Posts filed under “Novels”


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.


In spite of my misgivings, I walked into my office, expecting either some very unpleasant shouting or one of those fits of sarcasm society dames can throw that are a whole lot worse than good old-fashioned shouting. I didn’t get either. Nobody was in there.

“I thought you said Mrs. Pifler was in here,” I said to Betty as she came in behind me.

“Well, she… This is—I mean, she was just in here, and there’s only one door.

“Right,” said Billy. “You look in the closet and I’ll look under the desk.”

I felt pretty silly doing it, but this time I did look in the closet. Nothing but Necco wafers and slide whistles left there by the previous tenant.

“Nobody under here, boss,” Billy reported from under the desk. “Except me, I guess.”

Betty looked nonplussed. I’d never seen her look nonplussed before. I had to ask her what kind of look that was on her face, and she said “nonplussed,” and then I had to look up that word in Funk and Wagnall’s, so there was a bit of a delay.

“She was right here,” Betty said when I was through flipping pages. “Maybe I’m losing it. This is the second time—I mean, first Mr. Pifler gets in without my seeing it, and then Mrs. Pifler gets out.”

“Hey, it’s a mystery!” said Kosciuszko, who had been watching from the doorway, munching an oatmeal cookie. “Maybe you should call a detective or somethin’.”

“Well,” I said, “if she’s not here, where would she be? Did she say anything about why she came here?”

“Just ‘Nothing is right at the house,’ ” Betty recalled. “She said that two or three times.”

“Okay, sidekick,” I said to Billy. “You’ve heard everything I’ve heard. Where would you go next?”

“The Registrar of Deeds,” Billy replied definitely.

“The Re— Why would you go there?”

“Well,” said Billy, “I figure, if something’s wrong with a house, it’s probably cause it’s built on an old Indian burial ground. That’s always what it turns out to be in magazine stories. So we go to the Registrar of Deeds and trace the history of the property, and we find out who’s haunting it.”

Kosciuszko broke in here: “Gotta be Guyasuta.”

“Oh, yeah?” Billy asked with keen interest. “Why do you say that?”

“Cause he’s the only Indian whose name I remember,” Kosciuszko explained.

There was a certain logic to that, but I wasn’t convinced yet. “I think we should go to the house and see what we find there. Then if it looks like an Indian haunting, Billy, you can tell us what the magazine stories recommend.”

“We could try sacrificing a virgin,” Billy suggested. He looked over at Betty.

“If you even ask that question that’s in your head right now,” she said, “you’ll be lucky if a black eye is all you get.”

“I don’t think sacrificing virgins is legal in this state,” I said.

“We got a First Amendment right to freedom of religion,” Kosciuszko pointed out.

“It’s not in the plan, anyway,” I said. “Betty, call a cab. We’re going to the Pifler house, Billy and I, and we’ll see what’s up.”

“Right, boss,” said Betty, heading to her desk.

“Okay,” said Billy. “But just remember these words: ‘Unga braka unga barka anga banga brink.’ ”

“Unga— What? What are you talking about?”

“That’s the ancient Lenape spell that laid the spirit to rest in ‘Mystery of the Mysterious Old House.’ ”

“I don’t think that’s a real Lenape spell, Billy,” I said.

“Yeah,” added Kosciuszko. “Sounds more Italian to me.”

“Cab’s on its way,” said Betty from behind Kosciuszko. “And while you’re visiting the Pifler place, I’ll be trying to plug the hole your clients keep slipping through.”

“Look for a secret trap door,” said Billy. “That was how the masked maniac kept getting into the house in ‘Dark Doings in the Old Dark House.’ ”

“I’ll remember that,” said Betty, but I think she was using her sarcastic voice.

The taxi driver let us off at the Pifler house with a sense of foreboding. I mean the driver had a sense of foreboding. He was afraid he wasn’t going to get paid. I told him to wait, and I’d be out in fifteen minutes. He said, “Yeah, right,” but he didn’t sound like he meant it. I think he was using his sarcastic voice, too.

“Sir was not expected,” said the butler when he opened the door.

“I didn’t expect to be here myself,” I replied. “But the lady of the house was in my office telling my secretary that nothing was right and it was life or death, and then she wasn’t, and she couldn’t get past Betty, but she did. So that’s why I’m here.”

The butler thought for a moment and then spoke. “Would sir care to repeat—”

“Look,” I said, “sir is just as mixed up as you are, okay? So if you’ll just let sir and sir’s sidekick come in and have a look around, maybe we can all get a better idea of what’s going on around here.”

The butler hesitated just a moment. Then he said, “Very good, sir,” and opened the door all the way.

Billy and I stepped into the hall, which was about the size of Union Station but better decorated.

“Some place they got here,” said Billy. “Say, this would be perfect for jousting.”

“Jousting?” I repeated.

“Yeah. I’m a member of the Bloomfield Jousting Association, you know.”

“Well, no, I didn’t know that.”

“Huh. I guess there’s a lot of things you don’t know about me yet.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true.”

“You shoulda seen us beat the pants off Stanton Heights last week.”

