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The Vaults by Toby Hall

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The Vaults by Toby Hall

The first book in the widely acclaimed City Trilogy, The Vaults is a riveting dystopian thriller set in 1930s America. At the height of the most corrupt administration in the City’s history, a mysterious duplicate file is discovered deep within the Vaults—a cavernous hall containing all of the municipal criminal justice records of the last seventy years. From here, we follow Arthur Puskis, the Vaults’ hermit-like archivist; Frank Frings, a high-profile investigative journalist; and Ethan Poole, a socialist private eye with a penchant for blackmail. All three men will undertake their own investigations into the dark past and uncertain future of their surroundings, and what they find will call everything they thought they knew about the City into question.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The Vaults took up nearly half a city block. Files arranged in shelves arranged in rows; files from every case handled in the City for nearly the past century; files arranged, cross-referenced, and indexed. So complicated and arcane was the system that at any given time only one living person understood it. At this time, that person was Arthur Puskis, Archivist. He was the fourth Archivist, inheriting the position from Gilad Abramowitz, who had gone mad in his final years and died soon after taking his leave of the Vaults. Abramowitz had mentored Puskis for the better part of ten years, explaining, as best as his addled mind allowed, the logic behind the system. Even so, it had taken Puskis most of the following decade to truly understand. He was now in his twenty-seventh year in the Vaults.

As happened every day, several times a day, O’Shea, the messenger from Headquarters, had brought a list of files to be pulled. Several items on the list were preceded by an asterisk, which meant that Puskis was to pull all cross-referenced files as well. Puskis had a file cart that he wheeled down the long aisles, searching for the appropriate shelves. The cart had a loose wheel that squeaked rhythmically with each rotation.

Puskis completed his rounds and returned to his desk with the requested files. He opened the files that had been asterisked and took down the numbers of the cross-referenced files. He then took the file cart and went to retrieve those files. Each aisle was illuminated at thirty-foot intervals by a bare electric lightbulb. Every journey consisted of walking from an illuminated area into a more twilit space and then back into illumination. None of the bulbs ever seemed to burn out, and Puskis was vaguely aware that the City sent someone around to check them periodically. Their collective hum was like some primal sound, one that could have emanated from the earth itself.

He was at the shelf for the C4583R series, in a dimly lit stretch, when he found the two files. He was searching for C4583R series, subseries A132, file 18. It was in the correct location, just after C4583R series, subseries A132, file 17. He put the file in the file cart and, out of habit, checked the next file to make sure that it was C4583R series, subseries A132, file 19. Abramowitz had suggested the method; an episodic way to check on filing accuracy in place of doing periodic audits as Abramowitz’s predecessors had done. The files were too voluminous now to make that feasible.

Initially, when he saw the adjacent file, C4583R series, subseries A132, file 18, he assumed he had made a mistake and retrieved the wrong file to begin with. He checked the file cart and found that he had in fact taken the correct file. This meant that there were actually two C4583R series, sub-series A132, file 18s. Puskis removed the spectacles from the end of his long, thin nose, rolled his head around to loosen his neck, replaced the spectacles, and looked at the files again. Nothing had changed. The two files bore the same label.

He opened the one that had been left on the shelf. It was the file for a Reif DeGraffenreid, FACT identification number such and such, with this particular address and so on. He opened the one in the file cart. Again, the name was Reif DeGraffenreid, same FACT number, address, etc. Duplicate files? Puskis could not imagine himself capable of such sloppiness. A puzzle. Puskis put the second file in the file cart and returned to his desk to address this vexing problem.

Puskis took the two folders and, with his skeletal fingers, laid them on opposite sides of his barren desk. He removed the contents one by one, first from the file folder on his left and then from the one on his right. Puskis had, from years of experience, acquired an especially keen sense of paper of various ages. He would have told an inquisitive soul— if he ever actually interacted with one— that it was an instinct. The truth was that it was an acute understanding of the paper stocks of different decades and the effect that aging had on them, making them dry, crisp, and discolored— but each stock in a minutely unique way.

He noticed that the papers from the two files were not of identical age. The paper from the file to his right was not eight years old— too moist, it bent limply from his fingers, without the rigidity that crept into older paper. Taking a greater interest now, Puskis estimated the paper on the right to be three or four years old. He held the more recent paper up to the light to confirm this estimate. The Department’s paper supplier for years had been Ribisi & Porfiro. They had imprinted their paper with a distinctive sea-horse watermark. Five years ago, however, they had been acquired by Capitol Industries, and to cut costs the corporation had done away with the watermark. The more recent sample, then, bearing no watermark, must have been created in the last five years. Puskis checked the paper from the older file, and as he suspected, it carried the watermark. Somebody had typed the more recent pages at least two or three years after the original file had been created. It was curious.

Also curious were the pages: same cover sheet, same personal information, same testimony— DeGraffenreid had been on trial for the murder of someone named Ellis Prosnicki— same verdict: guilty. The sentence had been “Life-PN,” which was not the approved abbreviation for “penitentiary”— just another vexing detail of the unthinkable duplication that Puskis had discovered. Yet here, too, was an interesting difference. In the margin of page 8 of the testimony was a handwritten notation. It read “Do not contact— Dersch.” An arrow pointed to the name Feral Basu, who was mentioned by DeGraffenreid as the man who had introduced him to Prosnicki. In the file to the right, it was written in green ink. In the file to the left, the ink was blue.

