PONDHOPPER : NUMBER NINETEEN
Just as I was about to leave for lunch, the phone rang. Ah, a prospective client, I thought – business calls far outnumbered personal ones. Paradoxically, despite being low in the funds department, I wasn’t really hoping for a case. First, it was a wet and windy day and I didn’t want to go out. Second, I was thinking. The subject was density. Not the mental kind, you understand – I was grappling with nuclear physics.
Being surprised was not new to me, but I’d been particularly startled to learn that nearly everything is, by normal reasoning, emptiness. I’m not referring to the great extraterrestrial void, but to the things we encounter daily. I’d thought that iron was pretty tightly packed stuff, and was aware that some other metals were more so, but had been taken aback to learn that even these substances consist mostly of vacant space. I’d been reading about neutron stars. In case you don’t know – and if it’s any consolation, I didn’t – the idea is that atoms have nuclei, surrounded by electrons, and that what lies in the relatively large gap between these two parts is pretty well nothingness. I won’t go into detail because I don’t know how, but in certain extreme circumstances, the electrons are stripped away and the nuclei get together – and that’s density. If one could get a cupful of this stuff, it would weigh millions of tons. Awesome, what?
I’d chewed this over for some time before hitting upon a convincing analogy. Think of a bicycle wheel. When it’s static, you can put a hand through the spaces between the spokes. Then, if you start to turn the wheel, you can’t do that. If you get it spinning fast enough, you are for all practical purposes confronted with a wall. Having worked out this comparison all by myself, I reckoned that I might get other clever ideas. You’ll appreciate that I needed time to ponder.
I picked up the phone – one day I was going to do that and bark: “Hawkins,” or “Hawkshaw,” or anything with ‘Hawk’ in it. “Cyril Potts,” I said.
“Good morning, Mr Potts. My name is Barbara Newby. I’m personal assistant to Commodore Philip Kenny. Perhaps the name is known to you.”
I liked the voice, an upmarket English one unless I was mistaken. The tone was low, melodious, soothing – I could have gone to sleep on the spot. A woman of mature years, I guessed. As for Commodore Kenny, who hadn’t heard of him? He was one of our most prominent citizens. I’d long assumed that he’d reached his position after decades of naval service, but that was before I heard that the rank of commodore in the US Navy was suspended for many years after World War Two. On learning this, I’d converted to the idea that maybe Kenny had got his title the honorary way, by being president of our yacht club – though inland, we do have one. Well, we’re served by a navigable river and there’s a sizable lake nearby, so I suppose that’s good enough.
I never got round to enquiring into the commodore’s seafaring credentials, but do remember that shortly after my dealings with him, he surprised many people by selling his house and moving to the coast, so perhaps he did have brine in his veins. And anyway, wasn’t landlocked Hungary governed for a couple of decades by an admiral? Can’t you just see him standing proudly at the stern of a rowing boat on Lake Balaton? Beg pardon, I’m drifting.
Kenny had considerable business interests and at the time I’m speaking of, he owned several companies, including a boatyard and a sawmill – probably connected, I imagined – and had a slew of high offices in other organisations. He was also quite a social animal, always opening this, attending that, or officiating somehow at the other event. A high profile chap.
The thought sped through my mind that this was perhaps the naval phase of my life, as only two or three years earlier I’d had an exceptionally vivid dream featuring an admiral, in a case I recorded earlier. So, the connection was tenuous, okay?
Back to Ms Newby. “Let me see,” I said. “Oh, yes. I believe I did hear it somewhere.” Casual. That’s the way to deflate ‘em.
If I’d ruffled Newby, it didn’t show. “The commodore asked me to call you in the hope that you might be able to visit him about an urgent matter. Unfortunately, he has a tight schedule, but has a brief open period this afternoon. Would it be possible for you to come here at about three o’clock?”
It wasn’t too subtle. I could almost hear Kenny speaking: ‘Don’t offend this Potts fellow, but make it clear that he’s not in our social stratum. He calls on us, not we on him. Tell him anything, but get him here.’
I decided it was time for me to reply in kind. “Well, as it happens, I have a client at 1.30,” I lied, “but I can manage three o’clock. That’s if the commodore lives in or around town.” I knew where his home was, but made a show of taking directions.
I got there on the dot. The house was on one of our few modest elevations, the grounds sweeping down to the road and surrounded by a low stone wall. The black wrought-iron gates were wide open to a wide driveway of red gravel, The main structure – there were several outbuildings – was a modern two-storey job and smaller than the Pentagon. It was designed to impress, and it did. My preferred pedestrian arrival wouldn’t have worked here, and anyway, what red-blooded male would pass up the chance of letting his wheels crunch along such an approach?
