Casebook of the Black Widowers (The Black Widowers 3) - Page 7

7. Irrelevance!

"I think," said Mario Gonzalo, "that I know Henry's secret; how he gets the answer when we don't." Gonzalo nodded in the direction of the waiter, who was quietly serving the drinks that were prelude to the monthly banquet of the Black Widowers.

James Drake stubbed out his cigarette and said, "I've known it all along - he's smarter than we are."

"Sure," said Gonzalo, flicking tobacco ash from the sleeve of his velvet jacket and helping himself to some Brie on a cracker, "but being smarter isn't enough."

"Being dumber isn't enough, either," broke in Emmanuel Rubin, glowering through his thick - lensed glasses, "so what good will the secret do you, Mario?'

"Being really dumb," said Gonzalo coolly, "is to be afraid to listen for fear of learning something. So I suppose you're not interested, Manny."

"What, and miss a good laugh?" said Rubin. "Go ahead, Mario."

Geoffrey Avalon, having accepted his drink from Henry, approached and said, "A good laugh about what?"

"About Mario's idea as to how Henry manages to come up with solutions," said Rubin. "Henry, you can listen, too. Mario has your secret."

Henry smiled discreetly. "I have made no secret of what I do. The gentlemen of the Black Widowers analyze the problems carefully, remove all the useless adornments, and leave a plain picture for me to describe."

"Not at all," said Gonzalo, "not at all. You just say that to throw us off. The secret is - irrelevance!"

There was a short pause. Then Rubin's scanty beard bristled and he said in high - pitched disbelief, "Is that what I'm supposed to listen to so that I can learn something?"

"Sure," said Gonzalo. "We're all of us reasoning men - even you, sometimes, Manny - and we try to solve any little puzzle presented to us by catching at all the relevant angles. But if it were the relevant matters that mattered, so to speak, there'd be no puzzle. Anyone would then see the answer. It's Henry's trick of seeing the irrelevant that gives him the answer."

Drake said, "This is a contradiction in terms, Mario. Something that is irrelevant has nothing to do . . ."

Gonzalo interposed patiently, "Something that seems irrelevant but isn't. We see that it seems irrelevant; Henry sees that it really isn't irrelevant. Right, Henry?"

Henry's face showed no expression beyond a general benevolence. "It is certainly an interesting suggestion," he said.

Avalon drew his formidable eyebrows together. "It is surely more than that, Mario. Henry sees what we do not, because he looks clearly at life while the rest of us do not have his direct and simple honesty and are not capable of doing so. Even if you were to see what Henry does, you would not get the answer."

Gonzalo said, "I bet I can. Five dollars says that if there's a puzzle today, I'll use Henry's technique and get the answer before he does."

"You're on," said Rubin at once.

"Good," said Mario. "Geoff, you hold the stakes. But remember, no bet if there's no problem."

Drake said, "Oh there'll be a problem. Personally, I think we're each of us deliberately choosing our guests for their problematical content."

"And yet perhaps not this time," said Avalon, "since the guest has not arrived - nor tonight's host, either, unless the steps on the stairs . . . No, it's Tom."

Thomas Trumbull's white and crisply waved hair made its appearance, followed by the rest of his body as he mounted the stairs.

He said, "If you're worried about the host's whereabouts, Geoff, Roger Halsted's just arrived downstairs with a stranger who, I presume, is our guest for tonight. I raced ahead since I am a dying man who needs a dr - Ah thank you, Henry."

Gonzalo had taken his seat next to Halsted and, spreading out his napkin with a practiced flick, said, "We almost thought we would have to, start without a host or a guest, Roger. What happened? Decided you couldn't stand the expense?"

Halsted reddened and his mild stutter seemed a shade more pronounced. "Not my fault, really. Burry was delayed; Dan Burry, my guest. His phone rang just as I was picking him up and he grew very upset. I couldn't very well press him too hard and urge him to hang up. For a while, in fact, I thought I'd have to leave without him."

"What was it about, do you know? The phone call, I mean."

Halsted looked in the direction of his guest. "I don't know. Something involving one of his students. He's a school principal, you know."

"Your school?"

"No, but why don't you save your questions for the grilling?"

"Do you mind letting me start it?"

"Not at all." and Halsted turned his attention to the crabmeat soup.

