PONDHOPPER : NUMBER EIGHTEEN
It was another one of those times when there was nothing to do but think. No current cases, no paperwork outstanding, my library books all read and due back that day, but not during office hours – such recklessness might have caused me to miss a client. I never was one for puzzle games and I’d temporarily had enough of playing myself at chess. The trouble there is that you should always get a draw. If you start winning, it’s time for auto-analysis before some shrink comes along to take over. Outwitting oneself isn’t right, right?
To help my thinking, I’d been staring out of my office window, viewing the elements with some satisfaction. There was no weather of note, which suited me nicely. It was just a day, neither hot nor cold, with no sun, rain, wind, snow or ice. I wished every day would be the same. Give me a light high overcast, a middling temperature and no nasty stuff, neither enervating heat, nor bone-crushing cold, and especially no precipitation. Sometimes I think that we aren’t the products of earthly evolution. If we are, why should we be so sensitive to every twist and turn of nature? But such deliberation never gets me far. If we didn’t evolve here, we did so elsewhere, which amounts to the same thing, wouldn’t you say?
Anyway, that wasn’t the main subject of my musing. What I’d really been trying to do was make sense of human history. I wondered why it seemed to be a depressing succession of conflicts. That didn’t make sense to me then and doesn’t now. I’ve lived in three different countries and like to think that the vast majority of people everywhere just want to get on with their lives in peace, neither repressed nor agitated by crackpot leaders – especially those with territorial ambitions. What are you to do with a vanquished foe who has a different culture, language and perception from yours? Why not talk more and fight less? Down with tyrants and up with democracy was my cry. There I go again, digressing – or I would be if I’d made a start. Furthermore, I keep asking questions, which you might be kind enough to regard as rhetorical. What we need here is focus.
I’d just about got all my ducks lined up in these matters of weather and history when I noticed that my waiting chamberette had been invaded by a visitor. Would wonders never cease? Damn, another question. There was a knock at the door of the sanctum. I grabbed my stage-prop work-in-progress file, looked studious and bawled an invitation. The door opened, admitting a most admittable entrant. She was, I guessed, thirtyish, about five-eight, slim, with a bell of smooth black hair. The complexion and facial contours were just so. Though no expert in sartorial matters, I was impressed by the lady’s dress sense. She wore a plain, light-grey jacket, skirt and blouse that I rated at a large chunk of average annual income – mine, anyway – plus accessories which would have accounted for the rest. “Good morning,” she said. “I assume you are Cyril Potts?”
The voice tallied with the appearance – low, dark, smooth, flowing, seventy per cent cocoa-butter content. “Correct,” I said. “Please take a chair.”
She sat, pulling in her legs, leaving the knees slightly aslant and partially covered. I would have preferred a shorter skirt, but that was merely lust. Her hands held a small fortune in deceased crocodile, topped by a thin clasp of what I guessed was real gold. Never mind the wear and tear – she probably didn’t use any handbag more than one day a month. The shoes seemed like other bits of the late reptile. “You appear to be busy, Mr Potts,” she purred. “I wonder if you might have time to investigate the death of my father?”
I closed the file. “Possibly. Who are you?”
“My name is Amanda Thornton.”
Thornton! In this town, that name had some resonance. Could she be connected with the recently deceased Anthony Thornton? If so, I was in socially elevated company. The old boy had left us a few days earlier, apparently as a result of self-administered poison. He’d been quite a figure in the local business world. Not the quintessential tycoon, as he’d inherited his construction company, but a substantial presence and undoubtedly a multi-millionaire. And I seemed to recall he’d been a widower with one child, a daughter.
Still, there was this ‘Amanda’ thing. That troubled me. I once had a ladyfriend who was into names and numbers. She’d told me that I should watch my step when dealing with females whose names were dominated by the letter A. When it’s fifty per cent, be particularly careful, especially as the number of letters increases, was her advice. Offhand, I couldn’t think of anything to beat Amanda. I tried, thinking of Anna (too short), Arabella, Araminta (both under fifty per cent) and one or two others. Later, I came up with Amalia, but wasn’t sure whether that was fair. If you’ve any better offers, please don’t let me know – the above-mentioned lass and I parted after a brief liaison and I don’t want too many reminders of what might have been. Also, I don’t wish to offend any Amandas. I’m simply passing on what I heard, which may have been a baseless assertion.
