This week we have stories by:
Marla J. Mercer
Mick Bordet <——— This week's Winner
Duck Headed Cane
He had come about an hour and a half before, and knocked on my door. He was obviously not rich, but he definitely did not look like he was selling magazines or anything either, so I opened the door. The first thing I noticed was his cane. It was apparently hand made out of a dark wood. It was not just some affectation either, judging from its well-worn appearance. The head was a duck, all shiny and made of brass, but it did not look like it had ever been polished. I would guess he had used it every day since he had gotten it. His clothes looked the same way. His khaki pants were worn but not shoddy, and his loafers were neither in fashion nor out of fashion. He told me his name, which did not ring a bell for me, but somehow he seemed really familiar. He asked politely if we could talk some place private. I did a quick check of him and judged him not to be a threat to me or my family, and suggested Lew’s. Lew’s is a corner bar about five years away from becoming a dive; just my kind of place. It was never full or loud like a kid’s bar, but it had enough people around to prevent a robbery or God knows what.
I sat with the stranger at the bar for maybe half an hour exchanging pleasantries. I was doing my best not to let on that what he had told me at the door was the biggest bombshell to be dropped on me in my life. Well, I guess the second beer loosened my tongue enough, because that’s about when I really got to talking. I found the more I talked, the more I had to say. I wanted the stranger to be able to relate to me for my own reasons, so I tried to pick words precisely.
So this is how it went, as much as I can remember, anyway.
I began by saying, “I had half expected the moment to come, but not like it did with you knocking at my door. You see, as an adoptee, much of one’s own life is a mystery. It’s not that I did not accept what I have always known as my family. My Mom is my Mom; just as she has always been, and Dad is still the same man I have known to be my father my whole life. But I had to expand . . . or, to say it better, augment my vocabulary. There was no epiphany type of moment, but instead I felt a subtle shift. It is like when you see in nature a rare, pure, sublime moment, like a perfect sunrise, or when you witness a hawk swoop in on a rabbit. A person is changed by these moments, whether we realize it or not.”
I watched him to see if my words were affecting him, and he sat silently looking me straight in the eye. I continued.
“I had assumed my biological family was dead, or had no interest in me. I do not say this in a self-pitying way, nor did I feel that there was a void that needed to be filled. It was quite the opposite, actually. My life was always a full one, and the only family I had known raised me with love and structure. My folks split when I was a teenager, and while I did not understand it, I accepted it and moved on. I did vow that once I did find a mate, it would stick. And it has so far, and it will so long as we can help it.”
He nodded, either approvingly, or maybe just to show he was still with me.
“When my brothers would do something stupid, I would think that I could not possibly be related in blood, but all siblings do that, right? I mean, I did not wish it to be true, though in reality, it was. Maybe there was a difference due to genetics, but I am pretty convinced that most genetic traits given by nature can be drawn over by the brushstrokes of nurture. You can still see them underneath, but only if you really look hard. I don’t mean that if you have heart problems in your background that love will overcome them or any such sentimentality. What I mean is that I may be predisposed to something, say addictions. I may be more likely to get addicted to something, because there is the blood of addicts in my blood, but I may be raised in a house of moderation. Aren’t I more likely to be a more moderate person because of the way I was raised? That’s the question, isn’t it? Can I escape my heritage? Or, can I take my heritage; my genetic predispositions if you will, and build upon them or away from them as I choose? Can I use that greatest gift of freewill to create my existence, rather than be bound by blood?”
I paused to gauge his reaction; to make sure I was not offending him, or hitting a nerve or anything. He said simply, “I do understand that. Are we predestined to follow our bloodlines?” When he said that, I knew he was still paying attention. I pressed on.
“At any rate, like I said, I had assumed my biological family was dead. It was not a spiteful assumption, but I suppose it could have been a defensive thing psychologically, you know? The other option was that they wanted nothing to do with me. Even that possibility did not affect me that I have ever been aware of. I did not feel unwanted, anyway, since, as I said, my first . . . uh . . . sorry, second family never left a doubt that I was fully part of it.
I learned that I have two sisters, and a half-brother somewhere. I talked to the woman who gave birth to me. I call her “Mama” now. I still call my Mom, well, Mom. That is all I have ever known her as. I think that she may have been a large part of the reason I never searched for my birth parents. Not because I thought she would object at all. She made sure I always was aware that I was adopted, and never said a bad thing about them. I didn’t really ask, because perhaps to ask was to entertain the notion that I was, indeed, different from my family. I just wanted what we all want; to be a member of a loving family.”
He looked deep in thought for a bit, and then asked me, “Have you always felt like you were loved?” I wondered if he was a shrink or something, but it seemed an earnest question, so I answered him equally earnestly. “Definitely.”
He smiled at this, which I thought was odd. There was not a hint of malice, nor did I get any sense he was putting me on. I related to him how with a little prodding from my wife, we discovered my biological mother,
“I remember the call I made to Mama as if I just hung up. Let me back up a little bit first though. My wife and I had been seriously starting to think about having a family for a while. She started asking more in depth questions about my medical history, but I had no answers. I knew I was adopted in a private adoption, but that was the extent of my knowledge. She asked me if it was ok to put my information in a profile on an adoption website, and since I expected nothing to happen, I humored her and said to go for it. Three years went by, and nothing came of it. Then, the wife was surfing the net and came across my profile. She asked if she could update it, and I said sure. That was a Sunday.
