Michael Peck on artist Vinson Milligan, whose illustrations grace the cover of Peck’s ‘Last Orchard’

OrchardPic9 (Chap. 40) edit (800x559) Michael Peck and artist/illustrator Vinson Milligan go back a ways. I wrote a little about Milligan’s work, featured on the cover of Peck’s Last Orchard in America book, a few days back. Since then, Peck offered this about where they met: Vinson and I met in Philadelphia. We hit it off immediately, based on a mutual love of Beethoven’s late quartets, Goya, Greek tragedy, film noir, etc. We performed a couple of skits in front of two or three people at open mic venues and created an album of works for piano and ukulele. For years we’d been wanting to collaborate on larger projects, and Last Orchard was a real good fit for us both. His visual inventiveness and geometer’s eye for the telling angle is always on display, here executed as very dark comedic splendors of shadow and light. He still lives in Philadelphia, where he’s studying exhibition design. Find a little more in the last post here. Several other of Milligan’s charcoal works are employed in relevant chapters within the interior of the book as well. Read more about Last Orchard on the book’s page here at T2H TXT.

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Less than $100 to go in Kickstarter effort; Window on artist Vinson Milligan’s cover illustrations

OrchardPic1 edit (800x558)The image above is the first of three charcoal (and, in the above case, colored pencil) illustrations that make up the triptych on the cover of Michael Peck’s The Last Orchard in America, for which we’re Kickstarting a print run through Dec. 17. Speaking of which, as of this writing we’re less than $100 away from hitting the $1,000 funding goal, and we’ll be introducing further rewards within the week to push even higher, with any luck.

The artist behind the illustrations, Vinson Milligan, was kind enough to offer up a few signed and numbered digital 18-by-24-inch prints (the size of the originals) of each of the cover drawings as rewards for contributing to the campaign. While all three of the above have been grabbed up by contributors, a couple each of the second and third remain available.

No. 2 (horizontally flipped on the cover):

OrchardPic9 (Chap. 40) edit (800x559)

No. 3:

Chapt. 22 edit (800x572)

You can grab one of the last four available via the campaign for Last Orchard here. Catch the first and second chapters of Orchard via this post.




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THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 3

And so continues the saga of down-and-out private eye Harry Jome in this noir penned by a favorite of ours in Michael Peck. Check out more of his work out in our 10th-anniversary anthology, out last year (including the short that was the seed for this serial novel/novella). In the last installment, Jome was commissioned by Sue Longtree to investigate the suicide of her brother, Ben, in a session spied on itself by one if not more of the resident rats in Jome’s office, among other haps. He also met the deceased Longtree’s wife, Carol, in a drunken stupor. The plot thickens herein…

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).

Chapter 8

Beside the entry in my notebook marked Carol Bergen I wrote, drunk, uncooperative, enticing. Underneath Sue Longtree I jotted nuts and couldn’t conjure anything more definitive about her. It was quite an extant list that could have easily meant nothing at all.

I propped the window and rested my elbows on the sill. In the jumbled fog of the distant hills a despondent spot of blue sky was intruding; within seconds it was not there and the gray was everywhere and everything in view. Short, angular skyscrapers glinted insipidly. Further off to the east the bridge over the river was spindly and delicate, far away and no more than a future tense, or a past one. Straight down below on the street a dog scurried by trying to catch the raindrops in his gaping mouth.

I dialed information and the operator connected me to the Sutter Falls Police, which was probably two guys in straw hats arguing heatedly over who is going to sit shotgun in front of the desk fan. A breathy woman breathed that no one was available to talk. I gave her my office number and she hissed that someone would return my call later that afternoon or tomorrow. If she said goodbye I didn’t hear it.

I put the recently un-hocked pistol in the drawer, wondering if I should keep it with me but resolving that I probably wouldn’t need it for quite a while.

