I expect to finish
Exegesis by at least the end of May. I
thought this would be a fitting inaugural post for the Weblog of Edward Cline.
I hope you enjoy it.
It is late June, 1929. Cyrus Skeen has concluded his case in Stolen Words, in which he exonerated a prominent novelist of the charge of murder, even though the author had plagiarized other authors with the cooperation of the now defunct publisher. Skeen’s artist wife, Dilys, has returned from a visit to relatives back East in Massachusetts, and was preparing to work on her first painting. Skeen’s new secretary, Lucy Wentz, is quick on the uptake, and is working out fine.
But now a new nemesis has confronted Skeen, an unknown person who is killing people who have committed horrendous crimes. He writes Skeen and expresses his appreciation for Skeen’s crime-fighting acumen and skills, but wants Skeen to join him in a crusade to terminate all killers. Skeen has not killed any criminal gratuitously – he has killed in self-defense only when someone has threatened to kill him or someone who is a value to him – and wonders why his admirer thinks he would be open to the idea. Then the district attorney for San Francisco demands an explanation for why Skeen’s revolver was found next a murdered mass killer. More criminals are found dead. The unknown vigilante pins a note to each body, signed “Exegesis.”
In another unusual case tackled by Cyrus Skeen, the intrepid and unflappable detective delves into the mystery with his usual panache and certitude.
Chapter 7: An Evening at Maud’s
Mrs. Maud Skipton, prominent society hostess and wife of the ever-absent Jerome Skipton, wealthy shipping magnate and Pacific trader, hosted lavishly catered parties in her Nob Hill mansion, which was directly opposite Carmel Towers on Sacramento Street on the other side of the Hill. Her wealth and ability to become Nob Hill’s social arbiter was sustained by her husband, who had interests in almost every facet of Pacific trade and shipping. Cyrus Skeen, private detective and a member of San Francisco "society," could recall meeting Mr. Skipton only once and very briefly years ago at another of his wife’s parties. He somehow managed to be away on business in the Far East every time his wife threw one of her get-togethers.
Mrs. Skipton was stout and aged fifty-two. Skeen and his wife occasionally attended her parties more for the kinds of people they might meet than out of any expectation of enjoyment. Dilys frequently referred to Mrs. Skipton as the "de facto dowager."
Skeen regarded Maud Skipton as a simple, charming and harmless woman who valued the beauty of a high society community into which she welcomed anyone with a certain amount of class and sophistication. Although she herself was not brilliant in any sense, she put great stock in the brilliance of her soirees. She tolerated Skeen’s ribbing and jesting about her because she knew he was not vicious. Her frequent and well-attended parties were an antidote to her cloying loneliness.
Skeen and Dilys walked from Carmel Towers to the Skipton Mansion across Nob Hill. It was a pleasant, warmish evening. The doorman recognized them and greeted them. The Skeens knew their way around the mansion and went directly to the grand staircase that led to the ballroom upstairs.
The dazzlingly lit ballroom beyond was thick with guests, men in tuxedos, women in evening gowns, and servants circulating with trays of drinks. A band somewhere in the back played a popular tune at just the right pitch so as not to drown out conversation. Dilys gave the butler her black cape at the door. She and Skeen were instantly greeted by the hostess.
Maud Skipton, sporting three strings of pearls and in a silvery gown that did not attempt to disguise her stoutness, gave them an effusive welcome. “Thank you both for coming this evening, my two dearest neighbors! I could hug you both!”
“Thank you for inviting us, Maud,” said Skeen, resplendent in his tuxedo. Dilys was wearing a shimmering, blue satin, backless frock. Her blondish-brown hair featured a black feathered headband with a black feather.
“Happy birthday, Maud,” said Dilys.
Skeen presented the woman with a flat box gift-wrapped in sparkling green paper. “Something to keep you warm on chilly nights,” he said.
Attached to it was a small, enameled white cardboard with caricatures Dilys has drawn on it: Skeen was represented by a pair of probing eyes and a lock of hair over his forehead; Dilys represented herself with half-closed, seductive eyes and pouting lips. At the bottom of the card were Skeen’s and Dilys’s signatures.
Maud took the package and stared at the caricatures. “How ingenious! How marvelous! I shall keep the card alone!” She shook the box and looked quizzical. “What’s in here?”
Skeen grinned impishly. “Well, we found Mr. Skipton, dry-cleaned him, folded him up, wrapped some colorful ribbons around him, and fitted him into the box. He protested a little, but we gagged him.”
