Death of the extremophil.., p.1
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       Death of the Extremophile, p.1

           Stuart Parker
Death of the Extremophile

  Death of the Extremophile

  Stuart Parker

  Copyright 2013 Stuart Parker

  Cover art:


  1. ‘Eyes have a tendency to adjust.’

  ‘I apologise for not having asked your name,’ said the woman, ‘especially as we are already so far advanced in our encounter. It is not, however, an oversight. I would like, if you have no objection, to address you as David. For want of a better word, it would seem more loyal.’

  ‘Is David the name of your husband?’ asked the tall man at her side.

  ‘Yes, my husband.’

  They were talking softly, not wanting to share their conversation with any ears that might be lurking behind the doors of this dingy east side Chicago hotel. The loudly creaking stairs would be drawing attention to their presence, and perhaps even their purpose, for there could be little doubt as to their purpose in a hotel like this, a hotel in which the register was filled with aliases and its cleaner was well paid and overworked due to her uncanny ability to remove bodily fluids: no matter what, no matter where. The dust, however, was left heavy in the air and thick on the surfaces, for it was not part of the cleaner’s brief, was not a remnant of passion, was not what the old grimy doors numbered 1.1 to 3.18 were rented to conceal.

  The man was holding a stained wooden keychain numbered 2.7. One more flight of stairs. The man walked behind the woman and marveled at her shapely figure in her cotton floral summer dress. It was something. The man was tall enough that despite being two steps lower, his shoulders were almost level with hers. And the way he filled out his suit smacked of great physical brawn: strong hands that could snap a cat’s spine without effort - that was the image the woman had had when she first laid eyes on him. She was not a cat person, did not pay much mind to any creatures other than horses, so she struggled to account for the thought. But there was no doubt this was a violent man living a violent life. It was plainly seen in his arrogantly loping gait and cruel grey eyes, not to mention his willingness to accompany her to a hotel like this - not the act of a gentleman to say the least. The briefcase handcuffed to his wrist was only the final proof. The woman felt a tremor of excitement whenever she looked at it, whenever the bracelet and chain poked out from the jacket sleeve stretched long. It suggested the man had been good enough in his own particular craft to have something of significant value secured to his very flesh and bone. Yes, she found that intriguing. She liked being here with him.

  ‘What name shall I be permitted to use with you?’ the man asked.

  ‘Margaret, if you would be so kind.’

  ‘Is that the name your husband uses?’

  ‘Please, do not speak of such things.’

  ‘Alright. But am I the first?’

  ‘The first?’

  ‘To accompany you in such a way.’

  ‘If you cared to recall my purpose you would not ask such a question.’

  The man did not say anything more. He had a habit of needling people, sometimes to the point of confrontation, but he could see he had a vested interest in holding his tongue: with her blonde hair, blue eyes and creamy pale skin, she was more beautiful than any woman he had ever been with, even when he had had a wad of money to spend, and so far the only expense he had incurred was the price of a cheap hotel room. Luck never came to those who couldn’t shut up, and he was feeling particularly lucky this afternoon.

  Off the stairs, into the dank corridor of the Sooner Or Later Tavern’s third floor, the air reeked of stale cigarettes. A radio was blaring in Room 2.6. A baseball game. No doubt it was masking something - no one checked into a dump like this to listen to the Yankees.

  The man dubbed David unlocked 2.7, and the woman calling herself Margaret released her handbag from her shoulder and moved in beside him, her back stiffly straight. When the door opened, she entered first; she nervously checked about the room and turned back, her attention settling with most concern not on the bed or the man but on the lock on the door. No sooner had the man switched on the light than she flicked it off again.

  ‘Darkness, please,’ she said.

  ‘So that I will feel more like your husband?’ The man chuckled arrogantly. ‘I was a First Division boxing champ and represented Utah in the National Football Championships. I have a suspicion I will not feel like your husband.’

