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  1. #11

    Runaway

    RUNAWAY

    The following tale comes to you as a result of the discovery of a malfunction in my filing system – the notes were lost for a while, having fallen through a slit in one of those brown-paper concertina things I removed from a drawer and bundled up with an eye to posterity. If for no better reason than that the case came early in my PI career, I think it’s worth recording. Here we go.

    The parking area was a battleground where grass and weeds were trying to wrest control from a miserly scattering of gravel over hard-packed earth. Nature was having a tough time, but it never gives up, does it? I’d heard that trees were poking through the roof of the old Amazonian opera house in Manaus.

    After entering and stopping my car nose-in to the perimeter fence – chicken wire, three feet high, strung between rickety wooden posts – I thought better of it and reversed forty yards to the opposite boundary, so that I could get out head first if need be. In this part of the country, one just didn’t know.

    It wasn’t immediately clear to me why there was a fence at all. Nobody else for miles around had bothered with such demarcation and there was room enough in all directions, especially as most of the nearby lots were obviously vacant. Then I thought of my own background and felt that I understood.

    Having been west of the Pond for only a short time, I was still part-conditioned to the British environment, where people are very conscious of their own space. Well, since most of them have such a limited amount of it, they have to be. Try parking as a visitor in the UK suburbs. If you are observant enough, you will see the odd curtain twitching. Maybe the owner here had that same territorial mindset.

    On the whole, I’d have preferred to be elsewhere. In fact, I hadn’t really wanted to get out of bed that morning. I’d woken from an entertaining dream, the end of which I would have liked to see. Somehow, I never get to the concluding bit.

    I have a lot of these nocturnal excursions, which I’d heard is typical of those who don’t usually travel much. I’m no expert in such matters, but was told that people who get around tend to have dreamless sleep, whereas the stay-at-home types don’t. Perhaps it’s some kind of compensation. On this occasion, my night-time adventure had me bounding across a vast flat expanse of asphalt, one hand holding a bunch of daffodils, the other a briefcase. I was leaping oddly, as though negotiating a series of hurdles of varying heights, spaced a yard apart, though I could see that there were no obstacles of any kind. It was strange. Behind me, in hot pursuit, was an elderly man in vice-admiral’s full-dress uniform, plus two loops of gold braid dangling from his right shoulder. He displayed enough scrambled egg to cover a pound of toast and an array of jingling medals that threatened to capsize him. I’ve seen Christmas trees with less decoration. He was brandishing a cucumber in his right hand. Sigmund, if you’re out there, tell me what this means.

    I once kept a record of my dreams over a four-month period, in an effort to find a pattern. In case you don’t already know, this is called oneiromancy. That information isn’t a tribute to my erudition. It came from a friend. Having failed to detect any symbolism, I concluded that dreaming is the mind’s way of shedding unwanted baggage while in free-wheel. I don’t insist on this and if it’s an illusion, I hope that nobody will destroy it, as I like to live in comfort with my interpretations of life’s meaning.

    I’d taken a late breakfast – no scrambled egg, in case you’re wondering – then bumbled around for a while in the way one does at times, especially when facing a distasteful task. Finally, I’d got moving. After all, I was a private investigator, following a lead which had steered me to a local eating house of, I’d been told, some notoriety. My activities were normally limited to my adopted city and its environs, but I was champing on the bit in this case and had tracked the fellow concerned for hundreds of miles. Maybe that doesn’t quite fit my dream theory, but I’m prepared to view it as the exception that proves the rule. Also, the man was one of my few genuine fugitives – some absconders want to be found – so I was particularly keen to nab him.

    The chase had been tortuous, but I was sustained all along by thinking that he could run but couldn’t hide. I realised later how fatuous that was. In a country of three million-odd square miles, of course he could hide. My respects to the great Joe Louis – I usually associate him with the famous comment – but he was thinking of a boxing ring, not half a continent.

    I’d been this far south twice before, on both occasions getting an uneasy, apprehensive feeling. It was the same this time. How can I put it? Call me irrational if you will, but I had a sense that not many local eyebrows would be raised if a busload of vacationers were to vanish, permanently. Well, there would be sporting encounters and other weighty matters to be considered. The thought was disquieting. Yet, I was on a case and was supposed to be intrepid.

    It was midday and stove-hot. I got out of the car, which like my present one was elderly and not worth describing. There were eight other vehicles in the lot, the only saloon, or sedan if you will, being a mid-blue Oldsmobile. The remaining seven were pickup trucks in various stages of dilapidation, all dusty and mud-caked. Apart from their less than pristine condition, they had one thing in common – each had a gun-rack in the cab and every rack held a rifle. No shotguns here – this was marksman country.

    After a brief glance at the two ramshackle wooden outbuildings, I concentrated on the main structure, which matched its surroundings. Maybe it had been purpose-built, but to me it looked like an oversized converted railroad car. At that stage of my induction to American ways I didn’t appreciate that some of these places had – and for all I know still have – something of a cult status in parts of the US.

    The thing was about forty-five by twelve feet, rather over seven feet high and, it seemed to me, made of the same stuff as a standard mobile home. To my mind it should have been called ‘Joe’s Diner’, or possibly ‘Floe’s’. The owner had settled for just ‘Diner’, in foot-high neon – switched off at the time – fastened midway along the roof. There was a door in the end wall – are they called walls? – nearest to me and another in the middle of the frontage. Several dents in the metalwork indicated proceedings of which I was surely better off remaining ignorant. Perhaps it was just my state of mind, or maybe it was because I’d been told to be wary of the spot. Whatever the reason, I didn’t like what I saw. I tried to work out whether it should be classified as mean or dingy. Why not both?

    I entered by the door at the end. Directly ahead of me was a narrow aisle. To my left was the stool-lined counter, running along three-quarters of the interior. To the right, there was a row of eight tables with tubular steel legs and red Formica tops. At each table were four matching chairs, most of the vinyl seats and backrests scuffed and knife-sliced – easy to note because there were no customers on that side. At the far end of the unit there was a door to the toilet facilities. The smell of hot food – chilli con carne, I thought – just managed to overwhelm those of coffee and tobacco smoke. It came from one of the four large containers atop gas burners behind the counter.

    Of the ten seats at the counter, numbers one to seven were occupied by what seemed to be the pickup brigade, all drinking beer. Three were smoking cigarettes, two chewed toothpicks, one was tucking in to peanuts from a small glass bowl, of which several were lined up. The other fellow had no immediately obvious addictions other than alcohol. I’d never before seen such an assemblage of red meat, bib overalls and wide-brimmed hats – oh, and one baseball cap. Did these fellows ever doff their headgear?

    As I walked in, there was some low muttering going on. It sounded like a meeting of primitive tribesmen. My appearance induced silence.

    Stools eight and ten were vacant. Number nine supported a man wearing a charcoal suit, white shirt, black narrow-brimmed felt hat and dark glasses. With chin cupped in hands, he was hunched over the counter in an odd way, staring down at an empty bowl. Mr Blue Car was the obvious inference.

    Behind the counter was a big man, around six-three, and if there was any change out of two hundred and forty pounds, it would have fitted in a matchbox. A lot of that bulk was close to the equator, under a short white apron. I revised my thinking about the ownership. This man had to be a Jake.

    Messrs Pickup turned their heads to me in unison. It was weird, as though some puppeteer had pulled a string connecting them at the neck. ‘All together now boys, ninety degrees left.’ There wasn’t a flicker of emotion in any of the faces. Six round red ones – the seventh was thinner and made of old tan leather – stared at me. Nobody spoke or nodded. The string was pulled again and the heads turned back.

    This reaction to my arrival was unnerving. I got the feeling that a telepathic current was flowing through the seven brains, causing them to wonder how it would be if they dismembered me and added my parts to the pot – gradually, mind you, say over a week, just to eke out the rations without spoiling the flavour. If that seems ridiculous to you, sitting and reading in comfort, go there and experience it. The ambience in some of those places is eerie. Maybe the fact that I was an alien of at least two sorts heightened my perception. I looked around and got some small comfort from the absence of burning crosses. Yet, there was that white apron. I wondered what shape it would be if Jake opened it out. Hooded?

    I summoned up the sinews and walked along to the far-end stool, watched by the piggy eyes behind the counter. “Hi, Jake,” I said, as airily as I could manage.

    He glowered. “Who’s Jake?”

    “I thought maybe you were.”

    “I’m Phil.”

    “Ah,” I said. “Better make it coffee then.”

    He shook his head and poured me a mugful – no cups or saucers here – flicking a forefinger at the milk and sugar containers a yard to my right. Not a chatterbox, it seemed, and not one to trouble himself with the preferences of casual customers. In my hometown, his kind usually asked about black or white and sugar or not.

    I’d no intention of being in this place any longer than necessary, so flashed my PI credentials, which didn’t appear to impress Phil as much as I’d hoped. “So, you’re Cyril Potts and you’re a gumshoe,” he grunted. “What do you want?”

    “Have you seen this man?” I said, handing him a three by five, head and shoulders photo of my quarry.

    He glanced at it. “No. Who is he?”

    “Stoops Pellegrino.”

    “What’s he done?”

    “He kills people. Last two with a gun, but at heart he’s a chainsaw man.” This was an essay in advanced embroidery on my part, designed to grab attention. In fact, my man had no known record of violence. He’d supposedly stolen an alleged racehorse. I use the words advisedly, since (a) the theft part was unclear and (b) the windbroken old plug concerned hadn’t had a competitive outing for years and would have had difficulty in finishing a race on the day he’d started it, unless the off had been well before noon. He was practically a family heirloom.

    Nobody was sure whether or why Pellegrino had done the deed, though the records showed that the apartment block where he was a tenant had been bulldozed by the property company owned by my client’s late husband. That client – the nag’s owner – was an elderly lass, whose daffiness was exceeded only by her wealth. She’d offered me double pay if I would clear my desk and get cracking. A clear desk being no novelty, I’d cracked as required.

    “Takes all sorts,” said Jake . . . sorry, Phil, then he flipped the snap to Pickup Number One, who stabbed it to the counter with a thumb that could have stopped a charging rhino. He looked at it for two seconds, shook his head and slid it to the next man – Leatherface – who gave it even less of his valuable time. So it went on until Number Seven skimmed the thing to Phil, who handed it back to me. “Nope,” he said. “And mister, maybe sometime I’ll hire you to locate my wife. First, I don’t want her found and second, I don’t think you could find your face with both hands.”

    “I may be mediocre,” I retorted, “but my charged are modest. Anyway, why the smart crack?”

    He rolled his eyes upwards to indicate that I just didn’t get it, whatever it was, and began to turn away, then was struck by another thought. Swinging back, he thrust a cliff of chin across the counter – I felt like a man going under the bows of a battleship. “Say, you a Limey?” he growled. Was it a question or a threat? Either way, I didn’t like that back-of-the-throat sound. It reminded me of my uncle Alf’s wolfhound. That beast had kept the old lad company for three years before biting off his left ear in a playful moment.

    “I was,” I said, “but I’m all right now.”

    He didn’t laugh. Maybe he’d already heard that one. Maybe everybody had. Not being much of a socialiser, I didn’t know. “I ran into some Limeys once.” He was still in grunt mode and got a fair amount of feeling into his words, leaving me to guess what he thought about my original compatriots, then he turned to resume what I supposed was his main occupation of doing precious little and, as W. S. Gilbert would have observed, doing it very well. I thought about getting my mad up, but in that kind of humidity it’s just too hard, and anyway, I was well outblubbered.

    While paying attention to Phil and the other customers, I’d had my back turned to Blue Car. I’d intended to show him the photo, but he forestalled me by getting off his perch and heading for the toilet. He’d almost made it when I turned in time to get a quick peek at him. His head, shoulders and upper torso were bowed forward in a way that indicated some deformity. Well, well, well.

    Without speaking to anyone, I left my coffee, went outside and walked to the end of the unit, thinking that Blue Car might have had some notion of slipping out by way of a window. Not so. By stepping back and forth, I managed to keep watch on both possible exits from the toilet for two minutes, then my man poked his head through the doorway, checked that I wasn’t in the place and returned to his seat. That posture must have been troublesome to him.

    I went back inside, marched past Phil and the pickup chaps. Reaching Blue Car, I took off his hat and glasses, dropped them onto the counter and gave him a wide grin. “Right, Stoops,” I said. “I’m taking you in, and I’ll trouble you to hand over any hardware you may have.”

    Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d left my gun in the car. I did that too often and was struck by the notion that I should be a little more careful in such matters. However, my speed of thought was equal to the occasion and I continued swiftly: “In case you’ve any idea about busting out of here, the place is under the surveillance of two boys who aren’t as nice as me. If you try to leave alone, they’ll blow you away – and they won’t chat with you first.” That was a piece of ad lib bunkum, and it worked.

    Pellegrino was not rated as ‘armed and dangerous’ but confounding his job description he fumbled in his right coat pocket, hauling out a dinky little palm-sized shooter. He dropped it onto the counter, then wound a hand around his back, producing a nasty-looking .38 with a two-inch barrel. He tossed that down, too. Then he bent to his right leg and from somewhere around the top of his sock, he took out a knife, the like of which I’d sooner not see again. Finally, he dragged a blackjack from his left coat pocket, adding that to the pile.

    “Well, well,” I said, slapping a hand over the guns. “I didn’t know you were quite so interested in triggernometry.”

    “Trigowhat?”

    “Never mind. That’s too subtle for the likes of you. Have you finished?”

    “That’s it. Say, where’s your iron, anyway?”

    “Right here.” I gave him my supercilious grin as I picked up his .38 and pointed it at him.

    “Hell,” he said. “You got the drop on me. You mean all this time you weren’t packing?”

    “No.”

    “Why not?”

    “Just one of those things. I had to hand it back. Couldn’t afford the repayments. I pick ‘em up as I go along.”

    “Huh, wise guy, too,” he groaned. Then he leaned towards me, lowering his voice. “You got me fair and square this time. I liked the build-up about the chainsaw and all, but how about you don’t spread this around? Wouldn’t look good to my friends if it came out that I was all tooled up and got took by a guy who wasn’t even carryin’.”

    “I’ll do what I can, but no promises,” I said. “Come on, Stoops, let’s drift.”

    “Okay,” he replied. “I’ve nothing else in mind right now.”

    At that point, I was assailed by another barrage of thought. Might my cavalier approach get me on the wrong side of the local constabulary? This was the last place a man should pick to wind up there. And wasn’t there something about extradition between states and if there was, did it apply to private operators? I’d never pursued anyone else out of my home patch, so hadn’t bothered to check.

    Fortunately, Stoops didn’t seem to have any views on the subject. With the exception of a minor squawk about my fictitious associates and another concerning our leaving his car behind – we rectified that later – he was docile all the way home, where the old girl who’d employed me acquitted him in her living room, without bringing in the gendarmes. Well, she was eccentric.

    With Stoops in the lead, we left the diner, passing the suddenly interested pickup boys. As we reached the door, I smirked at my pal behind the counter. “Not with both hands eh, Jake,” I said, tickled pink that I was crushing him for his nasty remark about my ability.

    He gave me a weary look. “It’s Phil, remember?”

    “Oh, yeah, Phil.”
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 5th, 2019 at 03:57 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  2. #12

    Poundage

    POUNDAGE

    Having just gone through an epic battle, I was exhausted. No matter that the real encounter had taken place decades earlier, its dramatic effect was in my view undiminished. Let me enlarge. To my left, on the nearside corner of my desk, were three books on the only board game that has ever interested me. One of the volumes was a great effort entitled ‘The Chess Companion’, by Irving Chernev. Being too cheap to buy the works, I’d borrowed them from the library. Sorry, boys, I should have sprung for the price of all three and was ashamed. I still haven’t forked out, and remain guilt-ridden.

    Among other delights, Chernev’s book presented some remarkable games, and included an effort to select the greatest of all battles. As an aficionado, I had to agree with the author’s verdict that the tussle between Alekhine and Bogolyubov, which took place at Hastings, England, in 1922 – would be hard to beat. There have been many examples of brilliancies in which one party trounced the other, but to anyone seeking a titanic struggle, let me recommend this breathtaker.

    I have established over the years that the chess world is not noted for producing modest people. To take the two I’ve just mentioned, there was an incident when Alekhine was asked to produce his passport at some border post. His response: “I need no passport. I am Alekhine.” His opponent in the above-mentioned clash once said: “When I am white, I win because I am white, and when I am black, I win because I am Bogolyubov.” So, you’ll see how reticent these two lads were.

    You will probably also gather that I was not too busy at the time. It was four o’clock on a Monday afternoon and I was thinking of playing the game over again, when I had a visitor. He didn’t waste time – the outer door had still not swung shut when the inner one opened, no knock. It occurred to me that I might consider some intermediate obstacle – a barbed wire entanglement, perhaps. Well, big business people talk about barriers to entry, don’t they? I suppose that’s different.

    The incomer was a man in, I guessed, his late thirties. To be honest, at first sight I didn’t like anything about him. He was around five-ten, wearing light-blue overalls and heavy dark-brown workboots. He had an unruly mop of black hair – no headgear – and was burly, with wide shoulders and a chest I that reckoned was at least forty-five inches, unexpanded. He also had a straggly black moustache. Everything about him exuded aggression. His face was pock-marked from what I imagined was the residue of acne. He was sweating a little and breathing heavily, and even at a distance of six feet, didn’t smell too good.

    “Don Burrows,” he grunted.

    Was that an introduction, or a job description? Maybe of a tunneller? You might admit it was susceptible of more than one interpretation. Having summoned immediate hostility toward this character, I went for obtuse. “Does he?” I said.

    “What?”

    “You said Don Burrows. Are you telling me who you are, or what somebody does for a living?”

    He stepped up to the desk, leaned across and glared at me. From that range, I liked him even less than before. “You some kinda wise guy?” he growled.

    “Wisdom is relative,” I said. “Compared with some people, I’m quite sagacious. I don’t think I’d come out too well against Aristotle or Descartes.”

    “Man, you got a funny way of talking,” he said.

    “I work at it,” I replied. “Did you want something?”

    He stood back, seeming to simmer down slightly, which is to say I couldn’t quite see smoke coming out of his ears. “Like I told you,” he said, “I’m Don Burrows. I drive a truck for Povey’s Animal Feeds.”

    “Ah,” I said, “that explains it.”

    “Explains what?”

    I gave him a knowing smile. “Just one of my little ways,” I said. “I like to guess people’s occupations. You know, like the man at 221B, Baker Street.” I don’t know why I threw in that last bit, as it seemed to me unlikely that Mr Burrows would be familiar with the address of Conan Doyle’s master sleuth. He shrugged, evidently not wanting an explanation of my comment. Just as well, since in my prevailing mood I didn’t have one that wasn’t offensive, didactic or both.

    He leaned over the desk again, giving me a whiff of breath which did nothing to help his cause. In fairness to him, the offending smell was of second-hand onions, not booze. “Say, are you really a detective?”

    “Yes, I am. At times I detect like mad. Then again, I have my off-days. Sometimes I couldn’t detect an earthquake from the epicentre.” At that point, it occurred to me that my flippancy, though entertaining me, wasn’t doing a lot for this budding relationship. After all, the man might turn out to be a client – such people had been known to call occasionally. Bearing that in mind, I also thought of the state of my in-tray, which was as empty as an election promise, and of the pending file, in the same condition. I wondered how a truthful advert offering my services would read. For all your detecting needs try Cyril Potts. He’s uncouth, snotty and aggressive, but drop in anyway. You might get lucky. Yes, that seemed about right.

    I chastised myself silently for being a lousy salesman and for coming up short in the manners department. True, this fellow gave indications of oafishness, but maybe he knew no better, while I did. It was time for a change of tack. “Look, Mr Burrows,” I said, “obviously we’re both feeling cantankerous. Why don’t you take a seat? Let’s pretend the last two minutes didn’t happen and maybe we can get along.”

    “Okay,” he said, with a big sigh. He thudded down. “I guess maybe I am a little upset. It’s on account of my wife.”

    “Okay,” I said. “Relax and tell me about it.”

    “All right if I smoke?” he said. I nodded, digging an ashtray from a drawer and pushing it his way. He offered me a cigarette which I declined, then he lit up and stretched back, sighing. “She’s been acting real queer lately.”

    “How?”

