Vein of Violence, page 1
VEIN OF VIOLENCE
William Campbell Gault
a division of F+W Media, Inc.
Table of Contents
For Mary Shirvanian
JAN, ALONE, is usually more woman than an ordinary man can cope with, unreasonably mercurial, occasionally snobbish and always vocal. Jan in tandem with my Aunt Sheila is enough to make all sane citizens head for the cyclone cellars.
My Aunt Sheila is skinny and long-legged, with a firm bust for her age and a great appeal for men of money and appetite. She claims to be thirty-seven, but I happen to know she’s forty-three. She has been married three times, courted often and conned never. Too many grass widows are overwhelmed with the appearance of wealth in a prospect; Aunt Sheila knows how to get a credit report.
Well, anyway, she had been living rather quietly in La Jolla for a couple of years, an area as alien to her temperament as any I could imagine. Even Pasadena is livelier than La Jolla.
And at a party up there one fine spring evening, she ran into Homer Gallup. Now what the hell Homer was doing in La Jolla is a question that will probably bother anthropologists for another century.
Because Homer is a Texan, and almost exactly in the stereotyped tradition of the moneyed Texan, big, bluff and vocal. La Jolla is not hospitable to the type.
I met him for the first time on a smog-saturated April morning in my office. I was sitting there moodily, balancing my accounts receivable against my accounts payable, a sad reckoning.
The door to the hall was open and Aunt Sheila’s voice has remarkable carrying power. I heard her say, “It’s right along here somewhere, cheap little office — Poor Brock, he hasn’t a smidgen of business sense. Ah, here it is!”
And she was standing in the open doorway, tall and trim and dressed in a light-yellow linen sheath. Her hair was more blond than orange this year.
“Brock, baby — !” she squealed, and charged me.
I stood up, clear of the desk, and opened my arms.
I encased her skinniness in my impressive arms and a faintly incestuous urge glimmered briefly and was drowned in my more familiar emotions.
She pulled away finally and turned to the man who had followed her in. “Didn’t I tell you he was handsome, Homer?”
The man called Homer was about my size, range-tanned and Texas-tailored, a genial white-haired man. He nodded smilingly.
“You also said I didn’t have a smidgen of business sense,” I said to Aunt Sheila. “Because I heard it and so did everybody else on this floor.” I came around to be introduced to her companion.
“You haven’t,” she said. “Jan has — but you — ugh!” She took a breath. “This is Homer Gallup, Brock. We were married in Las Vegas, Thursday.”
I shook their hands, at a loss for words. I kissed Aunt Sheila once more. Then she stood more erectly and patted her flat tummy. “How about that?”
“Some girdle,” I commented.
“Girdle, hell!” she said. “That’s belly, boy, as we say in the Panhandle. Right, Homer?”
My aunt has a great gift of acclimation, a cunning, chameleon ability to be one thing to each one, the thing he wants most. With most men, that’s easy.
Homer nodded in agreement, a little abashed at the terminology.
Aunt Sheila gushed on. “That’s what two years in La Jolla can do for you — starve you. Best damned town in the world for starving.”
“Auntie,” I said patiently, “you were never fat.”
“No, but I had some sag. Look at me now — thirty-seven years old and I wear a size ten.”
“Shoe?” I asked.
And stopped laughing. Aunt Sheila does have rather large feet. Fashionably and aristocratically narrow — but long. She stared at Homer.
She said sweetly, “Tell Brock the remark you made about my feet last night, Homer.”
“Naw,” he said. “Let’s forget it.”
She turned to me. “He told me my feet were just right for stamping out grass fires.”
I had laughed alone. In the uncomfortable silence, I asked, “Staying in town long?”
“We planned to,” my aunt said. “We thought we’d like Beverly Hills — until we drove into this smog this morning.”
“We thought we’d buy a place,” Homer contributed, “and that girl friend of yours could help us pick furniture and we’d kind of get the feel of the town.”
