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Authors: John D. MacDonald

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The Scarlet Ruse

BOOK: The Scarlet Ruse
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John D. MacDonald
The Scarlet Ruse
I have learned that the countless paths that one traverses in one's life are all equal. Oppressors and oppressed meet at the end, and the only thing that prevails is that life was altogether too short for both.

–Don Juan

as quoted by Castaneda

Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer!

–Dwight D. Eisenhower

[at a Cabinet meeting]

Chapter One
After seven years of bickering and fussing, the Fort Lauderdamndale city fathers, on a hot Tuesday in late August, killed off a life style and turned me into a vagrant.

"Permanent habitation aboard all watercraft within the city limits is prohibited."

And that ordinance included everything and everybody from the Alabama Tiger aboard his plush 'Bama Gal, running the world's longest floating houseparty, all the way down to the shackiest little old pontoon cottage snugged into the backwater mangroves.

It included Meyer, the hairy economist, living comfortably aboard his dumpy little cruiser, The John Maynard Keynes, low in the water with the weight of financial tomes and journals in five languages and chess texts and problems in seven.

It included me and my stately and substantial old barge-type houseboat, The Busted Flush. The edict caught me off balance. I had not thought I was so thoroughly imbedded in any particular environment that being detached would be traumatic. Travis McGee is not hooked by things or by places, I told myself.

But, by God, there had been a lot of golden days, a lot of laughter and happy girls. Moonrise and hard rains. Swift fish and wide beaches. Some gentle tears and some damned good luck.

Maybe that is what made the gut hollow, an old superstition about luck. Long long long ago I stepped on a round stone in darkness and fell heavily at the instant that automatic weapons' fire yellow-stitched the night where I had been standing six feet four inches tall and frangible. I had two souvenirs from that fall-an elbow abrasion and the round stone. I still had the half-pound stone after the elbow healed. I kept it in the side pocket of the twill pants. Then they leapfrogged two battalions of us forward by night to take pressure off some of our people who'd dug in on the wrong hill.

Our airplane driver didn't care for the attention he was getting and kept his air speed on the high side as he dumped our group. I came to the end of the static line with one hell of a snap, and there was such a sharp pain in my ankle I thought I'd earned another Heart. I pulled the shrouds around, landed on shale, favoring the right leg, rolled and unbuckled, unslung the piece, and listened to night silence before I felt my ankle. No ripped leather or wetness. Pain lessening. Then I missed the round rock. When the chute popped, the rock had popped the pocket stitches, and it had gone down the pant leg, rapping the ankle bone on the way out, hurting right through the oiled leather of the jump boots. And I felt at that moment a terrible anxiety. "My rock is lost. My luck is lost. Some bastard is sighting in on me right now."

Later I realized that I had made some bad moves during those next five days before they pulled us all back.

This was the same feeling. I'd clambered up onto the sundeck of the Flush so many mornings at first light and had looked out at my world from the vantage point of Slip F-18 and known who I was. True, the great panorama of the sky had been dwindled over the years by the highrise invasions. But it was my place. I'd taken the Flush out a hundred times and brought her back and tucked her, creaking and sighing, against the piers, home safe. Safe among her people and mine.

I guess there weren't enough of us, all told. The City Commissioners authorized a survey and found out there were sixteen hundred people living on boats within the city limits. That isn't much of a voting block in a place the size of Lauderdale. And boat people are not likely to act in unison anyway.

We'd all been pretending it would be voted down, but they made it unanimous.

So all day Wednesday, little groups formed, reformed, moved around, broke up, joined up again, aboard the watercraft at Bahia Mar.

Meyer lectured an embittered audience aboard the 'Bama Gal, standing on the cockpit deck amid a decorative litter of young ladies, quaffing Dos Equis, spilling a dapple of suds onto his black chest pelt.

"They say we have added to the population density. Let us examine that charge. Ten years ago perhaps a thousand of us lived aboard cruisers and houseboats. Now there are six hundred additional. During those ten years, ladies and gentlemen, how many so-called living units have appeared in this area? Highrise, town houses, tract houses, mobile homes? They were constructed and trucked in and slapped together and inhabited without thought or heed to the necessary water supply, sewage disposal, schools, roads, police and fire protection. All services are now marginal."

