“The guy with the world’s biggest pick collection.”
“You mean the Archbishop of Canterbury?”
“Yeah, that’s the guy.”
“I’m not sure I can just get you an appointment with him.”
“Why not? You got me in to see that guy Rockefeller.”
“First of all, the Archbishop of Canterbury is usually on the other side of the Atlantic. I don’t know how much you remember from your geography classes, but the Atlantic is big. It’s a long walk, and you’d get your feet wet, and there’s no streetcar. And second, even if he were right next door, I don’t know whether he’d have time. He’s busy.”
“What’s he so busy with?”
“He’s archbishop of the whole Anglican Church! He has to do archbishopy things! I don’t know—visit the sick and quiz them on the Thirty-Nine Articles or something.”
“Well, see what you can do.”
“Fine. I’ll try telling him you’re an Orthodox patriarch who wants to convert.”
“Excuse me,” said a voice from the doorway.
We both turned to look. The voice proceeded from a small impeccably dressed man, maybe five foot two at the outside, with a beard and mustache waxed and trimmed to points that looked like they would cut glass.
“Excuse me, Mr. Marlow,” he repeated, slowly turning his hat in his hands. “I hope I am not intruding.”
“Not at all. Come on in.” It was kind of superfluous to say, since he was already in, but if he was a paying client I wanted his money to feel welcome.
“Thank you,” he said. “I hope not to take too much of your time, which I am sure is valuable. In fact, I believe we can come to an accommodation almost at once, if you are willing to see reason. I am prepared to offer you a very substantial sum if you will let me have the thing right now.”
“What thing is that?” I asked.
“Oh, really, Mr. Marlow! I had hoped you would not be coy. Coyness is unbecoming in a gentleman. We both know the thing I mean.”
“Well, maybe we do, but one of us forgot.”
“Stop beating around the bush!” Suddenly he was very agitated, and his English was betraying more of a foreign accent of some sort. “I do not like beating around the bush! I do not like bushes! I do not like beating! I will be quite straightforward with you, Mr. Marlow, and I ask for the same courtesy from you. I am prepared to offer you thirty-five dollars, in cash, right now, for the Croydon.”
“The what?” I asked.
“Please do not play games with me, Mr. Marlow. I have never liked games. They are a waste of time that could be devoted to more important things. The Croydon, Mr. Marlow, is one such more important thing. I will make you an offer of thirty-eight dollars and not a penny more. No: I am not being generous—I apologize—I am prepared to be generous. I will add the penny more. Thirty-eight dollars and one cent, Mr. Marlow, for the Croydon.”
“Look, pal, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wish I could help you, but—”
Suddenly he whipped out a pistol. “I told you I do not like games, Mr. Marlow. My employer is quite insistent. He will have the Croydon. I was prepared to purchase it from you, but I have no objection to using other means.”
“You really think that gun frightens him?” Betty asked.
“Betty,” I said quietly, “why don’t you let me decide for myself what frightens me?”
“Have you noticed that it’s purple?” Betty said.
“What?” I looked at the pistol again. “Say, is that—”
“Yes, Mr. Marlow,” said the little man. “This is a water pistol, and you will suffer the inconvenience of being moderately damp for half an hour or so unless you produce the Croydon immediately.”
“Well,” I said, stalling for time, “I’ll have to think that over.”
“Give me that,” said Betty, and she suddenly wrenched the pistol out of the man’s hand.
“Hey!” he said, but it was too late for his objections. Betty had him covered with his own water pistol.
“Now talk,” I told him with menace in my voice.
“I have been talking since I stepped into your office, Mr. Marlow. I have hardly paused, in fact. It is not necessary to have your minion point a weapon at me.”
“Minion!” Betty said. “I kind of like that. Sounds more formidable than secretary.”
I tried again. “I guess what I meant was, tell me what I want to know. Let’s start with the basics: who sent you?”
“He has many names,” said the little man.
“Let’s hear some of ’em.”
“His full name is Terence Arnold Carr-Handley-Forrest von Kügel Patterson de Vol McSweeney,” the little man said.
“That’s quite a name.”
“I told you he had many names. But he is known more commonly as the Professor.”
“What’s he a professor of?”
“He is a professor of many things. He has graduate degrees in—”
“Forget I asked. So what’s this Professor think he wants from me?”
