Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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 Chapter 13

An Unsettling Development

Lucy and Ruth had been thrown into something like the overdrive on her new Ford by the Sunday dinner. At first, they worried that Lee might have recognized Ruth's voice from their brief abortive telephone conversation. Lucy didn't think so, but pointed out,

"It doesn't matter all that much. The worst that could happen would be for her to close up her business and move away. Bad for Sink, but he'll manage."

"Yeah. On the other hand, if she does think we're spying on her, it'd be a bit much to open up an office with 'Eliot and Engler, Private Investigations' on the door."

"I've been thinking about that, too. Private detectives don't necessarily want the world to know who they are."

Ruth nodded and replied,

"We need a cover business. Something to put on the office door, and some kind of plausible activity."

"The Mafia people sometimes claim to be importers of olive oil. But we'll have to do better than that."

"There's one in Chicago who's a florist."

Lucy grimaced and reacted,

"I'd really hate having to take care of flowers!"

"We'll have to think of something. In the meantime, I figured out which is Lee's apartment from the number posted in the lobby. It's on the fifth floor in front."

"If we could find a vantage point, we might be able to see in with the binoculars."

"Well, there's just the small park across the street, and then the Boston & Maine railway station. We'd be conspicuous out in the park, and, anyway, it's not high enough."

That evening, when Ruth was face down on the bed being massaged, she suddenly popped up her head and twisted it back to speak,

"I've got it! I used to collect Japanese prints, and I've got a bunch at home. We import tham, and then supposedly sell them, only to dealers. But we do have them all over the office. Then, if someone really wants to buy one, we make an exception and sell it."

"Great! Then we won't have to deal with a bunch of people. We can send some letters to ourselves, so the mailman will think we're in correspondence with dealers and whatnot."

"We could even write to our embassy in Tokyo asking questions so that we'd get mail from Japan."

"Good, that's settled. I've been wondering if we could get some office space from the Railway Express guys."

For a good part of her teen-age years, Lucy had hung out at the station with the men who loaded and unloaded goods from the baggage cars. Since the passenger trains didn't stop for more than a minute or two, the getting of packages, trunks, and crates from the cars to push-carts and vice versa was something of an athletic event. Lucy was very good at it, and, apart from liking her in general, the men were happy to have an unpaid helper. She still visited with them, and helped with the occasional heavy piece.

Al Basington was an improbability, a baggage handler with an arm missing below the elbow. However, he was strong, clever, and used a hook on the bad arm to advantage. Unmarried, he had as a girl friend a very tough woman who worked as a clerk in the police department. In a town in which social status depended on the speed with which traffic tickets could be fixed, it was important to be friends with the police. He liked to say that he had all bases covered, and, from his usual posture, tilting back in a straight chair that wasn't designed to tilt, it was easy to believe that he did.

Al actually untilted when Lucy appeared. Then, when Ruth hove into view behind her, he went so far as to stand up. He had met Ruth before, but seemed amused anew at the contrast between Lucy, virtually dressed in work clothes, and Ruth, who looked all set for a tea party. But, having known Lucy for years, he understood.

After some initial joking around, Lucy explained about their business, and asked if there was any rentable space in the back of the freight house. Al replied,

"Not really anything you could use for a business office. But there are offices in the vacant Conover warehouse right over there. It hasn't been used for years, but I have keys to it. It'd be free. You couldn't hardly pay rent to a bankrupt company."

It was surprising that a five storey warehouse right across from the station could be overlooked, but it's red brick was practially black, and it was so ugly that people tended to look away from it. Only a few letters of the sign on the side facing the station were still decipherable, and no casual observer could have guessed that it had once been a furniture warehouse. Lucy and Ruth both reacted with delight, but Al replied,

"There's dirt, spider webs, and maybe cockroaches in there. Maybe rats."

Lucy laughed, but Ruth looked down at her skirt.

The key didn't go into the lock, but Al rubbed a finger against his nose, and, then, holding the top of the key between his teeth, he rubbed the finger along the jagged part. The key turned, and, aided by a shove, the door creaked open.

The windows next to the track were completely blacked by soft coal smoke, but the ones on the other side of the building, only one cracked, let in some light. There was a light switch on the wall, and, to their surprise, some lights came on when Al threw it. He remarked,

"They won't have bothered to read the meters for years, so the power's also free."

Lucy said,

"This really isn't as bad as I expected."

"The offices are on the top floor."

