GEOFFREY AVALON, a patent lawyer by profession, did not often admit to reading light fiction. On the occasion of this particular Black Widowers banquet, however, he stirred the ice in his second drink (which had reached its halfway point and would be sipped no more) and said, "I read an interesting science fiction story yesterday."
James Drake, a retired chemist, who had spent the better part of an otherwise misspent life in reading every kind of popular fiction periodical, said, "Did it hurt?"
"Not at all. I was at a friend's place, saw a magazine, leafed through it, began reading, and, I must admit, rather enjoyed it. The premise was that to a man who had developed total recall there could be no secrets. If I were to recall everything you said, Jim, together with intonations and expressions, and combined it with what others said, and what I already knew, I would be able to deduce everything about you. No matter what it was you didn't want me – or anyone – to know, you would give it away a dozen times a day without knowing it. It's only that in real life we pay no attention – or don't hear – or forget – that secrets remain secrets. In the story, of course, the protagonist gets into trouble with his wild talent."
"As they always do," said Drake, unimpressed. "It's a literary convention as old as Midas's golden touch. The story you read was, I suspect, 'Lest We Remember' by Isaac Asimov, in a recent issue of his own magazine."
"That's right," said Avalon.
Mario Gonzalo, who had arrived late and had just placed his rubbers and raincoat in the cloakroom (for New York was not really enjoying the rain it badly needed for its reservoirs), ordered his drink from Henry with a small gesture, and said, "Asimov? Isn't he Manny's friend, the one who's even more stuck on himself than Manny is, if you can believe it?"
Emmanuel Rubin turned his entire body to face Gonzalo and pointed his finger. "Asimov is not my friend. He merely dogs my footsteps because he needs help on various simple points of science before he can write his so – called stories."
"I looked him up in Books in Print, Manny," said Gonzalo, grinning. "He writes a lot more – "
"Books than I do," Rubin finished. "Yes, I know. That's because I don't sacrifice quality for quantity. Here, meet my guest. Mr. Enrico Pavolini. This is Mario Gonzalo, who represents himself to be an artist and who will disprove the fact by concocting a caricature of you shortly. Mr. Pavolini is curator at the City Museum of Ancient Art."
Pavolini bowed with continental courtesy, and said, "I listen sadly to the science fiction story you are discussing. I fear that even a perfect memory could not penetrate some secrets, except in romances. And always those secrets that badly need penetrating prove the most opaque." His English was perfect but his vowels had a subtle distortion to them that made it clear he was not born to the language.
Trumbull said, "My feeling is that most secrets are safe because no one really cares. Most so – called secrets are so damned dull, it is only those who are desperately bored who would take the trouble to ferret them out."
"That may be so in some cases, my dear sir – " began Pavolini, but was interrupted by Henry's quiet announcement that dinner was served. The guests sat down to an array of Greek appetizers that bore a promise of moussaka to come. Roger Halsted made a small sound of pleasure as he draped his napkin over his thighs and Rubin, having speared a stuffed grape leaf, looked at it approvingly, placed it in his mouth, and ground it to nothingness.
Rubin then said (his mind clearly running on his earlier reference to quality versus quantity), "One of the unfortunate consequences of the era of pulp fiction, between 1920 and 1950, is that it raised a generation of Asimovs who learned to write without thought, in the pursuit of quantity only."
"That's not entirely bad," said Drake. "It's far more common for a writer to fall into the opposite trap of postponing execution in a useless search for nonexistent perfection."
"I'm not talking about perfection," said Rubin. "I'm suggesting just a little extra trouble to move away from abysmal junk."
"If you'll read some of the better pulp, you'll find it is far away from abysmal junk," said Drake, stiffly. "A lot of it, in fact, is recognized now as an important contribution to literature and its techniques are well worth study. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich – Come on, Manny, it's your own field. Don't knock it."
"They weren't pulp. They were real writers who had to make use of the available markets -"
Drake laughed. "It's easy to prove that all pulp is bad, if, when examples of the contrary are cited, you say 'If it's good, it isn't pulp.'"
