PONDHOPPER : NUMBER THIRTEEN
Clink, whirr, chink – or vice versa. The coin that dropped onto my desk would have been at home on dark, dully gleaming rosewood. What I had was thin mahogany veneer, curling at the edges – and I won’t go into detail about the gouges, cigarette burns and other evidence of misuse. I’d bought my office furniture – desk, three ladder-back chairs, typewriter with its own little stand, and two filing cabinets – for a hundred and ninety dollars, from a dealer in used items.
The waiting roomlet was different, in that almost everything there – a low, wobbly table, three straight back chairs, two ashtrays and a wastebasket – had come gratis, courtesy of the previous tenant. All I’d done was augment his collection of ancient magazines with a few equally venerable ones I’d picked up here and there.
With regard to professional activity, my state was practically comatose. There were times when that didn’t bother me, but on this occasion I’d had enough of abstract thinking and was pleased to have a caller. Not that this one would have cared about my state of mind. I could tell that before he spoke. The currency came to rest between a mug ring I’d inherited and a knife-cut I’d inflicted myself, while trying to open a parcel.
Outside, a team was working with a compressor, two pneumatic drills and a stone-saw, and as I’d left the inner door ajar I was not aware that I had a visitor until the coin landed. In my defence, I must say that he tossed the thing from just inside the doorway while I was staring at a notepad splattered with calculations arising from my immersion in rocket propulsion – and lest you should think me a dilettante, I’d worked out all by myself that a three-stage job was the right one for a lunar shot. It’s a question of mass ratio and exhaust velocity. I know NASA got the same result, but we’d worked independently. Rocket science wasn’t such a big deal, I’d concluded.
I looked at my man, waving him to a seat, as I examined his introductory offering. It was a double-eagle, face value twenty dollars, market price surely much higher. I peered at it, and my failure to note the date probably gives some indication that I had little interest in such items. I did observe that the specimen was well-worn, but assumed that I was looking at some real gold.
The intruder didn’t quite match up to his flamboyant approach, which I immediately associated with fedora hats and chalk-stripe outfits. He was impressive in the width and depth departments. I put him at five-eleven and ten or fifteen pounds over the two hundred mark. The face looked as though someone had broken rocks on it. He wore a shiny dark-blue suit which did little to conceal the muscles it sheathed, plus a mid-blue shirt and a tie of a floridity I’d rather not dwell on. If he wasn’t a heavy, he’d do until one came along.
Despite my being in a trough, businesswise, I submit that my repartee was up to standard. “I’ll give you a B-plus for histrionics,” I said, “but would you like to enlarge?”
It was the theatrical allusion that got him – I just knew he wouldn’t be able cope with ‘histrionics’. He was submerged for a moment, but fought his way back to the surface. “You know what that is?” he said, pointing at the coin.
I gave him my supercilious smile. “Of course,” I said. “Is it my retainer, or just bait?”
With his big entrance squelched, he’d already lost the psychological high ground, so he relaxed. “Belongs to Mike Mulrooney,” he said. “You heard of him?”
If he was referring to the long-time sparring partner of my late – in both senses – client, Howling Jack Lanigan, I had indeed. “Possibly,” I said. “Would that be the gentleman sometimes known as Horsehead Mulrooney?”
“Yeah, right,” Mr Bulk grunted. “Seems Howling Jack gave you a big boost after you tangled with Slugs Kalinski.’
How well I remembered that encounter; a meeting of bodies rather than minds. The incident had already been brought up by another client. Now, here was a second. I wondered how long I would be able to live on that minor triumph. “Ah, Slugs,” I said. “How is the lad?”
My visitor sneered. “He ain’t around no more. Got plugged a while back. He was tough, but I guess he didn’t have it upstairs. I took over.”
That was puzzling. If Slugs Kalinski had been cerebrally deficient, how was this goon an improvement? Maybe Mulrooney was finding it hard to get the right help. “Okay,” I said. “Slugs is out, you’re in and Horsey thinks I’m wonderful. I’m struggling to connect all that with a gold bauble. Do you have a point? I’m pretty busy.”
He looked at the desktop, festooned with my notebook and his coin. “Yeah,” he sniggered, “you’re up to your ears. Look, Horsey’ll be in New York till Monday mornin’ an’ he don’t want to lose time on this. He’ll pay your fees an’ a bonus, if you see to it.”
“See to what?”
Talking was clearly a chore for action-man. He sighed. “Mulrooney had a good few gold coins. Just kept this one in his pocket. Sorta lucky piece. Somebody busted into his office, blew the safe an’ took the lot, plus two thousand in cash.
