By Alan Glynn
I was sitting in my office nursing a herb tea and the travel section of Sunday’s paper when the telephone rang. The awful clangour reminded me that what I was really nursing was a hangover. Also the telephone hadn’t rung in several weeks and its doing so now reminded me that I had a business to run and that maybe it needed some nursing too. Nevertheless my impulse was to ignore it. What difference would another day make? I wasn’t ready yet for all the nervous little men in polka-dot bow ties, the steely blondes in mourning, the agonised confessions, the barefaced lies, the tawdry parade of shame and shamelessness. But on the other hand two or three more rings from the telephone might actually have been enough to finish me off, I’d be found with my skull hatched open, an unpleasant pus oozing out, and the coroner’s verdict would undoubtedly be something like ‘death by a loud sound such as the telephone ringing while in a state of extreme dehydration.’ I answered it.
“Good morning, the Seamus Shadwell Detection Agency, Shadwell speaking.”
“Good morning, Mr. Shadwell. My name is Toshiaki. I got your number in the Yellow Pages. I’m in trouble, Mr. Shadwell, a shitload of trouble.”
I winced. Crude language didn’t bother me in the slightest, but I had acquired the habit of wincing at the profane in mock imitation of my father for whom such utterances were so many stab wounds to the heart. My brother and I would say balls or fuck just to see him wince. It was not to inflict pain, though it certainly seems that way, but because his wince was so perfect a manifestation of moral revulsion, this flickering facial contortion so complete an index to his soul that we were drawn to it irresistibly. In fact we were drawn to virtue and purity the way other boys are drawn to vice and corruption. Each casual profanity, each blasphemy, was an act of piety, a longing for Eden.
Anyway, my brother became a real estate shark, I became a private dick and the wince lives on in deference to the old man.
“What seems to be the trouble, Mr. Toshiaki?”
“I’d rather not discuss it over the telephone. I’d like to make an appointment to come and see you.”
“If you hurry over you can be my first client of the month and qualify for the discount.”
It was the twenty-eighth of the month and I don’t think he was impressed.
“Aw ‘cmon, Mr. Toshiaki, lighten up! If you come over on Friday you can qualify for two discounts.”
He hung up.
What had his trouble been, this Mr. Toshiaki? I’m in a shitload of trouble didn’t sound like matrimonial work – that normally went Little tramp, she can’t fool me – nor did it sound like a missing person job or a stolen necklace. No, the case had blackmail written all over it in big fancy letters, but since Mr. Sense-of-humour had hung up on me there was no case.
I went back to the travel section. He probably had his Yellow Pages out again and was calling up the Global or the Acme. Good luck to him. It’d be cheaper to go on paying his blackmailer.
Five o’clock I closed up the office. I felt a good deal better and even considered going for a cocktail. But maybe it was too early. As I was in the elevator I considered the option of going home first for a quick shower and then going for a cocktail. I lived in the Clifden and the building where I had my offices was on West Boulevard so by the time I’d have gone home and showered it wouldn’t actually be all that much later, which is to say it would still be too early, supposedly. The difference being negligible, certainly not enough to make now much too early, and the logic of the souse being implacable, I decided to go for the cocktail unshowered, which is to say a little sooner rather than a little later. I stood in the lobby of the building and as I put on my overcoat I watched all the executives and secretaries, the proof-readers and coffee-shop delivery boys scurrying to and fro like insects in a forgotten nature documentary. It was as if the techniques of time-lapse photography had somehow been applied to reality, the speed of life been carelessly cranked up to its maximum, and no one had stuck around to take notes. The six elevator cars were bouncing up and down inside the building like bingo balls, the revolving doors spinning round like 78s on an old Victrola gramophone. I shrugged, turned up my collar and stepped out into the street. The sheer volume of crowds was unbelievable. If they were like insects in the lobby out in the street they were a mad fuzz of molecules, barely perceptible as individual entities. Ten years ago this section of town had been mostly Hispanic, old run-down projects teeming with babies and old-folks, billboards peeling on every corner, burnt out four-doors sprouting nettles and dandelions. Then a conglomerate of bankers and builders had arrived, moved the Hispanics along, out as far as Bay Point in most cases, and re-developed the entire area. I looked over at what had once been a slum and was now a plaza of office-buildings, shopping arcades and quadruple-X movie theatres. Car horns and pneumatic drills honked and droned plaintively above the general hum. Carbon monoxide fumes and various gaseous exhalations from vents, grilles and airpipes swirled and eddied in the orange neon wash above the traffic. Fifty-foot high computer-generated advertising displays, busily forming, dissolving and re-forming, towered monolithically over the whole scene like fabulous warrior gods or exotic tall-ships moored in some glittering superstation of the twenty-first century.
