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The Saberdene Variations
By Thomas Maxwell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Thomas Maxwell
All rights reserved.
He came out of lock like an advertisement for the goods within, stood in the fresh damp glow of watery sunshine adjusting a straw boater on his massive square head. They must have had the very hell of a time fitting it to him, perfect oval on that block of granite. But he settled it firmly with the palms of his hands on the brim's edge, tilted it rakishly. He'd chosen the green and purple band of Wimbledon. He was wearing a pale tan linen suit, a purple-and-white-striped shirt, tan reversed calf wing-tips. I recognized the shirt because I'd had Turnbull and Asser make up a couple for me years before at the height of the sixties. He was tall as ever and had put on a bit of bulk since I'd last seen him, gaining weight and fame simultaneously. He stood there satisfied with his new hat, lighting a thin cheroot while the traffic purred by in St. James's. I didn't even consider passing him by: he was the closest friend I'd ever had. I was heading upstream toward the Burlington Arcade and the Royal Academy and pulled the absurd but nonetheless magnificent little car over to the curb. The top was folded down and I gave him a wave above the windscreen.
"Victor," I called, shaking my head. "Stop posing. The jury has long since retired to its deliberations."
He smiled with the bottom part of his long, large-featured face. His eyes never smiled. He said it was simple heredity. "Coincidence is the mother of probity and providence, Charlie."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"Who cares?" He shrugged. He gave the XK-140 a long, quizzical look. "Jaguar never intended this sky-blue shade—"
"More of a robin's egg according to the man in Devon who did the paintwork—"
"Leave it to you to find a blind painter, Charlie. I weep." He opened the low padded door with its lip of fresh tan leather. "I'm too tall to fit—"
"Just put your legs in back—"
"Droll as ever," he said, squeezing his knees up against the polished walnut dashboard. "Drive on."
"Well, probity's mother aside, it is a hell of a coincidence running into you like this—"
"Not at all. I came to London to see you, Charlie."
We'd moved off into traffic. Summer rainclouds had scudded from out of nowhere, whispering across the sun.
"Need a hack to write my book for me. I'm too busy, of course, to do it myself. You're the man." He laughed immoderately. I hit a bump and mashed his knee against the dashboard. "You still drive like the revenuers are after you—"
"You live in a dream world, Victor. I don't do jobs like that—"
"Bullshit. It's always a question of money. Everything is."
"In that case you can buy me lunch while I turn you down."
"Ha! You haven't a prayer. You've already capitulated." I felt his huge hand descend on my shoulders. "Damn, it's good to see you, Charlie."
He was right. It was good. It had been too long. A soft rain began pattering on the long blue Jag bonnet. Drops puckered on the narrow strip of glass before me.
"Came to pick up a shotgun, too," he said. "Buy me a shotgun and hire Charlie Nichols." He laughed. The rain made little hollow reports when it struck his hard straw hat, like tiny criminals banging at his door in search of salvation.
It was early summer of 1978. We were both on the verge of forty and I hadn't seen Victor in over a year. We'd graduated from Harvard together at the beginning of the sixties, had met that first day of freshman year when we'd arrived at Matthews, the great dark red pile in the corner of the Yard, and found we were living next door to each other. I hadn't known a soul and he'd been surrounded by prep school friends who were always blond and wore garters but we'd hit it off anyway, who knows why? Maybe as the products of two contrasting backgrounds, we shared a certain curiosity about one another.
We played tennis together, got loaded on beer, and stayed up all night talking about girls and Adlai Stevenson and Eisenhower and Jack Kennedy and Chuck Berry. All deep, deep stuff, at least the way we treated it. We moved on to Eliot House as roommates but our social lives inevitably diverged dramatically as time passed. It was simple. He had money, I didn't. He was courted by Porcellian and wore a cute little pig, a gift from his mother, on his watch chain. I played football. I saw less and less of him and when I did catch a glimpse he always seemed to be in dinner clothes, like a dream of Brideshead Revisited which a lot of us were reading in those days. I picked up a hell of a concussion and a compressed vertebra in the goddamn Yale Bowl. I caught the ball, yes, sandwiched between two beetlebrowed Yalies and the goalpost, scored the touchdown, yes, but it was small comfort in the ambulance when I discovered I couldn't quite seem to move. I recovered quickly but that was it for football. Victor kept going to balls and cotillions and was always tottering off to Newport or New York or Philadelphia. I always assumed he was getting laid by the snappiest girls fluttering about the bright and shiny flames of Harvard clubland. I was a lowborn foot soldier who'd been carried off on his shield after beating Yale. I carried a green bookbag full of Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald. I had my share of Radcliffe girls, Citifies, serious creatures in black sweaters with grubby nails and gray necks and tired eyes and perpetual-motion libidos. Victor always claimed that he hardly ever got laid, envied my weekends at the Kirkland Hotel Annex or the Bradford downtown across the street from, or at least nearby if memory serves, the Shubert.