  ‘Try not to see this for more than it is. A child is important for both my husband and me.’ The curtains were not repelling so much daylight that she could not see the table to put her purse down on or the bed to undress beside. ‘As important as this.’ Down to her underwear she stopped dressing. She shook out her hair over her shoulders. Her look of vulnerability was exquisite.

  ‘I understand.’ The man took as much pains to ensure the door was securely locked as had the woman - his reason, however, was the briefcase at his wrist, and rummaging through a pocket full of change, he found the key and unlocked it; he carefully placed it down on the table next to the purse.

  There was a Colt .45 automatic pistol in a shoulder holster below his armpit; he was not ready to relieve himself of it, not just yet

  ‘Why did you choose me from that subway train or from anywhere else in the world for that matter?’ He tapped the briefcase with his fingertips and shot her a hard look. ‘Was it because of this?’

  ‘Maybe.’ The woman self-consciously folded her arms to cover her breasts. ‘You seemed important and handsome. And not dissimilar to my husband. Or the way he was. To answer that question you asked of me on the stairs, this is not the first time. I will keep trying until I have a child. It is something I truly crave and unfortunately it does not seem my husband can help. Except perhaps by going away on business on weekends. So, I must act without his knowledge and without his permission but perhaps with his blessing.’

  The man sneered. ‘Very well. Wait for me on the bed. And close your eyes and think of what you will.’ He watched her obey and felt a thrill run up his body. Once she was on her back on the unflinching mattress in a position of surrender, he started to undress. He meticulously laid his clothes out on the grimy floor, in case he needed to dress in a hurry and, checking that her eyes were still closed, he tucked the pistol under the jacket - he took pride in a woman knowing a pistol was close at hand, especially so when they were making love.

  ‘Look now,’ he said once naked, sure of what affect his powerful physique would have on her.

  Her head lifted off the pillow and she studied him for a time. ‘Can you fix the curtains? There is too much light.’

  The man frowned. ‘Eyes have a tendency to adjust. There is always too much light.’

  Nonetheless, he went to the curtains and fixed the gap between them; he caught a view as he worked on them of a brick back wall and a rusted out fire-escape that would no doubt have been as hazardous as the average fire. Then he strode to the bed. He dropped beside her and the bed springs groaned. He swept her into his arms. His kiss was rough, squeezing her lips hard against his.

  ‘Be gentle, David,’ she whispered. ‘Our son should be conceived out of love. We should be tender.’

  The man did not adjust. ‘That’s probably where you’ve been going wrong.’ He tore away her brasserie; he sucked and licked her breasts like a newborn calf.

  The woman remained gazing straight up at the ceiling with barely a blink.

  ‘It is only when it is dark and I am making love with another man that my husband comes to me. He’s dead, you see. He’s looking at you now Carter Nelson.’

  The man shot up erect. She knew his name. Two hands ferociously grabbed him from behind.

  2. ‘I can confirm your funds are not in dispute.’

  The Assistant District Attorney, Errol Jones, was as much gnawing at his cigar as smoking it. George Hope was turned off by it. ‘You know, Jones, chewing tobacco should not have one end lit.’

  Jones’s reply was to blow smoke in his face; the act barely registered as the air of the Underhill Cigar Club was already heavy with an intoxicating stew of exotic tobacco.

