Thursday, July 28, 2011

20. "Wolverington"

by Horace P. Sternwall

edited by Dan Leo *

illustrated by rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus

*Ass’t Professor of Classics and Elocution, Olney Community College; editor of No Place Like Nowhere: Selected Early Poems of Horace P. Sternwall (1936-1941); Olney Community College Press.

click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning

Contrary to what nearly everyone thought, Lord Wolverington was in fact legally entitled to the term of address “Lord”, being the 25th (and last) Baron Wolverington, but he could never go back to England, no, not after being cashiered from the 5th Royal Horse Guards for conduct unbefitting an officer in 1914 (something involving a French farm lad and a bottle of absinthe on the eve of the first Battle of the Marne),

not after selling off the family lands acre by acre to pay his gambling and legal debts, not after finally losing the familial manse itself in a game of whist in 1922 (his old school friend “Poof” Smith-Jones had written him recently to inform him that the present owners had turned the old pile into a “country inn”;

the ground floor front was now a pub, complete with jukebox and pinball machines, whereas the big hall had been turned into a dance hall, complete with a traditional jazz band), not after that terrible scene at Pratt’s in 1927 when Wolverington’s special chum Lord Messingham fell or jumped or perhaps even was pushed out of the window of the steward’s quarters to his untimely death impaled on the spiked railing below on the pavement of Park Place.

No, Wolverington had become too well known on his native island as a chancer, a writer of IOUs not worth the stolen stationery they were written on, a profligate of the first stripe and a world-class bum boy.

With his sister’s “borrowed” jewelry in a Gladstone bag and one tweed suit (cut of course by Hawkes of Savile Row, but never paid for) he arrived in New York Harbor on the RMS Olympic in October of 1929, barely a week before the stock market crash. His wit and his charm, his plummy accent and his flawless manners stood him in good stead in his new city in the new world, and he was a welcome guest at many a dinner party overshadowed by the grim realities of the Great Depression. And what a relief it was for Wolverington to dine with people for whom social standing was merely a matter of wealth, even if the wealth was only a generation or two old and came from trade. It was at one of these dinners that he met Caroline Charlton, of the New York Charltons on her father’s side and the New York Collinsons and the Philadelphia Harrisons on her mother’s side.

No one knew exactly what transpired that August night in 1933 in that speakeasy on Jane Street; or rather anyone who did know had been paid or blackmailed to be silent about it by young Mr. Perkins, the Collinson family lawyer; but what was known was that a couple of weeks after the incident, after Wolverington had been released from the Tombs on his own recognizance, he had moved into one of the very nicest residential suites at the Hotel St Crispian, and adjoining Caroline Charlton’s. Some people believed that it was he who had shot Caroline’s alleged paramour the notorious rouĂ© Burnham “Budgie” Walterston (of the Westchester Walterstons) through the heart that night with Budgie’s own pistol; others believed Caroline to be the culprit; at any rate the death was ruled a suicide, and all charges against Lord Wolverington were dropped. What was also known was that Wolverington spent his two weeks in the Tombs refusing to say a single word about that tragic night in Greenwich Village.

In all the years Lord Wolverington had been “stopping” at the St Crispian he had never once been presented with a bill, and every week a thick envelope addressed to him was delivered by messenger to the St Crispian front desk from the offices of Perkins, Perkins & Perkins. Finally, at the age of forty-nine, this chancer, this wastrel, this drunken failure, this ignoble end of a noble line, this badly-aging bum boy, had achieved security merely for keeping his mouth shut and quite enjoying a relaxing and sexually-fulfilling fortnight in jail.

Lord Wolverington and Caroline Charlton had remained good friends through the years. They shared a taste for gossip, for debauchery, for musical theatre and for idleness. They could sit for hours of a fine sunny day in the lobby of the St Crispian, in the comfortable armchairs near the big zebra plant, usually in the company of that other professional loafer Phineas “Farmer” Brown, the three of them doing nothing but reading movie magazines and playing Mahjong all afternoon, interspersed with gibing remarks on anyone else who might walk through the lobby.

Evenings too Wolverington often spent in Caroline’s company. They would sit and listen to their favorite radio programs, leafing through their movie magazines and drinking their cocktails. They would go to the theatre and to the movies together, and, as they both grew older and less interested in sex they would come home to the hotel together in the same cab.

They were sometimes mistaken by strangers for an old married couple...

Conrad clapped the brass knocker.

“Yes, who is it?” cried the dry cracked shrill old voice, the voice of a parrot who has seen too much and lived too long.

“It’s Conrad, Aunt Caroline,” Conrad shouted at the door. “I told you I was coming.”

“One moment, dear boy,” called the voice.

Conrad waited. You always waited for Aunt Caroline.

Finally after a minute the door was opened.

It was that Lord Wolverington, standing there holding a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in an onyx holder in the other.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the jailbird great-nephew,” said the old fool.

Aunt Caroline was sitting on the sofa back there with her own cocktail and cigarette, and she laughed that high broken laugh of hers. It always reminded Conrad of the sound one imagined a chicken might make while having its neck wrung.

“I was never actually in jail,” said Conrad, coming into the room with his little package.

“Not what I heard old boy,” said Wolverington.

“I was held at the jail for questioning, but I was never in jail.”

Which was more than Wolverington or Aunt Caroline could say, thought Conrad, and he went over to kiss his great aunt on her cheek, which felt like kissing a dead oak leaf, not that Conrad had ever kissed a dead oak leaf.

chapter 21: improvisation

Thursday, July 21, 2011

19. gramercy 7 - 5316

by manfred skyline

illustrated by rhoda penmarq
and roy dismas

click here for previous episode, here to start at the beginning

"collinson residence."

