A Federal Agents Mystery
THE COUNTERFEIT GENTLEMAN FILE
Clarence Budington Kelland
A Digital Parchment Services publication
Copyright 1956, renewed 1984
First serialized in the Saturday Evening Post 1956, issued in hardcover Dodd, Mead & Co. 1960.
All rights reserved.This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission.
Published under license the estate of Clarence Budington Kelland.
CLARENCE BUDINGTON KELLAND MYSTERIES
FROM DIGITAL PARCHMENT PRESS
THE FEDERAL AGENT MYSTERIES
[Kelland was asked to write these books to give people a sense of what federal agents do and was allowed unprecedented access to offices, procedures, agents and files.]
The Counterfeit Gentleman File (Secret Service)
The Sinister Strangers File (National Park Service)
The Spy and Counter Spy File (CIA, White Sands Missile Testing Range)
The Great Mail Robbery File (U.S. Post Office)
JICK ROCHE, whose first name, Annlee, was used by nobody except her mother, was studying the new young man with a curiosity that she took no pains to conceal. If one were to select Jick's dominant characteristic, it would, without argument, be curiosity. She was inquisitive about events, about people, about the significance of trifles. Her friends said that she was like a cat in a strange house wherever she went, because she could not compose herself until she had nosed into all the corners. She asked questions like an ambitious district attorney, and it is to be admitted regretfully that her interrogations were not always tactful. Her second most noteworthy characteristic was that she pigeonholed. She hoarded facts and impressions for a rainy day. And her memory was a systematic filing system in which nothing was ever mislaid. It was not alone major facts that reposed in the filing cabinet of her peculiar little mind; it was also inconsequentials such as what necktie her father wore last Thursday; or that the painter, Walker Bayside, had funny little nicks on his left-hand thumbnail; or that it was exactly forty-three steps from the entrance gap in the sage hedge separating the lawn from the parking space to the front door of the house.
Now she was scrutinizing this new young man, whose name was oddly enough Artemus Baldwin, as if he were an interesting specimen under a microscope. She never had encountered a young man like him, and he puzzled and interested her exceedingly.
She estimated that he was an inch under six feet, and determined to ask him his exact height. He wore a checked sport coat whose shoulders were a thought too wide and whose waist was cut too narrow. It was longer than a correct tailor would have approved. It wasn't exactly a zoot suit, but it was a recognizable relative. At first glance he seemed dapper, but a second glance showed Jick that everywhere he was just a little wrong. The adjective "slick" came into her mind. He was just off the key of good taste, even to his haircut.
His manner was not what one could describe as brash, and his gray eyes were watchful. He, too, seemed to be inquisitive. He was doing what a theatrical friend of Jick's described as counting the house. Definitely he was not quite a gentleman. Not even quite a gentleman in the modern manner, which is not being a gentleman according to the rules of our grandfathers.
This new Mr. Baldwin was aware of her scrutiny and he rather preened himself, for which he was not to be censured. No young man could be blamed for self-satisfaction if he found that he excited Jick's interest because, even in blue jeans and a shirt open at the throat, and high-heeled boots, she was a dish. She was about five feet and four inches of dish, and when the weather was a little damp her brown hair curled boyishly close to her head. Her eyes slanted a little upward at the outer corners and reminded one of ancient Egyptian princesses. The demureness which one noticed at first glance was a snare and a delusion.
Mr. Baldwin preened himself some more and got up from the spot where he was basking against a rock. He strolled over to Jick, not diffidently but, as she said to herself, all of a smirk.
"Hi, toots," he said amiably, and thereupon lowered himself beside her without invitation. "I saw you giving me the once-over. Like what you see?"
"You," she said, "could do with a little retouching.”
“I don't make you," he said.
"You picked out the wrong pattern," she told him, not sharply, but rather earnestly, as if she wanted to be helpful.
"What's wrong with me?" he asked.
"Why, I'd guess you learned from the wrong people and in unsuitable places."
Her eyes were watching his face, and, to her surprise, she noted a brief flash of satisfaction, as if she had paid him a compliment.
"Wrong side of the tracks?" he asked.
"That isn't the answer," she said, puzzled. "I like people from across the tracks, as you put it. They're natural and mostly they're nice and they're genuine, and you don't mind their not reading Emily Post. Because, probably, they're too busy earning a living. Like truck drivers, of whom I am very fond. But you approximate."
"That means 'come close to.' What do I come close to?"
"Being a gentleman," she said. "Synthetic," she said musingly.
"That means 'not genuine,' " he said, with no sign of anger or of embarrassment.
