by Gwen Tuinman
Walter Connelly grasped a wooden leg in one hand and a carved foot in the other, with little notion as to how he might put them back together. Applause rising from Second Avenue seduced him to lean through the studio window. One story below, a small crowd cheered the arduous embrace of a young serviceman and his girl. Love followed closely on the heels of war.
“Focus, Connelly!” Maximilian Harris balanced on one foot in the centre of the room while his left pant leg dangled beneath him.
“Yes sir,” Walter replied.
“I’ve got you, Darling.” Leona Harris shored up her husband’s swaying bulk. Her aquiline nose wrinkled as she plucked crumbs from his greying beard.
“Minutes away from shooting my book cover, that damned contraption snaps like a toothpick.” He glared at Walter. “The author of Maximilian Harris: Tiger Hunter must be restored to his illustrious form.”
“The camera will never see you sans pied. Walter can fix anything. He’s very good with his hands.” Behind Max’s shoulder, Leona mouthed, “I want you.”
Walter’s groin ignited at the recollection of their romantic liaisons. A loud gasp soon extinguished his musing.
“Where’s my tiger?” Max pointed at the vacant stage waiting on the photo set.
“Oh Maxie, I’ve taken care of everything. It should arrive any minute.” Leona bit her lip. “Isn’t the backdrop grand, Darling? The artist painted the Russian sky beautifully.”
“I entrusted arrangements to you and this quaking eunuch. Look at the result.” Max’s jowl shook. “No tiger and a stair climb ending in a busted foot.”
Leona edged away from Max and fingered the strand of pearls resting against her collarbone. A flicker of disdain crossed her face.
When Max wobbled, Walter offered an arm. “Sir, I can’t reattach the foot without tools.”
“Might I suggest wearing the leg regardless? The draping from the tiger stage will camouflage the absence of your shoe.”
Max stared out from under his bovine brow and grunted.
Walter slid the leather leg brace over the knee and waited while Max wedged his stump into the socket.
“I’ll borrow a telephone from the bakery downstairs. Perhaps I can learn the whereabouts of our tiger deliveryman, Mr. McDermott.” She removed a compact from her purse and checked her lipstick.
Max huffed. “Bloody Irishman’s probably drunk somewhere.”
A hand gripped Walter’s shoulder as he laced up the brace.
“Don’t vilify Mr. McDermott.” Leona’s penciled brows knit together. “He’s been more dependable than the younger couriers you’ve sampled. Don’t you agree, Darling?”
“Connelly, fetch my bearskin coat,” Max said. “And bring my rifle for the photograph.”
Colour rose in Walter’s face as Leona’s heels clicked into the hallway and down the stairs. She can’t possibly love this brute. He hefted the coat from its box while Max peg legged his way to the set.
“Has the photographer arrived?” Max enquired.
Walter stepped to the window. “There’s a woman getting out of a green Studebaker.”
“She’s here!” Max rocked into position in front of the tiger stage. “Hurry, Connelly.”
Walter laid the rifle on the stage, then held the coat open while Max shoved his arms into the sleeves. The fur hood rose up the back of Max’s head and hugged his face as if to swallow him.
“Women’s knickers drop around their ankles when they lay eyes on Maximilian Harris in this coat. It’s an aphrodisiac, I tell you.” Max widened his stance and pressed a fist into either side of his waist. “Connelly, remember your plan.”
Pompous ass. “Yes sir.” Walter concealed Max’s peg leg behind the draping.
It vexed him that Max hadn’t acknowledged the painted backdrop. After all, he’d sifted through realms of tiger hunt photos to assemble reference images for the artist.
“Do you approve?” Walter finally asked.
Max sniffed. “It’s passable.”
Walter’s stomach contracted into a knot.
“I rather like it,” a female voice said from the doorway. “It’ll translate nicely on film.”
The woman crossed to the centre of the studio with a camera case slung over one shoulder and a tripod folded under her opposite arm.
