PONDHOPPER : NUMBER FOUR
I was introspecting, my musings being helped by the use of my pipe, though not for its intended purpose – I hadn’t smoked at all for some years. I didn’t like cigarettes. Cigars had some appeal. but took my breath away. That left the pipe, which I’d never been able to keep alight for more than five minutes at a time. Still, it had other uses, one being that it put prospective clients at ease. They seemed to trust a pipe-smoker, so when they arrived, I usually fussed with the old briar. Then there was the autotherapy. Having heard that nasal oil brings out the grain, I’d taken to rubbing the bowl along the sides of my nose, and do you know, it works. Often, having got the wood nice and shiny, I enjoyed looking at the grain in general and the whorls in particular for ages, when longing for clients.
While doing that very thing, and wondering where the money for the next meal was to come from, I noticed that someone had entered my waiting cubicle – I always had trouble in thinking of it as a room. I picked up a pen and a dummy file and was giving my standard demonstration of a man making notes when there was a knock at the office door. “In,” I said briskly, and a man entered. Insofar as there was a normal run of clients, he wasn’t it. About five-ten, probably early forties and dressed to kill – camel-hair overcoat with black velvet lapels, black Homburg hat, white shirt, maroon silk scarf, plain burgundy tie and, under the topcoat, dark-blue trousers, which no doubt accorded with the rest of his garb. “Morning,” I said, motioning him to the visitors’ chairs. “Have a seat.”
He hitched up his pants, sat, crossed his legs and removed the hat, showing me plenty of well-groomed black hair. “Good morning, sir,” he said. “Am I addressing Cyril Potts?” Quaint.
“You are. What can I do for you?”
He cleared his throat. “My name is Timothy Longworth. I’ve had a misfortune.” His speech was, I thought, almost too cultivated. “I’ve been robbed.”
“Of what, Mr Longworth?”
“Stamps, sir. Postage stamps. I’d like you to investigate.”
“Hmn. Well, first things first. Your address please, then the details.”
He lived in a row house in Saint Andrew’s Square, a well regarded spot. He was into stocks and shares and his hobby was philately. The only other occupant of his home was the housekeeper, Miss Muriel Kemp, who had been with his father until the latter’s death, three years earlier. Timothy had kept the lady on. Then we got to the point.
“The stamps, Mr Longworth,” I said. “I don’t know much about the subject. Would you explain?”
“Certainly. My own little collection is of no consequence – a few trifles I’ve picked up since childhood, mainly because of the pretty pictures, you understand.”
“Yes, I see.” I didn’t but agreement about trivia saves time.
“Now,” he said, “when my uncle, Joseph Longworth, died last November, I went up to Ashfield to clear out his possessions. He’d rented a furnished house, so mostly it was just clothing and a modest array personal effects, of no interest to anyone but him. However, I found a dozen stamps. I was surprised, as I had no idea that he’d concerned himself with such things. They were Cape triangulars, over a hundred years old and very valuable.”
“How much are we speaking of?”
“Variable individually, but the whole lot would be worth around sixty thousand dollars.”
“Are they a set, or independent?”
“There’s no great collective increment. Broadly speaking, each has it’s own value.”
“And the disappearance?”
“Pure opportunism, I would say. On the eighteenth of this month, I left for a business trip. As she was not required during my absence, Miss Kemp decided to visit her father in Stagville. She departed shortly before I did and returned several hours after I came back, the following day. When I arrived home, I found the front door unlocked, the safe in my study open and the stamps gone.”
“Only the stamps?”
“Yes. There was nothing else of commercial value.”
“Any evidence of forced entry?”
“No. Both door and safe had been opened conventionally.”
“Does anyone but you know the safe’s combination?”
“As far as I’m aware, it was never known to anyone but my father and myself.”
“Have you tried the police?”
He shook his head. “Mr Potts, I am a reclusive man. I do not wish to invoke the official forces, admirable though they may be.”
After we’d exchanged a few more words, I agreed to act and Longworth left, the understanding being that I would call on him. He seemed to see little point in that, but I assured him that there was nothing to beat starting out at the crime scene.
For me this was new territory. As I’d intimated to Longworth, I knew little about stamps. However, I did know that there was a dealer by the name of Edwin Graves in a neighbouring town. I phoned him and arranged a meeting for that afternoon.
Arriving at three o’clock on the dot, I found that Graves, a tall thin chap of, I guessed, seventy-odd, did his business from home. He seemed vague, as though in a world of his own. I was ushered into into his study, where I explained my mission.
“Cape triangulars,” he mumbled. “There’s a thing. You know, one of the most prominent people in our little firmament reported the theft of twelve of them, only a short time ago. William Birdsall of Chicago. Perhaps you’ve heard the name.”