"Border line," she said, as if she were trying to make up her own mind about him. "Surface. A very nice person has to start by being nice inside and have an aptitude for it. Like a good many cops and some college presidents, and colored porters, and a couple of justices of the Supreme Court, and our Mexican gardener. They don't have to learn. It comes natural. No trimmings, but spontaneous." She bent her brows and squinted at him. "You've tried to learn the trimmings; that didn't come natural to you and you've dropped stitches."
He was not humiliated; he was not hurt. It seemed rather that he was genuinely interested in her appraisal.
"You're a smart baby," he said, and nodded his head. "You got savvy. Now take a shot at me. What's my racket?"
Jick thought it over, making a very cunning moue as she concentrated.
"Well," she replied, "I'd say you've been studying to be a slicker. Like in the movies. One of those characters. To live by being slick smart. Picking up things on the fringes."
Again she got the impression that he was inwardly gratified. It was very strange. She would not have been gratified in his place.
"You," he said, narrowing his eyes in the sunshine, "are a pretty slick chick yourself."
She thought that over, mentally trying it on for size. "Jick, the slick chick," she said. She nodded jerkily. "That's cute."
"You're cute," he said experimentally.
"No passes," she said and shrugged her lovely shoulders. "At least, not crude passes." She scrutinized him some more. "You wouldn't know how to make a really adroit pass at a girl like me. Naturally. You have to be an innate gentleman to be ungentlemanly in a nice way."
"Novelty," he said.
"What do you mean—novelty?"
"A lady snob like you could be bored by jerks like these." He waved his hand in the direction of the three other young men in the picnic party. "You could get a kick out of playing around with a guy like me. It might get me places."
"Experimenting," she said.
"People get blown up experimenting with chemicals," he said, grinning.
"How," she asked, "did you get to come on this picnic?"
"I wangled," he answered.
"I suppose so. But why would you want to? Not for fun. You're not comfortable with us. You must have had some sort of a stealthy reason. It's very interesting. I wonder how you'll come out."
"Listen, babe, I'll come out good. While these fancy pants are thinking once, I'm thinking three times."
"It'll be fun to watch," she said musingly. "I've never seen a slicker working at his profession. I really ought to put a spoke in your wheel. Maybe I'm antisocial. So I shan't. I'm going to be a very interested spectator. That is, unless you get to be really perilous. So long as you're just small time—I mean just for board and room—I shan't meddle. You are small time, aren't you?"
"Maybe you got me all wrong, cupcake. Maybe I'm feeding you a line. Maybe I graduated from one of these lousy colleges and my old man owns Standard Oil. Could be I'm kidding the ears off of you."
She shook her head. "Ridiculously impossible," she said promptly. "It would show through. Little things. You're a genuine whatever-you-are. Things you do instinctively."
"Like what?" he demanded.
"Like you spit," she said.
"What's wrong with how I spit?"
"You," she said, "make a production of it. As if you think how you are doing it. To create an impression, like a character in the movies."
Again that queer thing happened. Instead of being embarrassed or resentful, he seemed to be quietly gratified.
"Take Bill North," she said, following up her thought. "He is a very nice boy. He has good manners, but you don't notice them. Like breathing. Now, Bill would be very unlikely to spit at all if there was a girl around. But if he did, you would hardly notice it. I mean he would just spit." She paused and stared and was on her knees with one fluid movement, shading her eyes and peering across the sand and rocks up the rocky hillside. A young man stood halfway up the slope, waving his arms and shouting. "What's Bill in a dither about?" she wondered. "It's something."
Jick was on her feet and running toward Bill North. She was running as if there were something urgent—as if she sensed that it was urgent. Spry as she had been, Artemus Baldwin was equally agile. Somehow he, too, seemed to sense that Bill was not waving and shouting just for fun. He outdistanced Jick.
"What gives?" he called.
"Keep Jick back," North said. "Don't let her come. There's a dead man up here."
"Then," snapped Baldwin, "why didn't you come down and whisper it, instead of bawling your head off?" He grasped Bill's arm. "Where's this corpse?" he demanded. And then to Jick, who had caught up with him, "Better scram back, chicklet."
"He said a dead man!" Jick gasped, breathless from running.
"Dead men," said Baldwin almost facetiously, "ain't your racket. Not good manners to be dead up on a hill.”
“I'm going to see," she said.
Baldwin shrugged. "If you topple over, I'll let you lie where you fall," he said.
They followed Bill North around a shoulder of the hill, scrambling. There was a jutting rock, and on the far side of it was a body.
"All right," Baldwin said to Jick, "you got an eyeful. Beat it."
"Store clothes," Jick said. She was not pale. She did not feel pale. It was grim, but she was neither squeamish nor frightened. "Fancy shoes," she said. "Not all scuffed." She thought it incongruous that a man in store clothes and unscuffed fancy shoes should lie dead on a remote desert hilltop.
