This little tale is a sequel to yesterday’s story, How I Became a Detective. I hate to leave loose ends lying about, or whatever the metaphor is.
The Case of the Purloined Goldfish
The call came in at 2:35 on a Friday afternoon. My partner and I were jawboning about the up and coming weekend. My partner, Carl Peterson, has been a detective for forty years or so, both as a cop and private. Me, my name’s Herbert Walker. I’ve been a PI for a little over two years.
So there we were, in our office above the hardware store, talking about our big weekend plans. Carl said he was going to work over the weekend, going through the internet to try to run down a skip-trace we were working on. That wasn’t unusual, him working weekends and nights. He told me that, at his age, he has forgone the pleasures of the flesh. Or to put it in his words, “I’ve given up on women. The ones that would be interested in me are either buried or comatose.” Carl is seventy-two years old.
He asked me what hot spot I was going to hit that night. Of course, he was kidding me. Carl knew I was shy around women. I’m thirty-five years old, and though I’ve had a few dates now and again, I just don’t know how to talk to women. I don’t think I’m too bad looking. Many times I’m complimented on my blue eyes or my smile, but when that happens, I blush and murmur a weak “thank you” and then scurry home to lose myself in a good detective yarn.
When the phone rang, Carl grabbed it. His end of the conversation went something like this: “Private Investigations, Inc. (the name of our agency). May I help you? Yes … yes … no … you want my partner. Please hold a minute.”
Putting his hand over the mouthpiece, he thrust the receiver in my direction and said, “It’s some woman, she wants the genius that solved the McNally murder.” He was referring to our first case in which I got lucky and caught the murderer of our client.
Taking the phone I said, “Herbert Walker speaking. May I help you?”
“You most certainly may if you are the young man I saw on television.” To my never-ending chagrin, I had allowed myself to be interviewed by the local television stations once the case broke wide open. I’m still embarrassed about that, but Carl told me it was good for business.
When I assured the caller that I indeed was the person she was seeking, she asked if I could come and see her right away. “I’ve got a mystery on my hands and I’m sure you are the only one to solve it.”
I asked her name. “I’m Mrs. Gerald Lawless.”
I asked what her problem was. “I don’t want to go into it over the phone. You never know who might be listening in.” Obviously, I wasn’t the only one reading too many detective novels.
Seeing as how things were slow and I was thinking of cutting out early, I wrote down the woman’s address and told her I was on my way. When I hung up and showed the address to Carl, he said, “That’s a ritzy neighborhood. Don’t give her no discount. She can afford to pay the full ticket. Now get out of here, I’ve got work to do.”
That’s Carl, always looking out for our business. If it was up to me, we’d be charging fifty dollars a day, plus expenses. If it was good enough for Philip Marlowe, then it ought to be good enough for Walker and Peterson.
As I drove east toward Mrs. Lawless’ house, I thought it wouldn’t be so bad if I had a date that night. I love to read, detective stories in particular. But, on a Friday or Saturday night, it can get a bit lonesome thinking of the revelry going on that I’m not a part of. It was not so much the festivities; it was that I would like to sit and talk with a pretty woman. Tell her of my hopes and dreams and hear of hers. However, it didn’t seem to be in the cards for me in this life. So, as I drove, I mentally shrugged and wondered what Mrs. Lawless had in store for me. As it played out, she turned my life upside down—indirectly, that is.
When I arrived, I could not see the house for the tropical foliage, and my ingress was hindered by a large wrought-iron gate blocking the driveway. Looking to my left, I perceived what looked like a call box, decided it was, and pushed the button affixed thereon. After a minute, I was rewarded with a response. “Yes, what is it?” Not a warm response, but a response nevertheless.
“My name is Herbert Walker. Mrs. Lawless is expecting me.”
There were no further words from the box, but the gates swung inward and I proceeded forward. The driveway wasn’t long, and after about a hundred feet, it curved to the left where the house came into view. It was a modest affair, considering the neighborhood. There was a massive Cadillac SUV and an older Toyota parked in front. I pulled my heap next to the Toyota so it wouldn’t look so out of place.
