Wednesday & Thursday
September 18 & 19, 1929
THE ENVELOPE REACHED Bennett Grey early Wednesday afternoon. His neighbor Robbie splashed up the muddy drive with it, beaming with eagerness—post was rare here at the farthest reaches of Cornwall, and an oversized, airmailed envelope from Paris was a prize. But Wednesday had been a bad day already, with a headache beating at Grey’s skull and shadows dancing at the corners of his eyes. He let his gaze slide over the envelope’s surface, and told the lad to leave it on the kitchen table.
There it lay, growling like an angry cat whenever he set foot in the kitchen, while the rain streaked the windows and the day faded to night.
He took a cold supper in the sitting room. He abandoned the dishes in the sink. He called himself a coward and took himself to bed, where he spent the next seven hours feeling the world scrape across his raw nerves.
The raindrops grew smaller, then slowed. As the sky cleared, the full moon pressed against the house, cool light whispering a path along the threads of the bedroom carpet. On the road, the faint sound of farmer Evans’ motor came, grew, receded: the hesitant foot on the pedals suggested one drink too many. The odor and feel of his fresh sheets testified to Mrs. Trevalian’s distraction on laundry day: the residue came from one rinse rather than two. Out in the yard, a dog-fox hunted: Bennett heard the dig of the big creature’s claws into gritty soil, the thump of its landing, the pale squeak of a mouse’s death. Waves chewed at the cliffs; air currents climbed and slid down the hills; the grandfather clock in the front room tick, ticked the world towards morning. One of its gears had a flaw that his bones felt whenever the tooth worked its way around. The uneven wear would lead to trouble in an- other ten or fifteen years—but by then, please God, it would be someone else’s problem.
If the envelope had been from Sarah, he’d have forced himself to open the thing, despite the weather, the shadows, and the miasma of dread that clung to the paper like old grease. But it was not Sarah’s writing. The letter came from Harris Stuyvesant, a man whose motives Grey had reason to distrust. A man who stirred a whirlwind of emotions: guilt and hate, pity and pain, friendship and the deep ache of unacknowledged responsibilities. A man whose hand had been so tense when printing the address, the nib had caught twice in the fibers.
If that wasn’t sufficient warning, the flap had been doubly sealed, its glue reinforced with paper tape. Fear alone would do that, fear that a mere lick of the tongue was not enough to keep the contents from escaping.
The sky was still dark when Bennett Grey left his bed. He dressed, and walked through moonlight to the promontory overlooking the Channel. The slab of stone he climbed onto was the edge of the world, Britain’s final bit of land. The infinitesimal shift beneath his boots told him that, sometime in the next century, an added weight such as his would tip the thing into the sea. In the meantime, the rock provided a viewpoint, and a temptation: just lean forward…
The eastern horizon grew lighter. The waves below his dangling boot-heels called their Siren song: You always have a choice. He could simply bend over and let the sky claim him, let it pull at his garments and cushion him with airy hands for a few moments, then deliver him safely to the rocks, sixty feet below.
There was always a choice.
The sun breached the horizon, flaring the world into a brilliance that thinned, faded, retreated. When the mist had cleared from the water below, Bennett Grey got to his feet and looked straight down at the seething waves.
“Not today, friends.”
Back in his kitchen, the sun poured through the windows, beating the dark gremlins into the corners of the room. Still, Grey stirred the fire into life before approaching the table.
He stood in the sunlight with the envelope in one hand and his knife in the other; the blade whispered through the manila paper. Grey slid the contents onto the table. When he lifted the top sheet, a fleeting look downward made him grateful for the reinforcing tape: had Robbie’s curiosity got the better of him, the poor lad would have had nightmares for weeks.
Stuyvesant’s American script on the cheap French stationery was as tense as his printing on the envelope:
Hotel Benoit Rue de Colle, Paris
Sorry to disturb you, but I need to know if these can be real, and I don’t know who else to ask. I’m hoping you tell me they were staged.
I saw Sarah the other night, she’s looking well.
Grey reread that last sentence: flat, noncommittal, and with a hesitation on the I. There was something Harris was not telling him. Something troubling the man.
Grey shook his head at the ill-fated relationship between his sister and his friend, then rested the needle-sharp point of his knife on the topmost photograph to push it away. He repeated the motion three times, moving each picture across his kitchen table with the point of the knife. Four pieced-together images seared onto his mind and soul: the widened eyes; the pull of muscle; the strain in the neck; the texture of the skin. He studied all four, although a glimpse of any one of them would have been enough, for a man with his abilities.
When he had looked, he slid the envelope under the pictures and thrust everything into the stove. He wiped the knife on his trouser-leg, waiting for the flames to catch. He washed his hands with soap. He scrubbed the table and used the steel poker to reduce the ashes to dust.
And then he went to pack a bag. The pictures were not staged. The terror was real.
September 9–11, 1929
THE MORNING EXPLODED.
The room’s east windows flared with a hot torment that seared across Harris Stuyvesant’s brain, stabbing through his eyes, splintering his thoughts, turning his mouth to old shoe leather: cracked, greasy, foul.
A long way off, miles and miles away, his hand crept across the sticky sheets to the bed-side table, directed by one squinting eye towards the leather straps that stuck in the air like the legs of some dead thing. The hand fumbled, lifted, fumbled again to reverse the watch-face.
