Pasteup took an eye. A photo layout was a picture of pictures, and a man had to set that art in place. A man had to see, however he hoped the rote of it might blind him.
Each mechanical began as a blank white board. Keylines were drawn on in cyan with a whetted pencil tip. Once that scheme was ready, a craft knife made the crops on tempered glass. Razor strokes through photo stock, each like a shift of sands, far and dry on the ear.
Next, the rubber cement, a popper waft of acetone as trimmed photos took their marks. And then the stat camera, the orthochromatic negative for the plate Ray Glister would never see. That raw bare flesh would become shape and void, he knew, like pockets in a dark electric ice. If only he could will that reverse into his waking eye—make the task ahead, the glimpse it gave, strange past a sense of guilt.
From one shutter to another. Ray did not only the pasteup but the full preproduction, and the basement had been outfitted. There was a darkroom, a mop closet once. The door was right beside a phone that never rang and that had no finger wheel. Captions were few and banged out in pica ten-per on a typewriter. No line casting in that basement, just the ginny smell of inked fabric and some uncouth words. Any text used made-up names. Rollo. Sabrina. Peggy Sue. Some of them played victim. Some did not.
Ray stacked the output in card and tissue. Such was the hallmark of a taut-run shop, even a shop run for bastards. Where the Carnaghans had all the offset litho done, he had no idea. He never wanted to find out, not any more than he ever wanted to meet a Carnaghan in the flesh. But whoever the printers were, he would tease them in nonrepro blue. Tic-tac-toe, exclamation point, frowny face, mot. None would ever see, of course. All the blue would vanish from the act, keyline and marginal alike. And the printers kept things more professional, it seemed. Samples would come back in unmarked cartons, never with a note. Past the first not a box got opened. But Ray had seen the wares that one time, yes he had. Staple-bound paper stock. But not bad—nothing like the horror show of blown-out stipple that smut like this came on far more often.
Which was not for the better. It was all unaltered save a halftone sheer. Some hard truth indeed. Not just nudie cuties, beefcake, or the lickerish spreads of top shelf, but smut that broke a floor. Stages of a rape, penetrations of all sort, streams of piss, welts, animals sometimes, and now and then what were surely underage children. Those were worst—those ungainly bodies, those mickeyed faces in a scare. The one or two who had not been drugged for it had old eyes. It hurt just to see.
Ray took vodka from a waxed paper cup. It stung his throat like antiseptic on a knee. A clamp-on gave a stringent light as he worked a burnisher, and a cigarette stank up the beam. The fumes had nowhere to go, so they snagged like a shroud on every bulb. Ray liked to use a holder—it showed dash—and the cinder trickled at a jump from his undershaven face.
Once, and not that long ago, Ray had begun a startup. A queer socialist voice of the city on pink newsprint with some record reviews in the back. The Mattachines had been as much an inspiration as had that left coast hippy rag. But the monthly had seen its last at underground newsstands and the better-read gay bars back in the fall, just when Tricky had won another go.
Debts had been owed—to ruffians, in part, true vig-pinching knuckle-draggers. There had been no other way to keep people paid and the dream afloat once the banks got smart. A turnaround had always been just within reach, only to flit off in a spasm like some sky rat he’d spooked.
“I sold your marker to the Carnaghans,” the head shark had said that December, short of hard Rs but with a couple of preemptive Ws thrown in, once Ray came short.
“You can do that?” Ray had asked. Then, “Who are the Carnaghans?”
The usurer had a laugh on him, Ray had seen. Oh, a regular Peter Lorre with that laugh.
“Okay,” Ray had said. Maybe he should have held out for a limp. “What do the Carnaghans want with me?”
“They got use for a faggot.”
“Why not try Christopher Street?” as the panic rose.
“Funny guy! I meant a faggot with knowhow.”
No reassurance, not at first. But here Ray was, in a setup. It seemed the Carnaghans had worked with an impresario for a while—a man Ray’s quote-unquote manager, Declan Smits, had dubbed The Pervert. Such was the smirking thoroughness with which The Pervert had been recalled to Ray that the basement now had a ghost—ascot and smoking jacket, crisp bangs on a white caesar, penchants in a bottomless list. The Pervert had money and had gone on the lam—to British Honduras, word had it, to worry the cannibals, per Declan. Dirty pictures had been a love, and making them public a cockstand. For the Carnaghans, the venture had been low risk, high return—a plus but hardly a passion. Good for the balance sheet, no doubt, whatever other nastiness made up all the line items.
People like sharks and Carnaghans looked at Ray and The Pervert and saw the selfsame animal. Many did in truth—Ray’s own parents, for a pair of them. So it came to pass that a slight Jewish queer with decent taste and most of a college degree was used for a plug. Sold out but fed and even on the mend. The debts were not bottomless. The work would not go on forever.