As I made my way to the front door, I passed a small cement pond filled with goldfish. I dallied for a moment. I hadn’t seen a goldfish pond since I was a kid, and it evoked pleasant reminiscences of a bygone youth. Leaving my memories at the pond, I continued on. Before I could reach my objective, the front door opened and there stood an angel—an angel with a scowl on her face. She wasn’t beautiful in the modern super-model sort of way. But she was beautiful in the old-fashioned Norman Rockwell sort of way, which to me is the better of the two.
She had fair hair, green eyes, and if she would smile, I’m sure that too would be beautiful. From the bottom up, she wore high heels, tight-fitting slacks (if that is what they still call women’s pants) and a blouse (ditto). She was a couple of inches shorter than me, and I judged her to be about thirty-years old. I was so enthralled—no, enchanted would be a better word to describe my state of mind—that I stood there like the idiot that I am, with my mouth hanging open.
That’s about the time my angel said, “If you’re coming in. then come in. We’re letting the air-conditioning out.”
Without an avenue of retreat, I shut my mouth and entered the house, where once again I balled things up. “Mrs. Lawless, I’m Herbert Walker.”
“I know who you are. You announced yourself at the gate. And I’m not Mrs. Lawless. Just follow me, please, and I’ll take you to her.”
Without waiting for a reply, she turned and started down a hallway, with me in fast pursuit as her heels clicked on the Italian tiles. After a few steps, she abruptly came to a halt, so abruptly that I collided with her. Before I could manage an inept apology, she turned to me and in a soft, sweet tone said, “I’m sorry. I’m having a horrible day. Something has happened and through no fault of my own, it may cost me my job. So please forgive my actions up till now.” She stuck out her dainty little hand and asked, “Friends?”
Of course, we’re friends! Friends for life, is what I thought. However, I said only, “Sure,” as I took her hand and shook it. Though what I really wanted to do was pull her to me and kiss her. She had that kind of effect on me.
Before we could resume our trek, we were accosted by a young boy holding a model B-29 bomber. Making engine noises, he ran toward us; at the last possible moment before running into us, he did a pivot any NFL halfback would have been proud of and returned from whence he came. My guide informed me, “That’s Mrs. Lawless’ grandson. Sometimes he can be a handful.”
We finally made it to a room, a room that in my mind I called “The White Room.” The carpet was white without a stain upon it. There was a long sofa, white of course. And three chairs were situated in front of said sofa. Anyone want to bet on the color of the chairs? Between the sofa and the chairs was a coffee table that looked as though it was made of ebony. It was the only thing of color in the entire room. Opposite the sofa was a fireplace of white brick. It didn’t look like there had been any recent fires because there was no discernible soot. I thought: No respectable soot would dare show itself in this white, pristine room.
My escort told me to sit and make myself comfortable and that Mrs. Lawless would be with me presently. Before she left, I wanted to ask her name. But, as usual, I became tongue-tied and all I could manage was an ineffective “Thank you.”
A short while later, an elderly woman came in and announced, “I’m Mrs. Lawless, but my friends call me Jessie. Now sit down, young man. (I had stood upon her arrival.) I’m a tough old broad, no need for any of that stuff with me.” I liked her right away.
As we settled ourselves, she asked if I would like some tea. Tea? Where were we? In some Agatha Christie story? I declined the tea and asked her what her difficulty was.
“Well, it’s a complicated situation. You see, if my suspicions are correct, it can only mean that someone I brought to my bosom has betrayed me.”
Thinking this might be a case I could sink my teeth into, I asked her to continue.
“It’s just this … Mr. … I’m sorry, I seem to have forgotten your name?”
“It’s Walker, ma’am, Herbert Walker.”
“Yes, of course you are. Well, Mr. Walker, someone has stolen my goldfish!”
I liked the old girl, but really, perhaps she had entered her dotage, although I didn’t say as much. I merely said, “I saw the goldfish as I came in.”
