Pondhopper


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  1. #1

    Pondhopper

    PONDHOPPER

    Meet Cyril Potts, a Briton working as a private eye in the USA. He gets some strange clients, which is all right because he is a strange investigator. We first encounter Cyril during one of his reveries, but he soon shows that when the need arises, he can lurch into action – in a way.

    * * *

    Story Number One


    FOOTWEAR

    I was daydreaming. For once – and for no particular reason – I’d got to the office on time. Probably just restlessness. I wiped away the mail with a contemptuous hand-sweep, then realised there was a bill in there somewhere, so spent a few minutes recovering it. That got me to twenty past nine, when I began to slide into my reverie, which was almost certainly brought on by the fact that the evening before, I’d watched yet another re-run of one of my favourite films, ‘The Court Jester’. I was a big Danny Kaye fan and if I pen more of these tales, his name might crop up again. I ranked his efforts in descending order, with the same trio at the top. First came ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, then ‘Knock on Wood’, then the historical frolic I’ve just mentioned.

    So, dreamtime. I wasn’t entirely clear as to the background, save that it included a touch of the picaresque. Not on my part of course. I was on the side of right and virtue, though it was unfortunate that there didn’t seem to be a distressed damsel around. It was swashbuckling stuff, which I conducted magnificently. With one hand I was airily engaging a fellow who claimed to be one of the three finest swordsmen in all France. I wondered who the third was. In the other hand I held a golden goblet containing a good measure of a burgundy with more body than a hippo. I was barely looking at my man as I kept taking short pulls at the vessel. No gulping here – this was stuff to be savoured. I was standing on a long dark refectory table, keeping my opponent pinned down below me, nimble though he was in his efforts to leap up from the stone-flagged floor and join me. Eat your heart out, d’Artagnan.

    “Prenez garde!” I yelled. We’d already prenezed, but nobody was counting. “Have at thee, varlet!” – thrust, parry. “Hah!” – lunge. “Hah!” – lunge. That temporarily exhausted my verbal repertoire as well as making inroads on the physical side – I was breathing a shade faster than this minor inconvenience warranted. I’d have loved to get in the odd ‘gadzooks’ or ‘zounds’, but somehow felt that neither quite fitted.

    My suppleness was wondrous. One instant my blade was directed at the ceiling, the next at the floor. But I had trifled long enough with this coxcomb. Springing down from the table, I set aside the wine and gave him my full attention. With a deft flick of the wrist, I sent his weapon spinning across the room, then tickled his throat with the tip of my Toledo. “Now, you Gascon popinjay,” I sneered, “if you have prayers, say them now and prepare to meet your mak –”

    The phone rang. Doesn’t that happen at the most inconvenient moments? I’ve now mastered the art of refusing to leap to the infernal instrument like a prodded frog each time it makes demands. If I don’t want to talk I ignore it. But in those days it usually meant business – and at the time I’m speaking of, I was sorely in need of that. “Cyril Potts Investigations.”

    “Ah, Mr Potts. My name is Leonard Yule. I was wondering whether you might like to do something for me?”

    “Good morning, Mr Yule. Are you by any chance a fencing man?” – I hadn’t quite returned from my mental outing.

    I must say he was quick enough. “If you are thinking of woodwork around gardens and the like, no. If, as I suspect, you have swordsmanship in mind, the answer is still no. Why? Is such an interest a prerequisite for engaging you?”

    I realised at once that this was a worthy foeman – or perhaps a client. “No, no. Not at all. I was just thinking that I once knew a namesake of yours who was handy with a foil. I wondered if he might be related to you.” It was, I thought, a smooth recovery, but I told myself that I’d have to do something about this wool-gathering. After all, a man in my position was supposed to be alert at all times.

    “Not as far as I know, Mr Potts,” was the breezy retort. “My name usually lends itself to allusions far removed from fencing. Naturally, it gets used a lot at Christmastime. Then there are the limericks.”

    “Limericks?”

    “Yes, you know the kind of thing. There was once a young man called Yule, who played a quite fair game of pool. One day for a bet –”

    “Yes indeed, Mr Yule,” I said. “I quite understand. Now, you’re thinking of hiring me for stirring deeds.” I still wasn’t entirely back at base.

    “I am, Mr Potts. In particular, I would be most obliged if you could find my shoes.”

    That sounded like a downer. Not for the first time, I was put in mind of the Great Detective – well, he earned the capitals – who once remarked that his business seemed to be degenerating into an agency for recovering lost lead pencils and giving advice to young ladies from boarding schools. I believe ‘The Copper Beeches’ was the case that included the outburst. “Shoes,” I said. “Am I to take it that you’re rendered barefoot, or reduced to socks?”

    “Almost, Mr Potts. I see you are a man who grasps the essentials. I do have one ancient pair of shoes left, plus my slippers, but basically you put it in a nutshell.”

    I thought he was about to enlarge, but being charged up by my seventeenth-century exertions I would brook no delay. Also, I was intrigued by his repartee. I decided to act at once. “I’ll call on you right away, Mr Yule. Assuming you’re in my neighbourhood.”

    “So very kind of you,” he said sweetly, hamming it up.

    “No trouble at all,” I replied, doing my best to upstage him. It was surreal.

    The address he gave was about four miles from my office. I reached the place in fifteen minutes, having paused on the way to buy a pack of razor blades – my imaginary foray into the world of sharp steel had reminded me of the brand and I needed a fresh supply. The house was in a slice of what I like to think of as quintessential small town America, an enclave of detached timber-built properties, mostly two-storey jobs, though the Yule place was a bungalow, with the sort of porch at which newspaper boys slung their wares in those old black and white feel-good movies for which I’m a total sucker. Maybe that still happens in real life. Being neither a house-owner nor an early riser, I don’t know.

    Leonard – I’d already begun to think in first-name terms – was waiting for me. He was a short, tubby fellow of about fifty and seemed full of beans, despite his loss. He ushered me into the living room. I declined his offer of coffee, tea or something stronger. He sat on a quilted sofa of what seemed like synthetic material – I’m never sure about fabrics – motioning me to a matching chair. “You may think this shoe business odd,” he said.

    “Not at all,” I replied. “I’m accustomed to unusual commissions, if that makes sense. What’s the problem?”

    “Perhaps it’s a greater one to me than to many people,” he said. “I am somewhat fastidious in certain ways. I walk at least seven miles every day and I have no time for these clodhopping boots which are so popular. I use only top-quality leather shoes, imported from England. They are expensive, several times the average price for footwear. It has been my custom to put them out on the porch for an airing on a Sunday morning, once a month, after I’ve washed them.”

    “Washed them?”

    “Yes. With soap and water. Are you not familiar with the method?”

    I was perplexed. “No,” I said. “Is that the prescribed treatment?”

    “It works well. Normally, I take them in again in the evening and repolish them. On this occasion, last weekend, I needed to pop along to the newsagent, so left all seven pairs outside. I rotate them on a daily basis, you see, and keep these old ones” – he pointed at the tan brogues he was wearing – “for emergencies. While I was out, I ran into a friend and spent an hour or more talking with him. When I got back, the shoes were gone. Two thousand dollars, Mr Potts, even at the prices I paid, let alone the current replacement cost. No doubt it was careless of me.”

    “No,” I said, sharply. “I don’t agree. Why shouldn’t you leave out your shoes? You’re not at fault. It’s a symptom of our society. For goodness' sake, you shouldn’t have to take precautions. I mean, that’s like saying that you should never leave your car in the driveway at night. It’s not you who are to blame, it’s the state we’ve brought about by failing to curb unacceptable behaviour. I’m disgusted, and completely in sympathy with you.” I might have gone on, but had run out of breath.

    Leonard nodded. “You’re very understanding.”

    “I try to be. Now, were your shoes marked in any special way?”

    “No. I would regard that as almost sacrilegious.”

    I shook my head. “The chances are it was a casual thing. Most likely a passing tramp saw the opportunity and seized it. By now, your shoes are probably adorning the feet of half the vagrants in town. Have you spoken with your neighbours?”

    “Yes. Nobody saw anything.”

    “Well, I’d love to be of service, but frankly you’d be wasting your money.”

    “Nevertheless,” he said, “I’d like to hire you for, say, two days. Even if you just walk around and keep your eyes open. At least, I would then have done everything in my power. It’s not just the intrinsic value. I’ve shaped the shoes to my feet over some years. I really would be obliged if you’d try.”

    “All right,” I said. I told him what two days would cost, stressing again that the quest seemed hopeless. He waved my protestations aside, seemingly bent on throwing his funds around. He described the shoes in detail – not that that was much help – then paid me cash in advance.

    I left him, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do. Well, maybe there was just one possibility. I’d spoken about vagrants and I knew that a few hung out around a railroad bridge – where else? – at the eastern edge of town. If one of them had done the deed, the result might be visible. I paid the boys a visit, seeing no classy footwear and being met with suspicion until I mentioned the prospect of a substantial reward. That caused a pricking up of ears and a good deal of muttering. I was sure that if they’d known anything, the prospect of lucre would have brought it out, but despite their best efforts I made no progress.

    By the time I got back to the office, I’d spent two hours in the service of Leonard Yule, and had decided that that was enough. No way was I going to wander around the city, peering at men’s feet. For all I knew, a man might get locked up for that kind of conduct. I could see the headlines: ‘Local shoe fetishist apprehended.’

    I was no more averse than the next man to picking up a little easy money, but this was going too far. It was tantamount to stealing from a foolish, disturbed fellow. Maybe he was ripe for the funny farm, but if so, that would have been even more reason for me to act properly. I would return his money, less a pro rata sum for my dive into the nether regions of our community. That decided, I gave myself the afternoon off – damn prospective clients – and went for an aimless drive around the local flatlands, thinking that it would have been much pleasanter if I’d lived closer to the Rockies. There’s scenery for you.

    The following morning, I called briefly at the office, went yet again through the ritual of dealing with the mail – sorry to go on about this, but in case you’re interested, I’d established that over a six-month period, more than eighty per cent of it was unsolicited – and was just about to phone Yule and arrange to call on him when he rang me. “So glad I caught you, Mr Potts,” he said. “The panic is over. My shoes have been returned.”

    “I’m pleased to hear that. Now, I intended to visit you, so if it’s convenient, we’ll save the explanation till I get there.” It was convenient.

    Ten minutes later, Leonard showed me into his living room. This time he wasn’t alone. A hulk of a man stood by the window. He was about my height, six-one, and like me he had straight dark-brown hair with short back and sides cut, parted on the left. It was his build that really struck me. At one-eighty, I was no lightweight, but he must have scaled at least forty pounds more than I did, and he had it all in the right places. He wore a dark-green uniform with security guard’s badges high on the sleeves of his tunic, plus a black leather belt, with a gun in a buttoned holster. His hat was on a chair by his side. He didn’t have to make any effort to look menacing but was working on it anyway, as his scowl indicated. The finishing touch was his trim moustache, which to my mind added to the appearance of thuggishness, though that’s probably just bias on my part, as I’ve never liked facial hair. I didn’t think the armament was necessary. He looked as though he could have scrapped a tank division with his bare hands.

    I’m sometimes amazed by the speed at which the human mind works. Even in the few seconds I stared at this man, I fell to wondering how he’d have looked in other circumstances, perhaps in times gone by. Tanks indeed, I thought. Maybe, but if he’d been in the place of that upstart who’d fallen to my blade yestermorn, how would this jackanapes have fared against three feet of Toledo steel. “Not much better, I’ll wager,” I muttered.

    “I beg your pardon,” said Yule. “Wager?”

    I twitched. “So sorry, Mr Yule. Forgive me. Just a passing thought. I didn’t mean to give voice to it.”

    “Er, quite. We all have our little ways. Please don’t mind Mr Burns. He won’t intrude without good reason.” He chuckled and waved me to the same seat I’d occupied the day before. “All’s well that ends well, Mr Potts. As I said, the shoes were brought back, apparently during the night. There they are.” He indicated the row of foot comfort ranged across the carpet and I could see why he’d been concerned. There was a lot of money gleaming at me.

    He was clearly disposed to enlarge, but I was full of righteousness and pre-empted him. “Mr Yule,” I said. “I’m delighted, but I’d feel better for getting something off my chest before we go any further.”

    He spread his pudgy little hands. “By all means. What is it?”

    I took a deep breath, then produced most of the cash he’d given me and dropped it onto the coffee table between us. “You’ve probably heard depressing tales about private eyes,” I said. “Some of them are true. As for me, I have as many faults as anyone else, but I’m not a thief. There was never any realistic chance that I’d recover your shoes. I insist you take this money back. I don’t normally deal in part-days, but this time I’ve deducted pay for two hours because I did make the odd inquiry.”

    He actually clapped his hands and his grey eyes – same colour as mine, by the way – sparkled. “Bravo, Mr Potts. You really have done well. Now, if you’ll bear with me, I must tell you that you’ve been involved in a mild subterfuge.”

    I smiled, trying to make it look enigmatic. I’d thought all along that there was something bizarre about this deal, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “Sort of Candid Camera thing, is it?” I said.

    “Not quite. Have you heard of Consumers’ Digest?”

    “No. What’s that?”

    “A magazine. We’re fairly new, but we’ve already reached a six-figure circulation. We have a lot of backing and intend to go far. We pride ourselves on our attention to detail and on mirroring the economy.”

    “Mirroring?”

    “Yes. Are you aware that the manufacturing sector is a relatively small part of our gross national product?”

    “I heard that somewhere.”

    “Good. Now, we at CD try to follow the economic profile. If, say, the production of finished goods represents twenty-five per cent of our national effort, service industries fifty-five per cent and construction, extraction and agriculture the remaining twenty per cent, that is how we operate. We probe, Mr Potts. At times, that can be hazardous, which explains the presence here of Mr Burns. There are occasions when I need protection.”

    “Understandable,” I said. “What does this have to do with me?”

    He settled back, satisfied that he was not under threat of attack. “A good deal. One part of our inquiries concerns private investigators. I could tell you tales which I suspect would shock you, experienced though you obviously are. Now, there was never any question of stolen shoes. That was simply one of the little scenarios we arrange, the idea being to monitor reactions. I hope you will not be too offended, especially when I tell you that your response has been exemplary. Quite the best we have experienced. This will do you a lot of good, if you have no objection to our publicising the findings.”

    “No. None at all,” I said. “I don’t like being an unwitting guinea pig, but I can see your rationale.” That wasn’t entirely true, but seemed expedient, as I didn’t fancy invoking the intervention of Big Boy Burns.

    “I’m so glad,” Yule beamed. “Now, as to this money, please take it.” He scooped the boodle back my way. “I assure you that the test is over and the cash is within my budget. We’ll give you a preview of our article, and if you wish to make any changes, your observations will be respected. By the way, this house was rented by us for our work. The owner is in the Middle East.”

    So ended one of my strangest cases. Yule was as good as his word. His account of my non-exploit was almost embarrassingly effusive, so I didn’t amend a word of it. The magazine didn’t last long, but that report brought me a fair amount of work. Although I hadn’t done any fishing, I couldn’t help thinking that a small sprat had produced a large mackerel.
    Last edited by Courtjester; February 21st, 2019 at 03:25 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. #2
    Hi CD,
    I see you have a new contender for 'eccentric of the year.'
    I am now curious as to where this goes.

  3. #3

    Laundress

    LAUNDRESS

    Having just skipped through the account of my efforts on behalf of Leonard Yule, I note that it doesn’t include a description of my office. I had a modest lair which served me for the whole of the time I was in practice as a private investigator. It was above a traditional gentlemen’s outfitters in a row of shops on Alder Street, a very short thoroughfare three miles from the middle of town, insofar as an amoeba-like sprawl such as ours can be said to have a central point. In fact, most of the inhabitants here live in largely self-contained suburbs. Being now otherwise occupied, in an unrelated field, I don’t need my own business premises. Also, I live well out of the city, but pop in now and then and still get a twinge, or perhaps a frisson, when passing the old place.

