Claudette and I huddled together as we tried to formulate a new game plan. We had just finished rehashing the past few days when our waitress reappeared with two unsolicited martinis. A salacious grin spread across her face as she pointed to a man sitting at the end of the bar. “These drinks are from your new friend over there,” she announced mischievously. “He mentioned that he always admired the Doublemint Twins.”
We peered through the dim lighting and cigarette haze at the lone silver haired stranger. As we made eye contact, he nodded and mimed a toast with his aperitif glass. “Claudette, have you ever seen that man before? He looks so familiar to me.”
She shook her head in the negative. “No, I don’t recognize him, but he creeps me out. I think that old cock of the walk has a lot of nerve trying to hit on two young chicks like us. He is probably over there humming to himself, ...Double your pleasure, double your fun. Even the older dudes are interested in the twin factor.”
I laughed out loud, but kept my eye on the waitress who was within earshot. Transfixed, I watched as the flickering candles on top of the piano cast a wormy glow on her tightly permed hair. I nudged Claudette. “Hey, let’s ask Medusa if she knows the name of our boozy benefactor.”
Claudette smiled broadly. “Well, it’s a given that most employees working in popular watering holes know the locals,” she responded. “Hey, maybe our waitress thinks we are too petrified to ask his name for fear it might encourage unwanted advances. We should put on our best stony expressions and ask the Gorgon if the guy is a regular.”
“You are a quick study, my dear.” My sister was the doyenne of double entendres. “Say, how do you know the man is even a local? He looks too right-wing to be a regular at Lefty’s, let alone a citizen of the 60’s.”
Claudette narrowed her eyes as she gave him the once over. “I can tell he frequents this place a lot by the way the bartender is flitting about. My guess is that the old chap sits on the same barstool every time and orders his drink du jour. Perhaps he savors a Dubonnet on the rocks, Campari & soda or a splash of Pernod straight up. He is king of le beau monde at Lefty's…always holding court among the rabble.”
Claudette never ceased to amaze me with her vivid imagery and knack for story telling. “I think you are spot on, sis. He is definitely Town & Country or GQ material. Why don’t we do some fact finding, okay?” I signaled the waitress and she slowly worked her way back to our table.
Medusa pulled a pad out of her apron pocket and a pen from her hair nest. “Do you ladies want to order something?” she asked impatiently.
I tried to be diplomatic. “We were wondering, do you know the name of the ..ah..gentleman who sent us these drinks? We would like to thank him personally for his kindness.” Claudette and I sipped our martinis and smiled in his direction.
“I guess you girls are not from around here,” she replied. “That man is Cyril Magnin, the famous department store tycoon. Does I. Magnin & Company ring a bell? In these parts we refer to him as Mr. San Francisco, but I guess you wouldn’t know about that.”
“Au contraire, Madame!” I haughtily responded. “We know the store well, just not the man.” Claudette and I were very familiar with I. Magnin’s. It was our mother’s favorite place for a day outing. When she took us shopping as children we were allowed to browse alone on various floors as long as we kept our hands behind our backs. After we tired of exploring we would ride the elevator to the 6th floor- Lingerie Department. Mother had an appetite for French silk undergarments which she didn’t keep a secret. As an ardent Francophile she was fond of saying, ‘Oolala,’ when we peeked inside the pink shopping bag at her latest purchases.
Claudette cut in on my waltz down memory lane. “I am not sure he is someone I’d want to get to know either. He looks like the archetype silver fox and a major player. The guy is no spring chicken either.”
The waitress patted Claudette’s back and lasciviously added, “He seems to have taken a keen interest in you two. Maybe if you play your cards right Mr. S.F. himself will show you a real good time and... ”
Cyril Magnin unexpectedly materialized in front of us. “Thank you for such a rousing introduction, Lorna,” he interrupted. “You can leave us now and go about your business.” Without another word she picked up her cocktail tray and disappeared into the crowd. “Don’t pay any attention to Lorna. She enjoys ruffling feathers, it is her schtick.”
Claudette reached her hand out and made the introductions. “Hello Mr. Magnin, I am Claudette and this is my sister Paulette. Of course, you know us as the Doublemint Twins."
