by Dennis Palumbo
This story first appeared in a short story collection, From Crime to Crime.
“Gentlemen, a toast,” Bill proclaimed, raising a glass of fine Merlot. “To me.”
Mark, Fred, Isaac and I dutifully raised our glasses and clinked crystal. After all, how could we decline? We were dining in splendor at one of the finest restaurants in Los Angeles, and Bill was picking up the check.
I won’t bore you with the details of how four middle-aged married men with children managed to secure a Sunday night dinner meeting of the Smart Guys Marching Society. Suffice it to say that the domestic negotiations – involving scheduling conflicts, child-care responsibilities and rightfully disgruntled marital partners – would have taxed the diplomats at Malta. But somehow we pulled it off. Much to Isaac’s amusement, I might add!
Many years older than the rest of us, and a long-time bachelor, he seemed greatly entertained as we took our seats at a secluded corner table, recounting our tales of struggle on the home front that led to this evening’s freedom.
As you can imagine, these narratives quickly exhausted the Merlot, even with Isaac, as per usual, only drinking water. Finally, though, and after ordering a second over-priced bottle, Bill explained why he’d suddenly invited us all out to dinner.
“We’re celebrating,” he said, beaming. “Remember my director friend, Brett Loftus? Made that movie for Sony Pictures that went through the roof?”
“Yeah,” Mark said, rolling his eyes. “Peter Pan on Mars. Desecration of a classic.”
“Whatever,” Bill said. “Meanwhile, it grossed over $800 million world-wide, and that’s not counting the video games and action figures.”
“So?” Fred said, feigning boredom – or maybe not. Our erudite lawyer tended to frown on pop culture in general and big Hollywood movies in particular.
“So,” Bill replied, “now that Brett can write his own ticket, he’s making a complicated suspense movie, an erotic thriller. Hitchcock meets Basic Instinct, only with a little more blood-and-guts to bring in the kids. And guess who has a huge supporting role?”
Now I was smiling, too. “You? Wow, that’s great.”
Even Mark gave a reluctant nod. “Hey, congrats, man. God knows you’ve paid your dues.”
“Paid ‘em with interest,” Bill said, shaking his head. “I’m still pinching myself. This could be huge for me. And Brett’s a great guy. I mean, sure, he’s a self-absorbed, egomaniacal control freak…but in show biz, who the hell isn’t? Plus, he cast me in the part, which makes him a certified genius, in my opinion.”
“So who are you playing?” Fred asked, his interest apparently piqued, despite himself.
Bill drained his glass and leaned across the table, palms flat on either side of the dinner plate. “Man, it’s a great part…” He glanced over at me excitedly. “You’ll really love it. I play a rich Beverly Hills psychiatrist who seduces and brutally murders his beautiful female patients.”
My mouth fell open. “What? He does…what?”
“It’s so cool,” Bill went on. “See, after killing the victims, he arranges their bodies to look like the ink blot designs in those Rorschach tests. Is that sick or what?”
“‘Sick’ is exactly the word I’m thinking of,” I said icily. “What kind of bullshit is that?”
Bill sat back, blinking, as though stung. “Jesus, I thought you of all people would get it. You’re a therapist. You know you guys are even nuttier than your patients. This story just takes that idea…well, it just takes it to the next level!”
Fred opened his tall, gilt-edged menu. “I weep for Western Civilization.”
Mark laughed. “You’re always weeping for Western Civilization. Come on, it’s only a movie.” Then he peered at me through his thick, dark-framed glasses. “And you need to chill out. Hell, we journalists are made to look like idiots all the time in movies, or else ruthless hacks – or blood-sucking opportunists. Comes with the territory.”
Fred spoke from behind the opened menu. “Not to mention how lawyers are portrayed on screen as unscrupulous, money-grubbing, ambulance-chasing bastards. But I’ve learned to live with it.”
I spread my hands. “You guys are kidding, right? Sure, sometimes reporters and lawyers are depicted as villains, but you see just as many shown as heroes, dedicated journalists exposing corruption, courageous attorneys going up against big corporations.”
Bill eyed me across the lip of his wine glass. “What’s your point?”
“My point is, haven’t you all noticed how therapists – especially male therapists –are portrayed on TV and film nowadays?”
Bill shrugged. Mark studied the wine list. Needing support, I looked across the table at Isaac. “Isaac, remember Claude Rains in that 40’s movie with Bette Davis? He plays a shrink helping her?”
