One of the richest girls on Park Avenue is missing. Cynthia Brandon left her father’s apartment on Monday, and three days later has not been seen anywhere on the respectable side of town. She may have been kidnapped, or murdered. Or she may have simply gotten bored with her pampered life in a twenty-two-room apartment, and split. Harvey Krim wouldn’t care about Cynthia if it weren’t for the fact that girls like her pay his rent. His employers have insured Cynthia’s life for $3 million, making her more than another missing heiress. Krim agrees to find her in exchange for a hefty bonus, but what he’s making is nothing compared to the price on Cynthia’s head. As any insurance agent knows, being so valuable to so many people can be very bad for a young girl’s health. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Howard Fast including rare photos from the author’s estate.
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Read an Excerpt
By Howard Fast
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 William Morrow and Company, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Alex Hunter, my boss, admires consistency. No one has ever accused him of inconsistency; he is unpleasant when he wants to be and he is also unpleasant when he desires to be pleasant. It has been rumored that somewhere he has wife and children. I don't envy them. He is my boss because he heads the investigatory department of the third largest insurance company in the world, and I continue to work for him because when he fires me the people upstairs talk to him and mollify him, and because I have to pay my rent and my alimony, but mostly my alimony. He is in his late fifties and gray and sour, and he has a cop mentality.
He greeted me with his usual distaste on this early March morning and made his comment upon the weather. "March is a lousy month," he said.
I recognized it as a friendly exploratory remark, and I knew that he wanted something that amounted to money. I had no inkling as to what it was. No big jewel hauls lately, no yachts stolen, no Picassos sneaked out of museums—I put on my bemused, innocent, open boyish expression, and said cheerfully, "Good morning, Mr. Hunter. Yes, indeed, sir, March weather here in New York is quite inclement."
"Harvey, why do I always end up disliking you when I try to be pleasant? Sit down."
"You dislike my integrity and independence," I said. "You envy my freedom."
"Your freedom is an illusion," he said coldly. "Your wife is trying to attach your wages. Sit down. You bilked this company out of a finder's fee of fifty grand on the Sabin case and you blew it in the past six months."
"Just recollect that I split it with Miss Cotter," I said indignantly. "As you know, she was the kid who took the hard end of the Sabin case. She deserved as much credit as I did. Then the government took its bite. Did it ever occur to you to work for Internal Revenue, Mr. Hunter, sir?"
"All right, Harvey—"
"I was also eight thousand dollars in debt, including back alimony, but that is none of your Goddamn business, Mr. Hunter, and anyway you give me—"
"Don't say it, Harvey," he interrupted. "Don't force anything. We got a relationship, for what it is. Don't make it impossible. This is a big job—do you want to listen or do you want to quit?"
"I want to quit, but I'll listen."
"All right. Now sit down."
I sat down facing him, attempting to compose a facial expression that combined bright intelligence and controlled dislike. It was not easy.
"Today is Thursday," Hunter said. He always sounds most important when he is proposing the obvious.
"On Monday," he continued, "Cynthia Brandon walked out of her father's twenty-two-room Park Avenue apartment and disappeared. Today is Thursday. No sign of her. No word."
"I live in a room and a half. I don't believe there is a twenty-two-room flat in this town."
"Believe it, Harvey. There are lots of them, and this one is at 626 Park Avenue, and when we finish with our business, I'll call the owners and have them furnish a floor plan for your social edification."
"You can be very funny."
"I am only trying to keep my temper, Harvey. As I said, Cynthia Brandon walked out of her father's apartment on Monday and vanished. Do you know who she is?"
"Good. You are ignorant but honest, Harvey. Have you heard of E.C. Brandon—Elmer Cantwell Brandon?"
"Private bankers—Gerson and Brandon?"
"Good, Harvey. Very good."
"Oh, many millions, Harvey. Maybe billions—who counts?"
"Wife—Alice Brandon one kid?" I ventured.
"Right you are. See, just takes a little prodding."
I hated him quietly, coldly and efficiently and made up my mind not to rise to his bait. I decided to play it out and then hit him in the only way I knew how to hit Hunter—with a price.
"The girl's gone," I said.
"Right, Harvey. The girl is gone. Now just listen to this—we carry all of E.C. Brandon's insurance, every nickel of it, and we also underwrite the various insurance needs of Gerson and Brandon. We just happen to carry two policies on the kid—that is, on Miss Cynthia Brandon. We insure her against kidnapping for one million dollars, and we also insure her life for a second million dollars. E.C. owns both policies. Two million dollars, Harvey—two million sweet, green dollars."
"I don't believe it."
"No?" Hunter smiled sweetly. "Why don't you believe it?"
"Because no company is that stupid."
"We're that stupid, Harvey. Do you know what our annual billing to Gerson and Brandon is? Including personal items by partners and employees, the premiums amount to over two hundred thousand dollars a year—including property, of course. That is very nice business, Harvey, just as the insurance business is nice business and can thereby afford to pay wages to people like yourself. So if E.C. Brandon desires a couple of curious policies and is willing to pay top dollar for premiums, we write those policies."
