THE death of Peaches Sandoe the midget at the hands, or rather feet, of a maddened elephant in the sideshow of the circus at Madison Square Garden was at first thought to be an accident, the sort of tragedy you're bound to run into from time to time if you run a circus with both elephants and midgets in it. A few days later, though, there was talk of foul play.
I read with a good deal of interest the Daily News'
account. A threatening conversation had been overheard; someone (unrevealed) had gone to the police with a startling story (unrevealed) and an accusation against an unnamed party. It was very peculiar. Miss Flynn, my conscience and secretary, elderly, firm, intolerant, ruthless but pleasingly gray, looked over my shoulder as was her wont. "You will not, I presume . . ."
"Get involved in this grisly affair? No. Or at least not until I'm asked which is unlikely since the circus has its own public relations setup. . ."
"It's possible that some member of the circus, however, knowing your propensity for Shady Personages and Crime might engage your services. . ."
"They'll have to catch me first. Miss Flynn, I'm gone." I stood up abruptly; she looked bewildered . . . wondering if perhaps I had gone over to the world of be-bop: Miss Flynn is a student of argot though her own conversation is very courtly, cool in fact.
"I'm gone for a week," I explained.
She nodded, understanding at last. "You'll accept Mrs. Veering's invitation to partake of the sun at her palatial estate on Long Island?"
"Just this moment decided. No reason to hang around here. August is a dead month. We haven't any business you can't handle better than I." She inclined her head in agreement. "So I'll go out to Easthampton and see what it is she wants me to do."
"Social Position has never been Mrs. Veering's aim." Miss Flynn is a resolute snob and follows with grim fascination Cholly Knickerbocker's rich accounts of the rich.
"Well, she won't be the first dowager we put over on an unsuspecting public."
Miss Flynn scowled. Next to my affinity for Shady Personages and Crime she dislikes nearly all the clients of my public relations firm: ambitious well-heeled characters trying to exploit products or themselves in the press. With the exception of a singing dog who lost her voice, my record has been pretty good in this crooked profession. Recently business had slowed down. In August New York dies and everybody tries to get out of the heat. Mrs. Veering's mysterious summons had come at exactly the right time. "Alma Edderdale, I know, is a friend of yours . . . and a dear one of mine . . . it was at the advice of a friend of hers that I got your name. I do wish you could come see me here Friday to spend the weekend and talk over with me a little project close to my heart. Let me know soon. Trusting you won't let me down, I am, sincerely yours, Rose Clayton Veering."
That was the message on thick expensive note paper with the discreet legend at the top: "The North Dunes, Easthampton, Long Island, N.Y." No hint of what she wanted. My first impulse had been to write and tell her that I'd have to have a clear idea before I came of what she wanted. But the heat of August relaxed my professionalism. A week end in Easthampton, in a big house. . . .
I dictated an acceptance telegram to Miss Flynn who snorted from time to time but otherwise said nothing.
I then fired a number of instructions in my best business executive voice, knowing that in my absence Miss Flynn would do exactly as she pleased anyway. Then we gravely shook hands and I left the office: two small rooms with two desks and a filing cabinet in East 55th Street (good address, small office, high rent) and headed down Park Avenue through the sullen heat to my apartment on 49th Street (big rooms, bad address, low rent.)II
The Long Island Cannon Ball Express pulled away from the station and there was every indication that it would be able to make tv10ntauk before nightfall; if not . . . well, those who travel that railroad are living dangerously and they know it. Cinders blew in my face from an open window. The seat sharply cut off the circulation in my legs. The hot sun shone brazenly in my face . . . it was like the days of my childhood fifteen years (well, maybe twenty years) before, when I used to visit relatives in Southampton. Everything had changed since then except the Long Island Railroad and the Atlantic Ocean.