He looked closer. The writing was nearly identical, but not quite. Where the n’s tailed off in the blue ink, they ended suddenly in the green. The angles at which the arrows were drawn, too, were slightly different. It was, he decided, as if someone had deliberately copied the notation from one file to the other as exactly as he could. Or not quite as exactly. He studied the two notations, trying to discern the forger’s intention, before eventually conceding that, from the scant available evidence, this was unknowable.

Finally, he came to the photographs. The photo from the left-hand side (the older file) was a head-and-shoulders shot of a man with sunken eyes, a blunt, crooked nose, and receding hair. His mouth was slightly open, providing a glimpse of crooked and broken teeth. It might have been cropped from a mug shot. The photo from the file on the right was of a completely different person. This man had long, thin features, hollow cheeks that he had tried to conceal with extensive sideburns, and sparse hair parted in the middle. Most striking to Puskis was the man’s stare, as though unaware of the camera, which could not have been more than ten feet away. It was, Puskis thought, haunting.

This was a troubling development. Puskis picked up his phone and, for the first time in over a decade, dialed out.

* * *

Puskis felt more uncomfortable than usual in the Chief’s office. He rarely deviated from his three destinations: his apartment, seven blocks from the Vaults; the grocer’s around the corner; and, of course, the Vaults themselves. Anywhere else and he realized how eccentric— even grotesque— his nearly three decades in the Vaults had left him. He was alarmingly thin and stooped, the latter a consequence of years leaning to read files in the too dim light. His face was pale, and he sweated more than he liked when he was in the open air. He wore thick, wire-framed glasses, as the reading had left him nearsighted. Inside the Vaults he did not need to see beyond four or five feet.

The Chief was looking at Puskis with mild bewilderment. During his first years as Archivist, Puskis had occasionally come with some kind of request— a different kind of paper, a newfangled sprinkler system, a lockable door between the elevator and the Vaults, a bathroom— that the Chief could not possibly fund. In time, the consistent fruitlessness of these requests put an end to Puskis’s visits. Now, after a decade, he was back. This was something quite different.

“Two identical files?” The Chief’s jowls quivered when he spoke.

“Yes, sir. Two files in the C4583R series. An individual by the name of Reif DeGraffenreid.”

“And the problem?” The Chief was polishing a badge of some sort with his tie.

“Well, sir, you see, there were two different photographs. The files were for the same person, but the photographs were of two different people.”

“I’m not sure that I understand the problem, Mr. Puskis.”

“It’s just that, sir, well, it’s just that there can’t really be two Reif DeGraffenreids in the city with the same FACT number and address and everything else. It’s just, well, not possible.” At some level, Puskis himself did not necessarily believe this statement. But such was his faith in the unerring accuracy of the files in the Vaults that there seemed no other explanation.

The Chief sighed. “Mr. Puskis, it seems quite evident to me that somebody made an error in filing one of those photographs.”

“But why the two files, sir? In my twenty-seven years in the Vaults I have never seen a duplicate file, and now, when I do, there are different photographs in each.”

The Chief shook his head. “I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Puskis.”

“That’s exactly my point, sir,” Puskis said somewhat desperately. “That is just the point I’m trying to get across to you. I don’t know what to make of it either. I am bringing it to your attention so that an inquiry can be initiated.”

“Into who misfiled the photograph?”

“No. Please, do not take this lightly. There are two Reif DeGraffenreids in this city, sir. They are different, but they are the same person.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”

“Neither do I, sir. That is the point that I am continuing to try to get across to you. I don’t know what I mean either. It makes no sense, yet there it is. Sir.”

“Maybe it’s the files that are wrong,” the Chief suggested in a softer voice.

“No. I’m afraid not. The files would not be wrong.” Puskis did not mention the different-colored inks or the age difference in the papers. The former was a detail whose significance would escape the Chief. He would not understand the system by which the transcribers who assembled and notated the files worked. He would not understand the dramatic importance of the same comment appearing twice, but in different ink. What Puskis found most alarming was that he, Puskis, understood this detail to be of vital importance, but could not glean its meaning.

The Chief opened a file on his desk and leafed through its pages. Puskis watched the Chief’s inexpert handling of the papers, his fat fingers occasionally pulling two sheets instead of the desired one.

“Mr. Puskis, when did you last take a vacation?”

The question caught Puskis off guard and he stammered before answering, “I’m not absolutely certain, sir. Not for a long while, but I fail to see—”

“Mr. Puskis,” the Chief interrupted, his fleshy lips in a benign and sympathetic smile, “it was 1917. Eighteen years, almost to the day.”

Puskis conceded this point in silence.

“I am ordering you to take this next week off. Go back to the Vaults, pick up your things, and don’t come back until a week from Monday.”

“But, sir.”

“No, Mr. Puskis. The Vaults will be fine for a week. Take some time. Relax. The Vaults can get to you. Eighteen years. My God.”

Puskis, as he always did on his rare trips to Headquarters, received a ride back to the Vaults in a police cruiser. Outside the rear window a dismal rain lent a sheen to the road and sidewalks. People hurried, heads down under umbrellas.

“Nasty weather we’ve been having,” said the officer driving. Puskis had not bothered to listen when the man first introduced himself and did not listen now.