“Well,” I said. “Well, well, well-”
My aunt looked at me suspiciously. “You don’t want me around, do you? One of my few living relatives and you don’t want me around.”
“I love you,” I said. “I want you around. Look, it’s almost lunchtime — why don’t I phone Jan and we can have lunch together?”
That started our afternoon. Jan said “Eeeee — yippee!” when I told her Aunt Sheila was in town. We arranged to meet her at Cini’s.
There we floated a full Italian lunch on a sea of Martinis (for the girls), whiskey (for Homer) and two sedate beers for yours truly.
Jan and my aunt chatted as they always did when together, Homer chuckled genially and I watched Jan carefully.
She is an interior decorator, my Jan, and like my apparently giddy Aunt Sheila, she has a solid and active concern for the profit potential.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider it a flaw. It is a sense I lack, this instinct for the maximum dollar, but I don’t consider myself nobler because of it. Like the rest of us, Jan has to eat.
Aunt Sheila had already told her that Jan “of course” would decorate any house the newly weds bought. Okay, there was my darling’s profit — promised. For me, that would be enough.
But then they got to talking about houses and Jan said quite firmly, “There’s only one realtor in Beverly Hills who really knows the area.”
I smiled. Jan caught the smile but didn’t blush. She looked at Homer levelly, all business, and went on. “I’ll call him as soon as we ‘re through eating and he can pick us up here.”
Split commission, I thought. Jan doesn’t advertise it, but she also holds a real estate broker’s license. She would make a mint on the kind of decorating Aunt Sheila would order with that Texas money behind her. Was that enough for my Jan? No. There was a realtor’s commission waiting to be split.
I said calmly, “Why don’t we look around for a house that isn’t listed? Why pay a five per cent bonus to some realtor?”
Aunt Sheila shook her head. “It never works. I tried that in La Jolla. It’s always better, all around, to go through a broker.”
Jan said sweetly and patronizingly, “You mustn’t listen to Brock, Homer. Brock is hopelessly naive when it comes to business.”
Homer smiled in his genial way and said, “I’m like Brock. Business bores me. But I should think a girl in your profession would hold a real estate broker’s license. They aren’t hard to get.”
A silence. Sheila was eating, Jan was staring at Homer doubtfully, Homer was grinning — and I was gloating.
Jan looked at me and back at Homer. Sheila asked, “Why the sudden silence? What’s happened? Homer, did you say something rud
He shook his head, smiling.
I said, “Homer has just given Jan some sound advice and she’s digesting it.”
Aunt Sheila’s voice was ice. “I want to know what’s going on. Homer, I want to know right now!
Jan’s chin lifted, but she said nothing.
Homer appealed to me. “Did I say something wrong?”
Jan took a deep breath. “But I did, I guess.” She looked at Sheila. “I was — crowding him. I’m ashamed of myself.”
For a moment, the formerly festive spirit was dampened.
And then Homer said, “Nothing of the sort. You call that house-peddler friend of yours and have him here when we’re finished eating.” He grinned all around. “C’mon, one more drink won’t hurt us.” He winked at me. “And I don’t mean beer.”
Well, the hard stuff is not usually for me, but there was still a trace of coolness in the air and I owed it to Jan to help dispel what I could of that.
So I ordered a double bourbon and raised my voice a little. By the time Jan’s broker friend arrived, we were almost back to our pre-lunch abandon.
His name was Wallace Darrow, a rather handsome gent around forty, smooth and genial. He insisted on buying another round of drinks before we left. It was almost three o’clock before we floated out to find the newlyweds a home.
It was a montage to me from there on, a confused memory of glass and redwood, Lannon stone and glass, fieldstone and redwood and glass, but always glass, glass, glass” ….
Until Homer complained. “We’re not goldfish, Mr. Darrow.”
Darrow sighed. “You’re not going to get away from a lot of glass, not in the new homes, Mr. Gallup.”
