SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/17/2011 : 05:04:21
| Chapter 1
Artie stared at himself in the mirror. The man staring back at him had a dull complexion and a slightly doughy form.
Pitiful, just pitiful. This is what spending weeks on your back does to you. Just... ugh. Pitiful.
“Mr. Gordon, your carriage is downstairs,” the nurse said.
“Huh? Oh, I... I think I’d rather walk.”
“Mr. Gordon, the cast has been off your leg for only an hour. It’s much too soon to start thinking about taking long walks.”
“If my leg acts up, I’ll just get a cab,” he shrugged. The sooner I start rebuilding this great edifice of mine, the better.
“It’s my understanding that your meeting is at four; you’re going to have to walk awfully fast to get there on time. I really don’t think, and I’m sure Dr. Szabo – ”
Artie moved toward her and put his hands on her shoulders. “My dearest Nurse Charlotte, you have withstood my presence for lo these many weeks, ever kind, ever patient, ever willing to laugh at my corny jokes. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Now that Szabo pronounced me fully healed as of forty-five minutes ago, I must really return to work, and that includes getting myself back into shape.”
Just then, Jim popped into the room.
“Artie, ready to go?”
“Uh huh. Wasn’t expecting you, though. I thought you’d be there already.”
“Artie, how stupid do you think I am?? I know you well enough to know that you’d want to walk there, if you could.”
“Which is fully what I intend to do, James.”
“You haven’t moved that leg since before Christmas. You really think it’s going to cooperate on a two-mile walk?”
You got me there, friend. “I could walk halfway and then get a cab.”
“Halfway - that’s a full mile. Or didn’t you take up arithmetic in school?” Jim replied coolly.
“Alright, how ‘bout this: I’ll get out of the carriage about four blocks away from headquarters. Does that sound reasonable?”
“Good enough. Let’s go. I’m guessing something big is in the works.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Richmond’s acting kinda funny.”
“That could mean just about anything, Jim.”
“Well, let’s just say I’m hoping something big is in the works. I haven’t left town since early December, and I’m getting itchy for the wide open spaces.”
Although the late February day was very cold and blustery, Artie couldn’t have been happier to be outdoors.
“Ah, this is what it’s all about, isn’t it?” he asked, taking a deep breath. “Being one with nature, the sun, and the wind, and the...”
“Ice cold temperatures that will freeze your fingers off unless you get into the carriage, Artie.”
Once the headquarters building was visible in the distance, Artie said, “This is my stop.”
"You're sure, Artie?"
"Yes, I'm sure. When you arrive, just tell Richmond I'm on my way. Keep him engaged with small talk. I don't want him to say a word about any new assignment without me being there, got that?"
In spite of the afternoon cold and the wind, Artie was in his glory. Another month and the weather will start to break, and a few short weeks after that I can go up to Baltimore and see Thora. What a wonderful year this is going to be!
He entered Richmond's office ten minutes after Jim, his face bright red from the cold.
"Nice to see you're on your feet, Gordon."
"Thank you, sir. I'm sorry to have kept you waiting."
"Think nothing of it. Now take a seat, we have a lot to go over. First of all, Sir Davies Leeds is coming to the States for a lecture tour."
“Davies Leeds? Who’s that?" Jim asked. Since when is the Service interested in lecturers?
“Leeds is... well, he's a number of things," Artie replied. “Explorer, orientalist, anthropologist, historian, translator, something of a philosopher. A latter day renaissance man, one might say. He was once an associate of Sir Richard Burton, but they had a falling out about ten years ago."
"Do you know the circumstances, Gordon?" the colonel asked.
"No, sir. It was rumored he had unsavory dealings with some Arab tribes, or that he got into trouble in India. However, with his reputation, it could have been anything."
"Reputation? How do you mean?" In Jim’s mind, anyone with 'Sir' in front of his name had to be fairly harmless.
"Leeds could kindly be termed a voluptuary. I've read accounts suggesting that he has three or four wives and twice as many... I guess you'd call them concubines. He’s also been involved in a few very bloody uprisings. There’s no hard proof that he led them, but suspicions abound."
"Really?" Jim's interest was piqued. "So that’s why the Service interested in him?"
"That’s correct, West. We don’t want to run the risk that he may try to rile up any of the Indian tribes. It will be your job to keep him on a tight leash," Richmond said.
"When are we going to meet him?" Artie asked.
"You are not going to meet him. I have another assignment for you. Rosa Montabello -"
"NO! Absolutely, positively and under no circumstances am I going to have anything to do with that woman ever again. And that's final."
Richmond was unfazed. "Either you take this assignment, or I'll write you up for insubordination."
Go right ahead, buddy. Artie sat with his arms folded and a hard expression on his face.
"There is a member, or perhaps members, of Miss Montabello's entourage the Service believes to be involved with an anarchist organization. Bombings have been reported in all the European capitals she's toured.”
Artie's expression remained impassive.
"Miss Montebello arrives in New York on Wednesday. You will be there to meet her, and will accompany her on her five-week tour of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington."
"I will not. Get somebody else to do it."
"You will or it won’t be long before you can call yourself an ex-Secret Service agent."
"How do they know someone on her staff is involved? She could just have been followed from city to city, or there could be anarchists in each city, or –"
“Gordon, the information we’ve received from all these cities points to her staff.”
Not willing to give up, Artie asked, “Well, it stands to reason that I should be assigned to Leeds. I’m familiar with his background. Jim should take care of this other thing." Don't make me get down on my knees and plead with you.
"No. West doesn't understand Italian."
"Aw, what's there to understand? It's the same as English, only the words have -ini and -oni at the end," Artie mumbled.
"Wednesday, nine in the morning on Pier 5. You will be there, Gordon."
It won't be me; it'll be me being somebody else.
* * *
Back on the Wanderer, Artie went rooting through his costume trunks.
Somebody she wouldn't dream of trying her grande dame act on. Is there such a person??
He couldn't come up with anything.
“Jim, I'm going to spend a couple hours at the fencing club. I won't be back ‘til nine or so."
"No? Frank's lady friend is having a big dinner party this evening. You'll miss it."
"Jim, just look at me: the more dinner parties I miss, the better. Give the lady my regrets."
"I will. Just don't overdo it, OK?"
At the club a few fencers were sparring; others were milling around, waiting for a worthy opponent to show up. Artie was welcomed with great surprise.
“Gordon! Artemus Gordon! I can honestly say we despaired of ever seeing you again!"
"You should have known there's no getting rid of me. Let me get suited up, and I'll pick you off one by one," he chuckled.
In the locker room, Artie came upon a man he'd never seen before, who was berating a younger man who was attempting to pull off the first man’s boots. He had a heavy foreign accent Artie couldn't quite place.
"How dare you!" he demanded when Artie glanced at him.
“I beg your pardon?”
Getting a better look, Artie saw the man's face bore the famous Prussian sword-fighting scar, plus a few more of less traditional origin.
Either he's the world's least successful fencer or he works part time as a human punching bag.
"Were you not told that I was in the locker room? Away with you! You do not have my permission to be here."
"I'm a member of this club," Artie answered dryly as he turned away. "I have as much right to be here as you do."
"Bah! You pretend that you don't know who I am??"
"Listen, pal, I just want to get changed. I promise to stay out of your way."
"Pal?? ’ You call Enrique Hector Maria Lopes y Würzenthal, Duke of Estoril 'pal'??”
Estoril? That little town in Portugal so popular with deposed royalty? What kind of game is this guy playing?
"My apologies, Duke."
"'Your Grace!' I insist on being addressed as 'Your Grace!'"
"Alright, Grace. I'm sorry."
With a roar, the man got up, one boot on and one off, and swung wildly at Artie's head.
Calmly, Artie clocked him. The young man looked up at him with gratitude.
* * *
Just before Jim was about to leave for the dinner party, the telegraph machine began to click.
"Leeds in Washington. Reception at 1760 Boundary Street NW.”
Twenty minutes later, Jim entered the Georgian mansion owned by Robert La Roque, dealer in antiquities. He was ushered into the salon by a very nervous-looking maid.
“Mr. La Roque, James West of the United States Secret Service."
"Ah, the famous James West! Mr. West it is not only a pleasure to meet you, it is an even greater pleasure to introduce you to my friend Sir Davies Leeds."
The crowd surrounding Leeds parted to show a tall, muscular man in a linen tunic and suede pantaloons held up by a thick leather belt with some beading on it. His long red-gold hair was pulled up into a top knot. He was missing one eye.
"Mr. West, your servant, sir. I understand you will be a paid companion for my lecture tour."
"Our government thought it would be appropriate for you to travel with someone having knowledge of many of the cities and towns of our great nation. It will be my pleasure to
"Excellent! My bookings start in Chicago, and end in Sacramento. In between I shall visit smaller venues in Indian country. Such interesting people, your Red Indians."
"Yes, they are, Sir Davies. I believe the variety of our native cultures would be of great interest to you."
"Leo - call me Leo, Mr. West. 'Sir Davies' is used only when attempting to impress the ladies."
The women in attendance tittered, and began to fan themselves.
A footman entered the room.
"Dinner is served, Mr. La Roque."
The meal passed pleasantly. In spite of his outlandish appearance, Leeds was the perfect guest, which made Jim feel like he fated for a month or so of genteel boredom.
That would turn out not to be the case.
* * *
Once in the gymnasium, Artie asked, "Who's this Duke of Estoril person? Can anyone tell me?"
The question was greeted by laughter.
"A petit bourgeois from the Pyrenees, Gordon," said Wendell Axely, club president. "I think he worked in some humble capacity for a dying dynasty in Portugal, and as a favor ended up marrying the old bird's ugly daughter. He goes traipsing all over, acting as if he outranks everyone but God. Funny thing is a lot of people in Europe - even some who should know better - think he's the genuine article. According to that valet of his, his next stop is Mexico. Once they're sick of him, 1 guess he'll be off to points south."
"They really believe he's nobility?"
"Yep. Not anyone who’s real nobility, mind you. But captains of industry and creative types, you ought to see them bow and scrape."
"Creative types like, say, opera singers?"
"Wendell, thank you very, very much," Artie said, pointing his foil at him. "Now let's see if I can perforate that gizzard of your’s."
Axely raised his sword. "There's a first time for everything, Gordon."
* * *
Jim came back to the Wanderer at midnight to see Artie sketching at the dining table, his face covered with ugly scars. At first he panicked, but as he came closer he saw the scars were putty.
“Inspiration comes from the oddest places, Jim. Miss Montebello is going to be greeted by His Grace, the Duke of Estoril."
"And who might that be?"
"He's a real person... well, a real-ish person. Ugly as sin, twice as obnoxious, and bogus as a three-dollar bill. Amazingly, I was told there are people who do believe him to be a real live duke. I'm guessing our Miss Montebello might be among them. You recall what a snob she was."
"Where'd you run into him?"
"He was at the fencing club tonight. By the way, how was the dinner party?"
"I don't know, I missed it," Jim shrugged. "Just before I was about to leave, a wire came from headquarters saying Leeds is in town already. I figured he'd be at the British embassy, but apparently the British government isn't very eager to welcome him. There was a reception for him in a private home that Richmond wanted me to attend."
“So you got to meet him?"
"Uh huh. If you think your fake duke is outrageous, you oughta get an eyeful of Leeds. I was expecting someone in bespoke tweed, but he looked like something out of Gilgamesh.
"He's famous for that. For a while, he was in the House of Lords, and he'd come to sessions wearing not much more than a dhoti."
"And to think Grant once gave me a hard time for showing up at a meeting in boots rather than shoes," Jim laughed. "Leeds has his own varnish car, complete with rolling stable, so at least I'll be able to bring my own horse with me. This might turn out to be a working vacation."
"I don't think so, Jim. Leeds is also famous for being a handful. You'll be lucky if he doesn't get arrested more than twice. Did he say when you and he are hitting the road?"
“Day after tomorrow we head for Chicago. We'll be there for three days, and then a bunch of little towns -- barely settlements, some of them - in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, and then on to Denver, and from there to California. This assignment may turn out to be a lot longer than I anticipated," Jim mused.
"Well, the opera tour is only five weeks; maybe I can meet up with you, and you can take some time off."
"Let's see how it goes."
The following day was the last before Artie would have to leave for New York. Just after breakfast, he heard a knock on the door.
“I have a message for Mr. West from Sir Davies Leeds."
“I'll take it to him." Artie handed the messenger a coin, and then went to knock on Jim's bedroom door.
“Jim, ya decent?"
“Not quite. What do you want?"
“You have a message from Leeds. Want me to read it to you?"
“Mr. West, I would appreciate it if you would meet me at The Barnacle. I shall be waiting. Leo.'"
“Uh huh. What else?"
“Jim, who's Leo?"
“That's what he wants me to call him," Jim said, as he opened the door. "Maybe that's what his family calls him. You know these titled Brits, just one name won't do."
Artie handed him the note.
“So that's all? No time given?"
“My question, Jim, is 'Why there?' If there's a rougher waterfront dive, I can't guess what it is."
“If he's there now, there's nothing to worry about. He's probably all by his lonesome," Jim said confidently.
Something about this summons bothered Artie, but he was reluctant to express his concerns to Jim. Leeds was not an everyday aristocrat, and Artie had gleaned from his writings that the man was a little too enamored of violence.
“Jim, I'll be taking the milk train up to New York, so if you're not home by ten tonight, this is goodbye. Write me when you get to Chicago."
“I'll should be back long before then, but if not expect a letter some time next week."
They shook hands and off went Jim.
* * *
At eight in the morning, the only people on the waterfront were dock workers. The last of the previous evening's drunks had been dragged from the venue some hours earlier. Hell-raising wouldn't recommence until it got dark.
Inside The Barnacle, the owner and a barmaid were busily sweeping broken glass off of the floor. Sir Davies, sitting at a table in the back, was sketching them in pencil.
“Mr. West, thank you for responding so quickly to my message. I expect that you have other things to do today in order to get ready for our trip."
“It's just a matter of throwing a few things into a grip, and getting my horse's tack together. That's less than an hour of my time, sir."
“Mr. West, you and I are equals. Please do not refer to me as anything other than Leo. May I call you James?”
“James, Jim, whichever you prefer."
Jim glanced down at the sketch. He’d seen art in the Louvre that wasn’t nearly as life-like.
“You're a very accomplished artist, Leo."
“I don't think so," Leeds sniffed as he pushed the drawing toward Jim. “Shows a lack of imagination, doesn't it? I mean, the man looks just like that man, and the woman looks just like that woman. I'd have rather drawn the man as Zeus and the woman as Hera. Zeus and Hera picking through the sawdust floor of a gin mill on the Washington waterfront - that's art. Not this. This is nothing more than a record."
“Why did you want to meet me here, Leo?"
“Why? To learn more of you, I suppose. I heard a few whispers among the ladies at my little party last night, something to the effect that you are a renowned fighter. Or was the word 'brawler?'"
“Well, you have to understand, Leo, the nature of our work. We're pursuing criminals of one sort or another, and -"
“And rather than using their heads in dealing with you, they rely on their fists. Is that correct?"
“Pretty much," Jim smiled.
“Interesting, isn't it? In every place and every time the populace - by which I mean the common people – greatly values brawn over brain."
“Never thought about it that way, but I guess you're right."
“Even in the animal kingdom, the physically strongest lion rules the pride, the strongest wolf the pack. It's the way of nature."
“But in our so-called civilized age, we consider fighting 'evil' and the loss of life 'tragic.' It was not always so, you know."
Jim was puzzled. Where's he going with this? Oh, right, Artie mentioned the guy's a historian.
"James, would you be willing to come back here this evening? Around midnight or one?"
"I would like to see you in action."
"I'm sorry, I don't quite understand."
"It is not only through the ladies in attendance last night that I heard of you. You're actually quite famous in some quarters. I've heard numerous recounts of your physical prowess, your ability to subdue even multitudes of men on your own, using nothing but your own physical gifts. It's something I'd very much like to witness."
"Leo, I mean no disrespect, but when I've been called upon to do these things, it wasn't for fun. I don't go around looking for people to beat up."
"No?" Then I'll have to set the stage for you. “If you could come around midnight, I would appreciate it. Not that I'm expecting you to fight - you’ve made your position quite clear, for which I thank you. I am always fascinated with the flotsam and jetsam that turn up in waterfront establishments. On any given evening it could be a gaggle of Dutch sailors, or Barbary pirates, or someone who spent his life sailing the South Seas and has abundant tattoos to prove it. It's as if this community of sailing men were a race of its own."
