Authors: Edward D. Hoch
City of Brass
FOR BOB LOWNDES, WHO FIRST DISCOVERED THE SIMON ARK STORIES AND THEIR AUTHOR.
REALIZE NOW THAT
Henry Mahon was a man who never really grew up.
He went through four years of college and three years of army life without appreciably changing his ways, and those who’d known him before were by degrees happy or discouraged that the “new” Henry proved to be the same as the old one. After the army he settled down in Baine City, where he’d spent his childhood, and wasted away the next sixteen months of life helping his friends get engaged and finally married, one by one—or perhaps two by two.
He ran with a crowd in which every third fellow already owned either a Thunderbird or some foreign sports car, a crowd that thought it great fun to spend the weekend between Christmas and New Year’s at one of the nearby ski resorts each year. The fellows and girls always got to know each other better on such occasions, even if they didn’t get in much skiing.
It was on one of these between-holiday weekends that Henry Mahon met the Clark sisters, most especially Jean Clark. They drank together on Friday night, skied together on Saturday, and slept together on Sunday. It was not the first girl for Henry, but Jean at least was convinced it would be the last. When they returned to civilization in the shape of Baine City, Jean Clark served notice on Henry Mahon that she expected him to make an honest woman of her. He laughed it off for a week, then tried to drink it off for a second week. Had he been more of an “adult” he would surely have found a way out of it, but as I said Henry Mahon never really grew up.
Cornered and run to earth at last, Henry consented to the sentence of marriage. And it took place at the first burst of spring, on April second in Henry’s parish church. He joked at the time that he was lucky it was the day
April Fool’s, but perhaps really it wasn’t any joke.
Henry Mahon and Jean Clark were married, and the story had begun. …
I was passing through Baine City on the way back to New York, driving down from Buffalo where I’d been in hasty conference with our printer. It was one of those rare times when a couple of the major airlines were on strike and the others crowded to capacity, and since no one ever took the train any more I’d driven up to Buffalo on the Thruway—a fast nine-hour trip that wasn’t half bad. I was figuring I could cut the return down to eight by stepping on the gas a bit, but as it happened I decided to stop off in Baine City.
It was a city of better than a quarter of a million people, with a lake at one end and a fairly wide river splitting it down the middle. Sometimes the Chamber of Commerce liked to call it the City of Brass, in recognition of Baine Brass, the single great industry that made the city what it was. Almost everybody worked for Baine Brass, or had relatives who worked for Baine Brass—there was no escaping it.
I don’t really know just what made me turn off the Thruway for a pause at Baine City. Perhaps it was just that the long hours of driving were beginning to tell on me at last. Certainly it was not primarily to visit Henry Mahon and his bride, though he was the only person I knew in Baine City. We’d met some five years back, when he’d made a brief try at breaking into New York publishing, and for some reason I’d felt sorry for the guy. He certainly wasn’t the type to make friends easily with his eternal attitude of a spoiled rich boy, but I guess I kept hoping there was something better underneath.
Anyway, we’d become friends of a sort, corresponding occasionally and seeing each other on Henry’s semi-annual fun trips to Manhattan. He’d always been urging me to stop off in Baine City for a visit, and since I was feeling like taking a break just then I wheeled the car off the Thruway and into town.
His name was in the phone book, of course, and I wasn’t too surprised when he answered himself. It was only four o’clock, but he would never be one for working a full day.
“It’s not really you!” he greeted me with an overly friendly voice. “After all these years …”
“I’m only passing through on the way back to New York, Hank. I have to be back on the road by six if I’m to get home by midnight.”
“Well, hell, that’s two hours, man. Zip down and have a drink with the bride and me. You’ve got the address.”
I agreed to that and hung up. Fifteen minutes later I was parking my car before a rolling length of lawn that seemed to flow like a calm river from the house at its head. Not a big place, the home of Henry Mahon and his bride still had that modernistic look that put a $25,000 price tag on it. The house could have been the place next door to me in Westchester, but it wasn’t a Thunderbird in the garage—only a last year’s Buick.
Henry was waiting for me in the doorway, looking slick and neat with a drink the color of Scotch in his left hand. “Come in, old man. Damn but it’s good to see you up here. Gotta introduce you to Jean.”
He called to her and almost immediately a tall brunette appeared from the depths of the house. Her hair was caught back in some sort of knot, and she seemed quite relaxed in a knit sweater and tight black pants that showed off her long legs. She had the shape and gestures of a New York model, and I was a bit surprised at such class in a place like Baine City. Her mouth was a bit too wide and her eyes flashed a trifle too much, but these were minor complaints in a sea of near perfection.
Yes, she went with the place. She went with Henry Mahon and his crowd. She went with the story he’d told me about the weekend at the ski resort. She was the type of girl who lived that way—a few years of fun and then a quick marriage to a likely young rich boy who went too far.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” I told her. “Happy to meet you at last. This is certainly a nice place you’ve got here.”
