PONDHOPPER : NUMBER TWENTY
I was, as it is sometimes put, tired and overwrought, face down in the gutter and highly intoxicated – at not quite nine-thirty p.m. How that embarrassing situation came about is a matter that requires some explaining.
I’d set out that morning with no thought of an impending cataclysm, and had strolled into the office to face another day’s work, or rather to hope for it, as I didn’t have a case in progress. Not that the prospect of temporary professional idleness bothered me unduly. Over any reasonable period – say, three months on a running basis – I usually hauled in enough income to keep me going, though more often than not it was a close call. When I had no client, I occupied myself in my own unremunerative but demanding way. At the time, I was into languages. It was all very well, I thought, that English was spanning the globe, though I’d have been quite happy with a resurrection of Latin, or whatever – anything that lets us communicate.
During my stint in the RAF I’d acquired passable German, largely because I was in the police branch of the service and needed to liaise with the civilian authorities in North Rhine-Westphalia. I was wondering what next. Spanish looked like a good candidate. Perhaps it would be as well to grapple with something more taxing at the same time. I considered Chinese. There must be a case for ideographs. After all, they’ve served their users for many centuries and don’t seem to be an obstacle to advancement. Yes, I thought, let’s make it Spanish and Mandarin. Here, you might like to know that I made some progress with the former and am about to tackle the latter any year now. Well, there’s a limit to what any of us can achieve in one lifetime. We all have to deal with the trifling matter of getting by, don’t we?
My cranial gymnastics were interrupted by the phone. I’d begun to think that I’d done enough for one day, but a glance at the wall clock showed that it was 10.20. Having arrived at 9.35, I hadn’t yet given full measure.
I tried to get in my usual introductory spiel, but had barely started when I was interrupted. “Barney Shadbolt here.” It was a booming voice, suggesting that I should know something about the speaker.
“Excellent,” I said.
“What do you mean, excellent?”
“Well, it’s always nice to hear from someone who knows who he is in this confusing world.”
This brought a little harrumphing at the other end, then: “You talk funny.”
“No,” I snapped. “It’s most of the other people in this country who do that. I’m all right. As it happens, I was just thinking about language, but I’ll put that on hold if you have business in mind.” Okay, I was feeling baulky. I knew my telephonic skills needed a little work, but didn’t think this was the right moment.
My man huffed. “Fine. I’m Shadbolt, you’re Potts, right?”
“Yes. We’re shoulder to shoulder here. Not a glimmer of daylight between us. We really shouldn’t have to piece it together like this, but now that we’ve been properly introduced, who are you – apart from being Barney Shadbolt?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“How many more ways can I say it?”
“All right. No need to labour the point. Now, you’re maybe the second-best sleuth in this city, so I guess it’s time for you to get acquainted with your only superior. I run the XL Agency. Am I getting through?”
I’d heard good things about XL – the oldest outfit in town – but didn’t know that this man was in charge there. Maybe a little deference was in order, but I couldn’t quite manage it. “I’m with you,” I said. “You’re Barney Shadbolt, you run XL and you think you’re number one. I acknowledge no betters, but would you be so kind as to get to the point, assuming you have one?”
He laughed. “Pretty fair line of patter for an upstart, and a British one at that, if I’m any judge.” I liked the implication that he’d divined my background from a few words, when he’d probably known the score before calling. “Now, I bring you nothing but good news. I had a man in this morning, probably before you got out of the feathers” – ooh, that hurt – “and I’m too busy to handle his problem. I sent him along to you, and I hope you’ll remember that when you rake in the shekels.”
We exchanged a few more pleasantries which I don’t remember verbatim, the upshot being that I was to bate my breath and await a possible customer.
The man arrived twenty minutes after Shadbolt and I had diverted ourselves. Ignoring my admittedly ignorable waiting room, he entered the office. He was, I guessed, sixty-odd, about five-seven, with longish wispy white hair, a crumpled mid-brown suit, light-blue shirt, plain-front laced black shoes that hadn’t seen polish for some time and the sort of loud tie that some men of his vintage buy when they’re too shy to get a plaid shirt and too poor to acquire a red sports car. He was lugging a big brown-paper bag. The lined face wore a nervous look. I was pleased to note that he didn’t cast a disparaging eye over my layout. “You’re Potts?” he said.