Dan Burry was a rather large man with dark hair as crisply waved as Trumbull's and with a brief mustache of the kind Adolf Hitler had put out of fashion for at least a generation. His jowled face bore a worried look and he tackled his roast duck with an enthusiasm dulled by absence of mind.

He did not participate in the general conversation and seemed to listen only distantly as Rubin and Drake debated the respective values of nuclear fusion and solar power as the ultimate energy source.

Burry seemed unprepared, therefore, for the suddenness with which the focus of attention suddenly shifted. While Henry freshened the coffee and produced brandy, Gonzalo said, "Mr. Burry, how do you justify your existence?"

Burry looked at Gonzalo with what seemed a momentary flash of indignation but then muttered in a depressed sort of way, "Ah yes, Roger warned me that there would be a question - and - answer period."

"Yes," said Gonzalo, "and in return for the dinner, you are expected to answer frankly and fully, under terms of strict confidentiality, of course. So how do you justify your existence?"

Burry said, "I try to maintain an atmosphere and organization at a city high school such that at least some of the student body can gain an education and a respect for learning. That is justification enough, I think, whenever I succeed."

"Do you succeed often?"

"Not often."

Avalon cleared his throat. 'The education of the young of any species begins with discipline."

"'Those who believe so," said Burry, "all too frequently believe it ends with discipline, too, and confuse the purpose of a school with the purpose of a prison."

Gonzalo said, "I understand that just as you were leaving for dinner tonight, you received an unsettling phone call. Did that involve school business?"

Burry cast a hard glance in Halsted's direction. Halsted reddened and slid, "I was explaining why we were late, Dan."

Gonzalo said, "What was the phone call about?"

Burry shook his head. "It is not something I should discuss. It is an unfortunate matter that involves a minor."

"A minor what?"

"I'm using the word as a noun, Mr. Gonzalo, not as an adjective. It involves a human being who is only seventeen."

Gonzalo said, "We understand your reluctance to discuss the matter, but I assure you, the fact that a minor is involved is irrelevant." He paused and seemed to savor the word for a moment. "The terms of the dinner are that you answer our questions. Roger should have explained that to you."

"May I stress again," interrupted Avalon, "the confidentiality of our proceedings."

"Including the waiter," said Trumbull, scowling, "who is a valued member of this organization."

Burry glanced briefly at Henry, who had now taken up his post at the sideboard with his usual look of quiet attention, and said, "I won't deny, gentlemen, that I'd welcome a discussion of the matter, for I have been very frustrated over it. Still, I cannot use the name of the young man. Will it suit the rules of your organization if I refer to him only as John?"

Rubin said, "It's our experience, Mr. Burry, that that kind of subterfuge always fails. You'll slip and use his real name."

"John is his real name, Mr. Rubin, and is as nearly anonymous as a given name can be. I will merely refrain from using his full name."

Halsted said, "I think we can allow that."

Burry said, "Let me tell you about John first. He's a good - looking young man, a bit undersized but keen, quick, and intelligent. His intelligence attracted the attention of his teachers at once and I, of course, am always on the lookout for such things. All students are, in theory, of equal importance and all deserve the best education we can give them, but the unusually bright ones are, of course, our special delight and, too often, our special heartbreak."

"Why heartbreak?" asked Gonzalo quickly.

"Because very often a bright child is as much the victim of his social handcuffs as he would be if he had not a brain in his head. It's a mistake to think that intelligence alone can lift you out of the mud, and there is no use in citing examples to the contrary. It may happen, given special circumstances; in most cases, it does not happen."

"I presume," said Rubin sardonically, "John is a child of the ghetto  -  as was my father in his time."

Burry said in a deliberate and even tone, "John is a child of the ghetto, but not as your father was, Mr. Rubin. Your father and you can, if you are circumspect, hide your origin. You may change your name, be careful with your speech, abandon your idiosyncrasies, and you might pass. It would take a special law to pin an identifying badge on you. John and others like him, however, are born with the identifying badge, and long before you can know them as individuals you recognize them as blacks."

Rubin looked uncomfortable. "I meant no offense."

"None taken. Some blacks do need identification, I might say. By the convention of our society a single black ancestor makes one black. A man might therefore be apparently white but socially black. As myself. I am black."

"That makes no difference to us, sir," said Avalon austerely.

"Why should it?" said Burry. "Nor does it seem to make a difference to some of the students. One prominent nonobscene graffito in the fourth - floor toilet reads, 'Burry is five fourths white.' Just the same, my one ancestor does make a difference in my attitude toward John.

