Final Curtain: An Edna Ferber Mystery (Edna Ferber Mysteries) (3 page)

BOOK: Final Curtain: An Edna Ferber Mystery (Edna Ferber Mysteries)
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“I don’t like him,” I repeated.

“I know, I know.” A deep sigh. “What little I know…I asked Bea about him after we met him at Cheryl’s…well…he loses every job he gets. That I know. He makes enemies. He’s too cocksure. Trouble follows him. I’m paraphrasing Bea’s laudatory description of him, or, better said, I’m reading between the lines.”

“Wonderful.” Now I sighed. “And he’ll ruin my week here.”

“Edna, I’ll be there in a couple days. I don’t think he’ll ruin anything. He won’t bother
. The worst he’ll do is give you some bad memories.”

George was the most notorious pessimist I knew—superstitious, a man who believed each new play or venture was doomed. So this burst of good cheer alarmed me. This wasn’t the George Kaufman I knew.

“Is he dangerous?” The question seemed appropriate, if odd.

Another long pause. “All men are in danger when they near your rocky shores, Edna. Men are…”

The line went dead because I’d hung up on George. Not for the first time, true, and doubtless not the last.

Chapter Three

No one paid me any attention as I strolled down the street the next morning, not the usual clipped, purposeful walk I always did in New York—my military stride up Park and down Lexington, one mile, brisk and steady. No, in the growing heat of nine o’clock Maplewood, I sauntered past the shops and homes in the Village, enjoying the laziness of it all, the occasional passing car, a few briefcase-toting businessmen tipping their fedoras to me as they scurried to the train station for a late commute into the city.

But already the day was becoming blistering, the temperature edging upward, perhaps ninety by noon, and the thermometer outside Pietz’s Deli already registered eighty-one. Perspiring, I stopped for a cherry soda at the Full Moon Café, just down from Foster’s Five and Dime, which also wooed me with a special on banana splits. Alone in the café, refreshed, I was served with aplomb by a wiry old woman in a hairnet who stood close to my table, arms folded.

“You’re Edna Ferber.” A tickle in her voice.

“I am.”

Show Boat

I nodded.

She walked away, though she glanced back over her shoulder, a sliver of a smile on her face.

When I went to pay, she shrugged my coins away. “A treat for me, ma’am.” Then she laughed. “When you come back for lunch later on—my tuna casserole is the special today, you’ll love it—I’ll charge you double.” She extended her hand. “Name’s Mamie Trout, owner.” She laughed at her own joke, and I joined in. A stringy old woman in a homemade embroidered apron, she moved with small, cat-like shuffling steps.

Of course, tempted, I did return later that afternoon, after the lunch crowd was gone, opening the front door so the overhead bell clanged. Only a couple of tables were occupied by single diners. I settled myself into a rickety wrought-iron ice-cream parlor chair by the window. A quiet room now, with Mamie Trout leaning against one of the dull gray walls under an old copper ceiling. Currier and Ives prints, much faded, in old wooden frames. “Knew you’d be back,” Mamie chortled. “I refused Rufus Griswold, himself the mayor, the last portion of my casserole. For you. The man was fit to be tied.”

She didn’t wait for my response but hurried into her kitchen, emerging with a heaping dish of her daily special, served with a generous chunk of warm pumpernickel bread. She stood over me, arms folded into her bony chest, eyes bright, as I tasted the food. Before I could say anything, she flicked her head and turned away. Of course, she’d sized up my expression: utter joy. For, indeed, the tuna casserole—that redundant church supper staple and never a favorite of mine—was a savory dish, a wonderful amalgam of chunky tuna, celery, onions, carrots, and raisins, a bit of mayonnaise—but something more, some aromatic spice, undefined, that gave it a vaguely Moroccan touch. I knew now where I’d be eating lunch during my stay in Maplewood.

“Good, wouldn’t you say?”

A voice from across the room. It was a line that should have been part of a conspiratorial smile or laugh, the desultory conversation of strangers in a restaurant who have made a culinary discovery. When I glanced over, the young woman repeated it—the same mechanical inflection, deadpan, the matter-of-fact rhythm of an announcer in a Pathé newsreel at the movies.


“You’re Edna Ferber.”

“Indeed, I am. So you’ve heard of me?”

“I’m Annika Tuttle. You haven’t heard of me.”

“I’m afraid I haven’t.”

“You would have if you lived here.”

“And why’s that?”

Now a smile, smug, large, a mouth full of perfect teeth.

“I preach at the Assembly of God over on Tuscan Road. I work with the celebrated evangelist, Clorinda Roberts Tyler. You’ve heard of
, of course.”

I hesitated. “I’m afraid I haven’t.”

That startled her, and for a moment she was silent, sipping her drink.

