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Excerpt from Edward Cline’s Novel The Black Stone (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2: A Restful Weekend 

Skeen’s face was squarish, with prominent cheekbones and a deceptively grim mouth. His eyes changed from hazel to green, depending on the light, and were set beneath a smooth, untroubled brow that seemed formidable but which was not. 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 over his left eye. Occasionally a curl from the crest would rest on his brow. He was continually and unconsciously brushing it aside. Or his wife, Dilys Jones-Skeen was, when she wasn’t caressing it in admiration.

 When he entered the apartment, no one greeted him. The Fada radio in the gallery-length living room was blaring “Happy Days are Here Again.” He thought to himself, “If I hear that song one more time, I’ll scream.” But as he was shaking out of his wet raglan, Valda Redfern, his wife’s model, came prancing from the direction of the studio headed for the kitchen. She was a slim, green-eyed, vivacious woman. Her black hair, once long and lustrous, was now in a Louise Brooks-style bob.

She was completely naked.

Skeen stopped short, startled, as did Redfern with a squeak of surprise. “Oh!” She paused long enough – too long, thought Skeen with amusement – to say, “I was on my way to get a coffee for Dilys.”

“What have you done to your hair?” Skeen had seen her naked before. Redfern was always flirting with him without a hope of success. Still, seeing her naked usually left him at a loss for words, except to ask a banal question.

“I’ll tell you when I’m modest,” the woman replied with a grin, turning to dart back down the corridor to the studio for a robe.

Skeen finished putting his raglan and trilby in the closet, picked up his briefcase, turned off the radio, and strode to his study. It was there that he had, over the past several years, established a minor literary reputation writing under the pen name of Emmett Maddock. His short stories had appeared in many popular magazines, stories whose plots and themes were drawn from many of his real-life cases.

He was a scion of Eastern wealth. His father was a retired banker who had invested wisely in a number of American businesses and industries. The Depression had hardly affected him. He did not need to work, but his private investigations career had served as a means to apply his logic and sense of justice to his personal profit. Someday, he knew, after his father had passed on, he would be expected to take over the task of managing and preserving the family’s wealth.

Dilys Jones-Skeen, his wife, was once his agency secretary, and now illustrated his stories when he wrote them. But he had written fewer stories over the last year, preferring to devote his mind and hone his skills in the direction of nonfiction articles critical of the culture and politics. His last three cases, which involved the discovery and exposure of Progressive, Nazi and Communist conspiracies in the country, had lit in him an unquenchable desire to combat evil on paper and in person in his capacity as a detective.

Skeen put his briefcase on the floor and switched on the desk lamp. On the desk was a pile of mail, but propped up against the lamp, probably by Dilys, was an envelope from American Mercury magazine. He picked it up just as he heard someone behind him. It was Dilys.

She was a svelte 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 moved away. Her face was a perfect proportion of features, a combination, Skeen once observed to himself, of Carole Lombard’s and Greta Garbo’s. It could express joyful effervescence or forthright combativeness. “Your scowl, darling,” he had once told her, “could send a company of Marines scrambling for cover.” She wore her hair long, ending, unfashionably for the time, in an outward curl at the nape of her neck.

She was a painter. She did commissioned portraits and also worked independently and often showed her paintings in local galleries. She specialized in nudes, which made many people blush and hesitant to purchase her work. From her secretary days, 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, she explained her fascination with the bust, because it most resembled her husband.

Valda Redfern was her chief model and close friend.

Dilys waited expectantly. Skeen stepped forward and kissed her lightly on the lips. He waved the envelope in the air once. “This must be one of two things: a rejection, or an acceptance with a check.”

Last month Skeen had finished his first major article, “Trichotomy,” which discussed the motivation and psychology of criminality, and submitted it to American Mercury.

“Hello, darling, to you, too,” Dilys answered with a grin. “Go ahead. Open it.”

Skeen turned, picked up a letter opener, and slit open the envelope. He removed a letter and the blue rectangle of a check for fifty dollars. He unfolded the letter. It informed him that his article would appear in the May number of the Mercury under the title, “The Trichotomy of Crime.” It was signed by H.L. Mencken, editor, and invited him to submit further articles.

Skeen grinned. Dilys raised an eyebrow. “No whoops of joy?” she asked.

Skeen put on a mock frown. “You know I don’t ‘whoop.’”

“Well, we’ve got to celebrate somehow.”

‘What’s for dinner?”

“Anika’s fixed some scrumptious goulash. Shall I invite Valda to the festivities?”

“Only if she’s clothed in more than just that skimpy bathrobe you have her put on when there are visitors.”

Dilys laughed. “We must choose the appropriate wine.” She led her husband out of the study.

Θ

Over dinner, Skeen asked Dilys, “How soon do you expect to finish ‘Phryne’?” He knew that she had been struggling for several weeks to establish the theme of the painting. Dilys’s last major painting had been of Circe, and before that, of Salome and Hypatia, all modeled by Valda Redfern. Her first full length nude was of Vanessa Favaul, a client of Skeen’s who met with a tragic ending two Decembers ago. These canvases were lined up along one wall of the studio. On the wall, at the end of the canvases, had been hung a framed color pencil head of the late Fiona Nesbitt, the British spy Dilys and Skeen had befriended last month. 