"I'm desperate to give a youngster like that the kind of chance he might have if he looked like me. In the gathering crisis of our times, the human species cannot afford to waste brains, and this one may be wasted."

"Drugs?" asked Trumbull.

Burry shrugged. "Pot, of course. That's a rite of passage with kids these days - like smoking a pipe was to Tom Sawyer, or to Mark Twain, for that matter. And then for all the talk about the damage done by marijuana, the evidence is not as strong as for the damage done by tobacco, yet not only is tobacco smoking legal and socially acceptable, but also the government subsidizes the tobacco growers."

"You start with pot and you go on to heroin," said Avalon dryly. "Another rite of passage."

"Sometimes - especially if you make both equally illegal, so that the pot smoker fails to see much difference - but only sometimes. One can go from social drinking to alcoholism, a condition as dangerous as heroin and far more common, yet society does not for that reason condemn or outlaw social drinking.

"In any case," Burry went on, "John is not deeply involved in pot and does not have the makings of a heroin addict. No, I'm afraid John's temptations lie in another direction - crime."

Avalon said, "What kind of crime, Mr. Burry?"

"Nothing exceedingly dramatic. I suspected him of being a purse snatcher, a shoplifter, a petty thief. It was only a suspicion, until tonight. Now, I'm afraid, it's a certainty."

"Is that what the phone call was about?" asked Gonzalo.

"It was about John," said Burry despondently. "It was, indeed, from him. He was in trouble and he turned to me. There is some small satisfaction in that. I managed to obtain a lawyer for him and I promised to supply reasonable bail, it necessary. It was that which delayed our arrival. And yet I can take only minimal satisfaction from being of help now. I suspect I failed him to begin with."

"In what way?" asked Gonzalo.

"If I had been more ingenious, I might have persuaded him to cooperate with the police."

"Not much chance of that, Dan," said Halsted. "Anyone who's a schoolteacher knows that in the bright lexicon of youth, there is no such word as 'squeal.' The guys who keep their mouths shut go to jail, but they are heroes and are taken care of. The squealers may stay out of jail but they're ostracized and very likely beaten up."

"I know that, Roger," said Burry, "I need no education in the mores of the street, but I might have done it if I were smart enough. I'll see him tonight after this meal - if you won't mind my leaving by ten - thirty at the latest - and if he'll co - operate, I'll get him out of the city. There are agencies who will help in this respect and I've used them before. These people we're after won't mount an intercity hunt for him. It isn't the Syndicate we're talking about."

Avalon twiddled his empty brandy glass and said, "What are we talking about, Mr. Burry?"

"A burglary ring organized by medium - sized racketeers who employ high - school students as their field operatives. The kids bring in their takings and receive a percentage. It saves them the trouble of trying to peddle the goods themselves - but if they hold out for their own profit, and are caught at it, they are beaten up."

Trumbull said, "It sounds very much like a Fagin operation."

"It's exactly a Fagin operation," said Burry. "You don't suppose the practice died out with Oliver Twist, do you?"

"And you're after Fagin himself, I take it," said Trumbull.

Burry said, "It certainly does no good to pick up the kids. They're eventually let go and the game goes on. Even if they were not let go, replacements are easily obtained, and the game still goes on. You've got to get the corrupters themselves. And beyond that," he added sadly, "the quirks in our society that make such things possible."

"If you can cure those quirks," said Avalon, "you will have achieved a first for our ten thousand years of so - called civilization."

"Then at least the corrupters," said Burry. "If I were smart enough to see my way into persuading John to go in with me ..."

Gonzalo interrupted. "That's twice now you've said you needed to be smart enough. Why smart enough? Persuasive enough, I can see; eloquent enough; unscrupulous enough; threatening enough. Why smart enough?"

Burry hesitated and rubbed his chin, as though wondering what to say.

He decided, apparently, and said, "The police have been after the burglary ring and, among others, they have consulted me. They had reason to think that some of the students at my school were involved and they wanted me to co - operate with them in finding the students. To be truthful, I wasn't anxious to do this."

"To squeal?" asked Drake, stony - faced.

For a moment, Burry stiffened with quite apparent indignation. Then he relaxed. "You're right. I don't want to squeal, but that's just a gut reaction. There's more to it than that. As I told you, picking up the youngsters does not solve the problem, but it may manufacture hardened criminals. Were I to find some youngster I suspected of being involved, what I would hope to do would be to obtain the necessary information from him and turn over the information, not the youngster, to the police."

