The Player on the Other Side

BOOK: The Player on the Other Side
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The Player on the Other Side

Ellery Queen

MYSTERIOUSPRESS.COM

To Lee

Part One

Irregular Opening

I

Y's Gambit

He had written:

Dear Walt:

You know who I am.

You do not know that you know.

You shall.

I write this to let you know that I know who you really are. I know the skill of your hands. I know the quality of your obedience. I know where you come from and what you are doing. I know what you think. I know what you want. I know your great destiny.

I like you.

Y

Walt knelt with the sun on his back and the hard sharp bronze letters imprinting his knees, TH on the left knee, RK on the right. He watched his hands, whose skill was known — was known! — to someone else. (
Who?
) … Watched his hands trimming the grass around the bronze plaque.

Three left fingers pressed the shorn blades gently away while the finger and thumb felt out the shallow, narrow channel; and deftly, how deftly, the right hand wielded the turf hook, making a margin clean as a moon. Did anyone know that Walt had made the turf hook himself? — Would anyone admire its right-hand bevel below, it's left-hand bevel above? Who would applaud the creation — who but the creator? And wasn't that enough?

It had been enough. Walt shifted gingerly from the toothed serifs of the memorial plaque and set his knees carefully under
IN LIVING MEMORY
, with the small
OF
between them. It had been enough just knowing he was doing his job perfectly. So perfectly, in fact, that in the York matrix of four strange castles and a private park he existed like an invisible mend.

It may be that Walt had numbly wished to be known and noticed; he could not recall such a wish, but he must have wished it. For years he had been contained and content within his own quiet excellence, patient as a pupa. But now …

‘…
I know who you really are. I like you.
'

It was troubling.

Had Walt ever read Bernard Shaw (he had not), he might have been pleased with the line, ‘When you have learned something, my dear, it often feels at first as if you had lost something.' It would have given flesh to this queer unsettled feeling, together with the comfort that he was not alone in feeling it. He had not truly known how desperate his need had been to have someone say to him,
I like you
.

Only now that it was said, he did not know what to do with it.

A shadow crossed his clever hands. Walt did not look up. There was no necessity. To look up would have been to see Robert York — black homburg, suit hard and gray as iron, waistcoat like an old mint coin, blank gray cravat — wearing his morning face below the rimless glasses, a face drum-tight as an empty bed in a barracks.

‘Good morning, Walt,' said Robert York correctly.

‘Morning, Mr. Robert.' It was (as always if the encounter took place just here) seven minutes before ten o'clock.

York Square must never have had a youth; its little formal tapestry of a private park, its grizzled guardian corners of little castles, each with its watchful tower, surely looked old and out of place and time even when the masons laid down their trowels. And what York Square was in stone, Robert York was in the flesh. Imagine him a child if you could, and still you saw only a dwindled Robert York as he stood, in black homburg and iron-gray, with a gray cravat above an antique waistcoat (and spats before May 15th), the unrimmed glasses making him eyeless in the morning sun on his drum-skin face. Compelling Robert York to live in one of York Square's four castles was like compelling a man to be a biped; commanding that he uphold the York tradition was like commanding that the grass in the little park grow green. They were all alike — he, the park, the castles, York Square — punctilious, outmoded, predictable. Neatly Walt worked on the grassy borders of the plaque as, neatly and to the dot, Robert York took his morning stroll about the park.

Walt trimmed the grass along the right side of the bronze. Not all the Yorks were like that, of course.

Miss Myra.

Miss Myra was younger than Robert, which made her forty-four. She had a secret, unmentioned by the other Yorks. Easily remarked by anyone who got close enough to see the twitching lip-corner, the gentle unfocused eyes. She had also a secretary-companion, a kind and lovely girl named Ann Drew, who was walking with her now on the far side of the little park. Ann Drew provided an arm under Miss Myra's, guided at the same time she supported the older woman, taking slow synchronizing strides to Miss Myra's quick small uncertain ones.

Miss Myra held one of the girl's hands tightly in both of hers, and every ten steps or so she smiled a sort of ‘I did it!' smile, and Ann Drew cooed little acknowledgments into her ear. As much as he liked anyone, Walt liked these two, Miss Myra and the girl. The girl was kind in a special way; when you spoke to her, she seemed to stop thinking of whatever she had been thinking and listened to you altogether. No one else ever did that, Walt was sure. And Miss Myra York — she was, oh, harmless, and it didn't really matter that she was ill.

