1928. The American economy appears to be booming. The world itself, following a devastating war, seems ripe with promise…and for the opportunistic, easy pickings. Albeit, there has been steady talk of war, the Great One having left Europe impoverished, with none of her resentments resolved. Behind the scenes, a stockpiling scheme disguised as charity waxes; a man in love, who can’t accept himself victim of blackmailers, has staked his life on one chance. Two couples linked by an inconvenient marriage sort themselves more happily; the ignored aggrieved feel ready for vengeance…and an expert in human behavior (manipulating of) is called upon to catch a crooked office-holder.
Man will remain, to dream as he hath dreamed
And mark the earth with passion.
Love will spring, from the tomb of old affections.
from The Indian Advocate, early 1900s, uncredited
Phillip found himself catching up to Stanley. The last time he’d seen the back of Stanley’s head had been the day he’d brought Viola home. He had popped his own round Stanley’s door, and discovered a surprise…the old housemate re-materialized, bent over a suitcase. With the leaden, fixated movements of a sleepwalker, a hairbrush in one hand and a pair of socks in the other, Stanley was stalled, hovering, as though his reason for packing escaped him.
Viola had gone to the kitchen. She came out at once. “God, Phillip…”
He put a finger to his lips, shooed her…and she stood firm, crossing her arms and rolling her eyes in a disrespectful way. But she’d kept quiet.
“Stanley! Shall I come with you?”
This brought no start, as of a thief in the night, but Stanley showed himself mildly galvanized, dropping the brush. With embarrassed purpose, then, he added the socks, folded the top of his case over, heaved a sigh.
“Murchison…did you say…come with me?”
“You’re packing your bag, Stanley. I will gladly accompany you to the station. If, on the other hand, you’ve found Desanges…”
It needed only a light touch, putting across the impression he could do Desanges a favor in the matter of Stanley Carpenter. Desanges, if he were the man Phillip thought him to be, would dislike the position intensely. He would wish to rid himself of any obligation, any possibility of Phillip’s becoming a new constant in his life. His sales experience had taught him that he affected others thus, and Phillip meant to use this gift, to make of himself a bloody nuisance, until Desanges saw reason and recommended him to Gamotte.
But Stanley answered, “No, no, I don’t care about Desanges. I’m not leaving.”
And saying so, latched his case and dragged it from the bed. He exited his room, took up his hat, unhooked his coat from the hall tree…and walked out, via the front door. A conscientious, muffled click, had been for the time being, the last of Stanley.
Viola breathed a sigh of her own. She had stood in plain sight, but obedient silence, while Stanley…unobservant, incurious…passed her by.
“Is he coming back?”
Perhaps he was. He’d gone frozen, the habit taking him where Water Street, narrow and disjointed in its parts, intersected with 103rd, a thoroughfare wide enough to accommodate the trolley line. And across the way was the Water Street Cash Grocery, where Stanley had once kindly financed the stocking of the Murchison larder. Phillip eased his pace, edged round until he stood at Stanley’s side. He studied the tortured posture, the ghost-like pallor…
He hauled himself up short.
“Really, ghosts have a reputation for being pallid.”
The idea that had come to him seemed so striking, Phillip said this aloud. He saw no sign he’d broken Stanley’s concentration.
“We act, my dear uncle by marriage, on the assumption that ghosts are pallid; therefore, everything that looks to us like a ghost would, stereotypically, be pallid. That woman, Stanley.”
He pointed, and Stanley reacted neither to his name, nor to the gesture.
She had just issued from the market… Her hair was grey at the roots, pulled into an orange-tinted knot, this for its dignity fighting the scarf tied at her chin. She walked with a cane, emitting breezy exhalations, and tapped hell-for-leather towards the corner opposite Phillip’s and Stanley’s vantage.
A shirt-sleeved chap, apron over waistcoat and trousers, burst in her wake, catching her up, clamping a hand on her shoulder. “Lady, I’ll call the cops on you!”
By way of reply, she cracked her assailant’s shin, then with the flare of a hoofer let the cane fly upwards, snagging it on the descent, bringing its rubber tip down like a pile-driver on the top of his shoe.
“And what have I done? No more than set foot inside the premises, like any customer whose money is green as any other’s! Here you come chasing after me…” She shrank against the sheltering lamppost. “Here you come chasing me…laying your hands on me, grabbing at my dress!”
These lines, laid on thick with appropriate stage moves, brought a moan of outrage.
“Mrs. Quincy, you’re a lunatic! You see those two across the way…all the time they’ve watched you!”
Phillip, who both watched and saw, smiled at the grocer amiably. Mrs. Quincy had got her victim’s attention and occupied it…at the crucial moment. A young woman in a pulled-down cloche, hair tucked away from the eyes of witnesses, body ill-defined under an abundance of overcoat warm for an April day, scurried from the market, hugging the wall. While the yardage of her skirt flapped, she gained the corner curve and vanished.
“There,” Phillip remarked to Stanley, “goes her accomplice. Madam’s got nothing on her, of course.”
Mrs. Quincy said the same thing. “Search me! You go on, search me all day, if you like that sort of thing, you warped bugger!”
“No. I have nothing to do with you.” The grocer looked her up and down, as though to say, “Next time.”
Stanley spoke, unexpectedly. “You had said something about a ghost.”
He feared the insight―possibly visited upon him by mistake―had, like Miss Quincy, vanished. But Phillip realized that even here a connection between the two notions existed. He rested fingers on Stanley’s shoulder, urging him forward. “I’d meant to say, Stanley…you are coming home with me, are you? If we saw a person who looked quite ordinary, we would put her in the category of ‘not-ghost’, as it were. Without catching ourselves at it, we have created a blind spot.”
