PONDHOPPER : NUMBER EIGHT
Jefferson Drive oozed affluence. So did the neighbouring thoroughfares bearing the great man’s name; Road, Avenue, Gardens and Chase. There wasn’t a Jefferson Street – possibly that had been considered too common; redolent of the inner urban area. Perish the thought. This was a modern high-specification development. I was looking at new wealth. If you have it, flaunt it. Old money tends to cower behind boxwood and laurel. There wasn’t a hedge or fence in sight here.
Maybe my view is a little offbeat. I’ve never owned a house and don’t want to. At the time, my place was a room in a small hotel, above fleabag status but far from pretentious. It wasn’t cheap, but the outlay bought convenience. I didn’t have to mow lawns, seek tradespeople or appliance repairers, fill and empty washing and drying machines or wonder how to keep up with Mr and Mrs Nextdoor. Also, if pressed, I could have upped stakes and at a pinch got everything I valued into a suitcase and my RAF kitbag. Yes, that’s right – I gave a chunk of my life to the Royal Air Force. Incidentally, if anyone in that outfit is reading this, I’m not sure I was entitled to keep the said item of luggage, so sue me if you like. And further by the way – this is like a letter with a PS and a PPS – why do we call these things luggage? Isn’t that what’s inside them? Or are the contents effects’? All right, I’m confused.
You may have noticed that the odd vestige of my formative years in Britain spills over into my language here and there. Well, the US hasn’t yet planed away all my edges. I like baseball, but still prefer cricket when I can get it. I also agonise over such things as whether to double consonants when extending certain words, to offer er’ or re’ endings in other cases, to sneak up on the American public with practise as a verb corresponding to practice as a noun, and so on. This is stressful work. I’m aware of the pitfalls and try for mid-Atlantic, but the effort is enough to give one a split personality.
Now back to base. The residents of the Jefferson development were mostly thrusting types, fast-tracking their way to the top or to burnout. I wondered how many of them would, over the next five years, sit facing a solemn character, talking quietly but firmly about the need for downsizing, or whatever euphemism would be fashionable at the time – terminology changes so quickly, doesn’t it? People don’t want to talk about axing jobs – too brutal. Better to cut them, shed them or perhaps best of all, lose them. Who retrieves them, and is it a case of finders, keepers?
What do you do when you have a sky-high mortgage, payments on a couple of classy cars – maybe also a boat – and are told that the music has stopped and you have no seat? I didn’t know, still don’t, and with good luck never shall. I’ve always existed rather monastically, so the difference between my way of life and basic survival is virtually unnoticeable. If a fellow keeps his possessions to a minimum, he’s a poor target for thieves, and anyway he won’t mind too much if he loses the lot. Should anyone break into my place, he – most burglars are male – will very likely tiptoe out after leaving me a little something on the nightstand. May I suggest a ten-dollar minimum? Perhaps Ben Franklin had it right when he said that if a man puts the contents of his purse into his head, nobody can take the results away from him. So, I was able to contemplate this luxury development without a trace of envy. Also, not identifying too closely with clients helps to maintain the objectivity a PI needs.
The phone call that brought me out of my burrow that bright summer morning had come shortly after my nominal starting time of nine o’clock – just as well that I was only two minutes late – and had intruded on a thought process which started about an hour earlier, when I was listening to the radio while getting dressed. A fellow was talking about something called the Golden Ratio, which is 1.618:1. I learned that this point crops up in various areas of life, including otherwise seemingly unrelated fields. Among other things, it was stated that if one constructs a rectangle of these proportions, it conforms to an ideal perspective, in that if the ratio gets much lower, the shape looks like an attempted square that doesn’t quite make it, whereas if it is significantly higher, the resultant figure appears too elongated. Apparently, many buildings have been erected on the basis of these supposedly perfect dimensions. It’s a question of dividing a figure so that the smaller part is to the larger as the larger is to the whole. I hope you don’t mind this little aside.
My destination was about halfway along the Drive; thirty-six houses in all, eighteen on either side, facing each other with what seemed to me like a kind of suppressed bellicosity. Maybe I was wrong – I’ll admit to being somewhat impressionable. The lots were around an acre each, the frontages, excepting the corner ones, of fifty yards or so. Considering that the whole Jefferson estate had been built in less than two years, both architecture and construction were, I thought, remarkably good. There was a mix of styles, but nothing jarring. The houses were all two-storey jobs of, I guessed, well over three thousand square feet each, their main common feature being that the facades were uniformly about forty yards from the sidewalk. Regulations, no doubt.
I arrived at ten a.m. and parked in the road outside number twelve, noting that in the whole length of Jefferson Drive, no other vehicle had been left that way. Perhaps it wasn’t allowed, but being the nonconformist type, I didn’t care. Furthermore, I felt that where there was a sensible choice, it was better to walk up to a house, rather than motor to the front door. Something to do with assessing the aura, I reckoned.