“I see,” I said. “Mr Mulrooney would like me to find the culprit, eh?”
I nodded, emanating thought. “I wonder he didn’t summon me to the presence.”
That was a hard one for my man, but he triumphed. “Like I just told you, he’s tied up, but he said to tell you it’s a competitive advantage thing. Said you’d know what that means.”
The poor fellow was uneasy with ‘competitive advantage’, but all credit to him, he got it out. Moreover, his chief was probably right. Mulrooney was accustomed to exploiting others, but when the tables were turned, he needed the help of someone who could cut corners. And his kind didn’t enlist the official forces. “Right,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do. I imagine your boss wasn’t insured against this?”
My man looked at me as though he doubted my sanity. “That a joke?” he said. “Insurance people mean alarms an’ alarms mean cops, right?”
“Okay,” I said. “I had to ask. Now, can you give me anything else?”
His Heftiness shrugged. “Nix. We got no idea. Your ball.”
“Right,” I said. “Tell him I’ll work on it, but it’s probably an opportunist thing.”
“Just repeat that to him. He’ll know what I mean.”
The hunk recovered the coin and departed, leaving me to ponder. It was inconvenient. I mean there I was planning space missions when this earthbound matter cropped up. Still, possibly there was money to be made, and that was why I was in business, wasn’t it?
A man couldn’t be in my kind of work for long without knowing a little about the criminal mind. I suspected this was a local affair, no matter that the locality was a little way north of my normal playground. Well, parochialism is an elastic concept.
Another three-pipe problem, Watson, was my first thought. Actually, one pipe would have sufficed. My mental whirligig stopped at Pale Pete Parsons. I’ve mentioned Pete – a small-time stick-em-up and B&E man – in connection with another case. When he wasn’t engaged in his professional work, Pete spent most of his waking hours at Kelly’s Pool Hall, within easy walking distance of my office. Well, my job was mostly shaking trees and seeing if anything fell. It was worth a try, so I phoned the ball-and-cue palace, identifying myself and asking for Pete.
The unmistakable grating voice of the owner replied: “Now just a minute. I’m not sure I know any –”
“Cut it out, Kelly,” I snapped, “or I might feel compelled to remember certain transactions at your place, concerning –”
“All right,” he yelled. “I’ll get him.”
“Excellent,” I said. “And tell him this is good news.”
There was a rumble of background noise, then Parsons came to the phone. “Yeah, what?” he muttered.
“And greetings to you, too, Pete,” I said. “In case Kelly didn’t tell you, this is Cyril Potts. I’m about to transform your drab existence. Just step along here – and make it lively. I can’t talk on the phone. Get to my office in fifteen minutes.”
As a result of the earlier incident with the gold Balinese cat, Pete Parsons had probably decided that I was infallible. He mumbled something I didn’t catch, then agreed to call on me right away. Within the specified quarter-hour he was sitting opposite me. I told him about the coins. He assumed his puzzled look. “I get you,” he said. “I just don’t see wh – ”
“Listen Pete,” I snapped. “This is no time for fooling around. I know you boys have a network that would turn the Mob green with envy. I just want you to use it – and there’s money for you here.”
That was a gamble, pure and simple. I’d no idea whether Pete and his cronies were a closed society or not. Still, it was interesting that he didn’t deny it. I noted the point for future reference. Living by one’s wits is a precarious matter, much dependent upon the snapping up of trifles.
“What do you want me to do?” he said.
Bingo! “Look, Pete, these coins have written pedigrees. There’s no way they can be sold off. They’re useless to anyone who doesn’t have the paperwork.” I made that up and for all I knew it might have been true. “Now, I’m empowered to get them back. We can operate my way or Mulrooney’s. If I do the job, there’s no problem. Some cash changes hands and that’s it. If I pass the matter back to my client, he’ll be even more upset than he is now. He’ll want to interview people. Do I really need to talk to you about cement boots, fingernails, heads clamped in vi –?”
“No,” he yipped. “I don’t know why you picked on me, but I’ll put the word around. How’s that?”
“It’s a start,” I said, “and if you play it right, you’ll come out way ahead. There’s a two-grand payoff in this and I don’t mind who gets it. Now move – and make it quick.”
Pale Pete slunk out, leaving me to think some more. If he didn’t bring home the bacon, I’d no idea about the next step. Also, I’d been pretty free with reward money, considering that I hadn’t discussed it with the prospective payer.
I did my best to return to rocketry, but it was no good. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought in all that stuff about what Mulrooney might do if pressed. My comments had been wildly speculative, but they’d scared me as much as they had Pale Pete.
