Tales of the Black Widowers

4. Go, Little Book!


"My wife," said Emmanuel Rubin, with a tremor of indignation shaking his sparse chin beard, "has bought another bull."

Discussion of women and, particularly, of wives, was considered out of bounds at the staunchly masculine monthly meetings of the deliberately named Black Widowers, but habits die hard. Mario Gonzalo, who was sketching the guest of the meeting, said, "In your mini-apartment?"

"It's a perfectly good apartment," said Rubin indignantly. "It just looks small. And it wouldn't look all that small if she didn't have bulls in it made of wood, of porcelain, of tile, of bronze, and of felt. She has them from a foot across to an inch across. She has them on the wall, on the shelves, on the floor, and suspended from the ceiling-"

Avalon, from his austere height, swirled his drink slowly and said, "She requires a symbol of virility, I presume."

"When she has me?" said Rubin.

"Because she has you," said Gonzalo, and took the drink pressed upon him by the Black Widowers' perennial and indispensable waiter, Henry-then hurried to his seat to avoid Rubin's explosive reply.

At the other end of the table, James Drake said to Roger Halsted, "A, B-" and paused, lengthily.

"What?" said Halsted, his high, white forehead flushing and wrinkling as his eyebrows moved upward.

"Long time, no C," said Drake, coughing at his own cigarette smoke, which he frequently did.

Halsted looked disgusted. "I think I'll make it longer next time. 1 was here last month, but you weren't."

"Family!" said Drake briefly. "What's this I hear about you rewriting the Iliad into limericks?"

"One for each book," said Halsted, with obvious self-satisfaction. "The Odyssey, too."

"Jeff Avalon recited the limerick to the first book as soon as he saw me."

"I've written one for the second. Would you lake to

hear it?"

"No," said Drake. "It goes like this:

"Agamemnon's dream strategy slips,

The morale of his troops quickly dips.

First Thersites complains,

But Odysseus restrains,

And we next have the Cat'log of Ships."

Drake received it stolidly. He said, "You have one too many syllables in the last line."

"Can't help it," said Halsted with unusual heat. "It's impossible to do the second book without mentioning the Catalog of Ships and that phrase has three unaccented syllables in a row. I leave one out by elision and say Cat'log with an apostrophe. That makes it all fifteen perfect anapests."

Drake shook his head. "Wouldn't satisfy a purist."

Thomas Trumbull, scowling malevolently, said, "I hope, Henry, that you noticed I came early today, even though I'm not the host."

"I did notice, Mr. Trumbull," said Henry, smiling urbanely.

"The least you can do is give the act public approval after what you said about me last time."

"I approve, sir, but it would be wrong to make an issue of it. That would give the impression that it was hard for you to arrive on time and no one would expect to have you repeat the feat next time. If we all ignore it, it will

seem as though we take it for granted that you can do it, and then you will have no trouble repeating."

"Give me my scotch and soda, Henry, and spare me the dialectic."

As a matter of fact, it was Rubin who was the host and his guest was one of his publishers, a round-faced, smooth-cheeked gentleman with a good-humored smile on his face. His name was Ronald Klein.

Like most guests, he found it difficult to hop onto the merry-go-round of talk, and he finally plunged in the direction of the one man at the table he knew.

"Manny," he said, "did I hear you say Jane had bought another bull?"

"That's right," said Rubin. "A cow, actually, because it's sitting on a crescent moon, but it's hard to tell for sure. The makers of these things rarely go into careful anatomical detail."

Avalon, who had been wielding his knife and fork in workmanlike fashion over the stuffed veal, paused to say, "Collector's mania is something that seizes almost every gentleman of leisure It has many delights; the excitement of the search, the ecstasy of the acquisition, the joy of later contemplation. You can do it with anything. I collect stamps myself."

"Stamps," said Rubin at once, "are the very worst thing you can collect. They are thoroughly artificial. Vest-pocket nations put out issues designed deliberately to fetch high sums. Mistakes, misprints, and so on create false values. The whole thing is in the hands of entrepreneurs and financiers. If you've got to collect, collect things with no value."

