Meet Cyril Potts, a Briton working as a private eye in the USA. He gets some strange clients, which is all right because he is a strange investigator. We first encounter Cyril during one of his reveries, but he soon shows that when the need arises, he can lurch into action – in a way.
PONDHOPPER : NUMBER ONE
I was daydreaming. For once – and for no particular reason – I’d got to the office on time. Probably just restlessness. I wiped away the mail with a contemptuous hand-sweep, then realised there was a bill in there somewhere, so spent a few minutes recovering it. That got me to twenty past nine, when I began to slide into my reverie, which was almost certainly brought on by the fact that the evening before, I’d watched yet another re-run of one of my favourite films, ‘The Court Jester’. I was a big Danny Kaye fan and if I pen more of these tales, his name might crop up again. I ranked his efforts in descending order, with the same trio at the top. First came ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, then ‘Knock on Wood’, then the historical frolic I’ve just mentioned.
So, dreamtime. I wasn’t entirely clear as to the background, save that it included a touch of the picaresque. Not on my part of course. I was on the side of right and virtue, though it was unfortunate that there didn’t seem to be a distressed damsel around. It was swashbuckling stuff, which I conducted magnificently. With one hand I was airily engaging a fellow who claimed to be one of the three finest swordsmen in all France. I wondered who the third was. In the other hand I held a golden goblet containing a good measure of a burgundy with more body than a hippo. I was barely looking at my man as I kept taking short pulls at the vessel. No gulping here – this was stuff to be savoured. I was standing on a long dark refectory table, keeping my opponent pinned down below me, nimble though he was in his efforts to leap up from the stone-flagged floor and join me. Eat your heart out, d’Artagnan.
“Prenez garde!” I yelled. We’d already prenezed, but nobody was counting. “Have at thee, varlet!” – thrust, parry. “Hah!” – lunge. “Hah!” – lunge. That temporarily exhausted my verbal repertoire as well as making inroads on the physical side – I was breathing a shade faster than this minor inconvenience warranted. I’d have loved to get in the odd ‘gadzooks’ or ‘zounds’, but somehow felt that neither quite fitted.
My suppleness was wondrous. One instant my blade was directed at the ceiling, the next at the floor. But I had trifled long enough with this coxcomb. Springing down from the table, I set aside the wine and gave him my full attention. With a deft flick of the wrist, I sent his weapon spinning across the room, then tickled his throat with the tip of my Toledo. “Now, you Gascon popinjay,” I sneered. “If you have prayers, say them now and prepare to meet your mak –”
The phone rang. Doesn’t that happen at the most inconvenient moments? I’ve now mastered the art of refusing to leap to the infernal instrument like a prodded frog each time it makes demands. If I don’t want to talk I ignore it. But in those days it usually meant business – and at the time I’m speaking of, I was sorely in need of that. “Cyril Potts Investigations.”
“Ah, Mr Potts. My name is Leonard Yule. I was wondering whether you might like to do something for me?”
“Good morning, Mr Yule. Are you by any chance a fencing man?” – I hadn’t quite returned from my mental outing.
I must say he was quick enough. “If you are thinking of woodwork around gardens and the like, no. If, as I suspect, you have swordsmanship in mind, the answer is still no. Why? Is such an interest a prerequisite for engaging you?”
I realised at once that this was a worthy foeman – or perhaps a client. “No, no. Not at all. I was just thinking that I once knew a namesake of yours who was handy with a foil. I wondered if he might be related to you.” It was, I thought, a smooth recovery, but I told myself that I’d have to do something about this wool-gathering. After all, a man in my position was supposed to be alert at all times.
“Not as far as I know, Mr Potts,” was the breezy retort. “My name usually lends itself to allusions far removed from fencing. Naturally, it gets used a lot at Christmastime. Then there are the limericks.”
“Yes, you know the kind of thing. There was once a young man called Yule, who played a quite fair game of pool. One day for a bet –”
“Yes indeed, Mr Yule,” I said. “I quite understand. Now, you’re thinking of hiring me for stirring deeds.” I still wasn’t entirely back at base.
“I am, Mr Potts. In particular, I would be most obliged if you could find my shoes.”
That sounded like a downer. Not for the first time, I was put in mind of the Great Detective – well, he earned the capitals – who once remarked that his business seemed to be degenerating into an agency for recovering lost lead pencils and giving advice to young ladies from boarding schools. I believe ‘The Copper Beeches’ was the case that included the outburst. “Shoes,” I said. “Am I to take it that you’re rendered barefoot, or reduced to socks?”
“Almost, Mr Potts. I see you are a man who grasps the essentials. I do have one ancient pair of shoes left, plus my slippers, but basically you put it in a nutshell.”
I thought he was about to enlarge, but being charged up by my seventeenth-century exertions I would brook no delay. Also, I was intrigued by his repartee. I decided to act at once. “I’ll call on you right away, Mr Yule. Assuming you’re in my neighbourhood.”
“So very kind of you,” he said sweetly, hamming it up.
“No trouble at all,” I replied, doing my best to upstage him. It was surreal.
