THE BAFFLING CASE OF MISS SHOPISHNOK'S CIGARETTE LIGHTER
Sam wanted the lighter to impress his fellow diners at the Widgeon Room. Little did he think it would involve him with blondes, bruisers and spies who spoke in rhyme
SAM THOUGHT of himself as a wage slave, a victim of circumstance. He thought it only just to take as much advantage as he could of his boss, Rupert Mashoulam, in whose establishment, the Ne Plus Ultra Cleaning and Pressing Shop, he was employed as a tailor’s goose. He dipped, when he could, into the cash register; he ate the dill pickles from the sandwiches for which Mashoulam sent him at noon; in a thousand small ways he attempted to make up what he considered the unfair differential in his wages.
One afternoon he saw a cigarette lighter lying on the floor beside the rack where newly cleaned clothes were hung until their owners called for them. Sam approached the lighter warily. It was a handsome thing, he could see even from several feet away. It was of shiny black material and on its front were graven two Percheron mares in white onyx. With one covetous eye on the lighter, the other cautiously looking about him, he stooped quickly and scooped the lighter into his pocket in a single deft motion.
“What you got there?” said Mashoulam in a tone that boded no good for Sam.
“Nothing,” Sam answered, examining his nails with a great show of nonchalance.
“I seen you pick it up,” Mashoulam insisted. “What you got there?”
“In your pocket. I’ll give you where.”
Sam reluctantly showed him the lighter. “I found it,” he said.
“I’ll give you I found it,” said Mashoulam. “Let me see it.”
He took it from Sam’s lingering grasp and examined it. “Sure,” he said. “I know who it belongs to. It’s Miss Shopishnok’s, the tall, black-haired Russian girl comes in here all the time. It must have dropped out of her coat pocket. She had it cleaned last week. I’ll look it up where she lives, and you take it back to her. You hear?”
“Very well,” said Sam resignedly.
“I’ll give you very well. Take it right back, no monkey business should be.”
He looked up her address, told it to Sam, made Sam repeat it, and sent him out.
Sam arrived at Miss Shopishnok’s residence and rang the bell. The landlady came out, an elderly woman with a brownstone front. “Yes?” she asked.
“I’m looking for Miss Shopishnok.”
“That one ain’t here any more, glory be to God,” said the landlady. “I got rid of her last week.”
“What’s the matter?” asked Sam.
“Same old thing,” said the landlady sadly. “Back aches, can’t get out of bed in the morning, can’t get to sleep at night, no pep.”
“Kidneys?” asked Sam.
“I don’t rightly know,” said the landlady.
“You ought to find out. Kidneys can be serious. Do you know you have in your body a hundred and twenty miles of kidney tubes that have to be flushed, jerked, cleaned and pressed daily?”
“The hell!” said the landlady.
“Now, about Miss Shopishnok—” said Sam.
“Oh, that one. Threw’ her out, I did. The idea! Kept bees in the room, she did. Bees!”
“Do you know where she went?”
“Said she was going back to Russia. And good riddance.”
Sam thanked her and left. Russia was a long way off, he w’as thinking. He fondled the lighter in his pocket and smiled.
When he got back to the shop, he told Mashoulam that the lighter had been returned. He spent the rest of the afternoon basting a blue camisole for a Mrs. Feeny, a widow woman up the street who always wore blue under the fond delusion that it made her jaundice less noticeable. At seven o’clock his twelve-hour day was over, and he left.
It was Sam’s custom to dine at the U-Choos-It cafeteria, but on this night he was going to the Widgeon Room. Not that he could afford it, heaven knows. It was on account of the lighter.
If after he, finished his meal at the U-Choos-It he pulled out the lighter and lighted a cigarette, any customer who saw him would only snort and make a coarse gesture. Whereas, at the Widgeon Room, any glance that might stray his way—for it was not the custom at the Widgeon Room for diners to sit and gape one at the other —would be one of admiration. A handsome lighter, thought Sam as he ran his fingers over the luxurious smoothness of it.
An obsequious waiter slithered across the carpeted floor as Sam entered the Widgeon Room. “One?” he said.
Sam nodded, and then his eyes twinkled with sudden mischief. “Unless you got some nice young lady wants to make it two.” He nudged the waiter.
They laughed slyly.
The waiter led him to a table in the centre of the room and gave him a large menu. Sam deliberately studied the multitude of listings. “This looks good,” he said at length pointing to the Marcel de la Rochambeau.
“It should look good,” said the waiter. “It’s been in Florida all winter. That’s the manager.”
How they laughed at that!
“Oh, just bring me some corn on the cob and a bottle of wine,” said Sam carelessly.
After the waiter brought his dinner, Sam ate quickly. He was in a hurry to get to the part where he lighted a cigarette. He finished his corn, drained the bottle of wine, and put a cigarette between his lips. Slowly, as though it were an object of considerable weight, he lifted the cigarette lighter to the level of the cigarette. He pressed a cunning mechanism and a long flame shot forth. He inserted the tip of his cigarette into the flame and puffed languorously. Then holding the lighter by its base so that almost the whole of it was visible, he carefully lowered it to his pocket.
AS SOON AS the lighter was back in his pocket, he felt a faint tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw a woman standing behind him. She was dressed in a fashionable gown. In her hand was a small evening bag that bulged unnaturally. Her face was curiously pale; even her eyes were pale. If a single adjective could describe her, it was “lifeless.”
“I couldn’t help noticing your cigarette lighter,” she said in a flat, unaccented voice. “May I see it?”