"Why exactly do you want me to come?"
"James, you may have noticed that I don't look anything like the typical man of my background and social status. My appearance has always invited stares and whispered comments. That doesn't bother me one iota, but sometimes the response is a little more... visceral, as if I'm a two-legged abomination of some sort. I would like you to come because while I'm observing the crowd and writing, I would like to be able to do so unmolested. I realize you were not engaged to be my bodyguard, but if you could function as such - at least this evening - I would reward you handsomely."
What choice to I have? A lot of these water rats do like to pick on people whose looks they don’t care for.
“I’ll be there, Leo.”
“Thank you, James.”
* * *
Artie returned from the costume shop with two military style jackets and a box of faux European medals and insignia. Once he was packed up, he was going to spend the afternoon back at the fencing club. As he approached the back door of the parlor car, he met the mail carrier.
The postman sniffed the package and the envelope before handing them to Artie.
"Mmm... I like her perfume, Mr. Gordon,” he grinned.
"Me, too. By the way, Mr. West and I will be out of town for the next several weeks, so make sure all our mail gets put into the post office drawer."
Artie went in and stretched out of the settee. Thora’s letters were always the highlight of his day.
"My dearest Artemus,
I was so glad to hear that Dr. Szabo was planning to finally
remove your leg cast. Now you must be very careful and take very
good care of yourself, because the Spring Dance is April 25 and
everyone wants to waltz with the big, bad man who has lured me
away from my life's work.
As I have mentioned before, the headmistress is taking my
resignation very badly. In spite of everything I have told her,
she still thinks I have allowed myself to be sold a bill of goods.
‘Everyone knows the government only hires women to be clerks,’
she tells me. ‘They no more plan to make you an agent than they
plan to have you sail a ship to the moon.’
Perhaps when you visit you could explain the facts to her.
My pupils and their parents are still processing the news. One
family, blessed with eight daughters, has invited me to summer
with them in Newport as a way of thanking me for ‘civilizing the
little beasts’ I've only taught the six oldest, but six more
delightful young ladies you could not imagine. They have also
extended the invitation to my gentleman friend who, I have to
keep reminding them, is named Artemus, not Artimedorus.
Just when I despaired that winter might never be over, I saw two
precious little robins this morning: a gentleman and a lady. I
gave them a few pieces of bread, for which they seemed very
grateful. They were also quite willing to share with the sparrows
and the mourning doves. There's a lot all of us could learn from
them, don't you agree?
I may have forgotten to tell you that the other teachers and I
had portrait photographs taken some weeks ago. Finally, the
prints have come in and I have sent one to you, framed.
Hopefully, this will encourage you to send me your photograph. I
am daily being pressed for proof that you are as handsome as I
say you are!
Now I must close, darling Artemus, or I shall be late for chapel.
(I was late once in November by two or three minutes, and my
girls have not yet tired of reminding me of this dreadful
With all my love,
After returning the letter to its envelope, Artie eagerly opened the package. It contained Thora's photograph in a sterling frame. It was a lovely picture, likely taken by one of the more able society photographers. He got up and took it to his room. On his bureau remained Anna's photographs. He'd long avoided the bittersweet job of removing them, but the time had come.
“I will never forget you," he whispered, just before he gathered them up and placed them in the Russian lacquered box which contained the mizpah token and a lock of her hair.
* * *
”Back again, Gordon?” Axely asked.
“Back again. This is the last time you’ll see me for awhile”
Axely summoned a grey-haired man who was speaking in a corner with a few others.
“Gordon, a new member: the Honorable Edward Gilfillan. Mr. Gilfillan, Artemus Gordon.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. Gilfillan.”
In spite of the grey hair, Gilfillan was only a little older than Jim. He had a ruddy, cheerful countenance, almost like a Toby jug come to life.
“I am even more pleased to make yours, Mr. Gordon. The last time I clapped eyes on you was in the late Fifties in London where you were performing in The Merchant of Venice. I remember you as a very fine Shylock, very fine indeed. I was surprised to hear your name bandied about when I took this post; I’m now an under-secretary at the British embassy. I assumed that the Artemus Gordon I was hearing about could not have been the great actor himself. Have you really abandoned the stage?”
“Not exactly. You could say I’m still performing and touring, except now it’s as an agent of the U. S. Secret Service,” Artie smiled.
Suddenly, Gilfillan’s manner changed.
“Mr. Gordon, there’s another Secret Service agent I’d like to ask you about. I believe the name is West.”
“Jim’s my partner; we’ve worked together for the last several years.”
“It is my understanding that he will be accompanying Davies Leeds on a tour of the U. S. Is that correct?”
“Will you be on the tour with them, Mr. Gordon?”
“No, not at first. But I am hoping to join the tour after my upcoming assignment is finished.”
“Mr. Gordon, would you be willing to have dinner with me this evening? I would like to discuss a few things with you if I may. I’m also very keen to meet Mr. West if he is available.”
“Thank you for the invitation. I’ll be happy to meet with you, but I’m not sure what Jim’s plans are.”
The afternoon at the fencing club passed quickly, and Artie was very happy to note that even after fencing for a few hours, he wasn’t the least bit fatigued.
Back at the Wanderer, he was quite surprised to see Jim lying on the settee with his nose in a thick book.
“Is that one of Leeds’ works?”
“Uh, huh,” Jim said as he put the book aside and stretched. “If even half of this is true…” He shook his head. The book dealt with pagan religious practices. Some of them were stomach-churning.
Eager to focus on something else, he asked, “So, Artie, how’s the fencing going?”
“Very well. Out of four matches this afternoon, two victories, two draws, although one of those was really a judgment call. Overall, not bad for somebody who this time last week was thumping around with a full cast on his leg.”
“Was the Duke there again?”
“No. Who was there was an under-secretary of the British embassy. I’m having dinner with him this evening. Something tells me he’s no fan of Leeds.”
“No? Why is that?” Jim asked, rising and putting the book into his valise.
“Dunno. But I’m thinking that’s the reason for the dinner. He wants to meet you too, so if you have the time...”
Jim thought a moment. Yes, the more he knew about Leeds – if that was what the dinner was going to be about – the better.
“I’ll be there.”
Four hours later all three men were in the dining room of the British embassy, feasting on oysters, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The conversation was light and genial until the coffee was served, when Gilfillan got to the point of the meeting.
“Gentleman, on a tour of Scotland not long ago, Leeds’ traveling companion sickened and died.”
Artie and Jim processed that for a moment before Jim spoke up.
“That’s unfortunate, Mr. Gilfillan; are you implying that Leeds had something to do with it?”
Gilfillan ignored the question. “He was a Frenchman by the name of Rondo Hippolyte. In France a fairly well-known athlete, famous for public displays of strength. Perhaps you know the type: lifts elephants, tows barges, bends iron bars, et cetera. An extremely healthy specimen, by all accounts,” Gilfillan said between sips of coffee.
“Even extremely healthy specimens may sicken and die,” Jim observed. “Was the cause of death ascertained?”
“No, it wasn’t,” came the frustrated reply. “The government – the British government – believes there was a cover-up of some sort.”
“Are you saying that Leeds killed him?” Artie asked.
Gilfillan sighed. “I am saying, gentleman, that Mr. West must – absolutely must – be on his guard.”
Once dinner was over, Jim and Artie walked back to the Wanderer, Jim to pick up the his few pieces of luggage, and Artie to do a few last minute things before getting on the train to New York.
During the walk, Artie was mostly silent, going over his options. If someone in Rosa Montebello’s entourage was truly some sort of mad bomber, how soon could that person be flushed out? Once found, could he turn the investigation over to someone else, and then join Jim on the lecture tour? Or maybe Jeremy could step in after a few days, pretending to be the Duke’s brother?
“I don’t like this, Jim. Not at all.”
“Artie, what do you want me to do?? Go to Richmond and say, ‘Sir, I can’t take this assignment because someone in Europe who had a similar assignment and ended up dying?’ If you and I could live this long having dealt with dozens of avowed killers, there’s nothing to fear from a gentleman scholar, even one who looks like he does.
“Just remember what Gilfillan said.”
An hour later they finally parted, and Jim went back to The Barnacle.
* * *
It was already crowded, but not nearly as crowded as it would become as the night wore on. Sir Davies was at the same table he’d occupied that morning. Sitting with him were two women, obviously prostitutes, both of whom were very much inebriated.
“Mr. West, please meet our company for the evening: Elsie… dear, what is your surname?”
“Darling,” she slurred. “I’m called Elshie Darling.”
“Miss Elsie Darling and Miss Louise… What was it, my dear? Louise…?”
“Lulu, call me Lulu, handsome,” she replied, beaming at Jim. “Buy me a drink?”
“Something tells me you’ve had enough, Miss.”
Lulu’s mouth dropped open. Then she rose and pounded her fist on the table. “You ain’t class,” she hissed. “You ain’t class at all.”
She walked unsteadily to the bar, and pointed Jim out to the bartender.
“James, I think you’re in a spot of trouble,” Leeds smiled. “It’s Louise’s job to encourage drinking among the male patrons, and now that you’ve observed that she may be her own best customer… Well, I can’t see this having a happy ending, especially since that bartender is living off of her.”
Elsie swayed during this exchange, never taking her attention off her own drink.
“I’m sorry, Leo. I’m not going to buy a drink for a woman who’s already three sheets to the wind.”
Suddenly he felt hot breath on the back of his neck, then turned to see the bartender with two other men, one of them holding a club.
“You said something not too nice to my friend Lulu, buddy. I think you oughta apologize and buy her a drink.”
“I’ll apologize, but she’s not getting a drink out of me. She can hardly stand up as it is,” Jim said coolly.
At once the club came up, but Jim successfully dodged it, then reached to pull it out of the man’s hands. He no sooner reached out than the bartender and the other man pinned his arms behind his back, and the club swung again.
Leaning back into the men who were holding him, Jim jumped and kicked the club away with one leg, using the other to kick the man in the abdomen.
Then, after making a lightening-fast assessment, he sprung and hit the bartender in the face with the back of his head, thereby breaking the man’s nose. Once the bartender lost his grip, Jim seized on the other man, who flew backwards and landed in the lap of a man who was playing poker with two others. All three of them advanced on Jim.
The melee was over in less than five minutes, but by that point half the place was in shambles. The bar patrons still standing were divided between those offering applause and those trying to get drunk enough to engage Jim in a little more horseplay.
Jim went back to Leeds’ table.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that, Leo. The people in these dives are a little unpredictable sometimes.”
“So I see. I’ve spent quite enough time here this day, and I’d like to return to my rooms now. You and I shall meet again tomorrow morning at eight when my train pulls out. Would you go to the corner and wake my driver? His is the grey carriage with the two black horses.”
After Jim exited, Lulu came back to the table. “Now gimme my money. I’m dying for a drink.”
Leeds handed her a ten-dollar gold piece.
“That’s for now. If you and Elsie would like to come to my rooms with me, there’ll be more. Much more.”
* * *
Artie stood anxiously on the pier waiting for the ship to dock. It was a bitterly cold day, and the wind was strong enough to make him wonder if his faux goatee would blow off. The only thing that made it a little more comfortable was the fact that hundreds of Miss Montebello’s fans were on the pier with him.
The harbor master stood at his side and offered him a sip from his flask.
“You’re gonna need it, pal. You’ve never met La Incomparabila. I have last time she was in the States. I can honestly say if God set out to make an impossible woman, he couldn’t do better than her.
“With much talent comes much temperament, my good man,” Artie said in a Portuguese accent.
“I can’t say much for her talent – I got a tin ear – but if it matches her temperament, she must be the greatest singer in history. Oops, here we are. It’s showtime. Coming with me, Your Grace?”
Slowly the ship pulled into its berth. The harbor master and Artie came through the cordon that was holding back the crush of fans.
“How’d the government look you up? They don’t hire foreigners, do they?”
“They do in my case. I looked them up, you see. I’ve become so bored of life in Europe. Yacht races one day, garden parties the next, then up to the hunting lodge in the mountains, back to town for balls and the occasional coronation. It’s deadly dull. I thought perhaps a few weeks in this wild new country might return to me my joie de vivre, and I so sought out the United States government. I said to them ‘I, the Duke of Estoril, am at your service. Use me how you will.’ Astounded at their luck at having someone like myself offer his services, they gave me this assignment: to take care of Miss Montebello while she is here. Imagine me, the Duke of Estoril, actually working like a common American!”
“Oh, it’s gonna be work, buddy. You can be absolutely certain of that.”
Don’t I know it.
The ship docked and twenty minutes later Rosa Montebello came down the gangplank swathed in furs and followed by a crowd of fifteen people, some nearly as well-dressed as she, some not.
Artie came forward, kneeled and took her hand.
“Signora, your most humble servant Enrique Hector Maria Lopes y Würzenthal, Duke of Estoril, at your service. It shall be my great good fortune to accompany you on your tour throughout this primitive wilderness of a country.”
“Duke of Estoril?” she replied faintly. “I don’t believe I’ve heard of you.”
Artie stood and gave her his most charming smile. “My dear Miss Montebello, you’ve cut me to the quick. Do you not recall seeing me at the reception for Norma last season? Or at the opening night fete for The Magic Flute the season before? Have I really the wasted time I might have spent overlooking my vast holdings in Spain, Portugal and Italy in order to be your companion for these few weeks? Please, mia cara, tell me it is not so. Especially since the United States government had originally planned to send a man by the name of Artemus Gordon for the task.”
“Heaven forbid!! Dreadful fellow. But then, he is an American, and they’re all dreadful.” She returned his smile, and continued. “I am very happy that the Americans realized their mistake and found such a handsome traveling companion for me.”
She gave him her arm, and they walked to the cordon where dozens of hands were holding up bouquets for her. As she walked along, Artie tried to get a good look at her entourage. There was seven women, and eight men. The women were older than Miss Montebello while most of the men appeared younger.
The oldest woman followed Miss Montebello closely and took the bouquets when her arms became full.
“My dear, why don’t you allow me to bear the load? Your lovely face is being obscured by so many flowers,” Artie offered.
“No. I thank you,” she replied in a heavy peasant accent.
Rosa looked over her shoulder. “Your Grace, I should chastise you! Condescending to my little Concetta. Why, she lives to assist me. Don’t you, Concetta?”
“Si, mia dona.”
One down, fourteen to go. With a florid apology, Artie left Rosa’s side and attempted to engage the other women following, but was met with only one word answers in Italian. The men were closely grouped together at the back of the little parade. As he neared he heard what sounded like a heated argument.
When they noticed Artie, all fell silent.
“Gentleman, friends, paisani,” he began expansively. “I, Enrique Hector Maria Lopes y Würzenthal, Duke of Estoril, wish to make your acquaintance. You see, the United States government has asked me to function as their representative during La Incomparabila’s tour.”
The men whispered to one another in Italian before one spoke up.
“Why does the United States government think they need to represent themselves with us? Signora Montebello is an artist. Does your government also have a presence in the studio of the painter? Do you have a man stationed in the poet’s garret?” The man then translated to the others what he’d just said to Artie. They responded with laughter.
“Paisano, it is the policy of the United States government to warmly welcome an artist of her accomplishments, and also to protect such artists from those who might do them harm. Your average American is so backward as to be hostile to those of superior talents and breeding,” Artie reasoned.
The first man translated this into Italian, then offered his hand to Artie. “Forgive us our ignorance, Your Grace. We are humble men, most of us, and so do not have experience with how great governments operate. My name is Gianpaulo Ricci; I am the Signora’s business manager.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Your Grace, do you speak Italian?”
“Alas, no. Portuguese, Spanish and English only. A little French.”
“I only asked because our conversation could proceed a bit faster were I not required to translate.”
“I should learn, of course.” Artie said. “My holdings in Italy are quite enormous, and the expense of keeping a staff that can speak to me in my language and also speak to the peasants is ruinous.”
Ricci shrugged. “Then I must keep translating.” He turned to the group and told them in Italian what the Duke had just said.
Artie smiled patiently. The smile withered slightly when he caught the gist of what Ricci was saying. “When the time comes, let us draw straws to determine which of us shall kill the American representative."
* * *
Leeds had spent the time from breakfast until now, three p.m. writing in his compartment. Jim had spent much of the day going through his previously published work. There were nine books in the book case. He’d flipped through all of them, and finally settled on War and Culture: Armies of the Ancient Near East.
