. By inches. Over time.
Rite of Spring
Not much, I know you prize/What pleasures may be had
Who look on life with eyes/Estranged, like mine, and sad
“From The Hymn of Empedocles”
Talou had not, after all, tracked his prey to a pick-up joint of the city’s underbelly. But his first impression—like the crocuses in O’Hara Park that ringed the sycamores—had opened outwards, a thing of simple beauty gone blowsy, as he’d gained a fuller understanding of Curtis Boardman.
Rob Healy lounged aloof at Boardman’s left.
He was a few years older than the other students. These aspiring dramatists might note Healy’s technique, while absorbing Boardman’s instruction, thus gain from both the showing and the telling.
One of the young men, the four of them clustered apart from the three girls, waved with a rude pretense of friendly differences. “I couldn’t hear what you said.”
The girls ringed Boardman’s feet, hung on his burdened pauses, intent eyes following the trail of his cigarette smoke.
“I said…” Healy didn’t move a muscle, but made his voice loud and distinct. One of the girls, whose drabness to Talou’s eye looked a studied effort (hair pinned to lopsided effect, cardigan a brown bag over a black linen sack), even wrenched her gaze from Boardman’s mouth, and glanced at Healy.
“…why not begin with a murder?”
Boardman looked long at him. Talou thought, what choice does he have?
Healy nettled, Healy obsessed Boardman. But he had given Talou a gift. Positioning himself to his own profit, Rob left at his rear a clear field within Boardman’s line of sight, and not within his own. Talou, drawing Stanley by the hand, found an iron bench, on a rise that overlooked both the class, and the canal. He stopped here, bending, elegant and slender, to brush with an unworkman-like tentativeness, at a few leaves and a dusting of chimney grit. Stanley stayed him, backed him away by the elbow, and with a gallant doffing of his cap, used this to sweep the seat clear.
And this bit of theater was the first disruption to fall between Boardman and Healy, though Healy had not yet realized it.
Talou, from under the forelock, spotted Boardman watching. With pursed lips of impatience, he yanked off his hat, and thrust a hand in the hair that tended always to fall across his eyes in disarray. His grooming was otherwise impeccable: pale grey flannels, waistcoat, shirtsleeves rolled, but a proper collar and tie. The day was warm. In the late winter days of March, such balmy heat might come now and then, bringing those city dwellers free at midday outdoors, to loll in the sun on lawns, on rooftops or park benches.
Talou raised a face with the least air of shyness, and smiled at Boardman. He then shrugged, and sank back, draping an arm over the bench where Stanley sat next to him, and propped, on his knee, an ankle.
“Stanley,” he said, “your hair is absurd.” He played his fingers among the strands at Stanley’s nape. “You must come up with me and let me trim you. I’m not bad, you know.”
Talou’s light voice might carry to Boardman’s ears. It was far to go in public, this flirtation, these ambiguous words…but not so very far. Healy, at any rate, found his sails trimmed, and turned to see what Boardman stared at. Talou let Healy see him notice, but only from the corner of his eye, for Stanley was speaking, and both from compassion, and for need, Stanley must have his full attention.
“I don’t know. Well, I will. Come up…I’d meant to say, though…it’s an odd thing. That I feel able to live again. That I’d like to, I mean. While of course, all this is an illusion.”
“You might,” came the voice of Rob Healy. He was stirred to push himself upright. He had lain on the grass, on his back with his legs bent, throwing his indolent, but insistent comments, into every involved exchange among the workshop’s students. And the ersatz importance he achieved with this tactic placed him at loggerheads with Boardman.
“You might apply some local color.” Healy went further and rose, strolled, his mannerisms now consciously for the stage. He pointed towards the canal. “People die along here every time a big storm rolls through, and the water comes up. The curtain would open on two guys struggling at the edge over there, and one…” Here he looked directly at Talou. Talou widened his eyes, as any interested auditor might, and saw Rob flush. “One falls in,” he finished. He turned to Boardman. “Why not? Doesn’t that solve the problem?”
“For one thing.” Boardman addressed his remarks to his female students. “It’s no use reducing a character’s first line to a mere problem to be solved. The character is an individual, no different from a living human being. We’ve discussed the use of devices. I don’t find the umbrella of experimental theater sufficient cover for stunt work. I might give my protagonist a soliloquy, and have him explain to the audience why they ought to care, but am I limited in this way? Is this the only means of making them care? You can, as you suggest, jump to what would be the third or fourth act, and tell the story backwards―and that is only a bit of cleverness. It will still be necessary, Rob, for you to convey, with your dialogue alone, this promise to your audience. That the story yet to unfold lives in your characters as they are first met.”
Here, at the bottom of Front Street, the canal, improved to a sluggish trickle, ran imperceptibly most days over two angled piles of rip-rap; here on the city’s old west side, where it met the river. And here, from his tower window, Gamotte invited Desanges to consider the view.
The canal had thrived when cargo traveled by barge to the docks behind Guthrie Alley, before the rails had been embedded along Market. Now a seedy remnant of nature, a convenient dump that attracted gulls and rats, the canal traversed the city’s poorer district. Its water rose at times with a sudden brutality. Gamotte, from his hilltop perch, had watched every sort of detritus—oil drums, parlor chairs, human bodies—hurtle through the viaduct.
His Queen Anne, finished in a brick with the dull sheen of brown shoe-leather, looked like a private extension of the adjacent hospital; a second charity house, perhaps, for drunks and lunatics. Its grounds were clean and anonymous.
“But,” Gamotte told Desanges, “this will surprise you.”
He did not suggest, that from his office windows anything offering particular astonishment was to be seen. The river could just be discerned―if any guest of Gamotte’s cared to look for it―by leaning to the right, and pressing one’s face flat against the glass. The broader view showed Front Street decline to its terminus, where Market could be said to begin or end.
Desanges saw three passengers shuffle from a trolley, bowed by the wind, black-clad, moving bunched as though they meant to remain as they were. But as he watched, they gradually detached, strangers after all. The street, gleaming in the drizzle, yellow where the gaslights glowed already along the walk, was gridded with old brick, sliced through by the trolley tracks…and mostly deserted. On the near side, a shoe factory once had stood, so the locals said. An empty span of gravel had taken its place. Opposite was a row of apartments, small shops below, most with at least a light to be seen—a printer, confectioner, shoe repair, druggist…this upper floor window lettered with the words: “Confidential Investigator.” These businesses, disparate in their offerings, none necessarily needed or wanted by the district’s residents, did not compete on quality or price; but lived for a time, and died.
Gamotte, however, had never known the canal in its heyday, nor had Desanges. Gamotte had known something, in his native Algiers, of squalor and secrets.
“Gamotte, you will never surprise me. Further, you have not been discreet, and so I come today with the advantage. Worse, I believe you have been indiscreet with Phillip Murchison.”
“You say you don’t know Murchison in the least.”
Desanges returned from the window and settled comfortably on his friend’s sofa. He did not wait for Gamotte to offer, but took the bottle and filled his glass.
“I know Murchison would like to manage your hotel for you.”
“Well, yes, he says so. But he has too many ideas.” Gamotte flicked two fingers at his temple. Finding Desanges had left the bottle empty, he sighed. “And so I don’t doubt he would exert himself on behalf of the guests. You see that I can’t make up my mind.”
“Gamotte, you will mistrust a man like Murchison, even if you were to bring him fully into your confidence.” Desanges questioned Gamotte; rather than inflection, a slight sideways movement of his chin indicated this.
“Desanges, I mistrust you.”
“But you hope to surprise me with the news that Murchison’s relative was no fiction. I know it already. And Talou wants to make use of Mr. Carpenter. I think also…” Desanges, who had only one eye with which to look shrewdly at Gamotte, did so, adding, “Talou feels sympathy for Mr. Carpenter. But I allow it.”
“There, you see, darls, I’m not completely stupid. A few others are here.”
He tilted his hat; with unabashed self-admiration, Talou noted its flattering angle reflected in the glass of the Kodak store. He noted, also, that if he bent with an appearance of curiosity, to peer at the half-dozen framed photos displayed on easels, he could see nearly all the windows of Curtis Boardman’s building across the street.
Today, wintery clouds once more darkened the afternoon sky. Boardman might, as Desanges’s dossier hinted, turn up for the two-thirty show. He liked movies. Or had of late, perhaps lured by Van Nest’s Hollywood pitch, taken a professional interest in them.
“Sadie Thompson”, the Gloria Swanson Talou had chosen, might appeal to Boardman, if he liked Maugham; or liked, more characteristically, deploring the bowdlerization of Maugham. But Talou would have picked anything, provided he could bring Stanley along early, and they had this excuse to loiter on Boardman’s street for half an hour.
“The box camera is only five dollars.” Stanley’s voice was diffident. In the glass, he met Talou’s eyes.
Yes, Stanley looked rather much like Boardman. Confounding jealousy being the game, this resemblance Talou had cut more pronouncedly into Stanley’s hair. Desanges hadn’t disapproved, but had warned.
“Boardman will not pay a dime, of course. Do you understand me?”
“He has no family, either.” Talou returned Desanges an equally flat tone, expressionless face.
“I only suggest, he may be prone to…strong feeling.”
“Then he may have to pay.”
At Calais, the thought had crossed Talou’s mind, and caring nothing for Stanley (or, being fair to his own sensitivities, making no differentiation in the case of Stanley), he had given this no weight, this singular unfitness of Stanley Carpenter for the religious life. He pictured the off-putting effect of Stanley’s smoldering intensity on his parishioners…
Well, probably for some, it far from put them off. Only the husbands.
The same quality accounted for Boardman’s sway over his female students, poor idiots. He was unconquerable. Such aloofness brought out a woman’s hunting instinct. Talou smiled, and Stanley smiled. Talou’s smile grew crooked. He ducked his head. The thought had not been his own, and he was embarrassed.
“No, Stanley, I don’t want it. You let the Murchisons spend too much of your money as it is. And I’m only passing the time.”
“I owe them something, however.”
“Hmm! I’d say you’ve given them something. You know the city now, Stanley, and you’ve found a friend.” Here, Talou, though they were on a public street, gave Stanley’s shoulder a squeeze.
“And,” he added, “this is a reasonable neighborhood, if you were looking for a place. There…” Languid, perhaps a touch dismissive, Talou tossed a hand in the direction of Boardman’s building. Whether Boardman might peek from his window at a given moment was beyond knowing.
“Yes, I ought to…I would like to, have no more to do with Freda and Phillip. I feel, Talou, that it’s something I’ve done…”
“Well, that’s nonsense.”
“Not altogether. My being there creates a license for their behavior. They say things to each other, pretending to speak to me. They would rather not share a room, so Phillip will stay away overnight…not, you see, worried to leave her…
Stanley’s voice changed. “Phillip, I think, expects to do business with Desanges.”
“He had better not try.”
“At any rate, I don’t think that Freda earns a living either, although she goes out to work. You see, my giving them money on which to survive, and my living under their roof as a sort of chaperon, has done them harm. And I did recognize it. I understood Phillip at once.”
“You have a wonderful sense of responsibility, Stanley. It may be that God had called you to a life of politics, and you misapprehended his purpose. Don’t you imagine those two opportunists will only land on their feet sooner, if you leave them today?” Talou, facing Stanley, saw that the movie house crowd, jostling before the box office, had grown to a few dozen.
“We ought to get in line.” He lifted a hand, pointing; stepped in a skirting move, a pace forward. Stanley remained where he stood. He seized Talou’s wrist, reeling him back, and they pressed almost against each other.
“Talou,” Stanley said. “I will leave. Of course I will. But why will you not…?” He broke off. He had asked this already.
Looking steadily into Stanley’s face, Talou did not believe he knew he gave pain; that his grip was crushing. He was like an over-stroked pet, one that must be managed calmly.
