Bread Upon the Waters cover

Bread Upon the Waters

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March 1973

© 1972 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

Introducing a NEW character— Meet Major Henry T. McDonlevy, con man

Is there a resurgence, a roguish revival, a renaissance, of con-man stories? We hope so: con-man stories, which have a noble and notable tradition in the history of the genre, are always fascinating reading—especially when they are as clever as this first recorded caper of Major Henry T. McDonlevy. (Are we fascinated because we secretly love to see others fleeced?)

“Bread Upon the Waters” is destined, we are sure, to be the first chuckle in a honeysuckle of a new series…

The first time I met the Major I was in jail, serving out a $100 fine for disturbing the peace at the time-honored rate of $1 a day. I understand inflation has played havoc with that as it has with all things these days, and the judges now trade the time you have for the money you haven’t at the rate of $3 or even $4 a day. But be that as it may, it was $1 a day then. And by my reckoning I still had 72 days to go when the turnkey lumbered down the corridor, unlocked my cell, and jerked his thumb up to motion me to my feet.

“Vacation’s over,” he said. “It’s back to the cold cruel world for you.”

“Now?” I said. “Just when the chef is learning to make hash the way I like it?”

The turnkey gave me a sour look. “You want to lay there and crack wise,” he said, “or do you want to get out?”

I really didn’t have to give that much thought. “I want to get out,” I said.

I was curious, though, and at the entrance to the cell block I asked the bored clerk who passed over the envelope containing my meager personal possessions, “How come I’m being sprung?”

“Ask the man at the front desk,” he said without looking up.

Which I did. “Your fine’s been paid,” he said. “By your friend over there,” he added, nodding his head to indicate a short barrel-chested man with a square ruddy face, full gray mustache, and close-cropped hair of the same gray color. The man was standing near the door.

His face lit up as soon as he caught me looking at him curiously, and he advanced with his hand outstretched to grasp mine. “Ah, James,” he said. “Thought I recognized you from your picture. Sorry not to have got here sooner, but I only just learned your whereabouts this morning. Still, better late than never, eh?”

“If you say so,” I said, “although—”

“I have the advantage of you, eh? Of course. But let me rectify that.” He drew himself to his full five-foot-five and thrust out his chest even farther. “Major Henry T. McDonlevy, late U.S. Army. And the world’s greatest adjutant until some bureaucratic mixup got me passed over for promotion and forced my retirement. Still,” he added cheerfully, “the Army’s loss is your gain. Because if I hadn’t retired I wouldn’t have been your fellow lodger at Mrs. Peters’ and therefore wouldn’t have heard about your plight.”

“Yes,” I said, “that’s all very interesting. But—”

“But you don’t want to hang around a jailhouse discussing it. Of course not.” He took my arm and guided me out through the double doors. “On a beautiful day like this,” he went on, “a young man—and even an old one—can find better things to do.”

I let him take me a couple of steps down the street. Then I carefully disengaged my arm. “I don’t want to appear ungrateful,” I said, “but I can’t help wondering just why you’d plunk down $100 for a total stranger, fellow lodger or not.”

The Major’s face sobered and he nodded thoughtfully. “Yes,” he said, “I suppose it does seem a little odd. But,” he continued, taking my arm again and pulling me with him down the street, “you see, my boy, I try to guide my life by the Good Book.”

“You mean ‘Do unto others’ and that sort of thing?” I asked.

“No,” the Major said, dragging the word out. “As a matter of fact, I had a different text in mind. Ecclesiastes ten, twenty: ‘Cast thy bread upon the waters.’”

“Now,” I said, “I do see. But if you’re looking for a thousandfold return from me, I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. If I had any money, Major, or any prospects of getting any, I’d have paid that fine myself.”

“I think you’ll find the exact text is ‘for thou shalt find it after many days,’” the Major said unperturbed. “Although I must admit most people would have it your way and I myself have found that my investments generally result in a tidy profit.

