Protected: The Crossroads, Chapter 23: Carrion, of a Sort
Protected: The Crossroads, Chapter 22: Promises Kept, Circles Completed
Protected: The Crossroads, Chapter 21: She-Lord of Ka
Protected: The Crossroads, Chapter 20: A Plan for Three Fronts
Whom Emperors Have Served, Chapter 2: An Aviator’s Afterlife
Let’s see how long I can keep the alliteration rolling. This is the second chapter to this piece, which I’ve recently decided I actually do want to complete. The KiY references continue, except now with additional overtones of Titanic and obscure Alec Baldwin movies.
“I am to understand it arrived in port on Thursday. Have you been by to see it yet?”
The words breezed lazily across Lamont Sterling’s wavering locus of attention. He wasn’t especially interested in their meaning, though he could do without the way the fricatives gently pushed their needles into his hungover temples. Inclining his head, he stared, half-lidded at the fluid parade of foot, cart, and automobile traffic proceeding past the window of his uncle’s Rolls-Royce as it sped along South Street.
“I’d meant to stroll by the harbor yesterday afternoon,” Harold continued. “But then lunch stretched into a sales meeting, and by the time it was done, I–Lamont, are you quite alright?”
Lamont was not particularly alright, but this was a stable state of affairs. He was operating–if one could call it that–on his usual four hours of fitful sleep, and he was reeling from the aftereffects of last night’s tonic, the barrage of martinis and Suffering Bastards calibrated precisely to keep him drunk enough to be enchanted by Manhattan’s high society and yet not so drunk as to be gripped by a fascination for its deconstruction. Not enough, and the hopelessness of postwar life seeped in through even the liveliest party’s atmosphere; too much, and, well, he’d crossed that line only once before. Appeasing the poor Carnegie boy’s family after that incident had been expensive and exhausting, and Lamont was worried he would not have Harold’s help doing it a second time. At its best, though, it was a tolerable lifestyle. But mornings were, quite reliably, not the lifestyle’s best.
“Yes, yes, Uncle,” he mumbled. “No, I haven’t seen the boat. I was also busy yesterday.”
“Yes, of course,” Harold said, though Lamont was fairly sure his uncle was aware he had spent yesterday’s daylight hours in his sitting room, curtains drawn, with a glass of seltzer and a plate of sandwiches. “Well, I think you should perhaps have made an effort. It would be good for you to take more of an interest in Mr. Hawberk’s affairs.”
“Eh?” Harold fixed him with an attempt at an even stare.
“He considers you a potential business partner.” Lamont scoffed.
“Bullshit,” he said. Harold seemed to start at the coarseness of the retort, but only for a moment.
“I have it on good authority.”
Lamont rubbed the bridge of his nose and blinked before meeting his uncle’s gaze.
“You’re serious?” he asked. “Who told you that?”
“I heard it from Louis Castaigne,” Harold said. “He and I met at Delmonico’s earlier this week. He let slip that Mr. Hawberk was planning an expansion into aircraft and was hoping you would consult.”
“Thought he was smarter than that,” Lamont muttered with an eye roll.
“I think it’s a good opportunity,” Harold affirmed. “For both of you. The Post called you ‘an icon of American aviation,’ Lamont. You are an accomplished man, and I think you would be better served acting like it.”
Lamont felt his eyes snap to Harold almost involuntarily. He quickly suppressed the rage, but not before some portion of it flashed across his face. Harold must have noticed–his own expression quickly softened.
“Lamont,” he said, quieter. “I know, with your father still missing–”
“This isn’t about Dick,” Lamont spat.
“Then what is it about?”
Lamont didn’t answer for a moment. He put his arm up on the sill and looked out the window. The car had slowed behind an unhurried horse carriage, and it was drawing stares from nearby pedestrians for whom the opulence of the vehicle was no doubt an uncommon sight.
“Don’t worry about it, Uncle,” he said at last. “I’ll talk to Hawberk. See what he wants.” Then, after a moment: “How is Louis, anyway? I haven’t seen him since he left for exercises upstate.”
“He seemed well. A little rattled, I’ll confess. Apparently, he’d just struck a man with his car, though no one was injured.”
“Thank heavens,” Lamont commented, disinterested.
“He and Constance are engaged now.”
“He seemed excited to share it,” Harold continued. “I, for one, had not realized how protracted their courtship had become. Louis put the onus on himself, of course. He said that Mr. Hawberk had offered his blessing freely, but he was too concerned with his brother’s treatment to commit.”
