by Ben Solomon
This story first appeared as part of Ben’s subscription series in July 2013.
Brother, what a yarn. Real Ripley’s stuff. Who’d of thought the lives of two people could hang in the balance over a thing like that. I’m betting that’s what the department can’t dope out. You’ve got means, you’ve got opportunity, you’ve even got the murder weapon. But you can’t grasp the motive. There’s even a second weapon you’re all in the dark about. After a fashion. Sure there is.
Just when you think you’ve seen it all. G-Men in Washington have their textbooks and all their statistics and they can go fry an egg. Throw the works out the window. Along comes Pandereos Ajax to crab the works. He’ll keep all those highfalutin criminologists scratching their heads, all right. And keep your department guessing. That’s the truth. Maybe we’ve all got a defective switch waiting to burn out.
He sure didn’t look the type. They seldom do. He fooled me. He fooled me but good. You ever see a cherub? In person? I’m talking alive and kicking. This gink would do as the world’s oldest. Rosy cheeked, angel faced and double-chinned. A ruddy complexion flushed his fat, round face and set off powder blue eyes that sparkled like seltzer water. The pipe looked miscast, all right, extending through his lips like a permanent appendage. The only thing missing was a Times Square intersection and a Checker Cab. Or a boy scout, maybe. Like a Saturday Evening Post cover come to life.
You wouldn’t believe it, now. Not from the looks of the mug you’ve got down in the vault. That’s the truth. A far cry from just a couple days ago.
I asked him, “Norman Rockwell send you?”
“I beg your pardon?”
The angelic eyes blinked twice. “By way of introduction.”
He drew a thick, linen-finished business card from a vest pocket. He forked it over. The scent of talcum rose off the card. I read it out loud: “Pandereos Ajax, scrivener.” A professional cherub, no less.
He checked his pocket watch, fingered the pipe. I deposited the card on the blotter.
“Yes. My wife and I are practitioners of professional correspondence.”
“Co-respondents, eh? Sounds a bit saucy.”
“Correspondents. Writers. You’re probably teasing, but you must understand the grave nature of my visit. We are expert in letters and business writing. We craft any manner of missives for personal or professional purposes. A practice that has seen better days, I fear.”
“I see. Scribes, is it?”
“Scribes, yes. That is correct.”
“And your wife—”
“Mrs. Ajax works for you?”
“We serve separate fields of clients. Mrs. Ajax prints her own business cards.” He dug another calling card from the other vest pocket.
“Dolores Ajax, Scrivener. You come prepared, Mr. Ajax.”
“Yes.” The tiny mouth bent into a tiny smile. It appeared to hurt.
“Uh huh. I’m afraid I don’t require any secretarial services. And then there’s always the pool right down the hall.”
“Can a mere secretary compose a business proposal? Or draft revisions to an intricate set of by-laws?”
“I don’t know. I’ll be sure to ask one the next chance I get.”
“They cannot. I assure you.”
“They have neither the requisite education nor the art.”
“Then that’s just swell for you. But I still don’t need your services.”
“That is not what brought me here today.”
“That’s good, ’cause I hate having to give anyone the boot. Although I’ve got the art and education, all right. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.”
“You don’t exactly woo your customers into the gate, do you?”
“I’m not big on sugar or molly coddling.”
“A most interesting sales approach. Your contrariness has already instilled in me a certain degree of trust.”
“I can take it or leave it.”
“I am sure that you can.”
“So I’m the cat’s meow and you’re not selling anything. What’s on your mind, Mr. Ajax?”
Just about every client beats about the bush. You can count on it. Some variation of hemming and hawing. Nine times out ten. The cherub’s twinkling eyes gave me the once over. He brought out a small box of wooden matches. A studied, smooth slide of the stick caught flame in four attempts. He fired up the bowl with short, easy draws.
“Shall we make it twenty questions, Mr. Ajax?”
He scratched the tip of his nose and shot a narrowed gaze into the pipe bowl.
“I’m being sabotaged.”
“Sabotage, is it?”