The Journal American
was full of the Peaches Sandoe murder case even though there were no facts out of which to make a story. This doesn't bother newspapers, however, and there were some fine pictures of naked girls wearing sequins and plumes. Peaches Sandoe herself was, in life, a rather dowdy-looking, middle-aged midget with a 1920's bob.
I was well into the N.Y. Globe
's account, written by my old friend and rival Elmer Bush, when a fragrant thigh struck mine and a soft female voice said, "Excuse . . . why if it isn't Peter Sargeant!"
"Liz Bessemer!" We stared at one another in amazement though why either should have been particularly surprised I don't know since we see each other at least once a month at one party or another and I have, on several occasions, tried to get a date out of her without success since I'm shy and she is usually engaged to some young blade around town. Though it was perfectly logical that we both find ourselves on a Friday heading for a week end on Long Island by Cannon Ball Express, we professed amazement at seeing each other.
Amazement turned to excitement, at least on my part, when I found she was visiting an aunt and uncle in Easthampton. "I just had to get out of the city and since Mummy is out in Las Vegas getting a divorce" (Liz though a big girl of twenty-five with blue eyes and dark brown hair and a figure shaped like a Maiden-Form Bra ad still refers to her progenitress as "Mummy" which is significant, I think), ''and I wasn't invited any place this week end, I just thought I'd go on out and stay with my aunt who's been after me all summer to visit her. So you're going to be there too?" I nodded and we kicked that ball around a bit. She knew of Mrs. Veering, even knew her place which, it seemed, was about half a mile down the road from where she would be staying. I experienced lust, mild but persistent. Mentally, I caressed the generous arm of coincidence.
"I hope you're not a friend of Mrs. Veering's . . . I mean, she's perfectly nice but, well, you know. . . ."
"Kind of on the make?"
"That's putting it gently." Liz made a face; I noticed she was wearing nothing under her simple worth-its-weight-in gold cotton dress; absolutely nothing, at least from the waist up. I felt very good about this for some reason and decided Christian Dior was a regular fellow after all.
"Well, it's only a job," I said vaguely, as we rattled desperately through Jamaica. ('She's got some project or other she wants me to look into for her. So, what the hell . . . it's a living and I get out of town for the week end . . . maybe longer," I added softly but Liz, according to legend at least, is the least romantic girl in New York and though she's gone around with some sharp boys in her time and no doubt given them a certain satisfaction, she has never been the type to hold hands in the moonlight or exchange radiant myopic glances across crowded rooms. She's very matter-of-fact which I like, in spite of the "Mummy" business.
"That's right." She looked at me coolly, at least as coolly as it's possible to look with the cinders flying about your head and the heat one hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the car. "You have your own firm, don't you?"
I nodded. "Ever since I left the Globe
"It must be awfully interesting," she said in the vague tone of Bryn Mawr. "I'm at Harper's Bazaar
I said I didn't know she worked.
"0h yes . . . every now and then."
"What do you do there?"
"Oh . . . well, you know: that sort of thing."
I knew indeed. All New York is the richer for these vague elegant girls with some money, a set of Tecla pearls and a number of basic black dresses who, while marking time between college and their first marriage, work for the fashion magazines. They are charming and they love art like nobody's business . . . zooming around the galleries on 57th Street to look at pictures and around Second Avenue to various "fun-apartments" where High Bohemia gives cocktail parties for Edith Sitwell and worries about Marlon Brando.
Liz was a member in good standing of this community but she was also careful not to get typed: she was not one of the fashionable ugly
girls who end up making a career out of that kind of thing; she kept the lines of communication open with the young Wall Street set, the Newport gang, the Palm Beach crew and even the night-club bachelors who think that 57th Street is just something you pass on your way from the Plaza to the St. Regis.
We talked about mutual acquaintances. I haven't the time to circulate much in her world but I know it well enough since it's made up of old school friends of mine as well as those professional zombies that you're bound to meet sooner or later if you live in New York and go out at all.
It wasn't until we had stopped for water, or whatever it is the train stops for besides passengers at Speonk, that I asked her what she knew about Mrs. Veering.
