PONDHOPPER : NUMBER THREE
Damn Willie the Zilch. I cursed the wretched fellow fluently, but quietly. It was advisable for outsiders to avoid making a lot of noise in the Citadel. In fact it was as well for them not to be there at all.
We’re going back some years, to a time before the gentrification of the riverside part of the city. That event caused many denizens of the district to move out, making way for yuppies with the means to spruce up the waterfront. I must say that in my opinion the newcomers made a good job of it. Dreary, grime-streaked facades, reeking of hopelessness, were transformed by pressure hoses and paint. Filthy, jammed sash windows became smart double-glazed jobs. Baskets, boxes and tubs full of flowers sprouted.
Some of the entrenched occupants had stayed on, embracing the new environment. The others had been displaced and though I didn’t know what had happened to them, I felt a twinge of sympathy whenever I reflected on the matter, thinking that life is often a question of winners and losers. I consoled myself then as now with the thought that on the whole things get better – and it doesn’t always have to be a zero-sum game, does it? Let’s bake a bigger cake so we can all benefit is what I say. Anyway, these days a stroll around the Citadel – sorry, the Marina – is a pleasant experience. At the time I’m speaking of, it wasn’t.
The place got its name from the laager mentality of those inhabitants who had gravitated to the spot because it was the only one where they could be housed without too much inconvenience all round. There was a mix of types, including ordinary family folk who hadn’t realised the dream but were still trying, and a sprinkling of youngsters, determined to show their parents that they could cope without interference. Then there were the no-hopers, whose attitudes suggested that they wouldn’t make it anywhere, anytime. Where are they now? I don’t know. Maybe we’ve produced that larger cake I mentioned and they’re prospering. I hope so.
However, you’re not paying me for a sociological critique. The point is, what was I doing there? Back to Willie the Zilch. His forename was probably genuine. The sobriquet arose from his tendency to supply dubious or downright useless information to a variety of contacts, including me. Still, they say that even a blind pig finds the odd truffle, and a tip from Willie had helped me in one of my most lucrative cases. Since his monetary demands were invariably modest, I usually paid up, writing off the cost as my contribution to his retirement pension. That turned out to be an unnecessary allocation of funds.
One problem in dealing with Willie was that he was both devious and paranoid and assumed that all his associates were likewise. He insisted on improbable venues for the confiding of his gems. It might have been the garden of a derelict house, some corner of a vast junkyard, or the public toilet block in our main municipal park, the last-named being another place best avoided – I mean the convenience, not the park in general. I expected that he would at some point suggest a meeting at one of our sewerage plant inlets. It was irritating, but I didn’t gripe too much, as he might have supplied another winner one day.
I indicate the past tense as Willie the Zilch is no longer with us, having been injudicious enough to upset Howling Jack Lanigan, which at the time Willie did it was about as serious a mistake as a man could make in this town. I’ll tell you more about Howling Jack later. At present, suffice it to say that for a decade or more, anyone making a list of people to annoy around here would have been wise to put Jack Lanigan at the bottom. To tell the truth, it would have been better to cross him off.
Howling Jack was so called because of his habit of baying like a wolf when anything amused him – and since quite a lot did, he often vocalised that way. I can speak freely about Jack, as he’s also left us.
What Willie did to make Jack mad was to inform the coppers that one of Jack’s unauthorised mobile gambling games was to take place at a certain time and location. Those in the know said that it was purely a slip of the tongue on Willie’s part, but Howling Jack had very firm views on such things. His principles were set in concrete – and it was widely felt that they were not the only things he treated with that substance in mind.
The result of Willie’s gaffe was that the boys in blue called in on Howling Jack’s moving feast and the two sides presented each other with leaden business cards. During this exchange of courtesies, Jack’s chief of staff swallowed a police bullet, sustaining terminal indigestion. Lanigan was of course elsewhere at the time, with a dozen witnesses. Later, having established that Willie the Zilch was, however unwittingly, responsible, he acted with his customary promptness, offering maximum assistance in the matter of Willie’s shuffling off the mortal coil.
On the occasion I’m speaking of, the meeting place was a hundred yards south of a rickety wooden footbridge crossing the murky stream which bisected the wasteland abutting the Citadel. This time, I meant to take Willie to task about his choice of rendezvous, but didn’t get around to it. I was doubly annoyed as I’d been obliged to leave my car in a vulnerable spot, then reach the bridge by way of a disgustingly litter-strewn footpath. Also, it was raining and windy. I cinched up my ‘here’s looking at you, Kid’ trench coat – and continued pounding the ground, which didn’t seem to mind.
My irritation index was rising because Willie was, unusually for him, late. Well, at least he’d picked the right time of day. It was nearly dark. He came across the grassland – as I’d crossed the bridge, we were on the side remote from the Citadel – trudging through what looked like the detritus of many a trash can. Why have it collected when you can just throw it around? Please don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only reporting what I saw.