Long story short, by Wednesday evening, a ‘search angel’ had picked up the trail and sent me an email with a name and phone number. Some time later – my wife said I stared at the screen for a few hours – the gears were turning, you know? Could this be my mother? Was it some kind of scam preying on adoptees? I said that if anyone asked for money, I would cease then and there. But no requests for money ever came. I went to bed that night, figuring that perhaps I would call in a week or two.”
The stranger leaned in, literally on the edge of his seat.
“That morning, I woke up like a shot, knowing that I had to call that second. I did not dream of it or any storybook stuff, but I just had to call. Suddenly I needed this like I needed to eat. I called work and without giving too many details, told them what I was doing. Then I took a deep breath and dialed the number. The phone rang a while, and I was about to hang up, when a tired-sounding voice came on and said hello. I can’t explain how I felt. It was like I could not breathe as I explained to the southern sounding woman why I was calling, how I got her number, and any other details I could think of. She listened to me without saying anything. When I was done, she said, ‘I am sorry dear, I did not have a boy child then. I apologized for bothering her, and as we were hanging up, she said, ‘wait a minute. What year did you say you were born?’ I told her again, and she said, ‘I thought you had said another date. I did have a boy-child then, and I did give him up for adoption.’ Thoughts of a scam were creeping back into my mind. Years of living tend to make a bit of a skeptic out of a person, don’t they? So my guard was up, but I listened.
This woman’s next words were the kicker. They sealed the deal, and I knew then and there that this was not a scam. She spoke with such deep sadness, joy, and sweetness all at once as she softly said, ‘I have waited thirty-six years for this call.’ You see, she did not have to do the math, or count up from the year I was born. She knew the numbers as if she had spent each moment thinking of it. Actually, that is not truly how it felt to me. It felt as if the waiting was an integral part of her; the same way a person knows how many fingers he has without even looking at them. It was that kind of knowledge. You understand what I am getting at there?”
He looked at his hand – the one that he used on the cane like it was brand new and nodded knowingly. Then there was a long pause as the two of us took in everything. Actually, I was all talked out, pretty much. I would never have thought I would pour everything out to a complete stranger the way I did, and I told him so. We both stood up knowing we would not likely meet again, and we shook grateful hands.
He gave me a last once-over and said, “It has been a pleasure to meet you, and to hear how well you have done for yourself. I now know that I made the right choice. I certainly understand what you said about your mother not having to count years. I never have either. Please know that it was the most torturous decision I have ever made, but now I see it was worth it. Take care, son.”
He walked out without his cane, and I am pretty sure he meant to. I am looking at it now as I write.
Marla J. Mercer
Delores Hartley was seated on the couch, eating chocolates and reading one of her movie magazines. As she studied a photo of George Clooney, Delores patted her new blonde wig. The woman at the beauty shop had assured Delores that the wig made her look at least twenty years younger. Though it had been an expensive purchase, Delores had not hesitated to buy it. Her 59th birthday loomed on the horizon, and anything that could knock two-decades off her looks, seemed a bargain at any price.
Her husband, of course, had not agreed. “How many wigs does one woman need?” Carl had snapped at her when he saw the bill. “You only have one head. If you can’t stop buying everything you see, we’re going to end up in the poor house.”
Delores continued to study the picture of George Clooney. Hugging a velvet throw pillow to her chest, she slowly drifted into a wonderful daydream in which she had won a free prize to have lunch with Mister Clooney at a fabulous Hollywood restaurant.
Across the room, the doorbell rang, jarring Delores from her reverie. Startled, she struggled to her feet and smoothed the wrinkles from her blouse and slacks. She hurried to the mirror above the bureau and checked her makeup. An article in one of her magazines had mentioned that many leading ladies, including Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone, were once again wearing red lipstick. Delores had naturally followed suit and purchased several tubes of a shade called Very Cherry. Admiring the brightness of the color, she puckered her lips and made little kissing noises at her reflection.
The door bell rang again. Satisfied that her face was in order, Delores took off her reading glasses, placed them on the bureau, and headed for the door.
“Who is it?” she called.
“Gordon Gable. Ducks Unlimited.” The man’s voice sounded deep and resonant.
Delores reached the front door and stood on tiptoes to peer through the security peephole. A tall man in a suit stood on the front porch of her double-unit mobile home. He was holding a suitcase in one hand, and a cane in the other. He had pepper-gray hair and a dapper moustache. Distinguished was the word that came to Delores’s mind. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Who?” she repeated.
“Gordon Gable, regional representative for Ducks Unlimited.” He put down the suitcase and reached into the breast pocket of his jacket. “Here’s my badge.” He held a plastic card in front of the peephole for a brief second and then quickly returned the ID to his pocket.
“If I may have a moment of your time,” Gordon continued. “I’d like to show you our Fall catalog and tell you about some of the incredible specials we are offering this month.”
