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New York, New York
Monday, 14 December 1953
Night filled my soul as I stalked my prey. It cloaked me in its ebon garb--black coat, dark hat, a scarf of inky tentacles wrapping itself 'round the jaw-line of my face--as I slinked silently down the street, ducking into door- and alleyways, avoiding the light, keeping just far enough behind to avoid being noticed.
Not that he would notice! His arrogance bedazzled his sensibilities.
He was looking for a girl, a black girl, any black girl, someone weak and stupid and compliant to warm his bed for an hour or three. He prayed for female prey, not knowing that he himself was being hunted through the urban jungle.
This was the man who'd altered my life forever, who'd robbed me of my upright father, my dear mother, my beloved sister. The law, the forces of supposed righteousness, had laughed when I'd tried to bring this fiend to justice. Not enough evidence, they'd said, to accuse such an upstanding scion of society. We'd be tossed out of court, they'd told me.
It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. It wasn't just!
But my heart had to fracture a second time before I could find myself again. And when I'd sloughed off enough of my humanity to contemplate an abyss unadulterated by fear, by love, even by hate--then, and only then, was I ready!
I became The Phantom of the night.
Now it was my turn to kill--and his turn to die!
My gazelle was becoming nervous. Perhaps he'd heard the hard-soled heel of my boot striking a cobblestone. He suddenly turned around, gazing quickly back down the street where I was shadowed within a well of silence. He saw onlywhat I meant him to see--nothing! Nothing but the night.
At one stride comes the dark.
The sounds of the city died slowly away, as if the alley cats, the twitter-birds, the creepy critters that crawled from their gutters when the sun went down, were all waiting for the beast to pass.
Another block--but even the dollar whores were safe within their dollar-beds this evening. Not a creature was stirring, not even a louse! Just an odd phantom or two.
I waited. I watched. I pounced!
"Who are you!" he demanded, when I confronted him with the twin imperatives clutched in my black-gloved hands.
"Richard Curtis Van Loan," I whispered.
"Van Loan! But ... but.... "
"You murdered three of us," I said, "but left the fourth alone with his grief. That was a big mistake, Maussey."
"No," he said. "I beg you. I have money.... "
"My money!" I said. "You have my money, Peter. I don't want my money now that it's been tainted by your soul. Keep my money, if you can, when you pass through the gates of Hell. It won't buy you much there."
Then I shot him twice in the head, and took his wallet and watch and ring to make it look like a robbery. I threw them into a nearby gutter.
And in my mind, I continued shooting him over and over and over again, over and over....
Dastrie was shaking me awake.
I was soaked in sweat, still immersed in the nightmare of my life.
"Richard!" she said again, this time more urgently.
"I'm OK," I finally said, sitting up in bed and panting my breath away.
It was a lie, of course: I would never be OK again.
"What?" I asked, shaking off the last threads of the night. I reached for the glass of water sitting on my nightstand, and gulped some of the cold liquid. "I need what?"
"You need to see ... someone," she said. "These ... these dreams are.... They're tearing you up inside. They're hurting us."
"And who would you suggest?" I said. "Who, Dastrie? Sigmund Freud? Alfred Adler? Dr. Jekyll? Mr. Hyde? Who can I trust with these fragments of myself? Who's safe enough?"
"I ... I don't know," she finally said.
"No, you don't. You have no idea what I've been through."
"You could tell me," my wife said.
"No, I can't!" I blurted out. "You don't understand. You can't understand. These are things that must remain buried forever."
"Except they're not staying buried, Richard. You relive them every other night. You scream and yell and squirm--and you ... you even kick me. I know you don't mean to, but you frighten me sometimes. How can I help? What am I supposed to do?"
"Leave me be," I said. I was angry at myself more than her. "Just let me alone, please."
Then I got up and slunk into the bathroom. I deliberately left the light off. I sloughed off my underwear and oozed into the shower. I turned the hot water knob as high as I could bear it. The black heat melted my miasma, soothed my nerves, and gave me strength to face another day.
But it wasn't the rosy-fingered Dawn that I sought.
It was Darkness.
My old friend.
I had three appointments scheduled that afternoon, and none of them turned out as expected.
It was my first day back in the office. I'd spent nearly two months in California, initially to investigate the death of my friend, Frank Havens, and then to help Dastrie recover from the burns that Laurella McCarty had inflicted upon her; and then--well, and then to play in the sunshine of Southern California. I didn't want to go home--ever--but Dastrie's parents insisted on her return, and I had unfinished business to complete. I was not a happy camper, folks, on that second Monday in December.
My morning was overshadowed by the slings and arrows of my lovely wife, and by the piles of paperwork waiting for me. I was tired--God, I was worn--even before I began. Lizzie, whose patience surpassed that of Job, kept bringing me documents to sign, until finally I said, "Enough!"--and whisked her away.