    “She goes out alone, daytime. She never did that before.”

    “What’s so odd?” I said. “I mean, she’s a grown woman, right? Why shouldn’t she go out?” I could have answered that myself. Being cooped up with this man might not have been an undiluted pleasure. Pipe, slippers and knitting were not the first words that came to mind.

    “Well, it’s like this. She’s thirty-six. We’ve been married for twelve years. We don’t have children and we never did anything separate before. Then it started around two months back. All of a sudden, she took to going out in the afternoons and doing the shopping on her own. We always did that together, evenings or weekends. I asked her about it and she said she just wanted a little variety.” Then he seemed to get quite animated. “Dammit, Cyril . . . okay if I call you that?” I nodded, waving him on. “I’m a decent guy, right? I mean, I provide and all that. Okay, I work hard and maybe I get tired. That’s normal, isn’t it?”

    Not having experienced marital bliss or strife, I didn’t know what, if anything, was normal, but had no intention of letting on. “It sounds sort of average,” I said. “Can you pinpoint anything that might have been a catalyst?”

    “A what?” Again, I should have known better. “I mean, can you think of an incident that might have caused this change in your wife’s behaviour?”

    “No, I can’t – and don’t think I haven’t tried. She’s just gone off the rails.”

    “You said that you’d spoken with her. Did you follow up?”

    Now he became acutely uncomfortable, twisting his hands and fiddling with his fingers, generating a tension that crossed the desk in waves. Amazingly, he kept control of his cigarette. “We don’t talk a lot,” he said. “I did mention it again, just one time. Same result. She won’t say anything except what I told you.”

    I sensed that I was in danger of being dragged into an advisory role for which I felt unsuited. Still, one must try. “Look, Don,” I said – all boys together now – “I’m no expert in these matters, but in my line of work, psychology crops up frequently. I’ve noticed that women often react pretty sharply to what men might consider trivial incidents. I could tell you a few tales that might curl your eyeballs.” This was pure drivel, as I couldn’t have done anything of the sort, but was certain Don wouldn’t pursue it. “Are you quite sure you didn’t do or say some little thing recently that might have started things off?”

    He shrugged again. “None that I can think of, Cyril. And believe me, I’ve tried. I can’t figure it. We never paint the town - I’m mostly too tuckered out for that, and I don’t go for pill-popping to freshen me up. Maybe it’s just that two people get on top of one another after a while.”

    I knew about the dangers of revising a first opinion of any new acquaintance, but had to concede that since he’d cooled off, Don Burrows was making a less unfavourable impression on me than he had at the beginning. Maybe he’d been too worked up when he arrived. And there was no law that said he had to be the essence of urbanity. Also, he’d referred to children rather than kids, the latter term being anathema to me. “I think I’ve got the idea, Don,” I said. “I’ve a lot on, but as it happens, I have a window right now.” Window indeed. I had Crystal Palace. “A couple of days might do it.”

    We went into the matter of my fees, in which respect he surprised me by retaining his relative equanimity. “I get it,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t work, so you have to make up for it.” I was . . . well . . . appreciative. He went on: “I’m not a rich man, Cyril, but I might be able to go for three or four days. If that isn’t enough, we’ll talk again.”

    I noted his address – a decent enough part of town. “What about a description, or maybe a photo?” I said.

    He scratched his cheek. “I never thought about a picture, but you won’t get her wrong. She’s five-seven and a blonde – I think they call it ash. Kinda normal build, dresses smart, carries herself good and walks fast. Her name’s Helen. That do?”

    Well, it would have to. I agreed to look into the matter, starting early the next day – don’t forget, I was still into Alekhine v Bogolyubov, so my evening was booked and anyway, Burrows had said enough to indicate that night work would be pointless.

    The following morning I called at the office to check my mail, all junk. By ten a.m. I was on duty, with thermos flask and sandwiches – tuna, in case you’re interested. The Burrows lived in a two-storey detached house of average size. A small white hatchback was parked in the driveway.

    Shortly after one in the afternoon, a woman emerged from the house. I sneaked a look through my pocket field glasses. They weren’t top-drawer stuff, but good enough to show me that I was looking at Helen Burrows. The height was about right, as was the striking hair. She wore a pale green dress, plain except for an open white collar. Her shoes were also green, with heels of medium height, and she carried a tan leather handbag. As she walked to the car, I noted that my client was right about her carriage and movements, respectively ramrod straight and brisk. She set out and I followed.

    Helen drove to the middle of town and parked, making a better job of it than I did – some people are so sophisticated. I had to hurry to see her walk down a side-street, push open a door and disappear. I moved into casual mode, sauntering along to where she’d vanished. There was a brass plaque on the door, proclaiming the place Carrie’s Calisthenics. So, a workout club. Seemed innocent enough.

    I skulked, which isn’t as easy as it might seem – surveillance work can be hard on the concentration. It’s like listening to a weather forecast, in that one starts as keen as mustard, but the attention span is limited. I mean, while they’re harping on about what’s already happened, one loses interest in the upcoming scenario. I kept slipping away from and back onto the alert, but was in watchful mode when Helen left the place an hour later. Now I got a better look – and what an eyeful. On purely technical grounds, Don Burrows’ description was accurate, but his bald word-sketch was well short of doing justice to his wife. If nothing else, this commission was going to be a visual delight.

    I followed Helen to the nearest supermarket where she stocked up with groceries, then tailed her home. I hung around until Don arrived. Time to call it a day. Driving back to my place, I entertained myself with the thought that Helen looked exactly like my long-standing concept of a secretary; a dazzling helper and confidante, who would swap witty banter with me as we went through the accounts. Persiflage is good for you. So far, I couldn’t afford such a luxury – I could barely afford myself.

    After replaying the mighty chess joust, I finished a novel I’d started earlier. As usual, the West Coast PI went nonchalantly through hell and high water to get his man. How did they do it? I mean, those chaps managed to maintain their sang-froid, staying laconic, yet high-powered. It humbled me, until I remembered that I was in the land of make-believe. Hah, buster, I thought, try it in real life.

    Wednesday morning, I again went through the near-mindless ritual of checking the postal offerings, then drove off to resume the pleasanter task of observing Helen Burrows. I could hardly believe that I was being paid for this. I’d have been happy to watch her anytime, gratis. Here, you might like to know that I’d changed from tuna to cheese. This time, Helen wore a dark-red blouse, cream skirt and white shoes, again with medium heels. She carried a different handbag, about the same shade as the skirt. The day was largely a re-run of the one before – gym club, shopping at the same place, then back home. I seemed to detect a fleeting glance my way from the lady as she left her last port of call.

    With the exception of another outfit – Helen’s latest choice being a light-blue sweater and black pleated skirt, black shoes and the tan handbag – Thursday started the same way again; exercise, followed by the supermarket run. Then there was a change. My new icon dumped her purchases into the little car. This time she had a trolley, which she returned to the bay, then she went over to the coffee shop, joining another, older woman, grey-haired and dressed in a smart two-piece tweedy costume in beige, with a silky blouse of the about the same shade. The two talked for half an hour, then Helen stood, kissed her companion and left. The other woman stayed put.

    I was, I’m not proud to say, struggling to remain alert as Helen swept along. To get to her vehicle, she had to pass mine. She did her stuff well. Walking quickly, head high, she was seemingly about to pass straight across my line of vision when she turned abruptly and headed my way. There was no point in any attempt at dissimulation – she was upon me too quickly. “Good afternoon, Mr Potts,” she said. The voice was low and calm, with a touch of pseudo-sweetness that I feared boded no good for me.

    What does one do? “Good afternoon ma’am,” I replied. “You seem to have the advantage.”

    “Hardly,” she said, “but if you wish to avoid detection, you’d be better off with an invisible car. It happens that one of my classmates at the gym is with the vehicle licensing people. When I noticed you were following me – incidentally, that wasn’t difficult – I asked her to go out by the back door and check your number plates. So, while you were loitering in the street yesterday – something else you didn’t do very well – she established your identity.”

    The game was up. Naturally, I felt obliged to wriggle, however unconvincingly. “Would you believe I’m a distant admirer?” I said.

    “No, I wouldn’t. I will not ask about the purpose of your behaviour, as you’ve doubtless prepared some lie. Now, will it help if I tell you that you can switch off your meter? I’m going straight home. Please call there again tomorrow morning. Ten o’clock, shall we say?”

    Ah, Potts, you old slyboots. There’s no getting the better of you, is there? It was humiliating, but I hoped I was professional enough to accept the odd reverse. If only I’d been in funds and Helen Burrows had been seeking a job, she might have fulfilled that secretarial role I mentioned – except that being clearly smarter than me, she would most likely have taken over the agency. Life can be so trying.

    Though bruised, I was game to continue the exchange, but Helen wasn’t. After injecting her barbs, she stalked to her car and drove off. I followed, as soon as I’d recovered enough composure to handle my charger.

    On Friday morning I popped into the office at 9.25 on the dot. Half an hour later I was still there, pondering on whether I should contact Don Burrows when he forestalled me by calling in. He was a changed man. Completely clean-shaven and altogether smarter-looking than before, though I noted a plaster on his forehead. In contrast to his first appearance, he seemed subdued. Without waiting for an invitation, he plonked himself onto a chair. “Have a pew, Don,” I said, belatedly. “You seem like a man with news.”

    He passed a hand over his head. “You can say that again,” he said. “We blew it, Cyril.”

    I was relieved about the ‘we’ part. In my book, I’d blown it single-handed, but Don didn’t seem to see it that way. If he wanted to take some of the responsibility, that was all right with me. “You’d better bring me up to date,” I said.

    Don fished out a cigarette, offered me the pack, accepted my head-shake and lit up. “We had it out last night,” he said. “In a way, you’ve been a big help.”

    I didn’t see how, but was more than happy go along with him. “I think I can see that,” I said, “but maybe you’d better give me the details.” Details be damned. I was completely bemused.

    He gave me a rueful grin. “She was all over me last night,” he said. “I had to admit I’d got you to check up on her. She was real flattered. Said it was the first time since we got married that I’d shown some genuine interest.”

    “Yes,” I said. “I had a suspicion that something like that might happen.” Another monstrous lie. Goebbels, are you listening? “But what about the injury?”

    He laughed. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “Everything’s hunky-dory now. Helen just got a little upset. You’ll laugh. She beaned me with a frying pan – cast iron, too. I guess I deserved it.” He seemed quite proud of his wound. “ She told me I should get rid of the moustache. Said it made me look like a gangster.”

    Having been given permission, I did laugh. “If you don’t mind my saying so, I’m inclined to agree with Helen about the facial adornment. You look better without it. But why the fracas?”

    He gave me the upturned palms. “Was just like you said. One of those little things. Seems I made a crack about her weight a couple of months ago. Since then, she’s been trimming back. That’s why she changed her routine. Hell, dames take things serious, don’t they?”

    “Yes, Don,” I said. “Sometimes they do.”
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  3. #13

    Filiality

    FILIALITY

    I was sprawled back in my chair, fiddling with my pipe – empty as always – and contemplating the office ceiling, where a small insect was crawling round the light fixture. I wondered if the creature had any conception of mortality. Probably it was struggling towards a goal of sorts. Did it realise that it might wind up on the floor and get snuffed out accidentally by a passing shoe? A casual mishap within a framework of greater and seemingly random events, one of which could extinguish all of us. Just a twitch of the cosmic tail. A sobering train of thought, you’ll perhaps agree.

    I don’t want to give the impression that the insect was dominating my thinking. What I was really worrying about was why it was that Americans logically pronounce lieutenant as lootenant, whereas many of the other peoples in the Anglosphere pronounce it as leftenant. Possibly I’ve said enough elsewhere to indicate that I was, and am, often troubled by things that don’t bother most people. This one has nagged me for some years. Once, back in England, I consulted the biggest dictionary I could find – a multi-volume job – on the point. Even that authoritative source didn’t satisfy me. It made some interesting suggestions, but admitted that there didn’t seem to be a clear answer.

    Thrown back upon my own resources, I’d wondered whether it might be that the original lieutenant was to be found at the chief’s left hand? But if so, he wouldn’t have been the right-hand man, would he? And there’s no such thing as a rightenant, is there? It’s a puzzling question and if I live long enough, I shall make a thorough study of it. Perhaps some university will give me a doctorate for my trouble. I mean, some of them hand out degrees for all sorts of obscure work, don’t they? Maybe they do that on the basis of the amount of grind required, irrespective of the subject.

    Having failed to solve both of my immediate problems – the insect’s thought processes and this lieutenant thing – I decided to get a haircut. I pinned a note to the outer door, saying that I would be back in fifteen minutes. Here we go again. Why do people do that? I mean, whoever calls won’t know when the period of absence started. Fifteen minutes from when? Any visitor might miss out by a matter of seconds, or almost a quarter-hour. It would be more sensible to write ‘back at such-and-such a time’, wouldn’t it? That gives the visitor a clue, though in my experience one of questionable value. My feeling is that we do this to try to get the best of both worlds. We know we aren’t likely to be back at a stated time, but we don’t want to lose custom, so we keep them waiting and hoping. Not good enough.

    I strolled along to the end of the block to see Ron the barber, feeling confident that I really would be back at the office pretty soon, as his place was hardly more of a beehive than mine. He didn’t disappoint. When I arrived, he was sitting in one of the two operating chairs, or whatever they’re called to distinguish them from the waiting seats. He used to have a partner, who disappeared after turning out to be incompetent and dishonest. The second chair became redundant as business fell off, probably as a result of the miscreant’s near-homicidal tonsorial work.

    Ron looked thoughtful. “Morning,” he said. “I was just thinking.”

    “A dangerous practice, Ron,” I said. “I try to avoid it. What got you going?”

    “Well, I was wondering why it is that every country has a department of defence and none of them has one of attack. I mean, if nobody’s going to do the second, why does anybody need the first?”

    “It’s a euphemism,” I said. “I guess it goes back to the Romans. If I remember rightly, they said that if you want peace, you have to prepare for war. Anyway, I thought barbers were supposed to supply the answers, not the questions.”

    Ron shook his head in a way that indicated fathomless incomprehension and sadness. “I guess I was standing well back when they gave out brains,” he said. “I’ll think that over. God knows I get the time. How do you want it?”

    I sighed. “Why do you always ask me? Just put the basin on as usual. What you get below the rim, you can keep. Maybe you can sell it to somebody who makes cushions.”

    I don’t know whether it was my little outburst, or the fact that two other customers – gold dust – appeared together, but anyway, Ron switched on his radio and went taciturn. Ten minutes later I was back at the office, finding a man and a woman waiting by my outer door. I apologised for not having been on the job, ushered them inside and got them seated.

    My sharp PI senses suggested to me that I was dealing with a married couple. Sometimes I just knew such things. They were middle-aged, both smallish, slender and plainly dressed. I’ll spare you the details, mainly because I can’t remember them too well. I did note that the man had short receding grey hair, a sallow complexion and a drawn look. The woman was also greying and seemed agitated. “How can I help you?” I said.

    The man cleared his throat. “I’m George Prentiss. This is my wife, Emily.”

    “Emily,” said the woman, unnecessarily.

    “We’re here about our son, Gordon,” the man went on.

    “Gordon,” said Emily. I began to accustom myself to the echoes. They would extend the interview slightly, but I’d nothing else to do and anyway I was, as ever, interested in human nature.

    “All right,” I said. “Tell me about Gordon.”

    This brought a little more hacking from George before he continued: “We’re worried about him. He’s been behaving funny lately.”

    He stopped, evidently needing some prodding. Yes, this would take time. “Funny? How?”

    “He keeps bringing us gifts.” Again, he stopped abruptly.

    “Yes,” Emily put in, “gifts.” Two words this time. That seemed to exhaust her.

    I wasn’t accustomed to this attritional thing. It was like extracting molars. “And that’s unusual, is it?” I said.

    George grappled with more phlegm, won his battle and went on gamely: “Well, he’s twenty-eight years old and he’s our only child. He lives at home with us and he’s never done anything like this before. He doesn’t have a job, so how’s he getting the cash? That’s what we’d like to know.”

    “Have you asked him?” I said.

    “Yes, we have,” George replied. “He won’t talk about it. Says we should just enjoy ourselves.”

    “And you can’t?”

    “Not while we don’t know where the money’s coming from.”

    Emily piped up. “He’s always been a good boy.” Positively loquacious now. I noticed that when she pushed aside a stray hair, her right hand had a pronounced tremor.

    “I see. What would you like me to do?”

    George was getting into his stride. “We’d be obliged if you'd watch him for a day or two. We've been straight people all along and we’ve no desire to profit from anything that isn’t above board. If he’s not acting right, we’d like to know, but we don’t want you to turn him in. Can you work it that way?”

    That was a poser. Ethics again. “I’ll give it a try,” I said, “but if he’s doing anything illegal, I must reserve the right to act as I see fit, consistent with keeping you informed. If you’re happy with that, we’ll see how it goes.”

    They weren’t too pleased about the qualification but seemed to decide that this was a case of in for a penny, in for a pound. Also, they didn’t balk at my charges. That was a pleasant change, as I was weary of justifying my way of making a living. In a way, I suppose it was understandable. I mean, it must strike clients as being like paying lawyers. You cough up, but you’re never entirely clear about what they’ve done. I’m thinking of the time my cousin Derek bought his first house in England. Both principals were eager to get on with it, but the process took ages, mainly because the legal boys wanted to show that they were earning their fees. If I’ve stepped on any corns here, my apologies, but don’t bother hounding me. The result wouldn’t justify the effort.

    I agreed to watch Gordon from the following morning, having established that he usually left home an hour or so before noon and reappeared there late in the afternoon, taking his evening meal at six, then going to his room for the night.

    The Prentiss home was in the suburbs, well east of my office. I got there bright and early – if ten a.m. can be so described. My man emerged shortly after eleven, coming from the rear of the small two-storey detached house and striding briskly along the drive. He was around five-ten, slimly built and bare-headed, his dark-brown hair short and neatly cut. He wore an open-necked plaid shirt under a thin grey windcheater, blue jeans and tan boots that reeked of the great outdoors.

    He turned out to be a bit of a tease, though I didn’t believe that was intentional. He had no car. His parents had told me that and I’d thought it unusual until I got into the rhythm of following him. I never saw a man who walked so much or so fast. He didn’t need wheels.

    It isn’t easy to be entirely inconspicuous when observing a pedestrian, and at times I had to leave the car briefly, then dash back. For a while, Gordon would go blasting along at about five miles an hour, then his attention would be attracted by a tree, a bird or whatever and he’d stand still for a few minutes. Twice he wandered along blind alleys, both times turning back abruptly, in a way that didn’t help my blood pressure. Finally, he covered a mile to the main shopping area at full speed. Faced with the need to deposit the car, I lost him for a time, but luck was with me and I picked him up again. He bought two newspapers, picked up some takeaway food, then wandered off to a small park and sat on a bench. Ignoring the groceries, he immersed himself in one of the rags for half an hour before tossing it into a trash container. Then he ate, feeding a few morsels to the birds.

    With my own innards rumbling, I hoped his movements would give me a chance to grab some edibles. No such luck. He picked up the other paper, riffling through to what I guessed were the sports pages. Well, I thought, maybe it won’t take too long. Wrong again. For what seemed like an eternity, he was engrossed. At last, he discarded his reading material, bounced up and sped back to the consumer heaven, forcing me into a trot to keep pace. He gazed at one window display after another, then seemed to conclude that that was enough for one day, so set sail for, as it turned out, home. I crept after him by car. For well over four miles, he didn’t slacken pace for an instant. He had the best undercarriage I’ve ever seen. Also, he seemed to be very alert, constantly looking around.

    Ever the one to give value for money, I hung on until nine p.m., then, as nothing happened, I felt that I’d earned my keep for the day. It was just as well, since I got back to base in time for a showing of Vertigo – I’ve always rated that as one of Hitchcock’s best efforts. Having failed to sneak in any food since breakfast, I’d picked up a brace of cheese and tomato sandwiches to chomp while watching. To really spoil myself, I also polished off a can of mushroom soup. Shortly after midnight, I took a glug of sherry and went to bed.