Delores’ feet were starting to ache from supporting her considerable weight on tiptoes. Her gold slippers, while quite stylish, offered nothing in the way of arch support. Wanting to get a better look at the caller, Delores unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door a few inches. Though it hardly seemed possible, the man on the front porch was even more handsome than she had first surmised through the peephole. She caught a whiff of his cologne and found it mildly intoxicating.
Gordon smiled at the sight of her and gave a little nod. “Good morning, Ma’am. Gordon Gable at your service. And you how are you doing on this beautiful sunny day with nary a cloud in the sky?”
Delores continued to stare. Unlike her husband, Carl, who wore old T-shirts and ratty pants and had no fashion sense whatsoever, Gordon Gable was positively debonair. His suit was neatly pressed. His shoes were shined to a high gloss. His hair was impeccable. And that cane—Delores had never met a man who carried a cane, let alone one whose handle was in the exotic shape of duck’s head. He looks just like a movie star, thought Delores.
“I’m doing just fine, thank you,” she replied in her sweetest voice. “What did you say the name of your company was?”
“Duck’s Unlimited,” Gordon replied. With his free hand, he gave one tip of his moustache a little twirl.
“I’ve never of heard of it,” said Delores. “Is it new?”
“New to your area, ma’am, but we’ve been doing business on the Eastern Seaboard for more than forty years. We specialize in ornamental ducks of all types. By any chance, have you ever summered in the Hamptons?”
Delores was at a loss for words. She nervously patted her wig. “No. I-I can’t say that I have,” she replied. “My husband and I don’t travel all that much.”
“Well, if you ever find yourself invited to the home of one of the big-money families who vacation in the Hamptons,” said Gordon, “you would discover a great many items from our catalog on display both inside and outside their mansion. Our products may be moderately priced, but they’re quite popular with the rich and famous. We count among our clients a long list of celebrities.”
“Celebrities?” Delores felt a rush of excitement. “Like who?”
“I’m not allowed to reveal the actual names of our clients,” said Gordon. “But let me just ask you this. Have you ever heard of Barbra Streisand?”
“Why, yes!” replied Delores. “Who hasn’t?”
“Well, she is but one of many, Missus . . . Missus. . .”
“Hartley. Delores Hartley.” She opened the door a little wider.
Gordon smiled and looked at her approvingly. “Missus Hartley, I can tell by your lovely appearance and pleasant manner that you are a very special woman—a woman of intelligence and refinement—a woman who can not be bamboozled by false compliments and a flashy sales pitch. So, I’m not even going to try. I know you’re too smart for that.”
Delores felt her cheeks flush with color. She looked coyly at her hands. “Well, if you say so.”
“Oh, I do,” said Gordon with conviction. “For example, not ten minutes ago, one of your neighbors here in the mobile home park paid full price for a beautiful yard display of a proud mother mallard with three ducklings in tow. Whereas in your case, I know you would never pay full price. You would force me to bargain—to sweeten the pot, so to speak. So let me just cut right to the chase and make you an offer. Missus Hartley, if you place an order this morning for that exact same item, I will throw in an additional three ducklings at absolutely no extra cost to you. That’s six ducklings for the price of three—a savings of over twenty-dollars.”
“Twenty dollars?” said Delores.
“Yes, ma’am. And I’ll tell you something else. We are currently running a thirty-percent-off sale on our entire line of bathroom ducks, including our winged soap dishes and our popular hollow-backs, which hold a standard box of facial tissue. Now here is an offer, I did not share with your less astute neighbor.” Gordon leaned in a little closer and spoke in a low, conspiratorial voice. “If you were to buy any two bathroom items, I will give you a complimentary duck nightlight, which comes with built-in darkness sensor. The light turns on all by itself. It’s completely automatic.”
Delores deeply inhaled the scent of his cologne. “Oh my,” said Delores. She patted her wig again.
“I have samples in my briefcase, and I’d be more than happy to help you determine the best color scheme for your bathroom” added Gordon. “Teal blue is our most popular shade, though Peking white is a close second.” He paused. “Missus Hartley, may I take the liberty of calling you by your given name? My great-uncle, Clark—Clark Gable— once told me that a gentleman should always ask permission before using a lady’s first name.”
Delores was dumbfounded. “Clark Gable is your uncle?” Even as she asked, she knew it must be true. She could clearly see the resemblance now, and the voice was so similar.
“My great-uncle,” Gordon gently corrected, “on my father’s side. As a child, I had the great pleasure of spending many a long hour with Uncle Clark, and I can tell you that he had a real eye for quality. I have no doubt that if he were alive today, he would be one of Ducks Unlimited’s biggest customers. Wouldn’t you like me to come inside and show you some of the many fabulous items from our Fall catalog?”
Delores hesitated. “I’d love to see them; I really would. It’s just . . . it’s just that I’m not sure if my husband is all that fond of ducks, and Carl tends to be a bit tight with his wallet.”
