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.
136 Moving On
Phillip found himself catching up to Stanley.
161 Give a Dog a Bad Name and Hang Him
Not too many people liked hounding an orphanage.
198 Drawn Upon Imagination
As a man abandoned by his wife…
Even the walks had been only a nudge.
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 at the salver, said, “Fellow called Carpenter, Stanley.”
“Stanley Carpenter? Lillian…what does he look like?”
“Show him in!”
This (from Anselm) with hostly cheer and encouragement to Lillian, 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.”
Though the job was thankless, it was not the worst.
Bruner’s instructions were coming through Summers…but the errand was Van Nest’s. It had been sort of a joke, one partly rooted in history, but again, part folklore. Kidding people about breaking them, turning them into sleepwalking assassins. Say you believe…say you don’t believe.
Yes, he believed. They did this to people, and the process felt inexorable, now he had himself been targeted. Summers had got the key to Bruner, made him forever beholden. Summers’s friendly face could now ask anything of him.
He would settle in behind a desk, be given a telephone and a file drawer, pass his days in the time-serving idleness he’d balked at before his accident. How far west could a ’49’er have gone by rail? Did the French army have cannons at the battle of Agincourt? That would be the sort of work Van Nest’s studio would give him, to keep him linked to the biz and Boardman…so they could be friends and socialize. Boardman would grow to hate the sight of Bruner.
And always, there would be an undercurrent of fear that would never leave.
Because they meant, in their good time, to jerk the rug away. Probably in Bruner’s case no amount of agreeing and obeying could prevent it…they needed him for only one thing. They had degraded him and driven him from the organization once; they would do it twice. He couldn’t guess what his state of mind would be then.
But he knew there were men set up, isolated, found holding the bag when the conspirators had scuttled. They were left behind in the cardboard house, exposed and dumbfounded, after the walls had folded.
Curtis Boardman missed the bon voyage. “Crimps” was closed, the cast and the show’s backers gone to a last gathering at Louis Guion’s lakefront house…and every friend of Guion’s who could manage it had drunk to him a farewell toast. Boardman had not, even for knowing the party an unrepeatable affair.
“Dockyards…you see I’ve taken to calling it that myself. I ought to have read the omens. Louis had a masterful way with things everyone likes. He produced a play as he might have produced a glass of milk. And…”
Boardman’s mouth formed a sneer, but this was disgust with himself. “Crimps easily could be a bad play. It’s a hazard, Bruner. Some ideas are bigger than others. Fame is like being pulled on a sled to the top of a hill and given a shove. Left alone, I would never try to be popular. I would only hope that my failures convey, at the least, eighty percent of what I wanted to say when I started. Louis would have replaced an O’Neill soliloquy with a tap dance and a talking parrot.”
“Never go out on a down note,” had been Guion’s motto, yet:
…the gaily-hued garden lanterns, the hired quartet, playing selections from ‘Hopeless Romance’ (which can still be seen at the Atheneum, matinee and evening performances); indeed, the mild breezes of a May night, kissed by the fragrance of lilacs…
Had not glossed cheer over the gloom of Guion’s party. And Rica Bullard’s valedictory theater piece for the Herald, written in her mock-florid style, had faltered. At the culmination of this satirical build-up, where ordinarily she would have inserted the scalpel, she had said only:
Louis stayed on his feet throughout the evening, shook the hand of Harvey Planter, his last departing guest (yes, Harvey is back in town—but that’s another story) and seemed in very good spirits.
Bullard’s successor, two days afterwards, reported that Louis Guion had died in his sleep, found in the morning by his valet. Liver cancer. Boardman, in his public character, had suffered abuse for this. Everyone believed he’d snubbed Guion, that he was petulantly unforgiving, that his ego had pursued Guion to the grave.
But he hadn’t spent these past weeks holed up drinking, as Summers speculated. He was sober, and seemed willing to answer questions. Boardman was many things, but not so paranoid he brooded on a stranger’s knock, and would not open his door.
Bruner had said, “Mr. Boardman, I’m a private agent.”
Simultaneous to these words, he flashed a photo of Desanges. Boardman might guess Desanges was Bruner’s client—at any rate, he looked the snapshot over, said, “Yes”, then turned, leaving his door standing wide. Bruner followed, and closed it. He saw papers stacked on the floor, two rows of three, handwritten notes, typed pages, and typed pages with red-penciled editing. Two unfinished works, Bruner supposed. An additional row of clippings and correspondence formed a truncated ell, tidy overall.
Boardman said: “I’ve got butchery in mind. But…I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to burn them, or pack them up and mail them to my mother.”
“Sit, if you like.” Boardman sat.
Bruner, rather than tamper with the folded newspaper, ashtray, coffee cup, and unopened mail on Boardman’s armchair, sat beside him on the sofa. Boardman began telling him about Guion, cynical, proud of it…and not really angry with his late producer. Bruner judged that if he mentioned the afterlife, Boardman would shrug.
“When you die, you die.”
He was the type. “So when your mother gets your papers, she’ll keep them in order, make sure…”
“I met a man…a fellow named Desanges.” A sideways glance. Bruner gave no answer to this, yes or no.
“That is, to be entirely correct, I met a fellow in full Grand Guignol regalia. Evening dress and eye patch. He had an overcoat on his arm…or, I think, most likely an opera cape… But it was dark. Something in his stance told me he was hiding a gun. I’d known of Desanges by reputation.” Boardman sucked his teeth. “A friend had mentioned him to me. There was nothing much to our conversation. I can probably give you dialogue from memory…I said, ‘I’m finished’. I was going to climb down, then, and make certain it was as bad as I’d supposed. But he said, ‘Go’, with a sort of gesture—the gesture, Bruner, of a man swinging a gun barrel. So I walked from the ledge, and he backed away to give me room. I said to him, ‘Desanges, it’s a shame, isn’t it? It was you Talou died for, not me.’ I suppose the man was Desanges—he didn’t deny it.”
Bruner sat forward. “You’re thinking of making a fresh start.”
He slipped a hand into his pocket, pulled out both snapshots, got them sorted, choosing the first of the two Summers had given him. All this, he let Boardman see as self-conscious, clumsy.
“A fresh start.” Boardman crouched to the chair, lifted the ashtray, found cigarettes under the newspaper. He thrust a fist in Bruner’s direction, two jutting between the knuckles. Bruner shook his head. Boardman settled and dropped the ashtray between them. “Love is only self-obsession. I have always believed that. And obsession is only a form of tension. Suppose Talou is dead…but then, suppose not? I’m not a poet, Bruner, or an experimentalist. Talou is a sort of being, an archetype of the dream-world…he may not really exist. Or, that’s how I might explain things to myself. If I didn’t feel the true answer must be…
“I would not say mundane. I would say vulgar. I would be tempted―the evidence convinces me―to suppose Desanges and Talou had staged all this for their own benefit. Only…blood is blood. Not to sound like a shabby, twentieth-century Macbeth, but…Bruner, I have a shirt stained with it. You can take it away in a sack, if that’s what you’re here for. But it’s a mystery, isn’t it? We’ve had a rare run of scandal lately…maybe enough to satisfy the hounds of the gutter press. Maybe someone finds a body down by the canal, and the papers don’t bother mentioning it. Bruner, are you an undercover policeman? Is this plodding manner of yours a bid for confidences?”
Van Nest, Bruner assumed, would not have caused himself this setback. He would have struck the right balance between “friendly ear”, and the acting of bad acting. On the other hand, Boardman had been supplying confidences, and Bruner had no use for them. Only the hope that Boardman had finally talked himself to the brink of despair.
“Why would you think so?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t care.” Boardman dropped his burning cigarette into the ashtray. He put the ashtray on the floor, touching the skirt of the sofa, and Bruner eyed it askance. “That’s the short answer. I’m in a state of limbo. Waiting for a revelation. How can I react to something that seems unreal?”
This certainty, Bruner had the power to give him…before taking it away. And why not? He had just got the same treatment from Summers. He handed Boardman the photo.
After flipping this, and studying the back―on which Summers had written nothing―Boardman said, “Stanley Carpenter. Was he following me? Or, I should say…was he following Talou?”
Bruner tried a hint of incredulity. “You say his name is Carpenter? Desanges thought that was you.”
Give a Dog a Bad Name and Hang Him
Give him a table where he can hear/and a chair that bears his weight,
and remember he’s doing a favor for you/when he gets his story straight
F.F.M., Arizona Republican, 1921
Not too many people liked hounding an orphanage.
Of course, the work done to the Chateau d’Auclaudet was needed. The mission had been able to make use of the original galleried hall, divided into a cafeteria and vocational workshops, and the two chapels, which had become schoolrooms. Six bedchambers had been partitioned into twelve; each could hold four or more orphans. All the servants’ quarters in the cellars were suitable―wired for electricity, given a coat of paint―for housing the mission’s offices, and the caretaking staff. The laundry and the kitchen, having been at the turn of the century somewhat modernized, had now been expanded to institutional capacity—though the ranges remained coal-fired, the water pumped from a well.
The old chateau had been erected in the reign of Louis Treize, its stone walls, after three hundred years, proving themselves still cannon repellent. The new chateau, the 1765 addition to the family compound, constructed over the ruins of a gatehouse, and on a rise above the Deûle valley, had been used by the occupying Germans for artillery practice. The last marquis of the Auclaudet line, a young man known publicly as Monsieur Carrière, had by then fled, his trunks sent away already. He’d expected war, and had, before the formal declaration was announced, crossed the border into Switzerland, on a summer day of 1914.
He remained, fourteen years on, at his second home in Lucerne. It was M. Carrière who presided over the mission’s European dealings; Carrière who oversaw its finances generally. Carrière wrote checks…but more often, he collected them. The chateau had been in a state of disrepair (or continual repair) from the time the mission had first been gifted it.
More than a few live shells were extracted from pits in the chateau’s ruined floors. Phlegmatic, bare-headed workmen, wearing aprons and gloves, had loaded these onto the straw-padded beds of wheelbarrows. Gently, the shells had been rolled downhill; sent by truck, then, to the ordnance depot, where gloved women dismantled them.
Metal scrap had been exceedingly dear in 1919…and hunger can afford so much, of wisdom.
The terraced garden, overlooked in pre-war years by M. Carrière from his study, seemed unrecoverable. Golden sedum, now frothing in rebellion over stone troughs, spread like a lamp’s aura among wild grasses and crabbed box topiary grown feral, where craters undermined the low walls. These had fallen into severed chunks, drowned now in fecundity. Carrière’s mind was to leave it, let the ruins speak to that generation coming this land’s war-taught language.
The charity could accommodate many more orphans (and there were always orphans, even in peacetime); but, the wing must be rebuilt. The mission was too poor to buy another property, and it could not afford to build a free-standing dormitory. Yet a dormitory was essential to the charitable work of housing orphans…the mission could not be extended until the subscribers had raised funds enough to finish the renovation. If the subscribers cared for the orphans, they must care to see the work completed. Completion demanded a steady flow of donations (this cycle of inertia sufficient to insure nothing much was done).
