A MAN OF GREAT TASTE
(A short story by Terry Edwin Walstrom)
The turnoff from the main highway had possibly been the only sane choice for Cal Hector and his ‘48 Ford ‘Woodie” station wagon.
The endless roadway, straight as the edge of a ruler, sprawled due west into the evening’s red sun, blinding him to oncoming traffic. Dying in a car crash, however, didn’t frighten the little man in the Valentino sport coat; death was inevitable for all living things—it would be the utterly banal manner of his demise and the needless spoilage of the collectible automobile which would offend him.
He reached over to the passenger seat and chucked the hound under her silky Saluki chin.
“Sorry, my darling Bitch! Another five minutes on that roadway and you’d be scrambling after ghost rabbits on hell’s highway!”
The newly weaned Saluki had been bred for him by the most reputable kennel in Kentucky. He had paid cash in new bills and gathered her up into his arms and plopped her into the front seat of his vintage car.
“Mr. Hector, sir—she shouldn’t be in the front seat with you—she’s unaccustomed to travel—and besides, an awkward turn could injure her.” The breeder had wagged his boney finger at him, which Hector thought resembled a bobbed tail on an old Pug.
“Nonsense—do you think I’ve never owned an animal before? I’m the safest driver on the road!”
And off they went, peeling dust and hurling gravel into an impromptu cyclone of missiles at the breeder’s face.
“Rude bastard!” was shouted and drowned out by the loud report of the car engine.
“Imagine the cheek of that toad, my little princess.”
The little man wrinkled his nose in a graceless smile and offered two ‘air kisses’ toward his pooch.
“Allow me to introduce myself to you. My name is Cal Hector and you are a very, very fortunate beast to be owned by me.”
The Saluki pup cocked her head at an odd angle and made a small sound which could not be confused as a bark. It was more of an acknowledgment.
“You’re most welcome, my dearest. I’m naming you after my favorite lady in the entire world, Miss Marple.” The baby hound leaned at an opposite angle and sniffed at the driver.
“Miss Marple is a consulting detective and a perfect foil for my own work. I am a collector of fine things. In case you didn’t notice, you are my latest acquisition.”
The pup’s tongue briefly darted out of her muzzle and she shifted weight as the car made yet another turn down a torturous back road leading nowhere.
“My business card is quite clever, Marple. I designed it myself, of course. I don’t suppose you read, so I’ll simply describe it to you. The Mohawk superfine card stock has a stunning tactile quality you won’t find domestically. You’d have to go to Switzerland or the south of France among the nattering nabobs of eclectic lifestyles. Understand?”
Miss Marple swung her sleek neck in an arc toward her feathery fur at tail’s end. Satisfied at this subjective inspection process she uplifted her nose toward the driver and allowed herself the pleasure of a noble nod—or so it appeared to the eyes of Cal Hector.
“I like to think of myself as a detective of sorts—seeking out and discovering the rarest collectibles on this or any other continent. That is why I selected you—a rabbit courser—purebred for the hunt of the most elusive hares.
I digress. My card reads, “Cal Hector” and under that Calibri script is one word, “Collector.”
The hound arched an eyebrow.
“You’ve grasped my little wordplay, haven’t you? Cal Hector and collector are almost identical as homophones. There is a toll-free number at the left and a web address on the right; simple, elegant and effective.”
Outside, the landscape had varied, twisted, reshaped and meandered for the last ten miles. The sun was low at the horizon and dusk threatened to swallow the roadway, for there was no other source of light.
“Oh dear, Miss Marple—I may have avoided the blinding sunlight at the risk of our becoming quite lost, I fear.”
The ’48 Woodie pull off the two lane and paused near a grove of oak trees in the first throes of oncoming winter; the leaves having turned color slightly although still bravely clinging to the branch tips.
The fussy man in the driver’s seat jabbed at his cell phone in vain effort to capture a signal. Growing steadily flustered, he rummaged about in the glove compartment and extracted a roadmap which he scrutinized for several frustrating minutes.
