Sequence of Events

 

 

 

 

1928. The American economy appears to be booming. The world itself, following a devastating war, seems rife 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

 

 

Chapter One

1            A Personal Choice

He had taken everything.

 

Chapter Two

12         Mud in Your Eye

Luberta Bragg was going out as a woman.

 

Chapter Three

24         “You’ll Be Happy to Know This, Sir”

“Freda has gone off gadding.”

 

Chapter Four

36          Brickbats

“It’s not a question of damned if you do or don’t…”

 

Chapter Five

50          Rite of Spring

Talou had not, after all, tracked his prey…

 

Chapter Six

60          How Is a Windmill Like a Waypost

Bruner walked alongside his father.

 

Chapter Seven

78         “Alas, Dear Falada, There Thou Hangest”

The mission house had been founded to shelter war orphans.

 

Chapter Eight

92          The Watcher Watched

Nora Huey had gone with Boxer.

 

Chapter Nine

107          The Heron’s Foot

“You have no money.”

 

Chapter Ten

137          Moving On

Phillip found himself catching up to Stanley.

 

Chapter Eleven

161      Give a Dog a Bad Name and Hang Him

Not too many people liked hounding an orphanage.

 

Chapter Twelve

198         Drawn Upon Imagination

As a man abandoned by his wife…

 

Chapter Thirteen

228          Anarchy

Even the walks had been only a nudge.

 


 

 

Sequence of Events

 

 


 

 

Chapter One
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.

 

1

 


 

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.

 

2

 


 

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.

 

3

 


 

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.

 

4

 


 

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.

 

5

 


 

“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.

 

6

 


 

“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.

 

7

 


 

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.

“Phillip, Stanley.”

“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.

 

8

 


 

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

Not since

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.

“Just…”

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.

 

9

 


 

“…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.

 

10

 


 

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11

 


 

Chapter Two
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.”

 

12

 


 

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.”

 

13

 


 

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.

“Let them.”

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?”

“About thirty.”

“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.

 

14

 


 

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.”

 

15

 


 

“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…”

 

16

 


 

“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.

 

17

 


 

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.

“Mr. Bruner.”

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.

 

18

 


 

“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.”

 

19

 


 

“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.”

 

20

 


 

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.

 

21

 


 

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.”)

 

22

 


 

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.

“Boardman…”

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.”

“Needling.”

“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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

23

 


 

Chapter Three
“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.

 

24

 


 

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.”

“You don’t—”

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.”

 

25

 


 

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.”

 

26

 


 

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.

 

27

 


 

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.

 

28

 


 

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.

Bruner swore.

 

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.

 

29

 


 

“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?”

 

30

 


 

“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.

 

31

 


 

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.”

 

32

 


 

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?”

 

33

 


 

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?”

 

34

 


 

“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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

35

 


 

Chapter Four
Brickbats

 

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.”

 

36

 


 

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.”

Charles snorted.

“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.

 

37

 


 

“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…”

 

38

 


 

“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.

 

39

 


 

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

Discarded things

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.

 

40

 


 

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.

 

41

 


 

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.

 

42

 


 

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?”

 

43

 


 

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.

 

44

 


 

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.”

“Really…”

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.

 

45

 


 

“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.

 

46

 


 

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.”

 

47

 


 

“Yes?”

“No.”

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.

 

48

 


 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

49

 


 

Chapter Five
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”

Matthew Arnold

 

 

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.

“Rob.”

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.

 

50

 


 

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.”

 

51

 


 

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.”

 

52

 


 

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.”

 

53

 


 

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…

“Alone.”

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.

 

54

 


 

“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?”

 

55

 


 

(more to come)

 

 

 

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