Gonzalo said, "Once something is old, it gets slavered over by critics who would slap it down hard if they were contemporaries of the object criticized. I've heard Manny say a hundred times that Shakespeare was a hack writer who was despised in his own day."
"For every Shakespeare," said Rubin, violently, his sparse beard bristling, "who was far ahead of the puny minds of his time, there were a hundred, or maybe a thousand, scribblers who were dismissed as zeroes in their own time and who are exactly zero today, if they are remembered at all."
"That's the point," said Pavolini. "Surely survival is the best testimony of worth."
"Not always," said Rubin, characteristically shifting ground at once. "Accident must play a role. Aeschylus and Sophocles wrote over ninety plays each, and in each case only seven survive. Who can possibly say those were the seven best? Sappho was considered by the ancient Greeks to be in a class with Homer himself, and yet virtually nothing of her work survives."
A curious silence fell over the Black Widowers, as though in appreciation of true tragedy – the loss of the irreplaceable work of human genius. The conversation was quieter and more general thereafter.
And finally, Rubin, as host, called for the grilling. "Not you, Mario," he said. "You'll try to prove you're an artist and bore Mr. Pavolini to death and he's too good a friend for me to lose. Jim, do the honors."
Enrico Pavolini looked expectant. His smile, which seemed always radiant, gave every indication of welcoming all questions. He might have been in his fifties, but his neat mustache, his ungraying hair, his unlined face, his unsorrowing eyes, would have made the forties an equally reasonable guess.
Drake cleared his throat and said, "Mr. Pavolini, how do you justify your existence?"
Pavolini showed no surprise at all at the question. He said, "By doing what one man can do to prevent the tragedy of which we spoke earlier in the dinner. I labor to save those products of artistic genius that might otherwise be lost. In so doing, of course, I must deal, often, with thieves and criminals, and compound their felonies – but the nature of my work justifies even that."
Drake said, "Who are these thieves and criminals you speak of?"
"Throughout history," said Pavolini, "works of art have been hidden; sometimes purposely as when they are buried with dead rulers or aristocrats, or when they are concealed from marauding bands of armed men; sometimes accidentally as when a temple is destroyed by an earthquake or a ship sinks at sea. And throughout history, there have been people in search of treasure, persistent robbers with spades who break into pyramids and tombs, who follow the legends of buried treasure, who poke about in sunken ships. Caches of coins, ingots of precious metals, jewels, works of art, are always turning up. Sometimes they are broken up, melted down, sold as bullion or stones. Sometimes, especially in the last two hundred years, they are left intact and placed on the open market. That's where I, and others like myself, come in. We bid for the material. Every museum of art in the world is filled with illegal loot."
Drake said, "What makes these so – called looters criminals? Are they supposed to leave works of art buried – the property of, for instance, a pharaoh who has been dead for thirty – five centuries?"
"In the first place," said Pavolini, "many looters are criminals against humanity. They are ignorant people who may come across a treasure either by accident, or design, but who, from the start, or in the end, are interested only in the negotiable. Everything they do not see as intrinsically valuable, they are liable to destroy, not so much out of malice as out of indifference. They are quite likely to break up priceless artwork in order to salvage a few emeralds or strips of gold.
"Secondly, they are criminals in the eyes of the law. Over the last century, nations have come increasingly to consider various relics of the past as part of their national heritage and therefore the property of the state. Searches should, in theory, be conducted under strict supervision, and finds cannot be sold to foreign museums. Even trained archeologists who flout these rules are, strictly speaking, criminals.
"Still, many governments are too inefficient to conduct proper searches, too corrupt to resist bribery; and human cupidity is such that consideration of national pride can almost never compete with the fact that a better price can be obtained from foreigners."
Drake said, "If all museums combined in a policy of refusing to deal with looters – "
Pavolini shook his head vigorously. "It would do no good. The museums are run by human beings, or by governments, with their own prides, cupidities, and corruptibilities. No museum would want to lose a real find to another museum. And even if the museums were to stand firm as a group, items might be sold to private collections – or be broken up and melted down. Some looters have resorted to blackmail and have used the threat of destruction to force a higher price."