Gonzalo said, "A friend of mind collects his own books. So far, he has published a hundred and eighteen and carefully gets copies of every edition, American and foreign, hard-cover and paperback, book-club and condensed. He's got a whole roomful of them and says he is the only person in the world with a complete collection of his works and that it will be worth a tremendous sum someday "

"After he's dead," said Drake briefly.

"I think he's planning to fake death, sell the collection for a million dollars, then come back to life and continue writing under a pseudonym."

At this point, Klein made his way back on the merry-go-round. "I met a fellow yesterday," he said, "who collects matchbooks."

"I collected matchbooks when I was a kid," said Gon-zalo. "I used to go searching all the curbs and alleys

for-"

But Trumbull, who had been eating in unwonted silence, suddenly raised his voice to a shout. "God damn it, you bunch of hack talkers, our guest has said something. Mr.-uh-Klein, what was that you said?"

Klein looked startled. "I said I met a fellow yesterday who collects matchbooks."

"That could be interesting," said Halsted agreeably,

"if-"

"Shut up," roared Trumbull. "I want to hear about this." His creased, bronzed face turned to Klein. "What's the guy's name? The collector."

"I'm not sure I remember," said Klein. "I just met him at lunch yesterday; never saw him before that. There were six of us at the table, and he got to talking about his matchbooks. Listen, I thought he was crazy at first, but by the time he got through, I decided to start a collection of my own."

"Did he have grayish sideburns, with a little red in it?"

asked Trumbull.

"Why, yes, as a matter of fact. Do you know him?" "Umm," said Trumbull. "Hey, Manny, I know you're the host, and I don't want to overstep your prerogatives..."

"But you're going to," said Rubin. "Is that it?" "No, I'm not, damn it," said Trumbull hotly. "I'm asking your permission. I would like to have our guest tell us all about his lunch yesterday with this matchbook collector."

Rubin said, "You mean instead of his being put on the grill? We never put anyone on the grill any more!" "This could be important."

Rubin thought about it, with a look of some dissatisfaction on his face, then said, "Okay, but after the dessert... What have we got for dessert today, Henry?"

"Zabaglione, sir, to go with the Italian motif of tonight's meal."

"Calories, calories," groaned Avalon softly.

Halsted's teaspoon clinked as he stirred the sugar in his coffee and elaborately ignored Rubin's flat ukase that anyone who added anything at all to good coffee was a barbarian. He said, "Do we humor Tom now and get our guest to tell us about matchbooks?"

Klein looked about the table and said with a small laugh, "I'm willing to do it, but I don't know that it's interesting-"

"I say it's interesting," said Trumbull.

"All right. I won't fight it. I started the whole thing, as a matter of fact. We were at the Cock and Bull on Fifty-third Street-"

"Jane insisted on eating there one time because of the name," said Rubin. "Not so hot."

Trumbull said, "I'll strangle you, Manny. What's all this talk about your wife today? If you miss her, go home."

"You're the only one I know, Tom, who would make any man miss any wife."

"Please go on, Mr. Klein," said Trumbull.

Klein began again. "Okay. I started it, as I said, by lighting a cigarette, while we were waiting for the menu, and then getting uncomfortable about it. I don't know how it is, but it seems there's a lot less smoking at meals these days. At this table, for instance, Mr. Drake is the only one smoking. I guess he doesn't mind-"

"I don't," muttered Drake.

"I did, though, so after a few puffs I stubbed out the cigarette. Only I was embarrassed, so I fiddled with the matchbook I had lit the cigarette with; you know, the ones restaurants always supply at every table."

"Advertising themselves," said Drake. "Yes."

"And this fellow... I have his name now-Ottiwell. I don't know his first name."

"Frederick," growled Trumbull, with glum satisfaction. "Then you do know him." "I do know him. But go on."

