Michael Collins

Silent Scream



We tend to dream of perfection. The perfect job, the perfect life, the perfect woman.

A cold January day on the East Side as I came out of the subway and walked north on Lexington Avenue, and six months since Marty had married her director. Martine Adair, my woman, but not any more. Martine Reston now, and a one-armed man dreams more than most, makes perfect what never was or should have been.

She had replaced my missing arm for so long, and now in my morning mirror there was only one arm and no woman. Six months of booze, and of watching her new apartment from a solitary doorway across the street. Finally, a morning of daylight, and the call of a client with a job. Reality.

Perfection doesn’t exist. In the reality of daylight and action most of us accept that, but alone in the long nights we dream fantasies of perfection as unreal as the dream world of any psychotic. The only difference between most of us and the psychotic is that the psychotic lets the dream world win. Maybe they are braver, more honest. They take the plunge, escape. Only that is no escape, either, no answer.

Work, that’s the answer. A job can be completed, wrapped up. The only perfection we know. Finished, paid for, and on to the next job. A fresh start, the possible. So I walked north on Lexington in the cold morning, a Wednesday, to Morgan Crafts.

It was a small store between Fifty-fifth and Fifty-sixth Streets, two steps down, with only three items displayed in its window: a bright Turkish jug, a Cambodian green Buddha, and a wooden Amazonian mask. Classy. No bell tinkled as I went in. The atmosphere was like thin glass and hushed. More items of far-flung native crafts were displayed on shelves and in showcases. A single female clerk talked in the rear to a small, thin, pasty-faced man in a rich, blue cashmere overcoat too wide and too long, as if he hoped to grow bigger.

“I’m sorry,” the clerk was saying. “Mrs. Morgan is busy.”

“I got to see her,” the little man said, tried to push past the woman toward a doorway behind a desk curtained by hanging beads. The woman was bigger than he was, blocked him.

“If you’d like to wait, or give your name,” the clerk said.

“Okay, I’ll wait a while. Only-” The small man’s body seemed to move inside his voluminous overcoat as he glanced around the shop. He saw me. Small, black eyes jumped in his narrow, bony face, and a livid scar twitched at the base of his long nose. He looked sharply all around me, and beyond me out the window to the street.

“I’ll come back sometime,” he said.

“If you’ll tell me-” the clerk began.

But the little man went past me almost running. He veered around me as if I were dangerous to touch, left the door open behind him, and vanished hurrying to the left down Lexington. I closed the door, walked back to the clerk.

“Your customers leave in a hurry,” I said.

“He wasn’t a customer,” she said, annoyed. “Not a normal one, anyway. He wanted to see Mrs. Morgan.”

“So do I, but I have a name: Dan Fortune. Mrs. Morgan called me. Ten o’clock appointment.”

She looked at a wall clock. It was five of ten.

“Well,” she hesitated. “I’ll see.”

She went back through the beaded curtain uneasily. I guessed that Mrs. Morgan ran a tight ship, strict rules and orders. But the clerk returned almost at once and smiling. This time she had done right, Mrs. Morgan would see me.

“Through the curtain, first door on the left,” the clerk said.

I knocked on the door, a woman’s voice told me to come in. A young voice, and inside the neat, precise office the woman behind an ornate, antique desk was young. Very young. Maybe twenty-two-or-three, with big, dark eyes, a full mouth in a pale-olive face, and long, straight black hair. A cool face.

“You’re Mr. Fortune?” She looked me over, her face neutral but the question in her voice-a one-armed detective? It’s always there.

“Private investigator,” I said. “License and all.”

She stood up, nodded to a man who sat so quietly in a corner I hadn’t seen him. An old man. Or just older? His hair was white, but thick, and his swarthy, square face had a firm glow. Short and stocky, he wore a white turtle-neck and a well-cut dark blue suit that hung without a wrinkle on wide shoulders and a body without fat. When he stood, too, it was an easy, fluid motion, muscular. His voice was soft, relaxed.

“Later, Mia? About four?”

“All right,” Mia Morgan said.

The old man nodded to me, smiled, and left the office. Mia Morgan waited for a moment, then motioned me to follow her. She went out through the store, stopped to say something short and low to the clerk, then went on out of the store in brisk strides and turned right without looking back to be sure I was behind her.

She turned into a door next to the shop, and led me up to the second floor into a large, sunny apartment directly over her shop. A bohemian apartment, all bright plastic and native crafts.

“Wait here,” she said.

I looked over the apartment. She had gone into a large bedroom with a king-sized bed under an African throw I could see through the open door. There was a second bedroom that had been turned into a craft workshop, and a good kitchen. All the furniture was bold and individual, almost defiant.

Mia Morgan returned. She held a snapshot.

“I want to know who the woman in this picture is, where she lives, what she does. I want pics of the men she dates-together with her. All I know is that she frequents an East Side restaurant: Le Cerf Agile. I’ll give you a week.”

In the snapshot a man of average height stood with his back to the camera facing a blonde woman in front of an apartment building. He wore a dark homburg, dark overcoat, and silk scarf. The blonde was maybe thirty-and a beauty. A real beauty-a cover-girl face, or a movie-star face in the days when the movies featured beauty. Not tall, she had perfect curves only partly hidden by a cloth coat of wide stripes, and her blonde hair curled on her shoulders from under one of those mannish felt hats Greta Garbo used to wear.

“Not much to go on,” I said. “What’s your interest in her?”

“You know all you need to,” Mia Morgan said. “Yes or no? I can get someone else.”

A detective who expected his clients to tell all wouldn’t work much. A hazard of the trade. Half the time you never do learn the whole story, and Mia Morgan was right-she could get fifty other investigators who wouldn’t ask questions. I needed the money, and wanted the work. I wanted to be busy. It was as good an excuse as any.

“All right,” I said, looked at the apartment. “A hundred a day plus expenses. Extra for the camera work.”

“Five hundred now, the rest on final bill.”

I nodded. She went to a lacquered blue desk to write the check. I watched her. People who hire detectives are usually scared, angry, emotional or nervous. She wasn’t emotional, and didn’t sound scared. Cold, maybe, a little tight, but not nervous. A poised, controlled girl of twenty-two who sounded and acted a lot older. No surprises left, as if she had been through all the youthful troubles there were and more.

She stood up with the check. “One week. Tops.”

“I’ll do my best,” I said.

“Everything about her, and don’t be spotted.”

A girl who knew what she wanted, whatever it was. Mr. Morgan cheating on her? Her age was against that. Young girls, even older-acting ones, usually take more direct routes with their men than hiring detectives. Some

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