“Doesn’t matter down in the Vaults, I guess,” the officer offered. Again, Puskis did not reply. The officer, who had heard all the rumors, sighed and pursued it no further.

In the back, Puskis fingered the hat that rested in his lap. He had not bothered to wipe the raindrops from his spectacles. He thought about being away from the Vaults for an entire week. Eighteen years, the Chief had said, since his last day off. That seemed about right, though he could clearly remember that last aberration in the regular rhythm of his life. He had begun doing crossword puzzles, quickly realizing that he could identify ten key words, then fill in the rest of the puzzle without using the clues. It was just a matter of knowing the letter combinations. When this ceased to interest him, he had begun simply filling his own words into the puzzles, seeing if he could fill every square without revising. He had mastered this as well, then started putting letters at random spots in the crossword and filling in words. That had been Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday he had reported back to the Vaults and had reported every day since, including weekends.

The squad car pulled to the curb in front of City Hall. The Vaults were in the hall’s subbasement. Puskis put on his hat and got out of the car without a word to the driver. He walked up the broad granite steps, the rain soaking his coat and pants. Inside he touched the brim of his hat to acknowledge the four guards posted at the front doors and walked to the bank of elevators. One of the elevator operators, a squirrel of a man named Dawlish, called out to Puskis, who passed through the opened gate and into the velvet-lined elevator.

“To the Vaults, then, sir?” Dawlish asked, as always.

“Mmm,” Puskis said. As the elevator descended, he removed and wiped his spectacles.

“Here we are, then,” Dawlish said, opening first the elevator door and then the brass gate.

“Yes. Yes, indeed.” Puskis stepped out of the elevator, then hesitated.

“Anything I can do for you, Mr. Puskis?” Dawlish’s English accent could still be picked up in certain words, such as anything.

“Mmm. Actually, yes. Yes, there is something you could do for me. I’m, well, I’m going to be away for a week or so.”

Dawlish’s eyebrows rose. “Never known you to miss a day, sir.”

“Indeed. Indeed, that is quite true. But the fact is, well, the fact is that I am not going to be here for a week, and I was hoping …” Puskis hesitated.

“You were hoping, Mr. Puskis?”

“Yes, I was hoping that maybe you could keep track of if anyone goes down to the Vaults while I’m gone. I mean except for the courier from Headquarters, of course. And, I suppose, the usual cleaners.”

“I would be pleased to do that for you, Mr. Puskis. I will keep a list, sir. Though, as you know, sir, there’s no one goes down there except you and that courier you just mentioned. And, of course, the cleaners.”

“Are you sure? Are you absolutely certain no one else ever goes down?”

Dawlish, sensing Puskis’s urgency, narrowed his eyes in thought. “Mr. Puskis,” he finally said, “I can not think of a one.”

CHAPTER TWO

Ethan Poole stood at the window of the Fox and Thistle Pub, nursing a scotch on the rocks. He watched the building across the street. The mark generally left at noon for his midday meal. Poole had been there nearly an hour. The mark must be taking a late lunch. A hood whom Poole didn’t know came up to him.

“You Ethan Poole?”

Poole nodded and took a sip of his drink, mostly ice now.

“Jimmy McIntyre, pleased to meet you.” The guy put out his hand. He was little, but Poole could tell that he was tough. Scar tissue above his eyebrows and a bent nose. He was a gangster. Poole shook the offered hand, engulfing it with his own.

“I want to thank you. You made me a mint when you were at State.”

It was this again. His notoriety in some circles. Throwing games on the gridiron and making the mobsters some scratch. All for walking-around money. Every reminder of it was like an abscessed tooth.

McIntyre was still talking in that weird, high-pitched voice some tough guys had. “You had moxie, chum. All those other fellas, they did what they were asked to do, but you had goddamn moxie.”

Poole smiled out of politeness. He hadn’t enjoyed throwing games. He’d even resisted the idea at first. But with half a dozen others already on the take, why shouldn’t the star running back cash in on a lost cause? It made sense at the time.

McIntyre droned on about games that Poole had tried to forget. Finally, Poole saw the mark emerge through the glass double doors. He was talking to another man, who, at that distance and through the rain-streaked window, was nearly his double— tall, fat, slightly hunched with age. They both wore dark suits. The mark made a gesture with his hands, then put on his hat and trotted over to a waiting cab. The other man put on his own hat, opened an umbrella, and walked down the block. Poole blurted a thanks to McIntyre, handing him his nearly empty glass, then ran to his car, parked at the curb.

Poole had the Ford running as the cab pulled away. Traffic was sparse. He followed the cab across town, through block after block of brick row houses in Capitol Heights, then the claustrophobic streets of Chinatown— where he momentarily lost them behind an electric trolley, and finally down to the Hollows. As always, the Hollows made Poole uneasy. Blocks of ware houses were occasionally interrupted by a bleak brick-and-cement apartment building, inevitably with broken windows and bars on doors. Most eerily, and Poole found this to be true even when the weather was more agreeable, no life was to be seen. No one on the sidewalks. No grass lawns. No trees planted in boxes on the sidewalk. Just asphalt, brick, and cement.

