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  1. #21
    I just read your first chapter (section: Footwear) and it was great. Mr. Potts had started the tale as an interesting enough character to keep me reading on. The case was petty enough to keep me reading as to what the shoe case was leading to. Your reveal of the publication ruse ended the tale on a happy note.

    For an introduction to the personality of Mr. Potts (ethically and eccentrically set apart from other detectives) it was done well. It makes me wonder how he handles other cases, and opens the door as to why he is able to receive business in the future. A good statement in an undercover consumer digest story will increase his business.

    Good job.
    ALSO: I wanted to post my thoughts after the first tale before I read onward as to not taint my initial thoughts with more than your introductory chapter.

  2. #22
    As far as the humor goes, it's a very subtle humor based around lots of small oddities. I know I'm amused by this approach, and can only assume that other readers will take to your subtlety. It certainly isn't the humor of punching the joke or sitcomesque awkwardness that many people have become used to. How have the reactions been in that regard? (That's not rhetorical. I'm interested.)

  3. #23

    Extortion

    EXTORTION

    Just as I was about to leave for lunch, the phone rang. Ah, a prospective client, I thought – business calls far outnumbered personal ones. Paradoxically, despite being low in the funds department, I wasn’t really hoping for a case. First, it was a wet and windy day and I didn’t want to go out. Second, I was thinking. The subject was density. Not the mental kind, you understand – I was grappling with nuclear physics.

    Being surprised was not new to me, but I’d been particularly startled to learn that nearly everything is, by normal reasoning, emptiness. I’m not referring to the great extraterrestrial void, but to the things we encounter daily. I’d thought that iron was pretty tightly packed stuff, and was aware that some other metals were more so, but had been taken aback to learn that even these substances consist mostly of vacant space. I’d been reading about neutron stars. In case you don’t know – and if it’s any consolation, I didn’t – the idea is that atoms have nuclei, surrounded by electrons, and that what lies in the relatively large gap between these two parts is pretty well nothingness. I won’t go into detail because I don’t know how, but in certain extreme circumstances, the electrons are stripped away and the nuclei get together – and that’s density. If one could get a cupful of this stuff, it would weigh millions of tons. Awesome, what?

    I’d chewed this over for some time before hitting upon a convincing analogy. Think of a bicycle wheel. When it’s static, you can put a hand through the spaces between the spokes. Then, if you start to turn the wheel, you can’t do that. If you get it spinning fast enough, you are for all practical purposes confronted with a wall. Having worked out this comparison all by myself, I reckoned that I might get other clever ideas. You’ll appreciate that I needed time to ponder.

    I picked up the phone – one day I was going to do that and bark: “Hawkins,” or “Hawkshaw,” or anything with ‘Hawk’ in it. “Cyril Potts,” I said.

    “Good morning, Mr Potts. My name is Barbara Newby. I’m personal assistant to Commodore Philip Kenny. Perhaps the name is known to you.”

    I liked the voice, an upmarket English one unless I was mistaken. The tone was low, melodious, soothing – I could have gone to sleep on the spot. A woman of mature years, I guessed. As for Commodore Kenny, who hadn’t heard of him? He was one of our most prominent citizens. I’d long assumed that he’d reached his position after decades of naval service, but that was before I heard that the rank of commodore in the US Navy was suspended for many years after World War Two. On learning this, I’d converted to the idea that maybe Kenny had got his title the honorary way, by being president of our yacht club – though inland, we do have one. Well, we’re served by a navigable river and there’s a sizable lake nearby, so I suppose that’s good enough.

    I never got round to enquiring into the commodore’s seafaring credentials, but do remember that shortly after my dealings with him, he surprised many people by selling his house and moving to the coast, so perhaps he did have brine in his veins. And anyway, wasn’t landlocked Hungary governed for a couple of decades by an admiral? Can’t you just see him standing proudly at the stern of a rowing boat on Lake Balaton? Beg pardon, I’m drifting.

    Kenny had considerable business interests and at the time I’m speaking of, he owned several companies, including a boatyard and a sawmill – probably connected, I imagined – and had a slew of high offices in other organisations. He was also quite a social animal, always opening this, attending that, or officiating somehow at the other event. A high profile chap.

    The thought sped through my mind that this was perhaps the naval phase of my life, as only two or three years earlier I’d had an exceptionally vivid dream featuring an admiral, in a case I recorded earlier. So, the connection was tenuous, okay?

    Back to Ms Newby. “Let me see,” I said. “Oh, yes. I believe I did hear it somewhere.” Casual. That’s the way to deflate ‘em.

    If I’d ruffled Newby, it didn’t show. “The commodore asked me to call you in the hope that you might be able to visit him about an urgent matter. Unfortunately, he has a tight schedule, but has a brief open period this afternoon. Would it be possible for you to come here at about three o’clock?”

    It wasn’t too subtle. I could almost hear Kenny speaking: ‘Don’t offend this Potts fellow, but make it clear that he’s not in our social stratum. He calls on us, not we on him. Tell him anything, but get him here.’