“Ah,” I said, a little too loudly. Then I stopped, momentarily tongue-tied.
My visitor presented me with a mock-demure smile, plus another welcome half-inch of knee. “What does ‘ah’ mean, Mr Potts?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I was just wondering whether you’re in some way –”
“My father was Anthony Thornton,” she broke in. “I thought it best to tell you that immediately. He died last week.”
“Yes. Yes, of course. I heard that he’d left us. My condolences.”
“Thank you. Now, you indicated that you may be available. Could you start at once?”
She was clearly the no nonsense type. “I’m working on two cases,” I said – may God forgive me – “but I might be able to shuffle things around. However, you have me puzzled. I heard that Mr Thornton died by his own hand.”
She inclined her head a fraction – people in her stratum of society don’t actually nod. She also adjusted her pose – not exactly fidgeting, but showing a little more leg – quite distracting. “That’s correct, Mr Potts. However, the police have been asking some rather pointed questions, for reasons which are clearer to them than to me. As the sole beneficiary of any consequence, I wish to make every effort to dispel whatever doubts the authorities may have. I really can’t imagine why there should be any complication, but I would like to demonstrate that I have taken every step within my power to establish that nothing improper occurred, and I shall not rest until the affair has been examined by an independent party.”
That was original. I mean, why should this woman be seeking my services in what seemed an open and shut case? Somehow, I seemed to detect a whiff of something not quite kosher in the air. Don’t ask me why. It’s just a sense one gets after years of sniffing around in places where the average nose doesn’t venture. “Very well, Ms Thornton,” I said. “Now, I think it’s important to take in the scene. Could we get together at your father’s house?”
“Certainly. I still live there. If you’re ready, we can go now.”
I’m usually presentable, so after I’d done a little tie-straightening and rubbing of shoes against trouser-legs, we left. Ms Cool had arrived by taxi, so we took my car. It was a six-mile drive to the Thornton residence, which I’m pleased to report was not on some ‘Heights’. I know I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but one gets allergic to places called Heights in a town that has only a few humps, barely worthy of the name. Maybe it’s a social north-south thing.
I’d like to say the house was Gothic, but to me that implies both gloom and isolation, and this place, or rather its garden, fronted onto a main road. Still, it had bags of dark atmosphere and the odd turret, so I maintain that it was as near Gothic as suburban life gets. The huge pile of rough-dressed sandstone looked as if it had been designer-blackened in an English mill town. It was the sort of place to which one expects to be admitted by an elderly retainer, portly yet somehow lugubrious, but Ms Thornton had her own key. She led the way into a sitting room and after inquiring into my taste in drinks, produced an excellent sherry for me – your every need fulfilled – and something short and colourless for her.
She hadn’t bothered to ask about my rates and the clock was ticking, so I thought it best to move things along. “Forgive me, Ms Thornton –”
“Amanda, please,” she interjected.
“Very well,’ I said. “Call me Cyril. I was about to say that I’m still at a loss here. You said the police are prying and you don’t know why?”
I’d expected a shrug, but Amanda didn’t oblige. “I don’t pretend to grasp the official mentality,” she said. “However, the butler went to my father’s study to call him for dinner. When there was no response, he went in and found Dad sprawled over the desk, dead. Near his right hand was a small bottle, which it was found had contained cyanide. He was sixty-eight, and even though we’d been together all my life, I won’t try to guess what goes on in the mind of an elderly widower. All I can tell you is that he had been very dispirited since my mother died, three years ago.”
“I see. And as far as you know, the poison is the only reason why the forces of law and order are so interested?”
Now she did shrug, and I understood why she didn’t make a habit of it. Coming from such an elegant creature, it seemed out of character. “So it would appear. There is nothing untoward about the matter, but I wish to demonstrate that I shall not feel comfortable until this matter has been clarified to the authorities’ satisfaction.”
