A chapter from
Out Of This Dream
a work in progress
27 years have passed since that dark, rainy night in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A
performance artist who goes by the name Jane Doe has disappeared from the
streets of New York City. Her sister, Christine Vale, having grown impatient
with the ineffectual efforts of the police, has hired a private investigator
named Harry Conrad to find out what happened to Jane. Christine, for reasons
which will be revealed shortly, has been leading Harry on something of
a wild goose chase. In this chapter he finally connects with her and begins
to learn the real scope of the job he has been hired to do.
The Present Day
Harry finally had a bit of luck with the phone book. Jean-Jacques Dansereau was right there in the white pages -- and he even answered his own phone. Harry couldn’t get him to say much but he did get him to agree to a meeting. He’d made the call after leaving Jackson McCarthy on Friday. The meeting was set up for Saturday afternoon at Dansereau’s home.
Jean-Jacques Dansereau lived on the Upper East Side. Rich New York. A lot of old money lives on its quiet, safe streets and, like other sections of Manhattan, it has many qualities that make it fairly self-sufficient, a little city unto itself. If you lived there you would never really need to venture outside its confines and some of its residents never do.
Harry had to re-check the number he had for Dansereau’s address when he found the place on East 84th Street. The stone steps and landing took up more than half of the entire front width of the building; at around ten feet wide, it looked hardly large enough to be a residence. Still, the street address checked out, and there was an initial “D” on the shiny brass doorknocker affixed to the center of the door.
Harry went up the steps and pressed the doorbell button. He could hear the faint sound of chimes from inside and a moment later a voice spoke to him. “Good afternoon, Mr. Conrad. I’ll be right with you.” The sound of the voice was clear and life-like, not at all like the sound of a tinny intercom speaker. And it had come from directly in front of him, almost as if the door itself had spoken. Harry looked around for an intercom but couldn’t find one anywhere. A moment later, when the door opened, the face that appeared was a face Harry had seen before.
“Mr. Conrad. It’s nice to see you again.” The man who was standing in front of Harry was the same man he’d seen and spoken to in Christine Vale’s building the previous Monday; this was the “neighbor” who had checked Christine’s mailbox but did not want to check his own.
“You’re Jean-Jacques Dansereau?”
Dansereau nodded and smiled. “I am.” He stepped back from the door and, with a sweeping gesture, said “Welcome to my little home.”
“Little is right,” Harry said as he stepped into a wood-panelled foyer that was literally the entire width of the house. “I wasn’t sure I had the right place.”
Dansereau chuckled. “It’s taken more than one visitor by surprise.”
“How’d you do the talking door thing?”
Dansereau beamed. “It’s quite good, isn’t it? The sound quality. It’s a flat-panel loudspeaker designed for outdoor use. I had it mounted so the surface of the speaker is flush with the surface of the wood of the door. Then I just re-painted the whole thing.”
Harry smiled and tapped the door. “I like it.” He took a couple of steps forward, looked around at the foyer area and peered into the shadows toward the rear. There was a set of double doors on the right which, presumably, led back to the rooms of the main floor and on the left a circular, metal staircase spiralling up around what looked like a giant brass bird cage. He looked up and found that the area above him was wide open, stretching up and away the full four-storey height of the building like a wood-paneled elevator shaft or high, narrow atrium. Instead of a forward-facing wall, the upper-floor rooms at the front of the house opened onto this atrium area. Each had an ornate bronze railing with a wooden balustrade affording its occupants a view down to the little foyer below. There was a skylight high above the foyer which was now flooding warm, bright light into the upper reaches of the atrium and the adjacent rooms. Harry squinted against the light coming through the skylight. A woman was standing by the railing on the fourth floor, looking down.
Dansereau seemed pleased by Harry’s reaction to his home. Watching people as they entered it for the first time always gave him a bit of a kick.
“Did you happen to notice the building next door as you came up?” Dansereau asked.
“Mmm, vaguely.” Harry said.
“It’s almost the same age as this one, a little older, and is largely responsible for my house being the way it is.” Dansereau was launching into a performance that he’d given many times before.
“As the story goes, in the late 1800s a South American rubber baron with connections to Brazilian Light and Traction decided to build a head office for the American branches of his various business enterprises. He hired an architect in Buenos Aires to design the building and, for one reason or another, the architect never actually visited the site; he did all his work based on measurements and drawings that were sent to him. And, because of what you might call an intercontinental failure to communicate, the building that was constructed was ten feet shorter than the building the architect designed. The rubber baron apparently didn't mind. He still liked his head office and just decided to sell the leftover strip of land. They were accustomed to doing things on a somewhat grander scale back in those days and a piece of property with ten feet of street-front was not considered to be of any practical value. The South American, who was by now living part of the year here in the city, kept lowering the price of his little piece of land. It was eventually brought to the attention of the rather eccentric original owner of this house who picked it up for a virtual song. He hired an architect and the two of them designed the house you're now standing in.