The butler cleared his throat in a way that conveyed whole paragraphs of polite impatience.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said. “Back to business. First of all, have you or any of the upstairs maids or the downstairs maids or the mezzanine maids noticed anything unusual going on?”

“That would be hard to say, sir. In a manner of speaking, the unusual is usual in this house. Queer things happen quite often, sir. The house is built over an old Indian burial ground, you know.”

I didn’t look at Billy, but I could hear the smugness behind me. “Well, then, I guess what I should ask is, has there been anything unusually unusual going on, as opposed to the usual unusual stuff?”

“One would hesitate to say that anything unusually unusual had been going on, sir,” said the butler. “In fact, if one were to characterize the day so far, one might almost say that it had been unusually usual.”

“I see. Well, maybe we should just have a look around the house. How about we start down this way?”

“Not that way,” the butler said with some show of alarm. “The south wing is closed, sir.”

“Yeah, I remember Mrs. Pifler saying there wasn’t a south wing. But what’s down there?”

“Nothing, as far as one knows, sir.”

“But I see a hallway with doors and all,” I insisted.

“Mrs. Pifler assured the staff that it was an optical illusion.”

I thought about that for a moment. “Well, if it’s an optical illusion, is there any reason I shouldn’t go down there?”

“It might be a precipice,” said the butler.

“Or a pit of vipers,” said Billy. “You know, like in ‘Adventure of the House with the Pit of Vipers.’ ”

By this time I was too curious to hold back. “I’ll walk carefully,” I said, and I started down the hall toward the south wing.

The floor seemed pretty solid all the way.

The hall ended at a double door. I turned the knob on the right-hand door. It was locked.

“You have a key to this?” I asked, looking back at the butler, who had followed me at what he considered a safe distance.

“One is not aware of having such a key,” he said. “Unless it might possibly be this one.”

He produced a key from his coat pocket. It was attached to a very large round fob on which were engraved the words “DO NOT USE THIS KEY UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.”

“That could be the one,” I said, taking it.

I tried it. It worked.

Just in case there were vipers, I opened the door very slowly.

On the other side was what looked like a gentlemen’s club. There were a dozen or so men reading newspapers, playing cards, and so on.

They looked up at me.

“I say,” said one of the card-players, “are you one of the husbands?”

I looked back at Billy and the butler, but they looked just as confused as I felt.

“One of the husbands?” I repeated.

The same man spoke again. “I’m number nine, don’t you know.”

“Eight,” said one of the other card-players at the same table.

“Really?” said the first man. “I could have sworn I was nine.”

“You were, but the marriage to the Brenneman chap was annulled,” said the other. “That bumped you down to eight.”

“Oh, yes, of course. I do tend to forget these things. I suppose that would make the new man, what, number fourteen?”

“Thirteen,” said the other.

“Are you quite sure?”

“Quite. I’m number ten, and Davis over there is number eleven, and the last to come in was Capelli over there. Isn’t that right, Capelli?”

“Si, signor,” said a man in a chair without looking up from his newspaper.

“Well, at any rate,” said the first man to me, “we’re always ready to welcome a new member. You’ll find your accommodations a bit spartan, but comfortable.”

“What is this place?” I demanded.

“She hasn’t told you?”

“Who hasn’t told me what?”

The two card-players looked at each other, and then back at me.

“Sorry to tell you this, old chap,” said the first, “but Emmaline is through with you. This is where her husbands end up when she’s found a new one.”

“Emmaline? You mean, Mrs. Pifler?”

“Pifler? Capelli, was the chap who replaced you—”

“Si,” said the man behind the newspaper.

“Well, then, Mr. Pifler,” said the card-player who had been talking to me, “welcome to Emmaline’s little club of rejected husbands.”


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.


So we meet at last,” I said, because I figured something like that was expected of me.

“Wow!” said Billy. “Two in one day!”

“Two whats?” asked Facto.

“Two big bosses! You and that Canterbury guy.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Facto. “Kosciuszko told me he took you to see the Archbishop. He’s got a big operation, they tell me. But I don’t think it’s as big as mine. I own this town, Marlow.”

“So I hear,” I said warily.

“And by ‘this town,’ he continued, “I mean Sharpsburg. Not the whole Pittsburgh metropolitan area. I mean, that would be silly. I own this block of Sharpsburg, or at least I own this bar, which is at the end of the block. I have a one-third interest in this bar, shared with a certain number of investment partners. So you see, Marlow, I’m a big man around here.”

“Really? said Billy. “I would have said you were about five-foot—”

“Ixnay,” said Kosciuszko in a gravelly half-whisper.

“Wow!” said Billy. “You speak Latin, too!”

“So I think we can come to an agreement that would be good for both of us,” Facto continued. “Mutually beneficial, that’s what I’d call it.”

“I haven’t got any Croydons.” I figured it would be good to get that out there right away.

“Of course not,” said Facto. “I know you ain’t got it. I ain’t some small-timer, Marlow. I get information, and I get the good stuff. You ain’t got the Croydon, and I ain’t got it either. But a lot of people think you have it. You know that’s worth something, right?”