Few cars were on the streets, which made tailing the cab more difficult. Poole hung a few blocks back and kept his fingers crossed that the hack would not lose him with a quick succession of turns. He didn’t. Eventually, the cab stopped at a nondescript, eight-story apartment building. The mark got out of the cab and paid his fare, not waiting for change. The cab drove off. The mark walked briskly toward the building, shoulders hunched against the drizzle. Poole parked his car a block away, waited until the mark had disappeared inside, then jogged— the collar of his trench coat pulled high around his neck, his hat pulled low— to the building’s entrance.

The glass in the front door was a web of cracks from where someone must have smashed it with a brick or a rock. Food scraps, old newspapers, and broken glass were strewn across the lobby’s threadbare brown rug. Cockroaches scuttled along the walls. The two elevators wore OUT OF ORDER signs pasted on their doors. The paint was old and cracked. Poole located the door marked STAIRS and headed up.

A rhythmic thumping came from above. Poole took the stairs by twos. On the landing for the third floor he found a kid, maybe early teens, sitting with his back to a wall, tossing a rubber ball at the opposite wall and catching it on the rebound.

“Fat gink come up these stairs?”

The kid gave Poole an assessing look and nodded. Poole was big— six foot five inches, a few pounds over 220— but the kid did not seem intimidated.

“Know where he went?”

The kid shrugged and returned to his game with the ball. Poole reached into his inside jacket pocket and took a dollar bill from his wallet. He folded it lengthwise and tossed it into the kid’s lap.

“Miss Baker’s.” Poole got a look at the kid’s mouthful of rotten teeth.

“Number?”

The kid hesitated.

“You’re not getting any more money.” Poole moved slightly closer to him, casting his shadow on the kid’s body.

“Six oh two.”

Poole nodded and continued up the stairs.

“Hey,” the kid called after him, “what you got in that bag?”

Poole put his bag down outside apartment 602. He fished out a bandana, which he tied around his nose and mouth. He pulled out the camera and attached a large flash. Then he extracted a flat strip of tin half the width of a dollar bill that he slid around in the crack of the door until he found the lock. He jiggled the tin with a practiced hand and the door opened. Silently he bent down and brought his bag across the threshold, then took the camera and closed the door behind him.

He stood in the hallway, listening to the muffled voices until the talking ceased. He listened now to groans and sighs and heavy breathing. Then came the squeaking of the bedsprings, and he moved quickly and quietly through the apartment to the bedroom. He stepped through the open doorway and had taken the first shot before they knew he was there. The woman— Miss Baker, presumably— made a funny kind of braying noise and felt around for sheets that were inconveniently wadded up at the foot of the bed, while the mark, absurdly, covered his genitals with his hands and stared at Poole. Poole efficiently wound the film and took another shot. He wound again and got another shot before the woman finally found the sheets and crawled beneath them. He took a last shot of the mark.

“You’ll hear from me,” he said in his deepest voice, then left the room, picking up his bag midstride, and exited the apartment.

“He doesn’t have much to hide, that one,” Carla Hallestrom said, looking at the prints that Poole had just brought from the darkroom.

“It disappeared pretty quick.”

Carla was wearing one of Poole’s undershirts, and it hung to her knees. She was a slender woman, with walnut skin, courtesy of her Greek mother, and blue eyes from her Swedish father. Striking rather than beautiful, she wore her raven hair shorter than was the fashion. This allowed her to wear wigs when she wished to avoid notice.

“His life is beginning to get complicated,” she said, looking at the man’s face, frozen in panic. The man, Roderigo Bernal, owned a company called Capitol Industries and was, if not the richest man in the City, then one of them.

“And you’re about to make it worse,” Poole said, watching her as she framed the woman’s face with her fingers.

“Do you know who she is?”

Poole shook his head. “Her last name is Baker. That’s about it. Does it matter?”

“No. I just hope that he doesn’t think she was involved. That she helped set him up.”

Poole shrugged. “I’ll mention that to him when we talk.”

“Which is when?”

“When’s the strike?”

“Tomorrow. You know that.”

“Tomorrow night, then.”

Carla smiled.

CHAPTER THREE

Puskis had never been to the Hollows. He had never, until now, even considered going. He watched without much interest as the lifeless neighborhood drifted past the back window of his taxi.

The cabbie brought the taxi to a stop at a block of row houses. No lights were on. No one sat on a stoop, though it was the first day that it hadn’t rained in nearly a week.

Puskis handed the driver a five-dollar bill. “Could you wait a couple of minutes?”

His eyes on the bill, the cabbie nodded, and Puskis unfolded out of the backseat. He approached the steps leading up to number 4731 E. Van Buren Street. Hearing a noise behind him, he turned to see the taxi pull away from the curb and head down the street. This brought disappointment rather than irritation, and Puskis labored up the twelve steps with his shoulders stooped.

To the right of the door were three buttons, labeled 1, 2, and 3. The address in the files had no apartment number, and Puskis wondered if the house might not have been turned into apartments since the file’s creation. He pushed the button labeled 1, on the theory that if DeGraffenreid had split the house into apartments, he would probably have made his own apartment number one. Puskis heard the bell ring faintly from inside. He waited a minute, then pushed the button a second time, again without response. He progressed to number two. This time Puskis heard a window open above him. He looked up to see a woman with an enormous head looking down at him.

“My name is Puskis,” he called up to her. “I’m looking for Reif DeGraffenreid.”

“You’re looking for Mr. DeGraffenreid?” Her voice was somehow both deep and shrill.

“That’s correct. Reif DeGraffenreid.”