Drake said, "Is it all worth it? Surely not everything is a great work of art?"
"Some is," said Pavolini, smiling with a touch of condescension, "by any standards, as, for instance, the bust of Nefertiti, the Cretan snake goddess, Venus de Milo. That, however, is secondary, in a way. Every artifact of a past era is important as a living evidence of a society that is gone. The commonest pot of terra – cotta was once used, was part of a way of life, was formed to fill a purpose. Each is as important and as indispensable to an archeologist as the fossil tooth of an extinct shark would be to a paleontologist."
Trumbull said, "May I interpose, Jim? – I presume the City Museum of Ancient Art has its share of past artifacts, Mr. Pavolini?"
Pavolini's smile broadened. "It certainly has, Mr. Trumbull. You must come visit us sometime and see for yourself. We are a comparatively young museum and do not have the resources of the Metropolitan, but we are more finely focussed and our collection of pre – Columbian Mexican art is world – famous."
"I will certainly visit you at my first opportunity," said Trumbull, "but I seem to remember that before dinner, you said something about secrets not being easily penetrated."
Pavolini looked suddenly grave. "Did I?"
"Yes. There was some mention of some idiotic science fiction story about a perfect memory being all that was required to penetrate any secret and you said -"
"Ah, yes, I remember."
"Well, then, were you referring to anything specific, anything that had to do with your work?"
"As a matter of fact, yes." Pavolini shrugged his shoulders. "A small thing that has been haunting me for some time, but of no importance outside my own feelings, I suppose."
"Tell us about it," said Trumbull, conjugating himself abruptly into the imperative.
Pavolini blinked. "As I said, utterly unimportant."
Rubin put in gently, "Tell us anyway, Enrico. It's the price of the dinner. You remember I explained about the grilling."
"Yes, Emmanuel," said Pavolini, "but it is not a thing I can discuss indiscriminately. From a strictly legal standpoint -"
Rubin said, "We are all as silent as one of your pre – Columbian artifacts. That includes, particularly, our esteemed waiter and fellow member, Henry. Please continue, Enrico."
Pavolini smiled, ruefully. "Our artifacts are not by any means silent, since they speak to us eloquently of past cultures, so it was an unfortunate simile. However – There was a Phoenician bauble on the market of the museum world – the black market, I suppose.
"It had been dug up in Cyprus, where the confusion of the past decade has made it possible for looters to obtain and smuggle out valuable material. This was a small cup of gold and enamel, dating back to some time about 1200 B.C. There was some question as to whether it showed Mycenean influence and it bore promise of modifying some of our notions of events in the time of the Trojan war.
"Naturally, we wanted it, and so, I imagine, did a dozen other major museums in the world. It wasn't, of course, a matter of mere bidding. The person offering it for sale had to cover his tracks for he wanted to get back to Cyprus, to obtain other pieces perhaps, without being stripped of his gains and being thrown into prison besides by the Cypriot authorities. For that reason, he needed to have certain precautions accepted, certain guaranties made. And, of course, it helped to have a good man on the spot, a persuasive man."
Rubin said, "You once told me about one of your people who you said was exactly like that – Jelinsky."
Pavolini nodded. "The name is not merely Jelinsky. You forget how it came about I mentioned him to you in the first place. His full name was Emmanuel Jelinsky. That is actually how I came to know you, Emmanuel. It is an unusual first name and when I was introduced to you, I thought at once of my Emmanuel. It drew my attention to you. We talked about him and then I had my chance to get to know you. My Emmanuel, however, is now dead."
"I'm sorry," said Rubin.
"A heart attack. He was sixty – five and it was not entirely unexpected, but, if I may be permitted to view it selfishly, it was tragic, for with his death went all chance of obtaining the Phoenician bauble." Pavolini sighed heavily. "To be honest, it was with the greatest difficulty that I persuaded myself to attend the banquet tonight – but I had accepted your invitation nearly a month ago and my wife rather insisted I go. She said she did not want me brooding and tearing my hair. She said, 'Have one evening out. Forget." So here I am, and I'm not forgetting after all."