It seemed that my prospective client was a maverick. This was the only house in sight that had a true garden, rather than a lawn. The others had nothing but manicured turf and the odd tree to distract a viewer’s gaze from the dwellings. This place had grass too – shaved to putting green standard – but there were wide, thickly planted borders, inside which were three large, diamond-shaped flower-beds. What do they do when the blooms wilt, I asked myself. A private investigator should know things like that.
I strolled along the drive, thinking that relative to some of the neighbours, the owner had economised a little in this respect. Widthwise, the surface would have been hard-pressed to accommodate a combine harvester.
Normally, I don’t care too much about my appearance, but I remember that on the day in question I was well turned out – blue and white houndstooth jacket, new beige slacks, white shirt, red knitted tie and tan brogues. I looked quite dapper. Or so I thought until I saw the gardener. This unlikely lad was resplendent in a dark-blue chalk-stripe suit and gleaming black shoes. He was kneeling on a felt pad and doing something workmanlike with a trowel. I never saw anything more incongruous.
As I approached the improbable retainer, he turned to face me. I’d already noticed that the seams of his jacket were barely holding out against the heft pushing at them. Now he showed me shoulders from here to there and a chest no harpoon could have got through. His face completed the picture. He was, as the nineteenth-century novelists might have put it, of simian aspect. If we all come from the apes, his journey had, I guessed, been shorter than average. It might have been my imagination, but as he turned, I seemed to get a glimpse of something bulky under the left armpit. “You want somethin’?” he grunted.
I gave him my disarming smile. “I have an appointment with Mrs Berg,” I said, “but I don’t mind admiring your work in passing. Nice blooms. What are they?”
Nobody could have accused the Bergs – I’d assumed there was a Mr – of being unpatriotic. The flower beds were, from top to bottom, red, white and blue, the borders planted in rows of the same colours. Apeman pointed his trowel at the mass of red. “Patagonias,” he said, grinning slyly.
I matched him, smile for smile, but was suspicious. “And the white ones?”
“And the blue ones?”
“Bassoonias. You through now?”
His words demanded a riposte. “What have you got at the back?” I said. “Trombones?” Alas, the repartee appeared to be wasted on my interlocutor, who stood gawking – maybe he’d just learned his few lines. I ambled off to meet the chatelaine.
The front door was not quite big enough to admit a bus. It was reached by three steps, which I tackled in sprightly manner. I negotiated the first two well enough, but came to grief on the top one, falling forwards in front of the iron-studded oak. Cloth tore as my left knee scraped along the concrete. Damn, only a week’s wear and already I would need an invisible mending job. Did we have the necessary practitioners in this great country? You may be pleased to learn that I found one – the elderly tailor I’ve mentioned elsewhere, who worked right underneath my office.
I was still on all fours when the door swung open and I saw the bottom half of a swirling female garment. “Up, Fido.” The voice was as sultry as they come. Think of Lauren Bacall in, if memory serves me rightly, 'The Big Sleep’ and you’re getting warm. I was getting warm. Bogey wouldn’t have been caught like this. I upped, but it took time, for the sound reason that my eyes were travelling over a good deal of woman, covered – I use the term loosely – in a floor-length dressing gown of silvery silk, belted a little off-centre and not quite pulled together. As far as I could tell, the robe concealed little but flesh. The legs went on and on. Artful.
When I straightened up, I saw that the lady was only two inches or so shorter than me, which made her about five-eleven. She had a pleasing display of shoulder-length platinum hair, which had surely had its hundred strokes for the day, a broad face and a wide, smiling mouth. I wondered for a moment why someone who seemed so cheerful would need a man in my line of work. I’m no authority on make-up, so can say only that what I noted seemed to have been applied with skill. The blue-grey eyes could have been called appraising, but for the fact that they were slightly out of focus, which probably had something to do with the whiff of seventy-proof breath I detected. Smoke drifted from a cigarette in a long black holder, poised at chin level between two fingers of the right hand. This one was a pure stereotype, but who cared?
She gave me an arch look. “If you always make your entrance this way, you must get patted on the head a lot.”
“Hey,” I said, “I’m supposed to be the one with smart cracks. Mrs Berg?”
“Right. Call me Gloria. You must be Cyril Potts.”
“This way,” she said, crooking a finger. She turned, swishing provocatively. I followed, panting, salivating – nice doggy. We went along a hall and into a large room at the rear. Goodness knows what they call them these days. It wasn’t the main living room. Maybe a bedless boudoir, assuming that boudoirs normally have beds – this is getting complicated. I’m not into interior decor, but ‘French Empire’ came to mind. Gloria swung to face me as we reached an ornate inlaid coffee table in front of a spindly chaise longue, a chaise very longue, a stretch chaise.
“Drink?” she asked, swaying slightly.
I was never keen on the hard stuff and generally speaking took it only to be sociable when offering some to calm a particularly agitated visitor to the office. Also, I’ve always been quite fussy about my favourite tipple, sherry, of which I take only a certain uncommon brand, which I felt sure Gloria wouldn’t have in stock. “I could manage a light beer,” I said.
“I have some that weighs next to nothing,” she giggled, weaving her way to a small bar. Being a detective, I gathered that she was already quite far gone. I let the comment pass. No point in trying to outquip the other party every time.