    The following morning, I leapt from the feathers at the crack of ten past nine, bustled around a bit, stoked up on food, then drove to within fifty yards of the Prentiss place, parking at ten-thirty. Gordon came out of the house at eleven-fifteen. Today offered a change of pace. He went off to look at the same shops as the day before, called at the same fast-food outlet and reappeared with a meal in a bag. This time, he didn’t go to the park. Instead, he whisked away northwards, ingesting his eats on the hoof. I tracked him for three miles, noting that he was still forever darting glances here, there and everywhere. Definitely on the qui vive.

    Without pausing on the way, Gordon got to the racetrack. He went in and I followed. There was a fair crowd, so keeping him under surveillance wasn’t a problem. Not that there was much watching to do.

    As I had no interest in the main proceedings, the afternoon was a drag. I couldn’t make out how Gordon fared, but he didn’t seem exuberant. After the fifth race, he headed for the exit, for once not speeding. Anxious to get a closer look at him, I hurried along and opened up a lead then, accidentally on purpose, encountered him as he was crossing the car park. He was down to a mere stroll now, windcheater open and trouser pockets turned out.

    I hadn’t intended to exchange words with him, but he caught my eye. “Hello,” he said. “Nice to meet you at last.”

    That was a shaker. “At last?” I said. “I think you’re ahead of me.”

    He chuckled. “Don’t make it any harder,” he said. “You’ve been chasing me around for two days. Why?”

    “We’ll get to that,” I said. What’s with the pockets?”

    “Simple,” he said. “It shows the muggers that you’re broke. No pickings, see?”

    “It could be a double bluff,” I said. “Maybe you’re loaded and you want to show otherwise.”

    He laughed. “I get you,” he said. “Kind of ‘They know, I know, they know, I know’. Where does it end?”

    “Where indeed?”

    “Well,” he said, “unless you have a sure thing in the sixth, I’ll leave here genuinely cleaned out. You a horse follower?”

    Now it was my turn to chortle. “Not me. If I were, I’d most likely follow those that followed the others.”

    “Hey, that’s not bad,” he said. “You have a sense of humour. Now, what do you want? And please don’t insult what little intelligence I have by giving me a clever backup story. I’d like the real reason. Course, I might just believe you were practising. I mean, when it comes to tailing a man, you’re not the best.”

    I was stung. Coming shortly after my experience with a certain Mrs Burrows, Gordon’s words hurt. Maybe it was time to refer to my PI Manual, Lesson Nine: Covert Observation. Covert? I was about as unobtrusive as the Matterhorn.

    “All right, Gordon,” I said, “you win, so I guess I owe you an explanation. If you’d like to sit in my car, maybe we can work things out.” He had no objection, so we went over to the crate and I told him what was what. Well, considering that he’d caught me in flagrante, I felt obligated to spill the beans.

    My first impression had been of a frivolous type, but when we got down to it, Gordon was serious enough. When I’d revealed all, he shook his head. “I know they’ve been upset,” he said, “but I didn’t think they’d go this far, especially when you consider their condition.”

    “Condition?”

    “What? Didn’t they give you the whole story?”

    “They told me only what I’ve told you. What more is there?”

    He seemed to look right through me. “There’s plenty,” he said. “My dad has cancer. He hasn’t much time left. Ma has Parkinson’s disease. You must have noticed that.”

    I had, and confirmed it.

    He nodded. “Now you have the full picture,” he said. “I guess I’ve been a disappointment to them, never having a real job and all. Anyway, I’ve had a run of luck with the nags – until today, that is – and I just wanted them to have a few things they’d never had. See, they’ve been a little unlucky, one way and another. Before I was born, Ma had a pretty bad miscarriage, so I suppose both she and Pa thought I’d make up for what they’d lost. But look, I have my life to lead and my way isn’t theirs. For example, they wouldn’t be any too pleased if they knew the little treats they’ve had lately came from the horses. They lost out with their parents, mostly because my grandpa was a gambler, and from what I’ve gathered, a poor one. Listen, if you get an inheritance, you’d expect it to be on the credit side, wouldn’t you?”

    “I imagine so. Go on.”

    “Well, what my folks got was a heap of debt. I don’t know whether any of it was legally enforceable, but a lot was moral, and Ma and Pa are very strict that way. It’s to do with their belief – and I’m not going into that because I don’t share their views. Anyway, they did what they saw as right. It put them in a bind for life, but they’ve coped, and I admire them for that. I just wanted them to know before it’s too late that there’s an upside to it all. Now do you see?”

    We talked on for a while. I posed some penetrating questions, but I heard nothing that jarred with what Gordon had first told me. No matter how I tested him, he rang true. As a PI, I had my faults on the technical side, but I like to think that whenever I had to deal with matters of common humanity, I wasn’t deficient.

    It was well after five o’clock when Gordon shook hands with me and left for home. He declined my offer of a lift, saying that exercise helped to burn off ‘a few things’, which I suspected meant not only physical ones.

    I went back to the office and sat for a long time, head in hands. If you know what to do in such circumstances, you’re wiser than I was, or am. What I did was to phone the Prentiss place. I got George and simply told him the truth. I also said that there would be no charge, as I hadn’t carried out the mission to my satisfaction. Well, I’d been spotted, hadn’t I? The fact that that wasn’t the first such black mark on my record didn’t make it any less distressing.

    George asked me to stay by the phone and, twenty minutes later, invited me to an immediate gathering – just the three of them and me. It was clear that he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I did his bidding.

    Everything came out. I’ve said elsewhere that I was not a family man and still am not, but I have to say that the occasion moved me considerably. There were tears from both Emily and George, and I wasn’t far removed from joining in. Poignant as it was, the outcome included a touching accord and as much rapport as could be expected in the circumstances.

    I left for home, reflecting that this was yet another of those occasions on which I’d been instrumental, albeit sometimes inadvertently, in restoring domestic harmony. In fact – pardon the immodesty – I was struck by the thought that if somebody ever came up with a Nobel Prize for reuniting families, I’d be a contender.

    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  4. #14

    Pursuit

    PURSUIT

    I was thinking about spaghetti. Not in general, you understand, but only as it concerned me. Since moving from my hotel room to an apartment, I’d thought about food quite a lot. I still took some meals at the eatery near my office, but I’d also tried cooking. I couldn’t assign a particular name to any of my concoctions, as they were largely the results of my putting things into a pot until the mix seemed about right. Lacking expertise, I reckoned then as now that the best course was to cook everything well and truly, reasoning that heat, if applied long enough, kills nasty bacteria. I believe it also polishes off some of the goodies, but I can live with that.

    With regard to spaghetti, heat wasn’t the problem. What bothered me was that no matter how I drained or sieved the stuff, when it came to washing up, at least two strands appeared in the sink. I bought three aluminium saucepans, each of which had a lid with four oval holes designed, I supposed, to vent steam, with the added quality of allowing one to pour off water while keeping the solids in situ. Still, the little beggars kept slipping through my defences. It was vexing. I have the same pans to this day, and still haven’t solved the problem. Other prosaic activities give me similar trouble. For example, despite much evidence to the contrary, I remain convinced that it is possible for a man of a certain age to pull on his socks one at a time, while standing on the other foot and not thumping into the nearest vertical surface. Maybe it would be better to just sit down to it, but who likes defeat?

    My musings were interrupted by the arrival of a man who didn’t even give me time to grab my sham pending file. He just wafted in, wraithlike.

    I motioned him to a chair, noting with my professional acumen that he cut an impressive figure. He was about five-eleven, with short fair hair, immaculately groomed. Offhand, I didn’t think I’d ever seen a better-dressed man, unless it was the dastardly Longworth, the postage stamp thief I’ve described elsewhere. My visitor wore a light-grey single-breasted two-piece suit with a fine herringbone pattern, a crisp white shirt and a plain maroon tie. The socks were grey, a little darker than the suit, and the shoes were almost worth a chapter – well, let’s not exaggerate, a paragraph – in themselves; broad, antique-finished, lace-up jobs, reeking of quality. I had the feeling that if I’d been able to sneak a look at the inside, I might have seen the name of a certain renowned London maker. I won’t mention it as he might take exception – you’ll see what I mean as we go on.

    The man sat, his shirt cuffs riding up slightly, allowing me to catch a glimpse of a wafer of gold watch, with a handsome strap of the same metal. Those items hadn’t come cheap. I asked him how I could help.

    “I’m looking for a man.” He spoke quietly, but I’d been in the business for some time and can tell you that his tone conveyed far more than the bare words.

    I opted for jocularity. “Well,” I grinned, “I’m a man, but I’ll bet you have something more specific in mind.”

    He returned my smile, though his was thin enough to slice ham. “Right,” he said. “The fellow I’m seeking is somewhere in this town. He’s not my only concern right now, but it would save time if you could locate him.”

    I had a feeling that, if I found the man, my success might not bode well for him. There was something about the approach of my potential client which suggested that he didn’t pursue people for old times’ sake. “Why me?” I said.

    “I looked in the phone book.”

    “That’s what I mean,” I said. “There are entries ahead of mine in there.”

    I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but he slimmed his smile a fraction. “You’re the first one to give a straight name,” he answered.

    He was right. There were five entries in the book and the two before me hadn’t seen fit to say exactly who they were. They advertised themselves as, respectively, the Beeline and Finders agencies. No disrespect intended, but I didn’t like that any more than my visitor did. “Fair enough,” I said, “but why a PI anyway?”

    “It’s a matter of time and footfall,” he said. “You people get around. Most of you probably know the personnel in the hotels, motels and so on. A question of economy of effort.”

    “Fair enough,” I said. “Are you going to offer me a hint?”

    He produced a morocco-leather wallet, which gave the same impression as his shoes and watch had done, extracted a colour photo and passed it over. I looked at the head and shoulders picture, which showed me a discouragingly ordinary face. Why don’t they have the proverbial eye-to-mouth scars or glaring birthmarks? Still, the subject had a florid complexion, which was better than nothing. I stared at the snap for a moment, then asked my man if that was all.

    “That’s it,” he said. “He has a taste for high living, so he’s probably in one of the better places. He’s five-nine and close to two hundred pounds, most of them around the middle. Enough for you?”

    “All right,” I said. “Now, about my charg –”

    He anticipated me. The wallet was still in his hands and he hauled out a sheaf of currency, peeling off more than I had seen for a good while. “Will this hold you for a day or two?” he said, passing it over.

    Hold me? As matters stood, it would have been good enough for a couple of weeks. “It’ll do,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could. How do I keep in touch with you, Mr . . .?”

    The smile broadened again, minimally. “Smith,” he said.

    “Of course. That would be John, I imagine?”

    “Yes. You’re very perceptive. Don’t worry about contact. I’ll see to that. It’s five p.m. now. Let’s say I phone you here at noon tomorrow. We’ll take it from there. And please don’t think about a trace.”

    “All right,” I said. “Mind telling me who this man is and what he’s done?”

    “I don’t know what identity he’s using now. His real name is Jerome Benn. He was a messenger. He disappeared a while ago, with seventy-eight thousand dollars of his employers’ funds. They’re upset.”

    “I can believe that,” I said. “Now, I wouldn’t want to be involved in anything improper. I assume everything’s tickety-boo with the authorities?”

    “Naturally,” he said. “Just locate him. My principals are a little impatient. I’m sure you understand.”

    “Yes,” I said. “Forgive my curiosity, Mr Smith, but you give the impression of a man with resources. I just thought they might run to –”

    “Mr Potts,” he broke in, “you have a pleasant enough town here, but it’s not exactly a thrumming metropolis. You share a small airport with your next-door neighbour. The railroad station is a minor halt and the bus depot adjacent to it is fairly quiet. This man arrived by train yesterday evening. He has no car and has not hired one. He hasn’t left by rail or bus. That leaves the roads. The resources you mentioned tell me he didn’t drive out, so unless he left well-concealed in a car – and I’m prepared to dismiss that – he’s still in town. Please find him.”

    “I’ll do my best, Mr Smith.”

    “Excellent. Until tomorrow at midday, then.” He rose, decontaminated himself with a little patting, and left.

    I sat for a while, trying to clarify how ‘Mr Smith’ had affected me. I remembered a film involving a conversation in a train. There was a soft-spoken thug, genial as could be and as unthreatening as a sidewinder. Still, I’d got a wodge of folding stuff up-front. But I had no illusions about the job. If I failed to deliver, my man would not be amused – and he seemed like the wrong type to antagonise.

    Up to that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that a hitman would employ a local PI. Then I thought, why not? I mean, what he’d said made sense. No point in his exposing himself unnecessarily. And as to the cost, he’d very likely get at least twenty times what he’d paid me. Then there was the ethical question. If Jerome Benn was in town, I’d probably find him, but if I passed on the information, that could be his death warrant. What does a man do?

    What I did was postpone any wrestling with morality and get to work. If Smith was right about his quarry’s refined tastes, there were only four hotels in town that might measure up. I reckoned the fugitive would be a fool to conform to type. Yet there might be method in any such apparent madness. It would be easy for Smith to turn over the lesser hostelries – a little greenery passing here and there – but as he’d indicated, that would be time-consuming. The more prestigious spots would be less penetrable. It might have been unwise on his part to make waves in such places. As for his contact with me, I’d never see him again if he didn’t want me to. And if I brought in the police, what would I tell them? An executive of a company wished to interview an errant employee about some missing funds. So what? Smith would have a solid cover story, and in the unlikely event of his being picked up, he would surely get a message to his ‘associates’, who would know how to deal with me. I shuddered.

    So, with no idea about what I would do if successful, I set off on my rounds. Thanks to much past footslogging, I was acquainted with at least half the reception staff at all the hotels I had in mind, though relations were not uniformly cordial. Some were friendly enough, while others regarded me as something they’d stepped in on a sidewalk. At the first two places, I knew the people on duty; one man, one woman. Neither gave me anything, but I was sure they weren’t being obstructive. At the third stop – the Carlton – I found that the fellow on duty was a newcomer and a little sniffy, but he was scheduled to clock off for the night at eight, giving way to his colleague, Tony, with whom I was on good terms.

    The last call was another blank, so there was nothing for me to do but to take my evening meal – an overwhelming sandwich – and while away half an hour. I gave it till 8.15, then went back to the Carlton, where Tony was in charge. “Hello, Mr Potts,” he said. “Long time, no see.” I said something pleasant, told him what I wanted and showed him the photo. He looked at it, contorted his face, then, as I produced a picture of a former US president, with a nice round number featured prominently, his mind cleared. “Yes,” he said, “I think we have the gentleman, although I believe his name’s Bradley. I’m wondering . . .”

    I passed over my ‘credentials’, which disappeared into Tony’s inside pocket at superluminary speed. “Ah,” he said. “Now I have it. I seem to remember a room number; two-one-seven, unless I’m mistaken. Pity I was turned the other way when you walked in.” He gave me a memorable wink.

    “A real shame, Tony,” I said. “As it happens, I’m not calling on my old friend this time. Maybe tomorrow, if he’s staying.”

    “I guess he is. He’s booked in for a week.”

    “Thanks, Tony. Be seeing you.”

    At nine o’clock I was back at my place, my mind still spinning. On the one hand, I was temporarily in clover, financially. On the other, there was no dodging the real issue. Old chess games and film reruns are no use at such times. I sank a couple of mighty belts of Amontillado, then tried to distract myself by reading about the activities of a San Francisco PI, who was beaten up, sapped and shot, while battling his way through to success. My word, those fellows are tough.

    I was up by seven. Unusual, but then, so were the circumstances. I hadn’t got any wiser during the night, and here I have a confession. Normally, I took very little alcohol until late evening, but this time I was so worked up that I put back a hefty slug – still sherry, of course – straight after breakfast. To tell the truth, holding out that long was hard. I could have used the liquor before the food.

    I zombied to the office, wishing that a hole would appear and swallow me, then sat picking and twiddling everything that would pick or twiddle. Oh, for a cigar, or for the lungs to smoke it. Finally, I decided to take the coward’s way out, if only temporarily. I would tell Smith that I was optimistic, but needed more time.

    He phoned at noon on the dot, still with that subdued voice and not wasting words. I told him I had hopes. He gave no sign of impatience, saying he would call again at six p.m.

    So began the longest afternoon of my life. I wondered what our San Francisco hero would have done. He’d probably have spent the afternoon strangling grizzlies, just for practice. What I did was stand up and walk around the office, sit down again, then repeat the process fifty times, punctuating it with several more fairish snorts of sherry.

    By six o’clock I still didn’t know what I was going to say to Smith. I could tell him that my inquiries had come to nothing, but would that satisfy him?

    He was right on time again. I answered the call with what any novelist worth his salt would call a dry-throated croak and was about to go on when he stopped me. “I’m just calling to thank you for your help, Mr Potts, and to tell you that I don’t need you any longer.”

    “You don’t?”

    “No. I’ve located my man. He’s calling himself Bradley.”

    “I see. What about the payment? There’s a balance owing to you.”

    “Keep what’s left. It was a transaction in good faith. Time is money, Mr Potts. Goodbye.”

    Relief swept over me in waves, but not for long. Within five minutes, I began to take stock. Smith would surely act promptly, with unpleasant results for Benn/Bradley unless I was much mistaken. And what was I doing? Well, so far I’d eaten a brace of scrambled eggs, prowled around my office for several hours and drunk at least a pint of the best that Jerez de la Frontera had to offer. Cyril Potts, action man. If I continued with my programme of frenetic activity, I might soon be complicit, if only by extension, in a murder. I mean, I could stop the proceedings, couldn’t I? Oh, why the hell did Smith have to be so choosy? He could have gone to Beeline or Finders and left me in peace.

    I tried to salve my conscience, but it was no good. After wrestling with the matter for a while, I concluded that I would have to act. I set out for the Carlton, with no idea what I’d do when I got there. A man feels better when he’s running around, irrespective of what he achieves.

    I found myself outside the glass doors of the hotel a few minutes before seven. A furtive glance showed me that Mr Sniffy was on duty, which didn’t help. I wandered back and forth for a while, peering in each time I passed the doors. Fortunately, the place didn’t run to having a Ruritanian general at the entrance.

    Finally, catching Highnose with his back turned, I slithered in, light-footed my way across the carpet and climbed the stairs. I’m not sure that I can accurately explain what was going on in my mind. The best I can say is that, harrowing though the situation was, I wanted to do something.

    People talk about having the heart in the mouth, and you might think that would apply to a PI more than to most people. Usually, it doesn’t. A gumshoe’s job is mostly a matter of observing the weaknesses of others. Not this time!

    The Carlton added a hundred to its room numbers. There were three floors. At ground level there was no guest accommodation. On the floor above the numbers were in the two-hundreds and on the top floor were the three-hundreds. I jittered along the corridor to room two-one-seven, still clueless, but full – well, half-full – of resolve. I tried the door handle. It moved freely.

    There are times when one throws caution to the winds. I couldn’t stand any more of this, so flung the door open. Only then did I realise that, though I’d brought along my trusty .38, the damned thing was still in the back of my pants.

    “Hold it!” I yelled. They held it – or one of them did. The other had no choice. About twenty feet from me was an arresting picture. Two easy chairs bracketed a coffee table on which was an open leather suitcase. Even from that distance, I could see that the pigskin container held what looked like a lot of cash. At the left of the table my client, John Smith, was slumped in a chair, hands flopped floorwards, shirt stained red. At the other side stood a stout, ruddy-faced fellow of middling height – Mr Benn, or Bradley, I assumed. He was fingering his chin, in a ‘what to do now’ attitude.

    He turned to me, his right hand sliding swiftly inside his coat, then, seeing that I wasn’t in shooting mode, he relaxed a fraction. “Who are you and what do you want?” he said.

    “My name’s Potts. I’m a private investigator. Mr Smith there is my client.”

    “Smith?”

    “Right. John Smith.”

    He chuckled. “How original. Why did he hire you?”

    There was no point in gabbling about confidentiality. “To locate you, Mr Benn,” I replied.

    “Benn?” he said. For a moment, he looked puzzled, then something dawned on him. “Ah, now I see. Well, if it’s any help to you, our late friend here is Mr Benn. He must have told you quite a tale. Explain, please.”