A small woman, given to girlish plumpness, with apple-red cheeks on a round, wide face that was somehow closed up. Long, puffy honey-blonde hair cascaded over her shoulders, neatly combed but with none of the shellacked coiffure so many young girls effected these days. Her eyes were a faded hazel, set too close together so that she probably always looked puzzled. Perhaps early twenties, she looked…matronly, in fact, yet still pretty, a farm girl. Wholesome with a kind of laundry-day brightness. This look was also the result of her dress: a checkered pale blue-and-white smock, gingham most likely, and utterly decorous, with a ruff of lace around her neck, her long sleeves cuffed with lace. The merest hint of lipstick on her lips, so faint perhaps I imagined it. A Mennonite lass, transported into Jersey.

Now she announced, a little haughtily, “Clorinda Roberts Tyler was a disciple of Aimee Semple McPherson in California. The legendary Sister Aimee herself. We are God’s emissaries here. She is my teacher. I’m her lieutenant in God’s army. I—”

I held up my hand, impatient. “You talk as if we’re in a war.”

She stared at me, unblinking. “Well, we
. With Satan. With
.” Her hand pointed out the window as a rattletrap Ford jalopy sped by, horn blaring and tires squealing. Some hell-to-play Johnny out on the town, peals of laughter carrying into the café.

“Perfect timing.” I was grinning widely.

“There are worlds to conquer for Christ.” She half-rose from her seat, as though preparing to pontificate—or, worse, join me at my table.

“I wish you luck,” I said a little too snidely.

But she wasn’t listening to me. “You must come to hear Clorinda preach. Each week the crowds get larger and larger.”

“And you preach there at…at the Assembly?”

A rapid nod. “I’m an acolyte. In training. I love God…”

I smiled again. “And, I gather, Mamie Trout’s scrumptious tuna casserole.”

Still no smile. “True, I suppose. Food being…food. But I’m meeting my intended here, if he finishes his work early. Clorinda’s son, Dakota.”

“Dakota?” I squirmed. “Dak?”

She looked surprised and unhappy. “Everyone calls him that. I don’t. But you
him? How in the world?”

“Of course not. I happened to hear the name spoken last night…”

The bell over the door clanged. Evan Street shuffled in, spotted Annika immediately, and waved at her, saying her name loudly. She frowned as she dipped her head into her chest. Then, surveying the room, he spotted me, the ubiquitous bystander, sitting nearby. “Lord, Miss Ferber, we meet again.”

“Evan,” I said slowly. “You
a presence.” I looked away.

He chuckled and tried to catch my eye: the persistent charmer unused to disregard from the fair sex. Yet I detected a hint of nervousness in his words. He’d rather I not be there.

“Annika.” He turned back to the young woman, “Is Dak around?”

Annika was still frowning as she looked up. “No.” A pause. “He’ll be here in a bit. Maybe.” Her voice was brittle and shaky.

He grinned at her. “Hey, you still mad at me?” He puffed up his chest. “Dak tell you about our squabble last night? We actually pushed each other around.”

“No, we don’t talk about you.”

He grabbed a chair from her table, swiveled it around and straddled it, his long arms dropping over the back as he leaned into her. His mouth twisted into a sly grin.

“You’re cute when you try to be mean to me.” He glanced back at me, that grin still plastered across his handsome face. “Annika doesn’t like people telling her she’s pretty.”

She rolled her tongue into a flushed cheek. “Evan, Dakota already told you he don’t want you talking to me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Flattering…you know, flirting.”

“What’s he gonna do? Beat me up? He’s a little too scrawny for that. I used to knock him around when we were out in Hollywood. Did he tell you about that? One magnificent fistfight on Sunset Boulevard. Real Wild West stuff. I gave him a black eye. He cried like a baby.” A calculated pause. “He almost cried last night.”

Annika looked toward the doorway, as though fearful Dak would come in and find Evan at her table. She half-rose from her chair, deliberately, then settled back, circled her glass of iced tea with both hands. Suddenly, resolutely, she stared into Evan’s arrogant face and betrayed a cool dislike so fierce it would have withered a less cocky man. Yet she also looked as if she could crack at any moment because the corners of her mouth twitched. “You have to have every woman look at you with longing, don’t you, Evan?” Each word slowly spaced out, lethal. At the end she took a sip from her glass, her eyes still on him. “But it’s not even that, is it, Evan? Clorinda was right. She told me about men like you. It’s not even the…women. You just want to make all the men jealous. Or angry. Or fight you.” She bit her lip. “Satan has a place reserved for lost souls like you, Evan Street.”

Evan slapped the table, and roared. “Hear that, Miss Ferber? I got the attention of the big Evil One himself. Little Evan Street, heartthrob-in-training for the silver screen.”

“Your charms obviously don’t spread into the spiritual realm,” I told him.

Annika smiled at me, and I realized how pretty she was once she abandoned the severity she demanded of herself. Yes, a farm girl’s robust beauty, rosy and innocent. Her voice got stronger, more assured, fire at the edges. Like Evan, she was looking at me. “Evan’s a foolish man, made happy by the throwaway smile from any passing girl or the hostile clip on the shoulder by a cuckolded boyfriend.” She sat back, pleased with herself.