“So show us some older homes then,” Homer ordered.
Jan flinched and Aunt Sheila frowned. Wallace Darrow looked thoughtful, waiting for one of the girls to protest.
Aunt Sheila was now looking speculative. Aunt Sheila, experienced in male attitudes and mores, was holding back her protest. My Jan, however, was looking sly.
She smiled and said to winsome Wallace Darrow, “How about the Mary Mae Milgrim place, Wally?”
“Mary Mae Milgrim — ?” Homer asked in awed wonder. “Is her house for sale?”
Darrow nodded and his glance matched my aunt’s speculative look.
I said, “It’s probably been for sale for thirty years, huh, Wallace?”
He looked at me coolly. “Not quite.”
“Twenty-five?” I suggested. “When was her last picture?”
Wallace pretended he hadn’t heard. Homer said nostalgically, “Mary Mae Milgrim — there’ll never be another like her. I saw every picture she was ever in.”
Jan said, “You could phone her, Wally, to find out if it’s possible to see the house today.”
He nodded and smiled knowingly at Jan as Homer went over to inspect the view from the home we were standing in.
Sheila said softly, “What’s going on?”
Jan said, “Once he sees this monstrosity, he’ll stop talking about ‘older homes.’ It’s the most grotesque thing south of San Simeon.”
“Girls,” I warned them quietly, “no shenanigans. I don’t want any manipulation of my old buddy Homer Gallup.”
My Aunt Sheila said coolly, “We intend to protect him from himself. Stay out of this, Rockhead.”
Homer turned from looking out the huge window and surveyed us all. “Where’d that peddler go?”
Jan said, “He went to phone Mary Mae Milgrim.”
“Great,” Homer said. He looked around the immense living room we were standing in. “What’s a lean-to like this go for?”
“It’s listed at a hundred and ten thousand,” Jan said, “but I’m sure it’s open to an offer.”
Homer laughed. “I’ll bet it is. Cripes, he can’t have more than two and a half acres here, and most of that hillside.” He shook his head sadly.
Jan and Aunt Sheila exchanged scheming feminine glances and said nothing.
Then Darrow came back, all smiles, and said Miss Mary Mae Milgrim would be delighted to show us her house.
After all the yacking of the afternoon, this trip was comparatively quiet. Aunt Sheila and Jan were undoubtedly smirking inwardly, Homer looked adolescently expectant, and only another realtor would be able to guess what Darrow was thinking about.
Off one of Sunset’s big turns, a pair of stone pillars flanked a driveway that led up towards the hills. We turned in and wound along a gravel driveway bordered by Lombardy poplars.
And then, suddenly ahead, the Mary Mae Milgrim mansion was in sight. I’ll tell you no lie — it had pennants flying from its turrets. It had all the “B’s”: Battlements and balconies with balustrades. On the faded pennants, the proud “M” for Mary Mae Milgrim was still faintly visible.
Jan looked at Aunt Sheila and Aunt Sheila looked sick. Wallace Darrow looked smug — and Homer looked at me.
“Well, Brock-?” he said.
“Terrific,” I said. “Magnificent. Worthy of the name of Milgrim.”
“Ye gods,” Aunt Sheila whispered hoarsely. “It even has a moat!”
The moat was dry and the chains connected to the timbered bridge were rusty, if immense.
“I wonder if the bridge lifts?” Homer said wonderingly.
Darrow coughed discreetly. “I — uh — believe it’s inoperative at the moment. But I’m sure it can be repaired.”
Jan looked at Darrow suspiciously. She and Aunt Sheila were losing an ally. For Mr. Wallace Darrow was not in the business to sell the customer what he liked, but only what the customer would like — and buy. A sale is a sale is a sale, and when you sell a white elephant, it’s a supersale.
Aunt Sheila asked, “What’s so damned funny, Tasteless? I always knew you favored your father’s side of the family.”
Aunt Sheila was my mother’s brother’s wife. He had died young and released her for greener pastures. I said nothing.