“Stanley, it won’t do, me coming to stay. I belong to Desanges. Please let go.”
Someone’s shoe heels battered the pavement. The noise stopped, and a breathing silence replaced it. Possibly he’d cast a shadow across Stanley’s eyes, and for this, made him drop the wrist, cringing a bit. Or, as the approacher shifted, fisted hands in his coat pockets, his presence alone broke Stanley’s attention. Boardman, without mounting the sidewalk, or speaking, overweighed Stanley. Talou felt like the fisherman whose catch threatens to swamp the boat.
Horace Gersome had listened to Van Nest, and held his peace. Van Nest and his wife, guests of Gersome’s…as a pair and individually, had troubled their host; Zeda, in particular, for not trying not to look down her nose at Gersome, inflamed his hostility. The waiter set a third cocktail, that only looked like a whiskey-sour, next to Gersome’s plate. He was eating beef tartare. He’d seen one nostril flare when he’d given the order. Yeah, bitch, get a load. He put a forkful in his mouth. The busboy hadn’t yet come to clear the glasses.
“You’ve been knocked off your perch.”
Van Nest didn’t stir from his seat, but reaching with his knife, tapped one of Gersome’s glasses, making it ring. Holy crap, Gersome said to himself. He chewed.
“You want an explanation, but you don’t have one.”
The Imperial, one of the best clubs in town, couldn’t impress these Hollywood slickers, he supposed; and Gersome hadn’t asked Durco for any favors, either. He would pay full price to treat the Van Nests.
Zeda did not like steak. She’d told Gersome this, in words—just so he’d know—before ordering halibut. She had barely touched her fish. Gersome, on the only instance of the evening in which he’d empathized with Mrs. Van Nest, had joined her in not laughing at her husband’s joke.
For the hell of it, perhaps, Van Nest went on: “But, you’d rather be, or I should say, you need being comforted by an explanation you believe is true. Here’s what’s funny. Anything outside the realm of proof―a generality―will satisfy you better than specific evidence. Why is that?”
Oh, holy crap, Gersome said to himself, again. Am I in school?
Zeda Van Nest leant forward, fingering, with an absent expression, the glass to which her husband had drawn attention. Gersome presumed this only a mannerism, but wondered if they meant to play him some trick. He gave Zeda a bulging stare.
And not that he intended answering this question. He knew, given a moment’s silence, Van Nest would answer it himself.
Today, he had Van Nest in his private office. Today, Van Nest could not try Gersome’s patience with games of distraction. Gersome had himself arranged the setting, and meant, instead, to try Van Nest. Although nominally, they were colleagues, together in this business of Boardman.
The wooden chair Gersome had placed before his desk wobbled; it was too small for Van Nest to use comfortably, and Gersome had borrowed (taken) his secretary’s pink cardigan, leaving this draped over the chair back. The framed photograph of his school-age daughters (both now nearing thirty) Gersome angled towards his desk front. Atop his filing cabinet was a paper bell, a local telephone company’s promotional artifact.
Dozens of times, he’d sat in the dark passage at Gamotte’s, where every sort of vice and perversion was catered to. He had grown used, in his mind, to framing scenes as though he looked through the peephole, above and down on unwitting players. The Van Nests, Gersome believed, were no different from everyone else. They would do things in their private home.
Van Nest’s Florida accent seemed to have grown more pronounced; otherwise, he continued indifferent to Gersome’s manifestations, as he’d done at the Imperial, when declining his host’s invitation to the members’ bar.
“No, sir. Thanks, Mr. Gersome, but I get a headache if I stay out late.” Van Nest had grinned at his wife, winked an eye, and Gersome had seen hers widen in anger.
“Now, Boardman,” Van Nest was saying, when Gersome woke from his reverie, “or anyone who wins a place in the public eye, can indoctrinate others with his beliefs…that may be putting it too strongly, though. He can’t preach the Red agenda. He’d run afoul of the law, for one thing, if he tried being an out and out subversive. But as a playwright, he can use symbols, allegorical plotting, signifiers…arguably, we’ve seen that already in his work.”
Gersome waved both hands, bumping his daughters’ picture; this fell flat with a clap against the desk.
“Jesus, Boardman’s a deviant! The communists pick up people like that. That’s the point, isn’t it? We aren’t talking about a guy spreading his ideology. We’re talking about…exactly what I say. Boardman is dangerous. He’s a fucking sodomite! Anytime, he might go off.”
“Well,” Van Nest scooted the chair backwards, scudding the tiles with a bleat that made Gersome’s fingers fly from the cufflink he’d been fondling. Van Nest shrugged and winced…a comic take, that was all. The bastard was imperturbable.
“You’ll have to tell me again, Mr. Gersome. I feel like we’re working at cross-purposes. Boardman, you figure, is a deviate, so he sort of shoves that down inside…he knows this is unacceptable.” Van Nest drew out the word “knows” with a revival meeting roundness Gersome took as on-purpose southern. “But some pressure causes this unconscious impulse to burst out…to harm an innocent victim, as we suppose. Well, now, he suppresses it because he understands the anti-social nature of it; on the other hand, the impulse is unconscious, so he doesn’t realize he’s suppressing it; on the third hand―there’s always a third hand, Mr. Gersome―once it comes out, it isn’t unconscious anymore. Wouldn’t that smart decision Boardman makes—in his right mind, if I get you—to hold off, keep control…reassert itself, so to speak?”
Gersome took a deep breath. He wasn’t falling for it…whatever it was. Van Nest was a college man. He could articulate Gersome’s ideas better than Gersome himself…but sat there claiming this stuff puzzled him.
“The impulse comes from Boardman’s animal nature. He can’t control it.”
“You confuse me, Mr. Gersome.”
He set his feet, his brogues just given a five-cent shine (nickel tip on top), with care; the brick path so overgrown, so sunken, so spongey from moss, so showered with rust-colored debris blown from the row of cedars hedging the properties, that this approach to number 23 1/2—the alley-facing side of the Hueys’ four-plex—seemed to Gersome a trek through an uncivilized glade. Glade…goddamn it…sounded namby-pamby. Gersome collected himself. Whatever it was you named a place where wet and stinking accumulations of nature might be found.
The porch sagged at the corner by the rain gutter, a good-sized hole washed out here. Rain driving through the screen had mildewed the Hueys’ rug. The rug was woven in shades of pink and brighter pink; the settee was wicker, algae greening its legs. Gersome smelled the sourness, the cedars’ sappiness, the air’s tainted humidity…and the cigarette that dangled from the hand of Viola’s bowler-hatted companion, with its brown undernote of contraband.
The young man smiled at Gersome, as Gersome let himself in; when the door, caught by a gust of wind, fought back, the smile broadened. Gersome eyeballed him. He thought he had seen this johnny somewhere, and in an unfavorable light. He looked at Viola. Being that her companion had his left arm draped around her shoulders, and that she had got hers entwined with his (her right hand, Gersome couldn’t, by sight, locate), he faulted her on three counts.
She was a cheeky girl. She did not rise to greet a friend of her parents, a city official, for that matter. She did not introduce her own friend. She did not blush at what, as Gersome told himself, amounted to publicly indecent behavior. This man was married. Viola Huey fondled the hand that wore the ring.
“Where is your mother?”
She smiled, not with warmth, but with an upthrust chin, as one who suppresses laughter. “Is reading in her room. But she’ll be happy to see you, Mr. Gersome.”
The stranger tugged the flap of his overcoat from beneath Viola’s thigh, jumped to his feet, and then annoyed Gersome by placing his hand―the cigarette’s lighted end extending between two fingers―on the knob, just as Gersome reached for it.
“Mr. Alderman Gersome.” The man’s smile waxed again, Cheshire cat fashion, having not left his face since Gersome had first cracked the screen door. “Our Viola hasn’t the nose for opportunity I have. Allow me to introduce myself.”
And Gersome, arrested by the stranger’s control of the knob, was forced to a close tête à tête. Public man that he was, he still disliked being known by those he did not himself know.
“Viola, we’ll go in, shall we?” His new acquaintance…smiled.
At the girl. “Nora may like making a party of it, now a welcome guest has arrived.” Viola Huey’s friend bent sideways to catch her eye, then darting an encompassing glance at Gersome’s person, which Gersome found smarmy in its import, added: “Phillip Murchison, sir. How do you do?”
Without replying, Gersome pushed indoors. Here was news of which Bruner had reported nothing. Bruner had been recommended to him (albeit by Van Nest) as a discreet man…went to show. The only discretion that mattered was knowing who you worked for.
He trotted up the steps, to the little parlor off the landing, where Nora read and sewed; where along the windowsills, her potted African violets had just begun to flower, and where he found her, in what seemed an absurdly mannered stance, balancing a cup of tea, and plucking at a wilted leaf.
“Nora, can I do everything?”
“Horace, did you see Viola?”
“Never mind Viola.” But at once, Gersome added, “Where’d she pick up Murchison?”
“Oh, Phillip. Have you never seen Phillip? He’s one of those who sell the booklets for Charles. Likes playing the flirt with our Viola, when he comes round…” Nora came round, and fixed Gersome with an eye. “But he’s taken up with her, Horace. I know he hasn’t divorced his wife…not that she’d take warning, if he had. I can’t understand it.”
Gersome had known the Hueys for more than twenty years; and if Charles trusted Murchison, then Murchison’s work would have more to do with funneling customers to Gamotte’s, than with selling booklets. That, to Gersome’s mind, raised the possibility that Murchison had attached himself to Viola only because he’d learned something from Huey―or from Gamotte.
He asked once more, himself this time, if he suffered this trial alone. He would call the worthless Bruner on the carpet (there was no doubt about that)…but if he sacked Van Nest’s man, the effect might be the unleashing of an infestation. An angry Bruner would need watching in his own right. Like Huey—goddamn Huey—he knew things. And Viola…
“Nora,” Gersome began, in a whisper. They were not out of earshot. Half-embracing her, almost avuncular in the lightness of his touch, he drew her close. “I am going to ask your help. You may be in danger…” He jerked his head towards the kitchen. In this pause came the voices of Viola and Phillip, also low, keeping secrets of their own from Gersome and Nora. “I can’t trust anyone. You know what I mean.”
Nora did not find Horace attractive, exactly. But Charles also was rough round the edges. Charles was a bully, truth to tell, redder of hair than Nora liked. And she could never stand up to him. Viola’s fighting nature had been born in her, else instilled by Charles himself. But Nora could happily play Gersome’s acolyte. He was powerful. He came to her and asked her to serve him, and he did not ask this of other women.
“Charles goes to his lodge meeting tonight. And Viola”—she sighed—“won’t be here.” Horace could, like anyone, visit Armistice House as a client. But Nora took the neighbors into account. “Come back―not after dark, but just on closing time.”
How is a Windmill Like a Waypost
They call me ‘appy Eliza
And h’im con’werted Jane
We’ve both been ‘ot ‘uns h’in our time
But we’ll never go wrong agine
Music Hall Ditty
Lyrics to “Happy Eliza” (less suggestive version) attributed to Will Oliver
Bruner walked alongside his father. His father wore overalls under a lapelled jacket, and carried a tin lunch box. They were having difficulty matching their pace. Bruner, striding, distracted by his habitual inner monologue, would by now―as though he could pound his troubles into the bricks―have got to the end of the second block. His father, who watched the sidewalk, but whose inward eye saw his job list, his lunch, and his bus ride home, would have fallen far behind. Instead, the elder Martin looked up at his son, caught himself lagging, and hurried forward. Bruner noticed his father, and slowed.
“You’ll be seeing Mr. Gersome, at his office?”
“I will,” Bruner said, “if I have time. I might not have time, Dad.”
He and his father had not managed yet to look each other in the eye. Bruner could feel, veiled in his father’s question, the disappointment and resignation. Both judgments were unanswerable. They lived in a small house, and from his basement dark room, Bruner was able to hear his parents’ words in the kitchen upstairs. His father might, for that matter, know it—that by this medium, his thoughts could reach his son’s ears.
