Every December, I present a different kind of story; they’re usually light, and some contain puzzles. This one certainly isn’t light, but it’s…well, you’ll see. It also contains a number of in-jokes and veiled references, and partakes of the ancient holiday custom of reversal: it treats as serious a topic I spend considerable time ridiculing. This really isn’t as odd as it may at first appear; one of the defining characteristics of myths and legends is that they are interesting (which is why people tell and retell them). A dull myth would soon fade, and the human mind has a congenital preference for fascinating nonsense over dull fact…which, of course, explains the persistence of urban legends and moral panics no matter how often and thoroughly their elements are debunked. And as generations of science fiction and fantasy writers have discovered, this makes stuff like Atlantis, ancient astronauts, the hollow Earth, etc wonderful subjects for stories, even if the author doesn’t actually believe a word of them. Keep that in mind when you read this tale, which is intentionally ambiguous: is what appears to be going on herein what is actually going on? Does our protagonist have a highly overactive imagination? Or is her antagonist just enjoying a cruel joke at her expense?
The doorman glowered at her as though he were the personification of the grim building itself, which had been the tallest one in town for over 30 years but was now humbled by the titans which had recently grown up around it. Jane imagined it must be indignant at this development, and that its frowning façade was silently telling her, “Go away, you have no business here.” But if she was going to make it as a reporter, she could let neither unfriendly employees nor gloomy old buildings stop her…and besides, her coat was really much too thin for this weather, and it had begun to snow; she went up to the door and tried to ignore the unpleasant expression on its keeper’s face.
Once within, she walked directly to the desk and announced that she was there to see Miss Morelli. “Do you have an appointment?” asked the attendant, in a tone of voice that seemed to add “I know you don’t.”
“No, but please tell her Miss Louis from the Archdiocese is here to ask for her support in providing Christmas dinners for the poor.” It was a terrible lie, but Margo Morelli was known to be even more generous with Catholic charities than her late father had been; Jane hoped it would be enough.
The attendant sighed, “You don’t have to talk to Miss Morelli herself about that; just see her personal assistant, Miss Angelo. Go on up to the eleventh floor,” he said, gesturing toward the elevator with the phone receiver, “and I’ll let her know you’re on the way.”
“God bless you!” said Jane, feeling even more ashamed about her deception. “Still,” she thought, “a girl has to eat, and jobs are scarce these days. I’ll just have to go to confession this weekend.” She involuntarily started at the ornate décor of the elevator doors, which seemed somehow menacing to her. But she only paused for a moment; it was too late to turn back now, and there was only one more obstacle between her and the interview she wanted. As she expected, the public elevator did not even go to the twelfth floor, so even if she had somehow been able to bribe the operator he could not have granted her request. Correction: she actually was going to the twelfth floor, though the number said eleven; the building was numbered in the European style, so that the first floor was the one above ground level. But the Italians consider thirteen a lucky number, don’t they? So it made sense that the boss’s office should be on that floor even if the number said twelve.
Miss Angelo turned out to be a tiny lady in late middle age with the hawk-like demeanor of a strict nun, and Jane felt her heart sink; there was no way she could even lie convincingly to this woman, much less prevail upon her to shirk her duty and let Jane through. So there was only one choice: the naked truth. “Miss Angelo, I feel terribly about having to tell a fib to get in here, but I’m desperate to talk to Miss Morelli. You see, I haven’t got a job or any family in town, and my rent is long overdue, but I’m a good writer so I just know I can get a job as a reporter if I can get a scoop. Ever since Miss Morelli’s father passed on she’s been unwilling to talk to any reporters, but I thought maybe because she and I are both women trying to make it in businesses dominated by men, that she’d have pity on me.” Jane’s tears were real; she was desperate, and lacked even the money to wire her family out West for help.
Miss Angelo regarded her with a penetrating but not-unkind gaze for agonizingly-long moments, then directed her back into the waiting room with, “I’ll see what I can do.” Jane’s heart was pounding, but the fact that she hadn’t been instantly thrown out on her ear gave her some hope; she obediently returned to the anteroom and tried to calm herself. It was no use; she got more and more nervous, and when Miss Angelo suddenly appeared in the doorway Jane almost screamed. “Miss Morelli will see you. Come this way, and mind your manners.”
