The Secret History by Donna Tartt


  With a sinking feeling in my chest, I sat down.

  “What is it?” Henry said.

  “I don’t know if I should even mention it.”

  “If you think it important, by all means do,” Henry said curtly.

  Cloke took a last draw on his cigarette and ground it out with a deliberate, corkscrewing movement. “You know,” he said, “that I deal a little coke now and then, don’t you? Not much,” he said hastily, “just a few grams here and there. Just for me and my friends. But it’s easy work and I can make a little money at it, too.”

  We all looked at each other. This was no news at all. Cloke was one of the biggest drug dealers on campus.

  “So?” said Henry.

  Cloke looked surprised. Then he shrugged. “So,” he said, “I know this Chinaman down on Mott Street in New York, kind of a scary guy, but he likes me and he’ll pretty much give me however much I can scrape up the cash for. Blow, mostly, sometimes a little pot as well but that’s kind of a headache. I’ve known him for years. We even did a little business when Bunny and I were at Saint Jerome’s.” He paused. “Well. You know how broke Bunny always is.”

  “Yes.”

  “Well, he’s always been real interested in the whole thing. Quick money, you know. If he’d ever had the cash I might’ve cut him in on it—on the financial end, I mean—but he never did and besides, Bunny has no business being mixed up in a deal like this.” He lit another cigarette. “Anyway,” he said. “That’s why I’m worried.”

  Henry frowned. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

  “This was a bad mistake I guess but I let him ride down with me a couple weeks ago.”

  We had already heard about this excursion to New York. Bunny had bragged about it incessantly. “And?” said Henry.

  “I don’t know. I’m just kind of worried, is all. He knows where the guy lives—right?—and he’s got all this money, so when I was talking to Marion, I just—”

  “You don’t think he went down there by himself?” said Charles.

  “I don’t know. I sure hope not. He never actually met the guy or anything.”

  “Would Bunny do something like that?” said Camilla.

  “Frankly,” said Henry, unhooking his glasses and giving them a quick swipe with his handkerchief, “it strikes me as just the type of stupid thing that Bunny would do.”

  Nobody said anything for a moment. Henry glanced up. His eyes without the glasses were blind, unwavering, strange. “Does Marion know about this?” he said.

  “No,” said Cloke. “And I’d just as soon you didn’t tell her, okay?”

  “Do you have any other reason for thinking this?”

  “No. Except where else could he be? And Marion told you about Rika Thalheim seeing him at the bank on Wednesday?”

  “Yes.”

  “That’s kind of weird but not really, not if you think about it. Say he went down to New York with a couple hundred dollars, right? And talking like he had a lot more where that came from. These guys’ll chop you up and put you in a garbage bag for twenty bucks. I mean, I don’t know. Maybe they told him to go back home and close out his account and come back with all he had.”

  “Bunny doesn’t even have a bank account.”

  “That you know of,” Cloke pointed out.

  “You’re perfectly right,” said Henry.

  “Can’t you just call down there?” Charles said.

  “Who’m I gonna call? The guy’s unlisted and he doesn’t hand out business cards, all right?”

  “Then how do you get in touch with him?”

  “I have to call a third guy.”

  “Then call him,” said Henry calmly, putting the handkerchief back in his pocket and hooking the glasses back over his ears.

  “They’re not going to tell me anything.”

  “I thought they were such good chums of yours.”

  “What do you think?” said Cloke. “You think these people are running some kind of a scout troop down there? Are you kidding? These are real guys. Doing real shit.”

  For one horrible instant I thought that Francis was going to laugh aloud but somehow he managed to turn it into a theatrical battery of coughs, hiding his face behind his hand. With barely a glance Henry slapped him, hard, on the back.

  “Then what do you suggest we do?” Camilla said.

  “I don’t know. I’d like to get into his room, see if he took a suitcase or anything.”

  “Isn’t it locked?” Henry said.

  “Yes. Marion tried to get Security to open it for her and they wouldn’t do it.”