With no other business distractions, I mulled the matter over, finally realising that maybe this was a war of nerves between me and Parsons. Maybe he wasn’t much closer to the rock-face than I was. Maybe all sorts of things. Still, I’d acted.
All that I’ve mentioned took place on a Tuesday. By the Friday evening I’d almost abandoned hope and was about to call it a week when the phone rang. It was Pete. His speech was excited and garbled, so I ordered him to get to my office right away.
When he arrived, Pete was shaking at about 6.5 on the Richter scale. His eyes roved around the room, then he took a seat. “I just might have something,” he said. “Don’t know for sure, but –”
“Stow it, Pete,” I said, glowering with B-picture intensity – MGM, what have you missed? “If I don’t get the gewgaws here by tomorrow, the dogs move in. I hate to think –”
“You don’t have to go through that again,” he whined. “I did my best. Word is that it was a new guy. Didn’t know the rules. You know how it is.”
I didn’t know, but this wasn’t the time to say so. “Yes, Pete. Look, just pass it down the line, pronto. You deliver, you get the loot.”
He gave me his pleading look. “Come on, Mr Potts. Try to see it my way. I got to pay my man and he has to pay his man, then we get to the dummy who did the job.”
I nodded. “Right. It’s grim. Get word to him that he’s serving a sort of apprenticeship. That way, he might just wind up with his health intact. You can split the proceeds any way you like. Course, you could keep the lot and tell the other boys it’s all educational.”
He grimaced. “Wouldn’t be right, Mr Potts. Man in my position has . . . what do you call it?”
“Ethics?” I prompted.
“That’s right. I’ll take a grand, but I have to pass the rest along.”
“Tomorrow morning,” I said sternly. “After that, well, you know.”
Following Pete’s departure, I spent an hour or so dwelling on the thought that I was not entirely happy with the case. Finally grasping that that was nothing new, I locked up, wandered along to the local fat factory and ate a fry-up far too tasty to have been good for me.
Normally, I didn’t go to the office on Saturdays, but this was different. I was there shortly after ten. I did my best to concentrate on rockets, but it was hard going. Why not a five-stage one, I thought, or would ten stages be better? My synaptic processes were getting out of hand when, shortly before noon, a scruffy-looking boy of about ten barged in – another knockless entry, which made me wonder yet again why I bothered with doors. “You Mr Potts?” the urchin said. Though near-breathless and intent upon his purpose, he whisked keen young eyes all over the place - a sleuth in the making, perhaps?
“Guilty. I guess this isn’t a matrimonial thing?”
That was unfair, but I’d been engrossed. The boy shrugged. “A man give me this,” he said, producing a brown-paper parcel. “Give me ten dollars to make sure you got it.” He handed it over and scurried out before I could muster the wit to detain him.
I attacked the package with little doubt about what was inside. I had the fleeting, silly thought that if I’d gone to the window I might have been able to get a glimpse of the sender, lurking out there. I didn’t bother – he wouldn’t be stupid enough to give me a one-man identity parade. I stripped away the string and paper, revealing a flat wooden box, bound in black leather. I opened it, finding a note atop an envelope and array of gold coins, all in much better condition than the one my initial visitor had produced. Most of them were double-eagles, eagles, British sovereigns and Mexican fifty-peso pieces. The envelope contained two thousand dollars. The pencilled note read:
I dident know these was Mulrooneys. Please give them back.
Say Im sorry. I dont want no trubbel with him.
Well, I thought, my man was no linguist, but he got full marks for contrition. Now what? As Mulrooney was not due back until Monday morning, I was disposed to consign the box to matters pending, when it occurred to me to do a little delving. Did I know anyone who was into coins? No, but I remembered the elderly stamp-dealer, Graves, who’d helped me once before and lived not far from my place. Maybe he would have connections. I phoned him and he did, in the form of a local friend who was a numismatist. I contacted the man, Jonathan Wrigley, arranging to call on him after we’d both eaten.
Like Graves, Wrigley seemed to be up in the seventies. I thought of my dealings with the ageing Chicago philatelist Birdsall in another case, and wondered whether coin-dealers were like stamp men in that they just had to be of a certain vintage. He looked over the treasure, talking to himself for a while, then pushed the box back to me. “Hmn,” he muttered, “most of them are fine, or very fine.”
“Ah,” I said. “So that’s good, then?”