The book dealt with the earliest accounts of organized military practice, and seemed to dwell mostly on the various pagan rites and practices used to assure victory in the field.
This is something Artie would enjoy. At least if he could get past some of these appalling descriptions.
“Mr. West, as it happens we’re making very good time. Ought to be pulling into Chicago this time tomorrow.”
“That’s good news, Leo.” I’m getting bored, not to mention sick, reading this stuff.
“Oh, I see you’ve got War and Culture. That was a fascinating research experience. Do you know in parts of the world that some of those rituals are still being practiced today?”
Yikes. “No, I didn’t. Interesting.”
“So many have fallen by the wayside,” Leeds said, shaking his head. “I expect with the advance of so-called civilization they’ll be wiped out entirely.”
“You sound as if you think that’s a bad thing, Leo.”
“It’s always bad when something dies. Something is lost forever.”
“I have to disagree with you. Virgin sacrifice? Dismemberment? I think the world was instantly a better place once those practices were abandoned.”
“And some day we shall all live in peace and prosperity, humankind skipping hand-in-hand through the daisy-strewn meadows, is that it?” Leeds sneered.
“I don’t think any time or place in history turned its nose up at the virtues of peace and prosperity, Leo.”
“About that you’re wrong, James. Very wrong. Man is by nature warlike. Perhaps you’ve seen lions and tigers caged. They lie there dispiritedly as the crowd jeers, waiting to die. If man’s warlike nature is ever caged, that will be the end of mankind as we know it.”
Jim didn’t bother to reply. If you say so. I’m only here as your minder.
After they arrived in Chicago and checked in at their hotel, Jim and Leo separated. Jim went to the room that had been booked for him and was planning to take a short nap before going downstairs to see a lady friend who worked evenings in the hotel café. His accommodations on the train, although luxurious to look at, were dreadfully uncomfortable and he had scarcely been able to sleep during the three-day trip.
Just before he dimmed the gas jet, he noticed there was a tray on the dresser with a split of wine, a wine key, a glass, and a note. “Compliments of D.L.”
He must’ve cabled ahead. A glass of wine would be nice right about now.
He felt asleep quickly and when he awoke two hours later, he couldn’t understand why he still felt so tired. And for some unknown reason, his left arm was aching.
Maybe I slept on it.
* * *
“Is that James West?” the redhead gasped, nearly dropping her tray.
“Yes, Dottie. How’s tricks?” he grinned.
“Just fine. Let me serve these folks in the back, and I’ll handle you directly,” she winked.
Before sitting down with Jim, she went to the back room to remove her apron, smooth her hair, and pinch her cheeks. With all the competition for his favors, a girl had to make sure she was as attractive as possible.
“I only have fifteen minutes to visit with you so – golly, you’re a little pale, Jim. Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. And you, why you look good enough to eat “
“What brings you to Chicago?”
“Busy work,” Jim shrugged. “This adventurer type is on a lecture tour and headquarters wants me to keep an eye on him.”
Dottie gasped once more. “Well, would you look at that!” she whispered. “I declare, I think we got a caveman come to join us.”
Leeds had come in wearing a coat that appeared to have been made from bear hide.
“That’s the adventurer I was talking about.”
“Jim, you’re traveling with that??”
Leeds came to the table. “James, would you like to introduce me?”
“Dottie, this is Sir Davies Leeds. Sir Davies, Miss Dorothy Bonnett.”
“A pleasure, Miss Bonnett.”
“Um, me too,” she babbled. “Gosh, Jim…”
Jim looked even paler compared with the caveman’s very rosy visage. That was probably from just having come in from the cold, but still…
“I didn’t mean to interrupt. James, tonight’s lecture is just down the street at the Historical Society. Are you planning to attend?”
“If you need me to.”
“Not at all. Spend your evening with the lovely Miss Bonnett.”
Leeds bowed slightly and exited.
“Dottie, you were about to say something?”
“Um, just that I’ve never seen you so pale.”
“Dottie, you’re used to seeing me blow in from spending weeks outside in the hot sun of Arizona or some place like that. Now it’s the dead of winter, and I’ve spent the last couple of months in offices. So I’m no paler than the rest of the people in here, correct?”
“I guess so,” she conceded. “Only much, much handsomer. I get off my shift at nine; wanna walk me home?”
“Is that all you want me to do, Dottie?” he asked, feigning insult.
“Of course not, silly,” she giggled.
When Dottie went back to work, Jim returned to his room. Ordinarily, he’d draft a preliminary report, or write letters, or take a walk. But now all he could think of was returning to bed for another few hours.
* * *
It was the evening the day after La Incomparabila’s arrival, and the first reception was being held in the opulent ballroom of the Hotel Van Ryn. Artie looked down from the gallery at the sea of faces. He recognized three Astors, two Carnegies, and at least one of the Van Rensselaers. Hopefully, the anarchist contingent – if there actually was one – didn’t realize the reception was being attended by some of the country’s wealthiest people. Otherwise, the bombs might go off before he could do anything to prevent it.
Finally, Miss Montebello came out to join him, dressed in cloth of gold and a tiara bearing a ruby the size of a quail’s egg.
“How beautiful you look this evening, mia cara,” Artie whispered with false warmth.
“Then why they not looking up at me?” she asked, pointing at the crowd.
“Perhaps they did not expect you so soon.”
Rosa frowned. “Why is it that Americans are so very ignorant? If this were Europe, all would be silence in anticipation of my arrival. All eyes would be riveted upon where I would make my entrance.”
“It’s a young country, mia cara. They don’t yet have an understanding of the niceties.”
“Italy was young once, too. Even then her people understood how to treat their superiors!” she said haughtily.
“But isn’t it true, mia cara, that in Italy today there are those who want to pull down the walls between classes? That they even want to remove government completely? Anarchists, revolutionaries, I think they call themselves,” Artie said as he took her hand and led her to the staircase.
She waved her other hand dismissively. “The underclasses shall always be restless.”
“Have you ever met one of these anarchists?”
“What sort of ridiculous question is that, Your Grace? The very idea! Now find someone to introduce me properly to these animals. I mean, Americans.”
“May I, mia cara?”
“You may,” she smiled.
“Ladies and gentleman, your attention please! Allow me to introduce to you the lady you’ve come to welcome this evening, Signora Rosa Montebello, La Incomparabila!
There was a wave of applause as the Rosa came down the stairway. She was greeted by a representative of the American-Italian Friendship Society, who took it upon himself to introduce her to the swells in the audience. Artie followed with the first few introductions, but after awhile Rosa began to completely ignore him, so he slipped out.
Signora Montebello’s entourage was housed in seven rooms of the hotel, two to a room. Men on the second floor, women on the third. Rosa herself was in a suite on the top floor, along with her maid Concetta. Just after they all checked in, he’d heard her say she was giving them all the evening off, which was an ideal opportunity for him. Once he was certain that she wouldn’t miss him, he returned to his own room, and costumed himself as a janitor.
The first room he came to was unlocked. All of the luggage had already been emptied into drawers and closets. Artie went carefully through everything, but turned up nothing to suggest that anyone who occupied this room was planning to set off a bomb anytime soon.
It was the same in the other men’s rooms.
Although it was very unlikely he’d find anything in the women’s rooms, he went up anyway but found nothing. As he was leaving the last of the women’s rooms, he found himself face to face with Concetta.
Somehow she recognized him. “You Grace?” she said simply.
“Beg pardon? My name ain’t Grace, honey. It’s Walt Pulaski.”
Concetta held her ground. She was short, no more than five feet tall, but her girth nearly filled the doorway. “Your Grace, why is it that you are costumed as a portiere? Explain yourself, please,” she requested in a caustic voice.
“Lady, you wanna move it? I got work to do.”
Her eyes, hard black orbs, narrowed and she slapped him.
“I am not amused, Your Grace.” Without another word, she waddled down the corridor to the staircase.
* * *
The days had become a blur. One small town after another and some places that could barely be considered settlements. Jim tried to keep his eye on Davies, but for some reason it was getting hard to find the energy. As soon as the train would stop, Leeds would be out trying to find out if there were a particularly wild saloon in the area. If there were, Jim would function as bodyguard and would invariably be drawn into a melee, which often erupted due to something Leeds had done or said.
The morning they arrived in Denver, he found himself barely able to get out of bed. Once he marshaled the strength to drag himself to the shaving mirror, he finally saw what Dottie saw.
So I’m a little pale and a little tired. I’ve worked non-stop for almost four years – why wouldn’t I look like this?
He refused to acknowledge to himself that he was very pale and very tired.
Leeds was snoring loudly in his room, and so Jim was free to do whatever he wanted, or to return to bed himself. He took the opportunity to write Artie a letter. He’d been writing every few days; it had become one of the few things he had plenty of energy to do. Jim was quite sure that Artie would get a big kick out of what was happening on this tour, specifically the mixed horror and fascination Leeds’ appearance caused. Artie would probably receive the letters all at once when the Miss Montebello’s tour came into Washington, but hopefully they would prove a welcome distraction. Unfortunately, because Leeds’ itinerary was not set in stone, no letters from Artie were forthcoming.
Jim stared at the paper, somewhat confused.
What was it I wanted to say? Oh, right... something about Miss Montebello.
He picked up the pen again, shaking his head.
I really, really need a vacation.
He continued with the letter, stopping several times to collect his thoughts and also to scratch his arm, which was very bruised and a little swollen. Leeds had noticed it the day before and examined it critically. “Have you taken any punches to that area?” he asked.
“No,” Jim replied simply.
“Then it’s your diet. I recommend brewer’s yeast. Excellent treatment for bruising and for the building up of the blood,” Leeds had stated.
“As soon as the shops open, I’ll see if I can find some,” Jim said.
* * *
The New York leg of the tour passed without incident, as did Boston. Artie spent his days accompanying the Signora to receptions and soirees, and the rest of his time searching rooms and occasionally ducking out to spend time in coffee shops or small restaurants, where he would write letters to Thora. His ruse was working admirably, at least in terms of handling Miss Montebello, who was an absolute lamb in his company. But now that they had reached Philadelphia, Artie was beginning to think headquarters had been mistaken about any connection the entourage had with the bombings in Europe. So far, the room searches had turned up nothing. The only thing that indicated that something might happen was that comment about doing away with the American representative. As soon as Ricci said it, the rest of the men howled with laughter, so maybe it had just been a joke?
The only room he could never get into belonged to Miss Montebello, as it was assiduously guarded by Concetta, who had gone on to slap him a few more times for defying her. The last time was the limit: he had persuaded Rosa to allow her entourage to precede her when entering a room, rather than the other way around, on the pretense that persons of rank enter a room last. Artie’s actual intent was to ensure that all them be in his line of sight, rather than behind him. She had agreed, yet when Concetta heard of it, she stormed to his room and when he opened the door she slapped him, then issued a stream of invective delivered in the Calabrese dialect.
You try that one more time, sis, and I’m going to slap back. “Concetta, my dear, why cannot we be friends?” he asked, pretending to be hurt.
In reply, she spat on the floor and stormed off.
He stood in the hallway and watched her go. Her antipathy for him didn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, her self-image was probably that she alone stood between La Incomparabila and the wicked world, but even the Signora herself had fallen under his sway. But why hadn’t Concetta fallen in line behind her?
On the last evening in Philadelphia, Artie and the men were enjoying a late dinner in the hotel’s private dining room. Artie finally saw fit to tip his hand.
“Gentleman, I have received a troubling missive from my darling mistress, who is pining for me at home in Lisbon. She is a great admirer of the Signora, yet tells me that during her late tour of the Continent, there were bombings in each of the cities in which she appeared. Is this true?”
Ricci answered calmly. “No, Your Grace. That is incorrect. There were bombings, yes, but only in a few cities. Paris, London, Berlin… I think Vienna as well. Your Grace must be aware that there are malcontents in many large cities these days, and things often erupt in violence when there’s the greatest chance of notoriety, such as when a great artist is in residence. Liverpool, Hamburg, Salzburg, all of the other provincial cities we toured were as sleepy and peaceful as a Sunday in August.”
“So these bombings had nothing directly to do with the Signora?”
“Your Grace, how could you have come to such a conclusion?” Ricci asked, sounding shocked.
Artie thought hard before saying what he wanted to say next. It’s time I started things percolating.
“Signor Ricci, if the U. S. government is aware of these bombings – and I suppose that they are -- I think they might want to take certain precautions. The cities you told me did experience bombings were all capital cities. Before La Incomparabila disembarks the train in Washington, I expect someone – or perhaps many someones – will turn up to escort us to ensure that nothing happens. It would be a loss to the entire world if La Incomparabila fell victim to an agitator’s bomb. Above all, we must protect her.”
Ricci looked very surprised.
“Your Grace will not be the only American representative on the tour?”
“Hardly. Now, I can’t say for certain, but I’m guessing that in the interest of safety, we might soon find ourselves in the company of ten or more Americans from the United States Secret Service, or perhaps the military.”
“Oh, I see. Your Grace, would you…?” Ricci looked at his companions helplessly, trying to come up with an excuse that would get them out of the restaurant and back their rooms to make plans.
One of the men began coughing. Then another. And another. Within a few minutes all but Ricci were hacking in a manner that implied that they had suddenly come down with an advanced case of bronchitis.
“Your Grace, I am so sorry. You see, with the cold weather and the bad air, we are struggling with ill health. I myself have been having a difficult time. If you will forgive us, it would be best if we were to retire for the evening.”
“If you must. I am not unsympathetic. Please go now and take your rest.” While I cable headquarters and tell them to have the troops welcome us in Baltimore.
As they left one by one, Artie took a notebook from his jacket and scrawled an entry on what had just happened.
Just as returned the notebook to his pocket, he dropped his pencil. Reaching down to retrieve it he was met with the most unexpected sight. It had rolled up against a pink peau de soie shoe.
“Your Grace, when will you finally treat me as a woman and not simply as your responsibility?” Rosa asked, her voice uncharacteristically husky.
Yes, she had fallen under his sway, but in a way he neither expected nor desired.
“Can it be that you have no thought of me, when I think of nothing but you, Your Grace?”
Artie rose and began backing away.
“Signora, I am honor-bound –“
“Ridiculous!” she burst as she advanced on him.
“But Signora, my wife and my mistresses—“
“Are in Europe, while I am here, mia cara.
Artie continued to back up until he could go no further.
Rosa smiled victoriously as she put her right arm around him and began kissing him passionately, while her left hand started to fumble with his trouser buttons.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/17/2011 : 05:16:50
| Chapter 2
Jim and Leeds walked back to the hotel from the last lecture of the day on their first day in Denver. Fortunately the lecture venue and the hotel were smack in the center of town, and there were benches every block or so where Jim could rest a moment.
“This thin air is not conducive to the health and well-being of the average man of European descent, James.”
The air in Denver had never bothered him before. In fact he’d always been completely oblivious to the difference between air at this elevation and the air anywhere else in the country. But he couldn’t deny that he was now having a hard time catching his breath.
“It doesn’t seem to be affecting you, Leo.”
“Only for the reason, James, that I spend years in the Himalayas, where the air is even thinner. I learned from the Sherpas how to deal with it, and applied myself to the upbuild of my respiratory system. Had you my training, you wouldn’t be suffering so.”
“I’m not suffering,” Jim replied harshly. “You try working all day every day, covering over three thousand some miles of territory for four years straight without let-up, and you’d be grateful to sit down at a bench every now and then, too.”
“Every now and then, yes. Every few minutes, I don’t think so. Did you take my advice about the brewer’s yeast?”
“Yes.” But it reeks to the high heavens, so I threw it out.
“That should help greatly with your bruise and fatigue, and—“
“I’m not fatigued!”
“As you will, James. I think after Denver we might turn south to visit some of the Indian communities once more. They’re so much more receptive to my message.”
Even though the Indian communities they’d visited thus far barely understood English, Leeds clearly interested them and while there, he insisted on lodging among them while Jim stayed behind on the train. The saloon visits notwithstanding, Leo had been the very model of propriety among the Indians, and so Jim was comfortable with letting him go about his business alone when he requested it, which wasn’t very often. This also allowed Jim more time to rest.
They continued on, with Jim wondering when they would reach the hotel. This was not the same route they’d taken to the lecture hall. And he was exhausted.
“James, a nightcap before we return to the hotel?”
“Why not go to the hotel bar?”
Leeds shook his head. “At this time of the evening the hotel bar is likely playing host to traveling salesman and local political aspirants. Not my crowd at all, James. I think Larimer Street is where we ought to visit.”