“When I can get Valda to stop fidgeting.”

Valda, sitting across from Skeen, made a face. “That Greek robe you’ve had me pose in is scratchy. Or I’m allergic to muslin.”

“It’s the right color, Valda, and I couldn’t find another cloth like it. And it’s a very difficult white to work with.”

Valda said, “I’ll scour some shops tomorrow to see if I can find a replacement.” She also modeled gowns and other women’s wear for the city’s top department stores and fashion salons.

Skeen said, after a sip of his wine, “I’m presuming there’ll be other figures in this opus, Dilys. After all, to whom would Phryne be baring her bosom?”

Skeen was familiar with the many legends about Phryne, the Greek courtesan who allegedly bared her breasts to an all-male jury trying her on a charge of impiety, and who offered to rebuild the walls of Thebes with her wealth. There were other, less sensational stories about her, handed down by several chroniclers of antiquity. Dilys had schooled him on all of them before making the first exploratory stroke in pencil. 

Dilys said, “Oh, I’ll have some men in the background, wearing the appropriate expressions. They won’t have a choice but to acquit. They won’t punish her for being beautiful, and would probably congratulate her on her impiety. Pity would be the last thing on their minds. Admiration, yes. Even hopeful lust. Praxiteles did three statues of her.”

Valda grinned. “Dilys will call it ‘The Pride of Phryne.’”

Skeen winked at the model. “I can’t imagine a better model for the subject.”

Valda nodded in acknowledgement. “Thank you, sir.” She paused and looked mischievous. She said to Dilys, “I think one of those jurors should look a lot like Mr. Skeen here. Don’t you think? You should’ve seen the look on his face a while ago.” Then she turned and winked at Skeen.

Skeen lit a cigarette, sat back, smiled, and waited for Dilys to respond.

Dilys scrutinized him for a moment. “That’s a good idea, Valda. I just may ask him to model that look for me.”

Θ

After dinner, in his study, Skeen opened the mail that he had left behind. It was mostly fan letters forwarded to him by two of his short story publishers, and most of them asked when they could expect the next Ginger O’Quill murder mystery. Two of the letters were from individuals seeking to employ his detective services. They had somehow managed to learn his residential address. Skeen paid the city telephone directory extra to not publish either his residential telephone number or his address. Agency business correspondence went directly to his office. He did not answer such intrusive queries because he did not want to encourage more of them.

But, he felt some obligation to answer the fan mail. He would dictate some excuse to Clara Reyes, his secretary, on Monday, and she would type out replies to the writers and send them off once he had signed them. He had a numbered post office box that would serve as a return address.

He poured himself a glass of bourbon and picked up the letter from American Mercury, and then the check. He smiled and shook his head. Well, it was a start.

Dilys came in then and sat in the armchair before his desk. She took a cigarette from the silver box near the lamp and lit it with his desk lighter. “Valda’s gone and won’t be back until Monday. That will give me time to work out some kinks without her fidgeting. Anika’s done the dishes and is gone for the weekend, too.”

Anika Miller, their maid and cook, had alternate Saturdays and Sundays off. Skeen said, “I thought she was supposed to be here tomorrow.”

“I gave her the whole weekend off. I want some time alone with my flirtatious husband.”

Skeen chuckled. He reached for the bourbon bottle and a glass on the shelf in back of him and poured his wife a half measure.

When she had tasted it, she asked, “How did it go with Professor Lerner?”

Skeen shrugged and also lit an Old Gold from the cigarette box. “As well as can be expected in the circumstances. He seems to have calmed down. He understood the near impossibility of what he asked me to accomplish. He wouldn’t accept the check.”

“Do you think the girl’s killer or killers can ever be found?”

Skeen shook his head. “No, not unless they make some stupendous mistake and show their hand again.”

The mariner’s clock on another shelf chimed eight o’clock. Dilys finished the drink and put out her cigarette. “I think it’s stopped raining. Let’s go for a stroll. I like walking on glistening sidewalks.”

Skeen rose and glanced out the window that faced Grace Cathedral a few blocks away on California Street. Below, he could see people about without opened umbrellas. “All right.”

Θ

“You go ahead,” said Skeen when they returned two hours later. They stood outside their bedroom door. “I want to look up something. It’s something Professor Lerner mentioned. It won’t take a moment.” 

“Don’t be long, Cyrus. You look tired in spite of your energy.”

In his study, he consulted his several sets of encyclopedias for information on Islam. None was to be found in the Funk & Wagnall’s, nor in the Collier’s. There was some information on mosques and something called the Kaaba in Mecca in the twenty-volume New International Encyclopedia. All the articles he was able to find referred to Moslems as “Mohammedans.”

He was up until two o’clock. He closed the last volume, yawned and stretched his arms. He had acquired some basic information about Islam from the articles, but not nearly enough to satisfy his appetite or his curiosity. He would be taking the roaster back out tomorrow after all, to the library and some book shops. He switched off the desk lamp and went to the bedroom.

Dilys curled up against him beneath the sheets. Skeen encircled her with an arm and was soon fast asleep himself.

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