There was an uneasy silence at that, and then Gonzalo, the ever – hopeful, said, "Sometimes it turns out that we can help people with problems."
Trumbull said with instant fury, "Will you stop making ridiculous statements like that?"
"I said sometimes," said Gonzalo, defensively, "and I intend to continue the grilling. How about it, Manny? You're the host."
Rubin looked uncomfortable. "Do you mind if we continue, Enrico?"
Pavolini managed a smile. "Not talking will not bring him back, nor the bauble, either."
"All right, then," said Gonzalo. "You said that Jelinsky's death lost you that Phoenician whatever – it – was. Which museum got it?"
"I wish one of them did. That would be better for the world generally. The trouble is that the object has simply disappeared."
"How? Why?" burst out Trumbull.
Pavolini sighed. "Well, then, from the beginning. Let me explain about Jelinsky. He was with the museum longer than I was and he was simply invaluable. I don't wish to overdramatize but in some respects museums must engage in activities that have about them some of the atmosphere of espionage work. There are delicate negotiations to be carried through; clandestine contacts to be made; objects to be purchased illegally and, therefore, secretly; other museums to spy on and measures to be taken to foil the spies of others.
"Of course, it is all small potatoes since the apparatuses involved and the stakes, too, are far smaller than those which governments or even industries can dispose of. On the other hand, we don't have great power to fall back on for protection, and to us, at least, if to no one else, the stakes are high.
"Jelinsky was what we would consider a master spy, if he were an employee of the CIA. He could trace valuable items and make his contacts before anyone else was fairly in the field. He was persuasive, could talk a bird out of a tree and into his hand, could close a deal to the greatest advantage of ourselves even while others were after the same item with offers that were double what we could offer. We never knew how he did it.
"I asked him once about that but he just let one eyelid close and said, "You'll never know, Enrico. After all, if you ever fire me, I would have to find work elsewhere and it would be inconvenient if you knew my methods then.'
"He had one peculiarity, however, that we all knew about. It was impossible to miss. He doodled! He was never without a scratch pad and at any time that scratch pad had the top sheet covered with fascinating abstractions. They were never quite the same but they were always neatly geometric – triangles, squares, trapezoids, octagons, either alone or in bizarre combinations. Sometimes there would be words built up of letters neatly printed in geometric form. Sometimes I could tell it was a word that occupied his mind at the time of the doodling. I remember once, when we were in conference, he wrote the first few letters of my name, each letter constructed in a series of egg – shaped segments. I asked him if he would let me have it as a curio and he looked at it with astonishment as if not aware he had done it. He gave it to me with an air of wondering why I could possibly want it. I still have it.
"I asked him once why he doodled and he said he wasn't sure. He said, "Maybe it is what I do instead of jiggling my feet or tapping my fingernails. I have a restless mind and this focuses it and keeps it from darting off in unwanted directions. Maybe. And maybe it just serves as an outlet for some artistic impulse that lies dormant in me. I don't know. In any case, I never notice that I'm doodling when I'm doodling. But at least I stick to geometry so I never give away my thoughts.'
"'Except when you write letters,' I said, and he flushed and insisted they never meant anything."
Gonzalo said, with satisfaction, as he sipped at his brandy and then held up the glass for Henry to renew the infusion, "I'll bet one of Jelinsky's doodles has a part in all this."
"Yes," said Pavolini, sadly, "or I should not have gone on at such length about it. Obviously. Two weeks ago, I received a call from Jelinsky. He was in Halifax. He did not speak of the Phoenician artifact directly for – and again I do not wish to overdramatize – he well knew his room might be bugged or his wire tapped. Some of our competitors are at least as unscrupulous as we ourselves are.
"I understood well the significance of what he was saying, however. He had closed the deal and he had the object. Why the deal was closed in Halifax, I don't know and didn't ask. The looter may have been Canadian or Jelinsky may have persuaded him to come to that unlikely city to throw off the scent as far as the others in the field were concerned. It didn't matter.