“Apparently, Hildred is doing much better now. Louis says he has a job working for Mr. Hawberk.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Lamont remarked to the window, though Harold seemed to hear it well enough.
“What do you mean?”
Lamont meant that he did not consider Hildred Castaigne’s employment at Hawberk Armoury and Defense a job, strictly speaking. He had little personal experience with the man, but by every account except Louis’, Hildred was either a simpleton or a lunatic, and, with some awareness of the irony, Lamont doubted that such a man would so abruptly be rehabilitated into productive society. But he didn’t say that. Harold, by virtue of his own success and his brother’s fame, was thoroughly embedded in New York’s fine-grained upper crust, for whom the notion of a “job” was a signal-frazzling concept. For reasons entirely divorced from wages and necessity, employment was vitally necessary for a working man’s character and nigh anathema for the elite. Lamont doubted that Harold cared whether Hildred’s job description was merely to occupy a chair for appearance’s sake, but he knew a detail Harold would care about:
“He works for Hawberk’s accountant.” Harold’s face fell immediately.
“Ah,” he said. “I see now why Louis didn’t mention that detail.”
“Indeed.” Traffic had picked up, and they were once more speeding toward their destination at the harbor. After a brief silence, Harold spoke again:
“Do you expect Mr. Wilde will be in attendance on the voyage?”
“I doubt the little goblin would let Hawberk out of his sight for a week.”
“Lamont!” Oh. Lamont raised an eyebrow at Harold’s show of shock. If only he’d heard the things his own brother made a habit of spewing from his mouth.
“You brought it up,” he said with a shrug. “Don’t tell me you don’t feel similarly.”
“Don’t tell me you’ll be speaking like that this week!”
“I’ll speak how I like, Uncle. Hawberk invited me after all. And besides, it’s not like Wilde would take offense. I’ve scarcely met a man with so little ego in my life.”
“How do you mean?” Harold looked puzzled. Lamont frowned. He knew exactly what he meant, but he was disturbed to notice the thought was not his. It was an observation he had been trained to make for purposes Harold would not understand. Was better off not understanding.
“I mean the man is goal-focused and cares little for banter,” he clarified. He declined to add the corollary which had motivated the analysis–Zongchang’s criteria by which he and Lamont knew their enemies: A man without an ego was a man at his most dangerous. But Harold knew nothing of Feng Zongchang, would be dismayed to learn, likely; and Lamont was eager enough to forget as it was.
“Ah,” Harold acknowledged, probably attempting to square his and Lamont’s clear disdain for Felix Wilde with what had sounded like a compliment. Oh well, Lamont thought. His uncle would figure it sooner or later. Out the window, he watched as Manhattan’s vistas of brick and concrete gave way to the expanse of ocean, sky, docks, and nautical vessels of every kind that constituted New York’s harbor. All that, of course, and the towering form of The Prince’s Emblazoned, Hawberk’s ocean liner, upon which he would be spending his next week.
Fortunately, the voyage was meant to be leisurely, a celebratory jaunt into and out of the Atlantic for the benefit of Hawberk’s shareholders, New York’s rich and famous, and the skeleton crew lightheartedly waiting on them. Lamont knew there were mercantile undertones to the affair, that what they were celebrating–perhaps prematurely–was a pivot to Hawberk Armoury and Defense’s postwar future in vehicles and civilian mass transit, a future for which The Prince’s Emblazoned was both an advertisement and a prototype, but he had little interest in engaging with that thread. If, as Harold believed, Hawberk was going to insist on dragging him in, he would entertain the notion. Perhaps he would even halfheartedly consult, but Lamont had little interest in a future in commercial aviation. As far as he was concerned, he was living out his afterlife. Manhattan’s heaven wasn’t especially enthralling, but it sure as hell beat being Dick Sterling’s errand boy. And Manchuria…he’d take anything after that, he supposed.
As the car slowed to a halt at the curb before the harbor, the driver called back from the front seat:
“Shall I deliver your luggage, Master Lamont?”
“I’ll get it, Alec, thanks,” Lamont said, pushing his door open and stepping out onto the sidewalk.
“I’m going to say my hello to Mr. Hawberk as well,” Harold said, his voice muffled from within the vehicle. “Do you mind waiting?”
