Candyland CHAPTER ONE The brunette is telling Ben that what he’s done with the space is truly remarkable. She’s a lawyer with the firm, and he can’t possibly imagine her knowing anything at all about matters architectural, so he guesses she’s flirting with him, although in an arcane legal sort of way.
The name of the law firm is Dowd, Dawson, Liepman and Loeb. It is on the thirty-sixth and thirty-seventh floors of the old Addison Building on Eighteenth Street and Ninth Avenue. The brunette is telling him that his multilevel concept echoes the very precepts of the law, exalted justice on high, abject supplicants below. Through the huge cathedral windows Ben designed for the eastern end of the space, he can see storm clouds gathering.
The brunette is drinking white wine. Ben is drinking a Perrier and lime. This is DDL&L’s first party in their new offices. They have invited all their important clients as well as the architect and interior designer who together restructured and redecorated the two top floors of the building. It is now ten minutes past six on the twenty-first of July, a Wednesday. Ben flew in this morning and is scheduled to take the eight A.M. flight back to Los Angeles tomorrow. He listens to the brunette telling him how wonderful he is. She is full figured and wearing a very low cut red cocktail dress.
He looks out again at the threatening sky.
• • •
Ben’s firm is called Ritter-Thorpe Associates. The company was Frank Ritter’s before Ben became a partner, hence the top billing. There are seven architects altogether, but Frank and Ben are the only partners. Their receptionist, Agata, is a Chicano girl they hired straight out of a high school in the Venice ghetto. She greets him warmly in her accented English, and then puts him through to Frank who, she informs him, “hass joss return from a meeting.”
“How’d it go?” Frank asks at once.
“Good,” Ben says. “Lots of nice comments, half a dozen people asking for a card.”
“Any mention of those windows that popped?”
“No, no. Why should there be? That was a long time ago, Frank.”
“Only six months.”
“Nobody mentioned it.”
“You should have had a model made.”
“Well . . .”
“Tested it in a wind tunnel.”
“Spilled milk,” Ben says. “Anyway, it worked out all . . .”
“We’re lucky it happened when it did. Every window in the place could have blown out.”
“Well, nobody mentioned it.”
“Still,” Frank says.
He’s not too subtly suggesting that Ben’s been letting too many details slip by nowadays. The air exchange for the storage room in the house in Santa Monica. The support for the free-standing staircase in the Malibu beach house. Minor details. Well, the windows popping out here in New York wasn’t so minor, they were lucky nobody got hurt. But that was the structural engineer’s fault, not Ben’s. Still, the architect always takes the blame.
“Did anybody say when we can expect final payment?” Frank asks.
“I didn’t bring it up.”
“Big party, no check,” Frank says.
“I’m sure it’ll be coming soon.”
“Unless they plan to bring up the windows again.”
“I don’t think so.”
“We’ll see,” Frank says, and sighs. “When are you coming back?”
“I’m on the eight o’clock flight tomorrow morning.”
“What time is it there, anyway?”
Ben looks at his watch.
“Five past seven.”
“What are your plans?”
“Fly safely,” Frank says, and hangs up.
Ben finds his airline ticket in his dispatch case, locates the phone number to call, and dials it. He knows it isn’t necessary to reconfirm, but he wants to make sure he’s on that flight. The woman he speaks to assures him that he is indeed confirmed for American’s number 33, leaving Kennedy at eight A.M. tomorrow, non-stop to LAX.
“That’s first class, correct?” he asks.
“First class, yes, Mr. Thorpe.”
“Thank you,” he says, and hangs up. He lifts the receiver again, waits for a dial tone, dials an 8 for long distance and then direct-dials his home number. It is ten past seven, which makes it ten past four in L.A. The phone keeps ringing. He hopes she’s back from the hospital by now. Come on, he thinks, pick up the . . .
“Ben? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I just got back to the hotel. My flight’s okay for tomorrow morning, I just checked.”
“Why wouldn’t it be okay?”
“No reason. Well, it’s raining here. Sometimes . . .”
“It’s raining here, too.”
