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Trefusis was going on about a case of "Mandelstam" or "Handel-schism," which made no sense.
"Hang on a minute," I yelled into the mouthpiece. "I can't make out what you're saying."
"I'll hold, of course, Mr. Strachey."
I set the sweat-slick receiver on my desk, reached around, and whacked the top of the clanking and gurgling air conditioner with a slat from the wooden swivel chair that had collapsed back in January. The only effect was a slight shift by the machine in its rotten moorings. The 200-pound Airtemp now threatened to plummet out the window onto Central Avenue two stories below, crushing the shins of the winos who lounged in my entryway. I reached down and yanked out the plug. A distant thunk was followed by a diminishing whine, a sputtering sound, and then hot, wet silence.
"Sorry," I said into the phone again, "but I couldn't hear you over the racket my pilot was making up on the helipad. You were saying..."
"What I've got for you," Crane Trefusis went on, holding no interest in self-deprecating humor, "is a case of vandalism. Now before you tune out, Mr. Strachey, I'd like you to hear my pitch, because, believe me, this is not your usual run-of-the-mill type of vandalism. It will interest you. I don't want to go into it over the phone, so I'd appreciate your stopping by the office, if you don't mind, where I can lay it all out for you." A little pause. "Under certain conditions our fee could go as high as ten."
Ten. Ten hundred? No, Trefusis would call that a thousand. Or one.
I hedged anyway. "I've never handled a case of vandalism," I told him. "But with the scale your outfit operates on, I'd expect you to use the termto describe the firebombing of Dresden. Are you sure you wouldn't be better off using an agency with more resources than I've got? Helicopter jokes aside, Mr. Trefusis, I'm just me and a couple of friends who help me out once in a while whenever they haven't got something better to do, like reading Proust in Tagalog or sponsoring disco benefits for the Eritrean Liberation Front. You might want to shop around."
Trefusis was unfazed by either false modesty or fact. "I'm told you're a very solid type," he said, "and the word that comes back to me is that you are definitely the man for this job, Mr. Strachey. I feel strongly that this situation is rather ... well, special. And when you hear about it I'm confident you'll agree. Can you drop by around four? I can fit you in then."
I hesitated. I'd never met Trefusis, but I'd read a lot in the Times Union about both him and his company, and I wasn't overwhelmed with warmth for either. The origins of Millpond Plaza's capital were reported to be murky and its operating methods, under Trefusis, harsh. I was curious, though, about what made a vandalism case "special" for me, and of course there was the "ten." On the one hand this, on the other hand that.
I said, "I doubt that this is a job for me, Mr. Trefusis, but I'll drive out there and you can fill me in. I'm not promising that I'll want to handle it, though. Just so you understand that."
"That's a fair enough arrangement, Mr. Strachey. I'll look forward to seeing you at four."
Arrangement? What arrangement?
I phoned Timmy at his office and said, "It's hot."
"Say, look, I've got important business to transact for the people of the State of New York. If you want to report heat, call the weather bureau. Is this a crank call?"
"I'm cranky and this is a call, so describe it however you want. Anyway, this is a semi-official crank call. What do you know about Crane Trefusis? Anything good?"
"When the Millpond Company wants to build a shopping mall, it gets built. Cows, chickens, ducks, geese, grass, people--they'd all better scurry. Millpond is slick, fast, fat, and vicious. Crane Trefusis is their point man. He makes it happen. Something's holding him up on the new project Millpond's planning for west Albany, but I'd guess not for long."
"I've read all that in the papers. Any problems with the law?"
"Probably, but not with the people who enforce the law. Millpond makes friends, one way or another, in the places where friends count. Why are you asking me these easy questions?"
"Trefusis has a job for me, he says. A case of vandalism."
"To solve it or initiate it?"
"I'll find out in a couple of hours when I meet him. I doubt whether we'll find a way to do business, so it shouldn't take long. See you at the apartment around six?"
"Sure. Or six-thirty. Oh--seven, better make it seven. Yeah, seven or so."
What was this? "Or how about eight? Or nine? Or eleven-thirty-five? Aren't you going to the center to meet Fenton McWhirter? The reception's at seven. What's up?"
"Guess who's in Albany that I'm having a drink with?"
"Not even close." I could tell he was grinning. "It's Boyd. Boyd's in town."
So. "Oh-ho! Boyd-boy. The return of the native."
"He just called you up and said let's have a drink? Just like that? No intermediaries making preliminary inquiries to find out if you carried a pistol?"
"Ten years is a long time, Don. Wounds heal. He said he was a little worried that I might hang up on him. But he took a chance, and he was right. I felt nothing. It might as well have been my Uncle Fergus calling."
"Yeah, well, my regards to Aunt Nell. And to Boyd-boy, even though I've never had the pleasure. So I'll see you later--where? Up the avenue?"
"No, no, I'll meet you at the center for the McWhirter thing. I mean, for chrissakes, Don, we're just having a drink."
He said drink as if I had moronically failed to understand that the word really stood for bran muffin. I said, "I'm just giving you a hard time because my brain is melting like frogurt in this heat. In fact, I wish you and Boyd a moderately happy reunion. See you later, lover."
"Moderately happy sounds about right, with the emphasis on the first part. See you at the center. Watch your step with Crane Trefusis, unless you're planning on getting heavily into S and M."
"No chance. You can take the boy out of the presbytery, but you can't take the Presbyterian out of the boy.
"You'd know about that."
He laughed and hung up.
So. Boyd-boy was back. So? So nothing. Maybe. On the one hand this, on the other hand that.
Droplets of sweat dribbled off my chin onto the copy of Memoirs of Hadrian I'd been reading since midmorning. I stripped off my sodden T-shirt, used it to wipe up the lunch hour sub bun crumbs from my desk, and flung the reeking shmateh into the wastebasket.
I checked my watch. Still time for two or three more chapters of Hadrian before I stopped by the apartment for a quick shower and drove out to Trefusis's office. I opened the book and looked at a page, which contained a picture of Boyd--or, more precisely, a picture of what I imagined the famously azure-eyed diving coach looked like. I refocused and he was gone. I laughed, restrainedly, then reached down and jammed the balky air conditioner's plug back into the wall socket. Something popped. A plume of smoke erupted, and the lights went out from Ontario Street to Northern Boulevard.
I drove home.