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2. The Jane . . .

"When I told my father I wanted to be an artist, he said I must be 'queer.' I finally told him, 'Mother was right. You are an asshole.' "

—Jonathan Winters,
quoted by Glenn Esterly,
TV Guide, 16 March 1991


The elevator opened again, and right away I had to do the control-the-face-and-walk-forward bit again. There was a little naked guy in the hall.

Well, for a second, anyway. And practically naked. Leather bondage straps crisscrossed his upper body, and he wore a little thing like the front half of a loin cloth, and felt slippers. His face made me think of Jiminy Cricket. He was about fifty and maybe five-five. He was carrying a big pile of clean white sheets and pillowcases in his arms. A good investigator can see that much in a split second.

Which is all I got. The instant he saw me he let out a squeek like a mortified mouse and vanished.

I was out of the elevator a half second later and looked both ways but he was gone. His shadow was just making the turn to the right, hurrying to catch up. Maybe Tinkerbell could sew it back on for him.

I gave my head a little shake to settle my brains, and went to the second door on the right.

I saw the little ruby light lit up beside it, but I went in anyway. Then I controlled my face, walked forward . . . stopped, said, "I beg your pardon, Your Eminence. Carry on," and walked backward, until I was in the hallway again. The door shut itself, and I wiped sweat from my forehead.

Damn, Ruth had said second on the left . . .

I gave my head a large shake to jumpstart it, and retraced my steps to the elevator. I counted two doors to the left, three times, went there, counted again, and knocked this time.

"Come in, Mr. Quigley," said a feminine voice with whiskey throat and a high-class British accent.

I took a deep breath and went in.

And fought my face and walked forward—

Look, it was not a perfect replica of my room in my parents' house back when I was a teenager. No better than eighty percent accurate. I used to pin up the Playmate of the Month at the foot of the bed, for example, not on the ceiling. And the bedspread was different, and now I think of it the window was on the wrong wall. But it was close enough to make me want to gape. It even had the bunk beds, and the Brooklyn Dodgers pennant . . .

The room had two occupants.

The first one I took in was the woman against the far wall. Did you ever see that bodybuilder Jayne Mansfield married? If you put both of them in some kind of mad scientist machine and combined them, you'd get what I saw standing at parade rest. She was almost as big as me. She was oiled, like a recoilless rifle. She wore sweatpants, and a tank top muscle-shirt, to which she was totally entitled, and gold bands around each bicep, black tennis shoes with steel toes. Her haircut made her look like Joan of Arc after a long course of every hormone supplement there is. She had bodyguard's eyes. No: Secret Service eyes. They can kill anybody they want. I kept my hands very still at my sides.

This was, you will understand, sort of the backwards of what I was expecting. Maybe Mike Hammer himself could have managed to maintain an erection in that woman's bedroom. But even he wouldn't have tried to do anything with it. Not without a direct order. I watched her for a full five seconds, until I was fairly sure she had no immediate plans to collapse my ribcage for any reason, then showed her my back teeth for a moment and turned to her companion, seated at the desk on the right.

Considerable improvement . . .

Did you ever see that movie A Pocketful of Miracles? Where Dave the Dude drops a bundle turning broken-down old Apple Annie into a Countess for a day, so she won't disappoint this daughter that's been in Europe for the last twenty years? Well, the way Bette Davis looked when they got done making her over—not the Before, the After—that's what this woman looked like. If she walked into the White House the same time as a bunch of tourists, the staff would cut her out of the pack and take her right up to the Oval Office without even asking her name. Buckingham Palace, same deal. Before I could stop myself I pulled my tie up, loosened it again, buttoned the collar button (for the first time since I'd owned the shirt), pulled the tie tight again, and buttoned my double-breasted. She couldn't have seen the wrinkled bit of tie that now hung below the knot in the back, but I was painfully aware of it. I could feel dirt under my fingernails, and behind my ears. I could feel my ten o'clock shadow growing.

And I could feel something else growing too, in my pants—even though she wasn't showing much more skin than any other Countess would have. I mean, she had impact.