I acted like I was locking my office and headed for the stairs when I noticed the stationary shadow around a bend in the hallway with grimy loafers. I slammed the stairwell door and the shadow recessed, dragging a man out of the darkness. He was at least 45, obese and panting, taller than me by a couple of inches. The only hair on his head beneath a loud porkpie hat was coming out of his nostrils. A flamboyant green silk shirt was unbuttoned to the collarbone beneath a plaid suit.

He saw me fast but not as fast as he would have liked.

“I’m lost,” he stammered, his hands supplicating.

I took a step toward him. He replicated my movement backwards.

“What’re you looking for?” I asked.

“A tobacconist.”

“Not here you’re not.”

“You mean there isn’t a tobacconist’s here?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“I guess I must be in the wrong building.”

“As far as I know there isn’t a tobacconist’s shop in a three-mile radius. I’m actually not confident that they exist anymore.”

“What’s the address here?” he asked.

“The wrong one,” I said.

“Is it 227?”

“You look like you’re not looking for a tobacconist’s,” I said.

“Is this 227?”

We stared at one another until integrity was inescapable.

“Go ahead,” I said, cocking my head at my office. “It’s unlocked. It’s never locked. Not sure what you expect to find.”

“What is?” he asked, mock confusion staining his reddish jowls. “What is unlocked? You joking or just kidding?”

“The office, you worm.”

Anger and sweat dripped from his big chin.

“Just leave your card on the desk in case something’s missing,” I said.

He was so flabbergasted he was amused. Following me to the stairwell, he said, “You have some dire problems, friend, and I’m not sure that they can be fixed.”

“You muddled or something? You’re blushing like a virgin. You want to search my office, so search my office. I saw you waiting out there for me to leave. Now I’m leaving.”

Between landings he said, “Fuck you.”

“Sue doesn’t trust me? She had to hire another dick?”

“You always treat strangers like this?” he asked.

“Only ones who are trying to get friendly and like to hide in the shadows where they don’t belong.”

“I’ve had tougher people than you,” he said.

“I bet you have, and you like to hang out with girls who like to get lost.”

“Why don’t you get a new shirt?” he said.

“I’d borrow yours but I think the Navy is using it to do maneuvers.”

“Fuck you,” he said.

“Come back and see me sometime. You impress me with your vocabulary.”

“Fuck you again,” he said, louder and gentler. The man was making a Broadway hit out of two syllables.

We took the stairs abreast of each other, throwing small insults wordlessly back and forth. In the rain he scampered away like a frightened nocturnal animal.


Chapter 9

Thursday morning was a long, unvaried stream of curt phone calls and abrupt answers that didn’t lead anywhere. It was imperative that I speak to Bergen’s widow before anyone else. Sometime after nine I dialed Mrs. Bergen — it was a lovely number and I had it memorized. A slab of meat was sizzling in the background, a bubbling close to the phone.

“Yeah?” Mrs. Bergen hollered, then, cupping the receiver: “Dot, you stop it, goddamnit. What do you think you’re doing that for?” and back in my ear. “Hello?” A kid started crying.

She sounded relatively sober. I hung up and rushed over with an umbrella.

Daylight was a premature baby as it dangled in the trash-filled crevasses of the city and did nothing but be gray and forbidding. Frightened hobos rooted around in garbage bags left on porches, unsuccessfully warded off by stingy proprietors and the rare, intrepid patrolman. The cab I was in stopped at a light change and I was hypnotized by the freak show outside that replayed anywhere your eye wandered. I loved hating the city, and I hated myself too, for carrying it around with me. Every city is alike, and the people living in it, too. Only thing that varies in an urban ditch like this one is the amount of traffic on a weekday.

The Bergen residence was in the same condition as I’d left it the day before, golf clubs glinting in the short grass, a Mercedes stuffed halfway in the garage. Now the pink bicycle was orphaned on the walkway. I knocked instead of pressing the buzzer.

Carol Bergen pulled the door back and let out a draft of steaming air from inside. She was in tan slacks and her brown wig was properly on. Minus a glass of liquor in her hand she looked naked, wholly depressed at having nothing for her hands to do. Her crazed eyes were apparently not the product of booze at the moment, but something much older and deeper.