“He filled it with eccentric little touches, like this.” Dansereau stood aside and put his hand on an ancient wooden telephone box. “All the rooms were linked by an internal telephone system. Quite a revolutionary idea for the day. But odd. He lived here alone; there was no-one for him to talk to over his telephones.”
“Do they work?” Harry asked.
“They do now. I was rather taken with the idea when I came here and had the whole system renovated. The outsides are all original -- the wooden cases, the switches, the mouthpieces and earpieces -- but the insides have all been replaced with modern electronics.”
Dansereau pointed toward the room just above them which looked down from the second storey. Harry looked up and noticed that the woman was no longer standing at the railing on the top floor. “When I first saw the place,” Dansereau went on, “it seemed to me that there were rather large spaces between the floors. You can see there below the level of the second floor, how wide the space is. When I started pulling up the rugs in one of the upstairs rooms, I found a trap door to one of those spaces -- all the rooms have them. Apparently he anticipated the need for extra storage space and made allowance for it. The light fixtures on the ceilings have their wires and suspending chains hooked up to pulleys. And they still work. To change a light bulb you need only lower the entire fixture on its pulley system. Ingenious. Not entirely necessary, I think, but fun nevertheless. I suspect that was the idea; the fun of it seemed to be important to him.
“As it turned out, in the years that followed the builder of this house and the rubber baron became very good friends and it is said the rubber baron considered the fouled-up blue-prints to have been one of the luckiest things that ever happened to him for without them he would never have met his good friend and neighbor. The builder of this house felt the same way. He named his home A Casa do Erro Afortunado -- roughly, The House of the Happy Accident.
Harry made a motion with his head and eyes in the direction of the top floor. “Was that Christine Vale?”
Dansereau smiled. “Why don’t we go up and you can ask her yourself.” He walked over to the spiral staircase. “The original design of the house had a wooden staircase here,” he said, extending his arms to show the size and location. "I had it removed and replaced with this combination.”
Up close, Harry could see that the big bird cage was, in fact a small elevator. Dansereau stepped over to it and swung open the door. “My study is on the top floor.” He held out a hand, inviting Harry to get in. “Please.”
Harry stepped into the brass cage and Dansereau closed the door behind him. “I had it installed soon after I bought the place. A close friend of mine uses a wheelchair and I wanted him to have freedom of movement throughout my home when he visits.” He pointed at a small control panel to Harry’s right inside the elevator. “If you’ll press the button on the top left marked “Variable” and then the one marked “Up”, we can be on our way.”
Harry did as Dansereau asked and the small carriage began to ascend. Dansereau walked up the steps of the spiral staircase that cork-screwed up around the elevator carriage. After a few moments he said, “Perhaps you've noticed that we are always opposite one another as we go up?” Harry nodded.
“It’s not just an accident of timing,” Dansereau said and slowed his pace to about half what it had been. The elevator slowed down to match his speed. Then he stopped climbing altogether and the elevator stopped too.
Harry smiled. “How’d you do that?”
"When I had the elevator installed I asked the firm to design a dynamic speed controller to go with it." He started climbing again only more slowly this time; the elevator began moving up, keeping opposite him as before. "Sensors in the steps are feeding information to the elevator's motor and keeping it even with the person climbing the stairs." He resumed his original pace and the elevator speeded its ascent to keep up with him. "That way two people can go up together, even though one is walking and the other is riding. Like the light fixtures on pulleys, it’s not strictly necessary, but it’s sort of in keeping with the spirit of the place.”
When they got to the top, Dansereau pointed to the other side of the elevator cage. “There’s another door there.” Harry opened it and stepped out. The fourth floor of Dansereau’s house consisted of one long, narrow room. The front edge, where the elevator and the stairs terminated, was bounded by the railing and looked out over the foyer, three floors below. Harry went over to it and had a look. “This is nice. I like this house of yours, Mr. Dansereau.”
Dansereau came over and stood beside him at the railing. “Thanks. But please, most people call me Jay-Jay.”
“O.K. Most people call me Harry. So, Jay-Jay. How come the FBI has your fingerprints on file?”
“Oh,” Dansereau smiled. “Nothing too interesting I’m afraid, probably not to a private eye, anyway. I had a minor brush with the authorities when I was young, what you might call a youthful indiscretion. I attended a protest rally when I was a student at Tulane University in New Orleans. I suppose I went more out of curiosity than conviction. Nevertheless when things started to get a little out of hand I got rounded up along with some of the others and we were hauled down to the police station. It didn’t last long; I think they just wanted to scare some sense into us. However, we were all thrown into cells and fingerprinted just the same.”
