PONDHOPPER : NUMBER SIX
I’d read that relative to surface area, a sphere is the most efficient container of a given volume. Somehow, this seemed odd to me – why not a cube? – so I spent a little time working things out. It’s true, the sphere is superior. What’s more, a cylinder is better than a cube and, if you really want to know, I concluded that the more the cube is elongated to a rectangular cuboid – or whatever it’s called – and the more a cylinder diverges from congruence of diameter and height, the less effective the two bodies become.
This dissertation on geometry is what I imagine the literary critics would call a contrivance, as it brings me to my meeting with Thomas Towers, the most inappropriately named client I ever had. In fairness to me, the above-mentioned cerebration, though still in progress at the time I have in mind, had started a couple of days before Thomas dropped in, so I’m not being too devious.
The top half of the partition between my waiting roomlet and the office was of frosted glass, so I’d noticed that I had a visitor, but out of sheer cussedness I’d decided to ignore the fact for a while. Though the outline was indistinct, I felt sure that the caller was a male. He seemed to be standing or leaning between the two landscape prints on the far wall and looking through one of my ancient magazines. Was he honing his mind with an antedeluvian Readers Digest, or learning how to catch freshwater fish? You’ll note that the material I provided was not too contentious. No ‘Gun of the Week’ stuff and nothing from the newsagents’ top shelves.
I don’t know how long my man would have stayed there, but he showed no sign of impatience for ten minutes. Maybe he’d had a mind-slip and thought he was calling on his dentist. Well, that might have explained his apparent reluctance to proceed.
If it was a chicken game, I cracked first. I walked over, opened the inner door and without really looking at the chap, asked him to enter, then ambled back to my chair. By the time I’d taken up my position, he’d just about got into the room. That was no mean feat for him, since he was as near spherical as a man can be. I put his height at five-five. As to his circumference, words almost fail me. Rotund doesn’t begin to express it. He was the most roly-poly fellow I’ve ever seen. If he’d been tipped over, it would have been even money whether or not he could have been righted. On second thought, maybe tipping over a globe is a contradiction in terms. Sorry to go on about this, but I write of a remarkable sight. I put the man at about forty years of age.
“Morning. Have a seat,” I said, waving in a take your pick gesture and wishing I had a sofa to accommodate him. I’d been cunning enough to get visitors’ chairs without arms – no point in letting people get too comfortable – so he managed to deposit himself, albeit with considerable overflow.
“Good morning,” he said. “Mr Potts?” The voice was a high squeak, possibly, I thought, a consequence of all that flesh constricting his vocal chords. He was sweating and ill at ease. I can’t be too precise about the wardrobe details – clothing a shape like that can’t be easy. I’ve said before that I don’t like harping on about the physical peculiarities of others, lest they should do the same for me. Oh, would that we could be so wise, to see ourselves through others’ eyes. Okay, I borrowed that from the Scottish bard and amended it a little. I seem to recall observing a plain dark suit, a cream shirt and a lightly-patterned predominantly mid-blue tie. The thinning hair was mid-brown and plastered flat.
“Yes. Can I do something for you?”
“I hope so. I really do.” Agitated.
“Please go on. My time is yours, up to a point.”
He steadied himself with a deep breath. “I need your services, Mr Potts. My name is Thomas Towers.” I could hardly help thinking that here was a misnomer to beat all others. Couldn’t he have been called Ball, Roundtree or Rolls? Anything but Towers. “I’m very upset. If you can’t help, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“Helping people is my business, Mr Towers,” I said. “What’s troubling you?”
“I hardly know what to say,” he squawked. “I’m with Goodbody & Frith. Maybe you know of us?”
I didn’t, and told him so.
“Well,” he said, “We’ve been in business for many years. We supply greeting cards, decorative wrapping paper and the like. There are only twelve of us, but we survive.”
“I see,” I said. “Now, why do you need me?”
He’d begun to wring his hands. “You may think this a little silly, but it’s important to me.”
“Mr Towers, I never consider anything silly or otherwise without knowing the facts.” Grave, yet reassuring.