“It’s possible,” she said lackadaisically, “but I’m not convinced we’ve met.” She eyed me like I was a boulder that had just rolled onto her doorstep.

I introduced myself for the second time in so many days.

“Feeling any better?” I asked.

“Why shouldn’t I be feeling any better?”

“Your sister-in-law hired me to look at Mr. Bergen’s suicide. I mentioned this to you yesterday, but I’m not sure you were here yesterday when I talked to you.”

The little girl, Dot, was at the door now and stood looking at me with big, wondrous brown eyes that were not curious eyes. In her left hand she had a ratty, discolored blanket, and in her right she was holding a highball glass poured to the lid with milk.

“Go play somewhere,” Carol said.

Dot watched me for another ten seconds and slinked off, leaving her blanket in the alcove.

“She’s a good person,” Carol said of her daughter. “Quiet, though. It’s scary sometimes.”

“Would she have anything to say about Ben?”

“Ssh,” she said harshly, turning to glance down the hallway. “My daughter is minding her business and she doesn’t want to hear about her father.”

Carol Bergen shut the door quietly and crouched on the uppermost of the front steps, protected from the rain by an overhanging, shingle roof. Huddled, arms-crossed, she seemed more petite when not drinking, 5’2” or 5’3”, less than a hundred pounds. I stood where I was on the porch, wondering if she would try to suck my lips away again, desiring somewhat that she would and knowing that she would not.

The breeze messed up in her hair.

“Why is Sue prying?” she asked.

“This seems important to her.”

“Ben hated her. All the time she kept trying to come around, but he really hated her. Ben didn’t hate anybody. But he hated her. Of course, you must have noticed that she isn’t normal.”

“In what way?”

“In every way.”

Nearby a swing set creaked on busted hinges. Obnoxious voices of bird and human mounted in unintelligible tandem, and the rain was hitting the tips of my shoes.

I said, “Whatever Ms. Longtree is, she’s curious about Ben’s death and that’s all I’m doing here.”

“Is it?” Carol asked suddenly, as though asking us both. “She cares about herself and how much other people’s problems could affect her.”

“That’s fine. I was hoping you could tell me why she’d care about those things?”

“Is that what she asked you to find out?” Carol gave a fake laugh.

“So why do you think Ben smashed himself?”

“You talk like your ideas were put through a meat grinder,” she said, lighting a cigarette. The wind blew the smoke into my nostrils.

“He was happy,” she said in a low voice.

“How happy was he?”

“Is there a measurement of happiness?”

“In this example, yes.”

“And what’s this an example of?”

“Whatever you tell me it is, I suppose.”

She inhaled and peered at the lit tip of her cigarette for a few seconds.

“He was fine.”

“That’s the extent of it?”

A curl of her wig hooked into a doleful eye and she swiped it away with the pinkie of the hand waving the cigarette. She puckered her lips in an attempt to refrain from saying anything important or insulting, and then resumed.

“That’s the extent of him,” she said.

“Depressed? Agitated?”

“That’s a profound question.”

“Sometimes they need to be asked to illustrate just how stupid they are.”

“Ben worked four days a week at the club,” she said, exhaling a laborious plume of smoke. “We had arguments over money, the color of the carpet, the worthlessness of the maid. Never when Dot was in the house, though. On Saturdays the three of us went shopping for groceries — you know, apples, tomato sauce, salted butter. Our sex life was ordinary, since I suspect that’s one of your forthcoming questions. Ben voted in major elections. He loved swimming at the Y and talked about the area near his father’s place. Vacation twice a year, usually to the family’s cottage in North Carolina. Sometimes to Key West. In fifteen years of marriage we experienced approximately ten months of misery from each other. And that’s adding up every second. Not so bad, huh?”

“Sounds like you’re reciting from a movie treatment.”

“I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“I do. I wasn’t complaining. Ever meet his father? Daddy?”

“Once about eight or nine years ago. I remember the old man was dirty and condescending at the same time. I didn’t like him.” She shook her head and straightened the wig. “I didn’t like him for a second.”

