Story By Bruce Harris / Illustration by Joseph Valesquez
I smelled his cigar before I smelled him. The pretty thing I was dancing with stiffened, eyes widened. Cigar man jerked her shoulder backward. “I need you in the other room. Now!”
She backed up a step. I stepped forward. “What’s the rush? The song isn’t finished. I’m going to get my dime’s worth.”
Fat, smooth fingers removed the cigar stub. A thin worm of a moustache atop his upper lip appeared painted on. It wriggled upward as he spoke. “Bug off.”
I’ve seen the type before. Seen every type before in my twenty plus years peddling pipes. I expected nothing less in New York City. “Name’s Bob Ballantine. And, you are?” I offered my hand.
A grunt that could have been a laugh erupted through wobbly cheeks. “I’m none of your business. Okay? Paige is my business, and she’s busy, so find yourself another dancer or go home to your wife.”
“There isn’t another dancer I want and I don’t have a wife. And, while the music is still playing, I’d really like to finish this dance with Miss, um, Paige.”
He stood between the two us, turned to face her. “I’m not telling you again. Get going!”
I watched her back as she weaved her way around the other couples. She had a way with motion. It was as if she was freshly poured milk taking over a cup of hot black coffee. She oozed her way toward a side door labeled, “Private,” and as she did, every head in the place turned her way. The room became silent. The cigar was back in my face. “Song’s over. Go get another ticket if you want to dance again or, better yet, take my advice and scram.”
I heard the left side of his jaw crack as my fist made contact. He dropped quicker than the stock market a decade ago. For the briefest moment, I felt dozens of eyes on me, but that quickly dissolved as everyone in the dance hall went back to the business of either spending or making money. Everyone, that is, except the tall thing in a too tight green dress with canary yellow feathers protruding from the base of her red-haired tightly woven bun. She glanced in all directions before speaking. “Listen, mister. I don’t know who you are, but you had better get out of here, and fast!”
“Bob Ballantine. And you are?”
She gave me a funny look. “Betsy. Listen, I’m off at midnight. How about you meet me outside this dump ten minutes after.”
The dump to which Betsy referred was actually known as the Peacock Palace. I smoked a Lucky and waited under a busted street lamp. Each lit up letter in the glowing neon sign; PEACOCK PALACE was colored differently, emitting a rainbow-like glow, simultaneously cheery and gloomy in the night air. The streets were mostly empty except for a few cabs speeding by. A bored and sleepy cop walked by me, sneezed, and moved on. I watched a number of the girls, now dressed like the rest of us, walk out of the Peacock. None was Paige. I noticed a few men leave the place. Some scurried, others walked leisurely. There was no sign of the slob I had introduced face first to the dance floor. Betsy exited. I crushed the Lucky and whistled. There was no traffic so she clutched a handbag against her side and crossed the street toward me. “Let’s go,” she said.
I tipped my hat up a fraction. “Sure. Whaddya feel like? Coffee?”
“And a piece of blueberry pie.”
I plunked a couple of nickels into the slot and removed two pieces of pie. We sat in a corner table away from the window. The automat was half full. After we stirred cream and sugar into our coffees, she spoke.
“For what?” I asked.
She motioned with her hand. “This. The pie. Coffee.”
“Forget it. Now, what’s going on at that little club of yours? Who’s the jerk with the cigar and the busted jaw? And Paige, is that her name?”
Betsy swallowed a fork full of pie. “Yes. Paige Turner.”
I let out a laugh. “C’mon. What’s her name?”
She hesitated. “I just told you.”
“Okay, fine. More coffee?” I returned with two refilled cups. “What gives on the Peacock? One minute I’m having a grand old time marveling at the dance moves of Miss Turner, as you call her, and the next she looked like she’d just seen the latest war newsreel and our boys aren’t doing so good. Then, some cigar tells me my time’s up even though the music still played. I don’t get it, and I don’t like it.”
Betsy wrapped pink hands around the coffee mug and stared into the java. She started to speak a few times, stopped, and then finally summoned up the strength. “Mister, I don’t know who you are…”
“I already told you my name. Bob Ballantine.”
