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Authors: Edward D. Hoch

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BOOK: City of Brass
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“Zenny! Wait …” He turned a moment as if to stop, but the girl held open the door for him. She never looked directly at me, only almost through me as if I didn’t exist. Perhaps for her I didn’t. If she was Zenny’s girl this was probably a big day for her, welcoming him back from Cathy Clark’s coffin. The Ford took off with a roar

The Ford took off with a roar as soon as Zenny was inside, and I could tell from the sound that there was something special under the hood. Then they were gone, and all was quiet again in the early evening.

In the lonely silence that settled around me I heard somewhere the familiar pop of a firecracker, and I remembered that the Fourth of July was now only hours away. Tomorrow.

A girl hurried by, hex heels tapping out a sort of melody on the concrete, and somewhere mixed with the fireworks was the distant tolling of a church bell. It was six o’clock. I walked, heading nowhere, wandering in a fairly straight line that I soon saw would carry me near the towering stacks and low structures of Baine Brass. Well, that was as good a goal as any.

I wondered where Simon was now. Maybe lurking outside Professor Wilber’s lab, watching him inject monkeys with the deadly serum that would turn them all into King Kongs. Hell, this whole trip was fantastic, and I was crazy to even be here, alone on a street I never knew, walking toward the twin brick towers that now reflected the dying sun back into my eyes. As I drew nearer, I saw that the sun was reflecting off two giant webs of neon tubing, forming the letters BB.

There was activity at Baine Brass tonight, and I guessed there must be a shift that finished up at six. Men, mostly, tired but joking, glad the long Sunday was over.

And also a few women, in slacks that were the badge of the girl production worker, lighting their cigarettes and glancing around to call out to friends. I stood by a tree for a time, watching them waiting for their buses, watching many of the men and a few of the women wandering across the street to the little bar. There was always a little bar across the street from factories, I decided, to purge the men of their paychecks and their troubles.

BB. Baine Brass.

After this there was no place left to go. There would be nothing beyond Baine Brass, so I turned to retrace my steps. Behind me, two of the home-bound workers were casually discussing the murder.

“What do you think of that killing?”

“You know how these rich girls are. Probably her boy friend got her pregnant and then shot her.”

“They claim it was nothing like that.”

“Who claims—the papers? They’re all in Baine’s pocket. If his son or any of his friends got the girl in trouble the papers would sure keep it quiet. That’s what happened all right. Foster Baine owns this damn city. I don’t think they’d even commit a murder without his OK.”

It was an interesting if somewhat narrow theory, and the other man didn’t bother to reply. I figured it was just the eternal war between labor and management being carried on at a more personal level. They turned off into one of the side streets and the evening was silence again.

I was back almost to the funeral parlor when I glimpsed Simon Ark headed down the next block in the same direction. I stepped up my pace and caught him. “Learn anything?”

He didn’t look at me, but rather kept his eyes fixed at an alley leading around the rear of the funeral home. “I learned that our Professor Wilber is indeed quite strange. Come—quickly!”

“What… ?”

“Wilber is in there. He came back for some reason.”

“But it’s the dinner hour. No one will be there now.”

“No one but Cathy Clark,” he reminded me.

We went down the alley to the back door. It was open except for a battered screen door that didn’t quite close. “He went in this way?”

Simon nodded and signaled me to silence. Very carefully he pulled the screen door open, hesitating every few inches lest a squeak should give us away. Then we were inside the familiar hallway, creeping into the room where we’d spoken to Quinn. The place was empty, with only the dim funeral lights casting a glow over mounds of flowery anthills. The white folding door was half open, and through the crack we could see the coffin of Cathy Clark. We could see that, and something more.

The dim but certain shape of Professor Kane Wilber, bending over the casket like some fiend from hell. Bending over the casket and
running his fingers through the corpse’s hair

For a long moment that seemed like an hour we were frozen there, unable to move or utter a sound before this scene of sheer horror. Then, shaking myself free of the icy chill that gripped me, I started forward—intent on stopping him from this deed of. darkness—but Simon held me back with a firm hand.

