A novel by Ken Johnson
This novel is intended only for readers above the age of 18 years.
1. Monday 4 April 1960
For a moment I thought I had woken up early. I had a vague memory of drinking several glasses of Glenkinchie at Grannies, the nude bar where my mom worked. I couldn't remember leaving the bar and coming back to the office, but here I was, in the bed in my office. I hoped that I hadn't taken the risk of driving home after all that good whisky. I looked at the bed. I had no recollection of getting into it, but I was definitely lying in the cheap metal bed that stood in my office. Yesterday evening I had been working late, poring over a letter that I needed to reply to, and eventually I heard the last street car clattering northwards and I realised that it was too late to go home, so I decided that the best thing I could do in the circumstances would be a bite to eat followed by a few late drinks at Grannies. I sat up in bed and looked around the office a little more. My name, Sam Corsair, and my occupation, Private Investigator, were printed in back to front writing on the door at the back of the office that led into the corridor. On the small table beside my bed, the hands of my alarm clock said it was twenty to seven. The sun was streaming in through the office window. I was just congratulating myself on having plenty of time before I needed to go over and sit at the desk and work on replying to that letter again when I realised that the alarm clock was not ticking: an unintended consequence of leaving the office too preoccupied, and arriving back in the office too drunk, to think about winding the clock.
I stood up slowly and wandered over to the office window. I was naked, but nobody in the street could see me up here on the third floor. The street was full of traffic and there were people everywhere. The clock on the department store stood at a quarter to ten. Whatever was in the letter, and I seemed to remember that it was a client querying the account I'd sent him, it must have been extremely difficult to answer, because the letter, my pen, a blank sheet of writing paper and an envelope were all lying on the desk. I must have been seriously tired.
Yesterday's clothes were in a pile on the floor. I kept some clean clothes in the filing cabinet for these occasions. Every now and then Mom came over, collected my dirty clothes, which she put in with her own laundry back at the apartment, and brought a new clean pile of clothes for me. I picked up the clothes that I'd discarded last night and I slammed them into the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet and then I began to wash myself at the wash-stand in the corner of the office. I could go home and take a proper bath later, since clients only rarely came to the office. I took some clean clothes out of the filing cabinet and a knock on the office door interrupted me. Mom had arrived a bit early. I dropped the clothes on the bed and opened the door. There, standing in the corridor outside the door, was a lovely woman whom I had never seen before. She was maybe thirty years of age, five foot eight, red hair, cigarette in a holder. A white fur coat which she removed and hung on the peg. A red dress with a flower pattern. She had been standing in the corridor, gazing at me through the glass of the door.
"Good morning," I said to her, and she looked at me quizzically. "Come in and pull up a chair while I put my clothes on."
"I will pull up a chair, if you'll come and stand close to me," said the lady, "but I'd rather you didn't put your clothes on."
"I don't recognise you, ma'am," I said, "but I have a feeling that you and I are going to get on like a house on fire." I pulled the chair out from under the desk and turned it around for her to sit on. "May I ask your name?"
"Lydia MacCleod," she said, "Mrs. Call me Lydia."
Lydia MacCleod was on the heavy side, and beautifully dressed and made up. Taking off the coat that she was wearing, she revealed a tight bright red dress with a white pattern of small flowers. She drew delicately on a cigarette in a long pink holder.
"What brings you here?" I asked, sitting on the unmade bed so that we faced each other.
"Probably routine stuff by your standards," said Lydia, fluttering her long lashes. "Some things have gone missing from my house. I want you to find them."
"I will, but before we get involved in discussions," I said, "I charge twenty dollars a day plus expenses."
"My friends tell me that you're worth it," said Lydia, with a deliberate drawl. "In fact one of them said you to charge double. And, you never know, you might get a bonus." The way she shifted in her seat, making her skirt rise to mid thigh height left me in no doubt about what sort of bonus she had in mind. "Especially if you find them."
I was still sitting admiring Lydia's legs, wondering whether the rest of her looked as inviting, when another knock came on the door.
"Sam?" Mom's voice came from the corridor.
"Come in, Mom." I motioned to Lydia to stay on her chair. She played with me, raising the skirt another six inches.
Mom looked at Lydia open mouthed. "Sam, she is gorgeous," she breathed, in awe. "You are the luckiest boy. Who is she?"
"Lydia MacCleod," said Lydia, "I am pleased to meet you."
"I'll be away in a moment," said Mom, "don't mind me. I see my son hasn't bothered to get dressed yet."
"Hang around, why don't you. Join in the fun," said Lydia, "Sam and I are about to begin a torrid affaire of the heart."
"I didn't know that," I said, "but it's welcome news. I can't wait to start."
"I'm sure that as his mother you can teach me a trick or two," Lydia continued.
"I'll be pleased to," said Mom, winking at me as suggestively as she knew how, "I know lots of tricks that Sam likes."
Mom looked in the filing cabinet and picked up my used clothes.
"Maybe you'd best tell me what went missing," I said to Lydia. I noticed a faint fragrance of unforgettable Bourjois perfume.
"I made a list," she said, and she handed me a small sheet of expensive notepaper. I had expected a list of the most valuable possessions of a long established family with old money. Paintings, jewellery, statues, first editions, Lear jets, Mont Blanc pens, Rolex watches, Ming vases, Rolls Royce cars, that sort of thing. Instead it was a list of thirty or forty bits of junk. Bits of pipe, a Tilly lamp, a tin kettle, and so on, and so on. The list ran to two pages, yet there was nothing that anybody would want to buy at a charity auction, let alone risk stealing to sell under the counter somewhere.
"It's a strange list," I said. "Why would anyone except a junk dealer take this? Come to that, where would they take it?"
"I have no idea," said Lydia, and lowering her voice she added, "it's all junk. Worthless bits of bric a brac, gone missing fron a house full to the eaves with antique furniture and oriental carpets."
"But since it's all junk, why not fetch another pile of junk from the nearest garbage dump to replace it all?"
"Because I have this niggling feeling at the back of my head that someone took it and that same someone has a use for it. I want to know what he is up to and who is up to it."
"Yes," I said, "so do I, now you come to mention it. If anyone knows how to make explosives with this pile of bits and pieces, it probably won't be his way of helping the war effort. Do you have any ideas?"
"Sam, why don't you come and see me in my native habitat?" Lydia smiled straight at me, and added, in a tone that suggested she thought it was a bright idea, "Take a long look around the estate."
"I think that's a good idea," I said. "Where is the estate?"
Mom picked up the last of my used clothes. She waved goodbye to us and left the office.
"The estate is in Ramsey."
"Ramsey… Oh, that Ramsey!" I was flattered that a resident in one of the richest towns on Earth would choose me for a private investigator.
"Sure. You could join my staff," Lydia suggested, "just for a week or two, until you solve the case."
"You have staff?" I said, as though I had been expecting her to cope with maintaining a vast mansion all on her own.
"Six of them," she said, "and I call them all servants even though it's more fashionable to call them 'estate workers.' The only things we have to worry about are your job title and when you start. Do you know anything about horses?"
"No," I said, "I saw one in a field once, that's all."
"You had best become a chambermaid, then," she giggied, "and work in the bedroom."
"Whose bedroom would that be?"
"Mine, from about eleven at night until about seven in the morning."
"I'll keep you awake," I warned her.
"I should damned well hope you do," she replied. "The bedroom is a long way from anybody else's bedroom so you can make as much noise as you like. All night if you want to."
"These other rooms that your bedroom is a long way away from," I asked, "will I need to work in any of those?" I only asked in case she had a cute cook or butler.
"If you have enough energy left over after a night on duty to want to visit another woman's bedroom, then you haven't worked hard enough," she told me. "Besides, in daylight you have an investigation to investigate."
"Doesn't your husband share the bedroom with you?"
"Jiminy. His name is Jiminy and he's always away on business. The family firm fills his entire life. Buying, selling, shipping, he's always in the office or out at sea or in some God forsaken outpost of the British Empire, furthering the interests of MacLeod Trading Incorporated. I don't even know where he is at the moment. I haven't seen him for months."
"What does the family firm do?" I asked.
"Exotic furs, for coats," said Lydia, "the expensive variety. Nothing under six hundred dollars. Mink is the cheap end of the range. If it has fur then it's grist to the MacLeod Trading mill."
"Of course," I said, "we can't have multi-millionaires' wives looking shabby."
Lydia replied with exactly the words I wanted to hear. "Now, how about we spend a little time in your bed, over there, and get to know each other? I haven't had a good time with a good man for weeks."
"Putting me to work in the bedroom is a truly ingenious idea," I said. "Are you going to undress yourself or may I undress you?"
"Just take the blouse and skirt off. I'm wearing my best underwear. You give me a definite impression that you'll find the bra, pants and stockings quite absorbing. I certainly do, and besides, undressing completely only wastes time."
Lydia turned slightly so as to show me the zipper on the skirt. I unzipped it and the skirt slid down to her ankles. She was wearing a black lace garter over very sweet black satin panties. She had long, slim legs. I cupped her crotch through the panties and she gasped slightly, parting her legs a little to allow me to reach a little more. In return she held my cock for a moment and gave me a long, cool kiss on the mouth.
Lydia's dress unbuttoned down the back. She let me lift it off her body and then turned around to display the black brassiere to full advantage. This was definitely a lady that I wanted to cultivate.
Lydia sat down on the bed with her legs parted and slid the black panty to the side. She lay back and reassured me, "I'm ready when you are. I can tell that you haven't had a woman for a while."
"You're right," I said, although she wasn't right at all. I put my arms around Lydia and held her close. She gave me an expert prick-tease that made me desperate to get into her. A moment later I was lying on top of her and humping, until we both shared an orgasm.
"Pretty good for a first time," she said, "and we'll do it again in a moment so don't fret. Your cock feels as though it hasn't pumped a woman in years."
I didn't tell her what Mom and I had been doing to each other just a night or two ago. Mom had definitely given my cock some exercise and it had loved every minute. Instead, I said, "You're right. I'm single, virile, and I have to take all the opportunities that come my way."
"Ssh," said Lydia, placing her lips on mine, and taking hold of my cock in her cool right hand. "I need this a lot more than I need small talk."
When we woke up that afternoon, washed ourselves
washed each other, to be more exact
and put our clothes back on, we wandered out of the front entrance to find Lydia's chauffeur still sitting in the driving seat of her cabriolet, waiting patiently. "Home," she told him, and sat with me in the back seats of the car, holding my hand as one infatuated.
"Yes, ma'am," the chauffeur responded, mechanically.
Riding north in the convertible with the roof down we kissed, held hands, fondled each other very intimately indeed, and talked about everything but the case. Lydia said that the estate was a family home and some outhouses, which hardly prepared me for the estate that I saw. Lydia also said that she couldn't see any link between the family business and the pile of junk that had been stolen from the house, and at that stage I didn't see any link either.
The ride took an hour. The MacLeod estate was surrounded by a dilapidated and overgrown wall that might have been eight feet high. Outside the high metal gate of the estate, the car stopped and the chauffeur stepped out to open it. We entered the estate, passed a couple of out-buildings and approached a large house that might have been the country pile of an English Lord. The car entered a courtyard through a high coaching arch. Our chauffeur opened the car doors. Lydia walked around to my side of the car and took hold of my hand.
"We've arrived," she told me.
"How big is this place?" I asked.
"A bit over one square mile," said Lydia. "Grandfather knew what he was doing when he bought this land."
"Maybe you'd best tell me what all these buildings are," I suggested. There appeared to be several out-buildings. It would take a year just to look around all of them.
"You can see them all from my bedroom," she said, "which is another excellent reason to go there first."
Lydia turned to her chauffeur, who was still standing beside the convertible, and told him that he had now finished work for the night. As he drove the car to whichever building it lived in, Lydia steered me towards what looked like the main door. I found myself in a panelled hallway with a couple of large armchairs and an inlaid desk with some paperwork and what looked like a quill pen in an inkwell.
"We'll go upstairs," said Lydia. "I hope I gave you an appetite, sitting beside you in the car."
"You absolutely did," I said. My lips were quite sore, where she had spent so long kissing me.
Lydia led me up the staircase and into her bedroom. "Here," she said, "come over to the window and you'll see all the buildings." I stood beside her and wrapped my arm around her waist. She let me hold her close.
"Is that gate the only entrance to the estate?" I began.
"There's that gate and one other, to the north."
"And are they the only entrances to the estate? I mean, could you climb into the estate from a field?"
"The only ways in are the North Gate and the South Gate. The wall is old and a bit cracked and rickety, but it would be hard to climb over it unless you had a ladder or something."
"And what are the buildings?"
"This is the house. I live here, so does Jiminy if he's ever in New York, and so do Trudy and Gareth, our children. The kids spend most of their time at university but they have rooms down the corridor here, in case they drop by. Jiminy shares this room with me."
"Does anyone else live in the house?" I said.
"The security guard on duty has a room downstairs."
"The guard on duty?" I was surprised that there were more than one, although given the size of the job it really needed more than one person.
"Yes," said Lydia, "I have two. It's a twenty four hour job."
We looked out of the bedroom window. At this time of evening, all the buildings had lights burning and it was easy to see them.
"By the gate are three labourer's houses. The head gardener occupies one, the junior gardener occupies the next one and the chauffeur has the third one. The shed there houses the automobiles and the gardener's tools. There's a gamekeeper's cottage that Jiminy uses as an office and a workshop when he's working here. The housekeeper stays in the east wing of the house. Fanny, the cook, has the house over there near the kitchen garden and her husband doubles as butler and sommelier. There's also a maid and she lives in the outhouse there."
"Do all the staff live here, on the estate?"
"All except MacLeod Trading staff," Lydia told me. "There are two company staff who work in the office here but live in the village, a mile or two away. Skilled tailors and willing dogsbodies, both of them."
"Are there any more?" I wondered.
"There's an apprentice in the workshop," I said, "and an occasional professional golfer. He lives in the village and he charges a huge fee and comes in when anyone wants him."
I thought about all those people for a moment, and I asked Lydia, "Do you trust them all?"
"Yes! Yes," she said with no hesitation at all, "I have no doubt at all that they're good and honest people."
"But they're not allowed in the house."
"They don't need to come in here unless it's for work." Lydia paused for thought and added, "I don't keep them out, or anything. They all have keys. But the staff houses are all comfortable and warm. I know it makes me sound awfully mean to keep the big house to myself and billet the servants in outhouses, but they're really quite all right to live in. Running water, heating, electricity, all mod. cons. If you were a servant, would you prefer your own house, or sharing mine?"