“Sometimes rain can cause cancellations. Or delays. But everything seems to be all right. What I plan to do is leave the hotel at six-thirty tomorrow morn . . .”
“Isn’t that early? For an eight A.M. flight?”
“Well, I like to get there a little early. I should be in L.A. at a quarter to eleven. Shall I come directly to the hospital, or what?”
“They want to do a bypass,” Grace says.
“How does she look?”
“Gray. Tired. Sad. She’s resting quietly now, but the pain was excruciating.”
“I can imagine.”
“I’m exhausted, Ben.”
“I shouldn’t have come East,” he says.
“You didn’t know this would happen.”
“I should’ve come home the minute you called.”
“Nonsense. It was important that you stay.”
“I guess so. Anyway, I’ll be home tomorrow.”
“How did it go?”
“Oh, fine. The usual.”
“Have you had dinner yet?”
“No, I just got back. I want to shower and change, then I’ll go down.”
“Where will you eat?”
“I thought Trattoria. It’s right around the corner.”
“Yes, it’s good there.”
“I want to get to bed early. It’s been a busy day.”
“I’ll call again when I’m back from dinner,” he says.
“You don’t have to, Ben.”
“Well, I want to.”
“I’ll be here, but really, you don’t have to.”
“When will they do it, do you know?”
“Tomorrow morning. I think. It has something to do with all the numbers being right. I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
“I’ll try you when I get back.”
“Really, you don’t have to.”
“Well, whatever you say.”
“But call me if you need me, Grace.”
“Otherwise I’ll talk to you tomorrow morning.”
“I’ll be leaving for the hospital early.”
“Yes, but we’re three hours . . .”
“Right, I forgot.”
“In fact . . . well, let me see.”
He hears her sighing on the other end of the line.
“You’ll be asleep,” he says. “We’ll probably begin boarding around seven-thirty. That’s only four-thirty, your time. Maybe I’d better call you when I get back from . . .”
“For Christ’s sake, don’t worry about it!” she snaps.
The line goes silent.
“Well . . . if I don’t talk to you before then, I’ll see you at the hospital.”
“Call me if you need me, Grace.”
“Love you, too,” she says, and hangs up.
Gently, he replaces the receiver on its cradle.
It is always “Call me if you need me, Grace.”
In the twenty-two years they’ve been married, she has called him only once, and then to tell him that Margaret fell from a horse at camp. He travels a lot. There are always clients to confer with in St. Louis or Chicago, sites to inspect in New Orleans or New York, lectures to deliver in Omaha or Salt Lake City. He is Benjamin Thorpe, an important architect who is very much in demand.
It is still raining hard outside.
• • •
His daughter lives in Princeton, New Jersey, where her husband is a tenured professor of economics. Charles is perhaps the cheapest man in the United States of America, if not the entire world. It would never occur to him to make a long distance call to find out how Margaret’s grandmother is doing out there in the wilds of Los Angeles. Nor would it ever occur to her to pick up the phone of her own volition, call Ben here, call her mother out there for a progress report.
This is now twenty past seven. His darling daughter has known since twelve noon that her grandmother had a heart attack early this morning L.A. time, and that her mother is frantic with worry. But she has not called since Ben spoke to her earlier today. Perhaps she’s been too busy barbecuing hamburgers and hot dogs in her back yard.
He dials the New Jersey number now, hoping he won’t get Charles the First, as he refers to him in private to Grace, the implied hope being that one of these days Margaret will move on to a second, more desirable mate. He is happy when his granddaughter picks up the phone.
“This is the Harris residence,” she pipes in her three-year-old voice.
“Hi, Jenny,” he says.
“Is this Grandpa?”
“This is Grandpa. Is this Jenny?”
“Hi, Grandpa. Are you watching television?”
“No. Are you?”
“They’re still talking about John John.”
“Yes, darling, I know.”
“I want to go put flowers at his building.”
“Maybe Mommy will take you.”
“She says no. Will you take me, Grandpa?”
“I can’t, honey. I have to go back to L.A.”