Of course, he thought, the grocer might well suspect Mrs. Quincy’s dramatics of being a distraction. But, the poor sod couldn’t let her escape, while searching for her partner, or would most likely lose them both. He would feel compelled to an act of futility.
“I might be a ghost, Stanley. Can you be certain? On the other hand, you might be a ghost. I have no means, having found you on the street corner, to measure you as real or illusory. You may be Stanley Carpenter’s doppelganger.”
He expected Stanley would snort, shake his head, express in some fashion the curate’s intolerance for the supernatural. Silent until they’d passed the tenements, and come to that abrupt demarcation where city architecture gave way to rows of tiny tract houses, Stanley again went gelid, lingering in catatonia. He’d arrived at a front garden that had in it only a single tulip, surrounded by the spent petals of erstwhile tulips lounging near one or two spindly leaves.
Stanley, Phillip thought, was embarking on a Latin phrase. The lips moved soundlessly. Chasing about in memory for a prompt…just having deemed “Rule Britannia” not Latin…
He saw Stanley gather himself.
“You’re right of course. I have perhaps imagined the whole thing. He told me he did not really exist, but that I could believe what I chose to believe.”
Here was a weight of responsibility…the sort of pass where one ought to say something useful. A pithy adage—even one in English—would have come in handy.
Phillip said, “Ah.”
And walked unspeaking at Stanley’s right hand until they were within sight of the house. The front door stood open a crack. Viola at home, then, or else some ransacker had suffered bitter disappointment.
Stanley, from his fog…which is grief (the word can stand alone; he does not call it madness)—finds himself returned to the exact spot, to the olive-colored sofa, to the seat nearest the armrest at his right hand, to the round satin pillow…the pillow also olive. He sits fingering it—he remembers the pillow; he had caressed its gliding fabric while his niece served him tea that day. His thoughts had been calculating. And none of what Freda had said to him, can he now recall…but, he can recall the calculations.
He’d been preoccupied with finding Desanges, with a scheme that had locked upon his ordinarily unscheming mind.
It has so many pleats. So much work needed to make a thing too ornamental for use. The point is trivial, but Stanley finds it perfectly coherent. He has got a habit of noticing the mechanics of things, the crafting of things. The pillow must belong to his niece; it would not belong to Murchison. But she has gone somewhere and left it.
Stanley knows himself able to speak, and able to hear. The girl, Viola Huey…he knows her name. She has looked at him, her eyes dark, kohl-rimmed. Murchison jollies her a bit, “You know Stanley? Of course you do, love.” But the voice he hears from the kitchen remains Ill-tempered, as at first, when―weary on his feet―he’d crossed the room and landed here, in the accustomed place.
“Phillip, are you serious?”
Murchison taps her elbow, and crowds her from the living room. But they have not lowered their voices. Stanley is alien to them, he is unresponsive, and so, perhaps, seems invisible. From the corner of an eye, he sees Viola put her head round the doorframe.
“Coffee, Stanley? Or milk…or water, that’s all we have.”
“No. I haven’t asked for anything.”
He is aware―aware even, without the least change of his posture, without stirring―that she has shaken her head, sighed through her nose, compressed her rouged lips. And that she has taken herself away. He is aware…that although on the inside he has said these words, between the thought and the nervous impulse of speech, he has lost them, and has not really spoken. He’d once tended to do the reverse.
The wretched interview with Robert. Stanley expelled from what had been his father’s house, once flogged to his brother’s satisfaction with the disgrace…to the nature of which Robert will not refer, and which he considers insanity.
“He would not tell me what he gave Desanges. I don’t know the sum.”
Stanley sees himself, bent over the smaller of the two desks, the one the Rev. Mr. Lossie has permitted him to share with the assistant curate and the secretary. “A thousand, at least, it must have been. I ought to write Robert, ask if it’s any use to him, my paying whatever I might…”
“Mr. Carpenter.” He remembers hearing Parker’s voice, troubled and wary…and himself fearing, at the time, that he’d said all this aloud. He hears, even now, the words “I might”, echo…
But no, from the kitchen, the conversation―the exasperated friction between Murchison and his girl―sputters intermittently. And neither appears at the threshold, to ask again if Stanley wants for anything.
“We might have to move fast.”
“You don’t mean move, my girl, you mean do a bunk.”
“No,” Viola says, “I mean skip town.”
When they fall silent, the house is so quiet that Stanley hears Murchison strike a match.
“Yes, that was Oliver’s idea.”
They rattle, from the sound of it, cups and saucers—and water is running.
“You’re in a foul mood,” Murchison says, “because you’ve been housecleaning. I don’t recommend it. Could I have left him on the street?”
There is a passage, during which Stanley hears shoes pace the linoleum, silverware clink a high note against a muted mid-tone. The enameled sink. He smells soap, bacon grease, and even feels a current of warm, humid air.
He hears Murchison at last, “No, really. It’s not as if I will get my deposit back. Most of these things are not mine…”
She stops him. “Phillip, Stanley is not yours. You can’t live in two camps.”
Yes…no, of course…but he feels sorry for the old boy. Murchison says he is afraid of the police. A chair scrapes along the floor, on two legs, and Stanley can tell this from the sound of it. He guesses it is Murchison he hears sitting, and making small adjustments to his position. Viola is still at the sink. “You think Gamotte will make you prove your loyalty? It’s that kind of job?”
“He and Oliver both wish that I will call on Rob Healy.”
