Everyone who’s anyone in 1920s New York knows Bedford Green. Once a merciless gossip columnist, he has given up the life of sleaze and secrets and decamped for the Village—to open a gritty little art gallery showcasing the most shocking European artists imaginable.
The gallery is a money pit, and Green is in debt to some of the roughest loan sharks south of 14th Street, but that doesn’t stop him from looking fabulous or having a good time. He’s happy hanging around Manhattan society—at least until his assistant starts to cry.
Sloane is a modern woman, a flapper with a razor-sharp bob and a bulletproof heart, but she’s convinced that her friend Polly Swanscott is in danger. From the speakeasies of the Village to the finest cafes in Paris, Green will do his best to save Polly—and he’ll do it with a cocktail in hand . . .
The Weeping Woman is the first book in the Bedford Green Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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The Weeping Woman
A Bedford Green Mystery
By Michael Kilian
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2001 Michael Kilian
All rights reserved.
Upon arriving at his West Eighth Street art gallery that warm spring morning in 1925, Bedford Green immediately noticed something terribly amiss:
Sloane Smith, his very beautiful young assistant, was crying.
A product of the intellectually demanding and socially exclusive women's college whose name she shared, she was an unusually serious and thoughtful young woman whose somber mien made her seem older than her twenty-five years. Extremely tall and fashionably slender, with delicate features, a very fair complexion, and gray-green eyes that put one in mind of northern seas, she wore her dark hair cut short and sleek in the latest Louise Brooks fashion and was as "modern" a young lady as could be found in New York. Sloane could display a disarming and endearing smile on occasion, making those eyes seem to sparkle. But rare were the times in the four years they had known each other when she had actually laughed.
Yet neither could he recall a time when she'd cried.
The sound of it now was as unsettling as if it had been screams.
Since leaving his job as celebrity columnist for the ratty tabloid New York Day and opening this little art gallery just off Washington Square, Bedford had been an exceedingly happy man. Having this remarkable young woman in his life was a big part of that. Her unexplained sorrow now caused him pain.
Certainly Sloane was no stranger to sadness. An insistently modern woman, she threw herself into amours, political causes, and radical cultural movements with much abandon, seldom with happy result. She seemed to choose her friends for their melancholy — or penchant for trouble — including, Bedford supposed, himself. She had difficult relations with her parents, who disapproved of her chosen lifestyle. But whatever she suffered, she usually bore it silently and privately. She prided herself greatly in being "a strong woman." She was from the Midwest — Chicago and Lake Forest.
The sound of her weeping was coming from the alcove in the back of the gallery that served as their workroom.
He hesitated, not sure how offering her comfort would be received. Setting his straw boater on the desk by the door, he flicked a speck of New York City coal dust from his otherwise immaculate white trousers. He wore both white flannels and white bucks with his blue blazer, though it was shy of Memorial Day and the prescribed official opening of the warm weather, white shoe season. Bedford was a man who dressed well, but always to suit himself. Never convention.
Stepping into the alcove, he found Sloane still oblivious to his arrival. Bedford wondered if her tristesse was over some new beau who was worse than usual — or perhaps a past one who'd given her sad memories. Her last young man, a verse libre poet with poor health habits, had died of influenza a few weeks before.
Bedford considered whether it might be a painting that had caused her distress. He'd just acquired a work he knew she would find disturbing. It was an oil by a young Austrian named Egon Schiele, unfortunately also deceased. If brilliantly rendered, the picture was pretty rough stuff — a study of a ravished, naked, wanton young woman seated sprawled in an almost obscene pose, her eyes reflecting every horror of life, her haunting face emptied of emotion, looking all but dead. The canvas had just arrived from Germany the day before.
Sloane had apparently had a look at the thing before he'd come in. The work now stood turned against the wall.
Steeling himself, he entered the alcove. She was seated at the work table, the morning mail before her, gazing forlornly at an odd, photographic postal card she held tenderly in her long-fingered hand.
