“Tough going, you mean.”
“Not every day, some days it’s like turning on a faucet. It just flows. But every book had days like this, and a couple of them had whole months like this.”
“But you make a living at it.”
“I’m forty-seven years old and I live in one room,” he said. “You do the math.”
“Just the one room,” Reade said, “but it’s got some size to it.
Plenty of landlords’d throw up a couple of walls, call it a three-room apartment.”
You could stick a plank out the window, he thought, and call it a terrace.
“Good neighborhood, too. Bank and Waverly, heart of the West Village. Gotta be rent stabilized, huh?”
Meaning You couldn’t afford it otherwise, he thought, and he couldn’t argue the point. Free market rent on his apartment would be well over two thousand a month, and probably closer to three.
Could he afford that? Maybe once, before the divorce, before the sales leveled off and the advances dipped, but now?
Not unless he gave up eating and drinking and—he patted his shirt pocket, found it empty—and smoking.
“Rent controlled,” he said.
“Even better. You’ve been here a long time, then.”
“Off and on. I was married for a few years and we moved across the river.”
He nodded. “Jersey City, walking distance of the PATH train. I kept this place as an office. Then we bought a house in Montclair, and I didn’t get in as much, but I hung on to it anyway.”
“Be crazy to give it up.”
“And then the marriage fell apart,” he said, “and she kept the house, and I moved back in here.”
“They always get the house,” Slaughter said. He sounded as if he spoke from experience. He shook his head and walked over to a bookcase, leaned in for a closer look at the spines. “‘Blair Creighton,’ ” he read. “That’s you, but on the bell it said John Creighton.”
“Blair’s my middle name, my mother’s maiden name.”
“And your first name’s John?”
“That’s right. Some of my early stories, I used J. Blair Creighton. An editor convinced me to drop the initial, said I was running the risk that people would mistake me for F. Scott Fitzgerald. I, uh, took his point.”
“I don’t know, it sounds good with the initial. What’s this, French? You write books in French?”
“I have enough trouble in English,” he said. “Those are transla-tions, foreign editions.”
“Here’s one in English. Edged Weapons. That’s like what, knives and swords?”
“And daggers, I suppose. Or words, metaphorically.” It was interesting, observing them at it. Did Slaughter really think he wrote in French, or was he playing a role, lacking only the ratty raincoat to qualify as a road-company Columbo? “It’s a collection of short stories,” he explained. “Presumably, they have an edge to them.”
“Like a knife.”
“But you have an interest in knives, right? And swords and daggers?”
He was puzzled until he followed Slaughter’s gaze to the far wall between the two windows. There was a cased Samurai sword, a Malayan kris with the traditional wavy blade, and a dagger of indeterminate origin with a blade of Damascus steel.
“Gifts,” he said. “When the book came out. Edged weapons to go with Edged Weapons, so to speak.”
“They look nice,” Reade said, “displayed like that.”
“The book’s working title was Masks, ” he recalled, “but we changed it when we heard that was going to be T. C. Boyle’s collection, or maybe it was Ethan Canin. Whoever it was, he wound up calling his book something else, too. But one way or another I was a sure bet to wind up with something to hang on the wall.”
“You see masks all the time,” Reade said. “These here are a little more unique.”
Something was either unique or it wasn’t, there weren’t grada-tions of it. It was an error his students made all the time, a particularly annoying one, and he must have winced now because Slaughter immediately asked him if something was wrong.”
“Expression on your face.”
He touched the back of his neck. “I’ve been getting twinges off and on all day,” he said. “I must have slept in an awkward position, because I woke up with a stiff neck.”
“I hate when that happens,” Reade said.
“I imagine most people do. You know, this is pleasant enough, but do you want to give me a hint what this is all about?”
“Just a few questions, John. Or do people call you Blair?”
“It depends how long they’ve known me.” And you’ve barely known me long enough to call me Mr. Creighton, he thought. “Say, do you mind if I smoke?”
“It’s your house, John.”
“It bothers some people.”
“Even if it did,” Slaughter said, “it’s your house. You do what you want.”
He patted his breast pocket again, and of course it was still empty, cigarettes hadn’t mysteriously appeared in it since he last checked. He walked over to the desk and shook a cigarette out of the pack and lit it, relaxing as the nicotine soothed the anxiety it had largely created. That was all smoking did for you, it poured oil on waters it had troubled in the first place, and what earthly good did it do him to know that? He’d known that for years, and he went on smoking the fucking things all the same.
