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book cover for Mood Indigo Mood Indigo
a new novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen


NOVEMBER 29th 1934

SCENE: Exterior Apartment Building - Night; medium shot.

DeeDee Carlson cannot believe this is happening to her. She is toppling backwards over the balcony railing of her fifteenth-floor apartment in the Ansonia, the skirt of her brand-new Mainbocher gown billowing around her. She reaches to grab hold of something, anything, but can't. There's nothing, nothing. And then she is falling, the air cold as she descends, a scream of anger and disbelief tearing from her throat as her body turns, then turns again.

Everything below comes into ever-sharper definition as she plummets closer and closer to the street: the shiny wet pavement, the hazy glow of streetlights; the automobiles, and people moving below. Her arms flail frantically, attempting to alter the course of her flight. But to no effect. She is plunging, can't stop.

Directly below, near the corner of 73rd Street, is parked a Packard two-passenger convertible. If she doesn't manage to shift direction, she's going to land on it.

This can't be happening, she keeps telling herself. Can't be. But it is. She's falling, faster and faster. The street's rushing upward to meet her, and no matter how she twists about, arms flailing frantically, she can do nothing to stop her descent. She tells herself the soft top of the convertible will save her. She'll land as if onto a trampoline. It's canvas, after all. It'll be okay. The convertible roof's going to save her. She's not going to die. Luck's on her side.

Wide shot
But the impact is monstrous, unbelievable; a collision of terrific finality that drives all the air from her lungs so that she can't make a sound. Nor can she move. Her bones have turned to liquid. Her flesh is a soft, full bag of disconnected parts. And she hurts completely - no part of her body is exempt from it. She would never have believed you could feel such a totality of pain. But you can. She knows it now; feels it.

Wearied, she blinks slowly once, twice, knowing she's going to die after all. Okay, okay, she thinks. Let's get it over with. Because it'll be better being dead than hurting this way. Humpty Dumpty, she thinks. That's rich! And then her eyes close.

-- CUT --


DECEMBER 5th, 1934

It was a Wednesday evening and, true to form, Mikhail came into the office where Honoria was just finishing work with Maybelle, to announce a desperate craving for lobster. "We go to eat!" he declared.

"We're in the middle of a snowstorm, Mick," Honoria said, with the merest hint of irritation, looking up from her notes and over to the window where fat white flakes seemed to be flying past horizontally.

The unflappable Maybelle recrossed her legs and tapped her teeth with the eraser end of her pencil, following the exchange with interest. Ever since Honoria had gone off to Paris for a month's holiday two years earlier and returned home not only with a load of swell French clothes but a husband to boot, the two of them had been, to Maybelle's mind, a lot like a movie show. You could walk in in the middle of the feature and get caught right up in the goings-on of the mysterious Russian and his clever, one-of-a-kind, New York-born wife.

From the get-go Maybelle could see how Honoria would find Mikhail attractive. He was a big, barrel-chested man, with dark hair, deep-set bedroom eyes, and a determined thrust to his chin. He positively radiated intent. Of course, if anyone knew how to deal with intent, it was Honoria Barlow. Men had been giving her the glad eye, pursuing her nonstop, the entire five years Maybelle had been Honoria's girl-Friday, before Mikhail came along. Up to that point, Honoria had always been the type of woman who could take 'em or leave 'em. But go figure it. She fell for the massive Russian, and they were, to say the least, an odd match.

For one thing, Honoria had never been one to go drinking at the speaks. That wasn't her idea of a good time. Her passion was music and she'd get her dates to take her to the jazz clubs on Swing Street or maybe one of the Harlem hangouts like the Cotton Club. Maybelle had been checking coats at Small's Paradise uptown on Seventh Avenue when Honoria struck up a conversation with her one night while her date stood impatiently waiting, pointedly looking at his watch.

"I've got a hunch you'd rather be doing something else," Honoria had said, her eyes assessing. "Am I right?"

Afraid she was about to get dropped in the soup by a friendly-seeming rich white woman, Maybelle had replied with polite caution, "What makes you think that?"

"You're a bright girl and you're bored silly."

"It shows?" Maybelle asked anxiously.

"Only if somebody happens to take note of that kind of thing. And I do." Honoria winked, then smiled.

Seeing that devilish smile for the first time, Maybelle decided to take a chance and be honest.

"As a matter of fact, there's a whole lot of things I'd rather be doing," she'd confided quietly, offering a smile of her own. "Haven't had too much luck getting hired since I graduated last June."

"What's your name, dear?"

