I had a mouse in the office, a cute little seal-colored rodent with black shiny eyes like licorice drops and whiskers longer on one side than the other, so that when he worked his nose he looked like Uncle Vanya. He lived in the wall, in a hole in the baseboard, one of those Gothic arches you see in cartoons; inside he would sleep in a bed made out of a sardine can. I called him Wally. Next time he stuck out his head I was going to brain him with the stapler.
It would be the acme of my week. It was March, a muddy one with the remains of a February blizzard going like sixty in the storm drains, and all the feral spouses and politicians to let seemed to have given up their bad habits for Lent. That left me with time to shred some old files and make room in the stove-in green cabinets for the heap on the desk. It was pleasant enough work, demanding little from the faculties of reason, and the noise made by those ancient infidelities and aging runaways as they passed through the blades sounded like jet planes taking off for exotic destinations.
I was stuck in Detroit, but that was okay. Most Detroiters don’t live there by choice. I’d paid off the mortgage on my house near Hamtramck and had a little money in the bank, from the spike in shady behavior that always takes place around the middle of January when the New Year’s resolutions run out of gas. With luck it would hold me through Easter. You could set your calendar by the season of impiety that followed.
So I was caught off guard when the door to my shallow reception room opened from the hall, breaking a connection and setting the buzzer going. I almost never get business off the street. It comes over the telephone from my display ad in the Yellow Pages, from referrals and lawyers I’ve worked with in the past. Even when things are brisk I can go weeks without a heartbeat in the place except mine and the mouse’s. I could just as well work from home, but that sort of thing leads to wearing a bathrobe in the afternoon and related types of sloth. I’m lazy enough without encouragement.
As luck would have it—mine, anyway—Wally’s pointed snout poked out of his hole just in time for the sudden noise to scare him back inside. I put the stapler back in the drawer with the walnuts I used it to crack open and dusted the flakes of domestic upheaval off my lap just as my visitor entered the center of empire.
He was a bald man with a carroty fringe and the exaggerated features of a Toby mug, and built along those lines. A blazer that fit him the way a borrowed jacket in a ritzy restaurant fit anyone wore the logo of a local TV station on the breast pocket. His neck was red and rashy from the struggle against the tie that closed his collar with a knot as hard as a ball bearing. It was a spread collar, but getting it buttoned would be a daily challenge and put blisters on his fingers. His neck had been engineered to hold up something a lot bigger than his head, but it was a big head at that; if he wore a hat it would have had to have been custom made. He had the skim-milk complexion of the true redhead, which called attention to the scarlet lesions of the true drunkard.
But he was sober now, and came straight up to my desk without looking around. I had more than a hunch he could still have described everything in the office down to the buttons on General Custer’s tunic in the framed print covering a bald patch in the wallpaper. Everyone’s eyes are pretty much the same size, despite what you read, but his were lost in his face, bright and blue under bloated lids.
I got up to shake his hand. It was too small for his wrist but it had plenty of torque. “Walker? I’m—”
“I know who you are, Mr. Pearman. My TV doesn’t work so well since HD, but a memory for faces goes with the job.”
His name was Louis Pearman. He did stand-up for the news and had worried away at the reputation of a local investment counselor with an international portfolio until he got down to a pool of corruption as big and deep as an underground lake. The Securities and Exchange Commission was still conducting diving operations there, but Pearman had moved on to City Hall.
He was a very good reporter or they’d never have let him near a camera.
“HD.” He made a porcine noise. “That little act of Congress almost put me out of work. Nobody likes to come home from a hard day on the line and look at a kisser like this. I’m considering an offer from the CBC. They’re still analog in Canada, and fuzzy enough to make me look like the mannequin behind the desk.” But he was pleased to have been recognized. “I didn’t call for an appointment. It doesn’t look like I’m interrupting much.”
I was right about his powers of observation. Two file drawers hung out like dogs’ tongues and the pile on the desk looked unchanged since I’d started, two hours ago. I’d only just cracked the twenty-first century.
I said, “I’m on hiatus. That’s the word, right?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m still a print journalist at heart. Stinking shame what’s happening to newspapers.”
“I know. I had to let the parakeet go.”