She had hair so red I decided no one would dye it that color, in upswept waves. Her gown was greener than the stack of money it must have cost, and left one shoulder bare. Impressive cleavage. I guessed her at fifty or so, but like Ruth downstairs in terrific shape, right down to the skin on the backs of her hands. In the right light, you'd have thought thirty-five, no trouble. Even the wrong light wouldn't have put you off, either. She had something she wasn't ever going to lose. No detectible makeup. Wedding band on one hand, a diamond the size of a salted whole peanut on the other. Emerald necklace and earrings. Twinkling eyes. One eyebrow raised slightly, apparently permanently. She'd seen it all, and enjoyed most of it.

I wanted to bow. But I didn't want to look even a little bit like I might be reaching for my armpit, with that Amazon watching. I kept my hands at my sides, clicked my heels and bowed like Eric von Stroheim. "A pleasure to meet you, Your Ladyship," I said.

This time I had the right one. "So I'm told," she agreed throatily, "and I won't argue. Welcome to my House, Mr. Quigley."

She sounded . . . well, not drunk: nobody with a British accent that classy ever sounds drunk. Not even really what you'd call high. Elevated, maybe. One sip past a happy glow. Merry . . . "It's certainly a very impressive place, ma'am."

"Yes, it is. You must see it later."

What had I just been doing? Never mind. "I'd like that. Uh . . . I frightened a little naked guy with an armful of linen out in the hall; I hope he wasn't an important customer or something."

Lady Sally McGee's eyes twinkled. "My fault. I had Mistress Cynthia instruct Robin not to let you run across him until you were acclimatized—so naturally he tried to earn a spanking. Don't worry about it. And don't mention it to Cynthia, when you meet her: that'll teach him! Let me introduce Priscilla. She is the bouncer here."

Ah. "Ah." Not one of the whores. "Not one of the working girls."

"Of course she's a working girl; you don't think she bounces people for free, do you? But no, she is not presently one of my artists."

They called them "artists" here, huh?

Heroic actions aren't always something you can see. Right then I did a heroic thing nobody else knew about. I kept myself from saying, "I may not know much about art, but I know what I like." It took some doing, but hey, I'm a professional.

"Hi, Priscilla," I said as politely as I knew how. "I'm Joe Quigley."

"Hi, Joe," she said, in a friendly enough way. She didn't offer to shake hands, but I didn't mind that a lot.

"Would you care for a drink, Mr. Quigley?" Lady Sally asked. On the messy desk, sitting on a Math textbook—the very one I'd never read, by God!—were two glasses with stems and a bottle. The kind of wine with a cork, and nothing on it in English anywhere.

I'd have preferred even cheap bourbon. But I can't turn down a free drink; I've got my license to think of. "Tenderly, ma'am."

She smiled for the first time. "Then I'll entrust you with one." She poured, doing that little twist thing after each one, and handed me a glass. I did another Von Stroheim as I took it, and touched my glass to hers. Our eyes met, and I lost track of where I was for a moment . . . 

Toast, toast, toast . . . nothing trite, nothing corny, nothing crude. There went most of my repetoire. I remembered one I'd heard a wise old barkeeper say once, and used it: "To all the ones who weren't as lucky."

Her eyes widened slightly, and then got a faraway look. "Yes," she said in that husky Tallulah Bankhead voice, "I will drink to that."

So we did.

It wasn't wine at all. It was some kind of berry juice, a kind I didn't know, and it was very tasty for something nonalcoholic. Delicious, actually. I finished it thirstily, and set the glass down again. I thought about a cigarette, and decided against it.

"Well," I said, "you know why I'm here, Your Ladyship. And that makes one of us. I can't say I'm in any hurry at all to get down to business, but I do like to know what I'm goofing off on. Do you want to . . . excuse me—" I broke off and held up one finger, because just then the berry juice began to hit me. I closed my eyes momentarily, locked my knees and went inside, gauged the impact—about like an ounce of fine brandy, it felt like—made the necessary adjustments, and opened my eyes again. "—to tell me about the job, or shall I just hang around the place until I de-douche it? Deduce it. Up to you, but the meter's running." There; I had it under control.

She looked impressed. I realized she had sandbagged me . . . and I had passed the test. "You're quite right, Mr. Quigley. Your time is valuable. Do sit down and we'll get right to it."

I pulled up a chair and sat backwards on it. "Call me Joe."

"Certainly, Joe. And I'm Sally."

"Yes, Your Ladyship."

"About the job, then, Joe . . ."

And then silence descended for maybe ten seconds.

