(Appeared in Kuryakin File 13)
The thick, scarred door of the 14th Precinct swung open with unexpected ease, smacking against the wall with a thud that echoed around the near-empty cavern of the reception area. Grimacing with embarrassment, I eased it closed with elaborate care under the annoyed gaze of Roach at the sergeant's desk. Charlie must have made one of his rare stabs at maintenance; the old door usually required a lot of muscle.
Roach pushed the stack of reports across the desk to me without being asked. This had become a familiar ritual to us both over the two years that I had been on the staff of the Midtown Mirror.
"So, Jerry, got any news for me?" I asked, flipping quickly through the nearly illegible carbons of the nearly unintelligible reports filed by the 14th's finest.
"Nothin' in there," Roach said.
My attention pricked up at the hint. "Where, then?"
Roach nodded over his left shoulder toward the newly cleaned windows of Lt. Habbard's office. Habbard was up and pacing, a cigar fuming the air around him. As if in deliberate contrast to Habbard's restlessness, the room's other occupant sat calm and motionless in one of the wooden visitor's chairs, legs elegantly crossed at the knee, one hand supporting the side of a sleek blond head.
"Who's the company?" I asked, leaning to try to see past the man's hand to his face.
"Good question," Roach said. "Tucker brought him in a couple of hours ago and he disappeared into the Lieut's office and hasn't come out yet. He's got Tucker's report in there, too."
"What's the case?"
"Rape, over by the park."
I gave the slim figure in Habbard's office another look over. "This guy's a rapist?"
Roach shrugged elaborately, the underling's disdain for his superiors evident in every line of his thick body. "Ask the Lieut," he said sarcastically.
"Yeah, right." Lt. Habbard was known unaffectionately among the press corps as No-Blab. "Where's Tucker?*
"Back in the squad room, but he ain't gonna tell you anything, either."
I smiled enigmatically at Roach and headed for the squad room. Tucker has a thing for redheads.
"Mike...." I pressed close to the sturdy wooden table where Tucker sat laboriously printing out the reports from his shift.
Tucker's big head jerked up. "Well, girlfriend," he said with a slow smile. He may have liked red hair, but his eyes had a habit of traveling lower.
I hitched one hip up on the edge of the table, my thigh inches from his left hand. "Mike," I breathed," tell me about the rape."
Tucker's smile vanished. "Can't," he said. "Lieut says there's a security block on it."
"Security? On a rape? What's the matter, the mayor's son acting up?"
"Nah, some lowlife."
I again pictured the elegant form in the visitor's chair. Not a lowlife. A victim? "This wasn't a homosexual rape, was it?"
Tucker blushed to the roots of his crewcut. Honestly, five years on the street you'd think the man would get over this.
"No, Murphy," he said. "It was the normal kind."
"Okkkaaaay. Who was the. . ."
"Listen, Murphy, I told you the Lieut told me not to talk about this one."
"He didn't say anything about leaving your notes around while you went to get a cup of coffee, did he?" I gave him a conspiratorial wink.
"Matter of fact, he did."
"Okay, just nod Yes or No."
"That, too," Tucker said. "Sorry. Listen, you got plans for dinner?"
"Looks like I'm going to be working," I said, irritated, but I gave his hand a pat before I left. You never know when it'll pay off.
So, it would have to be Habbard. He was pacing and jabbering at the still-relaxed visitor, so I finished leafing through the reports of mugged tourists, spray-painted buildings, snatched Social Security checks, incautious prostitutes and bar fights that make up the average New York cop's working day.
Rape wasn't that rare, and usually I wouldn't spend more than a few minutes and a paragraph on it, but this nonsense about security... Something was up. Maybe something good enough to remind my editors that I was capable of more than cop checks and advancers about book club meetings. Maybe something good enough to give me a toe in at one of the bigger papers. A girl can dream.
Habbard was on the phone now, the cigar working aggressively up and down as he listened. He hung up and said something and the blond man was rising without hurry, picking something off Habbard's desk. I grabbed the small camera I always carried "just in case" out of my purse and snapped off as many shots as I could while he was turning. Roach watched with a censorious expression but didn't say anything.
With a courtly sort of nod, the blond man stepped out of Habbard's office and across the linoleum floor. I caught him at the door. "Hey, excuse me!"
He turned and looked me over, a very different sort of assessment than I'd gotten from Tucker. I returned it. Blue eyes, smooth cheeks, not much taller than me, good suit scuffed and muddied by recent events and with a long ragged tear in one sleeve. One hand was wrapped with a bandage. He was frowning, trying to place me in this setting.
