Tales of the Black Widowers 1. The Acquisitive Chuckle

Hanley Bartram was the guest, that night, of the Black Widowers, who monthly met in their quiet haunt and vowed death to any female who intruded-for that one night per month, at any rate.

The number of attendees varied: five members were present on this occasion.

Geoffrey Avalon was host for the evening. He was tall, with a neatly trimmed mustache and a smallish beard, more white than black now, but with hair nearly as black as ever.

As host, it was his duty to deliver the ritual toast that marked the beginning of the dinner proper. Loudly, and with gusto, he said, "To Old King Cole of sacred memory. May his pipe be forever lit, his bowl forever full, his fiddlers forever in health, and may we all be as merry as he all our lives long."

Each cried, "Amen," touched his lips to drink, and sat down. Avalon put his drink to the side of his plate. It was his second and was now exactly half full. It would remain there throughout the dinner and was not to be touched again. He was a patent lawyer and he carried over into his social life the minutiae of his work. One and a half drinks was precisely what he allowed himself on these occasions.

Thomas Trumbull came storming up the stairs at the last minute, with the usual cry of "Henry, a scotch and soda for a dying man."

Henry, the waiter at these functions for several years now (and with no last name that any Black Widower had ever heard used), had the scotch and soda in readiness. He was sixtyish but his face was unwrinkled and staid.

His voice seemed to recede into the distance even as he spoke. "Right here, Mr. Trumbull."

Trumbull spotted Bartram at once and said to Avalon in an aside, "Your guest?"

"He asked to come," said Avalon, in as near a whisper as he could manage. "Nice fellow. You'll like him."

The dinner itself went as miscellaneously as the Black Widowers' affairs usually did. Emmanuel Rubin, who had the other beard-a thin and scraggly one under a mouth with widely spaced teeth-had broken out of a writer's block and was avidly giving the details of the story he had finished. James Drake, with a rectangular face, a mustache but no beard, was interrupting with memories of other stories, tangentially related. Drake was only an organic chemist but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of pulp fiction.

Trumbull, as a code expert, considered himself to be in the inner councils of government and took it into his head to be outraged at Mario Gonzalo's political pronouncements. "God damn it," he yelled, in one of his less vituperative moods, "why don't you stick to your idiotic collages and your burlap bags and leave world affairs to your betters?"

Trumbull had not recovered from Gonzalo's one-man art show earlier that year, and Gonzalo, understanding this, laughed good-naturedly, and said, "Show me my betters. Name one."

Bartram, short and plump, with hair that curled in ringlets, clung firmly to his role as guest. He listened to everyone, smiled at everyone, and said little.

Eventually the time came when Henry poured the coffee and began to place the desserts before each guest with practiced legerdemain. It was at this moment that the traditional grilling of the guest was supposed to begin.

The initial questioner, almost by tradition (on those occasions when he was present), was Thomas Trumbull. His swarthy face, wrinkled into a perennial discontent, looked angry as he began with the invariable opening question: "Mr. Bartram, how do you justify your existence?"

Bartram smiled. He spoke with precision as he said, "I have never tried. My clients, on those occasions when 1 give satisfaction, find my existence justified."

"Your clients?" said Rubin. "What is it you do, Mr. Bartram?"

"I am a private investigator."

"Good," said James Drake. "I don't think we've ever had one before. Manny, you can get some of the data correct for a change when you write your tough-guy crap."

"Not from me," said Bartram quickly.

Trumbull scowled. "If you don't mind, gentlemen, as the appointed grillster, please leave this to me. Mr. Bartram, you speak of the occasions upon which you give satisfaction. Do you always give satisfaction?"

"There are times when the matter can be debated," said Bartram. "In fact, I would like to speak to you this evening concerning an occasion that was particularly questionable. It may even be that one of you might be useful in that connection. It was with that in mind that I asked my good friend Jeff Avalon to invite me to a meeting, once I learned the details of the organization. He obliged and I am delighted."

"Are you ready now to discuss this dubious satisfaction you gave or did not give, as the case may be?"

"Yes, if you will allow me."

