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Tanners Virgin

Lawrence Block

Page 1

  Chapter 1

  At 2:30 one fine October afternoon I ripped the telephone out of the wall. Minna said, “Evan, you have ripped the telephone out of the wall. ”

  I looked at her. Minna is seven years old and looks like a Lithuanian edition of Alice in Wonderland, all blond and big-eyed, and it is generally a pleasure to look at her. Now, though, something in my glance told her that coexistence was temporarily impossible.

  “I think I shall go to the park,” she said carefully. “With Mikey. ”

  “Mikey is in school. ”

  “He stayed home today, Evan. It is a Jewish holiday. ”

  Mikey, né Miguel, belonged to no church in particular and was thus free to become an ex-officio member of whatever religious group was staying home from school on any given day. I said something caustic about Mikey and the many paths to divine enlightenment. Minna asked if we had any stale bread, and I told her I couldn’t be expected to keep track of that sort of thing, that kitchen inventories were her problem. She reappeared with three slices of bread for the pigeons. They didn’t look especially stale.

  “Good afternoon,” she said in Lithuanian. “I forgive you for the intemperance of your mood, and trust you will be better suited to discourse upon my return. ”

  She ducked out the door before I could chuck a shoe at her. Minna always speaks Lithuanian when she does her queen shtik. She has the right, after all. As the sole surviving descendant of Mindaugas, the first and only king of independent Lithuania, she is unquestionably a royal person. She has vowed to make me her prime minister upon the restoration of the Lithuanian monarchy, and I keep her promise in a drawer with my Czarist bonds and Confederate money.

  So I sighed heavily, and Minna went off to poison the pigeons in the park, and I sighed again and got a screwdriver and opened up the little telephone thing on the wall and put the phone together again. There’s much to be said for venting one’s anger upon inanimate objects, especially when they are so readily repaired.

  It took perhaps ten minutes to rewire the telephone, just a fraction of the time the little black monster had already cost me that day. It had been ringing intermittently since five in the morning. Since I do not sleep, friends and enemies feel free to call me at all hours, and this was one of those days when they had been doing precisely that.

  I was devoting the day to working on a thesis on color symbolism in the nature poems of William Wordsworth, and if you think that sounds slightly dull you don’t know the half of it. It was not at all the sort of thesis topic I would have selected, but for unknowable reasons it was precisely the sort of thesis topic Karen Dietrich had selected. Miss Dietrich was a school-teacher in Suffolk County who would receive a raise in pay if she earned a master’s degree. I in turn would receive $1000 for furnishing Miss Dietrich with an acceptable thesis, said thesis to run approximately twenty thousand words, making my words worth a nickel apiece, color symbolism notwithstanding.

  Anyway, I had to finish the damned thing, and the phone kept ringing. For a while I gave Minna the job of answering it, a task she does rather well most of the time. This wasn’t one of those times. Minna is fluent in Lithuanian, Lettish, English, Spanish, and French, can struggle through in German and Armenian, picked up shreds of Irish last summer in Dublin, and knows occasional obscenities in perhaps half a dozen other tongues. So all morning long the phone kept ringing and Minna kept answering it and various clowns kept coming at her in Polish and Serbo-Croat and Italian and other languages outside her ken.

  Until ultimately I ripped the damn thing out of the wall and Minna fled to cooler climes. And when the clime in my apartment cooled somewhat, I repaired the telephone. As you now know.

  It was one of the major mistakes of my life.

  For almost an hour the phone remained stoically silent. I probed Wordsworth and pounded my typewriter while the silent phone lulled me into a false sense of security. Then it rang and I answered it and a voice I did not recognize said, “Mr. Tanner? Mr. Evan Tanner?”

  I said, “Yes. ”

  “You don’t know me, Mr. Tanner. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “But I have to talk to you. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “My name is Miriam Horowitz. ”

  “How do you do, Miss Horowitz. ”

  “It’s Mrs. Horowitz. Mrs. Benjamin Horowitz. ”

  “How do you do, Mrs. Horowitz. ”

  “He’s dead. ”

  “Pardon me?”

  “Benjamin, he should rest in peace. I am a widow. ”

  “I’m very worry. ”

  “Oh, it’ll be eight years in February. What am I saying? Nine years. Nine years in February. Never sick a day, a hard worker, a good husband, he comes home tired from the office, like a candle he drops dead. It was his heart. ”

  I changed ears so that Mrs. Horowitz could talk into the other one. She had fallen silent. I decided she needed prompting. “I’m Evan Tanner,” I said.

  “I know. ”

  “You called me, Mrs. Horowitz. I don’t want to, uh, be brusque with you, uh, but-”

  “I’m calling you about my daughter. ”

  I’m calling you about my daughter. There are bachelors in their middle thirties who can hear those words without erupting in panic, but they generally wear pink silk shorts and subscribe to physical culture magazines. I felt a well nigh irresistible urge to hang up the phone.

  “My daughter Deborah. She’s in trouble. ”

  My daughter Deborah. She’s in trouble.

  I hung up the phone.

  Deborah Horowitz is pregnant, I thought. Deborah Horowitz is pregnant, and her idiot of a mother has decided that Evan Michael Tanner is personally responsible for this state of affairs, and is presently measuring him for a son-in-law suit. Or a paternity suit.