And turmoil tended to outpace revenue. There had been a rubella epidemic, a crisis with the drains, a small fire in the milking barn. Disillusioned subscribers, such as Rose Durco, might have come to suspect—after these nine years—that the mission existed chiefly to prop up the Chateau d’Auclaudet.
“Why does a guy like Kirkelder care about politics over there? So he buys influence…what does he get?”
“Well, you know, America did pretty good after the war.”
“So, you’re saying it’s the same in Krautville as it is over here.”
The lounge where Junior Durco sat with Sal was peaceful and still. The air, even, smelled nostalgic now, like that of a reading room, like wood furniture oiled with lemon…and had only an undercurrent of strong tobacco. For over a month, no one but the cleaners had been up here. The two men could hear along with tunings of horns, voices from below, one that rose and banged out imperative syllables, others brief and deferential, now and then querulous with a degree of fear evident…though none of the words came distinct to the second floor.
Sal, his mind on Durco’s maître d’, asked, “You fire Healy?”
“If Healy would show up, I’d fire him.”
The usual circumstance, that Durco could pay no fine, not until his business was making money (he had been—for an innocent man has nothing to hide—entirely forthcoming with the books); that the Imperial Club’s seventy-two legitimate employees deserved to keep their jobs…had offered the judge cause enough to lift the injunction.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon; the dining room had been serving customers for a week. Last night, they’d hit their old numbers, and Durco had figured from the start it would be that way. No one cared. The private lounge, he’d decided, would not re-open.
He had been down to Memphis; there he’d gained a friend from Havana. You had to do deals with people, you had to hire their guys to fix up your new place, or even build. It was getting in…when you were in, you were made. The old racket was puny by comparison…and Durco’s scheme no longer needed the hostesses, the gambling. There was a lot to be said for booze by itself.
Healy, he might make use of. The kid had some guts. Or, more accurate to say, he had a privileged brat’s pugnacious stupidity. Some other time, Durco might do Healy a favor.
“See,” he told Sal, “you can’t do anything about the laws over there. You gotta have a man you can work with. Only the local guy knows how to really get things done.”
“Like I say,” Sal nodded. He did this half a dozen times, smaller and smaller nods, fading to stillness. Then he said, “So, you and Rose are going down to Florida?”
“I can’t call Julie…”
Durco had been on the verge of breaking his rule, explaining, to a pal like Sal, about his older girl’s anger. But Viola—he would have to call her Viola―was his again. They were friends, which meant she would let him help her…if, say, Flash Charlie tried losing her in California. Durco daydreamed a little, about hauling Murchison to the wall and jamming a rod under his chin. But he figured he might even give a hand to his girl’s johnny—the same way he would help Rob Healy.
Viola was Huey’s daughter, of course. She’d said that to Durco.
“My dad wouldn’t hold anyone up for ransom.”
“No, no.” He respected loyalty.
She asked, “Did you give the bastard a dime?”
“I don’t even know for sure who the bastard is…but no, sweetheart, never. No, I don’t pay any…” He stopped himself. “Nobody twists my arm. Nobody shakes me down.”
“Good.” Viola had toughened up the set of her chin, but only repeated, “Good.”
He knew, though, that Sal didn’t need―and frankly, didn’t deserve―to hear about his hopes for winning Julie’s forgiveness. A weakness is a weakness. Every pal thinks he’s got a pal of his own. Durco didn’t have a family relationship with Sal. Florida was the point.
His buoyant mood prompted him, as he passed Harvey’s door, to raise a hand. He dropped it. The vague impulse, on closer examination, left Durco guessing he had nothing much to apologize for. Those things he knew, that had led to Harvey’s capitulation, were not for Harvey’s ears. So why knock…what could he say? He crossed the hall and pushed his own door back on its hinges.
Rose did not unbend from the waist, nor turn in his direction―but meeting his eye, she hovered before the sofa with an upholstery brush in her hand. The smell of furniture oil here, in his home, irritated Durco. They had help. He didn’t know why it was these days he always found Rose doing the maid’s work, cleaning, putting things away.
“Rose,” he said. “Don’t bother with it!”
And then turned away. If she’d opened her mouth, he hadn’t seen. He had not heard Harvey’s door click open, but heard Harvey’s voice:
“I would be glad to know of it―but Ned, I repeat…
“Mr. Lavier’s place, down on 22nd, close to Market…that pot you had that was red-colored. The one with a dog on the lid.”
“I repeat,” Harvey said this firmly, his voice louder now he’d stepped into the hall. “Those things were private pleasures. I would be glad to know they have not all been destroyed, that my bits and pieces might be enjoyed by someone else, but I…it’s all been sullied, Ned. I’m finished with it.”
Ned put his head around the doorframe. He nodded at Durco poised in his own. Durco backed and turned…he’d run into Harvey, and the urge he’d felt clarified itself. He needed to gauge Harvey’s mood, see if the fight was really over.
“How do you do, Mr. Durco?” And Ned vanished, saying this.
Durco shut his mouth. He’d been on the verge of letting Harvey know―through Ned―that he was great, on top.
From the foyer: “Mr. Planter, I was only telling you first. The police said make a list of everything.”
Harvey looked at Durco. “The police must pursue their own leads.”
This veiled snub, this footwork between Harvey and his hired man, spiked Durco’s temper. Rather than tread softly, he took an injudicious shot. “Sorry for your trouble, Harvey. But don’t feel bad for trying to be Ethan’s pal. Bragg ain’t known for picking his friends too well…”
Eyes aloof, holding out Harvey’s hat and stick, Ned came back to block the view of his boss’s damage. The houseboy had let Bragg in. Durco ought to get some flicker here, some indication of how they’d come to terms.
Harvey said, “Ned, thank you. I will be back some time after eight.”
The door closed. And Harvey, leaving, patted Durco above the elbow. “I haven’t got your sort of luck, Junior. It seems extraordinary to me that Sal would have confessed to the police like that. No doubt, I have mistaken you…I may even have misremembered some of our conversations.”
Sure, Harvey could be glib―he had never run a business.
Durco’s imagination nagged him, the way it had a while ago. He’d worked that one out already…he needed to think now, whether this cockiness of Harvey’s could be a new problem. Hand on the doorknob, Durco scanned his empty living room, stood for a minute listening; but if she’d gone to sit on her bed, if she’d erased herself again, like she did…still, silent, staring at the wall…
He pushed the door closed, whump, with all the frustration Harvey had given him. Rose, if she were in there, didn’t care, didn’t respond to him as though the noise were a summons. She would make him go and ask.
He stalked instead, in circles around the rug…his wife’s plain un-motived rug. He noted she’d got rid of the mirrored tray she used to keep on the table. She’d got rid of three of the living room mirrors, and it made things quieter. You could walk from one end of the apartment to the other without feeling like someone followed on your heels.
Harvey was giving him a load of balls, he thought.
Because, what did Harvey have to threaten with? Durco didn’t bother himself with acts, of the legal kind. He had a way of playing the game that worked; he wasn’t starting in with a new set of rules. It was Oliver and Burnley who’d made Harvey’s position untenable. Oliver was trustworthy in the only way a press hound could be—he could make things hot for Gersome, when the time came. And not for that even-handed mudslinging Oliver called impartiality, but because dirt sold papers.
Nobody, when you came down to it, loved anybody. Everybody would serve themselves when they got the chance. The house he was buying in Florida, Sal would look after for him. Durco didn’t plan to use the place. He liked hotels. The deal was just to square things with Sal, pay back the favor…and, Durco figured, Sal would be retired down there in under a year. He was doing the prosecutor a good turn, testifying against his cellmate. The prosecutor then, bagging Kirkelder, would also―like Durco―not mess with a sweet thing. He’d shorten Kirkelder’s stretch, if Kirkelder gave him Gersome.
Durco rounded the sofa, strode into the dining room; stopped here, eyes on the Armstrong Hotel sign. In the way a movie reel catches before it breaks, and the actor freezes on screen, the audience waking from its trance, Durco had been arrested mid-motion, then jolted. The sign was telling him something, and he could not guess what.
He’d always figured Gersome to be a useful friend. Gersome impressed him as a little out of touch, a little dumb about things. He pulled strings; he was happy to do it…but with a chuckle of surprise:
“Well, Junior, you know more than I do.”
A modest man, Horace Gersome.
He was Fritz Bergen’s friend, too―and Gamotte’s. No, that wasn’t right. Gamotte had something on him more valuable than friendship. He did business only with men he owned from the start. And Durco honestly didn’t know―it was outside his territory―whether Gamotte…or that guy Desanges…might not also serve Carrière. It would make one of those frogs Gersome’s boss. Durco let himself laugh at this.
Course Kirkelder answered to Gersome. Durco thought now he’d let Rose have too much to do with the mission. He was glad she’d decided to resign.
The sign was not lit, but sunlit, a shaft hitting the bottom of the “H” and the top of the “O”; these half-letters illuminated, formed a glyph. Durco told himself he saw a bridge over water. His wife’s reflection coming suddenly, a ghost in the glass cabinet…just when he’d been thinking of her…startled, then embarrassed him.
He could work another thing out, make himself understand why. But he’d been running behind the bus all day; he was through thinking. “Rose, listen, you’re not doing anything…”
“I’m watching you, Joe, that’s all.”
Like he’d done something…what had he done? Went to see Harvey, left her for a minute. He couldn’t remember what he’d said just before.
“You and me are going to Florida for a couple of weeks.”
She stood framed in the archway, between the dining room flooded in bronze afternoon light and the darkened living room. Rose did as she’d said, she watched him. For years, he’d seen the lines of her face settle, until an adamant furrow divided her brows, and her lips creased tight at the corners. Nothing in her face changed at his words.
“We’ll see Julie. Don’t say no.”
“You go,” she told him. “You won’t spend as much money.”
Nora’s way home took her from the back door of the Armistice House, along the alley, out onto Monroe Street, then south to Pequot Avenue. Rose had come close to missing her, and would never have known it, if they hadn’t found each other by chance.
“You wanna look at this?”
The manager of the Village Grill (what village, Rose asked herself) held a newspaper. It was folded to a square, page twenty-four on top, rooms-for-rent ringed down the column in pencil. One of the three who’d got up in a hurry―“Jeez, it’s after four already!”―had left it on the seat of the booth. What were they late for, at this time of day? The theater, maybe, a movie, second shift at…Rose couldn’t guess. She had never had a job. But she took the question seriously, as she might have searched her memory for a crossword clue, just to pass the time. A factory…a hotel. She knew the name of the man who’d nodded, lifting a hand to her on his way out, waggling his hat, and saying, “Ma’am”. He had been the boisterous talker, the one with the loud laugh. Sammy.
Sammy’s newspaper, maybe, that Norman had given her. Sammy’s loss, if he’d had a room picked out.
Norman, empty carafe in hand, saw Rose look up at him, and tipped it side to side.