Trumbull looked at the others for signs of dissent. Gonzalo's prominent eyes were fixed on Bartram as he said, "May we interrupt?" Quickly, and with an admirable economy of strokes, he was doodling a caricature of Bartram on the back of his menu card. It would join the others which memorialized guests and which marched in brave array across the walls.

"Within reason," said Bartram. He paused to sip at his coffee and then said, "The story begins with Anderson, to whom I shall refer only in that fashion. He was an acquisitor."

"An inquisitor?" asked Gonzalo, frowning.

"An acquisitor. He gained things, he earned them, he bought them, he picked them up, he collected them. The world moved in one direction with respect to him; it moved toward him; never away. He had a house into which this flood of material, of varying value, came to rest and never moved again. Through the years, it grew steadily thicker and amazingly heterogeneous. He also had a business partner, whom I shall call only Jackson."

Trumbull interrupted, frowning, not because there was anything to frown about, but because he always frowned. He said, "Is this a true story?"

"I tell only true stories," said Bartram slowly and precisely. "I lack the imagination to lie."

"Is it confidential?"

"I shall not tell the story in such a way as to make it easily recognized, but were it to be recognized, it would be confidential."

"I follow the subjunctive," said Trumbull, "but I wish to assure you that what is said within the walls of this room is never repeated, nor referred to, however tangen-tially, outside its walls. Henry understands this, too."

Henry, who was refilling two of the coffeecups, smiled a little and bent his head in agreement.

Bartram smiled also and went on, "Jackson had a disease, too. He was honest; unavoidably and deeply honest. The characteristic permeated his soul as though, from an early age, he had been marinated in integrity.

"To a man like Anderson, it was most useful to have honest Jackson as partner, for their business, which I carefully do not describe in detail, required contact with the public. Such contact was not for Anderson, for his acquisitiveness stood in the way. With each object he acquired, another little crease of slyness entered his face, until it seemed a spider's web that frightened all flies at sight. It was Jackson, the pure and the honest, who was the front man, and to whom all widows hastened with their mites, and orphans with their farthings.

"On the other hand, Jackson found Anderson a necessity, too, for Jackson, with all his honesty, perhaps because of it, had no knack for making one dollar become two. Left to himself, he would, entirely without meaning to, lose every cent entrusted to him and would then quickly be forced to kill himself as a dubious form of restitution. Anderson's hands were to money, however, as fertilizer is to roses, and he and Jackson were, together, a winning combination.

"Yet no paradise continues forever, and a besetting characteristic, left to itself, will deepen, widen, and grow more extreme. Jackson's honesty grew to such colossal proportions that Anderson, for all his shrewdness, was occasionally backed to the wall and forced into monetary loss. Similarly, Anderson's acquisitiveness burrowed to such infernal depths that Jackson, for all his morality, found himself occasionally twisted into questionable practices.

"Naturally, as Anderson disliked losing money, and Jackson abhorred losing character, a coolness grew between the two. In such a situation the advantage clearly lay on the side of Anderson, who placed no reasonable limits on his actions, whereas Jackson felt himself bound by a code of ethics.

"Slyly, Anderson worked and maneuvered until, eventually, poor honest Jackson found himself forced to sell out his end of the partnership under the most disadvantageous possible conditions.

"Anderson's acquisitiveness, we might say, had reached a climax, for he acquired sole control of the business. It was his intention to retire now, leaving its everyday running to employees, and concerning himself no further than was required to pocket its profits. Jackson, on the other hand, was left with nothing more than his honesty, and while honesty is an admirable characteristic, it has small direct value in a hockshop.

"It was at this point, gentlemen, that I entered the picture... Ah, Henry, thank you."

The glasses of brandy were being passed about.

"You did not know these people to begin with?" asked Rubin, his sharp eyes blinking.

"Not at all," said Bartram, sniffing delicately at the brandy and just touching it to his upper lip, "though I think one of you in this room did. It was some years ago.

"I first met Anderson when he entered my office in a white heat. 'I want you to find what I've lost,' he said. I have dealt with many cases of theft in my career and so I said, naturally, 'Just what is it you have lost?' And he answered, 'Damn it, man, that's what I've just asked you to find out.'