"Kidnapping? Is that common?"
"It's hard to say, because when companies write these offbeat policies they don't put them into statistics. They are usually written as a favor to someone, and any public exposure reduces confidence in the company. What good would it do Prudential, for example, to publicize the fact that they have insured Mrs. Uppidedup's pet poodle for twenty grand? Not that they ever did, Harvey—I am merely making a case in point. But every company does these things."
"But the life insurance—how does that connect? You say Brandon owns the policies. But who is the beneficiary?"
"What? You said he was as rich as Rockefeller."
"More or less, Harvey, more or less. He likes money. I never met him, but presumably he likes money more than he likes his daughter. That is why he is bugged by this kidnapping thing. Also, my dear boy, since he owns the policy, he comes into a million dollars tax-free. You don't laugh at a million dollars tax-free."
I laughed. I had to laugh, and one day Alex Hunter, who is built like a five- foot, eight-inch gorilla, will do his best to make me stop laughing. He will succeed too, notwithstanding the fact that I have better than twenty years on him.
"You laugh at it," Hunter said. With great control, he continued, "However, this company faces the possibility of a million payout if the girl is kidnapped or dead, and two million dollars if she is both."
"You mean she's been kidnapped?"
"Did I say that? I said she walked out and has not been heard from. There is no indication that she's been kidnapped—except E.C. Brandon's fixation on kidnapping and his very neurotic fear that this is just what has happened."
"You said he liked money more than girls, so what's his beef? He's covered, isn't he?"
"He's covered for a million dollars of our money, Harvey. But suppose the girl is kidnapped and they touch him for two million or five million? Now that puts him in a most difficult position, doesn't it? Even you can see that, Harvey."
"You mean that if he refuses to pay and sells the girl down the river, the odor commences?"
"Exactly, Harvey. Maybe no girl is worth two million but the public is sentimental."
"That's his worry, isn't it?"
"No, Harvey—oh, no. It's our worry. You see, he wants to increase the kidnap insurance—double it. Two million dollars. That is how we know, Harvey. You see, we asked about the girl and upstairs they wanted to talk to her. No girl. She has been missing four days."
"Then tell him to go soak his head."
"No, Harvey. If it were you with a lousy little policy on your life, we would be happy to tell you to go soak your head. But not E.C. Brandon. Do you remember how much his business amounts to?"
"So we don't tell him to go soak his head, Harvey."
"No. But Goddamn it, I just don't believe in million dollar payoffs. How?"
"Harvey, Harvey—the world moves and you let it pass you by. If the girl has been kidnapped, she could be in Africa, while instructions come from Brazil for E.C. to put the money in a numbered Swiss account. There are ways, I assure you."
"And you mean that you are going to double his policy?"
"Is the other laid off?"
"Harvey, we are not a betting parlor. We are the third largest insurance company in the world and we carry our own reinsurance. That makes not one damn bit of difference. The company is in for two million and may be in for three. Whatever we do in the bookkeeping department, money is money."
"No! That's emphatic—from E.C. Brandon's point of view, and just between us, from ours. No cops at this point."
"Which leaves me where?" I asked him.
"Oh, come off it, Harvey. You know damn well what I want. I want you to find the girl. If she has been kidnapped, pay off the kidnappers. If she's alive, bring her back. If she's dead, pin down the fact. That will cost us one million providing you can also prove she had never been kidnapped."
"You're all heart, Mr. Hunter."
"And I'll ignore that one too—for the moment, Harvey."
"I meant it both ways," I said. "You pay me a couple of yards a week and pickings—"
"You call the twenty-five grand on the Sabin case pickings?"
"Pickings. I waited a long time for that. A plumber earns more than I do, and you don't want anything at all, do you? Oh, no sir, Mr. Hunter, not at all. Only, 'Harvey, my boy, go out and find the girl and if she's kidnapped pay them off and if she's dead, get a death certificate.' Just little Harvey Krim, Boy Scout. You got sixteen operatives working for you and one hundred and eleven investigators—but this is just you and Harvey, your buddy boy, face to face, no cops, no private agencies, just Harvey."
I watched him through that long address, and while one of his eyelids twitched a bit, he never lost his temper and he never got mad—and it doesn't take much to make Alex Hunter mad. So I knew I was in, and if it was an idiot, impossible job, there would be a lot of idiot impossible dollar bills to go with it.
"This is a very delicate thing, Harvey—you know that."
"You mean I am playing footsie with law and order every step of the way."
"I never said that."
"You said pay off the kidnappers, didn't you?"
"Just between you and me, Harvey, I don't think the girl was abducted or kidnapped or even harmed. I just think she had a bellyful of the old man and walked out."
"Then why don't you leave it alone?"
"Because a possible pay out of three million dollars demands action, not indifference or luck."
"How old is the kid?"
"Two and a half years. Then she quit."
"Lived at home?"
"Since January—when she quit college."
"Suppose I have to pay off—how?"