"Sharing yours," I said.
"But you're exceptional," she replied. "You have a special privilege."
"Very special," I said. and I asked her, "Do they know I'm here?"
"No," said Lydia, "but you can tell them when you see them tomorrow."
"That would scare them off," I said. "I want the thief to carry on stealing things until I catch him doing it. I don't want him to stop yet."
"You are a clever man," said Lydia, "you need a false identity, obviously. Can I just tell them that you're my boyfriend?"
"If you want," I said.
"All right, this is what we will do. Sanders, the chambermaid, asked for a few days off," said Lydia, "so you could start your career here working as chambermaid. Nothing too strenuous and you could find excuses to visit all the workers."
"I had not realised how many people it takes to keep a mansion running smoothly," I observed. "Do you never get plain exhausted, keeping the estate going?"
"Not yet," said Lydia, gazing meaningfully into my eyes, "because there's always something exciting happening here."
There was a knock on the door. It was a young lady carrying a tray of hot food.
"Dinner," she said, "for two people, as you requested, Mrs MacLeod."
There was a desk at the side of the bedroom. The young lady put the tray onto the desk and arranged the cutlery restaurant style, then poured two glasses of wine. I looked at her as she re-arranged everything. She was small, slim, with long black hair and an Asian appearance. She might have been seventeen or eighteen years old. Her skin was flawless. I noticed she was wearing shiny red high heeled shoes and glossy tan coloured tights. She wore a uniform dress that clung tightly to her breasts. Despite Lydia's giving me such intense affection and satisfying my every need, I felt a pang of desire for Sanders. I would simply adore taking the dress off and looking closely at the brassiere that she was wearing beneath it.
"This is Sanders," Lydia told me, and then she turned to Sanders and told her, "This is Sam Corsair," she told her, "and he'll be doing your job while you're on holiday."
Sanders looked nonplussed. "I'm only going to be away until Saturday," she said.
"You're indispensable," said Lydia, "I need someone to help out while you're away."
"Is there anything I need to know?" I asked Sanders.
"Nothing that isn't in my daily schedule," she smiled. "It's pinned to the back of the door in my bedroom. Start early, work late, and you'll be fine."
"I shall," I said.
"Goodnight, Mr Corsair. Goodnight, Mrs MacLeod," said Sanders. I think I actually saw her curtsey, although I'd never seen anybody perform the gesture before. I felt as though I had accidentally strayed into the wrong century. Sanders left the room, and Lydia said as though apologising for some gaffe, "This dinner is the best I could think of. I had to guess what you like to eat."
"This," I said, waving one hand at our dinner, "was an excellent guess."
Lydia and I ate dinner from the tray. It was impressive food and the wine was more alcoholic than I had expected. I realised that I had not eaten anything all day and I polished my share off completely.
As we sat finishing off the powerful black coffee, we heard a clock strike midnight. Lydia observed that it was well past both our bed times.
"That's easily fixed," I said.
I wrapped my arms around Lydia, picked her up, lay her as gently as I could on her extravagant bed, and removed her clothing. She wriggled so as to help me. I took my own clothes off as well, and I settled beside her. Lydia held herself close to me and kissed me.
"We have all night ahead of us," she said, "so let's take it slowly."
"Sure," I said.
"My panties are off so I feel very vulnerable," she went on.
"I won't rush you," I said, "until you're completely ready."
"I might not be completely ready for several minutes," she giggled.
I started giggling too, and I held her close at the same time.2. Tuesday 5 April 1960
Bathtime together was fun, but I declined Lydia's sweet offer of breakfast in an early opening restaurant because I wasn't hungry and I needed to get back to my office, sit at my desk and do some serious thinking about the case. I had promised Lydia that I would be back soon. I realised how smitten I was by Lydia MacLeod although I did wonder whether there was any chance of spending some time alone with Sanders. I still had no idea even of her first name, and a girl used to the indulgences and comforts of a room in The House on the MacLeod estate was unlikely to rate highly a metal frame bed which I kept in my office in case I missed the last streetcar through being too busy to go home.
In Lydia's house, the chauffeur appeared without apparently being summoned. Lydia addressed him as Burton, and Burton drove the convertible, with me in it, back to the Bronx and my office. I said thanks and gave him a dollar, which seemed to be sufficient. I wrote down all I knew about the theft, and after six or seven minutes, I had five lines of pencil on a piece of letter paper. I needed to visit the public library. They weren't particularly good at solving crimes, but then I wasn't particularly good at knowing everything that had happened in Ramsey for the last hundred years or so.
By the time I turned up in Grannies buying a salt beef and pickle sandwich and a double size mug of strong coffee from a naked counter girl, I had a rather clearer idea of what MacLeod Trading Inc. had been doing during its long corporate life. It all began in 1868, when Francis MacLeod, a Scottish immigrant from Stonehaven, bought a simple trading post on a trail near where Ramsey is now. He bought it from the family of Gander Johnson, who had put the simple wooden store on the market after Gander went out one day to get hold of a stock of animal skins and was mauled to death by a bear. Francis MacLeod, a crack shot with a rifle, had the idea of adding exotic skins and furs to the stock, and for that purpose he embarked on a series of voyages, each further afield than the last.
Mom wasn't at work in Grannies. I guessed she was taking time off. When I returned to the library and got my books and papers together again, Mom's voice startled me.
"I thought you'd be in here," said Mom.
"How did you know I was here?" I asked her.
"It's your second day on the case. You're always in the library on the second day."
"It's the best place to look for background information. By the way, Mom, when you're next at work in Grannies, do give my regards to Nadine."
"The new recruit?"
"Probably, since I have never seen her before," I said. "Not only does she make the best salt beef and pickle sandwich on this planet, but she looks great naked. Slim, long brunette hair and legs all the way down to the ground."
"Yeah," said Mom, "probably thanks to all the salt beef and pickle sandwiches she takes back-shop and eats when nobody's looking."
"These sandwiches: are they on malted wholemeal bread?" I asked.
"Yes," said Mom.
"That's what I've been doing wrong all these years," I said, shaking my head and full of regrets for my mis-spent past. "I shall switch to malted wholemeal and in a hundred years I shall look like a god," I said.
"I look forward to that," said Mom.
Mom looked at the papers that covered the table in front of me and she asked, "What did you find?"
"Lots of stuff," I said. "Not as much as I would have liked, but all of it is useful. Local newspapers, trade catalogues, passenger manifests from ocean liners, a couple of maps and some corporate accounts."
"Nothing that solves the case. Only that the MacLeod family has a skeleton in the cupboard. Francis MacLeod, born 1850, died 1895 at the tender age of forty-five. Constantly in the papers because of the beautiful women he'd made furs for, but he suddenly disappears from the news pages around 1885. I doubt that the papers would have been so reluctant to talk about his demise if he'd been gored by a lion while trying to gather raw materials for a beautiful coat, for a world famous glamour queen. And even in the nineteenth century, forty-five was an early death."
Mom looked out of the window for a few seconds and asked me, "Do you want to spend the afternoon with me?" She raised her skirt to give me a quick flash of her panties, just in case I didn't know what she meant.
"Sure," I said, "why not? I'm not getting anywhere and I don't have to talk to Lydia again until this evening."
"Come with me, then. My car is outside."
"Do you think Nadine might be free?"
"Free?" Mom laughed briefly. "You couldn't afford her."
"Does she charge fees, then?" I asked.
"No," said Mom, "I was only bitching."
Our apartment was across town. Mom had been missing me. She drove faster than might have been wise, and she kept on reaching across to me in the passenger seat and caressing my cock through my pants. As soon as we were in the apartment with the door closed, she tore her outer clothes off and kissed me, wearing only the pair of neat pink pants with a heart appliqué that she'd shown off in the public library. I stroked her gently between her legs and she pushed down against my hand, so that I could feel every detail. I liked that. Mom had an extraordinary talent for knowing what I wanted her to do, and understanding exactly what my needs were. I was winging it: sometimes I got it right, other times I didn't guess right and she had to direct me to whatever she wanted from me.
Mom pulled my pants to the side. "Go on," she said, "put it in and we'll do it standing up."
Three hours or so later, after falling sideways, making love hard on the carpet, having a long and thrilling session in bed and sleeping a little, the phone rang. I woke with a start, staggered to the phone and picked it up. The voice was Lydia's. My home number was on my visiting card, so the phone shook me out of bed occasionally.
"I've sent Burton to fetch you," she told me. "I hope that's all right. He'll be outside your house in half an hour or so."
"Do you need anything in particular?" I asked.
"I just wondered if you were getting anywhere," Lydia told me, "and of course I'd prefer it if you spent the night with me. You're a pretty good lover. I don't want to waste my chance."
"I'll see you when I get there, then," I said.
I had just finished packing my tatty briefcase with a few clothes and the couple of photocopied documents that I'd copied in the library when Mom came in with those unforgettable panties. I kissed Mom goodnight, hoped she had a good evening at the café and promised to be back in the morning. The fact was, though, I needed to take a look around the estate, and a square mile is a big place to look around.
Lydia came out of the house and opened the door of the car for me. We walked together into the house and as she switched on the light, I quipped, "I didn't think you had electricity in houses as old as this one."
"Yes," Lydia smiled, "we have very special electricity. Four rooms of the house were cabled up by Edison and his workers in 1882, as a sort of demonstration efforts. Francis had the house full of the papparazzi of the day, taking photographs of this miracle of modern technology. It still works, if you ignore all the bits that don't."
"Why'd Edison come here?" I asked, "why not wire up a building near home? Didn't he live in California?"
"All I know is Thomas Edison met Francis MacLeod on vacation in south west somewhere, and they struck a deal about using the house for publicity. There's a letter somewhere from Edison thanking Francis for his help in getting the contract to build the Pearl Street generating station, adding "We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles." He didn't forget Francis in his will, either."
"How much did he get?" I asked, always keen to learn how the rich come by their fortunes.
"Francis was long dead by then. The cheque went to Jiminy. Ten thousand dollars, in 1931 money."
"What did Jiminy spend that on?"
"A golf links," said Lydia, "complete with bar, club professional, eighteen holes and the Edison electric light."
"Which still works," I guessed.
"Perfectly. If you…" Lydia began, and we continued in unison, "…ignore the broken bits."
We burst out laughing. This priceless relic of a long obsolete technology should have been attracting geeks from all over the planet, and I had never heard of it.
Lydia had ordered another magnificent dinner from her staff and this time she had set it before me on the oak table in her dining room. I took the couple of copied papers out of the briefcase and lay them on the table between us. I explained between spoonfuls of soup that in the library I'd found several documents relating to MacLeod Trading and the MacLeod estate. There was a map of the estate and a family tree, although for every other background note I was going to have to rely on my memory.
I put the map onto the top of the pile. "Is this map still accurate?" I asked.
"Completely, I think. The wells have been capped. When piped drinking water came to Ramsey, the local administration decided that the wells were a safety hazard. The water from the well is just as clean as piped water and it tastes better too, so we waited until the local administration drove away and we fitted an electric pump so The House still has well water."
"You are a mine of information, Lydia," I said with genuine gratitude.
"Thanks. And I think the workshop was extended after this map was made."
"Sure. Anything else?"
Lydia shook her head and said, "If I think of anything, I'll tell you."
There was a small brass bell on the table. Lydia picked it up and tinkled it, and a young man appeared in the doorway. He took the remains of the soup course away and, returning, he served us with meat and vegetables.
"Thank you, Fielding," Lydia said to him. Then she turned back to me and said, "I hope you like this. I didn't think to ask, I just chose it because I like it. Fanny told me—"
"Fanny is the cook, right?"
"Yes. Fanny told me that she had some really nice beef in."
I had more sense than to ask what dish it was. It looked like steak and kidney pie, so it probably was.
"It's my favourite, too," I said.
"Take my advice," said Lydia, sounding a tinge more matriarchal than usual, "always pay over the odds for your kitchen staff."
"Oh, I do," I lied.
"Never economise on food," Lydia continued, "because you'll be miserable all your life if you do."
In reality, I thought, the only time I ate a meal of this size and quality was when I ordered it in Grannies and, even then, only after a client had settled one of my larger invoices. Otherwise, salt beef and pickle on wholemeal was good enough.
It suddenly occurred to me that Lydia was a delightfully slender women, with a waist measurement that might have been twenty-seven inches or twenty-eight but which certainly wasn't more than that. She didn't eat like this every night, any more than I did. She was delicate, and so light that I could pick her up without difficulty and carry her around. Which was something I intended to do as soon as the opportunity came my way, to create that feeling of intimacy which does not come from sitting at dinner, chattering over a small heap of photocopies.
"Could you have a look at this?" I asked Lydia, "just to see if you recognise it." I handed her a brochure about five inches by eight. It had eight pages. On the front cover was the name MacLeod Trading Incorporated.
"It's the MacLeod Trading catalogue. Pictures, descriptions and prices of all the coats they used to make." She looked at the front cover and said, "1955."
We leafed through the pictures of women in beautiful coats. "Are these his customers?" I asked.
"I don't think so," said Lydia. "I think they're models. But his customer list was pretty impressive. Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Betty Boothroyd… Barbara Castle came in once but she couldn't afford one."
"Did you ever meet Marilyn Monroe?" I asked, as if it mattered.
"No," said Lydia, "I quite wish I had."
"Have you any idea what happened to Francis MacLeod?"
"Attacked by a black leopard in Africa somewhere," said Lydia, "after running out of ammunition. It was a fearful loss but fortunately his children were able to carry on the business."
"And he left a huge estate, I imagine," I said.
"Enough for Mom and Dad to buy this land here," said Lydia. "This house was already built, but it needed repair. There were some outbuildings, but Mom and Dad put the new buildings up. Now," she continued, "look at me for a moment."
Lydia unfastened a couple of buttons just below her waist and slid her skirt off, revealing panties, garter belt and stockings. I was riveted by the view and the perfume, and I also noticed that she left the skirt on the carpet for her servants to find. This woman most emphatically did not strip and then pick up after herself. I gazed silently upon her beautiful form.
"Does this outfit inspire you to want anything in particular?" she asked after a few seconds of silence.
"Lydia," I said, "yes, there certainly is… I would be most gratified if you would allow me to spend the rest of the night in bed with you."
"I thought you'd never ask," said Lydia, "I don't usually have to resort to stripping."
"But I am most glad that you did, and if it's all right with you, tomorrow I want to take a look around the estate."
