This story is paired with “Repairer of Reputations” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free.
Part 1: Knight Opening
“So you’ll help me, Mr. Tate?”
The dame sitting across from me took a drag on her ciggy, then let out a series of perfect rings as I thought about her question. Connie’s Inn was easily one of the swankest speakeasies in Harlem, and ran wetter than my potential client’s lips. “I told you Miss Fontaine, if you want to hire me you’ll have to call me Dez.”
She looked at me through the haze of smoke and smiled like I was about a thousand ships ready for launch. “Of course,” she said. “Dez. But you have to call me Mona.”
“Sure, doll,” I said. “Now, tell me why you need a gumshoe.”
She sat back and tapped some ash into the glass dish by her elbow. “Well, there’s a gentleman who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and I’m worried that he’s going to get rough.”
“I see,” I said. “What’s the job?”
“Am I bodyguarding you, or actively discouraging the ‘gentleman’?” I asked gently.
“Why, I’m not really sure which would better. Oh, please say you’ll help!”
“Of course I can help you,” I said in my best reassuring voice. “Ma Tate didn’t raise no fake-a-loo artists, don’t you see? Now, why don’t you tell me everything?”
“Alright. The man’s name is Conrad Weatherbee, and he wanted to cast me in a play he’s written. It would be a tremendous opportunity for me, real solid work, so I told him I would be very interested in hearing about it.” She stopped. “You’re not going to write any of this down?”
I tapped my right temple. “It’s all going directly in here, where no one else can find a copy and read it. Go on.”
“Well, we met at a private party. He escorted me to a room away from the shenanigans to talk to me about it, and gave me a glass of wine which went straight to my head- in fact I’ve never been so dizzy! Then he showed me an old book, and I remember there was a gold salamander embossed on the cover. I, I think I read it, but the wine…. Honestly, I found the whole experience to be very confusing and it was a while before I was finally myself again. By that time, both he and the play were gone.”
“Alright. What’s it about?”
“I think it had to do with some foreign city. And people in the city wore masks, but…” She looked straight at me, her green eyes wide open with surprise. “I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble remembering what the play was about.”
“What was it called?” I asked.
Her brow furrowed. “I’m afraid I don’t even remember that.”
“Is there anything else you can recall about it?”
She closed her eyes, and the moments stretched as she thought. “Something about the color yellow,” she said, rather vaguely.
“Where was it supposed to play?”
“I,” she began, and stopped.
“You’ve got no idea,” I finished for her.
“Oh Dez, I’ve never been so discombobulated before! Anyway, the more I thought about the man and his play, the more I wanted to have nothing to do with it. Then he came to my apartment yesterday and I told him ‘no’, but he became fearfully angry with me!”
I reached out and took her right hand in mine and gave it a gentle squeeze. “No worries, doll. This is what I do, okay?”
She nodded and took a shaky breath. “Alright. What about your fee?”
I told her.
“Well, that would be fine, if you can solve all this quickly,” she said.
“It’s generally quicker to discourage the gentleman directly rather than waiting for him to come after you.”
“Then I’m very glad to hire you. But I’m due on stage soon.”
I checked my watch. It was almost midnight, and the juice joint had settled down from the frenetic pace of the off-work crowd on a toot, to the considered bill-dipping of the hoi polloi of 1928 New York City Prohibition nightlife. “Alright. I think I’ll stick around and see you home afterwards.”
“Thank you,” she said. She stubbed out her ciggy and stood. I did too. She gave me the same smile from earlier, and went past me.
The lights of the place wandered down her rich mahogany hair, and then got lost in the crushed black velvet of her off-the-shoulder jobbie as she headed to the left of the stage past the bar, collecting a glass of a clear hooch on the way. I sipped some of my Canadian bootleg and thought about her story. One glass of wine had knocked a torch-singer who drank the hard stuff into loopyland? I wondered if she’d been Mickey’ed, in which case this Weatherbee might be a pretty nasty redhot. While I considered all that, the jazz musicians playing the club finished and my client took the stage.