“Not yet,” he whispered. “Wait—and watch.”

Presently Professor Wilber rose from his task, his back still toward us, and rubbed his hands together. Then he seemed to be rearranging the ruffled hairs, covering the signs of his deed. And in the madness of my mind just then I wondered if somehow he had cut out her brain for use in some half-imagined monster. No, that was not possible, but his real task must have been no less sinister.

Then, while we watched, he was gone, slipping as silently as he’d come back through the screen door to the alley. The undertaker had heard nothing, the dead girl was undisturbed. He had only run his fingers through her hair.

“Strange,” Simon said. He pulled back the folding door and went quickly to the coffin, bending over it much as Wilber had done. But he did not touch the glistening blonde hair. He only looked, at the hair, and face, and body of Cathy Clark. “Why?” he asked, more of himself than of me. “Why?”

“He’s crazy, that’s why. What else could it be?”

“I don’t know,” he answered slowly, “but I intend to find out. The ways of genius are sometimes strange, and we must not leap to conclusions.”

“Did you discover what he’s doing in that lab—what Cathy Clark was so upset about?”

Simon sighed and turned away from the casket. “No, I discovered nothing. It is a curious matter.”

When we were outside once more I told him of my meeting with the boy called Zenny, and my stroll past Baine Brass. He listened intently but had no comments to offer. His mind seemed somehow far away, listening but not hearing. Somewhere distant another illegal firecracker exploded but there was no other sound to intrude our silent thoughts. The city was lonely again, but I couldn’t help wondering where Professor Wilber had gone now …

Strange, city strange, darkness settling slowly like fog over streets so quiet. A Sunday evening, July third, lonely July. I sat in my hotel window, on the ledge, smoking a cigarette, watching what might have been a bat circling high above the buildings, looking, seeking—what? The same as me? The cigarette was good in the night air, cooling from the heat of day, but still there was a certain odor about the city—not the Manhattan odor of exhaust fumes and pizza parlors, but rather perhaps the smell of hot brass if hot brass had a smell.

Still the lights burned bright in the factory at street’s end, still the activity seemed to center there in this city at sleep. Still still. July third. Below me a girl hurried along, her blonde hair gleaming, and for an impossible moment it might have been Cathy Clark risen from the coffin for a last walk through this city of dreams. The night was like that.

Simon Ark sat across the room from me, twisting the dial of the quarter-an-hour radio until he found a program of symphony music from a New York City station. Then he settled back in the chair and closed his eyes.

“Why do they do it, Simon? Why do men kill?”

“Why do men love, why do they hate? Why do they journey through life’s great adventure as individuals rather than a self-helping group? I sometimes think, my friend, that if all the peoples of earth could look beyond this life to the hereafter, they would end warfare and hatred forever—end it and spend their years in peaceful preparation for the beyond.”

I grunted. “There’ll always be evil in this world, Simon. You’ve found it yourself in almost every possible place—even monasteries.”

“Evil, yes. Because evil is the devil’s product. As long as Satan walks the earth, evil walks with him. Even here, in this quiet city of brass, someone has held hands with the devil, and fired those deadly bullets into a poor girl’s body.”

“Who?” I asked.

“The eternal question, but sometimes not so important as
why.
That is the most important question in the entire universe.
Why
is there evil?
Why
did Cathy Clark have to die?
Why
was Kane Wilber running his fingers through a dead girl’s hair?
Why?

I lit another cigarette, watching a couple of hotrods dragging down the main street of town. Even the police seemed on holiday tonight, and I wondered if the youth called Zenny was in one of those cars. I wondered too if Cathy Clark had ever ridden there by his side. A dozen, thousand, images leaped up to confront me—images of Cathy beside the boy Zenny, naked and hot beside him. Images of Foster Baine, a man I’d never met, ruling this city with a brass fist. Images and dreams.

Nine o’clock. There were fireworks in the distance now, skyrockets lighting the night air with glistening colored sparks. They would be coming now from the lake resort area, a few miles to the north. The rich of Baine City would be there this weekend, just as the rich of Westchester would be out on the Sound with their boats.

