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Pondhopper (1 Viewer)

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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.
 
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bazz cargo

Retired Supervisor
Hi CD,
I see you have a new contender for 'eccentric of the year.'
I am now curious as to where this goes.
 

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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.”
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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.
 

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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.
 

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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?

 

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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.
 

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
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.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Runaway

RUNAWAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He glowered. “Who’s Jake?”

“I thought maybe you were.”

“I’m Phil.”

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

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

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

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

He glanced at it. “No. Who is he?”

“Stoops Pellegrino.”

“What’s he done?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Trigowhat?”

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah, Phil.”
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Poundage

POUNDAGE

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

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

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

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

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

“Don Burrows,” he grunted.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” I said, “that explains it.”

“Explains what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Don,” I said. “Sometimes they do.”
 

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Filiality

FILIALITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Emily,” said the woman, unnecessarily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you asked him?” I said.

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

“And you can’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where indeed?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Condition?”

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

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

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

I had, and confirmed it.

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

“I imagine so. Go on.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Pursuit

PURSUIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I looked in the phone book.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do my best, Mr Smith.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Tony. Be seeing you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smith?”

“Right. John Smith.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Get rid of you? Why?”

“Because I might talk.”

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

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

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

I went.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Numismatics

NUMISMATICS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See to what?”

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

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

“That’s it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you want me to do?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ethics?” I prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” I said. “So that’s good, then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why such a spread?”

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

“Right. Pretty complicated, eh?”

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

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

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

“How much?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “How much?”

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

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

A lousy hundred dollars. It was like giving a Pine Lodge waiter a dime tip. That was disappointing. Still, it made me feel better about having gypped Mulrooney out of a grand. I didn’t mention earlier that, in response to his enquiry about the reward, I’d given him a figure of three thousand dollars – and you’ll remember that I’d promised Pale Pete Parsons two thousand. Well, I thought a thousand was about fair compensation for the time when Horsehead turned his pet ape Kalinski loose on me in the Lanigan affair I recorded elsewhere in these narratives.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Oddball

ODDBALL

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Must I?”

“Yes. They’re after me.”

“Are they indeed?”

“Yes. Both of them.”

“I see. And who are they?”

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

“Your mother?”

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

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

“Bennett. Laura Bennett.”

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

“They want the Carter Stone,” she panted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you didn’t?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leaks like a damned sieve,” snarled Buxton.

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

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

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

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

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

I went back to the office and thought about that cube of gold.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Chancer

CHANCER

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

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

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

“Figure what?”

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

“Correct. So?”

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

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

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

After two hours of immersion, I was boned up. If you toss a coin once, the chance of getting a head is obviously fifty per cent. If you toss twice, you might get head-head, head-tail, tail-head, or tail-tail, so your chance of two heads is only twenty-five per cent. If you want to get three heads with three tosses, you have one chance in eight. With four tosses, it’s one in sixteen, and so on.
[FONT=&quot]
I was about to step out and reveal all to Bobbie when I got a visitor. Like too many other callers, he didn’t bother to knock – I might as well have swapped my PI licence for a hawker’s permit and worked on the street corner. Not that an alfresco arrangement would have been appropriate for my man, who didn’t seem like the outdoors type. He was, I guessed, in his thirties, about five-ten, heavily built, with a square, clean-shaven, fleshy face and plenty of straight mid-brown hair, slicked back. He wore a dark-blue, faintly reddish-striped suit, which I suspected hadn’t come off any peg, a blindingly white shirt, maroon tie with tiny gold somethings on it and gleaming black lace-up shoes. But for the bulging in his middle reaches, he could have been a tailor’s dummy. There was something about him that put me on my guard. It might have been the grey eyes – they seemed to lack the ingenuousness I’d have liked to see – or maybe the overall turn-out which, immaculate though it was, somehow verged on the flashy. Was he a low-life who’d got lucky? What the Irish call a chancer? One shouldn’t indulge in such speculation.[/FONT]

“Cyril Potts?” he asked.

“Yes. Have a seat.”

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

“And you are?”

“Clyde Osborne.”

“What’s your trouble, Mr Osborne?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve heard of him,” I said. “Go on.”

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

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

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

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

“Certain favours?” I suggested.

“You’re a man of the world.”

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

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

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

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

“And you haven’t obliged?”

“No.”

“So what happens next?”

“You want me to spell it out?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The what?”

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

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

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

I opened the envelope. Currency. Oh, goody. Five bills, bearing numbers of a size I didn’t see too often. All’s well that ends well, I thought.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Nutkin

NUTKIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

“Well, I want you to detect something.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Squirrel?”

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

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

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

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

“The latter. It seemed appropriate.”

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

“Which are?”

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

“You recovered an imaginary cat?”

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

“Ah, I see. But you were successful.”

“Eminently.”

“And the second point?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are neither?”

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

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

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

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

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

“From Louise?”

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

“You seem confident about your social contacts.”

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

“Have you spoken with the police?”

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

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

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

“In what way?”

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

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

“Nuts.”

“If you say so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was that large blast of hard booze – I hadn’t had the gall to ask for something less corrosive – but whatever the cause, I drove back home, thinking about the idea of getting on with older women.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Eccentricity

ECCENTRICITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Guilty,” I said.

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

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

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

“Have you considered asking the police?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gat?”

“Gat.”

“What?”

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

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

“Who are you?” he said.

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

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

“All right. Reach and freeze.”

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

“Good point. Reach first, then freeze.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He went back to the car, leaving my client and me in the desolate surroundings. Thinking in terms of good PR, I pointed out to Arnie that he’d paid me for two days and that we hadn’t fully used up the second one. I offered him a proportional refund. He demurred, but I thrust it upon him, using part of the loot I’d just received from Harland. I was well over three days’ pay ahead and had a happy customer. Good business all round.
 
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Courtjester

Honoured/Sadly Missed
Heiress

HEIRESS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Amanda Thornton.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amanda, please,” she interjected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By the way, I fouled up with the library books, returning them a day overdue. That’s just not right.
 
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