    I decided it was time for me to reply in kind. “Well, as it happens, I have a client at 1.30,” I lied, “but I can manage three o’clock. That’s if the commodore lives in or around town.” I knew where his home was, but made a show of taking directions.

    I got there on the dot. The house was on one of our few modest elevations, the grounds sweeping down to the road and surrounded by a low stone wall. The black wrought-iron gates were wide open to a driveway of red gravel. The main structure – there were several outbuildings – was a modern two-storey job and smaller than the Pentagon. It was designed to impress, and it did. My preferred pedestrian arrival wouldn’t have worked here, and anyway, what red-blooded male would pass up the chance of letting his wheels crunch along such an approach?

    I was admitted by a tall thin sad-looking fellow, who did the ‘please follow me’ bit, then buttled off across the hall and along a couple of corridors, carpeted with green stuff that looked as though it might need regular mowing. He stopped at a door which looked like solid beechwood. Having announced me, he slid out and I slid in. The room was about twenty-by-fifteen feet, equipped as an office, with filing cabinets and an intimidating array of machinery. The focal point was a big desk of the same wood as the door. Behind it was a woman of, I guessed, fifty-five or so. She stood and gave me the smile she probably used a lot, pleasant, but cool. She was around five-seven and had at least her full share of avoirdupois, nicely spread under a green cable-knit sweater and beige skirt. That was all right by me. If I had type at all, it wasn’t sylph-like. The grey-sprinkled hair was set in a ruthlessly corrugated perm. “Mr Potts,” she said. “So good of you to make time for us – and punctual, too.”

    Pointing at my shoes, half-covered in the carpet pile, I chuckled. “I’d have been early, but I forgot my scythe.” I thought that might have thrown her, but as I should have learned from our earlier talk, Barbara Newby was not easily disturbed. “Do you mind my asking how you came upon me?” I said.

    “It was a combination of the yellow pages and numerology. I have a certain instinct which has served me well.”

    While I was trying to think of a reply, she pressed an intercom button, told her boss that I’d arrived and showed me into a connected room, similar in size to the outer office, but without the ironmongery. There was a desk like Newby’s but bigger. Behind it was a massive red-leather winged throne and in front four visitors’ chairs, similar in style to the master’s seat but smaller. My host stood briefly to greet me. He was, I guessed, about the same age as his secretary, around five-nine, wearing a dark-blue suit, a white shirt and a plain dark-red tie. This is the point at which I should be talking about the seamed sailor’s visage, especially the blue eyes, faded by years of scanning far horizons. In fact, the face was square, fleshy, almost unlined and bland. The eyes were brown. Call me faddish if you like, but I’ve had bad experiences with brown-eyed men and wasn’t encouraged – no offence intended, but I must offer an accurate record.

    “Glad you could come at such short notice, Mr Potts,” he said, motioning me to any seat of my choice.

    I took one of the inner two. “Good afternoon, Commodore,” I said. “I assume you prefer the naval title?”

    He gave me a smile which could have liquefied oxygen. “Not really,” he said, “but people seem to like it.

    “I see.” I wasn’t sure whether I saw or not, and for no good reason, I was beginning to dislike Philip Kenny. “What’s amiss?”

    “Something has arisen which threatens my position.”

    “Ah,” I said. “Your timbers have been shivered?”

    “Indeed.”

    “Your rudder fouled?”

    “Quite. And, Mr Potts, if you have any further such expressions, you may wish to unburden yourself. That might help us to settle down.”

    No point in my going for mirth, then. “Sorry, Commodore. I didn’t mean to be flippant, but we landlubbers don’t get a crack at these things too often. I’ll try not to thwart your hawse again.” Ouch!

    “I’ll get straight to the point, Mr Potts. This is the problem.” He produced an audio cassette and a recorder. “I’d like you to listen for a few minutes.”

    There were two voices, one being the commodore’s fruity baritone. Kenny said some harsh words about a third party called Tom Broadhurst. After about ten minutes, my host switched off, handing me a note, pencilled in block capitals. I can’t remember the wording, but it was to the effect that if Kenny didn’t amass ten thousand dollars in small bills by six o’clock that evening, the tape would be passed on to where it could do most damage. There would be a phone call at seven.

    “I see,” I said. “What’s the significance of this?”

    He sighed from the shoes up. “I’m trying to close a large deal, Mr Potts. I have one proposal and my rival, Dixon, has another. Tom Broadhurst is chairman of the committee concerned. I won’t weary you with the internal politics, but he will have the swing vote. He knows my idea is the better one, but he dislikes me and would be delighted to have some reason, however tenuous, for coming down on the opposite side. If he hears what you have just heard, which was a casual talk with a friend, you can imagine how he’ll react. And the crucial meeting is three days away.

    I nodded. “I see. But Commodore, isn’t this the land of the free, where a man can say what he likes?”

    “You’re right, but speaking one’s mind can have consequences.”

    “Understood. Now, how did this would-be blackmailer do his stuff?”

