PONDHOPPER : NUMBER NINE
The following tale comes to you as a result of the discovery of a malfunction in my filing system – the notes were lost for a while, having fallen through a slit in one of those brown-paper concertina things I removed from a drawer and bundled up with an eye to posterity. If for no better reason than that the case came early in my PI career, I think it’s worth recording. Here we go.
The parking area was a battleground where grass and weeds were trying to wrest control from a miserly scattering of gravel over hard-packed earth. Nature was having a tough time, but it never gives up, does it? I’d heard that trees were poking through the roof of the old Amazonian opera house in Manaus.
After entering and stopping my car nose-in to the perimeter fence – chicken wire, three feet high, strung between rickety wooden posts – I thought better of it and reversed forty yards to the opposite boundary, so that I could get out head first if need be. In this part of the country, one just didn’t know.
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why there was a fence at all. Nobody else for miles around had bothered with such demarcation and there was room enough in all directions, especially as most of the nearby lots were obviously vacant. Then I thought of my own background and felt that I understood.
Having been west of the Pond for only a short time, I was still part-conditioned to the British environment, where people are very conscious of their own space. Well, since most of them have such a limited amount of it, they have to be. Try parking as a visitor in the UK suburbs. If you are observant enough, you will see the odd curtain twitching. Maybe the owner here had that same territorial mindset.
On the whole, I’d have preferred to be elsewhere. In fact, I hadn’t really wanted to get out of bed that morning. I’d woken from an entertaining dream, the end of which I would have liked to see. Somehow, I never get to the concluding bit.
I have a lot of these nocturnal excursions, which I’d heard is typical of those who don’t usually travel much. I’m no expert in such matters, but was told that people who get around tend to have dreamless sleep, whereas the stay-at-home types don’t. Perhaps it’s some kind of compensation. On this occasion, my night-time adventure had me bounding across a vast flat expanse of asphalt, one hand holding a bunch of daffodils, the other a briefcase. I was leaping oddly, as though negotiating a series of hurdles of varying heights, spaced a yard apart, though I could see that there were no obstacles of any kind. It was strange. Behind me, in hot pursuit, was an elderly man in vice-admiral’s full-dress uniform, plus two loops of gold braid dangling from his right shoulder. He displayed enough scrambled egg to cover a pound of toast and an array of jingling medals that threatened to capsize him. I’ve seen Christmas trees with less decoration. He was brandishing a cucumber in his right hand. Sigmund, if you’re out there, tell me what this means.
I once kept a record of my dreams over a four-month period, in an effort to find a pattern. In case you don’t already know, this is called oneiromancy. That information isn’t a tribute to my erudition. It came from a friend. Having failed to detect any symbolism, I concluded that dreaming is the mind’s way of shedding unwanted baggage while in free-wheel. I don’t insist on this and if it’s an illusion, I hope that nobody will destroy it, as I like to live in comfort with my interpretations of life’s meaning.
I’d taken a late breakfast – no scrambled egg, in case you’re wondering – then bumbled around for a while in the way one does at times, especially when facing a distasteful task. Finally, I’d got moving. After all, I was a private investigator, following a lead which had steered me to a local eating house of, I’d been told, some notoriety. My activities were normally limited to my adopted city and its environs, but I was champing on the bit in this case and had tracked the fellow concerned for hundreds of miles. Maybe that doesn’t quite fit my dream theory, but I’m prepared to view it as the exception that proves the rule. Also, the man was one of my few genuine fugitives – some absconders want to be found – so I was particularly keen to nab him.
The chase had been tortuous, but I was sustained all along by thinking that he could run but couldn’t hide. I realised later how fatuous that was. In a country of three million-odd square miles, of course he could hide. My respects to the great Joe Louis – I usually associate him with the famous comment – but he was thinking of a boxing ring, not half a continent.
I’d been this far south twice before, on both occasions getting an uneasy, apprehensive feeling. It was the same this time. How can I put it? Call me irrational if you will, but I had a sense that not many local eyebrows would be raised if a busload of vacationers were to vanish, permanently. Well, there would be sporting encounters and other weighty matters to be considered. The thought was disquieting. Yet, I was on a case and was supposed to be intrepid.
It was midday and stove-hot. I got out of the car, which like my present one was elderly and not worth describing. There were eight other vehicles in the lot, the only saloon, or sedan if you will, being a mid-blue Oldsmobile. The remaining seven were pickup trucks in various stages of dilapidation, all dusty and mud-caked. Apart from their less than pristine condition, they had one thing in common – each had a gun-rack in the cab and every rack held a rifle. No shotguns here – this was marksman country.
After a brief glance at the two ramshackle wooden outbuildings, I concentrated on the main structure, which matched its surroundings. Maybe it had been purpose-built, but to me it looked like an oversized converted railroad car. At that stage of my induction to American ways I didn’t appreciate that some of these places had – and for all I know still have – something of a cult status in parts of the US.