    I gave him the story, which seemed to amuse him no end. When I was through, he was still smiling. “Well, Mr Potts,” he said,
    I’m sorry you’ve been given such a runaround. The truth is that Benn,” he hooked a thumb at the corpse, “really was a messenger and did walk off with the amount you mentioned. That’s it.” He pointed at the suitcase. “He got tired of running. I suppose he engaged you to find me, hoping that if you succeeded, he could eliminate me and put an end to the pursuit. Somehow, after hiring you, he did the locating himself. He phoned me, offering a deal. He would return the money if I would spare him. I accepted, but didn’t trust him. I agreed to a meeting here, and as I suspected, his intention was to kill me and escape. You see the result.”

    “Yes,” I said. “Now you have to get rid of me, too”

    “Get rid of you? Why?”

    “Because I might talk.”

    He laughed out loud. “Talk? To whom and about what? Do you propose to tell the police that you were hired by one criminal to find another? That wouldn’t do your career much good. And as to disposing of you, I’m a professional. My services are expensive. Unless it’s absolutely essential, I don’t kill people free of charge. You’ve probably been reading too many novels. I’m leaving now, and provided you don’t make a scene – that would be bad for you – you’re free to go.”

    I’d been thinking as he talked. What he said was reasonable. The only thing that occurred to me was that my receptionist contact, Tony, might be a weak link. Still, I thought I knew my man. Another likeness of a past president – this time associated with a larger number – would soothe him and still leave me way ahead, moneywise.

    Mr Smith, or whatever his name was, stared at me for a tense moment, then spoke again: “I said you could go, Mr Potts.”

    I went.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 9th, 2019 at 12:50 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  5. #15

    Numismatics

    NUMISMATICS

    Clink, whirr, chink – or vice versa. The coin that dropped onto my desk would have been at home on dark, dully gleaming rosewood. What I had was thin mahogany veneer, curling at the edges – and I won’t go into detail about the gouges, cigarette burns and other evidence of misuse. I’d bought my office furniture – desk, three ladder-back chairs, typewriter with its own little stand, and two filing cabinets – for a hundred and ninety dollars, from a dealer in used items.

    The waiting roomlet was different, in that almost everything there – a low, wobbly table, three straight back chairs, two ashtrays and a wastebasket – had come gratis, courtesy of the previous tenant. All I’d done was augment his collection of ancient magazines with a few equally venerable ones I’d picked up here and there.

    With regard to professional activity, my state was practically comatose. There were times when that didn’t bother me, but on this occasion I’d had enough of abstract thinking and was pleased to have a caller. Not that this one would have cared about my state of mind. I could tell that before he spoke. The currency came to rest between a mug ring I’d inherited and a knife-cut I’d inflicted myself, while trying to open a parcel.

    Outside, a team was working with a compressor, two pneumatic drills and a stone-saw, and as I’d left the inner door ajar I was not aware that I had a visitor until the coin landed. In my defence, I must say that he tossed the thing from just inside the doorway while I was staring at a notepad splattered with calculations arising from my immersion in rocket propulsion – and lest you should think me a dilettante, I’d worked out all by myself that a three-stage job was the right one for a lunar shot. It’s a question of mass ratio and exhaust velocity. I know NASA got the same result, but we’d worked independently. Rocket science wasn’t such a big deal, I’d concluded.

    I looked at my man, waving him to a seat, as I examined his introductory offering. It was a double-eagle, face value twenty dollars, market price surely much higher. I peered at it, and my failure to note the date probably gives some indication that I had little interest in such items. I did observe that the specimen was well-worn, but assumed that I was looking at some real gold.

    The intruder didn’t quite match up to his flamboyant approach, which I immediately associated with fedora hats and chalk-stripe outfits. He was impressive in the width and depth departments. I put him at five-eleven and ten or fifteen pounds over the two hundred mark. The face looked as though someone had broken rocks on it. He wore a shiny dark-blue suit which did little to conceal the muscles it sheathed, plus a mid-blue shirt and a tie of a floridity I’d rather not dwell on. If he wasn’t a heavy, he’d do until one came along.

    Despite my being in a trough, businesswise, I submit that my repartee was up to standard. “I’ll give you a B-plus for histrionics,” I said, “but would you like to enlarge?”

    It was the theatrical allusion that got him – I just knew he wouldn’t be able cope with ‘histrionics’. He was submerged for a moment, but fought his way back to the surface. “You know what that is?” he said, pointing at the coin.

    I gave him my supercilious smile. “Of course,” I said. “Is it my retainer, or just bait?”

    With his big entrance squelched, he’d already lost the psychological high ground, so he relaxed. “Belongs to Mike Mulrooney,” he said. “You heard of him?”

    If he was referring to the long-time sparring partner of my late – in both senses – client, Howling Jack Lanigan, I had indeed. “Possibly,” I said. “Would that be the gentleman sometimes known as Horsehead Mulrooney?”

    “Yeah, right,” Mr Bulk grunted. “Seems Howling Jack gave you a big boost after you tangled with Slugs Kalinski.’

    How well I remembered that encounter; a meeting of bodies rather than minds. The incident had already been brought up by another client. Now, here was a second. I wondered how long I would be able to live on that minor triumph. “Ah, Slugs,” I said. “How is the lad?”

    My visitor sneered. “He ain’t around no more. Got plugged a while back. He was tough, but I guess he didn’t have it upstairs. I took over.”

    That was puzzling. If Slugs Kalinski had been cerebrally deficient, how was this goon an improvement? Maybe Mulrooney was finding it hard to get the right help. “Okay,” I said. “Slugs is out, you’re in and Horsey thinks I’m wonderful. I’m struggling to connect all that with a gold bauble. Do you have a point? I’m pretty busy.”

    He looked at the desktop, festooned with my notebook and his coin. “Yeah,” he sniggered, “you’re up to your ears. Look, Horsey’ll be in New York till Monday mornin’ an’ he don’t want to lose time on this. He’ll pay your fees an’ a bonus, if you see to it.”

    “See to what?”

    Talking was clearly a chore for action-man. He sighed. “Mulrooney had a good few gold coins. Just kept this one in his pocket. Sorta lucky piece. Somebody busted into his office, blew the safe an’ took the lot, plus two thousand in cash.

    “I see,” I said. “Mr Mulrooney would like me to find the culprit, eh?”

    “That’s it.”

    I nodded, emanating thought. “I wonder he didn’t summon me to the presence.”

    That was a hard one for my man, but he triumphed. “Like I just told you, he’s tied up, but he said to tell you it’s a competitive advantage thing. Said you’d know what that means.”

    The poor fellow was uneasy with ‘competitive advantage’, but all credit to him, he got it out. Moreover, his chief was probably right. Mulrooney was accustomed to exploiting others, but when the tables were turned, he needed the help of someone who could cut corners. And his kind didn’t enlist the official forces. “Right,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do. I imagine your boss wasn’t insured against this?”

    My man looked at me as though he doubted my sanity. “That a joke?” he said. “Insurance people mean alarms an’ alarms mean cops, right?”

    “Okay,” I said. “I had to ask. Now, can you give me anything else?”

    His Heftiness shrugged. “Nix. We got no idea. Your ball.”

    “Right,” I said. “Tell him I’ll work on it, but it’s probably an opportunist thing.”

    “A what?”

    “Just repeat that to him. He’ll know what I mean.”

    The hunk recovered the coin and departed, leaving me to ponder. It was inconvenient. I mean there I was planning space missions when this earthbound matter cropped up. Still, possibly there was money to be made, and that was why I was in business, wasn’t it?

    A man couldn’t be in my kind of work for long without knowing a little about the criminal mind. I suspected this was a local affair, no matter that the locality was a little way north of my normal playground. Well, parochialism is an elastic concept.

    Another three-pipe problem, Watson, was my first thought. Actually, one pipe would have sufficed. My mental whirligig stopped at Pale Pete Parsons. I’ve mentioned Pete – a small-time stick-em-up and B&E man – in connection with another case. When he wasn’t engaged in his professional work, Pete spent most of his waking hours at Kelly’s Pool Hall, within easy walking distance of my office. Well, my job was mostly shaking trees and seeing if anything fell. It was worth a try, so I phoned the ball-and-cue palace, identifying myself and asking for Pete.

    The unmistakable grating voice of the owner replied: “Now just a minute. I’m not sure I know any –”

    “Cut it out, Kelly,” I bawled, or I might be compelled to remember certain transactions at your place, concerning –”

    “All right,” he yelled. “I’ll get him.”

    “Excellent,” I said. “And tell him this is good news.”

    There was a rumble of background noise, then Parsons came to the phone. “Yeah, what?” he muttered.

    “And greetings to you, too, Pete,” I said. “In case Kelly didn’t tell you, this is Cyril Potts. I’m about to transform your drab existence. Just step along here – and make it lively. I can’t talk on the phone. Get to my office in fifteen minutes.”

    As a result of the earlier incident with the gold Balinese cat, Pete Parsons had probably decided that I was infallible. He mumbled something I didn’t catch, then agreed to call on me right away. Within the specified quarter-hour he was sitting opposite me. I told him about the coins. He assumed his puzzled look. “I get you,” he said. “I just don’t see wh – ”

    “Listen Pete,” I snapped. “This is no time for fooling around. I know you boys have a network that would turn the Mob green with envy. I just want you to use it – and there’s money for you here.”

    That was a gamble, pure and simple. I’d no idea whether Pete and his cronies were a closed society or not. Still, it was interesting that he didn’t deny it. I noted the point for future reference. Living by one’s wits is a precarious matter, much dependent upon the snapping up of trifles.

    “What do you want me to do?” he said.

    Bingo! “Look, Pete, these coins have written pedigrees. There’s no way they can be sold off. They’re useless to anyone who doesn’t have the paperwork.” I made that up and for all I knew it might have been true. “Now, I’m empowered to get them back. We can operate my way or Mulrooney’s. If I do the job, there’s no problem. Some cash changes hands and that’s it. If I pass the matter back to my client, he’ll be even more upset than he is now. He’ll want to interview people. Do I really need to talk to you about cement boots, fingernails, heads clamped in vi –?”

    “No,” he yipped. “I don’t know why you picked on me, but I’ll put the word around. How’s that?”

    “It’s a start,” I said, “and if you play it right, you’ll come out way ahead. There’s a two-grand payoff in this and I don’t mind who gets it. Now move – and make it quick.”

    Pale Pete slunk out, leaving me to think some more. If he didn’t bring home the bacon, I’d no idea about the next step. Also, I’d been pretty free with reward money, considering that I hadn’t discussed it with the prospective payer.

    I did my best to return to rocketry, but it was no good. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought in all that stuff about what Mulrooney might do if pressed. My comments had been wildly speculative, but they’d scared me as much as they had Pale Pete.

    With no other business distractions, I mulled the matter over, finally realising that maybe this was a war of nerves between me and Parsons. Maybe he wasn’t much closer to the rock-face than I was. Maybe all sorts of things. Still, I’d acted.

    All that I’ve mentioned took place on a Tuesday. By the Friday evening I’d almost abandoned hope and was about to call it a week when the phone rang. It was Pete. His speech was excited and garbled, so I ordered him to get to my office right away.

    When he arrived, Pete was shaking at about 6.5 on the Richter scale. His eyes roved around the room, then he took a seat. “I just might have something,” he said. “Don’t know for sure, but –”

    “Stow it, Pete,” I said, glowering with B-picture intensity – MGM, what have you missed? “If I don’t get the gewgaws here by tomorrow, the dogs move in. I hate to think –”

    “You don’t have to go through that again,” he whined. “I did my best. Word is that it was a new guy. Didn’t know the rules. You know how it is.”

    I didn’t know, but this wasn’t the time to say so. “Yes, Pete. Look, just pass it down the line, pronto. You deliver, you get the loot.”

    He gave me his pleading look. “Come on, Mr Potts. Try to see it my way. I got to pay my man and he has to pay his man, then we get to the dummy who did the job.”

    I nodded. “Right. It’s grim. Get word to him that he’s serving a sort of apprenticeship. That way, he might just wind up with his health intact. You can split the proceeds any way you like. Course, you could keep the lot and tell the other boys it’s all educational.”

    He grimaced. “Wouldn’t be right, Mr Potts. Man in my position has . . . what do you call it?”

    “Ethics?” I prompted.

    “That’s right. I’ll take a grand, but I have to pass the rest along.”

    “Tomorrow morning,” I said sternly. “After that, well, you know.”

    Following Pete’s departure, I spent an hour or so dwelling on the thought that I was not entirely happy with the case. Finally grasping that that was nothing new, I locked up, wandered along to the local fat factory and ate a fry-up far too tasty to have been good for me.

    Normally, I didn’t go to the office on Saturdays, but this was different. I was there shortly after ten. I did my best to concentrate on rockets, but it was hard going. Why not a five-stage one, I thought, or would ten stages be better? My synaptic processes were getting out of hand when, shortly before noon, a scruffy-looking boy of about ten barged in – another knockless entry, which made me wonder yet again why I bothered with doors. “You Mr Potts?” the urchin said. Though near-breathless and intent upon his purpose, he whisked keen young eyes all over the place - a sleuth in the making, perhaps?

    “Guilty. I guess this isn’t a matrimonial thing?”

    That was unfair, but I’d been engrossed. The boy shrugged. “A man give me this,” he said, producing a brown-paper parcel. “Give me ten dollars to make sure you got it.” He handed it over and scurried out before I could muster the wit to detain him.

    I attacked the package with little doubt about what was inside. I had the fleeting, silly thought that if I’d gone to the window I might have been able to get a glimpse of the sender, lurking out there. I didn’t bother – he wouldn’t be stupid enough to give me a one-man identity parade. I stripped away the string and paper, revealing a flat wooden box, bound in black leather. I opened it, finding a note atop an envelope and array of gold coins, all in much better condition than the one my initial visitor had produced. Most of them were double-eagles, eagles, British sovereigns and Mexican fifty-peso pieces. The envelope contained two thousand dollars. The pencilled note read:

    I dident know these was Mulrooneys. Please give them back.

    Say Im sorry. I dont want no trubbel with him.

    Well, I thought, my man was no linguist, but he got full marks for contrition. Now what? As Mulrooney was not due back until Monday morning, I was disposed to consign the box to matters pending, when it occurred to me to do a little delving. Did I know anyone who was into coins? No, but I remembered the elderly stamp-dealer, Graves, who’d helped me once before and lived not far from my place. Maybe he would have connections. I phoned him and he did, in the form of a local friend who was a numismatist. I contacted the man, Jonathan Wrigley, arranging to call on him after we’d both eaten.

    Like Graves, Wrigley seemed to be up in the seventies. I thought of my dealings with the ageing Chicago philatelist Birdsall in another case, and wondered whether coin-dealers were like stamp men in that they just had to be of a certain vintage. He looked over the treasure, talking to himself for a while, then pushed the box back to me. “Hmn,” he muttered, “most of them are fine, or very fine.”

    “Ah,” I said. “So that’s good, then?”

    “Not really. Oh, possibly you wouldn’t know. It’s quite a science. The terms are technical. Very fine and fine are well down the list.” He went on to mumble about uncirculated, proof, mint’ and one or two other words I didn’t catch, then raised his voice: “There are big differences in value, according to the category. Several of these are exceptionally good – that isn’t a classification, by the way. If you want a full assessment, I’ll give you one, for a fee. Offhand, I’d say you’re looking at something at the low end of the five-figure range, but to be precise, I’d need to give each one a detailed examination. If you want dispose of them, I can arra –”

    “Not right now,” I said. “I’d like to think it over. But I’m very grateful.”

    After leaving Wrigley, I went back to my office, thinking that this might be a case for my insurance investigator colleague, Stan Hodges, whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere. For anyone who doesn’t know, Stan and I had met at a snoopers’ convention and had kept in touch, partly because we’d thrown the odd business morsel to one another, but mostly because we shared a certain sense of humour. Stan lived at the back end of nowhere, well north of me. I phoned him and for once, he answered with a ‘Yeah’ after the first ring – he must have been passing the phone. “Big City man here,” I said. “What kept you?”

    “Prior commitments,” he said. “Is this an Oriental circumlocution thing, or would you like to spill it?” He was on form.

    “I won’t waste your time, Philo,” I said. “Especially as I’m not going to pay for it. What do people in your business pay for recovered swag?”

    “It varies a lot. As percentage of the insured value, I’ve known it be as low as twenty and as high as fifty.”

    “Why such a spread?”

    “Could be the stuff’s insured for more or less than its true worth, maybe because values of the kind of thing concerned have rocketed or collapsed since the policy was taken out, or that whoever is offering to return it is smart, dumb, greedy or needy. There are other considerations, but I guess the above will satisfy you.”

    “Right. Pretty complicated, eh?”

    “That it is. Now look, Poirot, I’m about to watch something mildly interesting on TV. My best to the wife and children and goodbye.” Of course, he knew that I had neither spouse nor offspring to receive his good wishes. He also had no intention of ringing off until we’d exchanged a few more inanities, which we duly did.

    I spent an uncomfortable weekend trying to make sure I didn’t get separated from the recovered swag. I slept on it both nights. At noon on the Monday I phoned Mulrooney, who’d been back home for two hours. “You getting anywhere?” he said after the cursory pleasantries.

    “I have hopes,” I replied, but there are cut-outs and dead-ends involved. It’ll mean a reward.”

    “How much?”

    When I told him, he wasn’t amused. “How about I send in my orthopedic boys to kind of unblock things?” he said nastily. “Course, they’d have to start with you.”

    I laughed, projecting conviction. “Don’t think about it,” I said. “This is hard enough already. For one thing, you wouldn’t get through the maze. For another, remember what happened to the last hairy chest you sent up against me. Your present lad wouldn’t do better. And anyway, we’re supposed to be on the same side here.”

    I’d half-expected a resigned chuckle, but there wasn’t one. Clearly Mulrooney didn’t have the same attitude as good old Jack Lanigan. “Okay,” he grunted. “How do we play this?”

    “If it works at all, it’ll come off quick. Now, I have another client who’ll keep me busy most of tomorrow, but I’ll be able to slip the leash for a couple of hours. Can we settle up in the lobby of the Pine Lodge at noon – just the two of us?”

    The place I’d mentioned was a well known hostelry, near-enough midway between our two headquarters – I’d no intention of playing Daniel among the lions. Stand-off time. “All right,” he said. “Any snags, let me know.”

    Still having nothing else in hand, I tried to get back to space flight, but my efforts were futile.

    Duly at noon on the Tuesday, I had my one and only meeting with Horsehead Mulrooney – he left us shortly afterwards, following a disagreement with Joe Keyes, not long after Joe took over from Howling Jack Lanigan.

    Mulrooney was a tall thin lugubrious-looking character, and it didn’t take a second look to see how he’d got his nickname. The long narrow twitchy head said it all. We exchanged the cash, coins and reward money and he was about to leave when I asked about my fees.

    “Oh, yeah,” he said. “How much?”

    I told him and he produced a wallet, peeling off the necessary. I gave him my disappointed look. “Your boy spoke of a bonus,” I said.

    He sighed, dragging out another hundred-dollar bill. “That should cover it,” he grunted. “If I need you again, I’ll call.”

    A lousy hundred dollars. It was like giving a Pine Lodge waiter a dime tip. That was disappointing. Still, it made me feel better about having gypped Mulrooney out of a grand. I didn’t mention earlier that, in response to his enquiry about the reward, I’d given him a figure of three thousand dollars – and you’ll remember that I’d promised Pale Pete Parsons two thousand. Well, I thought a thousand was about fair compensation for the time when Horsehead turned his pet ape Kalinski loose on me in the Lanigan affair I recorded elsewhere in these narratives.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 10th, 2019 at 02:28 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  6. #16

    Oddball

    ODDBALL

    A magazine article I read some time ago stated that if all the gold ever produced were to be brought to one place, melted down and squared off, it would form a cube with sides of only sixty feet. I found that amazing. Of course, a solid base would be needed for a chunk of that size, as it would weigh about 116,000 tons.

    I’d never thought much about this subject until my involvement in the recovery of Horsehead Mulrooney’s coins, in a little matter I’d settled shortly before the one I have in mind now. As a result of the escapade concerning Horsey’s treasure, I’d been considering the lure of gold. I’d had plenty of time – no further business since the Mulrooney affair. I wasn’t worried about that, as I’d got my fees and, by conduct less pure than the driven snow, a big one from the crime boss. He left us some time ago, so I can say what I like.