“What’s it worth?” I asked warily, because I usually ask questions warily.

“It gives you influence, Marlow. And influence is always a good thing to have. As long as people think you got the Croydon, you’re valuable. They may threaten you, but they can’t actually kill you, because then you couldn’t tell them where it is. You’re practically immortal! The worst they can do is torture you to make you talk, and we both know you’re tougher than that.”

“When you say ‘we both,’ ” I asked, “do you mean—”

“Yeah,” Billy interrupted, “he’s tougher than that. He’s tougher than anything. He’s tougher than my grandma’s roast beef.”

“Exactly,” said Facto. “And I could use a tough guy like you. See, we’re gonna have a lot of pick fanciers in town for the convention, and I figure some of them guys is bound to be rich.”

“Convention?” It seemed to me I’d heard that word somewhere before.

“The big pick convention. You know, the one where the Archbishop is the keynote speaker.”

“Oh, that convention,” I said, because I always try not to look dumber than people think I am.

“So here’s what I want you to do,” said Facto. “Next time one of them guys asks if you got the Croydon, you say, ‘No, but I know how to get it.’ Then you lead him to me.”

“And then what do you do?”

“I bonk him over the head and take his money.”

“Subtle,” I said.

“Well, I’ve always been clever. That’s what my mom tells me.”

“So your mom thinks you’re clever when you bonk people over the head?”

“Well, she’s the one who does the actual bonking. Mostly I just ransack their pockets once they’re bonked.”

“It sounds like a clever plan,” I admitted, “but I don’t know whether it’s ethical.”

“Oh, I can help you out there,” said Facto. “Kosciuszko here is a trained ethicist. Kosciuszko, it’s ethical, ain’t it?”

“Ethical as all get out,” said Kosciuszko. “I looked it up.”

“See? There you go,” said Facto. “I wouldn’t want to be a crime boss if I had to do anything unethical.”

“I still don’t think I can do it,” I said. “It would damage my reputation if everybody I talked to started getting bonked.”

“Your reputation? Marlow, your reputation is about to get you killed.”

“Killed?” I didn’t like the sound of that. I usually don’t like the sound of verbs that begin with K, like “killed” or “klobbered.”

“Every important pick collector in the world thinks you’ve got the Croydon. That’s your reputation, Marlow. It ain’t a healthy reputation to have. And every important pick collector in the world is going to be in town for the convention. They ain’t all nice guys like me. Some of ’em won’t stop at anything. Not even murder. Not even copyright infringement. There’s some real desperate characters in that crowd. I’m just givin’ you a chance to bonk them before they bonk you.”

“I thought you said they wouldn’t murder me,” I reminded him.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. But I’ve been on the level with you, Marlow. I think you’re a valuable property, and I’m offering you a way to squeeze that value out without getting squeezed. I think you should take me up on it.”

“Sorry,” I said. “No bonking when I’m around.”

Facto was silent for a moment. Then he put his hands flat on the table “Well, Marlow, all I can say is, I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes.”

“Yeah,” I said, looking down at my feet, “I’ve been meaning to get new ones, but what with—”

“No, I don’t mean your literal shoes! Criminy! It’s a metaphor. A what-do-you-call-it. It’s an idiotism. I mean that I wouldn’t want to be in your position vis-à-vis the unscrupulous pick collectors out there. I’m giving you a final offer, Marlow. Fifty-fifty. You rope ’em in, Mom bonks ’em, and whatever falls out when they hit the floor, you take half and I take half, and Mom takes half ’cause she bonked ’em. I can’t be any fairer than that.”

“No bonking,” I repeated, turning around to leave.

“Fine,” I heard him saying as Billy and I walked out. “I guess you don’t want to do your bit for a neighbor. I guess you don’t care about a poor honest crook just trying to scrape by. Well, if I were you, I’d be careful, ’cause—”

But we were out in the street by this time, so I didn’t hear the rest.

“You sure showed him,” Billy said as we walked down the street toward the main business district of Sharpsburg. “Now what are we doing next? Another crime boss?”

“Actually, there’s a shoe store on Main Street that I was thinking of stopping in, and—

“You two need a ride?” came a familiar voice from the street beside us.

“Well, actually,” I said, “I was headed for Wagner’s Shoes, and it’s just around the—

The doors opened, and once again thugs poured out of the DeSoto. Once again Billy and I were bundled into the back. Once again I ended up on my head.

“Don’t you think you’re overdoing this moonlighting thing?” I asked. “Three bosses seems like two too many.”

“This one ain’t a job,” said Kosciuszko. “It’s more a personal favor.”

“Favor? Who for? Another crime boss? A Byzantine archeparch?”

“Gee, Mr. Marlow, it’s almost like you don’t trust me. Now, that ain’t fair.”

“If I’m supposed to trust you, how come you keep grabbing me and throwing me into the car?”

“’Cause I don’t trust you.”

“Well,” said Billy, ”that seems fair.”

We were heading over the bridge again, and it occurred to me to say, “You know, maybe you ought to get out a map and plot your route. Then you could take me to all the mob bosses on the north side of the Allegheny in the morning, and all the ones between the rivers in the afternoon, and then you’d still have the evening for the ones on the South Side.”