Homer said, “Look at that construction. Solid stone. By golly, this place isn’t all glass.”
“There is some glass, Homer,” Jan said meekly. “There are a lot of windows and some of them are almost eighteen inches wide.”
Homer laughed. “Oh, you young ones — Glass, glass, glass. All glass is good for is wrapping whiskey in.”
And we laughed, Homer and I, as the car stopped in the courtyard, in the cobbled courtyard, and we got out.
“Authentic,” Homer said. “Authentic as hell, by golly.”
“Authentic Chas Addams,” Jan agreed. “Where would a decorator start, with a place like this?”
“You’d have to start with dynamite and a bulldozer,” my Aunt Sheila said. “Level it, I say.”
Homer stiffened and swiveled slowly to stare at his bride. She lifted her chin and returned the stare.
Homer asked politely, softly, “Don’t you even want to see the inside?”
A pause, and then she said quietly, “If you do, I do.”
Nobody had any further comments to offer as we walked along toward the high, broad, brass-studded front door.
The door opened before we had a chance to ring the bell and a woman stood there, waiting for us to identify ourselves.
It wasn’t Mary Mae. This girl was around thirty, black-haired, blue-eyed, slim and serene.
Wallace said, “I phoned Miss Milgrim about fifteen minutes ago. I’m Wallace Darrow.”
“Come in,” the girl said. “I’m Joyce Thorne, Miss Milgrim’s secretary.”
We came into a lofty, musty entry hall, complete with lances, tapestries and an enormous medallion set into one wall, a huge scarlet-enameled “M” set into a background of peeling gilt. The alliteration of Mary Mae Milgrim was apparently symbolic to her.
“Authentic,” Homer said again in admiration.
“Genuine early Pathé,” Jan admitted. “A grand house for orgies.”
Homer looked at her skeptically and then Miss Thorne s
We went through a high, narrow archway into a room two stories high, with a beamed ceiling. It was dim in here, damp and cool. A fireplace big enough to roast an elephant divided the long wall, and the furniture was solid oak early mission. The drapes over the narrow windows were maroon velvet and they were closed this smoggy April day. Consequently, the room was dark enough so that the illusion at the far end of the room was adequate for devoted Mary Mae Milgrim fans.
For the lady stood there, slim and proud in black velvet, not a wrinkle visible from this distance, the creamy white skin flawless in the shadowed room. One hand rested lightly on the back of a refectory chair as she smiled at us graciously.
“Good afternoon, guests,” she said melodiously. “Which one is Mr. Wallace?”
“Mr. Darrow,” Wallace corrected her. “Wallace Darrow, Miss Milgrim, of Darrow, Weldon and Lutz.” And then he introduced us.
When it was Homer’s turn, he bowed with true Texas courtliness, and said warmly, “I consider this, Miss Milgrim, the high point of my life. You will always be the greatest of them all to me.”
There was a momentary silence after that tribute.
And then Miss Milgrim nodded acknowledgment to Homer and said to Darrow, “I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the house. Miss Thorne will be your guide.”
This much I’ll say for the place: it had a lot of rooms. The servants’ rooms were small and the other rooms were large, but all of them had narrow windows and high ceilings.
Both Homer and Jan were shaking their heads as we went from room to room, but I am sure their thoughts were not the same.
Eventually we came back to the big, dim room where Miss Milgrim waited. Homer, I could see, was ripe for the harpoon, and it seemed certain that Darrow would know it if I did. Jan seemed resigned, though she is unpredictable. My Aunt Sheila was looking thoughtful, glancing at Homer constantly, as though appraising him.
Miss Milgrim was sitting in the refectory chair, back straight, chin well lifted, in an admirable attempt at gracious poise. There weren’t many people who would be anxious to buy this mausoleum; she couldn’t afford to look too hungry.
Homer said, “It’s a wonderful house, Miss Milgrim. In perfect taste.”
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