Her hand dropped and she looked up. It worried him that she had not noticed him until then. Sloane had many feline qualities, and cat-like awareness of her surroundings was among them. The source of her sadness must be distracting indeed.
"I'm sorry," she said. She sought a handkerchief.
He gave her his neatly pressed one, then set his hand gently on her shoulder. "Is there anything I can do?"
She shook her head, wiping her eyes. He felt as though he had stumbled upon a very intimate, private moment, which was of course precisely what he had done.
Without another word, he squeezed her shoulder and returned to the front of the gallery, seating himself at the desk that was Sloane's usual station and turning his attention to the morning newspaper lying atop it — the very one for which he used to write his silly but popular columns until fired by the newspaper's owner — Margaret O'Neal — a formidable lady who had then been his fiancée.
The most prominent story that morning related the arrest of a Tennessee school teacher named John Scopes on the ridiculous charge of teaching evolution. According to the article, the state intended to try the man as an example to others so blasphemously and liberally inclined.
Like Sloane, Bedford lived in Greenwich Village. The speakeasies he favored there wouldn't lack for talk that night.
He read through the story — and another in similar vein. The Florida state legislature had passed a bill requiring daily reading of the Bible in public schools. Sin was being routed everywhere.
Not in New York, however. His Honor Jimmy Walker, a politician sometimes referred to as "the night mayor" of New York for his boulevardier ways, saw to that.
Hastening on, Bedford turned to the sports pages. The lovely Helen Wills, on whom he had a crush, had won a tennis championship in Newport. Less happily, a horse named Coventry, on whom Bedford had not wagered, had won the Preakness down in Baltimore, at odds of 22 to 1. The horse on whom he had rashly lavished his money had finished seventh. Coventry was expected at the forthcoming Belmont Stakes, but Bedford had his eye on another entry in that race, American Flag.
As he knew would happen, Sloane was standing before him, still holding her postal card. Her eyes were now dry, but her lovely face very drawn, and frighteningly pale.
"I want to go to Paris with you," she said.
Bedford sighed. "We've been through that, Sloane. I really need you here. Desperately."
"You could close down for a little while."
"A trip to Paris isn't a little while." He brushed a tear from her cheek with the back of his hand. "I haven't paid last month's rent. If we don't swing some decent sales pretty soon, I may have to close down for good."
"I don't think you're all that interested in running an art gallery, Bedford. I think you enjoy chumming around with your old newspaper pals a lot more than you do trading in art — not to speak of chumming around with showgirls."
"Claire Pell is not a showgirl. She's an actress. And a star."
"She is not an art collector."
Her expression gentled.
"I'd pay my own way," she said. "Both our ways. Anyway, Bedford. I've offered to help with the rent."
She spoke the words softly. It was a contentious matter with them. Sloane's family had enough money to buy a hundred galleries like his, but he had made it a point of honor never to touch a penny of hers. New York loan sharks had been another matter.
"Sloane ..." He shook his head wearily, then took her hand. "Why don't you just tell me what's wrong. What's all this about?"
She set the postal card on the desk in front of him. On its front was a photograph of a very blond young woman almost electric in her despair. Her light-colored but darkly lined eyes were widened wildly. Her small mouth was slightly opened, the bones of her cheeks and brow casting hard shadows over her flesh. And the image was just a little out of focus, accentuating the suggestion of madness.
Something odd had been added to this bizarre likeness — small, sparkling tears below and beside the eyes. But they weren't really tears. On closer inspection, they appeared to be clear glass beads. The picture was a trick. But her crazed appearance seemed utterly genuine.
Bedford gazed upon the bizarre image for a long moment, until the poor woman's mad expression began to make him uneasy. He turned over the card. It was postmarked Paris, and addressed to Sloane at the gallery.
The card bore only one message, "Douleur. Le dernier cri." It was signed simply, "Fou."
"'Pain,'" said Bedford, translating. "'The latest cry.'"