Baldwin was kneeling beside the body. Bill North looked as if he might be sick. Anyhow, Jick thought,
Mr. Baldwin can take it. He turned the body on its back, so that the face pointed up. It was a youngish, sharp-featured face.
"Upset his digestion," Baldwin said. "Three slugs in the belly."
North made a retching noise and retired behind a boulder. Baldwin looked up over his shoulder at Jick. She stared unflinchingly. Baldwin hunched his shoulders. "You," he said, "don't behave ladylike."
"How would you know?" she retorted. "Fox face.”
She shook her head. "Him," she said. She bent over a little, the better to see.
"You'll spoil your dinner," he snorted.
"What's he been eating?" she asked. "What's his mouth full of?"
Baldwin investigated. He's not a bit squeamish, thought Jick as Baldwin extracted a wad from the dead man's mouth. It was a greenish wad.
"Money!" Jick exclaimed.
Baldwin spread the currency on the sand. They were not large bills—fives and tens and a few ones. "Beats hell what people eat," he said callously.
"Had you ought to touch?" she asked. "Isn't there a law? I mean until the police come."
"I don't see any police station," he said. He peered up at her saturninely. "Another slicker," he said; "from his clothes."
"An inferior slicker," she said. "He didn't walk here. Carried. No scuffing. Very melodramatic! I mean the wad of money in his mouth. Gangsters."
"They like to be melodramatic—tough melodramatic. That money says something."
"Out loud," said Baldwin.
"What does it say to you?" Jick asked. "Maybe it talks your language."
"It says," answered Baldwin, "that this character took money he shouldn't—for the wrong thing or from the wrong people. Yeah."
"Not much money," Jick said.
"Not much of a guy," Baldwin said disparagingly. "Maybe he held out; maybe he sold out. Anyhow, he choked on it."
"And they stuffed it in his mouth as a lesson," Jick said, "to scare other little men so they wouldn't do the same."
Baldwin was searching the dead man's pockets, but someone had already done that. There was nothing—nothing to establish identity.
"Shouldn't we tell the police?" Jick asked.
"Don't rush me, sister. Take it easy." Baldwin sat back on his heels and seemed to study the body as if it might tell him something. Then he hunched his shoulders and stood up. "Not the cops, cupcake; the sheriff. This is out in the county." He spread the currency on the sand, each bill by itself to dry in the sun. Jick stood watching him silently. Suddenly she sensed that he saw something invisible to her. He reached out strong fingers and picked up a ten-dollar bill and scrutinized. He looked long and closely at one side and then turned it over to pore over the other side.
"What is it?" Jick asked. "What's about that ten-dollar bill?"
His eyes were level and cold as he looked up at her. "Some lug," he said, "made a social error." He folded the bill and thrust it into his pocket.
"You mustn't do that!" she exclaimed.
"What's funny about that bill?" she demanded.
"If you weren't nosy, you wouldn't ask," he said flatly.
"Is it marked?" she wanted to know.
"Not marked," he said shortly.
She thought it over. "Then the only other reason it could be funny," she said, "is on account of it is counterfeit. How would you be able to know it is counterfeit?"
Baldwin did not answer. She watched him with widening eyes as he took his own wallet out of his pocket and selected a ten-dollar bill. He rumpled it and put it in his mouth to dampen it. Then he spread it on the sand with the others that had been taken from the dead man's mouth.
"What for?" Jick asked.
"Didn't want you to get wrong ideas," he said. "I don't swipe ten-buck bills."
"Not good enough," she said tartly.
"Look," he said, "this sheriff is going to have more than he needs with a murder on his hands. He'd get dizzy if it got complicated by a phony ten-spot. He might blow his top and get lugged off to the loony bin. I got sympathy for that sheriff; I'm protecting him. Get the idea?"
"I don't get the idea," Jick said, "and I shall tell him."
He grinned at her. "If you do," he said, "I'll haunt you. Likewise and in addition I'll tell him you're a cockeyed liar. I'll tell them to search me. They won't find any phony ten-spot, I guarantee—make you look silly. Now you better leg it to a telephone. I'll stay here with the stiff—somebody’s got to. Pedal off, baby; pedal off. And don't go playing out of your league. The pitching’ll be too hot."
"Are you threatening me?"
"Not me, sweetheart. On the contrary. Shoot off your little trap to the sheriff if you feel you got a duty. I guarantee nothing nasty'll happen to you. Personal guarantee with the trade-mark stamped on the heel. Nothing nasty'll happen to you."
"But to you?" she asked.
"Not covered by the guarantee," he grinned. "So beat it and let your conscience be your guide."
The picnic party huddled together as if for mutual protection as Jick Roche, with Bill North for company, drove across the desert to Scottsdale road in search of a telephone.