    Kenny shrugged. “The conversation took place in my club. It’s a very traditional place and most of us have our regular seats. I imagine that this fellow, or an accomplice, got in somehow and planted a bugging device on my chair. The only one who might benefit is my opponent, Dixon. I suspect he engaged the rascal. The point is, have you any experience of extortion?”

    “It comes up now and then,” I said. Since I’d never had anything to do with such things, that was a major solecism. “I’m not suggesting that we pay just like that, but if worse comes to worst, can you get the money together in time?”

    “I have it now,” he said. “However, I’m not accustomed to being intimidated and I intend to resist. I’m simply trying to find a way of doing so without detriment to my wider interests.”

    I nodded. “Okay. Now, the best course is for me to blast this character right away.”

    “And can you do that?”

    “I hope so.”

    Kenny produced another huge sigh. “Very well. I’m in your hands.”

    “Right,” I said. “Now, there’s the question of my fees.” I told him what they were and he dismissed them with a hand-flick. “You must take a lot of chances for your money,” he said. “You’ll not find me ungenerous if you can handle this situation. What do you suggest?”

    I looked at my watch. “I have an idea,” I said, “but I need a plan B. I have to do a little work. Can we get together again around six?”

    We agreed on the recess and I left, thinking hard. I was probably more at sea than Kenny ever had been. The bit about Plan B was flapdoodle, introduced to give me time to think about Plan A, which was most likely a clunker anyway. Still, it was a scheme of sorts, and necessity being the mother of invention, I’d come up with it quickly enough. Further brooding didn’t help.

    When I returned to the commodore’s place there was no hold-up. The butler wasn’t around and I was received by Barbara Newby, who conducted me to her employer, then went back to her office. She seemed calm. Either she knew nothing, or her self-possession was admirable.

    Kenny was like a cat on hot bricks. “Thank you for coming back,” he said. “What do we do now?”

    “I’ll be frank. In my opinion we have only one chance, but we might pull it off. Now, is Ms Newby in your confidence?”

    “Completely. You may say anything to her that you say to me.”

    Thinking of the looks that passed between him – by the way, he was a widower – and the fetching Newby, I’d suspected that might be the case. “Good,” I said, “That helps. Now, let’s bring her in and I’ll tell you what I have in mind.”

    Barbara Newby joined us and I said what I had to say. Then there was nothing to do but wait.

    The phone rang just after seven. Newby picked up the receiver, and I must say that if I get into a another tight situation, I’ll look her up. She was wonderful. The caller wanted Kenny, but she told him that the commodore was deeply distressed and under sedation, and that she’d be given carte blanche to act. I suspected that carte blanche was probably beyond our man, but she steamrollered on, pouring an avalanche of words over the fellow. Disorientating him with verbiage was, I thought, a clever technique. The position was horrifying, she said, but the terms would be met. She was all adither – brilliantly. Of course, the commodore could not deal with the matter himself, but his accountant, Mr Fisher – that was yours truly – would do the necessary. However, being purely a numbers man, he was nervous. Could the handover of cash and tape take place in a public area of the caller’s choice?

    This caused the anticipated hiccup, but that again was handled superbly by Newby. She was aghast, tremulous, frayed, but steadfast. The commodore wished to cooperate, but there were limits. If the caller wouldn’t accept them, the deal was off and he must do as he saw fit. I couldn’t have done it half as well as Barbara did.

    The fact that our man caved in suggested to me that we were dealing with a rank amateur. What professional would do business that way? I mean, where was the bit about the drop from a moving car, the use of a public phone at a shopping mall, or the hollow oak ten miles out of town?

    Newby’s splendid obduracy having prevailed, we agreed on a meeting in half an hour at Jimmy’s, a spit-and-sawdust place on the Stagville Road.

    As Barbara hung up, I grinned at my edgy client. “Coming up to eight bells, Commodore,” I said. His withering look told me that I’d put my foot in it again, but I didn’t care. Having assured him that we were dealing with a nitwit, I sent Barbara on ahead, with my hastily contrived instructions. I followed, bearing the cassette and a briefcase full of money. I donned plain hornrimmed glasses and arrived intentionally late, trying to appear even more timorous than I was. Our man, dressed as he’d indicated, was alone at a corner table, nursing a large whisky. I went to the bar, got a drink exactly like his, then joined him, fidgeting appropriately. He didn’t look too formidable, so I began to get optimistic. “Sorry I was held up.” I said. “I’m Fisher.”

    “Okay,” he said. “You know the score. Are you ready?”

    “Yes.” I took a pull at the Scotch. “Look, I’m a little lost here and I’m not much of a drinker, but in the circumstances I feel like a refill. Would you oblige?”

    He sniggered, then crossed to the bar. While he was there, I exchanged our glasses, lowering his level to the same as mine. He came back with two more doubles. “Okay,” he said. “Now, how about it?”

    I picked up the briefcase and allowed him a peek at the contents. “It’s all there,” I said. “We didn’t have much time to count it, but I think it’s correct.”

    He was enjoying himself. “Right,” he said. “So we do the swap?”