"As much or as little as you can buy out with. You make a price. The more you save, the better the company likes you."
"It's no good unless I have the money."
Hunter observed me thoughtfully, his eyes narrowing. "All right, Harvey, what do you mean—you have the money?"
"This is what I mean. If the money is to serve any purpose, I need it when I need it, immediately. A payoff isn't tomorrow or when the check clears. It's now—right this minute."
"And how much money were you thinking about, Harvey?"
"A bird in the hand, that's all," I said. "One million, two million—those are phone numbers. A hundred grand in a briefcase—that is real money, real, solid negotiable money."
Hunter thought about this for a while, while his cold blue eyes measured me with simple intent to kill, and then he said, "If I read you right, Harvey, you expect us to give you a bright, shiny new briefcase containing one hundred thousand dollars. Am I correct?"
"More or less."
"And how do you account for the money, Harvey?"
"Go soak your head, Harvey."
"You see, Mr. Hunter, if I buy her out, I buy her out. If I simply bring her home, the money is not used. And if she's dead, the money is not used either. For two months now, Mr. Hunter, you've had me scrounging around after petty fur frauds and phony jewel losses, and I'm ready to tell you to shove it all. I don't like working for you and I don't like you."
"Nuts, Mr. Hunter! You give me one swift pain. Why the hell don't you fire me? Why don't you work me over, like you're aching to do, just like you keep seeing on TV, only you think you could do it better?"
"Why do you think, Harvey?"
"I'll tell you why. Because they told you upstairs that either you produce or you're finished, that's why. Because E.C. Brandon told you that if one word of this gets into the papers, he washes his hands of this company. And because the only kind of man you hire for the lousy wages you pay are poor stupid slobs who take what you dish out—myself included. But now I've got you up against the wall."
Hunter smiled thinly and said to me, "You're a remarkable bastard Harvey. What's on your mind?"
"Spell it out."
"I'll gamble on this one. I want the hundred thousand dollars, and I'll handle the payout, and what's left over is mine."
"And suppose there's no kidnapping. Suppose the girl just took it into her head to get out."
"You get the hundred grand?"
"Go to hell, Harvey."
I stood up and asked whether that meant I was fired?
"They fire and hire you upstairs now, Harvey. You're their white-haired boy. Suppose she was kidnapped and the kidnappers want more than you got?"
"I come back to you."
"I hope they fire you, Harvey," Hunter said. "You're snotty and preposterous, and I don't even think you're very smart."
I went back to my own office and wondered whether I had blown the whole thing. It was too iffy—too open-ended.
"What is it, wonder boy?" Mazie Gilman, our chief researcher, asked me. "What eats at your poor, shriveled soul?"
She shares an office with Harry Hopkins—another investigator—and me, and she is middle-aged, overweight and sort of ugly, and she knows everything in the world. I asked about E.C. Brandon.
"He has more money than Rockefeller."
"Everyone's an authority on Rockefeller's bank account."
"I didn't know you were a Republican, Harvey. Brandon is Texas-rich. His father was the Brandon of Brandon Oil. He was shipped off to Harvard, and he subsequendy made his headquarters on Wall Street. But he still has a finger in Texas pies. We have a pretty solid Texas business through him, and you know what it means for any New York insurance firm to buck that Dallas crowd. They are out for our scalp, but the old Brandon wealth is West Texas, and they have no great love for the brand new Dallas insurance kings. Still, it's pretty shaky."
"You got a big mouth and I love you," I said; and then the phone on my desk rang. It was Smedly from upstairs. Smedly is one of the more important vice-presidents, in charge of personnel, and he speaks softly and takes a fatherly tone, and now he spoke gently about what a shame it was that Alex Hunter and I don't get along, when each of us in his own way was a rare and sterling character. Perhaps if he and I had a chat—that is, Smedly and I—we could smooth over some rough edges. This was not new. We had had our chats in the past. I went upstairs.
Smedly smiled at me. He was a middle-sized man, with steel-rimmed glasses and gray hair, and he had that same look of intangible efficiency that seems to permeate everyone in the insurance business. He began by informing me that I had often been the subject of discussion at personnel meetings.
"You have so many obvious talents, Mr. Krim—intelligence, originality—and virtues like independence, good, old-fashioned virtues—" (He mentioned no other virtues.) "—but there is a streak of intolerance in your nature that makes us pass over you whenever you are obviously a candidate for promotion."
"Intolerance? Good God, Mr. Smedly, as far as the civil rights movement is concerned—"
"I don't mean that, Mr. Krim. Toleration is a two-edged sword."
"You mean tolerance, don't you, Mr. Smedly?" I couldn't resist that, and if you want my life story, that spells it out.
"There's no difference, is there, Mr. Krim?" Smedly asked, the blue eyes behind the steel-rimmed glasses narrowing a bit.
"Well, you see, toleration means to endure someone. Tolerance means to respect them."
Excerpted from Cynthia by Howard Fast. Copyright © 1968 William Morrow and Company, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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