I was admitted by a tall thin sad-looking fellow, who did the ‘please follow me’ bit, then buttled off across the hall and along a couple of corridors, carpeted with green stuff that looked as though it might need regular mowing. He stopped at a door which looked like solid beechwood. Having announced me, he slid out and I slid in. The room was about twenty-by-fifteen feet, equipped as an office, with filing cabinets and an intimidating array of machinery. The focal point was a big desk of the same wood as the door. Behind it was a woman of, I guessed, fifty-five or so. She stood and gave me the smile she probably used a lot, pleasant, but cool. She was around five-seven and had at least her full share of avoirdupois, nicely spread under a green cable-knit sweater and beige skirt. That was all right by me. If I had type at all, it wasn’t sylph-like. The grey-sprinkled hair was set in a ruthlessly corrugated perm. “Mr Potts,” she said. “So good of you to make time for us – and punctual, too.”
Pointing at my shoes, half-covered in the carpet pile, I chuckled. “I’d have been early, but I forgot my scythe.” I thought that might have thrown her, but as I should have learned from our earlier talk, Barbara Newby was not easily disturbed. “Do you mind my asking how you came upon me?” I said.
“It was a combination of the yellow pages and numerology. I have a certain instinct which has served me well.”
While I was trying to think of a reply, she pressed an intercom button, told her boss that I’d arrived and showed me into a connected room, similar in size to the outer office, but without the ironmongery. There was a desk like Newby’s but bigger. Behind it was a massive red-leather winged throne and in front four visitors’ chairs, similar in style to the master’s seat but smaller. My host stood briefly to greet me. He was, I guessed, about the same age as his secretary, around five-nine, wearing a dark-blue suit, a white shirt and a plain dark-red tie. This is the point at which I should be talking about the seamed sailor’s visage, especially the blue eyes, faded by years of scanning far horizons. In fact, the face was square, fleshy, almost unlined and bland. The eyes were brown. Call me faddish if you like, but I’ve had bad experiences with brown-eyed men and wasn’t encouraged – no offence intended, but I must offer an accurate record.
“Glad you could come at such short notice, Mr Potts,” he said, motioning me to any seat of my choice.
I took one of the inner two. “Good afternoon, Commodore,” I said. “I assume you prefer the naval title?”
He gave me a smile which could have liquefied oxygen. “Not really,” he said, “but people seem to like it.
“I see.” I wasn’t sure whether I saw or not, and for no good reason, I was beginning to dislike Philip Kenny. “What’s amiss?”
“Something has arisen which threatens my position.”
“Ah,” I said. “Your timbers have been shivered?”
“Your rudder fouled?”
“Quite. And, Mr Potts, if you have any further such expressions, you may wish to unburden yourself. That might help us to settle down.”
No point in my going for mirth, then. “Sorry, Commodore. I didn’t mean to be flippant, but we landlubbers don’t get a crack at these things too often. I’ll try not to thwart your hawse again.” Ouch!
“I’ll get straight to the point, Mr Potts. This is the problem.” He produced an audio cassette and a recorder. “I’d like you to listen for a few minutes.”
There were two voices, one being the commodore’s fruity baritone. Kenny said some harsh words about a third party called Tom Broadhurst. After about ten minutes, my host switched off, handing me a note, pencilled in block capitals. I can’t remember the wording, but it was to the effect that if Kenny didn’t amass ten thousand dollars in small bills by six o’clock that evening, the tape would be passed on to where it could do most damage. There would be a phone call at seven.
“I see,” I said. “What’s the significance of this?”
He sighed from the shoes up. “I’m trying to close a large deal, Mr Potts. I have one proposal and my rival, Dixon, has another. Tom Broadhurst is chairman of the committee concerned. I won’t weary you with the internal politics, but he will have the swing vote. He knows my idea is the better one, but he dislikes me and would be delighted to have some reason, however tenuous, for coming down on the opposite side. If he hears what you have just heard, which was a casual talk with a friend, you can imagine how he’ll react. And the crucial meeting is three days away.
I nodded. “I see. But Commodore, isn’t this the land of the free, where a man can say what he likes?”
“You’re right, but speaking one’s mind can have consequences.”
“Understood. Now, how did this would-be blackmailer do his stuff?”
Kenny shrugged. “The conversation took place in my club. It’s a very traditional place and most of us have our regular seats. I imagine that this fellow, or an accomplice, got in somehow and planted a bugging device on my chair. The only one who might benefit is my opponent, Dixon. I suspect he engaged the rascal. The point is, have you any experience of extortion?”