"The story came out rather raggedly. Anderson and Jackson had quarreled with surprising intensity. Jackson was outraged, as only an honest man can be when he finds that his integrity is no shield against the conniving of others. He swore revenge, and Anderson shrugged that off with a laugh."

"Beware the wrath of a patient man," quoted Avalon, with the air of precision research he brought to even his least portentous statements.

"So I have heard," said Bartram, "though I have never had occasion to test the maxim. Nor, apparently, had Anderson, for he had no fear of Jackson. As he explained, Jackson was so psychotically honest and so insanely law-abiding that there was no chance of his slipping into wrongdoing. Or so Anderson thought. It did not even occur to him to ask Jackson to return the office key; something all the more curious since the office was located in Anderson's house, in among the knickknackery.

"Anderson recalled this omission a few days after the quarrel, for, returning from an early evening appointment, he found Jackson in his house. Jackson carried his old attache case, which he was just closing as Anderson entered; closing with startled haste, it seemed to Anderson.

"Anderson frowned and said, inevitably, 'What are you doing here?'

" 'Returning some papers which were in my possession and which now belong to you,' said Jackson, 'and returning the key to the office.' With this remark, he handed over the key, indicated papers on the desk, and pushed the combination lock on his battered attache case with fingers that Anderson could swear trembled a little. Jackson looked about the room with what appeared to Anderson to be a curious, almost a secretively satisfied, smile and said, 'I will now leave.' He proceeded to do so.

"It was not until Anderson heard the motor of Jackson's car whirring into action and then retreating into the distance that he could rouse himself from a kind of stupor that had paralyzed him. He knew he had been robbed, and the next day he came to me."

Drake pursed his lips, twirled his half-empty brandy glass, and said, "Why not to the police?"

"There was a complication," said Bartram. "Anderson did not know what had been taken. When the certainty of theft dawned on him, he naturally rushed to the safe. Its contents were secure. He ransacked his desk. Nothing seemed to be missing. He went from room to room. Everything seemed to be intact as far as he could tell."

"Wasn't he certain?" asked Gonzalo.

"He couldn't be. The house was inordinately crowded with every variety of object and he didn't remember all his possessions. He told me, for instance, that at one time he collected antique watches. He had them in a small drawer in his study; six of them. All six were there, but he was nagged by the faint memory of seven. For the life of him, he could not remember definitely. In fact, it was worse than that, for one of the six present seemed strange to him. Could it be that he had had only six but that a less valuable one had been substituted for a more valuable one? Something of this sort repeated itself a dozen times over in every hideaway and with every sort of odd-ment. So he came to me-"

"Wait a while," said Trumbull, bringing his hand down hard on the table. "What made him so certain that Jackson had taken anything at all?"

"Ah," said Bartram, "that is the fascinating part of the story. The closing of the attache case, and Jackson's secretive smile as he looked about the room, served in themselves to rouse Anderson's suspicions, but as the door closed behind him, Jackson chuckled. It was not an ordinary chuckle... But I'll let Anderson tell it in his own words, as nearly as I remember them.

" 'Bartram,' he said, 'I have heard that chuckle innumerable times in my life. I have chuckled that way myself a thousand times. It is a characteristic chuckle, an unmistakable one, an unmaskable one. It is the acquisitive chuckle; it is the chuckle of a man who has just obtained something he wants very much at the expense of someone else. If any man in all the world knows that chuckle and can recognize it, even behind a closed door, that man is myself. I cannot be mistaken. Jackson had taken something of mine and was glorying in it!'

"There was no arguing with the man on this point. He virtually slavered at the thought of having been victimized and, indeed, I had to believe him. I had to suppose that for all Jackson's pathological honesty, he had been lured, by the once-in-a-lifetime snapping of patience, into theft. Helping lure him must have been his knowledge of Anderson. He must have known Anderson's intent hold on even the least valued of his belongings, and realized that the hurt would extend far deeper and far beyond the value of the object taken, however great that value might have been."

Rubin said, "Maybe it was the attache case he took."

"No, no, that was Jackson's. He'd owned it for years. So there you have the problem. Anderson wanted me to find out what had been taken, for until he could identify a stolen object and show that the object was, or had been, in the possession of Jackson, he could not prosecute-and he was most intent on prosecution. My task, then, was to look through his house and tell him what was missing."

