- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
I think it was in Tierra del Fuego that I first began my search for the dreaded tsetse fly.
A pair of Amish men with well-trimmed beards, black suits and hats, engaged in conversation, came around the corner toward the bank. They were followed by a thin woman of no clear age, wearing a plain white Mother Hubbard dress and a tiny white bonnet. A boy and girl who looked like twins trailed the woman. The girl was dressed like the woman. The boy wore breeches, a long-sleeved white shirt, and suspenders. Both children appeared to be about ten.
I glanced at W. C. Fields, who sat beside me in the backseat of his Cadillac. He was sipping a drink from his built-in bar—plenty of gin, ample vermouth, large jar of olives, and box of toothpicks the size of a cigar box. He was also squinting in the general direction of the Amish family, which now entered the bank.
Fields was over sixty and wore what he described as a "foolproof disguise," a gray jacket and trousers, a white shirt with a large bow tie, and a cheap Hitler-style mustache clipped to his nose, which had the effect of making the already admirably sized appendage look even larger.
"Might be him," said Fields, pointing toward the bank. "Disguised as a Mormon."
"They're Amish," I corrected.
We were in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was April the first, 1943, a Thursday. The war was going well. The day before, U.S. flying fortresses had bombed the harbor and shipbuilding area of Rotterdam, the chief port of call for German coastal convoys. It was the ninth March raid on the Axis in Europe. Down Africa way, the English Eighth Army, under General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, continued to advance against Rommel in Tunisia. In addition, six Axis ships were sunk in the Mediterranean by British subs. Elmer Davis, director of war information, issued a warning against over-optimism, but predicted Rommel's defeat in time for an invasion of Europe before 1944. On the home front, a musical called Oklahoma had opened. It starred Alfred Drake, Celeste Holm, and Howard Da Silva. On the airplane to Philadelphia, Fields had confidently predicted that a musical about a state, and one with a dwindled population and almost impossible to find on the map, was doomed to failure within the week.
Now Fields was as certain of the people who had entered the bank.
"Of course they're Amish," Fields retorted, disgusted at my ignorance. "Amish Mormons, a rare sect, shunned by most in this community, living quiet lives of confusion and conviction. I have a distinct fondness for real Amish."
"I believe you mean Mennonites," Gunther corrected. It was a serious mistake on Gunther's part.
Fields took a long sip from his martini glass and placed it on the bar in the back of the Cadillac. I had flown with Fields from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Fields had hired me to help him recover money that he had stashed away in various bank accounts all over the country, a practice he had engaged in for over forty years. He estimated that he had over a million dollars "all over the place," plus a few hundred thousand in Europe, even fifty thousand in German banks, "in case the little bastards win," he explained.
Haggling with Fields over my fee had almost taken enough out of me to send me to the loony bin. When I brought this up, he had seriously suggested the sanitarium that he, himself, visited frequently.
"Maybe we'll check in together," he said. "After we complete our sojourn."
Fields's car had been driven willingly across country by my friend Gunther Wherthman, a Swiss midget—or "little person," as he preferred to call himself—who made a comfortable living as a translator of several dozen languages. Gunther was about a yard high. He always dressed impeccably in three-piece suits and drove quickly and with expertise.
After a few moments of suspicion, Fields had reluctantly taken a liking to Gunther, but insisted that whatever Gunther was paid would come out of my salary. The opportunity for the trip had come just as Gunther was about to drive off someplace on his own to brood for a few weeks or months over a lost love who had just received her graduate degree in music from San Francisco State and would soon be taking a teaching job in Vermont. He was also doing his best to avoid an aggressive film publicist who had a thing for very small men. Both women were more than two feet taller than Gunther, but that had not stopped him. He had pursued both relationships with courtly dignity.
The pedals on Fields's car had to be built up and a special wooden driver's seat inserted, both Gunther's, both removable. Fields had viewed Gunther with mistrust from the beginning of the case.
"The midget sounds like a Nazi," Fields had whispered to me when the two first met in Fields's home on DeMille Drive in Los Angeles the week before.
Gunther had heard the comment but chose to act as if he had not.
"Gunther's Swiss," I'd said. "Great driver. Used to be in the circus. He was in The Wizard of Oz."
"I should have been the wizard," Fields had said. "Was up for the part. Had it all wrapped up. Forget what the problem was. Frank Morgan stole the picture. Think I was in that sanitarium we discussed earlier." Now he said, "Send the midget into the bank."
There was a plate-glass window between the driver's seat and the backseat of the car. It was, supposedly, soundproof or close to it. Fields could communicate with Gunther, or whoever was driving, with a microphone that hung on a hook right next to the built-in bar.
"You heard me, Peters. Send in the midget. He can't tell a Mormon from a Mennonite, but maybe he can spot a thief. One of those two Amish may have been in disguise."