"I was still holding the matchbook in my hand, and Ottiwell reached for it and asked if he could see it. So I passed it to him. He looked at it and he said something like 'Moderately interesting. Not particularly imaginative in design. I've got it.' Or something like that. I don't remember the exact words."

Halsted said reflectively, "That's an interesting point, Mr. Klein. At least you know you don't remember the exact words. In all these first-person narratives, the fellow telling the story always remembers every word everyone has said, and in the right order. It never carries conviction with me."

"It's just a convention," said Avalon seriously as he sipped at his coffee, "but I admit third-person is more convenient. When you use first-person, you know that the narrator will survive all the deadly perils into which he

will be-"

"I wrote a first-person narrative once," said Rubin,

"in which the narrator dies."

"That happens in the western song, 'El Paso,' too,"

said Gonzalo.

"In 'The Murder of Roger'-" began Avalon.

And Trumbull rose and banged his fist on the table. "So help me, you bunch of idiots, I will kill the next guy who talks. Don't you believe me when I tell you this thing is important?... Go on, Mr. Klein."

Klein looked more than a little uncomfortable. "I don't see its importance myself, Mr. Trumbull. There's not even much to it. This Ottiwell took to telling us about matchbooks. Apparently, there's a whole thing about it to people who are involved in it. There are all kinds of factors that increase the value: not only beauty and rarity but also whether the matches are intact and whether the friction strip is unmarked. He talked about difference in design, in location of the friction strip, in type and quantity of printing, whether the inside of the cover is blank or not, and so on. He went on and on, and that's about it.

Except that he made it sound so interesting it captured me, as I said."

"Did he invite you to visit his place and see his collection?"

"No," said Klein, "he didn't."

"I've been there," said Trumbull, and having said that, he sat back in his chair with a look of deepest dissatisfaction covering it thickly.

There was a silence and, as Henry distributed the small brandy glasses, Avalon said, with a touch of annoyance, "If the threat of murder has been lifted, Tom, may I ask what the collector's place was like?"

Trumbull seemed to return, as from a distance. "What? Oh... It's weird. He started collecting when he was a kid. For all I know he got his first samples out of gutters and alleys like Gonzalo did, but at some point it turned serious.

"He's a bachelor. He doesn't work. He doesn't have to. He's inherited some money and has invested shrewdly, so all he lives for are those damned matchbooks. I think they own his house and keep him on as a caretaker.

"He's got exhibits of prize items on the wall; framed, if you please. He's got them in folders and cases, everywhere. His whole basement is given over to filing cabinets in which they're catalogued by type and alphabet. You wouldn't believe how many tens of thousands of different matchbooks have been manufactured the world over, with how many different legends, and with how many different peculiarities, and I think he's got them all.

"He's got skinny matchbooks that hold two matches apiece; some as long as your arm that hold a hundred and fifty. He's got matches shaped like beer bottles, others shaped like baseball bats or bowling pins. He's got blank matchbooks with nothing on the cover; he's got match-books with musical scores on them. Damn it, he's got a whole folder of pornographic matchbooks."

"That I'd like to see," said Gonzalo.

"Why?" said Trumbull. "It's the same stuff you can see anywhere else, except that on a matchbook it's handier to burn and get rid of."

"You've got the soul of a censor," said Gonzalo. "I prefer the real thing," said Trumbull. "Maybe at one time you could," said Gonzalo. "What do you want to do? Play verbal ping-pong? We have something serious under discussion."

"What's so serious about a bunch of matchbooks?" de-manded Gonzalo.

"I'll tell you." Trumbull looked up and down the table. "Listen, you bunch of meatheads, what's said in here is always confidential."

"We all know that," said Avalon dryly. "If anyone's forgotten, it's you, or you wouldn't have to remind us." "Mr. Klein will also have to-"

Rubin interrupted at once. "Mr. Klein understands exactly. He knows that nothing that ever goes on in this room is ever, under any circumstances, to be referred to outside. I'll vouch for him."