“Well, you’re about seven years too late.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re too late,” she repeated, louder. “He left about seven years ago. Haven’t seen him since.”

“I was wondering if, perhaps, I could speak to you for a minute.”

There was silence for a moment and Puskis’s neck was beginning to get sore from looking up.

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Puskis. Arthur Puskis. Listen. I won’t take more than ten minutes of your time.”

“Okay. You look harmless enough.” Her head disappeared from the window, and Puskis watched the front door expectantly, waiting for the woman to open it. Instead, he heard her voice from above him.

“Catch.” She dropped a key from the window. Puskis was not able to react in time, and it fell to the stoop by his feet. He bent and picked it up.

“It’s for the front door,” she called down unnecessarily. Puskis tried the key, found it was upside-down, then managed to get it to work. He climbed the stairs, his footsteps muted by a drab, worn carpet. The door at the second-floor landing was ajar. Puskis stepped up to the threshold.

“Madam?”

“In here.”

He walked through a filthy kitchen that smelled of rotting vegetables, then a dimly lit hall and into the dusk of a sitting room. The curtains were pulled shut, and only a golden light emanated from lamps whose bulbs were covered by heavy amber shades. Puskis found it distressingly hot.

“So you’re looking for Mr. DeGraffenreid.” The woman was easily the most obese human being Puskis had ever encountered, the particulars of her body obscured by a huge, formless garment that was nonetheless pushed to its limits by her startling girth. Her head was big and round with hair pulled back away from her face. She did not so much sit as lean backward in her chair.

“Yes. Yes, I am. I was hoping that maybe you might be able to give me some information that would aid me in, well, locating his current whereabouts.”

The woman looked at him as though he were an amusing insect. “His current whereabouts,” she mused.

“Mmmh, yes.” The air was stagnant. Puskis could see dust motes floating in the amber light.

“I can’t tell you too much about that I’m afraid. Like I said, haven’t seen hide nor hair of him for— what?—seven years.”

“Oh. Oh, that’s unfortunate. Hmmm, yes.” This was torture for Puskis, and his desperation to leave this immense woman’s apartment was preventing him from thinking clearly. “Well, maybe you could, in another tack, you could tell me what Mr. DeGraffenreid did for a business.”

The woman gave a quick sputtering sound that sent a wave of flesh down her chin and below the folds of her dress. “Mr. Puskis, in the Hollows you don’t ask people about their business, and if you find out by accident, you sure as hell don’t go talking about it to strangers.”

Puskis coughed once, then found himself consumed by a coughing fit. The woman watched inscrutably as he fought to recover. “How about acquaintances?” he said finally. “People who came by?”

She frowned and turned her head slightly away from him. He understood.

“Well, I thank you for your time, madam. I truly do.” He turned to go, flustered but also relieved to be leaving the apartment. The heat was beginning to make him light-headed. He noticed for the first time— or had it just now formed?— a sheen of perspiration across the woman’s forehead and wondered if her apparent placidity masked an effort made to control great pain. This thought changed her greatly in his mind; not eliciting sympathy, exactly, but a mild relief, at least, of his unease. He remembered the last thing he needed to ask.

“I was wondering, could you take a look at two photographs I have with me?”

She didn’t answer, but inclined her chin, which Puskis took as an assent. He produced photos from the two DeGraffenreid files. First he showed her the one from the earlier file.

“That’s Mr. DeGraffenreid,” she said immediately.

“Are you sure?”

She gave him a stare, so he moved on to the next photo— the one with the unnatural look.

“Never seen him before.”

“Could it be someone who visited DeGraffenreid?” Puskis tried. “An associate or an acquaintance?”

“Could be, but like I said, never seen him.”

Puskis had to walk eight blocks before a cab passed by. The effort was exhausting. He sat in the backseat of the cab with his eyes closed, concentrating. A critical mass of information was needed to perceive order. He had not yet acquired that critical mass. But now, at least, he had a face to place with the name Reif DeGraffenreid. Who was the man in the other photograph who so unsettled Puskis? The name Dersch, referred to in the margin notes in the two files, was almost certainly a detective who had retired several years previously. A margin note strongly suggested that Dersch had not actually been involved in the case, but simply offered that piece of information to one of the transcribers, who had dutifully recorded it. But who was Feral Basu? And why was his name worthy of comment when his role in the affair was peripheral at best?

Puskis knew that attempting to force order on random pieces of information would be fruitless. The pattern would come to him only when the necessary information had been gathered. Until then he was left with questions.

Two blocks from his apartment building in the wealthy Capitol district, Puskis’s cab encountered a police roadblock.

“Christ,” the cabbie said through locked teeth. He took a left to circumvent the cordoned-off area and attempted to circle around to Puskis’s block. A right turn, however, brought them to another police cordon.

“You can drop me here,” Puskis said.

Behind the police line was a crowd, five people deep, straining to see what was happening a couple of blocks down. Puskis excused and pardoned his way to the front, where two imposing officers manned the barricade, nightsticks out and postures aggressive.

“Excuse me,” he said to them, “my name is Arthur Puskis. I’m trying to get to my apartment building, which is around the corner at the end of this block.”

“Yeah, well, nobody’s get—” the officer on the left began, his round, red face a mask of ill-humor.

“Shut up,” the other said. “What’s your name again?” he asked Puskis.

