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Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
January, 1975

 

THE MAN WHO READ GEORGES SIMENON

A NEW "Man Who" story by

WILLIAM BRITTAIN

 
"Art imitates Nature" was first said more than 300 years ago. It was probably true then, is probably true now. But there are circumstances in which Nature imitates Art. Case in point: Barney was an Inspector Maigret fan. He read every Simenon-Maigret book he could lay his hands on. So, naturally, when the right circumstances turned up, Barney, standing in for Nature, made like Maigret, standing in for Art ...

 

With a hiss of air from its brakes the gigantic tractor-trailer rig with LINTEN VAN LINES emblazoned across each side in brilliant orange came to a stop at the edge of the narrow road. The driver was a hulk of a man whose lumpy, battered face resembled a culturally deprived beanbag. He took a last drag on his cigarette, then threw the butt out the window.

"I think this is the place, Barney," he said. "Only I don't see no house. Just that fancy sign with Bannering's name on it on the post next to the driveway."

His companion, short and wiry, closed the book he had been reading. He brushed a lock of flaming red hair back into place and regarded the driver through watery blue eyes.

"You ain't gonna see no houses along this stretch, Harold," he said. "This here's rich people country. And rich people build their houses back from the road so's they don't have to watch the traffic go by. Just go on up the driveway there and lemme get back to my reading."

There was a grinding of gears as Harold shifted into low. "Barney," he said, revving the motor, "how come you're always readin' them books when you ain't driving? I mean the guys on the other runs talk about girls and sports and things, but all you do when I'm at the wheel is read them dumb books."

Barney looked at the cover of the book as if seeing it for the first time. "This book ain't dumb," he replied. "It's about a very smart cookie. A detective. Maigret's his moniker."

"Maigret, huh? That's a funny name, especially for a detective."

"He's a Frenchman, stupid. And he's really got brains. 'Course I feel sorry for him in some of the stories. His feet are always hurting, or he gets wet from standing in the rain. Not like some of these detectives in books who act like they're Superman. But he sure does know what makes people tick. He solves a lot of his crimes more by knowing how people act than from putting a lot of clues together."

"A lot of his crimes?" Harold glanced at Barney. "How many books are there about this guy?"

"I dunno. I've read a couple dozen of 'em already. I figure if you do your share of the driving I ought to be finished with this one by the time we dump this load and make the trip back to Jersey. It's real good. Maigret's Boyhood Friend, it's called. Y'know, Maigret's the only detective I heard of who ever was a kid. All the rest of 'em— "

"There's the house," Harold interrupted. "Looks like a castle through the trees, don't it?"

"Yeah. I wonder what you have to do to get the bread to buy a place like that." Barney closed the book and put it on the sleeping compartment behind the seat.

Harold parked the rig expertly so that its rear doors were next to the marble steps of the house. "I'll go see if this Lightfoot Larry guy we're supposed to meet is around," said Barney, opening the door and climbing down. "If not, we're gonna have to take the load back, because he's holding the only key to the padlock on the trailer doors."

He went up the steps and pressed the doorbell. He could hear the chimes ringing inside. Moments later the door was opened by a man with an athlete's wide shoulders and narrow hips. The man wore a green corduroy jacket with large pockets and tight brown trousers; the legs of the trousers were tucked into oversize bright red cowboy boots onto which had been stitched pieces of colored leather — irregular shapes of yellow and orange, turquoise green, and electric blue — to form a brilliant design all over the sides of the boots.

Expensive, thought Barney. Just like everything else about this place.

"You gotta be Lightfoot Larry Schofield," Barney said aloud. "Mr. Bannering said I'd be able to recognize you because of the cowboy boots."

"That's me," said the man. "I just got here a little while ago myself. The bus was late, and then I couldn't find a taxi from town. Had to walk the whole way — almost two miles."

"Things are tough all over," shrugged Barney. He looked curiously at Schofield's left jacket-pocket. "You packin' a rod?" he asked curiously.

"Of course I am. That truck of yours contains the entire Maurice Bannering art collection. When Mr. Bannering bought this place he asked me to come on ahead to see that it got here safely and that nothing happened to it. Suppose somebody broke in here after the objects were delivered? My orders are to protect these things until Mr. Bannering arrives, and that's just what I intend to do."

