illustrated by roy dismas, rhoda penmarq, and konrad kraus
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning
williams was a night person, and found his employment as butler with the collinsons congenial. all the members of the family expected immediate service at any hour of the day or night, and an unspoken agreement had evolved that he would be available at night, and that the under-butler or one of the maids would be sufficient during the day after breakfast (when they - the collinsons - tended to be asleep or absent). williams had found that the collinsons expected prompt, but not constant service, and so he was free to spend most of his time at night daydreaming, looking out the windows at park avenue or 86th street, doing crossword puzzles, or doing absolutely nothing at all.
especially since the demise of old colonel collinson, the nights had passed like a parade of peaceful dreams.
such slight duties as he had to perform at night never bothered or surprised him. so it was with perfect calm, and only a twinge of curiosity, that he observed mister conrad - the most resolutely nocturnal of all the collinsons - exiting from a cab below the window, followed by two persons he had never seen before. conrad was always bringing guests home, usually, but by no means always, young persons of his own class. the brief glance he had of the man and the young woman who were following conrad to the front door led him to surmise that the man, at least, did not fit that description. conrad would let them in with his key, and given the lateness of the hour, would not necessarily expect williams to greet them immediately. but, having nothing else to do, he turned from the window and was heading for the stairs when the telephone rang. he crossed swiftly to the telephone stand and lifted the receiver.
"williams. it's cosima."
"williams, i'm at the gallery. i will be over in a few minutes."
"yes. will you be staying the night?"
"probably. is the red bedroom available?"
"i am expecting a guest. a man named fortescue. he should be there in about half an hour. have some coffee and sandwiches ready, please."
"yes, miss. would the green room be acceptable, or the front room? mr conrad has just arrived with some guests - "
"and he will probably want the library? fine, i can use the green room."
"very good, miss."
"i won't keep you. i will be over in a few minutes and let myself in."
"very good." williams could hear conrad and his guests downstairs. he hung up the phone. he could hear conrad calling him - not too loudly - then saying, "oh, he is here somewhere. carol, you can take your coat off. "
in the darkened gallery, cosima put her phone down. she was mildly annoyed, but not surprised, that conrad would be there with friends. she hoped they weren't too drunk and that she could avoid them altogether. maybe i should have invited the detective to my own place, she thought, or even had him come here. she decided to take her time, maybe smoke a couple of cigarettes, before heading over to 86th street. a reefer? tempting, but she wanted a completely clear head when dealing with fortescue. a thought flashed through her mind that conrad's "friends" might have something to do with the matter she was consulting the detective on. then she laughed. that, she thought, is exactly the sort of thinking i'd do if i smoked some dope.
"ah, there you are, williams. take this young lady's coat, will you, please."
"my pleasure. by the way, sir, miss cosima just called and she will be over shortly and a guest of hers will drop by."
"she requested the use of the green room."
"no problem. we were going to use the library anyway."
"excellent. i was going to make some coffee and sandwiches for them, so if you would like some too?"
"no, thank you, i don't need any. how about you two?" conrad turned to frisco johnny, who was gazing placidly at williams, and carol, who was openly gawking at the surroundings.
it wasn't exactly what carol was expecting, but there was something about it - something she couldn't put a name to - it was just - "oh, sorry, did you ask me something?"
"would you like some coffee and sandwiches, miss?'
"uh - sure. i'm starving. i'll take anything you want to give me. if it's no trouble."
"none at all. and you, sir?"
"yeah, i'll take a sandwich. no coffee. you got roast beef?"
"certainly, sir. rare or well done?"
"very good." williams had had time to take the measure of the guests. the young woman seemed sort of an unlikely companion for conrad, but no one he was going to spend time wondering about. but the man - conrad often brought persons home who might charitably be described as "colorful" or borderline low-lifes, but never anyone as genuinely menacing as this fellow. also, the man and woman did not seem to be together, but attached separately to conrad.
"this is mister ramirez, williams. we may be seeing a lot of him."
"he's in the fight game. you know, boxing."
"ah. very good."
"you a fight fan?" johnny asked williams.
"not really, sir. i'm more of a baseball fan."
"williams is a giants fan," added conrad.
"occasionally a fight comes along whose publicity and expectations can not be avoided, but otherwise -"
"no problem." johnny smiled. "just asking. not everybody is a fan of everything."
"how true, sir."
"and this is carol - carol -"
williams nodded to carol. no mention of seeing a lot of her.
