“It only took you fifteen minutes?”
“No, it took me forty-five seconds. I spent the rest of the time drinking coffee and reading Foreign Policy Review, because if I’m too quick you won’t think my work is valuable.”
“Oh. Well, uh, thanks.”
“So it isn’t John D. Rockefeller who has the big pick collection. It’s John E. Rockefeller, no relation that I can trace. Made his pile in stocks, as far as anybody can tell. Never seems to have done anything else with his life except collect picks.”
“You think you can get me an appointment with him?”
“Already left a message.”
Just then the phone rang.
“That’s probably his secretary now.” She picked up the phone. “Mr. Marlow’s office.—Yes, thank you for calling back.—Yes, I think that would be a good idea. It would show that you’re cooperating with our investigations, and that always leaves a good impression.—Two-thirty?—Thank you. I’ll tell Mr. Marlow.”
She hung up.
“You have an appointment this afternoon at half past two.”
“Fast work, Betty.” I told her with my best approving smile.
“Well, he may be under a slight misapprehension.”
“It’s possible that he thinks you’re an investigator from the Securities and Exchange Commission. So, you know, play along.”
“What would I do without you?”
“You’d close the office, get a job stuffing envelopes, make just enough to buy a bottle of cheap rye, drink yourself into a stupor, fall into a gutter, and wake up in the hold of a tramp steamer bound for Morocco, where you’d be sold to a Bedouin chief who needs a man to clear out the camel dung.”
“You seem to have put some thought into this.”
“My fantasy life is all that keeps me going.”
John E. Rockefeller was rich, too. I guess you have to be rich to have a pick collection like his. Old man Pifler kept his collection mostly for himself, but Rockefeller had his on display right where you walked in—rows and rows of glass-topped display cases lined up one after the other in the white marble foyer of his mansion. The butler told me to wait there while he went off and butled something, so I had some time to look over the collection. They looked like picks.
Eventually a middle-aged man whise hair was half grey (the half on the left side) came down the stairs. “Mr. Marlow!” he greeted me, crushing my hand in a nervous grip. “Thanks for coming out on such short notice. I’m sure you’ll find me and all my staff very cooperative. Cooperation is my middle name. Well, actually, my middle name is Égalité, because my mother was really into the French Revolution, but that was a figure of speech, you know, like when you say such-and-such is my middle name, and people know you mean that you’re really into such-and-such. What I’m saying is that it definitely wasn’t perjury.”
I pried his hand off mine with the shoehorn I keep in my pocket for occasions like this. “That’s swell,” I said. “Do you have somewhere you’d like to talk?”
“How about in my office?” he responded. “We can talk in there, and I can be very cooperative and not commit any kind of perjury at all.”
“That’ll be swell,” I said, and he led me between the rows of display cases, down a white marble hallway, and into a white marble room where the walls were covered with ornate gilt frames, each of which surrounded a plain white mat with a single pick mounted in the center.
“Have a seat, Mr. Marlow,” said Rockefeller, and I sat down. “They’re just cheap chairs, but very comfortable.”
“Nice place you got here,” I said, looking around at the white marble.
“Well, really, nothing is worth all that much here. I know what it looks like, but the architect was just out of school, and he managed to get the Carrara marble with some old books of S&H Green Stamps, and we had the construction done by Habitat for Humanity. I’m really just a humble ordinary taxpayer trying to get by, just like everybody else who has nothing to hide in his financial history.” He sat down behind his white marble desk. “So how can I be of assistance?”
I didn’t see any point in playing charades with him, now that I’d already got in to see him. “Actually, I came here to talk about picks.”
The smile froze on his face for a moment, and then it shattered. Every visible muscle in his face and hands was pulled taut. “Picks,” he said very slowly, pronouncing each phoneme distinctly. His expression decayed from cheerful welcome to pure horror, as if he were watching me transform from an unexceptionable young man to a hideous reptilian creature from the depths of his nightmares. “Picks,” he repeated an octave higher.
Suddenly he leaped up and shoved the chair in front of him, cowering behind it as if it were a shield. “The picks have nothing to do with it! I mean, not much! I mean, I didn’t float fake shares to fund my pick habit! And anyway, I didn’t sell them to little old ladies on fixed incomes! And besides, they were nasty little old ladies that nobody liked! It was mercy fraud, that’s what it was! You’ll never take me alive! I’ll put a gun to my head as soon as I can order one from the back pages of McClure’s! Don’t come any closer! I’ve got a pocket full of Necco wafers, and—”
“I’m not from the SEC!” I shouted.
He stood up straight. “What?”
“I’m not from the Securities and Exchange Commission. I’m a private detective, and I’m here to talk about a murder case.”
He almost went limp for a moment. Then he burst into a great big smile. “Oh, murder! Murder I can take!” He laughed, swiveled the chair, fell into it, swiveled back to face me. “Good heavens, Mr. Marlow! I thought it was wire fraud or something. I mean, of course, not that I have anything to worry about in that department, but— Murder! What a relief! Whom do you think I killed?”
