Read an Excerpt
By William Hjortsberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1978 William Hjortsberg
All rights reserved.
It was Friday the thirteenth and yesterday's snowstorm lingered in the streets like a leftover curse. The slush outside was ankle-deep. Across Seventh Avenue a treadmill parade of lightbulb headlines marched endlessly around Times Tower's terra cotta façade: ... HAWAII IS VOTED INTO UNION AS SOUTH STATE: HOUSE GRANTS FINAL APPROVAL, 232 TO 89; EISENHOWER'S SIGNATURE OF BILL ASSURED ... Hawaii, sweet land of pineapples and Haleloki; ukeleles strumming, sunshine and surf, grass skirts swaying in the tropical breeze.
I spun my chair around and stared out at Times Square. The Camels spectacular on the Claridge puffed fat steam smoke rings out over the snarling traffic. The dapper gentleman on the sign, mouth frozen in a round O of perpetual surprise, was Broadway's harbinger of spring. Earlier in the week, teams of scaffold-hung painters transformed the smoker's dark winter homburg and chesterfield overcoat into seersucker and panama straw; not as poetic as the Capistrano swallows, but it got the message across. My building was built before the turn of the century; a four-story brick pile held together with soot and pigeon dung. An Easter bonnet of billboards flourished on the roof, advertising flights to Miami and various brands of beer. There was a cigar store on the corner, a Pokerino parlor, two hot dog stands, and the Rialto Theatre, mid-block. The entrance was tucked between a peep-show bookshop and a novelty place, show windows stacked with whoopee cushions and plaster dog turds.
My office was two flights up, in a line with Olga's Electrolysis, Teardrop Imports, Inc., and Ira Kipnis, C.P.A. Eight-inch gold letters gave me the edge over the others: CROSSROADS DETECTIVE AGENCY, a name I bought along with the business from Ernie Cavalero, who took me on as his legman back when I first hit the city during the war.
I was about to go out for coffee when the phone rang. "Mr. Harry Angel?" a distant secretary trilled. "Herman Winesap of McIntosh, Winesap, and Spy calling."
I grunted something pleasant and she put me on hold.
Herman Winesap's voice was as slick as the greasy kid stuff hair oil companies like to warn you about. He introduced himself as an attorney. That meant his fees were high. A guy calling himself a lawyer always costs a lot less. Winesap sounded so good I let him do most of the talking.
"The reason I called, Mr. Angel, was to ascertain whether your services were at present available for contract."
"Would this be for your firm?"
"No. I'm speaking in behalf of one of our clients. Are you available for employment?"
"Depends on the job. You'll have to give me some details."
"My client would prefer to discuss them with you in person. He has suggested that you have lunch with him today. One o'clock sharp at the Top of the Six's."
"Maybe you'd like to give me the name of this client, or do I just look for some guy wearing a red carnation?"
"Have you a pencil handy? I'll spell it for you."
I wrote the name LOUIS CYPHRE on my desk pad and asked how to pronounce it.
Herman Winesap did a swell job, rolling his r' s like a Berlitz instructor. I asked if the client was a foreigner?
"Mr. Cyphre carries a French passport. I am not certain of his exact nationality. Any questions you might have no doubt he'll be happy to answer at lunch. May I tell him to expect you?"
"I'll be there, one o'clock sharp."
Attorney Herman Winesap made some final unctuous remarks before signing off. I hung up and lit one of my Christmas Montecristos in celebration.CHAPTER 2
666 Fifth Avenue was an unhappy marriage of the International Style and our own homegrown tailfin technology. It had gone up two years before between 52nd and 53rd streets: a million square feet of office space sheathed in embossed aluminum panels. It looked like a forty-story cheese grater. There was a waterfall in the lobby, but that didn't seem to help.
I took an express elevator to the top floor, got a number from the hatcheck girl, and admired the view while the maître d' gave me the once-over like a government-meat inspector grading a side of beef. His finding Cyphre's name in the reservation book didn't exactly make us pals. I followed him back through a polite murmuring of executives to a small table by a window.
Seated there in a custom-made blue pin-stripe suit with a blood-red rosebud in his lapel was a man who might have been anywhere between forty-five and sixty. His hair was black and full, combed straight back on a high forehead, yet his square-cut goatee and pointed moustache were white as ermine. He was tanned and elegant; his eyes a distant, ethereal blue. A tiny, inverted golden star gleamed on his maroon silk necktie. "I'm Harry Angel," I said, as the maître d' pulled out my chair. "A lawyer named Winesap said there was something you wanted to speak to me about."
"I like a man who's prompt," he said. "Drink?"
I ordered a double Manhattan, straight up; Cyphre tapped his glass with a manicured finger and said he'd have one more of the same. It was easy to imagine those pampered hands gripping a whip. Nero must have had such hands. And Jack the Ripper. It was the hand of emperors and assassins. Languid, yet lethal, the cruel, tapered fingers perfect instruments of evil.