  Henry bit his lower lip. “Well,” he said slowly, “it wouldn’t be so very hard to get in in spite of that, would it?”

  Cloke put out his cigarette and looked at Henry with new interest. “No,” he said. “It wouldn’t.”

  “There’s the ground floor window. The storm windows have been taken off.”

  “I know I could handle the screens.”

  The two of them stared at each other.

  “Maybe,” Cloke said, “I should go down and try it now.”

  “We’ll go with you.”

  “Man,” said Cloke, “we can’t all go.”

  I saw Henry cut his eyes at Charles; Charles, behind Cloke’s back, acknowledged the glance. “I’ll go,” he said suddenly, in a voice that was too loud, and tossed off the rest of his drink.

  “Cloke, how on earth did you get mixed up in something like this?” Camilla said.

  He laughed condescendingly. “It’s nothing,” he said. “You have to meet these guys on their own ground. I don’t let them give me shit or anything.”

  Inconspicuously, Henry slipped behind Cloke’s chair to where Charles stood, and leaned over and whispered something in his ear. I saw Charles nod tersely.

  “Not that they don’t try to fuck with you,” said Cloke. “But I know how they think. Now Bunny, he doesn’t have a clue, he thinks it’s some kind of a game with hundred-dollar bills just lying on the ground, waiting for some stupid kid to come along and pick them up.…”

  By the time he stopped talking, Charles and Henry had completed whatever business they’d been discussing and Charles had gone to the closet for his overcoat. Cloke reached for his sunglasses and stood up. He had a faint, dry smell of herbs, an echo of the pothead smell that always lingered in the dusty corridors of Durbinstall: patchouli oil, clove cigarettes, incense.

  Charles wound the scarf around his neck. His expression was at once casual and turbulent; his eyes were distant and his mouth was steady, but his nostrils flared slightly with his breathing.

  “Be careful,” Camilla said.

  She was talking to Charles, but Cloke turned and smiled. “Piece of cake,” he said.

  She walked with them to the door. As soon as she shut it behind them she turned around.

  Henry put a finger to his lips.

  We listened to their footsteps going down the stairs, and were quiet until we heard Cloke’s car start. Henry went to the window and pulled aside a shabby lace curtain. “They’re gone,” he said.

  “Henry, are you sure this is a good idea?” said Camilla.

  He shrugged, still looking at the street below. “I don’t know,” he said. “I had to play that one by ear.”

  “I wish you’d gone. Why didn’t you go with him?”

  “I would have, but this is better.”

  “What did you say to him?”

  “Well, it should be pretty obvious even to Cloke that Bunny isn’t out of town. Everything he owns is in that room. Money, extra glasses, winter coat. Odds are that Cloke will want to leave, and not say anything, but I told Charles to insist that they at least call Marion over for a look. If she sees—well. She doesn’t know a thing about Cloke’s problems and wouldn’t care if she did. Unless I’m mistaken she’ll call the police, or Bunny’s parents at the very least, and I doubt Cloke will be able to stop her.”

  “They won’t find him today,” said Francis. “It’ll be dark in
a couple of hours.”

  “Yes, but if we’re lucky they’ll start looking first thing tomorrow.”

  “Do you think anyone will want to talk to us about it?”

  “I don’t know,” said Henry abstractedly. “I don’t know how they go about such things.”

  A thin ray of sun struck the prisms of a candelabrum on the mantelpiece, throwing brilliant, trembling shards of light that were distorted by the slant of the dormer walls. All of a sudden, images from every crime movie I’d ever seen began to pop into my mind—the windowless room, the harsh lights and narrow hallways, images which did not seem so much theatrical or foreign as imbued with the indelible quality of memory, of experience lived. Don’t think, don’t think, I told myself, looking fixedly at a bright, cold pool of sunlight soaking into the rug near my feet.

  Camilla tried to light a cigarette, but one match and then another went out. Henry took the box from her and struck one himself; it flared up high and strong and she leaned close to it, one hand cupped around the flame and the other resting upon his wrist.

