Monday, May 11, 2009

The Cellar

Henri walked into the Cellar. Ostensibly a ballroom and restaurant, it was well-known that the Cellar's basement floor carried a stock of liquor appropriate to the tastes of upper class drinkers. What a dense crowd for a Tuesday night! If the police knew about the place – and they must have known – then they turned a blind eye to it. Possibly there were bribes involved, or perhaps the owner was somehow managing to function without the aid of the mob, or both. Henri would run into someone he knew here.

In a dark corner, Cati crouched over her "tea". It had been almost an hour and a half since she had met Emma upstairs and had dragged her into the basement, and Cati had remained mildly disconsolate about her strange encounter. Even if his anxious manner had undercut his ability to intimidate, there had been a real menace in the driver's eyes and words.

"I still don't get it, lady," Emma said as she released a puff of smoke. She languidly rocked her long-stemmed cigarette holder in her fingers. "The driver wanted to take you to a minstrel show, and then he cursed at you in Hungarian and missed the turn." With a bored expression on her face (which Cati knew to read as the first step in the fossilization process), Emma tapped her cigarette, expertly pitching her ash into the tray.

"Finally, he stared at you. You attract the weird ones. In fact," she tapped her ash again, compulsively, "a lot of weird things have been happening lately, and it's got me thinking what if there's a conspiracy? First that swami goes into a fit on stage, then Mags Whitcombe dies last week, and there was another girl, Milicent Beckinshire (I saw in the paper) who also died that night. Did you hear about that? Who knows who could be in on it? The Communists, the mob, the Turks! Hey!" Her tangent crumbled instantaneously. Emma lifted her head and sat up. "Speaking of which, isn't that your friend from the Audubon over there?" Her cigarette indicated a singularly spiffily dressed man sitting at a table on the other side of the floor. It was Henri.

"So you are being followed!" She was mostly joking. "Should we tell him the game's up?" she asked, smiling.

Cati was about to agree, but then she saw him, the taxi driver. For an instant, he had been coming down the stairs into the basement level, but another man, standing too high in the stairwell for Cati to see his face, put his hand on the driver's shoulder. They exchanged words, the driver nodded and turned back up the stairs.

The other man came down the stairs. His build was the opposite of the driver's, who was short and a little stocky. Instead, this fellow cut a figure as straight and as sharp as a skyscraper. His freshly pressed trousers and jacket, both the same granite-like grey, further suggested modernist architecture. He was generally attractive in that way that seemed to cut across the peculiar features of the many nations and countries that were now represented in New York City. At the bottom of the stairs, he removed his hat. He was fair, but not quite blonde.

"Cati, dear! You look a little frightened! You don't think that French guy's actually stalking you, do you?"