A key scraped at the lock. The steel door banged open, toed aside. Declan wore a peacoat with rain at the shoulders, and that same rain was washing down the steep rake of stairs and sucking through the grate. In the crook of an arm he had a wet grocery sack. In the other was a beefy suitcase.
Ray felt a thrill, and not just fear. Declan was red, handsome, strong, and calm, always calm. He never raised a voice or a hand, not to some schlimazel like Ray who did what he was told. But then Declan never would have had to. He was muscle, but he had smarts, too. His family was another fixture, lower in the ranks than the Carnaghans but valued even through the changes of regime. Smitses had been in the rackets since before there were rackets. Or so Declan had put it. The words were never fancy. It wasn’t book-smarts, not for that big rascal.
“Get a shave,” Declan said, as he handed over the sack. “And a haircut. You look like a chippy ’t fell in the pepper.” The suitcase seemed to hold a weight even for Declan. It put him out of true.
“Achoo,” Ray said. Declan never did mind a crack. Sometimes that sculptured face even gave a smile. A joke that landed would make a dimple, deep as the tip of a dart—smack, a bullseye.
Tonight he just seemed worn out, noncommittal to a shrug. The sack held a reuben in paper and a fresh bargain jug. There was some bubblegum at the bottom.
“I forget the smokes?” Declan asked. “The Bazooka Joe’s for me.”
“How fares our lad? Got half a carton, thanks.”
“Stinks in here. Ought to put a window in just so’s you can crack it.”
And leave off the bars, Ray thought. He eyed the suitcase as it went onto the pedestal desk. It locked—three dials at the handle. Declan brought undeveloped rolls and took the layouts to the printer, but he had never used a locking case before.
“Glister, listen up. We got to talk.”
Ray had never heard it stern, not from Declan. “Everything copacetic with the majordomos?”
“What? Oh yeah, plenty … copa. No, this is something else. And it needs some special care. It’s what I have here in this case. They’re photographic plates. What do you call it—sheet film. Taken with this big camera, looks like a Dick Contino squeezebox.”
Best passed up. Ray pointed to the stat. “Like that, with a bellows? You usually bring rolls.”
“These are different. From start to finish. You could even say they’re why we’re here. The Pervert, he got this place running with these in mind. Once, twice a year, I bring them. They’re for the uptown money. At the plant they print up a few copies, and they bind them like a book, not a Saturday rag. Like cloth, with those squidgety end papers. That shoestring off the back to mark your place. Real class.”
Each clause thrown in made it all worse, uptown money or not. Ray stared at the case.
“So Glister, can you, uh, develop sheet film? You need someone else in here?”
“No, I’m good. Sheet’s easier than rolls. Is it black and white? Just need trays and some dark to work in. Developer, stop bath, fixer. Some distilled water at the end to wash off the halides.”
“Yeah, halides, okay. Because Glister, there’s only one shot with this stuff. There’s no other copies. You hear me? And you know, any of this heads south, too many of these get lost or loused up on the way to the shop, well, you’d end up meeting Frank Carnaghan—you and me, too, hat in hand.”
“You don’t wear a hat.”
“I’d bring one. Don’t want to scare you unnecessarily, you understand.”
“Be fuckin scared. Look at me. I’m a Smits boy. I’ve seen stuff. I got standing and a reputation and a chin. Even took a bullet once without the knee. And someone like me, even he don’t never want to have that meet with Frank Carnaghan. You know what they call him in our little world?”
“Yeah really—you know why?”
“Well, that might could be, but the real point is it ain’t cause he’s a fellow countrymen. A Carnaghan goes by Princess, you better be scared.”
“I am. And yeah, that’s irony.”
“Good to know it.”
“It’s almost impossible to, to louse this up.” A thumb to the mop closet. “Everything I need. What kind of layout is it supposed to be? Do you have a mockup?”
Declan mouthed the last word to himself. The idea amused him or did worse.
“So layout,” he said at last. “Totally straightforward.” Declan had the terms. “One picture per page, crown folio and inch margins, just recto, no verso—all gutters sit left. And no type. Not a single dirty word. Easy peasy.”
And on that cutesy two, come from such an earthy mouth, Ray felt the real fright.
Declan rolled the dials on the suitcase one at a time and thumbed the latches. But the lid stayed down as Declan backed away. He pocketed his hands as he made for the door.
An inch ajar. The suck rang loud behind him. “Hey, uh, Glister. Ray. Just … just take it easy, all right?”
Shut without the usual tough-guy slam. Not even a click of the bolt into the strike. On the far side Declan let go of the knob, and his rising steps were lost in the undertone of the drain.
At which Ray’s shirking eye could work its way back to the delivery—the sprung latches—with a glance that held longer each time.
Going deaf was a point of pride at the Dray House printing plant, for one man at least. He stood in the onrush like a feat of strength. The break of a dam without he once lost his feet.
