The next morning, a Saturday, there was snow on the sidewalk outside of Vicki’s building. It wasn’t very deep, but it was amusing to see the English, who seemed to have no shovels, trying to sweep it away with brooms.
There now seemed to be no secrets in their little group, and Vicki teased Vic about his activities of the previous day. He rejoined, “It’s not as if you don’t have your own activities.”
“Ours are quite ladylike. None of your masculine rutting on the floor with uncouth noises.”
Vic tacitly gave in, not wanting to interfere with, or affect adversely, the breakfast she was making. It turned out to be one of her better ones.
Vic did the washing up as Vicki went down to check the mail. She came up with an airmail letter from Sy Rosen, whom she had commissioned to investigate her mother. It was hard to tell from her expression as she read it what its content might be, but, on finishing it, she gave a little laugh and handed it to Vic:
Sorry I didn’t write earlier, but I’ve been dealing with girls who won’t say what they want, but don’t seem to be happy with what they’re getting. Anyhow, I went to see your mother on a Sunday afternoon. She answered the door all dressed up and looking not at all bad. She said you were visiting your cousin in Pittsburgh (do you have one there?), and made everything sound normal. I was invited in for coffee, and she tried, fairly subtly, to get info from me. If I hadn’t known that she didn’t know where you were, I probably wouldn’t have guessed.
After a bit, a gent in a suit showed up. I thought it would be your father until she introduced him as a stockbroker from Jersey. They said they were going to a party, and I realized that it was a date. I don’t know where your dad might be, but it sure looks like your ma has moved on to somebody with more money. Call me when you get back.
After a moment, Vic could only say,
“Yes. What would prompt Sy to comment favorably on my mother’s appearance?”
“He’s used to attractive girls and women. She probably did look pretty good.”
“If she’s dating a financial person, she must have moved up a social class or two.”
“You always painted a pretty dismal picture of her. You may have underestimated her.”
“I’ve thought of her as just very ordinary. Not necessarily hopeless.”
“When desperate, a lot of ordinary people can get their act together and rescue themselves. But we still don’t know about your father.”
“That’s pretty predictable. Jail for a while, and then ruination. He’ll probably end up working in a hamburger joint. He’ll have neither the time nor the money to pursue me. Certainly as long as I stay here. So, everything’s okay. The next project is your mother.”
“No, I’ve been thinking about that. Between the WPP and the kidnapping or murder, the FBI will be listening in on calls. They can probably trace them, perhaps even here with the cooperation of the English. All I have is curiosity, nothing to gain, and a lot to lose.”
“Your situation is a lot more complicated than mine. But curiosity in such a case isn’t just idle. It must be upsetting.”
“I do think about it sometimes, and the thoughts aren’t good.”
“At least, you didn’t get caught along with your father.”
“I wouldn’t have been dumb enough to go to Las Vegas with him, if that’s what happened. But there is consolation with the thought that it wasn’t me. All that I need.”
Vicki nodded, but Vic could see that she wasn’t going to let the matter drop.
By the next day, Sunday, Vicki had a plan which she unveiled at lunch.
“I talked with Wanda and Toni, and found out about untraceable phones. In France, you go to a large office with cubicles for international calling. You give the number you want to call, but not your name, at a desk. They place the call and direct you to a cubicle when they have a connection. You talk, and then pay at the desk afterwards. We could take the train to Newhaven, cross to Dieppe, and come back the same day. But it would be fun to stay a night or two.”
The expedition on the next Saturday, like the one to Brighton, started at Victoria Station. Named for Queen Victoria, the station was an odd merger of two side-by-side stations, belonging to two different railways that had also merged. The whole had been prettied up so as not to dishonor the queen, and it was imagined that only glamorous people would travel to the south coast and the continent.
In time, Victoria became just as littered as Paddington, with equally ‘shocking’ rest rooms, but it never acquired the work-a-day atmosphere of Paddington. There was a large forecourt, where Paddington had virtually none, and there were cinemas just across the way. The undeniable sleaze developed into something quite different. At Paddington, it was a matter of honest dirt and dust. At Victoria, there was always a faint air of prostitution, supported by a measure of reality.
Vic, more street-smart and alive to nuances, followed Vicki as she charged obliviously through the station to the train.
The route diverged from the main line to Brighton to go southeast to Lewes and Newhaven. The latter turned out to be a rather pretty little seaport, breezy and bright-colored. They sheltered from the cold in a tea shop across from the ferry dock while they waited for the ship to board. Vicki said, “I was thinking of calling and asking to speak to one of your siblings. I can put on a little girl’s voice that probably would pass, and then I’d hand over the phone to you.”
“It would have to be my sister. The two younger boys are idiots.”
“How old is she?”
“Fifteen. She was caught screwing with a boy in the back of a car before I left, and things may have gone downhill from there. But she’s intelligent and considerably rebellious. She’d probably tell me what’s going on if her mother isn’t standing right beside her.”
“You can always ask yes-no questions and zero in.”
“But I’m not sure what her reaction might be. What if she screams?”
“Teen-aged girls scream all the time. It could be explained away. I’m not sure whether they’ll know that the call is coming from France, but, if so, she can say that it’s from a school friend whose family has taken her abroad.”