“As for your prospects. Well”—he coughed delicately into his cupped hand—“I’m afraid I overstated the case somewhat when I said we were fellow lodgers. Actually, I rented your room after you—ah—vacated it. Apparently, however, the postman wasn’t aware of the change and this morning he delivered this.”

He took an envelope from his breast pocket and handed it to me. “I’m afraid I opened it—inadvertently, of course, before I noticed the name of the addressee.”

“Of course,” I said drily, opening the letter. It was three months old, having kicked around a bit before catching up with me, and it was clearly addressed to Thomas James.

“Dear Mr. James (it read), I regret to inform you that your great-uncle Arthur Wallace passed away on the 15th of last month, naming you as his sole heir. If you will call at my office with proper proof of identity I will arrange transfer to you of his estate, said estate consisting of 750 acres in the heart of Michigan’s vacationland.”

It was signed Byron Swope, Administrator of the Estate of Arthur Wallace, Appleby, Michigan.

I glanced up from reading and as my eyes met the Major’s he smiled brightly. “I took the liberty of doing a little research on your behalf,” he said. “And the area is booming, summer cottages being a big thing right at the moment.”

I refolded the letter and stuck it in my pocket. “All right, Major,” I said. “Fair’s fair. I’ll see you get your money back plus a reasonable profit.”

“Fine,” the Major said. He puffed out his chest and strutted along beside me. “We can discuss what constitutes ‘reasonable’ later, after the extent of my services has been determined. For now, though, let’s concentrate on getting you to Michigan. And since one should never undertake a journey of that magnitude alone, I’ll just trot along—if you don’t mind.”

Actually, whether I minded was something of a moot question. If I was going to get to Michigan at all, somebody was going to have to pay for the trip. And the Major was as good a prospect as any.

* * *

I’d never been to Appleby, Michigan, but I had a pretty good idea of what the town was like from my mother’s description of her childhood—a wide spot on the road somewhere between Tawas and Traverse City. As far as I could tell from my admittedly limited knowledge, about the only thing that had been added since her day was a sign at the edge of town proclaiming it “The Heart of Michigan’s Vacationland.”

I remarked as much to the Major as we drove past in the car we’d rented when we’d found that the only public transportation north from Saginaw was a bus.

“Tush, tush, my boy,” he said. “Nobody’s asking you to live here. We simply realize our profit and move on to greener pastures, as agreed.”

“And the sooner the better,” I said, surveying the weathering storefronts that made up Main Street. The area might be booming as the Major had said, but the town certainly wasn’t being ostentatious about it.

Swope’s office turned out to be a narrow book-and-paper-cluttered cubicle on the second floor above the town’s only restaurant. And Swope himself was a tall spare individual in his mid to late sixties with small glittering eyes in a long narrow face and a tight, almost lipless mouth.

“Well,” he said, as the Major and I presented ourselves, “this is something of a surprise. After all these months I’d just about decided you didn’t intend to claim your inheritance.”

That should have alerted me. What I mean is, people just don’t not claim inheritances. Unless, of course, there’s some reason not to. But to tell the truth, in the last several days I’d sort of got used to letting the Major make the decisions. So I just stood there and let him take charge now.

“No mystery,” he said bluffly. “The lad had simply moved and I didn’t manage to track him down with the news until just recently.”

Swope favored the Major with a long cool glance, then turned back to me. “I suppose you’ve brought your birth certificate,” he said.

“I did,” I said and passed it over.

Swope examined it briefly, then nodded. “Seems to be in order,” he said. “Now all we have to do is transfer the land formally to you. Let’s see now I’ve got one of those forms around here somewhere.” He rummaged through his desk and the cabinets surrounding it, finally coming up with a legal-sized document which he began to fill in with a ballpoint pen, the only modern touch as far as I could see in the entire office.

“I should warn you, though,” Swope said, “that this is going to cost you some money.”

“I knew it,” I said. I took hold of the Major’s arm. “Come on, Major, Let’s go.”

But McDonlevy held back. “Not so fast,” he said. “First let’s find out how much.”

