"One's a good chain and one's a bad chain," Skeeter McCaslin eerily intoned from his hospital bed. "One's a daisy chain and one's a chain of fools." His dark eyes were bright with fever, and he looked suspicious and terrified and cunning all at the same time.
Timothy Callahan and I glanced at each other over our gauze masks, then looked back at Skeeter.
"But when you called the other day," Timmy said, "you told me a friend's life was in danger--a woman at the newspaper in Edensburg. Why don't you tell Don and me about that, Skeeter? You were right to call. I'm really glad you did, because Don might be able to help."
Skeeter's jaw tightened under his stubble of black beard, the whiskers an indication not of fashion but of illness, and he scowled. "I just told you, didn't I? Now I am going to tell you one ... more ... time. One's a good chain, and one's a bad chain. One's a daisy chain, and one's a chain of fools."
After a little pause, Timmy said, "Chain of fools?"
Skeeter did not rise up from his pillow--he was obviously far too sick and exhausted for that--but he cocked a bushy eyebrow and said, in a voice dripping acid, "Do I have to repeat myself a third time? One's a--"
"I'll be right back," Timmy said. He got up and walked out into the corridor.
I said to Skeeter, "Your friend who's in danger--is her name Aretha?" His eyes burned with contempt. I was a moron. I asked, "Is it Buchanan? As in Daisy Buchanan?"
"You're an even bigger idiot than your boyfriend is," Skeeter said.
He gave me a look indicating that I was as useful to him, and as appealing, as the uneaten dun-colored roast beef andbile-green string beans on the dinner plate at his bedside.
"Skeeter, I have a feeling you're not yourself tonight," I said. "Timmy always spoke well of you, and I hope we can get to know each other when you're feeling better. Then we can sort this thing out--whatever the situation is that led you to believe that your friend might be in need of a private investigator. Okay?"
Skeeter grinned dementedly. He said, "Did Timmy tell you about my birthmark?"
"Nope. Never did."
"Timothy sure did love that birthmark."
Timmy came back into the room, trailing a nurse. She barged over to Skeeter, peered at the numbers on his IV-drip monitors, jiggled something, and said loudly, "Mr. McCaslin, how ya doin'?"
Skeeter replied, "One's a good chain, and one's a bad chain."
"Oh, is that so?"
"One's a daisy chain, and one's a chain of fools."
"Uh-huh. Hmm." Now she was examining the label on one of the drip bags. She said to Skeeter, "How long have you been on this?"
"No, this prednisone."
"Forty-eight hours," Skeeter said.
"That was before the admission into the union of Alaska and Hawaii. But I still stand up and salute when I'm not sick as a dog."
"Well, they might have to change this one med. I'll have to talk to the doctor about it. Who's your attending? Baptiste?"
"I'm just a simple forest ranger from Edensburg. I call him Baptist. Or Evangelical Lutheran."
"One's a good chain, and one's a bad chain. One's a daisy chain, and one's chain of fools."
"Well, you have a nice visit with your friends." The nurse turned and sped away, and Timmy sped after her.
Skeeter looked over at me balefully and waited.
I said, "Where's the birthmark?"
"Wouldn't you like to know. Wouldn't you just like to know."
"Timmy considers himself lucky to have hooked up with you, Skeeter. For most gay kids, high school is hell. I'm sure it was hard in a lot of ways for you too--not feeling as though you could be open about your relationship and all that. But at least you two knew exactly who you were and what you wanted, and you had each other. That's unusual."
He stared at me as if I had spoken to him in Gheg. After a moment, he said, "One's a good chain, and one's a bad chain. One's a daisy chain, and ones a chain of fools."
"I got that, Skeeter. I just wish I had a clue as to what the hell you're talking about."
"You know what I'm talking about, Donald. You know damn well. Oh, ho, ho."
Timmy returned. "Skeeter," he said, "you're on a steroid drug that's affecting your mind. Now that the pneumocystis is under control, maybe they can change the medication. The nurse is going to check."
