It is not, perhaps, widely known that both P G Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler attended Dulwich College. They were not contemporaries, and never wrote together, but imagine if they had …
Farewell my Oofy by P G Chandler
It was one of those days you get in London towards the end of February, when the fog rolls in from the Thames and the crack houses are hidden by even more noxious vapours than usual. It was cold; so cold that even the cheap streetwalkers were wearing woollen tights. I sat in my office huddled up in my greatcoat, wishing I had enough dough to pay the gas bill. Business was slow; after I’d fingered Sir Gregory Parsloe for the pig theft at Blandings I’d been hoping for more jobs from the aristocracy, but so far nothing had come through. Lord Emsworth had handed me a generous cheque, but it was pretty much all spent, and if a good job didn’t come through soon so was I.
I was just about to reach for the fifth of single malt in the bottom drawer of my desk when the door opened. In the doorway stood a girl. I took my hand away from the scotch and gave her my full attention. She was blonde; and the kind of blonde that would be enough to make a monk kick the habit.
“Are you Bertie Wooster?” she asked. She looked kind of worried, as if I wasn’t what she’d been expecting.
“That’s the name on the door,” I told her; “whether you believe it or not is up to you.”
“Bertie Wooster the detective?”
“So the charge sheet usually says. Can I do something for you, Miss – ?”
She came in, moving like silk on velvet, and sat down on the chair the other side of my desk. This didn’t surprise me, since the only other place to sit was on the floor, and that hadn’t been cleaned since I’d stopped being able to afford a charlady.
“Byng,” she said. “Stephanie Byng. My friends call me Stiffy.”
I could see why; she was certainly giving me one. She pulled out a packet of cigarettes.
“Do you mind if I smoke, Mr. Wooster?” she asked. “Only they’re Gauloises, and they give off a bit of a niff.”
“Anything short of a mustard gas attack could only improve this joint,” I told her, and I leaned across to light it for her. As I did so I got a load of her perfume; it smelt expensive, which went along with the way she was dressed; maybe things were looking up at last. And then again, maybe not; I noticed she was wearing an engagement ring.
“So, Miss Byng, how can I help?”
She took a drag on her Gauloise, and smiled nervously.
“I’m afraid I’ve been a bit of a silly girl, Mr. Wooster. I hope you can help me. Nobody else seems able to. Um – what do you charge for one of your – cases, do you call them?”
“Twelve pounds six and twopence a day,” I replied; “plus expenses.”
“Oh. Well, Uncle can pay, I suppose.”
“Sir Watkyn Basset, of Totleigh Towers. It’s in Gloucestershire. He’s my guardian.”
“Why would an angel like you need a guardian?”
She smiled sweetly at this weak gag, and I had to move my chair closer to the desk.
“Well, you know, since Mama and Papa died he’s brought me up practically single handed. But – ” and she leaned forward over my desk in a way that made me wonder if my health insurance was paid up – “he mustn’t know. Nor can Madeline. And especially not Stinker.”
“Well, of course not. We can’t have stinkers knowing things. What is it these people haven’t got to know, exactly?”
She rummaged through her handbag, and produced a matchbook. She passed it to me. On the back was an ad for a health spa, and on the front was the one word ‘Drones’.
“Heard of it?” she asked.
I certainly had. The Drones Club was notorious as a front for London’s largest cocaine smuggling racket. The kind of people who went there were both seriously rich, and seriously serious. I gave a low whistle.
“For a sweet little sister from the sticks you keep some pretty fast company,” I observed.
“It’s not what you think,” she said, a defensive note creeping into her voice. “I’ve never been there. But someone left this when they came to call on me.”
I looked up sharply.
“Someone I owed rather a lot of money to.”
“Ah. I get it. Gambling?”
“Little flutter on the gee-gees.”
She shook her head.
“That’s not the worry. I can afford it. Well, Uncle can afford it. But this man is threatening to expose me to my guardian unless I – well, unless I break off my engagement and – go off with him.”
I looked at her. She took a defiant drag on her cigarette.
“I can see several ways this could go,” I told her. “But why come to me? Why doesn’t your fiancé just go and poke this guy in the snoot?”
“Oh, no, Stinker – I mean Harold – couldn’t do that. Well, he could. He used to box for his college. But if he did that, and Uncle found out, he wouldn’t get a living.”
“You mean he’d die?”
“No, no, no. Harold’s a vicar. Well, a curate. But a terribly poor one. I mean, he’s a very good one, but hasn’t got any money. He can’t afford to get on the wrong side of Uncle, because he can only afford to marry me if Uncle gives him the living – makes him Vicar of Totleigh. So Harold has to be kept out of it.”
“I see. And Uncle wouldn’t approve of Harold punching this guy, huh?”
“I should jolly well think not. He’s a magistrate. Uncle is, I mean.”
“So, what is it you want me to do for you, exactly?”
“Well, I’ve paid the money I owe. But so long as this man has my marker for the debt, he can go to Uncle at any time, and then Uncle would cut me off, and then Harold would never be able to afford to marry me, and he’d break it off, because he’s terribly responsible, and would never promise to marry a girl he couldn’t keep in the style to which she is accustomed, and everything would be ruined.”
I digested this for a minute.
“Okay; say he does holler uncle. What’s to stop you saying he’s lying? How could Uncle know he was telling the truth?”
“Because the marker is Uncle’s favourite and very valuable antique silver cow creamer, and what I need you to do, Mr. Wooster, is get that cow creamer back for me.”
“You want me to steal antiques for you?”
“Well, it wouldn’t really be stealing, would it, because I stole it off Uncle in the first place, and so all you’d be doing is recovering stolen property, and restoring it to it’s rightful owner. Well, Harold would be the one to do the restoring, because then Uncle would be so grateful he’d give Harold the living.”
I raised one eyebrow at her. She had it all figured out, and I had her all figured out, too. This broad was trouble. With a capital T.
I turned the matchbook over in my fingers. There was something I needed to know.
“This loan-shark with a sideline in blackmail. Does he have a name?”
She told me the name; the name of the richest and most serious of all the seriously rich people at the Drones. Oofy Wegg-Prosser.
I’ve been down some pretty mean streets in my time, but the one with the Drones Club on it wasn’t one of them. The buildings here were the kind where entry was strictly by invitation only, and anyone not invited was made aware of that by large gentlemen in porters uniforms. I was still kicking myself for taking the case, because breaking and entering isn’t normally my style, but there was nothing else on the horizon, and gas bills don’t pay themselves. And as the Byng dame had said, it technically wasn’t stealing. Or so I kept telling myself.
Oofy Wegg-Prosser lived more or less permanently at the Drones, according to my informant Harry the Bean, who had the soda concession at most of these places. Harry and I went back a long way, and he still owed me a favour or two. But even he couldn’t get me an invite to a place like the Drones, which was why I was sneaking round the back alleys of the West End at two o’clock in the morning, carrying a jemmy I’d borrowed from Soapy Molloy. Actually I’d borrowed it from his wife Dolly; Soapy didn’t need it right now, on account of how he was doing five to ten in the Scrubs.
The night was as black as a politician’s heart, which suited me just fine. If word got around that Bertie Wooster burgled gentlemen’s clubs, it might attract altogether too much of the wrong sort of attention. I found what I was looking for on the ground floor back. The window to the kitchen had been left slightly open, presumably to expel a few strong odours, and with the help of Soapy’s jemmy I soon turned that slightly into wholly, and climbed into the kitchen. It smelt pretty much how I expected, mainly of tapioca and Yorkshire pudding.