“No, thank you,” she told him, “I really can’t have more coffee. But you’re very kind.”
“Have a sandwich. It’s late. For lunch, it’s late.” He showed her the flat of an upraised palm. “I don’t want your money, ma’am.”
“You’re very kind, Norman.”
She called him by name. It was too much, Rose thought, getting herself adopted by strangers, thinking of them as individuals with names and personalities. She’d got here at noon, taken a seat on the bench under the plate glass window—where, she guessed, lunchers might wait for booths, supposing the Grill was ever busy. Maybe they only waited indoors for the bus on rainy days.
“I’m waiting for my husband…for Joe.” Nervous, making up a story for Norman. But he wouldn’t hear a lie in her faltering. He had no reason to.
“That’s your husband’s name? We get a lotta guys named Joe. I dunno.”
“Oh, it’s all right…he’ll show up.”
She hadn’t expected him to pitch in, trying to help.
She hunched into the corner of the bench, where she could see across the street, where she hoped the Grill’s brickwork, the frame of its recessed window, hid her face. Was it like this for Mr. Bruner? Was it possible to make yourself part of the shadows, surveil a target for an afternoon, and not become to others an object, a curiosity, a pathetic figure? Maybe not, if you were a middle-aged woman. Norman, Sammy, the girl Jessie, who’d crinkled her face in commiseration, then spoiled it by tucking her arm through the third man’s (the only one whose name Rose hadn’t learned), as though to say, “I’m not alone”―pitied her. But Jessie was young. Rose understood. She thought Joe would never show up…which was true.
She spread the newspaper fully open, lifted it high. That she could find such relief taking this flimsy shelter, hiding her face from Norman, as though the least of disguises freed her to go about her business, made her think again of what a strange business it was.
It was also disorienting. Minus the self-consciousness reminding her not to, she craned to see the first visitor to the Armistice House since her vigil began. She was sitting forward, no longer invisible to the street.
The young man—having his reasons, no doubt—waited before ringing the bell. He swung on his heel, nonchalant, but looking back the way he’d come. And noticed Rose. Half-smile unaltered, he tipped back his bowler…he had worn this secretive face all the while she’d watched him stepping up the street.
Mr. Carpenter―she recalled his fusty courtesies―had supposed her daughter’s friendship with someone, might come to Rose as a surprise.
Having conjured Carpenter’s voice, she could hear him say the name. But it was Viola, instead, who unsettled her.
She saw Murchison doff his hat to bow before the Armistice House threshold…he had remarkably slick hair, in no way by this theatrical gesture disarrayed. Sunlight winked off glass as the door was pulled from inside. A dark haired girl, dressed and made up for an evening date―overly made up, Rose thought, but confident with it―came out to the walk, bouncing him, as she passed, with her hip. Murchison rested a hand on her shoulder and they moved in unison…then both grimaced, the girl’s displeasure the more pronounced. The door had swung back a second time.
Even from across the street, and sitting behind plate glass, Rose could hear a woman’s voice call out:
Nora with her unsexing chopped hair, her face unlined yet, but pasty, as though she had spent her life in dark rooms. This was how age had taken Nora Huey―greyed her, given her jowls, made the corners of her eyes mournful. She reached, her fingers not quite touching Viola’s elbow, and Viola, her back to Nora, could not see this, nor did she turn to look at her mother.
At Nora. Viola was like Joe. She was like her brothers.
“My Priscilla,” Rose thought.
Grown to adulthood, her daughter was striking, perhaps beautiful…not, however, what Rose had expected. Julia and Priscilla—she’d chosen English names for them, names that sounded to her ear patrician. She’d believed her girls would then have lives different from her own. Rose hadn’t wanted a nice fellow who would keep her in the neighborhood, poor and growing old. She’d married Joe because a hoodlum has money. And Rose had consoled herself by this, that she had climbed one step up the ladder, that she’d got herself out of the canal district, that her children would do better for it.
Murchison, Viola’s fellow, seemed the worldly answer to Rose’s youthful naiveté. He was another gangster, from the look of him―he belonged to Junior Durco’s and Charles Huey’s milieu. And Viola, with its purple undertones, seemed for this girl a more suitable name. The name had been Nora’s choice, and Nora had brought Viola up.
Murchison appeared to jolly Nora, grinning, waving the back of his hand towards the Armistice House façade. He squeezed Viola’s shoulder, and she jerked away from him. She unpocketed a cigarette, struck a match on her shoe heel…with her chin, lighting up, she pointed to the Village Grill. So directed, Nora took a step sideways, and for a second her eyes were on Rose; then she put up her hands and let them drop, exasperated, resigned.
“It’s pimento loaf,” Norman said.
Rose found she’d let the newspaper slide to the floor.
She took the plate, set this on her lap, took the glass of milk that with gentle care he placed in her hands. The sandwich was white bread, sliced diagonally, curling lettuce, layers of yellow cheese and pink meat.
“Thank you, Norman.” She nearly said, “You’re very kind,” and realized she’d said it before, that he’d interpreted these words as agreement. She could not now be rude. She lifted a triangle of sandwich and bit off the corner.
She smiled, freeing him from obligation; Norman smiled too, and she felt she’d done him some good. He wanted to help a woman in need…which Rose was not. But she understood this. Charity, for a number of years, had taken her mind off her own troubles. She’d written her share of Myrna’s earnest letters. She’d donated―thousands of dollars―in her husband’s name. She’d done this because she wanted to clean it up, to make Joseph Durco too good a man to be hated.
And Joe might have been getting the money back, in other ways, the whole time. She ought to have forced the issue with him from the start, from the day they’d taken Priscilla, when she had not been brave enough to ask him, “Do you know? Are you lying to me?”
Over there, a stranger also cloaked himself in charity. M. Carrière could, wearing this guise, seek an audience in any house.
Distraction had crowded aside the sound of voices. A gust of motor exhaust and fresh air followed the swish of the door, its import coming late to Rose. Norman hurried after his customers.
“Phil, Miss Huey, take a booth, sit anywhere!”
Murchison, his accent Cockney, ordered meatball stew and near-beer; he and Viola laughed together as young couples do, with their private jokes.
Neither the pimento loaf nor the milk was as unpleasant as Rose had expected…she might really have been hungry. She let herself look at her daughter, listen to Viola’s voice―familiar to Rose only in that the accent belonged here, on this street.
Viola leaned from the booth. Their eyes locked, and the girl’s squint shaded into annoyance. She stretched her neck in a pointed way.
“You change your mind?” Norman asked. “I don’t need losing regulars. I ain’t got more’n I can stand.”
“Well, maybe we won’t like California. You don’t know how things go ’til you try. But I have to get Nora off my back. Is she still out there?”
“If she wanted something,” he answered, cryptically, “she would come in.”
She was not hurt, to find herself both a stranger and a nuisance to her daughter, and nothing more. Rose knew the weird logic of superstition…she could be tempted, like anyone, to cherish her own ignorance. But this would not change the equation. The card was an ace or a joker, whether or not you turned it over; the ticket a winner or a loser, whether or not you checked its number. She had―of course she had―wanted to see Viola.
She left her plate and empty glass, and did not consider leaving money. Nora came forward at once, before Rose had crossed the street; she’d waited under the awning with folded arms, watching. She took Rose’s understanding for granted. She did not hold the door open.
“Let me lock up. You don’t mind closing those blinds.”
Having an impression her words would offend, no matter which she chose, Rose obeyed, mute.
“Charles isn’t here.” The jingling of keys was snuffed by Nora’s pocket, the smell of her cardigan―lanolin, tobacco, cedar and lemon―wafted back at Rose with the gust of her passage. From a thousand crossings, into the showroom, behind the counter, up the stairs and down again, Nora’s heels seemed to have become embedded with the same coal grit and paper lint that edged the walls, glued in place by floor wax. She made no noise. Until, at the office’s rear entrance, she let the door bang shut. Rose’s shoes clacked, sounding on the linoleum her intrusion in Nora’s world.
She stepped onto a coconut mat, saw a dandelion taken root there, in a compost of disintegrating fiber, where it would otherwise have starved between the alleyway’s bricks.
Drawing her keys, Nora shouldered Rose aside.
She wondered if Nora heard sarcasm. Because…for the light in which she viewed the wife of Junior Durco, she must. Rose had apologized to appease, to demonstrate she was grateful for Nora’s choosing this, to answer her questions. They were of a common class, really; their lives not so far removed. If Nora had grown up here, on these streets near the canal, then only the ten years or so between their ages had kept Rose from knowing her as a neighbor.
Pequot, more a lane than an avenue, ran for only two blocks, truncated at its southern end by railroad tracks that curved in from the east. It was lined by two and four family houses, that backed onto patches of garden, a half-downed fence, the tracks; on the west side, onto the hospital grounds.
Between numbers 23 and 21, a man of average size might comfortably have carried a crate to the porch entrance at the Hueys’; the walk was just that wide, and no wider. But he would need to keep his eyes on his feet. Bricks undulated, sank and bulked, some of them—looked on, evidently, as public property—had been pried up and taken for other purposes. To avoid turning an ankle, Rose walked on her toes, crunching the rock salt that Nora, or another resident, put out to kill the crabgrass.
The screen door was unlatched. A red-haired girl, seated on the wicker, got to her feet.
“Is it a bad time, Nora?”
“No, Florrie. I’m putting the kettle on.”
The keys came out again. The girl crossed her arms, holding them tight above her waist, shuffling to wait close at her friend’s back. In these cramped neighborhoods spring sunshine was slow to penetrate, cold shadows falling early in the afternoon. Pequot Avenue would not begin to swelter until mid-July.
Florrie went herself to the stove, lifted the kettle and carried it to the sink.
The Hueys’ downstairs comprised, with this kitchen, a dark and shuttered little dining room, luminous white disks that puzzled Rose until her adjusting eyes recognized these as china plates in a wall cupboard, an interior door, firmly bolted. Adjacent, a staircase. But another door next to, and a step up from that of the kitchen, exited the landing. Air flowed palpably warmed here, from a parlor lit by windows.
“I’ll come with the tray, when the tea is ready.”
This she obliged Nora by entering was a jumble, a woman’s assemblage of cozy bric-a-brac, of rainbow glass and crochet-work; its windowsills lined with flowerpots, its brown sofa draped with a pink coverlet. The curtains were yellowing eyelet lace, the painted floorboards, pale green. The rug, patterned in red ferns, or feathers, looked and smelled brand new.
Florrie’s voice was low, but within the compactness of the Hueys’ quarters, not low enough. “Mrs. Durco…what’s she want?”
“How’s your mother getting on?”
There was a silence, but the girl might have―if unoffended by Nora’s tacit refusal to tell her business―answered with only a shrug. When Florrie spoke, her voice was offhand.
“She wants to see it over with, Mam.”
Rose found that she was going to hear most of their conversation. She sat, inching farther into the corner of the sofa nearest the kitchen wall; not because she wanted to eavesdrop, but to avoid the appearance of wanting to, should Nora―or Florrie―lean round the kitchen door to check on her.