When the waiter left, Cyphre leaned forward and fixed me with a conspirator's grin. "I hate to bother with trivialities, but I'd like to see some identification before we get started."
I got out my wallet and showed him my photostat and honorary chiefs button. "There's a gun permit and driver's license in there, too."
He flipped through the celluloid card holders and when he handed back the wallet his smile was ten degrees whiter. "I prefer to take a man at his word, but my legal advisors insisted upon this formality."
"It usually pays to play it safe."
"Why, Mr. Angel, I would have thought you were a gambling man."
"Only when I have to be." I listened hard for any trace of an accent, but his voice was like polished metal, smooth and clean, as if it had been buffed with banknotes from the day he was born. "Suppose we get down to business," I said. "I'm not much good at small talk."
"Another admirable trait." Cyphre withdrew a gold and leather cigar case from his inside breast pocket, opened it, and selected a slender, greenish panatela. "Care for a smoke?" I declined the proffered case and watched Cyphre trim the end of his cigar with a silver penknife.
"Do you by any chance remember the name Johnny Favorite?" he asked, warming the panatela's slim length in the flame of his butane lighter.
I thought it over. "Wasn't he a crooner with a swing band back before the war?"
"That's the man. An overnight sensation, as the press agents like to say. Sang with the Spider Simpson orchestra in 1940. Personally, I loathed swing music and can't recall the titles of his hit recordings; there were several, in any case. He created a near-riot at the Paramount Theatre two years before anyone ever heard of Sinatra. You should remember that, the Paramount's over in your part of town."
"Johnny Favorite's before my time. In 1940, I was just out of high school, a rookie cop in Madison, Wisconsin."
"From the Midwest? I would have taken you for a native New Yorker."
"No such animal, at least not above Houston Street."
"Very true." Cyphre's features were shrouded in blue smoke as he puffed his cigar. It smelled like excellent tobacco, and I regretted not taking one when I had the chance. "This is a city of outsiders," he said. "I'm one myself."
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Let us say I'm a traveler." Cyphre waved away a wreath of cigar smoke, flashing an emerald the Pope himself would have kissed.
"Fine with me. Why did you ask about Johnny Favorite?"
The waiter set our drinks on the table with less intrusion than a passing shadow.
"A pleasant voice, all things considered." Cyphre raised his glass to eye level in a silent European toast. "As I said, I could never stomach swing music; too loud and jumpy for my taste. But Johnny sounded sweet as a caroler when he wanted to. I took him under my wing when he was first getting started. He was a brash, skinny kid from the Bronx. Mother and father both dead. His real name wasn't Favorite, it was Jonathan Liebling. He changed it for professional reasons; Liebling wouldn't have looked nearly as good in lights. Do you know what happened to him?"
I said I had no idea whatsoever.
"He was drafted in January '43. Because of his professional talents, he was assigned to the Special Entertainment Services Branch and in March he joined a troop show in Tunisia. I'm not certain of the exact details; there was an air raid one afternoon during a performance. The Luftwaffe strafed the bandstand. Most of the troupe was killed. Johnny, through some quirk of fortune, escaped with facial and head injuries. Escaped is the wrong word. He was never the same again. I'm not a medical man, so I can't be very precise about his condition. Some form of shell shock, I suppose."
I said I knew something about shell shock myself.
"Really? Were you in the war, Mr. Angel?"
"For a few months right at the start. I was one of the lucky ones."
"Well, Johnny Favorite was not. He was shipped home, a total vegetable."
"That's too bad," I said, "but where do I fit in? What exactly do you want me to do?"
Cyphre stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray and toyed with the age-yellowed ivory holder. It was carved in the shape of a coiled serpent with the head of a crowing rooster. "Be patient with me, Mr. Angel. I'm getting to the point, however circuitously. I gave Johnny some help at the start of his career. I was never his agent, but I was able to use my influence in his behalf. In recognition of my assistance, which was considerable, we had a contract. Certain collateral was involved. This was to be forfeited in the event of his death. I'm sorry that I can't be more explicit, but the terms of our agreement specified that the details remain confidential.
"In any event, Johnny's case was hopeless. He was sent to a veteran's hospital in New Hampshire and it seemed as if he would spend the remainder of his life in a ward, one of the unfortunate discards of war. But Johnny had friends and money, a good deal of money. Although he was by nature profligate, his earnings for the two years prior to his induction were considerable; more than any one man could squander. Some of this money was invested, with Johnny's agent having power of attorney."
"The plot begins to grow complicated," I said.
"Indeed it does, Mr. Angel." Cyphre tapped his ivory cigar holder absently against the rim of his empty glass, making the crystal chime like distant bells. "Friends of Johnny's had him transferred to a private hospital upstate. There was some sort of radical treatment. Typical psychiatric hocus-pocus, I suppose. The end result was the same; Johnny remained a zombie. Only the expenses came out of his pockets instead of the government's."
"Do you know the names of these friends?"