She shook her head. “Yes, I know that. I mean, I don’t know you. Never seen you before, but I’m doing this for Paige.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m single. I’m a pipe salesman from Albany in town for a couple of days to sell pipes. That’s what my boss expects me to do while I’m here. I had nothing to do tonight, so I went to the Peacock to dance with someone before turning in for the night and starting over tomorrow. Not much to me. A poor working stiff. That’s about it. Doing what for Paige?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“You said you’re doing this for Paige. I assume you meant talk to me?” She drained the cup. “Another?”
“No. No thank you. “I’m very worried about Paige. She’s in a lot of trouble and well, I think she might…never mind. I just think she’s in a lot of trouble.”
“Why don’t you go to the cops?”
She laughed. “And tell them what?”
“What’s going on in there, whatever it is you won’t tell me. Why do you think she’s in such trouble?”
Any of the sex appeal that Betsy might have exuded at the Peacock was gone like the pie and two coffees. “Roy Rysborg, for one.”
“Roy Rysborg. He’s the cigar man. The one you socked in the face. He runs the Peacock. He’s okay with me, but it’s different with Paige.”
“Poor Paige. Say, could I get a mac and cheese? Suddenly, I’m really hungry.” Betsy continued when I returned a Mercury Dime lighter. “Paige is different than the rest of us girls. You musta noticed it. You picked her out from the rest of us.” She stopped, waited for my response but none was forthcoming. She wiped yellow cheese from the corners of her mouth. “Paige was on Broadway a little over a year ago. She’s that good! Ever hear of Gary Fender?”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“Fender writes, directs, and produces plays, mostly musicals, some dramas, but not too many. Fender is heavily invested in the arts. His old man left him a bundle. Anyway, Fender discovered Paige performing in some little club on the lower East side. He recognized her talent and took a big gamble on a total unknown. Things went great for a while, until the broken leg.” She stopped.
“Victor York. That’s Paige’s husband. He’s the jealous type, and violent type. Seems York didn’t take it too well that his wife was a successful Broadway singer and dancer. Word had it that he suspected her of all kinds of things, none of which were true. One day, he shoves poor Paige down a flight of stairs and breaks her leg. Paige is out. The newspapers said Paige had an accident. That wasn’t the case. Gary Fender’s play closes and he loses a fortune.”
“Wasn’t there an understudy or something for Paige?”
“Sure. Just like there was someone who replaced Babe Ruth. Do you know who that was?”
“Exactly. The understudy wasn’t Paige. Gary Fender never recovered. He hasn’t written or financed another thing since this episode with Paige. He’s depressed and on drugs from what I hear. I hear other things as well.”
“Such as Gary Fender is prone to drink and when he drinks he’s…let’s just say, overly aggressive. He’s made threats against Paige. Poor girl. As if Fender isn’t enough to worry about, her worthless husband is always around, suspicious of every man she sees. Listen, I gotta go. It’s getting late. How about we meet here again tomorrow night?”
I sat back. What the heck was I getting myself into? I was in town to sell a couple of pipes. Suddenly, I’m mixed up in the lives of three men and a woman I danced with for less than three minutes. “It’s a date.”
The following day, I made the rounds around town, took orders for a bunch of pipes, had myself a steak and a couple of cold beers before standing in front of the Peacock Palace. I had to see Paige Turner, or whatever her name was. I checked my wristwatch. The Peacock would open in less than an hour. I figured it would be safer to wait outside and possibly catch her before she reported to work. I was wrong. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and then a fist to my nose. A wet sensation dripped into my mouth. I spit red. From my position on the sidewalk, he looked gigantic. The tip of his index finger stared me down. “If I ever catch you dancing with my wife again, I’ll kill her and you! Got it?”
I reached for a handkerchief. It came away from my face looking as if I had wiped down a bag of wet pistachio nuts. “What the hell are you talking about?” I got up. The guy’s stature didn’t diminish as my perspective changed. He was huge from any angle.
He jerked his head toward the dance hall. “My wife. In there.”
“Pal, I don’t know what you’re talking about. That’s a dance hall, you know? I paid ten cents for a ticket yesterday and danced with a woman. There isn’t anything wrong with that. Is there?”