“I understand.” Gordon nodded sagely. “Which is why I am certain that your husband would be more than pleased with any purchase you made from our catalog. These are hard economic times, Delores. We all want a beautiful home, but who among of us can afford to spend a fortune on new furniture and carpeting? Thanks to Ducks Unlimited, though, you and your husband can completely revitalize your décor for practically nothing.”
Delores cocked her head to one side. “You mean like a makeover?”
“That is exactly what I mean,” Gordon replied. “A complete makeover for mere pennies. It’s all about the little touches—the tasteful accessories. In the same way that a beautiful scarf or a stylish belt can brighten up a tired-looking outfit, our line of duck products can bring a new and exciting look to your mobile home at a modest, affordable price. Let me ask you this? Are you completely happy with your current decorating scheme? Or are you ready for a something new, something chic?”
Delores glanced over her shoulder at the living room. Her furniture looked suddenly old and shabby. She frowned.
“Here’s what I see in your future,” said Gordon. “I see you throwing a party for your friends here at the mobile-home park. You’re wearing a beautiful gown, and basking in the glow as your guests shower you with compliments on your ceramic-duck lamps, your duck coasters, throw pillows, ashtrays, wall decorations—the whole nine yards.” He paused. “Sadly, I do see a friend or two sulking in the corner, too consumed with jealousy to offer praise. But that is their problem, Delores, not yours.”
In her mind’s eye, Delores savored the scene for a few long moments before finally asking, “Do you really sell a lamp that’s shaped like a duck?”
“We must certainly do. In fact, we carry three different styles—sitting, standing, and mid-flight. It’s your choice. You can mix and match. Did I mention that just for allowing me into your home for a short presentation, you will receive a free digital duck-watch that comes with a five-year money-back guarantee?”
Delores chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. Faded red smudges of Very Cherry rubbed onto her front teeth. She wondered if Gordon had ever gone to Hollywood to visit his uncle. She’d never met anyone who had actually been there.
“Well, I guess it wouldn’t hurt to have a little peek at the catalog,” said Delores. “I get the digital watch even if I don’t buy anything, right?”
“Oh, yes, ma’am. The watch is absolutely free.”
“Then come on in and make yourself comfortable.” Delores opened the front door all the way and gestured for him to enter.
Gordon picked up his suitcase, tucked his cane beneath his arm and gave a little bow. “After you, young lady.”
With a girlish giggle, Delores patted her wig and headed for the living room.
Sitting Duck by Marla J. Mercer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
The Odd Job.
By: Norval Joe
The blistering July sun beat down on Austin’s head. He took off his old ball cap and rubbed his sweaty hair. He didn’t know how long he would have to wait outside the apartment door. As far as he could tell, there was no one inside. Supposedly that wasn’t his concern. If he waited lon enough, they would answer.
He looked at his watch for the hundredth time and counted back the minutes. He had been here for almost 15 minutes now.
“Quack quack,” he said, tapping the cane’s duck head handle on the door again. He turned the cane handle toward himself, its little duck beak on level with his own large nose. “Quack, quack,” he said again, this time tapping the duck’s beak on his nose.
He had been standing on his street corner swinging the large Pizza Palace sign when a car pulled up to him. A man got out of the passenger side and walked around the front of the car to speak with Austin. He was a small man with a dark complexion, not African , Indian, or Mexican, but dark. He had no hair on his head, but made up for it with eye brows, like giant furry caterpillars crawling across his forehead. He spoke without accent. “You’re doing an admirable job, here, young man. You have a skill with that sign, unparalleled by any other sign waver in town. I was just telling my driver this very morning, ‘I wouldn’t think of eating pizza at any restaurant, other than the Pizza Palace. The sign wavers for Chicago Pub Pizza and Little Nero’s are pitifully inept, when compared with the flare and panache displayed by the the Pizza Palace boy,’ er, young man, rather.”
Austin felt proud, initially, by the praise lavished upon him by this stranger, but soon became uncomfortable and embarrassed by the excessive compliments. He didn’t know what panache was, and wasn’t sure if the man wasn’t belittling him.
However, when he showed Austin the one hundred dollar bill, his only concerns were how to get it and how he would spend it.
“It is a simple task that I ask,” the little man said. “I need to pass a message to a friend that I am no longer able to visit. I miss my old companion and wish to return this token of affection that was bestowed on me, so many years ago.” He held out a short wooden cane with a brass ducks head for a handle. “When will you be done with you work for the day,” he asked Austin.
“Ummm. I’m done now, come to think of it.” Austin said. All he could truly think of was getting the hundred dollars for such a simple task. He would have to wave his sign for hours to earn that much. He tried to do the math. $5 per hour for four hours would be twenty. And two days each week would be, 40. He couldn’t get past that amount, because he had never been given that much before.
“Ok, what do you want me to do with the cane? Just give it to someone?” Austin asked, somewhat confused.
“That’s right, young man. Deliver the cane to this address, written here on this slip of paper. When you have completed such a simple task, I will give you the $100 bill.” The little man finished with a single nod, blinked his eyes rapidly and asked, “Is it a deal?”
Austin didn’t think long before he said, “Sure. I can do that.” He held out his hand for the cane.
