I was asked by The New Romanticist to provide a sneak preview of my new Cyrus Skeen novel, set in January 1930, A Crimson Overture. Those of you familiar with this series of novels set in late 1920’s San Francisco will know that Skeen is a private detective and the son of East Coast wealth. He is a successful and well-liked short story writer under a pen name, and collects material for his stories from his cases. Dilys Jones is his wife, his former secretary, and is an accomplished painter. This series begins with China Basin, and moves chronologically to The Head of Athena, The Chameleon, The Daedâlus Conspiracy, and now to A Crimson Overture. I expect to finish the latter in the Fall.
Nineteen-Thirty was the end of the Roaring Twenties and the beginning of the Red Decade, thus the title. Fiona Nesbitt, whom readers will meet in these first two chapters, turns out to be a British spy carrying crucial information about the Soviet penetration of and influence in the American and British governments. Skeen, who in The Chameleon has already tangled with nascent American Nazis, becomes embroiled in his first, and, he hopes, last adventure in espionage. So, please enjoy this preview. I know I enjoyed writing it.
Chapter 1: Enter the Temptress
“Really, Mrs. Skipton, I’m beginning to think that your husband is an invention, and that you are some kind of wicked sorceress. Where is he now?”
“Oh, Mr. Skeen!” laughed the matron. “You do like to kid a girl! My husband at this moment is in Singapore. He is expected back the middle of next month.”
“Don’t you mean Sing Sing, and he’s being let out next month with a new suit, train fare, and ten dollars with which to make a new start?” said Skeen with a grin.
Mrs. Skipton exclaimed heartily and poked him with a finger. “You bad man! I ought to disinvite you for that!”
In the middle of January, 1930, on a Saturday evening, Maud Skipton, prominent society hostess and wife of the absent Jerome Skipton, wealthy ship owner and Pacific trader, hosted a lavishly catered party in her Nob Hill mansion to hopefully counter the somber mood everyone in her circle seemed to be in after the stock market crash in October. Cyrus Skeen, private detective and a member of San Francisco “society,” could recall meeting Mr. Skipton only very briefly years ago at another party.
Mrs. Skipton, stout and aged fifty-two, was not quite a “girl,” but no one dared dispute her claim. Skeen and his wife, Dilys, who lived in Carmel Towers across Nob Hill from the Skiptons, occasionally attended her parties more for the kinds of people they might meet than out of any expectation of enjoyment. Dilys frequently referred to Mrs. Skipton as the “de facto dowager.”
The brilliantly lit ballroom beyond was thick with guests, men in tuxedos, women in evening gowns, and servants circulating with trays of drinks. A band somewhere in the back played a popular tune at just the right pitch so as not to drown out conversation. Skeen and Dilys had given the butler their wraps and were instantly greeted by the hostess.
“Please alert me on his arrival,” said Skeen, “before he skitters back out across the ocean.”
“I will, Cyrus,” said Mrs. Skipton. She paused to appraise Dilys Jones-Skeen, a svelte brunette in a shimmering satin gown. “My dear,” she said with mock disapproval, “you’re going to turn quite a few heads in that. It’s exquisite, but it doesn’t leave much to the imagination.”
Dilys grinned. “That would be a shame, Mrs. Skipton. It was intended to arouse it.”
Mrs. Skipton clucked her tongue. “Naughty girl! Now, get along, the both of you! The buffet’s over there,” she said with a gesture. “I think you’ve met most of my guests, so I won’t bother with introductions.” She paused. “Oh, but there is one person here whom I’m sure you’ve not met. Fiona Nesbitt.”
Dilys frowned in recollection. “The artist?”
“The same,” said Mrs. Skip ton, nodding. “She’s been in the city for a while. Arrived from Tokyo last month. She’s doing busts of prominent people. I believe she’s also been commissioned by Mayor Rolph for a medallion. I just had to invite her here tonight.” She leaned closer to Dilys and said, sottovoce, “If you have any competition in turning heads, my dear, it’ll be from her.”
“Then I’m sure we’ll become the best of friends,” Dilys replied with a smile.
Mrs. Skipton knotted her brow in confusion, then shook her head. “Naughty girl! Away with the both of you!”