"Don't you think Gunther will be a little ... conspicuous?" I asked.
"Nonsense," said Fields, taking another sip. "The Amish are a respectable lot. Probably invite him home for dinner and a discussion of sexual misconduct among Methodists in the circus."
I failed to understand the logic, but I was learning not to question it. Once a conversation with Fields was begun, its sense and direction were almost impossible to keep up with.
"I will go," said Gunther from the driver's seat when I slid back the glass window and relayed Fields's order. He opened the door and got out, straightening his jacket and brushing back his hair.
"Clean little fella," said Fields with admiration. "Still not convinced he's not a Nazi. Someday I'll tell you about the time I was in search of the dreaded tsetse fly in Tierra del Fuego, where I was thwarted in my scientific endeavor by a Nazi who looked suspiciously like Goebbels."
Gunther crossed the street. A few people looked in his direction. Fields and I watched him enter the bank.
"When I was a lad," Fields said, "back in Philadelphia, I had a set-to with my father when I was eleven. He hit me in the head with a rake. I dropped a crate on his head. Left home. Never went back. Lived in a hole in the ground for a while, then a loft over a blacksmith shop. Finally got a job cleaning up at a bar with a pool table. Slept in the men's room for a while and then on the pool table. Made a more-than-fair living by the time I was twelve, hustling on that table and splitting the take with the management. At night I taught myself to juggle billiard balls, balance pool cues, and do tricks with empty cigar boxes and hats people had been too soused to remember to take home.
"There were early times on the open road when I set out to make my fortune when I came through this part of the state. Amish were always good for a meal and they never tried to Christianize me."
One of the Amish men, along with the woman and two children, came out of the bank.
"Where's the other guy?" asked Fields, putting down his martini glass.
He was halfway out of the car before I could say something to slow him down. Traffic was light, a few cars, a few Amish horse and buggies. Some people on the sidewalks.
I went after Fields, who shooed off oncoming traffic with his bamboo walking stick as he crossed the street. He stood back to let a young woman with a small child come out of the bank and reached up to tip his hat to her. The woman tried to ignore the strange but somehow familiar figure with the large nose in the bizarre disguise, but the boy, who was no more than four, said, "Mommy, why does that man have such a big nose and a toy mustache like Teddy Sykes?"
The mother tugged the kid down the street, but he looked back over his shoulder at Fields.
"Highlight of my film career was when I got to kick Baby LeRoy twice in the ass when we were doing It's a Gift!" said Fields, pausing, a large smile on his face.
I was about to say something about being careful, when Fields suddenly trotted into the bank. I followed. There were only a few customers and the bank was small. Two teller windows on the left, a high wooden desk in the center of the room for customers to fill out their deposit or withdrawal forms, and a wooden railing on the right, behind which were four desks, all but one inhabited by women. Behind the desks were three doors: two were for offices, one was a steel vault with an impressive lock in the middle.
"Godfrey Daniel," Fields hissed. "He's absconded. And he's stolen your midget."
"Mr. Fields," I said, looking around, not knowing what to say when I saw no Gunther and no Amish man. "It might be a good idea to follow this up calmly."
Fields ignored me and moved to the wooden railing on the right, addressing the lone, business-suited, elderly man at the nearest desk.
"Excuse me," Fields said, pointing his bamboo cane at the man.
The man looked up, startled at the sight before him.
"What's your name?" Fields demanded as I looked around for Gunther.
"Titus Trebblecock," the old man said. "Can I help you?"
"Trebblecock," Fields said. "You have a fine name. Do your powers of observation match your de plume?"
"I don't see the correlation between—" the confused Trebblecock began, but Fields cut him off with a wave of his cane.
"You see a midget and a man disguised as an Amish walk in here a minute ago?"
"Disguised as ..." Trebblecock began again in confusion.
The women at the other desks had stopped working and were watching the drama.
"Fake beard, clothes," Fields explained. "Came in here to steal my money."
"Your money?" asked Trebblecock.
"Thirty years ago, or was it forty," said Fields, "I opened an account in this bank under the name of Otis J. Raisincluster. Ten thousand dollars. Disguised bastard just came in here after my money."
"I'm sure, Mr. Raisinclasner—" the man began.
"Cluster," Fields corrected. "Raisincluster. Why would I make up a name like Raisinclasner. Any man named Titus Trebblecock should make a point of knowing the proper pronunciation of his patrons names."
"You wish to make a withdrawal?" the man asked nervously, looking at Fields's fake mustache.
"Every penny," he said.
"You have a bankbook?"
"Hundreds of them," said Fields. "Desktop full at home. But some thieving, blaspheming amateur stole about half of them and plans to go around the country cashing in."
"I'm a bit confused," said the man, looking around in embarrassment.