    It had struck me that there was something perverse about this matter of gold. I mean, doesn’t it seem strange that people expend a prodigious amount of effort grovelling in large holes in the ground to extract the stuff, then reconsign over half of it to other subterranean caverns in the world’s banks? An alien observer would surely wonder about this. I mean, in most fields, such activity might be regarded as boondoggling. I’d pondered on. For goodness sake, if this metal is as versatile as so often claimed, why isn’t it all put to better use?

    I’m inclined to agree with the comment of, if I remember rightly, John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that as currency, gold is a barbarous relic. I’d rather invest in a society that keeps its books properly. I have the same attitude toward other so-called precious items, and wouldn’t give a dud penny for the world’s supply of diamonds, unless I could dispose of them instantly. I’d take a modest payoff; just enough to let me retire and spend the rest of my life fooling myself by thinking I was doing something useful. I may be on a wavelength of my own in this matter, since I don’t like acquisitions in general. Sorry to go on, but I just thought you might like to know what I think about these things. Anyway, all this has nothing to do with what follows here. It merely gives an indication of what flows through the mind of a detective when he’s not detecting.

    My cogitation on the subject of gold was interrupted on a Monday afternoon, when a woman burst into my office. How do I describe her, having said earlier that I’m not good at this? I saw five-four, a stocky one-thirty or so, a black two-piece costume, white blouse and black shoes with medium heels. The dark-brown hair was shortish, straight and parted in the middle. As to age, I guessed about thirty. But it was the face that caught my attention, and I hope this shows you what an upstanding fellow I am. The mouth sagged open and there was something about the eyes; an odd, somewhat loopy look. Offhand, I couldn’t work out whether the expression arose from desperation or some other form of excitement. If you saw the film ‘The Big Bus’, you may recall the splendid performance by a lady called Stockard Channing, who played the engineer responsible for the nuclear-powered vehicle. The way she maintained that nutty appearance was, in my humble opinion, a tour de force. I was looking at something similar.

    The woman’s breathing was shallow and fast. She didn’t wait for an invitation, but parked herself on one of my visitors’ chairs. “You must help me,” she gasped.

    “Must I?”

    “Yes. They’re after me.”

    “Are they indeed?”

    “Yes. Both of them.”

    “I see. And who are they?”

    “My father and that dreadful woman he’s married to.”

    “Your mother?”

    “No, his second wife. My mother is dead.”

    It began to make sense. The old step-parent syndrome. “Calm yourself, Ms . . .?”

    “Bennett. Laura Bennett.”

    I didn’t much like the ‘Laura’ bit, as I’d once had a case featuring a femme fatale of that name, who caused no end of trouble. However, a case was a case. “Right,” I said.
    Now, you’re safe here. What’s the problem?”

    “They want the Carter Stone,” she panted.

    My mind went into free-wheel. The Carter Stone! Could this be anything to do with Howard Carter and the tomb of Tutankhamen? “I haven’t heard of the object Ms Bennett” I said. “You’d better explain.”

    “Please call me Laura,” she said. “It’s an old family matter. The Carter Stone is an heirloom. The story goes back to England, four generations ago. I don’t know what’s become of the stone, but they think I have it and they’re prepared to kill me to get their hands on it.”

    She still had that strange look. The soothing approach seemed best. “Laura,” I said, “and by the way, I’m Cyril,” this is twentieth-century America, not mid-Victorian Britain. Take your time, collect your thoughts and tell me all.”

    “But what about your fees?” she said. “I don’t know if I can afford to pay.”

    “Never mind that. I’m flexible. Just give me the details.”

    She clenched her hands. “The Carter Stone was in the family for decades, Cyril. Legend has it that the inscription engraved on it leads to the place where my great-grandfather buried his money. It’s somewhere in Cornwall. You sound like an Englishman, but you say you haven’t heard of it.”

    “No,” I said. “It means nothing to me. Go on.”

    She shivered, looking around. “I saw it just once, years ago. It’s a thin slab – sandstone, I think – about ten inches by eight. There are some words and marks on it, but they never meant anything to my grandparents or my parents. When my mother died, eighteen months ago, we moved house. Somehow, the stone disappeared. My father remarried soon afterwards. He’d been having an affair with Janet – that’s my stepmother – for years. He’s always hated me because I’m the only child and he wanted a boy. He thinks I hid the stone.”

    “And you didn’t?”

    “No. It simply vanished. I’ve no idea how or where it went.”

    I gave her the wise nod. “All right, Laura. Now, do you live locally?”

    That foxed her for a moment, then: “No, I just got here today. I’m from . . . Cincinnati.”

    “I see,” I said. That’s interesting. I lived there for a while when I first came to the States. I had an apartment on Wesley Street, close to where all those insurance companies have their offices.”

    “Oh, yes.”

    “It was right next to the old college building. They were about to demolish it and put a supermarket in its place. I guess they’ve done that by now?”

    “A supermarket,” she said. “Yes, they have.”

    “Okay, Laura. So these people are hunting you. What do you want me to do?”

    “I . . . I really don’t know. Just stop them.”

    “All right,” I said. “Now, where are you staying?”

    “Nowhere as yet. I thought you could recommend something. Not too expensive. I can’t pay very much.”

    My mind flicked through the possibilities. “Yes,” I said, “I think I can. You could try Hanford’s, on Greek Street. Not pretentious, but quiet and respectable. You might tell them that I’ll be dropping in. Saves complications.”

    I knew what Hanford’s charged and told her. She was delighted. I phoned the hotel and booked her in, then we swatted our problem around, concluding that she would call me if necessary, and would otherwise go about her apparently non-existent business. I would snoop, homing in on anyone pursuing her.

    Laura departed, leaving me to think. The first point I considered was our talk about Cincinnati. I’d never been to the place and still haven’t. My interjection had been pure inspiration, and in retrospect I was quite proud of it. However, I didn’t know whether the city had a Wesley Street or whether, if there was such a place, it might be occupied largely by insurance companies. Then I thought about my ridiculous long-shot concerning the existence of an old college, recently demolished to make way for a supermarket. Why had she gone along with that?

    Next, I considered my fees. I’d finally got around to mentioning them and she hadn’t said anything in reply. That was abnormal. Usually, prospective clients fastened onto the point, no matter how difficult their circumstances were. If they didn’t, it meant either that money was no object or they didn’t intend to pay. Laura Bennett had indicated that she wasn’t in the first category. So, whatever her other attributes, she was an incompetent liar and probably wouldn’t cough up. What was her game?

    I wasn’t too churned up about this because as I’ve said I’d nothing else on and was doing well moneywise. I’d agreed to start my surveillance at seven that evening. Laura was vague about her likely movements, saying she would decide them as she went along, but certainly wouldn’t go out until the following day.

    Having heard nothing further from my strange client, I attacked a pizza which had more topping than Carmen Miranda’s hat, then drove to Hanford’s hotel. I was pleased about my speed of thought in recommending the place. Though I hadn’t been fully conscious of what had gone through my mind earlier, I had remembered that there was usually plenty of parking space in Greek Street. That always helps. On the debit side, I had no contacts on the staff at Hanford’s.

    I began my vigil at the agreed time, close to the hotel. For four hours I neither saw nor heard anything untoward and it seemed that Laura kept her word by staying indoors all evening. At eleven o'clock I called it a day and left.

    Just before nine the following morning, I was in position again, passably bright and breezy. I say passably because I had a cold, which doesn’t help the concentration. I often wonder about the snoopers I read about in novels. No matter how long their cases last, or how many they have in quick succession, they’re never indisposed by the things which affect most of us – sniffles, headaches, gut-gripes and so on – or if they have such afflictions, they don’t mention them, despite having total recall in other respects. Doesn’t that seem a little odd? Maybe these people are impervious to discomfort. What the hell, who cares about a couple of slugs in the chest, or an arm torn off? Please forgive the rambling.

    Apart from the boredom element, following Laura was easy. She finally appeared at 11.30, taking a taxi which she must have ordered. I’ve mentioned that I was not a keen observer, much less a critic, of sartorial matters, but I noted that my client was wearing the same outfit as when she’d visited me. I put that together with the fact that she hadn’t had a car or a taxi when she’d called, nor had she been carrying any luggage. That might have meant nothing, but it’s the sort of detail a PI files away. She went to the central library, staying there for nearly three hours. At 2.35 she emerged, looking around nervously. Within a minute, she flagged down a taxi, which took her back to Hanford’s, yours truly following.

    I hung around, watching the hotel entrance, thinking about that sixty-foot-a-side cube of gold – and grabbing a gargantuan turkey sandwich from an eatery over the road. Laura didn’t come out again. So that was it for the day – except for the fact that a dark-blue Chevrolet, which I’d noted tagging along earlier, both ways, was parked in the street when I started for home. It was unoccupied then, but earlier had been carrying a man and a woman.

    I was on duty again at nine the following morning. Let me not weary you with the details of Laura’s movements. They were different from the previous day, but equally ordinary. She wore the same clothes as before and got back to the hotel at 3.30 in the afternoon. The blue car, still with the same couple in it, had followed us again, finally parking about thirty yards from my spot. The man and woman, both middle-aged, got out and went into the hotel. This seemed like time for a move. I entered Hanford’s, telling the lass at reception that Ms Bennett was expecting me. I’d been prepared for some recalcitrance, but there was none. Laura had apparently followed my suggestion to tip off the staff, so I was directed to her room.

    Hanford’s was not built like a medieval castle. The outer walls were solid enough and the public areas were well-carpeted, but the interior partitioning was flimsy. Even though Laura’s door was closed, I could hear raised voices from within. Legally, my position may have been questionable, but there are times when one must go into manual override. It seemed to me that matters inside had reached a critical point, so I opened the door and stepped in, realising, not for the first time in my career, that I was approaching a possible denouement unarmed.

    “What goes on here?” I shouted – and to be quite truthful, my voice quavered a little, though I didn’t think an explanation of my presence was really necessary. Laura stood, clasping her hands and looking distressed. The two people from the Chevrolet faced her. The man, who wore a charcoal suit, white shirt and navy-blue tie with thin silver stripes – I didn’t notice his shoes – was around five-ten and heavily-built. He had close-cropped, greying hair and a trim grey moustache, both contrasting sharply with the angry red of his face. He was one of those men who even when standing still radiate balled-up energy, as though about to explode. The woman was tall – nearly the same height as the man – slim and totem-pole straight. Statuesque was the word that came to mind. She had short, jet-black hair and a pale face and wore a sheeny light-green three-piece outfit. She looked ice-cool.

    The man swung my way. “Who are you?” he snapped.

    “My name is Potts,” I said, “I’m a private investigator and Ms Bennett is my client. Now, I’d –”

    “Hold it, everybody!” The bellowed interruption came from right behind me and the voice sounded familiar. I turned, taking in a flock of new arrivals. I recognised the owner of the voice as Detective Corcoran of the local police department. In the normal run of business I had little to do with the official force and was probably tolerated as a spot of mildly exotic colour. Corcoran was one of the half-dozen or so officers known to me. Behind him was a tall thin glum-looking character and to the rear him were two shorter bulkier lads who somehow made me think of security guards, or something similar. Maybe I should have sold tickets. Discreet, hah.

    Corcoran gave me the briefest of nods, neither friendly nor hostile, then motioned me to step further back into the room. He followed, as did the lofty character. The muscles stayed put. “All right,” Corcoran said, “I think it’s time we divvied up a little information here. You first, Potts. How do you fit in?”

    I extended an arm towards Laura. “Ms Bennett here engaged me to protect her against harassment from her father and stepmother – I assume the lady and gentleman here qualify. That’s what I was trying to do when you arrived.”

    I wouldn’t have thought it possible for the florid fellow to have got any redder in the face than he already had been, but he confounded me with what looked like a fit of apoplexy. Sometimes words fail his kind. After almost choking for a moment, he waved a hand at the tall undertaker-type. “You tell it,” he snapped. “God knows you’re getting paid enough.”

    Mr Solemn inclined his head in a gesture of suave deference, which must have taken some practice. “Very well.” He faced me. “Mr Potts, you are evidently not in possession of all the facts here. I am Stanley Morton, of the Morton Institute. You may have heard of us.”

    I certainly had. He was speaking of the most prestigious private mental home in the state. I nodded. “This young lady” – he waved at Laura – “was committed to my care two years ago, following a car crash, in which she received head injuries. At the time of the accident, she had just finished reading a novel. The theme was the loss of an object called the Carter Stone, which supposedly indicated the location of certain valuables. The heroine of the book was one Laura Bennett. She was being hounded by her father and stepmother, who were convinced she had the stone. Unfortunately, the injuries disturbed the mind of the lady here – again he wafted a hand at my client – causing her to be convinced that she was this Laura Bennett. It is a most inter . . . distressing case.”

    “I see,” I said. “So who is she really, then?”

    “Her name is Elaine Buxton. She is the natural child of the couple here. The gentleman is Claude Buxton, of Buxton Electrical Industries. The lady is his wife, Susan. I regret to say that Elaine eluded our security.”

    “Leaks like a damned sieve,” snarled Buxton.

    Morton ignored that. “I contacted the police and Mr and Mrs Buxton pursued their own course of enquiry. It’s all ended here.”

    Corcoran reassumed control. “Okay,” he said, “now everybody knows what’s what. Mr Morton, if you’d care to take charge of Miss Buxton, we can all leave. We may need to talk again, but I know where to contact all of you.”

    Morton’s men in white coats, without the white coats – discretion guaranteed – hustled out Elaine, who now looked even odder in the eyes than when she’d called on me. As we left, Buxton and I were in the rear. Suddenly, he clamped a meaty hand on my left elbow. “Listen,” he grunted, “I want you to know that neither you nor this hotel will get a cent from me. This loony is costing us more than enough. And in case you’re wondering, she has no funds of her own.”

    Somehow I didn’t fancy being Buxton’s daughter, or his anything. I’d taken a strong dislike to the man even before he started mauling me, so gave him my best steely glare. “Buxton,” I said, pointing at his offending paw, “if you don’t take that thing off me, I’ll feed it to you, right up to the armpit.” I imagined no-one had ever talked to him that way. He let go and jumped away in a manner I found gratifying.

    That was how it ended. I’d lost out on two days of fees. But I was still in feel-good mode from coming out so far ahead in the adventure with old Mulrooney. My little ruse in that case began to look like foresight. Or was it more a matter of true justice? After all, I’d won one by deception, then promptly lost the next by being the victim of the same thing.

    I went back to the office and thought about that cube of gold.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 11th, 2019 at 04:41 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  7. #17

    Chancer

    CHANCER

    For a change, my desk was being used as something other than a foot-rest. The surface wasn’t strewn for effect, you understand. It was supporting genuine work. To my left – because I’m sinistral – was a sheet of paper bearing an array of diagrams. Under my nose was one of the few books I owned – most of my reading material came from the local library. This work, Business Mathematics, was written by L.W.T. Stafford, and I would like to express my indebtedness to the author for what I consider an outstanding effort.

    My cranial frenzy had been induced that morning, when I’d exchanged a few words with young Bobbie, who ran a newspaper stand near the office. Though I seldom bought his wares, he always seemed happy to pass the time of day with me. I think he considered my occupation glamorous. As I approached him, he was repeatedly tossing a coin, slapping it onto his left wrist, looking at it and grunting to himself. “Morning, Bobbie,” I said. “You look like an understudy for George Raft.”

    “Mornin’, Mr Potts. I just don’t figure it.”

    “Figure what?”

    “This coin thing. I mean, if you toss one, you’d expect a fifty-fifty chance of a head, wouldn’t you?”

    “Correct. So?”

    “Well, if you tossed it twice, you’d still reckon the same way for two heads, wouldn’t you?”

    I knew there was a catch in that, but couldn’t recall exactly what it was. However, I did remember – with commendable speed, I maintain – that my friend Stafford had something to say on the subject. Strange how these disparate things get together at the same time. “You’re wrong, Bobbie,” I said, “but I have to get to the phone right now. I’ll come back to you.”

    I was stalling of course, but Bobbie seemed to regard me as an intellectual and I didn’t intend to disappoint him. Having nothing else to do, I dug out my vade mecum and got to work, knowing that I would be dealing with Pascal and his famous triangle, or something closely allied thereto.

    After two hours of immersion, I was boned up. If you toss a coin once, the chance of getting a head is obviously fifty per cent. If you toss twice, you might get head-head, head-tail, tail-head, or tail-tail, so your chance of two heads is only twenty-five per cent. If you want to get three heads with three tosses, you have one chance in eight. With four tosses, it’s one in sixteen, and so on.

    I was about to step out and reveal all to Bobbie when I got a visitor. Like too many other callers, he didn’t bother to knock – I might as well have swapped my PI licence for a hawker’s permit and worked on the street corner. Not that an alfresco arrangement would have been appropriate for my man, who didn’t seem like the outdoors type. He was, I guessed, in his thirties, about five-ten, heavily built, with a square, clean-shaven, fleshy face and plenty of straight mid-brown hair, slicked back. He wore a dark-blue, faintly reddish-striped suit, which I suspected hadn’t come off any peg, a blindingly white shirt, maroon tie with tiny gold somethings on it and gleaming black lace-up shoes. But for the bulging in his middle reaches, he could have been a tailor’s dummy. There was something about him that put me on my guard. It might have been the grey eyes – they seemed to lack the ingenuousness I’d have liked to see – or maybe the overall turn-out which, immaculate though it was, somehow verged on the flashy. Was he a low-life who’d got lucky? What the Irish call a chancer? One shouldn’t indulge in such speculation.


    “Cyril Potts?” he asked.

    “Yes. Have a seat.”

    He thudded down like a meteorite impacting the Earth. “I need help,” he said, breathing heavily.

    “And you are?”

    “Clyde Osborne.”

    “What’s your trouble, Mr Osborne?”

    “I work for Victor Marks,” he said – and now that he’d strung more than two words together and begun to settle down, I was trying to get something from his speech. Nothing doing. It was a neutral, come-from-almost-anywhere voice.

    “Oh.” My flat, downbeat tone said it all. I hadn’t thought it possible for me to get a world of meaning into one syllable, but I must have done it.

    Osborne gave me a tight smile. “That seems to get through to you.”.

    It did. I hadn’t met, or even seen, Victor Marks, but had heard a lot about him, all of which suggested that I would be as well off without personal acquaintanceship. Superficially, Marks was a land and property developer, though I didn’t know of anything he’d developed. According to scuttlebutt, his main activities were gambling and offering unsecured loans. I wasn’t sure how the first stood with the authorities, but I didn’t see anything wrong with it. If some people wanted to place bets and he was prepared to accommodate them, where was the problem? I assumed that he kept everything above board, taxwise.

    The lending was a different matter, especially the way Marks allegedly went about it. I’d heard that those who owed him money had two ways of dealing with their predicament. The less disagreeable route was to pay up at hair-raising interest rates. The other involved a quartet of psychopaths in Victor’s employ. It was said they enjoyed rearranging the physiques of defaulting debtors. I wasn’t au fait with the details, but knitting together what I knew and what I’d heard, I reckoned that as a boneman, Marks probably ranked somewhere between Vlad the Impaler and Tamerlane.

    “I’ve heard of him,” I said. “Go on.”

    Osborne’s face had taken on what, if I were a literary type, I’d call a sickly hue. “I manage the Amethyst Lounge for Marks,” he said. “In case you don’t know, it’s a gaming house.”

    I knew where the place was and what happened there, which didn’t include much lounging, but was not aware of Marks’ involvement. I nodded Osborne on and he shifted uneasily. “Well, to cut a long story short, I’ve made a mistake. There’s this woman.”

    I avoided saying ‘cherchez la femme’. “And?”

    “She came into the place two months ago. Twenty-six years old and a dazzler. She played for high stakes from the beginning, lost a pile and was brought into my office. I’m a professional and I should have known better, but she knocked me right out of my shoes. God help me, I okayed her, in exchange for . . . well . . .”

    “Certain favours?” I suggested.

    “You’re a man of the world.”

    I didn’t recall being accused of that before, but produced a sage nod. “It comes with the job.”

    He wriggled. “Before I knew what I was doing, she was into the club for twelve thousand. She paid me in kind all right, but if I had to work out the rate, I’d have been better off with a top-class hooker. I mean, it must have worked out at fifty dollars –”

    “Yes,” I said. “I can imagine. And the result is . . .?”