She smiled a slow, careful smile that showed years of careful practice before a mirror. “We like it, though I imagine you find it quite tame after New York.”
“New York is a state of mind, full of sound and fury signifying nothing,” I said with a smile. “Did you ever live there?”
“For a time. I think every girl should spend a year there. It’s like a post-graduate course in modern living. I wanted to be a model once, long before I met Henry.”
Mahon interrupted with a jolly chuckle. “Come on, let’s have a drink. Still like rum?”
“Anything, as long as it’s wet. Those printers up in Buffalo are strictly a beer drinking crowd.” I followed Mahon into the living room as Jean went off to the kitchen in search of glasses.
It was a rich man’s house, without doubt. It screamed its wealth from the ornate gold clock over the fireplace to the tiny but expensive glass animals scattered here and there on coffee tables and window sills. I picked the most comfortable-looking chair and settled into it. “What are you doing with yourself these days, Hank?” I asked him. “Last I heard you were going to start your own public relations firm.”
He waved his hand in a vague gesture of dismissal. “Didn’t pan out. My partner got cold feet about sinking that much money into it. He’s got a fine, safe, dull job with the local TV station and he’s happy to keep it that way. You know, gotta have money to put the kids through college—all that sort of hogwash.”
He was the same old Henry Mahon, I decided. He’d never change. Jean appeared at my elbow with a tray of drinks and I chose a light one that looked good and frosty. As she moved across the room to her husband her buttocks rippled under the tight pants.
“I understand you’ve got a sister,” I said.
“Hasn’t everybody?” she retorted. “Mine is just a little bit louder and livelier than most. Cathy Clark, the terror of every college campus from here to Cleveland. How’s the drink, OK?”
“Best all week.” I turned back to Mahon. “So what did you say you were doing now?”
“Oh, I’m just up at the University,” he said, sipping his drink. “You know, foxing around the profs and such. Doing a bit of public relations for them, actually. Big fund raising drive coming up next month.”
“Fund raising? I thought Baine Brass practically supported the place.”
“Ah! A typical New Yorkish half-truth, my friend. Baine set up a trust fund for medical research and also several scholarship funds in the science field, but as far as the Arts College goes it’s practically self-supporting. I guess old man Baine didn’t hold much with liberal arts as a field of higher education, and his son just followed along in the same footsteps.”
“But he likes it,” Jean said. “Being around those college girls all day is his idea of heaven. I don’t know when he ever gets his work done.”
Mahon lit a cigarette and settled back with his drink. “I’ve got a little office squeezed in between the gym and the research lab. The money’s good and the work is easy—high-class, you know.”
“Yeah.” I downed the rest of my drink.
“So how are things at Neptune?”
“The same. Hectic. We’re putting in a new distribution system for our paperbound books.” I went on to mention a few mutual friends and launched into some New York small talk.
“Say, it’s almost supper time,” Jean observed. “How about staying for a meal.”
I shook my head sadly. “Still gotta make New York tonight—or Westchester, at least. The wife would never forgive me.”
“Call her long distance,” Mahon suggested. “Tell her you’ve decided to stay the night with us.”
“Afraid not. Thanks for the drink and the conversation, but I’ve got to be back on the road now.”
They insisted, and I was firm, and finally I won the battle and started down the walk to the car, with a final wave at Jean standing in the doorway. Henry Mahon followed me to the car and stood there a moment, wanting to say something.
“What is it, Hank? Something bothering you?”
“I … I didn’t want to speak in front of Jean, but there is something. Sure you can’t stay?”
“No can do. Can’t you make it brief?”
“Well … it’s the University. It’s …”
“Nothing like that. This friend of yours—this Simon Ark you mentioned once—could he come here and help me?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Simon Ark is a sort of investigator. He’s interested only in the strange and unusual.”
“Believe me, this is the strangest thing you ever heard.”
“I don’t know,” I hedged. “Simon’s been out of town. I don’t even know if I could locate him. And I’d certainly have to tell him something.”
“Tell him … tell him …” He broke off as Jean came trotting down to the car.
“What’s the big discussion? Exchanging phone numbers?”
“I’ll write you,” Mahon finished quickly. “Have a good trip back.”
I said my goodbyes again and was off, heading south toward the Thruway. Actually, I didn’t give a second thought to Mahon’s questions about Simon Ark. People were constantly cornering me at cocktail parties and dinners to suggest a meeting with the fabled but all but unknown man who was my friend. I suppose they thought he was some kind of fortune teller, or latter-day prophet to work miracles in an age that no longer believed them. But Simon was none of these things—he was only a curious wanderer across the earth, a man in search of truth and the evil that these days was sometimes the only truth some men followed.