    I now work fixed hours on mundane chores. The pay – daily rate anyway – is lower, but to make me feel better, the work is harder. Still, I’m employed five days a week, there’s a regular wage packet, and I don’t have to deal with the threat of violence. Without wishing to get too philosophical, I’d say that life moves on and that one is best advised to go with it as smoothly as possible. Nowadays, it seems to me that many events in which I was involved, even only a few years ago, happened to another person, with whom I have only a tenuous connection.

    Merely because something jogged my memory, I’m taking the case I now have in mind out of chronological sequence. It happened quite a while after the Yule thing and some others I hope to present, so I can tell you that another consequence of the changed lifestyle was that I swapped my hotel room for an apartment and even began to do my own cooking. The results pleased me and still do, though they probably wouldn’t go down too well with more fastidious eaters. I know it was, and maybe is, fashionable for a private eye to swing a mean skillet, but most of the suave sleuths one sees on television top off their mind-boggling array of exotic vegetables and spices with a major ingredient of beef, chicken or something similar. In that respect, I can’t compete, as I finally abjured meat – and don’t think that wasn’t a struggle. Still, the triumph makes me feel righteous, if at times a little fragile.

    The people below my premises ran a classy place. They had their own in-house tailor, who altered off-the-peg items to customers’ requirements and sometimes made clothes from scratch. I only once saw the fellow in action and believe it or not, he was sitting cross-legged on a table, just like in the old days. I don’t see why they operate that way – it looks excruciating to me – but they must know what they’re doing.

    I recall pondering on the matter after I’d seen this man stitching merrily. That reminded me of a clip from a film – I think it was ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’ – in which Gary Cooper, who was being fussed over by a tailor, said: “I never had a suit made on purpose before,” or words to that effect. Having nothing better to do at the time, I’d dwelt on old Coop, wondering if he’d been hewn from a quarry at the age of fifty-odd, or had experienced formative years. I didn’t – still don’t – remember seeing him in a relatively youthful state. I mean, compare him with James Stewart, whom I recollect appearing as a youngish fellow, croak and all, in 1930s films. But not Coop. Please don’t write in about this. Come to think of it, I believe I heard somewhere that Gary was in a film while in his twenties. Anyway, having brought you up to speed on Cooper and Stewart, I’ll move on.

    My suite consisted of a room, about fifteen feet square, plus a risibly small antechamber, in case I got more than one visitor at a time. That happened only once, and while the first comer was rejecting my services, the other prospect disappeared. So unfair.

    On the occasion I’m thinking of, I was late in getting to the office – I have to admit that was becoming a habit. A woman was waiting, so I waved her in. I don’t like describing people, for fear that they might reciprocate. However, she seemed exceptionally nondescript, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction. Approaching forty I guessed, about five-four and on the chubby side of average in build, dark-brown hair yanked back and tied with a black ribbon, beige blouse under a mid-grey sweater, black skirt, black grandma shoes and no jacket or topcoat. She didn’t have a handbag as such, but what looked like a small brown leather pouch, gripped in both hands. The face was pale and would have been bland, but for the grey eyes, which had a haunted look. Overall, my impression was of a frumpy, mousey little woman, somehow early 1940s in aspic. I know this isn’t Dickens, but it’s the best I can do.

    While we’re on this subject of descriptions, I wonder about the fictional private eyes who can always remember not only everything about their clients’ appearances, but also their own wardrobe details, even after many years. I can’t do that – and my stock never comprises more than two raincoats, two suits, two sports jackets, three pairs of slacks, three of shoes, eight shirts – seven for the weekly wash and a spare – and four ties, one of which was a gift. Usually, I can recall what I had on in the past only if I’d made a special effort to be either smart or scruffy, like when I polished myself to visit the Berg house in another matter, which I hope to recount in due course. On the occasion in question, I remember only that I was dressed.

    I sat, motioning the woman to a chair. “Morning,” I said, assuming chirpiness. “What can I do for you?”

    “Are you Cyril Potts?”

    “Yes.”

    “Well, I want you to find my brother, Michael,” she said, the voice quaky, verging on the hysterical.

    “I see,” I said. “And you are?”

    “My name is Avril Green.”

    “And his surname?”

    “Why, Green, of course.”

    I didn’t see where the ‘of course’ came in but made nothing of it. “Right,” I said. “Could you give me a few details? Let’s start with your address.”

    She lived in an apartment block in a development called Mulberry Heights. And that’s another thing. The whole area for miles around here is far from mountainous. There are several rises, all modest, yet half the people in the city seem to live on one ‘Height’ or another. Is that idiosyncratic, or what? A fellow once told me that it’s the same in Cleveland. I’ve never been there, so can’t confirm that.

    I gathered that brother and sister lived together and that there were no other siblings. Both parents were dead and Avril and Michael had no wider family, nor had either of them any close friends. I also gleaned a few other things I didn’t really want to know – my visitor was quite chatty when she got going. The errant Michael had disappeared without notice five days earlier and Avril hadn’t brought in the police, as she’d thought they wouldn’t give the matter high priority. Michael was out of work, so there was no employer to consult. Having imparted all the information I needed, Avril fumbled with her little bag, which I finally established was a draw-string job, the sort of thing a man of means might have flung jingling onto a tavern bar a couple of centuries ago. “Work through that, Landlord, and if `tis not enough, `twill be the worse for you.”

    Avril asked about my charges and when I told her, she looked alarmed. “That’s an awful lot,” she said. “Far more than I get.”

    “It’s about the going rate.”

    “Oh. Well, you see, I work in a florist’s shop and my pay for a week isn’t much more than you’re asking for a day. Does that seem right?”

    “Comparisons are odious,” I said. Sententious. “I imagine you have a steady income in a fairly safe environment. There are times when I don’t work at all. When I do, it’s usually all-weather, all-terrain stuff, day and night until I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s mostly a question of running around, talking with people who’d rather not speak to me, or trying to stay alert while standing still for hours, wondering whether something is going to happen. When I get to the action, I’m often attacked with any part of the human anatomy that can be used as a weapon, plus guns, knives, brass knuckles, blackjacks, crowbars, baseball bats and just about every other instrument you can name – once it was with a freshly-cooked Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and all. On the whole, I think the fees are reasonable, but please feel free to try someone else.”

    Maybe that seems like a rehearsed speech, and I have to say I’d delivered it more than once. In fact it was barely within hailing distance of the truth. I had been involved in a little rough work from time to time, but not to the extent my words implied. Still, I think the patter must have been convincing, as Avril Green listened intently. She was composed now, with none of the fidgeting with which some of my visitors would have transported a labanotationist to paradise. When I was through rationalising the cost of my services, she opened her treasury. “I imagine you need a . . . what do they call it? . . . a retainer,” she said.

    “No. That’s not necessary, but I’d appreciate prompt settlement when the job’s done.”

    She nodded. “Of course. I always pay bills at once.”

    “Just one other thing,” I said. “Not everyone wants to be found. You should know that if I locate your brother, he may wish to stay lost to you. If he does, I’ll have to respect that.”

    “Ah, I see,” she said, giving me an odd, wary, slightly unsettling look. “Well, we shall have to see, I suppose?”

    She left, and having nothing else to do, I decided to get busy. The activity was held up for a while, as I switched on the radio and spent a few minutes listening to a speech from a political windbag, noted for labyrinthine sentences which left his listeners – and probably himself – floundering. I was entertained briefly by the thought that he might one day plunge into a verbal thicket from which he wouldn’t emerge. Perhaps some philological society would send out a search party. I could see the khaki-clad, pith-helmeted group trudging through a dictionary, only to find the poor fellow’s sun-bleached bones somewhere in the letter J, where he’d been brought down by a jackstay or a jumbuck or something between the two. The seekers would probably note his fleshless digits clutching a copy of Webster’s pocket edition, opened at the appropriate page, a skeletal forefinger pointing at the instrument of his demise. Forgive me. I’ve always been prone to these flights of fancy.

    It took two days of simple, plodding routine for me to locate Michael Green. He was holed up in a seedy Victorian hotel in the western outskirts of town. Built of what looked like limestone – it was hard to tell through the grime – and complete with weatherworn gingerbread trim, the place looked to me like a large version of an old British railroad station. A little heavy pseudo-cop talk opened up the old goat who manned reception. He wanted to be cantankerous but his world-weariness prevailed and he made only a token effort at obstruction.

    The room I wanted was on the second floor and I galloped up there, not wishing to allow the elderly Cerberus time to give his guest any warning. He probably wouldn’t have bothered, even if his phone facilities had been up to it.

    Michael was in his room and answered my knock. He was a big fellow, around six foot two and overweight, with a lot of wobbly chin and a bulging waistline. Most of his mid-brown hair had gone, the last battling strands being combed across his scalp as artistically as he could manage. Why don’t more men just give up and snip them away? His breath came in short, noisy gasps and his complexion resembled dough. The general appearance was of a man out of condition. I put him at slightly older than Avril.

    “Security,” I said when he opened the door. “Like a word with you, please.” Without giving him any opportunity to argue, I shoved my way in, backheeling the door shut. “Sorry about that,” I said, when his jaws finally started to work up to speech mode – he seemed to be a man of slow reactions. The room was large and shabby. There was a clutter of nondescript furniture, of which I recall only a double bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and, nestling in the bay window space, a small table and a ladder-back chair. I’d guessed right about communications; there wasn’t a phone in sight. I went on: “In a way, it is security, but –”

    I’d been about to launch into an explanation when the door was flung open and Avril Green bounced in, still wearing the same apparel as when she’d called on me, but looking a good deal more animated now than she was then. She had one arm wrapped around a large brown paper bag. “So, here you are,” she snapped at Michael.

    As there was no immediate reply, I put in my bit. “How did you get into this?” I asked Avril.

    “Very simple,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about finding a missing person, so I hired someone who would. That is how you became involved. Then, since you said you couldn’t guarantee to tell me Michael’s whereabouts, I followed you. Quite straightforward.”

    As Avril had seemed to me a wee bit odd from the outset, I was still reserving judgement on her character, but my assessment of her intelligence rocketed. Also, I was struck by the thought that it was time for me to engage in a little revision, specifically PI Manual, Lesson Six: Evading A Pursuer. Maybe I’d taken the wrong correspondence course. While I was admiring Avril’s smarts, we were both distracted by a choking sound. I turned to see Michael, mouth open, walking backwards away from us and towards the window, a look of horror on his face as he stared at his sister. “No, no,” he squawked. “Go away. Leave me alone.”

    My client turned her attention back to her brother. It was quite something to watch her rounding the bed, advancing upon the hapless Michael, looking up nearly a foot into his eyes as he retreated behind the table. “You,” he yelped at me. “Get her out of here.”

    This time I was, so I thought, prepared for all eventualities. I fumbled out my .38. “Calm down, both of you,” I bellowed. “I have a gun.”

    Avril gave me the briefest of glances, but managed to get plenty of scorn into it. “Put that thing away, Mr Potts,” she said dismissively. “We all know you won’t use it.” She was dead right. I was completely stumped. If this woman showed much more evidence of her brain power, I’d nominate her for Mensa, assuming she wasn’t already a member. As for mousy little woman, forget it, she was a tigress.

    Michael continued to give his impression of a rabbit facing a snake. Avril moved in on him. It was like watching Rosa Klebb approaching James Bond in that hotel room in ‘From Russia With Love’, except that Michael didn’t think of defending himself with the chair. “Don’t fight it,” said Avril. “You know I’m right. I’ve brought fresh things for you. Now, give me the used ones.”

    I was way out of my depth. “What the hell goes on here?” I barked.

    Michael turned pleading eyes on me. “She’s crazy,” he moaned. “She wants my underwear.”

    “And your shirt, Michael,” said Avril, “and your socks. You’ve had all of them on for over a week. It’s disgusting.”

    Michael held supplicating hands my way. “She’s a laundry freak. She takes the shirts from my back to fill that damned washing machine. I can’t take any more of it.”

    Avril was totally focused. “You must see that resistance is useless, Michael,” she said, her tone still quiet but inexorable. “I’m three pounds short of a full load. Now, hand them over!”

    Michael was goggling at me. “Do something, can’t you?” he wailed. “I should have known. She’s just like mother. One time, the old bag left our father naked for five hours, just so she could get the machine full. She laundered her man to death.”

    “Now look here,” I said, “We can’t have –” That was as far I got before Avril turned on me, her eyes unnaturally bright, spittle running from her mouth. I saw then that she really was deranged. “Keep out of this, you . . . you . . . detective,” she said, getting real venom into my job description. Swinging back to her brother, she held out her hands. “Please, Michael,” she said, “don’t make me take them by force.”

    That seemed a good moment for me to go. “I’ll leave you to it,” I mumbled. “You’ll get the account tomorrow, Avril.”

    She didn’t intend to be distracted. “Yes,” she said, her eyes not leaving Michael. “You may go.”

    I went back to the office, typed my bill – I was up to five or six fingers with my ancient machine – and mailed it, with no great expectation of getting paid. For two or three days, I had disquieting notions of calling to enforce settlement, only to find myself hopping around the Greens’ apartment, just ahead of the demon laundress and shedding one garment after another in an effort to distract her. In the event, she sent me folding money by return post. I wondered whether I’d ever understand people.
    Last edited by Courtjester; February 23rd, 2019 at 01:07 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



  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by bazz cargo View Post
    Hi CD,
    I see you have a new contender for 'eccentric of the year.'
    I am now curious as to where this goes.
    Hello Baz - stay tuned! Cj.
    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. #5

    Tipster

    TIPSTER


    Damn Willie the Zilch. I cursed the wretched fellow fluently, but quietly. It was advisable for outsiders to avoid making a lot of noise in the Citadel. In fact it was as well for them not to be there at all.


    We’re going back some years, to a time before the gentrification of the riverside part of the city. That event caused many denizens of the district to move out, making way for yuppies with the means to spruce up the waterfront. I must say that in my opinion the newcomers made a good job of it. Dreary, grime-streaked facades, reeking of hopelessness, were transformed by pressure hoses and paint. Filthy, jammed sash windows became smart double-glazed jobs. Baskets, boxes and tubs full of flowers sprouted.

    Some of the entrenched occupants had stayed on, embracing the new environment. The others had been displaced and though I didn’t know what had happened to them, I felt a twinge of sympathy whenever I reflected on the matter, thinking that life is often a question of winners and losers. I consoled myself then as now with the thought that on the whole things get better – and it doesn’t always have to be a zero-sum game, does it? Let’s bake a bigger cake so we can all benefit is what I say. Anyway, these days a stroll around the Citadel – sorry, the Marina – is a pleasant experience. At the time I’m speaking of, it wasn’t.

    The place got its name from the laager mentality of those inhabitants who had gravitated to the spot because it was the only one where they could be housed without too much inconvenience all round. There was a mix of types, including ordinary family folk who hadn’t realised the dream but were still trying, and a sprinkling of youngsters, determined to show their parents that they could cope without interference. Then there were the no-hopers, whose attitudes suggested that they wouldn’t make it anywhere, anytime. Where are they now? I don’t know. Maybe we’ve produced that larger cake I mentioned and they’re prospering. I hope so.