“Hey, that’s a good idea,” said Kosciuszko. He reached into the glove box and pulled out a map.

“Told you he was smart,” said Billy.

For the rest of the trip, Kosciuszko was busy making marks on his map, so I just sat there and watched out the window until the car rolled to a stop right in front of the building where I had my office.

“Now we’re gonna get out and walk in nice and casual-like,” said Kosciuszko. “Just as if we did it every day.”

“I do do it every day,” I said. “This is my building.”

“Then it oughta be a snap,” said Kosciuszko, and I suppose he was right.

We all walked up the stairs to my office, and Kosciuszko held the door open for me.

“There you are,” said Betty. “About time. Thanks, Koz. There’s a bag of oatmeal cookies on my desk over there.”

“Oh boy!” said Kosciuszko. “With raisins?”

“Just the way you like them.”

Kosciuszko snatched up the bag, pulled out an oatmeal cookie, and bit into it with an expression of pure bliss.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re my next big crime boss?”

“I owed her a favor,” Kosciuszko explained with his mouth full. “And your secretary makes the best oatmeal cookies.”

“So what’s this about?”

“I called the Backstreet Bar in Sharpsburg and told Koz I needed you back right away,” Betty said.

“How did you even know I was there?”

“Somebody in this office has to be a detective,” said Betty. “Anyway, your client is in your office. She says it’s a matter of life and death.”

“Somebody threatened her? Facto was right. They really will stop at nothing.”

“Well, actually,” Betty said, “I got the impression it was your death she was talking about.”

Continue to Chapter 8.


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.


“My secretary told me you were in town,” I said, “but I didn’t expect to get an appointment so soon.”

“Well, I hate to keep people waiting,” the Archbishop said with a friendly smile. “The moment I heard you wanted to speak with me, I made sure to extend you an invitation in what I understand is the approved Yankee style. I hope the gentlemen I hired performed their duties in a satisfactory manner.”

“They got me here,” I told him, which was about the best I could say for them.

“Good. In England, of course, one would simply have sent a card, but one likes to make the natives feel as though one has made an effort. In Kenya, for example, to send an invitation it is customary to strip to the waist, climb a tree, beat one’s chest, and yodel. I should never have known that if my native guides had not told me. Delightful people, the Kenyans—always smiling and laughing. But enough of my fascinating reminiscences. I believe you and I share a common interest, Mr. Marlow.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think if you tried to read me thirty-nine magazine articles, I’d doze off by the twenty-seventh.”

“I beg your pardon?—Oh, yes, I see! This is an example of that bracing Yankee humor I’ve heard so much about. I tried to read a bit of Josh Billings in preparation for my visit, but I must be candid, Mr. Marlow: I couldn’t make head or tail of the fellow. The fault is all mine, I’m sure. But one thing I do know about you Yankees is that you like to get right down to business. There I think I can oblige you. As you are doubtless aware, I am fortunate enough to be the possessor of the world’s largest collection of picks.”

“Even bigger than the Pope’s?” Billy asked.

“Oh, I say! More of your delightful American humor! As every connoisseur knows, Pope Pius collects beer cans. It is one of those minor differences that keep the Bishop of Rome out of the Anglican Communion for the present, although we pray ceaselessly that he may be brought back into the fold. I do hope I can learn before long to incorporate some of your bracing Yankee wit into my own discourse. But to business. The rumor in the world of pick connoisseurs is that you have come into the possession of a pearl of great price. I speak metaphorically; I quote from Scripture, having spent much of my youth idly turning its pages before my onerous duties deprived me of the leisure for such pleasant but unproductive recreations. The object to which I refer is in fact a marbled pick, blue rather than pearl, bearing the name of Jeremiah Croydon. When your secretary telephoned and told me you wished to see me, I presumed you had terms to offer; and since I am most eager to obtain the Croydon, I think you will find me very willing to entertain any reasonable offer.”

“And what makes you think I’ve got the Croydon?” I asked.

“Well, really, I— Oh, I say! It’s the Yankee way, isn’t it? The complete package, as it were. I say to you, ‘Look here, old chap, there’s a thing I want,’ and you say, ‘Well, mack, what if I ain’t got it?’—and that spurs me to make a more generous offer. Why, it’s just like one of your tuppenny novels! That is, one of your dime novels. Excuse me—I am not as accustomed yet as I hope to be soon to your delightful colonial attempts at currency.”

“Yeah, but I—”

“Now, let me assure you, Mr. Marlow, I mean to be very generous. If you have other offers, I will exceed them. An archbishop’s base salary is perhaps—how would you say it?—‘nothing to write home about,’ but I do make quite a tidy income from the subsidiary rights. Since my worldly needs are met by the kindness of the parishioners, I really have nothing to spend it on but my collection. It would therefore be profitable to you to be forthcoming about the Croydon, and is not profit your highest moral duty in this delightful country of yours?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, that and conga lines.”

“Splendid. Then we can, as you say, do business.”