Avalon said, "I don't think you would get the necessary information by kindly persuasion, Mr. Burry. The police might have better arguments than you have."

Trumbull slapped the table with the palm of his hand. "Geoff, that's stupid. Those kids are heroes to their peers if they resist the police, and if any police officer tried to beat anything out of them, not only is any information he gets inadmissible as evidence, but also the policeman involved will be up on charges."

"I call that hobbling the police to the cost of the honest citizen," said Avalon.

"I call it forcing the police to a single standard of conduct and having them treat the poor, the ill - educated, the unpopular as circumspectly as they would treat those with money and lawyers," said Trumbull.

"Why not enforce the single standard by treating the well - to - do criminal as roughly as the poor ones, then?" demanded Avalon.

Trumbull said, "Because they're only suspected criminals. The state of actual criminality comes only after trial and judgment, and until then the person in custody has all the rights and privileges of a free American, including decent treatment at the hands of the guardians of the very law that says so. Mr. Burry, I think your attitude is a good one."

Burry said, "Thank you, but good or not, it didn't work. What the police need is evidence. They have suspicions as to the identity of the ringleaders, the Fagins, but until they can find them in action, surrounded by their stolen goods, they aren't likely to be able to prove it. One of the difficulties appears to be that the criminals change their base of operation frequently, and are never in one place long enough to leave a clear trail. Of course, if we knew in advance where they would be, we would have a chance. And that is the kind of information the youngsters would have, for they have to know where to bring the loot.

"Without that - well, the poorer sections of New York are an incredible rabbit - warren that could swallow up an army of police searchers who would encounter frozen - faced inhabitants denying all knowledge of anything. From the pattern of the robberies, the police suspect the scene of operations must be on Manhattan's West Side somewhere between Eightieth Street and 125th Street, but that's not much of a hint. But I had my eye on John."

"Why him?" asked Drake.

"Money," snapped Burry. "It comes to that. We live in a society that measures all values by money, and that delivers unending pressures by advertising in every medium urging the possession of material things that can be had only for money. Sex standards are set by the beautiful people, and those can be met only with money. Well, then, if you don't have money, what do you do? Devote your life to gaining those skills that will make money in the end. What if you firmly believe that the disadvantages you were born with will make it impossible for you to make money even if you gain those skills? You give up, perhaps, and get the money by the shortest route - and another youngster is lost both to himself and to society."

Drake said, "Yes, but this is true for many of the students at the school, I'm sure. Why John?"

"Of course, it's true of many. That's why the youngsters are so easily recruited. But I have been interested in John, so my eye has been on him, and in recent months he has shown money."

"In what way?" asked Rubin, who had been absently doodling dollar signs on his napkin.

"Better clothes, for one thing; an air of self - confidence, for another. Something amounting almost to arrogance in his attitude toward girls. There's no point in having money if you don't show it, and I know the signs. I had no proof, of course, no real evidence, and I didn't want to confront John with my suspicions if, by any chance, I happened to be wrong.

"Then last Monday, I passed him in the hall, quite by accident, and he had a piece of paper in his hand. It seemed to me it had been passed to him. I had not been looking in his direction; it had been an impression out of the corner of my eye. I certainly didn't see who had done the passing, for it was between periods and the halls were quite crowded. It's good to be in the halls at unpredictable intervals at such times, by the way. The possible presence of authority does impose some sense of discipline at such times, however minimal." Burry sighed, and smiled rather weakly.

Gonzalo said, "But what about the paper?"

"I had no reason to think the paper had anything to do with the robberies, but it seemed unusual, and I have learned to respond at once to anything unusual. "What's that paper you're holding, John?' I asked in what I hoped was a friendly tone.

"The paper, Mr. Burry?' he asked, and my suspicions were aroused at once. To repeat a question is almost invariably a play for time. So I asked to see it; I held out my hand for it. By now, the main flood of students had passed, though some turned for a quick look backward."

Trumbull said, "Could you force him to hand over the paper? He has a right to his personal property, hasn't he?"

Burry said, "I would not have used force, naturally, but within the school my powers to enforce discipline are, in theory, considerable. I might have suspended him from his classes for failure to comply, and that would have been an unhappy position for John. He enjoyed his classes. In any case, he complied.