    However, you’re not paying me for a sociological critique. The point is, what was I doing there? Back to Willie the Zilch. His forename was probably genuine. The sobriquet arose from his tendency to supply dubious or downright useless information to a variety of contacts, including me. Still, they say that even a blind pig finds the odd truffle, and a tip from Willie had helped me in one of my most lucrative cases. Since his monetary demands were invariably modest, I usually paid up, writing off the cost as my contribution to his retirement pension. That turned out to be an unnecessary allocation of funds.

    One problem in dealing with Willie was that he was both devious and paranoid and assumed that all his associates were likewise. He insisted on improbable venues for the confiding of his gems. It might have been the garden of a derelict house, some corner of a vast junkyard, or the public toilet block in our main municipal park, the last-named being another place best avoided – I mean the convenience, not the park in general. I expected that he would at some point suggest a meeting at one of our sewerage plant inlets. It was irritating, but I didn’t gripe too much, as he might have supplied another winner one day.

    I indicate the past tense as Willie the Zilch is no longer with us, having been injudicious enough to upset Howling Jack Lanigan, which at the time Willie did it was about as serious a mistake as a man could make in this town. I’ll tell you more about Howling Jack later. At present, suffice it to say that for a decade or more, anyone making a list of people to annoy around here would have been wise to put Jack Lanigan at the bottom. To tell the truth, it would have been better to cross him off.

    Howling Jack was so called because of his habit of baying like a wolf when anything amused him – and since quite a lot did, he often vocalised that way. I can speak freely about Jack, as he’s also left us.

    What Willie did to make Jack mad was to inform the coppers that one of Jack’s unauthorised mobile gambling games was to take place at a certain time and location. Those in the know said that it was purely a slip of the tongue on Willie’s part, but Howling Jack had very firm views on such things. His principles were set in concrete – and it was widely felt that they were not the only things he treated with that substance in mind.

    The result of Willie’s gaffe was that the boys in blue called in on Howling Jack’s moving feast and the two sides presented each other with leaden business cards. During this exchange of courtesies, Jack’s chief of staff swallowed a police bullet, sustaining terminal indigestion. Lanigan was of course elsewhere at the time, with a dozen witnesses. Later, having established that Willie the Zilch was, however unwittingly, responsible, he acted with his customary promptness, offering maximum assistance in the matter of Willie’s shuffling off the mortal coil.

    On the occasion I’m speaking of, the meeting place was a hundred yards south of a rickety wooden footbridge crossing the murky stream which bisected the wasteland abutting the Citadel. This time, I meant to take Willie to task about his choice of rendezvous, but didn’t get around to it. I was doubly annoyed as I’d been obliged to leave my car in a vulnerable spot, then reach the bridge by way of a disgustingly litter-strewn footpath. Also, it was raining and windy. I cinched up my ‘here’s looking at you, Kid’ trench coat – and continued pounding the ground, which didn’t seem to mind.

    My irritation index was rising because Willie was, unusually for him, late. Well, at least he’d picked the right time of day. It was nearly dark. He came across the grassland – as I’d crossed the bridge, we were on the side remote from the Citadel – trudging through what looked like the detritus of many a trash can. Why have it collected when you can just throw it around? Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only reporting what I saw.

    Being a detective, I should have realised that a bridge must lead from one place to another, but that didn’t occur to me then. Willie shimmied up to me, furtive as ever, not speaking until he’d turned full circle, peering into the gloom. He would have carried out a three-sixty visual sweep even if we’d been meeting in broad daylight in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Maybe he owned a topcoat, but I’d never seen it. He was clad in his standard synthetic black suit, whitish open-necked shirt and black sneakers, all shiny-wet. As that seemed to be his only apparel in all weather, I wondered when and how he got it dry or clean.

    There were never any introductory exchanges with Willie. He always got straight to the point. “I hear you been hired by High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe,” he muttered.

    I gave him my best non-committal look. “My, Willie,” I said, “what big ears you have.”

    “Aw, come on,” he said. “I ain’t the only one who knows. It’s all over town that Drop-out Donny lammed it, owin’ Henry two grand in card debts. Rumour is that Henry’s offerin’ you three Cs an’ your charges to look him up.”

    “Ah, Willie,” I said, “it’s a terrible disease.”

    “What is?”

    “Rumourtism. Anyway, supposing for a moment that there’s any truth in this tittle-tattle, why are we here?”

    Willie looked around again, lowering his voice even more. “I know where Donny is,” he said. “I figure it must be worth a half-C to you. It’s a sure thing an’ you’ll still be two-fifty ahead.”

    I wasn’t too familiar with social observations, but seemed to recall that it was one of the Carnegies – Dale, maybe? – who remarked that people just love to hear their names said by others, time and again. “Willie,” I said. “Willie, Willie.” I thought that was about enough. “I owed you one some time ago, but I’ve surely paid off by now. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about Drop-out Donny, but for old times’ sake I’ll go to the half, just for eating money – and this is the last time. I have to live, too.” I handed over the fifty dollars. “Now, on the off chance that I meet someone who might be interested, where is Donny?”

    Willie shrugged. “I can’t figure it,” he said, “but he’s just eight miles out of town. He could’ve gone anywhere, but that’s where he went. Cabin seventeen at a place called Randle’s Motel. It’s on the south –”

    “I know where it is,” I interrupted. “I live here, Willie.”

    “Er, oh, sure. Well, he’s there now – or was, this afternoon. Look, I gotta go.”

    “Okay, go.” I turned and was buffeted back to my miraculously still intact car, pondering on Willie’s tip-off. The first part of his information was sound. I had been hired by High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe to find Drop-out Donny. Now you need an explanation.

    Cunliffe had arrived in town around three years before the incident I’m talking about. The word was that he’d made a name for himself in various parts of the Midwest. I saw him shortly after his arrival and guessed he was in his middle forties. Superficially, he was nothing more than a very successful card player. Nobody accused him of shifting the odds his way, since it was accepted that the professional is almost sure to beat the amateur over a distance. I was told that it’s partly psychology, but mostly a matter of knowing something about the laws governing such things. Be that as it may, few doubted that High-Stakes Henry had certain less acceptable pastimes.

    What Henry wanted me to do was find Drop-out Donny and inform him that rapid payment of the two grand Willie the Zilch had mentioned, plus a hair-raising sum in interest, would be appropriate. Well, Henry was in a risky business and maybe five per cent a week was the going rate. I had no brief to indulge in any rough-stuff, my instructions being merely locate and advise.

    Drop-out Donny was a scapegrace and all-round hellion in his early twenties. He’d turned up in our city at about the same time as Henry Cunliffe. Since his arrival, Donny had never been known to indulge in anything so vulgar as work, but he seemed to do well enough; always immaculately dressed and never short of cash. He also had a reputation as a smooth talker, and if the gab didn’t get him whatever he wanted, he was an expert with firearms. He got his nickname from his habit of disappearing at times, especially after some major felony occurred in the city. I’d supposed he was just shy. Well, some people are.

    I didn’t want to spend too much time on the case. For one thing, three hundred dollars – well, less the fifty now – plus my usual fees was no big deal and for another, failing to make haste in accommodating High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe was not good policy. It seemed best to get to Randle’s Motel without delay, so that’s what I did.

    I reached the place at nine o’clock and didn’t bother to consult the youth sitting at a desk in the shack which served as an office. The units were all separate timber-built chalets. I drove at walking pace to number seventeen, then went on to number twenty, partly because it would have been stupid to stop at my goal and partly because twenty was the next unit that seemed to be unoccupied.

    I slunk back to number seventeen. Don’t ask me why I behaved that way. Perhaps I was just conforming to type. Apart from innate caution, there was no need for me to be surreptitious. I was the good guys, wasn’t I?

    There were lights on in the cabin. Now I was confronted with the old problem. Does one crash in, gunned-up, or steal around seeking a weakness? To be honest, it wasn’t really a headache. There was a tiny room – I knew it was a shower cubicle – at the rear, ventilated by a grille and an extractor fan. The only entrance or exit possibilities were the solid wooden door and the double-glazed, tilt-and-turn window, both at the front. I got up close. Venetian blinds can be either a help or a hindrance to the sleuth. This one was half and half, as it was lowered all the way, but the slats were near-horizontal. There was a possible bonus in that the window was open a couple of inches. Creeping to the door, I was astonished to find it ajar on such a cool, breezy evening. Whoever was inside couldn’t be too concerned about security.

    I was working myself up to making a move when a car swished into the gravelled path between the two rows of units. I did my blending into the scenery act as the vehicle crept along. It slowed briefly outside number seventeen, then crawled on, parking in the next free space. Two men got out. I crouched at the corner of the cabin as they approached. Both drew guns, then one kicked the door and the pair leapt inside.

    I moved back to the window. Through the slats and the gap, I could see and hear well enough. I missed the first bit, but soon caught on. It seemed that the invaders had not taken their man by surprise. I recognised Drop-out Donny, lying on the bed and pointing a hefty automatic at his visitors, whose equally businesslike weapons were directed his way in what looked like a stand-off.

    For a moment I thought that Donny’s gun was festooned with some of its original packaging, then I realised that he’d used some bubble-wrap to fashion a homemade silencer. Well, a suppressor, really. I mean a gunshot can hardly be silenced, can it?

    The first voice I heard was from one of the heavies: “ . . . an’ we’re two to one here, Donny. Our instructions are to collect an’ to break something for every grand outstandin’. You owe two, an’ you got two legs. Then there’s a little somethin’ for the interest. Maybe an arm. Seems right.”

    In Donny’s position, I would have been more than slightly alarmed. He took it differently. “Boys, I’m disappointed,” he said. “First that Henry doesn’t trust me and second that he picked you. You’re not up to it, you really aren’t.” Without waiting for a reply, he shot both visitors. Even now, years on, I’m amazed at the abruptness of it. Forget the muted plops you hear on TV. This was two flattish snapping coughs, louder than I would have expected, if I’d had any expectations at all. Incidentally, I’d always thought – albeit without having done any research – that these improvised sound-mufflers were not reliable for multiple shots. Donny’s seemed to work well enough for two, maybe on account of his speed, or perhaps because he’d used so much material.

    The toughs dropped their guns, one man clasping his right hand in the cupped left, the other reeling backwards, slapping his left hand to his right elbow.

    Although I’d had a couple of cases involving the production and waggling of handguns, this was my first close-up view of shooting, and I’m pleased to say that I encountered very few further instances of it. Just as well, since it’s hugely unnerving.

    Drop-out Donny lay there, grinning. “All right,” he said, “it’s over. Go back and tell Henry I’ll be in touch – and leave the hardware.”

    The inadequate enforcers lurched out, nursing their damaged wings, scurried to their car and left. This gave me a problem. Donny was right on the ball. Still, I had my reputation to consider. I’d been hired to locate the man and give him High-Stakes Henry’s message. Now, I admit that I didn’t have all the answers, but I did have my code. I went to the door and knocked, trying to make it sound like I was an outraged motel manager. Considering that he’d just shot two men, Donny seemed quite relaxed. “Come right in,” he bawled nonchalantly. “Everybody else does.”

    I nudged my way in with a knee, keeping my hands up and out. Unthreatening was the word. “Good evening,” I said.

    Donny was still sprawled on the bed, his right hand, with the disconcerting artillery bulge, under the blankets. He smiled. “Ah, you must be a Jehovah’s Witness.” Jolly.

    “Now, Donny,” I replied, “don’t be difficult. My name’s Cyril Potts. I’m a private investigator and only the bearer of tidings.”

    “Well, that’s a change,” he said. “You’ve no idea what annoying people call in here.”

    I made extra-sure that he noted the placatory hands. “Believe me,” I said, “I’ve no connection with anyone else who might be trying to locate you. I bring a simple message from High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe. I’m armed, but it’s only fair to warn you that I’m not courageous. If you’re going to fire that thing, wait till you see the whites of my liver.”

    I thought that was a good effort in the circumstances. Donny seemed to have the same view. He chuckled. “You’re different, anyway. To tell you the truth, my last visitors were a little trying. What news from Henry?”

    I’d been thinking all along – honest. Mostly, I thought that it was pretty low of Henry Cunliffe to hire me when he’d also brought in the bonecrushers. Clearly, he was a belt and braces man. However, in my business a fellow had to be steadfast. I expected to get paid, so had to deliver. “Henry says you owe him two thousand dollars in gambling debts,” I said, “plus two hundred in interest. My job is to tell you that he’d appreciate immediate settlement.”

    “Or what?”

    With the hands still extended, I shrugged as best I could. “Not my province. I don’t crack skulls, but I can tell you that Henry’s pretty steamed up.”

    Donny laughed outright. “You’re a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I wonder why others don’t operate your way. It works. So, two Gs and two Cs, eh?”

    “That’s what the man said. He’s authorised me to collect, if that’s all right with you.”

    By now, Donny was almost beside himself with mirth. He dug under the pillow, produced a fat wad, peeled off the amount due, rolled up the bills and lobbed them my way. “Don’t bother about identification,” he said. “I recognise you now, and for what it’s worth, I think you’re pretty good.”

    I picked up the money. “Thanks, Donny,” I said. “You’ve done the right thing, and I’m glad I didn’t have to get mean about this.”

    He snickered. “Yeah, I’ll bet you could be a real beast. And you might like to know there was no need for bloodhounds. I’ve been busy, that’s all. I was going to pay up any day. See, they say blood’s thicker than water and after all, Henry is my father. So long, Cyril.”
    Last edited by Courtjester; February 24th, 2019 at 02:03 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. #6

    Philately

    PHILATELY

    I was introspecting, my musings being helped by the use of my pipe, though not for its intended purpose – I hadn’t smoked at all for some years. I didn’t like cigarettes. Cigars had some appeal. but took my breath away. That left the pipe, which I’d never been able to keep alight for more than five minutes at a time. Still, it had other uses, one being that it put prospective clients at ease. They seemed to trust a pipe-smoker, so when they arrived, I usually fussed with the old briar. Then there was the autotherapy. Having heard that nasal oil brings out the grain, I’d taken to rubbing the bowl along the sides of my nose, and do you know, it works. Often, having got the wood nice and shiny, I enjoyed looking at the grain in general and the whorls in particular for ages, when longing for clients.

    While doing that very thing, and wondering where the money for the next meal was to come from, I noticed that someone had entered my waiting cubicle – I always had trouble in thinking of it as a room. I picked up a pen and a dummy file and was giving my standard demonstration of a man making notes when there was a knock at the office door. “In,” I said briskly, and a man entered. Insofar as there was a normal run of clients, he wasn’t it. About five-ten, probably early forties and dressed to kill – camel-hair overcoat with black velvet lapels, black Homburg hat, white shirt, maroon silk scarf, plain burgundy tie and, under the topcoat, dark-blue trousers, which no doubt accorded with the rest of his garb. “Morning,” I said, motioning him to the visitors’ chairs. “Have a seat.”

    He hitched up his pants, sat, crossed his legs and removed the hat, showing me plenty of well-groomed black hair. “Good morning, sir,” he said. “Am I addressing Cyril Potts?” Quaint.

    “You are. What can I do for you?”

    He cleared his throat. “My name is Timothy Longworth. I’ve had a misfortune.” His speech was, I thought, almost too cultivated. “I’ve been robbed.”

    “Of what, Mr Longworth?”

    “Stamps, sir. Postage stamps. I’d like you to investigate.”

    “Hmn. Well, first things first. Your address please, then the details.”

    He lived in a row house in Saint Andrew’s Square, a well regarded spot. He was into stocks and shares and his hobby was philately. The only other occupant of his home was the housekeeper, Miss Muriel Kemp, who had been with his father until the latter’s death, three years earlier. Timothy had kept the lady on. Then we got to the point.

    “The stamps, Mr Longworth,” I said. “I don’t know much about the subject. Would you explain?”