Being a detective, I should have realised that a bridge must lead from one place to another, but that didn’t occur to me then. Willie shimmied up to me, furtive as ever, not speaking until he’d turned full circle, peering into the gloom. He would have carried out a three-sixty visual sweep even if we’d been meeting in broad daylight in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Maybe he owned a topcoat, but I’d never seen it. He was clad in his standard synthetic black suit, whitish open-necked shirt and black sneakers, all shiny-wet. As that seemed to be his only apparel in all weather, I wondered when and how he got it dry or clean.
There were never any introductory exchanges with Willie. He always got straight to the point. “I hear you been hired by High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe,” he muttered.
I gave him my best non-committal look. “My, Willie,” I said, “what big ears you have.”
“Aw, come on,” he said. “I ain’t the only one who knows. It’s all over town that Drop-out Donny lammed it, owin’ Henry two grand in card debts. Rumour is that Henry’s offerin’ you three Cs an’ your charges to look him up.”
“Ah, Willie,” I said, “it’s a terrible disease.”
“Rumourtism. Anyway, supposing for a moment that there’s any truth in this tittle-tattle, why are we here?”
Willie looked around again, lowering his voice even more. “I know where Donny is,” he said. “I figure it must be worth a half-C to you. It’s a sure thing an’ you’ll still be two-fifty ahead.”
I wasn’t too familiar with social observations, but seemed to recall that it was one of the Carnegies – Dale, maybe? – who remarked that people just love to hear their names said by others, time and again. “Willie,” I said. “Willie, Willie.” I thought that was about enough. “I owed you one some time ago, but I’ve surely paid off by now. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about Drop-out Donny, but for old times’ sake I’ll go to the half, just for eating money – and this is the last time I have to live, too.” I handed over the fifty dollars. “Now, on the off chance that I meet someone who might be interested, where is Donny?”
Willie shrugged. “I can’t figure it,” he said, “but he’s just eight miles out of town. He could’ve gone anywhere, but that’s where he went. Cabin seventeen at a place called Randle’s Motel. It’s on the south –”
“I know where it is,” I interrupted. “I live here, Willie.”
“Er, oh, sure. Well, he’s there now – or was, this afternoon. Look, I gotta go.”
“Okay, go.” I turned and was buffeted back to my miraculously still intact car, pondering on Willie’s tip-off. The first part of his information was sound. I had been hired by High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe to find Drop-out Donny. Now you need an explanation.
Cunliffe had arrived in town around three years before the incident I’m talking about. The word was that he’d made a name for himself in various parts of the Midwest. I saw him shortly after his arrival and guessed he was in his middle forties. Superficially, he was nothing more than a very successful card player. Nobody accused him of shifting the odds his way, since it was accepted that the professional is almost sure to beat the amateur over a distance. I was told that it’s partly psychology, but mostly a matter of knowing something about the laws governing such things. Be that as it may, few doubted that High-Stakes Henry had certain less acceptable pastimes.
What Henry wanted me to do was find Drop-out Donny and inform him that rapid payment of the two grand Willie the Zilch had mentioned, plus a hair-raising sum in interest, would be appropriate. Well, Henry was in a risky business and maybe five per cent a week was the going rate. I had no brief to indulge in any rough-stuff, my instructions being merely locate and advise.
Drop-out Donny was a scapegrace and all-round hellion in his early twenties. He’d turned up in our city at about the same time as Henry Cunliffe. Since his arrival, Donny had never been known to indulge in anything so vulgar as work, but he seemed to do well enough; always immaculately dressed and never short of cash. He also had a reputation as a smooth talker, and if the gab didn’t get him whatever he wanted, he was an expert with firearms. He got his nickname from his habit of disappearing at times, especially after some major felony occurred in the city. I’d supposed he was just shy. Well, some people are.
I didn’t want to spend too much time on the case. For one thing, three hundred dollars – well, less the fifty now – plus my usual fees was no big deal and for another, failing to make haste in accommodating High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe was not good policy. It seemed best to get to Randle’s Motel without delay, so that’s what I did.
I reached the place at nine o’clock and didn’t bother to consult the youth sitting at a desk in the shack which served as an office. The units were all separate timber-built chalets. I drove at walking pace to number seventeen, then went on to number twenty, partly because it would have been stupid to stop at my goal and partly because twenty was the next unit that seemed to be unoccupied.
I slunk back to number seventeen. Don’t ask me why I behaved that way. Perhaps I was just conforming to type. Apart from innate caution, there was no need for me to be surreptitious. I was the good guys, wasn’t I?
There were lights on in the cabin. Now I was confronted with the old problem. Does one crash in, gunned-up, or steal around seeking a weakness? To be honest, it wasn’t really a headache. There was a tiny room – I knew it was a shower cubicle – at the rear, ventilated by a grille and an extractor fan. The only entrance or exit possibilities were the solid wooden door and the double-glazed, tilt-and-turn window, both at the front. I got up close. Venetian blinds can be either a help or a hindrance to the sleuth. This one was half and half, as it was lowered all the way, but the slats were near-horizontal. There was a possible bonus in that the window was open a couple of inches. Creeping to the door, I was astonished to find it ajar on such a cool, breezy evening. Whoever was inside couldn’t be too concerned about security.