A woman’s voice came from behind them. “Who would have guessed that lo these many years later those selfsame fingerprints would end up being used to test the mettle of our poor friend Mr. Conrad here.”
Harry turned to see a woman he assumed to be his real client walking out of the shadows of the long, narrow room to the rear. She extended her hand. “Christine Vale.”
“Oh, yeah?” Harry raised an eyebrow as he took her hand. “Can you prove it?
“I think I can. Come in and have a seat.”
She turned and led him back into the room Dansereau had described as his study. Mahogany bookcases lined both walls. A large, custom-made, rolltop desk held a computer monitor and keyboard. The computer was turned on and the screensaver on the monitor displayed two Punch and Judy characters whacking each other with sticks. About halfway down the length of the room, which Harry guessed was forty or fifty feet, they came to a wide, red-brick fireplace extending out from the side wall. A sofa and several brown leather chairs were arranged around a low oak table in front of it.
“Have a seat, Mr. Conrad. Can we offer you something? Coffee or a cappuccino?”
Harry sat down in one of the chairs. “Uh, well, cappuccino sounds good, but don’t go to any trouble.”
“It’s no trouble. Jay-Jay makes it up here all the time.”
Dansereau had followed along behind. “I guess that makes three cappuccinos, then," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Coming right up." He moved a little further down the room to where the cappuccino maker was set up.
Harry settled back in his chair and looked across at his hostess. “The last time I had coffee with Christine Vale she told me she wanted to find her sister."
"I still do, Mr. Conrad."
"The last thing Christine Vale said to me, by way of the note written on the back of the photograph from the Russian Tea Room, was, and I quote, 'I'm the one who's missing. Find me.'"
"And so you have. Congratulations."
"You weren't missing. You were hiding."
"To see if you could find me. It was a test."
"And I passed?"
“Yes. And I have to tell you, finding this place by using those fingerprints of Jay-Jay’s was very impressive. You must be pretty well-connected for a freelancer.”
“I know a few people who can help me out from time to time. I wouldn’t count on any more fingerprint I.D.s, though. That was a special favor; one time only. And it wasn't free. It cost you ten of those fifty dollar bills; five hundred dollars you could have saved yourself by simply coming downstairs the other day." he said.
"You're referring to Monday, the day you spoke with Jay-Jay in the lobby of my apartment building?"
"That's right. You must have known at that point that I had basically found you. Why not just admit it then. I won, didn’t I? I won the game?”
“You got close. But I wasn’t actually in the building. I was here, at Jay-Jay’s. So, to answer your question, no, you had not won. Your instructions were to find me, not to find my apartment. As you know yourself, that part wasn't terribly difficult. My guess is you just asked one of Jane's artist friends where I lived and he told you. Not exactly an investigative coup, and it's not worth five thousand dollars, either."
"Yeah, I've been meaning to ask you about that."
"Why so much, you mean?"
"Right. Why so much?"
Dansereau came over carrying a tray with three cappuccinos on it. Harry took one. "Thanks."
Dansereau smiled. "You must feel like you're in an Agatha Christy novel," he said.
Harry nodded. "And all is being revealed."
"Not quite all," Christine Vale said. She took a cup from the tray. "You'll still get a chance to earn some more of your advance."
Dansereau set the tray aside and took a seat beside Christine on the sofa. "Sounds like I'm just in time," he said.
Christine looked at Dansereau and smiled. The smile, Harry couldn't help noticing, had a lot of real affection in it. He guessed that despite the obvious age difference, they were lovers. "Mr. Conrad was just asking why we paid him five thousand dollars when he'd only asked for five hundred."
"Mmm. A good question," Dansereau said.
Christine Vale looked back at Harry. "Actually that whole 'find me' business was Jay-Jay's idea. Maybe I'll let him explain."
Dansereau took a sip from his cup. "Yes, I'm the guilty party, Mr. Con...Harry. When Jane disappeared, Christine notified the police and they undertook an investigation. As you know, not much came of it and, despite reassurances from the detective who was assigned to the case, we became convinced that they weren't really taking it very seriously. When we finally expressed this concern to the detective, he confided that our suspicions were not entirely without foundation. He said there was still some chance that Jane would turn up, but if she did it almost certainly would not come as the result of any official police action. His strong implication was that they had essentially given up. He also said that in circumstances like these, people sometimes hired private investigators and he could provide a name if we were interested in going that route. We mulled it over and, for reasons we'll get to in a minute, decided it was worth a try; the name he gave us was yours."
"Any use asking who the detective was?" Harry asked.
"Well, he did make a point of saying that his comments were off the record, and I feel I should respect that."
"Sure. I understand."
"I'll be honest with you Harry, we were a little uneasy about hiring a private detective. Neither of us has any experience in that area and, well, to be frank, your profession has a somewhat unsavory reputation."
"Yeah, well, everybody hates lawyers, too, until they need one."