  The club had been founded fifteen years earlier, in the midst of Prohibition, by one Bart Bartholomew, a Texas oilman whose sole intention in the project was to have somewhere homely to spend his evenings during his New York business forays. The address was exclusive and breathtakingly expensive with Brooklyn Bridge and the Empire State Building picturesque backdrops outside the gold framed windows. The club’s four rooms were the height of opulence with Persian carpets, Chinese jade, Indian tapestries, Swiss wall clocks, Italian sculptures and African precious metals displayed behind glass. The assault of colours, designs and textures would have been jarring if not for the relief of the dimming misty air. The four rooms included the Poker Room, the Bridge Room, the Reading Room and the Conversation Room. They were adjoining a central foyer and cloakroom; and there were other unnamed chambers down the corridors when other purposes were required - Bart Bartholomew knew well the laws that the earth had made for the oil locked in the ground, but had no such appreciation of the laws society had imposed on itself, and to a great extent could now afford to circumvent them. There was only one requirement for people to gain membership to his club: they had to be serious. For those found wanting, it was easy to shrug off the rejection as a crackpot’s indulgence; on the other hand, those who were successful rarely spent their evenings anywhere else. “Reasonable prices for what money can’t buy” was the mantra in gold and ivory on the foyer wall.

  Hope’s cigar remained close to his nostrils; reputedly from British Cameroon, it reminded him of the burning spice rooms in Bombay, which remained the most beautiful fragrances he had ever experienced. Somewhere in his late thirties, Hope’s hair was thick, black and neatly trimmed and he was clean shaven - his grooming was mostly to do his superbly tailored evening suit justice - imported from Budapest by a notorious trader who was required to smuggle everything else in his inventory. Hope liked the best in suits because they could endure the worst without betraying their wear; friends were the same, and Errol Jones was not far away from being a good one.

  Hope picked up the briefcase beside his wine-red, timber-facing sofa chair in the corner of the Reading Room and slid it on its front across the intricately patterned red and white Persian rug between Jones and him.

  Jones caught it with his foot and laughed from the pit of his throat. ‘Poor Carter, waking up with a splitting headache and nothing else: no beautiful stranger, no ghost of a dead husband and, most importantly, no briefcase full of other people’s private correspondence.’

  ‘He did wake up with something else,’ corrected Hope, ‘the handcuffs from the briefcase. I used them to restrain him to the bed head. He was just lucky I could find the key on his persons; otherwise, he might have awoken to find his hand already checked out.’

  Jones, a trim, handsome man of late forties vintage, scratched his salt and pepper beard and shook his head, running a hand along the nearest of leather bound first editions in the bookcase beside him. ‘It is a pity that with such master works there to be digested, it is still the solicitous and the trivial that preoccupies society and the scandal mongering rags that feed on them.’

  ‘I suppose so.’

  Jones’s eyes narrowed. ‘Has the briefcase been opened? Have the contents been confirmed?’

  ‘To confirm the contents would be to know them, and I do not think that is what your third party would want.’

  ‘I appreciate your discretion. I will not mention his name still, suffice to reassure you he is a good man who fell into love - and I must stress fell is the appropriate word on this occasion. Love is a skill like any other, it seems to me, and it is one parents and teachers rarely feel inclined to teach except through the recitation of poetry; sometimes, however, sandpaper would be a more accurate texture for the printing.’

  Hope nodded and puffed on his cigar. ‘Sometimes.’

  ‘I apologise for getting you involved in the situation. I had reason to believe Carter Nelson would have been a much harder nut to crack. If I had known it would be so easy to catch him off guard I could have hired a private investigation firm to handle the retrieval.’

  ‘I doubt the result would have been the same.’ Hope dropped some ash into the crystal ashtray. ‘You see, although the scheme was simple, it was the quality of woman that pulled it off. There is one kind of woman a man simply cannot resist: a true lady. Beautiful, kind, caring, sincere, amiable and any other pleasant words you care to throw up, and she is the epitome of that, then you have a lady and Carter Nelson had probably not received so much as a sideways glance from one until that moment he was approached on the subway. No offense to your private detective agency, or the police department for that matter, but I doubt they know anyone to match the gravitas of Alice Fontaine.’

  ‘I trust you refrained from putting her in any undue risk. A true lady, I fear, would not have had much exposure to the violence the likes of Nelson is capable of.’

  ‘The room was paid for in advance and I was hiding in the closet. I was armed. So the risk was minimal.’