“That’s a relief,” he replied. “Now, my firm was founded by an Englishman named George Goodbody. He came from Lancashire and it seems they had a culture there involving in-house social clubs. The idea was that employees paid small amounts each week, so that they could have a special celebration at Christmas. This was started up at our company from the beginning. It’s completely unnecessary these days, as we’re all in reasonably comfortable circumstances, but it’s become a tradition with us.”
Not wanting to halt his flow, I scooped my hands, inviting him to go on.
“Well, from time to time, we appoint a treasurer who collects the payments and accounts for them. Then we decide what we are to do. I’ve held the purse strings for two years and last week, the blow fell.”
“What blow?” I asked.
“Our money,” he groaned. “The funds disappeared. It must have happened late on Friday. That’s pay-day, so it’s when I collect, then I put the cash away in the evening. Normally, I don’t look at it again until the following Friday but this time, one of my colleagues called to pay his contribution on Saturday morning. He’d been away from work for two days and just happened to be passing my home. When I went to add his money to the rest, the box was empty. It’s terrible.”
“I see,” I said. “How much is involved?”
“Sixty-three dollars,” he wailed.
I was accustomed to strange cases, but offhand, I couldn’t think of anything odder than this. “Mr Towers,” I said, “I sympathise with your position, but do you realise that even if I can help you, the cost in my fees and expenses would be more than you’ve lost?”
He wobbled his pumpkin head in a nod. “I understand that,” he said, “but this is a matter of honour. I don’t care about the cost.”
I silently applauded his morals, if not his common sense. “All right,” I said. “I have another case in progress, but I can’t do much about it today, so if you’ll give me some details, I’ll look into the matter.” In fact, I hadn’t had a case for over two weeks. I mentioned my fees, which made him blanch a little but didn’t seriously dent his resolve, which he’d summoned up to the extent that he positively forced a day’s pay upon me.
Thomas said he was a bachelor, living with his widowed mother. There was no-one else in the house. I said I wanted to see the place, so we set off, using both our cars. Twenty minutes later we reached the spot – a detached, two-storey red-brick building in the southern suburbs; a middling social area. I was introduced to Mrs Towers, in a confrontation that was almost too much to bear. The matriarch was, I guessed, in her late sixties. I suspected that her hair had whitened at some point, but was now a striking carroty shade. She wore a startling print dress, with unidentifiable curly red, green and yellow things writhing on a white background. But it was her shape that was most arresting. Thomas was evidently a chip off the old block. I’d thought that he was the ultimate in globularity, but Ma Towers was about his equal. She might have been the merest shade shorter than her son, but barely deferred to him in girth. I was experiencing this, but having trouble believing it.
In terms of excitement, there was little to choose between mother and son. Mrs Towers was, it appeared, aware of the facts and acutely distressed. The two seemed to be trying to outdo one another in the misery stakes.
Together, we made a tour of the property, during which I ascertained that Mrs T. slept on the opposite side of the house from her son, her bedroom being higher than his, owing to a tiny landing and a turn in the stairs. We went back to the living room.
Thomas explained that he secreted his social club funds in a tin money box, which was no more than a toy, kept under a pile of towels in an upstairs cupboard. The more I quizzed this pair, the weirder the whole thing seemed. Finally, I suggested interviewing them separately, “Nothing improper,” I said. “Simply a question of details emerging from two different sources, without extraneous chemistry.”
Mrs T. was tickled pink – I think it was my inspired use of ‘extraneous’ that got to her. “You mean like in those English country house mysteries?” she said, eyes agleam.
I nodded. “Something like that. Think of me as Miss Marple. You might be surprised what comes out.”
I commandeered the living room and dealt with Thomas first. It was revealing. He had his doubts about his mother; misgivings reinforced by the fact that there was, as he saw it, no other party involved. There hadn’t been a break-in and there’d been no visitors in the week concerned, so no-one but Thomas and his mother had had access to the cash. Furthermore, Thomas had been suspicious of Mrs T. for some time. She received housekeeping money from him and in the past few months had regularly returned from the weekly shopping with more things than seemed reasonable, considering what she claimed to have spent. Then there was the sudden appearance of double-glazed windows – an undiscussed extravagance which Thomas reckoned they couldn’t afford. There was more in the same vein, all suggesting that the financial propriety of Ma Towers was questionable. In fact, Thomas confessed, had the present exigency not arisen, he would have been inclined to engage me to look into his mother’s conduct.