Jesus: not yet ten, and already a furnace.
Stuyvesant managed to get his feet to the carpet, waiting out the secondary explosion inside his skull before he rose to stumble a path through discarded clothing to the corner basin. The water was disgustingly warm, but he drank a glass anyway, then bent to let the tap splash over his face and hair. He wrestled with the aspirin bottle for an hour or so, palmed three pills and washed them down with a second glass, then reached out to part the curtains a fraction.
A dizzying panorama of rooftops: tiles and tin, brick and timber, steeples and drying laundry; centuries of chimneypots, with a narrow slice of stone magnificence in the distance. Children’s voices and taxi horns competed with a tram rattle from the rue de Rennes and a neighbor’s accordion, mournfully wading through a lively tune. His nose filled with the pervasive stink of an unemptied septic tank.
Summer in Paris.
He went back to his seat on the side of the bed, picking up his cigarette case and lighter.
The tap of the Ronson touching wood set off a convulsion in the bed. A hand emerged from the sheets, then a tangled head of brassy blonde hair, followed by blue eyes blinking in outrage.
“Ferme les rideaux putain!”
He wasn’t sure if she was calling him a whore, or the curtains, and he didn’t think he would be able to shape the question without coffee. Even the French swill that was mostly chicory.
“Doesn’t help any to shut them, honey. They’re like tissue paper.”
“Nothing,” he told her. “I have to go to work.”
She understood that, and yanked the covers back over her matted hair. Stuyvesant swiveled around on the bed to rip them off her. “Really,” he said. “It’s time to rise and shine.”
But instead of complaining, or assaulting him with curses, she gave a sinuous writhe to curl against his leg, looking up at him as coquettishly as a person could when her mascara was smeared like something from a German horror film.
“You take me for breakfast, ’Arris?” One soft breast pressed into his knee, two firm fingers walked a path up the inside of his bent thigh.
He smashed the cigarette out against the ash-tray, then bent over the smeared horror-eyes. “I try never to disappoint a lady,” he told her.
Be nice if he could remember this one’s name.
“You knew that Crosby girl, didn’t you?”
“Crosby? I don’t believe I . . .”
“Peggy? Patricia? There was something about photographs and a scar—this was some time ago.”
“Ah, yes: Philippa. What about her?”
“Is she still around?”
“I haven’t seen her in months. Why?”
“There was an American asking about her, last night. He claims he was hired by her parents, though he looked a real brute to me. I thought if you were still in touch, you might let her know.”
“As I say, it’s been months. Did you talk to the fellow?”
“No, but he’s around the Quarter if you want him. That girl, Lulu? The one with the light fingers? He’s spending time with her.”
“Sounds a suitable match.”
“Better than the Crosby girl—too naïve for her own good.”
“A description fitting half the women in Montparnasse.”
“Certainly the Americans. Why on earth do their fathers let them leave the house?”
“I know—they’re just asking for trouble. They come to town, sleep with as many boys as they can find, and are shocked as lambs when they get hurt. I suppose that’s why so many of them drift away. I can’t think how many times someone has said, ‘Has anyone seen Daisy?’ or Iris or whoever. The girls here seem to make a habit of flitting in and out, and . . .”
The other man nodded.
And in the background, a machine began to tick.
THIS SEEMED TO be Stuyvesant’s day for drunken women. Well, it was Paris; it was 1929. What else could he expect?
Two hours after he’d taken Lulu for breakfast (there: he’d even remembered her name), Harris Stuyvesant rapped on a polished wooden door. The Rive Droite apartment was half as old and ten times as clean as his hotel room across the Seine, and even three flights up from street level, its hallways smelled like money. No septic tanks around here.
He knocked again.
The girl had to be back from the Riviera (or Monte Carlo or wherever she’d spent the summer)—and the building’s gorgon of a concierge had spoken on the telephone with someone in apartment 406 before reluctantly permitting him to pass, two minutes ago.
So unless the resident had made a break over the roof tiles . . .
He changed from knuckles to fist and pounded, hard. In response, a long extended grumble welled gradually from within. Locks rattled. The door swung open.
The girl was tall and brown: dark eyes, chestnut hair, sun-tanned skin, dressed in a man’s chocolate-colored dressing-gown. The most colorful things about her were two heavily bloodshot eyes, explained by the stale-wine smell oozing from her pores.
Colorful eyes, and vocabulary. Three years ago when he’d come to France, Stuyvesant wouldn’t have understood a thing the girl was saying—and even now he missed a few phrases. Those he did get made him blink.
“Yeah, sorry,” he interrupted loudly, in English. “I woke you up and you’re not happy with me. I need to ask you about Pip Crosby.”
“Who?” The accent sounded American, suggesting this was the roommate, but he’d need more than a monosyllable to be sure.
“Phil?” The red eyes squinted against the brightness, and the wide, dry lips emitted another expletive. Thought appeared to be a challenge, but he caught no flare of guilty panic across her angular features.
“Are you Nancy Berger?”
He took that for an affirmative, and planted one broad hand against the door, pushing gently. “How ’bout I come in and fix you some coffee?” She swayed. He caught her elbow, then hooked his Panama over the coat-rack and walked her inside to a seat, finding a roomy, light-filled apartment, comfortably furnished and clean beneath what appeared to be an exploded suitcase.
