Ill Met By Moonlight
An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon
1935 Saturday December 28th
Oscar Wilde had it right. No man was rich enough to buy back his past.
That didn't stop people from trying. Or hiring Rafferty to try. He looked at it more like buying time. Sooner or later the truth always came out. But there was a hell of a difference between the truth coming out three days before your wedding or three years after you were dead.
Anyway, he preferred dealing with blackmailers to trailing cheating husbands. This was the first time he'd been asked to rendezvous with a blackmailer in a museum, though. A museum holding a major exhibition for a cursed Egyptian mummy. An exhibition where everyone except the mummy was in costume.
Rafferty stepped to the side as two scantily clad temple priestesses squeezed past on the marble staircase. The nearest Lily of the Nile was giggling and clutching the arm of her companion. The other doll was saying, "I told Gene, it was never like this in Babylon."
They went on their unsteady way to the mezzanine and the planetarium with its star projector and "theater of the sky." Rafferty gazed down at the crowded main hall. According to Scheiner, his neighbor and now client, the blackmailer had instructed the payoff be left in the closed Middle Kingdom exhibition room. The plain envelope of unmarked cash was currently stashed behind the carved and painted mummy case of an obscure Ptolemy pharaoh no longer of interest now that Princess Nebetah had arrived in San Francisco to wow the customers. At the end of this soiree Rafferty was to return to the exhibition room and pick up the parcel that would be left in exchange for the dough. If any attempt was made to apprehend the blackmailer's confederate, the deal was off and the blackmailer would go straight to the papers.
Whatever information he was taking to the papers, it had to be pretty hot. Because Scheiner had never struck Rafferty as a pushover, but he'd been adamant that Rafferty follow the plan to the letter.
And that was what Rafferty was doing.
It went against the grain to give into extortion. There wasn't any creature on God's green earth Rafferty hated more than a blackmailer. So he'd left the fat envelope of cash as directed and then slipped into the gents and changed into an idiotic costume so he could blend in with everyone else at this wingding. He didn't plan on interfering with the pickup, but he did plan on tailing the bagman.
Though he'd provided the duds, Brett had advised against pursuit. Brett Sheridan was Rafferty's... well, never having had a friendship quite like this one, Rafferty wasn't sure what you'd call it. Whatever you called it was one reason Brett was identifying too closely with the victim.
Night and day, under the hide of me
There's an oh, such a hungry burning inside of me...
Brett had guts, but the idea of blackmail shook him. Scheiner, naturally, knew nothing about Rafferty's plan. He'd be happy in the end though, because the blackmail wouldn't stop with this payment. Scheiner was just kidding himself believing the promises of a guy who called himself Mr. X.
From his vantage point on the staircase, Rafferty watched the waiters, brawny lads in slave costumes, circulate with drink trays and canapÈs amongst the hoi polloi of San Francisco. A ten piece orchestra sawed away at a version of "Night and Day," though the music could hardly be heard over the babble of voices. The place was packed. But then the museum was not especially large.
Originally built in 1920, the Morshead had previously housed a small collection of antiquities and a large collection of oddities. It was designed in a pseudo Egyptian-revival style. From the pair of giant sphinx sculptures guarding the museum entrance to the painted and carved Egyptian friezes and lotus style columns, the building was supposed to evoke the mystery and magic of the newsreels they all watched with such fascination at the picture show. Newsreels that showed the excavations at Tell el-Amarna and the Valley of the Kings -- which was where Dr. Emmett Parker had made his now famous discovery of the burial chamber of Princess Nebetah.
Emmett Parker. Rafferty's lip curled. Pompous ass. There he stood, posing before a group of admirers, like a grinning, bare-chested palooka on a cover of a Jungle Comics.
Parker's mouth was moving -- it was always moving as far as Rafferty could tell -- and his audience, mostly female, tee-hee-hee-ed obligingly. Among the smitten was Brett's step-mama, Justine Sheridan, looking especially striking in a white gown with leopard skin girdle. She had the dark, dramatic looks to carry off the costume. Not everyone was so fortunate. Lenora Sheridan, for example, looked like she'd fallen into a portmanteau of purple draperies and only managed to climb out. Her gray hair was coming undone, as were the draperies. She kept clutching at the fabric slipping from her plump shoulders.
A lot of people to keep track of at this jolly up, and most of them unknown to Rafferty. But that was probably a good thing. The kind of mugs Rafferty was acquainted with did not attend charity balls. Even the familiar faces were less familiar in fancy costume. Funny how you could convince even the stodgiest of citizens to dress up like the last act of Antony and Cleopatra if the good cause was celebrated enough.
Rafferty absently hummed a few bars of "Night and Day," cupping his hands to light a cigarette as he casually turned to once more scrutinize the exhibition room door.
No movement outside the mouse hole.
Not a flicker.
No one showed any interest in venturing down the empty hall to the darkened room with its dusty dead and their long forgotten toys.
The fact that the blackmailer had chosen the museum might mean something. Might mean the blackmailer was an invited guest tonight, might even mean the blackmailer was someone who worked for the museum. Rafferty's gaze returned automatically to Emmett Parker, who once again had the ladies gasping and giggling as he recounted his exploits in the Valley of the Kings.
