It wasn’t that long ago, not to me. “Bruce Van Sumner,” I said, “‘Blake’s Lamb and Tiger and Their Influence on Charles Dickens.’”
“It would be hard to forget,” I said, “because he chose the topic, of course, and I’ve never been convinced that Blake’s lamb and tiger had any influence on Dickens. But I guess I was persuasive enough. How’s your father doing?”
“He’s at Iowa State. He’s tenured, and first in line to head the department when the top man retires.”
“And I’m following in his footsteps. I’ve done all my course work for my doctorate at Columbia. And I’ve done plenty of research for my thesis, but I can’t get the thing written.”
“Like father,” I said.
“You said it. And my dad told me how you’d helped him out, and said he didn’t know if you were even alive, let alone still, uh, in the business. But he said you might know somebody, and-”
Young Van Sumner’s thesis topic was ethnocentrism in the novels of Tobias Smollett. That meant I was going to have to read Roderick Random and Humphrey Clinker again, and thank God for Evelyn Wood. As he’d said, he’d done a good deal of reading and research himself, and taken abundant notes. That would make my job easier, and would be a big help to him when he had to defend his thesis at his orals. I met him at an Ethiopian restaurant on 125th Street – all sorts of ethnic groups, scarcely discernible in New York twenty-five years ago, have moved in and opened restaurants – and I looked over his notes and quoted him a price and a delivery date. He shook my hand and wrote out a check for half my fee.
“You’re younger than I expected,” he offered. “My dad looks good for his age, but you’re amazing. What’s your secret?”
“Good genes and plenty of sleep.”
So I was back in business. I knocked off his thesis, putting in a few hours a day as a break from my own studies, and I beat the deadline I’d set myself by a full week. I’d written the thing on Minna’s computer, and I printed it out and admired the typeface I’d selected. It looked good, and the content was good, too. I could be proud of it, I told myself, and so could David Van Sumner.
I was in a mood to celebrate. If Minna had been around I’d have taken her out somewhere, but she’d gone out earlier with some friends her own age. (I still found myself thinking that way, although they were my age as well.)
So I went out for a walk, and a couple of blocks down Broadway I felt myself drawn to a tavern called the Pit Stop. There was nothing special about the place, but it was halfway between my apartment and the 103rd Street subway stop, and so I’d gotten in the habit of stopping in once or twice a week for a beer.
I hadn’t been in since the Great Defrosting, but I went in now, and the place looked exactly the same. A little dimmer and dingier, maybe, but otherwise unchanged. Amazingly enough, the same bartender was behind the stick. His name was Charlie, and from the looks of things he was still drinking the same drink. It consisted of Drambuie, vodka, and prune juice, and he’d invented it for a contest sponsored by the cordial’s U.S. importer. He called it a Rusty Can Opener, and never could understand why it hadn’t won, and how come nobody in the place ever ordered one.
“Charlie,” I said.
He looked at me. “Tanner,” he said, and drew me a beer without asking. “You been out of town or something? Seems to me I ain’t seen you in a while.”
“I was away.”
“Yeah, I figured,” he said, and took a swig of his Rusty Can Opener. “Must be a few weeks since I seen you, maybe as much as a month.”
“A long time,” I agreed.
“Yeah, well,” he said. “I’ll tell you, you ain’t missed a thing.”
A couple of nights later Minna and I were having dinner. I’d worked up a new version of beef stroganoff using Portobello mushrooms. I generally cook kasha as an accompaniment, and at Minna’s suggestion I’d combined the buckwheat groats with an equal amount of quinoa, an Andean grain only recently introduced to the U.S. market.
The results were a success. “You’re right,” I told her. “They complement one another. And the cooking times are the same, which simplifies things. I’ve combined kasha and bulgur, and that works, but I think I like this even better.”
The phone rang. She went to answer it – it was generally for her these days – and came back a minute later wearing a frown.
“It was a wrong number,” she said.
“I hate when that happens.”
“It was the third time today, Evan. And it was the same wrong number each time, and I even think it was the same person calling.”
“We used to do that when I was a kid,” I remembered. “Call the same person five times running. ‘Is Joe there?’ Then your friend calls. ‘Hi, this is Joe. Were there any calls for me?’”
“Not if you’re more than ten years old,” I said. “Did it sound like a kid?”
“It sounded like an adult,” she said. “Except…”
“Well, whoever it was sounded Chinese.”
“The two aren’t mutually exclusive,” I said. “There are loads of Chinese adults.”
“I know, but-”
“Or adult Chinese,” I said. “Whatever you want to call them. Whatever’s politically correct.”