I asked about the lost money. How had it been made up? Were there any coins or was it all bills, and was there any new stuff? There were no coins. As to the paper, Thomas wasn’t quite sure, but he knew there was a ten-dollar bill and seven or eight fives, the rest being singles. Apart from two crisp new fivers, all were well-used. He failed to see the relevance of that, but I had already reached a tentative conclusion, so was ahead of him.
Then came my talk with Mrs Towers, which took me further into the familial mire. She was crafty. Time and again, she slipped in comments and questions designed to get me to reveal what Thomas had said. But I was an old hand at that, so she got nothing I didn’t want her to get. She was worried about her son. He’d always been weak, feckless and generally irresponsible. She couldn’t understand why his workmates had allowed him to handle the social club’s finances. She’d known that it would end in tears. Also, she’d been concerned about his behaviour for quite a while. She suspected that he was having at least two clandestine amorous affairs. Somehow, the idea of Thomas having a vigorous love life intrigued me. He didn’t seem the type. Still, within the framework of this case, it was no queerer than anything else.
Matters were further complicated when Mrs Towers, or Annie, as I was asked to call her, mentioned that she was so concerned about the conduct of her possibly wayward offspring that she’d considered employing someone to look into the matter. Why not me, right now, she suggested.
Here, I had to consider the question of ethics. Was it right to investigate the doings of Thomas, while simultaneously acting for him in the matter of the lost cash? On the whole – bearing in mind my monetary situation – I decided that there was no fundamental conflict, so I would accept Annie’s commission. Like her son, she was undeterred by the cost of proving anything. In fact, she was so troubled that she insisted on paying me a for a day in advance, irrespective of the outcome.
Annie Towers would have scored more points with me than had her son, but for her eyes. They were – how shall I put it? – shifty. Direct and bright at times, but evasive and cloudy when it suited her. She outdid Thomas in cleverness, but I was wondering about honesty. I just didn’t like the way her looks and speech too often failed to match. I mean, animated talk and opaque stares don’t go together, do they?
Having dismissed Annie, I sat alone for a while, considering the position. True, I wasn’t embarrassed with work, but I’d just about had enough of these two fruitcakes. Still, there I was, with a day’s payment pocketed from each of them and all that stood between me and a conclusion was sixty-three dollars. Ridiculous.
I made a decision and went to the kitchen, where Annie and Thomas were sitting in silence. I told them that a solution was imminent and asked them to promise that they would wait exactly where they were while I dealt with a detail which would take me no more than half an hour. They were agog.
I drove back into town, picked up the next month’s stock of sherry, called at my bank to make a slightly unusual transaction, then returned to the Towers’ place. Annie and Thomas were sitting exactly as I’d left them. I asked for a moment to make my final assessment, then went into the living room, where I opened my little notebook – mostly old shopping lists I’d failed to throw away. Then, in a matter of seconds, I did what I had to do before summoning my clients.
Having got us all seated comfortably, I scanned my notes, then shut the booklet with a flourish. “Right,” I said, “I believe we can clear this up.”
Thomas looked nonplussed, while Annie rubbed her hands in anticipation. In spite of myself, I was beginning to enjoy this, and leaned back as magisterially as my chair allowed. “I’m convinced that there has been no criminal activity here,” I said. “In fact, I believe the explanation is quite simple. I may be wrong, but I’m prepared to put the matter – and my reputation – to the test.”
Thomas seemed increasingly bemused, but Annie was having fun. “I’ll bet it’s just as you suspected, isn’t it?” she said, flashing splendidly even teeth. “It’s a kind of Agatha Christie thing.”
“Somewhat,” I replied. My task here was to maintain eye contact with both of them. I iterated between the two until I got a passable mid-point focus. “Tell me,” I said, “is there any history of somnambulism in your family?”
Thomas was still out of his depth. “What do you mean?” he said.
Annie jumped in quickly. “Sleepwalking, silly.”
Thomas shook his head, but his mother was right onto it. “Now that you mention it,” she said, “my late husband – that’s Thomas’s father, you know – had some unusual habits. I found him walking around during the night a few times and I was never able to explain it, or get him to remember it afterwards.” That was an unexpected bonus and probably utter nonsense – Annie was surely in fantasy land, making things up as she went along. Having prepared my spiel, I didn’t need the observation, but it was grist to the mill.