Skeen and Dilys took their leave. Dilys remarked to him, “You tease her in the nicest way, darling.”
“She’d be disappointed if I didn’t tease her,” said Skeen. “Who is Fiona Nesbitt?”
“A British sculptress. Specializes in busts. I’ve seen some of her work in magazines.”
Nodding to a few acquaintances, they espied an empty café table by a window and claimed it for themselves. “Well,” said Skeen as they sat down, “what do you think is in store for us tonight?” He took out his cigarette case and lit an Old Gold with a silver lighter.
Dilys lay a hand on his free arm. “Some dancing, some interesting conversation, and watching you joust with the Knights of Pythias.”
Skeen grimaced. “That won’t be much of a job,” he replied. “I think most of the men here have had the wind knocked out of them by the crash. It wouldn’t be a fair contest.”
A waiter came to their table. They ordered vodka tonics.
Dilys Jones-Skeen was a shapely brunette, almost as tall as Skeen, with gray eyes that seemed like stone flints which she tossed at everything she happened to glance at. People knew that if she did not like a person, her eyes would burn through him until he meekly averted them and stepped away. Her face was a perfect proportion of features. It could express joyful effervescence or forthright combativeness. She wore her hair long, so that it ended, unfashionably for the time, in an outward curl at the nape of her neck.
She was a painter, and once was Cyrus’s secretary at the detective agency. She did portraits and studies on commission or independently, although some of the nudes made people blush. She kept a fine copy of the bust of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the Roman general and statesman, on a table in a corner of her studio. When asked about it by visitors and models, Dilys explained her fascination with the bust, because it most resembled her husband.
Skeen’s face was squarish, with prominent cheekbones and a deceptively grim mouth, featuring eyes that changed from hazel to green, depending on the light, set beneath a brow that seemed formidable but which was not. His brow was smooth and untroubled. His eyes telegraphed a vast and scintillating storehouse of knowledge and wisdom. His hair was brown, swept to the side to form a wave-like crest that hovered over his left eye.
The stock market crash of late October had virtually overnight changed the tone and spirit of the country, and of the city. A menacing, ever-spreading pall of doom seemed to hover over the whole country, a country traumatized by the realization of a catastrophic loss. He saw it in the faces of people at society gatherings like this one, in the faces of people in the street, in the way they behaved as though, even while joking, they were certain their confidence and futures would soon be struck by another blow. He imagined people glancing up at the spreading pall, waiting for it to fall with the rest of the sky, and slowly suffocate them all in a tenacious poverty and an unrelieved hopelessness. As he glanced around the room at the guests, he saw in each and every man and woman’s face an invisible lesion of doubt.
Skeen’s parents, Garnett and Nellie Skeen of New York, had for years nurtured a repressed disappointment that their son had not embarked on a business career, as they had expected him to, but instead had elected, upon graduation from Yale near the end of the Great War, to become first, a policeman, and then a writer. They had reasoned that it was a form of sowing some wild oats and that when the oats had been sown, he would become more practical and return to the realm of commerce. He did not. When he moved to San Francisco in 1923, he had remained here to become a reputable sleuth involved in some spectacular cases.
Garnett Skeen was a retired banker who decades ago had invested wisely in a variety of businesses, and now owned their stock or sat on their boards of directors. He voluntarily retired from his original bank shortly after the Great War when it was merged with a larger New York bank, not liking its executive management. He had interests in Midwest granaries, Minnesota mining concerns, and steamship companies, and in addition controlled interests in a number of small industrial rail lines in the Northeast. He and his wife, Eleanor or “Nellie,” the daughter of one of the pioneers of Oklahoma oil field development, lived comfortably on Park Avenue in New York City. They were listed in the Social Register there, but did not socialize much. They both viewed with detached amusement the scandals and hyper-partying of the Roaring Twenties, which was now about to come to an end. They were too “conservative” in their ways and habits to be drawn into the new and somewhat reckless society.
Cyrus Skeen was comfortably maintained by an accessible trust fund amply salted with stocks whose dividends sustained him in his private detective consulting business, and which more than complemented the comparatively minimal proceeds of his secret avocation of short story writing under the pen name of Emmett Maddock for a number of literary magazines. It was expected, as Cyrus knew with a secret dread, that when his father died or was otherwise incapacitated, that he would take over the business of maintaining the family’s wealth and rock-solid solvency.