"No," said Sloane, somberly. "She's not talking about fashion. She means, 'the final cry,' as in crying out. I fear she may be in some terrible trouble."
"Because of this picture?"
"I know her. Better than you know me."
Bedford let that pass.
"'Fou,' meaning 'crazy.' That was our name for her in college. At Smith. She was a free spirit, don't you know. Dancing nude on the lawn in the moonlight sometimes, very late at night. Things like that."
"What's her real name? Isadora Duncan?"
"Polly. Polly Swanscott. She's a good friend. She stayed with me here for a time, before she got her own place."
Bedford looked at the postmark. "Her own place in Paris?"
"Her own place in the Village. Over on Bleecker. In Paris, I think she hasn't an address. I think she's been living with a man."
As Sloane well knew, he was sailing for France within the week, to search out paintings for clients and a possible chance for the one big sale that would put his gallery on its feet. As he thought upon it, there'd be some tempting benefits to bringing Sloane with him. With her help and expert eye, he might make some real finds. But the only find she had in mind was this madwoman.
"I don't understand any of this," he said.
She went to the end of the desk and sat down, gracefully crossing her legs. Women's hemlines had risen shockingly high that spring — to midcalf and a bit higher. Sloane's skirt barely reached the top of her knees when she was standing. Now the hem lay upon her thighs.
"I need your help, Bedford. Simple as that. I want to find Polly — if it's not too late."
"But what is it you think might have happened to her?"
"That's what I want to find out."
"You were crying, Sloane. You never cry."
The look she flashed him was a warning.
"Help, Bedford. Not prying questions."
"Are you being cross with me?"
"Yes I am."
"You know I'd like to help, but ..."
"You know people, Bedford. You know everyone. You've been a newspaperman. You know police detectives, and gangsters. You know people in Paris — that Negro aviator you flew with in the war who runs a café now."
"Sloane, I'm going to Paris to buy art. On business. My time over there's limited. So are my resources."
She dabbed at her eyes. He couldn't tell if these were fresh tears.
"Won't you at least tell me why you think she's met misfortune?" he asked.
"No. I made a promise." She shook her head sadly, then got to her feet. He feared for a moment that she was going to take her purse and walk straight out, never to return. Instead, she went to the canvasses stacked against the wall, turning the Schiele out toward the room. "We shall never get away with hanging this up," she said.
Bedford studied it. "Does that painting bother you?"
"This girl reminds me of Polly."CHAPTER 2
They didn't speak of Polly Swanscott — or much else — the rest of the morning, though no clients or customers entered and there was little to interfere with conversation. At noon, Bedford suggested they close the gallery and take lunch together. Sloane demurred at first, then accepted, though without great enthusiasm.
She remained reticent as they walked along Washington Square and on down MacDougal to Minetta Lane and a restaurant they both favored. As regulars, they were given a table near the front. Sloane studied the menu at great length, though she should have known it by heart.
"I haven't had this scintillating a conversation since I last sat down with Calvin Coolidge," he said.
Sloane's eyes remained on the menu. "You've never even met Calvin Coolidge," she said.
"Are you sure? With him, it would be hard to tell."
He saw the quiver of an incipient smile on her lips, but it vanished.
"You said your friend Polly lived here in the Village," he continued.
She persisted with her contemplation of the luncheon entrees. "Yes. For a time. Too brief a time." Closing the menu at last, she turned to study one of the posters on the wall, a torn and dusty sheet advertising a masked ball in the Village that had been held the preceding October. Bedford tried to draw some hint of her thoughts from her eyes, but they were shaded by her cloche hat.
"Where?" he said.
"I told you. On Bleecker Street. East of here. On the edge of Little Italy."
"It was safe."
"Safe? With all those gangster families in residence?"
She shook her head. "Safe because no one would look for her there."
"No one meaning ...?"
"And who are they?"
"I don't know much about them, except that they're very rich, and think the world of her. I think to a fault."
"But not enough to let her live la vie bohème in the Village."