“What do you think, then?” Nora asked.
“It’s all right, isn’t it? Gimp had a bad time with it, but me…I guess I would never know the difference. It’s getting nabbed I worry about.”
Someone came pounding at the back door, not the usual three raps followed by expectant silence, but a noisy persistent pummeling―bang, bang, bang. Bang, bang, bang!
“Well, Jesus Almighty!”
Nora hissed these words; then her voice became normal, still irritable. “It’s not Charles…I thought it would be. He’s got a knock just like that, anytime he finds the door locked…”
A childish voice cried, “Miss Quincy!”
“That’s Mam, wanting me. Go! Get out, Eddie!”
It was of some use to Rose to learn, in this way, the full name of Nora’s visitor, and of some use to her that Florrie Quincy’s visit now ended, the door closed, and Nora, bearing the promised tray, came late, but came at last to the parlor.
She handed Rose a plate, telling her, “I always have a cake for Charles.”
And sat, too, in a rocking chair that faced the sofa, her own plate holding a handful of wafer cookies. The remark, and Nora’s contrasting self-sacrifice, her resignation that fell just shy of martyrdom―succeeded, almost, in extinguishing Rose’s good manners. She felt as though she were herself Nora’s daughter, Nora meting out by example (as Rose’s mother would have done) so many unspoken corrections. She felt accused of eating Charles Huey’s cake.
“But, it’s very good.”
She regretted the qualifier. “Nora…”
“She’s off,” Nora interrupted. “With that one you saw.”
“To California.” Rose did not wish, though, to imply she’d spoken with Viola.
“Why…” she began. “No, that’s not what I’ve come to ask. How…” How could you have done it? That was what she’d come to ask. The child had a mother.
But there was a difference between her idea of things, and the way things had been.
And Nora’s unfriendliness was not enough to suppress awareness’s glimmerings—Rose had open eyes now, and could see. A difference between the abstraction of right versus wrong, and the actual choice made by a human being.
“My husband,” Nora said. And began again. “Charles had a temper. He’s not so bad, these days, as he used to be.”
He had showed up…at last, he’d come as she’d begged him to―four years after she’d taken Viola. For his sake, for Charles, she had done it, all she could do. She had kept Viola out of school a year longer than she ought. Already the attendance officer had paid a visit. Every lie she must tell outright, to make the greater lie seem like truth, was a brand that stamped guilt on Nora Huey, and Nora Huey alone.
“I was afraid, having her in with the others, ma’am, that’s all. My daughter’s small for her age…”
I need you to bring the adoption papers. She’d underlined “adoption papers”, so he would understand what she asked. Please, Charles, please. He’d come up on her heels suddenly, followed her, without a word, from the grocer’s, back to her rooms at Mrs. Donahue’s. And because Nora, knowing there were five in the house confined to their beds, had shushed him, and shushed him again, and wouldn’t let Charles yell, he’d broken her teapot―the one thing she prized, and had brought away with her. He’d broken her cups, hauled everything out of the cupboard and dashed it against the grate, swept everything from the desk.
Nora watched, arms crossed. Finally, when he seemed to have spent himself, she said: “Be a man, Charles. For heaven’s sake.”
“And Boxer…” She hesitated, bit into a cookie, chewed. There was no reason to tell all that. “A man I’ll call Boxer. Easier that way. He’s a blockhead.”
Rose thought she knew this. Not of Boxer himself―though Nora might describe him aptly―but that there was a Boxer. Of course the point, always, of employing Charles Huey was to keep Joe, and other clients for whom Huey brokered “guys”, at a remove from the jobs, the men hired to do them.
“He’s a blockhead,” Nora repeated. “First off, he brought Gimp into it. And then they thought all they’d need was a couple of days.”
They had asked for a sum of money her husband couldn’t raise in cash, and Rose had not seen the obstacle.
“We have friends, Joe.”
“Sure. We got friends we don’t even know yet! What am I talking about?” He had yelled at her, shaken her by the shoulder. Rose understood him, that he would not pay, he would not go to the police.
She’d said at the end, “Don’t talk to me. No! Just don’t!”
It wasn’t healthy for the other children to see their parents cold and silent, and a reasonable woman wouldn’t go that far. Reason, Rose thought. Nora had told her a little, and already, she began to see it.
“Your husband had a temper.”
Nora lifted a hand, warding this off. “No, ma’am, don’t think that…Charles and Viola got on grand, they always did. She took to him, once he came up to stay for a while. And he took to her. No…but it was me made the mistake. I let Boxer in.”
Boxer first had given the baby to Mrs. Nicolina, Gimp’s mother, the idea bad in every way. Gimp was seventeen or eighteen then, the oldest, the younger ones all over the streets…
“And how do you keep a child from talking? They repeat what they pick up at home. Nicolina, now…Charles would never use him. He was another one couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Pals of his didn’t count. See, Charles doesn’t make friends. So Charles knows just what it’s worth, times Nicolina comes sidling up… See,” Nora said again, “you think a guy like Boxer is easy to come by.” (Rose had not thought so). “But most of them are Nicolinas, you can get to do a job…saving it up, wanting to use what they know to jigger up something richer for themselves. Boxer would swear Gimp was his pal, and he would’ve done for Gimp…I mean…” Nora’s face reddened. She busied herself, filling their two cups, and Rose sat puzzled, waiting to learn what Boxer would have done.
“Boxer just wanted to get paid. But he didn’t understand me and Charles. I was supposed to know nothing about the business, but I was supposed to know enough not to get Charles in trouble.”
His one letter, in answer to Nora’s dozen, had been written in the language he used with business associates.
In answer to your last communication, dated the twenty-third of March, 1911, I wish to inform you that I cannot offer any service suitable to your needs at this time.
Charles M. Huey
Nora, wise enough not to have put her own name on the outside of envelopes, not to make it obvious she and Charles had separated, had figured out, even, that she ought to go by train to Buffalo—once a month, as often as she could afford spending money like that, just to mail a letter.
The ruse could not amount to deep concealment…she might even have been stupid, moving as she had, in a predictable pattern. That depended on who cared to know.
“I could have gone anywhere,” Nora answered Rose’s question. “I had three hundred dollars. Charles didn’t like me knowing the combination…but the money was in case he went off on one of his jobs, and didn’t come back right away. You see…not for me to use, but to pay rent, keep up appearances, keep Fritz sweet.”
“But you thought Canada was safer.”
“I guess I did. I saw Toronto chalked up on the board, and I didn’t like wasting time in that crowd. I had a little girl with me. In a minute, she might start kicking up a fuss. If they set some plainclothes dick to watching the platform…it was better me drawing him off. I mean make a move, you understand, keep an eye on the telegraph office. There was nothing I could do once I got on the train, except get off someplace along the way, and if they had me already marked, I shouldn’t make it worse by running.”
“Of course I believe you.”
Rob, leaning cigarette in hand across the balcony rail, as on the day he’d met Ethan’s sister, thought the height of Rica’s building asked for this, made a cartoon of life on the street below, the way a balloon asks to be popped, or a misspelled word corrected…this temptation, if he ever persuaded himself to give way to it, must then be almost a completion. He wanted to fling the cigarette, watch it sail, see if he could tell…if some pedestrian’s spasmodic dance would show him where it had landed. Perhaps these accidents occurred every day. And the high-rise dweller, as he turned away from his distorted, aerial view, saw nothing real in his act.
Rob pictured, for no reason…perhaps because the sun was hot…a man in a white suit, basking on his penthouse terrace, pausing mid-conversation. Politics. Disdain for the commie liberals: “Sure, maybe New York…they got a lotta smart people in New York. Never happen out here.” A flick of the wrist. The way the same guy would, on his boat, dump his trash in the lake.
“You’ve made enough of a splash in the city by now,” Rica went on. “You’ve mystified Junior Durco—who probably only hired you for Myrna’s sake—with your research. You’ve exhausted the patience of Curtis Boardman, who could have taught you something.
“Been rude,” she added, penetrating, by means of a finger jabbed in the small of his back, Rob’s private thoughts, “to Luberta Bragg. Take your pick. Even poor Anselm might dream of it, now and then…I don’t see why it should be Ethan who wants to kill you.”
“I haven’t told you why, yet.”
Rob had figured he could stand the trade-off…if it had worked out, if he’d really met anyone at Ethan’s. Someone more of culture or philanthropy, less this tired gang of debauchées, would have done better service to Rob’s legend. (And Rica, did he speak the word legend aloud, would be scathing.)
Rob had always meant to leave Ethan, of course. But while he positioned himself to stay afloat, ever the iconoclastic misfit, his penury his badge of authenticity―
The magazine writers, the radio hosts, would one day remind the public: “…early in Mr. Healy’s career, he was befriended by Ethan Bragg”.
Ethan might, by then, have gone as far as murdering someone.
It never hurt an aspiring playwright to damage his reputation. The trick was to damage it so thoroughly that the wrong sort of people could never (as Myrna might, donning her next caprice, embrace her son’s new fashionableness) ruin you by admiring your work. Because they found themselves daring, or, as Ethan would put it, “rough and modern”. Boardman had caught that disease; he’d grown to covet the good opinion of society cows.
Rob would avoid it. He’d gone to see Ethan a few times.
Ethan’s “revolving door” for “seekers of immoral pleasures” (phrases of Rica’s in a gossip page piece, her humor cloaked in a paragraph so purely the voice of the bridling matron, that the Herald reader might take the words at face value) was itself legend, rather than fact.
His loyal retainers, truth to tell, were few.
Rascka had always been there. Also, often, a certain wiry, balding Brit, one nothing like Anselm, but something like an American gangster, whose accent Harvey labeled “Wapping”. His name was Godshaw, and he was, for all his wizened appearance, not that many years older than Rob. He was a type Rob would have liked to transmute into fiction.
But Godshaw rarely spoke to Ethan’s other guests. He’d once spent an entire evening sharing a sofa with Rob, watchful eye and sharp ear on the talk, as though he were writing a play of his own. But blatantly Godshaw eyed, unlike Rob, who hid his intentions (and honed the cult of Healy, with a standoffishness he hoped others would always mention) by pretending to read.
Harvey Planter did sometimes come to Ethan’s. And the blonde from the lake had, before that last party at Harvey’s, started showing up.
Rica trod lightly on Rob’s foot. “Are you waiting for? A chorus line?”
He didn’t study at avocations, didn’t read books, dictated letters rather than write them; this, using a telephone stenography service, rather than pay anyone to be his secretary. Ethan, the multi-millionaire.
What he called his room was not a bedchamber, no more than it was an office or a library. Ethan slept on the first floor of his house, and in his self-absorbed way, let every small acquaintance know how he had calculated the pros and cons of escape.
“It’s the window under the stairs that concerns me. Of course, the stairs are marble…but I think the marble is only a sort of facing. Underneath, they might be made of pine…anything.”