Miss Marple betrayed a need necessitated by nature with an elegant signal for her master: one brisk F# bark. The little man scrambled out of the wood paneled station wagon and opened the passenger door, whereupon the hound leaped to freedom and dashed off into the underbrush as though conjured by a magician.
The ensuing pursuit ended just as the last rays of dwindling light vanished behind the wooded hill country and the first stars upon the horizon blinked on like distant watch fires.
Cal Hector had barely made out a silhouette of Miss Marple standing on the front stoop of some kind of large house or a shop of some vague description. As he sputtered and cursed under his breath two bright flood lamps flashed on and the driveway of a parking lot sprang before his eyes. Lights glowed behind two curtained windows and an intricately carved wooden door slowly opened whereupon the figure of a man in a silk smoking jacket took shape in the doorway. Miss Marple offered her muzzle for petting and ran straightaway into the structure at the proprietor’s behest.
“I say—see here my good man, that’s my Saluki and I uh. . .” Hector caught himself and suddenly switched gears as he had quickly realized he was a lost intruder. This necessitated hospitality on the part of the shop’s proprietor, not to mention goodwill for the remainder of the evening.
“What I mean is—I’m sorry my hound has invaded your space—I’ll fetch her immediately. My name is Calvin Osgood Hector, and I’m afraid I turned off the main highway and got myself and Miss Marple quite lost.”
The proprietor was thin; a European-looking man of indeterminate age. He affected a beret and monocle. As Hector drew closer, he saw that the fellow resembled the great Surrealist painter, Salvador Dali. The pencil-thin moustache twirled into a bizarre curlicue at the ends.
“Welcome, my friend—welcome to my shop, Curios and Curiouser. I am Horatio Pettifogg and you and Miss Marple are my guests.”
Cal Hector had expected a commonplace junk store or glorified Pawn Shop so typical of tourist traps and off-road venues. He had wasted countless hours ferreting about for the one or two genuine items of interest as he made his way across state after state, county by county, city after endless city.
Had a photographer snapped a candid photograph of his expression at the moment of dawning realization inside Curios and Curiouser, the image would have made a blind man laugh. Shock and wonderment gave way to awe and admiration. The little man’s collector instincts galvanized and he fought internally to affect boredom and disinterest, but something inside him was betraying him.
He heard himself exclaiming aloud, “By the living God, I’m dumbfounded! I want to weep and beat my breast with exultation! This is the finest assortment of treasures I’ve ever witnessed, Mr. Pettifogg—I salute you and your extraordinary taste! This is a collection to die for!”
Inwardly, Cal Hector cursed himself for giving the game away. How insanely amateurish to blurt out such mad disclosures which would only serve to raise the prices of everything at once! He shook his head in anguish and self-accusation, heaving a belabored sigh of incrimination.
Horatio Pettifogg lingered near a display case containing scrimshaw artifacts. He fidgeted with his waxed mustache and snickered quietly at a man losing himself to unbridled collector passions; a scene so familiar to his eyes. Presently he spoke up in a clear, cool voice and professorial tone.
“I wouldn’t get too carried away, Mr. Hector. There are three rules in effect in my establishment to which there are no exceptions. If you’d care to give a listen, I’ll not wish to recite them for you but once.”
Miss Marple sauntered over to her master and sat looking up at him with the expression of one who expects to be fed soon. Hector’s hand fell distractedly to pat her head as his mind raced to grapple with the statement of policy about to unfold. It was undoubtedly meant to arouse a sense of unworthiness in a prospective hunter for such rarities and curios. Absent-mindedly, it did not escape his attention that both he and his hound were salivating hungrily.
“Right. . . the first rule is this: Customers may browse, shop, and otherwise negotiate by invitation only.
Second, no currency is accepted in payment for any item of worth. Only items esteemed to be of equal or greater value may be tendered for fair exchange of trade.
Third, no person may be granted an appointment that has not been referred by name through the agency of a previous customer. Is all of this understood, Mr. Hector?”
