Hammersmith: A Prisoner Goes Missing (part four)
A Prisoner Goes Missing
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. From 8:30 a.m. to 3:25 p.m., 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?)
But off his feet, Shaw was comfy enough. He was being paid regardless. He had a book in his pocket, a detective yarn he could happily tide along with.
“Mister, they wanna know what’s the idea.”
To this office boy sauntered from the elevator, Shaw said: “One for Mr. Mossbunker’s ears only. Or I can leave and tell Medlow he’s not interested.”
Five minutes later, from the opposite shore of a mammoth burl veneer, a desk so large it served for the secretary too—demure at the corner with his steno pad—a snort greeted Shaw’s news.
Shaw spoke his calculated piece. “It must be a great offense to you, sir, and I apologize for being the messenger. A man like that bandying his acquaintance with you among the criminal classes, making claim you could underwrite such an outlandish adventure… My informant seems to think the guns were meant for Cuba.”
“Hrrr,” came the answer. The sound, had Shaw known it, of gears grinding.
He had not spoken to Mossbunker again, but had by special messenger dispatched the photographs proving Le Fontainebleau not drowned.
Now, reclimbing McKeefe’s stairs after twenty minutes or so, it was the Professor’s smile he remembered.
“Piece of luck.”
Shaw picked the cobwebs from his daydreaming brain.
“You call that dash, Washburn,” Medlow remarked. “Stuff you still see in the old guard over there.”
“Gone over the wall by himself! I’d put him up for a citizen’s award, only… I guess he’s not a citizen.”
“Excuse me. Zetland.”
Medlow glanced behind. The pouches reuned irritably. “What you need, Shaw?”
“Zetland, you said, sir, has got inside Mossbunker’s factory. Alone. With no help.”
“Left 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.”
The attic door cracked.
The deputized patriot stepped head, shoulders, and one leg out. Even this much Crumpacker added more than was comfortable to the landing’s capacity crowd of Medlow, Washburn, McKeefe, and Shaw.
“You didn’t,” Crumpacker said wistfully, “happen to come across the Professor?”
“Not a likely thing…” For a man to be in two places at once, Shaw would have finished. “Crumpacker, you didn’t let him go?”
“No! I mean, not let… I heard someone climbing the stairs, and then I heard McKeefe call out…”
“I sure never!”
“He said, Crumpacker, why don’t you go on home? He was coming closer.”
McKeefe, growing purpler, said, “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,” Shaw said, “all you found in the corner was 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, and go home. Search the room, Shaw.”
“Search the grounds?” Shaw tried.
“The room. Then the grounds. Then write me a report and make it thorough. Washburn, I suppose you find it true in your line, you get a man now and then who never quite lives up to the chances you’ve given him. No use. Taking up a place that could be filled by a new young recruit, a go-getter…”
A Prisoner Goes Missing
(2019, Stephanie Foster)