"He hesitated, said, 'It's just a piece of paper I picked up, Mr. Burry,' glanced at it carelessly, and handed it over, saying with an air of mocking virtue, 'I was going to put it in a wastebasket, Mr. Burry. You wouldn't want the halls all littered.'

"I resisted the temptation to point out that one more piece of paper would have made no difference in the extent of litter and said, 'I am pleased at your thoughtfulness. I'll see to it that this is thrown away,' and put it in my pocket without looking at it. I then asked him how he was doing with his schoolwork and he answered easily enough. He seemed in no way perturbed at my having the paper in my possession.

"I waited till I was back in my office before I looked at it, and I must say I was disappointed. It was a typewritten sheet, Xeroxed, not very professionally done, and it urged students to demand decent educational facilities, a message I wholeheartedly agreed with.

"But there was nothing conspiratorial about it - or at least I could see nothing as conspiratorial. I didn't trust my own judgment in the matter, so I called the detective lieutenant who had approached me on the matter of the burglary ring. He visited me after hours; in plainclothes, of course; and I showed him the letter without telling him the name of the youngster from whom I had obtained it."

Trumbull said, "Surely, he asked the name?"

Burry said, "I told the story in such a way that no one youngster of whatever name was implicated."

Trumbull who, as a cryptographer by profession, might have been particularly interested, said, "By withholding information, you may have deprived the lieutenant of crucial clues in the understanding of the message."

"He didn't think so," said Burry. "He laughed, and told me it was nonsense. I think he would have torn it up if I hadn't rescued it - perhaps out of disappointment, for when I called him, I may have given him the impression I had something. I've kept studying it myself the past few days. Heaven help me, I even tried warming it over a hot plate in case invisible ink showed up.

"Now it is too late. Young John was arrested in what must have been the central clearing place; taken in clear guilt, with identifiable stolen goods in his possession. John called me from the police station; that was the phone call. And I've spoken to my detective friend. And if I had been clever enough to understand the letter, I might have stopped John."

Avalon said, "If the letter had significance. Not every piece of innocent literature conceals a guilty secret."

"This one does, though," said Rubin, his eyes flashing, his voice strident. 'Let me ask you a few questions, Mr. Burry. You say John was taken. You mentioned no one else, not even by inference. Was he alone?"

"It's my understanding he was."

"And had John been holding the paper for some indefinite period when you first became aware of it, or had he just received it?"

"I can't answer that question definitely, Mr. Rubin," said Burry, "but it was my impression that it had been passed to him even as I watched. I wish I had seen who it was who passed it, but I didn't."

Rubin said triumphantly, "Then the passer was there and watched you ask John to hand over the paper and watched him do so. The passer turned that information to the higher - ups of the burglary ring, and they had to take into account the possibility that John might talk. If the letter gave some sort of information that told John where to take the stolen goods, that information was quickly changed. John, being no longer trustworthy, would not be told of the change and he would walk in alone to the meeting place that was no longer to be a meeting place and was taken."

Trumbull said, "Wait. Hold on. How had the police known about the meeting place, old or new?"

Burry studied his fingers and said, "According to my detective friend, to whom I also talked before coming here, John had been under quiet surveillance for some time. Through nothing I said," he added hurriedly. "He had been identified at the scene of a burglary - not with certainty, you understand, but they were keeping an eye on him. I hadn't known that."

Trumbull said, "Then if you hadn't taken that paper and roused suspicion - assuming Manny Rubin's notion is correct - John would have led the police to an active clearinghouse, and right to some of the controlling figures."

Burry nodded. "The thought had occurred to me."

Gonzalo said hotly, "How the devil could Mr. Burry know this, Tom?"

"I'm returning to an earlier point," said Trumbull. "Our guest showed the letter to the detective and it was ignored. He did not mention the name of the young man involved and I said that might be vital evidence. I was right. If the detective had known it was taken from a young man who was under surveillance, he would have treated it much more seriously."

"You're right," said Burry. "I'll have to tell them now."

"Wait," said Gonzalo. "I have a better idea. Why not tell them what the letter means? If you could be of help to them, they might be willing to go a bit easier on John if you asked them to."

"John," rumbled Avalon, "may think he's been double - crossed already. He may think the burglary ring deliberately let him walk into a trap to pay him back for handing over the piece of paper. He may be willing to cooperate now."

