PONDHOPPER : NUMBER SEVEN
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
* * *