Sirens, страница 1
A NEW LIFE
SHE was a different person in the daylight hours, without her makeup and with her eyes like slits and her skinny frame wrapped in an oversize robe. I tried to hide my surprise, which reappeared when she emerged from her rooms an hour later, primped and wide-awake and put together. She peered in the library door, squinting.
“There you are. Hiding. It’s time we put you right,” she said as I stood up, and then she looked down at my old black shoes. “Good grief. First order of business is new shoes. And for pity’s sake, take off those awful stockings before we leave the apartment.”
“I’m not a flapper,” I said.
“Yeah? Well, we can fix that,” she responded. “Come on.”
BOOKS BY JANET FOX
J A N E T F O X
An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in the United States of America by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2012
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Copyright © Janet Fox, 2012
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ALWAYS LEARNING PEARSON
For the two men who rule my heart, Jeff and Kevin,
and for my sister Mary, who is my own sassy Lou
Table of Contents
THE Titanic taught us that there are no unsinkable ships. The Great War taught us that there are no deathless heroes. The influenza taught us that there are no places to hide.
We were done with darkness, so we shed our old skins. And some of us drank that wild brew called abandon.
The other girls, they came from everywhere: from the small towns with their quiet commons, from the city tenements with their honking mayhem. They wore their hair short and their skirts shorter. Followers of Bacchus, devotees of Pan, heedless of the old rules, yet they wanted to be all the same, the same—they were Zelda, they were Clara, they were Coco. They were flappers.
And when I shed my old skin, what soft and tender flesh did I expose? The heart does hold secrets, and is itself an unruly thing.
LATE SEPTEMBER 1925
First you will raise the island of the Sirens,
Those creatures who spellbind any man alive,
Whoever comes their way. Whoever draws too close,
Off guard, and catches the Sirens’ voices in the air—
No sailing home for him…
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book 12, 44–48
The wharf stretched over the water, a black slab like a prone tombstone. Across the river the lights in Jersey cast shimmering reflections that bobbled and broke, the only light by which I could see since I’d pulled the Nash sideways and the car’s headlamps cast their lights south. With my right hand I tucked my collar up under my chin; the night was crisp and the stars threw a hard brilliance.
In my left hand I clutched the scarf, the metal tucked inside biting through the silk and into the leather glove, sharp points digging into my palm.
“Okay, Teddy,” I whispered to the chilly dark. “This is what you wanted. This is for you.”
I pulled my fist from my coat pocket and opened the scarf, the silk weeping over my open hand. I couldn’t see the poppies in the dark, those big scarlet splotches on white. I couldn’t see the three medals with their grosgrain ribbons, their insignia, but as they shifted and clinked they grew heavy in my palm—some figment of my imagination—and I plucked them out of the scarf one by one and tossed them, my best Teddy-taught ball throw, into the water, which they hit with a soft splash, one, two, three.
The water shivered, just the smallest ripple, then stilled.
I hustled back to the car, hobbled by my coat and the uneven ground, shivering as I climbed in and pressed against the leather. I glanced through the glass knowing that he wouldn’t be there.
I let out the brake and stomped on the clutch and put the thing in gear and made off with a roar, spitting stones, navigating out of the maze of warehouses and dockside loading bays and back to the dark streets of the Lower West Side. I thought about Charlie, and my heart skipped a beat, and my foot pressed harder on the accelerator. I thought about Lou and what she’d say about Teddy and the medals. She’d probably think it was a shame.
But I’d made a promise. I did what Teddy asked me to do. I didn’t need his medals anymore. Because as I looked at everything I’d learned, at everything I’d found and lost in these five months past, this was my northern star: I still had Teddy.
So boys. Am I a witness, or a suspect?
As I cross my legs I can see the detective’s momentary distraction. I savor the moment.
It’s not the cushiest chair ever, either, though I don’t go on about that. The detective in the suit perches on the desk in front of me. The guy taking notes sits right behind me, where I can’t see him. We’re in a tight little office with glass walls, and a bustle goes on in the precinct headquarters around us. Every so often some joker stares in at me like I’m a museum specimen or something. I fan my face. A gal can hardly think in here, especially considering.
