zingmagazine10 autumn 1999







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alexis vaillant
love for sale
lutwidge finch a novel: chapter 5
evil camouflage


"Does she?"

"Here we are."

Had the boy not said so, Finch would have walked straight into a brick wall. The building was shut up so tight not a ray of light escaped. With a practiced air, James reached out and knocked on something that sounded like a door. After a moment, a distant grumbling could be heard.

"blasted interruptions," it was saying. "I shall have to move to the Outer Hebrides next, to get anything done. YES?"

"Please, sir." The boy had freed himself now and stood at a shaky attention, still holding the tray. "It is James, sir."

"Late, as usual." The door swung open, dazzling them both with light. "I must contend not only with the riddles of the universe but with the tardiness of a ten-year-old. And who are you, sir?"

"Baron Tattson? Lutwidge Finch." All he could make out was a tall, stooped figure ringed with fire, the contrast in illumination was so great. "I am a guest at the Hall."

"A guest? You will be wanting strawberries and cream, I suppose. Try the gardener's residence. Next building over."

"The boy twisted his ankle. He needed help bringing you your dinner."

"Oh. Decent of you," the Baron grumbled. "In, James! Don't just stand here. We are lowering the internal temperature, you know that."

The houseboy, cured by awe, scooted through the passageway the old man's shrunken knee afforded.

"I thank you, sir," the Baron said, and stepped back preparatory to shutting the door in Lutwidge's face.

"Let Mr. Finch in," a voice called.

"What?" The Baron looked over his shoulder. "Well, if you like."

He stomped away, leaving it to Finch to enter and close the door behind him. The soft click of the perfect seal stilled the air. It was tropical in here. He took off his coat without thinking, likewise loosened his necktie. The light, provided by mighty chandeliers suspended from a ceiling high as a barn, shone down on a jungle of glass bottles and tubing, some of which held brightly-colored liquids, while others crawled with ants or were packed layers-deep with somnolent salamanders. A flame roared at the far end of the huge room, not a fireplace but a solid fountain of combustion, a foot in diameter, the transparent blue of gas, emerging from a metal pipe. Above it, air rippled as though its very nature were being both revealed and melted at the same time.

"Give your friend water, James," the Baron ordered.

"That is quite all right," Finch said.

"It is medicinal, not social. You will be sweating like a pig in here. Lose two quarts of fluid a night. At least I do. Constant replenishment is the only cure. I do not want my wife complaining I killed any of her precious guests."

If not Moses, certainly one of the prophets, Lutwidge thought, his eyes adjusting now. The Baron had bristling white eyebrows and a ragged beard. His gaze was black and angry, a body wracked with age, yet strong, large hands grasping table and bench tops as he moved through his glass-and-cork-stoppered kingdom, too proud to use a cane.

"Finch," he muttered. "I have heard of you, haven't I? There was a kind of cake I used to buy..."

"Finch's Fine Foods," the voice again provided. "Mr. Finch's grandfather founded the first store, didn't he, Mr. Finch? I have enjoyed your Golden Cake myself, many a Sunday tea."

"Inspector Jenkins," Lutwidge said, making out the unobtrusive policeman, sitting in the corner of the laboratory, quite at home. He wore, as before, a mouse-colored trench coat, despite the heat. A trickle of perspiration ran through his mustache. "I did not expect to find you here."

"You following me. That would be a good switch."


Lady Tabitha had not lingered, waiting for Lutwidge to come out and follow her. Confused, humiliated, she walked blindly down the long hallway leading to the wing where her own room was situated. She had not cried since she was eleven. Even at her mother's funeral it was remarked how the tragedy seemed to harden rather than dissolve the young girl's features. But in her breast there was a quaking, an awful mix of unsubsided passion, the sting of rejection, and, above all, the shock of Lutwidge's parting words to her, that she "knew far too much about men." What I know about men you could put in a thimble, she thought wryly. She would have wagered her entire newfound fortune that his response would have been the exact opposite. Could he not see what she was offering him? What its value was? Others could, and had made shockingly crude offers for it. But she had presented herself to him gratis, a sacrifice he could not even begin to imagine, only to see in his face a look of repulsion. He does not want a woman, she thought angrily. Or rather he does not want me. He wants an angel whose feet do no tread on the ground. She quickened her pace, eager to hide from the world, from these barren, accusatory rooms, door after door. He thought I was so virgin-pure I would want to wait. He did not even consider the possibility that I had already... She tried spitting out the incident but the taste clung inexorably. Am I such a horrible person? she asked. I finally find someone I want to please and instead I nauseate him. Anger and self-reproach battled within her. She threw open the door and had already slammed it shut behind before realizing her mistake.

"Hello," Choir said.