“What does it mean, he says he’s an investigator? Why would he not work for someone else, who has a reputation? If Martin could do well at a job, he would get someplace.”
His father had once taught school, and nearing sixty now, worked at Bevin’s Stove and Furnace, as a repairman. With rigid perseverance, he still supported his household. Bruner was thirty-four, an embarrassment. He had lived away from home for a number of years, before his luck and his confidence had broken.
For three days Bruner had been away with no word.
His mother had not let him through the door in peace, but circled, keen-eyed. She gave her news that Gersome had been calling, “Every day, Martin.” He had called, altogether, four times, twice yesterday. “I don’t know who this man is.”
It might be true. The Bruners lived on a suburban street, well outside Gersome’s ward, and Mrs. Bruner had never voted.
“The last time he said if you don’t get there at one o’clock Thursday, then he wants your report, and he’ll mail you a check. Martin, you better set things straight with Mr. Gersome.”
All this had been only a shot across the bow. His mother wanted him to confess to her, tell her she was right in what she’d already divined. He had not been doing any sort of work…for Mr. Gersome, for any client. He’d been with Freda.
“Martin,” Freda had said to him, “why am I here?”
He’d drawn away at this moment of crisis, turned his back to the stone lamb that rested on the vault, its snout thrust between them. Bruner jumped to his feet, and walked to the hilltop, where in the distance the city hall’s gilt-roofed cupola could be descried.
He had gone to the agency to find a girl, because Gersome was a powerful man, a retired cop. Gersome could apply to a crony, find some stooge who owed him, to do the job he’d asked Bruner to do. I can’t turn down a payday, he’d told himself, knowing he would regret stepping into this. But he might hem himself round with reassurances.
Jessie would have studied Freda’s entrance with envy. Bruner had studied her…the way she’d tugged the scarf from her head, gracefully threaded a curve round the door, past the chair he sat in. She had looked, to his eyes, marblesque, both cold and sly, like Bernini’s angel. Her voice had been light, accent quelling…and for that, she was nothing like the snob Bruner had expected. He’d been uncouth in his manners when he’d spoken to her, and she hadn’t shown it. But he’d done that to keep her away.
The answer to her question, was that he wanted her there for no reason. She knew the reason.
At the hotel in the village of Darlington, thirty safe miles from the city limits, Bruner discovered that an adulterous liaison could be accomplished with the stroke of a pen. The desk clerk pushed across a card, advertising a local café.
“That’s where you and the missus wanna go for supper, Mr. Murchison. You need help with your bags?”
The clerk’s muted eyes flickered when Freda put a hand over her mouth—and still the snort of laughter had escaped her.
His hat was on his knee, his coffee growing cold at his side. The cup had marked the wooden bench with a dark ring. The bench was in an alcove formed by a stairwell, and to Bruner’s right was a niche. In this was a shelf for hats and a row of pegs for coats, but the niche was stacked full with bundled newspapers. To his left, a closed door led to the staircase. He had about three feet of legroom. He’d entered the Herald’s premises through the front door, and handed his card to the reception clerk.
“Mr. Oliver knows me,” he told her.
“Do you want to see Mr. Curry? We got nothing here, but there are three jobs at the plant.”
“No, ma’am. I’m asking to see Mr. Oliver. If you’ll send my card up to the newsroom…”
“He’s not here.” She said this without lifting the phone.
“Well, that’s okay. I’ll wait ’til he comes in.”
After an absence, during which she’d vanished through a door that, as Bruner noted, would lead to a room with a view―a large mirror was fitted into the wall over her desk―she had returned with coffee, and beckoned him to the elevator. Tasked with carrying his own cup on a shaky ride, then while navigating unfamiliar territory weaving behind her through the newsroom, Bruner knew a belittling gambit when he endured one. In this corner, he had a view of an ugly plastered pillar, mail slots, and through these, somewhere on the room’s other side, slivers of window. Time and again, men of varying bulk wedged into the narrow space, rooting after their letters. Bruner pulled in his knees, or stood, as required.
“Does Oliver know you’re waiting for him?” The speaker, forcing his way past as he’d done once already, overdid the dead-pan, Bruner thought. These guys were having a little sport.
“It’s what I asked the girl to tell him.”
They thought Bruner a shabby tipster looking to earn himself a few dollars. But Oliver knew him—it was no lie—and not only from having seen Bruner that day at Durco’s. He had taken Bruner’s measure on an earlier occasion.
Bruner drained the cup…free coffee being free coffee; he set this on the floor, then scooted it under the bench. He took off his jacket and rolled it, stretched out and laid his head on it, propping his legs on the armrest. If the jokers took this as a challenge, Bruner figured they didn’t have enough work to do. Already, it was past noon. His father would be sorry to know he’d stood up Mr. Gersome.
The client had been Beryl May…her name a wistful clutch at stage romanticism. Phony. She’d been about forty, older than Ethan Bragg…and fat, a drinker. But Bruner had felt real empathy for Beryl. Ethan had not let her go cleanly after fifteen years, giving her something—some kind of allowance—to live on. Then letting her alone to live. Beryl had grown older, but Ethan, by her account, remained infantile, still ringing her at odd times, seeking motherly advice. And for skulking on the staircase at Lake Chemonk Lodge, Bruner had found nothing to offer Beryl, other than confirmation. Bragg had a younger bleached blonde.
He showed her some snapshots, watching for her reaction…and her reaction had been a bleak sort of stupor.
“Who is this?” She pointed to a man, one who’d come out behind Ethan, following Bragg and his companion to the window, where, Bruner recalled, they’d gestured towards the lake, their talk worried. He’d got his shots, knowing the noise of the camera would put an end to secrecy.
“Man talking to Bragg.” He shrugged. “Beryl, it’s not good to tell lies.”
“Well, you’re not married.” She’d said this, unwilling to understand him. Then she’d laughed, but neither of them had smiled. “It was a long time, a long time I gave him,” Beryl said. “I guess that’s how I felt, anyhow.”
Knowing Freda, had made Bruner see how much he disliked most of his clients. Most of a bottom-feeding snoop’s clients were petty spouses of petty adulterers, and he now had an insider’s view of this pastime. All he’d gained was a confirmation of his own. Some people dealt in misery. Misery was their product, their life story. Rather than tolerate seeing this martyred turkey trot on which they thrived made lonely and useless…rather than see their spouse happy with someone else―they made the seeking of happiness a crime.
Bruner yawned. He went ahead and closed his eyes. Junior Durco kept a photo in his office. Himself at a young age, his wife, one of his kids…a child with unusually vivid features. He’d seen Viola Huey, followed her, studied her face through camera and binocular lens. He could not guess why Gersome should want Viola to feel threatened. But before Bruner gave up his work, and gave his parents new cause for despair, he would ask Oliver to use his influence once more. Bruner had something to say to Durco.
Freda shut the door behind her. She did not much care for the fug of the place. Cigarettes, dirty carpet and frying oil…the carpet’s dirt was noticeable, even with the blinds down and the lights off. In the kitchen, Phillip had left plates on the stove, teakettle on the table, everything else—silverware, cups and saucers, a milk bottle she knew he’d filched, now empty and sour-smelling—in the sink.
Poor helpless Stanley (and where was Stanley?) might have taken a stab at tidying. She could just see Phillip la-di-dah him away from the dishpan.
“Freda won’t mind doing her part. Puts her in the holiday spirit, cleaning.” Her uncle was unlikely, as had Mrs. Ruald, to anticipate Phillip’s little joke. But nor would Stanley have returned a humorless, “It’ll have to be once a week from now on, Mr. Murchison.”
At the thought of her relative, Freda felt a pang, able from some benumbed corner of her heart to dredge a portion of shame, though of wretchedness altogether, her heart had borne near its full capacity.
“I’ve been horrid to Stanley. I’ve taken his money, and I haven’t spoken to him for days.”
These words she said aloud, lifting a newspaper, dropping it onto a kitchen chair. She heard a click, and started, but this had been only the clock, gearing itself to strike the hour. Without bothering to clear the stove or rinse the kettle, she went straight to bed. It was not yet noon. And each time Freda woke, she thought of Phillip. Of course, she was thinking of Martin. Phillip had cut her adrift because he had no use for her. She hadn’t proved an asset to the possibilities he envisioned for himself…
Because her husband’s eye was always alert to possibility. He saw it now in Viola Huey. Freda, who didn’t want employment, didn’t like keeping house, and wouldn’t keep touch with her family, was dead weight to a man like Phillip.
She tried to see herself behave responsibly. She would then have told Martin, “I can’t waste time like this. I must find work.” And he would have let her go at once. He was the opposite of Phillip. Martin was a quitter. Her father’s word. A man of standards, such as Colonel Aubrey Pitfield-Young, deserved a parade of Phillip Murchisons knocking at his door, hawking opportunity in a booklet.
But Freda, understanding Martin, as she did―loving him, as she did―felt tenderly also towards his character flaw. She had botched things.
In Darlington, they’d gone out only to eat supper at the café. The last evening, they’d walked on, up the main street, known as Galena Road; and come to a bridge, where a flight of leveled stone led down to the river. Silent, Freda had followed Martin, watched him test the firmness of the brown grasses growing in clumps along the bank. He’d stepped onto a shoal of mud pebbles, had turned and caught Freda by the wrist, helping her across.
“I have no money,” he said. “I mean, Freda, I have no money. I’ll have to take you home tomorrow.”
But even for that night, she’d crept into his arms and ignored what she understood to be true. And Martin said nothing else about it. On their drive back to the city, Freda had slumped against the passenger door. The force of her miserable position had been articulated, in Martin’s answer to her question.
“Future? I just cashed in this job. And I live with my parents. You know that.”
Tears welled then, and awful noises began to come of their own accord, it seemed to Freda. She had balled her hand, pushing it into her mouth. She hadn’t opened her eyes, but felt herself swaying side to side. She was jerked forward. She fell back. Martin had pulled the car over. He moved the hair away from her ear…one strand, two strands. He slid a hand behind her, took her shoulder and cradled her close, burying his face against her neck, holding her, saying nothing.
But Freda had spoken.
She could not leave her bed now, but huddled beneath the covers, sleepless, staring at the shadows deepening along the baseboard.
“You don’t love me,” she’d told Martin.
She thought she’d said it three times. She’d pushed at him.
And so he’d drawn away from her. He hadn’t started the car. He’d only leaned his forearm on the steering wheel, and pressed his eyes against his sleeve.
The rattling in the kitchen woke Freda to the added unpleasantness of boiled egg, and the necessity of breakfasting with Phillip. But somehow in her bleary half-doze, she’d resolved on…if not a plan of action, at least an act.
“You’ve been on a toot.”
Phillip’s merry voice was to Freda cheerful as grinding glass. He swirled a corner of toast in the air. “You’ve been on a three day bender, I surmise, totting up the visible symptoms.”
“Phillip, shut up. What are you doing at home, anyway?”
“I am always at home for breakfast. Then away about my affairs.” He swallowed a secretive smile, along with a sip of coffee.
“Phillip, where is Stanley? What a rubbish heap this house is! Mrs. Ruald can let herself in through the back door whenever she likes, you know.”
“Well, you must manage as you see fit. The green and sickly aspect is worth pushing home. She oughtn’t evict you when you’ve been unwell. On the other hand, if she tries it on, you may be in for a cash settlement…Stanley, by the way, wants no more to do with us.”
He finished his coffee, and abruptly left her. She stopped him, as he lifted his bowler from the hall tree.
“Phillip, will you give me a divorce?”
“Of course I will, love. But I can’t afford it. You’ll have to make it worth my while.”