I got another John Barleycorn with chopped ice, which I nursed while Mona sang number after number. She was good, too, with a rich, deep voice that could charm the gargoyles off the Brittania building. I stuck around until she finished her encores for the happy, tipsy crowd.
Part 2: Rooked!
It was after two in the morning when I walked her up the steps from the below-street-level speakeasy and into the cool air of Harlem in May. I hailed a ten cent box idling nearby and we got in. Mona gave her address to the driver, sat back, and looked at me.
“I can’t thank you enough for taking me home.”
“All part of the service. You said Weatherbee knows where you live?”
“Yes,” she said. “I gave him my address when I first met him.”
“Tell me about that.”
She blushed. “Oh, it was at a very hush-hush event, private and exclusive. It sounded like a petting party, only even naughtier!”
“How’d a dame like you get invited to that kind of crazy?” I blurted out.
She looked confused for a moment, then burst out with great peals of laughter. “Oh, Dez, what you must think! No, I wasn’t a guest, I was hired to sing. They made me perform in a blindfold so I wouldn’t see any of the actual guests! Oh heavens!”
“Oh,” I said, and laughed along with her. I waited until the hilarity died a natural death. “So, where was this party? Who was the host?”
“I honestly don’t know the answer to either question, though I’m sure it was somewhere in Manhattan. One night I finished my set at a speakeasy down by Five Points. The club owner gave me my money and a plain white and black invitation. He said it was from a good friend, a wealthy and important man who wanted to hire me for a ‘soiree’. So the next day I called the number, and the host said he would pay me three hundred dollars for the night.”
“And you never met him?” She shook her head. “How’d you get to the secret party?”
“The club owner escorted me- he knew everything so I figured it would be safe enough. We were picked up at my apartment building by a limousine and I was instructed to put on a blindfold. Then I was driven around for a while, was brought inside a building, took an elevator, and was there.”
The cab pulled up to her building, and she paid the driver and we got out. The street was properly deserted given the hour. I walked her to her door. “Really, Dez, I don’t know how to thank you for all of this…”
“It’s alright, doll. Why don’t you go and get a solid forty winks?”
“What will you do?” she asked.
“I’ll keep an eye out in case Weatherbee shows tonight. Come down tomorrow at eight and I’ll stash you somewhere safe while I track him down and discourage him.”
“Alright.” She looked at me with an expression which was one half ‘self-made, Prohibition torcher’, and the other half ‘little girl lost in the big city’. It screamed of the promise of a warm bed and all the slow pleasures of Xanadu. “Um, if…”
I cut her off- tonight she was my client. “Sorry doll, but I got a date with a lousy cup of joe in about an hour,” I said, and jabbed a thumb at a diner on the corner of the opposite block.
She blushed, turned, and went into the building. Through the window I watched her go up the main stairway out of sight. I turned to look up- and downtown along Second Avenue. Everything was dark including the diner down the corner, but I expected them to open for the early crowd, which would include at least one gummy-eyed sleuth.
Then I heard the unmistakable sound of breaking glass up and to my left, and I rushed that way in sudden dread. Around the side of Mona’s building was a small cobblestone alley. I heard a faint cry from a broken window at the third floor: “No!” It was her voice.
“Damn,” I muttered and ran back to the entrance. I went in and took the stairs three at a time, came out into a hallway, and went left in the direction of the alleyway outside. I heard something else break- crockery, maybe- and knew I’d found the right place. I took out my Savage semiautomatic 1917A, then hit the door with my shoulder, hard.
It exploded inwards, and I was through and into a tan living room where Mona stood against a broken window across the apartment, a porcelain pitcher upraised. Between us was a short, thickset man in a dark brown pinstripe suit and fedora, so I pointed my bean-shooter at him. “Now, let’s everybody calm down and maybe I won’t have to zotz anyone tonight,” I said.
Mona gasped. “Thank God you heard, Dez! Thank God you came!”
Part 3: Discovered Check
I kept my gat pointed at Mr. Uninvited as I spoke to Mona. “Doll?”
“Yes?” she asked, breaths coming quickly. I worried about shock.