"Okay. All right," said Trumbull. "So now I'll tell you as little as I can. So help me God, I wouldn't have told you anything except for Klein's luncheon yesterday. It just irritates me. I've had this chewing holes in me for months now; over a year, in fact; and having it come

up-"

"Look," said Drake flatly. "Either tell us or don't tell

us."

Trumbull rubbed his eyes angrily. He said, "There's an

information leak."

"What kind? Where?" said Gonzalo.

"Never mind. I'm specifically not saying it's the government. I'm specifically not saying foreign agents are involved, you understand. Maybe it's industrial espionage; maybe it's the theft of the New York Mets' baseball signals; maybe it's cheating on a test, as in the problem Drake brought up a couple of months ago. Let's just call it an information leak, all right?"

"All right," said Rubin. "And who's involved? This guy

Ottiwell?"

"We're pretty sure."

"Then reel him in."

Trumbull said, "We have no proof. All we can do is try to block any information from getting to him, and we don't even want to do that-entirely."

"Why not?"

"Because it's not who the guy is. It's how he does it. If we pull him in and don't know the method he's using, then someone will take his place. People are cheap. It's the modus operandi we want."

"Do you have any ideas on the subject?" asked Hal-sted, blinking slowly.

"It's the matchbooks. What else? It's got to be. All our evidence points to Ottiwell as the leak and he's a crazy guy who collects matchbooks. There's got to be a connection."

"You mean he started collecting matchbooks so he could-"

"No, he's been collecting them all his life. There's no doubt about it. That collection he has right now took thirty years a-building. But once he had his collection, when he was somehow recruited into the business of transmitting information, he naturally worked out a scheme that involved his matchbooks."

"What scheme?" broke in Rubin impatiently.

"That's what I don't know. But it's there. In a way, the matchbooks are perfect for the task. They carry messages already and, properly chosen, they need no tampering. For instance, the restaurant you were in yesterday, Klein, the Cock and Bull. Its matchbooks surely said 'Cock and Bull' on the covers."

"Sounds reasonable. I didn't look."

"I'm sure of it. Well, now, if you want to cancel out a previous message, you put one of those things in the mail, or just tear off half the cover, and mail it. Aren't you saying the previous message was just a cock-and-bull story?"

Gonzalo said, "That's pure bull... Sorry, Manny, didn't mean to raise a sore point... But look, Tom, anyone who mails a matchbook cover, let alone a matchbook, is asking for it. You spot something funny at once."

"Not if there's a plausible reason to mail matchbooks."

"Like what?"

"Matchbook nuts do it. They correspond and they trade. They send matchbooks back and forth. Maybe one guy needs a Cock and Bull to flesh out an animal collection he's building up and returns a spare girlie picture for someone who's specializing in that kind of art."

"And Ottiwell trades?" asked Avalon.

"Sure he does."

"And you never managed to pick up anything he put

into the mail?"

A look of contempt came across Trumbull's face. "Of course, we did. A number of times. We'd pick it up, go over it with a fine-tooth comb, then send it on."

"And by so doing," said Rubin, looking off into the distance, "interfering with the United States mails. That's an easy thing to do when it's only a matter of the New York Mets' baseball signals."

"Oh, for God's sake," said Trumbull, "don't be a jackass for, say, fifteen minutes, Manny, just for the novelty of it. You know my field is in codes and ciphers. You know I'm consulted by the government and have my contacts there. Naturally they're interested. They would be even if the leak involved only a case of over-the-fence gossip, and I'm not saying it's any more than that."

"Why?" said Rubin. "Are we that far gone in Big

Brotherism?"

"It's simple if you'll stop to think. Any system for transmitting information that can't be broken-whatever the information is-is top-flight dangerous. If it works and is being used for something utterly unimportant, it can be later used to deal with something vital. The government doesn't want any system of transmitting information to remain unbroken, unless it's under its own control. That's got to make sense to you."

"All right," said Drake, "so you studied the match-books this Ottiwell puts in the mail. What did you get?"

"Nothing," grunted Trumbull. "There was nothing we could make out of it. We studied those damned advertising items on each cover and came up with nothing."