"Maybelle Robinson."

"And where did you graduate from?"

"Secretarial college."

Honoria smiled again, looking positively delighted for some reason. "Are you good, Maybelle?"

"You bet," Maybelle answered, not afraid to blow her own trumpet. "My last test, I typed eighty-eight words a minute; dictation was one-thirty."

"That's better than good. Have you got something to write with, dear?"

"Sure." Maybelle reached under the counter and came up with a pencil and a scrap of paper.

"My name's Honoria Barlow and this is my number. I'm at the Kenilworth, on Central Park West. It just so happens my girl quit a week ago and I need to replace her in the worst way."

"I'm not looking for domestic work." Maybelle was immediately, deeply disappointed, wondering when she was going to wise up and stop leaving herself open to getting hurt this way.

"Oh, I'm not looking for a maid, dear. I thought I'd made that clear," Honoria said. "What I need very badly is a crack new secretary."

"What kind of business you in?" Maybelle asked suspiciously.

"Well, you could say I'm a medical practitioner of sorts." Again, that appealingly devilish smile, as if the woman was actually enjoying the conversation.

"You're a doctor?"

Honoria laughed - a big hearty sound. "Yup. A script doctor. Call me, Maybelle, and let's talk about the job."

"Okay. I will. Thank you, Miss Barlow."

"I mean it now. Call me!"

"I will. First thing tomorrow." Maybelle looked down at the phone number on the piece of paper then watched the woman walk over to join her date who was about to blow his stack. In no time flat, with a few whispered Honoria had the man calmed right down. Quite a lady! Maybelle had thought admiringly. Maybe she'd actually be willing to hire a colored secretary. The next morning Maybelle phoned, halfway convinced the woman would claim no memory of their conversation the previous night. It had happened to Maybelle plenty of times before. But Honoria said, "Am I ever glad you called! I was afraid you might not. Come see me, Maybelle. I need help here and I don't mean maybe."

Beginning to believe in happy endings, Maybelle put on her best dress, the new cloche her best friend Alfreda had talked her into buying the week before, clean white gloves, and set off for her interview.

She stood outside for a good ten minutes getting her nerve up to walk into the fancy apartment building on Central Park West, and when she finally did, before she could say a word, the man on the desk was ordering her to go to the servants' entrance.

"Miss Barlow's expecting me," she interrupted him.

"You people use the other entrance," he insisted.

"Call her please," she insisted right back, "and say Maybelle Robinson is here."

Muttering angrily under his breath, he picked up the phone. "There's a colored girl here to see you. Want I should send her to the servants' entrance?"

Gratifyingly, Maybelle heard Honoria begin barking, her voice audible even from several feet away. The man had turned very red in the face, said, "Yes, ma'am," and, after putting the receiver down, pointed Maybelle over to the elevator where the young operator - a freckle-faced, red-haired kid of sixteen or so - had been waiting to see how it was going to go.

"You must be one important girl," he said with a kind of quiet excitement, once he'd closed the doors.

"That what it takes to ride in this elevator - importance?"

"Sure does. You're the first. That man won't let anyone colored in the front way. Which is why everybody working in this building hates Reilly. Treats people like dirt."

"But you don't, huh?"

"No, ma'am. I got enough trouble with Reilly myself, being Irish and a Catholic, and him being Irish and a Protestant."

"You don't say." In the twenty years of her life, this was her first encounter with a white person who'd been on the receiving end of racism. "What's your name?" she asked, taking a liking to the kid.

"Cully. What's yours?"

"Maybelle. And, Cully, you're going to be riding me up and down in this elevator every day from now on."

"Well, if that don't beat all! How'd you swing that?"

"I'm going to be Miss Honoria Barlow's new secretary."

"I should've known," Cully said, slapping the heel of his hand to his forehead. "Miss Honey always gets her way."

"That what you call her?"

"Not to her face," the boy said, blushing, as he brought the cage to a stop and opened the door. "I wouldn't have the nerve. But she sure is one swell lady. And you're not so bad yourself, if you don't mind my saying. Bye for now, Maybelle," he said, with a grin and a two-fingered boy scout salute.

"You're a pistol, kid," Maybelle had said in parting, returning the salute.

Honoria had come to the door herself, offering her hand and apologizing for the treatment Maybelle had received downstairs. "The man's an idiot!" she'd fumed. "He won't make that mistake again, I promise you. Come on in, dear. We'll talk in the office. Ruth!" she'd called out, and a pleasant-looking, middle-aged woman poked her head out of the kitchen.