After our argument that morning, Dastrie and I had both gone away angry, not for the first time; but I'd asked my secretary to arrange a lunch with her at The Marionette. We could bury our hatchets in the cheese rather than each other.
"Your father's coming to see me this afternoon," I said, sitting down across from her.
"Yes," she said, frowning slightly, while she smoothed her lipstick. "I don't think either Daddy or Mother appreciated being omitted from our wedding ceremony. He says we should have waited."
"At my advanced age, I couldn't have waited much longer," I said, trying to smile back at her. I was sick at heart about the words we'd had over my nightmare.
"At your advanced age, my dear," my wife stated quite succinctly, "You would have waited quite as long as necessary!"--which was, after all, only the truth. "But I didn't want to wait, and I told him that too. I also said that if he and Mother really wanted to throw some kind of celebration for us in the new year, well, I knew you wouldn't object. That quieted the old bear."
"That must be why he's meeting with me."
"I don't know, Richard: he said nothing to me about it when I talked to him this morning."
I was pondering her response when César delivered our roasted asparagus wrapped with prosciutto and drizzled with olive oil; it was mated with two halves of a freshly sliced and cored pear--light, tasty, and very satisfying indeed.
I speared a green spear with my fork, and savored the subtle mix of flavors. How utterly delicious!
"Then I wonder...?" I asked.
But not for long.
Former New York City Police Commissioner Teobaldo Eduardo "Fast Eddie" Underhill had suffered an almost-disgrace that had effectively ended his municipal career. He'd never been a beat cop, but had been grabbed by Mayor LaGuardia from his post as head of the Texas Department of Criminal Investigation, ostensibly to generate additional revenue streams for the NYPD. He'd survived and prospered until he'd finally stumbled over a scandal that even he couldn't hide, when one of his enemies tried to frame him for supposed misuse of funds.
His daughter and wife had come to me then and begged for my assistance, and I'd done what I could to salvage the family's honor and reputation, although Fast Eddie had gracefully exited "stage left" shortly thereafter.
That was my introduction to Dastrie Lee Underhill--and to Zenobia Underhill, her staid society mother.
"Salud y pesos!" the retired cop said, when Lizzie announced him, in a traditional Mexican greeting offering health and wealth to the recipient.
Fast Eddie was a decade older than me, but his gray hair, pronounced paunch, and sagging chin spoke volumes about his real age. He held out a callused, pudgy, splotchy hand (which I gladly took and shook), beaming his crooked smile back at me, his lone porcelain incisor flashing like a beam from a corkscrewed lighthouse.
"Hey, welcome to the corral, sonny. I was truly grateful that it was you who finally tamed our little filly. She was gettin' mighty rambunctious at times, takin' hold of the reins once too often. We was beginnin' to worry our heads off over her. Zennie Lee and me hope to arrange a little shindig next month to, well, you know--toast and roast the bride and groom--and then get roarin' drunk on good ole Texas tea!"
I chuckled. "Sounds good to me, 'Dad.' Just have Zenobia phone Dastrie, and they can arrange a schedule. I know the dear ladies will have us all properly lassoed and hogtied in right good order."
"I truly do think so," he said. "But that's not why I wanted to see you, Van. You follow any of the local news while you were gallivantin' all over California?"
"Not much," I said. "I was a tad busy with other things, as you may have heard. Haven't even seen a New York paper until this weekend, when we got back."
"Well, to step straight into the old pile of cow crappy, so to speak, we've been havin' a right ole time of it here--or rather, my pals on the Force have. There's been something really strange a-goin' on in the Big City, compadre."
I sat up in my chair. Fast Eddie wasn't the type to become riled over minor issues, and if he'd been drawn back into departmental affairs on such short notice, the crisis must be serious indeed.
"What's happened?" I asked.
"Well, now, it started as a series of routine muggin's about the time you picked up stakes for the West Coast," Eddie said. "But ... the attackers were all, well ... they were all dwarfs!"
"Not a bit. Five or six or seven of these damned pipsqueaks would trick someone into an alley by cryin' and carryin' on and all and beggin' for help--and then attack the victims, forcin' 'em at gunpoint to empty their pockets or purses. That's how it all started.
"At first we didn't pay much attention. Crime is common in the city, you know, and tourists are easy prey for the professional thieves and cons. But then they started gettin' rougher."
"Oh, come on, Eddie, surely you're exaggerating. They might have guns, sure, but how could these little people physically threaten anyone other than the weak and elderly?"
"That's what I thought too, when I first heard of it, but when Captain Sabatini showed me the case files, I got real antsy. Week by week, it just got worse, until the first of this month, when a banker who resisted handin' over his wallet was beaten to death by a dozen of these pica-goons. Don't ask me how they did it, but there ain't no question that they started right down at the man's feet--and then walked up his body with their sticks. They probably used metal pipes or somethin' like that. The coroner had a real hard time identifyin' what was left of his body.
