But I wasn’t going to turn away a woman who looked like this. Especially when she was wearing a dress like that.
She came right to the point. “I want you to find whoever killed my husband.”
“I assume you’ve tried the police.” Over the years I’ve learned to ask that question. Sometimes it can save everyone a lot of time.
“Cops are fools,” she declared, and I didn’t contradict her. If cops weren’t fools, I’d lose half my business.
“Well, let’s start at the beginning,” I said, uncapping my pen and opening my notebook to the first blank sheet. “When was your husband killed?”
“Oh, he hasn’t been killed yet,” she replied, as I touched the tip of my trusty Esterbrook to the paper.
“I must have misheard you,” I said with my famously polite smile. “I thought you said you wanted me to find whoever killed your husband.”
“Yes,” she said. “When he is killed. Then I want you to leave no stone unturned.”
“And you say he hasn’t been killed yet.”
“He was alive when I left the house, at any rate.”
“But you think he’s going to be killed.”
“I am positive, Mr. Marlow.”
“Why do you think so?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“Well, when do you think he’s going to be killed?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
I set the Esterbrook down with just enough of a clack to express moderate displeasure. Betty could wipe up the ink spot later. “I don’t normally take crazy cases.”
She reached into her purse.
“I brought a retainer,” she said.
She dropped a wad of bills that left a dent in my desk.
“Will that be enough to start with?” she asked.
I opened my top drawer and swept the wad into it.
“Consider me retained,” I said.
When she walked out, Betty walked in.
“Looks like trouble,” she said.
“That trouble just paid your salary for the next three months,” I told her.
“I’d ask you why you keep getting mixed up with women like that, but that would presuppose an inadequate understanding of male psychology.”
“Yeah, whatever.” I usually tune her out when she starts using big words like that. “We’re on the case. Get out my memo book and my flask.”
“Fill it with lemonade?”
“Double strength. It’s a murder case.”
“Oh yeah? Who got killed?”
“But you said—”
“I didn’t tell you it was going to be an easy case, did I? Start squeezing those lemons. I need to pay a visit to…” I looked down at my desk, where I’d left the card my new client gave me. “Archibald Chester Pifler. And it probably won’t be a pleasant one.”
“Lemonade coming up, boss,” Betty said as she turned to walk out.
“Say,” I said, “did I ever tell you how much I appreciate you?”
“No,” she said as she reached the door. “If you’re telling me now, it’s the first time in the four years I’ve worked here.”
She slammed the door behind her.
Well, I was glad I got that off my chest, then.
Meanwhile, I pulled out Who’s What and What’s Where, figuring that the Piflers would probably be in there. I was right. Archibald Chester Pifler had an article as long as my arm. I measured it. It took several tries, because there were six columns on three pages, and I had to measure each column and then add the figures together and then measure my arm, which was harder than it sounds, and I nearly called Betty in to help, but I figured she had her hands full of lemons, so I got it done eventually, and the article was as long as my arm to within a quarter of an inch. It pays to be thorough and precise in my profession.
So I knew a lot about Pifler by the time I walked out the door and down the two flights of stairs. Big man around here, this Pifler. He was on the board of every bank. He was—I’m quoting from the book here—“president of the Consolidated Ice-Cream Carton Manufacturing Company, Inc., which under his direction revolutionized the ice-cream industry by rounding the corners of the cartons, thus trimming a pint off every half-gallon. As a philanthropist, he endowed the Pifler Free Polo Grounds so that the working poor would have a place to exercise their polo ponies.” Now, why would somebody want to murder a nice guy like that?
It took me longer than I expected to get to the Pifler house, because I got lost on the streetcar. But finally one of the passengers showed me the way out so I could get off about a mile from my stop. They should put bigger exit signs on those things or something. I could have taken another 713 car back to the stop, but I wasn’t going to risk it, so I had to walk for twenty minutes back to where I was supposed to be.
There was a big Pierce-Arrow in front of the Pifler house when I got there. It turned out to belong to the upstairs maid. The Piflers kept all their cars in the carriage house with all their chauffeurs.
The deputy assistant underbutler answered the door. I informed him that I was Mush Marlow, here to see Mr. Pifler. The deputy assistant underbutler informed the acting assistant butler, who informed the lieutenant butler, and so on up the chain of command until at last the butler himself came out and said, “Walk this way.” Fortunately his gait was a lot like mine, so I didn’t have much trouble.
