Queen Riddles was a fun-loving monarch who liked riddles and jokes. She had spent most of her life working out answers to riddles, so there were few who could trick her. All it took was a little ... [+]
The man frowning at Madge through the screen door had stolen a letter from the mailbox earlier in the week, so he knew the surname.
"Yes," Madge replied.
"I'm Harold Bates from the Debt Collection Agency. I'd like to have a chat with you about your telephone bill."
"A chat?" Madge reached for the screen door handle, but Bates turned it, opened the door, and brushed past her. He walked down the hall and into the living room. He didn't see a telephone, so he walked through to the adjoining kitchen, the next most likely place.
Madge hurried after him. "Norman!" she called.
Spotting the phone on a bench, Bates unplugged the cord from the floor socket and wrapped it neatly around the unit. "I'm sorry, but I'll have to take this with me. Your account is three months overdue."
"Anything the matter, love?" Norman asked, wiping paint off his fingers with a rag as he came out of the studio. Prettying up cheap white crockery was a hobby.
"Oh, Norman. I must have forgotten to pay the phone bill. The telephone company is repossessing our phone."
"Company property," Bates stated.
"But surely we'd have got a notice or something," Norman protested.
Bates took a notepad from his pocket and flipped through it. "You were advised on the second of this month that the account was overdue. You were further advised that unless payment was forthcoming, someone would be here to disconnect . . ." he turned another page, "on the sixteenth. Today's the sixteenth."
"Did we get anything like that in the post?" Norman asked Madge. She always brought in the mail.
"I'm sure we didn't," Madge said.
"Of course, if you pay the account right now, there won't be any need to disconnect the outside line," Bates said. "And I wouldn't have to take your phone."
"Oh, thank goodness," Madge said. "We'll do that, won't we, Norman? We'll pay now. How much is it, Mr. Bates?"
Bates checked his notes again. "Nine hundred dollars."
Norman's mouth dropped open. "Are you sure that's right? We've never had a bill that high."
"Mr. Bates is from the Debt Collection Agency, dear," Madge said. "He should know how much we owe. Make him a cup of tea while I get the money."
Bates pulled out a chair from the kitchen table. "Black, no sugar," he told Norman as he sat down and made a show of going through his notepad.
When Norman carried tea and biscuits over on a tray, Bates raised his eyebrows. "Tea brewed in a pot?"
"What other way is there?" Norman said.
"I always make mine with a teabag."
"Oh, that's not proper tea," Norman assured him, pouring tea into one of his hobby teacups—one with an intricate blue design—then handing the cup to Bates on a matching saucer.
Bates munched a biscuit while his host chatted amiably about everything from his grandchildren to his bunions. He had just finished his tea when Madge reappeared and handed him a five dollar note. "I'm sorry, Mr. Bates, but this is all we've got in the house. Could you come back later for the rest? I can pop up to the bank."
Bates took the money and chewed the inside of a cheek. In and out as quickly as possible. That was his style. He could accompany Mrs. Crump to the bank, but banks had security cameras. He replaced his teacup roughly on its saucer.
"Oh, do be careful, please," Madge said. "That's Wedgwood." She placed a hand on Norman's arm and squeezed. "Isn't it, dear?"
Norman flinched at Madge's next squeeze—so hard a thumbnail dug into his skin.
"Isn't it dear?" Madge repeated. Her expression demanded an answer in the affirmative.
"Oh . . . Ohhhh . . . Yes, of course. It certainly is Wedgwood. Very valuable."
Bates rummaged around his mental attic for a way of making the most of this information. "You know, the agency isn't just bricks and mortar." He placed a palm flat against his chest. "It has a heart. We're aware that some customers simply don't have ready cash available to pay bills. For special cases, we accept goods in lieu."
Madge looked at him blankly. "Goods in what?"
"Goods in lieu. We accept an item or items equal to the value of the bill."
"Special cases?" Norman queried.
"Well, like you two kind people, for instance, making me so welcome with tea and biscuits when I had such an unpleasant duty to perform. I'm just doing my job, you understand?"
Madge and Norman nodded sympathetically.
"I'm certain our accounts department would accept, say, a set of Wedgwood as payment. Second-hand goods aren't worth as much as new items, but . . ." Bates raised a forefinger and paused for dramatic effect, "if the realized value of the goods exceeds the amount of the debt, you'll receive a cheque for the balance. Now, I ask you. Can we be fairer than that?"
"That does sound very reasonable," Madge said. "But the rest of the set is packed away somewhere, isn't it, Norman?" Madge pinned him with her eyes.
Returning her fierce stare made Norman's own eyes water. "I . . . I think it's . . . in the spare room?" Discerning her almost imperceptible nod, his gaze swung back to Bates and he continued. "I'd have to go and look. But there's a lot of things stored there. Could you come back in an hour, Mr. Bates? We'd be very grateful. We really do need our phone in case of emergencies."
Bates ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't know. I'm a very busy man. Are you sure you don't have more money in the house? A jar of coins perhaps?"
The occupant of a house he'd visited last week had handed over a jar of coins containing nearly a hundred dollars.
Madge and Norman shook their heads.
"I don't wear jewelry," Madge said. "And Norman doesn't even own a watch."
"That's a shame," Bates said. "A good wristwatch might have done the trick."
Norman pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his eyes. "I'm sure I'll be able to find the rest of the Wedgwood, Mr. Bates, if you'll just give me some time."
Madge put an arm around his shoulders. "There, there, dear. Don't get upset." She turned her pleading eyes on Bates.
"Well, you seem such a lovely couple," Bates said. He made them wait a little longer while he appeared to mull things over. "Oh, all right. I suppose I could rearrange my schedule. I like to help out whenever I can."
When he stood up to leave, Norman grabbed his hand and pumped it vigorously. "You're such a nice man to do this for us."
"It wouldn't be the first time," Bates confided. "Why, only last week I put in a recommendation that the company accept a necklace to settle an account."
"So kind of you," Norman said.
"Such concern for customers," Madge said.
Basking in their admiration, Bates swaggered from the room.
Norman patted him on the back all the way to the front door. "It's not often we meet someone like you."
"Must be your lucky day," Bates offered.
"It is," Madge cooed as she slipped her hand into Norman's.
"I'll see you in an hour, then." Bates strode to the front gate, gave a cheery wave, then got in his car. "An hour will give me plenty of time to visit the Pettigrews on the next block," he said to himself as he drove off.
Norman turned to Madge. "What took you so long earlier?"
Madge clicked her tongue. "Cell phone was dead. I plugged it in, but it wouldn't turn on. I think we need a new charger."
Norman chuckled. "Well, I think you should get an award for improvisation. The Wedgwood thing was clever. Took me a second or two to catch on that you wanted to make sure he came back."
As they walked down the hall, Madge's shoulders shook uncontrollably. "In lieu of . . . that's a good one."
"The agency has a heart," Norman guffawed. "That acting talent will be wasted in jail."
Madge plugged the kitchen phone back in, then rang the police and told them Harold Bates would be back in an hour. They would be keen to respond. Madge and Norman had seen a police Facebook post about a con man preying on the elderly in their area.
"That's the most fun I've had in ages," Norman said.
"Me too," Madge said. "Me too."