Music played. A lengthy Baroque concerto that sounded to Rob all organ and harpsichord. The phonograph, the drinks cabinet, the short tables that filled the corners between sofas, were of dark, tropical wood, with grey marble tops, square-edged, everything rigid against the walls, the carpet accented in gold and tan. The carpet, palatial in size, and somehow fitting, like one side of an album, to the expanse of pearlescent light that fell from the tall windows.
This was Ethan’s own taste, in defiance of Elsie’s, all verticals and horizontals, all dark and light, without ornamentation.
Ethan, at these gatherings, stood over his guests, or stood and looked out the window…he might sit, hunching actively into a corner, splaying blanched fingers on the seat beside him, unnerving the guest who contemplated joining him.
But…on that day he’d stood over the blonde, Elsie’s old friend, cricketing away.
She sipped twice at her gin cocktail and played it safe. “The stairs?”
“Stairs.” Rascka repeated the word, said no more…and Rob began to imagine himself part of an experimental dialogue. The doctor sat between Rob and the blonde, three bodies on a leather sofa. At length, he added: “But, things are hidden under stairs, certainly. My father, when he visited the embassy, left his messages in just that way.”
Ethan nodded and smoked, the blonde finished her drink; both acted as though Rascka’s statement was an old thing, well known. Rob felt provoked.
“Yes, as I say.”
“Your father was a spy, is that what you mean?”
“My father had made an affair, an intrigue, with one of the typists of the embassy, so he had reason to call there, and if he was evasive about the matter…well, it would not be much, only an embarrassment, to explain. But, from Budapest, they could send coded messages by the telegraph…the embassy, you see…and these were enough for the secret police. Having decoded these, they supposed they had learned everything the embassy meant to hide. They met in the closet under the stairs.”
Rascka smiled, and did not play.
“Okay. Your father and his…” He prided himself on being honest, too much the natural man to bother with social niceties. He would have risked saying whore—but Rascka might (Rob could believe this) be one of these old world duelists, the silver cigarette lighter disguised as a tiny gun, a gun after all.
“Yes, yes, but only to decide…they met, you know, to decide if they would find each other in the park or at a café. But my father’s telegrams that he received at his business were very ordinary to the eye. And in this closet, he might merely have dropped one, being there, you see, in any case.”
Rica took up the refrain. Without an excess of the satirical, but almost with affection, she then took the wind out of Rob’s sails. “So, having dropped these veiled hints, Dr. Rascka proceeded to vanish mysteriously. And you find yourself stalked, now, by a sinister, cloaked figure?”
So far as Rob knew, Rascka had not vanished. He had, on the contrary, trenched in, insisting that America could not expel him―not without due process. Further, his lawyer would appeal to the court of immigration, and, if the first went badly, obtain a second hearing; further, Rascka would continue to see his patients, and to counsel them, which did not amount to practicing medicine without a license, as these were only conversations…with friends, as it were.
You’re about to astonish…yes, dash from a certain face, that amused…
Smirk..? Not quite. But unseriousness, at a matter…it wasn’t too strong to say dire…
He knew why. Because it was happening to him. He clammed on the man with the scar—she didn’t deserve it. He glowered at his cigarette…
Then, rebelled. The story was true. Was he not allowed to tell the truth, just because he hated being laughed at?
“Not cloaked, be real. The guy’s not even scary, exactly…but he did start following me. He has a scar on his right eyebrow and he walks like a duck.”
“Flat nose? Brush cut?”
Backing from the rail, Rob turned to look her in the eye, and found in her alert face, hope.
“Now what did you do to get Boxer Chaney on your tail?”
He’d thought of a precept of Boardman’s.
The whole thing had begun with a sense of menace. He’d felt it, riding back from the lake, seated beside Ethan.
“Oh, good. I like a story with a sense of menace.”
Well, the phrase was unimaginative. Rob wasn’t working. But of what did this feeling consist? Ethan had driven that day, as he always drove…after ten minutes finicking, first to draw thick glasses from a breast pocket, next to don a pair of workman’s leather gloves. Once having handicapped both vision and dexterity, he flailed—bent over the steering wheel with a painful concentration—at a map he’d unfolded.
“Why don’t you let me take that, Ethan.”
Rob jerked the map free, balled it, and tossed it out the window. Ethan sounded the horn three times (to frighten away, as Rob surmised, any Quincy-like schemer concealed in the shrubbery, waiting to throw herself in his path), and in a confusion of gears, ahead they lurched.
“You really should learn to drive, Rob. Suppose when Ethan comes out to visit, he tells you he wants to go up the coast?”
“Why should he visit?”
She shrugged. “No reason. I guess I picture him deciding to murder you with his own hands. Cheaper that way.”
“Trust your cast to tackle the acting…the point for you, the creator, is not…” Pacing before his class, Boardman paused, sucking on his cigarette, his more earnest students leaning back from their notebooks, pencils suspended. Rob had yawned.
“…that this man is a cab driver, that woman a nun. It’s that, let’s say, a man who goes to law school at night, who sees himself fighting for his old neighborhood, may also be a cabbie…but he’s not the same cabbie as the man who lost his supervisor’s job when the factory closed, and sees his hack as a prison and a degradation.
“The woman who’s never told anyone about her visions―her belief that the mother of god speaks to her personally―may be a nun…but a different nun from the girl sent to the convent at sixteen because her parents can’t afford to feed so many mouths. Maybe the driver gets only two lines in act three, but even there, he is this human being, if you’ve created him well…and you’ll show that to your audience. Why should a character conform to a type, or say typical things? Understand him, and he’ll tell you what he wants to say.”
“Well, sure,” Rica nodded. “Curtis’ll be a treat in Hollywood, whenever Van Nest gets around to bagging him. He’s almost as squirrelly as you. Of course, he’s his own type of squirrel.”
“I’m making a point.”
She annoyed Rob. But everyone annoyed him. Rica, at least, looked out for him, and listened when he talked. The point was, he’d sat on the bed wondering why Ethan wanted him there, hearing the exchange between Rascka and the blonde…
“Oh, stop calling her the blonde. Didn’t Ethan introduce you?”
“So…Mary, say. I’m not good with names.”
Rascka had said to Mary, “You should see Elsie again. You think…I think so…that she asks to be alone because she is unhappy? No, then…why not try?”
Mary sat propped against the headboard, and Rob faced the door, wishing he could go through it, wishing he had not made himself dependent on Ethan’s car. Rascka sat facing the bathroom.
“But, Laddie…will you take me?”
“I will take you, because you ask. But not to the house. The reporters…you remember. And I must not see Elsie myself.”
“But, Laddie…” she said again. “What if she asks me to stay? You know I can’t stay. You know why.”
“My dear Magda…”
(Magda…? Now he recollected the scene, Rob thought that Rascka had called her that. But the blonde’s speech had sounded like any local’s.)
“…I am your advisor. I tell you, that you must take with you as many things as you expect you cannot do without. Certainly, if Elsie needs you, you would in kindness agree to stay with her.”
All the while Ethan stared out the window, listening to this conversation between Rascka and Magda, stiffening his shoulders and relaxing them. She’d risen, without another word, and swayed into the bathroom.
There she remained for so long, Rob forgot about her.
To cope with the deadening boredom, he’d been trying to recast the whole experience as the second act of his play—why should a second act not began with a new set of characters?
Boardman’s most famous work, “The Quartermaster Muddles Through”—the one he’d got the Pulitzer for—was constructed just that way. Audiences twisted as the first act unfolded, wondering how the title’s implications bore on these aristocratic passengers chatting in their deck chairs about their roles in a Christmas panto. As the play alternated between one set of characters and the other, the tension grew; playgoers grasped, by the final scene, that the two groups would never meet―and yet, the casual affairs of the first had brought tragedy to the second. Boardman commented on the late war, while his characters spoke of inconsequential things.
She came out. Magda was definitely high, and manic…but when she tugged at his hand, Rascka smiled at her impassively.
“Let’s go down to dinner! They have a smorgasbord.”
She relished the word, tittered over it, repeated the first inane syllable of it. “Smor…smor… So Ethan can buy me a decent meal for once, and he won’t have to pay extra. C’mon, Laddie…c’mon Ethan!”
She smacked Rob on the back of the head, and though he could have hit her for this, still, he understood her limbs were shaking, making her movements overwrought.
She then danced out the door, and only at this point, did Rascka look up to catch Ethan’s eye. “Don’t you think we had better? But…stay in the room if you like.”
With a grunt, he pushed himself from the mattress. Ethan faced round, hands touching hair and collar. But on the verge of speaking, he instead shot after the others. He feared being discussed over dinner by Rascka and Magda more than he feared being recognized in public, had been Rob’s thought.
And half-persuaded to let them eat without him…that, given this chance, he ought to grab his bag, walk to Darlington, hitch a ride back to the city, he’d loitered. From the hall came a commotion. A shriek. He heard Ethan shout formative sounds―as though he’d started to say “Don’t!”, and started again to say, “What!”
Rascka cut him short, speaking in a level, warning voice. Through the open door Rob could make this out, but not the words. Magda began to laugh.
He’d gone then, to see for himself. He saw Ethan at the corridor’s other end…on the landing, leaning over its rail of shellacked log, watching something beyond the foot of the stairs.
“Hey!” Rob yelled. “What is it, Ethan?”
Magda was behind the curtain and stood cloaked, singing “S’wonderful”, pivoting on one heel. Rob, at an amble, called out his question again, heard Ethan hiss through his teeth…as though he shushed. That, Rob could hardly believe.
He found himself enveloped in a pair of arms.
“So…it was a guy with a camera.”
“No! That was Magda. I got rid of her.”
“I’d just like to know what you did with Mary.”
He had twisted left, twisted right. She was inches taller and an uncomfortable weight for him to bear, and she giggled like a flirt, clinging on. Ethan stalked round them without a word, gone before Rob could ask for the third time, what’s up? Rascka jogged from the staircase, to pass the couple with only an affable curve of the lips.
Left to it, Rob walked Magda in reverse, bumping her through the unlatched door. By almost sitting on her lap, he managed rolling her off onto the bed. A hand plucked at his. He tugged fingers from his belt. He reached the window beside Rascka, and for safety put his back to the wall.
He heard only the end of Rascka’s talk. “Your face has been seen a few times in the newspaper of late. No, the one I saw could not have been Oliver. Ethan! Very likely it is mere coincidence.”
Bragg’s face, drained of color, was…more or less ordinary in appearance, though faintly sheened. The doctor skimmed off and crossed the room, putting a hand on each of Magda’s shoulders. He bent his head next to her ear, and whispered. Whatever pill or injection she’d taken, her metabolism must by this time have assimilated it. She neither laughed nor pawed at Rascka, but spoke in a lucid whine. “But I can’t go to the dining room by myself!”
“No,” he said. “Of course, Magda, I do not suggest it. I will introduce you to Alfred Oliver. It has been hardly any time since I’ve spoken with him…he himself dines alone, you see. He will not yet have got to his cake and coffee. Mr. Oliver will be flattered to meet a friend of Mrs. Bragg.”
