Meet Miranda Corbie, ex-escort, new PI, and old hand at working security for Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair.
Like the city of San Francisco, she’ll resonate in your own memory, long after you finish the story.
From award-winning author Kelli Stanley, Memory Book is the first short story to feature Miranda Corbie, and a prequel to both City of Dragons and City of Secrets.
A Miranda Corbie Short Story
“You’re the lady detective, right? Miss Miranda Corbie?”
Miranda brushed the Threlkeld’s Scone crumbs off her navy blue blazer, sipped the coffee. Too goddamn hot. She set it back down on the B-western fence post around Midget Village, looked at the eager girl in front of her.
About twenty, indeterminate blond, blue eyes shiny like a doll’s. Small, fine shaped wrists, fingers good for sewing work, soft, long, and French manicured. She stared at Miranda as if she expected her to pull out a .38 and shoot something.
“I work for Sally Rand. I’m also a private investigator. If you need the law, there’s a policeman right around—”
The girl shook her head, soft curls trembling. She was wearing a brown cotton print, one of the Junior Miss varieties from Magnin, sensible tan shoes and a yellow cardigan sweater. All she needed was a fraternity pin. Gust of wind from the Bay rippled through the cotton. She shivered.
“N-no, Miss Corbie. I … I think you’re the only one who can help Gran. She absolutely won’t let us go to the police, that’s the first thing Madge and I tried to do.”
Miranda leaned against the rough wood fence and stared across the yard, watching Shorty Glick pull a quick draw on one of the other midgets. A fat lady in black crepe laughed like a seal, See’s candy caramel showing between her teeth. Shorty glanced over at her and nodded his ten gallon hat, sunlight glancing off the shiny, silver metal of his little boy gun.
Miranda reached into the front pocket of her jacket, shook out a Chesterfield. Her eyes met the college girl’s while she lit the stick and drew down hard on the tobacco.
“What’s your name—and who told you about me?”
The girl intertwined long fingers in a knot, untying them again. Spanish music, slow guitar and fast tambourines, floating from the turnstiles, while shouts from the kids in the Roll-O-Plane drifted down the Gayway. Miranda sipped the coffee. Right temperature, black as she liked it.
“M-my name is Virginia Roberts. One of the waitresses over at the White Star Tuna restaurant saw—saw us upset, and when she heard Gran didn’t want to go to the police, she said you might be able to help. She said you worked for Sally Rand. The man at the—the entrance told me where to find you.”
“Does your grandmother know you’re here?”
“Yes, Miss Corbie. Madge—Madge is my older sister—is with her. They’re at Ghirardelli’s right now.”
Miranda blew a stream of smoke over the blonde’s head, watched it drift apart across the midway. Door to Artists and Models opened, Artie Shaw’s “Deep in a Dream” on aching clarinet, men shuffling out with stained fedoras, hands held low, faces smeared with sweat.
“What did your grandmother lose?”
Virginia’s mouth gaped open, gums pink, teeth Pepsodent white. “My goodness, you—that waitress was right, she said you look more like a—a movie star, but you really are a detective, aren’t you, Miss Corbie?”
She gave half a smile to the girl and dropped the Chesterfield, crushing it out in the sawdust with a navy blue pump. “I figured it wasn’t a murder case. I’ve got to get back to Sally’s.”
Miranda nodded toward the matching Western-style porch across the midway, Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch in foot high letters across the top.
“It’s two-fifteen now. I can meet you after five. The fee’s twenty dollars a day, plus expenses.”
Virginia opened a dark brown clutch purse with her hand, dug around, and pulled out a crumpled ten dollar bill. She handed it to Miranda, voice solemn.
“I believe this is called a retainer. My sister and I can pay you, Miss Corbie, even if Gran doesn’t approve.”
Miranda tucked her purse under her arm, picked up the Hills Brothers coffee cup. “Save it for this evening. We can meet at the Owl Drug Store counter at five fifteen. What did your grandmother lose?”
The girl drew the sides of her sweater together, face darkening. A glint of gold shone on her neck line. “It was theft, Miss Corbie. Somebody stole her Memory Book.”
The Owl Drug Store was a temple to the middle man, just like the headquarters church on Powell and Market. Tourists fresh from Vacationland shopped with glazed-over eyes, bewildered, foot-sore, numb.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I’ve spent $12.35 on a Treasure Island china set, a silk tie, three boxes of hankies and a bakelite radio. Buy a set of World’s Fair glasses and an ice pick, my child, and go forth and multiply.
Miranda squeezed past the aspirin and foot relief customers, avoided a pair of newlyweds admiring a Golden Gate International Exposition card table, and got in line behind a little boy in a black and white cowboy suit holding a Whiz comic book. His heavy-set mother was biting her lips, trying to figure out if Tangee or Tattoo made her look any thinner.
She escaped the sales floor with two packs of Chesterfields, and threaded her way to the lunch counter, finding elbow room at the far end. Took a deep breath and looked around.
No Virgina Roberts, no black-draped old lady grandmother.
The Wurlitzer in the corner piped Ella Fitzgerald singing about her lost yellow basket, song struggling to be heard above three kids chasing each other around a table of tired mothers, and the guffaws of the man in a postal uniform sitting on the opposite end of the bar.
A Tisket, A Tasket, she took my yellow basket …
She caught the eye of the thin soda jerk, his white hat stained with chocolate syrup. “Coffee, please. Black.”
He made an inarticulate noise in this throat, and shoved a buffalo china cup and saucer toward her, sloshing the coffee. Miranda slapped a dime on the Formica, mopped the spill with a napkin.
“Watch what the hell you’re doing—you could burn somebody.”
A pudgy man in wrinkled brown turned toward her, face red. His cheeks got redder when he focused his eyes. His large hand smoothed back the reddish, curly hair, trying to mask the receding hairline. He leaned forward, smiling with yellow teeth.
“Uh—ain’t I seen you somewheres before? Someplace nice, I’m thinkin’ …”
Miranda stared at the 1939 calendar on the wall behind the pie case, sepia scene of a little blonde girl hugging a German shepherd. She sipped the coffee.
September 13th. Not much time left for the Fair. No time left for anybody, no time, no time. Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that Aryan swing, German shepherds wearing swastikas and goose-stepping over Europe …
“Lady—y’ hear me? I said I’ve seen you somewheres an’ I’m wonderin’ where … you in a show, maybe? Yeah, a show a’ some kind is what I’m thinkin …”
Eyes flicked up and down slowly, pale gray tongue between his teeth. He sidled closer, left leg touching hers.
She set down the cup, staring at her large Scots-Irish fingers, peat picker hands. Tired, so tired. Maybe one day there would be no Nude Ranch and no Club Modernes, no jack-off in the corner of Sally’s, pressing himself against the glass, no benevolent and protective Elk trying to stick a hand between her legs, his wife back home in Hayward, paying her to get the evidence.
