Hammersmith: You Never See It Coming (chapter twenty-five)
He had lost out on the chance to get up to Philly and talk in private with Le Fontainebleau. Even this, thinking of it, irritated Shaw…not merely because he was soft on Aimee Bard, and might have permitted for the duration of a train ride, this daydream, safe enough. The lapse would correct itself.
They had had the glimmerings of an understanding, the professor and Shaw, his dealings on familiar ground going smoother than the course of one-sided love. On no account would he address the man as Charley, accepting this maneuver. It was tempting, yes, to knock off a couple of syllables, just to name the informer/suspect inside his own head. But in Shaw’s opinion (he knew plenty who refused to take these things seriously), once you went allowing casual practices to infect your method, you would shorthand yourself into a fatal mistake, bound to. Get friendly with malefactors? Even a piker, a green recruit, must reckon better.
Most of his notes had to be kept there, in his head, until he was back home in Baltimore. And then only the Chief’s stenographer would take them down.
He had surprised his quarry, and his quarry had managed eluding him. They had met but briefly, the first time, the professor coy.
The train had come late to the station, and the rain, puddling everywhere, seemed to Shaw to puddle in mockery. He felt like a tight-wire act, a man balancing an overflowing bucket, taking cautious toeholds.
The two words drew only a grin. Shaw had to drop a couple more.
“Times are difficult. One tries this and that, earning one’s nick. I am no longer on the stage, Mr. Shaw. Le Fontainebleau is a trusted broker of securities.”
It was stalemate, and Shaw was not on a mission to stop the deal, but to subvert it. They were speaking on the stairs, the professor, foolishly, seated on the sill of the window that lighted the landing. Shaw, more discreet, stood tucked out of view in the corner. And from this vantage midway between floors of the Susquehanna House, he had noted the water on the street make less effort than ever to drain away.
The professor chose his move.
“Hogben is your best authority on Hogben. Since you ask. We don’t live in each other’s pockets, as the saying goes.”
“Go your separate ways, now and then?”
The girl Ruby came up from the lobby, interrupting, and saying to Shaw, “It never rains but it pours!” She put a hand on her topknot. “I didn’t even think! I only meant, when we’re late already, and losing wages for it… It’s another day’s delay yet. And then with nothing to do in this place but turn in…”
His dismissal gave her the excuse to close her mouth, and she clambered off.
The professor said, startling with sudden frankness: “You haven’t clapped the manacles on, so I’m thinking you’d like to do business. Make a purchase…?”
Shaw gave him nothing.
“From me alone.”
“Will that be in Hammersmith?” Shaw said. “We’re close by.”
And on this line, the professor also left.
Afterwards, Shaw had entertained belief, seeing with his own eyes the man sink into the floodwaters like a brick—but he had taken hold of himself.
To die at the fortuitous moment must be a rare chance; to vanish, a thing more akin to rogue’s luck. He was reporting to Mossbunker as well as the Chief. Mossbunker had any number of blind spots, fully to be exploited…but befitting his being the wolf to whom Shaw, in failure, would be thrown, the mogul could well take a man’s throat between his jaws and worry him to death.
These were dark musings, and Shaw’s bland features contracted, showing (to Minnie, passing the still figure, whose hands gripped a paintbrush and an eight-ounce Gloss for Trim, Mt. Vernon Antique Bisque) the semblance of hidden depths. It was depths of this nature that had drawn Minnie to Nico. Reminded, she told herself she hadn’t lent him a proper ear. Nico’s political character took more work, shoring up, than to half-heed the prattle of other beaus she’d had…
She had spent the day brooding, herself, over this question. There were pros and cons to it, letting June Mack walk off with Nico.
“You can’t have two things at once,” as her mother said. “If women fight over a man, he wins.” Of course, Mama, saying so, had Minnie Leybourne the Star in mind, and she hadn’t quite climbed that ladder.
At the foot of the porch steps she turned and looked up into Shaw’s face, then danced fingers between this and her own.
He blinked. “Ma’am.”
“Mr. Shaw, do you play any musical instruments?”
Visibly, to her interested eye, he seemed to catch himself in a lie and think better of it. His lips formed “no”, and then he said, “Mouth organ. Just a little.”
“Do you tell jokes? Doesn’t matter,” she went on. “Aimee’s got bundles of old newspapers. I saw them stacked on the back porch. We’ll just find a few no one’s heard for a while. Jokes.”
“I can’t be in your show, ma’am.”
“You’re expecting a package, aren’t you? Imagine a box of pens sent out from Baltimore not getting here after a month! Didn’t you even go off someplace, looking? Let’s stop at the post office and ask again.”
She elbowed him, and Shaw, in duty, murmuring his cover story about a sick aunt in Delaware, took her arm on the way down.
“We’re going to the Clew office to order the programmes. I’m doing four songs, Ruby and Carey are doing three.”
They had days of rehearsal ahead of them (two, to be exact, as Nico had secured Minnie an evening on McKeefe’s stage), but she counted herself satisfied with Ruby’s progress of hours. Carey’s voice had proved a nice surprise, whereas Ruby’s harmonies were not settled wholly on key; but the kids, as Minnie called them, were charmingly…naïve together, she thought. Sweet. The audience would forgive.
“A little comic relief, though, between numbers,” she said aloud. “You know what I mean by that?”
He made a semi-affirmational noise.
“I’ve got Elmer Bott…”
“Elton, isn’t it?”
“Bott,” she said firmly, “says he’ll give a speech at the end of the show. And then, what do you think? It’s a surprise so it doesn’t matter, so far as getting it printed… Battle Hymn of the Republic, or Star-Spangled Banner? Because”—Shaw had opened his mouth, and nothing had come out—“in this neck of the woods, they’re partial to the Battle Hymn, and anyone can sing along, so it’s guaranteed to get a crowd stirred up… But, I can knock a hole in the roof with my ‘land of the free’. Not to brag.”
You Never See It Coming
(2017, 2018, Stephanie Foster)