For a moment she looked at me as though I might have been from outer space or had two heads. Then a light shone in her countenance and she said, “Oh, I know what you’re talking about. No, the goldfish of which I allude is a gold goldfish. I mean it is made of solid gold and was given to me by my husband on our fifth wedding anniversary. It’s not terribly valuable, maybe a few thousand dollars or so. But its sentimental value to me is priceless.”
I think she sensed that I needed more of an explanation, so she hurriedly added, “I’ll start at the beginning.”
“Yes, please do.”
“Well, first of all, I’m a widow. Jerry, that’s my husband, passed away ten years ago this June.”
I was hoping that I wasn’t going to have to endure a recitation covering the last ten years. I was spared; she got right to the point.
“I kept the goldfish here on the mantel. And when I went to bed last night, it was the last thing I looked at. And this morning when I came into this room it was gone! No one has been in this house except my son and his wife—they’re visiting for a few days—and my assistant. You’ve met her. Her name is Rebecca Myers. I asked her about the goldfish and she says she is as mystified as I am.”
At that juncture, I felt that I had to interject a thought or two. “I saw a small child a while ago.”
“That was my grandchild. His name is Charles; he and his sister are here with their parents. But they cannot reach the mantel. It either has to be my daughter-in-law, her name is Christy, or Rebecca. I know my son would not have taken it. I hate to think it might be Christy, but I have never warmed up to her.”
A question popped into my mind and I gave it voice. “Where are your son and daughter-in-law now?”
“They’re out for the day with Susan, that’s my granddaughter.”
“So you haven’t talked with your daughter-in-law yet about the goldfish?”
“No, not yet.”
It was becoming obvious that this wasn’t a case for a private dick. It was either a police matter or a family matter. I stood to leave, saying, “Why not call your son and ask if he knows where the goldfish is? Perhaps he took it to show someone. I assume they left before you awakened.”
She fidgeted in her seat and said, “I don’t need a detective to tell me that. I’ve already spoken with him and he knows nothing about it. And I do not want the police involved. Though I would like the goldfish back, I’d rather drop the whole thing if you can’t determine who took it. Of course, I’ll have to let Rebecca go. I just can’t take a chance if it was her.”
That last statement put me back in my seat. I couldn’t walk out and let that angel lose her job without at least giving it a shot. So I said, “I’ll speak with Miss Myers, it is Miss, isn’t it?”
“She is not married.”
With relief at that bit of news, I exhaled the breath I did not know I was holding. I continued, “I’ll speak with her and your daughter-in-law and see if I can fathom anything. Does Miss Myers live here?”
“No, she arrives in the morning before I arise and prepares my tea and toast; she has a key to the house.”
“What time do you expect your son and Christy back?”
“Not until dinner time, about seven or so.”
“I’ll speak with Miss Myers now and return at seven. Perhaps you’ll be so kind as to invite me to dinner. I think I can discern more at the dinner table by observing your daughter-in-law as we speak of the missing goldfish, which I assume, will be the main topic of discussion.” I then asked where I might find Miss Myers. I was told she was probably in the study and was given the appropriate directions on how to find it. I left Mrs. Lawless sitting in The White Room looking much like the lady of the manor that she was.
I didn’t think for a minute that Rebecca Myers had taken the dingus, but I had to go through the motions. And besides, I wanted to stand next to her and smell her perfume and look into those green eyes once again.
She was in the study, seated at a desk and going through some papers when I entered. I stood waiting for her to acknowledge my presence. Finally, she turned to me and said, “May I help you with something?”
Feeling awkward, I stammered, “I presume that you know why I was called here. It was to find the dingus, I mean the goldfish. Mrs. Lawless has, in her mind, narrowed it down to you and her daughter-in-law as the likely suspects.”
I had more to say, but interrupted me with, “Do you want to search me? Is that why you are here?
“I very much want to lay my hands on you, but not in that fashion.”
Where in hell did that come from? Did I say that? And if I did, did I say it out loud? And if I did say it out loud can I expect a slap across the face at any moment now? Those were my thoughts as I readied myself for the onslaught, be it physical or verbal.