Maybe one day. But not today.
She turned toward the pudgy man, his eyes eager, pleading, bowler over his lap.
“You’ve been to Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch?”
He held his breath for a second, exhaled and nodded at the same time. Moved closer, pushing against her blue skirt, hairy hand splayed on the counter.
She picked up the coffee cup, drained the rest. “You can see me there.”
Breath was faster, face and scalp redder than his hair. He held the bowler against his pants, leaned inward to the counter. The soda jerk was mopping another spill about five customers down.
“I seen—I thought I seen—well, honey … how ‘bout lettin’ me see, uh, more o’ you outside o’ them walls? I got a lot more than twenty-five cents.”
His teeth parted in a leer, stench of flat beer and Choward’s Lavender, and he stood up, still holding the hat over his hard-on.
Miranda tucked her purse under her arm. “So you’re offering me money to fuck you, is that right?”
He gulped at the word, red draining to white. “Hon-ey … I, uh, ain’t never heard no woman say that, uh, that word before … let’s just say I’m, uh, ready to pay for a good time. An’ from what I seen at Sally’s I know it’ll be good.”
Miranda nodded, reached into her pocket and shook out a Chesterfield. “You did see me at Sally’s. I work security.”
His mouth opened and shut, red fading, bowler starting to slip.
She reached for an Owl matchbook from the counter, struck twice and lit the cigarette. Stared at him over the blue-gray smoke. “You’re under citizen’s arrest for solicitation.”
He stood rooted, mouth still open, red back in his face, small eyes darting through the folds of sunburned flesh. Sweat beaded his scalp, and he shoved the hat on his head, fear giving way to anger, always to anger. Miranda blew a smoke ring, watched it drift over his head like a dirty halo.
Strangled noise in the back of his throat, push through the couples lining up at the counter.
One, two, three, and out.
She met the weak blue eyes of the soda jerk. Shoved the dime across the counter and threaded through the crowd at the Owl, Bing Crosby crooning “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” from the Wurlitzer.
The giant cash register rang up another visitor, number 34,435. Slow day.
Miranda leaned against the east wall of the Owl, facing the Gayway. Smell of corn on the cob, hot dogs and frozen custard cones, screams from girls on the Cyclone Roller Coaster, giant, wet splash of the Diving Bell.
Won again, and no bluff called. She could see the look on Grogan’s face, oily and red above the police desk.
“Can’t collar him for soliciting, Corbie. Once an escort, always an escort. If I arrest him, I gotta arrest you. I don’t think you’d like that much, would you, Miss Private Detective?” And he’d laugh until he coughed, throat purple, then spit something on the ground near her feet.
Once a fucking escort, always a fucking escort.
Forget the Incubator Babies case, forget the fact that she solved Burnett’s murder, Burnett who’d trained her to be bait for his divorce cases and nothing more.
“You’re a good soldier, Randy, and you learn fast …”
Somewhere on Treasure Island was Jose Iturbi, playing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, ladies in gloves and the latest coiffure by Marcel dreaming of leaving their husbands, dreaming of Spanish lovers and flamenco guitars and wine.
She blew a stream of smoke toward the Avenue of the Olives.
Dream of Spain was dead, decayed, no laughter in Madrid, no Cava in Valencia.
Her eyes closed, and the calliope from the Ferris Wheel started to play Someone to Watch Over Me …
“Christ, Randy, you’re hearing things again. Lie still. You can listen to my heart beat.”
“I hear your heart beat even when we’re not like this.”
“Can you hear it now? Should be a little faster …”
“Johnny … Johnny, was that a plane? Are you sure—”
Fingers to lips. Skin over skin, weight over her, holding her, owning her.
“Shh. I told you I’d always watch over you. Trust me, Miranda. Trust me …”
She opened her eyes, calliope back to carnival music, screams from Children’s Village and the motorcycles on the Globe-A-Drome. Virginia Roberts was looking up at her, slightly out of breath.
“Miss Corbie? I thought that was you—I’m so sorry we were late, we couldn’t find an Elephant Train and we were over at Festival Hall, listening to Jose Iturbi. Gran likes him, that’s why she came today. Miss Corbie? Are you … are you all right?”
Miranda dropped the Chesterfield, crushed it in the dirt. “Your grandmother ready to meet me?”
Virginia blushed, studied the ground. “She’s—she’s ready, Miss Corbie, but she only agreed because Madge and I insisted. The jewelry—the gold coins she brought for Madge and me—everything’s been stolen, and …”
Miranda held up her hand. “We’ll get the details later. Where’s your grandmother?”
The college girl’s sweater was buttoned now, but a heavy gust ripped beside them and she hugged her arms. “I—I hope you won’t be upset, and you’ll still take the case, Miss Corbie, but she wanted to meet at the Yerba Buena Women’s Club. It’s members only, so if …”
She smiled at the young girl, desperately trying not to offend, and the old battleaxe of a grandmother, holding her off at Island’s length and insisting on propriety.
“Your grandmother has probably heard of me. Don’t worry, Virginia. I’m a member, too.”
Ramrod straight, dressed in black. The only curves in her face were the deeply etched lines of age, creased and folded, memories of fights and making up, memories of the pain of childbirth, memories of life.
She stared at Miranda, eyes fierce and unyielding. Virginia held the withered hand, skin parchment thin, blue veins like tunnels across the surface.
“I’ve lived a long time, Miss Corbie. I married, raised a child. I’m old, but I’m not witless.”
Miranda breathed out slowly, watching the smoke sail over the white blond walls and toward the Soroptimist reunion taking place at the bar.
“No one is saying you are, Mrs. MacAvoy. But questions are necessary.”
The old lady snorted, hat bobbing and trembling on its own. “They’re only necessary if my granddaughters insist on hiring you. I’m telling you, young lady, the coins are gone. We won’t see them again. I set them down and some hoodlum—some ruffian—made off with them. We’ll never see them again.”
Madge was a little thicker built than Virginia, and dark. She sat on the palomino-colored couch, arm draped around her grandmother’s sloped shoulders. Her voice was gentle. “Doesn’t it make you mad, Gran? Our coins—the ones you’ve been saving for us—money—and of course, your Memory Book.”
She looked up at Miranda. “That’s the worst of all, Miss Corbie. It’s not enough to steal someone’s inheritance, but to steal their stories—their memories? Things that are worth something only to them?” Madge shook her dark head, while Virginia sighed, and clutched her grandmother’s hand harder.
The old lady glanced up at Miranda, then at her two granddaughters, and suddenly the tenseness left her back. She bent, hunched over, brittle and tired. She pulled her hand away from Virginia, made a still-imperious gesture.
“Two days. That’s all I’m willing to pay for.”
Miranda leaned forward, rubbed the Chesterfield out in the black and white blown glass ashtray. Took a small reporter’s notebook out of her purse, picked up the pen on the table and started to write.
