I sat at my desk, flicking through the Times and wondering how I was going to make the rent. Taking in washing suggested itself. Then Doris buzzed in a couple of potential clients. The tall one was wringing his cap in his hands like a washcloth after a shower. The other, shiny faced and fat, fixed me with an eye like a raisin in dough. He must have been the brains.
“So what can I do for you gentlemen?” I opened, though I didn’t mean it. These guys were hicks. It emerged they were from a little town upstate that had found itself in a spot of trouble. Some children had gone missing and in place of the ransom note they expected there had been a long silence. The local flatfoots had turned up nothing and now they thought a hotshot LA detective might have something to offer. I guess they couldn’t find one of those so they came to me.
I let them tell the story, which was not the usual fare. It seems this moth-eaten burgh had been plagued by rats. Big rats, eating everything in sight. The mayor had called in various investigators and exterminators. The rats kept on ripping through the town’s feeble output of grain and the rednecks were frantic. So the call went out wider.
One day a foreigner arrived, German they thought, or Dutch. He could have been Chinese for all these mooks knew. They weren’t the greatest sophisticates.
Anyway, the guy got rid of the rats. I thought I ought to show interest, so I asked how.
“Well,” said the fat guy. “That’s where it gets spooky. He did it by blowing into a little pipe, like a clarinet or something, and they just came out of everywhere and followed him.”
“They did, huh?” I couldn’t see it. A guy makes like Sidney Bechet on the Main Street of Nowheresville and suddenly every rodent for miles around goes with him. “So where did he take them?”
“Well, that’s what we don’t know,” said the nervy fellow. “But it might be important.”
“Might,” I said, noncommittally. I didn’t think I’d clue them in on my line of deduction.
So the clarinet man takes the rats away and comes back for his dough. He’d been promised 500 clams by the mayor and what do you know, the mayor doesn’t want to pay it. He’d been expecting the labours of Hercules, not a trick out of Loony Tunes.
Well, our German/Dutch/Chinese friend wasn’t amused. He told the Mayor that he’d be sorry and left town. Then he came back, blew his horn in the night, and when the adults woke up the next day, all the kids were gone. All except one lame one, who got left behind, one deaf one, who didn’t hear the music, and one blind one. I don’t recall why the blind one got left but it’ll come to me.
“Will you help us?” asked the fat man.
“Who’s paying me?” It turned out that the two losers had been hired by a dame. She’d lost a couple of her kids and wanted them back. That’s not always the way it works, believe me.
So I drove up. To call it a town was a considerable overstatement. There was a crumbling gas station at one end, a white-painted church at the other, and in the middle a kind of feed store. Hameln was the kind of place that even a rat wouldn’t want to call home. I’d agreed to meet Mrs Timperley at the feed store, which was also a kind of drug store, and also a kind of five-and-dime. For all its attractions, it had only the one customer.
She was sitting on a bar stool in a frock a size too small and looked right at home. Her honey blonde hair undulated like the waves off Malibu. When she saw me come in, she swept it back from one eye and thrust out her hand. “Mr Marlowe,” she said. “Veronica Timperley.” I’m no head-shrinker, but there was something going on here that was not grief.
I got to the point. “Tell me about your children.”
“Oh, they’re not my children. Jenny and Jimmy. I’m their aunt. Kind of their aunt. But I’ve taken on the task of getting them back. My husband, Ryan Timperley, is a rich man, and this is a poor town. You do what you can.”
“I’m sure you do, Mrs H,” I said, lighting her cigarette. She inhaled deeply and fixed me with her baby-blue peepers, and I knew I would have to proceed with caution.