The big man stared straight ahead, said nothing for nearly half a minute. “That’s not what I hear. Roy Rysborg told me you tried to get fresh with my wife in there. I’ll kill her and you if you ever try to…”
I squeezed the hanky tightly, applied constant pressure to my engorged nostrils. “Rysborg? You mean the guy who runs that place? He’s lying. I didn’t even get a chance to finish…”
“You’ve been warned. Stay away!” with that, the lug turned and left.
I found a bus depot a few blocks away and freshened up best I could in front of a cracked mirror in the men’s room. Before long, I was back at the Peacock. Paige Turner stood among a number of dancers. I bought three tickets and handed her one. She took a deep breath. “You?” she said, “Why don’t you dance with someone else. Please.”
“Because I want to dance with you, Paige.” She led me onto the dance floor. “You’re crazy. You’re asking for big trouble coming back in here. You know that?”
“Why?” I asked. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“By the swelling of your face, it seems as if you weren’t too successful hiding from trouble before you got her.” She looked away from me. “You only punched Mr. Rysborg and broke his jaw yesterday. Isn’t that enough?”
Paige Turner looked like an exotic bird you see only in magazines. She was decked out from head to toe in all colors of the rainbow. “Nice outfit. I broke his jaw? Wow. Sometimes, I impress myself. Look at that. Speak of the devil.”
Roy Rysborg was inches from Paige and me. His jaw was wired shut, his fists balled. “No cigar tonight?” I questioned. “Oh, trouble with your mouth. You know, I have just the pipe for guys like you. It’s called a jaw-rester pipe. Yessir, just what the doctor ordered. The stem is bent in such a way as to rest on your chin. It’s perfect for you. It takes all of the pressure off the jaw when you clench the stem. And, the best part is the jaw-resters come in a variety of shapes and finishes and they are reasonably priced. Plop a pinch or two of cherry tobacco into the bowl and you’ll smell sweet. None of these dancers will be able to resist you. Perhaps I can come around tomorrow and show you a sampling of…”
Rysborg stormed off. The music stopped. Paige Turner was speechless, at least for the moment. “Time’s up. You don’t know what you just…”
“I have another ticket.” I pulled it from my pocket. “Next dance?” She grabbed it, the music began again, a slow one this time. I felt her soft body against mine. “What happened to you last night?”
“Where did you go? You know, behind that side door? What was that all about?” I wish I hadn’t asked the question.
Paige Turner began speaking. She didn’t make much sense, but she spoke softly into my ear. “Dead people can talk. I bet you didn’t know that. It’s true. They can communicate.”
“What are you talking…”
“Don’t interrupt me. I haven’t much time. I’ll speak after I’m dead. I hope you’re listening. The nails….in a coffin.”
She grabbed me tighter and forcibly led me around the dance floor. “This is how you do it. Left to right, you start with the left, and then you go right,” as she guided me from one end of the tiled platform to the other. “It’s just like reading, left to right. You understand?”
I didn’t know what to say. “Sure. Sure, left to right. Like reading,” I repeated.
“Yes. That’s it.”
The music stopped. She stepped back away from me. She extended her arms, displayed the back of both hands, wiggled her fingers, and bowed slightly. “Aren’t colors wonderful? If you listen carefully, they too speak too.” Paige Turner once again disappeared behind the side door.
I tossed the third ticket into the garbage and wandered the city. Paige’s words repeated themselves again and again. What in the world was she trying to say? Three beers later, I was back in the automat drinking black coffee and waiting for Betsy. I wasn’t sure she was going to show up. I didn’t see her at the Peacock earlier, but about a quarter past midnight she came in and headed directly to the table.
“Coffee? Pie?” I asked. “Mac and cheese, or something else?”
She shook her head. “No. Nothing, thanks.” She took one glance at my busted nose. “Say, what happened to you?”
“Victor York happened to me. Forget about it. I have to ask you a question. Paige Turner. She said some really strange things to me tonight.”
“Yeah, but forget that for now. What I want to know is what is going on behind that side door in the Peacock? Where does Paige go every night?”
“Yes, really. Is that a stupid question?”
“Are you that naïve, Mr. Ballantine?”
“Bob. No. I mean, yes. I mean, maybe. What is…”
“Men!” she stopped me in my tracks. “That rat dog Roy Rysborg is using Paige.”