I confessed my ignorance, but made a mental note that the connection appeared promising. There was nothing more to be got from Graves, so I returned to the office. The next step was routine. It was standard procedure for me to check, as far as possible, everything I heard, especially from clients.
The matter of Longworth’s late uncle seemed worth validating – not that I doubted what my client had said. Well, not really. I didn’t want to wear myself out with a trip to Ashfield, but thought of Stan Hodges, an insurance assessor who lived in the sticks, some way from the place but much closer to it than I was. We’d met about two years earlier and had occasionally swapped legwork and were on the same wavelength in general. I’d have to get him quickly, as the TV promised a repeat of ‘Shane’, and I didn’t want to miss that. As usual, Stan allowed the phone to ring umpteen times before he answered with a weary-sounding “Yeah.”
“Good day, Country Mouse. Greetings from the Great Wen,” I bawled.” Affable.
“Ah, Pondhopper,” he groaned. “Go away. I’m busy.”
“Can it, Marlowe,” I said. “You’re never too pressed to earn five crisp new sawbucks for purely nominal services.”
“Listen, big city man,” he snapped, “For the full century, maybe. For half, I don’t move from this sofa.”
“You don’t have a sofa, jackass,” I said.
“Get metaphorical, can’t you?” was his pained response.
I reckoned that put us about even. “Look,” I said, “I just want you to go over to that hogwallow you call a town and check the records. That can’t be worth a C. Be reasonable.”
“All right, give.”
I told him what I wanted. “Couldn’t you do it by phone,” he whined.
“Probably,” I said, “but this is something I want to see with your own feet.”
“Okay,” he said. “I need some groceries anyway. Stand by the office phone tomorrow, midday. You do still go to the office, I assume.”
“Get to it, tiger,” I said. “I’ll be in situ.”
That was enough for me. I strolled along the block to my local cholesterol emporium, ate something forgettable, then went home and settled down to events in Wyoming, circa 1890. Shortly after Wilson got his comeuppance from Shane, I opted for an early night, wondering why Fletcher in the book turned out to be Ryker in the film. Maybe somebody thought that Ryker sounded nastier. And why did old Rufe have a brother in the film? I didn’t recall one in the book. Things like that troubled me. I topped off the day with a slug of my preferred poison – a fine Amontillado.
At 10.15 the following morning, I called at the Longworth residence. It was as desirable a place as I’d expected, on the west side of an iron-fenced square of immaculate turf, mature trees and, I thought, attractive shrubbery. Like all the others, the house was fronted by a short flight of stone steps leading up to the door and, under the single ground-level window, a basement giving onto a paved area behind black iron railings, matching those around the square’s greenery. A big dark-blue BMW car claimed most of the road outside the house.
I was admitted by the housekeeper, Muriel Kemp. Excluding the odd snippet from films set in Victorian England, I hadn’t seen anything like her. She seemed to be a leftover from way back. A little older than her employer, she was about five-foot-nine and wore a long mid-grey dress buttoned to the throat and black flat-heeled shoes. The dark-brown hair was bunned and there were no baubles on display. Somehow, I sensed that there was more to this woman than met the eye.
I joined Longworth in his study, revisited the ground we’d already covered, then made a decision. “I think it might be helpful if you bring in Mrs Danvers,” I said.
“Who? Do you mean Miss Kemp?”
“Yes, sorry,” I corrected, thinking that maybe I shouldn’t have read so many novels.
He summoned her and we went through the details. The story was plausible enough. On the morning in question, Longworth had flown to Boston to meet his stockbroker. He had left at nine a.m. Freed from her duties, Muriel Kemp had departed at noon, to visit her father. She was sure she had left both front and back doors locked and the windows closed. There was no alarm system. Longworth had returned the following afternoon, to find the position he’d already described. Muriel Kemp got back that evening. Neither had anything to add.
I went back to the office and waited for news from Stan Hodges. He phoned at noon as promised. “Negative,” he said. “Nobody named Longworth in the Ashfield area died in November, or a month either side.”
So much for my client’s credibility. “You’re wonderful,” I said. Your loot’s in transit and may the Sun never set upon your caravanserai.”
“May your camels produce much dung.” he answered. “Now scram.”
I didn’t fancy a major outing, but it seemed clear that I would need to go to Chicago. I phoned the stamp dealer, William Birdsall, who agreed to meet me the following afternoon.
The philatelic Mecca was a small narrow-fronted place, sandwiched between a tobacconist and a health food store – a nice irony, I thought – in a short alley. The only thing that marked my man’s premises as a little different from the neighbouring ones was a metal grille covering his window and interfering with a clear view of what was on offer.