Or so a lifelong boy of the city liked to see it. Herbert Masurinsky was only halfway to death, he figured, if he laid off the smokes and the well drinks, and had never seen a dam in person. Nor any water that didn’t have window lights hung in it upside down. He would work in that noise for hours—the flood of eld scrubbing past a manly stance. The spin of machines was a tickle at his heart. It even kneaded out some of the ache in his back. Such a thoughtful reckoning.
The presses ran in a parallel the length of the floor, an offset web roller rig and an old roto. They had a stink as well as a voice—paste inks and scalding hot paper in a sharp mix. In Herbert’s nose it brought back the days of the first job, during the Big One, double-yew-double-yew-deuce. Herbert had been all of thirteen and just itching to go serve on a szkop, as Pops had called them, once a recruiter would be a guy. The mess had ended before he ever got the chance, and in the meantime he found a savor for the work. Earplugs came later, and the machines had cleft through the top of his hearing. It made his small-boned soprano of a wife, Dolly, hard to follow on the telephone and sometimes at home. Not too steep a price to pay for a love of thirty years.
The printing plant was a union shop even though they didn’t run the news—just magazine and catalog and small press. Everyone who worked there knew he’d have a job and a paycheck until he died or quit or shorted on his due. Herbert could remember when it hadn’t been so. Union work meant you did favors here and there, sometimes for some rough guys. But it beat the rougher way of life that had been in place since any of Gutenberg’s fifteeners took a clothespin.
Herbert looked down to the bindery end, out past the old brick arch. Once a gate had hung there, where the draft horses had hauled out the kegs. And as he watched a yellow flatbed roamed into sight, let loose near the hampers, and the web rollers going full throttle.
That was no good. A flagrant violation of house safety rules and just plain fucking dopey. His guys all new better, except maybe the one. Herbert went to stomp down the foot brake. Trolley secure, he came around a hamper and had the one confirmed.
Ed Cruz had always been a mite slow. He went by Ricky Retardo on the loading dock, Herbert knew. But in that chinless face with its fuddled eyes he saw the kid he himself had been when new to things. Ed was almost twice as old as that, but still. Never mind he had a Rico name. This was a more enlightened era and an upright shop. Ed’s uncle Jack was a rep, a standup guy, Rico or not, but that never meant the kid himself was afraid to work, and he had shown it. He had arms like holiday brisket, thick through the wrists. And he was using that strength to dig through the bins of waste paper. Sheafs were tumbling to the floor.
“So what’s the trouble, Eddy,” Herbert shouted.
They had to bark over the machines. Still a voice wouldn’t carry, not every time, nor now when it mattered. So he set a hand to the near shoulder.
And on that slightest touch Ed about jumped clean from his bibs. The eyes found Herbert’s, very large. The face was slick, and white as a leaf.
A glance could become a vow. Donald Vandam had known as much since he was the smallest boy. Nothing singled out in his mind would go free easy. He lived in the moment but every other moment did as well. Figments of his time stayed as close as the air he drew.
Four reared up even as he pulled the delivery truck to the curb at the newsstand, going on dawn. The pole of a parking sign, bent to a nod, recalled a wooden horse. It had sat atop a steamer trunk in Margerie’s attic, his spinster great aunt. The slack in the truck’s suspension as he came to a stop brought back a canoe ride from a summer at camp, the same easy heave beneath a seat. A cafe man across the street, setting out a board, conjured up that first egg cream with coffee milk syrup. Brake lights were in a transit on the avenue up ahead, busy even then. They became a stroke of tracer fire.
Donald’s breath smoked in the cold. The grate was up at the newsstand. A dim light showed inside. Early for the old man to open shop. Most often Donald would toss the bundles to the awning and be on his way. But he could carry them in. Show a little kindness. Humanity came wanting too often that early, a sun yet dug up.
The canoe had run upon the carcass of a doe, long adrift and ripe. It had sheared in half around the wales and sunk into the slow black water. The horse had rocked of itself, three lone creaks that spoke off the dusty rafters. The egg cream had been delicious—no going back to chocolate. Wonder no one else had ever thought of that south of Warwick. He and two men had opened fire into a brake of Stone Age vegetation past any semblance of a name. There had been a voice. All three had heard it. No body had turned up in the leafy mow aside the trail. Only a tablet, upright and mossy, and on it a graven footprint older than the faith.
A newspaper van pulled up close. The high beams lit in Donald’s mirror and threw a frame across his eyes. Then the horn. It was not a neighborly sort of street but people did sleep in that vicinity, in flats and singles above the fronts. The Herald, he saw. There was pride at the Herald. No local press had run longer. Under the needless toot he heard the the rankle.
Toy horse, canoe, egg cream, gunfire. That toy horse. That canoe. That egg cream. That gunfire. And now headlights. Those. Forevermore the beams, those curse words, sounding in his eyes.
Donald took up his walking stick. With a cautious step he lit down on the curb. Active duty had ended with a gimp. He would never sprint again, fast and low. But neither would he take a fall.
