PONDHOPPER : NUMBER TWELVE
I was thinking about spaghetti. Not in general, you understand, but only as it concerned me. Since moving from my hotel room to an apartment, I’d thought about food quite a lot. I still took some meals at the eatery near my office, but I’d also tried cooking. I couldn’t assign a particular name to any of my concoctions, as they were largely the results of my putting things into a pot until the mix seemed about right. Lacking expertise, I reckoned then as now that the best course was to cook everything well and truly, reasoning that heat, if applied long enough, kills nasty bacteria. I believe it also polishes off some of the goodies, but I can live with that.
With regard to spaghetti, heat wasn’t the problem. What bothered me was that no matter how I drained or sieved the stuff, when it came to washing up, at least two strands appeared in the sink. I bought three aluminium saucepans, each of which had a lid with four oval holes designed, I supposed, to vent steam, with the added quality of allowing one to pour off water while keeping the solids in situ. Still, the little beggars kept slipping through my defences. It was vexing. I have the same pans to this day, and still haven’t solved the problem. Other prosaic activities give me similar trouble. For example, despite much evidence to the contrary, I remain convinced that it is possible for a man of a certain age to pull on his socks one at a time, while standing on the other foot and not thumping into the nearest vertical surface. Maybe it would be better to just sit down to it, but who likes defeat?
My musings were interrupted by the arrival of a man who didn’t even give me time to grab my sham pending file. He just wafted in, wraithlike.
I motioned him to a chair, noting with my professional acumen that he cut an impressive figure. He was about five-eleven, with short fair hair, immaculately groomed. Offhand, I didn’t think I’d ever seen a better-dressed man, unless it was the dastardly Longworth, the postage stamp thief I’ve described elsewhere. My visitor wore a light-grey single-breasted two-piece suit with a fine herringbone pattern, a crisp white shirt and a plain maroon tie. The socks were grey, a little darker than the suit, and the shoes were almost worth a chapter – well, let’s not exaggerate, a paragraph – in themselves; broad, antique-finished, lace-up jobs, reeking of quality. I had the feeling that if I’d been able to sneak a look at the inside, I might have seen the name of a certain renowned London maker. I won’t mention it as he might take exception – you’ll see what I mean as we go on.
The man sat, his shirt cuffs riding up slightly, allowing me to catch a glimpse of a wafer of gold watch, with a handsome strap of the same metal. Those items hadn’t come cheap. I asked him how I could help.
“I’m looking for a man.” He spoke quietly, but I’d been in the business for some time and can tell you that his tone conveyed far more than the bare words.
I opted for jocularity. “Well,” I grinned, “I’m a man, but I’ll bet you have something more specific in mind.”
He returned my smile, though his was thin enough to slice ham. “Right,” he said. “The fellow I’m seeking is somewhere in this town. He’s not my only concern right now, but it would save time if you could locate him.”
I had a feeling that, if I found the man, my success might not bode well for him. There was something about the approach of my potential client which suggested that he didn’t pursue people for old times’ sake. “Why me?” I said.
“I looked in the phone book.”
“That’s what I mean,” I said. “There are entries ahead of mine in there.”
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but he slimmed his smile a fraction. “You’re the first one to give a straight name,” he answered.
He was right. There were five entries in the book and the two before me hadn’t seen fit to say exactly who they were. They advertised themselves as, respectively, the Beeline and Finders agencies. No disrespect intended, but I didn’t like that any more than my visitor did. “Fair enough,” I said, “but why a PI anyway?”
“It’s a matter of time and footfall,” he said. “You people get around. Most of you probably know the personnel in the hotels, motels and so on. A question of economy of effort.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Are you going to offer me a hint?”
He produced a morocco-leather wallet, which gave the same impression as his shoes and watch had done, extracted a colour photo and passed it over. I looked at the head and shoulders picture, which showed me a discouragingly ordinary face. Why don’t they have the proverbial eye-to-mouth scars or glaring birthmarks? Still, the subject had a florid complexion, which was better than nothing. I stared at the snap for a moment, then asked my man if that was all.