“I think it was a fake Chinese accent.”
“Oh? What did they say?”
“They wanted to know if this was the Blue Star Hand Laundry.”
“The Blue Star Hand Laundry.”
“Except it came out sounding like ‘Brue Stah Hand Raundly.’ You know, with the l’s and r’s all switched around in a very unconvincing way.”
“Brue Stah Hand Raundly,” I said.
“Yes, like that, in a sort of all-purpose fake Oriental accent.”
“Asian, you mean.”
“Do you remember,” I said, “how I used to go away now and then?”
“Of course. I would stay with someone, usually Kitty Bazerian. And you would be gone for a long time, and you would bring me a present when you came back. One time you brought me the little jade cat. I still have it.”
“I know, I saw it the other day. The point is, those trips usually started with a phone call. And more often than not it was from someone trying to reach the Blue Star Hand Laundry, or pretending to be the Blue Star Hand Laundry.”
“Hey, mistah, when you come pick up you shirts?”
“That’s the idea. When they call back-”
“I’ll give you the phone.”
At which point it rang.
She was reaching for it when she stopped herself, drew back, and nodded for me to take it. I picked it up and said, “Blue Star Hand Laundry,” but didn’t bother with the Charlie Chan accent.
There was the slightest of pauses. Then a man’s voice, uninflected, said, “You should look in the mailbox.”
He rang off.
“I should look in the mailbox,” I told Minna, and went down four flights of stairs only to climb back up again. I came back carrying a three-by-five index card. I suppose they must be obsolete now that people have databases.
I said, “Look what I found,” and handed it to Minna.
There was an address and suite number on lower Fifth Avenue, along with “9:15.”
“It’s after nine already,” she said. “Are you supposed to go there tonight?”
“It doesn’t say a.m. or p.m.,” I said.
“Maybe they’re thinking in terms of a twenty-four-hour clock.”
“He’d think that was European,” I said, “and hopelessly effete. If a.m. and p.m. was good enough for Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, it’s damn well good enough for him.”
“The Chief,” I said. “Whatever this is, it can wait until tomorrow. I’ll show up at nine-fifteen in the morning, and if that doesn’t work I’ll try again twelve hours later.”
She thought about it. “Evan,” she said, “are you sure this is from the same people who called the first time? The man who told you to look in the mailbox never said anything about the Blue Star Hand Laundry. You were the one who mentioned it.”
“Turn it over,” I said.
“Turn it over?”
“The index card. Look on the back.”
And there it was, hand-stamped, the blue ink slightly smeared. A five-pointed star.
“By God. Tanner. All these years I thought you were dead. Part of the game, of course. You get a man, and he’s good, and you rely more and more heavily on him. And then one fine day you learn that he’s dead. You remember Dallman?”
He thought Dallman had recruited me, and in a sense I suppose he had, handing off some documents to me in a pub in Dublin just before some players on the other side caught up with him and took him out of the game, wiped him right off the board. The Chief and I had raised a few glasses to Dallman’s memory.
“The better a man is,” he said, “the more he dares, and the greater the risk that he’ll be killed. They tell me it’s the same with hang gliding. When you become expert, you can fly much higher. But if the wind changes suddenly, all your skills don’t help you a bit. And you have a longer way to fall.” He ran a pipe cleaner through the stem of his briar, took it out, sniffed inquiringly at it. “Or so they tell me,” he said. “I’ve steered clear of hang gliding myself.”
“So have I.”
“It’s probably wise,” he said. “We’re neither of us getting any younger, Tanner. Although I have to say you look the same.”
“So do you, sir.”
“Ha! Decent of you to say so, Tanner, but that’s an awful load of cod wallop and we both know it.”
It was codwallop, all right. He was an older man when I met him the first time, perhaps the same age as the calendar said I was now, and he hadn’t had the benefit of a few decades in a frost-free Frigidaire. He had to be ninety, or close to it, and he looked about a hundred, with wispy white hair and a time-ravaged face. His tan suit looked expensive, but he’d lost weight since he bought it and it hung loosely on him. His shoes were freshly polished but down at the heels. His striped tie had been inexpertly tied, with the rear part longer than the front. His collar was frayed, and there were food stains on his shirt front.
But his mind was still as sharp as ever. I wasn’t sure just how much of an endorsement that was, because I was never entirely certain how much the Chief had on the ball in the first place, but it was reassuring all the same to see that he hadn’t lost it. Truth to tell, I was glad enough just to know he was alive.
“Where were you, Tanner? What the hell happened to you?”
“I was frozen,” I said.