PONDHOPPER : NUMBER FOURTEEN
A magazine article I read some time ago stated that if all the gold ever produced were to be brought to one place, melted down and squared off, it would form a cube with sides of only sixty feet. I found that amazing. Of course, a solid base would be needed for a chunk of that size, as it would weigh about116,000 tons.
I’d never thought much about this subject until my involvement in the recovery of Horsehead Mulrooney’s coins, in a little matter I’d settled shortly before the one I have in mind now. As a result of the escapade concerning Horsey’s treasure, I’d been considering the lure of gold. I’d had plenty of time – no further business since the Mulrooney affair. I wasn’t worried about that, as I’d got my fees and, by conduct less pure than the driven snow, a big one from the crime boss. He left us some time ago, so I can say what I like.
It had struck me that there was something perverse about this matter of gold. I mean, doesn’t it seem strange that people expend a prodigious amount of effort grovelling in large holes in the ground to extract the stuff, then reconsign over half of it to other subterranean caverns in the world’s banks? An alien observer would surely wonder about this. I mean, in most fields, such activity might be regarded as boondoggling. I’d pondered on. For goodness sake, if this metal is as versatile as so often claimed, why isn’t it all put to better use?
I’m inclined to agree with the comment of, if I remember rightly, John Maynard Keynes, to the effect that as currency, gold is a barbarous relic. I’d rather invest in a society that keeps its books properly. I have the same attitude toward other so-called precious items, and wouldn’t give a dud penny for the world’s supply of diamonds, unless I could dispose of them instantly. I’d take a modest payoff; just enough to let me retire and spend the rest of my life fooling myself by thinking I was doing something useful. I may be on a wavelength of my own in this matter, since I don’t like acquisitions in general. Sorry to go on, but I just thought you might like to know what I think about these things. Anyway, all this has nothing to do with what follows here. It merely gives an indication of what flows through the mind of a detective when he’s not detecting.
My cogitation on the subject of gold was interrupted on a Monday afternoon, when a woman burst into my office. How do I describe her, having said earlier that I’m not good at this? I saw five-four, a stocky one-thirty or so, a black two-piece costume, white blouse and black shoes with medium heels. The dark-brown hair was shortish, straight and parted in the middle. As to age, I guessed about thirty. But it was the face that caught my attention, and I hope this shows you what an upstanding fellow I am. The mouth sagged open and there was something about the eyes; an odd, somewhat loopy look. Offhand, I couldn’t work out whether the expression arose from desperation or some other form of excitement. If you saw the film ‘The Big Bus’, you may recall the splendid performance by a lady called Stockard Channing, who played the engineer responsible for the nuclear-powered vehicle. The way she maintained that nutty appearance was, in my humble opinion, a tour de force. I was looking at something similar.
The woman’s breathing was shallow and fast. She didn’t wait for an invitation, but parked herself on one of my visitors’ chairs. “You must help me,” she gasped.
“Yes. They’re after me.”
“Are they indeed?”
“Yes. Both of them.”
“I see. And who are they?”
“My father and that dreadful woman he’s married to.”
“No, his second wife. My mother is dead.”
It began to make sense. The old step-parent syndrome. “Calm yourself, Ms . . .?”
“Bennett. Laura Bennett.”
I didn’t much like the ‘Laura’ bit, as I’d once had a case featuring a femme fatale of that name, who caused no end of trouble. However, a case was a case. “Right,” I said. Now, you’re safe here. What’s the problem?”
“They want the Carter Stone,” she panted.
My mind went into free-wheel. The Carter Stone! Could this be anything to do with Howard Carter and the tomb of Tutankhamen? “I haven’t heard of the object Ms Bennett” I said. “You’d better explain.”
“Please call me Laura,” she said. “It’s an old family matter. The Carter Stone is an heirloom. The story goes back to England, four generations ago. I don’t know what’s become of the stone, but they think I have it and they’re prepared to kill me to get their hands on it.”