“Ahh, Arthur Puskis.”

“Jesus Christ, Danny, this is Mr. Puskis.” Then to Puskis: “Sir, you say you live on Sinclair?”

Puskis nodded. Sinclair ran perpendicular to the avenue that they’d cordoned off.

“We’d be happy to let you through.”

“Of course,” Puskis said. “What’s happening here?”

“Bomb, sir. Somebody threw a bomb through a window two blocks down. Blew the front off the building.”

“Oh dear. Do you know whose place it was?”

“Yes, sir. Individual by the name of Ian Block.”

Block. The name was familiar. An industrialist, one of the mayor’s inner circle. “Was anyone hurt?”

“Trying to ascertain that at this very moment, sir. Haven’t heard yet. Keep you apprised, though, if you like, sir.”

“No. No, that won’t be necessary.” The two officers moved the barricade to let Puskis through. As he approached his street, he could see a brownstone a block farther down, with a hole like a shotgun wound hemorrhaging blue and black smoke that, to Puskis’s eye, seemed also to contain wisps of red. He stopped at the corner, noticing the ash that had fallen to the sidewalk and the papers that fanned out from the damaged building into the street.

Puskis watched the firemen saturate the smoldering building with thousands of gallons of water while policemen stood around watching or acting menacingly toward members of the public whom they deemed too curious.

He walked down his street, leaving the chaos of the bomb scene behind. Ian Block. Puskis reflected on the consequences of someone bombing Block’s house. The mayor would doubtless take this as a personal affront. The force was going to be under intense pressure from both the mayor’s office and the press. If Puskis clung to one precept that informed his sense of how the world worked, it was that the past was a sentient guide to the present and future if one knew how to evaluate it. That was the crucial importance of the Vaults and the files contained within. The consequences of the bombing did not require the close examination that Puskis prided himself on. Before this affair ended, blood would be spilled.

CHAPTER FOUR

Frank Frings strode quickly through the crowded newsroom of the Gazette, trailed by an assistant named Ed something.

“There was a bomb in the Capitol district,” Ed said, struggling to keep up.

“Shit, you’re kidding.” Frings did not break stride.

“No, a bomb exploded in the district. Details are coming in, but Panos wants you out there pronto.”

“What was bombed? A store, a house, what?”

“Well, we haven’t got anything confirmed …”

“Of course not, but what the hell do you know?” Frings spoke quickly, without pauses between words, his sentences pouring forth as single, extended words with a disconcerting number of syllables.

“Reports are that it was Ian Block.”

“Ian Block?” Frings stopped and fixed on Ed, who took an extra step before stopping to face him. “Holy shit. Do you have any idea what that would mean?” Frings was of average height and lanky; still, he could intimidate with the intensity of his gray eyes, the aggressive jut of his jaw.

“Well,” Ed stammered, “I think I—”

“Jesus H., Ed. I don’t believe this.” Frings was back moving again, as if he had springs in his joints, weaving through desks on his way to the editor’s office. Ed was still trying to say something, two strides behind, but Frings made no attempt to isolate his voice from the general din of the newsroom.

Frings pushed through Panos’s office door to find the fat, slovenly Panos smoking a cigar and humming a painfully off-key aria.

“What the hell’s going on?” Frings asked, closing the door before Ed made it to the threshold. Adrenaline was flowing.

“Didn’t that twerp tell you?” Panos growled. He stuck his cigar back into his mouth, under an unruly, overgrown mustache.

“He told me. But, Ian Block’s place? How certain are we?”

“How certain are we ever until we see for our own eyes?”

Frings was used to the warmed-over philosophizing. “Okay. I’ll get down there right away and call it in once I figure it out. You going to hold the presses until you hear from me?”

Panos grunted. The sweat stains blossoming from his underarms would soon overwhelm the dry areas of his shirt. “Don’t screw around Frankie.”

Frings winked at Panos. “Stay by that phone.”

The mayor had a small circle of wealthy businessmen friends. In his columns, Frings called them the Oligarchy. If the membership of this group was somewhat fluid, the core people at least— Ian Block, Tino Altabelli, and Roderigo Bernal— were a constant. They bankrolled Red Henry’s mayoral campaigns and received what to Frings’s eye was a scandalous return on their investment.

So strong was the association of Block, Altabelli, and Bernal with Henry that an affront to one of them could only be seen as an affront to the mayor himself. That was what made labor action against any of their companies a dicey proposition. Effectively, the Oligarchs had the use of the City’s police force if and when they felt they needed it. More important, they could use the Anti-Subversion Unit, which entailed a whole other layer of coordination and firepower. Certainly, the mayor would be using the ASU to track down whoever planted the bomb.

Order was beginning to emerge from the chaos at the bombsite. Rivers of water, gray from the ash, flowed through gutters on either side of the street. Smoke billowed from the hole that had been blown out of the brownstone. Most of the building façade was gone, too, so there was no street number. Frings figured the number from the two adjacent houses, however, and compared it to the address he had for Ian Block. It checked out.

He found an officer named Losman, whom he had met on a couple of previous assignments and did not seem particularly busy at the moment.

“Frank Frings with the Gazette,” Frings said, offering the cop a Lucky. “Anybody inside when it went off?”

“No one that we know of. We located Mr. Block at his club, and he said that there might have been a cleaning woman today, but that he didn’t think so. He didn’t have his calendar with him. But we haven’t found a body.”

