PONDHOPPER : NUMBER TWO
Having just skipped through the account of my efforts on behalf of Leonard Yule, I note that it doesn’t include a description of my office. I had a modest lair which served me for the whole of the time I was in practice as a private investigator. It was above a traditional gentlemen’s outfitters in a row of shops on Alder Street, a very short thoroughfare three miles from the middle of town, insofar as an amoeba-like sprawl such as ours can be said to have a central point. In fact, most of the inhabitants here live in largely self-contained suburbs. Being now otherwise occupied, in an unrelated field, I don’t need my own business premises. Also, I live well out of the city, but pop in now and then and still get a twinge, or perhaps a frisson, when passing the old place.
I now work fixed hours on mundane chores. The pay – daily rate anyway – is lower, but to make me feel better, the work is harder. Still, I’m employed five days a week, there’s a regular wage packet, and I don’t have to deal with the threat of violence. Without wishing to get too philosophical, I’d say that life moves on and that one is best advised to go with it as smoothly as possible. Nowadays, it seems to me that many events in which I was involved, even only a few years ago, happened to another person, with whom I have only a tenuous connection.
Merely because something jogged my memory, I’m taking the case I now have in mind out of chronological sequence. It happened quite a while after the Yule thing and some others I hope to present, so I can tell you that another consequence of the changed lifestyle was that I swapped my hotel room for an apartment and even began to do my own cooking. The results pleased me and still do, though they probably wouldn’t go down too well with more fastidious eaters. I know it was, and maybe is, fashionable for a private eye to swing a mean skillet, but most of the suave sleuths one sees on television top off their mind-boggling array of exotic vegetables and spices with a major ingredient of beef, chicken or something similar. In that respect, I can’t compete, as I finally abjured meat – and don’t think that wasn’t a struggle. Still, the triumph makes me feel righteous, if at times a little fragile.
The people below my premises ran a classy place. They had their own in-house tailor, who altered off-the-peg items to customers’ requirements and sometimes made clothes from scratch. I only once saw the fellow in action and believe it or not, he was sitting cross-legged on a table, just like in the old days. I don’t see why they operate that way – it looks excruciating to me – but they must know what they’re doing.
I recall pondering on the matter after I’d seen this man stitching merrily. That reminded me of a clip from a film – I think it was ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’ – in which Gary Cooper, who was being fussed over by a tailor, said: “I never had a suit made on purpose before,” or words to that effect. Having nothing better to do at the time, I’d dwelt on old Coop, wondering if he’d been hewn from a quarry at the age of fifty-odd, or had experienced formative years. I didn’t – still don’t – remember seeing him in a relatively youthful state. I mean, compare him with James Stewart, whom I recollect appearing as a youngish fellow, croak and all, in 1930s films. But not Coop. Please don’t write in about this. Come to think of it, I believe I heard somewhere that Gary was in a film while in his twenties. Anyway, having brought you up to speed on Cooper and Stewart, I’ll move on.
My suite consisted of a room, about fifteen feet square, plus a risibly small antechamber, in case I got more than one visitor at a time. That happened only once, and while the first comer was rejecting my services, the other prospect disappeared. So unfair.
On the occasion I’m thinking of, I was late in getting to the office – I have to admit that was becoming a habit. A woman was waiting, so I waved her in. I don’t like describing people, for fear that they might reciprocate. However, she seemed exceptionally nondescript, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction. Approaching forty I guessed, about five-four and on the chubby side of average in build, dark-brown hair yanked back and tied with a black ribbon, beige blouse under a mid-grey sweater, black skirt, black grandma shoes and no jacket or topcoat. She didn’t have a handbag as such, but what looked like a small brown leather pouch, gripped in both hands. The face was pale and would have been bland, but for the grey eyes, which had a haunted look. Overall, my impression was of a frumpy, mousey little woman, somehow early 1940s in aspic. I know this isn’t Dickens, but it’s the best I can do.
While we’re on this subject of descriptions, I wonder about the fictional private eyes who can always remember not only everything about their clients’ appearances, but also their own wardrobe details, even after many years. I can’t do that – and my stock never comprises more than two raincoats, two suits, two sports jackets, three pairs of slacks, three of shoes, eight shirts – seven for the weekly wash and a spare – and four ties, one of which was a gift. Usually, I can recall what I had on in the past only if I’d made a special effort to be either smart or scruffy, like when I polished myself to visit the Berg house in another matter, which I hope to recount in due course. On the occasion in question, I remember only that I was dressed.
I sat, motioning the woman to a chair. “Morning,” I said, assuming chirpiness. “What can I do for you?”
“Are you Cyril Potts?”
“Well, I want you to find my brother, Michael,” she said, the voice quaky, verging on the hysterical.