“Of course,” Isaac replied. “Now, Voyager.”
“What about it?” Bill said.
“Rains was a great guy. Paternal. Supportive. Always trying to do what was best for his patient.”
“Figures you’d like that character,” Bill murmured.
I went on. “Then there was Lee J. Cobb in The Three Faces of Eve, helping Joanne Woodward parse out the three personalities tormenting her.”
“I remember that movie,” Mark said. “Not exactly a touchy-feely guy, that shrink.”
“No,” I agreed. “But like Claude Rains, a therapist of unquestionable motives. Unimpeachable authority. One of the good guys.”
I folded my arms. “So, I have a question. How did we get from there to Hannibal Lecter?”
Fred chuckled behind his menu.
“It’s not funny,” I said, building steam. “Look at how male therapists are depicted on TV and film today. Evil and homicidal, manipulative and unethical, or else they’re sexual predators, assaulting their patients. It just…well, it pisses me off.”
“That’s your idea of a cogent point?” Fred put down his menu and smiled at Bill. “I’ll have the lobster, by the way. Caesar salad to start. Okay with you?”
Bill smiled back. “Money’s no object, my friend.”
“Just checking.” Then Fred looked at me. “I understand you’re upset by this trend, but you must admit it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Not in today’s post-modern, quasi-feminist, anti-establishment climate.”
“What do you mean?” Mark asked, buttering a warm slice of Italian rustic bread.
Fred stroked his beard. “Think about it. In today’s popular culture, the male therapist is the perfect bad guy.
After all, the past forty years has seen a challenge to the whole idea of masculine authority. In terms of image, practically all professors, doctors and scientists of the male persuasion have gone from being saints to sinners. Same with therapists. No wonder today’s filmmakers find them irresistible as villains. All that education, respectability and power, turned to the Dark Side!”
Bill frowned. “Say what?”
Reaching for a bread-stick, Fred continued his argument. “In a nutshell, male therapists are a perfect symbol of the failure of patriarchal authority. Much like priests today, they suffer from the failed expectations of a disillusioned public.”
Bill regarded him warily. “Nice speech, counselor,” he said. “But the jury’s unconvinced.”
“No, wait a minute,” I said. “I think Fred’s on to something. Some people are suspicious, even frightened, by psychotherapy. Certainly they were years ago. Look at old movies like The Manchurian Candidate and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Rather than presenting clinical treatment as a means to alleviate suffering, they showed how it could be exploited and used for brain-washing and manipulation.”
“Wait a minute,” Bill said. “What about Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People, or Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting? They were good guys, right?”
“The exceptions that prove the rule,” I sniffed.
Isaac chimed in. “You boys are probably too young to remember, but there was also this movie called The Snake Pit, with Olivia DeHavilland, I believe. Those hospital shrinks really put her through the wringer. Kind of hokey by today’s standards, but still pretty darned scary.”
Fred pointed with his half-eaten bread-stick. “Hell, even that movie, A Beautiful Mind, showed Russell Crowe getting zapped by electro-shock therapy. And who’s pulling the switch? Some creepy male psychiatrist, a real poster boy for the clueless patriarchy.”
“On the other hand,” Mark added, with a dark smile, “compare those characters with the way female therapists are portrayed on screen. Brilliant, nurturing, trust-worthy. Barbra Streisand in Prince of Tides, Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos – that woman shrink on Law and Order. Of course, I know I’m the politically incorrect member of our little group, but Fred’s got me thinking…”
Fred scowled. “Hey, man, don’t blame me just because you’re a male chauvinist throw-back.”
“I was merely making a point. Sue me.”
Bill shook his head. “Boy, you guys are priceless. I get this great gig and you’ve gotta turn it into a sociological debate. All I wanted to do tonight was drink good booze and eat real food. Christ!”
“We are happy for you,” Mark said. “You know that.”
“Of course we are,” Fred agreed.
“As am I, Bill.” Isaac sat back in his chair, clasped hands resting on his generous belly. “If there’s one thing I know about, it’s working long and hard at something. And then how good it feels when it finally pays off.”
“Thanks, Isaac,” Bill said. “I knew you’d get it.”
“I’m happy, too,” I said. “Really. And I’m sorry I got up on my high horse.”
“Well, get down from it,” Mark said. “Fact is, crazy male shrinks are just the new Hollywood cliché. You have your brilliant doctor, your ruthless attorney and now your whacko shrink. Get over it.”
