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Saturday, February 2, 2008

Alfred Hitchcock's Rolling Gravestones (Dell 1971)


Although five years have passed since I last visited Philadelphia, I find myself frequently thinking about the city of brotherly love. Constitution Hall, the Liberty Bell and Betsy Ross's little house all hold proud meaning in our lives.

A recent news item about a deranged ornithologist who'd been arrested while attempting to strike the Liberty Bell with a rubber mallet brings Philadelphia to mind at this time. Needless to say, security guards pounced upon him before he could deliver the blow and the culprit was immediately led off to jail.

This unimportant event instantly recalled the time I'd spent there. The memory is vivid. It was a fine autumnal morning. I had just breakfasted at my hotel and I was walking toward a nearby university where I had been invited by the university's president to deliver and address upon the various types of criminals that I have known and studied. At any rate I hadn't walked more than two blocks when I detected that I was being followed by a beautiful young brunette. My first impression was that she was merely going in the same direction where I was heading. This soon proved erroneous for when I deliberately stopped to gaze at a store window she kept her distance and only resumed walking after I had started again.

It amused me at first, then after I had walked about half a mile my curiosity came to the fore and without further ado I made an about face and confronted her. Her frightened face told me that something was definitely wrong and in an attempt to put her at ease I said, "Miss, is there something amiss?" At the time I was certain that this sparkling witticism, would do the trick. Imagine my astonishment, if you win, when her face contorted and she burst into tears.

Momentarily, I was taken aback at this emotional display, but my recovery was quick. "Why are you crying?" I said. "What's the matter?"

Her reply was a series of incomprehensible blubbering sounds, which drew an immediate crowd, including an uncouth type in a plaid, shirt who said to her, "Girlie, is this character bothering you? If he is, just give me the word and I'll flatten him."

Luckily for him, she replied, "I'm quite all right," just as I was about to strike him with a punishing karate chop for his unwelcome intrusion.

After he and the crowd had disbursed I led the distraught young woman into a coffee shop. We sat in a booth and I said, "Now, what's this all about?"

She hesitated. "I'm in terrible trouble. I've been following you trying to get up my nerve."
I waited without comment so she could tell me in her own time.

She spoke in a small voice and it took her ten minutes to tell me what was at the root of her problem. She had been married three weeks ago. While honey-mooning in Mexico she and her husband Richard had been kidnapped by bandits. They had held them both, then she had been released for the purpose of returning to the United States to obtain the ransom money in exchange for her husband's release.

What it all boiled down to was that the bandits had insisted that I act as an intermediary to deliver twenty thousand dollars to them in exchange for her husband's life. Jo Ann added that any attempt, to bring in the police would result in her husband's immediate demise.

It was an opinion with which I concurred. Unfortunately, there were a few unanswered questions about the whole business that stirred uneasy feelings for me.

To begin with I believed that Mexican bandits were something out of the past, and if they did exist, why had they selected me to bring the ransom money instead of merely having Jo Ann bring it to them? I considered the possibility that I might be held captive. I even considered the possibility that her story might be part of a ruse designed to place me in a position where I myself might be kidnapped.

Jo Ann explained it all. The kidnappers had chosen me to bring the ransom money because of my reputation as an expert in the field of crime who would definitely realize that going to the police would jeopardize her husband's life. Jo Ann on the other hand would also realize the situation for what it was, but they were apprehensive that she might unwittingly create problems, whereas if I handled the matter things would proceed smoothly. She dug in her purse and produced an envelope stuffed with bills which she handed to me. I accepted with some doubt and misgivings.

I canceled my lecture at the university and we departed via the next flight to Brownsville, Texas, where it was prearranged that we would cross over into Mexico.
The custom guards who recognized me on both sides of the border waved me right through without even bothering to inspect our luggage.

We followed the kidnappers' instructions. We rented a car and drove southward on a major highway, leaving it for a lonely road after about ten miles. On a desolate stretch of road, I stopped and deposited the envelope containing the money under a large rock marked with a red X. I found a note instructing us to proceed to an abandoned shack about four miles down the road. A second note pinned to the door of the shack advised us to return from whence we had just come. Trickery upon trickery. I drove back at breakneck speed. Approaching the marked rock I found her husband.
Jo Ann and Richard embraced amidst tears and laughter. Then I shook his hand. He explained that he and the kidnappers had actually seen us drop the ransom off. They had sent us off on a wild goose chase to the shack to gain time to make their getaway in a small helicopter. We left.
The only holdup we had occurred at the border. I told Jo Ann and Richard that I had to call the university to inform them that I was returning for my speaking engagement.

And once again the border guards recognized me and waved us through. At the airport for my flight Jo Ann and Richard thanked me profusely and said good-bye.

Unfortunately for them they were arrested before they got to their car. I had called the police and alerted them rather than the university as Jo Ann and Richard believed. The police found a large quantity of diamonds in Richard's money belt.

One of the arresting officers wanted to know how I had known that the kidnapping story was false. I explained that I hadn't fully believed the girl's story and that I had sprinkled nondectable Cavendish powder on the envelope containing the ransom money and a smear of Bilgar's salve on the palm of my right hand. When I shook Richard's hand there was a slight electrical reaction set up by the powder and the salve. I felt a tiny tingle and I knew at once that he had retrieved the ransom envelope hunself. I realized that the kidnapping story was an elaborate hoax neatly designed to conceal another form of skullduggery, which in this case turned out to be diamond smuggling.

The lengths criminals will go to in their efforts to turn a shady buck is amazing, but I can assure you that even greater effort has gone into the discriminating selection of the stories that follow.

Alfred Hitchcock

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