I joined the stinking torrent of humanity for about two hundred yards and then slipped discreetly into a bar. It seemed that a fair percentage of the Stinking Torrent had already had the same idea and I had to elbow and shove my way up to the front to get a drink. An oldtimer conveniently vacated a stool just as I arrived and within a few minutes I was nestling comfortably over my first gin and tonic.
“Working hard, Mr. Shadwell?”, the barman wiped busily around my little space and took off without waiting for an answer. Yeah pal, like a Trojan.
I downed my first one quickly and then started in on my second. I soon found that the place wasn’t bothering me anymore. In fact a fiery glow had established itself in my stomach and I was beginning to feel pretty good. As the opening remarks of an address to the Nobel Academy began forming in my mind, however, I felt a large hand plant itself firmly on my left shoulder. The crowd in this place could be fairly boisterous, so I didn’t pay any attention and just went on sipping my drink.
“Save that sang froid shit for the birds, Shadwell.”
I spun around on the stool. Before me was a sixteen stone Neanderthal. It had on a Homburg and a shabby raincoat. There was a fat cigar sticking out of its mouth. I caught a faint odour of garlic.
“Why, Inspector Tibot, what a pleasure!”
“Pleasure, yeah. Get this for pleasure, shithead, Le Clerc wants you down at the station, toot suite.”
“What for? Filching my own paper clips? I’ve done nothing but drink for the last two months. Jesus. What does he want?”
Tibot scratched the stubble on his chin and it sounded like an elephant skate-boarding on gravel.
“The name Toshiaki mean anything?”
Some hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention. I saw it at once. If I hadn’t been such a wiseacre Toshiaki might still be alive and I’d at least have earned one day plus expenses. I peered into Tibot’s fleshy sockets.
“And if it does?”
“Well, your friend’s a pretty influential man downtown. Calls some big shots. In fact if I’m not mistaken he vetoed a couple of budget proposals by the Central Avenue Development Commission last week. Ruffled some feathers I’m told . . . only get this – they just fished him out of the South City River with a pitch-fork in his back.”
Le Clerc’s office was in a new building on Extension Street, but the walls were already disintegrating and if you were to bang your head against any one of them, in exasperation, as well you might, you’d find yourself interrupting, cartoon fashion, whatever was going on in the next room. As it was you could overhear everything and it was common for people being interrogated in Le Clerc’s office to answer questions that had been asked in the office next door.
As I waited to be interrogated myself, sitting alone, in a plastic orange chair, I listened to an exchange which was coming from the wall behind Le Clerc’s filing cabinet. I couldn’t make out if a confession was being forcibly extracted or if a particularly funny joke was being told. It was like listening to one of those radio plays they run in the afternoons, no beginning, no middle and no end, only not in that order. I was about to interpolate with a smart remark when Le Clerc and Tibot blustered into the room. They took up positions behind the desk and behind the chair I was sitting in, respectively, and proceeded to ignore me for several minutes as they conferred in French on a complex matter of police business – to wit, I gathered, the fabrication of a vital piece of evidence for an upcoming murder trial. Le Clerc was tall and wiry and what in other circumstances might pass for distinguished looking. In his new but disintegrating office on Extension Street he didn’t pass for sleazy.