"Kelly Murphy, Midtown Mirror," I offered helpfully. "I'd like to talk to you."
"You are...a newspaper reporter?" The voice was slightly foreign but cultured-sounding. He seemed confused. Apparently the Mirror wasn't on his reading list. "I'm sorry, I don't want to talk to you."
He started for the doors again, but I slipped in front of him. "Won't take a minute. Honest." I gave him my encouraging, slightly flirty smile. It didn't take.
"No, Miss Murphy." He slipped around me like a skillful soccer player, and was out the door.
I thought for a minute about following him, but when he reached the sidewalk, he gave me a quick, cold glance over his shoulder that seemed to say, “Don't try it.”
Roach was grinning at me when I turned around. "Friendly fellow," he said.
Ignoring him, I rapped on Habbard's door. With a grimace of irritation, he motioned me inside. I took a deep breath of the relatively clean air from the lobby before stepping into the smoky haze that was Habbard's natural habitat.
I slid into the chair, still warm from the stranger's elegant bottom, without waiting for the invitation that would never come. "I want to know about the rape," I said. Habbard doesn't appreciate subtlety.
"It's under investigation," he snapped back.
"Fine. Tell me whatever you can without jeopardizing the investigation."
He stared at me for a minute, toking the cigar, obviously contemplating telling me nothing. But, there was something in his heavy-lidded eyes that told me Habbard was resentful. Somebody, somewhere, had told him what to do and he didn't take kindly to that sort of thing.
Flipping open a file folder, he abruptly began. "Female victim, Phyllis Taylor, 39, cutting through the park at 7:15 p.m. on her way to the bar where she is a waitress. Accosted by a white male, 27, identified as Lloyd Stegs. Stegs allegedly grabbed her and dragged her behind a row of bushes. Victim struggled, sustained several blows to the head, temporarily lost consciousness. When she regained consciousness perpetrator had his hands around her throat and was attempting sexual intercourse. Third party arrived, pulled the perpetrator from the woman and assaulted him. Victim and perpetrator were transported to St. Aggies."
"And the guy who was in here with you? Who was he?"
"Third party," Habbard said.
"That guy beat up a rapist?"
"That is the report of the victim," Habbard said stiffly. "No other witnesses."
"Is he going to be charged?"
"Not at this point in time."
Habbard shook his head.
"It is a security matter."
"He sounds foreign. Is he?"
"A government official?"
Habbard was standing up, directing my attention to the door.
"Well, thank you lieutenant. You've been a great help." A billow of cigar smoke followed me out the door.
I wandered back to the Mirror on foot, considering possibilities, and dropped off the film with Mole we shared a taxi and we talked a bit and then we came to his stop and he left. And, anyway, I don't know many people in New York and he seemed so nice and I think I'd like to see him again." I paused to give a self-conscious little laugh and to judge the reaction. There was just a spark of amusement and sympathy in the old man's eyes.
"So, anyway, I realized I hadn't asked his name or given him mine, but I remember he mentioned your shop and I thought maybe you would know him?"
"Perhaps. What does he look like?"
"Urn, blond and slim. Nice blue eyes. He has a sort of British accent. Thirty-something."
"Mr. Kuryakin. He is a loyal customer."
"What is that? ... Russian?"
He shrugged. "Perhaps. He reads in several languages."
He chuckled. "As a matter of fact he just purchased a book yesterday. But he reads a great many things. He mentioned the Yeats?"
"Yes. He had it with him, in fact. Do you know how I could reach him?"
"I'm afraid not. He pays cash for his purchases and has never asked me to deliver. Perhaps you would like to leave your name and phone number with me and I could pass it to him when he comes in again?"
Uh-oh. "Um, sure." I wrote Phyllis Taylor and my home phone on the scrap of paper he provided.
"I will see that he gets it." The old man grinned indulgently at me. "Good luck, Miss Taylor."
I waggled my fingers at him and stepped out into the other-worldly bustle of the New York street.
A pay phone in the next block, miraculously, had an intact phone book. There were three Kuryakins listed, but none in the neighborhood. I looked up and down the block. It was an eclectic mix of old buildings, both refurbished and crumbling. Small shops, walk-up apartments, elegant brownstones. Did Kuryakin shop at the Tattered Cover because he lived nearby? Having nothing better to go on, I proceeded on that assumption.
Curious employees in three nearby shops had never heard the name and didn't recognize the photo. I left them all with the vague impression that I was an abandoned wife looking for child support.