“You can let the pitcher live another day,” I said gently. She looked at it in sudden surprise, then let out a shaky breath and set it down. My Savage never shifted from her visitor. He was slightly turned towards me so I knew he could see the bean-shooter, and he held very still. “Conrad Weatherbee, I presume?”
“You presume much, sir,” he said in a cultured but sandpapery voice with a strong British accent. “However, you do, in this instance, presume correctly, Mr.…?”
I got one of my business cards out and flicked it at him. “Desmond Tate,” I said as he caught it easily and put in his pocket. “Doll,” I directed at Mona, “do me a favor and walk past me to your left, well away from our visitor and where my pistol’s pointing. I’d like you to close the door, then come stand behind me, alright?”
“Okay,” she said, and moved to do so.
Attagirl, I thought. “Now, Mr. Weatherbee, I’d like you to hold quite still while I search you for any weapons. I haven’t killed anyone yet today and I’m trying to lowball my body count for the bulls these days, on account they can’t generally count too high,” I said.
He held still as I advanced to him and did a pat-down. He had no weapons, just a hefty billfold, a hotel key, a leather-bound diary, and a small bottle in one pocket. When I was done, he looked me over carefully, and I got a good view of his own mug in return. The fedora covered his head, but I could see that he had salt-and-pepper sideburns. His features were blunt, like his nose had been previously flattened by a whammy in the beazer and then healed that way. He had large brown eyes, but the pupils were pinpoint. He gave an impression of age, but the skin of his face was full and unlined. After I’d had my gander, he raised an eyebrow at me. “Now that you see I have no gun, Mr. Tate, may I suggest that we all sit down and talk?”
“Sure,” I said. “Ma Tate always said there was nothing better than a nice jaw session with a late night intruder.”
Conrad Weatherbee smiled a thin smile which looked out of place on his thick lips, and moved to sit on one side of the sofa. I glanced at Mona and saw her looking at me anxiously. “But Dez, I want him gone!”
“Of course, doll,” I agreed. “But there’s something important enough to this bird that he went to the trouble of breaking in on you. We need to understand that side of things if we want him to see our side.”
“And just what is your side, Mr. Tate?” Weatherbee asked in his raspy voice.
“Oh, I’m afraid it’s the same one Miss Fontaine is on,” I answered. “And her side is that she doesn’t want to be involved in your play, and doesn’t want some slimy limey crashing her apartment.” I turned to Mona. “That about right?”
She nodded at me, then glanced at him again.
“Since we’re up anyway, and I’ll miss whatever passes for java down the corner diner, how about if you make us all some?” I asked her. I turned to the man on the couch. “That okay with you, Weatherbee?”
“Certainly,” he said. The full version of his smile broke through the storm clouds of vexation on his face. It seemed as out of place there as a flapper at a Church social. “In America I generally prefer coffee; it seems better suited to the mood of the country than tea. Two sugars, no milk.”
“Black for me, doll,” I told her, and sized up the intruder. He sat calmly, so I took off my trench and tossed it over a high-backed chair next to the sofa, then put my pistol back on my hip. “So, what’s your grift, Conrad? Who the hell are you and what’s this all about anyway?”
“I am a collector, Mr. Tate,” he said, and sat back against the cushions behind him. “I am, one might say, a connoisseur of that rarest and most valuable of commodities.”
“Stamps or diamonds?” I asked.
“Far more esoteric than those trifles, sir, and equally as beyond them in value: I collect secrets,” he said.
“I see,” I said, though I didn’t. “And what secrets brought you to Miss Fontaine’s apartment this morning?”
Mona arrived with a tray holding heavenly-smelling java plus all the fixings, and set it down on a low table before the couch. She gave Weatherbee his cup, but I noticed that it rattled in its saucer as she did. I leaned forward and took my own, black as the inside of a wooden kimono and full of far more promise.
“Alright Weatherbee,” I said. “Tell us a bedtime story or you’ll never get what you want from her.”
He held his cup in both hands. “Very well, Mr. Tate. What has Miss Fontaine shared with you already about our relationship?”
I told him.
