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From THE KLEINERT CASE
Kleinert of Snoddlesdon
He gazed at the brass plate beside the door while he got his breath back, for, although hardly entitled to be called a middle-aged man, he was not in good condition, and mountaineering up the stone staircase—it had felt like that by the time he faced the brass plate—to the third floor of number thirty-seven, Little Oakfield Street, after turning off from the Haymarket and finding at his destination that there was no lift in the Georgian building, had taxed his wind as well as his leg-muscles. Gold-rimmed spectacles assisted his over-prominent greenish-grey eyes to take in the inscription on the plate: his forehead inclined more to the Neanderthal type than to the genus homo sapiens, although that former type is said to be extinct; his nose was decidedly Roman, over a partly indecisive and partly cruel mouth, which was to some extent camouflaged by a nicotine-stained yellow moustache: that is to say, the moustache was nicotine-stained in the middle and yellow as regards its lip-corner hinterlands, where it straggled untidily; and he had a receding chin of the kind usually but erroneously described as weak.
Hours: 10 to 5 Saturdays: 10 to 12.30
said the brass plate. Under it was tacked a visiting card, reversed to display its blank side, on which had been neatly written in ink—“Initial Consultation—Two Guineas,” a reminder at which the now-not-so-breathless caller frowned horribly. Then he took out a handkerchief, removed his soft, brown felt hat, and mopped his unusually-shaped forehead and the bald patch on the top of his skull, an island of pinkness from which waves of dark-brown hair, slightly streaked with grey, receded to surge about his ears and down the back of his neck. For the day was warm for early November, though wet, and the rainproof coat that covered his badly-fitting tweed suit down to his knees was fleece-lined.
Restoring both hat and handkerchief to their places, he tried his breath, and found that it was nearly normal again. Then he thumbed the bell-push beside the brass plate, with the air of one who has determined to take the plunge, even though he have to deposit two guineas before coming up to breathe.
He smiled ingratiatingly at the girl who opened the door. Many people smiled like that at her, mostly without visible result as far as she was concerned. Her deep blue eyes, set in a face of which the features were piquantly irregular, and capable of great expressiveness as were her tempting lips, were now totally unrevealing—it was a poker face that the caller saw—and her eyes were level with his own, though he stood five feet eight. Realising that, as an investment, his smile yielded no interest, he locked it away behind a facade of business-like calm, and tendered a card, on which as she took it the girl read
Mr. Adolph Kleinert
“By appointment. It is eleven o’clock,” he said.
“Yes,” she assented. “Will you come in, Mr. Kleinert?” Observant, as was part of her purpose here, she reflected as she led the way along the corridor that there was a flavour of foreignness about his speech. It did not amount to an accent, but was a mere flavour, as if he had learned English very completely rather than grown up in it. She took him past an open doorway on the right of the corridor which revealed a secretarial desk with comfortable chair and shelves of files on the wall behind the chair (neither he nor any other caller could tell that all but four of those files were empty, or that his rather charming guide spent most of her time in that room, reading novels and other literature in the absence of anything else to do) and mutely invited him to enter the room next door, where the desk was distinctly managerial, the swivel chair behind it and armchair at the side for interviewees luxurious, and the feel of the dark green carpet reminiscent of the ground under a pine forest in its elasticity.
“The principals of the firm are out at present, Mr. Kleinert, I am sorry to say,” the girl told him. “Our Mr. Green, who should have been here, has been summoned to his father’s side. Could you wait a few minutes? I am sure he will be back very soon.”
“I will wait, then, thank you,” said Mr. Kleinert. “I trust it is nothing which will prevent Mr. Green or other principals from undertaking the commission which it is my hope to entrust to him—or them?”
“I am quite unable to say,” she assured him, and again, in his precise and rather stilted speech, noted the flavour of foreignness rather than accent. “If you care to give me particulars, it might save some time. I mean, my position here enables me to determine whether we care to undertake any of the commissions offered to us.”
