PONDHOPPER : NUMBER ELEVEN
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?”
“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.”
“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.
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