“OK, Shadwell,” he began, leaning forward on his desk, “we’ve got a stiff in the fridge downstairs and you talked to it last.” He reclined in his high-back swivel and gestured to me grandly, “. . . sing!”
I swallowed and shifted in the seat. I’d choked down the remainder of my last drink before we left the bar. I needed to take a leak and to belch and I felt a headache coming on.
“It called me this morning and said ‘I’m in a shitload of trouble.’ I made a smart remark and it hung up on me. End of story.”
“Seamus, Seamus, Seamus,” Le Clerc said, too patiently, “I want you to talk to me. This isn’t some penny ante crime story here. We’re talking city-fathers, elections, invisible power structures ferrcrisakes . . . the pitch-fork between the shoulder blades . . .”
“Look, Le Clerc,” I said, leaning forward in the chair, “I don’t know what particular drug you’re on, but I’m straight and I’m sober and I’m tired. Toshiaki dials my telephone number, that doesn’t make me his girlfriend. Who did he meet in the elevator this morning? Who shined his shoes? Huh? If I didn’t have such a big mouth maybe I’d be employed right now but I’m not and I do . . . I do and I’m not . . .” As I was saying this Le Clerc remained silent but at some point he must have gestured to Tibot with one of his eyebrows because all of a sudden the lights went out and I wasn’t talking anymore but falling into a deep black hole that was full of flying concrete bricks and steel girders and I kept on falling and crashing and falling until I eventually hit the bottom.
The first thing I saw when I came to was a styrofoam cup. It had hot coffee in it. I lurched forward in an attempt to reach it but I ended up on the floor. My head felt like a boiled cabbage wrapped in aluminum foil. Tibot helped me up and I focused for long enough to see that Le Clerc was sitting on the edge of his desk, waving a small cassette tape in my face. He stank of pastis.
“OK, Seamus. Drink the coffee and hit the road. You’re taking up space. One of Emile’s boys discovered that Toshiaki kept a wire on his own phone. We ran a check and you’re clear.”
I tried for the coffee again and managed to reach it. I took a few sips.
“Two discounts, Seamus. I like it. Hell of a way to do business though.” He started laughing.
I stood up, turned to the door and began staggering towards it. I got it open and glanced back, but couldn’t quite focus on anything. My body ached all over and I had a sharp pain in the back of my neck. The last thing I heard as I stepped into the corridor was Le Clerc shouting after me, through his laughter, “No hard feelings, Seamus.”
The odds were against it but somehow I managed to get home. As I left the building I reflected on the fact that Emile’s neck massage hadn’t done much of a job of relaxing me; a certain discomfort I’d experienced coming down the stairs even led me to suspect that it might have induced a fleeting moment of incontinence. I hadn’t felt this bad since the last time I’d been needlessly beaten up and humiliated, but at least, I found myself reasoning, I wouldn’t be feeling this bad again until the next time.
I must have been out for a good few hours because it was now late and most of the bars were closed. Scores of young couples, waiting for buses, frisked and writhed in doorways. Litter and debris from fastfood restaurants was strewn everywhere – plastic cartons, sesame-seed buntops, squidges of ketchup, discarded side salads, even the occasional splash of vomit. Shouts of abuse and snatches of songs floated on the night air and sheets of newspaper blew like tumbleweed up laneways and sidestreets.
Hobbling on my way, I could think only of hot showers and freshly laundered bed linen, but as I turned a corner I suddenly caught my reflection full-length in a department store window, my face in the glass superimposed on the cardboard image of a beautiful cosmetics model, the rest of me shabby and stooped like an old scare-crow. I was appalled. It wasn’t just Le Clerc or Tibot or Toshiaki, or even the ocean of liquor I’d been u-boating around in for the last two months, I looked tired, washed up, disillusioned, like a cracked plate . . . yeah, that was the ticket, I was one of those cracked plates Scott Fitzgerald used to go on about, good for nothing but having late night snacks on. I nearly slid to my knees at the thought of this and cried but I managed to resist and shuffled on for the remaining few hundred yards to my apartment building, block after block along the broad icy pavements, far below the airy and electric nightcorners of the city’s executive suites and opulent penthouse wraparounds.
