Read an Excerpt
By Patricia Gaffney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Patricia Gaffney
All rights reserved.
Sherry's was crowded for a wet Thursday night. Alexander McKie sipped rye whiskey and scanned the dining room with a practiced eye. The attractive redhead at the banquette was watching him again. All he could see of her escort was the back of his bald head. Alex stared back in friendly appreciation until the girl looked down, trying not to smile, then up and away again with a charming blush.
Cheered, Alex made an effort to pay closer attention to whatever Bennet Cochrane was booming on about now. But a second later he found himself surveying the room again, transfixed with boredom. Cochrane was an imbecile. A gasbag, a flaming bore, a conversational bully. He was also the most important client Alex had ever had, the man with the power to lift him out of the anonymity of the drafting room and into a partnership, on the strength of one enormous commission. What matter that the house he wanted him to build was a joke, a monstrosity, a stone and marble palace of stellar, unrivaled, spectacular bad taste? Right now, Alex was in no position to choose his clients. Especially millionaire clients. But why did this one have to be such a nincompoop? He glanced across the table at John Ogden, his employer, who was clearing his throat and sending a warning signal from behind the thick lenses of his steel pince-nez. Immediately Alex straightened, sobered, and turned on Ben Cochrane a look of total absorption.
"I'm not saying workers haven't got any rights at all. This is the 'nineties—a decent wage for a decent day's work, that's fine with me. I'm talking about the goddamn anarchists who want to blow us all to hell so they can take over our factories and mills and railroads and banks."
Rape our women, sodomize our children, Alex added in silence, desperate to amuse himself.
"You know what they want now, what they're demanding these days?"
"Well, I've heard—"
"I'll tell you. Free love. Negro emancipation. Peace, temperance. Votes for women." He glanced around the table, as if looking for something to spit on. "There's a bunch of them trying to organize my bakeshops right now—socialists and communists, talking to my people at night, stirring things up." He punched Alex's biceps with an angry forefinger. "I hear one word about strike, I'll fire 'em all, I swear to God. I'll set the militia on 'em. I'll set my own men on 'em."
"Bakeshops," Alex said mildly, easing back in his chair, out of reach. "I thought meatpacking was your game, Ben."
Immediately Cochrane mellowed; talking about himself always seemed to soothe him: "That's some of what I do," he explained, smug in his self-importance. "That's what I do in Chicago and St. Louis."
"Here in New York I do other things. A little of this, a little of that. Real estate, mostly. Banking, a little insurance."
"Bakeshops, caskets, restaurant supplies. Asphalt. A little of this—"
"A little of that." Alex signaled the waiter for another drink.
Ogden cleared his throat again. "How did you get started in business, Ben? Are you a native Chicagoan?"
That set him off again. Alex listened with less than half an ear to an account of how, at the age of nineteen, Cochrane had invented a machine that could stun and kill a steer on a moving ramp in thirteen seconds; of how, two years later, he'd bought his first stock-yard; of his relentless expansion into cattle ranching and meatpacking, the two extreme ends—birth and death—of his slaughterhouse empire.
The catalog of achievements went on, and Alex stopped listening entirely to study Cochrane over the rim of his glass. He was big and blunt-featured, barrel-chested, with slicked-back hair and wild, unkempt brows over shrewd eyes the color of Brazil nuts. His bullish chin had a deep, round cleft in the center, like a third nostril. He had an impressive kind of authority, though, there was no denying it, and it came from more than just money. There was something dangerous about him too, something coarse and not quite civilized under the veneer of good jewelry and expensive clothes. Alex remembered the first time he'd seen him, the day he'd walked into the offices of Draper, Snow and Ogden. "I need an architect," he'd announced to Travis, the office manager. He didn't look like a millionaire. The partners were all away that morning. Travis introduced him to the senior draftsman—Alex.
Two months ago, that had been. Since then he'd gotten to know Ben Cochrane a great deal better than he wanted to. The man already had a New York mansion; now he wanted one in Newport, on a lot he'd just bought on Bellevue Avenue. His specifications were vague but grandiose. He didn't have a clue about architectural styles, and he had no interest in aesthetics or comfort or domestic harmony. All he wanted, was a house that blared out to the world that Bennet Cochrane was a success, and the only criterion he had for the blaring was loudness. Alex had never met a man as arrogant, ignorant, boorish, and vulgar.
Or as stinking rich. It was a compensating quality, no doubt about it. He glanced down at the sleeve of his new black suit and shot his cuff. Eighty dollars the suit cost, about three times more than he'd ever paid for a suit in his life. He'd picked it up from his tailor today on credit, in anticipation of the first installment Draper, Snow and Ogden would soon pay him out of Cochrane's commission. He pressed the crease in the knee of his natty striped trousers admiringly, thinking he didn't much look like a Salinas lettuce farmer's grandson. When anyone asked, he always said he came from Berkeley, as if his life had begun as an undergraduate. Which, he guessed, it pretty much had. Everything before that was mean and bleak and not worth remembering.