"Okay, Schofield, okay," said Barney, holding up his hands in a gesture of peace. "Keep your shirt on. We're bonded drivers, and this load is insured to the hilt. We're just making a delivery. We don't plan on stealin' anything. Now how about coming out and unlocking the rig for us?"

Schofield reached into a pocket and brought out a key which he tossed to Barney. "Here, do it yourselves. You guys were hired to unload those things, not me. And wipe your shoes before you come inside. The whole house has just had very expensive carpeting laid down, and I don't want to see your dirty footprints on it when you're finished."

Barney returned to the rig and motioned Harold to get out. "That Schofield's a real charmer," he said, unsnapping the heavy padlock on the rear doors. 'Wipe your shoes,' he says to me, like I ain't never carted nothing into nobody's house before. Ah, well, maybe he's just nervous because he's responsible for all them high-priced pictures and statues and junk we brought."

On his first trip into the house Harold carried a flat object, carefully crated. As he entered, the crate banged loudly against the side of the doorway.

"You imbecile!" Schofield yelled. "Unpack that thing so I can see if there's any damage."

Harold brought a hammer from the toolbox under the seat and with a screeching of nails and rustling of excelsior released the object from its wooden case.

"See, it ain't even scratched," said Harold. "Besides, it's just a picture. Not very good, at that. A line here and a blotch of color there. My kid makes better ones all the time."

"That's a genuine Miro," replied Schofield. "And if it had been harmed, you'd have spent the rest of your life paying for it. Now please be more careful. The jade pieces in particular are very fragile."

The next item, a large painting, was brought in without incident, Barney and Harold carrying it between them. "Put the larger things in there," said Schofield, pointing toward a room off the magnificent entrance hall. "The painter has been working in there, so don't kick over any of his cans."

Mumbling unprintables under his breath, Barney led Harold into the indicated room. They set the crate gently on the floor and flexed aching fingers.

"Heavy," said Harold.

"Yeah." Barney considered the room's opposite wall in front of which lay a wild array of dropcloths, paint cans, and stained rags. "Hey, look. Don't that seem funny to you?"

"Nah, I kind of like yellow."

"No, I mean the way the painter's doin' it. He quit right in the middle of the wall."

Schofield appeared in the doorway. "You two are being paid to unload that truck outside," he said. "Not comment on the décor."

"If I was Mr. Bannering I'd get somebody else to do this room," said Barney. "Any painter worth his salt quits at a corner or an edge somewhere. As it is, when he starts again you'll have a lap mark where the new paint dries over the stuff already on the wall."

"That's none of your business. Just get back to unloading the truck."

"Okay. But when Mr. Bannering gets here, you tell him Barney Joplin says he's bein' gypped on the paint job."

As they left the room, Harold padded across the thick carpeting with exaggerated steps, like a child feeling sand underfoot for the first time. "Geez, it's like walkin' on sponges," he said with a broad smile. "How much do you suppose it cost to have the whole house done this way, Barney?"

"You couldn't afford it," was the answer. "This is rich people carpet. C'mon, let's get going."

For the next two hours the men unloaded the truck, with Schofield standing just inside the doorway with a clipboard full of papers, checking each crate as it passed into the house. Finally the trailer, as large as a small house, was empty.

"I'll sign the delivery slip now," said Schofield to a perspiring Barney. "Then you two can be on your way."

"Now just a second," said Barney. "Maybe you don't know it, but me and Harold have been working damn hard to get this stuff in here. And you weren't much help, just hanging around inside with a wad of papers all the time. Would it break your heart to give us a beer and let us sit in a soft chair for a few minutes and grab a rest?" He looked about the room, which was empty except for the crates from the truck.

"I'll even settle for lying down on that nice soft rug, seein' as the furniture ain't arrived yet," he concluded.

"Well, I— " Schofield paused, then shrugged. "I can't do anything about the beer," he said finally. "There's none in the house. However, there's some odd furniture in the den that the previous owner left. You can rest there, I suppose. But I'll have to keep an eye on you."

"Fine. C'mon, Harold. The beer can wait until we get back on the road."

Schofield led them to the den where Harold flopped down onto an old leather couch and Barney took an easy chair, stretching his feet out with a groan of contentment. Schofield himself sat bolt upright in an upholstered chair large enough to have been a throne. Barney kicked a footstool toward him, but Schofield ignored it.

"What kind of training do you need before somebody like Bannering hires you to guard his stuff?" asked Barney.