He located the kitchen and a coffee percolator, along with a package of grounds that, although stale-smelling, at least wasn’t chicory. While the pot gurgled, he snooped through drawers and flipped through a crate of unopened mail. It dated back to June.
When the glass button showed dark, he poured two cups and stirred sugar into both, carrying them out to the next room. The brown girl sat, unblinking, on a bright orange settee, the gap in her robe creating a provocative degree of cleavage (though personally, he preferred freckles to suntan). He pushed a cup into her hand, removed a pair of silk undergarments from the chair, and sat down in front of her.
“Drink,” he ordered. “It’ll help.”
Her eyes focused on the cup. She tried to speak, cleared her throat, tried again. “Milk?”
“There isn’t any.” Her robe kept sagging; in a minute, one side or the other would be unfettered.
She blew across the top, sipped, and croaked, “I don’t take sugar.” American, yes. She took another swallow.
Soon, she looked more alive and less queasy—and more crucial, her straighter posture restored a degree of closure to her garments. He handed her the note that he’d left with the concierge on Saturday afternoon, which he’d found on the counter under a dusty boot.
“I’m the one who wrote this, Miss Berger,” he told her. “Harris Stuyvesant. I’ve been hired by Pip’s—Phil’s—mother and uncle to find her. Do you know where she is?”
She shook her head, and kept shaking it back and forth until Stuyvesant sharply repeated the question.
“No,” she responded. “Sorry. I don’t. She went off with a friend . . . God, months ago.”
“Which friend is that?”
“How would I know? I never met him.”
“Then how—” Stuyvesant stopped. First things first, he told himself.
“When did you see her last?”
“March,” she said mechanically.
“Any idea when?”
“A couple days after my birthday party.”
“When is your birthday?”
“So you last saw her around the fourteenth or fifteenth.”
“Later.” The girl’s face contorted with effort. “Maybe the twentieth?”
“But your birthday party was the twelfth.”
“My birthday is the twelfth. The party was the Sunday after.” Stuyvesant’s hands twitched. If she’d been a man, he’d have grabbed her by the collar. If she’d had a collar. “Fine, the twentieth of March. So if you haven’t seen Pip since then, why have you been taking money from her every other week?”
She gave him an even blanker look. “Money?”
“Yeah, you know: francs, centimes. There’s a standing order transferring money from her Paris bank account to yours.”
“You mean the household accounts? Phil’s terrible about paying bills. I have to do it for us.”
He still saw no spark of alarm or deceit cross her face—although for the umpteenth time, Stuyvesant wished he had the shrewd eyes of his friend Bennett Grey.
“Okay, you last saw her the end of March. What did she say then, about being gone?”
“She had a job. Wait.” Her face screwed up as an idea bubbled to the surface like gas in a swamp. “Phil’s missing?”
“That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“Missing as in, gone?”
“Missing as in her mother wants to know where she is.”
“Her mother doesn’t know?”
“I told you: that is why I am here.” He really was going to shake her. “Who are you?”
“Jesus Christ, lady—are you a moron or do you need me to shove you under a cold shower? My name is Stuyvesant. I’ve been hired by your roommate’s uncle to find her. How complicated is that?”
“Why should I tell you anything? You could be anyone.”
It actually was a little impressive, that someone in her condition could come up with an original thought. “Is there anyone other than her family who might be looking for her?”
The question was too complex for her addled state, but instead of allowing him to push his way past her conversationally as he had physically, she set her lips together and clammed up.
He smiled, rueful but approving: girls in general were too damned trusting these days. Still, he could’ve done with this one playing dumb a bit longer. He dug out the letter that had bounced from Nice to Warsaw before catching up with him in Berlin, the week before. She stretched her eyes wide a couple of times, and started to read.
Dear Mr. Stuyvesant,
If I have reached the correct person, I believe you know—or knew—a young woman named Philippa Crosby, Pip to her friends. You would have met her in the company of another young American, Rosalie Perkins, in the south of France last February. It was Rosalie who gave me your name.
I write because we cannot locate Pip, and I wonder if you can help. Rosalie said that you worked as a private investigations agent in Europe, and subsequent inquiries assured me that you are both competent and reliable. I also understand that you are fluent in French, and have spent much of the last few years working in that country.
Philippa is my brother’s daughter (he was killed in the War). She moved to Paris sixteen months ago. She was in the habit of writing home every two or three weeks. However, her last letter arrived in early April.
We—that is, Philippa’s mother and I—made inquiries in May, but I have recently discovered that our hired agent was, not to mince words, a crook. My sister-in-law, who is not well, was so distraught that she proposed to sail for France herself until I stepped in and said I would find the girl. I am told by colleagues that you might be trusted, as our other investigator could not.
Pip is a very bright girl of twenty-two who, although cherishing the unconventional attitudes of youth, has always demonstrated a level head and a firm degree of responsibility. (Indeed, those qualities are what convinced her mother and me to permit her to travel to Europe in the first place.) It is highly unlike her to simply cease communicating.
I have written to the American Embassy in Paris, and directly to the police, as well as to Pip’s own address, but have been frustrated on all counts: by the slowness of the Embassy, the vagueness of the police, and a completely unresponsive roommate. I am told that some of this is due to the widespread August holidays; however, even the building’s concierge was unhelpful. In hopes that having a physical representative there will press my urgency on the various fronts, I ask that you consider becoming my agent.
If you are willing to take on this job and are free to do so soon, please cable your reply.
