Corncob Caper

Bruce Harris

Each year, the cheap New York City hotel rooms became seedier, people nastier, and the pipe-selling business tougher. Not that there were any fewer pipe smokers around. In fact, just the opposite. If nothing else, Bill Ballentine was a salesman who did his homework. Pipe smokers have increased by at least ten percent every year since the war. There were a lot more potential customers to reach since Ballentine entered the racket in 1941. Of course, more customers brought more competition. Aggressive competition.

Ballentine inched his way through the ill-lit hallway back to room 5, clutching the too-small towel around his waist. The bath felt good after the long journey from Albany. He unlocked the door and tossed the towel onto the bed. He shaved in the room, put on a tie and sports jacket, and thought about his plan of attack. He’d visit four stores, beginning with Pete’s Pipe Place in the Piermont Building and finishing at Skyline Tobacco near his Times Square flop. This New York selling trip was going to be a little different. Ballentine brought with him a line of corncob pipes. His boss, Mr. Brunton, laughed at the idea.

“Are you nuts, Ballentine?” he yelled. “There ain’t no such thing as city hicks. You ain’t gonna sell none of them darn things to them sophisticates.”

Ballentine grinned. His sales skills were put to the test even before hitting the road. He never did anything spur of the moment, except with his girl, Helen Richardson. He met her in the public library six months ago and had spent all his available time with her. They were crazy about each other. Before his upcoming Manhattan trip, he planned to pop the question.

“I know things, boss,” Ballentine answered.

“Great. I got me a salesman who knows things. The only thing you need to know is how to sell pipes. Spend a little less time with that girl…what’s her name….”

“Helen.”

“Whatever. You’re spending too much time with her and not –”

Ballentine heard enough. “I can promise you I’ll sell out of these corncobs, and you’ll have so many orders you’ll have trouble keeping them in stock.”

“And how do you propose to do that, lover boy?” Brunton asked.

“Like I said, I know things. The Farmer Takes a Wife,” Ballentine said.

“What? Have you gone crazy, Ballentine?”

“It’s a movie. It’s scheduled to come out early next year.”

Brunton rubbed a fat hand over his bald head. “That’s great. I’ll be sure to miss it.”

Ballentine shook his head. “No, you don’t understand. The movie stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Gable plays the farmer. More specifically, a pipe-smoking farmer. And to be even more specific –”

“A corncob pipe smoker farmer?” Brunton asked. His expression was a combination of amused, confused, and intrigued.

“The wife, played by Lombard,” Ballentine began, “buys the corncob for Gable. You know what that means? Every woman who sees this movie will have the same idea and buy a corncob for their boyfriend or husband. And every unattached man would –”

Again Brunton finished Ballentine’s sentence. “Want to be just like Clark Gable.” The boss hesitated. “You know, Ballentine, for the first time, you just might be on to something with this idea. I like it! Just make sure you come back here with no pipes left in your case. Because if you don’t, you’re fired!”

Brunton’s words rattled around in Ballentine’s brain as he searched the poky hotel room for the pipes. He remembered placing the leather case containing a dozen corncobs on the dresser. It was gone! Someone had come into his room while he bathed and lifted the pipe case. Ballentine rushed downstairs and slammed the bell on the front desk.

“I’m coming…I’m coming,” came the voice from a back room.

After years in sales, Ballentine read people as well as books. “Where are they?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon?” the clerk said.

“The pipes. What’d you do with them?”

The man blinked through thick black frame glasses. “I don’t—”

“Look here, mister….” Ballentine let the word hang.

“Mullins.”

“Look here, pal. A case of pipes was taken from my room, room 5, while I was taking a bath. But you know all that.”

“I can assure you –”

“Save it, Mullins. I locked my room door when I took the bath. That means you are the only one who could have opened it. You either have the pipes or know where they are.”

“Is this a joke?” Mullins asked.

“You want a joke? Okay.” Ballentine grabbed the clerk by the collar and brought Mullins’ face inches from his own. He rested a fist on the clerk’s cheek. “I’ll send you to the moon, Mullins. Funny, right?” He pulled his fist back as if ready to strike.

“Okay! Okay! Stop,” Mullins pleaded.

Ballentine released his grip.

“Truth is,” Mullins began, adjusting his collar, “neither is true.” The confused, combative expression on Ballentine’s face propelled Mullins to continue. “I don’t have them, and I don’t know where they are,” he said.

Ballentine’s forward movement caused Mullins to raise both hands in surrender. “I…I…think I can help you,” he said.

Ballentine eased off. “You think?”

Mullins looked down. “Okay, I know.” He reached into his back pocket, opened his wallet, and pulled out a twenty. “Here.” He slid the note toward Ballentine.

“What’s this?” the salesman asked.

“That’s what I got for opening your door.”

Ballentine was tempted to reach across the counter and drag Mullins over the splintered structure and lay a hard right to his chin. “Talk,” was all he said.

Mullins swallowed hard. “Not much to tell. After you checked in, this guy comes up to the desk and gives me the money if I agree to open the door to your room.”

“And you just take the money and do it?”

“He said he was a policeman checking for stolen goods.” Mullins noticed Ballentine’s skin color change. “Okay, so I didn’t really believe him. But, the money…my son is sick and –”

“Save it!” Ballentine said. “What did he look like? Where’d he go?”

Mullins shook his head. “I don’t know. He wore a mask.”