“We could, except I don’t have it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Believe me, I wish I had a Croydon. It would make my life a lot simpler. I’d sell it to you, and then I’d tell the next guy who thought I had it that, no, you have it, and my life would get back to normal. But I haven’t got it.”

“Oh, dear,” said the Archbishop. “Well, to be entirely straightforward with you, Mr. Marlow, I am not at all sure whether I believe you. I’m afraid I may have to call on the skills of Mr. Kosciuszko here, much as I would prefer not to. You see, Mr. Kosciuszko has informed me that he has ways of finding out whether you’re telling the truth. Mr. Kosciuszko?”

Suddenly the guy who had shoved me into the car was coming toward me. I didn’t like the look of this at all.

He stopped right in front of me and held up his hand in front of my face, with the thumb and little finger folded across the palm.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked.

“Uh—three?” I answered.

He pulled back his hand and carefully counted the extended fingers. Then he turned around.

“He’s tellin’ the truth, boss,” he told the Archbishop.

“Ah, well,” said the Archbishop. “This is disappointing, I must say. There is no other word for it. I had thought I was on the verge of a triumph, and— Well, Mr. Marlow, I shall not detain you any longer. But I should like you, in the Yankee vernacular, to keep in touch. It is quite clear to me that, wherever the Croydon may be at the moment, you have as great an interest in finding it as I have. It is a matter of your peace and security, Mr. Marlow. Until the Croydon is found, the rumor that it is in your possession will continue to circulate. And there are, I regret to say, certain connoisseurs who are less scrupulous than I. They may not take the trouble to ascertain your veracity. In your position, Mr. Marlow, I should be very careful.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Me too, I guess.”

“And now, Mr. Marlow, I thank you for your time. Mr. Kosciuszko, would you be so kind as to take Mr. Marlow back to his office?”

“How about that?” said Billy as we walked out of the hotel with Mr. Kosciuszko and his minions. “My first day on the job and already I get to meet a big gang boss like that!”

“It’s just one thrill after another in this business,” I told him.

“You think we’ll see another one today?”

“Don’t expect too much excitement, Billy. Wasn’t meeting the head of the Anglican gang enough for one day?”

“Yeah, but I need action in my life. Thrills, you know? I sat at that desk too long.”

“Okay,” said Kosciuszko, “get in the car.”

“Actually,” I said, “I think we’ll walk back. It’s stopped raining, and the air is fresh, and it’s not too far from—”

“I said get in the car!” Kosciuszko growled, and before I knew what was happening I was face down on the back seat again. Tires squealed, and the car jolted forward.

“Golly!” I heard Billy saying. “You really do live a life of thrills and action! I shoulda been a sidekick a long time ago.”

I managed to right myself in the seat. Once again I could see the city going by outside at a worrying clip.

“Where are you taking us?” I demanded.

“We’re going to see the boss,” said Kosciuszko.

“I thought we just saw the boss,” said Billy.

“I mean the other boss.”

“How many bosses you got?” I asked.

“Look, it’s like this,” said Kosciuszko. “I got a wife an’ three kids, an’ two of ’em wanna go to college. The third wants to sing soprano with the Allegheny Opera. I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy. But anyway, it takes a lot of money to raise three kids. I had to take a second job, an’ I couldn’t be too picky.” Then, almost to himself: “Imagine a good Catholic boy like me workin’ for the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

We careened down a long hill, and then we were going across the Fortieth Street Bridge. At the end we turned right and barreled down a little back street until, with a squeal of brakes and a shriek of tires, we stopped in front of a backstreet bar.

“Made it,” said Kosciuszko. “Last one out’s a rotten egg.”

Billy and I both jumped out quickly, leaving one of the minions to suffer the curse Kosciuszko had pronounced. Then we were led into the dark little bar, and near the back was a dark little booth, and in that booth was a little man who observed our approach with calm but keen interest.

“I brung Marlow and his sidekick, boss,” said Kosciuszko.

“Excellent,” said the man in the booth. He had a high tenor voice, but he managed to sound a bit intimidating anyway. “Allow me to introduce myself, Mr. Marlow. Facto’s the name. But you can just call me Ipso. Everybody does.”

Continue to chapter 7.


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.


“Sidekick?” Betty asked when the new guy showed up at the office the next day.

“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.”

Continue to Chapter 6.


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.


“Okay,” I said, “first of all, don’t panic. I don’t want you to lose your head.”

“I am quite calm, Mr. Marlow,” said Mrs. Pifler. “My head is firmly attached to my neck.”

“Good. Keep it that way. Now, what makes you say he’s missing?”

“The fact that he is not here.”

“Well, that’s a start. And you don’t think he just stepped out for a while?”

“That is a possibility,” she admitted. “However, the condition of his library suggests something more than just stepping, unless it was a herd of enraged elephants that was doing the stepping.”

“Okay, you hang tight. I’ll be over as soon as I can.”

“Oh, there’s no need to rush,” she said. “I just wanted you to be apprised of the latest development. I mean, he’ll probably be just as missing tomorrow. Or the day after.”

“Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but your husband’s life may depend on how fast we act.”