“Are they paying you money?”
“The currency is blackmail.”
Murchison sighs—a sigh of such resignation that Stanley, suddenly, has a vivid picture of the two of them sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. Viola is the stronger. Murchison wants her to see his dilemma.
There is a secret stairway, he tells her. There are three stairways, one from the alleyway entrance to the third story apartments, one in the club’s main dining room that carries traffic from the first floor to the elevator; this reached by a corridor exiting the mezzanine level. The last, the one that leads from the second to the third floor, is accessed from the lounge, from behind a false partition, at the back of the bar. Those who hope to escape the second floor must use the elevator, or go up to the third, along the hall and down again, in order to reach the alley.
“No, I suppose it’s not safe. But, strategically, in respect of the raid, this arrangement is pivotal. These would be Durco’s people, using that particular staircase…the private clientele were not to be told of it, unless the building caught fire.”
The coppers, he says, had every exit under surveillance, but did not move in to block them until ten minutes before the raid began. The pretext…Murchison emphasizes the word…was that some would try escaping to the third floor, justifying a search of the apartments.
“Junior Durco,” Viola says, “is my father.”
This silences Murchison. It means nothing to Stanley. No…recently, he has heard the name.
Gamotte’s is a name Murchison has been warned never to mention. But she knows that. He begins again, and tells Viola that Godshaw had given him to understand—“Godshaw says nothing in so many words”—that this accident of circumstance might have exposed Harvey Planter to embarrassment.
“Godshaw told me Harvey is on friendly terms with Ethan Bragg…well, perhaps no longer so. But you see how the idea was introduced. And I was encouraged…”
“You encourage yourself,” Viola cuts him short.
“May I ask, my treasure…?”
For a minute or two, Murchison does not speak. Stanley is engaged by their talk, in the way a listener follows a radio drama, a broadcast that fades and surges back. And during these pauses, Stanley’s thoughts come back to himself.
He thinks he will never see Talou again. He thinks some crucial action he might have taken was circumvented in that instant, when the man who called himself Summers put a hand on Stanley’s shoulder.
Murchison says, “Charles…”
Viola interrupts. “Don’t blame Charles.”
Her voice comes back to Stanley, after a second hiatus. “It was Boxer Chaney. Do you know Boxer?”
A match strikes. Murchison is lighting another cigarette.
“Are you hinting to me, Viola…”
Stanley smells the smoke and even sees it, hovering in the air like a blue spectre.
“…that they will not withdraw their protection and have me arrested; but rather, they will dispatch this factotum, Chaney, to throw me out the window?”
Bruner had not actually woken up in the hospital. His impression was that, once they’d quit doping him with morphine, he had never, in the first place, been allowed to sleep. Some habitual pattern evolved, and without noticing when, Bruner had become party to it. The lights were always on. Visitors were not always there—at times they were, at other times the noise took on a different character. More carts rattled along the hall, he heard fewer conversations…but, constantly, someone on the ward raised his or her voice. Bruner, from a shallow, unrestful doze, found himself prodded into alertness. He discovered his mother, still talking. And, from his neighbor’s bed, heard a whispered, “I won’t make it”, this prognosis quashed by a wife—“Don’t say it!”
And, in turn, someone shushed the speaker―it was this sound, this exhalation moistened by spit, that piqued Bruner’s nerves. He didn’t otherwise mind loud talk. He was able to follow the story; it was something to listen to.
He’d passed four weeks at the hospital, another week, so far, at home, and Bruner had been making, as the doctor told him, “…encouraging progress. I hope you appreciate how lucky you’ve been.” To himself, Bruner noted, “Dad was right. I just needed a little push to get started.” He didn’t joke around with doctors…but never before had he made encouraging progress at anything.
Over a month.
It was May…he knew he’d fallen on the twenty-ninth of March. He was far from healed.
Bruner never felt like leaving his chair. Only when he could get away with it, did he hobble to the kitchen to get his own cup of coffee, or root for non-invalid pleasures among the leftovers in the icebox; only stooped, in the living room, to pick up the mail that shot in around nine o’clock, after his mother had gone marketing and left him by himself. And this hour of solitude, he had not won without bargaining.
“I don’t like it, sweetheart. I’ll get Mrs. Merriman from next door. What if you faint?”
No answer he could think of sounded other than brutal sarcasm, and she didn’t deserve it. His mother meant well.
“I’ll take a nap the whole time, Mom.”
It made no difference what the doctor said…that some things would take a little longer; that this or that fracture had not wholly knitted, or that his dispirited mood must at length give way to optimism.
Bruner saw no reason it should.
His father was past losing patience. He had lost sympathy. He left for his job in the mornings, and came home at night; twice a day, coming and going, he stepped into Bruner’s room, and looked down at his son. To him it must appear that Bruner had barely stirred. He did not stir now under his father’s gaze, to meet his father’s eyes. Martin Sr.’s temper, he knew, had grown virulently short-fused; prompted by a look, he would give vent to it.
“He may never be right, so I don’t know what good you do.”
Bruner’s mother had been saying this, escorting his father out the door, walking with him to the street. Her daffodils were withered away. For want of choice, she’d taken two cuttings from her dogwood tree.
“But I don’t like to fool with it…how do I know it’ll grow back?”
Bruner didn’t answer. His mother fussed over her arrangement; she moved the orange vase from one spot to another on his bedside table―
This was her good vase, he knew that.
“There, it brightens things up a little! Marty”—she called him Marty now—“the daylilies are just starting to bloom. You should move your chair so you can see out the window.”
