Authors: Frances Lockridge
A Pinch of Poison
A Mr. and Mrs. North Mystery
Frances and Richard Lockridge
The characters in this novel are fictional and have no counterparts in life. Pete, previously noted as an exception, is one no longer. Others addicted to cats may share some part of the authors' regret that Pete died in June, 1941, at the estimated age of ten.
Max Fineberg sat on the running-board and the late July heat sat on his shoulders. The heat, that afternoon, sat on everything; it was a damp and steaming burden on the city of New York. The air was faintly hazy but the sun beat wickedly through it. Hot light glanced from the shiny top of Max Fineberg's taxicab and beat back from the glass of windows across the street.
Mr. Fineberg, his head sagging against the support of his hands, was worried and afraid. He wished he were somewhere else, doing something else. He wished somebody would tell him how he was going to make the next payment on his shiny cab and that he knew how Rose was feeling in the hospital and that his, until recently, instructor in economics at C.C.N.Y. would explain what a cab driver was to do with a dollar fifteen on the clock after ten hours of hacking and with the day almost done.
Hack the rest of the night was, Max supposed, the answer to that last one, and, to begin with, go somewhere else for customers. The present idea wasn't, clearly, working out, although it had seemed a good one two hours ago. He had wondered why none of the other hackers had thought of parking here, at the last stop of a bus line on which buses ran infrequently and where hot men and women might be expected to pay the difference for a quick ride to the nearest subway. He didn't wonder any longer; the answer was “no men and women,” or at least none with cab fare. He had better, he decided, get along back to the subway station where there was, at the least, animation. Max stood up and walked, without enthusiasm, around his cab. There was now a pedestrian coming down the sunny sidewalk and Max felt a faint rising of hope. He stood by his cab and tried to make everything look very inviting.
Max tried to look inviting himself by standing a little straighter than he felt like standing and by smiling like a good salesman. He tried to keep the heat and weariness out of his voice as he said, “Cab, lady?” He put his right hand on the door handle and began to open the door in welcome.
The lady didn't seem to see him and Max's hopes descended. But, jeez, he had to get a fare sometime.
“Taxicab, miss?” he insisted. “It's pretty hot for walking, isn't it?”
That sounded like a young man who had been two years at C.C.N.Y. and might have been a professional man if things had worked out that way. At any rate, Max hoped it did. And, sure enough, the lady hesitated and looked at Max. Max smiled again like a good salesman. Under other circumstances, Max realized quickly, it would be easy to smile at her likeâwell, like Max Fineberg, whoever that was. Like the Max Fineberg who had been going to beâThe girl interrupted Max's fleeting introspection by saying yes, she thought so, to the nearest subway station.
It was better than nothing, Max thought, holding the door open while she got in. He went around to his seat like a salesman giving good service and started the motor. He flipped the flag down and, looking back at her, asked if she wanted the top down.
“No,” she said. “Don't bother. It doesn't make any difference.”
She sounded almost the way he felt, Max decided, starting up. Not that she had any reason toânot with those clothes andâand everything. Max knew the way women's clothes ought to look. When he could he loitered his cab in front of the big shops on Fifth Avenue, scanning the sidewalks for fares, and the windows you couldn't miss.
This customer's clothes, now, came out of windows like that. You could tell the difference, particularly when you had been married a couple of years and had had somebody to point the difference out to you. You could tell by the way people stood, too, and by their skins and, particularly with women, by their hair. This customer's hair, now, had been done in a good place and done as often as it needed doing. This customer did not belong among those who get too tired and wonder how they're going to make next payments. This customer belonged among those who had got the breaks. If she wanted to, she could let him take her where she was going, even if it were halfway down Riverside, and never know the difference. She would eat just the same. He pulled up at a red light and thought about Rose in the hospital, and a dollar fifteenâmake it a dollar fifty-five, with maybe a ten-cent tipâon the clock.
“I think,” the lady said, “that I'll change my mind. I think I'll go all the way down, instead.” She gave an address, and Max brightened. Make it maybe three dollars on the clock, and a quarter tip.
“Yes indeed, miss,” he said. “It's pretty hot for subways.” He paused, as if considering. “I tell you, miss,” he said, “I could take you down the parkway. It's cooler that way; there's sort of a breeze off the river. Would that be all right, miss?”
“Any way,” the customer said. “It doesn't matter. The parkway will do.”
Max felt a lot better. Make it three-fifty on the clock, maybe. And he could roll fast enough to stir up some sort of a breeze, going down the parkway. It hadn't been such a bad stand after all, back there by the bus stop.
It was the thought of the subway which had made Lois Winston change her mindâthe thought of the slow trip downtown, with the car filling until hot humanity swayed in a mass in front of her and alien knees pressed her own; the thought of the suffocating, packed ride on the shuttle at Forty-second and the stampeding rush at Grand Central; the thought of the ride uptown again and the dutiful walk in the heat across town from Lexington. Her rule about such matters was a good little rule in its place, she thought, smiling faintly to herself, but this was not its place. Not after this afternoon.
She glanced at the watch on her wrist and reassured herself that it was now too late to do anything more today. The puzzle she had carried down the hot street and into the cabâthe cab, vague interest prompted her to discover from the license card displayed, of Max Finebergâthat puzzle would have to go over until tomorrow. She would put it out of her mind, she told herself firmly, and she would think of something else. She would not think about Buddy and his Madge, either, nor aboutânot, at any rate, for an hour or so aboutâDave McIntosh, who looked so little like his name, and yet could at times act soâso McIntoshy. She would, she thought, not think about anything but getting home, and the coolness of a shower and lying for a while with the slatted blinds closed and the air-conditioner conditioning like mad. The trouble with the world today, she thought, is that there isn't enough air in it.
“Perhaps,” she said, “you might open the top after all, driver.”
“Sure thing, lady,” Max said, and pushed a button. The rear half of the roof folded obediently back. Quite a cab, Max thoughtâif you could pay for it.
“It's quite a day, isn't it, lady?” Max said. “Ninety-six at four o'clock, the radio says. Would you like the radio on, miss?” Max almost forgot, as they stopped for the parkway and then turned on it, and as the meter clicked comfortingly, how much he disliked calling customers “lady” and “miss,” and how irritatingly he resented the fact that he always did.
“No,” the lady said. “It would probably be baseball.”
“That's right, miss,” Max said. “Baseball
war news. You can't get away from them. If it was good music, now, like you hear at the stadium.”
“Yes,” the lady said. She said it as if she were forgetting Max. But Max hadn't said anything to anybody for hours.
“Do you know, miss, you're the first fare I've had since eleven o'clock this morning?” he said. “That's a fact. What do they expect?”
What did they expect? Max wondered. What did they expect a guy to do, with a dollar fifteen on the clock and a wife in the hospital?
“I don't know, Mr. Fineberg,” the lady said. I
know, either, Lois Winston thought. What is Mr. Fineberg going to do?
Max was warmed by being called Mr. Fineberg. He was tired of being called “driver.” It was seldom, now, that anybody called him Mr. Fineberg.
“It's pretty hard going, miss,” Max said, over his shoulder. It was time he told somebody what hard going it wasâsomebody who didn't know about such things. “I'm a married man, miss, and what do they figure I'm going to do about it?”