PONDHOPPER : NUMBER SIXTEEN
I was in a strange state. Not exactly the doldrums – I was accustomed to that position. This was different; a kind of other-worldliness. The mood had been induced by certain items in a batch of magazines I’d received gratis. First, a group of scientists had suggested that our universe is flat – in the mathematical sense. I didn’t grasp all the details, but thought I understood the basic idea. If you draw a triangle on a table top, the sum of the angles add up, as Euclid told us, to a hundred and eighty degrees. If you do the same on a ball, the angles will amount to more than one-eighty, and if you do it on a saddle, the total will be less than that. Simple enough, I reckoned.
The spherical interpretation, meaning that the vastness around us was, in physics-speak, closed and finite had been popular, but it seemed the boffins were veering towards the hundred and eighty degree notion. This would leave us with an open, expanding cosmos, where the galaxies are to cool into a scattering of frigid cinders. The fact that this process will take trillions of years failed to console me, as it still wouldn’t be worthwhile to start reading ‘War and Peace’.
I’d hardly begun meditating on this news when the second part of what was to be a quadruple-whammy clouded my horizon. Another source asserted that the Sun is burning out and its death throes will engulf us in five billion years at the latest. Compared to the open universe timescale, this problem is urgent. The Earth is going to be fried before it is frozen. Then – part three – I learned that the Moon is drifting away from us at the alarming rate of about two centimetres a year. In due course, this is going to cause the planet to pitch, roll and yaw like a storm-tossed yacht. So we shall get nauseous before we are cooked before we are frozen.
Just when I thought I had enough on my plate, part four turned up. I read that the great forests have, despite human depredations, long been absorbing carbon dioxide as fast as it has been produced, because new tree growth outstrips decay. The same article argued that something analogous applies to the oceans, with respect to their retention of methane – but let’s not go into that – the woodlands will do. What upset me was the suggestion that the greenery gets bouts of indigestion and spews up all that CO2 it’s been hoarding, so we might asphyxiate before we get nauseous, before we are roasted, before we are iced. And this breathing thing is probably due within a century. For goodness sake, that’s now! And until all this was dumped on me, I’d thought that tectonic shifts and gigantic ocean waves were troublesome enough.
My train of thought was interrupted by a visitor, who opened the outer door, peered around the anteroom for a moment, then entered the office. As to appearance, she was quite a study. About five-eight and slim, with a ramrod posture that suggested iron discipline, a classy upbringing or both. The short straight hair had the hue – the texture too, I fancied – of iron filings, and the outfit comprised a charcoal jacket, matching skirt, white blouse and low-heeled black shoes. She wore neither watch nor obvious jewellery and didn’t carry a handbag. Seemingly a woman who stuck to basics.
Outside, the temperature – this being late July – was way up, but she seemed frosty. What really caught my attention was the face, which was all angles, lines and wrinkles, with a severe, screwed-up look, the overall sourness intensified by small-lensed glasses with a barely noticeable gold frame. The straight, thin-lipped mouth was bracketed by deep parenthetic furrows. A prune in vinegar was my impression. The general physique seemed supple. It was as though the head had worn out it’s original body and been grafted onto a younger one. Abraham Lincoln once said that every man over forty is responsible for his face. I wondered whether he’d intended the remark to apply to women as well, then I thought that everything pithy ever said seemed to have emanated from Lincoln, Twain, Wilde or Churchill. Why did the rest of us bother to turn up?
Emboldened by my readings about the work of S. Holmes, I formed a tentative view. The lady was probably seventyish, lonely, with a penchant for complaining and a personality that discouraged social intercourse. Good work, Potts. You have the makings of a sleuth.
She glanced around my pit, managing to avoid holding her nose. I asked her to take a seat.
“Mr Potts,” she said. It wasn’t a question. “You are a detective, I believe.” The voice was sharp, edgy and a little querulous, making me think of a knife-blade being dragged across a plate.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Well, I want you to detect something.”
I nodded. “That seems reasonable, ma’am. What do you have in mind?”
I’d thought that with the ice broken, my visitor might have relaxed. I was wrong. “Please don’t ‘ma’am’ me.”
“No ma … no. Shall I say: ‘hey, you,’ or am I to learn who you are?”
“My name is Margaret Tremayne. Mrs. I’m a widow.”
I wasn’t surprised. The poor guy had probably jumped from a high ledge. “Excellent, Mrs Tremayne. We progress. What’s the problem?”
“I wish you to find out what has happened to my squirrel.”
