Hammersmith: What’s the Game? (chapter twenty-one)
“Jane, are you feeling braced?”
Aimee lowered her voice; she didn’t bother whispering. Curach, across from them again, sitting in a cab once more, could not only hear…
His posture, leaning hands on knees, showed him an active listener.
Jane was looking sleepy, but she absorbed the question. After a moment she widened her eyes, and with a palm flat against the interior flocking, pushed herself upright.
“Is that what you mean?”
Having meant nothing portentous, Aimee stole a glance at Curach.
“Now, ma’am,” he butted in, confiding his way past the presence of Jane. “There’s little for the girl to fear. Madam Mossbunker is likely enough to bung you in a parlor, waiting dinner. I don’t know she’ll insist on chewing the fat, being that she…”
He broke for a laugh. “Is a foreign lady, is what it comes down to. I’ve not been asked myself up to the manor house, so I can’t say…”
“Wait,” Aimee interrupted. “Mr. Curach.”
“Ah! Curach to my friends.”
“Is there a park, or a quiet street, where we might get out and walk…?”
He hoisted his stick and banged the cab’s roof.
They left Jane to rest and breathe the freshened air at the edge of a fountain, centered in an octagon of paving blocks. They strolled, keeping themselves in her sight, among grotesques and gothic arches, imported ruins that framed the promenade bordering the whole—potted hollies, courtyard, armored sentinel of bronze uplifting an astrolabe, while straddling a boulder over which water streamed. They were at company headquarters.
“Curach, what’s the game?” Aimee said.
He beamed. “Why, ma’am, it’s the big one. Now, if I were to prepare myself a pipe, would it bother you having me smoke?”
“No, please,” she said. “Do you mean, because we’re at war?”
“I mean, if you like, that Mossbunker, in the ordinary way, hasn’t much to do with the likes of us. And why should any of them nobs…” Curach, busying himself for a moment with a match, cocked his head in the direction of the Schuylkill. “Give a thought to the low end of town, or cut bargains with Mr. Piggott, in the ordinary way, except, you’ll appreciate… Mossbunker wants his man in the governor’s seat, and he wants his man in the senate, and he wants his pockets filled with useful cronies, so. He wants all the custom that can come his way…and he can do very well, rich as he is, building a town of his own, and populating it, too. Then it’ll be only a matter of how they draw the districts. And that done, of course, he don’t need a Piggott. He’ll have taken his business out of the city.”
“Well! I suppose that’s just dandy…” She stopped. “I don’t know why I say it. It’s Hammersmith Mossbunker is building up, you mean. Maybe I ought to board and do piecework myself, and stop pretending to be good enough to live there!”
None of this was what she had thought she was getting at. She tried again. “Do you mean it’s Piggott who’s served Mossbunker up the professor? Keeping in good?”
“It’s the genius of the man. He looks far into the future.”
“Is Mr. Shaw a detective, then?”
“I’ve nothing to do with the affair, so I couldn’t say.” He pulled his pipe from his lips, tamped, and whistled a bar or two.
“Well, I’d better lay my cards on the table. We can’t keep a tycoon’s wife waiting.”
Mossbunker, forcing Hogben’s choice as he had (and winning a halting pledge of, “Reckon I’m with you…”), had risen from his chair, barking orders: a cab for himself, a cab for Curach and the ladies. Piggott and Hogben…and Vic, included after a probationary pause…to go forthwith to an address. Grimly, he had hoisted an eyebrow at Piggott.
Then: “Mrs. Bard, Mrs. Mossbunker will consider herself honored to entertain you as a guest, for the afternoon. You and your niece. You have never visited the town of Wayne?”
The question was rhetorical; Mossbunker’s retreating back asked no answer.
“An address,” Aimee said, mimicking the eyebrow.
“Chantry Place. House called Swan’s. Room eighteen.”
“Curach. A little broader view, please.”
“They’ve run the cur to earth, and would like his old partner present for the interview. To sort the lies, it may be. Now, if you ask, will your Mr. Shaw be there…”
“He had better not! I don’t care about Shaw’s hobbies,” she answered Curach’s quizzical glance. “He can detect as much as he likes. But he promised me he’d be man of the house while I was gone.”
“Madam, you had cards you’d be laying on the table…”
“Hmm. You’ve seen Mrs. Krabill’s upstairs porch, that she rents for a room…you know what it’s like?”
“A tad. Imagine…” She caught herself. “Forgive me, though, I hardly know you. But imagine your quarters so close, yourself boxed in with a baby who shrieks and a wife who gets your living for you pintucking plackets, if I’ve got that right, and…”
She came to a standstill, gesturing across at Jane. Jane’s lids were lowered, to a somnolent study of the fountain’s flow, and she noticed (luckily) nothing of Aimee’s clumsy import.
“It’s hard painting you a picture of Carey. If it were only saloons… It’s not saloons! But I mean, if the trouble could only be commonplace.”
“Well, now, you’ve put your finger on it.”
“For what it’s worth, and nothing unforgiven, I’ve lived in my time on the street, being it was no colder, and that much less aromatic, than the homeplace.”
“Then you see my point. I want to help Abel. I’ve always said it myself, money is made to be spent, life is for the living. Why would I be an old stick-in-the-mud…? Why stop my stepson from selling his father’s house, and getting his profit from it, if he can? Except, why ever do less than I can, to help the only ones I really have left for family? A little house, a little garden at the back, an aunt and uncle on hand to give advice, watch the baby… God knows, any others that come along. Something that belongs to me outright, that can be theirs for a legacy.”
“Ay, I understand you.”
He sounded doubtful. Maybe Curach thought this womanly sentiment. She saw he fingered his watch-chain. A vassal of Mossbunker’s had climbed down from the portico, to make more pointed his efforts at eavesdropping.
“Monty struck me as essential to the plan. I thought we could come to a bargain, I thought he was up against it with his partner dead… And Abel could stop being so darned dutiful to Ralph, if I could tell him Mr. Hogben was to be my husband. So you see, it concerns me a little, your knowing if my intended is about to be charged with a crime.”
What’s the Game
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)