  Errol Jones nodded, satisfied and bent over stiffly to the briefcase and brought it up onto his lap. He ran his fingers along its metal reinforced corners. ‘The man whose career you have undoubtedly spared by retrieving the compromising letters in Nelson’s possession is more than willing to pay a fee for the service, to you and Mrs Fontaine. In fact, you could name your price as this is not a circumstance where haggling would be appropriate.’

  Hope shook his head indifferently. ‘As you are aware, I am a man of independent means.’

  ‘Yes, of course, a self-proclaimed gentleman by profession: meaning someone unwilling to be paid for his services.’

  ‘That’s about the size of it.’

  ‘And Mrs Fontaine? She is not willing to be compensated for her exceptional work?’

  ‘She is a philanthropist and only became involved in this matter when I assured her an entire family’s future was at stake. I assume that was not an overstated aspect of the predicament.’

  ‘Likely not, no.’

  ‘She used to be a ballerina, Mrs Fontaine. A great one. Now she will do things on occasion that remind her of a perfect pirouette. That’s all the satisfaction she craves. So, let’s leave it at that.’

  Jones tapped some ash of his own into his ashtray, his elbow resting by it on the exquisitely varnished table, next to a large illustrated book on the Great White Fleet’s circumnavigation of the world.

  ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘It’s a shame in a way though. The people motivated by money are the most reliable to the people who have it. You see, I have another offer for you. It is something perhaps as tailor made for you as that suit you are wearing.’

  ‘I will refrain from accepting that as a compliment until I have heard the nature of the task, although I must point out from the outset I am thinking of traveling. I would like to stay high up upon a mountain that will make me truly cold. The kind of air that breathes like a knife chilled in an icebox. Once a year, such a thing is good for the constitution.’

  ‘It is funny you should say that. What is to be proposed to you features such mountains, right here in New York.’

  ‘Mountains in New York?’

  Jones took a final draft of cigar and abandoned the remains to the ashtray. ‘My friend, a late supper to discuss it?’

  Hope was sufficiently intrigued to agree. He delicately placed his cigar alongside Jones’s in the ashtray, as though they were incense sticks, and the two men departed the club to the sincere bows of the loyal staff and in particular the maitre de Kenneth Connolly, who had been at the club since its founding and whom
Bart Bartholomew had mentioned during a speech to Congress as the best steward outside of Texas. It was a chilly, early spring evening that met them outside. The air carried a faint scent of the sea. The two men took Jones’s chauffeur driven Series 61 Cadillac to a small restaurant near the World Fair: “The Fisherman’s Banquet” glowed brightly in glass tubing on its front - though one or two letters were sputtering on their last legs.

  ‘You’ll find the best spaghetti alta carbonara in New York here,’ enthused Jones as the waitress seated them. ‘The chef is named Tony, but that’s all you’ll get on him. He won’t leave the kitchen to put a name to the face. He says what he says with his cooking. Leaving his customers to say what they want to say by the eating, I suppose.’

  Hope glanced around the restaurant. ‘It is crowded for this time of night. He will hear that no doubt.’

  Their dishes arrived without delay and just as a young violin soloist began to play in amongst the tables. The pasta was truly delicious, as was the accompanying Anglianico wine, and they quietened the diners’ idle talk of finance, which had only been killing time until the mystery third dining companion finally arrived. It had just turned eleven.

  ‘Good evening, sirs.’

  The balding, slightly overweight man coming to the table wore thick spectacles and a deeply engrained frown that made his smile appear more forced than it actually was. He stopped behind one of the two spare chairs at the check-clothed table, unbuttoned his jacket and sat down. He did not look at the food on the table, not even when Jones pointed that way.

  ‘Good evening, Frederick. Would you like to order?’ Jones said.

  ‘No, I do not eat post lunch.’ The man’s eyes settled on Hope, forcing Jones to make the introduction without further a due: ‘George Hope, this is Frederick Bulkhead.’