"Though Jelinsky had physical possession of the object, he did not intend to carry it with him to New York. He had checked it in an unobtrusive place in the form of a package that gave no outward clue to its contents or its value, and under conditions where it was clear to the people keeping it that it might be some time before it was called for. He was coming to New York with the information and someone else would then fly to Halifax to get the object. All this was told me most indirectly; virtually in code."
"Isn't all this indirection overdrawn?" said Halsted.
"I know it sounds paranoid," said Pavolini, "but Jelinsky was a known man. He might be followed, his baggage might be tampered with. After all, why hesitate to steal an object that was already stolen? In any case, Jelinsky did not feel it safe to carry the object to New York. We could send some unknown to carry the object, someone who would be safe because he was unknown."
"Except that he died," said Gonzalo, excitedly, "before he could pass on the necessary information."
"Of a heart attack, as I told you," said Pavolini, "at Kennedy airport. Naturally, he never had a chance to tell us where he had checked the object."
Avalon looked grave and said, "I scarcely wish to outdo you in overdramatizing the matter, so I will ask you to reassure us and tell us that there is no chance that Jelinsky was murdered and the information taken from his body."
"Not at all possible," said Pavolini. "There were those who saw him collapse, there was his history of heart disease, and there was a careful autopsy. There was no question but that it was a natural death, and a most unfortunate one for us. For one thing, we had lost an irreplaceable man, but he would have died eventually. It was the precise moment of his death that was the calamity.
"We don't know where the object is. We presume it is somewhere in Halifax – but that is all. Essentially, the Phoenician bauble is once again buried, and it will be recovered only by accident and by – who can tell who.
"Even if it were found by someone and were placed on the market again, the fact that we have already paid a substantial sum for it would mean nothing. We are not likely to be able to prove ownership and, what is worse, we are even less likely to prove legal ownership. If found, and if the find is publicized too openly, the Greek Cypriot Government will claim it and will probably receive it. We can live with the loss of the money, but the loss of the object itself is hard to bear. Very hard." Pavolini shook his head despondently.
Pavolini went on, "What makes it more frustrating is that there is absolutely no reason to think he was robbed. He was under observation by many, as I said, when he collapsed, and airport guards were at his side almost at once. His pockets were filled with the usual – a wallet reasonably supplied with cash, including both American and Canadian bills. There were coins, credit cards, keys, handkerchief, and so on."
"Nothing of interest at all?" asked Halsted, incredulously.
"Well, one of the items was a claim check. We, as his employers, were able to effect a claim to that – though not without considerable legal problems. However, it doesn't help us at all. I suspect – I hope – that the claim check is for the package containing the object, but what good does that do me? The claim check is entirely without distinguishing mark. It is red and rectangular and made of cardboard. On it in black block letters is the number 17. On the other side is nothing. There is no way of identifying where on earth – or, at least, where in Halifax – the ticket belonged."
Trumbull said, "Nothing else. No address book. No folded slip of paper in his wallet."
"Believe me, we went over everything in his pockets and in his baggage; under the eyes of the police, I might add – and there seemed nothing that could indicate the place where he had checked the package. There was an address book, of course, but in it was not one Halifax address; nor was there one non – Halifax address that seemed in any way suspicious. There was his scratch pad, too. If that had not been present, I would have been sure he was robbed. Still, under the closest scrutiny, there was no address on any page of it. We might have tested everything for secret writing – I thought of that – but why on earth should he have gone to such lengths?"
"I suppose," said Halsted, "you might use force majeure. You might go to every place in Halifax that could conceivably use such claim checks and try to recover a package at each one."
"Every hotel? Every restaurant? Every train or bus terminal? Every airport?" said Pavolini. "That would truly be an act of desperation. No! – We tried cutting down the possibilities instead."
"The doodles!" cried out Gonzalo.
"You haven't forgotten," said Pavolini. "Yes, there were doodles on the top page of the scratch pad. They might have been made on the plane, but he doodled chiefly when in conference, and that must have been in Halifax."
"But you said," Avalon pointed out, "that there was no address on any page of the scratch pad."
