Igenlode Wordsmith (igenlode) wrote,
Igenlode Wordsmith
igenlode

The Daaé Case (ch1)

I see that I finished writing this at the start of October, which indicates just how long it has taken me to push it (and myself) through the 'beta' process!

The original "American-picking" beta eventually dropped out after a series of month-long gaps, not all of which was her fault, and I was very lucky to pick up a replacement who steamed through the remaining three chapters in nine days -- the delay had at least given me time to get the whole thing typed up, which is always laborious for me. He found a lot more lapses in chapters 4 and 5 than the previous beta did in Ch1–3, as well, which makes me a little nervous about the earlier chapters...

After going through various Hammerstein-related titles I eventually settled on simply "The Daaé Case", since if the story is being seen from Jos's point of view every case he's involved in is some kind of 'Hammerstein Affair'! And I think that version conveys the 'private eye' overtones of the story well enough.


The Daaé Case

Chapter 1: Christine Disembarks

“What do you mean, the Daaé’s disappeared?”

John McWhirter was a big man with gray in his wiry black beard, but his voice had cracked into a schoolboy’s high-pitched incredulity, and Jos winced. When the boss blew his top, he could make you feel mighty small. And right now, in the face of a foul-up this colossal, Jos Perlman would give a fair sum to shrink clear away and out of McWhirter’s sight.

Old Hammerstein himself was a decent enough guy to work for. Head off in the clouds half the time, and apt to wander out without the price of a trolley-fare in his pocket, but when you’d made as much moolah as Oscar Hammerstein had — and laid it out on schemes as ambitious as this one, to challenge the New York Met at their own game and bring the best of European opera to the heart of town — Jos guessed the world could forgive an eccentricity or two. The man dreamed, and dreamed big.

But to drive his dreams through into brick and mortar, he had men like John McWhirter. And McWhirter had a personality abrasive enough to overspill the room at the best of times and set the lady secretary’s ears burning. He glared down now at his diminutive subordinate from behind the towers of paperwork that lined the great teak desk — paperwork that, until this morning, had bulldozed aside every conceivable obstacle in the way of Hammerstein’s new Manhattan Opera — and Jos could only flinch.

The boss was in the right of it, after all. When a deal went this disastrously wrong, one way or another heads would roll.

But he’d do his darndest to make sure his wasn’t one of them. This job working for Hammerstein meant too much to him; it had been his big new start. And when it came down to it, getting the Daaé woman to her hotel had been none of his responsibility.

McWhirter swept aside a heap of files and slammed his fist down on the desktop thus revealed, making the inkwells clatter.

“Disappeared? What the blazes is that supposed to mean?” He pulled out a vast red handkerchief from an inner pocket — always a bad sign — and vanished momentarily into it with a trumpeting sound, emerging with streaming eyes and a temper clearly more het-up than ever. “Christine Daaé was on that ship all right. We were billed for the tickets. Her name’s on the customs lists. For crying out loud, that no-good husband of hers kicked up a stir that’s on the front page of every cheap rag in town. So just because some joker sent up a garbled cable to claim the Persephone would be an hour late docking and made sure the Hammerstein party — Mr. Oscar and his sons — would miss the whole thing as a result, it doesn’t mean the lady vanished in the meantime into thin air!”

Hammerstein had been made to look a fool in consequence of that particular prank, if prank it had been; Jos, who’d looked into it, had begun to have his doubts about that. The impresario had kicked up a fuss there on the dockside, but the band had gone home, the crowd had long since dispersed, and in the absence of the star guest they’d had to give up on the whole grand reception: champagne, bunches of flowers, and a personal greeting from the great man himself to welcome her to America’s shores.

As publicity for the Manhattan Opera it had been a disaster. The old man and his sons had been driven back in grim silence, McWhirter had by all accounts let loose on anyone unlucky enough to be in earshot, and in the end by way of making amends someone had dispatched a man to leave the flowers at Miss Daaé’s hotel. And that should have been that.

Only it hadn’t been. Because Miss Daaé hadn’t ever made it to the top-star accommodation they’d reserved for her. She’d left the docks and gone missing instead somewhere across town. And now the whole mess had been dumped on his, Jos Perlman’s, lap.