Compared to Larimer Street, the Washington waterfront was the Champs-Élysées.
“Leo..." I’m not feeling up to it.
“Nothing.” I’ll just do whatever it takes not to get drawn into the festivities.
* * *
Artie hadn’t recognized that Rosa’s greatly altered personality, at least when she was with him, had nothing to do with awe for his social standing, and everything to do with his personal appeal. And at that moment... well, he rued the fact of his abundant sex appeal. Then he hit upon an idea that was partly inspired by what the men had just done. It wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had, but trying to find a better one would waste valuable time. Better to risk acting on a not very good idea than to be trousers-less.
He gently grabbed her wrists. “Mia Cara, please. Please be seated. I must tell you something,”
She sat. Then took his hand and began to nibble on his fingers.
“Mia cara, mia cara…” he began sadly. “Just a few months ago, I learned that I have been cursed with consumption. Although I have done all I could to hide my condition from you, for I would not ever wish to have you see my weakness, it is quite hopeless and at last I feel I no longer have the strength to continue in this charade. Once the tour is over, I shall go home to Lisbon to die.” He then took a handkerchief from his jacket and began to cough violently.
Stricken, Rosa gasped and tears began forming in her eyes. “Oh, my darling! Oh my darling!” She fell silent for a few moments, then said, “Come with me to my rooms. I shall care for you myself until such time as you have to… return home,” she choked. She took his hand and rose. “Come now.”
Artie staggered up, and covered his mouth with the handkerchief to hide his smile. This is a better idea than I thought it was!
He played his part well, leaning on her shoulder, and speaking softly about her kindness and how unfair it was that his life was being snatched from him just when he’d met the woman who might otherwise have been the love of his life. By the time they reached her door, she was weeping openly.
She flung the door open to see Concetta seated at the writing desk, studying what appeared to be a diagram of some sort. Hastily she balled it up and threw it in the drawer.
“Signora, what is this? You bring this man into your room?? How shameful!”
“It is you who should be ashamed, Concetta. Do you not see my tears? His Grace is –“
“No, mia cara. No, she does not need to know my business. May I… may I sit down and rest a moment?” Artie said weakly.
“Of course, my darling.”
Artie crumpled onto the divan as if he expected to die long before he got anywhere near Lisbon.
Rosa took Concetta roughly by the arm and dragged her into the bed chamber. As soon as the door closed, the women began arguing loudly in Italian, with Concetta insisting that Artie leave and Rosa nearly shrieking that the poor man was dying and nothing would stop her from making what little time he had left pleasant.
Certain that the discussion would go on for some time, Artie went to the desk and seized the crumpled paper. It was a hand-drawn diagram. Or maybe it was a map. He couldn’t tell, but decided to keep it in case it had any significance.
Soon the storm passed; it sounded as if Rosa had won the argument. Artie recommenced coughing, since he guessed correctly that she’d be at his side again any minute.
“My darling, I am so sorry for what just transpired. My little Concetta, faithful as she is, is often over-concerned with propriety.”
“As well she should be,” Artie said between coughs. “La Incomparabila is a woman of unassailable dignity and virtue.”
She frowned. “Virtue means little when one is in love, my darling.”
La Incomparabila sure isn’t easily put off. “My dear, please do not torture yourself. As I said, my condition is hopeless. Let us remain friends only. Perhaps... perhaps there is a next life and there and then we may come together as lovers. ”
Concetta returned to the parlor and stood with her hands on her hips, staring at Artie.
“I do not believe His Grace is ill. Una vittima della tubercolosi non e cosi grassa!"
Artie stared back, trying to appear uncomprehending. She’s right, though. I am a little too healthy-looking – or just plain overweight – to be a convincing consumptive.
She then made an odd gesture and burst “Malocchio!” before lumbering out of the room.
“Signora Concetta doesn’t like me. That makes me very sad,” he said pitifully.
“What does it matter? She is old and ugly, like a witch from a fairy story,” Rosa replied bitterly. “She is a peasant, an ignorant peasant.”
“It does matter. You see, I wish to be at peace with everyone before…” He began to cough again. “Please, tell me about her.”
“I found her in Napoli. She had worked in the house of a great family, a very great family, but they had fallen on evil days, and could no longer support their large staff. She came with sterling credentials.”
“What has she told you about that family? Anything?”
“Nothing. She is just a servant.”
“Has she said anything about me? Why she so dislikes me?”
“She claims to have seen you in the guise of a caretaker. She is sometimes a bit mad, especially where her betters are concerned.”
“How do you mean?”
Rosa took his hand. “Cara mia, why so interested in her? If it is true your days are numbered... I pray not, but if it is true, why waste valuable time thinking about a stout little witch from Calabria, when that time would be better spent thinking about the woman who loves you?”
Oh, I think about her all the time. Her name is Thora. “Signora, indulge me,” he said, before going on another coughing jag.
“Concetta claims to be nobility herself,” Rosa laughed disdainfully. “Descended from one of the Doges of Venice, she insists. But why does she have the face and form of a farmer’s daughter from Cosenza? She is no more Venetian than you are American.”
“Does she relate well to the men on your staff?”
“I should say so! Except for my accompanist and manager, she has hand-picked them all. Sometimes it would seem they are working for her and not for me.”
“I see. Where are her accommodations?”
“Her accommodations? She occupies a little cupboard for servants, which is next to my suite.”
“Could I see it?”
Rosa nestled next to him. “My poor angel, your reason has abandoned you, I fear. Why should the approval of a menial mean so much to you?”
“I shall be leaving this world very soon, and I wish to leave it having been at peace with everyone. Is she there now, do you think?”
“Probably not. When she is miffed, she goes to her little coterie of followers for solace.”
“Could I see it now? Please?”
“If it would make you happy.”
“It would, cara mia,” he replied, with a dreamy expression on his face. “So happy.”
* * *
“James, what will you have?”
“Huh?” It was almost impossible to hear anything Leeds said. The crowd in the Dead Indian was very noisy, plus the sound of gunfire in the street was very disconcerting.
Leeds leaned in closer. “A drink, James. What would you have to drink?”
Jim yawned, and tried to collect his thoughts. A drink? “Whatever you’re having, Leo.”
“James, there’s a vacant table in the back there. Please secure it for us.”
Jim pushed his way though the crowd and finally reached the table. He had to resist the impulse to rest his head on it and close his eyes. A few moments later a glass appeared in front of him.
“Whiskey, James. The man at the bar assured me that this is the finest available on this side of town.”
“All that means is that… is that… it’s the whiskey that’s been watered down the least.”
“Perfectly true, I’m sure,” Leeds smiled before taking a sip. “Look at these people, James. If you’d never seen people like this before, what would be your first impression?”
The patrons were all male, mostly filthy, and only a few boasted a full set of teeth. All carried at least one weapon, a gun or a knife, but most had more than one.
“First impression?” Jim looked the crowd over. “They’re… I think…” Why am I having such a hard time expressing a coherent thought? “They… they… probably have never darkened the door of a Sunday school.”
Leeds gave a hearty laugh. “Very apt. But isn’t there something the slightest bit admirable about them? They are what they are for all to see, and are proud of it. There is no hypocrisy, no cant. The case can be made that the world could not have evolved to its present state of development without people such as these.”
Jim ceased paying attention, tired of hearing Leeds sing the praises of mere thugs.
After pontificating awhile on why the founders of the royal houses of Europe were very much like the patrons of the Dead Indian, Leeds noticed Jim’s indifference.
“James, I perceive that you are not in agreement.”
“I’m not. I’m not a… a historian, but I can’t see anything good coming from people like these. And considering that more than once I’ve had to stand between you and one of them… that makes me think maybe you… you don’t even believe what you’re saying.”
“It’s true my fondness for them is unrequited. That I will concede. However, your definition of what is good is so patently ridiculous, so counter to the proper values of mankind – mankind, James – that I find myself wondering if your mind developed in an atmosphere dominated by women and girls. Not that women and girls don’t have their function,” he smiled, “but beyond cooking my meals, submitting to my physical attentions and bearing my children, they are completely useless – even dangerous – and should be kept under rigorous supervision.”
“Where are your women now? You wife and your… lady friends.”
“On the other side of the ocean. I have a mission in this country, James, and I cannot be distracted. Once I return to them, I shall probably be in rut at least ten hours a day. Three of them are used for this purpose only. The others – the wife and two sisters I bought in a slave market in Servia – are my brood mares.”
Ugh. “What’s this mission you’re talking about?”
“James, history teaches us that the proper vocation of man, the natural order, so to speak, is warfare. Why, it’s even taught in what is termed ‘the Good Book.’ Something damning in there about King David neglecting to go to war and instead spending his days ogling his neighbor’s wife...”
Jim raised an eyebrow. He’d known a number of what he called ‘chicken hawks,’ men who would expound on the glory of warfare and warriors at the slightest provocation, but who would be conspicuously absent when the call for soldiers went out.
“What wars have you fought in, Leo?”
“None that you would have heard of, none that concerned the white man. But I have fought in many times and in many places. It cost me an eye, but it was a modest price to pay for what I learned.”
“And what you learned was… that people should be at their neighbor’s throats at all times,” Jim said sarcastically.
Leeds smiled widely. “Not people. Just men.”
“If all men are busy fighting one another, who… who is it that tills the fields and keeps the factories running? Who keeps the government running? Who is going to... to be sailing the boat that will take you back to England? You would not have women doing it, I’m sure.”
“You’re catching on, James,” Leeds smiled again. “How did it happen in ancient days? The losers became enslaved. Slavery, too, is part of the natural order of things.”
“It is not. All men – and women – are created equal,” Jim protested ardently. “Everyone should be free!”
Leeds shook his head. “Would you consider a child of six working in a mill for twelve hours a day ‘free?’ Or his mother, who works sixteen hours a day, and can barely feed herself because her husband, who works no hours a day since losing an arm in a factory accident, spends most of what she earns on gin?
Your slaves in the southern states may not have been treated with kid gloves, but neither did they starve. They may not have had the right to go to school, but neither does that child of six, because if he does not work, he will not eat, nor will he have a place to lay his head. All of your American anti-slavery reformers turned a blind eye to the wage slavery in the mills and the mines, which is infinitely crueler to what was practiced in the South.”
“So those people would be better off as slaves?”
“They’d be treated better, certainly, if they were property instead of what you call free.”
“Let me understand this: you want a society where the men are... are continually engaged in war, and everything else is done by slave labor. Correct?”
“In a word, yes. It is, of course, a bit more complex than that, but that is the essence.”
“Leo, what about this crowd here? I don’t think they’d agree to be either warriors or slaves.”
Just then, two men came reeling over and stopped in front of Leeds.
“My frien’ here, he says you’re a Indian, but I say ya ain’t!”
“C’mon, Bobby, he ain’t no lily white man lookin’ like that! Maybe he’s a half-breed, but one half’s sure as shootin’ genuwine Injun.”
Bobby poked Jim in the chest. “Whaddya say ‘bout it? He ain’t no Indian, right?”
Jim shot a glace at Leeds, whose face bore a very serene expression, as if he were somewhere else completely.
“You’re going to have to ask the man himself, pal.”
“Mister, you better come clean,” the second man said to Leeds. “This place ain’t called the Dead Indian for nothing, ya know.”
“James, I’ll let you handle this.”
Of course you would. Well, sooner or later these two will get bored and look for someone else to bother.
“So what is it, Pee Wee?” Bobby asked, again poking Jim in the chest.
Jim waved Bobby’s hand away. “He’s English, at least as far as I know,” he replied evenly.
“See, Jack? I tolja! The guy’s a Brit,” Bobby said with pride.
“Not lookin’ like that he ain’t. I seen a Brit once, back in Virginia. Dressed just like a white man, he was. Not anything like this here character. So you better tell the truth, Pee Wee.”
“Look, I told you once already. You want to know, you go to the horse’s mouth,” Jim replied angrily, as he cocked his head in Leeds’ direction.
“But James, they asked you,” Leeds grinned.
If I was feeling up to it, I’d clean your clock, you sonofa*****. “Leo, I’m going to call it a night,” Jim said rising.
He was no sooner on his feet when he felt Jack’s fist slam into his midsection, followed immediately by a shot to the jaw. Dazed, he fell to his knees, and threw a punch that missed its target by nearly two feet. A second shot to his jaw sent him into darkness.
Leeds got up to examine him.
He’s nearly done for. I’ll have to lay off for a week or two.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/17/2011 : 05:37:30
| Chapter 3
Concetta’s room was just like any other servant’s accommodation. It was tiny, with the bare minimum of accoutrements: a narrow bed, wall cabinet for hanging up clothes, a small table with a wash basin, and a single wooden chair. The main difference was that on the wall hung a small micro-mosaic frame which held a portrait of a middle-aged nobleman. Judging by his clothing, it had been painted around 1810 or so.
Artie pointed it out to Rosa while coughing. When he recovered himself he asked, “Who is that?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it before.”
“Why would I? I am not in the habit of visiting my servants in their rooms.” she replied, as if such a thing was far beneath her.
Artie took the frame from the wall and studied it. A medallion on the man’s coat had a winged lion in the center, the symbol of St. Mark, patron of Venice. Just before he returned it to its place on the wall, he felt a piece of paper tucked in the back of the frame. He removed the yellowed vellum sheet very carefully, and unfolded it to see that it was a baptismal certificate. Although the ink was faded he was able to make out the date: September 9, 1814. Mother’s name: Teresa Maria Baseggio. Father’s name: unknown. But under that line someone had scribbled ‘Giuseppe Manin.’ Child’s name: Concetta.
Artie recalled that the youngest son of the last doge of Venice, Ludovico Manin, was named Giuseppe. Was he the man in the painting? And could he have been Concetta’s father?
“Have you seen enough, Your Grace?” the Signora asked impatiently. She wanted to try once again to get him into bed. Surely he was not so far gone that he would be unable to perform.
“Hardly, Mia Cara. You see, this is the first time in my life – in my entire life – that I have seen the accommodations afforded servants. It’s rather fascinating, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t,” she muttered, then embraced him from behind. “There’s a lovely moon out this evening. Would you like to see it from my balcony?”
“Would that I could,” he replied morosely. “No doubt I would take a chill, and then where would I be?” He began coughing again.
Unaccustomed to disappointment, Miss Montebello took him by the hand and led him back to her suite.
“Your Grace, please. I am a woman alone in the world, and you are ill. Can we not soothe one another?” With a sweep of her hand, she pointed to the bed.
There was a glint in her eye which told him that if his answer was no, there would be hell to pay.
Alright, you asked for it. “Mia cara, I will bring up a bottle of wine to your suite,” he winked.
Suddenly she was as giddy as a child. “Please, darling, do not make me wait.”
“Never,” he whispered, backing out of the room.
* * *
Jim revived just as Leeds and another man were dragging him into the hotel room.
In spite of the fact that his arm hurt, his gut hurt, and he’d never felt so sick in his entire life, he pulled away from their grasp with only one thought in his head. I’d never consider bowing out of an assignment, but if I would this is the one.
"James, you’ve come back to us! Good show! You see, I told you that Mr. West was nearly super-human," Leeds said to the porter who had helped carry him.
"He don’t look super anything to me. Not with that pallor. I don’t get it; he feels pretty muscular, but his skin looks like it belongs on a corpse. Maybe he’s got a blood disorder?"
"Precisely what I surmised. Perhaps when the lecture tour is over, Mr. West might want to consult a specialist."
"What?" Jim mumbled as he stalked to his room. "Nothing’s wrong with me. Just need... just need a vacation."
He hadn’t made more than five steps in the direction of his room before he dropped to the floor. It was as if his body had been replaced with someone else’s. Whatever it would take to simply get up, he no longer possessed.
Leeds motioned to the porter, and they dragged him to his bed. Jim was silent, and his eyes were closed.
Something really is wrong with me.
* * *
Artie returned with a bottle of Bordeaux and two glasses, one of which he had treated with a sedative he’d recently developed.
He knocked, and the door was answered by Rosa, wearing the sheerest garment he’d ever seen. It left absolutely nothing to the imagination.
“Do I please you, Your Grace?” she asked kittenishly.
After his first glimpse, Artie tried to keep his eyes on her face. “Er… yes, mia cara.”
“How flushed your face is! I wonder why.”
Have a look at yourself in the mirror, Signora.
“Are you not chilly in that… article of clothing, Signora?”
She smiled. “I am on fire, my darling!” she said, as she took him by the arm and led him to the bed.
