The Poison Pittsburg, chapter one


Chapter One

        Under normal circumstances, I would have been happy to hear the phone ring. Business had been slow, and I could have used the job security. However, I was in the middle of transcribing my notes from the Duras case and did not welcome the interruption. I groped for the phone with one hand while continuing to peck at the keyboard with the other.
        "Office of Oliver Hammond, forensic documents investigator," I answered in my best "lobby ornament" voice, "how may I help you?" I am not a receptionist, but answering the phones became my job by default, since Hammond has a habit of scurrying from the room whenever one rings.
        "Who is this?" came a curt voice from the other end.
        "This is Erika Valentine, his assistant. With whom am I speaking?" Jerk, I added in my ZZZhead.
        "This is Jeffrey Oskgaard, of Oskgaard, Gilbert, and Finch. I need to speak with Mr. Hammond."
        "I'm afraid Mr. Hammond is unavailable right now." The truth was, Hammond was probably down in the basement tinkering with one of his typewriters. I don't like lawyers, though, and I particularly did not like this one, so I intended to let him stew. "Can I take a message or make an appointment?"
        "Have him call me at my office as soon as he can. I represent the estate of the late Eliot Vandermar, and we request his expertise in closing the affairs of the deceased."
        I had read about Eliot Vandermar in the newspapers. Actually, I had read him long before his passing two weeks earlier. Eliot Vandermar had been a famously prolific world-class novelist, winner of the Penn award, the Pulitzer, and--oddly enough--a Hugo. He was also a famously world-class bastard, whose books and editorials verbally abused everyone from the President to the mayor of Chicago, to youthful poets asking for advice, to the editor of the New Yorker. (That last one, I suppose, is a sport of tradition and can be forgiven, but the fact remains that he was not a very nice guy.) The Hugo award, I recall, had been for a rewrite of Dante's Inferno in which all of his contemporary literary colleagues were punished in Hell for crimes against literature. His nickname was The Poison Pen. I'll bet the funeral was packed.
        "I heard about him. That's so sad. However, Mr. Hammond does not make phone calls."
        "You may call on him, or he may call on you, but he does not conduct business over the phone."
        Oskgaard made a small strangled sound over the phone. "All right. I would like him to meet me at Vandermar's house at two o'clock. Will two o'clock work?"
        I consulted my imaginary appointment book. "I believe he can squeeze you in, yes."
        Oskgaard gave me the address and hung up. I put away the notes I'd been working on and went downstairs to find Hammond. Halfway down the basement steps, Hammond's cat Bijou rocketed past me on her way up. For some reason, she always thinks that she's in trouble when I'm around. "Relax, Bijou," I said. "Go kill a mouse or something."
        I found Hammond at his workbench, poking with a dental pick at the undercarriage of a Smith-Corona Sterling. I recognized the glossy maroon sheen as being the one that Hammond had spared from the garbage of millionaire Wendall Holst, for whom we had validated the Lincoln poem. He flipped the machine upright with a look of triumph as I approached.
        "Look at that, Erika, just look at that!" he exclaimed while rat-a-tatting the spacebar. The platen jiggled along the carriage. "One spring! Reattached one spring and it's as good as new!"
        "That's great, Oliver," I said, unimpressed. His enthusiasm for old mechanical things did not resonate with me. I handed him the message pad. "We've got a job; do you want it?"
        He peered at the message. "Oh, yes. I expected they'd call eventually." He handed me the message pad back. "As soon as the proper mourning period had elapsed and it was time to cash in the estate."
        "What do you mean?"
        "I mean, they're going to ask me--us--to certify that all of the late Mr. Vandermar's papers and manuscripts were, in fact, his. Then they're going to turn around and sell them, most likely to a large library or university, or maybe even to a private collector, for a vast sum of money."
        "What do you want me to tell Oskgaard?"
        "Tell him I'll be there at two. That is, we will. I'm going to need a notary public present on this one."
        "Shoot. I was hoping to get the Duras case squared away today." I felt like stamping my foot, but it seemed unprofessional.