It was a long walk, but after we had passed a few hundred doors we finally stopped in front of one of them.
“The library, sir,” the butler said.
“Mr. Pifler’s in there?” I asked.
“He’s reading, I guess.”
“Highly unlikely, sir,” the butler said. Then he opened the door and stepped inside to announce me to the old man. “Mr. Marlow, sir.” Once he’d done that, he stepped aside and formed his whole body into a kind of arrow pointing me toward old man Pifler.
He wasn’t that old, I suppose. He was maybe thirty years older than his wife, but he looked healthy enough. He was sitting at a desk in the middle of a large room poring over a pile of small brightly colored Bakelite doodads. And now that I looked it over, the thing I noticed about this library was that there weren’t any books in it. Not many, anyway. Lots of shelves, but most of them were covered with identical boxes, each with a yellow label with something neatly typed on it.
I got about halfway to the desk when Pifler looked up at me. “Are you a pick man, Mr. Marlow?” he asked.
“No, but I’m Welsh on my mother’s side.”
“I’ve just got in a very interesting shipment from Alberta. A number of names I have not come across before.”
“That’s swell,” I said, coming closer. I still couldn’t see what he was fussing over.
“Jeremiah Croydon, for example. I do not find him in any of the standard references.”
“Are these guitar picks?” I asked, finally close enough to make out the individual Bakelite triangles in the pile of colors on the desk.
“Guitar, mandolin, banjo, and some ukulele, though of course ukulele purists would insist on using the thumb. It would be false modesty to deny that my collection is one of the three most comprehensive in the world. Only the Archbishop of Canterbury’s is undeniably superior. My friend Mr. Rockefeller and I have an amicable rivalry for the second place.”
“Well, that’s, um…” I ran out of things to say.
“Now this,” he said, holding up a marbled blue Bakelite triangle—“this is very interesting. You see, it’s marked ‘Pirelli & Sons, Calgary.’ Now, the only Pirelli & Sons listed in Alberta in Paxton’s Picks is in Edmonton. Either the Pirellis have moved, or there is another establishment under the same name; and either way, it means I shall have to write to Mr. Paxton so he can incorporate the information in his seventeenth edition.”
“Well, that’ll be…” I searched my brain for exactly the right word and came up with “swell.”
“But I suppose,” he said with a change of tone, “you have come here to talk about something other than picks. Most people eventually talk to me about something other than picks.”
“Yeah, surprising as it is, I’m one of those people. Look, this isn’t a pleasant topic, so I’ll just come right out with it. You got any reason to think somebody wants you dead?”
“Not that I’m aware of. As I said, the rivalry between Mr. Rockefeller and myself has always been amicable. Why do you ask?”
“Your wife seems to think you’re going to be murdered.”
“Does she indeed? Curious. I should have thought it much more likely that she would be the one to be murdered, if anyone at all had to be murdered.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “What makes you say that?”
“Well, I should certainly murder her myself, it I had the opportunity. Yes, that would remove a number of undesirable complications from my life. If it were possible to accomplish the deed without suffering the manifold legal complications that generally arise from what is vulgarly called murder, I should give it serious consideration.”
This was not the way I had imagined this conversation going. “You think she feels the same way about you?”
“It is improbable. Quite improbable. She is well aware that I have arranged things in such a way that I am more valuable to her alive than dead. From a financial and a social point of view, she has every reason to want me alive.”
“And you can’t think of anybody else who’d want to kill you?”
“Well, my mother, of course. She never forgave me for the fallen soufflé. But my mother, Lord rest her soul, died eighteen years ago. If she was plotting my demise, we must regard her plot as a failure.”
When I left the Pifler house, I felt like I’d wasted my time. In fact, I was beginning to think the whole case was a waste of my time. But she wasn’t getting that retainer back, so I might as well play detective by the rules for a while.
The only real clues I’d walked away with were two names—Rockefeller and Canterbury. They both had collections that supposedly rivaled Pifler’s.
“Get me an appointment with that Rockefeller guy,” I told Betty when I got back to the office.
“You mean John D. Rockefeller?” she asked, sounding a little incredulous.
“Whoever it is that has the big pick collection.”
“Look it up in Who’s What and What’s Where,” I told her. I shoved the book across my desk. “It’s probably under R.”