Dames Engaged

Novella #3. June of 1903.
As she nears the moment of decision, new trials arise for Mrs. Biddle. The wily, if dimwitted, Felicia has somehow conceived plans of her own, while Tomasz, Mrs. Biddle’s former devotee, now conspires against her. Worse still, her more-often-than-not steadfast servant Mélisande allows herself to be distracted by a sweet-talking flank attack.

How, you ask, will Mrs. Biddle combat these challenges? Why, with the usual combination of deceit, psychological handling, and thinly veiled extortion, of course. She may be a self-serving schemer, and have the ethics of a Borgia, but no one can accuse her of not being consistent.

This compelling episode begins with Father Timoteo conducting a sparsely attended funeral, and ends with him performing an ill-omened wedding (you’ll never guess whose). In between, there’s a revealing séance, a remarkable fish story, a kidnapping, a not entirely unanticipated marital indiscretion, a parting of ways, and a voodoo rite out at the old Congo dancing-ground.

Dames Engaged
(This excerpt is from the opening of chapter one.)

When news of his wife’s affidavit reached Arthur Biddle, and the casebook he was reading slipped from his lap, the ensuing thud was barely noticed in the courtroom below. But a moment later, when Hale’s Handbook on the Law of Torts was purposefully dispatched in the same direction, the somnolent judge was reminded of an occasion during the Siege of Petersburg when a misdirected mortar sent a 64-pound shell into the breastworks not twenty yards from where he was similarly engaged.

Biddle was perplexed. After nearly eighteen months of marriage, the only thing he had learned for certain was that shrew taming was a good deal more difficult than that punster Shakespeare had let on. To be fair, the modern shrew was appreciably more complex than the sixteenth-century variety. Using the bard’s play as a guide to contemporary wife husbandry was a little like trying to repair a steam-powered automobile with advice gleaned from a manual on the care and feeding of the dray horse.

When he’d heard of his wife’s arrival in New York, Biddle had been confident the hook was firmly planted. Before long, she would come to him and admit her error, allowing him the satisfaction of magnanimously forgiving her. But if that were her intention, why would she now confess to having abandoned him and thus hasten the divorce?

On the other hand, if she had wanted the divorce to go forward, why did she bother coming to Byblos at all? She could just as well have sent an affidavit from France.

Superficially, her actions appeared illogical—but that was one thing she was not. Biddle could think of two possible explanations. The first was that she only decided to accede to the divorce after her arrival. Seeing him again, as he assumed she had, and Byblos for the first time, she had determined she could do quite nicely without either. Perhaps she’d already set her sights on someone else. It wasn’t that he thought it likely she’d found someone in any way superior to himself. That seemed quite impossible, especially in a town the size of Byblos. Rather, she may have simply decided she’d prefer someone more easily worked. Someone weak-willed enough to do her bidding. Someone like that Polander, so obviously enamored of her.

The second explanation was far more troubling, and worse, far more in keeping with his wife’s character: she had come with no other purpose than to make his life miserable. We may well ask ourselves, as Biddle did then, was she really so vindictive she’d travel 3,000 miles to the sort of jay town she despised with no purpose other than to inflict pain and misery on one she felt had wronged her? Oh, yes, was his answer—10,000 miles… on hands and knees… and still arrive glad about making the trip.

Now, Biddle’s thoughts continued, suppose she had somehow found out that Danny Lyons had been dipping regularly in and out of Felicia’s various chambers—literal and euphemistic—while the girl was betrothed to Biddle. Why, naturally, she would seize the opportunity to facilitate the divorce, thus condemning her former husband to life as a cuckold. He could picture her smiling as she planned it. Biddle had seen his fair share of wicked smiles in his day, but none matched that of his wife. Even he found it unnerving—unnerving, and yet strangely erotic. It’s that which had spelled his doom.

“Danny Lyons came in this morning.” Biddle’s garrulous deputy, Michael Trim, had entered the room. “McCreedy saw him at the depot. Funeral’s this afternoon. Pat’s funeral, I mean.”

Biddle, of course, knew that “Danny” Lyons was in fact his brother Pat traveling under an assumed name, and the man to be buried as “Pat” Lyons was the authentic Danny. As did Trim. What neither was sure of was what exactly the other knew. So both played it safe and abided the subterfuge.

“Huh,” his chief replied. “I’m going out. Watch the store.”

Biddle was too distracted by his wife’s machinations to give much thought to either of the Lyons brothers, the quick or the dead. There was one stone he’d left unturned. He had never gotten to the bottom of the duchess’s late-evening visit to the Baggs Hotel. Now he’d go back. And this time he wouldn’t leave without answers.

He asked the clerk again about the statuesque blonde who’d come to the hotel late on June the fourth, and again was told no one had seen her. He had the night clerk called down from his room and was told the same story. Biddle grabbed the guest cards and flipped through them, separating out three single women, all long-term residents, and all listing their occupation as “modiste.”

