Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Dark Veil: Chapter Three

Quinn strode purposefully along Riverside Drive until he reached the number Behan’s landlord had given him over the phone.  Despite its prestigious address and view of the Hudson, the pre-war brick building was badly run down; everywhere about it was the air of having seen better days.  Its front door was locked; there was no directory of tenants beside it.  Only then did Quinn realize he’d forgotten to ask the landlord for his apartment number.  He had no choice but to keep pushing doorbells until someone finally buzzed him in.
After having searched aimlessly back and forth through the hallways, Quinn finally found the apartment he wanted; it was located in a side wing on the ground floor.  The landlord himself turned out to be someone Quinn knew from the days when he’d lived on the West Side.  The man was a Ukrainian, not Russian as Sloane had told him, who had every weekend had set up a folding table on Broadway from which he’d sold brand new art books at huge discounts.  No one had ever discovered exactly where those books had come from.  Some had claimed they’d been lifted from the publishing companies’ warehouses, but that was only conjecture.  Quinn had ignored the neighborhood gossip and had regularly browsed the table’s offerings; occasionally he had bought some oversized volume that had caught his eye.  Usually it was a monograph of some lesser known photographer with whose work Quinn had wanted to become more familiar.  Over time he had struck up an acquaintance with the bookseller.  They’d stood in the open air talking about art and chess.  But Quinn had never bothered to learn his name, which he now discovered was Viktor.
The landlord looked Quinn over thoughtfully after the latter had introduced himself and explained why he was there.  “Yes, I remember you well enough,” Viktor said at last in his heavy Slavic accent.  He was almost seven feet tall, his large head surmounted by thick rings of curly gray hair, and so gaunt that his canvas work clothes hung loosely about him.  “You were one of the few who actually cared anything about art.  The others, they only pretended.  They bought from me because they’d heard the names Van Gogh and Picasso and decided their friends would be impressed if they found expensive art books piled high on the coffee table.  But people aren’t that stupid.”
“Yes, but I didn’t know then you owned an entire building here in the neighborhood.  That’s impressive.  I thought New York City landlords were too rich to have to work.”
“Rich.  Hah, that’s a good one.  You think any landlord gets rich owning a rent stabilized building in this city?  The rents barely cover the property taxes and maintenance.  What’s left over isn’t enough to live on, not even for a widower like me.  Lucky my children are all grown, or I’d have to sell the building just to have enough to feed them.”
Quinn saw his opening and took it.  “Is Behan’s old apartment still available?  Sloane asked me to take down the yellow tape from the door.  He told me you’d be looking to rent it out again now that the police have finished their investigation.”
“Yes, and as soon as possible too.  Even though I’m going to have to list it at a price that’s as far from market as I am from Kiev, I still need the money.”
“Why not let me have it then?” asked Quinn.  “I’m just back in town from San Francisco.  I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but right now I desperately need a place to live.  Behan’s apartment would suit me just fine.”
Viktor considered the idea.  “It’s strange how things work out, isn’t it?  I never had any idea you were Behan’s son.  All this time I was wondering why I hadn’t seen you on Broadway in so long.”
“You’re still out there selling books?  The weather’s getting pretty cold for that.”
“Pah, I had to give it up.  No one buys art books when times are hard.  Last year, I sold maybe one book in the entire month of December.  If no one’s buying them at Christmastime, then for sure no one’s going to pick them up in January when they have their credit cards to pay off.  So why sit in the cold and freeze my balls off for nothing?”
Quinn returned to the subject of the apartment.  “I can pay the rent.”
“If you were lying on the street starving, you could pay it.  That’s how low it is.”
“Then you’ll let me have it?”
“Why not?  If not you, then someone else.  At least you know something about art.  That’s more than I can say for most Americans I’ve met.”
“Thanks,” said Quinn.  He shook Viktor’s hand.  “Winter’s coming, and New York’s no place to be in cold weather without a roof over my head.  I don’t want them to find me frozen to death on a park bench one morning.”
“It can get rough out there all right,” Viktor agreed.  “This city has no pity.”
Quinn smiled broadly.  “I can also play chess with you if you ever want a game.”
Viktor put his hand to his head.  “As long as we don’t play for cash.  You should know I’ve nothing left to lose.”  He fished in his pocket and came up with a ring of keys from which he extracted one.  He handed it to Quinn.
“Don’t you want to see my money first?” Quinn asked.
“That’s not necessary.  I know who I can trust.  It’s an instinct I have.  The furniture is yours, of course, and whatever else Behan left behind.”
“I’ll need everything.  All I brought with me are the clothes on my back.”
“Good.  You’re saving me the cost of hiring the dumpster I’d need to cart it away.”
“I’m glad I got here in time then.  Sloane told me you’d probably toss all Behan’s photography once you’d gotten the all clear.  I didn’t want any of it to be lost.”
“You needn’t have worried,” said Viktor as he turned to enter his apartment.  “Behan’s work was impressive.  I would never have allowed it to be destroyed.”
Quinn took the key and headed up the stairs.
Behan’s one-bedroom was on the fifth floor.  There was no elevator in the building, and it was a long climb to the top.  Quinn was out of breath by the time he reached the uppermost landing.
Even if it were a walkup, the apartment had a working brick fireplace and a view of Riverside Park that more than made up for the inconvenience of reaching it.  The furniture was scratched but solid.  In the living room, Quinn was surprised to find Behan had created a complete photo studio.  Large Chimera softboxes stood in the center of the wooden floor surrounded by three Speedotron power packs.  Rolls of seamless background paper were propped upright against the whitewashed walls.  The tiny kitchen had been curtained off with black vinyl and turned into a wet darkroom.  Inside, a Durst enlarger sat on a counter.
The electricity and gas were still both working.  Quinn checked the telephone and found it too was still connected.  He hit the play button on the answering machine, but there was nothing there but a few automated sales calls that were most likely scams anyway.
Quinn put off any further investigation of the apartment’s contents.  He’d spent too much time in his cramped hotel room not to appreciate the luxury of having his own space and the privacy that came with it.  He stretched out on the sofa and stared out the window at the Hudson rolling past in the distance.