"so - we will be in the library." conrad gestured to carol and johnny to follow him.
williams turned and left, with carol's coat on his arm. after hanging the coat up, he walked slowly to the kitchen. johnny had made him a little uneasy. probably the nastiest looking character he had encountered since the war, which he had spent the last two years of in the capacity of driver and general factotum to colonel collinson.
the colonel had had a barely defined job usually well behind any shooting, in london, paris, marseille and points in between, usually involving money, "papers", seldom seen "supplies" and even less often seen "information". williams's silent nature, lack of curiosity, and lack of greed on his own behalf, had suited the colonel to the extent he had offered him the employment he now enjoyed.
only after the war was over and he was safely back in the states, had williams begun to wonder about exactly what he and the colonel had been doing. had he been in the "secret service"? williams read a magazine article about something called the "oss". had the colonel, and he himself, been in the "oss"? at the time, if asked, the colonel had been a "liaison between g-2 (allied) and g-4 (usa)" - whatever that meant. whatever he had been doing, williams had come in contact, usually very brief, with a number of unpleasant looking individuals, but only one as chilling as "mr ramirez". and that of course, had been the colonel's other assistant, corporal gray, who was often driven by williams, left to do - what? - better not to ask - and then picked up again.
williams and gray had had long "conversations" in which gray had done all the talking - spinning forth endless, usually violent and sometimes salacious stories which williams assumed and hoped to be fantasies. after the war, the talkative corporal had not been offered a job by the colonel. williams only occasionally gave him a thought.
but now, as he put the coffee on and began carefully making the sandwiches, williams wondered - is gray still alive? where is he tonight? what is he doing?
cosima turned the corner of lexington avenue. as she approached the apartment she noticed a cab parked across the street from it and two buildings down.
illustrated by roy dismas, rhoda penmarq and konrad kraus
*Associate Professor of Latin Literature, Assistant Pep Rally Coördinator, Olney Community College; editor of A Sense of Dread: Six Short Novels of Suspense by Horace P. Sternwall; Olney Community College Press, “The Sternwall Initiative”.
click here for previous episode, here to begin at the beginning
It was just another cold November day on the Lower East Side.
As usual I rolled out of the sack around two in the afternoon, threw on my best and my only suit, and went down to the Chinaman’s for my usual breakfast of chop suey and three or four pots of lapsang souchong.
Outside the window the afternoon was grey, and some rain started to fall as if it had nowhere else to fall and it might as well be here.
After I ate I poured another cup of tea, lit up a cigarette and took out my little black book.
I had six pick-ups to make, and after them I was free until 8:30, when Big Moe had asked me to meet him at the Mobambo Room.
Big Moe never asked me to meet him at the Mobambo Room.
For that matter Big Moe hardly ever asked me to meet him anywhere, and why should he?
I was strictly small potatoes, so far down the chain of command that you couldn’t get any lower, except the gutter or the grave.
But maybe Big Mo asking me to meet him at the Mobambo meant something.
Maybe after all these years Moe had me in mind for a promotion.
Maybe I could move out of that crumby shotgun apartment on Hester Street and get something classier.
Maybe I could buy a new suit.
Maybe I could even get a car. Nothing fancy, nothing new, maybe just like a ‘41 Ford, one of them two-door coupe jobs maybe.
Maybe I wasn’t going to be low man on the totem pole anymore, the last link in the chain, just another hood standing in the background trying to look like he’s somebody when everybody knew he was nobody.
Always last in line, that was me, unless of course Big Moe and his boys needed some poor schmuck to do the really dirty work, then I was first in line. Also first in line to get rousted and pinched, first in line to get the rubber-hose and phone-book massage in the precinct basement, and if somebody had to take a fall, then I was first in line to take a fall.
That was me.
I was nobody.
Maybe this day was going to be different.
Maybe this day was going to be the start of a whole new chapter in my life.
Yeah, it was going to be a whole new chapter in my life, all right.
The final chapter.
In his small room off the mezzanine of the Hotel St Crispian, Harold P. Sternhagen stopped typing, not because he had run out of ideas but because he had come to the end of the page.
Some writers set themselves a daily quota of a certain number of words, but Harold preferred to go by pages. His daily goal was forty typewritten pages of “fair copy”; he had now reached this goal, and so he stopped.
It had been another good day on the job. He had completed work on two short stories (“A Pistol for Father Flannery” and “Don’t Eat the Canapés”) and now he had gotten off to a good start on this new yarn, which he was tentatively calling “Mr. Zilch”.
It was time for a drink, for a little socializing. A writer couldn’t spend all his time writing. He needed to get out a little every day, see a bit of the world, have some sort of personal contact with his fellow human beings. So Harold would pop down to the Prince Hal Room, just as he did every other night of the week, and probably his fellow hack Fred Flynn would be there. Most likely that idiot they called “the Farmer” would be there, too.
The Farmer was a bore, but he was a genial and generous bore, and he could always be counted on to buy a couple of rounds. The thing about the Farmer was that, unlike most bores, he seemed to know deep down how boring he was, and so he paid his way with drinks and cigarettes, and even with the occasional light meal.
Rather than wait for the elevator, and possibly be trapped in an endless and inane conversation with Mortimer the elevator-operator, Harold decided to take the stairs. As soon as he opened the door to the stairwell he encountered a thick cloud of marijuana smoke. He stepped inside, looked up and down. No one else was on the stairs, but obviously someone had been smoking an awful lot of reefer in here, and fairly recently.
Harold let the door close behind him and slowly descended the steps, stopping to fill his lungs anew every other step. After all there was no point in wasting this perfectly good reefer smoke, and so by the time he got to the foot of the staircase he was feeling very relaxed indeed, and his brain was teeming with ideas. He was halfway tempted to go right back to his room and rip off another ten or twenty pages of “Mr. Zilch”. But no, he had reached his daily quota and it was past midnight: best to keep to his routine, and, after all, who knew what new ideas would present themselves to him in the bar?