“That’s it,” he said. “He has a taste for high living, so he’s probably in one of the better places. He’s five-nine and close to two hundred pounds, most of them around the middle. Enough for you?”
“All right,” I said. “Now, about my charg –”
He anticipated me. The wallet was still in his hands and he hauled out a sheaf of currency, peeling off more than I had seen for a good while. “Will this hold you for a day or two?” he said, passing it over.
Hold me? As matters stood, it would have been good enough for a couple of weeks. “It’ll do,” I said, as nonchalantly as I could. How do I keep in touch with you, Mr . . .?”
The smile broadened again, minimally. “Smith,” he said.
“Of course. That would be John, I imagine?”
“Yes. You’re very perceptive. Don’t worry about contact. I’ll see to that. It’s five p.m. now. Let’s say I phone you here at noon tomorrow. We’ll take it from there. And please don’t think about a trace.”
“All right,” I said. “Mind telling me who this man is and what he’s done?”
“I don’t know what identity he’s using now. His real name is Jerome Benn. He was a messenger. He disappeared a while ago, with seventy-eight thousand dollars of his employers’ funds. They’re upset.”
“I can believe that,” I said. “Now, I wouldn’t want to be involved in anything improper. I assume everything’s tickety-boo with the authorities?”
“Naturally,” he said. “Just locate him. My principals are a little impatient. I’m sure you understand.”
“Yes,” I said. “Forgive my curiosity, Mr Smith, but you give the impression of a man with resources. I just thought they might run to –”
“Mr Potts,” he broke in, “you have a pleasant enough town here, but it’s not exactly a thrumming metropolis. You share a small airport with your next-door neighbour. The railroad station is a minor halt and the bus depot adjacent to it is fairly quiet. This man arrived by train yesterday evening. He has no car and has not hired one. He hasn’t left by rail or bus. That leaves the roads. The resources you mentioned tell me he didn’t drive out, so unless he left well-concealed in a car – and I’m prepared to dismiss that – he’s still in town. Please find him.”
“I’ll do my best, Mr Smith.”
“Excellent. Until tomorrow at midday, then.” He rose, decontaminated himself with a little patting, and left.
I sat for a while, trying to clarify how ‘Mr Smith’ had affected me. I remembered a film involving a conversation in a train. There was a soft-spoken thug, genial as could be and as unthreatening as a sidewinder. Still, I’d got a wodge of folding stuff up-front. But I had no illusions about the job. If I failed to deliver, my man would not be amused – and he seemed like the wrong type to antagonise.
Up to that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that a hitman would employ a local PI. Then I thought, why not? I mean, what he’d said made sense. No point in his exposing himself unnecessarily. And as to the cost, he’d very likely get at least twenty times what he’d paid me. Then there was the ethical question. If Jerome Benn was in town, I’d probably find him, but if I passed on the information, that could be his death warrant. What does a man do?
What I did was postpone any wrestling with morality and get to work. If Smith was right about his quarry’s refined tastes, there were only four hotels in town that might measure up. I reckoned the fugitive would be a fool to conform to type. Yet there might be method in any such apparent madness. It would be easy for Smith to turn over the lesser hostelries – a little greenery passing here and there – but as he’d indicated, that would be time-consuming. The more prestigious spots would be less penetrable. It might have been unwise on his part to make waves in such places. As for his contact with me, I’d never see him again if he didn’t want me to. And if I brought in the police, what would I tell them? An executive of a company wished to interview an errant employee about some missing funds. So what? Smith would have a solid cover story, and in the unlikely event of his being picked up, he would surely get a message to his ‘associates’, who would know how to deal with me. I shuddered.
So, with no idea about what I would do if successful, I set off on my rounds. Thanks to much past footslogging, I was acquainted with at least half the reception staff at all the hotels I had in mind, though relations were not uniformly cordial. Some were friendly enough, while others regarded me as something they’d stepped in on a sidewalk. At the first two places, I knew the people on duty; one man, one woman. Neither gave me anything, but I was sure they weren’t being obstructive. At the third stop – the Carlton – I found that the fellow on duty was a newcomer and a little sniffy, but he was scheduled to clock off for the night at eight, giving way to his colleague, Tony, with whom I was on good terms.
