And the other material I've been working on this week...
I'm amused to gather from reviews that what I hear as 'Americanisms' the US readers hear as 'period talk' -- appropriate for this setting, of course, but it certainly dates the material from which I obtained this vocabulary!
Chapter 3: Once Upon Another Time
“I guess... what we do don’t always look too good, when you step back,” Jos said slowly, measuring out words like sips at the rough liquor he still nursed. Round here the stuff could strip your throat numb, if you let it. But it numbed other things. “Not too good, or too wise, maybe. But then it comes hard when your fairytale romance has you all set to fight off the dragon to save the pretty maid, and you wind up as the prince in ‘Rapunzel’ instead.”
Blundering round blind waiting for the girl to show up and save you... and, in the version Momma used to tell, to land you with kids she said were yours. The Daaé looked like the loyal type, but by all the pictures she was a deep-hipped, high-blooded girl who must have been lonely in that marriage of theirs... and the youngster in those front-page snaps looked nothing like his father. Maybe it was better her husband didn’t ask himself that particular question.
The thought brought with it not the usual wry inward humour but an unwanted jolt of regret, and Jos cursed himself for getting involved. Hadn’t he learned that lesson years back? And hadn’t it come hard enough?
“I had a girl once. Sally Speke. My Sal.” Christ, he’d got to be drunker than he’d thought to be talking about this. “Long time ago now. I was just a kid, hustling to get along, and I’d gotten hired to look over a warehouse down on the East Side waterfront that was losing stock. River pirates, we called it: dry-land sharks, more like. I was in over my head, and I was so green I didn’t even know it.
“It was Sally got me out of that when the gang came after me. She’d been on the East Side all her life, she was quick and smart and game as they come, and she tipped me the warning and got me away when her own brother laid out for me with a razor in his hand.”
Not pretty, no, she’d never been pretty, with her thick black brows and heavy nose, but she had a laugh to set the rooftops dancing and lilting gray eyes that could sparkle or melt to steal your breath away. She’d been a half-starved wisp of a creature, all bones and fire and promise in his arms, but even back then she’d known what she wanted and gone for it without counting the cost. Only in those days... she’d set her heart on him.
“She couldn’t go back after that, of course, but she didn’t care. She’d set her sights on getting out and getting up, making something of herself, and I guess she wanted to make something out of me. She got me into night-classes and clean collars, working round the clock; she could soak up a book faster’n a freshman up at Yale, and understand it, too. But you should have seen her dance — heard her laugh...”
She could fight, too, real low stuff when she saw red. A time or two she’d set marks on Jos between the sheets, like the spitfire she’d been; two cents to a dime said she’d never told Steady Freddie about that.
“And I lost her.” He slammed the lid on hot-breathing memories, crushing them back in the past where they belonged; all over, a done deal. “I couldn’t be what she wanted. I got in with a fast crowd; gambled high, lost, gambled again. They were swells roughing it, and I was set on scraping together enough to wed — and Sal wanted me off with her to concerts and galleries every free hour she got, learning culture. Meeting people, when I was down in some den throwing away what little I had. And in the end — she met someone better for her than me.”
Freddie Ashleigh, with the sharp crease in his white pants and the soft British accent. Freddie, who was going places when he, Jos, had shut his ears to Sal’s pleas and was going down. Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Ashleigh, now, with their home in the West Village and their box at the Met. She’d been Sarah Ashleigh the last time he’d seen her, hair swept high and skirts swept back, lifting the youngest of her three perfect children into the carriage outside Macy’s. Children that should have been his. Could once, in those airless summer nights, have been his.
“Guess I went to pieces after that.” A shrug that brushed aside a year-long drunk, a spell or two in jail, and memories of happiness melting away like cotton candy the harder he clutched to keep them. He’d worked for the likes of Mr. Y, and blotted it out with cheap liquor. And all the time he’d been trashing everything Sal had tried to give him.
“It was Hammerstein that took a risk on me in the end and gave me another start, took me on as a trouble-shooter — private investigator, if you like. And he’s done well enough by me since.” He reached out abruptly across the table, catching the younger man by the arm. The remnants of his drink spilled, unheeded. “But you listen to me, Mr. Rowl. If there’s a chance, even a chance that wife of yours still wants you, then you leave your pride in the dirt, you listen to what she says, and you go crawling back. Else you’ll spend the rest of your days wishing on a might-have-been.”