Honesty forced Rafferty to concede that he probably wasn't giving Parker a fair shake. Once upon a time, a long time ago, Parker had hurt Brett pretty badly, and anyone who hurt Brett Sheridan was no pal of Rafferty's. Even so, it was unlikely Parker, newly returned from Egypt, was spending his much-in-demand time blackmailing a small time San Francisco actuary.
No, more likely, the blackmailer had realized, correctly, that pretty much everybody who was anybody was going to be packed into this museum tonight -- in disguise no less -- and his movements would be hard to track.
Hard. Not impossible.
Night and day, why is it so
That this longin' for you follows wherever I go?
Rafferty scanned the crowd below for Brett. He spotted him dancing, Brett's sleek dark head bent attentively to hear what his companion, a slim dame in a sparkly white gown, was saying. He was smiling, but after six months Rafferty knew Brett well enough to recognize that expression as the face Brett wore when he was a million miles away.
This whole set up worried Brett. But then Brett was by nature a worrier. And strangely, further acquaintance with Rafferty had done little to cure this tendency. Rafferty smiled faintly, absently admiring Brett's bare chest and manly physique in the white linen wraparound kilt. Not every man could pull off gold bangles and sandals, but Brett looked nearly as composed as he did on the polo field.
Tonight they would be together. Rafferty was set on that. Brett had been on edge ever since Parker had returned to San Francisco. They needed this night. They needed a little time, a little privacy, a little tenderness.
Or maybe it was Rafferty who needed it. But either way, he was determined to wrap up the job as quickly as possible and meet up with Brett.
Assuming Brett was agreeable to the idea. It was difficult to know what Brett wanted these days.
Rafferty watched Sophie Sheridan foxtrot past her brother and call something out to him.
Brett glanced at her, smiling vaguely. He nodded politely to her partner, a stocky, studious looking boy.
Which reminded Rafferty. Where were the happy bride and groom?
Six months ago Brett had hired Rafferty to, among other things, keep his older sister Katherine from marrying an undesirable egg by the name of Harry Sader. That case had not been one of Rafferty's successes, although he was never going to regret the circumstances that had brought him and Brett together.
It was hard to imagine Kitty a no show at this kind of event. Then again, maybe Mrs. Sader was getting tired of the polite dismay of her society friends when she turned up with her bum of a lord and master in tow.
Rafferty pulled the gold watch Brett had given him for Christmas from the pocket of his tunic.
Eleven twenty-three. If something was going to happen, it ought to be happening pretty damn --
Movement out of the corner of his eye. Rafferty looked around in time to see a cloaked and hooded figure leaving the exhibit room and hurrying down the hall.
Leaving his post on the landing, Rafferty made his way swiftly down the marble steps. When he reached the bottom level, he spotted Brett coming toward him, circumlocuting his way through the crush of nobles and slave girls. Brett called, "He's heading for the Temple Garden."
"Neil, he might be parked in the orchard behind the garden."
Rafferty nodded his understanding and cut left, pushing his way through the crowd. More than one drink was spilled, but he ignored the protests, watching for his quarry. The elaborate wigs and fancy headdresses obscured his view.
There. The figure in black was indeed moving swiftly toward the garden entrance in the back of the museum.
The Morshead Temple Garden was nearly as famous as the museum itself. A decade earlier several acres of reclaimed farmland had been landscaped with roses and palm trees and exotic grasses planted around grand and graceful architectural features from the mysterious Orient. The statues and arches and fountains would provide excellent concealment, but Brett's point was a good one. Behind the garden walls were still more acres of museum-owned but as yet unclaimed orchards.
Rafferty's line of vision was blocked once more by a corpulent captain of industry in a stiff blue head cloth complete with flaps and gold hooded cobra ornament.
"Hey, watch it, buddy!" snarled Pharaoh, as he and Rafferty tried to two-step around each other.
"'Scuse me, Your High and Mightiness." Rafferty tacked past Cleopatra's barge and sailed on. Ahead of him, the figure in black reached the heavy wooden door leading out onto the terrace, hauled it open, and slipped through with a final furl of his -- or her -- cloak. The rain gusted in and then the door settled into place with the finality of a tomb entrance sliding shut.
Rafferty sped up and narrowly missed overturning a tray of champagne glasses borne by a weary looking slave girl.
"Say!" she protested automatically.
There was a lot Rafferty would have liked to say, and none of it fit for polite company. A final couple of strides brought him to the garden entrance. He yanked it open and stepped into the rainswept night.
It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the darkness. The terrace was empty, as was the wet, pink tiled walkway glistening in the wavering illumination cast by the colored flood lights strategically placed in the lawn. Rafferty walked down the terrace steps, his gaze raking the rain-tossed shrubberies and tall ornamental grasses. A tall fountain with an ibis centerpiece sent jets of sparkling water in the night and effectively drowned out footsteps or any other sound but its own stir and splash.