After they had finished their drinks, Skeen took Dilys’s hand. “Let’s eavesdrop and see if we can scare up some interesting conversation.”
They passed by one clot of men avidly discussing President Herbert Hoover and the problems he faced now with the crashed market and accumulating business failures. Skeen, with Dilys on his arm, stopped and listened for a moment.
“Oh!” said one of the men. “Here’s Cyrus Skeen to give us the what-for and how-to! What do you think Mr. Hoover will do, sir?”
Skeen shrugged. “Well, he’s always been a gadfly for ‘doing good’ and nosing into other people’s business. Look at the Radio Act he boosted when he was in the Department of Commerce. He really had no business trying to regulate radio airwaves. Once a frequency was sold, it became a commodity like anything else, such as an automobile, or a vacant lot. Instead, he wanted the government to determine who was a worthy purchaser of the airwave.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with that, sir,” said another man whom Skeen had not seen here before. “The law brought order out of chaos.”
Skeen smiled. “That all depends on your definitions of ‘order’ and ‘chaos,’ sir. The newspaper business is quite chaotic. Hundreds of papers are published every day around the country. This city alone has five. Would you want the government to bring ‘order’ to it? To begin doling out licenses to newspapers whose contents pleased a commission composed of Quakers, Presbyterians, and Baptists, and even Socialists, with the sole discretion of deciding which newspaper was ‘non-useful’ and which wasn’t?”
The man scowled. “Heavens, no! That could lead to censorship!”
“Right. So, what is the difference between a newspaper and an airwave? The forms are different but the content is virtually the same. One is tangible, the other is merely ethereal.”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” said another man, nodding in agreement.
“But, what do you think Hoover should do?” asked the first man.
Skeen chuckled. “Admit that the government has done a poor job of managing the economy, and chuck the Federal Reserve, rein in the Treasury, and let the market take its course, to let it separate the wheat from the weeds. But, that won’t happen. He’s a committed humanitarian. I fully expect he will introduce some petit fascist programs, per his associationalist creed. He’s all for government-business partnerships.”
Two of the men gasped in surprise. One protested, “What a terrible thing to say about a man whose heart is in the right place!”
“His heart may be in the right place, sir, but you will eventually pay the price for it. And, some day, someone will take him seriously and go whole-hog with that associationalism.”
“Like that Roosevelt fellow in New York?” mused another man. “He’s angling for the White House, so I’ve heard.”
“Yes, I think he is,” said Skeen, nodding. “That was one thing I learned from the Maxey affair last November. And you can be sure that Roosevelt would have little use for Mr. Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. Not that Mr. Hoover listens to him much. I wouldn’t be surprised if some political cabal was cooked up to oust Mr. Mellon. The charges against him would be specious, of course, anything that would cast a shadow of a doubt over his character and policies, a little thing blown up to gargantuan proportions. ‘Mr. Mellon is known to kick his dog, imbibe whisky in the rose garden, and is reputed to be stingy when leaving gratuities to waiters in the best restaurants.’ That level of thing, you see, whether true or founded on mere back-fence gossip, would be enough. They’d form an investigating committee and subpoena his valet and grocer for damning testimony.”
The man who welcomed Skeen to the group chuckled. “You have the most entertaining way of pole-axing our politicians, sir!”
Skeen felt Dilys tug at his arm. “They’re playing our song, darling.”
Skeen nodded and smiled at the group. “Excuse me, gentlemen. But my wife wishes to take a turn on the floor.” They walked away in the direction of the band, which was playing “Double Talk, Trouble Talk,” a foxtrot.
When the number was finished, Skeen said over the applause, “Now that we’ve worked up an appetite, let’s see what Mrs. Skipton has for nourishment.” He and Dilys made their way to the buffet, which several guests had crowded around. There they filled their plates with ham, a selection of cheeses, and biscuits. Ahead of them two women were discussing the desserts, which included various cakes, confectionaries and ice cream. A woman almost as large as Mrs. Skipton blocked their view of the woman she was talking with.
“Oh, look! Savoiardi! I can’t resist them!”
