“Max Fairbanks,” Max Fairbanks said, “you’re a bad boy.” The milky blue eyes that gazed softly back at him in the bathroom mirror were understanding, sympathetic, even humorous; they forgave the bad boy.
Max Fairbanks had been in the business of forgiving Max Fairbanks, forgiving his indiscretions, his peccadilloes, his little foibles, for a long long time. He was in his midsixties now, having been born somewhere and sometime—somewhere east of the Rhine, probably, and sometime in the middle of the nineteen thirties, most likely; not a good combination—and somewhere and sometime in his early years he’d learned that a gentle word not only turneth away wrath, it can also turneth away the opponent’s head just long enough to crush it with a brick. Smiles and brutality in a judicious mix; Max had perfected the recipe early, when the stakes were at their highest, and had seen no reason for adjustment in the many successful years since.
As with so many self-made men, Max had begun by marrying money. He wasn’t Max Fairbanks yet, not back then, the century in its fifties and he in his twenties, but he’d long since stopped being his original self. Had there ever been loving parents who had given this child a name, their own plus another, no one by the 1950s knew anything about them, including Max, who, having found himself in London, called himself Basil Rupert, and soon made himself indispensable to a brewer’s daughter named Elsie Brenstid. Brenstid p`ere, named Clement for some reason, had found young Basil Rupert far more resistable than his daughter had, until Basil demonstrated just how the Big B Brewery’s company-owned pubs could be made to produce considerably more income with just the right applications of cajolery and terror.
The marriage lasted three years, producing twin girls and an extremely satisfactory divorce settlement for Basil, Elsie being by then ready to pay anything to get away from her husband. Basil took this grubstake off to Australia, and by the time the ship landed he had somehow become a native Englishman called Edward Wizmick, from Devon.
Success stories are boring. On that basis, Max Fairbanks was today the most boring of men, having piled success upon success over a span of four decades covering five continents. The occasional setback—no, not even that; deceleration was the word—such as the current Chapter Eleven nonsense in the United States hardly counted at all, was barely a blip on the screen.
And it was certainly not going to keep Max from enjoying himself. In his long-ago childhood, he had come too close to being snuffed out too many times, in too many squalid alleys or half-frozen marshes, to want to deny himself any pleasure that this life-after-(near)death might offer.
For instance. One minor irritation within the minor irritation of the Chapter Eleven was that Max was not supposed to avail himself of the beach house in Carrport. The cleaning staff could still come in once a week to maintain the place, but other than that it was supposed to be shut off and sealed until the Chapter Eleven arrangement had been satisfactorily concluded. But in that case, what about Miss September?
Ah, Miss September; Tracy Kimberly to all who love her. The minute Max saw her pubic hair in Playboy he knew he had to have her for his own, temporarily. The problem, of course, was Mrs. Fairbanks, the fair Lutetia, Max’s fourth and final wife, the one he would grow old with (slowly), the one who had several hundreds of millions of dollars in Max’s assets in her own name, for reasons the accountants understood. Lutetia could be counted on to act with discretion so long as Max acted with discretion, which meant there were only certain specific venues in which he could hope to run his fingers through that soft and silky hair, one of them not being the apartment in Manhattan. But Tracy Kimberly, in avid pursuit of a career as an entertainment journalist, lived in Manhattan, and it would be even less discreet for Max to travel great distances with her; for instance, in airplanes.
Hence, the Carrport house, in the bathroom of which, in postcoital warmth, Max Fairbanks yet again forgave himself all; the adultery, the breaking of the Chapter Eleven pact, everything. (Had a judge not refused him access to his own beach house, Max might very well have taken the pneumatic Tracy and her feathery hair to a nice West Fifty-ninth Street hotel, in a suite overlooking Central Park, with room service to provide the champagne. But when one was supposed to have been dead and discarded and forgotten by the age of ten, when one had been intended by fate to be a brief flicker, no more than another minor piece of roadside litter on the highway of history, then there was no greater pleasure in this afterlife than doing what you’ve been told specifically not to do. What were they gonna do? Kill him?)
Because of the legal situation, and also because it was more sentimental, Max and Tracy were getting by with minimal illumination this evening. “I wanna learn Braille,” he had said, in his colloquial and unaccented English, as he’d first leaned over her in the living room downstairs. Later, upstairs, the hall light that automatically switched itself on every evening as a deterrent to burglars had been their only source of light, and it had been enough. And now, ready to leave the bathroom, he first switched off its glittery lights before opening the door and reentering the smooth dimness of the master bedroom, where Tracy lay like an 'eclair atop the black silk sheet. “Mmm,” he murmured.
Tracy moved, smiling, her teeth agleam in the gloaming. “Hi,” she breathed, and moved again.
Max put one knee on the bed—silk is surprisingly cold, and not as romantic as many would like to think—and leaned forward, smiling at the charming brooch of Tracy’s navel. Then he stopped. His head lifted. He listened.
She blinked. She whispered, “What is it?”
The 'eclair became a snowbank: “A wife?”
“A burglar, I think,” Max whispered, and reached for the bedside drawer where he kept the gun.