"Let's just say I could kill you with my bare hands with no effort at all," answered Schofield. "And if your partner tried anything, he'd be dead with a bullet between the eyes before he got his feet off the couch and onto the floor."

"Yeah, Mr. Bannering told us you weren't anybody to mess around with," said Barney. "Well, we ain't gonna try and steal any of his precious pictures and stuff. So relax, Mr. Schofield.. Put your feet up and let's get a closer look at them cowboy boots you always wear."

Schofield shook his head, keeping his feet planted firmly on the floor.

"Barney, maybe we oughta get goin'," said Harold. "If we want to make Jersey by tomorrow night, we can't sit around here too much longer."

"Just a little while more," said Barney. "Y'know, I'm beginnin' to feel just the way Maigret does in the stories."

"Maigret? Who's that?" asked Schofield.

"He's an Inspector with the Paris police," answered Barney. "A guy named Georges Simenon writes books about him. I started readin' them because — well, they were about France and all. The Bronx ain't too exotic a place to come from, if you know what I mean."

"But you said you were beginning to feel like him," said Harold. "What did you mean by that?"

"Well, Maigret ain't always so sure that what seems to have happened in a crime is what really did happen. All you have to do is read Maigret Hesitates or Maigret's Mistake to see that. But I've got a hunch we'd be making a bad mistake by leaving this house right now."

"Don't worry," said Schofield. I'm capable of guarding this place until Mr. Bannering and his staff arrive."

"I'll bet you are. Man, I wish you'd relax, Mr. Schofield. You ain't shifted position since we sat down here."

"I'd be happy to see you to the door any time you say. Or do you insist on continuing with this Maigret business?"

"Yeah, I think I will," said Barney, crossing his legs. He reached into a box next to his chair and removed a glass paperweight in which a glittering stone was embedded. "Did I ever tell you I used to pitch on a baseball team, Mr. Schofield? Oh, it was only semi-pro, but I was good, real good. Fact is, I think I could bounce this thing off your noggin before you made the first move toward that gun in your jacket pocket. Harold, go over and take that thing away from him before it goes off and hurts somebody."

Harold hauled himself up from the sofa, gave Barney one odd glance, then walked to Schofield's chair. He half expected Schofield to strike out at him, but the man remained: still, his eyes flashing angrily. Gingerly Harold removed the .38 revolver.

"Okay, Harold, now sit down and keep that thing aimed at him. I don't think Mr. Schofield here is as good at fighting as he says he is, but let's not take any chances. I wouldn't get out of that chair if I was you, Mr. Schofield. Harold is very nervous around guns and there's no tellin' what he'd do if you was to get him excited."

"I have no intention of moving," said Schofield. "If you're going to steal the pictures, go ahead. Although why you didn't just drive off when you had them in the truck, I — "

"Come off it, Schofield. We ain't gonna steal nothing. We was just talkie' about Inspector Maigret, remember?"

"Well, what about him?"

"I was sayin' to Harold earlier, Maigret don't spend all his time going around scraping clues into little envelopes the way Sherlock Holmes and them other detectives do. He understands people and the way they think and feel. That's the way he solves his crimes. Like now, Mr. Schofield, the sweat's pouring out of you like a fountain. So I know you're scared. See what I mean? Why in Maigret and the Burglar's Wife there's a part where— "

"Cut the fancy stuff. You'd be scared too, with a pistol pointed at you. And if you're not after the paintings, would you mind telling me what's all this talk about crimes and detectives?"

"Okay. Two days ago Maurice Bannering talked to us personally before he shipped them pictures and things. He told us we'd be met here by a man he called Lightfoot Larry Schofield. Said we'd know him at a glance because he'd be wearing wild-looking cowboy boots. They were kind of his trademark."

"Well, that's me. So what?"

"The thing is, he never showed us a photograph of Lightfoot Larry. All we had to go on was the boots."

"Look, give me a few days and I'll send you a hundred photographs. All autographed."

"But if I'm right in what I'm thinking, you'd be signing the wrong name even if you was to make good on the pictures. Y'see, I dunno who you are. But the one person I think you're not is Lightfoot Larry Schofield."

Harold almost dropped the pistol. "Hey, Barney," he said. "You gone nuts or something?"

"I don't think so, Harold. What about his name? 'Lightfoot Larry.' But your feet are about as big as a couple of rowboats, Mr. Schofield or whoever you are. You don't look like no lightfoot to me."