Yours, Ernest M. Crosby II
Stuyvesant kept his eyes glued on Miss Berger, judging her response to the letter. His own reaction to the thing had been . . . well, a wild mix: a thump of distress at hearing of Pip’s troubles—distress tempered by exasperation—followed by a stronger jolt, this one of apprehension. Was Crosby accusing him of something? Then came a queasy surprise—Pip really had been young. But his final and humiliating gut response, had been: relief. Because Ernest M. Crosby was offering Stuyvesant an escape from the seedy Berlin hostelry where his last job had stranded him.
So here he was a week later, tracking the eyes of that “completely unresponsive” roommate as they worked their way down the pompous words on the pricey paper. He saw when she reached Crosby’s grumble about her—the dry lips half parted in protest—but at the end of it, her reaction again surprised him. She looked up, aghast.
“Jesus. Phil’s missing!”
The distress on her ravaged face hit him straight in the gut. As if someone told him that a no-care-in-the-world starlet had a dying mother, or that the hard-as-nails prostitute leaving the bar was putting her kid through college.
It’s always a shock, when someone cares more about a thing than you do.
He’d liked Pip, sure, but a lot of life had washed over those five days in February. Since taking Crosby’s job, he’d thought of Pip mostly as a case—an increasingly frustrating case at that. Suddenly, with a look on Nancy Berger’s face, the missing girl blazed into life before his eyes, vivid and gay and in trouble.
He really could’ve done without it.
“I’ve spent the last three days asking about her,” he told the roommate, “and nobody’s seen her for months. I was hoping you might know.”
She didn’t answer, just went back to the letter, her eyes trailing down the sheet. They caught on something, narrowed, and Stuyvesant didn’t need to be Bennett Grey to read this expression.
He gave an internal sigh. Another thing he could’ve done without: smart girls who read silly books. A thousand cheap murder mysteries had made the world suspicious of any man who’d been the last person to see someone. Was there any point in trotting out his alibi? He tried picking up where she’d left off. “You were saying that you last saw Pip—Phil—around the twentieth of March. Did she tell you where she was going?”
“This letter says you knew her?”
“Briefly.” She waited. He gritted his teeth. “I was working in a bar in Nice—down on the Riviera?—when she and Rosalie came in. Rosalie didn’t speak much French and was feeling kind of lost, so I told them to sit and listen to the band for a while and I’d introduce them to a bunch of swell Americans who came in every night. When I got off at midnight, they invited me to join the party. The two girls stayed a few days and moved on to Rome. I haven’t heard from her since then.”
“What was Phil doing in Nice?”
“Experimenting with the wild life, from what I could see.That’s why I thought a few polite American boys would help.”
Nancy Berger fixed him with a hard, bloodshot gaze. However, Stuyvesant had yet to meet a girl who could read a lie in his face if he’d had time to prepare. This one seemed satisfied—or if not satisfied, at least willing to suspend judgment. She took another mouthful of coffee.
“Did she say anything about where she was going?” he asked for the third time.
“She told me she had a job. Well, she calls them jobs, even if they don’t pay. Which they usually don’t—Phil doesn’t need to earn a living. You’re sure she didn’t go off with those Americans?”
“Wasn’t she back here after Rome?”
“Yes, of course, stupid of me.”
Stuyvesant took out his cigarettes, offered her one.
“I don’t, thanks,” she said.
“You mind if I do?”
“So, what kind of jobs?”
“The usual.” His hand twitched again. This time the girl noticed. “I mean, all sorts of things—a little acting, helping out in a hat shop, photographer’s assistant, but mostly modeling. In the nude, for artists, you know?”
“But she—” Stuyvesant caught himself, changing it to, “I understand she has a nasty scar. There was a letter after this one,” he explained. “With details.”
Crosby’s follow-up letter had included snapshots, bank information, passport number, and descriptions of the girl, both the mother’s—lively eyes; wonderful sense of humor; dozens of friends; loves books, music, daisies, and chocolate—and the uncle’s: chipped front tooth; mole on her right knee; broken left arm; a big burn scar across her torso, the last two from a barn fire when she was ten. When he’d read the uncle’s description, Stuyvesant had two thoughts: one, it would better suit a coroner than a private investigator; and two, Uncle Crosby didn’t suspect that his investigator might have seen that scar for himself.
Nancy nodded. “Yes, she was caught in a fire when she was a child. I gather she was lucky to get out alive. You’re certain she’s not, I don’t know, with some traveling theater troupe? Living with a house full of artists in the South?”
“That’s what I’m being paid to find out,” he said patiently. “But about those artists: I’d have thought that scar would put modeling out of the question.”
“Yes, it was ugly. But some of the artists, they like freaks, you know?”
“You think of your roommate as a freak?”
“I don’t. But have you seen some of their paintings?”
She had a point. He pulled out his notebook. “Names?”
“Of the artists?”
“Painters, writers, friends, boyfriends. People who hosted parties she went to.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! I couldn’t possibly remember—”
“Miss Berger, I’m trying to find your roommate!”
She blinked her swollen eyelids, looking sober for the first time.
Sober, rather than knowing. Whatever had happened to Pip Crosby—if anything had happened to her—Nancy Berger knew nothing about it.
“Of course. Sorry, I’ve been gone since May, so . . . You’re positive that Phil didn’t just go somewhere and her letter got lost?”