He cocked his head as if he had misunderstood her. “Excuse me, I don’t know you at all. Is that how you refer to yourselves? You look much younger than those TV twins.”
“Well, now, according to Lorna the two vodka martinis were provided gratis, courtesy of one Mr. Cyril Magnin, and verbally addressed to the Doublemint’s. If you ask me, that is one cheesy sales pitch,” scolded Claudette.
Magnin frowned. “Yes, I did send the drinks over because you both looked so low. I thought a little highball would raise your spirits. However those were Lorna’s words and not mine. She acts like an incorrigible Irish terrier ...hell bent on roughhousing with the customers. Pardon my French, but she is already on my merde list from a previous run-in.”
Claudette was amused by his last comment as it was something our mother would have said. “So you say,” she teasingly countered. “I might challenge her to an arm wrestling match.. to which I excel at, hands down. Maybe I can even arrange an early retirement for her.”
He laughed heartily. “I see that verbal sparing is your forte as well.”
I remained mute preferring instead to observe Magnin as he and my sister volleyed witticisms. I guessed that he was in his mid to late sixties, and a man of refined taste by the way he was dressed. He wore a burgundy cashmere V-neck over a white shirt and impeccably tailored charcoal slacks. A fashionable paisley silk tie accented his otherwise conservative ensemble. I welcomed his calm demeanor after a long and chaotic day. As I listened to their meandering conversation the comforting timber of his voice began to ease my disquietude. I could tell by Claudette’s body language and easy bantering that she was also unwinding.
It was obvious by his compliments that Magnin enjoyed my sister’s light hearted sarcasm. “My dear, you are quite a handful,” he remarked. “You should pack your bags and take your show on the road.”
As they continued their amusing discourse, I reflected on chemistry. Not the laboratory type, but the immediate mutual attraction one experiences with certain people. From the minute Magnin introduced himself, I felt the pull of his powerful magnetism. As the evening unfolded, my instinct confirmed that he was a safe harbor and a trustworthy person. I was thinking along these lines when I experienced a sudden and profound feeling that meeting Magnin was predestined. My mind flashed, briefly, to Becky’s psychedelic reverie, and then to the crazy interaction with Chef Chicollini and his fine feathered friend, Troy D. Both encounters had led us directly to Union Square. Then, as if on cue, Magnin stepped into the picture. All at once, my urge to interrupt their repartee was overwhelming. “Mr Magnin, I am sorry for butting in but I thought you should know that Claudette and I are in a bit of a pickle.”
Magnin plucked a pair of horn-rimmed glasses out of his pocket and placed them on the bridge of his nose. The thick black frames outlined his shrewd eagle-eyed stare. “Let’s skip the formalities, shall we? Call me Cyril.”
Magnin reminded me of a Looney Toon’s character, a nearsighted baby chick named Egghead, Jr. Since it was an inopportune moment for hysterics, I turned and addressed my sister instead. “Sis, we need to trust Cyril. I think that he might be the variable we have been trying to find. Furthermore, he is a walking road map and knows the city and everyone in it."
Claudette glanced at me curiously. “Paulette, he is a businessman. We are so far down the rabbit hole it will take a magician, or maybe a supernatural intervention for us to see the light at the end of the tunnel again.” She looked at Magnin with a hopeful expression. “Cyril, do you know any Professor Marvel types or anyone else of his ilk?”
A sense of excitement seemed to animate Magnin. “Girls, I knew you were different the minute you stepped inside Lefty’s. My interest is truly piqued. Why don’t you just cut to the chase and enlighten me about your situation? Maybe I can be of assistance.”
I decided to press on with some facsimile of the truth. “We came to Union Square to do some research on the history of the Dewey Monument?” I replied. “We are particularly interested in Alma Spreckles.”
Magnin rubbed his chin before answering. “Well, are you intrigued by the statue, or the actual flesh and blood woman herself? I am very familiar with both ladies. Actually Alma Spreckles and I worked together a lot over the years. Of course, she frequented my store quite often during her heyday. She always delighted in shopping after hours. Mostly, we were passionate devotees of the arts. Birds of a feather.....as they say.”
