A Prisoner Goes Missing: Hammersmith (part two)
When an army wanted weapons, and contracted with a manufacturer of these, a thing the layman could not do, someone at length would take the…guns, say…in; check them off, inspect them, inform an officer who would organize the fetching of them, that they had arrived, that they could be moved from a depot to a destination.
This fellow, maybe two or three such in mid-stream, could report one piece of information to one superior, and an alternative piece of information to another superior. Superiors, like Medlow, liked to see inferiors get things done. If Colonel Fritz looked for thirty guns delivered, and Major Fratz twenty-four, Colonel Fritz would not much trouble himself if the man-in-the-middle cited delay, damage, misdirection. Major Fratz would not trouble himself if he got just what he’d looked for anyway.
And even when things were looking grim, the Fritzes of the world delegated.
Shaw speculated. Zetland’s carriage was exceedingly upright; military service, for a Prussian of that class, he thought a requirement. And Mossbunker’s mind would work this way…moguls too liked their orders followed with dispatch. With a Mossbunker, a trusted collaborator got carte blanche. The Count von Zetland, a (seeming) pouter pigeon couched in a parlor car, where Charley, talking up his shares, had cadged a ride…
Shaw imagined their meeting that way.
If Zetland, like any scalawag ought, sought to hide his activities, Shaw could have bought his name, passed it to Medlow that evening, committed a mild (or retaliatory) double-cross in handing over an informant unworthy of protection: to wit, Charley Chillingsworth, née Selton, a.k.a. Professor le Fontainebleau. He still would look the reliable, if not spectacular, seller of pens that he was.
But Zetland covered his tracks by inveigling every new acquaintance into his criminal ring.
“Room’s all yours, Mr. Shaw.”
McKeefe’s lantern, set on the floor while he turned the knob, made boulders of discarded bedrolls, long shadows stretching over the low-beamed, sweat-scented space. The patterns went into a dance. “I’ll just take this here, leave you and the Professor to it, your little talk…”
“McKeefe,” Shaw said. “Can I rent that light? Fifty cents?”
“Dollar. Run out of kerosene, come let me know.”
The attic had a body in it. A young postal clerk, a Wesley Crumpacker, a Patriot who’d failed his rendezvous.
“Mr. McKeefe, see, I just remembered…”
He spoke to the man he knew, rising voice snagging McKeefe at the head of the stairs.
“…when I got up to the guardhouse, it was my week to lead the blessing. I told Ben, have to go back home and get what I wrote down…”
A voice sang out. “Bladon, dear! Looks like the boss is in town!”
Another: “Mr. Shaw up there? Man outside with a message!”
Minnie! Why had Curach not taken her off? Medlow! His plan for Charley, then, in the crapper.
(So to speak.) One of those moments that takes hold of you. Not just these competing calls to duty below…noise of activity everywhere now, a mounted militia making a rendezvous of its own, in McKeefe’s yard.
“Crumpacker, guard the prisoner! I’ll be back in a second.”
Medlow had snubbed him off the bat for the attentions of Washburn. He’d had a moment to say, “Minnie! You can’t stay!”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“Why didn’t you go with Curach?”
“Ha!” The sideways, under-the-lashes glance almost drove meaning into Shaw’s head. But he didn’t know Curach. “I know,” Minnie said, “a certain look when I see it. You leave Ruby to her own devices.”
Now, re-climbing McKeefe’s hill after twenty minutes or so, it was le Fontainebleau’s smile he remembered.
“Piece of luck.” Washburn, just in agreement, nodding his head.
These were the wages of daydreaming. Shaw had half-heard Medlow…the Count promising his brother-in-law he’d take charge of the whole thing…
“You call that dash. Kind you still see in the old guard, over there.”
“Well, we’ll take him at his word. Gone over the wall by himself! I’d put him up for a citizen’s award, only…guess he’s not a citizen.”
“Excuse me. Zetland.”
The pouches reuned irritably. “What you need, Shaw?”
“Zetland has got inside Mossbunker’s factory. Alone. No help.”
“Left behind word nobody was to fret over his safety. He’ll talk to Oldfield if he can. You got all that? Mossbunker wasn’t any too pleased with what you had to say to him, Shaw.”
Shaw had written on the back of his card, calling as a stranger—but on behalf of the well-known Medlow’s agency—Sir, your name has come up. Through the morning, Mossbunker’s people kept him waiting in the lobby. A dose of medicine that mellowed nothing in its prescriber (for when, after all, does torture improve the disposition of the torturer?)
Shaw, off his feet, was comfy enough. Being paid, regardless. A book in his pocket, a detective yarn he could happily tide himself along with.
“Now what’s the idea?”
To this office boy, sauntered from the elevator well after the lunch hour, Shaw said, “One for Mr. Mossbunker’s ears. Or I can leave now, if he’s not interested.”
The fly in the ointment, spottable in retrospect—
Had to be one Ludwig von Zetland, a name which could not come up, a personage of whose existence Shaw had not dreamt. Whereas, on le Fontainebleau, a thick dossier. A surreptitious photograph, taken at the first meeting, before the Hammersmith debacle.
A snort from the other side of a mammoth burl veneer.
Shaw spoke his calculated piece: “It must be a great offense to you, sir, and I apologize. A man like this fellow bandying his imaginary acquaintance with you among the criminal class, making claim you personally could be underwriting some outlandish enterprise.”
“Hrrr,” came the answer. The sound, had Shaw known it, of gears grinding.
(What’s the meaning of it, Ludi?
Ah, Cranston. Leave it to me to find out.)
Shaw had not spoken to Mossbunker again, but by special messenger had dispatched the second set of photographs, proving their suspect not drowned.
The attic door cracked.
The deputized patriot peered out, drew back easing round, arm crooked to the knob behind him. Even this much Crumpacker added more than was comfortable to the landing’s capacity crowd, of Medlow, Washburn, McKeefe, and Shaw.
“You didn’t…already come across the Professor…?”
“Not,” Shaw said, “a likely thing…” For a man to be in two places at once, he might have finished. “Crumpacker, you didn’t let him go?”
“No! Well… It was confusing. I heard someone climbing up the stairs, and then I heard Mr. McKeefe call out…”
“I sure never.”
“He said, Crumpacker, why don’t you go on home? He was coming closer.”
McKeefe, growing purpler, “I tell you, I never!”
“I said, no sir, I have to guard the prisoner. I swear, I looked over to the corner where he was sleeping, and he was there! And McKeefe said, what’s the matter with you? Go look out the window! Right down below, I could hear the Professor talking to someone…someone he called Shaw. I had to lean out to get a look.”
“And when you stopped turning your back on the prisoner, you found in the corner was only a pile of clothes. And when you looked out here to the landing, you saw no one at all.”
A silence fell.
Medlow said, “Son, you’re not to blame. You’re not the professional. Take McKeefe’s advice, go on home.”
The landlord’s lips, with the impulse to disavow a remark of Cedric’s…or Cyril’s…parted, but Medlow was steering Crumpacker more or less into his arms, adding, “Thanks, I got nothing else.”
Into their pouches of portent, the eyes recessed.
“Washburn, I suppose you find it true in your line, you get a man now and then never quite lives up to the chances you’ve given him. No use to you. Taking up a place could be filled by a new young recruit. go-getter…”
A Prisoner Goes Missing
(2019, Stephanie Foster)