Gloria slopped liquids around, then wobbled back, motioning me to the sofa and handing me a tall glass with too much froth atop too little genuine booze. Her preference was greenish – and plenty of it. Well, I supposed the sun must be over the yard-arm somewhere in this wicked world.
We sat four feet apart on the chaise. Very proper. Grasping that the circumstances were unusual, I saw no point in proceeding with introductory pleasantries. “Why the chimp out there?” I said, thumbing at the garden.
“Security. I like to have strong men around.”
I took a swig of the drink, collecting a foam moustache. “Okay. Now, Mrs . . . er . . . Gloria, what can I do for you?”
She dragged on her cigarette – the second since my arrival. “I want you to check up on my husband.”
“He’s been away since yesterday morning. I think he’s fooling around.”
I raised my eyebrows. I’d tried raising one, but it was hopeless. “Unbelievable,” I said. “Why would a man want to be detached from a woman like you?”
By way of reply, she flowed along the upholstery and slapped me on the left cheek. Being at the top end of the welterweight range – maybe even middleweight – she wasn’t short of avoirdupois, so it hurt. I retaliated, socking her, left of the chin, with just enough zing to drop her back where she’d started.
Massaging her jaw, she said: “My, you’re masterful. What do you charge?”
I told her. She took another gulp of her elixir. “My God,” she said, “I was looking for Sherlock, not Shylock.” Even with a load on, she was bright enough. I gave her the routine patter about the dangers and uncertainties of my work, but she wasn’t really listening. Suddenly, while I was in mid-sentence, she flipped the cigarette-holder onto the coffee table, missing the huge ashtray by a foot. I was wondering about the effect of the still-burning gasper on that exquisite woodwork when she hurled herself my way, spilling her body over me like sauce on pasta.
I didn’t know if the Boy Scout’s motto was still ‘be prepared’, but I coped to the best of my ability. It was fine while it lasted – and I won’t tell you how long that was. Look, she was a lot of woman and had moved pretty quickly. I’d like to know how the next man would have fared.
We’d barely restored order when the door opened, admitting a man who bounced in, full of beans. He was a formidable-looking fellow, about an even six feet, with close-cropped black hair and, like the chap outside, all chest and shoulders. His left hand held a fat black briefcase. “Hi, Toots,” he yelled. “Thought I’d come home early.”
My new girlfriend stood and faced him. If a serpent can be upright, she managed it. “Early for today, maybe, but what about yesterday, Tom Berg?” she hissed. “You didn’t come home at all. Where were you, you louse?”
The man opened his arms. “Now wait a minute, Honey,” he said. “I can exp –”
“Explain be damned,” my playmate shouted. “It’s that red-headed witch at your office, isn’t it?”
Whatever reply the ox had in mind was frustrated by his spouse, who whipped out a gun – I swear I don’t know how she got it – from her swirling folds. She blasted off, taking a chunk out of Berg’s right-side shoulder-pad and, unless I was mistaken, a fragment of his anatomy.
He looked at the hole, then plucked away a few fibres of finest worsted. “Oh, come on, Sweets, there’s no need for this,” he said. “These threads moved me back a month’s pay.” He was probably right – it was a top-class suit – but he didn’t seem to care about whatever wound he’d sustained.
“You rat,” screamed Gloria. “I think I’ll just put one where it really hurts.” She trained the gun about twenty-five degrees downwards, with unmistakable intent.
Berg was quick. He slung the heavy briefcase at his wife. It hit her on the right elbow, causing her to drop the gun.
She was tough. The reaction was a short “Aahh,” as the arm hung at her side. She didn’t even rub the offended spot.
“Maybe I should go,” I said.
“Shut up, schmuck,” Berg snarled.
“Yes, quiet, schmuck,” said Gloria.
I vacillated for a moment, wondering how I might collect my fee from this nuthatch. Then I thought that King Kong might come in from the garden and endorse the view that I was a schmuck. There’s a Spanish proverb to the effect that if three people call you an ass, you should don a bridle. I peeled myself from the chaise and was trying to work out my next move when I saw strange looks pass between Gloria and her husband. They hesitated for an instant, then leapt together in a major clutch. Considering that they were limited to a left arm each, they made a fair job of it.
There was some affectionate muttering, then I coughed. “Er, well, shall I leave, then?” I said.
Berg looked at me in mild surprise, as though he’d just noticed my presence. “Yeah,” he said. “We got some making up to do here. Beat it.”
Gloria swung her head my way. Her eyes were now fully glazed. She was as zonked out as anybody can be while still vertical. “Right,” she mumbled. “Take a hike.”
I took a hike, and I hope you’ll understand my admission that I forgot about thoughts of finance and moved quickly. I’d have got out of that house by hook or crook, even if I’d had to pole-vault over a twelve-foot fence onto broken bricks.
Three days later, I received payment, plus a nice note from Gloria Berg, thanking me for my services. I wondered how she ranked them – punctuality, grooming, willingness and ancillary work. She apologised for the left-handed writing.
* * *