“No one. Not yet, anyway. But there’s this guy named Pifler, and his wife—”
“Archie Pifler? You mean the noted collector? One of my closest friends! Don’t tell me he’s been murdered!”
“He was alive when I left him. But his wife seems to think somebody’s out to get him.”
“Ah.” He leaned back in his chair. “Well, I’m not surprised.”
This sounded promising. “What do you mean by that?”
He seemed to be thinking for a moment. Then he leaned forward, like he was going to let me in on some big secret. “What do you know about the world of pick collecting, Mr. Marlow?”
“Not much,” I admitted.
“Maybe it’s better for you that way. Oh, it all looks innocent enough, and for some people it is. But sometimes—sometimes, Mr. Marlow, a man changes when the picks get hold of him. He loses himself in the world of picks. Like sirens of yore—I think Yore was where the sirens lived, wasn’t it? Anyway, I’ll look it up in Homer, but for now let’s just say it was Yore, and like sirens of Yore they call him to his own destruction.”
“You think Pifler got into something he shouldn’t have?”
“Ha! No, Mr. Marlow, Archie Pifler is as innocent as a newborn babe. And I mean the innocent kind of newborn babe, not the kind who gets indicted for wire fraud. Not that I know anything about that. But there is a dark underbelly to the world of pick collecting, Mr. Marlow. There are men who would do things they would never have done before they heard the siren song—things that would have made their flesh crawl before they landed on the fatal isle of Yore. Do you understand me, Mr. Marlow? Poor old Archie is a complete innocent, and I pray that he may remain that way for the rest of his life. But I have seen things, Mr. Marlow—terrible things. I have seen men park by fire hydrants when a new music store opened just to be the first to get a pick with an undocumented name. I have seen men cross in the middle of the block. I have never done these things myself, but I have seen them done.”
“Ever see a man murdered for his pick collection?”
“No. But where there is jaywalking, can murder be far behind?”
“You got me there. So you think someone in the pick business might have it in for Pifler?”
“He is, after all, one of the three most prominent men in the world of pick collecting. I take suitable precautions, Mr. Marlow. My butler is under strict orders to tell potential assassins that I am not at home. The Archbishop of Canterbury, universally recognized as the prince of all pick collectors, never leaves Lambeth without an armed guard. But I do not believe Archie recognizes the dangers. I am not an alarmist, but I do believe in assessing the situation realistically. You would do well to do the same.”
“Well, luckily I’m not in the pick game.”
“Aren’t you, Mr. Marlow? You’ve met with me. You’ve met with Archie Pifler. People will draw conclusions.”
“What are you trying to tell me?”
He leaned back in his chair. “Be careful, Mr. Marlow. That is the best advice I can give you. And have you considered investing some of your money in stocks?”
I had a lot to think about as I walked back to the office. For example, I was thinking about how I really needed a new pair of shoes. But I was also thinking about what Rockefeller had told me. He and that Canterbury guy thought picks were a dangerous hobby to mess with. I wondered whether I ought to tell Pifler what Rockefeller had told me.
I took the shortcut through the alley beside my building as usual, and I had just about got to the main street when a man stepped out of a shadowy doorway and blocked my way.
“Hey, bub,” he said.
He was wearing a mold-colored green fedora and a grey trenchcoat. His right hand was in the pocket of his coat, and I had a pretty good idea what else might be in there.
“You want something from me?” I asked in my toughest tough voice. It was a bluff, since I don’t carry a gun, not since Betty threatened to quit if she had to clean bloody footprints off the rug one more time.
“Yeah,” said the fedora guy. “Word on the street is you’ve been asking questions about picks.”
“What’s it to you?”
“Just a bit of friendly advice. It ain’t healthy for a mug like you to ask too many questions. A guy could get in trouble that way.”
“I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
“Yeah? Well, here’s something to help you remember.”
He pulled his hand out of his pocket and I cringed.
He held the hand out to me. Something white was in it.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a piece of paper. Jeez, I didn’t think I’d have to explain that to a brainy detective like you. See, I wrote ‘DON’T ASK SO MANY QUESTIONS ABOUT PICKS’ on it. I wrote it in thick black crayon so it’s easy to see. Put that in your wallet or something, and then it’ll be easy to remember.”
“Don’t mention it. I like to be a good neighbor.” He turned and walked away, but he turned back just before he got out into the street and said, “Don’t forget now.” Then he was gone.
I folded the paper and stuck it in my pocket, and I walked up the steps to my office in a contemplative mood. You could tell I was in a contemplative mood because I had one hand on my chin.
“You’re looking contemplative,” Betty said when I came into the office. She followed me into the inner office. “What did you find out?”
I sat down behind my desk. “I found out this case goes a lot deeper than I thought.”
“So what’s your next move?”
I contemplated for a few seconds longer. Then I told her, “See if you can get me an appointment with that Canterbury guy.”