“I’m drafting a contract here, stipulating you’re hiring me for no more than two days to look into the theft of four gold coins, a silk purse with $500 in bills, and a scrap book. The fee is $20 a day, plus expenses—”
“I’m not paying for alcohol, Miss Corbie.”
Miranda’s lips curved and she looked up at Mrs. MacAvoy. “No one asked you to. As I said, $20 a day, plus expenses. I’m not working at Sally’s tomorrow. If I don’t have progress for you by the end of the day, we can terminate the agreement. I keep the $10, and you, Mrs. MacAvoy, will keep your dignity.”
Her brown-green eyes locked on the old lady, who opened her mouth to reply, but shut it again, a faint pink creeping over her cheeks. Mrs. MacAvoy cleared her throat.
“Give me that pen.” She reached for the sheet of paper, holding it close to her face, then scrawled a signature at the bottom and handed it back to Miranda. “My girls seem to have faith in you, Miss Corbie. I hope for their sake it isn’t misplaced.”
Miranda tucked the contract back into her navy blue purse. “I’m not a mustard seed, but I get the job done. Why did you bring the coins and money to the Fair?”
Virginia spoke, voice and eyes eager. “We don’t see Gran much, now that Madge and I both attend the University of Washington. We took the train down from Seattle, and decided to meet at the Fair—it was easier for Gran that way—she lives in Livermore.”
Miranda made a note, glanced up at the old lady. “What about your children? Why not leave the coins and money with them?”
The starch was back in Mrs. MacAvoy’s voice and posture. “I have one child. My daughter is living in Los Angeles with—with her husband. I haven’t seen her in many years.”
Madge bit her lip and looked at Virginia. Virginia turned to Miranda, eyes large and voice tremulous. “We—we belong to Gran, Miss Corbie. She helped raise us. Our mother was … was remarried.”
The old lady flushed red, her lungs wheezing with emotion and the effort of breathing. “Alice has nothing to do with what I’ve hired you for and I thank you not to bring the subject up again. I brought the coins and money to give to the girls as part of their inheritance. No sense in waiting until I’m dead and buried or too weak-minded to know my own name.”
Madge stroked her grandmother’s arm and leaned closer to her until the old lady composed herself. Virginia’s eyes never left Miranda’s face.
Miranda said slowly: “I think I understand, Mrs. MacAvoy. When did you notice the coins and purse missing?”
“Homes and Gardens, I think it was—”
“No, Gran, it was the Vacationland Cafeteria, remember? Right after we left the Fine Arts show.” Virginia leaned forward, hands still folded in her lap and intertwined as if in prayer. “Gran insisted on carrying it herself during the art exhibit. Everything was in a black leather valise. The Memory Book was on the bottom—it had a faded purple and pink cover, I think—and the coins were in a small brown leather purse. They were on top. The other purse was black silk.”
Her grandmother was staring at her. “How do you know this, Ginny? I was waiting to show you and Madge when we were at lunch, and that’s when … did you two peek?”
Virginia blushed to the roots of her curls, and Madge cleared her throat. The older girl answered. “We peeked, Granma, and it’s a good thing we did. You know Ginny’s got a memory like an elephant.”
Miranda looked up from the notebook. “I need a list of the exhibits you saw, in order. Did you report it to Lost and Found?”
Virginia nodded, embarrassment forgotten. “Madge and I took turns going back over everywhere. We were just sitting down to lunch, one of those tables for four, and we used the other chair for our purses and bags, and that’s when Madge asked me where the valise was. We panicked, I can tell you! I ran back to Homes and Gardens—that’s where we started. We’d had breakfast at the Court of Honor cafeteria, and I checked there, too. Then it was Madge’s turn. She tried the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts, and when she couldn’t find it, she walked back to the Court of Honor to the Lost and Found booth and reported it.”
Madge interrupted her. “That’s when we took Gran to the White Star Tuna restaurant. She was—well, she was upset. We all were.”
“Did anyone express any interest in the valise? Try to start up a conversation?”
Virginia frowned, smoothing the yellow sweater. “There was a man—about forty, maybe—anyway, he was older. He kept trying to strike up a conversation outside of the art exhibit, then followed us inside.”
Mrs. MacAvoy snorted. “A masher. I was about to tell him what I thought of a wolf preying on young girls, but it wasn’t necessary. He saw the look in my eyes.” She fixed them on Miranda, small, black and shrewd. “No, I’m an old woman, and I make mistakes. I probably set the bag down somewhere and forgot to pick it up again, and the girls were busy looking at paintings—as they should have been. It was my fault, Miss Corbie.”
The girls drew closer to their grandmother, forming a single body.
Six eyes stared at Miranda.
The moon was almost full, but still faded against the rich lavender blue, stenciled with gold, bathing the South Tower entrance to the Homes and Garden Building. Magic Island, magic light show, step right up, ladies and gents, gasp with pleasure at the colored lights, or the tits on the girl riding the donkey in Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch …
Miranda checked her watch. 6:45 PM.
Somewhere on 400 acres of the Pageant of the Fucking Pacific was someone spending five hundred dollars, old bills but still crisp, hoarded by an old lady for her family, apparently her only family, since her daughter disappointed.
Miranda dropped the cigarette on the ground, rubbed it out three times with her shoe. Knew all about daughter’s disappointing, didn’t she, fucking father play-acting fucking King Lear, sharper than a serpent’s tooth it was, when your bastard of a daughter turned tricks with her degree. Drunk professor of Shakespeare and Yeats, drove her mother away, probably killed her, one way or another, interfered with fucking tenure.
She shook herself, deep breath of Bay fog creeping over the man-made shore, stifling the laughter of lovers on the Lake of Nations.
She checked the lounge in the woman’s restroom, asked the Russian attendant, pushing stringy blonde hair from her high cheek-boned face, whether she’d seen an old lady leave a black bag behind.
Wandered through the Fuller Brush Company exhibit, Brushes for Every Use, get on your hands and knees and scrub, Martha, what kind of housewife are you? Admired the “Magic of Glass” at the Libbey-Owens-Ford show, a couple of women with children excited over the Glass Carnival of Fun, and across the way, Jack Frost virgin wool blankets from the Utah Woolen Mills, right next to a large booth for the Church of Latter-Day Saints, carefully watching to make sure the blankets stayed virginal.
A hundred or more companies lining up to sell the great American home to the little American wife, Baldwin pianos and Serta-Sleepers, Schlage locks and Standard Sanitary. The Bahai Temple dedicated itself to Unity of Religion and the Oneness of Mankind, while middle-aged matrons clutched their children and looked on suspiciously. Probably a sex cult, Mildred, best go to the Salvation Army exhibit, they’re next to the Cafeteria …
She asked questions, fingered the new synthetic silk stockings, and stared at the fish in the aquarium exhibit, billed as your very own “living picture.” Steered clear of the Mills College headquarters at the far end, alma mater, but reunions wasn’t nourishing, were they, no mama, no milk out of that nipple, just acid.