It was more than an hour later when Quinn, feeling refreshed, finally left the apartment to go buy himself some groceries.  On the way down the stairs he encountered a woman climbing up to the floor below his.  She was a redhead in her early forties wearing a black vinyl trench coat deliberately left open to better display her voluptuous figure.  Her plaid skirt was short enough to reveal a large red rose tattooed high up on one stockinged thigh.  A lit cigarette dangled from her lipstick smeared mouth.
“Hi, there,” she said as she passed Quinn.  Her voice was rough from years of chain smoking.  “You must be the new guy, the one who’s moving into Behan’s apartment.  Viktor told me he’d rented it out.”
“Word sure travels fast around here.”  Quinn gave the woman his brightest smile.  “And yes, I’m the new tenant all right.”    
“You were lucky to get the place.  Finding a rent stabilized apartment in this city is like winning the lottery.”
“Behan and I were family – he was my father – and I think that’s one reason Viktor was so easygoing when it came to letting me take the place over.”  He held out his hand.  “My name’s Quinn, by the way.”
The woman held out her own tobacco stained hand.  “Mine’s Mayla.”
“This seems like a great building to be in.  Have you lived here long?” Quinn asked.
“Only about two years, but it feels like forever since I moved from Cleveland.”
“Were you friends with Behan?”  Quinn kept his tone conversational.  “Now that he’s gone, I’d like to find out as much as I can about his last years.  You understand.”
“No, we never got to know one another that well.  He was a really quiet guy was Behan.  Once or twice he invited me to his place for a cup of coffee, but that was it.”  Mayla took another drag on her cigarette.  “Did the cops ever find out who murdered him?”
“Not yet.  I talked earlier to the detective handling the case.  He said they haven’t come up with any suspects.  He didn’t seem too confident they ever would.”
“Probably some kids out looking for a thrill.  That would be my guess.  Everyone says this city is so damn safe now, but you can still get killed walking to the supermarket.  Even in this neighborhood.”
“I guess you never saw anyone suspicious hanging around?”  Seeing Mayla raise her eyebrows, Quinn was quick to explain.  “If the police aren’t going to knock themselves out trying to find the killer, I thought I might as well look around on my own.  Maybe I can find something I can pass on to them.”
Mayla stubbed out her cigarette on the stairwell banister and then quickly lit another.  “Sometimes I’d see gorgeous women coming and going at odd hours.  That seemed sort of strange considering your father’s age.   He wasn’t the playboy type as far as I could tell.  And none of those women looked like they were getting ready to go on a date.”  She thought back.  “They definitely weren’t hookers.  I’d have known straight off if they were.  But Behan never struck me as kinky enough, or well off enough, to go in for that kind of fun.”
“That’s strange all right.”  It was Quinn’s turn to raise his eyebrows.  “‘Gorgeous’ you said?  I wonder who those women could have been.  It doesn’t make any sense to me.  Behan was always taking pictures, but he was into street photography, not fashion, and never worked with any models as far as I can recollect.  Then again, he did set up a photo studio in his living room.  I was wondering what that was all about.”  Quinn tried one last question.  “No one else then?”
“No, sorry.”  Mayla shook her head.  “I really wish I could be more of a help; but like I said, your father was a quiet guy and kept to himself.  No wild parties at three in the morning or anything like that, thank God.”
“I hope you don’t think I’m trying to give you the third degree or anything like that.  I’m not happy myself when people push me too hard for information.”  The memory of the interrogation he’d gotten from Sloane was still fresh in Quinn’s mind.
“No problem at all.”  Mayla didn’t bother removing the cigarette from her mouth as she spoke.  “It’s nice to know you’ve got so much feeling for family.  I have a daughter myself who’s 19 now and living out in LA trying to make it as an actress just like her mom.  I don’t even want to think about the kind of work she’s getting out there.  I never hear from her anyway.  Not even a card at Christmas.”
“The holidays aren’t that far away.  Maybe this season she’ll get in touch.”
“I’m not holding my breath,” said Mayla.  There was resignation in her voice.  “Well, Quinn, it was good meeting you but I’ve got to run now.  I’ve got a rehearsal for an Off Off Broadway play I’m starring in.  It’s a comedy.  I play a rich socialite having an affair with her suicidal psychiatrist while her husband recovers from brain surgery.”
“That sounds interesting all right.”  Quinn kept any reservations to himself.  “Are there any Off Broadway theaters still left in Manhattan?  I thought the real estate boom had managed to put them all out of business.”

“Tell me about it.  This company’s in Williamsburg.  I hate having to travel out to Brooklyn, but at least this time it’s not all the way to Greenpoint.”

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