Clay Lockwood enters the Portico with corned beef on his mind. He’s a top distributing executive with Grant’s Meats, and the contract with the Portico restaurant chain is only the latest in a long line of boardroom coups. He comes for lunch, and eats his fill of his company’s beef, but leaves with an entirely different hunger gnawing at his gut—a volcanic passion that will tear him apart. The hostess’s name is Sally Alexis, a magician’s wife whose rough-hewn charm mesmerizes this magnate of meat. She rebuffs his first pass, but calls him up later, to explain her situation and plead for tenderness. Although her marriage is miserable, she’s won’t leave her husband because she wants to secure an inheritance for her little boy. As the lovers get closer, Lockwood becomes an amateur illusionist himself, focusing on one very particular trick—how to make a magician disappear.
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The Magician's Wife
By James M. Cain
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1965 James M. Cain
All rights reserved.
AROUND NOON OF A bright spring day, on Bay Street in Channel City, Maryland, a man strode toward a restaurant as though he owned it and everything in it. It was a friendly-looking place, of brick painted white, in the quasi-colonial style that bends a knee toward elegance while retaining the common touch, like the bubbles in Welk champagne. Its name, from its columned entrance, was The Portico, and this was also the name of its twenty-two replicas, forming a chain, in Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. But if the place was somewhat folksy, the man wasn't folksy at all. In every outward aspect he was definitely of that aggressive American breed, the business executive. He was tall, lanky, and gracefully formed, if a bit thick in the shoulders and heavy as to chin, with blue, somewhat expressionless eyes. He wore gray slacks, lounge coat in subdued gray checks, blue shirt, garnet tie, and brown shoes, rather dark. His blond hair, which glinted in the sunlight, may have been the reason he wore no hat. All in all, he had his share of good looks and was certainly not unaware of it as he crunched up the gravel walk that led from the parking lot. But, allowing for strut, the habit of masterful posing, the manner of command, he looked purposeful, as though he had more on his mind than himself, the histrionics of his kind, or lunch.
He skipped onto the portico and pushed through the front door, finding himself in a foyer with a counter at one side, a cashier's desk at the other, and a dining room beyond, fenced off by a rail with a gate in it. He strode to the rail, nodding to the cashier as he passed, and stood a few moments scanning the dining room for someone to come and seat him. Several girls were nearby, but his eye lingered on one a few feet away, who stood with a knot of waitresses, apparently giving them instructions of some kind. She was indeed something to see, her small, trim figure nicely set off by her dark blue hostess uniform, her skin strawberry and cream, her hair dark, her eyes black and very large. In a moment, at one of the waitresses' gestures, she looked up and saw the man. Coming over, she opened the gate with more poise than most Portico girls have, smiled, and led him to a table—a pleasant one, next to the big picture window. His eyes continued to follow her as she stepped toward another hostess, took a menu from her, brought it and handed it to him. He thanked her, then suddenly blurted out: "I know most of the girls here, but I don't seem to place you, and if I'd seen you, I think I'd remember you. In fact, I'm sure of it. Are you new?"
"Not really," she told him. "I've been with the chain some time, but I move from place to place—though of course wherever I am I help out on the floor. I'm the so-called charm school that Portico has. I'm kind of a den mother to the girls. I teach them how to walk, how to talk, how not to walk, and most importantly, how not to talk."
"Oh—and how they love you, I bet."
He was ironical, but she assured him: "They didn't at first until they saw how my system helps with the problem customer, and began thinking things over. Don't worry, they like me fine."
"Meaning the stingy customer?"
"He could very well be the one."
"And how do you handle him?"
"Oh—get his name, for one thing."
"Oh, yeah! Making him feel—?"
"Big. Loved. And—what have you."
"Liberal as to tips?"
"The girls think it helps."
"Of course," he said gravely, "this doesn't really concern me, but just to string things out, keep you there pressing your stomach against that chair—a very cute stomach, that I have to say—suppose he won't say what his name is."
"Say?" she exclaimed. "You think we'd ask him?"
"Well—it's one way to find out."
"Perhaps," she conceded, "but definitely unsmart. Why, it would take all the fun out. He wouldn't feel big any more. The whole point is that when he's called by name, he feels he's so important that people know what it is. Why, I'm surprised at you."
She was the least bit flirty and made no move to go. "Then," he asked, "how do you get his name?"
"O.K., I'm the guy known as tight. I'll hold the stop watch on you—let's see you get my name. I'll time you how long you take."
"Perhaps I already have, Mr. Lockwood."
His astonished stare delighted her, so she smiled, and her round, pretty face showed unmistakable guile. "Surprised?" she asked.
"I'm utterly baffled."
He wanted to know how she did it, in view of the fact that "you haven't been out of my sight since I came in this place," but all she would tell him was: "Where there's a will, there's a how." Suddenly he asked: "So O.K., what's your name?"