She gave me the narrowest of smiles. “Very good. We’ve established that your hearing is sound. Yes, squirrel. I domesticated him.” That was entirely believable. “His name is Cyril.”
Was I really hearing this? “Er, yes, quite. I see. Squirrel’s a Cyr . . . sorry, Cyril’s a squirrel?”
“Correct. You may plod, Mr Potts, but you get there.”
I tried to favour her with a grin as lean as the one she’d given me, but was no match for her. “Thank you, Mrs Tremayne. I’m flattered. Now, did you come to me because of my glowing reputation, or is it simply that your pet and I are namesakes?” For some reason not entirely clear to me, I thought that jab might have punctured her. Fat chance!
“The latter. It seemed appropriate.”
“Set a Cyril to catch a Cyril, eh? Fair enough. However, you raise two points here.”
“First, I don’t do animal work. Well, I’ll qualify that. I once found a cat, but it wasn’t a real one.”
“You recovered an imaginary cat?”
“No, not imaginary. It was a statuette.”
“Ah, I see. But you were successful.”
“And the second point?”
“That’s more awkward. I don’t think I want to work for you, Mrs Tremayne.”
“Oh,” – a very frosty ‘oh’. “May I ask why not?”
“Because I think you’re an unpleasant, domineering old harridan.” I was still trying to yank her off that high horse.
Another smile, this time fractionally wider. “Dear me, Mr Potts, tautology – and I was beginning to form such a good impression of your English. If I’m a harridan, the ‘unpleasant, domineering old’ part is redundant, surely? A harridan is all that by implication, is she not?”
Damn, she was right. “Well said, Mrs. T. Maybe we can get on, despite all that’s passed between us.”
She positively beamed, which is to say that I got a further millimetre of her sense of humour. “I think you will do,” she said, “and I believe you’ll take the case.” My attitude was clearly insignificant.
I had to give it to her, she was intriguing. “Mrs Tremayne,” I said, “I don’t like you, but I think there’s a human being under that permafrost. Tell me all.”
She folded her arms. “Cyril is not the real problem here. I am attached to him, but he is a side-issue. The difficulty arises from my relationship with my stepdaughter. She is the only child of my husband, who died three months ago. Since then, Louise has been annoying me.”
Having recently dealt with a bogus stepdaughter, I began to hope of dealing with a real one. “Annoying you? How and why?”
“I’m sure it’s not an original story. My husband was wealthy and had been a widower for some time. When I married him, four years ago, I believe Louise concluded that her expectations evaporated. She detested me from the outset and sees me as a manipulator and an obstacle.”
“And you are neither?”
“True. Now, you have assessed me as unpleasant, and perhaps that is so, but I am neither devious nor obstructive.”
“I’ll accept that provisionally, but I’m puzzled. You say you been widowed for three months. I imagine the inheritance formalities have been settled?”
“They have, and Louise was handsomely provided for, but she is an avaricious person. She knows that before his death, my husband had disposed of many of his assets, in some cases by transferring them to me and in others by liquidating them and donating the proceeds to various charities. Now, considering that Louise has reached the age of forty-three without ever having done anything that might be considered work, paid or unpaid, I would say that her material gains have been more than adequate. Sadly, she appears to seek wealth for its own sake, without regard to what she might do with it. I’m afraid the phrase ‘enough is as good as a feast’ has no resonance with her.”
I nodded. Despite my initial reaction to this woman, I was beginning to think she was not quite the cantankerous crone her carapace suggested. Maybe she’d created the facade and was acting the part she thought was expected of her. “I understand,” I said. “You’ve covered why Louise has been annoying you. How is she doing it?”
“Within two weeks of my husband’s death, I got up one morning to find a message chalked on my patio. The wording was extremely offensive, including a wish for my early demise. That afternoon, Louise visited me. I left her alone for a few minutes and discovered later that two porcelain figurines were missing from a very valuable set of six. It was a limited edition. I believe the pieces are practically irreplaceable. Then there have been the telephone calls.”
“I can’t prove that. The ringing comes late at night and causes me, or perhaps I should say induces me, to answer. When I do, the only response is the comment, ‘I’ll get you,’ then muted laughter. I feel sure the voice is female, though it’s disguised by a certain gruffness, no doubt assumed for the purpose. Also, the calls come from public phones and are on my private line, which is known to only a handful of people, including Louise. I’m sure no-one else who has the number would wish me harm.”
“You seem confident about your social contacts.”