"Fine," she said, "as long as I'm still asleep at eight o'clock. I never get out of bed before eight o'clock. Getting out of bed earlier than that is bad for the constitution, makes you lazy and fat and flabby and spotty. Wake me before then and I might have to instruct the servants to spank you."
"Have they ever spanked anyone?" I asked.
"Me," said Lydia, "and my butt hurt for hours afterwards."
"I'll be really, really quiet," I promised.
I gathered the papers off the table and put them back into the briefcase. Lydia and I climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She lay on the bed, arranged herself into an inviting pose and lay still — almost — as I unfastened her blouse and pulled it open. She was, simply, stunning.
We kissed. I held her close to me. Lydia was, suddenly, everything to me.
3. Wednesday 6 April 1960
In the early light I woke beside Lydia's sweet, hot body and I managed to find my wristwatch and look at it without either waking Lydia or getting out of her bed. I found my clothes and carried them to the bathroom, closing Lydia's bedroom door with exaggerated quietness in an effort to let her sleep. My wristwatch said it was just after six a. m., so the time was about right. I wanted to case the joint without being observed too closely by the small crowd who lived in and around the house.
I found the bathroom and took a bath without, so far as I noticed, waking anyone around. I carried my clothes downstairs and there, at the bottom of the stairs, was my briefcase. I tried to remember exactly where I had left the suitcase, but I must have been so distracted by Lydia's powerful sexuality that I didn't think to remember enough detail to tell whether someone had rummaged through it. Fortunately the clean underpants and socks that I'd thought to pack were still in the case. Wearing outdoor clothing at last, and distinctly tired after energetically making love to another man's very willing wife most of the night, I let myself out of the back door into the atrium and then I set out through the coaching arch and along the estate road.
All I knew was I was looking for a thief who steals junk. Which is bound to be pretty much of a wild goose chase, because nobody steals junk. What is the point of risking your liberty for a pile of worthless junk? There had to be more to it than that. Even if, say, I were to run into a man in a mask and a prison uniform carrying a sack of Lydia's twisted and useless scrap, the story would have barely begun. The question was what did the man in the prison uniform intend to do with it all. But at this moment there was no man, no mask and no motive. I had gained a girlfriend but done little to resolve her problems, let alone earn a living.
I looked around. On my right were four houses, all of which according to Lydia were occupied by estate staff, while behind me was the office of MacLeod Trading. There was one light burning in an upstairs window in house number 3, and that seemed all. The rest of the estate was quiet with nothing moving, and some stuttering bird song. Beyond the four houses, pretty much directly ahead of me, was a brick building of little architectural merit. Lydia had not mentioned this building so instinct told me to wander up to it and take a look. From the building came the noise of a motor turning. The building had a door and a couple of small windows. Beside the door, fixed to the wall, was a metal sign saying Water Pumping Station, No Unauthorised Access and a phone number for contact in an emergency. I could hear the machinery at work inside the building. I made a sketch in my notebook. This would serve, if nothing else, as something to stare at while I was in the office and trying to work out what was going on.
There was a perfectly serviceable lock on the door, but when I pushed the door I found that it was not locked. Inside the building the noise was louder, but it was too dark to see in any detail what was there. I waited for my eyes to accustom themselves to the darkness, and after a while I could make out a concrete floor strewn with various rubbish like straw, leaves, grass cuttings and a couple of pages of a newspaper. I moved carefully around the edge of the floor since, I thought, being a pumping station there could be moving machinery or even a sheer drop in the centre. As I walked around I became aware of a low hiss from somewhere on the far side. I walked further around, standing close to the wall. The hiss came from a low, blue flame. The flame was heating a small copper tank, from which the steam was being carried up a narrow copper pipe.
This was a small private still, from which someone had been distilling moonshine. It looked old enough to have been built in anticipation of Prohibition and, obviously, someone was keeping it filled and fuelled. And someone had maintained it with spare parts, obviously the same sort of junk that Lydia had reported missing: a tilly lamp for the flame, pipework, tubing. So I guessed I had now done the job that Lydia had hired me to do. The stolen scrap metal had made its way here and now formed part of someone's still. There was even some other scrap lying around on the floor nearby, just to confirm my theory. Of course, finding this ironmongery lying around in a fifty year old brick shed asked more questions than it answered, chief among them who would drink this garbage when a perfectly good bottle of Scotch could be bought for a few dollars, but I could now go back to Lydia and tell her the answer to the peculiar petty theft that had been troubling her.
I opened the door to leave the pumping station and I looked around. I noticed a plastic cup on the floor and instinctively I picked it up and noticed how warm it was. Someone had been in the building recently, maybe half an hour ago. Outside in the fresh air I looked and listened, but there was nobody around.
I thought the best course of action was to let Lydia know what I'd found and ask her if I might continue to work on the case for a few days. After all, although I had now discovered the missing bits and pieces, I was still greatly puzzled about what was actually going on. I walked back to the house and let myself into the lobby. I looked up and the small clock on the wall told me it was twenty minutes past seven. I settled into the chair and waited for Lydia to come down the stairs. I told myself that I might have to wait a while for the woman who never rose before eight o'clock, but that her beauty would make the wait worth the while.
Sanders, the maid, woke me. "Have you seen Lydia?" she asked me.
"Not since five this morning," I said, startled and hoping that I had not breached Lydia's privacy by disclosing where she and I had been at five in the morning.
"Were you drinking heavily?" she asked, "Because she's always out of bed by this time."
"Why, what is the time?" I asked her.
"Nearly eleven a. m.," said Sanders.
"No," I said, "We haven't been drinking. We are tired for a different reason altogether."
Sanders smirked at me. "She tires a lot of men out," she said. "I can do that, too."
"That's the hell of a gift," I said, and she smirked again.
"I'll show you how well I can do it," she said, "and if we're going to do that sort of thing together then you really ought to call me Sandra."
"Is that a promise,Sandra?" I asked.
"Definitely," she said.
I had no idea it was so late in the morning. Lydia and I had enjoyed an energetic time together and obviously I'd been more tired afterwards than I had given myself credit for, and I'd been asleep in the chair for four hours. Lydia just knew, instinctively, a thousand ways of keeping a man enthralled, stiff and awake.
"I'll go and see if she's OK," said Sandra, "you can't be too careful."
"Is it OK if I just wait here?"
Sandra sashayed up the stairs. I heard the click of Lydia's bedroom door opening, and then Sandra gasped.
"Sam!" she called.
I got out of the chair and I climed the stairs to Lydia's bedroom. There was no sign of Lydia. A couple of things — a bedside lamp, a couple of books, her alarm clock and her pillow — lay on the floor. The things might have been signs of struggle, or just things kicked out in distress. The alarm clock had stopped, with the hands reading 7.50.
"She's not here," I said, looking around. "Did Lydia do anything in the early mornings?
"No," said Sandra, "she got up at eight or eight thirty, had a hot bath and came to the breakfast room for a bite to eat. with or without clothes."
"So this knocking over the furniture and disappearing isn't what Lydia usually does in the mornings," I asked.
"No. No," said Sandra, "she's pretty fastidious about having a tidy room. Lydia!"
Sandra suddenly yelled Lydia's name in a shout that could be heard on Mars. In the quiet afterwards we waited until our ears had stopped ringing and we shook our heads.
"Let's search the house," I said. "Do you have a flashlight?"
"I'll fetch it." Sandra dashed off and dashed back with a heavy metal flashlight. Turning it on, she told me, "It works."
"Good," I said, "because I don't have a gun. You lead the way."
"A detective without a gun?" said Sandra. "What use is that?"
"I was looking for a pile of missing ironmongery," I said, "and nobody's going to shoot us over that."
"But a missing heiress," said Sandra, correctly, "is another kettle of fish altogether."
Sandra and I toured the bedrooms, then picked our way down the stairs and around the various living rooms and drawing rooms on the ground floor, finding nothingout of the ordinary.
"Is there an attic?" I asked.
We searched the roof space, then we went outside and looked and yelled in the open fields that surrounded the house. Finding nothing, we went back into Lydia's room, sat on the bed, and thought about things.
I looked around the bedroom again. The windows were closed. I didn't see any blood, or any torn clothing. Either she walked out of the room with nobody noticing, or she was still in here and hidden from me.
"Do you want me to call the cops?" I asked Sandra.
"No." she replied, firmly, "Who knows what the neighbours will think when they see police and detectives crawling all over this reputable house."
"But there aren't any neighbours," I pointed out.
"We might be able to put off calling the poice in," said Sandra, "until we have some useful information to tell them."
"In that case," I said, "let's hope whoever did this is not still on the premises. I'm off to take a look-see. Give me five minutes and if you don't hear from me it means I didn't find anything and you can call the police in."
I went out on the prowl again. After an hour of walking, opening doors, lifting anything that lay on the ground and looking under it, all the while keeping my eyes peeled, it was clear that if anyone had been in the house, they were long gone now. I thought I could see fresh tyre marks on the road that led from the house to the gate of the estate, and the car was still where Burton had left it, so maybe Lydia had been abducted in a car. Possible, but the car would have had to be silent, as any noise in such a quiet garden would surely have attracted some attention in the middle of the night. Or maybe Lydia had simply forgotten an appointment, remembered it some time around eight in the morning, called a taxi and left without saying goodbye. Or maybe she had been neither abducted from the house nor expected at an appointment, and had simply got up and walked out. Some people do that, and of those, some are never seen again.
Back in the library, I searched newspapers and magazines from long ago for the advertisements with which Edison had sought to raise interest in his electricity generation company. I didn't imagine that these advertisements would lead me to any clear understanding of what was going on in the house. I was just curious to see the photographs. I skimmed through dozens of newspapers around those dates, and I found the pictures. Recognisable as the entrance lobby, the dining room, the kitchen and the main bedroom, all lit by Edison's electricity, these were probably the photographs without which Ramsey would still be in darkness any time after sunset. Or to be more precise, Ramsey would have been in darkness until the arrival of Westinghouse lighting a few months later.
Any connections that she, or her family, had in the underworld could have been the first clue as to what had happened. The only connection to anything that I found was the connection of the MacLeod estate to the Edison electric lighting company, and that connection was fifty years or so ago. The key to the disappearance lay elsewhere, if it existed at all.
I was still sitting at that desk in the library when the newspapers got hold of the story. I saw the newsboy across the street shouting "City News! Read all about it!" beside his stall, which bore a poster that read, "MacLeod Heiress Vanishes!" I guessed that Sandra Sanders had told her fellow workers and one or other of them had told the Press. Then I saw the porter bring up a small heap of newspapers and lay them out on the tables. I picked up the City News and found the story on the front page.
MacLeod Heiress Vanishes!I felt very flattered. Here I was, named in the Press as a top ranking private investigator. To illustrate the story there was a picture of Lydia at her last social engagement, where she wore one of her most indulgent sables and sat at table with millionaire socialites Stefen McCracken and Woodrow Edeson. The three of them were sitting at a table in a restaurant that would not even open its doors for the likes of me. This was one picture I wanted to cut out, frame and hang on the bedroom wall. I wondered for an instant what she saw in me. Still, she wanted a top private investigator to solve her petty crime, and I had immediately given her a much bigger problem, which is what always happens if you hire a private investigators for long enough.
Police, Top PI Baffled!
Lydia MacLeod, the story went on, the beautiful wife of Jiminy MacLeod and heiress of MacLeod Trading, New York's vendor of animal fur apparel to the rich and famous, disappeared early this morning from her luxurious mansion in Ramsey…
I was still sitting, half an hour later, riffling through a pile of newspapers from long ago and wishing fervently for some conclusion to assemble itself in my head when the porter, the same one who had brought the local papers up to the reading room, walked up to me and asked, "Are you Sam Corsair?"
"The world's Number One private investigator, at your service," I said.
"Could you come to the telephone? A woman called for you and said it's urgent."
"Sure," I said. "How did you know it was for me?"
"She said," he paused to breathe in, "that you looked like a tramp in a homburg."
"In this profession," I said, "the ability to describe people succinctly and accurately is essential. Lead on, sir."
"This is Norma, from Grannies," said the voice on the phone.
"Oh, God," I was flustered, "is this about Mom?"
"Not at all," said Norma, "it's her day off. No, I rang your Mom to find out where you would be, and she told me to try the reading room at the public library."
"Well done for finding me," I said, "and describing me in such recognisable terms. I was planning to come down to the bar around half past midday."
"Maybe you should drop everything and come straight away. I've got a message for you. A man came in, asked if this was the place where you came in for lunch, and he gave it to me. He gave me a scrap of paper with a message on it. Can you come here as soon as possible to pick it up?"
"I'll be right over," I said. "What does it say?"
"I'm not wearing my glasses," said Norma, who was probably wearing nothing at all and looking glorious in it, "but I'll try. Everything is all right. Don't come, she paused as though trying to figure out difficult handwriting, looking for me. With love, Lydia." That's all of it."
"Nothing," said Norma, "except we have a new girl, Ellie."
"In that case I'll definitely be right over," I said.
I thanked the porter, who smiled and told me, "Nice to meet you, Mr Corsair."
—Many things that might have happened to Lydia went through my mind, all of them contributing to the generally anxious state I was in when I went into the door of Grannies Bar and Norma caught sight of me. The note was behind the bar, and she handed it to me.
"Is this all?" I asked, unnecessarily.
"Yeah… the man came in, picked me at random as far as I know, asked if you were known here and when I said yes, he gave it to me."
"Thanks, Norma, you may just have saved a woman's life."
"I hope nobody's been hurt," she said, "I saw the newspapers."
"Probably they haven't. Not yet, anyway." I looked at Norma, taking in her sheer beauty, and I thought to ask, "What did the man look like?"
"Cute. White, beard, about five foot eight, black hair cut short. Rich… you know, the way they talk, I can tell, seriously rich."
"Well dressed. Suit and tie. I'd like to see him again."
"Because a man that cute and rich definitely shouldn't go home alone and spend a night by himself. What a waste."
"Not married. Expensive Bengal stripe shirt but not ironed," Norma counted on her fingers, "third button missing, shoes not cared for."
"That's beautiful. I'll make a police officer of you yet."
"Whatever people say," Norma smiled.
"By the way," I said, "thanks for describing me so accurately to the porter in the library."
"My pleasure," said Norma, "now go and sit somewhere and I'll send Ellie to you with a decent lunch."