“But first the wine, my dear! Let us toast one another before we… engage in love.” The sooner he could get her to drink the wine, the better. He was helpless to control his natural response to her appearance, and if she noticed… well, that wasn’t something he wanted to think about.
“Of course. Why so very nervous, Your Grace? If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were a callow schoolboy.”
At the moment, I wish I were a callow schoolboy. Then I would be somewhere else.
“Why so nervous? Because you are La Incomparabila!”
“No, I am just a woman,” she said in a low voice. “Just a woman who wants you, mia cara. Wants you desperately.”
He removed the cork from the bottle and filled her glass and then his own.
“To love, mia cara,” he murmured.
“To love, Your Grace.”
They stared intently at one another until Artie said, “My dear, you must finish your wine.”
“Must I? Your lips shall be my wine.”
“Please, mia cara, this is wine from my own vineyards.” Artie had been careful to remove the label before he returned to her suite. “I lay it before you as I lay my heart before you.”
“Then I will drink it.”
Within a few minutes she had polished off the glass, and almost immediately she became drowsy.
“Mia cara, you enjoyed it, I take it?”
“Yes,” she yawned. “It was very nice.”
“I think not, Your Grace. Let us rest for just a moment.”
She lay back on the bed, and Artie curled up beside her until he was certain that she was sleeping. Then he got up and went back to Concetta’s room.
There was nothing of interest in the clothes cabinet; there were only two black broadcloth dresses and one made of silk, a sturdy pair of black shoes, and a small case that held only her lingerie. As soon as he saw what it held, he closed it. Then something told him to look again.
After digging through corsets and stockings, he realized the case had a false bottom. There were bottles in there, and what felt like a packet of letters. It wouldn’t be a good idea to remove the case since he might not be able to get it back before she noticed it missing, but it was unlikely that she checked the false bottom too often. Using her pillowcase as a bag, he scooped the bottles and papers into it, then extinguished the light and returned to his room.
He lined up the bottles on his washstand. They turned out to contain a variety of substances which, when mixed together, would make for an exceptionally impressive explosion.
So the old girl is the ringleader!
He untied the ribbon that held the letters together and began to read. The earliest letter was dated December 20, 1814. It was written using many Venetian idioms. It opened with “My Dear Don Giuseppe, you have not seen our daughter in over a month. She is a most cunning child, and every day looks more and more like her papa. I know that you would love her, as I do. I should never think it right to ask any more of you, since you have been so generous with us, but visiting your own daughter should not be considered an obligation, but a joy…”
There were many similar letters, and slowly the tone became more and more desperate. The last was dated May 12, 1817, and was written on official stationery.
On behalf of Don Giuseppe, I am returning all gifts,
appeals for help, and any other miscellany with which you
have seen fit to burden him. He has been most patient
with you, but after this missive will no longer subsidize
you nor your bastard child.
There is herein enclosed a draft for one hundred lire.
Please do not trouble Don Guiseppe further, or he shall
have no recourse but to involve legal authority.
Vittorio del Buono
Chamberlain, Palazzo Duado”
Artie shook his head as he returned the letter to its envelope. It was the sad old story: a naive young woman seduced and abandoned by a powerful man.
Looks like Concetta sure has good reason to despise the gentry.
He got up and went out back where the outhouses were, and emptied the bottles. Back in his room he filled them with water. Just before everyone’s luggage was put on the train to Baltimore, he’d find a way slip everything back into her case.
* * *
Artie awoke at 4:30 in the morning and crept up to Miss Montebello’s suite. He mussed his hair, unbuttoned his shirt halfway, removed his shoes and socks and dropped them near the bed. Next he threw himself onto the divan, intending to do the rest of the night’s sleeping there. She’d be awakening in another hour or two, and he wanted her to think he had stayed.
Just before he closed his eyes, he wondered when or if Concetta had come back.
* * *
Ugh! Isn’t too early in the season for flies? Artie, barely awake, blindly swatted at whatever it was that was landing on his forehead.
A warm hand took his and kissed it. “Your Grace! It is only I!”
He opened his eyes, as Rosa began running her fingers through his hair.
“Wasn’t it wonderful last night, Your Grace?”
“Huh? Oh! Yes... yes. So very wonderful, mia cara.” He moved to a sitting position and began to cough.
“It seemed so much like a dream,” she whispered.
Well, that’s because it must have been a dream, madame. “Yes, mia cara.”
“Why did you leave me to sleep here?” she asked, puzzled.
“My dear, what if Signora Concetta had popped in? Surely, she would not be pleased.”
Rosa sighed. “That is true, Your Grace. But I’m sure she’s sleeping now. Would you like lie with me awhile?”
That glint was back in her eye.
“But mia cara, I am completely destroyed! Completely! Why, you were a tigress! In all my years I have never had such a night with a woman. I fear I shall never recover!” he burst, before going back to coughing.
Fortunately, this pleased her.
“My poor lamb,” she smiled as she caressed his hand. “My poor lamb, it may sound a bit wicked, but I’m glad it was enough for you. I shall be so busy in Baltimore. I have decided to exchange some arias for simpler ones. Simple arias for simple American ears. It was foolish to start out with material only a European audience could appreciate. I shan’t need you at all the next few days. As soon as we arrive today, and also tomorrow, I’ll be spending all my time my arranger and accompanists.”
“I shall be on my own all day?” he asked, trying to sound pained.
“Yes, darling. But once everything is in place, you and I...” She stopped and kissed him passionately.
As soon as it was appropriate, he broke away and began to cough again. So I’ll get to look in on Thora!
* * *
At that moment Concetta was fuming in her room. She had slept all night on a pillow lacking a pillowcase. What kind of standards did this hotel have if the chambermaids, upon changing the linens, forgot to replace all of it?
She slipped out of her nightgown and went about dressing for the day. As she picked up her lingerie case, she noticed immediately something was wrong. It was far too light.
* * *
Jim was in bed, staring up at the ceiling. His excuse that he was tired due to having to work for four years straight was getting thin.
Do I have to see a doctor?
He hated going to doctors, hated everything to do with it. Hated being poked and prodded and told what to do, when he already knew how to take care of himself, thank you very much. Even though Service regulations stated that all field staff must undergo annual physicals, he had successfully ignored that order for years.
What did that Frenchman die of?
There was a knock on the door, and the sounds of more than one person outside.
“James, are you up yet?”
“Awake, but not quite up. What do you need?”
The door opened and a trolley bearing a large tray entered, pushed by a room service attendant, who was followed by a smiling Leeds.
“James, I’m giving you a holiday today. My only request is that you finish what’s on the tray. I’m getting very concerned about you.”
The tray bore a rare T-bone steak, an omelet, some fruit, coffee and rolls.
“There will be a similar meal come noon or so. If you feel better, we’ll go out to dinner. If not, then the excellent room service staff will have another meal for you at six p.m., and something to tide you over around ten tonight.”
“Why do you feel the need to stuff me?” Jim snapped.
“To stuff you? Hardly. I see that you aren’t quite well. You know what Hippocrates said, I trust: ‘Let your medicine be your food, and your food be your medicine.’”
Jim attacked the steak, while Leeds settled into a boudoir chair with a cup of coffee.
“Leo, I heard that a traveling companion you had for a lecture tour in Europe – a Frenchman – died at some point during the tour. Is that true?”
“It is,” Leeds replied.
“Would you care to elaborate?” Jim asked between bites.
“The man was 6’9” or 6’10” with a very broad build. It is my understanding that persons so large often develop heart problems. Difficult, I suppose, for a normal-sized heart to keep an oversized individual going for very long.”
“What happened exactly? It wasn’t as if he was perfectly fine one minute, and the next just keeled over?”
“No. I suppose if I hadn’t been so focused on preparing and delivering my lectures, I might have observed that he didn’t appear to be well. I regret that; perhaps I could have done something that might have prevented his death.”
Jim watched Leeds carefully as he spoke. Leo had been making eye contact up to the point where Jim had asked what exactly had happened. But then his answer was made while he was appeared to be studying the wallpaper.
He’s not telling the truth.
* * *
At five in the morning, just before the luggage was loaded onto the train, Artie waylaid the porter.
“That little case there, can I take it for just a moment? I need to transfer the contents of this bag,” he said, holding up the pillowcase.
“Sure thing. Take your time.” The porter then joined the other men who were struggling to get the Signora’s Bechstein rosewood concert grand into the freight car.
Fortunately, no one from the tour was anywhere in the vicinity. Miss Montebello was presiding over a company breakfast in the hotel dining room. Artie had told her he might be a little late.
Ten minutes later, he strolled in and took his place next to her. Concetta was on his left, and looking daggers at him.
After spending a minute or two coughing, he bid her good morning. “How nice you look this today,” he smiled.
“May I ask you a question, Your Grace?”
“Surely not, Concetta! How very impertinent!” Miss Montebello burst unbelievingly.
“Forgive me, Your Grace,” Concetta replied, with what sounded like feigned humility.
“Nothing to forgive, my dear.”
Between coughs, he made light conversation with the rest of the table, while he made plans to make contact with headquarters once they reached Baltimore.
* * *
The train pulled into Baltimore at two in the afternoon. Artie was the first one off. Unbeknownst to him, Concetta was second.
After making a beeline to the nearest telegraph office, he was disappointed to learn that the week before there had been a fire along several miles of line, and repairs were expected to take another ten days.
Well, there isn’t going to be any bombing any time soon. The chemicals Concetta now needs can’t be found just anywhere.
He hit upon the idea to invite the men to lunch, where he would quiz them on what they remembered about the bombings in Europe. Hopefully, their recollections would include some personal details he could use.
At the hotel, all the men, with the exception of the accompanists, were grouped around the front desk, looking lost. Even Ricci.
“Is there a problem, gentlemen?” Artie asked. “Something with our room reservations perhaps?”
“Er... no, Your Grace, it is that... we are waiting for someone,” Ricci replied.
“Oh? And who might that be?”
The men all looked toward the doorway, and suddenly all relaxed. Concetta was entering the lobby.
Artie ignored her. “Signor Ricci, would you and the rest of the gentlemen like to join me for a repast? Surely for whomever you are awaiting, all you need to is leave the name with the front desk man, and when the person appears, he will summon you.”
Ricci glanced nervously at the approaching Concetta.
“Your invitation is very kind, Your Grace, but... but we have previous plans. Perhaps another time,” he answered.
“Yes, another time. I look forward to it, gentlemen.”
Artie backed away, tipped his hat to Concetta, and left in search of a cab that would take him to the Abbott School.
After speaking briefly with the men, Concetta followed at a distance.
* * *
The Abbott School occupied several Palladian buildings on the west side of town. Teenaged girls were walking about the broad lawns in twos and threes, some of them bundled up in what looked like sable. A few turned their attention to the expensively dressed man with the prominent facial scars.
Artie noticed one who was giggling at him. A petite blonde who, it was clear, would one day be a great beauty.
“Young lady, could you please direct me to the headmistress’s office?”
“The headmistress, sir?”
“Yes, the headmistress. Surely this institution has one.”
“Who wants to know?” the girl asked impudently.
“One of your betters, young lady,” Artie answered coolly.
“One of my — !” she stuttered. “The very nerve! Don’t you that I’m the daughter of – !?”
“A robber baron, whose father was a dirt farmer or perhaps a chicken thief,” Artie broke in. “I, on the other hand, am a duke. Now, will you answer my question, please? As politely as you can manage?”
For a moment the girl was speechless, then pointed to the main building and babbled the office number.
Artie hadn’t intended to give her a hard time, but found it oddly satisfying. Thora had often alluded to the difficulties of dealing with some of these girls, who possessed an overwhelming sense of entitlement.
He entered the office jauntily, finding it a little difficult to hide his giddiness over seeing Thora for the first time in over a month. How much different would Thora the school teacher be from Thora his darling?
“May I help you, sir?” asked a zaftig middle-aged woman, sizing him up and down.
“Yes, you may. I am Enrique Hector Maria Lopes y Würzenthal, Duke of Estoril. I am interested in this establishment as I am seeking a suitable place for the education of my daughter. Are you the headmistress?”
As soon as she heard the word ‘Duke,’ the pince nez nearly dropped from the woman’s nose.
“No, sir. I’m Mrs. Dewey, the bursar. If you’d like to make an appointment for a week from now -- our headmistress Miss MacDougal is away until then – but she would be happy to...”
“I think not, madame. I am told that there is a very superior instructor here, a Miss Thora Copley. I will speak to her instead.”
“Miss Copley? I believe she’s engaged at the moment. She’s directing our spring play, you see. The Abbott School is well-known for the quality of its dramatic presentations. Of course, our girls don’t become professionals, but we find it to be a very satisfactory means of teaching poise,” Mrs. Dewey said proudly.
She then added hastily, “Naturally your girl, being the daughter of a nobleman, would not need instruction in that area, but so many of our pupils do.” Dropping her voice to a whisper, she continued, “A dreadful amount of nouveau riche have turned their eyes toward Abbott. But you can be sure that your daughter would be shielded from their influence.”
“Will you produce Miss Copley please?”
“But sir, as I said she’s ...”
“I am a very busy man, madame. If I cannot meet with Miss Copley, I shall make inquiries at another school.”
“Er... Yes, sir. Will you have a seat? I’ll see if she has a few minutes for you, sir.”
“Thank you, madame.”
Mrs. Dewey entered as one of the girls on stage struggled through Portia’s soliloquy.
“Josephine, it’s ‘the quality of mercy is not strained. You’re saying ‘stained.’”
Thora was becoming very exasperated. “Josephine, where is your script?”
“Miss Copley? Miss Copley, may I speak to you for a moment?” Mrs. Dewey whispered timidly.
“Josephine, I want you to read through Portia’s speech again.”
Thora then turned toward Mrs. Dewey. “Yes, what is it?”
“Miss Copley, there’s a gentleman in my office – a duke! – who wants to enroll his daughter. He wishes to speak to you.”
“To me? Why would he want to speak to me?”
“I don’t know. He’s not willing to make an appointment for Miss MacDougal, and he says if he can’t see you, he’ll enroll his daughter elsewhere. I needn’t remind you that Miss MacDougal would be very disappointed if we were to lose a duke.”
“Why don’t you have Miss Ravenal speak with him? She’s much more senior than I am.
“But Miss Copley, he asked for you.”
Thora sighed. This would actually be a welcome break. The play was not going well.
“Girls, I’ll be back in a few minutes. Please look at your scripts. No chattering.”
Out in the hallway, Mrs. Dewey described the visitor.
“He’s very handsome, or at least he would be if he didn’t have such dreadful scars. He must have been a soldier.”
“Where is he from?”
“Gracious, Miss Copley, it didn’t even occur to me to ask. You ask him, and then tell me, will you?”
Mrs. Dewey opened the office door to see the duke standing at the window with his back to her.
“Your Grace, here is Miss Copley.”
Artie turned, and Thora’s mouth dropped open.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/17/2011 : 05:54:04
| Chapter 4
“This is Miss Copley? This exquisite child? No, no, you must be mistaken, Mrs. Dewey. This couldn’t possibly be the woman I was told of. A teacher of her reputation would be many years older, and far less attractive.”
“Sir, this is Miss Copley.”
Mrs. Dewey looked helplessly toward Thora and then to Artie, and again back to Thora.
“You’ll have to believe us, Your Grace.
Artie moved toward Thora, who was trying not to smile.
“Tell me the truth, are you Miss Copley?”
“I am, sir. And you are?”
“I? I am a man bewitched by your beauty.”
“Do you have a name?”
“Miss Copley!” Mrs. Dewey cried. “How very rude.”
Artie cleared his throat. “Not at all, Madame. It is I who have been rude. Miss Copley, my name is Enrique Hector Maria Lopes y Würzenthal. I am the Duke of Estoril.”
Thora curtsied. “I am very happy to make your acquaintance, Your Grace.”
* * *
“Where’s Artie? I have to talk to Artie!”
Jim sought him everywhere. He wasn’t in the varnish car, or in headquarters. Jim ran through the streets of Washington calling for him, and yet he was not to be found.
“Artie, stop playing this game!! I need to talk to you!”
Then he felt his shoulders being shaken roughly.
“James? Who is this Artie person?”
He opened his eyes. The light was very low, but he could make out Leeds’ face. And there was the smell of food.
Jim ignored the question. He suddenly felt very nauseous.
He struggled to get up. “Out of my way, I’m going to be sick.”
“Just a moment, James. Here.” Leeds took him by the arm and led him to an overstuffed chair by the window.