“Not really. Oh, possibly you wouldn’t know. It’s quite a science. The terms are technical. Very fine and fine are well down the list.” He went on to mumble about uncirculated, proof, mint’ and one or two other words I didn’t catch, then raised his voice: “There are big differences in value, according to the category. Several of these are exceptionally good – that isn’t a classification, by the way. If you want a full assessment, I’ll give you one, for a fee. Offhand, I’d say you’re looking at something at the low end of the five-figure range, but to be precise, I’d need to give each one a detailed examination. If you want dispose of them, I can arra –”
“Not right now,” I said. “I’d like to think it over. But I’m very grateful.”
After leaving Wrigley, I went back to my office, thinking that this might be a case for my insurance investigator colleague, Stan Hodges, whom I’ve mentioned elsewhere. For anyone who doesn’t know, Stan and I had met at a snoopers’ convention and had kept in touch, partly because we’d thrown the odd business morsel to one another, but mostly because we shared a certain sense of humour. Stan lived at the back end of nowhere, well north of me. I phoned him and for once, he answered with a ‘Yeah’ after the first ring – he must have been passing the phone. “Big City man here,” I said. “What kept you?”
“Prior commitments,” he said. “Is this an Oriental circumlocution thing, or would you like to spill it?” He was on form.
“I won’t waste your time, Philo,” I said. “Especially as I’m not going to pay for it. What do people in your business pay for recovered swag?”
“It varies a lot. As percentage of the insured value, I’ve known it be as low as twenty and as high as fifty.”
“Why such a spread?”
“Could be the stuff’s insured for more or less than its true worth, maybe because values of the kind of thing concerned have rocketed or collapsed since the policy was taken out, or that whoever is offering to return it is smart, dumb, greedy or needy. There are other considerations, but I guess the above will satisfy you.”
“Right. Pretty complicated, eh?”
“That it is. Now look, Poirot, I’m about to watch something mildly interesting on TV. My best to the wife and children and goodbye.” Of course, he knew that I had neither spouse nor offspring to receive his good wishes. He also had no intention of ringing off until we’d exchanged a few more inanities, which we duly did.
I spent an uncomfortable weekend trying to make sure I didn’t get separated from the recovered swag. I slept on it both nights. At noon on the Monday I phoned Mulrooney, who’d been back home for two hours. “You getting anywhere?” he said after the cursory pleasantries.
“I have hopes,” I replied, but there are cut-outs and dead-ends involved. It’ll mean a reward.”
When I told him, he wasn’t amused. “How about I send in my orthopedic boys to kind of unblock things?” he said nastily. “Course, they’d have to start with you.”
I laughed, projecting conviction. “Don’t think about it,” I said. “This is hard enough already. For one thing, you wouldn’t get through the maze. For another, remember what happened to the last hairy chest you sent up against me. Your present lad wouldn’t do better. And anyway, we’re supposed to be on the same side here.”
I’d half-expected a resigned chuckle, but there wasn’t one. Clearly Mulrooney didn’t have the same attitude as good old Jack Lanigan. “Okay,” he snapped. “How do we play this?”
“If it works at all, it’ll come off quick. Now, I have another client who’ll keep me busy most of tomorrow, but I’ll be able to slip the leash for a couple of hours. Can we settle up in the lobby of the Pine Lodge at noon – just the two of us?”
The place I’d mentioned was a well known hostelry, near-enough midway between our two headquarters – I’d no intention of playing Daniel among the lions. Stand-off time. “All right,” he said. “Any snags, let me know.”
Still having nothing else in hand, I tried to get back to space flight, but my efforts were futile.
Duly at noon on the Tuesday, I had my one and only meeting with Horsehead Mulrooney – he left us shortly afterwards, following a disagreement with Joe Keyes, not long after Joe took over from Howling Jack Lanigan.
Mulrooney was a tall thin lugubrious-looking character, and it didn’t take a second look to see how he’d got his nickname. The long narrow twitchy head said it all. We exchanged the cash, coins and reward money and he was about to leave when I asked about my fees.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “How much?”
I told him and he produced a wallet, peeling off the necessary. I gave him my disappointed look. “Your boy spoke of a bonus,” I said.
He sighed, dragging out another hundred-dollar bill. “That should cover it,” he grunted. “If I need you again, I’ll call.”
A lousy hundred dollars. It was like giving a Pine Lodge waiter a dime tip. That was disappointing. Still, it made me feel better about having gypped Mulrooney out of a grand. I didn’t mention earlier that, in response to his enquiry about the reward, I’d given him a figure of three thousand dollars – and you’ll remember that I’d promised Pale Pete Parsons two thousand. Well, I thought a thousand was about fair compensation for the time when Horsehead turned his pet ape Kalinski loose on me in the Lanigan affair I recorded elsewhere in these narratives.
* * *