PONDHOPPER : NUMBER FIFTEEN
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.”
“This coin thing. I mean, if you toss one, you’d expect a fifty-fifty chance of a head, wouldn’t you?”
“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. But 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. Ever the experimenter, I tried this out with two series, each of a hundred double-tosses. It works. I got two heads twenty-three times with the first effort and twenty-four times with the second. That seemed reasonable to me, since the chances are three-to-one against, so any deviation from the expected outcome will be likewise. I was satisfied – and by the way, 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. One day, I’ll go into this matter of probabilities in the detail it deserves.
I was about to step out and reveal all to Bobbie when I got a visitor. Like too many other callers, he didn’t bother to knock – I might as well have swapped my PI licence for a hawker’s permit and worked on the street corner. Not that an alfresco arrangement would have been appropriate for my man, who didn’t seem like the outdoors type. He was, I guessed, in his thirties, about five-ten, heavily built, with a square, clean-shaven, fleshy face and plenty of straight mid-brown hair, slicked back. He wore a dark-blue, faintly reddish-striped suit, which I suspected hadn’t come off any peg, a blindingly white shirt, maroon tie with tiny gold somethings on it and gleaming black lace-up shoes. But for the bulging in his middle reaches, he could have been a tailor’s dummy. There was something about him that put me on my guard. It might have been the grey eyes – they seemed to lack the ingenuousness I’d have liked to see – or maybe the overall turn-out which, immaculate though it was, somehow verged on the flashy. Was he a low-life who’d got lucky? What the Irish call a chancer? One shouldn’t indulge in such speculation.
“Cyril Potts?” he asked.
“Yes. Have a seat.”
He thudded down like a meteorite impacting the Earth. “I need help,” he said, breathing heavily.
“And you are?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
* * *