He didn’t want to…he would have to become involved with the daylilies, if he saw them every day. Even a nod, a response no more forthcoming than “hmm”, as she chattered to him about their flowering, would look to his mother like engagement, proof they were having a real talk together. She would tell herself, “Marty is taking an interest in the world”; she would imagine then, that he too, like the garden, flowered. His mother’s daylilies were a talisman. She wanted her son to brighten up, accept all this. But there, she was at fault.
She had taken to varying her morning routine, so she could tangle in private with his father…and her discretion was wasted. Through the front door, left standing open―because in a second she’d be coming back in―Bruner could make out every word spoken on the walk. Probably, the neighbors could as well.
“Don’t wait on him like you do! You should not. He has to learn to work as hard as he can.”
What his father said was true. Bruner’s helplessness had disarrayed the house. He sat under a pall of inertia; his despondency preyed on his mother’s mind. She lost her concentration, worried she ought to be checking on him. She interrupted her work, and popped over the threshold every hour or so—potholder in hand, or garden fork.
“Here’s the paper, Marty. It just got here. You’re quiet. Do you want anything?”
He could watch his mother’s lapses unfold. The table he sat beside gathered dust. He finished the paper and tossed it to the floor, where it settled over the bedroom slippers he’d kicked off. He had no reason to be so churlish. But he couldn’t say it―“Don’t, Mom. I can get that myself.”
He let her wait on him. He resented her deeply.
When he’d been unable to walk away from her, lying in misery, nauseated, his head splitting, his mother had taken advantage. She had told him the story. He opened his eyes, and she was just settling, scooting back in her chair. He saw her frown, then dart a look over her right shoulder…at the curtain. Beyond the curtain, were the ward’s double doors. And Bruner thought this language telegraphed her calculations. His mother had learned something, was weighing it. She had just had a conversation with someone, the reason she’d stood suddenly and left him.
“Mom…what time is it?”
He didn’t know why these words had come out. He might have heard Freda’s voice. The dream could have spun from a snatch of reality, just as he dreamed recurrently of flagging a passing trolley.
“Get away!” he heard the driver yell. “Car’s full!”
But, things were always rolling through the ward, the resuscitating apparatus, the medication cart, beds, chairs, laundry.
“Well, it’s a little after ten-thirty. And Dad will be here soon. He’s just gone to talk…” She frowned a second time, with the same air of adding things up.
He could not articulate his thought at all… The name caused his mother to look again in the direction of the doors. A minute ago, he’d meant to ask something else. And as if, through a narrow and guarded passage, each link connecting the last idea to the next waited to couple, it came to him now.
“Mom, where were you?”
“Sweetheart, I went out for a second, just to talk to someone.”
She had told him a story, then, about Freda. It was not a dream. Yet these events were not real to Bruner, either. Freda would come back, and he would talk to her himself.
His mother interpreted his drifts, his slow speech, as she chose, steered their talk as she wished, seized on a name, the one Bruner had struggled to think of—but when he said Summers, he meant Healy…and when he said Healy, it was because he thought of Freda.
“Your father’s speaking to Mr. Summers. None of this was your fault, Marty. Why shouldn’t he understand? No… I’m going to tell you. About Frank.”
So she had put a name to this…even now, when coherency had returned, Bruner could not conjure a bearable description of Frank’s role in his mother’s past. He was haunted by the fear he might have met this old chum of his father. They’d been lodge brothers. They’d taught together when his father had been teaching. It was Frank had introduced Martin Sr. to Madolyn, all those years ago.
“Frank was the only one of us, besides me, who liked dancing. He married a woman with a short leg.”
His mother sighed, bemused.
One day, it would hit like a sniper’s bullet. A face from his childhood, a match to the name, would restore itself to his memory. Bruner dreaded this.
His mother’s story had been her jumping-off point. She’d needed to tell it first, to bring herself to the thesis of her argument; that Freda―as had Madolyn Bruner, once―wanted a holiday from her marriage. That was all. By now, she was back with Murchison. She would never visit.
“And you shouldn’t embarrass her, Marty. You don’t know what trouble you might cause.”
He did not have the consolation of insight. If he’d been capable of introspection, the ability to reason abstractly—that quality touted as man’s elevating gift, separating him from the dumb animal—he might suspect his fall had been a culmination…a culmination to a life of setbacks, inclining (or, one might say, declining—but taking the long view, Bruner wasn’t sure of this) to a state of idiocy. His level, found. He was not a happy idiot. He believed, however, that he had become slow, that two knocks on the head had reduced his brain’s capacity until it matched his capacity to achieve.
It had been Summers, paying his second visit, who’d figured it out—what Bruner could not see for himself. He’d taken Bruner’s answers to his questions and arranged them in tidy order.
“So, you’d end up in the same place, knowing or not knowing. But, if your mother had left you alone…”
“My mother never leaves me alone.”
This was true, but it hadn’t been necessary to cut in. Bruner did not want to become mental, a secret imbiber, numbing pain with patent medicines, a neighborhood lunatic, glowering and shouting from the front stoop. But there was a key to temperate behavior, one he hadn’t known was keeping the door locked, until it had gone missing.
“No, I’m saying, you think Freda is with her husband. Your mother told you that. And if she hadn’t, you’d sit here and make up stories to explain why Freda never tried to see you.”
“Well, I know why.”
“You think you know why, now.”
“All right, then, I would…what? After a year…” He laughed. Summers smiled, an encouraging one, a little clinical.
“So I’m mad.” Bruner skipped in another direction. “I’m mad because I didn’t want to know. But, Summers, I don’t feel better off for knowing…”
“You love Freda.”
