|Portrait of the author |
by Susan C. Price
By W.M. Dean
[The novel is set in the 1970s of Watergate. Links to earlier chapters are provided at the bottom.]
Melissa McKenna arrived at Austin Froth’s at eleven-thirty that night. The strip of sky above the street lights was black. She had the prickly sensation that someone was watching her come down the street, ascend the front steps, and ring the doorbell.
Among the democratic assortment of Volkswagens, sedans, low-slung sports cars, and station wagons on the streets, the Ford panel truck across the street didn’t seem out of place.
Melissa pushed the doorbell button again. A voice that she didn’t recognize came metallically through the door: “¿Quien es ese?”
“Huh?” She stepped hack and looked up at the building.
The metallic voice translated: “—oo eeth eet?”
“Melissa.” There was a pause, and a faint, high-pitched buzz announced the lock was off.
Inside, a faint light left the staircase and the hall to the imagination. Shadows populated the inflated space with offspring of fantasy.
She heard a door close upstairs. A chill traced her vertebrae with a single icy finger. Somebody was descending the stair.
She sighed and reached out to touch the large figure. “Why is it so dark in here? It’s like a blackout.”
“Correct.” He went into the sitting room across from George’s rooms and looked out the window.
“What’s going on, Austin?”
He came close to her and whispered. “The government’s watching me, as expected. You weren’t to come here now.”
“But he’s not there. He never showed up.”
Austin put a finger on her lips. “Speak very low. We’ve removed the bugs from inside, but there are probably some around the windows and outside walls.”
He didn’t say anything for a while. He reviewed the planned sequence of events. The Vice-President had left the White House early the previous evening. He should have gone to a restroom at the airport and put on a beard and a pair of glasses with plain glass. He should have flown anonymously to Philadelphia and spent the night in a hotel. Then this morning he should have rented a car and driven to the commune. He should have arrived there by the middle of the afternoon. These actions were supposed to add up to a disappearance. Instead, there was a disappearance that didn’t add up to the prescribed actions.
The rest of the plan was going ahead. Mrs. Noemann’s television statement. The President’s expected press conference. What about the next steps?
“Do you want to take off your coat?”
“Oh, most definitely.” The playful glint in Melissa’s eyes was visible in the dark.
He lifted her coat from her shoulders. Underneath it she wore something white and smooth and fragrant with herbal essence and the tempestuous scent of dried must.
The vast emptiness in the recesses of Austin’s abdomen was immediate, biologic. He had a theory that if God could attune a frog’s retina to the shape of an insect, so that the frog’s tongue could leap out instinctively at the sight of the insect, then surely God could attune a man’s retina, even in the least light (especially in the least light?), to certain curves of breast and hip.
“Well, well, well. Let’s go up. There’s a delegation of Spaniards from the consulate who’ ve gotten horny waiting for my other girls.”
Melissa grabbed back her coat.
Austin laughed. He switched on a night light and admired the reflection in the full-length mirror behind Melissa. “Was today laundry day at the Farm?”
She dropped her coat. “There aren’t any Spaniards here, are there?”
Austin put his arms around her waist and clasped his hands loosely behind her. Her abdomen pressed lightly against his pelvis.
“Hmmm.” He was studying the composition in the mirror. “What an artist God is!”
Melissa stepped out of the only two things she still had on and walked barefoot up the stairs. Austin lagged a bit behind her to test his eyes in the dark. Not bad for an older man.
She stopped at the top. “Where’s George?”
“He’ s not back yet.” “Not back? Do we have time…?”
“I like the purity of heart that you manifest by your single-mindedness. But don’t you wonder where he is corning back from?”
“Oh, I’ll wonder the whole while we’re waiting.”
He went to the sitting room where he kept his sound equipment and put on a Spanish guitar concerto.
He took her hand and led her to his huge walk-in closet. It was large even for a walk-in. It contained his wardrobe collection: a few authentic historical garments,but mostly replicas. The real thing either was nonexistent, couldn’t be acquired, didn’t fit him, or simply was unsuitable for him or his photographic models to wear.
The tunics and togas of the citizens of Rome and Pompeii hadn’t survived the fall of the empire – or the lava – and the successive hordes of Goths, Huns, Christians, and Fascists. European court costumes were ensconced in museums for the most part. The garments Austin might have acquired were usually too small for him – the men of previous epochs were from six inches to a foot shorter than he and from thirty to sixty pounds lighter.
He took an ermine cloak off a hanger. Melissa hugged it to her breasts. “In here?”
Austin spread the fur on the floor. “No outside walls.”
Austin descended the stairs. The house was quiet and still dark. He went into the kitchen.
George’s disembodied voice startled him. “Hungry?”
Austin looked around. There was no outside light to help him. He had installed screens for the windows during the week.
He cleared his throat. “Uh, yes.”
George chuckled. “I dare say. Here, have some salami and cheese. A glass of wine?”
Austin lit a match and brought a candle from the counter.
George poured him some wine. He spoke very low. “I came in through the alley. I don’t think I was observed. But when I went up to see you, I heard a commotion in the closet. I thought they’d already taken you away and were searching the place. But the Castelnuovo-Tedesco wasn’t that kind of search music.”
Austin buttered a piece of French bread. George had prepared a large bowl of salad. The dressing glistened in the flickering candle light.
The lettuce was cool, the sliced radish es crisp.
They heard the muffled roar of bath water above.
“That was nice the way White House bugging came up by itself. I didn’t have to raise it. But I still made myself useful.”
“Yes, a nice job. Let me pour you some more wine.” Austin poured and they raised and clicked their glasses together. “Has Mrs. Noemann—”
“Yes, she’s good. You ought to hire her as an operative. She used the one that was in the vase – with the plastic removed. Taped it to the bottom of the President’s middle desk drawer during the press conference. Of course, the guards saw her, but, as you predicted, they had no objection to her going in.”
George frowned. “She made some remark about the President finally getting rid of Addleman, or something like that. Oh, well, she did a good job of faking the President. They all think the disappearance is for real.”
“I’m afraid it is. That’s Melissa taking a bath. Noemann didn’t show up.”
George gave a low whistle. “So, what’s next?”
“Well, I don’t think there’s much we can do to help the FBI. It isn’t clear we want to anyway. It’s just possible Noemann has arrived at the commune by now. Or maybe he stayed in Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell. In a way, it doesn’t matter – the effect is the same. In promotion, appearance is all.”
“So, we wait a little?”
“First we sneak Melissa past the spies. She can signal us by phone whether Noemann ever arrived.”
“Too bad you didn’t arrange a signal before.”
The bath water stopped running. Austin looked at the ceiling. “I’m not complaining.”
Chapter 1. “Downstairs at the White House”
Chapter 2. “Making It Happen”
Chapter 3. “The Muse’s Fee”
Chapter 4. “The Game Plan”
Chapter 5. “Home Movies (Blue)”
Chapter 6. “Keeping Up Appearances”
Chapter 7. “Better to Serve You With, My Dear”
Chapter 8. “The Battle of the Press Conferences”
|Copyright © 2016 by W.M. Dean|