I waved him to a chair. “Correct. I’ve been expecting you, if you’re from Shadbolt.”
“I am. “They couldn’t cope at XL and said you’re the next-best.”
That didn’t amuse me. “Okay. I’m just above bottom of the barrel. Thank you for the boost to my self-esteem.”
“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I guess that came out wrong, but when you know what’s on my mind, you’ll understand. I have worries.”
I gave him the mini-nod. “Could be my province. Who are you?”
He muttered something about Monday night.
“Monday night?” I said, noting that this was a Wednesday morning and thinking that some patience might be required. “No. It’s your name I’m after.”
“That’s it. Mundy Knight.” He spelled it out. “Don’t bother with the cracks. I’ve heard them all. Some sense of humour my parents had.”
I sensed that as far as conversation was concerned we were getting out of the urban thicket and approaching the open road. Knight’s voice had the cracked edge that denotes severe stress. It was a little early, but I reckoned a drink would do no harm. Anyway, I’d be eating in a couple of hours, so we could call it a sort of aperitif. I took the sherry bottle and glasses from a desk drawer, poured two generous snorts and handed one to him. “Now, calm down.” I said. “You’re safe here. Have a nip and tell me all.”
While I was showing admirable restraint in toying with my glass, he knocked back his dose at one gulp. That seemed to indicate a refill, so I obliged, not without thought of the cost – the stuff from my preferred bodega wasn’t cheap. He took another belt, which seemed to settle him. Sighing, he delved into his bag, pulled out an oblong wooden box and shoved it across the desk. “Open that and you’ll see what it’s all about.”
I lifted the lid and saw an array of rectangular slabs of metal, intricately patterned. “Hmn,” I said, assuming my intense gaze. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but these seem to be plates for twenty-dollar and fifty-dollar bills.”
“Right,” he said. “They’re probably the best ever and they’re my work.”
“Okay. You seem to be in a position to make your own money. How do I come in?”
He showed me splayed hands. “Look, I’m an engraver by trade. I made these purely out of interest. I’d no thought of anything illegal. It was just a challenge. Then I happened to mention it at a little get-together of people in my business. Next thing I knew, Barton Stokes was leaning on me.”
I shook my head. “Barton Stokes?”
“You mean you don’t know him?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Are you going to start now?”
“Never mind,” I grunted. “It’s just that I’ve already been through this ‘don’t you know’ thing today. Tell me about Stokes.”
“Well, I’m surprised you haven’t heard of him. He’s a big operator on the wrong side, around Hanbury, which is where I live. To keep it short, he wants my plates and he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to get them. Like I said, I did this for amusement. Now I have heavies on my back. I don’t know what to do.”
“What about the police?” I said, knowing the answer in advance.
His eyebrows went up half an inch. “You can’t be serious. Imagine what they’d say to a man who produced this stuff. I’d never be able to convince them that it was no more than an artistic effort.”
“So,” I said, “we’re getting to the point. You can’t talk to the authorities, but you don’t fancy Stokes’ ideas of persuasion.”
He shuddered. “That’s it. Now, what can you do?”
This was a new one to me, but I prided myself that I wasn’t too disconcerted. “I can do plenty, Mr Knight. But there’s the question of my fees” – I hated that bit as much as ever.
He waved a hand. Don’t worry. I’m good for any costs. Just get me out of this.”
“All right,” I said. “I can see how money would be no problem to you if you can print it.” I hadn’t been wasting time as we’d talked. An idea was forming in my mind. “Okay, I’ll take the job. Now, have you booked in anywhere here?”
“Yes,” he said. “I have a room at the Parkway. Will that do?”
His choice was good; expensive but strong on security. “It’s fine,” I said. “Now, you’d better tell me how I contact this Stokes fellow, then leave the plates here and get back to your den. Stay put until you hear from me.”
