- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781529135558
- Imprint: Century
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 400
- RRP: $32.99
NEW YORK CITY / 1937
In the bar room of Jack & Charlie’s 21 Club, toys dangled from the ceiling. Airplanes, ships, and trucks — whimsical gifts from rich and famous patrons. First-time visitors were usually distracted by the playful clutter overhead, but Lamont Cranston was a regular, and had been since the place opened. Besides, his focus tonight was totally on his dazzling companion.
The venue had been Margo’s choice. She knew this place was Lamont’s favorite, and tonight was a very special occasion. She had hinted on the car ride that she had something special to tell him. Usually that meant a lead on an intriguing new case, but with Margo Lane, you never knew. She was full of surprises, both naughty and nice, which was one of the many, many reasons Lamont adored her. As his partner in the crime-fighting business, Margo was the only person in the world who knew all his secrets.
Tonight, Lamont had planned a little surprise of his own. Out of all the women he had known — and there were many — no one else had impressed, challenged, and excited him like Margo. From the day he met her, he knew they were meant to be together, and the ring he was hiding in his pocket would seal it. Assuming she said yes.
As for Margo’s little secret, Lamont was very curious. But clearly she was going to make him wait just a little bit longer.
“Remember this place during Prohibition?” she asked, looking around the room. Lamont stretched his tuxedoed arm to signal a waiter for refills. His first drink had given him a pleasant buzz, and he didn’t want to lose it.
“I remember the liquor shelves would tip back whenever Jack and Charlie got wind of a raid,” he said.
“And then,” said Margo, “all the pretty bottles would slide right down into the sewer.” With her long, slender arms, she made a swooping gesture, goofy and elegant at the same time. “Such a waste!”
Margo was wearing a white Schiaparelli evening dress, with black velvet flares over her bare shoulders and a matching bow in front. In the room’s amber glow, she could not have looked more beautiful. Lamont noticed that even the bartender, no stranger to stunning women, had angled himself for a better view. A waiter appeared with two fresh drinks on a silver tray. An old-fashioned for the gentleman. Champagne for the lady.
Lamont and Margo plucked their glasses off the tray before the waiter had a chance to place them on the table. As the young man started to turn back toward the bar, Lamont put a hand up to stop him in his tracks.
“Shall we order?” he asked Margo.
“Why not?” she said, running a manicured fingernail around the rim of her glass. “But please, Lamont — nothing heavy.” She passed her other hand lightly over her belly, with its barely perceptible bump, so slight Lamont hadn’t yet noticed.
“Two lobster salads,” said Lamont, without even glancing at the menu. It was September. A good month for lobster. He put his glass to his lips and sipped, feeling the sweetness of the sugar on his tongue and the warm burn of whiskey in the back of his throat.
“Well?” he said, leaning forward. “You had something you wanted to tell me?”
Margo just smiled, her thin eyebrows slightly arched.
“Is that the Titanic?” she asked, pointing toward a corner of the ceiling, where a model of a large steamship hung between two pairs of brass opera glasses.
“I think that would be in poor taste, considering,” said Lamont, squinting into the collection overhead.
“It’s probably the Queen Mary.”
“You’re probably right,” said Margo.
She looked like she was about to say something else. But before she could speak, two plates were already being set on the table. The service in this place was impeccable. On each plate, gobs of snowy-white lobster meat nestled in a tangle of chopped greens, topped with a lace of cream sauce and flecked with small croutons. Lamont and Margo each speared a morsel of lobster. They lifted their forks and tapped them together in a playful toast.
“To us,” said Lamont.
“To secrets,” whispered Margo, her eyes on his. She slid a chunk of lobster into her mouth as Lamont took his first small bite.
“You can’t hold out forever, you know,” he said, “I have my methods.”
“Maybe I’m just holding out for dessert,” said Margo. Her eyes widened. She dropped her fork. “Lamont!” Her voice was suddenly pinched and pained. At the same moment, Lamont felt a hot rush in his skull, like somebody had just set his frontal lobes on fire. His throat tightened in a sharp spasm and his hands flew up reflexively to his neck. Margo’s head rolled back as a small stream of white foam oozed from between her rose-tinted lips. Her slender body went limp.
Lamont knew instantly what had happened. But his vocal cords were tightening. He could barely squeeze out the word.
LAMONT LURCHED TO his feet with so much force that the small round table crashed to one side, dumping a clatter of glasses and plates onto the floor. Guests at other tables sat frozen in place. A busboy backed up against the wall, his metal tray trembling against his chest. Margo was already past standing, almost past breathing. White foam now cascaded in a bubbly froth across the bow on her dress.
Lamont spun his chair aside and reached for her. He slid one arm under Margo’s knees, the other behind her shoulders. Her head was loose and hanging back, her eyes half shut.
As Lamont staggered toward the door with Margo in his arms, a few waiters jumped to push chairs and serving carts aside. Lamont couldn’t think. He could hardly see! Through the small window in the front door, he could barely make out the vertical lines of the iron gate outside. Just a few more steps until they were outside.
Near the door, a maître d’ loomed. Not moving to help. Just staring, arms folded across his chest. In a flash, for just a split second, Lamont saw the man’s elegant evening suit replaced by a golden robe. Or did he? Was he delirious? Was this really happening? Margo! Margo was all that mattered. He barely noticed the foam spilling from his own mouth, running down the front of his tux, dripping onto the tips of the maître d’s expensive shoes. As Lamont kicked the door open, he felt the maître d’ lean toward him.
“Was everything to your liking, Mr. Cranston?” he asked with a cruel smile.
In that moment, Lamont knew the truth. Now he realized there was only one chance. One way to possibly save Margo and himself. And he knew it was the longest of long shots.