The man didn’t give him the cane, instead he said, “Come, I will give you a ride. It is quite a distance from here, and I wouldn’t think of making you walk on a hot day like this.”
Austin rode in the spacious back seat of the luxury car. The windows were tinted completely black, and were almost as difficult to see through from the inside as they were from out.
Austin walked most places; to the grocery store, the post office and to the Pizza Palace. Everything he needed was close by, except for Walmart. If he needed clothes or an item, other than food, he took the bus to Walmart. It was on the other side of town, and took almost two hours to get there by the busses circuitous route. He would make a day of it, starting early on Saturday morning. After he did his shopping, he would walk across the parking lot to Burger King and get a Whopper with cheese and a Dr. Pepper. He would get back home in just enough time to walk to the Pizza Palace and pick up his sign. His boss wasn’t terribly concerned about what time Austin got to work as long as he was on the corner with his sign during the dinner rush.
This job was more difficult than he had imagined. It was hot on the porch and he had been waiting so long now. At least on his street corning there was a large tree that shaded him when the afternoon was at its hottest. He looked around for a tree, that was close, so that he could sit in the shade, waiting for the little man’s friends to return.
He was at the bottom step from the porch, headed for a neighbors yard, when a car pulled into the driveway. The owner of this car hadn’t done nearly as well as the man who had given him the cane. Their car wasn’t new and shiny, but old, battered and rusted. Inside the car, sat a couple, older than the first man. They spoke together while they looked in Austin’s direction.
He saw the couple look at him, so he raised the cane in the air and waved it at them, smiling. He expected them to get out of the car, come and take the cane and thank him gratefully for returning it to them. Instead, the woman spoke to the man. She shook her head while he yelled at her. He fired up the car, gunned the engine and roared out of the driveway, squealing tires as he rounded the corner at the end of the block.
Austin was distraught. He sat on the bottom step, no longer aware of the sun beating down on him. How was he to get the can to the little mans friends now? He hadn’t pondered long when the black luxury car pulled to the curb. The little man stepped out and approached Austin. “You still have the cane, what on earth happened? I saw my old friends driving away down the street. Do you offend them?”
“No, I…” Austin began, but the older man cut him off.
“Never mind. I’ve lost my opportunity now, nothing can be done about it. You tried, and you failed.” he said and took the cane from Austin.
He was nearly back to his car when Austin asked, “where is my money?”
The little man spun around. “Your money? Don’t be absurd. The agreement was that you give my cane to my old freiend, and would give you the money. But you failed me. You’ve wasted my time. Why, I should charge you for the time I’ve lost. But, no. You did what you could. Here in enough to get home by bus.” He pushed some crumpled dollar bills into Austins hands.
Austin stood on the sidewalk, stunned, as the older man got into the car and drove away.
The man turned to his driver and smiled, “That went better than I could have hoped for.”
Hide and Seek
by: Mick Bordet
“Excuse me, Sir,” said Mrs. Shaw, “the gentleman with the duck-headed cane is at the door asking to see you. He still won’t tell me his name, I’m afraid.”
“That’s all right, Mrs Shaw, I don’t think he ever will. Please show him in,” said Sir Iain Pleasance.
“Very well, Sir,” she said, leaving the office and returning a minute later, leading the un-named guest into the dark, wood-panelled room..
“Thank you, Mrs. Shaw,” said Sir Iain, taking a seat behing the large mahogany pedestal desk positioned at the centre of the far wall.
“Good afternoon, Sir Iain,” said the man as the elderly housekeeper left the room, closing the heavy oak door behind her. “I see you are still living the life of luxury afforded by your early years.”
“You do know that I have retired, don’t you?” Sir Iain said, ignoring the comment and folding his arms.
“I had heard as much, though you do know that there is no such thing as retirement in our line of work,” the man said, sauntering over to the single window in the room to gaze out across the street outside. He didn’t look at his host, as he expected no answer.
“Well now, I don’t believe you’ve ever told me exactly what your line of work is, but my days as a detective are mere memories and newspaper clippings now.”
“I was referring to your previous occupation, actually, Sir Iain. The univited guest to many’s a society gathering, the steathly redistribution of wealth and the midnight outings dressed in black: in a word, the thief,” the man said, turning to face Sir Iain, waiting for the response.
“Must we perfom this dance on every occasion you visit? You accuse me of a number of outrageous burglaries over the years of my youth when, I do admit, I was a man of leisure due to my inheritance. I respond that your claims are both preposterous and insulting, to which you assure me you have ample evidence that could be released to the relevant authorities. You then dangle some investigation in front of me that you know I would take on without any need for threats, veiled or otherwise, and for that you promise me a substantial sum of recompense for its successful completion. You bring the proceedings to an end by flourishing some last veiled threat of violence to back it all up,” Sir Ian said.
The man rested his weight with both hands leaning on the head of his cane and smiled, “That is a fairly accurate summary of our normal conversations. Familiarity with the process puts you at your ease; you know what to expect.”
“Ah, but you have surely forgotten one key piece of our last little chat: the one that left me stuck in the Amazon jungle for three months? I told you then that it would be the last piece of work I carried out for you.”