"That's right, but there were other things. There were his characteristic geometric constructions, as identifiable as fingerprints. If that were all there was, it would be useless, but there was more. It was one of those rare occasions when he constructed letters and I knew there must have been some word, some phrase, which had attracted his attention. Unfortunately, he had written down only part of it. There was a capital B, a small i, and a small f each in ornate script. Those letters were absolutely identifiable as his handiwork, too. In other words, 'Bif' was the beginning of some word that had caught his attention, when he was negotiating the sale, and if we could work out what the word was and where he had seen it, I have the feeling we would know where he had checked the package."
Trumbull said, "For all you know, that doodle may have been made the day before the negotiations, or the week before. It may have no connection with the negotiations at all."
"Possible," said Pavolini, "but not likely. In my experience, Jelinsky never kept them long but disposed of the used top sheet when beginning another. Therefore, it could not have been very old."
"But you cannot be sure," said Trumbull, persisting.
"No, I cannot be sure but I have nothing else to go by," said Pavolini, exasperated.
Gonzalo said, eagerly, "Do you have the paper with you?"
"No," said Pavolini, lifting his arms up and then letting them drop. "How can you think I would carry it with me? It is in my office safe. Could I have imagined this matter would come up in the evening's discussion?"
"It's just that it seemed to me," said Gonzalo, "that if we could see the doodles, we might get something out of it you didn't. Could you reproduce them for us?"
Pavolini lifted his upper lip in disdain. "I am not an artist. I could not do it. I could not even reproduce the curlicues in the letters. Believe me, there is nothing there but the letters, and nothing of any significance but the letters. Nothing."
Halsted said, "The letters don't seem very significant to me. What word starts with "bif" anyway?"
"'Bifurcate'" said Rubin, at once.
"Fine!" said Pavolini. "A useful word, indeed. Where would Jelinsky see 'bifurcate' in the course of the negotiations? My friends, I did not sit about and puzzle out the matter. I used the unabridged dictionary. 'Bifurcate' means 'to divide in two." There is also 'bifid' meaning 'in two parts.' There are chemical terms, 'biformate,' 'bifluoride,' and so on. These are all useless. It is not in the realm of possibility that he was looking at any of these words while he was sitting – wherever he was sitting – with the man who was selling the artifact. There is only one word, only one, that seemed as though it might be useful and that word is 'bifocals.'"
Rubin said, "Was the man Jelinsky dealt with an optometrist?"
"I know nothing about the man, but it seems reasonable that the negotiations might have taken place at an optometrist's, or, more likely, across the street from an optometrist's. With the word 'bifocals' staring him in the face, Jelinsky might well have started writing it absently."
"It's possible," said Avalon, judiciously.
But Pavolini folded his arms across his chest, looked sadly at the men assembled about the table, and said, "It did not work. I had a couple of our men scour the city to find optometrists in whose window, or on whose signs, there might be the word 'bifocals.' We have not yet found one. Optometrists do not stress bifocals. Those are for elderly people. They do their best to impress the public with beauty and with the chic qualities of their spectacles. Everything for youth or pretended youth. Nevertheless, we are not done looking."
Drake said, "You might be looking in the wrong direction. If Jelinsky made his letters with curlicues they might not be easily identifiable at all. For instance, it's easy to draw a small e and have it look like a small i. Jelinsky may not have intended 'bif' at all. He may have intended "bef." His pen might have skipped the little curve because the paper was greasy at that spot."
"What would you have with 'bef'?" asked Rubin.
"I don't know. He might have been starting to write 'beforehand,' let us say, because he had outthought his rivals and had gotten to the seller beforehand."
"That wouldn't help find the package," said Rubin.
"Who says it has to?" demanded Halsted. "What Jelinsky wrote might have nothing to do with the package and might be of no help at all. We're only trying to find out the truth, and if the truth doesn't suit us -" Drake spread his arms in fatalistic resignation.
Pavolini said, "No, no. Let me stop you. I cannot say whether it would help us if we penetrated the meaning of the word. Perhaps not. But at least I am quite certain that the word begins with 'Bif' and nothing else. The i was an i and not an e because, for one thing, Jelinsky had placed a dot above it. In fact, Jelinsky even curlicued the dot so that it was a triple dot."