He really was going to smack her. “Five months of letters?”
She tugged together the front of the robe as if cold, although the room was anything but. “Names. Tom was one, but that was during the winter. There was a Count, and a Marquise, and a Lady something. English, she was. Phil mentioned a fellow named Louis, and Teddy.”
“Oh. Well. I’m not sure . . .”
A quarter hour later, Stuyvesant had a page of vaguely recalled names, only two of which included a surname. “And you two lived together for a year,” he said irritably.
She turned on him a look of utter misery, and Stuyvesant shut his notebook before those brown eyes could start the waterworks and make him feel even more of a louse. “Look, why don’t you get yourself dressed, we’ll get some lunch and see if you think of anything else.”
The idea appeared about as enticing as having a plantar wart re- moved, but after a moment she stood and snugged the ties on the robe. “You’re right, I can’t think without something to eat.” She walked away towards the back of the apartment.
“You mind if I have a look at Pip’s room?”
Her hand waved in the direction of the door she was passing, and the brown robe slipped out of view.
IT WASN’T OFTEN Stuyvesant had to search the bedroom of someone he knew—and yeah, he’d known Pip Crosby pretty much head to toe. Pip had been February’s Lulu, one in a string of mostly blonde, mostly young women who made a man glad to be living in 1920s France. Looking back, he distinctly remembered hesitating—she’d looked about sixteen, sitting in that bar, like a snowdrop in the badlands—but in the end, he hadn’t held out for long. Young she might be, but any seduction between them had gone the other way around: Pip Crosby practically tripped him into bed, blinking her big Clara Bow eyes and asking if he knew how to make her a White Lady. Several increasingly off-color jokes later, he had established both her determination to be “fast” and her easy familiarity with the means.
Pip was no virgin, not by a long shot.
It had been brief, ships passing in the night, a distant vice in the darkness (now, there was a line for Cole Porter) until Rosalie had gathered her up and taken her off to Rome, leaving nothing behind but a few days of perfume on his pillow.
A look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
He shook his head. Enough with the regrets, he scolded himself. You’ve got nothing to beat yourself up about. You pushed the two girls at those friendly Ohio boys, if that was what they’d wanted. Pip didn’t. If you hadn’t slept with her, she’d have gone home with Yves the barman.
He’d been a little low and she’d been a lot of fun, and that was that until he’d read Uncle Crosby’s letter and felt like a complete heel. Why? What was he supposed to do, follow the girl to Rome shaking an admonishing finger at her?
And last week—sure, he’d been temporarily washed up in Berlin, broke and beat-up and ground under the city’s heel like the butt-end of a Zigarette, but missing persons was a job he was good at. His last such case had been a doozy—and the reason he’d been in Nice to begin with, thawing out after seven snowy weeks looking for a missing heiress. He’d turned south the minute he delivered that sulking, drug-twitching, possibly pregnant young woman to her brother in Le Havre. It had taken all his self-control not to turn her over his knee as well, and he wasn’t exactly eager for another case like that one.
But with honest work thin on the ground and a man with expensive stationery offering a hefty per diem, Stuyvesant raised no objections to looking for Pip Crosby. She really had been a pip of a girl, and she really didn’t deserve trouble.
Plus, he’d have the satisfaction of helping a desperate mother. What kind of a no-good would scam a sickly war widow, anyway?
He’d scraped together the cost of a telegram and nursed his last deutsche marks and pfennigs until the follow-up letter arrived on Friday. Fortified by Crosby’s bank draft, he got his wrist-watch, winter coat, and spare suit out of pawn, then bought a new shirt and drank a bottle of champagne with his multi-course dinner. That night he slept in a bed long enough that his feet didn’t stick out the end—alone, true, but knowing that state wouldn’t last long where he was headed.
Saturday morning he’d bought a notebook and caught the train for Paris, scrubbed and shaved and solvent. In his first-class compartment—Crosby was covering expenses as well—he opened the thick envelope and pulled out the photograph of a young woman with blonde hair and a familiar grin of Clara Bow mischief.
Three days later, his survey of that blonde’s bedroom was interrupted by a voice from the corridor.
“If you open the window, be sure to shut it when you leave. I’m going to have a shower.”
A door down the hall closed, the unresponsive roommate not waiting for an answer. He let his thoughts dwell for a moment on the shower—no doubt a device with both hot and cold taps—before deciding the brown girl was right: the room was stifling. Paris had yet to realize the summer was over.
He tossed his jacket on the bed, rolling up his shirtsleeves as he crossed the blue-and-brown floral carpet to the velour curtains. Once he wrestled the windows open, he stuck his head out, looking across at an identical apartment block, then down to the tree-shaded length of the boulevard de Sébastopol.
Paris had changed, he decided. This was his seventh—eighth?—trip to the City of Light, and this time around the charm seemed faded, the colors dull, the people edgier than usual. Even the trees looked tired.
Christ, Stuyvesant, quit mooning and do your job. He went back to the doorway and started over.
THE LITTLE BEETLES scuttled to the corners when the bone artist pulled open the box. He was impatient at their slowness, but there was no denying, the result was incredibly lovely: the bones they left were more innocent and pure than anything he’d been able to do by hand. Like these ones: freshly cleansed of flesh, they seemed shocked by the caress of cool air.