"Come on, give. Sally what?"
"Why—Sally Alexis, if it matters."
"I—think I'm falling for Sally Alexis."
"What are you going to have?"
She motioned to the menu, bringing him back to everyday things. He opened it, studied it briefly, and said: "I'll have the corned beef, cabbage, and spud."
"It's very good," she assured him, "a new dish they just put out today—but already we're getting reports, quite favorable. I'll have the girl put in your order."
"You'll do nothing of the kind."
That was Mr. Bill Jackson, the manager, who strode up as she turned away, stopped her, spun her around, and held her. "Sally," he went on, "you're serving this order yourself, and then you're standing by—to take notes for one of your neat reports. This is Mr. Clay Lockwood, of Grant's, which sold us the corned beef, and he's here to check on it for them—and perhaps make some suggestions for us. You write down what he says. Until he goes, you have no other duties."
She stared at Clay, then headed for the kitchen.
"O.K.," said Mr. Jackson, slipping into the other chair, "I'll be the one to say it: Clay, you've got a hit. It's the biggest thing we've had since we put in the deep-fry crab cakes two years ago next month—but bigger, really, because they're a hot-weather dish, where this is all the year round. And why is it going so big? Because it's handled the way you said, without some front-office genius getting in it, with the one idea to louse it. We're doing it your way, so when they do come up with it, what it takes to mess it up, don't say I didn't give you credit."
"Bill, this is nice to hear."
He seemed greatly moved and began reciting the snags the dish had involved, Mr. Jackson interrupting: "Boy, you don't have to tell me."
"Could I have a look in the kitchen, to see how they're doing it there?"
"We'll both have a look, Clay."
Threading their way between the tables, past guests having lunch, they passed through a swing door marked IN and entered a shiny, maple-and-metal kitchen. It had a counter down the middle, on one side of which were a chef, checker, cooks, and dishwashers, and on the other a line of girls, Sally standing with them, waiting for their orders. But things seemed to be stalled, with tension in the air, and Clay spotted the reason. Holding his watch on a pan of boiling water, with six to eight packets in it that looked like legal-size envelopes made of aluminum foil, he suddenly addressed the chef. "Earl, what's the big idea," he asked, "holding things up this way? Your instructions say one minute—they're printed right on the package. I've been standing here two, and there's no good reason for it. It's a warm-up, that's all. This meat is precooked—it's ready except for heating. You don't have to boil it this way."
"Take it up!" ordered Mr. Jackson.
Earl grudgingly nodded at a cook, who speared a half cabbage from a warming pan and slid it onto a plate. Then he speared one of the aluminum-foil packets and eased it onto the cabbage. Then with his fork he teased open the foil, flipping it into a trash can and leaving three slices of corned beef already arranged on the cabbage. With a spoon he added a boiled potato and set the plate on the counter, a polychrome creation, in a previous era perfect for a still life, in this one for a pink, green, and white color photo. Sally scooped it up and darted off through a door marked OUT. Bill, in a few moments, led the way to the dining room, then whispered to Clay: "Wouldn't you know it? There I was, worrying yet about that genius at lousing things, and giving the front office credit for having him in the bull pen, when all the time he was right in my own kitchen. Can you beat that? Well, Clay, can you?"
"He had to be somewhere, din't he?"
"Boy, you can say that again. Be back."
Mr. Jackson, at a wigwag from a girl, darted off, breaking off the conversation as all conversations with managers break off. Clay went back to his table and ceremoniously ate the corned beef, while Sally girl-Fridayed nearby, notebook and gold pencil in hand. He said quite a lot: about mustard sauce, "if, as, and when wanted"; about the potato, "which should dry in hot metal once the water's poured off, to meal it up a bit and take the sogginess out"; about cooking time, "which Earl now understands, but should be stressed in your memo, so other chefs get the point and don't double the work without any good reason." Then, almost without a break, he asked: "Well, how did you get my name? I bite. I want to know."
"Oh, it was simple enough," she answered amiably. "Another thing I insist on with these girls is that they help each other out instead of playing a lone hand, as most of them tend to do if left to themselves. So, when that hostess gave me your menu she also whispered your name."
"Oh, so that was it."
"You disappointed there wasn't more to it?"
"No, I admire it. So, that clears it up."
"Doesn't clear you up, though. You might have said, while we were on the subject, that you were the Mr. Lockwood, Grant's Mr. Big, that I'd heard so much about."
"That would have made a difference?"
"Well? Shouldn't it?"
"I want to be loved for myself alone."
"I'll—take it under advisement."
He began getting outrageous, reverting to her stomach, which once more was pressed to the opposite chair, and calling it "a dream stomach, curvaceous, shapely, and soft." Then he asked: "Did you know your navel shows through?"
"Well, why wouldn't it? It's there."
