Grifter’s Game

The day she got the job dancing, they asked her what her name was and she told them the first thing that came to mind: Trixie. It wasn’t her real name, of course, her sister had told her enough to know better than to give them her real name; but it was close enough that if someone called it out to her she wouldn’t think they were calling someone else.

Her name was Tricia Heverstadt, Patricia Heverstadt. She was five foot one and weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. She was pretty enough, but her body wouldn’t make any man look at her twice—no bosom to speak of and nothing much in the way of hips. She had long legs for her frame, but what did that mean when your frame was as small as hers was? Her hair was brown, her eyes were brown, her skin was pale, her smile didn’t shine. But she could move.

You put Tricia Heverstadt on a stage with a spotlight on her and a quartet pounding out some dance hall melody and you’d have yourself a show. Hell, forget the spotlight and the quartet. You put Tricia Heverstadt on the street in broad daylight, just walking along, and you’d see men’s heads turn. It wasn’t obvious just why. She wasn’t beautiful. But when she moved, your eyes wanted to follow.

Coral Heverstadt, Tricia’s older sister, had come to New York four years before, had gotten work in the chorus of a rooftop cabaret in Times Square, had written back home to Tricia in Aberdeen, South Dakota, telling how her feet ached and her shoulders chafed from the straps of the cigarette tray they made her carry around between performances, and how she couldn’t get enough sleep because an hour after she finally made it home the garbage men were pulling up outside her window, making a racket. She wrote about the men, taking liberties in the club and whistling at her on the streets, and about one masher who walked out on her in the middle of a meal at Rosie O’Grady’s when she shook her head no to the suggestion he whispered in her ear. She wrote about all this and signed her letters "Your struggling sister" but the day Tricia turned eighteen and her mother could no longer prevent her, she was on a train to New York.

She arrived at Grand Central Station and for a good fifteen minutes couldn’t find her way out, just kept dragging her luggage in circles through its cavernous rooms and underground corridors, till finally a policeman pointed her toward the Vanderbilt Avenue exit. And as she headed off, the poor flatfoot’s eyes followed her and he beat a little tattoo on his palm with his nightstick.

She had her sister’s letters in a bundle in her purse, and she showed the return address to the cab driver at the head of the line. He heaved her two bags and her typewriter case into the trunk, ushered her into the back seat, slammed the door behind her, and took off down Lexington Avenue, aimed smack at the heart of Greenwich Village. At first Tricia didn’t even notice the buildings speeding by outside, she was so taken with the pair of fold-down jump seats leaning up against the back of the driver’s seat and the automatic taxi meter ticking away her fare. She didn’t even mind watching the numbers rise, higher and higher. A taxi ride through New York City! It was an extravagance, a luxury, perhaps the last she’d enjoy for a good, long time; but she did enjoy it so. It felt as though her childhood in Aberdeen was dropping away from her at last with each city block they drove, with each expensive tick of the meter.

Coral greeted her at the door of the rooming house on Cornelia Street, hugged her and lifted her off her feet while the cab driver unloaded her luggage. Coral took after their mother, had the broad shoulders and muscular arms, and she picked up one heavy bag in each hand and carried them up the front steps without the slightest show of effort, chattering nervously as she went. It was lovely to see Tricia, it had been so long, what a wonderful idea, to come for a visit—how was mama? Tricia picked up the typewriter case and followed her sister up to the big glass door leading into the building’s vestibule. "Mama’s good," she said. "But Cory, I’m not here for a visit. I’m here for good." And then when Coral didn’t respond, just stood there staring, she said, "I want to live in the city. I’ve moved here. To stay."

And the smile that had slowly been eroding on Coral’s face as Tricia spoke fell all to pieces. "No," she said, putting the suitcases down on either side of her. "No, come for a visit, Patty, you see the Empire State, you eat at Lindy’s and you go right back home. You can’t move here. You can’t live here."

"Why not? You do."

That seemed to be a stumper. Coral Heverstadt heaved a sigh up from the depths of her abdomen. "I do lots of things, kiddo. You wouldn’t want to do them. I wouldn’t want you doing them, and mama sure as hell wouldn’t."

"You mean dancing?"

"I don’t mean dancing."

"Well, then what do you mean?"

Another sigh, long and plangent. "It would never work. What were you going to do for money?"

"I have some money," Tricia said, patting her purse. "I’ve been saving up for a while now. Maybe it won’t last long, but it’ll hold me for a month, I figure, and by then I’ll have a job, and...I’ll get by. I don’t eat much." She smiled hopefully.

"And where were you planning to stay?"

The smile widened.

"No," Coral said. "Honey, no. I can’t put you up. I—I just can’t. Don’t ask me why."


"Patty, listen to me. I live in one room. Bathroom’s down the hall. There are ten other people on the same floor and in the morning you’ve got to fight the whole lot of them just to pee."