A sick feeling of nausea over swept the little man’s demeanor. His shoulders slumped. His otherwise firm chin lost its center, drooping rather dully off to the side, as though he’d been struck by a fist. Cal Hector swallowed hard and took in a long, deep breath and held it. He swept his tongue across his teeth and swallowed again. Clearly it was time to feign disinterest until a plan of action came to mind he could act upon. He’d negotiated with every sort of man and woman to great success across five continents. His instincts returned and the predator nature of the collector rose within him, not unlike righteous indignation at having been stymied before he’d even begun.
“Oh please, don’t misunderstand Mr. Pettifogg. I’m not a customer—no, no no—I’m merely a collector myself who can appreciate the excellent taste you have for the finer things of life. No, I have more than enough myself and lack room for even the smallest addition to my burgeoning shelves at home.”
As he spoke this ruse, even he didn’t believe his own lies. This was weak and—once again—amateurish. He clenched his teeth and stifled any rush to follow his tepid deflection with additional hollow protests.
The Salvador Daliesque proprietor pursed his lips in a small pout and shrugged.
“Very well—as you wish. Fair is far. May I offer you and your fine beast something to slake your appetites?”
Within half an hour the two men sat at a dinette next to a wall emblazoned with Erte’ serigraphy and surrounded by bronzes of Bruno Bruni and Michael Parkes, which Hector did not recognize. Miss Marple stood straddling a gold dish laden with tripe which she disposed of elegantly, but without slurping noises or rude haste. It was more appetizer than a meal.
As they sipped postprandial Courvoisier and nibbled at the side dish of lime sherbet, the two savvy mavens sat silently ruminating, as though they were crocodiles--rivals-- on an exotic river bank.
Hector’s eyes caressed, one by one, each item on display—silently tabulating the intrinsic collector value and weighing what offer might be tendered.
“As I told you, Mr. Hector—I do not accept legal tender of any denomination. I do not entertain offers by persons who have not been referred to me—not to put too fine a point on it, such as yourself.”
“Were you reading my mind, Mr. Pettifogg?” Cal Hector marveled at the other man’s intuitions and speculated what a fine poker player he might be.
“I assure you I am not bluffing,” came Pettifogg’s reply with dazzling insight.
Miss Marple had polished the gold dish with her tongue and paused with intense interest to scrutinize the miniature pup reflected on its shiny surface. Eventually, she lost the train of thought and sighed with drooping eyelids. She snuffled momentarily and wandered over to a chaise lounge by Marc Newsom at the edge of the room. Dropping down and shuffling under it, after two more settling sighs, the world famous detective’s namesake fell fast asleep.
Conversation ranged from world travel to wine, women, and eventually music. The men had lapsed into uninspired banter, bonhomie, and an affected worldliness. Neither man wished to be the first to betray the reason for awkward avoidance of the essential passions of the predator/ collector.
“How many years have you devoted yourself to your pursuits, Mr. Pettifogg?”
It seemed neutral and innocent enough for a gambit, Hector thought to himself.
“Longer-than-you-could-possibly-imagine or believe, Mr. Hector. Why don’t we place our cards on the table and not waste each other’s valuable time?” A definite trace of ill will laced his words.
Cal Hector jerked a bit, startled by the suddenness with which the earnest matter at hand had been thrust forward. He esteemed the proprietor to be a man of great intuition and subtlety.
“Why don’t you tell me who has referred you?”
A jolt of adrenaline coursed through Hector’s body and his mind was electrified with cunning. As abruptly as Pettifogg had weighed in on his business policies, it was now clear to the little man that only one false move would Scotch this remarkable opportunity. Hector had no referral to offer.
He had brought nothing of value to trade. As hard as it was to believe, it was somehow quite believable that Pettifogg might not seek cash at all, only some new rarity to enhance his extraordinary collection.
“My sponsor has begged me not to mention his name,” Hector improvised his lie as he spoke, all the while carefully inspecting the body language and facial expressions of his host to ascertain any whiff or hint of a reaction to inform his negotiation with a facile finesse or two.
Pettifogg allowed a snide chuckle to escape and then waved it away as if it were cigar smoke in his eyes. “It is that Belgian fop—the old fool—isn’t it?”