As they moved to a staircase, they passed a freight elevator with a slatted wooden gate. Al said,

"If that works, it's dangerous. If you got stuck on it, no one would ever know."

With that, he grabbed a large crate, slid it across the floor, and smashed it half way through the elevator gate. Ruth cried out, but Al said,

"That's just a reminder not to use it."

The stairs were arduous, but there seemed to be an unspoken competition not to appear winded. When they entered the nearest office, Ruth exclaimed,

"It's like Pompeii. Nothing's been touched for ages. Someone was making notes in that ledger with that pen when the ash started falling."

Al explained,

"When the company folded there were all kinds of criminal charges. It looks as if they all ran out the back door when the police knocked at the front."

Having opened a few windows on the side away from the railway, they discovered that the best office, presumably that of Mr. Conover, was on a corner. It had a view of both the river and, through the trackside windows, the Banks Arms. The fifth floor windows weren't as dirty as the ground floor ones, and Ruth noticed that a small area in one could be cleaned, probably at night, without its being noticeable from the ground.

In the next few days Lucy and Ruth set up their new office. Since neither had ever had a home or apartment of her own, it was done in the spirit in which many people might have moved into a newly purchased home. While the office was entirely furnished, it needed to be cleaned, rearranged, and complemented with many little touches. Lucy had brought some athletic trophies, and Ruth, who was good at the arrangement of silk flowers, did her part. The result might have puzzled the average visitor, of whom there were likely to be none, but it certainly marked a change from the days of the Conover Company.

Ruth, reaching out with her long arms, hadn't been able to resist cleaning all the windows. After all, it was highly unlikely that Lee would notice and draw her drapes against the only possible observation point.

The detectives watched intermittently as they went about their cleaning. On the third day, Lucy let out a whoop.

"There's somebody there with Lee."

Lucy had unearthed an old telescope in the Eliot attic which gave greater magnification than the binoculars, but, since her natural vision was sharper than Ruth's, she let her friend take the telescope while she used the binoculars. It was almost at the same moment that they recognized Lee's guest as Mr. Rolfe. Ruth added,

"He's in his underwear!"

"And he's capering around in a strange way."

Mr. Rolfe was indeed doing something which a casual observer might have described, with reluctance, as a dance. It might also have amounted to a very bad imitation of the behavior of some unknown person. Ruth asked if he had gone crazy, and Lucy answered,

"He's always a bit like that, making strange little noises and wiggling around like a teenager. It's just a lot more so now."

"Lee seems to be laughing. He must be trying to amuse her. And succeeding."

It wasn't long before Lee and Mr. Rolfe disappeared into another room. Ruth said,

"It's the same as with Sink. I'm sort of glad that we don't get to watch the whole business in detail."

"I guess I would watch if they stayed in the living room."

"So would I. That's why I'm glad they disappear."

Lucy seemed partly in agreement, but added,

"With Mr. Rolfe, though, it wouldn't be so bad. It wouldn't be violent, and it'd be over quickly. He'd probably just bounce up and down a few times and be done."

"And then come out of the building swinging his little walking stick triumphantly."

"Come to think of it, he always seems at least somewhat triumphant. I wonder if it's because he's always had a woman more attractive than Mrs. Rolfe."

Ruth replied,

"We found out after he died that my father had a woman. Putting that together with other things, it seems that he was happy only when he was with her."

"That's terrible."

"I'm not so sure. If he hadn't had someone, he might never have been happy."

A little later, Mr. Rolfe popped out of the building. They both watched as he marched along the sidewalk, cradling his walking stick as a field marshal might hold his baton.

Lucy said,

"He's always playing something, and I think he's playing soldier now."

"Not so different from other men. Sex and marching. Love and drums."

"He'd better not be playing soldier when he gets back to his wife. She'll ram his walking stick up his patootie."

"I wonder what he is like with his wife."

Lucy moved her shoulders in such a way as to suggest that Mr. Rolfe's behavior at home was not of the first importance, and remarked,

"Anyway, we aren't doing so badly as detectives. A lot of naughtiness in this town probably takes place in that building, and we're in the perfect position."

Lucy and Ruth continued to go to the coffee shop. If Lee came in, they intended to greet her as a friend and engage her in chitchat. With their ears sharpened, they might pick up something which, in the light of their other information, would be revealing.