“Savoiardi? Are Gilbert and Sullivan responsible for those, too?”asked the other woman in an educated English accent.
“What are you talking about? These are Italian sweets! Over-sized ladyfingers!”
“The Savoyards, of course,” answered the other woman. “You know, the Savoy operas. H.M.S. Penitent, and the Pirates of Penury, and all those other dreary musicals, some of them set in Italy, too.”
“Oh, you’re pulling my leg!”
“Savoiardi? Sounds like it should be the name of an Italian battleship, if you ask me.”
“Well, I don’t know who you are, but you’re very rude and silly.” The large woman moved away with a plate piled high with samples of everything that was on the buffet table, including three of the rum-soaked ladyfingers.
Skeen and Dilys got their first glance at a compellingly attractive woman. They also noticed that several men nearby were giving her surreptitious, greedy looks.
She was a tall, slim woman in a dark green, knee-length gown, whose V of a plunging neckline tested the bounds between revelation and false modesty. Her provocative décolletage was accentuated by a square emerald stone dangling from a simple silver chain. Above it were a long, graceful neck and then a face and a mouth set in a kind of permanent anger. The eyes were green, sharp, and disdainful. Her coal-black hair was in a pageboy. Its severe bangs and the angular points that hid her ears, points which ended in neat V‘s on her lower cheek and which suggested the tips of cutlass blades, framed and stressed her eyes and mouth. Extending from beneath her bangs and encompassing her hair was a thin circlet of gold, which resembled a halo that somehow did not contradict the embedded hostility in her face.
She held a plate on which were a few canapes and delicacies. She glanced incuriously over at Skeen and Dilys, then turned away and disappeared into the crowd.
“What an extraordinary woman,” remarked Dilys.
“Extraordinary, indeed,” answered Skeen. “Rather like an evil saint, if there is such a thing.”
Dilys nodded. “I’d love to paint that face.”
“I expected you would.”
They repaired to their café table, and ordered glasses of wine to have with their snacks. A couple they knew from Carmel Towers joined them shortly after they sat and they were engaged in more talk about the stock market crash and the prospects for the future. The couple were later drawn away by an acquaintance of theirs and left the table. Dilys saw a woman in the crowd who had a few days before expressed an interest in some of her paintings and possibly of a portrait of herself. She rose and left Skeen alone at the table. He finished his drink and lit an Old Gold.
“Are you familiar with the Marcus Agrippa in the Louvre?” said a familiar voice.
Skeen turned to it. The questioner was the extraordinary woman, who was seated alone at the table next to his, and was staring at him with fascination, champagne glass in hand.
Skeen smiled. “Quite by coincidence, yes, I am. And you are….?”
“Fiona Nesbitt. You?”
The woman frowned. “I’ve heard of you. You’re some kind of detective, aren’t you?”
“I am a detective, yes, and of many kinds.”
Nesbitt’s sight roamed with flagrant possessiveness over his face. “Of course, the hair is wrong, but you’re still Marcus Agrippa. I’m so glad you don’t wear a moustache.”
Skeen could almost feel the invisible fingers of her intense and unabashed scrutiny wander over his face. He smiled again, slightly at a loss. “I’m glad you’re pleased.” He turned and spotted Dilys in the crowd. He gestured for her to come over. Dilys excused herself from the woman she was speaking with and came over, her sight anchored on Fiona Nesbitt.
Skeen rose. “Miss Nesbitt, I’d like you to meet my wife, Dilys. Dilys, this is Fiona Nesbitt. I think you both have something in common.”
Dilys tentatively proffered her hand to the woman, who hesitated before shaking it. They exchanged the usual pleasantries. “What have we in common?” asked Dilys, turning to her husband.
“Agrippa.” Skeen turned to Fiona Nesbitt. “Please explain your interest in Marcus Agrippa, Miss Nesbitt, and I’m sure my wife will explain hers. But, I’m sure you’ll become fast friends, in spite of everything.”
Fiona Nesbitt and Dilys Jones both turned to frown at the laughing humor in Skeen’s eyes.
Order A Crimson Overture on Amazon!
©2013 Edward Cline. Republished by permission in the NewRomanticist.com
An excerpt from chapter 2 will appear September 3rd, 2013.