“Really, Mr. Marlow, there is only one thing anyone could possibly want from you. No offense meant, of course, but—the Croydon, Mr. Marlow. I have offered to purchase it, and my offer stands. Others will be more—shall we say straightforward? You might do well to unburden yourself of the thing now, or you will certainly have visits from men who are less squeamish than I about violent measures. I make you a final offer, Mr. Marlow. Shall we say forty-three dollars? And seven cents? Forty-three dollars and seven cents would be quite enough to replace those somewhat less than respectable shoes of yours several times over. You would be happy in the possession of a new pair of shoes, and the Professor would be happy in the possession of a trinket that can be of no value to you, and I should be happy in the knowledge of a job well done, and when the news that the Croydon was in the Professor’s possession penetrated the world of connoisseurs, you would not be bothered with visits from what we might call unsavory characters. A simple transaction now will spare you much grief later: that is my advice to you, Mr. Marlow, and you would do well to take it.”
“Well, I haven’t got the trinket,” I told him, “so it looks like you’re wasting your time here. My advice to you is to look somewhere else.”
He was silent for a moment. It was practically the first time I’d seen his mouth closed. Then he scowled and said, “I see. This is the game you have decided to play. Well, sir, I shall inform my employer, and I must say he will be disappointed. I should not like to be in your shoes, Mr. Marlow.”
“Is that some kind of threat?”
“No. They are truly miserable shoes: that is all I am saying. How do you walk in them? I offered you the means of replacing them, but you chose to refuse my offer, and now you are stuck wearing truly miserable shoes for the indefinite future.”
Betty uncorked the water pistol and dumped the water into the philodendron on the windowsill. Then she handed the gun back to our visitor. “But before you go,” she said as he was taking it, “I have one question for you. What is this Croydon you want so much?”
The little man pocketed his water pistol and smiled an enigmatic smile. “Mr. Marlow will inform you,” he said, and he plopped his hat on his head and walked out.
“Okay,” Betty said to me when he was gone, “so what’s the Croydon?”
“I have no idea,” I told her.
“Then why didn’t you ask him?”
“And have him think I’m an idiot? No thanks.”
“He already thinks that.”
“Seems to me I’ve heard the name before, though. Croydon… Was it a brand of watch?”
I was having some second thoughts while I was walking home that night. Forty-three dollars would have bought me a couple of really good pairs of shoes, and seven cents would have got me a phone call and two licorice sticks. If I could just think of some way of coming up with a Croydon, whatever that was, I could sell it to that little guy and solve a lot of problems at once. Maybe I could have a look through the old issues of Popular Mechanics at the library and see if they told you how to build a Croydon.
I had just about got as far as the door of my apartment building when a figure stepped out of the shadows.
“Stick ’em up,” the figure said. He was holding something in his right hand, but the light was behind him, and I could only see shadows.
“Is that a water pistol?” I asked.
“Don’t be a wise guy,” said the silhouette. “Hands in the air.”
“If you’re here to tell me not to ask so many questions, I’ve already got that written down on a piece of paper somewhere.”
“You know what I want from you. Fork it over.”
“You want a fork?”
“The Croydon, you numbskull. Give it to me now, or I’ll—”
“Stick ’em up,” said a voice from the darkness, and another shadowy figure appeared.
“Which one of us are you talking to?” I asked. As I said before, it pays to be thorough and precise.
“Both o’ youse. Hands in the air. I’m takin’ that Croydon, and you better be quick about it, or I’ll—”
“Hands up, all three of you,” said another voice, and another silhouette appeared behind the first two. “Now make with the Croydon, and make it snappy. I don’t want to have to—”
“Hands in the air!” said another voice. “I’m the one who’s going to—”
“Schtop in tze name off tze law!” came a loud voice from up the street.
“The cops!” said someone, and all the silhouettes scrambled and vanished in different directions.
In their place was the familiar pear-shaped outline of our usual beat cop.
“Platnauer!” I said. “I sure am glad to see you!”
“Faitz und begorrah, Herr Marlow! Who vass tzose men mit tze pistols?”
“Don’t know ’em,” I said, “but they seem to think I’ve got something they want.”
“Sure und ’tiss a fine tzing venn ein mann can’t valk down hiss own schtreet, bechabbers!”
“Ain’t it, though? Lucky you came along when you did.”
“Ja, tzat it iss. But if you vill pardon ein vort off advice, you ought to lay off tze picks, bedatt!”
“How do you know about that?”
“Vort gets arount,” he said with a wink. “Top o’ tze evening to you, Herr Marlow.”
He turned and walked away, spinning his nightstick.
I walked up the three flights of stairs to my apartment thinking that this case was getting deeper by the minute.
The phone was ringing as I opened my door. I picked it up.
A woman’s voice came out of the earpiece.
“My husband is missing,” she said.