Finally she frowned and finished her own berry juice. "What I want you to do, in essence, is to find the Little Man Who Wasn't There. Without letting any of my clients or artists know that he isn't." She blinked and glanced down at her glass. "I'm sorry, that's not very clear—"

It was more or less what I'd been expecting to hear. "Sounds straightforward to me," I said. "Can you give me any leads on exactly where he ishn't? Isn't?"

She blinked again, and then rallied. "Well, I can give you some specifics on where he hasn't been so far. But of course there's no way of knowing where he won't appear next. More elixir?"

"You'd need three words to say anything sweeter," I said, and accepted another few fingers. "Okay, I'm in. What's my cover?"

"Well," she said apologetically, "I'm afraid you'll simply have to pass as a new artist. If you think you're up to it . . ."

* * *

"Now wait just a damn minute!" I said.

She looked surprised. "Do you have a problem with that? From what . . . our mutual friend said, I'm afraid I took the liberty of assuming you'd—"

"In the first place, what the hell do you mean by that crack about, '. . . . if I'm up to it . . .?"

"Ah, I see. Pardon me, I misspoke myself. I meant to say, ' . . . up for it . . .' I'm always getting my propositions mixed—damn it, there I go again: I meant prepositions. Blame it on the elixir. Reminds me of the time I came before a judge who was fond of . . . uh . . . English studies, and managed to end my sentence with a proposition. Be that as it may, Joe—"

"And in the second place—" I tried to interrupt.

"—the job pays fairly well," she went on. "Over and above your regular two hundred a day and expenses, of course."

"What the hell do you think I am?' I demanded.

She looked confused. "In the words of the ancient jape, I thought we had settled that, and were dickering over the price."

"Listen here, Your Ladyship: I'm a private dick, you understand the distinction? Find yourself another boy!"

"One of my specialties, as the bishop confided to the actress. Come now, Joe—be honest with me: have you really never once fantasized about turning pro some day? Developing the talent God gave you? Never felt that by rights they ought to have to pay you for it? I warn you that if you say no, I shall be forced to assume some tragic accident has cost you certain standard male equipment—"

"Jesus, Lady—"

"—your ego, I mean. You haven't ever thought about it?"

I made the instant subconscious decision to be candid. Maybe I didn't care if I offended her any more, or maybe I just didn't want to lie to her. "Sure I have," I said. "That's why I don't want any part of it. In the first place I'd hate the impersonality, the commercialism, and in the second place I'd hate the constant pressure to get it up, and speaking of that you know just as well as I do what kind of women have to pay for it, and as for crabs and clap and so on I already took that class, thank you, and most of all if I was to start charging for it, at fair market value, there wouldn't be a woman in Brooklyn who could afford it!"

I broke off, even though I had a few more points to make—because she was staring at me, apparently dumbfounded.

After a few seconds of silence, she managed to find some words. "Joe, are you familiar with the phenomenon Samuel Delany calls 'rupture'?"

"Hey, I never get that carried away."

"There it goes again. Rupture occurs when you think you are in the middle of a conversation with someone . . . and suddenly discover that you've merely been making noises at each other, that there is a previously unsuspected chasm between you beside which the Marianas Trench is a pothole. We have come to a point of rupture, Joe. You don't know what I mean, and I'm not sure I understand what you said. I think we must be using different maps."

"Oh yeah?"

"Either that, or you're a real jackass."

I did what PIs always do when insulted: shrugged and went for a wisecrack. "Not much point in being a fake jackass, is there?"

"Ask the man who sent you here."

That reminded me that The Man would be upset with me if I blew this commission—and he had succeeded in scaring the shit out of me. "Touché. Okay, let's rewind to where we went wrong and start over. What were you really asking me to do, when I thought you wanted me to 'Rent-A-'Rection'?"

She shook her head. "It won't help, I tell you. We've got different maps. The street I'm pointing to doesn't exist on yours."

"Okay. How do I get one of your maps?"

"You'll just have to draw your own, I'm afraid."

I sighed. "Look, Lady, I'm not trying to be difficult. But how the hell am I supposed to do that?"

Priscilla spoke up. "Map-making isn't hard. Just tricky."

"I'm listening," I said politely.

"Four stages. The obvious three are: look around you carefully, record what you see, and integrate it. It's the very first part that'll trip you up, and it's the most important of all."

"It's the whole thing," Lady Sally corrected. "The other three happen automatically; you couldn't stop 'em if you tried—once you do the first thing."