“Ask her to take me, okay?” she says, and is suddenly gone. He waits. He does not like being a grandfather. He is only forty-three years old, and he blames his present premature senior-citizen status on his daughter, who married at the age of seventeen and delivered Jenny a scant ten months later. A man of forty-three—well, almost forty-four—should not be a grandfather. He does not enjoy being called Grandpa, or Gramps, or as Charles the First is fond of putting it, “Papa Ben.” He is Benjamin Thorpe, Esquire, famous architect whose multilevel concept echoes the very precepts of the law, exalted justice on high, abject supplicants below—and not anybody’s damn grandpa.
“She’s coming. Ask her,” she whispers, and puts down the phone with a clatter.
His daughter comes on, high-pitched and frantic as usual. He cannot imagine how he ever spawned such a nervous individual.
“She’s dead, right?” she says at once.
“No, Margaret, she’s not dead.”
“Everybody’s dying,” she says. “Isn’t it awful, what happened?”
“Honey, if Jenny wants to go put flowers . . .”
“I can’t take her into the city just for that, Dad.”
“It’s important to her,” he says.
“All the way down in TriBeCa, no less,” she says, dismissing it. “What’s Grandma’s condition?”
“She’s all right for now. They’ll be doing . . .”
“What do you mean for now?”
“She’s resting quietly. They’ll be doing a bypass tomorrow morning. Provided the numbers are right.”
“What numbers? Numbers?”
He sometimes wishes she’d gone to college instead of becoming an instant nervous mother. Why did she have to turn him into a grandfather so soon?
“They do various tests to determine whether it’s all right to operate.”
“I don’t know, I’m not a doctor, Margaret. They know what they’re doing, they do a dozen bypasses every day of the week.”
“Well, I hope so.”
“Don’t worry, she’ll be all right.”
“I hope so.”
There is a long silence on the line. He never seems to know what to say to his daughter these days. His own daughter.
“Why don’t you call Mom?” he suggests.
“Maybe I will,” she says.
Which means she won’t.
“Well, I have to go now,” he says.
“What time is your flight?”
“Eight tomorrow morning. Margaret?”
“These things are important to children.”
“I know, Dad, but . . .”
“I was only eight when his father got killed in Dallas. I still remember it.”
“Charles doesn’t think it’s a good idea,” she says.
There is another long silence.
“Do you want to come here for dinner?” she asks.
“I thought I’d get something near the hotel.”
“You’re always welcome here,” she says.
“Thank you, darling, but I really don’t think so.”
“Well . . . call me later, okay?” she says.
What the hell for? he wonders.
“I’ll talk to you in the morning,” he says.
“Dad?” she says. “Do you remember when you used to read to me on Christmas Eve?”
“ ‘ ’Twas the night before Christmas.’ Do you remember?”
“Yes,” he says. “I remember.”
“So do I,” she says.
She sounds almost wistful.
• • •
His personal telephone directory is written in a code only he can understand. In order to decipher it, he depends largely on his own very good memory; he can recall the plot, and also lines of dialogue, from every movie he’s ever seen. He can tell you which movie won the Academy Award in 1946. He can tell you who said, “Beware, Saxon, lest you strike horse!”
Heather’s last name is Epstein. She is a twenty-year-old architectural student whom he met in April, when he was doing a guest lecture at Cooper Union. Ben has her listed in his directory as Stein, Ephraim. Her area code is 212, of course, she lives right here in Manhattan. But to throw off the bloodhounds, whenever or if ever they decide to go sniffing through his book, he lists the area code as 516. So if anyone dials 516 and then the phone number in an attempt to get Ephraim Stein who is in reality Heather Epstein, he will instead get some stranger in Nassau County who never heard of Benjamin Thorpe.
He dials her number now.
Nine for a local call . . .
He has just come out of the shower, he is still wearing only a towel.
Two, six, oh . . .
Heather Epstein. Five-feet seven-inches tall, long blond hair, blue eyes, a wide-shouldered, big-breasted Jewish girl who knelt before him three hours after they met and asked him to touch her hair while she sucked his cock.
He feels himself becoming faintly tumescent under the towel.