“No, not forgotten, Sir Iain; far from it, in fact. That is why we have held back from approaching you about this matter for as long as we have. I think you will want to take this case on as a matter of professional pride, both as a detective and as the most successful cat burglar London has known, at least in my lifetime. Indeed, I don’t believe threats will even be necessary on this occasion,” said the man. He gave a sickly-grin that displayed his broken and bent, nicotine-stained teeth and raised his thick, forest-like eyebrows.
“You almost disappoint me by taking away the stick and leaving only the carrot. What could possibly tempt me back to a life of raiding rubbish bins, all-night surveillance and endless hours of research?”
The man nodded. He had set the bait, now he had only to let Sir Iain take the hook and the rest would sort itself out, he thought.
“Sir Iain,” he said, pausing a moment for effect, “we have two problems. The first is an operative we believe to be a spy working directly to the SS in Berlin. We have reports that she has been seen in London and Washington, but the latest come from Glasgow. This gives us reason to believe she may be plotting some action against the shipyards, most likely gathering intelligence to pass back for bombing runs or submarine attacks.”
“Okay, so far so very uninspiring. I see nothing significant compared to most other cases you have brought to me,” said Sir Iain, “what is the second problem?”
“That’s where we think you’ll be interested. We don’t necessarily want to stop her, capture or even kill her, but we do need to know if she is a threat and if there is any possibility of being able to feed her dummy information to cover our own covert plans in the future. You are the eleventh person we have asked to follow her and find her base of operations and what her mission is.”
“It’s nice to come at the top of your list,” Sir Iain quipped.
“Your feelings were made perfectly clear on your last engagement, Sir Iain, so we have tried to put this meeting off. It was not anticipated that it would even be required, as we do now have an experienced team that are fully trained in covert operations, hidden surveillance and tracking. At least, we did. They are all either dead, missing or have no memory of their mission or its outcome. Ten men, some of the best in the country, all dispatched by a single woman in one way or another. We don’t know how or why, but we need to find her and learn her plan,” the man said. He had done his part, said his piece. He sat in the chair opposite Sir Iain and waited for the response.
The retired gentleman gave a long sigh and stood up, walked over to his drinks cabinet and poured himself a glass of dark, peaty whisky from an ornately-cut crystal decanter. He returned to his seat without offering a drink to his guest, took a slow, measured sip and held out his free hand to the visitor. The man pulled a beige folder from the inside of his thick, dark-grey coat and handed it to Sir Iain, who lay it on the desk in front of him and opened it out.
“Is this it? Where is the rest of the dossier?” he asked, looking in surprise at the two items within the folder.
“That is all we have, I’m afraid. The photograph is a little blurry, as you can see, but we have had some difficulty in obtaining visual evidence: film becomes overexposed or sections of the picture are missing in most of the surveillance we undertook. The paper lists all recorded sightings of her. As you can see, the majority of them are around the Partick area and of them, in many cases she was seen walking from the Clyde towards the North.”
“And you’ve never tracked her to her destination?”
“Not for lack of trying, Sir Iain. On most occasions she was lost in the crowd or stepped behind cover and was not seen again. It would seem that the men who managed to stay on her trail were the ones who didn’t make it back to report their findings,” answered the man.
Sir Iain read through each entry in the list, placing them in his mind within the locations he knew in that particular part of Glasgow. He scrutinised the photograph again, but could find nothing unusual about the woman, apart from perhaps being a little taller than most of the other women in the background.
“It will be triple my usual fee,” said Sir Iain, “and I will require copies of the full reports and all of the photographs, no matter how blurred they might be.”
“Very well, I’ll get them sent over to you this afternoon,” said the man, rising from the chair and heading towards the door.
# # #
It seemed, from the detailed reports of the surveillance of the woman, that she was an expert. Sir Iain wasn’t quite sure whether it was in burglary, hunting, spying or just hiding, but the descriptions given made it sound as though she had almost disappeared into thin air on more than one occasion. Though it appeared that she was a dangerous prey to track, he had developed a solid admiration for her skills and was looking forward to getting started. Until then, he had one more piece of research to undertake in order to build an understanding of this elusive lady.
One thing was certain; Ducky, as he had called the man since he first agreed to their occasional professional relationship almost ten years previously, was hiding something. That was not unusual, for the man with no name, who would not divulge who he worked for or even why he needed certain individuals tracked down. This time, Sir Iain’s gut instinct was that there were key facts being twisted to ensure his assistance. He couldn’t pin down whether it was the whole undercover spy story, the way she had given ten trained men, experts in surveillance and stealthy tracking, the slip so easily or the strange blurs visible on most of the pictures that had been taken of her.
That last peculiarity was one he could follow-up and so, armed with the pouch containing all the pictures his temporary employer had provided, Sir Iain had made the trip to Liverpool Street Station from his home in Highgate. From there it was a short walk down Broad Street until he arrived at the photographer’s studio, located in a narrow alley.. He knew of nobody more skilled in photographic manipulation than the owner, Fred Mains. Several cases he had worked on before his retirement could not have been completed without Fred’s eye for detail and ability to enlarge and adjust the content of photographs. He had found an individual face in a picture within a crowded theatre on one occasion and brightened an almost black image to a range of greys that let him pick out a wanted man on another.
