For Mucklestone, the director of Europa Naturist Colony on the outskirts of Skolville, Montana, trouble began when he showed up at Joe Crousseau's office carrying the money he expected would get things going for the colony's new project. Supposedly, before digging could begin for a new lunchroom and dining hall, all Mucklestone had to do was to ask the county for a building permit and pay a token fee. However, for unknown reasons, the county had stalled on granting the permit, and because an early start was needed in order to finish before frost, Mucklestone had become increasingly agitated. One day, somebody mentioned that, "something could probably be accomplished" through the intercession of a local power broker named Joseph V. Crousseau.
"Good," Telford Mucklestone said, and picked up the telephone.
Crousseau said he could deal with the problem just about any day from eight to five--except that for the rest of that day, a Friday, he would be out.
"Oh, dear, so we can't get it until Tuesday. The excavators are just waiting for us to confirm that they can start on Wednesday, and we hoped we could call them Tuesday morning and say they can finally go ahead. Well, all right then, it may, somehow, be for the best."
"I don't know why it's for the best," said Joe Crousseau, "but since it's a sure thing, you can go ahead and call them. For that matter, can't you come in on Monday?"
"Monday's Labor Day," Mucklestone reminded him.
"The county offices aren't open on Labor Day."
"I'll be in my office, though. That's all you need."
So on Labor Day Monday, there sat Mucklestone in Crousseau's office, waiting for the master manipulator to return from his quasi-legal entry into the county offices next door.
Crousseau's assistance was not exactly cheap. It was costing Europa one thousand dollars. "In cash, you understand," Crousseau had said.
"On the bright side," Mucklestone had told himself, "maybe it won't be necessary to pay the fifteen dollar fee that the county would have charged." Mucklestone was given to looking "on the bright side," even when the brightness might be obscure to other people. At any rate, that day there was nobody working at Crousseau Enterprises but Joseph V. Crousseau himself. So it was Crousseau, not some subordinate, who had gone to fetch the permit.
"Easy as pie," said Joe Crousseau. "I have keys to everything." He winked, and, still holding Europa's payment in his hand, visible for anybody to see--if there'd been anybody there to notice--he strolled off down the hall.
Mucklestone sat with nothing to do but stare around the room and listen to a faint buzz from the inactive copy machine. He soon noticed a pile of largish ledgers on the table behind Crousseau's desk. The odd thing was, little bundles of currency stuck out here and there from each of them.
Given the arrangement for paying Europa Colony's thousand, Mucklestone wasn't really surprised to see that Crousseau kept quantities of money in his office, but he thought it careless to leave it lying around. Maybe September was the time when Crousseau Enterprises finished up its books? The demand for "cash only" had already tipped off even naive Telford Mucklestone that he had paid not a fee but a bribe. He had handed over ten new one hundred dollar bills. If the money sticking out of the edges of the ledgers was also in hundreds, it would amount to a much larger sum.
Perhaps it was in smaller bills--but perhaps not.
He figured, that if Crousseau had either brains or presence of mind, he wouldn't have left anybody in a room where wads of cash were lying around plainly visible. Not even Telford Mucklestone, who knew himself to be completely honest, even if he did sometimes suspect other people of being less so.
Perhaps Crousseau was "setting him up"? He considered the possibility, but decided he thought not: there could be no reason for it.
Still the idea did worry him.
No, most likely the man was just careless. Other people might have walked off with--Mucklestone didn't know how much. If they dared.
Mucklestone considered it one of his greatest assets that he is unusually curious. Unfortunately, an asset can, at times, be a liability.
"I could just take a quick peek," he told himself, scooting around the desk and opening the top ledger to a page where some of the money lay. The greenbacks were not much worn, and he thought there might be about fifty of them. Thousand dollar bills.
"Wow!" he said aloud, and then realized that silence could well be an excellent policy.
He knew that hundreds are the largest bills currently in circulation, but, on the bright side--for Crousseau, at least--the date on the top one was not so long ago after all: 1964--only thirty years old. It would very likely still be redeemable, albeit possibly with a certain amount of fuss.
As he fanned through the currency to check his first impression, the same picture of Grover Cleveland showed on every bill in the pile. He put the money back where it had been--on the right-hand ledger page--and read quickly down the page at the left. Then he moved the wad of bills from right to left in order to read the next page, turned the leaf over, read on, and--suddenly remembering that Joe Crousseau could return at any moment--hastily closed the book.
Snooping is sometimes a serious mistake, and Mucklestone had by then realized that what he had seen was strong stuff. So strong that Crousseau might conceivably be putty in the hands of anyone who could prove that the ledgers contained what they contained.
Gosh, he thought, I wish I had a way to copy the pages outright.
As he sat, the copy machine's buzz penetrated his daze.
He felt he'd been stupid not to think of it instantly. He rushed back to the ledgers, set the money aside, and ran copies of five pages from the top ledger. He would have done more, but he suddenly remembered that, only a year earlier, Crousseau had been acquitted--on a technicality--of a murder most people were sure he had really committed. Suddenly, Mucklestone's stomach seemed to turn upside down.