“In that case—” he bowed as he spoke—“I shall be happy to reveal my object in communicating with the firm and making this appointment to your so-charming and capable self, madam.”
She went to the swivel chair at the desk and seated herself. “Do sit down, then, Mr. Kleinert,” she invited—and, as there was only the one other chair in the room, did not trouble to indicate where he should sit. “You wrote, us I believe, from a place called Snoddlesdon.”
“In Kent.” He put his hat down beside the armchair after seating himself in it—and sinking much lower than he had anticipated.
“On a branch line?” she inquired, with a thought of a riotous comedy that her father still remembered with joy.
“It is on a branch line,” Mr. Kleinert admitted. His tone implied that there was nothing derogatory about being on a branch line, and he would defend Snoddlesdon to the last gasp but one against any such imputation. Possibly to the last gasp of all, if necessary.
“And in what way do you think we could be of use to you?” she pursued, since he showed no sign of stating the object of his call.
“I am troubled—by nothing,” he said, and the normal placidity of his expression—if it were normal—gave place to a look of fear, as if for a time he had been free of a disturbing memory, which now returned to mar his peace. And his hands on the chair-arms clenched to fists.
“In that case,” the girl said quietly, and giving no hint of her belief that she had to deal with one mentally deranged, “I shall be pleased to take the two guineas which the firm invariably charges for an initial consultation, and we will waive a second fee of the kind when you come to tell us you are troubled by something.”
“The two guineas—yes.” He took out a wallet and extracted three notes, which he laid on the desk by leaning forward and reaching up from his sunken luxury. “That is eight shillings change, please. But the nothing is something, madam. It is a—shall we say?—a haunting, a nothing that is a conviction of a theft which will be, but is not yet. A theft of the great work of my life, which shall be done on me before the work is complete. And I seek protection from the theft.”
“Not from the police?” She changed her mind about him before putting the question. He was sane as herself, but obsessed by fear.
He shook his head. “The police? Bah! What shall I tell them? That I fear a theft somewhen, and I do not know when? What will they do? For if I tell them as I tell you it is a nothing, a nothing which is in my mind and is not for any other to see, they will say this bloke is balmy, and if there is a theft we will catch the thief—perhaps! I do not go to the police, for I know that is what they will say.”
She drew a pad of paper toward herself as she sat, and took up a pencil from the massive bronze tray on the desk, but did not write.
“Can you give me any particulars, Mr. Kleinert?” she asked. “Of the sort, I mean, that might in some way justify your belief in this nothing of yours? And tell me exactly what you want us to do, too.”
“It is that your firm shall send some responsible member—not yourself, madam, though if it were normal circumstance it would give me great pleasure to welcome you at Snoddlesdon. Some strong man, responsible and highly intelligent, who shall be all with me—with me all the time, until I have finished my great work and am assured of my reward. That I may have peace in which to finish my great work.”
“You can hire that type of attendant from the corps of commissionaires, Mr. Kleinert,” she said coldly. “I am afraid—”
“Madam, excuse me that I interrupt,” he broke in. “In the summer of the year there was a friend of mine who was in Shropshire, and he tell me of a place called Nightmare Farm, where a Mr. Green who is of the firm of Gees made quiet that which was unquiet. And then I see the advertisement of the firm of Gees, which say the firm will undertake anything from mumps to murder. This nothing of mine, it is not mumps and it is not murder, and it is not anything like that which is said by some people to have been at Nightmare Farm. But it is to me a fear, and I would have someone like that Mr. Green to guard until I finish my great work, to guard me and to guard the work. Else, I think there is to be the theft, and that must not be of so great a work.”
The flavour in his speech that she had noted was now, in his grown and rather excited earnestness, almost an accent. Almost, but not quite. His name bespoke one nationality, but he was too Latin for it, she decided. Or Slavonic, perhaps. She reflected through a long pause.