The other had stiffened up, and Jos remembered a shade late that Mr. Rowl maybe didn’t care for being grabbed at without the proper etiquette. They weren’t big on aristocrats — or etiquette — back where he, Jos, came from.
Well, this was America now and the guy would just have to get used to it. Which he hadn’t made too hot a job of so far, by what the yellow papers said... but then you didn’t get to be persnickety by drinking in a place like this.
Suicide Hall, they called it round here. And it wasn’t on account of the rotgut liquor. Jos remembered his first impression of that ravaged face; softened the tone of what he’d been about to say, leaning back as the barkeep clinked empties together and wiped a cloth over the spilled dregs.
“And maybe along the way you could spare a thought for us. Hammerstein sent that contract in good faith, and there’s a couple thousand guests waiting for Christine Daaé to step into the spotlight tomorrow night.”
“You have not understood.” Mr. Rowl was still rigid, the look in his eyes almost desperate. “She signed with him — she chose to sign with him. And the price is high, very high. It was twice what Hammerstein offered, and then I—”
He flushed, and Jos mentally filled in the rest. So he fancied himself his wife’s manager, and had thought he’d driven a fine bargain. Easy for the likes of Mr. Y to promise a sky-high fee to lure the talent in, when the odds were he’d no intention of ever needing to pay up.
“And this is the guy who attacked you both, way back when? Who threatened murder back in France?” Jos kept his voice patient. “When you’ve quit beating yourself up, you could think to ask a question or two, maybe. Just what makes you so sure she signed of her own free choice?”
The rigid look had shifted to one of shock — at the suggestion or at the manner of it, Jos wasn’t sure — and he pressed the point home. “Say I wanted to put pressure on Miss— on Madame— on your wife, what threat would I go for first? Your life? The kid’s?”
“Gustave...” Cold realisation. It was as if he’d slapped Mr. Rowl in the face. “Gustave. Our son. This morning he was not to be found — I thought he had gone wandering — but she, Christine, she was of a sudden wild with panic. You think she feared that he — that Mr. Y—”
He broke off. “A child... a child of ten years? Even he... surely he would not—”
“Who, Mr. Y?” Jos gave him a pitying look. “Pass up on a few little threats? What did you take him for, this ‘monster’ of yours — Santa Claus?”
He leaned in closer, dropping his voice without thinking. “Listen, Hammerstein owns the Victoria: the best vaudeville house in town. Maybe it’s not opera, but it sure turns a profit. Young Mr. Willie runs it, and he’s a hard nut himself.
“Now last year he had this vaudeville act booked. Ever heard of the Three Lavericks?... No, I guess you wouldn’t. Well, they’re just about the best knockabout act you ever did see: Pa, Ma, and a kid acrobat that got the audience splitting their sides. And Mr. Y set his sights on them for Phantasma.
“First Willie Hammerstein knows of it is when his top booking ups stakes and hightails it. See, the Three Lavericks weren’t three any more; they were four. Mr. Y wouldn’t touch the older kid — he won’t lay a finger on the talent. But the little one... that was another story.” He shrugged. “Mr. Willie was fit to bust a blood vessel; but there was nothing doing. The Three Lavericks signed with Mr. Y for the summer — and they haven’t been back to New York State since. I guess Ma Laverick would sooner tour the boondocks than risk crossing Mr. Y.”
Another shrug. “So your Gustave — seems to me he’d be a mighty fine lever on his mother. You say she changed her mind, kept the whole thing quiet, never told you it was him? Sounds to me like she was plain scared.”
Silence, across the table. The young man had caught his breath; then words spilled loose.
“Christine...” And a soft spate of French that might have been a half-voiced prayer or a curse. “My Christine, afraid — alone — and I—”
He sent one hand raking through his hair with a groan, tried to thrust it back from his face, after, and all of a sudden came up onto his feet like a man who’d changed his mind. Too sudden. Drink had a nasty way of catching up on a man.
Jos shoved his own chair back in a hurry and made it round the table in time to catch him before he measured his length on the floor. The other swayed but kept his footing, and Jos, shorter and wiry, got one limp arm draped over his shoulder and took the weight with a lurch.