The thing was about forty-five by twelve feet, rather over seven feet high and, it seemed to me, made of the same stuff as a standard mobile home. To my mind it should have been called ‘Joe’s Diner’, or possibly ‘Floe’s’. The owner had settled for just ‘Diner’, in foot-high neon – switched off at the time – fastened midway along the roof. There was a door in the end wall – are they called walls? – nearest to me and another in the middle of the frontage. Several dents in the metalwork indicated proceedings of which I was surely better off remaining ignorant. Perhaps it was just my state of mind, or maybe it was because I’d been told to be wary of the spot. Whatever the reason, I didn’t like what I saw. I tried to work out whether it should be classified as mean or dingy. Why not both?
I entered by the door at the end. Directly ahead of me was a narrow aisle. To my left was the stool-lined counter, running along three-quarters of the interior. To the right, there was a row of eight tables with tubular steel legs and red Formica tops. At each table were four matching chairs, most of the vinyl seats and backrests scuffed and knife-sliced – easy to note because there were no customers on that side. At the far end of the unit there was a door to the toilet facilities. The smell of hot food – chilli con carne, I thought – just managed to overwhelm those of coffee and tobacco smoke. It came from one of the four large containers atop gas burners behind the counter.
Of the ten seats at the counter, numbers one to seven were occupied by what seemed to be the pickup brigade, all drinking beer. Three were smoking cigarettes, two chewed toothpicks, one was tucking in to peanuts from a small glass bowl, of which several were lined up. The other fellow had no immediately obvious addictions other than alcohol. I’d never before seen such an assemblage of red meat, bib overalls and wide-brimmed hats – oh, and one baseball cap. Did these fellows ever doff their headgear?
As I walked in, there was some low muttering going on. It sounded like a meeting of primitive tribesmen. My appearance induced silence.
Stools eight and ten were vacant. Number nine supported a man wearing a charcoal suit, white shirt, black narrow-brimmed felt hat and dark glasses. With chin cupped in hands, he was hunched over the counter in an odd way, staring down at an empty bowl. Mr Blue Car was the obvious inference.
Behind the counter was a big man, around six-three, and if there was any change out of two hundred and forty pounds, it would have fitted in a matchbox. A lot of that bulk was close to the equator, under a short white apron. I revised my thinking about the ownership. This man had to be a Jake.
Messrs Pickup turned their heads to me in unison. It was weird, as though some puppeteer had pulled a string connecting them at the neck. ‘All together now boys, ninety degrees left.’ There wasn’t a flicker of emotion in any of the faces. Six round red ones – the seventh was thinner and made of old tan leather – stared at me. Nobody spoke or nodded. The string was pulled again and the heads turned back.
This reaction to my arrival was unnerving. I got the feeling that a telepathic current was flowing through the seven brains, causing them to wonder how it would be if they dismembered me and added my parts to the pot – gradually, mind you, say over a week, just to eke out the rations without spoiling the flavour. If that seems ridiculous to you, sitting and reading in comfort, go there and experience it. The ambience in some of those places is eerie. Maybe the fact that I was an alien of at least two sorts heightened my perception. I looked around and got some small comfort from the absence of burning crosses. Yet, there was that white apron. I wondered what shape it would be if Jake opened it out. Hooded?
I summoned up the sinews and walked along to the far-end stool, watched by the piggy eyes behind the counter. “Hi, Jake,” I said, as airily as I could manage.
He glowered. “Who’s Jake?”
“I thought maybe you were.”
“Ah,” I said. “Better make it coffee then.”
He shook his head and poured me a mugful – no cups or saucers here – flicking a forefinger at the milk and sugar containers a yard to my right. Not a chatterbox, it seemed, and not one to trouble himself with the preferences of casual customers. In my hometown, his kind usually asked about black or white and sugar or not.
I’d no intention of being in this place any longer than necessary, so flashed my PI credentials, which didn’t appear to impress Phil as much as I’d hoped. “So, you’re Cyril Potts and you’re a gumshoe,” he grunted. “What do you want?”
“Have you seen this man?” I said, handing him a three by five, head and shoulders photo of my quarry.
He glanced at it. “No. Who is he?”
“What’s he done?”
“He kills people. Last two with a gun, but at heart he’s a chainsaw man.” This was an essay in advanced embroidery on my part, designed to grab attention. In fact, my man had no known record of violence. He’d supposedly stolen an alleged racehorse. I use the words advisedly, since (a) the theft part was unclear and (b) the windbroken old plug concerned hadn’t had a competitive outing for years and would have had difficulty in finishing a race on the day he’d started it, unless the off had been well before noon. He was practically a family heirloom.
Nobody was sure whether or why Pellegrino had done the deed, though the records showed that the apartment block where he was a tenant had been bulldozed by the property company owned by my client’s late husband. That client – the nag’s owner – was an elderly lass, whose daffiness was exceeded only by her wealth. She’d offered me double pay if I would clear my desk and get cracking. A clear desk being no novelty, I’d cracked as required.
“Takes all sorts,” said Jake . . . sorry, Phil, then he flipped the snap to Pickup Number One, who stabbed it to the counter with a thumb that could have stopped a charging rhino. He looked at it for two seconds, shook his head and slid it to the next man – Leatherface – who gave it even less of his valuable time. So it went on until Number Seven skimmed the thing to Phil, who handed it back to me. “Nope,” he said. “And mister, maybe sometime I’ll hire you to locate my wife. First, I don’t want her found and second, I don’t think you could find your face with both hands.”