    “I believe so,” I said. “Can we just clarify?” I pulled the tape from the briefcase and handed it over to him. “Just to make sure that everything is properly conducted, would you care to check this?”

    He was close to outright laughter as he turned the cassette this way and that, then passed it back to me. “One’s just like another,” he said. “Anyway, I have copies. So, we get on with it?”

    “Very well,” I said. “I must confess that I’m not accustomed to this kind of thing. Presumably it’s not new to you?” I was doing all I could to seem perturbed. “I suppose you have what they call a record?”

    “You’d better believe it. Don’t try anything fancy with me. I’ve a bunch of A and B cases behind me and I don’t mind racking up another.”

    “A and B?” I said.

    He grinned. “Assault and battery. You’re all adrift here, aren’t you?”

    “Not quite,” I said, pulling off the glasses. “Have you ever heard of the SAS?”

    He began to look uneasy. “Yeah,” he said. “A British tough-guy outfit. Seventeen ways to kill a man with one finger, right?”

    “Actually, it’s mostly thumbs and there are only eleven ways,” I said. “And after eight years with that crowd, I know all of them.” That was pure tripe. “Now, it’s showtime. My name isn’t Fisher, but that doesn’t matter. You, my friend, are in deep doo-doo.”

    Now he was wriggling. “What the hell do you mean?” he snapped. “You got nothing on me. We’re just two guys talking.”

    “Not so,” I said. “What I have on you is a nice set of fingerprints, on the tape you sent to Kenny.”

    “Crap,” he said, “It’s clean. I used glo –” then it hit him. He’d surely worn gloves originally, but he’d just pawed the thing, as I’d hoped he would. If one hands an object to someone else, the latter’s natural reaction is to grasp it. PI Manual, Lesson Eleven: Psychological Ploys. “That’s right,” I said. “You gave me the prints a minute ago. Also, you bragged about your past. Now, how long do you think it would take me to match the dabs here with yours on file? I also have your prints on this glass here – I just did a switch. By the way, I have a witness. Frankly speaking, as far the shakedown is concerned, you stink.”

    At that point, Barbara Newby, responding to my ‘casual’ hair-ruffling signal, walked past us, pausing to wave a tape recorder in one hand and a camera in the other. I hadn’t noticed a flash, but assumed she was satisfied with the photo.

    “Who’s that?” said my man, as Newby walked out.

    “Insurance,” I chuckled. “Like this record of our chat.” I removed and waved the fake bug I’d stuck under the table. “Have I made myself clear?”

    It was a pleasure to see him crumble in the silence that followed. “All right,” he mumbled finally. “You got me at my first try.”

    “I thought so,” I said. “Let me fill in the blanks. Dixon hired you to compromise Kenny. How much did he offer?”

    “Two grand.”

    “The cheapskate,” I said. “So, you decided to go into business for yourself?”

    “Right.”

    “How did you get the tape?”

    “Inside job. Friend of mine worked at Kenny’s club. He’s left the country, so you can forget about him.

    “Why did he pick on the Commodore?”

    “He didn’t. There’s a lot of loose talk in that place. He recorded most of it and passed the best bits to me. Anyway, what now?”

    “My idea is to stick you feet-first into a vat of boiling oil and watch your face as you go down. Kenny won’t agree to that now, but he might change his mind. If he does, I can trace you – and I’d love to. Now, if you really have copies of this stuff, ditch them – they’ll be no use to you in your grave.

    He shrugged. “So what gives?”

    “Has Dixon paid you.”

    “Not yet.

    “He won’t now. He’s in bigger trouble than you are. You can go back into the slime. Any tricks and you’ll have me on your back. You wouldn’t like that. I haven’t failed so far and a hick like you wouldn’t blemish my sheet.”

    Within half an hour I’d reported to Kenny and Newby. I returned the cassette and the commodore’s money, telling him that I’d terrified the aspiring extortioner and didn’t expect to hear any more from him. However, I wouldn’t take payment until I had a satisfied client.

    I guessed I’d never be a fully subscribed member of the Kenny fan club, but to do him justice, he was generous. A week later, with the vital meeting behind him, he phoned me with news of a triumphant result, going so far as to say that he’d spliced the main brace – I deserved that one – with a tot of something from Jamaica. He sent me my fees, plus a bonus well beyond my highest hopes. As to the admirable Barbara, I’d have been pleased to continue our association, but bearing in mind the chemistry between her and Kenny, I guessed she was booked.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 20th, 2019 at 02:19 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustnít sigh and you mustnít cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  4. #24
    Dear Giantlobsterrobot,

    Many thanks for your kind comments concerning the first of Cyril Potts’s adventures. Assuming you read on, I hope you will not be disappointed by his subsequent exploits. Cyril is not likely to challenge either Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade, but he has his points. He gets some most unusual clients, which is not surprising as he is a most unusual private eye.

    As for the reactions, I have not received many but most have been positive. I hope you will continue to enjoy the series. The twentieth and last story is to be posted this weekend.