“Sit, head between your knees and take a deep breath.”
“I let you sleep through what would have been your mid-day meal, and was very surprised to find you still sleeping.”
Jim shrugged. “Guess I was tired.”
“James, who is Artie?”
“My partner. It’s very rare for us not to be working on the same assignment.”
“I see,” Leeds frowned. “James, we’ve spent how much time together now – nearly three weeks? You know, I was so certain that sooner or later you would come to accept my view of the way the world should work, and express an interesting in joining me in my work.”
Jim laughed derisively. “I think I made myself pretty clear, Leo.”
“Considering your reputation, I have to think that maybe you’re lying to me. Or lying to yourself.”
“Neither,” Jim said firmly.
Leeds rose and paced the room. “That’s very disappointing, James. You know, I had a similar conversation with a friend of mine, a Mr. Hippolyte. He was a great deal like you. Oh, about twice your size, and a sight less intelligent, but he had the same misconceptions about the true nature of mankind as you do.”
“Was that the Frenchman who died?”
“Umm? He may have been. He may well have been.”
Leeds turned and looked at Jim as if it were the first time he’d ever seen him. “Yes, he may well have been,” he repeated.
A chill went up Jim’s spine.
* * *
Artie and Thora held hands across the table, both beaming at one another.
“And what will I tell Mrs. Dewey when she asks where why the duke didn’t come back to enroll his daughter?”
“Oh, I’ll come up with something. Now where is that man with our sorbet?” Artie asked, craning his neck to see.
“Artemus, you’d better –”
“Here he is, Signora!”
Artie turned back around to see Rosa Montabello and Concetta approaching their table, Miss Montebello’s face purple with rage.
“She warned me!! My little Concetta warned me about you, and I did not believe her!! Could not believe that one who shared my chamber, would be out romancing this... this strumpet!!"
Every head in the restaurant was turned in their direction.
Artie was tempted to laugh. Thora was the furthest thing from a strumpet that he could possibly imagine.
Not in the least insulted, Thora asked in a girlish voice, “Papa, is this the lovely lady you were telling me about? Papa?”
“Yes, yes, daughter. This is she,” Artie replied uncomfortably, lapsing into the duke’s accent.
“Daughter? Ha, don’t think me a fool!” Rosa hissed.
Ignoring this outburst, Artie calmly introduced Thora as his daughter, Princessa Giovanna.
“You needn’t bow,” Thora said kindly, as if Miss Montebello and Concetta had the merest inclination to do so.
“Your Grace,” Concetta began, “the men from the company have issued an invitation to meet with you.”
“Wonderful! I shall appear once I’ve escorted my daughter home. She’s been staying with an American family, you see, while studying French and German with some of the instructors from the Abbott School. Fluency will be such a help when I’ve finally selected a husband for her. I’m told that the Count de Paris has several sons of marital age, and also that a number of the junkers of Prussia would make very fine husbands. We’re hedging our bets, as the Americans would put it. And furthermore,...”
“Why, she’s thirty if she’s a day!” Rosa shrieked before turning away with a flourish. She took Concetta by the hand and stalked out of the restaurant. Just before going through the door, Concetta took a last look at Artie.
“Your Grace, please announce yourself when you return to the hotel.”
“Of course, madame.”
Thora watched them go with a quizzical expression on her face.
“I’m so sorry, Thora, to have subjected you to that scene,” Artie said, taking her hand once again.
“Hmm? Oh, no, it was quite interesting. She’s got her wrapped around her little finger.”
“I beg your pardon? Who’s got who wrapped around her finger?” Artie asked, puzzled.
“The older lady – Concetta? It’s very apparent that she is driving the train, so to speak.”
“You think so? Why?”
“Artemus, when you’ve had as much experience with the rich as I’ve had – and I daresay this applies also to persons of Rosa Montebello’s stature – you can observe that they’re sometimes too blind and too comfortable to see that their underlings are leading them through a pretty dance. She must have had you followed.”
“Very insightful, Thora. Concetta does seem to be in charge of Rosa’s entourage. She also dislikes me intensely.”
“Dislike you?? How is that possible?” Thora asked kittenishly, extricating her hand and playing with his fingers.
“Oh, it’s possible, alright. She’s made a hobby out of slapping me.”
“Did you really spend time in Miss Montebello’s chamber?”
“Yes. Nothing happened though; I began the encounter with some knock-out drops in her wine.”
“She, at least, is very taken with you, or she wouldn’t be as angry as she was just now. Be careful, Artemus,” Thora said.
“Sweetheart, I’m always careful. In any case, she’ll drive a body crazy, but I don’t think she’s capable of more than that.”
“Then you haven’t seen too many operas. The woman, driven mad by love, who murders her faithless lover... sound familiar?”
“I’ll be careful,” he repeated. “I’ll make sure I present myself to you in perfectly perfect condition next time we meet.”
“Mmmmm, I look forward to that,” she giggled. “Time to go now, Artemus. Maiden teachers who are not in their dormitories by nine p.m. are looked upon as loose women.”
* * *
At the front desk, Artie told the man to send someone up to Mr. Ricci’s room, to announce his return.
“Have him instruct Mr. Ricci to to summon me in my suite when they’re ready.”
Artie was looking forward to the meeting, and also looking forward to it being over. The faux scars on his face were making his skin dry and itchy, and he very much wanted to wash them off.
His intention was to go over his notes until the meeting, but when he opened the door to his suite, he realized there would be no time for that.
* * *
Leeds had left the room shortly after making sure Jim ate at least half of what had been set before him.
As tired as he was, Jim was afraid to fall back to sleep, as it would surely result in another nightmare. All throughout this trip, though it seemed he slept more than he ever had in his life, he’d awaken feeling worse than when he first lay down. If rest was part of a cure for illness, in this case it was the opposite.
He tried to read for awhile, but that gave him a headache. Then he had the idea of writing Artie another letter, but the last few times he’d tried, he was unable to compose his thoughts.
Throwing the pen aside, he got up and began to pace the room slowly and tried to remember if he’d ever known anyone with similar symptoms. He didn’t have to think long – he’d seen it several times during the war, but in each case it was the result of having been seriously wounded.
This doesn’t add up.
* * *
“Your Grace, we have been waiting eagerly for your return,” Ricci said, without his usual manner of diffidence and humility. His welcome was punctuated by hisses and laughter coming from the rest of the men.
“I don’t believe plans were made to meet in my room. Or am I mistaken?” It had taken Artie only seconds to appraise the situation. He backed up only to walk into two of the men who had positioned themselves by the door.
“You were mistaken, Your Grace. So very much mistaken,” Ricci smiled. “Have you anything else to say?”
Other than I don’t wish to undergo whatever it is you have planned for me? No.
Still smiling, Ricci said, “What is the saying in English? ‘Does the cat have your tongue?’”
“What nonsense is that?” Artie replied. Now he was moving slowly, ostensibly to take the velvet tufted chair by the window, but actually to get to the chest next to the bed. A few of his gas bombs were in there, and once he tossed one, he could leave by the balcony. “Could we at least begin with a discussion of the change of plans? It is not that I am unhappy that you are here, but I am a man who dislikes any alteration in his schedule.”
Ricci nodded to two men who were at his side. They quickly seized upon Artie and dragged him to the bed.
“Since you are soon to die, I would think you would have something weightier to say, Your Grace.”
“To die? You’re joking. And even if you weren’t, know this: as the American representative on this tour, should the United States government learn that so much as a hair on my head has been harmed, each of you will be brought up on charges. Any more than that, and you’ll likely be hanged.”
“Oh, no, Your Grace. You will not harmed.” Ricci continued in Italian, speaking to the men who were standing on each side of the bed.
With dread, Artie understood every word. “Make sure you make the cut very deep, so that there will be no question that he died from a lung hemorrhage.”
As soon as the direction was given, the men brought out the leather straps that would bind Artie’s hands and feet to the bed. They stopped their approach in response to a knock on the door.
“Come in!” Artie sang, not knowing whether it was another come to witness his end, or perhaps one of the bellmen.
“Hey, Ar–,” Jeremy stopped to take in the scene before him. “What’s going on here?”
“Oh, just an informal meeting” Artie said as he rolled off the bed. Thank God Jeremy’s here, and thank God he’s left the door open.
The men, panicked, looked at Ricci for direction. Artie took over, speaking in flawless Italian.
“You will remain in this room and not leave it until the authorities come to collect you. Any attempt to leave will be met with the severest of consequences. If you heed me, you may escape the hangman’s noose. Otherwise, your death will rest on your own head.”
He led Jeremy into the hallway, taking care to lock the door behind him.
“Right on schedule as always, Jeremy. To what can I attribute your appearance this time?”
Expecting Jeremy to start joking, he was surprised to see Jeremy’s expression registered deep concern.
“Richmond hadn’t heard from you, so he sent me along just to see what was happening.”
“I guess you got what you came for. Turns out that crew is responsible for all those bombings in Europe, and the leader of the gang is an old woman who serves as Miss Montebello’s lady’s maid. We can pick her up right now.”
“Can I show you something first?”
“Sure, Jeremy. What’s bothering you?”
“Let’s go down to the restaurant and see if we can get a private table.”
“Lead on.” Artie had never seen Jeremy look so troubled before. What could it be?
The maitre de found a small private room for them, two chairs and a small table. Artie ordered a bottle of cabernet, which he’d enjoy and which also might loosen Jeremy’s tongue, if there was something important that he couldn’t bring himself to say.
Once they were alone, Jeremy removed a stack of letters from his valise.
“Artie, I apologize in advance for this, but I don’t regret doing it. Just before I left Washington, I went to pick up the mail. Now, you know I take only my own mail, and leave everyone else’s in the box, just as we all do. But I noticed something a little off about Jim’s letters addressed to you, and so I took them, and read them.”
Jeremy slipped the letters from their envelopes and laid them out on the table in the order of their dates.
The first few letters were written in Jim’s compact, very neat scrawl, but succeeding letters were written very loosely, almost sloppily. Worse yet, with each letter the content was more confused and vague.
Artie read them silently, over and over. Finally he said, “Jeremy, I want you to get hold of the local chief of police. Show your badge and explain to them that the crowd in my room needs to be taken into custody. Also, make sure the maid – her name’s Concetta – is also taken.”
“But you said you and I can do that right now.”
“Change of plan: there’s a train to Washington leaving at midnight, and I’m going to be on it. Then I’ll inform headquarters that I’m going to see what’s happening on with this tour Jim’s on.”
“But by now Jim should be in Denver, if not farther. It’ll take you better than a week to get to him.”
“What are my options then? You observed it yourself; something is very wrong. And a few years ago someone doing the same job for Leeds that Jim is now doing died under mysterious circumstances.”
“I didn’t know that, Artie. Then you do what you have to. I’ll take care of everything here.”
“Thanks, Jeremy. Let’s go. I’ll introduce you to Miss Montebello and let her know you’re taking over.”
* * *
The scene that followed was by far the most unpleasant one Artie had ever had with a woman. He was however fortunate that when she began heaving the larger items, most notably the crystal lamps, he sustained only a black eye.
By 7:00 a.m. the following day he was back in Washington. He’d been able to catch up with Colonel Richmond just as he was about to enter the headquarters building.
“Gordon! What in the name of all that’s holy are you doing here? You’re supposed to be in Baltimore. Miss Montebello isn’t due in Washington for another three days.”
“Sir, how much have you heard from Jim?”
“I’ve heard enough. He cables fairly regularly, but just to assure us that the tour is proceeding according to plan.”
“Then I have something I want you to see. Can we go to your office?”
“What ever it is had better explain why you’re here and not where you’re supposed to be.”
Richmond was stunned at what Artie showed him. He was silent for a long time.
When he finally spoke, he said, “I’ll some men up to Baltimore on the next train. I’ll also have someone cable Leeds – he should still be in Denver – and make up some reason why he should stay for the next several days. You are charged with constructing a persona who would be able to get him to open up to you about’s going on. Have I made myself clear?”
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/17/2011 : 06:07:14
| Chapter 5
Over the next few days, Jim started to slowly feel a little better. He was nowhere near a hundred percent, but at least he had a bit less difficulty dragging himself out of bed, and was a little less eager to crawl back into it.
Leeds had insisted that the noisome brewers yeast return to his diet, hidden in mashed potatoes and in whatever other foods its taste could successfully be somewhat masked.
“James, interesting news: a journalist from the East will be accompanying us on the rest of the tour. It’s been requested that we remain in Denver until he arrives.”
“What paper is he with?”
“It did not occur to me to ask. In any case, he’s not one of your prominent names - not Mr. Greeley or Mr. Buntline.”
“Did you get his name?”
“Yes. Tarleton. Something Tarleton... Check the wastepaper basket, I tossed the cable in there.”
Jim did as instructed, curious as to where the telegram would have originated. The journalist’s name was given as A. Gentry Tarleton.
Gentry was a name Artie had used more than once. The fact that this fellow’s first initial was A suggested that perhaps this Tarleton was not a Tarleton at all, but rather a Gordon.
No, that’s not right. Rosa Montebello’s tour won’t finish for another few weeks, and this Tarleton should be here even before it’s over.
“You know, James, this is a welcome respite. Between preparing and delivering my lectures, and performing field work in the local drinking establishments, I’ve sorely lacked for female companionship. I shall take this time to tour the houses of ill repute. You are, of course, welcome to accompany me. I think it would do you good.”
“I’ve never paid for it, Leo, and I don’t intend to start now.”
“No? Then your experiences have been sadly limited. It’s been my pleasure to to spend time with girls capable of debauches that would have the pornographers of Pompeii hiding their faces in shame. You’re missing quite a lot. So how do you intend to spend these few days?”
“Just so happens I have a lady friend in Denver. Daughter of a coal baron turned philanthropist.” Jim replied. The lovely Maisie Steerforth.
Leo chuckled. “Currently resting on her divan idly popping bonbons into her maw, waiting for Papa to hand her over to just the right young man?”
“No,” Jim replied hotly. “She works days teaching children in the mining camps. She may be home in Denver, or she may be out in the wilderness working, but she is definitely not lying around doing nothing.”
Leeds bowed slightly. “My apologies. Now I must be on my way. Don’t expect to see me for at least the next 72 hours. By then two-thirds of the demimonde will have been torn nearly to shreds,” he winked.
Jim dressed carefully and an hour later presented himself at the mansion of Thomas W. G. Steerforth, only to be told that Miss Steerforth was away and would not return until early July.
He went back to the hotel, and took the risk of going into Leeds’ room. There were papers everywhere. Some he recognized as the text of lectures, others he couldn’t quite figure out since they had been written out in a language other than English. Had it been a European language, he might have at least gotten a general idea, but that was not the case.
He took a page and hid it in his jacket. If Mr. Tarleton turned out to be Artie, perhaps he could decipher it.
The next day Jim spent working on his report and, when he felt his attention wavering, taking walks around the neighborhood. After coming back from an afternoon ramble, the desk clerk handed him a dinner invitation from Mr. Steerforth. In the early evening, just before he was about to leave for the dinner, Jim ran into Leeds.
“Back early, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” came the cold reply.
Jim waited for Leeds to elaborate, but he heard nothing further.
The following morning he awakened to find the pattern had been repeated: he was thoroughly exhausted, and his arm was aching and bruised.
* * *
After that one interaction, Jim didn’t clap eyes on Leeds for another three days. Then one morning, Leeds burst into his room followed with one of the bell men pushing a room service cart.
“Just set up the tray next to that wraith in the bed, will you?” Then, addressing Jim, he clucked, “And just when I thought you were on the mend. I’m very disappointed.”
“I’m... alright. I... I’m just tired,” Jim said weakly.
“Just tired? No, I doubt that,” Leeds shrugged. “But then, I’m no medico. When you’re back in Washington, you really must present yourself to a team of doctors. The pride of the United States Secret Service should not be in in anything other than the peak of health. By the by, our friend from the fourth estate is due to arrive around noon today. Will you be up to meeting with him at some point?”
“I think so.” I hope so.
* * *
Artie bounded out of the Wanderer dressed in a suit that had seen better days, with a grimy kepi on his head. In his breast pocket was a case of business cards engraved ‘A. Gentry Tarleton, Freelance Journalist and Philospher.’
In the crowded train station, Leeds was easy to pick out. The wildly dressed stranger was given a very wide berth, and even if he hadn’t been he was at least a half a head taller than any one else there.