At the shutting of the door, Ethan said, “When we came out here, did you have the impression someone was following us?”
For Ethan’s sake, Rob thoughtfully fingered his chin.
Remembering ahead as it were, he grew convinced now that Chaney had wanted to be seen. The second time he’d lounged, conspicuous in a light-colored suit, cut out against the black granite entryway of the bank across the street, there…
He pointed this out to Rica. Right opposite. An expectant moment passed. He listened for the sound of Rica’s rising from her chair.
“The Farmers’ Trust, you mean? When was this? And why didn’t you tell me you were being shadowed! First, against my better judgment I let you have my spare bedroom. Then you go rabbiting off to Myrna’s… I could have gone down and tackled Boxer for you.”
“I apologize. I thought you wouldn’t take me seriously.”
He had seen the man across the street straighten his posture, as though he’d spotted a thing he was keen to get a look at. He’d uncrossed his arms, scratched at his scar, stared…his eyes tracked Rob while his face eased into ugly promise, or what might have been a smile. It seemed impossible Boxer Chaney could have meant to conceal his presence.
Ethan had driven at snail’s-pace up the dirt lane designated by its pointing-finger sign: “Chemonk Trail, This-a-Way”, at the head of what seemed a parade (all the more so for the horn-tooting) of other vehicles. At least two cars had pulled in right after Ethan’s: a saloon that emptied of an elderly couple dressed for the dining room, and a roadster. A wiry-haired cigar-chomper kept his seat behind the wheel of this, watching the four members of Ethan’s party held up at the door.
Rob, innocent once, would never have read threat in behavior that seemed self-explanatory. But some urge to bedevil Ethan made him lie.
“Now you mention it, I did. I think someone was.”
For this trip, conceived as an overnighter, Ethan had reserved a corner room, one with an extra window and a single shared wall, as much luxury as the lodge and Ethan’s cheapness could withstand. His agitated leap brought his head looming over Rob’s. He caught Rob’s sleeve in a pincer grip. He made gestures.
Give-over gestures, Rob would have called them.
“Well…okay. Fat. Ugly mug.” Rob pointed at his own eyebrows, indicating the driver’s husky ones.
“No, I won’t say so. Maybe the guy I saw just came out to fish.”
Ethan gazed outdoors pensive…for half a second. His arm flew, finger and thumb at the sleeve again.
Down on the gravel a thin man stood beside a jalopy’s open door, face tilted up. He held his hat brim and smiled at them. The smile broadened at Ethan’s finger-stabbing, and—as it must appear—silently flapping jaw. The other hand, the one not holding the hat, held a camera.
And there could be no mistake about his quarry. In a casual, teasing way, he pointed the camera, pretending to press the shutter-release. Rob, at any rate, was sure he’d only pretended.
“Why should I put up with it? I am in a private room…am I not entitled to privacy? Yes! No, that last picture is going to cost him! I…have…the…right…” At each of these four words, Ethan levered Rob’s arm.
“…to confiscate the whole roll!”
This tidbit of legal lore was more than Rob felt qualified to fall in with.
“Go get it!”
“That guy’s camera?”
“Make sure he doesn’t get away!”
“But,” Rica said, “the Brownie brandisher turned out to be Martin Bruner, didn’t he? The one Mrs. Murchison tried to murder in your apartment?”
“Freda. Wasn’t it?”
“No…what are you talking about?” Rob put his hands in his hair. “The chorus girl?”
“Well, say so if you like. Partner to the arm, anyhow.”
Now what? But he found the Freda sort of echoed. Yeah, he could get a picture of it, the camera hand-off at Curtis’s party.
“Christ! Is she married to a guy named Phillip?”
“I only know what I read in the paper.”
Well… Rob had been Rica’s protégé for about a year. For about a year, then, each time Rob got together with Rica, he heard her bring Alfred Oliver into the conversation at least once. He had gleaned a second-hand picture of Oliver…something of his manner of speech, his body language, even his cigar habit came through in the way Rica curled her fingers as she quoted him. Oliver picked up the raw dope from the corruption beat (a.k.a., local politics)…and the stories Oliver told were better than those the Herald was allowed to print.
He hadn’t known Oliver the first time he’d seen him. The second time was the night he got drunk at Ethan’s party. He’d woken in a jail cell, sick from it. Anselm came to pay his fine, and took Rob back to his old room at Myrna’s. The panicked state that made him linger there, hiding in his mother’s house, seemed―like some hypnotic suggestion―to have simply appeared.
A kind of alchemy had taken place.
He paced from the balcony into the living room. He could feel a number of things coming together. They came together in combinations too odd to wholly accept. Of the raid, his strongest impression was the sight of Phillip Murchison darting onto the terrace, throwing a glance side to side, turning when he’d got to the table and chairs, tarrying there for a second or two. Looking up at the roof. One step backwards, another step…
Rob remembered thinking, “If he makes it, I’ll climb up too. If he falls, screw him.”
Murchison, poised on the balls of his feet, doom inches from the flap of his jacket. Rob sucked in a breath. And Murchison lunged, like a man catching a departing trolley.
But, Rob told himself now, I was in a fog that night, drinking everything that came my way. Because of the guy. Chaney suddenly a feature in Rob’s life and the only idea―what had seemed the most natural explanation―was he’d somehow offended Junior Durco. He had been sneaking into the cloakroom, jotting notes on his shirt-cuff. These were snatches of talk overheard in the lounge, that was all; quirks of personality Rob liked as dialogue. He hadn’t even questioned how it might look if someone saw him doing it.
He blamed Myrna.
She could bitch, she could threaten (she had), but she owed him refuge in her house. That stupid thing of Myrna’s…always with his grandfather not too proud to start at the bottom. (Nor, having been born there, did Francis Mahoney Armstrong have a choice.) In 1874, he had worked as a bellhop. At his death in 1905, his daughter had inherited the four Armstrong hotels, the manor house on its lonely patch above the river…and, at the top of the flagship Armstrong, a penthouse apartment.
If she would let Rob live there, instead of insisting it be available for her titled Europeans (and the d’Auclaudet people never brought their business to America), she’d have no beef. Exercising the stinginess that had driven his father to divorce her, she’d bought Rob a couple of rooms, cramped and noisy, in a cheap neighborhood. When he’d told her to an artist quiet and privacy are essential.
She called it part of his inheritance. Why then, was she furious with him, for trying to raise money on it?
“Ingratitude,” was the word she’d thrown out, and Rob, choking under his mother’s eye, had answered her, not half-assed, but, “Half measures.”
It was Anselm’s phrase―and it was Rob’s stepfather Myrna had talked into writing the letter of recommendation that had kept him from being hired as a regular waiter in the main dining room, where everything was on the up and up.
First, Rob had seen Junior Durco’s brother, the Imperial Club’s majordomo; who, after whistling over Anselm’s letterhead (printed in three colors, featuring a line drawing of the Chickadee), muttered, “Signed by Anselm Bevington! You could sell that.”
He picked up the phone. “Peg!”
That was all. Durco hung up, skimmed Anselm’s words a second time, and asked Rob, “How come Healy, and not Bevington?”
“Lucky, I think.”
He tried to picture promoting his plays under his stepfather’s name. Adoption hadn’t been out of the question…at the onset of Myrna’s present marriage, he’d been seventeen.
The office door was pushed open.
“I got one for you,” Durco said.
Peg had not turned out, as Rob expected, to be Nick Durco’s secretary, but Junior Durco’s second right hand, otherwise Magnus Krim.
Krim ran the private lounge upstairs. He led Rob to the mezzanine level, shoved back one of a pair of swinging doors, and drew a key from his pocket. Crossing the alcove, he fitted this into a lock on the wall. When they’d boarded the elevator, he said to Rob, “Anselm Bevington. I read he’s gonna fly from Cape Horn to Cape Town.”
Rob shrugged. The rags liked a catchy-sounding headline. They stopped, seconds after they’d started. Peg caught Rob by the arm.
“You fly with your old man?”
“We’re not close.” The mistake was nothing worth setting straight.
“So lemme ask you. Would you ever jump out of an airplane? I mean…if the motor stopped, let’s say.”
“Uh… Would you?”
“Well, you gotta look at it in a certain way. Maybe your chute wouldn’t open. You’re gonna hit the ground hard whether you jump or don’t jump. But…maybe the motor would start again.”
A single step down took them past another set of swinging doors. Krim, an expansive sweep of the hand inviting Rob to sit anywhere, kept his lips shut tight. Rob thought, this is the interview. He expects me to answer the parachute question.
“I guess then, I have a better chance of walking away if I jump.”
Peg took him up to see Junior. Junior asked only: “What you think about minding your own business?”
“I believe in it.”
The position was not merely politic. Leave people alone to live their lives. Why not? But Rob had the suspicion he’d been hired already…that this privilege of speaking to Junior would not otherwise have been granted.
Alchemy. The elements seemed to form a chain. Each event either witnessed or inferred had seemed real in itself; and each, unexamined, detached from any sense of a guiding hand, bestowed a false status of verity on the next.
Now Rica had mentioned this thing about Bruner―
She touched Rob’s shoulder. He avoided starting, which would have made her laugh, because his concentration was so deep, nervous reaction delayed long enough, for pride to intervene.
“Did you forget where the kitchen is?”
“I figured you were heading off to make a pot of coffee. And thanks, by the way. I could use a cup.”
In the kitchen, he unplugged the percolator and started rinsing the basket. Rica bustled in, her broad hips crowding Rob at the sink.
“What do you think? Scrambled eggs and toast?”
So they were having brunch. He glanced over his shoulder. If he sounded tetchy, she would tell him to fix his own. He apologized, in a manner of speaking…literally, making his voice affable as Anselm’s. “That was Phillip Murchison I was with. I mean, the night of the raid. You saw him.”
She nestled four eggs in the ring of the gas burner to stop their wobbling to the floor, bumped him twice again, on and off the step-stool.
He let out a breath. “You were trying to get arrested.”
“That’s a lie. I was definitely arrested.”
“Okay…you were trying to get a story. And you waved to Oliver. That was the first time…no.” He checked himself. “It wasn’t.”
“Of course not. I’ve waved to Alfred a few times at least—although I wouldn’t call him a confirmed yoo-hooer.”
“At the lake. I saw him sitting in his car.”
“The day you decided Ethan was trying to kill you.”
“No I didn’t. I meant what I said.”
She cracked an egg. “Start at the top.”
That, Rob thought, was the problem. The sequence, the pattern you told yourself you were seeing, could only be superimposed after the fact. The most recent event in a series, the one that finally got your attention, might mislead you into seeing everything that had gone before as fitting together in a particular way.
But this could be a fairy story…there might be other, overlooked items that fit just as neatly…and you couldn’t force a new link into the chain without breaking it.
He buttered his toast, ate it standing up while the percolator spit three closing bursts of steam, went dormant, and grudgingly, just when Rob had reached for the handle, began a long, fading gurgle. Rica ignored this, lined up cups and saucers on the sink cabinet, and pulled the plug.