She didn't move, but sounded a little sharp, and pinked up. Suddenly he said: "Sally, I've fallen for you, which I suppose is why I say things like that. So why don't we step out?
Why don't we do it tonight? At the Chinquapin-Plaza Blue Room or any place you like?"
"Well—I couldn't. Not tonight."
Something about her manner caused him to look at her hard. Then, peremptorily he asked her: "This Sally Alexis—is she Miss or Mrs.?"
"I'm afraid I have to say Mrs."
"As you could have said in the first place," he said in a moment, his face growing quite red. Then, husking up, he added: "I'm sorry I overstepped."
"Will that be all, sir?"
"All I think of now."
When she had gone he sat in a sulk, his face getting redder and redder. Then he took a five-dollar bill from his wallet and slipped it under his plate. Then he got up and, looking neither to right nor to left, made his way between the tables and through the gate, then turned to follow the rail out. But he felt his sleeve plucked, and when he looked she was there, holding out his five-dollar bill. Coldly she informed him: "I don't accept tips, Mr. Lockwood."
"O.K.—but the girl on the station?"
"I'll see that she gets it, then."
He bowed, then stalked grandly out, pausing on the portico to let his chest expand, then heading for the parking lot. His glow got clouded, however, in an absurd, perhaps not so absurd, way. Passing the picture window, he happened to glance inside, and suddenly black eyes locked on his, glittering oddly through the glass. He tried to look away, couldn't seem to manage it. His feet carried him by, but of his own free will, he never broke out of the stare. His walk became a stumble, as he went on in a state of upset out of all proportion to the pitch of one brief moment.CHAPTER 2
GETTING INTO HIS BIG green coupe, he drove from the downtown shopping district, where the restaurant was, through canyons of office buildings to a bridge over the Chinquapin River, and on the other side turned into Tidal Boulevard, or Death Avenue, as it was called, where Grant's, Inc., was located. It was a multilane complex beside the river, of lofts, factories, warehouses, piers, and a railroad track. At a heavy wire fence he pulled up, and when a watchman opened a gate, he drove into an asphalt enclosure to a space marked MR. LOCKWOOD. Leaving the car, he entered a low building of industrial brick, which was arranged inside on the split-level plan, with glassed-in offices topside and cold-storage rooms below. Bounding up a metal stairway, he reached his own office, a rectangular glass fish-bowl that commanded the whole floor. Calling Miss Helm, his secretary, a dumpy little woman wearing glasses, he told her to "set up" a meeting, for 3:45, of the three chain-restaurant salesmen, the girls in the packing room, all cutters, and the head bookkeeper. Then, after a glance at his call slips, he put on a black quilted coat for warmth and went down to the main storage room. His first act as he stepped through the heavy steel door was to inhale, deeply and attentively, as "Your nose knows."
It caught nothing now but the clean smell of good meat, red and white hind- and forequarters hanging in rows on hooks fitted to trolleys, which in turn ran on an overhead rail system so complex, with its switches and spurs and sidings, that it made the railroad outside seem simple by comparison. After a solemn exhale, he began his afternoon rounds, spending a minute or so in each small room at one side, where things were being done by a force in quilted coats like the one he had on. First he stopped with two cutters slicing Delmonico steaks, using big curved knives and small spring scales, trimming off fat to make the exact eight ounces, and placing them in piles with paper "dividers" between. Presently he nodded and went on to the next room, where roasts were being cut, weighed, and ticketed with metal pins, and then on to another room, where veal, lamb, and pork were being cut. Then, crossing the main room, he went through a door to a room not quite so cold, where machines were being run, the biggest a hot-dog creator, as large and as exact in precision parts as an IBM computer. It took pink ground meat, fed it into a complex that stuffed it into skins, and changed it into dogs. Then, on a belt, it traveled these to a packaging mechanism. When they were wrapped in loose plastic bundles, the belt traveled these to a heater, where the plastic was neatly shrunk, so the bundles came out tight, falling into a basket and bouncing like playful pups. Finally it traveled them to a labeler, which covered one side with a happy scene of children having a cookout and eating dogs named GRANT'S.
He tarried briefly by this mechanical miracle, but then passed on to a smaller machine, tended by several girls, and gave it close attention. Its main part was a slicer, to which a girl clamped meat, big slabs of beef brisket, already corned, cooked, and chilled. A rotary blade took off big even slices, which dropped to a belt. From it another girl took clutches of three slices each, and placed them on squares of aluminum foil. Other girls folded the foil, crimped it, tucked the shining packets so formed into boxes, and pasted on labels showing a gay restaurant scene and carrying the caption:
This Dish Is Ready to Serve!
NO COOKING—NO CARVING—NO WORK
Heat in Cover One Minute—Remove Cover
"Kids, you're doing fine," he told the girls. "Looks like we got a smash." The girls, who seemed to like him, twittered their thanks.
Excerpted from The Magician's Wife by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1965 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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