He’d left a long pause, and Summers had finished the thought for him.
“Love is no use.”
Bruner said it, finally, and Summers said, “No, you’re wrong. Love is a great motivator. One of those cases where you have to strike while the iron’s hot, though. Bruner, I think you can do a job for me. This is not a complicated job.”
His visitor heard nothing wry, or couldn’t be bothered now he’d got down to business. “Bruner, I want you to be a man I can call on…you get me, not just this one time…but whenever I have a particular sort of thing. A job that needs discretion…”
“Why should I be discreet?” There it is again, Bruner thought. I don’t even know what I’m pissed at.
“You should be discreet from loyalty.”
Summers was smug as though Bruner’s heedless question had been exactly what he wanted. He held up a hand. “I’m not from your neighborhood, Bruner…you don’t owe me anything. But you never know. You think, though…”
He could hear his mother rattling in the kitchen, heating up beef stew. She had been near giddy over these visits, certain it would all come right now for her son. She had no real notion of what Summers did. Bruner had a good one…but that meant only that the field was wide open. He could not guess what assignment he was considered stupid enough, dispensable enough, to take on for Summers—or why it was urgent. Summers tilted forward, pressing his hands on his knees for leverage.
“…you can make me a promise? That if I do you a good turn, you won’t forget.”
Bruner’s relationship with luck had left him convinced this lady, per reputation, liked to tease and entice; she pranced ahead, urging you to follow, but she had an unnamed confederate, both errand boy and thug…one who appeared to his imagination not unlike Boxer Chaney. And that bastard waited to tackle you from behind, just when you’d been led by his showier accomplice to the precipice. In his unluckiest moment Bruner had been far luckier, for having fallen out a fourth story window, than many who’d fallen off sidewalk curbs. Detritus from a renovation job, a burst pipe in a ground floor apartment, had left in the alleyway chunks of plaster, a sodden rug pad, stripped wallpaper…a couple of wooden crates (but even a wooden crate will yield to a falling body, where brick pavement will not), and the garbage tossed by passersby that accumulates on any pile of refuse. All this had softened his landing.
(And why did he know all this, as though someone had shown him a picture?)
Boxer’s unnamed friend―Bruner bore it in mind―had also cushioned his fall.
He felt bad…but didn’t feel responsible. It was not a reasonable proceeding, throwing a man out a window because you’d made a mistake. To Boxer, killing to shut a mouth was no worse, no different, than a cashier’s burying his pilfering among legitimate transactions.
His mother always said, “Don’t borrow trouble”, and Bruner didn’t intend to. As the weeks passed, with no police detective showing up at the hospital wanting a statement, he had grown wary. The questions came from the medical staff—did he drink alcoholic spirits?
Had he ever felt “a sense of hopelessness”? The word made him think of Freda. He hadn’t then been up to complicated answers, or self-control. Bruner felt persuaded the record had been filed already. Case closed. He was marked as the victim of an “accident”…no, he wouldn’t be surprised if they’d actually written it in quotes. No doubt they whispered among themselves, “suicide attempt”.
Summers wanted to leave the trolley one stop ahead. They were walking only a couple of blocks.
“My building’s at the end of Market.” He pointed. “You can even see the drugstore sign from here. Lemme know if you’re not feeling up to it.”
“No,” Bruner told him. “I can go that far.”
They shuffled at Bruner’s pace, along the sidewalk passing the West Market Café, enshrouded here in lard and onions, a smell queasily similar to his mother’s second-day stew. Bruner wanted to change the subject, since he could not pick up speed enough to end this walk. The subject of course had not yet been broached. He turned these thoughts over in silence, while Summers made only practical suggestions.
“You can trust me.”
But how to deny what no one has come out and said? It was the old problem.
“You have an enemy,” Summers said unexpectedly.
“Why should I have an enemy?”
“I could be wrong. Maybe your father has an enemy.”
It was an admission―one wearing two or three veils―that Summers traded secrets with Van Nest. Bruner felt argumentative. Almost ten years had passed, and those years had been hard on his father. “Look. Someone is talking to a friend. He thinks he lives in a country where he has the right to say what he feels…if he’s not committing a crime, if he’s not hurting anyone…”
Kindness was all it took to get the ball rolling. It was tempting to confide in a man like Summers…and it made no difference. He could be all he appeared to be; for his own purposes, he could be a friend. Van Nest was the one who knew what to do with information.
He didn’t bother switching on the overhead light, but straightaway crossed to the window, shimmying his bulk past a file cabinet, around the corner of a desk. There were three file cabinets in the office, one coat rack, one visitor’s chair—the free space, a clearing the size of a welcome mat, given to the door’s sweep. Summers, wearing shirtsleeves, swept in briskly. Bruner wore a suit jacket. He edged after his employer, finding that hesitancy, and the attraction of wool to wool, had caused the arm of an overcoat to bond with his sleeve. Summers began shuffling papers; he raised his blotter, looked underneath, lifted the telephone…grunted finally, and picked up a snapshot held in place there.
“You go ahead and close that.”
The coat fell from its hanger. Bruner stooped and gripped the collar, glanced up and saw a second door adjacent, standing open.
“Or forget it,” Summers told him, “go toss that on the bed in there.”
Though identical in size to its other half, this room seemed for its spare furnishings more spacious. Here was a daybed, drawers under, a Persian rug for a bright spot, a washstand and a mirror. The walls smelled of fresh paint.
“You sleep here?” he asked Summers.
“No…I got a hotel. But someone could sleep here.”