He left and I pondered. It wasn’t too difficult. I knew little of these murky matters, but recalled that my old sparring partner Stan Hodges had, before he became an insurance investigator, spent some years with the police, mostly dealing with embezzlement, fraud and associated matters. He was sure to know something. I mentioned elsewhere in these tales that we’d been able to economise on effort now and then by exchanging tiresome errands. Time for a call – and for a little badinage with Stan, who lived in the boondocks well north of me and as it happened, not far from my client’s home town. Stan was as near to a hermit as a man can be, if he wants to make a conventional living.
The phone rang at least a dozen times, which was about par for the man, who’d probably been within hand-reach of the instrument. “Yeah?”
“Top of the morning to you, Diogenes,” I said. “I bring you greetings from the urban slime.”
“Ah, you must have the wrong number. My name is Franklin Loadacrap. I have no city friends.”
“My apologies, Mr Loadacrap,” I said. “I’m Ben Wrongroad. I didn’t know that the residents of Nowhereville were quite so reclusive. Now, could we stow the taradiddle and get to business?”
“What do you want, town-man?”
I gave him the details and begged for his help.
He groaned. “Oh, not another engraving job?”
“You mean they’re common?”
“About one a month, last I heard. Look, I’m not quite up to date, but I do have a contact who’s into these things. Can you run up here?”
“Right away,” I said. “This is life and death.”
“There’ll be a charge,” he said darkly.
“When isn’t there? I’ll be with you in a trice. No, better make it a thrice.”
When necessary, I could bustle around as well as the next man. Having metaphorically donned the deerstalker, I went along the block to my local grease galley for an early lunch. I continued to patronise the place despite having reservations about its gunge-laden offerings. It was closed for a time, owing to an allegedly roachy kitchen – a development which had surprised me, as the authorities didn’t seem to have paid much attention to the menu, which was undoubtedly far more lethal than any ancillary items conveyed inadvertently to the customers.
I got the car tanked up and, fully fuelled in both senses, covered a lot of miles at a speed I’d rather not record. Well, I was excited.
Maison Hodges – a bachelor pad – had the appearance of a homesteader’s soddy, but was in fact a strange combination of what seemed like rudimentary construction and high technology.
To my relief, Stan had got the ball rolling at his end and was ready to move. We drove off in convoy and were in his local metropolis in well under an hour. We wound our way through a warren of back streets, not exactly characteristic of straight-line America, but there you are. We stopped outside what, as an Englishman, I can only describe as a mews flat – sorry, apartment – in an understatedly classy area. I can’t think of any better way to put it, so I hope you know what I mean. It was – right down to the cobblestones – the sort of spot where James Bond would have pulled up in that Aston Martin.
Stan had told me that the man we were about to see was a wizard in his field and a consultant to all and sundry. To me, that always sounds like a firm of English solicitors. Hall & Sundry. No? Well, it was worth a try.
We were greeted by a short slim black-bearded fellow of about forty. He affected to resent our intrusion, though his gruffness was, I felt, mostly top-show. He demanded the plates, asking us to sit in the tiny living room while he went off to his laboratory. I’d hoped he might offer drinks, but that wasn’t to be.
Having expended our conversational harpoons, Stan and I chatted almost sensibly for half an hour, then Blackbeard returned, handing the plates to me. “Is this some kind of prank?” he growled.
“Prank?” I answered. “No. Certainly not. My client is very agitated. What’s the verdict?”
“They’re garbage. I never saw the like. Your man must be either deluded or downright stupid.”
“I see,” I said, holding up the plates. “Would you like to add these to your collection when I’m through with them?”
He sniggered. “They’re not worth confiscating. Too bad even to exhibit as failures – and anyway, I have enough duds.”
So that was that. I ate humble pie and retreated to my fastness, amazed to note that after all that activity, I was back in the office by seven o’clock. Still time for more action before an evening in search of old films on TV. I weighed up my options. First things first, I thought, so I went to my spoonery, attacked a mixed grill with more gusto than it deserved – another hitch in my conversion to vegetarianism – then returned to base. I dialled the number Knight had given me for Barton Stokes, steeling myself to speak with the Prince of Darkness.