"A bit?" said Fields. "I'd say you show every sign of either being sober or having a recurring bout of tremors from the bite of a dreaded tsetse fly."
"Mr. Fields," I said, touching his arm.
He brushed me away, and I gave up and went in search of Gunther. One of the tellers, an older woman who was watching Fields across the room through the bars of her cage, had no customers. I moved to her and asked if she'd seen a midget come in.
"Yes," she said, not taking her eyes off Fields and Trebblecock. "Followed an Amish gentleman back to the rest rooms."
She pointed to the rear of the bank where there was a door for ladies and another for gentlemen. I ran to the men's room. The door was locked. I knocked.
"Gunther?" I whispered.
No answer. I called again, louder. "Gunther."
This time I thought I heard a groan. I hurried back to the teller. "You have a key for the men's room?"
"Certainly not," she said. "It locks from the inside for privacy but not the outside."
"Is there a window in there?"
"Yes," she said.
I glanced across the room. Fields was whispering loud enough for everyone in the bank to hear.
"I want this kept secret," he said. "Spies everywhere. One lives across the street from me. Walks around at night in a Nazi helmet and claims to be Cecil B. DeMille, Air Raid Warden. The Amish man who claimed to be me, which I assume he did, was he a Jap?"
Fields was right in Titus Trebblecock's face now, demanding satisfaction. I ran out the front door and made a dash around the corner onto another street. Behind the bank was a wide alley. I found the bathroom window. The window was open but too high for me to look inside. I found a trash can and moved it under the open window. The can felt empty and I wobbled. I almost crashed to the pavement as I climbed up on it and looked into the men's room. The can began to give way under me. I went through the window headfirst and landed on Gunther, who sat on the closed toilet seat. We tumbled to the floor. My head missed the sink by a few inches.
Gunther didn't look his best. His suit was disheveled and there was a dazed look in his eyes as if he were just waking up from a confusing dream.
"I'm sorry I fell on you," I said.
Gunther said something in a language I didn't understand.
"English, Gunther," I said.
"I'm sorry," he said, sitting up and holding the back of his head with his right hand. "He struck me on the head with something. The Amish. Mr. Fields was right. The Amish made a withdrawal, a big one. I got close enough to see that his beard wasn't real. It was good, but I've been in show business long enough to know. He put the money in a small black bag and went into the men's room. I attempted to follow him. He was waiting for me inside and hit me on the head, perhaps with the bag. That's all I am able to remember. I think I heard the door lock and then you fell on top of me."
"You need a doctor," I said.
"Not necessary," Gunther answered, standing and examining himself in the mirror. He adjusted his jacket and vest, produced a small comb from his pocket and used it. I could see the rise of a bump under his dark hair, but it wasn't bleeding.
"Come out of there," Fields suddenly shouted from outside the door. "I know you're in there and I intend to beat you into a state of permanent discombobulation."
I started to pick myself up and made an unpleasant discovery: my chronic backache had returned. I had earned it years earlier when a large Negro fan had tried to get too close to Mickey Rooney at a movie premiere. I was supposed to be protecting Rooney. I suppose I did, but the bear hug I got from the big Negro had done something to my back that sent me to bed for a week and came back every time I did dumb things like falling through windows. I managed to get up and open the door. Fields, Trebblecock, and another older man in a suit and pincenez glasses stood looking at us.
"Son of a bitch got my money," said Fields.
"He had a bankbook," said the man in the glasses apologetically.
"So does Hitler," Fields responded.
"And he signed his name. The match is nearly exact."
"Worthless," said Fields. "Any man who can't forge the signature of another has had a misspent youth." He pointed to the open window with his cane and went on. "What kind of a bank is this? Windows without bars."
"We have an alarm system that goes on at night," said the confused Trebblecock.
Fields twitched his fake mustache and shook his head.
"But in the light of day a fraud, a miscreant, a double-dealer, a cad and a thief can simply take my money and escape through a toilet window."
"I don't know what to say," said the man with the pince-nez. "Trebblecock, call the police."
"You don't have a bank dick?" asked Fields.
"Yes," said the man softly, "but Mr. Demeringthal phoned in ill this morning, and I can't see that his presence would have had any effect in this situation."
"Easy for you to say. It's not your money." Fields looked down at Gunther. "Bopped you one, did he?"
"I was taken by surprise," said Gunther. "It will not occur again."
"I admire your zeal if not your pugilistic prowess, but the fault was mine," said Fields. "Never send in a midget to do the job of a sumo wrestler. Unfortunately, we don't have a sumo wrestler, and they're all Japs anyway. Well, Peters, what now? Leap through the window? Run thither and yon in search of the thief? He can't have gotten far."
Excerpted from A Fatal Glass of Beer by Stuart M. Kaminsky. Copyright © 1997 Stuart M. Kaminsky. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.