"You mean you looked to see if initial letters of the items spelled a word or something?" said Klein with interest.

"If it were a six-year-old sending it, yes, that's what we would have tried. No, we worked a lot more subtly than that and came up with nothing."

"Well," said Avalon heavily, "if you can't find anything in any of the printed matter of any of the matchbooks he mails-maybe it's a false lead."

"You mean maybe it's not the matchbooks at all?"

"That's right," said Avalon. "It could be all misdirection. This man has the matchbooks handy and he's a bona fide collector, so he makes his collection look as prominent as possible to attract all the attention it can. He shows it to anyone who wants to see it... How did you get to see it, Tom?"

"He invited me. I cultivated his friendship."

"And he responded," said Rubin. "There's a man who deserves everything he gets. Don't cultivate my friendship, Tom."

"I never have... Look, Jeff, I know what you mean. He talked to Klein yesterday about the matchbooks; he'd talk to anyone. He'd show his collection to anyone willing to go out to Queens. That's why I asked if he invited Klein up to his place. With all that talking, all that self-advertisement, all that glitter and shine, it wouldn't surprise you, I suppose, if he then used some device that had nothing at all to do with the matchbooks. Right?"

"Right," said Avalon.

"Wrong," said Trumbull. "I just don't believe it. He's the real thing. He's really a matchbook nut with nothing else in his life. He has no ideological reason to run the terrible risk he's actually running. He isn't committed to the side for which he's working; whether it is national, industrial, or local-and I'm not saying which. He lacks any interest in that. It's only the matchbooks. He's worked out a way of using his damned matchbooks in a new way and that's the glory of it as far as he's concerned."

"Listen," said Drake, coming out of a reverie. "How many matchbooks does he mail off at a time?"

"Who can say? The cases we've intercepted have never been more than eight. And he doesn't really mail them often. I have to admit that."

"All right. How much information can he get across in a few matchbooks? He can't use the messages literally and directly. If he tries to do the Cock and Bull bit to cancel a message, my kid nephew could spot him, let alone you. So it's something subtle and maybe each matchbook can work out to one word, or maybe only one letter. What can you do with that?"

"Plenty," said Trumbull indignantly. "What do you think is needed in these cases? An encyclopedia? Whoever is looking for information, you simp, has it almost all to begin with. There's just some key point missing and that's what's needed.

"For instance, suppose we're back in World War II. Germany has rumors that something big is going on in the United States. A message arrives with only two words on it: 'atom bomb.' What more does Germany need? Sure, no atom bomb existed at the time, but any German with a high-school education would get the idea from those two words and any German physicist would get a damned good idea. Then a second message arrives saying: 'Oak Ridge, Tenn.' That would be a total of twenty individual letters in the two messages taken together and it could have changed the history of the world."

"You mean this guy, Ottiwell, is putting across information like that?" demanded Gonzalo, in awe.

"No! I told you he wasn't," said Trumbull, annoyed. "He isn't important at all in that way. Do you think I would be talking to all of you about it if he were? It's just that the modus operandi could be used for that as well as for anything else, and that's why we have to break it. Besides, there's my reputation. I say he's using the match-books and I can't show how. You think I like that?"

Gonzalo said, "Maybe there's secret writing on the inside of the matchbooks?"

"We tested for that routinely, but not a chance. If that's it, why bother using matchbooks? It could be done in ordinary letters and attract a lot less attention. It's a matter of psychology. If Ottiwell is going to use match-books, he's going to use a system that can be used only on matchbooks, and that means he's using only the messages that are on them already-somehow."

Klein interrupted. "Imagine starting all this by mentioning yesterday's lunch. Do you have, maybe, a list of matchbooks he sent off? If you have a photostat, we could all look at it-"

"And work out the code that I couldn't? Right?" said Trumbull. "You know ever since Conan Doyle pitted Sherlock Holmes against the Scotland Yard bunglers, there seems to be a notion going around that the professional can't do anything. I assure you, if I can't do it-"

Avalon said, "Well, now, how about Henry?"