“‘Allo Squire, how you doing today. I ain’t seen you round ‘ere for months,” said Fred no sooner than Sir Iain had stepped through the door.
“No, I’m a man of leisure now, retired almost a year ago, in fact,” he answered.
“Ah, a lucky man, indeed. So, what brings you here today, then? A portrait to celebrate the next stage of your life, perhaps?”
“No, it’s nothing like that, Fred. I’m not sure what I’m looking for, to be honest, but I wonder if you could take a look at these for me and tell me what you think?” said Sir Iain, pulling out the photographs and laying them out on the table.
The photographer switched on an adjustable lamp with an intense light that he brought down to the surface of the table and, in conjunction with a magnifying glass, started working his way through the pictures. One by one he scrutinised them, nodding occasionally to himself before moving onto the next.
“Most unusual, squire, I must say. They don’t seem to have been over-exposed, though at first glance it looks that way, and the prints haven’t been damaged or altered in any way I’m familiar with, yet there are definitely bits with missing detail. I would go so far as to say that I’ve never seen anything like it before. Except… Hang on just a minute, Squire, if you would,” he said, excitement clear in his voice. He sped to the back of the studio and rifled through a set of drawers before pulling out a collection of photographs and setting them down on the table.
“These look rather old,” said Sir Iain.
“They’re pictures my old dad took, back when he was working in Dundee. His boss in them days did the photos of the Tay Bridge disaster, all the broken tracks and the damage to the structure. I still remember when he came home that night. Drained, he was, from the things he’d seen: a terrible accident, just terrible. Anyway, here’s the one I was looking for. See that bit there? There’s your blur, your over-exposure, or whatever the Hell it is. I’ve always put it down to something on the camera, but the exact same thing is on your pictures and not always in the same place. I can’t explain it, Squire. What you’ve got there is the same as this picture, but why it is, I couldn’t tell you.”
Sir Iain looked at the picture from the previous century. It showed a view of some of the girders that had toppled into the river, sending over seventy train passengers to their deaths, trapped in carriages under the dark waters of the Tay. On close inspection, he recognised the same same blurred markings behind the debris.
“Have you got any more with the same marks?” he asked.
“No, Squire, I don’t think so, at least, not as noticable as that one. I never had much call to look that closely, though. Help yourself.”
Sir Iain started flicking through the photographs, looking for a repeat of the marks he was familiar with. What he found instead was more unexpected than he could have anticipated. It was a portrait of a woman holding a young child. He let out a gasp and returned to the pile of pictures he had brought with him, looking for the original image Ducky had left him, the one that showed her face, blurred though it was. Placed side-by-side, they appeared to be pictures of the same woman.
“When was this taken?” he asked.
Fred turned the picture over and read a series of numbers stamped on the rear of the photograph.
“1861, according to this,” he said.
“Right, well I guess this isn’t the same woman, then. Perhaps the old picture is of this one’s mother; the resemblance is striking. Hold on. Look at that scar. It’s not as clear on the later picture, but it is definitely there in both of them. These must be, what, over seventy years apart and yet it looks like the same woman, with little sign of aging apart from a grey hair or two. Thank you Fred, I have what I needed. Here you go,” Sir Ian said, handing the photographer a ten pound note.
“Thank you, Squire, very generous of you. You be sure to come back for that portrait, now.”
Sir Iain left the studio and headed home. He was ready to pack his things to make the trip to Glasgow, feeling that he knew more about this woman that he was supposed to, a position he liked to occupy when dealing with anybody as manipulative and devious as the man with the duck-headed cane.
# # #
For the first two weeks of his stay in Glasgow, he found no trace of the woman. Keeping to the area bounded by Crow Road, Byres Road and the Clyde that the previous reports had mentioned, he walked a different meandering route every day, starting to recognise the faces of many of the local people. He stopped to spend time in cafes most afternoons, chatting to women out walking with prams, old men meeting friends on the way to the bowling club and even children returning home from school. If he couldn’t find her straight away, in his experience the next best thing was to start to integrate with the local community, to make contacts that could help him locate his target.
When he did eventually spot her, he followed from as far away as he could so that she wouldn’t be aware of him, but lost sight of her near the university. In the following week he saw and followed her three times, each time losing her due to the distance between them. On every occasion, he had taken a note of the time and location, but there was no pattern to her appearances; though they were all in the same half square mile of the city, every time she was travelling in a different direction. Either she had an eclectic lifestyle, visiting people all over the city, or she was deliberately using different routes every day and Sir Iain was almost certain that it was the latter.
There followed a week when he didn’t see her at all, though he did have a conversation with a newspaper-seller outside the factory on Norval Street who mentioned that she always bought a paper from him at some point during the day when she was around. According to him, she had said that she worked at the university and often travelled abroad, going away for weeks or months at a time. If she truly was a spy, as Ducky had claimed, that wasn’t a bad cover story, Sir Iain thought. A day spent visiting every department at the university soon confirmed that she had never worked there in any position, from professor to cleaner.