“Move that goddam piece of shit!” the other driver shouted.
He had left doubts behind, the weight of other men’s failures. In search of off-hour work he had moved to the biggest city he could. Gone tail-first into a delivery truck while he went to electrician’s school with help from the Bill. A new kind of dawn patrol. It had nothing on the tour of duty, but it came with its own set of misty marvels. Until he had a license and seed money he would be witness.
Past midnight another world rose. Same confines, same map, but an emptier place. The shines were out in force, but away from the platforms and the risky acreage in the park they kept at their own. None might have guessed a whore worked so late, well past four. But that was when the bars let out, men so drunk they shouldered the walk and wept without cue from the laugh. Newspaper vans shared the streets that early. Little traffic, but vying all the same, a feud for nothing.
This driver got out too, once he saw Donald stand the ground. A thickset man. He had a sense of himself, the danger he brought. More often those truckers ran with partners, those who threw the bundles off the back. Someone must have called in sick. A second would have made no difference.
“Pull that breadbox up a piece, you fuckin mook. I’m working here.”
“There’s no call for that kind of language,” Donald said.
Only then did the Herald man size him up, the walking stick. It was a number four bat—a shank of maple that reminded Donald of home, where leaves would turn a glory before they fell in a clump.
“I spoke in haste,” the Herald man said.
Donald liked that, the show of tact, words chosen better, once a man was mindful. He also knew the repute: don’t test the stacks guy who never gets mad and uses a slugger for a cane.
He did hit now and then—most often just a thrust, in warning. And it was fair. Up one sleeve he had a slapjack, in a boot a surplus bayonet. At the small of his back where it wouldn’t show he kept a Special with JHP. And aside the seat he had a twelve-gauge Beretta Silver Snipe, over and under. A fowling piece, as Granddad used to say while it had been his own. Unsawn, with knotted rope for a combat sling. One barrel held buck, the other a slug, a load meant for big game at close range. It would unmake a man. Even without a weapon, Donald knew how to strike, and where.
He said, “I’ll just be a minute.”
“Nah, I’ll hump them on over,” the Herald man said, and stepped away backward to the rear of his truck, eyes humble.
“Back up some,” Donald said—for room to work. He needed a free yard to drop the hand truck.
“Will do,” said the rival, already at the wheel. Not without a mutter, and that was fine, in restraint.
Donald’s anger was a subtlety even to himself. But wrongdoing did carry a grief. He had certainly seen enough of it—seen and done. When he had first come to the city, Geoff Levy, a friend from boot, had tried to set him up with some easier work, flexible hours—a matter of collecting from deadbeats. But Donald would not go that way, whatever he had on his book. A lapse against a crook was no lapse at all, not as he saw it. Geoff had been a help, though—another phone call had brought the route.
“You take this filth back!”
The old man had come out. His cap slipped free of sprung white hair. He threw something to the ground at Donald’s feet. In the other hand he had a bat of his own, and it shook in his grip.
“You take back this, this wickedness, you motherfucker!”
A short bundle, done up with twine. The plastic had been torn, then slapped together again. The ends of the strapping were sprung like haywire. A return—and a rude one.
“There’s no call for that bad language, mister.”
The old man raised his bat for show, and Donald’s swept out. The wood broke from the hand, and the barrel end clattered on the walk. A cheap corked ash, slivered at the waist.
Donald might have done a little more, just to get those knotty hands back in place, but he saw that the old man’s cheeks were wet with tears.
The maple came down, but easy. Donald set his palm upon the knob. Just a cripple’s crutch again. “So tell me, mister,” he said.
Ray felt the edges in his hand, the sheet stripped from the dark slide, pliant and wet. The blackness in that space was complete, a smell of mop busy in the air. Even through that mildew and bucket pine, the bath sent up a trace. Like a tongue on a battery or a clean bone. Right beside was the fixer, hypo from a jug, and then the water, distilled to a blandness.
A pair of tongs, meant for cooking, got the sheet into the first bath. The move was like the tuck of a baton, a beat for time. Whatever came out of that wash he felt glad for the dark. The photo would have begun to take, like a rust. From one blank to another if left to soak.
The tongs slipped and he lost the edge. He threw them aside and sought the corners with his fingertips, knuckle deep. A modest burn like dill brine. Once he was done he would pour a vinegar on his hands. Soap and water would never take it off. It would burn him raw.
Thumb and forefinger, a dainty hold. By touch alone his mind cast a likeness. Black pane, black room, there at the bottom of a well. The second bath, the rinse.
And so it went, thirty-six sheets. He let them pile up, unhurried but steady, and he knew the overhead bulb would have to go on again. The string pull teased at the back of his neck.
“What? What’s that? Hang on now.” Herbert switched ears. The rotogravure had run on the left, and it had a thrashing squeak that cut right through the foam. “Say again? No, pretty sure. Sorry, Dolly. You know how I love that tuna. What? Yeah, put some foil on, leave it in the oven. I’ll make it up to you. One of my guys, he needs a hand. You know how it is.”