A largish grocery one block over seemed promising. I approached the gum-snapping post-teen waiting at the cash register. "I'm looking for a man," I began.
"Yeah, me too," she said, and her companion stocking a shelf with laxatives giggled appreciatively.
"Well, I'm looking for a specific man. His name is Kuryakin."
Her plucked and sketched-in eyebrows rose.
"It is a ... security matter," I said, lowering my voice conspiratorially.
"What, is he a spy or something?"
I shrugged in an I'm-not-at-liberty-to-say kind of way and pulled out the photo. She studied it with narrowed eyes needed glasses but wouldn't wear them, I figured and finally nodded. "Yeah, he comes in here," she said.
"Can you tell me anything about him?"
She shook her head, clearly frustrated by her lack of knowledge.
"Anything at all," I encouraged.
"Um, he comes in kind of irregular, I mean, he'll be here regular for weeks at a time and then not be around for a long time. He pays cash. Carries his own bags home." She glanced around the store for inspiration. "Oh, he gets really excited by the produce. Like last winter he acted like he’d never seen tangerines. He bitches, um, complains about the price, though. Other than that he buys mostly TV dinners and peanut butter and sliced meat and bread stuff that bachelors buy."
"Does he ever talk to you the weather, anything?"
"Nah. He's kind of stuck up," she said, and I got the distinct impression that her flirting hadn't been any more successful than mine.
"And you have no idea where he lives?"
"Nope. Like I said, he pays cash and he doesn't talk much."
"Which way does he turn when he leaves?"
An unnaturally long, orange fingernail pointed uptown.
I stopped in a dell for pastrami on rye. The balding man behind the counter made a good sandwich, but said he didn't recognize the name or the photo. He didn't want to know why I asked. I figured if someone came in with a picture of me five minutes after I left, he wouldn't recognize me, either.
Standing outside the shop I pondered my options. Who would know the people in a neighborhood? Mailman, milkman, beat cop? There didn't seem to be many nosy stoop sitters in this neighborhood. I set off walking, looking for a postal van or a cop. Some kids negotiating trade-offs in their baseball card collections said they recognized Kuryakin but didn't remember where he lived. They were very interested in why I asked, but I managed to leave them without too much detail.
Ah, the glamorous life of an investigative reporter I had a blister on my heel and a hole in my stocking. I found a drugstore and, as was becoming habit, I pulled out the photo as I paid the middle-aged woman behind the counter.
"What on earth does that guy do for a living?" she demanded.
I gave her a startled glance. "Why?"
"He's in here all the time, buying aspirin and bandages and gauze and alcohol. Whatever he does, he needs to get better at it, or find something else to do."
"You know who he is?" I tried to keep my voice casual.
"Carikeen, isn't it? Something like that."
"Do you know where he lives? I've been hired to find him." I was bored with the woman-he-left-behind role and decided to try on private eye for a change.
"I don't ... wait a minute. Peter!"
An indistinct young male voice drifted from somewhere behind the prescription counter. A few seconds later, a door opened behind the shelves of prescription drugs and a teenager with willful, long brown hair joined the woman behind the counter.
"Peter, you remember The Mummy?"
Peter was nodding disinterestedly
"Didn't you deliver to him that one time?"
Another lethargic nod.
The woman turned to me, suddenly. "Wait a minute; what do you want with him? I don't want to lose a customer over this."
"Oh, no," I assured her. "I won't tell him where I got the information. If I did, he'd probably thank you; a relative died and I'm trying to deliver a small inheritance." Okay, so it wasn't very original. It worked for her.
"Where does he live?" she asked the surly Peter.
"Three blocks down. The brownstone with the green trim. Fifth floor," he drawled. "No elevator," he added resentfully.
Borrowing the store's bathroom, I applied Band-Aids and new stockings and set out with heartfelt thanks.
The brownstone was caught somewhere between deterioration and renovation. Holding its own. A plump, elderly woman in a polyester housedress was sweeping vigorously at the front steps. She glanced up at my approach, looking at me with a pleasant, grandmotherly kind of face. Probably had fresh-baked cookies in a jar on her kitchen counter.
"Good afternoon." Friendly and ingenuous was the best tack here, I decided. "Is Mr. Kuryakin in?"
"Who looks for him?" she asked in a heavily accented voice.
"I'm ... a friend. He offered to lend me a book."
"He is not in. What did you say your name?"
"Phyllis Taylor. Listen, do you know when I could find him in?"