Birdsall was an elderly chap – were all people in this business of similar vintage, I wondered. He was short and stout, with tufts of white hair over his ears, bracketing an otherwise bare pink scalp. Having already explained my task, I needed only to go into the circumstances of his loss.
“Very distressing, Mr Potts,” he said. “And it came just after the exhibition.”
“Yes. We had one here shortly before the incident. I put up some of my prize items, including the missing ones.” He went on to tell me how dealers far and wide had shown their wares. With such easily portable merchandise involved, security had been tight. I asked whether he’d noticed anything out of the ordinary. One thing had struck him as odd. “There was a man who stayed at my display for a while,” he said. “He even took photos of some of my exhibits. When I spoke with my colleagues afterwards, it emerged that he’d done the same at their stands, so we didn’t think it too significant. The general feeling was that he was probably a journalist. Stamps are big business, you know.”
I quizzed him about his setback, which had occurred less than a week after the show. A man who looked like the one who’d photographed Birdsall’s layout had visited the shop. He was slightly over medium height, probably forty-odd, with black hair and wearing a light-brown topcoat with dark lapels. He’d been carrying a document case and had expressed a particular interest in the Cape triangulars. He was looking at them when a woman came in. She was tall – about five-nine – slim and dressed in what Birdsall described as an old-fashioned way.
Within a minute of her appearance, the woman had clapped a hand to her head and fallen to the floor. Birdsall had rushed to help, while the male visitor had seemed to be overcome with shock and apart from waving his arms was immobile. The woman had recovered quickly, saying that she was dependent upon tablets for her wellbeing. She lived nearby and could get back home in time to take her medication. She’d hurried off. The man had dithered for a moment, then excused himself, saying that the incident had disturbed him. He promised to return later.
Birdsall had been about to put his stamps back in place, when he’d noticed that things didn’t look quite right. He’d realised that the specimens he was looking at were not those he had shown to the man. They were triangulars all right, but ordinary things, of little worth. Dashing out, he had glimpsed the supposedly disorientated man running to the end of the alley, where he’d dived into a large dark car – German, Birdsall thought – which had shot away with a woman at the wheel. By the time old William had scuttled to the main road, the vehicle had disappeared. That was all.
I shook my head. “It was a switch job, Mr Birdsall,” I said. “Not the first and most likely not the last. Obviously your man had the cheap items in his case. That’s why he took the photos at your exhibition. You were the target all along and his stops at the other stands were window-dressing. He did the swap while the woman distracted you. I assume you’re insured?”
“Of course, but the premiums are horrendous, and after this they’ll be even higher. I’ve offered a reward, for what it’s worth.”
“Two thousand, five hundred dollars. That’s the most I can manage at present.”
“I see. Now, don’t these things have a history, like paintings?”
“You mean a provenance.”
He flapped his arms. “Some do, but there’s what one might call a grey market. These stamps could disappear, then re-emerge with few questions asked. That couldn’t happen with the rarest items, but we’re speaking of middle-range ones. They’re perfect for the sophisticated thief.”
I left Birdsall and returned home, immediately phoning the Longworth residence, to learn from Miss Kemp that the master was once more on his travels. He was expected back late that evening. I arranged to call on Muriel, insisting on a meeting within an hour. I had a hunch that seeing her without Longworth present might get me somewhere.
After ringing off, I dawdled, my idea being to let la Kemp stew for a while. When I called at the house, she was still wearing the same dress and shoes as before. She looked shaken, which suggested that my timing was probably right. We sat together in the living room and I gave her my penetrating gaze. “Look, Miss Kemp,” I said, “or may I call you Marilyn?”
“If you wish,” she said, “but my name is Muriel.”
“Ah, yes,” I said. “Forgive me. I’ve covered a lot of ground.” Not being sure how to go on, I gave her some more of my hard stare, steepling my fingers and breathing deeply, like a man about to make a grave pronouncement. What I said was: “I’ve been to see Birdsall in Chicago. He told me everything.”
We sat there for a long tense moment, looking at one another, and I’ll always regard my decision to pause at that point as one of the high spots of my career. Suddenly, Muriel’s composure collapsed. She dropped her head into her hands and started crying, great heaving sobs. I stepped over and put an arm around those thin shoulders. “Steady now,” I said. “Just talk.”
She dabbed her eyes. “I shouldn’t have involved myself,” she said. “You know, don’t you? I see it in your face. Women sense these things.”
I went back to my chair and smiled sagely, trying to give the impression that I was all clued up as to what she was about to say. “Tell it in your own words,” I said. “It’s better that way, and it will clear your mind.”
She sniffed. “Timothy and I were lovers,” she said. “Oh, don’t be surprised. I’ve been with the Longworth family for many years and there was time when I was, well, perhaps more attractive than you see me now.”