Fred pouted. “See what I mean? ‘Ruthless attorney. You left out mud-slinging reporter.”
Mark laughed. “Okay, let’s add him in, too.”
Bill sipped his wine. “And don’t forget how actors are portrayed on screen – vain, stupid, back-stabbing, clawing their way to fame and fortune.”
Mark looked puzzled. “And your point is…?”
“Hilarious, Mark, as always,” Bill said. “Now I say let’s order dinner and change the goddam subject.”
Which we did. Sort of. Because half-way through our assorted lobsters, prime ribs, and filet mignons – not to mention the occasional Scotch on the rocks – Bill brought up his new movie role again. This time, I knew enough to just shut up and eat. “Did I mention that Brett Loftus was eccentric?” he said, between mouthfuls.
“Your new film’s director?” Mark said. “No, you just said he was brilliant and egotistical.”
“Oh. Well, he’s also a fanatic about accuracy. He’s been that way since we met back in theater school. I remember one play he directed. He practically used up the whole budget, which wasn’t much, tracking down the right props. We were doing a revival of Inherit the Wind, and he decided we had to have a genuine ceiling fan from that time period for the courtroom scenes. Made everybody nuts.”
Mark leaned in to me. “I think we can add another cliché character to our list. ‘Fanatical director.’”
“In this case, it’s not a cliché.” Bill ladled sour cream on a baked potato. “But now, as a film director, he’s got a whole new set of things to obsess about. Like with Peter Pan on Mars. Brett threw fits about making sure the computer-generated effects looked genuine.”
“Too bad he couldn’t have just waited twenty years to make the movie,” I said. “Maybe he could’ve done the Mars sequences on location.”
Bill laughed. “Hey, don’t think that didn’t occur to him. He actually called NASA at one point and asked when they thought we’d start flying people to Mars. I think they just hung up on him.”
Fred, doing battle with a huge crab leg reluctant to leave its shell, looked up.
“Since Brett’s such a stickler for accuracy, I suppose you’ll have to go back to school and train as a shrink.”
“A rich Beverly Hills shrink,” I corrected him.
Bill swallowed another mouthful of wine. I could see he was getting a bit buzzed already. “Funny you should bring that up,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket for a small clear plastic bag. Inside was a single, folded piece of paper. Even through the plastic, you could see how old and faded it was.
“What’s that?” Mark demanded.
“All in good time, my pretty. All in good time.” Bill pushed his half-filled plate away from him and sighed. “I was thinking about taking a breather anyway.
Besides, this might make for an interesting story while I digest between rounds.”
He laid the plastic bag with its mysterious contents next to the plate, then put his hand on top of it. “Like I said, Brett Loftus likes to use authentic props whenever possible. Even in films. Remember that scene in the Darling bedroom, before Peter Pan and the kids go to Mars? He made sure almost every stick of furniture, even the stuffed animals, were the real thing. Had his set designers scour the internet looking for antiques dealers, collectors and even likely estate sales. You gotta admit, it looked totally authentic.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Fred said, “didn’t see the film.”
“Me, neither,” Mark added. “On principle.”
Bill shrugged. “Hey, you wanna miss out on the cultural zeitgeist, that’s your business. Anyway, on this new film, the one I’m in, remember, which means you will be seeing it – on this new film Brett wants the same level of authenticity. See, my character is not only a brilliant, world-famous psychiatrist, he’s a big-time collector. He has original Monets, Tiffany lamps, Louis the Fourteenth chairs. Very classy guy. Now about a week ago, right after I got the part, Brett calls me at home, all excited. There’s this antiques dealer he’s used in the past…older guy, more like a hobbyist than an expert. He just dabbles in collecting stuff, but more than once he’s gotten his hands on something really special for Brett.”
“But he’s not a professional dealer?” I said. “What’s his name?”
“Robert Clayton,” Bill replied. “And, believe me, Brett swears by the guy. Anyway, Clayton calls and tells Brett he’s found an item that would be just perfect for the new movie. Exactly the kind of thing my character, the shrink, would have in his office.” Bill paused, for effect.
“Well?” Fred said at last. “What is it?”
“Sigmund Freud’s desk!” Bill replied.
To a man, we all stared, dumbfounded, except for Isaac, who sat calmly, sipping from his water glass.
Finally, I put down my fork and looked at Bill. “You’re kidding, right?”