Freda could interpret her debouchment from the city bus onto upper Landis Avenue, as a wish fulfilled…someone’s wish. If she took the matter in a spiritual vein, she might suppose a departed Pitfield-Young (she tried to imagine a Pitfield-Young among the harp-and-halo set: “I don’t mean to suggest I fault the afterlife, but the rules they insist on are all rather uncompromising…”) had stayed her with a spectral hand, while the bus passed through the city’s reasonable neighborhoods. She had not left her seat, until she’d reached the expensive shopping district, and felt spurred to it.
That morning, she had sortied from the bungalow with a will to find employment at all costs. Already, Freda had thrown an obstacle in her own way. Or, she was herself the obstacle.
How captivated and entertained by Phillip she had been at twenty!
He was wonderfully pleasant to look on, and to be seen with. She supposed she could not have loved him. She was heart-rent, galvanized, hounded by her own mind’s eye, by the picture of a shabby frame house, by a desire to run to this address…by a route she could not really recall…and pound at the door. She was astonished by love, now she knew it. It was as everyone had said.
Even when they’d sat with the lamb between them, she and Martin, Freda had told herself this terrible pull of gravity meant it was true. That she did love him. And that she would ask him not to mind about Phillip. He didn’t, of course…it was Freda Martin minded. And there, she counselled herself, I can do better.
For knowing nothing, she’d had great luck, once, on the day she’d first sought to support herself, to escape her father’s house, and the woman now in charge of it.
“Pitfield-Smith, is it?”
“Well, Miss Young.” The man at the United States line’s London office cleared his throat, lifted his blotter, cast a reproachful eye at two or three application forms peeping from under its edge. “It doesn’t appear I’ve got the right paper.”
It had been Freda’s accent, her social graces, her double name (misunderstanding overcome), that had made her attractive to them, in what she’d learned was a somewhat elevated position for a beginner. She might have been sent to the ship’s laundry. She’d seen how the point was, so far as the Leviathan’s owners were concerned, that a stewardess came not merely at the beck and call of her ladies; but that, with each encounter, she acted as sales representative for the line.
Luck remained a possibility.
Freda wavered, weak-kneed, over a store display in aqua and white. She could be an asset to Springer’s, in the drop-waist, cashmere topper (twenty-five dollars), skirt, and matching beret (each priced separately). The Chamber of Commerce, said the notice posted at the corner of the display window, invited shoppers to enjoy the Mid-town Merchants’ Association’s Daffodil Days.
But of course, Freda mused, stores did hire girls just to show off their clothes. How exceptional to work at a job where all one did was dress. She felt herself buffeted by impulse, and knew, as she edged towards the entrance, that Martin would dislike her doing that sort of thing. Phillip…well, Phillip would want to know whom she’d met, and whether she might arrange, through her new position, to meet anyone important.
The door swung back. A woman with a severe bob, greying bangs chopped across her brow, brush-like tufts curving below each ear, stared up at Freda, holding Freda’s eyes, her own rimmed in red. The interval lasted longer than comfort allowed.
Until she’d gone out with Martin, she had never spied on affairs at Armistice House, having only heard the name from Phillip. Phillip didn’t like Freda having to do with his work, and Freda hadn’t cared to, bored by it. She had not then known of Phillip’s familiar ways with Viola Huey.
“Mrs. Huey, how do you do?” She felt she must pretend they’d met.
“You’re Mrs. Murchison. Your husband was in my kitchen again last night, ma’am.”
Freda turned and faced the street, hoping her sputter had sounded more gasp than giggle. Do I have a handkerchief, she wondered. “Mrs. Huey, I have asked him for a divorce. But there’s very little I can do…” Her mal-adjusted guiding spirit gave her a prod. With the eyes of a doe, she swerved back, dabbing.
“I’m penniless, truly.”
“Gersome is an awful peeper.”
Today, Gamotte’s guest was Viola Huey; and Murchison, who supposed himself permitted to bring her along, did not know of Gamotte’s plans. Murchison, dapper in fawn worsted, caressed his watch chain while sitting at his ease, and in Gamotte’s appraisal, was proud to have acquired her. Gamotte spoke to Viola. He ignored Murchison—or rather, kept Murchison in the corner of his eye, to be made use of later.
“I have not mentioned Mr. Gersome.”
“Well, but that’s the point. Wherever you find Nora, there’s Gersome with his gimlet eye, leaning over her shoulder. You won’t tell me he didn’t put her up to it.”
“She informed Mr. Godshaw…”
“Informed…” Viola widened her own eyes and pursed her lips—a look of irony for Gamotte’s appreciation, that told him, you and I understand these things—“Did she land on the street corner by magic? But I suppose Gersome is an old customer of yours.”
Gamotte shrugged. “All my business with the hotel is in the hands of Mr. Godshaw.”
“The hotel,” Murchison put in, “being strictly an investment. However, our Viola knows more than she tells.” He moved closer to the edge of his seat, rested on Viola’s chair back a hand that encompassed her as a possession, and met Gamotte’s eye, with a frank, upward glance. “She would not otherwise have provided you three opportunities to disclose, or, I may say, confirm, what she suspects of Mr. Gersome’s proclivities.”
This fourth opportunity, also, was passed over by Gamotte.
“Mr. Godshaw was told…”
“Now, there you see,” Murchison, in his excess of confidence, interrupted, “that if I were Godshaw, in a manner of speaking, Nora and”―here he lifted the hand from the chair back, and placed it on Viola’s shoulder―“her alleged accomplice, would find themselves confounded.”
“I am sorry to say, Mr. Murchison, that I have some basis for comparison, and that you have found the least persuasive of your arguments yet.”
“No, but think of the larger sense of it, sir. I can stymie any visitor as readily as I can stymie Mrs. Huey. Do you not find Godshaw’s indiscretion alarming? What has he done, but come directly to you with this story?”
Gamotte, taken by surprise, asked himself if Murchison’s egotism had rendered him quite stupid, or rather brilliant. He wished Desanges were in the room. And, as though he’d unintendingly projected something of his mind’s direction, Murchison murmured, in a light, musing tone, “An eye patch. I blame Sir Robert Carpenter…although, I grant, that may be precisely his idea of a ‘continental adventurer’.”
Neither Viola nor Gamotte answered; it was not clear to whom Murchison addressed his remark. But Gamotte felt he ought to put a stop to this. His friend would, in any case, have advised him: “Be bold, mon frère. Not every stone brings on the avalanche.”
“Mr. Murchison, I do not object to trying your discretion. I hope to be entirely fair; more, also, because we will avoid accidents if I explain to you clearly what I expect of you.” He looked at Viola. Viola saw a slight shift of Gamotte’s eyes, and felt he invited her to study Phillip’s reaction to his words.
“These things concern Mr. Gersome. You must do as you are told. You must not have the ambition to do more. But,” Gamotte circumvented his shrug this time, allowing world-weariness merely to inflect his voice, “if you go wrong, you will not work at my hotel…you will not work anywhere at all. So it is no difference.”
Viola saw Phillip’s unchanging face alter now by the least wariness. Then, unable to leave his hand calm on her shoulder, he sat forward, and gripped the armrests of his own chair.
“Dire threats.” His tone was off-hand. “But you will have to tell me what the job is. And having been made party to your affairs, I will of course find myself agreeing to whatever you suggest.”
From time to time Viola had wondered what Phillip’s antecedents could possibly have been—a mother and father with the same slick mendacity beggared imagination. She felt she’d witnessed a hairline fissure form itself in his veneer. Phillip Murchison had a heart. She would rather see it touched by love than fear; but even this might part the shutters, like the probing finger of a freshening draft. She would encourage Phillip to help Gamotte in every way.
Viola hooked her heels into the ring at the stool’s base. She was too short to take her seat behind the counter with dignity, but had to clamber, gripping the counter’s edge with one hand, pressing the other against the stool’s cushion. The man she kept her eye on walked like a duck, stiff-legged, bearing his weight foot to foot, angling out his toes. He fingered things that were not on display, picked at the lettering on the glass, fondled the gas pipe that ran up the wall. He even reached over his head and touched the pendant lamp.
This clown’s last visit had been a week before the other had started trailing her. But Phillip seemed to know Bruner, and had assured Viola Freda could not afford a detective.
“No doubt my wife and Mr. Bruner make trade on the barter system. But when I asked her—naturally, the first thing I’d thought of—Freda gave a creditable impression of a confidential agent. When I say clam-like, I don’t mean merely cold and fishy. I suppose”—Phillip raised his eyebrows at the wonder of it, and mixed a fresh metaphor—“she may actually do a job of work for him. She wouldn’t spill. Not even a small bean. By which I gather I am nothing to Freda…however, you, Viola, have drawn the notice of someone.”
That, she thought, was not strictly true. It was Charles being strong-armed, and here again was his friendly customer, perusing one of Armistice House’s vanity publications: How I Found Success at the State Fair.
“This book”—with disdain, the man laid it aside—“is about pumpkins.”
“Well, Jack, you’re not in a bookstore. You could write your own, if you don’t like pumpkins.”
“Oh, I know what you people do.”
So unimpressed was Viola with this menacing—though the man meant, she supposed, to be sly—that she rolled her eyes at him, and hoped it hurt.
“That…” He leaned across the counter on his elbows, shortening his stature by doing so, while Viola, perched on her stool, watched his forehead wrinkle around a scar cutting across his right eyebrow.
“…is the trouble with you people. You sit there and look at me like you think you’re never gonna have to do business with me.”
His voice had risen in volume; he had opened his mouth to draw breath, and Viola braced herself to come down on him from her elevated seat like a magistrate, in defense of Charles Huey. She had nothing personal at stake.
“Listen, you son of a…”
But as though the finger he pointed were a sawed-off pistol, the man stood back from the counter, put his hand inside his jacket, and faced the door in a fighter’s crouch. The bell jingled. Viola squinted across also, expecting Phillip. And was surprised and made wary, when she saw Martin Bruner.
He lifted his hat; with his other hand he pulled the door wide. A short, bulldoggish man followed, and Bruner allowed him to catch the handle.
The duck-walker again snatched up the book; Viola wasn’t sure he was aware of his action. With a scything motion, he cut the air with the Indiana farmer’s blameless memoir, and stepping to crowd Bruner’s toes, added, “You got your client with you today? I know you, Oliver. Yeah! None of this amazes me.”
He left, still carrying the book. The door slammed shut.
Viola, seeing Bruner up close, thought of Freda. Phillip’s wife preferred this guy. She crossed her arms. His eyes, she thought, were nice. Yeah, they were nice. Bruner hadn’t spoken to her yet, whereas Phillip would by now have thrown off a dozen little mannerisms to make himself charming. This Viola forgave, because she was charmed by Phillip. She knew Freda was not. Freda’s boyfriend, though, was making her impatient.
“So, Marty, you been following me. Are you gonna talk to me now?”
“I don’t get you,” Bruner said. “But, Miss Huey, I do have a question.”
Alfred Oliver came away from the door, where he’d had an eye on the book thief, and joined them. Viola ignored Bruner.
“You’re his client? You ask me the question.”
“No, ma’am,” Oliver answered. “Bruner’s a pal of mine, and we’re just going along to see another pal.”
Bruner, to Viola’s eyes, looked ill at ease in Oliver’s company. He was ill-mannered, regardless.
“Mr. Bruner, I don’t know the name of your friend.”
Oliver introduced himself, offering his hand. Viola had no reason to be rude to this one. But though she gave him her fingers to clasp, she looked only at Bruner.
“Your other friend.”
“Him, I don’t know either,” Bruner said. “Not by name. I’m telling you the truth, Miss Huey. But I did business with him once.”
“Oh, well, small world. So what you want?”
“I’m wondering where you lived—you and your parents—before you moved to the city?”