    “Certainly. My own little collection is of no consequence – a few trifles I’ve picked up since childhood, mainly because of the pretty pictures, you understand.”

    “Yes, I see.” I didn’t but agreement about trivia saves time.

    “Now,” he said, “when my uncle, Joseph Longworth, died last November, I went up to Ashfield to clear out his possessions. He’d rented a furnished house, so mostly it was just clothing and a modest array personal effects, of no interest to anyone but him. However, I found a dozen stamps. I was surprised, as I had no idea that he’d concerned himself with such things. They were Cape triangulars, over a hundred years old and very valuable.”

    “How much are we speaking of?”

    “Variable individually, but the whole lot would be worth around sixty thousand dollars.”

    “Are they a set, or independent?”

    “There’s no great collective increment. Broadly speaking, each has it’s own value.”

    “And the disappearance?”

    “Pure opportunism, I would say. On the eighteenth of this month, I left for a business trip. As she was not required during my absence, Miss Kemp decided to visit her father in Stagville. She departed shortly before I did and returned several hours after I came back, the following day. When I arrived home, I found the front door unlocked, the safe in my study open and the stamps gone.”

    “Only the stamps?”

    “Yes. There was nothing else of commercial value.”

    “Any evidence of forced entry?”

    “No. Both door and safe had been opened conventionally.”

    “Does anyone but you know the safe’s combination?”

    “As far as I’m aware, it was never known to anyone but my father and myself.”

    “Have you tried the police?”

    He shook his head. “Mr Potts, I am a reclusive man. I do not wish to invoke the official forces, admirable though they may be.”

    After we’d exchanged a few more words, I agreed to act and Longworth left, the understanding being that I would call on him. He seemed to see little point in that, but I assured him that there was nothing to beat starting out at the crime scene.

    For me this was new territory. As I’d intimated to Longworth, I knew little about stamps. However, I did know that there was a dealer by the name of Edwin Graves in a neighbouring town. I phoned him and arranged a meeting for that afternoon.

    Arriving at three o’clock on the dot, I found that Graves, a tall thin chap of, I guessed, seventy-odd, did his business from home. He seemed vague, as though in a world of his own. I was ushered into into his study, where I explained my mission.

    “Cape triangulars,” he mumbled. “There’s a thing. You know, one of the most prominent people in our little firmament reported the theft of twelve of them, only a short time ago. William Birdsall of Chicago. Perhaps you’ve heard the name.”

    I confessed my ignorance, but made a mental note that the connection appeared promising. There was nothing more to be got from Graves, so I returned to the office. The next step was routine. It was standard procedure for me to check, as far as possible, everything I heard, especially from clients.

    The matter of Longworth’s late uncle seemed worth validating – not that I doubted what my client had said. Well, not really. I didn’t want to wear myself out with a trip to Ashfield, but thought of Stan Hodges, an insurance assessor who lived in the sticks, some way from the place but much closer to it than I was. We’d met about two years earlier and had occasionally swapped legwork and were on the same wavelength in general. I’d have to get him quickly, as the TV promised a repeat of ‘Shane’, and I didn’t want to miss that. As usual, Stan allowed the phone to ring umpteen times before he answered with a weary-sounding “Yeah.”

    “Good day, Country Mouse. Greetings from the Great Wen,” I bawled.” Affable.

    “Ah, Pondhopper,” he groaned. “Go away. I’m busy.”

    “Can it, Marlowe,” I said. “You’re never too pressed to earn five crisp new sawbucks for purely nominal services.”

    “Listen, big city man,” he snapped, “For the full century, maybe. For half, I don’t move from this sofa.”

    “You don’t have a sofa, jackass,” I said.

    “Get metaphorical, can’t you?” was his pained response.

    I reckoned that put us about even. “Look,” I said, “I just want you to go over to that hogwallow you call a town and check the records. That can’t be worth a C. Be reasonable.”

    “All right, give.”

    I told him what I wanted. “Couldn’t you do it by phone,” he whined.

    “Probably,” I said, “but this is something I want to see with your own feet.”

    “Okay,” he said. “I need some groceries anyway. Stand by the office phone tomorrow, midday. You do still go to the office, I assume.”

    “Get to it, tiger,” I said. “I’ll be in situ.”

    That was enough for me. I strolled along the block to my local cholesterol emporium, ate something forgettable, then went home and settled down to events in Wyoming, circa 1890. Shortly after Wilson got his comeuppance from Shane, I opted for an early night, wondering why Fletcher in the book turned out to be Ryker in the film. Maybe somebody thought that Ryker sounded nastier. And why did old Rufe have a brother in the film? I didn’t recall one in the book. Things like that troubled me. I topped off the day with a slug of my preferred poison – a fine Amontillado.

    At 10.15 the following morning, I called at the Longworth residence. It was as desirable a place as I’d expected, on the west side of an iron-fenced square of immaculate turf, mature trees and, I thought, attractive shrubbery. Like all the others, the house was fronted by a short flight of stone steps leading up to the door and, under the single ground-level window, a basement giving onto a paved area behind black iron railings, matching those around the square’s greenery. A big dark-blue BMW car claimed most of the road outside the house.

    I was admitted by the housekeeper, Muriel Kemp. Excluding the odd snippet from films set in Victorian England, I hadn’t seen anything like her. She seemed to be a leftover from way back. A little older than her employer, she was about five-foot-nine and wore a long mid-grey dress buttoned to the throat and black flat-heeled shoes. The dark-brown hair was bunned and there were no baubles on display. Somehow, I sensed that there was more to this woman than met the eye.

    I joined Longworth in his study, revisited the ground we’d already covered, then made a decision. “I think it might be helpful if you bring in Mrs Danvers,” I said.

    “Who? Do you mean Miss Kemp?”

    “Yes, sorry,” I corrected, thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have read so many novels.

    He summoned her and we went through the details. The story was plausible enough. On the morning in question, Longworth had flown to Boston to meet his stockbroker. He had left at nine a.m. Freed from her duties, Muriel Kemp had departed at noon, to visit her father. She was sure she had left both front and back doors locked and the windows closed. There was no alarm system. Longworth had returned the following afternoon, to find the position he’d already described. Muriel Kemp got back that evening. Neither had anything to add.

    I went back to the office and waited for news from Stan Hodges. He phoned at noon as promised. “Negative,” he said. “Nobody named Longworth in the Ashfield area died in November, or a month either side.”

    So much for my client’s credibility. “You’re wonderful,” I said. Your loot’s in transit and may the Sun never set upon your caravanserai.”

    “May your camels produce much dung.” he answered. “Now scram.”

    I didn’t fancy a major outing, but it seemed clear that I would need to go to Chicago. I phoned the stamp dealer, William Birdsall, who agreed to meet me the following afternoon.

    The philatelic Mecca was a small narrow-fronted place, sandwiched between a tobacconist and a health food store – a nice irony, I thought – in a short alley. The only thing that marked my man’s premises as a little different from the neighbouring ones was a metal grille covering his window and interfering with a clear view of what was on offer.

    Birdsall was an elderly chap – were all people in this business of similar vintage, I wondered. He was short and stout, with tufts of white hair over his ears, bracketing an otherwise bare pink scalp. Having already explained my task, I needed only to go into the circumstances of his loss.

    “Very distressing, Mr Potts,” he said. “And it came just after the exhibition.”

    “Exhibition?”

    “Yes. We had one here shortly before the incident. I put up some of my prize items, including the missing ones.” He went on to tell me how dealers far and wide had shown their wares. With such easily portable merchandise involved, security had been tight. I asked whether he’d noticed anything out of the ordinary. One thing had struck him as odd. “There was a man who stayed at my display for a while,” he said. “He even took photos of some of my exhibits. When I spoke with my colleagues afterwards, it emerged that he’d done the same at their stands, so we didn’t think it too significant. The general feeling was that he was probably a journalist. Stamps are big business, you know.”

    I quizzed him about his setback, which had occurred less than a week after the show. A man who looked like the one who’d photographed Birdsall’s layout had visited the shop. He was slightly over medium height, probably forty-odd, with black hair and wearing a light-brown topcoat with dark lapels. He’d been carrying a document case and had expressed a particular interest in the Cape triangulars. He was looking at them when a woman came in. She was tall – about five-nine – slim and dressed in what Birdsall described as an old-fashioned way.

    Within a minute of her appearance, the woman had clapped a hand to her head and fallen to the floor. Birdsall had rushed to help, while the male visitor had seemed to be overcome with shock and apart from waving his arms was immobile. The woman had recovered quickly, saying that she was dependent upon tablets for her wellbeing. She lived nearby and could get back home in time to take her medication. She’d hurried off. The man had dithered for a moment, then excused himself, saying that the incident had disturbed him. He promised to return later.

    Birdsall had been about to put his stamps back in place, when he’d noticed that things didn’t look quite right. He’d realised that the specimens he was looking at were not those he had shown to the man. They were triangulars all right, but ordinary things, of little worth. Dashing out, he had glimpsed the supposedly disorientated man running to the end of the alley, where he’d dived into a large dark car – German, Birdsall thought – which had shot away with a woman at the wheel. By the time old William had scuttled to the main road, the vehicle had disappeared. That was all.

    I shook my head. “It was a switch job, Mr Birdsall,” I said. “Not the first and most likely not the last. Obviously your man had the cheap items in his case. That’s why he took the photos at your exhibition. You were the target all along and his stops at the other stands were window-dressing. He did the swap while the woman distracted you. I assume you’re insured?”

    “Of course, but the premiums are horrendous, and after this they’ll be even higher. I’ve offered a reward, for what it’s worth.”

    “How much?”

    “Two thousand, five hundred dollars. That’s the most I can manage at present.”

    “I see. Now, don’t these things have a history, like paintings?”

    “You mean a provenance.”

    “Right.”

    He flapped his arms. “Some do, but there’s what one might call a grey market. These stamps could disappear, then re-emerge with few questions asked. That couldn’t happen with the rarest items, but we’re speaking of middle-range ones. They’re perfect for the sophisticated thief.”

    I left Birdsall and returned home, immediately phoning the Longworth residence, to learn from Miss Kemp that the master was once more on his travels. He was expected back late that evening. I arranged to call on Muriel, insisting on a meeting within an hour. I had a hunch that seeing her without Longworth present might get me somewhere.

    After ringing off, I dawdled, my idea being to let la Kemp stew for a while. When I called at the house, she was still wearing the same dress and shoes as before. She looked shaken, which suggested that my timing was probably right. We sat together in the living room and I gave her my penetrating gaze. “Look, Miss Kemp,” I said, “or may I call you Marilyn?”

    “If you wish,” she said, “but my name is Muriel.”

    “Ah, yes,” I said. “Forgive me. I’ve covered a lot of ground.” Not being sure how to go on, I gave her some more of my hard stare, steepling my fingers and breathing deeply, like a man about to make a grave pronouncement. What I said was: “I’ve been to see Birdsall in Chicago. He told me everything.”

    We sat there for a long tense moment, looking at one another, and I’ll always regard my decision to pause at that point as one of the high spots of my career. Suddenly, Muriel’s composure collapsed. She dropped her head into her hands and started crying, great heaving sobs. I stepped over and put an arm around those thin shoulders. “Steady now,” I said. “Just talk.”

    She dabbed her eyes. “I shouldn’t have involved myself,” she said. “You know, don’t you? I see it in your face. Women sense these things.”

    I went back to my chair and smiled sagely, trying to give the impression that I was all clued up as to what she was about to say. “Tell it in your own words,” I said. “It’s better that way, and it will clear your mind.”

    She sniffed. “Timothy and I were lovers,” she said. “Oh, don’t be surprised. I’ve been with the Longworth family for many years and there was time when I was, well, perhaps more attractive than you see me now.”

    “Attractiveness comes from within, Mar . . . Muriel,” I said. “You have it and you can’t conceal it. Go on.”

    “Timothy never had his father’s financial competence. He is devious, but has no genuine business acumen. He made a mess of his portfolio and was close to ruin when he had this idea about stealing the stamps. He needed me as an accomplice. He’d already mortgaged the house to the hilt and he had other debts, some of them to people who aren’t too scrupulous as to how they collect. Selling up would not have solved his problems. He said that disposing of the stamps would settle matters. Incidentally, there was no uncle in Ashfield, but I imagine you’re aware of that.”

    “Of course,” I said. “I’m a professional.” Good work, Potts. “Still, there’s a few loose ends, one being Timothy’s reason for bringing in the uncle anyway.”

    “It was a notion he had when the stamps disappeared and he decided to engage you. He was desperate and got lost in a morass of confusion. Frankly, I believe he entered a fantasy world where he thought you would recover his stamps and all would be well. By the way, did he tell you that he retained me after his father died?”

    “Yes. That was when I got the feeling about the two of you,” I lied.

    “You were right. I stayed on without pay because I hoped that Timothy and I might rekindle what we’d once experienced together. He has some knowledge of philately and knew about the upcoming exhibition in Chicago. His suggestion was that we should use my savings as temporary capital, abscond and sell the stamps. We were to invent new identities – he said he knew how – and make a fresh start, using my money and the proceeds of the sale. That way, he would escape from his debts and we would have begun with over eighty thousand dollars, instead of just my funds. Like a fool, I went along with him, blinding myself to the complications. You could say that he was a Svengali and I was his Trilby.”

    “I suspected as much. So, you agreed. What next?”

    “Obviously you know that I was Timothy’s assistant and his chauffeur in Chicago. A few days after the incident there, I set out to do our normal household purchases, but forgot the shopping list. I’d never done that before. I don’t know whether that was because of my agitated condition, or just fate. I came back about ten minutes later. Timothy hadn’t expected me to return for some time. He was in his study and the door was ajar. I overheard him talking on the phone. I know he was speaking to a woman because he mentioned her name, Ellen, several times. From what I heard, it was clear that he intended to desert me at the first opportunity and go off with her. He even had a wicked scheme for depriving me of my savings.”

    Maybe a fellow should be hard-boiled in such a situation, but I just couldn’t help sympathising with this forlorn woman. I went over to her again, patting her on the back, then resumed my seat. “It’s a familiar story,” I said. It was nothing of the sort, at least not to me. “Carry on.”

    “There isn’t much more. Timothy doesn’t know that I have the combination of the safe. His father wrote it down while the installer was here, and left it on the desk in the study. I made a mental note of it while cleaning. I know that was a breach of trust, but I have a retentive memory. When I heard Timothy’s conversation with that woman, I took the first chance I got to remove the stamps, with no thought of what to do with them, save to frustrate his plan. You know the rest.”

    I nodded, wisdom personified. “Where are the goods now?”

    “Wait a moment.” She left, coming back a minute later with a shopping bag. “Take the dreadful things,” she blubbered. “Do what you like with me now. I don’t care any more.”

    I rose to the occasion. “You’ve been foolish,” I said, “but also ill-used. Overall, I’m inclined to the view that you’ve paid in misery for what you bought by indiscretion. Now, when is Longworth due back?”

    “Any minute now,” she said.

    I managed the first genuine smile since our conversation had started. “All is not lost, Mar . . . Muriel. I need to use your phone.”

    I called Birdsall in Chicago, telling him that I had the stamps. “Marvellous,” he chirruped. “What now?”

    “It’s in your court,” I said. “Either we pursue the case through conventional channels, or I give you the items and you pay me the reward.”

    “What happens if we press the matter officially.”

    “Then the stamps will impounded as evidence.”

    “For how long?”

    “Till the end of time,” I said. Humour with gravitas.

    We agreed that I would return the goodies to Birdsall and collect the reward. I rejoined Muriel, giving her the good news and establishing that most of her savings were still intact, in her name, and that she could stay with her father for a while.

