Continued from here:
Six months earlier:
The walls began to move.
He had stumbled back to his room, he remembered that much. He had been down to get his fix; an eternity. He waited while others had theirs, was glad he wasn’t in as bad a state as them. Surely.
He knew better. He always knew best. No man was going to say otherwise, no woman either. He trusted that Josie wouldn’t be there when he came back. She had been with him enough to know he wasn’t interested in her in these times.
No, she would be out, working, working for him. She was good for that, she was good for him.
He found himself on his bed, looking up, smiling. Everything felt so perfect, so right. At last some peace.
He waited for the walls to move and was not disappointed.
“Fred Stanley, sir.”
“Fred Stanley. You’d asked our office about some assistance with your books.”
“Oh…oh, yes. Do come in.”
He felt very relaxed now, easy. He had timed it all to his satisfaction, had found enough real money to go to one of the barbers that William favored. Damned fool. At least he hadn’t been around for a while. He knew one day he would smash in that fop’s face but good, probably the next time he came begging for money.
He had looked at himself briefly in a window before approaching the office, liked what he saw. He knew others did too. He had seen the looks from a couple of carriages, of a woman following her husband down the street for whatever purpose. He knew he was seen with approval and maybe a little more.
He had considered his mustache, carefully trimmed, well-shaped – that at least would always be right. Nothing would ever upset it. His eyes briefly flicked over his shaven jawline, his dark eyebrows, the hat he carefully stored, along with the formal suit of clothes he wore for such occasions, in a box at the foot of the bed, which only he had the key to.
Josie had once wondered aloud what else was in the box, and wouldn’t be satisfied with his answers. He’d shown her what it meant to cross him on something like that. He remembered her looking at it once or twice since then, and he could almost see the black eye reappear on her.
But he never treated her too badly, of course, oh no. He whistled to himself as he approached the door. He would never damage an asset that could help him.
What he had heard about this particular client was promising. The word was that he fancied himself a swell, though an older one. He’d a fondness for certain kinds of women and so he’d turned up a few times at places where his desires were taken care of. Good treatment, no trouble, free-spending, obviously not carrying around his wealth with him. Talked a bit more when the worse for wear, though, and so probably had a looser tongue the one night down in the Coast where he blabbed about needing some help with his accounts.
He had been overheard – working as a bartender had its many points – and the information had been kept to hand. All that was needed was the time, some opportunity, a bit of skill, and finding out via some questioning where the person in question lived, and the moment had come.
If the nameplate near the door wasn’t from a previous owner or renter, his mark’s name was Jones. Some time earlier he had decided to use Fred Stanley as his alias – he had used it before to good effect – and see how far it got him. Waiting a while since Jones’s drunken admission had been of use, since it seems Jones didn’t immediately recognize him from that evening. That was perfectly fine with him, but if necessary he had other resources.
“Thank you, Mr. Jones. I hope I’ll be able to assist you swiftly. We apologize for not contacting you sooner in response to your request.” He withdrew one of several cards he kept for such occasions, identifying him as a full staff member with the First Columbian Corporation, specializing in office duties and accounting. He always went for clean printing on his cards, something with actual money put into it – he let the looks take care of the details.
Jones glanced over the card. “Yes…you’re down some ways off Market, I believe.”
“Very true, sir.”
While in far better condition than when he was last observed, Jones had the smell of something on his breath – Stanley, as he reminded himself he must respond to for the rest of the job, concluded it was an expensive wine he had not had the chance to encounter – and seemed to have just woken from slumber, though he was fully dressed. He leaned a bit against his doorframe.
“When did I first contact you?”
“Some weeks back, sir. You’d indicated you were in need of assistance with some old account information inherited from relatives now sadly deceased – and do allow me to commiserate with you on your loss, for I know this type of tragedy personally.”
“Yes, it must have been a letter…I send quite a few. Very good, Stanley, come in here please.”
Stanley followed Jones into the house and to the main room, which Jones apparently used as an office. Stanley stood politely in the doorway as Jones apologized for the condition of the room, picking up scattered papers and organizing them in rough piles on a desk that stood near the rear wall. While this was done, Stanley scanned the room.
Windows’ll be easily forced. Set one lock free. Nothing interesting in the furnishings, typical. Perhaps something there on the mantelpiece. The desk may be the key.
Jones coughed and straightened, indicating Stanley to take another seat near the desk. As the two men sat, Jones began to speak:
“Your pardon again for the condition of these papers. The shock of the deaths is still raw to my feelings, and I have taken to some habits I should not normally do.”