Evan pursed his brow. “What nonsense are you yammering about now?”

But Annika slipped back into her puritanical mask: tight lines around her mouth, the steely eyes, the jutting chin. She folded her arms across her chest. Evan started to say something but she pointed a finger at him. “Your name is in the Doomsday Book.”

He stood and faced me. “I guess the only woman in this room who I can charm is you, Miss Ferber.”

I locked eyes with him. “I don’t find you charming, Evan.”

“Of course, you do.”

“If anything, I find you…alarming.”

“What?” A puzzled look on his face, not happy.

“You’re a fire that throws no heat, sir.”

Annika snickered. “Satan’s fire, dark and cold.”

“Well, that’s not exactly what I was thinking,” I told her. “More like a Casanova spelling out one-syllable words from an old primer.”

Though our banter confused him, Evan seemed flattered by the attention. “I’m in the room, ladies. I can

“So can Jesus.” Said by Annika, not by me.

The door opened and Dak stood there, shadowy, framed by a wash of afternoon sunlight. His eyes darted from Evan to Annika. “What’s going on here?” His voice cracked, nervous.

“Dakota,” Annika whispered as he approached her. “You’re late.”

He was staring at Evan. “Seems to me I’m just in time.”

Evan extended his hand. “Dak, my friend, sorry about that little send-up last night. No blood spilt, right? A little misunderstanding. I don’t like scuffling with old buddies.”

Dak watched him carefully, one hand gripping the back of a chair. Of average height and with a slight build, he seemed the boy here, the ragtag neighborhood lad who trembled before the swaggering town bully. A good-looking face with glistening blue-gray eyes set off by a warm olive skin, he nervously drew his hand through his messy black hair, an unconscious gesture that was very appealing. Color rose up his neck, his eyes suddenly sad. “It’s all right,” he mumbled.

Annika fumed. “No, it isn’t, Dakota. For Lord’s sake, listen to you. This…this Hollywood degenerate appears in town and tries to…to…you know…flatter me and ask me…” She stopped, lacking the vocabulary of questionable seduction.

“Harmless,” Evan protested, though he winked.

“Let’s go.” Annika thundered, standing and looping her arm into Dakota’s. “This meeting of the Maplewood Boys’ Club is adjourned.” She nudged him along as he stumbled, sheepish, red-faced. She paused by my table, the proper Victorian girl. “Miss Ferber, this is Dakota. Dakota, Miss Ferber, the famous writer.” Dakota was nodding at me, confused by the serendipitous introduction. Annika went on. “Miss Ferber, please visit the Assembly of God.”

Dak looked into my eyes. His embarrassed smile disappeared when Annika pushed him.

Before I could answer, she opened the door of the café. A step behind her now, Dak glanced over his shoulder and I caught his eye: confusion there, true, but something else—anger. At Annika? Perhaps. Or was it dislike? Or at Evan? I had no idea what his scattered glance meant.

Evan waited a moment and then left the restaurant. But he never stared my way. Mamie Trout began clearing dishes from the tables. “That girl got her hooks into that poor boy. Nothing good’ll come of that. Mark my words. Trust me.”

“You know them?”

“His mama’s Clorinda Roberts Tyler, of course. You gotta know who that is, no? Hellfire and brimstone and salvation and redemption and Hollywood tap dance, all rolled into one hell’s-a-poppin’ spectacle. I never miss a sermon—it’s better’n amateur night at Pal’s Cabin over to West Orange. And that girl’s the daughter she never had. Joan of Arc with eyes ablazing. She comes in here and scares the bejesus outta some folks.”

“And Dak? This Dakota?”

She glanced toward the street. “Ah, that boy, the prodigal son, returned from wandering around America like a boxcar hobo. Some folks born not to know where to lay their heads down. I knew him as a boy, of course, always up to mischief in those days. Nothing mean or downright evil—just well…‘Look at me! Look at me!’ He was named for a one-reel William S. Hart movie, so I hear. Real stupid, that name. Lord, you’d think we was in Wyoming, galloping into the sunset.” She grinned. “But I’ll tell you a secret. I was always soft on that boy. A sweetheart. Harmless. You can spot a good heart, you know. You can hear it beating. He come back just in time to begin training to become tomorrow’s new Billy Sunday.”

“So you’re a follower of his mother’s religion, Mamie? The Assembly of God?”

She shook her head vigorously. “A little too damnation and hellfire for me, but, as I say, I don’t miss a sermon. A little religion is all I got—born and bred Baptist—and it’s enough to make me decent and law-abiding and God-fearing. Too much religion”—she pointed out the window at the departed Annika—“and you forget that folks got other things to worry about when they wakes in the morning.”

BOOK: Final Curtain: An Edna Ferber Mystery (Edna Ferber Mysteries)
5.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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