Summers pulled up the blind, left it hanging crooked, opened the window. With a bang of metal, he pulled a piece of broomstick from the waste can. His chair, propelled under his weight, bounced, skidded, bumped the sill. Bruner, rarely these days moved to astonishment, stared with a kind of horror, as Summers leaned back, the window poised above his neck, twisted to peer down at the street.
He fell into the visitor’s chair, only half-conscious of doing so.
Like a tarot reader with her cards, Summers laid out snapshots, making an arc of them under Bruner’s nose. He thought Summers had performed some sleight of hand, also. He’d grabbed from beneath the phone what looked like one snap…but arrayed here, for the candidate’s consideration, were six. Each was a photo of Curtis Boardman.
“You’re not done with Boardman?”
“You figure,” Summers said, “you’re looking at six pictures of Boardman?”
Van Nest took every potentiality into account. Bruner’s limited restraint, even his poor attitude, had been weighed, and thought assets. Why should that be? Because―as in every operation―the one whose actions made him visible could be insured against discovery by being also unreliable. So long as his unreliability was manipulable and touched only on particular points. Van Nest in his mind kept a chart of human qualities. He probably assigned numbered values to their usefulness.
Bruner leaned in and perused the photos; at Summer’s nod, he picked them up, angling each to the light.
“This type of IQ test is not my strong suit. But I’d say that one…the guy in the Armstrong lobby…” He picked up the third photo, turned it towards Summers, and set it back down.
“…is not Boardman. And I can’t say anything about number six one way or the other. It’s a little dim.”
“But…you know where that was taken?”
He didn’t. Bruner lifted the snap, and this time put the figure in perspective, looking chiefly at the background. The posture of the man looked tense. One shoulder was pulled lower than the other, as though exposure to the street made him fear an attack. The light suggested dusk. The face was blurred, the subject might have heard the click of the camera’s mechanism, and flung an agitated glance behind.
But otherwise, the resemblance to Boardman was superficial. The setting…
“It’s out there!”
He spoke with some wonder. He nodded upwards, and stared at the window above Summers’s head, which gave only a view of the hospital grounds, and distantly, Gamotte’s Queen Anne. “Over on Front Street, coming up on the canal.”
“Bruner, I want you to put that snapshot in your wallet.”
At those times when Myrna Armstrong Bevington’s husband was at home, his society could not be avoided.
Anselm was not a man to take himself off with a book, just because their lunch guest was his wife’s friend; just because she had summoned Rose with a purpose in mind. As Myrna nursed her tea, the line between her eyebrows grew pronounced. Anselm Bevington wrote books. He had got nothing of material value from the failure of his recent South American jaunt. He had just been saying so.
“The Banshee is a very light craft.”
Notepad propped on his knee, pencil in hand—prepared always to jot down “something good”―Anselm mainly addressed Rose. Myrna and Rob had got this information already. Rose, who from friendship accepted Anselm’s books, and thanked him (she truly did) for his warm inscriptions, had never read them. Myrna’s purpose was to dress her down, over the apostasy Rose confessed, from the charity of which Myrna served as president. Rose knew it, and was willing to postpone this.
“A light craft,” she repeated. “How interesting.”
“I thought I had the right idea. I don’t entirely consider my calculations mistaken, Rose, as I have only tried the experiment once. In these uncharted lands…the fact of the matter being, you see, that I have never heard the antipodal region of the South American continent to have been charted from the air…one doesn’t in every case know what the aviators in Brazil and Argentina are getting up to. They have a great enthusiasm, but have not always appreciated the value of sharing their achievements.”
Anselm twitched his pencil until, without putting it down, he was able also to pick up his teacup. He sipped. He went on, possessed of the natterer’s gift for wandering far afield while not having forgotten his point of launch.
“Mr. Steuben and I had determined that the Banshee…”
Here, he set aside all encumbrances, placing teacup, pad and pencil, on the seat of his chair, and crossing to the mantelpiece.
Fanning there like the slats of a louver were framed photos of Anselm’s girls―the Banshee (a Blériot-SPAD model S-29), the Melodee (a Curtiss Oriole), and the Chickadee (a Pitcairn Sesquiwing). Here also was Anselm in 1920 receiving a prize from the Herald proprietor’s young wife; Mr. Steuben and Anselm together hoisting the gold cup each by one handle, Anselm’s other hand offstage, shaking the proprietor’s; Steuben’s in his pocket, his avoidance of eye contact with the starlet—like Myrna’s frown—pronounced. Here was Anselm in a leather helmet, hand resting on his bi-plane’s propeller, the Swiss Alps in the background. He and his partner had alternated tries at an altitude record, taking off from the Zeppelin works near Lake Constance; Anselm in 1924 winning the toss.
With parental pride, he took up the Banshee, fingertips avoiding her protective glass, and carried the photo to Rose. Under his restless eye, she studied this, laying it on her lap, as she might the program of a funeral. Here was Steuben, posed near the plane’s tail. One of his eyes squinted, one seemed to bulge. His jaw was somewhat slack.
Rose felt her own face adopting Mr. Steuben’s expression, as Anselm waved his hand back and forth, seeming to pluck his thread of thought from the air.
“No, my idea…I discussed the matter at length with Mr. Steuben―was that, although the Banshee is of a light construction; and although—as aircraft go—she is venerable…still, on a journey of many weeks, one in which each day’s progress must take us further and further from civilization…it came to me her parts might readily be replicated using available materials, you see. For, in the early days, you know, the manufactories hadn’t specialized to the extent of machining their own parts, specific to the plane’s design…”
His instinct was such it was at moments like this, having achieved maximum dullness, that Anselm would break off with an expectant face and await his listener’s response.