"Fiffy thousand more shore people, maybe, huh?" said Geraldine, mistress of the old Broomstick.

"They say we have created sewage disposal problems," Meyer intoned. "Doubtless a few of the live-aboard people are dumb and dirty, emptying slop buckets into the tide. But for the majority of us, we have holding tanks, we use shoreside facilities, we want clean water because we live on the water. Thousands upon thousands of transient cruisers and yachts and houseboats stop at the area marinas every year. Hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of marine hardware, paying a high ticket for docking privileges and bringing ashore a lot of out-of-town spending money. And we all know, we have all seen, that it is the transient watercraft which cause a sewage disposal problem. They do not live here. They take the easiest way out. They do not give a damn. But will the City Commissioners pass a law saying transients cannot stay aboard transient boats? Never! Those transients are keeping this corner of Florida green, my friends."

He was applauded. Yay! We would march on City Hall. They would see the error of their ways.

But Johnny Dow put the whole thing in perspective. He cleared his throat and spat downwind, turned away from the rail and said, "Ad valorem, goddamnit!"

"Speak American," said one of the Tiger's playgirls.

"They hate us. Them politicals. You know what they make their money on. They come from the law and real estate and selling lots and houses. Ad valorem. We not putting dime one in their pockets. They drivin' past seeing folks live pretty free, not needing them one damn bit, and they get scalded. We're supposed to have property lines and bushes and chinch bugs and home improvement loans. Jealous. They all nailed down with a lot of crap they don't like and can't get loose of. So here we are. Easy target. Chouse us the hell out of town forever and they don't have to see us or think about us. Figure us for some kind of parasite. Scroom, ever' damn ass-tight one of them. Can't win this one, Meyer. We're too dense, and we make sewage. Easy target. Neaten up the city. Sweep out the trash. Ad valorem." He spat again, with good elevation and good distance, and stumped across the deck and down the little gangway and off into the blinding brightness of noontime.

Meyer nodded approvingly. "Scroom," he murmured. The end of an era.

We walked together back to the Flush and went aboard. We sat in the lounge, frowning and sighing.

Meyer said, "I saw Irv. He said something can be worked out."

"Something can always be worked out. Sure. If a man wants to live aboard a boat, something can be worked out. If he can pay the ticket. A man could buy a condominium apartment right over there in that big hunk of ugly and make it his legal and mailing address and stay there one night a month and aboard all the other nights. Can something be worked out for all the people who get hit by the new law?"

"Hardly."

"Then it isn't going to be the same, old friend. And do we want any part of it, even if I could afford the ticket?"

"You short again?"

"Don't look at me like that."

"You in the confetti business? You make little green paper airplanes?"

"I have had six months of my retirement in this installment, fella."

He beamed. "You know, you look rested. Good shape too. Better and better shape this last month, right?"

"Getting ready to go to work, which I seem to remember telling you."

"You did! You did! I remember. That was when I asked you if you would help an old and dear friend and you said no thanks."

"Meyer, damnit, I-"

"I respect your decision. I don't know what will happen to Fedderman. It's just too bad."

I stared at him with fond exasperation. A week ago he had tried to explain Hirsh Fedderman's unusual problem to me, and I had told him that it was an area I knew absolutely nothing about.

Meyer said, "We have thirty days of grace before we have to move away, boat and baggage. I just thought it would be a good thing to occupy your mind. And I told Hirsh I knew somebody who maybe could help out."

"You got a little ahead of yourself, didn't you?"

He sighed. "So I have to make amends. I'll see what I can do by myself."

"Stop trying to manipulate me."

"What are you talking about?"

"Take a deep breath and say it. If it's what you want, take a deep breath and say it."

"What should I say?"

"Take a wild guess."

"Well… Travis, would you please come with me to Miami and listen to my old friend Hirsh Fedderman and decide if you want to take on a salvage job?"

"Because you ask me so nicely, yes."

"But then why was it no before?"

"Because I had something else shaping up."