I took a seat on the edge of the dance floor. There was nobody dancing. That would come later in the evening. I was still carring Lydia's note, so I looked closely at it in the hope that I'd notice that it had some odd, unaccountable feature about it which would lead to the capture of a criminal. The message was written in blue biro on a sheet of notepaper torn from an eight by five inch writing pad, neatly cut along three sides but with a rough edge at the top. Everything is all right. Don't come looking for me. With love, Lydia. It might have been written in a hurry: no explanation, no location and no Dear at the beginning. I couldn't vouch for the handwriting. Although the message was signed Lydia and it looked like an adult woman's writing, it could have been anybody's. Besides, Lydia was not the sort of woman who wrote with a biro. It would have been beneath her. Lydia was cut out to use a real pen like a Parker or a Mont Blanc.
I held the paper up to the light. It said Basildon Bond backwards, meaning that Lydia had been writing on the reverse side of the paper. Nothing else of interest except a couple of ink marks where the tip of the pen had rested on the paper.
"Hi," came a woman's voice.
"Oh, hi, I'm Sam and I'm really pleased to meet you."
"I'm Ellie," she told me, "Ellie Corelli."
Ellie was beautiful. She could never have been a granny. She might, just, have been thirty. She was naked apart from bright red high heeled shoes. She carried a tray in her left hand and from it she arranged some cutlery and a plate of lunch on the table in front of me.
"Is that your school uniform hanging on the hook behind the door?" I asked.
"I'm a teacher," she said, "and we don't have to wear uniforms."
I had a vision of myself dipping into my wallet, handing her a hundred bucks in unused bills and telling her confidentially that as a young, beautiful and innocent lady she really should not get involved with base old lechers like me. Sandly, such philanthropy was beyond me. Besides, honestly, I couldn't imagine anything more pleasurable than gazing upon Ellie's undressed form.
"I get paid more for spending two hours here than for an entire day teaching kids to read," she told me, "so if that's what they prefer to pay me for doing, I'll strip off and knuckle down."
"You'll be a big hit here," I said, "especially with me."
"I'm glad to be a big hit with the top private investigator in New York," she told me.
"Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers," I said.
Ellie turned and sashayed off, showing her perfectly curved rear. Lunch was steak with vegetables, totally delicious and I ate every scrap. Then, perhaps inspired by Ellie's turning around and displaying a most memorable view, I turned Lydia's message over. The message was face down, but there were two ink dots where the biro had touched the back of the message. I stared at the paper. The message had been written with a retractable biro, probably belonging to her captors, or her new friends, who could tell? She had retracted the biro and dragged it around, leaving no ink behind, but a crease in the paper. Held at the right angle, the crease was just about legible. It read, City Hall St.
The message was, indeed, a cry for help. In the jargon, a steganograph: appearing to carry one message, in reality it carried another. I guessed that the bad guys had given Lydia a sheet of paper, and Lydia had scratched her secret message on one side while writing an anodyne reassurance, possibly dictated word for word by the criminal, visibly, in ink, on the other side of the paper.
I looked at the message again. City Hall St. It was now about six hours, maybe seven, since Lydia disappeared, so it seemed likely that she was still in New York. Then it hit me that this was not a ransom demand. Maybe the criminal didn't want to make a demand yet, or else he would send the demand to someone else, or the criminal didn't want to demand any money at all and had some other motive which I couldn't as yet guess.
I left two dollar bills for Ellie and Norma to argue over and I went out into the street. I had to wait about two minutes, which seemed an abominably long time, before I could stick out my arm and flag down a yellow cab.
"City Hall Street," I yelled, louder than necessary.
The driver was a middle aged black man with a moustache and sleek hair, wearing a jacket of a conservative chequered pattern. He regarded me with an air of incomprehension and told me, "Ain't no City Hall Street."
"There's no place called City Hall Street?"
"You got it," he nodded. "You're Sam Corsair, New York's finest private investigator, right?"
"Yes," I said.
"I seen your photo some place. Fester Carr, New York's finest taxi driver, at your service, Mr Corsair. I am most honoured."
I was flattered and also a little panicked. Nothing ever seemed to be straightforward. My client and pro tempore lover was, as we spoke, apparently a prisoner in a cellar or an attic somewhere on a street that wasn't on the map.
"There's an ole subway station there," the driver told me. "It closed in forty-five. I can take you to where it used to be, if you want."
"Sure," I said. I climbed in and the yellow cab moved off. "Take me to where City Hall Station used to be."
Of course! St meant Station, not Street. Lydia was somewhere on the disused subway station at City Hall.
"All that's left of it, at street level, Mr Corsair, is a grubby metal shelter, and that's all locked and shuttered. The easiest way to get into City Hall," the driver told me, "is to go to Canal Street station and buy a ticket to Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn is the end of the line, but don't get off. Stay on the train. It runs through City Hall Station as it turns around."
"You're the expert," I said, "take me to Canal Street Station."
On the journey, as the taxi headed for Canal Street, I realised how ill equipped I was to deal with the bad guys in a disused subway station. I had left my gun in the office, but I had long ago convinced myself that the only way to deal with armed criminals is to buy the best health insurance you can afford. I knew nothing of the layout of the building, while the criminal had probably spent hours poring over drawings and rehearsing the kidnap. Worse, I didn't have a flashlight, so unless by some happy co-incidence the person who boarded up and locked the disused station had accidentally left all the lights on, I would be a sitting duck.
"Canal Street Station," said the driver. I paid him. He fumbled in the glove compartment for a second and handed me a small flashlight. "Here," he said, "you gonna need one of these, Mr Corsair."
I took it with gratitude. "Fester," I said, "you probably just saved my life."
"Now you get in there an' give hell to them crooks," said Fester as he drove away.
On board the train from Canal Street, I chose a seat at the front of the first car and I tried to sit in a place where the motorman wouldn't see me if he opened the door and looked for occupants at the end of the line. I hoped that the motorman would fail to look for passengers travelling beyond Brooklyn. I was wrong, of course. When the train squealed to a stop at Brooklyn, everyone except me left the train when the doors opened and the next thing that happened was that a uniformed official boarded the first carriage and walked straight up to me. He had a rasping Bronx accent.
"Hey, you," he called, pointing, "this is the end of the line. You have to get off the train."
"Can't you possibly let me ride through the City Hall platform?" I pleaded with him. "It's world famous and I won't get another chance to see it."
The motorman opened the door and saw us. "What's happening here?" he asked.
"I'm tellin' this fool to get off the train," said the uniform.
"Hey, you don't speak like that to Sam Corsair." He continued, looking at me, "'Scuse my friend. He's had a tough day throwin' out dozens of bag ladies."
"Who's Sam Corsair?" asked the guard.
"He is," said the motorman. "Don't you never read the papers? Here."
There was a creased and torn copy of City News on a seat ten feet away. The motorman went and picked it up, holding it so that the guard could see the front page.
"That's him, there."
"Well, I'll be…" said the guard. "Sorry, Mr Corsair, you be my guest."
"John Luther Jones at your service, sir. Why don't you come an' sit up front in the drivin' seat?"
"I'd be honoured," I said, truthfully, and just a trifle apprehensive that the bad guys might realise something was going on. When there are no trains coming, you can hear clearly along a subway tunnel.
I took my seat up front and the John Luther ordered the guard off the train. He looked at his watch and said, "We can get under way whenever you're ready."
"What do I do?" I asked.
"Push this button here," he said, "then we can go some place."
I pushed it. It was stiff and old and corroded and I needed both hands to press it. John Luther laughed out loud as he watched me struggle with it. The doors closed and the train didn't move.
"Mr Corsair," John Luther addressed me as one explaining the blindingly obvious to an imbecile, "you're s'posed to put your foot on the pedal an' push the lever."
"Forgive me," I said, "I quite forgot. It's my first day on the job."
"That's OK," he said, obviously more nervous than I was.
I pushed the lever forward. The train let out a roar from the motors, and then I heard the bang from a circuit breaker. For a second the lights went out and the emergency lights went on.
"You're only supposed to do five miles an hour round here," said John Luther, and then after he had regained his composure he continued, "Maybe you better let me drive."
With relief, I let him take over. Being a celebrity obviously was not for me.
"I'd really like to get off the train and take a walk around the old station," I said. "I gather it's very beautiful. An architectural gem of a subway station."
"All right," said John Luther, "it is certainly that. So be on the platform when I next come around the loop and I'll look out for you."
"That'll be when?"
He looked at his schedule. "In two and a quarter hours. There's only one platform, so don't get confused lookin' for the other one."
We ran very slowly into City Hall Station so that I could jump out of the cab and onto the platform. I landed on my feet. With the flashlight, I found the stairs leading up to the ticket office, because I didn't especially want the motorman of the next train to notice me and send for the police to catch a trespasser. I didn't realise how dark a subway station would be if someone turned all the lights off. The skylights and shafts which provided light to the station when it was open had all been blocked off and I had only Fester Carr's flashlight between me and falling down the stone steps and breaking my neck. There was some light in the hall at the top of the steps.
I picked my way up the steps from the platform. In the hall I saw a couple of shafts of daylight coming through a partly open door. Someone had forced open the door of the small shelter on the sidewalk. Before the War, passengers would have come in through that door, down a flight of stairs into the hall, bought a ticket and then filed down the second flight of stairs onto the platform. I looked around and listened. There was some traffic noise and the groans of a train in the distance.
"Police. Stand still. Who are you?"
They were two transit cops looking for trespassers.
"Sam Corsair," I said, "private investigator. Don't shoot, I'm unarmed."
"Sam! Fancy meeting you here." We all relaxed. The officer who spoke was Phil Esterhouse, a former police colleague of mine. The other officer, Andy Renko, started work at Hill Street police station a few weeks before I left. "I haven't seen you since at least…"
"Nineteen forty nine," I said, "since when I've scraped a living as a private investigator. How are things going for you?"
"Lots of work," said Phil. "Being re-assigned to the transit force felt like a step down the ladder at first but it isn't a quiet life down here. Never two days the same."
"They needed guys with experience," said Andy. "and talking about experience, I gather you've been busy recently."
"I'm busy right now," I told them. "What brought you here?"
"Joe Public phoned to tell us someone had broken into the station. We thought we were looking for tramps."
"Well, it wasn't me," I said to them, "I took the line that keeps New Yorkers safe. If I'd known that somebody left the door open, I'd have come by taxi."
Andy was puzzled. "Are you looking for a tramp?"
"No, I'm looking for Lydia MacLeod. I'm reasonably sure she's in here somewhere."
"Well, if she's here to catch a train," said Andy, "she's in the wrong place."
"Believe me, if the engineer sees this babe, he won't leave her stranded on the platf—"
The noise of a heavy object crashing to the floor interrupted me. Phil pointed to the booking office.
"That came from over there," he said, pointing.
There was a wooden door leading into the small office behind the ticket window. Phil went over and yelled through it.
"Police! You're safe."
I thought I heard someone behind the door say, "No, I'm not," but I may have imagined it.
Phil tried the door and found it locked, so using all his experience of opening locked doors, he drew his gun and shot the lock at point blank range. There was a tremendous bang, the door fell open, and we walked inside. Our ears were ringing.
Lydia was alone in the office, tied to a metal office chair with steel rope and locks. Thank God, she was still breathing. There was nothing covering her mouth, and she seemed to be awake, but she was saying nothing.
"I think we'd best call an ambulance," said Andy, "we've got cutting gear in the car."
Andy and I were sitting inside Blair General Hospital, waiting for news. Dr Kildare came into the corridor and called us into the ward, where he led us to Lydia. She was asleep in bed.
"I examined her and she's had a severe shock," he said, "and she might take a day or two to recover from it. Some minor injuries, which we cleaned and dressed, but nothing that will keep her in the hospital."
"Can she talk to us?" said Andy, aware of the need to get as much information from her as possible urgently.
"Not yet," said Dr Kildare, "but the loss of speech is due to shock, not to any physical injury that I can see, so by tomorrow she might have recovered the power of speech."
"I'm pleased to hear that," I said. "I'll come back tomorrow morning and take her somewhere, maybe to a relative's house.
"Is it safe for her to go back to her own house?" asked Kildare.
"That depends on how well Phil is doing," said Andy, "waiting for the bad guys to come back to the subway station and fetch her. If he catches them, then she might be safe at home. If he doesn't, and we know neither who nor where the bad guys are, she shouldn't go home."
Dr Kildare asked Andy whether he should fetch discharge papers for Lydia, and Andy said that he would come back to Blair General and take her home.
"Sure," said Andy, "as soon as it's safe I'll come to fetch her."
"That won't be necessary," said Lydia, quite unexpectedly, "I'll call Burton and he'll come for me."
"Could I come back to City Hall Station with you?" I asked Andy.
"Lie back and rest," said Dr Kildare to Lydia, "you've had a severe shock"."
"Hop in," said Andy, "just keep out of the way."
Andy clambered into the shelter that formed the street entrance to City Hall Station and rushed down to the booking hall while I followed at half his speed. Officer Esterhouse was still standing in the hall, waiting for something to happen.
"It's OK, Phil, it's just us," Andy yelled down to Phil as he came down the stairs.
"Thank God you're here," he yelled back to Andy.
"Why, what happened?" Andy asked.
"Nothing. But at least I'll have someone to talk to."
I left by the main door, which was now wide open. Nothing was going to happen here or now. I guessed that whoever the bad guys were, they weren't stupid enough to wander into a defunct subway station with a police car parked outside. Tomorrow maybe Lydia would be in a fit state to tell me what happened. I saw a taxi coming down the street and I hailed it.
4. Thursday 7 April 1960
Just after midnight I arrived at Grannies and found the party in full swing. Mom and Norma were on the bar. Both of them were completely naked. Mom sneaked me a Glenfiddich, a large one, knowing I needed it and knowing even better how empty my wallet was.
"Do you want to make love?" I asked Mom.
"Yes," said Mom, "but you really ought to talk to Norma a bit more. She'll feel neglected. You and I will do it later."
"Will you do that thing where you..." I asked Mom.
"Ssh! Of course," said Mom, "if you can still manage it after Norma's done with you."
"Is she feeling energetic?"
"Constantly," said Mom.
"I heard that." Norma handed a fistful of change to a drinker at the bar and turned towards me. "Come on, let's get together on the dance floor. Put your coat on a chair and let's see what sort of music we make together."
I took the coat off. Norma had recently shaved her pubic hair. Norma threw her arms around me as though she really meant it, and she said softly and close to my ear, "I always wanted to do it with you."
"Why?" I asked. I couldn't think of any reason that such a beautiful, slender, athletic woman would want to make love to me.
"Because you're gorgeous, bright, sensual."
"Do you make love to all the men here?"
"Only the gorgeous ones," she told me.
