Parlor Games A Novel
Author:Maryka Biaggio

Parlor Games A Novel - By Maryka Biaggio



A single bad act no more constitutes a villain in life than a single bad part on the stage. The passions, like the managers of a playhouse, often force men upon parts without consulting their judgement, and sometimes without any regard to their talents.… Upon the whole, then, the man of candour and of true understanding is never hasty to condemn.

—HENRY FIELDING, Tom Jones





THE TRIAL

YOU BE THE JUDGE



MENOMINEE, MICHIGAN—JANUARY 22, 1917



I believe, dear reader—and these words come from the bottom of my heart—that I can truly trust you. Look at yourself. You’ve sought out my story; you’re willing to hear me out through these many pages. Who but a worldly and curious soul would undertake such a journey? Why, already I discern in you the intellect and refinement of a person with an open heart and nimble mind. You and I, my new friend, will become well acquainted over the course of this tale.

But you’ll want me to proceed with the telling. That’s what you’ve come for, and I’ll not thwart your wishes a moment longer. So choose your favorite spot—a divan in a sumptuous hotel suite, the leather chair in front of your blazing fireplace, or a sun-soaked bench in a sculpture garden—any place, really, where we might enjoy the luxury of uninterrupted time together, and I will tell you the tale of the most dangerous woman in the world—or so the Pinkertons dubbed me.

Today was the first day of my trial in the booming metropolis of Menominee. I narrowed my attire choices down to an indigo dress or a modest black dress with fluted collar. Looking at the black dress, I thought, heavens, it’s no funeral, and donned the blue one. It hugged my torso in a becoming manner, but still struck the serious and formal note required of the occasion. I kept my jewelry to a minimum: a simple sapphire necklace and matching earrings; the carved gold bracelet the Baron gave me on our first wedding anniversary; and my three-stone diamond ring with garland filigrees. As much as I love my jewels, this was no time for ostentation.

With the trial slated to open at two in the afternoon, my brothers and I enjoyed a leisurely luncheon at home. Then Paul drove us through swirling snow to the courthouse in his 1916 Apperson Jack Rabbit. He’s so proud of that car—with its spruce-green exterior and leather seats as comfortable as a sofa. But, then, his automobile business does stock the latest models in the Upper Peninsula.

“I believe, Paul,” I observed from the back seat, “that Mr. Apperson has taught Henry Ford a thing or two with this car.”

Gene, who sat beside me, said, “Taught him how to build the most expensive thing on wheels is what he’s done.”

I chuckled—Gene and I fell easily into the sport of teasing our older sibling—and added, “Now, if only you could find a buyer for it in Menominee.”

Paul pivoted his blocky head in my direction. “If I get the chance to sell it.”

I resented Paul’s insinuation that he stood to lose property in the lawsuit. After Papa’s passing, Paul had ordained himself head of the family, even though the best he’d ever managed was a lumber worker’s salary—that is, until I financed his automobile business. In truth, the responsibility for substantial support of the family had always fallen to me.

I reached over the front seat and patted Paul’s shoulder. “You needn’t worry. Have I ever let you down?”

“You’re coming damn close,” said Paul.

“Oh, don’t make it harder than it already is,” Gene said. “None of us likes being dragged to court.”

I could always count on Gene to take my side whenever Paul goaded me. With a winking nod to Gene, I said, “I’m sure it will all come out fine.”

Everyone should have a brother like Gene. He’s as loyal as a musketeer, always ready to serve up merriment, and dashing to boot. Today he sported a trim charcoal-gray suit; Paul wore a baggy black jacket and shiny-with-wear wool pants. Gene, at six foot two, surpasses Paul in height and carries himself as erect as a proud stallion. Gene has the sort of looks that beguile women—twinkly blue eyes, a shapely mustache, and tawny-brown hair. Paul, stouter of build and perpetually glum, has only managed to attract a dowdy wife who disdains the revelry Gene and I naturally fall into. How perfectly provident that Gene, and not dull Paul, was named after our charming father.

Paul eased up on the accelerator as we rounded the corner onto Ogden Avenue. Wagon and car wheel ruts grooved the snow-packed streets, and our car jostled over the ridges, bouncing us up and down on our seats. Between buildings and in storefront cul-de-sacs, a gusting wind played the snowdrifts, skimming snow off their thin peaks and carving them into lopsided mounds. The drying cold of winter that hangs in the air even during a snowstorm pricked my bare cheeks and neck; I clutched the folds of my moleskin coat against its bite.

We approached Foster’s Dry Goods, and I spied Mr. and Mrs. Foster standing as still as mannequins, gazing out the window. As we drove by, the couple stretched their necks to study us, making no attempt at a greeting.