"How would that be possible, if he himself couldn't tell?" growled Trumbull.

"I pointed that out to him," said Bartram, "but he was wild and unreasoning. He offered me a great deal of money, win or lose; a very handsome fee, indeed, and he put down a sizable portion of it as a retainer. It was clear he resented beyond measure the deliberate insult to his acquisitiveness. The thought that an amateur non-acquis-itor like Jackson should dare beard him in this most sacred of his passions had driven him, on this one point, mad, and he was prepared to go to any expense to keep the other's victory from being final.

"I am myself quite human. I accepted the retainer and the fee. After all, I reasoned, I had my methods. I took up the question of insurance lists first. All were outdated, but they served to eliminate the furniture and all the larger items as possible victims of Jackson's thievery, for everything on the lists was still in the house."

Avalon interrupted. "They were eliminated anyway, since the stolen object would have had to fit into the attache case."

"Provided that it was indeed the attache case that was used to transport the item out of the house," pointed out Bartram patiendy. "It might easily have been a decoy. Prior to Anderson's return, Jackson could have had a moving van at the door and taken out the grand piano had he so chosen, and then snapped the attache case in Anderson's face to mislead him.

"But never mind that. It wasn't likely. I took him around the house room by room, following a systematic procedure of considering the floor, walls, and ceiling, studying all the shelves, opening every door, considering every piece of furniture, going through every closet. Nor did I neglect the attic and the basement. Never before had Anderson been forced to consider every item of his vast and amorphous collection in order that somewhere, somehow, some item would jog his memory of some companion item that was not there.

"It was an enormous house, a heterogeneous one, an endless one. It took us days, and poor Anderson grew more befuddled each day.

"I next tackled it from the other end. It was obvious that Jackson had deliberately taken something unnotice-able, perhaps small; certainly something that Anderson would not easily miss and therefore not something to which he was greatly attached. On the other hand, it made sense to suppose that it was something Jackson would want to take away, and which he would find valuable. Indeed, his deed would give him most satisfaction if Anderson, too, found it valuable-once he realized what it was that was gone. What, then, could it be?"

"A small painting," said Gonzalo eagerly, "which Jackson knew to be an authentic Cezanne, but which Anderson thought was junk."

"A stamp from Anderson's collection," said Rubin, "which Jackson noted had a rare mistake in the engraving." He had once written a story which had hinged on this precise point.

"A book," said Trumbull, "which contained some hidden family secret with which, in due time, Jackson could blackmail Anderson."

"A photograph," said Avalon dramatically, "that Anderson had forgotten but which contained the likeness of an old sweetheart which, eventually, he would give a fortune to buy back."

"I don't know what business they were in," said Drake thoughtfully, "but it might have been the kind where some unvalued gimcrack might actually be of great value to a competitor and drive Anderson to bankruptcy. I remember one case where a formula for a hydrazo-intermediate-"

"Oddly enough," said Bartram, breaking in firmly, "I thought of each of these possibilities, and I went over each with Anderson. It was clear that he had no taste in art and such pieces as he had were really junk, and no mistake. He did not collect stamps, and though he had many books and could not tell for certain whether one was gone, he swore he had no hidden family secrets anywhere that were worth the skipped beat of a blackmailer's heart. Nor had he ever had any old sweethearts, since in his younger days he had confined himself to professional ladies whose photographs he did not prize. As for his business secrets, they were of the sort that would interest the government far more than any competitor, and everything of that sort had been kept far from Jackson's honest eyes in the first place and were still in the safe (or long in the fire) in the second. I thought of other possibilities, but, one by one, they were knocked down.

"Of course, Jackson might betray himself. He might blossom out into sudden wealth, and in ferreting out the source of the wealth, we might learn the identity of the stolen object.

"Anderson suggested that himself and paid lavishly to have a twenty-four-hour watch put on Jackson. It was useless. The man kept a dull way of life and behaved precisely as you would expect someone minus his life savings to behave. He lived parsimoniously, and, eventually, took a menial job, where his honesty and his calm demeanor stood him in good stead.

"Finally, I had but one alternative left-" "Wait, wait," said Gonzalo, "let me guess, let me guess." He tossed off what was left of his brandy, signaled Henry for another, and said, "You asked Jackson!"