Victor used to say that a gentleman never talked about his women unless, of course, he screwed them and then he was honor-bound to tell everyone he knew. He said his relative silence was proof that I was getting all the quail—look, it was a long time ago and that was how we talked—while he was doing all the dancing. He could, he pointed out, rumba. My back, thank God for silver linings, kept me from having to learn. Victor said it was a million-dollar wound. He hated dancing. But he was a game son of a gun. By the time we were seniors, he'd moved into an apartment and was hanging around with the Aga Khan and rich South Americans who used to sail long-playing records out of their windows onto passing pedestrians and motorists below. I mean these guys knew how to have fun. They would all go off skiing on winter weekends. Not up the road to Mad River Glen or Sugar Bush, of course. Gstaad and Klosters and St. Moritz. I got a job working the night shift toasting English muffins at the Hayes Bickford, now long gone from Harvard Square. I figured I was learning more about life than Victor Saberdene. Real life. The catch was that real life, on the whole, was for the birds.
Victor went on to Harvard Law. I went to work for a newspaper in Wheaton, Illinois, did a brief but educative stretch at Playboy, did six months with the Associated Press, and then landed at the Tribune covering crime. Chicago was a good place to cover crime. Next, standing in for a pal, I got momentarily famous when Mayor Daley's men in blue, on national television, kicked the shit out of me during the '68 Democratic convention. That led to reporting on the campaign that followed, which concluded with the election of the Nixxer himself. At about that time I discovered that the public was indeed an ass. Democracy had just flunked out. The idea of even a figurehead monarchy appealed to me with a new intensity. I went to England for the waters, working for the CBS-TV bureau, writing the stuff that the rich and famous correspondents said, thereby making them—not me—increasingly rich and famous. I wrote a book about the campaign of '68, a worm's-eye view, which some pals reviewed well. Then another book about the choice to leave my homeland behind—it was funny, not bitter, which stood it in good stead when it got to the serious stuff. Then I wroteAbatoire, the story of a serial killer who cut—I use the word advisedly since he favored a meat cleaver for his lonely hobby and was in fact a butcher—a considerable swath through the English midlands. Best-seller, magazine and newspaper serialization, Book-of-the-Month Club and Book Society, large paperback sale, la-di-da. The Today Show, Merv Griffin's shocked stamp of approval, movie deal, jokes from Carson. And finally the real thing—profiled in an airline in-flight magazine.
Victor did his time as a prosecutor, then got into defense work with a hotshot firm in Boston. In time New York called, a partnership, a highly visible career with the perqs he'd never doubted for an instant would be his. Regular table in the Pool Room at the Four Seasons, a couple of good clubs, a Turtle Bay brownstone. From his garden he could lift his glass to Kate Hepburn and she would nod to his dinner guests. He must have gone through tuxedos like I went through socks. Jackie Onassis asked him to help her save old churches and things. Ah, happy the man ...
I married the English woman, Lady Hilary, who lured me out among the grouse. Salmon fishing would not have served her purpose, presumably because it's easier to murder a husband with a shotgun than a fishhook, though drowning might have crossed her mind since my back won't allow me to swim. Victor, well aware professionally of just which gender is the deadlier of the species, remained a bachelor. His letters assured me, however, that his spare time—limited though it was—was far from barren of women. Like the true gentleman he was, he wrote a damn fine letter when it came to recounting his amours. Though true love, he happily confessed, he saved for the chap he saw in the mirror. He said it was his nature. And it was until later on, when he'd met the woman and moved on from Turtle Bay to Seventy-third.
So when he materialized outside Lock fondling his boater, we took up right where we had left off.
One moment the rain was dimpling the surface of the dirty river, the next it had stopped and the sunshine was nudging at the purple-rimmed clouds again. We were standing outside a Thamesside pub. The wooden slatted benches were drying in the summery breeze and the fringed awnings flapped lazily. Shepherd's pie, sausage rolls, mustard, heavy mugs of bitter. Waves lapped and sucked at the rotting pilings which dated from Shakespeare's boyhood.
Victor licked mustard from his fingertips and drank deeply. "The idea is this," he said, running his tongue around his teeth. "Four or five of my most important cases. All involving what we shall call, for lack of a better word, murder. Other things, too, but murder—death, anyway, sudden and violent—at the core. Two of the perpetrators I got off completely, two drew considerably lighter sentences than they no doubt deserved, and a child molester—well, I say I saved him from being dragged into the street and strung up from a lamppost. But," he waved a finger at me, "it won't be a book about law. Or justice, whatever that is. People. It's a book about people. And mainly me, of course. And doing people is your strength, Charlie. The point is this. I want to do a book about the need for cynicism in dealing with an unfeeling, unfair, corrupt system. You following the bouncing ball, Charlie?" I nodded. "Then don't look so unhappy. We're talking about another best-seller, Charlie. The hero as a new kind of villain ... the necessary villain our legal system requires. Make a good title, Necessary Villain. For instance, I had this fellow Hawthorne ... civil disobedience—"
"What did he do?"