“Using her, how?”
Betsy’s eyes widened. “Do I have to spell it out?”
“Using her for sex. To make more money for himself and that horrid club, more than he’ll ever need or use.”
“Well, Mr. Ballantine. Bob. This world can be a cesspool. The Peacock is nothing more than a dash of color, some natural, most not, in this bilge water-filled world. After Paige broke her leg and lost her Broadway job, she became desperate. She couldn’t find work. Roy Rysborg took her in at the Peacock. She couldn’t dance for the first few months, so he put her to work in other ways.”
If I was in a doctor’s office now, he’d have to rush me to the hospital with the highest recorded blood pressure on record. “Are you kidding me?”
“I wish I was. Rysborg used her. In a sense, he uses all of us girls, but none more than poor Paige. After her leg healed, he continued to make her perform extra services, always holding over her the fact that he was the only person in town willing to give her a job when she needed it most. If her husband ever found out he’d kill her and Rysborg.”
Paige had become everyone’s number one target and I wasn’t doing too badly myself. I lifted a spoon to check my nose in its reflection, and spotted an outraged Roy Rysborg as he burst through the automat’s door. He hesitated momentarily, than pointed a snub nose revolver in my direction. He aimed, and fired two shots. “Get down!” I yelled. I ducked and kissed the floor. It was too late for Betsy. Lead spit from a gun is quicker than a frightened dame. Her wide-open unseeing eyes stared straight ahead. Screams and chaos ensued. Rysborg took off. I was out of the Horn and Hardart as sirens pierced the night air.
I moved my stuff out of the hotel and checked into a nondescript little three-story place near the Flatiron Building. I walked up two flights, put the key in the doorknob, jammed fresh cotton up my nose, and sat on the bed. I needed a drink, but couldn’t chance going outside again. What had I gotten myself into? I got undressed and lay in bed. Two days ago I’d never heard of Paige Turner. Now, I know of three people that wanted her dead. Gary Fender, because he blamed Paige for his financial ruin caused by the early closure of his play. Victor York, Paige’s jealous husband. And, there was Roy Rysborg, who forced poor Paige to perform vile acts, and had already killed another one of his dancers during an attempt on my life. I was certain he was ready to pull the plug on Paige as well. I had to get my mind off of things. Go to a different place, away from what was happening. I found the recent issue of Bullet Hole Monthly in my briefcase. The short story that caught my attention was, “Murder Under the Big Top.” I got a few pages in before my eyelids decided to call the shots. They had had enough for the day.
Circus time. Everything was in black and white, except for the clowns. Center ring was filled with them, all with downturned smiles. Their hair glowed neon orange and green. They juggled bowling pins, which mysteriously changed colors when touched, but returned to white after being tossed into the air. Then, one by one, the pins fell down on each clown’s head, dropping the performers onto the dirt floor. A huge sweeper came by, scooped up what was left of their bodies, which was nothing more than their glistening silk outfits with large, bright buttons. Their bodies were gone. They reappeared in the final act, each shot out of a canon and onto a trapeze high above the crowd near the top of the tent. They swung hard. Each clown propelled himself outside the big top. I licked fruit-flavored cotton candy from my fingers and went outside to search for the clowns when…
I awoke at half past noon and rolled out of bed. Reality. After the shooting and murder of Betsy, the police were now involved. Probably a good time for me to pack up my pipe samples and head back to Albany. No one was in the hotel’s dimly lit hall. I showered in the bathroom at the end of the floor, examined my busted nose in the mirror, dressed and checked out. I asked the clerk for directions to the nearest coffee shop and headed out the door. The afternoon dailies had just hit the newsstands. Headlines screamed, “MURDER – SUICIDE!” I looked closer at the photos of a man and a woman. I didn’t recognize the man. The woman was Paige Turner, but the name under her picture was Cynthia York. I paid for the newspaper and boarded a downtown subway. It could have been going uptown or cross-town. I didn’t really care. The story reported on the dual deaths of Broadway producer Gary Fender and his once leading dancer Cynthia York. I read as quickly as I could. Police suspected that Fender had shot York in her Chelsea apartment and then returned to his own mid-town home before turning the gun on himself. They cautioned, however, that this was strictly a preliminary theory until further investigations were completed. First Betsy and now Paige, or Cynthia, or whatever her name was. I felt as though I had to do something before heading north to Albany. I wanted to see Paige one more time, more specifically, Paige’s body. I couldn’t help but feel as though she was trying to tell me something the last time we were together. After a number of inquiries, I found out where the morgue was located. New York has multiple morgues, and the first one I visited was a dead end. Paige Turner was not there. I lucked out at the second location on Second Avenue in more ways than one. First, the attendant confirmed that Paige was indeed chilling, making friends with the other cooled-off bodies in an unlisted dance hall in the sky. Second, he was a pipe smoker.