I ran my hand over Norma's bare buttocks. She had firm, rounded curves and she seemed to love being fondled there. She put her right hand on the crotch of my pants and ran her finger slowly along my cock, from base to tip.
"What's your favourite position," she asked, "for sexual intercourse?" She whispered the phrase most seductively.
I kissed her on the mouth. It was the first time I had ever kissed beautiful Norma, despite having seen her in Grannies a hundred times. Her tongue flicked between my lips and her index finger ran along my cock again.
"See," said Norma very seductively, "you're getting stiff. Your cock understands how much I want you."
"Now, or in a few minutes when I can't take any more of your cock teasing?"
"Oh, honey, you haven't been given a cock tease yet."
In a deft movement, which she must have practised many times, Norma pulled my pants zipper down and slipped my underpants to the side, so that my cock was poking out, like a horizontal flagpole.
"Hey." I was startled and in a moment of foolishness I protested. Norma, I am pleased to tell you, did not stop for a second.
"It's OK," said Norma, "nobody's looking, and anyone who does look is willing you to fuck me." She took the word "fuck" slowly and sensuously. "Which you will," she said, taking the tip of the cock between thumb and second finger and teasing it, "when you're desperate."
"My favourite sex position," I said, "is out on the street, with you standing and leaning against the wall."
"Your wish is my command," said Norma, "do you mean facing each other or do you prefer to slide it up the bum?"
"Vaginal," I said, "but your backside is a delight to see."
There was a fire exit that led onto a back street. We were far enough from any lights that nobody was likely to see us. Outside in the cool air, Norma leaned back against a dilapidated wall and guided my cock into her love opening.
Oh! Oh, my … Yes. she gasped as I slid it inside. "You're perfect. You've not had any for a while, have you?"
Norma had judged my excitement exactly. As soon as I had slid my cock fully inside her body, she pulled her vaginal muscles tight. It was a rare trick performed with rare perfection. I couldn't hold on. I felt a hard squeeze and I pumped my milk into her.
"Oh, oh, that was so good," I said.
"For me too," said Norma.
"I thought girls who did it often stopped enjoying it," I said.
"Maybe," said Norma, "I wouldn't know. Want some more? When did you last fuck a woman?"
"Last night," I said, "Lydia MacLeod."
"The heiress. Was she wearing a fur coat?"
"The second time," I said.
"Do you love her?" asked Norma.
"She has a crush on me. The first woman to look at me and think how nice it would be to take me to bed. It's a shame to take advantage, but she has big breasts, so I expect you to forgive me."
Lydia wrapped hand around my cock and began to squeeze it lightly. "I have had a crush on you since I first saw you. Why do you fuck your mamma when you could be taking your pick of women like me?"
"She loves me," I said, "and she's good in bed."
"What can she do that's so special?" Norma asked me. Her hand had made my cock hard enough to want a second playtime in her magically tight vagina.
"She can spank," I said.
"My mom was a schoolmistress," said Norma. "Her paddle would make you scream with pain. It's designed to treat some very naughty boys indeed."
"Bring it in with you tomorrow," I said.
"I already brought it," said Norma. "Your Mom said you needed it."
"Tell me about it."
"It's a wooden paddle, made from oak, for making naughty boys repent their misdeeds, and it works."
"Do I have misdeeds to repent of?"
Norma adjusted her position and guided my cock to her vagina again. "Push it in … Oh! Oh, darling! You have two Oh! unrepented misdeeds to your name, honey."
I felt her tighten her muscles again and the trick worked instantly. I pumped a flood of milk. It was my turn to gasp "Oh! Oh, you darling," as the pleasure coursed through me.
"That was fantastic," I told her, "I really want to see you again."
"You're telling me this date is over?" she asked me.
"Can you do the same trick with your rear?" I asked.
"Sure," she smiled, "thanks to a lifetime spent under the paddle."
"So can we…"
"Sure," said Norma, "when you're ready, call me over."
"Can you come to my office? I have a bed there and Mom will never know."
Norma kissed me, really hard and affectionately on the mouth. "I'm here until six in the morning," she said, "so if you want more, you can just hang around." Norma saw me reaching down and starting to adjust my underpants and my zipper. "Leave those," she said, "I like to see it out on display."
"Just leave it out?"
"Well," she said, "look at me. I'm showing everything. You can show me six inches, surely."
Norma kissed me again. "I shall," I said, and we went back through the fire escape and into the bar. For an instant I was dazzled by the jazz, the cigarette smoke and the coloured low lights.
Norma held my hand and led me across the dance floor and, quite suddenly, stopped. "That's the man who brought a message for you yesterday," she hissed.
"How mad, bad and heavily armed did he appear to be?" I asked her.
"No worse than anyone else," she said, which was her way of subtly letting me know the guy was two Green Shield stamps short of a grand piano. If Judge Dredd appeared in here carrying ten tons of lethal weaponry, he would be outgunned by the other customers.
"Well, if he wants to talk to me, I suppose I'd best go within talking distance of him," I said.
I kissed Norma, and she kissed me back with real affection. When I told her that I hoped to spend more time with her, she said she would be very happy for me to see her any time.
"I'll go and talk to him," she said, "so you'll know which one he is."
For some reason I felt it necessary to tidy myself up and fasten my pants together so that I looked sane, if not actually normal. Norma walked between the tables and stood beside the fellow, asking what he wanted to drink. He was wearing a natty suit, six foot nothing, with black hair and a beard. But, useful though it was to know which diner appeared to have spent the day looking for me, it was not necessary for Norma to go to so much trouble to point him out. As soon as I took a seat, at an empty table surrounded by four chairs, he stood up and strode over to me.
He said, "Mr Corsair, I need to speak to you."
"Go ahead," I said, "as long as you don't interrupt my drinking."
"Don't worry. I won't. You spent today looking for Lydia MacLeod," he said.
"I did," I said, "and I found her. Now, suppose you tell me who you are?"
"I'm Woodrow Edeson." He pronounced it Edison. "I work for Edeson Research."
"Did you hand deliver a note for me to the barkeeps here?"
"Yes," he said.
"Who wrote the note?" I asked, adding, "Where'd it come from?"
"Lydia, I think. I went to her house to give her some bad news and she was already missing. Her maid Sanders said that you had been talking to her. She guessed that if you weren't in your office, you might be in here."
"And the note was where, exactly?"
"On the floor in the lobby. Could have blown there, been dropped, or put there on purpose, but it wasn't hidden. It was meant to be seen and read."
"A private eye in an office is a private eye without a wage packet," I said, trying to sound profound. "And Sandra Sanders is not only beautiful, she's right about every point of detail. So. tell me, what does Edeson Research have in common with the world's greatest collector of fur coats?"
"Lydia is taking a greater risk in this business than she thinks. The main thing is that you need to look after her," said the guy, "and the other main thing is, don't take her back home."
"Supposing she just had a severe shock and she wants to go back home and rest?"
"Put her in a hotel. Give her a return ticket on an overnight train to Alaska. Get her on a slow boat to China. Get her a job in a bed factory and tell her to sleep in the job. Lock her up in Alcatraz if you have to. Anywhere but home."
"Why? Her home is probably, definitely the best home I ever saw. It's like a castle in the Alps, only it has more rooms and a walled estate and the nearest Alp is four thousand miles away. Why can't she go back there?"
"I could explain better if we were talking in your office."
Thus it was that around two in the morning, I was breathing Glenkinchie fumes over Woodrow Edeson and doing my best to talk to him at the desk in my office. Woodrow insisted on dragging a suitcase up from his car. He slammed it on the desk and opened it. It contained a selection of kitchen utensils: a saucepan, a kettle, a couple of things that I didn't recognise. Probably some sort of cookery stuff for posh food.
"Drink?" I said. "It's good Scotch."
"No thanks, I'm working." he said. "I am going to show you something that will astonish you."
"If it isn't David Nixon," I said without enthusiasm.
Edeson took the saucepan out of the suitcase and carried it over to the wash stand. He half filled it with water and stood it on the desk. It looked to me like an ordinary saucepan of the kind that costs a few cents in a hardware store, except for the electrical rocker switch on the handle.
"Put your hand in the water," he said, "and tell me whether the water is cold, warm or hot. Don't worry, you won't hurt yourself — it's switched off."
I tried it. "It's a miracle," I cried, failing to sound exultant because the little hand of the clock was pointing to the number two. "It's cold, as you would expect from the tap on the wash stand."
"Now take your hands off it. Further than that. A foot or so… you might get splashed."
"Has the No Crackpots sign falled off the office door again? I must get that fixed."
"Now watch this," Edeson continued, obliviously.
He pushed the rocker switch. He began counting. "One, two, three…"
"If it's going to fly around the room, shouldn't you be counting backwards?" I asked him.
"It will stay right where it is," he said. "Four."
"Don't tell me," I muttered, "let me guess. It's going to turn the water into wine."
"Sorry, five," said the amazing Mr Edeson, "that feature's in next year's, six, model. Seven…"
Bubbles began to form in the water. After that, steam rose from it. By the time Woodrow had counted all the way to twenty, the water was boiling, and the rocker switch snapped off.
"This is the future of electricity in the home," he said. "Edeson Research has been working on this project for years."
"Electricity?" I waved my arms about. "I don't see any electricity. It's a saucepan full of boiling water. What's this got to do with electricity?"
"There are no wires," said Edeson unnecessarily. "Don't worry about how it works, because it's secret and even if it weren't, only a handful of physicists can understand the theory behind it, let alone see how it works. But it's electricity, all the same, that heats the water, flowing in a completely different way from the one you're used to."
"If a man build a better saucepan than his neighbour," I mused, rather cynically, "though he live in the middle of a forest, yet the world will make a beaten path unto his door."
"Who said that?" asked Edeson.
"It's John Ruskin," I said, "or it would be if he were still alive and somebody showed him a revolutionary saucepan."
"But it isn't just saucepans," Edeson put in.
"No," I said, "I'm sure it's frying pans as well. Look, it's two in the morning and if I don't get some shut-eye in the next five minutes, I don't know what I shall do in desperation."
"Mr Corsair, you have to stay awake just a bit longer than that."
I said, "Nothing doing," but he overlooked it.
"There is no trickery and no deception," Edeson assured me. "This is the power for the lamp of the future, the car of the future, the train of the future, the central heating boiler, the radio, the television…"
"The space rocket, the juke box, the clothes pin and maybe even the kitchen sink. I get it," I said, but actually I didn't get it at all. "So what has Lydia to do with this magical saucepan?" I was mystified.
"The MacLeod family received payments from the Edison Foundation in return for generously loaning their property to Thomas Edison back in the days before Pearl Street."
"Yeah," I said, trying not to sneer or sound too confused. "And?"
"The MacLeods let The Edison Foundation try out some prototypes in her house. The Foundation still funds small scale research to this day. I'm a descendant of Edison. I receive funds from the Foundation and this is my area of expertise."
"Your chosen specialist subject," I said, "being saucepans."
"Exactly. Although for some reason that I can't remember any more, I decided to change my name back to the original spelling."
"So that nobody would realise that you were a beneficiary of your wealthy relatives' trust fund, enabling you to hide from the Inland Revenue behind a smoke screen."
"So," Edeson went on, "these prototypes are all up and running in the MacLeods' house on the MacLeod Estate."
"So Lydia's life is in danger because her cook has a better saucepan than her neighbours' cook," I summarised.
"Pretty much. There's been a long development process and unless something bad happens, this technology goes into the stores in a few months."
"Well," I said, "I wish it well, although personally I'll stick to the gas burner and the box of matches."
"No, you won't," said Woodrow, "not when you see what how your electricity bill drops through floor when you buy Edeson. My ancestor, Thomas Edison, swore half a century ago that he would make electric light so cheap that only the rich would burn candles. Now, I've done it, in his name,"
"And with his money," I said, but my effort at interrupting him failed outright.
"…fifty years later. Edeson Research has fulfilled his vow. Look at this."
Woodrow lifted a cardboard carton from his suitcase and unwrapped a small glass bulb.
"This bulb," he said, "gives as much light as a hundred watt light bulb."
"That's because it is one," I put in.
"Yes, it is. But you could leave it running all year, day and night, and it would cost you forty cents a year."
"Unless it broke and you had to order a new one, wait six months in the dark for the factory to build it, queue outside from Tuesday to Friday and pay a hundred thousand dollars for it."
"Yeah," he said, "that's the weak spot. Reliability comes as a bolt-on at the moment. But imagine paying for all the fuel you need to drive from New York to San Francisco and having change from five dollars."
"Well," I told him, "it's your money, not mine. If I had any money, which I don't, I would invest it in your company. But, look, my job is to make sure Lydia doesn't get shot while I'm working for her. Who's planning to break in and steal all the prototypes? That is what's on your mind, isn't it?"
"Yes," said Edeson, "I expect an attack on the MacLeod's property. Lydia was carried off and hidden."
"Yeah, a routine kidnap attempt, which the Police foiled. Ransom note T. B. A. Or do you think Mr Westinghouse recruited and equipped an army and is planning an attack on the kitchen?"
"I don't think it," said Edeson, "I'm sure of it. Apart from who's behind it. Westinghouse isn't a suspect. It's someone else."
"I should damn well think it's someone else," I said, "I wasn't being serious. I play golf with Mr Westinghouse."
"Really?" asked Edeson.
"No, I don't. I couldn't afford to play golf with Westinghouse if I saved every penny I earned for the next million years. I was just lying. Who do you think is behind it?" Edeson asked me.
"I think you watch too much television," I said. "Those cathode rays, they fry your brain. Try wearing a tinfoil hat for a few years."
"You think I'm a crank, don't you?" he said, hurt.
"Sorry, kid," I said, really meaning it. "Yes."
There was a pause. Edeson stood up as if to start packing his props.
"Drink?" I said. "I should've offered you one before."
"You did. But no, thanks. You go ahead and have a nightcap. I have to find somewhere to sleep. I'll come back tomorrow."
"I'm kind of busy tomorrow," I lied, trying to look overworked. "How about Christmas?"
"Much can happen in few days," said Edeson, portentously.
"Yes," I said, "including me closing the case, sending Mrs MacLeod a bill for eighty dollars and going to bed with a Scotch in one hand and a Marlborough in the other. Talking of going to bed, if you need a place to sleep, try the Waldorf. It's on Park Avenue. You can't miss it."
"See you tomorrow, Mr Corsair," said Edeson.
"Don't forget your suitcase. You never know when you might want a cup of coffee and a boiled egg."