She still had that strange look. The soothing approach seemed best. “Laura,” I said, “and by the way, I’m Cyril, this is twentieth-century America, not mid-Victorian Britain. Take your time, collect your thoughts and tell me all.”
“But what about your fees?” she said. “I don’t know if I can afford to pay.”
“Never mind that. I’m flexible. Just give me the details.”
She clenched her hands. “The Carter Stone was in the family for decades, Cyril. Legend has it that the inscription engraved on it leads to the place where my great-grandfather buried his money. It’s somewhere in Cornwall. You sound like an Englishman, but you say you haven’t heard of it.”
“No,” I said. “It means nothing to me. Go on.”
She shivered, looking around. “I saw it just once, years ago. It’s a thin slab – sandstone, I think – about ten inches by eight. There are some words and marks on it, but they never meant anything to my grandparents or my parents. When my mother died, eighteen months ago, we moved house. Somehow, the stone disappeared. My father remarried soon afterwards. He’d been having an affair with Janet – that’s my stepmother – for years. He’s always hated me because I’m the only child and he wanted a boy. He thinks I hid the stone.”
“And you didn’t?”
“No. It simply vanished. I’ve no idea how or where it went.”
I gave her the wise nod. “All right, Laura. Now, do you live locally?”
That foxed her for a moment, then: “No, I just got here today. I’m from . . . Cincinnati.”
“I see,” I said. That’s interesting. I lived there for a while when I first came to the States. I had an apartment on Wesley Street, close to where all those insurance companies have their offices.”
“I was right next to the old college building. They were about to demolish it and put a supermarket in its place. I guess they’ve done that by now?”
“A supermarket,” she said. “Yes, they have.”
“Okay, Laura. So these people are hunting you. What do you want me to do?”
“I . . . I really don’t know. Just stop them.”
“All right,” I said. “Now, where are you staying?”
“Nowhere as yet. I thought you could recommend something. Not too expensive. I can’t pay very much.”
My mind flicked through the possibilities. “Yes,” I said, “I think I can. You could try Hanford’s, on Greek Street. Not pretentious, but quiet and respectable. You might tell them that I’ll be dropping in. Saves complications.”
I knew what Hanford’s charged and told her. She was delighted. I phoned the hotel and booked her in, then we swatted our problem around, concluding that she would call me if necessary, and would otherwise go about her apparently non-existent business. I would snoop, homing in on anyone pursuing her.
Laura departed, leaving me to think. The first point I considered was our talk about Cincinnati. I’d never been to the place and still haven’t. My interjection had been pure inspiration, and in retrospect I was quite proud of it. However, I didn’t know whether the city had a Wesley Street or whether, if there was such a place, it might be occupied largely by insurance companies. Then I thought about my ridiculous long-shot concerning the existence of an old college, recently demolished to make way for a supermarket. Why had she gone along with that?
Next, I considered my fees. I’d finally got around to mentioning them and she hadn’t said anything in reply. That was abnormal. Usually, prospective clients fastened onto the point, no matter how difficult their circumstances were. If they didn’t, it meant either that money was no object or they didn’t intend to pay. Laura Bennett had indicated that she wasn’t in the first category. So, whatever her other attributes, she was an incompetent liar and probably wouldn’t cough up. What was her game?
I wasn’t too churned up about this because as I’ve said I’d nothing else on and was doing well moneywise. I’d agreed to start my surveillance at seven that evening. Laura was vague about her likely movements, saying she would decide them as she went along, but certainly wouldn’t go out until the following day.
Having heard nothing further from my strange client, I attacked a pizza which had more topping than Carmen Miranda’s hat, then drove to Hanford’s hotel. I was pleased about my speed of thought in recommending the place. Though I hadn’t been fully conscious of what had gone through my mind earlier, I had remembered that there was usually plenty of parking space in Greek Street. That always helps. On the debit side, I had no contacts on the staff at Hanford’s.