"What's up, dearie?" the woman asked. "I've got a pot on the boil here needs watching."

"This is Maybelle. We'll be in the office. Bring us some coffee, will you, please?"

"Right you are," Ruth said, and disappeared.

Honoria led the way to a good-sized room to the right of the reception hall that was, sure enough, all fitted out as an office, with two desks, a row of filing cabinets against the far wall, and a pair of armchairs separated by a polished round table positioned in front of a window overlooking the street.

Honoria waved Maybelle into one of the armchairs and sank into the other, saying, "I hope you're a girl of your word, Maybelle. I'm up to my neck in scripts waiting to be typed. The fellas in Hollywood are screaming blue murder."

"Hollywood, really? And why would I lie about what I can and cannot do?" Maybelle said, looking around and wondering who paid for this swanky place. "You'd find out soon enough and then I'd look like one dumb Dora, wouldn't I?" "Hollywood," Honoria had confirmed. "And I don't lie either. I take scripts with big problems and make them do-able. I work as hard as it takes and as long as it takes, and when I've got the thing licked, I dictate the changes. When those're typed up, I see how they play. You and I get to act out all the parts, see if the thing hangs together. If I think it does, we ship the rewrite back to California on the next plane out."

"Sounds like fun. This your place?" Maybelle asked, and at once felt she'd crossed the line. She never had been able to keep her curiosity in check. Her grandma was always saying it would do her in one of these days.

"I pay the rent here, sweetheart." Honoria gave her another of those devilish smiles. "Not a single sugar daddy to my name. I think a girl ought to pay her own way."

"Me, too," Maybelle agreed. "I get the feeling," she ventured, "you're what my grandma calls a bleeding-heart liberal."

"Tell your grandma I am and I've got the scars on my chest to prove it." Maybelle laughed hard.

"So, what's your dream, Maybelle?" Honoria had next asked.

"To put my education to good use and pay my own way. Not that the club doesn't pay. The money's pretty good. But you don't need a brain to put coats on hangers five or six hours a night."

"You sure don't," Honoria agreed emphatically as Ruth brought in the coffee. "I've put a few coats on hangers in my time and I know how it is."

"You worked a coat-check?"

"Worse. I started out as a script girl for the Famous Players Film Company back in 1913. When it became the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, I worked for them at the old Astoria Studio in Queens, eventually becoming one of their top screenwriters. They closed the studio temporarily in 1927 and started begging me to relocate to Hollywood. I'm a reasonable gal. I went out to take a look. There was no holly and nothing I consider wood." Maybelle laughed again, and Honoria continued, "I decided it was time to stay put and take my chances freelancing. I needn't have worried. When sound came in, scripts suddenly became a whole lot more important and I had more work than I could handle. I've usually got two or three rewrites going simultaneously, which is why I need someone sharp to help me get them tightened up and back to the studios in time for the start of principal photography. You like movies, Maybelle?"

"Love them, except for westerns."

Honoria gave her an approving smile. "I think you and I are going to get along, dear."

They agreed in short order upon a month's trial, and Maybelle had started work that very afternoon.

Watching Maybelle's fingers dancing over the keyboard, Honoria had sighed with relief, and said, "Thank God."

"Amen to that," Maybelle had said without taking her eyes from the perfect Pittman she was transcribing from her steno pad.

At the beginning there were a few problems - like getting past Reilly who harbored a grudge because of getting chewed out by Honoria that first afternoon and who went out of his way to be unpleasant - but from the start they were a good team. Maybelle had enormous respect for the way the woman's mind worked and, determined to do a good job, learned in no time at all to anticipate Honoria's needs.

At the end of the month's trial, Honoria had said, "I want you happy, Maybelle. I don't want you coming in one day to say you're leaving for more money somewhere else, so I'll give you top dollar right now, and regular raises. If there's anything wrong, or something you need, let me know. We're in this together, and I'd like it to be for the long haul."

"You can count on me, Honoria."

"I already do."

Eventually, Reilly was let go when he refused to allow a black man access to the building because, according to Reilly, "He talked funny. He wasn't dressed right and had no business here." As it happened, the oddly-dressed gentleman was a diplomat from Ethiopia who'd come to have dinner with his British counterpart who lived on the fourth floor. Within a matter of hours Reilly was gone, and Cully begged for a chance to take over Reilly's shift. Word got out and a majority of the tenants insisted he have that chance. Young Cully got a new uniform and took up his post behind the desk. At once the atmosphere downstairs improved dramatically. Cully was, as Honoria once put it, one of nature's noblemen. Now, more than six years later, most folks in the building said good day and even smiled at Maybelle as she crossed the lobby or rode the elevators. She loved getting up in the morning to come to work.