“That might work. On the down side, it isn’t so bad if it comes to be thought that I’m in France.”
The ferry was an old steamer with a tall stack which, even at the dock, gave off quantities of black smoke. It failed to deface the intensely blue sky only because it was being blown horizontally over the bright green meadows.
As they mounted the creaking gangway to the ship, they noticed railway tracks on the stern deck. Vicki asked, “How could they possibly get railway cars from the tracks ashore to the ship?”
“They couldn’t here. There must be docks somewhere with tracks that connect. It looks as if they haven’t been used for a long time.”
“The ship itself looks plenty used. Thick layers of white paint are falling off things.”
“This ship was probably used in the Dunkirk evacuation. The decks would have been covered with soldiers, some wounded and dying.”
“By God, Vic, you’re the cheerful one today!”
“It’s in anticipation of dealing with my family.”
Once on the ship, Vic led the way to the top deck, the boat-deck, with lifeboats secured on both sides. Vicki asked,
“Do you want to be near the lifeboats in case we sink?”
“No. It’s that there are fewer people up here, and we can enjoy the ocean more.”
They passed out along a tall breakwater, and then reached the ocean in the shape of the English Channel. Vic had learned to surf in San Diego, and enjoyed bouncing around in waves. However, when the ship began to roll, rather gently, he wasn’t sure how Vicki, a city child, would react. In fact, she giggled at the strange experience.
Once the novelty wore off, the biting wind began to dull the pleasure. Vic discovered that the funnel was warm from the hot gasses being shot upward, and he and Vicki sat on the deck on the lee side with their backs against the funnel. Snuggled closely together in search for warmth with her head on his shoulder, they watched the white-caps driven to the southwest by the wind. Vic found it very pleasant, even feeling at home and domestic in a funny way.
It was always interesting to land in a new country. Accosting strangers and, putting together their little bits of French, they got into the center of Dieppe. They there met an older gentleman fluent in English. Toni, with her good French, had called ahead and found out the location of the central telephone office. They now got directions to the address, only a few blocks away.
The office was much like the one Toni had described, and the lady at the desk spoke English easily. Vicki gave the number, but, contrary to what Toni had said, she was asked for her name. With a quick glance at Vic, she gave her name as ‘Pam Robinson.’ As they sat down on a bench, she said to Vic, “I think they’re going to know that the call’s coming from France.”
Vic acknowledged as much, but, before he could say anything further, they were directed to Cabin number 9.
Vic had his ear next to Vicki’s as she held the receiver between them, and his first shock was to hear his father’s voice. He actually recoiled as Vicki, managing to sound very like a high school student, asked for Sue.
As they waited while his father called for Sue, Vic remembered her as a tall pretty blonde who acted and spoke entirely on impulse. She was smart, but probably too scatter-brained to accomplish much of anything. At any rate, she didn’t seem to be in jail.
When Sue said the single word, ‘Hello’, Vic knew that she had changed a lot. She was an old fifteen, much more mature and sophisticated. Vicki said,
“Hi, Sue, I’m Pam Robinson, a friend of your brother, Vic, and he’d like to speak to you.”
There was then a little delighted squeal and the reply, “Hi Pam, how did you ever get to France?”
Taking over the phone, Vic said, “It’s me, but don’t let on.”
“Great to hear from you. Are you having a good time?”
“It’s a long story, but I thought our father went missing.”
“For a couple of months.”
“Was it under duress.”
“Oh no, it started at the high school homecoming dance. You know how people get together. Fun at first, but not so much fun later on.”
“So he had a girl friend?”
“Yeah, I did meet Sam’s girl friend once. Young, cute, a little trashy.”
“Was he accepted on his return?”
“You must go to Notre Dame. I’ve heard about the penances they do there. Pretty brutal, but they’re forgiven in the end.”
“I bet, even after that, they’re watched carefully.”
“Oh, sure. I hear there are all kinds of temptations in France. Are you being a good girl?”
“I’m managing fine. I’ll find an easier way to communicate.”
Vic then asked Sue a number of questions about her school and friends, the conversation becoming more natural. After hanging up, he said to Vicki, “That must have cost a fortune!”
“I’ve brought lots of money.”
It was an extraordinary experience. A very big thing, and yet Sue had made it sound quite humdrum, the sort of thing that happened all the time. Which, of course, it did. He explained to Vicki,
“My father didn’t get kidnapped after all. He ran off with a pretty young woman who dumped him. My mother took him back, but, figuratively or literally, is making him sleep in the garage.”
It was out on the sidewalk that Vic collapsed. He was still conscious, but almost paralyzed as Vicki bent over him. A woman passing by bent down and spoke in rapid French. Vic, aware that a crowd might gather, rolled to his right side, and then, with help, got to all fours. He wasn’t sure he could speak intelligibly, but the words came out. “THAT FUCKER!”
Immediately afterward, he found himself crying in a way that made his chest hurt. But, then, he got control, and wiped his eyes. The French lady was now speaking English and asking about his symptoms. Vic had the impression that she was a doctor or nurse. He vaguely heard Vicki give some sort of explanation, but the lady’s response came through clearly, “Ah, fathers! The route of so much evil!”