    The timing was perfect. No sooner had we got things sorted out than Longworth arrived. I belaboured him with my all-time record of verbal abuse. When I was through with him, he was an abject, whimpering wreck.

    Leaving the broken reed, I escorted Muriel to her car. As we parted, she gave me a tearful look. “I realise now that the idea of trying to fool an expert was ridiculous,” she wailed, “but however did you work it out?”

    “I didn’t. I told you only that I’d seen Birdsall and that he’d passed on to me all he knew, which was inconclusive. You gave me the rest.”

    “Oh, my goodness,” she said.
    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. #7

    Lanigan

    LANIGAN

    I mentioned Howling Jack Lanigan in connection with another case, but didn’t go into detail. Although we both operated in the same city I’d somehow, perhaps naively, never expected to have anything to do with the man on a one-to-one basis, so was surprised to get a phone call from him. He won’t mind my telling you about this now. He won’t mind anything, as he is, to paraphrase Omar Khayyam, himself with yesterday’s seven thousand years, having succumbed to a fast-moving object with a diameter of 9mm.

    I was in a trough. No case for four weeks. It was difficult enough for me, but I’d begun to think about how things must be for the mice. I was having visions of them sitting around a table in plenary session, discussing the wisdom of broaching their strategic reserves. I wondered about that for a while, then I wondered what the hell was wrong with me. At such times, I was consoled by the fact that I didn’t have a pulchritudinous secretary, catering for my every need and engaging me in airy badinage. It would have been a tough job telling her that she’d have to go. To make me feel that bit better, snow was falling.

    I’d considered going downstairs to buy a couple of newspapers, then thought about the trees falling to produce them. I had trouble handling that, possibly because I’d recently gone through my third reading of Richard St. Barbe Baker’s superb book ‘Green Glory’, which dealt with the world’s forests and the human depredations on them. Furthermore, I didn’t really want to know what the rags had to say, even if it was accurate. I never was one to prejudice my social views with the facts. Not that I am knocking the fourth estate, you understand. Whenever I get the inclination to do that, I think of the fellow who asked whether the majority of people would prefer a press without a government, or a government without a press. Good question, isn’t it?

    I was about to call it a day when the phone rang. I picked up, but got no chance to introduce myself, as an ultra-gruff voice came at me almost before I’d got the receiver to my ear. “That Cyril Potts?”

    “The same,” I said. Suave.

    “Lanigan here. Maybe you heard of me.”

    I was taken aback, but recovered quickly. “Would that be Jack Lanigan?”

    “Right,” he grunted. “I got a proposition that might interest you. How about you drop in, pretty soon?”

    I didn’t care for the sound of that, but as I’ve indicated, times were hard. “Sure,” I said. “Where?”

    “Right here,” he said.

    “And that would be?”

    “My place. The White Rose Club.

    “I know it,” I said. “I can spare you a little time now, if you’re –”

    He didn’t care. “Okay. Fifteen minutes, right?”

    “Fine,” I said.

    I couldn’t think what a man like Howling Jack Lanigan might want from the likes of me. I mean, most of the time, we were on opposite sides of the law. I believe I mentioned elsewhere that Lanigan got his nickname from his habit of emitting wolf-like howls at anything that tickled him. As far as I knew, his main business was gambling, but there were other little matters, such as pimping, protection and so on. I’d always thought of him as a relic from bygone days, though in his way he was a big wheel. I’d seen him twice, both times from a distance, and had no overwhelming desire to meet him. Still, he ran the White Rose Club, and I was a transplant from England’s white rose county. Something there, perhaps? An omen? Anyway, there couldn’t be any harm in talking, could there?

    I reached the club on time and was admitted to the lair. My host hadn’t stinted himself with regard to personal space. The office, or rather study – embossed red and gold wallpaper made the difference – was nearly twice the size of my den, and reeked of money. Behind an impressive acreage of oak, Lanigan got up from a swivel-and-tilt chair. He was a big man, about six-two, not deep-chested but wide, with high square shoulders. He was a granite slab. I think he stood up only to show me that there was plenty of him. He didn’t offer to shake hands. “Well, we meet at last,” he said, in a voice like falling gravel. “I heard about you. Sit.”

    I sat. “I’m not accustomed to being preceded by my fame,” I said.

    “Don’t be modest. You’ve a reputation for gettin’ things done.”

    That was further news to me, but if it was what he thought, I didn’t see any point in disabusing him. “I seem to manage,” I said. “What’s up?”

    “We’ll get to that in a minute. Now look, I checked in the phone book an’ you’re down there as C. J. Potts. I want to know what the J stands for – an’ I hope you’re not goin’ to disappoint me.”

    The idea of doing that was not attractive, but I had no reasonable choice “It’s John,” I said. I didn’t know why my parents threw in the middle name. Maybe they did it in case I might have disagreed with their first choice. I’d never asked them.

    “Well, that’s okay,” he said. “John’s like jack, right?”

    “Some people regard it that way.”

    “So, we’re two Jacks, ain’t we?

    “Two Jacks indeed,” I said.

    “That’s a funny one.”

    I grinned. “Hilarious.”

    “You know,” he said, “I once won five hundred dollars at poker with two jacks.”

    “Congratulations,” I replied.

    “’Course,” he went on, “I had three nines as well. Full house. You don’t get that too many times.” He threw his head back and I thought I was going to be treated to the wolf-call, but he just chortled. “Now,” he said, “you can help me out. I’m a little short-handed right now. I need somethin’ took care of an’ I think you’re my man.”

    “Just a minute, Jack,” I said. “Let’s get things straight. I’m a PI. Generally, I work on the side of right, truth and justice.”

    “So?”

    “Well, the last thing I want to do is offend you, but the word is that some of your operations are, shall we say, borderline?” I was acutely uncomfortable.

    Lanigan had been rocking back in his chair. Now he fell forwards, his fearsome paws slamming down on the desk. I was afraid I’d annoyed him, but I was wrong. “Peeper,” he growled, “I like you.”

    “You do?”

    “That’s right. You have class. I think you’re my kinda people.”

    I was relieved and would have been happy to quit while ahead, but that wasn’t on Lanigan’s agenda. “I have a little problem,” he said. “You ever heard of Horsehead Mulrooney?”

    “Yes,” I said. “I hear he’s very big just north of here.”

    “You hear right. In a way, he’s a business associate. He runs his area an’ I run mine. Normally no trouble, but we’ve had a disagreement.”

    God preserve me from a gang war. “How so?” I said.

    Lanigan leaned back. “You don’t need the story. What concerns you is that Mulrooney’s mad at me an’ he’s sent in his top torpedo, Slugs Kalinski, to look me up. You know Kalinski?”

    “I’ve heard of him,” I said. “They say he’s a good man not to know. Anyway, what about your own boys?”

    “That’s the snag,” said Lanigan. “Ordinarily, I could take care of Kalinski with one hand tied behind me, but right now I’m in a touchy situation. I can’t afford distractions, an’ as to my boys, the best one’s out in Hawaii an’ I can’t get him back right now an’ – can you beat this? – my other three real soldiers are down with flu. Serves ‘em right for livin’ in the same apartment, but still, I need a good man – an’ it means a big score for you.”

    “That’s all very well, Jack,” I said, “but it raises questions.”

    “What questions?” he grunted.

    “First, you and Mulrooney. I mean, how about the all Irishmen together thing?”

    “Forget it,” he said. “It’s every man for himself in this game.”

    “Okay,” I said, “but then there’s the legal side?”

    Lanigan spread his hands. “Look at it this way,” he said. “You’re a sorta copper. Now, what’s a copper’s first duty? Preventin’ crime, ain’t it?”

    I knew this was a verbal trap, but I walked into it. Any psychiatrist would have concluded that my reaction was linked to my financial state – and would have pocketed more per hour than I did. “Let’s say you’re right,” I said. “So what?”

    “Just this, my friend. Kalinski’s here in town, at the Mount Pleasant hotel, an’ he aims to do me a little no good, like with a dose of lead. You can stop him. That’s crime prevention, ain’t it? An’ like I say, you’ll come out way ahead.”

    That was a good one, I had to admit. His argument had a certain logic. Maybe specious was the word. “What do you mean by a big score for me?” I said.

    Lanigan flopped even further back in his chair. He knew he’d won. “What are your fees, Cyril?”

    I told him and he laughed out loud. Still not lupine, but impressive. “Man, are you in the wrong business,” he said. “Look, see to this matter for me an’ I’ll give you that an’ plenty more. An’ you could settle things in a day or two. How about it?”

    I was unhappy, but I’ve already said enough to indicate that rent was uppermost in my mind. “Okay, Jack,” I said, “but I don’t usually kill people, you understand?”

    “Well, that’s a drawback,” he said. “but look, just discourage Kalinski, an’ if I’m satisfied, you’ll not find me small-minded.”

    Having taken the job, I left Lanigan and headed for the hotel he’d mentioned. When I got there, it was dark. The temperature had risen a little and the snow had changed to sleet. I knew the place. It was good but not snooty. The sort of spot that I imagined Slugs Kalinski would pick. There was an alleyway nearly opposite the canopied entrance, so I took up station there, waiting and thinking. I’d just about done enough of both and decided to confront Horsehead Mulrooney’s bully boy when a man came my way. He was walking slowly and seemed to be staring at me. I put him at about five-eleven and probably two-ten or so. He reached the mouth of the alley then turned, showing me a bulge in his raincoat pocket. “Down there,” he said, nodding at the gloom. “Quick – no fuss.”

    At that point, it occurred to me that once again I’d set out on a job unarmed. That wasn’t as big a hitch as you might imagine. First, I’d never used my .38 in anger. Second, I was a lousy hand with it. Third, if a man goes around shooting people, he might wind up facing awkward questions.

    To this day, I don’t know why I did as I was told. True, the fellow appeared to have a gun and he outweighed me by thirty pounds or so, but I could have run for it or tried to outface him or caused a scene. I didn’t do any of those things. Make what you like of that. Possibly I was mesmerised. Anyway, I allowed myself to be hustled along, wondering whether I was to receive a bullet or just get beaten up. Attached as I was to the general idea of keeping my blood inside my skin, I was alarmed. I could already feel myself horizontal, the ape’s footwear cracking my ribs. He’d probably have shoes with steel toecaps. Ugh!

    “You’re Kalinski?” I said, over my shoulder.

    “Right,” he grunted.

    “How did you make me?”

    He chuckled. “Easy. I was watchin’ Lanigan’s place. Saw you go in an’ come out. I knew Jack was short-handed, so figured you for stand-in muscle. I followed you on a hunch an’ what do you know, I catch up with you snoopin’ around my hotel. That don’t need no Einstein. I’ll see to you first, then I get a clear run at Jack.”

    This wasn’t an occasion for levity, but I gave it a stab. “You wouldn’t hit a man who wears glasses, would you?”

    “You ain’t got glasses.”

    “I could get some.” That didn’t elicit a reply.

    We were in a blind alley, about thirty yards long and a depressing spot. Lining one side were bits of old, rusting machinery. The other side was given over to general garbage. There was a big dumpster, then a row of large metal trash cans, one of which was lying on its side, most of its contents scattered on the paving. Piled up beyond the bins was a dismantled wooden staircase. The treads and risers, some flattened, some intact, were in one heap, the former uprights and what had been the banister, now chopped into five or six sections, in another.

    We reached the stacked woodwork. Less than ten yards to go to the end wall. I’d love to report that what happened in the next few seconds was attributable to my PI training - Lesson Eight: Disarming an Assailant. In truth, it was entirely accidental. One of the bits of the old staircase had fallen off the pile. I stumbled over it, measuring my length in the slush.

    It seemed like the ultimate indignity, adopting the prone position to accommodate my adversary. Assuming that I was pulling a stunt, Kalinski jumped forwards just as I rolled over onto my back, flapping my limbs like an overturned tortoise. My right foot connected inadvertently with his left shin. His own momentum did the rest, bringing him face-down alongside me.

    I leapt up and here, design took over from accident. If there isn’t a saying about desperation lending wings to thought, there should be. The gorilla was cursing as he started to rise. If he made it, I was done for. I looked around. The toppled trash can was only six feet from me. Providence! I picked it up – and I can still feel how heavy it was, even only a quarter full. But it was about the right size. Kalinski had got to his knees when I dumped the thing over his head. It was a near-perfect fit, jamming his shoulders, reaching down below his elbows and disgorging all manner of things I’d rather not describe.

    My man was nicely set up, but what to do about it? Fate again. The sections of the old banister were within easy reach. I picked up the nearest one. It was roughly four by two inches and about five feet long. On the whole, I’d have preferred something in iron, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Kalinski was back on his feet, struggling to shed the bin.

    I went in like a lumberjack, whacking that cylinder from one side then the other, left, right, left, dang, bing, dong. It was pure Laurel and Hardy. No, make that The Three Stooges. I began to settle into a pleasing rhythm.

    He was tough. If they come any harder, I don’t want to meet them. The shock and racket inside there must have been terrifying. He reeled and tottered like a drunk seeking a lamp-post, but he didn’t fall, or even stumble. A real professional.

    I thought of pausing and asking Slugs to yield to superior force but hell, this was fun. After a couple of minutes, I brought matters to an end with a shoulder charge. Man and metal toppled, the bin clanging away to let me view Kalinski. He was conscious – by a hairsbreadth. Kneeling, I went for his raincoat pockets. There wasn’t a gun - he’d been fooling me. For no reason I could think of, that made me feel even better than before about having boffed him around. I slapped his face. “Slugs,” I said, “can you hear me?” He gurgled something I couldn’t understand, so I repeated the wallop, harder. “Are you listening?” I said, quietly but urgently, talking like an accident doctor. Good control, I thought.

    “Urff,” he mumbled.

    Taking that for an affirmative, I bent to his right ear. “Remember this,” I said. “If I’d wanted to finish you off, I could have. As soon as you can walk, go and tell Mulrooney. If you don’t, he’ll know within an hour anyway.”

    There didn’t seem to be much else to do, so I left Kalinski. My wardrobe was in disarray, so I went back to my place and spruced myself up. When I was feeling something like normal again, it was still not quite nine o’clock. I phoned Jack Lanigan, told him what had occurred and arranged to call on him right away.

    On arrival, I was wafted into the presence and recounted the details, making little of my good fortune in falling flat on my face. Jack was tickled pink. “Cyril,” he said, grinning a mile wide, “I’m proud of you, an’ I don’t believe the bit about you bein’ lucky. I think you’re just tryin’ to play it down. Wait a minute.”

    He stabbed at his phone. There was a brief silence, then he said: “Put me on to Mulrooney . . . Listen, Miss, don’t give me no crap. This is Jack Lanigan. Now get him, pronto.” There was a short silence, then Lanigan started up again. “Horsey, how goes it? Yeah, I know… Oh, you heard already… your boy came up against my new man. That’s right, a real tiger. He could’ve took Slugs out permanent, but I didn’t want that. Maybe we should talk… Right, well, don’t get sore… Okay, call me tomorrow, an’ look, if Slugs needs treatment, I’ll cover it. `Bye.”

    I was nonplussed by the gangland mores. Lanigan slammed down the receiver and turned beaming eyes on me. “Now,” he said. “How much did you say?”

    I gave him my figure for a full day – well, I thought that was fair. He hooted, taking a tin box from a desk drawer. “I still say you’ve missed your way. Now, here you are.” He counted out my fee. “An’ here’s a little something else.” He riffled the bills like a bank teller. “One G for your results. Now, if you ever get over this thing . . . what is it?”

    “Scruples?” I suggested.

    “Yeah, that’s right. Well, I want you to know that you’re A1 with me. You ever need a job, you got it.”

    I grabbed the booty, mumbled my thanks and left.