“Sir Davies, A. Gentry Tarleton at your service,” Artie said in a lazy drawl, before extending his hand. “An honor.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Tarleton. Good trip?”
“Very. Borrowed a whole train – engine, varnish car and all – from a rich uncle.
“So then, how shall we commence, Mr. Tarleton?”
“How? Well, to tell the truth...” Artie began, sounding embarrassed, “I hear tell that you’re traveling with one James West. Heard quite a lot about the boy when I was nipping at the heels of a hot story in Washington ‘bout a year ago. Just would like to see him in the flesh.”
“Certainly, Mr. Tarleton. If you’ve not made other arrangements, we could all meet together for dinner. But first I’d like to have a talk with you to get to know you better and to learn what exactly you’d like to write about.”
“Yes, sir, I sure do want to get to business post-haste, but it’d tickle me no end to meet Mr. West right away. Is it all possible that a meeting – just something brief – could be arranged first?”
“I suppose so,” Leeds replied idly. “My driver is waiting on the corner; his is the carriage with the two black horses. Just instruct him to take you to my hotel. The gentleman at the front desk will direct you to Mr. West’s room.”
“Pretty sure Mr. West will be in his room?”
“I’m certain of it,” Leeds smiled.
* * *
Jim lay in bed staring at the ceiling, willing himself not to fall asleep.
Twelve days, four hours, eleven minutes – give or take – and I’ll be back in Washington.
His reverie was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Yeah? Who’s that? Leo?”
“No, Mr. West. This is... ”
“Artie?” Jim whispered hopefully. Immediately, he felt stupid. Artie wouldn’t call him Mr. West.
Artie opened the door. After a burst of shock, which he struggled to conceal, he said “Beg pardon, sir. Name’s A. Gentry Tarleton. My card.”
“What brings you here?” Jim asked. He too was struggling to mask his emotions: gratitude and relief.
“Just found myself in the neighborhood. How are you doing?”
Slowly and ineptly, Jim tried to get out of bed and into something a little more appropriate then his drawers and a thin undershirt. As he did so, he shrugged, “I’m a little tired.”
“You look worse than tired, Jim.”
“No, just tired.”
“Talk to me.”
“Uh... well... just one of those things, ya know? Four years straight working, no... uh... vacations. Well, I’m... I’ll put Richmond on notice,” he said, attempting a smile. “All those gals in New Orleans pining away for us... It’s not... good public relations for the Service.”
“Jim, I’m going downstairs to get a room, and I’m going to ask where the closest doctor is located.”
“No! Things can wait until I get back to Washington.”
“I recall not to long ago you telling me that you’d seen corpses that look better than I did. And now I can say that to you, because it’s true. Something is very wrong, and don’t tell me it’s because you haven’t had a chance to chase women in New Orleans in four years. Sit tight, I’ll be back shortly.”
“I don’t know what you’re doing here anyway,” Jim muttered.
“I came because I know something is wrong with you,” Artie said simply before exiting the room.
He met Leeds on the stairway.
“Were you able to meet Mr. West?”
“Yes. A bit of a disappointment I have to say.”
At that, Leeds laughed derisively.
“You see, sir, I was my understanding that not only was West a fine physical specimen, but that he also possessed a superior intellect. It seems I was mistaken on both counts,” Artie said. “Well, it’s not the first time I’ve found the truth to be a little less rosy than it was originally represented. I sure hope you’re not gonna disappoint, Sir Davies.”
“That depends on what you’ve been told about me, Mr. Tarleton,” Leeds said, putting his arm around Artie’s shoulder and steering him toward the stairs that would lead to the hotel bar.
“Haven’t been told anything. I know you from your books, and when I heard that you were on tour in this country... why, I had an idea to scoop the big boys. You’re news, or at least you will be when I’m done with you. What brought you here, anyway? There’s not much doing for somebody like yourself.”
Leeds looked at Artie with a narrowed eye, as if to size him up. “Before I answer, may I ask you a few things?”
“Can we get drinks first? What’ll ya have?”
“I don’t suppose they offer double malt scotch,” Leeds replied dryly.
Artie whooped with laughter. “Ain’t that the damnedest thing! Double malt scotch! Closest bottle of that is about five hundred miles on the other side of the Mississippi, Sir Dave.”
“Davies. But call me Leo.”
“Alrighty, Leo. Some gin good enough for ya?”
“The nectar of the underclasses? I should say not. Some bourbon is what I’ll have.”
Drinks in hand, they went to a table in the back of the room.
Leeds knocked back his bourbon almost immediately, then raised the glass to the bartender to refill it.
“A finer quaff than I would have expected of such a place. As they say, one can’t judge a book by its cover. Speaking of books, what did you think of mine, Mr. Tarleton?”
Artie rubbed the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. “Pretty interesting stuff.”
“You have quite a unique worldview.”
“And do you share it?” Leeds asked, staring into the glass that held his second bourbon.
“Share it? Can’t say yes, and I can’t say no. Every man is entitled to his own vision. I can say, though, that I respect what you had to say in your books. Clearly you put a lot of thought into it,” Artie said, feigning a respect for Leeds that he did not feel.
“That’s a kind way of saying that you did not care for it.”
“On the contrary, Leo. I was deeply impressed. What I do agree with is the value of war and its positive effect on society,” Artie forced himself to say.
“So you do share my worldview!” Leeds snickered.
“Maybe I do at that. What will you do when you leave the states, write another book?”
“Mr. Tarleton, your calling card states that you are a philosopher. Do I have that right?”
“Then it shouldn’t shock you that I will be seeking to spread my own philosophy throughout these United States. Things have quieted down these last several years, but I think there are many in the South who would be delighted to return to the battlefield. Furthermore, among your Red Indians there are many who would eagerly wage war with the government, provided they had the means to do so.”
Artie shook his head. “Uncle Samuel wouldn’t stand for it. Not from the South, and not from the Injuns. They try, God love ‘em, and I expect they’ll continue to go on the warpath now and again, but they don’t ever win. Or if they do, it’s one step forward, two steps back.”
He went back to sipping his drink. Nothing Leeds was talking about suggested to him that Leeds had anything to do with Jim’s illness.
“Did you fight in war between the states, Mr. Tarleton?”
“On which side?”
“Fought on my own side, bub.”
At that reply, Leeds smiled broadly. “I may be able to use a man like you, Mr. Tarleton.”
“For helping me set this country aflame. We shall have wars and rumors of wars, as the Good Book terms it.
Artie, suspecting he was getting close to what exactly Leeds was planning, pasted a confused expression onto his face.
“You don’t understand, I see. Mr. Tarleton, I am a very wealthy man, and upon the demise of my father will be wealthier still. My goal is to bring war and martial values back to their proper place in society. These are my ends, and I shall soon – the old boy is well beyond his threescore and ten, and in declining health - have the means. I should like to begin in this country.”
“Why not your own?”
“Because England is an ancient country, grown stiff with age. America is young and, according to what I’ve seen, quite pliable.”
Artie did not reply, and turned his attention toward the window, pretending to be interested in the people walking by.
“I hope I did not offend you, Mr. Tarleton.”
“Offend me? Can’t be done. I was just wondering... thinking you might want to use that West fella instead of or in addition to me.”
“No. There was a time when I did hope that Mr. West might be swayed, but now he is only good for – .” Leeds stopped suddenly.
“Good for what, Sir D.?”
Leeds said nothing, just stared at Artie.
“Good for what?” he repeated.
Leeds rose abruptly. “Mr. Tarleton, I am sorry to abandon you, but I do have business elsewhere at the moment. Perhaps we can talk later.”
“Later? Later today? Tomorrow?”
“I shall contact you when I’m ready. You’re staying on here?”
“Yep. Didn’t get my room yet, but I shall forthwith. Whenever you want to jaw with me again, just ask the desk clerk. I’ll probably be spending most of my time in the room writing. You know what they say, ‘No rest for the wicked.’ Turns out that applies to us scribes as well.”
“I see. Thank you, Mr. Tarleton.” Leeds then turned and exited the barroom.
Artie waited until he saw through the window Leeds enter his waiting carriage. Then he left to book his room.
* * *
After having secured lodgings, as well as the addresses of several of the nearest doctors, Artie returned to Jim’s room, entering without knocking.
Jim was seated by the window, attempting to look as if he were engrossed in the newspaper. Obviously, he had tried a little too hard to appear his usual self. He was overdressed for that time of day, and although his face was rosy, this was not from not from health, but from having been scrubbed rather furiously. Presently it would return to the grayish shade it had possessed earlier.
“I see you expected me to come back, James.”
“Hmm?” Jim looked up and yawned. “Just let me finish this article.”
“Alright, I’ll join you in pretending everything’s fine. Now, who would you like to see?” Artie asked, as he took the list of doctors from his breast pocket. “We’ve got a Dr. John J. Smith – no, no, that sounds like an alias. He’s probably a cattle rustler in his spare time. We’ve got a Dr. Harvey Womrath, a Dr. Frank Glendenning, and last but certainly not least a Dr. Margaret Dutoit, who I was told is actually a fair approximation of a physician, at least for a woman.”
“I don’t need a doctor,” Jim said irritatedly, turning the page.
“And pigs fly.”
“Listen, smart guy,” Jim began nastily, “I know you couldn’t stand that opera singer, so you found a way out by somehow getting Richmond or somebody up high to believe whatever lie you told them. You really oughta be ashamed of yourself. The Service isn’t always fun and games as you seem to think it should be.”
“If I weren’t your best friend, I’d tear you to pieces for that remark,” Artie hissed as he advanced on him. “Lucky for you I am.”
He extended his arm to Jim’s shoulder, where Jim was expecting a condescending pat. Instead he felt a strong pinch, and the next time he opened his eyes a middle-aged woman was checking his pulse.
“Mr. West, goodness gracious, I wondered when you’d revive,” she said kindly.
Artie rose from where he was sitting.
“James, meet Dr. Dutoit.”
Jim’s eyes narrowed and he shot Artie an aggrieved look. Artie smiled in response. He knew he had to get the lady doctor, otherwise Jim would refuse to cooperate, and would only succeed in making a fool of himself.
“Nice to meet you, ma’am. It’s a shame you had to come out for nothing.”
“For nothing? Must you men be half-dead before you admit you’re ill? Honestly, the death rate among the male gender would be halved if you’d all just stop pretending you’re indestructible. Mr. West, I’m sorry to say that you’re very ill. It’s my recommendation that you return home. I can give you the names of some very able doctors in Washington.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“That I can’t quite discern. But have no doubt, you are ill and if you don’t get treatment – treatment that unfortunately isn’t yet available out here – I expect you’ll get much worse.”
“How do you figure?” Jim asked, unsuccessfully trying to mask his anger.
“Your very slighly thready pulse, your pallor... oh, and Mr. Gordon showed me some examples of your writing. It goes from well-organized and neatly written to very confused and nearly illegible, and this just over the span of a few weeks.”
Jim rolled over. “Give the list to Mr. Gordon over there. I’m going back to sleep.”
Artie beckoned the doctor to come into the hallway.
“Doctor, what do you think it could be?”
Dr. Dutoit sighed. “I noticed some bruising as well. That’s indicative of a blood disorder some physicians think may be a form of cancer. I’m very sorry, but that may be what he has. If that’s the case, I think it would be best to withold this information from him and just make him as comfortable as possible until... I’m very sorry, Mr. Gordon.”
In response to Artie’s shocked expression, she took his hand in her’s. “It’s never easy to deliver this news, Mr. Gordon. But I expect that you’d rather hear it than continue to wonder.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Artie said sadly.
After handing the doctor a few bills, he went back into the room and began packing Jim’s things.
Before putting the clothes into the trunk, he emptied the pockets. Most were already empty, but those that weren’t had only receipts and small sums of money. Until he came to one of Jim’s blue jackets.
It was a piece of paper with text written in Syraic. This had to be something Leeds gave him. Artie stopped what he was doing and took it to his own room, in order to translate it.
It was very slow going. Artie understood written Aramaic fairly well, and Syraic was a related language, but not so closely related that he could just breeze through it.
The document had something to do with warfare, naturally, and it seemed to focus on a single pagan practice, but Artie was unfamiliar with the words used to describe it. He read it over several times without success until his eyes began to get tired.
He had the idea to lie down for ten minutes or so, just to clear his head.
When just a few minutes passed, he was bolt upright. In that short period of time, his mind relaxed and what had been in the text became clear to him. And that answered not just one, but several questions.
Including what was wrong with Jim.
SS 1st assignment - desk job
Posted - 08/17/2011 : 06:35:15
| Chapter 6
Some hours later, shortly after he returned from a trip to the Wanderer to pick up a few items, Artie heard a rap on his door.
“Leo, come right on in and make yourself to home,” Artie said, indicating the bed, the only other flat surface the room contained other than the floor and the chair Artie was seated in. “Don’t have the budget to get a room of the caliber that West fella has. Uncle Samuel musta provided him with a hefty expense account.”
“Have you seen, Mr. West recently, Mr. Gentry? It appears he’s not in his room.”
That’s because I’ve moved him. “Nope. Was he expecting you?”
Leeds ignored the question. “Then it shall be just you and I for dinner.”
“That’s A-OK fine with me, Sir D. That West...” he said, shaking his head. “Like I said, he was a big disappointment. I’m of the belief that life’s too short to waste it on certain folks.”
“Mr. Tarleton, it seems you’re an elitist,” came the warm reply.
“Not an elitist, a practicalist. Speaking of which, I hustled up some eats for what I like to call a wilderness picnic. I know it’s not the dinner hour. Heck, old Sol is still shining, but I’m a pretty fair cook and I think we both would enjoy a repast away from this outcropping of civilization. Are you game?”
“Perhaps. What’s on the bill of fare?”
“Cold chicken, originally fried to a crisp, a slab of beef treated with both my utmost veneration and my secret marinade, some biscuits provided by that Teutonic wonderlad who presides over the kitchen in this fair establishment, and a two jugs, one carrying water from a spring just outside town, and the other a half-gallon or so of John Barleycorn.”
“Sounds admirable. When shall we go?”
“There’s no time like the present. I got us two horses and alls I gotta do is pack up. Meet me in the stables in a half-hour, and we’ll ride out.”
“I shall be delighted, Mr. Tarleton” Leeds said on his way out of the room.
Artie smiled. I’m pretty sure you shall also be unmasked and shown to be a murderer.
* * *
Just before moving him, Artie gave Jim a quaff from the same concoction he’d used with Rosa Montebello. There was no telling how much, if any, resistance Jim would offer up, but he couldn’t afford to risk any. It was easy to persuade one of the bellmen to help him move Jim and his belongings to another room. A five dollar gold coin paid for that and also purchased the guarantee that Jim’s whereabouts would not be entered into the guest registry, nor given out to Leeds if he asked.
Artie left detailed directions for when Jim awoke: ‘Do not attempt to leave this room, food will be brought up every four hours, and I insist you eat all of it. The only time you are to open the door is when you hear seven quick raps. No more, no fewer. Do not be tempted to ask ‘Who’s there?’
If, and only if, you follow these directions can we be sure that a) you will recover, and b) we can save the country from slow, steady utter destruction.’
That last would seem to Jim to be a little overwrought. Then again, Artie was not the type to alarm anyone, him least of all, unduly.
* * *
“What do you have wrapped up in that canvas, Mr. Tarleton?”
On one side of the pack mule Artie had borrowed was a very large picnic basket, on the other was some long narrow package wrapped in brown canvas.
“Just a few picnic accessories. Nothing too important.”
They rode for over an hour until they came to a small creek. The surrounding area was completely uninhabited.
Artie dismounted, saying, “There is something to be said for the wilderness primeval, free of the taint of man.”
“Sorta ironic that we’re the ones tainting it at the moment,” Artie guffawed. “Nevertheless, a fine place to discuss topics of great import.”
“What have you in mind to discuss, Mr. Tarleton?” Leeds asked as he relieved the mule of its burdens.
“You, your plans, whatever I think the public might want to read about you. And perhaps a few minutes devoted to a discussion of Mr. West.”
“West? I thought he would be the last thing you’d want to discuss.”
“That’s true, but something about him has come to mind, and I just thought I’d like to jaw about it for a little. But let’s chow down first.”
A short while later, the food was gone. Artie had limited himself to the jug filled with water while Leeds drank only the bourbon that was in the other jug.
Artie unrolled the canvas to revel two shining dueling sabers.
“Interested in fencing, Leo?”
Leeds eye went from the swords to Artie and back.