And for Honoria work was the joy and focus of her life. There was rarely a day without a phone call from some producer or director with a script scheduled to start shooting in five days, or a week. They always called at the last minute, frantic. Could Honoria please play doctor, put some of her special polish on the ailing thing in a big hurry, and save the project before it got scrapped. Oh, and by the way, there ought to be a kid at your door about now with the script in his hand.

Being a woman who couldn't resist a challenge, she'd drop what she was doing to read it right away and, unless the material was so bad there was no hope for it, she'd take it on - on top of the ones she already had going. She would put in eighteen or twenty-hours at a stretch for three or four days, switching back and forth between scripts if she happened to get stalled, then dictated the rewrites to Maybelle who'd type up the changes. Arrangements were made to ship off what was now a very solid shooting script - for which some overpaid hack in Hollywood would get the screenwriting credit. And a week or two later, a very nice chunk of change would get wired to Honoria's bank account.

At first, Maybelle couldn't help asking, "Don't you mind not getting credit for your work?" And Honoria, with that smile that showed her nice healthy teeth, had replied, "I've got all the credit I need right there in those accounts you're balancing, dear. Fame is a mug's game. I'll take the do-re-mi any old time."

Every few months, she'd close up shop for a couple of weeks and refuse to answer the phone. "Time to recharge the old batteries," she'd announce, and go off bright and early one morning down to Book Row on Fourth Avenue to browse through the second-hand bookstores, particularly her favorites, the Arcadia Bookshop and the Strand. On the way home she stop at the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street to load up on the latest novels. Then, the newly-acquired books stacked on the floor by the sofa, she'd curl up and read for eight or ten hours at a stretch, eating lunch from a tray and shifting only for fresh coffee or - since the burly Russian had come along - to dress for dinner.

Mikhail, though, didn't work at all - which wasn't so unusual nowadays with former big-wigs standing shamefaced in breadlines - yet he seemed to have a limitless supply of dough. There was a tailor Mikhail kept very happy; a shirtmaker and a custom shoemaker too. Everything the man put on his back was the best of the best. And Maybelle knew he wasn't freeloading off Honoria, because Maybelle kept the books and she'd have known. So the question was: Where did he get his money?

Big Mick had a lot of meetings - usually with theatrical types and usually at places like the Players or "21" or the Friar's Club - but about what was anyone's guess. With an acceptance that was remarkably atypical of the woman Maybelle had come to know very well over the years, Honoria seemed content to go along with most of what her husband did. Oh, now and then, she put the kibosh on getting all dolled up to go out to hit the high spots, insisting they spend a quiet night at home. But for the most part, she seemed to think the man could do no wrong.

Maybelle had her suspicions. She actually liked Mikhail - it was hard not to; he had a playful side and was unfailingly polite to her and Ruth; to everyone, in fact - but something about him just wasn't right. She was convinced the whole thing with him and Honoria was about sex, and Maybelle was quietly, patiently, watching; waiting to kill the man if he hurt her employer in any way, or for Honoria to get back into her right mind. And it seemed likely she was bound to do the latter some time soon now. Honoria might complain when a delivery boy showed up with another script in desperate need of her doctoring skills, but she didn't mean it. She could hardly wait to get started, and once she had she hated interruptions. But for two years now Mikhail had been barging into the office, without so much as a by-your-leave, to demand that she drop everything and go out with him. And Honoria's tolerance was plainly beginning to wear thin.

"Is nothing," Mikhail said now, with a dismissing wave of one large hand. "A little snow. Nothing."

Before he could begin to tell them about real snow - familiar tales of Siberian blizzards and temperatures so low that one's exhalations froze solid and fell to the ground in tiny, tinkling fragments - Honoria sighed and said, "Okay, okay. It's nothing. And I'm hungry, so we'll go. Want to come with us, May?"

"I'll pass, thanks." Knowing full well she and Honoria would put in extra hours tomorrow to make up for the time they'd be losing this evening, Maybelle closed her pad, tucked the pencil behind her ear, and went to put the cover on the Underwood.

"Okay. We'll drop you off at the subway on our way."

"I'd appreciate that," Maybelle said, offering Big Mick a smile as she went to get her things.