“Well,” Swope said, scratching behind his ear with the click button end of the ballpoint, “as I recollect, the taxes are paid through the end of this year and there was enough in Arthur’s bank account to cover my fee as an administrator.” His face brightened. “So all you have to pay is the standard recorder’s fee of $20.”

“Well,” the Major said heartily, “I think we can afford that.” He took two $10 bills from his wallet. “I assume we pay this to you,” he said to Swope.

“That’s right,” Swope said, deftly lifting the bills from the Major’s hand and stuffing them into his own pocket. “Among other things I’m deputy clerk of the court here and the recorder.”

Swope set about finishing filling in the form, stamped it with an official-looking seal, and handed it to the Major who passed it on to me. I looked at it briefly, then folded it and put in in my coat pocket.

“Now that that’s out of the way,” the Major said, “my young friend and I would like to see the property. You can tell us how to find it, I assume.”

“Sure,” Swope said. It’s about five miles northeast of town. You can’t miss it. It’s the only slue land anywhere close by.”

The Major looked blank. “I don’t think I’m familiar with the term,” he said. “Slue land?”

“I am,” I said. I looked hard at Swope. “Do you mean to tell me that what I’ve traveled so far to inherit is nothing but a swamp?”

“Well,” Swope said, “’swamp is probably too strong a word. But it is wet. Except in the winter, of course, when it freezes.”

“Sure, though, man,” the Major said, “it must be worth something?”

“It would be,” Swope admitted, “if you could find a buyer. Which isn’t too likely, I’m afraid, unless you can figure out how to drain it. About eight, ten years ago Arthur had some engineers up from Bay City. They said it wasn’t ‘feasible.’ That means you can do it, but it’d cost more than the land’s worth.”

“I know what it means,” I said. “Tell me, though, If the land’s so worthless why did you bother to write me in the first place?”

“Had to,” Swope said. “The law says the heir has to be notified.” He smiled tightly. “I suppose I could have told you before you paid the transfer fee. But to tell the truth it never occurred to me.”

“I’ll bet,” I said and left, followed by the Major.

“Sorry,” I said to him outside, “but it looks as if you cast your bread on the wrong waters this time.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But if I may mix metaphors—no battle’s lost until the last shot’s been fired.”

“And just what shots do you plan to fire in this particular battle?”

“Who knows?” he said cheerfully. “But surely it wouldn’t hurt to spend one night in the hostelry here, would it?”

I agreed it probably wouldn’t. But I wasn’t so sure when I saw the room they gave me. Still, I’d learned in jail that you can sleep anywhere and on anything when you’re tired enough. And that’s just what I was preparing to do—sleep—when the Major popped in. “Come, come, my boy,” he said, “moping alone is no good. Let’s be out where the action is.”

“Action?” I said. “In Appleby, Michigan?”

“There’s action everywhere, my boy,” the Major said. “All it requires is a nose to ferret it out.”

* * *

The particular action the Major’s nose had ferreted out this time was a poker game at—of all places—Swope’s bachelor quarters. Besides Swope there were two others present—a frail looking, much younger man named Forbus who taught English at the local high school and a stolid hulk of a man named Mitchell whom I took to be a farmer.

“Good of you to help us out, Major,” Swope said. “The man who usually fills in the fourth chair had to go out of town and we don’t like to play three-handed.”

“My pleasure,” the Major said, settling into the fourth chair.

Swope picked up the deck and began to shuffle. “Seven card stud all right with everybody?” he said.

Forbus and Mitchell nodded, and so did the Major after a moment. “I’m more partial to draw,” he said. “But when in Rome, you know.”

Swope gave the Major another of his long cool looks. “Yes, of course,” he said, finished shuffling and began to deal.

Everybody seemed to take it for granted that I was just there to kibbitz. Which was fine with me, because seven card stud is a game I try to avoid even when I’m flush. On the surface, it’s a deceptively simple game. You’re dealt two cards face down, then four more face up and another face down in rotation. Best poker hand based on any five cards wins. The kicker is that you bet after every card except the first two. In other words, there are five bets (six if there’s a raise along the way) to be met on each hand. Compared with regular draw poker, stud is a real plunger’s game where you can lose a lot of money in a very short time if you’re not careful. Sometimes even if you are.