That stumped him for half a second. Then his paunch started undulating and something he thought was a sardonic chuckle came staggering out through his nostrils. He seemed to do most of his communicating through them. “I can see we won’t have to break the ice. I don’t suppose you have any.” His face took on a hungry look.
I opened the safe I never bothered to lock and took out a bottle of Old Smuggler and stood it on the desk. The safe came with the office. I kept a change of shirts in it and the floor plan to the Federal Reserve, but it had looked empty until I moved the Scotch there from the desk. That had made room in the deep drawer for cartons of cigarettes. I got out two souvenir shot glasses and filled them both. “No ice, sorry. When they wired this place it came by horse.”
He grinned and took a sip. I’d pegged him to put it away in a single easy down payment, but you don’t get far in my occupation being surprised. We sat, he in the customer’s chair I’d bolted to the floor to keep the halitosis at bay, and fed quietly from our glasses. It was ten A.M. on the dot, but the sky was overcast and you couldn’t see where the sun was in relation to the yardarm. I never said he was the only drunkard in the room.
“World’s gone to hell,” he opened, warming his hands around the little glass; they were that small. I’d have suspected polio in childhood if not for the strength of his grip.
I shook my head, smiling my secret smile.
“You don’t agree?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Most everybody does.”
“Almost everybody,” I said automatically.
He made a face, on top of the one God already stuck him with. “That’s what forty years in broadcasting does to you. It’s a wonder I can communicate at all. But you know what I meant.”
“Not me. I’m in too good a mood.”
“Spring in the air?”
“Cash in my wallet. Same thing.”
“Doesn’t look like you splash it around.”
“I put one of those funny new lightbulbs in the ceiling fixture just last week.”
He changed the subject. “I heard most private detectives are ex-cops.”
“Some of them are still on the job. It depends on the regulations regarding moonlighting.”
“What about you?”
“I was briefly.”
“I broke my hand.”
“They don’t toss you out for that.”
“I broke it on a jaw.”
His eyelids lifted. Scratch a journalist, find a newshound. “Whose?”
“It’s a long story, and I don’t feel like being this week’s human-interest feature. Anyway, I have filing to do, and you have to brush up on the metric system if you’re going to work in Canada.”
“To hell with Canada. They kind of let their mask slip during the Olympics. They’re as big a pain in the ass as Americans. Which they are, no matter what they like to think. We don’t have the deed to the entire continent.”
I let my secret smile spread into a sunny grin. “Small talk. I guess that’s how you burrow under their skins, then go for the jugular from inside.”
He thought about that, deciding whether to get mad. You could see the flush spreading under that blue-white skin like a high-pressure front moving across the Great Lakes during the weather report. Then he decided it wasn’t worth the effort, and you could see that, too, in the color-coding. My respect for him as a gatherer of information went up another notch. In his job you had to be good to overcome a handicap like that.
“I started off out of step,” he said. “You can’t impress another card-trick artist using the same deck he does. I’ll put them on the table.”
“If you want. I’d just as soon let the files wait another day. My health plan doesn’t cover paper cuts.”
He put down the rest of his drink in the fashion I felt sure he was most comfortable with, and spread his palm over his glass when I lifted the bottle. “I like to do my serious drinking alone,” he said. “They say—the scientists—that that’s the definition of a problem drinker. But science is what’s got us in the mess we’re in.”
“Mathematics is the only science. Everything else is open to interpretation.”
“Who said that?”
“Someone, probably. Does it matter?”
“Just wanted to get the attribution right. I’ve got a daughter-in-law.”
“She’s got a thing about attribution?” I wasn’t even sure what the word meant.
“She’s the reason I’m here instead of the City-County Building, where I’m supposed to be asking the treasurer who his bookie is. Actually, it’s her brother, but that’s family. They’re Mexican.”
“Why ‘uh-huh?’” he snapped.
“Positive reinforcement. To show I’m listening.”
“Okay, if that’s all. People make snap judgments about them. They’re hardworking, devoted to their families. They pool their pesos to send someone up here, and as soon as he’s got enough together he sends for the rest.”
“That’s a snap judgment too. Some of them spend it on cockfights.”
“Most don’t. The ones that do get more than their share of attention.”