She looked me over with intense interest before shrugging. "He comes and goes. You like to come in and wait?" Without waiting for a response, she led the way up the stairs and into the first floor apartment on the right. It was filled with large, fluffy furniture, flowered throws tossed over just about everything that wasn't moving. The small kitchen was done in vigorous yellows. I perched on a plastic covered kitchen chair next to a small table.
"Are you the landlady?"
She was at the sink filling a teakettle with water. "Yes. Mrs. Polanski. I am here six years."
To my amusement, after she set the kettle on to boil, she began filling a plate with homemade cookies from a jar on the counter.
A mottled tabby strolled into the kitchen and sat in the square of sunlight from the window, regarding me with a suspicious gaze.
"How long has Mr. Kuryakin lived here?"
"Two years. Tell me, how you know Illya Nikovetch?"
"Oh, we met in the park one day. We were both sitting on a bench eating lunch and reading and we got to talking. We've met there a few times since."
She set a fat teapot with faded roses painted on its side in the middle of the table, poured tea into mismatched cups and settled in across from me with a small grunt.
"These look good." I took one of the cookies and sipped the tea; spicy and sweet. "Tell me, what does… Illya, do for a living?"
"He is a teacher," she said with a mother's pride. "Also a researcher. And a writer. Oh, many talents. You are married?"
She smiled in a satisfied way and sipped at her tea. "There are many unmarried in New York," she continued. "This is not good, for women or men. Men and women belong together, two and two. My Vem and me, together 40 years. What you do for a living?"
"I work at Bloomingdale's," I improvised.
"Ahhh. So, you dress nice." She waved a plump hand at my flowered dress. "How old you are?"
"Twenty-six." This was getting a little out of hand. I was supposed to do the pumping here. "How old is Mr. Kur ... Illya?"
She waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, young. Strong, too." She added a foreign word and a wicked smile and a hand gesture I couldn't quite decipher.
Great. A Polish yenta. "Mrs. Polanski, I don't want to ask you to violate a trust, but I find I am becoming, well, interested in Illya but there are some things about him that worry me. Would you mind…"
"Ask, ask," she invited with an enthusiasm that said, We have nothing to hide.
"Well, is he Russian? I mean, from Russia?"
Her brow wrinkled into a troubled frown. "I believe so. Is not a thing to ask about too much, you understand?"
"I guess so. Does he have visitors, friends, any connections to the community?"
Mrs. Polanski drew herself up. "No woman comes here. It is against the rules and besides, Mr. Kuryakin is a gentleman."
"Actually, I was thinking more of men. Does he have business associates in, or friends or anything?"
"No friends here. He is gone often, and when he is here he is quiet. No trouble. So, you do not talk much on this park bench?"
I managed a laugh. "Well, we tend to get caught up talking about books and we never seem to get around to anything else."
"Um." She sat back, sipping her tea and looking at me as suspiciously as the cat.
"Listen, I would love to talk to him more, about more than books, but I never know when to expect him in the park. Can you tell me where he works, or when he leaves for work in the morning? Maybe I could catch him for breakfast some day."
"Where he works I am not sure." She waved vaguely toward the East Side. "When he is here, he leaves usually at 7:30, same as my Vem."
7:30. I gazed across the building toward the east. So he headed that way and if he started work at 8:00, it probably took him about thirty minutes to get there. I amended that -- probably more like twenty minutes. He seemed like the type who would want to get to work a few minutes early.
"Does he drive?"
"Oh, no, Illya Nikovetch does not have car. He walks away and then, who knows? There are buses, subway..."
So, it could be around the corner or on the far side of the city. Probably at least on the far side of the park, since he was passing through on foot when he rescued Phyllis Taylor. As for the teacher/researcher/writer, I didn't think so. Unless what he was teaching and researching and writing about was martial arts. No, he might be heading for…what? The U.N.? The Russian Embassy?"
"You do not ask about the ring?"
I resisted the urge to jerk my head around in surprise. What ring? Given Mrs. Polanski's line of thought, probably a wedding ring. Did Kuryakin wear one? I hadn't noticed.
I turned my head with studied casualness, crossed my fingers and asked, "The wedding band, you mean?"
The elderly woman nodded vigorously.
"I assumed, I mean ... he's not married, is he?"
"I think no," she said. "He doesn't talk, but there are no letters, no packages. I think," she continued in a confidential whisper, "is some sorrow there. Maybe she died. Tragically." She drawled the last word out to four syllables, shaking her head with the satisfaction of an imaginative romantic who has come up with a story she likes.
"Probably so," I agreed. "Urn, there is something else ... did Illya say anything to you about what happened to him last night?"