"And it fell through?"

"Yesterday. So today I need Fedderman, maybe."

"He is a nervous ruin. He's waiting for the roof to fall in on him. If it would be okay, how about this afternoon? I can phone him?"

Chapter Two
Fedderman asked us not to arrive until quarter after five, when both the female clerks in his tiny shop would be gone for the day. I put Miss Agnes, my Rolls-Royce pickup, in a parking lot two blocks from his store. He was in mainland Miami, a dozen blocks from Biscayne and about three doors from the corner of Southwest Eleventh Street.

There was a dusty display window, with a steel grill padlocked across it. Gold leaf, peeling, on plate glass, said ornately "FEDDERMAN STAMP AND COIN COMPANY." Below that was printed "RARITIES."

Meyer tried the door, and it was locked. He knocked and peered into the shadowy interior and said, "He's coming."

I heard the sound of a bolt and a chain, and then a bell dingled when he opened the door and smiled out and up at us. He was a crickety little man, quick of movement, quick to smile, bald rimmed with white, a tan, seamed face, crisp white shirt, salmon-pink slacks.

Meyer introduced us. Fedderman smiled and bobbed and shook hands with both hands. He locked the door and led us back past dim display cases to the small office in the rear. There was bright fluorescence in the office and in the narrow stock room beyond the office. Fedderman sat behind his desk. He smiled and sighed. "Why should I feel better?" he asked. "I don't know if anybody can do anything. The whole thing is impossible, believe me. It couldn't happen. It happened. I can't eat. I can't sleep. I can't sit still or stand still since I found out. Mr. McGee, whatever happens, I am glad Meyer brought you to hear this crazy story. Here is-"

I interrupted him. "Mr. Fedderman, I try to recover items of value which have been lost and which cannot be recovered by any other means. If I decide to help you, I will risk my time and expenses. If I make a recovery of all or part of what you have lost, we take my expenses off the top and split the remainder down the middle."

He nodded, looking thoughtful. "Maybe it wouldn't fit perfect, because what is lost isn't mine. I understand. Let me tell you."

"Go slow because I don't know a thing about stamps and coins."

He smiled. "So I’ll give you a shock treatment." He took a desk-top projector with built-in viewing screen from a shelf and put it on his desk and plugged it in. He opened a desk drawer and took out a metal box of transparencies and fitted it into the projector. He turned off the light and projected the first slide onto the twelve-by-fifteen-inch ground-glass viewing area.

A block of four stamps filled the screen. They were deep blue. They showed an old-timey portrait of George Washington. The denomination was ninety cents.

"This was printed in 1875," Fedderman said. "It is perhaps the finest block of four known, and one of the very few blocks known. Superb condition, crisp deep color, full original gum. It catalogs at over twelve thousand dollars, but it will bring thousands more at auction."

Click. The next was a pair of stamps, one above the other. A four-cent stamp. Blue. It pictured three old ships under sail, over the legend "Reel of Columbus."

"The only known vertical pair of the famous error of blue. Only one sheet was printed in blue instead of ultramarine. In ultramarine this pair would be worth… twenty-five dollars. This pair catalogs at nine thousand three hundred and will bring fifteen at auction. The top stamp has one pulled perf and a slight gum disturbance. The bottom stamp has never been hinged, and it is superb. Quite flawless."

Click. Click. Click. A couple of crude bears holding up an emblem, with "Saint Louis" printed across the top of the stamps and "Post Office" printed across the bottom. A block of six brownish, crude-looking five-cent stamps showing Ben Franklin. There were no rows of little holes for tearing them apart. A twenty-four-cent stamp printed in red and blue, showing an old airplane, a biplane, flying upside down. And about a dozen others, while Fedderman talked very large numbers.

He finished the slide show and turned the bright overhead lights back on. He creaked back in his swivel chair.

"Crash course, Mr. McGee. I've showed you nineteen items. I've bought them for a client over the past fifteen years. Right now there is another twenty thousand to spend. I am looking for the right piece. Another classic. Another famous piece."

"Why does he want them?" I asked.