Skeen knew that he could jest about Jerome Skipton without hurting the woman’s feelings. It was a running private joke between Maud and him.
In the box was a sable shoulder wrap Skeen had found in Baum’s on Union Square.
The hostess laughed and squeezed Skeen’s shoulder. “You naughty boy! I ought to send you to your room without supper! In fact, you two are such dears to me I wish I could adopt you both as my children!”
“You’d regret it,” said Dilys. “We're unruly and misbehaved. Cyrus and I had to report to the Truancy Department twice just this week.”
“Dilys – may I call you Dilys? – ” Maud answered, touching Dilys’s bare shoulder, “you look enchanting. The feathers become you. And my hero here looks dashing, he’s my favorite real-life heartthrob, you know!”
Dilys leaned a little closer to Maud. “Just you keep your hands off of him, Mrs. Skipton,” she said in jest, “or we shall have to go three rounds.”
“Gladly, darling,” replied Maud. “You’re a sprite, and could probably fly circles around my head and make me dizzy. Well, here’s the to-do, the buffet is over there, drinks are on me, of course, and I’m sure you’ll want to meet old acquaintances. The band I hired sounds lively. Shoo!” She waved the couple inside the ballroom and handed the butler the gift. Another couple was waiting to be greeted.
Dilys remarked to Skeen as they went in, “She’s a pip.”
“A pip and a half.”
“Am I really a sprite?”
Skeen grinned. “You’ve had your spritely moments, darling, but you are most assuredly not a sprite.”
“What am I to you, if not a sprite?”
Skeen put his arm around Dilys’s waist and squeezed it. “You’re my very private vamp.”
Dilys pressed his hand closer on her waist. “Yes, I am. You had an exclusive on me a long time ago.”
“Do you like vamping me?”
“Yes. Every minute. Because I know what to expect.”
“And you don’t have to bat a single eyelash.”
Dilys grinned broadly up at her husband. “But, if I batted one eyelash, I’d be winking at you.”
“I won't stop you.”
The ballroom was ringed with café tables, each of which held a slim vase with a rose in it, a crystal ashtray, and tiny placemats on which were inscribed, “Happy Birthday, Maud.”. Skeen and Dilys found a vacant table and sat down. They were almost immediately approached by a servant who asked them what they would like to drink.
Skeen said, “Scotch and soda, please.”
Dilys answered, “The same, thank you.”
The servant disappeared into the milling crowd. Skeen broke out his cigarette case and lighter and placed them firmly on the white napkin before him. Dilys took a cigarette holder out of her tiny purse, which was attached to her wrist by a silver cord.
Couples sat at either side of the Skeens, and were busy with their own conversations. The crowd was decidedly middle-aged, with a generous sprinkling of older men and women. Carpeting had been removed to make room for a dance floor in front of the band, which sat on a slightly elevated platform. Close to it was an open bar manned by three bow-tied bartenders in white shirts. On the other side of the band was the buffet with a variety of food and desserts. At the end of the buffet was a table holding an enormous birthday cake of blue, green, and yellow icing. It was half gone by now; a woman in a maid servant’s uniform was handing out slices to guests. Multicolored paper ribbons and balloons hung from the ceiling and moved gently in the wafting air.
“The band sounds good,” Skeen remarked as he lit an Old Gold. “Better than the last time we were here.”
Dilys nodded. “I think the band leader or the drummer was drunk that night.”
“Yes, that’s right. The band leader couldn’t keep up with the drummer, or the drummer kept falling behind the notes. I don’t think Maud asked that band back again.”
The servant reappeared and gave them their drinks. He bowed once and went to other tables to offer to refresh the occupants’ drinks.
“That’s a nice tune,” remarked Dilys. “Never heard it until now.”
“I think it’s called ‘The Cat Walk.’ It was being played over the speakers at the Merry-Go-Round the other day when Millard and I had lunch there. I asked the waitress what it was. There was a singer, some of whose lyrics I couldn’t understand. But some of what he sang went, ‘It’s nice to hear you purr over me.’ Or words to that effect. His ‘meows’ were definitely off-key.”
“See anyone you want to talk to?” asked Dilys.
Skeen said, “I see a few people I’ve offended one way or another at past parties, but I don’t think they’d welcome another conversation with me. And at the moment, I don’t feel like introducing myself to strangers.”
“I hope Maud likes her present.”
“What’s that dance people are doing to ‘The Cat Walk’?” asked Dilys.