Phone hooked and missus back in sorts, Herbert took a seat with Ed at the lunch table. It was not a glamorous place for a frank talk or a cup—a picnic bench, bolted down under yellow skylights—but hours on foot did thaw off there. And that was in spite of the draft, cold as a hand up the back. Herbert fought it by putting on his cap and shearling coat, the last a gift from Dolly that had outworn the years. Between the mugs he had set out bourbon, a back-pocket pint. They were past sunset and coming up on the end of the shift.
“I ran something I shouldn’ta,” Ed said. “I made a copy. I mean copies.”
“You ain’t bowling me over here.”
“I know I was wrong. I thought maybe it got in the wastepaper. I hoped.”
“Quod erat demonstrandum.”
“Blame the sisters. The Latin, it’s a Catholic school vice. Forget it. You stashed whatever you ran someplace and it didn’t turn up.”
“In a box. I wrote just trash on it and put off to the side. You know, in that side room’s full of chairs and stuff.”
“The old farriery.”
“Huh? Who is?”
On, Herbert cued him.
“I didn’t figure they’d empty it,” Ed said. “You know. For the overstock last week. Not without I got a chance to get it back. It was filthy in there. You’d think they’d have to burn all the garbage out. Like that leper cell from whatsit, Ben Heard.”
“You have a locker.”
“Wouldn’t fit, Herbie. The door, it didn’t close. Not even when I had the box up sideways.”
“Why not just take it home with you?”
“Hey, it wasn’t for me, you understand. I don’t want no part of that. Santa forbid my wife gets a look. Vincent, that guy who loads the truck, he thought we could move it on the side. He knew a guy. Or a guy who knew a guy—I don’t know. You’d have to ask Vince. It got away from him.”
“Now Eddy, we are talking about something from Declan Smits here, right?” A pause, a nod. “Something we run late? When most good boys have gone to bed?”A nod. “One of those specials for mail order, or for that newsstand delivery straight out the back?”
Herbert shook his head but only to himself. “How were you going to turn a dollar? It’s a bulk business, ain’t it? One box, it don’t make a difference. Anyway, you don’t want to compete with that crowd for walking-around money. They watch for dippers. And there’s a reason that’s all on the q.t. The law would have you, too. Eddy—you’d hope for the goddam law. With that stuff your only bosoms are the leches.”
“It wasn’t a magazine, Herbie.”
“Well, it didn’t start out like one, but I ran off some extra, like I said. I just stapled it with a blank cover and set it aside. It was a funny size, so I had to use broad and trim it down. Did it up in the plastic wrap like a regular newsstand bundle. You know, for disguise.”
“In a box that said just trash. What do you mean not a magazine? All those things Smits brings in, they’re periodicals.”
“Except the one.”
Herbert took his time. He knew of the one but he denied it, at first. Let it be anything else, he thought. He sipped his way through half a cup, waiting for Ed’s eye. It never came.
At last he said, near a whisper, “Twice a year Smits brings in work I’ve never looked at. I’m not even here for any of it. Floor’s clear except three fellas who come in off the clock. They’re inside guys—sworn like. And then there’s this freelance, a bookbinder, who takes the whole run off site for the finishes. None of us even knows his name. Now, you couldn’t have made your own print off any of that. The plant’s shuttered. None’s left sitting here for the day shift. Not even the scums or jams. Whatever don’t go with the binder, it goes straight to the furnace.”
“One of those three fellas you said, he’s Tom Wilmer, right? So he brought me in. To take his place one night, you know? He had a head cold. He said I was too smart to talk.” Ed shrugged. “Plus, you know, I got my uncle. That’s an inside guy right there. It don’t get more inside than Jack, less you’re made. I suppose that gives me consideration.”
Herbert stared. Wilmer. Any cold would have been caught from a bottle.
“That one,” he said.
“Maybe it went out to the dump. Along with the junk. Head deep in a landfill.” Herbert’s outlook had took a turn.
“Yeah, maybe, except the empty box, just trash, it was still in the room.” Ed hesitated. “Herbie, you know, I saw, I just saw—”
“Don’t tell me,” Herbert said.
“I meant I saw a chance is all. A leg up, you know? Some rich bicho’s toy, wrong as it is. Me, only thing I want off a fat cat, it’s the fat. I sure as hell never want anything to do with what, with—.”
And there it was, that wrung-out stare. Herbert had seen the same reflection show from Janssen, from Graves, even from Wilmer before he took to the drowning.
Speaking of which. The cap came off the back-pocket with a pinching twist and did a table dance. A splash into the coffee mug—make it a double.
“Not one word of description, boy.” A swallow, a clean sting of whiskey. “Not one damn word.”
No, Ray thought, and no more.