    With kind regards - Cj
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustnít sigh and you mustnít cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  5. #25

    Plates

    PLATES

    I was, as it is sometimes put, tired and overwrought, face down in the gutter and highly intoxicated – at not quite nine-thirty p.m. How that embarrassing situation came about is a matter that requires some explaining.

    I’d set out that morning with no thought of an impending cataclysm, and had strolled into the office to face another day’s work, or rather to hope for it, as I didn’t have a case in progress. Not that the prospect of temporary professional idleness bothered me unduly. Over any reasonable period – say, three months on a running basis – I usually hauled in enough income to keep me going, though more often than not it was a close call. When I had no client, I occupied myself in my own unremunerative but demanding way. At the time, I was into languages. It was all very well, I thought, that English was spanning the globe, though I’d have been quite happy with a resurrection of Latin, or whatever – anything that lets us communicate.

    During my stint in the RAF I’d acquired passable German, largely because I was in the police branch of the service and needed to liaise with the civilian authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia. I was wondering what next. Spanish looked like a good candidate. Perhaps it would be as well to grapple with something more taxing at the same time. I considered Chinese. There must be a case for ideographs. After all, they’ve served their users for many centuries and don’t seem to be an obstacle to advancement. Yes, I thought, let’s make it Spanish and Mandarin. Here, you might like to know that I made some progress with the former and am about to tackle the latter any year now. Well, there’s a limit to what any of us can achieve in one lifetime. We all have to deal with the trifling matter of getting by, don’t we?

    My cranial gymnastics were interrupted by the phone. I’d begun to think that I’d done enough for one day, but a glance at the wall clock showed that it was 10.20. Having arrived at 9.35, I hadn’t yet given full measure.

    I tried to get in my usual introductory spiel, but had barely started when I was interrupted. “Barney Shadbolt here.” It was a booming voice, suggesting that I should know something about the speaker.

    “Excellent,” I said.

    “What do you mean, excellent?”

    “Well, it’s always nice to hear from someone who knows who he is in this confusing world.”

    This brought a little harrumphing at the other end, then: “You talk funny.”

    “No,” I snapped. “It’s most of the other people in this country who do that. I’m all right. As it happens, I was just thinking about language, but I’ll put that on hold if you have business in mind.” Okay, I was feeling baulky. I knew my telephonic skills needed a little work, but didn’t think this was the right moment.

    My man huffed. “Fine. I’m Shadbolt, you’re Potts, right?”

    “Yes. We’re shoulder to shoulder here. Not a glimmer of daylight between us. We really shouldn’t have to piece it together like this, but now that we’ve been properly introduced, who are you – apart from being Barney Shadbolt?”

    “You mean you don’t know?”

    “How many more ways can I say it?”

    “All right. No need to labour the point. Now, you’re maybe the second-best sleuth in this city, so I guess it’s time for you to get acquainted with your only superior. I run the XL Agency. Am I getting through?”

    I’d heard good things about XL – the oldest outfit in town – but didn’t know that this man was in charge there. Maybe a little deference was in order, but I couldn’t quite manage it. “I’m with you,” I said. “You’re Barney Shadbolt, you run XL and you think you’re number one. I acknowledge no betters, but would you be so kind as to get to the point, assuming you have one?”

    He laughed. “Pretty fair line of patter for an upstart, and a British one at that, if I’m any judge.” I liked the implication that he’d divined my background from a few words, when he’d probably known the score before calling. “Now, I bring you nothing but good news. I had a man in this morning, probably before you got out of the feathers” – ooh, that hurt – “and I’m too busy to handle his problem. I sent him along to you, and I hope you’ll remember that when you rake in the shekels.”

    We exchanged a few more pleasantries which I don’t remember verbatim, the upshot being that I was to bate my breath and await a possible customer.

    The man arrived twenty minutes after Shadbolt and I had diverted ourselves. Ignoring my admittedly ignorable waiting room, he entered the office. He was, I guessed, sixty-odd, about five-seven, with longish wispy white hair, a crumpled mid-brown suit, light-blue shirt, plain-front laced black shoes that hadn’t seen polish for some time and the sort of loud tie that some men of his vintage buy when they’re too shy to get a plaid shirt and too poor to acquire a red sports car. He was lugging a big brown-paper bag. The lined face wore a nervous look. I was pleased to note that he didn’t cast a disparaging eye over my layout. “You’re Potts?” he said.

    I waved him to a chair. “Correct. I’ve been expecting you, if you’re from Shadbolt.”

    “I am. “They couldn’t cope at XL and said you’re the next-best.”

    That didn’t amuse me. “Okay. I’m just above bottom of the barrel. Thank you for the boost to my self-esteem.”

    “Oh, sorry,” he said. “I guess that came out wrong, but when you know what’s on my mind, you’ll understand. I have worries.”

    I gave him the mini-nod. “Could be my province. Who are you?”

    He muttered something about Monday night.

    “Monday night?” I said, noting that this was a Wednesday morning and thinking that some patience might be required. “No. It’s your name I’m after.”