Henry, who had been listening gravely, with a look of interest on his unlined, sixtyish face, smiled briefly and shook his head.

But a look of deep thought came over Trumbull's face. "Henry," he said. "I forgot about Henry. You're right, Jeff. He's the smartest man here, which would ordinarily be a compliment, if you weren't all a pack of prize imbeciles.

"Henry," he said, "you're the honest man. You can see the dishonesty of the world without having it blurred by your own larcenous yearnings. Do you agree with me? Do you think this Ottiwell, if he were going to engage in this kind of work, would do so only by using his matchbooks in a way that would make them uniquely useful, or not?"

"As a matter of fact, Mr. Trumbull," said Henry, collecting the dishes that remained, "I do. I agree with you."

Trumbull smiled. "Here we have the word of a man who knows what he's talking about."

"Because he agrees with you," said Rubin.

"I don't entirely agree with Mr. Trumbull, to be sure," said Henry.

"Aha," said Rubin. "Now what do you think, Tom?"

"What I always think," said Trumbull. "That your silence is the best part of you."

"May I-make a little speech?" said Henry. "Wait a while," said Rubin. "I'm still the host, and I'm taking over. I decide on procedures, and I decide that Henry makes a little speech and that the rest of us all keep quiet except to answer Henry's questions or to ask questions of our own that are right to the point. I have in mind particularly Tom-Tom the drumbeat as a candidate for quiet."

"Thank you, Mr. Rubin," said Henry. "I listen to you gentlemen, on the occasion of all your monthly meetings, with the greatest interest. It is obvious to me that all of you get enormous pleasure, in an innocent way, out of flailing at each other with words. You can't very well flail at a guest, however, so you all have a tendency to ignore the guest and to fail to listen to him when he speaks." "Have we done that?" asked Avalon. "Yes, and, it seems to me, Mr. Avalon, you may have missed a most important point in consequence. Since it is not my place to talk-ordinarily-I listen to all of you impartially, the guest included, and I seem to have heard what the rest of you did not. May I have permission, Mr. Rubin, to ask Mr. Klein a few questions? The answers may prove to be of no help, but there is a small chance-" "Well, sure," said Rubin. "He should be grilled anyway. Go ahead."

"It wouldn't be a grilling," objected Henry softly. "Mr.

Klein?"

"Yes, Henry," said Klein, a rather pleased flush crossing his face at being the undoubted center of attention.

"It's just this, Mr. Klein. When you began to tell, rather briefly, the story of your lunch yesterday, you said something like-and I can't repeat the exact words either -you thought he was crazy, but he made everything sound so interesting that by the time he was through, you decided to start a collection of matchbooks of your own."

"That's right," said Klein, nodding. "Sort of silly, I suppose. I certainly wouldn't do anything at all like his

deal. I don't mean the spying; I mean this huge collection of his-"

"Yes," said Henry, "but the impression I got was that you were driven to an impulse of collecting right on the spot. Did you by any chance pick up a Cock and Bull matchbook at the conclusion of the lunch?"

"That's right," said Klein. "It's a little embarrassing, now that I think of it, but I did."

"From which table, sir?"

"From our own."

"You mean you took the matchbook you had been holding and had passed on to Ottiwell? It was put back on the table eventually and you picked it up?"

"Yes," said Klein, suddenly defensive. "Nothing wrong with that, is there? They're there for the diners, aren't they?"

"Absolutely, sir. We have matchbooks on this table, which you're all welcome to. But, Mr. Klein, what did you do with the matchbook when you picked it up?"

Klein thought a bit. "I don't know. It's hard to remember. I put it in my jacket pocket, or in my coat pocket after we got our overcoats out of hock."

"Did you do anything with it once you got home?"

"No, as a matter of fact. I forgot all about it. All this matchbook bit just passed out of my head till Manny Rubin mentioned about his wife collecting bulls."

"You're not wearing the same jacket now, are you?"

"No. But I'm wearing the same coat."

"Would you look in the coat pocket and see if you have the matchbook there?"