“I’m not really one of the townies. I grew up on Frankholt Avenue, way south. And, you know, that neighborhood is very insular. I never went up to the city. That’s the kind of thing people used to brag about, not knowing from downtown.” The people Bruner had known, and still knew, belittled the wish expressed—the wish to be someone else—by the act of leaving the community, to shop, to find entertainment, to be educated. It was not so much bragging, Bruner thought, as a sort of inversion, an idealization of frugality, of patient abiding, against those respects by which the citified culture’s alien fanciness—of dress or of philosophy―threatened tradition.
His mother, that morning, had tracked him to the front steps, where he’d taken refuge with his cup of coffee.
“You’re not going out every day now.”
“Every day? This is the second day I’ve been home!”
He had not liked his tone of voice; had known, also, that it would cost him. She had two things in mind, his mother—she wanted to know if he’d got himself fired, and if he’d severed ties with Freda. Both of which were true; neither of which Bruner would discuss with her. She drew off, regrouped, and made a flanking attack.
“I remember, when I first came here with your father, when we bought the house…well!”
Madolyn Bruner, unperturbed, settled, taking a fold of her skirt in each hand and arranging them over her knees. She then leaned across in front of her son to grab at his empty cup, and sitting back, rather than continue her story, directed his attention to her daffodils, budding where she’d planted them, in a row beside the walk. “Those King Alfreds, have you ever seen them this early?”
“Well, you know, your father doesn’t get along with people. It made it hard for me to get along. When you’re married, Martin, you go through these times. If someone is friendly to you…”
She’d pushed on towards a delicate confession. And Bruner, getting the drift…finding himself shocked by it…stood, retreating to his basement dark room, not letting her finish.
His father wanted him to make a start. Thinking about who he knew, Bruner recalled Summers asking, “You’re gonna work for me again, right?” Summers had an office on Market Street, near the city hospital.
“That…” Oliver started telling him. Their cab pulled to the curb in front of Springer’s department store, opposite the shops closed when Bruner had last visited. Now, beneath lettering stenciled in a lyrical wave: A Wise Man at the Altar Bows, Bruner saw the jewelry store’s wares on full display…so many glittering rocks in their velvet boxes. Murchison had given Freda a diamond chip. Bruner could picture himself—
Robbing the store, he guessed. In that case, why not a tiara?
Oliver, while Bruner stared across the street, lost in abstraction, had paid the cabbie. He cleared his throat, and repeated: “That might be an advantage, I dunno. I get a lot of rubes wanting my advice.”
“Sorry,” Bruner said. “How much do I owe you?”
“Forget it. No, I would guess Summers showed up recently. But it’s not a crime to be from someplace else.”
“I like Summers. I’m hoping to work with him.”
This time, Bruner followed Oliver to the residential entry, concealed up the alleyway. The door opened onto a small, tiled foyer that contained only a potted palm, a mirror, and the low end of a flight of stairs.
“You figure,” Bruner said, “Mr. Durco will be at home?”
“Where’s he gonna be?” Oliver, three steps ahead, paused to look down, and raised his eyebrows. “He works in the club, right? Mrs. Durco, I grant you, is not a sociable lady. But I guess you wanna get a look at her.”
Bruner had stopped talking when Oliver warned him, “You can’t tell me you’re gonna tell me something, and then tell me it’s a secret. If I can use it, I’m gonna use it. If it’s a secret, don’t tell me.”
But, as Bruner knew, stories have a way of snapping together like machine parts. So he’d given Oliver Viola, and couldn’t have helped it. Without Oliver to smooth the way, Durco would suspect Bruner’s motives.
She heard a conversation on the other side of the door. An odd conversation—though it was hard to tell what made it so, when she could make out only muted rises and falls of intonation. A woman spoke in a chipper, bucking-up manner. A man answered―and his voice sounded rude and flat. But then again, the woman would speak differently, somewhat wheedlingly, to a third party who made no reply.
“Well,” Freda told herself, “so far I haven’t had great luck venturing out of the house. I have probably got the wrong address.” She knocked, in any case, and heard the inmates silence themselves. The door fell back on its hinges, tugged from the inside by an unseen hand, as in a melodramatic bit of stagecraft. Ought she broach the gap to learn what she’d run afoul of, or give the whole scheme up as a bad job? Freda teetered on her heels, indecisive.
She lacked Martin’s knack for poaching.
It had been for his sake, her visit to the apartment brokers. Here sat two men in a cramped office, facing each other over desks pushed front-to-front and lit by a single grimy window. The man furthest from the door ignored her, the nearer glanced up, then hunched off again, cradling his telephone. In that brief interval, he’d covered Freda head to foot with a hostile eye, and asked her, that American nasality sharpening his voice, “What?”
Something in being up to no good gave Freda the courage to lie. She looked at her watch. “I don’t know why Phillip hasn’t got here yet. You don’t mind my waiting?”
The broker waved her through the door, a husband soon to arrive having changed her from broad-wasting-my-time, to customer. For twenty minutes, Freda lingered by the firm’s notice board, with no inconspicuous means of jotting down the streets and apartment numbers mentioned in the brokers’ telephone talk. “Unit nine,” she repeated under her breath, and…had the man said Front Street?
“Hundred,” a voice rose at her back, “hundred ten a month!”
She’d arrived now, at the only address she’d been able to retain, this by chanting it to herself, almost skipping to the rhythm, as she’d made her way along the walk: “300 Chiswell, Number 42, 300 Chiswell, Number 42.” Her hope was to cut a deal with the lease-holder in person.
A dark-haired young man, some inches shorter than Freda, put his head round the door, his gaze resting for a moment on her face, then dropping to her shoes…her second full-body assessment within the hour, equally disapproving. The door was heaved open wide, but the occupant continued blocking the way, and though he would not look her in the eye, Freda judged his excess energy not horseplay, but genuine anger.
“I’m sorry,” she told him, easing in behind her clutch purse, inching towards the apartment’s living room. “I am sorry. You probably deal only with agencies. But I’d happened to hear that you were subletting…”
“Rob!” Over his short head, a woman’s voice sailed. She stepped into Freda’s field of vision…black trousers, a man’s dress shirt with button studs, her bristly dark hair in an antic chignon. “You must let the detective lady in.” Rob’s friend clamped a hand on his shoulder, and pulled him backwards. Freda was nonplussed.
“I’ve finished my call,” the woman told her. “Not that that concerns you, ma’am…but on the other hand, what do I know? Your comrade may be lurking in the shadows, like he was at Boardman’s swaree. Are introductions in order, or have you already gone through my dossier?”
The embarrassing thing was that she knew them. This was Rica Bullard and her friend…yes…Freda had no excuse for this. Martin (the two of them happy when they’d sat down side by side on his mother’s sofa; he kindly ignoring such faults in her work as murkiness and lack of focus) had identified to her Boardman’s circle. But then he’d irritated her, prompting Freda over Rica’s young man.
“You’ve seen this one, haven’t you? Think about it, Freda.”
He had believed for some reason Healy would be known to Phillip. (He probably was, and the aura of bad society was now hounding the poor boy like a nightmare.)
“That,” she’d crossed her arms, “is not the sort of question I can answer about my husband.” Martin, at this, had gathered all his prints, scooping them into a brown envelope, his face darkening as though she’d snapped at him.
“Well, we’re done anyway, Mrs. Murchison. That’s all I got.”
She’d caught his sleeve before he could show her the door…it was because she’d said, “my husband”.
Phillip was the only man Freda had had much to do with, and everything―praise, criticism, the sweet nothings of a lover, the harangues of a fishwife, bounced indifferently off Phillip’s sharkskin hide. He led his own life where useful acquaintances were concerned. He might be anybody’s friend.
And she might be about to do further harm.
A ring of gawkers had come swaying round Freda with their drinks, hooting laughter. And none of Boardman’s gang would interfere with her. His own guests seemed to conspire against him, smart-alecking him when he tried pushing through, not letting him do it…viewing Freda’s antics as someone from their crowd’s joke or stunt. She’d taken the precaution of cracking the door and putting her hand through, willing to shield Martin with her person, giving him the Graflex and a head start. And meeting Boardman’s eyes, just as she’d slipped out herself, Freda had thrown him—for no reason—a jaunty salute. The room applauded.
She’d seen Boardman’s face relax, no longer incensed, only suspicious. Of course it was possible Boardman wasn’t the one being photographed.
“Oh, Miss Bullard…” Her thought was to end this awkward silence, apologize and give up, back herself out the way she’d come in. But, quoting Freda, Rica turned to her protégé. “Oh, Miss Bullard? You see, the detective lady has come up with a perfectly serviceable entering line. We don’t have to labor these things.”
Healy shot Freda, rather than Rica, a contemptuous look, and turned his back to the women. “Yeah. I know you think I’m a second-rate Boardman.”
“You don’t listen, chickadee. I said you were an imitation Boardman. Rob…” From speaking to his shirt-collar, Rica turned to Freda and wrinkled her nose, giving a confiding smile.
“…out of jealousy, would like to hew so close to the Boardman method―taught him by Curtis himself, mind―and yet write something so essentially loathsome, that it would read like an x-ray. No one could fail to spot the skeleton underneath the fleshy excess.”
Yes, the fates might fairly charge Freda with deceptive practices, and serve her with irony, but she didn’t see why for punishment she must be drawn into this spat of strangers.
She tried a new tack. Nora, she understood, would prefer to see his wife reunited with Phillip, keeping him away from Viola. The twenty hadn’t been charity—it was bond money. And though unable to accommodate Nora’s wishes, she did feel a bond of gratitude. Thanks to her husband’s lover’s mother, Freda might secure this apartment. She then would have a material offering with which either to win back Martin’s heart…or humiliate him.
“I,” she told Rica, “am Freda…”
She stopped, thinking she was not being clever. No doubt this awful pause made the clumsiest of preludes one could well manage, to the giving of a false name. She cleared her throat, and tried one she could speak with conviction. “Freda Pitfield-Young. I’m not, by the way, a detective. I was at a cast party and some of the girls put me up to it.”
“Ah. Well, Freda Muckety-Muck, you’ve unsettled our friend Boardman. He’s been making discreet inquiries.” Here, Rica left off, and began to laugh immoderately at something she alone found funny; then, using a knuckle to wipe her eye, went on. “You chorus girls are always tripping over the animal magnetism. Naturally, Curtis takes alarm. But, Rob…” She sing-songed his name like a tease.
Rob told her, eyes more bleak than enraged, “Shut up. You think I’d go knock on Curtis’s door…remember your party? The girl with the camera? Well, guess what?” His mimicry as he delivered this dialogue brought home that to which Rica alluded.
Martin, of course, took the work that came along. But Freda now feared this to be a case of low, dirty blackmail, and that she had indeed made things worse.
“I’ve made a mistake,” she said. “Thank you so much. I’ll just leave.”
“Nonsense,” Rica told her. “You’ve come to see about letting the place, and you ought to. Rob wants to make a fresh start in Hollywood, where they have lots of clubs even shinier than the Imperial. And I’m sorry for being so rude. Freda Thingummy, chorus girl, meet Rob Healy, aspiring waiter.”
Talou turned up. He, and the friend…the friend…abraded Boardman’s poise. He kept making up scenarios in his mind, ways he might bump into Harvey, just pretend… Pretend he’d been about to say something else, then fumble the name into their conversation. Talou, Harvey. Sorry. He was convinced he’d see Planter’s cigarette holder tremble.
Curtis Boardman was perfectly capable of analyzing this seed of irritation. One did not, after all, write plays…although Boardman conceded that some of his students probably did. Even Rob Healy, who had shown promise before dropping out of the workshop, put words on paper, not grasping Boardman’s point.