"It's your mind that's affected, not mine," Skeeter said. "You could cut my heart out, the way you did the last time, and plead temporarily asinine."
"I think maybe we should come back tomorrow," Timmy said, his face coloring. "And then you'll be in better shape to talk about whatever you called me for on Thursday. Would I be wasting my breath if I asked you one more time to explain to Don and me about the good and bad chains, and how they're connected to your friend whose life may be in danger?"
Skeeter said, "Boo hoo, what a waste."
"Gotcha. I guess we'll head out then."
"I'm glad I finally got to meet you, Skeeter," I said. "I know it means a lot to Timmy too, to be reconnected with you after all these years."
"Still crazy," Skeeter said.
I asked, "When was the last time you two saw each other?"
Skeeter said, "September second, 1963, four twenty a.m. I still have his taste in my mouth."
Timmy blushed some more and said, "You've got a mighty long memory, Skeeter, or poor habits of oral hygiene. Anyway, you and I can do some catching up when you're feeling better. Which will be soon, I hope. I want to hear all about your life in the wilderness. I think that's great--all you ever wanted to be, when we were kids, was a forest ranger, and that's what you went ahead and did. I'm impressed. Maybe even a little envious."
"Now you're impressed. Then you were undressed."
Timmy said, "Skeeter, your tact mechanism is on the blink, so I think Don and I will be going now. There's no point in our hanging around any longer tonight. We'll come back this time tomorrow and with any luck you'll be better equipped to explain why you think your friend's situation is dangerous. I hope you can get a good night's rest. Hospitals certainly aren't restful places. In that sense, they're terrible places to have to go when you're ill."
"They killed Eric and now they're trying to kill Janet," Skeeter said in a matter-of-fact way.
Timmy had given Skeeter's arm an affectionate squeeze and was preparing for his exit, but now he stared down at the man he called his "old high-school friend." On those rare occasions when he mentioned Skeeter McCaslin at all to me, Timmy had never used the term "lover." He'd once said it was too suggestive and sophisticated a word for a couple of sex-crazed adolescents in early-Beatles-era Poughkeepsie. Yet their two-year affair, which ended only when they graduated from high school, was carried on with high degrees of both stealth and emotional heat. If "lovers" was too grown-up a term for what Timmy and Skeeter had been to each other, "friend," or even "sexual friend," was clearly insufficient. "Boyfriend" wasn't right either--this was more than a decade before same-sex couples began showing up at the proms together. On this point, the language was as inadequate as the times had been.
Timmy let go of Skeeter and gazed down at him uneasily. The man in the bed was gaga--temporarily, we'd been assured--and assigning meaning to his utterances, or inviting additional ones, seemed risky.
Boldly, I said, "Who was Eric, Skeeter? And who is Janet--the one they are trying to kill?"
"And while you're at it," Timmy added, "who are 'they'?"
"One's a good chain," Skeeter said, "and one's a bad chain. One's a daisy chain, and one's a chain of fools."
Timmy said, "Skeeter, I guess you can't help it, but saying that over and over is not useful. I think we're going to have to wait until your mind clears. Listen, old friend, we'll be back tomorrow. So you just hang in there and--"
"Eric was my lover," Skeeter said, "for eleven years. Eric Osborne, the famous eco-freak and prize-winning nature writer. When Eric won a Polk, he even knew who Polk was. To me, Polk was a pig in a poke. I said, 'Who's Polk?' and Eric knew. Eric knew puh-lenty. Eric knew me, ho, ho--read me like a book, wrote me in a book. And I knew Eric like a mountain knows a polecat. Eric was the second great love of my life. But they killed him, on May the fifteenth, and now I'm going to die alone."