The last call was another blank, so there was nothing for me to do but to take my evening meal – an overwhelming sandwich – and while away half an hour. I gave it till 8.15, then went back to the Carlton, where Tony was in charge. “Hello, Mr Potts,” he said. “Long time, no see.” I said something pleasant, told him what I wanted and showed him the photo. He looked at it, contorted his face, then, as I produced a picture of a former US president, with a nice round number featured prominently, his mind cleared. “Yes,” he said, “I think we have the gentleman, although I believe his name’s Bradley. I’m wondering . . .”
I passed over my ‘credentials’, which disappeared into Tony’s inside pocket at superluminary speed. “Ah,” he said. “Now I have it. I seem to remember a room number; two-one-seven, unless I’m mistaken. Pity I was turned the other way when you walked in.” He gave me a memorable wink.
“A real shame, Tony,” I said. “As it happens, I’m not calling on my old friend this time. Maybe tomorrow, if he’s staying.”
“I guess he is. He’s booked in for a week.”
“Thanks, Tony. Be seeing you.”
At nine o’clock I was back at my place, my mind still spinning. On the one hand, I was temporarily in clover, financially. On the other, there was no dodging the real issue. Old chess games and film reruns are no use at such times. I sank a couple of mighty belts of Amontillado, then tried to distract myself by reading about the activities of a San Francisco PI, who was beaten up, sapped and shot, while battling his way through to success. My word, those fellows are tough.
I was up by seven. Unusual, but then, so were the circumstances. I hadn’t got any wiser during the night, and here I have a confession. Normally, I took very little alcohol until late evening, but this time I was so worked up that I put back a hefty slug – still sherry, of course – straight after breakfast. To tell the truth, holding out that long was hard. I could have used the liquor before the food.
I zombied to the office, wishing that a hole would appear and swallow me, then sat picking and twiddling everything that would pick or twiddle. Oh, for a cigar, or for the lungs to smoke it. Finally, I decided to take the coward’s way out, if only temporarily. I would tell Smith that I was optimistic, but needed more time.
He phoned at noon on the dot, still with that subdued voice and not wasting words. I told him I had hopes. He gave no sign of impatience, saying he would call again at six p.m.
So began the longest afternoon of my life. I wondered what our San Francisco hero would have done. He’d probably have spent the afternoon strangling grizzlies, just for practice. What I did was stand up and walk around the office, sit down again, then repeat the process fifty times, punctuating it with several more fairish snorts of sherry.
By six o’clock I still didn’t know what I was going to say to Smith. I could tell him that my inquiries had come to nothing, but would that satisfy him?
He was right on time again. I answered the call with what any novelist worth his salt would call a dry-throated croak and was about to go on when he stopped me. “I’m just calling to thank you for your help, Mr Potts, and to tell you that I don’t need you any longer.”
“No. I’ve located my man. He’s calling himself Bradley.”
“I see. What about the payment? There’s a balance owing to you.”
“Keep what’s left. It was a transaction in good faith. Time is money, Mr Potts. Goodbye.”
Relief swept over me in waves, but not for long. Within five minutes, I began to take stock. Smith would surely act promptly, with unpleasant results for Benn/Bradley unless I was much mistaken. And what was I doing? Well, so far I’d eaten a brace of scrambled eggs, prowled around my office for several hours and drunk at least a pint of the best that Jerez de la Frontera had to offer. Cyril Potts, action man. If I continued with my programme of frenetic activity, I might soon be complicit, if only by extension, in a murder. I mean, I could stop the proceedings, couldn’t I? Oh, why the hell did Smith have to be so choosy? He could have gone to Beeline or Finders and left me in peace.
I tried to salve my conscience, but it was no good. After wrestling with the matter for a while, I concluded that I would have to act. I set out for the Carlton, with no idea what I’d do when I got there. A man feels better when he’s running around, irrespective of what he achieves.