I was working myself up to making a move when a car swished into the gravelled path between the two rows of units. I did my blending into the scenery act as the vehicle crept along. It slowed briefly outside number seventeen, then crawled on, parking in the next free space. Two men got out. I crouched at the corner of the cabin as they approached. Both drew guns, then one kicked the door and the pair leapt inside.
I moved back to the window. Through the slats and the gap, I could see and hear well enough. I missed the first bit, but soon caught on. It seemed that the invaders had not taken their man by surprise. I recognised Drop-out Donny, lying on the bed and pointing a hefty automatic at his visitors, whose equally businesslike weapons were directed his way in what looked like a stand-off.
For a moment I thought that Donny’s gun was festooned with some of its original packaging, then I realised that he’d used some bubble-wrap to fashion a homemade silencer. Well, a suppressor, really. I mean a gunshot can hardly be silenced, can it?
The first voice I heard was from one of the heavies: “ . . . an’ we’re two to one here, Donny. Our instructions are to collect an’ to break something for every grand outstandin’. You owe two, an’ you got two legs. Then there’s a little somethin’ for the interest. Maybe an arm. Seems right.”
In Donny’s position, I would have been more than slightly alarmed. He took it differently. “Boys, I’m disappointed,” he said. “First that Henry doesn’t trust me and second that he picked you. You’re not up to it, you really aren’t.” Without waiting for a reply, he shot both visitors. Even now, years on, I’m amazed at the abruptness of it. Forget the muted plops you hear on TV. This was two flattish snapping coughs, louder than I would have expected, if I’d had any expectations at all. Incidentally, I’d always thought – albeit without having done any research – that these improvised sound-mufflers were not reliable for multiple shots. Donny’s seemed to work well enough for two, maybe on account of his speed, or perhaps because he’d used so much material.
The toughs dropped their guns, one man clasping his right hand in the cupped left, the other reeling backwards, slapping his left hand to his right elbow.
Although I’d had a couple of cases involving the production and waggling of handguns, this was my first close-up view of shooting, and I’m pleased to say that I encountered very few further instances of it. Just as well, since it’s hugely unnerving.
Drop-out Donny lay there, grinning. “All right,” he said, “it’s over. Go back and tell Henry I’ll be in touch – and leave the hardware.”
The inadequate enforcers lurched out, nursing their damaged wings, scurried to their car and left. This gave me a problem. Donny was right on the ball. Still, I had my reputation to consider. I’d been hired to locate the man and give him High-Stakes Henry’s message. Now, I admit that I didn’t have all the answers, but I did have my code. I went to the door and knocked, trying to make it sound like I was an outraged motel manager. Considering that he’d just shot two men, Donny seemed quite relaxed. “Come right in,” he bawled nonchalantly. “Everybody else does.”
I nudged my way in with a knee, keeping my hands up and out. Unthreatening was the word. “Good evening,” I said.
Donny was still sprawled on the bed, his right hand, with the disconcerting artillery bulge, under the blankets. He smiled. “Ah, you must be a Jehovah’s Witness.” Jolly.
“Now, Donny,” I replied, “don’t be difficult. My name’s Cyril Potts. I’m a private investigator and only the bearer of tidings.”
“Well, that’s a change,” he said. “You’ve no idea what annoying people call in here.”
I made extra-sure that he noted the placatory hands. “Believe me,” I said, “I’ve no connection with anyone else who might be trying to locate you. I bring a simple message from High-Stakes Henry Cunliffe. I’m armed, but it’s only fair to warn you that I’m not courageous. If you’re going to fire that thing, wait till you see the whites of my liver.”
I thought that was a good effort in the circumstances. Donny seemed to have the same view. He chuckled. “You’re different, anyway. To tell you the truth, my last visitors were a little trying. What news from Henry?”
I’d been thinking all along – honest. Mostly, I thought that it was pretty low of Henry Cunliffe to hire me when he’d also brought in the bonecrushers. Clearly, he was a belt and braces man. However, in my business a fellow had to be steadfast. I expected to get paid, so had to deliver. “Henry says you owe him two thousand dollars in gambling debts,” I said, “plus two hundred in interest. My job is to tell you that he’d appreciate immediate settlement.”
With the hands still extended, I shrugged as best I could. “Not my province. I don’t crack skulls, but I can tell you that Henry’s pretty steamed up.”
Donny laughed outright. “You’re a breath of fresh air,” he said. “I wonder why others don’t operate your way. It works. So, two Gs and two Cs, eh?”
“That’s what the man said. He’s authorised me to collect, if that’s all right with you.”
By now, Donny was almost beside himself with mirth. He dug under the pillow, produced a fat wad, peeled off the amount due, rolled up the bills and lobbed them my way. “Don’t bother about identification,” he said. “I recognise you now, and for what it’s worth, I think you’re pretty good.”
I picked up the money. “Thanks, Donny,” I said. “You’ve done the right thing, and I’m glad I didn’t have to get mean about this.”
He snickered. “Yeah, I’ll bet you could be a real beast. And you might like to know there was no need for bloodhounds. I’ve been busy, that’s all. I was going to pay up any day. See, they say blood’s thicker than water and after all, Henry is my father. So long, Cyril.”
* * *