As he said this, a big, blue-eyed, long-faced woman with freckles and a sun-bleached mess of straw-colored hair strode into the room. From behind her surgical mask, she said, "Eldon, you are neither alone nor dying, just having a little psychotic episode. But you'll get over it. Hi," she said, offering Timmy, then me, a latexed hand. "I'm Janet Osborne, a friend of Eldon's."
"One's a good chain, and one's a bad chain..."
"I'm Timothy Callahan, an old high-school friend of Eldon's."
"One's a daisy chain, and one's a chain of fools..."
"Don Strachey--I'm with Timothy. Are you one of the Edensburg Herald Osbornes?"
"I edit the paper. Are you the private investigator? Eldon told me his high-school main squeeze was now the partner of a private detective and he was planning on contacting you."
"I was Eldon's only squeeze in high school," Timmy said, "unless you count Carol Jean Nugent in ninth grade. Right, Skeeter?"
The man in the bed said, "Guilty. Guilty as charged."
"Eldon, I never knew you had such an adorable nickname when you were a kid. Was Eric aware that you were once a Skeeter?"
"The wearin' o' the green," Skeeter said.
"And you work for the legislature, is that right, Timothy?"
"For Assemblyman Lipshutz."
"Eldon said he'd once read a piece in Cityscape about the two of you--a well-known gay-couple-about-Albany--and when he decided that I might be in need of a private eye, he remembered you two. Though my suspicion is, he mostly wanted to satisfy his curiosity about what had become of his first great love."
"Timmy popped my cherry real good," Skeeter said. "I cannot tell a lie."
"I didn't even know Skeeter was in the area," Timmy said. "We hadn't been in touch at all since high school."
"Instead of staying with me, he gave himself to the Mother Church," Skeeter said. "What he gave me was the Poughkeepsie royal kiss-off."
"By that, Skeeter means I went off to Georgetown, where I majored in political science."
Skeeter said, "Now it's thirty-two years later and he's still the all-American Irish hunk with milk-white skin and hair as soft as eiderdown, and me, I'm a dead duck."
"Eldon, you're a long way from dead," Janet said, "and the nurse says you're making steady progress."
I said, "Eldon called Timmy before he got sick last week and told him he had a friend in Edensburg whose life was in danger. Apparently he meant you, Janet."
She gave a quick nod. "I suppose we should talk about that. We could go somewhere--or it could wait until tomorrow."
"They killed Eric, and now they're trying to kill Janet," Skeeter said. "One's a good chain, and one's a bad chain. One's a daisy chain, and one's a chain of fools."
"Eric was my brother," Janet said. "He was a writer. Eldon and Eric were together for eleven years. Eric died in May. He was murdered. We were all devastated, but no one more than Eldon. To lose someone you love that way--it's just the absolute hellish worst." Janet Osborne was a youthful and robust-looking woman, but when she spoke of her brother's murder something in her face altered, and it occurred to me that she was not as young as I had first thought.
"Don and I both read Eric's books," Timmy said. "He was a wonderful writer. His love of the Adirondacks was so infectious that every time either of us read Eric, we'd plan a camping trip the first chance we got to try to see the wilderness the way he saw it. Once, after we read Eric's article in Harper's about his winter week on Berry Pond, we decided to spend a February weekend there ourselves. Although I have to admit we spent the second night at the Edensburg Travelodge."
"Couple of nellies," Skeeter said. "Timmy, do tell me: Is it still your habit to take three showers a day?"
"No, Skeeter, I make do with two now that I'm middle-aged and am called upon to perspire less often than when I was younger."
"Living with me has turned Timothy into a big slob," I said.
"I was sure your skin would be all dried out from washing your natural body oils down the drain three times a day for forty-some years, but your skin's not hideous at all. I don't know why. You're almost totally bald in the back though."
"Skeeter, I would have expected that as a forest ranger you'd have progressed to concerns less fleeting than those of mere human vanity."
"Oh, so now you're into enemas. I could have predicted this."