“It is quite understood, sir.” Stanley aimed to put as much smoothness in his voice as possible, though he wondered if he would have to keep reassuring Jones throughout the day. “We see many conditions of personal papers in our jobs, and often in much state than here. D’you know, sir –” He leaned back casually, just so, but not any more than that “—once we had to take care of the papers of a man who had left them to his widow in no understandable state at all, not even with chronology! He had been so secretive – for what reason, sir, who knows? – and we had to spend some months before all was made clear. But I interrupt you.”
“No, it is no matter.” Jones seemed to relax some more. “It is actually a burden removed from me to know this, for I had felt that none were so complicated as my inherited papers here. Thankfully this is not as bad as you describe. I shall show you.”
Stanley leaned forward to examine them, coached himself to follow along at Jones’s speed of explanation and clarification – thankfully a slow and involved one – and to respond every so often with a noncommittal expression that further invited Jones to continue. As this performance was put on, Stanley looked at the desk carefully, noting which drawers were ostentatiously locked, which were not. He judged Jones to be somewhere between a clever man and a fool who thought he was clever, and felt that there might be nothing for it but to check all the drawers – a risk, but perhaps with great reward.
Jones sighed, then coughed a bit. “And so you see, it is damnably tangled. I can only conclude that there might have been two sets of books, one for others in the family to see, a private one that told the truth. I am still somewhat shocked by it.”
“You need not fear, sir, I am not here to judge, and neither is my company. This will take some time but if you will allow me, I shall create a clean copy of all the information here in what I guess is a spare account book.” Stanley pointed to a separate volume that looked to him to be untouched.
“You are correct, Stanley.” Jones gave him the book and stood. “If you notice something of interest, call it to my attention. I shall be there reviewing some letters.” He indicated a great chair near the windows, where a further pile of papers stood on a table nearby, together with a decanter of red wine and a glass. Stanley would not have minded a drink at all, but he had been recently satiated.
He turned to the work, and found it less troubling than Jones had made it out to be – there were certainly other accounts besides what was labeled as the main one, but nothing that would require him to spend much thought on it, or to plead that it was too complicated even for him. He knew of course that it might well have been – the schooling he had received had only been so much in life, and while he was always reasonably good with figures, certain things might have proven difficult.
He felt Jones regarding him every so often, and took care to do nothing but sit and focus on the work. Still, he looked casually around again at the desk drawers, choosing what he would investigate in particular. He assigned codes to each, wrote down a quick note on his left shirt cuff, and continued with his work.
“You have worked with First Columbian for some time?” Jones’s voice sounded thicker now, and Stanley realized that he must have been drinking some more, though in his concentration on the work he had not heard the sounds of glass.
“For a couple of years, sir. I have hopes of progressing further, though not perhaps here in the City.”
“Higher goals, yes sir.” Stanley continued plowing on, refusing to seem any less professional. It was a key part of the performance.
“Mmm. You are native here?”
“I was indeed, sir. My father was Irish and met my mother in Connecticut. They traveled around the Horn to settle here; I am the oldest of several.”
“I see.” In the pause, Stanley could only hear the scratchings of his own pen. “I must confess something, Stanley – when I first saw you at the door I was sure I had seen you somewhere before.”
Stanley allowed himself a smile, hidden as it was from Jones. His response was one he had given innumerable times, felt as regular as a music box tune. “You doubtless saw my next oldest brother, sir. He and I are often judged to be near twins, though we are different by some three years.”
“It is a good thing, to have a brother.”
“So it is often said, sir.”
“Tell me, though, your brother – what does he do?”
Stanley allowed himself to pause. A little acting was required, and he composed himself. “It is somewhat shameful to say, sir. He has a good heart and was often the favorite of our parents, the whole family. But he has fallen in with some low friends and does work we are not very proud of.”
Stanley hoped that Jones would be satisfied with this – if Jones remembered him from the saloon, and clearly drank at home as well, then perhaps he would not ask for more detail about this work, or the reasons for its being disdained. There was a short silence.
“Thank you, Stanley. I hope I did not offend.”
“Not at all, sir.”
Stanley continued to calculate figures and write swiftly, while thinking:
I’ll tell William one day. He’ll smile, that bastard, and then he’ll realize how he was used to line my pocket. Oh I will enjoy that look on his face.
No sound was heard but the pen-scratching.