I was bemused. She’d mentioned this ‘wish to demonstrate’ thing twice and it didn’t sound right. I mean, why the necessity?” It seemed like over-compensation.
We tossed the matter to and fro for a while, including the question of my fees – which moved her about as much as a fly on a wall in China would have done – then I inspected the study, learning nothing. I left, promising to strain my sinews on the case. By then it was dark. I went back to my car, which was parked in a side street facing the Thornton house. Here, events took an odd turn.
I’d meant to move off right away, but the fact is I wasn’t feeling well. Maybe it was the prospect of work to do, which represented a sudden change from my modus vivendi at the time. Anyway, I sat for a while before deciding to leave. I was about to do that when a big white Mercedes swished through the Thornton gateway. That struck me as odd, since Amanda had directed me to my parking spot. Why there, when the conventional approach was so obvious? Maybe she’d just wanted to avoid a traffic jam at the house.
The car disgorged a tall broad fair-haired hunk. He walked – I thought a little unsteadily – to the front door and went into the house without knocking. Maybe he was a cousin, but somehow, I didn’t think so. I was even less disposed to that view a minute later, when he entered an upstairs room and Amanda rushed towards him with open arms, then stopped, turned and hurried over to close the drapes. Drat!
Some say that much of a PI’s work is hunch, born of experience. I confess that on this occasion, neither of those factors was involved. I was just dawdling. Half an hour later I was still on the spot, thinking, when Mr Shoulders came out of the house, went back to his car and reversed into the street. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, deciding to follow him. I really don’t know why. I mean, if he was suitor, why not? Apart from being a notable heiress, Amanda was a stunner. For a moment, I had the slightly delirious vision of admirers standing in line around the house.
I followed my man southwards and after a four-mile drive he turned off into the parking lot of a booze dispensary. There’d been little traffic around and as we’d taken a couple of byways, he’d probably noticed that I was right behind him. If he had, it didn’t matter. I know I’ve mentioned this tailing business more than once, but it was quite a headache. I drove on for about a minute, then returned, entered the lot and halted close to my man’s wheels.
Cars parked in darkness are a piece of cake – PI Manual, Lesson Eight: Stationary Vehicles’. In less time than it takes to tell I had, as they say, effected entry – okay, the doors weren’t locked. My rummaging told me that the man was Frank Tetley and that he lived three miles from the drinkery. Nothing else. He seemed to be the neat type.
As I walked in, Tetley was lurching over to a booth, chewing on something short and dry. My, he was big; about six-four and as wide and deep as they come. I ordered a beer, carried it over and sat opposite him, asking if he minded.
“Yeah, I mind,” he said. “It’s a big country. Go somewhere else.”
“Now, now, Frank,” I said. “I really –”
“How do you know who I am?” he snapped. Petulant.
“It’s my business to know things,” I said. “Talk to me about Amanda Thornton.”
He worked up an angry, purplish flush, so I added ‘choleric’ to the assessment. “How about I just tag you one?” he growled. “Left jaw, say around five o’clock.” His speech indicated that the current drink was far from his first that day.
I chuckled. “Calm down,” I said. “You’re a big lad, but I’m a rough-houser by trade. You wouldn’t get near.” In retrospect, I was amazed at my own audacity. If he’d really walloped me, I’d be still circling the Earth at a height of three feet.
My effrontery worked. “What do you want?” he said.
“Just a few words about you and Amanda,” I answered mildly. You don’t have to talk, but if you refuse, I’ll draw my own conclusions.”
“I should still swipe you,” he said, his delivery slurred more than somewhat. A man loaded with liquor should try to avoid alliteration, especially with sibilants.
Tetley had, it seemed, acquired his bulk at the cost of his intellect. After pacifying him with a few more words, I began to stow more of the hard stuff into him, working on the male bonding thing. I got quite a lot out of him. When I judged he was far enough gone, I needled his ego. I won’t tell you how – the technique’s a trade secret, to be used only on drunks – but it did the trick and he insisted on our returning to the Thornton residence. We’d clear up this nonsense, wouldn’t we?