  I stood up and began pacing the floor. Now how in God’s name, I wondered, had Deborah Horowitz managed to get pregnant? Why didn’t she take her pills? What was the matter with her? And-

  Wait a minute.

  I didn’t know anyone named Deborah Horowitz.

  The phone rang. I picked it up, and Mrs. Horowitz’s voice was saying something about our having been disconnected. I broke in to tell her that there was some sort of mistake, that I didn’t even know her daughter.

  “You’re Evan Tanner?”

  “Yes, but-”

  “ West 107th Street? Manhattan?”

  “Yes, but-”

  “You know her. And you have to help me, I’m a widow, I’m all alone in the world, I have nowhere to turn. You-”


  “You know her. Maybe you don’t know her by her real name. Young girls, they always get fancy ideas about names. I remember when I was sixteen all of a sudden Miriam was no good, I had to call myself Mimi. Hah!”

  “Your daughter-”

  “Phaedra, she calls herself now. ”

  I said slowly, softly, “Phaedra Harrow. ”

  “See? You know her. ”

  “Phaedra Harrow. ”

  “The ideas they get. Both names, from Deborah to Phaedra and from Horowitz to-”

  “Mrs. Horowitz,” I said.

  “Yes. ”

  “Mrs. Horowitz, I think you’ve made a mistake. ” I took a deep breath. “If Phaedra – if Deborah, that is, if she’s, uh, pregnant, well, I think it’s impossible. ”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “I mean, if that’s the case, I think you’d better start looking for a very bright star in the East. Because-”

  “Who said anything about pregnant?”

  “You did. ”

  “In trouble, I said. ”

  “Oh. ” I thought for
a moment. “So you did. ”

  “Her name wasn’t good enough for her, she had to change it. Her country wasn’t good enough for her, she had to go overseas. God knows what she gets mixed up in. I always get letters, and then the letters stop, and then I get this one postcard. Mr. Tanner, I’ll tell you frankly, I’m frightened for her life. Mr. Tanner, let me tell you-”

  I didn’t hang up. I said, “Mrs. Horowitz, maybe we shouldn’t go into this on the phone. ”


  “My phone is tapped. ”

  “Oh, God!”

  I thought her reaction might be a little extreme. When one is a recognized subversive, the unashamed member of any number of organizations pledged to the violent overthrow of one government or another, one learns to regard every telephone as tapped until proven otherwise. The Central Intelligence Agency maintains a permanent tap on my telephone, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation reads my mail. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. I can never remember.

  “I have to see you,” Mrs. Horowitz said.

  “Well, I’m sort of busy-”

  “This is a matter of life or death. ”

  “Well, I have this thesis I’m writing, you see, on, uh-”

  “You know where I live, Tanner?”

  “No. ”

  “In Mamaroneck. You know Mamaroneck?”


  She gave me the address. I didn’t bother writing it down. “You’ll come right up to me,” she said. “I have everything here. I am waiting with my heart in my head. ”

  She hung up, and a few minutes later so did I.

  “I have never been on a train before,” Minna said. She was squinting through a very dirty window, watching the very dirty East Bronx roll by. “Thank you for bringing me, Evan. This is a beautiful train. ”

  Actually it was a terrible train. It was a commuter local of the New York, New Haven and Hartford, and it had left Grand Central a few minutes after five, and some minutes after that Minna and I had boarded it at the 125th Street station. Soon, albeit not soon enough, it would deposit us in Mamaroneck.

  I had not really planned to be on this train or any other. I didn’t take down Mrs. Horowitz’s address for that very reason. Mrs. Horowitz on the phone was less than a pleasure, and Mrs. Horowitz face to face promised to be even worse. If Phaedra was in trouble – and God knows she deserved to be – I was fully confident she could land on her feet. Mothers like Mrs. Horowitz with daughters like Phaedra are always worried, and they usually have every right to be, but when they try to do something about it they almost invariably make matters worse.

  “I don’t see any animals,” Minna said.

  “You won’t. That’s the Bronx. ”

  “I thought we would see the Bronx Zoo. ”

  Minna has an insatiable passion for zoos. I gave her a brief geography lesson on the Bronx. I don’t think she paid much attention, because she went on to tell me how she had gone to the Bronx Zoo with Kitty Bazerian once, and how Arlette Sazerac took her to the zoo in Dublin when we were over there, and how she had several times permitted Phaedra to accompany her to the children’s zoo in Central Park. Minna has an uncanny knack for conning people into undertaking such excursions. I often suspect that she thinks I fall in love solely to provide her with zoo-takers.

  I closed my eyes and thought about William Wordsworth, which was something I had been unable to do since the conversation with Phaedra’s mother. Instead, I had passed the better part of two hours staring at the sheet of paper in my typewriter and thinking about Phaedra. I kept telling myself that there was nothing to worry about, and certainly nothing that I could do anyway. But the fact remained that one of the things I too obviously couldn’t do was concentrate on the damned thesis while my mind was busy brooding over the possible whereabouts of an eighteen-year-old virgin with an incredible body, an implausible name, and an impenetrable chastity.