“Mina!” Max stretched his arms toward her. “You’re even more beautiful than when we last met.”
“Good morning, Mr. Harris.” She set her case on the floor and smiled at Walter while she extended the legs of the tripod. “Mina Lang. And you are?”
“Walter Connelly, personal assistant.” He regarded her porcelain skin and the blond curls at her temple. Miss Lang was easy on the eyes but she couldn’t hold a candle to his Leona.
“Maximilian Harris: Tiger Hunter,” Max said. His lips pursed when Miss Lang continued readying her camera. “For two days, I tracked that man eater through the Anik Mountains…” He paused to ogle her shapely profile. “Without sustenance, I might add.”
“Where’s your tiger now?” she asked.
“A slight delay in transport…”
At that precise moment, Leona returned to the studio wearing a sullen expression.
“My photographer, Miss Lang, has arrived,” Max told her.
“We met on the street.” Leona sighed.
“News about my tiger?”
“No answer at Mr. McDermott’s house. He’s surely on his way.”
“What’s in your hand?”
Leona glanced in Miss Lang’s direction. “I did some shopping.” She raised a bottle of raspberry schnapps and pulled a shot glass from her purse.
“Mrs. Harris,” Max said reproachfully.
“Just taking the edge off.” Leona turned to Miss Lang as she opened the bottle. “He worries about me,” she whispered.
Walter rubbed the back of his neck as Leona downed the first shot.
Miss Lang folded her jacket over her camera case and smoothed her blouse; Max sucked in his breath and Leona poured a second drink.
“You’ve undoubtedly noticed my bearskin coat,” Max said, lifting his chin. “I wrestled the beast. Killed it myself.”
Miss Lang returned a patient smile before addressing Leona. “You have a Mona Lisa smile, Mrs. Harris.”
“Really?” Leona sipped her drink.
“How about a few shots with your husband while we wait for the tiger.”
Max’s eyes clouded.
“Well of course,” Leona replied in a husky voice.
Wait! What’s happening here? “Allow me, Mrs. Harris.” Walter rushed to escort her onto the set behind Max. He leaned close to her ear and whispered, “I love you. Leave with me now.”
“Walter, you crack me up.”
Slack-jawed and disillusioned, he shuffled to the back of the studio.
“I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre just before the war broke out. Unimpressively small.” Max shook his head. “Now The Battle of Alexander at Issus, that’s a painting.”
“Honestly, Maxie, you’re a clanging cymbal,” Leona said. “What’s your opinion, Miss Lang?”
“I’ve seen both -”
“In Paris and Berlin?” Max beamed.
“Paris and Munich, actually.” Mina snapped two photos before continuing. “The Alexander painting is magnificent but somewhat dishonest.”
Leona laughed. “How so, dear girl?”
“The mountain rise in the background is a pure fiction. The artist made it up.”
“There’s a lot of that going around,” Leona raised her glass to Max then swilled its contents.
“Careful, Mrs. Harris,” Max replied.
“As for the Mona Lisa …” Miss Lang paused to adjust her aperture.
Walter seized his opportunity to interject. “The smile covers her sadness.”
Gaiety vanished from Leona’s face.
Miss Lang cast a curious glance at Walter then hastily asked, “Mr. Harris, what was it like – fighting the bear?”
Max brightened. “His claws were straight razors and his fetid breath scorched my cheek.”
“Extraordinary,” she replied.
Leona chuckled and poured a third drink.
“Something I said?” Miss Lang laced her fingers over the camera.
“No,” Leona began, “it’s just that …”
“Another time, perhaps.”
Max smiled mischievously. “Still single, Mina?”
Leona pitched her shot glass at the wall and blurted, “He bought the damn coat at a store!”
Atta a girl, Leona. Walter’s eyes cut to Max.
“You’re insane!” Max said.
Leona thrust her chin out. “Stalingrad, 1926.”