“Mr Potts, my husband and I lived a secluded life. We rarely gave or accepted invitations. I have few friends worthy of the name and not many casual acquaintances. Louise knows this. She is also aware of my interest in wildlife and that Cyril is – I begin to fear I may as well say was – dear to me. Frankly, I don’t pretend to have plumbed the depths of Louise’s mentality, but my feeling is that she is trying to destroy my mind, in the expectation that she will benefit, should her campaign succeed.”
“Have you spoken with the police?”
“No. If I’m right, this is a family matter and I wish to keep it so.”
“I see,” I said. “You want me to tackle Louise. Cyril the squirrel is incidental?”
“Yes. Exactly as I said. By the way, Cyril is unusual.”
“In what way?”
“He is a red squirrel. They are more common in Europe and Asia than here and less aggressive than the grey ones. It may be that he is so tame because he escaped from captivity.”
I risked a chuckle. “Not that I don’t consider you enchanting, Mrs Tremayne,” I said, “but how did you … er… lure Cyril?”
“If you say so.”
The smile widened slightly. I’d be having her in hysterics anytime now. “When one thinks of a squirrel, one also thinks of nuts, does one not?”
“No doubt, though normally I don’t think of either.”
“I understand. Anyway, I built a little contraption, like a combined mousetrap and rabbit hutch. It enabled Cyril to get his nourishment while keeping him safe from predators. I even got him to eat from my hand. Each morning I set him free and each evening he returned to his food and security. Squirrels are remarkably smart. I don’t pride myself on very much, Mr Potts, but I think I did well there. However, Cyril disappeared two nights ago. You may think me paranoid, but I am persuaded that Louise was responsible.”
I was warming to the old bat. She seemed odd and projected several negatives, but if you multiply an even number of them, instead of adding, you get a positive, don’t you? This may be a specious argument, but so what? I decided to work on that premise. “What would you want me to do?” I said.
“Lurk, Mr Potts. You do lurk, don’t you?”
“I certainly do, but you might want to consider the cost.” I mentioned my fees, which caused her to make mock-horrified comments about telephone numbers and national debts before accepting my standard spiel about unsocial hours and danger. We agreed on three days of surveillance, starting the following morning. She produced a money clip from a pocket, paid cash in advance and left.
Staring at the blobs and curlicues on my desk, I evaluated the commission. I was still trying to dislike Margaret Tremayne, but couldn’t manage it. I seem to remember mentioning first impressions elsewhere, and never have been able to clarify my thinking in that respect. There are those who maintain that one shouldn’t change one’s initial views, as they’re based on instinct and therefore valid. I can’t fathom that one. The old girl was a queer stick, but I reckoned she was straight enough – and dammit, maybe she was right.
I wasn’t left in doubt for long. Having spent an afternoon and evening worrying about our universe, I called at the office the following morning, even later than usual. Well, I had a case and didn’t want to complicate matters by sitting around inviting another. After ditching the mail, which comprised several unbeatable offers, I footled around a bit, then geared myself up for snooping and was ready to leave when the phone rang. I’d hardly announced myself, when the already familiar squawk attacked my eardrum. “Mr Potts. Margaret Tremayne here. If you didn’t believe me before, I think you will do so now.” Was there a faint trace of emotion?
“I never said I didn’t believe you, Mrs T. What’s new?”
“Cyril has been returned, dead. He was poisoned.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. He was lying on the back doorstep this morning. I’ve just had him examined. He had ingested a toxin he could not have found naturally. Someone administered it. Need I elaborate?”
“No, I don’t think so. Now, you told me where you live and gave me Louise’s address. Please rest assured that I’m taking the matter seriously and that we’ll get to the bottom of it. I’ll be in touch.”
Temporarily sidelining my efforts to become a vegetarian, I wandered along the block and sustained myself with a mixed grill, then drove five miles northwards to Margaret Tremayne’s home. It was one of a line of grim stone fortresses and a perfect complement to its occupant. That gave me nothing but atmosphere, so I moved on a further four miles, this time southwest, parking a short distance from Louise’s classy ultra-modern bungalow.
Hovering unobtrusively in a suburban area isn’t easy but I believe I coped well enough. It was a long wait, but I wasn’t discouraged. This was summer and if there was to be a sneaky outing, it would probably be at night. In the driveway of Louise’s house, there was a dinky little bright-red French car.
Just after midday, a big maroon BMW swished up behind the smaller vehicle and a man got out. Hubby home for lunch? Forty minutes later, the large car left. Thereafter, nothing happened until 5.50, when the upmarket wheels returned. At seven, they left again. Another yawning gap left me thinking longingly of food.