However, nothing happened. Well, something happened, but not what I expected. She blushed and smiled at the same time. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
I threw caution to the wind (for once in my life) and said, “Oh the hell with it. I just wanted to see you before I left. I know you didn’t take the damn fish and that your job is on the line, so I’m coming back later to see what the daughter-in-law has to say for herself.”
At that point, I had to take a breath. I had spit all those words out like I was firing a machine gun. The words ran so close together, I doubt if she understood half of what I said.
Before I could think of any more inane things to say, she walked over and kissed me on the cheek, saying, “You’re cute.” Then she left the room, leaving me standing there like the mope that I am. I decided it was a good time to take my leave. I made it to the front door without being accosted by precocious children, grand dames, or beautiful assistants.
Once outside, I saw Charles, the grandson, playing with a plastic boat at the goldfish pond. He must have resigned his commission in the Air Force and enlisted in the Navy. Having once been a boy myself, I dawdled to watch as he displayed his maritime skills complete with suitable engine noises.
As I watched him, my eye caught the glint of a small object lying on the bottom of the pond. My attention was drawn to it because of the sunlight reflecting off of it. Removing my coat and rolling up my sleeve, I thrust my hand into the warm, algae-laced water. My fingers grasped what I was after, and lo and behold. I held the dingus in my hand!
Of course, my actions did not go unnoticed by the naval commander, and he asked, “What are you doing with Fred?”
“Fred?” I rejoined. “What do you know of him?”
The little monster proceeded to tell me. “Fred is my friend. He was lonely all by himself and besides, goldfish need water to live.”
“So you put him in the pond?”
He didn’t answer right away; he was intent on discharging depth charges or causing some other sort of mayhem. Eventually, he deigned to answer my query.
“I knew he needed water, so I put him in here this morning while I was waiting for everyone to wake up.” He added, “I don’t think Fred likes being out of the water. Maybe you should put him back in now.”
“Just one more question. How did you get him off the mantel?”
“I dragged a chair over and stood on it.”
Out of the mouths of babes! And I call myself a detective. Assuring Captain Nemo that I would take good care of Fred, I headed back toward the house.
My persistent knocking was finally answered by Rebecca. Keeping Fred firmly enclosed in my hand, I walked past her and went straight to The White Room, leaving her to close the door and follow.
Mrs. Lawless was still there and I presented Fred to her with these words, “Compliments of Private Investigations, Inc. I suggest you ask your grandson how it found its way off the mantel.” As Rebecca entered the room, she heard me say, “The only fee I ask is that you apologize to Miss Myers for having thought her capable of such an act.”
Without waiting for a reply, I turned and left the room, avoiding Rebecca’s eyes. I mean what was the use? She’s beautiful, I’m a klutz, and she wouldn’t want to have anything to do with someone like me.
I made it as far as my car before she caught up with me. “Just a minute, mister. Do think you can pull a girl’s bacon out of the fire and then run away without so much as a by-your-leave?”
I started to say that I was sorry, but she cut me off. “I want you to come to my place tonight so that I can make you dinner. I’m a very good cook by the way. Here.” She handed me a piece of paper that looked as though it had been torn in haste from a notebook. Upon it was an address and phone number. Continuing, she said, “I’ll expect you at eight.”
Being my old idiotic self, I told her that was not necessary and that I was happy to have helped out.
That’s when she raised to her full height and said, “I’m asking you for a date. What happened in there has no bearing on the matter. I had a feeling that if I waited for you to get around to asking, I’d be an old maid. Now don’t disappoint me. I’ll see you at eight.” She turned and quickly reentered the house.
I, of course, stood there with a stupid look on my face, but slowly the dim-witted expression changed into a broad—a very broad—grin. I almost jumped into the air and clicked my heels together.
When I got back to the office, Carl asked me if I had solved the case. He was being facetious. But when I informed him that I had indeed solved it, his manner became business-like and he asked me what fee I had charged. I told him that, for the agency, nothing. But that I personally made a score. He started to say something, but I forestalled further comment by saying, “Carl, old buddy, I think it’s about time I got married.”
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