Sometimes the first thing you realise when you climb into bed and close your eyes is how tired you have become, and how many hours ago you ought to have been in bed. A drunk was singing I belong to Glasgow on the street outside, which kept me awake for, maybe, three minutes. I cursed him unto the seventh generation, and then I dozed off.
The clang and the screech of the streetcars woke me. I had an inadequate wash at the wash stand, trying to shave with cold water and get my feet clean at the same time, when I heard the news on the radio.
Two police officers have been found dead in a derelict subway station near Brooklyn Bridge, Mr Cronkite said. It had to be Esterhouse and Renko. I was horrified. I knew these guys.
I had not expected this. I was caught up in a private eye's nightmare. Nutcase though he might be, Edeson was not pitching as wide of the wicket as I thought. I had been hired to do a cushy number investigating the loss of a few dollars' worth of junk, and I found that I had been pitched into battle against a ruthless enemy who was quite happy to shoot two perfectly good police officers on sight. And all this for a saucepan. I felt passably sober and my car was parked out front, so I made for Lydia MacLeod's house.
I parked in the courtyard and followed the familiar corridor, listening for activity. I heard people in the lounge, where the staff seemed to have gathered in the aftermath of whatever math we were after. Sandra Sanders was there, so was Burton and so were the rest of the staff, all jostling for places on the comfy chairs and all very upset indeed. All of them looked at me, doubtless expecting me to recite a list of all possible suspects, reveal a couple of embarrassing secrets, and then name the murderer, but the fact is, I had no clue what crime had been committed, let alone who done it.
I stared back at them, frozen. Sandra noticed me first.
"Sam, can you tell us what happened?" she asked me.
All that came to mind was, "No, of course not. I only just came in here. Where's Lydia?"
Bert Burton joined the conversation, saying "I brought her here from Blair General at about nine o'clock at night. She went to bed. Early this morning something woke her and she came to me and asked me to take her away from this house. I took her somewhere safe."
I thought it unlikely that he would tell me where she was, so I asked him, "Do the police know where she is?"
"Yes," said Burton, "Out in the country."
"When did she leave?" I asked. "I was going to advise her to make herself scarce while the drama played itself out."
"Early this morning," said Burton. "Lydia woke me up and demanded that I drive her somewhere. She said she'd seen a face at the window."
"Why didn't she just call the cops?" I asked the assembled guests. "It was probably just kids mucking around."
Most people get pretty spooked if they see a face at the window, but few abandon their house for the duration.
"It must've been a very scary face," I said.
"She didn't describe it," said Burton.
I had the feeling that Lydia knew more than she said. Edeson obviously believed that Lydia's life was in danger, although you can't always believe what a mad man tells you.
"Which window?" I asked Burton.
"Her bedroom window," he said.
"How many windows does her bedroom have?" I asked.
"Three," chimed in someone I had never seen before.
"Thanks. Who are you?" I asked, feeling in my pocket for my notebook.
"Marshall Marsh," he said, "the head gardener."
"I'd like to look at the window from the outside," I said.
Marshall led me to the front of the house and showed me which windows gave onto Lydia's room. He looked up at the windows. I looked down. There were no obvious marks on the ground, no ladder marks, no footprints, and anyone who wanted to stare through Lydia's bedroom window would need to be ten feet tall or more, delightful though the prospect of seeing her in her see through, scantily cut negligée would have been.
"How do you get your face up to a second storey window like those?" I asked Marshall.
"Climb a drainpipe," he said.
"Have you ever done it?" I asked.
"I don't think I'd risk climbing these drainpipes," he said, shaking his head. "They're old. They're made of cast iron, which is very brittle. They would never take my weight in a million years."
"A child mucking about?"
"At five in the morning? Unlikely in Ramsey. People take care of their kids."
"But possible," I said, "if the kid wasn't local?"
"Anything's possible," said Marshall.
Anything's possible, I thought, but what's specially possible is that Lydia dreamed the face. Maybe she knew that something was up, someone would come to carry her off or worse, and the stress was giving her nightmares. In that state, she might have seen some ordinary thing and mistaken it for a face, or she might even have invented the face at the window. Looking around, I certainly couldn't see anybody lurking in the grounds.
"Could that be footprints?" I asked, noticing a couple of depressions in the grass.
"Yes," said Marshall, "they could, but standing there you can hardly see into the bedroom window."
"You'd have to be ten feet tall," I said.
"And there are no marks of a ladder," said Marshall, "or a vaulting pole."
"Let's go back inside," I said to Marshall, "it's cold out here, and I can't see anyone around."
"I hoped you might say that," he replied.
"By any chance… Did you see anything unusual this morning?" I asked him.
"No," he said, which was what I expected.
I turned back to the house and asked a few more questions of the staff in the lounge. Not because I expected to hear anything new. These mass meetings of unlikely suspects don't throw much light on anything of importance. After all, even if the culprit were present, he is hardly likely to blurt out, "Sorry, Mr Corsair, I forgot to tell you. I did it." And if anyone had seen or heard anything out of the ordinary, they would have told me about it already.
Burton was willing to drive me back to my office, so I took advantage of his offer and sat in the back of the luxurious convertible. As we drove out of the estate and turned along the road towards the village, I looked back at the main gate of the estate. Driving through Ramsey, inspiration struck me. Call it instinct, hunch, or guesswork.
"Burton," I said, "would you please drop me here?"
"There's no way for you to get back to the city," he said. "You really don't want to be left here without a car."
"Is there a phone booth, where I can call a cab?"
"No," said Bert, "it hasn't been working for months."
I thought about that.
"Look, I want to do some detective work," I told Bert. "Standard procedure contaminated with an unlikely hunch that probably won't pay off. Do me a favour… here's ten dollars, get lost for two hours and be back here before," I looked at my watch, "three pm."
"What're you going to do?" Burton asked me.
"Probably waste several hours of a perfectly good working day and make a complete fool of myself," I said, "if you want to know."
Bert retreated into his persona as chauffeur. "Very good, sir," he said.
I opened the door and let Bert out of the car and onto the mud at the roadside. "And don't spend the day sinking double shots of naval rum in the Jolly Pirate," I said, "because you'll be driving me home."
"Have a pleasant afternoon, sir," said Bert by way of a farewell.
I watched Bert wander off in the general direction of the Jolly Pirate and jumped into the car. The first thing I wanted a closer look at was the South Gate of the estate. I parked out of sight of the house and walked the last few yards. There was a high wall of harled brick. The tarmacadam road ran through a gap in the wall. There were gateposts, bearing wrought iron gates, attached to the wall on either side of the road. The gates were designed to be locked, but the lock was so rusted that it would have been impossible to lock them without getting a locksmith in. Around the gateposts, on the ground, were a few small flowers. On the right hand gatepost I noticed a piece of dark cloth, hanging a few feet off the ground at about windshield height.
I grabbed hold of the cloth. It was about two inches square, with rough edges as though it had been raggedly torn from a longer strip or sheet of fabric. It was quite clean, unlike the gatepost and the gate, which were dusty and spattered with mud. I took it and pocketed it, and I noticed that it had been glued to the gatepost.
It's strange how police and detective inspectors don't always notice such little things, while my hunches and guesswork and shots in the dark occasionally sent me off in the right direction. This piece of cloth, small and dark and inconspicuous and intended not to attract unwanted attention, had been deliberately affixed to the gate. Promising myself that I would put it back on the post before anyone realised it was missing, I took it and sat in the car for a while, thinking about what — if anything — it told me.
Now, I know nothing about fabric, but in that village I knew two men who did. I remembered Lydia telling me that the two tailors who worked in the MacLeod Trading building lived in the village. There was only one street, so I guessed that finding the tailors ought not to be fantastically difficult. Leaving the car at the end of the street, I walked along the road looking for any indication that one of the houses was occupied by a tailor. There were no brass plates or trade names painted over the doors. In any case, I didn't know the workers' names. Nothing for it, then, but to walk up a few garden paths and knock on doors. I chose the nearest path, which happened to lead to house number six.
A middle aged man whose most noticeable features were hair loss, wire rimmed spectacles, a dark blue cardigan and slippers, opened the door.
"Good afternoon," I said, "I'm trying to find Mr," I made a name up, "Peabody. He works as a tailor for MacLeod Trading on the big estate. I think he might live near here."
"Peabody," he said, his voice trailing off as he scratched his head and his memory, it seemed, failed to identify any of his neighbours. "I don't know any Peabody," he said at last in a sort of Texan drawl, "but you could ask Mr Villalobos." He pronounced it Vee-ya-low-boze. "He lives next door but one, number ten."
"That's really kind of you," I said to my helper.
"Who's that at the door, Winston?" came a woman's voice from inside the house.
"Someone lookin' for Calisto, Tricia" said Winston, turning towards the voice.
"He ain't in no sort of trouble, is he?" asked Tricia.
"What's the matter?" Winston repeated to me. "He ain't in no kind of trouble, is he?"
"He is now," I said.
"He wasn't," Winston called back to Tricia, who I guessed was his wife, "but he is now."
Mr Villalobos lived at number ten. He looked South American and spoke with an accent that might have been Mexican or central American. I wasn't sure.
"Hi," I began, "are you Calisto Villalobos?"
He laughed at my pronunciation, but he only said, "Sí."
"Nice to meet you," I said, and by way of an introduction I offered him a business card and I said, "Sam Corsair, private investigator."
"Is this about Mrs MacLeod?" he asked straight away.
"Yeah," I said.
"Is she OK?" he asked.
"She's badly shaken but she's all right. She's staying with," I guessed, "a hotel in Hazleton. Don't go after her."
"Thank God for that," said Calisto.
"How long have you worked for MacLeod Trading?" I asked him.
"Fourteen years," he said, "mostly cutting and stitching, making nice coats."
I took the piece of fabric out of my pocket and gave it to him.
"Is this the sort of cloth that your coats are made from?" I asked him.
He took it from me. "Cloth? Ah, vostros paño." He laughed and corrected me. "This is animal skin."
"Can you tell me anything about it? Do you recognise it?"
"I need to see it in daylight, Señor."
Castilio walked over to the window. From a desk beside the window, he took a magnifying glass, polished it with his handkerchief, and peered at the piece of fabric for several seconds.
"It's good fur," he said at last.
"Do you recognise it?"
"No," he said, "it's not been torn from anything in the workshop, because I'd recognise it by its colour and texture if it were. And it wasn't cut from an old coat, either. There's no coat of preservative on the inside. It would soon rot and stink."
"Can you tell me anything about it?"
"It's good fur." said Calisto, "It's from cougar, top quality, el mejor. If you had several skins just like this one, you could make a coat and sell it to a rich lady for la riqueza, a small fortune. A big sheaf," he mimed a tall pile, "of hundred-dollar bills."
"Where's it come from?" I asked.
I wasn't sure whether Calisto could really sense where this scrap of fur had come from, or whether he was faking it, but he said without hesitation, "Guatemala."
"Sure?" I asked.
"Sí. Guatemala. It's the only place where you find this colour in enough abundance to trade. Besides," he added as though it were in afterthought, which it probably was, "what really convinces me is, that's where Jiminy MacLeod is working at the moment."
"Working?" I asked. "Doing what?"
"Buying fur from local traders. Shooting the occasional big cat. He is out there now."
"You must be mistaken," I said. "Lydia — I mean Mrs MacLeod — told me only yesterday that he's in Africa."
Calisto laughed heartily. "Africa, Central America, Europe, the North Pole, it's all the same to her. As long as he isn't in New York, she couldn't give a damn where he is. It's all the same to her."
I was puzzled. "You mean, she neither knows nor cares where her husband is?"
"You got it," said Calisto, "you got it in one, señor. As long as he isn't in New York, she's as happy as Larry. Even if he wrote to tell her where he was, she probably didn't read it."
"Is there something you're not telling me?" I asked.
"There sure is, buster. But you don't have to take it from me if you don't want to. You can take it from him."
Calisto picked up a couple of sheets of paper from his desk, revealing a post-card underneath. He showed me the Guatemalan stamp with its postmark of 26 March, and he read the card to me.
Dear Calisto and Manny,
"Who's Manny?" I asked.
"He's the other tailor in MacLeod's workshop. Manny Cohen. Great guy, barrel of laughs. Such a good tailor, he can cut a hair in half lengthwise and stitch it back together so you wouldn't notice."
"No." Calisto shook his head. "I exaggerate, but he's a pretty good worker."
Calisto carried on reading from the card.
Decided to stay on in Flores for a while as the ranchers are dealing with a sudden spate of cat attacks in the north, so business is pretty good. Staying at the Casa Antigua until at least 16th inst., phone number in case you need it…
"I believe you," I said, and Calisto put the postcard back onto the desk. I hoped that he might spill the beans about Lydia, but he didn't.
"What is Lydia doing that I don't know about?"
"Come on," he said, "you know what women are like."
"I wish I did," I said, "but I don't think the man is born that understands women."
"Keep looking and you'll find out. Look under your nose first. Do you want this back?"
"Yes, please," I said, taking back the scrap of what I now knew to be raw cougar skin of the highest quality.
Calisto had shown me as far as the door and then he asked, "Do you have a cat?"
"No," I said, "I eat the fish myself."
"Don't leave the skin lying about. It'll upset him."
"I'll be most careful not to get a cat while this case remains unsolved," I reassured him, "and after that I shall make this skin into a beautiful hat and my cat will live in it. Goodbye, and have a nice day."
"I'll be back at work tomorrow," he said, "so thank you for your good wishes. I'll have a nice day while I can."
I thought about these bits of evidence. Then, walking back the way I had come, I saw the Jolly Pirate in the distance. In the bar, Bert Burton was onto his fourth, fifth or sixth shot and talking loudly about baseball to everyone within earshot.
"Bert! You'd best order a large black coffee, double strength," I told him, "because you're going to drive me back to the office."
I sat in the back. Five minutes into the ride I asked Bert, "What is it about Lydia that nobody wants to tell me?"
"I can't imagine," said Bert. He turned right around to talk to me, took his hands off the wheel and immediately the car drifted onto the grass to the left and narrowly missed a tree.
"I think you'd best concentrate on the driving," I said as he backed the car across the kerb and onto the road again.
When Bert Burton swerved off the road again and banged the car into a phone booth, I said goodbye to him and called a cab from the phone booth. By the time I was standing outside the office with my key in my hand, it was dark. I opened the street door that led to a stairwell and then to my office. It was just light enough to avoid bumping into things. I took my clothes off, arranged them in a heap on the chair, and clambered into bed before I noticed that there was someone in the bed already. I put my arms around the someone and found it was a very shapely young woman wearing classic underwear: lacy brassiere, tight satin panties, garter belt and stockings.