“Would you ever…” he asked her on the way to the living room, balancing their plates while she carried the coffee tray, easing down opposite Rica on one of her twin chaises longues.
“…type an anonymous message for someone and leave it in the roller?”
She swallowed a forkful of egg. “Sounds like fun. What was the message?”
He nodded. “Do you think Myrna would do something like that?”
“Do I think Myrna is the sort of old girl who once tucked unsigned notes in her bunkmate’s Sonnets from the Portuguese: ‘Your feet stink’ or ‘Everyone knows you’re a slut’?”
“Well…see”―he decided this meant yes―“that’s what I thought, right off the bat. She was edgy about Kirkelder getting indicted, and she had me in the house to pick on.”
“But now you think it was Boxer Chaney.”
“No. I think it was Ethan.”
“I hope you’re right. Otherwise you’re getting a complex.”
“See,” Rob said again, “the detective kept asking me about the couple in the apartment, and I kept saying, what couple? I told him it was only her, Mrs. Pittsburgh.”
“Pittsburgh? Who’s named Pittsburgh?”
“Well, yeah. That’s what he said. But I was thinking, the chorus girl… Didn’t she say?”
He saw a thing he would never have expected. Rica blushed. She tee-heed. She said, “Sorry, Alfred. Throw me out of the secret agents’ club! So-o…let us say the lady’s name was Pittsburgh. Or maybe Pitfield-Young. She was infuriated when she found out you’d double-dealed her, and let the place to Freda Murchison―are you sure you haven’t found the real killer?”
“Don’t be a comedian. You know what I mean. You were the one who talked to her. I was…kind of in a bad mood.”
At this piece of news, Rica recovered her spirits. She recoiled against the cushion, fanning herself.
“I told him, the agency finds these people. What do I know?”
“What makes you think Freda came from the agency? I thought we took cash under the table.”
“Well, but I just that morning listed the place. Maybe she worked in the building.”
“When did this happen, this interview with the detective?”
“That same afternoon…late I think, three o’clock, four o’clock. After I got home from jail. I was taking a nap. The maid rang my room.”
“A phone in your room! Big shot.”
“Never mind. She told me a cop wanted me in Anselm’s study.”
The detective had given Rob his own name―not that Rob remembered it―but was otherwise close with his information, consulting a notepad, looking up to hold Rob’s eye, before asking the same question he’d asked a moment ago.
“I’m not lying,” Rob told him.
“You don’t like…uh…Mrs. Pittsburgh.”
“She owes me rent.”
“So…you don’t like Mrs. Pittsburgh.”
“I can’t do anything. She hasn’t been there for a month yet. But…she gave me ten bucks for a deposit and said she could get the rest. I mean, what’s ten bucks? I’m trying to make money.”
“So you don’t like Mrs. Pittsburgh.”
“I hate Mrs. Pittsburgh!”
“You know…maybe I believe you.”
The detective dropped a snapshot on the desk under Rob’s nose. Rob, who’d been resting his head on his hands, sat up. It was Bruner.
“You know this guy.”
“No. Well…I’ve seen him.”
It was a three way dilemma. He’d seen Bruner with Durco; which meant in effect he had never seen Bruner. Summers had been there. Rob thought Summers was a sort of G-man…it might then be a four way dilemma. He could mention the lake instead, but that would lead to questions about Ethan and Rascka. He saw himself subpoenaed, as Elsie’s suit resumed, to testify against Ethan. In Rob’s opinion, and he didn’t know how to say it delicately, Bruner―the private detective―was a flunky, an errand-boy, a hired hand, probably Elsie’s hired hand. Except Elsie was broke. Oliver’s, then.
“Can you put a name to him?”
“Um…I guess I only know his last name.”
The detective waited.
“Bruner,” Rob said, and felt such a pressure, under the detective’s steady gaze, that the follow-up question seemed to take shape in the very air.
“Um…I suppose I met him someplace…at the club, maybe. What does Bruner say about me?” For a second, this parry made Rob feel cunning as Rascka.
“It seems funny to me.”
The detective left off, bent over his notepad, wrote for two or three minutes, read through what he’d written, started flipping the pages back. None of these actions was memory-jogging by itself, but an indefinable link was there. It occurred to Rob he was sitting across from the man who the night before had spoken familiarly to Oliver, who’d let Phillip Murchison go free, on Oliver’s representation that Murchison worked for the Herald.
Maybe he did.
“You’ve thought of something.”
At this honorific, the detective looked startled himself, mockingly. “It seems funny to me,” he repeated, “that you say you know Bruner. But you don’t know who the lady is who called herself Mrs. Pittsburgh.”
Before Rob could accompany his head shake with a verbal denial, the detective cut him short. “How much can you lift?”
“Did you ever feel like you were talking at cross-purposes? I mean―”
Rica clinked her cup onto her saucer, sat up with a magpie’s glint in her eye. Rob moved to forestall the punchline. “I mean you think you understand…and the other guy thinks he understands.”
“So, you had a little patter routine going with the detective?”
He stood and carried his plate to the kitchen. He felt sheepish about this, and would not have confessed it to Rica; but―as with his stepfather’s famous landing on the wrong side of the English Channel―Rob had been in a fog, and had seen things appear as he’d explained them to himself. He came back to his seat and faced her, waving a hand. “I’m working it out. I never heard of Chaney…I mean, I guess a private eye could wear a disguise? I’d seen Bruner working for Durco. I kind of thought he was Murchison, at first…or the other way around…if you get me. I was being followed. Why would I think there were three guys?”
“No…that actually makes sense.” Wearing an uncharacteristic faraway look, Rica leaned towards Rob, and said, “For clarity’s sake, I’m going to confide. Alfred…has a pal among the flatfooted set. His pal told him it’s Freda they’ve got their eye on. Lovers’ spat, crime of passion, that’s the idea…but they’re not satisfied. They figure she had help, or she could never have got him out the window.”
“Window! The detective never said what was wrong about Bruner, just made me think for some reason they didn’t talk to him. But then…they’d know it had nothing to do with me. Wait―”
“Weight,” Rica agreed. In pantomime, she hoisted a dumbbell.
“It has to be Murchison!”
“It ought to be Murchison, but he has the best alibi of them all.”
This was a tease, and coming from a woman who’d just offered confidences, did not deserve to be taken up. “Wrong. He’s still alive, so far as I know.”
“Second best, then. He was with Viola Huey all that night. And she says so. Viola,” Rica raised an eyebrow, “is Charles Huey’s daughter.”
“Never heard of him…no, wait.”
“For heaven’s sake.”
Rob, tentative, asked, “She’s Durco’s daughter, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know anyone who says so.”
“But I do. Who is Stanley Carpenter?”
“Well, now…touché. Who is Stanley Carpenter?”
“Doesn’t Oliver know?” And at Rica’s shrug, Rob, with the thin smile of a man one up on the competition, explained. Carpenter had brought a message to Myrna’s house; the message had been sent by Durco. “You know why I believe it?”
When the door to Harvey’s apartment burst open, the guests in the boudoir, entranced by the fisticuffs, did not at once notice the banging and shouting that erupted from the drawing room. The police might, for a second, have been confounded to find this almost depopulated; while for the terrace crowd trapped outside, both the featured ticket and the chance to escape were over. Meanwhile someone, having cracked the door, turned to the forty or so partygoers crushed behind him, and whispered, “Bulls.”
In the explosion that followed, Rob got as far as the upstairs lobby, a room-sized space furnished with bench and palm, and featuring, at the two ends of its roughly north-south axis, an elevator and a flight of stairs. He watched Rica leave his side and stroll to the former.
“You could have come with me. What good did it do to hide out?”
“See, you think you’re smart,” Rob told her, “but that’s exactly the right question.”
He had spotted the window’s lavish draperies (there was a strong touch of Harvey, even here)—and like Magda, thought to couch himself behind these…but unmusically, and careful to draw the fabric over the toes of his shoes. The window proved one of the modern types, floor-length with wide, undivided panels of glass. Rob, to anyone looking up from the alley, was as exposed at the back as he was concealed in front. He heard the conversation of two policemen leaving Harvey’s apartment, stopping just inside the open door of Durco’s. His ears, once he could detect more than his own heartbeat, picked up a snatch:
“No,” the other said, “ain’t supposed to be.” He laughed. “But we gotta check.”
Hooking a finger round the curtain’s edge, Rob saw the foyer empty. Something in the back of his mind—that fourth gin sling possibly—whispered a suggestion; before he could dismiss the idea as disastrous, he thought twice.
“Well, I did.”
“Suppose I was caught in Durco’s place…suppose I had a friend who would make sure it got in the paper?” He showed her an appealing face.
Rica made a derisive noise.
“But I mean. If someone who was just arrested in your living room got murdered, could you pretend you had nothing to do with it? Why were they questioning me about that woman?”
“Freda. Pitfield-Young-Murchison. Practice makes perfect, sonny. I see your point, though. Durco doesn’t like being put over a barrel. Is that why you were hiding on the terrace? Second thoughts again?”
“Have you ever seen Durco’s living room? It’s like a hall of mirrors.”
Rob had tiptoed to the kitchen, squinted up the passage, then halted―at the sight of a grey-suited backside easing over a bedroom threshold―by the terrace door.
“I wouldn’t bet against Bragg,” the detective was saying to an unseen colleague. “He works in about a scandal a month these days. It isn’t even news anymore. He’ll get to be a local hero.”
“What could I do? Tap him on the shoulder?”
The Daily News, rather than compete with the Herald, had chosen to exile all but the first paragraph of Oliver’s rival Burnley’s Imperial Club story to an inside page. Bold and disdainful, the editor of the News instead went international with its grabber:
KIRKELDER SWISS MONEY-LAUNDERING DODGE
A search of the disgraced tax assessor’s house had turned up, under a garden flagstone, “smushed in the sand”—per the descriptive phrase of an anonymous investigator—a ring of keys.
These opened the front and back doors of Kirkelder’s lakeside cabin. Here, a combination wall safe was concealed inside the chimneypiece. The wall safe contained a metal box—one that could be opened by the smallest of the keys. The box was filled with letters; the letters had been posted from Bern, Switzerland; the sender’s printed stationery read: “Buel Partners, Ltd.” Rather than Buel, however, the correspondent signed himself Henri Stenner, Esq., and hinted, in shadowy language indicative of goods changing hands, that various transactions might be completed once a particular sum of money had been transferred by wire―these sums ranging, in dollars, from five hundred to ten thousand.
M. Stenner’s correspondence had not been addressed to F. Victor Kirkelder himself, but to Kirkelder’s known alias, Stephen Ferdinand, C.P.A., Suite B, second floor, 72 Madison Circle. But under his own name, and acting as the city chapter of the charity mission’s bursar, Kirkelder sent contributions (such as those collected at the annual Decoration Day ball, held in the Armstrong’s Crystal Room) to M. Carrière…and these amounts and dates, when placed side by side with Mr. Ferdinand’s and M. Stenner’s business dealings, made a suggestive pattern.