Damn it, the PI isn't supposed to be the straight man. "Which is?"

"Throw out all the old maps you already have in the glove compartment," Priscilla said.

Lady Sally nodded. "Forget all the reports of earlier explorers. You can't discover America if you keep shying away from the edge of the world. And if you do find it, you'll waste years asking to be taken to Kublai Khan."

I brought my glass to my lips . . . looked at it, and set it down. I reached for my deck of Luckies . . . realized a teenager's bedroom wouldn't have any ashtrays, and put it away. "Look," I said finally, "the dialogue is getting so clever here I'm starting to lose it. Let me see if I can put it in English, okay? What I think I'm hearing is: you got some kind of sneak thief in the joint; you want me to nail him; naturally you want it done discreet; so you want me to pose as a prostitute while I run him down; you don't believe I know what that involves here; so you want me to keep an open mind and scope the place before I make up my mind. Is that close?"

"Reasonably close," Lady Sally agreed. "We can fine-tune it as we go along. If we do."

"So what's the plan? You give me a Grand Tour of the place, visiting-fireman-style, and along about dawn I come back and give you my answer? No hard feelings if I take a pass?"

"Something like that."

I thought about it. I'd been to a few Houses before . . . but never anyplace near as classy as this. And all I'd ever gotten to see of them was a crummy parlor—in one case, more of a bus station waiting room—and a hallway and a crib. It came to me that, given a choice, I'd almost rather tour a whorehouse than use one. Especially this one.

And there was no reason the two had to be incompatible. As Clint Eastwood once said, "It do present mind-boggling possibilities, don't it?" There were a lot worse ways to earn two hundred bucks . . .

"I'd be a fool to refuse," I said.

* * *

"You certainly would," Lady Sally agreed. "I don't give many tours of my House—and this will be the first one I've given for free. Well, let's say, 'on spec.' All right, let's get this show on the road if we're going. Mary!"

I looked around. Still just the three of us.

"Yes, Lady," said a cheerful voice that seemed to come from the middle of the room.

"Is Tim busy just now?"

There was a five-second pause. "Not any more. His eleven o'clock just left."

"Ask him to come see use here, would you, dear?"

"Sure thing. It'll be a few minutes."

"Naturally. Thank you, love."

"You're welcome, Lady!" Whoever she was, she was jolly.

"Tim will show you around," Lady Sally told me. "Just tell him you're thinking about hiring on, and duck every question you can."

I frowned. "I still don't know if that's the way to go. Look, I'm pretty good with my mouth. When I was born I passed myself off as a doctor; if I could have reached the doorknob I'd have got away clean. I could fake being a hooker to a civilian, no sweat. But I don't think I can fool another hooker for very long. Especially if you're right, and I don't really know much about it. There's nothing I hate more than trying not to look surprised."

She shook her head. "Listen to me, Joe: in the first place, I would venture to guess that less than a quarter of the men who seek to enter my employ have ever worked professionally before. And those who have are nearly always as ignorant as you are of how things are done here. Tim won't be surprised if you look a little . . . well, confused."

"If you say so," I agreed dubiously.

"And you'll find that people don't ask a lot of personal questions without encouragement."

"All right. Before he gets here, why don't you tell me a little bit more about the specific problem you want me to deal with?"


"How am I supposed to know what to keep my eyes out for?"

"Joe," she said patiently, "if you report to me at dawn that you are not prepared to go undercover as one of my artists, you are not ever going to know any more than you already do about my problem. If we proceed, you'll be briefed. Just soak up the place."

That made sense. "Fair enough."

"I'll see you at sunrise. Most people find Tim fairly nonthreatening. If you—"

The invisible Mary interrupted. (This place certainly seemed to have its share of people that weren't there.) "Pris—"

"Yes, Mary?"

"Developing situation at the Bower; Class Three."

I was a little surprised. It didn't make Priscilla look happier; just more alert. "On my way!"

"Kate will meet you," Mary said, but Priscilla was already gone. She moved like a panther chasing a cheetah, and nothing she did including closing the door behind her made the slightest sound. I felt almost sorry for the ass or asses who were making trouble in the Bower, whatever that was. (Bower-y bums?)

Lady Sally watched her go expressionlessly. "As I was saying—" she began, but the door opened again and a tall slender guy came in.

"I love it when she does that!" he said, eyes shinning. "Like a cat on ice skates. She cornered in third gear, and I swear she wouldn't have left a trail on rice paper."