  Hope wiped his fingers on his dove-white napkin and shook hands with the man: it was a soft, cold, damp sensation, like lips after a meal of pasta, and correspondingly, Hope wanted to dab his hand on the napkin once more.

  ‘What do you think of my musician?’ asked Bulkhead, finally peeling his eyes off Hope to look the way of the violinist.

  ‘Your musician?’

  ‘That’s right. I like to know what I am going to listen to when I go to a restaurant, so I always have my own musicians accompany me. I will only go to restaurants that permit them to play. Antonio Campese is one of my favourites. I’ve instructed him to play with some particular oomph tonight. It will minimise the chance we will be overheard.’

  He summoned the waitress to the table and ordered a dry martini; he let his two dining companions continue with their spaghetti dishes unbothered until he had the martini in hand; then he shot a glance at his violinist to ramp up the volume, before he got to business. ‘I have a proposition for you, Mr Hope,’ he said. ‘Errol knows what it is but has kindly allowed me the opportunity to articulate it. Let me begin by introducing myself. I am the owner of the Brooklyn Chronicle. Regrettably, I would be less than surprised if you had not heard of it, let alone partaken in an edition.’

  ‘I have indeed heard of it,’ replied Hope. ‘I can’t actually recall ever having read it though.’

  ‘This, unfortunately, is not an isolated occurrence. Subscriptions have been flat since the paper’s inception five years ago.’

  ‘Carter Nelson has read it,’ chimed in Jones through a mouthful of spaghetti.

  Bulkhead cringed at the thought but begrudgingly nodded. ‘That seems to be a fair assertion. You see, Mr Hope, Carter Nelson approached my newspaper in regards to his blackmail scheme. He claimed to have some dirt on a congressman in a story that he guaranteed would boost circulation. Obviously he felt the Chronicle had the most need and the least scruples about getting involved with something like that. I formed the clear impression Nelson would have sold us the dirt for publication whether or not the congressman concerned agreed to the blackmail terms.

  ‘Not the kind of proposal I would entertain. That is why I approached my good friend, Assistant District Attorney Jones. I have a sense of fair play and honesty, at least to the extent that someone should get what they pay for.’

  Bulkhead savored his first sip of martini, looking very much like on this occasion at least he was getting his money’s worth.

  Jones, meanwhile, gently surrendered his cutlery to his emptied plate and patted down his sauce stained lips with the napkin he swept up off his lap. Hope could tell from the easy silence between the two men that they knew each other well. A powerful figure in news reporting and a powerful figure in the justice department, he was intrigued at what proposal might be coming his way: something that brought him deeper into New York, beyond street level, to crack level, or at least that was the expectation that had his curiosity acuminated.

  ‘I went to Assistant District Attorney Jones thinking that an over-greedy blackmailer was a matter for discreet police investigation,’ recommenced Bulkhead, ‘and was undeniably surprised when he instead suggested the services of a gentleman. I thought he was talking about someone who held his knife and fork the right way.’

  Jones chuckled with a hoarse voice despite the amount of wine and whiskey he had consumed to lubricate it. ‘I had to explain that gentlemen, and their lady equivalents, are those not motivated by financial gain in their actions and yet possess skills and talents that are highly valued. My nephew’s comic book hero Superman, I would propose, is modeled on this very concept.’

  Hope shrugged. ‘Admittedly, I have gained a lifelong income through means that were not particularly genteel.’

  Jones smirked wryly. ‘But as an Assistant District Attorney, I can confirm your funds are not in dispute. At the very least not in this country in any current investigation. And with this job, you have successfully bested a devious and dangerous criminal. You took him down cold and clean.’

  ‘I didn’t do anything more than hide in a closet. Next time I’ll take a flashlight because the darkness was worrying me quite significantly.’

  Bulkhead became distracted by the violinist’s passionate venture into Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. But then he had had enough and he turned abruptly back to Hope. ‘Mr Hope, the proposal is this.’

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