The Daily News, having got so much useful information from its anonymous source, segued here into speculation, but so smoothly that the reader might easily have taken allegation for fact. The allegations were sensational. Ethan Bragg, a board member of that charitable mission so much associated with the Armstrong hotels, president and chief shareholder of the privately held Amalgamated Materials, Ltd., was a yearly visitor to the Swiss lakes. He, like M. Carrière, had a home in Lucerne.
The remainder of the story made a careful declension; data which could not in themselves be disputed, distanced in stages from the premise―nonetheless made apparent to the reader―that Myrna’s charity was a front to fund the purchase of commodities by certain European states prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles from acquiring these.
Myrna had not herself been implicated.
Rob pictured Edna Rossi on the other side of Myrna’s desk, her tweedy brown sleeve bunched above her elbow, her elbow chafed as though she always wrote this way—head resting on crooked arm, other elbow stuck up in the air, pencil in a grip that was almost a fist—and her exhalations ruffling the paper that rested nearly under her nose. She was a serious girl. Rob looked across at Edna’s hair, worn crimped with bobby pins; two over the left ear, two over the right.
He had never before asked a girl to visit him at home.
Rob waited slumped in Myrna’s chair, opening and closing the drawer in which Myrna kept her snub-nosed pistol, while Lillian, casting an eye up and down Edna, escorted her from the front door, and presented her to her host. It occurred to him he might be wrong not to offer his seat to Edna. He looked up, and his gaze met the level of her waist. Each hand held a bunched fold of cardigan; she had crossed her arms, drawing her sweater like a kimono over her black dress.
“It’s a beautiful house.”
He’d heard her try this remark on Lillian a moment ago. Rob said, “Sure.”
“Could I,” Edna asked, “get that little stool from the telephone table? Does your mother care?”
Rob said again, “Sure.”
By which he meant, Myrna cared. His mother hated having him at home. She hated his preference for the sunlight that fell through the drawing room’s double French windows, and for handwritten drafts. (“Why did you ask me to buy you a typewriter?”) She would hate his friend disordering her furniture.
And he hoped to count Edna a friend. Speaking in her serious way, she’d come up behind Rob a couple of weeks ago, a snowy Friday in late March, after Boardman had told his class, “Get out of here.”
“Would you ever want to critique something of mine?”
“I don’t think so.”
He might have laughed. But that morning had decided he could excuse his rudeness…assuming he’d even been rude. He needed Edna. Rica was in California; she had laughed at Rob over the telephone, when he’d begged her to come home early. He had no one else he could think of to stand between himself and Durco’s head-basher.
To loosen up Edna’s lonely monologues, Rob had proposed an exercise: a set with only a table and two chairs.
“But you could just as easily have no set at all…two voices in the dark, like a radio play. The point would be―” She sat up, darting her pencil at the world beyond the drawing room. “If I say, ‘the fog still hasn’t burned off, and it’s ten o’clock, already’…okay, everybody in the audience has this image of fog. But what do you say?”
After a second, he understood. “I don’t care about fog”―the thing Rob would naturally have answered―didn’t solve the problem of a scene staged with pithy dialogue alone. He stirred, looked through the glass at the shrouded willows and the half-seen boathouse, and said, “Here comes someone.”
“Another character? It might work…oh! Here comes someone.”
The figure approached from the direction of the river. It parted the mists, navigating wet grass with gait crabbed and shoulders bent; it was cloaked…by means of an awkward mackintosh held over its head. It projected, despite its black gloves and hooded visage, an air of pallid timidity. The visitor, in short, was so manifestly Ethan Bragg, that both Rob and Edna relaxed.
“I met Ethan at Curtis’s party,” she told him. She dropped her head back onto her arm, tugged her paper closer, sketched a spiral with her pencil, and whispered to Rob, “He’s a Loopty-Lou, isn’t he?”
No, not exactly. Rob no longer thought so. He had not fully penetrated Ethan’s personality, but knew that in prosecuting his business affairs, Ethan was a clever man. Even Myrna knew this. Rob had heard her defend him over the telephone (while, in the midst of Ethan’s scandals, quelling a reporter): “He is better than anyone I know at following through on his pledges…and Mr. Bragg never misses a board meeting. I’ll say goodbye now.”
A whitish-blond head loomed before the glass. Like a goldfish bumping its snout against the invisible boundary of its tank, Ethan was stymied by the unlocked French window. Rather than push the handle, he stood (with every appearance of unfeigned concentration) frowning down at it. He joggled it, blinking importunate eyes at Rob through the pane. Rob flailed a hand over the armrest of Myrna’s chair, catching hold of the inner handle; and, as he’d somehow known he must, began to wrestle with Ethan―Ethan fixing the latch closed in opposition to Rob’s every attempt to free it.
Edna watched for a moment, untwisted herself, slipped with a swaying motion past the stool, her two hands rising to her two sets of bobby pins…a sort of vestigial consciousness of femininity. She depressed the handle of the second window. Ethan entered, talking about himself.
“I’ve been living on my boat.”
He said other things, about the long grasses the locals allowed to grow beside the path up from Pouy’s Landing (only the city’s oldest families knew how this name was pronounced); these―he stuck a leg out to show them―had dampened his shoes and trousers…about the possibility of developing pneumonia breathing in atoms of sewage risen on river dews, about the materialism of Harvey Planter, who’d threatened Ethan by telegram.
“…and he only needs to have his insurance man bring me the records. And to prove, of course, that the damage was caused by one of my guests.”
Myrna came in. “Ethan! Let me take your coat.”
“I’m going upstairs.”
By which he meant, to the lavatory (as Ethan called it). And not because the Armstrong manor had no downstairs toilet, but because Ethan preferred, in matters of hygiene, to separate himself as far as possible from others. In passing, he thrust his raincoat at Myrna, showering her silk with water droplets.
She pursed her lips. “Mr. Gersome is here.”
Folding the coat over her arm, she spoke to Rob, with a shift of the eyes towards Edna. “Harvey, of course, can’t be here, but Rose is coming. I have a message from M. Carrière, which I am going to read to the group.”
Finally, she said, “Rob, we’re using the drawing room for our meeting.”
“I’ll take Edna up to my bedroom.”
Myrna hadn’t flinched. It occurred to Rob she didn’t care. He was twenty-six now; she had no reason to.
“Do you think,” he asked Rica, on a note of departure, “I ought to marry Edna?”
“What’d you do to her? You haven’t been dating for two months yet!”
“We’re not dating at all. No, see, I’m thinking like this…it’s easier to get hired, and harder to get fired, if you have a wife to take care of. Or…sure, kids. Up to her. But Edna could be good for me in California. Really, I think she’d agree.”
He did think so. Edna, making her offer on the steps of the theater arts building, had approached Rob first. Her voice, when he rang her up, never sounded annoyed, and she had never told him, “I have other things to do.”
“You’re a terrific opportunist, Rob.” Rica glanced at the silent telephone.
“I’m coming to the sense of menace.”
“Oh, that. So Myrna called an emergency board meeting…what did they decide, by the way?”
He shrugged. “It’s not the kind of thing my mother tells me. When you get a bunch of people together, what do they usually decide?”
“To table everything and see what happens next. So it didn’t stir Ethan up when Stanley Carpenter brought his message from Durco?”
“No…all that about Edna was just to explain Ethan. He wasn’t there the day Stanley Carpenter came. It was the first time he ever came to the house. I don’t mean Carpenter. I mean Ethan.”
“The first time?”
“I mean for one of these…the mission people always have their meetings at the Armstrong. I wouldn’t care about Myrna’s opinion…if I cared about Ethan.”
“As a meal ticket, you’re trying to say.”
He heaved up his shoulders. “Using people is just one of the options, isn’t it? Another thing to know how it works. You think opportunists don’t make characters?”
“Quit lecturing me. I’m a card-carrying member of the club.”
“So anyway, what I’m saying…it never crossed my mind I would meet him. It was at Boardman’s place, on a Saturday. The twenty-fourth, I think, last December. I mean Christmas Eve.”
“That’s the kind of detail that’ll kill them on the witness stand.”
“You,” he said, “were the one who wanted to know. But I’m not telling a story about ‘this happened and then this happened’—I’m telling you why I think Ethan is not as screw-loose as he puts himself across. How he gets away with things.”
“There’s a method to his madness.”
“But Rica, there is. Ethan, and that guy, Van Nest, were the only ones of Curtis’s friends there; the rest of us were from his workshop. Curtis hates Christmas…that was the reason for the party. Ethan spent a couple hours talking to me about my play, and I gave him my number. Then he started asking me to come over. I went to his house three or four times. Rascka was there, a lot of people I don’t remember… Magda. And once, after the time at the lake, Ethan invited me to have lunch with him alone. It was the day Phillip Murchison showed up.”
“Murchison talked me into giving Ethan my Act Two.”
“I see. I’m spouting clichés―I think that’s a cliché—but, what you mean to say is, the play’s the thing.”
“Only I was never trying to catch Ethan out. I hardly believed in it myself, what I was thinking. It would be convenient for Ethan if Elsie dies, that’s all. And if she dies from drugs…well, I think Rascka has left the country, anyway. A man with a boat can cross over to Canada. But remember Boardman taught us that if we could hear the voice of the character, we would understand him, and we would know what he wanted to do next. So I wrote down everything as dialogue. What Rascka said. What Ethan said. What Magda said.”
Rascka had come back to the room. He stood at the window a little behind Ethan, and both looked out at the lake. Rob, sent to catch Bruner, had spent not the least effort on this, Bruner neither found waiting around. Rob spent five cents on a bottle of Coca-Cola instead, after sauntering across the parking lot and back. He hadn’t meant to open the door noiselessly. He had been dreaming up a story…chase on foot, tug-of-war over the camera strap, maybe…to mollify Ethan, moving in the somnambulant way of a man drinking a pop in deep calculation.
“You’re certain, Rascka, that Oliver is a good idea? He’s a goddamn muckraker…I don’t believe in him, peddling such old-maidish gossip, the way he has been. I suppose…”
Ethan seemed off on a mild tangent.
“…some of these companies we invest in may not be as clean as others. To me, they are only figures on a chart. I like to see certain of them rise.”
His voice seemed to smile. He returned to his earlier theme. “I think Oliver has one of those egos that needs to gather secrets―he enjoys the idea of it, having that power to buy and sell…to scare people.”
“Ethan, I understand Oliver very well.”
“I would have said, don’t let Magda near him.”
“Nonsense. Magda is perfectly useless. I mean exactly that. Those things she guesses, and those things she invents to explain what she is incapable of guessing, are one. A shrewd questioner will fare no better than an idiot at getting the truth out of her, for she has no truth. And yet, Oliver will protect her from Burnley because she now belongs to Oliver. I’ve given her to him. In that way, any witness who is…better in the head, one might say, will expose Magda’s maunderings as lies. You and I needn’t bother with her again; but trust me, she will be a help to us, and not only with Elsie.”
(more to come)