Janet said, "Eldon, I think we'd better leave you now, and you can get a good night's rest--or a bad night's rest if that's the best anybody can manage around here. I'll come back tomorrow night and see how you're doing, and some of the forest service gang is planning to come by too. The nurse thinks you ought to be okay, especially if they can get you off this prednisone. You're probably clinically insane, which as far as I know is not what the doctor ordered."
"Call me Olivia."
Timmy said, "So long, Olivia."
"I hated you for leaving me," Skeeter suddenly spat out. "I was so mad at you I could have killed you." He started to breathe fast and hard. This was bad, I was sure, for a man recovering from a lung disease.
Looking stricken, Timmy said, "Oh."
Skeeter gasped out, "I went up in the woods past Peterson's Bluff and screamed my head off. I pulled trees out by the roots. I cursed your name, Timmy. I despised you. I crushed your skull with rocks. When I got to forestry school, I cried half the night before I fell asleep. I lied to the other guys and told them my mother had died."
"Oh. Oh, Skeeter. God."
"I loved you and hated your guts for years, Timmy." Timmy looked away. "I never really got completely over you until I met Eric," Skeeter said, glaring at Timmy.
Timmy flushed scarlet and said, "All those years. Jeez, Skeeter. I'm sorry."
"Then and only then were you kaput, Callahan."
"And then it was Eric and I--in for however long it lasted, what with our HIV. Till ridiculous death do us part."
"I'm so sorry."
"I'm the one that got sick first."
"That was awful."
"But at least I still had Eric along for the idiotic ride--until they killed him."
"Who are 'they'?" Timmy said, seizing on this turn in the conversation toward behavior that was even more reprehensible in Skeeter's mind than Timmy's had been.
"That's what your boyfriend has to find out. Who they are. I can tell you this: They're in it with the bad chain."
I said, "The chain of fools?"
"Yes, yes, yes, yes."
"The business about the chains is still unclear to us, Skeeter. We might have to come back tomorrow to get that part of the story straight."
Janet said, "I can explain what Eldon is talking about. The Herald is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the family is being forced to sell out. One newspaper chain that's interested has made a low bid, but the advantage is that it would maintain the paper's high standards and progressive editorial page, especially on environmental matters. That's the good chain. The high bidder is a big chain run by a reactionary thug who would fire most of the staff, gut the paper editorially, and use it primarily as a vehicle for chain-store advertising. I guess that's the chain of fools. Some members of my family want to sell to the thug and walk away with a bundle. Others want to sell to the good chain, break even, and keep the Osbornes' good name. One vote for the good chain was lost when Eric was murdered. Someone may be trying to kill me--this is Eldon's theory--and eliminate my vote for selling out to the good chain. With my vote lost, the reactionary thug would win." A sheen of perspiration was visible now across Janet's forehead and around her pale eyes.
"Do you have any reason to believe that Eldon's theory is correct?" I asked.
"I'm not sure," Janet said. "I hate to think that any of the Osbornes would murder someone else in the family for money, or for anything else, or would ever murder anybody for any reason. But, I also know that--let's just say for now that what Skeeter is suggesting might be possible." She gave a wan little shrug, as if to apologize for any homicidal tendencies in the Osborne family.
Skeeter said, "They sent the Jetsons to attack her. Betski-wetski. Honk, honk, she almost got conked."
Timmy looked blankly at Skeeter, but Janet seemed to know what this meant. "Last week somebody might have tried to run me over with a Jet Ski," she said. "On the lake where I live. That's what Skeeter is referring to in his overly colorful way."
"Might have?" Timmy asked.
"There are a certain number of hotdoggers on the lake, so it could have been carelessness," Janet said, looking grim. "Or it could have been deliberate. We just don't know."
"One's a good chain, and one's a bad chain. It was almost a tall doll with a fractured skull," Skeeter said, and rolled his eyes up inside his head and made his tongue loll idiotically. That's when we all agreed it was time for Skeeter to get some rest.