That started Vic laughing. Remembering that there was a fine line between laughing and crying, he struggled to his feet and thanked the lady for her help.
In the café that they made to, they collapsed into chairs in the enclosed glass area and each ordered a Grand Crème. After a period of silence and heavy breathing, Vicki said, “That sounded like good news, but I guess it wasn’t.”
“I was so angry. If I’d been on a football field, I would’ve ruined someone. I guess I just collapsed out of frustration.”
“Are you all right, now?”
“Yeah, it’s the stupidity of that man.”
“For having an affair?”
“No. For not leaving a note or making a call. He must have set off a nation-wide FBI search, for one thing.”
“Which hardly matters for you. But you were left with images of his being tortured to death.”
Vic nodded and asked, “Does that imply that I care more for him than I realize? If so, ‘shit’.”
“I’d say, only light shit. You don’t want any half-way decent person to be subjected to Mafia torture. But you don’t have to race back to make everything up to your father, do you?”
“Totally negatory! Anyway, I know what would have happened. He fell for some moderately glitzy woman who might have thought he had some money.”
“Would he have struck most people as having money?”
“He liked to put on airs in that way. He might’ve told her that he was a successful car salesman, and he does have that kind of personality.”
“Would she have been a prostitute?”
“Possibly. Or close to it. Then, when he came back, Mother must have been totally furious.”
“The same way you are, and for the same reason.”
“I suppose so. But he’s so dumb and hopeless that you lose patience.”
“Could he have really stolen Mafia money?”
“I never thought so. They were certainly pissed when he testified against their boys, and the FBI also thought that he had hidden money. No one could have thought that it was very much.”
“I have a friend who rents an apartment in a Mafia building. They’re good landlords, and they scare away petty criminals. I get the impression that they’re businessmen who wouldn’t waste time and effort on something that doesn’t pay.”
“I’ve also thought that. Our family disappeared, and the Mafia people could have let it be believed that they killed us.”
“Then it would be less dangerous than we thought for you to re-establish communication.”
“Yes, but I only want to talk with Sue. She wants to get a college scholarship, and shows some promise.”
“Well, we now know how to communicate. More calls from Pam.”
“Yes. Pam will have more to say. However, I’ve first got to get myself established in a real position, hopefully not just as a spy.”
“I’m sure you will, Vic. Meanwhile, it looks as if we’ve traded in our biological families for ones of our own choosing.”
“You and I, plus Wanda and Toni.”
“Are you going to take up with Toni?”
“Too incestuous. Besides, I think Frank Collins is interested.”
“He’s gotten a very nice position because of his mathematical work. He doesn’t have to teach much, and he plays sports. But he’s totally unlike the other dons in his college, and the people he meets in pubs are just pub acquaintances that he doesn’t see otherwise. He’d probably marry again if he went back to Australia, but he’s got too good an arrangement here to give up.”
“Well, Toni’s scientific, if not mathematical, and a serious person who’s also fun. A lot of mathematicians aren’t.”
“Besides, when I did touch Toni gently, she quickly made other arrangements for me.”
“She probably would be better off with someone her own age. It’s fine with me if Frank joins our little family.”
It was in the middle of the next week that Vic wandered into Magdalen with a proof for Frank Collins. Collins had jokingly suggested that Vic combine his little proofs into one big one, and, in fact, he had done something of the sort. The result was a combination of two previous ones with a good deal of additional material and a new conclusion.
Collins had bare feet, and had on shorts and a worn ‘All-Blacks’ T-shirt, evidently in support of the New Zealand champion rugby team. Vic had originally taken him for a soccer player in line with his general plebian attitude. However, it turned out that, in the Antipodes, rugby wasn’t a gentleman’s game. He was still playing it, in addition to soccer, in England. He was now, in fact, getting ready for a scrimmage. However, he had a little time and waved Vic to a seat as he sat down with the paper. After a brief survey, he suddenly exclaimed, “SHIT!”
Then after a further look, he said, more quietly, “Vic, go bugger your batman, and come back after an hour.”
Vic slid out the door. He knew that a batman was a personal servant or valet of a military sort, and that the occasional colonel was cashiered when found to be penetrating the rear end of his batman. Since Vic didn’t have a batman, he took himself to a nearby Lyons’ tea shop and had a look at the morning papers. As he returned, it occurred to him that Collins must be missing his rugby practice. He didn’t want to interfere with anyone’s sporting activities, and arrived in an apologetic mood. After a brusque command to enter, Collins didn’t say anything about rugby. Instead, he exploded, “You lucky bastard! You’ve resolved the Bauer-Weirstrass hypothesis.”
Vic didn’t know what the hypothesis was. Evidently, these gentlemen with funny names had been working along similar lines, and had raised a question to which he, Vic, had proven a negative answer. He had no idea how old the hypothesis might be, and how many people might have worked on it, but it seemed to be a big deal. Collins, smiling, said, “If you will please go out and get yourself run over by a bus rounding the Carfax corner, I’ll claim this work as my own.”