“What did Ben think of him?”

“He hardly mentioned him unless he was drinking, and that was rare. When he drank wine he told stories about the orchard and his sister and all that.”

“What about the orchard?”

“Nothing about. Ben was happy up there, and when he visited Daddy for the last time…” She broke off and plucked nonexistent dirt from the knee of her pants, then continued. “From what I can tell he liked it up there, but his relationship to Daddy I couldn’t tell you much about. There was something weird between them, but I wouldn’t guess what it was.”

“Something to do with Sue, you think?”

“All of Ben’s problems had to do with Sue or Daddy Longtree in some way.”

Carol Bergen extinguished her cigarette on the sole of her black flat and tucked the butt in her pants pocket.

“Then he behaved as always?” I asked.

“You’re kind of callous, aren’t you?” she said, a hint of a reprimand in her voice.

“This isn’t complicated,” I said.

“It was nice of you to stop in,” she said, rising to her feet. “I have to go check on Dot, make sure she hasn’t started taking after me.”

“Maybe I can help you,” I said, and it sounded dumber than I imagined it could.

“With what?”

“With whatever you need.”

“You’re cute,” she said. “You’re so cute you make me wheeze. Go bother somebody else now.”

“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me something truthful about your late husband,” I said.

She had her hand on the knob.

“He’s not late. He’s dead. He’s been dead for a long time.”

“Not that long,” I said.

“Long enough,” she said.

She burned the end of a fresh cigarette and took a short, nervous puff.

“It’s not that I care overly much,” I said. “Don’t worry about me getting too close to anything.”

“You couldn’t get close to a balloon. And I don’t care either. I have to go inside now.”

The kid was standing there as she swung the door open and closed it. Another squandered nice afternoon. I was lethargic and didn’t know where to go with this business. No one could tell me anything important, except for the fact that approximately everyone I was dealing with was crazy or learning how to be crazy.

From within the house I could hear Carol yelling at Dot, and the kid not replying. Must have been hard co-habitating with a quiet child. Somewhere buried in me there was an almost nostalgic fondness for people, and that’s what I was feeling towards Carol Bergen.

It was warm, and the rain sprayed my wrists and ankles. A fancy silver car idled by as I was expanding my umbrella and stepping away from the house. The driver’s hand waved out the open window at me, mistaking me for a friend or at the very least somebody who would wave back at him.

I waved back.


Chapter 10

I went to the office for a while and thought and the thinking didn’t amount to much save to exhaust me. I sprawled on the sofa in the dark. Sounds came from the building, from below me, and I tried picking them apart and locating their origin. One sounded like someone trying to push a statue out of his way, and another — a grating echo — was the noise of a thousand hurrying ants amplified. I was shortly sleeping a sleep that wasn’t really sleep, but more like a shutting down of awareness, and each time I snapped awake I was hyper and ready.

Dreams that night were wayward and sick. Men positioned on rooftops carried small toy knives and shotguns, their presence threatening, fearful. Garbage bags hurtled from tall windows, the inhabitants of the city unseen. And the balding fat man who’d tried to creep into my office appeared at every intersection.

“Can you spare a mink?” he asked confidentially. “Or can’t you.”

“What do you want a mink for?” I asked him.

“Or can’t you?” he repeated nastily.

Then the nightmare turned fine: I was horizontal on a bed in Sue Longtree’s boudoir, engaged in a euphemism that is typically followed by childrearing. Sue was quiet and kept morphing into all the women I had known and had over the years. Frankly, it was distasteful, but succubi rarely behave like ladies. Just before culmination I was alone, the shouts of the women ringing in my ears. I was sprawled on a dirt highway and the orchard was on the horizon. The place was in black and white, charcoal and ink, exactly as it was in the drawing at the Bergen place. I rarely recalled my dreams, but this one was especially memorable. I was stirred awake at dawn by a mis-timed alarm clock in the next office that wouldn’t shut off. I banged the walls with my fists and the noise finally subsided and someone on the other side of the wall groaned and let out an irritated, “Okay. Jesus.”