“What you say alters our attitude,” she remarked at last. “But the question of remuneration remains. Our terms may not appeal to you.”
“That, madam, I had already considered,” he said, with evident relief over having made her change her view of him. “I would suggest a commission. A small initial fee, that your member of the firm may not reject to accept to do what I wish, and then a commission.”
“Commission on what?” she demanded practically.
“On the great work, which I shall sell when it is complete,” he explained. “For I understand, and your member of the firm who shall undertake to do the guarding, he too shall understand—it is for such a one as did the work at Nightmare Farm to guard the great work till it is finished, and me. Until it is sold, finished. And then I can afford the commission, which shall be ample to reward the work.”
“And if you do not sell this—whatever it is?” she suggested.
“Then there is still the initial fee—twenty-five pounds for each month of the work that is for your member of the firm to do. For if I do not sell, it is because he fail, and if he fail the pay is small.”
“And the amount of the commission, Mr. Kleinert?”
“I think it shall be ten per cent, when the great work is sold.”
“Yes, but—” she shook her head impatiently—“ten per cent on—?”
“I think thirty, or perhaps forty thousand pounds,” he told her.
“Ye-es.” She betrayed neither surprise nor disbelief. “And how long will it be before this great work of yours is finished and the sale completed? How long, that is, before you pay the commission?”
“I think perhaps six more weeks. Five, perhaps six more weeks.”
“And you would give us—the firm—an undertaking to pay a commission of ten per cent on whatever sum you realise?”
“But yes, madam. For you see, I am not now rich, but if I obtain thirty perhaps forty thousand pounds for the great work, then ten per cent is to me the bite of the bug—no, of the flea, it should be. And the man I want shall be such a one—the one, perhaps—as him who did what he did at Nightmare Farm, though this I would have him guard from me and from the great work is not in any way like that which he made quiet there. It is quite different, not at all like. Yet it must be such a man that I want, and to him, if he guard so that I make the sale, I pay the ten per cent. Willingly, for it is better to pay ten per cent to receive thirty perhaps forty thousand pounds, than to receive nothing because I do not pay enough to assure perfect guarding. Also, by that way I make him of interest to do the guarding. If I say—‘I give you five hundred pounds to do it’—then he take the five hundred pounds and whistle when the theft is made, for he have his money. This way, he have his money only when I have mine, and so shall he exert himself to the utmost bound, and make the guarding perfect.”
“Yes, it sounds reasonable,” she reflected. The thirty thousand part of it might also be true, but she had her doubts. “And what, Mr. Kleinert, is the nature of this life work of yours?”
“What is your position in this firm of Gees?” he countered.
“I am the firm’s secretary,” she informed him, “but I don’t see that my position has anything to do with what I just asked you.”
“Madam, it has much. I can disclose only so little as is necessary of the identity of my work to a principal of the firm, the one who shall agree to do the work I shall require of him.”
“You will wait to see him? Mr. Green may be back at any time, now.”
“I will go to eat the lunch, and recall again,” he said, consulting a gold watch which he took from his vest pocket. “For as you have so unerringly distinguished, Snoddlesdon is on a branch line, and thus it is—also the railway station is of mileage from where I reside—thus it is that I begin to travel quite early to come at this place to the appointment of eleven o’clock, and now the inner man demands response to his emptiness. At three this afternoon I will return.”
He picked up his hat, and at the third forward lurch succeeded in rising to his feet. Then he pointed to the notes he had put on the desk.
“Of change, madam, eight shillings,” he said. “Also, if the firm of Gees shall see fit to undertake this guarding, shall it not be that the two guineas is of a part of the first month’s pay?”
“It shall not,” she dissented firmly. “This is a consultation fee, Mr. Kleinert. We are consulting specialists, not hire-purchase inquiry agents. If you will come to the other room, I will give you your eight shillings change and a receipt for the consultation fee.”
“Madam,” he said meekly as he followed her out to the corridor, “I bow in acquiescence to your most superior decision.”
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