“I see,” I said. “And you are?”
“My name is Avril Green.”
“And his surname?”
“Why, Green, of course.”
I didn’t see where the ‘of course’ came in but made nothing of it. “Right,” I said. “Could you give me a few details? Let’s start with your address.”
She lived in an apartment block in a development called Mulberry Heights. And that’s another thing. The whole area for miles around here is far from mountainous. There are several rises, all modest, yet half the people in the city seem to live on one ‘Height’ or another. Is that idiosyncratic, or what? A fellow once told me that it’s the same in Cleveland. I’ve never been there, so can’t confirm that.
I gathered that brother and sister lived together and that there were no other siblings. Both parents were dead and Avril and Michael had no wider family, nor had either of them any close friends. I also gleaned a few other things I didn’t really want to know – my visitor was quite chatty when she got going. The errant Michael had disappeared without notice five days earlier and Avril hadn’t brought in the police, as she’d thought they wouldn’t give the matter high priority. Michael was out of work, so there was no employer to consult. Having imparted all the information I needed, Avril fumbled with her little bag, which I finally established was a draw-string job, the sort of thing a man of means might have flung jingling onto a tavern bar a couple of centuries ago. “Work through that, Landlord, and if `tis not enough, `twill be the worse for you.”
Avril asked about my charges and when I told her, she looked alarmed. “That’s an awful lot,” she said. “Far more than I get.”
“It’s about the going rate.”
“Oh. Well, you see, I work in a florist’s shop and my pay for a week isn’t much more than you’re asking for a day. Does that seem right?”
“Comparisons are odious,” I said. Sententious. “I imagine you have a steady income in a fairly safe environment. There are times when I don’t work at all. When I do, it’s usually all-weather, all-terrain stuff, day and night until I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s mostly a question of running around, talking with people who’d rather not speak to me, or trying to stay alert while standing still for hours, wondering whether something is going to happen. When I get to the action, I’m often attacked with any part of the human anatomy that can be used as a weapon, plus guns, knives, brass knuckles, blackjacks, crowbars, baseball bats and just about every other instrument you can name – once it was with a freshly-cooked Thanksgiving turkey, stuffing and all. On the whole, I think the fees are reasonable, but please feel free to try someone else.”
Maybe that seems like a rehearsed speech, and I have to say I’d delivered it more than once. In fact it was barely within hailing distance of the truth. I had been involved in a little rough work from time to time, but not to the extent my words implied. Still, I think the patter must have been convincing, as Avril Green listened intently. She was composed now, with none of the fidgeting with which some of my visitors would have transported a labanotationist to paradise. When I was through rationalising the cost of my services, she opened her treasury. “I imagine you need a . . . what do they call it? . . . a retainer,” she said.
“No. That’s not necessary, but I’d appreciate prompt settlement when the job’s done.”
She nodded. “Of course. I always pay bills at once.”
“Just one other thing,” I said. “Not everyone wants to be found. You should know that if I locate your brother, he may wish to stay lost to you. If he does, I’ll have to respect that.”
“Ah, I see,” she said, giving me an odd, wary, slightly unsettling look. “Well, we shall have to see, I suppose?”
She left, and having nothing else to do, I decided to get busy. The activity was held up for a while, as I switched on the radio and spent a few minutes listening to a speech from a political windbag, noted for labyrinthine sentences which left his listeners – and probably himself – floundering. I was entertained briefly by the thought that he might one day plunge into a verbal thicket from which he wouldn’t emerge. Perhaps some philological society would send out a search party. I could see the khaki-clad, pith-helmeted group trudging through a dictionary, only to find the poor fellow’s sun-bleached bones somewhere in the letter J, where he’d been brought down by a jackstay or a jumbuck or something between the two. The seekers would probably note his fleshless digits clutching a copy of Webster’s pocket edition, opened at the appropriate page, a skeletal forefinger pointing at the instrument of his demise. Forgive me. I’ve always been prone to these flights of fancy.
It took two days of simple, plodding routine for me to locate Michael Green. He was holed up in a seedy Victorian hotel in the western outskirts of town. Built of what looked like limestone – it was hard to tell through the grime – and complete with weatherworn gingerbread trim, the place looked to me like a large version of an old British railroad station. A little heavy pseudo-cop talk opened up the old goat who manned reception. He wanted to be cantankerous but his world-weariness prevailed and he made only a token effort at obstruction.
The room I wanted was on the second floor and I galloped up there, not wishing to allow the elderly Cerberus time to give his guest any warning. He probably wouldn’t have bothered, even if his phone facilities had been up to it.