    “That’s it. Mundy Knight.” He spelled it out. “Don’t bother with the cracks. I’ve heard them all. Some sense of humour my parents had.”

    I sensed that as far as conversation was concerned we were getting out of the urban thicket and approaching the open road. Knight’s voice had the cracked edge that denotes severe stress. It was a little early, but I reckoned a drink would do no harm. Anyway, I’d be eating in a couple of hours, so we could call it a sort of aperitif. I took the sherry bottle and glasses from a desk drawer, poured two generous snorts and handed one to him. “Now, calm down.” I said. “You’re safe here. Have a nip and tell me all.”

    While I was showing admirable restraint in toying with my glass, he knocked back his dose at one gulp. That seemed to indicate a refill, so I obliged, not without thought of the cost – the stuff from my preferred bodega wasn’t cheap. He took another belt, which seemed to settle him. Sighing, he delved into his bag, pulled out an oblong wooden box and shoved it across the desk. “Open that and you’ll see what it’s all about.”

    I lifted the lid and saw an array of rectangular slabs of metal, intricately patterned. “Hmn,” I said, assuming my intense gaze. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but these seem to be plates for twenty-dollar and fifty-dollar bills.”

    “Right,” he said. “They’re probably the best ever and they’re my work.”

    “Okay. You seem to be in a position to make your own money. How do I come in?”

    He showed me splayed hands. “Look, I’m an engraver by trade. I made these purely out of interest. I’d no thought of anything illegal. It was just a challenge. Then I happened to mention it at a little get-together of people in my business. Next thing I knew, Barton Stokes was leaning on me.”

    I shook my head. “Barton Stokes?”

    “You mean you don’t know him?”

    “Oh, no,” I said. “Are you going to start now?”

    “What?”

    “Never mind,” I grunted. “It’s just that I’ve already been through this ‘don’t you know’ thing today. Tell me about Stokes.”

    “Well, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him. He’s a big operator on the wrong side, around Hanbury, which is where I live. To keep it short, he wants my plates and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get them. Like I said, I did this for amusement. Now I have heavies on my back. I don’t know what to do.”

    “What about the police?” I said, knowing the answer in advance.

    His eyebrows went up half an inch. “You can’t be serious. Imagine what they’d say to a man who produced this stuff. I’d never be able to convince them that it was no more than an artistic effort.”

    “So,” I said, “we’re getting to the point. You can’t talk to the authorities, but you don’t fancy Stokes’ ideas of persuasion.”

    He shuddered. “That’s it. Now, what can you do?”

    This was a new one to me, but I prided myself that I wasn’t too disconcerted. “I can do plenty, Mr Knight. But there’s the question of my fees” – I hated that bit as much as ever.

    He waved a hand. Don’t worry. I’m good for any costs. Just get me out of this.”

    “All right,” I said. “I can see how money would be no problem to you if you can print it.” I hadn’t been wasting time as we’d talked. An idea was forming in my mind. “Okay, I’ll take the job. Now, have you booked in anywhere here?”

    “Yes,” he said. “I have a room at the Parkway. Will that do?”

    His choice was good; expensive but strong on security. “It’s fine,” I said. “Now, you’d better tell me how I contact this Stokes fellow, then leave the plates here and get back to your den. Stay put until you hear from me.”

    He left and I pondered. It wasn’t too difficult. I knew little of these murky matters, but recalled that my old sparring partner Stan Hodges had, before he became an insurance investigator, spent some years with the police, mostly dealing with embezzlement, fraud and associated matters. He was sure to know something. I mentioned elsewhere in these tales that we’d been able to economise on effort now and then by exchanging tiresome errands. Time for a call – and for a little badinage with Stan, who lived in the boondocks well north of me and as it happened, not far from my client’s home town. Stan was as near to a hermit as a man can be, if he wants to make a conventional living.

    The phone rang at least a dozen times, which was about par for the man, who’d probably been within hand-reach of the instrument. “Yeah?”

    “Top of the morning to you, Diogenes,” I said. “I bring you greetings from the urban slime.”

    “Ah, you must have the wrong number. My name is Franklin Loadacrap. I have no city friends.”

    “My apologies, Mr Loadacrap,” I said. “I’m Ben Wrongroad. I didn’t know that the residents of Nowhereville were quite so reclusive. Now, could we stow the taradiddle and get to business?”

    “What do you want, town-man?”

    I gave him the details and begged for his help.

    He groaned. “Oh, not another engraving job?”

    “You mean they’re common?”

    “About one a month, last I heard. Look, I’m not quite up to date, but I do have a contact who’s into these things. Can you run up here?”

    “Right away,” I said. “This is life and death.”

    “There’ll be a charge,” he said darkly.

    “When isn’t there? I’ll be with you in a trice. No, better make it a thrice.”

    When necessary, I could bustle around as well as the next man. Having metaphorically donned the deerstalker, I went along the block to my local grease galley for an early lunch. I continued to patronise the place despite having reservations about its gunge-laden offerings. It was closed for a time, owing to an allegedly roachy kitchen – a development which had surprised me, as the authorities didn’t seem to have paid much attention to the menu, which was undoubtedly far more lethal than any ancillary items conveyed inadvertently to the customers.