Grappling with consciousness I had a great desire to sock my id in the jaw. Hot air stirred in the office. There was a presence in the close room that I attributed to the garbled dreams that hadn’t felt like my own.

“Who is it?” I said to the emptiness.

I was still in my coat and the rain from the folds had seeped into the sofa. Without many prospects I grabbed the Dominic Early novel from my desk and staggered out into the hallway. I listened for the others I knew must have been in the building — where had that alarm clock come from? — but the only sound was of my heightened listening.

I took a cab to my apartment and leaned my head into the icebox to cool off, peeling back a bountiful bunch of twenty-dollar bills. The money was frigid, the way money ought to be.

I called Sue Longtree and told her to meet me at the bar around the corner, Hank’s, in about a half hour.

“Why?” she asked. “You have something?”

“I don’t like eating breakfast alone,” I said. “And you need to tell me some more about this.”

“I’ve told you everything I can.”

“Then make up some stories and tell me those.”

I stripped in the bathroom, showered, lathering myself with a bar of soap I’d been saving for the occasion. The hot water was good and I was starting to lean into a wakefulness. I had two black suits in my wardrobe, one with a button missing and one that was too narrow at the shoulders. I chose the button missing variation. A new suit was the epitome of what I needed right then, and I decided to pay a visit to Cramm, a cheap tailor who wasn’t too bad with thread.

I clicked a record onto the player in the corner, Bartok I think it was. Violins screaming in lonely synchrony, but it discomfited me and I took the Early book with me when I left. I had a few minutes to spare.

As I came down the stairs someone scurried out the door, but I didn’t think much of it. I put $900 in the landlord’s slot. It was raining like the sky had gone mad, and maybe it had, and I stuck close to the awnings of buildings as I went.

Hank’s was a bare, 24-hour restaurant and bar that was well-known for serving homemade fruitcake in all seasons and for hosting underground poker marathons. Three gamblers, not counting the guy face-down, were playing hands of Texas Hold-Em, and they looked to have not rested in four or five days, and in Hank’s, it was probable that they had not.

I ordered sausage links and toast from Hank, a droopy-eyed Austrian who could play anything on the accordion except a right note. He was in a red shirt and tan trousers covered in variegated hues of paint. He took my order and didn’t say anything.

Early’s book was called An Incidental Murder, and it was a supremely silly tale about a private detective who tries to shoot himself, misses his head by an inch, and accidentally kills the guy in the next apartment. As far as plots went it was muddled and fragmentary, and by Chapter 12 I was glad to pick up my head and see Sue hurry by the window, close her umbrella as she came into the restaurant, and glance around for me.

All of the gamblers but the unconscious guy perked up quickly at her entrance, eyes prowling her curves, and immediately deflated when Sue sat across from me. Her hair was tied back with a ribbon, nails freshly painted red, and her smile was one I could have sucked out of a straw.

“You like that nonsense?” she asked of the dog-eared novel in front of me.

“It’s daft,” I said. “Pointless. Drab.”

“You should be a critic.”

“Who says I’m not?”

“What isn’t pointless and drab?” she asked.

I shrugged and pushed my plate to the side.

“Nothing, I guess. One thing isn’t.”

“What’s that one thing?”

“I haven’t found it yet.”

She stuck a tuft of hair under the ribbon.

“So what do you want, Harry?”

“I wanted to have breakfast with you,” I said.

“You’ve already eaten and I’m not hungry. I told you how busy I am with the divorce and everything else.”

“What everything else?”

“Everything else,” she said.

“I keep forgetting you’re married.”

“So do I. That’s why it didn’t last too long.”

“I’m wondering what I’m supposed to be doing with this.”

She took a card from her purse and jotted something on the back.

“This is the address of the golf club where Ben worked,” she said. “The manager is a slippery asshole named Montero. Maybe he can tell you something, but when he does just be aware that the truth is probably the opposite of what he’s saying.”