“It comes up now and then,” I said. Since I’d never had anything to do with such things, that was a major solecism. “I’m not suggesting that we pay just like that, but if worse comes to worst, can you get the money together in time?”
“I have it now,” he said. “However, I’m not accustomed to being intimidated and I intend to resist. I’m simply trying to find a way of doing so without detriment to my wider interests.”
I nodded. “Okay. Now, the best course is for me to blast this character right away.”
“And can you do that?”
“I hope so.”
Kenny produced another huge sigh. “Very well. I’m in your hands.”
“Right,” I said. “Now, there’s the question of my fees.” I told him what they were and he dismissed them with a hand-flick. “You must take a lot of chances for your money,” he said. “You’ll not find me ungenerous if you can handle this situation. What do you suggest?”
I looked at my watch. “I have an idea,” I said, “but I need a plan B. I have to do a little work. Can we get together again around six?”
We agreed on the recess and I left, thinking hard. I was probably more at sea than Kenny ever had been. The bit about Plan B was flapdoodle, introduced to give me time to think about Plan A, which was most likely a clunker anyway. Still, it was a scheme of sorts, and necessity being the mother of invention, I’d come up with it quickly enough. Further brooding didn’t help.
When I returned to the commodore’s place there was no hold-up. The butler wasn’t around and I was received by Barbara Newby, who conducted me to her employer, then went back to her office. She seemed calm. Either she knew nothing, or her self-possession was admirable.
Kenny was like a cat on hot bricks. “Thank you for coming back,” he said. “What do we do now?”
“I’ll be frank. In my opinion we have only one chance, but we might pull it off. Now, is Ms Newby in your confidence?”
“Completely. You may say anything to her that you say to me.”
Thinking of the looks that passed between him – by the way, he was a widower – and the fetching Newby, I’d suspected that might be the case. “Good,” I said, “That helps. Now, let’s bring her in and I’ll tell you what I have in mind.”
Barbara Newby joined us and I said what I had to say. Then there was nothing to do but wait.
The phone rang just after seven. Newby picked up the receiver, and I must say that if I get into a another tight situation, I’ll look her up. She was wonderful. The caller wanted Kenny, but she told him that the commodore was deeply distressed and under sedation, and that she’d be given carte blanche to act. I suspected that carte blanche was probably beyond our man, but she steamrollered on, pouring an avalanche of words over the fellow. Disorientating him with verbiage was, I thought, a clever technique. The position was horrifying, she said, but the terms would be met. She was all adither – brilliantly. Of course, the commodore could not deal with the matter himself, but his accountant, Mr Fisher – that was yours truly – would do the necessary. However, being purely a numbers man, he was nervous. Could the handover of cash and tape take place in a public area of the caller’s choice?
This caused the anticipated hiccup, but that again was handled superbly by Newby. She was aghast, tremulous, frayed, but steadfast. The commodore wished to cooperate, but there were limits. If the caller wouldn’t accept them, the deal was off and he must do as he saw fit. I couldn’t have done it half as well as Barbara did.
The fact that our man caved in suggested to me that we were dealing with a rank amateur. What professional would do business that way? I mean, where was the bit about the drop from a moving car, the use of a public phone at a shopping mall, or the hollow oak ten miles out of town?
Newby’s splendid obduracy having prevailed, we agreed on a meeting in half an hour at Jimmy’s, a spit-and-sawdust place on the Stagville Road.
As Barbara hung up, I grinned at my edgy client. “Coming up to eight bells, Commodore,” I said. His withering look told me that I’d put my foot in it again, but I didn’t care. Having assured him that we were dealing with a nitwit, I sent Barbara on ahead, with my hastily contrived instructions. I followed, bearing the cassette and a briefcase full of money. I donned plain hornrimmed glasses and arrived intentionally late, trying to appear even more timorous than I was. Our man, dressed as he’d indicated, was alone at a corner table, nursing a large whisky. I went to the bar, got a drink exactly like his, then joined him, fidgeting appropriately. He didn’t look too formidable, so I began to get optimistic. “Sorry I was held up.” I said. “I’m Fisher.”
“Okay,” he said. “You know the score. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” I took a pull at the Scotch. “Look, I’m a little lost here and I’m not much of a drinker, but in the circumstances I feel like a refill. Would you oblige?”
He sniggered, then crossed to the bar. While he was there, I exchanged our glasses, lowering his level to the same as mine. He came back with two more doubles. “Okay,” he said. “Now, how about it?”