He found himself at the drafting table, back first. He had reeled the whole way, eyes on the darkroom door. The knob had struck the drywall hard enough to punch a hole. Past the jamb the bulb swayed into sight, back out, back in, shadows at a bob. The filament scratched an afterimage into his stare. The negative sheet lay on the floor in plain view, right where he had let it drop.
No, he thought. And then not even so much as that.
A rattle. Ray jumped.
Dull and dry, but a shock in that stillness. The wall phone. The withered pulse gave out. Never heard before. Something was wrong with the mechanism—muted or broken or choked with a dust.
Again the rattle, longer this time, a full cycle, and the silence. Ray watched until it quit, a dozen rings or more. Someone with patience. But a wrong number, it could only be.
“You clean up those goddam bins,” Herbert said as he walked past the wastepaper cast about.
The shout was not in anger. He and Ed were back in the throat of the plant, and a shout was a given. The machines had not stopped running, though Herbert had let the other two men on go home right before the short shrift upstairs.
Ed looked cowed—thrashed. His hands began to rake through the misprinted leaves.
Good. Herbert shook his head as he walked on to his favored spot, near the old double-swung doors where he could look back on the plant. A kid never knew, he supposed. It was all in the word. Not even a goat when it came to sense. He smiled to himself. A youngster could learn.
The contraband—it had gone to a better place, most likely, along with the rest of that deadroom scrap. No one sought loot in a heap of junk, not even flagged by a dimwit ruse. And any string of chances that might have led it places, they would have been thin to breaking. Herbert had a qualm, all right, and how, but not enough to lose all the sleep he so sorely needed.
At the end of a run the machines got hot, which got them noisier in turn. So loud the air seemed to clot and shudder like a gel. The set brought a funny state of mind. Herbert called it “the spooks” on account of what came into the edges of his sight. Shadows that fled the turn of his head. Herbert would let the batch complete and collate in the morning.
A gust. No sound, not above the run, but a hard bat of wind. Herbert bowed and took a step but kept his feet.
The double doors had come open in a storm—the first thought. But that wouldn’t account for all the shards of wood thrown around. He saw his cap hit the floor. He caught a firecracker smell, a whiff of burning hair. And only then did he feel all the buck scattered up his back.
He turned with a stumble as the blood began to dot. There was a hole centered where the lock had been. The door leaves were swinging forward on the blast but at a creep, each with a half-moon bite taken out, a two-thumb thickness of old-time oak.
And there stood a man behind a smoking barrel. Dark hair, clear eyes, and a quizzical look. Mild in a way but cutting—a stare into the task at hand.
Ray had a police station in mind, and nothing else, not even a future, an excuse, when he came upon beat cops in the dark. They sized him up, from the slip-ons had had forgot to change to the shaky tip of his cigarette holder.
“Hi,” he thought to say.
And he was trying to come up with more, plead the case, when one gave the other a look. The unspoken language was not lost on Ray. He knew all too well how it would go from there. One cop was Italian, the other Irish. Foremost both were police, which was Irish of a whole nother kind.
“What brings you to the neighborhood?” said the Italian.
“Sure you didn’t miss a turn back there?” said the Irish.
“Get off the map back in the Village?”
“Looking for a bar someplace? A new best friend?”
“Maybe a Tootsie pop. How many licks?”
“Okay,” Ray said.
“What’s okay?” asked the Irish.
“You’re okay?” asked the Italian.
“I don’t think he looks okay. Me, I think he looks a bit sick.”
“You know what’s up there on that cul-de-sac ahead?”
“No,” Ray said.
“Trade,” said the Italian.
“Something for the discriminating taste,” said the Irish. “Like an open-air market.”
“Finook,” said the Italian. “In the old country it means fennel. Tastes kind of like licorice.”
“Faygele,” said the Irish. “Different country, I suppose. Got change for a twenty?”
“Five bucks can work miracles. Suspend the very lawrs of nature. At least with one of those young twinkle-toeses looking for a sandwich.
“And a side of nuts. What, too much?”
“Officers, I just stepped out for a pack of cigarettes.” Ray had noted that the holder was empty. He had come out in a clench, though walking fast, clear into his teeth on the stem. But now he saw that it was all no good. Once again, the selfsame animal, him and a deviant, him and the layout he drew. “I work at the caster warehouse down the street. The night shift.”
“You got all the way over here without you met a corner store?” said the Italian. He and the Irish exchanged another glance.
“They didn’t have my brand.” There was no store. No difference.
“Should we escort him back to the workplace?” said the Irish.
Ray had been looking as scared as he felt, but more he felt the wear. “Oh please do,” he said.
The police shared a smirk. It fell away once the attention came back to him. “Get outta here,” said one of the two, thumb in a barb. By then Ray had forgot which was which.
Herbert took a backward walk, each foot at a drag, shackled down. Looking for the chain he saw the scuffs and beads of blood. A wetness had spread over his back and to his ankles. The leather had taken damage, but not the brunt. He was hurt bad. He retreated into the pummel of machines.