Alec would not mind, Lamont was sure, but he respected that his uncle gave the help that sort of consideration when his father never would. Lamont had no mind to wait, though. He swiftly grabbed his bags from the trunk and headed toward the leviathan waiting in the harbor. As he neared, and the whites and blues of The Prince’s Emblazoned loomed more and more like a skyscraper, taking on the character of an institution more permanent than mere conveyance, he spotted a familiar party gathered near the gangway.
Tall, broad, and regal despite his effusive charisma, William Hawberk waited beside it in his pristine white suit, greeting a steady line of newcomers–shareholders and business connections, broadly–embarking the monstrous vessel. By his side, close enough to be considered “involved” in the greeting but just far enough to avoid materially participating, was his daughter, Constance; her fiancé, decorated Army Major Louis Castaigne; and her confidante, Carol, whom Lamont did not know well and trusted even less. She had the air of someone with something to gain from delving into others’ business, something more than the socialite’s characteristic nosiness. And of course, in the shade of a nearby tree, separated some thirty feet from the rest of the greeting party, Lamont spotted the aloof, swaying frame of Hildred Castaigne and, beside him, eyes fixed on the procession in the manner of a chef perusing a butcher shop, the short, gnarled, shrunken-headed accountant to Mr. Hawberk’s enterprises: Mr. Felix Wilde, himself.
Catching Wilde’s gaze, Lamont smiled politely if unconvincingly before snatching the shoulder of a passing crew member.
“‘Ey, what’s the bi–oh, hi Monty!”
“Ira. I see the referral worked.”
“You bet it did!” Ira Soskin replied, hefting an almost comical mass of instrument bags over his shoulder. “They booked me the whole week! The accountant fellow said if it goes well there’d be weekly gigs after.” Lamont glanced back at Wilde. The dwarf was speaking to a tall, shabbily dressed man whom he did not recognize.
“Well I hope it’s true,” he said. “You never know with that guy. Also, that uniform doesn’t suit you.”
“Someone piss in your coffee or somethin’?”
Lamont rubbed his temples. Perhaps that was rude. But it was true: The baggy sailor’s uniform was a poor match for Ira’s short, slight, artist’s physique, not to mention its clash with the dark, understated, bespectacled aesthetic Lamont had come to associate with him. He had met Ira when he had first returned to New York last year. He’d done his drinking alone then, having not yet discovered the cachet to be won by feeding his liberally edited Oriental exploits to wide-eyed debutantes who had never left the American Northeast. They had met in a jazz club, New York’s preeminent supplier of social solitude, and by virtue of some careful scheduling, they seemed to keep meeting. Lamont liked the kid. He was driven, idealistic, riding the star of his own deserved success. He was exactly the type of young man Dick had wanted Lamont to be, save for the jazz and the Jewishness–but those ironies, that standing evidence that Dick was wrong, only made their friendship more reassuring.
“Sorry,” Lamont sighed. “Last night was as bad as usual. Got any hooch?”
“Monty, it ain’t even 10 AM!”
“You do have it, then?”
“What is wrong with you?”
Lamont again looked back to Wilde. The tall man was now looking directly at him with an unusual expression, like he was taking notes on something. Lamont raised a hand in his direction, as if to ask “You want something?” Luckily, the man intuited the true meaning of the gesture and looked away. Ira, following his wandering attention, if not its particulars, set his instruments on the ground. In spite of his care, they still clattered into a chaotic heap.
“Fine,” he said, pulling a flask from a duffel–by Lamont’s estimate, the only non-musical baggage on him. “I expect a fat tip this evening, though!”
“You know I’m good for it, Ira,” Lamont replied, taking a deep–and not especially discreet–pull from the flask. Brandy. It would do. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Harold and Hawberk disengaging from their respects with a boisterous handshake. “I’ll have to see you then, though. That looks like my cue to kiss the ring.”
He waved Iron on, grabbed his bags once again, and headed to the gangway, waving his greeting to Constance and Louis.
“Mr. Sterling!” Hawberk called at his approach. “You look like death!”
“Glad to see it’s not mutual, Bill,” Lamont said with a muted laugh. “But you know me. I’ll be fresh as a daisy come sunset.”
“I certainly hope so!” Then, in a softer voice as he clasped Lamont’s hand: “You and I ought to chat tonight. It’s something long overdue, and–oh, there’s nothing to worry about…”
Lamont nodded and smiled. New York was a nice enough afterlife, but even at its pinnacle, it didn’t seem like he would be able to escape the reminders of his sins. Oh well. He was sure there would be booze enough for it all at sea.