“Aside from some misconceptions on her part, you have perhaps half the story. The play to which Miss Fontaine refers is most certainly not mine. My investigations suggest that it was first published anonymously in Evanston, Wyoming in February, 1895; I have reasons to believe it is far older. Only twenty copies were made before ‘unseasonal flooding’ of the Bear River ruined the print shop. The author apparently had business interests in nearby Almy, and relocated there shortly after the flood. In March, the number five Red Canyon Coal Mine suffered a catastrophic explosion on the twentieth, killing sixty two miners,” Weatherbee said.
“This little history lesson seems a bit thin on any kind of straight dope,” I said. “What’s the deal?”
“I’m convinced that what links these two events, and many others since, is the play: The King in Yellow, Mr. Tate.”
Mona let out a little gasp. “Yes, that’s right!” she interrupted. She turned to me. “Oh, Dez, that’s what it was called. And it was horrible, just awful! And the foreign city was Carcosa…!”
“Miss Fontaine is absolutely correct,” Weatherbee beamed. “The play has surfaced in many places since. I learned of a printing of it here in New York in early 1911, in Greenwich Village, where again a terrible tragedy took place.”
“You’re talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire?” I asked.
“The very same,” he said, animatedly. “Which destroyed all traces of it once again. But I soon tracked it to France during the Great War when it resurfaced.”
“I was there,” I said.
“What?” Mona asked, startled.
“I was a dogface—went to fight for my country,” I told her.
“Were you in or anywhere near Modane, December, 1917?” Weatherbee asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I had a contact on that train, a soldier returning from Turin, Italy, who’d telegraphed me about finding a copy of the original printing, complete with gold salamander on the cover. How it got to Turin I have no idea, but the play was on that train.”
“What happened?” Mona asked me.
“It derailed,” I told her. “Killed maybe five hundred Frenchies.” I turned back to Weatherbee. “But see here, all you’re doing is connecting tragedies with some nonsense about this thing. What does all this have to do with my client?” I demanded.
“Please, Mr. Tate, we’re almost to the end of this particular tale. Suffice to say that the play has eluded me, though I traced it to an underground movement in Paris, 1925, where it was the height of decadent fashion to ‘follow the Yellow Sign’. There, a French translation was to be staged, but it vanished again following the Air Union aircraft disaster at Lympne, on its way from Paris to London. Most recently, one of my agents learned of the play’s reemergence among a certain degenerate elite here in New York: I came immediately, and managed to get an invitation to the same party where Miss Fontaine performed. The rest is much as she described.”
“Alright. You’ve taken us from ancient history to yesterday, but exactly why we are all jawing in Mona’s apartment at”—I consulted my watch—“nearly four in the morning?”
He smiled and set his cup down on the table. “May I get something from my pocket?” he asked.
“Sure, just no sudden moves.”
His hand moved slowly to his jacket pocket, and with two fingers he brought out a small clear bottle filled with a reddish-brown liquid.
“What is it?” Mona asked.
“Laudanum,” I answered, not taking my eyes off Weatherbee’s.
“Quite correct, Mr. Tate,” he said. “Though it is of a somewhat purified and intensified formulation.”
Weatherbee smiled. “At the aforementioned party, I was able to liberate the play for only a short period of time, and I knew that I should never be able to spirit it away without detection. So I enticed Miss Fontaine into reading it while under the protective effects of the laudanum. She has the thing in her memory.”
“What?” she asked in a sharp tone. “I most certainly do not! I couldn’t even remember the title…”
He tapped the bottle on the table. “Through the use of this and the medium of hypnosis, I intended to obtain the full copy of the ‘King’ from Miss Fontaine’s recollection, and then leave her be forever,” he explained. “That is why we are here at this dark hour, drinking this excellent coffee.”
“What’s in it for her?” I asked.
“Under hypnosis I can ensure that she is never troubled by memories of the play, and that should additionally protect her from any ill effects of having read through it,” he replied. “And I am willing to recompense her one thousand dollars for her time and troubles.”
“Is this safe?” she asked me, pointing at the laudanum.
“Ought to be, doll.” I gestured at Weatherbee. “He’s on the stuff right now.”