    I got the car tanked up and, fully fuelled in both senses, covered a lot of miles at a speed I’d rather not record. Well, I was excited.

    Maison Hodges – a bachelor pad – had the appearance of a homesteader’s soddy, but was in fact a strange combination of what seemed like rudimentary construction and high technology.

    To my relief, Stan had got the ball rolling at his end and was ready to move. We drove off in convoy and were in his local metropolis in well under an hour. We wound our way through a warren of back streets, not exactly characteristic of straight-line America, but there you are. We stopped outside what, as an Englishman, I can only describe as a mews flat – sorry, apartment – in an understatedly classy area. I can’t think of any better way to put it, so I hope you know what I mean. It was – right down to the cobblestones – the sort of spot where James Bond would have pulled up in that Aston Martin.

    Stan had told me that the man we were about to see was a wizard in his field and a consultant to all and sundry. To me, that always sounds like a firm of English solicitors. Hall & Sundry. No? Well, it was worth a try.

    We were greeted by a short slim black-bearded fellow of about forty. He affected to resent our intrusion, though his gruffness was, I felt, mostly top-show. He demanded the plates, asking us to sit in the tiny living room while he went off to his laboratory. I’d hoped he might offer drinks, but that wasn’t to be.

    Having expended our conversational harpoons, Stan and I chatted almost sensibly for half an hour, then Blackbeard returned, handing the plates to me. “Is this some kind of prank?” he growled.

    “Prank?” I answered. “No. Certainly not. My client is very agitated. What’s the verdict?”

    “They’re garbage. I never saw the like. Your man must be either deluded or downright stupid.”

    “I see,” I said, holding up the plates. “Would you like to add these to your collection when I’m through with them?”

    He sniggered. “They’re not worth confiscating. Too bad even to exhibit as failures – and anyway, I have enough duds.”

    So that was that. I ate humble pie and retreated to my fastness, amazed to note that after all that activity, I was back in the office by seven o’clock. Still time for more action before an evening in search of old films on TV. I weighed up my options. First things first, I thought, so I went to my spoonery, attacked a mixed grill with more gusto than it deserved – another hitch in my conversion to vegetarianism – then returned to base. I dialled the number Knight had given me for Barton Stokes, steeling myself to speak with the Prince of Darkness.

    I got straight through to the man, told him who I was and what it was all about, emphasising that Mundy Knight was under my protection and that his engravings were worthless. In a burst of bravado, I mentioned my experiences with Jack Lanigan and Horsehead Mulrooney, concluding with the tentative shot that Stokes was in the major league here and that if he laid a finger on my client, he’d be sorry.

    His reaction was, I confess, disappointing. He actually guffawed – the cheek of it. “You know what, Potts? You remind me of a little orange squeezer I have here.”

    “How so?”

    “You make a lot of noise and you’re low-powered.”

    Had I been on top form, I’d have made some crack about his getting his quips from cornflake boxes. Maybe it was as well that he didn’t give me time to flounder. “So, I’m out of my depth am I?” he bellowed. “Well, just to set you straight, this Mundy Knight turd owes me money – no need for me to give you the details. I don’t know anything about his plates. If he thinks I’m after them, his imagination must be working overtime. Still, I’m interested to hear that they’re useless. And as to Lanigan and Mulrooney, you’re talking strictly small-time. Now look, you’re not really worth my attention, but you’re about to learn what it means to tangle with me. I think the politicians talk about a measured response. Goodbye.”

    That brings me back to the start of this story. After talking to Barton Stokes, I sat irresolute for a long time, then decided that I’d ponder further before contacting Knight, so closed the office and set out for my car. I’d just turned the corner to the parking lot when two bulky men closed in on me, each taking an elbow. It was like being seized by a pair of animated wheel-clamps. “Just move along, buddy,” one of them grated. There wasn’t much choice – my feet were barely touching the ground. I was hustled into the back of a green Buick and assumed that my escort had in mind the proverbial outing, but to my surprise the car stayed put. For some odd reason, the thought uppermost in my mind was that if these chaps were emissaries from Stokes and had driven the thirty-odd miles from Hanbury, they must have been activated quickly.

    One of my new pals retained his painful hold on my right elbow. The other produced a bottle of whisky. “Now,” he said, “we got no instructions about breakages. This is just a little lesson, compliments of Mr Stokes. You’re goin’ to drink, or we’ll forget our orders.” Maybe these characters had seen ‘North by Northwest’, because they handled me much as the goons did Gary Grant in that film, though I couldn’t remember whether Cary had an alarmingly large automatic under his chin, as I did.

    Anyway, that was how I found myself prostrate and stoned on the sidewalk outside my office an hour later – and how I wound up trying to explain my predicament to a patrolling cop. He wasn’t too sympathetic, so I landed in the pokey.