"I was strongly tempted to," said Bartram ruefully, "but that would scarcely have been feasible. It doesn't do in my profession to even hint at an accusation without evidence of any sort. Licenses are too fragile. And in any case, he would simply deny theft, if accused, and be put on his guard against any self-incrimination."

"Well, then...," said Gonzalo blankly, and petered out.

The other four furrowed brows one and all, but only silence followed.

Bartram, having waited politely, said, "You won't guess, gentlemen, for you are not in the profession. You know only what you read in romances and so you think gentlemen like myself have unlimited numbers of alternatives and invariably solve all cases. I, myself, being in the profession, know otherwise. Gentlemen, the one alternative I had left was to confess failure.

"Anderson paid me, however, I'll give him that much credit. By the time I said my goodbyes to him, he had lost some ten pounds. There was a vacant look in his eyes and, as he shook hands with me, they moved round and round the room he was in, still looking, still looking. He muttered, 'I tell you I couldn't possibly mistake that chuckle. He took something from me. He took something from me.'

"I saw him on two or three occasions thereafter. He never stopped looking; he never found the missing object.

He went rather downhill. The events I have described took place nearly five years ago, and last month, he died."

There was a short silence. Avalon said, "Without ever finding the missing object?"

"Without ever finding it."

Trumbull said, with disapproval, "Are you coming to us to help you with the problem now?"

"In a way, yes. The occasion is too good to miss. Anderson is dead and whatever is said within these walls will go no farther, we all agree, so that I may now ask what I could not ask before... Henry, may I have a light?"

Henry, who had been listening with a kind of absent-minded deference, produced a book of matches and lit Bartram's cigarette.

"Let me introduce you, Henry, to those you so efficiently serve... Gentlemen, may I introduce to you, Henry Jackson."

There was a moment of clear shock and Drake said, "The Jackson."

"Exactly," said Bartram. "I knew he was working here and when I heard it was at this club that you met for your monthly meetings, I had to beg, rather shamelessly, for an invitation. It was only here that I could find the gentleman with the acquisitive chuckle, and do so under conditions of both bonhomie and discretion."

Henry smiled and bent his head.

Bartram said, "There were times during the course of the investigation when I could not help but wonder, Henry, whether Anderson might not have been wrong and whether there might possibly have been no theft at all. Always, however, I returned to the matter of the acquisitive chuckle, and I trusted Anderson's judgment."

"You did right to do so," said Jackson softly, "for I did steal something from my one-time partner, the gentleman you have referred to as Anderson. I never regretted the act for one moment."

"It was something of value, I presume."

"It was of the greatest value and no day passed without my thinking of the theft and rejoicing in the fact that the wicked man no longer had what I had taken away."

"And you deliberately roused his suspicions in order that you might experience the greater joy."

"Yes, sir."

"And you did not fear being caught?"

"Not for one moment, sir."

"By God," roared Avalon suddenly, his voice soaring to breakneck loudness. "I say it again. Beware the wrath of a patient man. I am a patient man, and I am tired of this endless cross-examination. Beware my wrath, Henry. What was it you carried off in your attache case?"

"Why, nothing, sir," said Henry. "It was empty."

"Heaven help me! Where did you put whatever it was you took from him?"

"I didn't have to put it anywhere, sir."

"Well, then, what did you take?"

"Only his peace of mind, sir," said Henry gently.


This story first appeared in the January 1972 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

It taught me an object lesson, too, in this matter of chains of logical deduction. I've often thought that the ease with which story detectives weave their inexorable webs of logic was too pat; that in real life there would always be large holes.

Sometimes, the holes appear even in the stories. After "The Acquisitive Chuckle" had appeared, a reader wrote to tell me that I had neglected to specify that Jackson's attache case was really his own, and that it might well have been the attache case that he had stolen. That had never occurred to me and so, of course, it didn't occur to any of the characters in the story.

For the book, therefore, I added a couple of lines to take care of that possibility. (That shows you, by the way, that readers aren't merely replete with troublesome questions, as the Introduction would seem to imply. Sometimes they are very useful, and I appreciate those occasions greatly.)

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