“Yes, that seems very reasonable,” Rose told him.
“Thus,” he went on, “we need not abandon our mission due to a mere contingency, one that any careful plan would have anticipated. No…I still consider my thinking to have been sound. It was the weather…”
He’d paced back to the mantelpiece during these remarks, then away again at a tangent, visiting the desk where his stepson scribbled in a notebook. “Shorthand! Myrna! Did you know about this?”
“That Rob has a skill? It’s no use, Anselm.”
Myrna’s a dress had a georgette sash tied at the hip in a bow, trailing ends that wafted as she moved with a languor of her own. Rose was in the the habit of dressing herself, in imagination, in the clothes other women wore. If she were wrapped in floating, diaphanous things, would her heart feel light as Myrna’s sash?
“He is copying down everything you say, darling.”
Anselm at this scratched his nose—a tic tending to be a precursor to, “I’ll share with you a thought of mine…”, but Rob spoke first.
He spoke without lifting his eyes from the pencil in his hand. “It’s for Hollywood, okay?” He might have capped his remark with, “…stupid.” It was always there, in Rob’s tone of voice—the distance he put between himself and others; the attitude that explained it.
“Rob is launching a new career, Rose. Another one.”
Catching Myrna glance behind as she left him, Rob began to write, his pencil scritching six distinct times. “Rica says they like flying ace stories out there. I’m giving them Anselm in the raw. I doubt they’ll buy him.”
His mother sank among the cushions, the tiers and sash of her dress settling around her. She said to Rose, “Rob won’t leave the house, not until his friend comes to get him.”
“But, Myrna, when she comes back…”
“Rica Bullard. Do you know her, Rose?”
Rob repeated, “When…”
“She was at Metro, the film studio, for a year or two. She came home. Now, she’s gone out to California again.”
“You’ll get your wish. ” He nearly swallowed the words. “Adios para siempre, madre.”
“And,” Rose prompted, “she’s coming back to collect Rob.”
Rose was tired. She didn’t want to be this argument’s moderate party, the guest who labored to make the conversation normal. But she felt her sympathies with Rob. Myrna had bought an apartment for him, when he’d taken up with Curtis Boardman…
Rose had known only what Myrna told her…that Boardman was playing mentor to Rob (“So my son must be good. I don’t know how you tell…”); that the gift had been to further Rob’s career. Rob had listed the apartment with an agency, and found a tenant. He’d moved, after his night in jail, back into his old room…and in busy idleness had been annoying Myrna for over a month.
“A man. With a scar on his face. Who walks ‘funny’.”
Her voice, recounting this, had grown arid. Myrna had called on Rose to share Rob’s arrest (and to cast an eye about the Durcos’ apartment). She’d lowered her head and looked up at Rose, her brow wrinkling in disbelief. “Has been chasing Rob. So says my son the playwright. That’s his excuse for insulting Curtis, and for stealing my money!”
“Do you call it stealing…?” Rose asked.
But the other thing would not have occurred to her, and she regretted now the scene just flowered in her memory, Boardman’s assignation with his rent-boy. “I suppose…” She felt a compulsion to assess Rob, an idea she might read him, see hidden proofs of his secret life, of his attraction for Boardman. He stared back, widening his eyes in mockery.
“What do you need, Rose?”
“Rica Bullard is a reporter for the Herald, isn’t she?”
Boardman…or anyone who’d befriended Rob, might—given this abundance of provocation—fall out with him readily enough. Rob was stunted, a weedy sapling struggling under his mother’s shade. The trouble over Ethan Bragg had been spectacular.
The public figure cut by Bragg—the Ethan of the gossipmongers—was a creature (albeit a wealthy one) risen from the sewers, drawing down with a pale finger those who fell beneath his shadow. The Herald and Daily News, and a number of out-of-town rags, had bayed over this discovery, that on the night of the raid at Durco’s, Anselm Bevington’s stepson had been among Bragg’s fellow arrestees.
And Anselm, Myrna’s fury notwithstanding, was capable of managing reporters. She ought to have allowed him to speak to them…he was willing to do it.
Myrna pulled herself up straight and lifted Gersome’s letter from the table. “Rose and I are going to have a talk, Rob. Do you think you can work for a while in your room?”
“Now one way of going about things, is to bring along a cameraman. To get the newsreel folks excited, is what I mean, Rob.”
Rob answered with his pencil, his elbow moving as though he’d switched to longhand. The lead snapped…and even from where she sat, Rose could see the fragment shoot off like a doll’s bullet. With a quizzical face Anselm looked down over his chin, examining his waistcoated belly. He went on:
“Rather spend someone else’s money than my own, of course, but it’s not merely a question of pockets. Although I do consider that the economical side enters into it.” He laughed. “We would like the public to be interested. Obviously, Rob, to hobble Mr. Steuben and myself with the responsibility of a film crew’s well-being would limit the scope of the mission, but then on the other hand…” He scratched his nose. “I’ll share with you a thought of mine. I believe the public grows blasé in their attitude, when they see so many of these stunts, these flying competitions. The average chap can’t see the value in a dozen new Lindberghs taking flight… Paris is done, as it were. There is no thrilling drama to carry him along.”
Rob, as Anselm showed a determination to speak to him personally, had hunched up his shoulders and glowered over his notetaking―his alleged work, his small island of sovereignty in his mother’s house—but, as Anselm developed his theme, the martyrdom faded, replaced with surmise.