I looked at the card, back at her serious face. I yearned to say something, to straighten her out, but I got lost in her frown.

Sue said, “I have to be somewhere.” She slipped out of the seat, her umbrella dripping rain onto the floor. “Thanks for the breakfast,” she added.

“Let’s do it again sometime.”

She turned, then stopped. The gamblers were studying her studiously.

“What do you really want?” she asked.

“I suppose I don’t know. I suppose I’ll tell you some day. I suppose I won’t know then just as well I do now.”

“You’ve got a sense of humor,” she said. “Meet me at Clover’s at six, six-thirty tonight and we can have a real talk, like people.”

After she left the gamblers grumbled and ordered coffee and one of them scooped the cards into his breast pocket. The game was over. One of the fellows jabbed a finger into the sleeping man’s shoulder and he rose up, startled. Then he lay on his crossed forearms once again. As one of the gamblers was passing me, he paused and slapped his palm amiably on my table. His eyes were opening and closing slowly, regularly.

Talking fondly he said, “That’s some dame, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She is some dame.”

“You can always tell,” he said.

“Tell what?”

“What kind they are.”

“What kind is she?” I asked him.

His head twitched. “That one I can’t really tell,” he said.

I agreed with him.


Chapter 11

I arrived at the country club where Bergen had been employed at around 11:30, my stomach heaving with the six or seven cups of bad coffee I’d drowned at the restaurant. The receptionist was a priggish woman in white pants and shirt, with a bad case of glowering. She told me that I could wait while she inquired after Mr. Montero, the starch fairly discernible on the edge of her tongue.

“Mr. Montero might very well be preoccupied,” she said.

“I’ll wait for him.”

“Who shall I tell him is waiting?”

“Jome,” I said. “Just inform Mr. Montero that it’s about an employee of his. If you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t,” she said.

“That’s good of you.”

The club’s lobby was posh and decorated with veiny plants that touched the ceiling, a few cigar boxes with tees, five or six bright caps. I sauntered around a minute while the receptionist went into the back. Another man was seated alone at a card table, staring ahead as though in the throes of a remarkable dope addiction. Dull jazz peppered out of invisible speakers and struck the brown and burgundy walls. I felt flattered just to be in the rich cigar-fumes the club exuded. Outside some laughing men were spinning manically around in little golf carts, carousing through puddles and getting soaked. I didn’t understand the appeal. But to be fair, I didn’t understand the appeal of anything, really.

The manager, Montero, was lean and tan and had long arms. He came out from a back-room of blue lockers and coat racks, probably sixty years old, and grinned as though he meant every inch of it. He was dressed like the other golfers who’d been passing chattily by — khakis, floppy cartoon hat, white spiked shoes — but his attire was slimmer, the kind of fit that makes you want to snap your fingers rhythmically. There was a moment of hesitation after the the receptionist pointed me out.

“Mr. Jove,” he said, jerking his hand toward me. His accent was strange and I couldn’t quite place it.

“Jome,” I said.


Montero’s grin eloped from his eyes when he glanced at the vacant man at the card table.

“That’s Corviss,” the manager said in a whisper. “He cannot be communicated with when he goes into these trances of his. Occasionally he is incapacitated for an entire two days, and we sometimes have to simply leave him when we close at seven. His wife is dead and that may have something to do with his condition. Still, it is unfortunate and we are hopeful,” here Montero lifted his eyebrows, “that Mr. Corviss will find another location to do his fretting.”

Montero had an uncluttered way of talking. English was doubtlessly his third or fourth language, and he went about trying to prove that it could be good enough even for him.

I followed him into the rear of the club, where several wealthy men were lounging with their backs against the wall, exchanging inane anecdotes that were about as humorous as nicotine. Those same gigantic plants were sprouting everywhere.

“What’s with the forestry?” I asked.

“It regards cleaner oxygen. Better for the health of our members. I’m glad you appreciate our botanics. I bred them myself.”

“Must have been uncomfortable.”

He smiled tightly at me over his shoulder, the joke lost or not very funny or both.

