Michael Collins

Night of the Toads

Chapter One

I’d never have remembered the girl if Ricardo Vega had been another man. He wasn’t. He was ‘Rey’ Vega to anyone who claimed to know him well-El Rey, the King.

We don’t admit it, but we consider a successful man a better man. A prince of success, an inevitable winner. Maybe it’s only that we never lost our need for princes, and if we don’t have an aristocracy, we make one. An aristocracy is comforting. It takes us off the hook-we never really had a chance to make it big. At the same time of course, since an aristocracy of success isn’t really closed to us, we can all dream. A contradiction, sure, but logic has never bothered people’s attitudes much.

The trouble is that the successful man himself has a way of coming to believe he is better. From there it’s an almost automatic step to believing he was always better-born better, a different breed of man. A man who should have rights and privileges ordinary men don’t have. A special man, superior, a king. That was Vega. I didn’t know him well enough to call him Rey, and he made me remember the girl.

Or maybe it was the weather.

One of those wet springs in New York when the streets are under water, and no collar can keep the wind- driven rain out. All through March, when Marty came home with her show from Philadelphia, and through most of April, Marty was in a bad mood. (Martine Adair, my girl, who is almost twenty-eight and hasn’t been a girl since long before I met her. She wasn’t born with the name, or with anything else that she cares about now, except, maybe, the ability to work hard and long for what she wants. She wants to be an actress. No, to act, and she’s good. Being good isn’t always easy, not when you want to be good more than you want to be known.

Her bad mood that April wasn’t all the weather. She had trouble in her show. It came to be my trouble on another rainy Thursday in my small and grey bedroom.

‘Go and kill him, Dan! Right now!’

‘Knife, gun or my bare hand?’

She sat up in the bed. A small woman with long red hair, and big eyes, and the face of a young boy. It’s the combination of the boy-face on the woman’s body that kills the men, including me. That and her eagerness. She vibrates when she’s sitting motionless. Her walk is a stride, and her anger is fury.

‘He should be dead! He’s got to die!’

‘He will, honey. We all do.’

‘Spare me the damned philosophy, and do something.’

‘You want me to kill him for you? Just like that?’

‘Passionately!’ She lighted a cigarette, and looked down at me by the light of the flame. ‘I mean it.’

She did mean it. I saw that in her eyes: a cold, gripping fury. She wanted Ricardo Vega dead, destroyed. And no, she didn’t mean it; not the normal, civilized Marty. Both, and at the same time. The complex drives of our needs.

‘It’s my role, I worked for it,’ she said. ‘Kurt says I’m good. He’s the director. He says don’t worry, but at the bank Vega’s the whole show, and I know it. I fought him off in Philly, I don’t want to fight anymore. I want him to stop. I don’t want him in my bed.’

‘Can he get you fired?’

‘Of course, if he made an issue. I don’t think he will.’

‘But you’re not sure, baby?’

‘I’m sure, and I’m not sure.’

‘So maybe you’ll say “yes” in the end?’

‘Does that make you sick?’ Her eyes flashed down at me, because her anger had to go somewhere. Then she touched me, and turned her face away again. ‘The key word Dan-“maybe.” That’s how they work, the important lechers, the big-scorers who have to have what they’re supposed to want-every girl they meet. He’s attractive, they always are: handsome, strong, a public figure. He’s exciting, and he’s nice, you know? He won’t get a girl fired, of course not, but…? Why should a girl risk even that small maybe when it really might be pleasant? Bingo! It’s easy when you know how, have the weapons.’

Her voice was bitter in the grey evening light. She has fine breasts. I watched her breasts, and the long hair thick on her shoulders. That’s me. She is someone else. She has her own needs.

‘What do you want, Marty?’

‘Go and tell him. He doesn’t get me fired, and he doesn’t get me! Hit him. Knock him down.’

‘With a club? One arm never won fair lady brawling.’

‘Scare him! You’re a detective. Make him stop, Dan, before I say “why not” because I’m scared of losing it all.’

‘All right, Marty,’ I said.

She dropped her cigarette into the ashtray, lay close against me. She was warm. ‘Hurt him, Dan. Scare him. I worked so damned hard for the chance.’

I knew how hard she’d worked for it, her first real role in a play, and after she had dressed and gone to her chorus rehearsal, I watched the rain for a while. When your woman asks you to act for her, you better act. At least, you had better if you wanted her friendly for the next month. I didn’t want to meet Ricardo Vega on those terms. I didn’t want to go to Vega so she would be nice to me later. It’s not a noble reason-if it is honest, and the reason most men do favours for women, if the women want to face the way it is or not.

Yet I did want to meet Vega. I don’t like men who trade on fear or hope; who scare or intice with their power to make or break dreams. So after a while I got up, dressed, and made myself think about that better reason for what I was doing. By the time I had my raincoat on I’d worked up a good anger. No one should ever have to live scared.

On my way out to get a taxi, I picked up a book I’d been reading. Vega was a producer, director, investor of his own money as well as an actor, and a book in my hand might help me get past the door easier.

The taxi dropped me at Lexington and Eighty-first Street. As I walked towards Vega’s building the rain seemed to come down harder. An elegant marquee sheltered the glass-and-chrome doors of Vega’s building, and a uniformed doorman stood inside the doors. I walked on. My book wouldn’t help me get inside if I let the doorman announce me.

The basement service entrance bristled with signs that warned undesirables, but the door was unlocked. Those doors usually are, I’ve found. Detective experience has some uses. I stepped lightly in the basement in case a super was around, and went up into the lobby. I was lucky, the door opened into a wing of the lobby out of the doorman’s sight. The elevators were self-service. Service wages are too high, so we live in an era of automation.

There were loud voices behind Vega’s door when I rang. I had to ring again before the door was opened by a rawboned blond man with a lean, rough face and hungry eyes. His clothes-grey jacket, blue shirt and tie above the waist; chino levis and black Wellington boots below-and boyish but battered face gave the impression of a travelled twenty-year-old, but he was older: maybe twenty-eight. He looked uncertainly at my wet raincoat, black beret, book, and empty left sleeve as if he didn’t know what he was supposed to do next.

I helped him out. ‘I want to see Vega.’

‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged. ‘I’m waitin’ myself.’

‘Fine,’ I said, and pushed in. ‘That makes two of us.’

I was wrong. In the antechamber a skinny girl sat in a chrome chair as if waiting for execution, a thick play script held on her lap in both hands. In the living room, through an archway, there were three more people. The living room was mammoth, crammed with eclectic furniture that had cost twenty years’ rent of my five cold-water rooms, and with the walls hidden by masses of magnificent paintings-all abstract, and all originals. The room of a prince of the world of art who breathed every minute in the rarefied air of the business of talent and genius, who

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