The next morning I put on a pot of coffee and made some ham and eggs. I’d slept like a baby and the only dream I could recall had had something to do with my childhood. I picked up a newspaper on my way to the office but didn’t open it until I was in the elevator. DEATH ON THE SOUTH CITY was the banner headline. There was a large photo of the relevant section of that august waterway with an inset photo of the murder victim in the top right hand corner. As Tibot pointed out, Toshiaki had been rocking the municipal boat over the allocation of funds to the Central Avenue Development Commission. He had attracted some unwelcome endorsements from the wrong quarters, old fashioned liberals, conservationists, students, people who could only serve to damage his cause. Supposedly this had been to save the city from architectural ruin – the eight-lane elevated Central Avenue, if built, would plough through the old cast-iron district of town, displacing thousands of families and businesses – but, as everyone knew, Toshiaki had been more interested in redirecting the commission’s funds into a pet development project of his own, a domed stadium set in a sprawling theme park to be built on the outskirts of the city. “He had foolishly tried,” ran the paper’s leader, “to juggle the crackpots and the contractors, and had ended up pleasing no one.” Apparently.
“Don’t fuck with the builders.”
I looked around. The only other person left in the elevator I recognised as a sales rep for a company down the hall from my office. I didn’t say anything.
“The builders,” he said and nodded at my newspaper, “don’t fuck with them.” He then made a quick pantomime of what I suppose was a pitchfork being jabbed into a man’s back, and followed it with a hoarse cigarette smoker’s laugh that degenerated into the inevitable coughing fit.
In my office I set about tidying and cleaning with a singlemindedness that only comes from not having a hangover. I threw out all the old magazines in the waiting room, stuff I couldn’t believe, a Newsweek with the original ‘Big Spill’ cover story, a copy of Black Hair-Do Magazine, a pile of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. I borrowed mops, cloths and ammonia from the janitor’s cupboard and cleaned solidly for two hours. By lunchtime I had reduced the disorder of my professional life to a pile of unlabelled floppy disks and a folder of outstanding letters and invoices.
Feeling ludicrously self-satisfied I went for lunch to Aristotle’s Eatery on the corner and had a souvlaki sandwich and two cups of coffee. In the afternoon I planned to answer any letters that needed answering and to go through the floppies on my desk one by one.
As I walked along the corridor back to my office, however, I saw two figures waiting at the door – a slim platinum blonde dressed all in black and a small man in a dark suit and a polka-dot bow tie.
The blonde stepped forward. “Mr Shadwell?”
Even money said this was Toshiaki’s widow, and the bow tie was her lawyer.
“Yes,” I said, “and you are?”
I was right.
“I would like you to investigate my husband’s murder, Mr Shadwell.”
No shit, I thought, and winced inwardly.
I opened the office and indicated for them to step inside.
It looked like I was back in business.
I settled them in front of the desk and then sat down myself.
Mrs Toshiaki produced a cigarette case and her lawyer snapped into action with a fancy gold lighter.
I started in with the questions.
But was I ready for this?
All I know is that at some point in the proceedings my mood atrophied into a debilitating torpor. Whether it was hearing that she’d been unfaithful to Toshiaki with half of the Development Commission that did it, or the gut feeling I had that she’d been the original blakmailer, I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. As I escorted them to the door a few minutes later – having taken on my first case in a very long time – I was my old self again . . . back in business, yes, but crabby, disconsolate, and craving that five o’clock shadow of the mind, the darkness of a sidestreet bar and the evening’s first clink of ice against glass.