Her mouth made an ‘O’ of surprise and she looked suddenly at him, and then back at me. “I don’t know what to do, Dez. What do you think?”
I set my empty cup down and stood, and thought about that for a while. “I think it’s safe enough, so long as I’m here to chaperone. I’ll make sure there’s no funny business. You’ll get a grand from this bird, and he’ll get what he wants, then blow town to never bother you again. Sounds like you both get what you want, and that’s about as fair as life gets.”
Part 4: Queen’s Gambit Accepted
Once Mona had agreed, we all Charlestoned around her place so that she ended seated on the couch, Weatherbee next to her. I stood with my Savage automatic in hand but pointed at the floor; I was just being social.
A deck of C’s to the tune of one large sat to one side of the coffee tray on the low table. I tried not to let it excite me too much to keep an eye on my client, who even now sat drowsing from the laudanum. Though a veteran night owl, the strain and fatigue she’d been under had taken its toll.
Weatherbee took out a small chain with some kind of charm on it from under his shirt. He held it up in front of Mona and let it dangle. Something about it caught my eye, and I moved a step closer to see it better. It looked kinda like three misshapen question marks all stemming from the same point in the center, and then the coffee in my gut suddenly protested its fate. I looked away and fought the urge to upchuck.
Meanwhile, I heard Weatherbee’s raspy voice sliding like fine-grained sandpaper over rough wood as he spoke to my client. Eventually, my coffee decided to behave itself. When I looked back, Mona sat wide-eyed, and Weatherbee had put away the chain. “She’s under?” I asked.
“Oh, my, yes.”
“Well, let’s get on with it!”
He took out his diary, opened it, and removed a pen. Poised to write, he turned to Mona. “You do hear me, Miss Fontaine?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
“And you recall the play you read, The King in Yellow?”
“I do, but I wish I didn’t,” she said. “It’s truly awful, all innocence and banality in the beginning, but it’s the second act that’s heinous and unnatural!” Her face twisted briefly into something surprising and ugly for an instant, then relaxed.
“Then I make you this promise, Miss Fontaine: recite it to me from memory slowly, but do not listen to it in the slightest. And, as you speak each line, you will promptly find it erased from your recollection, never to trouble you again. When you finish the recitation, you will wake feeling fine and refreshed. Are those instructions quite clear?” Weatherbee asked.
“Yes,” she said. Then, in a voice which sounded like it might have emerged from a throat full of rubble: “Act one, scene one, The Stranger: Carcosa’s encomium is heralded by the garrulously insipid, who fail to see the Stranger for who he is as he roams the city’s gloom-shrouded avenues. Cassilda sees him, but her thoughts twist in panegyric for the city she mourns before its true demise, and so he passes her as Carcosa’s twin suns set like lovers who must, perforce, perish together and never rise again…”
I watched Weatherbee write down everything Mona recited, the hunger on his face as naked as that on any piker standing in a breadline down in the Village. I found that I missed bits and pieces of the gravelly words, like a conveyor belt which kept slipping. When Mona began to sing, the tortured sound gave way finally to her own dulcet tones, but the words sank like concrete galoshes.
“Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
I moved to the broken window across the room, keeping one eye on the dame and the Englishman as I did. Outside, dawn trembled above the narrow alley, and I felt better breathing in the cool air of the city which would never be Carcosa.
It was over before I realized it. Weatherbee stood suddenly with a triumphant grin on his face. “I have it!” he cried exultantly, and put away his journal.
“Have what?” asked Mona, who blinked and rubbed her eyes.
I crossed rapidly to her, the gun held down by my thigh. “He has what he came for, doll. How do you feel?”
“Quite fine and refreshed,” she said. “It isn’t yellow anymore.” She glanced at Weatherbee before running to me and throwing her arms around me. “Oh Dez, thank you! I feel ever so much better!”
I looked to Weatherbee, who looked like a cat after a canary on rye. “Alright you!” I said. “You’ve got what you came for, right?”
“Why yes, Mr. Tate, I do. After many, many years of questing!” he answered, almost gaily.
“Well? Was it worth it?”
“Oh my, yes! I understand certain things much more clearly now.”