No one noticed a goddamn thing, except how many wallpapers they sold or whether Mr. Jones was convinced enough to buy a prefabricated steel home. While you’re at it, Mr. Jones, join the Lions Club, fraternal organizations are the backbone of what makes our country great, along with better living through chemistry and the new kinds of facial make-up that’ll take ten years off Mrs. Jones. Mr. Smith’s wife already uses it, can’t you tell?
It was all New Things for Better Living, from fir paneling to asbestos shingles, a shrine to home, hearth and family, only $49.99 plus tax.
You could even throw rocks at the new glass houses, but Miranda was not without sin and didn’t want to cast the first stone.
She exited from the north end of the building, emerging into the yellow light of the Tower of the Sun. The Lost and Found department consisted of a bored redhead sitting at a desk in the Court of Honor, staring at the “Evening Star” statue and flirting with a college kid in a letter sweater. She looked up when Miranda approached, the brown haired kid with muscles stretching his neck in a double-take.
“Anybody turn in a black leather bag?”
The redhead glanced at the college kid, back to Miranda, and yawned. “Gotta be more specific than that, sister. People drop off stuff all the time … you’d be amazed.”
Miranda leaned forward, both hands pressed flat on the counter. Her voice was dry. “Do tell. Black leather valise, rectangular, old. Returned between about 3 PM and now. A report was filed with whoever was here earlier.”
The redhead glared at her for a minute, tapping her fingers on the dull wood. Make a noise, stood up and walked through the back door into the storage area. The boyfriend sidled around the front of the counter, stood next to Miranda.
“First time at the Fair? Haven’t seen you before.”
She turned around, back against the counter, facing the gardens, the abstract palm tree lights lit with a soft amber glow. Opened her purse, shook out a Chesterfield. The kid was still fishing around in his pockets for a matchbook when she lit the stick, breathed it in, then blew a stream of smoke toward the Tower of the Sun.
“I work here, sonny. Shouldn’t you get back to pushing people around in your little cart?” She nodded toward the rolling chair carelessly parked in between a boxwood hedge and a Valencia orange tree.
He flushed red, crawled back on the safe side of the divide, and busied himself with brushing off the chair. The 44 bell carillon in the Tower of the Sun started to ring out “The Bells of Treasure Island” when the redhead walked sullenly out of the storage room, carrying a small black travel bag.
“I came on shift at five, and this was already there, so maybe it’s what you’re looking for, Madame. You let me know.” She glanced at the college kid and winked, then hoisted the bag on the counter.
Miranda twisted the cigarette out on the counter and stared at her until the redhead’s skin matched her hair. The bag was old, leather as cracked and dry as an old lady’s skin. She took her gloves out of her jacket pocket, smoothed them on, and opened the tarnished clasp.
On the bottom was a purple and pink scrap book, thick with black paper and florid Victorian in design. The title said “Precious Memories.”
8:45 PM. She flipped open the reporter’s notebook. Itinerary said the old lady should still be on the island, gazing in rapture at the Cavalcade of the Golden West, 85 minutes of historical spectacle sprawled on a 400 foot stage. The Technicolor water curtain was about to rain up, audience gasping at how Four Centuries of Progress had led up to this One Moment, hail the Golden Gate International Exposition, hail, all hail.
Miranda frowned. Goddamn it. Ten minutes to reach the north end of the island. No Elephant Train. Shortest distance was through the Court of Seven Seas and straight to the entrance gate at Pacifica. She stared ruefully at her shoes. Pumps wouldn’t stand the strain.
She looked up. The college boy was still leaning indolently against the counter, the redhead pointedly ignoring her.
“You earn that letter in Track and Field, by any chance?”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Football.”
He pulled up next to the Cavalcade box office, out of breath. Miranda handed him three dollars, hopped off the rolling chair. He bent over, hands on his knees, trying to control his breathing.
She threw him a smile, patted him on the head, his hair mussed and slick with sweat. Walked briskly up the steps toward Pacifica and the Cavalcade entrance. Applause erupted into the night, joining fog horn moans and screams from the Gayway, rollercoaster lit up like a Fourth of July sparkler. In the outside auditorium, mothers straightened shoulders made sore from the cold wind and wooden benches, nudging children awake, fathers yawning, ready to face another day at the office, ready for home.
She lit a stick and scanned the crowd, searching for the tall, bobbing black hat and veil, out of date fifteen years ago. Single women streamed by, thirty, plump and lonely, coats worn one too many winters, hair askew from the chill wet wind off the north parking lot. They checked their faces surreptitiously, hoping the mirror would lie, hoping someday their prince would come, some day before they were truly old, always a maid, never loved.
Younger woman laughed, happy and secure, arms through a man’s elbow, smiling, laughing, holding the hand of children, gazing up at the shield, the prince, the symbol of womanly success they wore like a Schiaparelli gown. He’d look down and smile, and they’d nestle closer, Moonlight Serenade.
Miranda exhaled into the night air. No Spain for them, no 1937. No red hot nights, no picnic in the olive groves, no dancing til five am, burning, burning, until they were burned up, gone, bombs in Madrid, bombs in Valencia, whole goddamn planet gone.
Peaceful, placid lives, American lives, milkmaid pure, innocent. Husbands never strayed, never looked at the blonde in the stenographer pool, wives never drank too much sherry to get to sleep at night. No taciturn grunt instead of an embrace, no flaccid flesh, no sagging breasts.
Fucking fairy tales and Walt Disney, Ginger Rogers and a happy fucking ending.
Miranda knew better.
Ending wasn’t a happy word.
Madge and Virginia were flanking Mrs. MacAvoy, each holding an arm, when Virginia spotted Miranda. She broke off and ran forward, breathless and excited.
“Miss Corbie—did you find something?”
Miranda lifted up the black valise. “The Memory Book. No coins or money, I’m afraid.”
Madge turned excitedly to her grandmother. “Gran—she did it! She found your Memory Book! Where did you find it, Miss Corbie?”
The girls were staring at her with a mixture of awe and admiration more typically reserved for the actress on the cover of Photoplay or the girls from the Folies Bergère. The old lady held out a gnarled hand. Her voice was tired.
“May I have my bag?”
Virginia reached for it, but Miranda placed the worn handle in the dry palm of Mrs. MacAvoy. Her voice was gentle. “You want to sit somewhere and make sure everything’s intact?”
Madge grabbed her grandmother’s arm. “C’mon, Gran. I see an empty bench by the fountain.”
They walked down the steps past Pacifica, the 100 foot metal prayer curtain behind the statue glinting in a rainbow of colors, water and spray from the fountain lit white and gold. The girls clung to their grandmother’s arms, the old lady clutching the bag like a lost lover. She finally sank down on the bench, shoulders slumped. Old, tired and haggard, not the indomitable bird of prey from earlier.
