“His name is Billy,” I told her. The look on her face was saying she needed more information than that. “He sort of…followed me.”
“Wow!” Billy said. “This is your secretary? She’s a knockout!”
“Hey, I like him already,” Betty said. “Can we keep him?”
“I don’t know if we have a choice,” I replied.
“So when do I start doing sidekicky things?” Billy asked.
“Well,” I said, trying to think what a sidekick could do, “I suppose you could take out the trash.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Betty said. “You’ll end up on the curb. Anyway, I’ve got some interesting news for you.”
“What’s that?” Billy and I both asked at once.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury is in town.”
“I thought you told me he was on the other side of the Atlantic,” I said.
“Well, he usually is, but he came over for some sort of convention or something. It was in the Dispatch.”
“Can you get me an appointment?”
“Not likely, but I’m trying.”
“Say,” said Billy, “who’s this Canterbury guy? Some bigshot gangster?”
“Oh, you’re adorable!” Betty exclaimed. “You’ll fit right in around here.”
“The Archbishop of Canterbury,” I explained patiently, “is the head of the whole Tanglican Church.”
“Anglican,” Betty said.
“That’s what I said. More or less. Anyway, he visits sick people and reads them magazine articles. But he’s also a big collector of picks.”
“Oh, you mean like what paleontologists use?” Billy asked.
“You don’t have to make words up. It’s okay if you don’t know what I’m talking about. I mean like what you play a guitar or banjo or mandolin with.”
“Oh,” said Billy. “Like stamp collecting, but not with stamps.”
“People collect stamps?” Maybe he was making that up, too. “Well, never mind that. Our big job today is to look for old man Pifler.”
“Right you are, boss. You look in the closet; I’ll look under the desk.”
I smiled a condescending smile. “I don’t think it’s going to be that simple.”
“Found him,” said Billy, raising his head from under the desk.
“What?” I stooped and looked under the desk. Old man Pifler was huddled under there, looking at me with a sheepish half-smile.
“What are you doing under there?” I asked.
“Hiding,” he answered, and I had to admit it was a reasonable response.
Betty stooped down beside me. “How did you get in here?” she asked.
“I followed you in this morning.”
“I didn’t see anyone come in.”
“People generally don’t notice when I come into a room,” Pifler said. “I’ve grown accustomed to it.”
“Why are you hiding here?” I asked.
“Some men came to visit me last night, and they exhibited a demeanor that I would frankly call threatening. One of them even had a water pistol.”
“Lot of that going around,” I remarked. “So how did you get away?”
“They seemed to be looking for something, so while they looked I walked out. Fortunately, people don’t generally notice when I leave a room.”
“Did they tell you what they were looking for?”
“No. They seemed to think I knew what they wanted.”
“Say,” said Billy, “you think it was that Croydon thing?”
Suddenly Pifler stood up, banging his head on the desk. He tried again and succeeded by moving out from under the desk first. “Croydon!” he said. “What do you know about that?”
“Not much,” I answered, “but I know a lot of people are looking for one.”
“I’m not surprised. It would be a very valuable acquisition. Anything not listed in Paxton is ipso facto valuable.”
“Facto,” Billy repeated. “Isn’t he that mob boss from Sharpsburg?”
“I think so,” I said. “So he’s the one who wants a Croydon?”
“I meant ‘by the fact itself,’ ” Pifler explained. “It’s Latin.”
“Oh, wow!” said Billy. “Latin! So you can talk to pigs?”
“Well, yes, but I don’t see what that has to do with Latin,” said Pifler.
“Getting back to that Croydon thing,” Betty interrupted, “what is it and who wants it?”
“Mr. Marlow may remember,” Pifler said. “I had just run across it when he paid me a visit. It was in a shipment of assorted picks from Alberta—a blue marble labeled Jeremiah Croydon, a dealer whose name does not appear in the index to Paxton’s, the standard reference in the field. I recognized it at once as a valuable piece, but I must say it never occurred to me to suspect that anyone would attempt to obtain an article of value by dishonest means. I don’t know whether the English language even has a word for such a crime.”
“How about ‘stealing’?” Betty suggested.
“Steeling? You mean metaphorically hardening oneself like armored plate so as to be impervious to the assaults of the moral sense? Yes, I suppose that would describe it.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess I can see why you were hiding. You can’t go home right now. You need a place to stay. Betty—”
“Forget it,” said Betty.