“God, is she still alive, or are you talking in the past tense?” inquired Claudette. “If so, she must be really old.”
Magnin looked at us quizzically. “It is strange that you have asked about her since she just died three weeks ago. I visited her shortly before she passed. Out of the blue, her secretary called and had insisted that I stop by Alma’s apartment. I thought it was an odd request as I hadn’t seen her for some time. She had turned into quite the recluse, and I knew she had been ill. I agreed to pay my respects...sooner rather than later.”
Claudette gave him a comforting pat on the arm. “I am sorry if I sounded callous about Mrs. Spreckles age. I was just amazed to think that the person who posed for the statue might still be living. It seems like the Dewey Monument has been around for forever.” Claudette must have forgotten that we were presently time traveling in the year 1968. The monument had been around for over a century, at least in our real time.
Magnin sat in a state of stillness staring off into space. While he pondered, I wondered why the old grand dame wanted to see Magnin before she died. At this juncture Union Square and Alma Spreckles were the only clues we had to work with. We needed to solve this maddening riddle and find the right path ...or some key that would boomerang us back to the future.
Without warning, Magnin started talking again. “Excuse my mental absence, girls. I was just thinking about the last conversation I had with dear Alma. It was a rather strange experience, to say the least.”
Claudette asked him the big question point-blank. “Why did she want to see you, Cyril? Did she have some secret to divulge?”
Magnin clasped his hands together as if in prayer. “Let me explain and then you be the judges. I went to her apartment and her assistant received me at the door. She led me into the living room where I found Alma propped up in a hospital bed. Even in illness, she was still a commanding woman. I sat on the edge of the bed and waited for her to speak. She was wheezing quite heavily, but gestured for me to move in closer. She said she didn’t want her busybody nursemaid, Bernice, to hear our conversation. Alma always complained that gossips were the bain of her existence.”
I nodded my understanding. “It sounds like she was running the show even as an invalid.”
Magnin nodded. “Oh, yes. She was a big powerhouse of a woman with a mercurial temperament. One never knew which way the wind was going to blow while in her company.”
“Well, what happened.” urged Claudette?
Magnin continued. “I leaned in and Alma whispered into my ear. I can’t remember verbatim what she told me, but I’ll do my best. She said that after she has flown the coop....meaning died, I was to ‘Visit the Dewey Monument with the scissors, and unlock the side door using the combination- ‘11 right, 1 left, 13 right.’ I memorized the code part afterward so I would not forget. I asked her if she was joking, but she answered.... ‘No Cyril, I am dead serious.’ She informed me that once I had opened the door I’d find a small package that had important instructions inside. Her final words to me were, ‘Tell them the answer is within.’ I acknowledged her request and she managed a wink. When she started coughing uncontrollably her nurse appeared with a scary syringe and shooed me out of the room.”
“Cyril, you aren’t going to believe what Paulette and I are about to tell you, but we swear it is the truth.”
Magnin's hand gesture signifed that he needed to finish his tale. “Let me tell you the strangest part of all this cloak-and-dagger business. When I got up to leave Alma’s pet parrot, Sugar, started squawking. I turned towards the living room window and watched the bird as she paced sideways along her wooden perch. I whistled and waited for her reaction. The bird stopped, cocked her head and repeated mechanically, ‘Don’t get sassy with me, sailor.’ It was a humorous moment under sad circumstances. In any event, as I reached the door Sugar “spoke” again. She said, ‘Visit the Dewey Monument with the sisters and unlock the side door using the combination-11 right, 1 left, 13 right.’ It was unbelievable... Sugar had repeated Alma’s mysterious message ...word for word."
Claudette responded immediately. Cyril, “Sugar said the word sisters, not scissors. You just said so yourself. Doesn’t that make much more sense?”
Magnin’s eyes widened as he studied our faces. “My Goodness, I stand corrected. It turns out that I am the birdbrain,” he interjected with a slight accent of amusement. "Sisters…. Hummmmm, now what were you two going to tell me that I wouldn’t believe?”