Fedderman's smile was small and sad. "What has he put into these pieces over fifteen years? A hundred and eighty-five thousand. Plus my fee. What do I charge for my time, my advice, all my knowledge and experience and contacts? Ten percent. So let's say he has two hundred and three thousand, five hundred dollars in these funny little pieces of paper? I could make two phone calls, maybe only one, and get him three hundred and fifty thousand. Or if I spent a year liquidating, feeding them into the right auctions, negotiating the auction house percentage, he could come out with a half million."

Meyer said, "As the purchasing power of currencies of the world erodes, Travis, all the unique and the limited-quantity items in the world go up. Waterfront land. Rare books and paintings. Heirloom silver. Rare postage stamps."

"Classic postage stamps," Fedderman said, "have certain advantages over that other stuff. Portability. One small envelope with a stiffener to prevent bending, with glassine interleafs for the mint copies, you can walk around with a half million dollars. These classics, you can sell them in the capital cities of the world, cash money, no questions. Well, some questions for these items because all the old timers like me, we know the history, which collections they've been in over the years-Hines, West, Brookman, Well. We know when they changed hands and for how much. For each item here there is a certificate from the Philatelic Foundation saying it is genuine. The disadvantage is they are fragile. They've got to be perfect. A little crease, a little wrinkle, it would break your heart how much comes off the price. These, they never get touched with a naked finger. Stamp tongs if they ever have to be touched. They are in a safety deposit box."

Meyer encouraged Hirsh to tell me how he operated. It was intriguing and simple. He and any new client would take out a lock box set up to require both signatures and the presence of both parties before it could be opened. He used the First Atlantic Bank and Trust Company, four blocks from his store. When he made an acquisition, he and the client would go to the bank and put it in the box. The reason was obvious-as soon as Fedderman explained it to me. He made a formal legal agreement with each client. If at any time the client wanted to get out from under, Hirsh Fedderman would pay him a sum equal to the total investment plus five percent per year on the principal amount invested. Or, if the client desired, he could take over the investment collection himself, at which point the agreement became void.

"It's just to make them feel safe is all," Fedderman said. "They don't know me. They don't know if the stamps are real or forgeries. I started it this way a long time ago. I've never closed one out the way it says there in the agreement. But some have been closed out, sure. There was one closed out six years ago. About fifty thousand he had in it. I got together with the executor, and we auctioned the whole thing through Robert Siegel Auction Galleries, and a very happy widow got a hundred and forty thousand."

"They can get big money that easily?" I asked.

Fedderman looked at me with kindly contempt. "Mr. McGee, any year maybe twenty-five millions, maybe fifty millions go through the auction houses all over the world. Maybe more. Who knows? Compared to the stock exchanges, very small potatoes. But if the merchandise was available, the stamp auctions would be twice as big. Three times. That is because shrewd men know what has happened to classic merchandise during forty years of inflation. They'll buy all they can find. You put money in a Swiss bank, next year it's worth five percent less. The same money in a rarity, it has to be five percent more because the money is worth less, and the demand adds more percent. So in true rarities these days, the increment, it's fifteen to twenty percent per year."

"How many clients do you have right now?"

"Only six. This one and five more. Average. Sometimes ten, sometimes three."

"How much do you invest in a given year?"

He shrugged. "Last year, over five hundred thousand."

"Where do you find the rare stamps to invest in?"