The dark-haired man stepped forward, keeping pace with a steady eye. He had slung the shotgun like a knapsack and taken up a bat, leaning into it one bump at a time. The other hand drew a revolver, unaimed yet. He used the thumb and finger to pluck a rolled-up journal from his belt. The pinch held it forward, and it uncurled. A black cover. Not a hint of detail. Like a dummy for the bin.
Look at it, the stranger mouthed. In that thundering narrows no voice would rate.
Herbert had his hands up. He tried to speak, heard or not. “I didn’t do it.” He couldn’t make out his own words, nor the hum in his head behind the plugs. “It wasn’t me.”
A toss, underhand, almost carefree. The magazine lit at Herbert’s feet.
The stranger formed the words again, each with a show.
Look. At. It.
The gun made a gesture. Herbert looked down into the spread. A page had fallen open.
“Oh my God.”
His vision had gone a sickly yellow and now it shimmered through the tears. By then he knew he had backed into Ed’s line of sight, from the hoppers, and that had been his only goal. He didn’t want the boy to risk his neck, only to hunker down and hide. Sound carried better in that corner, so Herbert shouted as loud as he could.
“You one of Declan’s guys?”
Who, the stranger mouthed.
And he knew at once the man was not. All the same he yelled out the name, so Ed would hear and with any luck understand.
“Declan Smits! Look for Declan Smits!”
Okay, the stranger said, under the machines. Herbert thought of the missus, safe at home. He was thankful. A stranger might come calling anyplace. And then a clap struck out the noise and the light.
The phone had been ringing again while Ray shuffled down the basement stairway. But it had gone quiet once he made it to the lock. He left the key in it, full turn, the bolt unshot. He would snap off the bow once he found a mallet. But first he had to get to work. And find the strength.
Some hours passed before Declan barged in. In his hand he had a pistol.
“Christ Jesus, Glister, you can’t answer a phone?”
“It never rang before.”
“Never had a reason to ring.”
“That’s for me?” Ray asked, with a look to the gun. There was a red bleariness in his eyes. They scraped at the blink. He was tired past caring, wept to a parch. And he was not yet finished.
“Just for your protection. Here.”
“You’re handing me a weapon?”
“Got one of my own right here, in the holster. That switch on the side, at the thumb? That’s the safety. You’ll need to press that first.”
“I don’t think I have it in me.”
“Can’t help there.” Declan looked past Ray to a mechanical. A single image pasted into four keylines, in black and white. In truth boards were stood up all over, camera-ready, on every tabletop.
Ray read the sadness in the handsome face. “Goddam me,” Declan said. He even made the cross. And he said it once again without a sound.
“Want me to cover them up?” Ray asked.
Declan only shook his head. He pulled something out from under his coat and handed it to Ray. A staplebound cover, black and glossy, a magazine of some sort. No title, no feature, no cover price.
“I wouldn’t bother looking.”
Ray did anyway, leafing through. Declan was right: more of the same. And yet that did not lessen the wrongful shock.“Who wants this?” he said aloud but softly.
“Here’s what you need to know. I got a call. A fella in the outfit, name of Geoff Levy, he turned up cold this afternoon. That was left on his chest. Someone went and beat him to death.”
The pages hit the floor.
“Oh there’s more,” Declan said. “I just got back from Dray House, the printers. There was a survivor, and another full of holes. And an issue, left just the same. It’s the last one The Pervert did himself. I don’t know how it got out there, done up like that. But the witness, he said the guy got hit, he gave up my name.” Declan shook his head in distaste. A bad memory—there had been a follow-through. “How I hate the housekeeping. Look, we’re exposed. Me, these pictures, that plant—what’s the common denominator, huh? It’s this one damn room and all ’t comes out of it.”
“How does Levy figure?”
“Don’t know. Shawn and Mick and Frank, they got a sleuth on it. Meantime, we’re going to burn this out. Your marker—call it paid. If there’s police, and there will be, the Carnaghans and me would rather hand them ashes. I got three cans in the trunk. You just make up a pile, okay?”
“It was thoughtful of you to come, Declan. When I didn’t pick up. Not everyone would have.”
The face was not so wrought it couldn’t spare a grin. Even to the dimple. Thank heavens for that goddam dimple.
“Aw. You know how it is.”
And Ray did, all at once. It was like taking in a breath. Whatever story Ray had missed, so sorry for himself, the Smits boy had been sent down to the basement for a reason he knew all too well: a use, as people saw it. Declan was just another man caught in a scheme. And who knew a flop of an activist might, just might, wind up a gunsel?
“Make no mistake. I’m happy these will burn.” Declan had picked up the nearest board. But before he tossed it for the pyre he noted what was written faint, in nonrepro blue.
So much for hopes.
Declan looked around the basement, to the same lower corner of each board put on display.