“I suppose. But then he may already be dead, and then wouldn’t you feel silly if you’d hurried up and it was all for nothing?”

“I’ll take the chance.”

I hung up and headed back down the stairs.

This time I took a cab, so I wouldn’t get lost on the streetcar again. The cabbie wanted a tip, so I told him to put everything on Shaggy Dog at the Meadowlands. He was still shouting something when the Piflers’ butler opened the door.

“Sir was expected,” the butler said as I walked in.

“Sir? What sir is that?”

“Sir, sir.”

“You mean me?”

“Yes, sir. Sir is ‘sir,’ sir.”

“Oh. Sorry. I don’t speak butler.”

We might have gone on like that for an hour or two, but we were interrupted by the lady of the house.

“Thank you for coming out so quickly,” said Mrs. Pifler. She was coming down the stairs, and in the gown she was wearing coming down the stairs was a whole Busby Berkeley production number. “It really wasn’t necessary, but I do appreciate the gesture.”

“Well, that’s what you pay me for. So you say someone broke into the library?”

“Not broke in. There’s no evidence of breaking and entering. However, once he had entered, he did quite a bit of breaking.”

“Well, let’s see it,” I said, and I started walking.

“Not that way!” Mrs. Pifler said, grabbing my coat sleeve. “Never that way! The south wing isn’t safe. I mean, it’s booked by a private party. What I mean is, it’s very dusty. Actually, there is no south wing. None at all. Forget I said anything. This is the way you want to go.”

She led me in the other direction, and now I remembered that this was the way the butler had led me before. We walked down the same long hallway and stopped in front of the same door, or at least I assumed it was the same door, although I don’t know if there was any way to tell except by counting the doors.

“You can see what I meant about the elephants,” said Mrs. Pifler.

It certainly wasn’t the way I remembered the library. It was mostly colors everywhere I looked. As my eye gradually adjusted, I started to sort out what I was seeing. The floor was covered from wall to wall with picks of every color, with only an occasional overturned cardboard box to interrupt the carpet of Bakelite.

“I guess he doesn’t normally leave the library in this state.”

“Mr. Pifler is always careful to pack up one box before pulling down another,” Mrs. Pifler responded. “Or he was very careful. I suppose until we’re quite sure what happened I’ll be having trouble with verb tenses.”

“If your husband thought he was in some kind of trouble,” I asked, “where do you think he’d go?”

“Here,” she answered without hesitating. “He always came to the library when he wanted to avoid me.”

“But he didn’t have a club or something?”

“Not as such. Not per se. The only social life he had was at work, and of course his occasional visits to the Free Polo Grounds to see how the poor were doing with their polo ponies.”

“You think he might have gone to one of those places?”

“He might have, Mr. Marlow, but I am quite certain he didn’t.”

“What makes you so sure?” I asked.

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Well, then, I don’t really know what you expect me to do.”

“I expect you to find out who killed my husband.”

“We don’t even know he’s dead.”

“True. You will have to remove that uncertainty as well.”

As I left the Pifler place, I had a strange feeling that there were some things Mrs. Pifler wasn’t telling me. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly. It was just something about the way she kept saying “I can’t tell you that” that made me think she might not be telling me something.

But she was the client, so I might as well play the game her way.

So I figured if the only social life Pifler had was at work, there might be people he worked with who knew things about him his wife didn’t know. Betty knows more about me than anybody, and I know she doesn’t mind telling perfect strangers what she thinks of me. If I was lucky, maybe Pifler would have that kind of secretary.

When I got to the Consolidated Ice-Cream Carton Manufacturing Co., I asked the guy at the front desk, “Is Mr. Pifler’s secretary in?” He looked at me like I was crazy. “Well,” I said, “how about a vice-president or something?”

“Not many people here,” said front-desk guy. “Mostly just me and the elevator crew.”

“Why isn’t anybody else here?”

“Cause it’s nine-thirty at night.”

“Yeah, I s’pose that makes a difference,” I grudgingly admitted.

“So you one of those guys looking for a Croydon?”

“What do you mean?”

“So far I’ve had six guys here looking for a Croydon. One of ’em even pulled a water pistol on me.”

“You don’t say… You got any idea what this Croydon thing is?”

“Nope. But whatever it is, they ain’t gettin’ it. Maybe there’s a Croydon here and maybe there ain’t, but I don’t get paid to let any old hobo come in here and take what he wants. Lucky I know Giu Gizzu, the ancient Italian art of self-defense. Just a friendly warning, in case you came here looking for Croydons.”

“I don’t even know what a Croydon is,” I said. “But somebody sure wants one. They tried to shake one out of me, too. No, I came here for something completely different and not related to Croydons at all. I’m looking for old man Pifler.”

“The President? He’s home with his wife, as far as I know. At least that’s where I’d be if I had a wife who looked like that.”

“But he’s not there. His wife is worried about him, and she hired me to figure out what happened to him.”

“Really?” Suddenly he was very animated. “You a private detective, like that Sam Spade character?”

“That’s my racket, yeah.”