    “It’s an old story,” he said. “She disappeared and the shortfall was discovered. Victor fired me and gave me a week to come up with the money. My time’s up now.”

    “And you haven’t obliged?”

    “No.”

    “So what happens next?”

    “You want me to spell it out?”

    “I don’t think that’s necessary, but I’m not clear as to how I come in, especially at this late stage.”

    He shrugged. “I don’t know that any better than you do. I’m not even sure you do come in, but I’m desperate. Look, since I came to this town two years ago, I’ve been tied up with my work and too busy to have a social life.”

    “I’d have thought your life was social by definition.”

    That brought another constipated grin. “Not really. In my world a man has associates, not friends. Oh, they give you the palsy-walsy look and slap you on the back, but believe me, if they see you fall, they’re onto the carcass like hyenas. You might find it hard to accept, but as of right now, you may be nearer to a friend than anyone else I know.”

    I was surprised, but only for a moment, after which it occurred to me that people in Osborne’s business tend to work all night and sleep during the day. Without quite thinking it through, I surmised that he was telling the truth. “I understand,” I said, “but I don’t see what I can do?”

    “Don’t underestimate yourself. You’re highly regarded in certain circles. I’ve even heard Victor mention you. Maybe if you step in and ask him to give me a little time, he’ll listen. I don’t know why I think that, but I do.”

    Now it was my turn for shoulder-jerking. “Well, if that’s all you want, I’ll try, but I think you have too high an estimate of any influence I might have. Also, there’s the possibility that Marks will object to my intercession, which could be bad news for both of us. Have you thought of just getting lost?”

    He shook his head. “There’s no escaping Victor Marks. First, he’s having me watched. Most likely he knows I’m here. Second, even if he wasn’t keeping tabs, he’d have no trouble finding me. I’ve heard of people who tried to get away from him. Not one of them made it. It’s a sport with him, like with big-game hunters. One fellow got to Scotland and another to Australia. It didn’t do either of them any good. Running isn’t an option.”

    “All right,” I said. “I don’t like it, but I’ll do what I can. How do I contact you?”

    He gave me an address in an out-of-town hotel where he’d registered under a false name, plus a phone number for Marks. As he rose to leave he forced out another pained smile. “Don’t mind my saying so, Mr Potts, but you don’t have that tough-guy look I’d expected of a man in your business.”

    I chuckled. “I was off duty when you arrived. Now that the clock’s ticking I can do ‘mean’ as well as the next man. So long, Mr Osborne.”

    After he left, it occurred to me that we hadn’t talked about my fees. Still, with all that money sloshing around they seemed trivial and anyway, I didn’t intend to exert myself unduly. Maybe a phone call and a short drive would do the trick, if it could be done at all. Being – at times – a man of action, I phoned Marks immediately. I got a secretary and told her who I was and what I wanted. She put me on hold for over a minute, then came back and without apologising for the delay said that Marks would see me in an hour, if I could make it, which I guessed meant that I’d better do so.

    I turned up on time, finding that the versatile entrepreneur occupied a modest top-floor suite in a four-storey building. Having read a slew of PI novels, I’d like to report that I was greeted by a mind-numbing lovely. In fact the gatekeeper was a severe-looking woman of fifty or so. She muttered something unintelligible, then showed me into the den.

    Marks was all smiles. He stood, indicating a chair, which I took, then he offered me Scotch. Departing from my rules concerning booze I accepted that, too. I guessed my host as forty or so. He was around five-eight, medium in build and clean-shaven, with an olive complexion, straight black hair, incisors suitable for a toothpaste advert and anthracite eyes that gave the impression of banked fires, needing only a puff of wind to fan them into flames. For a moment, I wondered what his name might have been in a different place or time. Vittorio Marconi was my first shot and I never changed it, perhaps because Victor joined the spirit world five months after our sole meeting. I didn’t learn the full details, but heard he had a disagreement with a competitor in an affair that ended with lead and concrete, in that order. Real estate work can be dangerous.

    Marks asked about the nature of my mission, then listened without interruption, his face a bland mask. When I finished, he nodded. “Most succinct, Mr Potts,” he said, in a brisk, businesslike way that suggested changing times. “Your fame got here ahead of you and from the little I’ve seen and heard, you appear to substantiate it.” He spoke quietly, his tone exuding self-assurance. “I know about your dealings with Jack Lanigan and Hors . . . er . . . Mr Mulrooney, all to your credit. However, I fail to see how that impinges upon the situation with respect to Mr Osborne and myself. If I may say so, you seem to be holding what the poker players call a nondescript hand.”

    I was impressed by his elocution and his vocabulary. “I’ve no argument there,” I said. “I’m simply introducing my good offices – so far gratis, by the way. This could be what the lawyers call a pro bono matter.”

    He was smiling again. “Very well. I appreciate your intervention and I realise that you are doing your best. However, these things have a momentum of their own and I doubt that your efforts will have much effect. Still, I thank you for your time. And now, if you’ll excuse me . . .”

    I excused him all right, and had no illusions about what I’d achieved. I’ve never met another man who gave me the impression that Marks did. In addition to being articulate, he was as calm and as smooth as they come. But he scared me. Inexorable was the word. In terms of urbanity, he was somewhat like my old friend Joe Keyes, but with a dollop of added menace.

    I wanted this thing out of the way, so I went back to the office and phoned Osborne, telling him all. He seemed to have been overcome by serenity, or maybe he’d swallowed something helpful. He thanked me for my work, but didn’t say anything about paying for it. I hadn’t the heart to raise the matter.

    Next, I remembered Bobbie, so went downstairs and along to his spot, where I staggered him with my findings concerning coin-tossing. Naturally, I didn’t tell him that the knowledge wasn’t original Potts work – self-effacement is all very well, within limits. Leaving the lad shaking his head, I walked along the block to my usual eatery for an early dinner, then went home. With a conscience as clear as my bank account – nothing much on the one or in the other – I watched a re-run of ‘The Odd Couple’ on TV. If I had to name my top ten films, that would be a contender for the number one spot. And lest you should consider me frivolous, I’d put ‘The Apartment’ only a nose behind. Full marks, Mr Lemmon.

    The following morning, I made a late appearance at the office – nothing new about that – and waited for clients. They stayed away in droves, and I wish I’d been the first one to think of that expression. Following the previous day’s immersion in Stafford’s treatise, I decided to carry on in the same vein. I wasn’t too hot on calculus, so reckoned there was no time like the present for a little polishing. I galloped along, pausing only for a sandwich lunch, washed down with a quart of tap water. At five o’clock, I was about to call it another day without another dollar when the phone rang. Good God, it might be somebody.

    I recognised the voice of Marks’ watchdog, who put me through to her boss. “Good evening, Mr Potts,” he said. I hope this isn’t an inconvenient moment.” Mellifluous.

    “Not at all, Mr Marks. I was just about to down the pre-prandial sherry but there’s always time for you.”

    He laughed. “I’m so flattered. Also, it’s calming to hear the voice of sanity, the more so now that matters have taken such an unfortunate turn.”

    Not knowing what he was referring to, I cleared my throat to give me time for thought. That didn’t help. I would have to feel my way forward. “I’m always sorry to hear of any sadness anywhere. Did you have a particular event in mind?”

    “Alas, yes, Mr Potts. We spoke yesterday of a mutual acquaintance.”

    “Indeed we did. Have you any further news?”

    “Regrettably, I have. It seems that the gentleman concerned came to grief late last night, barely ten miles from here. So strange, coming on the heels of your visit to me. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I hear the incident occurred an hour or two after a terrible mishap to two of my associates. They say it never rains but what it pours.”

    “They do indeed. Are you able to give me details?”

    “I am. As it happened, my colleagues were on their way to a meeting with that acquaintance I spoke of. Unfortunately, they had a motoring accident. It grieves me to say that both gentlemen perished.”

    I was intuiting briskly and felt that I was getting the idea. “Most distressing, Mr Marks. And unusual. I mean, there isn’t all that much traffic at night in these parts and there’s no ice, so I guess it wasn’t a pile-up or a skid.”

    “No. It seems that my associates’ vehicle encountered an array of steel spikes in the road. But then, without wishing to be disrespectful with regard to your general knowledge, I imagine you aren’t an expert in metallurgy?”

    “Absolutely not, Mr Marks. Please accept my condolences. You also mentioned the other party. Could you enlarge?”

    “I could, but as I’m quite pressed for time, may I suggest you consult our estimable local newspaper? By the way, how long will you be in your office?”

    I didn’t like the sound of that, but had no intention of ducking out. “I’d planned on being here until six.” I hadn’t, but never mind.

    “Excellent, Mr Potts. Please stay there. Goodbye.”

    Having digested the conversation, I went down to amaze Bobbie again by requesting the paper. Both items were on the front page. The first said that two self-employed security guards had died in a road accident. There was nothing about the spikes, so I assumed that they’d been cleared before the newshounds got into the act. Obviously Marks was ahead of the press.

    The second report described one of those supposedly million-to-one chances that somehow keep occurring. A local man had taken a post-midnight drive – unprecedented for him – in an effort to solve his social problems. He stopped at Southfield Rocks, a prominent landmark. Approaching the huge pile of boulders and rubble, he saw two men scrabbling at the foot of the heap. They noticed his torch bobbing along their way, abandoned their work and made off in a darkened car.

    The startled man plodded on, intent upon sitting atop the rocks. On reaching the spot where the two men had been working, he noticed a shoe sticking out of a mound of stones. Where many a man would have fled, he stayed and established the presence of a corpse. He hurried off to the cop-shop and the gendarmes accompanied him back to the scene.

    The dead man’s pockets had been emptied, but rapid police work and local dentistry prevailed. The late Clyde Osborne had had two gnashers crowned five months earlier.

    Putting two and two together, I concluded that my client had polished off Marks’ front-line troops with the road obstacle, but hadn’t been able to handle the second team, whose disposal efforts had been frustrated by the local chap. Served them right for such sloppy work.

    I was admiring my smarts when a short, chubby man of fifty or so, wearing a tweed suit and matching hat, walked in. Like Osborne, he breached my defences in a trice. I was unwilling to discard my last thought. “Hah,” I said. “You’d be the backup.”

    “The what?”

    “Backup. I think I’ve worked it out. It’s as clear to me as if I’d been there.”

    He retreated, mouth agape. “Just my luck,” he said. “I come in here lookin’ to hire a detective an’ what do I get? A damned loony, that’s what.” If a fattish man of five-five can stalk out of a room, he did, leaving me to think I’d better do something about my deskside manner.

    Five minutes later, another man came in. He didn’t bother to knock, either. Open day at Potts Investigations. This fellow really had to be Marks’ emissary – a little over six feet, buffalo shoulders, charcoal suit, dark-blue shirt, plain yellow tie and black shoes which could have doubled as car crushers. He tossed a brown envelope at me, sniggering as my hand strayed towards the drawer containing my .38. “No need to grope,” he said. “Not that it would do you any good. What you got here is a token from Mr Marks. He says to tell you he guesses you got no pay from your last case an’ he don’t like to see an honest man come up short. Forget paperwork an’ keep the lip buttoned if you know what’s good for you, right?” Not concerned about any reaction, he turned and strolled out.

    I opened the envelope. Currency. Oh, goody. Five bills, bearing numbers of a size I didn’t see too often. All’s well that ends well, I thought.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 13th, 2019 at 02:28 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  8. #18

    Nutkin

    NUTKIN

    I was in a strange state. Not exactly the doldrums – I was accustomed to that position. This was different; a kind of other-worldliness. The mood had been induced by certain items in a batch of magazines I’d received gratis. First, a group of scientists had suggested that our universe is flat – in the mathematical sense. I didn’t grasp all the details, but thought I understood the basic idea. If you draw a triangle on a table top, the sum of the angles add up, as Euclid told us, to a hundred and eighty degrees. If you do the same on a ball, the angles will amount to more than one-eighty, and if you do it on a saddle, the total will be less than that. Simple enough, I reckoned.

    The spherical interpretation, meaning that the vastness around us was, in physics-speak, closed and finite had been popular, but it seemed the boffins were veering towards the hundred and eighty degree notion. This would leave us with an open, expanding cosmos, where the galaxies are to cool into a scattering of frigid cinders. The fact that this process will take trillions of years failed to console me, as it still wouldn’t be worthwhile to start reading ‘War and Peace’.

    I’d hardly begun meditating on this news when the second part of what was to be a quadruple-whammy clouded my horizon. Another source asserted that the Sun is burning out and its death throes will engulf us in five billion years at the latest. Compared to the open universe timescale, this problem is urgent. The Earth is going to be fried before it is frozen. Then – part three – I learned that the Moon is drifting away from us at the alarming rate of about two centimetres a year. In due course, this is going to cause the planet to pitch, roll and yaw like a storm-tossed yacht. So we shall get nauseous before we are cooked before we are frozen.

    Just when I thought I had enough on my plate, part four turned up. I read that the great forests have, despite human depredations, long been absorbing carbon dioxide as fast as it has been produced, because new tree growth outstrips decay. The same article argued that something analogous applies to the oceans, with respect to their retention of methane – but let’s not go into that – the woodlands will do. What upset me was the suggestion that the greenery gets bouts of indigestion and spews up all that CO2 it’s been hoarding, so we might asphyxiate before we get nauseous, before we are roasted, before we are iced. And this breathing thing is probably due within a century. For goodness sake, that’s now! And until all this was dumped on me, I’d thought that tectonic shifts and gigantic ocean waves were troublesome enough.

    My train of thought was interrupted by a visitor, who opened the outer door, peered around the anteroom for a moment, then entered the office. As to appearance, she was quite a study. About five-eight and slim, with a ramrod posture that suggested iron discipline, a classy upbringing or both. The short straight hair had the hue – the texture too, I fancied – of iron filings, and the outfit comprised a charcoal jacket, matching skirt, white blouse and low-heeled black shoes. She wore neither watch nor obvious jewellery and didn’t carry a handbag. Seemingly a woman who stuck to basics.

    Outside, the temperature – this being late July – was way up, but she seemed frosty. What really caught my attention was the face, which was all angles, lines and wrinkles, with a severe, screwed-up look, the overall sourness intensified by small-lensed glasses with a barely noticeable gold frame. The straight, thin-lipped mouth was bracketed by deep parenthetic furrows. A prune in vinegar was my impression. The general physique seemed supple. It was as though the head had worn out it’s original body and been grafted onto a younger one. Abraham Lincoln once said that every man over forty is responsible for his face. I wondered whether he’d intended the remark to apply to women as well, then I thought that everything pithy ever said seemed to have emanated from Lincoln, Twain, Wilde or Churchill. Why did the rest of us bother to turn up?

    Emboldened by my readings about the work of S. Holmes, I formed a tentative view. The lady was probably seventyish, lonely, with a penchant for complaining and a personality that discouraged social intercourse. Good work, Potts. You have the makings of a sleuth.

    She glanced around my pit, managing to avoid holding her nose. I asked her to take a seat.

    “Mr Potts,” she said. It wasn’t a question. “You are a detective, I believe.” The voice was sharp, edgy and a little querulous, making me think of a knife-blade being dragged across a plate.

    “Yes, ma’am,” I said.

    “Well, I want you to detect something.”

    I nodded. “That seems reasonable, ma’am. What do you have in mind?”

    I’d thought that with the ice broken, my visitor might have relaxed. I was wrong. “Please don’t ‘ma’am’ me.”

    “No ma … no. Shall I say: ‘hey, you,’ or am I to learn who you are?”

    “My name is Margaret Tremayne. Mrs. I’m a widow.”

    I wasn’t surprised. The poor guy had probably jumped from a high ledge. “Excellent, Mrs Tremayne. We progress. What’s the problem?”

    “I wish you to find out what has happened to my squirrel.”

    “Squirrel?”

    She gave me the narrowest of smiles. “Very good. We’ve established that your hearing is sound. Yes, squirrel. I domesticated him.” That was entirely believable. “His name is Cyril.”

    Was I really hearing this? “Er, yes, quite. I see. Squirrel’s a Cyr . . . sorry, Cyril’s a squirrel?”

    “Correct. You may plod, Mr Potts, but you get there.”

    I tried to favour her with a grin as lean as the one she’d given me, but was no match for her. “Thank you, Mrs Tremayne. I’m flattered. Now, did you come to me because of my glowing reputation, or is it simply that your pet and I are namesakes?” For some reason not entirely clear to me, I thought that jab might have punctured her. Fat chance!

    “The latter. It seemed appropriate.”

    “Set a Cyril to catch a Cyril, eh? Fair enough. However, you raise two points here.”

    “Which are?”

    “First, I don’t do animal work. Well, I’ll qualify that. I once found a cat, but it wasn’t a real one.”

    “You recovered an imaginary cat?”

    “No, not imaginary. It was a statuette.”

    “Ah, I see. But you were successful.”

    “Eminently.”

    “And the second point?”

    “That’s more awkward. I don’t think I want to work for you, Mrs Tremayne.”

    “Oh,” – a very frosty ‘oh’. “May I ask why not?”

    “Because I think you’re an unpleasant, domineering old harridan.” I was still trying to yank her off that high horse.

    Another smile, this time fractionally wider. “Dear me, Mr Potts, tautology – and I was beginning to form such a good impression of your English. If I’m a harridan, the ‘unpleasant, domineering old’ part is redundant, surely? A harridan is all that by implication, is she not?”

    Damn, she was right. “Well said, Mrs. T. Maybe we can get on, despite all that’s passed between us.”

    She positively beamed, which is to say that I got a further millimetre of her sense of humour. “I think you will do,” she said, “and I believe you’ll take the case.” My attitude was clearly insignificant.

    I had to give it to her, she was intriguing. “Mrs Tremayne,” I said, “I don’t like you, but I think there’s a human being under that permafrost. Tell me all.”

    She folded her arms. “Cyril is not the real problem here. I am attached to him, but he is a side-issue. The difficulty arises from my relationship with my stepdaughter. She is the only child of my husband, who died three months ago. Since then, Louise has been annoying me.”

    Having recently dealt with a bogus stepdaughter, I began to hope of dealing with a real one. “Annoying you? How and why?”

    “I’m sure it’s not an original story. My husband was wealthy and had been a widower for some time. When I married him, four years ago, I believe Louise concluded that her expectations evaporated. She detested me from the outset and sees me as a manipulator and an obstacle.”

    “And you are neither?”

    “True. Now, you have assessed me as unpleasant, and perhaps that is so, but I am neither devious nor obstructive.”

    “I’ll accept that provisionally, but I’m puzzled. You say you been widowed for three months. I imagine the inheritance formalities have been settled?”

    “They have, and Louise was handsomely provided for, but she is an avaricious person. She knows that before his death, my husband had disposed of many of his assets, in some cases by transferring them to me and in others by liquidating them and donating the proceeds to various charities. Now, considering that Louise has reached the age of forty-three without ever having done anything that might be considered work, paid or unpaid, I would say that her material gains have been more than adequate. Sadly, she appears to seek wealth for its own sake, without regard to what she might do with it. I’m afraid the phrase ‘enough is as good as a feast’ has no resonance with her.”

    I nodded. Despite my initial reaction to this woman, I was beginning to think she was not quite the cantankerous crone her carapace suggested. Maybe she’d created the facade and was acting the part she thought was expected of her. “I understand,” I said. “You’ve covered why Louise has been annoying you. How is she doing it?”

    “Within two weeks of my husband’s death, I got up one morning to find a message chalked on my patio. The wording was extremely offensive, including a wish for my early demise. That afternoon, Louise visited me. I left her alone for a few minutes and discovered later that two porcelain figurines were missing from a very valuable set of six. It was a limited edition. I believe the pieces are practically irreplaceable. Then there have been the telephone calls.”

    “From Louise?”

    “I can’t prove that. The ringing comes late at night and causes me, or perhaps I should say induces me, to answer. When I do, the only response is the comment, ‘I’ll get you,’ then muted laughter. I feel sure the voice is female, though it’s disguised by a certain gruffness, no doubt assumed for the purpose. Also, the calls come from public phones and are on my private line, which is known to only a handful of people, including Louise. I’m sure no-one else who has the number would wish me harm.”

    “You seem confident about your social contacts.”