"That’s okay. I can hold it."

"Patty, listen to me. I don’t live alone."

"Okay, so it’s tight, I understand, but I wouldn’t stay long. And it might even be fun, three girls in the big city—"

"Two girls," Coral said. "It’d be two girls."

"Two? But you said you don’t live alone..." Tricia’s hand leapt to her mouth. "Oh!"

"Yeah: Oh. So would you please just get yourself back on that train and go home to mama and tell her you saw me and everything was fine and you had a nice visit but now you’re home to stay? Please?" She reached a hand out and ruffled Tricia’s hair. "Please."

But Tricia didn’t say anything. She couldn’t. Her face was blank, her breathing slow. Comprehension was just beginning to break like the sun at dawn, only it brought with it shadows, not light.

"Please," her sister said again. "Go home." Coral held her eyes for a second, then turned, went inside, drew the door shut behind her. Through the glass, Tricia watched her retreat up the stairs.

Tricia set the typewriter case down beside her other two bags. She looked around. The street was bustling, as every street in New York City seemed to be; but she might as well have been alone. She was alone.

In the first-floor window beside her head, a hand-lettered cardboard sign proclaimed "NO VACANCIES."

She felt a sob start climbing up inside her chest and a sense of panic gripped her, but she sensibly forced it down. This wasn’t turning out the way she’d planned, but panicking wasn’t going to make it better. So Coral wouldn’t have her—fine. It was a big city, there were lots of places for a girl to stay. So she didn’t happen to know any of them—fine. Fine. How hard could they be to find? She looked around her. Maybe one of these people would know, maybe this man coming toward her, with his nice panama hat and glasses and his white seersucker suit with the wide braces peeking out under his jacket.

He swept his hat off his head with one hand and offered the other to her to shake. "Miss, I’m sorry to bother you," he said in a rapid, delicate voice, "but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, and you seemed as though you might be in need of some help—"

"Am I ever," Tricia said. "I was just trying to decide who I could ask for some."

"Well, if it’s not too bold," the man said. He pulled a wallet from his pocket and took out a card with writing printed on one side. "It sounded as though you needed a place to stay. As it happens, my family owns a residential hotel for young women. A thoroughly respectable establishment, I assure you, and though generally we have no rooms available, as it happens just this morning one of our tenants moved out." He passed the card to her. In the center were the words THE KLONDIKE ARMS. Beneath this, it showed an address on Seventh Avenue and a telephone number, KL5-2703.

Tricia looked the man over. He looked to be in his middle thirties. His suit was certainly nice enough, his hat as well, and his manner seemed, if not refined exactly, at least proper. His voice had a plummy Eastern Seaboard accent to it, the sort she associated with certain radio program hosts and movie actors, and the way he expressed himself was awfully formal. "Your family owns this hotel?" she asked.

He shrugged slightly, as if embarrassed to admit it. "It’s one of several. But this is the only one where we allow unaccompanied young women to rent rooms. And the rules are quite strict—no men above the lobby after five, under any circumstances. No guests overnight. It’s quite safe." He shook his head gently at her. "Not all your options would be. I don’t want to frighten you, but this city can be dangerous for a girl in your situation."

"I’m sure it can," Tricia said, thinking of her sister’s letters, thinking also of what she had just learned about Coral’s living arrangements.

"There’s just one thing," the man said, apologetically. "I can’t be sure the room is still available. It was this morning—but it may have been rented since. There are so many young women in the city these days, and so few rooms."

"How can we find out?" Tricia said.

"I can phone my father and ask him—but if he says the room is still available, I’ll need to be able to tell him you want it, so he’ll take it off the market immediately. Otherwise..."


"It could be available now and gone by the time you make it uptown."

"Surely your father would hold it," Tricia said, "if you told him I was on my way."

He shook his head ruefully. "You haven’t met my father. He can’t bear to turn down money. If I don’t tell him I have a month’s rent in my hands and that I’m on my way to the bank to deposit it right now, he’ll gladly give the room away to the next woman who shows up at the front desk with cash in her hand. I’m sorry."

"Don’t be," Tricia said, "I understand." She reached into her purse, found the small roll of bills she’d stashed there. An elastic band held the roll together and she worked it off now. "I can give you the money, that’s not a problem. How much is it?"

He seemed embarrassed again. "It’s one of our nicer rooms, I’m afraid. It rents for a dollar and a half a night. But," he hastened to add, "by the month it’s just thirty-six dollars. And it comes with meals. Breakfast and dinner, anyway." Well, that was something. She’d have to stretch to cover her other expenses, but with the food included in the monthly rate she could manage, for a while a least.

She handed over two ten dollar bills and two fives and then carefully counted out six ones.