Mrs. Polanski tilted her head inquiringly
"I saw him briefly; he seemed upset and his suit was dirty and the sleeve was torn. He didn't give me a chance to ask what happened but I've been worried. Was he mugged or something?"
"Nothing happen. He came in late but I saw him in hallway and he was as always, no dirt, no tears," The plump face was clear, slightly puzzled but perfectly honest, as far as I could tell.
So, he left the 14th in a dirty, torn suit and arrived home in a clean, untorn suit. And in between where did he clean up? Somewhere around work?
I smiled at Mrs. Polanski. "Thanks so much for the tea, but I'm afraid I've got to get to work. I'll catch up with Illya later."
Kuryakin's personal yenta sent me off with a bag of the homemade cookies and an admonition to "Come back soon, soon."
Stopping at the same handy phone booth, I looked up the address for the Russian Embassy it was a place to start and jotted down the addressees of three tailor shops within a few blocks.
There were three in the east 90s that seemed likely. I hopped the subway over and began making my rounds again. This time, I was a distraught fiancé searching for the man who had left the farm to make his fortune in the Big City and never returned. I hinted at an imminent complication, pooching out my stomach slightly, and got lots of sympathy but no leads.
Okay, where else? I took a bus as far as the United Nations and began again. In the second shop, a tiny, step-down place a stone's throw from the U.N., I struck…well, something. The elderly man behind the steam press looked me over with bright, inquisitive eyes, greeting me in a thick Italian accent. There was something in his eyes as he stared at the photograph and when I mentioned the name Kuryakin, there was just a moment too much hesitation before he shook his head regretfully.
I thanked him and gave him my best smile of brave resignation before retreating to a café across the street to have a cup of coffee and consider the possibilities. I hadn't gotten beyond adding generous amounts of cream and sugar before someone settled onto the stool next to me.
"May I?" I turned to find a handsome, well-dressed man reaching for the cream pitcher. When he had dribbled a skimpy bit into his cup, he handed the pitcher back with a bow of self-amused gallantry. "Forgive me for using what is bound to sound like a cliched pick-up line," he said with an intimate smile, "but you must be new around here. I'd remember such a lovely redhead."
I sighed. Still... I gave him a glance under my lashes. Crisp dark hair, strong chin, warm hazel eyes. He had potential. I smiled. "I'm just passing through."
"It's a nice neighborhood. You really ought to consider staying a while." He smiled back.
"You work around here somewhere?'
"Ah, yes, as a matter of fact, I do," he said. He pointed vaguely down the street toward a sign reading The Mask Club.
That seemed to amuse him. "In a way. You?"
"Private eye. In a way."
One dark eyebrow rose and I buried my satisfied grin in my coffee cup.
"You're going to have to explain that," he persisted.
"I'm looking for someone." I pulled out the picture and held it toward him. "Have you ever seen this man in the neighborhood?"
He took the photo from me with carefully manicured, strong-looking fingers and turned it into the light from the café window. "Hmmm. Shifty-looking fellow. What's he done?"
"He owes me money," I improvised, sucking in my stomach; this was not the time for the abandoned fiancé story. "I sold him my stereo and the check bounced."
"You take pictures of everyone who stops by your garage sales?" There was a sudden sharpness in his voice that made me cautious.
"I was trying to sell my camera and someone who was looking at it wanted to see me take a picture and he was handy."
"What's his name?"
"Illya Nikovetch Kuryakin," I said, watching his reaction.
"Jesus. What kind of name is that?"
"Russian, I think," I said. "Do you recognize him?"
He squinted at the photo. "Well, uh. . ?" He shook his head slowly before handing it back.
"Sorry. I wish I could help you." Something in his tone hinted at the help he had in mind. "I'll keep my eyes open. Is there a number where I could reach you if he turns up?"
I hesitated a second, then scrawled my name and numbers on a napkin and swigged half the cup of coffee before standing up.
He glanced at the paper. "Well, Miss Murphy, um, Kelly, its been a pleasure meeting you."
He held out his hand.
I gave him a firm handshake, just to let him know he wasn't dealing with a pushover. "You didn't tell me your name."
"Napoleon." He smiled at my expression. "Mother was a French major. Sure you can't stay for another cup? I'm buying."
"Thanks, I want to get home before the rush hour. Give me a call. I mean, if you see him." I waved at him and left, feeling his eyes on me until I turned the comer. I headed for the Mirror.