Bill sighed impatiently. “Look, I’m not an idiot. Neither is Brett. It wasn’t Freud’s actual desk, from Vienna or someplace like that. But it was a desk he used, if only briefly when he came to America in 1909.”
“Freud visited America?” Mark asked.
“Yes,” I answered, “in September of that year, as Bill says. He had been invited to speak at Clark University in Massachusetts.”
“That’s right,” Bill said. “I learned about it when Brett and I drove over to Bob Clayton’s place in Santa Monica the other day. He took us out to his converted garage and showed us the desk. It’s an old roll-top, apparently dating from the 1890s. According to the dealer Clayton talked with, it had been acquired from an estate sale in the northeast.”
“Whose estate?” Mark asked.
“The family of a long-time faculty member from Clark University,” Bill said. “They’ve been storing the desk in their barn since 1922, when the professor retired and moved to his farm in Maine. He’d had all his stuff from his office at the university shipped up there with him. The professor died soon after, but his survivors kept every- thing under some tarps in the barn, including the desk.”
“What does that have to do with Freud?”
“Well, according to Clayton, the old professor told his family that Freud had used the desk during his visit to Clark. The professor had made his office available to Freud for writing speeches, answering letters, whatever.”
“Can Clayton verify any of this?”
“He spoke extensively to both his dealer and the professor’s family. They even showed him a photo of Freud and the professor shaking hands in front of a building on campus.”
I nodded. “Well, that’s pretty cool, all right.”
“So I guess the desk’s worth a fortune,” Fred said.
Bill scratched his chin. “That’s the funny part. No, it isn’t. Turns out, Freud used a lot of stuff while he was here – pens, tables, writing tablets. From the dealer’s point of view, the desk was no big deal. In fact, Clayton got it from the dealer for a song. Though he tried to be vague about the details, I got the impression he paid less than five hundred dollars for it.”
Bill grinned. “Oh, he knew how much Brett wanted it for the movie. It would be a great prop – the desk my character would use in his psychiatry office. Brett could even add some dialogue to the script that pointed out the desk’s origins. It would help show how sophisticated a collector the shrink is.”
“You didn’t answer the question,” I said. “How much did Brett pay for it? Or should I say, how much did the studio pay for it?”
“Ah.” Bill raised his forefinger meaningfully. “Now we’re getting to the interesting stuff. I’m standing there next to Brett, while he and Clayton are negotiating. Brett’s offering two thousand, then three. Clayton’s hedging, the whole time making a big deal out of showing off the desk. The great condition the wood is in, how many neat little drawers are tucked under the roll-top. Reminded me of a used car salesman, but not a bad guy, really.”
Mark poured some more wine. “Let me know when we get to the interesting stuff, okay?”
“Almost there,” Bill said brightly. “Finally, it looks like Brett and Clayton have agreed on a number. When suddenly Clayton, who’s still been opening and closing those little desk drawers, cries out in pain. Brett and I come closer and see that Clayton’s finger has been cut by something.”
“What was it?”
“At first, we don’t know. But then Brett sees the sharp point of a wire coil, a kind of spring, sticking out from underneath one of those little drawers. He carefully pushes against it, and guess what? There’s another, even smaller drawer under the first one.”
“You mean, like a secret compartment?”
“Exactly,” Bill said. “Those old desks always had secret compartments built into them, for important papers or private letters.”
“Jeez, it’s like something out of Dickens,” I said.
“Or Agatha Christie,” murmured Isaac. As often happened, he’d been silent for so long I had to turn my head to confirm that it was indeed his voice I’d heard.
Isaac smiled back at me benignly. “No, I haven’t nodded off. I’m still dissecting this delicious salmon.”
Meanwhile, Fred and Mark were leaning in on Bill from either side. Fred stabbed the air with his fork. “Well?” he said. “What was in the secret compartment?”
“This.” Bill held up the plastic bag and showed us the folded paper within. “Not the bag, of course. The piece of paper.”
“Yeah, we kinda figured that,” Mark said.
“As you can see, the paper’s pretty old and fragile,” Bill said, gingerly removing it from the plastic bag. He spread it out flat on the table. There was some type-written lines on the single yellowed sheet.
I craned my neck to see.“I can barely make it out. What does it say?”
Bill sat back, gesturing with his wine glass. “Why don’t you guys gather around and read it? I don’t want to touch it any more than necessary. And I sure as hell don’t want you jerks to, either. Not with all the steak sauce and melted butter dripping from your fingers.”