“Like, be careful of Tuesday late next year,” he said, eyes focused somewhere far away.
“What?” I asked. Mona looked at me in confusion.
“And I don’t think much of Berlin in February,” he added. “Perhaps a hand of years hence.”
“Why not?” Mona asked, bewildered.
“The future isn’t what it used to be,” he told her, and giggled.
“So you’re done with my client?” I asked.
“Then beat it,” I said.
He turned and left without another word. He never even looked at the cool grand he’d left on the low table as he went.
“It… it’s really over?” Mona asked me, still holding on to me for all she was worth.
“Looks that way, doll. Guess that strange bird really did find what he was looking for after all,” I said.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” she said, and she buried her head in my chest. We stayed that way as the sun—just one of them—came up over Manhattan.
Part 5: Epilogue- Reset the Board
I leaned back in my chair, feet up on my desk in my office on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx and read the paper. The AP told me that the Yanks had beaten the Tigers five-two in Detroit yesterday. It had been a few weeks since I’d left a relieved Mona Fontaine with a roll of her mazuma, and I’d been able to pay my rent in advance for a few months.
I was in the middle of learning how Murderer’s Row had broken up a stymie in the tenth to win Pipgras his ninth game on the season, when there was a knock on my door.
“This is the police,” replied an Irish-accented voice.
“Might I come in, please?”
It opened, and a tall drink of water with red hair and freckles came in. He took off his hat. “I’m Sergeant Brian Boyle…”
“That’s nicely alliterative and decidedly Irish,” I interrupted. “I like it.”
He surprised me by grinning. “If you’re looking to make fun of me name, Mr. Tate, I’d rather you waited ‘til I’ve finished me introduction so I can threaten you with the full range of me wit,” he replied gamely.
That made me smile. “Sure, sure, I’m just being a pain. What brings you around, Sergeant?”
“Well, your name done come up in an investigation and I’m here to ask you questions so you can lie convincingly at me.”
I nodded and laid the newspaper down. “Alright, shoot.”
“Are you familiar with a Brit named Conrad Weatherbee?” he asked.
“Not very,” I said.
“But you do know the man?”
“You know what he was doing in New York?” Boyle asked.
“Maybe some of it,” I said.
The bull raised his eyebrows.
“He was looking for an old book,” I explained.
“You don’t say?”
“Said he was a collector. Why, what’s this all about?”
“Well, he was a victim in a shootout between two gangs down by Five Points,” the Sergeant said. “Looked like a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ deal, but, like always, we don’t have any witnesses.”
“Yeah, lots of people tend to have amnesia when the bootleggers get overly frisky,” I said.
“Aye, they do,” agreed Boyle. “We found your name on a card in his coat pocket.”
“I gave it to him when I helped broker a deal between Mr. Weatherbee and a client,” I explained.
“Ah, sure,” the Sergeant said. “That answers everything right there, it does.”
“My dealings with clients are confidential,” I said.
“Sure, every gumshoe in the city says that like it’s true,” he said. “But, seeing as that’s your story, and it’s about as ironclad as the right to get zozzled during Prohibition, I’ll take that back to me department. Thank you for your time.” He stood, and put his hat back on.
“One question, Boyle.”
“Did you find anything on Weatherbee?”
“Like a diary, or journal.”
Sergeant Boyle looked at me shrewdly, and thought about it before answering. “No. It wasn’t on him when we picked up his body. Why? Something important?”
“Probably not,” I said.
He stared at me for a few moments, and I returned his look without my knees getting weak. He shrugged, smiled, and left.
I put my feet up and went back to the article. Pipgras looked like he was going to make twenty games easy and take the Yankees back to the pennant, and that was just jake by me. Also, my rent was paid up and beyond, my most recent client was happy, and Prohibition couldn’t last forever. Life was good.
Maybe not in Carcosa, wherever the hell it was, but you couldn’t have everything.
David is a physician for whom fiction writing is his ‘second career’. He’s finished his first novel (querying), and is working on a second. He’s published a short story with Morning Rain Publishing, “Madness is in the Eye of the Beholder”, winning 3rd place in a “Freaky Fiction” contest.