Partial to the game or not, the Major knew his way around a card table, and it soon became apparent—at least to me—that he and Swope were the only real poker players present. Forbus was the eternal optimist, always hoping for a miracle and consequently always staying with a hand too long. Mitchell, on the other hand, was an out-and-out bluffer who hadn’t learned that bluffing works only when it’s the exception to the rule.

Poker isn’t entirely a game of skill, though. Luck enters into it as it does in everything else, and the other two couldn’t help but win a pot now and then. And since both the Major and Swope played especially tight games, dropping out unless the third or fourth card showed strength, that wasn’t as infrequent as you might expect.

So it began to look like the Major’s “action” was just what it appeared to be on the surface—a friendly, not too exciting game in which not enough money was going to change hands to make or break anybody. Until 11:30, that is.

At 11:30 Forbus glanced nervously up at the clock on the mantlepiece as he passed his cards back to the dealer—Swope again—at the end of a hand. “Half an hour to go,” he said.

“So it is,” Swope said mildly. “We always make it a rule,” he explained to the Major as he shuffled and reshuffled the cards, “to quit exactly at twelve. Saves argument and embarrassment. But,” he added, “for the last half hour we pull out all the stops and play no limit. We find it makes a more interesting evening.”

“I’m sure it does,” the Major murmured. He straightened in his chair and put his hands flat on the table before him.

Something flickered momentarily behind Swope’s eyes. Then he finished shuffling and began to deal the cards. The Major’s first face-up card was an ace. Swope showed a king, Forbus a three, and Mitchell an eight. “Your bet, Major,” Swope said.

The Major sat quietly for a moment, his fingers toying with a stack of white chips. “When a man says ‘no limit’,” he said at last, “I have to assume he means just that.” He pushed the stack of chips forward into the pot. “Fifty dollars,” he said.

That was exactly twenty-five times the highest bet made up to that moment, and it effectively served to separate the men from the boys. Forbus and Mitchell pushed their hands in and for all practical purposes joined the kibbitzers’ circle, leaving the game to the Major and Swope.

With only two hands to deal, the game went faster than before. And by the time the large and small hands on the clock met at twelve, the Major owed Swope slightly over $900.

“I assume you’ll accept my check,” the Major said, reaching inside his jacket for his check book.

Swope’s eyes went bleaker than usual.

“And,” the Major added, “give me a chance to win it back before I leave town.”

Swope’s eyes brightened. “Planning on staying around for a while, are you, Major?” he said. “In that case, I’ll be glad to take your check and honor your request.”

He accepted the check the Major dashed off and, holding it loosely in his hand, walked with us to the door. “Same time tomorrow night then?” he said.

“Looking forward to it,” the Major said.

I waited until we were about half a block away from the house. Then I said, “Operating on the assumption that that check is going to bounce back faster than a tennis ball, I suggest we just keep on going and not even bother stopping at the hotel. That Swope looks like a mean enemy and this is his town, not ours.”

“Nonsense, my boy,” the Major said. “All I did tonight was cast a little more bread on the waters and it would be foolish to leave before we found it again. But if it bothers you, reflect on this: it will be Monday morning—two days from now—before friend Swope can present that check at any bank and several days more before it clears to the bank it’s drawn on. Surely that should give us ample grace period to do what we have to do and leave—even if, as you assume, the check is no good.

“Well, maybe,” I admitted.

The Major slapped my shoulder heartily. “Of course it does,” he said.

“Now have a good sleep. Things will look better in the morning.”

Actually, they looked worse. Because when I stopped by the Major’s room on my way to breakfast, he was gone and his bed hadn’t been slept in.