Michael was in his room and answered my knock. He was a big fellow, around six foot two and overweight, with a lot of wobbly chin and a bulging waistline. Most of his mid-brown hair had gone, the last battling strands being combed across his scalp as artistically as he could manage. Why don’t more men just give up and snip them away? His breath came in short, noisy gasps and his complexion resembled dough. The general appearance was of a man out of condition. I put him at slightly older than Avril.
“Security,” I said when he opened the door. “Like a word with you, please.” Without giving him any opportunity to argue, I shoved my way in, backheeling the door shut. “Sorry about that,” I said, when his jaws finally started to work up to speech mode – he seemed to be a man of slow reactions. The room was large and shabby. There was a clutter of nondescript furniture, of which I recall only a double bed, a wardrobe, a chest of drawers and, nestling in the bay window space, a small table and a ladder-back chair. I’d guessed right about communications; there wasn’t a phone in sight. I went on: “In a way, it is security, but –”
I’d been about to launch into an explanation when the door was flung open and Avril Green bounced in, still wearing the same apparel as when she’d called on me, but looking a good deal more animated now than she was then. She had one arm wrapped around a large brown paper bag. “So, here you are,” she snapped at Michael.
As there was no immediate reply, I put in my bit. “How did you get into this?” I asked Avril.
“Very simple,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about finding a missing person, so I hired someone who would. That is how you became involved. Then, since you said you couldn’t guarantee to tell me Michael’s whereabouts, I followed you. Quite straightforward.”
As Avril had seemed to me a wee bit odd from the outset, I was still reserving judgement on her character, but my assessment of her intelligence rocketed. Also, I was struck by the thought that it was time for me to engage in a little revision, specifically PI Manual, Lesson Six: Evading A Pursuer. Maybe I’d taken the wrong correspondence course. While I was admiring Avril’s smarts, we were both distracted by a choking sound. I turned to see Michael, mouth open, walking backwards away from us and towards the window, a look of horror on his face as he stared at his sister. “No, no,” he squawked. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
My client turned her attention back to her brother. It was quite something to watch her rounding the bed, advancing upon the hapless Michael, looking up nearly a foot into his eyes as he retreated behind the table. “You,” he yelped at me. “Get her out of here.”
This time I was, so I thought, prepared for all eventualities. I fumbled out my .38. “Calm down, both of you,” I bellowed. “I have a gun.”
Avril gave me the briefest of glances, but managed to get plenty of scorn into it. “Put that thing away, Mr Potts,” she said dismissively. “We all know you won’t use it.” She was dead right. I was completely stumped. If this woman showed much more evidence of her brain power, I’d nominate her for Mensa, assuming she wasn’t already a member. As for mousy little woman, forget it, she was a tigress.
Michael continued to give his impression of a rabbit facing a snake. Avril moved in on him. It was like watching Rosa Klebb approaching James Bond in that hotel room in ‘From Russia With Love’, except that Michael didn’t think of defending himself with the chair. “Don’t fight it,” said Avril. “You know I’m right. I’ve brought fresh things for you. Now, give me the used ones.”
I was way out of my depth. “What the hell goes on here?” I squawked.
Michael turned pleading eyes on me. “She’s crazy,” he moaned. “She wants my underwear.”
“And your shirt, Michael,” said Avril, “and your socks. You’ve had all of them on for over a week. It’s disgusting.”
Michael held supplicating hands my way. “She’s a laundry freak. She takes the shirts from my back to fill that damned washing machine. I can’t take any more of it.”
Avril was totally focused. “You must see that resistance is useless, Michael,” she said, her tone still quiet but inexorable. “I’m three pounds short of a full load. Now, hand them over!”
Michael was goggling at me. “Do something, can’t you?” he wailed. “I should have known. She’s just like mother. One time, the old bag left our father naked for five hours, just so she could get the machine full. She laundered her man to death.”
“Now look here,” I said, “We can’t have –” That was as far I got before Avril turned on me, her eyes unnaturally bright, spittle running from her mouth. I saw then that she really was deranged. “Keep out of this, you . . . you . . . detective,” she said, getting real venom into my job description. Swinging back to her brother, she held out her hands. “Please, Michael,” she said, “don’t make me take them by force.”
That seemed a good moment for me to go. “I’ll leave you to it,” I mumbled. “You’ll get the account tomorrow, Avril.”
She didn’t intend to be distracted. “Yes,” she said, her eyes not leaving Michael. “You may go.”
I went back to the office, typed my bill – I was up to five or six fingers with my ancient machine – and mailed it, with no great expectation of getting paid. For two or three days, I had disquieting notions of calling to enforce settlement, only to find myself hopping around the Greens’ apartment, just ahead of the demon laundress and shedding one garment after another in an effort to distract her. In the event, she sent me folding money by return post. I wondered whether I’d ever understand people.
* * *