    “Mr Potts, my husband and I lived a secluded life. We rarely gave or accepted invitations. I have few friends worthy of the name and not many casual acquaintances. Louise knows this. She is also aware of my interest in wildlife and that Cyril is – I begin to fear I may as well say was – dear to me. Frankly, I don’t pretend to have plumbed the depths of Louise’s mentality, but my feeling is that she is trying to destroy my mind, in the expectation that she will benefit, should her campaign succeed.”

    “Have you spoken with the police?”

    “No. If I’m right, this is a family matter and I wish to keep it so.”

    “I see,” I said. “You want me to tackle Louise. Cyril the squirrel is incidental?”

    “Yes. Exactly as I said. By the way, Cyril is unusual.”

    “In what way?”

    “He is a red squirrel. They are more common in Europe and Asia than here and less aggressive than the grey ones. It may be that he is so tame because he escaped from captivity.”

    I risked a chuckle. “Not that I don’t consider you enchanting, Mrs Tremayne,” I said, “but how did you … er… lure Cyril?”

    “Nuts.”

    “If you say so.”

    The smile widened slightly. I’d be having her in hysterics anytime now. “When one thinks of a squirrel, one also thinks of nuts, does one not?”

    “No doubt, though normally I don’t think of either.”

    “I understand. Anyway, I built a little contraption, like a combined mousetrap and rabbit hutch. It enabled Cyril to get his nourishment while keeping him safe from predators. I even got him to eat from my hand. Each morning I set him free and each evening he returned to his food and security. Squirrels are remarkably smart. I don’t pride myself on very much, Mr Potts, but I think I did well there. However, Cyril disappeared two nights ago. You may think me paranoid, but I am persuaded that Louise was responsible.”

    I was warming to the old bat. She seemed odd and projected several negatives, but if you multiply an even number of them, instead of adding, you get a positive, don’t you? This may be a specious argument, but so what? I decided to work on that premise. “What would you want me to do?” I said.

    “Lurk, Mr Potts. You do lurk, don’t you?”

    “I certainly do, but you might want to consider the cost.” I mentioned my fees, which caused her to make mock-horrified comments about telephone numbers and national debts before accepting my standard spiel about unsocial hours and danger. We agreed on three days of surveillance, starting the following morning. She produced a money clip from a pocket, paid cash in advance and left.

    Staring at the blobs and curlicues on my desk, I evaluated the commission. I was still trying to dislike Margaret Tremayne, but couldn’t manage it. I seem to remember mentioning first impressions elsewhere, and never have been able to clarify my thinking in that respect. There are those who maintain that one shouldn’t change one’s initial views, as they’re based on instinct and therefore valid. I can’t fathom that one. The old girl was a queer stick, but I reckoned she was straight enough – and dammit, maybe she was right.

    I wasn’t left in doubt for long. Having spent an afternoon and evening worrying about our universe, I called at the office the following morning, even later than usual. Well, I had a case and didn’t want to complicate matters by sitting around inviting another. After ditching the mail, which comprised several unbeatable offers, I footled around a bit, then geared myself up for snooping and was ready to leave when the phone rang. I’d hardly announced myself, when the already familiar squawk attacked my eardrum. “Mr Potts. Margaret Tremayne here. If you didn’t believe me before, I think you will do so now.” Was there a faint trace of emotion?

    “I never said I didn’t believe you, Mrs T. What’s new?”

    “Cyril has been returned, dead. He was poisoned.”

    “Are you sure?”

    “I am. He was lying on the back doorstep this morning. I’ve just had him examined. He had ingested a toxin he could not have found naturally. Someone administered it. Need I elaborate?”

    “No, I don’t think so. Now, you told me where you live and gave me Louise’s address. Please rest assured that I’m taking the matter seriously and that we’ll get to the bottom of it. I’ll be in touch.”

    Temporarily sidelining my efforts to become a vegetarian, I wandered along the block and sustained myself with a mixed grill, then drove five miles northwards to Margaret Tremayne’s home. It was one of a line of grim stone fortresses and a perfect complement to its occupant. That gave me nothing but atmosphere, so I moved on a further four miles, this time southwest, parking a short distance from Louise’s classy ultra-modern bungalow.

    Hovering unobtrusively in a suburban area isn’t easy but I believe I coped well enough. It was a long wait, but I wasn’t discouraged. This was summer and if there was to be a sneaky outing, it would probably be at night. In the driveway of Louise’s house, there was a dinky little bright-red French car.

    Just after midday, a big maroon BMW swished up behind the smaller vehicle and a man got out. Hubby home for lunch? Forty minutes later, the large car left. Thereafter, nothing happened until 5.50, when the upmarket wheels returned. At seven, they left again. Another yawning gap left me thinking longingly of food.

    Shortly after eleven, Louise – I recognised her from Margaret Tremayne’s description – emerged from the house, got into the little red car and moved off. I followed. Louise took the back roads, but it was soon clear that she was heading towards her stepmother’s place. There were several twists and turns on the way and not for the first time I agonised over the tailing problem – I wish these suave characters who do it so nonchalantly would impart a few tips. I mean, any competent driver keeps looking in the rear-view mirror and after a little zigzagging a persistent follower begins to look suspicious, don’t you think? I know I’ve touched on this elsewhere in the accounts of my cases. Sorry to bring it up again.

    As we approached my client’s house, I fell back slightly. There was a narrow lane behind the line of Dragonwycks, giving access to the rear gardens, all bordered by dense hedges. It was here that Louise parked. I halted on the cross-street at the side, leaving my car out of sight of the French one. Further skulking showed me that Louise had switched off her car’s lights but left the engine ticking over. This was a traditional part of town, where people tended to turn in early, so most of the houses were in darkness. I legged it quietly to the Tremayne place. Full marks for thinking of rubber soles, Potts.

    The wrought iron gate was open. Louise stood on the lawn, her right hand holding a stone of about tennis-ball size. It was no great feat to guess what she had in mind, but I didn’t intend to interfere until she’d committed herself. It was as well that I hadn’t wasted time – she didn’t. I was behind her for barely ten seconds when she wound herself up and heaved her missile at a bedroom window. It was a bull. The crash tinkle-tinkle was still going on when Louise whipped round and barged straight into my arms. It was probably the most startling experience of her life, but she was a vigorous lass and by the time I’d subdued her, the light was on upstairs and Margaret Tremayne was peering out of the shattered window. I identified myself and asked her to let us in. In less than a minute the back door opened and I shoved my captive into a brightly lit kitchen, where I got my first good look at her. She was about five-three and vastly overweight, with a pasty moon of a face.

    I’d expected an outburst from Margaret, including a demand to know the meaning of all this. Wrong again. I don’t think anything would have greatly disturbed the Tremayne sang-froid. “This way,” she said, leading us into a front room and waving us to a couple of high-backed leather chairs. “You’ll take a drink, Mr Potts,” she commanded. I would. Without establishing my preference, she poured me a volume of whisky that a pike could have swum in – had she heard about private eyes? – a fairish belt of the same for herself and, to my surprise, a modest shot for Louise. “Please explain,” she said to me.

    I explained. Margaret listened without a single interruption, nod or head-shake, which further increased my already rising opinion of her.

    The few minutes that followed will be imprinted on my mind until I shuffle off the coil. Margaret laid into her stepdaughter superbly. No doubt the pen is mightier than the sword, but is the tongue mightier than either? There were biblical and Shakespearian asides galore, including something about the unkindest cut of all and I don’t know what else. But the voice was never raised. It was splendid, putting me in mind of a Royal Navy captain of, say, 1770. ‘I’ll see your spine for this, you mutinous dog. Commence punishment.’ Sorry, I’m getting carried away. Almost throughout the harangue, Louise blubbered, hands clasped to her face.

    Finally, having reduced her erstwhile tormentor to continuous pathetic snivelling, Margaret turned to me. “I’ll see you out, Mr Potts.”

    We went to the front door. “Thank you,” she said. “You have exceeded my expectations. I’m sorry you had to witness the finale.”

    “Glad to help,” I said. “Now, you’re entitled to a refund. I’ll account –”

    “That won’t be necessary. I’m more than satisfied.”

    “As you wish,” I said. “If you don’t mind my asking, what will you do?”

    “I am not a vindictive person. Higher forces will see to any retribution. I have done my earthly duty and I doubt that there will be any further trouble from Louise.”

    “Mrs T.,” I said, “I had you pegged for a disagreeable old biddy, but I hope I’m big enough to admit my mistakes. You’re okay with me, although I think your vocal chords should have a dangerous weapons permit.”

    For the first time since we’d met, I got a genuine smile, albeit a little wry. “Mr Potts,” she said, “I am seventy-four years of age and you are much younger. When life has buffeted you for a further thirty or forty years, perhaps you’ll be inclined to accept human foibles without insisting upon instant revenge for everything that others inflict upon you. Good night.”

    Maybe it was that large blast of hard booze – I hadn’t had the gall to ask for something less corrosive – but whatever the cause, I drove back home, thinking about the idea of getting on with older women.
    Last edited by Courtjester; June 23rd, 2012 at 06:13 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  9. #19

    Eccentricity

    ECCENTRICITY

    For many years, I’ve been a great believer in the idea of perfect timing. If one tries to do something at the wrong juncture, it will at best be difficult and at worst a complete failure, whereas if one does it at the right moment, things will flow smoothly. I don’t claim to have originated this notion and as a PI, was seldom able to put it into practice, but I submit that it’s true.

    On a warm sunny day, I’d arrived at the office, as usual about thirty minutes late – not that I had any advertised hours, but when I wasn’t running around on a case, I was a nine-to-five man. No sooner had I ensconced myself behind the desk than I had a visitor – I felt like a doctor who’d assumed his position and rung a bell for the first patient. Timing again. The trouble was that I didn’t feel like receiving anyone. I was preoccupied.

    The thinking had started the previous evening, when I’d begun to ponder on reincarnation. Well, after all, despite two intervening commissions I was still more or less fresh from my little adventure involving Margaret Tremayne – she of the cat-o-nine-tails tongue – who had alluded to higher forces exacting whatever comeuppance awaits us. That had got me pondering on such matters in general. It wasn’t my first foray into the field, but this time I was fully engaged and really wanted to know. I mean, when you think of the number of things you’d like to master in the course of a lifetime, or perhaps of correcting your mistakes, then consider that you have no chance of dealing with everything outstanding, you wonder about having another go, don’t you? It might not be too bad, but for the ghastly idea of trying to grow up again.

    Let me be truthful here. I am mindful of the fact that some people who’ve achieved prominence – please don’t take this as a suggestion that I have – like to talk about the deprivations of their formative years. In terms of ups and downs, my childhood was about average, and I don’t recall having had more to complain about than did most of my contemporaries. Still, I sometimes think of the words of an elderly German woman I knew many years ago, who used to say: “They are not the smallest cares that are carried in the school satchel.” Right on the mark, don’t you think? Maybe we’ll come up with a way of producing people fully-fledged, say at twenty or so, complete with programmed memories of a virtual upbringing.

    My cerebration had intensified when I’d thumbed through an atlas – I’ve long been a map freak – and noted in the preamble a graph showing the demographers’ best estimate of the growth of human population over recorded history. Of course, the experts could be wrong, but they know more than I do and I’m willing to accept their conclusions. It seems that as far as they can work out, our numbers plodded along for millennia on little more than a simple replacement basis – somebody died, somebody else appeared. Then things changed. At about the time I was born, the graph-line, which had been rising quite sharply for a while, suddenly started going almost straight up. To me, that seemed astonishing. I’d come into a world of about two billion people. At the time I’m speaking of, the figure was above twice that level and still rocketing. I reckoned that if all the souls that ever had been around were seeking bodies, we must be just about reaching balance. Then what? Apocalypse? But what if the experts were wrong? You’ll see why I was a little stressed.

    Happily, thanks to my success in the Tremayne affair and the other two cases I mentioned, both minor winners, I was all right for the next meal and had decided that the future could do its worst. I was about to move on to other matters, when my den was invaded. The incomer swept – well, on account of his build, he couldn’t exactly sweep, but you know what I mean – through my antechamber. Without so much as glancing at my tattered magazines, he bowed his way into the presence. I say bowed because he was the tallest man I’d ever encountered one-to-one. He was, I reckoned, around six-eight and a beanpole; one-eighty at most was my estimate. This animated pipe-cleaner, clad in a white tee shirt, open light-blue anorak, faded blue jeans and scruffy black and white trainers, undulated towards me. His various parts seemed to be disjointed, as though proceeding at different speeds, then re-assembling themselves at the target spot. As to age, I put him at mid-twenties.

    “Mornin’,” he said. “You Cyril Potts?”

    “Guilty,” I said.

    “What? Oh, guilty. Yeah, I get it. A joke, eh?”

    I began to wonder whether his mentality was as unusual as his physique, but he looked like a prospective client. I mean, with that appearance he probably wasn’t a salesman. I waved him to a chair. I don’t know whether giraffes sit down back-end first, but if they do, I was looking at it. “Can I help you?” I said.

    “I sure hope so.” His voice, like his upper garb, was pale-blue “My name’s Arnie Todd. There’s a guy been followin’ me around for two or three days. I’d like to know what he wants.”

    “Have you considered asking the police?”

    “Sure, but what with murders an’ rapes an’ all, they got enough to do, right? I can spare a few bucks, so I want you to look things over.”

    This was good news. A simple job, it seemed. Yet, I had one of those feelings that came over me at times. Maybe it had to do with my man’s appearance. “Fair enough, Arnie” – I just knew he wouldn’t appreciate the Mr, Mr thing. “Now, I don’t want to be offensive, but are you up to anything that might attract this man’s attention?”

    That brought a slow grin. “Nothin’ I know of,” he said. “I guess I’m just an ordinary guy. I make mattresses for a livin’. I stay with my folks, over the garage, an’ nothin’ much happens to me.”

    “I see,” I said. “What about your free time? Anything odd there?”

    He shook his head. “Don’t think so. I guess a guy like me” – he swept his body with a hand that but for the thin bones could have held a hundredweight of coal – “don’t go over too good with the dames. Side from that, there’s nothin’ I can think of. I wander around town a little an’ go to the pictures twice a week. Mostly, I just live quiet.”

    I’d never come across a more ingenuous-seeming man. This looked like a gift of maybe a day or two of work. Yet, some of my most complex cases had started in apparently mundane ways. “Why don’t you just confront this fellow?” I said.

    “Can’t rightly say,” he answered. “I guess I’m just shy. Don’t want to make a fuss. But I know I’m right. I’ve stopped a few times an’ looked back. Every time I do that, he stops, too. He pretends to be lookin’ in shop windows, ckeckin’ his watch or tyin’ shoelaces.”

    “And you’re quite sure it’s always the same man?”

    “Yes, I am. He’s a good bit older than me, short – five-fiveish – fat an’ goin’ bald. I can tell that ‘cause he doesn’t wear a hat. He always wears jeans like mine but newer, a padded red jacket and black sneakers. Oh, an’ he smokes cigars.”

    Whatever other qualities Arnie Todd had, he sounded like a first-class witness. In my line of work, I’d encountered some beauties, including a middle-aged woman who’d claimed to have been followed by a ‘strange’ man, about six feet tall, brown-haired and smart-looking. I’d collared the fellow, who was five-eight, had hair as black as a raven’s wing and was dressed like a hobo. Yet she’d identified him without hesitation – which had surprised me more than anyone else, as he was her husband.

    “Okay, Arnie,” I said. “Now, today’s Thursday. What are your immediate plans?”

    “Nothin’ special.” he said. “I’m takin’ a piece of my vacation this week, so I’ll just be strollin’ around.”

    “All right,” I said. “Give me your address and phone number and I’ll get onto it tomorrow morning.” He told me what I needed to know and we agreed that he would follow his intended course, then he paid me for two days in advance and left.

    I was on duty at nine the following morning. The Todd place was a modest two-storey house in the uptown sprawl. Arnie emerged shortly after ten. As we’d arranged, he ignored his car. He gangled along the drive and headed towards the central shopping area. I followed, reminding myself that this was not the first case of its kind I’d handled. I thought in particular of the Gordon Prentiss matter I’ve already recorded – there’s a good deal of repetition in a PI’s life.

    When Arnie began his amble around the stores, I parked and started my stealthy shadowing routine. For well over an hour I earned easy money, then our man turned up. My client’s description was accurate. The pudgy little fellow was dressed in a quilted scarlet jacket, blue jeans and black shoes. As far as I could tell, he seemed to be fortyish. The hair he had left was plastered across a soccer-ball head and yes, he was smoking a cigar. He followed Arnie and I followed him.

    The procession went on for over three hours, punctuated when Arnie called in at a restaurant, where he stayed for twenty minutes, while Redjacket hovered across the street, munching something he took from a paper bag he’d been carrying. Finally, Arnie walked back towards home. Our man trailed him for a while, legging it to keep up. Then, apparently satisfied, he turned off down a side street. I’d been following in the car and put on a spurt, wanting to see where the little fellow went. I took the same turn-off as he had. He wasn’t in sight. All I saw was the black rear end of what must have been a long car, turning into another byway. I zoomed after it, swung into the same street – and found a stretch of emptiness. I cruised along hopefully, but the big vehicle had vanished in the suburban maze.

    To be honest, I wasn’t proud of myself. I mean, I could have accosted Redjacket at any time in the last two hours. I tried to rationalise my inaction by telling myself that I didn’t want to confront him in a busy public area, as that might have been embarrassing all round. The truth is that I was spinning the matter out to justify my two days’ pay.

    On the way home, I sought entertainment on the radio, but aborted the effort after listening to two disc jockeys telling me what they were about to offer. Without wishing to be curmudgeonly, I can’t help wondering whether there are any other people who attack their work with the brainless zeal exhibited by some DJs. Do they start spinning a disc, then roll back their castored chairs to an in-house physician who gives them a shot of neat effervescence, to prepare them for the next burst of vivacity? I really must stop going along these mental byways.

    That evening, I phoned Arnie, telling him I was persuaded that his suspicion was well-grounded. I suggested that we find a spot where we wouldn’t cause a scene. We decided on a plan of action for the following day, then I went back to my pad, cogitating on karmic matters.

    I must say that Arnie Todd was the ideal client. He did everything just right. When I’d indicated that we needed to lure our man to a quiet place, he’d pointed out that there was an old warehouse, due to be demolished, about halfway between his home and the shopping precinct. The work hadn’t begun and the spot was usually deserted. We arranged that Arnie would try to get Redjacket to follow him there, then I would step in.

    It worked well. On the Saturday, the three of us more or less repeated Friday’s movements for a while, then Arnie sauntered off towards our destination. Redjacket followed him and I tagged along in the rear.

    When he got to the warehouse, Arnie walked along its full length, then turned the corner, to take up the position we’d agreed on. Dumpy was still in pursuit, and when he rounded the end of the building, I sidled after him, moving slowly to allow for developments. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The timing was perfect – there we go again – the right moment. As I poked my head around the corner, Arnie was facing my way, looking bemused. Redjacket had his back to me. His arms were outstretched in what seemed like entreaty. He was obviously speaking with some animation but all I caught was: “. . . and if you don’t, you’re finished here and now. I’ll drop you –”

    That was enough for me. For the severalth time, I’d forgotten my gun, but I stepped up behind my man and applied a thumb to his kidney region. “Hold it,” I snapped. “I have a stick of celery here and I’m not afraid to use it.”

    Shorty went right into the spirit of things. “Okay,” he said. “You got me. Just don’t give it to me in the back. I’d like to see you before I go. And anyway, couldn’t you have made it a carrot? I mean, celery, for God’s sake.” His tone was not entirely serious.

    “All right,” I said. “Face this way. Keep your hands open and in view.”

    He turned, flinging out his already extended arms still further, in complete supplication. But what was I to make of his eyes? They seemed to suggest a combination of mischief and humour. I simply couldn’t detect a threat. Naturally, he saw at once that I had no weapon. “Where’s your gat?” he said.

    “Gat?”

    “Gat.”

    “What?”

    He registered incomprehension. “Your iron. Your rod. Your piece. Your stick? You do speak English?”

    I was taken aback, but wavered only for an instant. “Never mind that. What goes on here?”

    “Who are you?” he said.

    “I’m asking the questions here. Now, give.”

    “Just a minute,” he said. “Let’s do this right. You didn’t say ‘reach’ or ‘freeze’.”