* * *

It took about a minute for the realization to sink in. Then I spent another minute swearing silently at him before settling down to figure out what to do. Instinct told me to cut out, too. Because even if technically only the Major stood to fall on the bad-check charge, small town justice has the regrettable tendency to overlook technicalities and settle for the bird in hand. And if they wanted a peg to hang a case on, there was the small matter of a hotel bill I couldn’t pay.

Unfortunately, getting out of town wasn’t going to be that easy. The Major had taken the car and hitchhiking meant at least a ten-mile walk down to the main highway since rural drivers are understandably skittish about picking up strangers in city clothes.

Of course, there are worse things than walking ten miles, and going to jail is one of them. But I felt I still had some grace period left. And when some unobtrusive checking around revealed that there was a bus at four that afternoon I opted for it, figuring I could slip on board just before it pulled out and be on my way before anybody realized what had happened.

What I failed to take into account, though, was just how fast and efficiently news spreads in small towns. Swope and Mitchell cornered me a half hour before the bus was due to leave. Mitchell had changed into his working clothes. And despite his farmerish appearance and willingness to break the laws against gambling, it turned out he was a deputy sheriff.

“Haven’t seen much of your friend, the Major, today,” Swope said conversationally.

“As a matter of fact,” Mitchell put in more bluntly, “we haven’t seen him at all.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said. “He said he was tired and was going to stick pretty close to his room.”

“Now that’s strange,” Swope said, “because he isn’t there now. And the chambermaid told the desk clerk the room looked as if not a thing had been touched.”

“Well,” I said, searching for something to say, “you know how it is with these military types. They spend so much time getting ready for inspection they forget how not to be neat.”

“Perhaps,” Swope said. “But his—shall we say, unavailability—does raise some questions. Particularly since I had our local banker call a banker friend of his in Detroit and neither one of them had ever heard of the bank your friend’s check is drawn on.”

“Now, look,” I said. “That check is a matter strictly between you and the Major.”

“It certainly is,” a familiar clipped voice said, bringing all heads swiveling around.

The Major glowered at the doorway, hands locked behind his back and his barrel chest thrust out. “What’s this all about, Swope?” he said.

“Just a little misunderstanding, Major,” Swope said coolly.

“Hmph,” the Major sniffed. “It seems to me that gentlemen don’t misunderstand each other this way.”

“Perhaps not,” Swope agreed. “But then how would either of us know? He moved to the door, followed by Mitchell. “Same time tonight?”

“Of course,” the Major said stiffly, stepping aside to let them pass. “Cheeky buzzards,” he added in a mild, almost disinterested voice after they had disappeared down the hall.

“Maybe I’m one, too,” I said. “Because I sure would like to know where you disappeared to today.”

The Major’s face brightened into a smile. “Just following the Good Book again, my boy,” he said. “And now if you’ll excuse me I’d better get some rest if I’m to be at my best tonight.”

* * *

The same players as before were waiting for us at Swope’s house that evening. No one made any references to the events of that afternoon. But, whether for effect or not, Mitchell had left on his deputy sheriff’s uniform. The only thing lacking was for him to place his gun meaningfully on the table beside his cards.

“Seven card stud still all right, Major?” Swope said as the Major took his seat.

“It’s your game,” the Major said. “I do have one suggestion, though. Since I’m the big loser, how about giving me a chance to catch up by extending the no-limit period to—oh—an hour or two? Or even,” he added a shade too casually, “to the whole game?”

Forbus and Mitchell both looked at Swope, who let the moment drag out before shaking his head. “No,” he said. “A rule’s a rule. And as you said yourself, “When in Rome—‘”

“Do as the Romans,” the Major finished. “Of course.”

But it was apparent from the way he fidgeted in his seat and slapped his cards down that he was straining at the leash, impatient for the real game to begin. It wasn’t long before Forbus began to fidget, too, and even Mitchell began to show signs of nervousness. Only Swope appeared unaffected, accepting his cards and playing them as unperturbedly as ever.

As for myself—well, I’d thought time had passed slowly in jail. But those days were sprints compared with tonight. And it was with a real sense of relief that I heard Swope announce: “Well, Major, half an hour to go. Now’s your chance to get even—if you can.”