"The name 'Lightfoot' has to do with my boots, not my feet. Bright leather — therefore Lightfoot."

"Y'know, you're pretty clever," said Barney. "I never thought of that. But then there's the paint job that's being done in the other room."

"Well, what about it?"

"No real painter who knew his business would stop in the middle of the wall that way. But let's say it wasn't a painter, but somebody who wanted to get into this house while the real Lightfoot Larry was here. One man alone couldn't force his way in. Schofield, from what Mr. Bannering said, would have broken him in two. But if a 'painter' showed up at the door, complete with buckets and dropcloths — in a house that the owner hadn't even moved into yet — Schofield would let him in without a suspicion in the world. The man would have to start painting, of course, to make his disguise look real. But he'd stop painting wherever he was when he had his first chance to hit Schofield over the head when he wasn't looking.

"Now, if things happened that way, it wouldn't be too hard for the 'painter' to tie up the real Schofield and stash him in a closet somewhere. Then he could put on Schofield's clothing, and when us dumb drivers came with the paintings, he could see 'em all delivered and then, when the truck had left, he'd have all the time in the world to get them all out of here."

"I find your theory absolutely ridiculous," came the reply. "So now, to prove myself innocent, I suppose you want me either to let you search the whole house for the man I'm supposed to be impersonating or else allow you to hold me at gunpoint for a couple of days until Mr. Bannering arrives from halfway across the country to identify me. No way, Mr. Barney Joplin You tell your friend there to give me my gun and get the hell out of here, otherwise I'm going to call the police right now and have a good laugh while they cart you off to the loony farm."

Barney shook his head "We're probably way out of line, treating you this way, Mr. Schofield. And if I'm wrong about what I said, I wouldn't blame you for being plenty sore. But me and Maigret we're great ones for wondering why people act in a certain way. Like right now, I'm wondering why you don't move around much. You don't cross your legs or put your feet up on a stool or nothin'. You sit there like there was a poker up your back even though that easy chair just begs to be snuggled in. And you was acting that way even before Harold took your gun, so he ain't the reason. It must be somethin' else, huh?"

"Why, I — "

"Y'see, it seems to me that if you was to cook up this little scheme, the one thing of the real Lightfoot Larry Schofield you couldn't wear would be them boots. There couldn't be too many men around with feet as big as yours. You'd have to buy a pair just like his, with all that fancy stitchin', to make your plan work. Oh, it wouldn't have been hard to smuggle 'em in under the painting equipment and put 'em on after you slugged the real Schofield.

"But if the boots was brand-new — bought and kept for just this occasion — the only place you'd have walked in 'em would be on the carpets inside this house. You didn't even go outside to help us open the truck. So the boots would still have shiny leather on the bottoms. On the other hand, if you're really Schofield, and you walked a couple of miles out here from town like you said, the soles of the boots would be scraped and scuffed up some.

"So there you are, Mr. Schofield or whoever. I think you've kept the bottoms of the boots flat on the carpet so we wouldn't get a look at 'em and see how shiny they are. If you'd put your feet up on the stool or even crossed your legs you'd have given your whole game away. So we haven't got to wait any time at all to see whether you're the real McCoy or not. Just put your feet up on the footstool here while we take a gander at the boot bottoms. If they're scuffed, we'll be on our way. But if they're shiny you've got quite a bit of explainin' to do."

Barney shoved the footstool in front of the seated man. "Up with the feet," he said. "Harold, if he makes a false move, shoot him anywhere you think it'll do the most good."

Slowly, first one boot and then the other were raised and settled on the footstool. Harold sat up straighter and blinked twice.

He could almost see his own reflection in the gleaming boot soles.

Several hours and many telephone calls later the police had identified the fake Schofield as Willie Needleman, a former employee of Bannerman's who had been dismissed for dipping into the petty-cash fund. They found the real Schofield trussed up in a closet on the second floor. Two policemen were left to guard the art treasures until Bannerman could make his own arrangements for protecting them. And the tractor-trailer rig was cruising back toward New Jersey with Harold at the wheel.

From time to time he glanced at Barney, who was again reading Maigret's adventures with rapt concentration. But now Barney was making motions with his free hand which, to say the least, were puzzling.

In spite of the fact that Barney was bare-headed and had nothing in his mouth, he seemed to be adjusting a hat and curving his fingers around the bowl of a pipe.

©1974 by William Brittain.

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