Walt watched the pair for a moment. He did not wave. He never waved, or passed the time of day, or nodded or did anything of that sort.

He bent to his work again, deftly trimming the turf around the imbedded plaque. When he was finished, and the crumbs of earth were swept and scattered, he stepped back to look.

IN LIVING MEMORY

OF

NATHANIEL YORK, JR.

B
ORN
A
PRIL 20, 1924

And I, thought Walt, and I …

‘Walt?'

He was startled, but there was that about him which made it impossible to show what he felt, an instant and utter reflex of stillness to counteract all outward evidence of surprise, fear, anything. Walt turned woodenly. Emily York had come up behind him.

The Yorks were alike only in that no York was like any other York. Emily York was younger than Myra and looked older. She was square and sturdy-backed, with a salt friz of thinning hair, bulby blue eyes, a militant mouth and hardworking hands. Compelled like her cousins to live in a castle, Emily recorded a permanent protest against such trumpery by taking as her own the smallest of the maids' rooms and decorating it with all the elaboration of a Trappist cell. She insisted upon living on what she earned, which was no more than most social workers on the fourth-floor-walk-up level earned, and a good deal less than some. Where the other Yorks employed help — Robert a secretary-assistant, Myra a companion, Percival a sleep-out housekeeper whom he shared with Robert — Emily took pride in her ability to do for herself. Having to fix things, however, defeated her; she was about as mechanically inclined as a tuberose.

‘Very nice, Walt,' approved Miss Emily, nodding at the manicured plaque. ‘You do take care of this place as if it were your own.'

Walt nodded back his total agreement to this.

‘My garbage can,' said Miss Emily. ‘It doesn't quite close. I have to pile three World Almanacs and a dictionary on the lid to hold it down. So then of course I have to lift them off each time I step on the little you-know thing.'

‘Yes, Miss Emily.'

‘It should close tight, you know. Flies?'

‘Yes, Miss Emily.'

‘And germs.' Miss Emily paused. ‘If I could fix it myself, Walt, I certainly would.'

Walt put his hand in his trousers pocket and grasped his pass-keys. ‘Yes, Miss Emily.'

‘Well,' said Emily York. ‘Thank you, Walt.'

Without expression, he watched her walk briskly toward the nearest subway entrance. Then in his delicate way he gathered up his tools and went to fix Miss Emily's step-on garbage can.

He had written:

Dear Walt:

You have been so much alone, you do not always know the good you do, how good it is. Nor the fine things, how fine they are. I know (do you?) that you have never said ‘Sir' to any man. I know about you that ‘good enough' is never good enough, and that you put as much care into fixing a garbage can as another might into setting a jewel.

Are such excellence and care too good for the jobs you must do? No, because you could not do any job another way. Should you be doing some other job? Yes, you should. And you shall.

You have been patient for a long time. You are right to have been so patient. You know (don't you?), and I know, that your destiny holds great things for you, that you are about to play a role of great importance, to begin at last your larger and more glorious life.

Men do not make their destinies, men fulfill them. The course is set for you, but you must travel it, you must be obedient. (But you already are; it is part of your splendid nature.)

A great trust will shortly be placed in your hands. You will accept it. You will carry it out. For what you are about to do, the world will be a better place. This I assure you.

Since my first letter three days ago I have watched you carefully. Every minute I become more pleased that I chose you for my instrument. I will write again soon, with exact instructions for the first of the great tasks which I have planned for you.

Meanwhile, let no one know that your destiny has come to you, and so be sure to destroy this and all other letters from me. Do this, and you shall please.

Y

Like the other, the letter was written on ordinary school notepaper, with faint blue horizontal lines. It was flawlessly typed, undated and without a return address. It had arrived in a plain envelope, inscribed simply:

WALT

York Square

New York, N.Y.

2

Positions

‘How's yours?' young Ann Drew asked.

Young Tom Archer shrugged. He had serious dark eyes and a dark serious voice, and a warm way about him. ‘Happy when he thinks of his Boscawen, sad when he thinks of his phony two-penoe.' He laughed. ‘And how's
yours
?'

BOOK: The Player on the Other Side
2.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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