New York City
The Second World War is not quite that yet. It is still the Second War in Europe, and the aggression of the Japanese Empire in the Pacific.
The War has been in progress for nearly two years.
Winston Churchill has been Prime Minister for over a year.
The evacuation at Dunkirk was the year before.
The continent of Europe has collapsed under the Nazi steam roller, until only Great Britain remains, and that ‘finest hour’ – the Battle of Britain – was also the summer before.
Africa and the Middle East are now battlefields.
The United States and Great Britain have their Atlantic Charter; the United States has the Lend-Lease Agreement, but the U.S. is “officially” neutral.
The Siege of Leningrad will begin in September.
And the attack of the tropical base of Pearl Harbor – the day that will live in infamy — is still a few months in the future.
And yet numerous lives, seemingly untouched by all that is happening in Europe and the Pacific, manage to continue, almost oblivious….
I shall never forget the weekend Savannah died.
The stark pronouncement slammed into his brain — that brilliant brain of his — with the intensity of a lightning bolt, startling him from his relaxing bath, and he immediately sat straight up, coming to attention, alert to everything around him…the heat, the noises from the streets, the movement….Someone was moving about in the drawing room, someone his butler had obviously admitted only a short time before…Someone with questions. More questions. Always more questions.
And again the mind wandered as he deeply inhaled the sandalwood and myrrh in the water…wanting to forget:
A silver sun burned through the sky like a huge magnifying glass.
It was the hottest Sunday in my recollection.
I felt as if I were the only human being left in New York.
For with Savannah’s horrible death, I was alone.
I, Sidney Sixpointven Lydecker…
Was the only one who really knew her…
The only one.
Others might be fooled into thinking otherwise, into believing they knew everything that made her “tick,” if one wanted to use that vulgarity, but how mistaken they were. She had been as much a cipher as he was…and now more questions. More questions, when he wanted so desperately to be left alone.
And I had just begun to write Savannah’s story when…
another of those detectives came to see me.
Quite unintentionally, Sid’s aristocratic nose went into the air and he sniffed once, twice, as if the very odor from the stranger had penetrated the perfection of his apartment. Very likely the imagined odor was some cheap after shave or cologne the detective had picked up at the Five and Dime store, and as with most men of his status, had used most of the bottle in the hopes of attracting the opposite sex to his scent. They were such animals….No, cavemen. This one — just from Sid’s glimpse of the cut of the off-the-rack suit hanging off a muscular form — had barely evolved out of the cave. Rough-hewn yes; a high school or college football player in a past life, most likely, but the word ‘cheap’ came to mind again, and he nearly snickered. Sid knew the type all too well.
I had him wait.
I could watch him through the half-open door.
The suit: probably Sears, Roebuck or Montgomery Ward. The fedora: typical of a cop with its’ shades of Gable, Bogart and other “manly” Hollywood stars. Sid imagined he could smell the stench of the cologne, overpowering his bath oils, the freshness of the towels warming on the heated rack, the very class of what he considered his own little royal Privy Chamber. Based on what he had seen from the other policemen, he was surprised this one was not still walking on all fours! But no…there was something more….He noticed….What the devil was the Neanderthal doing? The baroque grandfather clock – the pendulum keeping a steady rhythm – had chimed the half-hour.
I noted that his attention was fixed upon my clock.
And it was not stupid curiosity, Sid realized. It was a sense of study, as if the man was analyzing the very perfection of the Mona Lisa itself!
There was only one other in existence…
and that was in Savannah’s apartment…
In the very room where she was murdered.
But now he felt the need to call out. The man, the cop, had from time to time paused before Sid’s jade Buddha, or wall-mounted African tribal masks, but most of all, the glass cabinets containing the costly pieces which were the pride of his objects d’art. But now the Faberge egg had the man’s attention, then taking a second step, he stopped again, his face moving closer as something else caught his eye. Sid took a deep breath as the policeman picked up one of his beloved vases, a small piece yes, but one of the prizes of the carefully built Eastern portion of his envied collection. If anything should happen to it…
“Careful there! That stuff is priceless.”
The cop looked up, hardly fazed, and in the direction of the voice. His large hands appeared incredibly gentle as he held the vase, obviously appreciating the delicacy, but upon being warned, he shrugged and with the greatest care, returned the piece to the shelf.
Perhaps it was time for the subject to be allowed entrance.
“Come in here, please,” Sid ordered, successfully ridding the superiority from his voice as the mortal now approached.
“Mr. Lydecker?” the detective asked.