Skeen studied the couples, who were doing fantastic contortions and whirls and pausing now and then to stamp their feet on the floor. He shrugged. “I guess it’s a leftover from Isadora Duncan’s day. A combination of ‘I’m a Little Teapot,’ an epileptic seizure, and the Argentine tango. I don’t think cats have anything to do with their gyrations.”
“It’s a horrible dance,” said Dilys. “It’s worse than the Charleston.”
Dilys asked Skeen, “Isn't that Louise Brooks over there? In the corner, at the buffet with that sour-looking fellow.”
Skeen looked at the object of Dilys’s attention. “Yes, I think it is. She’s looking particularly sultry this evening.”
They chatted amiably without consequence with some guests who came to their table, then went for slices of Maud’s birthday cake, which they brought back to their table..
Skeen blinked once after a few forkfuls. He said to Dilys, “Correct me if I’m imagining things, but I think the creator of that cake slipped in a few poppy seeds. The better to wish Maud a very happy birthday.”
Dilys smiled. “I’m feeling distinctly light-headed, too. I wonder if Maud knows, or if she gave the baker special instructions.” She paused and stared at her cake. “It might have been a whole bushel full.”
Skeen hummed to himself. “I think we’d better have a plate of the beef Stroganoff. And coffee. I suspect that Maud had had a few slices of her cake by the time she greeted us.”
“You know,” said Skeen, glancing at the glittering, noisy crowd before them, “I think most of the guess tonight are giddy from her birthday cake. They seem unusually chatty and bubbly.”
The party went on. As soon as Skeen and Dilys had finished their beef Stroganoff, a waiter came to sweep the porcelain away. A couple approached their table. “Excuse me, sir. Aren’t you Cyrus Skeen, the fabulous private detective?”
Skeen nodded. “And this is my fabulous wife, Dilys.”
The two couples exchanged nods.
“Pleased to meet you both, for sure. I’m Baxter Barnes. This is my wife, Josephine. We live in the Cow Hollow down the hill.”
“A pretty steep climb,” Skeen remarked.
Mr. Barnes chuckled. “It is! But, I just wanted to ask you what you thought of this Carlyle business? It’s just a shame that he chose to end it all. He was a pretty promising fellow. Could’ve succeeded Kragan, if he lasted long enough.”
Skeen scoffed mildly. “He was promising, but apparently he didn’t deliver on that promise.”
“Read tomorrow’s Observer-World for more details about Mr. Carlyle. I’m not at liberty to divulge them at the moment.”
Mr. Barnes smiled and wagged a finger. “I knew you had something to do with it! You’re always involved in some scandal or other!”
Skeen shook his head. “Maybe, Mr. Barnes, and I’m not even a scandalmonger.” He rose and said, “You’ll please excuse us, but my wife and I would like to take a turn on the floor.”
Dilys rose in answer.
Mr. Barnes offered his hand. “Well, nevertheless, sir, I’d like to thank you for keeping our streets free of criminals.”
Skeen shook the man’s hand and replied, “The irony of it is, Mr. Barnes, is that most of the criminals I’ve collared have never endangered or harassed the public at large.” He smiled, took Dilys’s hand, and led her away.
Skeen and Dilys danced a fox trot to “Double Talk, Trouble Talk,” and then a slow dance to the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.”
When the numbers were finished, they went directly to the bar, ordered fresh drinks, and returned to their table. Skeen lit another cigarette, and lit one for Dilys after she had fitted one into her holder.
She noticed a small, cream-colored envelope sitting atop Skeen’s old drink. It was addressed to Skeen. “I think someone’s left you a mash note, darling. Please, don’t let it be from Maud.”
Skeen grinned, took the envelope, and slit it open. He took out the note that was inside, unfolded it, and then put down his new drink.
Dilys glanced at his face. It was grim.
Skeen said, “He’s here.”
He handed her the note.
Dilys read the note, her brow becoming dark with anger. The elegantly written note read:
Well played, sir. I regret that the experiment cost Mr. Carlyle his life. I had not intended that. I was hoping he had the stamina and bottom to work to replace the implacable Mr. Kragan, some day, at least, but that is now not to be. But, I was certain you would have had enough of the matter that you would take matters into your own hands and, like, Theseus, venture into the Minotaur’s own lair. Your unintended slaying of the poor fellow at his own game was a masterpiece. My hat is off to you.
Dilys handed the note back to Skeen. “Where is he?” she asked, her eyes busy scanning the crowd.
‘I don’t know, darling,” said Skeen. “I’ve never set eyes on him. But if he’s here, then he must be on the guest list.”