“We’re going to destroy them, aren’t we?” Ray said. “What’s the difference?”
The gangster had turned about to face him. Never such a look.
“Did you—you’re in on this, Ray?”
Truth could read, and so could relief. There was still a break of trust. Just not a murderous one.
Declan shook his head. “Talk later. You just stack them up. I’ll be right back.”
Ray dared not move. His eyes tracked Declan as he pulled open the door and stepped into the well. A flash and a thump just as the door swung shut. One shivering foot had stuck through, the pant leg peeled back up the naked calf.
The slug had been meant to breach the door. A waste of firepower, a show put on for no one. But the big man had come through and the shotgun had been what Donald had up and ready.
Waste was right. There were legs and arms in a sprawl, the lapels of a long coat, and the rest was unstrung mayhem. The sound of a trickle came up from a drainpipe.
Donald watched himself go down the stairs with the bat, one bump at a time. All that day had come at the same remove. He was aware of the heat behind the rampage but felt no more involved in the one than he did in the other. Whatever he was was not a mind, he saw. The last truth of him was something else—something at a picture show.
There had been a yelp. Another man in there, another culprit, whatever else he’d find. Perhaps the show of force had paid off unintended.
The key was in the lock. Odd. No matter—the door was ajar, held open at a dead man’s knee. Donald shouldered it, Special up and ready, sweeping the room as it came into view.
A studio of some sort. Pictures all around. And they were more of the same. From a seat in the back of his head he marveled at the fury. Even then, with so little left unseen.
A man stood waiting—small and timid, olive skin, longish hair. Not so different from Donald except he had no heft and seemingly no wish to survive. No try to hide, no cover taken. There was even an automatic set down at his feet—right beside a copy. The black issue Donald had left with a friend. He recognized a dog-ear and a tear. And every moment of that day was as present as the one right before him, whatever came, however bare the truth.
The newsstand vendor had known some about what was being delivered, of course. He had no stomach for it, but men had made him see it their way. They had not named whoever they worked for. Which had left Donald with Geoff Levy and a question that needed asking. The material had been stashed in the bundles, bound up with magazines and crossword puzzle books. The old man had had to break them out, of course—unwrap them, set them beneath a countertop for discreet buys.
Brown bags under the cash register. Never with a glance to a page that came shut and under wraps. But blank and black and in the open—that had all just been too strange to leave unturned.
“Put up your hands,” Donald said.
“Why?” the man asked, a hoarse voice.
Fair enough, Donald saw. The man posed no threat, though he knew what would come. He stood beside a drafting table with a few tools laid along a steel lip. One of the boards was taped onto the tilted plane under a clamp-on light. Just finished, a photo tamped into a grid of pale lines.
“Do you see that?” Donald asked.
Donald was unsure what he meant. It had come from up front, not his true self at the back.
“It’s not,” said the man. “That’s—that’s someone else. But I’m sorry.”
“Where do the pictures come from? Who is the photographer?”
“I don’t know. They were brought here.”
“The man you just killed.”
“His name was Smits?”
Donald had tailed the big ginger from a meeting at the plant—a hunch on whom to follow. Come to a dead end. But it went further. Donald had more to do. There was a source. Whatever room had been caught in the background, he would see it firsthand, like that camera eye.
Looking there, the likeness of the room he’d go to, he noticed something written on the board. A name, scratched into place with a light stroke.
“This is you?”
Donald picked it up to squint close, then held it out to his side to show the other. “This is who I need to ask?”
“I’m sorry,” the man said. His hand had gone to the lip on the table, and it took a swipe.
A chilling sting at the side of his neck. Donald thought to raise the gun, but the hand stayed down, the weapon past his reach, finger without a twitch on the trigger. The weight of what he knew fled him. All the figments, those he saw and the one he never had, left him to the dark.
A craft knife was like a scalpel. No less surgical, no less sharp. The lie of a putty rubber had blocked the gleam, and the pencil labeled nonrepro blue had covered up the handle and the stem. All a chance. And then another.
Ray caught his breath. He looked at what was thrown across the darkroom door, the broken phone, half the camera-ready art. None had marked him, not a drop. He was amazed. The blood had rushed out with such force that it held a note in the wound.
The unknown man lay on his face, turned by the jet, the bat fallen aside. Whatever became of Ray in days ahead, he would never know more about the visit. What he had done was no worse than anything he had seen. Nor was it any better.
Soon he would take those few last steps to the door. Shove it aside. Say a hard goodbye to Declan Smits. But first he looked to the last mechanical he would prepare, where it had fallen. He took up the board and set it back on the drafting table, under the heat of the bulb.
He considered what was written there like a signature, and elsewhere, thirty-six times in all. Frank Carnaghan. He took up the pencil and struck out Frank. Above a caret, a proofreader’s fix, he wrote Princess. The script was ghostly faint in that cyan pencil wax, sharpened to a prick. But it would read.