"Quite. Point taken. Nevertheless, we wanted to do what we could to protect ourselves against getting mixed up in something that we might regret later. That's why I came up with the idea of the test. We wanted to assure ourselves about two things: your ability and your integrity."
"So I proved my ability by locating Miss Vale," Harry said.
"Correct. Technically, I suppose, you located me," Dansereau said, "using the fingerprints I provided. But we're prepared to accept that as the same thing."
"You weren't prepared to accept it as the same thing on Monday."
"No, but you didn't come to that building because you knew it would be me coming down the stairs to get the mail, either. You were looking for Christine that day and you didn't find her."
"Yeah, O.K.," Harry said. "So, how about the integrity part?"
"We handed over five thousand dollars in cash. I can easily imagine a less scrupulous individual simply taking the money and doing nothing."
"So by working for the money, I proved to you that I'm an honest guy."
"Yes. Especially given the road blocks we put in your way and the rather ambiguous clues we provided."
"Were you following me around? Is that how you know I ran down a few leads?"
"No, not really. I was there at the Russian Tea Room when you had your meeting with Pia; I took the photograph. Pia Nilsson is an actress friend of ours. She agreed to help with the first part by acting as a stand-in for Christine."
"She should learn to be a little more careful with microphones," Harry said.
"Yes, that was unfortunate. Got you going though, I dare say."
"For half an hour or so, until I checked her story out."
"So, tell me," Dansereau leaned forward in his chair. "I'm really curious to know how it all went."
"How I got from there to here?"
"It was pretty straightforward. I phoned a friend at The Times who confirmed the Jane Doe story. I tried all the Vales in the phone book. Struck out. Got a phone number from the maitre d' at the Russian Tea Room. Went to the laundromat. Saw the poster and got the address of the WomanSee Gallery. Went there. Struck out -- the gallery owner refused to come up with a name for your Miss Nilsson. Another reporter at The Times gave me the name of the Charles Bridge cafe. I met a guy there named Salem Pond. He told me how to get in touch with Christine and Christine's mother. Tried Christine's number. Got Alan Smithee. Tried Mrs. Skarda. She was pretty much in the dark about the whole thing. Went to Christine's address and caught you rifling her mailbox. Arranged for the make on the prints. Got the results and here we all are." Harry looked back and forth at Christine Vale and Jean-Jacques Dansereau. "Is that pretty much what you expected?"
"Pretty much," Dansereau said. "We didn't actually hold out much hope for the fingerprints; I wasn't even sure anyone would still have them. It wasn't part of the original scenario; we didn't know we were going to be wrapping up any money."
"So, to prove my ability as an investigator I was really going to have to connect with Christine at some point."
"Either Christine or Pia. We'd have settled for Pia."
Pia. I'd settle for Pia myself, Harry thought, recalling her photograph on the poster.
"Pia would have been a long shot," Dansereau added. "Carla -- that's the gallery owner you talked to -- is pretty obsessive about her privacy and the privacy of her models. And we told Pia that if Carla passed along a request from you for a meeting, she was to say no."
"O.K. So, anyway, this all brings us to the here and now. Am I correct in assuming that the case is back to Jane, all Jane and nothing but Jane?"
"Yes, Mr. Conrad." Christine Vale spoke up. "The subterfuge is over. The focus definitely shifts to Jane, now."
"That microphone Pia was wearing, you were taping our conversation?"
"Yes. We've listened to the tape. Pia knows Jane and quite a bit about what happened. Everything she told you is essentially true as far as it goes. Jane was in the midst of performing an extended work she had created. She would surface at various pre-determined times and places and assume the role of a homeless person. All was going according to plan when she failed to show up for one of the scheduled appearances. That was three months ago; she has been missing ever since."
"Three months is a long time. Why did you wait so long to hire someone to help you. If all I have to go on is what Pia told me...well, it's not much, is it?"
"No, I understand that Mr. Conrad. I said Pia's version of the events was true as far as it went. It turns out there is at least a little more. Maybe a lot more, I don't really know."
Harry raised an eyebrow slightly and waited.
"I doubt that we would have hired anyone at all, except that some...unusual things have begun happening, things which make me," she looked at Dansereau, "make us believe there is more to this than a simple disappearance. The nature of these things, combined with the fact that the police seem already to have given up on Jane, made us decide to begin our own investigation."
She hesitated, unsure how to continue.
Dansereau reached over, put his hand on hers and gave it a little squeeze. Then he looked across at Harry.
"Do you think of yourself as an open-minded person, Harry?"
Harry considered the question for a moment, half expecting that Dansereau might in some way be referring to his relationship with Christine Vale. "I suppose I am, for the most part," he said. "Depends what you mean."
"Do you believe in the possibility of psychic phenomena?" Dansereau said. "Do you believe in ESP?"