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Authors: Michael McDowell

Jack and Susan in 1953

BOOK: Jack and Susan in 1953
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Jack & Susan
in 1953

 

 

 

Michael McDowell

 

 

 

F
ELONY
& M
AYHEM
P
RESS
• N
EW
Y
ORK

The Hep Cast of 1953:

JACK, who handles Libby's finances and discovers he's got his hands on much more—

SUSAN, who is as wise and witty as her last name implies—

LIBBY, who wants Jack at any cost and has all the money it would take to get him—

RODOLFO, whose mysterious Cuban past throws everyone into a life-and-death struggle—

And, of course, Woolf, who can't help wiggling into trouble and who sniffs out with Jack and Susan a mystery deeper than simple murder…

CHAPTER ONE

T
HERE WAS NO doubt the restaurant had an atmosphere. It was dim, quiet, full of odd angles, and it seemed to wind off in peculiar directions so that there was plenty of wall space on which to hang old-fashioned, sepia-tinted views of Paris. Many small tables, accommodating two or three, were placed against the walls, while the small number of larger tables in the middle suggested that the management didn't relish groups. Charles' French Restaurant, in fact, discouraged large parties of diners. In Greenwich Village large parties of diners frequently made a racket and got very drunk.

Most of Charles' clientele were uptown. Uptown felt comfortable at Charles'. The waiters were quiet and discreet; they looked not into your face but into the knot of your tie. The menu was substantial, in French, and high-priced in comparison with the rest of Greenwich Village.

Libby Mather looked around with ostentatious misgiving as Jack helped her off with her jacket. Jack Beaumont was an old friend of Libby Mather's. He also served as her investment counselor, and in time, he feared, he might be even more to the young heiress. Libby hadn't wanted to come so far downtown. She'd heard all the stories about the Village, and not one of them interested her. Libby had often expressed her certainty that between Wall Street and Thirty-fourth there was a wide social ditch inhabited entirely by maids and alcoholics.

In 1953, Greenwich Village was—at least to Libby and her uptown friends—a bohemian wasteland of ex-Harvard students perpetually clad in tweed jackets and dungarees; drunken artists of doubtful talent supported by young women of equally doubtful virtue; men and women with confused and perverse attitudes toward so simple a concept as physical attraction; and droves of unhappy young men disaffected by World War II.

There wasn't anything down there, in Greenwich Village, Libby's friends said, except bars seedier than those around Times Square. You never knew who you'd find yourself standing next to in a Village bar. It was true that rents were cheap, even in buildings that weren't condemned. Rents were cheap in Newark, too, but that was no reason to live in Newark.

Absently adjusting her bright blue monkey-fur helmet, Libby peered suspiciously into the dark corners of the restaurant. “Oh, goodness,” she exclaimed in not a particularly happy tone of voice, “I was wrong!”

“Yes,” Jack concurred hopefully. “I knew you'd like this place.”

“Not that,” Libby whispered. “There's actually somebody I know here.”

The maître d' approached and gazed into the knot of Jack's tie. It was a Countess Mara tie, hand-painted. In the shop it had looked adventurous and special; now Jack was certain it looked as if his ten-year-old cousin had made it at summer camp.

“Beaumont,” said Jack, adjusting the knot of Countess Mara and wishing he could twist it around and conceal the painted side. “For two.”

“Yes sir,” the man replied in a quiet voice. “This way, please, madam.”

“I want to sit there,” said Libby, nodding in a direction different from the one in which they were being led. She spoke in a loud slow voice, as if everyone in the restaurant were deaf and stupid.

“Madam?” said the maître d' turning, and looking with deep disapproval at Libby's left shoulder.

“Over there, that empty table. We want to sit over there.” She indicated a table next to the person she knew.

“If it's convenient,” said Jack, reaching forward with a dollar bill secreted in the palm of his hand.

“Yes sir,” said the maître d', palming the bill neatly so that Libby did not notice the transaction. “Of course. The table
is
free—though rather exposed.”

“Don't you see who it is?” Libby demanded of Jack, as they changed direction behind the maître d'.

“No,” said Jack, without curiosity. Jack knew all Libby's friends, and they fell into two categories. Those who were boring, and those who made the boring ones seem interesting by comparison. The problem, Jack thought with a sigh, was that in the past few years, those people had become
his
friends too. There had been a time, he seemed to remember, when he knew exciting people, people who…

“It's Susan Bright,” said Libby, interrupting his thought. “I can't believe it. Susan Bright. What in the world is she doing down here, do you suppose?”

Jack took a moment to answer. “Maybe she's having dinner,” he said offhandedly but his voice was at once uneasy and annoyed. It
was
Susan. In the flesh. For a few moments Jack looked at her. He'd forgotten nothing. Though cut differently, her hair was still thick and black, and had that familiar luster of blue in dim light. Her lashes were long, thick, and curled. Her skin was creamy and unflawed, and Jack knew she hadn't been out in the sun recently, for he recalled how easily Susan burned. Most of all he remembered the dark blue eyes set in a face that otherwise seemed all black and white—as if God, at the very last, had decided to paint a little color on Susan's face before he let her go.