Fine. I’m gonna start at the beginning. That way maybe you guys can fill in the rest of the blanks yourselves and stop pestering me. I’ll give you the whole kit and caboodle. Me and Danny. Me and Jo. Jo and Charlie. What happened that night. What happened to take us to that point. It’s quite a story, and I’ll give it to you straight, especially…
I pause for effect.
…how I’m an innocent victim.
I can see the smirk starting to form on those skinny lips, and I think, Don’t laugh, buster.
And Teddy, you want to know about Teddy, don’t you? It doesn’t all start with Teddy, but yeah, it sure ends with him. Yeah, right there in the water. Such a shame.
Jo thought she had him. A crying shame, that. But…
Then I see that the detective—Smith, isn’t it?—he shifts like he’s impatient, and I think, Settle down, sweet pea. I’m not gonna get ahead of myself.
MAY 18, 1925
Lies are essential to humanity. They are perhaps as important as the pursuit of pleasure and moreover are dictated by that pursuit.
—Marcel Proust (1871–1922)
Tonight Pops was in a foul mood. He’d been that way ever since Teddy had disappeared—dead, they said, but I knew the truth. I was not grief-stricken like Ma and Pops, because I’d been privy to the lie.
Pops chewed on a bitterness so sharp and keen it gave him a permanent frown. But this was worse than usual.
I winced, yanked out of my fictional world, and I bowed my head over the story I was working on and tried to concentrate on that last sentence I’d written, tried to block out Pops’s bark and Ma’s scrambled response.
“Fanny. Where’s that ledger? I need those numbers.”
I heard Ma’s soft voice, though not her words, and I gave up on the sentence and rested my forehead on my palm and shut my eyes. My turn next.
With a thud, the ledger landed on the table, burying my paper and nearly smashing my right hand, which still clutched a pencil.
“Josephine. I need those numbers,” Pops said. He was gone before I looked up.
My skill with numbers was more important to him than anything else. Certainly more important than my fledgling desire to write.
Ma hovered in the doorway, and her eyes met mine before she slipped back into the kitchen, hiding behind the flower-infested apron and the clattering of pots. The gauze curtain that hung over the dark window lifted, a round belly, then dropped; the breeze riffled the loose hairs across my cheek. A distant dog’s bark drifted in on the spring night air. It was warm for May, the breeze fragrant with lilacs.
I shifted the heavy bound black ledger until I could open it to the page with its marker showing where I’d left off. I sighed at the columns citing cases of whiskey and rum, gin and mixers.
Pops had to be so upset tonight because of what had happened the night before. Danny Connor’s men had been at the house and were looking for something of Teddy’s. I’d overheard the conversation, and wished I hadn’t.
Teddy. It was like I could feel his hand on my shoulder. Séances were all the rage with my friends at school, but I didn’t need any old séance to manifest my brother. He’d told me he’d gotten into a jam and had to lay low. He’d said he’d come back and made me promise not to tell. I might not know where he was now, but I held fast to that promise. I held to it even after we’d placed an empty coffin in the ground, even when everyone else was sure Teddy was dead.
I worked the figures totaling the profits that the black market liquor had brought in over the past week. My Pops, bootlegger for the biggest gangster in New York, Danny Connor. It was all wrong.
Pops said he was in the business for the family. Our sweet little grocery next door to the house had been a fine thing. Once. Now the old dry-goods section hid a false wall, and midnight deliveries of crates from Canada disturbed my sleep. The business had grown lately, and the figures in the ledger had swelled, too. Bootleggers made a lot of money as middlemen between the Canadians who imported the booze and the swells down in the city who drank it despite the Prohibition. But bootleggers like Pops who made deals with gangsters like Danny Connor were always one step away from danger.
Before Teddy disappeared a year ago, Pops had kept his bootlegging to small-time deals. But after Teddy disappeared, Pops assuaged his grief by making a bigger deal with the devil. It didn’t matter. All the money in the world wouldn’t cure what ailed him. As far as I was concerned Pops had forgotten about what was right.
And here I was, helping Pops’s misbegotten work by keeping the books. Helping him try to drown the memory of Teddy when I wanted to shout, He’s not dead! Except that I had made Teddy a promise.