        "Ms. Duras is dead, m'dear. Won't make a whit of difference to her when you get it done." Hammond slid his slight frame off the stool and loped toward the stairs.
        "I hate it when you call me 'm'dear'," I said, following.
        "And that, m'dear," he said, without looking back, "is why I say it."

        The Vandermar estate occupied a sprawling chunk of land just north of Chicago, overlooking the lake. I couldn't even see the house from the front gate. Hammond tipped his porkpie hat to the private security guard manning the gate as we were checked off and waved through. He wears that porkpie everywhere. I think it looks ridiculous in this day and age, but I'm not going to tell him that. As part of his job, Oliver Hammond spends an enormous amount of time immersed in the past. At some point he just sort of got stuck there.
        The Vandermar house was breathtaking, even for the neighborhood. I mentally added up how many years of paychecks it would take before I could make even the downpayment. As it turns out, I'd be dead about forty years too early. A portly man in a suit waited for us at the top of the steps. I assumed that it was Oskgaard, an assumption which turned out to be right.
        Oskgaard led us through the labyrentine halls while I gaped at the excess. As we walked, Oskgaard fulfilled Hammond's prophecy. The literary estate, he explained, was to be sold at auction to a closed set of bidders which included two libraries and four universities. A number of private individuals had come forward with offers to purchase Vandermar's original manuscripts, but the bidding was to be by invitation only, and the executors wished for the collection to remain unbroken. Read that as they thought they could get a better price by selling it wholesale than piecemeal.
        It was our job to validate that each item in Vandermar's voluminous collection of writings were original works, not reproductions or forgeries. That would be easy enough for Hammond. He had an uncanny ability to look at a piece of paper and tell you exactly what make, model, and year typewriter had written on it. He could probably also tell you the serial number and provenance of the machine, if it was a really unusual one. In fact, I know he could; I've seen him do it. He also does handwriting analysis, though that talent is a dime-a-dozen in the forensic documents examination field. People tend to phone Oliver Hammond only when they have something unusual.
        Oskgaard took us up a teak-and-mahogany staircase and down another long hallway, past a seemingly endless phalanx of bedroom doors. How many rooms did this house have? And how many did one man need? Obviously Vandermar's tastes, like his prolificacy and his anger, tilted towards excessive.
        An empty chair, a newspaper folded neatly beside it, stood outside a door at the end of the hall. "Damnit!" exclaimed Oskgaard. "They're supposed to have a guard posted here at all times to make sure the state of the room is not compromised before you can validate the contents. I'm going to make sure someone gets fired for this!"
        We entered Eliot Vandermar's office, the pumphouse from which the well of his vitriol had poured so generously. Its walls were lined with books, many pushed halphazardly into the nearest available gap, and more books had been stacked on top of those when the gaps ran out. Newspapers, magazines, and looseleaf papers cluttered most of the floorspace. This is going to be fun, I thought to myself. Then my attention fell on the big desk in the middle of the room. The desk had not been spared its owner's housekeeping habits. An old 1940s-style wooden office chair had been pushed back from the desk and wedged at an angle in the corner. Behind it, a long set of leaded windows looked out upon Lake Michigan. I noted that Vandermar would have been sitting with his back to that gorgeous view. It was as if he had deliberately turned his back on it to avoid the distraction. Or he had wanted to keep an eye on whoever might come through the door.
        Then I noticed what was on the desk. In the midst of the jumble of papers and binders and books squatted a typewriter. A very old typewriter.
        Something unusual.
        It looked like the type of industrial-Victorian machine you might seen in sci-fi noir films like Brazil and Blade Runner. Its body was unusually long, with four banks of keys protruding from its interior like the legs of a spider resting in its hole. The platen sat high, looming over the works like it had been displaced to make room for something else. The two ribbon spools, mounted vertically, stared out of the machine face like eyes. Overall, it looked like something I'd swat with a newspaper if it got too close.
        Gothic gold lettering arching across the paper bail spelled "PITTSBURG VISIBLE". That was a new one on me. Hammond has at least one of almost every writing machine ever made, and I'd never seen one of these.