Nothing in the yellowing clips of the morgue on anyone named Kuryakin. Considering how hard this story was proving, I wasn't surprised there hadn't been a previous one. I called colleges, the Russian Embassy, the public library, someone at the Immigration and Naturalization Service who owed me a favor.
As I stumbled into one dead end after another, I pawed without interest through the press releases that had piled up in my absence Rose of Glory Garden Club plant sale. Rue Morgue Mystery Readers Club meeting. Citizens for Sensible Water and Sewer Rates protest. With a sigh, I kicked off my shoes and massaged my aching arches on the bottom rung of my chair.
"So, how's the investigator?" Sue Ellen Stafford dropped another couple of press releases on my desk and perched next to them. Sue Ellen was 10 years into a career writing about food and she seemed perfectly contented to finish out the next 30 years at the same job. There were days when I envied her satisfaction. Despite the difference in age and interest, in the testosterone-charged atmosphere of the newsroom we had become natural allies. I had confided my three-day investigation to her in the ladies room the night before.
"The investigator's feet hurt," I told her.
"Poor baby." She picked up the photo. "This the guy? Very nice."
"You think so? He's not my type," I said.
"So, what type is he?"
"Oh, chivalrous, rude, vicious, tender. He reads a lot and loves tangerines. He's not married and not interested. He's not a teacher or a researcher or a writer. He's cheap and he has a lot of accidents. That type."
"Geez," Sue Ellen drawled. "Hold page one."
"I'm not giving up yet," I said defensively. "I mean, if it's this hard to find out anything about him, that's a red flag, isn't it?"
She shrugged. "You know red flags, Kelly. I know rutabagas."
In the sudsy heat of a deep bath that night, the situation didn't look quite so bleak. I had made some inroads. Maybe Napoleon would call, maybe he'd have news and if not, well, he looked like fun anyway. Tomorrow, I would wait outside the apartment building and try my hand at tailing.
I shivered, pulling my light denim jacket closer around me. Early morning Manhattan in October isn't for the thin-blooded. I was wearing jeans and sneakers, in case I needed to run, and had my hair stuffed under a Yankees cap; maybe at a quick glance he wouldn't recognize me. I peered at my watch. 7:25. My stomach rumbled at me resentfully. I put it off with a promise of a bagel later. Finally the door opened. A stocky man with gray hair in a severe crewcut stepped out. He was wearing a green uniform of some sort and carrying a black lunch box. At the bottom of the steps, he turned and blew a kiss toward the first floor window where I had sat sipping tea, then he strolled across the street and around the comer. Mrs. Polanski's Vem on his way to work.
I waited, watching the door, for another hour, pumping myself with my arms and dancing back and forth to keep my feet warm. No Kuryakin. I considered stopping in for another chat with Mrs. Polanski, but she and Kuryakin might have compared notes and I didn't want to get into a hassle.
The deli was open with the same disinterested clerk at the counter. I sat at a microscopic table downing hot coffee and a salt bagel with lox and cream cheese until I felt a little better. I headed down the now-familiar street toward the subway.
"Miss Taylor!" someone shouted and after three more steps I remembered that that was me. It was the old man from the bookshop, standing in the open door with a paper sack in one hand and a Times in the other. "Did you find Mr. Kuryakin?" he asked pleasantly.
"Oh, no, just missed him this morning," I said.
"Ah, well, another day perhaps. When you see him, tell him his order has arrived, would you?"
Hmmm. "I'd, um, be glad to deliver it for you," I said. "We're going to meet in the park for lunch today; he left me a message at his apartment building."
He looked at me doubtfully, beginning to shake his head. I pulled out my billfold. "Here, let me pay you for them. He can pay me back."
He wasn't comfortable with it still, but he was one of those naturally diffident people who are pretty easy to overrun. I walked out with a bundle of books that weighed a ton and had cost a fortune.
Back at the Mirror, I looked them over. Another book of poetry, in French; perhaps the book for Phyllis Taylor had whetted his appetite. Two thick, technical-looking books in German. A quite detailed world atlas. "Tom Sawyer," a western by Zane Grey, an Ellery Queen mystery collection. "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
I stared at that last book for a long moment, trying to picture Kuryakin curled up in bed reading it. It wouldn't work. I flipped through the book, looking for circled words, a code of some kind, pages marked with a human hair. Nothing, just good old Alice. Ditto with the others. The books in German could have described how to steal military secrets in precise detail, but I couldn't tell if they did. The atlas? No markings I could see. Of course, a good spy wouldn't use markings visible to just any journalist who happened along. I briefly considered passing a few pages over a candle flame, but I didn't have a candle and I didn't want to risk setting fire to my investment.