Klein vanished into the private cloakroom used by the Black Widowers on the occasion of their meetings.

"What are you getting at, Henry?" asked Trumbull.

"Probably nothing," said Henry. "I'm playing a long chance, and we've already had one this evening."

"Which is that?"

"That Mr. Klein had lunch with a man who turns out to be someone you've been stalking, and that you find out about it the day after. Asking for two chances like that is a bit much, perhaps."

"Here it is," said Klein joyously, returning with a small object held high. "I've got it."

He tossed it on the table and everyone rose to look at it. It said "Cock and Bull" upon it in semi-archaic lettering, and there was the small picture of a bull's head, with a rooster perched on one horn. Gonzalo reached for it.

"If you please, Mr. Gonzalo," said Henry. "I don't think anyone ought to touch it yet... Mr. Klein, this is the matchbook that was at your table, the one you used to light a cigarette and which Mr. Ottiwell then used to demonstrate some points about the place where the friction strip is located and so on?"

"Yes."

"And he put it down and you picked it up?"

"Yes."

"Did you happen to notice how many matches were present in the matohbook when you lit your cigarette?"

Klein looked surprised. "I don't know. I didn't pay any attention."

"But, in any case, you tore off one match to light your

cigarette?"

"Oh, yes."

"So that even if it had been a full book of matches to begin with, there would be one missing now. Since this looks like a standard matchbook, with thirty matches, there can't be more than twenty-nine matches in it right now-and maybe less."

"I suppose so."

"And how many matches are there in the book now? Would you look and see?"

Klein paused and then opened the matchbook. He stared at it for quite a while, then said, "It hasn't been touched. It's got all thirty matches in it. Let me count them... Yes, there are thirty."

"But you did pick it up from your table, and you did think it was the matchbook you had used? You didn't pick it up from another table altogether?"

"No, no, it was our matchbook. Or at least I was convinced it was."

"All right. If you gentlemen would care to look at it

now, please do so. If you'll notice, there is no mark on the friction strip, no sign of any match being lighted."

Trumbull said, "You mean that Ottiwell substituted this matchbook for the one that was on the table?"

"I thought such a thing was possible as soon as you said he was passing information, Mr. Trumbull. I agreed with you, Mr. Trumbull, that Mr. Ottiwell would make use of matchbooks. The psychology seemed sound to me. But I also agreed with Mr. Avalon that indirection might be used. It's just that Mr. Avalon did not quite see the possible subtlety of the indirection."

"Being too crooked myself to see clearly," sighed Avalon. "I know."

"By concentrating on his collection," said Henry, "and on his mailing and receiving matchbooks, he had you quite firmly pinned there, Mr. Trumbull. Yet it seemed to me that Mr. Ottiwell was not involved with matchbooks only in connection with his collection. Every time he ate in a decent restaurant, which might be often, he would be near a matchbook. Even if he were with others, it would be easy for him to substitute another matchbook for the one already on the table. Once he and the rest of the party left, a confederate could pick it up."

"Not this time," said Rubin sardonically.;

"No, not this time. When the party left, the table was empty of matchbooks. This leads to some bothersome thoughts. Have you been followed, Mr. Klein?"

Klein looked alarmed. "No! At least-at least-I don't know. I didn't notice anyone."

"Any pocket-picking attempts?"

"No! None that I know of."

"In that case, they may not be sure who took it-after all there were four others at the table besides yourself and Ottiwell; and a waiter might have cleared it, too. Or else they think that a lost matchbook will cause far less trouble than an attempt at retrieval might. Or else I'm all wrong from beginning to end."

Trumbull said, "Don't worry, Klein. I'll arrange to have an eye kept on you for a while."

He then went on. "I see the point you're making,

Henry. There are dozens of these matchbooks in any given restaurant at any given time, all of them identical. Ottiwell could easily have picked up one or two on a previous visit-or a dozen, if he wanted to-and then use them as substitutes. Who would notice? Who would care? And are you suggesting now that that one little substitute matchbook would carry the information?"