Gene leaned forward and gripped Paul’s seat. “Look at the Fosters admiring your car.”

Paul trained his eyes straight ahead. “More likely trying to spot our notorious sister.”

“Well, you’re wise to drive this car around town,” I said, intent on nudging Paul back to some measure of civility. “Surely it’s good for business.”

Not that Menominee offers much by way of business. I’ve seen cities all over the world—Chicago, sparkling and booming after the Great Fire; Portland, brash as the Wild West; Shanghai, steeped in trade and mystery; and London, civilized and regal. This town, however, has “bust” written all over it: the sorry storefronts bleached as ashen as driftwood; many of its once-booming lumber mills shuttered; the ice-encrusted shores of Lake Michigan impassable for months on end; and the surrounding forests, once thick with white pine, nearly all logged out. All in all, a rather pitiful place. As for me, I’d rather roast in the Mojave than live in Menominee. The only good thing that comes of being stuck here for this trial is the chance to enjoy my brothers’ company.

We parked beside the courthouse, among a hodgepodge of Tin Lizzies and horse-drawn wagons and carriages. The piebald mare only a few feet away drooped her head as snow collected in splotchy blankets on her contoured back. At the slamming of our car doors she neither budged nor blinked. The poor thing—what a shame that this trial forced her to endure such numbing cold.

Positioning myself between Paul and Gene, I hooked a hand under each one’s arm, and they escorted me through the front door and up to the second-floor courtroom. Paul opened the door and I stepped forward.

Townspeople had absolutely mobbed the courtroom—to say nothing of the eight to ten newsmen with writing pads at the ready. As we walked in, heads turned and followed us. On the water-stained wood floor, snow melted and puddled around the onlookers’ feet. Coats, gloves, and farmers’ boots gave off wet-wool, stale-dirt, and manure odors. The pungent brew tickled my nose; I swept my wrist under my nostrils to supplant the stench with my Jasmin perfume.

As we marched along, Gene exchanged soft hellos with several people seated on the aisle. Holding my chin up proudly, I smiled and nodded at those who dared to cast their probing gaze my way.

I wasn’t surprised that nearly half the town had shown up for the trial; it’s been the talk of the Upper Peninsula for months now. If I had to live here season after season, I’d consider it the highlight of the year, too. Imagine how it’s been these past months: On afternoons when their husbands toiled at the mill or factory, women gathered over their needlework to speculate and gossip about me. That’s not to say the men are uninterested. Oh, no, I can’t walk ten feet in this town without a man’s eyes trailing me—surreptitiously if his wife is on hand, but even if she isn’t, never so boldly as to require a chastening from a sister, the pastor, or whoever might observe him ogling that “swindler May,” as the town’s women have likely christened me. Why, I wasn’t even surprised to hear they’d been rehashing what turned out to be a mistaken pregnancy by hometown boy Robby Jacobsen.

Oh, yes, the womenfolk of Menominee had flocked to the courthouse, and as I stood unfastening my coat at the defendant’s table, I noticed they weren’t too proud to stare. Most of the crowd was older—women without children or chores, I imagine—all gussied up in their Sunday best with their hair neatly combed and hats pinned in place. They packed into the rows and chattered away like youngsters on a sleigh ride. The smattering of husbands accompanying their wives sat hunched over, clutching their hats two-handed, pretending a lack of interest. The fact is, they were all there because this trial is the most exciting thing that’s happened around here since the great train heist of ’93. Well, who can begrudge them the diversion and entertainment my trial offers?

But such a bleak place the courtroom was, with plain, stiff-backed chairs in the jury box and pew benches for onlookers. Bare lightbulbs hung from twisted brown cords and lit the room as bright as new snow. All the sounds around me—the bailiff’s clacking heels, my lawyer and his associate’s whispered exchanges, and the buzz of conversation from the crowd—bounced off the high, unadorned white walls like the bleats of animals shut up in a barn.

I took my seat on the hardwood chair next to my attorney, greeted him, and smoothed the folds of my skirt. Through the tall windows lining the room, only bare, spindly treetops could be glimpsed, as if the architect intended to intimidate with narrow, jail-style windows. Radiators pinged, wafting the tinny scent of melting snow on their waves.

The bailiff announced, “All rise,” and the assembly shuffled to its feet. Judge Flanagan strutted in, his black gown trailing over the bench steps.

And so began my trial. Now, I’ve made a bargain with you, gentle reader, and I intend to keep my end of it. I will tell you my story—all of it—and truthfully, as I’ve never been able to tell anyone before. Then you can decide: Were my actions justified? You, my discerning reader, are the most important juror. You have the advantage of hearing the whole story, straight from the one who lived it. So I say to you now, without hesitation or compunction, hear me out, and then you be the judge.