The address he gave was about four miles from my office. I reached the place in about fifteen minutes, having paused on the way to buy a pack of razor blades – my imaginary foray into the world of sharp steel had reminded me of the brand and I needed a fresh supply. The house was in a slice of what I like to think of as quintessential small town America, an enclave of detached timber-built properties, mostly two-storey jobs, though the Yule place was a bungalow, with the sort of porch at which newspaper boys slung their wares in those old black and white feel-good movies for which I’m a total sucker. Maybe that still happens in real life. Being neither a house-owner nor an early riser, I don’t know.
Leonard – I’d already begun to think in first-name terms – was waiting for me. He was a short tubby fellow of about fifty and seemed full of beans, despite his loss. He ushered me into the living room. I declined his offer of coffee, tea or something stronger. He sat on a quilted sofa of what seemed like synthetic material – I’m never sure about fabrics – motioning me to a matching chair. “You may think this shoe business odd,” he said.
“Not at all,” I replied. “I’m accustomed to unusual commissions, if that makes sense. What’s the problem?”
“Perhaps it’s a greater one to me than to many people,” he said. “I am somewhat fastidious in certain ways. I walk at least seven miles every day and I have no time for these clodhopping boots which are so popular. I use only top-quality leather shoes, imported from England. They are expensive, several times the average price for footwear. It has been my custom to put them out on the porch for an airing on a Sunday morning, once a month, after I’ve washed them.”
“Yes. With soap and water. Are you not familiar with the method?”
I was perplexed. “No,” I said. “Is that the prescribed treatment?”
“It works well. Normally, I take them in again in the evening and repolish them. On this occasion, last weekend, I needed to pop along to the newsagent, so left all seven pairs outside. I rotate them on a daily basis, you see, and keep these old ones” – he pointed at the tan brogues he was wearing – “for emergencies. While I was out, I ran into a friend and spent an hour or more talking with him. When I got back, the shoes were gone. Two thousand dollars, Mr Potts, even at the prices I paid, let alone the current replacement cost. No doubt it was careless of me.”
“No,” I said, sharply. “I don’t agree. Why shouldn’t you leave out your shoes? You’re not at fault. It’s a symptom of our society. For goodness sake, you shouldn’t have to take precautions. I mean, that’s like saying that you should never leave your car in the driveway at night. It’s not you who are to blame, it’s the state we’ve brought about by failing to curb unacceptable behaviour. I’m disgusted, and completely in sympathy with you.” I might have gone on, but had run out of breath.
Leonard nodded. “You’re very understanding.”
“I try to be. Now, were your shoes marked in any special way?”
“No. I would regard that as almost sacrilegious.”
I shook my head. “The chances are it was a casual thing. Most likely a passing tramp saw the opportunity and seized it. By now, your shoes are probably adorning the feet of half the vagrants in town. Have you spoken with your neighbours?”
“Yes. Nobody saw anything.”
“Well, I’d love to be of service, but frankly you’d be wasting your money.”
“Nevertheless,” he said, “I’d like to hire you for, say, two days. Even if you just walk around and keep your eyes open. At least, I would then have done everything in my power. It’s not just the intrinsic value. I’ve shaped the shoes to my feet over some years. I really would be obliged if you’d try.”
“All right,” I said. I told him what two days would cost, stressing again that the quest seemed hopeless. He waved my protestations aside, seemingly bent on throwing his funds around. He described the shoes in detail – not that that was much help – then paid me cash in advance.
I left him, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do. Well, maybe there was just one possibility. I’d spoken about vagrants and I knew that a few hung out around a railroad bridge – where else? – at the eastern edge of town. If one of them had done the deed, the result might be visible. I paid the boys a visit, seeing no classy footwear and being met with suspicion until I mentioned the prospect of a substantial reward. That caused a pricking up of ears and a good deal of muttering. I was sure that if they’d known anything, the prospect of lucre would have brought it out, but despite their best efforts I made no progress.
By the time I got back to the office, I’d spent two hours in the service of Leonard Yule, and had decided that that was enough. No way was I going to wander around the city, peering at men’s feet. For all I knew, a man might get locked up for that kind of conduct. I could see the headlines: ‘Local shoe fetishist apprehended.’
I was no more averse than the next man to picking up a little easy money, but this was going too far. It was tantamount to stealing from a foolish, disturbed fellow. Maybe he was ripe for the funny farm, but if so, that would have been even more reason for me to act properly. I would return his money, less a pro rata sum for my dive into the nether regions of our community. That decided, I gave myself the afternoon off – damn prospective clients – and went for an aimless drive around the local flatlands, thinking that it would have been much pleasanter if I’d lived closer to the Rockies. There’s scenery for you.
The following morning, I called briefly at the office, went yet again through the ritual of dealing with the mail – sorry to go on about this, but in case you’re interested, I’d established that over a six-month period, more than eighty per cent of it was unsolicited – and was just about to phone Yule and arrange to call on him when he rang me. “So glad I caught you, Mr Potts,” he said. “The panic is over. My shoes have been returned.”
