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, 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.
— Edward Cline
Chapter 2: Extraordinary Women
“What was that all about, at the buffet, between you and that woman?” asked Skeen.
Skeen had invited Fiona Nesbitt to their table and they all sat. Skeen ordered another round of drinks. Dilys and Nesbitt, after a wary start, forgot their clashing interests in Skeen and became immersed in a technical discussion of the Agrippa bust and the art of portraiture in paint and other media. Skeen tried to follow it, but was lost after the first ten minutes. He lit a cigarette and observed the two women.
Skeen had interrupted their talk to ask about the dessert incident. It was odd, he thought. After an incipient and potentially acerbic rivalry over him, Dilys and Nesbitt had settled into an almost sisterly rapport. His wife had smiled often; Fiona Nesbitt, never, although her mouth twinged now and then in a faint facsimile of a smile. He wondered what in her life had made her so sad, so reluctant to be happy. He was certain that she wanted to be. He was happy to see Dilys make a friend of the woman. So few people understood or appreciated her art and her ambition.
“The verbal skirmish?” said Fiona Nesbitt. “The old cow attached herself to me almost the moment I set foot here and stuck to me as fast as a mustard plaster. I cannot tolerate fawning or unsolicited attentions. It was difficult enough warding off the advances of all the mashers here. After being oddly silent, she decided to engage me in conversation over the desserts, with every intention of continuing our conversation. I had no interest in doing so. So, I was compelled to become rude and silly. I’m not even certain she knew my name. I don’t think she understood the half of what I was talking about. Wit is wasted on the bovine, if they haven’t the acuity to even know they’re being insulted. She hasn’t bothered me since.”
Dilys changed the subject. “I’ve seen only a few examples of your work, Miss Nesbitt, in some art magazines. You don’t happen to have a portfolio of your work handy, do you?”
“It so happens I do,” said Nesbitt. “I’ve been traveling around the world for about two years now, doing busts and medallions of notables and non-notables alike, and I’ve taken photographs of all the work I’ve left behind in all those countries. Why do you ask?”
“I’d like to see them, if you don’t mind. Cyrus and I would like to have you over to dinner sometime soon, perhaps even tomorrow, if that’s possible. And I could show you my work.”
Fiona Nesbitt glanced inquiringly at Skeen.
Skeen had the sense that now she was almost afraid to look at him. He said, “My wife can at times be gloriously presumptuous, Miss Nesbitt. Of course, we’d like to have you over, whenever you’re free. We live not far from here, in Carmel Towers.”
“Well,” said Fiona Nesbitt, “I had planned to work all day on my autobiography, and then prepare to work on a client’s bust on Monday….”
Skeen frowned and asked, “Aren’t you a little too young to be writing an autobiography?”
“After the life I’ve led, Mr. Skeen, it’s wise to make an early start on one.”
Dilys grinned. “Please, give us a sample,” she challenged.
Fiona Nesbitt looked reluctant. “I don’t like talking about myself.”
“Except in an autobiography,” said Skeen, bemused.
Fiona Nesbitt looked doubtful. Then she seemed to make up her mind, and reached into her purse for a tin of Players cigarettes. She took one out and Skeen lit it for her. “All right, here goes, it’s an extremely abridged précis, so if you fall asleep listening to me, it’s your own fault.
“First of all, you’ll be surprised to learn that I’m a descendent of Sir Julius Caesar. No, not the one who invaded Britain. This one came some sixteen hundred years later. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer under James the First, and before that, under Elizabeth, he held a number of high offices, he was a judge and an MP and held all sorts of influential posts.
“Yes, there really was a Sir Julius Caesar, the son of an Italian immigrant who made good as a court physician to Queens Mary and Elizabeth. Well, old Julius, who died in 1636, had seven sons and a daughter by three consecutive wives. And of course the whole lot of them had their own offspring. The Moncrieffs and the Nesbitts and the Greens and the Newflowers – the Newflower branch died out fairly early in the game, as new flowers are wont to do – and after all those begettings over the centuries, today it’s just the two branches, the Moncrieffs of Hertfordshire and the Nesbitts of Sussex. A late family solicitor drew up a family tree chart to trace them all to settle inheritance questions. I go cross-eyed just imagining that tree.
“So, my full name is Fiona Moncrieff Nesbitt. Now, my parents are very strict about the spelling of their surname. They once won a suit against Inland Revenue because the tax people sent them a bill with an f‘ missing. And they’ve often returned mail as ‘addressee unknown’ when an f was absent from the address, resulting in the unavoidable snubbing of people they knew or wanted to get to know.
“My parents disowned me when, at the ripe old age of eighteen years, without their leave I married Captain Horace Nesbitt of the second battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, just before he was sent off. I never saw him again. He died that very year, during the First Ypres in 1914. A German shell struck him while he was leading a scouting party between the trenches, and so scattered him to the four winds they couldn’t find the parts. All I got back were the personal effects from his billet in the trenches under a note of consolation from his commanding officer.