“Simon, is there something about water that attracts wealth?” I asked casually, putting words to my random thoughts.

But suddenly I realized that Simon was no longer in the room. He had gone silently off somewhere, leaving me alone in the semi-darkness, with only a flashing red neon sign for company. And then the phone rang, and I answered it.

“This is Jean Mahon,” the voice said. “Can I talk to you?”

“Certainly. Where are you?”

“In the lobby.”

“I’ll be right down.”

She was the same, but still a little different, as she seemed every time I saw her. She had been a different girl at the funeral parlor, beside her sister’s coffin, and now she was a bit different again, perhaps a bit more alive.

“Hello,” she said. “Thank you for coming down.”

“It’s nothing. You must have put in a rough day—can I buy you a drink?”

“I shouldn’t,” she hesitated, but only for a moment. Then we were off to the hotel bar, a depressing place of phony tropical plants and overly polite waiters in red jackets.

“You look pretty good, considering,” I told her over drinks. “Didn’t Hank come down at all?”

She shook her head. “He can’t stand to see dead people. Something about the shock of seeing his grandfather dead years ago. Of course that makes it harder for me.”

Here, under the pale lights of the bar, she looked more than ever like Cathy. I remembered the night of our brief talk in Grand Central, and in the dimness this might almost have been the same girl. She had the wide, too-wide, mouth I’d noticed before, and the same habit of tilting her head a bit when talking or listening intently. I could see how she would have appealed to Mahon, especially on a cold ski weekend.

“Do you know anyone who could have wanted to kill your sister?” I asked.

“Now you sound like the police. No, no one. Cathy was a lovely, likeable girl.”

“She was younger than you?”

Jean Mahon nodded. “By almost two years. She was still a bit wild, but we all go through that stage.”

“There was a fellow named Zenny …”

“I’ve heard her mention the name, but I never met him.”

“He was at the funeral parlor this afternoon.”

“Oh? There were so many of her younger friends …”

“I lit a cigarette. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

“Well, nothing really. Henry mentioned that you were checking on Professor Wilber, out at the University.”

“You know him?”

“Slightly, from when I attended the arts college. He was always scampering around, acting crazy. I … do you really think he might have a connection with my sister’s death?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I’m no detective, you realize. I understand she was hanging around with a pretty wild crowd.”

“Oh, Zenny and those others! I suppose they were a bit wild, but everyone goes through that stage, I think.”

“You said that.”

She smiled. “I am repeating myself, aren’t I? Time to head for home, I guess.”

I thought she was kidding, but she wasn’t. She downed the rest of the drink and rose to leave. “You’re really going?”

“Yes. Thank you for the drink. Good night.”

I watched her leave the place, her strong, youthful beauty still drawing stares from the line at the bar. Well, she’d called me up and said she’d wanted to talk. We’d had a drink, she’d said nothing at all of any importance, and then she’d gone off. What in hell did it mean, if anything? Was I crazy, or had she had some secret motive in her brief conversation with me?

I thought about it as I downed my drink and wondered vaguely where Simon was. Was the whole world crazy tonight or just me, just this place called Baine City? “I’ll have one more, bartender,” I called out. At least it was better than returning to the window sill in my room to stare out on the vacant city. I stayed there nursing my drink, and it was there that Simon Ark found me, a half-hour later.

“Get out the car, my friend,” he greeted me. “We have traveling to do.”

“Where? Back to New York, I hope.”

“No, to the lake nearby. I have learned that Foster Baine and his wife are spending the weekend at a summer home there.”

“What in hell do you want to see Foster Baine about? And at this time of night? It’s ten o’clock already.”

Simon nodded. “I know, but I believe we have an increasingly dangerous situation here. I think it narrows down to two possibilities—either Cathy Clark was slain by Professor Wilber or someone connected with his experiments, or she was killed by someone from the personal side of her life, someone like this Zenny It is most important that we learn once and for all just what experiments Wilber is carrying out. In spite of your friend Mahon’s insistence that Baine knows nothing about the experiments, I feel certain that he must have at least a general knowledge of them. In a city like this, someone like Foster Baine would know everything.”

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