Hector seized upon this immediately!
“You have extraordinary powers of deduction, Mr. Pettifogg; I compliment you!”
Pettifogg lifted his head proudly, preening his ego like a peacock unfurling a resplendent display of shimmering feathers.
“Philippe Albert overestimates his importance in the world, Mr. Hector. How childish of him to seek anonymity—he knows my policy. But, he knows my weaknesses as well as I know his. You have come for the music! Nobody else would dare, but an associate of King Albert!”
Now Hector’s mind was racing, calibrating, chasing itself in a fugue of confusion and greed. What was the expression he was seeking? “Go with the flow?” Yes—that is what he must do!”
“Please allow me the privilege of entertaining your hospitable offer, Mr. Pettifogg. Yes, of course, I have come for the, um, music.”
When Cal Hector regained consciousness, he felt the sudden rush of pain searing his brain. He groped inside his mind for bearings. One-thing-at-a-time. He seemed to be bound with his arms behind him in an awkward position. This room was different than before. He tried to turn his head to glimpse some clue to chase the confusion. A wave of roaring hot pain halted all movement!
“Ah, welcome back Mr. Hector. The snifter of Courvoisier was too strong for you, I suspect?”
As Hector’s eyes tried to focus on Pettifogg’s face, he glanced distractedly wandered down to the concrete floor of a vast room. There was some red wine puddling up beneath him. How curious!
“Those of us who belong to the collector’s club eventually all suffer from the law of diminishing returns; the boredom, the absence of excitement—of that first thrill from the first kill!”
Hector’s gaze had not wavered from the spilled wine, although the words of Pettifogg caught at the edges of his awareness and signaled a subconscious beacon demanding attention.
“What would a man trade for his arms and legs? Which rare collectible is half as valuable as his eye or genitals, for instance?”
Hector decided the ‘wine’ must be congealing because the texture of its surface was flat rather than glistening. He thought to himself how the word, Sangria, came from the word for blood—and blood certainly congealed when spilled.
“We have a most efficient referral system, as I explained to you earlier. When that ridiculous Belgian referred you to me, he probably understood a little man like you would gladly barter his entire collection to prolong life as long as possible.”
Hector wondered foggily why anybody would offer Sangria after Courvoisier. . . the conflict on one’s palette would be unthinkably discordant. Surely Pettifogg had intended it as a joke of some kind. Perhaps he had discovered Hector’s silly subterfuge and was merely signaling his displeasure at the rude lies given him in exchange for hospitality.
“I’ve opened up your femoral artery just enough for your hound to slake her thirst before the main course of fresh meat I’m about to offer her. The tourniquet is painful, but necessary, of course.
Cal Hector’s head had slowly gathered focus until the words began congealing into contexts. The contexts sharpened into warnings and intentions until a jolt of sudden fear woke him entirely to his state of emergency.
“My God in heaven! What have you done, Pettifogg?”
“You are certainly slow to grasp relevance, Mr. Hector. I’m asking you to barter your body parts in exchange for your collectibles—how much clearer do I have to make my offer? As you said when you walked in--'a collection to die for.”
Hector’s brain caught fire with the impact of fear, terror and complete horror. He began to scream a long, loud, melodious scream that never seemed to end.
“Ah, the music—they all come for the music, don’t they? Where should we begin? We’ll make a list of what you have in your little collection and proceed from there; perhaps a hand for a Tiffany lamp—a leg for a Matisse? How about a testicle or two for a Rolls Silver Ghost, eh Mr. Hector? As you rightly testified upon your arrival, it is a collection to die for.”
Miss Marple’s red tongue lolled at the corner of her elegant mouth. Over the course of several months, she had settled in. This particular evening, she gazed contentedly around her new home and heaved a great contented sigh at the bounty of her meaty reward, and circled her velvet cushion several times before plopping onto it in front of a comfortable, crackling fire. Without a doubt, her new Master was a man of fine breeding.
But, her previous Master had certainly been a man of great taste.