We all did as Bill asked, standing in an informal semi-circle around him and looking down at the sheet of paper. Isaac had his hand on my shoulder for balance as he peered down at the faded words.
“It was typed on an old manual typewriter,” Bill explained. “Bob Clayton could at least tell us that much. And that from the condition of the paper, it was entirely possible that it was written in 1909.”
“Shhh,” Mark said sharply. “I’m reading.”
So was I. Here’s what I saw:
The first is the way to the truth
He soars that trusts in beginnings
Indeed may he struggle for proofs –
Say what you will of Elizabeth the First
Intrigues she withstood and inspired
She never matched swords with the fools
As I have, never in prejudice mired –
Heroes may come and villains may go
Oh the front is embattled by fire
As strong as the weak-minded dare
Xerxes himself he would tire
I found myself reading it a second time, then a third.
Finally, after a long silence, Mark spoke up. “I’m no literary expert, but this sucks, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Fred said, straightening his back. “Can we sit down now?”
Bill nodded, and we all returned to our seats.
“Well,” he said, carefully cupping the paper with his hands, as though it were an ember that might fly away. “What do you think?”
“First of all,” Fred said, finishing his wine, “what happened after you guys found it?”
“What you might expect,” Bill said. “Suddenly Clayton wasn’t so anxious to sell the desk. If this really was written by Sigmund Freud, he might be able to sell the desk for a ton of money. Or he might be able to make two big sales – one for the desk and one for the poem.”
“Bet this didn’t make Brett too happy.”
“That’s an understatement. They started arguing, with Brett threatening to never use Clayton’s services again. He said that Clayton owed him for all his patronage over the years. Clayton argued back that he wanted to retire, and a big score like this would finally make that possible.”
“So how did it end up?” I asked. “I mean, considering that you’ve got the poem in your possession.”
Bill smiled. “Let’s just say, it’s hard to argue with a man whose last picture grossed almost a billion bucks. Brett asked for a moment and excused himself to go outside. From what I could hear, he called his agent and the studio execs and just started screaming. Clayton and I could only stand there, kind of embarrassed, our eyes not meeting much. Ten minutes later, Brett came back in to the garage and said to Clayton, ‘Look, I don’t know if the poem’s genuine or not, but we know the desk is. Freud probably found the secret compartment by accident, or maybe even the old professor showed it to him. If, for whatever reason, maybe as a private joke, Sigmund Freud wrote a silly piece of fluff and stashed it in the secret drawer, then it makes the desk more valuable to me. And to me,’ says Clayton. Then Brett says, “I know. That’s why I’m prepared to make you a one-time offer of $350,000 for the desk and the poem.’”
“Three hundred and fifty grand?” Mark blurted out.
“For a poem whose authenticity hadn’t even been verified yet?” Fred added, staring.
Bill nodded. “What Brett Loftus wants, Brett Loftus gets, at least until his next film tanks. To be honest, I thought Clayton would argue a little more, but he took the offer. The next day, the funds were deposited in his bank and the desk was shipped to the studio lot. Meanwhile, Brett entrusted the poem to me.”
“Because my uncle in Philly is a well-known antiques authenticator. Brett’s having the studio fly me there tomorrow afternoon to get his opinion of the poem’s legitimacy. All expenses paid, of course.”
Bill carefully put the paper back in its plastic bag. “Though to tell the truth, Brett isn’t even that interested in whether or not it’s genuine. He really just wanted the desk. But he wanted to make sure he got the poem, too. Otherwise –”
“Otherwise, he might feel as though Bob Clayton bested him in a negotiation,” I finished for him. “Right?”
“You got it. Brett is one guy who hates to lose.”
Another five intense minutes of cutting, spearing and chewing, and dinner was pretty much a memory. As the bus boy took away the dirty dishes, we listened to the waiter recommend various preposterous desserts and describe the selection of after-dinner drinks. Essentially, we ordered one of everything and sent the poor man on his way. Then, surprisingly, it was Isaac who spoke first.“Bill, before we reach the end of this exquisite repast, I just want to thank you for your generosity.”
“Hear, hear.” Mark gave a little bow in Bill’s direction. “Except for the company, a terrific meal.”
“Thanks,” Bill said. “My pleasure. But just for the hell of it, does anyone have any thoughts about the poem? Do you think Freud wrote it?”