"It certainly would seem a strong possibility to me," said Henry.

"Go, little Book! from this my solitude/I cast thee on the waters-go thy way!" muttered Halsted. "That's Robert Southey!"

"But how would it work?" said Trumbull, ignoring Halsted's whispered verse. He turned the matchbook from side to side between his fingers. "It's one match-book, just like all the rest. It says 'Cock and Bull' on it, plus an address and a phone number. Where would there be any information on this one as opposed to others?"

"We would have to look in the right place," said Henry.

"And where would that be?" said Trumbull. "I go by what you said, sir," said Henry. "You said Mr. Ottiwell would be sure to use the matchbook in a way that would involve its unique qualities, and I agree. But what is unique about the message that matchbooks carry? In almost every case, it is just advertising matter, and you'll find such matter in almost any number of other places from cereal boxtops to the inside covers of magazines."

"Well, then?"

"Only one thing is truly unique about a matchbook- and that is the matches it contains. In the standard matchbook there are thirty matches that seem to be arranged in a moderately complicated pattern. If you study the bottom of the matches, though, you will see that there are two pieces of cardboard, from each of which there arise fifteen matches. If you count from left to right, first the back row-as you look at them from the direction of the opened flap-and then the front row, say, you can

give each match a definite and unequivocal number from 1 to 30."

"Yes," said Trumbull, "but all the matches are identical with each other and with the matches in other match-books of the same kind. The matches in this particular matchbook are absolutely standard."

"But do the matches have to stay identical, sir? Suppose you took out one match-any one match. There would be thirty different ways of taking out one match. If you took out two matches, or three, there would be many more additional ways."

"No matches are missing."

"Just a manner of speaking. Tearing out matches would be far too crude a way of differentiating. Suppose certain matches had pinholes in them, or little scratches, or a tiny drop of fluorescent paint on the tips that would show up under ultraviolet light. With thirty matches, how many different patterns could you produce by marking any number, from none at all to all thirty?"

"I'll tell you that," interrupted Halsted. "Two to the thirtieth power, which comes to-oh, a little over one billion; that's billion, not million. And if you also marked or didn't mark the flap just behind the matches, you would double that to two billion."

"Well," said Henry, "if you could give a particular matchbook any number from zero to two billion, such numbers could encode considerable information, perhaps."

"As many as six words, easily," said Trumbull thoughtfully. "Damn!" he shouted, jumping to his feet. "Give me that thing. I'm leaving now."

He left for the cloakroom at a run and was back fumbling into his coat and shouting, "Get your coat, Klein, you're coming with me. I need your statement and you'll be safer."

Henry said, "I may be quite wrong, sir."

"Wrong, hell! You're right; I know you are. The whole thing fits a few items you don't know about... Henry, would you consider getting involved in this sort of thing? I mean, professionally."

"Hey," shouted Rubin, "don't you go taking Henry away from us."

"No fear, Mr. Rubin," said Henry softly, "I find it much more exciting here."

Afterword

This story first appeared in a slightly shorter version, in the December 1972 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, under the title "The Matchbook Collector." Once again, I consider the magazine title pedestrian.

I'll leave it up to you. The phrase "Go, little Book!" is the beginning of a line from Chaucer and from a poem by Robert Southey, and that line from Southey was satirized very effectively by Lord Byron, so it has meaning in the history of English literature. On top of that, it perfectly expresses the nub of the story in which the little (match) books are sent outward on errands of information.

What do you say, then? Don't I owe it to all mankind to change "The Matchbook Collector" back into "Go, Little Book!"?

Sure I do

By the way, when I first wrote the story I calculated out the value of 230 (that is, 30 two's mukiplied together) in my head out of sheer vainglory. Naturally, I got an answer that was off a little, and serves me right. A young lady named Mildred L. Stover wrote me a letter in which the value was carefully calculated out, multiplication by multiplication, and I corrected my mistake for the book. If you are interested, 230 = 1,073,741,824.

Thank you, Miss Stover.

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