"A triple dot?" said Gonzalo. "What do you mean?"
"Like this," said Pavolini. "I can draw this much, anyway. It looked like this." He withdrew a small pad from an inner jacket pocket, tore out a sheet of paper, and drew three short vertical lines, closely spaced.
"There!" he said. "It was very small."
It was at this point that Henry interrupted. "Mr. Pavolini, may I see that piece of paper?"
Pavolini stared at Henry for a moment; then, with a trace of amusement, he said, "If you wish to look at it, waiter, here it is. Perhaps you will have a theory, too."
Gonzalo said, "I wouldn't take that attitude, Mr. Pavolini. Henry might have a theory at that."
Pavolini said, "Very well. Go ahead, waiter. From those three little lines, can you tell me where the package is hidden?"
"Not exactly, Mr. Pavolini," said Henry, with careful deference. "I can think of two places and there may possibly be one or two others, but I can't pin it down precisely to one place."
"Indeed?" said Pavolini. "You can give me two, possibly four, places, and the package will be in one of them?"
"I believe so, sir."
"You believe so. Wonderful! In that case just give me the four. I challenge you." Pavolini's voice had risen to a shout.
"May I first point out that since there is no really hopeful word in English that begins with 'bif,' it may be that Mr. Jelinsky was not writing an English word."
"Take my word for it," said Pavolini, freezingly. "Jelinsky knew no language other than English. He was not an educated man and – except for his specialty – really knew very little."
"I will accept that," said Henry, "but we have to ask ourselves not which word he knew and understood, but which word he encountered in the place in which he was negotiating the sale. If they were seated in a French restaurant, that restaurant – located in a city of British culture – might well sell steak, but would, of course, have it on the menu, or in the window, or on the sign, according to a spelling all their own. 'Beefsteak,' in French, becomes bifteck."
Pavolini said, in a small voice, "Bifteck?"
"Yes, sir. I know of two good French restaurants in Halifax and there may be one or two more. I suggest you try the cloakroom in all four, if necessary."
Pavolini said, "You are guessing!"
"Not really, sir. Not after I saw the three little lines you drew. Might those lines have looked a bit more like this, sir?" On the same sheet of paper, Henry drew. "Because if they did, that is a fleur – de – lis, which you would find prominently displayed in one place or another in almost any French restaurant. If we take the three letters and the fleur – de – lis together, then one can scarcely doubt where Jelinsky was sitting when he prepared this doodle."
Pavolini's mouth was open, and now he closed it with an audible 'snap. "By heaven, you are right. I will leave, gentlemen. I will leave now. Good – bye to all of you, with my thanks for a wonderful dinner – but I have work to do." He began to hurry out, then stopped and turned. "My thanks to you particularly, Henry, but how did you do it?"
Henry said, gravely, "Restaurants are my specialty, sir."
This is the twenty – eighth Black Widowers story that Fred Dannay bought for EQMM and, alas, the last, for death (as it must to all) finally came to the man who probably did more for the mystery field than any other single person since Conan Doyle. He will always be missed by all those who read his Ellery Queen stories, by all who dealt with him as editor, and by all who knew him as friend.
In connection with the story you have just read, by the way, I received a letter from a museum curator who pointed out that the story does not describe the actual methods used by museums to obtain their exhibits, and that it perpetuates a false stereotype of museums as promoters of skullduggery.
I'm sure he's right and I apologize to all museums. The fact is that I know nothing about the actual workings of museum acquisitions and I make it all up out of my head in such a way as to have it fit in with the plot. I suspect, though, that that's the way it's got to be, if the hardworking mystery writer is to make a living.
Consider, for instance, the writings of Agatha Christie (that model of everything a mystery writer ought to be, even if she did have very peculiar notions about how Americans talk and act). If she were to be taken seriously, there is not an upper – class family in all of England that did not have a member done to death in the library, with a paper knife skewering his heart and a look of indescribable horror on his face, and that did not have another member who did the deed. But we accept that ("suspension of disbelief") and don't expect the world of the mystery to be in one – to – one correspondence with the world of reality.
The story appeared in the May 1982 issue of EQMM.