"It's like they're all juiced up with somethin', Van. The guy who was attacked apparently gave as good as he got, at least at the beginnin'. The blood spatter says he may have even killed one of 'em--but no body was found, just drag marks.
"And there was another odd thin' too. The Natural History Museum was broken into last week, and one of the night watchmen was assaulted by the creatures--he survived to tell his tale. Then they busted into one of the exhibits and stole this big chunk of rock.
"Yep, an asteroid or somethin' like that. Strange, ain't it?
"Anywho, they brought me in last week after the story leaked to the press. The Mayor put me in charge of a special taskforce to find and eliminate the 'Nasty Gnomes,' as the 'papers are callin' 'em.
"I truly need your help, Van. We're getting' nowhere real fast with this one, and the pressure from local businessmen is mountin' somethin' fierce. Another corpus was found this mornin'."
"How many does that make?"
"Five, we think. The little men are gettin' touchier and tougher with each attack. See, it's even startin' to affect the Christmas trade--no one wants to come downtown anymores. The merchants are screamin' their heads off at the City Council, and the City Council's at the Mayor, and the Mayor at the Commissioner, and, well, hey, you know the drill."
"I'm retired, Eddie."
"I know that, but you always got results, Van. We need somethin' to happen here real fast like. People won't shop if they don't feel safe. So I gotta live up to my name on this one."
"Fast Eddie, huh? I'll do what I can to help, you know that. You'll get me copies of the files?"
"I already brought 'em with me--Lizzie has everythin'. And thanks, Van, thanks so much for bein' there. I know you'll take right good care of my Dastrie Lee."
I shook his hand again. There weren't many left in the world like Fast Eddie Underhill--a man with a sense of honor and a heart of pure grizzle.
After I took a brief break, Lizzie brought me the documents she'd prepared to establish The Phantom Detective Agency, Ltd. in the State of New York. Everything appeared to be in order, but they still needed to be reviewed by my attorney, retired Judge Alger R. Wickizer. And, of course, I still had to assemble an East Coast crew to assist me--whenever I had the time and inclination. Since it appeared I was about to embark on a new challenge, sooner would perhaps be better.
Then Lizzie announced my next visitor, someone with the unlikely moniker of Washington Jefferson. He was a dark-skinned man of perhaps forty-five years. His face looked familiar somehow, but I couldn't place him.
"Mr. Jefferson?" I said, motioning him to the chair in front of me.
"Ah thanks you, sir," he said. He had a deep, gravelly voice that was measured in slow beats of patience and pain.
"You ain't hardly met me before, ah knows it, and ah does 'preciate you givin' me this time with you. My brother, he worked for you."
"Your brother?" Suddenly the light struck my brain. "You mean Roscoe? He was your brother? But his surname was Wallace."
"Yes, sir. His real name was Adams Jefferson. My Daddy, he named us seven young'uns after the You-Ess presidents: Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, and Roosevelt. But Adams, he never liked his name, so he used 'Roscoe Wallace' instead."
"I was very sorry to hear of his death. He served me faithfully for many years. I made sure that your mother was well taken care of. I don't think he had any children."
"He never married, sir. Ah 'preciates your kindness, ah surely does, as do all my brothers. But that's not why ah takes the subway all the way down from Harlem just to come to see you. No, siree. My Roscoe, see, he was doin' your work whilst he was kilt."
"What are you talking about?" I asked. "Mr. Wallace maintained certain aspects of my office and household, but that was all. I never gave him any other assignments--and to give him his due, he never asked for any."
"Roscoe, he would have knelt before your chair, sir, he so admired you. He thought you was the greatest man he ever did meet. He wanted so much to be jus' like you. So when he finds something really wrong, and you were gone out to Californie, he takes it upon hisself to 'vestigate the 'sishuashon.' He says to me: 'Washington, somethin' evil's goin' on in Harlem, and ah has to find out what it is.' That's what got him kilt, ah knows it."
"What else did he tell you?"
"Ah tries to 'member, but it's hard. The month before he died, he had this girl, see, name of Ruby Diamond. She work in the club they call The Ebonesque. White folks, they go down there to 'sperience the jazz and booze and black-skinned babes. Ha! They don't know nothin' 'bout nothin'! But this Ruby, she knows somethin', all right, somethin' bad that got my Roscoe into big-time troubles. He used to call her his 'Ruby-Sill'."
"Ah dunno what it mean. But somethin'--it surely do mean somethin'. You gotta find out for me and my brothers, sir. Roscoe, he was a good man, and he done real fine by you. Please, sir, find out who kilt him, and let him sleep his sleep of peace."
"I promise that I'll do everything I can to find his killer and bring him to justice. But I can't do it alone. I need your help, Mr. Jefferson."