"The catch is," said Burry, "that I don't know what the letter means, so I can't use it to win either consideration from the police or co - operation from John."

Gonzalo said eagerly, "Do you remember what the letter said, Mr. Burry? Can you repeat it?"

"I don't have to," said Burry. "I have it with me. I've been carrying it in my pocket since I got it - and taking it out to stare at it now and then, for all the good it did me."

He took it out. It was tightly creased and dog - eared. He unfolded it, flattened it out, and passed it to Gonzalo. It made its way about the table, and after it reached Drake, that gentleman passed it on to Henry, even as Burry's hand had reached out to take it. Henry glanced at it quickly and then returned it to Burry.

The typewriting did not have a professional touch, nor did the Xeroxing. It had an all - capital headline:


Underneath, it said, "Join the march on City Hall on October 20. Demand that Congress recognize the rights of the poor to a quality education. There is no disgrace in being a New Yorker. We are Americans, every bit as much Americans as the people of Tar Heel, North Carolina, and we want our rights as Americans. No more, but certainly no less."

"Is that all?" said Avalon in astonishment.

"That's all," said Burry.

"What a remarkably stupid message," said Avalon. "Why march on City Hall? City Hall is helpless. What's more, no one is ever going to get much sympathy from small - town America by making fun of them. Tar Heel, North Carolina! I admit that 'tarheeler' is a nickname for a North Carolinian because of the early production of rosin and tar from pine trees in that state, but that kind of name only sounds well when used by those who are so named. To make up a name like Tar Heel, North Carolina, is a deliberate insult. It would be like having a Southerner refer to the town of Damyankee, Massachusetts. What do they hope to gain?"

"Nothing," said Rubin, smiling, "because it's not a call to action. I'll bet there isn't any march scheduled for October 20, is there, Mr. Burry?"

"I don't know," said Burry. "I haven't heard of one."

"Then it's a message, all right," said Rubin.

Burry said, "Where? I tried looking at initial letters, final letters, every other word, every third word. I can't find anything."

Mario Gonzalo shook his head slowly and with a moderately insufferable air of superiority. "It couldn't possibly be any of those things, Mr. Burry. I could have told you that before I ever saw the letter."

There was a moment's complete silence and every other Black Widower turned to stare at Gonzalo. "Good God," said Drake, blinking through cigarette smoke, "he sounds like Sherlock Holmes."

Gonzalo said, "If you don't mind, there's five dollars riding on this, so just listen." He put aside the free - flowing caricature of Burry that he had drawn in the course of the discussion and said, "John got the message as Mr. Burry was watching, and he handed it over promptly. But he looked at it first, isn't that right, Mr. Burry? Just a glance?" Burry hesitated and said, "Yes, just a quick look."

"Exactly! If it was a message, he had to see what it was before he handed it over, and if a quick look was enough, then he had no time to match up first letters or last letters or skip words. And if we take just a glance at the letter we'll see what he saw."

Rubin said with elaborate politeness, "And would you kindly tell us what you see?"

Gonzalo said, "I told you what to look for at the start of the evening. Look for the irrelevancy. Tar Heel, North Carolina, is irrelevant. They could have made up the name of any other town - Jet Air, Utah, or Lollipop, South Dakota. Why insist on Tar Heel? Because it's the key. John took one quick look at the letter to see the name of the town, and once he had it, that was all he needed, and he could give the paper away."

Avalon said thoughtfully, "Well, you know, there's something to that."

"Nothing much," said Rubin, "unless Mario can tell us what Tar Heel, North Carolina, means."

"It could be an anagram."

"Like what?" Gonzalo said,

"I've been working on one: 'Al, the not real corn hair.'"

There was a sticky silence, and then Trumbull brought his fist down on the table. "Damn it, Mario, what does that mean?"

"I don't know. There could be other anagrams. Or it could be a cryptogram. Or there could be a book somewhere that has a list of word equivalents. Maybe it means, 'Cheese it, the cops.' I don't know. But it means something."

Rubin said, "That's a big help, telling us it means something."

Gonzalo said, in an aggrieved tone, "Then let's do some thinking. It won't hurt if we spend a few minutes trying to anagram it, or something, and maybe work out what it means."

The minutes passed in a dead silence and finally Burry looked at his watch and sighed. He said, "I really must get down to the police station. I suppose the letter is really meaningless."

"Well, now, Dan," said Halsted, stroking his hair back from his receding hairline, "we can't really say that till we've asked Henry."