“What was Mr. Block’s reaction to the news?”

Losman gave Frings a funny look. “I wasn’t there. Why? How’d you take it if someone tossed a bomb through your window?”

“What type of bomb?”

“Sticks of dynamite, wrapped with rope. Found fibers on some of the wrapping down the street. Probably used a long fuse, lit it, tossed the bundle through the first-floor window, and had about a minute to get out of there.”

Frings nodded, taking it in. “Any idea who?”

“Usual suspects, I guess. Don’t print this, of course. Anarchists. Communists. Always the ‘ists’ though, right?”

“No one specific, though.”

“Not yet. You can print that. But we’ll find them soon enough. No doubt there.”

You’d better, Frings thought, or there’s going to be hell to pay with the Mayor. Which, from any remove, was hardly a pleasant thought.

Frings walked back outside the perimeter and talked to a few bystanders, trying to find an eyewitness or anyone with something interesting to say. Failing in this, he thought of Panos growing more annoyed and began searching for a phone booth.

Frings dictated the story to one of the secretaries back at the paper and thought about trying to get a quote from the Chief or maybe even the mayor himself. But then Frings began to feel its onset: daggers of pain behind his eyes, the feeling of a cold spatula slowly separating his brain from his skull. Soon his vision would begin to go on him, and maybe his balance, too. He scanned the street for a cab, but they were avoiding the area because of the barricade. So he trotted downtown, each stride intensifying the pain in his skull by a small increment. Finally he got to the trolley line at Grand Avenue. He had to sprint to catch one as it pulled away, timing his jump so that his momentum took him through the rear door and into the car. He collapsed into a seat and shut his eyes to the light of the world that was causing him this agony.

CHAPTER FIVE

Red Henry sat at the head of a heavy oak table. To his left sat a cohort of city officials, the people supposedly necessary for this kind of affair. To the mayor’s right was the congregation of Polish businessmen who wanted to open a factory in the Hollows, because this was not a great time to be in Poland, with Germany and Russia restless. At the far end of the table was a translator.

Henry was torn between bemusement and annoyance at the pace of the proceedings. He wanted the Poles in the City with their factory, and they obviously wanted to be here. So shake hands and get on with it, the details would work out. His counsel, though, insisted that the details be worked out first, and some established businesses in the City did not necessarily cotton to these Poles adding yet more options for the labor force. As if Red Henry were going to do any more than let these folks vent. The mayor wanted the Poles here, and rarely did he not get what he wanted.

The Poles, it had finally been decided, would bring their own workers with them on the boat from Poland. Henry glanced down at his huge, misshapen hands that were resting, palms down, on the table. The knuckles were swollen and out of alignment, the result of his driving his fists repeatedly into people’s skulls during a long and successful boxing career. He was just over six and a half feet tall and weighed nearly 350 pounds. Even during his fighting days, when he weighed eighty pounds less, he had dwarfed his opponents in the ring.

The stories that were told might be exaggerated in detail, but they were true in the essentials: how he had been told to throw a fight at the Garden by some made men and had knocked Monty Kreski unconscious with savage blows in under a minute before then crawling through the ropes and thrashing the two thugs where they sat in the second row of the stands. How he had once knocked out both Kid Cuevas and the referee with one ferocious left hook.

By now, the flaming mane that had earned him his nickname was gone, his cranium bald and slightly coned at the back. His face showed all the evidence of his craft: flattened nose, ears so deformed they looked like giant pink raisins, scar tissue around the eyes. But Henry’s mental acuity was uncompromised. And he could still punch. They say that’s always the last thing to go— the force of a punch. Well into his fifties he could still use his massive physical presence to intimidate when he needed to. Now he just sat and stared at his hands, listening without actually hearing as first one side of the table said something, then the translator repeated it in either Polish or English, then the other side responded.

A movement in the far corner of the room distracted him and he saw Peja, his secretary, a squat young man with slicked-back hair and slightly crossed eyes, slip into the room. An intrusion like this was unusual and did not auger well. Peja strode over, avoiding eye contact with anyone but his boss. The conversation stopped.

“Keep going,” Red Henry said, and the conversation resumed awkwardly. Peja was at his side now and whispered in his ear for several seconds, before straightening. Red Henry stared straight ahead, impassive to all eyes. He had learned that skill in his years of boxing, completely relaxing in his corner no matter the amount of adrenaline pumping through his veins or the terrific stress of a close bout (of which there had been few). He kept his body still and his face slack even as his mind dissected the information he had just heard, probing it for cause and impact and consequence.

A bomb at Ian Block’s. While the Poles were here. He could think of a number of reasons why this should be seen as a calculated personal insult to him. Somebody was going to realize that he had just made the biggest mistake that he would ever live to make. Red Henry would make sure of that.

Putting this issue aside for now, Henry refocused on the conversation around the table. After a while the translator said to the Americans, “They are asking if there is some civic need or effort that they could contribute towards.” Red Henry had been waiting for this.

“I have to leave for another meeting,” he said, rising from the chair to his full height. “Dan,” he said to his counsel, “I believe you know how to handle things from here?” Then to the rest of the Americans he said, “Thank you for your time, you may go.” Finally, he addressed the Poles. “We look forward to a lasting and prosperous relationship with our friends from Poland. Please excuse my early exit, but I have a prior commitment to attend to. My counsel will speak for me as the negotiations go forward. Thank you.”