"I love you," I said to her without knowing who she was.
"I love you too," she said in a Californian accent. "Kiss me."
I kissed her hard on her mouth. "Sandra," I said, "Sandra Sanders, from the MacLeod household."
"Correct," she purred. "How'd you do that?"
"Because the first thing I thought when I saw you was, I wonder what she feels like in bed."
"And do I live up to your expectations?" she asked, as though she needed reassurance.
"All of them and more," I said.
"Don't take my clothes off yet," she said, holding me very close, "don't rush. Just enjoy this beautiful underwear."
"The bra feels sexy," I said, "it's very close fitting and it lifts your breasts perfectly."
"Don't take it off yet. Try kissing my nipples through the cups."
"You're kinky," I told her.
"Seriously kinky. You can't imagine what I will make you do before morning, sexy boy. Go on, kiss me through the brassiere."
I kissed her nipples with my mouth open and she gasped. "I knew you'd be good in bed," she said.
"Can we make love?" I asked. I hooked my finger around her panty crotch and pulled it to the side, exposing her special opening.
"Not yet. Don't rush. I'll have to cool you down. This won't take long."
Sandra took hold of my cock in her fingertips and, suddenly, made me pump my load into her hand.
"Oh! How'd you do that?"
"I prefer it when you're too limp to fuck me. Don't worry, I'll let you get into me later. Now, don't touch my panties for the moment or I shall make you wet the bed."
Sandra lay herself on top of me and kissed me again, hotly and gently.
I put my arms around her hard, slender body and ran my fingers over the taut brassiere straps.
"Brassieres are the most erotic garment ever invented, aren't they?" said Sandra.
"I think so," I said, "unless you include high heeled pumps."
"Do you like them? What colour?"
"Shocking pink," I said.
"Buy me a pair. I'm size seven. I'll wear them in bed and you can pump over them."
"With stockings?" I asked her, resting my hand on her swollen, curved bottom.
"Definitely," she said, "with lace tops and a real garter belt with thick rubber straps… Uh, uh, don't touch the panties yet."
I held her tighter, and she said, "Well, I warned you. Naughty boys must be punished."
I'm still not sure how she did the trick, but one hand went to my pubic bone and the other lifted my cock, and suddenly, painlessly and uncontrollably I was pissing copiously in the bed.
"See," she crowed, "I told you I was kinky. I can make you piss yourself any time, any place I want. So obey me."
"Yes, Miss Sandra," I said, nodding, "I shall obey you."
"Or suffer the consequences. Any more monkey business and I shall spank you."
"I will enjoy that," I said, having been gently spanked a couple of times by loving and gentle young women.
"Uh, uh," she said, meaning "No, you won't." "I quite like the smell of urine" she went on. "Did you ever have sex with the help before?"
I wrapped my arms around the brassiere again. "Only if my mom counts as the help."
"Are you telling me that you fuck your mother?"
"Why? When any woman would gladly take you in any position you can imagine."
"Well, we're used to it, she hasn't got anyone else, she's good at it…"
"What do you mean," she asked, "saying she hasn't got anyone else? Doesn't she work at Grannies?"
"Yes, and any woman who wants good casual sex can go there, strip off and meet as many men as she can handle. And she does, Mom is always bringing men home, and I don't blame her. She likes our regular long term relationship, though."
Sandra thought for a moment. "If I married you, would you still fuck your mom?"
"Yes," I said, "of course. But at least I wouldn't have to live with her."
"Where? Our place, or Mom's place, or some sleazy hotel room in the Bronx?"
"Anywhere. Hotel rooms, beaches, bars, trains, the back seats of cars, public rest rooms."
"How about your and my bedroom," Sandra painted a beautiful picture, "on our four poster bed with satin sheets and a big mirror on the ceiling?"
"That would be our favourite," I said. "Mom would wear our wedding dress and a gold band."
"Can Mom make you piss the bed?"
"All she has to do," I told her, "is tell me to piss the bed."
"Is that something she asks often?"
"Once a week or so," I said. "You notice there's a plastic sheet on the bed."
"I thought that was for a little problem that you had," Sandra said, and we both laughed.
"Here, stretch out and let me try something." Sandra turned herself over. She lay on top of me face up, so that my cock pressed against the material of the panties just where they moulded themselves to her bum cleft. "You can take my bra off now."
With the clasp open, her bra fell away and I was able to feel her breasts. "Wow," she said, "you've done that before."
"I have," I said, "although I'd rather have done it with you."
Sandra reached down and slipped her panties off. "There," she said, "you can do what you want with me now, as often as you want."
So I did.
5. Friday 8 April 1960
We woke up naked, soaking wet and happy. I hadn't felt quite so much at peace with a girlfriend for many years.
"Don't fret," said Sandra, "we'll do this again soon. I have other tricks that you haven't dreamed about yet."
"Don't forget," she smiled, "I need size seven pink high heel pumps. Tell me when you've bought them and I'll come round."
I sat up, found the pack of Marlboroughs and the lighter, and offered Sandra a cigarette. She took it and we breathed smoke together quietly for a while.
"I ought to ask," I said, "do you know where Lydia is?"
"Why, do you still have enough strength to fuck her after, what, two hand jobs and four loads delivered?"
"Well, if she were here I'd give it my best shot…"
"She's twice my age," put in Sandra.
"And half your bra size," I said, "but I was thinking more about where she is and what might happen if there really was some sort of raid on the estate."
"As far as I know, Bert Burton is the only person who knows where she is. She's somewhere inland. Do you really prefer Lydia to me?"
"Well, she's the client, so if she wants me to fuck her, I pretty much have to do it."
"How awful for you," said Sandra, "although if she's not actually stripped naked and holding your cock to her target area, I'll always make myself available."
"You are absolutely gorgeous," I said, "and I never want to part from you."
"That's different from saying you want to fuck me."
"I want to fuck you all day and every day," I said.
"Marry me," she said.
"You know," I said, seriously considering her request for a few seconds before realising the idea was off the wall, "I will never get a better offer. A beautiful woman who is used to keeping house asking for my hand in marriage: that will never happen again."
"But?" she asked.
"A private investigator isn't really a job for a husband," I said.
"Be a draughtsman, then, or an administrator, or a storekeeper, or become the first full time nude male barkeep in the United States."
"When I need a career change I shall think about all those possibilities."
"Are you sure that you don't want to marry me? Because I'm ready and absolutely willing."
"Will you let me fuck you if we're not married?"
That seemed the end of the conversation for the time being. I had never been proposed to before, and I had no idea how to decline gracefully, but Sandra seemed willing to carry on dating.
I kissed Sandra goodbye for now, with a promise to see her again soon. She was, truly, not only beautiful and sexy but also the best night in bed I'd had with a woman for months.
I needed to sleep for a couple of hours after a night of Sandra's seriously energetic love making. One day, I thought, I will learn how to make love without expending so much energy that I fall asleep afterwards. When I came to, I pondered my options and decided it was time for a visit to Edeson Research. I had no idea where their company could be found, and Directory Assistance gave me the number.
"Hello," said the voice at the far end, "Edeson Research."
She sounded like a Black lady who had lived a long time in the middle of New York.
"Good morning," I said, instinctively checking the clock on the department store opposite to make sure it was still morning. "Can you tell me your street address?"
"Number two, right on the corner of Schiff Boulevard and Bowery," she told me. "Do you want to make an appointment?"
"Yes," I said. "Is Woodrow Edeson available?"
"Who shall I say is calling?" asked the Black voice.
"I'm cold calling from a socket factory," I said. "We have a sale on."
"He's right here," said the Black lady, who in my imagination was already busty, cute and wearing glossy pantyhose and a microskirt.
There was a short pause while Edeson picked up the phone. I trusted that he wouldn't recognise my voice straight away.
"Edeson?" He gave his own name.
"Good morning. Could I drop in and see you some time around one pm? Maybe we could grab lunch together."
"Sure," he said.
I don't know what inspired me to say the words I said next. A hunch hit me like an anvil falling out of an aeroplane.
"Can you bring Lydia's ransom note?"
"Sure." Then a hesitation and, "Say, who are you?"
"Sam Corsair, private investigator. We met on the MacLeod estate the other day and you spent half the night trying to sell me a saucepan."
"I mean," he said, "should anyone give me a ransom note, I'll bring it."
"Don't worry about people bringing ransom notes to you. Just bring the one you already have. See you later."
I hung up. My watch said that if I wanted to have lunch at the corner of Schiff and Bowery, I should make myself spruce and tidy and get into the car straight away.
I showed up at the door marked Edeson Research just on one o'clock, and Woodrow Edeson, good as his word, opened it to me. He even shook my hand.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I know this is the right place to find good food, but my expenses don't stretch to Michelin five star restaurants. Would it be OK if we just found a burger bar or something nearby?"
"Wimpy's Diner?" He pointed. "It's over there."
Inside the diner, where the staff knew him by name, I sat trying to eat a hamburger with a knife and fork while Edeson gave me the ransom note and the envelope it came in. He asked me how I knew he'd received a ransom note.
"I didn't know," I said truthfully, "It was a shot in the dark."
"You just knew by gut instinct—"
"No, by knowledge and experience. Lydia is a classic kidnap victim," I said, making a hash of cutting a piece of bread and patty off the burger. "A rich heiress in an unguarded house, not overlooked."
"But how did you know they sent the note to me? You can pick the burger up, by the way. Everybody else does."
"Because you've got something they want," I said, picking the burger up and biting a piece off. "The designs of the next generation of electrical appliances. Sorry I'm talking with my mouth full but this really is a jolly decent burger. They might want to steal the designs and sell them to the competition, or they might realise that you're about to become very rich indeed and they might try to extort money from you. On top of all that, you've known Lydia for years. To get at you, they got to Lydia."
"And who are they, Mr Corsair?"
"I don't know." I shook my head. "I have a feeling that we shall shortly find out."
"Are they dangerous?"
"Look at it this way. They shot two police officers. Can you shoot straight?"
"I don't own a gun," he said.
"Get one," I advised him, "and carry it with you."
"Do you carry a gun?" he asked me.
"No," I said, "I can't risk shooting myself in the foot, so I have health insurance instead."
I went to Mom's house. Mom was there, making coffee and as always finding endless housework to do.
Mom always talked as though I hadn't been out of the room for more than a couple of minutes, yet I'd been away for almost a week.
"I need some good sex," she said matter-of-factly. "Are you free just now?"
"I will be," I said, "just as soon as I've had a good look at Lydia's ransom note."
"Coffee?" Mom always seemed to have coffee standing around somewhere just so that she could set it in front of me if I turned up out of the blue. In the middle of the night, in bed, asleep, when I turned up unexpectedly after saying I was taking a trip to the North Pole, Mom would still have a cup of hot coffee just sitting in the kitchen, waiting to make me feel properly at home.
The envelope was plain and just said "Woodrow Edison" in block capitals. The ransom note itself was, well, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The words had been cut out of a newspaper and stuck onto a sheet of plain foolscap paper.
Give me the designs or Lydia dies.At the bottom of the sheet was a drawing of an ear of maize.
"Who's it from?" asked Mom.
"Don't know," I said, "they have a curiously illegible signature."
"They know what a ransom note is supposed to look like," she said.
"Yes," I said, "but not what it's supposed to say. Who is Edeson supposed to give the designs to?"
"And why not just do a patent search?" asked Mom. "They could find everything they wanted to know."
Mom was right, of course.
"Do you want to fuck me?" said Mom.
"Yes," I said, "a lot."
"That's good because I need it too," said Mom, and she lay down on the bed for me.
I thought I'd seen the ear of corn design somewhere before. Not wanting to take the ransom note out of the office, I copied the design into my notebook and I set out for the public library. I was looking for some connection between an ear of maize design and some of the electrical companies that were competing with Edeson Research. A couple of companies did, indeed, have similar designs in their advertising or on their accounts, but that begged the question of why such a company would, directly or by hiring intermediaries, kidnap the wife of a company directory and demand information about their forthcoming products when, as Mom had realised, a visit to the patent office would probably have told them everything they needed to know, including how the technology worked and who could license them to develop a version of it.
I thanked the librarian, settled my hat back on my head and walked out onto the street.
There was a park about two hundred yards away. It was a small place but nearly empty of people, and sitting on a bench in the middle of the park I was less disturbed by the traffic noise. I lit a Marlborough and drew on it. As happens in such moments, suddenly I felt that the world was a less troubled place.
I mused on what reason a man would have to draw an ear of maize at the bottom of a ransom note. That he had not written instructions on how to pay the ransom — where to take the designs that he wanted, where to leave them, and the ubiquitous Don't call the Police! were all missing. This kidnapper was both ruthless enough to shoot two police officers dead and at the same time inexperienced, or dim witted, enough to send a ransom note without the vital instructions.
What did I know about the writer? He lived locally, or he had local contacts. Otherwise he — or she, perhaps — would have had to post the note, and the envelope would have borne a stamp and an address. I guessed too that he had hired a hit man, because the sheer violence, and competence, of the kidnapping was so completely at odds with the buffoon who thought you had to make ransom notes by cutting and sticking letters from newspapers.
So I was looking for an incompetent kidnapper who owned a couple of newspapers, a pair of scissors and tube of glue. And, it dawned on me, someone who had a massive financial interest in acquiring Edeson's designs. I walked to the car.
"Has Edeson Research filed any patent applications in the last five years?" I asked the clerk, whose badge told me his name was Thomas Jefferson and his parents were keen practical jokers.
"Take a seat, sir," he said, making a note of my query on a scrap of paper and handing me a ticket numbered 147.
"Number 105," I heard a woman call from a desk at the other end of the hall. I didn't see anybody get up and walk towards her, and I had a tough job not standing up and yelling, "He died of hunger." The woman repeated the call, "Number 105", and this time a young man stood up and went towards her. They engaged in conversation over a small heap of sheets of paper.
I was sitting in the New York patent office, wondering whether I dared light a Marlborough as I waited for someone to call my number. I felt that taking a draught of Glenkinchie from my hip flask might be a faux pas too. Had it not occurred to me that in a place on which industrial commerce depends for its livelihood, I might have a long wait? I could just see out of a window and watch the traffic going past. It was going to be a long afternoon.
"Number 147." Thomas Jefferson was standing at the back desk. "I'm sorry you had to wait so long, sir."
Mr Jefferson gave me three photocopied pages.
