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I waited only long enough to collect my hat and coat. I assumed I was being watched as I left the building. If Diamond—or whoever—was worried enough to have me threatened, he’d be worried enough to pin a tail on me. I didn’t bother trying to spot the shadow since I didn’t care who knew where I was going.
Down on the street I hailed a cab and had myself taken to the Chinese club. I paid the fair and went stiffly up the broad steps to the heavy, oaken double doors of the main entrance. The doorman, a human soul rather than a demon, had been told to expect my arrival so I got in without any of the usual fuss reserved for non-members. I went into the common room. It was full of well-dressed, dignified old gents sitting in fat chairs upholstered in dark red leather like the color of dried blood. Newspapers rustled among the occasional cough and murmured conversation. Cigar smoke hung almost everywhere while pipes and cigarettes filled in the gaps. I spotted Nares’ friend without any trouble. Like I expected, he wasn’t really wearing a green carnation but he was distinctive nonetheless. In a roomful of men in dark, Georgian clothes, the one in a violet cutaway coat is bound to stand out. He sat by himself in a far corner in one of a pair of chairs flanking a small, round table. He was reading a newspaper and smoking a cigar. The discarded sections of the paper had been tossed onto the other chair. I walked across the room and scooped the papers off the chair and set them on the table. The Irishman barely glanced up as I sat down.
“Hello, Oscar,” I said.
He folded the section he had been reading and set it on top of my untidy pile. “Good evening, Franklin,” he answered. He gave me the up and down. “By the look of you, I’d say little Nares was just too late. My apologies.”
“Skip it,” I said. “He’s a good egg. I’m sure he did his best, and those goons didn’t do anything I can’t take.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” Oscar said, sounding almost politely insincere. He hesitated and said, “Should I bother offering you a drink? Yes, I know: foolish question.” He waived over one of the attendants and had him bring over a bottle of brandy and a couple of glasses. Oscar poured, then pushed the pile of papers a little to one side to expose a flat box. He opened the lid and asked, “Cigar?” In a lower tone he added, “I advise you take one. It may draw attention away from your flat feet.” I took one, bit one end off, and Oscar lit it for me. As I took the first few puffs he took his glass, raised it slightly and said, “Your health.”
“You’re a few years too late,” I said, lifting my own glass a little, “but thanks.” I made an effort and took only a sip.
Oscar gave a chuckle that was nearly a titter. “As I’m sure I’ve said before, the Americans of your era have (or, rather, had) a marvelous—if very crude—wit that I appreciate very much.”
“Yeah, and I’m sure you’d have loved Prohibition and the way it had of making criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens.”
“Which brings us to the principal reason I asked you here: double lives.” He projected a wry smile. “Not my own, of course. Old news.” He gestured almost imperceptibly at the newspaper.
“It’s a pipe to figure you know Richard Steinauer. Or rather knew,” I added with a leer. “I only found out a little about him, all of it good except for a gambling habit.”
Oscar swirled his brandy around a little and took a minute swallow. “You are, of course, quite correct. He took only the occasional flutter. There was nothing in it compulsive or otherwise indicative of vice. Not in himself.” Oscar projected a slight frown.
When he didn’t say anything else for a few moments I said, “What did his portrait show?”
Oscar gave me a sidelong look. “There was nothing of that sort with Richard. His life, and death, were open books. Which is to say, as open as any man’s can be where respectability reigns. He was, in your vernacular, on the level. But any vice in the usual bourgeois sense, however slight, is a weakness which may be exploited by ruthless men.”
I knocked some ash off the end of my cigar into a brass ashtray the size of a soup bowl. “Oke, so now we’re getting at something important. I’m guessing Steinauer sometimes went to Diamond Maxwell’s joint. No one says he did, but it figures that’s the kind of thing someone respectable might like to keep quiet. Diamond is anything but on the level.”
“You are partly wrong there, Franklin,” Oscar chided gently. “As with many intelligent criminals, our Diamond is careful to act within the narrow letter of the law and common morality where it matters the most for his continuing freedom and survival. But in most other respects you do have a most excellent point. Aside from a conscious and hard-headed practicality, he most certainly is not on the level; and he is not above exploiting the vices of otherwise conventionally moral men. I am not certain of the details—I was not given them nor did I care to ask—but not many days ago Richard was in a game at Diamond’s establishment which was manipulated in such a way as to place him in a very delicate situation. To be succinct, he was maneuvered into losing such an amount as to have been at the mercy of even an honorable man. Diamond Maxwell offered to square the debt if Richard performed for an indefinite period certain questionable services which had something to do with counterfeiting. I’m afraid Richard was too emotional to be very lucid on this point,” Oscar sounded a little apologetic as he said this, “and I am not at all certain as to whether he was being asked to engage in counterfeiting itself or in authenticating in some fashion counterfeits provided by Diamond. The offer was presented with the usual gangland threats, I expect. Richard sought out my advice, and I admit I scarcely knew what to tell him. On the one hand was almost certain professional ruin and prison, and on the other the likelihood of personal annihilation. I could only lay out these choices in brutally direct terms.”
It was a nice, tidy story (if a vague one) but I knew Oscar as a basically honest man in most things where he wasn’t directly involved. If he said that Diamond had put the squeeze on Steinauer then I had to take that seriously. I certainly wouldn’t have put it past Diamond.
“I’m not sure I would have known what advice to give, either,” I said when Oscar’s story had ground to a halt, “although I might have thrown in something about going to the police. The DOD is pretty good about protecting people. It’s a nasty situation he got himself into, all right, but Steinauer is partly to blame for choosing to play games with a mug like Diamond.”
“Nonsense,” Oscar countered in a dismissive tone. “He simply had the bad fortune to have had a profession by which Diamond Maxwell believed he could profit. You and I both gamble on occasion. Perhaps you yourself have never patronized that particular den of bourgeois iniquity, but you have made any number of visits to the racetrack in Rubacava which also is operated by another alleged racketeer, so do not pretend to virtues I know you do not possess.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “So what stopped Steinauer from walking away from the table when he started to lose? There’s no clever answer to that one.” I paused to take another swallow from the brandy snifter and then played a hunch. “Nares ran into you at Diamond’s joint, so that’s yet another low dive you ornament. Did Steinauer find it on his own, or did you take him there yourself one fine evening? You don’t have to answer that. Your face is doing it for you.”
Oscar looked at nothing in particular for a few moments, then looked back at me and said, “I would like to ask a question of you, if you don’t mind.”
“Shoot,” I said.
“Have you any idea how your involvement in this affair became known? That is something that was not dropped in my hearing and I’m rather curious.” He projected a warm smile I didn’t trust but didn’t argue with. “I’m thinking of writing a play about a detective, you see.”
“I wasn’t involved until now,” I answered with a too-sunny smile of my own, “but I made the mistake of introducing myself to Steinauer with one of my business cards. It was found on him. By whom and in what circumstances I’ll leave to your all-too vivid imagination.”
The Irishman went quiet for a short time. “My imaginings on that subject are exceedingly dark,” he finally said. He fell silent again.
“No changes there,” I needled. “One last thing: was Diamond still there when you left?” Oscar said he was. I polished off my brandy and stabbed my cigar into the ashtray. “Oke.” I stood up. “Thanks for the snort, the smoke, and the info. In that order.”
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