“Wow! A real detective! This is the most exciting thing that’s happened on my shift since we had mice!”


“Well, just one mouse, but he was a lot of trouble, believe me. I hired this weird-looking blue cat to take care of him, but he was worse than useless. Anyway, I came to an agreement with the mouse, and as long as the cheese holds out we’re fine. But that was the last time anything exciting ever happened around here. A detective! That’s even more exciting than a mouse! Hey, can you detect something for me? I’ve always wanted to see somebody do that.”

“Maybe if I could get in to see old man Pifler’s office…”

“Say no more! Well, I mean, obviously you can say as much as you like, but I’ll get you into the President’s office. I mean, it’s not every day a detective comes to detect stuff around here.”

He stood up and started leading me back toward the elevators. I almost had to run to keep up with him. When we reached the bank of elevators, one of the doors slid open, revealing five men inside asleep on chairs.

“Wake up,” said desk guy. “We got a guest.”

One of the five immediately stood up by the elevator controls. The other four sat up and picked up two fiddles, a viola, and a cello, and after a nod from one of the fiddlers they began to play “Climbing Up the Ladder of Love.”

“Floor?” asked the one by the controls.

“All the way to the top,” said my guide as we stepped in. It was a little cramped with the six of us, but I guess it wouldn’t be much of an elevator ride without the music.

The door closed and we started to rise, passing the second floor, and then coming to a stop at the third.

“Third floor,” said the operator. “President’s office, potted palms, vending machines.”

My guide and I stepped out as soon as the door slid open. It closed again behind us, but I could still hear muffled music as we walked down the dim hallway.

At the end we reached a door with a sign that said A. C. PIFLER, PRESIDENT.

“This is the place,” said my guide. “Can’t wait to see you detect something.”

He opened the door.

Papers were everywhere, drawers and cabinets were open, and there was a guy sitting at the desk with his hand in the top drawer, looking kind of startled. I mean the guy was looking kind of startled, not the hand. Or the drawer. That would just be silly.

“Hey!” said my guide. “Who are you?”

“Uh,” said the man at the desk. Then, as if he’d decided his response could be improved on a little, he added, “What’s it to you?”

“I’m the night clerk,” my guide said, “and this is the President’s office.”

“Well,” the man at the desk said, and then he seemed to get himself together. “Well, I’m the night president.”

My guide looked a little dubious. “I’ve never seen you here before.”

“Oh yeah?” The guy at the desk thought for a moment. “Well, just for that you’re fired. Pack up your stuff and get out.”

The string quartet was playing a sad tune as we went back down in the elevator, and I felt kind of bad for the guy who had just lost his job. Something about the whole situation didn’t add up, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

“Guess you’ll be looking for another job,” I said as I watched the former night clerk put his few belongings into his coat pocket.

“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Already know what I’m gonna do.”

“Oh really? What’s that?”

He put on an old blue fedora and pulled it down with an air of determination. “I’m gonna be your sidekick,” he said.

Continue to Chapter 5.


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.

Continuing the story that began here.

Betty looked a bit puzzled. “Canterbury?”

“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.

Continue to Chapter 4.


From the Files of Mush Marlow, Private Investigator.


From the moment she oozed into my office, I could tell she was trouble. There are women who gush in, and they always have easy cases. There are women who trickle in, and they have to be given strong coffee and told I’ve heard worse. There are women who pour in, and they usually pour right out, too. But the ones who ooze in are trouble.

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.

“Yes, sir.”

“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.”

“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.”

To be continued
or not

Continue to Chapter 2.


The first chapter of a new novel now in print from Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Publishing Empire.

Book cover

Great and magnificent is the city on the Narrows, and great and magnificent is the palace of the sultan in the middle of it, and great and magnificent, as a matter of course, is everything within that palace; but the thing that gives the Sultan the most pleasure, and the thing he is most likely to invite a distinguished guest to inspect, is his collection. The Sultan collects rare, beautiful, and exquisite things. It is true that everything in his possession merits that description to some degree: he has a number of rare, beautiful, and exquisite wives, and his palace is decorated with the rarest, most beautiful, and most exquisite works of art from every country and every age. But there are some things so rare, so beautiful, and so exquisite that they are kept in a separate wing of the palace, virtually a palace of its own.

Important visitors—and it is a principle of the Sultan’s hospitality that every visitor is important—are invariably asked whether they would like to see this collection; and since they have been warned beforehand that an affirmative answer would be wise (for the Sultan’s ministers like it best when the Sultan is happy with his guests and there is no mess to clean up afterwards), they invariably accept his invitation.

So it happened when the Maharajah of Istanistan and his retinue paid a visit to the Sultan some time ago: the party adjourned from the immense dining hall after a particularly lavish feast and made its way through passages that were half corridor and half garden toward the collection rooms, as dozens of other parties of guests had done on dozens of other occasions. On this occasion, however, the Sultan’s ministers observed a few signs of uncertainty in their master. The signs were invisible to all but those who had known the Sultan for most of his life, but they were there: a smile (or at least a width of mustache) just a little too broad, a voice just half a step too high, a slight syncopation in his normally regular rolling gait. And the ministers knew the reason for these signs: the Maharajah was also a collector, and his collection was said to rival the Sultan’s. Since the Maharajah was an equal and a carefully cultivated ally, there could be no question of adding his head to the Sultan’s collection. But someone would suffer if the Maharajah proved insufficiently impressed. The Sultan’s ministers were worried.