“I’d like to see the body of Miss Cynthia York.”
“Are you a family member?” he asked, as he looked me up and down.
“Well, sort of, I mean we are, or were, friends. Good friends,” I added.
The attendant wore a pale blue uniform. I put him in his late twenties or early thirties. His smile was devilish. “I’m sure you were, mister…?”
“Ballantine. Bob Ballantine.”
“Mr. Ballantine. I’m sure you were, but regulations are regulations, you know. Only next of kin are permitted to see the body.”
“Pipe smoking man?” I asked the smug attendant.
“Why, yes. I enjoy a pipe every now and then.”
I had sized him up. It wasn’t difficult. “Perhaps you’d be interested in one of these?” I opened up a case of samples, including some fairly expensive straight grain briars. The man’s pupils dilated. “Take your pick. Some of these beauties sell for $25 or more by the finest tobacconists in the city.”
The man’s hands caressed the fine wood I had displayed. He appeared fixated on a flawless English handmade churchwarden. “Like it?” I asked. “It’s yours.”
The man didn’t hesitate. He snatched the pipe out of its case. “Right this way.” We walked toward an inner room, cold, containing a number of the city’s cadavers. The man continued to stare at the pipe. We stopped in front of a wall with a temporary nameplate marked, “C. York.” He pulled out the drawer and there she was, Paige Turner, aka Cynthia York. She was white. She wore nothing more than a white linen robe. Her hands lay across her stomach. In death, she remained an attractive woman. The man placed the long churchwarden in his mouth and spoke through clenched teeth. “Satisfied?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said without thinking.
“What are you looking for?”
I stared down at Paige again. “You know, that’s a good question. I’m really not sure.”
He made a face. “Fine. Can I shove her back now?”
I nodded. “I guess so. Funny, though.”
“How’s that?” the attendant asked.
“There’s no color. Nothing. Last time I saw her, she was decked out like a peacock. I guess that makes sense since she worked at the Peacock Palace. Look at her now. She’s white, rather colorless.”
“Yup,” he said without emotion, “She didn’t come in this way, though.”
My eyes followed the body as it disappeared into the wall. “How’s that?”
“Oh, her nails. They were funny. Each one painted a different color.”
“The dead lady’s fingernails all had different color nail polish on them. I ain’t never seen anything like that before, and I’ve been working here going on ten years.”
“But, I saw her fingers. Her nails didn’t have any polish or color.”
The man looked exasperated. He stared at his new pipe. Maybe he was debating with himself whether or not the trade was worth it. “Of course not!” his voice rose. “I had to remove the polish during preparation. Regulations.”
I had a thought. “Say, would you happen to have a photograph of my friend here when she came into the morgue? Prior to your preparation?”
The man didn’t respond. Rather, he just stared at the case containing pipe samples. After selecting another piece, a lovely sandblasted large bulldog shape, he walked over to a file cabinet, rummaged in it for a second or two, and pulled out an 8 x 10. It was Paige, fully clothed, with what appeared to be blood stains on her blouse. The black and white photograph clearly showed that her fingernails were each polished a different color. “By any chance, do you think you can remember the colors of her nails?”
The attendant was taken aback. He held a pipe in each hand. “Why? What’s it to you?”
“I really don’t know. Might be nothing. Might be something. How about it? Do you remember the colors?”
I took the photograph to a table lit by a gooseneck lamp. “Let’s see….where do you want me to start?” he questioned.
It hit me. “Left to right. Just like you are reading a book. Left to right. Begin with the pinky on her left hand and work your way to the pinky finger on her right hand. Can you do that?”