    Nothing in this life is perfect. On the way to my car, I slipped on an icy bit of the sidewalk and collided with a man by comparison with whom my chum Kalinski and I were a brace of midgets. “Another damned drunk,” he yelled. “Try this.” He swung a right that could have brought down the Washington Monument.

    By the time I got up, the mastodon was out of sight and nobody else cared, as one and all showed by stepping around me. My jaw hurt, but – amazingly – wasn’t broken. My backup trench coat was now as much of a mess as the number one job and the trousers weren’t much better. Still – I felt my packed wallet – on the whole it had been a good day.
    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. #8

    Globules

    GLOBULES

    I’d read that relative to surface area, a sphere is the most efficient container of a given volume. Somehow, this seemed odd to me – why not a cube? – so I spent a little time working things out. It’s true, the sphere is superior. What’s more, a cylinder is better than a cube and, if you really want to know, I concluded that the more the cube is elongated to a rectangular cuboid – or whatever it’s called – and the more a cylinder diverges from congruence of diameter and height, the less effective the two bodies become.

    This dissertation on geometry is what I imagine the literary critics would call a contrivance, as it brings me to my meeting with Thomas Towers, the most inappropriately named client I ever had. In fairness to me, the above-mentioned cerebration, though still in progress at the time I have in mind, had started a couple of days before Thomas dropped in, so I’m not being too devious.

    The top half of the partition between my waiting roomlet and the office was of frosted glass, so I’d noticed that I had a visitor, but out of sheer cussedness I’d decided to ignore the fact for a while. Though the outline was indistinct, I felt sure that the caller was a male. He seemed to be standing or leaning between the two landscape prints on the far wall and looking through one of my ancient magazines. Was he honing his mind with an antedeluvian Readers Digest, or learning how to catch freshwater fish? You’ll note that the material I provided was not too contentious. No ‘Gun of the Week’ stuff and nothing from the newsagents’ top shelves.

    I don’t know how long my man would have stayed there, but he showed no sign of impatience for ten minutes. Maybe he’d had a mind-slip and thought he was calling on his dentist. Well, that might have explained his apparent reluctance to proceed.

    If it was a chicken game, I cracked first. I walked over, opened the inner door and without really looking at the chap, asked him to enter, then ambled back to my chair. By the time I’d taken up my position, he’d just about got into the room. That was no mean feat for him, since he was as near spherical as a man can be. I put his height at five-five. As to his circumference, words almost fail me. Rotund doesn’t begin to express it. He was the most roly-poly fellow I’ve ever seen. If he’d been tipped over, it would have been even money whether or not he could have been righted. On second thought, maybe tipping over a globe is a contradiction in terms. Sorry to go on about this, but I write of a remarkable sight. I put the man at about forty years of age.

    “Morning. Have a seat,” I said, waving in a take your pick gesture and wishing I had a sofa to accommodate him. I’d been cunning enough to get visitors’ chairs without arms – no point in letting people get too comfortable – so he managed to deposit himself, albeit with considerable overflow.

    “Good morning,” he said. “Mr Potts?” The voice was a high squeak, possibly, I thought, a consequence of all that flesh constricting his vocal chords. He was sweating and ill at ease. I can’t be too precise about the wardrobe details – clothing a shape like that can’t be easy. I’ve said before that I don’t like harping on about the physical peculiarities of others, lest they should do the same for me. Oh, would that we could be so wise, to see ourselves through others’ eyes. Okay, I borrowed that from the Scottish bard and amended it a little. I seem to recall observing a plain dark suit, a cream shirt and a lightly-patterned predominantly mid-blue tie. The thinning hair was mid-brown and plastered flat.

    “Yes. Can I do something for you?”

    “I hope so. I really do.” Agitated.

    “Please go on. My time is yours, up to a point.”

    He steadied himself with a deep breath. “I need your services, Mr Potts. My name is Thomas Towers.” I could hardly help thinking that here was a misnomer to beat all others. Couldn’t he have been called Ball, Roundtree or Rolls? Anything but Towers. “I’m very upset. If you can’t help, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

    “Helping people is my business, Mr Towers,” I said. “What’s troubling you?”

    “I hardly know what to say,” he squawked. “I’m with Goodbody & Frith. Maybe you know of us?”

    I didn’t, and told him so.

    “Well,” he said, “We’ve been in business for many years. We supply greeting cards, decorative wrapping paper and the like. There are only twelve of us, but we survive.”

    “I see,” I said. “Now, why do you need me?”

    He’d begun to wring his hands. “You may think this a little silly, but it’s important to me.”

    “Mr Towers, I never consider anything silly or otherwise without knowing the facts.” Grave, yet reassuring.

    “That’s a relief,” he replied. “Now, my firm was founded by an Englishman named George Goodbody. He came from Lancashire and it seems they had a culture there involving in-house social clubs. The idea was that employees paid small amounts each week, so that they could have a special celebration at Christmas. This was started up at our company from the beginning. It’s completely unnecessary these days, as we’re all in reasonably comfortable circumstances, but it’s become a tradition with us.”

    Not wanting to halt his flow, I scooped my hands, inviting him to go on.

    “Well, from time to time, we appoint a treasurer who collects the payments and accounts for them. Then we decide what we are to do. I’ve held the purse strings for two years and last week, the blow fell.”

    “What blow?” I asked.

    “Our money,” he groaned. “The funds disappeared. It must have happened late on Friday. That’s pay-day, so it’s when I collect, then I put the cash away in the evening. Normally, I don’t look at it again until the following Friday but this time, one of my colleagues called to pay his contribution on Saturday morning. He’d been away from work for two days and just happened to be passing my home. When I went to add his money to the rest, the box was empty. It’s terrible.”

    “I see,” I said. “How much is involved?”

    “Sixty-three dollars,” he wailed.

    I was accustomed to strange cases, but offhand, I couldn’t think of anything odder than this. “Mr Towers,” I said, “I sympathise with your position, but do you realise that even if I can help you, the cost in my fees and expenses would be more than you’ve lost?”

    He wobbled his pumpkin head in a nod. “I understand that,” he said, “but this is a matter of honour. I don’t care about the cost.”

    I silently applauded his morals, if not his common sense. “All right,” I said. “I have another case in progress, but I can’t do much about it today, so if you’ll give me some details, I’ll look into the matter.” In fact, I hadn’t had a case for over two weeks. I mentioned my fees, which made him blanch a little but didn’t seriously dent his resolve, which he’d summoned up to the extent that he positively forced a day’s pay upon me.

    Thomas said he was a bachelor, living with his widowed mother. There was no-one else in the house. I said I wanted to see the place, so we set off, using both our cars. Twenty minutes later we reached the spot – a detached, two-storey red-brick building in the southern suburbs; a middling social area. I was introduced to Mrs Towers, in a confrontation that was almost too much to bear. The matriarch was, I guessed, in her late sixties. I suspected that her hair had whitened at some point, but was now a striking carroty shade. She wore a startling print dress, with unidentifiable curly red, green and yellow things writhing on a white background. But it was her shape that was most arresting. Thomas was evidently a chip off the old block. I’d thought that he was the ultimate in globularity, but Ma Towers was about his equal. She might have been the merest shade shorter than her son, but barely deferred to him in girth. I was experiencing this, but having trouble believing it.

    In terms of excitement, there was little to choose between mother and son. Mrs Towers was, it appeared, aware of the facts and acutely distressed. The two seemed to be trying to outdo one another in the misery stakes.

    Together, we made a tour of the property, during which I ascertained that Mrs T. slept on the opposite side of the house from her son, her bedroom being higher than his, owing to a tiny landing and a turn in the stairs. We went back to the living room.

    Thomas explained that he secreted his social club funds in a tin money box, which was no more than a toy, kept under a pile of towels in an upstairs cupboard. The more I quizzed this pair, the weirder the whole thing seemed. Finally, I suggested interviewing them separately, “Nothing improper,” I said. “Simply a question of details emerging from two different sources, without extraneous chemistry.”

    Mrs T. was tickled pink – I think it was my inspired use of ‘extraneous’ that got to her. “You mean like in those English country house mysteries?” she said, eyes agleam.

    I nodded. “Something like that. Think of me as Miss Marple. You might be surprised what comes out.”

    I commandeered the living room and dealt with Thomas first. It was revealing. He had his doubts about his mother; misgivings reinforced by the fact that there was, as he saw it, no other party involved. There hadn’t been a break-in and there’d been no visitors in the week concerned, so no-one but Thomas and his mother had had access to the cash. Furthermore, Thomas had been suspicious of Mrs T. for some time. She received housekeeping money from him and in the past few months had regularly returned from the weekly shopping with more things than seemed reasonable, considering what she claimed to have spent. Then there was the sudden appearance of double-glazed windows – an undiscussed extravagance which Thomas reckoned they couldn’t afford. There was more in the same vein, all suggesting that the financial propriety of Ma Towers was questionable. In fact, Thomas confessed, had the present exigency not arisen, he would have been inclined to engage me to look into his mother’s conduct.

    I asked about the lost money. How had it been made up? Were there any coins or was it all bills, and was there any new stuff? There were no coins. As to the paper, Thomas wasn’t quite sure, but he knew there was a ten-dollar bill and seven or eight fives, the rest being singles. Apart from two crisp new fivers, all were well-used. He failed to see the relevance of that, but I had already reached a tentative conclusion, so was ahead of him.

    Then came my talk with Mrs Towers, which took me further into the familial mire. She was crafty. Time and again, she slipped in comments and questions designed to get me to reveal what Thomas had said. But I was an old hand at that, so she got nothing I didn’t want her to get. She was worried about her son. He’d always been weak, feckless and generally irresponsible. She couldn’t understand why his workmates had allowed him to handle the social club’s finances. She’d known that it would end in tears. Also, she’d been concerned about his behaviour for quite a while. She suspected that he was having at least two clandestine amorous affairs. Somehow, the idea of Thomas having a vigorous love life intrigued me. He didn’t seem the type. Still, within the framework of this case, it was no queerer than anything else.

    Matters were further complicated when Mrs Towers, or Annie, as I was asked to call her, mentioned that she was so concerned about the conduct of her possibly wayward offspring that she’d considered employing someone to look into the matter. Why not me, right now, she suggested.

    Here, I had to consider the question of ethics. Was it right to investigate the doings of Thomas, while simultaneously acting for him in the matter of the lost cash? On the whole – bearing in mind my monetary situation – I decided that there was no fundamental conflict, so I would accept Annie’s commission. Like her son, she was undeterred by the cost of proving anything. In fact, she was so troubled that she insisted on paying me a for a day in advance, irrespective of the outcome.

    Annie Towers would have scored more points with me than had her son, but for her eyes. They were – how shall I put it? – shifty. Direct and bright at times, but evasive and cloudy when it suited her. She outdid Thomas in cleverness, but I was wondering about honesty. I just didn’t like the way her looks and speech too often failed to match. I mean, animated talk and opaque stares don’t go together, do they?

    Having dismissed Annie, I sat alone for a while, considering the position. True, I wasn’t embarrassed with work, but I’d just about had enough of these two fruitcakes. Still, there I was, with a day’s payment pocketed from each of them and all that stood between me and a conclusion was sixty-three dollars. Ridiculous.

    I made a decision and went to the kitchen, where Annie and Thomas were sitting in silence. I told them that a solution was imminent and asked them to promise that they would wait exactly where they were while I dealt with a detail which would take me no more than half an hour. They were agog.

    I drove back into town, picked up the next month’s stock of sherry, called at my bank to make a slightly unusual transaction, then returned to the Towers’ place. Annie and Thomas were sitting exactly as I’d left them. I asked for a moment to make my final assessment, then went into the living room, where I opened my little notebook – mostly old shopping lists I’d failed to throw away. Then, in a matter of seconds, I did what I had to do before summoning my clients.

    Having got us all seated comfortably, I scanned my notes, then shut the booklet with a flourish. “Right,” I said, “I believe we can clear this up.”

    Thomas looked nonplussed, while Annie rubbed her hands in anticipation. In spite of myself, I was beginning to enjoy this, and leaned back as magisterially as my chair allowed. “I’m convinced that there has been no criminal activity here,” I said. “In fact, I believe the explanation is quite simple. I may be wrong, but I’m prepared to put the matter – and my reputation – to the test.”

    Thomas seemed increasingly bemused, but Annie was having fun. “I’ll bet it’s just as you suspected, isn’t it?” she said, flashing splendidly even teeth. “It’s a kind of Agatha Christie thing.”

    “Somewhat,” I replied. My task here was to maintain eye contact with both of them. I iterated between the two until I got a passable mid-point focus. “Tell me,” I said, “is there any history of somnambulism in your family?”

    Thomas was still out of his depth. “What do you mean?” he said.

    Annie jumped in quickly. “Sleepwalking, silly.”

    Thomas shook his head, but his mother was right onto it. “Now that you mention it,” she said, “my late husband – that’s Thomas’s father, you know – had some unusual habits. I found him walking around during the night a few times and I was never able to explain it, or get him to remember it afterwards.” That was an unexpected bonus and probably utter nonsense – Annie was surely in fantasy land, making things up as she went along. Having prepared my spiel, I didn’t need the observation, but it was grist to the mill.

    “Exactly,” I said. “It’s far more common than most people think. Now, this trait descends through the generations, though we don’t know whether it comes out on the male or the female side. That doesn’t matter in this case. What’s important is to establish who did what. Now, Annie, your bedroom has those steps down to the landing, so I’m inclined, at least provisionally, to rule you out. If you’d been wandering around, you would most likely have injured yourself. By comparison, you, Thomas would have had an easier passage. You wouldn’t have had to change levels because the cupboard with the money abuts the landing. This isn’t conclusive, you understand, but it’s strongly suggestive.”

    By now, Annie was positively drooling. “Yes, yes,” she said. “I think I follow you.”

    “Excellent,” I said. “Now, let me say that we are in largely unexplored territory. To keep it short, my assessment is that one of you – probably you, Thomas – was seized by a sleepwalking fit, picked up the money and placed it in another spot, no doubt thinking subconsciously in terms of security.”

    Annie was keeping pace with me. “It could have been like that, couldn’t it?” she gasped.

    “Yes,” I said. “You must understand that people in my line of work need to grasp the psychology of these matters. It’s probably new to you, but there’s a considerable history involved. There was a man in Canada who got up during the night and made himself a gourmet meal, then went back to bed, leaving the food uneaten. In another case, a fellow in England completed a ship in a bottle, while apparently fast asleep. There was even a murder case . . . but I won’t go on – the list is almost endless.” Coming on top of my extemporaneous bit about somnambulism being a matter of heredity, this ad hoc foray was, I maintain, commendably imaginative work.

    Thomas was floundering, but to give him due credit, he held onto the main point. “That’s all very well,” he groaned, “but what about the money?”

    I nodded. “Yes, of course. The vital thing. Now, as I said, it’s my belief that you walked in your sleep, took the cash and placed it where you considered it safer. So, if that was the case, there was no impropriety.”

    “All right,” he said, “But if I did what you say, where did I put the money?”

    Now I was in Smugville. “It’s usually simple,” I replied. “People think they’re being clever, but they generally pick the toilet cistern, the bottom of a crock in the kitchen, or under a carpet, usually by a table leg. Shall we investigate?”

    We did. At my suggestion, we tried the bathroom and the kitchen, drawing blanks. When we returned to the living room, we found the money that had puzzled my bank teller; one tenner, eight fives – two of them new, six well-used – and thirteen singles. It was under the carpet, where I’d placed it while ostensibly making notes.