“Attractiveness comes from within, Mar . . . Muriel,” I said. “You have it and you can’t conceal it. Go on.”
“Timothy never had his father’s financial competence. He is devious, but has no genuine business acumen. He made a mess of his portfolio and was close to ruin when he had this idea about stealing the stamps. He needed me as an accomplice. He’d already mortgaged the house to the hilt and he had other debts, some of them to people who aren’t too scrupulous as to how they collect. Selling up would not have solved his problems. He said that disposing of the stamps would settle matters. Incidentally, there was no uncle in Ashfield, but I imagine you’re aware of that.”
“Of course,” I said. “I’m a professional.” Good work, Potts. “Still, there’s a few loose ends, one being Timothy’s reason for bringing in the uncle anyway.”
“It was a notion he had when the stamps disappeared and he decided to engage you. He was desperate and got lost in a morass of confusion. Frankly, I believe he entered a fantasy world where he thought you would recover his stamps and all would be well. By the way, did he tell you that he retained me after his father died?”
“Yes. That was when I got the feeling about the two of you,” I lied.
“You were right. I stayed on without pay because I hoped that Timothy and I might rekindle what we’d once experienced together. He has some knowledge of philately and knew about the upcoming exhibition in Chicago. His suggestion was that we should use my savings as temporary capital, abscond and sell the stamps. We were to invent new identities – he said he knew how – and make a fresh start, using my money and the proceeds of the sale. That way, he would escape from his debts and we would have begun with over eighty thousand dollars, instead of just my funds. Like a fool, I went along with him, blinding myself to the complications. You could say that he was a Svengali and I was his Trilby.”
“I suspected as much. So, you agreed. What next?”
“Obviously you know that I was Timothy’s assistant and his chauffeur in Chicago. A few days after the incident there, I set out to do our normal household purchases, but forgot the shopping list. I’d never done that before. I don’t know whether that was because of my agitated condition, or just fate. I came back about ten minutes later. Timothy hadn’t expected me to return for some time. He was in his study and the door was ajar. I overheard him talking on the phone. I know he was speaking to a woman because he mentioned her name, Ellen, several times. From what I heard, it was clear that he intended to desert me at the first opportunity and go off with her. He even had a wicked scheme for depriving me of my savings.”
Maybe a fellow should be hard-boiled in such a situation, but I just couldn’t help sympathising with this forlorn woman. I went over to her again, patting her on the back, then resumed my seat. “It’s a familiar story,” I said. It was nothing of the sort, at least not to me. “Carry on.”
“There isn’t much more. Timothy doesn’t know that I have the combination of the safe. His father wrote it down while the installer was here, and left it on the desk in the study. I made a mental note of it while cleaning. I know that was a breach of trust, but I have a retentive memory. When I heard Timothy’s conversation with that woman, I took the first chance I got to remove the stamps, with no thought of what to do with them, save to frustrate his plan. You know the rest.”
I nodded, wisdom personified. “Where are the goods now?”
“Wait a moment.” She left, coming back a minute later with a shopping bag. “Take the dreadful things,” she blubbered. “Do what you like with me now. I don’t care any more.”
I rose to the occasion. “You’ve been foolish,” I said, “but also ill-used. Overall, I’m inclined to the view that you’ve paid in misery for what you bought by indiscretion. Now, when is Longworth due back?”
“Any minute now,” she said.
I managed the first genuine smile since our conversation had started. “All is not lost, Mar . . . Muriel. I need to use your phone.”
I called Birdsall in Chicago, telling him that I had the stamps. “Marvellous,” he chirruped. “What now?”
“It’s in your court,” I said. “Either we pursue the case through conventional channels, or I give you the items and you pay me the reward.”
“What happens if we press the matter officially.”
“Then the stamps will impounded as evidence.”
“For how long?”
“Till the end of time,” I said. Humour with gravitas.
We agreed that I would return the goodies to Birdsall and collect the reward. I rejoined Muriel, giving her the good news and establishing that most of her savings were still intact, in her name, and that she could stay with her father for a while.
The timing was perfect. No sooner had we got things sorted out than Longworth arrived. I belaboured him with my all-time record of verbal abuse. When I was through with him, he was an abject, whimpering wreck.
Leaving the broken reed, I escorted Muriel to her car. As we parted, she gave me a tearful look. “I realise now that the idea of trying to fool an expert was ridiculous,” she wailed, “but however did you work it out?”
“I didn’t. I told you only that I’d seen Birdsall and that he’d passed on to me all he knew, which was inconclusive. You gave me the rest.”
“Oh, my goodness,” she said.
* * *