Within an hour of our first words – and after I’d chugged along in the wake of some erratic driving by Frank – we were back at our starting point, where a surprised Amanda let us in. Had the butler already retired to his nook, or was this his day off? We went into the room I’d been in earlier.
The involuntary hostess was dressed in something light, long and flowing, which I can’t accurately describe – remember I’d taken a few belts, too. I think it verged on the diaphanous, with some sort of pale floral motif. “What’s going on?” she said, with a note of sobriety which I thought altogether unwarranted at that time of evening.
Although I say it myself, I was rather good. “Amanda,” I replied, “I’ve returned your boyfriend, sound in wind and limb, except for the wind bit. Come to think of it, the limb department’s a little below par, too. Now, what the hell is this all about?” Always answer a question with a question.
She shot a withering look at Tetley. “You’ve been talking, haven’t you?” she snapped.
“Listen, Mandy,” he mumbled, “I only said –”
“I can imagine,” Amanda interjected. “And I’ve told you not to call me that? Your being drunk is no excuse.” She turned to me. “Where do we stand now?”
I was far from clear where we stood, but wasn’t inclined to confess. This was a time for bluffing. “Your paramour has been spilling beans,” I said. I probably stumbled over the ‘paramour’, but must have been convincing enough. “I guess I know more or less everything. Look, Amanda, I’m not a moral policeman, but I think it would be best all round if you’d give me your version. As long as no crime has been committed in the legal sense, the matter needn’t go beyond this room.” I hooked thumb at Frank the Feeble. “By the way, how did you get attached to him?”
“Indoor athletics,” she whipped back, giving her boyfriend a look which could have curled a thick steak. “Are you a family man, Cyril?”
“No,” I said. “Ties can lead to vulnerability.” That was another word I shouldn’t have tried, but I got away with it.
She inclined her head. Still not an outright nod, so she remained in charge of herself. “Very well. So perhaps you don’t understand generational stresses. The fact is that my father had outlived his usefulness. You don’t need every detail. I told you he’d been depressed since my mother’s death. In fact, he was a broken reed, but with respect to me he was unnaturally possessive. Having lost his wife, he couldn’t bear the thought of losing his daughter, too. He persisted in finding fault with every man I invited home. His attitude became irrational. To put it bluntly, his time had come. When it happened, Frank – incidentally, my father loathed him – was there for effect only. A big muscular type, you see. We simply induced an ageing man to face certain facts unpalatable to him. There was this bottle on his desk –”
“Wasn’t that a little too convenient?” I said.
She smiled, and I’ll admit I’d have been less uncomfortable facing a grinning tiger. “Don’t try to fathom that one, Cyril. Just accept that the poison was my father’s idea. He did what Socrates had done, long ago – I think it was 399 B.C., and in that case the drink was hemlock.” It sounded like she’d been studying. “What my father took was . . . well, I’ve already told you. So you see, there was no crime. It was just a matter of an old, lonely man precipitating the inevitable.”
“I see,” I said. “What about my fee?” I was trying to register disgust, and to get out of that unhappy house; an even darker place inside than outside.
She stepped over to an armchair, picked up the handbag I’d seen that afternoon and fished out a wad of bills. She didn’t count them, just passed the lot over to me. I took my cue from her. Without checking, I knew that I was handling ten times my charges for a day. The noble types must deal with such things as they see fit. I pocketed the loot and made for the door, taking a last look at the lean, predatory Amanda and the glassy-eyed, dimwitted Frank, the white woman’s burden.
This dismal tale was far from the zenith of my career and I wouldn’t have told it, but for what happened later. About six months after the incident I’ve recorded, Frank Tetley died from injuries he sustained on being heaved through a third-floor window by a man much smaller – and apparently far tougher – than he was. It seemed that as a result of being crossed in love, or what passed for it in his book, Tetley had become a muscle-bound wreck. Less than a year later, Amanda Thornton-Barnes, who hadn’t wasted time in tying the knot, perished on crashing her car into a gatepost of the ancestral pile – she hadn’t moved house – when returning alone from an evening’s revelry. The word on the street was that she was deep into drugs. Poetic justice?
By the way, I fouled up with the library books, returning them a day overdue. That’s just not right.
* * *