    Thomas was speechless but Annie was beside herself. “You’re wonderful,” she said, misty-eyed. It was like Virginia Mayo saying something similar to Danny Kaye – there, I just knew I’d bring him up again – after he’d done his great surgeon bit in the Walter Mitty movie.

    “It’s not so brilliant, Annie,” I said. “More a question of experience. You may recall that a great detective once said that if an investigator knew the details of a thousand cases, it would be strange if he couldn’t unravel the thousand-and-first.”

    I’ve spun a few lines in my time, but never anything to compare with the twaddle I unloaded over Annie and Thomas. Still, it was touching to watch the reconciliation. Mother and son repeatedly embraced one another, as far as two people of their dimensions could.

    Among other things, I gathered that Annie had been using up her savings to provide the goodies which had caused Thomas to be suspicious of her. Happily, there was no mention of the reverse position; Annie’s concern about her son’s supposed shortcomings. I’d no doubt that she would turn a blind eye to having commissioned me in that matter, and I was prepared to do the same.

    I departed amid the 'There, theres’ and ‘How could we have come to such things?’ I didn’t wish to watch them emoting all over the carpet, and was still less disposed to stay around and see what would happen if the original money turned up. Bearing in mind Annie’s shopping habits, I didn’t think it would.

    As I drove off, it occurred to me that this was not the first time I’d been in at the end of a domestic skirmish that ended happily. Did I have some strange influence in such matters? Maybe my true vocation was family counselling.

    You may doubt the morality of all this. For my part, I contend that I had brought harmony where there had been discord. It was a happy outcome, and as I said, I’d pretty well had my fill of these two nutters. How do sixty-odd dollars stack up against that?

    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. #9

    Catcall

    CATCALL

    It’s disturbing to see double at any time, but when it happens before noon, stocktaking looms. I had time for a quick glance at the wall clock. Five past eleven. I was in the office and outside, the sun was shining in a cloudless sky. Therefore, a.m., so it wasn’t booze. I had a strict rule never to take a drink before the first one of the day. No, really, I had an office bottle, but sometimes it went untouched for a week or more, and anyway it was fairly innocent; just the sherry I used now and then as an aperitif before visiting the greasery where I lunched. There must have been some other explanation.

    The entry had been more explosive than average, involving the flinging open of the outer door, followed by similar treatment with respect to the portal to my holy of holies – thanks for the courtesy, boys. I use the plural as, when I was satisfied about my eyes, I had to accept that there were two of them. It isn’t every day one sees identical twins together, and even rarer that they’re six-five and built from the ground up – at least two-thirty each, I reckoned, and none of it looked like fat. They advanced to the desk, looking serious.

    The one to my left placed enormous fists on the veneer – I was surprised afterwards to find that there were no indentations. “We come to tell you to lay off jokees,” he rasped, in a voice that suggested a lot of cigarettes – not that I wanted to be judgmental, especially with a fellow of such size only four feet from me.

    Unfortunately for him, he’d caught me in one of my purple periods; a time when I was seldom at a loss for either clients or words. “Jokees,” I said. “Well, gentlemen, your advice is welcome, but unnecessary. I don’t take jokees, or any other questionable substances, unless you count the odd drop of something mildly alcoholic. I can offer you a glass if you’re staying.”

    This seemed to baffle my new friends for a moment, then Number Two took over, dropping his vast digits onto the other end of the desk. “Don’t get funny,” he grated. Same hoarse, unhealthy voice. I hoped they had good medical cover.

    “This is my office. I’m entitled to be funny here.” I spoke with more assurance than I felt. “Still, if you’d like to explain?”

    Number One gave me an even closer look at his face, which resembled a relief map of central Colorado. “Look, Flatfoot –”

    “No,” I broke in. “Don’t call me that. I’m private. You can call me Peeper, Shamus, or Gumshoe if you like, but not Flatfoot. That’s for the official types. Let’s start out with the right terminology, shall we?”

    I suspected that the long word would stump these lads, and it did. They looked at one another for a good five seconds, then Number One swung his ogreish head back my way. “You’re in luck,” he said. “We got no orders this time, `cept to tell you to what I just did. You want to push it, we’ll come back and break a few things around here – an’ I don’t mean furniture. You clear on that?”

    I hadn’t the faintest idea what these goons were talking about. Before their arrival I’d been pondering on binomial expansion. I was – and still am – intermittently fascinated by mathematics and didn’t want my train of thought interrupted for too long. “Got it,” I said. “If I’m ever tempted by jokees, I’ll consult you before making a move. Now, you may go, and please don’t slam the doors – I’m feeling faint.”

    Gog and Magog exchanged glances again, then – maybe there’s some special telepathic process between twins – swung around and strolled out. They took their time about it, presumably to show me that they would be impervious to any missiles I might have directed at them.

    I can’t pretend that the interlude left me cold. To tell the truth, it messed up my work on the Pascal triangle and its implications in the field of probability. Damn, I was really into that.

    I sat there, wondering what message the terrible twins had been charged with conveying. Whatever it was, they’d failed. Or maybe I had. For anything I knew, jokees were all the rage. It’s not easy to keep up with street slang, is it?

    I wasn’t left in doubt for long. Ten minutes after the oxen left, I had another visitor; a small thin ratty type, who came in with head flicking right and left, reminding me of a lizard on the alert. He closed the inner door, still looking around. “We alone?” he said.

    Just to reassure him, I also took in our surroundings before replying: “I’d say so. If you have any secrets to impart, I’ll take them with me to the grave. Why don’t you sit down?” I spoke with some warmth, but in fairness to me, I was a trifle irritated. All this social activity wasn’t helping my algebra.

    “You’d be Potts?” he said.

    “I would.”

    “Sorry. Didn’t mean to upset you, but a man can’t be too careful.”

    “No, he can’t,” I said. “But now that you’re here –”

    “Yeah, well, I wanted to be sure the bookends had gone.”

    “Ah,” I said, “Fasolt and Fafner.”

    “What?”

    “The big chaps.” I saw no need to expand – he didn’t seem like a man who’d appreciate details of the Rheingold giants.

    “Oh, yeah.” He was settling down. “I didn’t want them around.”

    “Most people wouldn’t,” I said. “What have they to do with you, or me?”

    “They work for Joe Keyes.”

    I’ve indicated that I was on a roll, so I made the connection in less time than it takes to tell. Joe Keyes. Jokees. One and the same? Probably just a matter of the first of my earlier callers having poor diction. “I think I’m beginning to get the idea,” I said. “Tell me about Joe Keyes.”

    My man seemed surprised. “You don’t know Joe?”

    “No. I just asked you to inform me.”

    “Gee,” he said, “you being an eye an’ all, I figured you’d know. Joe took over from Jack Lanigan.”

    The gears were meshing. I knew about Jack Lanigan’s demise – who didn’t? – but I wasn’t au fait with subsequent developments. Well, as I mentioned, I was busy at the time. “Okay,” I said. “Joe Keyes took over from Howling Jack. That still doesn’t explain things. I can get riddles from comic books. Now, maybe you’d care to spill it – and by the way, you might tell me who you are.” I was going for mastery.

    He looked around again, still not sure about privacy, but finally as satisfied as he was likely to be. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m Tommy Spooner. Joe took my cat.”

    “Cat?”

    “That’s right. A Balinese cat.”

    “Balinese, eh? Would that be similar to a Siamese one?”

    “I think so,” he said. “Don’t know for sure. Anyway, it came from Bali.”

    Though by no means an animal lover, I’d nothing much against cats in general. But Siamese seemed different. I couldn’t rid myself of a certain feeling about them. They look so . . . well . . . Egyptian. I’ve always thought of them as creatures stepping out of the burial chamber of a pyramid. I mean, what the hell have they been living on for three thousand years? Mummies? Spooky. You’ll note that I’d already lumped the creatures together with Tommy Spooner’s moggy.

    I steeled myself. “So, Joe Keyes took your Balinese cat. Until just now, I always reckoned that cats were two a penny. Is yours special?”

    “It’s worth four thousand dollars. That’s the difference.”

    I knew I was sinking into hitherto unplumbed depths, but couldn’t resist. “So, it’s a show cat, is it? Yard-long pedigree or something?”

    He threw back his head, exhaling pointedly to show his exasperation. “Man,” he said, “it’s not a real, live cat. It’s a model, made of gold, all the way through. It belonged to my mother. The only valuable thing the family ever owned.”

    Oh, no, I thought. Not another Maltese Falcon thing. For a fleeting, light-headed moment I had a vision of Greenstreet and Lorre giving me hard stares, then I remembered that they did that to the patsy – a role I’d no intention of filling. “Right,” I said. “You’re Tommy Spooner and Joe Keyes took your gold Balinese cat. Now I’m as wise as a family of owls, or would be if you’d get on with it. What’s the connection between you, your cat, Joe Keyes and the Pillars of Hercules I just had in here?”

    He heaved his shoulders – I reckoned a three-foot tape measure would have gone all round them, jacket included. “I was the muscleman for Joe,” he began. The idea of this half-portion doing heavy duty for anyone outside Lilliput struck me as odd, but I contained myself. After all, he could have been a gunny and a bullet is no respecter of size. He went on: “I did the collectin’. Coupla weeks ago, I was on the way back to Joe with the week’s take – two thousand, nine hundred and ninety-six dollars. I got mugged. One guy. He took the lot.”

    I showed him open hands. “Well, I suppose these things happen in your line of work, don’t they?”

    “Now an’ then,” he said, “but Joe don’t buy that an’ he ain’t what you’d call an understandin’ man. He put these two punks on my case – an’ before you ask, they’re new talent an’ I don’t know where he dug `em up. I guess they reckoned I’d got to you before they did.”

    “I see. So presumably that’s why they warned me off Joe and anything to do with him?”

    “Right. Joe knew about my cat, so they called on me an’ took it to kinda balance the books, just for the time bein’. Joe still wants his money an’ if I don’t come up with it, Mark and Tony have orders to do somethin’ nasty to me.”

    Mark and Tony, I thought. Mark Antony. Ah, well, everybody has to be called something. “So far, so good,” I said. “Why am I piggy in the middle?”

    “Fair question,” he said. “I guess I owe you an explanation.”

    “I’d say so.”

    “Well, I once told Joe what a great job you did some time back for Howlin’ Jack. I mean that time you beat up Slugs Kalinski. Maybe I made a lot of it. I might have mentioned that if I was ever in a jam, I’d look you up. Most likely Joe reckoned I’d done that, so he took precautions.”

    “By sending in Messrs Might and Main to scare me off, in case I’d decided to work for you?”

    “That’s how I see it,” he said. Then, in what seemed like delayed reaction, he puffed out what passed for a chest. “Not that I couldn’t take care of them two apes if I wanted to, but I got other interests.”

    I didn’t laugh. Like I said, maybe Tommy was a pistolero. In fact, if he’d been an enforcer, he must have done his work with hardware unless he was into martial arts, and somehow I couldn’t believe that. Anyway, as a rule, I wasn’t impolite to prospective clients, unless they deserved it. “So,” I said, “are you asking me to take up the matter, and if you are, what do you want me to do?”

    He shrugged. “I got no real quarrel with Joe Keyes,” he said. “We’re in a tough business. I guess I just think it might be a good idea if you step in. See Joe. Sorta smooth things out – an’ maybe get my cat back. I reckon he’ll listen after what I told him about you. I’ll pay him off, just as soon as one or two other things I got goin’ work out. Trouble is, Joe ain’t feelin’ too reasonable right now. An’ while you’re about it, maybe you could find the guy who took the three grand from me.”

    “Ah,” I said, “now we get to the nub. What can you tell me about him?”

    He rubbed his jaw. “It happened pretty quick,” he said. “All I can say is he was tall and thin. He had kinda funny eyes. Very light blue. Oh, an’ one other thing. He was wearin’ cowboy boots – tan, tooled leather. I know that’s not much.”

    Not much! That was the understatement of the year. Although I’d missed out on the Jack Lanigan succession thing, I’d had my ear to the ground in other matters. Tommy’s description could fit only one man; Pale Pete Parsons. He was a small-time, lone-hand hoodlum, who hadn’t even the wit to change his wardrobe occasionally. I was amazed that Tommy wasn’t acquainted with him, but this wasn’t the moment for disclosure. I knew I could lay hands on Pale Pete anytime. Still, there was the matter of my fees.

    I discussed terms with Tommy, telling him that I had hopes. He dismissed my charges with a flick of the hand, followed by the production of enough green material to make me happy. He left, clearly feeling much better than when he’d arrived. Well, that’s part of the service.

    I didn’t waste time. By two in the afternoon, I’d located Pete, who was showing his less than admirable skill in a pool hall barely a mile from my office. I spoke with him, pointing out the magnitude of his transgression and the odds he would be facing if he failed to cough up. He was remarkably tractable, probably because he was having misgivings about his bravado. He’d known who Tommy Spooner was, but had thought he could get away with his folly. The probability of immediate retribution seemed to jellify him on the spot. He’d already blown away nearly a hundred of his big take, but he handed over the rest, in consideration of my assurance that his name would disappear from my inquiries.

    That same evening, I called on Joe Keyes, who’d assumed control of Jack Lanigan’s club, as well as everything else the former proprietor had owned. I noticed that unlike so many chief executives, Joe had left the previous incumbent’s imprint virtually untouched. Desk, other furniture and wallpaper were as before. I had the fleeting thought that some of our captains of industry and commerce might learn something from such economy.

    Unlike his hulky, expansive predecessor, Joe Keyes was a man of average size and quiet speech. The only feature that struck me was the exceptionally analytical look in his grey eyes. Scientific detachment, I felt. Jack Lanigan would have put on a minor display of histrionics. Keyes seemed quite happy to have the matter settled. He was, he explained, a businessman. Shooting people and implanting them in the latest underpass was distasteful. Such methods were available to him, but were to be used sparingly. He was clearly both intelligent and practical, being happy to accept my intervention and not greatly concerned that I came up a yard short of his losses from the mugging of Tommy Spooner. Well, so far he still had the cat as security. Speaking of which, he pulled open a desk drawer, extracted the thing and handed it over. “Okay,” he said, “I’m not asking how you went about it, but you did well. I’ll remember you. Give this back to Tommy. Tell him he’s in the clear, but he isn’t going to do any more work for me. And you might let him know that his cat isn’t made of gold. I gave it the Archimedes test.”

    I didn’t want to appear ill-informed, so nodded, smiling wisely. “You did?” Maybe my eyes gave me away. Anyway, I didn’t know what he was talking about.

    “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?” he chuckled.

    I allowed him some more of my razor-edged grin. “On the contrary,” I lied. “I was just thinking that there’s more than one Archimedes test” – may I be forgiven for that ridiculous essay into obfuscation. “Which one did you have in mind?”

    Joe knew I was on the ropes, but to my surprise and relief chose not to make anything of it. “The obvious one,” he said. “If you get an irregular-shaped object which somebody claims is solid gold, you weigh it, then drop it into a measuring jug, if you have one big enough. It displaces water, and if you know what you’re doing, you can work it out. That thing” – he waved at the cat – “is probably lead, gilded or coated in some way.”

    As I’ve mentioned, I was enjoying one of my brighter spells, so caught on quickly. “Very clever of you,” I said, “but why didn’t you just scrape away the surface?”

    He sighed. “Mr Potts, I run a fair-sized and pretty complex business. Maybe some of my affairs aren’t what you would call entirely conventional, but I’ve already said that a man doesn’t control what I do by just strong-arm methods. You’d expect me to be fairly intelligent, wouldn’t you? As to why I didn’t scratch the cat, you must have a low opinion of how people like me operate. The thing wasn’t my property; it was collateral. Think about pawnbrokers. They don’t damage what’s handed to them. I’m returning Tommy’s property to you intact.”