He handed the three cards to the clerk.

“Wake ’em up and bring ’em down.”

“What do you mean…?”

“And any others doing turns upstairs. Right on the depot, must be a dozen more.”

“Now, see here…”

“I find out about that blonde, or I tear this place apart. Either way suits me.”

The first clerk mumbled an expletive, then gave a nod. The night man pulled a card from the stack.

“She saw this Madame Bodel. Checked out the next morning.”

“Describe her.”

“Madame Bodel? French girl, young, nice looking. On the short side. Brown hair.”

“I’d call it chestnut,” the day man added.

Biddle looked at the card, only now noticing the prior residence listed as étaples, his wife’s recent address in France.

“How long was the blonde with her?”

“Couple hours, maybe. That night, and the one before.”

“This Madame Bodel, did she leave in a cab?”

“Assume so, didn’t see it.”

“What about a forwarding address?”

“Didn’t leave one. Wasn’t here long enough to get any mail.”

“And you haven’t seen either of them since?”

When both men shook their heads, Biddle pocketed Madame Bodel’s card and walked out.

“What a bastard,” the day man said.

“Maybe we should have told him about the baby? Wasn’t listed on the card.”

“Let him find out for himself, if he wants to know.”


It had been raining most of the day, but the sun finally made an appearance when “Pat” Lyons’ funeral party assembled at the Cedar Grove Cemetery. There were five in the party: the corpse’s brother “Danny,” Arthur Biddle, Father Timoteo, and two men leaning on shovels exchanging critiques of the priest’s rapid-pace service.

“Done already? Ain’t that consid’rate of ’em?”

“Don’ know I like it. Keep that up and they could get through a couple dozen a day. An’ who’d be doin’ the diggin’?”

“Hadn’t thought of that.”

The service over, Father Timoteo pocketed his ten dollars, whispered the perfunctory platitudes, and then hurried off to an appointment at the rectory with the admirably pious and adequately well-preserved widow of an Italian saloon-owner.

“Too bad about Pat,” Biddle said without intonation.

“Yeah, he was quite a fellow,” the supposed Danny agreed.

“Let’s cut the bunk.”

“Whaddaya mean, Art?”

“Want me to pull up your shirt?”

“So’s you know?”

“What the hell do you think?”

“Then what’s the game?”

Biddle shrugged. “I needed a Pat Lyons, and once he was croaked, Danny filled the bill.”

“I get it. Now it might be awkward if another Pat showed up?”

“Awkward for me maybe. A lot worse for him. Ever do time up at Dannemora? That’s where they’d send ya.”

“No, never north of Blackwell’s. You’ve got no worries from me. Will it suit you if I take over Danny’s route? I’ll cut ya in, of course.”

“Yeah, that’d suit me. Think you can pass for him?”

“Why not? I duded up my wardrobe before coming down. Now I just need to rough up the patter some. Not too many big thinkers playin’ policy.”

“No, suppose not. You might take a shot at his girl, too.”

“Yeah? Is she a looker?”

“Seen worse. Danny was hot for her.”

“Course, she gotta’ve seen him with his shirt off…. Might be hard to fool her.”

“Might be she wouldn’t mind bein’ fooled.”

“That kind, huh?”

“Yeah. An’ no big thinker either.”

“Maybe I’ll give her a spin. What’s her name?”

“Felicia. Felicia Dexter.”

“Felicia? I like the sound.”

“Sleeps with her window open. An’ her old man’s loaded.”

“How come you don’t give her a try?”

“Not my type.”

“Well, nice talkin’ with ya, Art. I better get goin’, or someone else will be takin’ over the family business. See ya.”


When Pat reached the edge of the cemetery, he was approached by a young boy—an unseen sixth party attending the funeral. Pat pretended not to recognize him.

“No go,” Jack told him. “I knows it’s you, Pat.”

“Yeah? What makes ya t’ink so?”

“Was us put da bellybutton on Danny, dat’s why dey t’ink yer dead.”

“Oh. You and Greta did that? For me? Ain’t that sweet….”

“Nit. Not fer you. So she could marry da cop.”

“What cop?”

“Ferget it. But she’s set up OK now. You ain’t gonna bother her, are ya?”

“Me? What for? I’m tickled ta death for her. Tell her I’ll send her a weddin’ present soon as I get something goin’. This cop don’t mind about the pickaninny?”

“Name’s Gretchen.”

“Yeah, I remember. Little Greta. Say, Jack, you want work?”

“Doin’ what?”

“Runnin’ numbers, an’ such.”

Jack shrugged.

“I sure could use someone I can trust.”

What Pat meant was that he’d feel better trusting Jack with his secret if he were on the payroll. And Jack was willing to oblige—provided…

“How much?”

~~~ ~~~ ~~~ ~~~
To be continued…
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Dear reader,

I do hope that little nip has left you thirsty for more. If so, you’ll be relieved to learn that this third novella in the series, Dames Engaged, is on sale and awaits your pleasure.