“A couple of questions,” he said.
“Right, we’re taking up enough of your time as it is, John. So why don’t you tell us about the last time you saw Marilyn Fairchild.”
“I don’t know anybody by that name.”
“You sure of that, John?”
“It has a familiar ring to it, though, doesn’t it? Isn’t there an actress by that name?”
“You’re thinking of Morgan Fairchild, John.”
“Of course,” he said. “Well, I don’t know either of them, Morgan or Marilyn. I wouldn’t mind knowing Morgan, though. Or Marilyn, if she looks anything like her sister.”
“That was sort of a joke. I never heard of Marilyn Fairchild until you mentioned her.”
“Never heard of her.”
Reade took a step toward him, moved right into his space, and said, “Are you sure of that, John? Because we understand you went home with her the other night.”
He shook his head. “If that’s what this is about,” he said, “I think you have the wrong guy.”
“You do, huh?”
“There used to be a John Creighton in the phone book,” he said.
“Lived somewhere in the West Seventies, and I’d get phone calls for him all the time.”
“So maybe it’s him we should be looking for.”
“Well, maybe he’s the one who got lucky with Marilyn Fairchild.”
“Because you didn’t.”
“Never even met the lady.”
Slaughter said, “You mind telling us what you were doing the night before last?”
“The night before last?”
“That would be Monday night? Well, that’s easy. I was teaching a class.”
“You’re a teacher, John?”
“I conduct a workshop once a week at the New School,” he said.
“Wannabe writers. They critique one another’s work and I lead the discussion.”
“You enjoy it, John?”
“I need the money,” he said. “Not that it amounts to much, but it keeps me in beer and cigarettes.”
“I guess it is. Anyway, that’s what I was doing Monday night.”
“From when to when, John?”
“Seven-thirty to ten. You can check with the school and they’ll confirm that I was there, but don’t make me prove it by telling you what the stories were about. I forget all that crap the minute I leave the classroom. I’d go nuts if I didn’t.”
“They’re pretty bad, huh?”
“I don’t like being read to,” he said, “even if it’s Dylan Thomas reading A Child’s Christmas in Wales. But they’re not all that bad, actually, and some of them are pretty good. I don’t know that I’m doing them any good, but I can’t be doing them much harm. And it gives them a structure, keeps them writing.”
“Must be a good place to meet women,” Reade said.
“You know what’s funny? I’ve been doing this for three years now, and when I started I had the same thought. I mean, a majority of students are women, a majority of everything is women, and these are women with an interest in literature and I’m up there, the designated authority, and how can you miss, right?”
“Somebody, I think it was Samuel Johnson, read another writer’s book. And he said, ‘Your work is both original and excellent. However, the parts that are original are not excellent, and the parts that are excellent are not original.’ ” They looked puzzled.
“In the classroom,” he explained, “the women are both attractive and available. However, the ones who are available are not attractive, and—”
“And the ones who are attractive aren’t available,” Slaughter said. “Was Marilyn Fairchild one of your students?”
“You know,” he said, “I don’t recognize the name, but I don’t know all their names. It’s not impossible. I have a list of them someplace, hang on and let me see if I can find it.” It was where it was supposed to be, in the New School file folder, and he checked it and handed the list to Slaughter. “No Marilyn Fairchild,” he said. “There’s a woman named Mary Franklin, but I can’t believe anybody went home with her Monday night. She’s writing her memoirs, she was a WAF in the Second World War. The last person who got lucky with her was Jimmy Doolittle.”
“So I guess it’s not the same woman.”
“And you’re covered from seven-thirty to ten, but that leaves the whole rest of the night, doesn’t it? And the thing is, John, you fit the description we’re working with, right down to the cigarettes you smoke. Unfiltered Camels, there’s not that many people smoking them anymore.”
“We’re an endangered species, but . . .”
“But what, John?”
He took the cigarette out of his mouth, looked at it, put it out in an ashtray. “‘The description you’re working with.’ Who gave you a description?”
“Sort of a group effort,” Slaughter said. “And it included the fact that you were a writer, and your name was Blair Creighton.”
“So we wouldn’t likely mix you up with the other John,” Reade offered.