She led Jane down a hall to what seemed the back of the building, where they entered an elevator that did indeed go all the way to twelve. But when the doors opened on the floor above, Jane was taken aback by what met her eyes. She had expected a well-lit outer office with a secretary who would usher her into the inner sanctum, but instead she found herself in a sort of vestibule opening to a large, luxuriously-appointed space only dimly lit by lamps, as one might illuminate a bedroom. She heard the doors close behind her, and Miss Angelo was gone; Jane was apparently all alone. Nervously, she crept forward into the vast office; the huge mahogany desk was topped with some kind of green, patterned stone, the walls behind the desk were lined with books, and the tall windows showed her that the snow flurry had become a storm. Though it was only mid-afternoon the gloom outside did little to alleviate the shadow within; most of the light was coming from another room to her right, and she gasped as she realized that there was a woman standing in that doorway watching her. She was breathtakingly beautiful, and the light streaming past her seemed to envelop her in a kind of aura which intensified the effect. But at the same time Jane was terrified, not just by her reputation but by something less definable.
“A…a drink?” she asked stupidly. Jane’s parents were teetotalers, and even after leaving home she had been too timid to risk breaking the law, even if anyone had invited her to a party (which nobody had anyway).
The older woman smiled warmly. “Yes. It’s even legal again now, you know.”
“Um…yes,” stammered Jane. “Actually, that’s what I came to talk to you about.”
“Oh?” she asked, then “What will you have?”
“Uh, whatever you’re having is fine.” Jane couldn’t tell Bourbon from Bordeaux or brandy from beer, so it hardly mattered. She accepted the much-too-large drink, and took a sip; its taste was strange and unpleasant to her, and she couldn’t hide the face she made when she swallowed it. Her hostess pretended not to notice, and seated herself on the other side of the desk.
“So what can I do for you?”
“Well,” Jane said, “with the passage of the 21st Amendment last week, Prohibition is over; that means it’s legal to sell liquor again, which means your organization won’t be making any money from, ah, irregular imports any more…”
“Well put, and exactly correct.” If Miss Morelli was annoyed with the topic, she didn’t show it.
“…so even though you have plenty of other business interests, both…ummm…regular and irregular, you stand to lose a lot of income. You don’t strike me as the kind of woman who will take that lying down.”
“Again, exactly correct.” Still no sign of anger, but she wasn’t helping either; Jane’s vision had now fully adjusted to the dim lighting, and she could clearly see those deep black eyes fixed upon her in a way she did not like at all. She took another long sip, and despite the awful taste she had to admit it did seem to calm her nerves somewhat.
“So…what do you plan to do about it?”
Miss Morelli leaned back slightly in her chair and laughed, a genuine laugh in which Jane nonetheless thought she detected considerable menace. “You are a charmingly naïve little bird, do you realize that? It’s why I agreed to see you. That, and the fact that both Miss Angelo and the downstairs attendant told me you were quite fetching. They were not wrong.”
Jane felt herself blush furiously, and hoped the light was too dim for it to show. She took a gulp. “I…that is…um…”
“Listen, little bird. Surely you didn’t think I’d be fool enough to go on the record answering such a ridiculous question? Until someone invents a recording device small enough to fit in a purse, nothing I tell you would be admissible in federal court; however, my father taught me never to stir up hornets’ nests without reason. It’s why our family has run this city since you were in pigtails. Had you been a professional reporter instead of a little girl playing at it, you’d never have been let through the front door.”
Jane was so totally mortified she couldn’t speak, but the lovely contralto continued. “Still, it amuses me to humor you, so I’ll answer your question. Yes, I’m already planning to expand another of my ‘irregular’ businesses, as you so charmingly put it. Would you like me to tell you which one?” Perhaps it was because of the bird metaphor, but she now had the distinct mental image of her hostess as a beautiful serpent, holding her fascinated as it moved in for the kill. Her head was gently spinning from the unfamiliar effect of the liquor, and she felt unable to speak, let alone flee. “Have you ever heard of white slavery?”
“Oh, no,” Jane said weakly. “You wouldn’t!”
“Does anyone know where you are right now?”
As if she had no control over it, her own mouth betrayed her. “No.” Her equally-traitorous body refused to move as the other woman slid across the green stone desktop and began to stroke her hair, and to her total horror something deep inside her responded to the caress. Finally, she was able to regain enough self-control to drain the tumbler and ask, “What if I refused to go quietly? Would you pull a gun on me, or call one of your thugs to manhandle me?”
“Nothing so crude, I assure you.” The voice was gentle now, almost reassuring, as she took the empty glass from Jane’s trembling fingers.
“What, then?” the girl asked, fighting a wave of drowsiness that was slowly engulfing her.
“I’d simply drug your drink.”