He stared at me. “I’ll try.” He squinted, and then pointed to her left pinky. “Hmm, okay, that pinky was painted green.” He stopped.
“The ring finger was sort of orange. Next was yellow, the pointer finger was also painted green, the thumb was yellow.”
“Good. Great. Continue to her next hand, please.”
“Starting from her thumb this time?” he asked.
“Okay. Silver, then brown, then orange again, then green again, and the pinky on her right hand was polished red.”
“You’re sure? That’s it?”
“Um, I think so. Yea, I’m sure of it.”
“Great. Great. Thank you.” I looked around for pencil and paper. I jotted down the colors the attendant had just recited:
I looked at the words and the colors every which way. I reversed their order. Nothing. I took the first letters of each color in the hope that it might spell a name or a clue. Gibberish. This was useless. I was kidding myself if I thought I could glean anything from this amateurish wild goose chase of an investigation.
“Well?” he asked, “What did you find out?” He had a smug little smile that I wanted to wipe off of his puss.
I shrugged instead. “Nothing. Not a thing. I give up. Think I’ll stay another night before I head back home. I don’t have any answers and my eyes hurt. Thanks for your help.” I started toward the exit door.
“Thanks for the pipes,” he said with little conviction.
The newspapers’ evening editions headlines screamed, “NEW TWIST IN THE FENDER – YORK MURDER – SUICIDE.” The same photos of Fender and Paige used in the earlier editions were again splashed across page one. I paid for a copy and found a third hotel in as many nights. I read. Police were still calling it a murder – suicide, but apparently the same hand did not do the two killings. Evidence emerged indicating that Fender had committed suicide earlier in the day, and that Paige Turner, or Cynthia York was murdered hours after Fender had already taken his own life! Her murderer was alive and on the loose.
I got little sleep. What message had Paige tried to tell me? It must have had something to do with her fingers, the way she waved them at me, but what? I was back at the morgue early in the morning. The same attendant was on duty. This time, Paige’s body lay face up in a plain wooden coffin. “Don’t you ever sleep?” I asked?
He looked at me. “I can ask the same of you, buddy. You look beat.”
“No sleep last night.”
He walked around Paige’s body. “That’s not healthy. Lack of sleep will get you a bed in here with these stiffs sooner than you’d like. Why don’t you go back home and forget about this? But first, do me a favor.”
“No more pipes. My boss…”
“No, not that. Hand me that bottle behind you.”
“Which one?” I asked.
“With the reddish liquid. Over there.” He pointed.
I grabbed it and offered it to him.
“No, not that one. I said the one with reddish….oh, I’m sorry, I mean greenish liquid.”
I reached for the bottle containing with what appeared to be green tea. “Why didn’t you ask for this one in the first place?”
“I did. I mean, I don’t know. I just made a mistake is all.”
I walked closer to him. “No, you didn’t. You simply forgot, didn’t you?”
“Um, forgot what?”
“Forgot that you are color blind! Isn’t that right?”
“So? So, what if I am?”
“You are, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” he sheepishly replied. “What difference does it make?”
“Maybe all the difference in the world! It means the difference between a murderer going free and being identified for the horrible crime in which he committed.” The man was confused. “Don’t you see? Paige Turner…”
“Cynthia York. She went by the name Paige Turner. No matter. She was telling me something. She identified her killer by the nail polish she wore. You confused red with green, correct?”
“That’s it! The order of Paige’s, umm Cynthia’s nail polish really is:
“If you take the first letter of each color, each finger moving left to right, it spells, Roy Rysborg! The owner of the Peacock, and someone I know firsthand is more than capable of murder!”
I raced to the nearest police precinct.
“How can I help you?” The old cop behind the desk didn’t look up from a racing form spread in front of him.
“I have information about the murderer of Paige…Cynthia York. You know, the woman on the cover of all the newspapers!”
“You don’t say.” He made pencil notations next to a horse’s name. “You know this, how?”
“She told me.”
“Do you want to know how she told me?”
“Why do I get all the winners in here? Why can’t they find me at the track?” he mumbled and continued note taking. “I’m listening.” He yawned.
“Ten nails in a coffin.”
He looked up.
“King’s Ransom” by Don Katnik
Illustration by John Waltrip