“Under your desk is fine,” Pifler said. “I was quite comfortable there.”
“Yeah, but sometimes my feet go there. Is there anywhere else you could stay? Like a club or something?”
“I thought it might be wiser to stay somewhere else,” Pifler said. “I was reluctant to stay at my own club on the grounds that the sort of unscrupulous villains who entered my library unannounced might easily find me at the club. It would be frankly embarrassing if they appeared and found their way to me. It would suggest to the other members that I was indiscriminate in my acquaintances.”
“Well, then maybe you should go to a hotel. You think that would work?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a hotel. What exactly is a hotel?”
Betty handled this one: “It’s like a club for people who aren’t members of clubs.”
“Oh, I see. But do they let one in if one is a member of a club?”
“The hotels I know don’t ask many questions,” I told him. “There’s the Hotel Deckenbach. They’re used to getting all kinds of guests there.”
“All of them named Smith,” Betty added.
“Then I shall repair to the hotel you mention,” Pifler said. “But, having left home in more than the usual hurry, I find myself without much ready cash—only about three hundred in odd bills and coins. Will that be sufficient to rent a desk to hide under?”
“You could buy the hotel for fifty bucks,” said Betty.
We got Pifler checked into a room at the Hotel Deckenbach under the name Smith. He was pleased to find that his room had a small writing desk, and he stationed himself under it and said the accommodations were quite satisfactory. I said he might try the bed instead, but Pifler pointed out that the bed was too low to sit up under, and I couldn’t argue with him there.
It was turning into a blustery day, with rain coming at us almost sideways as Billy and I walked down the street from the hotel.
“When do I get my trench coat?” Billy asked as we hurried from one awning to the next.
“When you find one for a buck in a pawn shop like me,” I answered, pulling the lapels of my trench coat closer together.
“Hey, fellas!” came a voice from the street beside us. It took me a moment to realize that it was coming from a big La Salle limousine. The right-hand window was down, and a man in the passenger seat was calling to us. “You look wet. Want a ride?”
I hesitated a moment, so Billy answered first. “My ma told me never to accept rides from strangers.”
The door opened and the man jumped out. At the same time, the back door opened and two more men appeared.
“Luckily,” said the man who had spoken before, “your ma ain’t here.”
My arms were grabbed from behind, and I lost my balance as I was shoved into the car. I ended up in an awkward position on one of the back seats. Just as I managed to sit up straight, I was toppled again, this time by the car suddenly accelerating.
“Where are you taking us?” Billy demanded.
“Someplace you want to go,” the man in the front seat replied.
“A pawn shop?” Billy asked.
“What? No, not a pawn shop. Just sit back like Mr. Marlow there and enjoy the ride.”
I managed to sit up again so I could look out the window. The driver was weaving through traffic at a manic pace, sending fountains of spray flying as he plowed through puddles. A couple of times I thought he had lost control on the wet bricks, but he managed to miss the other cars, or at least most of them, and kept at it till he came to a screeching stop in front of the Worcester Arms Hotel.
“Here we are,” the man in the front seat said cheerfully. “Everybody out.”
The men in the back seats with us opened the door, jumped out, and held the door open for us.
“Now, we’re going into the lobby,” the man who had been in the front seat told us. “Nice and casual-like, just like old friends. When we get there, we’re heading for the elevators.”
Billy and I followed his instructions. I thought of making a break for it, but I didn’t know what he had in the coat pocket where his hand was, and there was a good chance I didn’t want to find out. So we walked through the lobby as if we were all old friends, just like he had said. When we got to the elevator, the doors opened and the elevator band started playing “Penthouse Serenade.”
Suddenly Billy lit up, like he recognized somebody. “Mitch! You got fired from Consolidated too?”
The music stopped as the first fiddle explained, “No, this is my day job.”
“Oh, I get it,” Billy said. “Sorry to interrupt. You can go on.”
The music resumed until we had reached the eighteenth floor. Then the doors opened, the band stopped playing, and the men from the car motioned us to get out.
We walked wordlessly down the hall until we reached a door marked 1818; then one of the men opened the door, and we all stepped inside.
An older man in a clerical collar was standing there waiting for us.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” he said. “My name is Harold William Stamford-Hastings, but you probably know me as the Archbishop of Canterbury.”