The phone is ringing.
Once, twice . . .
Her little girl voice.
She sounds sleepy. She always sounds sleepy. He visualizes her in a baby doll nightgown. Wide hips, full thighs, long splendid legs.
“It’s Ben,” he says. “Ben Thorpe.”
At the lecture that night in April, she was wearing a long tan skirt, her beautiful legs came as a delightful surprise. Peach colored blouse, silken to the touch. That was the only time he went to bed with her, that one night here in New York. Ever since, it’s been phone sex. She sometimes calls him collect at the office and says, “Hi, what are you doing?” Which means, “Would you like to jerk off with me?”
“Guess what?” he says now.
“I’m here in New York.”
“Alone,” he says.
There is a silence.
“I haven’t heard from you in a while,” she says.
“I’ve been very busy.”
“I thought you’d forgotten all about me.”
“How could I forget you?”
“How do you know I haven’t got a boyfriend by now?”
“How do you know I haven’t?”
“I hope you haven’t.”
“Married man, can’t ever see me unless he’s in New York giving a guest lecture.”
“I’m in New York now,” he says.
“When did you get here?”
“I came in on the Red Eye this morning.”
“So what took you so long to call?”
“I’ve been busy all day.”
“You should have called earlier. I’m going to a party. I was just about to shower.”
“I’m already showered,” he says.
“So what would you like to do?” she asks, her voice lowering.
“What would you like to do?”
“What do you think I’d like to do?”
“I mean tonight. What would you like to do tonight? Heather, I’m here alone.”
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“It means we can spend the night together. The way we did that other time.”
“A hundred years ago.”
“Only this past spring.”
“A hundred years,” she says, and hesitates. “Anyway, how do you know I want to spend the night with you?”
“Maybe. How do you know I haven’t already made plans to spend the night with someone else?”
“I hope you haven’t.”
“Do you think I just sit around here waiting for you to call?”
“No, but . . .”
“Waiting for you to tell me to take off my panties?”
“Can you meet me?”
“Wherever you like. Trattoria dell’Arte? We can have dinner and then . . .”
“Right across the street from Carnegie Hall. Or would you rather I came downtown?”
There is another long silence.
Then she says, “I told you. I’m going to a party.”
“Skip the party. We’ll have our own party.”
“I’ll have my own party, anyway. You didn’t think I was going alone, did you? Don’t you think I have any friends?”
“I’m sure you do.”
“Why don’t you take your wife to Trattoria whatever?”
“She’s in Los Angeles. That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Heather. I’m alone. I want to see you. I want to spend the night with you.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, “I’ve made other plans,” and hangs up.
He looks at the phone receiver. He puts it back on the cradle. Rain is lashing the windows. I should have accepted whatever she was ready to give, he thinks.
• • •
He dresses casually but elegantly, a gray cashmere jacket, darker gray flannel trousers, a pale blue button-down shirt with a darker blue tie, blue socks and black shoes. He looks at himself in the mirror inside the closet door. Studies himself for several moments, and then shrugs. To tell the truth, he does not think of himself as particularly good looking. In a world of spectacularly handsome men sporting Calvin Klein jeans and bulging pectorals, he considers himself only so-so. Quite average, in fact. Five-feet ten-inches tall, a hundred and seventy pounds, eyes brown, nose a trifle too long for his face, hair dark, a totally average American male. Who are you? he wonders.
He goes to the mini bar, opens himself a Beefeater from one of the small bottles arrayed on the shelf, pours it over ice. He opens a small jar of olives, drops a pair into the gin. The olives slide down past the ice cubes. He holds the glass up to the light, shakes the cubes. Everything twinkles like silver and jade. Grace doesn’t like him to drink gin. That’s why he drinks it. Fuck you, Grace. Sitting in a black leather easy chair under a standing floor lamp, he sips his drink and leisurely consults his address book again. He can feel the brittle booze burning its way down to his gut, feel too a spreading anticipative warmth in his groin. He does not yet know who, but some woman somewhere will soon be offering him comfort.