"I don't think I know anything about her except what everybody does. You see her around, that's all. She comes from somewhere out West and she has a lot of money from a husband who's dead, I guess. I suppose she's out to make the grade as a dowager."
This was as much as I knew about my hostess-to-be, so we talked of other things, agreeing to meet Saturday night at the Ladyrock Yacht Club where a big dance was being held. It was assumed I'd come as a guest of Mrs. Veering but just in case she didn't go I said I'd sneak over somehow. Liz thought this was a fine idea.
Then we read our tabloids while the train passed millions of white ducks and potatoes, the principal crop of this green island.
Shortly before we arrived at Easthampton, we both agreed that someone had undoubtedly pushed Peaches Sandoe in the way of that elephant. But who?III
The North Dunes is a large gray-clapboard house sitting high on a dune to the north of the Ladyrock Yacht Club which, in tum, is north of the village.
I was met by a slovenly fellow in a chauffeur's hat and overalls who spotted me right off and said Mrs. Veering had sent him to fetch me. I climbed in the station wagon which was parked with all the others beside the railroad, waved to Liz who was getting into a similar station wagon and sat back as I was driven in silence through the handsome village with its huge elm trees and silver pond and the house where somebody did not write Home Sweet Home but was perhaps thinking about it when he did write the song.
On the ocean front, one vast gloomy house after another sat among the treeless dunes where clumps of sword grass waved, dark upon the white sand. The lush green-gold course of the Maidstone provided a neat, well-ordered touch to the road which runs north of the village toward Montauk Point, a road off which, to left and right at this point, are the big houses and the cottages of the summer residents.
The North Dunes was one of the largest and gloomiest. A screened-in porch ran halfway around the house on the ocean side and, from the outside, the place looked like nothing so much as a palace of bleached driftwood.
Inside it was better.
A lean butler took my suitcase and showed me into the sunroom: a big chintzy place on the south side of the house with a fine view of the golf course and ocean: high trees screened the village from view.
Mrs. Veering greeted me, rising from the chair where she'd been seated beside the empty fireplace.
"I couldn't be more delighted, Mr. Sargeant, to have you here on such short notice." She shook my hand warmly: she was a big competent woman with a mass of blue hair and a pale skin from which two small blue eyes stared at the world expressionlessly. She was in her fifties with a bosom like a sandbag and a clear voice which was neither Western nor Colony-Restaturant-New-York but something in between. "Come sit over here and have a little drink. I'll ring for . . . unless you'd rather mix your own . . . it's over there. I'll just have a dash of Dubonnet: I never have anything else; just a bit before dinner is nice, don't you think?'
She gabbled away and I made all the expected answers as I mixed myself a Scotch and soda and poured her some Dubonnet over ice. Then I sat down in the fat chair opposite her and waited.
Mrs. Veering was in no hurry to get to the point.
"Alma Edderdale is coming next week, Monday, did you know that? I love her. She's staying at the Sea Spray . . . she's an old friend of yours, isn't she? Yes? I'll want to see her of course. I would've asked her here but she likes to be alone and besides I have a house full of friends this week end." She finished the Dubonnet in one lightning gulp. "Friends and acquaintances," she added vaguely, looking out the window at the golf course, golden in the afternoon sun.
"I wonder . . ." I began, wanting to get to business right away.
"Will I have another? yes, I think I might. It does me good the doctor says: 'just a touch of Dubonnet, Rose, before dinner, to warm the blood.' "
I poured a highball glass of the stuff which should, I thought, be enough to bring her blood to a boil. Two ladylike sips got her to the bottom of the glass and I could see what one of her problems undoubtedly was. Anyway, the drink seemed to do her good and her eyes glistened as she put the glass down and said, "I like a mixture, don't you?"
Excerpted from Death Likes It Hot by Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box. Copyright © 2011 by Gore Vidal. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.