He smiled with empty warmth at the Polish congregation as the translator spoke his words in Polish. The Poles nodded and smiled back to him, then stood as he shook hands with each of them in succession, their hands like so many children’s in the grip of his gigantic paw.

He left the room to find Peja waiting for him in the hallway. “Get the Chief for me. My office in an hour. And call Feral. I’ll meet him to night by the bridge. Ten thirty.”

CHAPTER SIX

“Who is this?”

“You know who it is.”

“What do you want?”

“We need to meet.”

“Okay.”

“You know that phone booth across the street from your office?”

“Yes.”

“Be there in three minutes. I’ll call you.”

Poole left the phone booth and strode two blocks to a different one. He was not worried about being watched. Yet. The danger would come later. Just now he was worried about people listening in on the other end of the line, specifically the cops. Or tracing the call, which he’d heard that the police could now do with the help of an operator.

The streets were alive with people rushing about on this weekday morning. The sky was obscured by low, gray clouds and the City seemed to reflect its narrow range of hues. People walked with their shoulders hunched and heads down against a cold wind that swept through the canyon of buildings like a glacial river. Leaves and litter danced crazily in the street and around the legs of seemingly oblivious pedestrians.

He arrived at the second phone booth and entered, pulling his gray fedora down to hide his face, then dialed the number for the phone booth outside Bernal’s building.

“Yes?” Bernal was breathing hard. Poole guessed that he had taken the stairs down.

“Listen carefully because I am not going to stay on the line long. We need to meet face-to-face. Do you know Greer Park?”

“Yes.”

“The pond in Greer Park. On the west side there’s a gazebo.”

“I know it.”

“Tomorrow night at eleven p.m. You will bring five thousand dollars in small bills. We’ll talk for five, maybe ten minutes. Then I’ll blindfold you and leave you with a timer set for five minutes. When the timer goes off, you will take off your blindfold and go home. I have people who will be watching the area, so if you’re not alone, they’ll know and the pictures will be sent to every newspaper in the City and to your wife. If you leave before the timer goes off, the same thing will happen. Do you understand everything that I have told you?”

“Yes.”

Poole hung up.

Carla was not home when he returned to the apartment. She was at Bernal’s factory helping organize the strike that had begun that day. As always when she was out on these endeavors, he worried about the City’s leading capitalists’ capacity for violence and, perhaps more to the point, that of the mayor and the police. It gnawed at him.

Carla had found him at the end of their time at State, a time when everyone was either vilifying Poole or indebted to him for actions that he himself found repugnant. Carla was oblivious to all of this, however. She didn’t follow football. She was a Red, spending her free time selling ads to keep the City’s underground Communist paper in production or trying to organize workers who did not even share a common language.

Poole liked her because she had a clear vision of right and wrong. She could assess a situation and make the kind of confident judgments that he found he could not. And there was something else. A moral fierceness. A commitment to making things change married to a sense of how they should be. It was a daunting example.

Why had she chosen him in the first place? he sometimes wondered. Some women liked to have the initiative, maybe. Certainly, Carla drove their relationship. That was the way she wanted it and that was the way he wanted it, too. Then there was the physical attraction …

Poole walked through their living room, sidestepping the books and newspapers stacked around the worn leather couch and chair that sat facing each other across a coffee table made from an old door. The kitchen was small but had an alcove at the end with a wooden table and two chairs. The window looked out on an alley that, over the past few years, had become the nocturnal domain of a clique of young prostitutes. Poole felt as though he had watched these girls grow up.

Today’s paper lay open on the table with an article circled in red pencil. He sat down. The headline read “Bomb Blasts Block’s Building.” Next to the headline was a picture of the building, with a ragged hole with smoke billowing out from it. The press had not set the ink accurately, and the picture was a double image.

The article itself was short, nothing much to report. The reporter, Francis Frings, wrote that the investigation would be a priority for the police department. Poole knew what that meant and knew, too, that the danger to Carla had just dramatically increased. Whenever the City’s capitalists were victimized, the suspects were always the same; at the top of the list were the Socialist union organizers.

He considered calling Frings, whom he knew to be sympathetic to the City’s Socialists, but was interrupted by a knock at the door.

CHAPTER SEVEN

Frings woke at nine, his head cleaved into two hemi spheres of pain. Squinting his eyes, he took mincing steps to his bureau and opened a small drawer on the top left side, where a small tin held several hand-rolled marijuana cigarettes. He took one, along with a butane lighter, and moved to the window, which he cracked open an inch. He sat with his back against the wall under the window and lit the reefer. He filled his lungs, held the pungent smoke, then exhaled through the side of his mouth, directing the majority of the smoke out the window. It took him five minutes to smoke the entire cigarette in this fashion, and by the time he was done the headache had receded to a level of mild annoyance.

From his seat on the floor he watched Nora Aspen as she slept. Nothing was more demystifying, he thought, as watching this normally glamorous creature with her mouth ajar, her face pale and swollen with sleep. The crimson silk sheets that she favored lay draped over her famous curves, and the idea that hundreds, if not thousands, of men would envy his situation right that second seemed somehow absurd. He, Frank Frings, the paramour of this jazz-singer pinup. It seemed so odd that he almost laughed. Almost.

 

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