    At the time, I thought it was my relative loquacity, even – or perhaps especially – in drink that did the trick. However, I learned later that that I would have had the right to summon my lawyer, Alan Nichols, without any special pleading.

    As far as I knew, Alan had little experience in these matters, but he must have carried some weight, though his approach struck me as unorthodox. He said something to the effect that I was a Limey sap, with no more sense than a watermelon, but that the idea of my being a drunk was absurd. For God’s sake, he’d known me for years and the idea of my drinking spirits was ludicrous. I was barely removed from tee-total. Well, he was right on one point. I was passably abstemious and rarely touched the hard stuff.

    I didn’t know anything about the usual procedure, but after Alan had sparred with them for a few minutes, the police seemed to lose interest in me and I was out before midnight.

    On the Thursday, I summoned my client, handed back his plates, told him that I'd failed to help him and that there would be no charge for my efforts. He didn’t believe that Stokes had no interest in his engravings. When Knight left me, he was very upset. I never heard anything more from him or of him.

    So, I was out a day’s pay and had been well and truly put in my place. Barton Stokes was right about his measured response. He could have done much worse to me. To compound my woes, I had to pay Alan Nichols – and lawyers don’t do that kind of work for nothing.

    I’d love to finish these tales on a triumphant note, but if you’ve persisted this far, you’re entitled to the truth. The affair narrated here was my last case, and the one that finally convinced me of what I’d suspected for some time. I wasn’t really cut out for PI work.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 21st, 2019 at 02:18 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustnít sigh and you mustnít cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  6. #26
    It has occurred to me that some of those who have read all or parts of ĎPondhopperí might like to know that I have started a new series of short Western tales in the Crime Forum. If you think this sounds interesting, you may wish to follow the link below, which leads to the first story:

    Last edited by Courtjester; December 15th, 2013 at 07:51 PM.
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustnít sigh and you mustnít cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  7. #27
    A second story in the new ĎWay Out Westí series in the Fiction Forum has now been posted. As it is laced with humour, I hope it will prove entertaining to those accustomed to my contributions in this forum. To read it, please follow the link below:

    Pistoleros

    * * *
    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustnít sigh and you mustnít cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  8. #28
    I am a diehard Sherlock Holmes fan. I've read all his stories, seen multiple movies and TV shows, and I find his attention to detail the most captivating part of his character. What I love most about your stories is the way you kind of bash him in. You take all the usual maladies of a super-sleuth and turn them into lovable quirks, the worst of which seems to be the way that he is not exactly good at what he does, is he? He kind of happens upon solutions and trips over ideas and on occasion, even ends up on the wrong end of the action. It makes him seem far more relatable, read as "likable", and a lot of fun to read. I especially like his uncommonly large vocabulary and the fact that half your paragraphs send me to Wikipedia to research uncommon references. In a strange way, I feel oddly cultured for having read each of these.

    If I had any advice, it would be to write up the tension more towards the end. Some of the passages feel like your running short on your humor for the day and you need to wrap things up in a hurry. Don't be afraid to stray into suspense and away from your comfort zone. The more you hold back, the better the read is.

    Cheers, though. I hope someday my writing is this strong.

  9. #29

    Dear thepancreas11:

    Your interesting comments on ‘Pondhopper’ are noted. My idea was to portray Cyril Potts as a rather dreamy bumbler who strayed into the hard-boiled American PI world and survived there for a while by having intermittent flashes of adequacy. As you indicate, he was a not quite the right man for the kind of work involved and sometimes achieved results more by accident than design. I'm very pleased to note that this comes through.

    As for writing in general, my experience leads me to echo the words of your great compatriot O. Henry, who you may know said: "Easy reading is damned hard writing." Anyone slaving through the fifth or sixth draft of a story or article would surely endorse that. And yet at some point one has to say that enough is enough and unleash one's deathless prose.

    I'm pleased to note that you are a Sherlock Holmes fan. I have been devoted to the great sleuth for at least sixty-seven of my seventy-seven years and my love of the tales does not diminish with time. Apropos of this, it occurs to me that you might get a chuckle or two from my spoof on the Baker Street scene. I wrote this a short time ago for my Madazine thread. If you are interested in reading it, the link below will take you to page six of the thread. In case you are not familiar with this procedure, Control key + the letter F brings up a search box. Type in ‘Sherlock Holmes’ and it will take you to the relevant article ‘From Doctor Watson’s Archive’.

    Even though the darkest clouds are in the sky,
    You mustnít sigh and you mustnít cry.
    Spread a little happiness, as you go by.

    Hidden Content



  10. #30
    You're absolutely right: I loved it. Written in true Holmesian style, but with a twist. I've always been a fan of that kind of maneuver, making a previous work of fiction stand on its head as a nuance for an old fan. I can imagine Sherlock letting Watson do this to amuse himself, let him think that for a moment he is the expert, while, in his head, he knows exactly what happened. Equally so, I can see him stealing the credit if he thought that Watson had outwitted him. I'm glad someone else is as appreciative of his work as I am.

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