"These are all the patents that Edeson Research have filed since January nineteen fifty-five. The oldest one has been granted. The other two are still being examined."
"Since nineteen fifty-five?"
"Not quite. Since nineteen fifty-seven. Both of them were first filed in nineteen fifty-seven…" he looked through the photocopies, "…March and July. It's a long process, I'm afraid."
"And is this the whole of the patent?"
"No," said Mr Jefferson, "the full patent can be as long as a book, but this sheet tells you its name, serial number, inventor, applicant, legal representative and a summary. It's enough for you to decide whether to spend the price of a family holiday in Paris on the complete patent."
"Do you keep records of who consults these patents?"
"After a fashion, yes, sir, You could go through our receipts because the patent serial numbers are on those. But there are two things you need to know before I hand you the copy receipts. First, there are thirteen thousand of them per year. Secondly, the visitor is free to pay cash and if he does, I can't stop him giving a false name. Thirdly, without breaking any confidences I can tell you, unofficially of course, that you're the first person who has consulted any of the patents filed by that company."
"Are you sure of that?"
"We keep track of who reads what. So we can't become a party to industrial espionage."
"And how many people pay by cash instead of by cheque?"
"Most of them," said Mr Jefferson. "That'll be thirty cents."
I gave him cash, signed the receipt 'Popeye the Sailor' and left the office, clutching my precious three sheets of photocopying. Outside, in the evening sunlight, I lit a long needed cigarette. In the car, ten minutes later, I leafed through the photocopied sheets, reading the titles.
55-234852. September 6, 1955. Wireless distribution of electric power. Summary. By exploiting stochastic symmetries we have demonstrated far-reaching and pervasive dichotomies in our understanding of excitatory disconnected transmission networks…
I didn't understand a word of it. I didn't even know any particle physicists who could maybe, in a million years, tell me what it meant, except that this gibberish was worth a fortune and had already cost the lives of two victims and utterly terrified a third.
57-318214. March 18, 1957. Cost effective wireless relaying of high amperage electric power.
I skipped over the summary. The last sheet ran,
57-489338. July 22, 1957. The pan that boils: A means of supplying cordless appliance with cheap high current, low voltage electric power.
Anyone who had looked at these patents for one minute would have known the sort of work that Edeson Research were doing. It seemed that someone preferred to spend their money on a hit man rather than paying the cost of three family holidays in Paris to the Patent and Trade Mark office. I asked myself why anyone, anyone, however far removed from reality, would want to do that.
—At the office desk, late at night, I sat staring at the ransom note and it stared right back at me. Lydia was abducted early on Wednesday 6th, so this note must have been pieced together on the same day, or just before. That was the day I had bought the local daily paper, City News, to read the story under the front page headline, MacLeod Heiress Vanishes. I hadn't emptied the trash since Wednesday. Remiss of me, I know, but there in the wicker waste paper basket was the City News that had my photograph and the accolate as New York's top Private Investigator on the front page. I should never have put it into the wastebasket. I should have had it framed.
With a sense of pride I opened the paper and there, right on the front page in the bottom right, was an advertisement for Givenchy, and the first four letters matched the cut-out word 'Give' on the ransom note.
Coincidence, probably, but next up was the word 'the,' which happened to match the type face in which City News had set the heading 'Other News.' Same size, same font. Then 'designs,' which came from the title of a story about an architecture student winning an award. I finished the job. The words on the ransom note had been cut from the City News dated April 6, apart from Lydia, half of which had been cut from 'easily' and the other half from 'sundial.'
The only thing I didn't know about the ransom note, then, was the meaning of the ear of maize which appeared at the end of its brief message, where the signature ought to be. I would have phoned a friend, except that I couldn't show the ear of maize to a friend over the phone. I had to go in person.
It was five in the evening now, that time of day when men all over the city put on their coats, turn off the lights, leave their offices and go home. I thought my friend Sherman Potter might be able to spare five minutes to identify a hit man, or at least to identify the organisation which was representing him. Sherman was a much travelled man whose soldiers had been fought in half the defeats that American forces had suffered since nineteen thirty nine. I drove to the Army Barracks on Fort Hamilton and asked the man on gatehouse duty whether I might speak to Colonel Potter. He made a phone call, let me park and walk across the drill yard to a door where, he told me, Sherman could be found.
After following my nose along several different corridors for a quarter of an hour or so, I caught up with Sherman where I knew I would find him, propping up the bar in the officers' mess. The first person I spoke to after I finished coughing in the cigarette fug was the barkeep, of course, who didn't have Glenkinchie but would happily pour me a Bells and hand me a book of matches for my Marlborough. I wasn't so sure about happily drinking a Bells, but in this world civilians can't be choosers. Yes, he told me, Sherman Potter was back from Korea. For the last month or so he was often in of an evening. Wasn't that him, over there?
"Sherman," I said to him when I managed to elbow my way through the crowd, "I need your help. Some guy hired a hit man and I have only one thing to go on."
"That's one more than you usually have," said Sherman.
"Sherman," I asked him, "if you wanted to hire a hit man to kidnap a rich heiress, who would you call?"
"Me," he said, "I'd take the money if the price was right."
"Next time a client doesn't pay the bill on time, I'll call you."
"Now," said Sherman, "how can I help you?"
"Take a look at this."
Sherman stared at my drawing for a full minute and concluded, "Your three year old's been drawing healthy vegetables."
"If I had a three year old," I said, "I'd make sure he never ate maize except in the form of corn flakes."
"You're a wise father," he nodded.
"You don't recognise this symbol?" I asked.
"Not at all," he said, "sorry. I've been in Korea."
I bought us both a Scotch, sat with him drinking and putting the world to rights for a while, and suddenly it was ten o'clock.
"About the ear of maize," he shouted after me as I left and he went to join his buddies, "try asking in a museum."
"I will," I said. "They're next on my list."
I drove with especial care to Grannies. I didn't need to eat any more, but the drink was good and I had a chance to gaze upon the naked bodies of Norma and Ellie. In the circumstances, a happy evening. 6. Saturday 9 April 1960
I spent the night at home with Mom, slept more soundly than in recent nights, and in the morning I decided to go into the office. It was as well I chose to work today, because barely had I closed the door and sat down with my notebook and pencil than a man came hammering on the door in a state of panic.
"Find my wife!" he hollered as soon as I had opened the door to him. "I'll pay anything. Find my wife."
To be honest about it, this walking cliché client appeared to have made a promise to pay a sum which, come the day the bill arrived, he might well be unable to fulfil.
"I shall," I said. "My fee is twenty dollars a day plus all expenses. Do you—"
"Yes. Yes." He was a male in great distress. "Do something. Don't just stand there."
"Well, I would be out on the trail already, but my sniffer dog Mukhtar's still having breakfast," I told him. "How about, while he's finishing off the hash browns and the fried egg and spreads marmalade on his toast, you tell me what happened."
"You actually let your dog eat hash browns?" The man obviously found the idea shocking.
"Sure. Provided he gets pickles and maple syrup with them, they're his favourite food."
"You'll make him ill! You shouldn't give that sort of food to a dog!"
"Keep your voice down," I said, "you don't want to make an enemy of an Alsatian dog that's twice your size. Now, why don't you tell me what happened."
Quite by chance a woman was walking two dogs down the street outside the office window and one of them suddenly started barking wildly.
"He wants his cup of coffee," I said, "and after that he'll be fit to work."
"Your dog drinks coffee?"
"He wants to work with me, he eats and drinks the same as me," I said. "Let's sit down and then I can collect all the facts."
We sat down at the office desk and I took up my notebook.
"Lisa," he said, "her name's Lisa."
"And your name is…?"
"Douglas. Oliver Douglas. Look, can we put the form filling aside for a moment while—"
"Sure." I put the notebook down and engaged my trusted memory instead. "What happened?"
"Two guys broke in and made us go with them."
It was a long interview, as in his distress Oliver could scarcely form a sentence. Gradually I got the picture. Late Wednesday night two men, speaking Spanish, had knocked on the door of a farmhouse in bucolic Danbury. They had easily pushed their way inside, overpowered the couple, who were in their sixties, and had carted them off to separate destinations. Oliver had no idea where they had taken his wife Lisa. One of the bad guys stood guard over him but when the guard locked the door and went off to get cigarettes and beer, Oliver had managed to escape, I wasn't clear on the details, and he stopped a car and made the driver take him to New York, sixty miles away. Fortunately the driver of the car was going there anyway and after listening to his passenger's incoherent account of being held against his will, he dropped him outside the first police station he came to, saying, "Go in there and tell them."
"So why did you come here?" I asked him.
"Because the guy at the library said he knew you, and I can't go to the police," he said.
"I can investigate an event," I said, "I might be able to tell you where your wife is and who put her there. but if you want to see the criminals caught and locked up, you have to talk to the police. They can do that sort of thing, but even if I find the crooks who did this, I can't put them away."
Oliver hesitated, and then repeated, "I can't talk to the police," in the tone of one admitting a grave crime.
"Why on earth not?" I asked. "You're a victim of abduction, so they'll be on your side and besides, that's what you pay them for."
"Because we're…" It was obviously a great effort for Oliver to confess his criminal history. "Because we're squatters."
I was astonished. "Squatters? What do you mean?"
"We don't have any right to live in the farmhouse. Or to farm the land. When the war ended we were destitute like everyone else, and we found an overgrown farm with an empty farmhouse. We moved in, just to have a roof over our heads. We never stole anything, or took anything that didn't belong to us. Nobody ever told us to move out, and we just stayed there, toiled on the land and sold what we could grow."
"Darndest thing I ever heard," I said. "You never registered to vote, or anything?"
"No," he said, "it wasn't worth the risk. Mr Corsair, you won't report us, will you?" Oliver clearly believed he could go to jail if anyone breathed a word of his story.
"No. You're safe. Your secret is safe in this office. I haven't even written it down. Do you have a place to stay for a few nights while Mukhtar and I sort this out?"
"If I can get to a bank I can draw some cash and stay in a hostel somewhere."
"Fine," I said, "do that, but tell me if you find yourself living on the streets. Keep your head down. Look," I gave him my business card, "here's my phone number. Find somewhere you can stay for a few days and don't tell anyone where you're staying. Except me, of course."
"What will you do first?" he asked me, obviously having a high estimate of my ability to plan ahead.
"I shall take Mukhtar his morning bowl of coffee," I said, "before he gets too thirsty. Do you want some?"
Oliver Douglas left the office. I think he still believed that I had a dog called Mukhtar who would know by canine instinct where his wife was. Unfortunately no such animal existed and the only people who knew where she was were probably the kidnappers.
The trouble was, and I was glad that Oliver Douglas hadn't worked this out for himself, that once the bandits found he was missing, they would try to torture information about his whereabouts from his wife. If Oliver's story was correct, then it his wife didn't know where he was, and that might lead to any kind of unpleasantness.
I went to Ramsey first, to check whether anything untoward had happened on the MacLeod estate. I drove to The House.
"Any news?" I asked.
"I thought you might tell us something," said Bert Burton.
"Is Lydia all right?" I asked him.
"She'd prefer to be back here," he said.
"And has there been any attempt to steal the prototype electricals?" I asked him.
"None," he said.
"None so far, at least," I said. "Have you any idea what the designs would be worth to a competent thief?"
"If you want a figure in dollars," he said, "then no, I don't, but they could end up owning and running half the electric power industry of the United States, so it's a lot of money."
"Many millions, I'm sure," I said, "but why resort to theft? I went to the Patents Office and they showed me full descriptions of how it all works. Why not just pay the guys at the Patent Office and take all the details home in a paper bag?"
Nobody suggested any reason so I went ahead and asked, "Has anything out of the ordinary happened?"
The staff looked at each other but couldn't think of anything.
"Where's Marshall Marsh?" I asked. "Has he noticed anything in the grounds? Footprints, guns, bullets, that sort of thing?"
"He's been out since early this morning, shooting rabbits," said Fanny, the cook.
I was still sure that I was missing something, maybe something right in front of me.
"Is Sandra here?" I asked into thin air.
"Hi," she said, from the back of the room.
"Sandra," I asked her, "what do you know about the old Edison Electric installation in the house?"
"Well, not much. This room, the lobby, the master bedtoom and the kitchen have electric lights and a couple of power outlets supplied by Edison for demonstrations. They've been filmed and photographed a few times, but the last time it was all tested, checked and put in working order was in 1930 for the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Street. I can show you the fittings and things. You can see the lampshades and the bulb sockets on the ceiling in here and the odd looking brown knobs on the wall. They're the switches. If you go into the kitchen there are a couple of power outlets of Edison's design. Apart from that, the generator is in the basement and there are two lamp standards outside in the quad."
"You know all about it?" I was surprised at how detailed her knowledge was.
"Yes. Someone has to know their way around it, in case there's a repeat performance in front of the television cameras in 1982."
"Nineteen eighty two?"
"Hundredth anniversary," said Sandra. "I'm sure someone will want to celebrate the centenary, even though the company went bust and nobody recognises its products."
"Do you ever spin up the generator to see what happens?"
"Not unless the fire brigade are standing by on site!" Sandra laughed. "This is hundred year old equipment we're talking about. You wouldn't even sit on a hundred year old chair, let alone turn on a dozen hundred year old electric lights."
"Just out of interest," I asked, "if I promise not to turn it on, what electrical equipment did the kitchen use the outlets for?"
"They had a cooker, a copper and a meat grinder. Any of which will probably electrocute you if you touch them so strictly no demonstrations."
"A copper? What's that?" I asked.
"A sort of heated barrel. You fill it with water, add soap and use it to do laundry. An ancestor of the washing machine."
"How about electric blankets in the bedroon?"
"There weren't any electric blankets in 1882," said Sandra, pretending to take my question seriously, "only manual ones."
"Right," I said, as though knowingly. "How valuable is all this stuff?"
"Worthless as far as I know," said Sandra, "a museum might give you two cents for the lot of it. A student of the public understanding of physics, if there is one—"
"Which, I suppose, sooner or later there will be," I put in, and Sandra ignored me.
"—would find it interesting to see how the first ever customers of an electricity company turned the lights on, and how they boiled water for laundry. But as for removing it all and sending it to the Peaceful Arts Museum, I doubt they'd be interested in clutter that they could buy for a few dollars from the bargain basement of any long established hardware store if they wanted it. And then we'd have to fix all the holes where the switches and the wires and the lamps and the outlets used to be."
"I can see that would be a lot of work," I said.
"I expect it will all stay in this house until the day it falls down."