“I don’t want you to go to a café; I don’t want you jotting down ‘what people say’. Your characters are a medium. You control the message. You’re not upending a jar of marbles—but realize, that if someone does happen to slip and fall, the moment has to be anticipated; it has to build to culmination in the dialogue. You can’t rely on the actor’s creating the character. Ego dressed in costume is politics, not theater.” His students―Edna Rossi, notably―made intelligent comments on occasion, and he felt that they tried. Healy had succeeded, often, without trying.
Boardman thought of this, because he thought of Stanley. He knew the name; he had overheard it. His pride was compromised, and Boardman knew himself haunted…vexed. He could not explain why it should be that he’d again seen Talou when he’d happened to look out his window. Talou—or Stanley—must live nearby; this cat and mouse game illusion, or proof, as Boardman knew already, that he was an unlucky man. He had wanted a smoke, and had gone to open the window. He might with a far greater probability have missed Talou. Boardman had never seen the muted plaid overcoat, camel and vanilla. He noted garments generally, dress—bold or conforming, costly or cheap—being what one puts on. And he noted Talou’s clothing in particular. Talou he thought particular about clothing. Talou’s things were expensive, accoutered, flattering to his figure, quietly attention-seeking. Talou had a narrow, grave face, and a tender way of subordinating himself to Stanley, who, Boardman thought, was a dangerous man.
He had studied Stanley’s changing expressions when he looked at Talou. When Talou looked away from Stanley…something farouche came into Stanley’s eyes. One moment he was spellbound and tamed—and then he was not.
Boardman was an observant student of the human theater, and as he strode up the walk, weaving round the caged tree, past a woman he had no time to notice, whose eyes, for a moment, had grown surprised and friendly (he probably knew her), he saw Talou’s shoulders stiffen, his gait’s cadence alter. Boardman was relieved. Not that he liked Talou’s fearing him, but that he hated conversational contrivances. He would not need to remark on the weather.
“I know your name. I saw you the other day, at the Midway.” Boardman fell into step with Talou, and glanced down, his feelings for Stanley making his smile feel hostile on his face. Talou’s coat was unbuttoned, the sleeve, slipping at the shoulder, hung over the hand that swung a bundle of tulips. “You and your friend…I think you called him Stanley, were sitting a couple of rows in front of me.”
“You saw me in the park, too. What were you doing? Do you teach?”
“Well, what do you call teaching? I speak about this and that to a small audience. I also am thought to be somewhat famous, Talou…although, you may never attend the theater.”
They were strolling, their pace growing more sluggish, past a barber shop, in front of which was a white-painted bench. Talou, whom Boardman suspected of plotting an escape, fell back suddenly—for a second he believed Talou would enter the shop, but instead he sat. Boardman sat too.
“You know my name. You should tell me yours.”
“Am I scaring you a little? I don’t mean to.”
Talou’s right hand gripped the flowers. He lifted them onto his lap, and stared down into their black-spotted hearts.
“No, you won’t answer me until I answer you. That’s only fair. My name is Curtis Boardman. Are you taking tulips to your friend?”
“Mr. Boardman.” Talou looked from beneath his hat brim, into Boardman’s eyes. Boardman was noticing everything. The incongruous whiskey-soaked voice; the sorrowful cast etched on a face otherwise young, and a flinch, quickly overcome, at something Talou had seen in his own face. Talou raised the bundle of stems and gripped them as though this offering embodied the bond itself between Talou and Stanley; then, leaning close, speaking low, he said to Boardman, “I have money of my own. I can do as I like. What’s it got to do with you?”
Boardman thought Talou did enjoy the theater. The accent was difficult to place. He would have said upper-class American, educated in Europe. Talou was a seductive little party, in whatever case. They were only sitting and talking, yet Boardman was aware that these gestures, and this proximity, were too intimate for a public street.
“Obviously, I have nothing to do with you.” He hesitated.
Talou jumped from the bench, with no word to Boardman, and continued to the street corner. Boardman watched, weighing the conversation he’d just had. Then he, too, stood. Rows of apartment houses lined this block. Stanley might have taken up residence in any of them.
“Can I join your tea party?”
He’d broken into a run. He’d barely caught the flap of the coat, vanishing from the top of a flight of concrete steps. He stopped the latch catching, shoving the door before it locked itself. “You say you can do as you like, Talou. I think I understand you.”
“Alas! Dear Falada, There Thou Hangest”
If thy mother knew they fate,
Her heart would break with grief so great.
The Goose Girl
The mission house had been founded to shelter war orphans. The orphans had, many of them by now, grown to adulthood. In ten years’ time, the inmates—one by one—had been going. As to which Rose Durco felt unsentimental.
“Well, they ask for money to pay for things that bear on location. I mean, the chateau being far outside the city…and there’s no reason for it—not any longer. Frankly, they ought to find individual places for the few they have left, although these children may be…”
“Not the brightest buttons.” Oliver supplied the phrase. He passed the photo to Bruner. Rose Durco had asked the maid to bring coffee.
“I’ll ring up Joe,” she told them. “He’s downstairs at the club.”
Bruner traded a glance with Oliver.
To occupy them while they waited, Rose had brought to the table this cigar box, in which she kept snapshots, along with a handful of thank you letters. The letters, copied from an English language form-book, else dictated, said nothing of interest.
The photo showed two mission workers, women wearing the substantial, high-crowned hats of the war years, broad-shouldered overcoats that fell to their ankles. Three adults in a semi-circle; they and the elderly man in clerical cap and soutane, who stood leaning on a spade. Two children watched from the sidelines…representative of the wares, Bruner thought cynically, and in the background, a ruin—its bleached whiteness an effect of the camera lens. The chateau d’Auclaudet, somewhere outside the city of Lille. One of its wings had survived intact; the whole, the orphanage to which Rose mailed a monthly donation, in a constant state of repair.
“What do you like, Mr…I’m sorry.”
He looked up, realizing he’d heard, without really attending, the creak of wheels. A maid had pushed a cart into the room. “Black coffee will do for me, ma’am. I’m Martin Bruner.”
“I’m sorry,” she said again.
Well, me too, he said to himself.
She sat opposite her unexpected visitors, and each—even Oliver—sipped coffee with an excess of devotion to form. Bruner had brought photos of his own to Durco’s place, once again, but had this time, pleasing only himself, made wallet-sized prints. Oliver was right. Durco’s wife had no natural sociability. She’d reached for the box, handy on her desk; her thoughts had been of severing ties. And she’d repeated these things, having nothing else to say.
If he showed her Viola, what might she say?
An impulse to test Mrs. Durco put itself forward, and Bruner, both tempted and fearing the question unkind, sat straight and studied the Durco living room. Each wall but that with curtains drawn, had a mirror—one round, its frame ormolu, reflecting and reflecting back again the image of its counterpart, frameless and beveled, asymmetrically etched with…roses. Adjacent to this, a sunburst design. Beyond the mirrors, he saw not a picture, or a knick-knack, or anything personal.
“Mrs. Durco, do you have children?” He knew the answer. She had two sons and a daughter, all adults, none at home.
She put her cup on the table, and her eyes, while not becoming animated, focused on Bruner’s. And then, she checked herself, at a noise, a metallic click from the door handle.
“No, I don’t want coffee.” Junior Durco waved away the possibility, before his wife had parted her lips. “Bruner, Oliver, we’ll hold this meeting on the terrace.”
They stood, hurried by Durco’s apparent anger, and followed him in silence. Yet, once they’d exited the apartment, through a glass door at the end of a passage opposite the bar, Durco seemed to shed whatever had annoyed him. His gesture was sweeping and ironic. “It’s not much. Planter’s got the sweet deal over on his side.”
The terrace was the size of a small bedroom, furnished with a bistro table and four chairs, a frightening metal rail—too low, and too open for Bruner’s taste—bolted either side to the building’s façade. He was ushered to a seat facing the door, his back to the rail…and showing his nerves badly, jerked when an orange tabby sprang to the tabletop.
Mumbling, “Hey, kitty”, Bruner gave its head a pat. Without a word, Durco pulled the cat onto his lap.
“Bruner, what’ve you got?”
A disadvantage. He’d expected Durco to hold this meeting in his office, where he’d meant to call attention to the portrait on the wall. He took a breath.
“Sir, a few days ago, I quit working for a client…job didn’t amount to much. I was asked to follow a young woman. The object was to let her know she was watched. To spook her, I’m guessing.” He allowed a tight smile. Viola Huey had been spooked, yeah. “I was not told what the client wanted. I’ve seen this kind of thing before.” Bruner paused, and looked at Oliver, who had brought out a cigar, and had the blank face of a man not taking sides.
“Here,” Bruner told Durco, and fished out three snaps of Viola, arraying them in an arc before the man she so strongly resembled.
Durco stroked the cat’s head. “I’ll keep these, if you don’t mind. I haven’t got a picture of her, not…” He cut the words off. “That’s Viola Huey. I know it already, Bruner.”
Bruner hadn’t come to bargain with Durco; he’d come to broker a little protection for himself. He’d calculated this, that Horace Gersome had plenty of friends…but presumably Gersome liked his friends. Anyone on his own level wouldn’t be asked to do a dirty little errand.
“Keep the pictures,” Bruner told Durco. “I don’t believe my client…”
He didn’t believe his client wanted them. He hadn’t asked for souvenirs when Bruner had got him on the phone.
“Mr. Bruner, I’ll make it short. You know a guy named Van Nest?”
Neither had said anything for a minute or two. Then, in a dry voice, filling the void, Gersome went on, “Van Nest has a sense of humor. I figure. Guy’s a joker, tells me ‘hire Bruner’. See, with those college smarts of his, I didn’t get him at first. Now I’m gonna tell you frankly, Bruner…you’re rotten at this work. You should do something else.”
Given his suspicion—that Gersome wanted him to take a fall—Bruner thought his client might have paid him a compliment. There were things it was worthwhile being too stupid to do well.
“Toronto, see I didn’t know about that,” he heard Durco tell Oliver. Bruner glanced aside. He hadn’t meant to convey a cue, but Oliver picked up the thread.
“Bruner doesn’t believe a guy oughta beat around the bush,” he supplied, making this up. “He asked her and she said.”
“Well, Huey was running his shop the whole time. It must have been Nora.” Durco leaned forward in his seat, dropping the cat gently. It jumped back on the table. In the nick of time, Durco swooped up the three photos.
“There’s a guy,” he began, half-rising, rooting in a rear pocket. Tucking the snaps in his wallet, Durco paused over each. “Named Chaney. They call him Boxer. He came to me about ten years ago, just got out after a stint for check forgery. Well, Boxer’s kind of a forged check himself. Any job someone wants, they could hire him to do…even when he don’t know nothing about it. He was gonna sell me this same story. Now,” Durco raised his hand, “I’m not criticizing. I just moved into this place back then…I mean, Boxer being what he is, I could have put him over the rail.” With a thumb he pointed, and Oliver looked. Bruner didn’t. “And got the truth. But I knew the truth. Instead…” Durco shrugged. “I told him what I said from the start. I won’t pay. I will never pay. But Boxer, you understand, was one of the heavies. That’s the only way a guy like Boxer could know.
“I’m a businessman. My business, the way I see it, is at odds with the law. That’s cause people don’t look at history. Now…” Durco noticed an unconcealed restlessness in his audience, as Bruner and Oliver, respectively, shifted and slumped in their seats. He abandoned this point. “I’m not a crook. I don’t keep bags of cash sitting around the place. They were gonna cripple me, asking for so much. But you see…maybe I would of done it. I could mortgage the house, I could borrow from my friends—but if I even got Priscilla back…what I’m saying is, that would be the beginning, not the end. Lemme finish.” He sliced his hand at chest level. Oliver and Bruner peered sidelong at each other; neither had attempted to speak.