“Exactly,” I said. “It’s far more common than most people think. Now, this trait descends through the generations, though we don’t know whether it comes out on the male or the female side. That doesn’t matter in this case. What’s important is to establish who did what. Now, Annie, your bedroom has those steps down to the landing, so I’m inclined, at least provisionally, to rule you out. If you’d been wandering around, you would most likely have injured yourself. By comparison, you, Thomas would have had an easier passage. You wouldn’t have had to change levels because the cupboard with the money abuts the landing. This isn’t conclusive, you understand, but it’s strongly suggestive.”
By now, Annie was positively drooling. “Yes, yes,” she said. “I think I follow you.”
“Excellent,” I said. “Now, let me say that we are in largely unexplored territory. To keep it short, my assessment is that one of you – probably you, Thomas – was seized by a sleepwalking fit, picked up the money and placed it in another spot, no doubt thinking subconsciously in terms of security.”
Annie was keeping pace with me. “It could have been like that, couldn’t it?” she gasped.
“Yes,” I said. “You must understand that people in my line of work need to grasp the psychology of these matters. It’s probably new to you, but there’s a considerable history involved. There was a man in Canada who got up during the night and made himself a gourmet meal, then went back to bed, leaving the food uneaten. In another case, a fellow in England completed a ship in a bottle, while apparently fast asleep. There was even a murder case . . . but I won’t go on – the list is almost endless.” Coming on top of my extemporaneous bit about somnambulism being a matter of heredity, this ad hoc foray was, I maintain, commendably imaginative work.
Thomas was floundering, but to give him due credit, he held onto the main point. “That’s all very well,” he groaned, “but what about the money?”
I nodded. “Yes, of course. The vital thing. Now, as I said, it’s my belief that you walked in your sleep, took the cash and placed it where you considered it safer. So, if that was the case, there was no impropriety.”
“All right,” he said, “But if I did what you say, where did I put the money?”
Now I was in Smugville. “It’s usually simple,” I replied. “People think they’re being clever, but they generally pick the toilet cistern, the bottom of a crock in the kitchen, or under a carpet, usually by a table leg. Shall we investigate?”
We did. At my suggestion, we tried the bathroom and the kitchen, drawing blanks. When we returned to the living room, we found the money that had puzzled my bank teller; one tenner, eight fives – two of them new, six well-used – and thirteen singles. It was under the carpet, where I’d placed it while ostensibly making notes.
Thomas was speechless but Annie was beside herself. “You’re wonderful,” she said, misty-eyed. It was like Virginia Mayo saying something similar to Danny Kaye – there, I just knew I’d bring him up again – after he’d done his great surgeon bit in the Walter Mitty movie.
“It’s not so brilliant, Annie,” I said. “More a question of experience. You may recall that a great detective once said that if an investigator knew the details of a thousand cases, it would be strange if he couldn’t unravel the thousand-and-first.”
I’ve spun a few lines in my time, but never anything to compare with the twaddle I unloaded over Annie and Thomas. Still, it was touching to watch the reconciliation. Mother and son repeatedly embraced one another, as far as two people of their dimensions could.
Among other things, I gathered that Annie had been using up her savings to provide the goodies which had caused Thomas to be suspicious of her. Happily, there was no mention of the reverse position; Annie’s concern about her son’s supposed shortcomings. I’d no doubt that she would turn a blind eye to having commissioned me in that matter, and I was prepared to do the same.
I departed amid the 'There, theres’ and ‘How could we have come to such things?’ I didn’t wish to watch them emoting all over the carpet, and was still less disposed to stay around and see what would happen if the original money turned up. Bearing in mind Annie’s shopping habits, I didn’t think it would.
As I drove off, it occurred to me that this was not the first time I’d been in at the end of a domestic skirmish that ended happily. Did I have some strange influence in such matters? Maybe my true vocation was family counselling.
You may doubt the morality of all this. For my part, I contend that I had brought harmony where there had been discord. It was a happy outcome, and as I said, I’d pretty well had my fill of these two nutters. How do sixty-odd dollars stack up against that?
* * *