A hard, hard promise to keep when I watched my ma and pops. But I kept it, for Teddy’s sake.
The clock chimed ten when I leaned back in the chair. I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands. My hair had fallen out of its pins and lay like a blanket hanging down my back, hot and heavy.
Last week Moira had her hair bobbed. The other girls all crowded around, touching and admiring. Moira said she felt a million pounds lighter and, with her voice low and thrilling, told us that a man on the street had stopped and asked her if she was the real Colleen Moore. Colleen Moore, whose smiling visage graced the posters at the moving picture theater just about every week, who was touted as the perfect flapper with her short skirts, heart-shaped face, and bow lips.
I didn’t want strange men stopping me on the street or, heaven forbid, thinking I was a flapper—daring and naughty and foolish. But it was already warm and the steamy summer loomed, and my thick curls weighed on my neck. Shorter hair would be nothing more than a convenience. A simple haircut wasn’t enough to turn a girl into a flapper, right? Modern and smart, sure. But not a flapper. The last thing I wanted was to be taken for a fool.
Ma was still in the kitchen, hanging the damp wash. Her black skirt grazed her ankles as she bent over the tub to pick out the next wet shirt and position it to run through the wringer.
“What would you think if I cut my hair short?”
She started and straightened and put one hand up, touching her own gray-streaked hair, which was piled in a rolling crown on top of her head.
I lifted my hair off my neck, peeling clinging moist strands off my skin. “It sure would be cooler. And easier. It’s just a practical matter.” I waited. “That’s all.”
“Cut your hair. I’ll think on it.” Ma wiped her hands on her apron. “I’ve been wanting to tell you. There’s something important come up. Your father put a call in to your uncle this morning.”
I let my hair drop. “About?”
“Things.” She shifted her eyes away. “Your father and I, we want you to go stay with your aunt and uncle for a time.”
“In New York? What?” I was stunned. “Why?”
She met my eyes again, her cheeks dark. “That’s the decision.” The worry in her voice made my heart pound.
I said, “But after school ends, right? Exams are over in three weeks.”
She shook her head, said with finality, “Sooner.”
“But, Ma. I have to finish school. I won’t graduate.”
Pops’s voice came hard: “School’s for boys, not girls. Last time I looked you weren’t a boy.”
I jumped. “Pops!” I hadn’t heard him come up behind me.
His face creased with a frown. “You’re to go down to the city and stay with your aun
A proper…what? The color rose up my throat. “Pops. I’m not getting married.” I would’ve laughed, but Pop’s expression choked the humor out of me.
“You’ll do as I say.” No question, he was not just upset tonight but cornered-animal upset.
I kept my voice steady. “I have to finish my schooling, Pops. I’m only seventeen!”
“Your ma was seventeen when we married. You’re better than her?”
I bit my tongue so as not to hurt Ma’s feelings. She shifted, and the shirt she had hanging halfway through the wringer dripped into the rinse water, a soft plink, plink in the warm night air.
The warm night air that rippled with undercurrents of confusion and worry and threat. And all of it focused on me.
I had dreams, though Pops didn’t know about them. I wanted to become a writer—like that Agatha Christie. Teddy’d told me I had talent. He read the little things I wrote, and he liked them. Lots of girls were working now. It was modern and all right and didn’t mean you were bad. Teddy’d said he’d help me, said he’d talk to Pops so that after I graduated from high school I could set out on the path toward my dreams.
But Teddy wasn’t here.
I stood as straight as I could, hanging on to those dreams. “I have to graduate high school. I’ve got plans for when I graduate. I want to go to college. And then make something of myself.”
You could’ve cut the air with a knife.
Pops’s voice was low. “Teddy was the one should’ve gone to college. He went to war instead. Sacrificed his brain to that good cause. At least he was a hero.” Pops now stared at the floor so hard I thought he might bore holes right through it. “I spoke to your uncle. You’re darn lucky he’s got the goods and the willingness to take you in. He can introduce you to society types. You can make yourself useful by getting married to a guy who has some dough. Then there’s one less thing to give me a headache.”