“My parents still wouldn’t take me back, even for that, but Horace’s people took me in. I’d been fooling around with clay pottery just to pass the time, I had a knack for it, and produced a few busts of Nesbitt family members. They were so pleased with my raw, unruly talent, they paid for me to go up to London and study under Edouard Lanteri. Well, the rest is history. I gained a reputation for those busts, and for the medallion work. And here I am. I have a cozy cottage on the Nesbitt estate, which I hope to inhabit again for a long while when I get back home. I haven’t seen my parents since 1916. They think I’m a raving Bolshie.” Fiona Nesbitt seemed to sigh. “And, I’m still a widow.”
Nesbitt looked resigned, but not melancholy. Skeen could not imagine her capable of it. He leaned forward with a reassuring smile. “But an eminently marriageable one.”
Nesbitt frowned.”Thank you, and I won’t contest you on that point, please excuse my immodesty. But, I’ve lost count of the number of proposals I’ve turned down.” She paused to take a drag on her cigarette. “And propositions,” she added.
Dilys asked, ignoring Nesbitt’s last remark, asked, “You’ve found no one suitable?”
“No one,” said Nesbitt matter-of-factly. “Many of my suitors have been nice men, lonely gentlemen of means, but without the least notion of what a selfish and abrasive hellion I can be, and I gave them plenty of warning. Others have been ruthless, slope-headed brutes who expected me to become an ornament of their otherwise sorry lives. But I wasn’t willing to enter into a prolonged Punch-and-Judy union, as I’d observed others had. The only alternatives I seem to have had were between boredom and bullying.”
Skeen asked, “Are you a raving Bolshie?”
Nesbitt seemed to smile. “Well, I’ve consorted with all sorts of questionable people, people with strong opinions on politics. As have I, so I guess the government would have a file on me. But, I’m not a bomb-throwing anarchist or in league with any country’s club of Trotskyites, or anything like that. Why, I’ve even clinked glasses with assorted capitalists. I guess doing the busts of philandering plutocrats doesn’t count as much of a threat in my in the view of my country’s Security Service.” She sighed. “A wandering minstrel, I, a woman of shreds and patches. A fierce bad rabbit that’s wandered too far from the hutch for her own good.”
Dilys shook her head and said, “I think you’re one of the most personable people I’ve ever met. And I think your autobiography will be very entertaining.” She paused. “May I call you Fiona?”
Fiona Nesbitt seemed to smile, but warily. “You may, but I shan’t reciprocate until I know you better, Mrs. Skeen.” She tamped out in the glass ashtray another of the Players she had lit. “I think I shall be going now. This room has become a bit too humid…and I am tired.”
Skeen grinned. “Not of us, I hope.”
Fiona Nesbitt seemed to smile again. “Oh, no! Far from it, Mr. Skeen, Mrs. Skeen. You were the perfect antidote to the bovine creature. You have both redeemed the evening, and I am grateful for it. One attends these occasions hoping to meet someone interesting but too often takes away little or nothing to remember.”
Skeen glanced at Dilys, then took out a pen and drew one of Maud Skipton’s silk napkins closer. He wrote on it, then folded the napkin and handed it to Fiona Nesbitt. “Here are our telephone number and address, Miss Nesbitt. Feel free to call us any time. We hope you can come over tomorrow evening. We would be very pleased if you can. Or any time.”
Fiona Nesbitt took the napkin and put it into her purse with her tin of Players. She rose. “Thank you again for your kindnesses, Mr. and Mrs. Skeen. Good night.” She paused once to glance at Dilys, and gave Skeen one last look, and hurried away into the crowd.
Skeen stared at the crowd for a moment, even though the figure of Fiona Nesbitt had vanished into it. He said, “There’s a passion in that woman, Dilys. But I can’t determine its object.”
Dilys nodded. “Yes,” she answered. “There is a passion, aside from a dedication to her art.” She paused and studied her husband’s face. “She’s in love with you, Cyrus. I could tell.”
Skeen smiled. “So could I.” He leaned closer to Dilys. “But there’s another passion in her, darling, one aside from her art and me. She exudes mystery, an exotic kind I’ve never encountered before, so I can’t put my finger on it.” He paused. “But, I’m in love with you, darling. There couldn’t be anything between her and me. Had I met her before meeting you – hypothetically speaking – it might have been possible, with or without Marcus Agrippa. But, that was not the sequence of events.”
“I don’t like to think I had the luck of the lottery, Cyrus.”
“You didn’t. Had I been carrying on with Fiona Nesbitt, or with Vanessa Favaul – you remember her, don’t you? – and you came along, that would have been the end of my connection with them.”
Dilys cocked her head a little to one side. “You couldn’t love her…the same way?”
Skeen looked thoughtful. “No. With you, it was an internal ‘Wow!’ with a giant exclamation point, in a manner of speaking. With Fiona Nesbitt, there was a disinterested ‘Wow,’ but no exclamation point. You are complete, while she is not. I think we can agree on that point.” He reached over and took one of her hands. “You see, the punctuation makes all the difference.” Then he kissed her hand. “Shall we dance again? They’re playing ‘What’ll I Do?’ I love a slow dance with you.”
Dilys smiled and rose with him. Her hand on his arm, they threaded their way through the crowd in the direction of the music.
* * *
©2013 Edward Cline.