Some bones resisted their final separation (the tenacity of flesh was extraordinary!), but once reconciled to this strange new apartness, their soft exterior hardened, their color grew rich. Under his very eyes, raw bone took its first steps to becoming silken ivory: magnificent.
When the bones were ready, some would be transformed yet again, displayed for the connoisseur. These phalanges in the box, for example: they were perfect, untouched by years, by injury, by manual labor.
But it wasn’t just perfection that an artist sought. Perfection was commonplace, little more than a foundation—and although the goal of any artist was to shape prosaic syllables into poetry, there were some bones, precious few, that were poems in themselves. Bones that required no artisan’s hand to shine in beauty.
Some masterpieces simply blossomed into the light as the calyx of flesh drew back, revealing an elegant and articulate beauty. These thrilling treasures bore the indelible marks of their unique history, inflicted on them while they were still warm and pulsing with blood: the gentle bow caused by a poverty diet; the multiple healed fractures of a woman with a bully husband; the faint, tell-tale cracks of the left wrist, testimony that hope is greater than mere physical agony. Even the detritus of age held a kind of poignant message—but oh, the occasional rare length of bone with a flower of cancer along its clean length, or the swell and kink of a long-healed break: a life’s story, carved in mute calcium.
A story like the one his beetles were currently polishing. Broken in its youth and imperfectly set, the wounded ends had laboriously woven a bridge across the gap. The bone was perfect yet flawed; strong, but with a luscious history of pain. What a shame it would be, to leave such a gem buried under flesh.
The artist closed the box, and let the beetles get back to work.
HOW MANY STRANGE bedrooms had Harris Stuyvesant stepped into, hoping for some clue to the person who slept there? Agitators and anarchists, gun-runners and rum-smugglers when he’d worked for the Bureau. Twice there’d been armed men waiting—and once, in a cocaine-smuggler’s bedroom, the sound of the closing door had very nearly obscured a tiny tick from across the room, where a bomb sat primed and ready on the dresser.
The memory of those distant excitements was almost enough to make Stuyvesant regret telling J. Edgar to take a hike.
Pip Crosby was no bomb-making cocaine-smuggler. Cocaine user, maybe—snow was cheap on every corner here in Paris. She hadn’t been using the stuff back in February—he couldn’t have missed the signs— but if she wasn’t off in Antibes or Madrid with some long-haired poet, or with a troupe of traveling actors, migrating Americans, or passing gypsies, then he’d probably dig her out in some dingy corner with an adored pimp, paying for drugs with her body.
The one place he didn’t think he’d find her was dead. Drug overdoses had a way of surfacing pretty fast, since a corpse was an inconvenient companion, and it took a lot of work to get rid of one on the sly.
Of course, there was always politics: Europe was full of poor little rich girls who set out to rebel on a family allowance, working their way through Communism and Anarchism and feminism and any ism that might shock Daddy short of actually joining-the-working-class-ism.
In any event, his entrance to Pip’s bedroom triggered neither gunshot nor bomb, and his personal feelings about spoiled Americans mustn’t get in the way of earning his pay. He sucked in a breath of the oven-like air and let his eyes run passively over the room, waiting for it to tell him its secrets.
Bedrooms were where people dreamed, where they spent a third of their life, where they gave themselves up to the vulnerability of sleep. That one room—its contents and its state—gave away more than the whole rest of the house combined. Tidy or slovenly—or, a tidy surface over ground-in filth? Was it a sterile, business-like place to sleep and store clothing, or filled with mementos of a life fully lived? Open to the house, or walled up against the world, the resident’s only safe retreat?
The rest of this particular residence had been furnished by others. Philippa Anne Crosby lived among the foreign furniture in this foreign city for a little more than a year before she wandered away. Pip Crosby had left Boston a good girl (or at least a conventional one) and a year later was picking up strangers in a bar and sharing not just her body, but its damage. Even by Paris standards, it was quick work.
So, Pip, honey: where’d you go after you wrote your mama that chatty letter at the end of March?
Her bedroom was twenty feet square with high ceilings and decorative plaster trim, in a fourth-floor apartment of a block sketched out by old iron-fist Haussmann as he’d brutalized Paris into modern efficiency half a century before. Empty plaster rosebuds showed where gas fixtures had been replaced by electrical lights that looked like gas fixtures. The wall-paper was floral. The furniture reflected the same taste that he’d seen in the rest of the apartment: two narrow beds with padded satin headboards, one of them lightly stained from hair-oil; ornate dressing table with a rococo gilt frame around the mirror and a padded gilt-trimmed chair tucked underneath; a fainting-couch that matched the twin headboards. The curtains were pale blue velour, too heavy for the room.
On top of all that Paris bourgeoisie lay another stamp entirely.
For one thing, the art, mostly paintings, all modern—very modern. A couple were by artists he recognized; they would have been expensive, and Uncle Crosby’s letter said nothing about investments in art.
Did Pip have money on the side, or were these gifts from admirers?
Then there were the photographs, nicely framed: street scenes, dramatically positioned monuments, objects on a table, people. There were four, carefully arranged into a diamond, whose subject he couldn’t tell: reflections on a pond? A room badly out of focus? In others, startling effects in the developing process seemed to be the main point. Two were moody portraits with more shadow than light: only by putting on his reading glasses could he be sure they were of Pip.