Miranda lit a cigarette. “I checked Lost and Found again. Someone turned in the bag. I don’t know who it was, but I’ll try to find out.”
Mrs. MacAvoy lifted out the book, colors garish against the blue and gold hues of the flowers and the amber lighting. Her hands shook as she opened the book to the first page, then quickly shut it again.
“Close your eyes, girls, and turn around. I told you no peeking.”
Virginia sighed, glanced at Miranda, eyes shut tight, nose wrinkled with the effort. Madge turned to face the giant statue, calm and compliant.
Mrs. MacAvoy looked up at Miranda for a few seconds, back to the book. Ruffled the pages with her thumb, opened it to the middle. Studied the contents, tilting the binding until the pages fanned shut. She lingered at the end of the book, face unreadable. Finally, with a sigh, she replaced it in the valise.
“You may turn around now, girls.” The old lady stared at Miranda. “Thank you, Miss Corbie. You’ve earned your ten dollars. We won’t be needing your services any more.”
Virginia opened her mouth and closed it again. “But—but Gran, someone took our coins—the money! Miss Corbie can—”
“Miss Corbie can go home and enjoy her day off or take on another—another assignment, Ginny. We won’t be getting the money back.” She reached out a hand to each girl. “I’m sorry. I wanted you to have—have something to remember me buy, something to enjoy before I’m gone.”
Tears sprang to Madge’s eyes, and she held her grandmother’s hand up to her lips and kissed it. “Don’t talk that way, Gran”, she murmured. Virgina’s brow was knit in a stubborn pattern, reminiscent of the old lady’s.
“But Gran—shouldn’t we at least try? Miss Corbie’s been hired for two days, and—”
“No, Ginny. That’s my final word. No.” The old woman took a deep breath. Glanced up at Miranda, the shrewdness back in her face. “Thank you, Miss Corbie. I’m sure you understand.”
Miranda dropped the cigarette. Rubbed it into the cement with her toe. “Are you going to share the book with your granddaughters?”
Virginia turned to the old lady with excitement. “Yes, Gran, won’t you? It’s the most precious part of our legacy.”
Mrs. MacAvoy held up a hand, dried, withered, shaking. Adjusted the hat, which was tilting dangerously forward. “Some other time, girls. Your Nana is tired. Let’s back get to our hotel.”
Madge helped her up. They all looked at Miranda, the old lady still clutching the valise.
“Thank you again, Miss Corbie.” Madge’s voice was quiet. “You saved the most important thing. Gran’s memories.”
Miranda watched them walk slowly off toward the Elephant Towers and the ferry docks, one girl on each arm. After about fifty feet, Virginia threw a hand up in the air.
“Go on without me! I’ll be just a minute.”
She ran back to the bench, dropped her voice to a whisper.
“We’re at the Palace Hotel until tomorrow night at eight, Miss Corbie. Our train leaves at 9:35, and Gran’s leaves at 9. If you—if you find anything—oh, Miss Corbie, something’s wrong with Gran … please find out what it is—please!” The girl’s eyes darted over her, imploring, then she gathered the ends of her yellow sweater and pulled them close, running back to the retreating forms of her grandmother and older sister.
Miranda’s stomach was growling so she bought some caramel corn in La Plaza, waiting impatiently for the Elephant Train. The Palace of Fine Arts would close at ten. Route D was her only hope.
She looked up at the moon, smaller than it had been earlier, no longer swollen by the ocean and the western horizon. Yellow and craggy, it dimmed beside the more romantic lights of Treasure Island, National Cash Register gleaming and bright, Tower of the Sun glowing gold, Phoenix on top rising red from the ashes of old San Francisco.
But this was a new San Francisco, a San Francisco of September 13, 1939. A magic city, separate city, across the Bay, twinkling and winking temptation to Alcatraz, lights and dancing and Ferris wheels, Vacationland and the new Ford motor exhibit, Progress on Parade and lovers’ first kiss on the Lake of Nations.
Not so many nations to choose from. Not now.
The Germans were bombing and strafing Polish civilians today, Mr. Jones, and they don’t really give a fuck about the Tower of Peace. Nazis Hint Purge of Jews in Poland, that’s the New York Times, Mrs. Smith, not Better Homes and Gardens. Catholic and Jew, shelled, bombed and rounded up, marching feet goose-stepping over fields of bloody rye. Churches and synagogues burning, no phoenix for them, no resurrection from the fire. Poland was dead, her riches, her heritage, back on the map for eleven years, now crushed by the swastika, air force still fighting, cavalry gone. First to fall, first to fight, but fuck … not the last.
And before Poland, Spain, laboratory for the blitzkrieg, Republic swallowed by Franco, goddamn Chronus devouring his children. She knew all about that, oh yes, Daddy, eat your children and drink your rum, tell Hatchett to lock up the brat, the bastard, the child you never wanted.
She shook herself, dropped the cigarette on the ground.
The world was at war. But there was an old lady who was lying to her, and two young girls with hope in their eyes, still there, not dead, not raped and stolen.
Miranda climbed up the steps of the gaily lit Elephant Train and found a seat.
You’re a good soldier, Randy. A good soldier …
No crowd at the Palace of Fine Arts. Botticelli’s nude Venus couldn’t compare with Sally’s girls, pink and white and three dimensional, all in color for a quarter. The art crowd came early, families and patrons, school teachers and garden societies. At ten o’clock respectability closed down for the night, Treasure Island’s treasure on the Gayway.
Miranda stared down the steps and the grand entranceway, European art framing Mrs. James Ward Thorne’s architectural miniatures. She remembered Mrs. MacAvoy’s vagueness on when she missed the items, but the girls were sure.
After the Palace. After the art show.
She walked down the sweep of the stairway, the taps on her pumps making an audible click in the vast, nearly empty room. One natural place for the trade to take place … if her hunch was right.
A man in his late thirties or early forties was lounging against the side of the coat check station, the smaller curve of the wooden counter mirroring the larger one of the entrance and stairway. He bared his teeth when he saw her, pushed back dirty blond hair. The jacket was double breasted, bright blue, red display handkerchief. Fedora mismatched, a faded navy and dusty, shoes strictly Sears, probably on sale. They shone with a cheap shine, thin leather already cracked and worn.
She threw him a smile, looked around. Five uniformed guards within sight, at least twenty more on the premises. For $35,000,000 worth of art, they should have their own goddamn army.
Miranda wandered toward the left, past the coat and parcel check, pretending to study the lines of a Coreggio on the wall. Took out a compact, powdered her nose.
He was leaning over the counter, his attention held by a girl with black hair, her lipstick fresh but smeared. Even in the reflection she looked scared.