"I’m going to be right over there," the man said, pointing at a telephone booth near the corner. "If he tells me the room’s been rented, I’ll bring the money back and see if I can help you find some other place to stay. But if the room’s available, I’ll tell him you’ll take it."

"Thank you," Tricia said. She watched him run into the booth, pick up the receiver, wait while his call was put through, and then talk excitedly for a few moments. While he was doing that, she tucked the typewriter case under one arm and lifted the two suitcases, one in each hand, as Coral had. It was a struggle for her—she didn’t have Coral’s build or her strength—but she could manage it if she had to. By the time she’d wrestled the bags down to the sidewalk, the man was bounding back to her, a grin on his face.

"It’s all set," he said. "But he says you have to get there immediately, there’s someone else looking the room over right now."

"Will you come with me?" Tricia said. "I hate to ask, but with all this to carry..."

"I wish I could," he said. "But he insists I deposit the money today, and the banks close at three. Perhaps I can put you in a taxi?"

She stiffened. "I’m afraid I can’t afford—"

The man’s eyes sparkled. "Here." He handed her back one of her dollar bills. "Don’t tell the old man."

He stepped into the street and flagged down the first checker cab he saw, shoved her bags into the back seat and closed the door firmly once she was inside. She leaned on the open window, stuck her head out. "I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help," she said.

"It’s no problem," the man said.

"It’s funny," Tricia said, "I don’t even know your name."

"It’s Carter," he said, quickly enough. Then he seemed to have to pause to think for a second. "Carter Blandon." But before she could remark on the peculiarity of a man not remembering his own last name, the cab had already pulled away from the curb and was racing uptown.


The driver pulled up alongside the Klondike Arms, helped her out with her bags, gave her back two dimes in change from the dollar she presented and touched his cap in a casual salute when she returned one as a tip. Then he was gone and Tricia was left to maneuver her bags through the building’s revolving door on her own.

It didn’t look like any hotel she’d ever seen in the movies or on television, never mind the two they had back in Aberdeen. The lobby was dark and narrow; there was no place to sit; there were no bellboys pushing luggage carts, no potted plants for atmosphere, no concierge’s desk, no registration window. Instead, there was only a standing ashtray between a pair of elevator doors at the room’s far end and a large board on the wall, under glass. Rows of metal letters behind the glass spelled out what appeared to be the names of firms:


CATALONIA FOOTWEAR...................213



HARD CASE CRIME, INC. .................315


LERNER CASUAL WEAR....................815

...and so on, through WHITEMAN AND SON, DDS in 404 and something merely called ZIEGLER in 1111.

Beside the board, screwed tightly to the wall, was an angled metal dispenser containing a stack of business cards for anyone to take. Tricia took one and compared it to the one Carter Blandon had handed her. It was identical.

A residential hotel for unaccompanied young women? This was an office building! And the worst sort, by all appearances, the sort that rented tiny airless suites to desperate businessmen and get-rich-quick schemers—she knew the sort, she’d seen them often enough in the movies, read about them in the two-bit crime novels they sold in every drugstore.

The louse! The dirty...dirty...rat! To take a woman’s money like that, to pretend fellow-feeling and kindness and generosity only as a pretense for stealing from her! Tricia found the man’s audacity breathtaking, literally—she found she had to sit down on one of her suitcases and make an effort to breathe. And now the feeling of panic she’d quelled earlier returned, and the sob with it. She was alone in New York City and very nearly penniless, with three heavy bags and no place to stay and a sister who had fallen into god only knew what sort of depravity—but not far enough into it that she was willing to share it with Tricia. Because the sad truth was, if she’d offered it to Tricia now, Tricia would have said yes. However bad things were in Coral’s life, they could hardly be worse than Tricia’s situation was right now.

She couldn’t even return home as Coral had urged her to do—she didn’t have the train fare.

She wiped her eyes on a handkerchief she retrieved from her purse, then got up and hefted her bags once more.

It was three in the afternoon and slowly but surely night was coming. She had to take care of herself—no one else was going to. With her free elbow she jabbed the elevator call button, and while she waited for the car to arrive she scanned through the building’s list of tenants once more. A place to stay and a way to pay for it—that’s what she needed. And the latter, at least, meant getting a job. Not a month from now—now.

She was no dentist, no lawyer, didn’t know what a ‘notion’ or ‘sundry’ might be. Her knowledge of fashion was, as mama never hesitated to tell her, a disaster, and the only importing she’d ever done involved bringing herself from South Dakota to Manhattan.

But she could move.

When the elevator door slid open and the wizened operator on a stool inside drew back the metal accordion-fold gate, she lugged her bags inside, deposited them on the floor, and met his flinty stare with one of her own.

"Third floor," she said. "And step on it."

Copyright © 2008 by Winterfall LLC.

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