Beside the art and photographs were an odd pair of items—and he couldn’t have said why these demanded a closer examination than nude pictures of a twenty-two-year-old girl (with, yes, her scar on display). These were a pair of glass-fronted wooden display boxes, twelve inches on a side and an inch and a half deep, divided into grids with the middle missing: twelve squares framing a larger central square.
The pale wood had a delicate grain and a perfect finish. The glass that covered it was equally flawless, without a hint of ripple. But it wasn’t the painstaking workmanship of the containers that drew the eye, it was their contents.
The top row of the first had, from left to right: an old ivory chess rook with a richly elongated blood-red drip descending from its miniature crenellations; the eye and nose from a murky photograph; a glass eye with a chip in the blue iris; and three mismatched and damaged tortoiseshell buttons. The bottom row held: two molars, one marred by cavity and the other with bits of dry flesh clinging to the roots; a small silver-topped vacuum tube; the worn cork from a medicine bottle; and a bloody fingertip that would have been startlingly realistic were it not for hollow tin where bone and flesh should have been. The central square cradled the delicate arches of three cat-sized rib bones; the four squares at the sides all had pieces of old stained-glass windows showing various body parts: a delicate hand and its arm in the two right-side squares; a mouth and an eye with a crack across it on the left.
The other box had a similar mix of objets diverse—pieces of photographs, bits of rubbish, bones—with touches of paint to suggest gore. Its center square held what looked like a miniature city-scape: a bleached Manhattan, its skyscrapers made of stubby little white bones that suggested human phalanges but were no doubt the tail-bones of a dog. Two of the “buildings” were topped with pools of gleaming crimson, like rooftop swimming pools brimming with fresh blood.
The boxes were . . . unsettling. One made him think of childhood fears, the other how dangerous loneliness could be: could a boxful of odds and ends provoke such distinct emotions? They were intellectual memento mori overlaid with an almost erotic degree of violence, and his knee-jerk reaction was to take them down and stick them behind the wardrobe. But why? He’d seen modern art a lot weirder, and certainly more graphic.
“The heat’s melting your brain, Harris, my boy,” he muttered aloud, and walked over to lower his weight onto the gilded chair. The dressing table was dust-free and tidy: silver-handled brush with ivory comb tucked under it to the right, enameled powder box and crystal perfume atomizer on the left, four small silver frames in the center. Three of these depicted a blonde woman, one of them clearly Pip, two others probably meant to be her.
The fourth sketch looked like a three-stemmed martini glass or a tree split by lightning. It had been done on a paper napkin, and on closer examination, he decided it, too, was meant to show a young woman—although the fractured, light-and-dark, vivid-yet-uncertain personality that came to life in those few lines showed a more complex personality than he’d found in Pip. He didn’t need to look at the signature, that arrogant, underlined Picasso: no living artist had a cleverer eye, or a wickeder pen, than the little Spanish bantam cock.
He pulled open the dressing table’s wide center drawer: hair decorations—pins, feathers, and fabric bandeaux—and a jumble of cosmetics, American and French. The American containers were older, their packaging considerably less elegant.
The top drawer on the right did duty as a filing cabinet, with checkbooks from both an American and a Paris bank, Pip’s identité papers, and the like. A new-looking address book had less than a dozen listings: the two banks, a hair-dresser’s, an English-language bookshop, three first names, and the address and telephone number of the couple who owned this apartment. He wrote down various numbers and pawed through the rest of the drawer, finding nothing of interest.
The presence of her identité was troubling; the lack of a passport was both reassuring and suggestive.
The next drawer contained a tin box that had once held Scottish shortbread, now filled with matchbooks. Matchbooks weren’t as common here as they were in the States, where bowls of them lay near the cash register of every corner dive and mom-and-pop diner, but even in Paris, nightclubs had taken to handing them out. He recognized most of these: Moulin Rouge, L’Enfer, Bricktop’s—the old one, at number 52—Chaumière, Chat Noir. Some he’d been in, but didn’t know well— La Lune Rousse, Les Deux Ânes, Le Carillon, Le Boeuf sur le Toit.
Twenty-seven altogether, with no duplicates. He idly thumbed back a cover: it was missing a match. He hadn’t noticed any ash-trays in the apartment—he’d used his coffee cup for the cigarette he smoked earlier—so these were probably souvenirs.
The majority bore the names of music halls, bars, dancings, and cabarets in the Right Bank Montmartre district, where Paris went to play and to whore. One was from Luna Park, an amusement gardens with a dance hall out west in the Bois de Boulogne. A handful more originated from the boulevards to the east of Montmartre. Only two of them came from Montparnasse on the Left Bank, which since the War had become Paris’ American village: Au Caméléon, a superior establishment popular with artists celebrating a big sale, and a new one, La Coupole.
Not exactly the places he’d expect of a Boston girl, even one whose apartment was across the river from what its denizens called the Quarter.
He left the matchbooks strewn over the table-top and went back to the drawer. Beneath the tin box lay half a dozen letters: five from Pip’s mother, one from Rosalie. He picked up this one first. The girlish handwriting gave him nothing of interest—Thanks for such a lovely time, I hope I can come again next year—but folded inside were some photographs, beginning with Rosalie along the Quai d’Orsay. Next was the full version of the snapshot he had in his pocket—here, Rosalie occupied the left-hand side of the photograph. She looked even more dowdy than he’d remembered, next to Pip’s vivacity.