The cop was curious, but not overly so, his eyes – in a few brief moments — taking in every detail of the sumptuous suite, this section alone nearly larger than many regular New York apartments. This was only the bathroom and the dressing room, for on the other side of the room – behind the carefully placed Japanese screens – was an enormous four-poster bed, surrounded by a tasteful combination of antiques and contemporary furnishings. But the free-standing bathtub had most of his attention as he approached his host. It was almost a centerpiece for the scene: black marble upon a raised square foundation of gold. Everything – the vanity with the bottles of after-shaves and lotions, pomades and colognes; the shelves with more shoes than most women possessed; the organized racks of jackets and shirts, pants and belts and ties; chests that likely contained all of his socks and underwear and handkerchiefs; vases of perfumed flowers; small jewelry boxes – was designed to catch the eye and reflect the man, Sydney Lydecker, one of the city’s – no, the nation’s – most preeminent columnists, theater critics and broadcasters.
The man who seemed very human and yet aloof – a handsome man, much younger than one would think from his years of writing for only the best, and his time in New York and Newport society — as he sat upright, surrounded by steaming water, the fragrant oils still noticeable, and before him, a specially designed and moveable marble desk which ran the entire width of the tub. On top of that was one of the finest Smith-Corona portable typewriters the cop had ever seen. So that was the sound the officer had heard while in the drawing room.
Sid grinned. “Ah, you recognize me. How splendid.” Naturally he was Sydney Lydecker, but nice of him to be so polite. He would think less of this cop’s investigative skills had he not identified him properly. Naturally the person soaking in the tub would have to be Sydney Lydecker – who else would it be, but considering the educational system of the day he could be forgiven! “Sit down, please,” and he indicated a white cushioned seat that was nearby.
The detective bowed his head as a way of thanking Sid, then taking the chair by the gold back, moved it nearer the bathtub. “Nice little place you have here, Mr. Lydecker.”
Sid’s grin became more toothy. He could not resist. “It’s lavish, but I call it home.
“I suppose you’re here about the Savannah Hunt murder.” He sighed, forcing his depression deeper into his soul, and attempted a façade of boredom and slight annoyance. “Yesterday morning, after Savannah’s body was found…I was questioned by Sergeants Zachary Grant and Cort Wells…and I stated…” He paused long enough to refer to a leather folder beside the typewriter, and upon opening it, intoned:
“’On Friday night, Savannah had a dinner engagement with me…after which she was ostensibly going out of town. She phoned and canceled our engagement at exactly seven p.m. After that I…’”
“You ‘ate a lonely dinner…then got into the tub to read.’”
Only now did Sid realize that the cop was reading from his own notebook. “Why did you write it down?” he gruffly asked. “Afraid you’d forget it?” The question was not that of being interrogated, but was asked more as if he found humor in what had been recited.
Sid nearly snorted, but instead, smiled sardonically. “I am the most widely misquoted man in America. When my friends do it, I resent it. From Sergeants Grant and Wells, I should find it intolerable.” He wiggled one of his manicured fingers. “Hand me that washcloth, please, Mister…Mister…”
“White,” the cop calmly answered. If he resented being treated as a towel boy or servant, he showed no signs of it, locating the cloth (What the hell is this? Not cotton. Can’t be. If it is, ain’t like no cotton I’ve ever felt before) and passing it to Sid.
Common last name, but something about it suddenly intrigued Lydecker’s mind. “White. White. White?!” Now he remembered, and Sid began to beam like an excited teenybopper at her first Sinatra concert! “Wendell ‘Bud’ White – the siege of Babylon, Long Island. The gangster with the machine gun. Killed three policemen and two civilians, injured a half-dozen more. I told your story over the air and wrote a column about it. Are you the one with the leg full of lead? The man who walked right in and got him?”
Wendell White came very close to turning red from embarrassment. “Yeah.”
But the revelation obviously put him in a higher esteem when it came to Sydney Lydecker, for he was still smiling and looking close to admiring. “Well, well, imagine that, and standing here in my apartment at that. I am very, very honored indeed.” He tossed the cloth aside. He had been soaking long enough. “Hand me my robe, please.” This time it sounded more like a request and not the near royal command with the cloth.
“You have a pretty good memory, Mr. Lydecker,” and Bud gave him the robe, again marveling at how soft these items were.
The Siege of Babylon – as the press had christened it – was nearly two years before, and had earned White not only a medal (and six weeks off from duty), but assisted in promoting him from sergeant to lieutenant. He already had a splendid record. No deed had been required. The fearlessness had come so naturally to him; had not even felt like heroism, but simply something that needed to be done, even as he watched his brother cops fall around him, some dying, some injured, one of his partners spattering blood and brain matter all over him as the young man crumpled to the ground. It simply seemed the right thing, before others – police and the innocent — were hurt or killed. So he walked in and captured him, one of the FBI’s ten most wanted. The public and the media had taken it from there.
“I always liked that detective with the silver shinbone,” and Sid stood, uncaring that his dripping wet nakedness was now revealed in all its’ glory…or that Wendell White had glanced at him, looked away, and smirked as the writer hurriedly pulled on the robe and tied it tightly about his body.