Shortly after eleven, Louise – I recognised her from Margaret Tremayne’s description – emerged from the house, got into the little red car and moved off. I followed. Louise took the back roads, but it was soon clear that she was heading towards her stepmother’s place. There were several twists and turns on the way and not for the first time I agonised over the tailing problem – I wish these suave characters who do it so nonchalantly would impart a few tips. I mean, any competent driver keeps looking in the rear-view mirror and after a little zigzagging a persistent follower begins to look suspicious, don’t you think? I know I’ve touched on this elsewhere in the accounts of my cases. Sorry to bring it up again.
As we approached my client’s house, I fell back slightly. There was a narrow lane behind the line of Dragonwycks, giving access to the rear gardens, all bordered by dense hedges. It was here that Louise parked. I halted on the cross-street at the side, leaving my car out of sight of the French one. Further skulking showed me that Louise had switched off her car’s lights but left the engine ticking over. This was a traditional part of town, where people tended to turn in early, so most of the houses were in darkness. I legged it quietly to the Tremayne place. Full marks for thinking of rubber soles, Potts.
The wrought iron gate was open. Louise stood on the lawn, her right hand holding a stone of about tennis-ball size. It was no great feat to guess what she had in mind, but I didn’t intend to interfere until she’d committed herself. It was as well that I hadn’t wasted time – she didn’t. I was behind her for barely ten seconds when she wound herself up and heaved her missile at a bedroom window. It was a bull. The crash tinkle-tinkle was still going on when Louise whipped round and barged straight into my arms. It was probably the most startling experience of her life, but she was a vigorous lass and by the time I’d subdued her, the light was on upstairs and Margaret Tremayne was peering out of the shattered window. I identified myself and asked her to let us in. In less than a minute the back door opened and I shoved my captive into a brightly lit kitchen, where I got my first good look at her. She was about five-three and vastly overweight, with a pasty moon of a face.
I’d expected an outburst from Margaret, including a demand to know the meaning of all this. Wrong again. I don’t think anything would have greatly disturbed the Tremayne sang-froid. “This way,” she said, leading us into a front room and waving us to a couple of high-backed leather chairs. “You’ll take a drink, Mr Potts,” she commanded. I would. Without establishing my preference, she poured me a volume of whisky that a pike could have swum in – had she heard about private eyes? – a fairish belt of the same for herself and, to my surprise, a modest shot for Louise. “Please explain,” she said to me.
I explained. Margaret listened without a single interruption, nod or head-shake, which further increased my already rising opinion of her.
The few minutes that followed will be imprinted on my mind until I shuffle off the coil. Margaret laid into her stepdaughter superbly. No doubt the pen is mightier than the sword, but is the tongue mightier than either? There were biblical and Shakespearian asides galore, including something about the unkindest cut of all and I don’t know what else. But the voice was never raised. It was splendid, putting me in mind of a Royal Navy captain of, say, 1770. ‘I’ll see your spine for this, you mutinous dog. Commence punishment.’ Sorry, I’m getting carried away. Almost throughout the harangue, Louise blubbered, hands clasped to her face.
Finally, having reduced her erstwhile tormentor to continuous pathetic snivelling, Margaret turned to me. “I’ll see you out, Mr Potts.”
We went to the front door. “Thank you,” she said. “You have exceeded my expectations. I’m sorry you had to witness the finale.”
“Glad to help,” I said. “Now, you’re entitled to a refund. I’ll account –”
“That won’t be necessary. I’m more than satisfied.”
“As you wish,” I said. “If you don’t mind my asking, what will you do?”
“I am not a vindictive person. Higher forces will see to any retribution. I have done my earthly duty and I doubt that there will be any further trouble from Louise.”
“Mrs T.,” I said, “I had you pegged for a disagreeable old biddy, but I hope I’m big enough to admit my mistakes. You’re okay with me, although I think your vocal chords should have a dangerous weapons’ permit.”
For the first time since we’d met, I got a genuine smile, albeit a little wry. “Mr Potts,” she said, “I am seventy-four years of age and you are much younger. When life has buffeted you for a further thirty or forty years, perhaps you’ll be inclined to accept human foibles without insisting upon instant revenge for everything that others inflict upon you. Good night.”
Maybe it was that large blast of hard booze – I hadn’t had the gall to ask for something less corrosive – but whatever the cause, I drove back home, thinking about the idea of getting on with older women.
* * *