The sidewalk was a few steps up from the restaurant’s sunken entrance. Lamont stumbled on the lowest step, hard enough to scrape a hole in his trousers. He adjusted his grip as he struggled to hold Margo up. Her high-heeled shoes hung from her small feet by thin, glittery straps. Then, through the fog and fever clouding his brain, Lamont heard a maniacal, deepthroated laugh.
He knew that laugh.
“MY CAR!” LAMONT shouted.
The young valet always kept Lamont’s roadster close. For a crisp five-dollar bill, he would sit in the sleek black Mercedes-Benz SSK for the whole evening, keeping it warmed up and ready. When the valet heard Lamont call out, he put the powerful car in gear and pulled up to the entrance. Lamont freed one hand enough to wrench the passenger door open. As gently as he could, he slid Margo onto the soft leather seat. He pushed her long legs into the narrow passenger compartment and slammed the door.
The valet was trembling as he held the driver’s-side door open. Just twenty minutes earlier, Lamont had tossed him the keys with his usual blind over-the-shoulder flip. And, as always, he had tried not to stare too long at Mrs. Cranston. And now there she was, crumpled and soiled, her beautiful makeup smeared on Lamont’s jacket sleeve. The valet had seen plenty of passed-out drinkers being dragged from the 21 Club. This, he could tell immediately, was not that.
“Mr. Cranston,” said the valet. “What can I . . . ?” But Lamont was already sliding behind the wheel. “Move!” he croaked.
The car was pointing east on Fifty-Second Street. Lamont jammed his foot down on the clutch, shifted into first gear, and pressed on the gas pedal. Lamont knew Manhattan as well as any cabbie, but the pain in his head and the haze in his eyes were already making driving a challenge. His destination was 6.2 miles south. He had measured and timed it from midtown twice, just in case. But he had always assumed that he would be riding in an ambulance, not driving himself under the influence of a potent neurotoxin.
He blasted through the Fifth Avenue intersection, dodging well-dressed couples and a beefy beat cop. A yellow Ford cab swerved onto a sidewalk to avoid a T-bone collision with the speeding Mercedes.
Lamont took the turn south onto Second Avenue hard, mounting the curb momentarily and nearly crushing a pair of leashed poodles walking a couple of yards ahead of their master. Margo’s head rolled left and right on the headrest and banged against the side window. But Lamont knew she couldn’t feel it. She couldn’t feel anything. He looked over and forced a few words through his constricted throat.
“Do not die!” he said hoarsely. “Do not die!”
Margo stirred slightly. Her lips moved and her eyelids flickered. Then she slumped back again, silent and still.
“Do not die!” Lamont ordered again. Had she even heard him?
He swerved to avoid a woman with a baby carriage and almost sideswiped a city bus heading in the opposite direction. Still, he kept the pedal down, his hand on the horn, blasting a warning to anyone within earshot. As he accelerated, the roar of the supercharged Mercedes engine made its own statement.
At Houston Street, Lamont careened into a screaming right turn, then headed south on Bowery and hooked onto St. James. As St. James turned into Pearl, a path of light stretched overhead, out to his left. The Brooklyn Bridge. Not far now!
Suddenly the darkness beneath the bridge was blasted into fiery brightness. A lightning bolt struck the pavement just in front of Lamont’s car.
Pulverized roadway spidered his windshield as he swerved through curls of white smoke. One headlight was shattered, the other cracked. Lamont was half blind, and so was his car.
Seconds later, another bolt struck just behind, showering Lamont and Margo with pellets of asphalt. Lamont grimaced and gripped the wheel even tighter. Along with the echo of the blasts, a single name reverberated in his brain.
“Khan! Khan did this!”
Lamont sped down Water Street. To his left, he could make out the shapes of docks and barges crowding the edge of the East River. Ahead, a row of darkened warehouses loomed as thick black profiles against the night sky.
Lamont pulled off Water Street into a narrow alley, where the surface turned into rough gravel. He eased the Mercedes between brick walls and battered loading platforms. At the last warehouse in the row, he stopped abruptly and killed the engine. He didn’t bother to open his door. He just threw himself over it, then clung to the hot hood of the car as he moved around toward Margo’s side. When he opened the passenger door, she toppled into his arms like a sack of bones.
He flung one of her limp arms over his shoulder and dragged her toward the warehouse’s heavy metal door. Her elegant high heels scraped on the pavement. The first, then the second dropped off. Lamont was wheezing, his chest now burning as fiercely as his head. He wiped a fresh stream of foam from his mouth.
Supporting Margo with one arm, Lamont pounded on the warehouse door. There was no special code. Or if there was, he had forgotten it. All he knew was that he needed to get inside. Right now! He pounded again, scraping his knuckles on the rough, rusted metal. He felt his knees buckling and struggled to keep Margo upright. As he raised his fist again, the door opened. A blast of hot light shot out into the night. It was almost too much for his eyes to take. A figure in a white coat stood in the doorway. Lamont gasped. He didn’t have much breath left in him. Just enough for three short sentences.
Cindy Thomas was tuned in to her police scanner as she drove through the Friday-morning rush to her job at the San Francisco Chronicle.
It was four nights before Christmas Eve, and the city of San Francisco had decked the halls, houses, and grand public edifices in a sparkling, merry Christmas display.
Temperatures that late January morning plunged to four degrees above zero, and still people came by the hundreds of thousands, packing both sides of the procession route from Capitol Hill to the White House.
I watched the eight-story apartment building on 161st, about half a block from Melrose Avenue.
Just after 4 a.m. under a starless sky, a man in a well-worn tweed coat and black knit cap crossed Broadway onto Front Street
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