In hindsight, maybe ‘disappeared’ hadn’t been the most tactful way of putting it.

McWhirter took a deep breath and started in again with a tone of sweet reason that could have stripped paint at twenty paces. “Hundreds of people saw the Daaé come off that ship, Perlman, so don’t try to tell me she’s not in New York. Just who sent that prank cable? And for Godsakes explain to me in words of one syllable just how it comes about that the diva of the century — and her tag-along titled lackey, and her ten-year-old son — can have driven off into the wide blue yonder without any of us having the faintest idea where to lay hands on her?”

“Okay, listen, boss.” Jos swallowed, planning how to make this sound good.

“You asked me to look into it this morning, soon as we heard she hadn’t showed up at the hotel.” It couldn’t hurt to remind McWhirter that Jos, at least, had had nothing to do with the original fiasco. Hadn’t, in fact, known a thing about it until the boss had called him in at eight-thirty a.m., breathing fire and brimstone, pulled him off his job running checks on the finance deal some mogul in steel was trying to sell Mr. H, and set him to track down the missing headline act for their imminent gala night. It wasn’t quite the first he’d heard of Christine Daaé, being as the Hammerstein publicity machine had plastered posters all over town, but it was the first inkling he’d had that anything was wrong — and the closest he’d come to any involvement in that particular department.

Jos Perlman was a fixer. A mostly legitimate one, these days, but he had his contacts. And booking and escorting visiting sopranos to their hotel accommodation was no part of what McWhirter paid him for.

Fixing up embarrassing blunders for the management, however, was. Well, he’d done his level best in the few hours he’d had. He sighed. Something told him that line of argument wouldn’t go down well.

“No-one’s owning up to that cable, but I traced the guy who was meant to take those flowers up to Miss Daaé. Turns out someone thought it would be a good move to detail René Pontpers — the Canuck — for that particular job, on account of he speaks French.” And poor old René, with three children at home in a two-room apartment and a fourth on the way, hadn’t felt he could say no.

“Thing is, his English ain’t always too good. He asks around, gets told she got into a carriage and went off. Now we’d reserved her the Imperial Suite down at Astor’s new hotel on East 55th — fixed it all up when the steamer tickets were booked. So naturally he just assumes they sent a vehicle over to pick her up.

“He gets in a cab, takes the flowers across, and asks for them to be sent up to Miss Daaé’s suite. And the hotel tells him sure, okay. Of course they do — she’s booked in, and right then they’re still expecting her. So the bell-hop decks out her empty room upstairs to read Welcome to the USA and René reports she’s safe and sound at the St Regis and goes off home to his wife and kids. And no-one knows different until the message-boy gets sent round this morning with the final details for the gala... and comes back to the office saying Miss Daaé never showed, and the hotel don’t know where she is.”

McWhirter’s glare skewered him from beneath twitching brows. “Nicely put, laddie. Only you’re leaving out the vital information.”

He drew breath, then, as Jos began the obvious question, let loose with both barrels at full volume. “Just where the blue blazes is Miss Daaé now?”

Which, as Jos was all too well aware, was the make-or-break question for his career. He opted for honesty.

“We don’t know. Yet.” He held up a hasty hand. “Give me a few more hours to look into it, Mr. McWhirter, and I’m sure there’ll be some perfectly simple explanation.”

“Simple?” John McWhirter let rip a colossal, derisive snort. “Let me lay out for you something that’s simple.”

He drew out his watch. “The time is currently twenty-five minutes of one. In two weeks we have our opening night. Rehearsals started a month back. But tomorrow evening at seven o’clock, the Manhattan Opera House opens its doors to a gala preview for a cloud of the most glittering society this town can provide. Now we promised them — Mr. Oscar Hammerstein promised them — Christine Daaé there on that stage singing her pretty little heart out. We cabled Europe and drew up her contract. We booked her passage and laid out a hefty fee. What are we going to do without her — ship over the Tetrazzini to offer them next week, half price?”

He leaned over the desk and jabbed a broad finger squarely at the chest of his subordinate. “So you trace her, Perlman. You get her over here and you get that contract signed. You’re on the payroll as a fixer — you fix this.”