"They had other plans, as mine did for me. They were planning a big wedding for her, but something went amiss."
"I daresay, if she's gone off to Paris. Or is the prime catch the man she's living with?"
Sloane was little amused. "Hardly. He's some nice boy she dated a little in college. His name's Nick Pease. Rather nice. And nice-looking. Went to Harvard."
"Perhaps she just didn't want to be Polly Pease."
He smiled. Finally, gingerly, she did the same, but then said, "This is serious, Bedford. Very serious. I mean to find out what's happened to her."
"I know. I'd just wanted to see you smile."
"She could be dead."
"Aren't you being a little overwrought?"
"No, I'm not. I know Polly. She's ... I want to find her before anything happens. If it hasn't already."
"But you haven't told me why you think something would happen."
"I just know her. That's all."
The waiter came. Sloane ordered a salad. Bedford chose a small pasta dish. He also asked for grape juice for them both. They'd be served wine — in teacups. It would be a house red, perhaps of dubious origins, but they'd be glad for it.
Six years of Prohibition were proving a real nuisance. The Volstead Act had been lobbied through Congress by a Methodist clergyman from Virginia. Bedford resented this meddling by a church in matters of state. His own relations were Presbyterian, but there were certainly no temperance zealots among them. His Aunt Geneva in Albany was still known for her toots.
"I've heard of some Swampscotts in Boston," he said. "Any connection?"
"These are Swanscotts, and they're from the Midwest, like me."
Sloane shrugged. "I don't think so. Dry goods. Drugstores. Something like that. Not codfish, like your East Coast 'old' money. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Our friendship didn't have anything to do with that."
Sloane's father was managing partner of a very large law firm in Chicago, one specializing in bonds.
"What brought them East?"
She shrugged. "I suppose they find it elevating."
"People here look down on the Midwest."
"Not the people here." Bedford made a circular gesture with his hand, indicating not only the crowded little restaurant but the street and neighborhood outside.
Sloane wrinkled her nose. "Before Polly moved to Bleecker Street, I'm not sure the Swanscotts even knew Greenwich Village existed."
"I suppose they wish it didn't."
Their food, accompanied by "grape juice," came very quickly. It was one of the reasons they were fond of the place.
She took his arm as they neared Little Italy. As she seldom did this, even when in a good mood, he looked at her curiously.
"Gangsters make me nervous," she said.
"As you observed earlier, you are describing some of my associates."
"That makes me nervous, too."
It was a bit disconcerting walking with Sloane. In her stockings, she equaled his six feet of height. Wearing her high-heeled pumps, she was several inches taller, and she had a very erect carriage. He was used to towering over most women. Sloane made him feel oddly small. And it had to do with more than height.
Excerpted from The Weeping Woman by Michael Kilian. Copyright © 2001 Michael Kilian. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 1925 Manhattan, former newspaper reporter Bedford Green enters his own art gallery only to hear his assistant crying. Since Sloane Smith never weeps, Bedford is very concerned and asks what is wrong and can he help? Sloane tells Bedford that her former college crony, Polly Swanscott has sent her a postcard from Paris that implies she is in trouble. Sloane asks Bedford to use his connections here in New York and when he travels to France next week to find and help Polly. Reluctantly Bedford agrees to do what he can. Bedford begins making inquiries throughout the metropolitan area. He soon finds out that someone burglarized Polly¿s Manhattan apartment and that another thug killed that robber. He uncovers more information in New York and later on the ocean voyager and then in Paris, Bedford meets some author wannabees like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but even with their help his efforts to save Polly from an unknown threat seem futile. THE WEEPING WOMAN is an exciting historical mystery that brings to life Manhattan and Paris during the 1920s. The entertaining story line is fun as readers meet a twice-published Fitzgerald with Zelda, a short story only published Hemingway, and Picasso. Bedford is a rock who supports the plot and the rest of the cast. No one will weep after reading Michael Kilian¿s enjoyable novel. Harriet Klausner