I shrugged. “I’m no expert on old Sigmund, but it’s entirely possible. Most of his writings were deadly serious, as you can imagine, but he occasionally turned his hand to a quip or a joke. Of course, he was notoriously terrible at it, though one of his best-known books dealt with the significance of humor in everyday life.”
“But did he write poetry?” Mark asked. “I mean, even just for fun?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. Remember, whoever wrote this poem entitled it ‘Doggerel.’ So he certainly wasn’t making any claims for its literary quality.”
“Although,” Fred pointed out, “if you look at the theme of the poem, the author seems to be talking about the difficulties of fighting against the small-minded and the conventional. As I understand it, Freud was constantly battling with his medical colleagues about the veracity of his theories. Wasn’t he thrown out of some medical societies because of his views?”
“Hell, yeah,” I said. “And you may have an idea there, Fred. The poem does proclaim the heroism of a man who struggles against – what does he call them? “The fools.” Jesus, maybe he did write it!”
Bill stirred. “Look, I know I’ve got a one-track mind about this, since it all started with me getting a part in Brett’s movie. But I think it’s cool that Freud mentioned Queen Elizabeth, too. I mean, now there’s a great part! You know how many actresses have played the Virgin Queen?”
He started counting them on his fingers. “Just off the top of my head, there’s Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson, Cate Blanchett –”
“Don’t forget Helen Mirren,” I said.
“You’re right,” Bill said. “She was terrific, too. So was Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love. I think she even got the Oscar for it.” Then his brow furrowed. “Though I don’t know who this Xerxes guy is. Or was.”
“King of Persia,” Fred answered matter-of-factly. “Around 500 B.C. Real bad-ass.”
Mark regarded him wryly. “Jesus, you are a font of totally useless information, aren’t you?”
Fred shrugged. “It’s a gift.”
By then, our decadent desserts and various coffees and liquors had arrived. As the rest of us began to work our way through them, Bill hesitated. I glanced up to find him looking earnestly at Isaac. “Well, Isaac,” Bill said. “We haven’t heard from you.
I mean, it’s all academic anyway, since my uncle will be pronouncing his opinion in a day or two. But what do you think of the poem?”
Isaac paused. “I can’t say I’m much of a literary critic myself, though I do have two questions.” He turned to me.
I thought for a moment. “I believe it was 1939. Why?”
Isaac smiled. “Yes, I thought it was about that time. I asked because it helps clear up something about the poem that’s been bothering me.”
“You said you had two questions,” Mark pointed out. “What’s the second?”
“I know I haven’t. Should we get in touch with him?”
“I don’t think you’ll be able to,” Isaac said. “I’m afraid he’s already begun spending his retirement on some exotic foreign isle, one whose government doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States.”
Bill’s face paled. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
Mark took off his glasses. “Hold on, Isaac. Are you saying Clayton took off with the money?”
“That’s what I would do,” Isaac replied. “Once I’d managed to swindle it out of Brett Loftus and his Hollywood employers.”
“Swindle?” Fred had just started in on his cherries jubilee. “So you think the desk and the poem are fakes?”
“To be candid,” Isaac said, “I’m not sure about the desk. We have only Clayton’s word for what his own dealer supposedly told him about its history, but a simple call to the old Clark professor’s family will verify that story. They may even be able to provide the photo of Freud and his American host that Clayton alluded to. No, I wouldn’t be surprised if that part of the tale is true.”
“But not the poem?”
Isaac smiled. “Consider this. It was Clayton himself who called attention to the desk’s secret compartment by cutting himself – supposedly by accident – on the wire spring release. My guess is, he’d found the secret compartment during an earlier examination of the desk. Perhaps it was then that he came up with his scheme. After all, as he told Bill and Loftus, he was ready for retirement. How better to fund his later years than by bilking a well-funded movie director out of some cash?”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Maybe you’re right, and Clayton had found the secret compartment earlier. But couldn’t he have also found the poem inside it? That piece of paper sure looks old.”
“That’s probably because it is old,” Isaac replied. “How hard do you think it would be for an antiques dealer like Clayton to get a hold of paper from that period? Or an early 20th Century manual typewriter, for that matter? Besides,” he went on, “Clayton practically told Brett Loftus that the poem was a phony. He was just cheeky enough to write it in such a way that the poem itself gave the game away. Unfortunately, neither Brett, nor Bill here, I’m afraid, managed to catch on.”
“What do you mean?” Bill asked.