His office was equal parts dingy and clean. Ill-lit, stained glass lamps suffused the niche in partitions of uneasy light, as though the room had been specifically graphed to provide the least amount of illumination. An extravagantly red desk, bare except for an expensive fountain pen and a box of note-cards, separated us. Montero slapped a pair of white gloves on his thigh and placed them gingerly off to the side of the desk. I could smell that it was nice wood.

“I collect Tiffany lamps,” Montero said as I contorted into the upright chair. “That chair that you are sitting in was designed by William Morris. Do you know William Morris?” Montero looked at me thoughtfully. “And this table – I’m terribly sorry, but please do not touch your hands on it, thank you, Mr. Jove — this table belonged to William James, who was apparently fond of sniffing at the variegated odors of the oak. Do you like it somewhat?” He nodded at me for approval and kept nodding until I approved.

“It’s fine as far as William James’s desks go. I’m here about Ben Bergen,” I said. “One of your former instructors.”

Three unique alterations of a scowl fleetingly tugged at his thin, tan face.

“If I remember correctly he was not a gifted player,” Montero said. “But he was an erudite teacher, if I may so use that term.”

“Use whatever term you like. What I’m most interested in is Mr. Bergen’s psychological state towards the end of his job here.”

“It was a long time ago,” Montero said. “And why is Benjamin curious to you?”

“He killed himself and now his sister wants to know why.”

Montero was put off by my bluntness and partly scoffed.

“I didn’t know,” he said.

His eyebrows twitched, but they’d been twitching since I got there.

“Ben was a cordial fellow,” Montero said. “I was not so acquainted with him to offer an evaluation of his character. He was a good teacher and that’s all I needed to know. Ben, of course, had his intense bouts of silence near the culmination of his time here, and he would often not talk to any of the staff for days.”

“Did he ever mention anything to you?”

“I remember that I was shocked when he offered his resignation.”

“Why shouldn’t he have resigned?”

“I didn’t ask him.”

“Ever hear the name William Florence?” I asked.

Montero shook his head, then stopped shaking his head, and shook his head some more. “It does sound familiar.”

“How familiar?”

“Somehow familiar, but not so familiar, Mr. Jove.”

“What else? There must be something else. Bergen’s sister had me come over here for some reason.”

“Frankly, Mr. Jove, I have nothing to add but what I have already mentioned,” Montero said. His brows lifted, and his eyes suddenly glinted in the semi-darkness. “I do have this.”

He pulled on the white gloves and slid a drawer back open. He held a four-by-six frame up to his eyes and studied it for a moment. When he handed it over I saw that it was a drawing, the same one adorning Mrs. Bergen’s wall.

“Perhaps this is something. Ben gave it to me quite a while ago, for my birthday. I can’t fathom how it would help you, Mr. Jove, but it’s really a nice piece, don’t you think?”

I scanned the blurred contours of the gray and black orchard. There was no difference that I could tell between the two copies.

“Who drew it?” I asked.

“I haven’t an idea,” Montero said, and I believed him. “But you may keep it. Perhaps I will need a favor from you some day,” he said, in the cadence of a schmuck feigning inner knowledge of the underworld.

“Perhaps you won’t get it,” I said. “I could be ungrateful.”

Laughing for the both of us Montero rose like a bird from a feeder. I put the drawing on the desk. Just to be radical I ran a forefinger over the surface of William James’s desk and heard Montero gasp at the air. In the anteroom the golfers were giggling at a joke a newcomer had just told. They looked at me and stopped giggling.

I took one glance at the clubhouse as I headed back to the street, now optimistically inclined to find a cab. The course beyond the formal building was little more than a flat green monotony interrupted with sand traps and carts — elegiac and quite foolish. I unclasped my umbrella and started back downtown, the rain tickling my back. After five minutes a cab pulled to the side without me waving it down. I told the driver to take me to my office. Though he didn’t appreciate the suggestion we did have a lengthy and enterprising discussion on the wealthy and on the weather.



PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.

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