Hau Tree Green

Whoever said the rich are just like the rest of us was wrong.

I stood on perfectly raked shells and looked at the plastered walls, the banks of leaded windows, and the cement pots of brightly perfect flowers that marched up the steps to the front door. It all smelled strongly of money, and it was all as quiet as death. No one here fought or made love, got sick in the bathroom or scraped burned toast over the kitchen sink. Nobody read the funny papers and sprayed from the nose when they laughed at them. There were no domestic catastrophes, no Italian operas playing on the radio. It wasn’t a house for real people.

Once I had climbed the wide front steps, I pulled at the bell. A short, squat number in a black maid’s outfit kept me standing in the doorway while she checked my business card, front and back. She took so long I started to get curious about what was printed on it; maybe there was more than I remembered. When she had finished reading it, she swung the door open and stood aside. She went off somewhere with the card held at arm’s length and left me standing in the vestibule.

The room was nothing special, no bigger than a smallish big city train station. It had high ceilings, gold walls, and the statue of a woman without any clothes on in the middle of it. I walked over to get a better look at her, but she glared at me with eyes like hard-boiled eggs until I changed my mind. There was no one else around, so I found a sofa set into a little nook and sat down to wait.

After a while, I heard a door open and close somewhere out of sight and heels tip-tapped across the marble floor. Eleanor Lane came into view. She was wearing a little coral-colored suit today, with some white showing at the throat. She went all the way to the front door without noticing me sitting there and stopped in front of it. With a flourish like a magic trick, she produced a compact case and got busy in the tiny mirror, touching up lipstick and patting her platinum hair into place.

“Finished with another hard day’s work?” I asked. “Or are you getting delectable just for me?”

She jumped a little and looked over at me. Her eyes narrowed.

“Have I ever mentioned that I hate you?” she wondered. “I really do. Who let you in here anyway?”

“I let myself in, sister,” I said. “Why not? I was out back talking to the chauffeur. We’re friends now. He’s Jackie’s brother, you know. It must annoy the hell out of you to work with someone so famous.”

She put her makeup away and curled a lip at me.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, and don’t call me 'sister'. I'm nobody's sister.”

She checked the jeweled watch on her slender wrist and pursed her mouth as though she was deciding something. Crossing the room briskly, she slid back a panel in the wall to reveal a hidden bar. She got busy, and then she came back and handed me a heavy cut-glass tumbler that was brimming with amber liquid.

“Let’s not quarrel,” she said, in a different tone. “You’re very early, you know. Besides, Mister Gaynor is taking a telephone call right now, long distance. You may as well have a drink while you wait. I’ll be back to get you in a little while.”

When she was gone, I sipped the glass. It was full of Scotch whiskey, and she hadn’t brought any ice with it. I didn’t care for Scotch, but it seemed rude to waste it. I nibbled at it bravely while I wandered the room and looked around. There were a lot of paintings on the walls that looked as though real painters had done them. Annie Kahlo hadn't painted any of them, so they didn't interest me. A vase full of cut flowers sat on every flat surface that would hold one. I pinched and sniffed a yellow petal. The flowers were real, too, and I wondered why anyone would bother.

After a half-hour, Miss Lane came back and took my empty glass without a word. She led me up a long hallway lined with closed doors. She stopped in front of one of them and tapped on it twice. She turned to me and laid a warm hand on my cheek, her blue eyes inches from mine. Her breath was sweet and humid, with lips that looked like they matched it fine.

“I hope Mister Gaynor doesn’t catch the liquor on your breath,” she murmured. “He detests it. He’ll fire you on the spot if he smells it.”

I laughed at her. I couldn’t help it.

“That would be a shame,” I said. “In that case, thanks for the drink.”

“It would be a shame,” she agreed. “I’d have to look in the telephone directory under ‘cheap gumshoes’ to line up your replacement. It would probably take me at least three seconds to find someone as suitable as you.”

She cracked the door open, put her head in and spoke to someone out of sight.

“Mister Crowe has just arrived, Mister Gaynor,” she said. “He’s quite late, I’m afraid. Shall I send him in?”

There was an unintelligible reply from inside, and then Eleanor Lane turned back to face me. She stood on tiptoe and gave me a soft, lingering kiss on the cheek. When she was done, her perfume and her smile stayed behind on my skin. Her blue eyes were warm, intimate and bright.

“See you around, peeper,” she said. “Nice knowing you.”


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