- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
When Alex Hunter, who is my boss, called me into his office, it came as no surprise, and I told him that I had been waiting.
"What about the O'Leary case?" he asked me.
"It's almost closed, and there's nothing very tricky about it. I gave the file to Harold and told him you felt it was better for him to finish it up."
"That was a damn lie."
"I suppose so. I'm a liar," I agreed.
"You're also pretty damn cocky. I don't even like you, Harvey, and someday, when I am able to replace you, I intend to fire you. I also intend to figure out some way to blacklist you, so you can't walk out of here into a better job. You are cynical, nasty and unreliable, and utterly unprincipled. The only thing that can be said in your favor is that you have brains. Sit down."
I sat down in the big black chair that flanks his desk, and watched him. He hadn't raised his voice, but he never did when he was angry. Anger softened him on the surface and hardened something bleak and painful inside of him. He also told the truth when he was angry. He didn't like me, for the reasons he had stated, and his statement was not entirely without basis. As for my own feelings toward him, they were not very strong or important. He was a short, wide, hard man with curly blond hair turning white and small, cold blue eyes. He was hard and distant, and he justified his emotional inadequacy by sitting on a set of principles, the way some short men sit on a fat chair cushion. But his principles were the principles of a boy scout, and while I would have preferred to respect him, I didn't. But that was my own problem, and there was very little that I respected, people or things.
"Brains?" I said to him. "You think I have brains? Where do I keep them? I'm thirty-five years old and I'm an insurance investigator at ten thousand dollars a year—"
"And expenses, the way I have to fight you for a lousy cab fare?"
"Write me a letter," he sighed. "Or go back to your desk and resign. Any way you want it."
"I'm just a hired hand," I nodded. "What do you want, Mr. Hunter?"
"The Sarbine necklace. Or couldn't you guess?"
Then, for a minute or so, we sat in silence, his tiny eyes regarding me with a dismal lack of satisfaction. It's no pleasure to sit quietly while Hunter watches you, so I asked him how much the policy was.
"One quarter of a million, exactly. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
"One policy? Ours?"
"Is any of it laid off?"
"Go ask the boys upstairs!" he snapped. "What the hell do I care if any of it's laid off? All I know is that in a couple of weeks, this company is going to write out a check for a quarter of a million to Mr. Mark Sarbine."
"My heart bleeds for the company."
"You couldn't resist that." Hunter's thin smile was never pleasant. "You just had to be clever."
"It's not very clever."
"I wish I were ten years younger," he said.
"Yes, sir. What would you do then? Find the Sarbine necklace yourself?"
"No, Harvey. I'd just kick the hell out of you personally"
"Oh? Well, I'm no good in a fight. I don't think you'd have to be ten years younger, sir. Not at all. And if it would give you any real satisfaction—"
"Thank you, Harvey," he said.
"According to the papers, the necklace is worth three hundred and fifty thousand."
"Who the devil knows what it's worth? There's no market price on things like that. Last week the Parke-Bernet Galleries had a gem sale, and the Lomas diamond was put up. Goldberg came in from Chicago and bid one hundred and ten thousand. Peter Sweeny from Boston bought it for a hundred and seventy thousand. Each one put a price on it, and just one of the stones in the Sarbine necklace is a damn sight better than the Lomas. It's worth what it will bring, but it's insured for a quarter of a million and that's what we write our check for."
"Why wasn't it insured for more?"
"I'm asking you," I persisted.
"I don't play guessing games. Insurance on such sums isn't cheap. Maybe they couldn't afford more."
"Did you count his money, Harvey? I didn't."
"Poor people don't buy such trinkets."
"No? That's a profound observation, but it just happens that Mark Sarbine didn't buy the necklace. It belonged to Richard Cotter, who inherited it from his mother, who was Anne Fredericks. Her father, Alan Fredericks, was a South African—British originally, I suppose—and he came to this country in eighteen eighty-two. He brought the pendant stone with him, uncut, and from all I have been able to learn, had to wait almost ten years before he had enough money to make a trip to Amsterdam and have the stone cut. Apparently it was the third- or fourth-largest rough stone in modern diamond history. If the cutting had been entirely successful, it would have resulted in a priceless stone, but as it happened, more of the major stone was lost in the cutting than had been anticipated. Thus the necklace—eleven stones, all out of the original."
"And what was the weight of the original?" I asked him.
"We're not certain of that, any more than we can be certain how Alan Fredericks came by it. It might have been several hundred carats, but that doesn't tell any story. The Portuguese claim to have in their treasury a diamond called the Braganza, which supposedly weighs 1680 carats. But they won't subject it to expert opinion, and we don't even know that it's a real diamond and not a white topaz. We wouldn't insure that stone for a thousand dollars, but we would have given Sarbine four hundred thousand if he had asked for it. And there have been rough stones of five hundred carats that couldn't be cut to be worth anything like the Sarbine necklace. Fredericks' diamond was cut to brilliants, which means that the diamonds were cut in faces both at top and bottom. In other words, such a diamond is girdled. Above the girdle, thirty-three faces are cut, while twenty-five more are cut on the back side of the stone—a total of fifty-eight faces, and the result is a magnificent piece of jewelry."