I picked up the briefcase and allowed him a peek at the contents. “It’s all there,” I said. “We didn’t have much time to count it, but I think it’s correct.”
He was enjoying himself. “Right,” he said. “So we do the swap?”
“I believe so,” I said. “Can we just clarify?” I pulled the tape from the briefcase and handed it over to him. “Just to make sure that everything is properly conducted, would you care to check this?”
He was close to outright laughter as he turned the cassette this way and that, then passed it back to me. “One’s just like another,” he said. “Anyway, I have copies. So, we get on with it?”
“Very well,” I said. “I must confess that I’m not accustomed to this kind of thing. Presumably it’s not new to you?” I was doing all I could to seem perturbed. “I suppose you have what they call a record?”
“You’d better believe it. Don’t try anything fancy with me. I’ve a bunch of A and B cases behind me and I don’t mind racking up another.”
“A and B?” I said.
He grinned. “Assault and battery. You’re all adrift here, aren’t you?”
“Not quite,” I said, pulling off the glasses. “Have you ever heard of the SAS?”
He began to look uneasy. “Yeah,” he said. “A British tough-guy outfit. Seventeen ways to kill a man with one finger, right?”
“Actually, it’s mostly thumbs and there are only eleven ways,” I said. “And after eight years with that crowd, I know all of them.” That was pure tripe. “Now, it’s showtime. My name isn’t Fisher, but that doesn’t matter. You, my friend, are in deep doo-doo.”
Now he was wriggling. “What the hell do you mean?” he snapped. “You got nothing on me. We’re just two guys talking.”
“Not so,” I said. “What I have on you is a nice set of fingerprints, on the tape you sent to Kenny.”
“Crap,” he said, “It’s clean. I used glo –” then it hit him. He’d surely worn gloves originally, but he’d just pawed the thing, as I’d hoped he would. If one hands an object to someone else, the latter’s natural reaction is to grasp it. PI Manual, Lesson Eleven: Psychological Ploys. “That’s right,” I said. “You gave me the prints a minute ago. Also, you bragged about your past. Now, how long do you think it would take me to match the dabs here with yours on file? I also have your prints on this glass here – I just did a switch. By the way, I have a witness. Frankly speaking, as far the shakedown is concerned, you stink.”
At that point, Barbara Newby, responding to my ‘casual’ hair-ruffling signal, walked past us, pausing to wave a tape recorder in one hand and a camera in the other. I hadn’t noticed a flash, but assumed she was satisfied with the photo.
“Who’s that?” said my man, as Newby walked out.
“Insurance,” I chuckled. “Like this record of our chat.” I removed and waved the fake bug I’d stuck under the table. “Have I made myself clear?”
It was a pleasure to see him crumble in the silence that followed. “All right,” he mumbled finally. “You got me at my first try.”
“I thought so,” I said. “Let me fill in the blanks. Dixon hired you to compromise Kenny. How much did he offer?”
“The cheapskate,” I said. “So, you decided to go into business for yourself?”
“How did you get the tape?”
“Inside job. Friend of mine worked at Kenny’s club. He’s left the country, so you can forget about him.
“Why did he pick on the Commodore?”
“He didn’t. There’s a lot of loose talk in that place. He recorded most of it and passed the best bits to me. Anyway, what now?”
“My idea is to stick you feet-first into a vat of boiling oil and watch your face as you go down. Kenny won’t agree to that now, but he might change his mind. If he does, I can trace you – and I’d love to. Now, if you really have copies of this stuff, ditch them – they’ll be no use to you in your grave.
He shrugged. “So what gives?”
“Has Dixon paid you.”
“He won’t now. He’s in bigger trouble than you are. You can go back into the slime. Any tricks and you’ll have me on your back. You wouldn’t like that. I haven’t failed so far and a hick like you wouldn’t blemish my sheet.”
Within half an hour I’d reported to Kenny and Newby. I returned the cassette and the commodore’s money, telling him that I’d terrified the aspiring extortioner and didn’t expect to hear any more from him. However, I wouldn’t take payment until I had a satisfied client.
I guessed I’d never be a fully subscribed member of the Kenny fan club, but to do him justice, he was generous. A week later, with the vital meeting behind him, he phoned me with news of a triumphant result, going so far as to say that he’d spliced the main brace – I deserved that one – with a tot of something from Jamaica. He sent me my fees, plus a bonus well beyond my highest hopes. As to the admirable Barbara, I’d have been pleased to continue our association, but bearing in mind the chemistry between her and Kenny, I guessed she was booked.
* * *