Most of the listings are out-of-town numbers, the names changed so that they appear to be men’s names. Sometimes, he transmogrifies the name so completely that even with his phenomenal memory, he cannot for the life of him decipher the code. The challenge to recall becomes even more difficult wherever he’s substituted one city for another. Sarah Gillis, for example, who lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he spoke at the Art Institute on two separate occasions, is listed as Sam Dobie and her Chicago street address is listed properly, but he’s displaced it to Atlanta, Georgia. Her true telephone number follows not the 312 Chicago area code but instead the 404 code for Atlanta. He remembers Sarah Gillis with considerable ease because The Affairs of Dobie Gillis was one of his favorite movies, and Sarah was an astonishingly agile and inventive bed partner for the entire three nights he was in Chicago the first time, and the full week he stayed the second time.
Sarah has long blond hair on her head and wild black hair on her crotch and her unshaven armpits. She is a librarian, go ask. He frequently calls her from the office, and she describes torrid sex scenes for him while they both masturbate. He visualizes her in the stacks, coming all over Remembrance of Things Past. He is constantly amazed by the number of desirable women who will readily take off their panties and fondle themselves for him on the telephone. He attributes this neither to his charm nor his appearance. He merely wishes he’d known all this when he was sixteen. He may call Sarah later tonight. He is thinking that tonight he may pull out all the stops. Even call Heather again in the middle of the night, get her to do herself for him in contrition for her abrupt behavior ten minutes ago. Tonight is going to be the X-rated version of Home Alone. Tonight is going to be The Rains Came in garter belt and open-crotch panties.
Samantha is a black girl he met in New Orleans. He can remember every detail of her face and her body, but not her last name. Face as perfectly sculpted as Nefertiti’s, perky little breasts with stubby brown nipples, crinkly crisp cunt hair, they’d fucked the hours away on a rainy summer night while the funky sound of jazz floated up from Bourbon Street—Samantha what? Not that she would do him any good here in New York City on a stark and dormy night, not all the way down there in New Orleans. He keeps leafing through the pages of his little black book, which is in fact soft brown Italian leather, purchased at Gucci on Rodeo Drive. Soft Italian leather and something much harder, more insistently prominent in his English flannel trousers now. He sips at his gin. Drinking and sex go well together, he’s discovered, the hell with Shakespeare’s observation. He takes another sip, exclaims, “Beautiful,” out loud, and keeps turning pages. He is leafing through the M’s when he comes to Milton, David. Oh yes, he thinks, Millicent Davies, right here in New York City, although the area code listed in his book is 813. Yes. Dear, dark-eyed, dark-haired Millie. He takes another sip of the gin . . .
“Beautiful,” he says again.
. . . and dials.
He gets a busy signal, hangs up, puts on the speaker phone—nobody home to eavesdrop, how nice—and hits the redial button. Still busy. He picks up a pencil, begins alternately doodling and hitting the redial button. Millie is a marathon talker. He looks at his watch. It is already five minutes to eight. Ahh, the phone is ringing now. Once, twice . . .
“Jesus, Ben, I’ve got a house full of people here!”
“I just wanted to . . .”
“I told you never to call me again! What the hell’s wrong with you?”
And hangs up.
He looks at the receiver. He feels instant anger. What the hell’s wrong with me? he thinks. What the hell’s wrong with you? After everything we did together on the phone? All those times? You ungrateful bitch! he thinks, and slams the receiver down onto the cradle.
Ed McBain, a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America's coveted Grand Master Award, was also the first American to receive the Diamond Dagger, the British Crime Writers Association's highest award. His books have sold more than one hundred million copies, ranging from the more than fifty titles in the 87th Precinct series (including the Edgar Award–nominated Money, Money, Money) to the bestselling novels written under his own name, Evan Hunter—including The Blackboard Jungle (now in a fiftieth anniversary edition from Pocket Books) and Criminal Conversation. Fiddlers, his final 87th Precinct novel, was recently published in hardcover. Writing as both Ed McBain and Evan Hunter, he broke new ground with Candyland, a novel in two parts. He also wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. He died in 2005.