“I’m pleased to hear that. Now, I intended to visit you, so if it’s convenient, we’ll save the explanation till I get there.” It was convenient.
Ten minutes later, Leonard showed me into his living room. This time he wasn’t alone. A hulk of a man stood by the window. He was about my height, six-one, and like me he had straight dark-brown hair with short back and sides cut, parted on the left. It was his build that really struck me. At one-eighty, I was no lightweight, but he must have scaled at least forty pounds more than I did, and he had it all in the right places. He wore a dark-green uniform with security guard’s badges high on the sleeves of his tunic, plus a black leather belt, with a gun in a buttoned holster. His hat was on a chair by his side. He didn’t have to make any effort to look menacing but was working on it anyway, as his scowl indicated. The finishing touch was his trim moustache, which to my mind added to the appearance of thuggishness, though that’s probably just bias on my part, as I’ve never liked facial hair. I didn’t think the armament was necessary. He looked as though he could have scrapped a tank division with his bare hands.
I’m sometimes amazed by the speed at which the human mind works. Even in the few seconds I stared at this man, I fell to wondering how he’d have looked in other circumstances, perhaps in times gone by. Tanks indeed, I thought. Maybe, but if he’d been in the place of that upstart who’d fallen to my blade yestermorn, how would this jackanapes have fared against three feet of Toledo steel. “Not much better, I’ll wager,” I muttered.
“I beg your pardon,” said Yule. “Wager?”
I twitched. “So sorry, Mr Yule. Forgive me. Just a passing thought. I didn’t mean to give voice to it.”
“Er, quite. We all have our little ways. Please don’t mind Mr Burns. He won’t intrude without good reason.” He chuckled and waved me to the same seat I’d occupied the day before. “All’s well that ends well, Mr Potts. As I said, the shoes were brought back, apparently during the night. There they are.” He indicated the row of foot comfort ranged across the carpet and I could see why he’d been concerned. There was a lot of money gleaming at me.
He was clearly disposed to enlarge, but I was full of righteousness and pre-empted him. “Mr Yule,” I said. “I’m delighted, but I’d feel better for getting something off my chest before we go any further.”
He spread his pudgy little hands. “By all means. What is it?”
I took a deep breath, then produced most of the cash he’d given me and dropped it onto the coffee table between us. “You’ve probably heard depressing tales about private eyes,” I said. “Some of them are true. As for me, I have as many faults as anyone else, but I’m not a thief. There was never any realistic chance that I’d recover your shoes. I insist you take this money back. I don’t normally deal in part-days, but this time I’ve deducted pay for two hours because I did make the odd inquiry.”
He actually clapped his hands and his grey eyes – same colour as mine, by the way – sparkled. “Bravo, Mr Potts. You really have done well. Now, if you’ll bear with me, I must tell you that you’ve been involved in a mild subterfuge.”
I smiled, trying to make it look enigmatic. I’d thought all along that there was something bizarre about this deal, but I wasn’t about to admit it. “Sort of Candid Camera thing, is it?” I said.
“Not quite. Have you heard of Consumers’ Digest?”
“No. What’s that?”
“A magazine. We’re fairly new, but we’ve already reached a six-figure circulation. We have a lot of backing and intend to go far. We pride ourselves on our attention to detail and on mirroring the economy.”
“Yes. Are you aware that the manufacturing sector is a relatively small part of our gross national product?”
“I heard that somewhere.”
“Good. Now, we at CD try to follow the economic profile. If, say, the production of finished goods represents twenty-five per cent of our national effort, service industries fifty-five per cent and construction, extraction and agriculture the remaining twenty per cent, that is how we operate. We probe, Mr Potts. At times, that can be hazardous, which explains the presence here of Mr Burns. There are occasions when I need protection.”
“Understandable,” I said. “What does this have to do with me?”
He settled back, satisfied that he was not under threat of attack. “A good deal. One part of our inquiries concerns private investigators. I could tell you tales which I suspect would shock you, experienced though you obviously are. Now, there was never any question of stolen shoes. That was simply one of the little scenarios we arrange, the idea being to monitor reactions. I hope you will not be too offended, especially when I tell you that your response has been exemplary. Quite the best we have experienced. This will do you a lot of good, if you have no objection to our publicising the findings.”
“No. None at all,” I said. “I don’t like being an unwitting guinea pig, but I can see your rationale.” That wasn’t entirely true, but seemed expedient, as I didn’t fancy invoking the intervention of Big Boy Burns.
“I’m so glad,” Yule beamed. “Now, as to this money, please take it.” He scooped the boodle back my way. “I assure you that the test is over and the cash is within my budget. We’ll give you a preview of our article, and if you wish to make any changes, your observations will be respected. By the way, this house was rented by us for our work. The owner is in the Middle East.”
So ended one of my strangest cases. Yule was as good as his word. His account of my non-exploit was almost embarrassingly effusive, so I didn’t amend a word of it. The magazine didn’t last long, but that report brought me a fair amount of work. Although I hadn’t done any fishing, I couldn’t help thinking that a small sprat had produced a large mackerel.
* * *