The Final Descent
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“You want for me to come?” he asked.
I laughed. “For her protection or mine?”
Through the window behind him I saw Central Park glowing: The rising sun had broken through the clouds, and the park shimmered in a golden autumnal haze.
“Have you ever been in love, Mr. Faulk?”
“Oh, yes. Many times. Well, once or twice.”
“How did you know?”
“I mean, did you know in the same way you know that red is red and not, for example, blue?”
He looked off into the distance, lost in memory or pausing to give my question its proper due.
“Been my experience you don’t know till after the fact.”
“After the . . . ?”
“When it’s gone.”
“I don’t think I love her.”
“If you don’t think it, then you don’t.”
“But I would have killed him if she had—or they had—he had . . .”
“I’d say that’s more blue than red, Mr. Henry.”
“Do you think it means anything that I’ve murdered three times before I’ve fallen in love once?”
“About you or people in general?”
“More deserve death than love—but that’s just my opinion.”
I laughed. “Mr. Faulk, I had no idea you were a philosopher.”
“I’d no idea you were a killer.”
Lilly was not as charmed as I by my new companion.
“Who is that brute?” she murmured, slipping her arm through mine as we stepped off the trolley at Delmonico’s.
“Mr. Faulk is an old friend of the doctor’s, a kind of honorary member of the fraternity.” I held the door open for her and we stepped inside. Mr. Faulk remained on the sidewalk, leaning against the building with his hands stuffed deep into the pockets of his peacoat.
“What fraternity?” she asked.
“The fraternity of indispensable men.”
“You have a bodyguard now?”
The entryway was crowded, forcing us to stand nearly chest to chest, and I could smell her hair and her hair smelled of lilacs. She wore a dress the color of topaz and carried a small matching purse. The men noticed her almost at once, but the women sooner; that is the way with beauty.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Too bad your doctor didn’t have a not-exactly one last night.”
I shouldered my way to the front and pressed a twenty- dollar note into the headwaiter’s palm. He rolled his eyes disdainfully, so I gave him another, and in five minutes we were seated with a nice view of the park.
“You’re awfully free with his money,” she said.
“Keeper of the purse strings, among other things.”
“Among every other thing.” Her eyes danced. I shrugged modestly and looked away. High in the mountains of Socotra there was a lake with water unburdened by any living thing, bluer than a sky scrubbed clean by a summer rain, yet even that was not as pure as her eyes, uncorrupted to the bottom, all the way down.
“Now what is this about Mr. Isaacson and reputations?” she asked, now that she had me off-balance.
“Actually, I was referring to the doctor’s reputation. This latest difficulty with organized crime . . .”
Lilly was shaking her head. “You always were a terrible liar.”
“Uncle Abram was right about one thing: To these men, honor is everything. Under the circumstances, the Black Hand is an unthinkable breach of etiquette, very bad form, even for a professional criminal. The Camorristi owe Warthrop an enormous debt.”
She grasped my meaning at once. “A subterfuge? But why? And by whom?”
“The why is easy enough—there are ten thousand reasons. The who I hope to discover before it’s too late . . . if it already isn’t too late.”
She gasped. “Kill Warthrop . . . ?”
“And lay the blame squarely upon the Italians’ doorstep. Which is why the why may not be so obvious, Lilly. What if this isn’t about money at all but about covering up a murder?”
She was silent throughout the appetizers and most of the main course, thinking of ways to poke holes in my argument, I was sure.
“How did the author of the letter know Warthrop was going to the Camorra?” she asked.
I nodded approvingly. She had teased out the one crucial fact at the heart of the tangled affair. Red is not blue, I thought in a flash of incoherence. “Right! Whoever wrote that letter knew of Warthrop’s errand. Now, he may have been followed and his kidnapper—or killer—hit upon the plan to frame Competello at the spur of the moment, or—”
“Or he knew beforehand and snatched him before he could see Competello. . . .”
“Or took him afterward; that part doesn’t matter.”
“Who knew where he was going? Who did he tell?”
“He didn’t tell me. Uncle Abram knew.”
I shook my head. “He might have told Pelt—but I doubt it. Definitely not Acosta-Rojas or Walker.”
“But Uncle may have.” She shook her head ruefully. “He’s gotten gregarious in his old age. If it is a traitor, I would place my bet on Walker.”
“It isn’t Walker.”
“How do you know?”
I looked down at my plate and didn’t answer. “Anyway, we shall know tonight. I suppose it could be a Five Points gang behind it all, but it seems awfully sophisticated for a bunch of hooligans from the slums.”
She nodded, and now it was her turn to stare at her plate. “What is it?” I asked. “Lilly?”
To my surprise, she fairly lunged across the table and pulled my hand into hers. “I won’t tell you not to do this—I know you will no matter what I say—but at least promise me you won’t be reckless.”
I laughed to reassure her, and myself. “Reckless? One may be reckless in love—I hear it’s preferable—but never in anything monstrumological!”