Their worries did not diminish as the Maharajah was introduced to some of the glories of the collection. The Maharajah was scrupulously polite: he greeted every object with a bland smile and a few appropriate words of appreciation, always adding the disturbing information that he possessed something very similar.

“The head of Prometheus by Archippus,” the Sultan announced, looking up at his guest to judge his reaction. The Sultan was a naturally small man, though the constant attention of the best cooks in his domain had rounded him into a sphere. “It is all that remains of his colossal Prometheus Bound, mentioned with such admiration by Pliny.”

“Yes, very fine indeed,” the Maharajah replied after a cursory examination of the huge head, which was a good bit taller than he was—and the Maharajah was a tall man, whose natural taste for asceticism had given him the appearance of one of those spindly pillars that formed thick forests in many parts of the Sultan’s palace. He looked down at the Sultan, but he might have seemed to be looking not so much at his host as at his own reflection in the Sultan’s perfectly oiled helmet of black hair. “I have his Ariadne. A remarkable composition—perfectly intact, of course.”

There was a slight twitch in the Sultan’s upper lip: it might have passed entirely unnoticed had not his immense and luxuriant black mustache amplified the movement, so that by the time it reached the ends the mustache seemed to be trying to fly away like a raven. Nevertheless, the Sultan proceeded with what was probably a smile to the next item, a water organ that played, by an ingenious arrangement of cams on a wheel, a simple but very loud melody without the intervention of a human musician. The Sultan’s ministers discreetly stopped their ears, and the Maharajah’s party listened with petrified smiles; but the Maharajah himself maintained his cheerful blandness throughout the brief performance.

When the tootling ended and the mechanism hissed and clattered to a stop, the Maharajah rendered his appreciation: “Very elegantly constructed. Mine plays “The Lament of the Amazons.’ ”

In their minds some of the Sultan’s lesser ministers began to consider how they might formulate their wills.

So it was with most of the exhibits. The Maharajah pronounced the brazen oak with singing silver birds quite lovely: his own had birds made of gold, but the same mechanical principles were employed. The crystal tank with live sea-elephant was quite fascinating in its way: the Maharajah could offer some helpful advice on feeding the creature, based on his own success in keeping a breeding colony of the things.

With each successive exhibit the Sultan seemed less confident to his experienced ministers, who in turn were losing confidence in the attachment of their own heads to their bodies.

But the Sultan had not finished yet. “My dear Maharajah,” he said at last, “surely your collection must be one of the wonders of the world, and in almost every way the equal of my own. There remains, however, one thing in my collection that is unique, a precious treasure so rare and exquisite that I must keep it separately. Would you like to have a glimpse of it?”

“My dear Sultan,” the Maharajah replied, “nothing would please me more.”


Mr. James Joyce famously spent many years composing his Finnegans Wake, during which time he occasionally released passages of it to the world under the title Work in Progress. This was apparently enough to justify his existence during that time. Dr. Boli has decided to imitate that example. Once in a while, extracts from a novel in progress will appear here. For this first short extract, Dr. Boli had intended to write a brief introduction explaining the idea of the story, the characters involved, the style of narration, the important ideas addressed; but then, instead, he decided not to, so you get the very short extract entirely without context. Furthermore, it may be years before the work is finished. Is this not a pointless endeavor? It therefore fits perfectly with the mission of this Magazine, which is to provide a small dose of pointless irrelevance with every new article.


“Unicorns are rather naughty and require a firm hand to prevent mischief. They are forever poking their horns into things with no other motive (to all appearances, at least) than to see what will happen. A single unicorn may be discouraged by loud noises or quick movements, but unicorns gathered in groups (for they do not exhibit any principle of organization, and therefore forfeit the name of herds) may be destructive and require the prompt attention of a determined virgin. It is best not to allow the beasts to gather in the first place; and if a collection of unicorns must be maintained, each animal is to have his own individual stall with room for at least limited frolicking.”

So we find in De Unicornu, lib. IX, cap. VII; but only in the posthumous edition, which was in press when Schenckelius departed this world. I have found a proof sheet among Schenckelius' papers, in which the word virginis is struck out, and the word feminae written (in the hand of the author) in the margin; but the sheets were never returned to the printer, and the error remains uncorrected in that edition.


Suppose your name is Anna Cora Ogden Mowatt Ritchie. Think of all the possibilities for authorial pseudonyms you have ready to hand:

Anna Ritchie

Ogden Mowatt

Anna Ritchie Ogden

Anna-Cora Mowatt

Cora Ogden Ritchie

Ritchie Ogden

Cora Ritchie Mowatt

A. C. Ogden

C. Ogden Ritchie

Ritchie Ogden Mowatt

Instead, she publishes an epic, and the title page says “By Isabel.”