“I may be mediocre,” I retorted, “but my charged are modest. Anyway, why the smart crack?”
He rolled his eyes upwards to indicate that I just didn’t get it, whatever it was, and began to turn away, then was struck by another thought. Swinging back, he thrust a cliff of chin across the counter – I felt like a man going under the bows of a battleship. “Say, you a Limey?” he growled. Was it a question or a threat? Either way, I didn’t like that back-of-the-throat sound. It reminded me of my uncle Alf’s wolfhound. That beast had kept the old lad company for three years before biting off his left ear in a playful moment.
“I was,” I said, “but I’m all right now.”
He didn’t laugh. Maybe he’d already heard that one. Maybe everybody had. Not being much of a socialiser, I didn’t know. “I ran into some Limeys once.” He was still in grunt mode and got a fair amount of feeling into his words, leaving me to guess what he thought about my original compatriots, then he turned to resume what I supposed was his main occupation of doing precious little and, as W. S. Gilbert would have observed, doing it very well. I thought about getting my mad up, but in that kind of humidity it’s just too hard, and anyway, I was well outblubbered.
While paying attention to Phil and the other customers, I’d had my back turned to Blue Car. I’d intended to show him the photo, but he forestalled me getting off his perch and heading for the toilet. He’d almost made it when I turned in time to get a quick peek at him. His head, shoulders and upper torso were bowed forward in a way that indicated some deformity. Well, well, well.
Without speaking to anyone, I left my coffee, went outside and walked to the end of the unit, thinking that Blue Car might have had some notion of slipping out by way of a window. Not so. By stepping back and forth, I managed to keep watch on both possible exits from the toilet for two minutes, then my man poked his head through the doorway, checked that I wasn’t in the place and returned to his seat. That posture must have been troublesome to him.
I went back inside, marched past Phil and the pickup chaps. Reaching Blue Car, I took off his hat and glasses, dropped them onto the counter and gave him a wide grin. “Right, Stoops,” I said. “I’m taking you in, and I’ll trouble you to hand over any hardware you may have.”
Until then, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d left my gun in the car. I did that too often and was struck by the notion that I should be a little more careful in such matters. However, my speed of thought was equal to the occasion and I continued swiftly: “In case you’ve any idea about busting out of here, the place is under the surveillance of two boys who aren’t as nice as me. If you try to leave alone, they’ll blow you away – and they won’t chat with you first.” That was a piece of ad lib bunkum, and it worked.
Pellegrino was not rated as ‘armed and dangerous’ but confounding his job description he fumbled in his right coat pocket, hauling out a dinky little palm-sized shooter. He dropped it onto the counter, then wound a hand around his back, producing a nasty-looking .38 with a two-inch barrel. He tossed that down, too. Then he bent to his right leg and from somewhere around the top of his sock, he took out a knife, the like of which I’d sooner not see again. Finally, he dragged a blackjack from his left coat pocket, adding that to the pile.
“Well, well,” I said, slapping a hand over the guns. “I didn’t know you were quite so interested in triggernometry.”
“Never mind. That’s too subtle for the likes of you. Have you finished?”
“That’s it. Say, where’s your iron, anyway?”
“Right here.” I gave him my supercilious grin as I picked up his .38 and pointed it at him.
“Hell,” he said. “You got the drop on me. You mean all this time you weren’t packing?”
“Just one of those things. I had to hand it back. Couldn’t afford the repayments. I pick ‘em up as I go along.”
“Huh, wise guy, too,” he groaned. Then he leaned towards me, lowering his voice. “You got me fair and square this time. I liked the build-up about the chainsaw and all, but how about you don’t spread this around? Wouldn’t look good to my friends if it came out that I was all tooled up and got took by a guy who wasn’t even carryin’.”
“I’ll do what I can, but no promises,” I said. “Come on, Stoops, let’s drift.”
“Okay,” he replied. “I’ve nothing else in mind right now.”
At that point, I was assailed by another barrage of thought. Might my cavalier approach get me on the wrong side of the local constabulary? This was the last place a man should pick to wind up there. And wasn’t there something about extradition between states and if there was, did it apply to private operators? I’d never pursued anyone else out of my home patch, so hadn’t bothered to check.
Fortunately, Stoops didn’t seem to have any views on the subject. With the exception of a minor squawk about my fictitious associates and another concerning our leaving his car behind – we rectified that later – he was docile all the way home, where the old girl who’d employed me acquitted him in her living room, without bringing in the gendarmes. Well, she was eccentric.
With Stoops in the lead, we left the diner, passing the suddenly interested pickup boys. As we reached the door, I smirked at my pal behind the counter. “Not with both hands eh, Jake,” I said, tickled pink that I was crushing him for his nasty remark about my ability.
He gave me a weary look. “It’s Phil, remember?”
“Oh, yeah, Phil.”
* * *