I lifted her hand to my lips.
The lobby of the Plaza Hotel, a quarter past five, and the courier is late.
Or perhaps he isn’t.
An elderly couple, both in evening wear, are chatting with the desk clerk. They are going to the opera. They’d like a recommendation for dinner afterward, something within walking distance of the opera house. The old man is distinguished, obviously well-heeled based upon his clothes and Midwestern judging by his accent. His wife is handsome in that milk-fed, thickset way of prairie women. It is their first visit to New York.
I am sitting across the lobby on the overstuffed Victorian settee near the door, set a tad too far from the roaring fire to be anything but teased by its heat. I hold Mr. Faulk’s copy of the Herald and have read the same article four times. In the right pocket of my overcoat is the doctor’s revolver, in the left the switchblade I fished out of the pocket of the faceless man in the Monstrumarium.
“But the restaurant is too far, isn’t it? I have a bum leg. Old war injury, you know.”
Outwardly, I am calm; inside I’m fuming. Why don’t they get off to the bloody opera already? The courier is probably loitering outside waiting for them to leave. I want to get on with it.
Now the old man is treating the clerk to the story behind his bum leg. Cold Harbor, spring of ’64, and afterward the general declared, This is not war; this is murder.
The clerk’s answering laugh was of the nervous variety, but the old man took offense, and that ended the conversation. He limped past me, his stalwart wife in tow, the heel of his cane clicking smartly upon the marble floor. The clerk’s eyes met mine from across the room, and he shrugged, Crazy old coot, and I had a sudden impulse to pull out the revolver and shoot the smirk off his cherubic face. What did he know of war—or of murder?
In less than a minute the door swung open and a small, dark-haired man strode purposefully past me, heading straight for the clerk. No words were exchanged, only the bulging white envelope from the shelf behind the desk. The little man tucked it into the folds of his jacket and left just as hurriedly as he’d arrived, chin thrust forward, looking neither left nor right. I don’t think he even noticed me.
I folded the paper deliberately and tossed it on the table in front of the settee, rose, nodded to the clerk, who nodded back—and perhaps I’ll shoot him later—and I stepped outside into the gathering dusk, and the traffic was heavy with the coming home and the going out, and it had warmed up a bit. The day was dying, but gently, with the heartbreaking sigh of a girl to her insistent lover.
The short, dark-haired man is hurrying along the sidewalk toward the park. He passes a much larger man wearing a frayed peacoat and a wide-brimmed hat. The big man is studying a racing form and smoking a cigar. He pays the little man no notice, but his eyes flick toward me, and I nod.
Mr. Faulk tosses the cigar into the gutter and jams the racing card into his pocket. He allows several pedestrians to pass before falling behind the little man with the bulging white envelope tucked inside his jacket. I follow the follower.
We turn into the park, and the weakened sunlight, unhampered by the wide brick shoulders of the buildings, washes over the landscape, through the unadorned arms of the trees that stretch starkly naked against the sky, across the pathway lined with benches and the people on them enjoying the waning of the day, softer than a baby’s cheek, and the lovers who stroll past them encased in the sparkling chrysalis of their desire, warm knotted-up entwining longing, unspoken promises wrapped in velvet laughter.
The little dark-haired man pauses to buy a paper from a newsboy. The white envelope slips from his jacket and falls on the path when he digs into his pocket for change. The boy scoops it up, slips it into the folds of the man’s newspaper before handing it back to him. During this exchange, which lasts no longer than thirty seconds, Mr. Faulk pauses to light another cigar. I pass him and murmur without stopping, “Stay with him; I have the boy.”
Apparently, the dark-haired man bought the boy’s last paper, for the boy shoulders his bag, abandons his post, and hurries toward the park exit on West Fifty-ninth Street. I count to ten after he passes me, then turn on my heel to follow.
Several trolley stops and a dozen blocks later, I find myself on Elizabeth Street in the heart of Little Italy, where the unusually mild weather has drawn hundreds from their crowded tenement nests. The sidewalks are choked with hawkers and hustlers, pickpockets and petty thieves, solitary men in threadbare coats, lean-cheeked and hard-eyed, not one of whom fails to notice my expensive coat and leather shoes, and gangs of young boys as lean as their elders but not quite as hard-eyed, not yet, and mothers sitting on the stoops with little ones in white bonnets bouncing on their laps, the street clogged with rickety carts attached to overworked, underfed horses, and everywhere the smell of boiled rabbit and fresh flowers and wood smoke and horse shit, and the Italian songs floating through open windows and the hysterical, desperate babble of a thousand human souls stuffed into a three-block radius.
The boy did not hurry through the throng; I easily kept up with the little hat bobbing along, the hat that reminded me of another hat, two sizes too small, which belonged to another boy in another age. Occasionally I could see the newspaper bag popping up and down against his back and thought I could discern a bulge there the size of the large white envelope.