“May I see the poem again?” Isaac held out his hand.
Bill nodded, and once more took the fragile paper out of its protective covering. He gave it to Isaac.
“Look at how the poem reads,” Isaac said, spreading it carefully in the middle of the table. “Look at the language. The poem begins, ‘The first is the way to the truth.’ Then the next line says, ‘He soars that trusts in beginnings.’ He even mentions Elizabeth the First. Then again, a few lines later, he writes, ‘Oh the front is embattled by fire.’ See what I’m getting at?”
“No,” I said.
“I think I do,” Fred said quickly. “The poem keeps talking about ‘the first,’ ‘the front,’ ‘beginnings’…”
Isaac’s eyes glistened. “Which suggests…what?”
Suddenly, Mark snapped his fingers – which, un-fortunately, brought the waiter scurrying over. “Sorry, man,” Mark said, politely waving him away.
“False alarm.” Then he turned back to the table. “I think I get what you’re saying, Isaac. Those phrases are all supposed to point the reader in a particular direction, to the front, or beginning, of each line of the poem. Is that it?”
“Door prize goes to Mark,” Isaac said happily. “Yes, the beginning – in other words, the first letter of each line, which, as a quick glance will show, means the letters
T-H-I-S-I-S-A-H-O-A-X. Spacing them out correctly, the message reads –”
“‘This is a hoax,’” I said aloud. Despite myself, I had to laugh.
“Holy hell,” Fred said, smiling, too. “Now I know why he referred to Xerxes. He needed an ‘X.’”
Meanwhile, Bill just stared down at the poem with a look of distaste. “That Clayton. What a creep.”
“At least he’s an honest creep,” Fred said. “He told you and Brett right there in the poem that it was a hoax.”
“Remember, too,” Isaac added, “Clayton had to assume Brett would have it professionally examined. He knew an expert would easily see through the deception. And since Clayton hoped to be long gone by then, he probably thought planting the code in the poem itself might be a fitting joke to play on the egotistical film director. A final, good-bye tweak on the nose!”
“That ‘joke’ cost Brett’s studio bosses $350,000,” Bill said. “Not that they can’t afford it. They spend more than that on wrap parties.”
“True,” Isaac said. “Though, in a way, Clayton also inadvertently played a joke on himself. In fact, his own mistake when writing the poem was what initially tipped me to the fact that it was a fake.”
“What mistake?” Fred asked.
“He refers to “Elizabeth the First,” meaning of course, the famous Tudor Queen played onscreen by all those fine actresses Bill mentioned. But Elizabeth was never known as “the First” until 1952, when Elizabeth II ascended the throne. I remember that event pretty clearly, since I heard the live news report of the occasion on the radio.”
I smiled. “That’s why you asked me when Freud died.”
“Correct. If this poem had really been written in 1909, the author would have referred to the Queen only as ‘Elizabeth.’ Or, perhaps, ‘Elizabeth R,’ for ‘Regina.’ How could he have called her the ‘First,’ when a ‘Second’ wouldn’t even exist until the 1950’s?”
“Good point,” Mark agreed.
“Yeah, Isaac,” Bill said dryly. “Looks like you’ve done it again.”
Isaac looked abashed. “Sorry about that.”
Bill snatched up the poem with a lot less care than he had previously and tucked it back in the plastic bag. “There goes my trip to Philly, too, dammit,” he grumbled. “Did I mention it was all expenses paid? But I gotta call Brett and tell him what we’ve found out.”
Mark patted his shoulder. “Tough break, man.”
“But at least the desk may be legit,” Fred said.
“And you still have that great part in the film,” I added, without much enthusiasm. “The serial killer shrink.”
Bill brightened. “That’s true. I mean, that’s the most important thing, anyway.”
“Well, there is one thing more important than that,” Mark said, stirring amaretto into his black coffee.
“You’re still picking up the check, right?”
“If I may, let me make the final toast,” he said warmly. “To two distinguished gentlemen, Bill and Sigmund. Thanks to them, we’ve enjoyed both a wonderful meal and an interesting little puzzle. What member of the Smart Guys Marching Society could ask for more?”
“To Bill and Sigmund,” I repeated, as we all raised our drinks to touch Isaac’s.
“Just remember, Bill,” Fred said. “When you get your Oscar, don’t forget to mention us.”
“Believe me, I will.” Bill gave him a wicked smile. “After all, Oscar winners always remember to thank the little people…”
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