It was a welcome change to start an evening’s work without having to think about food. One of the pains of a private eye’s life is the irregularity of eating. That was often a problem for me, as I was – and am – very big on bowels. Good movements in the morning set a man up for the day is my motto. I know I’ve indicated elsewhere that I often patronised the local greasy spoon place, and realise that doesn’t quite square with what I’ve just said, but I had my methods. Well, all right, if you want to press the point, the secret is two tablespoonfuls of oat bran with the main meal, plus lots of drinking water every day. Okay?
Unless she’d got up to something sneaky, like slipping out at the rear, Laura had kept her word by spending the evening indoors. At eleven o’clock I called it a day.
Just before nine the following morning, I was in position again, passably bright and breezy. I say passably because I had a cold, which doesn’t help the concentration. I often wonder about the snoopers I read about in novels. No matter how long their cases last, or how many they have in quick succession, they’re never indisposed by the things which affect most of us – sniffles, headaches, gut-gripes and so on – or if they have such afflictions, they don’t mention them, despite having total recall in other respects. Doesn’t that seem a little odd? Maybe these people are impervious to discomfort. What the hell, who cares about a couple of slugs in the chest, or an arm torn off? Please forgive the rambling.
Apart from the boredom element, following Laura was easy. She finally appeared at 11.30, taking a taxi which she must have ordered. I’ve mentioned that I was not a keen observer, much less a critic, of sartorial matters, but I noted that my client was wearing the same outfit as when she’d visited me. I put that together with the fact that she hadn’t had a car or a taxi when she’d called, nor had she been carrying any luggage. That might have meant nothing, but it’s the sort of detail a PI files away. She went to the central library, staying there for nearly three hours. At 2.35 she emerged, looking around nervously. Within a minute, she flagged down a taxi, which took her back to Hanford’s, yours truly following.
I hung around, watching the hotel entrance, thinking about that sixty-foot-a-side cube of gold – and grabbing a gargantuan turkey sandwich from an eatery over the road. Laura didn’t come out again. So that was it for the day – except for the fact that a dark-blue Chevrolet, which I’d noted tagging along earlier, both ways, was parked in the street when I started for home. It was unoccupied then, but earlier had been carrying a man and a woman.
I was on duty again at nine the following morning. Let me not weary you with the details of Laura’s movements. They were different from the previous day, but equally ordinary. She wore the same clothes as before and got back to the hotel at 3.30 in the afternoon. The blue car, still with the same couple in it, had followed us again, finally parking about thirty yards from my spot. The man and woman, both middle-aged, got out and went into the hotel. This seemed like time for a move. I entered Hanford’s, telling the lass at reception that Ms Bennett was expecting me. I’d been prepared for some recalcitrance, but there was none. Laura had apparently followed my suggestion to tip off the staff, so I was directed to her room.
Hanford’s was not built like a medieval castle. The outer walls were solid enough and the public areas were well-carpeted, but the interior partitioning was flimsy. Even though Laura’s door was closed, I could hear raised voices from within. Legally, my position may have been questionable, but there are times when one must go into manual override. It seemed to me that matters inside had reached a critical point, so I opened the door and stepped in, realising, not for the first time in my career, that I was approaching a possible denouement unarmed.
“What goes on here?” I shouted – and to be quite truthful, my voice quavered a little, though I didn’t think an explanation of my presence was really necessary. Laura stood, clasping her hands and looking distressed. The two people from the Chevrolet faced her. The man, who wore a charcoal suit, white shirt and navy-blue tie with thin silver stripes – I didn’t notice his shoes – was around five-ten and heavily-built. He had close-cropped, greying hair and a trim grey moustache, both contrasting sharply with the angry red of his face. He was one of those men who even when standing still radiate balled-up energy, as though about to explode. The woman was tall – nearly the same height as the man – slim and totem-pole straight. Statuesque was the word that came to mind. She had short, jet-black hair and a pale face and wore a sheeny light-green three-piece outfit. She looked ice-cool.
The man swung my way. “Who are you?” he snapped.