    “All right. Reach and freeze.”

    “Make up your mind,” he said. “If I’m reaching, I can’t freeze at the same time, can I?”

    “Good point. Reach first, then freeze.”

    He obliged. “That’s fine,” I said, beginning to tire of this vaudeville routine. “Now, what’s what?”

    “No problem. I was just telling Stilts here what a future he has in –”

    That was as far as he got when we were interrupted by the feathery swish of well-bred rubber on concrete. I turned to see a black limousine, marginally shorter than the warehouse. A middle-sized, extremely natty fellow got out of the front passenger seat. Dark-blue suit – custom-made for sure – black shoes polished to high shine, white shirt and blue tie with silver stripes. From somewhere near the limo’s stern two hefty, grim-looking lads emerged.

    Smartypants approached. I was prepared to defend my life, even without celery, but he didn’t seem to have hostile intentions. “So glad I arrived in time,” he chirruped. “I hope Teddy hasn’t been troubling you.”

    “Teddy? Troubling?” I said, having language difficulties.

    He extended a hand towards Redjacket. “Ah, it seems you haven’t been introduced,” he said. “Allow me to present Teddy Whitley. And you are?”

    Still dazed, I gave him my name and Arnie’s, telling him my occupation and what we were doing there. My client stood, arms akimbo, even more puzzled than I was.

    His Dapperness smiled. “I see,” he said, flicking a forefinger at his two companions, who moved in behind Redjacket. “Now, Teddy,” he said, “your mother needs you. Please go along.” The heavies, taking an arm each, frogmarched their charge to the car.

    “I’m sorry if you’ve been inconvenienced,” said Mr Upmarket. “My name is Harland. I keep an eye on Teddy. Unfortunately, I lose him occasionally. This is a case in point. I imagine he was propositioning your client?”

    Since I didn’t know what Teddy had been doing, I turned to Arnie for an explanation, but he seemed to have been rendered speechless. Harland wasn’t. “I think I can guess,” he said. “In view of your height, I suppose it was probably basketball, Mr Todd?”

    At last, Arnie spoke. “Right,” he said. “He was goin’ on about a career in –”

    “Quite,” Harland interrupted. I’m afraid that Teddy is given to delusions. At present, he’s a freelance talent spotter. Last week, he was pursuing a very large man, whom he fancied as a member of a proposed football team. It was quite trying. My associates were obliged to . . . er . . . subdue the gentleman. Of course, he was compensated. A month ago, it was a young lady – a Hollywood prospect, in Teddy’s view. That was more costly.”

    I shook my head. “Shouldn’t he be in some kind of secure place?” I said.

    “I hope it won’t come to that,” Harland replied: “Usually he’s harmless – though he was once Ghengis Khan for a week, which was difficult. Teddy is the only child of the Whitleys, who are quite wealthy. If he’d come from a lower social stratum, he would probably have been considered a nuisance to the public. As it is, he’s regarded as eccentric. Now, please allow me to apologise again and to defray your expenses.” He hauled out a wallet and extracted from it a thick swatch of bills. Here’s my chance, I thought. I reckoned I could have tapped him for a week, but thinking of my code, I decided to settle for four days, so gave him the figure.

    “Most satisfactory, Mr Potts,” he said. “You might have tried to milk the situation excessively, but you’ve been quite reasonable. I happen to know that the case has occupied you for only two days, but let us not have a scene. Irrespective of what you receive from Mr Todd, I’m agreeable to four days from my resources, assuming that he is prepared to consider the matter closed.”

    Arnie was out of earshot, which I thought was just as well, since he’d already become a sideshow at what should have been his big event. I spoke for him. “I’m sure he’ll go along.”

    Harland beamed. “So good of you to understand,” he said, handing over the greenery. “I apologise again for any inconvenience. Now, I must be on my way.”

    He went back to the car, leaving my client and me in the desolate surroundings. Thinking in terms of good PR, I pointed out to Arnie that he’d paid me for two days and that we hadn’t fully used up the second one. I offered him a proportional refund. He demurred, but I thrust it upon him, using part of the loot I’d just received from Harland. I was well over three days’ pay ahead and had a happy customer. Good business all round.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 16th, 2019 at 01:51 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  10. #20

    Heiress

    HEIRESS

    It was another one of those times when there was nothing to do but think. No current cases, no paperwork outstanding, my library books all read and due back that day, but not during office hours – such recklessness might have caused me to miss a client. I never was one for puzzle games and I’d temporarily had enough of playing myself at chess. The trouble there is that you should always get a draw. If you start winning, it’s time for auto-analysis before some shrink comes along to take over. Outwitting oneself isn’t right, right?

    To help my thinking, I’d been staring out of my office window, viewing the elements with some satisfaction. There was no weather of note, which suited me nicely. It was just a day, neither hot nor cold, with no sun, rain, wind, snow or ice. I wished every day would be the same. Give me a light high overcast, a middling temperature and no nasty stuff, neither enervating heat, nor bone-crushing cold, and especially no precipitation. Sometimes I think that we aren’t the products of earthly evolution. If we are, why should we be so sensitive to every twist and turn of nature? But such deliberation never gets me far. If we didn’t evolve here, we did so elsewhere, which amounts to the same thing, wouldn’t you say?

    Anyway, that wasn’t the main subject of my musing. What I’d really been trying to do was make sense of human history. I wondered why it seemed to be a depressing succession of conflicts. That didn’t make sense to me then and doesn’t now. I’ve lived in three different countries and like to think that the vast majority of people everywhere just want to get on with their lives in peace, neither repressed nor agitated by crackpot leaders – especially those with territorial ambitions. What are you to do with a vanquished foe who has a different culture, language and perception from yours? Why not talk more and fight less? Down with tyrants and up with democracy was my cry. There I go again, digressing – or I would be if I’d made a start. Furthermore, I keep asking questions, which you might be kind enough to regard as rhetorical. What we need here is focus.

    I’d just about got all my ducks lined up in these matters of weather and history when I noticed that my waiting chamberette had been invaded by a visitor. Would wonders never cease? Damn, another question. There was a knock at the door of the sanctum. I grabbed my stage-prop work-in-progress file, looked studious and bawled an invitation. The door opened, admitting a most admittable entrant. She was, I guessed, thirtyish, about five-eight, slim, with a bell of smooth black hair. The complexion and facial contours were just so. Though no expert in sartorial matters, I was impressed by the lady’s dress sense. She wore a plain, light-grey jacket, skirt and blouse that I rated at a large chunk of average annual income – mine, anyway – plus accessories which would have accounted for the rest. “Good morning,” she said. “I assume you are Cyril Potts?”

    The voice tallied with the appearance – low, dark, smooth, flowing, seventy per cent cocoa-butter content. “Correct,” I said. “Please take a chair.”

    She sat, pulling in her legs, leaving the knees slightly aslant and partially covered. I would have preferred a shorter skirt, but that was merely lust. Her hands held a small fortune in deceased crocodile, topped by a thin clasp of what I guessed was real gold. Never mind the wear and tear – she probably didn’t use any handbag more than one day a month. The shoes seemed like other bits of the late reptile. “You appear to be busy, Mr Potts,” she purred. “I wonder if you might have time to investigate the death of my father?”

    I closed the file. “Possibly. Who are you?”

    “My name is Amanda Thornton.”

    Thornton! In this town, that name had some resonance. Could she be connected with the recently deceased Anthony Thornton? If so, I was in socially elevated company. The old boy had left us a few days earlier, apparently as a result of self-administered poison. He’d been quite a figure in the local business world. Not the quintessential tycoon, as he’d inherited his construction company, but a substantial presence and undoubtedly a multi-millionaire. And I seemed to recall he’d been a widower with one child, a daughter.

    Still, there was this ‘Amanda’ thing. That troubled me. I once had a ladyfriend who was into names and numbers. She’d told me that I should watch my step when dealing with females whose names were dominated by the letter A. When it’s fifty per cent, be particularly careful, especially as the number of letters increases, was her advice. Offhand, I couldn’t think of anything to beat Amanda. I tried, thinking of Anna (too short), Arabella, Araminta (both under fifty per cent) and one or two others. Later, I came up with Amalia, but wasn’t sure whether that was fair. If you’ve any better offers, please don’t let me know – the above-mentioned lass and I parted after a brief liaison and I don’t want too many reminders of what might have been. Also, I don’t wish to offend any Amandas. I’m simply passing on what I heard, which may have been a baseless assertion.

    “Ah,” I said, a little too loudly. Then I stopped, momentarily tongue-tied.

    My visitor presented me with a mock-demure smile, plus another welcome half-inch of knee. “What does ‘ah’ mean, Mr Potts?”

    “Sorry,” I said. “I was just wondering whether you’re in some way –”

    “My father was Anthony Thornton,” she broke in. “I thought it best to tell you that immediately. He died last week.”

    “Yes. Yes, of course. I heard that he’d left us. My condolences.”

    “Thank you. Now, you indicated that you may be available. Could you start at once?”

    She was clearly the no nonsense type. “I’m working on two cases,” I said – may God forgive me – “but I might be able to shuffle things around. However, you have me puzzled. I heard that Mr Thornton died by his own hand.”

    She inclined her head a fraction – people in her stratum of society don’t actually nod. She also adjusted her pose – not exactly fidgeting, but showing a little more leg – quite distracting. “That’s correct, Mr Potts. However, the police have been asking some rather pointed questions, for reasons which are clearer to them than to me. As the sole beneficiary of any consequence, I wish to make every effort to dispel whatever doubts the authorities may have. I really can’t imagine why there should be any complication, but I would like to demonstrate that I have taken every step within my power to establish that nothing improper occurred, and I shall not rest until the affair has been examined by an independent party.”

    That was original. I mean, why should this woman be seeking my services in what seemed an open and shut case? Somehow, I seemed to detect a whiff of something not quite kosher in the air. Don’t ask me why. It’s just a sense one gets after years of sniffing around in places where the average nose doesn’t venture. “Very well, Ms Thornton,” I said. “Now, I think it’s important to take in the scene. Could we get together at your father’s house?”

    “Certainly. I still live there. If you’re ready, we can go now.”

    I’m usually presentable, so after I’d done a little tie-straightening and rubbing of shoes against trouser-legs, we left. Ms Cool had arrived by taxi, so we took my car. It was a six-mile drive to the Thornton residence, which I’m pleased to report was not on some ‘Heights’. I know I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but one gets allergic to places called Heights in a town that has only a few humps, barely worthy of the name. Maybe it’s a social north-south thing.

    I’d like to say the house was Gothic, but to me that implies both gloom and isolation, and this place, or rather its garden, fronted onto a main road. Still, it had bags of dark atmosphere and the odd turret, so I maintain that it was as near Gothic as suburban life gets. The huge pile of rough-dressed sandstone looked as if it had been designer-blackened in an English mill town. It was the sort of place to which one expects to be admitted by an elderly retainer, portly yet somehow lugubrious, but Ms Thornton had her own key. She led the way into a sitting room and after inquiring into my taste in drinks, produced an excellent sherry for me – your every need fulfilled – and something short and colourless for her.

    She hadn’t bothered to ask about my rates and the clock was ticking, so I thought it best to move things along. “Forgive me, Ms Thornton –”

    “Amanda, please,” she interjected.

    “Very well,’ I said. “Call me Cyril. I was about to say that I’m still at a loss here. You said the police are prying and you don’t know why?”

    I’d expected a shrug, but Amanda didn’t oblige. “I don’t pretend to grasp the official mentality,” she said. “However, the butler went to my father’s study to call him for dinner. When there was no response, he went in and found Dad sprawled over the desk, dead. Near his right hand was a small bottle, which it was found had contained cyanide. He was sixty-eight, and even though we’d been together all my life, I won’t try to guess what goes on in the mind of an elderly widower. All I can tell you is that he had been very dispirited since my mother died, three years ago.”

    “I see. And as far as you know, the poison is the only reason why the forces of law and order are so interested?”

    Now she did shrug, and I understood why she didn’t make a habit of it. Coming from such an elegant creature, it seemed out of character. “So it would appear. There is nothing untoward about the matter, but I wish to demonstrate that I shall not feel comfortable until it has been clarified to the authorities’ satisfaction.”

    I was bemused. She’d mentioned this ‘wish to demonstrate’ thing twice and it didn’t sound right. I mean, why the necessity?” It seemed like over-compensation.

    We tossed the matter to and fro for a while, including the question of my fees – which moved her about as much as a fly on a wall in China would have done – then I inspected the study, learning nothing. I left, promising to strain my sinews on the case. By then it was dark. I went back to my car, which was parked in a side street facing the Thornton house. Here, events took an odd turn.

    I’d meant to move off right away, but the fact is I wasn’t feeling well. Maybe it was the prospect of work to do, which represented a sudden change from my modus vivendi at the time. Anyway, I sat for a while before deciding to leave. I was about to do that when a big white Mercedes swished through the Thornton gateway. That struck me as odd, since Amanda had directed me to my parking spot. Why there, when the conventional approach was so obvious? Maybe she’d just wanted to avoid a traffic jam at the house.

    The car disgorged a tall broad fair-haired hunk. He walked – I thought a little unsteadily – to the front door and went into the house without knocking. Maybe he was a cousin, but somehow, I didn’t think so. I was even less disposed to that view a minute later, when he entered an upstairs room and Amanda rushed towards him with open arms, then stopped, turned and hurried over to close the drapes. Drat!

    Some say that much of a PI’s work is hunch, born of experience. I confess that on this occasion, neither of those factors was involved. I was just dawdling. Half an hour later I was still on the spot, thinking, when Mr Shoulders came out of the house, went back to his car and reversed into the street. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, deciding to follow him. I really don’t know why. I mean, if he was suitor, why not? Apart from being a notable heiress, Amanda was a stunner. For a moment, I had the slightly delirious vision of admirers standing in line around the house.

    I followed my man southwards and after a four-mile drive he turned off into the parking lot of a booze dispensary. There’d been little traffic around and as we’d taken a couple of byways, he’d probably noticed that I was right behind him. If he had, it didn’t matter. I know I’ve mentioned this tailing business more than once, but it was quite a headache. I drove on for about a minute, then returned, entered the lot and halted close to my man’s wheels.

    Cars parked in darkness are a piece of cake – PI Manual, Lesson Eight: Stationary Vehicles’. In less time than it takes to tell I had, as they say, effected entry – okay, the doors weren’t locked. My rummaging told me that the man was Frank Tetley and that he lived three miles from the drinkery. Nothing else. He seemed to be the neat type.

    As I walked in, Tetley was lurching over to a booth, chewing on something short and dry. My, he was big; about six-four and as wide and deep as they come. I ordered a beer, carried it over and sat opposite him, asking if he minded.

    “Yeah, I mind,” he said. “It’s a big country. Go somewhere else.”

    “Now, now, Frank,” I said. “I really –”

    “How do you know who I am?” he growled. Petulant.

    “It’s my business to know things,” I said. “Talk to me about Amanda Thornton.”

    He worked up an angry, purplish flush, so I added ‘choleric’ to the assessment. “How about I just tag you one?” he growled. “Left jaw, say around five o’clock.” His speech indicated that the current drink was far from his first that day.

    I chuckled. “Calm down,” I said. “You’re a big lad, but I’m a rough-houser by trade. You wouldn’t get near.” In retrospect, I was amazed at my own audacity. If he’d really walloped me, I’d be still circling the Earth at a height of three feet.

    My effrontery worked. “What do you want?” he said.

    “Just a few words about you and Amanda,” I answered mildly. You don’t have to talk, but if you refuse, I’ll draw my own conclusions.”

    “I should still swipe you,” he said, his delivery slurred more than somewhat. A man loaded with liquor should try to avoid alliteration, especially with sibilants.

    Tetley had, it seemed, acquired his bulk at the cost of his intellect. After pacifying him with a few more words, I began to stow more of the hard stuff into him, working on the male bonding thing. I got quite a lot out of him. When I judged he was far enough gone, I needled his ego. I won’t tell you how – the technique’s a trade secret, to be used only on drunks – but it did the trick and he insisted on our returning to the Thornton residence. We’d clear up this nonsense, wouldn’t we?

    Within an hour of our first words – and after I’d chugged along in the wake of some erratic driving by Frank – we were back at our starting point, where a surprised Amanda let us in. Had the butler already retired to his nook, or was this his day off? We went into the room I’d been in earlier.

    The involuntary hostess was dressed in something light, long and flowing, which I can’t accurately describe – remember I’d taken a few belts, too. I think it verged on the diaphanous, with some sort of pale floral motif. “What’s going on?” she said, with a note of sobriety which I thought altogether unwarranted at that time of evening.

    Although I say it myself, I was rather good. “Amanda,” I replied, “I’ve returned your boyfriend, sound in wind and limb, except for the wind bit. Come to think of it, the limb department’s a little below par, too. Now, what the hell is this all about?” Always answer a question with a question.

    She shot a withering look at Tetley. “You’ve been talking, haven’t you?” she snapped.

    “Listen, Mandy,” he mumbled, “I only said –”

    “I can imagine,” Amanda interjected. “And I’ve told you not to call me that? Your being drunk is no excuse.” She turned to me. “Where do we stand now?”

    I was far from clear where we stood, but wasn’t inclined to confess. This was a time for bluffing. “Your paramour has been spilling beans,” I said. I probably stumbled over the ‘paramour’, but must have been convincing enough. “I guess I know more or less everything. Look, Amanda, I’m not a moral policeman, but I think it would be best all round if you’d give me your version. As long as no crime has been committed in the legal sense, the matter needn’t go beyond this room.” I hooked thumb at Frank the Feeble. “By the way, how did you get attached to him?”

    “Indoor athletics,” she whipped back, giving her boyfriend a look which could have curled a thick steak. “Are you a family man, Cyril?”

    “No,” I said. “Ties can lead to vulnerability.” That was another word I shouldn’t have tried, but I got away with it.

    She inclined her head. Still not an outright nod, so she remained in charge of herself. “Very well. So perhaps you don’t understand generational stresses. The fact is that my father had outlived his usefulness. You don’t need every detail. I told you he’d been depressed since my mother’s death. In fact, he was a broken reed, but with respect to me he was unnaturally possessive. Having lost his wife, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing his daughter, too. He persisted in finding fault with every man I invited home. His attitude became irrational. To put it bluntly, his time had come. When it happened, Frank – incidentally, my father loathed him – was there for effect only. A big muscular type, you see. We simply induced an ageing man to face certain facts unpalatable to him. There was this bottle on his desk –”

    “Wasn’t that a little too convenient?” I said.

    She smiled, and I’ll admit I’d have been less uncomfortable facing a grinning tiger. “Don’t try to fathom that one, Cyril. Just accept that the poison was my father’s idea. He did what Socrates had done, long ago – I think it was 399 B.C., and in that case the drink was hemlock.” It sounded like she’d been studying. “What my father took was . . . well, I’ve already told you. So you see, there was no crime. It was just a matter of an old, lonely man precipitating the inevitable.”

    “I see,” I said. “What about my fee?” I was trying to register disgust, and to get out of that unhappy house; an even darker place inside than outside.

    She stepped over to an armchair, picked up the handbag I’d seen that afternoon and fished out a wad of bills. She didn’t count them, just passed the lot over to me. I took my cue from her. Without checking, I knew that I was handling ten times my charges for a day. The noble types must deal with such things as they see fit. I pocketed the loot and made for the door, taking a last look at the lean, predatory Amanda and the glassy-eyed, dimwitted Frank, the white woman’s burden.

    This dismal tale was far from the zenith of my career and I wouldn’t have told it, but for what happened later. About six months after the incident I’ve recorded, Frank Tetley died from injuries he sustained on being heaved through a third-floor window by a man much smaller – and apparently far tougher – than he was. It seemed that as a result of being crossed in love, or what passed for it in his book, Tetley had become a muscle-bound wreck. Less than a year later, Amanda Thornton-Barnes, who hadn’t wasted time in tying the knot, perished on crashing her car into a gatepost of the ancestral pile – she hadn’t moved house – when returning alone from an evening’s revelry. The word on the street was that she was deep into drugs. Poetic justice?

    By the way, I fouled up with the library books, returning them a day overdue. That’s just not right.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 18th, 2019 at 02:18 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustn’t sigh and you mustn’t cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

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