“Connelly, do something with her!”
“Maxie told me to remove the tags and stitch up the lining. I’ll show you my red thread inside the collar.” Leona made a grab for the coat.
“That’s not necessary,” Miss Lang said.
Walter strode past Max and looked beseechingly at Leona, but she only blinked and shook her head. When he turned away, Miss Lang offered an empathetic smile.
“Mr. Harris, I’m needed across town for another photo shoot.”
“Don’t leave now!” Max said in a fluster. “Mrs. Harris! Where. Is. My. Tiger?”
Leona drank from the bottle and wiped a hand across her mouth. “Waltz over here and I’ll tell you.”
“Oh yes. You haven’t a foot to stand on!” Leona yanked the draping away from her husband’s peg leg. “The great Maximilian Harris is incapable of tracking tigers. He hires locals to tromp through the mountains while he sits by a campfire.”
“Leona,” he gasped.
“Your tiger’s on a plane over Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Albuquerque, New Mexico; or Omaha, Nebraska.”
“I instructed Mr. McDermott to drive the tiger to LaGuardia Airport this morning. He required a shipping destination so I gave him the addresses of your last three mistresses and said pick one.”
“There’s no book cover without my tiger,” Max sputtered. “How could you?”
“Leona, you don’t have to answer,” Walter said.
“I did it for love. Darling, you’re everything to me,” Leona said, “even without your tiger or this book.”
Mina Lang gathered her things to leave. “Contact me, Mr. Harris, if the tiger returns.” When Max threw her a kiss, she hurried to the door and pulled it shut behind her.
“Why aren’t I enough?” Leona wept.
“Return to the hick town I rescued you from. Your whining sickens me.”
Leona’s back straightened and her eyes narrowed.
No, no, no. Walter crossed his fingers and edged towards the door.
“I’m enough for him,” she said pointing at Walter.
Max’s mouth flopped open.
“We’ve made mad passionate love on nine occasions. Ten if you include the time in the gas station lavatory.” She turned apologetically to Walter. “Does it count if we did it standing up?”
A deep roar escaped Max as he reached for his rifle.
Walter lunged for the door.
“Stand still, you Judas!” Max stared down the barrel.
After the doorknob broke off in his hand, Walter scrambled over the windowsill. He hung by his fingertips, frantically gauging the drop, just as Mina Lang exited the building.
Walter giggled when a metallic click sounded overhead. No bullets.
Max leaned outside. “I’ll gut you like a fish!”
“Oh Maxie, you do love me.” Leona clapped her hands.
“Hang on,” Miss Lang shouted.
Walter’s fingers began to slip. One hand grabbed Max’s cuff then the other latched on higher up his sleeve.
“Release my bearskin,” Max said in a murderous tone.
“I can’t!” Walter glimpsed Miss Lang’s Studebaker backing onto the sidewalk directly beneath him.
Lipstick smears circled Leona’s mouth and mascara ran down her cheeks. “Forget about him Maxie, he’s just a kid,” Leona cried. “It didn’t mean anything.” She spread her arms wide and buried her face in Max’s coat. “I could never love him the way I love you.”
Something shattered inside Walter like the shot glass against the wall.
“It’s safe to let go now,” Miss Lang called out.
Walter counted to three, then relaxed his grip and dropped onto the roof of her automobile. The metal crumpled under his weight.
“Are you alright?” She offered a hand to help him down.
“I’ve fared better than your car.” Walter swept the hair from his forehead and straightened his bow tie.
“It can easily be repaired,” she said, “unlike a broken heart.”
“Thank you, Miss Lang. I’m beyond embarrassed.” He looked up at the vignette in the second story window where Max stroked his coat sleeve and Leona sulked at his back.
“Find someone who is everything the Harrises are not, and you’ll have found real love,” Miss Lang said gently.
Walter smiled at her earnest nature. “I remain ever hopeful, Mina.”
(You can read the story behind the story here.)