  The minutes crept by with a tortuous slowness. Camilla brought a bottle of whiskey into the kitchen and we sat around the table playing euchre, Francis and Henry against Camilla and me. Camilla played well—this was her game, her favorite—but I wasn’t a good partner and we lost trick after trick to the others.

  The apartment was very still: clink of glasses, ruffle of cards. Henry’s sleeves were rolled above his elbows and the sun glinted metallic off Francis’s pince-nez. I did my best to concentrate on the game but again and again I found myself staring, through the open door, at the clock on the mantel in the next room. It was one of those bizarre pieces of Victorian bric-a-brac that the twins were so fond of—a white china elephant with the clock balanced in a howdah, and a little black mahout in gilt turban and breeches to strike the hours. There was something diabolical about the mahout, and every time I looked up I found him grinning at me in an attitude of cheerful malice.

  I lost count of the score, lost count of the games. The room grew dim.

  Henry lay down his cards. “March,” he said.

  “I’m sick of this,” said Francis. “Where is he?”

  The clock ticked loudly, a jangling, arrhythmic tick. We sat in the fading light, the cards forgotten. Camilla took an apple from a bowl on the counter and sat in the windowsill, eating it morosely and looking down at the street below. A fiery outline of twilight shone around her silhouette, burned red-gold in her hair, grew diffuse in the fuzzy texture of the woolen skirt pulled carelessly about her knees.

  “Maybe something went wrong,” Francis said.

  “Don’t be ridiculous. What could go wrong?”

  “A million things. Maybe Charles lost his head or something.”

  Henry gave him a fishy look. “Calm down,” he said. “I don’t know where you get all these Dostoyevsky sorts of ideas.”

  Francis was about to reply when Camilla jumped up. “He’s coming,” she said.

  Henry stood up. “Where? Is he alone?”

  “Yes,” said Camilla, running to the door.

  She ran down to meet him on the landing and in a few moments the two of them were back.

  Charles’s eyes were wild and his hair was disordered. He took off his coat, threw it on a chair, flung himself on the couch. “Somebody make me a drink,” he said.

  “Is everything all right?”

  “Yes.”

  “What happened?”

  “Where’s that drink?”

  Impatiently, Henry splashed some whiskey in a dirty glass and shoved it at him. “Did it go well? Did the police come?”

  Charles took a long swallow, winced and nodded.

  “Where’s Cloke? At home?”

  “I guess.”

  “Tell us everything from the first.”

  Charles finished the glass and set it down. His face was a damp, feverish red. “You were right about that room,” he said.

  “What do you mean?”

  “It was eerie. Terrible. Bed unmade, dust everywhere, half an old Twinkie lying on his desk and ants crawling all over it. Cloke got scared and wanted to leave, but I called Marion before he could. She was there in a few minutes. Looked around, seemed kind of stunned, didn’t say much. Cloke was very agitated.”

  “Did he tell her about the drug business?”

  “No. He hinted at it, more than once, but she wasn’t paying much attention to him.” He looked up. “You know, Henry,” he said abruptly, “I think we made a bad mistake by not going down there first. We should’ve gone through that room ourselves before either of them even saw it.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Look what I found.” He pulled a piece of paper from his pocket.

  Henry took it from him quickly and looked it over. “How did you get this?”

  He shrugged. “Luck. It was on top of his desk. I slipped it off the first chance I had.”

  I looked over Henry’s shoulder. It was a Xerox of a page of the Hampden Examiner. Wedged between a column by the Home Extension Service and a chopped-off ad for garden hoes, there was a small but conspicuous headline.

  MYSTERIOUS DEATH IN BATTENKILL COUNTY

  Battenkill County Sheriff Department, along with Hampden police, are still investigating the brutal November 12 homicide of Harry Ray McRee. The mutilated corpse of Mr. McRee, a poultry farmer and former member of the Egg Producers Association of Vermont, was found upon his Mechanicsville farm. Robbery did not appear to be a motive, and though Mr. McRee was known to have several enemies, both in the chicken-and-egg business and in Battenkill county at large, none of these are suspects in the slaying.