Once again, Bud nodded his head, keeping it turned slightly so as to give his host some privacy, and chiefly to keep from feeling embarrassed on his own behalf. Lydecker might not care about ‘formalities,’ and it was not that White – who worked out – had not seen naked and half-naked men before, but there was something about Sid’s display…. Oh well. He was among the upper crust of society; these folks did things completely opposite of most. “Thanks. I hope you won’t have any reason to change your mind about me.”
“Oh…more questions? Have you more questions?”
“Yeah, just one,” and Bud referred to his notebook again. “Two years ago, in one of your October columns…you started out to write a book review…but at the bottom of the column, you switched over to the Harrington murder case.”
Sid was about to step behind one of his dressing screens, but he turned upon hearing the inquiry. “Are the processes of the creative mind now under the jurisdiction of the police, Lieutenant?”
Bud ignored the question. “You said Harrington was rubbed out with a shotgun loaded with buckshot…the way Savannah Hunt was murdered night before last.”
“Did I?” He was unperturbed and now concealed by the screen, began to dress. Usually he called for his man to assist him, but he would prefer this interview be kept private.
“Yeah, but he was really killed with a sash weight.”
“How positively ordinary. My version was obviously superior. I never bother with details, you know.”
“I do.” Bud now stood up, preparing to place his hat on his head. “Well, so long.”
“So long? No, no, no, I won’t hear of it. Not so soon. You and your Sergeants Grant and Wells insinuate yourselves into my life, have given me a taste of police work that I have vague knowledge of outside my of many stories. I desire more.”
“Indeed. Mind if I go with you?” He peeped from behind the screen, noticing that while Lieutenant White showed no outward signs of any emotion at what he was asked, he had suddenly reached into his pocket to withdraw some unknown object – Sid could not tell what, but the cop took it between both hands and began to carefully move it slightly in one direction, then another.
“What for?” came Bud’s reply.
“Murder is my favorite crime. I write about it regularly…and I know you’ll have to visit everyone on your list of suspects. I’d…like to study their reactions.”
One side of Bud’s mouth turned up. “You’re on the list yourself, you know.”
“Good! To have overlooked me would have been a pointed insult.”
“You’re not the sort of man one would insult, Mr. Lydecker.”
A few minutes of silence passed, and then Sid reappeared, wearing a lightweight tailored suit, which – even in its’ minimalism – revealed that it was cut to fit the one specific man and his personality, not hundreds of men in the same mass-produced clothes.
“Do you really suspect me?” Sid stepped before his mirror so as to finish knotting his tie.
“Yes,” came the matter of fact answer, but again, Bud was concentrating on whatever was in his hands.
“White, if you know anything about faces, look at mine. How singularly innocent I look this morning. Have you ever seen such candid eyes?” Sid studied the reflection of his guest, smiled slightly, inhaled, but was disappointed on realizing that the cop was paying more attention to the…Was that…a toy? He was paying more attention to a toy than to Lydecker’s innocent face and candid eyes? Turning from the mirror, he moved closer to White and looked over his shoulder, finally seeing that it was a little baseball skills game, in which the player had to maneuver four tiny silver balls into the various holes representing bases so that each was filled simultaneously. A miniature pinball game of some sort, Lydecker supposed. “Something you confiscated in a raid on a kindergarten?”
Bud continued what he was doing. “Takes a lot of control. Would you like to try it?”
Sid chuckled and sniffed. “No, thanks.”
Only when Sid had returned his attention to his own image did he hear:
“Were you in love with Savannah Hunt, Mr. Lydecker?”
If Lieutenant Wendell White had suddenly announced that to throw him, he did not know with whom he was dealing. After all, he was Sydney Lydecker, and not some two-bit, Paul Muni ‘Scarface’-wannabe gangster with a machine gun.
“Was she in love with you?”
Sid broke the white carnation blossom from the stem, and giving it a slight whiff, placed it in his buttonhole. There had been times, past times, when he would be prepared to leave for the evening and it would be Savannah’s hands performing that simple act. Those lovely sweet hands that he would never feel again, but no, he would not give this cop the satisfaction of believing he had been affected.
“Savannah considered me the wisest, the wittiest…the most interesting man she’d ever met.” That was said very gently, but now he grew more self-assured. “I was in complete accord with her on that point.” Then the voice adjusted again, taking on a tenderness that even White found astounding for a man of Sid’s nature, or at least the nature he had observed in these last moments. “She thought me also the kindest…the gentlest…the most sympathetic man in the world.”
“Did you agree with her there too?”
Sid momentary looked at White’s reflection, seeing that the detective was now just behind him. Very close….No, the cologne was not as cheap as he once believed. “White, you won’t understand this…but I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest…the most sympathetic man in the world.”
“Have any luck?”
“Let me put it this way,” Sid callously said. “I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.” He pulled on his jacket and took one final look in the mirror. There – he was perfection. “Shall we go?”