“My name is Potts,” I said, “I’m a private investigator and Ms Bennett is my client. Now, I’d –”
“Hold it, everybody!” The bellowed interruption came from right behind me and the voice sounded familiar. I turned, taking in a flock of new arrivals. I recognised the owner of the voice as Detective Corcoran of the local police department. In the normal run of business I had little to do with the official force and was probably tolerated as a spot of mildly exotic colour. Corcoran was one of the half-dozen or so officers known to me. Behind him was a tall thin glum-looking character and to the rear him were two shorter bulkier lads who somehow made me think of security guards, or something similar. Maybe I should have sold tickets. Discreet, hah.
Corcoran gave me the briefest of nods, neither friendly nor hostile, then motioned me to step further back into the room. He followed, as did the lofty character. The muscles stayed put. “All right,” Corcoran said, “I think it’s time we divvied up a little information here. You first, Potts. How do you fit in?”
I extended an arm towards Laura. “Ms Bennett here engaged me to protect her against harassment from her father and stepmother – I assume the lady and gentleman here qualify. That’s what I was trying to do when you arrived.”
I wouldn’t have thought it possible for the florid fellow to have got any redder in the face than he already had been, but he confounded me with what looked like a fit of apoplexy. Sometimes words fail his kind. After almost choking for a moment, he waved a hand at the tall undertaker-type. “You tell it,” he snapped. “God knows you’re getting paid enough.”
Mr Solemn inclined his head in a gesture of suave deference, which must have taken some practice. “Very well.” He faced me. “Mr Potts, you are evidently not in possession of all the facts here. I am Stanley Morton, of the Morton Institute. You may have heard of us.”
I certainly had. He was speaking of the most prestigious private mental home in the state. I nodded. “This young lady” – he waved at Laura – “was committed to my care two years ago, following a car crash, in which she received head injuries. At the time of the accident, she had just finished reading a novel. The theme was the loss of an object called the Carter Stone, which supposedly indicated the location of certain valuables. The heroine of the book was one Laura Bennett. She was being hounded by her father and stepmother, who were convinced she had the stone. Unfortunately, the injuries disturbed the mind of the lady here – again he wafted a hand at my client – causing her to be convinced that she was this Laura Bennett. It is a most inter . . . distressing case.”
“I see,” I said. “So who is she really, then?”
“Her name is Elaine Buxton. She is the natural child of the couple here. The gentleman is Claude Buxton, of Buxton Electrical Industries. The lady is his wife, Susan. I regret to say that Elaine eluded our security.”
“Leaks like a damned sieve,” snarled Buxton.
Morton ignored that. “I contacted the police and Mr and Mrs Buxton pursued their own course of enquiry. It’s all ended here.”
Corcoran reassumed control. “Okay,” he said, “now everybody knows what’s what. Mr Morton, if you’d care to take charge of Miss Buxton, we can all leave. We may need to talk again, but I know where to contact all of you.”
Morton’s men in white coats, without the white coats – discretion guaranteed – hustled out Elaine, who now looked even odder in the eyes than when she’d called on me. As we left, Buxton and I were in the rear. Suddenly, he clamped a meaty hand on my left elbow. “Listen,” he grunted, “I want you to know that neither you nor this hotel will get a cent from me. This loony is costing us more than enough. And in case you’re wondering, she has no funds of her own.”
Somehow I didn’t fancy being Buxton’s daughter, or his anything. I’d taken a strong dislike to the man even before he started mauling me, so gave him my best steely glare. “Buxton,” I said, pointing at his offending paw, “if you don’t take that thing off me, I’ll feed it to you, right up to the armpit.” I imagined no-one had ever talked to him that way. He let go and jumped away in a manner I found gratifying.
That was how it ended. I’d lost out on two days of fees. But I was still in feel-good mode from coming out so far ahead in the adventure with old Mulrooney. My little ruse in that case began to look like foresight. Or was it more a matter of true justice? After all, I’d won one by deception, then promptly lost the next by being the victim of the same thing.
I went back to the office and thought about that cube of gold.
* * *