A Long, Hard Look (Chapter 1)

It was one of those days when breakfast wanted to be cheap whiskey straight from the bottle.

They came less often lately, but they came. Five years isn’t long enough. Maybe there is no long enough.

Since I sleep above my office I can hear when someone opens the door and goes in. The window rattles and the door jams a little so there’s a short sharp shriek when it opens, and again when it closes, glass rattling the whole time. One potential client glared at it and left without a word.

There’s nothing written on the door, fancy “Private Investigator” signs or things like that. Officially, I’m neither: private, nor an investigator.

People talk, though, and once in a while they talk about something I’ve done for them to someone who needs something similar, and that second someone shows up at an unmarked office in the type of place where you can rent an apartment above your office for just a few bucks more than the office alone.

For the past few years, they’ve known there may be a wait. For the past few years, though, there haven’t been a whole lot who’ve bothered. The cheap digs/lack of business circle just goes round and round.

I stomped on the floor twice to let them know I’d heard them come in. They didn’t stomp on anything.

Since I can shower in two minutes, I did. They were going to wait anyway. Might as well show up clean. I don’t bother with a tie. If they’re already in the office, they don’t care if I wear a tie or not. I went down the stairs and back up the hall to my door.

These tales always begin with a voluptuous blonde temptress in desperate need. In the books, at least.

In my office, they’re more likely to begin with a shortish stoutish bespectacled banker. Male. I knew this because there’s a second door to my inner sanctum, so folks first see me coming out of my private office, not in from the hallway. The aura of mystique is included in the price, folks, no extra charge.

Don’t tell anyone, but I usually watch for a bit through the glass in the door. It’s hard to see in from outside because I keep the chair at an angle so they get reflection while I get to reflect on them.

He wasn’t carrying a suspicious parcel or a shabby briefcase. Just sitting, hands in his lap. If he’d had a mustache he might have pulled at it nervously, but he didn’t, so he didn’t. He just sat. Like a lump, he sat. Slumped and saggy. Shoulders forward, eyes on the floor about two feet in front of his scuffed brown wingtips. With his hands in his lap, leaning forward like that, it looked like he was considering the fetal position. Seemed like a good time to step in and save him.

My door opens quietly. On purpose. When it was all the way open I said “Can I help you?”

He stood all in one motion, hands out in front as if to protect himself. And he squeaked.

“Oh!” He put one hand on his chest. “You gave me a fright.”

“It happens a lot. I should learn better. Sorry.”

He looked like he was going to sit down again. I interrupted him mid-sit. “As I said, can I help you?”

He sort of bounced off the chair and stood again.

“Oh. Yes. Certainly.” And then he waited for me to tell him what to do. I could see it was going to become a habit with this one.

“In here please.” I stepped back, opened the door, and gestured as obviously as I could toward yet another chair, this one inside the sanctum.

For a moment I honestly thought he was going to bolt. He took a tentative step toward the door, looked at it, then me, then the window to his left, then all three of us again in the same order.

Then he started to cry.

I’m afraid I may have sighed. Loudly. Pudgy bankers crying in my office. No way this is going to end well.

“Please. Come in and sit down and tell me what’s wrong.”

I turned my back and slipped around to my side of my desk, and sat. He could come in or not. Why should I care?

He came in. With a wet handkerchief smearing stuff around on his nose and eyes. At least he’d stopped crying. And he sat, so we were making progress.

He finished mopping up and stuffed the soggy linens into his coat pocket. He still wouldn’t look me in the eye. Could mean he’d done something terrible. Guy like him, it could mean he was embarrassed about being in my office. Hard to say. Especially if he wouldn’t say.

“Is there something I can help you with?” I was probably getting brusque, but I was feeling brusque so it just leaked out.

“Yes. Certainly. I apologize. It’s all simply overwhelming. I hardly know where to begin.”

If he’d had a hat, he’d have been turning it in his hands, shuffling along the brim, round and round and round. But he didn’t, so he didn’t, and I still just sat there wondering if it would ever end.

He finally outwaited me, and I had to say something. “You can either tell me what you’d like me to do, or you can tell me what you’re afraid of, or who’s missing, or what’s lost, or even your name. But say something, please. The suspense is killing me.”

Since he ended up dead not many hours later, it wasn’t the most politically correct thing to say, but then, I didn’t know it at the time, did I?

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