Miranda shut the compact, shoved it back in her purse. Wandered down the wall to stairs leading up, smaller display of European painting and sculpture. A guard woke up at the sound of her feet, went back to counting the minutes. She checked her watch. Nine to go.
She stood in front of a Frans Hals, head tilting from side to side, as if she were studying the broad brushstrokes. Close enough to catch a few words between the black haired girl and the grifter.
“When you gettin’ out of here?”
Voice was adenoidal, on the whiney side. Still scared. “Bill … you shouldn’t come here. Especially … especially not now.”
He must have moved closer to the girl, words too low, too muffled to hear. Then a fragment, louder, confident. “—celebrate, baby. I’m telling ya, we’re set. How about the Happy Valley Ranch? Dancing, drinks … the works.”
The girl’s tone sounded happier, but she couldn’t make out the words. Miranda walked to the far side of the painting.
“All right, Bill. Ten-thirty. I’ll meet you.”
“You bet you will, baby. You, me, and George. We’re a team, baby, a team!”
His footsteps climbed jauntily up the steps, fading into the quiet of the almost empty museum. Miranda cleared her throat, checked her watch. Smiled at the guard.
“I love this painting. Come see it whenever I get a chance.”
He nodded, suspicious type, hoping to catch a lady spy, they were always good-looking, and this one fit the bill, long legs, auburn hair, figure like one of them Frenchies at the nude show …
Miranda smiled again, put a wriggle in it. Walked down the short steps into the main room, and straight to coat check.
“You know, I was here earlier today and I think I forgot to pick up a little parcel from the Owl Drugstore—post cards, mostly, and a pack of cigarettes. Have you seen it?”
The girl’s eyes darted back and forth, and she glanced at her watch. “I-I don’t think there’s anything back there, Miss, but I’ll check if you want me to. It’s almost time to close.”
Miranda laughed, sound echoing through the cavernous room. The two more guards looked over, and the girl turned white. Miranda placed her hand on the counter, leaned in, confidential, girl-friend like.
“Oh, don’t I know it. I just can’t stay away from this place. I do so adore fine art, don’t you? Such beauty! And how lucky you are, to be here in the middle of it all!”
The check girl breathed out, shoulders relaxing. Gave a hesitant smile to Miranda. “I’ll go check for you, Miss.”
She slowly walked the length of the long hanging closet, checking shelves on either side and beneath. Miranda couldn’t see any parcels. There were two coats hanging, one a black Persian lamb, expensive cut, maybe City of Paris. The other was brown wool, belted, with rabbit fur cuffs. Probably the girl’s.
“I’m sorry, Miss. Doesn’t seem to be here.”
Miranda frowned. “Darn it. Oh, well, maybe it will turn up. Can you leave a note in the office for me, in case someone finds it and turns it in?” She nodded toward the closed door on the right. The girl looked at the door, then back to Miranda. She licked her lips.
“Uh … I guess so, Miss, if that’s what you want to do.” She pulled out a pencil and a piece of scrap paper from below the counter. “What’s your name?”
“Miranda Corbie. What’s yours?”
“Vera. Vera Wilkinson.”
Miranda held her hand out, smiled. “Nice to meet you, Vera.” The girl hesitated, then took her hand, still holding the pencil. “How can we reach you?”
“Oh, I’ll call you. I never know where I’m going to be. Say, am I allowed to take photographs of the paintings? I’ve got a Brownie at home, and I’d sure love to—”
One of the guards had wandered over, middle-aged, upright, probably ex-military. Short hair, square chin, enough of a paunch to put tension on the uniform. Looked like a cop.
“’Fraid not, Miss. No personal photography. You can hire a licensed photographer, though.”
“Gabriel Moulin? He’s out of my price range, I’m afraid.”
“He’s the official photographer of the Fair, but there’s more than one that has the concession here.” The guard turned toward the girl. “You’ve got the list, don’t you?”
Vera licked her lips again, moved down the counter and pulled a sheet of mimeographed paper out of a tray. “These are the concessionaires.”
Miranda smiled brightly. “Thank you! I’ll call tomorrow to see if my bag turns up. Nice to meet you, Vera. And you … officer.”
The guard nodded his head, accepting his due. Miranda walked up the steps quickly, pushed one of the doors open against the Bay wind.
She stood on the steps of the entranceway, looking up and down California Avenue and across the dark smear that was the Lake of Nations. No sign of Bill.
Ran her finger down the list of ten names on the sheet Nancy had given her.
Listed was a Mr. George Kettlebaum, Acme Studios, archives and portraits.
The Elephant Train pulled up on the north side of the Gayway, close to the Cyclone Roller Coaster and Tex Cameron’s Happy Valley Ranch, home of the biggest barbecue pit in the West. Miranda’s stomach was growling, but steak would have to wait.
She walked quickly past the Headless Girl and the Snake Show, The Amazing Dr. Kazelkov and his wonder dog Boris, calliope singing from the Children’s Carousel, Ferris Wheel with cooing couples, slowly pirouetting for the moon. Smell of popcorn and cotton candy, corn on the cob and Pig n’ Blanket teasing her nose, wind whipping off the Bay and through the parking lot, blowing the hats off girls with sailors standing by to catch them.
Ten-thirteen. No time for even a goddamn hot dog.
Anchored her beret with one hand, and pushed through the gate of Happy Valley Ranch, “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” drifting from the barbeque pit and dance stage, Western crooner giving his best Gene Autry impression.
The greeter was about thirty, hearty type, snap button Western shirt, lizard skin cowboy boots and too much cologne. Toothy grin, unctuous.
“And what can we do for you tonight, little lady? You can’t be alone, uh-uh, not you .”
Club Moderne smile, full kilowatt. “I’m expecting some friends, but I want to surprise them. Any small table available, maybe on the dark side?”
Ran his eyes up and down her suit, lingered on her legs. Back up to grin again. “I’d call that a crime, little lady, puttin’ you in the dark. But I never argue with the dam-o-selles, no sirree. How many you expectin’?”
“Three. Two men and another girl.”
He looked around the ranch house-cum-dance hall. Most of the tables were picnic-style, with a few smaller, standard versions on the sides. He pointed to a round table for two positioned behind the kitchen doors.
“That ain’t the best table, little lady, but if you insist on hidin’ yourself, I guess that’s a good one. We need to get a table cloth on it and we can sit you there in a quick-draw minute.”
Miranda smiled again, tilted her head. Drawled, “Why, thanks … partner.”
Waiters in dungarees and red suspenders carried large platters full of corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and barbeque chicken past Miranda’s table, while the nearest picnic-style group on her right laughed and pointed at the cartoons on the menu, slick haired fraternity boy tying a napkin around his face and yelling “Raise ’em high!”
A couple of tired girls in shorts and cowgirl blouses were making the rounds of the tables, selling cigarettes and the chance for personal photos. The pale brunette caught her eye, gave her a weak smile.