He returned the ledger to the pile, inserted the money between pages that were at least near where he had found it, and snatched the ledger copies he had just made out of the bin. He dropped them into his briefcase without so much as looking at them.
He tried to think whether he could do anything with what he had made. The ledger's oversize sheets had come close to covering the glass top of the copier, but the copies themselves were only standard eight and one-half by eleven. Lots of information from the ledger pages would be missing. Not interested in blackmail as such, he did permit himself the thought that there might be a way to turn to his own advantage whatever fragments of information his copies proved to contain. On the other hand, if Crousseau ever came to realize that those ledgers had so much as been looked into, Telford Mucklestone could be in real danger. Suddenly it struck him that he might have achieved the classic condition of "knowing too much."
The longer Mucklestone sat and thought, the more frightened he became. His fear centered on the documents in his briefcase. He wished they weren't there. But how could he get rid of them? He couldn't 'un-copy' them. Could he just drop them into the wastebasket?
He was afraid Crousseau--or somebody who would report to Crousseau--might notice them there. Perhaps Crousseau wouldn't know who left them? But he would know: because of the holiday, it was quite likely that nobody else would come into the office, and especially that nobody else would be left alone there. The finger would point unambiguously to Telford Mucklestone.
How about taking them back to Europa Colony and burning them? He still hadn't looked to see what he had. In fact, he was afraid to open the briefcase to check; Crousseau might come back even while he was looking. Anyway, maybe it was just a mish-mash. He tried to remember how the ledger had been positioned on the glass when he pressed the button to copy, trying to visualize what had been copied and what had not. But he couldn't concentrate well enough for that.
Maybe he should "blow the whistle" on Crousseau Enterprises? It was clear from the ledgers that Crousseau was dishonest--a common criminal. Or, rather, an uncommon criminal. Common criminals evade the law, while Crousseau, to some extent, appeared to control it. However, the few pages of ledger Mucklestone had read suggested it might not be easy to find a listener to whom he could safely tattle.
Obviously, part of the county government, several of the more important contractors and other businesses, and maybe even the local newspaper were all tied in with Crousseau's graft. There was even one man in the sheriff's office itself who cooperated with Joe Crousseau: Cliff Wadmis. Mucklestone recalled the entry quite clearly:
9/3 C. Wadmis $11,350 as agent in Cemetery extortion.
He thought, on the bright side, that overt use of the word "extortion" showed a certain firmness of character in the man, Crousseau. Villainous character, but firm villainous character. Mucklestone already knew a bit about this Wadmis person. He had arrived in Skolville practically wallowing in money--threw it around so freely one couldn't possibly ignore him, bought and paid cash for things like fast cars and fancy clothes and wild parties. When he drank, he bought whiskey for everybody: friends, strangers, everybody!
The house he bought was practically a palace. He had joined expensive clubs; always ate at restaurants, invariably selecting the most expensive thing on the menu, French wines and all. He acted as though he wanted to go right through his money supply, as fast as he could.
Which, apparently was just what he had done.
Broke, Wadmis began to cast about for a way to continue the spree--a difficult project in Skolville, which is not exactly a land of opportunity.
Apparently looking every place for income, one day he even showed up at Europa Colony, asking whether there were any high-paying jobs available there. Mucklestone had thought the man a little thickheaded. The only positions open at the time were for quite menial labor--the only kind they ever have, except for recreation directors and chefs. Wadmis had said he wasn't suited to scrub-work, nor anything else with a low income. He'd said he'd need at least fifty thousand a year to get by--as much as Mucklestone and his assistant, Fred Cheeberly, earned put together.
"The rest of the staff rack up from fifteen to twenty thousand apiece. We just couldn't pay anything like the range you're talking about. I'm afraid in spite of my best intentions, most of my people are underpaid, but it's hard to come up with more for them. They work hard for a living. 'Wage-slaves,' they sometimes call themselves."
"Hmmm," Wadmis said. "Any chance of my replacing both of you executives? Your jobs aren't so hard one person couldn't do both of them, surely?"
Mucklestone told him, "An unusually capable person, maybe. We wouldn't resign in your favor, though, because we don't want to. I'm not exactly enthusiastic about being replaced, and, so far, my assistant seems to be quite content. At any rate I find his performance entirely satisfactory. Besides, Europa is part of a chain, and the regional office is down in Arizona. They appoint me and they appoint Fred, so if one or both of us resigned--or especially if we were fired--I wouldn't have any influence on choosing the replacement."
"Well, management is where the money is. What there is of it. You must need more managers of some sort."
"No," Mucklestone insisted, "There are only two managerial positions, and, to make fifty grand, you would need both our jobs. And neither of us thinks the place could get along without us."
Wadmis had left, disappointed--as though he'd expected Europa to be the answer to his financial prayers.
The only thing Mucklestone had seen or heard of him between then and the day he saw the name on Joe Crousseau's ledgers consisted of a newspaper report describing a raid by the sheriff's office on a local farmer who had been growing the forbidden weed. Wadmis had led the raid. He assumed that Wadmis must have found out he could get along on less.
But maybe not. Here in Joe Crousseau's books was evidence that Wadmis was also 'on the take' from Crousseau's evil empire. Prospering after all, then.