With a sigh, I piled the books on the floor next to my desk and headed home to change. I was back in a half hour ready to start working the phones again.
Sue Ellen met me just inside the door. "Company, Sherlock," she whispered, wiggling her eyebrows as she passed me.
I craned to see over the forest of file cabinets and teletype machines, Next to my desk, the barely adequate overhead lights shone down on a blond head. I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and marched over. Although his back was to me, Kuryakin stood and turned around when I was still two desks away. His expression brought a shiver.
"Miss Murphy," he said in glacial tones. "I have come for my books."
"Please, sit down," I said, indicating the wooden chair with its missing back rung. I was rather proud of the coolness I managed to put into the words. We sat. "I thought you might be around," I bluffed. "Would you like a cup of coffee? Tea?"
"No thank you," he answered. "I won't be staying long. My books?"
"Right here," I said, indicating them with my toe. "I was just debating whether to turn them over to the CIA."
He seemed surprised, then amused. "The CIA? Whatever for? Surely they can get their own copy of Ellery Queen."
"It occurred to me these might be special books," I said.
Something flickered across his lips; it might have been a smile. "There are those who would say that all books are special, Miss Murphy. There are no lines to be read between here. If you wish to keep these books, by all means do so, as I understand you have paid for them."
He started to stand up and I blurted out, "I won't stop, you know. I know enough about you to convince me it will be worth the effort."
He sank slowly back to the seat, his blue eyes piercing me. I was unpleasantly reminded of the lion I had seen at the Bronx Zoo, easing to the ground, his great golden eyes on a stupid pigeon hopping along a ledge just above his head. The outcome had been predictable and quick and efficiently bloodless.
“’Tiger, tiger burning bright,’” I murmured.
He obviously recognized the phrase, and understood why it came to mind. He might even have smiled. "Just what do you think you know about me?" His voice was a throaty purr.
"I know that you're Russian; you make no secret of that. You do make a secret of just about everything else. You're in a dangerous profession. You lie to your landlady about your professional life; you apparently have no personal life. You know how to fight from the looks of Steg you probably could have killed him with no trouble and you know someone who can call the New York cops into line."
"I am Ukrainian, if you wish to be precise," he purred back. "What I tell my landlady is no business of yours, nor is my personal life. It is a foolish New Yorker who does not know how to repel an attacker. And, I pay my traffic tickets like a good citizen; the New York police do not answer to my whims. As for Mr. Steg..." He stopped, looking uncomfortable. "That should not have happened. I was upset and angry and I over-reacted."
"I haven't heard anybody complain, least of all Phyllis Taylor. Which is another peculiar thing you're a hero. Why won't you talk about it? Why are you keeping the police from talking?"
"Let us say I am shy," he said straight-faced.
I snorted disbelief. "I'll tell you what I think. I think you don't want a lot of people to know your face. I think you are involved in something here in New York that you'd like to keep verrry quiet."
That infuriating half-smile flickered by again. "Come, Miss Murphy. What am I supposed to be? A Russian spy?"
"It certainly seems to be a promising time for spies," I said. "'We will bury you!' Wasn't that the phrase?"
A sigh. "Mr. Krushchev has a tendency to over-react, too. I understand it is considered a failing of my people. I'm sure he didn't intend for it to be taken seriously. And if it were, it has nothing to do with me. I have settled in your country."
"You aren't a citizen."
It startled him that I knew and I smiled with satisfaction. Score one for the pigeon.
"No, I am not," he admitted. "However, I am here legally on a work visa."
"Where are you working?"
"Mrs. Polanski told you, I am a teacher."
I shook my head skeptically. "Sorry, I don't buy it. Since when did we have to start importing teachers from the Soviet bloc? Besides, I checked with every college in the city and most of them in the state. No one lists you as a faculty member or even an instructor.'
"My contract begins with the next semester," he said coolly. "I invite you to sign up for quantum mechanics at SUNY. I must warn you, however, I do not grade on a curve."
"These aren't textbooks for a physics course."
"Actually, two of them are. As for the American novels, I am sampling the culture of my adopted country. The atlas is a primer of the world, now that I am free to explore it a bit. And the 'Alice,' well, I enjoy Carroll's word play and the obscure political references."
"Why don't you want the story done?"
"Miss Murphy, I expect you will find this hard to believe, but there are people in this world for whom exposure on the front page of a tabloid newspaper is not desirable. The incident in the park was unpleasant for all concerned. I wish to forget it and I fervently hope that Miss Taylor is able to do so as well, with time."