He was in his late twenties, medium length black hair, green eyes, six two or three, a hundred and sixty pounds tops, very fit. He had a pleasant, youthful face. If you were his agent you'd have pitched him as the Hero's Best Friend, the Eager Rookie. He wore dark slippers, dark slacks, and a green silk shirt. It was buttoned up to one short of his throat, but the sleeves were unbuttoned. That made me look closer. They weren't bracelets. They were rope marks.

Most people found him non-threatening . . .

"Excuse me," he said to me. "I could just watch Priscilla run like that for hours."

"Pleasure to meet a fellow sports fan," I told him.

He turned to Lady Sally. "You called, Your Ladyship?"

"Tim, this is . . . I'm sorry, what is your name?"

"Taggart," I said. "Ken."

"Hi, Ken. Pleased to meet you too." We shook hands. Nice grip.

"Mr. Taggart might be joining the staff, Tim," Lady Sally said. "I'd like you to take him on an inspection tour. Would you mind?"

"I'd be happy to. My dance card is clear for the rest of the night."

"Any problems just now?" she asked obliquely.

He grinned. "Naw. I've got her right where I want her. I'm eating out of the palm of her hand."

"How are things generally, dear?"

"With me? Couldn't be better," he said, with obvious sincerity. "Why do you ask?"

She smiled back at him. "You know perfectly well why."

"Yes, I do," he said, and made a little bow. Not a Von Stroheim, a Japanese monk kind. "I love you too."

"Very satisfactorily. Now be off with you, children; Mother wants to brood. Tim, you go ahead, and Ken will catch right up with you, all right?"

"I'll be right with you," I agreed.

"Sure," he said, and left.

When the door had shut behind him I turned to Lady Sally. "You first," I said.

"I'd like you to leave all your weapons here on the desk, please," she said with just enough emphasis that I knew she'd received a full report. "I don't like people walking around my House armed. There's a gun check at the front door; they'll be waiting there for you with your overcoat when you leave."

I shrugged. "How about if I keep the blackjack? I might meet the Little Man Who Wasn't There."

She frowned slightly. "True. All right."

I put both guns, the knucks and the switchblade on the desk.

"Now you," she said.

"You don't happen to have somebody . . . well, more like my kind of guy available to show me around? A little more . . . I don't know . . ."

"Butch?" she suggested.

"The guy's got rope burns on his wrists, for Christ's sake. I just don't think I could be very simpatico with a guy like that."

The twinkle went out of her eye. I have to say I was sorry to see it go. "Mr. Quigley," she said, all the tiddliness gone from her voice, "I begin to wonder if this is a waste of time. Yes, I have artists on staff who are 'more your kind of guy'—and they would teach you very little. The most important lesson you have to learn about my House you will get through your head right now, or get the hell out: within these walls, you will be tolerant of anything you find strange. I don't insist on sophistication, but I won't accept rudeness. Think what you like about Tim's tastes—or those of anyone here, artist or client—but if you don't show perfect respect to each one of them, at all times, I'll have Priscilla kiss you goodbye. That will be all for now."

I stopped at the door and turned back. This was where a wisecrack was supposed to go. "Uh . . ." I said.

She looked up—and softened when she saw my face. "I beg your pardon, Joe. Look here: I probably have two dozen artists on staff whose sexual tastes and proclivities closely overlap your own. But not one of them suffers from the delusion that theirs is the Only Right Way To Be. That syndrome is the single most common sexual psychosis of this era, and it is my belief that it is virtually always the victim's fault. But I could be wrong."

"I don't know about that," I said. I felt lousy.

"You are not a bad man, Joe Quigley. For your place and time. Plop you down in the Renaissance just as you are now, you might be the Bertrand Russell of your day. Will you keep one thing in mind for me? No one is going to ask you to do anything you find repulsive—or even uninteresting, I promise." Suddenly she smirked. "That is, they might very well ask—but they will take a no philosophically, and for keeps."

"I get you," I said. "Thanks. Uh . . . one last thing. Just to keep things straight. Is an 'inspection tour' the same thing as being comped?"

The twinkle was back. "Yes. But remember, you've only got 'til dawn."

"I'm a business-first kind of guy," I assured her.

"Just remember one other thing."


"I know your real name too."

I blinked. "Yes, Ma'am."


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