Lee didn't come in that morning, but Lucy, looking across the street, saw something that made her drop her doughnut on the floor. She was one of a small minority of women who said, 'shit', when aroused. She now said it loudly enough to attract the negative attention of everyone in the shop. The owner started toward them, Ruth was pretty sure in a run-up to asking them to leave, but Ruth was good at imploring looks and gestures. She hoped to communicate that her friend was under unusual stress, and that there would be no more 'shits' in the future. It worked.

Ruth herself wasn't sure how to react, or, more particularly, what to say to Lucy. It did occur to her to suggest that Warren Eliot might be going into the Banks Arms on some other business. Lots of people lived there, perhaps an old college friend. But, of course, that wasn't it. While Ruth was surprised to see it happening right there and then, she really wasn't surprised. She had, among other things, noticed the brief exchange between Lee and Mr. Eliot right after the Sunday dinner. Then, too, despite her affection for Mimsy, could there really be any comparison?

Rather surprisingly for those who didn't know her too well, Ruth had the virtue of not saying anything when she didn't know what to say. Since Lucy seemed to be absolutely speechless after her single outburst, the silence at the window table was in itself noticeable as the rest of the shop recovered its usual conversational tone. That 'shit' wouldn't be forgotten, and perhaps not forgiven, but it was better, Ruth thought, not to fill in the context for the owner.

It was finally Lucy who said,

"Well, there it is."

"Parents are human, after all."

"You did tell me that your father had a woman. Do you know why?"

"He's been dead five years now, which should give me some perspective. But it really doesn't. I have no idea."

"You weren't close, were you?"

"He was quite a distant man. My mother might know, but I certainly couldn't ask her."

"Yeah, I can understand that."

"Anyhow, Lu, I didn't think you were all that close to your father."

"Well, I was always his favorite child, even before Mary got in trouble. She's more interesting, and he'd rather talk with her, but I'm the one he'd do more for."

"I imagine he still would. With Lee, it would be a sex thing. He might not even like her very much."

"Well, Ruthie, I guess we'd better go to the office."

It was Ruth who had the telescope, and she said quietly,

"It is your father with her, Lu."

Lucy, without saying anything, made a punching motion with her right fist. Ruth continued,

"They're just sitting there, probably having coffee."

Lucy shook her head hard enough to make her black hair fly. Ruth said,

"It's possible that they don't have sex. Some men do have female confidantes. Do you want to see?"

"No. I thought being detectives would be fun."

Lucy began to cry and Ruth moved wordlessly to comfort her.

After a while, Lucy asked,

"Will he seem the same when we see him at home?"

"If it is an affair, he doesn't seem to me the sort of man who could pass it off casually."


"Of course, this may not be the first time. Have you noticed anything?"

Lucy shook her head and said,

"He said this morning that he'd be playing golf with Dr. Stowe this morning."

"Will Dr. Stowe give him an alibi?"

"I don't know. I can't imagine my father asking."

"If questioned, he could say that he ended up playing alone, or with someone else."

Lucy, still not recovered, hesitated, and then said,

"I just can't believe that he'd lie about where he's been, and stuff like that."

"Men do. My father apparently did. But your father does seem very different."

"Seems is right."

"Well, I'm upset too. I really do like Mimsie."

"Probably more than I do. If she didn't spend her days just eating candy, this might not have happened."

"She wouldn't be able to compete with Lee whatever she did."

"No, I guess not."

"So, where do we go from here?"

"I don't know."

"Anyhow, we can spy on the whole Banks Arms. There'll be other funny business going one there."

"Have another look, Ruthie."

Ruth again meaneuvered the telescope into position. She then announced,

"Same as before. Maybe they do just talk."

"Why would they do that?"

"Does he have anyone else he can really talk with?"

"If it's anyone in the family, it'd have to be Mary. She's the only one smart enough."

"Do they get together much?"

"I haven't noticed it."

"Anyone else?"

"Perhaps Dr. Stowe."

"I do have a little experience with drunk men at parties. When it comes down to it, they often want to complain about the sex they have, or don't have, with their wives. Would your father talk about that kind of thing with Dr. Stowe?"

"I'm sure he wouldn't."

"He could tell Lee."

"I don't think my parents do have sex. But, if he told Lee that, wouldn't she just offer to do it instead?"

"She does it for money. He might not like that."

"You're trying to make me feel better, Ruthie."

"Is it working?"

"A little. Not too much. I'd better look now."

A minute later, Lucy announced,

"She's taking off her dress."

Lucy then threw the telescope to the floor, shattering the lenses.

Bill Todd -- Innovative Morality: A Short Novel of the Thirties
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