  Horrified, I leaned closer—the word mutilated had electrified me, it was the only thing I could see on the page—but Henry had turned the paper over and begun to study the other side. “Well,” he said, “at least this isn’t a photocopy of a clipping. Odds are he did this at the library, from the school’s copy.”

  “I hope you’re right but that doesn’t mean it’s the only copy.”

  Henry put the paper in the ashtray and struck the match. When he touched it to the edge a bright red seam crawled up the side, then licked suddenly over the whole thing; the words were illumined for a moment before they curled and darkened. “Well,” he said, “it’s too late now. At least you got this one. What happened next?”

  “Well, Marion left. She went next door to Putnam House and came back with a friend.”

  “Who?”

  “I don’t know her. Uta or Ursula or something. One of those Swedish-looking girls who wears fishermen’s sweaters all the time. Anyway, she had a look around, too, and Cloke was just sitting there on the bed smoking a cigarette and looking like his stomach hurt him, and finally she—this Uta or whatever—suggested we go upstairs and tell Bunny’s house chairperson.”

  Francis started laughing. At Hampden, the house chairpeople were who you complained to if your storm windows didn’t work or someone was playing their stereo too loud.

  “Well, it’s a good thing she did or we might still be standing there,” said Charles. “It was that loud, red-haired girl who wears hiking boots all the time—what’s her name? Briony Dillard?”

  “Yes,” I said. Besides being a house chairperson and a vigorous member of the student council, she was also the president of a leftist group off campus, and was always trying to mobilize the youth of Hampden in the face of crushing indifference.

  “Well, she barged right in and got the show on the road,” said Charles. “Took our names. Asked a bunch of questions. Herded Bunny’s neighbors into the hall and asked them questions. Called Student Services, then Security. Security said they would send somebody over—” he lit a cigarette—“but it really wasn’t their jurisdiction, a student disappearance, and that she should call the police. Will you get me another drink?” he said, turning abruptly to Camilla.

  “And they came?”

  Charles, cigarette balanced between his first and middl
e fingers, wiped the sweat from his forehead with the heel of his hand. “Yes,” he said. “Two of them. And a couple of security guards as well.”

  “What did they do?”

  “The security guards didn’t do anything. But the policemen were actually kind of efficient. One of them looked around the room while the other herded everybody in the hall and started asking questions.”

  “What kind of questions?”

  “Who’d seen him last and where, how long he’d been gone, where he might be. It all sounds pretty obvious but that was the first time anyone had even asked.”

  “Did Cloke say anything?”

  “Not much. It was very confused, a lot of people around, most of them dying to tell what they knew, which was nothing. No one paid any attention to me at all. This lady who’d come down from Student Services kept trying to butt in, acting very officious and saying it wasn’t a police matter, that the school would handle it. Finally one of the policemen got mad. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘what’s the matter with you people? This boy’s been missing for a solid week and nobody’s even mentioned it till now. This is serious business and if you want my two cents, I think the school may be at fault.’ Well, that really got the lady from Student Services going and then, all of a sudden, the policeman in the room came out with Bunny’s wallet.

  “Everything got very quiet. There was two hundred dollars in it, and all of Bunny’s ID. The policeman who’d found it said, ‘I think we’d better contact this boy’s family.’ Everyone started whispering. The lady from Student Services got very white and said she’d go up to her office and get Bunny’s file immediately. The policeman went with her.

  “By this time the hall was absolutely mobbed. They’d trickled in from outdoors and were hanging around to see what was going on. The first policeman told them to go home and mind their own business, and Cloke slid away in the confusion. Before he left, he pulled me aside and told me again not to mention that drug business.”

  “I hope you waited until you were told you could leave.”

  “I did. It wasn’t much longer. The policeman wanted to talk to Marion, and he told me and this Uta we could go home once he’d taken our names and stuff. That was about an hour ago.”

 
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