The next three pictures showed: the girls together at the front of Notre Dame; Pip atop the Eiffel Tower; and the two girls on the beach in Nice.
Then he came to the last picture, and nearly dropped it: Pip, with her arms locked around the neck of a large, bemused-looking man in a smoke-filled bar. She was turned towards the camera with an expression of gamine mischief, head cocked like a film starlet, hair tousled every which way. She’d been drinking some peculiar cocktail made with crème de menthe: she’d kissed him a moment after Rosalie had snapped the picture, bathing his tongue in mint.
He remembered the taste—and the bemusement. Looking back, he seemed to have spent the entire five days of the affair in a state of puzzled enthusiasm. He’d been more than willing to follow along, but even in the whirlwind of music and sun and dancing—and yes, some terrific sex—a corner of his brain had marveled, Why me? She’d made him feel young, but then, he’d never thought of himself as middle-aged before meeting Pip.
The door behind him shifted in its frame. The photograph vanished into his pocket, the glasses into his hand. He turned.
“So, are you going to feed me?” the roommate asked.
“WOULD YOU COME in for a minute, Miss Berger?”
Nancy Berger interested Stuyvesant. Not as a woman—three nights of Lulu had sure bled off that pressure—but as an unlikely roommate for a girl like Pip. His initial suspicions of her and the bank account shenanigans had faded, but that did not declare her lily-white pure.
Nancy Berger stood in the doorway with damp hair, a scrubbed face, and a crisply ironed skirt and blouse in place of the bathrobe. She no longer smelled of booze. Her chapped-looking lips wore a layer of lipstick, and she’d even managed to do something about the red in her eyes.
Still not to his taste, but at least he didn’t feel the urge to throw a tarpaulin over her head.
“Did the room look like this when she was here?” he asked.
“I suppose. Mouette—the cleaner—has been in, but she never puts things away, just dusts around them.”
“If Pip—Phil—intended to be gone for long, would she have taken any of this?” Stuyvesant gestured at the dressing–table-top and the open drawers.
The young woman shook her head. “It’s like I wrote to her mother back in May, I didn’t see anything missing, but Phil and I only share the main rooms. I don’t really know her bedroom. She’s big on privacy. Obsessed, even.”
“In the fifteen months you’ve lived here, you haven’t been in this room once?”
“I told you, I’ve been away for the last four of those. But yes, of course I’ve been in, once or twice.”
“When was the last time?”
“A few days before I left. I needed—I was looking for some ointment I thought she had. I knew she wouldn’t mind if I used some. And her books, I borrowed a few of those—the novels, not the others—and returned them. And a . . . a wrap, once. She’d let me use it before. I put it back the next day.”
She was lying, and anyway that was a lot more than once or twice. He let it go for the moment. “Does she smoke?”
“No, neither of us do.”
“What drugs does she like?”
“I can’t believe we’re talking about this.”
“So she uses drugs?”
“No. Not as far as I know.”
“But she does drink?”
“And collect matchbooks from bars?”
“Does she? Oh yes, I see.”
“Are these the sorts of places she goes?”
Nancy reluctantly came inside, looking over his shoulder at the colorful squares, then flicking through them with a short, clean fingernail. “Phil and I used to go out together quite a bit at first, but around Christmas she started to make other friends. It did seem odd that I rarely saw her—you know how tight the Quarter is—but if she goes to these sorts of places, I guess it isn’t. I haven’t been in Montmartre for ages. Its decadence just feels… miserable.”
He sat back, physically as well as mentally, to look up at the side of her face. Most people would have assumed that by “these sorts of places” he simply meant nightclubs and cabarets: Nancy Berger had picked up instantly on their geographical similarity.
She reached for the Moulin Rouge, and as Stuyvesant had done, opened the cover. “Good luck, I see.”
“For some reason, Pip is convinced that if you manage to get your cigarette going with a single match, it’s good luck. All I can say is, she must’ve grown up with some crummy matches.”
“I’ve heard about it being bad luck to light three off one match, but not the other way around. She’s superstitious, then?” Something else I didn’t notice about her.
“Madly. Even at first, she was dead serious about things like twisting the stem of an apple to find the first letter of your future husband, or a bird flying through your window meaning someone’s going to die, or it being bad luck to open an umbrella indoors. She went a little crackers when I broke a mirror moving in. I thought she was going to throw me out. Or call in the priests to purify the place.”
“Why do you say, ‘Even at first’?”
She dropped the matchbook and picked up another, squinting to make out the name. “She got more so. She left a dinner party once last winter because there were thirteen. Hey, look.” This matchbook, too, had one match torn out.
Stuyvesant thumbed open the one he held, then another.
Every book had but a single gap: Pip’s collection of good luck. And not a one from Nice.
He swept the collection into the tin box and closed it back in the drawer, pulling open the last drawer in case it contained rabbits’ feet or horseshoes, but it had only what seemed to be mending—a blouse missing a button, another with a ripped shoulder seam, several stockings— and dust.
He was not finished with the room, but Miss Berger was looking a bit wan, and he thought he’d get more out of her if he fed her.
“Let’s go,” he said.
He rolled down his sleeves and walked over to retrieve his coat from the bed. When he turned back to the door, his eyes went from the wooden boxes to the diamond quartet of photos, and he stopped dead.
They were not reflections on a pond. They were close-ups of Pip Crosby’s terrible scar.