        "So this is the infamous poison pen," I said.
        "Or poison Pittsburg, as the case may be," Hammond replied, pulling up the chair and settling in behind the great author's desk. "Pittsburg No. 10. Quite rare. He had it since he was eight. His first typewriter, given to him by his mother most likely."
        "You've certainly done your homework, Mr. Hammond," Oskgaard said.
        "Hardly. Vandermar was legendary in the writing community for refusing to compose on anything but this very machine. Which should make my part of the job relatively easy. I just have to check that all of his original works match the font, pitch, and strike characteristics of this typewriter."
        "And all I have to do is stamp and sign a certificate and create a catalog reference for every single thing you glance at." I pulled a small portable embosser, a self-inking rubber stamp, and an archival pen from my purse. Most girls carry makeup; I carry office supplies. I'm a hoot out on the town. "Sounds like fun. Let's get the party started."
        Hammond tossed me a pair of white cotton gloves. Part of the job is making sure we don't disturb the state of the documents we're handling. And by "disturb the state," I mean getting chocolate or ketchup stains on an original draft of the Declaration of Independence.
        As I was pulling on my gloves, I noticed the thick stack of face-down pages, slightly askew, next to the typewriter on the desk. "Looks like he was writing a new book," I said.
        "Yes," Oskgaard replied. "In fact, he was working on it when he suffered the heart attack. His body was found on the floor, right there where you're standing, Miss Valentine."
        I took a startled step backward and bumped into Hammond. He glared at me. "Sorry," I whispered, grinning sheepishly.
        "If you won't be needing anything else," Oskgaard said, "I have some phone calls to make." He tilted his head to indicate the vacant chair in the hallway. "I'll be in the first-floor library if you need me."
        "Yes, I think we're all right," Hammond said. "Thank you."
        A quick excavation unearthed a metal folding chair beneath multiple sedimentary layers of papers, and I set to work certifying the sheafs Hammond handed across the desk to me. All went well until we got to what would have been Vandermar's latest novel. Hammond was handing it to me in several-page chunks from the top of the pile down, and I was making sure none of the pages were missing. "Sorry, Oliver. I keep smudging the print. I hope it doesn't look too bad." The fingertips of my gloves had turned black, as though I'd been reading a cheap newspaper.
        "That's all right," he said, holding up his own blackened gloves. "Seems it can't be helped. Inferior ink. Or inferior paper." Then Hammond muttered something which may have been considered blasphemous in England about fifty years ago.
        "What's wrong, Oliver?"
        "The first fifty pages of this manuscript are missing. The last page in the stack is page 51."
        "Maybe he put them in one of those binders," I suggested, "or in one of the desk drawers."
        "No. I've been through all those, and everything else in this room. Blast it! Erika, I need you to go find those missing pages. Vandermar may have taken them elsewhere in the house to work on them."
        "But why shoul I-- Oh, all right." Arguing with Hammond is like-- Well, it's like nothing else, but the end result is the same as arguing with a brick wall. I pulled off my ink-stained gloves and dropped them in the chair and went on a search of the house.
        A straight top-down search of that house would have taken weeks. Instead, I relied on my experience with writers to narrow the focus. The places where writers tend to gravitate are places where they will not be disturbed, can doze off if the mood strikes them, or where there is easy access to food. Vandermar lived alone, so solitude was not a need. I checked the bedrooms upstairs, and the lakeview sun porch downstairs, and came up empty-handed. That left food.
        Sure enough, on the dining-room table lay the scattered pages I was looking for. A half-eaten sandwich lay on a plate nearby. The sandwich was far too fresh to have been begun by a man who died two weeks ago, but I thought little of it and began collecting the pages into a neat stack. The ink, as with the rest of the manuscript, smudged and blackened my fingers.
        "Jeeeeze," I whined. I should have just left the darned gloves on. I'm a real girly-girl when it comes to getting my hands dirty.
        There appeared to be a bathroom adjoining the dining room. I set the manuscript back down and went into the bathroom to wash my hands.
        That's where I found the missing guard, sprawled on the floor.