"What can ah do, sir? I's just a bus driver."
"You can help show me the way. You can open doors that wouldn't be accessible to me. You can come work for me."
"Work for you?"
"Yes. I can pay you more than the city does. And after we find your brother's murderer, I'll keep you on the payroll. I need someone who knows the undercurrents in Harlem, and who can help me track down the criminals there."
"Ah dunno, sir. Ah has to think about this, and talk to my missus. She may not like it."
"I understand. Take a day or two and get back to me, please."
"Ah thanks you, sir, and ah does 'preciate the offer. You're everythin' my brother said you were."
I stood up and extended my hand. Washington Jefferson hesitated a moment before taking it, and then he turned and exited the door.
I buzzed Lizzie, and asked her to request the case file on Roscoe's death from Fast Eddie Underhill. The former Commissioner owed me that much, at least.
My third appointment wasn't scheduled until four o'clock, so I took another break, this time heading for the roof. Some years past I'd had the structure renovated to provide a private entrance and exit to the building, and to erect a refuge from the world up on top, a place of privacy where I could retreat when things became too tense.
I'd created a kind of Japanese garden, with a greenhouse, gazebo, sculptures, and several walkways, and I found that I could shed almost any care with a few moments of wandering through the bushes. Even in the heart of winter, when the chill wind whips up the East River and freezes the very marrow of one's bones, I could still find warmth in my soul just by being there. I called it my "wa-cup."
I returned to my desk an hour later, and sipped some hot tea that Lizzie had fixed. I had no idea who the next gentleman was, and I didn't recognize him when he was announced.
"Mr. Van Loan," the man intoned. He was as young and sleek as a sea lion, with black, oily, smoothed-back hair that would remain plastered to his scalp even in the heart of a hurricane. He smelled of raw power. "R. M. Cohn."
I extended my hand. His flesh was cold and clammy, and I pulled back a little at the touch. "I have a note here saying that you've expressed interest in donating to the Van Loan Foundation?"
"Ah, yes, of course," he replied. He reached into the inside pocket of his tailored suit coat, and pulled out a slim piece of paper that he handed to me.
"That's quite, quite generous," I said, raising my eyebrows. "Ten thousand dollars will help educate many deserving students. You represent the Right Is Might organization? I don't think I've heard of that."
"You might say that I'm one of their agents," Cohn said. "You might say that our organization represents the best of what America has to offer. You might say that we want to shape the future of this fair country so that it can be the best that it can be. 'Right Is Might' is our slogan, and 'Right Is Might' is our rallying cry."
"Yours is a political group, then?"
"You might say that politics are involved, and you might say that religion is involved, and you might say that all decent things are involved. We want to make things better. We want to make the people better. But there are elements in the world, sir, elements within our own society, that are fighting to overturn the values on which America was based. For several years now, we've been active in promoting the good and decent things that America stands for, and battling those forces which stand against us.
"The junior Senator of Wisconsin is just one of the high-placed officials who supports our aims--one of many, I might add. But it's hard to fight the radical elements of the media without appearing unreasonable on occasion."
"I imagine so," I said.
"So we are looking to recruit soldiers for our army to help liberate America from the forces of evil, men and women who'll be willing to do whatever is necessary to combat the communists and liberals and weak-minded individuals that lurk around every corner. We thought that you might like to become such a fighter for freedom."
"I shall certainly give the prospect every due consideration," I said. "But you should know, Mr. Cohn, that we have a policy at the Foundation of never accepting money from organizations with a political agenda. So, with great reluctance, I'm forced to return your check to you uncashed."
I handed it back across the desk. He looked at me a long minute, as if not believing what had just occurred.
"Mr. Van Loan," he finally said, "you are either for us or against us. There is no middle ground in modern America. I urge you to reconsider my gift--and my offer."
I nodded my head up and down, very slowly and sagely.
"In the words of Stephen Crane, I would guess, then, that I'm just a toad," I said in very measured tones. "It's been interesting meeting you, Mr. Cohn."
He stood up abruptly when I rose in my chair.
"You'll regret this, Van Loan!" he blurted out, almost in spite of himself. "You'll...."
"Perhaps," I said. "But I certainly don't regret my decision right now."
I smiled and buzzed for Lizzie. When she appeared, I said, "Mr. Cohn was just leaving."
My smile faded quickly after he departed. Cohn was a dangerous man. I determined to find out more about him--and quickly. Then I stretched my sore back. I reached over and dialed Dastrie's number.
"Hey, woman," I said when she answered, "how'd you like a date with an older man?"
"I dunno," she said through the instrument. "Will you wine me and dine me and ravage me afterwards?"
"I might manage a steak sandwich and some coffee and a cheap flick at a cut-rate theater."
"OK, I'm easy. It's a date!"
And you know something: she was, too!