He decided that the time had come to follow her in earnest. The next time he saw her, he kept much closer, determined not to fall for whatever tricks she had pulled on the men previously sent to follow her. At some point she must have seen him, for after ten minutes of walking she gave him the slip, entering a small shop from which she did not reappear. There was no sign of her inside and, according to the girl serving behind the counter, no way for any customer to leave the shop without going back through the main door or using the back door beside her. She assured him that nobody had even attempted to leave in that manner. The same game of hide and seek was played out over the week on another two occasions. He was becoming frustrated by it, the fact that she had noticed his presence despite all efforts to remain out of sight and that he hadn’t even managed to get close enough to ask the questions he had for her. Not that he was supposed to be talking to her at all, but whilst she was, without doubt, covering something up, it didn’t feel to him as though it was anything to do with spying.
His next approach was to sit with a map and revisit, on paper, the scenes of her sightings. He covered a street map of the area in markings, but it revealed nothing to him, as had been the case weeks before when he had been planning his routes. A thought struck him, at that point, and he picked out the positions on the map where he had followed her from. To those he marked the routes she took before disappearing in each case, at which point a pattern, albeit a very vague one, began to appear. All three routes radiated out away from a central point. He used a pen to draw lines extending from the routes and they all crossed within about a hundred yards of the subway station at Merkland Street.
“Well, just because she’s walking around this area, doesn’t mean she actually lives here,” he said to himself.
With a central point to focus on, he spent more time around the station over the following days, familiarising himself with every nook and cranny, every side-street, alleyway, manhole and staircase in the area. He planned routes for moving from one place to the next without being seen. It was like preparing a magic show, setting up the sleight of hand, making the most of natural distractions and ensuring he could sink into the shadows at the slightest indication of her detecting him. Now he understood why Ducky needed him, it was his skill as a cat burglar that would make the difference here.
He found a suitable vantage point from which he could watch a substantial portion of the area around the station and settled down to wait. Two days later she appeared, walking from the South towards him, her gait smooth, but precise, flowing from step-to-step like a tiger. He sat, hidden, waiting for a sideways glance or pause in her stride that might indicate she had seen him, ready to slide out of view in the blink of an eye in the same way, he thought, that she had done to him. She walked straight past him, heading directly towards a wall behind the station, moving so quickly that he gripped his hands tight in anticipation that she would collide with it. Instead, a blank space appeared in the wall, seemingly from nowhere, and she stepped into it. A second later and the wall had returned to its former state as though nothing had happened. He jumped up and ran over to the wall, running his hands over it, searching for the hidden doorway, but there was nothing. It didn’t matter, he knew her point of entry now to wherever it was she was going. He waited for two days for her to reappear, to try and find out more about her, wandering around the area, always keeping his eye on that wall. Exhaustion drove him to admit defeat in the end and he returned to his temporary lodgings on Great Western Road. Once there he called in what he had discovered.
“Thank you, Sir Iain, that has been a most valuable endeavour. You may return home. I will make arrangements for your account to be credited with your agreed fee. Thank you,” the man on the end of the phone said, then hung up.
He would have liked to have asked him about the woman and her ability to defy the onslaught of time, but he knew well enough not to ask questions. The man, Ducky, had a lot of money to throw around, the sort of money that only comes with a degree of power. Sir Iain knew that power of that nature could make people disappear. He was intrigued by the woman, but his taste for adventure did not extend as far as winding up people that could dispose of him without a thought. He never heard from the man again.
# # #
The team of men had been working on breaking through the wall for days with no success. Their tools either broke or simly wore down; whatever the wall was made of, it was no normal brick. Over night, the man with the duck-headed cane would sit outside it and wait, hoping that the woman would appear and reveal her secrets. He knew she had many, probably more that he could even comprehend. After weeks had gone by with no breakthrough and no sign of the woman, the decision had finally been taken. The explosives had been laid, sunk into the ground beside the wall. The crew of men working on the wall kept their distance, waiting behind shelter about twenty yeards away. The man had told one of them to sound the alarm at the appropriate time. He looked at his watch.
“3, 2, 1,” he counted down. The alarm sounded, the plaintive wail of the air raid siren, echoing around the tennements. “Give it a minute or two, ” he whispered to himself, “this has got to seem real.”
He took to cover, about one hundred yards away from the wall and waited, watching the lights go out across the city in front of him and listening to people running for shelter from the planes they thought were approaching.
The explosives expert had assured him that the blast would be small and that the destructive force would be directed towards the wall and the ground below. “It would be safe to stand within ten yards of it when it goes off”, he had said, “but we’ll leave twenty to be extra safe.”
When the explosion was triggered, not one of them was left alive. The radius of the blast was over fifty yards, more than five times what had been expected. The man wandered over to the smoking pit that was left behind and looked in. It looked like a volcano had erupted in the street, with debris lying everywhere and a crater at least thirty yards from one side to the other.
“Idiots,” he said, though none were left alive to hear him, “they must have used too much. Whatever was in there is gone now.”
He shook his head and sighed.
The man with the duck-headed cane turned and walked away, into the darkness.