PONDHOPPER : NUMBER SEVENTEEN
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.
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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