"The waiter?"

"Why, yes. He has an uncommon knack for seeing the obvious. Except that I don't see him. Henry!"

Henry's head appeared as he climbed the stairs with a rapidity quite different from his usual gentle flow. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Halsted," he said, "I did not intend to be gone long. May I ask Mr. Burry a question?"

Burry had risen and was clearly on his way to the cloakroom. He said, "Well, yes, but nothing too complicated, I hope."

"Unless you said something about it during the brief interval in which I was absent, sir, I believe you did not mention the actual place - the address - at which the student was apprehended."

"No, I did not."

"Do you know the place?"

Burry sucked his lower lip inward and bit at it thoughtfully, "It was mentioned. Yes. But I don't think I remember it."

Henry said, "Was it, by any chance, 283 West 92nd Street?"

Burry stared at Henry for a moment, then sat down. "Yes, it was, now that you mention it. That was precisely the address. How did you know?"

"It's in the letter, sir."

"Where?" said Avalon. "Show us where."

Henry said, "Mr. Gonzalo's reasoning seemed to me perfectly correct in every detail when he pointed out the irrelevance and, therefore, the importance of the town of Tar Heel, North Carolina. There seemed to be a general impression that it was a manufactured name, but it occurred to me that it might be a real one. There are very many peculiar names among the small towns of the United States; Tar Heel would be sedate and conservative compared to some. And if it were real, it would have unmistakable significance, so I went down to look it up."

Avalon said, "You mean there is a Tar Heel, North Carolina?"

"There is, Mr. Avalon."

"And it's listed in the gazetteer?"

"It may be, but I tried another source. The all - inclusive recording of all the inhabited places in the United States large enough to include a post office is in a Zip Code directory, and we have one downstairs. Tar Heel, North Carolina, is included, and, of course, so is its Zip Code. The directory is the book that Mr. Gonzalo referred to when he spoke of a list of word equivalents."

"I was thinking of phrases," said Gonzalo.

"It is numbers, but that's a mere detail. The number equivalent is, of course, unique. Tar Heel has a Zip Code of 28392 and no other, and if the clearinghouse is on the Upper West Side, 283 West 92nd Street would seem the likely interpretation. Undoubtedly, there are ways of coding for the East Side or the West Side, or if not all the numbers are used, as in 2 West 92nd Street, or it a named street such as Amsterdam Avenue is used. Still, the prevalence of numbered streets and avenues in Manhattan make a Zip Code code, if I may use the phrase, particularly useful."

Burry said blankly, "How could I miss that?"

Drake grunted. "We always ask ourselves that after Henry sees whatever there is to see."

Burry said, "It I show this to the police, they'll see that the correspondence between the Zip Code and the address can't be a coincidence. And if they know that much, then they may learn more."

"If they concentrate on the letter," said Rubin, "they might learn something about the typewriter, the Xeroxing, and so on. And if you confront John with what you know and indicate that the gang will assume the information came from him, he might be willing to tell more. He can be in no worse trouble with them and he might improve his standing with the police."

Burry had his coat and hat on. 'Thank you, all of you. Thank you, Henry." He whirled out.

Avalon said, "Happy ending."

"Not for everyone," said Henry.

"What do you mean?"

Henry said, "Mr. Gonzalo clearly had the answer, all but the trivial, final step. In my opinion, Mr. Rubin owes him five dollars."

"Irrelevance!" - Afterword

In late January 1978, I attended a convention of mystery tans at Mohonk Mountain House (near New Paltz, New York). It was the second of what had been planned to be annual affairs, and it was every bit as much fun as the first had been.

At the end, there was an auction to raise money for the Mohonk Trust Fund, and one of the items auctioned off was the privilege of having one's name used in a Black Widowers tale.

The high bidder was one Dan Burry, and three months later, when I wrote "Irrelevance!" I had the guest at the banquet named Dan Burry. I used only the name, of course, and not the appearance, the job, or anything else about the auction winner.

The story appeared in the March 1979 EQMM under the title of "A Matter of Irrelevance" but, as usual, I prefer the shorter title and restore my own.

The story came out just in time for the third annual meeting of mystery readers at Mohonk, and Dan Burry was beaming. He said that by an odd coincidence the views of the fictional Dan Burry bore a close resemblance to his own.


Tags: Isaac Asimov The Black Widowers Science Fiction
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