Cochrane flipped open his pocket watch for the third time in fifteen minutes. The first two times he'd done it, Alex had assumed it was to make sure he and Ogden knew the watch was solid gold. But his impatient scowl this time suggested that he really was annoyed, as he'd already mentioned two or three times, because his wife was late. "Let's order," he snapped suddenly, interrupting Ogden in the middle of a sentence, and raised an imperious hand toward the waiter.
Alex looked forward to meeting Mrs. Cochrane—or as her husband never tired of calling her, "the former Lady Sara Longford." She was just plain Sara Cochrane now, he also liked to say. Society gossip sniped that eight years ago Ben had gone to England in search of a titled wife, discovered Sara Longford at a debutante ball, and bought her from her mother, the impoverished Dowager Duchess of Somerville—a well-known drunk—for the sum of twenty thousand pounds. The idea had been that with his money and Lady Sara's blood, the Cochranes would take New York Knickerbocker society by storm.
But the plan hadn't quite worked out. Cochrane had made the Tribune's list of four thousand American millionaires, but he'd never made the Social Register. And if Alex was any judge, he never would. Not if he married God.
"I beg your pardon, I'm horribly late, you must all be starving. No, please, sit down. I hope you haven't waited to order. How do you do—it's Mr. McKie, isn't it? And Mr. Ogden, how good to see you again."
For some reason, he'd thought she would be dark. She was fair. Average height, slim, fashionably dressed. She gave him her hand—cool and unexpectedly strong. Her eyes were smoky blue, her mouth wide, her nose a little too long. Cochrane stood up to help her off with her coat—hyacinth-blue wool, Alex noted with a connoisseur's eye for women's clothes. It proved to be lined in red satin, and he wondered cynically if she'd worn it to the table so that no one would miss that eye-catching surprise. Under the coat she had on a soft blouse of saffron cashmere and a long, full walking skirt of brown and copper silk. She wore no jewelry but her wedding band and a plain gold brooch pinned to her bosom. She was stunning.
They all sat down. Alex couldn't take his eyes off her. So he was startled when Cochrane noted snidely, without modulating his booming cannon of a voice, "You're late, Sara, but obviously it's not because you've been laboring over your dress."
Her perfect English complexion pinkened slightly. "No," she said, addressing Alex and John Ogden, "forgive me, I must look a sight. I came here directly from work instead of going home to change." Her husband snorted. She eyed him steadily. "There was a last-minute emergency and it kept me longer than I expected. I'm sorry I've kept you waiting."
A few uncomfortable seconds passed. Alex asked, "What is it you do, Mrs. Cochrane?" and she turned to him in relief, eyes warming.
"She plays nursemaid to a lot of Jews and Micks and Eyetalians."
He saw her lips compress whitely, but only for a second. "I volunteer a little time at the Forsyth Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, Mr. McKie. We try to make the transition for new immigrants a little less harrowing. Mostly I teach English."
He liked her accent. But then, he reflected, the British could say anything at all and sound brilliant. He started to ask her more about her job, but the waiter came to take their orders, and after that Cochrane went back to monopolizing the conversation.
It was a struggle to listen, when what Alex really wanted to do was stare at Cochrane's wife. He contented himself with watching her hands as she folded and refolded her napkin. They were nervous, intelligent hands, slightly bony, the nails short and white. Was she listening to her husband's monologue? Had she realized long ago, as Alex was realizing now, that the cadence of Cochrane's speech was deliberately designed to wound and embarrass? When anyone tried to agree with him or ask a question, he ignored the contribution completely and began to talk through it as soon as he could think of something else to say. His politics were particularly abhorrent; they seemed more the views of a feudal tyrant than a quick-witted entrepreneur on the brink of the twentieth century. He spoke of the ruling class and the working class with all the sensitivity of a matinee villain. He truly believed that because he had started out shoveling blood and manure in a stockyard, that was a perfectly logical reason why workers deserved no sympathy at all. The man was a cartoon, a caricature; it was impossible to take him seriously. Hearing him try to elevate self-aggrandizement to the level of national interest was a joke. But as Alex watched the woman sitting beside him—tense, gravely polite, full of some quiet emotion that might be sorrow—it struck him that the joke wasn't very funny.
Cochrane's thick, bloody steak finally distracted him long enough to allow his wife to ask a question. "How long have you been practicing your profession, Mr. McKie?"
He almost smiled. Her husband had never thought to ask him that—a relevant inquiry, one would have thought, of the man who was going to build him a house in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars. "About four years."
"Alex is our brightest new man," Ogden put in quickly. "He got his engineering degree at Berkeley, and then took his Certificate at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Which is, of course," he added thoughtfully for Cochrane's benefit, "the finest school for architecture in the world."