"I don't believe you," I said firmly. "And I'm not going to give up. Mr. Kuryakin, I am going to expose you on the front page of this tabloid."
"Miss Murphy, I do not doubt that you have the intelligence and the energy to make yourself very bothersome. You have already intruded in my life, spreading peculiarly imaginative lies about me and our relationship. You have embarrassed and harried me, you have stolen my books, you have -- what is the phrase -- 'staked out' my home -- yes, I saw you and chose another route. Perhaps you will even pick up enough crumbs of information to build the story you evidently want to build. I can only tell you that it will be untrue and damaging to me, personally. Is that goal so important to you?"
"My goal, Mr. Kuryakin, is to inform the public. I think you just may be the Russian spy you so flippantly dismiss. If I’m right, the people have a right to know. That's the purpose of a free press."
"I wonder if you appreciate what a luxury you have in a free press," he said thoughtfully "Or if you comprehend the responsibility that goes with that freedom. Perhaps it is only we, who have lived without, who take it seriously." He sat silent for a moment, then straightened and pulled his attention back to me. "If I could have my books?"
I picked up the pile and thumped them onto my desktop. He pulled a thin billfold from his jacket pocket. "Thirty-seven dollars, I believe?" He pulled the bills out carefully and laid them on the desk.
"And forty-eight cents," I said nastily.
He stood, fumbling in his pocket, and laid a quarter and a dime next to the bills but my eyes were on the band of while scar tissue around his wrist just below the shirt cuff. He quickly withdrew his hand, but his face was expressionless when I looked up. "It's okay, you can owe me," I said.
He stood with the books under his arm, looking down at me for a moment. "You are wrong," he said. "The story would be wrong."
"Why don't you stop me, then? Have whoever called Lt. Habbard make a call to my boss. I'll bet you could stop the presses."
He shook his head. "'In order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils that it creates.'"
"An old Russian saying?" I asked sarcastically.
"Alexis de Tocqueville, actually. Good-bye, Miss Murphy. Good luck with your dilemma."
I watched him walk out, canted slightly to the left to balance the pile of books under his arm.
Sue Ellen was only a minute behind me into the ladies room. "Well?" she demanded.
"Nothing. A lecture on the responsibility of the press." I leaned wearily against the lip of a sink. "He said if I wrote a story it would be wrong."
"'Wrong' like inaccurate, or 'wrong' like evil?"
"We didn't go into the distinction."
"So, what are you going to do?"
I turned around and studied my face in the water-spotted mirror, a little surprised at how obviously I had changed in the two years that I'd been in the city eyes guarded and reluctant to make contact, chin thrust forward just a bit aggressively, a mouth that smiled mostly when a smile would get me what I wanted. I sighed and ran a hand through my hair. "Do you think I should get my hair cut short?"
Sue Ellen moved behind me, her reflection in the mirror puzzled. "No. Men love long red hair. Are you all right?"
"Sure. I'm always all right. Did you get a good look at him? What did you think?"
"Cute. Quiet. Too short. He looked harmless enough. Sort of a young Mr. Chips."
I shook my head. "No, he's not a teacher. There's a scar around his wrist; he's uncomfortable about it."
"A scar? I'll bet he was a political prisoner! Maybe he was tortured and managed to escape and work his way here." In her way, Sue Ellen is as much a romantic as Mrs. Polanski. But I was remembering the lion and the pigeon.
"He said if I wrote the story it would be personally damaging to him."
"Well, sure. He's probably hiding from the KGB or something."
"Suppose he works for the KGB? Suppose he was threatening me? Suppose he's here to bump off some poor slob who really was a political prisoner who escaped?"
"But you don't have any proof of that."
"I might, if I kept at it." I might find enough to do the story, might warn the pigeon away in time, might get a chance at the big stories. Or I might damage a man who thinks a cocktail waitress would enjoy Yeats.
"What are you going to do, Kelly?"
We were back to that question. I stared into my eyes in the mirror.
"Thad?" I waited the obligatory seconds while the red pencil flew.
"That Russian story, there's nothing there."
"Okay." He handed me two obits without looking up.
I sighed and headed back to my desk.
"Hey Kelly!" It was Mel Ross, the sports writer who used my desk sometimes because his own was overflowing with 20 years' worth of baseball notes. He was holding my telephone receiver aloft and grinning widely. "Some guy for you," he shouted with gleeful volume. "Said his name is Na-po-leon. Warn him about Waterloo this time, why don't you?"
I felt my lips curling into a smile for no reason at all.