“Just their share. You’re in the news business. You didn’t get that Pulitzer nomination writing about honesty in high places.”
“The award went to an embedded war correspondent who spent all his time in bed with a hooker in a four-star hotel in Dubai. Can I tell my story?”
“Who stopped you? All I said was ‘uh-huh.’”
He grinned again. It wasn’t a nice grin, but I doubt he had spares. “They told me you’re an independent son of a bitch. I guess that would explain this office.”
“You’re forgetting that lightbulb. Tell me about the brother.”
“Good enough kid—she says. He’s got himself in a gang. My son came to me to get him out. I wouldn’t know how to go about it. My work always starts when it’s all over.”
“What did the social worker say?”
“What social worker?”
“You’re making the same mistake your son did. My specialty’s missing persons: It’s spelled out right there in my listing. I just find them, and if they let me I bring them back.”
“If they let you?”
“I’m not a bounty hunter. The ones I know I wouldn’t trust to lend a book on my library card. Come back when the brother goes missing. Until then you need to go to Family Services.”
He shook his head. That operation involved a hydraulic system buried deep in that neck. “Maybe if you put as much time into accepting a job as you do into turning one down, you’d have a suite in Grosse Pointe instead of a flea hatchery downtown.”
“I’d need a better car first. One I’ve got, I have to shoot a valet in the leg to get his attention. Then I’d need a suit to go with the car, and you can’t ever get out of those places without a fight unless you buy a tie to match, and then a handkerchief to match that—shoes, too, you can’t wear Hush Puppies with Italian worsted—and before you know it you’re back in the flea hatchery wearing a suit that makes it look even worse.”
He sat still for this, so I finished my drink and lit a cigarette. It was against the law now despite my name on the lease, but it’s a three-story walk-up and I can hear the butt cops coming. I don’t even bother to blow the smoke out the window. Nine decades of nicotine is what’s holding up the building.
“If you people are determined to come to me with a phony cover story,” I said, “you ought to stop giving interviews to your colleagues. You’ve had two wives and no kids, hence no daughter-in-law, Mexican or otherwise, and consequently no brother in a cuadrilla. Tell me who it is you’re bearding for and maybe we can do business. Probably not, though. There’s usually a lie at the start of every case, but working my way through one liar just to get the one who sent him is too much overtime. With your alimony you can’t afford it.”
He turned as red as his hair, which concerned me a little. He was lugging around too much weight for a tall man, and he wasn’t tall. If he had a blowout in a major artery, he’d be a corpse before the EMS crew got him to the ground floor. Then the color faded. The hydraulics in his neck turned his head halfway around on its axis, then back.
“I told him you probably wouldn’t fall for it. I came in on the end of a couple of plays you had a toe in, and you didn’t strike me as the kind to go around with your flap stuck inside your coat pocket. How’s the reception here?” He dug a cell phone out of his blazer.
“Lousy, but my service is based in Saginaw.”
His wasn’t. He got a signal right away and his party answered on the first ring. “Yeah. A bust. You want to call it a wash?” He listened. “Okay if I don’t hang around?” He waited again, then swung shut the hatch, put it away, and got up without making any of the noises men in his condition usually made when they fought gravity. “No bad blood, I hope. Someday I might want to call on you on my own dime.”
“No fear. Don’t let the front throw you. Business isn’t that good.”
“Coat of paint shouldn’t break you.”
“Too much red tape. It’s a historic building.”
“Yeah?” This time he looked around, taking in the zinc radiator and the ceiling that screamed asbestos. “What happened here?”
“A water commissioner refused a bribe down in the foyer in l9l9.”
He made that laugh that sounded like an empty air mattress being rolled up and took himself out. I didn’t ask him if the party on the other end had decided to call it a wash or not. I’m only curious when I’m on a retainer.
In a little someone started walking a stove up the stairs and then the buzzer went off a second time, a personal best. Inspector John Alderdyce of the Detroit Police Homicide Division came in and dropped two hundred pounds of muscle and polished granite into the chair Louis Pearman had quit.
“My son married a Mexican,” he said. “Or can I start where he left off?”
Copyright © 2012 by Loren D. Estleman