The ‘or else’ hung in the air without being spoken. It didn’t need to be.

Jos kept his voice light and confident; no point in letting McWhirter know he’d gotten to him. “Sure thing, boss. Don’t I always deliver?”

And after all, he told himself, making his retreat under the secretary’s sympathetic eye, just how hard could it be to track down a soprano who’d taken the wrong hotel?

~o~

It was a question he’d found himself echoing with increasing bitterness as the evening wore on. He always prided himself on having his ear to the street. He had contacts among the traffic cops, and shadier informants elsewhere. He knew, none better, when he was being stonewalled or just plain lied to. What he didn’t know was why.

He’d gotten the full details of Christine Daaé’s dockside arrival — plus a share in the usual sob-story over editors with a tin ear and typesetters who couldn’t spell God’s own language — out of Lindy Weiss of the Sun-Star, for the price of a couple of cheap hot dogs at the lunch-stand over in Central. Weiss had tipped the bill of his cap back, run a finger round a fraying collar, and waxed lyrical over the latest Parisian fashions and the Daaé’s sweet-faced little boy, like the sentimental old lush that he was, until Jos had given him the elbow. Then he’d coughed up with the pay-dirt.

The whole thing had the makings of a juicy scandal in high society, by the sound of it; but that was more in the Sun-Star’s line than any concern of the Manhattan Opera. McWhirter wouldn’t give a dime for the singer’s private life, or whether her better half wanted her referred to as Madame Whatever or even the Divine Christine. Not so long as she showed up and sang.

Trouble was, Jos was no longer so sure the Daaé was going to do either. This was more than just a case of taking the wrong hotel — and he didn’t see that the lady’s marital troubles had anything to do with it either. It was starting to look to him as if Oscar Hammerstein’s star soprano had been shanghaied.

She’d certainly been expecting to be met at the docks; the husband had been quite vocal on that point. And Jos had gotten a good description of the carriage and the collection of human oddities that had whisked her away. It should have been easy enough to trace the route they’d taken and find out where the lady had spent the night — willingly or not.

But all his usual sources had, to a man, gone silent or made themselves mysteriously scarce when he tried to press enquiries. For all he could find out to the contrary, that phony cable had written itself and the carriage had simply vanished into thin air at the first intersection, and no-one would admit otherwise — or increasingly, agree to talk to him at all. Jos had wasted hours trailing round back-streets and tenements, past mounds of garbage in the alleys and strings of flapping laundry hung between the houses, and the nearest he’d gotten to an honest answer was the small shoe-shine boy who’d piped up, “Cain’t talk to you, mister. Ma says not, and I’s scared.”

From the hotels he got a straight answer, but an equal blank. No, sir, Miss Daaé was not on the guest list. No, she had not made enquiries of them. No, they really had no idea where she might currently be resident. And a very good day to you too, sir, thank you.

He’d been to the back doors and bribed every bell-hop in town. Same reply. At the end of a long day of frustration he’d worked his way all the way over to Coney, on the hunch that maybe the freakish description of the three who’d whisked away Miss Daaé hadn’t after all been so wide of the mark. When he’d dropped into the nearest low dive out by the pier, he’d had little more on his mind at that moment but a dry throat and a general aching sensation in the region of his feet. Telling the story afterwards, he could never say what flash of inspiration had led him to add a final off-hand query to the barkeep on the tail of his order.

There’d been an assortment of other patrons at the bar: longshoremen, carney barkers and the usual down-and-outs. There was an air of desperation that spoke more clearly than frayed cuffs or string belts, and it marked a man out like a sickness from which the others shrank. Failure, in this town, held an odour of its own.

“Who’s that?” Jos jerked a casual thumb over his shoulder. “Stuffed-shirt in the corner, flashy linen suit.”

Some bankrupt, he’d thought, and put the guy down as a possible pier-jumper. Once he’d sunk a few more glasses, maybe. It took Dutch courage to drown yourself round here, and this one didn’t look the type with much guts to spare.

The barkeep shrugged. “Calls himself de Chagny. Got woman troubles. S’all I know.”

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Tags: fiction, hammerstein, love never dies
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