"Have you done many other large residential designs?" Mrs. Cochrane pursued mildly.
The answer, of course, was no; but how should he put it? Inspiration struck. "Nothing as large as this, but then, I expect there aren't too many architects in the country who've done one as large as this."
Cochrane exhaled gruffly, his version of a laugh, and muttered fervently, "Damn right."
His wife wasn't so easily flattered. Alex thought her blue-gray eyes looked faintly amused before she turned back to her plate. It made him defensive. "I might not be as experienced as some, but I think I'm qualified to design a house in the style your husband and I have discussed, Mrs. Cochrane. As John said"—it still felt strange to call Ogden "John," but he'd insisted on it, ever since Cochrane had hired Alex as his architect—"As John said, my early training is in engineering, so I like to think I'm well-grounded in the practical aspects of construction and design. Because of my Beaux Arts training, I'm fluent in the academic vocabulary of the Gothic, the Romanesque, the Renaissance. My approach to design is eclectic, but my reverence for the classical is unwavering." He kept speaking, appalling himself, wondering if there was something about being around Cochrane that made people start talking like asses—some contagious speech disease. Only about half of what he was saying was true, anyway; his "reverence" for classical architecture had been doing nothing but waver for years. But she listened with care and courtesy and attention, which was partly why he kept nattering on. It was her husband—naturally—who finally shut him up by interrupting.
"That's fine, fine, but make sure I get a look at those blueprints or whatever you call them for the extra floor by next week. I'm leaving town on Tuesday."
Mrs. Cochrane looked at her husband, then back at Alex. "The extra what?"
Alex stroked his mustache. The enormity of what Cochrane wanted now, the surprise lunatic demand he'd made a few hours ago was still so fresh, so infuriating, he couldn't even bring himself to say the words out loud.
"Floor," Ben answered for him. "It's not tall enough, I want it taller. More floors. Four seems about right. Yeah, four." He crossed his hands over his stomach and leaned back in his chair until it stood on two legs.
Mrs. Cochrane sat motionless, staring down at her plate. Alex watched her covertly while Cochrane launched into a new monologue on what was wrong with Tammany Hall. When she finally looked up, he caught her eye; in it he read sympathy and—this time there was no doubt about it—amusement.
Dessert came. Over coffee, Cochrane made an abrupt announcement that the gentlemen were going to walk up the street to Canfield's casino to continue discussing plans for his house. "Sara, you can get a cab home."
Alex looked away, embarrassed. Was there no limit to the man's rudeness? Then he remembered—damnation!—he'd told Constance he'd take her to an after-theater party at ten o'clock. She was already angry with him for not bringing her to this dinner. He hadn't quite known how to explain that Draper, Snow and Ogden considered it bad form to take one's mistress to a client meeting. Now he'd have to buy Constance something to placate her; otherwise, she'd sulk for days. Not for the first time, it occurred to him that he wasn't rich enough yet for a mistress. Not one with Constance's tastes, anyway.
"Well, now, that sounds fine," Ogden exclaimed heartily and, Alex knew, insincerely. Bleeding humbug.
Mrs. Cochrane spoke up quietly. "Ben, have you forgotten it's Michael's birthday? You were gone before he woke up this morning; he hasn't seen you yet. Perhaps Mr. Ogden and Mr. McKie would like to join us at the house tonight."
"No, of course I hadn't forgotten. This is business. I'll see Michael when I get back, give him his present tomorrow." He looked over at Alex and Ogden, grinning. "Got my son a shotgun for his birthday. Four-ten smoothbore, pretty as you please."
Mrs. Cochrane's coffee cup clattered against the saucer. "You must be joking."
He looked back at her, fleshy face bland, but behind the dark eyes Alex thought he saw a quick glitter of spite. "What's wrong with that?" he asked irritably.
"He's too little to have a gun! Ben, for God's—"
"No, he's not."
Awkward pause. Alex studied his thumbnail intently.
"I say he's not," Cochrane pressed. "Seven's not too young for a boy to have a gun, is it?"
"Why, no," Ogden answered faintly. "No, indeed."
"See there, Sara? What do you say, McKie?"
Bloody hell, the son of a bitch wanted unanimity. Alex stared at him without answering until the silence stretched too tight. His mind went blank, and out of the absolute quiet he heard himself say slowly, "No, probably not. No, seven seems about right."
Cochrane thumped the table in triumph while Alex sat motionless, gazing at nothing. Ogden started talking about his four-year-old grandson. When he couldn't stand it any longer, Alex looked up. Mrs. Cochrane's eyes on him were cool and unsurprised, and in them he saw the recognition of a betrayal.
Excerpted from Another Eden by Patricia Gaffney. Copyright © 1992 Patricia Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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