I got straight through to the man, told him who I was and what it was all about, emphasising that Mundy Knight was under my protection and that his engravings were worthless. In a burst of bravado, I mentioned my experiences with Jack Lanigan and Horsehead Mulrooney, concluding with the tentative shot that Stokes was in the major league here and that if he laid a finger on my client, he’d be sorry.
His reaction was, I confess, disappointing. He actually guffawed – the cheek of it. “You know what, Potts? You remind me of a little orange squeezer I have here.”
“You make a lot of noise and you’re low-powered.”
Had I been on top form, I’d have made some crack about his getting his quips from cornflake boxes. Maybe it was as well that he didn’t give me time to flounder. “So, I’m out of my depth am I?” he bellowed. “Well, just to set you straight, this Mundy Knight turd owes me money – no need for me to give you the details. I don’t know anything about his plates. If he thinks I’m after them, his imagination must be working overtime. Still, I’m interested to hear that they’re useless. And as to Lanigan and Mulrooney, you’re talking strictly small-time. Now look, you’re not really worth my attention, but you’re about to learn what it means to tangle with me. I think the politicians talk about a measured response. Goodbye.”
That brings me back to the start of this story. After talking to Barton Stokes, I sat irresolute for a long time, then decided that I’d ponder further before contacting Knight, so closed the office and set out for my car. I’d just turned the corner to the parking lot when two bulky men closed in on me, each taking an elbow. It was like being seized by a pair of animated wheel-clamps. “Just move along, buddy,” one of them grated. There wasn’t much choice – my feet were barely touching the ground. I was hustled into the back of a green Buick and assumed that my escort had in mind the proverbial outing, but to my surprise the car stayed put. For some odd reason, the thought uppermost in my mind was that if these chaps were emissaries from Stokes and had driven the thirty-odd miles from Hanbury, they must have been activated quickly.
One of my new pals retained his painful hold on my right elbow. The other produced a bottle of whisky. “Now,” he said, “we got no instructions about breakages. This is just a little lesson, compliments of Mr Stokes. You’re goin’ to drink, or we’ll forget our orders.” Maybe these characters had seen ‘North by Northwest’, because they handled me much as the goons did Gary Grant in that film, though I couldn’t remember whether Cary had an alarmingly large automatic under his chin, as I did.
Anyway, that was how I found myself prostrate and stoned on the sidewalk outside my office an hour later – and how I wound up trying to explain my predicament to a patrolling cop. He wasn’t too sympathetic, so I landed in the pokey.
At the time, I thought it was my relative loquacity, even – or perhaps especially – in drink that did the trick. However, I learned later that that I would have had the right to summon my lawyer, Alan Nichols, without any special pleading.
As far as I knew, Alan had little experience in these matters, but he must have carried some weight, though his approach struck me as unorthodox. He said something to the effect that I was a Limey sap, with no more sense than a watermelon, but that the idea of my being a drunk was absurd. For God’s sake, he’d known me for years and the idea of my drinking spirits was ludicrous. I was barely removed from tee-total. Well, he was right on one point. I was passably abstemious and rarely touched the hard stuff.
I didn’t know anything about the usual procedure, but after Alan had sparred with them for a few minutes, the police seemed to lose interest in me and I was out before midnight.
On the Thursday, I summoned my client, handed back his plates, told him that I failed to help him and that there would be no charge for my efforts. He didn’t believe that Stokes had no interest in his engravings. When Knight left me, he was very upset. I never heard anything more from him or of him.
So, I was out a day’s pay and had been well and truly put in my place. Barton Stokes was right about his measured response. He could have done much worse to me. To compound my woes, I had to pay Alan Nichols – and lawyers don’t do that kind of work for nothing.
I’d love to finish these tales on a triumphant note, but if you’ve persisted this far, you’re entitled to the truth. The affair narrated here was my last case, and the one that finally convinced me of what I’d suspected for some time. I wasn’t really cut out for PI work.
* * *
The above story concludes the Pondhopper series.