“I haven’t been hired yet, Anselm. But Rica knows all the film people…and she knows the reporters out there, too…it’s the big dailies that sponsor expeditions…”
Anselm nodded knowingly, and Rob shot him a cunning look. “What if you and Steuben split up…you know what I mean. So you’d have a rivalry going. What if Rica put it out that Steuben might get backing from the Herald?”
Putting two fingers on his chin, Anselm drew closer. Myrna, blowing air through her teeth, poured herself a cup of tea. “Rose, I’ve just emptied the pot. Shall I ring for more?”
“No, Myrna. I don’t want tea.”
Myrna set down her cup with a clink against its saucer. She cast one arch look at her husband and son, strengthened the message with a second…and this had no more shaming influence than the first. “Never mind! Rose, we may as well start. Mr. Gersome has appealed to me. He says he has written to you, as well. Mr. Kirkelder…”
“I thought Mr. Kirkelder was only professionally implicated.”
She had read most of Gersome’s letter…with a surreptitious eye, as Myrna might have intended. But Gersome’s arguments were those she knew. His words tiptoed around her suspicions—as a result, Rose’s leeriness had gained muscle.
“Rose, you must not leave us. No one expects you to do much work. But think how you make us look…Mr. Kirkelder being charged with malfeasance in office…and of course, he was one of our officers. And you, Rose, are one of our officers…can you possibly quit, now of all times, and have that in the papers! You must exercise common sense, as Mr. Gersome says. And for your own sake, Rose…”
Myrna closed her mouth. The parlor maid had come in from the hall, bearing a salver—the sort on which visitors drop their cards.
“Oh, good God…will it wait?”
“He says…ma’am, he says he’s come on an errand. It’s Mr. Healy he wants.”
“When you say he, Lillian…because we’re expecting Miss Bullard…”
Lillian advanced on Rob.
Rob, come over blanched and rigid, blinked after a prolonged minute, when his stepfather, peering over the salver, said, “Fellow called Carpenter, Stanley.”
“Stanley Carpenter? Lillian…what does he look like?”
“Show him in!”
This (from Anselm) offered with hostly cheer, and encouragement to Lillian, with a guiding fingertip at her elbow. While their eyes saw her off, they heard an anxious bleat in the background, and a scrabbling, a shooshing in and out of drawers.
Their eyes, returning, found Rob bunched in his seat, bracing a quaking wrist between his knees, fingers attached to a snub-nosed pistol, his mother’s…its mother-of-pearl trim a match to her desk set of pen-holder and letter-knife. “I mean…don’t leave me alone.”
Some unconsummated drama among the Bevingtons flared and faded, a head toss, a pleading look, an affable grin…then, enter guest, stage right:
The man had no scar on his face. Rose could not have described his gait as other than ordinary. But Mr. Carpenter’s condition had improved since the day she’d seen him tail Curtis Boardman to the Armstrong. He was shaved, his eyes looked rested, his suit was brushed and pressed.
“How do you do, sir?”
Carpenter murmured, “Mr. Bevington, I am…how do you do, sir?…very grateful to you…”
“Mrs. Bevington. Myrna, this is Stanley.” Anselm put a hand on Carpenter’s shoulder and steered him to the sofa. “Our friend, Stanley. Mrs. Durco.”
“Mr. Carpenter, how do you do?”
The speculation in Carpenter’s eyes vanished, as Anselm cut in. “And, of course, Rob is your friend…you have come to give him a message.”
“I apologize to you all.”
He made this address to Myrna, whose thin smile quelled. He turned…and wonder passed over his face. Rob laid the gun on the desktop, gliding his hand away until it quivered poised near the muzzle.
“I believe,” Carpenter ventured, “you are Mr. Healy?”
“I believe…you know my relative, Phillip Murchison?”
Rob shook his head, this wordless denial so emphatic a lock of hair came unfixed and fell across his brow.
Carpenter took a step back, for an instant looking again at Myrna. She tapped her nails on the sofa’s armrest and parted her lips…but before she could order Rob to his room, to receive Mr. Carpenter’s message in private, Carpenter had himself spoken, and not to Myrna, but to Rose.
“Mrs. Durco…I know we have met. You will forgive my not recalling the occasion…however, it may be that I know you through your daughter, Viola.”
He paused, and Rose sat still. She thought she had no expression on her face. Intently, she searched Carpenter’s.
“Or,” he said, doubtful now, “could Viola be your stepdaughter? At any rate, I refer to Miss Huey. But, I may be making a mistake.” He gave Rose a rueful smile. “It was Mr. Durco that Miss Huey had mentioned.” His reddening face told her he’d recalled another thing. “I hope you are aware of her friendship with Mr. Murchison…” A long pause. “If I’ve spoken out of turn, Mrs. Durco, I beg you will accept my apology.” He was faltering, seeming to become more aware of this verbal quicksand, the more he floundered to escape it. “I was put in mind…uh…of Miss Huey…because the news was hers. She had told me herself what to say to Mr. Healy. I’m terribly sorry…
Carpenter turned his back on Rose, giving it up. His words were slow; he had memorized them and was ticking them off. “The message…Ethan Bragg has withdrawn his offer. He would like you to know that the script you left in his possession has been taken by the police into evidence.”
“Ethan…but…” Rob stopped himself. “I don’t get what you’re saying. Murchison asked you…or, this girl, Viola…?”
“Viola Huey. Charles Huey’s daughter.”
“I apologize, Mrs. Durco,” Stanley Carpenter answered Rose. “I’ve made a muddle of things, I’m afraid.”
(more to come)