“Yes, sabotage! I am being deliberately undermined with malice and meanness of spirit.”
“That’s a harsh accusation. I’m supposing, just supposing, mind you, that sabotage isn’t commonplace in your line.”
“Of course it is not. But it is evident, nonetheless!”
“I barely made note of the first occurrence.”
“There’s been more than one attempt?”
“Uh huh. Do go on.”
“I fear it will sound like nothing on its own.”
“If you can stand it, so can I.”
“Very good. The first time,” he chuckled to himself like a pixie, “you could say X marks the spot.”
“The X key on my typewriter!”
Ajax must of thought I followed ’cause he clammed up. After two dry puffs he took the hint.
“On the typewriter. The key proved unusable?”
“That’s your grand sabotage.”
“That was merely the opening salvo. I had the machine repaired and thought nothing of it.” He raised an index finger.
“I thought nothing of it until two weeks later—”
“There had to be another shoe.”
“The Q came next. Irretrievably stuck.”
“It was a royal nuisance.”
“A Royal typewriter?”
“Very good. Royal Typewriter. Yes.”
“Sounds bad for you.”
“Indeed! There was the matter of lost time. And then the consideration of paying for the repair.”
“All right, Mr. Ajax. Let’s have it.”
Ajax scooted the chair closer. His upper body bowed forward. The words came out in a whispered breath.
“The letter S.”
“The letter S, my good man!”
“You don’t say.”
“I say so most implicitly!”
“Is that serious?”
“Are you deliberately attempting to needle me?”
“I wouldn’t dream of it, Mr. Ajax.”
“I’ll have you know that the letter S is the eighth most frequently used letter in the English language.”
“Is that gospel?”
“You just used two yourself.”
“These are facts based on the Oxford dictionary. I’ll have you know that the letter S appears in more than 25 percent of our words.”
“You sure know your business, Mr. Ajax. I’ll take your word on that.”
“An unworkable S is fatal, fatal to my business.”
“It is a veritable death knell.”
“Threatening life and livelihood always ranks as a serious matter in my book, Mr. Ajax.”
“I am heartened by that.”
“Do you have many professional enemies, Mr. Ajax? Any at all?”
“Pshaw! That’s an absurd notion.”
“Then I guess I don’t follow, Mr. Ajax.”
Again the body bowed forward and the voice dropped. “It’s Mrs. Ajax. The nag is deliberately disabling my keys.”
“Disabling, is she?”
“I know it!” A chubby fist struck softly on the desk.
“Would you venture to say, Mr. Ajax, until these recent mishaps, that you and Mrs. Ajax got along?”
“We have always gotten along swimmingly. We almost never talk.”
“That’s one way to do it.”
“She must be stopped!”
“Have you spoken to her about it?”
“Indeed I have. ‘Dear,’ I said to her. ‘Dear, have we been tampering with the keys of my typewriter?'”
“You came right out with it, did you? Just like that?”
“Do you know what she said?”
“I haven’t the faintest.”
“She said, ‘I have not the slightest bit of interest in you or your typewriter.’ I am quoting verbatim.”
“That’s enough to put a man right off his Wheaties.”
“It is indeed. So you see? Can you understand? I am at my wit’s end!”
“What is it that happens, exactly, when you reach your wit’s end?”
“I have not come here to be mocked!”
“I’ll tell you, Mr. Ajax. What you’ve got there is a domestic dispute. That’s not exactly in my line.”
“But she has to be stopped. She must be stopped. I am feeling desperate and entirely out of sorts. If this continues any longer, if she strikes again, I, I, I—”
“You don’t know what?”
“I may be unanswerable for my actions.”
“Simmer down, simmer down, Mr. Ajax. I’d hate to see you going off half-cocked and all. There must be a reason for this—I’m not saying it’s a good one, mind you. But there’s got to be a cause behind all this. Something tripped the wire.”
“What possible reason could there be?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Ajax. I left my crystal at home. It’s your marriage, for crying out loud. Maybe she thinks you’re stepping out.”
“Me with a filly? That’s the silliest notion.”