As before, the game narrowed down immediately to Swope and the Major, and the cards and chips passed back and forth between them with such rapidity that it was impossible to keep track of who was winning. Still, when the dust settled at midnight, the Major was ahead.

“$800, I make it,” he said, tallying his chips.

“So do I,” Swope said equably, “and since you said you wanted a chance to win your check back, I saved it for you.” He reached in his pocket and threw the now folded and crumpled check on the table between them. “I’ll take my change in cash if you don’t mind,” he said. “$125, I make that.”

He permitted himself a sly smile, and Forbus and Mitchell both grinned openly. The Major looked at them blankly for a moment. Then he smiled, although a bit wryly. “I have to hand it to you, Swope,” he said. “You’re a hard man to get the better of.”

“I try to be,” Swope said drily. He flicked his thumb rapidly over his fingers. “Now, I’ll take my money, please.”

“Of course,” the Major said. He counted $125 out of his wallet, passed it over to Swope, then picked up the deck of cards and regarded it with the wry expression still on his face. “Perhaps from now on I should stick to parlor tricks.” He grinned suddenly, fanned the deck, and offered it to Swope. “Go ahead,” he said. “Pick a card.”

Swope hesitated, then selected a card, showed it to Forbus, Mitchell and me, and put it back in the deck for the Major. The Major cut and recut swiftly, then began dealing cards, laying them out in neat rows. When he’d got about halfway through the deck, he stopped, his thumb just flicking up the edge of the top remaining card. “One last fling, Swope,” he said. “My next half-year’s income against your next half-year’s fees of office that the next card I turn over is yours.”

I started to open my mouth, because Swope’s card—the four of Spades—lay about a third of the way back in the rows of cards already face up! But a heavy look from Mitchell killed whatever I had planned to say.

Swope’s face was as impassive as ever. “You have a bet,” he said.

Smiling faintly, the Major reached out and turned the four of Spades face down!

There was a moment of silence. Then Mitchell guffawed and slapped Swope hard across the shoulders. “By God, Byron, he took you that time,” he said.

“So he did,” Swope said mildly. His eyes came up to the Major’s. “That was clever,” he said. “Deliberately going past the card you knew was mine. It lured me into overlooking the first rule of gambling—never bet on another man’s game.

“Still, maybe you haven’t won as much as you thought. I make my living from law and real estate. I only took that job as deputy clerk and recorder for the political weight it carries. That $20 I got from you was the first fee I’ve collected in six months and the last I’m likely to collect in as many—unless, of course, you manage to find someone foolish enough to buy that worthless land your friend James inherited, in which case you’ll be more than welcome to the $20 that sale will bring. And with that he laughed nastily. So did Forbus and Mitchell. They were still laughing when the Major and I let ourselves out.

“Satisfied now, Major?” I said after the door had closed behind us.

“Very much so,” he said.

“Then let’s get out of this town while we still have money to buy gas.”

“Nonsense, my boy,” the Major said. “It would be foolish to leave now when we’re just about to find again the bread we’ve cast upon the waters.” He took my arm and marched me along beside him. “Old Swope was right about one thing,” he said. “You can’t sell that land of yours. But you can give it away. Which, as your agent, is just what I proceeded to arrange for this afternoon.

“First thing Monday morning a reliable direct-mail firm in Detroit will begin releasing letters notifying the lucky 3000—selected at random from the telephone directories maintained at the excellent public library there—that they have each won a quarter of acre of land ‘in the heart of Michigan’s vacationland.’ All that’s required to confirm the prize is that the lucky winner record the deed and pay the standard $20 fee before the end of the month.

“Naturally, I wouldn’t expect too many to come up and do that in person. So a convenient return envelope will be enclosed. And all we have to do as the letters come in is simply extract the money and pass the work on to Swope.” He smiled benignly. “If experience is any guide, we can expect about fifty percent to respond, giving us a gross of $20 times 1500, or $30,000. Which isn’t a bad return at all.”