“Cigarettes, Miss, while you’re waiting?”
Miranda took out her billfold, put a dollar on the table. “Pack of Chesterfields. Keep the change.”
The brunette raised her eyebrows, digging past the Lucky Strikes. “Gee, thanks, lady. I ain’t had much business all night. Mighty white of you.”
Miranda looked up, said drily: “You can do me a favor. I’m expecting three people—two men and a woman—any minute. I want a photo of them.”
The brunette’s eyebrows climbed into her hairline, and she shifted her weight. Eyes fell to Miranda’s wallet. “Gosh, Miss, I don’t know … we ain’t supposed to just snap people with no permission.”
She studied the girl’s thin, pale face, small-set dark eyes. Slowly opened the wallet and took out another dollar. Dropped it on the table, fingers barely touching the edges. “It’s a surprise.”
The cigarette girl met her eyes for a few seconds, then shrugged. Miranda removed her hand and the dollar was gone.
No Blue Fog, not at the Happy Valley Ranch, so she settled on a whiskey sour. Waiter was a rough-voiced, heavy set man in his thirties, kept coming back to check the table. Told him she was waiting for three friends and had no intention of stealing a chicken wing, and he went away.
Ground a Chesterfield out in the cow-shaped Happy Valley ashtray and opened the compact to powder her nose when another waiter led Bill and a weedy man in baggy black pants and glasses to a table for four at the top end of the room, diagonally across from her.
Bill laughed like a hyena, face flushed with rye or Scotch, high spirits. Celebrate, he’d said. Celebrate on someone else’s money, someone else’s legacy. Someone else’s life.
The scarecrow with him was more cautious, long skinny face dour and suspicious, fingertips stained a dull grey. Bleach spots dotted the black trousers. George Kettlebaum.
Vera rushed into the large, noisy room, breathless, agitated, the greeter trailing her. Kitchen door swung open, another platter of chicken and ribs blocking Miranda’s view. By the time it swung shut, a waiter had taken the girl’s fur-cuffed coat, and she was sitting next to Bill, staring down at the menu. Miranda opened her own menu and shielded her face.
Bill threw an arm around Vera, tried to kiss her, she pushed him away. George sat, morose, drinking a chocolate soda with a straw. Bill reached into his pocket, pulled out something shiny and round and gold and showed it to the coat check girl, laughing.
The brunette was in the corner of the room, talking to the other cigarette girl and the short photographer in the straw cowboy hat. Miranda held up her pack of Chesterfields. After a few seconds, the brunette caught her eye, nodded. Whispered something to the other girl, a blonde, and walked over to Miranda. Bill was still trying to show something to Vera, speaking earnestly, low, while she shook her head. George was looking around nervously, pulling at his dingy shirt sleeve.
“Two men and a brunette, middle table on the left. Skinny number and the one with the red face. All three in the photo.” She pressed a five into the sweaty hand of the cigarette girl. “Hurry.”
The cigarette girl shoved the five down her Western shirt, walked on wobbly wedge heels toward the table, beckoning to the photographer. He broke off with the blonde and trotted behind her. Vera was starting to crack under pressure, gave Bill a tremulous smile. His chest swelled. Banged his fist on the table and threw his head back to laugh.
Flash of silver-white.
George out of his chair, shaking, about to run, Bill choking on his guffaw. Vera’s eyes blinking stupidly.
“That one’s on the house, mister, thanks to your friend here. Where should I mail it to, Miss?”
George sank back in his chair, eyes still darting, still searching for an escape. Vera’s mouth was open and gaping at Miranda. Bill clenched his jaw. Swallowed hard.
She nodded at the photographer.
“You’d better make it the Hall of Justice. County Jail Number Two.”
Miranda shifted uncomfortably on the small rounded sofa. Overstuffed and fringed, designed for larger hips and weightier buttocks, they edged the fireplace in the Woman’s Lounge, so tasteful, so feminine, so moderne. She thought about her stout leather chair in the office and grinned.
Looked at her watch, tapped her cigarette in the matching ashtray. Vivaldi played softly from a phonograph somewhere, tucked away in a corner to blend in with the good breeding. The Yerba Buena Club was busy today, mostly middle-aged wives of bankers and businessmen, bravely forging a Life After Forty.
Miranda would be thirty-three in January, but hell, she still looked young enough for the Club Moderne, young enough to inherit Burnett’s business of businessmen and their peccadilloes, usually involving a grunt, a groan and an incriminating photo. But she’d proved what she could do, earned her own license, Burnett, you bastard, may your soul rot in hell. Proved it again with the Incubator Babies case, even to one of Hoover’s G-men.
But she didn’t like birthdays, not after her 30th. Not after 1937.
Miranda gulped the stick, blew a stream of smoke toward the fireplace. Crushed out the stub in the ashtray. Rustling noise, sounded like heavy fabric. She looked up.
The old lady looked fragile this morning, older, like cracked stained glass in a Spanish church. She felt the surface of the couch with her hands before she sat. Stared directly across at Miranda. Her voice was dry, heavy.
“I asked you to leave this alone, Miss Corbie. Why couldn’t you listen? Do you understand the position you’ve put me in?”
“I didn’t put you here, Mrs. MacAvoy. You did that yourself. With the help of some bad luck, maybe. I don’t know. What I do know is that you should have been honest with me. And that your granddaughters love you very much.”
The old lady looked down at her hands. “That’s the reason this had to be. For their sake. And now, what with those people in jail, and the police expecting me to file a complaint, and my train leaving tonight … I don’t know what to do.”
Miranda leaned forward. “You might start by telling me the truth. Bill Heebner was blackmailing you.”
Mrs. MacAvoy’s voice was low. “Yes. Somehow—I assume from that—that photographer you mentioned—he found some pictures of—of my daughter. Old pictures, from twenty years ago. I started receiving mail, addressed General Delivery at first, then at my address. He—he made a copy of one of the photos and mailed it to me, but he said he had negatives.”
“So you started paying him.”
The old lady nodded. “I had to sell things, a little at a time. Only thing left is the house. I never met the man, he was always very careful. Gave me instructions to leave cash money inside that—that bag, and in return he’d enclose a photo negative in the Memory Book.” She shuddered. “How I hate that thing. How I hate memory.”
She looked up, held on to Miranda’s eyes. “I have nothing left for my girls except a broken down house. Those gold coins and the $500 were supposed to be my last payment, though I was never naive enough to believe that he would stop. I’ve lost everything, Miss Corbie, in the effort to keep one memory away from them, one memory that could poison them, ruin their chance at happiness. And now … now I’m not sure if you’ve made keeping even that secret an impossible task.”
Miranda said slowly: “Memory is what makes us human, Mrs. MacAvoy. It’s what makes us who we are. Good, bad or indifferent, it is the sum total of our life, and if we don’t hold on to it—if we don’t face it—we die. And sometimes … sometimes it’s the only thing left.”