"All over the country there are dealers who know I'm in the market for the very best in U.S., British, and British Colonials. Those are what I know best. Say a dealer gets a chance to bid on an estate. It's got some classics which make it too rich for him. He phones me and he says, 'Hirsh, I've got here in a collection all the 1869 pictorials in singles used and unused, with and without grills, with double grills, triple grills. I've got special cancellations on singles and pairs, and I've got some blocks of four. Some are fine, some superb, average very fine.' So maybe it's Comeskey in Utica, New York, maybe Tippet over in Sarasota, I fly there and figure what I can use and maybe I add enough to the pot so he can bid in the whole collection, and I take the '69s, and he takes the rest. Or I get tipped about things coming up at auction and move in and make a buy before they print up the catalog. Or there is a collector tired of some good part of his collection, and he knows me. Or a dealer needs some ready cash on stuff he's had tucked away for years, watching the price go up. I deal fair. I never take advantage. Three years ago a collector wanted to sell me his early Bermuda. He had some fakes of the early Postmasters' Stamps from Hamilton and St. George. At eighteen and twenty thousand each and looking like some dumb kid printed them in a cellar, no wonder there's fakes-lots of them-around. He threw in fifteen or so fakes he'd picked up over the years. I sat right here and went over them. One bothered me. It was Stanley Gibbons catalog number 03, center-dated 1850. The W. B. Perot signature was way off. Too far away from the original. Know what I mean? The rest of it was so damned perfect. Would a counterfeiter be so stupid? Not with several thousand dollars at stake. Okay, so maybe Perot was sick or out of town or had a busted hand that day. It took six months, but I got an authentication out of the Royal Philatelic Society, and I sent the collector my check for nine thousand, which was the best offer I could get for the stamp at that time. I put the stamp in a client investment account. You wouldn't believe the kind of word of mouth advertising I got out of that."

The whole thing seemed unreal to me. He claimed to have made fifty thousand last year as a buying agent for the investment accounts. But here he was in a narrow little sidestreet store.

"Your problem, Mr. McGee, I can see it on your face. You think all this stamp stuff is like bubble gum wrappers, like maybe baseball cards, trade three of your players for one of mine. It doesn't seem like grownups, right? Let me show you how grownup it can get, okay?"

He opened an old cast-iron safe, took out a little file drawer, took out some glassine envelopes. With small, flat-bladed tongs he took out two stamps and put them in front of me.

"Here, look at these two through this magnifying glass. These are both the five-dollar Columbian Exposition of 1893, unused. Printed in black. Profile of Columbus. Catalog seven hundred. For stamps like these, the retail should be a thousand each. Quality. Perfect centering. No tears or folds or bends. No short perforations. No perforations missing. Nice clean imprint, sharp and bright, no fading. A fresh, crisp look. Right? Now I turn them over. Keep looking. See? Full original gum on each. Nobody ever stuck a hinge on either one and stuck it in an album. Perfect? You are looking at two thousand dollars retail? Wrong! This one is a thousand dollars. This other one is schlock. I'll show you."

He got out a pistol-grip light on a cord, turned it on, and turned off the overheads. We were in almost complete darkness. "Black light," he said. "Look at the stamp there." Two irregular oval areas glowed. One was the size of a lima bean, the other the size of a grain of rice.

Fedderman turned the lights on again. "Let me tell you what is maybe the history of this piece of junk here. Back in 1893 maybe some uncle goes to the Exposition and he brings back a fine gift, all the stamps, and maybe a souvenir album. So a kid licks this one like putting it on an envelope and sticks it in the album, along with the others. This one maybe had one straight edge, where it was at the edge of the sheet when it was printed. Okay, maybe it spends thirty, forty years in that album. Finally somebody tries to soak it off. Hard to do after the glue has set. They don't get it all off. Some of the stamp comes off on the album paper. That leaves a place called a thin. A nice centered stamp like this with no gum and two thins and a straight edge, nothing else wrong, it goes for maybe a hundred and fifty, hundred and a quarter retail, perhaps ninety bucks wholesale. Okay, last year or the year before, somebody buys this dog along with some others of the same kind of high value dogs. They take them to Germany. Right now, working somewhere in West Germany, there is a pure genius. He makes up some kind of stuff to fill the thins. He gets the gum from low-denomination Columbians. He puts it on perfect, no slop-over between the perfs. And he re-perfs the straight edge perfect as an angel. I'm telling you, back around World War One, Sam Singer was the stamp doctor in this country. Then there was a fellow in Paris named Zareski who was pretty good, especially faking cancellations. But this German is the best yet. Very dangerous. And I'm showing you why I'm worth the ten percent I get for doing the investing."

Suddenly he slumped, sighed. "Sure. Hirsh Fedderman is so damned smart. When you think nobody can take you, somebody takes you."

"Tell Travis what happened," Meyer said.

BOOK: The Scarlet Ruse
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