Grumbling under her breath, wondering why she kept on letting herself be persuaded to do things she categorically didn't want to do, Honoria marked her place in the rewrites and put aside her notes. Not bothering to change clothes, she popped into the kitchen to let Ruth know they were going out, then she bundled up in her old raccoon coat and pulled on galoshes, a hat, a muffler and gloves, while Mikhail's concession to the weather consisted of swapping his silk scarf for a woolen one and pulling on a pair of hand-stitched, cashmere-lined leather gloves. At last they made their way down to the garage.

Mikhail was a good driver and, knowing how edgy it made his wife to be out in conditions like this, he piloted the Cadillac along the slippery streets at a cautious speed. They dropped Maybelle at the west-side IRT station at 59th Street before making their way downtown and over the bridge to Gage & Tollner in Brooklyn - one of Mikhail's favorite restaurants.

The trip took far longer than usual, and leaving the car parked half-on half-off the sidewalk - "Easier to drive away when we are coming back," he explained with typically illogical logic - they pushed inside to see that, despite the weather, the vast dining room with its mirrored walls and gaslit cut-glass chandeliers was almost full. Close to two hundred people sat indulging in the seafood concoctions for which the place was renowned. Mikhail was positively swollen with anticipation, appreciatively inhaling the fragrant air as the maitre d' hurried to greet them. But his first words were not the usual, "So good to see you," but, "Your housekeeper wants you to call home right away, Mrs. Beliakoff. If you'll come with me, the telephone is just over here."

Husband and wife exchanged a bemused look, then followed the man to the telephone.

"What's happened, Ruth?" Honoria asked anxiously when the housekeeper answered.

"Chip Stevenson phoned must be an hour ago and said I was to get in touch with you at once."


"That's right, dearie. He said to tell you he's been arrested and would you come, please, to bail him out."

"Arrested?" Honoria couldn't imagine Chip doing anything worse than leaving his rattletrap DeSoto in a no-parking zone. "What on earth for?" Ruth's voice dropped a notch lower. "Murder," she said with an almost audible shudder.

Honoria shook her head, unable to fathom this. "That's crazy! Chip wouldn't hurt a fly. It's got to be a mistake. Where is he?" she asked, looking at Mikhail who was watching her intently as she listened to the housekeeper. "All right. Let me think a minute. Okay. Call Leonard Rosen please, Ruth. His number's in my book on the desk. Tell him what you've just told me, and ask him to meet us downtown. We'll leave right away, but warn him it may take us a while to get back into the city."

"Okay, Miss Honor. I'll do that."

"Who is arrested?" Mikhail asked the instant she cradled the receiver.

"Chip Stevenson." Murder? Chip? Impossible. Yet she felt a cold clutch low in her belly.

The burly man scoffed. "Chip? What does he do, cross street on red light?" "I'll tell you in the car." She signaled to the maitre d' who came over at once. "There's a family emergency. I'm afraid we have to leave."

Mikhail's eyes fixed on a waiter going past with a laden tray. So much lovely food and he wasn't going to get any.

"I don't suppose you've got something ready we could take with us?" Honoria asked the maitre d', taking pity on poor Mick who was never without an appetite - of one sort or another.

"Five minutes," the man said, also aware of Beliakof's prodigious appetite, not to mention the size of his tips. "I'll find something."

"Such a smart woman," Mikhail congratulated her. "I would never think of this."

"Ah," she said affectionately, "but you think of other, such interesting, things."

"This is true," he agreed after a moment - possibly spent translating.

She put her arm through his and leaned against him, worried about Chip. The poor kid was probably scared to death.

Ten minutes later they were in the car again, inching their way back toward Manhattan through rapidly accumulating snow while Honoria passed large peeled shrimp to Mikhail, now and then taking one for herself.

"Keep your eyes on the road, Mick," she warned, "or we'll spend the night in a snow bank."

"He gives us bread at least?" he asked rather plaintively, a man whose hunger couldn't begin to be sated by a couple of dozen boiled shrimp without even any cocktail sauce.

"He did." She broke a crusty roll, reached across, and popped a piece into his mouth, then sat back, saying, "Chip wouldn't hurt a flea. He's the all-American Joe College." And why would he use his one call to phone her instead of his father? Well, she knew the answer to that. Charles Senior would immediately assume Chip was somehow in the wrong.

"Is probably mistake," Mikhail agreed. "What more is in bag?"

Keeping her eyes on what little she could see of the road, she felt around, coming up with another roll. "This is it," she said, passing it to him. "Sorry Mick."

"Is not your fault," he said magnanimously. But she didn't hear him, worried by the very idea of Chip in the lockup.

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