"No. I hope you won't consider me entirely mercenary when I tell you that my continuing interest in Jonathan Liebling concerns only our contractual arrangement. I never saw Johnny again after he went away to war. All that mattered was whether he was alive or dead. Once or twice each year, my attorneys contact the hospital and obtain from them a notarized affidavit stating he is indeed still among the living. This situation remained unchanged until last weekend."
"What happened then?"
"Something very curious. Johnny's hospital is outside Poughkeepsie. I was in that vicinity on business and, quite on the spur of the moment, decided to pay my old acquaintance a visit. Perhaps I wanted to see what sixteen years in bed does to a man. At the hospital, I was told visiting hours were on weekday afternoons only. I insisted, and the doctor in charge made an appearance. He informed me that Johnny was undergoing special therapy and could not be disturbed until the following Monday."
I said: "Sounds like you were getting the runaround."
"Indeed. There was something about the fellow's manner I didn't like." Cyphre slipped his cigar holder into his vest pocket and folded his hands on the table. "I stayed over in Poughkeepsie until Monday and returned to the hospital, making certain to arrive during visiting hours. I never saw the doctor again, but when I gave Johnny's name, the girl at the reception desk asked if I was a relative. Naturally, I said no. She said only family members were permitted to visit with the patients."
"No mention of this the previous time around?"
"Not a word. I grew quite indignant. I'm afraid I made something of a scene. That was a mistake. The receptionist threatened to call the police unless I left immediately."
"What did you do?"
"I left. What else could I do? It's a private hospital. I didn't want any trouble. That's why I'm engaging your services."
"You want me to go up there and check it out for you?"
"Exactly." Cyphre gestured expansively, turning his palms upward like a man showing he has nothing to hide. "First, I need to know if Johnny Favorite is still alive —that's essential. If he is, I'd like to know where."
I reached inside my jacket and got out a small leather-bound notebook and a mechanical pencil. "Sounds simple enough. What's the name and address of the hospital?"
"The Emma Dodd Harvest Memorial Clinic; it's located east of the city on Pleasant Valley Road."
I wrote it down and asked the name of the doctor who gave Cyphre the runaround.
"Fowler. I believe the first name was either Albert or Alfred."
I made a note of it. "Is Favorite registered under his actual name?"
"Yes. Jonathan Liebling."
"That should do it." I put the notebook back and got to my feet. "How can I get in touch with you?"
"Through my attorney would be best." Cyphre smoothed his moustache with the tip of his forefinger. "But you're not leaving? I thought we were having lunch."
"Hate to miss a free meal, but if I get started right away I can make it up to Poughkeepsie before quitting time."
"Hospitals don't keep business hours."
"The office staff does. Any cover I use depends on it. It'll cost you money if I wait until Monday. I get fifty dollars a day, plus expenses."
"Sounds reasonable for a job well done."
"The job will get done. Satisfaction guaranteed. I'll give Winesap a call as soon as anything turns up."
"Perfect. A pleasure meeting you, Mr. Angel."
The maître d' was still sneering when I stopped for my overcoat and attaché case on the way out.CHAPTER 3
My six-year-old Chevy was parked in the Hippodrome Garage on 44th, near Sixth Avenue. Only the name remained to mark the site of the legendary theater. Pavlova danced at the Hipp. John Philip Sousa led the house band. Now it stank of automobile exhaust, and the only music came from a portable radio in the office, between bursts of the Puerto Rican announcer's machine-gun Spanish.
By two o'clock I was heading north up the West Side Highway. The weekend exodus had yet to start, and traffic was light along the Saw Mill River Parkway. I stopped in Yonkers and bought a pint of bourbon for company. By the time I passed Peekskill it was half gone, and I filed it in the glove compartment for the return trip.
I drove in mellow silence through the snow-covered countryside. It was a nice afternoon, too nice to spoil with the car radio's hit parade lineup of adenoidal retards. After the yellow slush of the city, everything looked white and clean, like a Grandma Moses landscape.
I reached the outskirts of Poughkeepsie a little after three and found Pleasant Valley Road without spotting a single Vassar girl. Five miles out of town I came to a walled estate with an ornately arched wrought-iron gate and large bronze letters in the brickwork: EMMA DODD HARVEST MEMORIAL CLINIC. I turned off onto a graveled drive and meandered for half a mile or so through dense hemlocks, emerging in front of a six-story red-brick Georgian building that looked more like a college dormitory than a hospital.
Inside, the place was all hospital, walls a pale, institutional green and the gray linoleum floor clean enough to operate on. A glass-topped admissions desk was built into a recessed alcove along one wall. Across from it hung a large oil portrait of a bulldozer-faced dowager who I guessed was Emma Dodd Harvest without reading the little plaque screwed to the gilt frame. Straight ahead, I could see a gleaming corridor where a white-clad orderly pushing an empty wheelchair turned a corner and disappeared from view.
Excerpted from Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg. Copyright © 1978 William Hjortsberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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