He knew his diamonds, but I never enjoy appearing more ignorant than I am, especially with a teacher like Hunter. I asked him about the quality.
"Jagersfontein," he said.
"Which makes it a Kimberley stone," I nodded. "As good as any white diamond in the world, and maybe better. But if it's Jagers, old Fredericks must have stolen it."
"Who knows? And furthermore, who cares at this point? The only thing I am interested in is getting the Sarbine necklace back."
"And Harvey Krim is the boy to do it—yes, sir, Mr. Hunter. I'll just go out and snoop around a bit and put that old necklace in your hands next week."
"I endure you, Harvey, but don't stretch it too far," Hunter said.
"No, sir. I would never stretch it too far. You still haven't told me what Sarbine paid for the necklace."
"Technically speaking, he didn't pay a cent for it. It cost him twenty-five thousand dollars, however."
"Oh? That's sharp buying."
"He didn't buy it. If you listened to anyone beside yourself, you would have heard me say that it belonged to Richard Cotter. About two years ago, Cotter was mercilessly overextended. Do you know anything about Cotter?"
I had to shake my head. It was not that Alex Hunter was a walking encyclopedia; he was a boss and he had a research staff, and to earn the few miserable dollars the company paid them, they burrowed into anything he mentioned. So he was able to inform me that Richard Cotter was a builder who had erected half a dozen large apartment houses in New York City when apartments were scarce and tried to rent them when they were plentiful, that he had run into unforeseen liability suits, that he had a fire in a half-completed building, tar and paint, that a contractor had cheated him, and that he came to a point of utter desperation.
"He was brutally overextended," Hunter said. "It happens in real estate, especially in the construction end."
"It happens to me too, and I don't construct a damn thing, not one damn thing."
"You have my sympathy. In any case, Cotter had reached the end of his rope, and he still needed funds desperately. He had been associated with Sarbine in a few things, and he got a loan of twenty-five thousand from Sarbine, giving Sarbine the necklace as security. A twelve-month loan."
"That's a real smart boy, that Cotter. He could sell the necklace for a fortune, but instead he hocks it for twenty-five grand."
"He couldn't sell it. His wife left it to his daughter."
"I thought it belonged to him?"
"It did," Hunter nodded. "He gave it to his wife. She died, leaving it to her daughter."
"So he couldn't hock it publicly to a bank and I suppose he couldn't face his daughter, and he makes a deal with Sarbine. Even so, if he defaults, the necklace belongs to the kid."
"Not quite, Harvey," Hunter said, his smile thin and superior. "When he made the deal with Sarbine, his daughter was under age, and he was custodian. As custodian, Cotter had the right to deal with his daughter's property—to buy, sell, speculate or what you will. That's the law. All he had to do was to provide an honest accounting and to show that no fraud was involved. So he turned it over to Sarbine as collateral and subsequently defaulted. He went bankrupt and he blew out his brains."
"Oh. You know, Harvey, when you say 'oh' like that, it turns my stomach. Who the hell are you to sit in judgment over a man who reaches the end of his rope?"
"I'm not sitting in judgment. I merely said 'oh.'"
"I understand. I just don't like you, Harvey. Anyway, that's it."
"What happened to the girl?"
"What difference does that make?"
"I don't know. It's just a loose end. I don't like loose ends."
"I sincerely beg your pardon." Hunter bowed his head. "You're an artist, Harvey. Of course you don't like loose ends. The girl is dead. Does that tie it up?"
"Not quite. How did she die and when?"
"I don't know how she died and when," Hunter said morosely. "I don't care."
"You mean you forgot to put that one to research. You're slipping."
"I am indeed," Hunter agreed. "I certainly am, Harvey. That's why I sit here and endure you. That's why I don't throw you out of here. That's why I don't fire you."
"You also want the necklace."
"Yes, I also want the necklace, Harvey."
"I thought so. Tell me something, Mr. Hunter, sir—is there a finder's fee on this?"
"You work here, Harvey."
"So I do. But suppose someone else turns it up?"
"We haven't made any decision yet."
"And if I have to make a deal?"
"If you have to, Harvey, you will make a deal."
"I'm sure the company would not object to ten per cent—if it were absolutely necessary. We are not a public institution, dedicated to the capture of criminals and the enforcement of justice. We are in business to make a profit and to shorten our losses wherever that is possible. You surprise me, Harvey. I thought you knew this better than the Lord's Prayer."
"And twenty per cent?"
"Fifty thousand dollars? I am afraid not, Harvey."