"mister collinson, please."

"which mister collinson would you like to speak to, sir?"

"uh - the mister collinson that got arrested the other night, on various and sundry charges the primary of which was white slavery. that mister collinson."

"i see. are you with the press, sir?"


"i rejoice to hear it. might you be a member of the legal fraternity?"

"no, but i was recommended to call by a lawyer. my name is vance, victor vance and i am a fully licensed private investigator. mister wiley suggested that i call. mister collinson is expecting someone recommended by mister will wiley and that's me. am i making myself clear?"

"perfectly , sir."


"do you have a telephone number where you can be reached?"

"yeah - gramercy 7 - 5316."

"thank you. i hope i am not being rude, sir, but might that be a pay phone?'

"no, it's a perfectly respectable bar and grill. al's bar. have him ask for vic vance. if i ain't here, ask for lou gracchus."

"yes, sir."

"you sure you got all that?"

"taking messages on the phone is something i am quite adept at, sir. it's my road game, as we used to say in the circus."

vic handed the phone back to al. "you know, for a butler that guy wasn't half snooty."

"maybe he wasn't the butler. did he say he was the butler? did he say, hello, i'm the butler?"

"uh - no, he didn't, now that you mention it."

"maybe he was the chauffeur, or the pastry cook or something, and he was just walking by and picked up the phone. ever think of that?"

"not like you, al, thinking all the time. but you know, he sounded like a butler. he just didn't have that chauffeur or pastry cook ring to him."

"i defer to your judgment in these matters."

"but you amaze me, al, the way you always think things through. you should have been a detective, you know that?"

"too much moving around. i like to stay in one spot."


"is that right?"

"that's right. rats, mice - people think they move all over the city but they find a good spot and stick with it. turtles, snakes, gorillas, monkeys - it's only dogs, cats and people that move around. "

"yeah? what about the swallows - don't they go back to capistrano?"

"they are birds - not terrestrial creatures. birds and fish don't count."

"oh. and you figured that out all by yourself."

"not exactly. there was a professor used to come in here, he told me about it. professor ogleby."

"ogleby? isn't he one of those guys that hangs out with the d a and helps him solve cases?"

"he was involved in a case or two. an interesting guy, very educational to talk to. thought things through. and a paying customer, too."

"so ogleby used to come in here? i guess that was before he started seeing the town and making the rounds with the d a and the police commissioner."

"i used to get a better class of customer. a much better class of customer."

"you know, i don't have much use for a guy like that. sure, he can think things through in the front parlor with a cup of tea in his hand, but put him in a dark alley with some gorilla coming at him with a machete, what's he going to do then?"

"show some common sense and run?"

the phone rang. al picked it up.

"al's bar. yeah, he's here. right here."


"come in, gentlemen. mister vance and mister gracchus, is it not?"

"it sure is."

"mister conrad is expecting you."

"we're a little early."

"he told me to bring you to the study as soon as you arrived."

"lead the way."

williams led the two detectives down the hall to the back of the townhouse.

"was it was you i was talking to on the phone?"

"indeed it was, sir."

"what's your name - soames?"

"williams, sir."

"i thought all butlers were named soames. ha ha just kidding. you know, williams, under that butlerish exterior you look like a guy who is not totally unacquainted with a good time. am i right?"

"here we are, sir. perhaps we can continue this discussion after you are finished
with mister conrad." williams rapped on the study door. after half a minute conrad opened it and stared at williams blankly.

"the two private investigators, sir."

"of course." conrad rubbed his left eye and sighed. "of course. i'm afraid i fell asleep in jethro's comfy chair. come in gentlemen, come in."

the two detectives looked around. there were so many chairs in the room they could hardly maneuver into it. every chair had a standing ashtray or a small table with an ashtray beside it. in the back of the room an enormous rolltop desk stood beside a single small window.


"this is my cousin jethro's preserve. he was kind enough to let me use it. it's a bit cluttered, but i don't want to disturb it. it is his territory."

"not a problem."

"i thought we could have complete privacy in here."

"sure." vance turned and winked at williams, who was still standing at the door. "we know what these servants can be like."

"can williams bring you gentlemen a drink?"

"scotch and a little soda."

"scotch and even less water."

"i don't suppose either of you gentlemen want ice?"

"williams, you're a mind-reader."

williams left and closed the door behind him. conrad sat down in the biggest chair, which was beside the door and facing the window. he rubbed his eyes again.

"you know, i just fell asleep, and when i woke up i thought this whole thing might be a crazy dream. but i guess not."

"doesn't look that way," vance agreed.

gracchus sat down and dinged his finger on the ashtray beside his chair. "i guess we can smoke, huh?"

"of course. in fact, i know jethro has some boxes of cigars in here somewhere. good ones, too -"

"i'm sure they are. we're good with cigarettes, thanks." vance took a pack of chesterfields out of his pocket.

"maybe when we leave you can give us a couple," gracchus added.

"that's a good idea."

vance looked around the room again before sitting down, "is jethro a lawyer?" he asked.

"no, jethro is - jethro is not a lawyer." conrad settled back in the big chair. " i might as well begin with my story."

"it's what we're here for."

chapter 20: wolverington

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

18. galapagos sunset

by manfred skyline

illustrated by roy dismas
and rhoda penmarq

click here for previous episode, here to start at the beginning

chapter 19