“Sure, sure,” said Sam cordially. “Sit down, Miss.”
With a breathed thank you she sat and briefly examined the proffered lighter. “Isn’t it handsome?” she said, but her voice did not rise in interrogation.
Suddenly she leaned closer to him, her lips scarcely three inches from his cheek. “Hochartig is here,” she said, her lips barely moving. “I had to tell you.”
She rose and left silently.
“Nuts,” said Sam. “She’s nuts.”
“Nuts like a fox, brother,” said the waiter, suddenly appearing behind him. “Don’t try to leave. He’s seen you.” The waiter moved on.
A stocky man in impeccable evening clothes approached Sam’s table. His face was curved in smiles, but his eyes were hard. “What’s the good word?” he said to Sam.
“Save your money,” replied Sam genially.
The stocky man sat down. He called the waiter over. “Two sloe gins straight,” he said. “And buy yourself one.”
“No!” cried the waiter, his face twisting in terror. “No!”
“You got it right,” said the stocky man.
The waiter left, but not in the direction of the bar.
“Nice place,” said Sam conversationally.
“When the flax hits the tracks, get your sacks,” replied the stocky man noncommittally. He was looking at the waiter’s retreating back. Then he turned to Sam and smiled.
Sam continued. “Of course, their prices ain’t exactly what you would call cheap, but when you come to a place like this, you got to expect. After all, overhead, things like that, it adds up.”
The stocky man frowned.
“Well,” said Sam, “I guess I’ll be moving along. Got to get up early tomorrow. Another day, another dollar, you know.” He looked around for the waiter.
“It’s mine,” said the stocky man putting his hand over the check. “The wren met the hen in the glen,” he added.
“Much obliged, friend,” said Sam.
He walked toward the door. Two tall men built like middleweight boxers got up from tables on each side of the room. They were dressed in evening clothes in which, it was obvious, they were not accustomed to dress. Lightly, swiftly, they walked toward the door.
Sam and the two men reached the door at the same instant. One stood on each side of him. At the same split second, each dealt Sam a precise blow on the temple. Sam toppled down the flight of stairs leading to the street. The two men walked leisurely down the stairs.
“Quickly, in the car,” said the woman who had spoken to Sam upstairs. Her voice was still flat, toneless. With surprising strength she lifted Sam to his feet and pushed him into the open door of a black sedan waiting at the curb.
The two men on the stairs broke into a run. They reached the sidewalk as the car was pulling out. With swift, certain motions they drew guns from shoulder holsters and fired at the disappearing car, heedless of a nearby policeman who stood with arms akimbo, his very posture, if they had noticed, spelling disapproval.
Half dazed, Sam collected himself in the back seat of the sedan. The car was moving smoothly through the downtown district and presently turned into a trunk highway leading out of the city. The driver increased his speed as he left the city’s traffic behind. Sam leaned forward and tapped the driver on the medulla oblongata. The driver paid him no heed. “Hey,” said Sam. The driver looked resolutely ahead. Sam settled back in the seat and killed some time making a cat’s cradle out of a spool of No. 4 white silk thread he had filched from the shop that morning.
IT SEEMED to Sam that an hour had gone by when the car swerved suddenly off the highway to a side road. This road had a black macadam surface. “Macadam is named after its inventor, a Scot named McAdam,” said Sam to the driver.
The driver accepted the information calmly.
After a short drive they came to an estate surrounded by a twelve-foot wrought-iron fence. Four hooded figures who had been standing in the gateway intoning a Gregorian chant made way as the car turned in. The driver half turned his head and spoke for the first time. “They pick the damnedest places to practice,” he said. Sam didn’t answer. “The hell with him,” he said to himself. “He ain’t the only one can put on the clam act.”
The car stopped in front of the portico of a high brick house. The driver got out and ran with a curious shambling trot behind the hedge. Sam finished his cat’s cradle, got out of the car, and walked up on the porch. He tried the door. It was open. “Anybody home?” he called.
“Come in,” boomed a voice within.
Sam walked down the dark hall to a lighted doorway. Sitting at a table in a small green room were the woman from the Widgeon Room and a tall white-haired man with a lozenge-shaped scar on his forehead. They were playing rap rummy. Sam saw that the woman’s eyes were red with recent crying. She left as Sam entered the room.
The white-haired man approached Sam and with a quick downward lunge, clapped manacles around his ankles.
“There’s a fox in a box at the docks,” he said resonantly.
“This place must have cost you a nice piece of change,” said Sam.
“So be it,” said the scarred man in his amazingly deep voice.
He clapped his hands. Three laconic Eurasians came in and burned the soles of Sam’s feet for a spell. The scarred man dismissed them.
“Pickin’ chickens is the dickens,” he said.
“I heard if you soak ’em in hot water first—” Sam suggested.
“Hot water. Yes,” mused the scarred man running his fingers thoughtfully over his lozenge-shaped scar. He left abruptly.
The woman appeared from behind a portiere and held a chloroformed cloth over Sam’s face.
When he woke, he was on the steps of his flat. He wearily trudged to his third-floor-back dwelling and let himself in with his latchkey. He pulled down his Murphy bed. Lucky for him, the cobra in his bed had fallen asleep.
Sam hastily left his room. He walked rapidly down the street, to where the street ended on the bank of a river. He pulled the cigarette lighter from his pocket and flung it into the water. The ripples shimmered in the moonlight for a few moments; then the water was quiet. Sam turned and walked away.
“There!” he said, dusting his palms. “I’m better off without the bloody thing.” ★
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