The maître d' reached the empty table and pulled out a chair. As Libby was seating herself, with some commotion, Jack glanced over at the man with whom Susan was dining. One look sufficed; Jack immediately disliked him. He was a direct descendant of the Arrow Shirt man, though perhaps a trifle darker-skinned. He seemed to be a mass of all those attributes that Jack lacked—and wanted desperately. He was well-proportioned; whereas Jack, at six-three, was gangly. Above features that were regular and pleasing, the man's hair was of a definite color—black as Susan's; whereas Jack's was brown, sandy, or even blond, depending on the light or what he was wearing. Moreover, the man seemed to have found exactly the right amount of Vitalis to use—every hair was in place, yet didn't appear oily. If Jack used any hair oil at all, he looked as if he'd stuck his head into a vat of frying grease; if he used none he looked as if he'd stuck his finger into an electrical socket. The man had a perfect, natural demeanor and he was the perfect dresser. His suit was exactly the right shade and cut; the shirt was right—with that new rounded collar; the tie was right—not hand painted by Countess Mara, but a discreet blue-and-yellow silk. It appeared to Jack that Susan, seeing Libby and Jack coming, had pulled the perfect specimen out of a bandbox and planted him in the seat across from her.

Now Jack was aware that he was wearing the same clothes that he'd put on at seven o'clock that morning. With a drop of gravy—acquired at lunch—on the front of his jacket, and his trousers knees wrinkled at the back, Jack felt positively filthy.

All this whirled through Jack's mind in only a couple of seconds. In the meantime, Libby reached out and placed her hand on the other young woman's arm. “Susan Bright, I can't believe it! I don't think I would have been surprised to sit next to you in a restaurant in Paris or Vienna, but I cannot believe you are having dinner in Greenwich Village. I cannot believe it, I said to Jack—”

Susan looked up sharply. As her eyes locked with Jack's, the left side of her mouth tightened in a momentary grimace. A moment later it evened out, though with apparent effort.

“Hello, Libby. This
is
a surprise.”

Jack had not forgotten. The most distinctive thing about Susan was her voice. It was low-pitched, a little slow, and always seemed tinged with sarcasm. As a result, almost everything she said seemed to be smart and deliberate, even when it wasn't actually cutting. “May I introduce you?” Susan said. The man opposite her had risen halfway from his chair, clutching his napkin against his lap. Libby gave the man a cold smile. “Libby Mather, this is Rodolfo García-Cifuentes.”

At the sound of the Spanish name, Libby's eyes narrowed slightly, and her smile, if possible, became even colder. “How do you do?” she said, as if she'd just been introduced to someone's chauffeur.

Rodolfo García-Cifuentes had started to extend his hand to Libby, but she smoothly turned her eyes away before the motion could get well under way, and Rodolfo aborted it. Only a slight tinge of red on his dark skin showed any embarrassment.

“May I—” began Libby.

“I know Mr. Beaumont,” cut in Susan.

Jack turned to García-Cifuentes and put out his hand. “Jack Beaumont,” he said, hoping that the man's palms sweated, or that he was missing a finger or two.

“How do you do,” replied the other, and they shook hands. All Rodolfo's fingers were there, and the palm was bone dry. Jack consoled himself with the remote hope that Mr. García-Cifuentes would turn out to be an utterly ruthless murderer.

“I just can't believe this coincidence,” continued Libby, leaning toward the next table. “I mean we all know each other, or most of us do. And here we all are, in
this
place.”

“This place?” echoed Rodolfo.

“Libby thinks that Greenwich Village is on the edge of the civilized world,” explained Jack.

“No I don't,” said Libby. “I think it's
over
the edge. I mean, I just can't believe that I actually know somebody who comes to eat down here. Oh Jack, this is fun after all! Like camping out in the woods and eating pork and beans out of a can. Don't you think that's what it's like?” she said to Susan.

“Very much,” replied Susan dryly. “In fact, pork and beans out of a can would be a wonderful accompaniment to the
escalopes de veau
I've ordered.”

Libby opened her menu, took a quick look at it, then sighed and said, with a smile that coyly announced her helplessness, “Oh Jack, you order for me. And please get something that I can eat. Honestly, Susan, once Jack took me to
Chinatown
. It was dreadful. Birds' nests and sea slugs, that's all they had. Jack, you know what I like.”

“Porterhouse steak, mashed potatoes, and Jell-O,” said Jack, opening up his menu.

Jack did order for Libby the items he could find on the menu that were closest to steak and mashed potatoes. It wasn't close enough, however, and Libby merely picked at her food. Jack ordered exactly what he wanted and thought he relished—
boudin blanc
, a kind of white sausage. (The waiter had assured him that it had been made in the kitchen that morning.) But when it arrived he found he didn't like it after all. Besides that, the
hari-cots verts
seemed mushy, the bread was stale, and the butter had an off taste. And every time he turned even a few degrees to the right, he glanced into the face of Susan Bright. That wasn't often, but sometimes he couldn't help it.

As Jack grew more uncomfortable, Libby grew brighter. Libby, in general, tended to seize upon Jack's unhappiness, and if possible, to increase it. She couldn't fail to notice the obvious strain between Jack and Susan. Rather than jealously imagining some past liaison that would account for the ill-feeling, Libby took advantage of the situation and relentlessly maintained a three-way conversation. This plan had the bonus, for Libby, of rudely excluding Susan's friend Rodolfo. Despite Rodolfo's perfect manners and bearing, Libby objected to him because he was a foreigner. It would have been bad enough if the man had been French—but a
Spaniard
. Every time Libby looked at Susan it was with a smile that was composed of one third pity, one third condescension, one third derision. Libby did all she could to increase Jack's discomfort and spoil what little pleasure he was able to take in his food. She did this in perfect good humor; it was the way that Libby treated anyone she liked.

BOOK: Jack and Susan in 1953
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