"No? Since when do you turn down four fifths of the pie?"
"You're very good, Harvey, but I suggest you wait until you have the pie before you start to cut it up."
"I have to know."
"Why?" he demanded, his voice hardening.
"Because I want that finder's fee."
"Do you, Harvey?" His voice became very soft again, very gentle. He was boiling. I knew him. If he had an ulcer, it was burning out his gut right now. "Do you indeed? You have perhaps forgotten that you work here?"
"No. I never forget that. This is a lousy, rotten job, Mr. Hunter, and I stay here because I haven't got the guts to do anything about it. You said I had brains. That's relative. If it has any meaning at all, it's because you got a stable of half-wits out there who couldn't find their shadows on a sunny morning. But that's all right. It's routine. This is something else. I have been waiting for something like this for a long time, and it's likely not to come again."
"So you have been waiting, Harvey. And just what have you been waiting for?"
"A finder's fee."
"A finder's fee," he repeated in a whisper. "What kind of a finder's fee, Harvey?"
"Twenty per cent. Fifty thousand dollars."
"I see. You don't think small."
"Why should I? I spent the morning reading every word that's been printed on the robbery. It was a good caper, as they call it on TV. Very simple, very direct, very clever. Perhaps not even premeditated. That is the worst kind—no steps leading to it, no steps leading away from it. Most of all, that kind stays unsolved. No break-in, no getaway; no clues; no fingerprints or too many fingerprints, which amounts to the same thing if you believe all this mythology about fingerprints. In fact, this is the kind of robbery that doesn't get solved, and you can just look through the files if you want to count how many of them don't get solved."
"So we give you fifty thousand dollars to solve it?"
"No, sir, Mr. Hunter—not at all. You give me fifty thousand dollars after I put the necklace in your hands."
"Well, you object to my saying 'oh'—"
"I object to nothing you say, Harvey, absolutely nothing."
"Thank you, sir. I realize you will have to put this to the directors. Fifty thousand is not small change."
"That won't be necessary, Harvey," he said gently.
"No? Well, I must say—"
"Just don't say it, Harvey. We don't deal with our employees in terms of finders' fees. We just don't, Harvey."
"Oh? Then that's your last word?"
"No. Not at all. I am also sick and tired of you, Harvey."
I didn't lose my temper then. There would have been ample justification for me to lose my temper, but I did not, and I look back on that with some satisfaction. Instead, I turned phrases over in my mind. I considered saying something mildly amusing to him, such as, "Then you just get yourself another boy, Mr. Hunter." Or something short and succinct, like, "I'm through." Or something direct and tough, like, "You can take your goddamn job and put it you know where." But he anticipated me by telling me softly,
"If you are thinking of resigning, Harvey, it won't be necessary—"
"It could be necessary, sir. To me, that is."
"Oh, no—not at all, Harvey. Because as of five minutes ago, you were through. Done. In other words, you're fired."
"You're pretty miserable yourself," I was finally able to say. "It would have helped my self-esteem to have walked out on you, but no, sir. You couldn't have that. You had to squeeze your last lousy bit of satisfaction out of this, didn't you?"
"My own self-esteem, Harvey. It is now Tuesday, so you have two days' pay coming to you. We will mail you a check for the entire week, however. I take that responsibility upon myself. I trust you will clean out your desk properly. Also, if you have anything else to say to me, say it now—so that I may anticipate the pleasure of never seeing you again."
"It's hard to find something just right to fit the occasion."
I thought about it for a while, and then said tiredly, "Drop dead."
"Thank you, Harvey. Good-by."
"Good-by Mr. Hunter, sir," I said.
I took my time about cleaning out my desk. There was nothing in it that I set any store by or particularly desired to take with me, but I was not going to be rushed out of a place in which I had spent three underpaid and pointless years.
The office itself was a partitioned cubicle, about nine feet square, which I shared with Harold Hopkins, an untalented insurance investigator with an I.Q. of about ninety and the enthusiasm of a teen-ager on his first date, and two desks and three metal files. That left very little room for human beings, but our company insured property, not lives, and acted accordingly. Harold was out already, snooping around O'Leary's soot-blackened basement after some evidence that a fire which had cost the company twenty-four hundred dollars had been self-inflicted by the owner of the property; and knowing Harold's capabilities, I felt that Mr. O'Leary was safe with any evidence of guilt short of taking Harold aside and demonstrating to him exactly how the fire might have been set.
I preferred to be alone and brood over some better phrase than my last salute to Alex Hunter. I go through life thinking of all the clever bon mots I could have dropped at the right moment, except that they do not occur to me until long after the right moment has passed. I could have said, "Mr. Hunter, it has been a privilege to work for someone so self-centered, obnoxious and thoroughly uncharming as yourself. I may never have the pleasure again."
Excerpted from Lydia by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1964 Doubleday & Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted July 9, 2012