"Everybody," Jick had said, "better stay put till the sheriff comes. Bill and I will wait and guide him here."
She had taken charge and everybody accepted her leadership as a matter of course. "Let Jick do it," was the accepted attitude when anything was being planned. They liked it that way, but Jick would have done it whether they liked or not.
They found a telephone a couple of miles down the road and talked to the sheriff's office in Phoenix. Then they sat in Jick's station wagon and waited. Bill North did not smoke cigarettes because his stomach continued to misbehave. Jick lolled back behind the wheel, stretching out her delectable legs, and thought things over. Mostly she thought about Artemus Baldwin because he was puzzling and she doted on coping with puzzles. She went back to the beginning. Just how was it that he had been invited to the picnic? He hadn't just popped up out of thin air. Someone must have invited him, and by the very fact of inviting had vouched for him. For mysterious reasons of his own, his sponsor had been Walker Bayside, who was an artist who painted and etched desert things, like cactus and greasewood and paloverde and rocks and sand. He lived in a house that was also a studio out beyond Squaw Peak, and he wasn't one of Jick's favorite people, though not repulsive. She wondered how Bayside had met Baldwin, and made a mental note to find out.
Then she took up mentally the matter of the counterfeit ten-dollar bill and how it happened that Baldwin recognized it as such, and what possible reason he could have had for snitching it and replacing it with a genuine note of his own—to his financial loss. It was a waste of good money to swap a bad ten-dollar note for a good one, and Jick was a person who liked to get her money's worth. Baldwin seemed to her like that sort of person too. Maybe he got his money's worth in the transaction. It was obvious that he did not want the police to get possession of that bogus currency. To say the very least, his conduct was peculiar, and to say the most, it was suspicious. So what should she do about it?
"Bill," she asked suddenly, "if you don't see where a thing leads, what do you do about it?"
Bill North owned a practical and literal mind. "I tend to my own business."
"You dodge issues," Jick accused.
"Sure," Bill admitted. "I don't want any truck with issues. I let things slide."
"Why?" Jick wanted to know.
"Why not?" Bill countered.
"Maybe you're right," she said, puckering her eyes, "but I like positive reasons and I abhor negative reasons. It'll take the cops an hour to get here. Anybody can make up her mind about anything in sixty minutes. If not, she is a very poor mind-maker-up. Or maybe impulse."
"What impulse?" Bill asked without special interest.
"Just don't try to make up your mind at all until you come, bang, face to face with it, and then sort of blurt. You haven't got a subconscious, have you, Bill?"
"What's that?" Bill asked.
"It's a thingumajig inside of you that takes charge," Jick said. "I guess I'll turn this jiggery-pokery over to it and see what happens. . . . Say, Bill, who's this Artemus Baldwin?"
Bill shrugged. "You see him around."
"Oh, around, like at the dog track, or like that. Horse races. You bump into him. My stomach don't feel so good."
"Get in the back seat and go to sleep," Jick directed. "And shut up. I'm going into the silence."
"A deuce of a place to go. Where is it?"
"It's where the subconscious lives," Jick said.
"You're nuts," said Bill.
"And you," Jick said without special emphasis, "are a lump."
Bill scrambled into the back seat, and presently Jick heard a gentlemanly snore. She shrugged. "Lump!" she said crossly. And then, "Most people are lumps. All their heads are good for is to grow hair on. And then they get bald. Pfiff!"
After many long, hot minutes the sheriff and myrmidons drove up. Things became practical and rather stupid and running around in circles—with photographs of the spot marked X, and reporters acting important, but being as completely bewildered as people who were not the law. And everybody had to give his name and address, and nobody could identify the corpse, who, Jick thought, was sitting or, rather, lying for most unattractive photographs. Through all of which Jick said and did nothing, but waited for her subconscious to take charge—which, perversely, it did not do, leaving everything up in the air, and no decision whatever on Artemus Baldwin and the ten-dollar counterfeit note.
Baldwin seemed not at all worried, and when the sheriff and his minions and the corpse went away with no disclosures made, he grinned at her and winked in a way that annoyed Jick.
"Why," he asked, "didn't you give out?"
"Not," she said brusquely, "out of consideration for you."
"I bet you," he said, and almost leered.
"I think," she said as one who pronounces a judgment upon a not very important point, "that you are a crumb. Not a big toothsome crumb for birds, but a teeny, dried-up crumb for red ants."
"Lollypop," he answered, "your reading of human nature must be a special gift. Like having two heads or a strawberry mark on—”
"There's one dandy thought," she said, looking at him very hard, "to slick up the end of a noxious day: I'll probably never see you again."
"Five will get you twenty," he said, "that you never were wronger since Hector was a pup."
He got up lazily, walked over to join Walker Bayside, and the pair of them drove away across the desert.
From the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.
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