“Fritz Bergen, so far as I know, never lied. Maybe he did. There’s a couple other guys it could have been. The thing is…I said crippled, right? I couldn’t run my outfit any more, without help, if they bankrupted me like that. So, see, I would be offered help. They’d even help me find out who snatched Priscilla. I’d owe them everything. So I’d have to hand over everything. They spring some rat-trap, up turns Boxer Chaney. Boxer and his pal. Why wouldn’t they? Couple of chumps, not worth anybody’s time. Now.” He slapped the table. “Suppose it went the other way, and I never got Priscilla back. You know what I mean. Does that affect those guys? Maybe I’m stupider, blinder, more willing to take their advice that way. See, I’m not a genius at math. But I worked the equation out like this. Priscilla might live or die. And I might yield or I might not yield. Only one thing changes. If these guys can knock over my operation by snatching my kid, they’ll do it to the next guy’s kid. It was up to me.”
“I suppose…” Oliver spoke. They hadn’t come to Durco expecting him to tell them anything in particular.
“…you found out too late. She must have been thirteen or fourteen?”
“I have nothing against the Hueys.”
Bruner decided he’d learned too much, and without gaining as much as a toehold. All the means at Gersome’s disposal, the tools of petty officialdom, that could be used to harry a struggler, a man in the wrong line of work, and make his small life miserable, would not, after all, be deflected by Durco’s gratitude. He said, “Thank you, sir,” and pushed his chair back, with an odd sense of instability—though he knew the rail was at least six feet away.
“Mr. Bruner,” Durco said. “Who is your client?”
Ethan Bragg looked to Rob Healy less appealing. Bragg was a subject for Rob, a study. Since the character had no physical traits—How does a fat man talk? Or, how does a blue eyed girl walk?…Boardman being a stickler for those things―“Character is juice; physical appearance is only stage-business”―Rob envisioned eye bags and thinning hair expressed in a line of dialogue…words that plodded in weary syllables, words that pricked their ears at some hopeful chance. Bragg’s intense absorption with himself was the source of his charm. He did not have a lot of charm. People who liked Ethan liked him because he cared so much whether they would. But Rob, Rica…that English bitch, the one Rob had let the apartment to…everyone, he supposed, cared about being liked.
“You’re a playwright,” Bragg had said to Rob, at an early party. “Or are you only a playwright when you have a thing produced?”
“I just call myself a guy who writes stories.”
Ethan had hung at his side, not smiling at this, one of Rob’s best humble self-appraisals; he’d got out his cigarette case, blind hands at work, eyes on Rob, and offering nothing, snapped it shut. Rob hated Ethan a little, and wondered if he was like Boardman—or if, in his own way, he was the better catch. He took a short aggressive step, and said it, to Ethan’s chin, “You got a cigarette I can borrow?” He went on, rushing. “So when you figure you can tell a whole story in dialogue, you ask yourself…why do I need to look out my window, and describe the pigeon shit?”
“I think you are a follower of Boardman. I think they’ve told me that.” Bragg, searchingly, had pushed his face closer to Rob’s, popping the cigarette, like a cork, from his mouth. He didn’t say, “Take this one.” He seemed not to have heard the question. And then he’d looked over his shoulder, as though “they” were the men in white coats.
“I know Boardman,” Rob told him.
“So you are modern and rough.” It was Bragg’s dissipation that made him attractive, Rob considered. He would be a cypher, a dull rich man, without his paranoia.
“If I’m not modern, what am I gonna write about? If it’s rough, I guess that’s life.”
And yet, Bragg had been the only one who’d wanted to have this conversation. Rob had never had friends his own age.
Outside Ethan’s townhouse, he backed down the steps he’d trotted up a moment earlier. A newspaper photographer was across the street; and Rob, far from minding, wanted—intended—to get himself into the picture. But he was curious, too. Mrs. Quincy’s daughter was performing here, sitting on the sidewalk with her hand-lettered sign. She had wrapped herself in a quilt, one with rust-colored stains, ladders of frayed cloth, yellowed batting tearing away like thistledown. And the day was warm. The sign said, BRAGG. MURDERUS COWARD. Misspelled.
“Miss Quincy,” Rob called out. He let a taxi pass by, scooted up to her feet, and not with any great malice, said, “Has the beat cop been along with his billy club? At least”—he caught the eye of the Daily News man—“you’ve got good weather for your vigil.”
“I don’t know you.” She looked up at the camera, and the reporter walked his tripod back, widening his view to fit in Rob.
“How’s the broken leg?” She wasn’t, Rob thought, showing a lot of fight, useful as a publicity photo would be to them both. She was probably hot by now, and thirsty. But the quilt made a nice touch of pathos. Shrunken to the size of a black and white print, she would yet appear to shiver in the chill of Bragg’s indifference.
“It’s her back that’s hurt, you bugger. No.” She withdrew a hand, that she flung in a gesture, adding, “My mother won’t work again. And a man like Bragg”—Miss Quincy addressed the journalist—“won’t be made to pay. Not by the courts in this city.”
“Bragg’s having a little get-together,” the journalist told Rob, his face growing offensively bland. “Another young gent went inside about half an hour ago.” He glanced down at Miss Quincy. She smirked up at the Daily News man. Rob didn’t bother to answer.
Ethan’s parlor had a fireplace at one end, done in brown marble, against which the andirons, and the screen, so polished, and so brassy, made a bad effect. Elsie Bragg had put jade Buddhas on the mantelpiece. Otherwise, the room’s woodwork was dark, bookcases filled with bright dustcovers adding further clash to the impression of too much to look at, too many vague, musty smells; and here at the window, blocking the view, were eye-blighting drapes in crushed velvet, that Phillip meant to throw open to the light of day.
Acting as Gamotte’s agent, he’d got Bragg bearded in his den—his den of iniquity, as the tabloids sympathetic to Elsie had it―though the trauma of divorce had rendered this, at present, more an eremite’s cell. Bragg had schemed to avoid paying alimony. He disavowed this, but Phillip, intending himself to avoid alimony, found Bragg’s alleged conduct plausible, perhaps excusable. Also, however, incompetent and hapless—
(Now there was a line an ex-salesman might pursue…101 Helpful Dodges for the Unhappily Married).
His wife, following her second miscarriage, had been befriended by Ethan’s friend, Dr. Rascka. On the stand, Elsie had told of her recovery, an ordeal she’d endured while “lying virtually senseless” in her bed; of Bragg’s ushering Rascka, and his hypodermic, into the boudoir.
This had become a key point during the divorce trial. Elsie did not deny her addiction to opium; she insisted, rather, that Bragg and Rascka had machinated against a helpless woman—“A Prisoner in Her Own Home” (Herald headline)—with the intent of destroying her character.
Rascka had perjured himself on the stand…Elsie’s lawyer, during the third day of Rascka’s testimony, raising a ruckus in the courtroom and enriching the scandal rags, with his revelation that Rascka had no license to practice medicine in the United States.
Bragg’s lawyer, on his client’s behalf, splashed back, giving an exclusive statement to Alfred Oliver. “Mrs. Bragg, an admitted drug user, may fail to recall certain incidents that took place prior to her marriage.”
There had been a mistress, too, a pivotal figure for Elsie’s case. But Beryl May had gone into hiding, rather than testify against Ethan. And then, when the city had been poised for the dénouement, Beryl had been found, lunching at a lakeside resort, with a court officer assigned to the Bragg trial, forcing the officer’s dismissal, and postponing the trial’s resumption. May had sure-handedly parlayed her bit part into local celebrity, and Phillip admired her most, of all the Bragg players.
A portion of public opinion had divided itself on the side of Elsie; the remainder on Ethan’s, neither allegiance passionate. Rascka, cast in the role of swarthy foreigner—and having no choice about it—had been universally condemned.
Then Bragg had met Mrs. Quincy, in a manner of speaking. The accident was at the start of a holiday, his attorney out of town, Ethan’s prolonged stay in the city jail crushing to his spirit. He’d come to this: hiding behind black-out curtains, giving audience to a select few.
“You don’t envision Miss Quincy trailing after you in her quilt, like a sort of parti-colored reaper?” Phillip pulled back the drapes, and Elsie’s taste—banana trees yellowing in their urns, Egyptian motifs flocking the wallpaper—was fully exposed to Bragg’s guests. A remark on the influence of opium drifted in the back of Phillip’s mind. He supposed neither Bragg nor Healy had that sort of humor.
He took over the sofa, kicked with his heel at a platter-sized ashtray, and put up his feet. Healy, an acquaintance of Ethan’s, seemed to share this blue funk plaguing half the likely party guests, some of whom (for the sake of police interviews), must be of Ethan’s actual circle, not mere recruits from Gamotte’s.
Phillip, for his part, was feeling a philanthropic glow of goodwill. Three days earlier, Freda had left him. Her letter was to the point: “You owe Mrs. Ruald twenty dollars.” Unperturbed, his affairs in hand, Phillip thought he’d rather give twenty dollars to Mrs. Ruald than to Freda. But of course, the question was moot.
“You have a friend, you were telling Ethan, who would like to put you in the pressure cooker.” He offered this sociable opener to Healy.
“Curtis Boardman liked his Act Two,” Bragg said, wearily interpreting Phillip’s motions as criticism, and reaching to tug without strength at the ashtray’s edge.
Phillip coughed. “I’ve given you a false impression. But I’m sure it’s a charming act.”
Healy, who had not been amiable, glared. “Rica says I’d learn to stop fussing if I had to write on a deadline. She’s going out to California again. She wants me to go.”
He seemed to have made himself no happier for sharing his news. Phillip decided this ill-assorted après–luncheon needed livening.
“When you chatted up Miss Quincy, you did not receive intelligence of a Quincy gang in operation? I ask”—he flapped a hand at Rob, encouraging him not to rise just yet—“because if we have only one opponent, we can probably smuggle Ethan out safely.”
Ethan sat plucking at his tie and jacket. He woke to being the topic of conversation. “I don’t feel I ought to go to Harvey’s.”
“But how can he mind?”
“How can he mind?” Rob asked. “He’s out of town.”
Yes, Gamotte’s plan depended on it. Phillip’s first task had been squaring away Ned.
“You don’t always want to be the man on the spot, Mr. Thornbury.”
“I have worked eighteen years for Mr. Planter, sir.”
“Well, but Ned. Suppose one day you found yourself at a crossroads, forced for sheer survival’s sake to choose loyalty to either Mr. Planter or yourself. Suppose this happened on a Thursday.”
Healy, though he had a disreputable friend or two (Curtis Boardman, however, seemed out of the question), was less important. Beryl May would be infinitely the more desirable, if Phillip could locate her in time. And he could always turn to Stanley—with luck, Stanley might like bringing his odd little friend. But Ethan must be induced to make a good show; it must be conviviality all round…a modest sales proposal ought to bind Healy up tidily.
“Rob, you would like Harvey Planter to know your name. Consider Ethan, then, in his lonely hours, hiding from his tormentors in Harvey’s four-poster, placing your work on Harvey’s bedstand, forgetting to take it away.”
“Cheese,” Rob said.
“No.” Phillip was dismayed, a bit. He paused, and his mind sprung an answer. “Likely that will be Planter’s first notion, as well. He may even toss your work, unread, into the fire. Though it won’t matter if he doesn’t. Ethan will ring him up in a few days to say, I wasn’t supposed to have that. You’d be doing me a great favor if you’d just have Ned bring it by.”
Rob sat up. “Yeah, I get you. How can you not read something you were told not to read? Worse, if it’s too late.” He laughed, and eyed Phillip. “I should make myself work on the first act, anyway. The second act is about you and Elsie.” He spoke this last to Ethan, and added, “I mean, not really… If you don’t like it, you can say.”
“You’re telling me…” Freda brandished her authorization, somehow big as a poster. The female civil servant who sat on a folding chair, in what might have been an empty hangar, raised round lenses, with no eyes behind them.
“…my card is meant to have some sort of stamp on the back? Well, I suppose I left it at home.”