    I acknowledged Joe’s points and was relieved that he didn’t ask for more details since, among other things, I wasn’t willing to finger Pete Parsons. All aspects considered, the result was satisfactory, except that my efficiency had done me out of at least a day’s pay, as I could have spun the matter out a little. But with odd exceptions, which I justified by my own moral code, I rated honesty as highly as confidentiality.

    Having exchanged a few further words with my host, I stood to leave. He pressed a button under his desk-top and within five seconds my old friends Tweedledum and Tweedledee joined us. “See Mr Potts out,” said Joe. “He’s on our side.” It was good to hear that, but I didn’t like the way he winked at his minions.

    The towering twins bracketed me as we left the office and walked towards the outer door. “Hello, boys,” I said. “I’m so pleased we’ve met again. If it’s any comfort to you, I’m glad I didn’t have to get rough with you.”

    That wasn’t the wisest thing to say. They lunged in on me with perfect timing. It was like being caught between colliding trains. If they did that to friends, what did the enemies get? When we reached the open door to the parking lot, my breathing was still ragged from the impact. Stepping over the threshold, I received a goodwill gesture from my pals, in the form of two dinner-plate hands thudding into my back, hurling me to my car. Hearty.

    Before driving off, I weighed things up. Not a bad outcome, I thought. I’d got my fee in advance, recovered the Balinese cat and with any luck I would, somewhere in this vast country, find a medico capable of straightening my spine.
    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. #10

    Suburbia

    SUBURBIA

    Jefferson Drive oozed affluence. So did the neighbouring thoroughfares bearing the great man’s name; Road, Avenue, Gardens and Chase. There wasn’t a Jefferson Street – possibly that had been considered too common; redolent of the inner urban area. Perish the thought. This was a modern high-specification development. I was looking at new wealth. If you have it, flaunt it. Old money tends to cower behind boxwood and laurel. There wasn’t a hedge or fence in sight here.

    Maybe my view is a little offbeat. I’ve never owned a house and don’t want to. At the time, my place was a room in a small hotel, above fleabag status but far from pretentious. It wasn’t cheap, but the outlay bought convenience. I didn’t have to mow lawns, seek tradespeople or appliance repairers, fill and empty washing and drying machines or wonder how to keep up with Mr and Mrs Nextdoor. Also, if pressed, I could have upped stakes and at a pinch got everything I valued into a suitcase and my RAF kitbag. Yes, that’s right – I gave a chunk of my life to the Royal Air Force. Incidentally, if anyone in that outfit is reading this, I’m not sure I was entitled to keep the said item of luggage, so sue me if you like. And further by the way – this is like a letter with a PS and a PPS – why do we call these things luggage? Isn’t that what’s inside them? Or are the contents effects’? All right, I’m confused.

    You may have noticed that the odd vestige of my formative years in Britain spills over into my language here and there. Well, the US hasn’t yet planed away all my edges. I like baseball, but still prefer cricket when I can get it. I also agonise over such things as whether to double consonants when extending certain words, to offer 'er' or 're' endings in other cases, to sneak up on the American public with practise as a verb corresponding to practice as a noun, and so on. This is stressful work. I’m aware of the pitfalls and try for mid-Atlantic, but the effort is enough to give one a split personality.

    Now back to base. The residents of the Jefferson development were mostly thrusting types, fast-tracking their way to the top or to burnout. I wondered how many of them would, over the next five years, sit facing a solemn character, talking quietly but firmly about the need for downsizing, or whatever euphemism would be fashionable at the time – terminology changes so quickly, doesn’t it? People don’t want to talk about axing jobs – too brutal. Better to cut them, shed them or perhaps best of all, lose them. Who retrieves them, and is it a case of finders, keepers?

    What do you do when you have a sky-high mortgage, payments on a couple of classy cars – maybe also a boat – and are told that the music has stopped and you have no seat? I didn’t know, still don’t, and with good luck never shall. I’ve always existed rather monastically, so the difference between my way of life and basic survival is virtually unnoticeable. If a fellow keeps his possessions to a minimum, he’s a poor target for thieves, and anyway he won’t mind too much if he loses the lot. Should anyone break into my place, he – most burglars are male – will very likely tiptoe out after leaving me a little something on the nightstand. May I suggest a ten-dollar minimum? Perhaps Ben Franklin had it right when he said that if a man puts the contents of his purse into his head, nobody can take the results away from him. So, I was able to contemplate this luxury development without a trace of envy. Also, not identifying too closely with clients helps to maintain the objectivity a PI needs.

    My destination was about halfway along the Drive; thirty-six houses in all, eighteen on either side, facing each other with what seemed to me like a kind of suppressed bellicosity. Maybe I was wrong – I’ll admit to being somewhat impressionable. The lots were around an acre each, the frontages, excepting the corner ones, of fifty yards or so. Considering that the whole Jefferson estate had been built in less than two years, both architecture and construction were, I thought, remarkably good. There was a mix of styles, but nothing jarring. The houses were all two-storey jobs of, I guessed, well over three thousand square feet each, their main common feature being that the facades were uniformly about forty yards from the sidewalk. Regulations, no doubt.

    I arrived at ten a.m. and parked in the road outside number twelve, noting that in the whole length of Jefferson Drive, no other vehicle had been left that way. Perhaps it wasn’t allowed, but being the nonconformist type, I didn’t care. Furthermore, I felt that where there was a sensible choice, it was better to walk up to a house, rather than motor to the front door. Something to do with assessing the aura, I reckoned.

    It seemed that my prospective client was a maverick. This was the only house in sight that had a true garden, rather than a lawn. The others had nothing but manicured turf and the odd tree to distract a viewer’s gaze from the dwellings. This place had grass too – shaved to putting green standard – but there were wide, thickly planted borders, inside which were three large, diamond-shaped flower-beds. What do they do when the blooms wilt, I asked myself. A private investigator should know things like that.

    I strolled along the drive, thinking that relative to some of the neighbours, the owner had economised a little in this respect. Widthwise, the surface would have been hard-pressed to accommodate a combine harvester.

    Normally, I don’t care too much about my appearance, but I remember that on the day in question I was well turned out – blue and white houndstooth jacket, new beige slacks, white shirt, red knitted tie and tan brogues. I looked quite dapper. Or so I thought until I saw the gardener. This unlikely lad was resplendent in a dark-blue chalk-stripe suit and gleaming black shoes. He was kneeling on a felt pad and doing something workmanlike with a trowel. I never saw anything more incongruous.

    As I approached the improbable retainer, he turned to face me. I’d already noticed that the seams of his jacket were barely holding out against the heft pushing at them. Now he showed me shoulders from here to there and a chest no harpoon could have got through. His face completed the picture. He was, as the nineteenth-century novelists might have put it, of simian aspect. If we all come from the apes, his journey had, I guessed, been shorter than average. It might have been my imagination, but as he turned, I seemed to get a glimpse of something bulky under the left armpit. “You want somethin’?” he grunted.

    I gave him my disarming smile. “I have an appointment with Mrs Berg,” I said, “but I don’t mind admiring your work in passing. Nice blooms. What are they?”

    Nobody could have accused the Bergs – I’d assumed there was a Mr – of being unpatriotic. The flower beds were, from top to bottom, red, white and blue, the borders planted in rows of the same colours. Apeman pointed his trowel at the mass of red. “Patagonias,” he said, grinning slyly.

    I matched him, smile for smile, but was suspicious. “And the white ones?”

    “Euphoniums.”

    “And the blue ones?”

    “Bassoonias. You through now?”

    His words demanded a riposte. “What have you got at the back?” I said. “Trombones?” Alas, the repartee appeared to be wasted on my interlocutor, who stood gawking – maybe he’d just learned his few lines. I ambled off to meet the chatelaine.

    The front door was not quite big enough to admit a bus. It was reached by three steps, which I tackled in sprightly manner. I negotiated the first two well enough, but came to grief on the top one, falling forwards in front of the iron-studded oak. Cloth tore as my left knee scraped along the concrete. Damn, only a week’s wear and already I would need an invisible mending job. Did we have the necessary practitioners in this great country? You may be pleased to learn that I found one – the elderly tailor I’ve mentioned elsewhere, who worked right underneath my office.

    I was still on all fours when the door swung open and I saw the bottom half of a swirling female garment. “Up, Fido.” The voice was as sultry as they come. Think of Lauren Bacall in, if memory serves me rightly, 'The Big Sleep’ and you’re getting warm. I was getting warm. Bogey wouldn’t have been caught like this. I upped, but it took time, for the sound reason that my eyes were travelling over a good deal of woman, covered – I use the term loosely – in a floor-length dressing gown of silvery silk, belted a little off-centre and not quite pulled together. As far as I could tell, the robe concealed little but flesh. The legs went on and on. Artful.

    When I straightened up, I saw that the lady was only two inches or so shorter than me, which made her about five-eleven. She had a pleasing display of shoulder-length platinum hair, which had surely had its hundred strokes for the day, a broad face and a wide, smiling mouth. I wondered for a moment why someone who seemed so cheerful would need a man in my line of work. I’m no authority on make-up, so can say only that what I noted seemed to have been applied with skill. The blue-grey eyes could have been called appraising, but for the fact that they were slightly out of focus, which probably had something to do with the whiff of seventy-proof breath I detected. Smoke drifted from a cigarette in a long black holder, poised at chin level between two fingers of the right hand. This one was a pure stereotype, but who cared?

    She gave me an arch look. “If you always make your entrance this way, you must get patted on the head a lot.”

    “Hey,” I said, “I’m supposed to be the one with smart cracks. Mrs Berg?”

    “Right. Call me Gloria. You must be Cyril Potts.”

    “Must be.”

    “This way,” she said, crooking a finger. She turned, swishing provocatively. I followed, panting, salivating – nice doggy. We went along a hall and into a large room at the rear. Goodness knows what they call them these days. It wasn’t the main living room. Maybe a bedless boudoir, assuming that boudoirs normally have beds – this is getting complicated. I’m not into interior decor, but ‘French Empire’ came to mind. Gloria swung to face me as we reached an ornate inlaid coffee table in front of a spindly chaise longue, a chaise very longue, a stretch chaise.

    “Drink?” she asked, swaying slightly.

    I was never keen on the hard stuff and generally speaking took it only to be sociable when offering some to calm a particularly agitated visitor to the office. Also, I’ve always been quite fussy about my favourite tipple, sherry, of which I take only a certain uncommon brand, which I felt sure Gloria wouldn’t have in stock. “I could manage a light beer,” I said.

    “I have some that weighs next to nothing,” she giggled, weaving her way to a small bar. Being a detective, I gathered that she was already quite far gone. I let the comment pass. No point in trying to outquip the other party every time.

    Gloria slopped liquids around, then wobbled back, motioning me to the sofa and handing me a tall glass with too much froth atop too little genuine booze. Her preference was greenish – and plenty of it. Well, I supposed the sun must be over the yard-arm somewhere in this wicked world.

    We sat four feet apart on the chaise. Very proper. Grasping that the circumstances were unusual, I saw no point in proceeding with introductory pleasantries. “Why the chimp out there?” I said, thumbing at the garden.

    “Security. I like to have strong men around.”

    I took a swig of the drink, collecting a foam moustache. “Okay. Now, Mrs . . . er . . . Gloria, what can I do for you?”

    She dragged on her cigarette – the second since my arrival. “I want you to check up on my husband.”

    “Why?”

    “He’s been away since yesterday morning. I think he’s fooling around.”

    I raised my eyebrows. I’d tried raising one, but it was hopeless. “Unbelievable,” I said. “Why would a man want to be detached from a woman like you?”

    By way of reply, she flowed along the upholstery and slapped me on the left cheek. Being at the top end of the welterweight range – maybe even middleweight – she wasn’t short of avoirdupois, so it hurt. I retaliated, socking her, left of the chin, with just enough zing to drop her back where she’d started.

    Massaging her jaw, she said: “My, you’re masterful. What do you charge?”

    I told her. She took another gulp of her elixir. “My God,” she said, “I was looking for Sherlock, not Shylock.” Even with a load on, she was bright enough. I gave her the routine patter about the dangers and uncertainties of my work, but she wasn’t really listening. Suddenly, while I was in mid-sentence, she flipped the cigarette-holder onto the coffee table, missing the huge ashtray by a foot. I was wondering about the effect of the still-burning gasper on that exquisite woodwork when she hurled herself my way, spilling her body over me like sauce on pasta.

    I didn’t know if the Boy Scout’s motto was still ‘be prepared’, but I coped to the best of my ability. It was fine while it lasted – and I won’t tell you how long that was. Look, she was a lot of woman and had moved pretty quickly. I’d like to know how the next man would have fared.

    We’d barely restored order when the door opened, admitting a man who bounced in, full of beans. He was a formidable-looking fellow, about an even six feet, with close-cropped black hair and, like the chap outside, all chest and shoulders. His left hand held a fat black briefcase. “Hi, Toots,” he yelled. “Thought I’d come home early.”

    My new girlfriend stood and faced him. If a serpent can be upright, she managed it. “Early for today, maybe, but what about yesterday, Tom Berg?” she hissed. “You didn’t come home at all. Where were you, you louse?”

    The man opened his arms. “Now wait a minute, Honey,” he said. “I can exp –”

    “Explain be damned,” my playmate shouted. “It’s that red-headed witch at your office, isn’t it?”

    Whatever reply the ox had in mind was frustrated by his spouse, who whipped out a gun – I swear I don’t know how she got it – from her swirling folds. She blasted off, taking a chunk out of Berg’s right-side shoulder-pad and, unless I was mistaken, a fragment of his anatomy.

    He looked at the hole, then plucked away a few fibres of finest worsted. “Oh, come on, Sweets, there’s no need for this,” he said. “These threads moved me back a month’s pay.” He was probably right – it was a top-class suit – but he didn’t seem to care about whatever wound he’d sustained.

    “You rat,” screamed Gloria. “I think I’ll just put one where it really hurts.” She trained the gun about twenty-five degrees downwards, with unmistakable intent.

    Berg was quick. He slung the heavy briefcase at his wife. It hit her on the right elbow, causing her to drop the gun.

    She was tough. The reaction was a short “Aahh,” as the arm hung at her side. She didn’t even rub the offended spot.

    “Maybe I should go,” I said.

    “Shut up, schmuck,” Berg snarled.

    “Yes, quiet, schmuck,” said Gloria.

    I vacillated for a moment, wondering how I might collect my fee from this nuthatch. Then I thought that King Kong might come in from the garden and endorse the view that I was a schmuck. There’s a Spanish proverb to the effect that if three people call you an ass, you should don a bridle. I peeled myself from the chaise and was trying to work out my next move when I saw strange looks pass between Gloria and her husband. They hesitated for an instant, then leapt together in a major clutch. Considering that they were limited to a left arm each, they made a fair job of it.

    There was some affectionate muttering, then I coughed. “Er, well, shall I leave, then?” I said.

    Berg looked at me in mild surprise, as though he’d just noticed my presence. “Yeah,” he said. “We got some making up to do here. Beat it.”

    Gloria swung her head my way. Her eyes were now fully glazed. She was as zonked out as anybody can be while still vertical. “Right,” she mumbled. “Take a hike.”

    I took a hike, and I hope you’ll understand my admission that I forgot about thoughts of finance and moved quickly. I’d have got out of that house by hook or crook, even if I’d had to pole-vault over a twelve-foot fence onto broken bricks.

    Three days later, I received payment, plus a nice note from Gloria Berg, thanking me for my services. I wondered how she ranked them – punctuality, grooming, willingness and ancillary work. She apologised for the left-handed writing.
    Last edited by Courtjester; March 3rd, 2019 at 02:04 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



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