“I’m just supposing. Think, Mr. Ajax. Use your noodle. Can’t you think of any possibilities?”
“I can’t think of one.”
“All right. Here it is: how about the ponies?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Your language, Mr. Ajax. It’s peppered with parlance straight from the track.”
“Is it really?”
“I did not realize.”
“That’s beside the point, Mr. Ajax. Maybe you can ease up a bit. Maybe skip the track for a time?”
“I just want her stopped.”
“Then I’m at a loss for what you want done.”
“Can’t you recommend any action at all?”
“I’m not in the habit of strong-arming women, Mr. Ajax. Not that I haven’t done it, you understand—I just don’t make a habit of it. Just the other day, for instance—”
“Confound you! I don’t care to hear anecdotes. You’re not helping me.”
“That’s a shame. That was one of my best yarns.”
“Don’t you understand what I’m telling you?”
“I’m not as dumb as I look, Mr. Ajax.”
“I cannot endure one more outrage! If she dares strike again, I’ll—I’ll just say that I won’t be responsible.”
“Now control yourself, Mr. Ajax. You don’t realize what you’re saying. Of course you’ll be responsible. We’re always responsible.”
“That makes Mrs. Ajax responsible, too.”
“True, true. It’s a two-way street, all right.
His chin sagged. The head dropped forward.
“I can’t go on this way. Every morning I begin my day methodically testing each and every key. Painstakingly. One by one, row by row. First in the lowercase position, then in the shift position. One by one. I know she’s watching. Relishing it. Savoring it. It’s maddening, maddening.”
“Sounds like madness, Mr. Ajax.
“I just want her stopped.”
“I’m afraid you’ve got one choice, Mr. Ajax.”
The moon face tilted my way. The sparkling eyes displayed red rings.
“You’re going to have to talk to Delores.”
“It’s so far gone.”
“What else are you going to do? Open a new office? Kick her out? Challenge her to a duel?”
Ajax’s chin quivered as he shook his fat head.
“Talk to Delores, Mr. Ajax.”
“There’s nothing you can do for me.” He rose with some effort. “I’m left with no other alternative.”
His bulk plodded toward the door. He turned before he left; he wished me good day. I wished him luck. His line about having no alternative stuck with me. You could take that one a couple of ways. I tossed the business cards in a desk drawer and got back to the newspaper.
I never heard from Ajax again. Not directly. But I saw his write up in the paper two days later.
WORDSMITH SHOOTS SPOUSE,
TAKES OWN LIFE
The story ran short and sweet. Big on crime scene description. Plenty big on sensationalism and morbid detail. There was nothing whatsoever to draw any conclusions from. It struck me you boys couldn’t help being stuck in the dark on this one. So I thought I’d drop by and give you an earful of Ajax’s beaut of a motive.
But before you brought me up here? I’m cooling my heels downstairs in the squad room. Sergeant Polhouse spots me.
Comes by to say hello. We got to talking about what I’m doing there and the whole Ajax conundrum. Then he says for me to hold. He says there’s something I’ve just got to see.
Polhouse disappears from the squad room, then returns a few minutes later carrying a document.
“What have you got there, Polhouse?”
“A copy of a note.”
“A note, eh?”
“Yeah, a note.”
“What kind of note, Polhouse?”
“It’s what we in the trade call a suicide note.”
“From anyone we know?”
“That’s right. I thought you might want to peruse it.”
Polhouse hands me the paper and strolls off. I lit up a stick, sat back, and read the last work by Pandereos Ajax. I read it very, very careful.
To Whom This May Fall:
I am guilty.
Mrs. Ajax is through, by my own hand.
D. had no options; I had no options.
Distraught was our situation.
Our association, so straining, now final.
No win, no show.
Mrs. Ajax is guilty.
I am also.
My last act so foul, so dark, almost monstrous.
This is almost too much, almost mystifying and profound, this that I conduct.
So dark. So guilty.
So, so sorry.
That’s one honey of a send-off. Neatly typed, of course. Composed entirely without the letter E.
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