“Go easy, mister.” He got Mr. Rowl upright again, though by the looks of it his world right now was swimming in a way that Jos remembered all too close and intimate. “Easy, kid, easy...”
With that sudden flush of resolve in his face — or maybe hope — with his fine collar hanging crooked and forelock slipping into his eyes, it was all too easy to see him for the moment as no more than a college kid; some sophomore or senior who’d gotten himself drunk over his best girl before he’d learned to hold his liquor.
Rich young idler, maybe, Jos told himself firmly, but for sure, no kid. The guy had been ten years wed with a wife and boy of his own to look after, and if he was sparing a thought beyond himself now then by his own account it was the first in a long while.
“I guess we’d better get you settled up and out of here. Just look at you—”
“Yes, look at me.” A rueful echo. “A fine hero, am I not? And only hours in which to act—”
He swayed again and muttered something savage under his breath, dragging up a handful of change to throw on the bar. By the size of the sum, either he’d no idea of the worth of a dollar, or he’d had a sight more than was good for him. Likely both. The second went without saying, anyhow.
Jos sighed, glancing up at the eight-day clock over the door, in its cracked case. Close on midnight. Too late to call on the Daaé — and if he showed up with her husband in this state, the pair of them would likely get thrown out without a hearing.
“Looks like no-one gets to be a hero tonight.” He shifted his grip, fishing for a couple of quarters to drop to the barkeep on his own account. “Come on. You’d best come back with me — you’re in no state to be set loose. I guess you don’t remember the name of your hotel?”
Carefully, oh so casual... like he hadn’t spent a day trying to track the Daaé down already. They’d been shuttled in directly from the docks, of course, in a carriage sent by ‘Hammerstein’, but it was worth a try.
But he got nothing back save for ramblings about balconies and pilasters and assurances of getting there blindfold... which he was not about to lay reliance on. He didn’t aim to go wandering into the heart of Phantasma in the dark, not with a drunken Frenchman running off at the mouth all the while, and Mr. Y’s enforcers keeping a sharp eye on the newest attraction — he’d been on the shady side of the law a time or two himself. He knew how these things worked.
Guess that put paid to any plan to pay a private call on his quarry without the husband in tow, then. With a heave, he got his burden headed on a general line for the exit. Best get word to McWhirter, and hope to slip in nice and quiet tomorrow. Maybe Mr. Rowl would be the ace in Hammerstein’s hand after all... and maybe Jos would just get left holding the joker.
There were a couple of boys hanging round in the street, hoping for tips and pickings. He jerked a nod at the nearest.
“Here, you, boy — take a message? John McWhirter, West 38th St: tell him Jos Perlman’s got the case in hand, and he’ll see results tomorrow. Got that? Here’s a nickel, and say I told you he’d give you another. Okay?”
He got a brilliant grin in response, white in the streetlights. “Yessir. Sure thing.”
Jos watched him dash off, ragged legs pumping, and turned his attention back to his companion, who was showing signs of wanting to walk on his own. Time to get this one laid down on the couch to sleep it off.
Tomorrow better bring results. Time was getting mighty short for the Manhattan Opera.
Back inside, the barman yawned his way through the remainder of the night shift, watching the slowly-advancing hands of the clock and waiting for the morning clatter and bang of the back door that would announce cheery Bernie’s arrival to take over.
Out on the pier, hours later, Meg Giry steeled herself for the daily plunge into icy waters by the cold grey light of dawn, striking out with steady strokes that sent her breasting through the waves until her breathing ached with salt and the chill had numbed her limbs and — almost — the ache in her heart.
Presently, changed and clean, she burst into the empty bar to bestow on Bernie her first bright professional grin of the day, in exchange for the hot coffee that he had waiting. She sat cradling the mug for a while until the shivers had stopped, then, with a sigh, got up to leave. No-one else came in.
And behind the counter, Mr. Y — who had staked a great deal on finding the Vicomte here in a suitably suggestible state — watched her go from the shadows, nursing fury that ebbed to a state of steadily increasing disquiet.This entry was originally posted at http://igenlode.dreamwidth.org/92209.htm