Past the fountain, the tiled walkway diverged, one path leading to what appeared to be a tomb guarded by an eight foot statue of a hippopotamus standing on its hind legs. The other path led through a small grove of palm trees. Rafferty opted for the palm trees.
Within seconds his linen getup was drenched and his sandals showed a disconcerting tendency to slip on the wet tile. Not a good night for reconnaissance. Hell, not a good night for anything besides curling up in a warm bed with a good book -- or good company.
He skated along, eyes and ears straining the darkness, and at last his persistence was rewarded by the glimpse of a ghostly figure flitting through the gloom. Brett had guessed right, the blackmailer -- or his accomplice -- was headed for the back of the Temple Garden.
Rafferty sped up and nearly skidded into a giant urn. He avoided the collision and slip-slided onwards. He couldn't afford to be spotted, but he needed to get to that car and take down the license before this bird flew the coop.
In fact, his best bet would be to get there first and take a look at the owner's registration. Yeah, that was the way to play it. He left the path and sprinted across the mushy lawn, dodging stone benches, obelisks, and rose bushes.
The rain blew straight in his eyes, noisily pattering down on the palm leaves overhead.
He rounded a small pyramid of burnished metal and nearly ran into a woman who seemed to be crouching in the shadows. The woman jumped up. In the uncertain gold light Rafferty had the impression of wide eyes, short dark bobbed hair, and a trench coat.
"What's the idea?" he demanded.
"What's it to you?" she snapped back.
Her instant pugnacious response was unexpected. "What do you think you're doing out here?"
"What do you think you're doing out here?" she returned, and wiped the rain from her eyes.
"I'm asking the questions."
"By whose authority, Hercules? You're no copper. Not in that get-up."
"And you're no vestal virgin, sister. So what are you doing out here skulking in the rose bushes?" He was already forming a theory. She wore trousers beneath the coat, so she had not been a guest of the museum that evening. He figured she must be who the figure in black was planning to rendezvous with. But if so, she was -- literally -- off the beaten path. The figure in black had not been headed this way.
Rafferty threw a quick, uneasy look over his shoulder -- no sign of the third player in this dewy drama -- and the girl was off like a shot.
He swore, started after her, then stopped. His quarry was the person who'd picked up Scheiner's payoff. Maybe this lily of denial was in on the blackmail scheme or maybe she had some other private reason for playing hide and seek amongst the pyramids. Either way, she was a secondary consideration. He watched her lithe figure disappear behind a pair of palm trees, and then he turned and ran for the back of the garden, still hoping to cut off the caped figure.
A six foot stone wall separated the Temple Garden from the orchards and farmland beyond. There were no floodlights to brighten all the nooks and crannies, and the tall, silent statues of hawk-headed men and cat-shaped women seemed stranger and more sinister as Rafferty raced past. He jumped onto a stone bench and climbed to the top of the wall, bracing himself to peer over.
Visibility was not good, but it was good enough. Wide swathes of ground had been cleared on the other side of the wall, and rain pooled in the ruts and tracks. If a car had parked there in the last hour or so, it would probably still be sitting there, stuck in the mud. But there was no car, no indication there had ever been a car. Not this night.
Rafferty let himself drop back down to the wet grass.
Where was little wet riding hood? Was he still trotting around the garden? Was it possible he'd made Rafferty inside the museum and taken him on this soggy little jaunt in order to ditch him? Had he met up with the frail in the trench coat after all? Were they still lurking somewhere close by?
Rafferty peered into the darkness, watching, listening. Rain splashed down around him, rustled in the leaves and flowers, gurgled down the walkway. He became aware that he was soaked all the way through and starting to shiver.
So what next? Where did he go from here? As things stood he had lost Scheiner's money and he had no clue who the blackmailer was.
No damn way.
Somewhere in this park was the person or persons unknown he was looking for, and he was going to find them or die trying. If he did die, it would most likely be of pneumonia, so the sooner he got moving, the better.
Rafferty started back up the path. The tile walk glittered in the artificial light, the palm leaves flapped noisily overhead. He might have been the only person in the garden -- or on the planet.
Something wasn't right. This bird couldn't have disappeared into thin air. He'd been following the path, making straight for somewhere or something. Though he'd been moving fast, he'd shown no sign he was aware or afraid of pursuit.
The path curved right and Rafferty spotted a black stone sphinx set in the center of an ornamental pond. The pond was fringed with bulrush and papyrus plants, and ringed by large flat stones. A bent and hooded figure sat on one of the stones.
Rafferty came to a stop.
The seated figure did not look up, did not move at all, did not even seem aware of Rafferty.
Something in the absolute stillness of the other raised the hair on the back of Rafferty's neck. He stepped forward, then another step, then another.
The huddled figure never stirred.
A foot away, Rafferty stopped and stared down. The hood still concealed the other's hair and face. Rafferty reached out a hand.
The figure toppled back, half falling into the pond. A man's pale countenance stared up sightlessly. The black cape spread beneath his bobbing figure like a cloud of ink. A gold flower seemed to sprout from the center of his chest.
Rafferty swallowed hard and leaned over for a better look.
Nope. Not a flower. A dagger.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.