“I was an exceptional fencer at one time,” Leeds said quietly.
“But not so much anymore, right? A one-eyed fencer has very poor – if any – depth perception. Now, me, I’m just awful, but what I try to do when I get to spend time with swells like yourself, if they have any fencing ability, I try to get them to fence me. I figure that’ll help me learn, and I’ve found through bitter experience that a fencer is more successful with the ladies than somebody who just looks pretty on his horse.
“So you must be doubly unsuccessful.”
“Ohhh, you’re quite a wag, Sir D. I walked into that one. Here,” Artie said, tossing a saber to Leeds. “En garde. Now, that’s all the French I know, so don’t get fancy with me.”
Artie fenced ineptly for several minutes, yet prevented Leeds from scoring a touch.
Still fencing, Artie began, “About that Mr. West. You know, he... it might not be that I was misinformed exactly. I’m thinking maybe everything I was told was correct, but that maybe he’s been sick. Is that a possibility, ya think?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know him all that well, Mr. Tarleton.”
“Ya don’t? According to my sources, you’ve traveled with him for several weeks now.”
“Even so, I’m a busy man. I didn’t undertake this tour to socialize with my minder.”
“Understood. I’m a busy man myself. But at the end of the day, I like to unwind with a good book. Read a corker a month or so ago.”
“You did?” Leed said, disinterestedly.
“Boy howdy! It was a lot like the things you write about, Leo. War in ancient times, and such and so forth. I don’t remember the author, but anyway, one of the things he was going on about was... well, it’s pretty disturbing, but what he was going on about was how these ancients used to drink the blood of their enemies. Ritual hemotophagy, I think he called it. And sometimes they’d even pick a fight with somebody they thought physically stronger then themselves, just to get at the guy’s blood. The idea was that you drink somebody stronger’s blood, you get their strength.”
Leeds expression went blank, yet he continued to fence.
“Mr. Tarleton, when are we going to start discussing whatever it is about me that will interest your audience?”
“I’ve started already, Sir D. See, I mentioned the book only because..., well, the boys in the regiment used to call me Eagle Eyes... and, ya know, I see things.” I’m also known to search people’s rooms when they’re away.
“You do?” came the bored reply.
“Yup. And I can also put two and two together.” Suddenly, Artie dropped the inept act, and began fencing in earnest. “And it seems to me that, considering what I know about you, and what I’ve seen of Mr. West’s condition, one can only conclude that you, Sir Davies, are engaging in that self-same pagan practice. You’ve been drinking his blood.”
Leeds roared and then threw himself into fencing as if he were sparring with the devil himself.
There was no further conversation, nothing but the sound of steel against steel.
Had Leeds both his eyes, he would have been a formidable foe. Artie would even have acknowledged that Leeds was the better fencer, but without depth perception, Leeds was very much over-matched.
Artie lunged for Leeds’ midsection. Leeds moved to fend off the attack, but not quickly enough or well enough. Instead of the midsection, the tip of Artie’s blade pierced deep into the inside of his wrist, and out spouted a veritable geyser of blood. An artery had been nicked.
Leeds dropped to the ground and grabbed the canvas, using it to stanch the flow. Within a few moments it was soaked.
“Don’t let me die here, Tarleton!”
“The name’s Gordon. Artemus Gordon, United States Secret Service,” Artie replied, drawing out the words.
“Damn you to hell, man!” Leeds screamed, reaching for his saber.
Artie kicked it away from him. “I’m not going to let you die. I’m going to make sure you’ll pay for what you’ve done.”
Leeds grinned evilly. “A man of my means is not answerable to the law, Mr.... What did you say your name was?”
“Then Mr. Gordon, take off your belt and wrap it around this canvas. Wrap it tight, or I’ll soon bleed to death.”
Artie was tempted to taunt him, but heeded the angels of his better nature. The man would live, and even though his assertion that the rich rarely paid for their crimes was true, even enormous wealth would not get him off the hook in this case. His mistake was to choose as a victim a high-ranking employee of the Secret Service.
* * *
The three of them: Artie, Jim and Leeds traveled back to Washington in the Wanderer, Leeds locked securely in a cell used for the purpose of transporting prisoners. Throughout the week-long trip, he spoke not a single word.
Artie offered Jim the fiction that Leeds had spiked his food and drink. Jim was still in poor shape, and if he were to learn the horror to which he’d been subjected, that could only serve to make things worse.
They were met at the siding in Washington by Mr. Gilfillan and representatives of Scotland Yard, who took Leeds into custody.
“He’ll receive a fair trial for the Hippolyte case, but that’s only one of the crimes for which he’s going to be answerable. We’ve made a agreement with your government: if he’s not convicted and condemned to hang in any of the European trials, he’ll be brought back to the U. S. to be tried for attempted murder of a federal employee.”
“I don’t honestly see that happening,” Artie said.
“Neither do I. Like as not he’ll be placed under lifetime house arrest in his estate in Surrey,” Gilfillan said regretfully. “What a mind like his could have done for humanity. Rather like that Doctor... oh, what’s the name of that American fellow? Colonel Richmond related to me some tales about him.”
“Dr. Loveless,” Jim answered. “Leeds isn’t even in his league.”
“So I gathered. Well, gentleman, we must be off.”
As Leeds was led away he looked tired and defeated, almost pathetic.
“Pride goeth before a fall, and a haughty spirit before disaster,” Artie mumbled.
“What’s that you said?” Jim asked
“Aren’t you going to drag me to a doctor? Surely we have to find out what poison he used on me.” Not that I want to go, but if it was poison, I want to know if it did any permanent damage.
“Oh, about that... What he used was something that the liver destroys after it’s been in the body for more than a few weeks. It has no long-term effects.”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Listen: a doctor will tell you the exact same thing. Just rest for a few weeks, and you’ll be as good as new. But if you really want to visit a doctor, who am I to stand in your way?”
“No, thank you. I’ll just wait until my liver does whatever it’s supposed to do.”
Jim rose and poured himself a glass of sack from a bottle left for them by Mr. Gilfillan.
After taking a few sips, he said, “He must be mad.”
“Leeds. What was the point of killing me? I made sure he knew that I disagreed with his goals, but I never made a statement to the effect that I would actively oppose them. I knew it would be impossible to carry out his plan, so why make idle threats?”
Artie didn’t reply right away. He regretted lying to Jim, and if he was going to come clean with the truth, now was the time. Rising to pour a drink from the bottle, he debated with himself. What was there to be gained by telling the truth?
If I had been Leeds’ victim, would I want to know he’d been drinking my blood?
“I think you must be right, Jim.”
* * *
Jim ended up seeing a doctor anyway, because Richmond insisted upon it before he would allow him a one-month vacation.
“I know exactly what you do on your vacations, and if we can’t be certain you’ll come back in tip-top shape, you’re not going.”
Considering how anxious he was to get to New Orleans, Jim planned to comply.
“Artie, wanna come to the doctor with me? If he has any doubts about my fitness for wining and dining the ladies of the French Quarter, you can back me up.”
“Sorry, friend. I’m taking the train up to Baltimore in an hour and a half. The Abbott School’s Spring Dance is Friday, and I’ve got myself an invite.”
“Oh. Well, give my best to Thora.”
“I will. And, you, once you get to New Orleans, give my best to... all of them. Just don’t tell them that my affections have been stolen by another,” Artie said wryly.
“How could I? Why, they’d weep and mourn and fall on my neck for sympathy,” Jim chuckled. “On the other hand...”
* * *
Thora met Artie in the in the entryway of the mansion where the ball was being held. She wore a gown of sky blue watered silk, complemented with a four-strand sapphire and pearl choker. Artie just about fainted when he saw her.
“Someone pinch me, I must be dreaming.”
“With pleasure, Mr. Gordon,” Thora laughed, pinching his cheek just before planting a kiss on his lips. “You know, you don’t look so bad yourself.”
“Grazie, Signora,” Artie said, as they began walking arm-in-arm in the direction of the ballroom.
“Oh, so you know about that?”
“About what, my dear Miss Copley?”
“Your lady friend, the diva. She’ll be in attendance this evening.”
Artie smacked his forehead. “Thora, forgive the colloquialism, but you’ve gotta be kidding me.”
“I? Artemus, it’s common knowledge that there are fewer things more humorless than an old maid school marm.”
“I don’t consider you an old maid. Rather, you’re a lady who’s bided her time waiting for the one man who will adore you to bits, to wit: myself.”
Thora smiled with pleasure. “Just when I think I couldn’t love you more than I already do... Well, getting back to our previous topic, Miss Montebello was invited by the head of the board, Mr. Eagleton, whose house this is. She’s staying here with his family before she goes back to Italy. She was left quite bereft when her staff was rounded up.”
“I don’t expect I’ll have to interact with her, will I?”
“Hmm, I would think not. I don’t think she remembers me, and she shouldn’t remember you either, since you’re no longer in costume.”
“Don’t bet on it. I was her chaperone on one of her previous U. S. tours, and I was not in costume.”
“You were? You never told me. In any case, I expect you’ll be mobbed by my co-workers. Night and day they’ve made me promise that they’ll be able to get a dance with you.”
Artie tried to hide a frown. I’m only interested in dancing with you, Thora.
The ballroom had been gaily decorated by the students, most of whom were not in attendance. Only senior girls were invited. The remainder of the over one hundred guests were parents, teachers, other members of the board, alumni, interested – and wealthy – members of the local community and, lastly, Rosa Montebello.
“I hope that’s not what I think it is,” Artie said, pointing to something that looked very much like a reception line.”
“I’m afraid it is. It was mentioned that there might be one for her.”
Artie frowned again. Then a thought struck him. “Thora, it’s too close in here. Can we go out and get some air?”
“Are you alright?” she replied, concerned.
“Never better,” he winked.
He led her out through the French doors, through darkened hallways and lastly to the garden. It was a warm evening for late April, so Artie was in no hurry to return to the ballroom. Thora’s arms were bare, though.
“Warm enough, dearest?”
Thora hesitated a moment before answering. “I’m with you, that’s all that matters. We could be standing in a blizzard or in the midst of a sweltering heat wave, but if I’m with you...” She then stopped and turned her head. The light from a nearby street lamp showed a tear running down her cheek.
“Thora?” Artie asked before taking her into his arms. “Is something wrong, sweetheart?”
She turned to face him. “No. It’s just... it’s just that I never thought I’d ever be as happy as I am right now.”
Artie was about to say something, but then he heard the orchestra begin the first waltz. “May I have this dance, Miss Copley?”
Thora fell into his arms, laughing through her tears. “Always, Mr. Gordon. Always.”
They did not return to the ballroom until they noticed some of the musicians filing out, some with cigars.
“Is the dance over?” Artie asked. Often these society balls went into the wee small hours, but it was barely 10:30.
“No, sir,” one of the men said, bowing slightly. “The opera lady decided the music had to stop. She claims a headache.”
Artie rolled his eyes. “Figures.” Then remembering the musicians might take that as a slight directed at them said, “You all sounded just fine to me.”
Something about Artie’s manner indicated that he wasn’t anybody who expected to be called ‘sir,’ so the musicians relaxed and began openly carping about the guest of honor.
“Guest of Honor? The programs should have been printed ‘Guest of Horror.’ And I know opera, I’ve played in all the big houses in New York and even though I’m familiar with what they call artistic temperament, she’s in a class of her own.”
Artie joined in heartily with some stories about her. For some time, Thora was curiously silent.
“Artemus, gentlemen, it’s really dreadful taste to indulge in this line of conversation,” she said very quietly. “Especially considering that she’s standing only about ten feet away.”
The musicians heard and turned to see La Incomparabila seething.
“So I’m a spoiled brat? A martinet? An ego-maniac? A virago???” she howled. “And you? Why, an organ grinder has more talent in his big toe than all of you have put together!!”
She continued to rail, switching back and forth from English to Italian, and to get louder and louder. Thora decided to put a stop to this, not in order to prevent Miss Montebello from embarrassing herself, but to prevent her from ruining the evening for everyone else. And because it was fairly dark...
“Signora,” she began in a heavy Florentine accent, “I am so very disappointed.”
“You? Who are you?”
“Anna Maria della Pietro. I am sure you have not heard my name before, but that is no matter. Certain of my husband’s associates in Firenze and in London have been exploring the construction of a new opera house, an opera house to be built in your honor, Signora. He was charged to search for an architect, someone with unique talents who could do justice to this temple of art, you see. No expense spared, which is why I now find ourselves in the United States of America.”
Rosa calmed down somewhat, her interest piqued. “Built in my honor? So why are you disappointed?”
Thora’s expression became very sad. “Signora, the interested parties are wealthy men, very wealthy. Some, I regret to say, have become involved in this plan solely as a means of becoming wealthier. But they have made it plain that... -- forgive me, Signora -- that if the tales told of your rages, and what they’ve termed ‘monstrous behavior’ are true, then they are not interested in continued association with this project. And because their contributions are crucial, it may not go forward. I am very sorry.”
“My...!” Rosa stopped herself, and her manner changed completely. “May I speak with your husband?”
“I am sorry, Signora. He is ill this evening. That is why I am here with my cousin alone.”
“But surely, Signora... Signora... ”
“Surely, Signora della Pietro, a certain passionate temperament is to be expected?”
“Perhaps, but there is a clear difference between a passionate temperament and an abusive one. I am very sorry, Signora.”
Thora turned, and looked up at Artie and nodded. “Cousin Matteo, will you escort me inside?”
“But Signora della Pietro,” Rosa cried, “Have you no sympathy? Know you anything of the life of a woman alone in the world, and an artist at that? My pains, my frustrations? Have you no sympathy?” she repeated dramatically, as if delivering an aria.
Thora turned back and said calmly, “I have much sympathy, but that is reserved only for those who have had the misfortune to bear the brunt of your cruelty.”
“Cruelty!!” With that, La Incomparabila was off and running again.
“That certainly didn’t turn out quite the way I hoped,” Thora said ruefully as she and Artie re-entered the ballroom. “I really shouldn’t have lied to her. What would I have done if she believed me?”
“You did your best. And in the most charming way possible,” Artie smiled. “Furthermore, you've proved your fitness for your upcoming career; we find ourselves making up stories all the time to put over on the bad guys."
As soon as they set foot in the room, it was as if the evening’s main event had begun. Almost instantly they were mobbed.
“Miss Copley, we’ve been wondering when you were going to materialize! We’ve even gone to your room looking for you!!”
Numerous similar statements were offered, but even though they were aimed at Thora, the speakers’ full attention was centered on the handsome dark-haired man with her.
A coltish senior girl came along side Thora. “Miss Copley, is he your gentleman friend?”
“Yes, Abby. This is Mr. Gordon.”
“Artemus, this is Abigail van Wyck. She’s one of the eight sisters I wrote you about.”
“A pleasure, Miss van Wyck.”
“So you’re taking Miss Copley away from us? There’s some story that she’s going to work for the government, but nobody believes it. I think you’re getting married.”
“No, Miss van Wyck. I can assure you Miss Copley is going to be working for the United States Secret Service.”
“But don’t you want to marry her?”
“No, Miss Copley, let him answer the question,” piped up on of the parents. “I’m sure you know, sir, that Miss Copley is getting on in years.”
“Nearly thirty, I heard!” came a voice from the back.
“So what is it, Charlie? Gonna make our gal an honest woman?” That was another of the parents, a father who had spent a little too much time at the punch bowl.
I wish I could sink through the floor, Thora thought, just before experiencing a spark of inspiration.
She feigned fainting.
Suddenly all was confusion. Artie fell at her side as the crowd dispersed, hot on the trail of medical assistance.
Thora’s eyes snapped open. “Show’s over, Artemus. Can you run me back to my room?”
When the crowd came back with a doctor, Artie and Thora were gone.
Walking hand-in-hand up the street to the teachers’ dormitories, both were too nervous, or perhaps too lost in thought, to engage in conversation.
Finally, Artie spoke. “You know, Thora...”
“Don’t say it, Artemus.”
“But I do love you, and –”
“Please stop, Artemus. Please.”
“Why?” Artie asked, as he drew her closer.
“Because I’ll say yes right away. But I don’t want to be a bride before I’ve had a chance to experience a little more of life.”
“So you wouldn’t marry me?” Artie asked, trying to disguise his hurt.
“I didn’t say that. Maybe you missed it, but I did say I’d say yes. Only your timing’s off.”
“Then I can ask you again some day?”
“I insist upon it,” she said as the tipped her head back and offered him her lips.
*** END ***