"Wasted an IRS man with a service revolver. It was like this." He tucked into some shepherd's pie, washed it down with more beer. "Hawthorne comes home from a day of looking for work, he sees an alarming sight in his suburban driveway. Two men with sledgehammers are demolishing his seven-year-old Honda ... while his wife is inside cowering. It's scary as hell. Hawthorne ducks behind a hedge, sneaks in the back door, gets his old forty-five automatic, loads it, and comes out the front door. Unidentified men still beating hell out of his car. Wife having a nervous breakdown inside. Hawthorne tells these clowns to stop with the hammers. They tell him to fuck himself. One waves his hammer at Hawthorne. Hawthorne sends him off to join the Choir Invisible with one shot. The other guy drops his hammer and begs for mercy. Wife sobbing, tearing her hair, Hawthorne blows most of the guy's leg off to be on the safe side and calls the cops. Turns out they were IRS black-shirts trying to collect on thirty-two hundred dollars in back taxes. Which, it turned out, the guy didn't owe after all. The wife has to be institutionalized for six months, loses the baby she's pregnant with ... and the D.A. calls it murder. Do you love it, Charlie? I call Hawthorne a goddamned hero of the people. Jury agrees with me. Now we sue the shit out of the Feds. How could you keep from loving this story? And there'll be three or four more just like it. Guy murders his rich wife, poisoned her over about three years, patient guy ... yeah, he did it, I suppose, but I found some holes in the case against him ... and he's got all the money in the world as well as a young girlfriend—hell, he can afford me and he's got everything to live for. Tells me he only wants justice. I tell him justice is the last thing he wants—what he wants is to get off so he can live the rest of his life with this girl. You don't pay me for justice, I tell him, 'cause it's gone the way of the great bustard. It's barely a memory. You pay me to get you off—now we've got to figure out how much your freedom is worth to you. I got him off and he figured his freedom was worth about two million bucks on which he pays the taxes. Seems reasonable to me." He shrugged and munched on a sausage roll. "Make a hell of a book, Charlie. And it's a sweetheart deal—you get all the money. Because I got all the money I want ... and I want my name on a book! I want my name on the best-seller list. Like Bailey. Like Nizer. That's why I'm making you an offer you just can't refuse."
Victor warmed to his subject throughout the remainder of lunch. I listened with an interest I couldn't deny. He was a compelling talker and since that was what the book would be it was bound to be compelling. The stories he told were colorful, pungent, driven by engines of real suspense and the spirit of voracious inquiry. As he talked, the question was always present: how would he find his way out of this situation, how would he work his magic? He spoke about a family murder for money, the killing of a small-time hood by a hit man hired by his abused wife's lover—a big-time hood, the mercy killing of a dying, cancer-ridden wife of fifty years by "the most entirely decent man" Victor had ever met. "Naturally the state wanted to cram this man into a cell for the rest of his life," he sighed, indignant, "and let him rot away. I fixed that, by God. Fortunately he was rich. Made my job harder, of course, because I had to convince a jury that a rich man could also be a good man. I was equal to the task, I'm happy to report."
What his character came down to, simply, was that he instinctively sided with the underdog, preferably the rich underdog but, still, any underdog. And everyone filled that bill when the state was brought to bear on them. That was how he saw it. He liked to play it tough. He liked to claim he was the necessary villain. But it wasn't true. He was just a born defender. For all his bluster and bullshit, you had to love the guy. Anyway, I did.
"You're not half the scoundrel you claim to be," I said, smiling at him. "Softie."
"Keep a civil tongue in your head." He lit a cigarette and looked out across the river. "So how does it sound to you, Charlie?"
"Interesting. I'd have to come back to the States to work on it; I'd hate leaving London. I like my life here. I'm working on a book now, a Title poisons his wife, leaves her paralyzed, he's discovered to be having an affair with her sister ... the wife dies ... the Title and the sister just vanish from the face of the earth. And it's been four years. Good story, Victor."
"I got a dozen like that," he said dismissively. "Think about it. Boils down to interviewing me, getting me to open a vein and let it drip into your tape recorder. What it would be, laddie, is a damn good time for both of us." He turned to me with a crooked grin on his huge, beefy face. I wondered if he had a blood pressure problem. "Just think about it. Be fun having you around New York. We can catch some Yankee games, I keep season tickets—you could go every night ..."
He was making it sound like a vacation and I knew it wouldn't be.
Excerpted from The Saberdene Variations by Thomas Maxwell. Copyright © 1987 Thomas Maxwell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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