“A what? A mask? A masked policeman?”

Ballentine thought about contacting the real police but decided against it. He couldn’t provide any information about the thief, and he didn’t want to be bogged down with questions and paperwork. He could turn Mullins in, but that wouldn’t bring his pipes back or save his job. He returned to the rat trap that was room 5. Why would anyone want to steal the pipes? he thought. For the first time, he checked his own wallet. Nothing missing! The wallet was in his pants pocket on the dresser next to the pipe case. Why would someone enter his room, not take his money, but take his wares instead? It didn’t add up. Unless it was one of his competitors. But, who among them knew he was planning a trip to New York City? He started laughing. A masked cop! Of all the ridiculous…

Ballentine’s brief-lived joviality was forgotten as he headed back downstairs to use the telephone in what the hotel called a lobby and inform his boss about the loss. He was met on the stairs by Mullins. The clerk held an envelope.

“This came for you,” Mullins said. “For the gentleman in room 5” was hand-printed on the envelope.

Ballentine took it. “Who brought this? Where did this come from?”

Mullins looked downward. “I don’t know.”

Ballentine’s lips thinned. “You don’t know a helluva lot, do you? Another masked cop?”

“I don’t know,” Brunton repeated. “I…um…stepped out for a moment. When I came back, this,” he pointed to the envelope in Ballentine’s hand, “was on the counter. I didn’t see who left it and didn’t notice anyone coming or going. I’m sorry, I –”

“Forget it,” Ballentine said. He turned around and returned to the room. He read:

WANT YOUR PIPES? MEET ME TONIGHT - 9:00 – BENCH AT THE WEST 93RD  STREET ENTRANCE TO CENTRAL PARK

***

Ballentine saw the seated figure as he neared the park. He didn’t notice the mask until he got closer to the bench. The pipe case was nowhere in sight. “Police?” he asked.

“Very funny,” the man said. “Please, take a seat.”

“I’ll stand if it’s all the same to you,” Ballentine said. “Now, do you mind telling me what’s this all about? And where are my pipes?” Ballentine didn’t recognize the voice. The man’s eyes looked familiar, though.

“I don’t blame you for being upset,” the man said.

“That’s nice of you,” Ballentine said in his most sarcastic voice.

“I’m working on behalf of someone. The someone is unimportant. Fact is, the someone doesn’t even know I’m doing this.”

Ballentine thought about ripping the mask off the guy but knew the only thing that would accomplish was to guarantee he’d never recover his pipes. “You’re talking in riddles. I repeat, what’s this all about, and where are my pipes?”

“The pipes are safe. This is about a business proposition,” the man said.

“Keep talking.”

The man nodded. “How would you like to make money?” He held up his hand. “I’m talking real money. How much would each of those corncobs normally go for?”

“None of your business,” Ballentine said.

The man ignored him. “I can get $25 each. Do the math. A dozen pipes would bring you…bring us…$300. That’s a lot of money; more I dare venture to say than you make in a month.”

Ballentine shook his head. “Suppose I turn you over to the legit police and report all this.”

Again, the man acted as if he didn’t hear Ballentine. “Okay, Chang.”

Out from the darkness emerged a figure.

“This is Mr. Chang,” the masked man began. Chang bowed. “Mr. Chang has himself a little business in Chinatown. You and I, Ballentine, don’t need to concern ourselves much with Mr. Chang’s line of work. It involves opium and –”

“Say, what is all this?” Ballentine asked.

“Like I was saying, the two of us have nothing to do with that. But, Mr. Chang here really wants the corncob pipes for his line of work, and he’s willing to pay the already quoted price…in cash. All you have to do is agree. We get paid, and we never see each other or Mr. Chang again.”

Ballentine looked from one to the other before focusing on the pipe thief. “Let me ask you this, why did you bring me out here? If you wanted to sell the pipes to him, you could have done it without me.”

The man jerked a nail-bitten thumb in Chang’s direction. “Him.”

Chang bowed again.

The man continued, “I made the mistake of telling him how I…um…acquired the pipes. He didn’t like that. Some Chinatown way of doing business that I’ll never understand. He said you are the rightful owner and must share in the profits for the deal to occur. So, here we all are. Decide. We don’t have all night.”

“I’ve decided,” Ballentine said. “I’m reporting both of you to the police.”

For the first time, the man stood. “That won’t be necessary, Bill.” He removed his mask. Ballentine didn’t recognize the man, but like the eyes, it seemed as though Ballentine had seen a similar face before.

“I think it’s time we were properly introduced. This is my good friend, Harry Park.” Park, alias Chang, grinned and bowed. “Forgive me for giving him a false name. I didn’t want to take any chances.”

“Chances about what?” Ballentine asked.

“My sister’s future. My name is Phil Richardson. I’m Helen’s brother.”

Ballentine’s jaw dropped. “You’re Helen’s…” but he didn’t finish his thought. Now that he knew, he saw the resemblance.

“That’s right,” Richardson said. “I’m the only thing in this world Helen had until she met you. Forgive my over-protectiveness of her. When she told me you asked to marry her, she was so excited. I just had to do something to make sure of your character. You know that you’re the right guy—an honest guy with some scruples. I can’t have my little sister marry just anybody. I guess you’ll do.” Richardson and Park/Chang bowed.


About the Author

Bruce Harris writes crime and mystery stories. His baseball murder mystery, Death in the Dugout, is available on Amazon.