And in the way of dreams, a picture rose at once, of the bungalow’s kitchen, an object like a cancelled postage stamp on the table, its red inky ring terribly important. It was just beyond her reach; curiously both visible and hidden, by a stack of Phillip’s booklets. She woke, annoyed with Phillip.
But she was in the new place, and thought she must have dreamed the noises, too. Martin, his face buried in his pillow, hadn’t stirred.
On the street, two days before, so early the dewy air resonated with sound—bottles knocking together, the milkman’s heels, and her own, tapping and scuffling—Freda had paced, and waited for him. The sidewalk was wet, pebbled with slick little stones carried in a stream from the Bruners’ neighbor’s gutter. Freda stared down at them, and shifted her weight with caution. She heard one door pulled back on its hinges, a second pushed forward…and marveled, that in the peculiar hush of six-thirty a.m., her hearing could discern the difference.
At last, she’d seen Martin. He followed his father, whose lunch box added to the echo, creaking as it swung in his hand. She hadn’t met Martin’s father, and Martin had wanted not to talk about him. But although she saw scant resemblance between father and son, a link, as though their feet were shackled—the older man’s anger and Martin’s anxiety―connected their movements. She’d dialed information for this address, come to linger outside Martin’s door, and her reward was to feel shabby, like a voyeur.
But he’d seen her then.
She was bad for him. Martin had been on his way to talk to a man named Summers about a job, and Freda had waylaid him. Now, for three days, they’d lounged in this apartment, almost broke.
She’d told Rob Healy, “I can offer only ten dollars”; this, not a complete lie…there was more to life than paying rent. Eating a meal, say, at least once every twenty-four hours. In a shameful bit of acting, Freda had looked down at her hands, and wrung them. “I’ve…I’ve left my husband.”
But Rica Bullard had been the one to show pity. “Now, Rob, there’s something to be said for taking the first person off the street. You could have paid the agency fee and gone through thirty interviews before you got swindled by a sob story. I figure you’re at least ten bucks ahead.”
And still, the noises came to Freda’s ears. It was not the sound of ransacking. She dropped her hand over the side of the bed and groped for her dressing gown. She would have guessed the tap had been turned, briefly, and a glass settled on the kitchen countertop. Now she heard something less than footsteps, more a pivoting and scooting, as though someone maneuvered the kitchen’s small floor space.
She snugged her sash, and bending over Martin, traced his bare shoulder blade. Freda didn’t believe investigating noises was a man’s job, necessarily. She felt that Martin ought merely to be told what she’d been about when last seen.
“Someone,” she whispered, “is pottering in the kitchen. A burglar.”
He sat up, and tilted his head. A drawer opened and closed. Whoever it was left the kitchen, his movements becoming a distinct tread of feet. “Healy,” Martin told her, whispering too. He got up, and found his trousers. “Drunk. Forgot he doesn’t live here now. You just stay where you are, and I’ll go talk to him.”
“You think…not a burglar?”
“No, listen…” They heard the springs of the sofa, a tune whistled through teeth. Martin slipped out, and closed the door. Freda saw the living room light shine suddenly, a thin margin around the door frame, a wide bar at the bottom that made her blink, and seemed to throw the bedroom into blackness. She heard new noises, a thud and a grunt, three bumps in rapid sequence, the last ending with a disturbing squelch.
The apartment had only one telephone, and it was out there. The bedroom had a window. Freda found herself on her toes, half-turned, half-panicked―and partly persuaded that she should go the other way, towards the living room. It might all be nothing.
The door burst open. There were two of them, that was all she knew. That, and the cloth, pressed to her face.
Bruner recalled closing the door. The intruder, a human shadow silhouetted by light from the street, cocked an ear and watched expectantly, his arm thrown over the sofa back—the way a party guest would wait for the host. Bruner wasn’t bothering to speak, not until he’d got his finger on the switch-button. He could even recall coaching himself…Healy might be a dog, as well as drunk…might have supposed Freda here alone. The ceiling light, feeble in strength and amber in hue, had shown him an unknown face, wearing a merry sort of leer; the man had looked right over Bruner’s shoulder. But the telegraph arrived too late. There’d been a shock.
Now again the room was dark, and he heard low murmuring, far away. He thought he’d been left here, the rough fibers of the rug glued to his face by drool, or by the watering of the eye jammed there by the weight of his head. Freda…she was behind the door, where they were…Bruner pushed with a hand that seemed also in contact with the rug. He couldn’t find his other hand. He labored at this objective, got leverage from a knee, popped the arm he’d fallen onto free. From the elbow down, he felt nothing for an instant, then an agonizing prickliness. And knew he was going to vomit, if he did not lay his head down and breathe.
“Boxer, you didn’t hit him hard enough.”
“I mean, he been movin.”
“Go see if there’s a clear drop out the other one.”
Bruner recognized the voice. He had never known the name. But he did, of course. Just a couple days ago. This was one of those instances of social awkwardness. He hadn’t realized, talking to Durco, that he’d met Boxer. Bruner heard the warped sash of the kitchen window stick and scrape, the rattle of glass as Boxer’s friend ratcheted it loose. Again in the living room, Bruner heard the friend speak, his manner confiding, and not especially quiet.
“It’s smaller than the bedroom.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“You could get him through. You oughta look for yourself.”
Boxer gave a noise of exasperation, and Bruner heard both go into the kitchen.
The enormity of these exchanges came with the sudden clarity of a deciphered crossword clue. The kitchen window. A clear drop. The other window, in the bedroom, was above a fire escape. Freda might have got out that way. Bruner, to his shame—having thought of this—felt a deliverance, less for Freda’s sake, than for his own. He might manage a weak fight, if he were not called on to do anything heroic.
But he couldn’t fathom it.
Put on the spot, Bruner had weighed making up a name. Then shrugged, deciding Durco would not be more entertained by a pathetic, as opposed to a straightforward, lie. Already, he’d sat for two or three minutes, dumb as a bump on a log. The truth would be believed. Nothing else would.
And Durco had only nodded. He had not even looked at Oliver. Bruner hadn’t thought the choice of the terrace, and Durco’s anecdote about putting a guy over the rail—ironically, Boxer Chaney—had been only for kicks. Further, he wasn’t sure he owed protection to Gersome.
But Durco, unless the whole thing was a bizarre trap—Healy, for Christ’s sake!…and who staged elaborations to trap a nobody?—would keep what he’d learned close. Oliver would as well. He was dispensable as any reporter; he would not pick a fight with Gersome.
Bruner was jolted, this second shock worse, in its own way, than the first. They’d come back in, got him by the arms, and jerked him to his knees. Now he did vomit, and heard a volley of curses.
“That don’t matter, though.” Boxer’s friend found the philosophical view, as they hauled Bruner to the kitchen. “A guy could heave if he got nervous bout doin it.”
Bruner had one hope. Whatever resistance he could muster, he must hold in reserve. They were on the fourth floor. Now and again, the papers ran a piece about someone falling that distance and surviving. Even, sometimes, “without a scratch”. Still, it was not life Bruner hoped for, but witness.
“Okay. No, you gotta stand in front of him. Two of us can’t do it.”
Boxer muttered these orders, then made a sound, almost a gasp. He took Bruner by the chin. Bruner dared to open an eye, so extraordinary were the noises he heard. Boxer was doing a little dance, like he was in the ring. He swung his fists. He swore, steadily, but in an undertone, not forgetting himself.
“That…that, you nitwit dago!” He jabbed his finger, once at his colleague, once at Bruner. “That ain’t Healy! I know who that is!” And seeing, in this faint light from the street, Bruner awake and watching him, Boxer smashed his fist into Bruner’s eye.
Some case of nerves to explain away, Bruner thought, his nose streaming blood.
“No, you gotta do it. Now. Never mind!”
He heard Boxer say this, and then the other man was attempting to feed him backwards out the window, like a sack of garbage. Bruner had only this moment. He was overbalancing, an unstoppable weight, and he seized the fabric of the man’s shirt in an unyielding grip. It was too bad, of course. He never wanted to hurt anyone. But two corpses they couldn’t brush off as suicide.
The fear of imbalance must have grabbed his mind’s attention in the few seconds of descent. His legs swung over his head, and the commonplace, sick-making panic of a slip on the ice was all Bruner knew. He had no time to make it worse by imagining the end. Oxygen-rich air, cold and sticky, drove into his face—and then, a heart and breath stopping explosion. But hard luck case that he’d always been, Bruner found himself the loser once more, conscious. Red and yellow pulsations receded, replaced by the emerging shape of a wall. He tasted blood, but what he smelled was…garbage. His fingers rested on an animal’s small haunch—a rat, newly dead, not wholly stiff. He had otherwise landed on Boxer’s friend.
He heard the man say, “Son of a bitch.” The voice had a catch, a sort of sob. The word “bitch” rose in tone, like a lamentation. And over and over, Boxer’s friend repeated this phrase.
Bruner wished he knew the man’s name. He thought of a word of comfort…he could not recall the mechanism for speaking…the thought was a lie, in any case—but Bruner derived some comfort himself from responding, mentally, “You’re okay, pal”, at each trailing off of his fellow sufferer’s curse. His head hurt beyond description. Where Boxer’s blackjack had begun the work behind Bruner’s right ear, the impact of the fall had gone far to finish it.
He felt a scintillation of electric current—nerve endings vibrating, groping after new language to communicate the unprecedented. He feared, feeling his hands grow icy, that a passage of ten or twenty minutes would settle the process into some final decline.
Shuffling feet came close. And stopping, the visitor seemed to wrestle with…a pasteboard box, Bruner would have judged, by the hair-raising arc it traced, scratching against the alleyway’s brick pavement. The heavy breathing was Boxer’s. He’d got it loose; he now tugged at his comrade’s body, a boot alternately shoving at Bruner’s.
He addressed Bruner: “You goddamn useless sorry motherfucker.”
With eyes closed, Bruner still could picture, from the noises, that Boxer employed the pasteboard as a sledge, dragging the other man a short distance. He came back.
“Bruner, don’t think you’re getting away with anything.”
Bruner thought this was the least timely advice he’d ever received. Boxer and his burden scuttled off. They’d made a mistake; that was the gist of what Bruner had heard. Boxer’s orders had been to put Healy out the window. He likely carried a gun, or a shiv—he didn’t find killing Bruner, and making a fresh start of the real job, problematic morally…only logistically. His friend was in the way, and had to be put somewhere before Boxer could make his next decision.
New footsteps approached. This time a bright light made Bruner open the only eye he could.
A face lowered itself nose to nose with his; the beat cop then withdrawing both his scrutiny and the light, asked Bruner, “What have you been drinking?”
“I,” Bruner managed, after a time. Here was authority. Freda needed this man’s help. Also, he ought to mention Healy. He lifted the hand that rested on the rat, in a faltering gesture indicating nothing.
But the patrolman happened to look upwards. “I see an open window. Did you fall out of that window?”
Freda woke sprawled on her back over the bed. Her mind told her that she’d been on her way to the living room. It told her nothing else of value, and each of her three attempts to rise spun the room as though Freda were a sort of wind-up top. She rolled, at last, onto the floor and crawled into the living room. It was empty. It stank. The smell made her feel she would shortly be sick as well. She climbed onto the sofa and laid her head back. Someone pummeled at the door.
Had she heard a voice say, “Police! Open up!”? Freda made her head drop forward, listening—but the order did not come a second time. Instead, the door burst back on its hinges, the light was switched on, and Freda’s memory, exposed to this air and illumination, sputtered into life. She stood. And fell over. But her dizziness was not what it had been. She had hair stuck in her mouth. Pulling the strands from her face, pushing herself to her feet, she faced the officer and asked, “Martin…what…?” And stopped, not liking the sound of her own voice. He hadn’t heard her, anyway. He had crossed the room. With his nightstick, the policeman pointed at the table.
“Is that Canadian gin, ma’am?”
(more to come)