I found myself outside the glass doors of the hotel a few minutes before seven. A furtive glance showed me that Mr Sniffy was on duty, which didn’t help. I wandered back and forth for a while, peering in each time I passed the doors. Fortunately, the place didn’t run to having a Ruritanian general at the entrance.
Finally, catching Highnose with his back turned, I slithered in, light-footed my way across the carpet and climbed the stairs. I’m not sure that I can accurately explain what was going on in my mind. The best I can say is that, harrowing though the situation was, I wanted to do something.
People talk about having the heart in the mouth, and you might think that would apply to a PI more than to most people. Usually, it doesn’t. A gumshoe’s job is mostly a matter of observing the weaknesses of others. Not this time!
The Carlton added a hundred to its room numbers. There were three floors. At ground level there was no guest accommodation. On the floor above the numbers were in the two-hundreds and on the top floor were the three-hundreds. I jittered along the corridor to room two-one-seven, still clueless, but full – well, half-full – of resolve. I tried the door handle. It moved freely.
There are times when one throws caution to the winds. I couldn’t stand any more of this, so flung the door open. Only then did I realise that, though I’d brought along my trusty .38, the damned thing was still in the back of my pants.
“Hold it!” I yelled. They held it – or one of them did. The other had no choice. About twenty feet from me was an arresting picture. Two easy chairs bracketed a coffee table on which was an open leather suitcase. Even from that distance, I could see that the pigskin container held what looked like a lot of cash. At the left of the table my client, John Smith, was slumped in a chair, hands flopped floorwards, shirt stained red. At the other side stood a stout, ruddy-faced fellow of middling height – Mr Benn, or Bradley, I assumed. He was fingering his chin, in a ‘what to do now’ attitude.
He turned to me, his right hand sliding swiftly inside his coat, then, seeing that I wasn’t in shooting mode, he relaxed a fraction. “Who are you and what do you want?” he said.
“My name’s Potts. I’m a private investigator. Mr Smith there is my client.”
“Right. John Smith.”
He chuckled. “How original. Why did he hire you?”
There was no point in gabbling about confidentiality. “To locate you, Mr Benn,” I replied.
“Benn?” he said. For a moment, he looked puzzled, then something dawned on him. “Ah, now I see. Well, if it’s any help to you, our late friend here is Mr Benn. He must have told you quite a tale. Explain, please.”
I gave him the story, which seemed to amuse him no end. When I was through, he was still smiling. “Well, Mr Potts,” he said. I’m sorry you’ve been given such a runaround. The truth is that Benn,” he hooked a thumb at the corpse, “really was a messenger and did walk off with the amount you mentioned. That’s it.” He pointed at the suitcase. “He got tired of running. I suppose he engaged you to find me, hoping that if you succeeded, he could eliminate me and put an end to the pursuit. Somehow, after hiring you, he did the locating himself. He phoned me, offering a deal. He would return the money if I would spare him. I accepted, but didn’t trust him. I agreed to a meeting here, and as I suspected, his intention was to kill me and escape. You see the result.”
“Yes,” I said. “Now you have to get rid of me, too”
“Get rid of you? Why?”
“Because I might talk.”
He laughed out loud. “Talk? To whom and about what? Do you propose to tell the police that you were hired by one criminal to find another? That wouldn’t do your career much good. And as to disposing of you, I’m a professional. My services are expensive. Unless it’s absolutely essential, I don’t kill people free of charge. You’ve probably been reading too many novels. I’m leaving now, and provided you don’t make a scene – that would be bad for you – you’re free to go.”
I’d been thinking as he talked. What he said was reasonable. The only thing that occurred to me was that my receptionist contact, Tony, might be a weak link. Still, I thought I knew my man. Another likeness of a past president – this time associated with a larger number – would soothe him and still leave me way ahead, moneywise.
Mr Smith, or whatever his name was, stared at me for a tense moment, then spoke again: “I said you could go, Mr Potts.”
* * *