Her hands were shaking. She opened her bag and shook out a cigarette.
Mrs. MacAvoy studied her. “You were a paid escort.” Abruptly and a statement, not a question.
Miranda met her eyes. “Yes. I was.”
“I won’t ask you how or why. You’re obviously a beautiful young woman, and an intelligent, educated, well-spoken one. But you were once an escort and now you are not.”
Miranda’s lit the cigarette. Her voice was dry. “Now I am not. Now I am a detective. And some people see very little difference between the two. Sometimes they’re right.”
Mrs. MacAvoy sighed, a drawn-out rattle, deep and sonorous. “Perhaps I’ve been wrong. Wrong to keep the girls away, and wrong to be so selfish. To keep them for myself.”
“I haven’t seen the blackmail evidence, Mrs. MacAvoy. No one has. I caught Heebner with the goods and asked the cops to check his background. He’s been in prison for petty larceny, illegal gambling, and fraud. They’re holding him and the others for questioning, but they need you to press charges. I think your granddaughters would expect you to tell the truth and make sure he’s not free to do this to someone else.”
The old woman bit her lip, stared at Miranda. “She’s only a little older than you are.”
“Who, Mrs. MacAvoy?”
Her voice was gentle. “Alice. My beautiful, lovely daughter. Alice.”
“I thought … well, I was under the impression you weren’t on good terms. Because of her remarriage.”
Mrs. MacAvoy shook her head, her hat bobbing vehemently, and extracted a handkerchief from her old black purse. “She didn’t remarry, Miss Corbie. She was never married to begin with. My Alice—my daughter—was a prostitute.”
The story unraveled, bit by bit. Miranda spent two hours with the old lady, sharing breakfast in the Yerba Buena Club restaurant. Alice had run away when she was fifteen, a grown-up looking girl. Too grown-up looking.
She fell in with a hustler and a pimp in Sacramento, chippie turning tricks under the lights of the Capital Dome. She’d given birth to Madge by the time she was sixteen and a half. By the time she was eighteen, she’d also produced Virginia, apparently with a different father. She’d moved from Sacramento to San Francisco, and kept the girls with a nursery maid. How she got the money Mrs. MacAvoy didn’t want to know.
“I guess I felt I’d failed her, somewhere, as a mother. My husband died too young, Miss Corbie. But I can’t expect you to understand what that was like.”
Miranda nodded, stared at the painting of the Spanish castle on the wall.
The old lady had became more and more concerned over the grandchildren, however, and finally prevailed on Alice to give the girls, now toddlers, to her. Alice would visit them frequently, bring toys, give them treats, the pretty little mother not so very much older than the children. But Mrs. MacAvoy saw the once smooth skin now coarse, the hair dry and brittle, the pretty young woman aging beneath her eyes.
She gave her daughter an ultimatum: respectability or the children. If she changed her life—found a man, some understanding man—she could win the babies back. Alice, in tears, agreed, and left for Los Angeles, swearing she could redeem herself for her family.
Letters came frequently, then less frequently. Eventually, Mrs. MacAvoy received a notice that Alice had married. The clipping notice was in the Los Angeles Times. She asked for her daughters to come see her.
And Mrs. MacAvoy said no.
For eight years she kept the girls from seeing anything of their mother, guarded and protected their adolescence, terrified one would repeat her mother’s mistake. And the girls grew up to young womanhoood, and Alice became an enshrined ideal, a perfect and doting mother trapped in an unfortunate marriage. Not flesh and blood, not real.
Memories in a Memory Book, you’ll see a photo of your mother when you turn eighteen, Ginny, I’ll show you what she looked like when she was your age. Pretty, just like you. And sweet, just like you, Madge. Just like you.
Starting in March, the letters arrived, letters from Bill. He signed them “A Friend”, and demanded payments, small at first, increasingly large. She put him off for as long as she could, but then the flow started, and his appetite increased. Mrs. MacAvoy had saved many things for her granddaughters, small family treasures intended for the daughter she never had. For the daughter in the pictures couldn’t be Alice, Alice couldn’t do such things, not Alice …
The old lady broke down and cried at the table. She destroyed the negatives, burned them. The girls were in college now, Madge was nineteen and Ginny was eighteen. They’d won scholarships to the University of Washington, were successful, good girls, and were sure to find successful, good husbands.
If she could just protect them from their mother.
Once an escort, always an escort.
Mrs. MacAvoy dried her tears with the lace-edged handkerchief. “Thank you, Miss Corbie. I realize those—those photographs were taken when Alice was young, but every time I saw one, I thought of Ginny or Madge. And I … I just haven’t been able to bring myself to write her.”
“You weren’t intending to write even before the blackmail, Mrs. MacAvoy. But maybe now you will. Your granddaughters’ lives won’t be ruined by contact with their mother. Neither will yours.”
The old lady looked up at her. “Yes. I understand that now.” She pushed her chair back, stood with difficulty. “I’m ready to go to the Hall of Justice. All I ask is that the girls be left out of this.”
“That won’t be a problem, Mrs. MacAvoy.”
They walked slowly through the restaurant and toward the door. The old woman hesitated, then put her hand through Miranda’s elbow. “You don’t mind?”
Miranda looked surprised, shook her head. “Not at all.”
They strolled down California Avenue toward the Administration Building, Treasure Island gleaming like a pearl in the bright September sun. Miranda thought of the girls at Sally’s, and the ones she’d met at Dianne’s, the women on Pacific Street in red dresses and fancy, feathered hats, and how they’d feed her when she ran away from Hatchett. She thought of the Charleston contest she entered at Mills, the Black Bottom and the Market Street speakeasy the boys from Berkeley would take her to.
Memories of cable cars and Chinatown washed over her like summer rain, and then memories of New York and how excited they all were, how happy, finally, whole and complete, the past gone, gone, forgotten.
Except that it wasn’t, it never was, and she needed to keep it safe, keep it locked, remember it all because it ended in Spain, remember nights of Je Reviens and bottles of red wine, Spanish cheese and green, pliant olives, the smell of rain on the red earth, and in every drop, every reflection … Johnny’s face.
“I’d like to see your Memory Book sometime, Mrs. MacAvoy. What the girls looked like, what your husband looked like.”
The old lady stopped and looked at her for a moment, tears in her eyes again. “I’d like that, Miss Corbie. I’d like that very much.”
The two women walked on.
Copyright © 2011 by Kelli Stanley
“Memory Book” is now also available as an e-book for download.
Kelli Stanley is the award-winning author of City of Dragons and the forthcoming City of Secrets, “starring one of crime’s most arresting heroines: angry, big-hearted, and fearless Miranda Corbie” (Library Journal, starred review). Kelli also writes the Roman noir series (The Curse-Maker, Nox Dormienda). She lives in San Francisco.